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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part I (Review)

Once again, Star Trek: Voyager takes its cues from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Next Generation bridged its sixth and seventh seasons with Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. That season-bridging two-parter was focused on discord within the Borg Collective, with the crew coming into contact with a group of drones that had separated themselves from the hive mind. It was a somewhat underwhelming two-parter, and is unlikely to rank alongside anybody’s favourite episodes (or even favourite two-parter) from the run of The Next Generation.

Things come to a head.

Even then, Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II had a lot of weight behind them. Glossing over the quality of the episodes themselves, they marked the big reintroduction of the Borg into The Next Generation following their appearance in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The only episode to feature the Borg in the three years between those two-parters was I, Borg, meaning that the return of the Borg at the end of the sixth season of The Next Generation was a big deal.

As such, this seems like a strange cue for Voyager to take from The Next Generation. After all, Voyager doesn’t have that same luxury of built-in anticipation. Voyager bridged its own third and fourth seasons with Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, but the Borg have been a steady fixture of the series since then. Ignoring the addition of characters like Seven of Nine and Icheb to the core cast, the Borg have played important roles in episodes like Hope and Fear, Drone, Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II, Collective and Child’s Play.

Picking their brains.

That is a lot of focus, particularly in the context of a television series like Voyager, where there is less continuity from episode to episode. Including hallucinations, dead bodies, screen images and holograms, the Borg appear in twenty-three episodes of Voyager, as compared to six episodes of The Next Generation. By way of contrast, the Hirogen appear in between nine and ten episodes, depending on how one counts Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Malon only appear in four episodes.

All of this is to say that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II feel like a rather blatant rip-off of an already underwhelming two-parter, but without the core appeal. Voyager has reached the point where the appearance of the Borg is a source of dread, but not for the reasons that it should be.

She’s had some bodywork done.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Life Line (Review)

Life Line brings Star Trek: Voyager‘s daddy issues to the fore.

Voyager always existed in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, never quite breaking free in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to do. Voyager always felt shaped by and indebted to The Next Generation, always longing to affirm its heritage. Barclay appeared in Projections. Riker made a cameo in Death Wish. Geordi popped up in Timeless. Deanna Troi paid a visit in Pathfinder. The Ferengi from The Price popped up in False Profits. Q was a recurring character. The Borg were a recurring threat.

All my holo-children.

Voyager always saw itself as the spiritual successor to The Next Generation, the rightful heir to what was at the time the crown jewel in this iconic science-fiction franchise. However, this aspiration was not borne out in any quantifiable sense. The reviews for Voyager were decidedly more guarded than they had been for The Next Generation. The ratings were appreciably lower. The cultural impact was greatly diminished. If Voyager had positioned itself as the next in line to the throne, it was a disappointment by any measure.

The sixth season of Voyager is keenly focused on the idea of memory and legacy. It often feels like the series is reflecting on its legacy, cognisant of the fact that the end is rapidly approaching. Indeed, this preoccupation with mortality plays out even within Life Line, which is an episodes that finds the EMH journeying back to the Alpha Quadrant in order to save the life of his dying creator. Doctor Lewis Zimmerman was a pioneer when Voyager launched almost six years earlier; now, he is a bitter and disillusioned old man wasting away in seclusion.

Father yet to go.

There is something very pointed in this, in the idea of a son returning home to a dying father, to be met with disappointment and disdain. There is a funereal tone running through sixth season episodes like Barge of the Dead, Dragon’s Teeth, One Small Step, Blink of an Eye, Muse and Fury. It feels like Voyager is confronting the fact that it has declined over the slow withering death of the larger Star Trek franchise. The end is near, and Voyager has presided over it. Fury went so far as to request a do-over on the entire run of the series, resetting six years of continuity.

Life Line touches on these ideas, allowing one member of the regular cast to journey home and to try to make peace with a deeply disappointed father figure.

Creator hate.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Fury (Review)

Normally, the return of an old cast member to an established show is a cause for celebration, akin to a belated family reunion.

The obvious examples involve the appearances of cast members from other shows on later spin-offs. Think of the reverence and sincerity with which Star Trek: The Next Generation treated Spock and Scotty in episodes like Unification, Part I, Unification, Part II and Relics. Think about the delight with which Star Trek: Voyager greeted Geordi LaForge in Timeless or Deanna Troi in Pathfinder. Even when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine subverted expectations with Jonathan Frakes’ appearance in Defiant, it was still joyful. If anything, Star Trek: Enterprise went too far in accommodating Troi and Riker in These Are the Voyages…

Self-control.

Even within individual shows, the return of long-absent cast members is often treated as an opportunity to celebrate that character, and perhaps even to acknowledge past missteps involving them. Yesterday’s Enterprise brought back the character of Tasha Yar, and used the opportunity to rewrite her mean-spirited and pointless death in Skin of Evil. When mirror!Bareil visited in Resurrection, the episode became a meditation upon how the character’s intrinsic decency was strong enough to transcend dimensions and to define even the worst version of himself.

This approach to the return of established characters makes a great deal of sense for a wide variety of reasons. Most obviously, the production team have gone out of their way to recruit these actors for this specific purpose; it makes sense that these episodes should serve as a celebration of their contributions to the franchise. Even beyond that, it is safe to say that almost any lead character on a Star Trek series has something resembling a fan base; think about the ominously-named “Friends of Vedek Bareil.” Why bring back a character, and attract in those fans, just to do something horrific?

That healthy blue glow.

All of this serves to make Fury all the more perplexing. Fury is an episode of Voyager that effectively resurrects the character of Kes, a regular on the first three seasons of Voyager who departed the series in The Gift at the start of the fourth season. The return of Kes is a strange choice, in large part because the production team often struggled with what to do with the character while she was part of the core cast. Still, there are any number of interesting possibilities. And there is the possibility that, like Yesterday’s Enterprise or Resurrection, the production team might use the occasion to say something interesting about Kes.

Unfortunately, Fury is a spectacular mess of an episode with half-developed character motivations and a highly surreal premise that undercuts a lot of the appeal of bringing Kes back in the first place.

Having its cake and eating it too.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Muse (Review)

In its own way, Muse marks the end of an era for Star Trek: Voyager, as Joe Menosky’s last solo script for the series.

To be fair, this is not Menosky’s last script credit on the series. Menosky would collaborate with Brannon Braga on the season-bridging two-parter Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. In fact, those episodes have themes that play directly into Menosky’s interests; the two-parter is a story about dreams and narratives, about worlds that exist beyond the literal and the concrete. More than that, Menosky would work on the writing staff of Star Trek: Discovery, contributing the script to Lethe, one of the season’s stand-out episodes that was also about narratives – albeit internalised ones.

Dropping the mask.

However, Muse still feels like it marks the end of an era. Menosky had been a fixture of the Berman era of Star Trek dating back to the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, making his debut with Legacy and arguably making his biggest impression with Darmok early the following season. Menosky’s involvement with the franchise ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, but his influence was often felt. Indeed, Menosky even contributed a handful of scripts and stories to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, including the teleplay for the underrated Dramatis Personae.

With Menosky’s departure from Voyager at the end of the sixth season, Brannon Braga would become the longest-serving writer working on the Star Trek franchise. His tenure on the television franchise would surpass that of Ronald D. Moore, and of any writer who hadn’t spanned the gap from the end of the original Star Trek to the early seasons of The Next Generation, with the arguable exception of producer Rick Berman. As such, Muse feels very much like the end of an era. It marks the departure of one of the guiding light of the Star Trek franchise, albeit one often overlooked or ignored.

Storyteller.

Muse is an episode that speaks to Menosky’s key interests within the Star Trek franchise, the idea of Star Trek as something akin to a modern mythology. More than any other writer on Star Trek, Menosky is invested in stories that are fundamentally about stories. His influence on Voyager is more subtle than that of Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor or Brannon Braga, but can felt in the recurring idea that Voyager itself is a Delta Quadrant myth. More than any of the other Star Trek series, Voyager feels like it is a story about a collection of archetypes rather than characters.

Menosky first articulated this idea in the closing scene of his otherwise forgettable script for False Profits, but reinforced it in episodes like Distant Origin, Living Witness and Blink of an Eye. It could reasonably be argued that this idea became part of the show’s identity, to the point that it can even be traced through episodes not explicitly credited to Menosky, like Live Fast and Prosper. It seems appropriate that this idea should serve as the central theme of Muse, an episode that might be read as a thesis statement on Menosky’s approach to the franchise.

Acting out.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Good Shepherd (Review)

Good Shepherd is a terrible execution of a potentially interesting premise.

There is something interesting in speculating what the Star Trek universe must look like for those characters who exist outside the senior staff of a given series. This premise has been explored and touched upon in a number of episodes; most notably in the basic premise of Star Trek: Discovery, the primary plots of Lower Decks and Learning Curve, even the sections of Strange New World focusing on Novakovich and Cutler. Still, these are only a handful of episodes in a franchise that spans half a century and over seven hundred installments.

Looking out for her crew…

As such, the basic plot of Good Shepherd is compelling. The teaser visuals the appeal of such a story in a playful and innovative way, with the camera following a command all the way from the top of the ship to the bottom; from Janeway’s ready room to Astrometrics to Engineering to the lowest viewing port on the ship. It is an interesting way of demonstrating how anonymous and disconnected individuals can feel, even on board a ship with a crew numbering around one hundred and fifty. What does it feel like to be anonymous, on a ship as isolated as Voyager?

Unfortunately, Good Shepherd awkwardly bungles the question. In doing so, it fails to provide any satisfying answers.

Running rings…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Ashes to Ashes (Review)

Death is inevitable and inescapable. It comes to all in time.

Death provides a sense of closure. It marks an end of a journey. It establishes a boundary that might serve as an outline of a life. Death is the high price of living, the unavoidable reckoning that waits beyond the mortal veil. Death is the final frontier, one which all cross in time. Death is the undiscovered country, from which none have returned and about which all must wonder. Sometimes death comes quickly, sometimes it lurks and stalks its prey, sometimes it is even embrace. Nevertheless, death always comes.

The sad ballad of Lyndsay Ballard.

By the sixth season of Star Trek: Voyager, the Star Trek franchise was acutely aware of its own mortality and the unavoidable nature of its own death. Ratings were in decline, and there was no reprieve in sight. The fans were growing increasingly angry with the franchise’s output, and the press was eager to turn on the grand old man of television science fiction. Ronald D. Moore had been forced to quit the franchise, and Brannon Braga would later confess that this was the point at which all of his creative energy had been exhausted.

This mortality hangs over the sixth season of Voyager. The fifth season had repeatedly fixated on the idea of Voyager as a series trapped in time, an inevitability: the thwarted suicide attempts of Janeway in Night and of Torres in Extreme Risk; the frozen ship and crew in Timeless; the multiple copies of Seven of Nine and Janeway in Relativity; the decaying and collapsing imitations in Course: Oblivion, barely registering as a blip on the “real” crew’s radar; the rejection of millennial anxiety in 11:59; even the crew’s broken counterparts in Equinox, Part I.

Mortal clay.

In contrast, the sixth season returns time and again to the idea of death and decay: the ruined empire in Dragon’s Teeth; the underworld in Barge of the Dead; the ghost story in The Haunting of Deck Twelve; the floating tomb in One Small Step; the memories of a massacre in Memorial; the dead Borg Cube in Collective; the vengeful death throes of the returning Kes in Fury; the EMH’s visit to an aging and frail relative in Life Line; the Borg heads on spikes in Unimatrix Zero, Part I. This is to say nothing of the funereal tone of Blink of an Eye.

Ashes to Ashes is perhaps the most literal articulation of this recurring theme and preoccupation, the episode that most strongly and overtly explores the sixth season’s fascination with death and decay. The episode centres on a one-time guest star, a deceased member of the crew who has been resurrected by an alien species and seeks to return to the land of the living. Inevitably, she discovers that this is not possible. Death cannot be outwitted or evaded. It always catches up.

Whose episode is it anyway?

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Star Trek: Voyager – Collective (Review)

Watching Collective, it’s strange to imagine a time when the Borg were considered a credible threat to the larger Star Trek universe.

Collective alludes to this palpable sense of menace in its opening scene. Several members of the crew are playing poker in the Delta Flyer. They are playing in the cockpit, for some reason, rather than in the aft section that would seem to lend itself to such recreational activities. The reason for this storytelling decision comes at the end of the teaser, when something catches Paris’ eye in the middle of one hand. The other members of the away mission follow his gaze, spotting a Borg Cube in the shuttle’s path. Panic ensues. The crew rush to their stations. This, Collective seems to scream, is a big deal.

Baby on Borg.

Of course, this is not actually a big deal. Collective focuses on a Borg Cube that has effectively run aground, a ship that has been disabled. The crew are dead, the result of “a space-borne virus that adapted to Borg physiology” that Child’s Play would reveal to be a form of biological warfare. It should be noted that “the crew discover a disabled Borg Cube” is something of a recurring trope on Star Trek: Voyager, with a similar plot beat employed in both Unity and Scorpion, Part I during the third season. When Kim talks about “bad memories” while skulking through the Cube, it initially seems like he might be referencing the latter.

(Ultimately, Kim is not referring to his traumatic experiences in Scorpion, Part I, which left the character on the verge of death after being attacked by a member of Species 8472. Although the Borg Cube in Collective evokes such memories for the audience, Kim is insulated by Voyager‘s stubborn refusal to acknowledge its own internal continuity. As a result, the memories stoked by the trip to the Borg Cube are generic in nature, of “a haunted house [his] parents took me to when [he] was six.” This is never referenced again. This reveals nothing of Harry Kim. It is just empty filler.)

Dead circuits.

There are plenty of reasons why Voyager keeps stumbling across damaged and derelict Borg Cubes. From a narrative perspective, it allows Voyager to tells stories featuring the Borg without have the crew overwhelmed. Voyager has allowed its characters major victories over the Borg in episodes like Drone or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, but understands that having a lone lost ship triumph repeatedly over the Borg Collective would strain credulity. So having the ship repeatedly encounter broken-down Borg Cubes allows the series to involve the Borg in these stories while nominally preserving their menace.

However, there is also a sense that there might just be something more at work here, that the sad and story state of the Borg Collective across the seven-season run of Voyager might reflect more than just the demands of the production team. It would seem to hint at a broader sense of social anxieties.

“For the promo!”

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