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Posts Tagged ‘Voyager’

‘I know it’s awful that the cinemas are still all closed, but there’s lots of interesting, high quality things on Netflix you can watch,’ someone said to me, just the other day. Quite how I got from there to watching a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Voyager I’m not entirely sure: my memory is slightly cloudy. But one could have worse problems at the moment.

The two-part story in question was Equinox, originally broadcast in 1999 (it bridged the show’s fifth and sixth seasons), directed by David Livingston, and written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky (all three stalwarts of the Berman-era Trek production line). Almost immediately one gets the sense that this production is slick, polished, professional, and yet somehow getting things slightly wrong.

It opens with the USS Equinox hurtling across space, under attack from a hostile alien force. (We have never seen this ship before and have no idea where it is or what its story might be.) The captain of the vessel, Ransom (John Savage, who sort of resembles the result of an accidental transporter fusion of Charlton Heston and Niles from Frasier), shouts various orders and his crew fire their phasers at not-too-awful CGI fish-aliens who start materialising on the bridge. (Again, we have no idea who these people are.) As teasers go, it’s not especially thrilling, and while it’s somewhat intriguing it arguably blows the gaff on the episode’s big idea too soon.

With the credits out of the way, we are back in the familiar environs of the starship Voyager, which has just picked up a distress signal from the Equinox. Given that they are still supposedly decades away from their home turf, they receive this news of the sudden appearance of another ship from home with remarkable composure. As you can probably tell, I think they missed a trick here: opening with Voyager receiving a mysterious signal, with the revelation it comes from a second stranded Federation ship forming the hook of the teaser, seems to me to be a much more rational way of structuring the episode. But I suppose it’s easy to be wise about script decisions two decades later.

No-one on either ship seems particularly surprised by this apparently random meeting, especially considering the vast distances and spans of time involved (both ships have been lost in space for five years, and have travelled forty thousand lightyears since then). The closest thing to a personal reaction comes as a result of the fact that the Equinox’s exec is an ex-boyfriend of Voyager‘s chief engineer B’Elanna, but even this feels like it’s there just to fill a box marked ‘Character-based C-plot’.

Naturally, Captain Janeway lends all due assistance to the embattled Equinox (which is a much smaller and less well-equipped ship). However, it soon becomes apparent that their ordeal in the Delta Quadrant has taken its toll on the crew of the other ship: Janeway has staunchly stuck to the Prime Directive and the rest of the Starfleet rulebook throughout their journey, but Ransom and his people, it is suggested, have not displayed the same degree of moral fortitude.

Janeway and the others eventually figure it out: the CGI fish-aliens are well within their rights to be cross, as Ransom has discovered that capturing them, killing them, processing the corpses and sticking them into the warp engine boosts the Equinox‘s speed to the point where they could potentially get home in a few weeks. Accepting that any Starfleet crew would do anything quite so ghastly is a fairly big ask, but to be fair to the guest cast, they do a pretty good job of suggesting just how traumatised the personnel of Equinox have become.

Nevertheless, Captain Janeway sticks them all in the brig – but has reckoned without the Equinox’s EMH, who is naturally a dead ringer for Voyager‘s own doctor. Evil-twin subroutines in full effect, the other EMH springs Ransom and the others, and they make a run for it, stealing one of Voyager‘s shield generators and accidentally taking Seven of Nine with them. Janeway and everyone else is left at the mercy of the CGI fish-aliens. Cue inter-season hiatus!

Well, as cliffhangers go, The Best of Both Worlds it ain’t. I know that, in the years following the end of Berman’s curatorship of the franchise, the regular writers trained up on the series became widely respected for their ability to break down the structure of a story and turn it into a viable script in a very short period of time, and there’s nothing that’s flat-out mishandled here, but even so… there’s something slightly glib and facile about the first half of the story in particular. Everyone involved knows that, as a piece of episodic TV, there aren’t going to be any significant changes by the end of the story.

I find myself in an awkward spot here, as one of the things I don’t like about what I’ve seen of the new wave of Star Trek shows is their reliance on serialised storytelling. This kind of precludes me from suggesting that some of the problems with mid-to-late-period Berman-Trek are due to the fact they’re so episodic. That can’t really be the case, anyway – most of the TV shows I’m fondest of are episodic to their cores. I think it may simply be just that there’s no real sense of passion or drama about this show a lot of the time – all the attention seems to have been on sorting out the story beats and other narrative connective tissue, none on creating really memorable moments or scenes.

That awkward moment at a party where you realise someone else is wearing the same outfit as you.

Things improve a little bit in the second half, though. There are a couple of battles between the Equinox and the Voyager, though these largely boil down to shaky scenery and people shouting percentages and there’s no sense of the cognitive shock felt by the participants in this Starfleet-on-Starfleet conflict, the sort of thing Babylon 5 did so well. More interestingly is an unexpectedly subtle plot thread about the effect that Janeway and Ransom seem to have had on each other. Janeway seems to take Ransom’s transgressions almost as a personal affront, and becomes nearly as ruthless as he is in her attempts to hunt him down: torturing prisoners, terrorising innocent aliens, and so on. (There is the obligatory scene where Chakotay complains about this and gets relieved of duty as a result.) Ransom, on the other hand, almost seems to get back in touch with his Starfleet soul, experiencing remorse and showing signs of a desire for redemption. (This allows a much more two-dimensional character to step in and be the villain for the climax of the story.) It’s an interesting bit of parallelling, but the fact one knows that both the Equinox and Ransom are going to be toast by the end sort of undercuts the drama a bit.

I know that Equinox has a pretty good reputation as Voyager episodes go, and I’ve certainly seen worse. You can see where the genesis of this story might lie: on one level it’s a road-not-taken story, with the Equinox crew dark reflections of the regular characters, what they might have become without Janeway’s moral compass. But it never really digs into their moral corruption, not in a way that hits home: you’re never actually shocked, and the redemption of Ransom at the end doesn’t carry much impact as a result. It’s slickly put together and technically very competent, and the bones of the story are sound – but, like a lot of Voyager, it feels rather inert dramatically.

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The main difference between a sequel and a spin-off is that while the former can get away with just being more of the same, the latter is obliged to pull off the difficult trick of creating a distinct new identity for itself while still being recognisably the same thing as its progenitor. Perhaps this is why Next Gen was the most successful of the successor Star Trek series, because it could just get on with being a sequel. I’m not saying the differences between the original show and Next Gen are only cosmetic, because this clearly isn’t the case: but Next Gen was able to gradually evolve its own look and feel and ethos over a number of years, whereas DS9 and the others had to do something different right from the start in order to justify their existence.

And perhaps this is why the successor series, as they went on, increasingly struggled, because it’s not at all clear that some of their premises retained quite the same magic as the notion of going out into the galaxy and discovering its wonders, while at the same time presenting a pretty well-defined conception of what human beings could be like at their best. Next Gen is essentially about the citizens of utopia and how they deal with various personal and moral problems which life throws at them. DS9 is about what it means to be a citizen of utopia when that paradise is presented with an existential threat – how do you cope? What are you prepared to do to protect it? And Voyager is about…

Well, here’s the thing. On one level the premise of Voyager is very straightforward – the ship is stuck on the wrong side of the galaxy and trying to get home. Which is fair enough, and fairly generative in terms of ideas for action-adventure jeopardy type plots. But it doesn’t have the same philosophical potential as that of the previous shows. If the show had focused more on the notion of what it would mean to be a citizen of utopia who finds themselves expelled from that world, having to make do amongst the barbarians, then I think it would have been much more engaging. As it is, the series touches on some aspects of this only in passing, and others barely at all.

There’s a further problem with the Voyager format which is thrown into sharp relief by the first season episode Eye of the Needle, written by Jeri Taylor. As you might expect, this is still early days for the crew, who have only been stuck in the Delta Quadrant for a couple of months at this point. Hopes of a swift return home are raised when Ensign Kim discovers what seems to be a wormhole, which could offer them a shortcut back to Federation space.

However, it turns out to be a rather feeble and elderly wormhole, barely big enough to stick a probe down, but they do so anyway. The probe promptly gets stuck half-way through, which would be even more annoying were it not for the fact that someone on the other side seems to be scanning the wormhole too – and the data indicates they are doing so from the Alpha Quadrant…

Well, step by step Captain Janeway and the crew establish a connection with whoever’s on the other side – signal codes at first, then a voice communication, then video, and then finally an actual transporter link. There is a bit of a sticky moment when it is revealed that the ship on the other side is a Romulan vessel engaged in classified activities, but the Romulan commander (Vaughn Armstrong) turns out to be a good egg and proves sympathetic to the crew’s situation. Could this finally prove to be their route home?

Well, the problem with the episode (and arguably with any similar episode of Voyager) isn’t just that the answer to this question is ‘of course it isn’t’, but that it’s ‘of course it isn’t, and everybody watching knows that from the start’. It’s the same problem with any series predicated on a bunch of people being stuck in a situation they’d rather not be in – almost inevitably, there are going to be numerous episodes about them trying to get out of their pickle, and equally inevitably, they’re never going to succeed in extricating themselves. In some ways Voyager is more akin to a show like Space: 1999 than the original Star Trek or Next Gen – Kirk and Picard were where they wanted to be, doing something they loved, not trapped in an odyssey of misery and frustration (which is what the prevailing mood on Voyager would more likely have been).

As a result the big question in the viewer’s mind while watching Eye of the Needle is not ‘could they possibly get home this week?’ but ‘What trick are the writers going to pull to stop them getting home this week?’ Now, to be fair, the twist employed by Jeri Taylor is not a bad one – it transpires that the wormhole is a shortcut through time as well as space, and transporting through it will mean travelling back twenty years to 2351 – but the episode arguably misses a trick in the way this possibility is blandly dismissed by Janeway and the crew, with barely a peep of dissent from anyone involved. ‘Too much damage to the timeline,’ Janeway decrees, which may be the case, but you would have expected someone to try and find a way round this. Why not transport home and then have yourselves put into stasis or cryo for twenty years? We know the technology’s there, we’ve seen it in multiple other episodes. But nope. The Captain has spoken and everyone acquiesces.

Of course, there’s also the issue of the Romulans and the Federation not actually being on speaking terms in 2351 – it’s established in early Next Gen that the Star Empire was in the middle of one of its isolationist phases at this point in time – but on the other hand you can see why they used a Romulan in this episode: it requires a member of one of the major races, but also one with a slightly adversarial relationship to the Federation. As ever, when you need a nondescript big-name adversarial race in Trek, it’s the Romulans who get called up. (There is at least a hint of the events of this episode having some kind of consequence – much later we learn that the Romulans have always been very interested in the fate of Voyager, perhaps suggesting they had some foreknowledge of what would befall the ship.)

But this stuff is by the by. The problem with the episode is that the issue of ‘what’s going to stop them getting home?’ is pretty much the sole point of dramatic tension in it, and that’s part of the meta-narrative, not the story of the episode itself. There are, I suppose, some nice character moments built in along the way, but – especially once you know the twist – the episode feels underpowered as a piece of drama. There’s a ticking clock but not much tension and scarcely any jeopardy.

Squeezed in alongside all the stuff with the wormhole and the Romulan is a B-plot about the holographic Doctor’s status aboard the ship and his occasionally fraught relations with the rest of the crew – apart from Kes, they’re all just treating him as a hologram. Which is kind of understandable, given that he is a hologram, but even so, we are already aware of what a lovable curmudgeon he has become. Which just leads one to wonder – what exactly are these holo-engineers up to? As with the various other Federation miracle machines, they are doing astounding things without even seeming to realise it. Holodeck technology is apparently at the point where it can create sentient, self-aware life by accident (cf. those TNG episodes with Professor Moriarty), and yet they go about sticking EMHs on their ships with no-one even seeming to consider the possibility that the holo-doctors could be more than mindless functionaries. Too big an issue for one episode to address, of course. Even the cap scene for this plotline rings resoundingly false with hindsight – ‘I want a name!’ says the Doctor, which is written and played like a key moment in his development as a character. He never actually gets one, of course. But at least you can imagine him getting one at some point, which is more than you can say for the possibility of Voyager getting home any time prior to the series’ last episode. This is a show about a lost ship. Episodes about the ship maybe-getting un-lost are on a hiding to nothing unless they can find considerably more in the way of actual character drama than this one does.

 

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