Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Voyager 3x20 "Favorite Son"

rating: ***

the story: Harry seems to have come from another planet, and all the women there are eager for his return.

what it's all about: Normally I try to give a fairly serious one-sentence synopsis, but there was no way I was going to edit one that sounds like it's mocking poor Harry Kim.  Harry was a character who tended to get the least personal stories ("Timeless" being a massive exception), mostly because the whole point of his character was to be the eager young officer who is unfazed by the circumstances in which he serves.  "Non Sequitur" was the closest the series would ever get to explaining his potential outside of this crew, and it did so brilliantly, demonstrating once and for all just how much events shaped perception of his character.  But "Favorite Son" is all about how his eagerness was in fact a massive liability.

It's not so much the story itself that explains this, but that it happened to him of all the characters in the show, and that it seems so typical.  The idea of an alien culture using questionable means to beef up its population is hardly a fresh one (Harry experiences this himself all over again in "Ashes to Ashes"), but it always seems to be fresh.  This time it seems like a riff on the Greek sirens, beautiful women luring men to their doom.  Anyway, I like how the whole thing plays out, and how it causes Harry to question whether any of what he's being told is actually true, and that it forces him to wonder whether everything he knows about himself has a reason he could never have imagined.  The latter is basically a means to explore what I was talking about earlier, that giant chip on his shoulder no one seems capable of addressing.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A familiar if lightly-employed trope makes this one fun for casual fans.
  • series - Its recurrence in a later season, and once again experienced by Harry, makes it more relevant than you might think.
  • character - A wonderful character examination of Harry Kim.
  • essential - I'll draw the line here.  This would've been true if the lies had been real.
notable guest-stars:
Kristanna Loken

Monday, August 14, 2017

Voyager 3x19 "Rise"

rating: ***

the story: Tuvok and Neelix end up trapped together in an elevator full of aliens, and one of them is a saboteur.

what it's all about: I know I call it an elevator in the one-line synopsis above, but the technology at the heart of "Rise" is more complicated than that, and one of my favorites from the whole franchise.  Some fans love the Dyson spheres from Next Generation's "Relics," but the maglev space elevator is a great concept: it's basically like a cable car that travels through the atmosphere from the surface of the planet and provides convenient, safe transportation into space.  Safe, unless there's a saboteur!

The mystery that's technically the story here is fun, but it's also a little beside the point.  "Rise" is a Tuvok/Neelix episode first and foremost.  After "Tuvix" last season (which technically didn't feature them so much as an individual who combined them), it's the first time they have a spotlight, which was far too rare and far too crucial a character dynamic in the series to overlook.  One of the hallmarks of Star Trek is the love/hate relationship, dating back to Spock and Bones.  Spock found Bones archaic; Tuvok finds Neelix downright irrational, basically the opposite of a Vulcan.  Neelix at this point has been struggling to suppress (if only Tuvok knew...) his constant insecurities, but "Rise" is a whole episode where he gets to assert himself.  Tuvok really was the best thing that ever happened to him.  He's the challenge that's so direct, Neelix has no choice but to confront him all the time, rather than let the problem fester, which is usually what he does.  In "Rise," he demands respect from Tuvok, because he's finally found a situation where he has immediate qualifications Tuvok can't doubt or overlook: Talaxians had maglev space elevators, too.

It's ironic, really, as Neelix just six episodes earlier ("Fair Trade") believed he'd run out of useful information to share with the crew.  Unlike "Darkling," the Doctor spotlight immediately preceding "Rise," this doesn't mean the producers overlooked storytelling logic in the rush to conceive episodic material.  "Darkling" is contradicted and superseded by the later "Real Life;" "Rise" actually strengthens "Fair Trade."

It's one of the best episodes of the third season, where cool concepts were beginning to dominate the storytelling ethos.  "Rise" might not have much to say about where the crew was headed, but it's an all-around pleasure that deepens the whole experience, all while seemingly telling a completely routine franchise tale.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Love/hate relationships in Star Trek are legion, and this is an episode that explores one particularly well.
  • series - Unlike other season standouts, it doesn't necessarily impact the future.
  • character - Tuvok and Neelix have one of their perfect moments.
  • essential - A perfect episodic experience.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Voyager 3x18 "Darkling"

rating: *

the story: The Doctor tampers with his program and inadvertently creates an evil subprogram.

what it's all about: The oddest thing about "Darkling" is that it's so similar to the later "Real Life" and yet they exist totally exclusive to each other, so that the Doctor seems to have learned nothing at all from this experience.  It's the very definition of episodic storytelling, "Darkling" more than "Life."  In "Darkling," the whole plot can be boiled down more to a pastiche on Jekyll and Hyde than a story about the Doctor.

But, technically, it's a story about the Doctor.  Oddly, he becomes jealous of someone Kes fancies (some dude who runs around with a terrible wig, alas).  He'd had a wonderful relationship with Kes (the Doctor, I mean) for much of the series to this point, Kes being about the only person who took him seriously.  To drop a potential romance into this relationship seems like a horrible misstep.  Later, when the same idea is attempted with Seven, it works better, because the relationship is different from the start.

So, rather than recommend it on the basis of the Doctor, I will remind the viewer that the franchise has done this sort of thing before ("The Enemy Within"), and sort of leave it at that.  Making the Doctor a villain based on corrupted programming is such a slippery slope.  It's not the first and not the last time his programming leave him vulnerable, but it's the least inviting. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - An episode perhaps best enjoyed by the casual fan.
  • series - Later developments seem to ignore this ever happened.
  • character - See the above statement, an extremely odd thing to say about a Doctor spotlight.
  • essential - If the season itself pretends this never happened, then maybe it's for the best.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Voyager 3x17 "Unity"

rating: ****

the story: Chakotay unwittingly stumbles into a collective of ex-Borg.

what it's all about: If you want to insist on believing that the Borg in Voyager was a colossal waste of time, I present to you Exhibit A as a direct contradiction.

The earliest direct appearance of the Collective in the series, "Unity" suggests the later "Scorpion" developments of an enemy (Species 8472) capable of taking on the Borg while presenting a story that doesn't necessarily involve the Borg.  Still, it presents a compelling examination of one of the most basic features of the Collective: its hive mind.

Chakotay's harrowing experiences might as well represent a possible origin story, how it all began.  The people he meets are so addicted to the "contact high" of the hive mind that they don't for a minute concern themselves with its more sinister implications.  Later Voyager explorations of the Borg, including the ongoing case of Seven, suggest further complications of trying to leave the Collective behind, but "Unity" remains a standout, one any fan can appreciate.

What's more, it's the first indication of the new direction Chakotay would take following the end of his heavy significance from the first two seasons, and the backlash to that material that resulted in the drastic creative changes of the third.  Fans would forever complain that Chakotay became a shrinking violet, seemingly inconsequential as a first officer.  Regardless of whether or not that's true, his ability to carry a story ("Distant Origin" later in the season is yet more conclusive proof) shines through in "Unity."  This is what he'd done during the Seska arc, but the effect is proven to originate with Chakotay rather than solely on the story when all context is removed from him.  He carries with him a constant gravity, the ability to project dignity regardless of circumstance, that Chakotay can't help but somehow still become one of the most fascinating characters of the franchise.  Fans laud praise on him in material like the later "Shattered," which is certainly earned, but he'd been deserving it for far longer.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It's the Borg as you've never seen them!
  • series - The official debut of the Collective in Voyager, later to become far more significant.
  • character - Chakotay shines in an unexpected evolution as a master of spotlight adventures.
  • essential - Makes everything involved deeper. The definition of a classic.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Voyager 3x16 "Blood Fever"

rating: ****

the story: B'Elanna gets to enjoy pon farr.

what it's all about: One of the most irrational fears Star Trek fans have exhibited over the years is revisiting familiar territory.  This fear has some basis from franchise creators themselves, including Gene Roddenberry, who initially wanted to distance Next Generation from the original series.  Then, of course, Worf became a signature character of the new series, and as a result the Klingons underwent an incredible renaissance.

But fans still fear revisiting familiar territory.  They became obsessive about it with Voyager and Enterprise, and they're threatening to do it all over again with Discovery.  They insist that the only true Star Trek is the stuff that explores the further future.  They seem to have conveniently ignored what Star Trek itself has said about the further future, in sometimes exquisite detail.  But I digress.  Somewhat.

"Blood Fever" calls this to mind as it's basically an update of the classic "Amok Time," in which a Vulcan (originally Spock, this time the recurring Vorik) experiences pon farr, which temporarily drives them crazy.  The big difference with "Blood Fever" is that Vorik was created for this specific purpose.  He makes a few appearances before it and a few appearances later, but basically his only purpose is to tell a story that would otherwise have involved Tuvok (he later experiences pon farr, too, by the way), an inevitability in the premise of a series where the crew is stranded for an extended period of time away from home. 

The benefits are legion.  First, the existence of Vorik confirms that since Spock served in Starfleet, Vulcan presence has increased, so that two Vulcans serving on the same ship happens.  Second, a Vulcan with whom audiences are not emotionally attached is allowed to get even crazier than Spock did.  Third, it further contrasts Tuvok with what we've seen from other Vulcans.  He turned out to be even more cerebral (as chief of security he undertook criminal investigations on a routine basis) and spiritual than Spock, who tended to focus almost exclusively on logic and the contrasts he noticed with humans like Bones McCoy. 

Fourth, and this is actually the big one, has nothing to do with Vulcans at all, because this is actually a B'Elanna episode.  I still have no idea how she never became one of the show's most beloved characters, because arguably she was consistently the best in the series, from the very start, a trailblazer who took what Ro Laren and Major Kira began before her and managed to be a fierce, independent woman who rarely compromised.  Except being the one out of the three to find lasting happiness with someone, an arc that begins in "Blood Fever," with Tom Paris.

Paris was the Starfleet rebel who had the most in common with the former Maquis crew, had actually tried joining the Maquis, but had never shared much screen time with B'Elanna.  But from this point onward, they would develop a romance where their personalities, their sometimes-alienating instincts, would come together at last, culminating in a marriage and a daughter in the final season.

Wait, and fifth: this episode also marks the beginning of the Borg in the series.  Arguably Voyager did more than Next Generation (second only to First Contact) in fleshing out the Collective beyond the bogeymen who once assimilated Picard and launched an epic invasion into the Alpha Quadrant.  It marks the slow burn to the season finale, "Scorpion," in which the Borg make their official debut, Voyager updating and improving on the approach Next Generation originally took to the Collective.

I know, a lot of that is blasphemy.  But I don't fear Star Trek fans.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Between pon farr and the Borg, this one speaks to the heart of Star Trek mythology.
  • series - The pon farr was inevitable in the long journey home, and so were the Borg.
  • character - B'Elanna in another stellar spotlight, a nearly unblemished record.
  • essential - In a lot of ways the beginning of a bold new era.
notable guest-stars:
Alexander Enberg (Vorik)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Voyager 3x15 "Coda"

rating: *

the story: Janeway dies.  Repeatedly.

what it's all about: Fans who generally hate Voyager love this episode.  The reason is pretty simple.  Just look at my summary, above.

It's a baffling episode, arguably one of the most baffling of the whole franchise.  By their third seasons, Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had taken fairly dodgy characterizations of their lead characters (Picard and Sisko, respectfully) into key selling points by figuring them out and giving them killer spotlights again and again.  Janeway, like a lot of the third season, experiences an abrupt shift in Voyager's third season.  While there's a lot right about the season, Janeway generally isn't part of it.  The caustic Janeway fans remember can be traced to it, and "Coda" is kind of the epitome of this version of the character.  Luckily, by the end of the season, "Scorpion," she's found a powerful new motivator, much like the series itself.  It can't be overstated how importance Seven was to Janeway. 

"Coda" purports to be a Janeway episode, and even features a likeness of her father, but the whole thing is a poor riff on the repetition concept featured brilliantly in Next Generation's "Cause and Effect."  Literally Janeway dies.  Repeatedly.  There's some effort to make it matter to Chakotay, which is an irony of the episode, as it attempts to play off the version of these two that existed until the third season.  If this had happened in the second season, it would've been done better, and it would have been better.  This is just a hasty attempt to increase the episodic drama, which I think was the main creative mandate of the season.  The problem with episodic storytelling is that it's inherently hit or miss.  Given a whole season to fill, there will never be enough time to polish every story. 

The most egregious thing about it is that the Vidiians technically make their last major appearance of the series, and their part in it could really have been filled by any aliens, which is basically...exactly the opposite of a decent Vidiian appearance (heh).

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Not recommended for casual viewers.
  • series - Not recommended for fans.
  • character - Your best bet is to try and decide whether or not this constitutes an adequate Janeway spotlight.
  • essential - No, it's not.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Voyager 3x14 "Alter Ego"

rating: ***

the story: Tuvok becomes entangled in an unlikely relationship with an apparent holographic character.

what it's all about: "Alter Ego" has a lot going for it.  One is the unusual pairing of Harry Kim and Tuvok, who otherwise really don't have any other shared experiences in the series.  Harry is having one of his romantic problems, this time with a holodeck character, or so he thinks.  It's intriguing, since that means the episode is kind of a precursor to the controversial sixth season entry "Fair Haven," in which Janeway really does have such a relationship.  For a crew faced with limited romantic options, it's a good idea to mine for material, and sort of flips on its head part of Barclay's problem in  Next Generation's "Hollow Pursuits," where we first met the nebbish engineer destined to make a significant impact on Voyager

He turns to Tuvok for advice, but that only makes things worse, because Tuvok investigates the holodeck character, who decides she's interested in Tuvok instead of Harry, which makes Harry jealous.  This development is two-fold.  Harry usually seems like the quintessential Starfleet officer, fresh out of the Academy and as gung ho about his job as anyone could be.  The question of why such a consummate professional would have a hard time being promoted on a ship lost in the Delta Quadrant even though he's one of the best hands of the crew can thusly be explained by his lack of maturity, with experiences like "Alter Ego" spelling it out.

The episode then becomes about Tuvok himself.  Tuvok spotlights were always few and far between, the series no doubt concerned that someone might worry he was trying to replace Spock.  Tuvok, of course, is full Vulcan, unlike the half-human Spock, so he was always going to present a unique portrait.  As a Vulcan, his relationships rarely involved emotion, except when concerning Neelix (but more on that in the forthcoming "Rise"), even his close bond with Janeway, one of the most neglected in the series (even their experiences in "Flashback" were somewhat caustic). 

The problem was really Tuvok's sense of isolation, which dovetails nicely with the further developments of this episode.  (Chakotay, it might be argued, also suffered from isolation the longer the series continued, which is why it was nice for him to end up in a relationship with Seven.  It was kind of like finally replacing the toxic Seska.)  The holographic character turns out to be a real person, who's hacked the ship (hacking a Starfleet ship is a brilliant idea, by the way, and a rare phenomenon) because she's got a job that keeps her, y'know, in isolation.  She finds Tuvok fascinating.  He's an enigma, someone who manages to remain functional even while keeping a distance from those around him. 

Anyway, I like how the episode progresses.  It's always been one of my favorites from the season.  Enterprise's "Exile" is a similar story, which doesn't really evolve as organically, so the merits of "Alter Ego" becomes all the easier to admire.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The original premise of the episode revolves around holographic characters, long a Star Trek staple.
  • series - Not hugely connected to the premise.
  • character - But it becomes hugely significant to not only Harry but Tuvok as the story progresses.
  • essential - It's an episode that helps explain both of them.
notable guest-stars:
Alexander Enberg (Vorik)
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