Friday, February 9, 2018

Voyager 7x18 "Human Error"

rating: ****

the story: Seven simulates a romance with Chakotay.

what it's all about: The idea of the holodeck was a staple throughout Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  It was such a staple of this era that fans actually grew to hate it.  If "Ferengi episodes" was a distinctly Deep Space Nine epitaph, then "holograph episode" surely was one across all three series.  But I think most of them justify their existence thematically, even when concepts overlap.  One of the early distinctive holodeck adventures was Reg Barclay's introduction in Next Generation's "Hollow Pursuits," in which he tries to compensate poor social skills with a lively holodeck life.  Voyager later saw The Doctor create a whole holodeck family in "Real Life."  Both were about creating a fake existence outside of the real world that only damaged ability to judge experiences with objective clarity.  "Human Error" is that same kind of experience.

However, it's not particularly an episode that has stood out for fans.  One of the reasons is that the idea of Seven and Chakotay in a relationship seems to be dropped at the end of the episode, only to be picked up again, randomly, in "Endgame," the series finale.  This was likely viewed as one of Voyager's many creative sins.  Fans thought the series did this all the time.  Very few of them seemed willing to give Voyager the benefit of the doubt in how it reached decisions like this.  It looked like Worf and Troi, finally, in a romantic relationship in Next Generation's series finale, "All Good Things...," and because there had been an episode where Seven considered the possibility but rejected it, this one, it just felt all the more random, barely justified.

And, no doubt, fans still clung to "Someone to Watch Over Me."  This is a fifth season episode that's been routinely cited as one of Voyager's best.  On the surface it's a similar story to "Human Error."  Seven experiments with social interaction and romance with The Doctor.  It's actually more of a Doctor episode than a Seven episode, as it ends with him realizing that he's probably not winning her heart despite all his efforts to be there for her.  She remains completely oblivious to his feelings.  The effect is heartbreaking.  For me, it's not even one of my favorite Doctor episodes, although it's certainly a worthy character study and a notable bonding experience for someone who often yearned for such things. 

"Human Error" is different, as it is Seven actively exploring social life and romance.  She's reached a point in the series where her personal growth is an inward journey rather than something she's struggling against, which is where it began in the fourth season.  Where The Doctor from the day he was first activated was complaining about his limitations, Seven complained about her newfound possibilities, so that where The Doctor always found room for growth and welcomed it, sometimes with too much enthusiasm, Seven always struggled.  Hers was an internal experience.  Seven was always an introvert, The Doctor an extrovert.  Perception of Seven usually begins and ends with her physical attributes, and yet she was never treated as a mere object of sexual desire.  She was the perfect embodiment of Gene Roddenberry's two greatest interests, humanity and sexuality.  Fans might have soured on sexuality as a defining feature in Star Trek, but humanity remained, and remains, its truest, deepest focus, and Seven was an ideal instrument to explore it.

Putting all that together, Seven's experiments in the holodeck are more akin to Data yearning to be more human, and yet his mechanics constantly getting in the way.  Often when he'd attempt a breakthrough it'd backfire with unexpected consequences.  While Seven's daydreaming in "Human Error" isn't nearly as literal as Data's in "Phantasms," it also feels more organic, and all the more troubling that a creature of habit has allowed her usual extreme professionalism to be compromised.

All of which is to say, "Human Error" is about as important a Seven episode as there ever was, and it speaks to a lot of franchise lore and experience.  It's a classic.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A deceptively key holodeck experience.
  • series - The episodic/serialized nature of Voyager can be unlocked by an experience like this.
  • character - Seven's journey of discovery reaches a climax.
  • essential - It's the point where she finally rediscovers her humanity.
notable guest-stars:
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Voyager 7x17 "Workforce, Part 2"

rating: ***

the story: The crew struggles to free itself from an alien world that has attempted to draft everyone into its, well, workforce.

what it's all about: The first half of "Workforce" evoked Next Generation's "Conundrum," the classic where Picard's crew's memory is wiped by an alien attempting to draft it into a war.  The second half is reminiscent of another, "Frame of Mind," where Riker's mental state is questioned so that his mission is derailed.  It's all about how exactly the crew breaks free from various efforts to keep them part of the workforce.  Mostly, it's would-be hero Chakotay being sidelined by the aliens' efforts to thwart him.

The funny thing that happens along the way is that the aliens actually take over much of the narrative in this second half, between the ones helping the crew, the ones investigating things, and the ones trying to keep things running as they have been.  Since these are aliens we'll never see again, it dampens some of the impact of the story, as does the possibility of one last great Janeway/Chakotay story, which seemed to have been set up but never happens, much like their relationship in the rest of the series.  Well, maybe the producers were worried about confusing Chakotay's future prospects with Seven.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Reminiscent of "Frame of Mind."
  • series - Draws on the possibilities of Voyager's premise.
  • character - Seven ends up the one driving the conclusion.
  • essential - Despite a solid conclusion, it also makes clear what might have been done differently.
notable guest-stars:
James Read
Jay Harrington

Voyager 7x16 "Workforce, Part 1"

rating: ***

the story: The crew has been pressed into service on an alien world, with their memories wiped.

what it's all about: I actually just realized that "Workforce" is kind of like Next Generation's "Conundrum," a classic where an alien wipes the memories of Picard's crew in order to engineer a diabolical plot against his enemies.  "Workhorse" has a far less negative plot, but the mechanics are similar.  Most of the characters are given a chance to exist free of their usual duties, so that the viewer is able to discover them anew.  Unlike "Conundrum," there isn't a radical departure in relationships or behaviors, which is another way to distinguish them.

As a Voyager-specific story, it works really well.  In Federation space this would be fair less likely to happen to a Starfleet crew, certainly in this era, which is the whole point of setting a series far away from familiar territory.  In some ways, this is similar to when the Kazon abandoned the crew on an alien world between the second and third seasons (or even when Ferengi board Archer's ship in Enterprise's "Acquisition"), but clearly the story is, again, different.  It's also another excellent sign that even in its seventh season Voyager can still exploit its premise creatively.

Tuvok, Chakotay, and The Doctor all get a chance to shine.  Being a Vulcan, Tuvok has the ability to pierce the fog they've been placed in.  It's an opportunity to see him function in much the way Spock used to, in a way he rarely got to, having to wait for his chances far more often.  Chakotay, meanwhile, who often ends up on more or less solo missions, for a change (like in "Shattered") be in one where he's working to save the crew.  It suits his cool temperament.  The Doctor gets a chance to employ his Emergency Command Hologram mode, something previously teased in "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy" the previous season.

All of this adds up to the first half of a two-part episode that may lead to an inevitable conclusion, but it's a nice change of pace from the Voyager tradition of coming up with apocalyptic scenarios for these things.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Nicely evokes Next Generation's classic "Conundrum."
  • series - Exploits Voyager's premise nicely.
  • character - It's a nice chance to see the crew in a fresh light.
  • essential - Fairly low-key stakes.
notable guest-stars:
James Read

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Discovery 1x14 "The War Without, the War Within"

rating: ***

the story: The crew strategizes against the Klingons.

what it's all about: For me, this is a considerable rebound from the previous episode, which took some dramatic leaps I wasn't entirely comfortable with.  In a lot of ways, "The War Without, the War Within" is a thesis statement, explaining the overall philosophy of the series.  We'd known all along that lead character Michael Burnham struggled against the perception others had of her, as we followed the exact events that caused her problems.  As the season has progressed, we've seen other characters mirror that journey.  If Lorca seemed to leave without redemption, it now seems all part of that tapestry, the problem of perception and reality, and the need to reconcile them.  Because after seeing what happened to Lorca, the story now pivots to Tyler and Georgiou.  We know why Lorca chose to overlook Burnham's faults.  Can she manage the same with them, and why?

With Tyler, Burnham is experiencing firsthand what she did to Georgiou, and how the rest of Starfleet grew to see her as a result.  She doesn't know how she moves forward with him.  With Mirror Georgiou, she's compromised by her guilt over what happened to her Georgiou; she's incapable of being objective about her.  And yet in both relationships, her reactions and thought process are hugely subjective, and it's hurting everyone involved.  Tyler desperately wants to find himself again, just as Burnham had at the start of the season.  Mirror Georgiou has no such doubts.  She's as eager as Lorca had been to use circumstances to her advantage, and doesn't care who's hurt in the process.  We see a glimpse of Stamets being that cold, to Tyler, but at least with him we can sympathize to an extent.  Every character, every scenario, it's all calculated in this series, reflecting each other.

The greater arc of the Klingon war becomes less important, in all this, even while we see Admiral Cornwell return, totally overwhelmed by things, so that the certainty and even doubt the main characters are experiencing seem infinitely more appealing.  Even Sarek feels ineffectual, too easily manipulated, disconnected from the intricacy of the moving parts in the web the series has been weaving.  It's one thing to be caught up in Mirror Georgiou's machinations.  Lorca operated much the same way.  What sets the main characters apart is that they have an ability to use their doubt against these plans. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - This one's for Discovery fans. 
  • series - It speaks directly to the heart of the arc we've followed all season.
  • character - Motivations become clearer, and how Burnham is caught in the middle.
  • essential - It's an explanation that's essential to understanding the series.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Mirror Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Discovery 1x13 "What's Past is Prologue"

rating: **

the story: Burnham confronts Mirror Georgiou and Lorca.

what it's all about: Well, it had to end.  My enthusiasm for Discovery had been riding pretty high.  It would have been truly remarkable if that had been maintained through the end of the season.  Turns out it didn't.  The very serialized storytelling that's been working so well is actually what did it.  "What's Past is Prologue," to my mind, once again indicates there are limits to this style.

Even though Deep Space Nine in part reached its greatness thanks to its pioneering use of the style, and Enterprise received its only acclaim from employing it, serialized storytelling itself is not automatically good.  Storytelling is still storytelling, and must be judged on its own merits, not the way it's presented.  Today it's called "binge" storytelling, and there are a lot of people who seem to like it for the mere fact of its addictiveness. 

Which is to say, each episode still has to stand on its own, and must be able to justify what adds or doesn't add to the overall storytelling arc.  "Prologue" attempts to once again twist the knife of constant twists in this series.  For me it doesn't work.  And it works, as presented, about as poorly as anything has in Discovery (read: "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum").

As with a lot of Discovery material, the viewer is expected to carry previous events in mind, and judge the new material based on these previous memories.  This is the third episode in thirteen in which there's a big action sequence with Burnham being asked to confront the villain.  And this time, inarguably, the villain, for the first time, is someone we should reasonably be expected to care about.  With the two times it's happened with Klingons, we've known both times that it didn't matter, because we still had the Torchbearer, we still had (and as of this episode, have) L'Rell.  In a manner of speaking, that dynamic remains, because we still have Georgiou.  Well, Mirror Georgiou, anyway.  But that only makes things unnecessarily complicated.

Because the villain this time is Lorca.  We've just discovered that a character we've known throughout the season has been someone else all along (and hardly the only character like that), that he was from the Mirror Universe.  "Prologue" not only confirms this, but confirms that he's as bad as anyone has ever been in the Mirror Universe.  This feels like a development that can't be judged, entirely, on one episode, that it might be counterbalanced, once we see where Tyler/Torchbearer settles.  We can't use Burnham as the control element, because she's the only character in this series being allowed to operate on more than one level at a time.  Which turns out to be unfair, and part of what's slipping off the scales of what keeps Discovery feel like traditional Star Trek, despite everything else.

Because the episode ends with her believing she has a chance at redeeming Mirror Georgiou.  And not because Mirror Georgiou is redeemable, but because Burnham feels guilt about what happened with her Georgiou at the start of the series.  The series wants us to believe we care about what happens to Georgiou, any Georgiou, more than what happens with Lorca, and yet this is not really a Star Trek question at all.  If all we care about is Burnham, and whether or not those wacky people around her stop stumbling into dramatic situations, sort of tangential to her adventures but constantly defining them (Stamets and the spore drive has basically been confirmed to be a Maguffin)...

Sorry, I don't want to be flippant or negative.  My point is, "Prologue," even in that title, desperately wants to be evocative and climactic.  If you accept it to be a dramatic conclusion to Lorca's story, and that alone, it probably works the way it wants to.  If you wish Mirror Georgiou's arc concluded here, too, as I do, then it probably doesn't.  To my mind, it doesn't work because it weakens Burnham, and it strains the credibility of the storytelling.  Burnham's guilt doesn't outweigh Mirror Georgiou's character.  We don't need another episode to decide this.  Suggesting we do is a slap in the face of "Prologue" itself, which is all about reconciling the facts and what we want to believe.  Except in the matter where it really matters.  That's not good serialized storytelling.  It's deliberately prolonged storytelling, and not because it produces good storytelling.  Far too much serialized storytelling is like that.  Until now Discovery had avoided that trap.

Well, hopefully the rest of the season can make up for this.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Reflects poorly on Star Trek ideals.
  • series - Regardless of its merit, this is relevant Discovery material.
  • character - And relevant to Burnham and certainly to Lorca.
  • essential - The death of a major character has rarely been this disappointing.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Mirror Georgiou)
Rekha Sharma (Mirror Landry)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Voyager 7x15 "The Void"

rating: **

the story: The ship ends up trapped in a region of space, and the only way out is to forge alliances with other stranded crews.

 what it's all about: "The Void," despite a painfully straightforward title (of the wrong concept, as you'll see), is actually pretty interesting.  You can see the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise sort of germinate in it, and it also reflects the idealism Janeway always sought to embody, which was always at the core of the series premise.

Now, just to get the metaphor out of the way, in Enterprise's third season, Archer's crew is stranded in a region of space where they're often forced to confront desperate measures in order to survive, having to decide how to handle other ships that have resources they need.  And of course, in the fourth, Archer lays the most deliberate foundations of the Federation as he helps Andorians and Tellarites overcome their differences, paving the way for them to join humans and Vulcans at the core of a powerful alliance.

There's no Federation being formed in "The Void," but the idea is much the same, mutual cooperation to mutual benefit.  And like Archer, Janeway encounters plenty of complications in her efforts to forge alliances.  The whole thing is an exercise in exploring just how Janeway was able to maintain a Starfleet outlook despite difficult circumstances.  Where fans saw only hardship (and that's much how it played out in Ron Moore's sort of response to Voyager, Battlestar Galactica), and that kind of pessimism was in fact indulged in "Year of Hell," "The Void" embodies the kind of resourcefulness and optimism that's at the heart of Star Trek.

There's a subplot involving a "vermin" species the crew discovers among the alien ships, which is eventually used to disable uncooperative (and treacherous) crews, which I'm not sure was given enough time to properly consider.  It's like an entirely separate story that was mashed into the main plot, and sits uncomfortably beside it.  And for its focus on Janeway's significance, Janeway herself doesn't really seem essential to how everything play out.  There's no specific focus on her.  It's more like business as usual.  Seems like a missed opportunity.  Plotwise, "Void" is almost a response to "Night," the fifth season premiere where the crew was similarly stranded in a desolate region.  "Night" was a terrific Janeway spotlight. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - These echoes of Enterprise are all in hindsight. 
  • series - Demonstrates the viewpoint of the crew exceptionally well.
  • character - It's the Janeway ethos minus any real spotlight on Janeway.
  • essential - And yet, I use the word "exceptionally."  Even if the center is missing, the puzzle is complete in that regard.
notable guest-stars:
Jonathan del Arco

Voyager 7x14 "Prophecy"

rating: ***

the story: The crew encounters a generational Klingon ship.

what it's all about: Now, technically, the story is about, well, a prophecy (there would be little reason to call the episode that otherwise), and while that's certainly central to the story, seemingly the whole point...there's a layer of cleverness to it that speaks to the plight of the crew, the premise of the series, too.

And that's why I consider it first and foremost an encounter with a generational ship.

Because isn't that the theoretical fate of the crew?  If they don't find a shortcut?  In the final episode ("Endgame"), we in fact encounter an alternate future where Miral (more on her later) and Sabrina (the daughter of Naomi Wildman, who herself has already long represented the possibility) represent another generation of the crew.  And so to encounter a ship with a generational crew must be considered a fairly deliberate plot device on the part of the producers, something that harkens back to the wide range of stories in previous seasons about the nature of the series, previously featured most heavily in all the potential shortcuts, as well as potential new homes, should the crew ever decide to abandon its journey.  Neelix, in "Homestead," ends up taking that option, and "Prophecy" predicts that, too.

So that's whole level on which the episode works exceptionally.  There's also Miral.  Miral is the future daughter of Torres and Paris.  Previously, in "Lineage," we saw Torres tormented by the idea of her, but in "Prophecy" she has a chance to welcome the possibilities.  And ironically, it has everything to do with Klingons.  Now, you can actually enjoy "Prophecy" purely as a Klingon episode, and unlike most Torres episodes, you don't have to be filled with angst about it (such as "Barge of the Dead," "Day of Honor").  That in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, just another of the many things Voyager did that few fans would ever have imagined possible, a true testament to the approach the series stuck to despite massive backlash among the more intransigent. 

And as a final spotlight for Torres, it's wonderfully understated in its poetic impact.  It might seem strange, to give such a famously conflicted character such a personal story that really belongs to someone else, and yet...that's what makes it work so well.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Fans of Klingons will enjoy this unexpected new cultural meditation.
  • series - Wonderfully evocative of the premise.
  • character - A fitting final spotlight for B'Elanna Torres.
  • essential - Sometimes perfection seems incomplete.  You just really kind of wish it had been one final existential crisis for her.
notable guest-stars:
Sherman Howard
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