Friday, June 23, 2017

Voyager 1x7 "Eye of the Needle"

rating: ***

the story: The crew finds a wormhole that allows them to contact the Alpha Quadrant, but it's a Romulan on the other side...

what it's all about: "Eye of the Needle" is an incredibly clever way to introduce the difficulties of finding shortcuts home (three episodes later, "Prime Factors" hits the mark more squarely), but it's almost more about the Romulan played by Vaughn Armstrong than the crew he has the unexpected opportunity to encounter.

The story is almost too clever by half.  On the one hand it explains why the seventh hour of the series doesn't present the opportunity it seems to, revealing how the Romulan is actually decades in the past (Deep Space Nine's "The Sound of Her Voice" uses a similar plot device more artfully), but the reasoning behind why this isn't as helpful as it seems is shoddy at best, one I don't believe for a minute anyone in that crew would've taken seriously (again, "Prime Factors" proves how even a slim chance will cause considerable divisions among them).

So it's necessary to take the proceedings at face value, and on that level "Eye" is just about clever enough, and as a Romulan episode is one of the best in the franchise, following in the fine tradition of the classic "Balance of Terror."  The big reveal at the end hits like a gut punch regardless of how well it holds up to scrutiny, and the whole experience is an exercise in proving just how committed the series was at the beginning in exploring the full potential of its premise.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will want to take note, thanks to the clever appearance of a Romulan.
  • series - The first look at possible shortcuts to the long journey home.
  • character - This would've been a great place to preview the later schisms of "Prime Factors."
  • essential - It's a clever experience all around that suggests the true dramatic potential of the series.
notable guest-stars:
Vaughn Armstrong

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Voyager 1x6 "The Cloud"

rating: **

the story: The crew bond while exploring the Delta Quadrant version of weird space phenomena.

what it's all about: At first blush "The Cloud" seems like a pointless franchise template episode that has no business being done in a Voyager context ripe for bold new storytelling.  But the premise of the series was always about what it would be like to be Star Trek with no safety net sort of like the nebulous state of the backdrop during the original series, when the concepts of Starfleet and the Federation were in a constant state of flux and development, and anytime anyone else from them showed up it only served to prove how much Kirk and company stood out from the pack, and were in a sense isolated.  Janeway really only codified that concept, in a lot of ways.

So when she decides to explore weird space phenomena, it's not really just a matter of deciding to explore it, but an occasion for the crew to decide how much of typical Starfleet business they're going to do.  Fans thought this was a waste of time, but in the grand scheme of things no matter how often the ship stopped to look at something there was still a long journey if carried out in the original estimate no one but maybe Tuvok and the Doctor would be around to see completed satisfactorily...The idea was always to find shortcuts, which was why episodes like "Prime Factors" (later in the season) happen, which couldn't be done if all they did was follow a single course toward Earth. 

Ipso facto: they would have to behave like a Starfleet crew, and so episodes like this would be necessary to further develop the concept of the series, which along with "Parallax" serve to flesh out the premise laid out in "Caretaker."

And besides, "Cloud" gives the crew a chance to bond, see how they function practically together, now that they've begun to settle in. This is the episode where Janeway famously declares, "There's coffee in that nebula," which is about as Voyager as it can get.  It also features the debut of Chez Sandrine, a holodeck program that was kind of Deep Space Nine's Vic Fontaine before there was a Vic Fontaine, a standard period setting where the crew could hang out on a regular basis.  Of course, there's no Vic equivalent in Chez Sandrine, but it's still one of the signature elements of the early series.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Another episode casual fans will probably find difficult to appreciate.
  • series - Helps flesh out the premise and how it functions on an ongoing basis.
  • character - This is an ensemble episode, which helps demonstrate how effortlessly Voyager did these.
  • essential - The McGuffin at the heart of the episode kind of drags down the proceedings, and there's no single character to rally around. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Voyager 1x5 "Phage"

rating: ***

the story: The crew meet the Vidiians, and Neelix faces his first existential crisis.

what it's all about: In hindsight, "Phage" becomes infinitely more important than it might have seemed when it first aired.  Later in the first season the Vidiians appear again in "Faces," which is a better episode and in fact a classic, and the aliens make a few more appearances after that, too, and become one of the signature aliens of the whole series.  That they happen to embody the scavenger, desperate nature of the whole Delta Quadrant is probably icing on the cake.

(In case you don't remember, the Vidiians are the ones who harvest without remorse organs from unwitting donors.)

But perhaps more importantly, "Phage" also suggests the hidden depth of Neelix.  Neelix kind of became the poster child for everything that irritated fans about Voyager, the Jar Jar Binks of the series.  He was found to be too lively.  Or something.  I never really understood it, so don't ask me to explain.  Go find some irrational observer.  You'll find plenty.  Anyway, this was a character who was perhaps one of the most interesting characters of the series, right from the start, the Delta Quadrant native who volunteered to join Janeway's crew and help them navigate (and there would be plenty of material about how Neelix's feelings on this decision evolved, mirroring Janeway's to try and reach home, or blowing up the original solution).  And yeah, he always seemed a little too chipper, but as it turns out this was always a case of the clown crying on the inside.  This was a guy who was capable of going as dark as anyone ever did in Star Trek.  "Phage" was the first time we see this side of him.

In the original series Uhura could lose her memory and "have it reprogrammed" and no one ever really bothered to think twice about it ("The Changeling").  Neelix agonizes over the loss of his lungs and the Doctor's terrible solutions (no offense to the Doctor) to keep him alive, and it makes for tough viewing, far more difficult than Worf wishing he were dead (Next Generation's "Ethics"), the first sign that this was going to be a first season totally unafraid of pushing traditional franchise storytelling limits ("Faces," again, proves that all over again).  Somehow fans totally overlook that.  Again, don't ask me to explain.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - I don't want to say casual fans can't appreciate it, but it becomes much more significant later.
  • series - Introduces a key alien species in the Vidiians.
  • character - The first hint at the true depth of Neelix.
  • essential - For Voyager fans it's a can't-miss.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Voyager 1x4 "Time and Again"

rating: *

the story: Janeway and Paris are confronted with a paradox concerning their involvement in the annihilation of a planet's population.

what it's all about: Likely a lot of fans settled their opinion of Voyager not to much on the pilot or the premise and whether or not subsequent episodes lived up to it, but on the second regular episode of the series, which jumped right into a fairly generic Star Trek, high concept story.  Now, this would not have been a problem thirty years earlier.  NBC wanted cool sci-fi concepts to define Star Trek, not the kind of cerebral material Gene Roddenberry kept delivering.  This is not to say that Voyager was incapable of being cerebral, but as the first Star Trek series to air on a broadcast network since the original, it's perhaps not unexpected that somewhere along the way network executives finally got their way.  Sometimes.

This just happened to be one of those times.  Again, there's nothing particularly wrong with "Time and Again" itself.  The closest it has to any significance is the emergence of Kes as a kind of series regular version of Next Generation's Guinan, someone who could sense when something wasn't right.  I'm not sure Kes ever quite became another Guinan (not mysterious enough), and there's other material later to sells this version of the character better.

So that leaves us with how well the concept actually works.  It's another problem of who they chose to focus the episode around, I think, something that later in the series often fell to Chakotay, who never gets the credit he deserves for selling just about any concept (high point: "Distant Origin").  It was more Janeway's determination than her science background that made her stand out, so having her lead a story like this was one of its weak points, I think.

But on the whole, I think it's a pretty fun experience.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The idea of Star Trek featuring cool sci-fi concepts shows up here.
  • series - Not hugely impactful in this regard.
  • character - Soft start to the evolution of Kes.
  • essential - Not especially.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Voyager 1x3 "Parallax"

rating: ***

the story: Torres proves herself qualified to fill the role of chief engineer.

what it's all about: Now, here's where the pilot continues, and in some respects it's the episode every fan who argues Voyager never figured out its premise really needs to see.  As sketched above, it's the one where B'Elanna Torres earns her way into the command crew position of chief engineer.  Torres was one of the Maquis stranded along with Chakotay in the Delta Quadrant, and arguably the one who most exemplified the group's inability to conform to Starfleet standards of conduct.  In fact she'd struggle with her temper and general discontent (mostly with herself) for the duration of the series.  But in "Parallax," Janeway is able to see past the surface and accept her valuable contribution to the combined crew, a brilliant mind not afraid to challenge even the captain herself.

Honestly, I have no idea why Torres isn't more embraced by fans.  In a lot of respects she, along with Deep Space Nine's Kira, was patterned after Next Generation's Ro Laren, a popular character who addressed frequent concerns about everyone being too chummy chummy in Star Trek.  But like Kira, Torres branched off in unique directions; it wasn't so much her background as an internal conflict with her mixed race identity that set Torres apart from nearly everyone around her, and yet the result was one of the most endearing characters in franchise history, capable of great depth and therefore the "humanity" Star Trek was always about.  And wasn't that the point of Voyager's premise, to discover that quest for identity all over again?

She embodies everything that set the Maquis apart, and why they were set apart, a continuation in some respects of Ro's story, where it might have picked up again if we'd ever seen her past "Preemptive Strike."  The first time we saw her ("Ensign Ro"), she'd already been struggling with much the same issues as the ones that drove her to the Maquis.  Torres would struggle, too, as I've already said, but it was finding not just one or two helpful individuals (Guinan, Picard) but a whole crew, united in unique circumstances, less able to ignore the problems that would usually have divided them, that saw her find a positive way forward.

Of course, "Parallax" is also the first appearance of Seska, the very embodiment, eventually, of fan expectations for the Maquis, and she was never really embraced for what she represented, either.  So go figure.

"Parallax" also makes it clear that the producers were always going to be interested in embracing a part of the franchise legacy Deep Space Nine neglected, for the most part, which was to be a vehicle for cool sci-fi storytelling, where just about anything is possible.  Though thinly sketched, the subplot of the episode involves the crew having to figure out how to handle an echo of the ship, and eventually Janeway and Torres being forced to decide which is the real one.  It's fascinating that Janeway decides Torres is fit to assume the post of chief engineer even after they violently disagree over it.  Clearly Janeway values someone whose passion, though not always contained, is capable of the bold thinking required of leaders. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - For skeptical fans who still don't understand what Voyager was all about, this is pretty much the poster episode.
  • series - Features the mechanics of how the Starfleet and Maquis crews learn to integrate.
  • character - The first spotlight episode for B'Elanna Torres, arguably the series MVP.
  • essential - As "merely" a character episode, it proves that everything fans like to claim Voyager wasn't...probably was, all along.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)
Josh Clark (Carey)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Voyager 1x1/1x2 "Caretaker"

rating: ****

the story: Janeway goes hunting for the Maquis and her ship ends up stranded in the Delta Quadrant.

what it's all about: What an incredibly strong beginning.  I think that's really the problem fans had with Voyager, that it had such a strong push out of the gate, subsequent episodes that seemed to take forever to be relevant to the first episode (it's really not until "Eye of the Needle" five episodes later that episodic material gives way to series-specific matters again).  Context is really the key, here.  Fans had gotten used to Deep Space Nine's interest in continuing arcs, which at the point Voyager premiered was a series at the midpoint of its third season, when the Dominion had already appeared numerous times.  It had also, along with Next Generation, spent some time laying the groundwork for the concept of the Maquis, whom fans thought would make a significant impact on the dynamic of Star Trek storytelling, introducing more conflict between characters.  And in "Caretaker," that plays out nicely, but after "Parallax" (the first regular episode of the series) it seemed to fade into oblivion (always something of a myth, really).  That, and the franchise had lost the genre mandate among the fans, who had begun embracing Babylon 5 as the first of many viable cult alternatives, and of course that was a series built on serialization. 

Every character has a good reason to be where they are in the premiere, and some of them have surprises that couldn't be seen coming (Tuvok as a Starfleet spy among Chakotay's Maquis crew).  Torres and Kim play wonderfully against each other.  (Of course, that's a dynamic that largely vanishes from the rest of the series, as too does any resentment about Tuvok's double-turn.)  It's expected that the common problem of the need to return home against incredible odds thoroughly unites them, setting aside most differences...After all, this is still Gene Roddenberry's hopeful vision of the future, right?

And that's really what's at the heart of all the complaints about Voyager, a growing disconnect between concept and audience.  The long-existing fans had begun to grow restive at the prospect of embracing new material, and the newer ones had begun to move on.  And both blamed their lack of interest in Voyager on the show itself.  See any problems with that kind of logic?

The concept was always supposed to be key, here, a way to rejuvenate the simple exploration imperative of the franchise while also embracing some of the ethos that had cropped up during Next Generation, having plot threads that propelled interest forward, a compelling drama like the Klingon political intrigue or problems between Cardassians and Bajorans.  Voyager couldn't possibly have been conceived more cleverly to fulfill those objectives; its crime was not committing to the extent that fans were coming to expect, which would have only further alienated older fans...Basically a no-win scenario, which ironically was a classic Star Trek concept, too. 

Every character gets a clear introduction in the episode, which was following in the tradition set by Deep Space Nine's "Emissary," but where someone like Bashir was only suggested to be fresh out of the Academy, Harry Kim was depicted as so completely inexperienced he was almost taken in by, of all people, Quark, who even Bashir was never snookered by.  Tom Paris, meanwhile, is a kind of replacement for a similar character found in Next Generation played by the same actor (Robert Duncan McNeill), the bridge between Starfleet and the Maquis, really, the explanation as to how any of the Maquis could end up in a Starfleet uniform.  Where fans ended up assuming all Maquis were hopeless degenerates (a startling conclusion, considering the most famous and successful groundwork Maquis episode was Next Generation's "Preemptive Strike," which saw the beloved Ro Laren join the cause), Paris and Chakotay embodied redemptive arcs, which Torres (in "Parallax") would best illustrate, so that it wasn't so much where we first meet them that defines them but the reasons they ended up there, and how "Caretaker" gives them a second chance to make things right.

And there's the Doctor, and Neelix, and Kes, and the Kazon.  Fans hated the Kazon, too, considering them Klingons who'd fallen on hard times.  And would that really be such a bad thing?  The Delta Quadrant was supposed to be fresh territory.  In the breadth of the series, in hindsight, it's clear that the only unifying presence there is the Borg Collective, and that everyone else basically avoids each other or lives desperate lives, or both, or merely keep to themselves.  The Kazon are an excellent introduction to that concept, and if they are Klingon analogs, so much the better.  We think the Klingons are awesome because they were always presented as the Federation's opposite number.  But what if there was no Federation?  That's what Janeway's crew had to contend with, too, wasn't it?  Well, it's true of the Kazon as well.  They suddenly gain a lot of momentum with Voyager around, something to rally around, an enemy

Well, I always liked the series.  But the pilot even if considered in isolation is a heck of a concept.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The clearest pilot of a Star Trek show to date.
  • series - Sets up the concept nicely.
  • character - Everyone gets a turn to shine here.
  • essential - Everything you need to know, or will need to reference, or figure out about this show, can be found in the premiere.
notable guest-stars:
Richard Poe (Gul Evek)
Josh Clark (Carey)
Scott MacDonald
Armin Shimerman (Quark)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Deep Space Nine 7x25/7x26 "What You Leave Behind"

rating: ****

the story: The war ends, and Sisko finally confronts Dukat to settle up between the Prophets and the Pah Wraiths.

what it's all about: This is it, the final episode of Deep Space Nine.  I've always found it by far the most satisfying finale of the franchise.  Of the ones specifically designed to provide end statements, none of them are particularly disappointing, to me.  But they don't really give proper send-offs, aside from "What You Leave Behind."  The second hour is devoted to the crew going their separate ways.  That's all but absent in Next Generation's "All Good Things..." (which is a celebration of the crew itself), Voyager's "Endgame" (which completes the journey home just in time to end the episode), and Enterprise's "These Are the Voyages..." (which really only marks a goodbye to the show's best character, Trip Tucker).  Fans have always kind of bagged Voyager's for leaving the farewells unsaid, and Enterprise's for spending so much time with Next Generation's Riker and Troi (I have literally never had a problem with their inclusion), and thought Picard joining the rest of his crew in a poker game was sweet, but everyone knew there were movies in their future, so there was no perceived need to round out their adventures, except conclude Q's trial from the very first episode ("Encounter at Farpoint").

Deep Space Nine, however, kind of knew this was the end, so there was no reason to send everyone home happy.  Where some have been disappointed that Sisko never did get Bajor into the Federation (ostensibly the whole point of his posting in "Emissary"), it's hugely appropriate to end things in a moment of transition, because that's where things began, too, with everyone adjusting to radical new circumstances.  By the end of "Leave Behind," Sisko has joined the Prophets, Odo the Founders, O'Brien headed off to Starfleet Academy (as an instructor), Worf accepting a post as ambassador to the Klingons, and Bashir finally in that relationship with (a) Dax that he'd always yearned for.  The ending, with Quark remarking the old adage "the more things change..." and Kira and Jake Sisko looking off to the wormhole, wondering what the future holds...It's perfect. 

The conclusion of the war itself is classic.  Things finally come to a head with the Cardassians, as Damar becomes a martyr and the Dominion subsequently level heavy reprisals on the rest of the Cardassians as they rebel in his name, which puts them exactly in the situation Bajor was in at the start of the series.  That, if anything, is the element that rounds out the experience, with one of those planets finding themselves at some logical conclusion based on everything they'd been up to during the course of the series.  If everyone assumes it had to be Bajor, that doesn't mean they're right.  And even Bajor is posed for a more hopeful future, with Winn finally out of the picture, her epic downfall at last complete.

Speaking of Winn, her scenes with Dukat are somehow the best they are in the whole concluding ten-hour arc, Winn increasingly uncomfortable dealing with Dukat but dealing with him all the same, deluded to her last moments that she's still got the upper hand, even as she enacts a final redemption in doing the right thing, unequivocally, turning against Dukat as Sisko appears.  The encounter between Sisko and Dukat is itself a signature element of the episode, going totally against expectations.  We'd seen a version of this play out already in "The Reckoning," a full-on duel between Prophet and Pah Wraith powers.  But that was never Sisko, who was never Kirk, who was always game for a physical fight.  Sisko was game for that sort of thing, but his was always a more cerebral way, much more like Picard, the Picard in the movies, maybe, but more mature, measured, than Kirk ever managed.  When Dukat proves that he's willing to use powers he's all too eager to assume, a role he's all too eager to embrace, it proves all over again that for all of Sisko's doubt across seven seasons, he was still capable of doing the right thing, even if it meant sacrifice he became increasingly willing to make.  It's to be remembered that in the beginning, Sisko was a broken man precisely for a sacrifice he never accepted, the death of his wife.  Leaving his second wife, Kasidy, and their unborn baby, is the very symbol of his growth.

Vic Fontaine justifies his existence one last time in serenading the crew just before everyone splits, in the best scene of the best farewell in Star Trek history.  Sisko all but acknowledges Deep Space Nine fan conviction that this was the best series of the franchise, regardless of how fans in general would ever consider it.

Just a lot of great scenes piled up on each other, one after the other, everyone having a chance to shine, and nearly every recognizable face present and accounted for, too many for me to make labels for everyone, alas.  But a complete listing is below.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It's the only final episode to date that allows fans to linger in the goodbye.
  • series - The story comes full circle from the very first episode beautifully and imaginatively.
  • character - Everyone gets a chance to shine.
  • essential - To my mind the best final episode of the franchise to date.
 
notable guest-stars:
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
Salome Jens (Female Founder)
Penny Johnson (Kasidy)
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Casey Biggs (Damar)
Marc Alaimo (Dukat)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Barry Jenner (Admiral Ross)
Deborah Lacey (Sarah)
Hana Hatae (Molly)
James Darren (Vic Fontaine)
Louise Fletcher (Winn)

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