Monday, September 25, 2017

Voyager 7x10 "Flesh and Blood, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Holograms fight for the right to exist on their own terms.

what it's all about: In the highly charged atmosphere of 2017, it's difficult to find anything that attempts to unite disparate perspectives, and yet that's Star Trek at its most ideal.  In the original series, Kirk routinely broke the rules to give alien societies a fighting chance against oppression.  Somewhere along the way, that instinct was muted, but Next Generation's "The Measure of a Man" introduced an intriguing new way to express it: via the individual, the android Data.  Voyager's holographic Doctor was a chance to broaden that expression, and "Flesh and Blood" is one of its finest attempts to explore it.

The short-hand of using holograms who look like familiar aliens, notably Bajorans and Cardassians, prominent in Deep Space Nine, calls to mind how in that series the Founders, a race of changelings, eventually created the Dominion as a means of protecting itself from a galaxy that didn't seem to understand them.  The holograms in "Flesh and Blood" are well on their way to such a destiny, but fate intervenes.  The crew of Voyager was inadvertently responsible for this situation when it gave the Hirogen these holograms to hunt.  The Hirogen greatly enhanced these holograms, to the point where things got out of hand, and suddenly these holograms were considering themselves individuals.

With a lot of additional dilemmas on their hands.  Next Generation had, in some ways, used the Borg to further explore its concept of artificial life ("Descent" helped make that clear), which Voyager itself certainly continued.  The idea of individuality proved to be a concept far more difficult to comprehend for the likes of Seven and the Doctor than anyone could have anticipated.  Seven's journey is clear enough, but the Doctor's is complicated by the fact that it was always too easy to remember that in some respects he was made up of subroutines and programming, and that if he had become something other than all that, it was something he'd earned rather than been given.  Or so it was sometimes concluded.  But what if it's a right of all life, biological or artificial?  Other holograms find it very much worth fighting for.

In the end, it's not really about who's right or who's wrong, which is a sign of the maturity of the franchise at this point, and that's as much as any other reason why "Flesh and Blood" is a pivotal moment in Voyager and Star Trek as a whole.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Grapples some big ideas, in fine tradition.
  • series - The final stop before the Doctor reaches his final catharsis in "Author, Author."
  • character - Well, so it's significant for the Doctor.
  • essential - Seems like it's not that important.  But it kind of is.
notable guest-stars:
Vaughn Armstrong

Voyager 7x9 "Flesh and Blood, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: The crew discover that the Hirogens have underestimated the holographic prey they have them in "The Killing Game."

what it's all about: An unlikely sequel leads to the epic hologram war the series finally gets around to after spending so much of its run exploring the varying ways holograms can exist and whether or not it affects the Doctor's status.

"The Killing Game" was a two-part episode in the fourth season where the Hirogen were ultimately pacified by being given seemingly the perfect solution to a species just looking for a good hunt.  "Flesh and Blood" exposes that to have been wishful thinking at best.  It's like "Space Seed" succeeded by Wrath of Khan, where Kirk learns disposing of the genetic superman on his own planet didn't somehow solve everything.  The next time the franchise attempted such a solution, Next Generation's "Ship in a Bottle," in which the brilliant Moriarty (who is a hologram, by the way) is pacified by a false solution to his yearning for freedom.  Ironically, "Ship" itself was a continuation of a similar conclusion to his first appearance, "Elementary, Dear Data."  So clearly some problems will always have complicated results.

The Doctor is once again confronted by a dilemma that forces him to argue for the rights of his people, regardless of whether or not they're behaving themselves (which itself is a freedom of speech analogy relevant to 2017) as he finds himself caught in the middle of the crew trying to help the Hirogen and the holograms striving for their own freedom.

Since this is a two-part episode, I'll refrain from drawing conclusions as to who's right in all this.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Shares in the tradition of surprising follow-ups to previous solutions.
  • series - A sequel to "The Killing Game."
  • character - The Doctor reaches an epic turning point in the fight for the rights of holograms.
  • essential - If Data and Lore had "Descent," then it's fair to say this is the Doctor's version, and it's got more on its mind.
notable guest-stars:
Vaughn Armstrong

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Discovery 1x2 "Battle at the Binary Stars"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham's actions lead to an all-out fight between Starfleet and the Klingons.

what it's all about: Essentially the second half of "The Vulcan Hello," until further episodes define just how serialized this series really is, but certainly concluding an opening story for Burnham and Discovery around her, "Battle at the Binary Stars" is perhaps most notable by how it ends, in a manner most shocking indeed...

I mentioned in my thoughts about "Vulcan Hello" how Burnham's arc in these first two episodes is like seeing things the franchise usually only talks about, except in the one other instance in which a series has begun showing exactly where a character's mindset came from (Sisko's experiences during the Battle of Wolf 359 in Deep Space Nine's pilot, "Emissary").  Next Generation's Picard had commanded a ship prior to the Enterprise (we later get a version of how his tenure aboard the Stargazer ended in "The Battle"), while his first officer Riker had distinguished himself by questioning a previous commanding officer; Voyager's Tom Paris, meanwhile, is the only other disgraced Starfleet officer to be featured as a series regular, but it's only with a different character actor Robert Duncan McNeill had played (in Next Generation's "The First Duty") where we actually saw a version of the circumstances behind what he'd done. 

There's no such ambiguity in Discovery.  This is a series that shows everything.  Not only do we see exactly what apparently happens to Burnham's career, but there are also flashbacks (Burnham as a young girl as she struggles to cope with what happened to her parents, and by whom, which is similar to Next Generation's Worf, too, who happens to be Klingon) and even a unique bond with Sarek.  Speaking of Spock's dad (it'll be interesting to see just how that's acknowledged in the series), he's another layer of how Discovery is seizing its opportunity to look at the franchise from a fresh set of eyes.  We see a unique version of the Vulcan mind-meld, complete with an explanation for it, in this episode, for instance, and even Sarek's thoughts on where he believes his strengths lie, and how he relates to those closest to him. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Rich in its examination of both Starfleet and Klingon culture.
  • series - Concludes the origin story...
  • character - Of lead character Michael Burnham.
  • essential - This is something we've often been told about before in Star Trek, but never quite gotten to actually see.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

Discovery 1x1 "The Vulcan Hello"

rating: ****

the story: Klingon radicals provoke Starfleet into a war.

what it's all about: The first new Star Trek TV show in more than a decade may seem to have reinvented the wheel, but its first episode immediately grounds the action in very familiar territory, the stuff we normally don't get to see, and that is as refreshing as new material can get.

Michael Burnham as a lead character is like the young William Riker (Next Generation) receiving his own series (or as the second episode, "Battle at the Binary Stars," will help make clear, perhaps Voyager's Tom Paris), an officer who jeopardizes their career believing they're doing the right thing.  When Riker did it, it sent a signal to his future commanding officer, Jean-Luc Picard, that he was a valuable asset as first officer.  Ironically, Burnham has that rank already when she does it.

The circumstances are actually, in this first episode, perhaps more fascinating, a return to the Klingons as the defining alien menace of the franchise.  The original series introduced them as a Cold War analogy; in Next Generation they took on new vitality as a rich and vibrant culture all their own, capable of considerable nuance and even greater fan appeal than they'd enjoyed previously.  Their appearances in the original six Kirk movies culminated in The Undiscovered Country, which built on the Next Generation appearances to not only conclude the Cold War analogy but settle once and for all whether or not they were mere enemies, or something greater.  But it was the culture more than anything that grew in that time.  In Discovery, it seems, this legacy continues to blossom.

The idea of Klingon houses is not a new one, but never before has it been featured so prominently and in such detail.  The use of the Klingon language itself, and how it sounds when employed at length, joins with the houses to create a new kind of analogy, one I would argue is more intriguing than the Cold War: these Klingons are Native Americans.  The name of the series itself calls to mind the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition, which was one of the earliest sustained contacts between the emerging American nation and the tribes on whose land it was built upon.  While the story begun in "Vulcan Hello" is not about exploration, the spirit of contention that still exists today between Americans and Native American tribes, who like the Klingons here once sought to unite under common leaders, is indeed relevant.

Burnham herself is at odds with competing natures.  She is a Starfleet officer, and yet her loyalties lie with the Vulcans who adopted her, embodied by Sarek, one of the two most famous, and original, Vulcans in Star Trek lore.  It's familiar franchise territory for Vulcan logic to be at odds with Starfleet directives, surely, but this will also be one of the most direct representations of that trend outside of T'Pol joining Archer's formative crew in Enterprise

The feel of Discovery, at least in "Vulcan Hello," seems to call on The Animated Series, the last time the franchise was truly uninhibited in its visual vision.  Great strides in that regard can be found in the last two live action series, Voyager and Enterprise, and yet nothing in them can match the mere glimpse of a truly alien, and convincingly so, being we see early in the episode.  There also seems to be something of "Beyond the Farthest Star," the first episode of The Animated Series, to how the Klingon encounter begins, and perhaps more ironically still, a callback to The Motion Picture in how Burnham finds out what her crew has really come across.  The first Star Trek movie has been accused of a lot of sins, but it's also one of the most visually imaginative adventures in the whole franchise.

This is a bold beginning.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Callbacks to Star Trek lore can be found throughout.
  • series - It's the all-important first episode.
  • series - Establishes the lead character, Michael Burnham, quite well.
  • essential - Has the feel of showing something we've never quite gotten to see before.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Voyager 7x8 "Nightingale"

rating: **

the story: Harry is given command of an alien ship.

what it's all about: This is the definitive character study of Harry Kim.  Of all the characters in the series,  he was difficult to comprehend by incredulous fans who never understood why a perfectly dependable officer never got promoted during the course of seven seasons.  Here's why.

Simply put, it's because he never understood the human element, and had never been in a position where this was exposed.  Janeway's crew functioned perfectly for having been cobbled together, but there was a reason why personnel settled where they did, and worked together as they did.  Just as Chakotay's role as first officer became redundant in a crew accustomed to sharing the burden of command under a visionary captain, everyone tended to slide into the roles that were needed.  If someone like Neelix proved ambitious, they were granted additional responsibilities.  You'll see that Harry never left his post as operations officer.  Tom Paris and Tuvok, meanwhile, did handle multiple responsibilities, and were promoted accordingly.

But more than that, it's really about Harry's self-confidence, which is exposed as being disproportionate in some areas, so that it becomes overconfidence.  That's why he's an ensign, because he's still got a lot to learn.  In a way, he really was the crew member who lost the most being lost in space.  He gained plenty of experience, but never realized what he lost in the bargain.

So that's what "Nightingale" is about, helping him realize that.  Interestingly, there's a subplot about Icheb naively believing B'Elanna has a crush on him.  Again, it's innocent inexperience that's the problem, and a rare instance in which the main and subplots of a Voyager episode reflect each other.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Won't particularly appeal to casual fans.
  • series - Apparently there was a plan to keep Harry on that alien ship, much as Neelix later split off from the crew before the end.  But obviously that didn't happen.
  • character - Harry explained.
  • essential - A darn clever way to do it, too.
notable guest-stars:
Ron Glass
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Voyager 7x7 "Body and Soul"

rating: **

the story: The Doctor seeks temporary refuge within Seven's circuits, taking over in the process.

what it's all about: "Body and Soul" is the kind of episode that can easily be dismissed as gimmicky, where Jeri Ryan (Seven) is basically being asked to impersonate Robert Picardo (the Doctor), and that's really the whole point.  There's of course a reason why it's happening, and it's relevant to the recurring subplot in the series about how holograms are interpreted by various cultures, but the way it's used this time is hugely reminiscent of the far superior "Counterpoint," and so I wouldn't go out of my way to sell in on those merits.

Instead, what's most noteworthy about the episode is how Tuvok's pon farr is the subplot.  Obviously it would've been difficult to make the main story center around it ("Amok Time" is difficult to contend with, and Voyager already had a Vulcan have a crisis over it in "Blood Fever"), but the fact that the series deals with it at all is a nice touch.  Like Kes's short lifespan stood over the early seasons as a ticking time bomb, seemingly designed to become relevant at some point (eventually in "Before and After"), Tuvok being stranded so far from home, and his wife, meant it was bound to happen eventually.  I'm glad it did.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The classic pon farr matter is once again addressed.
  • series - Seems like an episode that was done on a lark.
  • character - The Doctor and Seven are always fun to watch together.
  • essential - Not especially.
notable guest-stars:
Megan Gallagher

Voyager 7x6 "Inside Man"

rating: ****

the story: Ferengi intercept a holographic Barclay.

what it's all about: Reg Barclay in Voyager is one of the most remarkable developments of the whole franchise.  In Next Generation, Barclay was the poster boy of neurotic behavior, whose skills as an engineer always took a backseat to his latest psychological problem.  Then he starts making appearances in Voyager, and then in "Pathfinder" becomes an official member of the family as he spearheads regular communication between Voyager and Starfleet, itself a milestone development in the series. 

Ironically, as a counterpoint to his first appearance ("Hollow Pursuits"), Barclay here gains a holographic version of himself! 

"Inside Man" continues that arc while also bringing back the idea of the Ferengi as antagonists.  The Ferengi were Next Generation's first attempt at new villainous aliens.  They were quickly exposed as difficult to take seriously, and so they became progressively comedic, until in Deep Space Nine virtually every spotlight episode for Quark was played for laughs, regardless of how nuanced Ferengi society was depicted in that series. 

They'd appeared in Voyager previously ("False Profits"), but "Inside" makes a more concerted effort to return the Ferengi to their roots, when DaiMon Bok was envisioned as Picard's mortal enemy.  Here they're refashioned as essentially faceless, which is perhaps key to making the idea work.  Devious but incapable of following up on their schemes, the Ferengi in the episode are exactly what they always were, but in a situation that at last sells the concept on every level it always needed to work.  They're revealed as cowards, which is why their best bet is gambling against each other, where the façade can truly function.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - An honest-to-god attempt to redeem the original vision of the Ferengi.
  • series - Progress in communications with Starfleet!
  • character - Barclay once again proves he belongs in this family.
  • essential - For those who claim the episodic format can't handle serialized material, this is yet another example to the contrary.
notable guest-stars:
Dwight Schultz (Barclay)
Marina Sirtis (Troi)
Richard Herd (Admiral Paris)

Voyager 7x5 "Critical Care"

rating: ***

the story: The Doctor is kidnapped and forced to work in a hospital that has seriously messed up its priorities.

what it's all about: This is the Star Trek episode about healthcare, applying it so that it covers everyone equally.  Clearly it's still an issue today, and so here we have a Voyager story that is clearly evergreen and part of the franchise social message tradition.

In some ways, it's the Doctor's version of "The Most Toys," the Next Generation episode where Data is "collected" and makes an extraordinary decision to use lethal force (though he's thwarted by a timely beam-out) against his kidnapper, who has demonstrated monstrous inhumanity.  The Doctor makes a similar decision, although "Critical Care" doesn't pull its punches in the consequences, even if the results are an unambiguous happy ending, except for the Doctor, who wonders how he's reached the point where he can do something like that.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It's exactly what Star Trek is all about.
  • series - It didn't need to be a Voyager episode.
  • character - Although of course it works well as a Doctor spotlight.
  • essential - It's the one episode where the quagmire of healthcare is addressed in the franchise.
notable guest-stars:
Gregory Itzen
William Daniels

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Voyager 7x4 "Repression"

rating: ****

the story: Tuvok is used to reignite the Maquis.

what it's all about: The constant criticism that Voyager blew its premise by making peace between the Starfleet and Maquis personnel aboard ship was so often refuted in the series itself it's almost not even worth addressing, but luckily the series also liked to revisit the concept, so I get to talk about it whenever it comes up.  "Repression" is the final time this occurs, and it's perhaps the rival of the already hugely-clever "Worst Case Scenario" from the third season in how it addresses matters. 

Bajorans were a signature element of Deep Space Nine, and their struggles against Cardassians were a well-established fact, one they eventually shared with Federation rogues who called themselves the Maquis, some of whom ended up being featured in Voyager.  But "Caretaker" (the pilot) introduced a fascinating wrinkle: one of them was a counteragent.  His name was Tuvok (it's therefore appropriate to see him among a different group of revolutionaries in Deep Space Nine's Mirror Universe arc entry "Through the Looking Glass").  "Repression" is the episode that finally capitalizes on that fact.  Even this late in the series, it's still a welcome moment. 

It's not even the fact that his counteragent status is featured, but how it's featured, with a rogue Bajoran having tricked Tuvok, via conditioning, to become a counter-counteragent thanks to his Vulcan-specific mental powers.  That's exactly how thoroughly "Repression" considered the possibilities. 

Thanks to the messages the crew is able to get from home at this point in the series, the Bajoran is able to trigger Tuvok and effect one last "this is how it should have been" scenario.  It also gives Tuvok a chance to spotlight his loyalty to Janeway.  In some alternate version of the series, this would've been featured more often, but then, it would've risked fans claiming Voyager ripping off Kirk and Spock.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Deep Space Nine will appreciate the Bajoran element.
  • series - The last Maquis story.
  • character - One of Tuvok's best spotlights.
  • essential - "Last Maquis story" actually means franchise-wide, and it's an appropriate nod to everything that came before it.
notable guest-stars:
Derek McGrath (Chell)

Voyager 7x3 "Drive"

rating: ***

the story: Tom & B'Elanna join forces for a race.

what it's all about: "Drive" kind of makes clear that it isn't random when Voyager skips a major development; it seems to be by design.  The first time it happened was when Neelix and Kes split up in the third season.   Then it happens again later when Chakotay and Seven are suddenly in a relationship in the final episode ("Endgame").  So to see Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres really should be no surprise.

It makes sense, since Voyager committed itself to the traditional episodic format of the franchise, meaning that its episodes were meant to be generally standalone, understandable by themselves, even if there were continuing plotlines, and there were continuing plotlines in this series, several hugely significant ones.  The relationship between Tom and B'Elanna was one of the few to lead to a Star Trek marriage.  The only other time it happened between series regulars was Worf and Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine

The episode spends its time in a fairly innovative story, a celebratory race between former rival civilizations (which of course ends with an episodic-style crisis), which allows Tom and B'Elanna to wear fancy custom uniforms, which also helps "Drive" stand out.  The couple spends most of it hashing out their relationship, as it's one of the many things B'Elanna holds grave doubts about, but happily one where she finds resolution.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will not appreciate how this episode ends.
  • series - And yet, it explains why Voyager used this technique repeatedly.
  • character - Tom and B'Elanna marry!
  • essential - We spend seven seasons as these characters' lives evolve, but their most personal moments remain their own, something to be imagined, perhaps.
notable guest-stars:
Brian George

Monday, September 18, 2017

Voyager 7x2 "Imperfection"

rating: ***

the story: A crucial Borg implant malfunctions for Seven.

what it's all about: Icheb had already won a unique place in the annals of youth characters in Star Trek thanks to "Child's Play," his second major appearance where we learn once and for all that he's not just another teenager in the franchise, but one with a burden meant for someone far older.  As one of the "Borg children," he'd already provided Seven's arc an added dimension, additional ex-drones struggling to reclaim their lives post-Collective aboard Voyager.  Here he pushes her even further, accepting vulnerability in a way she'd never quite managed previously.

From the moment she appeared in the series, Seven was a hard case, who wore her damage more proudly than anyone in a crew full of damaged souls (that's what makes Voyager so fascinating for me; Deep Space Nine was always known as the "dark Trek," and yet it was Voyager that set out to find the Roddenberry ideal in the midst of personal tragedy).  Her story was obvious to anyone who saw her, and more obvious still to anyone who heard her.  Even worse than B'Elanna Torres, Seven just couldn't let go of what had hurt her; in fact, she seemed reluctant to let go, even as she professed an interest in making peace with her transformed world.  It took a lot of work to rediscover her humanity.  Arguably, it happens in "Imperfection."

The Borg children never quite became official drones, so that always gave Icheb a leg up in that department.  He may have retained the distinctive Borg vocal passivity (between Vulcans, Bajorans, and the Borg, Star Trek really seems to like that stuff!), but he struggled far less with integrating. 

The biggest problem Seven faces in the episode is acknowledging that.  It's how she discovers her vulnerability.  Like the Doctor before her ("Someone to Watch Over Me") Seven attempts a dubious mentorship.  Unlike her own behavior in this situation, much less the Doctor's, Seven accepts the fact that she is proven wrong, at the end of the episode.  To my mind, that makes "Imperfection" at least a rival to an episode that usually gets more fan love.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Though all about Borg mechanics, this stuff probably won't appeal to the casual fan; its points are too subtle.
  • series - They make more sense resonating with prior Voyager material.
  • character - It's a giant leap for Seven, and Icheb.
  • essential - Icheb once again proves how quickly he became indispensable to the later seasons of the series.
notable guest-stars:
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Voyager 7x1 "Unimatrix Zero, Part 1"

rating: ***

the story: Janeway's gambit to strike at the Borg from within proves challenging.

what it's all about: For a while, I didn't really appreciate what exactly "Unimatrix Zero" accomplishes.  I used to consider it as more or less Voyager's "Descent," the Next Generation two-part episode that posited the end of the Borg via accidental individuality.  I thought "Descent" thought too small.  And so did "Unimatrix Zero."

Essentially, "Zero" is about a hidden sub-Collective of drones who worked to subvert the Borg from within.  It felt like retconning Seven into being a good character all along.  Whether or not that's true, it's still fascinating, and arguably Voyager's boldest use of the Borg ever.  The Borg had become almost too powerful, maybe survivable if the conditions are right, but inherently relentless, adaptable to any challenge.  The end result of that is that the Borg will win, eventually.  It's basically the opposite of the Star Trek message. 

So "Zero" is the solution.  The problem is, it's a solution without an actual conclusion, and the next time the Borg show up, in their final chronological appearance to date, there's no indication that "Zero" had any actual effect; "Endgame," the series finale, seems to come to an entirely different conclusion as to how to deal with the Borg threat once and for all.

"Zero" posits a civil war, the ability of a drone to decide for themselves to leave the Collective.  It's the Matrix Revolutions solution, three years before that movie is even released. 

The notion of a civil war solving something in the franchise, in this series, isn't new ("The Q and the Grey"), but it's an appropriate one, in hindsight.  This is necessarily a bigger story than the crew of one ship can possibly address.  The notion of finally connecting disparate drones serving in ships across all of Borg territory is about as expansive as you can get, no matter how the story gets there.  It's the logical conclusion to the Borg narrative, certainly Voyager's singular vision of it, dating all the way back to "Unity" in the third season and including Seven's arc.  So in that sense, Seven's expanded biography becomes almost irony, but also entirely appropriate.  It's good that she reaches this point.  In a lot of ways, even if it's not the end of the Borg story, it's the culmination of Seven's.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Fans who grumble at Voyager's use of the Borg are not likely to like this.
  • series - But it makes perfect Voyager sense.
  • character - Seven's whole arc is revealed, and comes full circle.
  • essential - Regardless of what follows, this is the perfect conclusion to the Voyager Borg experience.
notable guest-stars:
Susanna Thompson (Borg Queen)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Voyager 5x26 "Equinox, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: The crew come across another displaced Starfleet ship, which has made far different ethical decisions along the way...

what it's all about: "Equinox" is basically Voyager's last word on its critics who argue that the series was too soft in its premise.  Far more than "Year of Hell," which predicted the look of the BattleStar Galactica reboot, "Equinox" predicted its spirit.  Moral compromise is no stranger to this franchise (watch Deep Space Nine's "In the Pale Moonlight"), but it's the idealism Gene Roddenberry first envisioned that should always be at its heart. That's what Voyager was about from the very beginning, a series about a crew that might've compromised its idealism but chose at every opportunity not to.  Well, there apparently was another ship that went the other way.

The true impact of "Equinox" became crystalized in the second part, the sixth season premiere that launched a whole new volley of criticism against the series that endured the whole season, once Janeway chose a response to her counterpart, Captain Ransom.  That's another episode, though. 

This one is merely the setup, in which the crew once again makes an unlikely season-ending discovery (in the spirit of "Hope and Fear" a season earlier, with that fake Starfleet supership that was going to get them home near-instantly), not just awareness of another crew but the crew itself.  That crew has a lot of famous faces in it (yet another cause for complaints, because we never do see any of them again past the second part), as you'll see in the guest-star listing.  Titus Welliver, in particular, would go on to greater exposure after appearing here, including Lost, a series that endlessly reinvented itself with basically the same premise as Voyager: being stranded in the middle of nowhere.  Just imagine if Star Trek had totally broken its model to follow a formula like that!  And ironically, Lost co-creator JJ Abrams would later initiate the big screen revamp...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Challenges fans to consider what Star Trek is really all about.
  • series - Gives the crew a stark look in the mirror.
  • character - Janeway's biggest challenge, and most personal.
  • essential - Simply put, required viewing.
notable guest-stars:
John Savage (Ransom)
Titus Welliver
Rick Worthy
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x25 "Warhead"

rating: **

the story: The Doctor inadvertently becomes tied into a weapon's AI.

what it's all about: If you really must retread familiar territory (and this is as familiar territory as can be found in the franchise, stop me if you've heard this one: the remnant of a long-ago war doesn't want to acknowledge the war is over), this is probably the way to do it.

"Warhead" is one of the many, many episodes in the series to handle artificial intelligence.  Normally, it was with other forms of holograms, but like Next Generation and Data, the allure of the concept remained potent regardless, thanks to the Doctor.  And the Doctor has one of his most unique experiences because of it: becoming the enemy!

Thankfully it's not like "Warlord," the Kes spotlight where that was quite literal, for one episode, but rather because (and not in the curious "Darkling" experience) his programming is overrun. 

The ending becomes poignant, once the eponymous warhead has detached itself from the Doctor, when it chooses to sacrifice itself rather than further endanger Voyager.  Actually, putting it like that makes the episode sound a lot like "Drone" at the start of the season.  Second episode of the season and second-to-last episode...I don't think that was particularly coincidental.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A familiar plot revisited.
  • series - Becomes somewhat more relevant to casual fans because of it.
  • character - Although the Doctor's involvement is creative.
  • essential - Even if the ending doesn't need it to work at all.

Voyager 5x24 "Relativity"

rating: ****

the story: Seven is recruited by a 29th century Starfleet officer to thwart the destruction of the ship.

what it's all about: "Relativity" is what happens when a franchise has been going a long time, and one of its signature elements, in this case time travel, becomes something that needs to be addressed in a practical manner.  And actually, you can extrapolate the entire concept of Enterprise's Temporal Cold War from this episode.  (Also worth noting: the Department of Temporal Investigations, from Deep Space Nine's "Trials and Tribble-ations.")

It's also a sequel to the third season event two-parter, "Future's End," in which the character of 29th century Starfleet officer Captain Braxton is first seen.  Thanks to these appearances, Braxton is kind of the Mudd (original series), Moriarty (Next Generation), Eddington (Deep Space Nine), or even Duras (the Enterprise one) of Voyager, someone true fans of the series will certainly appreciate but casual ones probably won't really know about.

But yeah, it's an episode with time travel, that like the later "Shattered" revisits various points in the series (an idea first featured in Next Generation's "All Good Things..."), which itself is fun to watch, but merely watching it all play out (although the basic idea is very similar to Deep Space Nine's "Visionary") is its own reward, the concept of Starfleet in the future having taken to patrolling time travel as part of its duties.  It just seems natural, once you think about it.  Two centuries after Braxton, Daniels (Enterprise) is learning time travel basics in grade school, and his involvement in the concept is even more complicated...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A statement on where all that time travel logically leads to.
  • series - Braxton returns to avenge his experience in "Future's End."
  • character - Janeway and Seven become embroiled in his plot.
  • essential - An excellent reward for franchise and series fans.
notable guest-stars:
Bruce McGill (Braxton)
Josh Clark (Carey)

Voyager 5x23 "11:59"

rating: ****

the story: Janeway remembers an ancestor's crucial involvement in a turn of the millennium project.

what it's all about: "11:59" was patently an attempt at a prestige story, and I always thought it succeeded.  Enterprise later echoed this kind of storytelling ("Carbon Creek," "First Flight"), in which a main character reflects on the past, but what makes "11:59" special is that it challenges not only Janeway's assumptions about her ancestor, but the viewer's belief that Star Trek automatically celebrates progress for the sake of progress, that it's a franchise about the cool gadgets of the future.  When it in fact has always been about people.  I admit, it's easy to mistake the core message.  When people talked about Star Trek's legacy during the 50th anniversary, all over again it was rehashed how communicators helped drive the development of today's cellphones, and how the iconic technology featured in the original series is still the stuff engineers chase today.  Fans still argue that the next movie or the next TV show ought to "go further into the future," so we can see more of that.  But that's really the dog chasing its tail.  Star Trek has become inescapable.  Of course it will have an impact like that in the real world.  It's just, that's never been the point. 

That's why a story like "11:59" is so important.  Janeway's ancestor in the story is actual two people, the woman who's played by Kate Mulgrew (of course, just like Janeway), and the man played by Kevin Tighe (surely fans of Lost will be surprised to watch this one...!).  The woman, whom Janeway thought was heavily involved in construction of a millennial tower project and went to Mars, didn't do any of that.  The man stuck his boots in the mud and wouldn't budge, the last holdout, to make way for the tower.  Together, they move aside for the project, having connected on a profound level, and...that's really the point.  It's not the fancy tower, or the fact that this was an episode kind of trading on millennial fever (it originally aired in May 1999), but the two people, who aren't involved in anything more complicated than human interaction, finding that despite their differences they have more reasons to connect than reject each other.

It's ultimately a quiet, piercing story, and quite a profound one.  It accomplishes exactly what it set out to.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Reflects the sometimes neglected heart of Star Trek.
  • series - A successful bid to present a prestige episode.
  • character - A fascinating study of Janeway.
  • essential - A deceptively simple tale.
notable guest-stars:
Kevin Tighe

Voyager 5x22 "Someone to Watch Over Me"

rating: ***

the story: The Doctor develops feelings for Seven while teaching her about relationships.

what it's all about: At least it's better than "In Theory."  That's the Next Generation episode Data finds himself in a relationship, but bungles it when his response is to build a subroutine to fake his way through it.

Some fans swear by "Someone to Watch Over Me."  It's the Pygmalion episode, one of those classic stories that seem endlessly adaptable, and the whole unrequited love ending that's so heartbreaking for the Doctor (he ain't seen nothing yet; even by the final episode of the series, "Endgame," he's had to settle for a stand-in years later, in the aborted future, while in the present it's Chakotay who finally convinces Seven to give love a chance).

The subplot about ambassadors behaving badly has been done before in the franchise, so that's there.  Take it for what it is, that kind of material.

Softening Seven was a running element of the series since she made her debut the previous season, but certainly this is one of the more concerted efforts, one where she's actually allowed to interact with others on a level that has nothing to do with having once been a Borg, but the mere fact of her inexperience, which explores an entirely different aspect of the character. 

And yes, the Doctor is the one, ironically, giving her advice.  That's actually the best part of the episode, seeing how far he's come in a half dozen years or so, how eager he's been to expand his horizons.  I think that, more than anything, is what fascinates him about Seven, what attracts him to her.  She reminds him of his own journey.  The fact that she doesn't, or can't, reciprocate is a painful reminder of that lonely journey he's really on.  And that may actually be the meaning behind the title.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will marvel over the character dynamics in this one.
  • series - If I dock the episode anywhere, it's here.  It's painful for both the Doctor and the audience that he's being rejected in such an offhand manner, since we know better than Seven does just how much that means. 
  • character - Wonderful as a spotlight for both the Doctor and Seven.
  • essential - It's that heartbreak that makes the episode so fascinating, I think.  Sometimes it needs reminding that not every story has a happy ending.
notable guest-stars:
Ian Abercrombie

Voyager 5x21 "Juggernaut"

rating: **

the story: B'Elanna tries to control her anger while dealing with repair work on a Malon ship.

what it's all about: The Malon, in the fifth season, became the second-most unlikely recurring aliens of the series (the sixth season had the "Potato Heads").  Debuting in "Night," the season premiere, they were basically galactic polluters.  Yet in "Juggernaut," it's not really polluting that defines them so much as their generally disagreeable nature.  Enter: B'Elanna.

And duck for cover!  The episode is basically an excuse to illustrate her poor temper, and how she tries to get it under control.  There are plenty of episodes that explain why she has a poor temper, but this isn't one of them; instead, we just get to see her angry for the sake of being angry, and it's actually a refreshing change of pace.  Maybe those who can't fathom having such a bad attitude won't get it, but seeing someone grapple with this as the whole point of an's cathartic. 

And, as you'll see under the guest-stars listing, there are plenty of otherwise familiar faces hiding beneath the lumpy Malon makeup, so that's certainly one of the episode's pleasures, too.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans might be baffled by the Malon phenomenon.
  • series - But it's nice continuity all the same.
  • character - B'Elanna Torres is one of the most fascinating characters in the whole franchise.  Here's an episode that doesn't even try to prove why, and she's still fascinating.
  • essential - Sure it doesn't try to resolve anything, but that doesn't mean it's not worth watching.
notable guest-stars:
Ron Canada
Lee Arenberg
Alexander Enberg

Voyager 5x20 "Think Tank"

rating: ***

the story: Smart guys try to add Seven to their brain trust.

what it's all about: "Spock's Brain" is an episode that instantly tells most fans that the topic is "worst episodes ever," and yet, I don't really subscribe to that line of reasoning.  I think it's an episode that acknowledges one of the most obvious things about the original series, which is that Spock is a valuable asset.  Like Data in Next Generation's "The Most Toys," Spock is, after a fashion, collected in the episode.  That's what happens in "Think Tank," too.  This is the episode where Seven is collected, essentially.

It's also the episode that features one of the most famous guest-stars in franchise history, a fact that somehow has gotten lost over the years.  Seinfeld was so astronomically successful that it ended up killing the idea of the sitcom, and it also killed the further careers of two of its main cast members, Michael Richards (Kramer) and Jason Alexander (George Costanza).  Now, as interesting as it would be to see Michael Richards in Star Trek (Voyager had Andy Dick, after all!), "Think Tank" doesn't feature him, but rather Jason Alexander.

Now, he was extremely successful, in a whole cast who nailed their parts, in embodying the perennially psychotically desperate George Costanza.  Even though he had roles before George, Jason became as typecast as anyone ever has (hello, George Reeves!) and failed in a string of new sitcom roles.  People just couldn't see him as anything but George Costanza.

He doesn't play George in "Think Tank," neither literally or in any way personality.  That's what makes the appearance continually fascinating, because Star Trek fans can kind of boast that they got Jason in one of his attempts to redefine his career.  I mean, they don't, but that's beside the point.  They can.  They shouldThat's the point. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - There's a whole tradition behind the idea.
  • series - The bounty hunters the smart guys use to corner the ship is one of those ideas that could only happen in Voyager (and also, later, Enterprise).
  • character - It's always nice to have someone from the cast (Seven) pointed to in a story as worthy of this sort of thing. 
  • essential - It doesn't particularly say something new about the basic idea.
notable guest-stars:
Jason Alexander
Christopher Shea

Voyager 5x19 "The Fight"

rating: **

the story: Chakotay makes unusual first contact with an alien species with hallucinations of a boxing match.

what it's all about: This is one of those purely interesting episodic adventures (it actually feels a little like Voyager attempting to explain how the Prophets in Deep Space Nine might have first encountered a corporeal being, an alternate to how Sisko does it in "Emissary") that if you didn't thinking of it as merely "the boxing episode," you could enjoy on that level alone.

Of course, it's also "the boxing episode."  It's the title and everything!  So that's probably going to be the primary way to identify it one way or another.  And fine, since the franchise has a long history of aliens confronting Starfleet officers in some manner of combat, whether Kirk and the Gorn in "Arena" or Picard and "Darmok." 

The dude doing the boxing is Chakotay, who for the first time since I think the second season is engaged in a vision quest, which in the early seasons was a defining trait of the character as well as series as a whole.  This may not be one of his most sophisticated spotlight episodes, but it's clearly a memorable one all the same.  There's also another subplot about his complicated lineage, this time a grandfather who had a cognitive disorder. 

Also highly notable is the presence of Starfleet Academy groundskeeper Boothby in his final appearance, like his previous Voyager, fifth season appearance, it's not really Boothby, but it's still a nice reminder that the character had a ton of potential for what had for years been his one and only appearance (Next Generation's "The First Duty").  Like Barclay later, he was a character Voyager saw untapped potential in, and both the series and the character were the richer for it.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will probably take notice on a number of levels.
  • series - Nothing here screams that it was absolutely necessary to be told with these particular characters.
  • character - Although of course Chakotay has a nice turn that hearkens back to his early days.
  • essential - Let's not make too big a deal about it.
notable guest-stars:
Ray Walston (Boothby)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Voyager 5x18 "Course: Oblivion"

rating: ***

the story: In this sequel to "Demon," we learn what happened to the crew's biomimetic duplicates.

what it's all about: It's incredibly rare for Star Trek to follow up on its stories.  That's just a fact.  Above and beyond serialization, to find out what happened after a given episodic adventure is just something that's never a priority, so when it does (say, Wrath of Khan), it's kind of always notable.  "Course: Oblivion" is one of those times.

"Demon" was a pretty self-contained story up until the crew allowed itself to be duplicated; originally it was just Tom and Harry, but then, once everyone figured out what was going on, the whole crew followed suit, and even the ship.  So there ended up being two Voyagers and two Voyager crews out there.  You know, realistically, there's no reason to assume every episode between "Demon" and "Course: Oblivion" actually featured the "real" crew.  That's an interesting little riddle for you.

But it gets more interesting.  Whatever original sentience might originally have existed in them, the duplicates ended up believing they were the originals, and adopted the maniacal goal of getting back "home" to Earth, too.  That makes "Course: Oblivion" a commentary on that goal just like the season premiere, "Night," and whether or not it still makes sense.  By the time this crew realizes what's going on (it's a total inverse of its predecessor, "Demon"), the debate begins whether or not they should go back to their planet of origin, press on with the journey to Earth, or...find the real Voyager.

Visually the episode kind of becomes unappealing after a while, as the crew starts to lose shape and it looks like everyone's taking a very sloppy mud bath.  All the time.  So that doesn't really work.  If you didn't know or care that there's greater resonance to all this, you could dismiss it as episodic and not particularly fun watching.  That would be a mistake.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Probably incomprehensible to casual fans.
  • series - But as a sequel to "Demon," it has a lot to offer.
  • character - Including a reflection of the mania about returning home.
  • essential - It's secretly about the premise of the series, and so it's pretty genius.

Voyager 5x17 "The Disease"

rating: **

the story: Harry is influenced by love to help out aliens trying to break away from a generational ship.

what it's all about: That whole "generational ship" thing is hugely relevant to Voyager but surprisingly not something the episode really seem to realize ("Prophecy" in the seventh season doesn't entirely miss the point, thankfully), but it's certainly worth noting as relevant to the series, and so it's entirely possible someone came up with the idea because of its implications for a Starfleet ship possibly headed to a similar future on its long way home.

Anyway, the real thrust of "The Disease" is an allegory for how love tends to screw around with your priorities, so that you don't necessarily think straight and start making questionable decisions.  Tom Paris already had an experience earlier in the season ("Thirty Days") where he made a similar questionable decision, for different reasons, so there's a certain amount of resonance in that, too.  Harry is the natural to star in this kind of episode, which again emphasizes the basic naiveté that's at the heart of the character, too young however experienced to understand that even something that seems right (again, in contrast to his pal Tom's adventures earlier) is probably still wrong (in Enterprise's "Cogenitor," Tucker does something similar for much the same reasons, but like "Thirty Days" it's an episode with more weight to it). 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Pretty standard episodic material that will sway interest not at all.
  • series - A possible glimpse at the ship's future, in some respects.
  • character - Another chance to see Harry in context.
  • essential - Misses an opportunity to drive the generational concept home.

notable guest-stars:
Charles Rocket

Voyager 5x16 "Dark Frontier, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Seven struggles to free herself from the Borg Queen's clutches.

what it's all about: The conclusion to the audacious story that seeks to expand the significance of Voyager's Borg stories, this half is all about the Borg Queen having Seven question why she gained back her individuality, and whether or not she can become the new human collaborator the Collective needs to contend with pesky humanity.

Having Seven and the Borg Queen interact so closely is a little like what First Contact teased about what we didn't see in Next Generation's "Best of Both Worlds," Picard's original experiences with the Borg Queen.  What sets "Dark Frontier" apart is, of course, that Seven spent years assimilated as an ordinary drone rather than how Picard spent a limited time as a special kind of Borg mouthpiece.  The whole thing is almost Voyager's second attempt at a major continuing arc, transforming "Scorpion" into an opening act that eventually ends with the last episode of the series, "Endgame," in which there's a final reckoning between the ship and the Borg Queen, who seems as much interested in assimilation as she is playing chess.  Like the Kazon arc of the first two seasons, it's all about mental maneuvering.  The Borg arc will continue at the end of the next season and beginning of the seventh, "Unimatrix Zero," which borrows the idea of Seven secretly working against the Borg from within, as she does here.

"Dark Frontier" is the only "event" midseason two-parter of the fifth season, but it certainly makes the most of it by tackling arguably the most ambitious story Voyager attempted with the concept.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A big Borg story.
  • series - Redefines the Borg in Voyager as a major new arc, plus gives the crew another boost homeward.
  • character - Seven steps into Picard's role and offers new insights into his experiences.
  • essential - One of the most ambitious stories of the series and, arguably, franchise.
notable guest-stars:
Susanna Thompson (Borg Queen)
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x15 "Dark Frontier, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: The Borg Queen comes calling for Seven.

what it's all about: "Dark Frontier" is likely responsible for much of fan angst over Voyager's use of the Borg. It not only brings back First Contact's Borg Queen (portrayed by a different actress), but it seems to retcon early human contact with the Collective.

Let's get the second point out of the way first.  Next Generation clearly featured a couple of traumatic early encounters with the Borg.  It's worth remembering, however, that as early as the first season, the presence of the Borg was being teased well before they made their actual first appearance.  The backstory of Seven's parents investigating the Borg, then, doesn't seem so outlandish.  Clearly their efforts ended in disaster, assimilation, and so their activities have no tangible effect on Picard's experiences with the Borg. 

The appearance of the Borg Queen seems to be more problematic, but in First Contact she makes numerous vague comments about her existence that she claims simply isn't as easy to comprehend as might be assumed.  While seeing her again might seem to cheapen Picard's victory over her (and a rather grisly death scene), it's not necessary to view it that way.  Like most fan opinions about the greater franchise, you're absolutely free to think what you like.  It's just as likely that there's a kind of DNA template the Borg Queen uses to modify new hosts; being the central figure in the Collective she's certainly entitled to such perks.  It's no stretch to assume her memory can be easily downloaded from body to body.

Anyway, "Dark Frontier" also has Janeway plan another audacious plan against the Borg, and that in itself would be problematic for some fans, even though Next Generation did that, too, which is how Picard stopped being Locutus, after all.

I choose to interpret all this, as I do all of Voyager's Borg episodes, as a wonderful continuation of a rich ongoing story about one of the franchise's most distinct elements. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The Borg are back!
  • series - Back in the franchise, back in this show!
  • character - Seven explores her backstory as she actively dreads returning to the Collective.
  • essential - Viewed by its own merits, this is rich material.
notable guest-stars:
Susanna Thompson (Borg Queen)
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x14 "Bliss"

rating: **

the story: The ship falls victim to an anomaly that feeds on the crew's fondest desires.

what it's all about: Fun fact!  This episode was written by Bill Prady, who later co-created The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom filled with characters who love stuff like Star Trek (including one episode where a classic Spock action figure allows Leonard Nimoy to make one of the most unique guest appearances ever).

Beyond that, "Bliss" is a lot like the earlier "Persistence of Vision," but even more than that, it almost seems like an ode to the classic original series episodes "The Cage" and "The Doomsday Machine," with perennial guest star W. Morgan Sheppard putting one of his best appearances as the alien who helps the crew understand what's going on as he continues battling the phenomenon himself...and deciding he'd rather continue with the experience than break free like he helps the crew.  More than the main characters, including Seven and Naomi Wildman, who technically are the featured stars of the episode, "Bliss" is in fact best viewed as a Sheppard spotlight.  The man always had one of the most unique voices ever heard in the franchise, but here he seems to have finally found the role that does it justice.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - "Bliss" is like an ode to "The Doomsday Machine" mixed with "The Cage."
  • series - It also duplicates the earlier "Persistence of Vision."
  • character - You don't really need to care that it stars Seven.
  • essential - Because it's the best franchise appearance of W. Morgan Sheppard.
notable guest-stars:
W. Morgan Sheppard
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x13 "Gravity"

rating: **

the story: Stranded on an alien world, Tuvok faces a complicated relationship with a women he meets.

what it's all about: "Gravity" is an episode that feels different, possibly because it caters to an actor (Lori Petty) more familiar with working in movies (she was the star of Tank Girl) than TV (though she's done plenty of that, too).  Some of its impact is dulled by next season's "Blink of an Eye," which also uses a planet that experiences time at an increased rate but to a more pronounced and deliberate effect.

So it really becomes a Tuvok episode.  With all due respect to everyone who argues Chakotay barely has much a role in the series, at least he got far more spotlight episodes.  Being a Vulcan in a franchise known for a particular Vulcan (Spock) and not being that Vulcan, Tuvok was always facing an uphill battle.  "Gravity" is kind of a Spock episode, but it spends its time explaining why Tuvok can't have a romance, and not so much because he's Vulcan or has a wife back home, but because of the particular circumstances in which he first embraced suppressing his emotions.  It ends with him sharing via mind meld his thought process with the would-be lover.  It's very much an episode that happens the way it does because there was a famous Vulcan before Tuvok, and so there were things that could be explored differently, and that's exactly what happens.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - You may watch this and wonder if it breaks any new ground...
  • series - Or wonder if it becomes negated by the later and more fanciful "Blink of an Eye"...
  • character - But in fact, it's a lovely Tuvok spotlight...
  • essential - That in its way helps further distinguish him from his more famous Vulcan forebear.
notable guest-stars:
Lori Petty

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Voyager 5x12 "Bride of Chaotica!"

rating: ****

the story: The holodeck adventures of Captain Proton become real when aliens who are in essence holograms themselves discover their existence...!

what it's all about: "Bride of Chaotica!" is part of a fine Star Trek tradition of farces that seem like they really shouldn't work, but they're so fun they're hard not to love.  The original series and Deep Space Nine shared one, essentially ("The Trouble with Tribbles," "Trials and Tribble-ations," respectively), while Next Generation had "A Fistful of Datas" and Enterprise "In a Mirror, Darkly."  Captain Proton had debuted at the start of the fifth season, but basing a whole episode around him worked out wonderfully.

Of course, the whole idea is based off the original filmed science fiction, serials that ended up inspiring not only Star Trek but the Star Wars saga as well.  To see a Star Trek version of it is fun little tacit acknowledgment of that fact. 

The fun of it goes in a lot of directions.  Janeway's performance as Queen Arachnia is another fifth season breakthrough for the character (it's odd to wait five seasons for something like this, where Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had their third seasons for it, but it's worth the wait, and there's still "11:59" ahead, plus the dark "Equinox" saga), a rare opportunity to see Janeway in a lighter mood.  The aliens, like Species 8472 before them (last seen earlier in the season, "In the Flesh"), come from the rarely-employed vault of beings from another dimension who have no real concept of ours.  In the process, they are yet another examination on the nature of holographic life, which Voyager explored again and again, no doubt inspired by the Doctor.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A romp in the classic tradition.
  • series - A chance to see the familiar characters in a different light.
  • character - Particularly Janeway.
  • essential - A classic romp, actually, in the classic tradition.
notable guest-stars:
Martin Rayner (Chaotica)

Voyager 5x11 "Latent Image"

rating: ****

the story: The Doctor realizes his memories have been tampered with.

what it's all about: "Latent Image" is the "Measure of a Man" of Voyager.  "Measure" was the breakthrough Next Generation episode in which Data's rights as an individual were put on trial, a second season story that was among the first moments that series proved its dramatic potential by exploring original new depths.  It came to symbolize Star Trek's concept of artificial life, and became the measuring stick by which all other such explorations were compared, and basically, fans have decided that it remains the measuring stick. 

And yet..."Latent Image" surpasses it.  In hindsight, "Measure" takes a lot of things for granted.  Data is assumed to have won his place among the hearts of his crew from the very first time we see him.  While Riker stands as opposing council in the trial, he is portrayed as distraught over the role, because he doesn't believe what he's arguing, even after he discovers what he believes is a convincing final statement.  It may or may not be worth noting that it's Riker who first encounters Data in Next Generation's pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint," and helps establish Data's Pinocchio complex for the audience. 

Voyager always presented its holographic Doctor in an uphill battle.  Unlike Data, the Doctor was originally created for a specific purpose, and there were already others of his exact model (as we have confirmed in First Contact) in service, and the only reason why he gains a measure of independence from that purpose is because there's no choice in the matter; the ship has no other medical officers once it becomes stranded in the Delta Quadrant and loses much of its original crew complement.  The more time he spends in operation, the more he's able to cultivate himself, and the more real he becomes, since he retains all his experiences.  He becomes an individual by default.

But the crew doesn't always see him that way.  "Latent Image" presents a clear dilemma.  The Doctor becomes inoperable when he agonizes over an impossible decision and can't recover from still having to make it.  The crew needs a medical officer, and can't really afford to lose the only one it has left, so a decision is made to erase his memories of the incident.  But then he's reminded of what happened, and the whole things starts over again, only this time...he knows what the crew did to him the last time.

It's the act of betrayal that deepens "Latent Image."  How far is the crew willing to go?  Janeway makes the choice to let the Doctor complete his struggle, to help give him context, to let him know that struggle is part of the experience he's gotten himself into since first going into long-term service, since becoming an individual.  The episode makes no more concrete case for whether or not all artificial lifeforms deserve the same rights the Doctor is slowly winning or that Data won, in "Measure."  In the final season, he has another massive battle on his hands in "Author, Author," not only from Alpha Quadrant denizens who have no personal familiarity with him, but once again the crew itself.  But in terms of the crew, it's something he brings on himself, while with the outsiders, it's something that touches on the greater picture at last (the suffrage movement, in essence), and their ability to know they're not alone, will be able to fight for themselves, in unison.

Anyway, the ending of "Latent Image" is the most haunting.  Janeway leaves the Doctor alone in the holodeck, reading a book about identity by Dante, and he begins to quote from it.  The image is inconclusive, but Janeway's willingness to cooperate with his struggle mirrors her efforts with Seven to break away from the Borg hive mentality, to assert her individuality.  These are deep matters, and Voyager is not typically associated with deep matters.  Episodes like "Latent Image" suggest maybe this is wrong.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The familiar struggle of Data is revisited.
  • series - Demonstrates the true depth of Voyager's storytelling.
  • character - The Doctor's finest hour.
  • essential - Where you normally expect a classic to be bold in its conclusions, this is one of them that goes in the other direction.
notable guest-stars:
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x10 "Counterpoint"

rating: ****

the story: The ship faces a series of inspections as Janeway develops an interesting relationship with the man tasked with carrying them out.

what it's all about: "Counterpoint" is one of those episodes that doesn't seem important but somehow draws attention to itself anyway, a clear example of the strength of episodic storytelling.  And yet it actually is important, the more you think about it.

Nothing that happens here has long-term ramifications.  If you never saw it you'd still understand the gist of what happens during the course of the series.  The aliens don't appear again.  No character has a major turning point or breakthrough.

And yet...It's kind of Voyager, as envisioned, in a nutshell, a ship stranded far from home forced to endure things no other Starfleet vessel is likely to experience from alien cultures it happens across, and still upholding its ideals.  In this case, shepherding embattled peoples to safety.  This was a crew constantly at the mercy of the cultures it came across, and space it couldn't easily decide to avoid if there proved to be a problem with those cultures.  The crew sought the shortest route home.  Sure, it made plenty of stops along the way, but in the grand scheme of things, if it had to take the whole original projected length of time to get home, those detours mean nothing.  They add to the crew's morale, which has infinite worth.  They get to pretend they're still an ordinary Starfleet crew.  But with complications, obviously.  Not going around problem space is justified in the same way investigating stuff is justified: if they can negotiate their way through the problems, they still uphold their Starfleet ideals, which again is the whole point of the series.

All that being said, "Counterpoint" is also an excellent examination of Janeway herself, demonstrating her cleverness in much the same way Kirk used to bluff his way through problems.  Except, Janeway's bluffing is a lot more elaborate than coming up with a fake weapon.  Again, if Voyager was all about proving the worth of Gene Roddenberry's original vision, then its solutions would necessarily mirror the kinds we'd seen before.  Kirk is an inescapable precedent; theoretically every captain that followed him would at some point have to demonstrate the same kind of cleverness he used. 

And all that aside, it's just a well-put-together episode, fully in command of itself, which is exactly what you want from a classic.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A great way to sell Voyager to a casual fan.
  • series - It demonstrates what the premise looks like on a routine basis.
  • character - Janeway shines as she outwits a man who thinks he's outsmarted her.
  • essential - This is how episodic storytelling is done.
notable guest-stars:
Mark Harelik
Randy Oglesby
Alexander Enberg (Vorik)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Voyager 5x9 "Thirty Days"

rating: ****

the story: Tom Paris tries to make sense of a sequence of events that ultimately led to losing rank and being placed in the brig.

what it's all about: There are two strands of the episode worth talking about.  The first I'll just get out of the way.  Like Next Generation's clunky "Force of Nature," "Thirty Days" is an episode about climate change.  In that sense, it remains relevant to any fan, casual or otherwise, seeking to be reminded that this is a franchise that is based on social resonance.

Okay, putting that aside, because for all that it's really much better understood as the Tom Paris spotlight it ultimately is.  Paris was one of the many (actually, it was pretty much the whole crew) characters fans never really understood.  I don't know, I guess they thought he should've been more like Han Solo, because clearly he was based on the character Robert Duncan McNeill had played in Next Generation's "The First Duty," a Starfleet washout who made a horrible decision that seemingly cost him his future.  "Thirty Days" is a chance to revisit that template, as it's all about Paris seemingly making the same mistake all over again.  This time, it's deliberately in the service of a mistake the viewing audience will no doubt willingly get behind, a Prime Directive dilemma where interfering unquestionably benefits the situation, regardless of whether or not it seems right by Janeway's standards.

But obviously, it gets him in trouble again anyway.  All the progress Paris has made since the pilot ("Caretaker") seems washed away in an instant.  He's demoted to ensign and locked up; the later last the eponymous length, while the former lasts a little longer (he and Tuvok are the only ones to receive promotions in Voyager's seven seasons, although for Paris it's reclaiming his lost rank, about a season and a half later).

So he spends the episode composing a letter to his dad, Admiral Paris.  In a lot of ways, that's the guy responsible for all his troubles, an impossible standard Paris again and again finds himself failing to follow.  But is he really?  Would Admiral Paris have been as successful in the Voyager scenario?  Would he have intervened on the behalf of a biosphere like the ocean planet, armed with clear knowledge of what to do?  In essence, Tom Paris is Jim Kirk if things didn't always work out for him.  Clearly, few enough Starfleet officers are cut out to be Kirk.  Paris is one of them.  Here's the episode that helps spell it all out.

This is also the last time we see Admiral Paris from his son's perspective.  As of "Pathfinder" next season (along with a casting change), we'll finally hear from the man himself. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A message episode in the classic tradition.
  • series - Makes sense of a main character.
  • character - That being Tom Paris.
  • essential - One of the deepest cut character studies of the whole Star Trek canon.
notable guest-stars:
Warren Munson (Admiral Paris)

Voyager 5x8 "Nothing Human"

rating: ****

the story: The Doctor struggles with the ethics of employing a consulting hologram based on a Cardassian who gained his knowledge in unethical ways.

what it's all about: As I write this review in 2017, "Nothing Human" proves itself all over again, an episode that questions the value of the past as a continuing legacy in the present.  In the Trump era, statues that have long stood in American streets commemorating Confederate soldiers like Robert E. Lee have come into the crossfires of renewed interracial conflict.  Some argue that censoring the past is akin to rewriting it.  The dilemma at the heart of "Nothing Human" is much the same.  Clearly based on barbaric Nazi practices from WWII, the episode speaks to a wide range of topics as well, as should any good morality story.  How do we draw conclusions from such things?

In the episode, the Doctor chooses what anyone would, but the episode itself proves that it's worth debating, that the existence of the consulting program was itself inherently beneficial regardless of its implications and how various personnel aboard the ship reacted to it.  This is not to say statues of Confederate soldiers are inherently repugnant to those who denounce the cause for which the Confederacy fought, or that the ends justify the means (Next Generation pursued the same medical question in "Ethics" with a lot more blunt trauma) no matter how grotesque, but that the full knowledge of the past comes with benefits that aren't so easy to dismiss.  Confederate statues ensure that we keep alive the memory of what so horribly wrong across half the United States; the consulting hologram does in fact help the Doctor save the lives of both B'Elanna Torres and the alien that had attached itself to her.  In a lot of ways, it's the Vidiian problem all over again.  In the early seasons, the crew faced the Vidiians, who developed horrible ideas of self-preservation but incredible medical knowledge along the way, some of which the crew benefited from. 

Backing away from the heaviness of the episode, it's also a deep franchise cut the series pulled off nicely.  The consulting hologram is modeled after a Cardassian, which means not only does "Nothing Human" draw from the Maquis element of the series, but the rich vein of Deep Space Nine material concerning the legacy of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, which gave that series some of its best episodes, which also tended to feature shades of grey ("Duet," for instance).  Incredibly, Deep Space Nine never managed to tell a story quite like "Nothing Human," although ironically "The Begotten," featuring a Bajoran scientist, comes closest.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Features the best of Star Trek's ability to reflect the real world's complexities.
  • series - Reminds viewers that the characters don't forget what's important to their backstory.
  • character - Arguably the Doctor's best medical spotlight.
  • essential - It's a Deep Space Nine story in Voyager.  What's not to love?

Voyager 5x7 "Infinite Regress"

rating: ***

the story: Seven embodies the lives of multiple drones before they were assimilated.

what it's all about: The plot itself can be found in the bones of other episodes, and might come off as too gimmicky to take seriously, but there's a lot of significance below the surface, which I will attempt to unpack.

The first is that "Infinite Regress" actually serves as a kind of prequel to next season's "Child's Play," in which Icheb, another former Borg drone to end up with the crew, is revealed to have an origin much like the one used to justify the gimmick here.  The gimmick, then, is another terrific expression of the ways Delta Quadrant natives react to the existence of the Borg.  Previously, and no doubt stubborn fans will cling to the idea, it might have seemed natural there was no adapting to life among the Borg, since assimilation was surely inevitable.  But dating back to the fourth season finale, "Hope and Fear," Voyager had already mined some ripe storytelling ground from the subject.  "Child's Play" doesn't seem to have been linked to "Regress," but clearly the ideas are similar, and they have considerable merit regardless, demonstrating an exceedingly clever way to turn "I, Borg" from Next Generation on its head.  In that episode, Picard inadvertently "poisons" a Borg cube's Collective (as suggested in the later "Descent," it was across the entire Collective, but the idea was later rescinded, starting with First Contact).  But if you can't damage the whole thing, surely it's worth striking out at the cubes knocking at your door.

The second is that while it may not be much of a Seven spotlight, given that nothing here really has anything to do with her so much of something she experiences (giving Jeri Ryan something interesting to do, at any rate), it's instead a wonderful follow-up for Naomi Wildman, who a few episodes earlier ("Once Upon a Time") had taken on new significance with the permanent casting of Scarlet Pomers in the role.  Naomi was part of a tradition of youthful characters in the franchise, characters with a mixed bag of results.  Age-wise she was similar to Next Generation's Alexander, but as of "Regress," she demonstrates the ambition of that series' Wesley Crusher.  Only, she's not as cloying as either of them.  Rather, Naomi manages to humanize the concept, and is the rare character who doesn't let Seven's Borg connection dominate her image.  The two end the episode bonding.  This was always the Voyager method.  If it was mostly an episodic series, where stories began and ended more or less in a single episode (aside from the first two seasons), Voyager took the original series approach of making sure the main characters always reflected in some way on how the events affected them.  If Kirk and his pals would end an episode with a quip, Voyager did it with scenes like this.  This was a crew that knew it only had each other, so there was rarely a moment lost to show it.  It gave the series a truly unheralded depth.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Interesting take on living near Borg.
  • series - Anticipates a later episode.
  • character - Advances Naomi Wildman's character.
  • essential - At its heart still pretty formulaic.
notable guest-stars:
Scarlet Powers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x6 "Timeless"

rating: ****

the story: Harry attempts to correct a mistake he made, years after it sent Voyager to its grave on a frozen world.

what it's all about: There's an episode in each of the live action series that follows a basic pattern: it's the prestige episode where someone is trying to fix something that has left them emotionally scarred.  In the original series, it was "City on the Edge of Forever" (technically Bones fits the archetype better than Kirk, who receives most of the screen time); in Next Generation, "The Inner Light" (in this case, a whole civilization justifying itself in a simulation Picard experiences); in Deep Space Nine, "The Visitor" (which set the clearest pattern for the rest of them); and Enterprise, "Twilight."  Like "Visitor" and "Twilight," "Timeless" features a main character years in the future in a sequence of events that's eventually rebooted back to the present so that they never happened.  Each of them speaks to the heart of the series from which is comes; "Visitor" is about the bond of Ben and Jake Sisko while "Twilight" is about the continuing significance of Jonathan Archer.  "Timeless" is about getting the ship home.  Voyager was always about getting the ship home. 

"Timeless" is so important to the series, the eventual final episode, "End Game," is much the same story, this time with Janeway.  In "Timeless," of course, it's Harry Kim, the eager young ensign who was always eager to prove what an excellent example of a Starfleet officer he was, the counterpoint to the Maquis, when the series began, who more than anyone demonstrated the idealism of Janeway's vision, where her ship would somehow embody a paragon of what the crew was stranded far away from, able to handle any obstacle (Harry bonds with Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres in the pilot, "Caretaker," the two biggest deviations from the standards).  So of course there's a story where he's either responsible for getting the crew home, or for all his idealism to come crashing down, and hard.

As the eternal ensign in the series, never promoted despite being a key member of Janeway's command staff, Harry took a lot of heat from fans, who saw in him the embodiment, along with Neelix and Janeway herself, of everything that was wrong with Voyager.  But there was always a reason why he was held back, and it was actually himself.  So eager to prove himself (Deep Space Nine's Bashir actually started out the same way, but grew up quickly after weathering even more drastic problems than Harry had, like a whole Dominion War, and meeting Garak, who offered an irresistible, ongoing cerebral challenge rather than simple friendship), Harry never really guessed that he took a lot of things for granted along the way.  For him, Janeway's decision was the obvious one. 

"Timeless" depicts him in his biggest crisis, having engineered what he thought was the solution home, only to get virtually the whole crew killed, except for Chakotay.  (Still trying to figure out Chakotay?  "Timeless" is another way to do so.  Like joining the Maquis, going along with Harry's mad scheme to fix his own mistake is a cause Chakotay willingly joins and supports to his fullest measure, just like aligning his Maquis crew with Janeway's Starfleet personnel.  He's basically the best ally you can ever have.  But clearly he's quite capable of reordering his priorities.)  So Harry obsessively rejects all his Starfleet ideals in order to finally break his cycle of unquestioning devotion to protocol.

These are always episodes about something bent to breaking point.  Kirk meets the girl of his dreams, but can't save her life.  Picard is forced to live a settled existence.  Jake Sisko quits on his own life in order to find a way to save his father.  T'Pol devotes her life to Archer, to whom she must retell the same events every day so he knows what's happening, having lost his short-term memory.  Harry's story is no different.

They're all "reset button" episodes, really.  Kirk succeeds in getting McCoy back.  Picard returns to his own life.  Jake and Ben undo what's happened.  As does Archer.  As does Harry.  If it's more obvious in the later examples, it's that they've become infinitely more personal.  Picard's experience isn't really his own.  Kirk's story is really McCoy's.  But this is clearly Harry's story.

Garrett Wang was routinely criticized, and as he's told it directed to act in neutral so that Neelix could better pop as an alien.  He has no better moment than when the climax of "Timeless" hits and Harry finally succeeds, at the last possible moment, of pulling off his plan.  It's one of my favorite moments in the whole franchise, and it stands out so much, in part, because it's so out of character for Harry, but in a way that makes infinite sense in context. 

Like all of these episodes, "Timeless" itself could be the only episode you see of Voyager, and it would be a worthy representation of the series, a crowning and defining moment.

The neatest thing about it is the cameo from LeVar Burton, reprising his role as Next Generation's Geordi La Forge.  In a nutshell, I think this is why Next Generation itself, having once revitalized the franchise, began to be taken for granted, not just because the movies seemed inevitable this time, but that it became almost too easy to see its characters again.  They appear in each of the three series that followed it, often in roles like Burton's, so casual they don't seem like a big deal, when it was always a big deal for an original series actor to make an appearance, even when, say, Spock was literally in a movie (The Undiscovered Country) at the same time as a new episode ("Unification").  But that shared universe concept is actually something that's gained ground since this era of Star Trek, something that was an actual draw in the Avengers movies.  It may take, er, a new generation of fans to appreciation things like Geordi showing up randomly in "Timeless." 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Follows a rich tradition of, well, truly timeless storytelling in Star Trek.
  • series - One of the episodes about getting home, and the terrible emotional cost it demands.
  • character - The definitive Harry Kim spotlight.
  • essential - It takes a character who often seemed pointless, Harry, and made him the most important character of the series.
notable guest-stars:
LeVar Burton (La Forge)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Voyager 5x5 "Once Upon a Time"

rating: ***

the story: Neelix keeps Naomi company while the crew awaits word on the fate of her mother.

what it's all about: Like Next Generation's Alexander before her, Naomi Wildman made a few appearances before her most recognizable and longest-running portrayer, Scarlet Pomers, debuted in the role.  This, then, is sort of the unofficial official debut of the character. 

After a series of heavy episodes that kicked off the season, "Once Upon a Time" is lightweight material, and it knows it, and doesn't try to be anything more than lightweight material, sort of like how Deep Space Nine followed its initial round of Dominion War episodes with a definite change of pace.  Where this might have been the slot for an episode that slipped through the cracks, merely undeveloped in comparison to its predecessors, "Once" was deliberately crafted for its role in the early season.

Young actors, and in conjunction young characters, in the franchise have a spotty record.  Next Generation found its Wesley Crusher experiment to be one of the defining elements of its uneven early seasons.  Later, Alexander was purposefully downplayed, appearing sporadically even after he'd come to live with his father, Worf.  In Deep Space Nine, Jake and Nog spent their early appearances depicted as pranksters until they'd reached maturity, at which point they moved on to mature material.  Age-wise Naomi was most similar to Alexander, and yet she was approached differently, not as a source of conflict but as the embodiment of what the crew around her might have to accept as its future: children who would be raised to replace them.  In a lot of ways, it's an idea that finally made sense of Next Generation's ship that inexplicably allowed family aboard despite the possible dangers its crew faced on a routine basis.

And you can see that play out in "Once," as it's literally about Naomi handling her mother's possible death.  It's also an episode that allows Neelix to spend time with someone who doesn't think he's as annoying as, well, the audience, who accepts him for who and what he is, including a guy who brings a lot of baggage with him.  At one point, he talks about the loss of his own family, an element of the character that seems rudely overlooked by fans. 

And yeah, it's kind of a holodeck episode, too, but the entire premise is explained well enough that this isn't really the point of the episode, for a change.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A holodeck episode that's not really about the holodeck, but about the cost of having family in the crew, a resonant topic in Star Trek.
  • series - It may not impact the course of Voyager's future, but it still has plenty going for it.
  • character - It's a Neelix spotlight, but it also explains the character of Naomi Wildman nicely.
  • essential - It's a nice reminder that this really is a series that cares about its characters.
notable guest-stars:
Scarlet Pomers (Naomi Wildman)
Nancy Hower (Samantha Wildman)
Wallace Langham

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Voyager 5x4 "In the Flesh"

rating: ****

the story: Species 8472 prepares for a confrontation with the Federation by creating a simulation of Starfleet Academy.

what it's all about: Species 8472, in a lot of ways, became the version of the Borg that successfully accomplished a splashy entrance and a definitive exit.  Debuting in "Scorpion," these were a dangerous new foe that first announced themselves as such by putting the Borg on the defensive.  They were also the franchise's first all-CGI aliens, and as such were notable on that score alone.  "In the Flesh" cleverly depicts them disguised as humans so that the communication barrier could be crossed.  And in a lot of ways, it's kind of a one-episode version of Enterprise's later Xindi arc, which encompassed a whole season.

They're also much like the paranoid Founders in Deep Space Nine; Species 8472 considered infiltration as a tactic against their potential enemies, just as certain that the only intention of a rival power would be hostile.  And yet, in the greatest diplomatic coup of the series (with Chakotay providing the legwork), peace is achieved through negotiation, which is itself another wonderful callback to "Scorpion," and symbolic of Star Trek's highest ideals.  A lot of fans drawn to the franchise in the '90s completely missed the point and assumed it was just another sci-fi platform, which at that time was beginning to blossom anew, most of it with a much bleaker outlook, an excuse for Star Wars action scenes.  While there's definitely room for that, Star Trek has always been about the cerebral, human aspects of the genre.

But the neatest thing about the episode is really the presence of Boothby, the kindly groundskeeper first seen in Next Generation's "The First Duty," who was described as a friend to all cadets.  Even though it's not really Boothby, it's another great callback, and helps drive home how significant he really was, not just for Picard but as a presence in general, a hidden source of inspiration for all emerging Starfleet officers.  In "The Fight," later in the season, we'd get a chance to see him one more time.

All in all, this was some of the most clever storytelling of the whole series.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Lives up to Star Trek's ideals.
  • series - A definitive conclusion for Species 8472 that looks beyond the obvious.
  • character - Fleshes out the appeal of the Starfleet Academy groundskeeper Boothby.
  • essential - A truly unexpected but entirely perfect concept.
notable guest-stars:
Ray Walston (Boothby)
Tucker Smallwood
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