Sunday, July 23, 2017

Voyager 3x3 "The Chute"

rating: **

the story: Harry and Paris end up in an alien prison.

what it's all about: "The Chute" is certainly not groundbreaking in any way.  It's part of a tradition of episodes where Starfleet personnel end up in, well, an alien prison.  So it's one of those.

But there are still a few things that make it interesting.  One of the least interesting of those is the fact that Neelix's old ship makes an appearance.  Surprisingly, that ship saw very little action in the series, when you'd think, and probably a lot of other producers would've gone that way, that it would've been used heavily, maybe even as a signature ship in the series.  And actually, they end up building a totally different companion ship, the Delta Flyer, later.  So there's that.

There's also Robert Pine guest-starring.  Robert Pine, right?  Woo!  Except, Pine is the father of Chris Pine, the second-ever actor to play Kirk, in the Abrams movies.  So that's pretty cool!  He makes a second appearance in the franchise, too (Enterprise's "Fusion").

Okay, okay.  So what makes this episode really interesting?  Aside from the friendship of Harry and Paris more or less in the spotlight?  (Because the alien prison kind of makes them turn on each other.)  It's the alien prison.  Being in space.  It's a kind of space station alien prison.  It's a reveal they work toward, and it's pretty awesome.  It's one of the most memorable reveals in any episode in the whole franchise. 

So now you know what's interesting about "The Chute."

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Joins the alien prison trope tradition.
  • series - Has no specific significance.
  • character - Seeing Harry and Paris experience this mess together is a reminder that actual friendships in this franchise rarely get episodes where they're in the spotlight.  (Aside from every episode of the original series, I guess.)
  • essential - Not especially.
notable guest-stars:
Robert Pine
James Parks

Friday, July 21, 2017

Voyager 3x2 "Flashback"

rating: ****

the story: Tuvok suffers visions that lead him and Janeway to his experiences aboard Sulu's Excelsior.

what it's all about: As celebrations of the franchise's 30th anniversary go, Deep Space Nine's "Trials and Tribble-ations" usually steals the thunder.  "Tribble-ations" incorporates actual footage from the classic "Trouble with Tribbles."  It's really hard to beat.  But "Flashback" is a more than worthy contender.  Like "Tribble-ations" it draws direct inspiration from previous material; in this case it's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which in 1996 was a mere five years ago.  (Enterprise's "Judgment" later drew from the Klingon penal customs as seen in the movie, by the way.)  George Takei and his admirers had been vocal about a Sulu TV series; they would have to settle for one last TV appearance, the same most of his original series colleagues (except for Nichelle Nichols, who unlike Walter Koenig didn't even get a plush cameo in something like Star Trek Generations) enjoyed in years previous.

The episode, as suggested in my brief summary, draws on Sulu's scenes aboard the Excelsior in Undiscovered Country, when the ship monitors the destruction of Praxis.  We get to spend a little more time with familiar faces glimpsed in the movie, plus Takei and Grace Lee Whitney (Rand), as well as a bonus from Michael Ansara's Kang, last seen in Deep Space Nine's "Crossover," retroactively his first chronological appearance in full Klingon prosthetics. 

But putting all that aside, it's a fascinating glimpse at Tuvok's backstory.  Apparently he'd left a previous term of service in Starfleet before returning many decades later in an era that better suited him (ironically).  It's also, after "Meld," his best chance to exhibit the classic Vulcan mind-bridging technique, which seems appropriate for the occasion.

If there's a sour note in the episode, it's the rough child performance that's kind of at the heart of the story, which recurs horribly at the end.  Still, easy to sidestep given the rich window dressing.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will appreciate the look back at Sulu's command.
  • series - A rare look into the past of a main character.
  • character - Which is of course Tuvok.
  • essential - Like its better-known counterpart, "Trials and Tribble-ations," "Flashback" is a wonderful nod at the history of the franchise.
notable guest-stars:
George Takei (Sulu)
Grace Lee Whitney (Rand)
Michael Ansara (Kang)   

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Voyager 3x1 "Basics, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: The crew survives being marooned long enough for Paris, the Doctor, and Suder to retake the ship from Seska and the Kazon.

what it's all about: The big shift in storytelling from the second to third seasons is evident in how little Chakotay is involved in events.  This was literally the culmination of an arc that directly involved him, even as late as the first part of the story, which was also the second season finale, where Seska tries fooling him into thinking she's having his baby.  That's how the crisis began.  How it ends is almost a letdown, but it's also still one of the biggest stories the series ever attempted, and the closest the crew ever came to actually losing the ship. 

So the irony is that the dramatic heft of "Part 2" falls to Suder, the character who debuted in "Meld" and whose struggle to get control of himself while being asked to do everything that would otherwise make him lose it...basically it's the closest Voyager ever came to doing a Deep Space Nine story, focusing on a guest character at the expense of the main cast.  In "Meld" Suder at least had a strong counterpoint in Tuvok.  Here he's working alongside the Doctor, who's constantly at risk of being deactivated the invaders, which of course happens, which means Suder really is all alone this time. 

Watching the crew survive various manufactured crises on the planet is actually a huge drawback for the episode.  It's completely unnecessary, one of those times the producers wrongly assumed the first problem (being marooned) wasn't big enough (another would be Enterprise's "The Catwalk," where the crew being holed up in one of the nacelles to survive a storm wasn't somehow enough; Star Trek can really be scared of just letting human drama play out), so they piled on plot points that could just as easily have been entirely unrelated episodes, and should have. 

Anyway, aside from Suder there's of course Seska, because that's really what the story was about, finally concluding her arc.  Predictably, her Kazon lover feels no real qualms of moving on without her once everything blows up in their faces.  It's a shame we never saw him or Seska's baby again.  Would've at least given Chakotay another fantastic character moment.  But "Part 2" feels like it's deliberately moving on from prior storytelling because it is, much like Enterprise would hastily conclude its long-running Temporal Cold War arc, bowing to the pressure of apathetic (or maybe just pathetic) fan complaints about how things had been going.  Those same fans would nonsensically complain that serialization vanished from Voyager, or seriously claim it was never there.  Yeah.  Okay.

The good news is that when it counts, the episode feels epic, in ways later two-part event episodes frequently struggled to match.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Concludes one of the longest arcs in Star Trek history.
  • series - So by necessity is a defining Voyager moment.
  • character - Suder and Seska drive this episode.
  • essential - The first big climax of the series.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)
Brad Dourif (Suder)
Anthony De Longis (Culluh)
Nancy Hower (Samantha Wildman)
Simon Billig (Hogan)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Voyager 1x16 "Learning Curve"

rating: ****

the story: Tuvok runs a class for delinquent former Maquis.

what it's all about: Somehow "Learning Curve" became known as a knockoff of Next Generation's "Lower Decks."  Both episodes involve officers struggling to find their place in the crew.  For that matter, Voyager's own later "Good Shepherd" follows that mold, too.  Yet each episode approaches the same basic story from a unique perspective, and told for different reasons, and reach their own conclusions.

"Curve" is arguably the most significant of them for one very good reason: like a lot of Voyager first season episodes, it tackles one of the enduring criticisms of the series right from the start.  In this case, it's that the "Maquis problem" was never properly solved. The Maquis problem is much like "Ferengi episode" in Deep Space Nine: a problem in the cynical eye of the beholder, much ado about nothing from fans who just wanted to complain.  There was never a Maquis problem in the series, to be clear.  Right from the start, the series made it clear how and why Maquis rebels ended up joining a Starfleet crew.  For anyone who still didn't understand after the pilot ("Caretaker"), the first regular episode of the series ("Parallax") explained all over again, and then another ("State of Flux") gave those fans what they wanted (a former Maquis rebel betraying the crew).  Finally, "Curve" explains what happens to the stragglers.

Of course there would be stragglers, those who felt left behind and had trouble integrating. The task of finishing the job falls to Tuvok, which is an irony, given that he'd been secretly embedded in their crew by Starfleet, one of the best twists of the pilot.  Being a Vulcan, he's the perfect character to represent this situation, choked up with logic when the only solution is what Tuvok uniquely achieved for Vulcans, the ability to be logical and also be rebellious at the same time, which cropped up in the series time and again (previously and quite brilliantly in "Prime Factors").

Perhaps the best scene, however, belongs to Chakotay, who once and for all settles the question of how he ended up towing the Starfleet line.  He was one of the Maquis (and the unit's captain) who'd served in Starfleet before joining the rebellion.  One of Tuvok's students asks Chakotay why they can't just continue behaving like the Maquis, and Chakotay responds in the most brutal and straightforward, unmistakable manner possible: he punches him, calling that the Maquis way, which not only settles the matter but also explaining the inherent efficiency and authority of Chakotay, why he eventually faded into the background, because he prefers things running smoothly.  When a crisis happens and certainly when it affects him personally, you'll know it (the Seska crisis from "State of Flux" and the second season, for instance).  It's the character in a nutshell, and absolutely pitch-perfect. 

The only real downside of "Curve" is that it introduces a Bolian who would've been great fun to see pop up in a recurring role the rest of the series, but Chell only appears once more ("Repression") and then referenced as replacing Neelix in the mess hall.  Bolians are one of the most distinctive aliens of the Next Generation era, and yet they never quite got their due.  It would've been nice, is all I'm saying.

That this ended up as the first season finale, despite that not being the original intention of the producers, is a matter of serendipity.  Not only does it allow the second season to open with "The 37s," with its powerful moment of the crew deciding to remain together rather than split apart and colonize a planet, but it gives that wonderful sense of closure for the Maquis problem.  Not that there was one, as "Curve" once and for all proves.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Part of a tradition of exploring minor crew members.
  • series - Finally explains the different mentalities of the Maquis and Starfleet.
  • character - Technically it's Tuvok in the spotlight, but Chakotay steals it.
  • essential - A quiet way to make history, but it happens all the same.
notable guest-stars:
Derek McGrath (Chell)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Voyager 1x15 "Jetrel"

rating: ****

the story: Neelix is confronted by the scientist responsible for a horrific weapon used against his people in a devastating war.

what it's all about: It's really quite alarming how Neelix became the Jar Jar Binks of Voyager, used as a poster child for everything that was wrong with the series.  He was considered too obnoxious, and that was pretty much all anyone who hated him and/or the series had to say.  People who either purposefully reduced his character to the basics anyone would've seen watching scraps here and there, or...I don't really know another way it could've happened.

"Jetrel" is another bold first season episode that flatly contradicts the general perception of Voyager, whether from its early years or throughout its run.  It explains Neelix's backstory in stark terms that are rare in the franchise, so that he's no longer the random passenger taken aboard in the pilot because of circumstances, but actually has a tragic reason for why he was meandering through space to begin with.  Especially, again, when you take into account the effect or even the effect of the effect the Borg had in the Delta Quadrant, the sad tales of aliens to be found throughout Voyager makes perfect sense, and there's really no more important sad tale than Neelix's, so to have a whole episode dedicated to it, right at the start, is startling foresight for a series everyone always claims didn't think anything through...

Anyway, "Jetrel" has echoes of "The Conscience of the King" in it, and is also a touchstone for Enterprise's later "Stratagem," setting during its third season Xindi arc.  The idea itself is hardly unique, but having Neelix once again contradict the impression he usually gives as unfailingly congenial (we first saw this in "Phage," and will again in the harrowing "Mortal Coil") is compelling in terms of character depth.  There's often a reason why people who seem happy all the time are so eager to project that image, which never seems to crack.  It's not even about the clown crying on the inside, but that Neelix has so many reasons to focus on the positive rather than the negative, and "Jetrel" most of all explains that: he's never really convinced by his performance, either.  So he spends all his time defying his impulses, which is why he's such a natural foil for Tuvok, not because they're opposites but because they're so much alike.  It's just, Neelix has found a way to keep his emotions.  He risks more but he's also capable of grand gestures like realizing the scientist whom he should revile deserves compassion.

It's a shame that we didn't see more Talaxians in the series, but it makes sense.  Neelix represents them well.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The familiar trope of the man behind a terrible event being exposed.
  • series - Gives a context to Neelix.
  • character - Gives Neelix some of his best material.
  • essential - It helps explain a lot of fans tend to overlook about Neelix.
notable guest-stars:
James Sloyan

Friday, July 14, 2017

Voyager 1x14 "Faces"

rating: ****

the story: B'Elanna Torres is split by the Vidiians into her Klingon and human halves.

what it's all about: "Faces" ought to be remembered in the same league as Deep Space Nine's "Duet," at the very least, an unexpectedly deep first season episode.  It's another of Voyager's first season knockouts, at any rate, proof that the series started out as boldly as it could, in a lot of ways setting a mark that would be difficult to reach in later seasons.  If fans want to question any of that, it's their own problem.

In the vein of "The Enemy Within" from the original series, "Faces" finds an excuse to split a character into two individuals, but this time it's an intense character study featuring Voyager's most fascinating conundrum, the half-Klingon who seemingly retread ground covered by Spock and Worf before her but who somehow continually made the results fascinating.  Torres had already reconciled her Maquis allegiances to her new Starfleet status in "Parallax," the first regular episode of the series, and then somehow does a good turn one better. 

While Spock (half Vulcan, half human) and Worf (all Klingon, raised by humans) had struggled with finding their place in society, Torres struggled first and foremost with accepting herself.  The Vidiians, who might've been a one-off wonder in "Phage," provide a handy excuse for Torres to confront her anxieties in the most literal way possible.

Apparently there were quibbles with the ending, with how the crew approaches the reunited Torres, but any other choice than the quiet one where she has to try and figure it out for herself would've robbed Torres of everything she'd gained and would continue to tackle ("Lineage," for instance), with an equally classic mirror in the later Doctor spotlight "Latent Image," which features an equally ambiguous conclusion.

Brian Markinson has one of the most unique guest-spots in franchise history, playing both a fellow Starfleet captive and the Vidiian scientist holding them prisoner (with a grim twist explaining why).  The producers were clever enough to insert Markinson into the prior episode ("Cathexis") to help set it up.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Giving the Star Trek theme of mixed identity a bold new spin.
  • series - Officially dubbing the Vidiians a Voyager classic species.
  • character - B'Elanna Torres sets the bar very, very high.
  • essential - See above.
notable guest-stars:
Brian Markinson
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