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.
- 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.
Derek McGrath (Chell)