the story: Aliens debate whether or not they come from Earth.
what it's all about: This is a franchise-best episode. It's perfect, symbolizing the intellectual ideals the typified the cerebral aspects Gene Roddenberry first envisioned for Star Trek and that caused him so many hassles with NBC in the beginning. I'm not saying it's the best episode ever, but it's surely in contention.
That it actually features the aliens-of-the-week almost exclusively, a unique quality that helps set the episode apart, is not a knock on Voyager, that the series could only achieve this by not really being the focus of the story, because "Distant Origin" also happens to be one of the perfect spotlights of Chakotay, demonstrating once and for all how the character as he once and always was could sell any concept. A lot like Next Generation's Picard, he exhibited a dignity that transcended all contexts. Actually, if you're still struggling to understand Chakotay, imagine him as Picard, the Picard who in "Tapestry" took Q's bargain and never became captain, whose lot was to be perennially "overlooked," just this time as a first officer in a series that more often than not didn't really appreciate what it had in him.
But as much as his presence grounds it, "Distant Origin" isn't really about Chakotay, but rather an allegorical look at the frustrations of progress, how society tends to grind ideological progress into the dust, whether it's governments or ordinary citizens more than willing to sell out their fellow man. Star Trek has featured many trials over the years, and more than a few where the verdict was determined beforehand, but the one here stands out, again, because it's not even a main character on the stand, or even someone we've seen before or ever will again; this is as pure an episodic story as you're ever likely to see in the franchise.
The episode features a few other interesting elements besides. One of them is a link back to the season premiere, "Basics, Part 2," in which recurring character Hogan meets his fate. Actually, this is his fate, in which his corpse is used as the primary evidence in the trial. Surely this is the most fascinating fate of any character in franchise history, another heretofore unrealized culmination of Star Trek ideals.
But the aliens themselves are fascinating in a particular regard: they're descended from dinosaurs. I'm convinced that if the episode had better publicity, it could draw a lot of new attention to not only Voyager but Star Trek in general. Dinosaurs remain subjects of incredible public fascination. They existed long before humans, and so technically everything we know about them is total conjecture based on skeletal remains, and as such represents one of the most pure popular intellectual pursuits in history. The funny thing is, we had no idea they existed at all for most of our history, and only found out two hundred years ago, but as demonstrated by Jurassic World, the latest blockbuster film inspired by Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, their appeal remains firmly intact.
To suggest that they weren't all wiped out by the Yucatan Peninsula asteroid impact, that some of them were taken into space and later evolved into lifeforms much like us...surely that's just begging for attention. That Voyager featured these dinosaur aliens once is one of the perfect examples of the series concept, that this really was a ship that passing through unknown space and not likely to spend too much time near any particular civilization, a concept the third season was meant to advance after the previous two featured the Kazon for such an extended period. Many fans envision the franchise ideal to keep leaping into the future, to see fancy new technology, but it's always the unknown and how we approach it, and how that unknown reflects the known, that's always at the heart of Star Trek.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a better example than "Distant Origin."
- franchise - One of the best examples of the Star Trek ideal you'll ever find.
- series - One of the best standalone episodes of Voyager both in concept and execution.
- character - One of the best Chakotay spotlights.
- essential - Just...one of the best episodes. Period.