Monday, September 4, 2017

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)

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