Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Voyager 3x24 "Displaced"

rating: (no stars)

the story: Aliens slowly transport the crew off the ship and claim it for themselves.

what it's all about: This is my idea of what makes the worst episodes of the franchise.  It's's an interesting idea, but it's executed with absolutely no conviction.  It's idiotic in the sense that the whole crew is taken out before anyone realizes something kind of needs to be done.  And then they do something and get the ship back and...

So it's idiotic.  It's an episode that screams for someone, anyone, to grab the spotlight, and not just leave it up to a "team experience."  It's entirely generic in every regard.  You could enjoy it, on that level, but then, your standards are apparently so low you'll like anything.  No offense. 

If you're going to tell a generic story in a franchise that has hundreds of stories, you need something to make it stand out.  "Displaced" doesn't have anything like that.  It's an episode that happens mostly because the producers needed another episode, and they didn't particularly care about its quality. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - So generic you'll like it, but you ought to hate yourself for it.
  • series - This is not a knock on Voyager itself, but as the fourth live action series, this was probably bound to happen every now and then.
  • character - A team effort in which no one stands out, and neither does the team.
  • essential - Quite the opposite.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Voyager 3x23 "Distant Origin"

rating: ****

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."

criteria analysis:
  • 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 - of the best episodes.   Period. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Voyager 3x22 "Real Life"

rating: ***

the story: The Doctor creates a family for himself on the holodeck.

what it's all about: "Darkling" and "Real Life" are two completely different episodes, but for a number of reasons.  "Darkling" is a story about the Doctor tinkering with his own programming.  "Real Life" is the Doctor tinkering with a personal life.  In both episodes, things go awry (because that's what happens in these sorts of things).  In "Darkling," it's episodic logic.  In "Real Life," there's the sense that the events really matter to the Doctor, that he actually learns something, and that's the key difference, why one is weightier than the other.

The family he creates on the holodeck starts out ridiculously perfect.  It's the '50s sitcom perfect family.  The mistake he makes is inviting B'Elanna to dinner.  A character who knows all about a broken home life (the later "Lineage," which certainly makes it interesting that the Doctor's holographic son hangs out with "wrong crowd" Klingons, which aside from the lack of comment in the episode about what this would mean to B'Elanna, is one of the nicer continuity touches in the whole franchise), she suggests changes that make the family grittier, to such an overwhelming extent that the Doctor no longer recognizes it. 

The rest of the episode is the Doctor trying to come to grips with how complicated his simulated life has become.  It's interesting, because this is a character who has always been shielded from anything like this, and not just because he was created for a specific purpose, but because he continued to keep himself relatively isolated, even after obtaining the mobile emitter earlier in the season.  Fans hate to admit it, but he becomes a version of Next Generation's Data who doesn't just get immediate acceptance from everyone else (at least in Picard's crew).  The Doctor famously has a caustic personality that keeps others at a distance.  B'Elanna effectively forces him to face what he's long denied himself.

That we never see this family again, and can therefore assumed he quit the program, does nothing to diminish the impact of the episode.  It's the first step in a long journey for the Doctor, one that includes plenty of other bumps, which again is something Data never really had to experience.  It's a soft push in the direction that led to the masterpiece "Latent Image," and to a slightly lesser extent, "Author, Author."

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Deepens the echo of Mr. Data.
  • series - Its somewhat disconnected nature makes the episode seem unrelated to later developments.
  • character - The Doctor gets his first massive dose of reality.
  • essential - If disconnected, it's also his first step into still deeper and more profound echoes.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Voyager 3x21 "Before and After"

rating: ***

the story: Kes keeps jumping backward through her life.

what it's all about: I think in the final analysis, Jennifer Lien was miscast as Kes.  The same went for Denise Crosby's Tasha Yar in Next Generation, so it wouldn't have been a franchise first.  Lien made Kes such a warm figure, it was tough to view her as the yearning girl she was meant to be.  She ended up feeling a little like Janeway Junior (Lien and Kate Mulgrew speak much the same way), too confident in a role where doubt ought to have been a defining factor.  Except where Janeway had a whole crew to draw on and use as an excuse to mask her limitations, Kes went almost immediately to a sheltered corner of the ship, where she never really emerged, certainly not in the way her one-time beau Neelix did.  While it did wonders for the Doctor's self-confidence, it left Kes herself at a constant crossroads.  A character meant to live for about the lifespan of a Star Trek series (at that time) thusly had nowhere to go, because she'd already gotten there, and far sooner than the rest of the crew.  Even Chakotay had two full seasons to shine before shrinking backward.

All of which is to say, if you like Kes anyway, "Before and After" is one of the episodes that defines her legacy.  It starts in the future, and clearly an alternate one in hindsight, in which she married Tom Paris (who in reality marries B'Elanna, a relationship that had actually begun five episodes earlier in "Blood Fever," so that was an odd choice, certainly) and attempted to have a procedure performed to expand her lifespan.  Except things go wrong and she, well, as I said above, starts jumping backward in time.  It's a little like Next Generation's "Parallels;" both Worf and Kes keep jumping into their own bodies, but with everything shuffled around them. 

It's the one episode that really focuses on Kes's lifespan, even though that was written into the character's biography at the start of the series; surely if the crew is concerned about getting home, and Odo in Deep Space Nine from the start obsesses over his origins, Kes would have been looking for ways to expand her biological and not just mental potential all along.  She's set up in the pilot as challenging every norm of the Ocampa.  But we never really see that.  Finally experiencing it here is another sign that the third season was a reboot for the series, going back and looking at what have been neglected previously.  Ironically, the serialized storytelling of the first two seasons switched to episodic material in the third, but that seemed to bring greater focus to most of the characters.

Anyway, the real series draw for fans has nothing to do with Kes at all, but rather a big fat hook for a future two-part episode, "Year of Hell," which occurs in the fourth season.  "Year of Hell" is basically what some fans expected Voyager as a whole to look like, and what Ron Moore later delivered in his Battlestar Galactica remake, in which conditions progressively deteriorate.  While Kes is traveling back, she mentions this event as something the crew ought to look out for, but of course, much like "Year of Hell" itself, "Before and After" ends basically with a reboot.  It's all a massive tease.  With Kes, it's a chance, as it turns out, to see what might have been, had she actually stuck around the whole series.  With everyone actually paying attention to her, things look beter than they ever had or would again...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - This is a Voyager affair, best enjoyed by its fans.
  • series - An extremely clever way to set up the later "Year of Hell."
  • character - The most direct spotlight Kes ever had.
  • essential - Everything that Kes never got to experience, in any sense, happens here, so if you like the character, it's a can't-miss.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Voyager 3x20 "Favorite Son"

rating: ***

the story: Harry seems to have come from another planet, and all the women there are eager for his return.

what it's all about: Normally I try to give a fairly serious one-sentence synopsis, but there was no way I was going to edit one that sounds like it's mocking poor Harry Kim.  Harry was a character who tended to get the least personal stories ("Timeless" being a massive exception), mostly because the whole point of his character was to be the eager young officer who is unfazed by the circumstances in which he serves.  "Non Sequitur" was the closest the series would ever get to explaining his potential outside of this crew, and it did so brilliantly, demonstrating once and for all just how much events shaped perception of his character.  But "Favorite Son" is all about how his eagerness was in fact a massive liability.

It's not so much the story itself that explains this, but that it happened to him of all the characters in the show, and that it seems so typical.  The idea of an alien culture using questionable means to beef up its population is hardly a fresh one (Harry experiences this himself all over again in "Ashes to Ashes"), but it always seems to be fresh.  This time it seems like a riff on the Greek sirens, beautiful women luring men to their doom.  Anyway, I like how the whole thing plays out, and how it causes Harry to question whether any of what he's being told is actually true, and that it forces him to wonder whether everything he knows about himself has a reason he could never have imagined.  The latter is basically a means to explore what I was talking about earlier, that giant chip on his shoulder no one seems capable of addressing.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A familiar if lightly-employed trope makes this one fun for casual fans.
  • series - Its recurrence in a later season, and once again experienced by Harry, makes it more relevant than you might think.
  • character - A wonderful character examination of Harry Kim.
  • essential - I'll draw the line here.  This would've been true if the lies had been real.
notable guest-stars:
Kristanna Loken

Monday, August 14, 2017

Voyager 3x19 "Rise"

rating: ***

the story: Tuvok and Neelix end up trapped together in an elevator full of aliens, and one of them is a saboteur.

what it's all about: I know I call it an elevator in the one-line synopsis above, but the technology at the heart of "Rise" is more complicated than that, and one of my favorites from the whole franchise.  Some fans love the Dyson spheres from Next Generation's "Relics," but the maglev space elevator is a great concept: it's basically like a cable car that travels through the atmosphere from the surface of the planet and provides convenient, safe transportation into space.  Safe, unless there's a saboteur!

The mystery that's technically the story here is fun, but it's also a little beside the point.  "Rise" is a Tuvok/Neelix episode first and foremost.  After "Tuvix" last season (which technically didn't feature them so much as an individual who combined them), it's the first time they have a spotlight, which was far too rare and far too crucial a character dynamic in the series to overlook.  One of the hallmarks of Star Trek is the love/hate relationship, dating back to Spock and Bones.  Spock found Bones archaic; Tuvok finds Neelix downright irrational, basically the opposite of a Vulcan.  Neelix at this point has been struggling to suppress (if only Tuvok knew...) his constant insecurities, but "Rise" is a whole episode where he gets to assert himself.  Tuvok really was the best thing that ever happened to him.  He's the challenge that's so direct, Neelix has no choice but to confront him all the time, rather than let the problem fester, which is usually what he does.  In "Rise," he demands respect from Tuvok, because he's finally found a situation where he has immediate qualifications Tuvok can't doubt or overlook: Talaxians had maglev space elevators, too.

It's ironic, really, as Neelix just six episodes earlier ("Fair Trade") believed he'd run out of useful information to share with the crew.  Unlike "Darkling," the Doctor spotlight immediately preceding "Rise," this doesn't mean the producers overlooked storytelling logic in the rush to conceive episodic material.  "Darkling" is contradicted and superseded by the later "Real Life;" "Rise" actually strengthens "Fair Trade."

It's one of the best episodes of the third season, where cool concepts were beginning to dominate the storytelling ethos.  "Rise" might not have much to say about where the crew was headed, but it's an all-around pleasure that deepens the whole experience, all while seemingly telling a completely routine franchise tale.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Love/hate relationships in Star Trek are legion, and this is an episode that explores one particularly well.
  • series - Unlike other season standouts, it doesn't necessarily impact the future.
  • character - Tuvok and Neelix have one of their perfect moments.
  • essential - A perfect episodic experience.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Voyager 3x18 "Darkling"

rating: *

the story: The Doctor tampers with his program and inadvertently creates an evil subprogram.

what it's all about: The oddest thing about "Darkling" is that it's so similar to the later "Real Life" and yet they exist totally exclusive to each other, so that the Doctor seems to have learned nothing at all from this experience.  It's the very definition of episodic storytelling, "Darkling" more than "Life."  In "Darkling," the whole plot can be boiled down more to a pastiche on Jekyll and Hyde than a story about the Doctor.

But, technically, it's a story about the Doctor.  Oddly, he becomes jealous of someone Kes fancies (some dude who runs around with a terrible wig, alas).  He'd had a wonderful relationship with Kes (the Doctor, I mean) for much of the series to this point, Kes being about the only person who took him seriously.  To drop a potential romance into this relationship seems like a horrible misstep.  Later, when the same idea is attempted with Seven, it works better, because the relationship is different from the start.

So, rather than recommend it on the basis of the Doctor, I will remind the viewer that the franchise has done this sort of thing before ("The Enemy Within"), and sort of leave it at that.  Making the Doctor a villain based on corrupted programming is such a slippery slope.  It's not the first and not the last time his programming leave him vulnerable, but it's the least inviting. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - An episode perhaps best enjoyed by the casual fan.
  • series - Later developments seem to ignore this ever happened.
  • character - See the above statement, an extremely odd thing to say about a Doctor spotlight.
  • essential - If the season itself pretends this never happened, then maybe it's for the best.
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