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.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Voyager 3x17 "Unity"

rating: ****

the story: Chakotay unwittingly stumbles into a collective of ex-Borg.

what it's all about: If you want to insist on believing that the Borg in Voyager was a colossal waste of time, I present to you Exhibit A as a direct contradiction.

The earliest direct appearance of the Collective in the series, "Unity" suggests the later "Scorpion" developments of an enemy (Species 8472) capable of taking on the Borg while presenting a story that doesn't necessarily involve the Borg.  Still, it presents a compelling examination of one of the most basic features of the Collective: its hive mind.

Chakotay's harrowing experiences might as well represent a possible origin story, how it all began.  The people he meets are so addicted to the "contact high" of the hive mind that they don't for a minute concern themselves with its more sinister implications.  Later Voyager explorations of the Borg, including the ongoing case of Seven, suggest further complications of trying to leave the Collective behind, but "Unity" remains a standout, one any fan can appreciate.

What's more, it's the first indication of the new direction Chakotay would take following the end of his heavy significance from the first two seasons, and the backlash to that material that resulted in the drastic creative changes of the third.  Fans would forever complain that Chakotay became a shrinking violet, seemingly inconsequential as a first officer.  Regardless of whether or not that's true, his ability to carry a story ("Distant Origin" later in the season is yet more conclusive proof) shines through in "Unity."  This is what he'd done during the Seska arc, but the effect is proven to originate with Chakotay rather than solely on the story when all context is removed from him.  He carries with him a constant gravity, the ability to project dignity regardless of circumstance, that Chakotay can't help but somehow still become one of the most fascinating characters of the franchise.  Fans laud praise on him in material like the later "Shattered," which is certainly earned, but he'd been deserving it for far longer.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It's the Borg as you've never seen them!
  • series - The official debut of the Collective in Voyager, later to become far more significant.
  • character - Chakotay shines in an unexpected evolution as a master of spotlight adventures.
  • essential - Makes everything involved deeper. The definition of a classic.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Voyager 3x16 "Blood Fever"

rating: ****

the story: B'Elanna gets to enjoy pon farr.

what it's all about: One of the most irrational fears Star Trek fans have exhibited over the years is revisiting familiar territory.  This fear has some basis from franchise creators themselves, including Gene Roddenberry, who initially wanted to distance Next Generation from the original series.  Then, of course, Worf became a signature character of the new series, and as a result the Klingons underwent an incredible renaissance.

But fans still fear revisiting familiar territory.  They became obsessive about it with Voyager and Enterprise, and they're threatening to do it all over again with Discovery.  They insist that the only true Star Trek is the stuff that explores the further future.  They seem to have conveniently ignored what Star Trek itself has said about the further future, in sometimes exquisite detail.  But I digress.  Somewhat.

"Blood Fever" calls this to mind as it's basically an update of the classic "Amok Time," in which a Vulcan (originally Spock, this time the recurring Vorik) experiences pon farr, which temporarily drives them crazy.  The big difference with "Blood Fever" is that Vorik was created for this specific purpose.  He makes a few appearances before it and a few appearances later, but basically his only purpose is to tell a story that would otherwise have involved Tuvok (he later experiences pon farr, too, by the way), an inevitability in the premise of a series where the crew is stranded for an extended period of time away from home. 

The benefits are legion.  First, the existence of Vorik confirms that since Spock served in Starfleet, Vulcan presence has increased, so that two Vulcans serving on the same ship happens.  Second, a Vulcan with whom audiences are not emotionally attached is allowed to get even crazier than Spock did.  Third, it further contrasts Tuvok with what we've seen from other Vulcans.  He turned out to be even more cerebral (as chief of security he undertook criminal investigations on a routine basis) and spiritual than Spock, who tended to focus almost exclusively on logic and the contrasts he noticed with humans like Bones McCoy. 

Fourth, and this is actually the big one, has nothing to do with Vulcans at all, because this is actually a B'Elanna episode.  I still have no idea how she never became one of the show's most beloved characters, because arguably she was consistently the best in the series, from the very start, a trailblazer who took what Ro Laren and Major Kira began before her and managed to be a fierce, independent woman who rarely compromised.  Except being the one out of the three to find lasting happiness with someone, an arc that begins in "Blood Fever," with Tom Paris.

Paris was the Starfleet rebel who had the most in common with the former Maquis crew, had actually tried joining the Maquis, but had never shared much screen time with B'Elanna.  But from this point onward, they would develop a romance where their personalities, their sometimes-alienating instincts, would come together at last, culminating in a marriage and a daughter in the final season.

Wait, and fifth: this episode also marks the beginning of the Borg in the series.  Arguably Voyager did more than Next Generation (second only to First Contact) in fleshing out the Collective beyond the bogeymen who once assimilated Picard and launched an epic invasion into the Alpha Quadrant.  It marks the slow burn to the season finale, "Scorpion," in which the Borg make their official debut, Voyager updating and improving on the approach Next Generation originally took to the Collective.

I know, a lot of that is blasphemy.  But I don't fear Star Trek fans.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Between pon farr and the Borg, this one speaks to the heart of Star Trek mythology.
  • series - The pon farr was inevitable in the long journey home, and so were the Borg.
  • character - B'Elanna in another stellar spotlight, a nearly unblemished record.
  • essential - In a lot of ways the beginning of a bold new era.
notable guest-stars:
Alexander Enberg (Vorik)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Voyager 3x15 "Coda"

rating: *

the story: Janeway dies.  Repeatedly.

what it's all about: Fans who generally hate Voyager love this episode.  The reason is pretty simple.  Just look at my summary, above.

It's a baffling episode, arguably one of the most baffling of the whole franchise.  By their third seasons, Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had taken fairly dodgy characterizations of their lead characters (Picard and Sisko, respectfully) into key selling points by figuring them out and giving them killer spotlights again and again.  Janeway, like a lot of the third season, experiences an abrupt shift in Voyager's third season.  While there's a lot right about the season, Janeway generally isn't part of it.  The caustic Janeway fans remember can be traced to it, and "Coda" is kind of the epitome of this version of the character.  Luckily, by the end of the season, "Scorpion," she's found a powerful new motivator, much like the series itself.  It can't be overstated how importance Seven was to Janeway. 

"Coda" purports to be a Janeway episode, and even features a likeness of her father, but the whole thing is a poor riff on the repetition concept featured brilliantly in Next Generation's "Cause and Effect."  Literally Janeway dies.  Repeatedly.  There's some effort to make it matter to Chakotay, which is an irony of the episode, as it attempts to play off the version of these two that existed until the third season.  If this had happened in the second season, it would've been done better, and it would have been better.  This is just a hasty attempt to increase the episodic drama, which I think was the main creative mandate of the season.  The problem with episodic storytelling is that it's inherently hit or miss.  Given a whole season to fill, there will never be enough time to polish every story. 

The most egregious thing about it is that the Vidiians technically make their last major appearance of the series, and their part in it could really have been filled by any aliens, which is basically...exactly the opposite of a decent Vidiian appearance (heh).

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Not recommended for casual viewers.
  • series - Not recommended for fans.
  • character - Your best bet is to try and decide whether or not this constitutes an adequate Janeway spotlight.
  • essential - No, it's not.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Voyager 3x14 "Alter Ego"

rating: ***

the story: Tuvok becomes entangled in an unlikely relationship with an apparent holographic character.

what it's all about: "Alter Ego" has a lot going for it.  One is the unusual pairing of Harry Kim and Tuvok, who otherwise really don't have any other shared experiences in the series.  Harry is having one of his romantic problems, this time with a holodeck character, or so he thinks.  It's intriguing, since that means the episode is kind of a precursor to the controversial sixth season entry "Fair Haven," in which Janeway really does have such a relationship.  For a crew faced with limited romantic options, it's a good idea to mine for material, and sort of flips on its head part of Barclay's problem in  Next Generation's "Hollow Pursuits," where we first met the nebbish engineer destined to make a significant impact on Voyager

He turns to Tuvok for advice, but that only makes things worse, because Tuvok investigates the holodeck character, who decides she's interested in Tuvok instead of Harry, which makes Harry jealous.  This development is two-fold.  Harry usually seems like the quintessential Starfleet officer, fresh out of the Academy and as gung ho about his job as anyone could be.  The question of why such a consummate professional would have a hard time being promoted on a ship lost in the Delta Quadrant even though he's one of the best hands of the crew can thusly be explained by his lack of maturity, with experiences like "Alter Ego" spelling it out.

The episode then becomes about Tuvok himself.  Tuvok spotlights were always few and far between, the series no doubt concerned that someone might worry he was trying to replace Spock.  Tuvok, of course, is full Vulcan, unlike the half-human Spock, so he was always going to present a unique portrait.  As a Vulcan, his relationships rarely involved emotion, except when concerning Neelix (but more on that in the forthcoming "Rise"), even his close bond with Janeway, one of the most neglected in the series (even their experiences in "Flashback" were somewhat caustic). 

The problem was really Tuvok's sense of isolation, which dovetails nicely with the further developments of this episode.  (Chakotay, it might be argued, also suffered from isolation the longer the series continued, which is why it was nice for him to end up in a relationship with Seven.  It was kind of like finally replacing the toxic Seska.)  The holographic character turns out to be a real person, who's hacked the ship (hacking a Starfleet ship is a brilliant idea, by the way, and a rare phenomenon) because she's got a job that keeps her, y'know, in isolation.  She finds Tuvok fascinating.  He's an enigma, someone who manages to remain functional even while keeping a distance from those around him. 

Anyway, I like how the episode progresses.  It's always been one of my favorites from the season.  Enterprise's "Exile" is a similar story, which doesn't really evolve as organically, so the merits of "Alter Ego" becomes all the easier to admire.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The original premise of the episode revolves around holographic characters, long a Star Trek staple.
  • series - Not hugely connected to the premise.
  • character - But it becomes hugely significant to not only Harry but Tuvok as the story progresses.
  • essential - It's an episode that helps explain both of them.
notable guest-stars:
Alexander Enberg (Vorik)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Voyager 3x13 "Fair Trade"

rating: ***

the story: In an attempt to prove his further usefulness, Neelix finds himself in an awful mess.

what it's all about: In hindsight, the biggest missed opportunity of Voyager was the chance to tell Talaxian stories when the series was still in Talaxian space.  Instead the first two seasons focused on the Kazon, which was certainly not a bad thing, but no one seemed to realize that there was ample creative room for Neelix to explore at the same time, until it was too late.  In a lot of ways, the third season was an opportunity for the producers to take a last look at what had been overlooked previously, and it was ample fodder for rich material, like "Fair Trade."

Now, as most fans didn't really care for Neelix, this is hardly an episode they're going to appreciate one way or another.  It's just skippable material to them.  It's a shame, because Neelix was one of the best-developed and best-used characters of the series, and it's thanks to material like this.  As one of two Delta Quadrant natives to become passengers of the ship, he was always in a unique position to contextualize the crew's journey in unfamiliar territory.  But "Trade" sees him reach the last of the territory he himself has explored.  It also features the rare fellow Talaxian, another reason why the episode stands out.  The whole thing becomes an exercise, like "False Profits" earlier in the season, of contrasting Neelix and Talaxians as a whole with their Ferengi counterparts.  Quark had many similar experiences in Deep Space Nine, but they played out differently because Quark was always focused mostly on himself whereas Neelix cared about the crew around him.

"Trade" is another in a series of existential crises for him, and that's really the key to understanding both the character and the episode.  He worries here that he still hasn't done enough to justify himself as a permanent passenger, that they're going to kick him off the ship.  What he's craved so desperately since before he came aboard was a new family.  He never dared dream that he had actually found one.  In a way, that impulse fans have to loathe him is broadcast by Neelix himself, because in his doubts he's always trying too hard to please, and for people like Tuvok it's immediately off-putting.  Little wonder that a Vulcan represents the interests of the fans.  But more on these two in "Rise" six episodes hence...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - I suspect you have to be a fan of the series to truly appreciate it, even though the material resonates well with experiences across Star Trek.
  • series - It wonderfully explains what happens to Neelix as originally conceived.
  • character - A definitive turning point for ship's morale officer.
  • essential - For this series it really is.
notable guest-stars:
Alexander Enberg (Vorik)
James Horan

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Voyager 3x12 "Macrocosm"

rating: *

the story: The ship is attacked by a virus that grows in size.

what it's all about: This is a germaphobe's worst nightmare, I think.  The aliens-of-the-week are giant germs.  If that makes you incredibly uncomfortable, this will be a tough episode for you, because they fly around the whole ship.

The basic premise is so generic that it'll invite anyone brave enough to watch.  It's interesting and all, but doesn't have a lot of distinguishing properties other than imagery.  Except for Janeway.  As a commando.  Attacking giant germs.

So that's the real draw of the episode.  Doesn't really say much about Janeway herself.  It could've been anyone at the heart of this one, but I imagine Kate Mulgrew enjoyed the change of pace.  Because she's mostly acting against, as I may have mentioned, giant germs, she doesn't even get to "Starship Mine" (Next Generation) her way through it, where Picard at least got to outsmart a bunch of thugs (including Tim Russ, later to be cast as Voyager's Tuvok; how cool would it have been for Tuvok to be the focus of this episode?).

Not much else to say about it, except "Macrocosm" manages to create a scenario where the Doctor can't safely leave sickbay, after he's just gotten that nifty mobile emitter.  Seems kinda insane when you think about it...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The thought of giant germs is morbidly compelling, so I'll give this one to casual fans brave enough to experience it.
  • series - Because it really doesn't have much to tether it to Voyager.
  • character - I wish Action Janeway had a better reason to exist.
  • essential - No, not essential.  Not essential at all, giant germs!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Voyager 3x11 "The Q and the Grey"

rating: ****

the story: Q shows Janeway the results of "Death Wish."

what it's all about: In a lot of ways, Q's appearances in Voyager were a direct continuation of his Next Generation episode "Deja Q," where his story is changes from the obnoxious omnipotent being who put humanity on trial to the obnoxious omnipotent being whose main concern is...the rest of the obnoxious omnipotent beings in the Q Continuum.  So in a lot of ways, Voyager managed to tell an incredibly important franchise story in the midst of being a series that was supposed to be removed from incredibly important franchise stories.  And Q is a character who lends himself to that possibility, after all.

Naturally, it infuriated fans to no end, the idea that Voyager could improve on Next Generation material.  I mean, precious few Star Trek episodes improve on "Tapestry," but in terms of Q being Q but still having a good reason for showing's kind of really hard to argue exploring the nature of Q in real depth.  Because that's what the one-two punch of "Death Wish" and "The Q and the Grey" are all about.  It's comparable to the Mirror Universe episodes in Deep Space Nine, certainly the first few ("Crossover," "Through the Looking Glass," and "Shattered Mirror"), all of which function as sequels to the original series classic "Mirror, Mirror," and are arguably far superior to it in terms of nuanced storytelling.

The best material in the episode is onboard the ship.  Discovering Q's ex gave Suzie Plakson, who was already a legend in the franchise, a bold new character to play, arguably her most important.  It's hard to play opposite John de Lancie, but Plakson was absolutely up to the challenge.

And Janeway?  After "Death Wish" it became easier to believe Q would take her seriously.  Picard was always the skeptic, who thought Q a menace and not much else.  Janeway, though, stood up to him, too, and in that episode helped him understand that not every human was like Picard, that some would stand up for the likes of him.  No doubt an incredibly intoxicating thought.  But the very idea of why he shows up, it's fraught with the kind of natural comedy the character had become best known for, none of the serious "trial of humanity" business that bookended his Next Generation existence.  Putting aside all prejudices, these appearances are by definition classics.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The last great Q appearance.
  • series - A hugely effective sequel to a prior standout episode.
  • character - Works extremely well for Q, and for helping further define what sets Janeway apart.
  • essential - To truly understand Q, you need to see this episode.
notable guest-stars:
John de Lancie (Q)
Suzie Plakson (Q)
Harve Presnell

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Voyager 3x10 "Warlord"

rating: *

the story: Kes is possessed by an alien warlord.

what it's all about: Something of an update of Next Generation's "Power Play," "Warlord" is a very curious episode indeed.  Most of it is spent exploring the conflict of the aliens-of-the-week, with Kes thrown in, sort of, and Tuvok, too.  Sort of.

The oddest thing, by the way, is that it technically concludes a longstanding element of the series, the relationship between Neelix and Kes, in such an offhand manner as to be laughable in hindsight, considering Neelix really has nothing to do with the episode otherwise, which seems...pretty much what the whole episode to be about.  Or pushing the Tuvok element further.  Or...basically doing something other than trying to make Kes more edgy.  Because that's basically what the episode really is. 

Famously, the series wanted to axe a cast member at the end of the season, and it was going to be Garrett Wang (Harry) until he was named to one of People's sexy lists, so the producers instead decided to eliminate Jennifer Lien (Kes).  You can see how they struggled with her during the third season.  "Warlord" is obviously an excuse to reinvent her, while "Before and After" looks like a life summary for a character whose species lives about as long as a Star Trek series ran at that time (seven seasons/years, though Ocampa best case scenario live about ten years).  As one of two Delta Quadrant natives to become a passenger of the ship, she took on considerable significance in giving the series its unique identity in the early seasons, and since those seasons didn't seem to please the fans too much, like Chakotay's reduced role starting in the third season, Kes seemed like a logical focus for change, too.  Unlike Neelix, who kept showing new shades and ways of defining his role, Kes had become static, inevitable, too...comfortable.  "Warlord" ultimately proves that the producers saw little potential in her relationship with Tuvok, and the Doctor had just won a get-out-of-sickbay card, thereby freeing him to interact with anyone, and not just her. 

That "Warlord" dithers and wastes time as an episodic story that wastes its potential, it's like the first sign of the Ocampan apocalypse...A true low point of the season.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - This is a familiar story that might amuse casual fans.
  • series - But it'll frustrate more committed ones.
  • character - It wastes valuable Kes time on a pointless spotlight.
  • essential - And doesn't really explain why she gave up on Neelix even after the problem is solved.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Voyager 3x9 "Future's End, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Evil 1996 businessman is thwarted in his attempt at stealing more future tech.

what it's all about: In my thoughts on "Part 1," I focused on the two-parter's inspirations, and touched on what it helped anticipate, namely Enterprise's Temporal Cold War.  If anything, "Part 2" is even more on the latter, not to mention Voyager's own "Year of Hell" (combined with "Future's End," they make an excellent case for the show's vivid imagination, something rarely discussed in terms of its high points, because fans seem only interested in what they don't like, which is...pretty much everything...because they don't seem familiar with the actual all).

But the biggest news of "Part 2" is the debut of the Doctor's mobile emitter, which allows him to leave the confines of sickbay (or the holodeck) whenever he chooses.  After "Heroes and Demons" (a holodeck experience), "Part 2" is his first "away mission," thanks to a bad guy.  You just never know how bad situations can lead to good results.  It's almost like a preview of "Scorpion" at the end of the season.

If "Part 1" is all setup, "Part 2" is all payoff, demonstrating the strength of Voyager's new "feature length" storytelling concept.  "Future's End" may seem a little small potatoes after the higher concepts that follow in these midseason two-part episodes, but it holds up wonderfully when you take a look at what it actually accomplishes.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Time is always of the essence in Star Trek, so it's good to know Starfleet is eventually going to take it seriously.
  • series - A huge development for...
  • character - The Doctor, who gains newfound freedom of movement going forward.
  • essential - Later, it seems as if his mobile emitter is a mere fact of holographic life, so it's always worth remembering just how he got it.
notable guest-stars:
Ed Begley, Jr.
Sarah Silverman

Monday, July 31, 2017

Voyager 3x8 "Future's End, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: A time-traveling Starfleet officer inadvertently causes the ship to travel to 1996, where the crew meets an enterprising businessman who's exploited the wreckage of that's officer's ship...

what it's all about: The "Future's End" two-parter effectively introduces Voyager's updated storytelling model, replacing serialized episodes with "event" episodes.  Two-part episodes midseason had happened before, in all three of the preceding series, but the scope of the idea was what became supersized in Voyager, meant to deliver a big one-off concept capable of filling two hours.  "Future's End" does it by expanding on a concept the original series explored twice ("Tomorrow is Yesterday," "Assignment: Earth"), in which the crew travels to our present (relatively speaking) and risks exposure in order to fix a problem of some kind.  This idea even became a movie, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, released in theaters ten years previous to "Future's End."

Tossing in an additional layer of time travel seems in hindsight a preview of Enterprise's Temporal Cold War, meant to assuage concerns about setting a whole series in the past.  Braxton, the wayward temporal Starfleet officer, becomes himself more significant in the later (one-episode) "Relativity," by the way.

Which means, putting all that aside, the drama of this story is in confronting characters from 1996.  One of them is a Bill Gates genius who like Rasmussen in Next Generation's "A Matter of Time," stole all his best ideas.  The other is kind of a nod to '90s sci-fi, a woman who's looking for proof that there's intelligent life "out there" (even if she's more civilian than spooky government agent, as in The X-Files), who ends up another nod to Voyage Home.

The rest of the impact comes from execution, sort of like the climactic moments from Deep Space Nine played out in episodic material.  These things were billed as mini-movies, and it shows.  And they'd get better in the fourth season ("Year of Hell").

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Update of classic episodes like "Assignment: Earth."
  • series - Signals a new era of storytelling in Voyager.
  • character - It's an ensemble effort.
  • essential - The stakes may have changed, but the impact remains rich.
notable guest-stars:
Ed Begley, Jr.
Sarah Silverman

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Voyager 3x7 "Sacred Ground"

rating: **

the story: Janeway must perform a series of elaborate rituals in order to find a cure for Kes, who has inadvertently transgressed on an alien planet.

what it's all about: The part about Kes, above, sounds like Next Generation's "Justice," one of the worst episodes of the franchise.  Fans also tend to rate Enterprise's "A Night in Sickbay" that way, and it's got a similar plotline.  But I love "Sickbay," and what "Sacred Ground" is missing is a truly relevant character point for Janeway, who's the most science-heavy lead in a Star Trek series to date and yet somehow experiences something that contradicts her instincts without really resulting in anything but her deciding, at the end of the episode, that maybe just this once science doesn't define her outlook.  It's kind of an episode that should've been centered around Chakotay, who's a spiritual guy but who hasn't always been able to figure all of it out for himself ("Tattoo").  This would've been a great experience to advance him along a little, but of course the third season's the one where he'd lost all forward momentum, the big victim of the producers listening to fans complaining about the first two seasons...

Anyway, it really is a fun episode, and it's a fun episode for Janeway, too, the beginning, I think, of the series finally figuring out that she's better when filled with doubt.  It's the start of the path to "Scorpion," where she doesn't just make another calculated risk, but finally accepting it on a level she has to personally contend with and not just as a matter of principal.  Here, she's forced to endure the rituals because she's got to help someone, failing the first attempt because she's still too caught up in herself succeeding in the second because her determination to help Kes pushes her past her doubts, which actually lead to bigger doubts...

I think it's a soft start to something bigger, something obviously more important, but it's there.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Part of a troubled tradition of explaining what happens next when cultural rules are broken.
  • series - Signals the start of a shift in character for Janeway, but itself does not actually try to accomplish anything.
  • character - So it becomes merely a fun episode for Janeway.
  • essential - Had the producers wanted, they could've used the lessons learned here more directly, but instead it becomes just another episodic experience.
notable guest-stars:
Estelle Harris

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Voyager 3x6 "Remember"

rating: *

the story: Torres relives the genocide of an alien culture.

what it's all about: It's surprising how often Star Trek uses the trope of aliens projecting memories onto various crew members.  Sometimes it's hugely effective ("The Inner Light" from Next Generation), sometimes it's not ("Memorial," a Voyager episode I rate as one of the franchise's worst for the sheer generic nature of its storytelling).  "Remember" has a story to tell, and it's a good story to tell but the episode really doesn't know what to do with it.  After Deep Space Nine did so much with the memory of past atrocities in such spectacular fashion (right from the start, with "Duet" in its first season), it's really hard to accept it in such simple alien-of-the-week context.  Even the choice of character to experience the tragedy, B'Elanna Torres, seems completely random.  Torres became a ready source of excellent storytelling; she was capable of selling just about anything.  If you like this episode, it's because of her.  But really, there's no point in her being at its center other than the way it ends, attempting to find a hopeful solution about the alien culture becoming willing to accept its actions.  You could've had Kes or Tuvok, and their receptiveness to the projected memories would've made complete sense, but...

Well, anyway, it's the kind of episode that probably plays well better when you're watching it than when you think about what it really accomplishes.  You can celebrate the message, but the manner of delivery leaves a lot to be desired.  On the whole, sloppy storytelling.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - There's a Star Trek tradition being upheld here.
  • series - This is one of those episodes that could've been done in any of the shows, one of the basic complaints about Voyager that usually doesn't have this much merit.
  • character - Torres is wasted in this, unless you think she really does charm everything she touches.
  • essential - Nope.
notable guest-stars:
Bruce Davison

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Voyager 3x5 "False Profits"

rating: ****

the story: Stranded Ferengi perpetuate a hoax on an alien population.

what it's all about: Ferengi???  Well, there's a good explanation.  These Ferengi are the ones who traveled through an unstable wormhole in Next Generation's "The Price," by far one of the most clever sequel episodes in franchise history.  "False Profits" also bears similarities to Next Generation's "Devil's Due," in which a fraud pretends to fulfill a planet's prophecies using technology to pose as a figure from its mythology.  Basically that's what the Ferengi are doing here, too, but the results are wholly different because, well, they're Ferengi.

Every time there's a Ferengi episode I feel the need to explain them all over again.  Originally featured in Next Generation, they were a concept that totally failed as conceived, which made it hard for fans to take them seriously.  But they kept showing up, eventually as prominent figures in Deep Space Nine, where "Ferengi episode" became an epitaph meaning "bad episode."  It's funny, because Deep Space Nine went out of its way to flesh out and redeem the Ferengi.  Just goes to show how hard it is to scratch out prejudice. 

"Profits" is a wonderful addition to the Deep Space Nine version of the Ferengi, now better known for their outlandish devotion to, well, profit than their ability to scare as an enemy in battle.  The two Ferengi who make their second appearances aren't really important; it becomes a matter of Neelix being able to successfully impersonate one (Ethan Phillips later appears as one straight-out in the last Ferengi episode, Enterprise's "Acquisition").  This has the effect of helping redefine Neelix himself, contrasting his apparent opportunism, as he originally appeared when joining the crew, with his ability to play nice, as it were.  Entirely unlike the typical Ferengi, such as the ones who're fleecing the locals.  This also plays nicely into his later third season spotlight, "Fair Trade," in which he fears his usefulness to the crew has run out.  (Once again we see that much of the behavior the audience, and Tuvok, as in "Rise," considers annoying is actually Neelix massively overcompensating for his feelings of inadequacy.) 

Oh, and about that wormhole.  Like "Eye of the Needle" from the first season, it proves a dud, conveniently enough, as a means of getting the crew home quicker.  A little cheat, but at least it's addressed in the midst of using it for other means.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A "Ferengi episode" that's easy to enjoy.
  • series - Cleverly links Voyager activity with stuff that happened in Next Generation.
  • character - Neelix gets an unexpected and fun spotlight.
  • essential - Foreshadowing the debut of the Borg later in the season, it's a clever way of bringing the rest of the franchise back into the series.
notable guest-stars:
Michael Ensign

Monday, July 24, 2017

Voyager 3x4 "The Swarm"

rating: ****

the story: The ship faces a swarm of ships while the Doctor experiences his first existential crisis.

what it's all about: "The Swarm" shot up in significance after Star Trek Beyond used a similar idea of swarm ships in Kraal's armada.  Let's just get that out of the way.  It was one of those concepts where it was a shame they only used it once, but then it was finally came back.  Yeah, it would've made a nice new recurring alien in Voyager, but the series was gunshy with that sort of thing after fan backlash from the first two seasons, so it's no surprise considerable caution followed them (Species 8472 debuted to massive hype in the third season finale, "Scorpion," and perhaps not surprisingly as one of the few things fans actually liked about the series). 

But the big news is that "Swarm" is also the unofficial start of seriously upgrading the Doctor's significance in the series.  Fans tend to think mostly of Seven or Janeway from Voyager, but it's the Doctor (and B'Elanna Torres) who consistently provided the best material.  This is the first of three strong character studies in the third season for the Doctor ("Darkling" and "Real Life" follow). 

In some ways it's a continuation of "Projections" from the previous season, where we meet the Doctor's creator, Lewis Zimmerman, for the first time.  Like the Doctor and Zimmerman, a Diagnostic Hologram appears who's portrayed by Robert Picardo.  Each time Picardo plays a different character, we're presented with a wildly diverging perspective on the Doctor himself. Zimmerman seems to be the model for all of the Doctor's worst instincts (his curt bedside manner), while the Diagnostic Hologram doesn't understand why the Doctor needs to be tinkering with his program.  Much of the episode is riffing on the by-now familiar dilemma of the Doctor running far longer than he was originally designed to, which was set up in the very first episode ("Caretaker"), but rather than repeat old information "Swarm" digs deeper and actually has the Doctor himself struggle with the nature of his existence for the first time.  This later becomes fodder for his best episode, "Latent Image."

It can be said that the ending of the episode has as much cinematic legacy as the title aliens.  After the Diagnostic Program has sacrificed itself to stabilize the Doctor, there's a question as to whether or not it worked.  We get our only clue in the episode when the Doctor begins to sing again.  Star Trek Nemesis ends on a very similar note in regards to the memory download of Data into B4 (fans loved to misinterpret that as B4 literally becoming Data), the chance B4 needed to finally reach Data's level of sophistication. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The swarm aliens are later evoked in Star Trek Beyond.
  • series - Addresses a situation that's been developing from the very first episode.
  • character - The Doctor faces his first existential crisis.
  • essential - This is an episode that gains in significance and impact over time.
notable guest-stars:
Robert Picardo (Diagnostic Program)

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Voyager 1x13 "Cathexis"

rating: **

the story: Chakotay's disembodied mind helps the crew thwart a takeover.

what it's all about: The alien possession trope is, well, a well-established trope in the franchise, so there's really not much to be said about that.  It's one of those odd sci-fi plots thrown into the first season to try and satisfy general viewers, which only infuriated fans joining the emerging serialization bandwagon, and fans who just didn't want another Star Trek.

Fans of Voyager, can rejoice to a tiny extent, because "Cathexis" is an excuse to explore the crew a little, with the odd central premise of being a Chakotay episode without Chakotay, which is a unique franchise experience (Deep Space Nine's "Who Mourns for Morn?" is the only other example that comes to mind, but that one's a different story entirely, as the title character famously never spoke).  So there's more of his Native American elements, which for some viewers always felt forced, but then, why have a Native American if there's nothing particularly Native American about him?  This was one of the most unique celebrations of diversity in the whole franchise (where Deep Space Nine did pretty much nothing to indicate Bashir's ethnic background, which in hindsight was a huge, huge missed opportunity), so anytime there was a spotlight on it, I say, all's the better.  And of course like Chakotay in general it was most likely to happen in the first two seasons.

Also of note is Janeway's "holo-novel" based loosely on Jane Eyre, which makes its debut here.  Holo-novels were intended to be a signature element of the series, but Janeway's didn't turn out to be one of them.  Instead, it was Tom Paris who came up with all the memorable ones, including the one he helped develop with Tuvok ("Worst Case Scenario") and the one he based on vintage sci-fi serials ("Bride of Chaotica!"), the latter of which is...surely one of Voyager's great ironies...

Finally, the most grim aspect of the episode is actually the appearance of Lieutenant Durst, who in "Faces" one episode later finds a whole new definition of facelift.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A classic trope revisited.
  • series - Not much of true relevance here.
  • character - Chakotay without Chakotay! 
  • essential - How much better would this have been if it'd taken place before "State of Flux" and actually featured Chakotay, being guided by Seska?
notable guest-stars:
Brian Markinson (Durst)
Carolyn Seymour

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Voyager 1x12 "Heroes and Demons"

rating: ****

the story: The Doctor enters the story of Beowulf.

what it's all about: This is one of those episodes where if I tell you it's a classic, you'll agree, because most fans, even the ones who don't generally like Voyager, will say the same thing.  It's hugely entertaining, and a great spotlight for the Doctor.

That it's a "holodeck episode," where some sort of malfunction means the holodeck is more than just entertainment, is well beside the point, as with the best "holodeck episodes." 

The Doctor had an uphill battle, in a lot of ways, right from the start.  On a superficial level, he was already a redundant character, the second franchise artificial life form, after Next Generation's android Data.  The Doctor, of course, was, as his full title explains, an Emergency Medical Hologram, forced by circumstances to remain in operation far longer than originally intended.  This had the effect of making him grumpy, and until "Heroes and Demons" that was pretty much all there was to him.

"Heroes" supersizes the character into an instant icon of the series.  He doesn't even interact with the crew for most of the episode, but rather characters in a Beowulf program, including a buxom warrior so electrifying in the episode the actress playing her (Marjorie Monaghan) would later be considered for the part of Enterprise's T'Pol.  (It's kind of sad she never makes another Star Trek appearance, although maybe that's the price for being that distinctive the first time out, rather than impressing with supporting roles like Michelle Forbes and Jeffrey Combs before her.)

The episode makes the Doctor instantly sympathetic in ways he hadn't been before, shoving him well out of his comfort zone and exploring his full potential, which would lead to six seasons of highlights that would've been previously unimaginable, and a level of poignancy that's tough to match in the rest of the franchise.  The simple search for a name, seemingly attained in "Heroes" and all but abandoned in it, too, because of the events therein, became a hallmark that stretched into an alternate timeline during the final episode ("Endgame"), where he settles on...Joe.

And at its heart, it really is just a retelling of Beowulf, right down to how the Doctor ends up being selected for the "away mission" in the first place.  One of the cleverest episodes ever, really.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Really hard not to love.
  • series - Helps make the Doctor a standout and pillar of the crew.
  • character - See the above.
  • essential - See the above.
notable guest-stars:
Marjorie Monaghan
Michael Keenan

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Voyager 1x11 "State of Flux"

rating: ****

the story: Seska defects from the crew, betraying Chakotay and joining the Kazon.

what it's all about: Inarguably, "State of Flux" is the most important early episode of Voyager after the pilot ("Caretaker") and once and for all settles whether the Maquis proved to be a wasted opportunity or in fact the most fruitful storytelling opportunity of the series.

You can probably guess that I throw my vote in with the latter (incredibly tiny) lot, because "Flux" begins a story that continues throughout the second season and isn't resolved until "Basics, Part 2" at the start of the third season (and then reprised at the end of that season in "Worst Case Scenario").  All that in finally deciding if the Maquis were a bunch of irredeemable bad apples (as fans inexplicably had determined them to be) or good people with at least one really bad apple (Seska) among them. 

And what a bad apple!  Not only was Seska willing to betray the crew, she betrayed Chakotay, with whom she had her closest relationship, the remaining Maquis allegiance that went beyond the new Starfleet code everyone else (including belligerent B'Elanna Torres) went along with (well, aside from the folks featured in "Learning Curve").  And she wasn't even Bajoran, as she'd appeared throughout the season to this point, but Cardassian!  What a twist! 

All of it plays like a knowing nod toward Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which Valeris is revealed to be a Klingon stooge, down to a trick played on Seska to get her to expose herself.  (See "Flashback" in the third season for another Undiscovered Country callback, and also Enterprise's "Judgment.")

And again, it's a huge, huge moment, both for the season and continuity of the series itself, an unprecedented one that wouldn't be duplicated until Eddington is revealed to be a member of the Maquis in Deep Space Nine (he's the only character, actually, who plays the Maquis off as the bad guys, across three series). 

Anyone still trying to figure out whether or not Chakotay was a wasted opportunity needs to watch "Flux" and the second season (particularly "Maneuvers") over again, because they spell out exactly what happened to him and feature his biggest moments, bigger than any first officer, arguably, aside from Spock, in franchise history.  How do you follow something like that up?  Especially when fans great the material with apathy?  (It wasn't the series that rejected the character, but the fans.)

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - If you're one of the fans who thinks Voyager wasted the potential of the Maquis, this episode is required viewing.
  • series - As stated above, after "Caretaker" this is the most important episode of the first season.
  • character - Begins the epic showdown between Chakotay and Seska.
  • essential - Entirely must-see.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)
Anthony De Longis (Culluh)
Josh Clark (Carey)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Voyager 1x10 "Prime Factors"

rating: ****

the story: The crew discovers a culture seemingly capable of giving them a good boost home, but which refuses to help.

what it's all about: Let's just get out of the way that any complaints about "Prime Factors" usually involve the alien culture.  For supposedly enlightened people, I often have cause to remark that Star Trek fans can be surprisingly bigoted and petty.  Enough of that.

This is the first of an incredibly strong end run for the first season, where the supposedly neglected premise of the series was handled with remarkable finesse.  While "Factors" shares with the earlier "Eye of the Needle" a kind of fake-out ending and tease, it also demonstrates that the crew will have to work extremely hard to find a solution to the problem of getting home in a reasonable length of time (read: soon).

And it gives a lot of good material to a lot of characters.  Harry has an excellent spotlight, in stark contrast to the previous episode ("Emanations"), where you get to see his remarkable, eager young mind at work, how in any other circumstances his career would've advanced rapidly (that he never gets promoted during the course of seven seasons is likely a symptom of a lack of upward mobility, considering no officers above him have anywhere else to go, either; only Tuvok and Tom Paris advance in rank). 

Besides Harry, B'Elanna Torres remarkably collaborates with Lt. Carey, with whom she'd fought over the role of chief engineer in "Parallax," as well as Seska, for whom this foreshadows developments in the next episode ("State of Flux").  Everyone else who rebels against Janeway's and Starfleet expectations does it for the good of the crew; it's Seska who proves the bad apple.

Tuvok has perhaps his most notable moment of the whole series when he elects to join the conspiracy.  His relationship with Janeway would end up being one of the most neglected aspects of the series, but they have a powerful moment as Janeway expresses disappointment in the Vulcan who somehow managed to out-stoic even the famously stoic Spock, rarely breaking discipline except when confronting Neelix.  This makes "Factors" kind of the final episode necessary to understand how the crew functions the rest of the series, why Tuvok never questions Janeway again.  The weakness, if there truly is one in the episode, is the absence of Chakotay offering any significant contributions to the proceedings.  But like Seska he'll be in "Flux" to a greater degree.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will want to take note on how the episode reflects the premise of the series.
  • series - See the above.
  • character - Harry, Torres, Tuvok, Janeway...a lot of characters make a positive impact on the proceedings.
  • essential - In a lot of ways this could've functioned as a season finale, so strong is its statement on both the series and the characters who populate it.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)
Josh Clark (Carey)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Voyager 1x9 "Emanations"

rating: *

the story: Harry gets mixed up in an alien culture's rituals concerning the afterlife.

what it's all about: "Emanations" is a perfectly serviceable episode for fans just looking for a cool sci-fi concept and/or examination of existential matters.  Where it fails is exploring its nominal lead, Harry Kim.

So this is probably why fans began to think Harry was basically worthless.  His first spotlight barely has anything to do with him, or say anything about him.  Already we've seen B'Elanna Torres ("Parallax"), Neelix ("Phage"), and Tom Paris ("Ex Post Facto") command spotlight episodes, so it's not as if the series has proven deficient in that regard at this early stage of the game.  It's certainly true that fans didn't end up caring all that much for just about any character in Voyager, but it wasn't for lack of effort.  Somehow, however, Harry ended up being pigeon-holed as the most meaningless of the bunch, and I have little doubt that it stems from "Emanations."  It's a shame, too, as he turns out much, much better in the second season episode "Non Sequitur."

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A casual fan's kind of episode.
  • series - Nothing much to do with Voyager, alas.
  • character - A poor spotlight for Harry Kim.
  • essential - Not hardly.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)
Jerry Hardin

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Voyager 1x8 "Ex Post Facto"

rating: ***

the story: Paris is convicted of murder, and sentenced to relive the crime repeatedly.

what it's all about: Somewhat predictably at this point, "Ex Post Facto" is one of those early episodes that negatively affected general perception of the series, on two counts.  One is that it's similar to Next Generation's "A Matter of Perspective."  (It's also similar to Deep Space Nine's "Hard Time," in some respects, but I doubt this is brought up much.)  The other is that it fails to clarify the character of Tom Paris.

The first can be dismissed out of hand.  Both episodes are ultimately defined by how the truth is revealed; in "Perspective" it's with the clever use of the holodeck, while in "Facto" it's with Tuvok's investigation, which actually serves to make it as much a Tuvok episode as a Paris episode.  This one's not really worth talking about.

The second is patently ridiculous.  Paris was introduced in "Caretaker" as a "bad boy" who'd gotten booted out of Starfleet and subsequently locked up, which is kind of a mash-up between the character Robert Duncan McNeill previously played in Next Generation's "The First Duty" and the backstory of Ensign Ro in the same series from the eponymous episode.  But fans found it difficult to accept McNeill as a "bad boy," as he didn't seem the type.  I'd argue that anyone who really needs convincing only needs see "Non Sequitur" in the second season to see where Paris might have ended up if he'd never been recruited by Janeway.  Anyway, "Facto" also features him in the ladies man role Kirk and Riker previously filled, and that seems to make him not only redundant but a complete failure to convincingly pull off any aspect of his character.

But it actually fills both nicely.  Riker might have ended up in a similar situation in "Perspective," but he didn't have anyone questioning his integrity, either before or after the episode, much less during.  Kirk had numerous affairs, but it was considered part of his charm.  Paris does it and pays a horrific price, right at the start of the series, and it's an important and necessary experience that helps define him.  The problem with Paris wasn't so much that he was a "bad boy," but that when he got in trouble, he got in trouble.  There was a running "joke" in Deep Space Nine (and Next Generation previously) that O'Brien always ended up in situations meant to torture him (such as "Hard Time"), but he was able to walk away from all of them (doubtless today he'd be portrayed with a permanent case of PTSD after just one of them) with little consequence.  Paris debuted with plenty of consequence, and "Facto" affirms how these things tend to happen to him, and it's much the same reason why he seems like a Kirk or Riker style ladies man, because he doesn't think about the consequences of his actions (also explains why he ends up in a relationship with B'Elanna Torres).  "Thirty Days" later in the series is another great illustration of this.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Helps find a contrast in the archetype Paris shares with Kirk and Riker.
  • series - If events involved the crew in a more deliberate fashion it might seem more relevant.
  • character - Explains Tom Paris.
  • essential - See above statement.
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