Suffer a Sea-change Into Something Rich and Strange: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season 3


Here’s my take on the third season of Star Trek: Voyager, Paramount’s FOURTH television series set in the Star Trek universe….

Star Trek: VoyagerApparently I know more Shakespeare than I thought I did, as I’m referencing the Bard once again in a title (even if the first time ’round I was really thinking about Faulkner).  But it is relevant: season three was a transition for Voyager.  Gone are the multiple-episode story arcs, as well as the Kazon and the Vidiians, our heroes’ familiar foes from seasons one and two; “A Briefing With Neelix” has been pushed to the background, and Janeway’s holonovel is kaput.  There’s only one glimpse of Ensign Wildman and her new baby.  Worse still, at least in some respects, there’s a return to the more traditional Next Generation-style stories (not that I have anything against that, but it’s nice to see events have consequences which reverberate through time, sort of like reality).  At least there are signs and portents of the things to come in season four.  All in all, it’s a satisfying season of science fiction, but it breaks no new ground and has few standout stories or developments along the way.

It’s rather like that awkward stage in people or dogs between child (or puppy) hood and an adult status—it’s cute, but the onlooker is always glad it doesn’t last.  In this case, the third season is a transition from a starship crew desperate to get home, and facing destruction of the entire ship on a routine basis, to a crew which has come to terms with their situation and who seem determined to explore, and have some fun, along the way.  I think a lot of people enjoy the idea that there is no specter of doom hanging over the good ship Voyager, and it’s true that the show simply feels more relaxed, without spazzing out about things like running out of energy or food.  I do miss the continuing storylines and arcs, and they’re still there—but they’re relegated to character movement, with a very few exceptions.

It’s worth considering where Season 2 left the crew of Voyager before we consider the ins and outs of Season 3.  The Kazon, led from behind the scenes by the traitorous Seska (Martha Hackett) (though, since she was actually a Cardassian infiltrator of the Maquis, perhaps she owed no loyalty to the Maquis or to Starfleet), take Voyager and maroon the crew on a hostile planet without their technology, while the heroic Tom Paris attempts to escape in a shuttle and the Doctor and Ensign Suder (Brad Dourif), the telepathic serial killer, are left behind on Voyager.  Our heroes are in a bad, bad spot, folks.

Of course it all works out okay.  It’s the way that it all works out that’s surprising:  Paris gets to be the hero, with a ruthlessness surpassed only by that of the Doctor, and a complete willingness to kill on a mass scale.  Heroic Paris is something we could all see coming, but the Doctor’s use of the hapless Ensign Suder, who has finally gotten his murderous tendancies under tenuous control, as a weapon against Voyager’s enemies is perhaps the most chilling thing we’ve seen on Voyager to date.  And it’s somewhat fitting that Paris’ plan relies on the intricacies of his knowledge of Voyager, and how the phaser system works, to turn that weapon on the ship itself.  And that, my friends, is also the end of Seska (with one last gasp to come later during the season) and we see the backsides of the Kazon for good.

There are few, if any, recurring themes in this season, and the number of times the entire ship was in danger are few and far between.  Not so the characters—they face deadly personal danger on a weekly basis, and there’s some fairly significant character movement.  Some of that movement, unfortunately, is marred by bad writing and silly stories….  The acting, though, is first-rate in the third season, and the cast has melded into a finely tuned machine capable of believably portraying friendships and, in some cases, dislike.

The season boasts three episodes in which actors get to portray something other than their normal characters: Kes is “possessed” in “Warlord,” Holodoc messes with his program and makes some big mistakes in “The Darkling,” and B’Elanna lives another life in “Remember.”  In each case, the actors shine, though in different ways.  Jennifer Lien blew me away as Kes-possessed, demonstrating a self-centered, strong-willed, sexually predatory character utterly unlike that of Kes, and did so in a wonderfully convincing manner.  The episode was fun to watch because Lien did so well with it.  “Darkling’s” evil Doctor is a caricature, perhaps fittingly given that the Doctor rashly combined the characters of some famous historical figures with his own holomatrix.  But it’s still fun seeing the Doctor go bad—even if it is a horrifying glimpse at things to come, further along the line.  Finally, Roxanne Biggs-Dawson’s B’Elanna Torres is telepathically given the memories of a young woman who witnessed genocide, and sees herself in the role instead of the young woman.  Biggs-Dawson delivers a nuanced performance of a young woman torn between cultural imperatives and love which is an absolute joy to watch.

Q is back this season, with a frankly silly episode (“The Q and the Gray”) about a civil war in the Q Continuum.  On the other hand, John DeLancie reprises his role as Q, and Suzie Plakson, who played Worf’s mate in The Next Generation, is along for the ride as a female Q.  Between these two fine actors and Mulgrew’s inspired performance with them, the episode was a lot of fun.

Robert Duncan McNeill directed two episodes, “Sacred Ground” and “Unity” (Chakotay meets some ex-Borg), and did a fine job on both.

There are several “message” episodes which encapsulate moral dilemmas and interesting situations.  The aforementioned “Remember” gives us a look at a genocidal race of telepaths who do away with unwanted elements of their society.  The episode was also quite well-paced, even if the telepathic transfer of memories is a somewhat trite device at this point, and I rate it as one of the better episodes of the season.  “Sacred Ground” covers the idea that science cannot explain all by putting Kes’ life in danger, and requiring Janeway to have faith in order to find a cure.  Voyager also covers the other side of the equation in “Distant Origin,” in which evolved dinosaurs who left the Earth long, long ago are forced to match their science against their doctrines and faith.  While it’s easy to see the episode as a criticism of the anti-evolution movement, it’s probably more fair to say that the movement inspired the episode; science has confronted faith on a regular basis (just ask Galileo).  Each of these episodes packs an emotional punch, doing what science fiction does so well: examining the human condition from outside.

One of the high points of the season has to be the second episode, “Flashback.”  Tuvok winds up hosting a sort of disease which masquerades as a memory, which is really irrelevant to what makes the episode work:  we learn in the process of a Janeway-Tuvok mind-meld that Tuvok served on the Excelsior during the captaincy of Sulu, and we get to witness the events of the original series movie The Undiscovered Country from a fresh perspective.  We also find out quite a bit more about Tuvok, since that was his first period of service in Starfleet; he resigned his commission and went back to Vulcan, returning to Starfleet later.  So, in addition to Sulu and the Excelsior, we get to see some of Tuvok’s past weaknesses and growth.  Written to commemorate Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, the episode is tremendous fun and a nice entry into the series.

There are a few low points in the season, and while they do not approach the level of season two’s “Threshold,” they’re pretty bad.  The first one is a two-part episode, “Future’s End,” in which Voyager is dragged through a time portal to the 20th century due to a 26th century Federation time ship’s attempt to destroy Voyager in order to prevent a massive temporal explosion in its time.  Still with me?  The two-parter combines some terrible performances from guest stars who normally do a fine job (Ed Begley, Jr. and Sarah Silverman) with a script which is unfocused and has a number of plot holes.  For example, during an attempt to rescue some of the crew, Voyager is filmed flying over Los Angeles and shown on the news, and Captain Braxton, the 26th century time cop, is accidentally marooned on 20th century Earth.  At the end of the episode, when all is resolved, that footage still remains in Earth’s history, and Captain Braxton is left marooned on Earth.  Voyager also acquires a pretty nifty piece of 26th century technology, a mobile holoemitter, which they elect to keep in spite of opposing Begley’s character precisely because he was using future technology he shouldn’t have had access to—well, that and the fact that his actions were going to cause a massive explosion in the 26th century.  On the plus side, the holoemitter does give the Doctor some badly needed mobility.  And watching Janeway and Chakotay as a 20th century couple is fun in its own right, as well as a reminder that the two actors are remarkably attractive people.

The other major low point is “False Profits,” an episode in which Voyager encounters two Ferengi who were accidentally transported to the Delta Quadrant in an episode of The Next Generation, and take advantage of their situation to set up a religion based on the Ferengi deification of commercial principles—and to earn great riches as well.  The basic idea of revisiting a “loose end” in a Next Generation episode is sound, but the execution is anything but, something I lay at the feet of the scriptwriter.  Janeway and the crew set out to fix things by “out-Feregi-ing the Ferengi,” and it all goes terribly wrong.  Out-thought and tricked at every turn by the wiley Ferengi, Voyager actually winds up missing its chance to return to the Alpha Quadrant through the newly-stabilized wormhole that deposited the Ferengi in the Delta Quadrant in the first place, while the Ferengi sail through.  In other words, evil triumphs and our heroes fail, largely because of their uncharacteristic stupidity.  It was not a shining moment for the show, and I actually found myself wondering if the writer of the episode hated the show.

Character development is generally pretty good in this season, though some of it is unexplained, and the show’s willingness to confront its characters’ flaws as well as their strengths is, perhaps, a departure from standard Star Trek.  Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) demonstrates that she’s a stubborn woman who, while intent on doing the right thing, won’t back down from a fight.  That stubborness is both a strength and a weakness, and the show isn’t afraid to show it as such. Voyager also isn’t afraid to show her arrogant side, such as when she disagrees with Chakotay about how to handle the Borg, or when she confronts the need for faith in “Sacred Ground.”  Perhaps the strangest thing, though, is Janeway’s sudden disregard of Starfleet principles in the desire to get her people home, especially after her impassioned defense of said ideals in the second season.  Suddenly the “Ship of Death” moniker seems a little more appropriate, with Janeway decided to go through, rather than around, dangerous situations—sometimes with little or no regard for the rights of others, especially the aliens who happen to be in her way….

Chakotay (Robert Beltran) continues to develop into an even-keeled, thoughtful second-in-command with considerable patience and understanding of human nature.  He is always correct and proper with his captain, but there’s a lot more touching and meaningful glances than would be appropriate in a Federation starship in the Alpha Quadrant.  But Chakotay is also not afraid to disagree with his captain, and tell her what he thinks; their working relationship is a strong and solid one for much of the season.  I do have a quibble, however, in that in “Distant Origin” he announces that he, too, is a scientist, a theme which the show returns to here and there.  When, exactly, did he have time to become a scientist?  This is the first I’d heard of that, and there’s no further explanation.  Former Starfleet member, Native American with spiritual leanings, former terrorist, yes…scientist, no.  I think some writers didn’t realize that Janeway’s background as a scientist is not just talk, since she was a science officer before being tapped for command….

Tuvok (Tim Russ) is emerging as a strange figure indeed.  He is, perhaps, one of the few characters on the show who doesn’t seem to learn, and his arrogance toward other characters is grating.  He insists on the logical and the Starfleet way at all times, even though there have been at least two incidents when he seemed to have learned better in previous seasons, and his disdain for Neelix rises to the level of contempt in this season.  In short, Tuvok is rigid and resistant to change, holding to his opinions in the face of evidence to the contrary.  While perhaps in “Rise” he learns better about Neelix’s capacity for leadership and his strength, there’s simply no guarantee that the lesson will hold, given his past actions.  On the other hand, some of his past emerges, and he is definitely a flawed character with some intriguing traits and a stranger backstory than is immediately apparent.  It’s just a shame he’s not more likeable.

Neelix (Ethan Phillips) may have the most inconsistent treatment of any character during the season.  In “False Profits” he is threatened by two Ferengi, and cowardly spills the beans about the entire plan to out-Ferengi the Ferengi.  He falls in with a bad influence and participates, albeit unknowingly, in a drug deal, and then attempts to hide the evidence.  On the other hand, he stands up for himself against Tuvok’s scorn and emerges as a competent leader in “Rise.”

Kes (Jennifer Lien) continues to display her trademark compassion and concern, developing into the moral voice of the crew.  She also has developed considerable self-confidence and a will of steel, which enables her to stand up for the Doctor once again in “The Swarm” to prevent his being re-initialized.  “The Swarm” is a rather unsatisfying episode with a contradictory ending which suggests both that the Doctor’s growth has been lost, and that it has been retained even though he doesn’t remember it; it fails to have any actual consequences for the characters, in that the Doctor once again has his memory back in succeeding episodes.  Kes’ possession by an alien mind gives us further insight into her stronger side, as she fights a battle inside her own mind for control of herself, as well as generating emotional pyrotechnics.  Her scenes with Tuvok are always engaging as she attempts to learn to control her burgeoning gifts—gifts which are clearly greater than those of Tuvok.  Finally, “Before and After” shows Kes in the future, near the end of her seven year life span, aging backwards due to a technical error on the part of the doctor, and along the way we get a sense of just how good and compassionate the character truly is—as well as hints and signs of things to come, particularly the Krenim and “The Year of Hell” (if I had to guess, the episode was intended to give glimpses of a future that wouldn’t come to be, but “The Year of Hell” proved to be too tantalizing to leave alone).

This is as good a place as any to consider the character of the Doctor (Robert Picardo), and there are some disturbing glimpses into the Doctor and his changeability in this season.  We all “know” that the Doctor isn’t a “real” character, since he’s a computer-generated hologram, and the writers seem to be cognizant of this issue.  There was a lot of time and energy spent in seasons one and two establishing that, despite his gruff exterior and lack of bedside manner, the Doctor was, in fact, a real person—and his brilliance, competence and arrogance are central to his character.  But we get quite a bit more this season, and some it doesn’t bode well for the future.  First, in “Basics, Part II” the Doctor knowingly sets Suder’s recovery from the whole sociopathic killer thing back quite a ways, coldly aiming him at the Kazon intruders.  Given Suder’s essentially mentally ill status, that decision rather surprised me.  Remember, too, that this is before anyone started messing with his program in any of the ways that we see happen further down the line.  Next, the Doctor loses his memory, only not really, in the “B” plot in “The Swarm.”  A confusing episode, that, and its total effect on the Doctor’s character works out to nothing.  “The Darkling” shows that the Doctor’s personality, real as it may be, is subject to all kinds of meddling—in this case his, and well-intentioned, but ultimately dangerous.  The Doctor simply isn’t the same as the other crew members, and that has disturbing implications for the future.

Poor Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) continues in his role as the guy to whom weird things happen (this time it’s a planet of black widow women who want him for a mate).  In this season, though, we learn a little bit about what drives him—he had a domineering and driving mother who wanted what was best for him, and who he loves as only a son can love a mother (which explains his regard for Janeway, a substitute mother figure).  But we also see him take center stage as the strong one when he and Paris are in prison and Paris is injured (“The Chute”), and we learn that he has a drive to be “special” (“Favorite Son”).  That episode also showcases the character’s qualities of intelligence and resourcefulness.  He’s still young, and he still sometimes says things he shouldn’t, but the callowness and raw nature of his character is being smoothed away as he matures.

Finally, there’s Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson).  Starting in season three, you almost have to consider them together, because there’s definitely something going on.  Paris is a damaged fellow who’s made some serious mistakes, and he uses humor to keep everyone around him at an emotional distance.  Torres is a damaged lass who’s made some serious mistakes, and she uses aggression to keep everyone around her at an emotional distance.  As you can imagine, their courtship—and make no mistake, that’s exactly what we see—is a bumpy one.  When, due to a telepathic mishap (really, telepathy seems to cause a lot of problems on this show), B’Elanna goes into the Vulcan version of heat (ponn far) (“Blood Fever”), Paris refuses to take advantage of her but the chemistry between the two is very real.  As an aside, B’Elanna demonstrates that she’s a strong-willed woman who is quite capable (literally, in this case) of fighting her own battles in this episode.

It is in three of the last five episodes of the season that we see the two working together, showing strengths as a pair which complement one another and benefit the ship.  First, in the heart-breaking, tear-jerking “Real Life,” the pair work on the Doctor and convince him to go back to his holographic family after it becomes a total mess.  “Displaced” gives us B’Elanna and Tom in deadly danger after aliens have imprisoned the crew, but working very handily together to create havoc for their enemies.  Finally, in “Worst Case Scenario,” B’Elanna discovers a secret holonovel which asks, “What if Chakotay led a mutiny?”  It is, of course, Tom she choses to tell about this piece of subversive fiction.

“Worst Case Scenario” is notable for the return of Seska (Martha Hackett), the Cardassian infiltrator.  It turns out that the holonovel was written by Tuvok as a training exercise in the early days of the crews’ merger aboard Voyager.  Seska found the program and messed with it, creating a dangerous situation for the unlikely pair of Tuvok and Paris.  It’s nice to see these two working together for a change, and their female partners, Janeway and Torres (platonic in the first pairing, but still a close partnership), working together to save the two inside a holodeck program gone wrong.  Seska’s last gasp was an appropriately malevolent and sneaky thing for her to have done, and it’s nice to see her on the screen one last time.

That just leaves us with the cliffhanger conclusion to the season, the astonishing (and expensive) “Scorpion, Part I.”  Part I of the two-part episode gives plenty of meat to chew on, but it’s also reportedly one of the most expensive episodes of the series, and that shows in the special effects.  Briefly, Voyager finally encounters Borg space, something presaged in “Unity.”  As Janeway says in the episode, they have always known that the Borg were in the Delta Quadrant, and now our heroes are confronted with the legendary insurmountable obstacle.  They find a corridor of space full of gravimetric distortions and singularities, which they call “the Northwest Passage,” which appears to offer a safe way through Borg space.

Naturally, the Northwest Passage is anything but safe.  It turns out to be the invasion site of a malevolent race, called Species 8472 by the Borg.  That species turns out to be worse—far worse, in fact—than the Borg.  Kes’ telepathy makes it clear that this species will kill anything and everything that it can: “the weak will perish.”  Or at least that’s one potential interpretation.  Chakotay sees the Borg as worse, since assimilation is a sort of unending death, and while Species 8472 is a race of genocidal meanies, the 8472s will only kill you.  The conflict between these two views, the first embodied by Janeway and the second by Chakotay, is what drives the episode.  Chakotay tells the parable of the fox and the scorpion, warning that the Borg will, like the scorpion, sting.  They can’t help it; it’s their nature.  Janeway takes the position that a deal with the devil is the only real choice that the crew has, and it will be to the ultimate benefit of the galaxy.

To be fair, there’s no way to ally with the genocidal Species 8472, while the Borg might be desperate enough to cooperate.  And the only other alternative is to try to go around the “vast” Borg space or actually settle in the Delta Quadrant.  I’m not sure which alternative Chakotay prefers….

I have to point out here that the Borg are the ultimate Next Generation enemy.  They’re the science fiction equivalent of vampires, converting anyone they meet to copies of themselves, so that they can expand and do it again and again.  In many ways, they’re the most terrifying concept to come out of Star Trek, a mad fusion of biology and technology with all the self-restraint of cancer and a serious threat to individuality every time they grace the screen, and enough raw technological power to stomp on any of the races of the Alpha Quadrant.  Species 8472 is intended to be even worse, a telepathic species with biological technology impervious to assimilation and possessed of a malevolent and destructive mindset.  They prove to be able to do unto the Borg as the Borg have done to so many other species.  As you can imagine, this is a visually rich and intellectually shocking development, and the episode makes the most of it, with gorgeous and stunning space battles.  As an aside, the designers of Species 8472 were the same folks who did both the Shadows and the Vorlons for Babylon 5, and there are certain visual similarities between the three.

During their investigations, the Doctor discovers a way to modify Borg nanoprobes into a weapon against Species 8472.  Because humans investigate, while the Borg assimilate—and Species 8472 has proven to be immune to assimilation—the crew of Voyager is in a unique position to provide the Borg a weapon against Species 8472.

Janeway is the captain, so they do it her way, and they meet “Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01,” a female human Borg.  Seven of Nine is the captain’s liason with the Borg in their attempts to create a large-scale weapon.  Species 8472 demonstrates why it’s winning the war with the Borg.  While Janeway is on a Borg cube, Species 8472 attacks, destroying a Borg planet and two cubes.  The surviving Borg cube and Voyager flee the devastation….

And that, my friends, is it for season three.  Heck of an ending, even if it recycles some concepts from earlier series.

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