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

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, television, TV with tags , , on April 30, 2012 by top50sf

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.


A Soap Opera In Space: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, television, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2012 by top50sf

Star Trek: Voyager:  The fourth television series set in the Star Trek universe, Voyager takes place in the same general time period as The Next Generation but features Star Trek’s first female captain of a much smaller, though unique, starship lost in the Delta Quadrant 70,000 light years, or twenty years’ travel time, from home. I’ve already reviewed season one, and since I’m still watching and enjoying, here’s my take on season two.

Star Trek: VoyagerI’m not sure exactly what was going on during the second season, which was Voyager‘s first full season, but it produced some amazing drama and a great deal of fun for me.  It may be significant that Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga, two writers from Star Trek: The Next Generation, played a large role in the second season, writing or contributing to 11 of the season’s 26 episodes.  On the other hand, Braga wrote what was arguably the worst episode of Star Trek ever, so…

What made this season so much fun was the soap opera quality it brought to the table.  A storyline might begin in one episode as a seed, and grow throughout several episodes until it flowers into the center of an episode all its own.  The major plot line revolves around Seska, the Maquis crewman who was actually a Cardassian spy who betrayed Voyager in season one, escaping to join the Kazon, Voyager’s mortal enemies.

Martha Hackett, who played Seska, was a brilliant antagonist for Captain Janeway, and she always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else.  Admittedly, I’d hate to see the series’ heroes consistently outplayed, out-fought, and out-thought every episode, but Seska proved to be a tenacious and dangerous adversary who had Starfleet, Maquis and Cardassian experience and training.  Seska manipulates Chakotay easily, and finds the Kazon Nistrim Cullah easy prey as well.  Before everything is said and done, she has both Chakotay and Cullah believing that they are the father of her baby (a soap opera style plotline if there ever wasy one).  Hackett’s performances simply stole the show in all of her episodes (it’s hard to believe that this plotline was central to only four episodes).  Indeed, this storyline wound up being critical to the season’s cliffhanger ending—something I’ll address again a little further along.  But before we hit the ending, we get intriguing glimpses into an arrogant but extremely capable woman, the Kazon culture in which she’s immersed herself, and the character defects of our heroes.  In a way, it’s a shame that the goodness had to end…

But that’s hardly all that Season 2 had going for it.  A love triangle involving Kes, Neelix and Paris added fuel to the fire.  Neelix displays insane jealousy throughout the first few episodes of the season, while Kes constantly told Neelix that Paris was just a friend, and Paris actually backed off when he realized he was beginning to feel something for Kes.  All of this may have worked better if Neelix and Kes had more or better chemistry, but Neelix generally came off as more of a mentor or protector for Kes, with no hint of sex or romantic involvement.  I guess since they’re both aliens, that’s okay.  At any rate, we get the first food fight in space when Neelix’s temper boils over, and the boys wind up stranded on Planet Hell, where their shared experience allows them to bond.  All in all, a nice arc for the two, which has ramifications for their friendship, and the chance to tug on the viewer’s heartstrings, throughout the rest of the season.

As an aside, “Investigations” featured then Prince, now King, Abdullah bin al-Hussein II of Jordan in a non-speaking role.  Hussein was a fan of the show, but could not be given a speaking role because he was not in the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Paris’ character development through the second season was nothing short of amazing.  In the first season, Paris is clearly trying hard to fit in and be a member of the crew, and in season two, that continues, but in Paris’ own way.  His emotional armor is up, and he’s never without a quip or a joke.  Paris holds everyone at a distance even while being the life of the party, even—or perhaps especially—with his best friend Harry Kim.  But in “Threshold,” which is in many ways the worst hour of Star Trek ever filmed (only DS9’s “Run Along Home” can really compete), Paris displays what really moves him: he’s a pilot, first and foremost, and he wants to be the first to achieve warp 10.  Somehow during the process the Paris shell cracks and we get a chance to see what really moves the man, and we get insight into how his mistakes may have flowed out of his conflicts with his father, a Starfleet Admiral.

A word about “Threshold” before we continue, since I’ve labeled it one of the worst hours of Star Trek in history.  The basic premise of the story is that you can’t achieve warp 10, because when you do, your speed is infinite and you exist throughout space simultaneously.  There are obvious advantages to such a speed, if you can reach it, namely that every point in the universe is accessible in an instant, and so Voyager‘s crew is assiduously researching this idea.  The flaw in the episode comes about from the consequences of achieving warp 10, which our intrepid crew manages to do: Paris changes rapidly into a superhuman being, the purported endpoint of human evolution.  And what, you may ask, is Star Trek’s view of such a perfected being?  It’s a lizard of some kind, apparently.  I could have lived with that if that was just something that happened to Paris through some quirk of his DNA or something, but since it also happened to Janeway, and since the crew rescued the two but left their litter of hyper-evolved children behind, I’m less than sanguine about the episode.  Brannan Braga, who wrote the episode, has acknowledged that they were not successful in what they were trying to do, and that this was in fact the worst episode he wrote.*

In the wake of “Threshold,” Paris’ character takes a turn for the worse as he develops seditious and downright insubordinate traits.  This progresses and worsens throughout the second half of the season until Paris leaves Voyager—all of which was a ruse, cooked up by Janeway, Tuvok and Paris in order to flush out a traitor supplying information to the Kazon and Seska.  The situation comes to a head in “Investigations,” in which “A Briefing With Neelix,” Neelix’s television-like contribution to morale, uncovers the true traitor and restores Paris’ good name.

Another intriguing aspect of the season is Captain Janeway’s never-named holonovel, which appears to be something along the lines of a Victorian novel in which Janeway takes the role of a nanny to a strange family where the mother may or may not be dead.  It gives the writers an excuse to put Janeway in a subservient, but not menial or lesser, role, and dress her up as well.  The holonovel becomes a focus for some telepathic skulduggery, but the holonovel does show us a different aspect of the otherwise tough-as-nails Janeway.  Incidentally, that episode, “Persistance of Vision,” does some intriguing things—especially for Star Trek.  The alien (his race was Botha) is driven off by Kes, who shows off some impressive (if passive) telepathic abilities, but interestingly, the alien was bad because it was fun, and Voyager neither got the last word nor stopped him from doing his thing to others…

Another fascinating episode came up when the crew realized that they had a serial killer aboard the ship.  It turned out to be Ensign Suder, a Betazed (and therefore telepathic) former Maquis.  Brad Dourif played Suder, and his chilling monologues about violence were actually a little scary.  His telepathic mind-meld with the Vulcan security officer Tuvok proved to be scary as well, upsetting Tuvok’s rather tenuous emotional controls.  Dourif played Chucky in Child’s Play, by the way, and true to season two’s form, this would not be the only episode featuring Suder.

Ensign Samantha Wildman, a secondary character, comes to Captain Janeway and tells her that she’s pregnant—her husband, and the baby’s father, is in the Alpha Quadrant and doesn’t even know that Wildman is pregnant.  The pregnancy persists throughout the season, culminating in a birth which would go on to have ramifications for the rest of the series.

The second season is also the first time in which the phrase “ship of death” is used.  Turns out that the Kazon have been spreading nasty rumors about Voyager and her crew, though to be fair, there are a lot of explosions and whatnot when Voyager comes around.  Still, this is the first time we’ve seen a Next Generation era starship operating so far from the Federation, and it’s refreshing to see alien reactions to the cloyingly noble Federation.

In the first episode of season two, we learn that Voyager, in addition to its other unique qualities, can actually land.  That’s a first for Star Trek, and it probably says more about the evolution (and cost) of special effects than anything else.  Sadly, once the writers got it into their heads that Voyager can land, they seemed to want to bring it up, and season two sees the starship on the ground three times.

B’ellana Torres continues to develop as a character, having faced and understood her Klingon half, and she seems more at peace in season two.  She’s also less inclined to flout the rules, which may have something to do with her continuing bonding with Captain Janeway.  The two are always riveting when they’re on the screen together, and though that usually involves science and engineering, the aptly-titled episode “Maneuvers” features an impassioned Torres defending the actions of a wayward Chakotay to Captain Janeway.  These two actors really work well together, and they are tremendous fun to watch when they’re together.  Torres’ embarrassment at seeing a fellow crewmember in the near-altogether is also amusing.

Chakotay gets a lot to do this season, and it’s not all being manipulated by Seska—for whom he apparently had very strong feelings at one point.  But we do get to see more of his background both as a Maquis and as a Native American, which is both good and interesting.  Poor Harry Kim continues in his role as the ensign to whom wierd things happen: in this season, he has to leave a doomed Voyager in one reality and board another Voyager which lost its Ensign Kim, as well as being transferred to an alternate timeline in which he was never aboard Voyager at all.  The holographic doctor continues to develop as a person, even falling in love and having a brief romantic relationship, while Kes displays new strengths as well as her trademark compassion.  She even tricks the holodoctor at one point by programming a simulated illness to last longer than he expects, in order to teach him what it’s like to be sick.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Tuvix,” an episode which has generated substantial fan and critical response as well as philosophical analysis.  To be honest, I found the episode a little trite, and felt that some of the characters’ actions were difficult to understand.  In brief, a transporter accident fuses Tuvok and Neelix into the title character, a new being with some of the characteristics of both individuals.  Needless to say, the question of what to do with the fused being is at the heart of the episode’s moral ambiguity.  After two weeks, the doctor discovers a way to take Tuvix apart and retain Tuvok and Neelix, but by then, members of the crew have bonded with Tuvix and he himself views the procedure as a death sentence.  Ultimately, Captain Janeway has to intervene, and the episode seems to garner strong emotional responses from viewers.

Voyager ends season two with one heck of a bang.  Seska, having cemented her position in the woman-hating Kazon culture, manages to lead Cullah and his Kazon Nistrim in a raid and then an ambush which succeeds in taking Voyager.  At the end of the episode, Paris has escaped in a shuttle, while the Doctor and Ensign Suder, the serial killing Betazed, are left on the ship and the remainder of the crew is marooned on a dangerous planet.  It’s one heck of a season finale…

* I think I need to defend Braga, in spite of his numerous detractors among Star Trek fans.  Let’s face it: the man wrote almost 150 episodes of Star Trek in 15 years, an astonishing output which included some very fine episodes, many of which showed up in Voyager.  He wrote the scripts for the highest and second highest grossing Star Trek movies (Generations and First Contact).  He’s a creative powerhouse who, like all of us, has made a few mistakes along the way, but we shouldn’t lose sight of his successes. (Jump back!)

Captain Kirk is the Great White Whale of the Galaxy: #22, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2012 by top50sf


Director:  Nicholas Meyer

Cast:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Bibi Besch, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Alley, Merritt Butrick

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, hot whitish star).  No ifs, ands or buts…this is far and away the best of Star Trek’s (the original series) voyages into the theater.  It’s got a villain from the series, the heroic death of a beloved character, a terrifying weapon, and plenty of character interaction between the big three, with enough for the “secondary” characters to do.  To top it off, the effects still look good, and it boasts one of the best space battles in cinematic history (something it managed to do without losing the capital ship-feel of the series).  What keeps it from being a Class O or Class B?  It does have some scripting problems, and the story feels a little too pat…


Fair warning before we get moving, here:  I’m one of those people who can tell you about the destruction of the Enterprise, Enterprise A, Enterprise C, and Enterprise D (as far as I know, in the original series continuity, as opposed to reboot continuity, no one knows what happened to the B, though it has been on the big screen).  In other words, I’m something of a fan, and I have a good memory, and…oh hell.  Truth is I’m a Star Trek fanatic and I love the series.  So take my review with a grain of salt.

I will not spend a lot of time here explaining the basics of the Star Trek franchise—it’s sufficiently popular, and this is a science fiction blog, for me to assume you’ve got some idea about the basics of the series.  This movie, the second installment of the franchise, comes cold on the heels of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is generally perceived as something of a flop and which was not well-received critically.

There are the big four characters, of course: Captain Kirk (William Shatner), the half-Vulcan Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the irascible Dr. McCoy (Deforest Kelly), and of course the Enterprise itself.  But once you have them, for the most part you have Star Trek.  Star Trek II offers plenty for all four to do, with actual character development and movement tied to the film’s themes of aging, life and what it means to face death…

Star Trek II didn’t stop there, though, bringing back the entire slate of “secondary” characters and giving most of them fun things to do on-screen, as well as bringing back an intensely-drawn and performed villain from the series, and coupling it with new characters, a tightly plotted and thematically superior story, and a set of re-imagined visuals which breathed new life into the franchise.

In almost every way, Star Trek II surpassed its predecessor, and critical and commercial reception was very positive—perhaps the only thing that saved the franchise, in fact, and paved the way for four more TOS films and four more series.  The movie broke box office records for the opening weekend, and went on to become the sixth-highest grossing film of 1982.  Fan response was overwhelmingly positive, and the film has a 92% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy is getting old, and he’s lost all his girls.  Boy’s enemy lures boy into a trap.  Boy and boy’s enemy manage to hurt each other’s rides.  Boy’s enemy withdraws.  Boy meets girl again.  Girl has some surprises in store for Boy, including his son.  Boy’s enemy steals the other surpise, a terraforming device which is also a terrible weapon, and seemingly maroons Boy, Girl and Boy’s posse.  Boy has a trick left, and takes his posse back to his ride.  Boy and boy’s enemy face off in a climactic battle.  Boy wins.  Boy’s enemy activates the weapon.  Boy’s friend sacrifices his life to fix Boy’s ride.  Boy and his posse escape destruction.  The day is saved!

Setup:  Unless you’re either young or completely immune to popular culture, you know who Captain Kirk, his science officer and second in command Spock, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer, are.  You probably also know the key others:  Scotty the engineer, Sulu the helmsman, Chekov the weapons dude, and Uhura the communication chick.  What you may not remember is episode #22 from the series’ first season, “Space Seed.”  You can get by without the backstory—the movie does a pretty good job of explication—but it’s always nice to have it…

In “Space Seed,” the Enterprise encounters the Botany Bay, a ship drifting with a crew in suspended animation.  That crew turns out to be Khan Noonien Singh and his followers.  Khan is a genetically engineered superman—bred to be a soldier—who, during the Eugenics Wars on Earth, went from soldier to brutal tyrant who controlled about a quarter of the Earth.  He tries to take over the Enterprise and relaunch his conquest of humanity, but is foiled by Kirk.  Kirk maroons Khan and his followers, including a member of his crew who fell in love with Khan, on Ceti Alpha V, where both Kirk and Khan hope that Khan will develop a new and vibrant society.  Khan views Ceti Alpha V as a challenge and looks forward to it, while Kirk has saved the Federation from a potentially grave threat.

Fast forward some years and a disaster later, and the stage is set for these two enemies to find one another again.


The visuals in this film are pretty impressive by my standards, even now, though to many the effects seem dated.  It’s worth noting that the effects were not the emphasis of the film.  Nevertheless, the old model technique holds up well here, in part due to a slower and more majestic type of space combat.  The Enterprise and Khan’s stolen Reliant are not nimble fighters, or even destroyers; they are massive capital ships with a slower, stately movement which brings to mind the sailing vessels of the 17th and 18th centuries, complete with devastating broadsides as the ships maneuver into range.  For filming purposes, the models were stationary while the cameras moved, and all of the damage to the two ships was simulated, as the models were very expensive.  The Reliant, by the way, was the first Federation starship shown on film or television which was not a Constitution-class vessel—it became the basis for the Miranda class vessels seen in The Next Generation.

The nebula effect, where the final battle between Khan and Kirk takes place was beautifully realized.  I have no idea, of course, what the inside of a nebula might look like, though I suspect that they aren’t anywhere near as exciting as most science fiction makes them out to be.  However, the visuals were amazing.  They were created using a tank of water with injections of latex and ammonia, along with colored lighting.

While the look of the Enterprise itself is unchanged from the first movie—in fact, the Enterprise model is the same one in both movies—the look of the crew and their uniforms and the ship interiors is a bit different.  Harve Bennett, the producer who took over Star Trek II, wanted a more nautical feel, and he feared that the television series’ uniforms would appear dated.  Other nautical touches include a boatswain’s call and a ship’s bell, giving the movie a distinct look and feel which would be retained for the movies into The Next Generation‘s forays onto the big screen.

Musically, the movie faced a bit of a challenge:  how do you follow up Star Trek‘s Jerry Goldsmith score while keeping your budget low?  Paramount solved the problem by bringing in a 28 year old composer, James Horner, who composed a terrific orchestral score without reference to the music of the first film.  Instead, it uses the iconic sound of the original series, translated to a full orchestra, to open the movie, which then segues into a motif which, during the course of the movie, becomes Kirk’s theme.  The Enterprise, Khan and Spock also get themes of their own—the Enterprise a softer version of Kirk’s theme and Khan a stirring percussive bass theme.

The actors do a fine job in this movie.  The true standout is Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh—he’s not just a super-intelligent and super-strong would-be conqueror in this movie; he’s a hate-filled avatar of vengeance, and Montalban’s scenery-chewing performance probably makes the film (and accounts for the Online Film Critics’ Society’s designation of Khan as the tenth greatest movie villain of all time).  Montalban takes some relatively bad lines, such as “Revenge is a dish best served cold.  And it is very, very cold in space” and turns them into signature aspects of his character.  His performance is even more impressive when you realize that he never appeared in the same shot with Shatner, and his halves of the conversations between the two men—performed over starship viewscreens or communicators—were actually run with a script girl.

The big three—Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley—also turn in above-average performances and really seemed to understand exactly what was going on thematically in the story.  Shatner’s often-lampooned over-acting is absent here, instead replaced by a warmly human (and vulnerable) performance.  Nimoy’s got Spock down pat, and Kelley’s Bones just seemed to get better with age.  James Doohan, as Scotty, turns in an impassioned performance which showcases more of the actor’s range than is commonly visible.  Walter Koenig’s Chekov shines as well, though as Reliant’s first officer he’s got more screen time than many of the “secondary” characters.

The other notable performances come from new-comers to the Star Trek universe.  Bibi Besch gives an absolutely delightful performance as Carol Marcus, the scientist in charge of the Genesis Project—and a former girlfriend of Kirk’s, who “forgot” to tell Kirk about their son.  She projects intelligence paired with beauty, and she has a serenity and a presence which implies that she is a formidable person and leader in her own right.  Kirstie Alley, in her first film role as Spock’s protege Lieutenant Savik, gives something of a mixed performance—though apparently that’s not really her fault.  Savik was supposed to be of mixed Vulcan and Romulan heritage, and quite young—and hence given to displays of emotion.  Unfortunately, none of that background made it onto the screen, which leaves the viewer with the impression that Alley’s Savik is pretty emotional for a Vulcan.  On the other hand, viewed as a character with imperfect emotional control, someone who aspires to Vulcan logic and lack of passion but isn’t there yet, Alley’s performance is nicely nuanced.  It’s a pity that the movie didn’t make that clear, because otherwise Savik’s emotions are rather puzzling.

For a child of the sixties and seventies, there are a number of interesting casting details in this movie.  Scotty’s nephew is played by Ike Eisenmann, who played Tony in Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel Escape From Witch Mountain, as well as a number of ABC’s after-school specials (“you can do it, Duffy Moon!”).  Kirk’s son is played by Merritt Butrick, and he appeared on the short-lived but quite memorable television series Square Pegs.  Finally, Judson Scott, who plays Joachim, a young right-hand man to Khan, appeared in the short-lived science fiction series The Phoenix.

There are two major thematic elements in the film.  First, there’s Kirk’s concern with the aging process, which is paired with his refusal and inability to face his own, or anyone else’s, mortality.  Then there’s Khan’s crazed obsession with revenge, with the obvious and intentional parallels with Moby Dick.  Both themes are well-developed and help to give the movie a great deal of emotional intensity and complexity.  The themes also intersect nicely, with Khan doubling as a symbol and harbinger of death, thereby bringing the two themes into close proximity.

The aging theme is significantly advanced by a wonderful scene early in the movie between Bones and Kirk, and Bones’ birthday present of authentic eyeglasses (to accompany aged Romulan ale) becomes a prop which carries through the film (Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, which might be regarded as a foreshadowing of Spock’s self-sacrifice).  Death, of course, is tied into the aging theme as well, and Starfleet’s training exercise—the Kobayashi Maru simulation—is designed to teach young officers how to face and deal with the “no-win situation” in which death is inevitable.  Of course Kirk cheated the exercise by changing the simulation’s programming, and he is forced to confront death head-on when, at the end of the movie, Spock’s sacrifice saves the ship but kills him.  The death of an engineering ensign, a favorite of Scotty’s, presages Spock’s death, and Khan himself is a symbol of death and destruction as well.  Death and aging are woven into the movie from its beginning.

Khan’s obsession with revenge upon Kirk is much like Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, the great white whale which cost him his leg.  Indeed, a copy of Moby Dick is prominently displayed in the ruined Botany Bay, where Khan makes his home on the ruined Ceti Alpha V.  As if that weren’t enough, Khan’s death speech is a near-word-for-word duplicate of Ahab’s impassioned speech at the end of Moby Dick.  Khan explicitly rejects the idea that, with both Reliant and Genesis, he can simply leave the crippled Enterprise behind and claim victory.  Instead, for the sake of vengeance, he pursues the crippled Enterprise into a nebula which eliminates his advantages of functioning shields, sensors and warp drive—leading to the death of his entire crew.

The ending of the film doesn’t feel like a doom-and-gloom, death-comes-for-us-all-in-the-end kind of ending, however.  Instead, the death and aging theme hits the rebirth element which was lurking in the background all the while.  The film leaves you with a rather uplifting message in which Kirk states “I feel young” while gazing out on the brand new world brimming with new life where a dangerous nebula had been.  The transformation from aging and death to birth and renewal comes from Spock’s heroic act of self-sacrifice.  That self-sacrifice is his own answer to the no-win scenario, and so it is a stirring affirmation of the human spirit in the face of death, as well as a triumph over that very no-win situation.  Spock’s death also forces Kirk to confront death—and thereby to grow and develop as a person.

One of the other aspects of the movie which keeps the aging process from being a wholly bad thing is the way in which age and experience trump youth and a lack of experience every time.  The knowledgeable and experienced Kirk manages to force the Reliant to drop its shields from the Enterprise’s bridge, and Khan, who’s never commanded a starship before, can’t get them raised again.  Kirk and Spock concoct a code on the fly which deceives their enemies.  Spock suggests that they lure the Reliant into a nearby nebula, where the less-damaged Reliant will lose its advantages.  Kirk’s superior knowledge and experience of tactics gives the advantage there to the Enterprise, and even the killing blow is dealt by Chekov, a weapons specialist, instead of Sulu, who—as a helmsman rather than a weapons officer—isn’t quite capable of finishing the kill before Chekov returns to duty.

It’s worth mentioning that the development process of this movie was unusually long and convoluted, and may have contributed to some of the plot elements which made their way onto the big screen.  Basically, Paramount was decidedly unhappy with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  They spent a lot of money and started an enormous marketing campaign, which included toys, a novel, a comic book, and happy meals, among other things, and that film’s lackluster critical and commercial response nearly killed the franchise.

Any rational view of Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have to conclude that it was a commercial success.  It broke the box office records for the weekend opening gross, for example.  However, the process of bringing it to the screen took over four years, numerous script re-writes, and a diversion into the idea of an updated television series featuring a second five-year mission (called Star Trek Phase II).  During that development process, the cost of the project tripled.  And in light of the massive success of Star Wars, the big shots at Paramount can perhaps be excused for being disappointed with the performance of Star Trek I.  Some of the negative critical reception focused on the first movie’s emphasis on special effects and lack of story.

Paramount essentially fired Roddenberry (under the guise of moving him up in the hierarchy) and brought in Harve Bennett to script and write the sequel, and they reduced the size of the budget enormously.  A new director, a new producer, an emphasis on cutting costs…and the result is a movie which is visually very different from its predecessors, and which emphasizes themes foreign to the upbeat and optimistic (if seldom light-hearted) original series or its successor The Next Generation.  Take it how you will—and I do love the optimistic view of the future in Roddenberry’s vision—but you would probably have a hard time getting anyone to seriously contend that this is not the best of the Star Trek movies.

The death of Spock, one of the key elements of the movie, actually came about because the promise of a good death scene was the only way Paramount could lure Leonard Nimoy into doing another Star Trek movie.  Nimoy had no interest in the proposed Phase II series, and wanted Spock to go out in a blaze of glory—he apparently felt that the series was done.  Paramount and Bennett hedged their bets, however, by bringing in Savik, another Vulcan, and the Genesis conceit gave Paramount an easy way to reset the board if that proved necessary.

With all that good stuff, you might be wondering at this point what on earth I have against the movie.  You may recall I mentioned some scripting issues, and they are definitely there.  I’ve already mentioned the stilted and in some cases truly terrible dialogue the script puts in Khan’s mouth, and only Montalban’s performance avoided that trap.  And the finished movie’s failure to identify Savik as half-Vulcan is pretty close to unforgivable; Savik openly cries during the course of the film, something no Vulcan would ever do.  Chekhov recognizes Khan when he encounters him, but Chekov wasn’t on the show (and presumably not serving on the Enterprise) when Kirk first encounters Khan.  Khan’s taking of the Reliant is not shown on-screen, and you don’t find out what happened to its crew (marooned on Ceti Alpha V) until several scenes later, when it is mentioned in a throw-away line.  The Kobayashi Maru simulation, which is perhaps the emotional core of the film, is something Kirk cheated when he took it—but we subsequently discover that he only cheated on his third try.  That implies, of course, that Kirk did face death and the no-win situation the first and second times he took the test, thereby neatly eviscerating the film’s primary theme.  There are minor things like this peppered throughout the script, and they do detract a bit from the movie.


Still and all, The Wrath of Khan is a wonderful ride.  It has plenty of surprises the first time you see it, but retains its emotional power when you see the film a second (or third or…) time.  For the most part, Star Trek II gets everything right, and it’s well worth taking a look if you enjoy science fiction, Star Trek, or character-driven adventure movies.