Faces (VOY S1E13)

Faces is another story that might have had more impact later in Voyager’s run. This story spotlights B’Elanna Torres, illustrating in time-tested sci-fi fashion the different sides of her personality, and I’m not sure we know Torres well enough yet for this analysis to really hit home. More to the point, I don’t know if Roxann Dawson has been given enough material yet to know her character to the degree needed to truly nail this episode.
I think she rocks it anyway, and her dual performance is one of the main reasons to slot Faces into the good category. The story is reminiscent of The Enemy Within, that original series episode that saw Kirk split into his honorable and monstrous halves. In this one, the Vidiians return, still seeking a cure for the phage, and they use their magical powers… er, I mean, advanced medical technology to divide Torres into two separate people, one human and one Klingon.
Why have they done this? The Vidiians have never met a Klingon before, and they have surmised that Klingon genomes may contain phage-resistant properties. With no pure Klingons available, they kidnap Torres (and Paris and some guy named Durst that we met last episode) while they are on an away mission to explore a planet. They extract Torres’ Klingon DNA and grow a whole new Torres, one that is full-on Klingon, and infect her with the phage. And they lock up the now-fully-human other Torres with her shipmates.
We spend the next 40 minutes or so contrasting the two B’Elannas, and Dawson does a remarkable job of distinguishing them. Klingon Torres is angry, of course, and rages at Sulan, the Vidiian scientist who has her held captive. Human Torres, on the other hand, is relieved – we learn about her childhood in a Federation colony on Kessik Four, where she and her mother were the only Klingons, and how she used to hide her forehead ridges and wish she could just be human. And we learn that her father left them when she was a kid, and that she has blamed herself and her half-Klingon appearance for this since then.
This is the first moment of vulnerability we have seen from Torres, and the implication is that her Klingon half has kept her going, but also has kept her emotionally distant. The human Torres cowers from the guards when they come to the cell and take Durst away, while the Klingon Torres breaks her bonds and escapes. This is just after one of the darkest things I’ve seen in Star Trek. When Durst was taken away, it was pretty well understood that he’d be killed and harvested for organs. But what I didn’t expect was Sulan to peel off Durst’s face and wear it as his own. This is so creepy that it comes close to stepping over the line for me, and I’m shivering thinking about it again.
Of course Torres’s shipmates don’t know what has happened, only that their away team needs rescuing. So Chakotay volunteers to be surgically altered into a Vidiian. (They are horribly disfigured, with what looks like rotting flesh, so it’s quite the transformation.) But within the Vidiian compound, the Klingon Torres finds her human counterpart and rescues her. This sparks the first conversation between the two of them, and it’s basic, but it gets the point across: both human and Klingon Torres see the other as a liability, but they need each other’s strengths. Human Torres can disable the forcefield around the compound, while Klingon Torres can fight off the guards long enough for her to do so.
The ending is interesting. Not the plot, that goes about how you’d expect: Chakotay rescues Paris, the human Torres drops the forcefield and everyone beams back to Voyager. But the Klingon Torres actually dies jumping in front of Sulan’s gun to protect her human half, and Torres holds her own hand as she watches herself pass away. I figured the Trek team might complete the homage to The Enemy Within and use the transporter to join the two halves of Torres back together, but no. The human Torres is left, with no obvious reason to return to her former self.
But of course, the script gives us a reason – Torres’s cells cannot survive without the Klingon DNA that has been extracted from them. This feels weak, but it makes the metaphorical point well enough. The two sides of B’Elanna Torres need each other, no matter how at odds they can be. Torres even says she feels incomplete without the Klingon parts of her personality. So the Doctor promises to regraft the DNA in place, and of course Torres will be back to the way we know her at the start of the next episode. But I liked that we ended without that, closing instead on a fully human Torres realizing that her Klingon side is a necessary part of her.
Truthfully, these are the kind of surface-level observations about a half-Klingon character that the writers could scratch together from note cards, but given how little we actually know about Torres at this point, Faces does a pretty good job with its premise. Roxann Dawson is magnetic, the Vidiians become Voyager’s most interesting returning villain (which, given the competition, wasn’t too hard, but still), and the ending is surprising. I’ll call that a win. This would have been a better season four episode, but it’s a good season one episode anyway.
Random stuff:
I cannot emphasize enough how creepy seeing Sulan wearing Durst’s face is. The same actor – Brian Markinson – was cast to play both parts, and the makeup effect was bone-chilling. This was the first “kids shouldn’t watch Voyager” moment for me, and it was a doozy. (But… Faces. Get it?)
Dawson was given two different versions of the script, one for her human character and one for her Klingon one, to emphasize the split between them. It seemed to work – the scenes with the two of them split-screened together work impressively well, Dawson playing two very different people. (And the Trek team cast a photo double named Joy Kilpatrick with a strong resemblance to Dawson, for scenes that did not require both Torreses speaking.)
Hey, we meet another Talaxian, Neelix’s race. This one is held captive by the Vidiians and helps our crew out.
There is apparently an action figure of the fully Klingon Torres, but not one of the fully human one.
Tomorrow, Jetrel. Onward!

Cathexis (VOY S1E12)

A cathexis is an investment of mental energy on a person or idea. It’s a psychological term meant to describe the way we identify with or wish for certain things outside of ourselves. Freud used the term to illustrate how the id expends its energy, desiring objects or people, sometimes to our detriment.
There, now you know the most interesting thing about Cathexis, a confused and ultimately unsatisfying ship-bound psychodrama. This one tries for all kinds of tones, but its tell-don’t-show approach, almost certainly a consequence of budget issues, makes for a pointless and dull affair with a final twist that feels clever in the moment but makes little sense. The cast does their best with this one, but the script leaves them adrift.
I was initially disheartened to see that we’re back on the holodeck for the opening sequence, but as it turned out to be my favorite bit of the episode, I got over it. The pre-credits scene introduces us to Janeway’s new holonovel, in which she plays Lucy Davenport, a new governess in a Victorian-era house full of mysteries. I understand we’re going to get more of the Davenport scenes, and I don’t mind the idea – Kate Mulgrew certainly seemed to enjoy this one, getting to tell off a snippy housekeeper and wear period clothes. Janeway’s sojourn is interrupted too soon by the intruding plot, however.
That plot involves an attack on Voyager by alien beings who feed on neural energy. They first go after a shuttle piloted by Tuvok and Chakotay, and that assault puts Chakotay in a coma. Robert Beltran spends this entire episode prone with his eyes closed, and it’s only a couple degrees removed from his usual performance. The crew realizes that whatever attacked the shuttle has stolen all of the bioneural energy from his brain. So they head back to the scene of the crime – a nearby nebula – to find the attacking aliens and reverse the process. That’s right, it’s Spock’s Brain/Phage all over again.
But before they can enter the nebula, strange things start happening on Voyager. The ship’s course is changed. The consoles stop functioning. People start acting strangely. Paris is accused of sabotage when Torres sees him leaving the navigational control area moments after the ship malfunctions. Kes senses a strange presence in sickbay. All of this leads to the conclusion that some invisible, intangible alien is possessing crew members and trying to keep Voyager away from the nebula.
It takes forever to get to that point, but once we’re there, Cathexis tries to set an atmosphere of paranoia. This is where the shipbound nature of the story works to its advantage – the crew is trapped with a foe who could be anyone at any time. It also turns out to be a red herring, which leads me to the twist: the alien has been in Tuvok the entire time, and all the other possessions have been Chakotay, whose neural energy was separated from his body during the alien’s first attack.
Yeah, written out like that it certainly seems pretty silly. I will say that the initial revelation caught me off guard, and I was prepared to say nice things about the twist, but just thinking about it later made me roll my eyes. While the Tuvok alien had been trying to get Voyager to go to the nebula, faking an ion trail and attacking Kes when her telepathic abilities got her too close to the truth, all of the acts of sabotage were Chakotay, doing what he could to keep the ship away, including possessing Torres long enough to eject the ship’s warp core.
The alien possessing Tuvok does succeed in bringing Voyager into the nebula, where the rest of its people live. (“We are the Komar. This is our domain.” Sigh.) Their goal is to feed on the neural energy of the crew, which leads me to question why Chakotay’s neural energy was not consumed, but rather allowed to roam freely, taking over bodies. But never mind, it’s not worth asking these questions. Not when the big resolution of the episode involves Chakotay possessing Neelix to move the stones around on his medicine wheel to form the shape of a map to guide the crew out of the nebula, which is the least efficient way he could have communicated that information.
Cathexis isn’t necessarily a chore to watch, but it is one of the duller episodes of this first Voyager season. It’s a story that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and it relies on a relatively clever idea that doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. (The Doctor is just able to reintegrate Chakotay’s mind-energy with his body? How…?) I hope this story saved the Trek team some money, because that would mean at least one thing about it was successful.
Random stuff:
We get more stereotypical Native American stuff in this story, with Chakotay’s medicine wheel hung above his bed in sickbay. I’m torn about this. On the one hand, it’s interesting that Chakotay is so invested in the traditions of his people. On the other hand, that remains his only real personality trait. He’s the Native American who does Native American things. If they’re going to keep bringing in Native American traditions and beliefs, I hope they flesh out Chakotay’s character more so that they are part of him. That would help.
Janeway’s holonovel scenes were initially meant to be part of Eye of the Needle, and were shot during that episode’s production schedule. Moving the scenes to this story made it feel like less of a bottle show, at least at first.
This episode contains Voyager’s first Vulcan neck pinch. How about that.
Tomorrow, Faces. Onward!

Heroes and Demons (VOY S1E11)

Heroes and Demons is Voyager’s first holodeck episode. Given that the premise of the show offers infinite settings, it’s a little disappointing that Voyager has already fallen back on the Trek trope of building stories around the holodeck. But this show has something that previous Trek series did not: a main character who is a hologram. Heroes and Demons is a showcase for the Doctor, and for actor Robert Picardo, and that makes all the difference.
This is a seriously fun outing, and Picardo’s performance is one of the main reasons why. The central idea is somewhat convoluted: Voyager discovers some intense photonic activity in a nearby protostar (which just means it’s bright), and pauses its trip back to the Alpha quadrant to take some of that photonic matter on board. Torres thinks the substance will be able to help power the ship, but – as you may have guessed already – the matter is actually alive, and an abortive attempt to transport it on board ends up with it in the holodeck.
The crew first notices something is wrong when Ensign Kim goes missing. He was on the holodeck, as it turns out, acting out a program based on Beowulf. Chakotay and Tuvok investigate, and they learn two things: 1) the Beowulf program is now stuck and cannot be turned off, and 2) Kim disappeared after facing Grendel, the monster from the Beowulf poem. If you’ve guessed that the photonic creature has taken the role of Grendel, give yourself a prize. Chakotay and Tuvok face Grendel as well, and they too disappear.
It is theorized that whatever the thing in the holodeck is, it is converting matter to energy. Which means there is only one member of the crew who could investigate without being discorporated, and that’s the Doctor. The episode has been fun up to this point – I especially enjoyed the overly dramatic performances of the denizens of Beowulf’s medieval world, particularly Marjorie Monaghan as Freya and Christopher Neame as Unferth. But when the Doctor takes center stage, this story takes flight, and all the sci-fi hoops it asks you to jump through become worth it.
Key to its success is the fact that the Doctor is a neophyte, having never been out of sickbay. He is not programmed for heroism, beyond that required to make quick medical decisions. He puts it best, confiding his nervousness to Kes: “I can describe every detail of every piece of equipment in this sickbay from biobed to neurostimulator, but I’ve never even seen a sky or a forest, let alone Vikings and monsters.” Picardo plays this beautifully – he finds new nuances in the computer-learning-to-be-human trope, without leaning on Trek’s past examples of it. His is a new journey, and it’s a delight to watch.
The whole sequence in Hrothgar’s castle is wonderful. Picardo’s wry, dry delivery elevates every scene, from his sword fight with Unferth (which he wins by making himself intangible, a trick the castle-dwellers assume is sorcery) to his regaling the party with tales of his exploits in epidemiology. When Freya comes on to him, Picardo’s performance is perfect – the Doctor is taking her advances in as new data, and processing them. Oh, and he chooses Schweitzer as his new name, which is never not funny in this context.
The Doctor does meet up with Grendel, and barely escapes back to sickbay – he loses an arm in the process, a reference to Beowulf taking Grendel’s arm in the original poem, and needs to grow a new one. With his observations, the crew pieces together what has happened: the protostar is a life form, and they have stolen pieces of it away, pieces that are desperate to return to the whole. Kim, Chakotay and Tuvok have all been converted to energy and sent into the heart of the protostar, and the only way to get them back is to return the parts of the life form the crew stole.
Which means the Doctor will have to go back into the holodeck and release the portions of the life form the crew captured, as a gesture of good will. There’s a fracas at the castle, in which Unferth tries to steal the life form and Freya loses her life trying to stop him, all of which leads to the immortal line “I die happily with your name on my lips. Farewell, Schweitzer.” The Doctor makes the exchange, the missing crew members are returned and all ends happily. (I like that the costume department worked to make a full medieval outfit for Kim, for his seven seconds of screen time. “Would you mind telling me where I was?”)
I had a good time watching Heroes and Demons, and especially watching Robert Picardo grow into the role of the unnamed Doctor. (He stops using Schweitzer at the end of this episode, so as not to be reminded of Freya’s last words to him.) He’s a treat to watch, and as much as I hope Voyager does not rely on holodeck stories to pad out its seasons, I also hope the Trek team finds more ways to get the Doctor out of sickbay and taking part in adventures. He’s one of the highlights of this show for me so far.
Random stuff:
I know Christopher Neame, who plays Unferth here, from a completely different context: he was Skagra, the villain in the unfinished Doctor Who story Shada. Roughly half of Shada was filmed, and the story was recently completed with animation. Neame was as delightfully over-the-top in Doctor Who as he was here.
Schweitzer, the name the Doctor temporarily chooses in this story, is a reference to Albert Schweitzer, a French physician, philosopher and theologian who won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize.
My favorite exchange in the episode:
FREYA: You are truly a man of many talents, Lord Schweitzer. Your people must value you greatly.
DOCTOR: You would think so.
Hey, look, Janeway has a new hairstyle!
Tomorrow, Cathexis. Onward!

State of Flux (VOY S1E10)

I did not see the big twist of State of Flux coming. You can tell by the way I have completely ignored Seska as a character in these reviews. You’d think I would have learned my lesson with Solbor in the final Deep Space Nine story, but no. Since Martha Hackett’s name does not appear in the opening credits, I wrote her off as a recurring background character. Which means when she is revealed here to be a Cardassian spy, surgically altered to look like a Bajoran, I was legitimately surprised.
In retrospect, this again feels like a development Voyager should have kept in their back pocket for a while, rather than burning it in episode ten. While I was surprised by State of Flux, I wasn’t affected by it, because we simply don’t know this woman at all. She’s had very little screen time, and so far we have learned that a) she was part of Chakotay’s Maquis crew, b) she was ready to throw her support behind Chakotay should he decide to mutiny, c) she runs the transporter, and d) she encouraged Torres to go behind the captain’s back in Prime Factors. The seeds were there for some long-running tension, but Seska as a person just hasn’t been fleshed out.
As evidence of that, we learn in this episode that she and Chakotay have a romantic relationship. It would have been nice to see that play out over multiple episodes, or even multiple seasons, before unveiling Seska’s true nature. That would have added some emotional resonance to the reveal, and we would have felt Chakotay’s sense of betrayal more intensely. As it is, this story just kind of happens, and Robert Beltran’s near-expressionless acting style doesn’t help matters.
Aside from the fact that it would have worked better in a later season, the story of State of Flux is pretty good. This episode brings back the Kazon, the baddies from Caretaker, but a different sect of them than the ones we saw before. Voyager is contacted by a Kazon ship in trouble, and when an away team beams over to the ship, they find a massive explosion has not only killed the crew, but fused them with the hull.
The plot thickens when it is discovered that the explosion was caused by Federation technology. It thickens even further when Tuvok discovers that someone aboard Voyager has been in contact with the Kazon, and gave them Federation tech. The signal is traced to engineering, and while there is some attempt to make us think that the culprit may have been Carey, it’s clearly Seska.
This is confirmed when she recklessly transports to the Kazon ship to retrieve the smuggled tech, gets injured and sent to sickbay, where the Doctor examines her blood. And discovers that she’s actually Cardassian. (There’s a whole thing about Seska never submitting a blood sample before, and her cover is a childhood blood disease that she survived thanks to a bone marrow transplant from a Cardassian. No one buys it, of course.)
From there it’s just a matter of time until the walls close in on Seska. I like that Chakotay is willing to defend her until the evidence becomes overwhelming. (I will add “loyal to his crew” to the very short list of Chakotay personality traits.) The technology in question turns out to be a food replicator made with components stolen from Voyager, and the crew lays a trap, hoping Seska will try to cover her tracks. Which she does, and the jig is up.
I liked the motivation the script gives to Seska: she was trying to forge an alliance with the Kazon to start building influence in the Delta quadrant, to protect the crew as they made their way home. She gets away by transporting to a nearby Kazon ship, and I expect we have not seen the last of her. The Delta quadrant has never met a Cardassian before, and I expect it won’t be long before Seska has made a name for herself and garnered some powerful friends.
I also like the final scene, in which Chakotay seeks out Tuvok – who, you will remember, was the other duplicitous spy in Chakotay’s Maquis crew. “I’d just like to know, from someone else who pulled the wool over my eyes, was I particularly naive?” he asks. “Was I not paying enough attention? What the hell was it that let all you spies get by me?” He is oddly comforted by the fact that Tuvok did not suspect Seska either.
State of Flux is another fine season one episode, but it would have been better – and had much more impact – if it had been a season two or three episode. Martha Hackett is a good enough actor that they could have kept her around for a while, worming her way into the crew’s confidences, before showing us her true nature. The result is a story that surprises, but has no real impact beyond that. Its big twist is that we didn’t know Seska at all, but for that to work, we have to feel like we did know her, and nothing in her previous appearances made me feel that way. This is a good story told too soon.
Random stuff:
The working title of this episode was Seska, which was changed for obvious reasons.
In the interest of streamlining this recap, I glossed over several smaller complications, including the one surviving Kazon from the damaged ship. When his superior officer comes to see his wounded man, he kills him to protect Kazon secrets. It is this Kazon’s ship that Seska transports over to at the end, and Voyager does not pursue because two other Kazon warships are nearby, ready to attack. This was a clearly coordinated effort between Seska and the Kazon, and I expect we’ll see more of their alliance soon.
If it matters, the Kazon we encounter here are Kazon-Nistrim, while those we met in Caretaker are Kazon-Ogla. Who am I kidding, of course that’s going to matter later on.
I like that Torres establishes here that she’s not like Scotty. She tells the captain that a certain task will take until the next day, and Janeway says she wants it done that night. Torres responds that she will tell the captain exactly how long something will take. “When I say tomorrow, I mean tomorrow. I don’t exaggerate. Tomorrow is the best I can do.”
Tomorrow, Heroes and Demons. Onward!

Prime Factors (VOY S1E9)

The Prime Directive has been the focus of a surprising number of Voyager episodes so far. Prime Factors, as you could probably guess from the title, brings Starfleet’s principles for interacting with alien races to the fore once again, presenting a classic Star Trek moral dilemma and then tearing through it in a way that feels unique to this show.
I’m not even particularly bothered by the fact that for the second time in nine episodes the Voyager crew has found another potential way home, and had it yanked away. I can imagine this storytelling tactic getting old over seven seasons, but Prime Factors uses it as a way to discuss something else: the fractured nature of the Voyager crew, and Janeway’s frustration as she tries to hold it together.
The setup is not nearly as interesting as the resolution here, which means for much of its running time Prime Factors can feel like a dud. We meet the denizens of Sikaris, a planet known for its hospitality. A Sikarian ship tracks down Voyager, because word has spread throughout the Delta quadrant of the lost ship of humans heading home, and its captain, Gathorel Labin (call him Gath), invites the crew to spend some time on his world as a respite. Gath is one of those human-looking aliens, with only strange wires around his hair to distinguish him from Janeway and Paris and Kim, and he seems non-threatening, so they agree.
For much of the scenes on Sikaris I was waiting for the threat to reveal itself. Gath is a little handsy and clearly into Janeway, but the captain has shown she can handle herself. One of the Sikarian women latches onto Kim, and whisks him away to a private location, and I thought that this, now, would be the threat: Kim would get himself captured and the crew would have to save him. But no. Eudana is genuinely interested in our luckless ensign. The plot, it turns out, has to do with where she took him, and how.
The Siskarians, it turns out, have perfected transporter technology with a remarkable range. 40,000 light years, in fact, which would get the crew more than halfway home. It’s a tantalizing prospect, with only one minor problem: the Siskarian laws forbid sharing technology with outsiders. So the question becomes whether the Voyager crew will respect those laws and not interfere for their own ends, or whether they will do whatever is necessary to get the crew home.
The problem comes when different factions of the crew see the solution differently. Janeway is committed to negotiating for the technology by offering Voyager’s entire library of histories and stories, valuable currency on Siskaris. Talks break down, though, when Janeway realizes that Gath never had any intention of breaking the laws of his people, and was only continuing to negotiate as a way of convincing Janeway to stay on his homeworld with him. When he is rebuffed, Gath gets nasty and demands that Voyager leave, and Janeway is prepared to do exactly that, transporter technology or no.
But not Torres. Encouraged by Seska, a fellow Maquis who has been in the background for the whole season, Torres hatches a plan to make a clandestine deal for the transporter tech. Kim has made contact with one of Gath’s aides, who is more than willing to trade the transporter tech for Voyager’s library of stories. Kim, of course, went straight to the captain, but not before confiding in Torres and Seska, and the two of them take matters into their own hands.
It is Tuvok’s involvement in this plan that is most surprising. We see him discuss options with Janeway, encouraging her to keep negotiating with Gath, so when he barges in on Torres and Seska attempting to beam down to make the trade, we expect that the jig is up. But it is Tuvok who beams down and obtains the technology, in direct violation of his orders and his Starfleet oath. Clearly more is happening here than we know, and that’s intriguing.
Long story short, Torres, Seska and Carey (the engineer Torres punched in the second episode) have to use the technology before they can explain to the captain, and it doesn’t work, and it nearly destroys the ship. It was never compatible with Starfleet systems (something to do with anti-neutrinos, and even though I know how ridiculous that is, I’m ignoring it). For the second time, a shortcut home has been denied them. And though Seska wants to cover it up, Torres insists on coming clean.
The whole of Prime Factors leads up to its riveting final scene, in which Janeway dresses down Torres and learns of Tuvok’s involvement. Not only is this scene beautifully written, but it’s a showcase for Kate Mulgrew, who takes us through all of Janeway’s conflicting emotions like a master. Her face when Tuvok confesses radiates the pain of betrayal. Once Torres has been dismissed, well aware that any further transgression will see her stripped of her commission, she turns to Tuvok, and the pain in her voice is remarkable.
Tim Russ is emotionless as always when delivering his reasoning. Janeway’s number one priority is to get her crew home safely, but she could not compromise her principles to make that happen. Tuvok could, and so he took the hit for her, gambling that the technology would work. He expected to be dishonorably discharged and court-martialed, and accepted that fate for Janeway’s sake. This is the surest sign yet that they are the Kirk and Spock of this show, old friends who rely on one another. Which is why the betrayal runs so deep. Mulgrew’s delivery of Janeway’ final speech is magnificent.
JANEWAY: You are one of my most valued officers and you are my friend. It is vital that you understand me here. I need you, but I also need to know that I can count on you. You are my counsel, the one I turn to when I need my moral compass checked. We have forged this relationship for years and I depend on it. I realize you made a sacrifice for me, but it’s not one I would have allowed you to make. You can use logic to justify almost anything. That’s it’s power, and it’s flaw. From now on, bring your logic to me. Don’t act on it behind my back.
The final “dismissed” hits like a body blow, and then the captain breaks down. It is, bar none, the best Janeway scene that Voyager has given us yet, and no previous captain could have handled it better. As a story, Prime Factors is just okay, but its climactic scenes set it over the top. This is good Star Trek, and this first season continues to outperform my expectations.
Random stuff:
Two things I quite liked about this story that I didn’t get to in the above review. First, I like that it emphasizes again the fractured nature of the Voyager crew. I am willing to eat some crow here – I was worried that once everyone put Starfleet uniforms on, the cracks in the foundation would be papered over. But they’re still there, and this episode finds members of that crew doing things the TNG crew would never dream of. I also liked how seriously the script took Tuvok and Torres’s infraction. As Janeway says, she needs every member of her crew, and she needs to be able to trust them. I appreciate that their actions were not swept under the rug, but dealt with.
Evidently much of the tone of that final scene can be attributed to Tim Russ, who asked for changes to better suit his character’s relationship with Janeway. I think the scene is wonderful, so thanks, Tim.
Tomorrow, State of Flux. Onward!

Emanations (VOY S1E8)

“A Voyager sensor scan reveals what seems to be a previously undiscovered chemical element in a group of asteroids.”
That is Netflix’s summary of Emanations, and from that description I was bracing myself for another letdown. Oh, a previously undiscovered chemical element? Let me strap in for those 45 minutes of excitement. But Emanations turned out to be one of the highlights of this first season so far, a fascinating science fiction examination of death and the afterlife. It’s the first Voyager episode to make me look at the world in a different way, which is the hallmark of good sci-fi.
The premise of Emanations unfolds slowly, giving us glimpses at the powerful idea at its center. It’s an idea you could build an entire franchise around: beings from another dimension who believe that our dimension is the afterlife. The two planes of reality are connected by subspace vacuoles, and the Vhnori, the race living on the other side of these vacuoles, has built a belief system around them. When a Vhnori dies, they send their bodies through the gateway into what they call the next emanation, the life after this one.
The Vhnori are so certain that the afterlife exists, in fact, that they have developed a ritual for those who are sick or near death to sacrifice themselves for the good of their families and loved ones. With the next emanation holding the answers to all of their questions, there’s no reason to keep suffering people in this world, the Vhnori reason. So they have constructed sarcophagi that disrupt the synapses in the brain, and they hold elaborate funerals for those willingly dying and moving on to the next life.
This alone would be fascinating to explore, but it’s what the Vhnori don’t know – and the Voyager crew first discovers – that makes this a poignant story. The Vhnori bodies are not sent to a magical afterlife, they are deposited on an asteroid in this dimension to decompose. When an away team consisting of Chakotay, Torres and Kim find these bodies (while searching for that Netflix-touted new element their sensors picked up), they think they have stumbled upon a ceremonial burial ground.
Things get more complicated when one of the vacuoles opens in front of the away team, forcing them to beam back up to the ship. What happens instead is that the newly deposited Vhnori corpse being sent from their dimension ends up on Voyager, and Kim is transported to the Vhnori homeworld. It gets even more complicated when the Voyager crew is able to revive the Vhnori, whose name is Ptera. She awakens expecting the beautiful afterlife she’s been promised, and she slowly comes to realize she’s on a starship instead.
When Kim appears, banging on the inside of the cenotaph and demanding to be let out, the Vhnori naturally assume he is the first of them to return from the afterlife. And when they learn what he has seen – that the bodies of the Vhnori people are simply deposited on an asteroid somewhere else – they are naturally troubled. Kim gets to know one in particular, a man named Hatil who is crippled from an accident, and whose family has decided to send him on to the next emanation.
And that brings us to what I love about Emanations. This could easily have been a big-picture, grand-ideas kind of story, but Brannan Braga’s script focuses on the characters, giving us the genuine pain that comes with having your beliefs shattered. We stay with two in particular – Hatil, whose resolve to sacrifice himself and move to the next emanation is broken by Kim’s arrival, and Ptera, who agreed to die believing she would be reunited with her long-lost brother and have all of her questions about existence answered, and who must now face this new life far away from everything she loved and held dear.
Both of these stories are devastating, and both actors – Jeffrey Alan Chandler and Cecile Callan – bring real pain to their performances. Both Janeway in our dimension and Kim on the other side of the divide are careful not to invalidate the Vhnori’s beliefs – Kim notes that all he has seen is the corporeal remains of the Vhnori people, and he has no idea what might have happened to their souls, while Janeway reassures Ptera thusly: “Just because I don’t have the answers to your questions doesn’t mean there aren’t any.”
The heart of this story comes in two conversations. Hatil talks with Kim about what he has seen and what he knows, confiding that the decision to send him on to the next emanation is more his family’s than his. This is not a story about euthanasia, but this is the closest the script comes to dealing with that topic.
HATIL: I’m a burden to them right now. It takes a lot of their time and resources to care for me, and I can’t give much back to them. So, there was a family meeting and it was agreed that I should move on to the next emanation. You look appalled.
KIM: It’s not my place to judge your culture, but from my perspective, it’s a little chilling to hear that.
HATIL: Even though the family did it out of love, and everyone was happy for me, and they said they’d see me when they got to the next emanation, I have to admit there is a little voice inside of me that is terrified of dying. And since I’ve been talking to you, that little voice has started to get louder.
And it is Kes who is able to reach Ptera. She tells Ptera about the death and afterlife beliefs of her own people, the Ocampa, which is similar to many of our own ideas on the matter: they believe in a soul, which they call a comra, that leaves the body and travels on to the next life. Ptera explains that the Vhnori beliefs are different, and learning that they are not true has broken her.
PTERA: We don’t believe in any kind of spirit. When we die, we’re supposed to reappear as physical beings with arms and legs. That’s the whole point of sending our people through the spectral ruptures. We’re supposed to travel on to the next emanation as ourselves and be reunited with our families. But none of that is true, is it? None of the people I love are here. I’m alone. I don’t belong here. I can’t live like this. Please, can’t you send me home?
Ptera’s story ends tragically, much the way it might have ended on Deep Space Nine. Torres gets the idea to recreate the transporter accident that brought Ptera on board, sending her signal through the subspace vacuole and back to her own dimension. But it doesn’t work. They manage to bring her back to the ship, but it’s too late. She’s dead when she arrives. This also dashes the crew’s chances of finding Kim on the other side of the barrier and bringing him back the same way.
So it’s up to Kim to rescue himself, and the only way he can think of to do this involves him dying and moving to the next emanation himself. He convinces Hatil to let him take his place in the ceremony, allowing Hatil to escape with friends and live the rest of his life. Wrapped in Hatil’s ceremonial shroud, Kim is lowered into the cenotaph, which does its job – he is killed, and his body sent through the vacuole. And it is only because Voyager is still hovering close enough that vacuoles are forming inside her hull that Kim’s body appears on the ship, and the crew can revive him.
This episode required a lot of Garrett Wang, who still strikes me as the greenest actor in the cast, and while he proved adequate through most of it, these sequences in which he commits to dying and is revived are the most engaging he has delivered. The moment when Kim, after a long and actually tense pause, sucks in his breath and returns to life is the best acting Wang has shown us yet. I expect he will get better and better as the show goes along, and I’m looking forward to tracking his growth.
The final scene of this story is a quiet moment between Janeway and Kim, and I just want to quote some of it here, because it encapsulates a lot of what I love about this episode.
KIM: All those people think that they know what happens after death. They look forward to it. They’re prepared for it. But the truth is, none of it’s real. They don’t have an afterlife. They just decay inside those asteroids.
JANEWAY: I wouldn’t be so sure of that, if I were you. That neural energy their bodies release, it becomes part of the ambient electromagnetic field surrounding the planet. Our readings also indicate the energy’s unusually dynamic. There’s a great deal of variation and pattern complexity, quantum density.
KIM: Are you saying you think they do have an afterlife? That the energy field is where they exist at a higher level of consciousness, just like they believe?
JANEWAY: I’m not certain, but I am certain about this. What we don’t know about death is far, far greater than what we do know.
Emanations is a moving examination of belief, and it is smart and nuanced enough to respect the mystery of death and what lies beyond. The story’s point is that no one really knows what awaits us after death. This is a terrifying realization for Ptera, but a freeing one for Hatil, and a life-changing one for Kim. I like that the episode’s conclusions are also nuanced enough that it invites contemplation and discussion, rather than argument. This is not only classic Star Trek, but classic sci-fi, and the first Voyager episode to truly lodge itself in my brain and heart.
Random stuff:
I am not sure how I feel about Chakotay being so concerned about disturbing what he thinks is a ceremonial burial ground. On the one hand, his points are well taken. On the other, it’s another Native American stereotype, and his character so far seems to be built on them.
The first scene makes a point of noting that the bodies are unclothed (and the white wrappings are actually a byproduct of the Vhnori’s bodily tissues breaking down). But Kim wraps himself in a ceremonial shroud when passing himself off as Hatil, and that plot point wouldn’t work without the shroud to disguise Kim’s face. So where does the shroud go when the bodies pass through the vacuole?
The original plan was to follow Kim’s point of view as he dies and is reborn, but that was nixed for budgetary reasons.
Janeway mentions that the new element discovered will be the 247th, which means between now and Voyager’s time humanity will discover another 129 of them, including this one. When this episode was broadcast in 1995, there were 111 elements known to exist.
Tomorrow, Prime Factors. Onward!

Ex Post Facto (VOY S1E7)

Much of the tone of Voyager so far has reminded me of the original Star Trek. Ex Post Facto is the first one, however, to feel like it was taken right off of Gene Roddenberry’s shelf. I can easily imagine this one featuring Shatner and Nimoy, and falling somewhere near the low end of the show’s first season. Seeing something this retrograde in what was Paramount’s big-deal Trek series for 1995 is jarring to say the least.
Let’s not mince words: Ex Post Facto is terrible. It has exactly one good idea, and we see that idea before the opening credits. It plays up the stereotype that Tom Paris is clearly supposed to represent in this crew – the Kirk/Riker analogue – and it does significant damage to the premise of the show, that the Delta quadrant is an unfamiliar and unpredictable area of space. Worst of all, it’s boring, and though the resolution has some moments of cleverness, by the time I got there I didn’t care.
Remember those episodes of the original Star Trek where the Enterprise would visit a planet that was exactly like Earth at some time in its history? That’s what this is. We’re introduced to two alien races here, the Baneans and the Numiri, without any fanfare – all of that “seek out new life forms and make contact with them” stuff happens off screen, and no one from either of these races seems surprised to meet humans for the first time. Much of Ex Post Facto takes place on the Banean home world, and except for some bumps on the forehead and some feathers in the hair of its occupants, there’s nothing to distinguish that home world from Earth.
I mean, nothing. Everyone speaks English, they live in houses that look like Earth houses, they drink wine and eat stew and smoke cigarettes and have pet dogs. (PET DOGS. This is actually an important plot point later, and all I could think about is how weirdly coincidental it was that dogs evolved exactly the same way on this planet.) This episode is intended as an homage to 1940s film noir, and we may as well be on 1940s Earth. Not only is this ridiculous and lazy, but it strikes a blow to the mystery of the Delta quadrant. Apparently there are lots of Earth-like planets here, and encountering one is unremarkable. It’s just Tuesday.
Anyway. Voyager needs a new navigational array, so they’ve come to the Banean homeworld to meet with Professor Ren, who designed similar arrays for their ships. The Baneans are at war with their neighbors, the Numiri – they’re kind of lizard-like – and in order to avoid them, Janeway sends Paris and Kim in a shuttlecraft to slip past the Numiri and make contact. (We don’t get to see any of this, of course.) They meet Ren, and are invited back to his house where they also meet his younger femme fatale wife, Lidell. Paris falls for Lidell, and the next day Ren turns up dead.
(I’m glossing over a lot of terrible noir-ish dialogue. At one point Paris says “I guess that makes you a good woman” and Lidell responds, “Good can get very boring.” And then they almost kiss. This woman is married, Tom Paris has known her for all of three hours, and I am reminded very strongly of every time Kirk fell madly in love with an alien woman he’d just met. If this is Paris going forward, I’m considerably less interested in him as a character.)
Here’s the one good idea this episode has: the Baneans are able to extract the memories of dead people and use them as evidence in a trial. We see, from Ren’s point of view, Paris confront and stab him. Paris is convicted on this evidence, and as punishment, those memories are implanted into his brain. Once every 14 hours, he’s forced to relive them, watching through his victim’s eyes. Why 14 hours? No idea. It’s still a pretty cool twist on the usual crime and punishment.
Paris denies killing Ren, and Tuvok is put in charge of finding the truth. And what follows is basically an episode of Columbo in space. The big mistake of this episode is that it assumes we care about this investigation. I didn’t. The main reason, I think, is that of all our regular characters, I care the least about Tom Paris. The show hasn’t given me any particular reason to be invested in him, nor has it given me enough yet to be certain that he did not commit this crime. The script wants me to be engaged in untangling this injustice, but I wasn’t, and while I enjoyed Tuvok’s part in it, the Murder She Wrote-ness of the whole thing left me cold.
I do like that we get to see our first Vulcan mind meld in a very long time. (Since Picard and Sarek, I think, way back in TNG season three.) Tuvok sees the crime through Paris’s implanted memories, and realizes that those memories have been faked. It was the Banean doctor, you see, who implanted false memories full of information he was trying to smuggle to the Numiri, and he’d been having an affair with Lidell, who was in on it, and though he tried to deny it the dog recognized him so obviously he’d been coming to the house a lot, and man, I do not care. About any of this.
Ex Post Facto tried my patience. It reminded me strongly of Prodigal Daughter, that DS9 episode in which we meet Ezri’s family and suffer through a similarly unengaging murder mystery. We’re supposed to care about Tom Paris, but the show hasn’t invested enough in his character yet for that to happen, so the whole thing falls flat. And its ludicrous film noir trappings and Earth-like setting imply that the Delta quadrant is gonna be just like the Alpha quadrant, which weakens the entire backbone of the series. This one seems terribly ill-advised, especially so early in the show’s run, and I’ll be happy if it’s never referenced again.
And the dog! The dog. OK, I’m done. But… ugh.
Random stuff:
We learn here that Tuvok is married, and has been for 67 years. That’s an interesting tidbit.
Harry Kim is again a bit of a nonentity here, but I like that he’s already twigged onto Paris’s womanizing ways. “What are you looking at,” Paris asks when Kim gives him the side-eye, and Kim responds, “Not the same thing you’re looking at, that’s for sure.” You tell him, Ensign Kim.
Back on the ship, the Doctor is trying to decide on a name. His options, taken from his database of medical history, include Galen, Salk and Spock. To be continued, no doubt.
This episode was directed by LeVar Burton, the first TNG alum to helm an episode of Voyager.
Hilariously, showrunner and co-creator Michael Piller was over the moon with this episode, and has talked about how much he enjoyed co-writing it and watching it on television. He even suggested that it should be submitted for an Emmy. All that made me wonder if I had watched the wrong story.
We’re halfway through Voyager’s first season already. Tomorrow, Emanations. Onward!

Eye of the Needle (VOY S1E6)

My only real complaint about Eye of the Needle is that it comes too early in the show’s run. Voyager, as a series, is about a ship lost in the Delta quadrant with no easy way home. Having them stumble on a potential shortcut to the Alpha quadrant in the sixth episode means that we know it won’t pan out, so the only tension in Eye of the Needle comes from wondering just how the rug will be pulled out from under us.
The rug pull, when it comes, is actually pretty clever, although it makes Eye of the Needle the third time travel story in six episodes. The Voyager crew discovers a wormhole in space, one that might lead them back to the Alpha quadrant. But when they investigate, they find that this wormhole is a small one – only about 30 centimeters in diameter. That’s still large enough to get a message through, Janeway realizes, so she orders the crew to fire a probe into the tiny maw. The opening is barely large enough for the probe, and the wormhole is collapsing all around it, but it’s still enough.
And it works. Voyager makes contact with a Romulan ship on the other side, which, through sheer luck, happens to be the Alpha quadrant. The ship is a science vessel, and its captain a scientist named Telek R’Mor, of the Romulan Astrophysical Academy. R’Mor takes some convincing – Voyager’s tale is a tall one, and R’Mor initially thinks he is speaking to Federation spies – but eventually he agrees to listen.
I loved the scene with Janeway out of uniform, having been awoken by R’Mor’s return transmission, trying to soothe him into helping her and her crew. I’m sure I will say this a lot in the coming months, but Kate Mulgrew continues to impress. I also really liked Vaughn Armstrong’s portrayal of R’Mor, initially wary and then open and kind. It’s a nice change from the usual stiff-necked Romulan we have seen, though Armstrong is careful not to betray the unemotional nature of the character as well.
R’Mor does, finally, agree to accept recorded letters home from the crew and deliver them to Starfleet. I like how slowly this story unfolds here – for some time it is similar to The Sound of Her Voice, from DS9’s sixth season, Janeway and R’Mor only able to hear each other. The crew doesn’t establish visual contact with R’Mor until the third act, and the real meat of the episode doesn’t happen until after that, when Torres gets the idea of using the transporter to send the crew through the wormhole and onto R’Mor’s ship.
I love how excited Torres is at her theory, how she bursts onto the bridge and demands to speak with Janeway, not in an impertinent way but in an electrifying one. It’s a risky proposition, but Janeway immediately gives Torres her full support. Tests with metal cylinders are successful. It really looks like it’s going to work, and with each new hurdle overcome, I was surprised. I kept waiting for the bottom to fall out. When R’Mor agrees to transport over to Voyager and back, as the final test of the system, I expected that this would be when the technology would fail. R’Mor would not make it, and the crew would deem the risk too great.
But no. R’Mor does make it, and the plan appears workable, with hours to go before the wormhole collapses completely. Which makes the rug pull even more effective: Tuvok discovers that R’Mor is from 20 years in the past. The wormhole is a rift in both space and time, and the Voyager crew cannot disrupt the timeline so completely as to return to the Alpha quadrant two decades before they left. (I do like that Harry Kim is still all for it. He misses his home and his girlfriend something fierce.)
In the end, R’Mor takes the crew’s messages back and promises to deliver them in 20 years’ time. But once he is gone, Tuvok tells Janeway that according to Starfleet records, R’Mor died four years before Voyager left. So the crew has no way of knowing whether those messages reached their intended destination. I like that the episode gives the crew a moment to mourn the possibility of a shortcut home, before Janeway puts it behind her and rallies the troops: “Then let’s move on. We’ve got a long way to go.” Mulgrew plays that line perfectly.
As an episode, I think Eye of the Needle is very good. My worry, given how early we are in the show’s run, is that Voyager may turn out to be seven years of Eye of the Needles, seven years of stories in which the crew finds hope and watches it evaporate. I expect that might get old, for both the viewers and the characters. Had this been a third-season episode, I think it might have had more impact. As it is, we know this and subsequent stories like it are doomed to failure, and I hope the Trek team uses this device sparingly.
Random stuff:
There’s a second plot in this episode about the Doctor becoming a full-fledged member of the crew. Kes notices that patients do not treat the Doctor with respect, assuming he is just a computer program without feelings, and she complains to Janeway. The upshot is that the Doctor becomes Voyager’s chief medical officer, asks for a name, and most importantly gains control of his own deactivation control, so he doesn’t have to plead with people to shut him off when they leave sickbay. It’s another step in the friendship between the Doctor and Kes, who displays an eidetic memory here as she learns how to practice medicine, and a further showcase for Robert Picardo.
This story also includes a nice moment between Kim and Torres, two characters who have not been paired up since the pilot. We learn that Torres’s mother is Klingon and her father human, and that they have separated. Torres is estranged from both of them, and hasn’t seen her father since she was five. I also like that Torres is in a Starfleet uniform, serving as chief engineer aboard a Starfleet ship, and she still calls Kim “Starfleet.” I hope that continues.
This is Vaughn Armstrong’s first appearance on Voyager, after minor roles on both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. He would go on to play Seskal in the final episodes of DS9, four more characters in Voyager, and three characters – including a recurring one – on Enterprise.
Tomorrow, Ex Post Facto. Onward!

The Cloud (VOY S1E5)

There’s a breezy day-in-the-life feel to The Cloud, but that’s simply because there isn’t a lot to it. Where Phage expertly blended its story and character moments, The Cloud starts with a central idea that isn’t strong enough to fill 45 minutes and then papers the rest over with… other stuff. There’s a loose thread about Janeway mulling her connection to her crew, and the ending is supposed to set her leadership style apart from Picard’s, and that’s all well and good. But as an episode of television, The Cloud doesn’t leave much of an impression.
The main story of the episode concerns a living nebula. The Voyager crew spots this nebula, unaware that it is a living organism, and notes a concentration of omicron particles inside which they can use to replenish their energy reserves. The ship barrels its way through the nebula’s energy barrier, but then is attacked by what I can only imagine are antibodies, draining energy through the hull. Janeway orders a quick escape and they use a photon torpedo to blow a hole in that same energy barrier.
The main casualty of this escapade appears to be Janeway’s coffee habit – there’s a fun opening with Neelix in his new galley, which we saw him set up in Phage, trying to sell Janeway on non-replicated alternatives to coffee as a way of conserving energy. But when Torres brings a sample of the nebula to the Doctor, we learn that it is in fact one large, singular organism, and by blasting their way in and out, the crew did some serious damage to it. It only makes sense that they go back and repair that damage.
I’m kind of passing it off, but I like the idea that Voyager is a kind ship, and Janeway a kind captain. I also like that it is the Doctor who comes up with the winning plan: to help close the wound using Voyager itself as a suture, then flying out of the wound at the last moment before it closes up. This is a pretty good sequence showing the crew working together to fix damage they’re responsible for, and I can only assume that at the end the nebula-being is grateful and lives a long and productive life. But it also goes exactly the way you know it will, with no real twists.
That’s about 25 minutes of our 45, and the rest of The Cloud is almost entirely unrelated to the main plot. We get Janeway discovering that her spirit animal is a lizard, for instance, undertaking a vision quest with Chakotay’s guidance. First let me say I am surprised that Janeway and Chakotay, leaders of two very different crews, have become such fast friends in five episodes. Chakotay uses his personal medicine bundle to set Janeway on her quest, and he says he’s never shown it to anyone before. I’m quite surprised that their bond has grown so strong in such a short amount of time.
I’m also not sure what I think about Chakotay’s Native American ritual. The show did hire a Native American consultant to make sure that they were being respectful, and I appreciate that. (I appreciate it less knowing who they hired – see below.) My issue is that “Native American” is so far Chakotay’s only personality trait, and that really isn’t one. Emphasizing his commitment to the beliefs of his ancestors is fine, but it feels odd when it’s literally the only thing I know about him as a person. There’s a hint of tokenism to it, and I doubt the Trek team intends that, so I hope we learn more about Chakotay apart from his ancestry soon.
The scene itself is interesting, Chakotay using a technological substitute for psychoactive drugs to trigger the vision quest. As Janeway spots her animal guide, the ritual is interrupted by Torres, and we learn that she’s undergone the same ritual and that she killed her animal guide. It’s sort of a weird joke – we get that Torres is half-Klingon and has a temper, but imagining a scenario in which she slaughters her spirit guide inside her mind is still bizarre. Everyone laughs it off, though, so I guess I shouldn’t think too hard about it.
The rest of the episode takes place in a holodeck – yes, Voyager has holodecks, and I’m sure we’ll be visiting them as often as we did on TNG. Paris introduces Kim to one of his favorite programs, which recreates a French bistro where Paris spent much of his time while attending Starfleet Academy. Women hang all over Paris, Kim reacts awkwardly to the same attention, they play pool, that’s kind of it. Instantly recognizable character actor Larry Hankin plays Gaunt Gary, a famous pool hustler from the ‘50s.
The holodeck scenes are meant to tell us more about Paris and Kim, and show their developing friendship. But they’re also setup for the final scene, in which Kim invites Janeway to join them, and she does. I like that this presents Janeway as a different kind of captain – it took Picard seven seasons to join his crew in their regular card games, but Janeway realizes that the usual distance between captain and crew may not serve either well under these unusual circumstances. So she dispenses with that distance early on, showing an affinity for pool in the process.
If I got anything out of The Cloud, it’s an appreciation for the ways the Trek team is thinking about Janeway as a leader. She’s in charge – we see her in command throughout the main story of this episode, and I enjoyed the scene in which she shut down Neelix’s demand to go back to his own ship while Voyager repaired the nebula-being. (“Dismissed. That’s a Starfleet expression for get out.”) But we see her building bonds with her crew, respecting and showing curiosity toward her first officer’s beliefs, even tolerating Neelix as he declares himself morale officer. It goes a long way toward establishing Voyager as its own ship, and Janeway as her own captain.
Otherwise, while I didn’t hate The Cloud, it didn’t strike me as memorable either. It feels bolted together from spare parts, hastily assembled around a main plot that was too thin. It feels sort of wispy, like something light and fluffy blown in on the wind, and then dissipating again, leaving no trace that it was ever there. I’m sure there’s a simile I could use, something sort of formless and transient that I could compare it to, but I can’t quite think of one. Ah well.
Random stuff:
So I’m reading more about Voyager’s Native American consultant, Jamake Highwater, and not loving what I am finding. His claims to Native American ancestry were debunked – he was born Jackie Marks and started using the name Highwater in 1969 to sell books about Native American culture. He was exposed in 1984 and admitted that he adopted a false Native American name and back story to break into the publishing industry. That was nine years before being hired by the Trek team to add authenticity to Chakotay. His works have been criticized by genuine Native Americans for containing inaccurate and stereotypical depictions of their culture. Seriously, I couldn’t make this up. This is a really bad look, Voyager.
Loved seeing Larry Hankin. He’s appeared in Trek once before, in the fifth season TNG episode Cost of Living. I’ll forever think of him as Old Joe from Breaking Bad.
It’s obvious from the shot, but Kate Mulgrew did her own pool stunts in this episode, sinking an eight-ball without looking.
All right, I am finally going to remember to talk about the theme music. After seven seasons of the relatively staid Deep Space Nine theme, I am responding really well to Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring music for the Voyager main titles. It’s sweeping and memorable, and captures the spirit of Star Trek without sounding like a retread. I get that DS9’s theme was about staying in one place, melodically speaking, and I appreciate that. But I just love the sense of adventure that Voyager’s theme evokes. It’s classic Star Trek.
Tomorrow, Eye of the Needle. Onward!

Phage (VOY S1E4)

So let’s get this out of the way first: Phage is structurally similar to Spock’s Brain, the godawful third season premiere of the original Star Trek. An alien steals a vital organ from one of the ship’s crew, and our heroes have to figure out how to keep that crew member alive while chasing after the alien to retrieve the stolen organ. But that is the last time I will mention Spock’s Brain, because these stories couldn’t be more different in execution. Phage finds a terrific balance between character moments and interesting sci-fi ideas, and in the process delivers the first truly great episode of Voyager.
What makes this one so good? It isn’t the story itself so much. While exploring a planet that Neelix has led them to, one that may provide a source of much-needed dilithium, the crew runs across a mysterious alien who uses a handheld transporter device to remove Neelix’s lungs and make off with them. The crew gets Neelix back aboard the ship and into the hands of the Doctor, who must figure out how to keep him alive long enough for Janeway to track down the beings who stole Neelix’s lungs and get them back. Yes, the crew says “Neelix’s lungs” a lot in this story, and it always sounds pretty silly.
But forget all that, because the heart of this story is the characters, as it should be. Start with this: I loved every scene in sickbay. For the first time I felt something for Neelix, and Ethan Phillips plays his fear and vulnerability as real and genuine emotions. I felt for Kes, rushing down to sickbay to find the love of her life in an iron lung, unable to breathe on his own. I appreciated Neelix’s immobilization as a metaphor for the helplessness he feels as he sees (or thinks he sees) Paris hit on Kes. I adored the way Kes reassures Neelix, rolling with his suspicions and easing his mind. Neelix and Kes are the only couple on the ship (so far), and this is the first episode to make me feel like they’ve been together for any length of time.
Robert Picardo is magnificent here. Faced with a medical challenge the likes of which he’s never seen – Neelix is a species completely alien to him and to Starfleet’s medical databanks, and no transplant is possible without another of Neelix’s people to donate – he improvises. He uses a stored transporter pattern to fashion holographic lungs, and project them into Neelix’s chest. He can’t move at all or the lungs will stop working, but as a temporary fix, it’s brilliant. I loved the bit where the Doctor smacks Paris to show him that holograms can be made solid. The science is ridiculous, but it’s fun.
The Doctor is, at least at this early stage, Voyager’s Spock/Data/Odo character, a computer program learning what it’s like to be more human. Whichever member of the Trek team decided that the Doctor and Kes should be friends ought to get a raise. The scene in which she talks the Doctor down off the ledge and lets him know what a tremendous job he’s doing is beautifully written and played. That this episode takes time to foreground a moment like that one, a moment that tells us so much about Kes’s kindness and the Doctor’s capacity for humanity, is what makes it special.
Meanwhile Voyager tracks the alien ship to a manufactured asteroid, and when Janeway and her crew come face to face with the thieves, they hear their sad story. The two we meet are Vidiians, and for 2,000 years they have been fighting a viral infection called the Phage. It consumes their bodies tissue by tissue, and adapts so quickly that their medical technology cannot keep up with it. Harvesting organs from compatible life forms is the only way they have found to stay ahead of the Phage and remain alive.
This story stops Janeway in her tracks. Straight-up organ thieves would be one thing, but these sad creatures are desperate, reduced to morally reprehensible acts to survive. Worse, Neelix’s lungs have already been placed inside the body of one of them, and to remove them now would mean that creature’s death. It’s a difficult dilemma, and Janeway has to decide how to solve it. This moment gives Kate Mulgrew her best speech yet, and she nails it, taking us through Janeway’s rage, resignation and determination.
JANEWAY: I can’t begin to understand what your people have gone through. They may have found a way to ignore the moral implications of what you are doing, but I have no such luxury. I don’t have the freedom to kill you to save another. My culture finds that to be a reprehensible and entirely unacceptable act. If we were closer to home I would lock you up and turn you over to my authorities for trial, but I don’t even have that ability here, and I am not prepared to carry you forever in our brig. So I see no other alternative but to let you go. Take a message to your people. If I ever encounter your kind again, I will do whatever is necessary to protect my people from this harvesting of yours. Any aggressive actions against this ship or its crew will be met by the deadliest force. Is that clear?
It’s good, solid, dramatic stuff, and it shows the mettle of our captain in just a couple minutes. The best Star Trek captains are the ones you want to follow anywhere, and Janeway goes a long way toward being one of those here. Her choice to spare the Vidiians’ lives pays off, as they accompany her back to Voyager and use their advanced medical technology to adapt a donated lung for Neelix’s use. Kes steps forward as the one to donate, leaving them both with one lung, but connecting them even more closely. I love that the Trek team didn’t snap their fingers and undo the moral dilemma – the resolution has a cost. It’s a cost I hope this show remembers.
We end this one with Kes accepting the Doctor’s offer to train her in medicine, another terrific choice in an episode full of them. I don’t want to overstate the case – Phage is a solid piece of Star Trek, not anything revolutionary. But for Voyager to hit upon something this character-illuminating this early bodes well for it. The best I can say about Phage is that it made me care, in ways I didn’t before. I care about Kes and Neelix now. I care about the Doctor and Kes and their blossoming friendship. I care about Captain Janeway, protecting this crew the best she can against dangers Starfleet has never encountered. I’m invested now, in ways I was not before. As I said at the top, that marks Phage, to me, as the first great episode of Voyager, and I’m hoping for many more.
Random stuff:
The working title for this episode was Heart and Soul, because in the first draft the Vidiians steal Tom Paris’s heart.
A bacteriophage is a real thing – it’s a virus that replicates inside bacteria.
The Vidiians were originally called the Vaphorans, but no one on set could agree on how to pronounce that word. Hence the late-in-the-day change.
The script even sneaks in a lovely bit between Janeway and Tuvok that highlights how well they know each other:
TUVOK: Captain, may I suggest you consider carefully what you are about to do.
JANEWAY: How do you know what I’m about to do?
TUVOK: I could describe to you in detail the psychological observations I have made about you over the past four years which lead me to conclude you are about to take this ship inside the asteroid. But suffice it to say, I know you quite well.
JANEWAY: One of these days I’m going to surprise you, Tuvok, but not today.
All in all, a smashing success. Tomorrow, The Cloud. Onward!