Nice — two more great Voyager episodes. And each one is great in a different way than the last.
“Bride of Chaotica!”
Holodeck episodes are tricky creatures, because they often leave you with the sensation that they happened because the writers really needed a change of pace… but, more often than not, that the writers ended up having a lot more fun than the audience. For every “Fistful of Datas,” there’s… a whole lot of other forgettable Holodeck fluff.
And, OK, “Bride of Chaotica!” definitely falls into the “writers having fun” category, but — this instance works, because everyone is having fun. This episode picks up the Republic serial-esque “Captain Proton” program Tom Paris and Harry Kim have been messing around with this season, and it just runs with it. The previous instances we’ve seen of Captain Proton, with its monochromatic overlay and over-the-top camp, have been a nice diversion. This time, though, the Captain Proton setting becomes mired in one of those Holodeck-gone-wild situations that only work if you believe that, somehow, the safety protocols on the Holodeck don’t involve an external off switch.
But, much like last season’s two-parter in which alien forces turned the Holodeck into a running practice session for hunting and killing humans, the writers managed to come up with a pretty inventive excuse for this latest technical glitch, putting a fresh spin on things. In this case, Voyager runs “aground” on a subspace anomaly that causes the ship to cross partway over into a realm inhabited by photonic beings of pure light. Which is nonsense, of course, but it’s hard to complain about the liberties the writing takes. The photonic aliens (for reasons never explained) manifest as suit-clad gangster types who feel period-appropriate to the era of Earth history to which Captain Proton pays tribute, but who nevertheless completely clash with the sci-fi setting. To them, the Holodeck characters appear to be invaders mounting an assault on their home dimension, while the flesh-and-blood Voyager crew are illusions. They don’t trust Voyager until the Doctor — a hologram, which is to say one of their own kind — appears to them in the guise of the President of Earth.
This episode dispenses with anything resembling real stakes. Yeah, the ship is stuck in a subspace rift, but the characters in the Holodeck (for once in one of these Holodeck madness episodes) don’t face any mortal danger from the holograms: The safety protocols miraculously hold up. When bad guys zap our heroes with death rays, nothing happens.
Sometimes, a low-stakes adventure isn’t so bad, and everyone completely leans into this one. Most of the episode takes place in the Captain Proton simulation, complete with monochrome visuals, cheesy scene wipe effects, and shrill overly dramatic orchestration. It’s all great, but the way the cast gets into the spirit really puts this one over the top. I spent the entire episode trying to decide who the M.V.P. of this episode was.
Is it Tim Russ’ Tuvok, who deals with the nonsense prompted by Paris’ sim with stoic bemusement? Or Satan’s Robot, the villain’s lumbering automaton that somehow manages to combine Robby the Robot, a Dalek, and C-3PO all at once? (The exchange “INVADERS!” “Quiet!” “…invaders…” is one of those understated comedy moments Voyager does so well, and was probably the funniest exchange in Trek since, “Get that cheese to sickbay!”) Or perhaps Martin Rayner’s Doctor Chaotica, who plays a perfect campy serial villain with devoted obliviousness to the more grounded reality of Voyager? But no, it turns out the real champ here is Kate Mulgrew.
Captain Janeway doesn’t get pushed into the simulation until well until the second half of the episode, but there’s a reason the episode is named after the character she plays: She steals the show as Queen Arachnia. Mulgrew alternates between vamping it up like a ’30s serial villainess (as Arachnia) and rolling her eyes at the foolishness of it all (as Janeway playing Arachnia), often several times within the same scene. This is a different kind of tour-de-force acting for Mulgrew than “Counterpoint,” but no less entertaining.
“Bride of Chaotica!” also nicely cements the fact that Voyager is the funniest Trek series. Yeah, the original series had lots of corny camp, but latter-day Trek has never been good at being funny. The Next Generation‘s attempts at humor were almost universally cringeworthy, and (aside from Jake and Nog’s occasional romps) Deep Space Nine preferred an occasional wry grin amidst pandemonium to actual laughs. But Voyager is really good at quiet irony and understated asides, and this episode plays to that strength: It’s farcical, but the cast doesn’t play it too broad… except the captain, who is clearly playing it broad for the sake of an in-universe show while also being bemused by the whole thing.
(Also, I’ve said this before, but Janeway’s profound, soul-seated commitment to morning coffee makes her by far the most relatable Trek captain ever.)
On the other hand, “Gravity” references not the movie serials of the ’30s but rather takes its cues from a different vintage sci-fi source altogether: The original Trek. This is basically Voyager‘s take on “All Our Yesterdays,” with the ship’s Vulcan officer and doctor (and, sigh, Paris) becoming stranded on a primal alien world, their one local ally a woman who falls for the Vulcan. But while this story may have been heavily influenced by that Trek classic, it plays things differently and deserves respect for blossoming into its own unique story.
Unlike Spock, Tuvok doesn’t become consumed by primal emotions during his exile. Instead, we see flashbacks to his youth and the intensive training and meditation he undertook at the feet of a Vulcan elder to help him suppress his passions. This episode is ultimately Tuvok’s story, and a long-overdue one; the show has never really done much to define the character. Here, we see him making a difficult commitment to his cultural philosophy and the wife he may never see again as he fights down his attraction for Noss, the woman who helps the crew survive being stranded on a desert world. There’s a lot to like about Noss: She’s smart, resourceful, skillful, and resolute. (Also, she’s Tank Girl.) But despite their actual chemistry and mutual attraction, and despite Paris’ thoughtful bro advice (“You may never see your wife again, so ya might as well hit that”), Tuvok remains true to his creed.
“Gravity” plays with time to allow this story to take place over the course of more than a short afternoon. Time on the desert world passes “by the book,” as Spock would say; what appears to be the space of a single day for Voyager transpires as a few months for Tuvok and Paris. I like how this plays into the episode’s final countdown as the ship attempts to beam the stranded crewmen to safety: A 20-second countdown on Voyager amounts to a desperate hours-long holding action for the planet-bound crew. On-screen countdowns have a tendency to dilate actual time as they cut between scenes; here, for once, it’s justified. But it also means Noss has had time over the space of (relative) months to break through Tuvok’s reserved nature and make an impression on him, so his personal restraint means something. It’s not just him brushing off a passing flirtation but rather a resolute choice to uphold his vows despite the very real sensation that this desert land would be his world for the remainder of his life.
Finally, I appreciate the writers not taking the usual easy out of most genre shows by killing off or stranding Noss. Instead, she gets to beam up to Voyager and return to her own home. Sadly, this means she also has to ditch her rad biker-jumpsuit survival gear in favor of one of those muddy tertiary-color tie-dye garments that civilians are apparently forced to wear in the Delta Quadrant. But at least she shares a meaningful farewell with Tuvok. It’s not quite a happy ending, but it feels at least satisfactory for both characters.