This episode, you guys. Man.
Every once in a while, I come across an episode that I was just not prepared for. This one went for the jugular and I had no idea it was coming.
Well, no, I guess I knew something bad was going to happen when the episode opened with a wedding. Weddings never go well on Star Trek. They mean the Romulans are about to enter the fray, or the Dominion’s about to retake Deep Space Nine, or we’re going to have to suffer through a particularly insipid Data-focused episode. In this case, Paris and Torres tie the knot, and that just spells trouble. I didn’t realize that “trouble” meant “This is Voyager’s ‘The Inner Light’ or ‘The Visitor,'” though.
I have to hand it to the writers: This is one of those cases where they didn’t tip their hand early. Clearly something was up when the camera slowed down to reveal that the some of the rice grains that showered the happy couple as they left the wedding reception had somehow slipped through the deck plating into a service conduit that was distorting and contorting… but surely that had something to do with the new warp engines the crew was testing. Right? This was going to be about the Voyager crew trying to deal with the ramifications of new untested tech, again, and then things would go back to normal. Right?
Which brings us the impressively subtle build-up for this episode. At every turn, things seem weirdly off, but not egregiously so. Some of the early plot developments — such as the wedding, and the new warp engines that promise to get Voyager to the Alpha Quadrant within two years — feels like a hasty development that hasn’t been properly set up this season. Tom and B’elanna have been dating, but when did they decide to get married? And we just saw Voyager swipe and burn out a Borg transwarp coil two episodes ago, which shaved some time off the trip home… but not that much time, and they didn’t have any alternatives on the horizon. Still, everything that’s inconsistent here could have just been lazy writing.
But then you notice the little things, like the fact that Paris still has his lieutenant’s collar pip. And when the crew tries to narrow down the inflection point of the molecular degradation that has affected the ship and crew — beginning, of course, with the newlywed bride — they reference missions we’ve never seen, like Voyager being press-ganged into service in an alien military. Everything wrong isn’t bad writing but rather more of a parallel universe situation… but this isn’t a Mirror Universe episode, because everyone is very definitely themselves here.
Eventually, the truth emerges: This isn’t Voyager and its crew, but rather the duplicates created (with the original crew’s consent) from the mercury-like biomatter on the Y-class planet in “Demon.” I found that episode an interesting inversion of “Up the Long Ladder;” where the entire Enterprise-D crew was like “Hell no you’re not cloning us to improve your planet’s genetic diversity,” the Voyager crew willingly allowed this strange new life form to imprint on the ship and its inhabitants. But no good deed goes unpunished: These, here, are those duplicates, and the radiation being output by the enhanced warp engines is proving fatal to their bodies. They’re going to die because, as it turns out, they’re better at being Voyager than the real Voyager: The highly advanced warp engines they’ve created (something that’s remained elusive to the originals) work perfectly, but they’re destroying the fake ship and its inhabitants.
So what we have here is a chance for the writers to tackle the question of how the crew of Voyager would face failure and death without a safety net. There’s no reason to assume this episode will end with a reset button a la “The Year of Hell,” and yet everyone onboard identifies as their original self. This episode kills me because everyone (especially “Janeway”) holds fast to their convictions regardless of the dire impact it could have. When a heavily armed freighter warns them away from landing on a Y-class planet that could reverse the degradation, “Janeway” refuses to open fire and destroy them, because that’s not the Starfleet way. And even as her crew pleads with her to abandon the convictions they’ve been handed by someone else, she believes that they are still, at heart, the people they’re each based on and should behave accordingly.
It’s heartbreaking, because “Janeway’s” determination dooms everyone. She refuses to abandon the plan to return to the Alpha Quadrant until it’s too late, and she won’t give in to the easy out of destroying the freighter to save the ship. These are choices the real Janeway would make, too, but “Janeway” doesn’t have main character status quo to protect her. Her obstinance ends with total dissolution, the crew slowly dying one by one until the ship itself disintegrates. Just to twist the knife, the crew’s plan to create a “time capsule” of mission and personal logs, to proclaim to the universe that they existed, goes awry. The episode ends on a brutal downer note as the real Voyager picks up their distress signal but only arrives in time to find a cloud of unknown matter slowly expanding into space. The lives and accomplishments of the false Voyager crew, an effort by a developing life form to reach out into the galaxy and explore a new avenue of existence, ends unknown and anonymously.
Someone mentioned to me after “Demon” that the copy-crew would show up again, but I didn’t expect it to be a gut punch like this. Those final moments with “Kim” on the bridge desperately trying to find a solution… man.
After “Course: Oblivion,” it was tough to get into this episode. It involves a lot of semi-experimental editing and staging as Chakotay hallucinates (not to mention a lot of boxing), but the premise — the ship enters a realm of chaotic, inexplicable space and Chakotay is the only one who can hear the messages from its inhabitants — amounts to an hour of the characters trying to figure out something that becomes obvious to the viewer pretty much right away. No amount of weird, lurid lighting and editing can change how boring that is.
Chakotay (or rather, “Chakotay”) had a great showing in “Course: Oblivion” as the quiet voice of calm to push back against “Janeway’s” resolve, and as this episode began I found myself thinking how nice it is that the show had finally managed to define him as a character with more substance than “the aboriginal American who goes on vision quests sometimes.” And wouldn’t you know it, halfway through… he goes on a vision quest.
Oh well. They can’t all be winners. But since “Course: Oblivion” was so unexpectedly devastating, I can cruise right on past this dud, I think.