Two-Year Mission returns to the Delta Quadrant.
After my post yesterday, someone on Twitter mentioned their anticipation in waiting half a year for Deep Space Nine to resume its storyline the following season after the status quo change of “Call to Arms.” I can definitely relate; I didn’t follow DS9, but I did watch The Next Generation fairly often during its first few years, and the cliffhanger of seeing Locutus of Borg staring down the Enterprise crew is the first time I can remember being desperate to learn what would happen next on a TV show. You miss out on that experience when you devour daily streams of a series’ entire run, though, so in order to synthesize that anxiety, I’m switching gears to Voyager season five now. Sure, I’ll be through that by the end of the month, but there’s something to be said for the wait.
There’s a lot going on in this episode, but I think it works.
Season four of Voyager played out as a self-contained story arc, and the season finale didn’t leave a dangling story thread for the first time in the series’ run. That allows season five to start with a clean slate of sorts, and it takes advantage of the opportunity by beginning with a somewhat disorienting premise that completely disconnects the ship from, well, everything: Voyager is traversing a vast gulf of nothingness, an empty patch of space 2,500 light years across, surrounded by a light-absorbing radiation barrier that leaves the ship completely cut off from the rest of the Milky Way… even starlight.
I admit I’m just anal-retentive enough that the science of this premise bugs me a little. The idea that the galaxy has a huge chunk of empty space that comprises almost 3% of its span, and that somehow radiation surrounding that bubble blocks visible light in all directions, strikes me as complete nonsense. That said… it’s sci-fi television, so I’m willing to allow the writers to fudge the science behind a premise a bit in order to tell a story. The idea here is that Voyager has become isolated like never before, and the thought of spending two years in absolute darkness has taken a toll on the crew’s morale. This is one of the few times I’ve really seen Trek — not just Voyager — try to explore the emotional toll of long-term deep-space travel on people, and to me that justifies the episode’s far-fetched premise.
The strain of pitch blackness hits Neelix the worst, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that he’s such a social creature. It affects others in more subtle ways, e.g. causing friction between Paris and Torres that feels like a natural extension of her being half-Klingon and his being an inconsiderate dudebro. And, finally, it causes the captain to brood for weeks at a time in the darkness of her cabin, isolating herself from the crew.
I’m not quite sure I buy Janeway’s reaction here, honestly. As first impression, it feels almost as much of a stretch as the “void” concept. But on the other hand, I could buy her depression as something akin to seasonal affective disorder… and her affliction definitely strikes me as something on the depression spectrum. Starfleet captains are supposed to be made of stern stuff, true, but Starfleet captains also aren’t supposed to have to shepherd hundreds of people through hostile and empty space over the course of seven decades. And Janeway’s misery revolves around her second-guessing herself for having stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant straightaway when she could easily have exploited the Caretaker Array to return home immediately. It’s all well and good to feel selfless for making the tough choice and taking the moral high ground, but four years later and decades away from home, it’s not unreasonable to think there’s a lot of room for self-doubt.
Anyway, the episode isn’t all about Janeway’s second-guessing herself. Midway through the episode, the real storyline emerges: A species of dudes who look like the creature from the black lagoon dampen Voyager‘s power and beam aboard the ship, and they only scurry away after a powerful freighter peppers the alien vessels with warning shots. As usual, all is not as it seems, of course. The freighter captain is the heavy here, hauling and dumping excess industrial waste radiation into the void space that has been poisoning the black lagoon guys that have developed a civilization in its darkness.
The creature from the black lagoon resemblance isn’t coincidental; this is very definitely a Trek metaphor episode about corporate waste dumping in the oceans. I have to say, though, the borderline-heavy-handed message hits the mark in 2018, following a year of GOP efforts to undermine a half-century of environmental regulatory protection. The freighter captain unilaterally makes a decision not to take some relatively simple steps that would protect the void’s inhabitants, because they would impact his livelihood and force him to find a new job. Yeah, that sounds like our lovable industrial tycoons, alright.
In the end, Voyager crew evades the freighter captain, shaves two years off the ship’s journey, and mutinies against the captain to prevent her from sacrificing herself out of guilt for trapping the ship in the Delta Quadrant. A bit of a pat ending… yet despite that, the goofy premise of the “void,” and the big shift in the plotline at the halfway mark of the episode, it all still manages to hang together convincingly.
Special mention goes to the black-and-white holodeck simulations, which see Paris and Kim playing out a thinly veiled tribute to pulp sci-fi serials (Paris is almost definitely pretending to be MST3K mainstay Commander Cody). These sequences are way more fun than Robin Hood simulations or whatever, with some effective jokes (the Doctor’s appearance, Seven of Nine’s pragmatic approach to role-playing). More of these programs and fewer da Vinci conversations would be great.