Well, that’s Voyager season five down. A bit later than I’d intended, thanks to my spending a third of February incapacitated. But we soldier on.
Voyager takes another page from classic Trek — in this case, Kirk’s ability to talk a malevolent computer into committing suicide. Heck, the A.I. in question even looks like Nomad. To this episode’s credit, it puts its own spin on things.
“Warhead” also makes use of a Voyager-specific trope, namely that Ensign Kim is kind of a screwup. This is the third huge disaster he’s instigated this season! Here, he leads an away team (his first as leader, I think?) to check out a distress signal and finds some sort of sentient machine crashed and helpless on a lifeless planet. The Doctor, ever a champion for fellow artificial intelligences, encourages the crew to help the machine, so Harry beams it up. Oops: Turns out it’s a wayward, self-aware implement of mass destruction that doesn’t initially realize it’s a superweapon.
Things go about as well as you’d expect from the crew beaming a cosmic-level bunker-buster with a self-preservation instinct into Sickbay. The bomb takes over the Doctor’s mobile emitter and threatens to destroy the ship if Voyager doesn’t escort it to its target so it can complete its mission of nuking an enemy military installation. The crew, of course, isn’t really on board with this plan, but the weapon has plenty of safeguards — enough so that even Seven of Nine’s Borg nanoprobes (the show’s Get Out of Jail Free card) don’t work.
As usual when Ensign Kim instigates a disaster, he also saves the day. Here, he and B’Elanna manage to uncover missing details in the missile’s memory: Its launch was an accident and its creators attempted to recall it before it crashed. While the A.I. is initially convinced this is another attempt by the Voyager crew to trick it, Kim eventually brings it around, and eventually it self-destructs. Where Kirk’s induced machine suicide episodes involved him outsmarting the computers and talking them into logical paradoxes, though, Kim approaches from the angle of compassion and an appeal to the missile to explore its sentience and aspire to be something greater than its programming would dictate (the Doctor’s achievements being held up as an example). And in the end, the missile doesn’t destroy itself out of futility or despair, but rather as a deliberate self-sacrifice to prevent a swarm of its fellow missiles from bombarding an innocent target. It’s all warm ’n fuzzy ’n Trek.
“Equinox, Part 1”
And here we are, with the cliffhanger finale to season five. It’s a pretty interesting piece, not so much for the plot — which is fine — but rather for the way it weaves a number of other threads seen over the show’s previous year together.
The hook: Voyager encounters a Starfleet science vessel (the tiny, Nova-class Equinox) under attack by an unknown force and swoops in to help. The Equinox, it turns out, also came to be in the Delta Quadrant by way of the same Caretaker array that swept up Voyager. But it’s had a much harder time of things, and its crew has been reduced to a skeleton complement (the constant assaults by shrieking vampire bat aliens from another dimension certainly haven’t helped matters). This has echoes of season four’s finale in which the crew was fooled by Dauntless, a fake Starfleet vessel supposedly sent to find Voyager. But Equinox is real, and is in no position to help out.
Voyager offers to absorb the Equinox‘s crew and ferry the survivors home, but her captain — Ransom — is having none of it. That’s because, it turns out, he’s a dirty scoundrel. The alien assaults have come about because Ransom attempted to capture benign creatures and harvest their bodies for the energetic properties they contain: The Equinox had run out of power for her warp engines some time back when the crew discovered the extradimensional creatures’ unique properties could supercharge their engines and get them back to Earth in a matter of months rather than years. The Equinox crew conspired to capture and exploit dozens of the creatures, even removing her Emergency Medical Hologram’s ethical subroutines (which, incidentally, gives us the second episode in a row in which our Doctor ends up being subsumed by a hostile force) in order to enlist the A.I. to help out. The aliens, however, were having none of it; they began attacking Equinox (and now Voyager) with the aim of desiccating all hu-mons in a well-earned act of vengeance.
“Those other Starfleet people are rotten” is hardly a new premise in Trek, and “Equinox” kind of tipped its hand by casting Lost‘s Smoke Monster as the other ship’s first officer. (What’s with this season of Voyager and its use of future Lost villains, anyway?) And, honestly, I think what makes this episode work — possibly more than any other instance of Starfleet heroes taking a dark turn to date — is the fact that you can honestly understand why the Equinox crew made the choices they did. They’re not horrible to the core, and in fact they get on with Voyager‘s crew quite well (especially Smokey, who had a fling with B’Elanna a decade prior); but they made a horrible choice in desperation. Now, they’re committed to it, including a cover-up and potentially using Voyager as bait for their escape.
The episode gives us a glimpse of the innate nobility of Trek‘s lead captains from a brief, outside perspective as Janeway tells Ransom that her crew has stayed true to the Prime Directive throughout their journey. But you can see the disparity in their circumstances: Voyager is a large, top-of-the-line ship designed for deep-space exploration; Equinox is a dinky little thing that should never have survived as long as it has. Janeway can afford to stick to her principles because she has Voyager and all its power and resources.
This episode does a lot to justify some of the stubborn choices we’ve seen Janeway make over the course of the series; without her recognition of a line that should never be crossed, Voyager would have ended up with another Equinox. The contrast between the crews evokes memories of “Course: Oblivion,” where the faux-Voyager crew held fast to their imprinted principles and refused to take innocent lives in order to save themselves. Equinox (specifically Ransom) was willing to cross that line, and it’s resulted in suffering on all sides, with a bonus of plans for mass murder… all as a means to the end of simply returning to Earth.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Equinox” first aired at a time (1999) at which other writers and shows were begin to deconstruct the moral certainty that had served as the anchor for 12 years of Star Trek, ever since The Next Generation‘s debut. Ronald D. Moore was wrapping up his efforts on the frequently antiheroic Deep Space Nine and would soon move along to ply those concepts even more enthusiastically in Battlestar Galactica. Meanwhile, both Farscape and Firefly were right on the horizon and would soon arrive to take a reactionary approach to contemporary Trek. “Equinox” is Trek standing its ground and showing us why those high-minded principles are important. The Equinox crew made a single amoral choice in a moment of desperation, and everything that followed were the disastrous consequences.
Anyway, I’m going to mark this down as another case of Voyager containing more substance and subtext than I usually see it given credit for. But for now, I’ll have to leave the crew under attack by an alien force as I shift back over to season six of Deep Space Nine.