This review is cross-posted from The Tolerability Index with permission from the author.
Season 1, Episode 5 – “Phage”
“Phage” is a slightly unusual episode of Voyager, and it performs a trick that a few other episodes of Voyager indulge in (most notably, “The Swarm”, but also the episode immediately following this one) but which isn’t much seen in other branches of the franchise. Which is to say it sets up a particular threat – in this case, the Viidians and their organ-harvesting – as an interesting, well motivated alien race then determinedly manages to not really be about that at all.
The Viidians themselves are actually worthy of our time in their own right (and no real spoilers, but we’ll see them a few more times before the show closes out) but this particular episode isn’t really about them at all but rather about how various members of the crew react to what they do. Other than their initial, barely glimpsed, encounter with Neelix the Viidians only really occupy the last quarter of the episode and even then events don’t exactly end as we would expect.
In terms of characterization this episode plays out as something of an ensemble piece. Everyone gets to react to Neelix’s potential impending death in different ways. For the Doctor, it’s a chance for him to try out a new, experimental “holo-lung”. For Kes, it’s a chance for her to show how much she cares for Neelix by donating a lung. For Janeway it’s a chance to seek revenge on those who would harm her crew. And so on. The differing perspectives all centre around who these characters are and what, at this early stage in the series, they are bringing to the table, both emotionally and in terms of their characterization.
Neelix himself is something of a mixed bag in this episode. In his early scenes, as he commandeers Janeway’s private dining room (itself a slightly odd concept) he’s written largely for laughs and It’s not an especially successful use of either the character or Phillips, who’s not quite found his comic feet yet (and Mulgrew seems uncharacteristically lost opposite him, responding in a rather stilted fashion to his allegedly comic shenanigans). It does give a hint at the skills Neelix is supposed to bring to the table, with him scavenging parts and reconfiguring the room to turn it into a kitchen without any apparent assistance from the crew, but this angle is rather downplayed or at least unremarked upon, which is a shame because really it’s what the character is supposed to be good at. When Neelix is exploring the asteroid hunting for dilithium, however, he manages to be much more effective, in part because he’s shot from below, darkly lit, and he looks much more alien and the character works much more successfully as he cautiously but determinedly explores his environment. It’s amazing the difference a little lighting makes, and what can look ordinary under the full glare of the studio lights looks much more interesting in half-shadows and low lighting. Phillips appears to be better at playing this angle of the character as well, and he especially shines when Neelix is held motionless in sickbay, both when he has his initial attack of claustrophobia and when Neelix struggles very hard to hide his depression at possibly having to spend the rest of his life motionless in sickbay with his jokey side. Here the contrast between Neelix’s surface mild-mannered personality and inner darkness is seen much more clearly and again Phillips rises to the challenge. There’s also a nice interplay between the Doctor and Neelix, an unusual pairing in the show, and both bring out the best in each other. Even this early on it goes without saying that Picardo’s work is up to scratch but his gentle persuasiveness with Neelix also draws out some more angles from Neelix and it’s an understated but worthwhile pairing.
Unfortunately, this also showcases the beginning of Neelix’s jealousy towards Tom over Kes. There’s no real getting around this – it’s awful. I mean if one has to try for a redemptive angle, on a character level it sort-of makes sense. Neelix went to great lengths to secure Kes’s rescue in the pilot episode, he’s visibly (over) protective of her and dotes on her, yet has never been in an environment like Voyager where he might actually have to compete for her affections, and she’s never been in an environment like Voyager where she might have a lot more choices than the staid Ocampans she left behind or one rogue trader with an amusing line in facial hair. The problem here is that, even if it works conceptually, which is in itself debatable, what we actually get on screen doesn’t. At. All. Phillips has a great many strengths as an actor but delivering soaring jealousy while lying pinned to a medial bed is not one of them. What’s worse is that it pretty much comes out of nowhere. Tom mumbles a few platitudes to Kes about how he’ll be around if she needs him (and remember this is someone now also training to be a field medic) and Neelix massively over-reacts. It’s obviously an attempt at broadening his character a little and it falls completely flat. In fact, as will probably be discussed around “Elogium” there’s a very real question about whether Kes loves Neelix in the romantic sense at all, but here she’s prepared at the very least to give him a lung for him to live and his over-reaction is just completely out of step with what we’re shown on-screen. Someone who’s prepared to give you a lung in order to ensure your survival and quality of life probably isn’t snogging the first pilot to come along in the turbolift.
Speaking of Kes, once again both the character and Lien get a little moment to shine and it works incredibly well. Essentially it’s an expanded version of the compassion we already saw her extending to the Doctor back in “Parallax”, but here there’s more screen time given over to it and we start to see the full flowering of the Kes/Doctor pupil/teacher relationship as she extends concern towards her and he rewards it with asking the captain to allow her to begin medical training. Lien and Picardo work wonderfully together – in fact if there’s any pairing Neelix should be jealous of it’s this one, since the warmth between the two characters is immediately apparent whereas Lien and McNeill have precisely zero on-screen chemistry – and her gentle appeals to him to actually learn stuff rather than simply complaining that he has to deal with issues for which he hasn’t been programmed mark the beginning of the Doctor’s learning curve that will ultimately lead him to be much more than just another hologram.
Janeway’s principal reaction to the Viidian theft of Neelix’s lungs also bears analysis. If Mulgrew faltered over delivering some not-very-funny comedy at the start of the episode she more than makes up for it when confronting the Viidians. After chasing them down she finally gets to have her big confrontation and… finds there’s nothing at all that she can do. It’s an interesting position to put her in – Janeway needs to look like she has the authority even though her own analysis – there’s basically nothing she can do, and she has no higher authority she can appeal to – is correct. Janeways’ conflicting sympathies for the suffering of the Viidians, her understanding of it as a scientists and her abhorrence at what they do to survive all collide and her impassioned frustrations boil over, both at the situation and her inability to make any meaningful difference to it. It could also be considered the start of her slowly beginning to flex away from the rigidity of Starfleet rules as she begins to appreciate just how limited and ill-equipped they are do deal with situations like the one Voyager now find itself in. Yet it’s this frustration and anguish that eventually motivates one of the Viidians to try and help – we only get two see two members of the race in this episode and they only have a few lines each but they’re given at least the scope to sketch out the basics of their culture and have more to say than a lot of the (story) cannon fodder we’ll be meeting in the first season (certainly they make much more of an immediate impact than, for example, the Kazon). That additional angle – they’re not just monsters, and even amongst just two members of their race they have differing personalities – also goes a long way to helping them seem like a more fully-realized species and a non-homogenized culture, and the final offer of help which plays with audience expectations and which allows Kes to donate a lung to Neelix to save him, presents a well-rounded conclusion to the episode based on character rather than bafflegab.
In the end, the lopsided nature of the storytelling doesn’t quite work here, but it was worthwhile to try and show the consequences of interactions with alien species rather than simply the interactions themselves, and structurally the episode benefits from at least trying a slightly different approach, even if it’s not entirely successful. The feint about the episode not really being about the Viidians at all doesn’t quite hold together, and although nothing really goes wrong here, it’s also not the most spectacular episode either. Voyager has been very much worse than this. But it’s also been very much better.
• “And there’s no counselor on board” the Doctor tells Kes, explaining his expanded role while desperately trying to convince the audience that councilors on the ship were a good idea in the first place. Nice try, but not buying it.
• When returning to the asteroid to investigate what happened to Neelix Janeway loudly demands of Chakotay that three security teams beam down with them. Naturally upon arrival they’re nowhere to be seen (to be strictly fair, they might be off investigating other bits of the asteroid, but Mulgrew delivers the line like she expects her Away Team to be accompanied by the security squads and that’s not what we see).
• Chakotay gets to find another solution, this time to the problem of the reflected ships! He’s not in this episode much but his middle-school physics lesson is perfectly accurate science for once, and it’s nice to see him actually being used for something constructive, even if it’s a relatively minor point in the episode.
• We get to see Seska again – she’s working! Just, like, getting on with her job and stuff! It won’t last…
• The Doctor slapping Tom as an introduction to how the holo-lungs will work is great, and wonderful comic timing from both Picardo and McNeill.
• “He’s… one big hormone walking about this ship”. And so it begins…
Season 1, Episode 6 – “The Cloud”
There are some episodes of Star Trek that, like this one, are fairly difficult to review as they stand. Not because of any inherent strengths or weaknesses but because they consist of a whole bunch of little things which, while perfectly enjoyable, don’t necessarily add up to much as a whole. “The Cloud” is, like the previous episode, not really about the titular creature/nebula at all, but more about the crew continuing to spend time together within the confines of a relatively small ship. So, much as we had roles in the previous episode for everyone to carve out their own little niche, we have something similar here – Janeway musing about how she’s going to have to find different ways of dealing with her crew now the reality of being stuck in the Delta Quadrant is really sinking in, Neelix’s (not entirely unjustified) frustration at the captain throwing the ship into danger every five minutes, Paris finding ways of relaxing, B’Elanna being all professionally justified in her job and so on. These are all little vignettes designed to show us different angles on the characters while This Weeks Random Threat gives us a few camera wobbles and a little (but let’s be honest, not much) tension to keep things ticking along. It’s a pleasing ensemble piece, vaguely reminiscent of mid-run TNG (and the nebula creature passingly recalls “The Immunity Syndrome” from TOS). It’s a pleasant but unremarkable way of spending forty-five minutes, just hanging out with the characters and getting used to their ship-board life but although other vignette episodes have more substance to them (“Night” especially) in this case it doesn’t exactly give a lot of meat for analysis, redemptive or otherwise. In fact, since much of the episode plays out like a forty-five minute collection of Stray Observations about the crew and their situation, this review is going to follow suit and adopt the same structure. Therefore…
• The little intro between Paris, Kim and Janeway in the episode opener is played as deliberately awkward, which it most certainly is, but not I think quite in the way the production staff want it to be. None of the three quite know how to react to each other and it plays more like actors mis-timing cues rather than three crewmembers not knowing how to behave round each other.
• Having said that, Janeway’s curious exploration of Neelix’s kitchen a minute later is a lovely little moment, all cautious uncertainty at discovering whatever bubbles away in his alchemical galley.
• All together now: “There’s coffee in that nebula!” I mean, it’s cheesy as hell but at least it’s intentionally played that way. Mulgrew seems to have a hard time keeping a straight face, and who can blame her?
• It’s also nice to see Janeway explicitly questioning the wisdom of keeping distance between herself and her crew in the way that, say, Picard would maintain through the bulk of TNG but which might not work so well cut off from the rest of the Federation. Different situations, different solutions.
• For the second episode in a row there’s a comment about how there’s no councilor on board, in this case because, “the mission didn’t require one”. Seriously, drop it. Nobody is convinced.
• Although this is a bottle show, David Livingston turns in some nice direction in the early bridge scenes, with Janeway and Chakotay blocked out-of-focus behind Paris as the camera swings round in front of Tom, and there’s a visible effort to make things a bit more interesting than just the usual selection of blocked off shots.
• Chakotay’s medicine bundle – how? I mean, he didn’t have it with him when he fled his own ship while crashing it into the Kazons in “Caretaker” so how did it survive and where did it come from? Did B’Elanna thoughtfully pick it up from his cabin before the big suicide run?
• Kes’s comment, “If I were the captain I’d want to open every crack in the Universe and peek inside” is interesting in light of what eventually happens to her.
• Neelix whining that he wants off the ship every time there’s what Janeway calls “a bump in the road”, however, is very annoying. Phillips isn’t very good at selling that side of Neelix, and he is in no way helped by the script. His comment about the ship being put in danger every five minute is wryly amusing from a fourth-wall perspective, but none of this really goes anywhere other than to provide a contrast to Kes.
• Speaking of whom, she seems to find being inside the nebula strangely arousing, though she may just be putting it on to shut Neelix up. Which, fair enough.
• Sandrines ,Tom’s holoprogram of a French bistro, makes its debut here, and it’s positioned somewhere between an ‘Allo ‘Allo-style French parody (especially the ropey accents, though given it’s a reproduction that may be intentional) and a sort of TV-language version of what one might look like (a sort of French Cheers, complete with regular customers, pool table, gigolos and women who can’t keep their hands off Tom). Tom’s approach to the design of the bistro and its clientele is appealing sleazy, and a marked contrast to Bashir’s James Bond fantasies or Picard’s detective novels.
• Tom breaking in to Harry’s quarters to lure him down to Sandrines is very oddly shot – the handheld camera work and long cast shadow makes it look for all the world like Harry’s either about to be murdered in his bed or some alien is going to abduct him, but instead Tom jokily drags him out of bed and down to his favourite bar. No wonder people slashed these two…
• Harry apparently remembers being in his mother’s womb. Um… OK…
• The Doctor: “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.” B’Elanna: “Why do you always have to say that?” The Doctor: “I can only speculate about my programmers motives. Perhaps they thought I would be summoned for… important reasons?”
• On board Jupiter station there’s someone who “looks a lot like” the Doctor. That’s something of an understatement…
• In Chakotay’s vision quests, drugs (specifically peyote) have been replaced by technology to aid in the quest. Chakotay actually says “our scientists” meaning, presumably, Native American but it’s a slightly odd way of expressing what he means. If they’d followed through with Chakotay being from a disputed Cardassian/Federation planet in the Badlands “our scientsts” might make contextual sense, referring to something that the people of that planet had developed, apart from other tribes, perhaps as a response to the absence of psychoactive plants. But the way its delivered makes it sound like there are Native American scientists kept entirely apart from all other scientists which, indeed, there may be but it’s clumsily delivered (not by Beltran, but in terms of the writing). Of course it’s all designed to get round the fact that Star Trek can’t advocate drug use but dose want to have the vision quest, for some reason.
• It’s also the debut of Chakotay’s “we are far from the bones of our ancestors” speech which we’ll be hearing far too often over the course of the next couple of seasons.
• Picardo gets another lovely comedy moment when, on the bridge, his audio gets muted and he hams up his frustrations in the background while the senior staff carry on their discussion without him.
• “Dismissed. That’s a Starfleet expression for get out.”
• This week in Chakotay Investigates: He solves another problem! Honestly, I had no idea he was used this much early on. This time he works out that the omicron particles are being carried by a circulatory system and that Voyager can ride it to safety. And what do you know, it works! Beltran is, despite the slightly labored Native American material he’s given (which he does his best to sell – his natural on-screen charisma helps a lot in this regard, before it gets dialed back a bit as the show goes on), generally on fine form here and it’s very refreshing to see his character being put to practical use. Plus his Season-One-only grey hairs suit him, it gives him a little extra authority, especially on a ship populated by a fairly young crew.
• Neelix becomes self-appointed morale officer here, in a scene where he brings food to the bridge that even Janice Rand, eternal fetcher of the coffee, might question. Yay?
• Turns out Janeway’s a bit of a pool hustler, which is about as surprising as discovering that Picard is bald or that Kirk likes the ladies. The shot of her potting the black while she looks directly at Tom rather than the table is wonderful.
In conclusion then: not so bad! It’s a fairly nice but not especially noteworthy entry into Voyager’s first season, and a few of the actors, most notably Kate Mulgrew, really get a chance to come into their own – even when delivering ham-handed dialogue about Janeway’s unexpected interest in the vision quest she manages to make it look as if Janeway is genuinely curious rather than just humouring her first officer. If you never saw this episode then you lose absolutely nothing in in terms of storytelling but if you did catch it then you get to spend a fun time hanging out with the regulars. Though not noticeably different from the episode that precedes it, “The Cloud” does score over “Phage” by having a slightly different emphasis and allowing itself to more fully embrace spending time with the characters and relegating what is ostensibly the main plot to the sidelines. It’s unremarkable but… fine.
EDIT: Note from your WeStreamTV Admin– These reviews began at TI a few months ago, and are only now being cross-posted. For the first 3 reviews (of the first 6 eps), if you’d like to comment then the best place to do that is probably TI, where a discussion is already ongoing. Beginning with Episode 7 (the next one), the cross-posting will happen within
a day days of the original and you’re welcome to comment here.