ST: Voyager, Episodes 7 & 8 “Eye of the Needle”, “Ex Post Facto”

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This review is cross-posted from The Tolerability Index with permission from the author.

http://tolerabilityindex.freeforums.net/thread/1857/season-episodes-needle-post-facto

by Prole Hole

Season 1, Episode 7 – “Eye of the Needle”

Cheapest! Romulan! Ship! Ever!

Cheapest! Romulan! Ship! Ever!

The first out-and-out triumph of Voyager’s first season, “Eye of the Needle” is another all-but-bottle show (the only thing we see outside of the Voyager sets are one chair, a wall and a flashing panel on the Romulan ship) and the first time Voyager has contact with the Alpha Quadrant in any way since their abduction by the Caretaker. It’s a quiet, thoughtful episode that uses its time persuasively.

About a third of the way through the episode there is a discussion between B’Elanna and Harry in Engineering as they work on the probe signal which addresses the nature of the loss that the crew is experiencing. B’Elanna is still teasing Harry with the nickname “Starfleet” (in itself rather sweet, and first introduced in “Caretaker”) and seems genuinely to not be that fussed about being isolated from the Alpha Quadrant. She’s a little self-deprecating, comments off-handedly that the Maquis were the closest thing she had to family (and we’ll see how well that ends in a few seasons time) and does her best to appear fairly unbothered by their situation. Yet Harry is full of remorse but tellingly starts the conversation not by feeling sorry for himself but rather by expressing concern for his parents. He worries about how they will react, and in worrying about them also swings round to worrying about his own situation, ultimately realizing that his own sense of loss and isolation will be just as acute, if not more so, than anything this parents are going through. The scene, which is very well played by both Dawson and Wang, really cuts to the heart of what makes up this episode – it’s a small, low-key moment which allows some filling in of both characters’ back-story but because it functions as a lens for the thematic elements of the episode it never comes across as exposition (compare and contrast to the similar “this is my story” scene between Janeway and B’Elanna in “Parallax” when B’Elanna has to explain she never fitted in at Starfleet and Janeway tells her she had more friends than she realized for a point of reference and the difference is apparent). In an episode littered with telling little moments it’s perhaps one of the most effective, and most affecting.

One of the great things about this episode is just how effectively the main plot is structured, and how by the time it reaches its conclusion its dejected ending feels entirely appropriate whilst never feeling like a cheat or overly self-indulgent – it’s allowed to grow and develop organically. Back when Voyager was still an on-going concern, around Season 5 there was a lot of speculation about the possibility of Voyager actually returning to the Alpha Quadrant and continuing its adventures there, with the show having Voyager going on the kind of short-range missions we saw it engaging in during the pilot. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say this never happens, but this episode represents the first of a few chances that Voyager has to return to the Alpha Quadrant but which must, necessarily, be thwarted at some stage. The possibility of Voyager’s return to the Alpha Quadrant effectively acts as a narrative collapse – it would meaningfully end the kind of show Voyager was explicitly set up to be (a lost ship in the Delta Quadrant trying to get home) and the kind of stories that stem from it. What’s so effective about “Eye Of The Needle” is the way that the thread of their inability to return is woven throughout the fabric of the episode, but never in an explicit way. This isn’t some corny “Chekhov’s Gun” scenario, whereby a whacking great signpost in the first act essentially gives away the ending by the time the third one rolls around. There are comments peppered throughout the episode – an unknown “phase variance”, the odd phrase like the Romulan captain commenting that he’s “not familiar with this class of ship” while allowing for the fact that he’s been isolated in space to explain his ignorance – but, crucially, these are never drawn attention to so they function smoothly within the bounds of the episode. The ways these hints are dropped also allows the episode to be consistently enjoyable on a re-watch even when you know what the punchline is going to be – they come across as clever construction not crass excuses to prevent their return.

And if Kate Mulgrew has faltered a couple of times thus far, mostly when having to deal with poorly-thought-out comedy, from the first frame here she’s in complete command. More than any other episode to date she’s called on to provide a range of emotions. This starts with optimism (she explicitly tells Tuvok she prefers hopefulness), and cycles through a range of hopes, despairs and frustrations as the episode progresses. Pleasingly, we also get to see some of Janeway’s more pragmatic side coming to the surface – she’s clearly upset by the set-backs they encounter over the course of the episode, but unlike, say, Harry, she is also mature enough to be able to put them to one side once she’s bumped up against them and move on to whatever comes next without it overwhelming her (this is made most explicit in the final line of the episode). It’s an understated but well-realized side to her character. In another nicely-realized moment, when Janeway gets a call from Telek R’Mor in what is for her the middle of the night, she also has to conduct an impassioned conversation with what amounts to an empty room and here too we see both the hopes and fears of Janeway as she negotiates with the Romulan captain. What’s especially pleasing about this scene is that it ends on a quiet, minor note, not in a more traditional moment of triumph.

As with “Phage” this episode also plays with audience expectations, this time in terms of the way the Romulans are portrayed. The captain of the science vessel is just that, and it’s significant that it’s a science vessel Voyager makes contact with. The Romulan captain’s initial hostility and outright disbelief at Janeway’s explanations of where Voyager is slowly and gradually gives way to understanding and finally acceptance. What’s well thought out about this is that it’s never spelt out explicitly that he comes to accept the evidence in front of him because he himself is a scientist, it’s simply implied and the script has enough faith in the audience that they’ll be able to put that side of it together (this is especially true of a race normally portrayed as being politically duplicitous and with constantly shifting alliances – here we have none of those machinations, simply a man of science reaching a conclusion based of evidence). The captain is equally allowed a moment of emotional vulnerability as Janeway appeals to the fact that he has family (including a new-born daughter whom he has never seen) and thus must also be able to understand the loss and isolation that her crew are suffering. As the episode’s only (main) guest star Vaughn Armstrong has to carry a lot of the weight of the episode, giving R’Mor believability and making his gradual shift in position seem credible, and he does a terrific job of it, never better than during that discussion of his daughter that he has never seen.

One of the other great successes of the way the story is allowed to organically grow is that even when their discoveries move forward (from the first time they sight the wormhole, to launching a probe, to finding someone to communicate with, to being able to send a transporter signal through the wormhole) there are enough problems which they encounter along the way for the final big reveal to function successfully. Because this hasn’t been a smooth succession of events, and because the crew keep hitting snags, it feels somehow appropriate that by the episode’s denouement they eventually encounter one snag too many, and this one is simply too big for them to be able to work around. The temporal variance works well within the episode partly because, as mentioned before, it’s a credible way to stop the narrative collapse of the return to the Alpha Quadrant but also because, just as there was an escalation of the crews successes, there was also an escalation in their failures, until the two come to a head in an unresolvable issue. The additional capper, when Tuvok reveals that R’Mor died four years before they even launched on the mission that brought them to the Delta Quadrant and so their messages probably never reached Starfleet (Tuvok leaves this open as possibility, but it’s clear from later events that they were never received) gives a downbeat ending that adds to the weight of their isolation. The crew’s successes in being able to not only establish physical communication across the width of the galaxy but also reaching a parallel communication with someone who was expected to be their enemy is as naught to the capricious whims of physics and time.

Stray Observations:

• I didn’t discuss it, since it doesn’t really directly impact the main thrust of the story, but the crew (as represented by one crewman with a recurring sports injury) coming to terms with what the Doctor is paralleling the bridge crew coming to terms with the Romulan captain is also nicely layered into the episode. Kes gets a further development of her pupil role and is coming along very fast, if the Doctor’s comments about her memory are to be believed.

• Kes is also very intense when she delivers the line, “it would be interesting to see an autopsy”. It’s well-delivered by Lien, just ever-so-slightly creepy, and makes good use of Kes’s alien side without over-emphasizing it.

• Neelix isn’t in this episode.

• On discovery of the wormhole, Tuvok states that there’s a 25% chance of it leading to the Alpha Quadrant and Janeway replies that it’s a one-in-four shot and she likes those odds. But why would the wormhole have to lead to somewhere in our galaxy at all?

• We see a return of that old TOS favourite the transporter test cylinder, here looking rather sleeker and more modern than it’s 60’s counterpart. Conveniently, as it saves having to build a Romulan transporter room, it’s beamed to directly in front of where R’Mor is sitting.

• Just as Chakotay did in “Parallax” Kes gets to take on Janeway in an argument and actually win, this time over the Doctor and his right to be treated in a decent way by the crew. Janeway’s “is there something I can do for you?” speech in sickbay seems to affect the Doctor’s self-perception just as much as Kes telling him he’s worth more.

• When R’Mor says it’s impossible for the Starfleet crew to beam on to his ship but that he will arrange “a troop transport” for them Janeway seems uncharacteristically relaxed about the idea of getting on to a Romulan troop transporter. She might trust R’Mor but would she really trust the Romulan government not to just lock up high value people like a Starfleet captain to extract information?

• “Let’s move on. We’ve got a long way to go.”

 

Season 1, Episode 8 – “Ex Post Facto”

Here's lookin' at LeVar, kid

Here’s lookin’ at LeVar, kid

A pathetic series of clichés masquerading as a plot, “Ex Post Facto” would be an absolute categorical disaster if it somehow… wasn’t. Which isn’t to say it’s especially good, because it’s not that either, but this isn’t a terrible hour of Voyager, merely a homage which, if you’re in the mood for it, can work and if you are not… well it doesn’t. It a peculiar script, even by the standards of Star Trek‘s first seasons which tend to be rather uneven at the best of times (for comparison, this is the eighth episode of Voyager – the eighth episode of TNG was “Justice” and the eighth episode of DS9 was “Dax”, which also curiously revolved around a member of the crew being accused of murder) this is a straight-up noir pastiche, and it makes no bones about it. So we have, in order of appearance – a staid marriage falling apart at the seams, a sultry cigarette-smoking femme fatale, a torrid affair in the rain, a murder than needs to be solved, and an investigator turning over all the facts to get to the bottom of the mystery. Sound like something straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel? There’s a reason for that…

Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Chandler pastiches in Star Trek – Picard’s holo-novel of choice followed a whole bunch of Chandler-esque mysteries with Picard taking the central role usually held over for the likes of Humphrey Bogart. Here we have a different angle where, of all people, Tuvok takes on the Bogart role as the investigator/private eye determined to get to the bottom of The Mystery Of The Murdered Husband (as this episode might as well have been called). What’s even odder is that he doesn’t step into this role until about halfway through the episode, the first half being predominantly taken up in flashback as first Harry then Tom narrate the circumstances of Tom’s fall from grace as the hands of the aforementioned femme fatale (and look, I know that’s a clichéd way of describing her, but the whole episode revolves around the reiterations of these clichés in a Trek environment, even moreso than Picard’s holo-novels because here it’s something which is actually happening to the crew rather than a constructed piece of fiction to keep the fleet’s most important captain from getting bored). This episode is directed by Trek’s very own LeVar Burton, and he makes the interesting choice to not only start the episode in black-and-white as Tom relives the murder he’s accused of (just in case we didn’t get the fact that it’s a noir homage) but has the narrated flashbacks delivered in a slightly stilted style which serves to differentiate it from the present. This is a technique that would work quite successfully if it were used in fairly short bursts but the problem is that we get scenes lasting minutes upon minutes which are delivered in this halting style and it ceases to be an interesting directorial touch and rapidly becomes rather annoying.

Of the affair that Tom is alleged to have had, what’s most interesting about it is that it’s very much framed as the sort of thing Kirk would have gotten up (“The Conscience Of The King” should probably be mentioned here as an example) whereby he would turn up at some planet, have a bit of a fling with one of the local girls then sail off to the next mission with his “girl in every port” reputation intact and little in the way of consequences beyond a few regretful words and a stare into the middle distance. Indeed the episode looks like it’s going for a critique of exactly that, with Tom falling for the lonesome, estranged wife of This Weeks Alien Scientist, heading out the back for a few hoary scenes in the rain (in fact the scenes in the rain closely parallel those in “The Conscience Of The King” where Kirk takes Lenore to the observation deck) then… Ah yes, then the husband finds out and Tom apparently kills him. In intentionally veering away from the established Kirk-ish narrative back into the expected tropes of noir the episode seems to be reaching for this critique, but the problem is it doesn’t really do anything with them and the genre collision of Trek and noir doesn’t really offer much in the way of enlightenment for either. Instead we fall back into the trappings of noir while the Trek critique simply falls away, and so we end up with Tom having the memory of the murder implanted into his head, but from the point of view of the victim, firmly re-establishing Trek as the dominant trope even while using the trappings of noir to veer away from any criticism.

This in itself calls to mind the DS9 episode “Hard Time” where a similar fate befalls Chief O’Brien, though in his case the implanted memories are of 20 years in prison rather than the crime he committed. So again it looks as if the episode is going to tack into a critique of Trek as the genres once again collide, and again nothing comes of it. It just so happens that the punishments are similar in the way they are enforced. “A Matter Of Perspective” should also be mentioned as an obvious antecedent as well, though that episode owes more to Rashomon than it does to the conventions of noir. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of “Ex Post Facto” – not that it’s based on the clichés of noir but that it really seems to be reaching for something more profound to say about Star Trek itself through the reiterations of those clichés but it never actually gets there. “Ex Post Facto” is clearly much lighter in tone and intent than “Hard Time” and isn’t a character study in the way that either “Hard Time” was of O’Brien or “A Matter of Perspective” was of Riker, and as more of an ensemble piece it’s trying to do different things so the comparisons fade away again without amounting to anything.

It doesn’t help that, as probably the weakest episode of Voyager up to this point, there’s little going on away from the main plot that serves to either illustrate or highlight what the main characters are up to. The Doctor has a little discussion about choosing a name for himself with Kes but, unlike in the previous episode where their interactions served to throw light onto the main plot, here it’s exactly what it seems to be – a hologram and an Ocampan discussing the choosing of a name. There are a few rumblings of interest in some of the minor-used characters, but as with everything else here it doesn’t amount to much. Chakotay, astonishingly, once again gets to be useful as he outwits the Numiri ships which attack Voyager, and he even gets to be a bit more thuggish than usual which as always suits him very well, but it’s a very short scene. Neelix, however, actually gets to be used in the way he’s supposed to be, providing Janeway with some genuinely-useful information about the planet they’re visiting this week and generally acting like the guide he’s actually on the ship to be. This is somewhat undermined by his first scene with Janeway in her ready room where he tells her he always tried to get out of the way of “their intimidation before it began!” then roars with terribly-delivered laughter as if this is the funniest thing imaginable. It’s one of many Neelix scenes which should have been underplayed but instead is hammed up to the max – Burton should have toned him down or Phillips should have reined it in but neither did and the results are grating in the extreme. He’s better when simply sitting on the bridge and giving Janeway advice and here the character functions much more effectively.

This is the first episode where Kate Mulgrew is more off to the side as firstly Tom then Tuvok takes centre stage. She gets one magnificent moment of command after fooling the attacking aliens into taking over their shuttle filled with explosive (oh my she looked pissed off) but beyond that serves as much more of a background figure while Tuvok gets on with solving the mystery. There’s a nice line of trust between Janeway and Tuvok and it speaks volumes that she simply lets him resolve the central dilemma his way while turning up to lend authority to the proceedings when required. It’s not emphasized, but it’s a good use of their relationship in an episode which doesn’t linger much on the personal side of things.

By the end of the episode, when Tuvok calls a small dog as a witness to the murder in order to exonerate Tom things have tipped over from pastiche into farce. While clearly the episode is not meant to be taken all that seriously (and there is absolutely no feeling of threat or tension in this episode at all) and while introducing the dog as the implausible escape mechanism by which Our Hero gets off the hook (itself a trope of murder mystery fiction, though more Christie than Chandler where the least likely to havedunnit is the most likely to havedunnit), the episode is both poking fun at the conventions of the genre and also how they operate within the Star Trek universe. This part is, in fact, quite successful, at least in part because it’s obviously silly and obviously meant to be silly, but it’s too little too late. Tom gets off the hook, the dog helps to prove his innocence and the femme fatale is caught for her crime. It’s all wrapped up right up to the end, and not a page is out of place. Unfortunately.

Stray Observations:

• Some of the dialogue is unbelievably ripe, even for a genre pastiche. How about Harry, trying unsuccessfully to set the mood, delivering, “there was no reason to say no. But if we hadn’t gone with him that night… none of this would have happened.”

• Too straight-faced? What about the femme fatale declaring, after Tom’s given us an anti-smoking lecture that would make the most ardent anti-tobacco zealot want to light up, “maybe I kill myself slowly because I lack the courage to do it quickly”.

• It continues, as she tries to explain why she married someone old enough to be her father (the script’s words, not mine) – “he was good to me. A lot of men weren’t.” I suppose I should admit here that she does actually have a name, Lidell Ren, but honestly the script takes precious little interest in her at that level anyway, and she might as well just have a big flashing neon sign above her saying “femme fatale” with an arrow pointing downwards. In black and white, naturally.

• The handrail Janeway swings her way round on the bridge while heading to sickbay wobbles alarmingly. Repair crews need to get on that.

• There’s a lovely drinks cabinet in Tolen Ren’s house which can be seen while Tom and Harry have a little chat, a sort of narrow elongated pyramid with doors that swing outwards. Yes, I’m reduced to praising a drinks cabinet, but it really is quite nice.

• This episode also has some of the least dramatic end-of-act cliffhangers imaginable. You’d think in an episode where a member of the crew has been accused of murder and we’ve actually seen that event from the point of view of the person that was killed we could do a bit better than Voyager ambling along in space in no apparent hurry to go anywhere, and an away team beaming up. But apparently not.

• A bit later on in another, frankly hilarious, piece of dialogue, Lidell declares, “I love to drink tea on a rainy afternoon,” while leaning back in wet clothes and trying to look seductive for Tom’s benefit. The effect is somewhat ruined by the fact that it’s pitch-dark behind them and they’ve just come from dinner where everyone loudly declared that they’d be working through the night.

• Sorry to say, but LeVar just didn’t do a good job on this one. In addition to the phenomenally uninspiring cliffhangers and the rapidly-wearisome stilted flashbacks there’s a moment when Neelix asks, ”a… a what? What did he say? A mind what?” after Tuvok proposes a mind meld with Tom to get to the truth of the matter. It’s appallingly edited, like there was more dialogue that got chopped and Ethan Phillips is left, through no fault of his own, with egg all over his face waiting for a reaction that never comes. And there’s just not enough visual flair to shore up the noir side of things. We need long shadows, moody lighting and lingering cameras, not glaring overhead lamps, cheesy POV shots and bog-standard TV cuts. Even the black-and-white doesn’t really work, since it looks like exactly what it is – a cheap attempt to shoot noir without any depth at all.

• Yes, yet again I find myself having to point out that Chakotay = useful. Who knew? This time his old Maquis trick of playing possum helps defeat the attacking Numiri. There’s a lovely, naturalistic little beat between him and Janeway where he shores up his credibility by saying his trick, “worked against those two Starfleet runabouts” and Janeway replies that he’s lucky she wasn’t commanding then. Beltran and Mulgrew are great at this sort of thing together.

• I didn’t mention it in the review, but Tim Russ should be highly praised – he turns in a great performance and gives Tuvok some nice moments as he works his way to solving the mystery. It is, as ever, an understated performance, but we get to see more of Tuvok-the-person rather than Tuvok-the-exasperated-comic-relief and it’s very welcome.

 

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