ST: Voyager, Episodes 9 & 10 – “Emanations”, “Prime Factors”

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

http://tolerabilityindex.freeforums.net/thread/1894/season-episodes-emanations-prime-factors

by Prole Hole

Season 1, Episode 9 – “Emanations”

Nice hat.

Nice hat.

For a series predominantly designed as an action-adventure show Voyager’s biggest success thus far has been the relatively low-key “Eye Of The Needle”. Joining it in the low-key success stakes is “Emanations”, a rumination on how another culture views death and what impact having those beliefs challenged can have, both on an individual and on society. It’s not an episode often spoken of but it deserves to be, as one of Star Trek’s very best.

If “Ex Post Facto” allowed Robert Duncan McNeill and Tim Russ to take centre stage respectively, “Emanations” allows Garrett Wang to step forward into the limelight and helm an episode with tricky themes to negotiate. Lacking the star power of Mulgrew, the roguish charm of McNeill and Beltran or the brittle humour of Picardo, Wang is often over-shadowed by his fellow cast members (it doesn’t help that he tends to get the runt of the litter, script-wise, with one fruitless romance with an alien woman after another) yet here, given the chance to star in an episode where themes of loss and spirituality are more important than bafflegab or quick-fire engineering solutions Wang chooses to underplay everything and it works wonderfully for him. The script itself gives him a huge helping hand, first portraying Kim as out of his depth as he tries to come to terms with being entirely cut off from Voyager for the first time and encountering a civilization that invest a lot more in his arrival than he might otherwise expect. Wang plays Kim as cautious, carefully laying out his approach even when he makes a mis-step, but never quite allowing him to be overwhelmed by his circumstance, and he already has enough confidence to risk death in the sure and certain knowledge that if the crew of Voyager find him in time he’ll be revived. Well, perhaps “sure and certain” is over-stating things – he admits that he’s not certain that Voyager will find him in time, but has faith that they probably will, and his willingness to put his life on the line to get back to them is oddly charming.

It’s also never entirely clear where Harry ends up. There’s talk, naturally, of subspace vacuoles drawing his transporter beam inside, but it’s left open-ended as to whether he travels merely in space, into another dimension or somewhere else entirely. Harry having no idea where he ends up mirrors Ptera, who, in her expectation of death, is hoping to see her deceased brother again and freaks out when she realizes she’s on Voyager instead. Her death and subsequent revival are played more in spiritual terms than technological ones, despite the Doctor’s quick “I cured her” speech, and her loss of faith and willingness to risk death to return to her people is equally as charming as Harry’s, even though her attempts are unsuccessful – after the attempt to return her, where she regains her faith but ultimately dies, she literally falls, collapsing on the transporter platform as if her initial loss of faith cost her everything.

There’s also a great use and love of language throughout the episode, all too rarely seen in Star Trek, as part of the Vhnori society and a welcome way to enrich their culture, with talk of “thanatologists” (people who study death), what the Voyager crew refer to as subspace vacuoles are called “spectral ruptures” and the coffin-like caskets where the soon-to-be-dead individuals are placed are called cenotaphs. This richness of language adds much to the culture of the Vhnori and makes them feel more integrated and whole as a people than the usual run-of-the-mill aliens of the week. There’s conflict within the culture over Harry’s appearance (always a welcome sign that thought has been put into constructing both the characters and their society rather than just one or the other) and the overall impression of a people who exist beyond the four walls of the television screen. To say that this is Brannon Braga’s smartest (and best) script for Voyager is something of an understatement – it’s probably his best script for Star Trek flat out, and it’s incredibly refreshing to find him writing about something other than cause/effect paradoxes and time-slips.

We also see one of the rare instances of Chakotay’s spiritualism actually being of practical benefit to the crew. When he beams down to the asteroids where they have discovered a “new element” (the wrong use of the word element, but oh well, we can’t have it all) he’s able to demonstrate a keen insight into the people they find there, simply by observing what he can and cannot see of the dead, and he talks to Harry and B’Elanna with the wisdom of someone who has already been over the ground the two junior officers are currently exploring, yet he’s never patronizing or dismissive of them – he gives Harry a chance to express his opinion on their situation, and he talks to them more as if he were a professor from the academy rather than another crew-member, gently cajoling them into an understanding of what surround them, not from a factual but from a spiritual angle. It’s an absolutely great use of the character and Beltran and adds a real layer of authenticity to Chakotay’s spiritualism which is all too often lacking. This perception certainly seems to assist Harry while he’s with the Vhnori, and you can practically see the ensign coming to terms with what Chakotay told him at the start of the episode throughout the course of his time with the Vhnori.

But Harry is still young, and while we see his fumbling attempts at a first contact situation we also get to witness Janeway’s much more sure-footed approach with Ptera. After her initial panic at waking up in sick-bay, Ptera settles down somewhat while still facing her spiritual crisis. Kes proves a useful character to have around here, able to offer gentle advice, even though Ptera ultimately doesn’t take much of it on board. Janeway’s declaration of “just because I don’t have all the answers to your questions doesn’t mean there aren’t any” is a much more honest approach to the situation, sparing Ptera well-meaning but ultimately hollow platitudes. The irony that Janeway’s solid attempts ultimately lead Ptera to her death (a final one, this time) while Harry’s more hesitant approach ultimately proves more successful as he ends up being rescued is not lost on the script.

Of course, the episode itself centres around the discussion of life after death, whether there is such a thing, and if so what does it consist of. One of the reasons Kes is unable to comfort Ptera is that, from Kes’s description, Ocampan belief falls broadly in line with Judeo-Christian belief of the kind we see most often reflected in Star Trek religions (and most deeply explored with Bajoran beliefs) whereby the body is but the vessel for a soul which passes on to a higher plain at death, whether it be heaven, the Temple of the Prophets, Sto-Vo-Kor or whatever, but that’s not the way Vhnori religious beliefs function. Their religious beliefs have been built up around the removal of the body via the subspace vacuoles/spectral ruptures and thus believe the physical body is taken to “the next emanation” not just the soul so by describing an empty asteroid full of dead bodies both Harry (on the planet) and the crew of Voyager inadvertently rock these beliefs to the core. This small difference, built round the reality of how the dead are disposed of and how that would function within the society, adds greatly to the episode, allowing the difference of beliefs to be expressed less as a we’re right/you’re wrong dichotomy (which it could so easily have devolved into) and more as a way of demonstrating that even small cultural differences can lead to great cultural misunderstandings. We even have issues of euthanasia raised, as we discover people voluntarily end their lives to avoid being financial or emotional burdens to their families because they are absolutely certain they will move on to the next emanation – Hatil’s conversations with Harry about how he’d much rather just go to the mountains than actually die, as he gradually comes to question his beliefs but still wants to protect his family from worrying about him, both allow the eventual resolution of Harry’s return and the more fundamental questions of belief to be addressed. Even his shroud, vaguely reminiscent of Egyptian burial shrouds, carry over the theme, as Hatli slowly wraps himself in his own death shroud, full of regret and questions.

In addition to the spiritual debate, the episode reaches its philosophical conclusion with Janeway pointing out that, although the bodies end up on the asteroid, decaying, they do release unusual energy signatures when they die which then go on to orbit the planet with abnormally high patterns. Kes bluntly asks Janeway whether she really believes that this qualifies as an afterlife, and Janeway is unable to give her an answer, just as she can’t give answers with any degree of finality to Harry in the very last scene of the episode. But in among the loss of faith and the shock of fundamental beliefs being questioned it gives, at least, a little hope that there might be something. Something more.

Stray Observations:

• All together now: it’s Star Trek: The Next Emanation!

• Look I’m just going to come out and say it – Chakotay is great in Season One, well utilized, well portrayed by Beltran, and a genuinely useful character of the type that we haven’t really bumped into on a starship before. This might drift as the show goes on but right here, in the first season, he’s terrific and a real asset.

• No Neelix again

• We see Seska! Doing her job! Again! This time mostly working as a transporter operator, but it’s nice to see her actually functioning as a member of the crew.

• The death shroud the Vhnori wear before moving on to the next emanation conveniently covers their entire head, thus allowing Harry to pose as Hatli for his trip into the cenotaph. It might, however, have been wiser to cast someone who was closer in height to Garrett Wang to aid the illusion, even though Jerry Hardin is great as Hatli and deserves much praise for a regretful, melancholic performance that never tips over into self-indulgence.

• Cordrazine, that old favourite from “The City At The Edge Of Forever”, is name-checked when trying to revive Harry. It seems to work out rather better for Kim than it did for McCoy…

• “What we don’t know about death is far, far greater than what we do”. • I don’t rate episodes, but if I did this gets a straight A. Maybe it’s blasphemy but it’s basically Voyager’s “The Inner Light”. Different in its ruminations but every bit as well written, and I really cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

Season 1, Episode 10 – “Prime Factors”

Wired for smug.

Wired for smug.

In the construction of any story there is a necessary logic to the way the story must unfold. Sometimes this can be narratively straightforward (Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, for example) and sometimes it can be twisty and difficult to grasp (let’s take, oh I dunno, “Cause And Effect”). But regardless of how the story is delineated it must, at a fundamental level, follow a certain kind of sense. The problem, if indeed it is a problem, with “Prime Factors” is that it takes this rather literally. Thus we have an episode which unfolds in a completely logical fashion, A leading to B leading to C leading to D, and it all makes sense, tied up with a bit of character work at the far end of the episode for good measure.

So if the story makes sense and the character work in the last five minutes is good (and it is), then what’s the problem with this episode, exactly? Weeeeell…. That’s the thing, really. There’s nothing wrong here, but somehow the episode still manages to feel like it’s under-performing slightly. We have the chance that Voyager could be flung 40,000 light years nearer to home – not the potential narrative collapse we encountered back in “Eye Of The Needle” but certainly enough to put a huge dent in the length of time it would take Voyager to get home. That’s a good motivator for the crew. We have a society that seemingly takes pleasure in helping others, a welcome chance to encounter some aliens who don’t immediately look like they’re going to start pulling guns on you. That’s a nice change. There’s a leader in charge who Janeway seems to find rather charming, and who doesn’t look like he’s trying to steal anything. That’s refreshing. And we have a discussion of the Prime Directive from “the other side of the fence”. That’s a nice change of perspective.

Some of the character work does slot in very well. Seska gets to come to the fore for the first time, and it helps this episode that we’ve seen her a few times before in small but increasingly growing parts. When she and B’Elanna are gossiping in the mess hall and teasing Harry about his date with one of the Delaney sisters at the start of the episode it really seems like her and Seska have a friendship which stretches beyond the nine previous episodes, and that makes Seska’s wheedling and wily manipulations of B’Elanna feel much more credible later in the episode (it’s also nice to see Janeway, in this scene, explicitly state she sees the crews coming together and some of the differences falling away). It helps a lot that Martha Hackett, not the most subtle of actors ever to grace a scene in Star Trek, needs to deliver a lot of her dialogue sotto voce which restrains her natural tendency to start chewing her way through the scenery. This more restrained version of Seska suits the character and helps makes her manipulations feel a little more credible and a little less like she should be twirling a moustache.

Speaking of characters inclined towards scenery chewing Ronald Guttman as Gath gets through so much it’s remarkable he hasn’t gained about fifty kilos by the end of the episode. He’s a bit of a flaw in the whole story, actually – Janeway is meant to be rather flirtatious with him, allowing herself to be led on a little bit by his charm while always keeping one eye on the successes of the crew. It’s a testament to how good but understated Kate Mulgrew is here that she more-or-less pulls it off but Guttman makes her work hard for her success – there’s no charm in his performance at all, he’s incredibly smarmy and more than slightly condescending from their first meeting and it’s just hard to buy Janeway ever being that interested in him. Because the over-acting robs most of the power from any scene Gath is actually in his final “betrayal” is tough to care that much about – when Janeway all but tells him to piss off everyone in the audience is entirely on her side, even though it’s a nice change of pace to come across an alien race (and indeed a character) whose only real crime is that they help people to satiate their own desire for stories. Their motives are selfish but they do still help people even if they can’t ultimately help Voyager. Janeway’s apparent over-reaction to this betrayal is presumably meant to make it look like she’s more upset that her affections have been trifled with than because she ultimately doesn’t agree with what they do.

So thus far – A (find aliens who are helpful) has led us to B (aliens have super-tech which can send people 40,000 light years!) which in turn led us to C (they won’t give over the technology because they have a law similar to the Prime Directive). So what to do? Well, ferment rebellion seems to be the order of the day, and here we get to see B’Elanna mature a little as she firstly expresses frustration about not getting the alien tech, then being led astray by Seska, until finally, when everything goes pear-shaped, accepting responsibility for her part in the deception. Seska’s lack of understanding as to why they should accept their fate rather than try to cover it up is also the parting of the ways for the two characters which will lead them down very different paths – for B’Elanna she comes to finally and fully accept the responsibilities of her new role, and for Seska… well we’ll come to that next week.

Then there’s the Prime Directive. As mentioned further up, Janeway points out that “it’s the first time we’ve been on the other side of the fence” and it turns out nobody likes it. Janeway has a debate with Tuvok about the nature of the Prime Directive and whether she should sacrifice her principals for the sake of getting the crew home. While it’s a smarter debate around the Prime Directive than was managed in “Time And Again” (not especially tricky) it still essentially boils down to two arguments, one made by B’Elanna, Seska and Carey’s actions (that they should do everything they can to get back to their families because that’s more important than arbitrary rules which weren’t designed for a situation like this) and the other made by Harry (the Prime Directive ultimately does more good than harm, so they should stick with it). Janeway sticks to her guns, grudgingly accepting that though it’s painful they need to follow the rule of law (not just theirs but their hosts) and… nobody agrees with her.

And so the wheel of the story turns one more time, firstly with Carey joining Seska and B’Elanna’s little scheme, then Tuvok catching them in the act of trading the Federation cultural database for the technology of the spatial trajector… and unexpectedly joining them. In an episode which strives to constantly subvert our expectations this subversion has probably the most effect. From what we’ve seen of Tuvok so far we know that he’s diligent in the execution of his role, that he’s thorough, and that he’s everything we’ve come to expect of a dedicated, hard-working Vulcan. But much of the emphasis has also been on his loyalty to Janeway and the fact that they have a relationship which goes back years, so the moment of his betrayal carries far more punch, not just in terms of its unexpectedness but also because, of all the crew members we’ve seen thus far, he definitely qualifies as the least likely to take that path. Yet he does, in what he claims is simply a way of protecting Janeway (it’s relatively clear that Janeway doesn’t believe a word of it, but that’s the reason he states anyway).

The betrayals that run through the story culminate in the last five minutes of the episode. This is Mulgrew at Force 11 as she first chews out B’Elanna before expressing her bitter disappointment at Tuvok going behind her back. It’s one of those moments that both Janeway and Mulgrew absolutely excel at – the full force of her anger is much more intimidating than any Borg cube or alien attack and the disappointment in her voice as she tells Tuvok how much she’s invested in their relationship over the years only for him to risk it all really drives home the emotional pain Janeway is feeling.

In the end, the story suffers from the mechanistic nature of the storytelling rather than because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with it. This is a redemptive reading of course so there’s plenty to find and appreciate here, but it’s all terribly abstract. You can practically hear the writer’s pen scratching away on paper at points in the story and all the good bits – the unusual perspectives, the logicality of the story, Janeway’s closing fury – are pretty great in their own right but never quite amount to anything more than what they are. It’s markedly less ambitious than the similarly-structured “Eye Of The Needle” and though by some distance not the worst script of season one, or even the worst script thus far reviewed, there’s still an unshakable sense than this could have been and should have been… more.

Stray Observations:

• I might not comment on Janeway’s hair but I’m happy to comment on Carey’s – it’s awful.

• Neelix is back.

• No wonder Harry doesn’t get far with the ladies – when attempting to chat up one of the aliens the best line he can come out with is, “then it must work on a principal of non-linear resonance!” Oh Harry, you old smoothie! • Yet astonishingly it works! He’s whisked off (perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase) to an alien planet by someone who describes the localized effects of the sun coming up as “euphoric”. From watching the episode I’m pretty sure the word she should have used is “horny”, though maybe the Universal Translator screens out such indelicacies for Starfleet officers. That would explain why nobody ever seems to swear (well, not in English anyway).

• “Do I compromise my almighty principals?” Janeway asks semi-rhetorically. Surprisingly, no.

• The gossipy junior officers in the mess really is a nice moment, and everyone plays their role well, even Garrett Wang feigning embarrassment at falling out of a gondola.

• Oh yea, more mention of the Delaney sisters. Hmm.

• The bits of wire that Gath and his people wear in their hair in lieu, presumably, of hats is a decent enough attempt to show (inexpensively) a difference in culture. Looks a bit silly, to be honest, but at least they made the effort so I can’t really fault them for that.

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