I'm so...confused...I don't know how to feel at a moment like this - getting to review a FEATURE Voyager episode! This is the first time I can honestly say that Voyager writers truly managed to capture the nobility of the average man empowered by love. His was a quiet grace that even managed to make Janeway likable.
The simple details can be found here, courtesy of Memory Alpha - I'll try to give you the motivation to see it for yourself.
I think that this episode was effective for pretty much every reason that most Voyager episodes come up short of their pitch. Let's think about the typical Voyager episode and compare them to this diamond in the rough:
- Most Voyager episodes - especially in these first three seasons - started with a pitch that began with the words "what if?" The writers seemed fascinated by telling stories primarily to alter our perceptions about common parts of their imaged world - we call these things "high concept" art. So you'll have pitches like "What if an alien race from another dimension wanted to communicate, but could only do so by warping our space and time and thus twisting Voyager?" or "What if we encountered an alien life form that mistook Voyager as one of its own and tried to mate with it?" The 'what if' format can produce good science fiction if it is merely a starting point and not the only reason for penning the script, but Voyager writers rarely seemed able to use high concept sci fi to give us new insight into one or more of the main characters or shed light on the human condition in the way that DS9 and even TNG writers frequently did. By contrast, this episode did not begin with a 'what if' pitch. It began something like "Voyager's crew gets caught up on the sad story of a man whose family were members of a group resisting a fascist government." I hope you noticed something...that kind of pitch HAD to have started with mention of the central characters and the backdrop for the story, rather than an idea which, while creative, evoked no immediate emotion.
- Most Voyager episodes solve a problem with a technological answer. Voyager discovers a planet decimated by a nuclear reactor breach and are inadvertently sent back in time to before the explosion. Interesting potential ethical dilemma established - the solution is that it's OK to intervene in this case ONLY because, by horribly clunky plot contrivance, Voyager's crew are responsible for the blast in the first place. The series is riddled with episodes that could have been interesting if they didn't deliberately undermine the dramatic tension to avoid having to take a stand on the relevant issue. In this episode, Janeway cannot get rid of Caylem and he doggedly follows her into the prison - their teamwork, forced by circumstances baked into the plot, is only resolved when Caylem DIES at the hands of his adversaries to save Janeway, and Janeway, to show an ounce of human compassion, offers herself as his daughter and gives him peace of mind, at great personal cost. Having allowed herself to become attached to this man and the tragedy of his life, she must accept the pain of that tragedy as her own.
- Most Voyager episodes spend way too much time on the technical reasons for the drama and the technical solutions. If this were a typical Voyager episode, the contrived "we'll hit 'em with radion pulses and reverse the polarity of the bullshit dish" solution would have taken five minutes to set up, the dramatic music would be booming as they all prepared to carry out their cunning plan, and it would have worked. Instead, the bad guys weren't idiots. They shot at the source of the bullshit rays and broke Voyager's main deflector. They even had to buy time for their ground rescue attempt to work by hiding over the mother of all squall lines.
- Most Voyager episodes involve sources of danger that are directly attributable to utter incompetence of Voyager's crew. Not so here...everyone acts rationally, competently, and believably. Even traditional sources of alien stupidity (B'Elanna being too emotional, Neelix being too eager to help and promising more than he can deliver, Tuvok not having the slightest hint of compassion, Kim being a robot from the planet awkwardia - and don't tell me Kim is not an alien...no Earthling could ever be that sexually confused) were the opposite of stupid this week. Neelix managed to get the crew in touch with resistance operatives, acquire the needed tellerium, and get the ship functioning before freaking out about the hostile kidnapping of his team. And then gave proper advice about the Mokra security contact. And then help them gain access into the prison! Tuvok and B'Elanna had a completely in character and rational exchange about the proper response to their incarceration and torture where both sides made good points. Kim got the warp drive functioning again in less than half a jiffy, and then fired up their deflector pulses in about 15 seconds...and then found the hurricane sized electrical storm for them to hide above. And Janeway was a human being for once, and not an ethics manual made flesh without the presence of a soul or worse.
- The plot is usually explained to us oh so helpfully around the magic meeting room table (conference room). In this episode, the plot plays out gradually in the form of dramatic action and intelligently crafted dialogue. No exposition to be found.
- We are often asked to grow an irrational emotional attachment to an extra character (a red shirt or an extra non-crew protagonist who will surely die by the end), and when the completely unsurprising death occurs, they expect us to care without having made it personal for us. In this episode, they put Janeway in this man's shoes for a good long while and we get to see the gentle, courageous, beautiful person that he is, despite his denial and repressed agony. We get to understand what his love for his family must have been like because we get to see him pour out that love for Janeway, playing the role of his daughter. And when he dies, it's a hero's death. And we get to linger on Janeway's emotions during that climax and then in the tag scene that follows. THAT...is how you bring in an extra character and tell a gripping story about that character.
- Trek writers (all franchises) have a bad tendency to generalize alien races so that they represent one aspect of humanity. The Ferengi are greedy, the Klingons are warriors, the Romulans are devious and suspicious, the Vulcans are logical, etc. When we meet a new alien species, they are usually presented to us in the same reduced form. In this episode, we get that the Mokra are suspicious and that their government is repressive and dangerous (fascist would be a better description), but we also get to see them from the ground - and we get to realize they aren't all like their government. It gives the whole episode more realism.
The point is...this episode belongs on DS9 - and there's a simple reason it doesn't fit with the Voyager offerings - it was written freelance by a non-staff storyteller and then scripted by another non-regular writer. None of Kenneth Biller's technobabbled crap, none of Brannon Braga's mind-bending illogical plot constructions, and none of Jeri Taylor's closed-minded hero-worship of Janeway need apply. Sometimes it takes an outsider to get you back to the first principles of fiction writing.
Let's Go With It!
Yes...let's! I have no major suggestions this week, because the story is mercifully free of the usual shortcomings. If I had to change anything at all, it would be to intensify the scariness of the Mokra by a showing a few more acts of brutality before the climactic psychological cruelty...read from the handbook of the best interrogators and show Tuvok's torture for even 45 seconds. Every bit of ammo you'd got within reason to amplify the differences between the common man (Caylem) and the fascist state can make his passing all the more meaningful. But really, I'm picking nits.
Michael Jan Friedman and Kevin Ryan combined on the promising story behind this episode and Lisa Klink penned an excellent teleplay - leaving plenty of room for close character moments and psychological drama, as well as well-blocked plot movement and a strong finish.
I wasn't too impressed with Alan Scarfe's portrayal of the lead antagonist (the chief of Mokra security, Augris), but it was balanced nicely by an outstanding performance by special guest star Joel Grey (Caylem) and the formidable talents of Kate Mulgrew deployed in a script that gives her room to shine.
I mentioned it at the top...but this was about the indomitable and enduring power of real compassion and true love over any form of human cruelty, and about the infinite value of every life lived in love, even the downtrodden and the mentally ill. Kudos for choosing such a positive message and such a dramatic way of delivering it.