Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Classics: Voyager 3:25/4:1 - Scorpion

Overall Rating: 8.0

I know there are fans out there who think this episode is among the best things Voyager ever accomplished, be honest, I don't think it holds up to repeated viewings.  It's got a lot to like, but when I viewed it again, I saw many...many flaws, some of which were forced by management, some were caused by hasty plot construction.

Plot Summary:

Here are the links from Memory Alpha:

Scorpion - Part I
Scorpion - Part II

The introduction of a bad-ass alien with awesome technological supremacy over even the Borg should probably have been done with more fanfare than it was after Scorpion, but that isn't the fault of Scorpion.  This episode did a lot to re-awaken the fans and launch a new phase of the franchise.

The Skinny:

"We are the Borg.  You will be assimilated.  Resistance is futile.  We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own."  And then bolts of energy from an unseen force appear from behind the imagined camera and obliterate three cubs like a hot knife obliterating butter!  Holy shit!!!  BEST TEASER EVER!!!!!

*ehem*  Sorry...I can never help myself when I view Scorpion...I always have to comment on that teaser, because that is what a good teaser should do.  It establishes (a) that Voyager is about to enter Borg space and (b) that there exists something so much more powerful than the Borg that it doesn't even need to slow down for a second to annihilate those cubes.  And it does so in about 19 seconds!  No wasted filler...just "here is what we're about to face, so buckle up, kiddies!"  I wish more Trek episodes employed tight, effective teasers like that.

Alright Mr. Braga, Mr. Menosky, you have my attention!  Aaaand then you cut to a scene of Janeway talking to Leonardo De Vinci.  Why?  Why do Trek writers always feel the compulsive need to insert pointless down time into the story before delivering the goods of the plot?  I never see this kind of time-wasting in good cinema or even in other televised science fiction.  On Stargate, they insert the filler character stuff at appropriate moments most of the time...usually when a scene calls for reflection on a theme.  But we never open a Stargate episode, following an exciting teaser, with a tangential scene involving Teal'c learning how to throw a yo-yo.  Seriously...WTF?  What does Leonardo De Vinci and his flying machine have to do with the fable of the scorpion and the fox, the flight Voyager faces getting through Borg space or the looming threat of Species 8472?  What does it tell us about Janeway that is relevant to how she solves problems like the one she's about to face?  This two part story mercifully only has three scenes in this holographic workshop, but all three could easily have been replaced with more relevant material and none of the three add any texture to Janeway's character.  Compare the lunacy of De Vinci's workshop to Picard's contemplative stroll around the ship in The Best of Both Worlds - a sequence which ended in a thought provoking look into the mind of a Captain whose ship was about to be overthrown (Guinen was good at such things).  So right about two minutes into Janeway's desperate plea for space in De Vinci's workshop, I'm thinking that doing my taxes would be more fun than hunkering down for something this slowly paced.  How is that even POSSIBLE to think after I just saw three Borg cubes blown up before the (admittedly gorgeous) Voyager theme music played?

Anyway, that gripe about De Vinci is complaint number one.  And there are several others.  But let's talk about what they got right first.  The most obvious is the relationship between Chakotay and Janeway.  Even in the first episode following the pilot (the hilariously bad Parallax), Chakotay was awfully quick to be named a loyal officer under Janeway - someone unlikely to countermand her orders or stage a mutiny.  They got along so well, so fast, that the reason for Chakotay to even exist was lost.  It's nice to see the man grow a sack and even a pair of balls to put in the sack and to DISAGREE with the Captain.  Forcefully!  And make his case resoundingly!  It's nice to hear SOMEONE question Janeway's competence to make this kind of decision (whether to take spectacular risks to get the crew home) and even suggest that she has something to feel guilty about (stranding her crew needlessly on a forlorn voyage home).  This was the dynamic Voyager needed from day one.

Voyager also needed a dose of real peril from the real unknown.  For some reason, their worst enemies before now have been intellectually inferior cave people and a race of aliens so sick with a plague that they might soon die off (they did use the Vidians well on a few occasions).  What were they THINKING with that cast of boring-ass villains??  You're in a new part of space, and all you can do for jeopardy is space anomalies and cave people from the planet moronica?  Come on!  You're somewhere new - use your imagination!  Who owns this part of space?  Are they friendly, evil, powerful, poverty-stricken and desperate?  This is your chance to do new types of stories in new environments and you come up with stupider versions of Klingons and sicklier versions of Cardassians.  Thankfully, they finally got creative here, and their bad guy more powerful than the Borg is a telepathic alien insect-like species from a different dimension that is filled with biologically active fluid, rather than a void of matter as in our universe. pretty creative.  Scientifically questionable (how would that universe have ever evolved life - gravity is uniform in a fluid-filled universe, because if there were any differences in gravity, the heavy things would immediately start collecting the light things and you'd end up with space and stars, just like in our universe, so how could you ever develop solid life forms?  What would pull them together?), but creative.  Also somewhat creative is pitting a species bent on technological and intellectual purity (the Borg's quest for perfection) against a species bent on biological purity (Species 8472).  They even make the jeopardy personal for a time, infecting Harry with a gene-altering disease that threatens to kill him and keep him conscious while he's being eaten alive from the inside.  Yeesh!

But this is where I start to lose my good mood.  Why are the Borg, with all of their technology and adaptive thinking, not able to reprogram their own nanoprobes but our EMH takes one look at them and devises a strategy based on those same nanoprobes?  Our individuality gives us the chance to think outside the box, granted, but this is simple engineering - outside the box thinking isn't required.  The mere mention of weaponizing nanoprobes should have caused the collective (which, until meeting us, may have been stupidly focused on assimilating 8472, rather than killing them - groupthink does sometimes lean to bad priorities) to go, "Oohhhh!  Quick, send a million drones to work devising a reprogrammed set of nanoprobes that kill instead of assimilate this species!"  This episode marks the beginning of the end of the Borg as the ultimate villain.  Voyager does to the Borg what TNG did to the Klingons.  That is to say...took their initial concept and overexposed it so badly through various story-telling mechanics that the flaws in that concept became obvious.  The Borg - once a mysterious and legitimately threatening supervillain - are reduced to being habitually unable to outsmart Janeway and Voyager.  At least on Stargate, the Goa'uld (who were also habitually outsmarted after beginning the series with a spectacular arms and technological advantage) were consistently played as stupidly arrogant.  That we can buy into.  But the Borg are emotionless - they operate on pure, cold logic matched with pure greed and the will to dominate.  The problem is that using the Borg a lot will require us to win a lot...and if we win a lot, they look weaker.  Voyager's staff overexposed the Borg in a desperate attempt to keep the fans excited, and in so doing, was forced to weaken them so badly that they lost their luster.  I now view our possessing the magical nanoprobe touch as the first step in that inevitable walk to mediocrity for the Borg.

Now, for a few other problems:
  • Harry recovered too quickly, and thus neutered the personal threat posed by 8472.  This was the fault of the Voyager bigwigs.  Harry was originally supposed to die near the end of the second part of this two-part story, but, seeing that he wound up on a sexiest people list for some unknown reason, the producers couldn't bare to part with Garrett Wang, so they decided to take out Kes instead.  Forcing a quick rewrite in which Harry was miraculously just fine.
  • 8472 gave up WAY too easily.  We fired one atomic bomb and they did the equivalent of surrendering unconditionally.  The fuck?  They can blow up a Borg cube in one or two shots!  They can't tolerate a few of their guys dying in the battle?  At this stage, Voyager has only taught a few Borg and themselves how to arm against 8472...shouldn't they have been trying to exterminate Voyager with every available bioship?  Of course, Seven of Nine was connected to the Hive, so perhaps the Borg should have shown up just as it looked like we were about to get our asses kicked with their own nanoprobes and chased 8472 back into fluidic space to finish the fight.  That would have made more sense.  Instead we got a big boom followed by the sound of a yippy mini-poodle scampering away from a cat after getting scratched..."arrr arr arr arr..."  Pathetic.
  • Why on Earth did they choose not to SHOW the resolution between Chakotay and Janeway.  The way the story is worded, Chakotay wakes up, Janeway is pissed at him for abandoning the plan and wants to go back to working with Seven of Nine, Chakotay expresses frustration, Janeway says "this isn't working...we have to work together!" and then TADA!!! they're working in perfect harmony again.  Sorry...that just ain't gonna cut it with me.
In short, the whole thing was resolved in two probably should have been a multi-part sequence like the six-part war arc on DS9, but Paramount didn't like the idea of doing long plot arcs at this time and thus, the whole thing had to get done in 90 minutes.  It feels very unsatisfying to me despite all of its potential.

Let's Go With It!

Given the lack of interest in doing long-running plot arcs, I will constrain myself to four episodes with a more fleshed out plot development.  You just watch me!

EPISODE ONE: The Northwest Passage

I won't quibble over the scientific veracity of the plot - this is science fiction and the strangeness of "fluidic space" (a term that makes no sense at all) is a minor issue compared with the uniqueness of the story of Species 8472.  In episode one, the dilemma would need to be established, but not resolved.  I picture this episode involving Voyager spotting Borg patrol spheres and realizing they're about to enter Borg space, the crew preparing for battle - talk of how screwed they are surfacing and people like Kes and Neelix trying to keep everyone's spirits up etc.  And then I picture Voyager discovering the Northwest Passage - perhaps Harry Kim can be the one to spot it, since he's good at finding things that seem awesome and are actually doom on a stick.  Voyager charts a course through the corridor with the spatial distortions, discovers that they are actually singularities and encounters an enemy ship flying out of one, zipping past them to shoot at a Borg cube that's been following them.  They think "yay! powerful allies!" and then it comes back around and shoots at Voyager, very badly damaging it on the way back into the singularity.

With the ship almost completely disabled, they limp back to a safe hiding spot to make repairs, and Janeway and Chakotay argue about the proper course of action.  Chakotay wants to turn around and go back to unoccupied territory, Janeway wants to head deeper into the Northwest Passage.  For a time, she can convince Chakotay to press on, and they can head carefully further in, discovering another singularity, hiding from bioships and investigating a Borg cube that's been badly damaged.  At this point, Harry can be attacked by 8472 and brought back to the ship as in the real episode and the Doctor can devise a treatment using something OTHER than Borg technology.  Something they've never encountered before - perhaps the Vidian medical technology they encountered that stopped Janeway's parasitic infection in "Resolutions."  But there's a catch - for the treatment to work, Harry will need to go into stasis, and the odds of him surviving even with 8472 DNA neutralized are slim.

Janeway takes the attack on Harry personally and wants to go on the warpath, but Chakotay still wants to get the hell out of dodge before they get caught between two warring superpowers who would destroy them without even slowing down.  At this point, she proposes giving the Borg the upper hand on Species 8472 in exchange for safe passage (this can be your dramatic To Be Continued moment).

EPISODE TWO: The Devil You Know

Janeway goes ahead with her plan over Chakotay's strenuous objections, allowing herself to be taken captive by the Borg.  She makes her proposal and the Borg reluctantly accept in much the same way as already depicted in the existing episode.  However, the ace up our sleeve is that we need Borg technology to rapidly develop warheads, but they've never seen our 8472-busting biological agent and they need our cooperation or we'll delete all records of what we did with Kim.  She wants to see their tactical situation and the Borg show her enough information to see that there are hundreds of bioships in our space and the Borg are taking heavy losses.  Meanwhile, Chakotay, on Voyager, has the crew preparing for battle - he intends to steal Janeway back and put her under guard, now that the proposal has been made (this is not what Janeway ordered, but he thinks her plan is too risky).  However, before he can put his plan into motion a la TBoBW, the cube is annihilated by a fleet of bioships and sacrifices itself to defend Voyager, forcing a few Borg drones an Janeway back onto Voyager.  Chakotay orders the Borg contained and Janeway needs emergency surgery, but her last orders are to make her plan work, no matter what.  As soon as she's out, Chakotay attends to the Borg, refusing their demands for more access to the ship and their ideas about heading into a singularity and taking the battle to their home turf.  He decides to order the Borg off the ship and Seven gives her famous speech about their small, individualistic perspectives being their undoing.  She then proceeds to begin assimilating the ship and Chakotay's efforts to stop her are futile.  With her limited resources, she can only go so far, but she manages to force Voyager into a singularity and take over a whole deck.  As they enter fluidic space...TO BE CONTINUED!

ERPISODE THREE/FOUR: Scorpion (two hours)

Janeway wakes up after surgery and the ship is at red alert.  The EMH calls Chakotay down and she reads him the riot act (after the situation is explained).  THIS is when Chakotay ought to tell the Scorpion fable.  As a way of explaining why he countermanded her orders.  The Borg demands were too dangerous and even if everything went right with their objective, there was no upside.  He thought he could control just those few drones, but they got out of hand.  Janeway throws him in the Brig (for real!) and re-assumes command.  She walks right into Borg occupied territory on the ship and encounters Seven of Nine, explaining that she is back in command and that they intend to cooperate, so the Borg can either stop their attack on the ship or our 8472-busting cure will be deleted.  With their momentary cooperation, Janeway orders her crew to begin work weaponizing the EMH's cure by designing Borg-inspired weapons of limited mass destruction (not the planet-killers Seven wants...but something big enough to take out a small moon perhaps).  They work on their arsenal until 8472 bioships arrive and begin a pitched battle.  We're getting our asses kicked again, but manage to disable all of the first wave with our torpedoes (the small weapons).  We then exit fluidic space, but once on the other side, we realize more bioships are converging on our position, forcing us to deploy one of our big bombs.  That repels the second wave, but more are on the way and Voyager has precious little time to stop them.

Seven taps into Voyager's systems and calls for assistance from the collective.  A dozen cubes swoop in just in time to sacrifice themselves to stop the next wave while Seven is communicating the weapon specs to the collective.  But here's the kicker...Voyager still has not told Seven what was in those weapons.  She can't claim victory until the technology is in Borg hands.  Voyager can defend itself against bioships, but the Borg are still defenseless.  The collective orders her to quietly hack Voyager's medical database.  Meanwhile, Chakotay calls Janeway down to the Brig and announces that he has a plan that both of them will be happy with.  "Remember that Scorpion?" he asks.  "Well I've got some antivenom you might like."  Shortly thereafter, the EMH calls Janeway down to Sickbay to report unauthorized access into the medical database.  He's prepared to delete all relevant data, including his program, but Janeway says she doesn't want to lose him just yet.  She advises him to sit tight - they're almost through the heart of Borg space and just need to buy a little time.  As they plow through the Northwest Passage, Seven helps them elude detection by bioships since they need to conserve ammo, but they eventually get spotted and a fleet begins moving to intercept.  Seven steps up her efforts to get control of the medical database to pass the info along to the Borg, but, spotting this, Janeway orders Chakotay to begin Project Scorpion.  He distracts Seven as seen in the real episode, they disable her link to the collective, and escape Borg space.  Once tracking speedily away from the battlefield, they fire a message buoy back into Borg space with the weapon specs as promised and hope they never encounter either Borg or 8472 again - but neither race has been halted and it's up in the air as to whether the Borg will come after them or at least attempt to recover Seven of Nine.

That's how to get Voyager through a scrape like that without making the Borg look weak or needlessly wasting a cool villain or giving a pat, Hollywood end to a conflict that seems rushed an unfulfilled.

Writing: 7.5

The plot is a bit on the unfinished side, but there are many very enjoyable scenes with tense, well-written dialogue and I did enjoy many of the basic ideas that went into this episode.  The conflict between Janeway and Chakotay is mature and well-balanced, which is a nice change of pace for Voyager.

Acting: 9.0

Beltran and Mulgrew did a nice job in their dialogue scenes and Jeri Ryan's arrival is a welcome one - she is a talented actress in this reviewer's opinion.

Message: 7.5

This episode is very heavy on the action front and has good pacing and entertainment value, but, as messages go, the notion that our individuality is a strength, and not "our undoing" is undermined by the fact that Janeway's authority is what saves the day, rather than Chakotay's ingenuity.  I like my version better.

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