Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 2/19/1996
Teleplay by Michael Piller
Story by Shawn Piller
Directed by James L. Conway
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"This ship will not survive the formation of the cosmos." — Torres
Nutshell: A few silly scenes leading up to the core of the story, but once it gets where it's going it's one of the best and probing stories yet told on Voyager.
When the crew comes across a comet exhibiting strange properties, they inadvertently release an imprisoned Q who had been sentenced to eternal incarceration by the Q Continuum for attempting to kill himself. Once released, this Q (Gerrit Graham) returns to his suicidal attempts and, much to the ire of Captain Janeway, accidentally vanishes half of Voyager's crew in the process. The Q we're all familiar with from TNG (John de Lancie) appears to undo Graham-Q's blunder and send him back to his incarceration. But Graham-Q requests asylum from Janeway; de Lancie-Q concedes to a hearing over whether or not Graham-Q can be granted his wish of killing himself—something which had before been denied because it could be harmful to the balance of the Q Continuum.
"Death Wish" has a few plot holes here and there, as well as the obligatory Stupid Q Tricks; but it's easy to look past them based on the sheer strength of the story being told here. The show takes a while to get going, but once it does, it's compelling, absorbing, and thoughtful—another cerebrally enticing teleplay by Michael Piller (based on a story written by his own son).
Let's start with the Stupid Q Tricks. Once de Lancie-Q returns Voyager's vanished crew members, he's ready to promptly send Graham-Q back to his incarceration. But Graham-Q attempts to hide by whisking himself and Voyager away from de Lancie-Q, first sending the ship back to the time of the creation of the universe, then shrinking it to the size of a subatomic particle, and finally, as one hilarious in-joke, hiding the Voyager on a Christmas tree as an ornament (it fun to see the franchise poke fun at itself). De Lancie-Q, however, is not fooled. He knows all the hiding places, and once this series of gratuitous Q gags has been delivered, the story wisely presses on. (Q gags can be fun—like the ornament joke—but I've seen so many of them that they rarely impress me any more.)
The rest of the show takes a courtroom format, where Tuvok defends Graham-Q's request to Janeway, who takes the role of judge in the matter. De Lancie-Q is the prosecutor trying to convince Janeway to deny Graham-Q the asylum he seeks, based on grounds that he is insane and in no position to request it.
But Graham-Q is not insane. There's a reason he wants to die, and it's in this reason where the episode addresses a wonderfully engaging human question. On occasion, Star Trek can get trite when all-too-delicately taking the human question route. But "Death Wish" rings true all the way, thanks to the genial and poignant performance of Gerrit Graham as a jaded Q who has no reason left to exist.
The episode peaks in its fourth act, where Graham-Q attempts to prove his suffering life is pointless by taking Janeway to the Q Continuum, presented in the human-comprehensible form of a house in the middle of a desert with a road running by it. The road, he explains, represents the universe. But it's simply a circular road that just ends up back at the house. He's traveled the road many, many times; there is nothing left for him to explore. And Graham-Q also explains how the Continuum used to be a place for ongoing polemic, humor, and discussion from all over the universe. Not anymore. No one in the Continuum even bothers to talk anymore, because all the discussions have been discussed and all the unknown possibilities explored.
Since Graham-Q has nothing new to accomplish, his life has become pointless, futile, and a torturous bore. The beauty of his argument is how much sense it makes, and that it incites us think more deeply than probably any Voyager episode has to date. Piller deserves much credit for the intelligent writing. The rest deserves to go to Gerrit Graham's passionate, compelling presence. It's a close running between him and Joel Grey (from "Resistance") for the series' best guest star.
The other thing this argument succeeds in doing is giving us a fascinating look at the Q Continuum. Despite how powerful and omnipotent the Q have always seemed throughout TNG, Graham-Q assures that they are not without weakness. They have become a dry and dispassionate people, and by dying, Graham-Q will not only escape that fate, but inject a new variable of unknown into the Continuum. The desert scene works as a strikingly well realized metaphor.
Ironically, even de Lancie-Q is taken by Graham-Q's argument. He used to be a rebel himself (though he admits that he is now a "born-again Q" who re-surrendered himself to the Continuum once they punished him), and as the show nears the end, he begins to understand what it is that Graham-Q hopes to gain. There are all sorts of reassuringly undertones here—most notably a sense that "the adventure of discovery must continue." The fact that de Lancie-Q ultimately grants Graham-Q his wish for suicide is both intriguing and somewhat bittersweet as we see such a wonderful character die his necessary death.
Amidst this wonderful core, "Death Wish" also has some surface elements that don't bear quite as much scrutiny. One is the appearance of William Riker, Isaac Newton, and Maury Ginsberg, whom de Lancie-Q brings to Voyager as evidence that historic moments pivoted around a Q's influence. The suggestions that Graham-Q caused the apple to fall from Newton's tree, and that the Q also played a role in saving Woodstock has a sort of goofy "Forrest Gump" nature that—although kind of fun—isn't nearly as entertaining as the serious core of the show. As for Riker's appearance—it's more or less gratuitous if you stop and think about it. It was hardly necessary, and not much of a factor in the plot.
As for the "banter" scenes between de Lancie-Q and Janeway, they're adequate, but not exactly standout. The idea of Q being attracted to her seems forced, and the verbal jousts here can't match those between Q and Picard (or even Q and Sisko in "Q-Less"). Q's bribe of sending the Voyager home if Janeway rules in his favor is another retread of the Big Ethical Decision she had to make in "Caretaker." Fortunately, the writers play down and ultimately ignore the issue—a wise move since exploring it would simply have resulted in a foregone conclusion.
There's also the question of how Graham-Q could have witnessed de Lancie-Q's mischievous streak—which was presumably during TNG's days (i.e., "Q Who," "Deja Q")—if he has been isolated in a comet for 300 years.
The final verdict? "Death Wish" takes a while to figure out where it's going, but once it does, it's an excellent show, aside from a few uninspired elements it uses to get there.