Star Trek: Voyager
"The Killing Game"
Part I: Part II:
Air date: 3/4/1998
Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
Part I directed by David Livingston
Part II directed by Victor Lobl
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"One day the Borg will assimilate your species, despite your arrogance. When that day arrives, remember me." — Seven to Hirogen "number two"
Nutshell: "Excessive" barely begins to describe it. This is overblown anarchy. And the story ultimately has nothing to show for it.
There's a part of me—the part that goes to see movies like Independence Day merely to witness entertainingly large-scaled destruction and mayhem—that enjoyed portions of "The Killing Game." Unfortunately, this is not the part of me that I consider my most socially responsible part, nor is it the part of me that typically writes these reviews week after week.
"The Killing Game," particularly its second half, is one of the most anarchic episodes of Star Trek ever created. It's not just anarchy in the sense that there's war and violence running amuck everywhere on board the starship Voyager; it's also anarchy in the sense that the plot is composed of what seems like thousands if not millions of disconnected little pieces trying to come together to make some sort of sense.
I'm rating the first part higher than the second because it doesn't push so hard as it unfolds and because it proves to be an adequate (if hardly compelling) setup for the premise. Its easygoing pace is refreshing and movie-like. And David Livingston seems to enjoy taking his time to focus on the little details of the French Resistance/World War II holodeck setting.
As for the second part ... well, that's when most of the anarchy sets in, turning the net result into a far-too-extreme two-part Voyager "event." Part two is, frankly, off its rocker—aimless and ill-conceived, yet somehow still moderately watchable and not completely horrid.
I'm not going to explain the plot in any sort of chronologically ordered detail, because there isn't really much "plot," per se, beyond the rudimentary frame for the action. As the episode opens we learn the Hirogen have taken over Voyager. Suffice it to say that the Hirogen leader (Danny Goldring) wants to learn some things about his "prey" by putting them into violent holodeck settings to see how they react. Furthermore, everyone involved is at the mercy of a neural device that makes them believe they're whomever the Hirogen program them to be. Therefore, everybody actually thinks they're the characters that they're playing.
This strikes me as a canned plot method for role-playing in a 20th-century setting, almost as if the Voyager writers decided they wanted to do "Far Beyond the Stars" for themselves. Unfortunately, the setting is put to very little dramatic use; instead, it merely becomes a wind-up toy. Most of the characters play various people in the French Resistance, residents of a town occupied by a Nazi presence. The town is on the verge of invasion by the Americans. You'd think with a premise like this there'd be room for some social relevance. But this story instead turns into a collection of bright ideas, with the crew members' identities changing on a moment's notice (under circumstances that would take far too long to explain), holodeck safeties being disabled, and, finally, the notion that WWII actually spills onto the decks of Voyager when the Hirogen lose control of their controlled situation. (They had installed holo-emitters on various decks of the ship—although why is never quite clear.)
Of course, there's also the bright idea of making Neelix a Klingon for his bout of role-playing in a second holodeck setting. I have no comment other than, "uh ... no." (Conversely, I thought Janeway's brief turn as a Klingon in the opening minute of the show was quite a bit of fun. I didn't even realize that it was Kate Mulgrew until after the Hirogen said, "Janeway requires medical attention.")
Meanwhile, the episode goes on to lay waste to half the ship for no other reason, I'm guessing, than because the creators felt they could. Only in "The Killing Game" will you see the holodeck wall blown apart, exposing multiple decks of the ship to the people inside the holodeck. Only in "The Killing Game" will you see Janeway blow up sickbay with a holographic bomb based on WWII technology. And only in "The Killing Game" will a group of holographic Klingons save the day by charging across from another holodeck simulation to slaughter the simulated German army.
Is this interesting to watch? Well, maybe for a while, but not for the length that it continues. Talking about it is kind of fun, just because it's so bizarre, absurd, and overlarge—or perhaps it's interesting to discuss for the same reasons I might be excited as I explain to my friends a car wreck I had just witnessed.
The fact of the matter is that watching this becomes tiring and eventually quite boring. By the time the latter stages of the second episode were rolling around, I was sick of the bloodless, pointless gunfights between the fictional armies. The whole exercise became ludicrous. Why was it happening? For some sort of dramatic purpose or storytelling point? No. It was happening because the contrivances of the plot made the holodeck break down so that it couldn't be stopped. Why couldn't the simulation simply be turned off? Because the commands were off-line, that's why. The fact that "the plug can't be pulled" is a very flimsy device to base the a story around, but that's exactly what "The Killing Game" does.
This is merely more fourth-season Voyager "fun." And it's shallow and inept. There really isn't much of a story here. It's just set piece after set piece, with a half-finished theme about Hirogen existence shoehorned in between the plot advances. The tragedy of it all is that the Hirogen theme was the only part of the show that really had any sort of emotional resonance. I found the Hirogen leader to be the story's sole interesting character. His methods were brutal and exploitative, but he had an urgent purpose for what he was doing. He was fascinated by the fantasy realm of the holodeck and what it could mean for his people, who are threatened with extinction as a result of their inability to change. Unfortunately, he goes the way of Ensign Suder—frustratingly knocked off by the writers to give rise to a "tragic" moment, abandoning all potential for him to teach his fellow Hirogen anything that would make them more interesting to us as viewers. He's killed by one of his own men, a casualty of his unconventional thinking. I guess it works in the sense that he's a victim of his own society's problems, but that doesn't change the fact that his death is based on plotting by the numbers.
There are also moments when this episode tries to thematically connect the Hirogen to the Nazis (both are groups who prey on others, but for different reasons), but it's unfortunately lost in a sea of madness, and relevant only for its obvious plot value: to turn the Hirogen number two (Mark Deakins) against his commander.
For good measure, the finale has Janeway being hunted through the Voyager corridors by the evil Hirogen number two. I thought the way she gained the upper hand on him was kind of clever, though part of me wishes Janeway had unloaded four or five shells into the evil Hirogen rather than just one. But that's probably the same part of me that revels in seeing New York City incinerated by a flaming alien fireball (see Independence Day example above).
So what happens when the moment of crisis is over and the holodeck armies vanish? Chakotay says, rather unceremoniously, "It's over. Let's go." I couldn't help but laugh at the anticlimax. Half the ship was lying in ruins, yet the characters just log it as another day at the office. And speaking of days at the office, raise your hand if you think the fact that "the damage to Voyager is extreme" will mean a damn thing beyond the one sentence that was used to acknowledge the fact. (You, in the back—put your hand down. You obviously weren't listening to a word I just said.)
Lastly, the truce at the story's end between the Voyager crew and the Hirogen isn't believable. It comes out of nowhere, half-explained in Janeway's log narration that the standstill in the fighting has provided the Hirogen with no other option. This strikes me as inconsistent with everything about the Hirogen we've learned. With the Hirogen leader dead, there's no dramatic basis for the truce to even happen, so the fact that the remaining Hirogen accept Janeway's peaceful resolution is nothing more than arbitrary.
As brain dead as "The Killing Game" (particularly part two) is, I didn't quite loathe it. I certainly didn't like it, but as an elaborate two hours of "fun" it manages to work in stretches, even though it's hopelessly nonsensical if you stop to think about it.
Ultimately, "The Killing Game" is a Holodeck Runs Awry paradigm—an oft-dreaded TNG cliche reconceived and ante-upped by Voyager. But because Braga and Menosky didn't seem content with only one cliche, they had to throw in a change in time periods, lots of crew members behaving as other people, an alien takeover premise, lots and lots of holodeck gags, gunfire, Jeri Ryan singing, explosions, double-crosses, Hirogen politics, more gunfire, and plenty of general mayhem. It's ... just ... too ... much.
The result is a disjointed, nearly incoherent mess. A mess that doesn't add up to mean much of anything. The more I think about my ratings, the more generous they seem. But I'm not going to change them, because this is an episode that demands to simply be viewed and then not thought of the slightest bit afterward. The technical credits are impressive, if that's any consolation.
So, goodbye, Hirogen. You're another Trekkian alien race for the books, and you won't be particularly missed. You got to appear in five episodes, but you're still nothing more than another entry into the log of Stock Delta Quadrant Aliens.