Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Nemesis"

***

Air date: 9/24/1997
Written by Kenneth Biller
Directed by Alexander Singer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"I wish it were as easy to stop hating as it was to start." — Chakotay

Nutshell: A reliable if derivative Trekkian theme, and pretty strong in execution.

During a survey mission, Chakotay's shuttle is shot down over a planet locked in warfare. He is discovered by a group of Vori soldiers, and in order to survive long enough to contact Voyager, Chakotay must travel through the landscapes in the middle of their war. Before long, Chakotay finds himself fighting on their side to survive.

But, further, Chakotay gets to know these soldiers and begins to sympathize with their plight. The Vori speak of the horrors of their enemy, the brutal Kradin, which they simply call the "nemesis." They have come to hate their enemy. They call their nemesis "beasts" and look forward to any battle where they can gain vengeance on their cruel adversaries.

Chakotay, the Federation type whose existence defines him to nonviolent intentions and a duty to try to understand people rather than hating them, finds his Starfleet values challenged by a situation of extremes. He's trapped in a forest environment with only these soldiers as a possible way home. The vegetation is thick; at any turn there could be a Kradin ambush of machine-gun fire.

"Nemesis" makes use of a fairly derivative Trekkian theme: The indictment of such ugly things as hate, violence, and killing. But this is probably among Trek's most reliable morals—one of the underlying values that, ideologically, makes Trek what it is. Despite a somewhat sluggish first two acts, "Nemesis's" approach to the issue is as relevant as any, and benefits from some fairly strong execution.

While the Shuttle Crash [TM] is, naturally, an absurdly laughable cliche used to launch the episode (it's the third shuttle to be lost in as many episodes), I'm forgiving it this time—for at least the situation it creates for Chakotay is the basis for some good drama. (Besides, at this point, after at least a dozen lost shuttles, I'm just assuming that the Voyager crew has come up with a way of building new ones out of raw materials.)

There's also the Vori speaking style. It's quite different, using metaphors and bizarrely constructed phrases to describe the mundane. The Vori say things like "the soon after" instead of "later," or "nullified," instead of "killed." The writers must've felt this dialog delivery would give the script an insightful dramatic edge. I can't say I was particularly impressed by it, but nor did it hurt any of the scenes. It was pretty much neutral for me, but I will give Kenneth Biller an A for effort in trying to be different in a sophisticated way.

The episode's guest characters prove reasonably good, and the story supplies them with enough depth to give them three dimensions. For some of them, we learn about their families, their losses, the atrocities of the enemy as they've experienced first-hand. The show gives them a reasonable amount of depth, such that we can understand what they've been through.

Chakotay finds himself absorbed into this plight, and before long he picks up a weapon and is fighting the Vori's fight. At one point, Chakotay is separated from the rest of his unit, and finds his way into a Vori village which has suffered its own losses in the war. A young girl in the village speaks highly of her older brother, who is also a soldier. The fate of the brother does not seem promising.

The show's most striking touch of wartime atrocity is the Kradin's desecration of the dead Vori. The Vori's beliefs require that the dead be turned on their faces, so they can see the "path to the way after." The Kradin have a hateful practice of tying captured soldiers to the ground face-up, and letting them die in the sun. This was a pretty realistic demonstration of cruelty, and therefore quite vivid.

Through all of this is Chakotay, who slowly but surely finds himself coming to hate these Kradin "beasts." The road of emotional torment that Chakotay travels from beginning to the end of the episode is a rather dark one. It begins first with his early sentiments to the Vori ("Killing is one of the worst things I've had to do"), and his acknowledgment that exaggeration often makes an enemy easier to hate. The episode ends on the other side of the spectrum, with Chakotay blindly firing a machine gun into the trees, hoping to hit any enemy he can. (When told to hold his fire, he shouts, "Not until I've nullified all of you!").

Chakotay's transformation into a Kradin-hater is understandable, if unfortunate. To think anyone from the Federation is, by definition, devoid of any possibility of hate or prejudice is naive. Back in DS9's second season episode, "The Collaborator," Odo said to Kira that even the best of people can be capable of terrible things given a difficult situation. "Nemesis" proves that with uncontested force.

On the surface, the story deliberately makes the Kradin look like ugly humanoid creatures, while making the Vori appear completely human. The reasons are obvious, albeit quite manipulative: The story tries to get us to side with the Vori immediately, while seeing the Kradin as vile, evil creatures. It's a sneaky approach, but, if you think about it, supports the story's grim argument: We're more likely to sympathize with people we feel are similar to us, and hate those who are different.

There's a twist ending to "Nemesis," however, that proves exactly how misguided that argument is. As Voyager searches for Chakotay and works with the planet's government, they deal with the only side willing to help—the Kradin. And, what's sure to strike people as "implausible" or "weak," it turns out that Chakotay's entire experience in serving in battle alongside the Vori is a simulated ruse of unreality designed to make him a more efficient killer. The revelation that the Vori have been "training" Chakotay to hate the Kradin—using mind control equipment and a host of other conjured stimuli—is a chilling and devious prospect. As "Nemesis" demonstrates, hate can certainly be an effective motivator in training one's soldiers to fight with such dedication, conviction, and fierceness.

I'll admit that it was a bit frustrating to learn that all the characters I had met in the course of the hour weren't real, and that everything Chakotay had done was part of an elaborate setup. And the denouement—in which Tuvok infiltrates the Vori battle site as an undercover Kradin and tells Chakotay what has happened—is a bit confusing in its portrayal and brings up some unresolved logistic problems.

But in the end it really doesn't matter, because the ends justify the means. The real key to this episode is how a culture transformed Chakotay into a man who hated with a passion he had never before known. The final scene is crucial to the episode's success; here a Kradin ambassador comes to greet Chakotay, who has been safely rescued and transported back to Voyager. But Chakotay can't look him in the eye, can't say a word. He can only walk away, muddled in confused hatred. Beltran's subtle performance is a true highlight.

This finale makes the episode work better than it might have without it. With this scene, we see that the Vori have taught—not simply forced—Chakotay to fear and despise the Kradin, for even after such mind-controlling agents have been removed and the situation has been explained from all points of view, Chakotay's feelings of animosity still prevail.

"Nemesis" takes awhile to get where it's going, and some of the plot manipulations tread on the edge of questionable logic. But in the end the episode makes some strong statements. It all may be a bit heavy-handed, but it works.

Next week: Harry introduces Seven of Nine to sexuality ... or maybe it's the other way around.

Previous episode: Day of Honor
Next episode: Revulsion

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26 comments on this review

mlk - Tue, Dec 25, 2007 - 9:59pm (USA Central)
Awesome, Predators! My favorite aliens.

By the way shouldn't the crew be interested in 'aliens' that are clearly human like the Vori
indijo - Mon, May 26, 2008 - 10:57am (USA Central)
Xolent commentary and expose on military PSYOPS and the sheer antisocial, dysfunctional effects it has on our so-called 'humanitarian' nation-states that sponsor wars.
Peter - Fri, Apr 10, 2009 - 4:56pm (USA Central)
One comment about the stylized language spoken by the Vori. I think it was actually used to help dramatize Chakotay's brainwashing. As he becomes more sympathetic to the Vori, you'll notice he starts speaking more like them.
Neil - Tue, Aug 25, 2009 - 1:23am (USA Central)
Peter is correct. As George Orewell pointed out in 1984, language is a powerful thing. Corrupt the language, and you corrupt a person's ability to express ideas.

A person wasn't "killed" they were nullified. The enemy didn't have a name, they were simply nemesis. Brainwashing, pure and simple - and a sofisticated idea for Trek to play with.
Robin - Sun, Sep 13, 2009 - 4:44pm (USA Central)
I'd hate to nitpick but was anyone else bothered by the fact that Neelix seemed to be quite familiar with a planet well over a thousand light-years beyond the Nekirt expanse, more or less the boundary of his knowledge of the Delta quadrant?
Jason - Fri, Jan 29, 2010 - 2:58am (USA Central)
Very good episode - It had two twists. The 1st one being that Voyager crew are in contact with Chakotays 'enemy' - This was fairly easy to see coming.

The 2nd twist of the 'brain-washing' was very well hidden and very well executed. Not on up to 'Fight Club' levels, but still a nice surprise.

The seemingly inexhaustible supply of shuttles is a bit comical though.

As a closing note, I got a lot of "Vietnam Vibes" out of this episode - But I could just be mistaken...
Mal - Mon, Feb 1, 2010 - 11:59pm (USA Central)
@Robin

Neelix was acting as Voyager's ambassador. He didn't have any prior information about the planet.
Tijn - Tue, Nov 30, 2010 - 5:27am (USA Central)
Why do 80% of the aliens look like white people in their 20's and 30's?
Nic - Thu, Jan 27, 2011 - 9:46am (USA Central)
Four stars from me. This is classic Trek. It doesn't look any better than this, and re-watching it today, I can't help but be reminded of the war in Iraq and how American soldiers (and the public) were led to believe there were terrible weapons hidden in the country, when that was never the case. This episode works because of our own built-in prejudices. Even though in the final minutes Chakotay is acting compeltely out of character (because of the drugs) we BELIEVE it because we ourselves are more keen to feel sympathy towards creatures that resemble us and easier to hate those who are different.
Nic - Thu, Jan 27, 2011 - 10:31am (USA Central)
P.S. You said "The fate of the brother does not seem promising." It's pretty obvious that her brother is already dead by this scene. She mentions that he's with the seventh contigent, which Raffen reported was completely eliminated. Chakotay just couldn't bear to tell her as much, so he let her believe he might still be alive. Of course this is all part of a ploy to gain his sympathy.
philosopher-animal - Mon, Mar 7, 2011 - 6:43pm (USA Central)
Do we know the Vori actually look like humans? What would stop the manipulation from including a part of the "program" to ensure they look like the species of the recruit? (And hence gain sympathy, etc.)
Destructor - Wed, Jul 6, 2011 - 1:26am (USA Central)
@mlk + tijn- I agreed with Philosopher-animal: I thought it was pretty clear from the episode that Chakotay was not seeing the Vori's true form- they probably looked no different than the Kradin, but convinced Chuckles they looked human so that he would sympathize with them- just as they manipulated Tuvok to look Kradin.

Decent episode, three stars seems about right.
Nathan - Thu, Nov 3, 2011 - 3:14pm (USA Central)
I seem to have confused this with Memorial, so I was rather baffled when it cut to Voyager discussing the war.
Chris Harrison - Fri, Dec 2, 2011 - 7:11am (USA Central)
I'd like to know under what circumstances the universal translator would translate an alien language into such a bizarre form of English.
Justin - Tue, Apr 10, 2012 - 1:53pm (USA Central)
Another classic. Voyager started their 4th season with 4 in a row, IMO. Their best start yet. Yes it was derivative of past Trek, but in a fresh way. Hey, it's certainly better than the TNG movie of the same name...

I agree with Peter & Neil. The stylized dialogue served the plot well and made it more believable that Chakotay would begin to hate the nemesis and be properly brainwashed when he began to speak like the Vori.

I was not at all frustrated to find that the people he had been interacting with were not real. I found that revelation made the entire story more poignant.
Elphaba - Sat, Sep 29, 2012 - 1:39am (USA Central)
One thing that bugged me about this episode. Why was Tom Paris so anxious to save Chakotay? I don't remember him ever being established to have a close relationship with Chakotay.
Snitch - Wed, Jan 16, 2013 - 10:48am (USA Central)
I really liked this episode, 4 star from me, it did a good job addressing the mirror image issue of vilifying your enemy.
Joe Joe Meastro - Sat, Mar 30, 2013 - 7:07pm (USA Central)
I agree this is a really strong episode. It was thought-provoking, stirred up plenty of emotion, very atmospheric and it's nicely memorable.

After recently reading the classic sci-fi novel '1984', I echo the above commentors who mention the clever use of language and how powerful a tool it can be in re-melting your mindscape as if it was merely a lump of play-doh (okay I fail at descriptive writing lol!).

The plot itself isn't the strongest in the typical sense, but it still holds plenty of merit for the way you get swept along with all that Chakotay goes through. The feel of the episode reminded me of Plattoon and other such powerful war films, which I say is in the episodes' favour (a job well done by the director).

The only thing which I'm a bit let down with is the way you're left hanging after the end of last episode. You're really wanting to see what's going to be happening next with Tom and Torres! At least it was put on hold instead of shoe-horned in, because it wouldn't have fitted well at all. But yeah, perhaps Nemesis was better saved for until we got some resolution from Day Of Honour.

Other than that, no big complaints. I was very much swept along and taken in by Nemesis which is more than what can be said for the ST film of the same name! 3.4/4 from me.
Michael - Tue, Apr 2, 2013 - 12:23am (USA Central)
I really enjoyed the stylized language in this episode - I'm surprised nobody commented on the dialogue's similarity to Firefly's stylized diction, which set a marvelous tone on that series. I could easily hear Mal Reynolds reading those lines. (I'd love to see Jammer review Firefly, as would many others, I'm sure.)

I'm currently rewatching Voyager, and I'm surprised how often I have enjoyed the Chakotay-centric episodes. I didn't warm up to the character much on the original run, perhaps because I saw the episodes in disjoint syndication. Now, watching frequently, and in order, I see his character much more as a man of peace who reluctantly took up the sword. Beltran communicates a great sense of dignity and thoughtfulness that I think would have made him an interesting alternative to Janeway as captain.

Indeed, now that I think of it, what an interesting series this would have been if Chakotay had taken on a more co-captain-like role, or even had commanded the ship with Janeway, somehow, as his first officer.
ChristopherA - Tue, Apr 23, 2013 - 6:36pm (USA Central)
I quite liked the general execution and feel of the episode. And I thought the specialized language was great. Coming up with imaginary jargon is hard, I can’t remember hearing it done better and I’ve certainly heard it done a lot worse.

I’m not sure how to evaluate the surprise twist. On the one hand, it was totally surprising, yet logical, clever, and thought-provoking. On the other hand, it is just so disconnected from what happened earlier in the episode that in some sense it is never really explored on-screen. You’ve got this whole episode about Chikotay falling into the middle of a war zone and bonding with one side, then a revelation “It was just a dream!”, then Chikotay saying “Huh, it was just a dream?” and then the episode is over. So it is really clever in terms of setting up a mystery and then providing a surprise ending, but a bit odd that in terms of story and character development that the ending doesn’t really climax the story so much as suddenly change it to a different story.

I guess my overall reaction is “The story about Chikotay in a war zone is well-executed and interesting to watch. The idea of being tricked into hating an enemy, by being put through an elaborate virtual reality backstory that gives you good reason to hate the enemy, is a really interesting idea. Somebody should write a story that really explores that idea.”
Lt. Yarko - Thu, Jun 20, 2013 - 10:55pm (USA Central)
Dammit! Who left the Universal Translator in synonym mode?!

Seriously, though, do we even care about how communication happens between humans and other species in the DQ? It only matters when the plot needs it to.

The whole mind manipulation thing didn't make sense to me. I mean what was actually going on when Tuvok takes Chakotay to the village again? What was Tuvok seeing? I don't get it. The fact that the details of how Chakotay was brainwashed annoyed me.

I feel like the same message could have been addressed by simply having Chakotay being involved with real people. In any war, both sides see the other as evil no matter how good or evil each side might be. Oh well.
Lt. Yarko - Thu, Jun 20, 2013 - 10:56pm (USA Central)
*The fact that the details of how Chakotay was brainwashed were left out annoyed me.

Fixed.
Nancy - Sun, Jul 28, 2013 - 4:22pm (USA Central)
Yarko - I think the village was supposed to be a big holographic simulation. That's why the "people" reacted the same way on Chakotay's second visit as opposed to Dotting the jig was up.

More problematic is Tuvok's knowledge of the camp when he seemed surprised at first that Chakotay didn't recognize him. How specific is the enemy's knowledge of the brainwashing?

I felt disappointed and cheated by the "it was all an illusion" ending. I think they might be overusing that plot device.

That said, it was effective in the sense that I too could not accept the Predator aliens as "misunderstood" even at the end after the reveal. I still distrusted them like Chakotay. Point made, writers.
Rafin - Mon, Sep 2, 2013 - 4:20pm (USA Central)
This is actually one of my favorite episodes of "Voyager", along with "Remember" and "Memorial" from the third and sixth seasons respectively.

Everything just clicked for me in this episode: Chakotay's reluctance and eventual acceptance to becoming involved in the conflict, Namon's wrestling his trembles to rages, the Kradin's cruelty and malevolence. Easy to believe that this episode aired around the same time as the Occupation arc of DS9's sixth season.

Two questions I've always had about this episode... Is the planet the Vori and the Kradin are fighting over one species' homeworld or a colony? And what happened to Brone after the final battle? We see him being dragged away by two Kradin soldiers - was he was being fast-walked to an extermination facility?
Kevin - Thu, Jan 2, 2014 - 12:53pm (USA Central)
I enjoyed this episode more than I expected to. The twists were nicely done. Regarding a couple of the questions that are in the comments, I agree that the simulation was probably customized for the particular race being brainwashed - that seems easy enough technically and makes bonding with the Vori easier. I may have imagined it, but the Kradin makeup seemed a bit more grotesque and intimidating on the simulated soldiers than on the ambassador - that may be my own imagination recasting them as good and bad guys, but it seemed to be a subtle difference.

As far as the language used, I thought it was well done. It's easy to start using stilted language and then drop it, I'm glad the writers were able to do it convincingly through the entire episode.

I understand that the language was part of the brainwashing, but realistically, we should hear stuff like this more often. The translator should have been rendering words and short phrases literally, sort of like Google translate. The translator is working with languages that it has never encountered before, and it should lose or misunderstand most of what is said, at least for the first few days of interaction with a species. Other Trek series had the advantage of working with more or less known species, but the entire run of Voyager should have really played with the idea of communication issues - that could have been fun.

Cass - Sun, Jan 5, 2014 - 11:51pm (USA Central)
I had three objections to this episode (rewatching all on Netflix at present); glad to see I'm not the only one:

OP: The never-ending supply of shuttles (3 in a row!) is very hard to swallow.

Robin is right in that Neelix should not have been able to offer any insight into this area/conflict. In the previous season, they had already reached the Nekrit Expanse, which marked the limit of Neelix's familiarity with that area of space. Add to that the 9500 light years that Kes threw them, and he shouldn't have known a thing about the planet or its people or its war (no, he was not limited to just ambassadorial duties; he actually was familiar with the conflict).

Elphaba, I agree that Paris's enthusiasm to go save Chakotay seemed out of place.

Love to see so many people interested in the details!!

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