Nutshell: An inspired story. Intriguing, fresh, and relevant, this is the best episode yet this season.
Seven hundred years in the future, Voyager has become a terrible myth on a Delta Quadrant planet. Voyager itself has come and gone, and its crew and generations succeeding them have come and gone. But on the planet in question in this week's episode, "Living Witness," Voyager is a dark and dreadful piece of history—and the people living on this world are still feeling the effects from their encounter with the famous ship.
"Living Witness" is a standout story that is well told and thoroughly engaging. It features a central problem that is both relevant and unique. I haven't seen a Voyager outing quite like this one, and it pleases me to take in a story that can get its hooks into us for an hour and make us care about what's happening on the screen. For once, we have a stake in the outcome that goes much deeper than the average example of this week's possible destruction of the ship.
"Living Witness" isn't quite perfect, but it manages to pull off a balancing act of Voyager-esque elements and come off wonderfully. It's original and entertaining, and it made me care about the characters, the most important of whom weren't even Voyager crew members.
The device used to tell the tale is clever and atypical. The story makes some very good choices, the first being that we never actually see the "real" Voyager crew in the course of the episode. The entire story is set on a planet populated by two peoples: the Kyrians and the Vaskans. The story's central character is a Kyrian named Quarren (Henry Woronicz), who is a historian that works at a museum devoted to the warship Voyager. His newest exhibit, a holographic rendition called "The Voyager Encounter," documents how Voyager teamed up with the Vaskans to unleash terrible slaughter upon the Kyrians all those centuries ago.
In this depiction, the Voyager crew are the bad guys. Janeway's motto: "When diplomacy fails, there's only one alternative: violence." Quarren's depiction demonstrates how Voyager attacked the Kyrian planet and destroyed its cities, paving the way for the Vaskans to wage a war whose sociological aftereffects are still being felt in the present.
Pace-wise, this story is dead-on. It doesn't waste any time; it gets right down to business, dropping us into the middle of "The Voyager Encounter" and showing us the Kyrian version of the Voyager crew. Strangely, this isn't done with a dark atmosphere of intensity; it's done with an eerie comic-book tone. Many scenes involving the evil "anti-crew" are exploited mainly for our own enjoyment. It looks like the actors have fun playing evil, over-the-top opposite versions of themselves. I find that interesting, because this story is mostly pretty serious, yet it incorporates the fourth-season sense of "fun" into the plot almost seamlessly—and it for once works toward the episode's purpose. Watching scenes of the "anti-crew" proves entertaining purely on the level of stand-alone set pieces. Janeway is no-nonsense, vindictive, and murderous. Harry is sadistic, Chakotay (with an exaggerated tattoo that covers half his face) is hypocritical in his use of violence, and Tuvok even dons an evil smile when he fires the phasers. (I did, however, miss Torres in this episode; it would've been fun to see an evil version of her, but I suppose the end of Dawson's pregnancy made that impossible.)
The idea that this "anti-crew" had assimilated Kazon and Talaxians and even Borg into their midst was also interesting, particularly the idea of a small set of killer Borg drones who worked as a special force under Janeway's command.
I somehow wonder about historical depictions being as melodramatic as in this case (though I certainly don't dismiss that possibility since they can hold the potential of being quite manipulative). Since the recreation is obviously being told on two levels—one being the way the Kyrians perceive Voyager and the other being the actual filming techniques used for the benefit of entertaining us as the tale unfolds—it seems like a potentially uneasy duality. But it manages to work fine on both levels.
These scenes are strangely amusing, but maybe that's because we realize how extreme and absurd Quarren's depiction is. The story's seriousness emerges when considering the fact that many Kyrians accept this depiction as the historical truth—a "reasonable extrapolation of the evidence," as Quarren puts it.
The concept is what they call "revisionist history"—your culture makes biased extrapolations and even blatant alterations in order to paint the enemy in the worst possible manner and yourselves in the best possible light. This is a probing topic with some nicely conceived problems addressed within it, and the way it's handled is downright compelling.
The story takes a turn when a new artifact is unearthed; active data that may prove to offer Voyager's own side of the story. Well, this active data turns out to be a backup copy of the Doctor—an actual "living witness" to the events in question. Once Doc is reactivated and learns where he is and what role his crew played in the Kyrians' history, he's understandably appalled. Who wouldn't be? The rest of the story is how he tries to set the record straight.
As a narrative piece, "Living Witness" is effective because it allows us to experience the unknowns of the story right alongside the characters. As Quarren makes his discovery of Doc's program, which has been preserved for 700 years, it's a mysterious moment of awe. Likewise, when Doc realizes that it has been 700 years since he was on board Voyager—which to him seems like yesterday—it allows us to see the Kyrian/Vaskan world from his perspective of the mysterious and unknown. It's a very effective series of events, and with the story's setting-away-from-the-usual-setting, I felt the freshness of a truly different type of Voyager story.
Needless to say, what Doc and Quarren know as the truth are two very different things. When Doc programs a simulation of his version of the events, Quarren initially doesn't want to accept it—and we can see why. The way Doc's new evidence sends Quarren into outright denial is probably the most believable, understandable, and well-conceived notion in the episode. It rightly understands that people don't easily let go of things they have believed their entire lives, even when a new answer is sitting right in front of them. Consider: As a result of one archaeological find, Quarren's historical world comes crashing down upon him, forcing him to rethink everything he has ever known.
At the same, watching Doc squirm as he sees how history has been biased and distorted is painfully effective. The Kyrian's take is so inaccurate that we fully understand and sympathize when Doc says that somewhere far away "Captain Janeway is spinning in her grave." Both Picardo's and Woronicz's performances pull us into their respective plights superbly.
I also think the way the episode ties its history to the current-day problems between the Kyrians and the Vaskans is a vital piece of the story's success. This tie-back gives us a stake in seeing that the record is set straight—not just because Voyager's name must be cleared, but because there may be bigger issues affected by making the truth known. At this point in time, racial tensions between the Kyrians and Vaskans are dangerously volatile. The Kyrians are still being oppressed by the Vaskans, with whom they share the planet, and the fact that Voyager's role rests somewhere in the middle of the original conflict means the truth surrounding Voyager could reveal new sides to everyone involved—which, indeed, it does.
The ultimate uncovering of physical evidence to prove Doc's version of events makes for good and believable drama, and the inevitable destruction of the "museum of lies" strikes me as both appropriate and realistic (angry people realizing that history has been twisted aren't likely to react well, so the ending riot struck me as a natural outcome of events).
I was also moved by the ending's approach of a history-of-the-history, as it reveals that everything shown to us in the course of the hour is being taught years later, hailing Quarren and Doc as heroes who uncovered a truth that led to a new era of peace. It gave the entire episode a sort of mythical aura, which was just right. It may have been a little on the sappy side, but it was still very effective, and wonderfully executed. (I would say Tim Russ' freshman effort has earned him another turn in the director's chair.)
There's only one real flaw in this episode, and even though I wish I could simply ignore it given the strength of the rest of the story, I just don't feel that I can. That flaw is the sudden, conjured idea of a "Doctor backup program." For one, it's been firmly established on several occasions (even as recently as "Message in a Bottle") that the Doctor can not be so simply backed up. Suddenly we have a device that not only reverses that notion entirely, but is also conveniently stolen by the Kyrians during the historic battle such that it can be found 700 years later. Both notions strain credulity. I'm not saying that the ability of backing up Doc has to be impossible, I'm just saying that the dramatic device was obviously invented solely for the benefit of this story. It's a completely changed premise, and I feel like I've been lied to—as if the basis for this story is built upon a fundamentally contrived plot element. It's probably the only reason this episode falls short of a four-star rating. (*)
I also wonder about the implications of Doc now having this backup module (if they built one that got stolen, they can presumably build another). Does this mean he can be stored forever, essentially immortal? And that he can also be essentially cloned? These questions are part of an entirely different issue, and I wonder if we'll ever see such an issue tackled. I'm frankly not counting on it.
But I wouldn't want these questions to take away from the great merits of "Living Witness," because they are admittedly minor issues in comparison. This is one of the best episodes of Voyager yet, and certainly the best story so far this season. It's engrossing, imaginative, and has something to say.
Next week: Tom and Harry visit a toxic planet where they have a close encounter of the not-so-pleasant kind.
* Note: I later decided to change the rating for this show to four stars, despite the isolated plotting flaw. This is one of Voyager's very best, and in retrospect I think it deserves the better rating.