Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 3/24/1999
Teleplay by Joe Menosky
Story by Michael Taylor
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"It's hard to follow them. They go to strange places." — Chakotay's grandfather, perfectly describing this story
Nutshell: Weird and atmospheric, but what does it all mean?
The lights are on, but who's at home? I'm trying to figure out if this episode is really worth any more than the value of its strangeness. When it comes to execution, this is an episode that pushes the envelope. Just where does that envelope get pushed? I dunno—out there, somewhere. Very, very far out.
Voyager, alas, seems to be in a bit of a rut. I hope it gets out soon, because season five has been pretty solid until recently. "The Fight" is not an awful show, and it certainly won't be remembered as an episode that didn't try. But the episode, for all its enthusiasm for being different, left me very unsatisfied. It's a mess. The producers and director put so much energy into a show that's so unfocused. Clearly, if they'd put that kind of energy into a show that made sense, they'd have something here. But one thing is certain: I'm not on the same page as writers Menosky and Taylor, and I don't think it's for lack of trying.
Despite the routine tech stuff, I can actually swallow the basics of the plot. Chakotay is having a very weird day, but, then again, so is the entire Voyager crew. This is the sort of day that would warrant Janeway saying, once again, "Weird is part of the job."
Voyager ends up stuck (in an idea a bit too similar to the "subspace sandbar" in "Bride of Chaotica!"), this time in something known as "chaotic space," where the rules of physics simply do not apply. If the crew can't figure out how to escape very soon, Voyager will be destroyed (cue music of doom). About this time, Chakotay starts hallucinating. It turns out that a hereditary mental defect he has is being stimulated by aliens who live in chaotic space. They're inducing the hallucinations in an effort to communicate with him. Subsequently, Chakotay goes on a vision quest to figure out what these hallucinations mean.
It's this vision quest that gives me the most trouble in "The Fight." The episode is consumed with stylistics and atmosphere—which in itself is fine. But I was amazed at how ineffective this vision quest was in terms of revealing something intriguing about the situation or Chakotay's character. I'm sure there are people out there who will try to analyze every last detail in search of some sort of symbolism. Me—I don't buy a lot of it. The writers' intent here is simply not interesting enough to warrant so much supposed "symbolism." This is an episode in need of a psychologist. I'm not a psychologist; I'm a reviewer.
Of course, that's not to say I won't try. In the final analysis, what "The Fight" really comes down to is Chakotay's reluctant need to keep "fighting"—overcoming his fear in order to communicate with this alien presence. And no one said that everything has to be laid out for the viewer in concrete, absolute terms. The boxing metaphor is reasonable enough; the idea of Chakotay taking blows as the aliens talk to him has a pretty clear psychological intent.
But what about the rest of this mess? Chakotay's vision quest not only has boxing, but also Boothby. Why did this episode need Boothby? Apparently to give Ray Walston another Voyager appearance. And also to expand the character into something he's not—namely Burgess Meredith. (I liked it better when Boothby was framed in his groundskeeper role and a mentor to mainly Picard; now the door is open to stick him in any episode or holodeck setting that has to do with the old academy days, where apparently everyone in Starfleet knew him. Bah.)
Then there's Chakotay's grandfather (Ned Romero), the "crazy old man" whom the episode views as some sort of symbol of tradition that Chakotay struggles with.
And there's all the murky dialog with other characters in Chakotay's vision, where style, not substance, is the point.
Each of these elements in itself is okay, but the episode throws them all together in an over-baked stew that makes surprisingly little sense. It's excessive, and the story suffers as a result. I got the feeling that the creators were trying too hard to accomplish a goal that wasn't even remotely certain.
When Sisko has visions on DS9, I get the feeling it means something, because such visions usually grow out of some significant story point or character history; it's a part of the character. That's perhaps the big problem with Chakotay having visions here: They don't reveal much about the character that we can really understand. Okay, so he knew Boothby back at the academy, and he was a boxer in his free time, and he has different opinions than his grandfather. None of this comes to fruition by the end of the episode, so I'm forced to ask: So what? Like with all too many Voyager concepts, these elements serve the needs of the tech plot first, and the character a distant second.
Coherence is a lost virtue. One needs to look no further than the opening minutes for a prime example: Why does the story begin as a flashback? There's no dramatic basis for it, no reason not to simply start the story in a normal, chronological manner. Unless the writers were trying to confuse us with weirdness (which given the rest of this episode is a distinct possibility), I'm not understanding at all the reason behind the flashback structure (or lack thereof).
What remains is execution. Winrich Kolbe is one of my favorite Trek directors, and he demonstrates here that he has a knack for the utterly weird. Unfortunately, he demonstrates this to a fault, pushing way too hard at times. In "Infinite Regress" earlier this season, David Livingston went pretty far into chaos in that show's final act, but he used technique in a way that still told the story. In "The Fight," Kolbe simply doesn't have enough story behind him, and it seems to me that he overcompensated as a result. Some of this is neither understandable nor relevant. Doc's role in Chakotay's vision is particularly hammy and strange without having much of a point.
The other problem is that the "chaos" feels a bit too staged. I was convinced in "Infinite Regress" that Seven was overburdened by voices, but here I was convinced I was watching actors trying to project urgency. Beltran and Picardo have several scenes together where they're yelling in terse phrases that are supposed to be frighteningly important and urgent, but it comes off too much as "acting." I appreciate seeing Beltran in a little bit less of a wooden role, but he never really convinced me that he was Chakotay on the verge of going nuts.
I'll give "The Fight" points for atmosphere and ambition, but I have serious problems with the story's lack of sensibility and tendency to resort to wretched excess. It's an episode like this that reveals Voyager's biggest weaknesses—a series that tends to get caught up in mechanical sci-fi concepts that lack the human interest they need to be compelling.
All in all, this is mediocre Voyager. I was somewhat entertained by the visual ambition of "The Fight," but the underlying story simply did not engage me. At the end, we've faced and escaped another anomaly and logged another day at the office. Chakotay goes back into the holodeck to fight a few rounds. Nothing really wrong with that, but nothing interesting about it either.
Next week: SERENITY NOW!!! (Jason Alexander is an alien that appears to be a lot more serene than George Costanza on his best days.)