Nutshell: A reasonable start to the season, but with a few too many drawbacks.
Voyager's season five premiere, "Night," is like a seesaw, where on one side we have elements of promise and originality, and on the other we have the familiar frustrations. Which side wins out? I'm not exactly sure. I'm inclined to call it a draw.
An episode like "Night" reveals a duality that exists within much of starship-based Trek. One half of this duality allows me to be interested in where these characters are going next, because sci-fi's possibilities are so broad. But with the other half, I realize that, in creative terms, they've probably already been where they're headed. It's a duality that makes me wonder how long a Trek series can last without striving to break the conventions of formula—which in turn makes me wonder how fatal a mistake it was for Voyager to ignore the more consequential implications of its setting way back when the long-lasting standards were being set.
What's funny is that DS9 seems strangely immune to this Trek duality because its format these days is so labyrinthine, unpredictable, and particularly mindful of its own history. I'm not trying to go out of way to say "DS9 good, Voyager bad"—what I'm saying is that Voyager continues to come off as a new breed of TOS, whereas DS9 comes off as a breed of its own. (Sometimes I wonder where we'd be if DS9 had turned to exploring the Gamma Quadrant in TNG style rather than exploring its political and metaphysical powers within a war setting.)
Anyway, back to the point here: For me, a lot of "Night" was an example of utilizing the standard Trek formula, but also an example of how to use Voyager's elements well. The original point of this series was that the ship and crew were alone. But the ship has never really been alone; they've always been in contact with some alien species, or as Janeway puts it, "constantly under attack."
In "Night," Voyager is travelling through a void where there's nothing—no stars, no civilizations, no light. Just the starship Voyager, out there alone for two months now, with no expectations for encountering another star system or alien ship for another two years. "Every sailor's worst nightmare," Chakotay says ominously.
The psychological aspects of the episode are its most compelling. An early shot of the ship is eerie, with no stars visible anywhere—the only light emanating from Voyager itself. It's quite a striking visual. Later, a panicking Neelix wakes up in the middle of the night, looks out his window, and sees absolutely nothing. It's like looking into the depths of literal oblivion.
The effect this all has on the crew is believable and interesting. Everyone is a little on-edge. Neelix's panic attacks provide the most immediately effective example. And even Tuvok looks mysteriously at stars on the astrometrics lab viewscreen, almost as if for comfort, as he comments to Seven that the view from his window "has been less than stellar lately." (If that isn't the Vulcan pun to end all puns, then I don't know what is.)
The Tom/B'Elanna bickering, however, didn't do all that much for me. Is seemed pretty standard and tired, and Tom's jokes resided on the not-so-funny-but-just-plain-insulting side. (His mention of Klingon pain sticks seemed especially inappropriate. For one, B'Elanna has never "enjoyed" such activities; for another, the comment is, well, stereotypical.) Overall, though, the idea of Voyager in darkness is probably the highlight of the episode.
There are some other good ideas in "Night." Beyond the isolation setting, there's also the new "Captain Proton" holonovel—Paris' fantasy program that pays homage to those cheap 1940s sci-fi serials. It's a scream. (Besides, how can you not like a holodeck program that's offered in black-and-white?) We seem to go through approximately one holodeck theme per year, ranging from the French pool hall, Janeway's Victorian novel, Neelix's resort, to Leonardo da Vinci's workshop. "Captain Proton" easily has the potential of being the most fun if the writers can keep it interesting.
Meanwhile, through the early stages of the episode, I kept asking myself, "Where's the captain?" Chakotay's on the bridge; no Janeway. Staff meeting is run by Chakotay; no Janeway. The crew asks for the captain; Chakotay responds, "The captain sends her regards." Where is she and what's going on?
A good question, but the answer isn't quite what I had in mind. The biggest problem with "Night" is probably this aspect of the story—and unfortunately, it pretty much brings the emotional core of the episode tumbling down with it.
There's always been plenty of potential for Janeway to wrestle with controversial decisions she has made over the years, the most obvious one, as in this case, being her original decision to destroy the Caretaker's array and leave Voyager stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Fine and good, but I have some severe problems with the way Janeway goes about "dealing" with this guilt here.
In short, I find Janeway's actions a little inexplicable. As Chakotay rightly puts it, "You've picked a bad time to isolate yourself from the crew"—and I personally don't think this demonstrates Janeway being a good leader. Sure, I can understand her guilt catching up with her given the current predicament of being out in the middle of a dark, empty void. But for her to simply make herself unavailable, telling Chakotay to "send the crew her regards" is questionable behavior at best—and selfish and out of character at worst. Even when her flaws are at their most evident, Janeway has always been one who maintains confidence in the decisions she makes, and I find the notion of locking herself in a darkened room to be something of a plausibility stretch and a bit silly.
Objections to Janeway's course of action aside, I also feel the "guilt issue" falls severely short of what it could've been dramatically. Why not press it further? Chakotay's attempt, for example, to comfort the captain with, "We're alive, aren't we?" should've opened the door to an entire conversation, but didn't. Just once I'd like to see all those unnamed Voyager crew members who have died over the past four years receive some sort of acknowledgement. Even having Janeway counter with a well-played, "What about those who aren't with us anymore?" could've gone a long way. But such crew members simply vanish into the convenience of "red-shirt oblivion" (despite the fact that Janeway, unlike Captain Kirk, doesn't have the luxury of setting course for the nearest starbase to take on new crew members).
Fortunately, once the episode launches into action, Janeway resumes her rightful place on the bridge. And as far as New Alien Encounters go, this week was fairly fresh. Not groundbreaking, but effective.
Over the summer, Brannon Braga voiced the writing staff's intention to "push the envelope" of alien encounters this year. While this is an attitude that should've arisen the moment Voyager found itself in the Delta Quadrant when the series began, I'm all for the concept of "better late than never," and it's a completely prudent measure to take at this stage of the game, where it's obvious that the goal of the series is to be "TOS in the Delta Quadrant." So on this front, the idea of aliens who live out in the middle of "nowhere" and thrive on darkness is a perfectly workable idea.
That's not to say that the plot is particularly imaginative; it's essentially the TOS attitude with a '90s spin, the theme that seemed to be the goal of much of Voyager's fourth season. For the most part, it's fine here. We have the bizarre aliens who live in the dark and attack Voyager. And then, in perfect TOS fashion, we learn that peace and conflict come in unlikely packages (the reverse of what we initially assume); the dark-habitat aliens are actually the peaceful group (who made a mistake when attacking Voyager) at the mercy of the alien visitor who had earlier come to Voyager's rescue when it was under attack. The formula then follows that Janeway & Co. must get involved to do the right thing, which is made particularly easy when it turns out the visiting alien to this realm is literally dumping toxic waste, which is killing the peaceful aliens who live in the darkness.
This is classic Trekkian morality—not particularly challenging, but nice nonetheless. And conceptually, Michael Westmore's makeup design delivers on the "strange and unusual" level. Ultimately, Janeway's decision to open fire on the toxic waste dumper when he refuses to listen to reason displays a very Kirk-like attitude. Funny how the cycles repeat themselves.
Turning back to problems, however, is the silliest moment of the show—a crucial decision that is much too easily plotted around. I'm referring of course to Janeway's decision to make sure Voyager escapes through a spatial vortex that exits the void on the other side. Her decision requires that she stay behind and collapse the vortex after Voyager has passed through it. But her crew won't let her make this sacrifice. They refuse to follow the given order, and as a result Janeway essentially folds and says, "Fine, then—Plan B." Plan B requires that no one make any sacrifice; instead, the ship must be put in some sort of artificial technobabble jeopardy for 90 or so seconds (accompanied by a battle sequence and nifty special effects).
This is the flaw that keeps the episode from being worth a recommendation. I enjoyed this show okay as an action outing, but when the central character core becomes virtually a non-issue solved with a laughably thin plot device, it becomes hard to get much out of the show in terms of dramatic payoff. Besides, given how much danger the ship is put through week after week, I don't see why Plan B wasn't just Plan A in the first place.
As a season premiere, "Night" manages both to entertain and to frustrate. The teaser and first act are wonderfully engaging, but then the show slowly descends into reasonable action and ultimately resigns itself to shallow solutions, which is a shame. Within this episode I see elements that could turn out to be the beginnings of some very good trends, but I also see some of the same old pratfalls and the series' general refusal to tell a story requiring any length of an attention span.
Next week: Beware—baby Borg becomes big, bad burden.