Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 3/3/1999
Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan
Story by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Anson Williams
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"The 'demon'-class planet—one of our more interesting missions." — Chakotay, speaking for himself
Nutshell: Better than its predecessor, "Demon," but still deeply, deeply flawed, with a cynical nature that disheartens.
To its credit, "Course: Oblivion" is an episode with more implicit ideas than it probably deserves to possess. I mean that. This show sometimes asks interesting questions. Unfortunately, the story can't stay focused, the answers are ultimately not very interesting, and what it takes to get us to those answers is so dubious that the show ends up coming off as desperate and meretricious. I wanted to think about some of the consequences of this episode, but the more I thought about them, the more infuriating the story's underlying foundation became.
On knee-jerk-reaction terms, I object to the very existence of this episode. It has the audacity to be a sequel to "Demon," one of the most ridiculous episodes of Voyager ever made. I'm forced to ask why the writers would want to remind us of an episode so incoherent and devoid of any reasonable train of thought as to follow it up with a sequel. (I'd think damage control—forgetting it ever happened—would be the more appropriate answer.)
In objective terms, however (I have a duty to be fair to what we have here rather than complain about what came before), I must say this episode has about 10 times the substance of "Demon," and manages to be bad without descending to the depths of utter garbage. If that still sounds like faint praise, that's probably because it is.
As the nature of the plot began to unfold, I felt a great dislike for this episode, but it hooked me in with more intrigue than "Demon" or last week's laughably inept "Disease" could muster. It's clearly better than both. But all comparisons aside, the story still has serious problems, and I still think it was a mistake to make this episode considering the large quantity of nonsense we have to swallow to make the story remotely workable.
For starters, based on how it plays out, this strikes me as one of the most cynical episodes of Star Trek ever conceived. Here's a plot that builds its story around a set of people merely so they can be destroyed—and for what? For some large ironic statement? To pose an interesting "what if" premise with a tragic ending? There's evidence of an attempt for both, but not enough effective utilization of either.
The episode opens with a deception that I'm not even sure how to feel about—namely, the marriage of Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres. Like with most episodes, I went into "Course: Oblivion" with no idea what it was about (other than what the trailer told me, which, as usual, was nothing) and no expectations. Therefore, the marriage struck me as iffy (motivated by a lot of off-screen courtship, I presumed), but real. Then the evidence began to appear: This ship was less than two years from home, the dialog revealed a host of adventures we'd never heard of before, etc.—and it became clear this was not the Voyager crew we knew.
When B'Elanna suffers and eventually dies from a mysterious sickness, the investigation begins. Early on (which is decidedly a good thing), the episode drops the major revelation on us: This Voyager crew is the copy of the real crew that was created in "Demon." Every individual on the ship used to be some sort of biomimetic silver fluid that obtained sentience when Voyager interacted with them in the previous episode. Somehow, the ship itself was also replicated. Now, enhancements to the warp engines, we learn, have caused this "sickness" ("Each and every one of you will disintegrate," Doc says helpfully)—leading to the crew's reversion to their original biological state where the only hope for survival might mean returning to their original environment.
The episode's plot holes are massive—full of facts that defy reasonable explanation and take the sci-fi aspects of Trek into purely arbitrary fantasy. I like to think I have some imagination and an ability to grant a few details in the name of drama, but the nonsense presented here goes so far over the line that we're forced to resign to a story with basically no rules at all. Correction: The rules are conjured at will to dictate whatever crazy way the plot wants to go.
For instance, not only did the biomimetic silver fluid (or whatever) copy the entire crew, but the entire ship and all its technology as well—and without the real Voyager crew's knowledge. That's a stretch I'm not willing to so easily grant. Are you telling me that this crew had no way of suspecting for some 10 months that they used to be a metallic fluid? And that every piece of technology on the ship was replicated perfectly? There's also the issue of memory, which is cast aside with a casual, "Oh, apparently we just forgot we were copies and resumed our lives as if we were the real thing." Later, memories of "the metallic past" resurface when it helps Chakotay form an argument challenging the captain's decision. How conveeeeeeenient. This all makes me want to utter an eight-letter word that begins with "bull" (I'll resist that urge, however, in the interests of maintaining a G-rated review; those over the age of 10 can just pretend I said it).
This doesn't require suspension of disbelief; it requires willful embracing of credulity.
If you can grant these ridiculous details, the episode might improve some, but I still had major problems. First, there's entirely too much emphasis on technobabble rather than drama. (In that regard, this episode feels like a throwback to season two or three, whereas season five has generally been able to maintain focus on the human aspects rather than the technical junk). It also didn't help to have reminders of other notoriously awful shows. Not only are there ideas from "Demon," but also aspects all-too-reminiscent of "Threshold" ("Making the ship go faster will disfigure and kill you!") and "Twisted" ("The ship is morphing and deforming!"). This all may be beside the point, but the fact I was too distracted by the fantasy tech details is a sign the story wasn't working.
Fortunately, unlike "Demon," this episode at least tries to think about a few issues. The most interesting aspect of the show is probably Paris lashing out after B'Elanna has died and the truth is learned. Finding out you literally aren't at all who you thought you were (and further, that you're going to die), has got to be pretty tough, and Paris' rage and his shades of nihilism prove somewhat enlightening. Unfortunately, there isn't enough of it; the issue is raised and then only sort of half-developed.
Instead, the writers rehash the Janeway Decision Theme—with the question of whether to keep going and risk death ("I promised this crew I would get them home!") or turn back and head for the "demon" planet in the interest of survival. While this is more interesting dramatically than the tech stuff, it's like the millionth time we've seen Janeway agonize over this issue, as Chakotay offers the reasonable arguments taking the other position. (Although, here it seems like something of a no-brainer: Either turn around, or everyone dies. Hmmm...)
Dramatically, I found a lot of the story's twists to be depressingly cynical. B'Elanna gets a well-played deathbed scene that proves more affecting than most Tom/B'Elanna scenes to date; both Dawson and McNeill reveal a genuine chemistry. Unfortunately, I'm forced to wonder why the marriage is even there. To make us care about characters, only so the universe can be turned on us in a notion of "things are not what they seem"? Nothing is more frustrating than good characterization that technically isn't real.
But let's grant the marriage gimmick as simply a neutral fact for a moment. The next dose of cynicism comes with the story's dependence on pointless conflict to ease the ship along to its inevitable destruction—namely, the Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week [TM]. When Voyager finds a possible alternative "demon"-class world, it's of course being mined by aliens who wouldn't think of letting anyone come near it. They immediately open fire so we can get our requisite dose of weekly camera-shaking and bridge-set pyrotechnics.
After that failure, the situation becomes increasingly grim. Even with the warp engine enhancements, it will take weeks to get back to the original "demon" world, and members of the crew are dropping like flies. Much is made of Janeway's idea of a time capsule, so if the crew doesn't survive there will at least be a record of their existence. Well, the crew doesn't survive ... and neither does the capsule, which is destroyed by a technobabble problem that is so arbitrarily manufactured that it doesn't prompt from me a reflection upon tragic circumstances but rather anger for shameless audience manipulation.
But that's not all. Next the episode will have us believe that while on its doomed course back toward the "demon" planet, with only minutes before the ship will be ripped apart, the duplicate Voyager happens within range of the real Voyager. (I won't even bother questioning the odds of such an occurrence.) The real Voyager arrives in range of the duplicate Voyager just a bit too late—or, rather, just in time to see a field of debris and wonder what happened to the mysterious ship to which they never came close enough to contact.
So, given all of this, what exactly is the point, or at least the intent? My guess would be some mix of nihilistic angst and tragedy or something, but the story doesn't create such emotions fairly; it simply manipulates us with bland, near-random turns of the plot, creating this duplicate Voyager crew with a host of contrivances and then putting them at the mercy of a universe that wants to toy with and finally crush them by way of still more contrivances. If that sounds cynical on my part, it might be—but I get these vibes from what I believe the show portrayed through its scornful treatment of the characters.
Why should we care about them if no one—except possibly those destined to die—learns anything? More specifically, why should we care when the real Voyager crew, which comprises the real emotional core of the series—doesn't make the discovery? And why bother getting so close to the moment of payoff just to snatch it away? Think of the possibilities of the logs surviving the duplicate crew's destruction. The real drama could've been in the real Voyager crew facing the psychological consequences of learning about this duplicate crew's set of adventures—getting a taste of who they might've been if given a set of slightly different circumstances. (The Tom/B'Elanna marriage provides a very good example of such.)
Leaving this all in the audience's lap, in my opinion, is not nearly enough, and simply ends up being a waste of time. In short: There needs to be a surviving witness in the story for there to be dramatic context (like Harry's message to himself in "Timeless")—otherwise, what did we just see and why?
I get the feeling that the writers were going for some sort of thoughtful, introspective ending, where the real Voyager crew not being the wiser about the duplicates constitutes some sort of poetic irony. I'll grant that as a possibility, but I don't find it at all satisfying under the circumstances. Tragedies work better when you genuinely care about those being tortured; here the cynical nature of plot—which just jerks us around—all but makes that impossible.
"Course: Oblivion" is an episode that pretty much rubbed me the wrong way at every turn. In its defense, I'll admit that it tries to do some things that are unconventional, and it raises a few interesting issues. And its title is perfectly appropriate. Unfortunately, the way it goes about doing it is mean-spirited and false, and all that stands in the hour's wake is a barrage of technical jargon, weird-looking makeup effects, and a sense of audience manipulation that is not at all appealing. Unlike the brain-dead "Demon," this show has ideas. They just aren't very good ideas.
Next week: A rerun of "Extreme Risk."