Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 5/19/1999
Teleplay by Michael Taylor & Kenneth Biller
Story by Brannon Braga
Directed by John Kretchmer
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"When a bomb starts talking about itself in the third person, I get worried." — Paris (in second season's "Dreadnought")
"What about when it's talking about itself in the first person?" — Jammer (talking about this episode, and referring to himself in the third person)
It's moments like "Warhead" that make me wonder how much life the Star Trek franchise has left in it. With the end of DS9—the most challenging incarnation of the franchise—now upon us, I'm realizing that Voyager will be all that's left to speak for Trek—for a while, anyway. An episode like this makes me wonder how much is left to be said, because what's said here has been said many times before—and "Warhead" doesn't find a particularly riveting new spin on the material.
"Warhead" plays like an "all-new" remake of some lost TOS episode. True, it's updated with the Voyager quota of technical jargon and current production values. But it seems like we're covering ground that was covered back in 1967. There's a scene here where the Voyager away team beams down to a planet surface for investigation. This planet is obviously a set, much the way the TOS planets were obviously sets. It's like meeting an old friend—the fake-looking planet. And, theme-wise, it's almost as if a Trek script were put into a time capsule long ago and recently rediscovered and run through production. Are the themes "universal"? Maybe. Are they challenging? Not particularly. Are they familiar? You'd better believe it.
The high-concept phrase du jour might best be encapsulated by Janeway's clever tagline utterance: "outsmart the smart bomb." The plot develops in purely Trekkian formula fashion, as an away team brings back a lost, unknown life form. The life form is actually an artificial intelligence inside a metallic device. It's programmed with sentience. Unfortunate for Our Heroes, but fortunate for those interested in suspense-game plots, the metallic device is actually a weapon of mass destruction—a bomb guided by an intelligence but programmed to complete its mission at all costs. The bomb communicates by talking to the Doctor, who can translate its bleeps and bloops into useful words, thanks to his handy internal translation matrix. (The most obvious line of dialog that is, surprisingly, not present here: "I'm a Doctor, not an interpreter.")
The Smart Bomb is initially unaware of its purpose because of gaps in its memory. Suddenly, however, the Bomb realizes what it is—at which point it transfers its program into the Doctor's holographic matrix and hijacks Voyager, threatening to detonate if the crew doesn't help it complete its mission of mass destruction.
The bulk of the episode is about how the crew must attempt to negotiate with this Bomb and, ultimately, outsmart it. I should probably point out that it's late in the season, where the cumulative bore effect of these types of mechanical plots begins to take its toll on my brain. I certainly can't say I was wrapped up in the overall idea of the ship being threatened with a big explosion—again. (To boot, this makes back-to-back episodes about preventing bombs from detonating.)
The idea of trying to out-smart the smart bomb isn't ill-conceived, but nor does it have much zip to it. Everything about this episode feels like Just Another Day at the Office. There are some crew-concocted plans here, including one involving a "clever" distraction and Yet Another Use of Seven's Nanoprobes, those microscopic, miracle, all-purpose sabotage/medical/assimilation tools. (Order now! Operators are standing by.)
The substance of the episode arises from Harry's attempts to reason with the Smart Bomb, which was apparently programmed with a zero-patience personality harboring more paranoia than Richard Belzer.
Honestly, if this Bomb has been sitting inactive for two or three years, what's its big rush? What difference would another couple hours of reasonable investigation into its memory files make? If the Bomb is "sentient," it should have the capability to reason—but, conveniently, it must also answer to "destroy the enemy"-type directives that make it more uncontrollable than it need be. (Why give a doomsday device sentience if you're also giving it inconsistent logical directives?)
Again and again the Smart Bomb makes threats. Finally, when the Bomb says it's going to explode and kill everybody if Janeway doesn't help it complete its mission, I was thrilled when Janeway said, "Go ahead." It's good to see someone stand up to a bullying bomb.
The concluding dramatics are laid on entirely too heavily, as Harry and the Doc-Bomb get into shouting matches that are supposed to be exciting, I suppose, but really just don't have the punch they aspire to reach. Urgent histrionics just aren't Garrett Wang's specialty, and Robert Picardo's shouting goes overboard into thespian excess. The scene feels stilted rather than strong.
It also doesn't help that the Bomb pulls a complete 180 in the eleventh hour concerning its attitude. For most of the show the Bomb is completely unwilling to access its memory banks to find the truth, then suddenly, it comes to some realization that Violence Is Bad, and checks its memory to find it had been ordered to deactivate years ago. It concludes that it can trust the Voyager crew then cease and desist. Under the story's execution, the Bomb's change of mind is so jarring it simply isn't believable.
Subsequently, the Bomb goes on a suicide mission to destroy several dozen other bombs like itself that have also been floating around. Apparently, these other bombs cannot be reasoned with. Why? Superficially, because of some arbitrary plot point. Dramatically, it's because if these bombs could be reasoned with, we wouldn't have a nice tidy ending, a noble Bomb sacrifice, the satisfaction of our Starfleet philosophies triumphing yet again, and the huge explosion of dozens of bombs as icing on the cake. This is a good example of Trek succumbing to its own narcissism.
I don't mean to sound overly negative, because there are some positive aspects to "Warhead." First of all, I appreciated that it managed to be an ensemble show rather than a run-with-one-character showpiece. It was good that the story teamed up B'Elanna and Harry again, something we haven't seen in awhile. It's also nice to see the writers give Harry something to do (his night-shift command with the junior officers' perspective had an interesting feel to it)—even though, admittedly, the writers have cornered him into forever being the resident dork such that the character might be a lost cause.
What "Warhead" cannot do is sustain the tension. I've seen these Trekkian issues applied so many times through the years that the interest wanes without a fresh approach or a new set of questions. The underlying problem with much of "Warhead" is that the plot lives and dies on the execution of its threats and plot-twist dynamics, little of which are remotely original. As for the Trekkian themes, they're present in abundance: mutual trust, non-violence, cooperation, understanding, sacrifice for the greater good. But they all seem so obvious. It's nice that Star Trek overall still manages to avoid cynicism. But with a story so toothless and transparent, how useful are those themes?
For solid entertainment, not very.
Next week: Season finale. Voyager has an unexpected run-in with another Federation starship. (And this time it's real!)