Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Warhead"

**

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)

Nutshell: Ho-hum.

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!)

Previous episode: Relativity
Next episode: Equinox, Part I

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17 comments on this review

Ken Egervari - Sun, Dec 6, 2009 - 2:43pm (USA Central)
The thing I couldn't understand is why in the hell did they not suspect it was a bomb from the start? I mean, why the hell is the crew so clueless for? Maybe the audience has a good idea because the title of the show is "Warhead"... but come on! The dialog and ignorance of the crew really makes the shows unbelievable and just downright stupid.

I commend the writers for *trying* to move ensign Kim's character forward... but really... why does Harry get all the really, really bad episodes for? Every character episode except for one that he's had has been terrible. The only good one was the time travel one where Voyager got stuck in the ice over the slipstream drive.

And you are right - this episode is just boring. It's all run of the mill, predictable drivel. And some aspects of the show just insult the intelligence of the viewer.
Michael - Mon, Jul 5, 2010 - 10:51am (USA Central)
They leave Harry, the guy who can't get a lock on his shoelaces, in charge of the bridge AND then let him lead an away-mission? You know that just can't POSSIBLY end well.

He screwed up so many times I'd not let him work as a souschef in the mess hall, never mind an ensign on the bridge.

A decent show; 2-2.5 stars is about right.
Firestone - Tue, Aug 10, 2010 - 4:36am (USA Central)
I find it amusing that Voyager apparently always has a nice comfy place in engineering next to that matter-antimatter tube called the warp core, i.e. the heart of the vessel, were to examine unknown, hazardous and explosive objects, e.g. this bomb, the Borg thingy with the virus in it, evil robots, early 7 of 9, etc. Sure, it's a budget saving reason, but what about that nice redress of sickbay were One was born, among others. Was not that the science lab?
Anthony - Sat, Dec 24, 2011 - 8:17am (USA Central)
So many logical inconsistencies in this episode. Did the Bomb-omb Doc say he was not peogrammed to negotiate? Yet he knew what negotiation was.
Justin - Mon, May 7, 2012 - 8:48am (USA Central)
Brannon Braga, the Two-Face of television writers pens another bomb (pun intended).
Adam - Fri, Jul 6, 2012 - 1:13am (USA Central)
Why is ENSIGN Kim in command of the ship at all? From what I can tell the ship command structure consists of a captain, a commander, a lieutenant commander, and a bunch of ensigns. What makes Kim a senior officer over the other ensigns? Why are there no lieutenants (besides Paris being stripped of one of his bars)? Perhaps this is rehashing old complaints, but episode really bothered me in that regard.
Alex - Mon, Sep 10, 2012 - 3:21am (USA Central)
I've skipping some of the low-ranked episodes, but ended up watching this after seeing the teaser, and thought it was an enjoyable episode. The Doc is my one of favorite characters, and this story gave Kim prominent role as well.

I get that this episode rehashes old themes and plot elements, but that's somewhat inevitable and shouldn't matter as much to audiences less familiar with earlier Treks. It also reminded me of "Dreadnought" from the Season 2.
W Smith - Tue, Jul 2, 2013 - 10:28am (USA Central)
Something of a rip-off of Iron Giant but without the emotional payoff. The warhead was so adamant to carry out its mission for the entire episode, and then had a sudden change of mind for really no good reason. Emblematic of Voyager that the writers never wanted to take any chances to do something different, just more derivative cliches.
Jo Jo Meastro - Tue, Jul 2, 2013 - 6:02pm (USA Central)
Completely agree with W Smith, this was one of those episodes which make you question why you still try to remain positive about Voyager. The Iron Giant is a striking, beautiful, organic, touching movie and puts this lifeless lazy dudd to shame.

Even Robert Picardo seems to be phoning it in, I kept forgetting he was supposed to be a whole other entity and not just the Doctor in one of his grumpy moods!
ian - Wed, Aug 7, 2013 - 3:13am (USA Central)
So, nothing is expected to happen on the "night shift?"
Ehhh.....
No "night," in space, just various duty shifts.
Why is it only in episodes such as this that we ever hear from other of the crew? If even for a momement?
azcats - Thu, Aug 8, 2013 - 2:40pm (USA Central)
I still like this episode better than most character studies.
I do agree the doc and the bomb didnt seem much different in personality.
i enjoyed the "night shift," because it is fun when you hear from other crew members. I just assume the night shift is when nothing dangerous or ambassadorial is happening.

it is not like Kim was responsibile for the bomb being on the ship. everyone else agreed. however, i would have transported the bomb back on the planet and destroyed it as soon as i could.

cant believe there was only 10 comments on this. i guess it is not watched much.
Lt. Yarko - Mon, Aug 19, 2013 - 1:44am (USA Central)
If the bomb had been crashed on the planet for a couple of years, why were the other bombs still out in space? Wouldn't they have completed their mission or have been too far away to come back for the crashed one? Especially since the crashed one (and its partner) had to be behind the others so that it received the cancellation message in time to drive itself into the planet. That made no sense to me. At warp speed, they should have been long gone, and why oh why would they be programmed to go find lost ones? They would have had to backtrack for that! This episode was retarded.

I am going to finish watching this series, but at this point, if I were not such a completionist, I would dump out. The most recent episodes have been terrible duds. I never finished watching Enterprise because I simply lost interest. The same thing is happening to me with Voyager at this point.
Chris P - Wed, Feb 5, 2014 - 1:10pm (USA Central)
Ugh. Why did they beam a WMD onto their ship? This is one of the more unforgivably stupid episodes of Voyager. The plot/premise is fundamentally flawed from the outset and is degraded further by character decisions, behavior, and naivete.

For shame. 11:59 and this episode within a three episode stretch makes me sarcastically wonder if they were trying to kill off interest in the series.
Sgt. Steve - Tue, Mar 25, 2014 - 8:04pm (USA Central)
Funny how your reviews almost always are different from my view of the show.

But I guess that may be the difference between somebody who analyses every episode down to it's core where as I just watch the show and hope to be entertained.

@Chris P: They did not know it was a WMD when they beamed it aboard, maybe you should watch the episode again.
Ric - Fri, Apr 25, 2014 - 12:40am (USA Central)
"They leave Harry, the guy who can't get a lock on his shoelaces, in charge of the bridge AND then let him lead an away-mission? You know that just can't POSSIBLY end well"

LOL!

The first 15 minutes of the episode are quite intriguing, with this sort of intriguing idea of an artificial living machine that does not realize it is a machine. I like that. But then it comes the rather odd idea of it being a mass-destruction device.

The question of "deactivating the weaponry is violating the artificial being's essence" certainly had some potential. But in the end it felt so forced and even more artificial than the missile' intelligence. Every attempt to be profound fails. The episode ends up being even a bit silly. And this without accounting the stupidity of the artificial-intelligence-warhead uploading itself to the Doc's body.

Oh yes, sure, I was almost forgetting. What about the often present and always infuriating "we lost the lock to beam it down"? Worse, this old plot trick was again crucial for the overall plot to become possible. Gosh... laziness is back on writers' ship. Hurrah!

Fairly silly episode. The two stars are the most this episode could ever dream of (if it had and AI too). I myself would maybe give a bit less, bur certainly not a cent more.
Charles - Mon, Nov 10, 2014 - 2:18am (USA Central)
"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"

I finally understand your problem, Jammer. You don't like Star Trek. DS9 went as far as possible from what Star Trek (the original series, TNG, Voyager) is. It wasn't about exploration and discovery, it wasn't a utopian future, it reintroduced religion big-time, it was mostly a long-arch story. I liked DS9 and enjoyed it overall (I am actually planning on re-watching it after I'm done with my re-watching of Voyager). But it's not "Star Trek" - it's more like another (very 90s) sci-fi show that uses some elements of the Star Trek universe.

Episodes such as Warhead are what made and make Star Trek what it is. A one-hour episode that tells a story, gives an insight into an alien mind / alien culture, raises a few questions, brings drama and a satisfying resolution. I personally loved it. The questions it raises about artificial intelligence are certainly fascinating - yes AI can be good and can prosper (the doc) but if its programming has so restrictive as warhead's has been, then maybe we have the co-existence of AI (sense of self) and lack of free-will. What does it say about us? About our free-will? About brainwashing?
I also loved when the bomb asked "but did he ever stop being a doctor?". (And people who know m know I'm a staunch supporter of the view that AIs are people).

Anyway, 4 star episode to me.
Robert - Mon, Nov 10, 2014 - 9:09am (USA Central)
I'll disagree with you and Jammer. I think Jammer like Star Trek, but that the franchise should be evolving, not trying to be TOS v3. I didn't want VOY to be DS9 v2, but I didn't want it to be TNG v2 either. I wanted it to try to go it's own way.

That said, this episode is a TERRIBLE one to use as a case study for why Voyager sucks. I liked seeing Harry explore a bit of command (though why he hasn't even made Lt. Jg. yet is beyond me). I liked the parts the entire ensemble played, I thought they really all gelled together here. It wasn't like watching a pale imitation of TOS or TNG. It was just great TV. I'll also give it 4 stars.

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