Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 2/2/2000
Teleplay by Robin Burger
Story by Brannon Braga
Directed by Allan Kroeker
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"Guilt can be a difficult but useful emotion." — Seven
Nutshell: Genuine Star Trek attitudes. A good premise and some interesting messages presented, though sometimes a bit too obviously.
While watching Voyager's "Memorial," it occurred to me that the message behind the episode wasn't really behind the episode. It was right up front, decidedly obvious, where there could be no chance to make a mistake about it. It's not about subtlety. When the payoff arrives, characters argue the moral lessons for the audience's benefit in search of the Greater Meaning. It's the classic Star Trek approach: The science-fiction device is a means to a lesson's end.
Now to go off on a tangent, an interesting comparison comes to mind. Law & Order, perhaps the most visible and accessible (and best) issue-oriented show on the airwaves right now, is based on an approach that is in contrast to the typical Trek approach. The characters fighting the battles on Law & Order do so strictly in terms of their jobs. The morality takes its place behind a routine pragmatism that sort of envelops the entire show in a low-key attitude.
In fact, in my opinion, the weakest episode of Law & Order this season ("Sundown," if you care) suffered in part because its characters ventured into a weirdly unnatural soapbox preaching that seemed to be coming from the writers' mouths and not the characters.
But we're used to Star Trek using its characters as mouthpieces for social commentary—even when the Greater Meaning is only thinly disguised as inter-character dialog. Trek wears its morality on its sleeve. That's part of what makes it what it is. As a result, Voyager can get away with the way-up-front nature of dialog that characterizes episodes like "Memorial."
To be sure, I liked "Memorial," mostly because of one key moment that seemed vividly powerful, but also because the episode is pretty solid throughout (though not groundbreaking).
One aspect that stands out about "Memorial" is that it's a true ensemble piece. Tuvok didn't have much in terms of crucial actions or dialog, but virtually everyone else did—and that's reassuring. As an example of utilizing the entire cast and utilizing them fairly well, this episode is probably the best attempt yet this season. The Torres/Paris relationship in particular seemed well-written, with a nice balance of affection and routine. (Another idea I liked was Paris' quarters being filled with furniture from the 1950s. We need more little character nuances like that on Voyager.)
The story's initial focus is on a Delta Flyer team consisting of Chakotay, Paris, Kim, and Neelix, who have spent the past two weeks on a scout mission cataloging planets. (This week's Harry Kim insight: Don't be near him when the creature comforts go off-line. He's a bear.) They return to Voyager and apparent business as usual, but then weird things starting happening in their minds. They begin having post-war-like flashbacks and hallucinations. Paris' reality is skewed and he somehow finds himself fighting a battle, seemingly while inside a 1950s TV set (don't ask). Kim suffers from claustrophobia and exhaustion. Neelix pulls a phaser in the galley when he believes soldiers are descending upon Naomi Wildman (don't ask). In the simplest of the examples, Chakotay has bad dreams.
All these flashbacks share the same elements, what appear to comprise a battleground with people running and screaming and phasers firing. What happened during the away mission? Were the away team's memories altered in some way? Are there stars in outer space?
The more useful questions, of course, are why and how these latent memories got into these characters' heads, why they've suddenly resurfaced, and whether the remembered events actually happened. The memories depict a violent showdown, which at first unfolds for the audience through numerous quick isolated pieces. The chaos slowly becomes more clear, until the characters' subconscious memories become fully conscious, at which point we in the audience come to realize the gravity of the situation. The violent showdown was nothing less than a massacre, where an armed military unit wiped out an unarmed civilian group following a murky misunderstanding that is wisely never made clear.
The mission was to relocate a civilian group as part of a larger military operation. But something went wrong, someone opened fire, and once people starting running, the situation took on a life of its own. Ultimately, all 82 civilians were dead at the hands of the military unit.
For the most part, Robin Burger's script and the direction under Allan Kroeker works well. The way the story uncovers pieces of the puzzle through skewed reality is effectively psychologically jarring. And there's something about the actual depiction of the massacre that strikes me as believable; it demonstrates how intentions can go very wrong, and how a volatile situation can instantaneously seem to render individual responsibility irrelevant, at a moment when it should be more relevant than anything.
The question for our Voyager crew members is whether they actually participated in this massacre as they believe they have. Memory alteration is not new in the Trek universe, so the possibility exists that none of what happened was real.
The search for the truth is what encompasses the middle stages of the episode, as Voyager retraces the Delta Flyer's mission, hoping to find the actual site of the massacre. The search is more or less routine, but competently executed. It takes a back seat to the effects these memories have on our characters, who are riddled with guilt and psychological torment. Some of the exposition on guilt works well, although some of it isn't very fresh. As the ship nears the planet in question, more members of the crew start experiencing the memories, which sets off alarms in those of us with onboard plot computers, or even in those of us without.
Really, the major revelation that explains everything going on here is not unexpected, especially given the title of the episode, which practically serves as a dead giveaway. What's interesting, though, is that even once we see where the story is going, the impact of the payoff isn't lessened. The story is about the crew making right with what they believe they've experienced, not about being a mystery for the audience to solve.
As such, I thought the moment when Janeway and Chakotay finally found the monument was very powerful. It's a moment that clicks because it knows the audience understands what's going on, and we see the moment of the crew's discovery. Visually, it's impressive because we see this 300-year-old monument standing on the location where our characters were so recently participants in (and we the audience the witnesses to) the actual event. It provides a good connection between the past and present in a weirdly visually psychologically cinematic way—it's effectively unsettling and poignant.
And yet, maybe the story doesn't understand the effectiveness of that moment as much as it initially seems to. We go to commercial break and come back, at which point we have Janeway and Chakotay studying the monument inscriptions in astrometrics, eventually cueing Janeway to say, "It's a memorial." Well, duh. (Me to Janeway: Are you and your crew a bunch of idiots, or do you just assume we in the audience are?) The old adage of "show, don't tell" should apply here, but "Memorial" seems to prefer showing and telling.
But like I said, this is Trek, where lessons are worn on the sleeve, and this final act is a decent example of that mindset. The question becomes what to do with the memorial, a device that beams memories of the dark event directly into the brains of passers-by, in the hopes that the event will be fully understood and never repeated.
Most of the characters want to deactivate it. Why be forced to relive an atrocity you weren't responsible for committing? Interestingly, Neelix vehemently argues in favor of not deactivating it, saying that doing so would be an affront to the honor of those who died. Using Neelix here is an idea that rings true and remembers him as a more dimensional character than the series often does; this is, after all, a guy who was in a war on his home planet years ago.
Janeway agrees with Neelix, and her solution displays a Trekkian conscience for a greater historical purpose, but I hesitate at the way her decision here plays. Here we have all of Janeway's officers (except Neelix) arguing against repairing the memorial, and Janeway steps in with one of her patented What Janeway Says Goes decisions. It seems a bit too arbitrary. The arguments are potentially interesting, but they seem prematurely laid to rest. And Janeway's decision doesn't entirely sit right—nor do the rest of the crew's arguments for deactivating it. Janeway comes off as the story's arbitrarily mandated supreme moral compass. (The idea of putting a warning beacon in orbit made a lot of sense, though.) The ending works to some degree, but not completely.
As far as performances go, there's an abundance of yelling in "Memorial"—maybe a bit too much. There's a fine line between acting and overacting—between moments when we believe characters are under extreme pressure and moments when we suspect actors are unleashing lines under a pay-per-decibel contract. "Memorial" walks that line numerous times in the course of the hour. There's no egregiously unconvincing overacting, but there's also that stylized sense, like when Tom screams at B'Elanna or when Harry freaks out in the conference room.
I liked this episode. It's in the tradition of classic Trek. But it also makes me wonder: Might less have been more?
Next week: SEVEN VS. THE ROCK. Winner takes all. Viewers brace for impact. Will you SURVIVE? Find out on "Voyager Smackdown!"
Trailer commentary: On a scale of 1 to 10, the "Tsunkatse" promo gets an 11 for over-the-top-ness. Oh well—it will undoubtedly be the season's highest-rated show.