Nutshell: The message might be as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it's also sincere and ultimately quite poignant.
There are moments during "One Small Step" when you can almost hear the writers screaming in the background: "Look! See? This is what Star Trek is about!" Yes, we understand, loud and clear.
Okay, so subtlety isn't this episode's strong suit. You can tell the people who made it were trying very hard for it to add up to something worthwhile. The under-the-surface projected self-aware sentimentality is abundantly evident.
Big deal. "One Small Step" is still a quality hour of Trek with some poignant, emotional moments and a solid story. It might not exhibit the most original themes ever scribed, but so what? It's sincere and well presented. I liked it. It says something. It means something. It shows evidence of knowing what Star Trek is about.
After last week's "Dragon's Teeth," which had a plot that obliviously steamrollered right over moral issues without any regard for (or awareness of) them, this episode is refreshing in that it stops to consider what it's about. It has dialog instead of mindless action, and it's actually about exploration.
In many ways, "One Small Step" is an episode that argues (from a thinly guised 20th century perspective) the necessity of a continued, expanding space program. These days, manned space missions seem to be covering well-traveled ground. Sure, the scientific analysis and technological advances are beneficial, but the question, I think, is when the next "great voyage" into space will begin. The moon missions were a towering achievement requiring great risk and human and financial expense. The new question: When will we go to Mars?
"One Small Step" is not of the same dramatic caliber as, say, Ron Howard's Apollo 13, but as an episode of Voyager it does some interesting things. It frames its questions within the terms of the usual Voyager plot formula. The formula itself isn't captivating per se (space anomalies, crew members in jeopardy, etc.), but the addition of the human questions of exploration makes all the difference in the world. Lesson of the week: Routine anomalies and jeopardy premises can work just fine when they're part of a bigger purpose.
October 19, 2032: Ares IV, one of NASA's early manned missions to Mars, is a partial success. Astronauts have landed on the surface while a single pilot, Lt. John Kelley (Phil Morris, whose last Trek appearance was in DS9's "Rocks and Shoals," where he portrayed the most understandable Jem'Hadar soldier of all time) maintains orbit. Suddenly a bizarre anomaly appears out of nowhere and swallows the craft. ("Mankind's first encounter with a spatial anomaly," Tuvok notes upon reviewing the history. It was obviously not to be the last.) The 21st century would never hear from Kelley again and would presume him dead. Weeks later, an emergency mission would rescue the marooned astronauts.
Three centuries later, Voyager happens upon the same anomaly, which emerges from subspace unexpectedly. It's an exceptionally rare phenomenon, known as a "graviton ellipse," which travels through subspace and emerges periodically (every few centuries). It's well worth studying, so the history research begins: How old is this phenomenon, and is it the same anomaly that swallowed the Mars orbiter?
Well, of course it's the same anomaly, otherwise we wouldn't be able to so literally join 300-year-old history with the current storyline. Naturally, I must point out that the chances of Voyager being in the right time and place to encounter this anomaly—the very same anomaly that swallowed a human-built spacecraft 300 years earlier halfway across the galaxy—has probably got to be approximately several quintillion to one. But no matter—this is fiction and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief given the strength of the underlying sentiments.
From a character standpoint, the show is mainly about Seven and Chakotay, with some Janeway sentiments thrown in for good measure. Chakotay is revealed as the story's honorary paleontologist, claiming such study was his first passion before "responsibility" forced him into Starfleet and the Maquis. With Paris and Seven comprising his away team, Chakotay volunteers to lead a Delta Flyer mission into the ellipse in hopes of retrieving the remains of the Mars orbiter (which, by the way, is not suspended in time; it's been sitting for three centuries and that means three centuries). While we haven't seen this aspect of Chakotay taken so far in the past, it does strike me as reasonable; he's a guy who has shown interest in legends and history.
Seven provides the counterpoint to Chakotay's earnest interest in the past, offering up such notions as "history is irrelevant." She doesn't understand why the crew would take on a dangerous mission for what she perceives as purely sentimental reasons. When she questions the sentiment, Janeway encourages Seven to volunteer for the salvage mission. After all, she might learn something from the experience.
I wonder if Seven was maybe written a little too strongly in the opposing position. Given all she knows, the notion of her believing "history is irrelevant" seems a little extreme, even for Seven. And given all she has learned in the past, it seemed a little bit like the writers turned back the clock somewhat and wrote Seven for the benefit of those who haven't been watching the past two years. It wasn't exactly out of character, but let's just say that if you've never seen Voyager before, you'll still instantly understand that Seven is the newest character who will be learning all the human lessons here.
So the Delta Flyer enters the graviton ellipse to search for Kelley's spacecraft. When they find it, it's an awe-filled moment where we see characters coming face to face with history, uncovering it with their own eyes. That's a big part of "One Small Step's" appeal; it's about the thrill of exploration and discovery. One of this series' biggest shortcomings is that it usually lacks that thrill, because what we find in the Delta Quadrant is rarely new or unique. But, for once, here's a spatial anomaly that isn't just something that will threaten the ship. It's like a floating galactic museum, filled with relics that are literally billions of years old. The ellipse itself is one of the oldest things a starship has ever encountered, perhaps not much younger than the universe itself. Chakotay says he could spend the rest of his life studying it. I believe him.
This story, of course, would not be complete without something in the mission going very wrong. What's nice is that what goes wrong can be attributed to human judgment error rather than arbitrary contrivance. The tech aspects of the plot, for once, don't impede the drama. The way the ellipse is attracted to objects that emit electromagnetic energy seems believable, and the script doesn't resort to technobabble excess. There's a plausible change in the ellipse's course, which sets in motion the bigger problem: an imminent collision with an asteroid that will cause severe turbulence in the ellipse that could damage the Flyer. This leads to the moment of human error, where Chakotay refuses to leave the ellipse without bringing the Mars spacecraft in tow, which slows them down enough that the likelihood of escape is decreased. It's a close call that Chakotay loses, and as a result the Flyer is damaged so severely as to prevent escape from the ellipse altogether, putting the away team in danger.
I particularly enjoyed the resulting Chakotay/Seven interaction. It's a character pair-up that we don't often see, and the dynamic proves to be a good one. Chakotay made a mistake, and Seven lets him have it in a scene where she's clearly angry at the commander for his following a sentimental "obsession." Seven's anger is understandable; she didn't want to be on this mission in the first place, let alone die for it. But Seven is overlooking the greater importance of the mission, and one can hardly blame Chakotay for his calculated risk. Given the importance of the discovery, you don't just give up on something like this when it's just within your clutches. I'd say Chakotay barely even had a choice. "Obsession" is too a strong word. He wanted to preserve a piece of history, almost had it, but lost on the roll of the dice.
So next it becomes a race against the clock: The Delta Flyer team must figure out how to repair the engines before the ellipse returns to subspace while they're still trapped inside. The only viable option is to beam over and salvage a component from the Mars orbiter and adapt it for use in the Flyer. With Chakotay injured and Paris needed as the expert pilot, the retrieval mission falls upon Seven.
Ultimately, the hardware aspects of the plot really aren't that important (although, because of the character interaction these scenes are more involving than a plot of this type usually is). What's important is how this all fits in with Lt. Kelley's 2032 mission. Kelley was not killed upon impact as was believed at the time. While Seven is working to retrieve the module, she plays Kelley's logs, which include recordings from after he entered the ellipse. (One wonders if so much of the equipment on board the orbiter would still work so well after being frozen for 300 years, but I won't be a stickler.)
Kelley's experience in the orbiter spanned several days. He explored the phenomenon that swallowed him, and through that exploration he came upon perhaps some of the biggest possible discoveries of the time, including proof of other intelligent life in the universe. Ironically, these discoveries wouldn't see the light of day for another 300 years. It became clear to Kelley he would not be able to escape the ellipse, but I particularly liked the writers' notion that he didn't consider the mission a failure—that "What I've seen proves we were right to come out here."
Watching Seven's gradual change in attitude as she views Kelley's logs reveals an uplifting poignancy, as if for the first time she understands the concept of a true explorer and hero. (And I liked that Jeri Ryan conveyed this change in attitude without a single line of dialog.) People like Kelley and the other Mars landers paved the way for greater things by forging ahead through the uncertain at great risk.
Even given the technology advances since the moon missions, it's hard to imagine that a manned mission to Mars could be anything short of extremely difficult and risky. Just as Apollo 13 showed us, there are any number of things that could go wrong with technology and machinery—which might be reliable but is definitely not infallible—and one small problem can start the domino effect of disaster. In the Star Trek universe, we're shown interstellar space travel as an aspect of life that's nearly as routine as, say, driving a car is today. If there's one thing "One Small Step" seems to realize, as Paris notes in one early scene, it's that space travel in the 20th and 21st centuries was anything but routine. The dangers were real and the unknowns were real. Even if a spatial anomaly didn't swallow you up, you were still alone, at the mercy of your technology. The space travelers of the 24th century have it easy by comparison.
There is no doubt "One Small Step" has a reverence for the space program and the astronauts who brave it. The message isn't subtle. But it is fairly inspiring. In Trek we take space travel for granted, and, especially with Voyager and its magical indestructibility, it has become easy to get jaded even though we're supposedly exploring the dangerous vastness of the other side of the galaxy. This is an episode that breaks free and explores the idea of what it means to be traveling that "final frontier" with no expectations. By turning back the clock and exploring Kelley's mission, we and the Voyager crew are able to make first-time discoveries of things that this fictional universe has long since accepted as routine. That's a sentiment I find well worth an hour.
Next week: The REAL reason Voyager is in the Delta Quadrant. (Paging Chris Carter...)