Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Natural Law"

**

Air date: 5/2/2001
Teleplay by James Kahn
Story by Kenneth Biller & James Kahn
Directed by Terry Windell

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"It's not like you to be on the fence." — Janeway to Seven

In brief: Not unpleasant, but incredibly uneventful and content-free.

With only a few hours of screen time before Voyager closes shop, it seems beyond odd that "Natural Law" is what we get as one of those final hours. Apparently nearly everything that needs to be resolved on this series will be resolved in the two-hour finale, because you'd have no clue we were anywhere near the end of the series based on watching this episode. "Natural Law" — while not off-putting — is astoundingly nondescript, bordering on pointlessness, with a central issue that's barely given enough time to emerge as an issue.

What's on the screen isn't bad per se. But it's easy to avoid wrong-headed scenes when you take a stand on nothing and have virtually no story. There's simply so little on the screen. Most of it is like a documentary of two people walking around a forest and interacting with other people who, apparently, are mutes. "Natural Law" supplies four acts of that kind of setup before delivering a final act of half-hearted arguments that don't seem like they care much at all about taking any sort of stand. Maybe that's because there's simply nothing here to stand on.

We've also got a B-story about Paris getting a speeding ticket in the Delta Flyer and forced into traffic school, where he's the student of a stodgy driving instructor (Neil C. Vipond). Hello? Why is this worthy of screen time? Sure, there's mild amusement to be found in seeing Paris — whose primary character trait through this entire series has always been Ace Pilot — being told by his instructor that he's "on [his] way to becoming an adequate pilot." But this sort of plotting only fuels my argument that Voyager's writers have all these characters and resources at their disposal to tell great stories ... and yet they deliver trivial nonsense like this. Half the Voyager audience could've written this subplot.

The main "plot," such as it is, has Chakotay and Seven crashing their shuttle into a cultural preserve on the planet of the Ledosians. The Ledosians are a space-traveling, technologically advanced society, but inside this preserve is a primitive culture known as the Ventu, who live in isolation. They are protected by a massive energy barrier that was enacted centuries ago by an alien culture to protect the Ventu from the Ledosians, who had begun extending hostilities in an attempt to conquer them. The barrier is tenacious, to say the least; all attempts by the Ledosians to remove it have failed, and the technology continues to operate after centuries of non-maintenance. Find me any technology with that kind of reliability, and I'll buy it, no matter what it does or what it costs.

Most of the show sits and watches while an injured Chakotay tries to communicate with the Ventu while Seven looks for shuttle debris that may aid in her and Chakotay's escape from underneath the energy barrier. The Ventu never speak, and apparently communicate only with sign language. These scenes are palatably handled, sometimes with the aesthetic sense of silent cinema, but there's not much content behind them. They exist as atmosphere under the "seek out new civilizations" clause of the Trekkian mantra. And that's really all there is to the episode.

I might be willing to deal with four acts of repetition if the final act went somewhere interesting. It doesn't. Seven devises a way to bring down the energy barrier so she and Chakotay can be beamed out, but this allows the Ledosians to promptly send in research teams to study the Ventu. The Ledosians, it would seem, now intend to assimilate the Ventu into mainstream society. The question is whether or not that's a good thing. The Ventu, while primitive, are a resourceful bunch with a respect for the land, and a living piece of history.

The episode sees this as a Prime Directive issue (which is, of course, a Trek cliche), and Janeway's ruling is that the technology that's keeping the energy barrier deactivated must be removed since it belongs to Voyager. Sensible enough, but there's no real argument or debate here that exposes any intriguing angle or issue; it's addressed in about 60 seconds and the story marches on. For something that's supposed to be at its core, the story sure doesn't seem to care one way or the other. (Eventually the script has the Ledosians attack Voyager, which proves the writers ran out of ideas.)

The irony, of course, is that the energy barrier itself was created by aliens who didn't have their own Prime Directive type of policy; they interfered by stopping the Ledosians from attacking a culture on their own world. This is an irony the story apparently doesn't even recognize. Honestly, I'm not sure what the point of any of this is supposed to be.

The pleasant saving grace in "Natural Law" is in the way the story depicts our characters' interaction with the Ventu. Chakotay's attempts to communicate are patient and sincere — as is Terry Windell's direction over these scenes — and the reference to Chakotay's anthropological background is welcome. Even Seven, initially unmoved, ultimately can't help but deny that the Ventu are fascinating people, even if they do not have any sort of technological understanding.

But as for the story, this review would be remiss if not to ask: What story?

Next week: Farewell, Neelix...

Previous episode: Friendship One
Next episode: Homestead

Season Index

21 comments on this review

EP - Tue, Mar 10, 2009 - 11:01pm (USA Central)
Eh...I'll still take one of these anthropological Treks over anything like "Spirit Folk" or "Fair Haven" any day of the week.

Although it was terribly out of character for Seven to be kind to the offer of the Ventu's gift of the blanket, it was nice to see, all the same.
Simon - Wed, Sep 30, 2009 - 3:00pm (USA Central)
Another badly-handled Voyager episode that tries to ignore the ethical issues it raises, preferring to make rather simplistic assumptions. Most prominent is the almost complete lack of consideration of the impact on the Ventu - is it better to preserve a way of life at the likely expense of avoidable suffering of the individuals? (how many of us would like to try surviving a stone age lifestyle, and would escape it if we could?) Parallel with that is the apparently automatic assumption that the Ledosians are completely in the wrong, and it seems deliberately written to portray them as being so.

This could've made an interesting episode in the middle of Voayger's run if it was much better written. As it was, and at the time, the two stars are deserved. It's enough to make me wonder if they'd gone with a script written for an earlier season.
Jason - Mon, Apr 26, 2010 - 5:31am (USA Central)
"Chakotay Goes Native (again)"

It's a wonder Big Chief Running Sore Chucky stayed with Voyager for 7 years - He's always bigging-up people in loin-cloths and the like.

In a word - BORING
Michael - Wed, Jul 21, 2010 - 9:10am (USA Central)
^^ hehehehehe Jason

But, but, but... Acoushla Moya is perfect! He is (1) a Native American - satisfying the "token minority" requirement, (2) into spirits, meditation, yoga and all that bullshit - satisfying the New Agey neo-religious "enlightened" requirement, and (3) sensitive and principled (except when it suits the plot to pad the episode with a few minutes of perfunctory tiff with Janeway about something trivial), but (4) manly and bold, in a true Native American way, when circumstance call for it. He's perfect!

Honestly, I didn't mind him most of the time though never found him to be much of a protagonist. But when he would start that mystic meditation crap ("Acoushla Moya, we are far away from the plains of the buffalo") or when he'd begin holding forth about cultural/developmental relativity (wearing a loincloth is just as "valid," if not even more so, than carrying a tricorder), I really felt like daisy-cutting him.

He's been pretty much a nonentity, though not quite to the extent of, say, Harry "Can't-Get-A-Lock" Kim. LOL!!

As far as the episode: Unremarkable in every respect. O.K. and watchable but too "native," cliched and inconsequential.
Elliott - Thu, Aug 12, 2010 - 5:02am (USA Central)
For me, the underlying purpose of this story is to help connect the dots between Chakotay and Seven : In "Unity," Chakotay is simultaneously given privy to a collective consciousness and a sexual memory of it; in "Scorpion," it is he who invades Seven's human mind to distract her from her Borg imperative, and is the first to see her human past. Because he possesses qualities so foreign to her, spirituality, patience, platitude, we see some conflict between them, "One Small Step," and finally, we have seen how naturally this conflict has given rise to a crush "Human Error." All of this will culminate beautifully in the series finale. Seven has the chance to admire in practice the virtues of Chakotay's character and he has the opportunity to see a long-dormant side of her which is in many ways more human than even "Unimatrix Zero." Nothing could top the Torres/Paris love story to be sure, but as a much more subdued and interwoven thread, this is a necessary puzzle piece in their story. Also, the larger story pits the culture war of the Ventu's planet as a macrocosm of the cultural tension between Seven and Chakotay--which in their case is also sexual tension. The B plot with Paris and the drivers' training was pretty stupid if vaguely funny. Points off for that nonsense.
Procyon - Thu, Nov 4, 2010 - 6:06pm (USA Central)
I somewhat agree with all the criticism this episode gets, yet I still found it pleasant, and I was never bored. I would much rather watch this one again than "Friendship one". I'll take indigenous mutes any day over crass and irrational morons.

If this show was rated purely by watchability, logic dictates that this is a three star show, since "Friendship one" got two and a half stars.
Cloudane - Mon, Apr 11, 2011 - 1:12pm (USA Central)
I found this more "quiet" than "uneventful" but the line can be pretty narrow.

It was no "Darmok" but their way of communication was interesting and different enough to make Chakotay's interaction with them worth watching.

Less developed but very pleasant cultures are one of the older Trek staples seen more in TNG, and I have always liked those when used well. Here there was little in the way of "use" for them but I felt drawn in to the endearment that even Seven got into with them. It was just very pleasant really, a change from all the usual Delta Quadrant hostiles.

Perhaps it's the benefit of hindsight (knowing that Voyager is the last we'll see of the 24th Century Trek universe, aside from Nemesis) but I appreciated such a quiet and subtle look at the Prime Directive and general spirit of the era before it ends.

As for the B plot, yeah fairly pointless, though I have to admit as predictable as it was (extremely), I got a kick out of Paris having to put his foot down and have the instructor clinging to something :)

Erh, 2.5-3 stars in my world. FAR from action packed, but very pleasant and Trekky so I have to hand it that.
Paul York - Sat, May 12, 2012 - 5:04am (USA Central)
Jammer: "The irony, of course, is that the energy barrier itself was created by aliens who didn't have their own Prime Directive type of policy; they interfered by stopping the Ledosians from attacking a culture on their own world. This is an irony the story apparently doesn't even recognize. Honestly, I'm not sure what the point of any of this is supposed to be."

Actually the Prime Directive was created to protect primitive societies from industrial societies, not safeguard presumptuous claims of ownership over resources and lands and subjugated peoples. Thus the aliens in fact do recognize and respect the intent of the Prime Directive in this case, and the point of the episode is to challenge the arrogance of those who presume that more complex technology equals superiority -- Seven assumed this and she was proven wrong through her experience. Colonialism has always asserted itself through resource extraction and "study" by anthropologists or conversion by missionaries or assimilation by those who want to bring "progress" to indigenous peoples. The episode is a morality tale against colonization and destruction of wilderness. The aliens and Voyager were enlightened; the technological society of that world was not. Voyager protected the Prime Directive by not allowing them to usurp and exploit the natives and the wilderness. It's unfortunate that Earth's remaining wilderness areas could not be protected by an unassailable energy field like the one shown in this episode.
duhknees - Thu, Aug 2, 2012 - 12:29pm (USA Central)
I used to consistently defend Voyager episodes, but this one was hard to take. I want endings, resolutions, not recycled faux native cultures. I groaned every time I heard the wood flute, knowing they were once again reducing Chakotay to a cliche. Prime deflective.
Tiarfe - Sun, Oct 7, 2012 - 4:33pm (USA Central)
Even though I completely agree with what Elliott stated this episode was a little boring for me because I did not sense any chemistry between Seven and Chakotay. I try to use my imagination and pretend there is chemistry for the plot's sake but as a couple they are so boring.

ProgHead777 - Tue, Jul 2, 2013 - 3:59am (USA Central)
I was intrigued by the depiction of the "primitive" culture but I agree that plot seemed to be treading water for most of the episode. The missed opportunity to explore the complexities of the Prime Directive is disappointing.
Leah - Mon, Jul 22, 2013 - 2:02pm (USA Central)
Meh. Yeah, not the kind of episode that should be so near the end.
azcats - Tue, Sep 3, 2013 - 9:46am (USA Central)
the lack of comments shows the lack of excitment that this episode generated.

i agree with michael.

1.5-2 stars.
DPC - Fri, Oct 4, 2013 - 8:19pm (USA Central)
Definitely siding with EP on this one... and this episode, clunker or not, is far better than "Jusice" (the TNG episode with the Edo and magical god thing that protects them and is never explained... at least "Natural Law" didn't borrow other aspects from that story...)

I just saw this episode for the first time.

It has potential, it's conceptually true for TREK, but the slow pacing - which feels natural and right for the story - somehow doesn't work.

Janeway applauds Chakotay at the end, even though what he and Seven did violated the prime directive (a law that Janeway would sternly upheld in the past and still does by and large).

Tom Paris' subplot may have helped the story's pacing if his scenes were more evenly spaced.

It's unfortunate that the primitive race was protected by a force field that never gets explained (e.g. motivations for it being put there to begin with.)

It's awesome how Chakotay and Seven work together, but even better is when he questions her reasoning - since she was brought into a more technologically advanced collective but later separated from it.

And the more advanced race - it's a little heavyhanded that they come across like typical European venture capitalists. Ironically, that aspect hasn't dated and feels far more creepy in 2013 than it did in 2001. But it's still heavyhanded (but most drama is.)

So much potential yet so ultimately shallow a story.

Paul York's comment is pretty great as well - to protect from more industrialized nations (or all involved to some level, technically.) It's similar to the concept of a republic style government - where the minority can be protected against the majority.
Jo Jo Meastro - Sun, Oct 20, 2013 - 8:05am (USA Central)
The only saving graces here are the impressive visuals, the nice bonding between Seven and pure raw nature woven with subtle hints of a Chakotay romance bubbling beneath the surface, and the pleasant depiction of a primitive alien society.

Other than that though; it's all a bland retread of what we've seen before. It only further grinds Chakotay down to a one-note, boring, under-written character despite his likably gentle nature.

The whole story just doesn't flow very well, which has a devastating impact on such a bare-boned plot. One too many times I found myself looking at my watch and yawning.

If there had been more firey or indepth interactions between Chakotay and Seven along with an unusual twist to the material (for example have monologue webcam-style personal recordings from both of them privately airing their most guarded feelings and thoughts scattered throughout); it might have really brought it to life.

But as it is, it was hardly worth the time.

A bland 2 stars is about right.
Nick - Thu, Feb 6, 2014 - 2:59pm (USA Central)
As it was written, this episode was incredibly insipid, so I completely agree with most people here.

What could have given this tale a little more oomph would have been a fleshing out of WHY the ancient aliens decided to protect these native people's from the dangers of 'progress'...Star Trek waded into this territory with The Paradise Syndrome - wherein the ancient benevolent aliens constructed an asteroid defense system for the natives. Rather incredible to consider a classic Trek from the 60's had more plot layers than this updated version. There moral impetus for Janeway to 'preserve', or rather condemn the natives in their state of perpetual ignorance is presumptive at best and an abuse of the Prime Directive at worst.

Considering all the damage Janeway has wrought while interfering with dozens of species, as the Federation inexorably expands further into the delta quadrant, they will have many unintended crimes and consequences to answer for.

Basically, the episode was a wasted opportunity for something more profound. 1/5.
Amanda - Fri, Feb 14, 2014 - 11:03pm (USA Central)
Leave it to our crappy writer's to put chakotay with a strong female opposite alone and trapped on a planet to force a romance yet again. Maybe Janeway shoulda had him sign a sex permission slip right along with harry in episode Disease.
Steinway - Sun, Mar 2, 2014 - 3:57pm (USA Central)
Not too much more to say that hasn't been said, but I did like the twist at the end (with the civilized aliens encroaching on the primitives) and how Seven came to realize there was a beauty and simplicity to them that challenged her presumptions.

For a Trekkie, I'm terribly skeptical of technology and feel that it brings a lot of harm (along with, undeniably, a lot of good) and that it's right to examine whether we are better off with or without. There were hints of that theme in this episode, and I appreciated that.

It was pleasant enough, but not what I'm wanting in the home stretch of the series. That really bothers me—so little of the last 10, or even 5, episodes, had anything to do with wrapping up the series (I would say that only "Homestead" did, and only for one character).
Sean - Wed, Aug 13, 2014 - 2:48pm (USA Central)
This episode reminded me of Doctor Who's first story: An Unearthly Child. This episode isn't any good for the same reason that one isn't. Watching indigenous people run around being all primitive is not fun much less interesting. And watching our characters pal around with them is pretty dull. Since we all know how this is going to go.

Also Borg don't trip.
navamske - Sun, Oct 12, 2014 - 7:35pm (USA Central)
I agree with duhknees: The whistle-y Indian music was annoying and unnecessary. Every time I heard it I felt as if the writers were saying, "See, the Ventu are a metaphor for Native Americans. Get it? GET IT?"
Capitalist - Fri, Nov 21, 2014 - 11:11am (USA Central)
Sean - "Also Borg don't trip."

Thank you!! That whole scene took me right out of the episode (not that there was much going on there anyway).

We see Seven tripping, hair all disheveled, falling on her face, dropping the tricorder, sitting on a rock looking all forlorn and shivering...

Really? REALLY???!!!!

Is she a teenage valley girl lost in the woods or a freakin' BORG?? They made the best badass on the series look like a damp dishrag. Talk about lack of character consistency.

K, I'm over it now.

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