Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 1/31/2001
Teleplay by Robert Doherty
Story by Mike Sussman & Robert Doherty
Directed by Mike Vejar
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"How do you justify beating a defenseless man?"
"Violence is the only thing he understands."
— Janeway and Yediq
In brief: A reasonably thoughtful, if imperfect, issue episode.
I'm not a death penalty supporter. Such information might be relevant at the outset of this review of "Repentance," which is a Trekkian message show that examines a bizarre death penalty case.
I'm all for the occasional message episode. Earlier in the season we got "Critical Care," a brutal commentary on HMOs. And here we get a fairly even-handed treatment of the death penalty issue.
Well, of course this episode is against the death penalty. In the Federation, there is no death penalty. The supposed last capital offense under Federation law was explained back in TOS's "The Menagerie," but even there it was more like a dramatic contrivance than it was a believable consequence the Federation would be likely to impose.
If memory serves, "Repentance" might very well be the only straightforward death penalty analysis in the Trek canon. It makes its points. It's not particularly subtle, but it's not preachy either.
More than anything, this episode highlights what seems to me a fundamental truth about the death penalty, which is that the issue is more about feelings than it is about logic — maybe especially when it comes to defending the practice. I say this because when society puts someone to death, society is condoning that killing. In such cases there's always a lot of talk about deterrence and justice, but when it comes down to it, it's more about satisfying the victims' (and society's at large) collective emotional need to take as much as can be taken from the worst of offenders, without resorting to outright torture.
In "Repentance," we have the death penalty story with a sci-fi twist. We have a convicted murderer named Iko (Jeff Kober). He's a violent and thoroughly despicable specimen; even behind locked forcefield he makes threats he can't possibly carry out, as if he simply enjoys the idea of terrorizing others.
Iko and several other prisoners are beamed aboard Voyager when a ship transporting the prisoners to the Nygean homeworld to be executed is destroyed in an accident. The ship's warden, Yediq (Tim deZarn), warns Janeway that these dangerous convicts must be kept strictly in line. Janeway, in the interests of cooperation and complying with the Prime Directive, agrees to provide transport to a rendezvous point with another Nygean ship. Prison cells are set up in a cargo bay.
Yediq represents the hard and weary end of law enforcement; he's seen enough convicted murderers to last a lifetime and doesn't believe in kid gloves. When Iko makes a threat aimed at Yediq's children, Yediq and his men beat Iko within an inch of his life. (Janeway subsequently bans them from the cargo bay.)
Doc represents the outspoken anti-death penalty partisan. He finds the whole situation distasteful and essentially says, "Not on my watch," when Seven asks why resources should be spent to save a dying man who is scheduled to die in a few days anyway. Doc needs some of Seven's nanoprobes to repair damage to Iko's brain.
The story's turning point comes when Doc's treatments for Iko have an unexpected side effect: The nanoprobes repair a non-functioning area in Iko's brain which, according to further research, has been non-functional since his birth. It turns out that Iko was essentially born without a conscience. Now he has one. When he comes to, Iko is a very different person. He no longer makes threats; he's peaceful and, most interestingly, wracked with guilt over the murder he committed. He's never felt guilt before, or even close; he finds it overwhelming.
The implications here are interesting, because they raise questions of individual responsibility. Iko was a cold-blooded killer who thrived on terrorizing anyone and everyone (he threatens Janeway for apparently the sheer fun of it). Now he has become almost meekly pacifist. The transformation is nothing short of miraculous, and begs the question: Is this the same man, and does he still deserve to die?
Of course, the inevitable problem with stories like "Repentance" is that they are almost too metaphorical and hypothetical to be genuinely useful as commentary. Iko's very literal development of a conscience is an act of fantasy, not reality. It can be used as a metaphor for the violently mentally ill, perhaps, but it's far too extreme a case to be relative.
In the real world, mentally ill or unstable people also commit crimes. Are they less guilty than those who know full well that their actions are immoral and hurtful? Yes, because crime in our society generally stems from intent as well as from cause and effect. At the same time, we must hold individuals accountable for their crimes, regardless of their state of mind. State of mind is a mitigating factor but not simply an excuse.
Getting back to the death penalty issue, members of the Voyager crew make the case that Iko can now be reformed and that the death sentence is unnecessary. Seven begins to develop a rapport with Iko, whose guilt runs so deep that he says, "I deserve to die," and makes no initial attempt to even delay his forthcoming execution. Many of the Seven/Iko scenes work, featuring an understated sobriety that punctuates Iko's realization of how hurtful his past actions were. Still, I'm not always sure what to make of Jeff Kober's performance, which is flat and emotionless, having effects that range from perfectly appropriately disconnected to inexplicably lobotomized.
One thing that struck me as tired and obvious was the story's tendency to relate the issue to — once again — Seven's guilt over her Borg-life atrocities. The key Seven/Janeway discussion might as well be preceded with a title card that says, "OBVIOUS CHARACTER INSIGHT AHEAD," as Janeway informs Seven that her need to see Iko forgiven for his sins is equivalent to Seven's need to forgive herself for her sins as a Borg drone.
Not only has this gotten a bit old, I'm not so sure the situations are equivalent in a true sense. Seven was at the mercy of a collective where she was but a tiny unwilling participant; Iko was, in the most mitigating interpretation, at the mercy of his own internal pathology. One is clearly more directly responsible than the other.
I also could've done without a ship attacking Voyager, which conveniently sets a few too many plot pieces in motion, including the prisoners escaping the cargo bay and the deactivation of transporters that could restrain them.
On the other hand, I did find Yediq to be a believable character. Not to be mistaken as a needlessly stubborn plot device to butt heads with Janeway, Yediq has a point of view that seems to grow directly from long experience and cynicism, and an affirmed conviction that the system he works within does what it needs to do. Yes, he beats a defenseless prisoner quite brutally, which is wrong, but there's a ring of truth when he says, "Violence is the only thing he understands" (which at the show's outset seems pretty true of Iko). Yediq also is not unreasonable; ultimately he reluctantly agrees to Janeway's request to appeal to the family of Iko's victim.
There's another character here, a convict named Joleg (F.J. Rio) who represents another relevant issue, namely the disproportionate number of minorities on death row. He is a Benkaran, and he explains to the always-sympathetic Neelix how Benkarans are "known" by Nygeans to be criminals, and make up a large percentage of the prison population (and an even larger percentage of death row convicts) even though they only represent 10 percent of the general population. Sound like anything that can be said about the United States?
It's simultaneously truthfully ironic and yet savagely cruel to the larger issue at hand when the story finally reveals Joleg as a pathetic jailhouse liar trying to save his own skin. But because such people exist in the real world, it serves as a sad reflection of reality.
The Nygeans also have a rather strange sentencing policy, in that families of victims decide the punishment for those convicted of a murder. This is another example of something that exists far outside the reality of the issue being dissected, but in terms of the story it demonstrates very clearly (1) how sentencing can create a wide, unfair divide based on numerous personal biases or beliefs, or be influenced by how much money a defendant has available for restitution; and (2) how a victim's family members in a death penalty case are hardly the most objective when it comes to the death penalty issue. It's too easy to confuse revenge and justice when that close to a case; to ask for logic is merely wishful thinking.
Of course, for the story to work, Iko must die. It's wise that the story sees him not as an innocent victim but simply one convict who is sent through a system far larger than himself. He doesn't make excuses for what he did, but he's genuinely sorry. The family is undeterred in their sentencing decision — something that also strikes me as true to life.
Is "Repentance" a great episode? No. But it does make an effort to tackle a serious issue through observation while resisting the temptation of melodrama or sweeping changes. The sci-fi angle involving the nanoprobes is a double-edged sword, astutely highlighting certain arguments while burying others — and thus only further muddying the waters.
But it made me think a little. That's a good thing.
Next week: Klingons in the Delta Quadrant. Naturally.