Nutshell: Schlocky is as schlocky does.
The last thing I expected from "Bride of Chaotica!" was for it to come off as routine. I mean, it's a throwback to the 1940s serials, shot in black and white, and the title even contains an exclamation mark, for heaven's sake. How can you have a title with an exclamation mark for an episode that plays itself nearly as straight as any other standard offering?
Simple style aesthetics and common sense insist that I write the title of this show "Bride of Chaotica!" Even so, I tend to think that the idea behind this episode was "BRIDE OF CHAOTICA!" The intentions behind what would warrant a cheerful, all-uppercase assault are clearly present. Unfortunately, the net result of this offering can never muster anything that deserves more than "Bride of Chaotica!" or perhaps just "Bride of Chaotica" sans exclamation mark.
Episodes like this one tear down that cinematic "fourth wall" in our minds. We're aware that this isn't a story being told so much as a meditation on much older cinema. The point of the episode is to show the cast and crew of Voyager paying homage to an idea, perhaps so we'll experience vicariously the fun they had in making an unconventional installment.
Well, I'm all for it. I loved the self-referential humor of "Trials and Tribble-ations" and got a great deal of enjoyment out of other holodeck comedies/spoofs like "Our Man Bashir" and "Take Me Out to the Holosuite." And although I'm no expert on 1940s serials, I am familiar with them, and they do appeal to my enjoyment of schlocky cinema: I've seen all 12 chapters of "King of the Rocket Men," and I still enjoy an occasional episode of MST3K on the Sci-Fi Channel.
All of which is why I find it so hard to believe "Bride of Chaotica!" struck me as so flat. What went wrong?
Well, to be an optimist, I'll first answer the question of what went right.
Item #1: A workable nod to the 20th century. Tom's been a history buff of sorts, even if he tends to look at old cars and entertainment as history in a more superficial and playful context (as opposed to, for instance, Sisko, who took interest in the 21st century for what was decidedly more socially relevant reasons). Old sci-fi is, like I said, something that might serve as a good source of juxtaposition for Trek in the '90s.
Item #2: Shot mostly in black and white. This was a good idea back when the Captain Proton holo-program first appeared in "Night," and it still is.
Item #3: Flawless re-creation. Although I'll admit that it looks like a lot of money went into some of the Captain Proton sets (which certainly wasn't the case with serials), the production team did a great job with props, costumes, and art design to make the setting look as cheesy as it should've. David Bell's tinny, bass-free score is also perfectly appropriate.
Unfortunately, the writing staff just couldn't trust the audience to enjoy the concept on its own terms. (It's the same sort of attitude that required a holodeck jeopardy premise be made out of "Worst Case Scenario," a story that would've stood just fine on its own.) Fuller and Taylor felt compelled to merge Captain Proton with a technobabble plot—which would've been okay if done carefully. But "Bride of Chaotica!" makes a fatal mistake by taking itself—and especially its tech plot—too seriously.
One could probably argue similarly about the crew-in-jeopardy setup of "Our Man Bashir," but the difference is that "Bashir" had the ability to embrace its own silliness and just go with the flow. Something about "Chaotica" just can't pick itself up and break free. The tech plot becomes a huge liability.
And about the technobabble—it's the epitome of annoyingly arbitrary Voyager technical gobbledygook. The basic premise is okay—Voyager is visited by aliens who exist as "photonic" (i.e., holographic) life forms, who mistake Tom's program for an actual planet. The idea could've been compelling if the aliens were permitted to have a more interesting and substantive perspective in this dilemma, which, alas, they aren't.
But all the flab concerning the ship being stuck in space and trapped by gravimetric forces (or whatever)—who freakin' cares? Not me. And I wouldn't have let it get in the way of my enjoying the rest of the episode if it weren't for the fact there's so much of it. Every time the episode seems to be building its momentum in the holodeck's black-and-white sessions, along comes color and technobabble to interrupt the flow.
What's particularly funny to note is that the "actual" plot of this episode is about as schlocky as the Captain Proton story; it's just more updated schlock. Unfortunately, the writers didn't seem to notice the fact enough to parody it. They simply present it as straight as any other Day at the Office.
And yet, these complaints would've been irrelevant if the holodeck games would've been hilarious. Simply put: They aren't. What this episode sets out to do is all too rarely realized. The gags are surprisingly tame.
As I watched this episode, I realized that what they did here was not easy. The careful mimicking, the attention to detail—all expertly done (Kroeker deserves kudos for the directorial effort). But what's missing is pure enjoyment and exhilaration. This episode never quite takes off. I wasn't laughing much. Occasionally I was chuckling. Some of the gags are perceptive, but they don't dare to be brashly satirical. The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that skillful imitation alone is not enough. There has to be an attitude, an edge, brought to the material. In "Our Man Bashir," a great deal of attitude arose from the sharp banter between Bashir and Garak. There was a sense—despite the alleged seriousness of the plot's situation—that the actors and characters knew their setting was ridiculous.
That isn't the case here, and as a result, the humor doesn't flow, although it drips occasionally. The holo-plot is absurd (as it should be): The evil, holographic Chaotica (Martin Rayner) opens war on the alien beings (because he is one-dimensional, programmed evil, you see), which means Janeway must enter the holodeck, pose as the irresistible Arachnia, and stop his evil plan. (Standard contrivance of course dictates that the holodeck cannot be simply turned off, but never mind.) The performances are good but somehow not all that funny. Mulgrew chews the scenery well, but her incessant twitching is merely bizarre near the end.
Doc looks at home in the role of "President of Earth," but his negotiation with the aliens is so brief that it feels like an opportunity wasted. There are some other good moments, particularly the nods to the familiar comic-book goofiness ("NOT THAT BUTTON!"), but given the potential, the show seems to play the whole game awfully safe. There are sarcastic side-comments, sure, but they don't push far enough into parody to make the episode funny. For an unconventional episode, it sure manages to be awfully conventional.
To me, the whole subtext of the Captain Proton holodeck series this season has been to analyze the difference between the corny science fiction aimed at kids in the '40s and '50s versus the post-Star Wars era of commercial science fiction that appeals to large audiences looking for something more magnificent and significant (or at the very least seeing something blow up more realistically).
But based on what this Voyager offering gives us, the lesson seems to be that science fiction has come so far that we don't need solid ideas beneath the slick, high-budget exterior. Schlock has evolved into an art form toward which we can throw money in mass quantities. We can't get to the center of why there's reason for juxtaposing today's sci-fi with the old stuff, but, doggone it, we can certainly replicate the old stuff down to the last detail if we want to.
That may perhaps be a harsh interpretation of "Bride of Chaotica!" Maybe I expected too much from this show; in its defense I must admit that it aspires to simply be light rather than significant. But it's somehow hard to laugh at schlock condescending to schlock. I suppose we can grin.
Next week: "Shuttle Crash, Part XXIV." Let's hope characterization is the key, 'cause it don't look like plot is.