Nutshell: Slow, self-reflective, and different. Not slam-bang excitement, but certainly one of the season's most interesting shows to ponder.
It helps knowing going in that "Muse" is Joe Menosky's farewell script to Voyager (since, as many know, the writer/producer will not be returning for the series' final season). The episode ends up being the ultimate Voyager self-reflective commentary on the process of writing for an audience. As I watched the show, I realized I wasn't so much watching people on the screen as I was watching a writer making comments through characters who were living out that same writing process. "Muse" is an allegory rolled into a Voyager tale which itself is rolled into a myth.
Menosky often uses themes of myth, legend, or history in his stories, like the society in "Blink of an Eye" or Janeway's past in "11:59" as recent examples, or the truly unique "Darmok" (a TNG classic) as a more distant one. Even bizarre power-play/mental-takeover premises like "Dramatis Personae" (DS9) or the failed "Masks" (TNG) revolved around the re-enactment of ancient conflicts that were more legendary than they were tangible.
"Muse," which centers on an alien playwright who vies to make a difference with the written word, is a return to the idea of myths while also being an oddly, almost pointedly self-aware Voyager episode. This is not an entertainment in the usual Voyager sense; it's slow-paced and cerebral, in a storytelling universe that generally prefers to be fast-paced, simple, and stylized. It's a story that seems more personal, and it refuses to supply the immediate-gratification type of payoffs.
I found it a compelling hour, simply because of the way the real writer's voice comes through as a melding of the fictional writer's experiences in telling his own story. That fictional story is of the starship Voyager and its travels, a story inspired by "actual" events. The playwright is a man on a primitive world. His name is Kelis (Joseph Will). As the episode begins, his troupe is performing the story of Voyager, as learned through the logs of the Delta Flyer, which along with its lone passenger, B'Elanna Torres, has crashed near Kelis' thinking grounds.
Might as well get the obvious gripe out of the way: Yes, "Muse" employs a major cliche by crashing the Delta Flyer—again. What's more is how by episode's end it's not even made clear whether it will be salvaged (one line of dialog would've sufficed), although we can obviously assume so simply because of the Law of the Reset Button™. (Away missions in shuttles or the Flyer are more dangerous than they can possibly be worth; when was the last time one didn't end with a crisis or crash?)
Anyway, Torres has lay unconscious for eight days (isn't that pretty serious?), and when she awakens, Kelis wants her help. He needs to write a sequel play for his acting troupe to perform, and he needs Torres to supply him with new material about this ship called Voyager. Kelis' troupe performs for the local patron, the guy who holds the power in this particular clan in this society's caste system. The world is apparently a fragmented place of often-warring factions. Kelis' patron liked the first Voyager play and wants another, and has given Kelis one week to have it ready for performance. Kelis isn't sure what to do next; he needs his muse, as it were, and B'Elanna turns out to be it.
"Muse" is patient in a way that is rare these days for Voyager. There are a lot of scenes where we've just got B'Elanna and Kelis in a room talking, which is what a lot of Trek used to be about.
I found B'Elanna's approach to Kelis to be true in its pragmatism; she isn't very nice to him initially. Kelis believes B'Elanna is an "eternal," though given the situation and conversations I never quite understood the nature of this people's belief system concerning the eternals (do the apparently mortal gods routinely fall from the sky, and are they routinely nursed back to health by the people?). B'Elanna uses her influence as an eternal—and especially as Kelis' new muse—to obtain resources she needs to repair the Flyer's communication system. When Kelis says he'll be executed if caught trespassing on his patron's grounds while looking for B'Elanna's dilithium, B'Elanna responds with, well, don't get caught. So after Kelis helps B'Elanna, she has to spill her guts in the interests of fairness, and Kelis gets his new material. The next day he announces to his actors, "I've been visited by inspiration herself." Indeed.
The alien society is perhaps excessively humanesque, but no matter—the point here is the issue of storytelling, and that's where "Muse" is insightful. The story frequently employs the common Shakespearean device of the play within a play, and we see several rehearsals that are sort of funny in their truthful, understated way.
I liked the subtle take on the actor versus the writer, which certainly happens in television production. Kelis, trying to convey Tuvok truthfully, has written an emotionless part the actor doesn't want to perform. The buried dialog here is a take on the TV actor who says, "You don't understand my character," while the writer is saying, "No, you don't understand the character I'm writing for you." At the same time, the burden of responsibility lies on the writer; it's hard to completely blame an actor if the character as written truly doesn't make sense.
Perhaps the most intriguing moments are the direct reflections on writing for an audience on a weekly deadline. When you have to turn out a script in seven days (or even less), what happens if you have no idea how the story ends? I'm not sure how often that happens in real life for TV writers (considering a staff's story break process, etc.), but Kelis' problem is that he's writing on the fly, knowing he has to come up with something that's satisfying in its journey from A to B, all the while not knowing what exactly B is. That makes the process an exercise in non-scientific spur-of-the-moment improvisation.
Hence, standby elements and contrivances. Oh, we know all about Voyager's use of those (see crash of Delta Flyer above). But so do the writers. And there's almost a sense of lament in "Muse" that stories have to utilize formula and contrivances in order to get where they need to go. There's a point where Kelis is baffled as to where his story is going. He needs something to surprise the audience—a sudden twist, a reversal of fortune. What he needs is a mechanical contrivance that's entertaining (like Icheb turning out to be a bio-engineered time bomb in "Child's Play"; one of Kelis' twists here is that Seven is really the Borg Queen). A Wise Old Man emerges from the shadows to remind Kelis that success lies in finding the truth of the story, and he says that poets these days are looking for the quick gimmick to manipulate the audience. "It wasn't always that way," he muses. (And just which road into storytelling hell is Voyager—and all of us, for that matter—driving down, or should we ask if that's the subtext here?)
Menosky seems to be doing some jibing here. Jibing himself, jibing other writers, jibing the audience (for demanding certain qualities that lead shows like "Tsunkatse" to be the highest rated of the season for reasons that aren't about matters of the intellect), and maybe even jibing the studio (for dumb-down marketing of said products strictly in terms of their would-be visceral impact). When should entertainment be art, and when should it just be potboiler silliness for the masses? (Exercise: Juxtapose Hamlet and Titus Andronicus.)
There are plenty more interesting touches here, including the in-joke where Kelis scripts Janeway and Chakotay into kissing. This is a fan fantasy you will never see carried out on the real Voyager, and we're obviously getting major winkage on behalf of the writers. What's enlightening is the conversation afterward where B'Elanna doesn't see the point of all the frivolous kissing scenes. ("Harry kissing the Delaney sisters?") How is this relevant beyond getting an easy rise out of the audience? Of course, Voyager has its own version of this: Lately I've been calling it the Voyager Action Insert—an "action" scene that exists solely for the sake of action that might appeal to a mass audience but is fundamentally unnecessary to the story actually being told. (The VAI was most recently used in "Child's Play" and "Ashes to Ashes.")
Kelis says his hope is to use love as the language to instill peace into his patron's heart, doing his part to change the ways of the world. ("The perfect play might even stop a war," he says hopefully.) Pretty idealistic, but is it plausible? The story seems optimistic on this point, though it doesn't expect overnight results. Of course, today in our world, anyone expecting to change the world with a script is probably just delusional. Perhaps the best a screenwriter could hope for is a film like Titanic, which has appeal to every demographic conceivable. Sure, a lot of people appreciate it, but it doesn't change the world.
As we rise out of the subtext and back into the "text" for a moment, I'd like to say that the routine plot regarding the search for Torres and Kim was executed with an understated solemnity that was more effective than I had anticipated. There's a lot here conveyed with looks and pauses rather than dialog, and it seemed the crew actually for once believed the possibility that they'd lost two officers. The way the episode keeps Harry completely out of the show for the first few acts also carries with it a weird sense of uncertainty; the plot allows us to wonder exactly what happened while the story involving Kelis is kept at the forefront.
I also enjoyed Tuvok's silent quest through sleepless nights as he worked to figure out ways of tracking down the missing Flyer. It shows a humanistic concern for his fellow crew members in a Vulcan-like way, which is never spelled out in dialog. His scenes are intercut with scenes on the planet where an actor fears that the Tuvok character will come off as an unsympathetic monster if he isn't allowed to act out his emotions. (Ah, but not if the writing establishes the character well.) I also got a kick out of Tuvok falling asleep on the bridge after days without sleep. After all, he's a Vulcan, not Superman.
Other touches are subtle too, like the relationship between Kelis and one of his actresses, Layna (Kellie Waymire), which turns slightly messy when Layna becomes convinced Kelis is having an affair with the mysterious woman whom she suspects is an eternal, perhaps even B'Elanna Torres herself. There's a brief, nicely acted scene where Layna confronts B'Elanna in the Flyer and asks her to stay away. A scene that could've come across as forced comes across as sincere; Waymire does a good job with a small moment.
The central crisis of the story involves Kelis having no idea how he's going to end his B'Elanna-centered play, right up to opening night, and even as the play is being performed. He needs the answer from B'Elanna, who decides to help him in the eleventh hour, just as Voyager has located the survivors and is beginning its rescue operation. (Harry turns up not long before this, having landed on the same planet in an escape pod. His role here isn't that important.)
What I thought fell a bit short was the payoff, where the real world meets the poet's world. I see what Menosky was going for here, but there's some awkwardness in the execution. The end of Kelis' play is unscripted onstage improvisation, with the real B'Elanna deciding to write the end by making her actual departure the one that also supplies the play's (ending with the spectacular "special effect" of her beam-out). But there's some off-kilter-ness to the way Layna attempts to expose B'Elanna and the way the patron assumes it to be part of the act. And most notably, I didn't think B'Elanna's sentimentality here was believable. When she says goodbye she's practically breaking down into tears, which seems a bit much. This is too clearly Menosky's sentiment rather than B'Elanna's. I didn't buy it, although I did find the entire notion of fiction meeting reality to be clever.
The episode was directed by Mike Vejar, Trek's current best. He often shows a cinematic slickness to his approach, and isn't afraid to move cameras around or even occasionally go hand-held. Here he's content to underplay, go slow, and nail down the camera, which is exactly what the material warrants.
Ironically, "Muse" strikes me as something that's precisely what Voyager typically does not represent. It has no action, no explosions, very little use of sci-fi technology or jargon, and minimal FX used only for the purposes of advancing the story at hand. And frankly, if Voyager were like this every week, I suspect very few people would be tuning in, because we do want to see stuff gettin' blowed up (me as much as the next person). But that doesn't mean it can't be well thought out in the meantime. When something explodes and we care, that's a lot better than when we don't.
So what's the answer? Is television simply entertainment that shouldn't be scrutinized, analyzed, or held to a standard other than sheer, dumb entertainment value? Or should we demand more intellect, more patience, more depth in our stories and characters, even if it means ignoring the "wisdom" of demographics, abandoning quick payoffs, and hoping the sizable portion of us will stick it out and wait for the slower realizations? The subtext in "Muse" seems to argue that it's all about the balance between those two extremes. The hard part is finding it—week after week, on deadline.
Next week: The wrath of Kes.