In brief: A good episode, though I'm almost choking on the irony outside the story.
Strangely and ironically, we've come around to the point where the only way to use many of the themes of Voyager's original premise is to invent a plot that puts the ship in an extreme situation that would've been what the Delta Quadrant itself, in several important ways, might've represented all along had the writers permitted it.
That premise is "The Void," which substitutes a barren spatial anomaly for the original presumed barrenness of the Delta Quadrant. Voyager is sucked inside, and they find that in here there's nothing but empty space and other ships — no resources of any kind, and no known escape. These ships steal from and kill each other to survive. When new ships are sucked in, the waiting tigers pounce. It's survival of the fittest, and the meanest.
I want to applaud "The Void" for its optimism. Those who called DS9 the anti-Trek because of its willingness to bend Federation morality can point to this as an example of Trek that sticks to the optimistic ideal and thrives off it. Is this episode as realistic as what might happen in a DS9 extreme situation? Maybe not. But it does have a good message and works well as entertainment. It's pure Star Trek in the classic sense.
The message isn't exactly subtle. It's like last year's "Memorial" in that, there we have it, Our Message for Today. That's okay; we like our messages made clear, which "Void" does without shoving it into our faces.
This void, it is said, has No Escape. Funny how the crew takes it all in stride. Being sucked into a place whose residents claim escape has been attempted and failed for years is not something I would so calmly accept, but these Voyager crew members are made of sterner stuff — they barely bat an eye and have an unspoken air of near-invincibility: If an escape hasn't been found, it's obviously because WE haven't been the ones looking for it. Maybe it's just bad-news denial. Or arrogance. But then, I suppose confidence is a hallmark of this crew.
The ground rules are laid down by General Valen (Robin Sachs), who subscribes to the void's standing policy of Every Ship for Itself, but is also nice enough to give Janeway a heads-up on where they are and how things operate. (By the way, having barely been in the void for a minute, other ships open fire on Voyager, stealing food and supplies with stealth transporters.)
After assessing the gravity of the situation (without external resources, power will be depleted within a week) the question becomes what to do about it. Do we adjust operating procedures to fit in? Become thieves ourselves to survive? It's a question that's worth asking, and "Void" at least knows that this is the question that deserves to be the center of the story.
There's a point where Janeway has the chance to steal food from another ship — one that earlier had stolen supplies from Voyager. She doesn't. When Tuvok and Chakotay come to her ready room to ask what the "operating procedure" will be now that they're in this void, Janeway tells them she's been giving it some thought. Ultimately, she decides to remain true to her Federation values: If we're only going to live for a week, we're going to live by high principle.
At first, my mind went all the way back to second season's "Alliances," an episode that I erroneously awarded three stars based on initial entertainment value, but think of now as one of the biggest turning-point mistakes Voyager ever made. In that episode, a deal gone bad convinced Janeway that the Delta Quadrant was a socially turbulent and dangerous place. Her very naive solution was that staying the same would prevail over the prospect of changing.
Now we have a decision where it seems history is repeating itself ... until we realize the crucial difference. In "Alliances" Janeway was dealing with societies who operated with treachery as a way of life. Here, Janeway is dealing with people pushed to extremes into operating with treachery as a way of life ... except that literally escaping this world is the best way of dealing with it. To escape will take a risk. The risk is taking Federation values and amplifying them to build bridges.
Crazy? Janeway offers to other aliens supplies that would feed her crew, hoping to earn some trust. She hopes to build an alliance that can stand together against other aggressors while simultaneously pooling resources to make a daring escape. Amazingly, she is able to eventually bring some people into the fold.
So, then, is Janeway clever or lucky, trusting or stupid, calculating or naive? I suppose this would be a prime example of the end result being what writes one's victory speech — or epitaph. If you take an unpopular risk and die, you're a fool; if you take an unpopular risk and win, you're a genius.
Interestingly, the plot device in "Void" is exactly what keeps it from becoming another shining example of sophistry like "Alliances." Everyone here is trapped with nowhere to go. Frankly, if I knew I was trapped in a finite void with nothing inside, I'd hardly see the point of repeated raids just to keep my ship operating. Hell, why wouldn't you try something different to escape, unless you've resigned yourself to a pointless existence of being the king pirate of a backyard swimming pool?
What is a little odd, and perhaps a little arrogant and worn out from a story perspective, is the notion that after years trapped in the void, no one else comes up with the brilliant idea of trying to pull together to escape. Naturally, Voyager must represent the superior human intellect and sensibility that is the first to attempt civil tactics and cooperation. Naturally everyone else goes along once Janeway has drummed up a reasonable following.
I guess that's okay. This show is, after all, called Star Trek: Voyager, not Star Trek: Sensible Aliens. To tell it from Voyager's perspective is probably the only way to get the story to work and be about our people. Along the way, it has some nice touches, like some tension with a captain who joins the alliance but turns out to be a bigot and a killer, and how Janeway beats herself up for not paying more attention to his warning signs. There's also a somewhat incomplete subplot involving surveillance technology, and, best of all, the most fulfilling depiction of an alien race in a long time — natives to the void who do not communicate with speech but learn to use musical notes on data pads to talk to the Doctor. These guys are the first truly intriguing aliens in awhile, with quirky and endearing mannerisms and a method of communication that for once isn't reduced to immediate English (excuse me — I meant the Universal Translator).
Of course the ship gets out of the void. But the depiction of how is what makes the show interesting and purely Star Trek in its sensibilities. The episode bests "Alliances" by doing it under more prudent and appropriate circumstances. It's an uplifting hour. Weird, how the plot plays almost like an experiment in turning back the clock to opportunities past.
Next week: Crew members kidnapped and forced to work for minimum wage! And you thought your job was bad...
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