Monday, August 12, 2013

Voyager, Season 1: Emanations

Voyager, Season 1
Airdate: March 13, 1995
8 of 168 produced
8 of 168 aired


Voyager discovers an undiscovered element in the rings of a planet. Hoping to mine it, they discover the rings are the crypts for a race of aliens. Before they can leave, Harry Kim is captured by the transport device that deposits the people for burial. Complicating matters, the alien left in his place is alive, and discovers what she has been told about the afterlife is very different from where she finds herself now.
Harry wakes up naked in sickbay. Hope the rumors aren't true, eh?


Kevin: This is a Brannon Braga script if ever there was one. I'll get to the ideas in a minute, but I want to start with some of the science fiction elements. The idea of element 247 being stable and naturally occurring is a fun one, and physicists actually posit that there are "islands of stability" further down the periodic table, but that's a relative term, with half-lives in seconds and minutes as opposed to fractions of a second for other elements. I like the attempt to include science in the science fiction, but that bit fell a little flat for me, particularly with the idea that this super-heavy element could be naturally secreted by a humanoid.

Matthew: Personally, I think this is one of Braga's tighter scripts. By this, I mean it's got an extremely strong science fiction premise, and it delivers for the most part on its promises. Some of Braga's TNG shows could veer into the bizarre and not really coalesce into a solid story ("Genesis" springs to mind). I agree entirely that the science hook of a transuranic element coming from a biological entity was a bit hard to swallow, not to mention unnecessary. They could have just found the element on the asteroids, and the naturally occurring element could have drawn the vacuoles to the asteroids. It didn't need to come from the beings at all.

Kevin: I like seeing the discussion of respecting another culture's burial grounds. There's a long history on Earth of treating other cultures' cultural artifacts with a certain lack of respect, even with the best of intentions. As much as we find the interiors of Egyptian tombs scientifically interesting, would we feel the same way if some were cracking open tombs Western graveyards for the sake of scientific inquiry? I also like the the officers disagreed and discussed their disagreement. I do think that Chakotay overplayed his hand. If the the use of passive sensors on the tricorders was too much, wouldn't their eyes, even their very presence, be too much as well?

Matthew: Chakotay's scruples seemed quite pliable. He didn't want to use a tricorder for fear of disturbing anything, but he would beam a freaking dead body to the ship, and resurrect it for interrogation?

Kevin: Now on to the big stuff. The basic questions about what happens to us after we die and what do we do when faced with evidence that our beliefs are wrong is certainly very interesting, and I liked seeing it on a personal note with Ptera, and a societal one at the transference facility. I think this episode ultimately falls in a pitfall common to the more esoteric Braga scripts: the slight lack of focus in the action side of the story. The set up is great and intriguing, the actual events of the story felt a little scattershot for me. Particularly with the addition of the idea that Garan was being encouraged to die for the sake of the greater good felt a lot like Half a Life, and it's one plot element too many. I like the idea of what would happen to a society where there was at least some tangible evidence of life after death. Would it make people eager to die rather than try to treat an illness? But between Neria's attempt to make sure Kim's appearance does upset the orthodoxy cart, Garan's crisis of faith, and Ptera's crisis of faith (a plot I think got a more satisfying outing in TNG's Homeward), the episode gets a little muddled and ultimately leaves me a little flat. It also contributed to a pacing problem for me. Especially on the Kim side of the story, it was a lot of him overhearing conversations and trying to leave, and you knew he was going to, so the scenes felt a little repetitive.

Matthew: I think the Garan thing was introduced to give Harry a means off the planet. But I agree, it was a little undercooked and derivative. I think the premise has balls to spare, as you say, with the rock solid faith of an afterlife influencing cultural mores much more than it does here. The exploration of how Harry's presence disturbs that faith was on point. But then it pulls its punches throughout, in that it all but confirmed that the "neural energy" of the Vhnori did indeed escape into the rings, was organized, blah blah blah. It effectively blunts the hard questions we'd be forced to ask ourselves if an alien culture's beliefs about the afterlife were disproved, and it doesn't substitute enough development of how their confirmation would affect a world. The beauty of sci-fi is that it can posit really tough questions in "safe" circumstances. What happened here is that the tough questions were turned into safe ones. That said, I still hold to my belief that this is tighter than some of Braga's wackier scripts. I agree that one subplot should have been cut, but everything fit together well and there were really no loose ends.

Kevin: Given that the episode started with a person being revived after the transference, there's not exactly a ton of drama in whether the main character will also be okay. I will say I did really like the ending in the mess hall. It acknowledged the unknowns of death and the grand scheme of the universe without feeling preachy. I also like seeing Janeway being so openly empathic. The suggestion not only that he take time off, but reflect and create something is very interesting advice, and I've really enjoyed seeing Janeway engage the emotional health of the crew so directly.

Matthew: I think it was left rather conspicuously unsaid whether the Vhnori had space travel and were in contact with other races. I imagine this was because it would open up the can of worms regarding whether they could simply visit the asteroids themselves.


Kevin: I think Mulgrew shines as usual. Her attempts to calm Ptera, and in particular, her scene with Harry at the end of the episode were great. Her performance is certainly the most consistent of the captains so far. She immediately struck a chord and, eight episodes in, it's still apparent and more importantly, consistent. As for Harry's half of the episode, it was okay for me, and maybe it was the writing, but I wasn't really moved by his performance.

Matthew: Ah, Garrett Wang. He certainly is... average, isn't he? At this point, he has a kind of bland screen presence, and a rather flat delivery, no matter what he situation.  But you know what? It really sort of works for the character he's cast as. Harry Kim is a green amateur himself, finding his way. At the end of the day, he seems perfectly cast, and he's kind of a Mary Sue avatar for every fan out there who wishes he or she was a fresh faced ensign on a starship. I think Wang does a fine job here of delivering the lines and seeming convincing, but I agree with you overall that it doesn't go above and beyond the lines on the page. I think Jennifer Lien had a nice scene with Cecile Callan (Ptera), and my appreciation for her is growing bit by bit as I watch this time around.

Kevin: The guest stars were certainly good. Neria was played by Jerry Hardin, who turned in a great performance as Mark Twain in TNG, and he is good here. There was real energy behind the make-up. Garan and Ptera were well portrayed too, conveying the fear and uncertainty they were dealing with. I wish the episode had focused more carefully to allow the characters more time to develop, as both actors could clearly deliver more.

Matthew: Jarry Hardin was typically good, as you say. I thought Cecile Callan really portrayed the terror of her character in a very affecting way. I was definitely feeling along with her, and that's saying something for such a fantastical situation. Jeffrey Alan Chandler was a bit "meh" for me. Not great, not awful. But I will say that he created a character with his own personality. So I wouldn't criticize it.

Production Values

Kevin: I do question how an asteroid could maintain an atmosphere. My best guess is that spacesuits are expensive and time consuming for the actors. Beyond that, I have nothing but praise for the effects work. The rings were gorgeous and extremely well rendered. The interiors were fine, though again, where does the ambient light come from? The cocoon/shrouds were well done as well. They did not look like fake Halloween spiderwebbing, so that was nice.

Matthew: The planet visuals may be the best we've seen in the franchise so far. I was really impressed by the colors, the details, and the ring system on the Class D planet. Apparently this was one of the first serious uses of CGI in the franchise (outside of one or two long distance ship shots in TNG) and it was a complete success. I had no idea that Voyager was a GGI model as well, which says something, especially in 1995. The Planet Hell interiors were pretty average. I agree on the body cocoons.

Kevin: The Vhnori make-up and homeworld were a bit of a let down for me. The make-up itself is fine, but it was gray people in gray clothes in gray rooms, so it came off flat. I wish we had gotten to see more of the Vhnori homeworld. The cenotaph itself was well designed from an art point of view, but particularly when the lid was being raised and lowered, you could see the four pistons shaking a little, and it destroys just a bit the illusion of what the device is.

Matthew: A (new) matte painting could really have spruced up the Vhnori. What doe the exteriors of these buildings look like? I think we could have stood to see a chapel or some scripture, too. I do think the wardrobe did a pretty good job of making them seem interesting and textured as a culture. I liked the cenotaph generally. I thought the shroud was just OK, and I don't see how his wife could have mistaken Harry in the shroud for her spindly little husband.


Kevin: I know I've spent a lot of time criticizing the episode, but it is a good episode, I just think it did not reach the heights it should have given the juiciness of the concept. Questions about death and dying are issues ripe for exploration and they have produced some of the best episodes of the entire franchise. Basically, I think the episode would have benefited from picking either the story of a culture who fetishizes death because they think they have proven the existence of the afterlife or what happens if someone got to their afterlife and found it to be something entirely unexpected. Trying to tell both stories muddles them. Still, the idea is intriguing enough and the acting and production values so good that a 2 was a never a consideration. I think this has the potential for a 4 or 5 with a rewrite, but as it stands, it gets a 3 from me.

Matthew: I am with you. I never fail to be entertained by this episode, but I'm always left vaguely unsatisfied. As such, despite a  very strong premise, it is squarely average. I agree with the 3 for a total of 6.

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