Friday, March 21, 2014

Voyager, Season 2: Prototype

Voyager, Season 2
Airdate: January 15, 1996
28 of 168 produced
28 of 168 aired


B'Elanna gets pulled into an ancient conflict when she happens across a robot floating in space.

So, whaddaya want, kid? Milk duds? Candy Corn?


Matthew: There is a reasonably strong sci-fi core to this story. A long-dead race creates machines who may or may not have had a hand in exterminating them. Oh wait... where have I heard this before? That's right, "The Arsenal of Freedom." But at least there is the added wrinkle of artificial intelligence that may qualify as sentient? OK, throw in a dash of "The Quality of Life." At the end of the day, this episode doesn't contain the finer points of either of these progenitors. We never get enough history for the original builders of the machines, and we also never get enough of a discussion of what it means for these machines to be "sentient." Why did both sets of robots terminate their builders? Why do they look so similar? Are they just evil, or was it some really lazy programming on the parts of the builders? I'm imagining a sloppy guy thinking about cutting and pasting Asimov's laws of robotics into the code, and deciding to watch some YouTube videos instead.

Kevin: I like this episode more than I should, though I think it's the acting more than anything. The story always felt like some explicit nod to Asimov, both in terms of its plot and aesthetics. That actually becomes the problem in the episode, since it seems like Asimov's three laws would have prevented this story in its entirety. I don't care enough about the builders to be more than superficially concerned at their passing. I feel like they needed to pick one of the moral angles and really dig in, like the Prime Directive discussion. In Pen Pals, Picard was able to hang his hat on a little girl's blind request for help, so it seems like a member of the subject race explicitly seeking specifically their help, it seems less a Prime Directive problem per se, than one of deciding how "sentient" the robots are. If they are sentient, how much does the builder intent matter? Alternately, if B'Elanna found a way to reprogram their priorities, what is the bigger sin? Acting on their behalf to better them or leaving at least quasi-sentient beings to slaughter each other? That would have been a fun discussion. Abandoning the moral discussion for the battle/hostage sequence kind of lost the threat of the episode.

Matthew: The character story also leaves me scratching my head. Why is B'Elanna so invested? Is it simply because this is a unique engineering challenge? Is she working out mommy issues? Is she just bored? I'm not saying I don't dig her being all interesting and competent and stuff, but a key element of the character tale was just missing.

Kevin: I would have liked to explore that more too, since it was by far the more interesting part of the episode. I like that they had her still feel something for them even after everything was over. A laugh out to the credits would have been really inappropriate. If you accept their even quasi-sentience, what B'Elanna did was create life and then destroy, almost to the level of a homicide. That should have an impact on the character and I'm glad it did.

Matthew: We get two recurring jokes in this episode - Tom opining that someone on the viewscreen is a "pleasant fellow", and Neelix offering technical advice via an anecdote in the mess hall, though at least he doesn't fix the problem this time. I enjoyed seeing B'Elanna go to the Doctor for advice. There was a nice continuity mention of Data, though I kind of wonder how B'Elanna knew about him. Did she study him in her first year at the Academy? Was it personal interest? Is he that famous even outside of the Academy setting?

Kevin: I was THRILLED that Neelix did not metaphor his way into the actual solution. He was just nice and sympathetic and encouraging, and it was cute that the minute she got into bed, she popped back up with a possible solution. I never realized how often Paris makes that observation, but yeah, he does that a lot, doesn't he?


Matthew: Roxann Dawson can carry a show. We've seen it already, and she does her best to keep my interest here. She delivers technobabble with aplomb, and her emotional notes are always well modulated and never overbearing. I wonder if the engineers are cast for their ability to liven up dry jargon.

Kevin: This is why I end up liking this episode so much. It's just enjoyable to watch her problem solve, both on Voyager and on the other ship. She can really deliver a realization like it just occurred to her rather than she is reciting a script. She reminds me Gates McFadden's ability to handle props and add very credible small gestures and expressions to really give the character internal life.

Matthew: Rick Worthy and Hugh Hodgin are handed the unenviable task of acting within what are essentially crappy grocery store Halloween masks, and they do about what could be expected. The voice work was pretty good.

Kevin: Worthy in particular really nailed a kind of "smooth jazz radio DJ" voice. It helped make the creepy realizations about their abilities and actions as good as the writing would allow.

Production Values

Matthew: Rick Berman, Kenneth Biller, and Jeri Taylor were all concerned that this would turn out to look cheesy. Michael Piller begged to differ and bought the script anyway. Well, maybe there was some way to do it and make it look good. That way was not achieved here. The robot masks look terrible, and it ripped me out of the story. They look like bad rubber C3PO masks that move whenever your jaw moves. It's just so obvious there is a suffering actor inside. And then there is the bad lip sync - since no one can hear someone encased in a terrible mask, the dialogue had to be re-recorded, but it doesn't sync up with actor movements. It's just an all around pathetic effort. I would rather they had been boxes on wheels, as Commander Maddox might say.

Kevin: When they first found him, I actually liked the design. It has, like I said, a kind of retro-homage feel. When he started trying to move, it falls apart. They should have just gone all the way and not had the heads move at all. A voice coming out of a static face would be odd for us, but help accentuate the line between robot and android and what side of the line these beings are.

Matthew: The space ships were reminiscent of the Borg... thing from Descent. They looked fine, but the three way battle with them and Voyager had a bit of a cut and paste feel to it. Which, essentially, is what it was. So if they saved money on costumes, and saved money on ships, where did the money go, anyway?


Matthew: Sadly, this is a 2. The story is half-baked, and might have been redeemed by a nice performance on the part of Dawson, but the robot costumes seal the deal. This is just not good. I would be hesitant to show this to someone I was trying to convince that Star Trek was good. That's pretty damning, in my book.

Kevin: On the strength of B'Elanna's performance, I want to give this a three. The story doesn't dig into any of the really interesting dilemmas that the story gives rise to, and the production values do fall flat. In the end, if I'm being brutally honest, with a lesser performance, we would be talking ones, and that makes her engaging turn in the episode what saves it from a worse fate, not nudges it into average territory. As much as I love Roxann Dawson, I can't in good conscience call the total episode "average." That makes a total of 4.

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