Thursday, May 27, 2021

Voyager, Season 7: Natural Law

 Voyager, Season 7
"Natural Law"
Airdate: May 2, 2001
165 of 168 produced
165 of 168 aired


Introduction

Chakotay and Seven take a detour on the way to an alien conference, but run aground after impacting a strange energy shield. They find themselves in a native culture reservation with no clear way out.


Gimme Five!


Writing

Matthew: I went into this episode with low expectations. It seems like just the sort of "native culture with Chakotay" story that usually ends up a dreary bore that hasn't aged well. I was surprised that I was relatively engaged by the goings on here. I do think the script makes some questionable choices in emphasis which leaves interesting story ideas underdeveloped. The best story idea present here was the idea of cultural contamination and the notion of a dominant culture seeking to "develop" and "improve" a primitive culture. Uncontacted peoples are a real phenomenon on our world, and there are many interesting ethical questions involved. Is there value in primitive lifestyles, and to what extent should technological cultures go out of their way to avoid contaminating them? What if there is a variance of opinion within the tribal group itself? The whole angle of disease transmission would also have been very interesting. I wish this episode had hinged more on hearing out both sides of these questions as opposed to a more survival-based story of Chakotay and Seven crashing.

Kevin: I likewise was not enamored of this episode just reading the TV Guide description back in the day. And sadly, I don't think the episode rose above that apprehension for me. The real problem is the indigenous people are literally just that...indigenous. It's their only defining feature. Other episodes both in and out of Voyager have done a better job painting more interesting peoples. Not to belabor the point, but the Mintakans in Who Watches the Watchers were so interesting because the episode quickly painted a complex people with an internal life and conflicting agendas. Everyone here was just kind of slowly awed by everything.

Matthew: The goings on on the surface were just sort of so-so. I would say the best part was Chakotay discovering that the primitives were mimicking them. The B-story of Tom taking driving lessons was a mostly inconsequential lark. I think more could have been done to indicate why Janeway didn't just ground Paris. Is adherence to local laws really that important, or were they just having fun at Tom's expense, or both? I did find the way it dovetailed with rescuing the stranded away team to be mildly clever.

Kevin: I normally love some good Piller Filler material, but this one just didn't do it for me. I literally just finished watching the episode and I can't recall if they ever actually say what the infraction was. Speeding? Not yielding to a school bus? The test guy seemed to be being played as officious for its own sake, so that seems to imply that Tom made a nominal violation of a pointless piece of red tape, but everyone keeps talking about Tom's impulsiveness etc. It just didn't go anywhere for me. 

Matthew: The solution was a little bit neat. I think the script would have been better if it had forced unpleasant choices on the Voyager crew and on the native people. The bottom line is that Chakotay's desire to dick around and look at things probably ended up destroying a culture he should temperamentally be very interested in preserving. He should have had to deal with the repercussions of that. I do think Seven had a fairly good emotional arc, though, in coming to an appreciation of a culture that she might normally dismiss. I think they should have gone further with her, too. She should be against a technological race assimilating a primitive culture for the purposes of development or some sort of chauvinistic noblesse oblige.

Kevin: I pretty much buy Seven's arc and think the episode would have been better served to have her as the main focus of the episode. There is an inherent and somewhat unresolvable tension between respecting this people's way of live and actively consigning them to never changing it that starts to verge on being as paternalistic as thinking they need to be modernized. And even getting this people's opinion about themselves isn't possible without committing the kind of interaction your debating if you should do in the first place. And I agree that the basic philosophical ideas are juicy, like what if the girl wants to leave? What matters more, her right to self determination or her society's right to exist in its current form? That's a fun question, but those and others like it don't really get an exploration in this episode.

Acting

Matthew: I was not overly enamored with the way Robert Beltran did the native sign language scenes. But that is probably as much owing to the production design as anything. He did commit to the role, and I wish he had been given more to go on, with some real debate scenes peppered in. Jeri Ryan also did her best to give us an emotional journey with somewhat attenuated material.

Kevin: Ryan is a talented actress who really managed to portray her annoyance at Chakotay and her blossoming regard for these people with real subtlety. Beltran was hamstrung by doing some pantomime sign language, but he certainly didn't exceed the material on the page for me.  

Matthew:
The guest actors had a very tough assignment, giving inner lives to characters who cannot speak and who lack most of the outward signifiers of our technological culture. I think relegating them to sign language was a bad choice. It probably would have been a better episode if the universal translator didn't work or something. Overall, neither the script nor the performances gave me enough to really feel like I understood these characters or their worldview. How does a culture of intelligent bipeds with opposable thumbs stay so stagnant for so long? There must be some explanation, and it wasn't given to me by the script or hinted to me through the performance.

Kevin: I think the problem was they were too homogeneous to feel like a real people. Maybe there was a way to spin that into the story. They exist in something approaching true physical and emotional equilibrium and thus have no impetus to change as long as their environment doesn't, but it was just a lot of slow acting to somber flute music, and no one can really sell that.

Production Values

Matthew: The orange body paint was actually a pretty inspired choice, as it effectively echoes "uncontacted" societies in the Amazon. The bird helmets didn't really do it for me, and the overall design of habitats wasn't very interesting. The jungle looked nice, though. The space station salad in orbit was certainly interesting to look at, and the Delta Flyer zipping through its structure looked nice.

Kevin: I wished we got more of that space station. That was neat. I get what you're saying about the Ventu feeling akin to uncontacted peoples in the Amazon, but it still read as pretty "generic pop-up Halloween store native" costume to me. Maybe I would have responded better if the people under the makeup were more engaging.

Conclusion

Matthew:
I have been damning this episode with faint praise, but it actually kind of worked for me, at least at a mediocre "Real Star Trek" level. The stakes could have been higher and better delineated, and there were story paths untaken. At the end of the day, an episode that gets me thinking about the ethics of cultural contact on our own world has at least something going for it. I give it a 3 overall.

Kevin: The episode does spur a mild weighing of ideas, but not really in the episode, just here in our review. The other more urgent problem for me is that this episode is just boring. All the scenes of the sign language were done at 1/4 speed to somber music. Given the lack of stakes for A story and the nothingness of the B story, this lands as a 2 for me, for a total of 5.

1 comment:

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