Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Voyager, Season 7: Workforce, Part I

 Voyager, Season 7
"Workforce, Part I"
Airdate: February 21, 2001
159 of 168 produced
159 of 168 aired


Chakotay, Harry and Neelix find Voyager drifting within a nebula, derelict. They discover that the rest of the crew has left the ship and have apparently taken new jobs on an industrialized planet.

With such obviously comfortable clothing fashions, why would anyone leave?


Starving for real Star Trek after a steady diet of think Kurtzman gruel, this episode is a breath of fresh air. Rationally I know it has problems, but it works in a way that no Kurtzman episode has, ever. Why is this? The problems: the plan to steal workers is ridiculously complex, with so many potential failure points as to make it manifestly unprofitable. The work they're doing seems really simple and easy to duplicate with robots or computers or something. The mechanics of the crew's false memories are mystifying to say the least (why would Tom be given a false memory of hating space travel if that was indeed his most saleable skill?). Nonetheless, it works as a story. It keeps my attention. I learn about the characters, and they are given interesting choices to make. Why is this? First, I suppose, is to address the overall shape of the story. We are presented with a clear problem (99% of the crew has been kidnapped and had their memories altered) and therefore can become invested in whether the crew will find a solution to said problem. No giant mystery (only a minor one with respect to how the problem happened), no labyrinthine A to B to C to Q plotting. Second, it puts the characters into interesting positions and creates dilemmas for them.

Kevin: I do enjoy the episode for its set up, and I will say even while I praise DS9 for venturing into serialized storytelling, this is the kind of story that really only works in episodic sci-fi. The problem is a little too attenuated to really support a story of longer than 90 or 180 minutes. If we got ten episodes of this leading to a Big Reveal, it would probably be pretty unsatisfying. I'm going to try to not compare everything to later Star Trek since that feels lazy, but I will say that is another example of how I don't think I'm just being a pedantic fuddy duddy when I criticize the plotting of later shows. This episode has a pretty ass-pull of a set up, but since it is used to spin a 180 story about the characters rather than 10 hours about itself, I am much less annoyed. The distinction may be fine, but I think you can use a pretty wacky set up to start your story, you cannot use it to be the story. Put another way, this episode is not 'about' a race of memory manipulating labor overlords. It's 'about' Janeway getting to explore the path not taken.

Matthew: It seems clear that the writers wanted to create a plot that would challenge the crew thusly - if they were given a home and productive lives, would they still wish to return to Earth? This type of dilemma was of course hinted at in The 37's and Resolutions (AKA the bathtub episode), but it is treated on a mass scale here. Why does it work? Because it pays off on 6 seasons of work with the characters. We know Janeway has been unable to maintain a romantic relationship for various reasons, even though she wishes to on some level. We know Tom and B'Elanna have had a rocky relationship in which their insecurities have threatened their happiness. Seven of Nine has had trouble acclimating to her human surroundings. On the shipboard side, the Doctor and Harry both have long chafed for more leadership opportunities. And so each of their portions of the episode also work, because everything feels organic and their various choices feel like they have weight.

Kevin: I agree that the bulk of the work of the episode is done on the back of the familiarity with and affection for the characters. It's fun getting to see the actors try on slightly different roles and seeing how they interact with each other. I have a light problem with the idea that we would do so much alternation to their memory but somehow their base personality and relationships would somehow endure. I think it might have been more fun to see them in wildly different roles and personas. I also didn't go nuts for the shipboard side of things, as Harry's journey to maturity has just never interested me, but I agree that it fundamentally works.

Matthew: I would say the Janeway story is the primary "alternate life" story. I think this story fundamentally works. Not only does it possess the aforementioned character backdrop for Janeway (does Jaffen look a lot like Mark? Um, yeah...), but it follows basic "meet cute" rules, making for a satisfying relationship arc. Did I find the Janeway cooking joke tired? Sure. But I believed the passage of time and that she would want to move in with this guy. As far as the other alternate life story threads, Tom and B'Elanna get the best. It's a classic sci-fi setup, really. If two people in a relationship had their memories wiped, would they reconnect? Is a relationship born from something integral to the persons involved, or is it the result of happenstance? One of the great sci-fi movies of all time, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, investigates this question.

Kevin: I agree that in a pretty brief space, they painted a pretty solidly 'normal' relationship. I like that it wasn't painted as some grand romance. It felt very real. I think a lot of it is the acting but they definitely used their time economically. As a viewer, we know this one isn't sticking around, but the writing was good enough to make me care that that wouldn't happen. And yeah, the cooking joke has grown quite stale.

Matthew: I think the overall mystery story basically works. It will get more development in part two, but Tuvok's stumbling upon recovered memories is an effective flashback device, and I liked Chakotay's role in trying to uncover where his crew has gone. This is one of the best Chakotay plots in quite some time, in fact. I love the callback to the Emergency Command Hologram, and think the Doctor and Harry butting heads is really good character work for them. Do I miss the four pips appearing? Yes. Yes I do.

Kevin: Like I said, the Harry/Doctor stuff was not my favorite, since both came off slightly petulantly, but I suppose that's the point for two relatively inexperienced commanders. 


Matthew: Kate Mulgrew gives us yet another master class in iterating her character. I totally bought that she was the same physical person, but was missing memories or acting upon false ones. Her emotional persona was the same even if her life data were different. Robert Duncan McNeill and Roxann Dawson also did Yeoman's work along these lines.

Kevin: I have registered my light problem with the idea that their personalities would survive intact after such alteration, but I can't deny that the actors all carried it. If anything, I would have jettisoned more of the action plot to give these more time to shine.

Matthew: The guest cast was fairly good. The standouts were James Read as Jaffen and Iona Morris as Umali, the barkeep. Read, who looks every bit the part of a Cialis commercial model, brought a believable and likeable energy to Jaffen and his budding romance with Janeway. Morris, who played one of the children in TOS "Miri," seemed like a bar owner with whom anyone would enjoy trading quips with and buying drinks from. Less excellent for me were the factory supervisor and the alien doctor. Maybe it was the makeup, but I found them forgettable and kind of annoying.

Kevin: Read really is the prototypical hot 90s dad. I haven't checked his IMDB page but I bet he was a guest star's philandering husband on at least one episode of Desperate Housewives. And I agree that he and Mulgrew had a very "real" energy. It wasn't supposed to be a whirlwind romance, just a nice, normal relationship, and it was pretty effective.

Production Values

The Quarren city was very 90s video game CGI, e.g. Final Fantasy. I don't say this as a bad thing, it was good for the time, but it is rather generic looking and did not feel like a real urban environment. Better realized were the locations, such as the company apartments, which were generic enough to feel standardized, but also felt like places where people could live. I liked all the catwalks and places for the chase scenes. The factory interior was just OK, though. I didn't really know what these people were up to.

Kevin: I don't have anything to add here. I really wondered what they made too. It seemed like they just regulated machinery doing the thing, and that could all just be automated, right?


Matthew: This is a solid 4 for me. I think the level of novelty and character story interest is very strong, elevating this above the mushy middle of episodes.  It presents a solid sci-fi idea (albeit one with a questionable utility), gives a large chunk of the cast interesting things to do, and doesn't devolve into action cliche.

In the forthcoming podcast, I apparently gave the first part a 3. That's fine! Ratings can change, and I would chalk this evolution up to pandemic nostalgia and craptacular Kurtzman-Trek retroactively making real Star Trek seem better.

Kevin: I'll agree with the 4. The set up is fun and the character work is pretty great. I don't think this episode will resolve as well as it sets up, but for this hour, I was intrigued and entertained, and lightly wistful that they didn't give Mulgrew more chances at a real romance. It was nice to watch. That makes a total of 8.

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