Voyager Ate Elvis’ Brain!
The displays in supermarket aisles right before you get to the cashier tend to be crowded with lots of tabloids with headlines like “Elvis’ Brain frozen on Ice attacks Donald Trump”, “New Bigfoot diet key to fighting millennial prophecies” and “Boy without face kidnapped by aliens.” Despite all the glare and hype the tabloids, much like “The Voyager Conspiracy” — the episode seemingly inspired by them — have little to offer once you get past the glare and the big red type. No matter how bright or exciting the promises made, ultimately at the end when we have slogged through the whole mess we find out that the whole thing is just a fraud. So too goes Voyager Conspiracy, going the way far too many UPN promos have gone. The thing is that despite all the abuse they get, UPN promos are more often than not, non-representative of the actual episode. But there are always exceptions and Voyager Conspiracy is just such an exception, an episode that not only fails to be more than its station promo but actually manages to be far less.
There are critical times in the life of a TV show or any dramatic product when it stands on the border of making a really great leap or sinking back down into mediocrity. There is a chance given to take a big risk and to really alter the face of your story or to take the safe option and go on as you have before. Taking that risk is more than just a choice. When you’re at home typing up your latest take on the great American novel, taking a bold turn really is a choice. If you haven’t topped the bestseller lists lately or at all, the direction you take is up to you. On the other hand when you’re working with product, someone else’s product, which itself is just the tip and the loss leader for a multi-billion dollar merchandising empire and the stool on which UPN is standing with the noose around its neck, then the pressure on you is far greater. Taking that risk becomes courage. Not everyone has courage.
In the past Voyager has tackled some very dark issues sometimes even going into places the supposedly superdark DS9 wouldn’t go. But the one area where Voyager has played it safe is its characters. This is understandable because the characters are what the show and the merchandising really rest on. An offensive or controversial subject matter in one episode can bring some calls or some letters but there is no lasting harm. The format remains intact and the individual episode can be ignored. The original series itself had no shortage of episodes that needed to be ignored. The core format though stayed the same. Kirk remained Kirk and Spock remained Spock and so on. The most dangerous thing you can possibly do on a show is to tamper with format. This is why writers and producers will usually put far more thought into the glacial pace of a romantic relationship than the details of an alien culture or a starship drive. It is one thing to have dark content and another to apply it to your characters. It is one thing to have your heroes hunt a maniac, it is quite another thing to reveal that the maniac was one of your heroes all along. The first puts you well into the safe realms of TV format, the second is dangerous and risky. It is courageous. The Voyager Conspiracy started off promising courage but in the end it only delivered standard TV format. At the end of the day things can go on as they have always gone on before. The format remains intact. The episode ends with virtual hugs all around and a lesson learned. Thank you June Cleaver.
The key element of the Voyager Conspiracy that serves to drive the episode and remains unexplained at the end is footage Seven recovers from the sensors. The footage shows an alien spacecraft tractoring one of the generators from the Caretaker’s array before it exploded and with it Voyager’s only way home. Meanwhile Voyager has encountered an alien with a problem similar to Voyager’s. He has devised a gateway that can transport him home and potentially transport Voyager closer to home as well. The coincidence of the two elements pushes Seven to begin hatching conspiracies indicting either Janeway and Starfleet or Chakotay and the Maquis of deliberately stranding Voyager in the Delta Quadrant.
No show has had quite as problematic a premise as Voyager. The crews of the original series and the next generation were simply out exploring space. They were exactly where they wanted to be. By contrast Voyager is not where it wants to be. By contrast the Voyager crew are not where they want to be. They are stranded in space and despite Janeway’s emphasis on exploration, their real mission is to get home; a place Star Trek crews have traditionally gotten away from. This basic reversal of the traditional Star Trek premise was a way of tampering with format and has proven far less than popular. The premise though did not have Voyager simply stranded but Janeway actually making the decision to effectively strand Voyager. This was never really properly dealt with. While “Night” came closest to having Janeway examine her behavior, Voyager Conspiracy raises the ghost and exorcises it by loading the deck from the start.
In a rather odd bit of behavior for a logically oriented Ex-Borg, Seven crafts some far out theories with no basis at all. The footage is interesting and intriguing but ultimately it proves nothing which is the lesson of the episode but it is a lesson the character Seven who was established as should have known from the start. The episode might have had some potential if B’Elanna or Tom had gotten hold of this information and jumped to all the wrong conclusions but this behavior is utterly senseless for Seven to engage in. She only acts this way in order for the episode and the lesson at the end to occur and this is an idiot plot. Namely a plot in which characters behave like idiots for the plot to work. Throughout the episode Voyager’s crew of highly trained Starfleet personnel behave like the actual readers of tabloid magazines jumping on circumstantial evidence and hatching conspiracies. If Voyager really had this much tension running through it and if Janeway and Chakotay really trusted each other so little, a mutiny would have happened long ago and Voyager might actually have a capable Captain in command now.
This is yet another example of the producers’ over-protectiveness of the characters resulting in ridiculous plots that must be tweaked to justify their behavior. Rather that taking the courageous step of writing an episode that actually might have revealed more complex intentions on the part of Janeway and made the premise a bit more palatable, Voyager once again spins out a tale in which Seven as errant and foolish daughter is taught a lesson about humanity, Janeway serves as the teacher and Janeway and Chakotay bond at the end and wonder how they could have possibly gone a millimeter apart from each other. This does finish off the story according to format but one has to ask, what the hell is the point of actually watching this episode to begin with because nothing actually happens in this episode.
While audiences were and are seemingly prepared to watch the Enterprise crew eat lunch, few are ready to provide that kind of attention to the Berman spinoffs. In the final summation Voyager Conspiracy is an episode about nothing and unlike Seinfeld it isn’t even remotely funny. Seven of Nine develops a crackpot idea and infects some of the crew with it, said problem is solved by everybody learning that they have to communicate better and really love one another. This is very sweet and all and if this were Touched by an Angel it might make a very nice episode but few Star Trek viewers go for that sort of thing in the first place. The remaining question of the alien ship is mildly interesting buy why surrond it with that god-awful pointless excuse for an episode in the first place?