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Star Trek Voyager: Spirt Folk review

Bride of Holodeck

There’s no way of truly gauging how awful an episode that depends on the characters being threatened by malfunctioning technology is going to be. In the Trekverse, the malfunctioning technology is usually the transporter or the holodeck. The aim of both is much the same. To leave our heroes stranded in a bad situation with no easy way to rescue them for 10 or 15 minutes and thereby producing suspense and keeping the interest of the audience; or so the theory goes.

Some of these stories worked well enough in the early days of Star Trek but they were tiresome by mid-TNG and by the time Ds9 and Voyager

star trek voyager spirit folk

A screenshot that captures the experience of watching Spirit Folk

came along, they just needed to be taken out and shot. As David Gerrold pointed out, why would you continue using a technology that constantly breaks down in the first place? There may be some justification for the transporter which is critical technology that might be a bit hard to replace but the holodeck is the Trekverse equivalent of TV. It’s entertainment. If it has a bad habit of going berserk and trapping our characters in a room full of gangsters, criminal masterminds, or deranged villagers why keep using it? Worse, Star Trek writers have a habit of throwing what’s left of their brains overboard when a holodeck story is written.

A holodeck story has become the signal for camp, lots of in-jokes and a completely implausible plot. When this is kept grounded in reality as with The Killing Game which had its share of drama and mind-blowing sequences, it can work, but when that fails, the episode turns into a Vic Fontaine romp or Fair Haven. To its credit, Voyager’s most prominent transporter malfunction episode “Tuvix” was actually intriguing and original. And Voyager had managed to make some interesting and original uses of the holodeck. “Nothing Human” gave us a quite unethical but very memorable holodoc, “Killing Game” that famous Nazis vs. Klingons moment, “Real Life” had the EMH creating a family for himself, “Alter-Ego” a holographic take on internet chat rooms and “Pathfinder” as the best Barclay episode yet. Still when a Star Trek show goes decides its crew needs some time off from the real world to relax, the results tend to be horrific. Witness “Twisted” and “Fair Haven”, DS9’s “Holosuite” and Vic Fontaine series or VGR’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Spirt Folk (the writers wisely avoid fairy folk) itself is a sequel to an episode that never should have been made. Still, since Fair Haven set up a relationship for Janeway with a hologram who doesn’t know he’s a hologram, that clearly had to be resolved somehow. Unfortunately Voyager falls back on the cliche of a holodeck malfunction. Some lessons have been learned by the writers. The holodeck malfunction is not sudden or unexpected. The safety protocols are not randomly disabled but damaged when hit by a shotgun blast (though you have to wonder how the shotgun blast could have done any damage if the protocols were online to begin with?) And most of what happens makes a certain amount of rational sense.

Paris has been running the Fair Haven holoresort program on a 24/7 basis while the crew have been using their omnipotent powers over the holodeck world to save babies from wells and turn Kim’s dates into cows (does that qualify as yet another doomed relationship for him?) and while Janeway struggles with a relationship in which her boyfriend isn’t real, the townfolk begin to suspect that the Voyager crew are spirit folk. What happens here is somewhat interesting mainly because Voyager’s writers and the writers of many TV shows turn out small town cliches of the perfect simple place; while Spirit Folk unintentionally takes the stereotype Fair Haven built up and shows the ugly reality underneath.

Under the picteresque mannerisms and scenery, most of the residents are ignorant, superstitious, violent and dangerous much as people of

star trek voyager spirit folk

The Voyager crew defeated by its greatest enemy... imaginary Irish villagers

that era really were. The writers insert repeated lines into the mouths of the characters excusing their actions by claiming that they are influenced by fear and ignorance, but that explains their behavior but hardly excuses it. One wonders how long it would have taken for the wonderful Fair Haven villagers to have permanently ‘disposed’ of Paris and Kim at the stake if Janeway’s boyfriend, modified with knowledge and culture he couldn’t have actually had, hadn’t gone for help. DS9’s “Badda Bing” tried to disingenuously wave away the divergence between the holographic fantasy and the historical reality much in the same way that modern day writers want to ignore a commitment to what things were actually like in favor of how things would look better on a picture postcard.

But then once again Spirt Folk, like Fair Haven completely ignores any of the real issues here in favor of worn out comedy routines (Oh wow, there’s a cow in the church!) and sugary speeches. When the crisis comes, we once again are faced with the same ridiculous premise that the entire problem is caused by the ship’s equivalent of a TV set which cannot be shut down. Why can’t it be shut down even when valued members of Janeway’s crew have their lives at risk? B’Elanna Torres helpfully points out to Janeway that unlike Janeway’s boyfriend, her boyfriend cannot be reprogrammed if he develops a sudden hole in the head. To this Janeway sagaciously responds that it doesn’t matter if the people of Fair Haven are real as long as our feelings for them are real. On the logical scale this is somewhat roughly the equivalent of completely insane.

After all if Janeway were to decide that a chair or a rock was her significant other and if the feelings she has for the chair or the rock are quite real, should they take precedence over the lives of actual real people? We may assign sentimental value to photographs of loved ones or to books or William Shatner’s toupee but that doesn’t put them nearly in the categories of people. The people of Fair Haven are not real. They are interactive ‘TV’ characters with some sophisticated programming. You cannot have a relationship with them anymore than you can have a relationship with a chair or a rock. That is you can love the chair but the chair can never love you back. Without a mutual exchange of feelings there is no relationships and there can be no mutual exchange here. Unlike the EMH, the Fair Haven holopeople are not at sentient level or no one on Voyager would be treating them as property. Literally they are the equivalent of a collection of tapes from a TV show. They should have been dumped at the first sign that human life was at risk. This of course would be taking the logical, moral and sane way out, not a very likely thing for Janeway to do.

So of course when Paris and Kim are trapped by a mob of irate villagers in the pub, Janeway decided to beam Paris and Kim off the holodeck. This in and of itself doesn’t actually solve any problems except for the one involving the safety of Paris and Kim. Even though she was warned that the villagers suspect members of her crew as being spirit folk, she nevertheless sends in the Doctor who is also the one member of her crew most likely to be vulnerable to a holodeck environment. The result of course is just another hostage. Janeway is left with egg on her face and it becomes clear that the situation cannot be resolved without a reunion between the two lovers. While many fans next objected to the hypnotism of the doctor, this actually makes perfect sense. With the emitter removed the EMH becomes part of the holodeck program and as a hologram he is subject to the rules and physics of the Fair Haven world. Using the EMH as an unwitting conduit to the Voyager data-link, something far more plausible than Moriarty’s method of having the holograms figure out where they are through taking control of the system, he figures out what to do and where to go in a way that is completely in keeping with his primitive mindset. This is again surprisingly reasonable.

Once together Janeway and holographic bartender tour the ship and she lies to him again implying that Voyager travels in time back to their

star trek voyager spirit folk

Millie the cow remains traumatized to this day from almost kissing Kim

era. Though supposedly a well educated man who has traveled to distant countries, the bartender doesn’t request a miracle cure for illnesses or any futuristic technology. Instead this leads in to a return by the pair to the pub where they give a wonderful speech about tolerance and togetherness that instantly makes the demented villagers tolerate the Voyager crew again not as spirit folk but as spacemen. Some people would argue as to how likely it is that the villagers could understand the concept of time travel or spacemen, let alone use it with such facility but then again it’s important to remember that these aren’t real villagers any more than Janeway is a real Starship Captain.

Voyager’s most successful holodeck episodes have been non-holodeck holodeck episodes in which holodeck like events were taking place but not within the confines or the agency of the holodeck. Episodes like “One”, “The Muse”, “Memorial” and “Tinker Tailor” did a great job of featuring fantastic story, unrealistic elements in a more realistic and less recreational setting. Braga himself pioneered a different kind of holodeck episode in TNG’s “Frame of Mind” and Voyager definitely represents the ultimate exploration of holodeck possibilities. But it just seems that enough might be enough.

For a parting gift Janeway hands him a copy of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King’s Arthur’s Court,” a satire about a man who goes back in time to disease, poverty, and ignorance-ridden England and attempts to make constructive changes only to find them all in vain. Proving that Voyager writers are just as ignorant of Twain and this particular book as the TNG writers of “Time’s Arrow,” she describes it in somewhat more glowing terms. All in all if you’re dealing with someone who’s pretty suspicious of you to begin with it’s probably not too smart to give him a book about a man from the future who uses his abilities to take over your country. Then the program will remain along with their memories of how to damage holodeck equipment, kidnap and hold hostage Voyager crewmembers and even how to escape the holodeck itself in order to build relationships with those non-existent people. Ultimately though like “Alter-Ego”, “Muse” and many Voyager episodes this could be considered a commentary on fans and their relationships with fictional characters. After all there is no shortage of fans who wouldn’t pull the plug on Star Trek, even if it were time.

Star Trek Voyager: Tsunkatse review

UPN may never have been a first rate network but there was a time when Voyager ruled that particular roost. Not anymore. The World Wrestling Federation’s idiocy is the number one show on UPN and even though Voyager’s ratings have finally stabilized, that still hurts. Which of course adds to the complex stew of motivations behind “Tsunkatse” which in and of itself is not a particularly complex episode at all. That isn’t to say that “Tsunkatse” is a bad episode by any means, it is a mildly enjoyable repetition of a formula that was old a long time ago filled out by some good actors and entertaining view of interspecies existence outside the Federation. But ultimately most of the attention of the Voyager audience is not so much on the episode itself but what’s behind it. Is it a surrender to the UPN/WWF marketing machine? A principled rejection of violence and gladiatorial combat for entertainment’s sake? Or possibly neither and both?

Tsunkatse begins with what we saw often enough on TNG and have come to see far too little in the Berman spinoffs, interspecies co-existence

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The UPN network summed up in one photo

outside of the Federation. That is societies of different races existing, trading and working with each other in a way that vaguely resembles the modern day global village, instead of just isolated races of bad guys and victims for our heroes to battle and rescue. The Voyager crew arrive at a planet that is neither a totalitarian society or some sort of idealized hideout for people in robes with spiritual principles but is just an undefined planet and society that seems all the more genuine because no attempt is made to define and categorize it. It simply is.

Of course the problems begin when the crew takes shore leave. Shore leave on Star Trek tends to be a dangerous thing to do. Invariably someone gets kidnapped, hijacked or sidetracked by talking bunnies. While the crew becomes obsessed with a gladiatorial style of sport in which various aliens fight each other in a ritualized series of moves know as “Tsunkatse”, the Doctor takes the cliched civilized view and goes looking for culture and museums. They don’t however seem to realize that the sport they’ve become so enthused about is fought at times to the death, that its participants are not volunteers and that it does not occur live but is broadcast from a hidden location. Considering that they know every detail about every player it seems odd that they would fail to learn these things; but then again there is every possibility that as the Voyager crew travel through the Delta Quadrant they might become similarly obsessed with thousands of alien cultures and knowing that they’ll be on their way soon they only learn the surface details of what interests them rather than getting the big picture. Either way it doesn’t really matter because with this kind of formula it is understood that there are things that the rescuers can’t know until they run directly into them and the snappy and suspenseful work by one of Star Trek’s best directors makes the surprises shocking even if you can easily predict them ahead of time.

So in no time Seven and Tuvok are “drafted” British navy style into becoming fighters for the interstellar WWF organization that conducts

star trek voyager tsunkatse

"Could I possibly be the villain here? Nah"

these bouts. Some people may complain about this being another Seven episode, but really what other possible options are there? If you were recruiting gladiators from among the Voyager crew, who would you choose? Neelix, Kim, Paris, Janeway, the Doctor? There have been at least two episodes this season dealing with Torres’ rage issues and Chakotay has had an ill received boxing episode. Admittedly a Chakotay/Tuvok version of this episode in which Tuvok has to struggle with his rage and Chakotay with his spiritual principles while resolving lingering issues with each other would have been a lot better but neither of them are major characters and Seven is. Still however the episode might have made better use of Tuvok than as a bleeding crippled victim for Seven to rescue. But Tuvok as Seven’s mentor must be out of the way for the Hirogen hunter played by DS9’s Martok to take over.

Hertzler does turn in a moving performance as the gladiator training his unknowing replacement to eliminate him but he and Jeffrey Coombs, DS9’s Weyoun, as the sleazy fight promoter are just trimming. For the episode to be more than just a regurgitation of formula would require an extraordinary performance from Jeri Ryan, which unsurprisingly she’s not capable of. While Ryan is not just the T&A in a can many have accused her of being and is a capable enough actress, she’s not anywhere at the level of Star Trek’s best actors. Ryan does a good enough job of showing raw distress oozing through Seven’s steel exterior but she can’t take it any further to show a more complex character arc which is exactly what’s needed here. Without this, all that Tsunkatse can really showcase is Seven of Nine being bitter, afraid and desperate. That might be nice for one or two scenes but the problem is Ryan can’t do anything else and it shows.

As a Borg, Seven of Nine took part in assimilating and destroying races and individuals on a scale so vast that it boggles the mind. As an individual she has slowly moved from a more pragmatic and callous perspective to a more excessively humanistic center in her quest to become truly human again. As such she’s poorly prepared for such a contest which requires that she be neither Borg or human but some combination of the two. A combination that would allow her to physically and instinctively contest her opponent. Her human half is revolted by the contest and when the pragmatic necessity of it is forced on her by way of Tuvok, she responds by switching to her Borg half in a contest that requires her to combine the two. And here she ends up in the match that is the most discussed 30 seconds of the episode even though nothing climactic happens here and what does happen here seems to have been missed by most viewers.

There is a certain questionable daring in bashing and promoting your network at the same. Letterman and Leno both do it as often as

star trek voyager tsunkatse

Let the slash fiction begin

possible, denigrating shows on their network while getting viewers to remember them at the same time. The Simpsons and now Futurama won’t stop bashing Fox and Frasier follows the Paramount dictate to promote Star Trek by creating an offensive stereotypical Trek fan to ridicule. Voyager though here forms a more intellectually complex strike against its own network and the WWF by creating an episode dedicated to attacking violence as entertainment while trying to lure viewers from the WWF to Voyager through featuring one of their superstars in this action sequence. While the action sequence is clearly intended to demonstrate the evil of violence, the overall tactic seems to be the rough moral equivalent of cursing the company but cashing their checks. Voyager condemns the WWF but it’s more than happy to take their viewers and showcase their own material in a violent sequence taken as entertainment. There might be a moral behind it all but then the media has long specialized in showcasing prurient materials for the purposes of moral condemnation.

“Tsunkatse” itself is written so as to be subtle enough to prevent the average WWF viewer from understanding the thrust of the material while appeasing their regular fans with a “The More You Know” commentary thereby trying to have their cake and eat it too. Addressing violence as entertainment in the direction of the WWF is really a bit silly since unlike the violence of the Tsunkatse combats, the WWF is fake cartoonish violence as entertainment. In a time when war is entertainment and the average person is completely incapable of making basic moral distinctions, the WWF is mostly a target for humorless people defending what they see as civilized culture and is an unworthy target for Star Trek to engage. And while Voyager has never specialized in the kind of extreme choreographed martial arts popular on TV today or has pushed the boundaries of physical violence in the way that DS9’s infamous spine cracking sequence has, it still is an action show where the ship is put at risk in nearly every episode and violence usually has few consequences.

If Voyager episodes survive for as long as the original series, no one will know or understand or remember 30 years from now the WWF controversy. They will judge the episode on its own terms as a midly enjoyable repetition of a standard formula, with very little to offer beyond that. Tsunkatse is formula and the climax of Tsunkatse is classic formula too. Seven struggles to make the decision we know she won’t make, Voyager confronts the sleazy promoter and rescues both her and her opponent who looks forwards to rebuilding his life while Seven is concerned over how close she came to killing someone. From a better actor this kind of soul searching might actually be fascinating but from Ryan it’s just another chapter in Seven’s search for her lost humanity and about as interesting. Ironically enough for an episode dedicated to condemning violence as entertainment, Tsunkatse disproved its own point by making its own violence about as interesting as a cold cup of coffee. With no main character worth watching and talented actors on the sidelines to show you just what you’re missing, “Tsunkatse” has nothing to offer the audience past a single viewing. Like that which it condemns, it ends up just being disposable entertainment.

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