Voyager in Love
Muse, the latest episode in Voyager’s sixth season deconstruction craze goes where no officially sanctioned Trek series has gone before, fanfic. While, admittedly Voyager has addressed fanfic before in episodes like Worst Case Scenario and Pathfinder, Muse stands for now as the most explicit exploration of fanfic. The issue for Paramount is a lot less controversial these days what with Simon and Schuster having issued several volumes of fanfic through the New Worlds series and the Internet bringing fans and producers a lot closer than the latter might like. Still the general attitude remains one of amused condescension and while Muse doesn’t entirely get over that like Galaxy Quest it also takes a fonder and more idealistic view of fan interpretations of Voyager while taking the time to rebut some persistent fan requests.
First of all Muse has to get points for cleverness in that it dodges all of the obvious possible scenarios for spoofing fanfic that would have made it seem like little more than a ripoff of Galaxy Quest. Instead it heads straight for the Oscar winner, Shakespeare in Love, and borrows the basic scenario thereby turning Shakespeare into a fanfic writer and Voyager into a subject of his plays. This is a move that ranges somewhere between gutsy and clueless and on paper sounds like a horrible idea. Yet Voyager has had any number of episodes that sounded good on paper and ended up being horribly executed. In a turn of fate, this season Voyager has had some strong successes with episode like Tinker Tailor or the narrative of the Borg children that sounded like horrible ideas on paper but worked very well on screen. The difference lie in execution and Muse is nearly perfectly executed so that the comic and dramatic aspects melt together and the result is an enjoyable episode.
Joe Mensoky is one of Voyager’s better writers and he produces an amusing script with lots of in-jokes and references and navel gazing that never subtracts from the story and in a few touches conveys a neat pseudo-Elizabethan yet appropriately alien culture. The direction transforms the wrecked Delta flyer into a vast dark cave with far more presence and heft than Voyager itself while Dawson unencumbered by yet more doomed attempts at developing her “background and heritage” is simply given the chance to respond to the situation as a person and does a wonderful job.
The only real problem comes once again with the fact that these deconstruction episodes suggest that there is something about Voyager to deconstruct which is a somewhat questionable premise. Voyager is certainly nearing the end of its run but it doesn’t really seem as if there’s that much content to the show or if that much has been accomplished. Muse tries to overcome this by contrasting naive fanfic ideas with “deep dark” scenes of the Voyager regulars but even with this setting those scenes don’t really amount to very much. They’re touching, but all this is elementary material that’s been on the ground since the first season. And the question has to be asked, if there really is this wealth of character relationships in the Voyager crew to mine, why indeed aren’t they mining them instead of doing deconstruction episodes like this that don’t really feature the crew itself?
Muse’s plot in part provides the answer in that it is less a deconstruction of Voyager than of an average Star Trek episode circa TNG. There’s the standard equipment failure-driven episode, the resolution of which requires some equipment repair, a search by the mother ship driven by worry and concern, and eventually a happy reunion. We know this plot so well we can recite it in our sleep. Muse in turn tries to break down the elements of the episode by effectively having a crossover with a bard and an alien culture so that rather than seeing the standard cliched plot, we see it anew, refracted through their eyes with emphasis on them rather than on the standard plot elements. Like Galaxy Quest, Muse uses projected fan enthusiasm to enliven the material and make it seem fresh and exciting. Unlike Galaxy Quest, Muse puts its focus ultimately on the ideals behind Star Trek rather than the cheese.
In this context it is important to note that Muse’s beginning and end take place not on Voyager or even the wrecked Delta Flyer but on the stage version of Voyager. It is not any of the Voyager crew or even B’Elanna who are the main characters of this episode but the aliens. And it is one of Muse’s neatest tricks in that it manages to make the aliens seem accessible, normal while it is the Voyager crew who seem unreal and strange. By making the story be about the story of Voyager, the Voyager crew come to seem more like characters in a story while the aliens seem all-together plausible despite the complete lack of decent sets or even alien makeup. Menosky’s script creates the alien culture as a somewhat pseudo-Elizabethan with mixed bits of ancient Greece while using references like “Winter’s Tears” and the story of the altar to skillfully suggest a much more complex culture behind the scenes.
When the bard discovers B’Elanna he takes her for an Eternal, which seems to be some local variation on the Olympian gods. The idea of Starfleet officers appearing as gods is not new but fortunately the aliens of Muse don’t put that much worship into their idea of Eternals and seem to see them merely as somewhat more powerful beings, but not so in a religious sense. While the bard attempts to pump her for material for his latest play, B’Elanna fairly, coldly, and casually uses him to gain supplies, including an episode that puts his life at risk. This isn’t the behavior of a Starfleet officer but she isn’t a Starfleet officer; she’s a Maquis serving on a Starfleet vessel. The Torres character is meant to be harder and darker than the average Starfleet officer and while this often shows up, here it plays quite nicely. Lt. Torres violates the Prime Directive numerous times in this episode and doesn’t subscribe to a particularly high ethical standard, acting as she thinks is necessary. The result is that she seems a lot more human than when she’s acting in cliched, frustrated, half-Klingon fashion. On Voyager she’s a special category of alien with her own cliched role to play while here she’s a person among other people.
B’Elanna’s stories to the bard reproduce the basic Voyager outline but all set on the sea and with the planets as islands and the Borg as a warrior race. What he does with the source material of the Star Trek universe is to churn out fairly crude approximations of the Voyager crew who enthrall to juvenile fanfic ideas about drama, mostly spend time romancing each other. This gives the producers a chance to rebut fan demands beginning with the demands for various kinds of relationships or more time spent on relationships. The core of it seems to consist of saying that relationships are stupid and there are higher forms of drama out there. Admittedly too, many relationships and weddings turn a show easily into a soap opera, but still it’s not much of a response. The rebuttal to that element of fandom which wants a Janeway/Chakotay relationship is to emphasize how deep and trusting their relationship is already so that romance would only ruin it. This would be slightly more plausible if every major crisis didn’t seem to involve a snit between the two of them in which Janeway makes it clear that she thinks that Chakotay should have exactly as much autonomy as a poodle.
Having exploited the bard in pursuit of repairing the transmitter, B’Elanna finally exhausts her resources (and his) and goes “into town” to see the rehearsals. This introduces us to the rules of drama, the in-jokes that will drive the rest of the plot. Just as Star Trek was driven by the ideals of having a part in creating a better world, the bard also wants to use his play to cause his ruler to seek peace instead of war. Soon enough he hits on the idea of using the Star Trek source material to compose a fairly simple moral tale about violence not solving anything that strongly resembles a number of TOS and TNG episodes. This elevates his work from fanfic character smooching to using Star Trek to spread constructive ideas about the world, which brings him to doing art instead of soap opera and justifies Torres’s title as the Muse who inspires art.
Back at the Delta Flyer, in a humorous jab at the standard plot cliches, Torres’s troubles with the transmitter turn out to be completely pointless because Harry Kim was here all along with a transmitter in his pocket. But now Torres has become caught up in the story and arrives at the play just as the bard struggles with his lack of an ending. Here the discovery that Torres is an Eternal combined with the sudden reversal comes into the equation. Finally Torres departs in a blaze of light with a tear trickling down her cheek which makes you wonder if that’s supposed to be Torres the person or Torres the actress playing a part on the stage. Or perhaps at this point there really is no distinction. What matters is not Torres herself but how the audience sees her and what the audience takes away from the play they have just seen. As the final words are recited and the real audience and the stage audience come together on the closing words describing a peaceful world where “hatred has no home.” This as much as anything else is the vision of Star Trek and you realize with a jolt that the possibility of its realization is as alien to us as it is to the aliens applauding. Despite the vast cultural and technological gap between them and us, neither of us is anywhere close; but what brings both the fictional and the real audience of Trek together is that we are both reaching for what is beyond us. Like Galaxy Quest, Muse ends on a hopeful note of belief in redemption through idealism, the idealism of its fans.
This is Muse’s theme and its focus on the way the audience refracts the material presented to it. Unlike Shakespeare in Love which focuses on the idea of actors playing parts and the joy of the theater, Muse focuses on the actual product and the creative process. The key difference between Shakespeare and Star Trek in this context (beyond many of the obvious differences) is that Star Trek seems to inspire people to duplicate it in some way whether that involves collecting merchandise, reading books or writing fanfic. Muse makes the distinction though between trying to duplicate the source material, namely the starships and the adventures and the weird aliens, as opposed to trying duplicate the ideas behind the source material. The bard’s progress comes when he learns to see past the setting and to placing ideas within that setting. Similarly what the writers may be trying to say in their own defense is that what matters about Voyager isn’t the settings or the relationships or the plot resolutions but the meanings and ideas behind it. This is likely to be a tough sell to fans.
Still the writers have made one point pretty clearly, whether intentionally or not. As bad as any present or future series might be, it’s still better than fanfic.