Summary: A surprisingly quiet and reflective episode on crime and punishment with a truly misleading UPN network promo.
The death penalty is an issue that has come into play more and more in recent years especially what with our new president never having met a method of execution he didn’t love and the debate over its validity and associated issues is only likely to keep on growing. The problem of course is that usually when Voyager or Star Trek in general tries to address a “timely” issue, the results often come out looking like last week’s Lineage. In other words, well-meaning and sincere but fairly one-sided and not really thought out. And while Repentance certainly suffers from these problems, its core success is as a series of quiet character pieces rotating around the implications of the difficulties of making both moral and just choices.
When Repentance drags out Jeff Kober to play yet another in a seemingly endless strings of psychotic criminals, brings in the criminals as a security problem and
introduces the innocent man convicted only because of his race, it’s seemingly set on an inevitable course. The criminals will escape, the evil psycho will escape and the innocent man will be seriously wounded or die trying to stop him thereby commenting on the cruelty of the system. And while with a few adjustments that is the actual plot, this is not an episode where the action drives the story but where the character work drives the action which is at best a very minor point of the episode. The breakout, when it finally comes, is anti-climactic and only a way to focus the ideas into demonstrative action. The expected good and bad roles are gradually reversed with the transition being so slight it’s almost invisible.
Where most Voyager episodes are goal oriented, there’s a problem, e.g. the ship ruptured into different timelines; the characters become aware of the problem, work together to solve the problem, overcome obstacles both within and without and the problem is solved, there’s a goodbye scene and the episode is over. Even great Voyager classics like Living Witness, Memorial, Deadlock or Muse tend to work that way. Repentance though never really begins or ends, the goals themselves are mostly irrelevant and the problem can never be solved. Rather than giving us 90 seconds of cute banter between the bridge crew at peace who are then suddenly confronted with the beginnings of the crisis, Repentance jumps right into the mess with everyone hurrying about their duties as if this were NYPD Blue. It’s far more professional and a nice break from the cloying “Voyager family” routines that have sometimes come to verge on the nauseating.
Once the dilemma is set out, Repentance banks for a while. For some reason the prisoners are kept in special facilities instead of Voyager’s brig. Sure they’re dangerous criminals and all, but shouldn’t Voyager’s brig be designed to be unbreakable, intended not just for its crew but enemy warriors and what not. Indeed the advantages of the cargo bay prison is a little bit confusing. Beyond putting chicken wire on top of the cages and a hole in the force field so food can be passed through, the system provides few advantages and putting strong metal gates on the cages as a failsafe so even if the force fields fail, the prisoners still won’t be able to get out, is an idiot whose time on Star Trek has not yet come. More to the point, Tuvok’s insistence that only Starfleet guards be allowed inside the cargo bay is morally right but since we know there’s going to be an escape attempt and that therefore it’s going to happen on his watch, it makes his moral stance look foolish and incompetent. And indeed when the breakout does happen, the security personnel are easily disposed of and only the warden and Iko prevent the prisoners from escaping.
Picardo and Phillips turn in nice underplayed performances as the EMH and Neelix argue for the prisoners’ plight but the terms of the story cause them to be uninvolved. Ultimately, at the end of the day they’re still outsiders, case workers who shake their heads in dismay but whose words come off as hollow because this just has very little to do with them. Where TOS and TNG attempted to force the characters into the problem in order to comment on social issues, in episodes like Critical Care and Repentance, Voyager has trouble really getting the characters involved in what’s going on so that they seem like benevolent stick figures lecturing on matters that don’t really involve them. It would have been interesting to use Paris’s prison time for correlative experiences with Federation prisons, how does the Federation really handle its prisoners and what are the outcomes, the moral issues? Instead it’s assumed that the Federation is comprehensively benevolent and can therefore just lecture the stand-ins for 20th century America on how to do things.
And so to forge a link, Voyager falls back on its standard, Seven of Nine who can be involved in the problem because she’s a Borg. The analogy between her and Iko is debatable since while Iko wasn’t really sane or in control of himself before, he did make decisions in his own way and execute them. Seven was just the drone, a limb of a vast collective, who made no decisions and had no mind of her own period. Still, Seven seeking absolution through Iko indicates that Seven has modeled quite a bit of her human character on Janeway. After all, Janeway used Seven as absolution for stranding her crew in the Delta Quadrant and Seven is just following in her footsteps with a series of prototypes that seemingly ended with Icheb. But Jeri Ryan’s performance is the weak point in Repentance. She was never a great actress, but here she just seems to be phoning in her Seven repertoire. Watch Seven as cold but defensive, Seven involved and vulnerable and the result is that she never actually seems to be interacting with the rest of the actors, let alone Jeff Kober.
Fortunately Seven is only one of several characters being focused on in Repentance and all the rest do excellent jobs. Kober does his usual good run through of the psycho and then the ex-con trying to go straight. He’s done both on television many times but he still manages to do solid work even while buried underneath some gruesome makeup and stilted dialogue. The actor playing the Ikanian prisoner manages to be perfectly sincere all the way up to the end. With the clumsy use of makeup, facial mobility is practically frozen and the actor has to do virtually all his work using just his eyes to convey sincerity and then guile. Janeway is thankfully mostly uninvolved though her continued insistence on the Prime Directive is mildly odd since the civilization in question is an advanced spacefaring culture and there’s certainly nothing about the Prime Directive that says she can’t grant asylum to an alien from an advanced spacefaring culture. If there were, the Romulan defector from “The Defector” should have been tossed back to the Romulans and Worf should have never been raised by humans.
The Warden never really gets a chance to articulate his position, instead he’s forced to speak in nasty cliches that make him out to be the bad guy at least early on. Part
of this ties into the writers difficulty with presenting the tough-on-crime approach side of the argument in the first half of the episode, which leaves the warden looking sadistic and mindlessly mean. The second half of the episode with its reversals allows him to play a more complex role but while Repentance can recognize the validity of the victims perspective, it has trouble doing the same for law enforcement. Are we really supposed to buy him making a complete turn merely because Iko aided him in a prison escape? A cynical man might even conclude that Iko knew he wasn’t going anywhere and that the ship to rescue him and was simply hedging his bets for a pardon.
But that is a key fault in the use of Repentance as a vehicle for social commentary because no one thinks anything through beyond skin deep and as a result, the ideas don’t really go much deeper than the letters section of USA Today. The Doctor declares that all killing is wrong even though he’s on a starship equipped with huge phasers and photon torpedoes; Seven takes a utilitarian approach until she gets to know the prisoner and forms an emotional bond with him; Neelix never really grasps the issues but has a sense that things are unfair and need to be dealt with; Janeway as the bureaucratic official is mildly sympathetic but it’s not really her problem and she’s not prepared to make it her problem. These are a very effective sketch of character portraits and speak to the complexity of finding a moral and just solution to problems of crime and punishment but they’re not much use as a commentary on social policy except to essentially say “well these things are complicated” and while that’s certainly true it’s in part because no one really tries.
The characters hold ideas but no one really pushes them to the limits. Repentance has no beginning or ending as I said, its start and finish is really just a few ordinary
moments in the lives of Voyager. The prisoners themselves are just passing through Voyager and the crew knows that. They may cause complexities but there’s a certainty in the air that those complexities won’t endure and won’t really sink their hooks into the crew. While this does articulate the tragedy of the condemned, it doesn’t really connect with the material. The EMH is unabashedly for the prisoners because of his programming and Neelix is just a sympathetic and naturally kind person, Seven has an ulterior motive that has less to do with her being a sympathetic outsider and more to do with her looking for redemption by using other people as receptacles for her kindness. This is a more cynical and plausible approach that grounds the relationship in a kind of reality and produces the only plausible connection for an emotional bond in which the Voyager crewmember receives something, instead of being the patronizing philanthropist and just giving. As a result, the prisoners in Repentance come to seem much more real than the Voyager crew; while the Voyager crew will go on to new adventures next week, the condemned lives have come to an end and all the crew can use that for is material for a life lesson.
Unlike Critical Care, Repentance is an effective look at the social issue. It offers different perspectives, an intriguing notion about repentance via brain micro-surgery, a dilemma that has no real resolution and for those not very well versed in the issues, a quick grounding in the basics. Like Critical Care though, it never manages to make the Voyager crew really connect with the issues, but it succeeds by dumping Critical Care’s goal-oriented “Gosh isn’t this awful” sanctimonious tone and instead presents a series of character portraits and really develops the “prisoners” so that they can stand on their own rather than the patients and the Docs of Critical Care who only existed in relation to their relationship with the EMH. Ironically enough for a show that often drones on monotonously about the miracle of the “Voyager family”, Repentance for the most part presents its characters in isolation, drifting apart from each other and each gnawing on just one edge of the dilemma; allowing it to succeed by going against the grain.
Next week: Klingons, Klingons, Klingons and more Klingons. “There will be no peace with the Federation as long as Janeway lives.”