Summary: Season 7 presents us with a kinder gentler Voyager two parter. A view from the Isle of the Lotus. And for once working within the system works out.
Traditionally the Star Trek two parters have been action heavy special effects extravaganzas specializing in epic confrontations and terrible
disasters. Episodes like Basics, Year of Hell, Scorpion, The Killing Game, Dark Frontier, Unimatrix Zero certainly fit that bill. Three of them involved the Borg, two of them featured the crew and the ship being taken prisoner and one of them featured the destruction of Voyager itself. But this season under new management, Voyager has featured a kinder and gentler two parter. Flesh and Blood had the essential trappings of the standard Voyager two parter but it was a much more character oriented show than any of the prior two parters. Workforce is essentially more in the tradition of episodes like One and Memorial and has far more in common with them than it does with Scorpion or Unimatrix Zero..
Normally Workforce might have run as a one hour episode with the ParisTorres and Seven subplots trimmed along with most of the special effects sequences and some of the action scenes and would have ended with the usual abrupt “30 seconds before closing time” ending that essentially occurs because the show has run out of time. And that would have been a shame and a waste because an effective if not particularly mind-blowing two part episode would have been replaced by another Prophecy or another Shattered, a poorly thought out and unfocused episode that possibly had potential but never got anywhere. The extra space of a two parter however allows the story to really be developed, it allows for the insertion of all those little subplots that round out an episode. And what special effects exist are mainly focused on establishing shots including some absolutely stunning and complex shots of the alien city and some striking footage of Voyager resting at the bottom of a crater. The space battles that occur are few and far between and not really the focus of the story.
But this doesn’t mean that Workforce isn’t a major and essential part of Voyager’s story. Voyager’s journey home has been modeled after Homer’s Odyssey. Voyager was thrown of course into the Delta Quadrant by the 24th century equivalent of a God. In Scorpion Voyager has found itself trapped between Scylla and Charbodis, represented by Species 8472 and the Borg. Which particular alien encounters in Voyager’s history could be said to represent the Cyclops, the Laestrygons or the Sirens is left as an excercise to the reader. But Workforce of course is linked to the Isle of the Lotus. For seven years Voyager has been on an obsessive quest for Earth, for home. More specifically it’s been Janeway’s obsessive quest but the real test of any quest is to present the hero with a way of surrendering the quest that in some ways is equal or even superior to continuing the quest. A chance to give up and enjoy some sort of illusory happiness.
Now it might not be all that shocking to see Chakotay or Paris and Torres partake of the lotus, after all they’re essentially people with short attention spans that focus on goals of some personal importance. They can be happy and do what they want just about anywhere. If the Voyager mission hadn’t come along, they would have found some other niche or gotten themselves killed in some other way. Janeway though is a bureaucrat and a bureaucrat is second cousin to a machine. She thinks only in terms of goals and purposes, which generally have nothing to do with her. What little happiness she gets out of life comes from merging her own identity with that of her position and mission until she can’t tell the difference between herself and her command. This has led her into completely sociopathic behavior but it also makes her virtually inflexible when it comes to accomplishing her goals. And this is why having her taste the lotus is far more shocking than for it to happen to any of the other crew members.
And yet here brainwashed and enslaved on an alien planet, for the first time in seven years of voyaging Janeway gets to be a human being. She has a job she enjoys, a relationship with real intimacy and a home of sorts. Though it may be based on false memories, it’s also more real than anything she’d done since leaving the Alpha Quadrant. The obsessive martyr complex, the sense of responsibility and the inability to tell where Kathryn Janeway ends and Captain Janeway begins are gone. In its place is a human being. And that tends to be a hero’s ultimate test, the choice to give in to human needs or to choose self-sacrifice and fight on for greater goals. Tuvok may not quite be able to adapt, despite his comprehension of humor “Yes it is funny because he did not understand how your species reproduces”, but just how easily Janeway adapts is shocking and that is what drives the episode. The seduction of the Lotus and the inability of Voyager’s crew members to be themselves.
We know that in the end, despite the odds, any episode involving the crew will end with them successful, surviving and possibly victorious. The inability of the crew to fail is practically a reflex by this point. It’s been a long time since there was a Star Trek episode with any real ambiguity about whether or not the crew will make it out or whether the ending will even be what they wanted. Voyager managed a few genuinely dark endings early on with Basics 2 and The Chute but since then we may not know what an upcoming episode will be about but we can usually take a good guess as to what the last 5 minutes will be, sight unseen. Workforce though takes away the crew’s identities and along with that allows for the suspension of disbelief and the possibility that the crew will fail and even that failure might not be such a terrible thing.
Contrary to the claims of the Borg Queen, being assimilated is not fun, but being part of the Workforce might not be such a bad thing. The end result is a fairly decent life and in the case of Janeway possibly even a better life than the one she had before. The rest of the crew doesn’t seem to be doing all that badly either. Paris was together with Torres again and would no doubt have married her (again) in due time. Seven had found the job she was born to do. This was a Brave New World and a world without Starfleet uniforms or the Federation Starfleet certainty in the optimistic outcome. For once the crew were just people like us, living from day to day and just doing their jobs with no higher goals or sense of invulnerability. With hard work and some terrible risks they pull off a happy ending but they’re not particularly confident or self-assured while doing it. They’re just people put in a bad situation, which in TOS was all that the crews were.
For those who expected Tuvok to just tell Seven what’s going on, then to have Seven communicate with the rest of the crew, set up a device to
restore their memories and then have the crew working in tandem with Voyager try to escape; or in other words the conventional Voyager plot we certainly would have seen if this had aired as a one hour episode, here we instead got the exact opposite. Seven is confused and is on the trail of something and even ironically enough views the Workforce area as the interior of a Borg cube for one moment thereby experiencing the paradox of being reassimilated; but she’s a long way from knowing who exactly she is. Janeway has a few moments of bonding with Chakotay but when the test comes between her relationship, her life here on the Isle of the Lotus and her life on Voyager with Chakotay; she chooses the Lotus and betrays Chakotay in a flash.
Indeed none of the Voyager crew, except when B’Elanna as the original sailors of the Odyssey are forcibly dragged away, recover their original memories and identities until they’re back on Voyager. In fact once Chakotay is out of the game, most of the work of uncovering the conspiracy is actually done by a native junior psychiatrist and the equivalent of a police detective. Up until Janeway disables the chief generator, it’s they who uncover most of the dirt and really prod the chief psychiatrist into desperation. Seven encourages them to do what they do but in the end it’s not even the Voyager crew that saves the Voyager crew. Chakotay helps rescue B’Elanna and sows suspicion in Janeway but then is successfully brainwashed. Neelix does nothing particularly useful. The ECH and Kim have several running gun battles with enemy vessels and stay alive but don’t really accomplish very much. Janeway betrays Chakotay and then only really acts when the entire picture has been laid out in front of her at the very end. Paris glowers at people. Seven puzzles out a lot of the necessary information but it’s the classic detective suspended from the force for learning too much who actually moves things along. Unlike their Voyager personalities, none of them are really prepared to take charge and get things done and that is what makes the possibility of their success so ambiguous. Like Janeway they’re capable of doing more, but are too uncertain to take the challenge.
So contrary to the expected cliche we might have thought we’d get from the first part about the evil alien species that kidnaps and brainwashes people, we instead see a complex system that has both good and bad in it. And a system that in some ways mirrors the Federation. The people in charge, even the bad ones, have high ideals. There is the interspecies integration, a system that despite abducting and brainwashing workers also appears to run on merit and to provide a decent place to live at least by the standards of 95 percent of the world as it is today. There is corruption and abuse of power but we’ve also seen the same thing in the Federation. The Chief Psychiatrist who insists that his actions were all justifiable and for the greater good seems to mirror Admiral Dougherty from Star Trek Insurrection who insists that his forced evacuation of the Baku and alliance with criminals was for the greater good of the Federation. Indeed it’s easy enough to see the Chief Psychiatrist holding down a job with Section 31, possibly working on designing the changeling virus. Instead of giving us another alien of the week, Workforce presents an alternate Federation or quite possibly the Federation as it might have looked 200 years ago. Before there were transporters and replicators and white gleaming surfaces everywhere, post WW3 earth at the Birth of the Federation might have looked a lot like the Quaren homeworld with the same positive and negative aspects that would be carried along into its future.
And this only makes this particular Isle of the Lotus only more compelling as a potential alternative home to Earth because it’s not just some alien planet, in many ways it is an analogue of the Federation and home itself. The writers might have pushed their analogy further by giving it the sheen and clean look of 24th century earth but as it is the point comes across. And as in the Federation there are also higher powers who can correct the errors of the system, whereas with the usual aliens of the week, Voyager has to browbeat them into accepting the Federation solution. The Quarren already have a system in place and it is the Quarren who do most of the work in uncovering their own crimes. It’s also what makes it all the more disturbing. One of the horrors of the Borg focused on how close to home it hit, the Quarren homeworld also hits close to home because our world is currently closer to theirs than it is to the Borg. It’s also close enough to the Federation and us to have people both good and evil, all driven by ideals we can relate to. This makes a scene in which Roxann Dawson cuts from the sharp instruments lying on an operating table table to be used on their victim to the supposedly free and open corporate society of the bar into which the Doctor’s phrase “We’ll help him” follows seem all the more disturbing and downright chilling. “We’ll help him” has always been the Star Trek ideal and the implications of how that can be perverted and how vulnerable the Federation is to such a perversion makes the Quarren society problematic in a way that defies any easy resolution.
And Roxann Dawson’s direction indeed carries on from the Kroeker directed Part 1 very nicely and smoothly. She manages to combine the
talent for filming character oriented scenes she showed in Riddles with the work a peak Trek director is expected to do on a more epic episode like Workforce. Handing over the payoff for a two part episode to an amateur like Dawson was a definite risk but it clearly pays off. From the very effective use of shadows in the JanewayChakotay confrontation and especially the dermal regeneration scene (which also cleverly manages to save FX dollars and still look better than the FX scene would have) to the camera work on the quieter moments between her and Neelix; this is surprisingly professional work. It’s almost as shocking to see her be this good behind the camera as it was to see Avery Brooks turn out be better as a director than he was as an actor. It’s nice to see that in concord with TOS’s Leonard Nimoy, TNG’s Jonathan Frakes and DS9’s Avery Brooks; Voyager has produced its own professional director from among its cast.
So all in all, Voyager season seven has taken plenty of risks that didn’t pan out. Workforce however has taken a large number of risks that have. First setting a two part episode around a storyline that focused more on the characters and much less on the action and FX quotient. Secondly by putting much of the resolution of the story into the hands of the aliens and making them more complex than your usual Hirogen. Thirdly by actually letting Janeway be a human being ever so briefly and tempting her with the opportunity to step off the cross and into life (and of course letting the ECH demonstrate that Voyager would have done just as well without her.) And finally by avoiding most of the obvious and easy plot gimmicks and let the characters actually struggle to work things out, something we rarely see on Voyager. Appropriate enough in an episode entitled Workforce.
Next week: Seven of Nine as UPN’s obnoxious promo department has always wanted you to see her.