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Star Trek Voyager The Haunting of Deck Twelve review

Horror is the dark side of imagination and while Star Trek has a pretty good track record with imagination, it has a pretty weak one with horror. Original series episodes featuring witches and salt monsters were unintentionally funny. The Next Generation with its vast sterile sets and long space hospital corridors which had an eerie haunted hotel look ala The Shining, was long on unusual camera angles and filters and low on story and content. DS9 for all its gritty look and people possessed by glowing red-eyed demons never made a serious horror entry after the first season. Voyager with its own organ stealing aliens, a demonic clown, and the Doctor stalking Kes equipped with a set of bad false teeth did its best and had no shortage of genuinely disturbing moments but never managed to turn them into an entire episode.

By contrast “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” which references the Shirley Jackson novel in the title but actually seems more inspired by the Star Trek Voyager The Haunting of Deck Twelvedisappointing horror movie loosely based on the novel and the episode itself shows that it has learned both from the failure of that movie and the franchise’s failed previous attempts at horror and melds the material with more than a slight touch of comedy, alien encounter and yet another in-depth look at Voyager’s modus operandi. The origin of Haunting can really be found in a scene from an earlier Voyager episode “Dragon’s Teeth” that has Neelix researching ancient fairy tales with gruesome titles while the cooking fire burns in the foreground. While that scene was a minor moment in “Dragon’s Teeth”, Haunting centers the entire episode around it. If Haunting could be summed up in one sentence it is really this scene of Neelix letting his imagination run wild in the deserted mess hall while the fire burns… and having his nightmares come true.

Neelix has always been of questionable use on Voyager. He has many jobs but few of them are really vital in a crisis and so what is he assigned to do in a dangerous situation but babysit children. While unseen to us, Voyager resolves a still potentially dangerous situation, and Neelix is sent to go and make sure the children aren’t frightened by the darkness and the unexplained shutdown. The problem is that Neelix himself is frightened and in a short time his fear translates into a scary story he starts telling the children, a story that happens to be true. Here Voyager again returns to its common theme of highlighting the story within the Voyager story. Where “Muse” looked at Voyager’s story conventions from an alien perspective, Haunting looks at them from the perspective of a child… the actual Borgites and the man-child that is Neelix himself.

In one sense a flashback episode and yet not, Haunting occurs mostly in the past but it really plays out in the present as Neelix, frightened of Star Trek Voyager The Haunting of Deck Twelvewhat may be happening yet cut off from information as to what really is happening, turns to the past and to the origin of the crisis. He does what human beings sometimes do to take control of a dangerous situation beyond their physical control, he turns it into a story. “The Haunting of Deck Twelve,” which is really Neelix’s story, takes control of the situation by centering on the heroism and capability of Captain Janeway who really is in control right now; and in a minor way on the smaller heroism of Neelix who is afraid and isn’t in control. Unlike the common accusation made against Science Fiction and Star Trek, though the story is not escapist in the least, it is to the truth colored and transformed in a way that allows Neelix to come to grips with his fears. This is what horror is really all about: transforming real threats into unreal monsters and then conquering them and this is what “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” is also about.

In a story loaded with jabs at modern day horror movies (the children are smarter than Neelix and know everything ahead of him, Seven unhurriedly walking directly into danger as she is being stalked by truly awful special effects) and Star Trek conventions (so the alien takes over Seven’s neural circuitry and turns her against the crew?) and the entire process of storytelling (Chakotay was plummeting to his certain death… would anyone like more snacks?), Haunting also manages to look at Voyager’s encounter with an ambiguous alien entity who is neither good nor evil but (like Voyager) just wants to go home.

While after hundreds of Star Trek episodes the basic plot of Haunting might seem like a cliche, but through the eyes of the children and Star Trek Voyager The Haunting of Deck TwelveNeelix it takes on new and dangerous life. The entity they encounter never speaks to Voyager directly, instead using the interface of the ship’s computer for a disturbing inhuman effect. We never really see the entity either, unlike most Star Trek alien beings it never states its intents directly instead using the ship’s stock of command phrases to communicate in riddles. The children are right in that there is a monster on deck twelve, a monster who has been here all along with the power to destroy Voyager. We along with the children, in a sense, have been on Voyager all along and have never known it and together with the children we are Neelix’s intended audience. The revelation is disturbing to them as to us not so much because the entity is dangerous, but for the same reason Star Trek uses alien possession and ship haunting stories so frequently, because it turns something we thought was safe and familiar into something dangerous and alien.

There are many techniques here which should inform future Voyager episodes. Neelix’s fear and his complete helplessness combined with his small feats of bravery in coping with the problem makes the crisis more real and relevant for us then if it were seen through the eyes of a trained Starfleet Officer. There are times when Janeway too seems helpless and desperate herself rather then controlled and in command (an unusual risk for Voyager, one the writers hopefully repeat) of her ship, the one true and trusted confidante and ally which has betrayed her. The speed and precision with which the crew shuts down Voyager combined with the lack of an explanation is disturbing. Because Neelix handles all the build-up and the chills very little time is spent discussing the crisis and most of the effort is expended on just dealing with it and trying to stay alive.

Director David Livingston takes full advantage of Voyager’s damaged conditions and its TNGesque smooth surfaces and bright lighting to Star Trek Voyager The Haunting of Deck Twelveproduce effects that are sometimes comically over the top, sometimes creepy and sometimes both (never an easy task.) Voyager isn’t the Enterprise D and never quite manages to convey that feeling of a haunted hotel and the result is more like a haunted battleship, a place where people work and live temporarily turned dark and haunted. The Ensign serves nicely as a returning character who plausibly jumps at every shadow, the children again work very well standing in for the audience, at once sophisticated and disbelieving and nervous and terrified and enjoying the whole thing. Seeing Voyager through their eyes gives us a fresh perspective and a fresh reality and turns what would otherwise be a formula episode into something more in the off-beat quirky Voyager style.

Like a campfire story “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” isn’t particularly substantial but also like a campfire story, Haunting is fun. The episode knows where it’s going, manages to combine horror and humor while also taking a look at how Voyager functions, showing us the ship with fresh eyes and even including some nice character work on a usually neglected Voyager character. This is a lot in a small package but likely to be more appreciated by those who like the show to begin with than those watching just because they can’t find anything better on TV. And at two-percent of the budget and without the benefit of Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas’s girlfriend or a multimillion dollar FX budget, “The Haunting of Deck Twelve” manages to be a much better presentation then the actual “Haunting” movie and unlike the movie, this one comes free. More importantly it comes a lot closer to the true essence of what horror is and the psychology behind it. Horror is the dark side of imagination and imagination is the foundation of Star Trek. Haunting purges that dark side and the monster, leaving both Neelix and the crew, to appreciate the monster for what it truly is, a fascinating, amazing alien-being who is the product of human (or inhuman?) imagination.


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