John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV
One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
If Star Trek: Voyager (1995 – 2001) had played its cards right, it would have added an alien nemesis to the enduring outer space franchise as terrifying and fearsome as the Borg once were.
In particular, the first seasons of the 1990s program featured an alien race of the Delta Quadrant known as the Vidiians. These aliens were hideously deformed, technological advanced beings who suffered the effects of an incurable plague.
What made the Vidiians truly so terrifying, however, is the fact they weren’t out to explore other worlds peacefully, or make new friends.
Instead, they wanted to harvest the organs of any compatible life form they could find. Certainly, the Borg wanted to “assimilate” new technologies and drones to their vast collective, but the Vidiians would kill you in a heart-beat for a healthy liver.
The Vidiians were at their dreadful, menacing, and merciless best in the second season Voyager episode “Deadlock” by Brannon Braga.
The story, not unlike “The Best of Both Worlds” on The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) features a scarifying sense of momentum and inevitability. It's one of those episodes that moves fast, with great purpose, and events seem to overwhelm both the characters and the audience.
In “Deadlock,” Voyager discovers that it is entering a region of space controlled by the Vidiians.
Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) decides that it may be prudent for the ship to cloak itself inside a nearby “plasma drift,” and hopefully remain out of sight.But the ship encounters some sort of subspace turbulence in the drift.The warp engines stall, as if they have “sprung a leak.”
This turn of event couldn’t happen at a worse time, because not only are the Vidiians nearby, but Ensign Wildman is very pregnant, and going into labor. When the ship's systems start to fail, the baby's life is imperiled, even after a "fetal transport."
The plasma drift also causes all of Voyager’s matter to double, creating a duplicate ship, but one joined at the heart -- the warp-drive -- with “our” Voyager. This means every person, from Janeway down to the newborn child is also duplicated.
The two Janeways confer about the crisis and the possibilities of separation, but before long, the Vidiians find Voyager in its hiding spot, and 347 of their shock-troopers board one of the ships to begin organ harvesting…
The opening acts of “Deadlock” are laden with terrible techno-babble that means nothing, a common problem of both Star Trek: Voyager and the episodes written by Brannon Braga. Yet despite this pitfall, “Deadlock” works, in part because it possesses the (brutal) courage to play out its nightmare scenario: a Starfleet vessel overrun by Vidiians.
In short order, we see Tuvok (Tim Russ) and Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) shot down by the soldiers, their organs cataloged and harvested for return to the Vidiian population. The episode also shows us Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) during a hull-breach, but it is the deaths associated with the Vidiian march that, for me, remain the most terrifying. One of the most upsetting images of the episodes sees the Vidiian away team practically salivating at the thought of taking the Wildman baby, a new-born.
"Deadlock" is also abundantly clever in the way that it plays with audience perceptions of “our” Voyager. At first, the version of the starship we have followed all along seems hopelessly crippled, and Janeway must contemplate destroying her own ship.
Then, a second Voyager is found -- with a whole crew and a functioning ship -- and we breathe a sigh of relief because, essentially, we know our beloved characters won’t die. Then the kicker is that it is the other Voyager -- the whole Voyager -- that is boarded by the Vidiians, leaving the other Janeway to destroy her ship….which she promptly does.
"Welcome to the bridge..."
“Deadlock” is a particularly strong episode for Kate Mulgrew -- and for Captain Janeway -- as she plays the same individual attempting to “cheat” death in two, essentially, hopeless situations.
And making matters worse, Janeway must consider not only the safety and well-being of her own crew, but the safety and well-being of the other crew, which is also, paradoxically, her own crew. It’s enough to make the head spin, but one quality I admire about Janeway (especially here) is how she takes the weird situation at face value and -- based on the available science and the facts -- works her way through the danger. I’ve always liked Janeway quite a bit as a character, and she’s actually my second favorite Star Trek captain, after James Kirk.
In part, this is because Janeway is actually an expert in a field other than diplomacy. She’s a scientist and engineer first, not just an ambassador with a portfolio, and many episodes (including “Parallax”) reveal how her training in those fields help bring about good outcomes in crises. Given our anti-science culture today, I find Janeway especially refreshing. She's smart as a whip, and never uses the excuse that she's "not a scientist" to avoid grappling with a problem.
Voyager was always at its best when it verged on being a horror show, which is another reason that "Deadlock" works so effectively.
I also absolutely love “The Thaw,” another second season story, wherein Janeway must outwit a devilish, holographic clown (Michael McKean), and I am similarly fond of the third season episode “Macrovirus,” in which giant, airborne germs decimate the crew, leaving Janeway to single-handedly combat them and save the ship.
These episodes come closest to fulfilling Voyager's potential. It is a series about a starship alone in the great unknown, without the resources of a command structure to fall back on. Episodes like the one I mention focus on the danger inherent in such a scenario.
Later seasons of the series brought the Borg back again and again and again, watering down their threat substantially, but those return visits, while demanded by Star Trek fans, I suppose, are not that effective.
Imagine, instead if Voyagerhad continued to use the Vidiians as a primary villain.
We could have had five or six years of some really scary stories about contending with a race that sees humans only as organ donors…
I can't really believe it's already been 25 years years since Voyager debuted. I vividly recall watching the series for the first time in 1995. I was 25-years old...and met Voyager with great enthusiasm and hope as a continuation of the Star Trek mythos.
The series premise - a solitary Starfleet vessel lost in another quadrant of deep space -- promised an important quality in 1995: accessibility.
At last, general viewers could experience an untangling of the intricate, overlapping, dense mythologies that had transformed Gene Roddenberry's once clear-cut, moral universe into Space Politics 101. Voyager's Delta Quadrant format was thus a restoration of the formula vetted in the Kennedy-1960s: going where no man has gone before on a weekly basis. Voyager also promised the uncertainty of an effort like Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space:1999 by sending Starfleet officers on an unplanned galactic sojourn without back-up, without infinite resources, and without allies.
Starting out the journey, I was impressed. Voyager was indeed more accessible than the other latter-day Treks (DS9, Next Gen, Enterprise). It's also the only Star Trek besides the original series that my wife, a novice fan, can stomach. In addition -- strikingly -- Voyager seems far stronger in terms of ensemble acting. In fact, no Star Trek TV cast before or after Voyager gelled quite so quickly or so ably.
Kate Mulgrew's Captain Kathryn Janeway promptly became my favorite Star Trek Captain after James Kirk (sorry, Jean-Luc...), and I loved the way that Mulgrew's distinctive voice, -- her command "purr" -- would transform into a sort of guttural tiger's "growl" as her ship faced off against the menace of the week. I also appreciated Mulgrew's boundless energy level. Janeway was a captain who hardly ever sat down in her center seat. She was constantly in motion on her command bridge; as though to sit down was to slow down the mind;to miss a vital fact or necessary information. Mulgrew was, in my opinion, a great anchor. She brought a larger-than-life dimension to Janeway on Day One (like Shatner's Kirk) and I appreciated that mythic approach after the more work-a-day performances of Stewart and Brooks in the other programs. Janeway was a smart, captain of action, on the front lines of exploration, much as Kirk had been. When a crisis arose, she didn't yell "conference" and convene a meeting (the m.o. of Picard). She moved. She acted.
Over the years, my enthusiasm for Star Trek: Voyager waned significantly. Looking back at the first two seasons today, you can see how the writers relied too heavily on fictional Star Trek techno-babble to save the day. Optronic relays, ODN circuits, EPS systems, baryon sweeps, Heisenberg compensators and so forth...it all just makes your eyes glaze over. There's no connection between this imaginary tech and the human experience. It's all just jargon. Simply put, there was no crisis that a gooddeus ex machinacouldn't get the crew out of.Next GenandDS9 suffer equally from the same affliction, so this malady was hardly unique toVoyager...but it was still disappointing to see it replicated. In the humanist realm ofStar Trek, reshuffling the tech-of-the-week shouldn't have been the solution to so many important crises. Not when you had a woman as strong as Janeway as our moral, emotional guide.
Another problem was that the series never seemed to authentically cope with the very important idea of limited resources. I was deeply disappointed to see Voyager resort to familiar holodeck stories (only here, at least at the start, based on Victorian literature rather than 1940s film noir). I mean, in a universe of limitations, was it really prudent to use the holodeck (especially since use of the replicator was rationed)? The series attempted to explain that that holodeck worked on a different kind of energy matrix than the rest of Voyager, and therefore its energy couldn't be harnessed in other realms.
Uh-huh. This was really just a crutch for the writers, and seemed to negate the very premise of the series. I see this failure of creativity as an example of Voyager refusal take real chances, and play it safe instead. I once asked the late Johnny Byrne, story editor of Space:1999 what he thought of Voyager, since it boasted a similar premise. He said, famously, "Look, when I start to see people with big ridges on their heads, I tune out...Voyager is the antithesis of Space:1999. I think it's dull and formulaic. It's lost any sense of urgency. My problem is that the characters have so much, but accomplish so fucking little."
Then, when Voyager unceremoniously sacked one of the most interesting characters ever created in the Star Trek universe, Kes (Jennifer Lien) -- an alien nymph (Ocampa) who had the limited lifespan of nine years -- for a 7-foot tall Amazon in a cat-suit, Borg babe Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), I knew the series was really and truly on creative life support.
For the character of Kes offered talented writers everything a Star Trek series could possibly require in terms of story lines.
Here, embodied in one package, was a person who could go from childhood to puberty, to adulthood, to old age, to death. Every aspect and stage of "humanity" and the mortal existence could have been examined through Kes alone over a seven-to-nine year series span. Youthful exuberance, teenage rebellion, adult drive, middle-age regret, wise old age...acceptance of death. Just imagine the stories that could have been told.
Finally, here was a character as rich in potential as the logical Mr. Spock had been in the 1960s, but one not in a Spock-imitation mode (like Data or Seven, or T-Pol). Watching Kes age across a seven year span, our crew would have been forced to consider their own human mortality too. And the best part was Kes wasn't suffering from a "disease," and her impending death wasn't reversible...it was natural. Kes and her friends on the crew just had to "accept" her life-span as a fact of life.
But Kes -- and all her potential -- was dumped for overt sexuality. The writers were never able to use her character to her fullest potential, as I believe I've enumerated above. Ryan was superb as Seven of Nine, but the commercial crassness of her appearance and her sudden prominence in the story lines (to the detriment of the other characters) was hard to forgive in a show supposedly about "human" values. Imagine just for a moment how unforgettable it would have been had Kes stayed with Voyager throughout the series and actually died of natural causes as the ship neared home in the Alpha Quadrant. This character-based story would have granted the final episode, "Endgame," a kind of melancholy, emotional, character-based lift that it clearly lacked. The joyous (a return to Earth) would have been mixed with the sad (Kes's demise), and the episode would have reflected more accurately the essence of our human existence; the way that the good goes hand-in-hand with the bad.
But okay okay, this post isn't supposed to about cursing the darkness, but rather praising the things that were indeed good and memorable about Star Trek Voyager. As the series grew, I appreciated how the relationship between Janeway and Seven grew and changed. I also loved the development of the holographic doctor, and his quest not just for recognition as a person, and ultimately, for equal rights.
I feel like I can say this with some degree of certainty: the early Voyager years, produced by Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller and featuring Kes, are a great deal stronger than some of the later episodes. Here's a brief survey of some high points from Season 1 and 2.
The first story after the pilot "Caretaker," titled "Parallax" is a techno-babble story in terms of the scientific threat-of-the-week, but the installment nonetheless boasts authentic character fireworks as Chakotay (Robert Beltran) lobbies Captain Janeway on behalf of the volatile half-Klingon, B'Elanna Torres. Chakotay thinks she should be chief engineer; Janeway thinks she's not Starfleet material. This story is written with real passion, and is one of the few Voyager episodes that pays more than lip service to the concept of two unlike crews (Starfleet and Maquis) attempting to blend. Over the course of the episode, Janeway comes to realize that Torres boasts a thirst for knowledge similar to her own, and the rapid-fire theoretical dialogue comes across at warp speed. This show is alive with the possibilities of new discoveries, and since the characters are engaged, so is the audience.
"Prime Factors" is another great episode, primarily because it involves Voyager running afoul of an advanced, peaceful civilization that refuses to share its superior technology (and send Voyager home...)...simply on principle. This is exactly what Starfleet officers do every day with General Order One, or the Prime Directive. They deny those planets more primitive the benefit of their know-how and help. I'll never forget smug Captain Picard condemning a drug-addicted race to a horrible, painful fate in the Next Gen episode "Symbiosis," for instance. In Voyager's "Prime Factors," the shoe is finally on the other foot as Janeway must contend with somebody else's self-righteous sense of morality. Some Voyager crew members ultimately attempt to steal the alien technology in this episode, in a surprisingly real (rather than idealistic) portrayal of human beings.
"Phage," "Faces" and "Deadlock" are three episodes that feature Voyager's best villain: the Vidiians, an alien race dying of a terrible plague. The Vidiians aren't interested in diplomatic relationships or treaties. They show up in space, lock onto your ship, and harvest your organs...in seconds (thanks to a weapon/medical device based on transporter-style technology). All the Vidiians care about is their continued survival, and that single-mindedness makes them Star Trek's scariest and most effective villain after the Borg. It also makes them, perhaps, the most tragic. We learn in their introductory episode ("Phage") that the Vidiians were once a race of artists and musicians, for instance, but now their entire economy and culture is geared towards fighting the plague, the phage. In one downright vicious episode ("Deadlock"), we witness the Vidiians overtaking Voyager, and cutting crew members down in the corridors for organ harvest. It's all incredibly nightmarish.
One of my favorite of all Voyager episodes is "Alliances," during which Chakotay urges a "new" way for Janeway, suggesting she makes alliances with races (like the evil Kazon) she finds reprehensible. It's a good episode that could have been the basis for a multi-episode arc in the vein of Coppola's Godfather, since it involves betrayal on an epic scale, and even a mob-like "hit" at episode's end. Alas, the segment ends with utter retrenchment: Janeway would rather have a philosophical ally in Starfleet rules and regulations than an alliance in real life, with flawed partners. If her kind of thinking ruled in the Alpha Quadrant, the Feds would have never made peace with the Klingons...
One of the best episodes of Voyager -- one so good it takes your breath away -- is "The Thaw." It concerns a conceit I hate: holodecks, but manages to do something interesting and new with the concept. In this case, Voyager runs across a group of scientists on an alien world who are wired into their own holodeck/virtual reality environment. To everyone's terror, this computer-generated realm is dominated by a surreal carnivalesque atmosphere and a gruesome clown (Michael McKean), Fear Itself. And the trick of this world is familiar to fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series: if you die in the holodeck, you die in real life. And that clown has a nasty habit of putting those who disobey him under the guillotine.
What I admire about this episode is that it deploys all these surreal, bizarre visual compositions to assert the clown's total dominance over the dream scape and ends without bells and whistles, but rather with a one-on-one, intimate battle of the wits between Janeway and Fear. Like I said above, it's just stunningly good and superbly written and orchestrated.
In "Resolutions," Voyager is forced to strand Captain Janeway and Chakotay together on an idyllic forest planet, and -- without regard for the cliches of the genre (evil aliens, etc.) -- the story observes simply how the two characters cope with their sudden marooning. Chakotay finds acceptance quickly, and settles into his new life without looking back or asking questions. Janeway, on the other hand, never stops fighting, and never relaxes. If she's occupied, she believes, she won't feel alone...or left behind. Again, it's just a simple story of two alternate worldviews, but it is handled in a compelling, character-based fashion.
Star Trek: Voyager is clearly not the paradigm shifting sci-fi outer space series that Farscape orFirefly or Battlestar Galactica proved to be. It was just the latest in a familiar concept, tweaked and twisted to seem "new enough." I believe that if the makers of the series had truly been bold in their choices -- turning off holodecks, featuring arguments between the two crews, and asking the characters to make moral compromises in a world of limited resources -- the series would be remembered today in much more positive terms.
The early seasons of Voyager are strangely inconsistent: one week the series daringly breaks formula and the next week it offers a storyline you've seen on Star Trek a dozen times. A prime example of the latter is Brannon Braga's "Threshold," which involves a galactic breakthrough and an unwelcome twist in human evolution. In other words, it's "Where No Man Has Gone Before," only dumber.
I don't know if you've given Voyager a try in the last twenty years, but the good episodes are so good ("The Thaw," "Parallax," "Deadlock," "Resolutions") that you really mourn what amounts to a lost opportunity to update and modernize the increasingly-familiar and trite Star Trek universe.
A lifelong Star Trek fan, I stopped watching the series regularly by season six (about the time "The Rock" was guest-starring as an alien gladiator...). I didn't stick around to see the lost crew get home (though eventually I did watch that episode...), because I'd lost faith in the writers to wrap up the show in a novel, exciting and legitimately dramatic, human fashion. I watched the episode in which Kes returned, elderly and senile, and it was so horrible, and even vindictive, that I gave the show up. Then, just a few years ago, I rewatched the entire series with my son, Joel, and I very much enjoyed it. I felt it was much stronger than I ever had given it credit for. In part, that may be because of context. From 1995 to 2001, Voyager was but one in a line, sharing the "air" with Deep Space Nine, and Next Generation movies. There was so much Star Trek to have that the series felt repetitive and unoriginal. Today, watching Voyager outside that context, the series is immensely more enjoyable, and it is possible to detail its virtues more clearly.
"I know you have been busy and, frankly, I was not sure if you still have time for “Ask JKM a Question” feature on your blog (I know it has been a while). But my wife and I just finished binge-watching both seasons of the series You on Netflix and, for the first time in a long time, I felt inspired to send you a question because I was so curious as to what your thoughts on this series might be.
And, if I am being honest, the main reason I thought of you is because season 2 of You reminded me so much of an old episode of The X-Files, "Terms of Endearment." It seems like a weird comparison to make, but I guess everything in life can be distilled down to at least one X-Files episode if you try hard enough.
Anyway, I enjoyed season 1 of You but felt that season 2 was far superior. This is due, in no small part, to the outstanding performances of actors Penn Badgley and Victoria Pedretti. If you ever do get a chance to watch the series (I know it can be time consuming with ten episodes each season), I would love to know your thoughts.
Thanks as Always (and Happy New Year!)"
Happy New Year to you, Chuck, and thank you for the question. I am still happy to answer "Ask JKM" questions, and was happy to see yours. Any readers who have questions are welcome to pose them, and I will respond as soon as I can.
I do apologize for having to step away from the blog more than I would have liked, in the last 12 months. I am hoping to return to it on a fuller basis, when it is feasible.
Before I answer any questions about the series You, I should probably post a "SPOILER ALERT" here.
Don't read on, fair readers, if you have not seen the entirety of the second season.
I have seen both seasons of You(2018 - ) and the answer is that I think that is a terrific, well-made series. The first season had a fantastic New York vibe, and I was worried, honestly, when I heard the second season would be moved to Los Angeles. I worried that everything that made the series so appealing to me would be gone in the second season, especially given the fate of Beck, a character I adored.
Boy, was I wrong.
Instead of repeating the same formula, You absolutely re-invented itself via its Los Angeles location, and ended up as an edgy, wicked, and absolutely on-point commentary about Hollywood, Me Too, Woke Culture, Self-Help, dieting, and more. I agree with your assertion that Season Two was actually stronger than (the superb) season one, and I do credit that success to the writing and acting, but also to the location change that I had fretted about. The switch to L.A. infused the series with new energy, and deepened the discourse in a way I wouldn't have imagined possible. This year, Joe entered a city where everyone was as dangerous, obsessed, and, really, narcissistic as he was. Compared to some of the people he encounters in Season Two, he seems like an amateur in terms of stalking and obsession, in fact.
Your comparison to "Terms of Endearment," a sixth season episode of The X-Files (1993 - 2002) is apt, and very insightful. For those who don't recall it, that episode stars Bruce Campbell as a husband and father-to-be named Wayne. His secret, of course, is that he is, literally a monster. Specifically, he's a demon. But as the episode reveals at its climax, he is not the only monster in his relationship.
The second season of You could be interpreted as a non-supernatural variation on the same story. Joe/Will is a monster of the human variety, a psychopath, I would guess, and he enters a relationship with Love Quinn, a woman whom he puts up on a pedestal as this pure icon of beauty, a kind of feminine ideal. If you've watched the second season, you know that Joe gets quite the surprise, come end the of the ten episode catalog. It is an ending that very much mirrors the idea of "Terms of Endearment." So that connection is there, even if the supernatural element has been replaced with human psychology.
What is so fascinating to me, about this paradigm, however, is what it tells us about Joe. In both seasons of the series, he falls in love, honestly, with the idea of love. He becomes infatuated and obsessed with a woman, and with his ideas of who she is. When she is not who he believes she is, Joe becomes dangerous, even murderous. The second season reckons with this idea, that men in general (and Joe in particular) fall in love with illusions that they have made themselves, not the actual woman who is the object of their affection. Joe grows -- maybe -- at the end of the season, by realizing that he has not really "seen" Quinn, and instead of murdering her when he does really see her...he settles down with her.
I don't know if this notion of Joe and Quinn in domestic bliss will work in terms of Season 3, but again, I applaud the creators and writers on the series for ambitiously moving beyond a formula that would quickly become stagnant: Joe falls in love, acts obsessively and dangerously, commits murder, and has to run to a new city. Rinse and repeat. The last episode of Season Two promises that Season Three will be a whole new ball game, and that's good.
I think you are correct, too, Chuck, to credit Penn Badgley, who plays Joe/Will, with much of the series' success. He is the anchor for everything, and is compelling, and strangely sympathetic. Much of the second season involves Joe going head to head with a nemesis, Candace. By all rights, our sympathy should be completely with her. He nearly killed her. And yet, our sympathies are not with her. We want to see Joe succeed, despite the fact that he has committed horrible acts, and that she is right about everything (as even he comes to admit, near season's end). This is kind of fucked up, and actually serves on a commentary regarding how women are viewed in our culture.
Yet if we did not, at some level, love Joe, You simply would not work, and would also likely face accusations in the press that it is misogynist, and that it encourages sympathy with the devil. But Penn Badgley's performances are sympathetic, even if the character he plays is an awful human being. And we are capable of experiencing nuance in terms of our understanding of Joe. He is a monster, but he is also a human being. Season Two brings in flashbacks to his childhood, for instance, so we get a better understanding of how he became who he is.
Another reason we love Joe: He sees everybody for all their bullshit. What I like about Season Two is that his eyes are finally opened, indeed, to his own bullshit. In Season Three, I assume we will learn whether Joe grows in that regards or backslides.
So You is absolutely a new favorite in my house, and it's going to be a long wait until the next batch of episodes in 2021.
Readers: You can e-mail me questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com, if you like!