Sunday, November 02, 2014

Cult-TV Flashback: Star Trek: Voyager: "Deadlock"

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 has 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 Voyager had 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… 

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