Voyager rewatch 1.13 – “Cathexis”

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An alien attack leaves Chakotay brain dead. It makes less difference than you’d expect.

Cheap shot? Yes. Here’s another one: it’s a Chakotay episode that barely features Robert Beltran, aka the best kind.

In fairness to Beltran, he was still actually acting at this early point in the series, and probably didn’t deserve to be more or less sidelined. Yet.

It’s a bottle episode

Aside from Janeway’s holonovel in the teaser — which was filmed for “Eye of the Needle” and literally cut and pasted here — this episode features no new sets, no guest stars, and minimal special effects. It’s late in the season, time to save some money.

The best bottle episodes are tight, taut character pieces. And “Cathexis”, with its shadows and paranoia, could have been that!

Alas. Like so much of Voyager, it pulled its punches. Or, to quote Brannon Braga:

“Michael Piller wanted to make it a story about paranoia, which sounded good at the time, but it’s hard to do a show about paranoia on a Starfleet vessel. People don’t behave that way.”

This, to me, is the biggest problem with adopting one firm idea of what Star Trek is: you lock yourself out of potential stories, or weaken the impact of strong ideas — and there’s no need for it! Star Trek had been around for thirty-odd years at this point, and it had been many things, and would go on to be many more things.

And basing your storytelling decisions on the principle that people no longer act like people? I cannot even begin to fathom it! Star Trek‘s optimism, to me, is not the idea that people have overcome their negative, fearful impulses, but that they keep trying, and mostly succeed.

*hands*

“Cathexis” is yet another episode which could have been great. Or at least better. It’s a shame that the holonovel intro was from a completely different episode, because there was room for some nifty parallels between the gothic novel and the mansion haunted by the (metaphorical, I assume) ghost of its former mistress, and the starship haunted by disembodied forces.

It’s easy to look back from 2018 and point out all the ways a script — written no doubt in a hurry as deadlines loomed — has failed. But here’s something which should have been obvious at the time: Chakotay is pronounced brain dead.

This should be devastating. The Doctor says he can keep Chakotay’s heart pumping blood, but that’s it. He is, in the Doctor’s opinion, beyond the reach of even traditional Native American medicine.

The response is, essentially, well, let’s leave him where he is and hope he’ll be better by the end credits. There’s concern, but not grief, even from B’Elanna. It’s underplayed to the point of absurdity.

A brief rant on the subject of holonovels…

I just don’t understand the appeal of acting out a story. Whether it’s Dixon Hill, Captain Proton or Julian Bashir, Secret Agent, I cannot begin to understand how that is fun for the player. Not to mention interacting with realistic people — I have enough trouble making conversation in Dragon Age, and there I only have a handful of options for dialogue.

Since RPGs are a thing in the actual real world, I’m guessing this is not a universal problem. And there’s a whole cottage industry based around watching people play RPGs! The existence of holonovels makes perfect sense, I just wish we got to see more forms of popular culture in Star Trek. Because with one sole exception (“Bride of Chaotica!”, of course), I detest holonovel settings and stories, and I really do think the holodeck as recreational tool is the worst idea of the TNG era.

Ahem. Rant off.

What did we learn about our characters this week?

That’s what bottle episodes are all about, right? Character drama?

It’s a mixed bag. Here’s a list:

  • Kes: her psychic abilities continue to evolve, to the point where — like Deanna before her — she occasionally needs to be removed from the board or else the plot will be resolved too quickly.
  • Neelix: resents Kes’s abilities, presumably because they have nothing to do with him. This is a terrible relationship; I can’t believe it takes up a third of Kes’s life.
  • B’Elanna: we still have no idea how she feels about Seska’s betrayal, but she extremely worried for Chakotay, and he has entrusted her with more knowledge about his traditional practices than he shares with most others.
  • Tom, Doc and Harry: they’re there.
  • Chakotay: does not have a living will.
  • Tuvok: if you’re a passing non-corporeal alien, he is by far the best choice for possession. He’s super strong, he avoids the sorts of strong emotional ties and intimate connections which would give away an imposter, all you have to do is play it deadpan and nerve pinch anyone who catches on. Don’t worry, no one will notice the extremely obvious signs of the characteristic Vulcan move.
  • Janeway: has terrible taste in holonovels, but is otherwise just so great. Even in really mediocre episodes. Her hair is amazing.

Anyway

Despite all my criticisms, I did enjoy this a lot more than “Heroes and Demons”. Not least because I did not remember a single minute of it, so every twist was a surprise.

Other observations

  • It’s weird how Chakotay has only shown his medicine bundle to one person in his life — Janeway — but B’Elanna just pins his medicine wheel up in sickbay for everyone to see. I assume they have different levels of significance?
  • According to my (very cursory) research, medicine wheels are primarily used by nations in the northern US and southern Canada. But they were also very big among white hippies and New Age types in the ’90s, which is where I suspect this portrayal came from.
  • The plot of Janeway’s gothic holonovel was meant to unfold slowly over a couple of seasons, because apparently serialised storytelling was okay if it wasn’t actually relevant to the actual story of Voyager. We never did find out what was up with Lord Not-Rochester, but since the portrait of his wife is clearly from the previous century, I think it’s safe to assume that vampires were involved.
  • Janeway is really handsy with Chakotay when he wakes up at the end. I love it, but I also have questions re: Starfleet policy on sexual harassment. You’re in a position of power, Kathryn, keep your hands to yourself.

In conclusion

Do I recommend this episode? Nah. “Better than ‘Heroes and Demons'” is a terribly low bar. Two disembodied first officers out of five.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

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