Harry dies. It’s okay, it won’t be the last time.
It’s not that “Emanations” is bad. It’s a solid exploration of what happens when the Federation inadvertently interferes with another culture’s spiritual beliefs. It’s intellectual. Non-violent.
And generic. This could be a TNG story and almost nothing would change. You could even chuck it into the early seasons of DS9 and no one would notice.
But it’s Voyager, so I guess I’m here to talk about it.
One of the things which would be difficult to translate to another series is actually quite small: Chakotay, on realising that the away team has blundered into a burial ground, immediately shifts gears into anthropology mode and has the team put their tricorders away, conducting visual assessments only.
Later episodes will tell us that Chakotay has a background in anthropology — or archaeology, sometimes, because this is the series that continuity forgot. And that’s a fascinating detail about his character, because anthropology has all too often been used as a tool for the devaluing and othering of First Nations cultures around the world. A Native American character who is also an anthropologist could be a way of decolonising a field which is all too often biased in favour of European ethnocentricity.
Sadly, the series never consistently explores that aspect of his character, or considers what the future of anthropology might look like. But it’s a nice moment. And equally important is that Chakotay reverts back to Starfleet mode as soon as the crisis hits, even advocating for the revival of the recently-dead Ptera.
“I sense … apathy.”
One of the reasons this episode doesn’t work for me is that the overall emotional intensity is way too low.
On the one hand, we have the Vhnori, who are just learning that their conception of the afterlife might be entirely wrong. That story is confined to one set of rooms, a small handful of people.
It’s fitting that Harry’s arrival FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE plants seeds of doubt, and I appreciate that we don’t get the usual “fanatic freaks out” plot. But the small scope means that we don’t get a really good sense of the Vhnori as a culture, so it’s hard to really care about the challenge to their philosophy.
And on Voyager, Harry is missing, possibly forever, and … yes, people are concerned, Janeway is moving heaven (literally!) and earth to get him back. But we don’t, for example, check in with Tom Paris to see how he’s coping. B’Elanna is worried — and Roxann Dawson does a lot of emotional heavy lifting, especially in light of how technobabble-heavy her lines are — but it’s a bit impersonal.
“Emanations” covers a variety of Issues — religion, cultural contamination, respect for the belief systems of others, even euthanasia — and the limited worldbuilding we get for the Vhnori is rich with potential. Their afterlife, for example, seems entirely secular, no deities required. If you’re really into the intellectual, concept-driven side of Trek, this is going to be a more enjoyable episode.
But if you watch Voyager for a family of misfits and their shenanigans, it’s … a wee bit disappointing.
Janeway: still the best captain though
The final scene is the other point where this stops feeling like Any Other Trek. Picard would have ended an episode like this with a speech about the ineffable and unknowable. And that would have been great — but Janeway, instead, talks about the danger of becoming jaded, and gives Harry space to consider his experiences. It’s a good moment for her.
- One important piece of characterisation: Harry Kim may be greener than grass, but he is incredibly competent.
- Seska is on transporter duty this week. Her presence in the background is one of my favourite things about early Voyager.
- The Vhnori’s decomposition process sees them transformed into cheap Hallowe’en decorations. We should all be so lucky.
Would I recommend it?
Nah. I mean, give it a burl if you love the intellectual side of Star Trek, or you really adore Harry Kim and his beautiful face, but we’ve seen this before, and we can do better. Two alien corpses out of five.