Tuvok does Silence of the Lambs. I mean, not really, but sort of?
Is “Meld” an underrated Voyager episode? Or did I not give it its due before because I underrated Tuvok? Or … both?
Doesn’t matter. “Meld” is great. It’s one of the best episodes of the season, if not the whole series. It has the feel of a horror movie, but also manages to address actual real world issues — in this case the death penalty — without feeling too terribly heavy handed.
Murder on the Alpha Quadrant express
We open with — okay, we open with an annoying B-plot, which I shall discuss later, but it’s just another day aboard Voyager: Tom and Harry are up to shenanigans, Neelix is appropriating Vulcan culture, Brad Dourif is lurking around engineering looking shifty, there’s a dead guy in a conduit–
Never fear, DETECTIVE TUVOK IS ON THE CASE.
Naturally, the culprit is Brad Dourif’s character — he’s the most prominent name on the list of guest stars, and, well, he’s Brad Dourif. He played the possibly-psychic serial killer who becomes obsessed with Scully in season 1 of The X-Files, and “Meld” aired two months after he played a different space murderer in Babylon 5!
On B5 he played a gentle, curious monk, who turns out to have been a serial killer until authorities had his personality telepathically wiped and replaced with that of a decent person who is committed to serving society. (That’s “Passing Through Gethsemane”, the fourth episode of B5’s third season, and a remarkable little standalone. I pulled out the DVD and watched it as soon as the credits rolled on “Meld”. The special effects are terrible, but it’s surprisingly watchable, and I was intrigued by how both episodes approached “telepathic treatments for violent murderers” differently.)
(Yes, Babylon 5 is one of my favourite television series of all time; that doesn’t actually make it good. Or bad. It transcends such binaries.)
Here in Voyager, Dourif plays Lon Suder, a soft spoken Betazoid who occasionally snaps and murders people for no reason.
“You gotta have a reason,” says Tuvok.
“Nuh-uh,” says Suder.
“But that’s how murder works!” Tuvok murdersplains.
And, unable to get his head around the concept of nihilistic violence, Tuvok goes in for the mind meld. Or, as Suder puts it, “That Vulcan thing where you grab someone’s head.”
Because “Meld” is creepy and dark, but it’s also … kind of hilarious? Albeit not necessarily intentionally — at one point, Chakotay describes Suder as “typical Betazoid — kept to himself.”
And I was like, “Ummmmmmmm, the most prominent Betazoids in the franchise are Deanna Troi, whose whole job involves being up in everyone’s business, and her mother, who, well…”
Intentionally hilarious is this exchange between Neelix and Tuvok:
“I will not rest until I see you smile.”
“Then you will not rest.”
Comedy aside, Operation: Mind Meld With A Murderer doesn’t go well. Not for Tuvok, anyway — Suder actually finds some measure of inner peace, insight and a solid grounding in logic. While Tuvok gets all the bad stuff.
What’s interesting is that Tuvok doesn’t just launch into a murder spree with a side of logic. Instead, he starts arguing with Janeway about the need to execute Suder for his crime: they don’t have the resources to keep him sitting around for the trip home; they definitely can’t put him in the custody of any locals; and is spending the next few decades confined to his plush quarters really a punishment?
(As a person who really enjoys staying at home, I say, no, that sounds amazing.)
What’s notable about this Real Issue Debate is that it’s specific to Voyager‘s setting and situation, in a way we don’t often get in Trek. Execution wouldn’t be on the table in the Federation, and Tuvok initially presents it as a a distasteful but pragmatic option. Logical, you know?
[Yes, I went looking for a gif of Admiral Kat telling L’Rell that the Federation has no death penalty. Can’t believe the internet has failed me like this.]
Tuvok’s argument becomes emotional, and you realise that he’s compromised — but in Tuvok, Suder’s penchant for impersonal-yet-individual violence has become a desire for state-endorsed revenge.
Aware that he’s not living up to Surak’s expectations for good Vulcans, Tuvok tries therapy in the form of (a) murdering fake!Neelix on the holodeck; (b) smashing up his quarters. Oddly, neither approach really helps.
Nor does Suder, who is taking advantage of his new self-awareness to provide murder tips, Hannibal Lecter style. There’s a delicious ambiguity about these scenes: is Suder warning Tuvok, or is he pleased to have, at last, someone who understands him? Either way, it’s incredibly compelling — even fun.
(You’d think watching Tuvok murder Neelix would also be fun, but it’s actually rather disturbing.)
So Tuvok’s solution, I’ve gotta say, is pretty bad. But the Doctor’s is even worse: he’s gonna just … remove all Tuvok’s emotional repression? And build it up bit by bit?
Mate, that’s like letting someone gorge themselves after they’ve been deprived of food! You’re gonna get vomit. Or, in this case, an evil monologue.
Okay, semi-evil. Or maybe amoral? He threatens to delete the Doctor’s program, attempts to telepathically control Kes, and calls Janeway’s decision not to execute Suder “weak” and “disgusting”. And we see just how shockingly underused Tim Russ has been for the last season and a half, and will be into the future.
We even get some real time action, running the lock as they wait for the Doctor’s treatment to take effect. This scene is just a handful of people in a room, most watching as one speaks, but it’s impossible to look away.
And then — the Doctor’s solution fails completely. Tuvok busts out, and heads on down to deal with Suder himself.
Suder seems fairly sanguine at the prospect of death — he’s not remotely surprised that Tuvok has turned up. But he offers some — advice? Or is it low-key pleading? — that is (a) gorgeously written and (b) the sort of dialogue that only an actor like Brad Dourif could deliver:
Understand one thing, Tuvok. I can promise you this will not silent your demons. If you can’t control the violence, the violence controls you. Be prepared to yield your entire being to it, to sacrifice your place in civilized life for you will no longer be a part of it, and there’s no return.
This is articulate as all get out, and puts a button on the episode’s concept of violence. But Tuvok is unpersuaded: he attempts to murder Suder by mind meld (PARALLELS) … and collapses instead.
And that’s it.
It was the slow regrowth of Tuvok’s emotional control that left him unable to kill Suder, but as the episode ends, it’s clear that he has a long road ahead of him. None of which we’ll actually see on screen, of course, because Voyager, but I appreciate the refusal to go for a simple ending.
Is emotional repression part of the Vulcan personality, or something external? Are Vulcans savages without it? These questions come up again and again throughout Trek, but this ambiguous exploration of that issue is one of my favourites.
It’s interesting how openly people on Voyager express disdain or outright contempt for Vulcan culture.
Neelix is appropriative: he declares contemporary Vulcan holidays insufficiently “fun” for his morale officer needs, and attempts to declare a festive “Kal Rekk season” — basically imposing a Christiancentric commercialisation (for want of a better term) on a day of atonement, solitude and silence.
When Tuvok objects, Neelix instead threatens to revive the Rumarie, an ancient “pagan” festival which involves some kind of greased up naked Vulcan shenanigans.
(Worldbuilding question: what do Vulcans consider “pagan”? The Rumarie was last practised “a thousand years ago”, which is about a thousand years after Surak’s logic bro revolution. These aren’t nitpicks, I just like thinking about this stuff.)
And the Doctor is openly critical of Vulcan emotional repression, in a way that seems decidedly unprofessional.
Now, we have fifty-plus years of Star Trek to tell us that repressing all emotions and operating on pure logic instead is maybe not a brilliant way to live. It’s especially bad for humans and Vulcans of mixed heritage, and makes it challenging for Vulcans to interact closely with more emotional species and cultures.
But you want them to stop all together? You want Romulans? That’s how you get Romulans!
(I adore Romulans, but they’re not exactly poster-children for non-violence.)
The thing is, when he’s firing on all cylinders, Tuvok is stable. He has a level of emotional honesty which is frankly enviable. Though he never uses words like “love”, his profound regard for his wife, his children, Janeway, Kes — even Neelix, eventually — is evident. He’s everything a Vulcan should be, and doesn’t deserve the Doctor’s rudeness.
And why is the Doctor so rude? It’s silly enough that Leonard McCoy had a Vulcan crewmember in his care, yet knew nothing about Vulcan physiology and was constantly watching how-to videos on YouTube to treat Spock. Now, a hundred and ten years later, we have an artificial doctor with this strange bigotry apparently programmed into his system!
No wonder there are all-Vulcan ships in Starfleet. It’s just constant illogic and microaggressions otherwise.
This is the beginning of an ugly subtext that will rear its head occasionally in Voyager, and sometimes DS9, before becoming extremely textual in Enterprise: Vulcans are different, and that is bad, and a good Vulcan — as T’Pol will be told over and over again — is one who loosens up and acts like a human.
Speaking of Enterprise…
“Vulcan mind melds. Utter foolishness. Anybody with an ounce of sense wouldn’t share his brain with someone else. Would you? I certainly wouldn’t. And of course, when something goes wrong, and believe me it does more often than they’d like to admit, the first thing they call out is Doctor!”
That’s the Doctor, offering an intriguing little retcon. We’ve never seen mind melds go wrong before; there have been after-effects, but nothing long-term or requiring medical intervention. The idea that mind melding is inherently dangerous — and that Vulcans conceal this fact — is entirely new.
But it will come up again in Enterprise. Now, I did not watch “Stigma” because … well, I decided I didn’t need to watch an AIDs metaphor where the disease is spread via dangerous lifestyle choices. (Then I wound up watching “Cogenitor”, which was equally offensive, yet somehow is widely praised. I dunno, fandom, I have questions.)
Anyway, TheM0vieBlog has a good write-up on “Stigma” and depictions of mind melds in Enterprise, and also discusses the implicit sexuality in “Meld”.
Sorry, implicit sexuality, what?
I mean. Suder and Tuvok stand close to each other and discuss the attraction of violence; Suder asks if they can meld again; and then has this extremely subtle dialogue:
“I’ve thought about it a lot. In a way, a mind meld is almost an act of violence, isn’t it? Penetration. Your will dissolving mine. The joining. It seems to me that a mind meld might be fatal if you lost control.”
I mean. What are we meant to think?
(Given that it was 1996 and Rick Berman was in charge, I assume we were meant to think, “Gosh, this homoeroticism is a sure sign that Suder is amoral and luring Tuvok down a dark path! Thank heavens I, a white middle-class heterosexual, am safe from such dangers!” But, you know, sometimes being a fan means reading against intent.)
There was also a B plot
OH YEAH. In the background, Tom is running an illegal betting ring which is in fact an elaborate scam to rip off his crewmates. Chakotay is displeased. Tom looks … conflicted.
We have an arc, now, remember? And no idea how to integrate it into the A plot. Don’t worry, it only has another four episodes to run.
- We end with Janeway accepting Tuvok’s apology, but ordering him to undertake no mind melds without her permission going forward. Can you imagine Spock’s face if Kirk gave an order like that? “But … mind melding is what I do!”
- Okay, yes, his face would look how it always looks. Work with me here!
- This is really a very quiet episode, but it’s full of great moments — I haven’t even begun to list all the lines and scenes I love. It makes the claustrophobic styling of season 2 work.
- It’s also a story that could only be told on Voyager. Suder just wouldn’t be allowed to serve on the Enterprise — any Enterprise. And the investigation of his crimes, and the outcome, would go very differently on DS9.
- Alas poor Crewman Darwin, we hardly knew ye.
“Meld” has just one significant flaw: the isolated B plot. For that reason, it only gets four murdered Starfleet officers out of five.