B’Elanna gets caught up in a complicated relationship with an artificial intelligence. Again.
Consider B’Elanna Torres.
She’s a drop-out in her early twenties who nevertheless managed to hack an advanced military computer and reprogram it to the point where it was almost self-aware and capable of learning.
She was probably the sort of kid who tried to build a nuclear reactor in her backyard. If she existed in the real world, today, she’d be building game-changing new technology out of her garage.
B’Elanna often gets lost in the shuffle on Voyager, overshadowed by Janeway and Seven of Nine, and shoved aside by the show’s increasing obsession with the Doctor. And that’s a shame, because she’s a great character, and deserves better than essentially getting the same plot twice in one season.
Sentient bombs are for life, not just for Christmas
Back in the alpha quadrant, not long after B’Elanna joined the Maquis, they came under attack from a sophisticated Cardassian missile, only surviving because, for all its advanced software, it used an old-fashioned and flawed trigger, which failed at the last moment.
(Is that detail in keeping with what we know of the Cardassians? Yes and no. One of their dominant cultural traits is acute attention to detail, and that seems like a pretty important thing to overlook. On the other hand, for all that they are more or less the technological equals of the Federation, their economy has been stretched to the point of breakdown by years of war and militarisation. Not unlike the Soviet Union, which was prone to similar errors.)
B’Elanna reprogrammed the bomb — dubbed Dreadnought — giving it a new personality matrix and a voice based on her own. And then she sent it off on a new mission, to kill some Cardassians.
She forgot, however, to check in with anyone before she did that, and we are told — in a fairly excruciating piece of writing — that Chakotay’s reaction was not anger, but disappointment.
Luckily, nothing came of it. Dreadnought disappeared, and was never seen again. Roll credits. Wow, what a short episode!
OKAY, FINE, Dreadnought wound up in the Delta Quadrant. But, due to sensor damage, thinks it’s still in the alpha quadrant, en route to its target — not a Cardassian military base, but an inhabited planet home to a few million people.
“What are lady engineers into? I dunno, let’s give her some robot babies.”
The Voyager writers made a lot of choices I don’t understand over the years, especially in the second season. Why did we spend so much time with the Kazon? Why the whole subplot about Seska’s baby? Why lizards?
But one of the more perplexing decisions — and there are a lot to choose from — was to run “Prototype” and “Dreadnought” in the same season. They cover similar narrative ground, but where “Prototype” claims an emotional impact it didn’t earn, “Dreadnought” barely includes an emotional arc at all.
Not that “Dreadnought” is a bad episode. It has interesting ideas and good moments, but it’s all very … dry.
B’Elanna’s relationship with her “creation” is far more complex than in “Prototype”. Instead of being coerced into creating artificial life, B’Elanna has already done so of her own free will. Dreadnought isn’t a blank slate, it’s the AI equivalent of a young adult with its own agenda. It’s even capable of deception. B’Elanna interacts with Dreadnought as an equal — maybe even a friend. An adult child.
Just, you know. An adult child who is capable of killing millions of people. Just as B’Elanna is a young woman who joined the Maquis. It’s just a question of scale.
Dreadnought is both a B’Elanna’s creation and her mirror, but the script is unwilling to grapple with the emotional impact of that. It’s jarring when B’Elanna, who sincerely regretted destroying the robot she was forced to build, talks casually about cannibalising Dreadnought for parts.
Sure, Dreadnought isn’t quite sentient. Part of the problem is that Dreadnought’s capacity to transcend its programming is very limited. But still — I have more emotional attachment to my iPhone than B’Elanna demonstrates with Dreadnought, and I didn’t even strip it down and rewrite its code.
And … this is B’Elanna Torres! She has strong feelings and a short fuse! She wears her heart on her sleeve! She has self-destructive tendencies, and here risks her life to destroy a device which literally speaks with her voice. We needed to see more of how she felt about that. More guilt. More rage. More fear.
Speaking of self-destructive tendencies…
While B’Elanna races to disarm Dreadnought, Janeway elects a more direct course of action: activating Voyager’s self-destruct and preparing to get in niiiiiiiice and close.
This is the first of three times Janeway will active the self-destruct sequence in season 2 alone. The habit falls away in later seasons, but it’s enough that, back when I thought Gabriel Lorca was just a regular Starfleet captain dealing badly with trauma, I thought his backstory as the only survivor after he destroyed his previous command was a nod to Janeway, and to the fans who said this pattern was proof she was too unstable to command a starship.
Just as we only get the barest flicker of an emotional story for B’Elanna, we have to guess as to what drives Janeway to make this decision. Need, yes, and one life (and the hope that Voyager’s crew will ever get home) in exchange for millions is a reasonable and moral trade. The needs of the many and all that.
But is it also a desire to show the non-Kazon people of the delta quadrant that they’re wrong in dismissing Voyager? She has already won the reluctant admiration of the leader of the planet Dreadnought is targeting, but does she want more?
No idea. We don’t get to find out.
Hey, you know who does get emotional scenes?
Tom fucken Paris.
That stupid — spoilers — Tom Pretends To Be A Malcontent To Sniff Out The Real Spy On Voyager arc gets its grubby little tentacles into “Dreadnought”, complete with:
- Tom turning up late and dishevelled for a meeting
- Janeway looking on in the background as Chakotay chews him out for same
- B’Elanna checking in with Tom re: what the hell is up WRT his attitude
- Tom, preparing to hit the escape pods, stopping to thank Janeway for her faith in him
And I’m like, FINE, yes, if you’re going to do this (terrible) storyline, you need to acknowledge the emotional impact. But ugh, giving Tom that touching moment with Janeway — and it was small but lovely — while skipping over B’Elanna’s feelings about Dreadnought is not a great look.
- We open with the Doctor and Kes conducting a prenatal check-up on the now-rather-large Ensign Wildman. She’s having trouble choosing baby names. This is a mildly cute scene which has no relevance to the rest of the episode save ensuring that Picardo and Lien make an appearance.
- Persons who had STRONG FEELINGS about CERTAIN EVENTS in the Discovery season 2 finale will note with KEEN INTEREST that B’Elanna was beamed out of a giant antimatter explosion intact and just “lightly singed”.
- I’M JUST SAYING.
I wish it was possible to take “Prototype”, carefully trim all the emotional stuff there and transplant it into “Dreadnought”, and then discard the rest. Two and a half talking missiles out of five.