Voyager rewatch 2.18 – “Death Wish”

It’s a very special crossover event.

[Note: this post includes discussion of suicide.]

[Far less solemn note: I am temporarily using Microsoft Edge because my work computer is too old to tolerate Chrome, and I cannot for the life of me get it to stop autocorrecting my spelling to the US style. Please forgive any inconsistencies.]

“Death Wish” desperately wants to be a good episode. No, not just good — it wants to be important. Not just as an episode of Voyager, but as an entry in a thirty-year-old franchise with a reputation for tackling the big issues.

Unfortunately, it’s just mediocre.

This is an unpopular opinion. “Death Wish” was widely acclaimed when it first aired, and even by the series’ end, it was remembered as one of Voyager‘s best episodes. Top 10, if not top 5.

And why not? It features the return of a wildly popular TNG guest star, John de Lancie as the omnipotent and irrepressible Q. There’s a cameo from Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker. There’s comedy. Pathos. Vulcan sarcasm from Tuvok. Janeway in her nightie. An allegory for a meaty social issue.  Court room scenes. All the ingredients for Good Star Trek.

It’s just that I, one solitary blogger, think it’s a bit rubbish.

Why? Several reasons.

1. This could be a Next Gen episode

I mean, it includes Riker, for crying out loud!

But we’re back to my old rule of thumb, is this a story that could only be told on Voyager? The answer, here, is no. In many respects, “Death Wish” feels stale.

2. Q is the worst

I don’t mind Q on Next Gen, and back in the day I adored his appearances on Voyager. But his interactions with Janeway and her crew … well, they’ve aged. Badly.

Why is an omnipotent, omniscient entity so sexist? There were flickers of misogyny in some of his TNG appearances — transforming Beverly into a dog because she’s “shrill”, for example — but his treatment of Janeway, alternating between insults and sexual harassment, is even worse.

And, yes, he was obsessed with Picard, and equally, if less overtly, flirtatious. But it’s different when the subject of his attention is a woman — which the show seems to realise: when Janeway finds herself in bed with Q, his costume, a nightshirt and cap, makes him ridiculous and unsexual.

He’s sexist to Janeway, racist to Chakotay — Q may have been an impish trickster on TNG, but on Voyager he’s more of a troll, the sort of guy who says he’s “just joking” when he’s called out for his offensiveness, but who keeps going until you finally block him into oblivion.

John de Lancie and Kate Mulgrew have tremendous chemistry, which makes it hard to look away from even the cringiest of scenes, but that’s not enough to overcome the textual ick.

3. Neelix didn’t even need to be in this episode

As the other Q — I’m gonna call him Quinn, since that will be his name eventually — flits around the mess hall, Neelix wonders aloud if Janeway is interviewing a new cook. This is:

(a) silly;

(b) purely there so Ethan Philips has a single line of dialogue to justify his presence in the credits this week. This happens a lot in Voyager, which brings me back to my recurring argument that The Regular Cast Was Too Big. Cut it down to five people (Janeway, Chakotay, Tuvok, B’Elanna, the Doctor, eventually swap Chakotay for Seven of Nine), keep everyone else around as recurring characters — that would have been a nice balance. Instead, we keep getting these shoehorned scenes that don’t add anything to the story, and in fact, sometimes detract from it.

Having said all this, the actual plot is okay

Janeway and her pack of nerds have accidentally released Quinn from the comet where he has been imprisoned by the Continuum as a particularly cruel and unusual punishment for (a) advocating against immortality and (b) trying to end his life. Quinn seeks asylum aboard Voyager; Janeway puts on her judicial wig (picture it, it’s adorable) and calls a hearing. Tuvok acts as Quinn’s advocate; Q-the-one-we-all-know-and-endure represents the Continuum.

Euthanasia was a hot topic in the ’90s — I, as the good daughter of a pro-life activist, did a presentation on it in grade 11, and my then-BFF copied my notes without my knowledge and did a less-good version of the same presentation. Then she got mad at me because she received poor marks, not having fully understood my notes, which were full of shorthand and scribbles. We stopped talking after that. High school, eh?

Voyager, as a series which more often than not played it safe, avoids controversy in “Death Wish” — yes, the episode ends with Quinn being granted mortality and taking his own life, but the circumstances of his existence are sufficiently unique and different from any human’s that no pro-life viewer — my mum, for example, to pick a totally non-random example — would take offence.

I’m not necessarily criticising here. I’m not a big fan of allegories so obvious they hit you over the head. I like a bit of ambiguity in my storytelling. And it’s not as if Voyager is the only Trek to pull its punches — if TNG was controversial, it was usually by accident, like that time they suggested IRA terrorism was the key to reunifying Ireland, and then got all surprised when Irish viewers objected.

Taken as a story in its own right, separated from the metaphor it’s trying to convey, “Death Wish” proposes some pretty interesting ideas: forced immortality as punishment, for example. It made me think of the use of suicide as a political statement in certain totalitarian regimes.

And its depiction of the Q Continuum has just the right amount of surrealism: the clock with no hands, the flapper in evening dress standing on the porch of a roadhouse. “We’ve all been the scarecrow.” Visiting the Q Continuum, like visiting Gallifrey for the first time in 1970s Doctor Who, can only be a letdown compared to what a viewer imagined, but “Death Wish” somehow pulls it off.

(Come season 3, and the unspeakably bad “The Q and the Gray”, I’m going to complain long and loud about how the Q Continuum is America and, dammit, isn’t it bad enough that the Federation is also America? Let the rest of the world have a go! On the other hand, I derive a lot of amusement from Gallifrey turning out to be Oxbridge, so I guess I should unpack that sometime.)

I have … qualms about the ending

Janeway ultimately agrees that to force Quinn to endure existence is unreasonable: it’s a form of emotional torture. He is, essentially, suffering from the cosmic equivalent of clinical depression.

True to his word, Q grants Quinn mortality, and Janeway expresses the hope that Quinn will attempt to try the new experience of life as a finite being. But instead, Quinn takes his life, assisted by Q, who has been inspired to return to his trickster ways.

As an allegory for euthanasia in the ’90s, this is brave! But it troubles me — and this is probably my pro-life upbringing at work here, as well as my own experience with depression — that mental health care for Quinn is never even an option. Once he’s mortal, he has serotonin and other brain transmitters that can be adjusted. Depression is a condition which can be treated.

(I’d like to think that this absence of mental health care marks one point where this could not be a TNG episode, given that they had a psychologist as a regular. But I have doubts.)

So while I think this is a brave ending, I also find it distressing on a personal level. I realise that I was just complaining about Voyager pulling its narrative punches, but watching now, this no longer quite comes together for me.

Fine, Q has an arc

Quinn claims to have been inspired by Q’s anarchic shenanigans, and regrets that Q has become more conservative in recent years.

To which I have to say: FOOTAGE NOT FOUND.

It is two years since Q set up a puzzle which would end all life in the galaxy unless Picard solved it. Was that sanctioned by the Q Continuum?

And — okay, this is nitpicky, but Quinn has been trapped in a comet for three hundred years. Yes, he’s otherwise omnipotent, but apparently Q existence is sufficiently linear that he has been unable to interact with Riker. So how does he even know what Q has been up to lately? It’s less than a linear decade since Q was stripped of his powers as punishment for his behaviour, after which he has become more restrained. Slightly. If you consider “kidnapping the senior officers of the flagship and forcing them into his Robin Hood LARP” restrained. I guess no one died, which is a step up from previous hijinks.

(I think the answer to this problem is, “the bit about Quinn not knowing of Riker was the mistake”, but it’s right there in the script!)

Let’s pretend to accept the premise so we can all move on. Q, in turn, is inspired by Quinn’s rebellion, and is inspired anew. Watch out, universe, Q is back!


Other observations

  • Gerrit Graham is really very good as Quinn. He’s much more restrained than Q, but equally high handed and egotistical — just quieter about it.
  • This isn’t a Tuvok episode in the sense that it’s focused on him, but he gets some fantastic moments, not just as Quinn’s straight man, but as his advocate.
  • Q’s attempt to bribe Janeway with a trip home doesn’t really land — either for her or the audience. It feels perfunctory, and, well, didn’t we run into a Cardassian missile just last week?
  • If Janeway was even remotely tempted — and I suspect she is — Q’s proposition is enough to put her off. Gross.

In conclusion

My own feeling is that “Death Wish” and the two Q episodes that follow are quite skippable. But I’m so very much in the minority on that that I feel like you, the hypothetical new viewer, should make up your own mind.

Regardless, for me, three out of five surrealist roadhouses.

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