With Star Trek: Picard‘s first season done, and Discovery‘s third likely postponed for COVID-19 reasons, it’s back to the ’90s for me! Specifically, 1996, which excuses the special effects but not the writing.
“Basics” is a good title for this episode. It’s basic.
The planetside story is … fine. It doesn’t really do anything new or interesting with its depiction of patriarchal cavemen who kidnap the pretty blonde girl. You wouldn’t want to think too hard about the odds that anything on this planet was suitable for human (etc) consumption.
But Janeway has great hair, and a wonderful angry tremor in her voice as she insists that no one else is going to die under her watch.
And it’s more or less a good episode for Chakotay, letting him be leader, anthropologist and man of non-violent action — although one gets the impression that a memo was handed down, requiring the writers to remind the audience that he’s Native American. Two self-deprecating bits of dialogue is probably one too many.
Then Tuvok has that line about Chakotay “wanting to find nobility in a savage”. You know I’m nearly always Team Tuvok, but mate, that was super racist, and you need to apologise. He’s just lucky there’s no HR in the delta quadrant.
The Voyager story is also … fine. Suder is a great character, and Brad Dourif works well with Robert Picardo. The Doctor arguing in favour of necessary violence — murder, even — is interesting, although I wish more had been made of that side of his programming.
The problem is that, emotionally — in terms of characters and giving the audience a satisfying end to this arc — these are the wrong stories. Amusing as Seska’s verbal sparring with the Doctor is, there’s no relationship there. It’s Chakotay and Janeway she (and, sigh, Cullah) have been dealing with, and they’re far away in another subplot. There’s no final confrontation, no catharsis for viewers or characters. Imagine if Sulu defeated Khan, or Geordi the Borg Queen. Imagine if Morn took out Dukat.
This problem was set up, of course, in the first part. It’s truly remarkable that, after so many years of writing themselves into corners with cliffhangers, Trek writers still didn’t put any thought into how they might best be resolved. I think this partially comes from the fact that the season finales were usually written at a time when the writers room was exhausted, burned out and creatively drained — but this had been happening for a decade, and still no one suggested finding a new approach?
Speaking of new approaches, this was Michael Pillar’s final script for televised Trek. Having tried and failed to update the storytelling style in season 2, he conceived “Basics” as a reminder to the writers of the value of the basic tropes of Star Trek. Which are … what? Space battles, cavemen and racism?
It’s not clear to me precisely what Pillar had in mind — but then, a lot of his ideas didn’t make it into the final script. He wanted to kill Seska’s baby, for example. Jeri Taylor, the incoming showrunner, rejected this idea — rightly, in my opinion — arguing that it was in poor taste.
On the other hand, Taylor also rejected any ideas which would have led to long-term consequences or emotionally complicated stories. She refused any possibility of keeping the baby onboard, and insisted that Suder die, arguing that he was irredeemable. Likewise, if the baby was to live, Seska had to die.
What’s interesting to me is that apparently no one considered the possiblity of keeping Seska alive and on Voyager, with or without her child. Which seems like an obvious solution to the narrative conundrum to me — but then, I’ve been arguing since “State of Flux” that it was a mistake for Seska to leave the ship at all.
Keeping her aboard as a recurring castmember, a foil for Janeway and a thorn in Chakotay’s side, and a source of unwelcome advice and sometimes-necessary knowledge would have been amazing — a little like that marvellous “Sisko and Dukat go on a roadtrip” subplot in “The Maquis”.
But Taylor, judging by her comments about Suder, took a pretty binary view of good and evil and which characters deserve to be live. Once it was determined that the baby couldn’t die, and couldn’t stay on board, there was no possibility of Seska surviving. And I’ve been a little bit cross about it for, um, 24 years.
- Hey, welcome to season 3! We start out with some glorious location shooting in the sun, washing away the memory of last season’s dimly-lit soundstages.
- This is a short post because … well, it’s a pretty lacklustre episode, and I’d rather spend time talking about things which bring me joy.
- On which note, I have a controversial opinion: Janeway’s ponytail in this episode is her best hair for the entire series. Long at the back, not too built up at the front, just a little bit of wispiness. Perfect.
- We don’t see Kes’s face at all for most of the scene where she and Neelix are held captive by the cavepeople, and on the one hand, it reflects how this show simply does not care about her as a character; but on the other hand, it made me wonder if Jennifer Lien was unwell and this was a body double.
- A better script could have made something out of Chakotay, separated from a child he thinks is his, caring for baby Naomi.
- (The idea that the primarily female audience of Voyager wouldn’t have been all over Chakotay as sensitive-action-hero-and-single-dad boggles the mind. Of course, the network didn’t actually want that primarily female audience…)
- It’s been 24 years and I still have trouble believing that, in the 24th century, a super-competent spy who artificially impregnated herself could be mistaken about the paternity of her child. If you wanted to go really dark, you could come up with some headcanon about the Doctor lying … but let’s not.
- Farewell, Michael Pillar. You tried.
The culmination of so many emotional and plot threads shouldn’t be so … skippable. Two alien lizard monsters out of five.