Voyager rewatch 3.02 – “Flashback”

Tuvok does the time warp, sort of.

(This is late because, well, turns out that working from home comes in two speeds: super slow, do all the blogging; and YOU WILL WORK SEVEN DAYS IN A ROW AND YOUR BACK WILL REFLEXIVELY SEIZE UP WHEN YOU LOOK AT YOUR DESK. Guess which mode I’ve been in lately?)

To mark Star Trek‘s thirtieth anniversary, both DS9 and Voyager had special episodes which tied in with The Original Series. DS9 had the groundbreaking showstopper “Trials and Tribble-ations”, which used green screen and carefully-chosen shots to give us such iconic moments as Dax perving on Spock, and Kirk checking out Sisko, and also some sort of plot.

Voyager‘s entry was smaller in scale: instead of time travelling to the glory days of TOS’s season 2, a mind meld brings Janeway to an episode in Tuvok’s past, a lost subplot from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. At the time, I was pretty miffed: once again, Voyager was being overlooked in favour of the show with all the men, and once again, I had to1 read tedious screeds from fanboys explaining that DS9 was just better.

I have a lot more appreciation for “Flashback” these days: it’s a solid bit of adventure with a nice mystery, fills in an interesting piece of both Tuvok’s past and Star Trek lore, and it’s a story which only Voyager could tell.

And, for better or worse, “Flashback” is a Voyager episode in its most pure form. We open with a bit of light comedy about Neelix’s cooking. The story opens with the pursuit of a new energy source. The Doctor saves the day. B’Elanna is sidelined because the cast is too big.

Also, this is a Tuvok story

Which means it might not be flashy, but it is, at worst, solid.

(It’s a mark of just how remarkable “Trials and Tribble-Ations” was that “Flashback”, featuring the return of two major supporting TOS characters, one ultra-popular TOS Klingon, and the reconstruction of a film set including extras and minor cast members, can be considered “not flashy”.)

Because I love Tuvok, I’m going to call this “a hell of a lot better than solid”. In his second century, Tuvok is the oldest regular character of any Trek, and the script takes advantage of this — and Tim Russ’s presence as a minor (human) bridge officer on the USS Excelsior in Star Trek VI — to give us a story which mingles fanservice (this is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Captain Sulu series) with character development.

Through the titular flashbacks, we see Tuvok as a twenty-nine year old, a hot-headed (by Vulcan standards) youth who is only in Starfleet at his parents’ insistence, who objects to the humancentricity of the organisation and intends to resign, yet who has a great respect for his commanding officers — even when he vocally disagrees with them — and compassion for his crewmates.

It’s all rather delightful, not only standing in contrast with Spock — against whom Tuvok is doomed to be compared for all time — but with his future self, who is more tolerant (though still critical) of humanity’s foibles, and who knows when to break the rules to save a friend.

Oh yes, there’s a reason for all these shenanigans

The sight of a pretty blue nebula, rich with energy and coffee, triggers a repressed memory in Tuvok — and repressed memories are literally life threatening to Vulcans. (You’re welcome, fic writers.) The only treatment is a mind meld with a family member — or someone as close as family (again: you’re welcome), so Janeway steps up. But instead of bringing her to the memory, Tuvok’s mind continually returns to a battle between the Excelsior and the Klingons in the days before the Khitomer conference, in which his bunkmate was killed.

After various setbacks, non-linear jumps and a bit where Janeway has no choice but to steal Commander Janice Rand’s uniform (but more on that later), we eventually learn that the “memory” is in fact an alien virus which lodges itself in a brain camouflaged as a memory engram, passing itself along to a new host as the old one dies.

Does this make sense? Ehhhh, not quite. But it holds together long enough to get us to the really important stuff: Janeway and Tuvok on the Excelsior, where we learn cool details like, Tuvok was the source of the cup of tea that smashes in the opening scenes of Star Trek VI, and, it took Janice three years to get from yeoman to ensign.

(Was there an alternative path to officership in the 23rd century? Let’s assume so!)

And a nice little exchange between Harry and Janeway gives us the episode’s thesis: TOS might be outdated, its morality that of another era, but its characters were and are wonderful, and everything which comes later builds on their foundation.

Justice for Janet Rand

Yeoman Rand was a major recurring character in the first season of TOS. Her role was thankless on several levels: her duties included bringing lunch to male officers and getting Kirk’s signature on (electronic) paperwork. And on a narrative level, she was the Designated Victim: objectified, ogled or outright assaulted by villains of the week.

(Lest you think this role was a relic of the 1960s, it passed later to Tasha Yar, then Deanna Troi, was held by all the women of DS9 at various points, and Kes had a few rounds with it before Seven of Nine took over, and then T’Pol got the thankless job. I wish I could say it was no longer a feature in Trek, but Star Trek: Picard gave it back to Seven of Nine.)

Off-screen, Grace Lee Whitney was raped by a senior producer — she never named him, but her description is a close fit for Gene Roddenberry — and developed a substance abuse problem, which saw her lose her job and, for a time, her career. When she returned to the Trek universe in the films, Rand was an officer, but never more than a background character.

And she’s just a minor character here, but this is still one of her best appearances in all of Trek: she has become a cheerful, no-nonsense senior officer, and a mentor to people like Tuvok.

It’s a shame that the script also gives us the “gag” where Tuvok and Janeway steal her uniform. It’s hardly the most egregious thing to happen in Star Trek — or to Janice Rand — but in the context of everything else she went through, it made me a bit sad.

Other observations

  • It is traditional on Talaxia for cooks to share the story of each dish, making it the original Planet of the Food Bloggers.
  • (Tuvok is Just Give Me My Recipe Without Making Me Scroll Guy.)
  • A neat bit of probably-unintentional worldbuilding: Tuvok’s Vulcan meditation puzzle somewhat resembles the Romulan games seen in Picard, albeit the props are much larger and blockier, being designed for smaller, low-res screens.
  • Young Tuvok’s criticisms of humanity basically predict the human-Vulcan dynamic of Enterprise: humans are disrespectful, and insist that Vulcans should be more human in their behaviour and attitudes. He’s not wrong!
  • When I was young, Voyager was Current Trek and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was Old Trek. It was only as I wrote this post that I finally realised that The Undiscovered Country was filmed just five years earlier.
  • I love how everyone has just agreed to pretend Tim Russ’s character in VI wasn’t clearly human. Just as we pretend he didn’t make half a dozen other non-Tuvok appearances before Voyager. (He was a runner-up for the role of Geordi in TNG, and the casting directors liked him a lot.)
  • One Excelsior crewmember they couldn’t get back for this: the one played by Christian Slater in a cameo. Remember Christian Slater? Whatever happened to that guy? *googles* Oh, drunk driving and domestic violence. Never mind.

In conclusion

I was really looking forward to revisiting this episode, and it lived up to my expectations. “Flashback” is the best type of fanservice, in that it gives us new information and a bit of fresh detail on the characters we knew. Three and a half blue nebulas out of five.

  1. It was entirely voluntary on my part, which made it worse somehow…

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