Voyager rewatch 5.04 – “In the Flesh”

Species 8472 mixes it up human-style.

This episode is incredibly fun to watch, and I hate it.

Every Star Trek series has a turning point. An opportunity missed, a road not taken. Stories which could have been more than one-offs, which could have had more impact if not for the limitations of episodic storytelling.

I can understand those. They’re products of their time, and of the limitations of Gene Roddenberry (and later Rick Berman’s) imaginations.

What I cannot understand is the decision to make “In the Flesh”, an episode which could have introduced a powerful new alien, and instead reduced a powerful existing alien to an absurd and unworkable degree. In nerd talk, this episode nerfed Species 8472. And I do not understand why.

The thing is, this is not actually a bad episode

I said “Ugh!” out loud when I realised what I was up to, but actually I enjoyed watching it. It’s fun! You have Chakotay running around ‘Starfleet Headquarters’ with the world’s largest camera, flirting with Kate Vernon and getting his anthropologist on, and then it all culminates in a verbal sparring match with Ray Walston. There’s the tension of “who are these people and why are they planning to infiltrate Starfleet?” and “will diplomacy be enough to stop them?” Great stuff!

It’s just … everything falls apart for me when we learn that the mysterious infiltrators are Species 8472.

sometimes … more detail is worse

I realise this flies in the face of Star Trek‘s whole ethos, and also my usual preferences in storytelling, but I liked it better when Species 8472 were unknowable and genocidal.

Like, what’s great about “Prey” is that we have Janeway going, “No, we cannot communicate with this alien and maybe we never will, but nevertheless it is entitled to live.”

“In the Flesh” brings them down to earth with a crashing thump. They have internal politics and crotchety old men. Why, they’re not that different from you and me, after all! In fact, they’re thoroughly boring!

Contrast that with Species 10-C in Discovery, where learning to communicate with them is the work of a couple of episodes. Heck, compare that with the Founders in DS9, who remain entirely alien in outlook and morality, even as they take on human form.

“In the Flesh” makes Species 8472 small. Petty. It’s no surprise that we never see them again after this.

I know that Monday morning quarterbacking is easy, but bear with me

The thing about Voyager is that it never had any truly great villains of its own. The Borg? Originated in TNG. The Hirogen? Very good, but not iconic. The Kazon? The vast majority of people are going to laugh at you just for suggesting it.

“In the Flesh” could have changed that. Introduced a new race, more than a match for Voyager, marked by paranoia and internal politics. Watching from across the delta quadrant as the Federation expands and deciding they need to take it down before it can reach them. There’s a story you could carry across seasons.

Would it be hard work, explaining why they can’t or won’t help Voyager get home? Yes. Is it a more interesting story even with that problem? Absolutely.

For what it’s worth, I checked MemoryAlpha, and scriptwriter Nick Sagan said “In the Flesh” was originally meant to have a darker, more ambiguous ending — and that’s after a big space battle idea was abandoned because of budgetary considerations. No one sat down and said, “Hey, you know what would be really cool? Making it so there’s no point pursuing Species 8472 as a concept any longer.”

And, in fact, had they continued with this idea of Species 8472 in human suits, it could be that I’d think of “In the Flesh” as an interesting turning point that led to great stories, rather than a sad and ignominious ending for some fun aliens.

Once again, the real enemy is episodic storytelling (and Rick Berman).

There’s some cool worldbuilding … for the Federation

For example, some of Chakotay’s dialogue as he interacts with the disguised 8472s implies that San Francisco/Earth is not the only training ground for Starfleet cadets. Which simply has to be the case — even the average Australian university has more than one campus, and for all that it’s incredibly elite, the sheer size of Starfleet makes it impossible to cram a whole class into one small San Francisco property. This is one of those things which has been blatantly obvious for decades, yet fans are only noticing now.[tfn_notes]It’s me, I’m fans.[/tfn_notes]

Additionally — Boothby cannot possibly be the only replicant based on a real person. I firmly believe that everyone in the simulation is real, and that somewhere out there is the real Commander Valerie Archer. And I know that her surname is coincidence, but I also believe she’s descended from Jonathan “first captain of the Enterprise even though he wasn’t very good at it and basically got the job by being a nepo baby” Archer.

(As long as we’re abandoning analysis for Headcanons With Liz, I will also argue that Katrina Cornwell is also a couple of generations back in Valerie’s family tree.)

Screenshots of Valerie Archer and Katrina Cornwell wearing very similar facial expressions
I don’t share my podcast co-host’s headcanon that Katrina Cornwell is Jonathan Archer’s granddaughter, but that facial expression has to be hereditary SOMEHOW, right?

Other observations

  • Robert Beltran is just caked in make-up. I don’t know if it’s the ‘outdoor’ lighting that makes it extra-obvious, but it’s a bad look. And — like dyeing the grey out of his hair — completely unnecessary.
  • Let’s assume that someone has been messing with the Doctor’s subroutines again, because he is really far too okay with creating a weapon of mass destruction
  • Seven has a new two-toned catsuit. I hate it.
  • Janeway’s hair is SO LARGE. How many secrets does it hold? Is there an anti-gravity device in there somewhere? I am sincerely terrified. It is full of diplomacy and cautious trust.
  • There’s a whole lot of talk about “humans” and “human values” in this ep. Cue Azetbur “why, the very name is racist” clip.
  • Harry says that he has always wanted to date an alien, as if he hasn’t almost married several.

In conclusion

Ultimately this is a disappointing ep, but it’s nevertheless enjoyable — if only to appreciate how much Janeway flirts with Chakotay before sending him out on a date with someone else. Three full-bloom roses out of five.

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