Monday, August 31, 2020

Top 10 Best Deep Episodes of Star Trek Voyager

 Note: Episode descriptions are from Wikipedia's list of Voyager Episodes.

Growing up I loved watching Star Trek Voyager for the deep ethical and philosophical questions that episodes would raise.  This list will be based not on the best episodes overall, but on the episodes with the most interesting philosophical and moral dilemmas. These are simply my perspectives on the deeper issues of these episodes, they aren't specifically stated by writers from the show. 

 10. "Death Wish" - "The crew encounter a member of the Q Continuum seeking to end his immortal life."

This episode deals with complex issues like the role of the state in controlling the individual's right to live or die.  Should an individual whose life has become unlivable be allowed to commit suicide? What constitutes an unlivable life exactly?  And in particular, a being so brilliant and wise as Quinn makes the cost extremely high.  What is the state's role?  The episode determines that in the extreme case of an infinite being who has nothing left to learn or explore, the state does not have authority to prevent the individual from ending their own life; even if it means it will disrupt society. 


9. "The Thaw" - "The crew finds aliens mentally connected to a computer that has created a being that feeds on their fear."

The power of fear is explored in The Thaw.  Particularly, the theme of when fear takes us hostage.  What do we do? What is the purpose of fear? Fear protects us from danger, helps us to not take unnecessary risks. Yet fear, when it takes over and controls us, can become deadly.  It can overwhelm everything else within us, and become toxic and destructive.  Such is the case with "the clown" who has taken the last survivors of a doomed colony hostage. Yet ironically, he was created by their own minds. Isn't it the same with our own fear?  It's a product of our own mindset.

The battle is fought to overcome fear. Yet fear holds on and won't give up. But in the end, the realization comes, that the ultimate role for fear is to be faced and conquered.  

8. "Nemesis"- "Chakotay is taken captive by soldiers fighting in a war against their nemesis."

I absolutely love this episode because it pulls you in so completely, into the struggle of the Vori against the Kradin.  You travel along with Chakotay as he is taken in by the desperate struggle of the peaceful Vori against the evil Kradin.  You experience friends being killed, the villagers being taken away to extermination camps.  But in the end you realize, you've been subjected to a propaganda simulation, to trick you into fighting for the wrong side.  

How often this happens in modern politics, that we find ourselves fighting against the evil "other side" who are so terrible and oppressive, and then later on we discover, we'd been propagandized, and indoctrinated. We find out we may have been on the wrong side. We were taught to hate those we disagree with, and that hatred can blind us to the real facts and truth on the ground.  And in the end, it's a lot harder to stop hating than it was to start.  


7. "The Fight""- Chakotay lies in sickbay as he attempts to communicate with aliens through hallucinations."

 Voyager becomes trapped in a place called chaotic space that threatens to destroy the ship.  There are aliens there attempting to help the crew to escape, through activating a gene in Chakotay that provokes hallucinations.

This episode deals with the fear of growing old.  And in particular the fear of developing dementia. But it goes deeper than that, it actually deals with the underlying fear below that fear of dementia, it's the fear of chaos, of nothingness.  

The story is portrayed as a hallucination of a boxing match. Chakotay struggles with the fear of losing his mind. But ultimately faces his fears, and guides Voyager to safety. 


6. "The Voyager Conspiracy"- "After assimilating Voyager's data from the past six years, through an enhancement to her Borg implants, Seven of Nine suspects the ship did not arrive in the Delta Quadrant by accident."

 This episode deals with the question of how to analyze incomplete information.  Sometimes things in life don't add up in any normal way.  We're left with loose ends, loose change, you might say, and how do we discover the truth about events we don't understand?  

Seven of Nine begins to draw on more and more information and begins to develop a conspiracy theory, that Voyager was sent to the Delta Quadrant purposefully. She strings together various strands of information, forming a house of cards. She questions why Voyager was equipped with cobalt weapons. She questions why the caretaker sent back other ships but didn't send back Voyager.

We see this a lot in politics, and in particularly on the fringes of culture and cults.  If you string together enough random facts you can create a conspiracy theory for just about anything.  But what's actually true?  What do we do with all these loose ends?  The episode concludes by indicating that usually the simplest explanation is the most likely one.  


5. "Retrospect"- "7 of 9 remembers being assaulted by Kovin, but the situation turns out to be more complicated than they realize."

 This episode takes us in completely, as we see the petty capitalistic Kovin bartering for a big sale.  Seven of Nine gets into an argument with Kovin and hits him.  She joins with her new advocate, the Doctor, who begins to bring to the surface repressed memories in which Seven remembers Kovin assaulting her and stealing nanoprobes from her body. 

The episode makes you feel strongly that you must support Seven, just as the doctor and the crew do.  And they have the perfect target, the selfish profiteering Kovin character who is brash, petty, and rude.  

The crew, led by the Doctor begin aggressively advocating for Seven of Nine.  Kovin rightly realizes that the allegation alone will destroy his business. But we all want justice for Seven in the episode.

But here comes the twist, they discover that Seven's memories weren't real.  They were imagined.  In their zeal to protect the victim, they terrify the supposed perpetrator into destroying himself.  

This episode gives us a valuable warning about advocating for victims when the evidence isn't there.  So many in our society want to fight for the victim.  This episode brings to mind sexual assault allegations.  And that the allegation itself can ruin someone's career.  What happens in a situation when the allegations turn out to be false?  On college campuses this is becoming more and more prominent.  Sometimes we go too far wanting to protect the person who appears to be the victim, but later we learn the truth wasn't so simple. And in our zeal to protect the oppressed, we've destroyed an innocent person.  

4. "One"- "7 of 9 must guide Voyager through a nebula while the crew is in stasis."

 30 days, alone on the ship, with only the Doctor to help. This deals with the grim realities of isolation, and the demons of our past coming back to haunt us.  Time alone, in isolation often turns our thoughts inwards to our lives and how we've lived and what we've done.  This episode explores the battle of isolation, and how we fight to push through times of pain, loss, and brokenness.

What on Earth do we do with those constant nagging thoughts about the past?  "I should've lived differently.  I remember all the wrongs I did.  Can I move past these dark times?"  In the end you wonder if Seven will make it through the 30 days.

The passage through the mutara nebula reminds me of the battle against depression, addiction, or post traumatic stress.  These destructive inward struggles threaten to stop our journey through them, and leave us stuck there in the cloud of misery. But the only way past these issues is through them, processing them, facing them head on and going through the memories and the thoughts to find healing.  Often we want to side step it and escape. And we're threatened by the possibility of breaking down and being stuck there forever.

Think of how it feels to lose a loved one, or recover from an assault. It numbs us, breaks us down to a point of hardly functioning at 10% of who we used to be.  It's much like our crew is in stasis, and only a few are left to run it.  And we have to somehow courageously make it through, to the other side, where we finding healing and acceptance, and a new phase of our lives begin. 

 3. "Fury"- "A much older and more powerful Kes returns to Voyager, and attempts to travel back in time to change her history."

 Kes who was once a beloved member of the crew returns in a rage, believing she had been corrupted by Voyager and the values instilled by the crew.  She seeks to destroy Voyager by going back in time and rescuing her younger self from them.

Parents often seek to instill their vales in their children as they grow up. Often this goes well, with the children embracing those values and making them part of their own value-set.  But sometimes the children will reject those values, and become hostile to the values that they were raised with.  Often times we see this with kids going off to college, they leave with a certain set of values, and return with an entirely different set of values instilled by college professors. 

Sometimes later in life we think to ourselves, what if we could go back in time and tell ourselves something?  What would we say?  How could we help rescue our old selves from undue suffering?

Kes deeply regrets the decision she made to leave her homeworld and her people.  She believes the values the Voyager crew taught her about knowledge and science and exploration corrupted her.  She's spent years in isolation.  

And then at the end the episode raises the big question: "Can we go home again?"

The adage is often stated, "You can't go home again." 

But the episode seems to indicate that perhaps Kes can go home again, even though she's so different now, perhaps the Ocampans will accept her, and even learn from her.  Kes listens to herself, through a holo-recording she made.  How true it is that we often have an internal dialogue about this very thing and later we remember that those values we were taught growing up aren't so hateful after all.  We come home again, in a way. 


2. "Living Witness" - "A backup module for the EMH is discovered hundreds of years after Voyager on an alien planet divided over race."

Watching this episode long ago brought me to tears, I found the message so incredibly powerful and provocative.  This is really a ground breaking episode.  It deals with the idea of revisionist history.  Was Voyager a vessel of peace, exploration, and high principles?  Or was it an evil warship, one who spread it's power through violence, conquest, and the selfish desire to get home?  The kyrians have constructed a revisionist history of Voyager, where the kyrian people are portrayed as the victims of Voyager and the Vaskan people.  

But when the EMH appears from a data module, there is a living witness who saw the events that took place.  So which matters more, the narrative that the Kyrians have set up to portray themselves as victims?  Or does the truth matter?  For the main character of the episode he struggles against his own belief structure, and the new facts the disrupt his belief structure.  Eventually he is willing to hear the truth, and accepts it. 

But it greatly impacts the present day realities of how Kyrians are mistreated by Vaskans in their society.  Vaskans begin destroying the museum because they realize it's full of lies, and the Kyrians angrily protest the new information saying it doesn't even matter because oppression exists today. 

I can't help but be reminded of the two modern narratives that are vying for control of the imagination of the United States, the struggle between 1776, the perspective the USA as a nation that set forth good ideals and slowly grew in the direction toward living up to those ideals, or the perspective of 1619, that the USA was founded on racism and bigotry, and is evil to it's core to the present day and must be ripped down and rebuilt from the ground up.  Which vision is actually true?  Which vision is revisionist history?  

The conclusion of the episode jumps from the moment of the riots to ahead in the future, and it's a new museum, where Kyrians and Vaskans are living in peace. The moment of this great conflict birthed a dialogue between the two races, and it paved the way to peace, and a new respect for both divergent cultures.  That is a dream so many have for the United States, that there could be reconciliation and peace between whites, blacks, and other races as well. 

I don't think a lot of people realize how powerful this episode of Voyager was, because it's cloaked in alien civilizations and technology and such, but it really was an incredible feat of philosophical exploration. 


1."Sacred Ground""Kes is left comatose after contacting an energy field around a temple."

Kes is in a coma, but Captain Janeway discovers a way that she might gather scientific data, by going through a ritual of the Nechani monks.  Janeway believes that going through the ritual will bring about certain biochemical changes in her body that will indicate a possible treatment for Kes.  Janeway goes through a grueling ritual guided by the Nechani monks, and the doctor monitors her biochemical condition.  She hallucinates, is bitten by a snake, and has a vision of talking to the "ancestral spirits." She comes back to Voyager and the Doctor indicates that the data he has collected has provided a treatment for Kes.  Mission complete right?  The Doctor administers the treatment, and everything in Kes' body indicates that she is healed, and should be ok, only one problem, she isn't. She isn't cured at all.

Janeway returns to the monks and asks why Kes wasn't healed.  The monks explain that the entire ritual Janeway went through was simply a fulfilling of what she expected.  They simply fulfilled what Janeway thought would probably happen in a typical ritual.  But now the real crux of the episode takes place, when she sits with the three old monks.  They point out that Janeway has a sort of faith, a faith in science.  Philosophers call this "scientism" a belief that the only things true in the universe are those that can be scientifically proven.  And that ideology has failed her in this case completely.  Science can't really explain everything in the universe.  There are things beyond science.  

So she is challenged to do the exact opposite of what she thinks she ought to do, take Kes back into the biogenic field.  Every sensor reading and scan tells Janeway that the biogenic field is lethal, it would kill Kes instantly.  But Janeway is challenged, your science failed you right before your eyes, yet you still have complete faith in it?  That is a promising level of faith in a way isn't it?  So can she learn a simple faith in God, a faith that says, I don't understand, I can't fix this, it's beyond my power, and I trust God to heal this crew member who is near death.  

Janeway moves to take Kes into the biogenic field. Chakotay and Neelix try to stop her.  Chakotay says finally, "Captain, I don't understand this."  And she replies, "That's the challenge!"  It's beyond science, it's spiritual.  And she can't just ignore that.  So she moves on faith, and takes Kes into the biogenic field. And sure enough, the spirits return Kes' soul to her body. 

The last scene is absolutely fantastic.  It shows the Doctor explaining in all sorts of high sounding scientific language about what really happened, and how the biogenic field actually did this, and that, and if they had known that they could've done this and then that.  And Captain Janeway just kind of stares and the doctor asks her if there's anything wrong with his scientific analysis.  And she says no, it's very scientific.  And just kind of walks away deep in thought.  She realizes through this whole experience that faith and spirituality are valid, because indeed there are things beyond medical science, like the soul, and God, that can't be explained by science, but are certainly real. Amazing, and so contrary to what the typical plot of Voyager would normally be, it's almost always about some scientific or technological discovery that solves the problem in the end.  But in this case they take a step back and admit, not all things can be explained by science, the spiritual is valid as well.