The difference between episodic and serialized TV isn’t something I’ve ever given much thought to in terms of how each of them work as ways of telling stories. In a telling sign of just how my tastes have changed since it originally aired, I remember a half assed attempt to get into comic books while Voyager was making it’s maiden voyage on UPN. As much as I loved Spider-Man and Batman I was turned off by continuities I knew nothing about despite a pretty good idea as to who the characters and their motivations were. It was alienating and familiar all at once. Voyager–and Star Trek in general–was accessible. I could have skipped a few weeks and not been lost. The question “What did I miss?” has two entirely different meanings when it’s applied to serialized or episodic story-telling.
With serialized TV what you often get is a season that makes up one section of a larger story with each episode serving as a chapter. As one week’s adventure flows directly into the next’s we get pieces that will eventually all come together to make a part of a whole. Missing a week actually means missing something, which is why Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men or Being Human have recaps at the start of a show. And even there, the recaps only give you what you absolutely need to know for that week. Maybe last week’s episode isn’t too important for this one, but it will all come back around. None of it is without purpose, whether that purpose be to move the greater story forward or to give us a better idea about who the characters are.
Voyager doesn’t have a recap and it doesn’t need one. It’s premise is enough to fill us in. Star Trek and ST: The Next Generation had their opening credo: To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilization. To boldly go where no man/one has gone before. Beyond that each week’s episode is it’s own stand-alone story. A “Monster of the Week” type situation. What continuity there is benefits the faithful. Knowing about Picard’s deeply personal history with the Borg makes any encounter with them all the more intense and on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, knowing who Worf’s adopted parents are make any future mentions of his upbringing that much more amusing.
Each format has its ups and downs and they are exactly opposite. With serials you get a richer, more complex story that builds on itself over the course of several episodes and seasons but they get to a point they become impossible to jump into with out being completely lost or having any twists ruined for you. Episodic TV is incredibly forgiving to casual viewers but tends to fall victim to the dreaded reset button: at the end of each week, things return back to normal.
This is the second (technically the third, given that the premiere was a two-parter) episode and it opens with exactly what I felt Caretaker had been missing–conflict between the Maquis and Starfleet crew. Specifically, B’Elanna–Voyager’s fiery Kilingon–has broken a Starfleet engineer’s nose after an argument. While Tuvok wants her thrown in the brig, the Maquis are secretly ready to stage a mutiny in a showing of moral support. In the middle of all of this is Chakotay, forced to balance his new found responsibilities as the Voyager’s second in command with his loyalty to his people.
The “Monster of the Week” in this episode is a singularity that traps the ship and, because of the way singularities mess around with the fabric of space-time–those scamps!–the Voyager tries to rescue a distressed ship that actually turns out to be a future-reflection of the Voyager itself. Needless to say there’s a lot of stereotypical Treknobabble.
Why I liked this episode is that it got us into the heads of three of the leads who weren’t really given anything super important to do in the premiere. We’ll start with B’Elanna who as I pointed out last week got shafted with space herpes (ha!) and was grumpy a lot. Here we get to know why she’s such a hot head; it’s not just because she’s half-Klingon and thus totally confrontational about EVERYTHING, but also because she’s a genuinely talented engineer whose stubborn pride, in conjunction with that ornery Klingon blood, keeps her from ever getting the chance to put her skills to good use. She has some good moments with Janeway where at first she plays the angsty role everyone expects her to but by the end she is able to move beyond her arrogance and dislike for Starfleet and apply her Scotty-like quick thinking to help the crew. We also get a bit of her back-story; she had been a student at the Academy who quit after clashing with most of her professors and assuming, like everyone else, that she didn’t have what it takes for Starfleet. I expect that to be a recurring issue with B’Elanna.
We learn of Chakotay’s Starfleet history as well. Not only is he an academy grad, but also has “prior command experience.” Whether that refers to his time with Starfleet or with the Maquis will probably be explored later on. More importantly we get an idea as to the kind of man he is. As I said, he is torn between two loyalties. While I would have rather seen the meeting between Chakotay and Janeway regarding the combining of their crews you get the idea that he is a man of strong principles and, at the end of the day, a man who wants what’s best for the people who don’t have much of a say. Hence his role as a Maquis captain–I’m assuming–and why he’s accepted the role of commander to Janeway’s captain. He’s on the Voyager to make sure that his people, who would otherwise probably just fuck everything up, get home safely. While that means treating them differently than Starfleet would normally allow–he basically gave B’Elanna a slap on the wrist for messing that dude up–he also didn’t hesitate to berate his former crew for even thinking about mutiny.
Lastly we finally get some Janeway up in this piece. Janeway is a captain whose much more emotional than your Kirks or Picards, and I don’t mean in a Ya Ya Sisterhood and a good cry with her girlfriends kind of way (’cause you know…she’s a GIRL!). Janeway has a tenancy to get real with her crew no matter the emotional climate. When she’s yelling at one of them, she’s yelling at them both as a captain and a human being and when she’s excited with one of them she’s almost a friend. Watching her and B’Elanna finish each others sentences about tachyon beams or particle who-gives-a-whats really gave me my first real thoughts as to what kind of captain she’ll be. She’s also fairly open to suggestion tfrom all across the board, as shown by her willingness to indulge Neelix and Kes at a senior officer’s meeting. Janeway is at once a stickler for the rules but more prone to genuine, human-human (or -other) communication with her crew, unlike Kirk who chummed it up with the bros or Picard who kept his captain face on with all but a select few in very select situations. I can’t speak much for Sisko or Quantum Leap. Not yet anyway.
TIME AND AGAIN
This episode, for the most part, was boring. Starting two episodes with the ship colliding into something the mucked with space-time was a bit of poor planning and for the most part this didn’t do much to move the characters forward at all. With the exception of Kes we don’t get much here and even Kes’ developments are really more of a sign of things to come. In the first episode there was what seemed like a throw away exchange about her people’s lost tradition of heightened mental potential. Whatever flame had long gone out in their minds seems to have been reignited in Kes, who feels the annihilation of an entire planet. This puts her at center stage when Paris and Janeway are somehow whisked back in time to the day before a catastrophe wipes out the indigenous population. She uses her knew sixths sense to track them down but otherwise the story is very similar to the previous episode’s problem with a cyclical concept of time with a dash of Prime Directive paranoia to spice it all up.
In short, PARALLAX is a great example of episodic TV done right. We get our isolated story but not without expanding on some of our characters. Meanwhile, TIME AND AGAIN is already double dipping into the time travel fondue and really only reminds us that Kes is sort of a psychic and in the end, after averting the catastrophe and thus not giving the ship any reason to stop in the first place it quite literally hit the reset button, bringing everything back to the way the episode started. It’s like the writers decided to give themselves a mulligan and filmed it.
-I still can’t tell if Neelix actually knows anything or if he’s just bullshitting his way to free room and board. I’m sure I’ll know one way or the other between now and the end of the series.
-The Doctor is great comic relief. A little bit of Bones McCoy and Marvin the Paranoid Android.
-The show’s theme song is quite lovely, invoking appropriate degrees of wonder and hope which makes sense given the context of the series.
-There was at least one hull breech mentioned between these episodes. I think I should keep track through out the series. On that note, there was mention of the ship’s finite fuel supply, busted replicators and Kes was given the green-light to start a farm. I really wanted to talk about characters this time, but I’ll try to bring this stuff up more. The show is about being lost in space after all, so I’m very interested to see how they rough it in Star Trek.