Star Trek: Voyager
Originally Broadcast April 29th, 1996
Reviewed by Christina Luckings
Harry Kim is practising his oboe in his quarters, while his best friend Tom Paris reads a PADD. There is a banging on the wall. Voyager’s resident juggler, Pablo Baytart, does not appreciate the sounds being amplified through the fluid conduits in the walls. The only solutions to Harry’s dilemma are either to practise in the Cargo Bay – bad acoustics- or get Baytart transferred to the night shift. He has an important performance coming up, with Lt. Susan Nicoletti on oboe. Tom is jealous, how could Harry succeed with her where he failed? Maybe he should take up the drums. Chakotay calls the two friends to the bridge.
Tuvok is picking up non-functional communications satellites in orbit of a planet. Janeway orders Kim to scan the surface, and he concludes that a solar flare happened here 19 years ago, which is about how long ago Neelix remembers this place being a major trading place. The flare sent the planet into a glacial freeze, and hit it with high levels of radiation, but now the biosphere is recovering. The high-tech settlement is uninhabited, and Tuvok believes that the disturbances would have stopped any one of the 300,000 residents from leaving the planet. Kim’s scans trigger an automated message, explaining that a few of the people from the Kohl settlement have survived in a state of hibernation which is programmed to end when the planet begins to recover, 15 years after the recording was made. That should have been four years ago, so what happened to them? Kim checks below the surface for energy readings and finds three faint life signs 2.3 kilometres down, and two dead bodies. Having checked that there are no weapons systems to protect the sleepers, Tuvok transports the hibernation unit to Cargo Bay One.
Kes, Janeway, Torres and Kim study the unit and it’s occupants. One of them is the man who made the ‘do not disturb’ message 19 years earlier. Kim cannot see any reason why two of the people should have died. There are no obvious faults with the mechanism, and the minds of the survivors seem to be linked in with the computer, creating an artificial environment for them to ‘live’ in while they waited for the signal that the world was recovering and they could wake up again.
Kim gives the briefing to all the senior staff. As far as he can tell, the actual decision to wake up was left to the sleepers, as the computer gave them information about the surface conditions. The reason they are not awake now is that they have chosen to remain in their artificial environment. The EMH comes in on the monitor to counter Paris’s suggestion that maybe they like it in there. The two corpses died of heart failure, preceded by an extended period of extreme fear. Chakotay suggests that they ‘unplug’ them straight away, but the EMH says that this would be very dangerous, especially as they do not understand how the interlinking computer system works. Tuvok comes up with the answer – use the two empty pods to ‘send’ people in to ask them why they haven’t come out yet.
The two messengers will be Torres and Kim. Kes puts monitors on their foreheads, Janeway tells Torres that they have 5 minutes and then the recall subroutine will be activated. The pods are closed and the two slip into hibernation.
The virtual reality the Kohl settlement survivors have created for themselves is a gaudy place, peopled by acrobats, dancers, carnival characters and – in total contrast to the rest – a clown in grey standing aloof, watching our two as they search for the three residents. A papier-mache headed ‘Spectre’ asks what they will do when they find them, and when Torres says they want to talk, the grey clown grabs their arms and whirls them off into a dance which finishes at the foot of a bright pink fully functional guillotine. Torres and Kim try to fight their way out, but their blows have no effect on the unreal characters. Harry is manacled and placed in the guillotine, but before the blade drops, the three Kohl residents arrive to point out that if anything happens to the newcomers, their colleagues will shut down the system. The clown orders Harry’s release, and makes it very clear that he knows everything about Kim and Torres, and their mission. If the three Kohl leave, all the characters will disappear, and he will not allow that. Then the wake up call appears on the wall, and Torres pushes the clown aside and dashes towards it. The clown threatens to kill one of the Kohl if they leave, and when Torres challenges him that non of this is real, he retorts that this is as real as a nightmare, and decapitation here would surely cause a fatal heart attack out in the real world.
In the cargo bay, Kes notices the stress levels of the sleepers is rising and Janeway decides to bring Torres and Kim back using Voyager’s back up systems. Then the recall command is terminated from inside the system. Harry is doing what the clown has ordered, but he suggests that it might not be wise to get rid of the recall system altogether. How else can the clown’s demands be relayed to the outside world? The characters confer while the Kohl woman explains that the clown developed slowly over time from their hidden fears of not surviving, not recovering. Although it knows their thoughts, there is a short delay while the system processes them and the clown becomes aware of them. The decision has been made. Torres is to go and tell the Captain that if she tries to switch off the system, all the sleepers will die, including Harry.
The senior staff assemble to discuss the clown’s demand to live, and whether he can be accommodated. The consensus is that the system would require one live brain to maintain the environment. So now they have to find a way to reduce the number of hostages and minimise the risk. How do you negotiate with fear, the most primitive of emotions, persuade it to let you go? Neelix’s suggestion of making it laugh is met with stony stares, and they also need to find a way to communicate without sending in another hostage.
The living inhabitants of this grotesque fantasy land are not having fun like their computer generated companions are. Kim is still upbeat about the prospects of the Voyager crew finding a resolution to this situation, but the three Kohl have been there too long, and their spirits are broken. The clown doesn’t like Harry thinking about escape, and makes him old, grey and helpless. Harry doesn’t like being helpless, just as he doesn’t like being the ‘baby’ of the crew, so the clown makes him into a babe in arms for a while, but quickly bores of it. Kim tries to fight back with his mind. After all, this is all an illusion, and the only thing they have to fear is fear itself. The clown recreates the moment in Harry’s childhood when he was truly scared, on a rescue mission to a colony that has suffered a radiation disaster. He had wandered off where he shouldn’t, and seen a young girl about to undergo an operation without anaesthetic. Just as the clown is about to plunge a scalpel into Harry, another hand takes it, correcting the position of the forefinger for optimal dexterity before throwing it away completely. Captain Janeway’s choice of representative is the EMH.
The clown is not best pleased. He cannot sense the hologram on the system, so how can he negotiate when he doesn’t know what his opponent is thinking. The EMH retorts that he has a trustworthy face, then goes on to make the Captain’s offer of an artificial brain to provide the necessary stimulus for the characters to continue. The clown knows that it cannot work, although Viorsa (the Kohl who made the message) suggests that a recalibration of the optronic pathways might be required. This is a lie, and they all know it. The clown will not agree to something that would leave him at the mercy of people outside his environment. He is confident that Captain Janeway would never risk Harry by turning off the system if he does not agree to her terms. Kim retorts that she knows he would rather die than spend the rest of his life like this. The clown will not allow any hostages to go. Although the system only needs one brain, he wants to keep the rest as backups in case of illness or death. The EMH leaves to report his failure to the Captain in sickbay.
The rest of the senior crew assemble with them to discuss further options. The EMH might be able to repair the brain damage caused by arbitrarily shutting down the system, but Harry may not be able to hold his clarinet afterwards. Torres tells Chakotay that the clown was right to reject an artificial brain, it would not be the same at all, and he would notice immediately if they tried it. The EMH gives Viorsa’s message about the optronic pathways, and Torres realises that he is telling them how to take the whole artificial world apart, removing the environment from the hostages. It will have to be done manually, and quickly, while the EMH distracts the clown.
The clown is feeling sorry for himself, until the little woman and the spectre suggest he takes it out on the residents rather than the characters. Just as his mood lifts, the EMH appears to put a damper back on it. He has come with a new offer of a cloaking device, to ensure no other passing space ships detect them and try to interfere. Meanwhile Torres is halfway through disconnecting the 40 pathways in the system. But the characters notice that the scenery is disappearing, and the clown orders Viorsa taken to the guillotine. A forcefield blocks Torres’ progress. The EMH tries to prevent Viorsa’s execution as Torres gets back in, but he fails. The woman is next for the chop, and Janeway orders the optronic pathways restored. The clown has won, and Janeway does not like losing. What is it about fear that makes people pursue the sensation, she muses? And what does fear seek at the end of the roller coaster ride?
The EMH goes in to give the clown a final offer. Release all the hostages and in return, Captain Janeway herself will come and keep him company. He has 60 seconds to decide. The answer is of course, yes. In Cargo Bay One, Janeway gets into a hibernation pod with a cortical monitor on her forehead, while the clown orders the characters to make their environment spick and span for her arrival. Then he feels her presence on the system and she appears in front of him. The three hostages are released and they are alone together at last. Then, with the people safely off the system and waking up, she drops the bombshell – she is not Kathryn Janeway.
The woman in front of the clown is a hologram of the Captain, and she got there just like the EMH did. Yes, the Captain is on the system, but she is not in hibernation. She was just creating a diversion until the hostages were safe. The holographic Janeway points out some facts of life to the clown. Fear exists to be conquered, and he allowed Janeway to come because he knew she could defeat him, because Starfleet Captains don’t easily succumb to fear. The gaudy environment fades to black as his world ends and he begins to vanish. Fear is finally afraid.
‘Drat’, says the clown at the end of the show. And so say us all. This show tries, but somehow doesn’t quite succeed. Fear isn’t scary, and why are all those characters still gaudy and circus like when the minds creating them are depressed. The Kohl aren’t stupid, so why do they allow themselves to be scared to death by a figment of their own imaginations? The idea of exploring the nature of fear was a good one. The execution as an episodic TV show with the minimum number of sets misses the target.
Shall I list the other grips? The breaching of the Prime Directive by beaming the hibernation pods aboard; sending Torres and Kim into fantasyland in the first place when the EMH could have done it right from the start. Whatever, would we have cared if it was a rescue mission for 3 people we had never met before, instead of dear sweet clarinet-playing Harry, unluckiest Ensign from his Academy graduation class? Possibly not.
However, once the EMH does start confronting the clown, things start to pick up. The two characters contrast wonderfully and give us the better scenes of the show. The Captain, however, only begins to think straight just before the end, when she finally wakes, smells the coffee and starts asking questions about the nature and purpose of fear. Then the twist ending comes without any technobabble preamble, and finally the fade to black lifts the piece to where it should have been all the time.
Too little, too late, sadly.
Trivia note – the teaser in Harry’s Quarters was held over from Death Wish. It fitted a lot better here.