Saturday, 28 May 2016

The Coffee Nebula: The Cloud (Voyager)

So, now that I’m not doing near constant preamble work for Meta Month, I have some more freedom to watch some of the shows I’ve been seriously hankering to check out properly. With that in mind, and the release of Star Trek Beyond looming on the horizon, I figure I’d go back and look at the Trek series in full for what is rather embarrassingly the first time. I’ve seen several episodes of each series here and there, with the possible exception of Enterprise as I don’t actively remember watching any full episodes of it, but I haven’t yet taken the time out to watch any of them to completion. As such, over the next very long while I’m assuming, I’m going to add a new feature to the blog called The Coffee Nebula, a look at the good, bad and just outright bizarre in the Star Trek canon as I make my way through the numerous series. It’s not going to be a complete rundown or anything; just highlighting the episodes that stick out enough in my own mind after watching them. With this in mind, I figure that we’d start with easy hunting grounds with a look at Star Trek: Voyager, otherwise known as my favourite series in the franchise. Now, don’t misunderstand my words here: I said favourite, not best. It’s far from the best, as this series as a whole has so many glaring issues as to perfectly encapsulate what the average person must hate about Star Trek. But with that said, for me at least, even when it’s pants-on-head stupid it is still oddly entertaining. It doesn’t feature any of the out-and-out hatefulness of early TNG, nor the sheer disappointment of Deep Space Nine’s less favourable episodes. To help illustrate this, we have what is easily one of the bigger highlights of idiocy from Voyager’s first season. This is The Cloud.

The plot: With the ship suffering from power issues, they come across a celestial cloud that might contain material that they can use to fuel their ship’s reserves. However, once they make their way into the cloud, they discover that it may not be all that they expected it to be.

This is the kind of episode where even from the before-credits scene, there is ample material to make fun of. Janeway acting like some coffee bloodhound, trying to smell some out in Neelix’s kitchen, right down to the stinger line when she decides to venture into the titular Cloud: “There’s coffee in that nebula.” I chose this line for this segment’s title because, quite frankly, it stands as one of the single dumbest lines of dialogue I have ever heard, regardless of medium. I remember first watching this episode years ago, oddly enough one of my first proper exposures to anything Star Trek related, and even back then I knew it was ridiculous to the point of self-parody. What makes this entire coffee fixation the Captain is going through even more laughable is the simple fact that this show has a severe allergy to continuity, so of course this energy shortage will just resolve itself between episodes. It’s rather telling when they have an interesting story engine already gift-wrapped to them, what with the long journey back home through the Delta Quadrant, and they don’t seem to take on board how such a trip would have to involve lasting consequences. I would argue that this is still their first season and they have a long while of smoothing out to get through, but in the episode just before this one, one of the main crew (well, I guess Neelix counts as a member of the main crew) having his lungs stolen and getting a singular transplant back. They encounter the cloud, crisis happens, crisis is overcome, ship limps away to the magical land of plot convenience where their issue of the day is solved.

A few of the larger Voyager staples are introduced here, such as the French pool hall that Lt. Paris programs into the holodeck. Now, the holodeck would end up being used to rather lethargic effect with Janeway’s Victorian holo-novel, but this is probably one of the more reasonable uses of the holodeck that we’d end up seeing for a long while in this show. Any excuse to have Larry Hankin on screen is always a plus, and it helps that it creates a nice locale for the show to regularly use. Kind of like Quark’s bar over at Deep Space Nine; something tells me that the creators liked that scene at said bar from Caretaker a little too much and tried to figure out a way to keep writing them. Then again, the fact that this was introduced in this episode, the one where energy is becoming scarce, just furthers how much these writers don’t really care for continuity. You’d think that anything to do with the holodeck would be a bad idea, as power levels are apparently so low that they are willing to risk unknown space gas to replenish it. But this ends up leading to another issue concerning the holodeck’s power: It is completely separate from the rest of the ship. In fact, it’s so separate that the energy isn’t compatible with Voyager’s other systems. Okay, ignoring the serious lack of common sense that would’ve had to go into designing the ship in such a way, it is nothing more than a cheap cop-out for the writers who apparently got themselves stuck in a corner and couldn’t figure out how to escape without resorting to bullshit. If this was a matter more connected with the holographic Doctor, then it might make some sense: They need his presence as the only medical officer on board but if he stays online he’ll drain even more power from the ship. That, and he’d just keep asking people to turn him off anyway. But since it’s the holodeck, it only feels like they were setting themselves up for holo-adventures that, for the most part, would be completely disconnected from anything to do with Voyager. You know it’s bad when they are actively anticipating their boredom for their own show.

We also get a heavy dose of Cmdr. Chakotay’s Native American heritage. Rather than get into a massive rant about how badly this was handled when it comes to the series as a whole, I’ll just restrict my hang-ups to this episode. Chances are, I’ll end up covering some of the more egregious examples of that at some other time anyway. He ends up waxing poetic about finding his animal guide and teaching Janeway to do the same. Since no specific tribe is ever brought up in the history of the show by name, we’re just left to assume that the writers thought that all Native Americans believed this large hodge-podge of a philosophy. I honestly thought the idea of spirit guides had died out sometime after the Original series ended, but apparently not. The only way that this could get any sillier is if Janeway’s spirit animal turned out to be a sentient pot of coffee. Actually, with how ludicrous a lot of this episode is, that could’ve only served to improve this mess.

The two best parts of this episode, funnily enough, are the two characters who are most willing to question what everyone is doing. The first one is fairly obvious: The holographic Doctor. When he isn’t snarking at the slapshod operation Janeway has aboard the ship, even considering their circumstances, he is doing his best to wade through the mess of a story that basically just involves the crew fixing their own damn mistake. His best scene is easily when he is about to point out how obvious it is that the crew did something wrong, Janeway mutes him, and then he spends the rest of the scene miming to get their attention. It never stops being funny every time I see it. His rather direct outlying of how they can fix the issue, and then saying that it’s their own problem on how they implement, was also pretty funny. The other is a bit of a provisional one, considering it comes from Neelix. For those not in the know, Neelix is pretty much the biggest asshole on the entire ship, if not any of the ships prominently featured in a Star Trek series. This isn’t much of an exception, given how he takes time out to argue with the higher-ups on board because they called the crew away from meal time to deal with the giant space flatulence. And he appoints himself the morale officer on board the ship. And he interrupts the crew on the Bridge, in the middle of wrestling with the cloud, to pester them with food, something that had already been used to make fun of him earlier in the episode during the Janeway hunt for coffee. But outside of that, he also has an exchange with Kes, his then-girlfriend and the one who donated a lung to him last episode, where he questions the intelligence of a crew that would willingly mess with a space anomaly. He’s absolutely right in that matter, since they not only don’t gain any new power from it but end up losing about 20% of their reserves during the encounter. Yeah, on top of this episode leading nowhere, it also leaves the ship weaker than when they entered it. If that doesn’t sum up Voyager as a whole, I don’t know what does.

All in all, this episode will either aggravate you or make you burst out laughing at the lunacy on display. Even ignoring how the circumstances of the episode’s plot don’t ever leave said episode, the writing on display here is mesmerizing in how it keeps portraying people as the stick figures that they unfortunately are. At least the Doctor gets his chance to shine and manages to salvage the scenes he’s in and Neelix gets one moment of clarity, but otherwise it’s a pretty good barometer for just how silly the series can get; make of that what you will.

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