In the yesteryears of the mid 90s, Paramount Pictures looked to continue the Star Trek boom begun by Star Trek: The Next Generation (which had recently ended) and expanded by Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Wishing to both return the series to its adventurous roots while breaking new social boundaries, they premiered the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager on January 16th, 1995. Featuring a female captain and a surprisingly diverse helping of crew members, Star Trek: Voyager would continue on for six years and offer the setting to one of the best Star Trek games ever released (Editor’s Note: This was not a part of the agreed introduction, Tim.) (Tim Response: Don’t care, my phasers are set to frag!).
Nearly every Monday we share a roundtable discussion about a Voyager episode featuring experts pulled from the close group of friends we could easily bribe. This week’s group consists of site regular Seth, film/tv critic Ryan, and yours truly! Spoilers are naturally a matter of course with this territory, and portions of our conversation drew on our knowledge of other episodes of both Voyager and other Star Trek shows. You have been warned.
This week covers the fifteenth episode of Season 1, “Jetrel.” We return to find the whole group, fat from holiday cookies, in the middle of a heated discussion…
Tim – Star Trek? We can talk Star Trek now, right?
Ryan – Yes, let’s.
Tim – Because, good sirs, let me be quite frank. I don’t want to be hyperbolic or anything…but this was by far the worst episode this season, in my opinion. Probably the most egregious, in my mind, for how it picks something up and MANGLES IT like Lenny holding a rabbit. I was very frustrated by the end.
Seth – Really? I thought the metaphor was obnoxiously obvious, but I thought they did a decent job of executing it.
Tim – The metaphor was extremely blunt (I mean, how subtle could they be when they were directly lifting Oppenheimer quotes to give to Jetrel), but to a point, I agree. If the only thing they were doing was talking about Hiroshima in space, they actually did a decent job. It was the back and forth breaking of Neelix as a character that soured my mood with every passing minute.
Ryan – I don’t know. They very consciously took on something that was a pretty clear metaphor for Hiroshima, and then the way they decided to twist the characters around it… It’s definitely more than just obnoxious. They were definitely episodes I had a harder time sitting through, but the storytelling decisions they made here were pretty baffling.
Tim – Ryan, you mentioned earlier that a big thing for you is lost potential, right? That was my beef here. When they opened this can of worms and implied that, not only was Neelix’s family a victim of a weapon of Mass Destruction, but that he had been a soldier in a war, I stood and paid attention. This was not a Neelix I’d become accustomed to. Suddenly his jovial nonsense made a bit more sense- he was running from the horrors of the war he’d witnessed.
Ryan – Oh, absolutely! I think their first mistake was making Neelix, in his words, a “coward”
Tim – Absolutely. That “twist” at the end, just made me think “Oh, great, it’s the same impression we had about Neelix from episode one.”
Ryan – They introduced us to some pretty interesting character developments for what had otherwise been a pretty flat character and then pulled the rug out from under them and re-introduced Neelix-as-usual.
Tim – Exactly. And, honestly, I felt a little betrayed as a viewer. I think it’s pretty obvious I haven’t been too impressed with Neelix as a character, but that initial introduction made me think that there might be something more to him. To have that pulled away was just like “Gee, thanks, I’m going to go back to being tired of his ridiculousness.” It’s probably more a problem with me than the show, but I just didn’t feel like that particular character development was executed well. In the least. And the fact that the episode puts such a premium on that and makes it, in my opinion, the focal point of the episode….meh. Just meh. Apologies! Didn’t mean to go off the reservation with a rant! I’m reigned in, everyone. I’m reigned in.
Ryan – No, I think you sort of have to start with your over-arching opinion for this episode right off the bat, or it’s just going to be the big genocidal elephant sitting in the corner of the room.
Seth – See, I still thought it was a meaningful bit of character development for Neelix. While they fell back on “Neelix is a coward,” it was with a different inflection than normal. He was a conscientious objector, but still joined the rescue parties after the Metreon Cascade and clearly suffers PTSD from the event. He’s not the same coward we thought he was, he’s a coward who believes in running rather than resorting to the use of force.
Ryan – Oh, definitely, Seth, to the conscientious objector bit. It soured it a bit when they made him tell all those grandiose stories of his being a war hero of sorts, but then that angle really lost its effectiveness when suddenly Neelix was made to realize he was more angry at himself then at the man who invented the Cascade. And without a word about “survivor’s guilt” I was led to believe he blamed himself somehow because he was hiding.
Tim – You know, that’s how I read it as well, although Seth’s interpretation sits better in my gut for what might have been intended. It probably led to my confusion about the angle they’d taken. Why would he blame himself for not joining in a war he disagreed with? Why would his coming to terms with that lead to him “forgiving” (or hinge upon his apparent forgiveness) of the man who led the program that murdered his family?
Ryan – That’s when everything became the most muddled.
Tim – Absolutely.
Seth – I do see how the episode kind of leads you towards “He was angry at himself the whole time,” but I interpreted it more as “He’s angry at Jetrel for good reason, but he’s ignoring Jetrel’s attempts to repair the damage he’s done because he’s angry at himself.”
Tim – I feel kind of bad here, because listening to what you’re saying here, Seth, I can’t really disagree with your reading of the episode. But that’s certainly not how I read what had happened, and I can’t tell if that’s necessarily from my own viewing or from the writers failing.
Ryan – For me even the idea that Neelix should listen to Jetrel and give him a chance to “repair the damage” he did by enabling the massacre of an entire planet is nonsensical enough that neither reading really makes the episode acceptable metaphorically. But, if I could, would you really even consider given Jetrel a chance – both as Neelix agreeing to let himself be experimented on and as Janeway to even allow him on the ship (and then encourage Neelix to cooperate)? He was your former enemy and the creator of a weapon of mass destruction. Like in the episode “Faces,” where her previous threats to Vidiians are evidently forgotten, Janeway’s actions seem out-of-character.
Seth – How do they seem out of character? I think that, as a scientist, I would expect Janeway to be cognizant of the ethical dilemmas that Jetrel has to live with. After all, the Federation must have weapons developers, and a photon torpedo is a weapon of mass destruction if used on a soft target. Though that maybe could have been brought up in the episode to further develop the dilemma.
Ryan – It seemed out of character because she seemed perfectly willing to put one of her crew in the hands of a complete (and according to Neelix) probably malevolent stranger. She had to take his word that there was even anything wrong with him and then let him onto their ship, which allows him to see their technology and potentially cause further harm.
Tim – It does seem more than a little unfair that the pressure was being put on Neelix by everyone involved. He was a victim. Even as part of his own healing process, forgiveness/acceptance needs to be something he’s ready and willing to give- not something that he should have been pushed through or made to feel ashamed for withholding.
Ryan – The number of assumptions she had to make about someone she had never met and the potential risk that posed to Neelix and the rest of her crew made the decision seem, at least to me, kind of crazy.
Seth – Perhaps, but it’s not as though Jetrel was wandering around the ship unsupervised, and what he proposed was a non-invasive scan that was supervised by the ship’s physician, as opposed to invasive experimentation or biopsies.
Tim – But how supervised could he have been, when he was able to study the ship’s transporter systems without Janeway knowing? I didn’t get the impression they kept him under close watch. Not until he deactivated the Doctor, knocked out Neelix, and was hijacking the transporter room.
Ryan – Hmm, it just doesn’t seem like even allowing him on supervised and then siding with him that Neelix should be subjected to an unknown screening for an unknown disease by the man who assisted in the murder of his family is the same crew-first Janeway that we’ve been introduced to so far this season.
Seth – She does have the incentive of a potential fatal disease to be concerned about, but perhaps it would have made more sense to require Jetrel to do some convincing first. The transporter thing is definitely weird. I kept expecting someone to bring up the Prime Directive. It was also weird that somehow Jetrel could use the Doctor’s deactivation override despite not being a member of the ship’s crew. I’ll acknowledge those weaknesses in the episode.
Ryan – And, hey, since we’re at the teleporter now, what exactly was Jetrel’s plan for attempting to reassemble his victims without being able to use the teleporter to both retrieve the samples and recombine the pieces? It’s just the idea that she had to take his word at face value and over Neelix’s that seems so much of a stretch to me.
Tim – That’s a fair question. What exactly -was- his plan, previously? He’d mentioned that he was laughed out of his own government for his attempts, but didn’t he also seem to be new to Federation tech?
Seth – Fully admitting that this is more of me reading into things to fanwank some sense out of the episode: Is it possible he came across rumors of Voyager’s capabilities and so was more aware of its technology than he lead them to believe?
Tim – I’d entertain that possibility, sure.
Seth – I mean, he sought out Neelix specifically, the one Talaxian exposed to the Metreon Cascade that happens to be on an advanced ship.
Ryan – Yeah, I think that’s the only way the episode could really make sense logically, but again, that’s another major failing on the writer’s part not alluding to that fact in any way. We only came to it trying to compensate for a plot hole.
Tim – Ah, just rewatched his entry to the Voyager. He does say “I have heard of your transporter technology.”
Ryan – Ahhh, okay, so I guess that reading does make sense.
Tim – Though, given that we must assume the Voyager hasn’t been in the Delta Quadrant for more than a few months (at most), even with instantaneous communication among the aliens of that sector it’s a little much to assume he’d have heard of the ship, heard of the tech, developed a theory, and exhausted every attempt to test it through his own people in such a short amount of time.
Seth – I do think they could have done a better job of setting up the “plot twist,” even if it makes sense in hindsight with that line and the use of scanners only he can operate to establish Neelix’s Space Leukemia. You kind of have to dig to see it, even in hindsight.
Tim – At this stage maybe I’m just being pout-tastic. That’s entirely possible too.
Seth – I think the problem you’re having with this episode is the same problem I had with the last one: when the main plot is emotionally jarring and nonsensical, you start picking at all the loose ends you’d normally be willing to go along with
Ryan – Well, maybe just on the transporter front. I still find the actions of the crew as disjointed and out of the norm as was mangled the plot’s attempt to handle a Hiroshima metaphor.
Tim – Yeah, jumping waaay back to point number one, it just feels like the writers wanted to tell a Hiroshima forgiveness story, and they hamfisted the story beats into place without any consideration about the characters we’ve watched thus far.
Ryan – I think the writers setting out to even write a story where the survivor of a massive genocidal attack is convinced to forgive the man who created that weapon is a little presumptuous, but we’ve really focused on the metaphor enough where I think most points there have already been addressed in one fashion or another.
Seth – I agree that it is presumptuous for a bunch of American writers to write a story about someone forgiving Hiroshima. But at the same token, I think they managed to get in a lot of criticism of that sort of action, considering it was less than a year since a Smithsonian exhibit on the Enola Gay was sunk by controversy over raising the question of whether the bomb should have been dropped on Hiroshima.
Tim – Interesting point. Is there anything else you wanted to add, Seth? I feel like you didn’t get to move into as much detail about what you thought about the episode.
Seth – I feel like a lot of my thoughts came out in contrast to you and Ryan’s thoughts, but I can think of a couple of things to add. I definitely spent the first ten minutes of the episode thinking “Why don’t they just have the Doctor do the screening? Why don’t they just have the Doctor run the tests instead of Jetrel?” And then they explained it and I thought, “Oh, okay.” And I thought Ethan Phillips did a great job of bringing some depth out of Neelix in his portrayal.
Tim – That is something I completely agree with you on. Ethan Phillips absolutely nailed everything he was doing in this episode. It was such a far contrast to the way Neelix has been portrayed and played in every episode thus far. I really, really loved what he did that. Even though I didn’t like the words coming out of his mouth, his delivery when he was crouched behind the counter in the kitchen- that was actually extremely moving to me.
Seth – Even from the opening teaser, the way he seemed to be walking a line between furious rage and panic attack when he found out he was face to face with the designer of the Metreon Cascade was phenomenal. As an aside, after looking a little deeper, this episode actually aired right in the middle of the congressional hearings about the Smithsonian’s cancelled Enola Gay exhibit, so it was even more topical than I thought.
Tim – Really? Wow. I’d read the writing job was done freelance- do you know the turnaround of it?
Seth – No idea, but according to a timeline on that website, controversy over the exhibit began in April of the previous year, so while the timing of the episode itself was probably coincidental given the turn around, it was definitely in the atmosphere.
Tim – Mmm, yeah, according to Memory Alpha the final draft of the episode was submitted March 8th, 1995, so there had to be an atmosphere around it.
Seth – And the plug was pulled on the Smithsonian exhibit on January 30, 1995. Looking at Memory Alpha, it’s interesting to read the quote from Ethan Phillips about how he approached that final scene. Apparently in his mind, Neelix wasn’t there to forgive Jetrel, but forgave him “in a moment of immediate spiritual generosity.” I mean, add that to the list of things that should have been more explicit to improve the episode, but there you go.
Ryan – I’m kind of astounded, by the way, that Voyager can be such a divisive show. Not just in our group by among Star Trek fans at large.
Tim – I still think that Voyager is a good show overall – this is really the first episode that made me really sit back and go “Wow. I didn’t like this.” Not “That was kind of silly.” or “This is very dated.” But actually saying “I think the writers did a terrible job here.” Haven’t had that one quite as bad before as now.
Join us next week for another installment of Roundtable Voyager! We’ll be discussing the final episode Star Trek: Voyager season 1, s01e15 “Learning Curve.” If you would like, watch the episode ahead of time and contribute your own thoughts in the comments of this post! We’d love to have you help shape our discussion! Or, if you’re more interested in “Jetrel”, was there anything you feel we missed, or theories about the episode that you would like to share? Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below!