“Weird is part of the job”: Disaster (TNG) vs. Deadlock (VOY)

*This post contains mild spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as well as heavy spoilers for TNG’s “Disaster” and Voyager’s “Deadlock”.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Disaster” (season 5, episode 5)

Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore; story by Ron Jarvis & Philip A. Scorza; directed by Gabrielle Beaumont; first aired in 1991

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise hits a quantum plot-device, badly damaging the ship and leaving pockets of the crew isolated in different sections. And for the rest of the episode, we follow these groups as they try to get themselves to safety, tend to the wounded, deliver babies, and regain control of the ship before it, you know, explodes. Picard leads a field trip. Data loses his head. Crusher and LaForge push dangerous radioactive material out into space, while Keiko O’Brien just pushes. And Troi tries out a different chair on the bridge – the captain’s chair.

Star Trek: Voyager – “Deadlock” (season 2, episode 21)

Written by Brannon Braga; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 1996

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

As the crew eagerly awaits the birth of Ensign Wildman’s baby, Voyager enters a plot-device cloud in order to hide from some hostile Vidian ships. Once inside, the ship is badly damaged by a series of mysterious plot-device bursts; Wildman’s newborn baby doesn’t survive the ordeal, and neither does Ensign Kim. To make matters weirder, Kes vanishes, and ends up on another Voyager – one which hasn’t been damaged, and where Kim and the Wildman baby are safe and sound. The two crews realize that their Voyagers exist simultaneously in the same time and place, but not the antimatter in their engines; only one Voyager is making it out of that plot-device cloud. Captain Janeway 1 plans to sacrifice her crew so the other crew can survive in their undamaged Voyager; Janeway 2 disagrees, until the Vidians finally find her Voyager, board it, and start harvesting the crew’s organs. Then, she decides that self-destruct might not be such a bad idea … but only after re-assigning Kim, and the Wildman baby, to the other Voyager’s crew.

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For a show about space exploration, one of the most striking things about The Next Generation is how calm it is. As I’ve mentioned here before, I think the ‘final frontier’ aspect of Star Trek is often overstated, more a marketing pitch than an accurate description of the franchise. Personally, when I think of Trek, what comes first to mind isn’t the wild, untamed outer reaches of space, but the peaceful diplomacy of the Federation, and the professionalism and scientific curiosity of Starfleet … and this is probably because, more than any other Trek series, I grew up on The Next Generation. One reason I connected with TNG as a kid, I think – and definitely one of the reasons I enjoy rewatching it now – is the feeling that, on board the Enterprise D, these characters are both at the outer limits of space, and right at home. They encounter strange new worlds, sure, but they work together to figure that strangeness out, and by the next episode they’re back in place living their lives on their starship home, crowning science fair winners and bickering about baby names and singing lines from “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”.

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Which is exactly where “Disaster” starts, giving us several slices of life as usual aboard the Enterprise. In so doing, the episode focuses our attention on the relationships between crew members before the actual disaster hits, foreshadowing the fact that even after the crisis has begun, the episode will revolve around those character relationships. It’s notable that, of the five separate plotlines in this episode, not one of them involves an isolated crew member going it alone: Troi has her ramshackle bridge crew, Picard has his own “crew” of science fair kids, Keiko O’Brien has Worf as her midwife, while Crusher is paired off with LaForge, and Riker with Data. In 2017, when a TV show or film is described as a story of ‘survival’ – as in The Walking Dead, for instance – that usually means it will be about conflict between the survivors of some disaster. But “Disaster”, in a show of true TNG optimism, simply takes it as read that most of the survivors will work together for everyone’s sake. Even the science fair kids, scared as they are – being, you know, kids – come around pretty quickly to working together as “officers” under Picard.

The only real character conflict in the episode – besides the boilerplate bickering between Worf and Keiko, as she’s giving birth – comes from Ro’s insistence that Troi should separate the saucer section before the warp core explodes. This would condemn anyone still alive in the Engineering section, but it would also help ensure the survival of those in the saucer section (which, if I understand the layout of the Enterprise even a little bit, would be the vast majority of the crew). This is the sort of dilemma we might expect to see on an episode of The Walking Dead, and it’s reminiscent of The Wrath of Khan’s reflections on “the needs of the many” outweighing “the needs of the few, or the one”. There’s a crucial difference here, though; while the fateful decision in Khan was actually made by “the one” who would be sacrificed, Ro is talking about potentially sacrificing others, forcing the decision on them instead of letting them decide (though she does claim – and I believe her – that if she were in Engineering, she’d rather Troi sacrifice her than endanger thousands of other crew members trying to save her).

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It’s fitting that Ro is the one to make this argument; as we discussed when looking at the episode that first introduced Ro into the series, she – like Burnham on Discovery – has often played the role of the outsider who’ll question and criticize where others might not. Her argument has an undeniable logic to it, but it isn’t the sort of logic that TNG typically embraces, and so it makes sense to have Ro, as the outsider character, bring that logic to Troi, who can then stand up for TNG’s more optimistic philosophy by proposing a plan that could save everyone, not just those in the saucer section. But I don’t want to overstate that dichotomy – “Disaster” does a good job, I think, of showing us that Ro isn’t simply being callous or inhumane, but genuinely believes her way is the best way to save the most people. My favourite moment of the episode comes after Troi’s plan works, when Ro admits that she was wrong, and Troi admits, in turn, that Ro could easily have been right. I like this acknowledgement that good leadership isn’t necessarily about making the right decisions – since there’s always luck involved in that – so much as it’s about what kinds of decisions a leader is or isn’t willing to make.

(As an aside – and without spoiling too much of the first 2 episodes of Discovery, for any readers who haven’t watched them yet – it’s interesting how Ro and Troi’s disagreement in “Disaster” parallels the central disagreement between Burnham and her commanding officer on the Shenzhou. The similarities between Ro’s and Burnham’s roles in their respective series become even stronger when we notice that Burnham, like Ro, argues for the pragmatic approach, while Captain Georgiou plays Troi’s role by upholding a more humane, optimistic philosophy. And the fact that things turn out differently for Georgiou than they do for Troi is not, I think, an argument against optimism, but an acknowledgement that, again, no matter what approach a leader takes, luck won’t always be on their side. It also shows us that, even if Discovery shares TNG’s values – and I think, so far, that it does – it’s going to explore and test those values in very different ways.)

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My memories of “Disaster”, from having seen it some time ago, were mostly memories of a series of entertaining scenes, without a lot going on thematically. But after rewatching it, I think it’s actually making a deliberate argument for humane optimism over utilitarian pragmatism. This is most evident in Troi’s storyline, which provided, for me, the real stand-out moments of the episode … and quite possibly my favorite Troi moments in all of TNG. As uncomfortable as she is with being in command, I love that she turns out to be almost a model leader: where she lacks the context to make decisions, she takes advice from those who are more knowledgeable in those areas, and delegates tasks to them; and where she does have a strong sense of what needs to be done, she listens to her advisors but doesn’t let them sway her from her sense of what is right. The writing of Troi here, and Marina Sirtis’ excellent performance, do a real service to the character, by letting her be uncertain and uncomfortable without taking away from her professionalism, or from how decisively she insists that they will try to save all of the crew, not just most of them. We can also see this insistence on being humane, even when others argue for pragmatism, in Marissa, the science fair winner and Picard’s new “Number One”, when she commits “mutiny” by refusing to leave Picard behind, broken ankle or not. Her words to Picard – “the crew has decided to stick together” – sum up what we see throughout the episode’s different plotlines, as each group’s survival is made more likely by their willingness to work together.

Disaster 6.jpeg Of course, the fact that the adversity of “Disaster” brings the crew together instead of dividing them (or killing off any of the main cast, for that matter) is necessitated by TNG’s episodic nature, its need to return to a stable starting point in time for the next episode. We see the same thing, generally, on Voyager, where it’s perhaps more surprising, for a number of reasons. TNG was continuing on in the highly episodic tradition of the original Star Trek before it; it was also produced in the late 80s and early 90s, when self-contained episodes – which could be watched in almost any order – were very much the norm on TV. But by the time Voyager debuted, Deep Space Nine had already introduced the franchise to a more serialized approach to story-telling, and the whole premise of Voyager – two ideologically-opposed crews stuck together on one ship, stranded in the far reaches of unfamiliar space – seems deliberately designed as a vehicle for ongoing story arcs. “Deadlock” ends with a premise that has fascinating implications for just such an arc: Ensign Kim and the Wildman baby being transplanted from one parallel Voyager to the other. What philosophical issues does this raise for Kim, knowing that he both is and isn’t the person everyone on this Voyager sees him as? And what complicated feelings does Ensign Wildman have about raising the alternate-reality version of a daughter she already lost?

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These fascinating questions, and many others, would be abandoned, just as Voyager would abandon the serialized, change-based approach baked into its premise. It’s almost comical how Janeway, in the last few seconds of “Deadlock”, brushes aside Kim’s very understandable existential confusion:

Kim: This isn’t really my ship, and you’re not really my captain. And yet you are, and there’s no difference. But I know there’s a difference. Or is there? It’s all a little weird.

Janeway: Mr. Kim, we’re Starfleet officers. Weird is part of the job.

While “weird is part of the job” is a great line, it’s also a pretty dismissive thing to say to someone who is, quite literally and with good reason, questioning his place in the universe. But the whole series would be equally dismissive of the question of where Voyager fits in the Star Trek franchise; as Janeway seems to want Kim to just forget that he’s not her Voyager’s Kim, the series seems to want us to forget that it’s not TNG. Instead of telling stories unique to its own setting and premise – like using the death of one version of Kim to explore the idea that, even if the crew does make it back to Earth, the journey will change them – Voyager often crafts a high-concept-of-the-week that could easily have appeared on TNG … or puts its own spin on a concept that actually did appear on TNG. And given that a birth on the ship during a time of crisis plays such a substantial role in both “Disaster” and “Deadlock”, I find it hard to believe that “Deadlock” wasn’t doing exactly that.

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I wrote about one such presumably-TNG-inspired episode of Voyager in an earlier post, when we looked at TNG’s time-loop story, “Cause and Effect”, and Voyager’s time-loop-plus-ghost-story, “Coda”. Granted, “Deadlock” is a much better-told story than “Coda”: where “Coda” feels unfocused and pieced-together, “Deadlock” has a clear, well-structured narrative; and where “Coda’s” attempts to add to TNG’s time-loop concept fall flat, “Deadlock” does succeed, I think, in taking the premise of “Disaster” to an extreme, but logical, next step. And obviously, I’m all for one series of Trek taking a concept from an earlier series and running with it – I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I wasn’t. But if Voyager is going to pay homage to TNG, I’d like to see them not just tweak or extend the existing concept, but actually say something new about it. And not only does “Deadlock” not say more about its crew-coping-with-crisis concept than “Disaster” … I think “Deadlock” actually says less than “Disaster”, on purpose.

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It’s not that I didn’t like “Deadlock”. I did, quite a bit, actually. It’s a fun episode to watch, engaging and tightly plotted – arguably more tightly plotted than “Disaster”. It’s both unnerving and weirdly satisfying to watch the ship-in-crisis scenario taken farther and farther over the course of “Deadlock”. The sickbay scenes on Voyager 1 are genuinely tense and grounded in uncomfortable reality, as the Doctor and Kes struggle to treat an overwhelming tide of patients, while their medical tech – including the Doctor himself – is compromised by the ongoing damage to the ship. And the Vidian invasion of Voyager 2 is impressively creepy. Even without any gore, just the sight of the Vidians roaming Voyager’s corridors, incapacitating the crew and cataloguing them for parts – including main cast members, like Tuvok and Paris – is disturbing enough to justify Janeway 2’s quick decision to set her Voyager on self-destruct.

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Watching “Deadlock” reminds me of reading Marvel’s What If comics, an anthology series of mostly self-contained stories set in alternate versions of the Marvel Universe. These stories claim to explore what might have happened if significant events had unfolded differently than they did in main Marvel continuity … but of course, if those events really had unfolded differently in the original comics, the comics would have continued on past those events, and there would have been lasting consequences. No, the true appeal of What If is its potential for imposing drastic changes – including frequently and cavalierly killing off established, decades-old characters – in a one-shot story with no repercussions. You don’t have Wolverine become “Lord of the Vampires” because you’re curious what implications that would have for the Marvel Universe going forward; you do it because it sounds like a fun, crazy story to spend exactly one issue on. The first time I watched Ensign Kim die in “Deadlock”, my immediate thought was, “Okay, this is a What If-style story.” And I watched the rest of the episode in much the same way as I would read that What If issue about Wolverine, Lord of the Vampires: as an enjoyable exercise with no bearing on future stories.

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Which is fine. I just find it a bit frustrating that “Deadlock” could have been more than an exercise, and chose not to be. And I’m not just talking about it ignoring the philosophical implications of Kim and the Wildman baby switching Voyagers, either. “Deadlock” starts off by damaging Voyager 1 in a way that seems different than usual, more severe and potentially lasting. When Tuvok delivers his status report to Janeway, rattling off a long list of disabled systems, damaged sections and injured (or killed) crew members, the look on Janeway’s face seems to suggest that there will be lasting consequences to all this, that “Deadlock” won’t let Voyager’s crew off as lightly as “Disaster” did for the crew of the Enterprise. But it does. All that damage – seemingly so severe that Janeway 1 was willing to destroy her ship and prioritize the survival of Voyager 2 – is apparently well on its way to being fixed by the final scene.

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In the end, “Deadlock” winds up as something of a case study in the limits of episodic storytelling. If it seems, from our perspective in 2017, that The Next Generation often tells surprisingly small, quiet, calm stories, perhaps that’s precisely because of those limits. If Voyager sometimes seems a bit conflicted about its status as a highly episodic show, TNG gladly accepts that status. It understands that its audience doesn’t need the consequence-free shock of seeing, say, LaForge get sucked into space … because in space, no one can hear him sing “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”.

Next time, there’ll be tribble, as we look at the TOS classic “The Trouble with Tribbles”, and at DS9’s nostalgic tribble tribute (tribble-ute?), “Trials and Tribble-ations”!

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