*This post contains full spoilers for the episodes discussed, and vague but significant spoilers for the end of season 6 of Deep Space Nine.
Star Trek: Voyager – “Eye of the Needle” (season 1, episode 7)
Teleplay by Bill Dial and Jeri Taylor; story by Hilary J. Bader; directed by Winrich Kolbe; first aired in 1995
It’s a real emotional roller coaster, as the Voyager crew investigate a wormhole, hoping that it leads to the Alpha Quadrant, and can get them home. It turns out that they’re half right: while it does indeed lead to the Alpha Quadrant, the wormhole is too small for Voyager to fit through. It is big enough for subspace transmissions, though, and Janeway establishes communication with the captain of a Romulan science ship. While initially suspicious, the Romulan is eventually willing to pass along messages from the Voyager crew, and even to help them beam through the wormhole. But when they realize that the wormhole passes through time as well as space, and that the Romulan captain is 20 years in Voyager’s past, they abandon those plans in order to preserve the timeline. At least the Romulan can hold onto their messages and pass them along when he catches up to their time … or could have, if he hadn’t died a few years before, leaving Voyager’s crew to swallow their disappointment and just keep trucking through the Delta Quadrant.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “The Sound of Her Voice” (season 6, episode 25)
Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore; story by Pam Pietroforte; directed by Winrich Kolbe; first aired in 1998
On the station, Quark tries to use Odo’s new relationship with Major Kira to keep the Constable distracted while Quark pulls a caper. Meanwhile, in the less light-hearted A-plot, the Defiant’s war-weary crew intercepts a distress call from Lisa Cusak, a Starfleet captain stranded on an inhospitable planet while returning from a long mission in the Beta Quadrant. While en route to rescue Cusak before she runs out of the medication that’s keeping her alive, Sisko, Bashir, and O’Brien take turns keeping her company via audio transmission. Over the course of their conversations, Cusak talks them through their wartime angst, before succumbing to her harsh environment. Arriving at the planet, an away team finds that they’re too late to save her … three years too late, in fact, since some timey-wimey phenomena above the planet has been time-shifting their communications all along. They can’t save her, but they can bring her remains back to the station and hold a wake, in which they honor their newfound connection to the long-dead Cusak by reconnecting a bit with each other.
Sometimes the good guys lose. Sometimes they fail to accomplish their good-guy goals. Sometimes they even die – not in some heroic sacrifice, but in a meaningless stroke of bad luck.
This isn’t the Star Trek-iest thing to admit, of course, and it’s not something we see very often from the franchise. Trek is, at its core, about our ability to solve problems – even seemingly impossible problems – when we work together, in thoughtful, peaceful, open-minded collaboration. It’s no surprise, then, that The Original Series and The Next Generation, the first two TV installments in the franchise, tended towards a fairly consistent (if never fully fleshed-out) vision of the Federation as a utopia, where humans mostly did cooperate, and mostly succeeded because of it. Even at its most tragic, in “City on the Edge of Forever” and The Wrath of Khan, early Trek usually ensured that its good guys’ sacrifices or failures were not in vain, that they served a greater good. We’d see the occasional striking exception to this optimism, of course; TNG’s “Skin of Evil” and “Silicon Avatar” are a couple that come to mind. But it wasn’t until Trek’s third live-action TV incarnation, Deep Space Nine, that we started to see a utopian future – where the good guys win by being good – treated as an ideal that the Federation strives toward, but which isn’t always reflected in its day-to-day reality.
DS9 wasted no time introducing its markedly less optimistic take on the Trek universe in its very first episode, “Emissary”, establishing its setting as a run-down frontier outpost where right and wrong were less clearly defined than they had been on the Enterprises of Kirk and Picard, and where compromise was sometimes the best victory Commander (and later, Captain) Sisko could hope for. DS9 would only double down on these elements as the series progressed, and by the time “The Sound of Her Voice” aired, at the tail end of its sixth season, the series was immersed in an extended arc exploring the impact of a long, brutal war on the Federation’s famous idealism. Voyager had debuted a few years before that, and while Trek’s fourth live-action TV series was never as willing to question the franchise’s ideals as DS9 was, Voyager still presented an opportunity to explore the cost of those ideals on its crew, stranded, as they were, on the other side of the galaxy from the Federation. Over the long term, the series would fail to take full advantage of this opportunity, and would increasingly settle for telling stories that could easily have been set in the Alpha Quadrant, instead of the far-off Delta Quadrant (in “Future’s End”, for instance, the crew ends up in Earth’s past just as easily as Kirk or Picard’s crews might have, despite the fact that the whole premise of Voyager is built on the difficulty of reaching Earth). But in “Eye of the Needle”, airing halfway through its first season, Voyager is still interested in having Captain Janeway deal with harsh realities of a kind that Kirk and Picard rarely had to.
“Eye of the Needle” is an early stand-out episode of Voyager, and I don’t think I’ll kick off any huge controversy by calling it the best episode of the first season. It stands out, in part, precisely because it’s one of relatively few episodes to fully capitalize on the series’ core premise; this is the rare Trek story that could only be told, in this particular way, by Voyager. At the same time, it serves as a textbook example of quintessential Star Trek, both in its classic sci-fi plot (complete with a time-travel twist), and in its focus on the importance of cooperation (complete with the tried-and-true trope of the paranoid Romulan who ultimately turns out to have more in common with humans than he, or we, might have thought). In both these respects, “Eye of the Needle” has quite a bit in common with the episode of Voyager which aired immediately before it, “The Cloud”, in which Janeway’s insistence on helping an alien entity in need puts a dent in the ship’s already-dwindling power supplies. Both episodes take the show’s premise seriously, in a way that would become less common as the series went on. And both directly engage with the idea that the crew can live by Starfleet’s ideals, or they can take the quickest possible way home, but they can’t do both (an idea which would eventually be underlined in the 2-part episode “Equinox”, in which we meet a stranded Starfleet crew who’ve placed those two priorities in a very different order than Janeway has).
“Eye of the Needle” goes a step further than “The Cloud”, though. In “The Cloud”, the crew at least succeeds in helping the cloud-creature; they just have to sacrifice some of their energy supplies to do it … energy supplies they’d hoped to replenish in the cloud, before they’d realized it was alive. They’re forced to choose between helping the alien and helping themselves, but they still accomplish the goal they choose. In “Eye of the Needle”, on the other hand, the crew simply fail – repeatedly and decisively – in a way that, as I noted above, is pretty rare to see in Star Trek. The crew finds a wormhole, but can’t get the ship through it; they then find a way to beam themselves through it, but discover that they’d be beaming into the past, which they’re not willing to do; and finally, they settle for at least sending messages to their loved ones through the Romulan captain, only to learn that he will have died before it was time to send their messages. While it’s mentioned that there’s a slim chance their messages still somehow reached Starfleet, the episode makes it very clear that the crew doesn’t believe that, and that we’re not supposed to believe it, which is, again, quite bold in its bleakness.
Granted, there is an element of moral victory here, but it’s a much less triumphant one than in “The Cloud”. Helping an injured alien is a much more satisfying accomplishment for the crew, I’d assume, than simply preserving the timeline as it already is … a timeline which hasn’t turned out so well for Voyager’s crew so far. The value of helping others is obvious, but the value of preserving the timeline, as well-established as it is in Star Trek lore, has always been pretty vague. Is it a scientific concern – can time itself literally be damaged? – or an ethical one … and if it’s an ethical concern, who’s to say that preserving the default timeline is ethically preferable to changing it? The vagueness of time-travel ethics can sometimes frustrate me in Star Trek, as in a lot of other sci-fi, but here I think that vagueness actually adds to the episode. It keeps the ending surprisingly – and movingly – tragic, while still providing the episode with a well-established reason for keeping the crew in the Delta Quadrant. After all, any viewer who’s even half-paying attention knows there’s no way Voyager is getting home, in this first-season episode of a show about a crew stranded far from home. But rather than taking away from the episode, as I might have expected, I’ve found that this only makes the episode more tragic, and more effective. We know, coming in, that the crew won’t make it home, so we wait to see what they’ll accomplish instead … and the answer ends up being nothing. It packs a punch, and it makes Janeway’s last line of the episode – “Let’s move on, we’ve got a long way to go” – genuinely affecting as an affirmation of Starfleet persistence, even in the face of complete, abject failure.
In Deep Space Nine’s “The Sound of Her Voice”, again, the crew’s obvious goal goes unachieved; they fail to rescue Captain Cusak. And as in “Eye of the Needle”, that failure is made somehow more tragic by its inevitability. Like the Romulan captain, Cusak is technically dead before we meet her; the Defiant’s rescue attempt really did fail before it began, taking a metaphor and making it literal in the way that only science fiction or fantasy can. Connecting with another person, this episode tells us, means becoming attached to someone who eventually, inevitably, won’t be there anymore. This is always true, for everyone, but of course it’s a lot more obvious and immediate for soldiers in wartime. And on Deep Space Nine, Starfleet officers are soldiers, whether they want to be or not. The extent to which Starfleet is a military organization has always been a bit ambiguous, despite its being one of the best-armed organizations in the galaxy; its chain of command, for instance, tends to be as rigid or as lenient as the plot requires it to be (which, to be fair, isn’t so different from the way real-world military organizations are often portrayed in pop culture). But by the second-last episode of its second-last season, DS9 has forced its characters into a bloody, protracted war with the even-better-armed Dominion, and has robbed them of the idealistic pretense that they are, as Discovery would later put it, “explorers, not soldiers” (which makes sense, given DS9’s focus on the messier frontiers of the seemingly pristine Federation). Where “Eye of the Needle” ends with the crew of Voyager dealing with the fact that they really are stuck in the Delta Quadrant for the long term, “The Sound of Her Voice” begins with a crew who are already dealing with the reality of their own situation, in a way that’s not particularly healthy, but is certainly understandable: by distancing themselves from each other. War has taught them that any one of them could be gone tomorrow, and their timey-wimey encounter with an already dead Captain Cusak reinforces that lesson.
But it also changes their perspective on that reality. Unlike “Eye of the Needle”, “The Sound of Her Voice” does allow its characters some measure of victory, even as they fail in their actual mission. That mission failure was inevitable, but meeting Lisa Cusak was anything but inevitable; the fact that she was dead before they heard her voice is tragic, yes, but the fact that the time distortion gave them the chance to talk with her, and connect with her, three years after her death, is something of a miracle, both for the crew and for Cusak herself. Sisko and company fail to save her life, but they succeed in a mission of mercy, making her last living hours less lonely, and more bearable, than they would have been otherwise. And Cusak, in turn, gives the crew of the Defiant something they needed – a reminder that the inevitability of their deaths doesn’t make the connections between them any less meaningful. Within the story, she does this by giving Sisko, Bashir, and O’Brien her perspective as someone who hasn’t been living through the grim reality of the Dominion War … which is, after all, one of the things we need from our friends: a glimpse of the world through different eyes than our own (and which, I suspect, is why Cusak was written to have crashed on the planet before the war began, after spending years away from Federation space). For us, the audience, that message is delivered through a great voice-acting performance from Debra Wilson, who does an impressive job of building the disembodied voice of Cusak into a real presence onscreen, despite the fact that, aside from her long-decayed remains, we never see so much as a computer file photo of the Captain. And Cusak’s message is, perhaps, one the audience needs at this point in the series, both as a moment of reflection on the ongoing, long-running Dominion War storyline, and as preparation for the upcoming death of a major character in the season 6 finale, the episode immediately following this one. If you’ve watched all the way through DS9 before – or if you’ve ever, say, looked up the cast of the show, and noticed how it changes starting in season 7 – then O’Brien’s words at Cusak’s wake become particularly haunting: “Someday we’re going to wake up, and we’re going to find that someone is missing from this circle. On that day, we’re going to mourn, and we shouldn’t have to mourn alone.” (A sentiment which, powerful as it is, becomes a bit confusing when you realize that the character who will soon be “missing from this circle” was given a conspicuously tiny role in this episode.)
Finally, a nice touch on both “Eye of the Needle” and “The Sound of Her Voice” is the surprising way that their respective B-plots, seemingly very separate from the A-plots, actually tie directly into the major themes of each episode. In “The Sound of Her Voice” Quark and Odo’s storyline doesn’t cross over into the Captain Cusak story at all in a narrative sense, and its tone is much lighter. But thematically, it foreshadows O’Brien’s observations on the value of human (or whatever) connection, by showing us that even an adversarial relationship like Quark and Odo’s has connected the crook and the Constable in a meaningful way. In “Eye of the Needle”, Kes’s attempts to help the Doctor be seen as an actual member of the crew do intersect with the main story, as the Doctor is sadly resigned to his program being left behind with the ship when the rest of the crew beams back to the Alpha Quadrant (a detail which doesn’t entirely make sense to me, but still gives me the proverbial feels). But more importantly, the B-plot is thematically connected to the A-plot in a really interesting way. In an episode revolving around the crew’s attempt – and failure – to cut their long journey short, the Doctor’s side-story is an interesting look at the crew’s need to adjust to what is, like it or not, their new reality. No matter how he might be seen by the rest of the crew, the fact of the matter is that the Doctor is now operating in a very different way than he was designed for, and is, therefore, something very different than what he was when the ship first launched. Janeway’s acknowledgement, here, of the Doctor’s role as a member of the crew is an important moment of character development, for both of them. But it also puts an interesting spin on Janeway’s call to “move on” near the end of the episode. If the crew have “a long way to go” to get home, they will also have a lot of adapting to do along the way. To paraphrase Chief O’Brien, they shouldn’t have to do that work alone … and whatever else he might be, the Doctor is, undeniably, a member of their “circle”.
Next time, we’ll tag along on the first on-screen away missions for Archer’s Enterprise and the Discovery, respectively, when we look at Enterprise‘s “Strange New World” and Discovery‘s “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”!