Saturday, December 17, 2016

Star Trek: Voyager: “One Small Step” (Paramount Television, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars Movie Night presentation in Golden Hill ( was a set of three episodes from two of the later Star Trek series. In the 1960’s my mom, my brother and I were all fanatical Star Trek devotees, watching each episode as it came on (the three years the initial series ran were also the first three years I went to high school) and really getting into it in 1969-1970, when a station in Sacramento “stripped” the series in syndication, running an episode every day from Monday through Friday. (We got TV in those days through an antenna on our apartment balcony, and one of us had to get outside and physically rotate the antenna between where it needed to be to pick up the Star Trek reruns and where it needed to be to get the Bay Area stations.) But I pretty much lost interest in Star Trek after that: I saw the first movie in a theatre in San Diego in 1980 and the second film on cable TV about three years later, but didn’t follow the series after that, and I occasionally watched Star Trek: The Next Generation but until last night had never seen any of the series that spun off after it: Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. (Actually in researching my notes for the above I did find an entry for Voyager from 1995.) The episodes were one from Voyager — “One Small Step,” originally aired November 17, 1999 — and the next-to-next-to-last and next-to-last episodes from Enterprise, “Demons” and “Terra Prime,” aired May 5 and 12, 2005, respectively. The Voyager show was based on the idea of a “graviton ellipse,” a space field of especially heavy gravity that periodically crosses the barrier from subspace (the part of space where space warps exist and which permits the Enterprise, Voyager and Star Trek’s other starships to travel faster than the speed of light) into normal space, swallows up everyone and everything in its path, then disappears back into subspace again.

The opening “teaser” is set in the year 2032, in which an astronaut named Lieutenant John Kelly (Phil Morris) is flying the Ares IV spacecraft to Mars, and has just landed two of his fellow crew members on the surface of the Red Planet and separated his command module when the command module is engulfed and ultimately swallowed by the graviton ellipse — although he keeps broadcasting back to Earth until the last moment he can, which gives him a reputation as a great space hero and pioneer. His name is still celebrated in the histories of space travel centuries later, which is why everyone on the Voyager crew has heard of him, and when Voyager captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew — incidentally Voyager was the first Star Trek program in which the captain was a woman, a giant leap for humankind if you ask me) orders a crew to fly a shuttlepod into the graviton ellipse and explore, they find the wreckage of the command module and treat it like a holy relic. In fact, they treat it so much like a holy relic they decide to use a tractor beam to pull it out and salvage it — only that slows them down so much that they can’t get out of the ellipse in time and ultimately end up pressing part of the Ares IV’s ion propulsion system to get out. It was a reasonably impressive show, directed by Robert Picardo (who also played the ship’s doctor) with effective suspense editing, and written by the usual TV committee: Mike Woolaeger, Jessica Scott, Bryan Fuller and Michael Taylor. The best parts were the flashbacks showing John Kelly giving his final message to mission control before the graviton ellipse ate him, and the character of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), whose name sounds like what a poker player would hope to draw to finish his or her inside straight. She’s actually a reformed Borg, the race introduced into the Star Trek universe I believe during The Next Generation, in which the entire community operated as one giant collective mind and individual ego was forbidden (sort of like Ayn Rand’s dystopian nightmare in her 1937 science-fiction short novel Anthem). She comes off as so cool and emotionless she makes Mr. Spock look like an operatic madwoman by comparison, and her best moment in the show is when she tells a really lame joke and then, when it falls flat, says in a totally flat monotone, “The Doctor suggested that I defuse tense situations with humor.” “One Small Step” was an O.K. drama, well done and moving in its clash between sentiment and survival — one can readily believe even people as mission-focused as we’re told the Voyager crew are would be awe-struck when faced with a genuine relic of a legendary previous mission — but it makes the mistake of putting the climax (the successful escape of the podcraft from the gravitron ellipse) one act before the finish and the rest seems lame by comparison.