Thursday, 28 May 2009

Star Trek Voyager: Muse


First of all, a disclaimer. I love Star Trek: Voyager. It is my favourite of all the Star Trek series. I think it's fun, cheesy, silly and occasionally moving (and I pretend that 'Threshold', 'Course: Oblivion', 'Fair Haven' and 'Spirit Folk' never happened). The best episodes, if anyone's wondering, are 'Living Witness' (which ponders the nature and meaning of history) and 'Year of Hell' (which is just cool). Any carping about the series in general will be met with a withering glare.

'Muse', the 22nd episode of Season 6, has ship's engineer B'Elanna Torres crash land on a planet apparently entirely populated by pseudo-Ancient Greeks. Obviously, nothing on screen is 'inaccurate', since it all takes place on an alien planet, but the overall impression of ancient drama and society it puts across is a mash-up of Classical references.

The episode opens on the alien planet, at a performance of a pseudo-Greek play by the rubber-headed aliens of the week. The theatre displays elements of Greek theatre, most notably the Chorus, together with more modern elements, most notably actresses. All the actors and actresses wear uniform white woollen robes that make them look a little bit like monks and they occasionally use masks which they hold in front of their faces, but remove whenever they want or need to (for kissing scenes, for example). The Chorus intone their lines in unison in a manner that I presume is supposed to sound weighty and significant, but actually comes across as pompous and rather dull. I'm not an expert in the performance of ancient drama, but it seems to me that a Chorus should sing, rather than recite, and should have a lot more passion and enthusiasm that this lot do.

The theatre's patron, who is dressed in a slightly more Roman style than the others, likes the play and wants to see more in a week, which throws the poet into a panic - obviously, his patron is a harsh master.

The play features B'Elanna Torres and Harry Kim as Eternals (gods) from 'shining Voyager far from home'. The Chorus seem to think they're narrating an epic poem, rather than a play, as they give the characters and other elements epic epithets ('shining Voyager', 'young Harry Kim', 'headstrong B'Elanna Torres'). (For more information on epithets, the Wikipedia article is pretty good). Its rather sweet in a weird way, though not entirely appropriate to staged drama.

After the credit sequence, we find out that the poet, Kelis, has discovered B'Elanna unconscious in her crashed shuttlecraft (and on that subject, see the sadly incomplete Shuttlecraft Graveyard page here). Kelis has been bleeding B'Elanna to try to relieve her fever (so he's well-versed in ancient medical practice as well). His initial impression, that she is an Eternal, seems confirmed when she uses her dermo-regenerator (Star Trek techno-magic) to heal the cuts. Science fiction writers have a tendency to view human society in a very Frazerian way, and the less technology an alien society possess, the more likely it is to be extremely religious. In this case, this isn't being used as a story about encouraging the aliens to see the light (as these often are), but as a stand-in for the ancient Greek pantheon in their capacity as the subject matter of poetry. B'Elanna is literally Kelis' Muse, a goddess who has fallen from the heavens and can provide him with the poetic inspiration he needs.

Kelis, the poet, complete with rubber forehead and mock-ancient tunic thing

B'Elanna and Kelis develop a somewhat tense relationship in which she trades stories about Voyager for things she needs. B'Elanna is really horrible to Kelis here - all she has to do is explain the contents of her log to him, while she forces him to risk his life stealing for her and go into serious debt getting gold for her.

On top of that, Kelis' fellow performers aren't terribly impressed with the new play, failing to understand, for example, how any being could be emotionless. There's a nice juxtaposition of two scenes here, one showing Tuvok, back on Voyager, having stayed awake for days on end looking for Harry and B'Elanna, and the other showing Kelis, down on the planet, explaining to another actor that Tuvok must show no emotion even though inside he is devastated. There's a pretty funny line about Vulcan too - 'On the planet Vulcan there are no tears and no laughter. It is a very quiet place'. Joseph Will, as Kelis, delivers the line perfectly.

Poor Kelis' situation becomes even more dire when he finds out that his patron is planning to go to war with another local clan leader. Kelis is determined to stop him, and passionately explains to B'Elanna that he believes that the right play at the right time has the power to stop a war. This is where we get to the heart of the episode, which attempts to explore the nature of poetry and drama in the same way that 'Living Witness' explored the nature of history. Suggesting that the war may put B'Elanna in danger too, Kelis persuades her to come with him to the theatre to help with the play, much to the chagrin of his own girlfriend.

Kelis explains the rules of drama to B'Elanna - there must be mistaken identity, discovery and sudden reversal. These rules do not quite adhere to Aristotle's theory of drama, though they may be inspired by them, especially those relating to change of fortune and reversal of intention. Aristotle, however, was talking about tragedy, while mistaken identity is much more common in comedy. An older actor then wanders in and informs them that none of this matters anyway, as all they need to do is 'find the truth of your story'.

Kelis insists that audiences want excitement and passion and gleefully shows B'Elanna his characterisation of Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay. This is sheer cheek on the part of the writers, as all those of us with eyes had been rooting for Janeway and Chakotay to hook up since Season 1 (it never happened). It's very funny though. Even funnier is B'Elanna's unimpressed reaction to Kelis' pairing of her own boyfriend, Tom Paris, with Voyager's resident walking catsuit, Seven of Nine.

Kelis explains that victims used to be sacrificed at the altar that is now the theatre, until one day a play was performed instead and no one had to die, and that this gives him hope that his play can stop the war. Whether or not this ever really happened in the development of ancient religious practice is hard to say, but it is true that drama was associated with religious festivals. Greek religion is low on human sacrifice though, apart from within its mythology. Kelis comes up with an ending in which Janeway is betrayed by Seven of Nine but refuses to kill her, hoping that his patron will get the message.

The plot starts to wind itself up from here, as Kelis' irritated girlfriend threatens to expose B'Elanna and Harry turns up with some technical doohickey that will enable them to contact Voyager and get off the planet. Poor Kelis, meanwhile, still can't work out the ending that will stop his patron going to war. Kelis sends a messenger to B'Elanna telling her he will kill her off if she doesn't come and help, and B'Elanna realises that he needs her, giving orders to Voyager to wait and beam her up only when she tells them to.

Pseudo-Janeway and Seven have a short dialogue on the futility of war, then, in the nick of time, B'Elanna shows up and goes onstage as herself, promising to disappear in a blaze of light. Kelis' girlfriend tries to out her as an Eternal, though quite why anyone would be upset or in trouble for discovering a goddess in their midst is not explained. The older actor covers for them and B'Elanna and Kelis say goodbye before B'Elanna has herself beamed directly off the stage, claiming she is ascending to the heavens. We never do find out whether Kelis succeeds in stopping the war, though he delivers a heartfelt speech about the importance of wisdom and compassion before the credits roll.

I'm very fond of 'Muse', though it's probably not one of Voyager's best episodes. It feels very sincere, if naive, and although its cod-Greeks are walking stereotypes, they are affectionately drawn. Alien Greek theatre is a fun concept and its great to see the Greek Chorus and some dramatic masks, though the Chorus could be livelier. 'Muse' doesn't quite succeed in saying anything terribly profound about the nature of drama or poetry, but it does present a sweet little love letter to the potential power of theatre.


The late Kellie Waymire as Kelis' girlfriend

7 comments:

  1. A truly entertaining blog, even if I don't quite appreciate Voyager the way you obviously do:-). I've added you to my own blogroll.

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  2. Wow. I think I love you. Added you to blogroll over at blog.paleothea.com and my own Google Reader. I LOVE this post. Can't wait to read more. Hooray for living myths!

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  3. I'm sorry, I have to disagree. "Course: Oblivion" was one of the best Voyager episodes. I got quite teary-eyed each time I saw it.

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  4. I think I dislike Course: Oblivion mainly because it's so depressing. I agree that it's certainly not as ridiculously bad as Threshold or as gut-wrenchingly hideous to watch as Fair Haven or Spirit Folk.

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  5. Oh yes, Fair Haven and Spirit Folk were really quite toe curlingly bad.

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  6. First I come across Harry Potter and now this?! I think I'm going to have to add you to my blog roll!

    As a biologist one of my favourite episodes was Distant Origin in season 3. Finally we get an answer to the mystery of what happened to the dinosaurs! :o)

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  7. Lol! I like the way Distant Origin started from the POV of the dinosaurs, rather than the crew, and I liked the dinosaurs themselves, but got bored by the cod-Galileo/Socrates bit at the end. Yes we know, science good, repressionist regime bad. Its been done!

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