Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"Distant Origin"

Brannon Braga and evolution is generally a frightening prospect, but I have to reluctantly confess ‘distant origin” has its merits. It is definitely a weird premise executed far differently than most Star Trek. it is also clearly attempting to cash in on dinosaur mania with 1997’s The Lost World,\ being released, but it is still a mildly entertaining hour. Chakotay finally gets to do something, too, albeit give another of his honor your culture lectures that becomes ultimately meaningless.

A scientist from the reptilian Volk named Gegen is convinced he has found in a skeleton from the Basics Planet a connection between his race and humans, so he goes on a quest for Voyager. unfortunately for him, his theory challenges ancient religious doctrine about the origins of the Volk. Both he, his assistant Vir, and the Voyager crew eventually meet the wrath of a female Dr. Zaius-type whose job it is to keep scientific heresy from challenging sacred beliefs.

We do not get much into that until the final act, wherein Chacotay launches into his best lecturing aliens on how they are supposed to do things lecture, then gets ignored. Until that point, the episode is an unusual combination of mystery and action. None of the main characters even show up until the second act. Prior to that, we follow Gegen and Vir as they trace Voyager’s steps over the last year in an effort to find the ship. Their covert expedition goes awry and they are captured just as the Inquisition finds and forcefully captures the ship and crew.

I cannot argue if you want to call all that meandering. It takes forever to get to the point at which the heart of the story is presented. The Volk are the descendents of dinosaurs who probably lived on Atlantis or Lemuria. They escaped whatever disaster killed off the other dinosaurs and eventually wound up in the Delta Quadrant. Somewhere along the way, a religious doctrine detailing a different origin sprung up and the truth was lost. The Inquisition wants to keep it that way. Under threats to imprison the Voyager crew for life, Gegen cooperates by recanting discovery. The truth is suppressed, but Voyager goes free.

There are some elements of Galileo v. the Catholic Church, the Intelligent Design v. evolution debate, and the original Planet of the Apes for those who prefer pop culture references to historical ones. Said elements could make for a fascinating episode, and even as it is, “Distant Origin” is engaging. But its flaws do not stand up to much scrutiny. Dinosaurs from Earth built space ships? They decided to settle in the Delta Quadrant because why? How did they develop such advanced technology with such a restrictive, anti-science doctrine dominating their society? Considering how many human species Voyager has encountered, how can the Volk be surprised at what they look like? It cannot be that big a mystery.

The premise and its flaws add up to a heavy and cynical commentary on the suppression of science, particularlyy when it comes to the study of human origins by religion in general, and Christianity in particular. It might resonate more as commentary on the modern conflict between science and religion if the truth being suppressed by the religion were not so absurd, the science the Volk routinely use was not so advanced, and the science council suppressing Gegen’s findings did not wield power so similar to the medieval era Catholic Church. It is difficult to take it all as seriously as Braga clearly intends for us because so many thing do not add up. It is difficult to draw a correlation to any modern circumstance. Even the Texas School board’s challenging the teaching of evolution will not result in teachers being burned at the stake for heresy, you know? Maybe in the fevered fantasies of rabid atheists.

“Distant Origin” is worth watching, if for no other reason than the effort made to set it apart from the style of other episodes with its long stretches of time with no main character appearances and strange camera angles to establish the moody dominance of certain looming characters. The directing reminded me a lot of Orson Welles’ trick in Citizen Kane in which you are always looking up at Charles Foster Kane, but always looking down when viewing things from his perspective. In “Distant Origin,” we are sharply looking up ay whoever’s “truth’ is currently winning and lerring down at the losers. It is a nice, creative touch. Not enough to lift the episode out of the middle of the pack, but a nice touch.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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