Sunday, September 25, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"The Fight"

There has been a noticeable change in VOY’s fifth season, but I have avoided mentioning it because I knew "The Fight” would be the best opportunity to point it out. Chacotay has been seriously marginalized all season long. The character has been relegated to spouting off hand comments and techno babble which could easily have been spoken by other characters. No episode has featured him prominently, and any that comer close have still focused heavily on another character. Chakotay has “died” twice this season and neither time was the key emotional moment of the respective episode.

To understand how unusual this is, think back to other first officers in ;Star Trek history: Spock, Riker, Kira, and T’Pol there are not many episodes of their shows in which they did not play strong, assertive roles even when they were not the central character. (I am being generous with T’Pol for you ENT fans silently weeping in the corner. She was a Playboy bunny with pointy ears at most all times.) Chakotay has not been as fortunate. It has been an issue from the beginning. Even in episodes in which the character is explored, he has often comes across as a shallow, politically correct Native American stereotype at best, a complete jerk at worst. Episodes that are not Chakotay-centric frequently feature him gelded by Janeway. She enjoys hanging his testicles on a chain around her neck.

Robert Beltran was becoming more publicly vocal about his distaste for the show. In spite of the tight control paramount public relations kept on the smiley face that was supposed to represent the Star Trek production office, certain writers fired back. One can only imagine the tensions that were really going on. One assumes the marginalization of Chakotay is a direct result of Robert Beltran’s behavior. I will note two points in his defense. One, this is around about the time speculation grew that Janeway might be killed off because Kate Mulgrew wanted out. Yet she stayed until the end without her character ever being noticeably diminished. Two, “The Fight.” while Chacotay gets the stuffing knocked out of him the entire episode, it is quite a good script for Beltran. Written as an attempt to bury the hatchet, perhaps?

Note I call it a good script, and not a great one. It is written by Joe Menosky. He is about as avant garde as a television writer can be. “The Fight” is a prominent example. It is a weird, existential story that often comes across as style over substance, but its heart is in the right place. I suppose there is some satisfaction watching Chakotay getting punched in the face through much of it as well. I cannot say it does much for me. Surprisingly, I am not that sadistic. Go figure.

Voyager becomes trapped in a random phenomena called chaotic space in which the laws of physics do not apply. Shades of the Delphic Expanse, there. The aliens who live in chaotic space have no desire to harm those who get trapped, so they attempt to communicate with anyone who does to let them know how to escape. This time around, they can only communicate with Chakotay because he has an hereditary gene for senility. It was a gentic defect repaired before he was born, but it has always hung over him like a shadow because he watched his great-grandfather die a crazy old man.

His mind cannot handle the stress of listening to the loud cacophony of voices, so to deal with it, he keeps visualizing the conversation as a boxing match he recently fought on the holodeck. The *ahem* Maquis Marauder has a never before mentioned and hereafter completely ignored interest in boxing. It is supposed to visualize his fight against losing his mind, but it is tough to do that when the surreal sequence is crazier than a Keith Richards fever dream.

The fight is done in roughly the same style as the visions characters have when communing with the prophets on DS9 but far more manic and chaotic than the symbolic imager of the former. It has less impact as well, but I can see why it is done in such a hyperkinetic, quick cut manner. That is the way an intense boxing match is supposed to go. So it makes sense. It just does not translate well to television. The communication is successful, and chakotay follows the instructions to get the ship out safely.

“The Fight” has two prominent guest stars. Ray Walston returns as Boothby. He plays Mick to Chakotay’s Rocky. Walston was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time, so there is an added poignancy to Chakotay’s fear of becoming senile like his great-grandfather. Speaking of, the great-grandfather is played by Ned Romero during a vision quest. Any hoary Native American you have seen on television or in movies is played either Romero or Graham Greene. They have both had long careers beginning in the days when westerns ruled television.

‘The Fight” is not a great episode by any stretch. It stands out for two reasons. One, it is incredibly weird. Two, it really is the last time in the series Chakotay has an episode all to himself. He figures prominently in others, of course, but he shares the spotlight with Seven. As we all know, Seven dominates any episode in which she has the spotlight for any length of time. I want to like it more than I can muster because of those reasons. As it is, one should watch “The Fight” merely to marvel that something as strange as its premise ever got on the air.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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