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  • Ric Crossman

5.1.10 Eat, Betray, Love

State Of Flux

B'Elanna manipulates the cone at the tip of a field generator cylinder.
Not gonna make the joke you're expecting. A little thing called CLASS, my friends.

The problem with promise is that sooner or later, that promise has to be honoured.

These Maquis In The Marquee

“State Of Flux” is a title that promises much. The online Free Dictionary defines the term as follows:

[A] state of uncertainty about what should be done (usually following some important event) preceding the establishment of a new direction of action.

The implication is that someone or something – Janeway, one of her crew, perhaps the series itself – is about to enter a crucible, from which it will emerge fundamentally changed. A new direction will need to be chosen once it becomes clear the old heading isn’t going to get us where we need to go.

Given the fundamental nature of Voyager, we can assume this course correction will not be a literal one. So what might we be dealing with here? By the opening scene of the third act, it seems likely the title refers to the fragile alliance between the Starfleet and Maquis crews, which here faces its most serious threat since the show began.

Up until now, the approach of integrating the two crews under Janeway, with Chakotay as First Officer, seems to have worked out, more or less. “Parallax” is the only exception to it having been plain sailing, and that episode was explicitly about Janeway learning what concessions on her part were needed in exchange for those made by the Val Jean’s crew. Since then, the show has alternated between showing how the Maquis personnel’s outlook and approach can benefit Voyager ( "Ex Post Facto", “Emanations”), or just flat-out ignoring the existence of the Maquis entirely (“Time And Again”, “Phage”). Hell, by the time we reached Sikaris last episode, the Maquis and Starfleet crews were so integrated they were joining forces to disobey Janeway in trying to steal a ride home.

What we have here is pointedly different. Someone has betrayed Voyager, and each of the only two suspects came to the Delta Quadrant on different ships. Tuvok keeps suggesting Ensign Seska is to blame, while Chakotay is convinced Lieutenant Carey must have done the deed. It feels like we’re tumbling towards the ship’s worst internal crisis since the Caretaker’s body count. And it makes sense that something like this would happen eventually. Voyager couldn’t remain peaceful forever. That much friction is bound to generate a lot of heat. You can’t stop a fire with all these sparks. It’s entirely understandable why they did it, but Janeway and Chakotay have basically turned their ship into a powder-keg and told themselves everything will be fine, so long as they kept yelling at it not to explode.

The status quo appears transparently unsustainable, a state of flux inevitable. With Janeway arguing Carey’s Starfleet history makes him the less plausible suspect, and Chakotay insisting he knows Seska far too well for her to be guilty, the scene is set for Voyager‘s crew to split straight down the middle.

Except none of that ends up happening. Beyond the loss of Seska herself, everything continues on just as it did before. To be clear, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, refusing to allow an unprecedented crisis to change who you are and how you operate is often the right call. That was a large part of what made “The Cloud” work, for example. You don’t start letting aliens bleed to death because you’re low on power.

But there's a quadrant-wide difference difference between refusing to let a crisis change you, and a crisis defusing itself without you needing to think about your position at all. “State Of Flux” takes the latter form, through the shock reveal of Seska as a Cardassian agent.

Chakotay’s Not OK Day

Let’s start with an unabashed positive. I adore the fact it’s just casually mentioned by Chakotay that Seska being a Cardassian spy doesn’t necessarily make her guilty. This is the kind of position that makes Star Trek what it is (or should be). It’s nice the show realises this, and even nicer it understands there’s no need to harm a character by making them take the opposite position for the sake of “drama”. Seska betrays Chakotay in two different ways here, and him having the maturity to separate the two is very welcome.

Good as this is, though, it also highlights another problem. Voyager could easily have made a strong episode about a crew-member being an enemy agent whose infiltration mission has now become entirely pointless (I’ve been a sucker for that story idea since the 1989 Transformers Annual). The same holds for a story about someone on the ship selling technology to the Kazon, the truth of which is rather demonstrated by it becoming an entire arc during season two. By forcing both into the same episode, though, each is done a disservice. These are ideas that both deserve to and would benefit from getting more space. Like “Phage” before it, “State Of Flux” doesn’t give its best ideas room to breathe.

This is especially true with regard to Chakotay. This should have been a perfect opportunity to give Robert Beltran something to seek his teeth into. His first real chance, in fact, which is frankly surprising given we’re ten episodes into a show co-created by Michael Piller. Compare this to Deep Space Nine, whose First Officer had her first spotlight episode filmed third and broadcast second, and which had run through all of its main characters by this point bar the guy in heavy prosthetics, who needed time to figure out how to make that work. Whatever the reason for waiting until now to focus on Chakotay, Beltran is hamstrung here by the number of different directions the script is pulling him in. There’s both a ship-wide and a personal crisis for him to deal with, and having to keep swapping his focus between the two prevents him from being able to satisfactorily explore either of them.

I’m not saying there’s not a coherent theme. The clear intent is for the episode to focus on how often Chakotay has been betrayed, and in response to that how much he fears further betrayal. This too makes sense, given his history. Even before his ship arrived in the Delta Quadrant, Chakotay had suffered more than his share of treachery. The larger society he was born into had only two years ago withdrawn its promise of protection, exposing his people to constant harassment and even violence from a hostile, encroaching, fascistic power. On top of that, we learn next season that B’Elanna disobeyed his orders when she launched a reprogrammed Cardassian missile at Aschelan V, in the hopes of destroying an entire planet. That’s one bridge officer (or whatever the Maquis equivalent is) who’s betrayed him by the time the Val Jean is dragged to the Caretaker Array. Just days later, he learns Tuvok has been actively plotting his downfall all along.

Betrayed by his society, his friend, and someone from a species known across the Federation of being incapable of guile? No wonder he’s so sick of being let down. All he wants is to be left alone to do what he thinks is right, without the galaxy constantly shifting beneath him.

But it just Keeps Happening. Chakotay is forced to watch Tuvok admit his true intentions in front of the smug face of Tom Paris, another traitor to the Maquis. B’Elanna breaks a man’s nose for not letting her physically bully him, and his former crew are begging him to ignore the uniforms he only told them to put on a few days earlier. He can’t even sit down for a spot of mushroom soup with his ex without it turning out he’s slurping at stolen goods. Then, just a few hours later, that same former lover makes up 50% of the suspects in an act of mutiny. The Federation, B’Elanna, Tuvok, Paris, and now maybe Seska? No. It’s too much. Chakotay simply will not allow himself to consider the possibility. That’s why he’s willing to push the utterly ludicrous theory that bitterness over a promotion constitutes a motive for betraying the ship.

(Note by the way the episode arguably tells us Carey is innocent in the opening scene, with Neelix telling Chakotay there’s a difference between something being bitter and being bad, and not to draw to many inferences from impressions that are literally skin deep. This is a rather clever clue, if it’s intentional. There are also some unfortunate gendered implications involved in linking a female character to a poison apple, though - he says, five days after comparing Deanna Troi to a rose.)

All of which is to say, it makes perfect sense that Chakotay would persuade himself that Carey simply has to be the traitor. Where the episode runs into problems is in structuring itself as though the audience should share his refusal to accept the obvious. The thinness of his argument is immediately clear. Combined with Seska’s attempts to first dodge a blood test and then explain away its results, the true perpetrator is so well signposted it would be a despicable cheat were it to turn out to be anyone else.

And that’s fine. There’s any number of excellent stories about characters struggling to accept the truth because of the emotional cost of doing so. The issue is in the episode wanting to push that line while also wanting us to buy into the mystery it thinks it’s building. You can’t build a story about a man so sick of betrayal he won’t accept the obvious if you’re simultaneously trying to stop it from being obvious at all. The two plot lines aren’t just not in parallel, they run directly contrary to each other. This is compounded by it not being clear whether the story wants to focus on Chakotay learning his ex has betrayed this ship, or that she betrayed the last one. The effect of both being true is cumulative, sure, but it still results in a loss of focus, like trying to look at the same star through two telescopes at once.

The clearest example of this uncertainty is probably in the title itself. What exactly is the state of flux? As I’ve said, if it relates to the uneasy Federation/Maquis alliance, then there’s no there there. If it refers to Chakotay, then his (admittedly rather nice) conversation with Tuvok at episode’s end suggests our first officer too will simply carry on as before. I suppose you could argue Seska herself is trying to bring about a state of flux, forcing Voyager towards accepting an alliance with the Kazon-Nistrim. That sort of makes sense, but it still leaves the twin problems that Seska is stopped before she can reach that point, and that there’s no explanation of how her goal could ever be reached in any case. She seems to be employing the Underpants Gnome theory as it relates to espionage. Step 1: Secretly pass out advanced technology to enemy. Step 2: ?. Step 3: Mutually beneficial alliance! The most likely reason the title makes little to no sense, though, is because it was a hasty replacement for the original title of “Seska”, changed – the irony! - for fear of making the guilty party too obvious.

The (entirely unsuccessful) attempts to draw the mystery out work so badly against the central theme of Chakotay’s fear of betrayal that when he learns his former lover is a spy for the imperial power he’s spent two years at war with, it happens off-screen. The emotional pay-off to the story is hidden from us in order to not give away an ending that was entirely obvious in any case. By the time Chakotay confronts Seska, he’s had enough time to process the news that all he wants to ask is why she gave the Kaon a replicator. I guess we still learn something about Chakotay here; he has truly exceptional levels of self-composure. But it’s still an opportunity missed. Given the flak Beltran received for being “wooden”, it seems more than a little relevant that this episode crafted a perfect opportunity for him to cut loose, and then deliberately failed to deliver for the sake of an uninspiring mystery plot. It’s also baffling that given all the two character’ shared history, and given the revelations of the episode itself, the last conversation the two ever have while Seska wears the face he thought was real revolves around why she sold the Kazon one of his boss’ microwaves.

Feed The Worlds/Give A Man Infinite Fish

Let’s bring this post to an end by taking a closer look at Seska’s motivations. The most obvious point to be made is that none of what Seska says requires she be a Cardassian agent. I mean, I’m quite sure she’s right that a Cardassian vessel would have happily let the Ocampa take their chances and used the array to get home, or at least tried to. But really that’s irrelevant to her central point. Namely, once Janeway made the conscious decision to strand two crews in the Delta Quadrant (including one she had no authority over, other than the authority a cop has over someone they’ve arrested), she needed to accept the consequences of that decision. As far as Seska is concerned, one of those consequences is that they will need to play nice with the dominant culture in this area of space.

None of that is self-evidently ridiculous. I’m not suggesting teaming up with the Kazon-Nistrim would automatically be a good idea. It might not even be morally acceptable, particularly if they practice slave labour like the Kazon-Olga. It’s worth a discussion at least, though, as Janeway herself decides less than a year later.

Nor it the Kazon-Nistrim’s asking price particularly ridiculous. One thing I absolutely love about “State Of Flux” is the decision to make the technology Seska smuggles to the Nistrim be a food replicator. Not a weapon, or enhanced sensors, or faster propulsion technology. The ability to quickly and cheaply create food. This doesn't simply add a pleasing additional level of grimness to the Kazon's gruesome fate - agonisingly fused into a wall while trying to construct a croque monsieur from first principles. It represents the most reasonable asking price possible for an alliance. We’ll help you get through our species’ space OK, if you help us to feed our own people.

Frustratingly, nothing is done with this at all. Instead, Janeway simply recites the same Prime Directive-based objections that always get dragged up in circumstances like this. In doing so, she rather proves that Seska was right to take the initiative herself. The captain's knee-jerk reaction here is genuinely problematic. The Federation shouldn’t help starving people to feed themselves because it might make those people too powerful? That’s the kind of crap you used to get from imperial officials refusing to aid colonial populations suffering through appalling famine. The fact the episode doesn’t even approach noticing any of this is simply further evidence that too much is going on here, without the implications or consequences of any part of it being fully thought through.

(Are the Kazon-Nistrim, or some among them starving? I’ve no idea. If they are, is that because of a lack of food, or because the people in charge refuse to allow everyone to eat – you know, like on 21st Century Earth? I couldn’t say. The point is that it never occurs to Janeway to ask. The Prime Directive says no-one but the Federation is allowed to live on the food from Federation replicators, and that’s that.)

I worry people will think I dislike this episode. That’s not really the case. “State Of Flux” isn’t by any means bad, though it is certainly bad in places. Its poor showing in the ordering below has more to do with it having been an unusually strong slot for all the live-action shows so far. “The Corbomite Maneuver”, "Haven" and “The Nagus” all managed coherent themes and made strong points, putting them above an overly-crowded mystery plot which fails to make the best of its good ideas. It’s not even that Voyager is taking longer to start hitting the mark than the other shows. Had this been the slot “Prime Factors” ended up in, for instance, the ordering would look rather different. At this point of the experiment, Voyager is third in terms of overall quality, at worst.

All that said, though, there’s something alarming about a show created by three people, with a total of sixteen years’ experience in the franchise, that is offering up character sketches that are as messy and compromised as this one. The story and teleplay credits go to two people who have a single broadcast episode’s amount of experience between them, which perhaps explains why the whole doesn’t hang together, but that just shifts the problem. Why would you hold back the initial character study for your second-most senior officer until episode ten and then hand it over to two such relative newcomers?

The first season of Voyager isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest (or at least, its first two thirds aren’t). What it is, though, is a year that feels like it’s only as good as it is due to a healthy amount of luck. Sooner or later, that luck is going to run out.

So what does the show have to replace it?


1. Haven

4. State Of Flux

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