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  • Ric Crossman

5.1.12 The Ghost In You


The Doctor scans Paris' head.
"I don't know where all this hair is coming from, but I don't like it."

The Case of the Unappreciated Whodunnit.

“Don’t Be Real, Be Postmodern”

“Cathexis” is another episode that doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. The production crew themselves have talked about not quite making it click in terms of structure, and of struggling to generate the right aura of paranoia aboard a Starfleet vessel. Some viewers at the time, meanwhile, complained that the episode fails as a mystery because it’s obvious he possessing “alien” is going to turn out to be Chakotay.

None of these are particularly convincing criticisms, actually, as we’ll see. They do serve to highlight the basic truth of the episode, however. “Cathexis” is essentially nothing more than a mystery maze for our characters to travel through. For sure, then, if the maze’s structure isn’t up to snuff, there’s essentially nothing for the episode to fall back on. It’s therefore worth using the above criticisms as initial incisions in our autopsy of the riddle presented.

First up, then: it’s true that compared to the original plan of attempting to rework And Then There Were None, “Cathexis” has a fairly simple structure. This is neither a failure nor a surprise. TV adaptations of Christie’s novel tend to come in at around the ninety-minute mark, and the BBC version closest to the original story lasted three hours. You could pare it down by removing the characters’ back-stories, of course, but that’s counteracted by the sci-fi shenanigans you need to explain a bunch of Starfleet officers, Maquis freedom fighters, and friendly aliens suddenly becoming suspects in a mounting series of gruesome murders, or whatever element of the original it was that Piller wanted to capture.

Simplicity is absolutely necessary in a forty-two minute sci-fi whodunnit. And “Cathexis” works jut fine within its time constraints, deepening, expanding and shifting its central mystery at just the right rate. Is the solution too obvious? Not at all. Or at least, we need to put some effort into identifying what the full solution actually involves. Perhaps it is obvious that Chakotay is the possessing force. Having had that particular plot beat revealed to me before I first saw the episode, it’s tough to judge. What I do know, though, is that the episode itself explicitly points toward it. There’s really no other interpretation of the conversation between Torres and the Doctor in sickbay. Torres suggests that Chakotay’s soul is on a journey, and the Doctor notes that there’s not enough brain activity for any such journey to be taking place inside Chakotay’s body. It’s a very short step from there to the truth. So well done, complaining ’90s Trekkers. You picked up on a deliberately heavy-handed clue, and then sulked about how your mediocre sleuthing skills rendered the episode “too obvious”. Good work all round. Have yourselves a garibaldi.

Perhaps our rhetorical objector might respond – once they’d finished their delicious biscuit – that the problem lies not in the audience working the truth out so early, but the crew working the truth out so late. Too much dramatic irony, not enough drama. That’s a slightly better argument, but still not one that works. In fact, it’s an example of a kind of criticism of fiction that I strongly dislike. While there’s plenty of examples of Trek plots that only work because people are tossing around the Idiot Ball, there’s a difference between characters acting stupidly, and characters acting like they’re not aware they’re in a TV show. The audience are trying to figure out how Chakotay is going to recover from his coma, because they know he almost certainly will. That’s just how television works. Main cast members leave from time to time, sure, but by and large you don’t make them start their final episode in a coma that prevents them from having any speaking lines.

It shouldn’t need saying that none of this is evident to the crew of Voyager. Especially since the big clue for the audience comes in a scene featuring just two characters, one who’s been sideswiped by her former captain having been rendered comatose by an alien attack, and another busy trying to keep that same person alive – who is then turned off precisely because he’s gotten too close to figuring out the truth of the situation. Meanwhile, everyone else who might have had the time/inspiration/blind luck to get to the truth is a bit too busy trying to make sure they don’t get themselves taken over or assaulted in a turbo-lift or shot because they’re having a daydream.

Post-modernism is fine in moderation. There are all sorts of fun tricks you can play by having characters deconstruct their own narrative. It does not follow, though, that not performing that deconstruction is somehow a weakness. Not every genre character has to display genre awareness. Demanding television characters interact with the narrative in the same way the audience is doing isn’t a smart critique. It’s entirely the opposite.

Atmospheric Pressure

Cool. One objection down. NEXT OBJECTION. Let’s talk about the paranoia argument, because (astonishingly) this one annoys me too. In fairness, it’s true that the episode could do better with the undercurrents of mistrust the set-up allowed for (though as I’ll argue, it’s far from a total failure). The bigger issue though is Braga’s suggestion that paranoia isn’t something that can be plausibly displayed on a Starfleet vessel. This might well be up for debate in the general, actually, but it’s a transparently ridiculous suggestion with respect to this crew. This is just one more item on an increasingly and depressingly long list of indications that no-one making this show grasped where its potential lay. I could possibly see a general argument about there being a risk of over-playing the “two warring crews” card, but a) this clearly never even came close to happening, and b) there’s a tight time limit on how long into the show you can try that kind of story before it appears contemptuous of character development, so it would have been better to risk early overuse than to realise you didn’t explore it thoroughly when you had the chance. I mean, how do you put a Starfleet dropout forced into command and the security officer who once betrayed him but must now answer to him in the same shuttlecraft – on a negotiation mission – and decide the action should start on the way back?

And despite Braga’s wrongheaded argument, the episode does get somewhere with invoking a paranoid atmosphere. It’s touched on comically, using Neelix (so for the most generous definition possible of the word “comically”), and dramatically, in a perfectly under-lit briefing room. In fact, this brief (pun 100% intended) scene serves triple duty. First, it sets up the manner by which the alien controlling Tuvok will eventually be stopped. Second, it sells the fact that the crew are unusually jumpy. Most interestingly, though, by linking Tuvok hurriedly drawing his phaser to the general current of paranoia – something that as Vulcan he should be unaffected by – the episode provides another clue to what’s really going on.

As hints go, this is significantly subtler than the one about Chakotay. This in turn demonstrates the central truth regarding the episode’s structure. The mystery here isn’t who or what the alien is. It’s why Chakotay wants to keep Voyager from the only place where they might figure out what happened to him. This isn’t really about the floating serial-possessor at all.

And this again is something the episode is pointing to. Memory Alpha describes “cathexis” as meaning “occupation”, but an alternative definition (via Google) is that it represents

[T]he concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree).

Don’t focus too much on the ghost-alien, in other words.

(We could also read this as a suggestion that – for entirely understandable reasons – the crew are too fixated on their dying colleague/friend/former captain to put the pieces of this puzzle together. A reminder that arguing the solution is obvious to the audience is rather missing the point.)

There’s even a hint of what’s to come in Janeway’s abortive holonovel. Which is just as well, frankly, considering how strange its inclusion seems otherwise. I’ll hold off full judgment until I’ve seen how the program gets used in “Persistence Of Vision” (you know, eventually, once I’ve rejigged these first season blogs into a proper book), but its inclusion here as an immediately-forgotten cold open seems very odd. If nothing else, if you’re going to deploy Carolyn Seymour, you need to use Carolyn Seymour. Regardless of all that (and the initial shock of learning Trek’s first commanding main character likes to relax by playing a subordinate role to an “ancient” English nobleman), the barely-veiled threats of Mrs Templeton makes it clear that, sudden shocks notwithstanding, the threat lurking in Lord Burleigh’s home is unlikely to be the ghost itself.

And Then There Were Two

“Cathexis” isn’t a game of hunt-the-alien, then; or at least, not in the way the first few acts suggest. Indeed, there’s a fair amount of cleverness in how the episode gradually pushes suspicion onto Tuvok before revealing that he both is and isn’t who Janeway is hunting. It’s a whodunnit which works by making the “guilty party” increasingly obvious, only to swap out what the actual crime is, entirely shifting the underlying assumptions.

And so we return to Christie, a writer who had a genuine talent for keeping the reader guessing, not just by shifting suspicion regarding which character is the perpetrator, but by periodically switching around the actual nature of the crime itself. Truly solving a Christie mystery, as a general rule, is about far more than simply correctly pointing to the right character and yelling “They did it!”. There’s over eighty Christie stories just featuring Poirot; assuming approximately eight suspects a time, you’d expect someone to guess the murder ten times at least just by sticking a pin into the dramatis personae. The whys and the wherefores, and (as with Cardassian Enigma Tales) the specifics of who is guilty of what, are all important.

Similar logic applies here. Even guessing Chakotay is the alien and that Tuvok is possessed doesn’t get you to the checkered flag. No matter how close you get to the rough form of what’s going on (in the mere thirty-five minutes or so you have to do it), there are always more questions. Take the brief scene in which Tuvok tells Janeway that the Doctor has been deactivated and locked down. If you’ve not worked out who the “alien” is, this conversation works entirely straight, with Tuvok’s argument the alien wants the command codes sounding entirely plausible. If you’ve figured out that it’s Chakotay haunting Voyager’s corridors, the question becomes what the actual purpose of putting the Doctor out of action is. And even if you’ve guessed Tuvok is also possessed (or replaced, or whatever), there’s the mystery of why he’s telling Janeway about an action he committed himself, how much of his story about an alien attack was actually true, and just what the hell he wants that Chakotay is so desperate to stop, even at the cost of his own life. It’s a whydunnit at least as much as a whodunnit, and an argument that this is a problem says much more about the viewer than the viewed.

It all adds up to a solid little mystery, one with enough going on that it not only satisfies on first viewing, but benefits from a re-watch. The second time around you really notice both how well the script does in how it shifts the focus toward Tuvok, and how strong Tim Russ’ performance is here. Seriously, “act increasingly suspicious and sinister without demonstrating any emotion” isn’t an easy brief, but Russ copes expertly.

So yes, there’s nothing astonishing here, no revelations in how the show can function. It also has some genuine negatives. Chakotay’s medicine wheel is a big issue from an anthropological perspective anyway, but his use of it as a star map is ridiculous for at least three reasons. This is also the second episode in a row that doesn’t allow one of the main actors of colour a single line of dialogue until the epilogue [1]. For sure, the high placing of “Cathexis” below is more a comment on what else is on offer than a ringing endorsement of the episode itself.

Overall, though, this is perfectly serviceable. “Cathexis” knows what job it wants to do, and performs it with competence. And hey. At least it doesn’t feature a starship captain refusing to prevent a genocide because of some horrifying and misguided commitment to evolutionary teleology.

Would that all Trek episodes could make such a claim.


1. Cathexis

[1] I guess you could make the argument that this is undercut by the revelation that Chakotay has, in fact, been there all along. While that’s a nice observation, though, it doesn’t actually do Robert Beltran any good.

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