Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Another Star Trek: Voyager Episode Where The Crew Remembers It's Trying To Return Home Is “Prime Factors!”

The Good: Excellent character development, Decent plot
The Bad: Lack of convincing acting, Predictability
The Basics: When the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager finds a shortcut home, they find themselves at the mercy of another planet's ethics.

For those who have never seen an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, it might be nice to consider that the show had something that it was about. In the pilot episode, "Caretaker" (reviewed here!), the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager is catapulted tens of thousands of light years away into an area of space where it becomes trapped with an opposing crew and they vow to work together to head for home. I write "might be nice" because the show is barely ever about the actual effort to return home and more about the obstacles the starship encounters on its long journey home. Up until this point, "Prime Factors," the series has been more about accepting that the ship is lost in the middle of nowhere as opposed to getting home. Sure, there was a brief glimmer of hope in "Eye Of The Needle" (reviewed here!), but that was squashed pretty thoroughly. The first legitimate "cheat" comes in "Prime Factors," when the crew encounters a race that could do them the favor of launching the starship 40,000 light years (over half the journey) closer to home.

The U.S.S. Voyager arrives as Sikaris, an advanced, pacifistic world that has trajector technology. A small device located on Sikaris allows crewmembers to transport themselves to remote destinations instantly, which Harry Kim soon learns. He returns to his compatriots on Voyager excited and this leads several members of the crew to become determined to obtain the technology. While Janeway negotiates with the planet's leader for the trajector technology, other elements on the starship Voyager make less savory alliances for the same. While Maquis B'Elanna Torres and Seska team up with deposed engineer Carey, an unlikely individual joins their conspiracy, one whose betrayal hits Janeway very personally.

No, I'm not going to ruin the surprise of which main cast member joins an effort to make an illegal trade for the technology that the legitimate government of Sikaris is unwilling to give up. "Prime Factors" is a refreshing change of pace because the moral superiority of the Federation and StarFleet comes back and bites our desperate crew in the butt. Yes, it seems the planet Sikaris has its own Prime Directive and that prevents them from dealing in any technology that could advance another race beyond its current development.

For those unfamiliar with the Star Trek (franchise) principle of the Prime Directive, it is the first, highest rule of StarFleet that declares that no member of StarFleet will interfere in the internal workings or development of an alien culture or civilization. It's the nice little law that prevents the Federation from becoming a military menace and bombing the crap out of annoying enemies. It is the rule that prevents Captain Picard from stopping armed Angosians from killing the legitimate government of a planet in "The Hunted" (reviewed here!). It is the law that Captain Kirk violates to save his ship from Vaal in "The Apple" (reviewed here!).

And "Prime Factors" is not the first time that the Prime Directive has been applied to our intrepid explorers and heroes before. Back in Star Trek, the Halkan Council refused to share its planet's rich dilithium reserves with Kirk and StarFleet because of their refusal to be any part of war in "Mirror, Mirror." Yes, it's somewhat enjoyable to watch the moral superiority of our heroes be undone when they need something and the Sikarans of "Prime Factors" cling to their moral code as closely as Janeway clings to hers.

Janeway's character is wonderfully enhanced by the strong moral position she takes in "Prime Factors." In "Caretaker," the captain pledged to run the ship like a StarFleet ship, to embody Federation values even so far from home. In "Prime Factors," she lives up to her end of the bargain by actually embodying those things she pledged to. Despite her disappointment, Janeway understands Labin's - the planetary leader's - reasoning and respects his own principled stand.

And the characters who conspire to save the U.S.S. Voyager forty years of travel have very human (ironic considering only one of the conspirators is human) motivations and beliefs. They want to return home. Torres wants to start her life over, Carey wants to be the head of an engineering department and Seska wants to return to fighting the Maquis fight (wink wink, nudge nudge, wait until next week . . .). These are all very natural and compelling reasons for them to try to make a trade for advanced technology and it makes the episode generally watchable.

The problem is, the acting is very choreographed. Of course, the acting is choreographed, it's acting, the actors are given directions and walked through their moves and their lines. The problem with "Prime Factors" is that it feels just like that. The viewer waits and waits for any performance to be real and compelling. While the characters are written that way, the performances just do not pop. So, for example, Roxann Biggs-Dawson seems somewhat lacking in affect as Torres in this episode.

Even Kate Mulgrew, whose character of Janeway gives some excellent speeches on morals seems like she is phoning in her performance. The episode suffers because much of it is a collection of speeches as opposed to genuinely expressed ideas and emotions.

And in the larger context of things, this is a remarkably predictable episode. After all, it's episode #10 of Star Trek: Voyager, the audience knows that the ship is not going to get home. And with the establishment of such Delta Quadrant villains as the Kazon and the Vidiians (introduced in "Phage," reviewed here!), it seems unlikely that they'll even make extensive progress.

Moreover, with all of the Star Trek franchise episodes I was able to cite from memory that deal with precisely this type of dilemma, "Prime Factors" feels remarkably derivative. This is an old debate in the Trek universe and the Star Trek: Voyager twist is only unique in the stakes that are being played with. The difference between the Sikarans in "Prime Factors" and the Halkans in "Mirror, Mirror" are virtually nonexistent. The plot has been done, the themes have been beaten into the heads of the fans and that's disappointing that this episode offers nothing genuinely new.

Indeed, "Prime Factors" had the potential to be one of the great moments when Star Trek: Voyager could have done something clever with serialization, but instead it tread toward the episodic, neatly tying up all the loose ends by the end of the episode. It is ultimately that, combined with the mediocre acting that made me consider “Prime Factors” average-at-best.

With very little to offer those who are not fans of Star Trek: Voyager (it's virtually impossible to become emotionally invested in the characters based on this episode) and less to offer those who have experiences a lot of the Star Trek franchise, "Prime Factors" fails to engage viewers and maintain suspension of disbelief.

[Knowing that the season is a much better investment, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete First Season on DVD, which provides the full opening to the series. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, be sure to visit my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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