Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"The Cloud:" "Again With The Spatial Phenomenon!" on Star Trek: Voyager

The Good: Basic concept, Moments of character
The Bad: None of the acting shines, Very predictable story
The Basics: When the U.S.S. Voyager encounters a giant sentient cloud, it soon learns that the consequences of exploiting a lifeform for their gain is endless moralizing.

Star Trek: Voyager led with three out of the first four episodes following the pilot being "spatial phenomenon of the week" episodes, with "The Cloud" being the third of the post-pilot episodes to deal with a spatial phenomenon. While "Parallax" (reviewed here!) had strong character elements and "Time And Again" (reviewed here!) established Star Trek: Voyager as a something less than stellar remix of the greatest hits of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Cloud" just suffers and causes the viewer to suffer as well. I mean, how can anyone truly recommend an episode where the high point is Janeway talking to a small lizard?

The U.S.S. Voyager is cruising through space when it finds a nebula that contains omicron particles that the starship can use for fuel. Traveling through the spatial phenomenon, Voyager encounters severe resistance and it soon occurs to Janeway that the nebula might not be a nebula. No, her desire for fresh replicated coffee has inadvertently damaged a massive lifeform that does not fit any known classification. Eager to repent, Janeway and the crew work on ways to heal the creature. Throughout, Chakotay guides Janeway on a spirit quest and Paris establishes a holodeck program of a pool hall he loved back on Earth.

In the big picture, most of what is wrong with "The Cloud" is that the episode's best ideas get mortgaged so quickly. Chakotay's opening Janeway up to his Native American Indian faith leads her to find her spirit guide, a small lizard. But while the attempt is mentioned one or two other times, the whole concept of Janeway embracing a faith and belief system bigger than StarFleet to keep her going goes quickly by the wayside. Similarly, the starship Voyager comes out of the episode weaker than when it began. But there are no consequences for the weakened state; the next episode begins as if this one never actually occurred. The producers foolishly created a show with an almost imperative serialized concept and instead made the series episodic. Grumble.

But within the episode, there are enough flaws to sink it on its own merits. Before I appear to ream the whole endeavor out, I will say that I like the basic concept. The idea of a gigantic cloud creature that seems more like a spatial phenomenon than an entity is a clever concept. I liked that.

Moreover, the elements of genuine character establishment are wonderful. Paris in a pool hall is wonderful and fits his rogue character's nature. Janeway's scientific curiosity about Chakotay's faith and the ways he expresses it are compelling and believable. When she cites "Jonah and the Whale" and Neelix looks bewildered illustrates the writers were awake, alive and engaged enough to understand what they were working on. As always, the brief part the Doctor plays steals the show, in this case as he realizes the nature of the creature. One of the moments that works wonderfully is his appearance on the viewscreen on the bridge and he chides the command staff for not recognizing the merits of the entity outside its potential to be exploited.

But even the cameo by the Doctor is not enough to save this episode. This is a one-trick pony fleshed out by performances that are mediocre at best. The character aspects in "The Cloud" are presented in a very expository way, as if to say "See? Our show has characters, too! We're here! We're vital!" The writers and producers tell more than they show the character aspects they want us to pick up on.

So, while Janeway is defining the StarFleet way to Neelix, the scene feels very much like the writers telling the viewers what the show is all about. It's like the writers were trying to find a clever way to say "our protagonists are principled individuals who hold themselves to a higher moral standard" and could not think of a better way to present it than to have a forced conflict between Neelix and Janeway where she essentially says just that.

Outside the somewhat forced characterizations and the character explorations that generally do not survive the episode, "The Cloud" fails because the problem is a simple problem with a simple solution. Star Trek has a habit of dealing with unique phenomenon, but this creature is hardly new. In the original Star Trek, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise encountered both a cloud creature (in "Obsession," reviewed here!) and a tremendously sized organism in the form of the giant space amoeba from "The Immunity Syndrome" (reviewed here!). Thirty years later, the audience is expected to find the combination of these ideas somehow compelling. "Obsession" worked because the creature was used to reveal deeper character issues and "The Cloud" more closely resembles "The Immunity Syndrome" with the twist being the Voyager crew wants to keep the alien life form alive as opposed to destroying it.

The reason this is hardly a compelling issue is that there is no sense of consequence if the crew fails. If the cloud creature dies, how does Voyager illustrate any sense of consequence? It's not like if they fail to heal the entity, they will stay and work exhaustively to repopulate the species. No, the ship would just continue on its way. Would it feel bad about it? Possibly, though it's doubtful it would rule the subsequent episodes. Would it harvest the dead creature for the omicron particles it could use? There's a good question.

As a result, after the initial viewing and the novelty of it, "The Cloud" suffers because any sense of tension or peril is gutted because the viewer knows that this is an upbeat show where people doing the right thing succeed. It would have been incredible, were this only a serialized show, for the Voyager crew to fail and actually have consequences for the action. Imagine Janeway being so skittish after inadvertently killing the cloud creature that Voyager is later imperiled. Imagine Paris and Torres fearful of returning home because they could be brought up on charges for destroying the unique lifeform.

But that's not this show and that leaves the viewer with a sense of disappointment. We want more from the show and "The Cloud" does not give it.

[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 episode reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!

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