Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Clever Idea, Well Executed, “Distant Origin” Is A Star Trek: Voyager Winner!

The Good: Interesting plot, Good acting, Decent special effects
The Bad: A little weaker on character than is ideal.
The Basics: “Distant Origin” is a worthwhile concept episode that tells an intriguing story, even if the U.S.S. Voyager is only tangential to the story.

One of the few advantages that Star Trek: Voyager had as it went on, over Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that aired simultaneously with the show, was that because the producers refused to significantly serialize the show, they could occasionally do a concept show that did not disrupt the main flow of the series. “Distant Origin” is one of those concept episodes and it may well be the most successful of them. “Distant Origin” is a clever episode that argues evolution over religious doctrine from the perspective of another alien race.

“Distant Origin” may be one of the best, neglected episode of Star Trek: Voyager and it becomes even more relevant now that there is such a strong movement in the United States to deny the teaching of evolution. From before the United States went in such a reactionary direction, “Distant Origin” shines as a clever treatise on evolution. By presenting much of the episode from the perspective of the alien race, “Distant Origin” succeeds at being accessible to any viewers, not just fans of Star Trek: Voyager.

On the world that the Voyager crew was stranded on in “Basics, Part II” (reviewed here!) where Hogan was killed by the Hanonan Land Eel, two Voth scientists discover his remains. This leads the primary scientist, Gegen, to believe that his people and the humans are related. This flies in the face of the religious hierarchy on his home planet. The Voth, having been transplanted eons ago, have a radical notion that they evolved elsewhere. Gegen takes his evidence to Minister Odala, who denies his premise and prepares to have him detained.

Gegen and his assistant, Veer, flee to search for the U.S.S. Voyager. After clues from the space station on the far side of the Nekrit Expanse lead the scientists to Voyager, they come aboard to observe the crew. When Kim and Tuvok begin sensing the cloaked scientists, they appear and Gegen abducts Chakotay to use as evidence that the Distant Origin Theory is true.

“Distant Origin” does many things right, though it is not a flawless episode. In addition to a bit less in the way of character development that I would like, the real flaw in “Distant Origin” is that to make it more accessible to non-fans, it includes a ridiculous amount of exposition. Janeway and the Doctor take a pace-killing trip to the Holodeck where they explore reptilian life forms from the era of dinosaurs. This helps them essentially explain how the make-up artists came up with the Voth and lend credence to the Distant Origin Theory.

The Voth are an interesting alien race and “Distant Origin” is really about fleshing the alien race out, as opposed to even tackling the issue of evolution vs. creationism beyond reasonable doubt. In fact, more than actually debating the premise, “Distant Origin” illustrates the fight to enforce Doctrine and promote ignorance, as opposed to examining the evidence that helps prove evolution. The Voth are technologically advanced, using personal cloaking technology and incredibly massive ships that travel at transwarp (which is why Gegen and his people are able to catch up with Voyager so easily).

Minister Odala makes for an excellent antagonist as the enforcer of Doctrine. She is concerned with maintaining power and control over actually embracing the truth. Much of “Distant Origin” involves the conflict between Odala and Gegen, with Voyager as only a pawn in the conflict between the two.

On the acting front, the guest actors rise to a very intriguing acting challenge. Henry Woronicz (Gegen), Christopher Liam Moore (Veer) and Concetta Tomei (Odala) are all stuck in heavy reptilian make-up and alien contact lenses. As a result, they have almost no ability to act utilizing facial expressions and eye movements. Instead these three actors use their voices in a tremendous, emotive way. As Odala fights to keep the Ministry in power, Woronicz and Moore have to articulate their views in ways that make their characters interesting and the likelihood of their failure have an emotional consequence to the viewer. When Veer turns tail, Moore makes his voice shake and he is clearly a broken man.

Tomei uses her voice to create an entirely authoritarian (if ignorant) character and her performance gives Robert Beltran the chance to present Chakotay in a way that seems more interesting than he actually is. Standing beside actors covered in make-up who cannot emote with their facial muscles or eyes, Beltran’s understated expressions are easy to overlook when he infuses real passion into his lines.

Despite the wonderful and compelling argument presented, Star Trek: Voyager takes an unfortunately realistic view of how such conflicts usually go in “Distant Origin.” The resolution to the episode is depressing, but shines with a sense of realism. It is not a satisfying conclusion, but it is one that makes sense.

Ultimately, “Distant Origin” is a remarkably fresh episode of Star Trek: Voyager, even if it is barely related to the overall saga of the Federation ship.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the entire season here!


Check out how this episode stacks up against others by visiting my Star Trek Review Index Page!

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