Monday, October 15, 2012

“Living Witness” Is The Closest Star Trek: Voyager Came To The Mirror Universe!

The Good: A good idea, Decent acting, Good special effects
The Bad: No genuine character development, A Fatal conceptual flaw.
The Basics: Set in the future of a planet that blames Voyager for its woes, “Living Witness” puts the Emergency Medical Hologram on a course to correct revisionist history!

One of the things that Star Trek: Voyager did very poorly was dark episodes. The show treaded toward the safe and prioritized easy resolutions over truly wrestling with consequences or tackling complex issues. So, it might not be a surprise that one of the better episodes of the series is one that bucks that trend. That episode is “Living Witness.”

“Living Witness” is the closest Star Trek: Voyager came to presenting an episode set in the Mirror Universe. The episode opens with an exceptionally dark vision of what Voyager was like, much like the way the Star Trek Mirror Universe reinvents the standard characters with twists, “Living Witness” presents the main cast as psychopaths. With altered uniforms, a vastly more armed and armored starship and cosmetic changes to the characters (like Chakotay’s tattoo covering his entire left side of his face), “Living Witness” is a dark bottle episode that is twisted, but has an important message about historical revisionism.

Set 700 years in the future, Voyager’s story is told through historic records on the Kyrian homeworld. The infamous Voyager Encounter tells the story of the climax of a war between the Kyrians and Vaskans. Through torture, manipulation, and unleashing a biological toxin into the biosphere of the Kyrian homeworld, the warship Voyager captures Tedran, the rebel leader of the Kyrians. After the revelation of the Kyrian story of Voyager and the Vaskan’s oppression, the Kyrian museum’s curator, Quarren, is part of a team that activates a newly discovered Voyager artifact.

That artifact is The Emergency Medical Hologram and when he witnesses the Kyrian version of the story, he becomes outraged and disturbed. Insisting on telling his story, the Doctor rewrites the historical document.

“Living Witness” has a fundamental flaw. The “data storage device” that Quarren studies is the Doctor’s holographic program. Given that the storage device includes all of the Doctor’s program, its nature is ultimately a huge problem for the series. The moment Quarren activates the program, the writers have to answer how the Doctor is present without his mobile emitter. The answer, which is simply that the Doctor’s program is present in the artifact and it is a backup module, is anything but satisfying or satisfactory. If the program is the entire program for the Doctor and it was from Voyager, the Doctor should no longer be on Voyager. Without his mobile emitter, there have never been redundant copies of the Doctor before. Thus, “Living Witness” ought to mark a change in the Doctor where he actually needs the mobile emitter to survive. The writers provide no such satisfying or well-reasoned explanation for his presence in the Museum Of Kyrian Heritage.

Overlooking that rather ridiculous flaw – entire episodes like “The Swarm” (reviewed here!) become utterly nonsensical if the Doctor actually had a redundant copy somewhere aboard – “Living Witness” is much like a Mirror Universe episode. The only real character development comes from the Doctor. As Quarren threatens to put the Doctor on trial, he has a realistic sense of menace. As the Doctor is threatened with being decompiled, he tells a very different story. “Living Witness” provides realistic foreshadowing of the Doctor’s eventual interest in writing holonovels. But, beyond that, the episode is very much a chance for the writers and director Tim Russ to play with the characters and turn them on their ears.

As a result, much like Mirror Universe episodes, “Living Witness” is an actor’s playground. Garrett Wang gets the chance to play Harry Kim as a torturing psychopath. Kate Mulgrew is convincing as Janeway as a ruthless destroyer and in his brief role in “Living Witness,” Tim Russ makes Tuvok into a coldblooded killer. Ethan Philips and Robert Beltran bother play the altered versions of Neelix and Chakotay with an eagerness and glee that makes it clear they were enjoying the break from their regular characters.

Robert Picardo and guest actor Henry Woronicz (Quarren) are given the lion’s share of the acting work needed to anchor the piece. Picardo has to play the Doctor as outraged and convincing. He plays off Woronicz exceptionally well and Woronicz’s job is to play a scientist whose faith in both history and reason have to be strong. Woronicz makes Quarren memorable and when he works through the chain of evidence that makes him doubt history as he knew it, he seems very vital and realistic.

For all its quality, “Living Witness” is an engaging episode that lacks any real consequences or sense of importance to the rest of the series.

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

For other works with Timothy Davis-Reed, be sure to check out:
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
The West Wing
Sports Night
Babylon 5: In The Beginning


For other Star Trek episode and movie reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!

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

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