Saturday, February 23, 2013

Star Trek: Voyager’s Writers Look Back And Forward With Chakotay In “Natural Law!”

The Good: Moments of plot and character, Concept
The Bad: Some of Jeri Ryan’s performance, Absurd b-plot, Mediocre plot, Very obvious special effects shots (and cheats)
The Basics: “Natural Law” puts Chakotay and Seven Of Nine in a situation where they must rely on a primitive culture to survive.

As a series winds down, especially one that has so many characters to service as Star Trek: Voyager, the show has to essentially “write out” characters if the series finale is going to primarily focus on a single character or one or two of the main characters. While Star Trek: Voyager did not have nearly as many plotlines to tie up as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it had as many characters. While only one of the characters (Neelix) will explicitly be written out of the series, Harry Kim has, by the time “Natural Law” comes up, already had the final episode that would focus exclusively on him. Chakotay and Tom Paris are given their last real hurrahs in “Natural Law,” an episode that focuses on Chakotay and gives Paris a surprisingly weak subplot that seems more intended for comic effect than character development.

In “Natural Law,” the writers seem to recall that the original draw for the characterization of Chakotay – even more than that he was a member of the Maquis – was that he was a Native American Indian. This look back is a decent one and seems entirely plausible given the events of prior episodes, like “Tattoo” (reviewed here!). However, if the purpose of “Natural Law” is truly to give Chakotay one last shining episode, writer James Kahn unfortunately fails. Like so many things since she arrived on the show, “Natural Law’s” story that could have easily focused on Chakotay and his ability to communicate with the alien indigenous people, Seven Of Nine co-opts much of the episode.

Chakotay and Seven Of Nine are en route to a conference when their shuttle encounters a mysterious energy barrier on the planet surface they are flying over. They crash as a result of hitting the energy barrier and the two find themselves stranded on a lush, forested planet. Meanwhile, Tom Paris is reckless in flying the Delta Flyer around the planet Voyager is at and he is sentenced to the spatial equivalent of a defensive driving course. Underneath the energy barrier, Seven Of Nine and Chakotay discover an apparently ancient civilization still preserved in a pre-warp state of evolution. With Chakotay wounded, the pair stays the night with the indigenous people, despite Seven Of Nine’s trepidations and desires to recover debris from the shuttle that might allow them to contact Voyager.

While Paris muddles through his driver’s education course, Chakotay becomes distressed that the Ventu natives are beginning to recover debris from Voyager’s shuttle and imitating the two survivors by adorning themselves with pieces of the debris. When Seven Of Nine conscripts the Ventu to help move a piece of the debris, she and a Ventu girl work to temporarily bring down the barrier for rescue. But, when the barrier is lowered, the industrialized powers enter the habitat, much to the horror of both Chakotay and Seven Of Nine.

“Natural Law” is essentially the episode where Chakotay teaches Seven Of Nine to respect the sovereignty of the native people. This actually makes a much more sensible bond between the two characters that sets up the role their relationship plays in the series finale. Far more plausible than just throwing together Chakotay and Seven Of Nine, “Natural Law” gives them a common bond, purpose, and experience to make their brief relationship reasonable for the fans.

The subplot with Lieutenant Paris is mediocre and vaguely humorous, though both Robert Duncan McNeill and Neil Vipond (Kleg, the flying instructor) play off one another very well in order to sell their interactions.

The only other acting of note is that of Jeri Ryan’s Seven Of Nine. Throughout much of the episode, Ryan is lax in her portrayal of Seven Of Nine. Her eye motions and physical contact with Robert Beltran’s Chakotay seems much lazier than deliberate. For much of the episode, she seems like Jeri Ryan walking around a set, as opposed to Seven Of Nine on an alien planet. This is brought to a head in the episode’s final scene, where Ryan plays Seven Of Nine exactly like what one expects of her, which further accents the awkwardness of the early performance.

“Natural Law” is also notable in that it has surprisingly bad and noticeably cheated special effects. On the planet, when Seven Of Nine is forced – by her young guide – to take a breather and appreciate the scenery, the viewer is subjected to a painfully obvious green screen shot that does not gel with the characters occupying it. But more significantly, until the last possible moment of the episode when it is absolutely essential, the barrier is not seen. The viewer – who, as a Star Trek fan is likely to be very comfortable with brightly colored energy barriers, like from “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - is told about the all-powerful energy barrier and the phaser discharge that allows the shuttle to survive passage through it, but we don’t see it. It is an invisible barrier (except for a convenient final shot) from space and from the surface, allowing director Terry Windell to gloss over actually showing the effect, especially as an alternate sky for the land shots.

“Natural Law” has a good message, one which Chakotay fortunately never hammers home in a painfully explicit Saturday Morning Cartoon kind of way. Chakotay does not want to use the Ventu natives, not only because he does not want to influence their culture an undo amount, but because of the history Earth has with enslaving its Native Peoples. Robert Beltran insinuates that concern in his performance, without stopping to make it obvious and I liked that.

Unfortunately, “Natural Law” does not nail the episode home in any meaningful way. It is good, but not great and hardly one of the more memorable episodes, which is an unfortunate condition for an episode to be so close to the end of the series.

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


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

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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