Star Trek: Voyager - Season 5
"In the Flesh" -
reviewed by Dana Laratta
I enjoyed this episode. The characterizations and the dialogue sparkled. It was nice to have something, like that snippet of dialogue about Janeway and Chakotay's last experiences at Starfleet Command, to elucidate some of the past of under serviced characters like Chakotay.
It was also simply a joy to see Starfleet Command again, and I believe this to be the most extensive outdoor use of that location. The setting was impeccably produced, by both 8472 themselves and the production staff. Beautiful production, visually, including the transformation that revealed the 8472. It was a true joy to see Boothby, or his representation, again, and Ray Walston had a chance to really strut in the dual, layered role.
The plotting of the episode was tight, I particularly liked how the opening and first act kept you guessing. I was sure Chakotay had been kidnapped and "programmed" so that the simulation (given away to me by the spoiler) could be tested. It was nice to see that it was the Voyager crew that was on top of the game, having discovered and infiltrated the simulation.
Even more interesting was how, although advertised as a romantic story, the performance and writing kept true to how alien these two species were, and yet how perfect and charming a replica the woman was to get to Chakotay. Typified in the moment when he was avoiding her kiss, recoiling in disgust, but at the feeling of it, gave in to it. Nice plotting in that she, on the surface, would accept that as an 8472's distaste for kissing, and yet it turned out to be a ploy to test his identity.
In the end, however, there was indeed an attraction between them, much as Chakotay may have found that weird to deal with. Methinks pining for Katherine, who seems to romantically be colder than the nearest iceberg, has left our man Chakotay a little... um... anxious. As in "Unity," however, I think it is nice that the Alien of the Week story involved only the initial, most superficial stages of attraction. Much easier to deal with in one hour than the likes of "Unforgettable," where we are asked to accept that someone has fallen in love in 42 minutes of screen time. I must point out, however, that Chakotay has slept with a Borg and been attracted to an 8472. Are all the human (or more humanoid) women on the ship already taken? Were Paris' words a few years ago about acting before the opportunity is gone accurate? Poor Chakotay!
More importantly than all this, the episode made quite a reach and was successful in bringing Trekkian ideals to the tale of contact between the Federation and 8472. There was a level of diplomacy here that has been unreliable in the past, and I have to say, although I have never been a naysayer, the episodes this season have come back to the focus on ethics and understanding that many have pointed out has been inconsistent on Voyager ('The Swarm' comes to mind).
I do, however, have a complaint, that doesn't focus so much on technical nits as it does on the nature of 8472, their mentality and how well what we just saw fits in with their backstory as previously determined.
As I said, bringing contact with 8472 into a more Roddenberry form of thought, a process of reaching out and making peace, was a little bit of a stretch. I applaud the effort and the decision--and must say that its great to see Voyager making exciting episodes involving dangerous potential foes without a single shot being fired or bridge console blowing up.
However, quite a lot of facts, previously unknown, about 8472 needed to be added to even make possible this level of brinksmanship and diplomacy with them. Our previous knowledge of the species indicated that they lived in a dimension all their own, filled completely with the same basic organic stuff they were made from, flying ships that were organic and indistinct from their own biology. Upon being attacked by the Borg they blitzkrieged our galaxy, with the apparent (although translated through Kes' unreliable telepathic abilities) intention of destroying all the "genetically inferior" life in our galaxy. They attacked Ensign Kim and Voyager without provocation, slaughtered millions of Borg (absorbing some to rebuild damage to their ships), and retreated completely upon discovering that they weren't so genetically superior that they couldn't be killed.
"In the Flesh" shows us a species 8472 with some new capabilities.
Non-organic technology. Fair enough. No one said fluidic space couldn't have planets, resources, and that 8472 exclusively used organic technology.
Shape-changing. Also fair. TOS and TNG had shape changers as well, and no one said DS9 has the lock on shape changers. 8472 had a unique flavor of it, in fact, using "isomorphic injections," apparently derived from their vastly superior understanding and manifestation of genetics, to allow them to accomplish this. Makes it possible to not only add intrigue to their use, but to use them more without breaking the bank.
Social mimicry and understanding. This is a little tougher. Seven has said that Species 8472 is highly adaptive and intelligent, giving them the capability for this kind of understanding. What's missing is the inclination. It's difficult to see 8472 as we knew them before, a species completely isolated from all other species, in the course of a year, becoming so casual about examining and mimicking another culture, for the sole purpose of training scouts for reconnaissance. Perhaps if it had been indicated that 8472's discovery of this galaxy had led to a Renaissance of thought in their culture, a desire to explore and learn about other peoples rather than simply eliminate them, which was hampered by a fear of the threat our culture (more specifically, the crew of Voyager) presented to them. But that wasn't the case. As far as we knew, the whole endeavor was a military training exercise.
Now, from a more individual standpoint, we saw some of this enjoyment of the mimicry in Valerie Archer, her anticipation of "Pon Farr" night at the Vulcan nightclub (great line--I imagine a bunch of Vulcan men moodily grumbling to the bartender while the dance floor is cleared out to make room for all the fights to the death), her exploration and appreciation of human literature. We saw in her a desire to bridge the gap between our two species, hampered by fear due to the disastrous first contact.
And yet, it seems a good deal of this would have needed to occur before 8472 even got to the point of setting up these recreations. There is a whole story of how this most alien of species learned about us and came to the point of deciding to deal with us as a full-fledged enemy society, rather than the "disease" the captured 8472 labelled us before killing himself, that is missing. It is frustrating to only see the results of this progression, and to not have the dialogue hint at or help out to bridge the gulf between the two modes of thought we have seen from this species. The closest we came was by seeing some of the more antagonistic 8472 accusing the others of being "seduced" by the humans. It would be fascinating if this species, having spent so many millennia alone, would in fact be in danger of becoming "too into" a species it is mimicking and exploring.
Peace negotiations. To be honest, it just was hard to reconcile the species that negotiated for peace with Voyager's crew with the species that went postal on the Borg after one attack. At times, it felt like this species was being shoehorned into a Trekkian moral tale, when they didn't quite fit yet. It is a good tale to tell, but the players have to fit. To his credit, however, Mr Sagan did include dialogue regarding how the 8472 on this project were considered "forward thinking" by their superiors. I can only assume that understanding and mimicking human culture has radically changed their approach on how to think about other cultures. I would hope that this deal isn't pat, that there are going to be 8472 out there who don't care to mimic any "genetically inferior" life form, and who will continue to view other forms of life as "disease."
It isn't very Trekkian, but it was part of what was refreshingly new about 8472. It isn't entirely three dimensional, but it fit in with their backstory. The progression of this group of 8472's thought to a more Trekkian mode was brought on so quick we didn't even get to see half of it. I hope that Mr. Braga, in his style of going back at times to fill in the gaps, will include this one, and perhaps show us a group of 8472 who didn't go merrily along for the ride of giving other species some form of respect. Because that was part of what gave Species 8472 a nice role as counterpoint to the Borg. The Borg see individuality and imperfection around them, and seek to absorb the distinction of the individuality and merge it with their own essence to achieve perfection. 8472, as we knew them before, was, to all extents and purposes, genetic perfection, and they saw the individuality around them as a possible dilution of that, a threat to be eliminated. The distance between that and being willing to alter your genetic makeup to infiltrate another society, for the purposes of surveilling and ensuring your own safety, is a big one, and deserves to be addressed.
And finally, in going back and covering some bases, the show has raised an interesting question. Janeway obviously was missing some information about 8472 when she decided to ally with the Borg against them. We do not know if presenting an actual threat to 8472 was what gave them pause to respect us and reconsider destroying all life in our galaxy, or if that was indeed their intent. If it is door number one, than we have a misunderstanding that can be accepted. If we have door number two, than 8472 quite rightly has grounds for being pissed, if not at humanity, than at Voyager, for using their conflict with the Borg as a convenient way to get through Borg space, and killing many 8472's in the process. We have been given enough cause ("Hope and Fear") to question the decisions made in "Scorpion." Perhaps if 8472 had mentioned that they did consider us all disease until the end of the conflict, at which point they examined a little more and decided to pick and choose their enemies out of the life in our galaxy. "We were just defending ourselves," was not, in the end, hardly enough of an explanation for their actions in "Scorpion" without some distinction like this.
In the end, however, 8472 was brought out of the sci-fi movie world of CGI aliens that are almost exclusively hostile even more than what was accomplished in "Prey," and brought into the Star Trek world of a thinking species with a viewpoint. That their viewpoint is somewhat lacking in distinct personality in this episode is a significant, if easily acceptable, trade off, and one that can be dealt with more at a later time, when they return.
Through conflict comes exploration and understanding in fiction. This episode provided the return of 8472 in a completely unexpected manner, by presenting the conflict in a new way that permitted intrigue and interaction that the species desperately needed to remain a mainstay. However, in doing so the species seemed slightly "out of character," and a lot of explanation was missing to fill in the gaps. Peace, the ideal in the Roddenberry future, was appropriately the ideal in this episode, but was perhaps reached a little too easily. One hopes that should 8472 return, somehow more conflict will appear to further distinguish the uniqueness of their viewpoint. If it does not, than I expect this episode will have wrapped up and filed 8472 away. That would be a shame.
SUMMARY: Sharply written, tightly plotted, and inventive, this episode was absorbing and a joy to watch. Characterization was tight with one exception: the character of the species designated 8472 by the Borg. Too many unanswered questions about them, questions that needed answers, brings down this episode's score. But as an hour of Star Trek, this episode ranks up there, choosing some thoughtful and provocative ways to express a tried and true cornerstone of Trekkian philosophy.