Amongst nineties Star Trek episodes, most prevalently in the Next Generation and Voyager series, there exists a commonly repeated formula. First, the characters are depicted going about their day-to-day lives aboard the ship. Next, something unusual disrupts that equilibrium and causes an oft-weirdly science fictional problem. The characters then solve that problem and restore equilibrium. Finally, the characters discuss what they've learned and what they now understand better as a result of the conflict and its resolution.
The episodes surveyed in this series of Voyager episode reviews tend to either eschew the formula completely (The Thaw; Course: Oblivion; 11:59) or diverge from it in a significant and interesting way (Prototype; Remember).
The most noticeable thing about The Voyager Conspiracy, upon returning to it as an adult, is just how meticulously it follows the formula. In addition, of all the members of my ten favorite episodes of Voyager, it, more than any other, lacks in subtlety and is devoid of subtext. With that out of the way, I think it deserves its place in my list, and, if push came to shove, there are other episodes, such as The Year of Hell which I would eject from my favorites before it.
The value of The Voyager Conspiracy lies in the specific theme chosen as the vehicle for the plot. That theme is the value we assign to collections of data and how easy it is to lose sight of the fact that data must be interpreted in order to be useful. Far too many mechanisms in our world today equate quantity with quality (high economic output is unquestioningly considered "good"), or assume that quantitative measures are effective means for deriving qualitative value (e.g. many assume that Google search algorithms are capable of providing them with "truth"). The Voyager Conspiracy provides an adept (if unsubtle) depiction of dangers of this kind of thinking.
By the sixth season, Voyager has added a former Borg drone named Seven of Nine (often just "Seven") to its crew compliment. The Voyager Conspiracy begins with Seven explaining to another crew member that she is attempting to retrofit a Borg information processing unit into her sleeping alcove so that she can have Voyager's sensor readings and computer logs downloaded into her brain while she sleeps.
At first, her experiment appears to be successful. Seven wakes up the next morning and reports to the captain that an alien species of flea has invaded the ships energy system and is tapping into the their power reserves. She determined this by correlating various sensor readings, cargo manifest reports, and other public ship records. When the captain and the chief engineer pull open an access panel to the power grid, the fleas are found and relocated before they can do any significant damage.
However, after this initial success, Seven's mental condition steadily degrades. Before long, she is pulling the first officer aside and insinuating that she has uncovered a conspiracy involving the captain. Later she pulls the captain aside and claims to have uncovered a conspiracy involving the first officer. The data that Seven has correlated in each case is so seemingly complete that it takes the senior staff some time to wise up to its bogus nature. The captain gets closest to resisting Seven's rampant speculation, calling her theories "a house of cards."
The Voyager Conspiracy adeptly translated a real-world problem into an effective science fiction metaphor. It should be noted that said real world problem was only nascent in the 1990's, and had yet to gain the vast power and scope that data systems command today in 2019.
In the episode's finale, Seven has a conversation with the same crew member to whom she had originally explained the workings of her information unit. While dismantling the unit, the crew member notes the number of books she's finished reading recently, to which Seven responds that "quantity is not as important as quality." Even though The Voyager Conspiracy's plot is constantly pushing its agenda right in my face, I can't help but grin and appreciate the fact that a relatively unserious and by-the-book episode took the time to weave into its fabric a theme of such substance and import.
Categories: Television Narrative Analysis
Tags: Star Trek: Voyager