Friday, October 10, 2008

"Riddles" (VOY)

Tuvok and Neelix have been the obvious odd couple on the ship since Neelix first tried to hug "Mister Vulcan" in the pilot episode. "Riddles" may be the strongest and most touching episode in the Tuvok-Neelix arc. Here the true depth of their friendship is established. Really, it is probably this episode which carries the emotional weight of Tuvok's "dance" for Neelix when he departs at the end of the next season.

The premise is an attack by a shadowy (pun intended) race called the Ba'neth leaves Tuvok in a coma. He wakes up mute, disoriented, and with a severe brain injury that leaves him in an child-like state. To obtain information on the weapon, Janeway teams up with an alien investigator to track down Tuvok's assailant.

That plot in itself is fairly standard, and it's not the only time the Doctor has claimed he needs more information about a weapon to undue the damage that it has caused. That seems like a stretch - something like saying I need to see the knife that stabbed this man before I can give him stitches. But I suppose mysterious brain injuries are a little more complicated than puncture wounds.

But the mystery of the Ba'neth and the medical miracle it will take to bring Tuvok back are really not what sells this story. It is a story about characters, primarily Neelix and Tuvok, and therein lies its greatest strength.

Tuvok: We have seen angry, violent Tuvok back in season two (“Meld”), but here we can see Tuvok scared, frustrated, laughing, smiling, and just having a good time. It’s wonderful, and a testimony to the skill of Tim Russ as an actor. He’s played the stoic Vulcan so well for so many years that you could really start to think he is a stoic Vulcan. But here we see his range.

This adds dimension to the issue of Vulcan emotions. ‘When is a Vulcan not a Vulcan?’ Just when he looses his logic? Really he lost more than that since a Vulcan without logic pretty quickly spirals out of control. A healthy Vulcan must repress his emotions to remain stable. Vulcan’s who have experimented otherwise seem to self-destruct pretty quickly. (See “Fusion” ENT for example.)

Perhaps Tuvok does not remain in this condition long enough to see what the full impact of his freely expressed emotions will be, but he certainly seemed stable. Stunted, limited, but stable. Even his tirade in sickbay seemed no more explosive than any human tirade—it’s certainly nothing on the level of the fury we saw when he melded with Lom Suder. So I think he really lost more than his logic. He also lost the violent emotions that Vulcan logic keeps in check.

So maybe Vulcan emotional balance is possible, but at quite a cost.

While watching Tim Russ perform is the real treat of the episode, Neelix is the driving force behind the story. Here we get to see Neelix at his best. While the episode starts with some fairly standard Neelix-irritates-Tuvok routines, we quickly see the depth of his loyalty and, in the end, his selflessness. He is willing to do whatever he can to help his friend, and he’s willing to restore Tuvok to his former self, even if it means being merely tolerated by him.

Neelix says he’s doing it because the ship needs its tactical officer. I think even more so it's because he wants to do what is best for Tuvok, even if that means Tuvok will no longer reciprocate their friendship.

Janeway’s best moment in the episode is probably when Neelix tells her that between tending to Tuvok and piloting the flyer he didn’t think to take more scans of the attacker. Janeway’s reply is pitch perfect. She reassures Neelix that no one is disappointed in him. He did everything he could. He brought Tuvok back to safety. They would figure out the rest.

However if there is one weakness to this episode, it is probably the characterization of her relationship with Tuvok. Really, it’s not a problem unique to this episode. Tuvok is supposed to be her closest friend and confidante, and we’ve seen them act this way sometimes, but there never seems to be the consistent comradery between them we would expect. (They never even approach a Kirk-Spock friendship for example.)

I would expect her concern for Tuvok to be more like what we’ll see in the series finale, where an alternate future Tuvok suffers from a mentally debilitating disease. Instead she plays the concerned captain, makes some effort to protect Tuvok from Naroq’s bull-headed investigation, and she even makes one request for a private meal with Tuvok. But she still seems much too distracted with Naroq and the Ba’neth for my taste.

Maybe that really is Janeway’s personality—she is a scientist at heart. But I also think there’s a dramatic logic to it. The strength of the episode lies in the Tuvok-Neelix relationship. If Janeway were too heavily involved, it would distract from that. So having “baby” Tuvok imprint on friendly Neelix when he comes out of his coma effectively sidelines Janeway’s involvement, since Tuvok is reluctant to trust anyone else in his current condition.

Naroq: Naroq annoys me at first. He’s overenthusiastic, like a lot of Trek aliens really. And his introduction is a little odd to me. He announces his own name as he strolls into the conference room. Why wasn’t he met in the transporter room like any other dignitary? What red shirt did they sent to fetch him so he could enter with his cheesy introductory line?

But he gains some depth when he sacrifices the secrets of his scanning equipment to save Tuvok. This is a noble, but also reasonable act on his part. The Ba’neth see a way to protect their anonymity, and Naroq can seek a different way to find them another day. It’s a cold war compromise.

Seven of Nine: Seven of Nine plays a limited role in the episode, mostly as a helper for Naroq, but she also plays off of Neelix in the pivotal scene in the episode. It brings together the Ba’neth investigation with Neelix’ efforts to help Tuvok. They meet in the darkened mess hall contemplating their respective “riddles.” Seven gives Neelix the answer he needs—don’t try to restore Tuvok to what he was before, help him realize the potential of what he has become.

It seems to me that Voyager has a long tradition of characters giving speeches where they draw comparisons between their personal situation and a current crisis. I think it’s usually Seven of Nine who gets these speeches. ‘When I was freed from the collective I faced a challenge very much like . . . the Doctor’s quest for individuality, B’Ellana’s efforts to fit in on a Starfleet ship, the Captain’s tendency to burn pot roasts . . .’

Well, you get the idea.

Here the comparison works reasonably well, although Seven’s “loss” was an overwhelmingly positive change in her life (even if she didn’t see it that way at the time); whereas Tuvok’s loss is quite negative even if he can manage to find a new purpose in life.

Chakotay: Chakotay doesn’t have too much to do in this episode other than making bridge officer noises, but he does have one great moment. When Neelix brings Tuvok to the bridge, and escorts him off when he sets off alarms and buzzers, Chakotay reacts to the sight of his debilitated comrade. Robert Beltran’s face and body language alone convey deep discomfort and concern. It’s a wonderful touch.

You might say this episode is a more character driven version of “Cathexis.” Like Chakotay used the stones in his medicine bundle to chart a course for the ship, Tuvok is able to put a cloaking frequency into the icing on the cake. But here we’re a lot less focused on paranoia, suspense, and plot twists, and more focused on the people we care about.

And of course something of Tuvok’s humanizing experience carries over into the closing scene—some glimmer of human illogic has stuck with him. And those are the kinds of moments Trek is all about.