Attention on heck! Don’t try to adjust your viewscreens, person-hell and boo-tenants! What you’re seeing isn’t a creepy clone, a hellish hologram, or a strangely specific alternate universe! For the month of October, we’ll be taking a spine-chilling stroll through Trek’s most horror-iffic outings and spooky adventures! Now why don’t you sit back and try not to let that green blood of yours run cold! If things get a little too intense, don’t hesitate to ask Scotty to SCREAM you up! Hehehehehehehehehe!
“Juggernaut” (Star Trek: Voyager – Season 5, Episode 21)
In the pantheon of monsters, mutants have an interesting appeal and subtext. They were once human (or in the case of this episode, a normal member of an alien species), but have been transformed and disfigured to a horrifying extent by any number of maladies. Horrible accidents, birth defects, radiation, you name it. Freakshows that showcased unusual-looking people with birth defects or rare medical conditions were a staple of sideshows for far too long. And they’ve been a mainstay of horror movies for as long as the genre has existed. Suffice it to say, people seem to have an innate, morbid fascination with freaks. Behind the revulsion, perhaps there is a an element of “counting one’s blessings,” as we see how things might have turned out if we had been a bit less fortunate.
And in the context of horror movies, mutants have occupied a special, disgusting place. The Hills Have Eyes was one of the first movies to popularize this idea with its mutant cannibals, and you could even designate a horror sub-genre of “hills-have-eyes-ian” movies and TV shows. The “deformed mutant(s) preying in the shadows” has become a common trope and it propels this particularly memorable Voyager episode.
The episode’s main character is Torres. I was going to call her one of Voyager’s most under-served characters, but aside from Janeway, Seven, and the Doctor, all of Voyger‘s characters are pretty much under-served. B’Elanna has one of the most potentially rich backstories and Dawson is a good actor, but the show never did quite right by her character. Her main characteristic is “hot-head,” and the writing rarely elevates her above that stock type. We’re in Season 5 of the show and she’s just as angry and short-tempered as she was in the beginning (perhaps even more so); not only that, she’s even defensive of being prone to violence and doesn’t think she has a problem.
Case in point: as her story begins in the episode, she has been ordered to do a meditation session with Tuvok for a violent outburst against the Doctor. Rather than being contrite or regretful over her actions and inability to control her temper, she’s defensive and abdicates any responsibility. Furthermore, she’s petulant and uncooperative as Tuvok tries to help her to investigate the roots of her anger. Like much of the writing on Voyager, it’s clunky and suggestive of some depth, but with no follow through.
Her bad attitude continues throughout the episode as they have to deal with the slimy, polluting Malon and their about-to-explode waste scow. It’s tiresome. At one point Chakotay pulls her aside and dresses her down a little (Beltran is a good heavy), delivering the great line, “I need your expertise on this mission, not your bad mood.” It’s hard to believe that serving on Voyager for five years in a command role hasn’t tempered her at all. Anyway.
The Malon waste vessel is the primary setting in the episode, and it’s a disgusting mess. After having experienced a mysterious systems failure that forced its crew to abandon, the only two survivors are rescued by Voyager. Its captain Fesek (Star Trek regular Ron Canada) reveals that the insane amount of radioactive waste the ship was carrying will pollute several light years of the surrounding space when it inevitably explodes. The crew is forced to board the ship and try to fix the situation, and it’s as awful a setting as any – a filthy, grimy, radioactive haunted house inhabited by a horrible mutant that’s supposedly only a myth, but actually isn’t.
The Malon were introduced at the beginning of this season (this is their last appearance) and are one of Voyager’s many mono-cultures (they’re huge polluters and dump their radioactive waste wherever they can, paging Captain Planet), although the episode does inject a little depth into their people with some mild info-dumping. The casting of Canada is a good choice as he is a great character actor and helps ground the story and assist in the deepening of the Malon. There are a lot of nice tidbits about their job and society revealed throughout the episode. It’s a bit of a shame we don’t see them again.
In true pulpy sci-fi/horror fashion, the monster of the episode is a being mutated by the extreme radiation of the Malon vessel’s core (and has become immune to the radiation). One of the frightened Malon crew members speaks of legends of monsters living near the cores of the ships, and Fesek alludes to the “core laborers” who work most closely to the waste they transport – only 3 out of 10 of them survive a typical mission, but they make insane money for doing so. It’s an unfortunately realistic detail that grounds the sci-fi conflict, although in the real world I’d imagine core laborers getting no extra compensation, just the empty valor of being “essential workers.”
Radiation exposure is a real-life horror story, so it’s a very appropriate danger and origin story of the episode’s monster. HBO’s Chernobyl series got a lot of gut-churning mileage out of showing the brutal effects of radiation exposure, and while the makeup effects in this episode aren’t as viscerally and realistically horrifying, they’re still pretty disturbing.
In my review of “Schisms” I droned on about the difference between “terror” and “horror.” This episode has a decent helping of the former but several extra scoops of the latter. The groundwork of the monster is laid out by the legends initially, and more is progressively shown throughout in shadowy oblique views and first-person shots from its perspective. The climax takes place in the ship’s bridge that gets conveniently filled with opaque toxic gas before it is cleared by Torres (there’s also a great Aliens reference as Seven looks at a map of the creature getting closer). It’s all a great terror buildup with an effective horror payoff. When Torres comes face to face and threatens to kill him, he replies “I’m already dead.” He certainly looks it.
What elevates the episode from a character perspective is that Torres doesn’t immediately use violence against the core laborer. As it turns out, the guy’s anger over having been exploited and mutated has putrified into blind vengeance, and he has been spending the episode sabotaging the crew’s attempts at keeping the ship from exploding (he’s also presumably responsible for causing the ship to go haywire in the first place). He wants to kill himself and everything around him (especially his own crew), and Torres can sympathize with that level of unrestrained rage. She desperately tries to reason and empathize with him to get him to stand down. Dawson puts in a great, frayed performance and really emotes how much she’s negotiating with her own volatile emotions as she is with the core laborer. But he proves to be too far gone and refuses to relent. Unable to use a phaser, Torres is forced to beat the guy down with a metal pipe and steer the ship into a nearby star.
Everyone (excluding the core laborer) makes it out and the day is saved. Torres is finally able to stumble into her quarters to wash the layers of grime off herself. As she enters the shower, she is haunted by the violence she committed on the Malon ship – quick snapshots of her beating the mutated worker are intercut into the quiet scene to punctuate how much it disturbs her. Phasers are the iconic weapon of choice in Trek, but there’s something clean and antiseptic about them. Wailing on someone with a metal pipe is much more intimately violent and disquieting than pushing a button on a futuristic stun gun. As Torres activates the shower and begins to cleanse her body of all the dirt, it’s clear that the memories of her violence won’t scrub off as easily. The monster was defeated, but it required having to also become one to do so.
- Kudos to the set design of the Malon ship; it really looks like the worst. Toxic gas is streaming out constantly, everything is coated with layers of grime, and slime drips from every surface. Makeup also does a good job of making everyone look absolutely filthy and gross. The Malon sickbay is a particularly nightmarish sight.
- The pacing of the episode is kind of weird. The ship is going to blow in a few hours, so there’s a big time crunch. Fesek and Torres have a leisurely scene in sickbay, and then in the next they’re all running frantically. And then in the next Torres is trying to meditate quietly by herself. Then they’re in the bridge and the ship is going to explode in 10 minutes! Like, which is it, episode? Pick a pace!
- As an artist, I’m always tickled when a show or movie uses the ol’ “he’s actually an artist!” shtick to deepen a character. Fesek reveals to Torres that he’s only a waste worker for a few months out of the year. The rest of the time he’s a… sculptor! This trick was also used with the terrorist leader Finn in The Next Generation’s “The High Ground.” Like, I’m not saying us artists aren’t incredible deep, thoughtful, handsome people who are superior lovers… but it’s a little lazy.
- Ron Canada was also in TNG’s “The Masterpiece Society,” as well as the Klingon lawyer Ch’Pok in Deep Space Nine’s “Rules of Engagement.”
- Neelix is part of the away mission, and he’s actually not that bad and proves to be kind of useful (the scene of him baking up a anti-radiation elixir is dumb, though).
- We finally get to see the oft-mentioned sonic shower in action here!