“Bride of Chaotica!”
(Star Trek: Voyager – Season 5, Episode 12)
One of the quirkier aspects of Voyager were its many allusions (and celebrations) of 20th century Earth culture. Outside of Picard’s Dixon Hill adventures, it was something The Next Generation avoided for the most part. Deep Space Nine indulged in some notable 1900s outings and themes (also via holographic adventures), like Vegas lounge singer Vic Fontaine, or Dr. Bashir’s secret agent adventure in “Our Man Bashir.”
“Our Man Bashir,” which was a Holodeck Gone Wrong episode that celebrated the tropes of James Bond films is a good jumping off point for this episode. It’s basically the same story, with black-and-white sci-fi serials of the 1940’s (specifically Flash Gordon) in place of the British spy genre. Tom Paris is the show’s conduit through which it explores the wackiness of 20th century Earth in his various hobbies and interests. His “Captain Proton” holodeck adventure program was introduced in the season premiere as a brief little aside, but here it gets its inevitable episode-length outing.
I can appreciate these types of genre love letters (and have indulged in them in my own work), but for me, a little goes a long way. Its introduction in the episode “Night” was cute and funny, though I’m not sure it *really* deserved an entire episode, but here we are. The episode is fun enough and well-designed; I really wanted to like it a lot more, but there’s a vital spark missing that keeps it from being a series highlight in the way “Our Man Bashir” was.
Because it’s a Holodeck Gone Wrong story, we need some sort of real world predicament and actual stakes to propel the story (or not: DS9‘s “Badda Bing, Badda Bang” didn’t really). While adventuring in the Captain Proton program one day, Tom and Harry see some strange portals (in color!). At the same time, Voyager gets stuck in space and can’t get out. It recalls the couple of times the Enterprise got stuck in some interstellar sand traps like “Booby Trap” or “Night Terrors.” Some aliens appear in the Captain Proton program in period garb, yadda yadda, it turns out that they’re photonic-based lifeforms who inhabit this region of space. Somehow, they don’t even know non-photonic life even exists, and thus believe everything they’re seeing in the holodeck is real.
Which it actually kind of is, because the aliens run afoul of Captain Proton’s nemesis, the dastardly and megalomaniacal Dr. Chaotica. Because the aliens are made of light, Chaotica’s fiendish death ray is actually deadly to them, and he kills at least 50 of them as they battle.
Yeah… like 50 people die in this wacky holodeck adventure episode. It’s a detail the episode doesn’t really spend any emotional energy on (all but one of these deaths happen off screen, and only one of these aliens has a speaking part at all). There’s something unexpectedly grim about this facet; at one point Seven pointedly states that Tom’s infantile adventure is actually costing lives, but ultimately the episode doesn’t go to any lengths to make us care about these aliens getting killed. It’s odd and I know that there have to be some stakes to make us care, but it seems a little unnecessary considering the overall goofy and light-hearted tone of the story. Maybe I’m overthinking it.
Anyway. Once the crew realizes the connection between the mysterious portals on the holodeck and the ship’s predicament, Paris and Tuvok enter the simulation to try and figure out what’s going on. They run into one of the aliens and give it the ol’ college try to explain what’s going on, but he’s not buying it. It kind of makes the aliens seem unsympathetic and dumb for not comprehending life outiside of their narrow definition, which further divests us from their interests. Oh well.
Tuvok unfortunately does not get a lot to do in the episode outside of this one scene, which is a shame, because of course he’s a great straight man for all this nonsense. “Satan’s Robot,” Tom says upon seeing Chaotica’s mechanical minion. “Naturally,” Tuvok replies hilariously.
One of the most fun aspects of “Our Man Bashir” was that the whole cast was involved in the fantasy, with their bodies being grafted onto the James Bond archetype characters (most memorably Avery Brooks as the insane villain). It also minimized the amount of time on the station, since the holodeck is where all the fun is. And it gave us some interpersonal drama between Bashir and Garak to spice up the character side of things.
By contrast, this episode spins its wheels whenever we’re not on the Holodeck, and there’s zero emotional core to story. It’s Tom’s program, and the only feelings he expresses concerning it are irritation and exhaustion with having to deal with it here. He resigns himself from ever dabbling in the program again, and indeed it is the last major appearance of Captain Proton’s adventures. It’s certainly something that has run its course by the episode’s end, but I dunno. Tom’s annoyance almost seems meta, because the episode kind of seems tired of its own concept midway through.
The episode does wisely involve some of the cast in the Proton realm – namely The Doctor (as a hologram, he is a perfect ambassador to the photonic aliens), and Janeway playing the part of Queen Arachnia. Like Avery Brooks did in “Our Man Bashir,” Mulgrew does get to do some fun scenery chewing as an over-the-top villainess that Chaotica is romantically obsessed with. It’s the highlight of the episode, in particular Janeway’s haughty laughter when Chaotica tries to subdue her – “Your weapons are no match for Queen Arachnia!” she booms. It’s silly and great, and the episode could have used much more of this.
Where the episode does excel is in the production and art direction, as it always does. The sets, props, and costuming are all top notch facsimiles of what you might find in the old Flash Gordon serials. It’s really kind of amazing this was all put together for this episode. None of it looks cheap or slapped together, except for the costumes (especially Satan’s Robot), but that’s the point.
Similarly, the casting is pretty good. Martin Rayner is perfect as Chaotica, and it’s disappointing to see he hasn’t done more. His henchman Lonzak gives some great Tor Johnson vibes. And their costumes are all just ridiculous and great. Also great is Captain Proton’s love interest Constance Goodheart, a buxom blonde without any lines who just screams in terror. Again, this is where the fireworks factory of the episode is, and I wish it delved a bit more into the tropes and vagaries of the old sci-fi serials. It’s not an especially deep or thoughtful source material and can even be a little grating in its one-note, bombastic melodrama. Maybe what we get here is the most we could hope for. I just feel that the episode is wanting in some nebulous way I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s endemic of my feelings for Voyager as a show – good ideas, but not always good execution.
The heroes are of course victorious in vanquishing Dr. Chaotica, and I do appreciate the tiny bit of pathos in his death. Gene Rodenberry (as well as George Lucas) was enthralled by the serials of his youth and they were inspiration in the conception of the original Star Trek. The sequel series have all been more thoughtful and nuanced shows as compared to the simplistic punchiness of TOS. Just as Deep Space Nine’s “Trials and Tribble-ations” paid tribute to its predecessor, this episode does an extended homage to a grandfather of all televised science fiction entertainment. If anything, it at least shows how much the genre has evolved in the several decades since Flash Gordon, both in budgets, story ambitions, and thematic complexity. By the episode’s end the fantasy has run its course for Tom Paris (and for me as well), but it’s fun to dabble in some simplistic entertainment every once in a while where good and evil are as black and white as the screens were.
- Always love seeing Janeway’s coffee fixation. Her exasperation when Neelix tries to inform her of the broken replicators is quite funny: “COFFEE. BLACK.”
- Tom Paris’ “You’re the Queen!” encouragement to Janeway is so stupid but so funny. It feels like it’s from a totally different show and genre of entertainment. I do appreciate that the crew is barely taking this seriously.