You Undiscovered Trek to Me? – “Flashback”

“Flashback”
(Star Trek: Voyager – Season 3, Episode 2)

When it comes to long-running pop culture properties (particularly sci-fi and fantasy ones), legacy is a delicate and tricky thing. Beyond the challenges of maintaining the lore’s continuity…

Oh, wait. I think I said that before. Damn, sorry.

Star Trek: The Original Series originally aired in the 60’s and had been on the air (and/or theaters) almost continuously the entire time up until the 90’s, when the franchise celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1996 (almost 30 years ago as of now… holy shit). The two Trek shows on the air at the time (Deep Space Nine and Voyager) both did tribute episodes to The Original Series that year to commemorate…

Argh! It happened again. Sorry sorry. The brain does crazy stuff sometimes.

This is your brain on logic. Any questions???

Speaking of the brain doing crazy stuff, this here is an episode about Tuvok’s brain doing crazy stuff. It’s a clever plot hook to allow Tuvok and Janeway a method of interacting with Captain Sulu and his USS Excelsior crew without having to resort to any time travel shenanigans (like “Trials and Tribble-ations” did). Instead, the episode uses a mind meld to explore and navigate Tuvok’s memories from 80 years prior. Unfortunately, that’s where the cleverness of the episode ends. For a show that didn’t make full use of a clever premise, I guess it makes sense that its big anniversary tribute episode would follow suit.

The mortal sin of the episode is that while it references (and faithfully recreates) a piece of the best Original Series film while giving us a welcome additional glimpse of Captain Sulu in action, it does nothing interesting or compelling with it. It ends up being only an OK episode of Voyager and an OK tribute to The Original Series.

“You have logic problems, mister?”

Backing up, it’s a pretty typical day on Voyager when they encounter a nice blue nebula full of some resources they can use. However, the sight of the nebula triggers some weird reactions in Tuvok, including a memory of him as a young child letting a girl slip and fall off a cliff. He collapses, and the Doctor determines it’s a repressed memory, but Tuvok can’t make heads or tails of it. Worse, it’s actually causing damage to his brain and the only solution is a mind meld with a family member to help sort it out. Janeway, the person on the ship that Tuvok trusts the most, steps in and the two try to mentally investigate the memory of the little girl. The friendship between the two is one of my favorite aspects of the series and I wish it got more attention in the series.

“No, Tuvok! Don’t let me make you likable!”
“I have been, and always shall be, kind of a pain in the ass.”

One of the benefits of the friendship is that it softens Tuvok as a character. Because, as far as I can tell, Janeway is literally the only person on the ship that he likes. See, Tuvok is… kind of an asshole.

As much as I initially wanted to like Tuvok (I remember thinking it was cool we were getting a regular Vulcan character again when the series started), and as decent an actor as Tim Russ is, the character’s appeal ranged from “meh” to “OK jeez you dick.” It speaks to the enormous challenge of playing an emotionless character compellingly. Nimoy was able to make Spock one of the most iconic characters of all time with his sober but magnetic performance, and Brent Spiner also imbued Data with an intriguing characterization.

Russ, however, always played Tuvok as the uptight no-nonsense security guy, a thoroughly joyless and curt person. And he does it well. A little too well. He’s the ultimate stick in the mud and remains so pretty consistently throughout the series. This episode shines a little light into his past as a younger man and… he somehow comes off worse than usual.

“Thanks for the boner apple tea, Mr. Tuvok.”

Anyway. So Janeway and Tuvok do the mind meld thing, but inexplicably find themselves on the bridge of the Excelsior during a battle with the Klingons. Tuvok can’t explain it, and mentally rewinds the clock to a few days prior to that memory. That Tuvok has the ability and control to just transport him and Janeway to any spot in his memories is an effective plot device and saves time. Like “Trials and Tribble-ations,” the episode does good work in setting up the particulars and methods to fully indulge in this fireworks factory. But where “Trials” soared with that setup, “Flashback” flounders in circles for a meager payoff.

“According to this thingie, you kind of suck.

Sulu getting his captaincy and command of the Excelsior was a nice payoff to a plot thread from Search For Spock, and it was cool to see the character elevated to a prominent position. A “Captain Sulu” series was one of those rumors that came up from time to time (as well as “Captain Worf” series), but obviously didn’t materialize (yet…?). This episode had the potential to give us the next best thing, but…

Having moved back in time/memories even further, Tuvok and Janeway encounter what transpires at the beginning of The Undiscovered Country – the explosion of Praxis. As someone who loved that film, it was a kooky thrill to see the sequence (as well as the Excelsior bridge) recreated, with all the same actors even (including Rand). That cup of tea Sulu was enjoying in that first scene? Courtesy of a young Tuvok, it turns out!

“The explosion emanated from a stand-up comedian in the early 21st century. Seems his pants lost full containment… Apropos of nothing, do you think I should shave my beard and dye my hair now?”

Later on (as we remember from Undiscovered), Kirk and McCoy get arrested for the assassination of Gorkon. Sulu, ever the loyal and gallant friend, sets a course for the Klingon homeworld to stage a rescue. It’s unfortunate that the episode gives us a Captain Sulu adventure that ends up being a futile side quest he obviously fails (having known how Star Trek VI plays out). Plus it seems like a total suicide mission – he’s going to storm the Klingon capital with his one ship to get these two guys out? And commit a clear act of war while the two powers are trying to negotiate a peace? It’s… kinda dumb. There’s definitely a worthwhile tie-in adventure Sulu could have had here, but this is not it.

“Again with the Klingons!”

Young Tuvok decides to step up and tell Sulu how irrational he’s being and how such a move is a direct violation of Starfleet protocols, which… OK true, but it just makes him look like and even bigger dick and stick in the mud (a dick in the mud, if you will). Literally no one wins here.

This leads to the big characterization scene for Young Tuvok. Valtane, occupying the bunk above Tuvok, tells the Vulcan he needs to relax, which triggers a rant about how humans are always arrogantly telling everyone else that they need to adopt their values and norms, and that he’s quitting Starfleet as a result. Which… OK true, but it just makes him look like… ya know.

“Captain, if we direct a polarized poop beam at this party, then all fun should be neutralized. Yes… like letting the air out of a balloon, Captain. Sigh.”

One of the most daring and interesting aspects of Undiscovered was that it showed humanity as flawed – small-minded, even hateful and racist. There’s a thematic thread of that in how Sulu and Valtane dismissively tell Tuvok he needs to act more human. The Federation kind of seems like the “homo sapiens only club” Chancellor Gorkon’s daughter accuses it of being, at least culturally. There is some sympathy for Tuvok, because humans do seem kind of insufferable sometimes.

What redeems Tuvok is that he explains to a shocked Janeway that even though he did feel that way about humans in his 20’s (partly because his parents forced him into Starfleet where he didn’t want to be), he eventually realized through the magic of having a family of his own that he was wrong, and that Starfleet did have things to offer and teach him, so he signed up again 50 years later.

“It’s a really interesting story, actually. But I’ll do my best to make sure it isn’t.”

It’s… fine, but the connection between having children and realizing that Starfleet isn’t that bad after all is pretty… tenuous. And the scene is Tuvok telling Janeway/the audience all of this and it’s just so flat and lifeless. Like, they could have built an interesting, entire episode around that story rather than reading it out in such a talky, listless manner. Depicting an outsider’s othering at the hands of well-meaning but self-centered humans? Intriguing and provocative! It’s commendable that there’s some characterization and history for an (unlikable) Voyager character, but it just leaves that much less room for a (likable) Original Series character we’d much rather see. Sigh.

Speaking of talk, we get even more of that when Janeway takes a break to do some research on the Excelsior’s logs (while Tuvok’s brain gets overheated and they wait for it to cool down). Kim comes in, and they proceed to have a nerdy discussion about how different things were for Starfleet officers in Sulu and Kirk’s time. And again, it’s just telling us things instead of showing us, which isn’t spellbinding. We get the sense of fascination and worship these past figures have in the eyes of current Starfleet officers. But it also smacks of, “Hey remember how wild and fun this franchise used to be? Anyway, back to this plodding storyline…” Cool beans.

Hey, uh. Down in front? There’s doin’s transpiring.

ANYWAY. So we’re back in the past with the melded Tuvok and Janeway again, when… something goes wrong with Tuvok’s brain and we get one of those convenient predictions that Star Trek is known for – his brain is going to collapse in exactly 20 minutes! Seems serious. The episode almost does something interesting with its premise, because Janeway – who has been invisible to the people in Tuvok’s memories the entire time – is suddenly noticed by Sulu! All right, here we go. Surely now we’ll see some interesting stuff–!

Nah. Tuvok – who is less than half an hour from total brain destruction, mind you – just rewinds the memory clock back to an earlier save state. Janeway steals Rand’s uniform, and they just continue as is. OKAY. The episode does a lot of rewinding and circling back to earlier moments in Tuvok’s memory and it kind of drags. Like, the production crew of Star Trek: Voyager has gone to the trouble of rebuilding the Excelsior sets, gotten the bridge crew cast back, and this is what they do. It just seems like a huge waste of effort.

Oh. Um. Whaaaat… the fuck?

But finally we get to the mystery at the episode’s core. The reason why Tuvok is having these memories of this falling girl, and why accessing it brings him back to the Excelsior. Valtane, yet another victim of Exploding Control Panel dies on the bridge (a future injury attorney could make a fortune if money still existed). It’s in his final moments that the memory of the girl is transmitted to Tuvok’s mind. The Doctor and Kes also simultaneously realize what’s happening on their BRAIN MONITORS (and helpfully explain it to us, the audience).

“Tuvok… don’t let them cancel… me…” *gets cancelled*

Turns out that the memory isn’t a memory, but a virus disguising itself as a memory to evade the body’s natural defenses. When Valtane died, the virus infected Tuvok to survive where it’s been for eight decades. And as a weird (and kind of hilarious sequence) then shows, it’s been infecting person after person for thousands (or perhaps millions?) of years. It then starts to jump from Tuvok to Janeway. Oh noes!

“No Kathryn! Don’t let me upstage you on your own show!”

Like, that’s it. That’s the reason for this episode. Some virus in Tuvok’s brain given to him by someone on the Excelsior. *blinks*

To be fair, it is a weird and somewhat unsettling idea – that this little thing has been alive for so long, just flying from person to person as they die. Kes wonders whether the girl was ever real, or conjured by the virus itself? The Doctor points out how malleable and shifting memory can be, so who knows. Part of the virus’ deviousness is that its disguise is that of a painful and traumatic memory that a brain would naturally suppress so as not to disturb it. As a sci-fi plot hook, it’s decent. As an excuse to do a flashback tribute episode to Trek‘s history? It’s really bizarre.

“No, Klarg! Don’t let me unga bunga!”

And the idea of memory being unstable and changing, that the brain is a maze of recollections that morph and shift around? Also a good idea. The episode doesn’t use any of that, though. Tuvok’s memory, despite his brain undergoing a lot of trauma, still functions perfectly like a video file timeline you can just click around in. The episode has several interesting potential directions and threads, and that it somehow manages to plot the least compelling course around all of them is kind of impressive in its own perverse way.

So, mystery solved. The Doctor uses a radiation burst (ouch!) to eliminate the virus for good. Tuvok’s brain turns out OK, and life goes on. He expresses to Janeway that despite the frustrations that caused him to quit Starfleet, he’s grateful to have witnessed history and met the great figures he did. Janeway says he sounds like he misses those days and… he literally doesn’t. Because he’s Tuvok and bereft of anything resembling joy. But OK, sure.

It’s not really fair to compare this episode to “Trials and Tribble-ations,” because the pure magic and whimsy of that anniversary episode is lighting in a bottle of the rarest order. It used a fun, classic episode of a fun, classic TV show and somehow built a story that is even more enjoyable on top of it, celebrating the wacky charm of that show. By contrast, “Flashback” uses a classic movie as its setup but provides no fun in a lumbering and dry procedural story. None of the joy or appeal of its source material is communicated, and like the memory virus at the heart of the episode, we’re left wondering what they hell we just saw was.

“Venga!”

Stray Observations:

  • Because I was on a roll with roasting the episode, I left out what is arguably the best (but very fleeting) part of it – Kang! While trying to sneak into Klingon space, they’re caught by a younger Kang, who has some testy banter with Sulu. It’s a nice tribute to both TOS and DS9. Would that there could have been more of this type of thing.
“Sulu, you magnificent bastard!”
  • The episode goes to some painstaking lengths to maintain continuity with Star Trek VI, except… at the end of that movie (after the events of this episode) we can clearly see Valtane alive and well in the background of the Excelsior bridge. So, uh. Oopsie? Maybe Tuvok’s memory isn’t that reliable after all.
Back, and to the left. Back… and to the left.
  • So this virus thingie… what does it do? Besides exist? By their nature, viruses will replicate themselves to overwhelm their host and cause all sorts of havoc on the body. But this one doesn’t seem to do anything to its host’s body. Not that it makes it benign, but we get so much explanation for how it exists that any other important questions get left unanswered.
  • That first shot of Sulu is absolutely perfect – the burst conduit, stream of vapor, and Sulu gallantly shoving his head into view. It’s the best and captures the dorky thrill that this episode should have had.
  • The real tragedy of the episode… where’s Christian Slater??? C’mon, his career was coasting to a stop when this episode was made. I’m sure he could’ve used the scratch.