Star Trek: Voyager – Season 2, Episode 16
“Vulcan mind melds… utter foolishness!”
Spoken by the frustrated Doctor after Tuvok’s meld goes horribly wrong in this episode, the line is more than a mild jab at one of the franchise’s oldest and most popular mainstays. Performed by Spock on a number of occasions throughout The Original Series, the Vulcans’ ability to bridge their minds with other beings helped resolve conflicts, easily gain information, and/or simple understanding. It was presented without any issues of morality or ethical peril, mostly because TOS was a simpler show.
“Meld” takes a much more nuanced and darker approach to this act by asking a simple yet chilling question – what would happen if one were to mind meld with a violent killer? The answer proves to be one of the most effective and memorable installments of Star Trek: Voyager.
Structurally, the episode is a prime example of the “bottle episode” format. Voyager‘s premise was built around the most bold exploration of any Trek series yet, set in the entirely unexplored Delta Quadrant. But this episode features no exotic aliens or new spatial phenomena. Bottle episodes are often the most memorable and well-regarded installments of TV series because they have to rely entirely on the strength of story concept and characterization, which are the fundamentals of dramatic fiction. “Meld” is a pared-down episode that uses minimal sci-fi trappings to tell a great story.
It’s a fairly dull and typical day on USS Voyager. Neelix is doing his best to relate to/irritate Tuvok, a bored Tom Paris starts a daily betting pool over who can guess the radiogenic particle count of local space, and Torres’ engineering team is fiddling around with the warp drive. Something seems to be preventing it from starting up. Or somebody – emphasis on body.
Tuvok is called to engineering, where the dead and badly burned body of an engineer has been discovered in a locker (Crewman Darwin, guess he got that reward you always hear about). The Doctor quickly confirms that it was murder, and Tuvok must investigate. In a meeting with Janeway and Chakotay, the most likely suspect is immediately determined – Suder, a quiet and unassuming Betazoid with an incredibly violent nature. I appreciate that the episode doesn’t waste any time with a lengthy investigation (covering up this kind of crime on a small-ish ship doesn’t seem like a very easy task, anyway).
Character actor Brad Dourif plays Suder with that special brand of creepy intensity that he is so known for (the black contact lenses that comprise his Betazoid appearance further his unsettling disposition – he ends up looking a bit like a shark). Chakotay admits that the guy always gave him the creeps back in their Maquis days – he seemed to enjoy killing Cardassians a little too much, and sometimes almost seemed like he would kill anyone who got in his way.
The fact that the Voyager crew was comprised of people who weren’t exactly squeaky clean Starfleet types was also a core premise of the show and although not used as much as it could have been, allows for interesting stories such as this. When questioned why this is the first we’re hearing about Suder’s violent tendencies, Chakotay answers that he always did his job and that he doesn’t put hunches or gut feelings into official reports. Also, he didn’t want to make it harder for any of his people to get by on a Starfleet ship. It’s some smart writing, and I like the loyalty and protectiveness with which Chakotay treats the Maquis crew (and the implied inequities of the system he is cognizant of).
Almost as soon as Suder is implicated in the murder, he is swiftly and definitively confirmed as the killer by the Doctor. Again, I like that his guilt is quickly established so that we can get to the real heart of the story. It is fun briefly seeing Tuvok as the investigator; he’s normally the security guy and this is the first time the show has had him in the role of detective. He’s cool and procedural – not surprising, given his Vulcan-ocity – and I always enjoy watching those types investigating a mystery. Despite how efficient the story is, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more of Detective Tuvok.
Suder readily confesses to the crime, and when pressed for a motive, he simply states he didn’t like the way Crewman Darwin looked at him. This is difficult for Tuvok to accept, especially when the Doctor clears Suder of any overt psychopathic tendencies. The Vulcan’s strengths of reasoning, deduction, and lack of emotional impediments are advantageous, but Tuvok’s limited perspective is unable to handle the savagery and meaninglessness of Suder’s crime. Tuvok needs to know why Suder would murder someone he didn’t know. His worldview simply can’t account for such senseless violence, and his inflexibility at accepting an illogical crime drives him to dig deeper. Too deep.
He proposes a mind meld with Suder to not only explore the root of his violent tendencies, but also as a way of imparting some emotional control over them. There’s something very Trek-ian about it; Tuvok is driven by a simple need to understand (and help), the way all the explorer characters in the franchise are. It’s a commendable instinct that can result in great discoveries, but it can also get out heroes into trouble.
When asked if he is familiar with a mind meld, I love Suder’s “That Vulcan thing where you grab someone’s head?” Like the Doctor’s outspoken disdain for the act, Suder (and ultimately, the episode), shows a less than reverent view of it. The Undiscovered Country depicted an ethically murky (to say the least) mind meld, performed by Spock on an unwilling Valeris. As helpful and constructive as bridging minds can be, there’s conversely a darkness and potential malevolence to the act, and “Meld” picks that idea up and runs with it.
The episode skips over the actual meld part, which is an interesting (but correct) choice, and we pick up with Tuvok’s report to Janeway. Having gained the understanding that Suder simply has an incredibly violent nature that no longer had an outlet after being stuck on Voyager, the issue turns to what to do with him. Russ’ physical acting in the scene is subtle and well-done – he paces and fidgets with his hand in a very uncalm manner. Tuvok not-so-casually suggests executing Suder for his crime, and Janeway is horrified by the idea. Tuvok rationalizes the execution as recompense for Darwin’s family with an uncharacteristic edge in his tone, and Janeway immediately realizes something is awry with her friend (Mulgrew’s change of expression communicates her sudden concern perfectly). Tuvok admits that since the meld he’s been unsettled, but assures her he is taking steps to purge himself of the unwanted feelings.
How you ask? Why, by murdering holo-Neelix!
It’s disturbing to watch, although I love how maximally irritating Neelix is, threatening to serenade Tuvok daily with a lullaby until he cracks a smile. Phillips really dials it up to 11 here; who could blame Tuvok?
But it doesn’t help, and soon Tuvok is face to face with Suder again, who seems much more controlled and calm since the meld. He’s gained a temporary, dispassionate view of the violence within him. There’s now a fearful, dangerous intimacy between the two men, and Suder makes some interesting and disturbing observations about the nature of mind melds. He notes how violent the act is, and we can again recall the force with which Spock probed Valeris’ mind (and her pained, horrified reaction). Despite his assertion to the contrary, the seductiveness of deadly violence has taken root in Tuvok’s mind, and Russ really emotes the crumbling control he has over his impulses. Before he loses himself, he barricades in his quarters and relieves himself of duty.
Janeway visits him and finds his quarters completely trashed. Tuvok crouches in darkness, warning her not to get any closer as he muses about all the ways in which he knows how to kill someone thanks to his decades of martial arts training from different cultures. Damn.
But the real centerpiece of the episode is next and it’s nuts. Hoping to cure Tuvok of his instability, the Doctor temporarily shuts down the emotional control centers of his brain (which is dumb, but whatever), and we get a totally evil and out of control Tuvok. And it fucking rules. Russ gives a terrifying, tour-de-force performance and it’s his best scene in all of Star Trek: Voyager. He awakens, enervated by a rush of power, emotion, and violent exuberance. Vulcans have been one of Trek’s least threatening species, but there’s a lot to fear when you peel back the logic – great physical strength, powerful mercurial emotions, great cunning, and in the case of Tuvok – a great breadth of fighting ability. He’s absolutely the most dangerous person on the ship, and he seems to suddenly realize it. He speaks like Tuvok, albeit more animated that usual. But then that switch gets thrown and he’s threatening to murder/delete the Doctor and hurling carts at the forcefield.
He implores Janeway to execute Suder, and it’s interesting that despite his maniacal state, he still tries to couch it in logic and justice. There’s a powerful bloodlust propelling him, as well as a simplistic, savage morality (as there is to the act of state-sponsored execution in general). Fair’s fair, right? Oh, and let me kill him for you, captain. Yikes on space bikes! He insults Janeway and even says how much humans disgust him (which is entirely consistent with his character’s history). And tries to physically break through the forcefield containing him before collapsing unconscious. It’s awesome.
Awakening later and McGuyvering is way out of his captivity, Tuvok makes his way to Suder, who seems to know he’s there to kill him. Was it because he implanted the idea of a deadly mind meld in their earlier conversation? “Calling it an execution makes it easier for you?” he asks, using a bit of the logic he’s absorbed from Tuvok. Suder makes no effort to resist his execution, although he warns Tuvok of the moral precipice he’s about to take a flying leap off of. Perhaps Suder knows that on some level he deserves to be killed for all the killing he’s done. And/or maybe he’s borrowed some of Tuvok’s reverence for retributive justice?
The direction of the scene is uncomfortably claustrophobic as Tuvok confronts Suder, and it matches the crazed and unbalanced intimacy they’ve found themselves in (the darkly lit room also enhances the vibe). There’s almost a degree of sexual tension in the way it’s acted and shot, and when Tuvok is unable to commit to the act of murder and collapses, Suder cradles his head in an affectionate gesture as he calls the bridge to come help.
But ultimately, everything turns out fine. Tuvok being unable to kill is a sign that his mind is healing. He apologizes to Janeway for his savage (AF) behavior and comments, and she is willing to forget it. But no more mind melds without her permission.
Star Trek often features action and violence, as they’re requisite components of its genre. But the violence is usually on the more sanitized side (with some notable exceptions), because it hovers around that “PG” zone, but also because it’s not a franchise that prizes violence. There’s so much of it baked into our culture (and popping up in current events, sadly) that it’s easy for it to recede into the background and become white noise. But as Suder notes, there’s a primitive thrill and allure to violence, and that feral spark manages to temporarily overwhelm a member of Trek’s most clear-headed and sober alien races. “Meld” is able to revel in some of that savage appeal while still showing how disturbing and ruinous it is. Like the telepathic union featured in the episode, it’s able to meld these two opposing forces for one of the franchise’s most deliciously dark and memorable episodes.
- The efficiency of the episode is pretty impressive. The primary story is captivating but the episode also manages to fit in a decent subplot about Paris’ little gambling ring. It starts off innocently enough and seems like the kind of activity a bunch of bored people would do to make the days more interesting (it kinda reminded me of the hijinks on M*A*S*H). Chakotay rains on the parade (he plays a good party pooper) and we get some nice character conflict between him and Paris. The storyline would simmer for a few episodes before culminating in a somewhat underwhelming way.
- This is the first explicit confirmation that the death penalty is not practiced by the Federation. Given how widespread support was for it at the time of its airing, it was a bold and progressive story choice. My own feelings on it have certainly evolved over time.
- Interestingly, Tuvok seems to support the death penalty as a form of justice; his lowered inhibitions allow him to express that inner thought and his revulsion over Janeway’s mercy. As enlightened a society as the Federation is, it also makes sense that not everyone would agree with/internalize all of those enlightened values.
- We won’t see Suder again until the season finale cliffhanger two-parter, and it concludes his story arc in an affecting and satisfying way.
- I like Neelix’s digging into Vulcan history to find some ancient, sexually-charged pagan festival (and Tuvok’s clear exasperation and embarrassment over it).
- The Doctor medically clears Suder of any brain maladies that would cause his murderous instincts, chalking it up to violent impulses. But I mean… c’mon. Being aggressive or violent is one thing, but having a need to kill doesn’t show up on any of these super advanced 24th century scans? As established early on in The Next Generation, by this point the human brain (and presumably the Betazoid’s) have been mapped out.
In another very good episode of Voyager, a violent killer is cured of his tendencies with a little brain surgery, so the fact that Suder can’t be helped or even diagnosed by medical science strains some credibility.
- Tuvok attacking the forcefield recalls Sisko (possessed by Joran Dax) trying to headbutt his way out of a holding cell and is almost as unsettling.