***Content Warning: Discussion of suicide***
Star Trek: Voyager – Season 2 , Episode 18
Star Trek was founded on the idea of bold exploration of strange new places – even non fans can recite the franchise’s famous motto. But as much air as Trek gives to the idea of seeking out those bizarre frontiers, much of it can be somewhat rote – bumpy-headed aliens this, kooky spatial anomaly that, not-quite convincing planet sets here, etc. A lot of the time that’s fine and it can result in spectacular storytelling. But as a fan of science fiction, my brain has always been tickled by the truly reality-bending ideas, the kind of out-there stuff that leaves your head spinning like a top. The sorts of bleeding-edge frontiers the crews of Star Trek occasionally dip into tend to leave the most indelible impressions on me, even if the stories don’t always measure up.
The Q (plural) have been a mainstay of Trek since the very beginning of The Next Generation. In a larger sense, GLBs have been a recurring trope since The Original Series – super powerful, nigh omnipotent beings who toy with our helpless heroes for various petty reasons. What set the Q apart was their recurring nature in the show, and in the personal interest/relationship John de Lancie’s Q character had with Picard (and humanity as a whole). For the most part, Q was a source of comic relief and irritation for the crew, but in a couple instances his presence provided the sort of profound out-there ideas that Trek is made of.
“Death Wish” follows suit in that it’s a deeper and more profound usage of the character and is the first of a handful of appearances by Q on Star Trek: Voyager. It’s the best one, and one of the most entertaining and genuinely fascinating entries in the franchise. We meet another individual from the Q Continuum in addition to the familiar Q we know and love(?), and we get a tantalizing first glimpse into said Continuum.
The crew of Voyager is doing some standard exploration of a comet. They beam a sample of it aboard and it turns out to be… a dude in a Starfleet uniform. Named Q! It’s not the Q, although he displays a similar flippant attitude (who will be referred to as “Quinn” for clarity). Upon learning that Q is aboard Janeway immediately orders red alert before she is popped down to the mess hall where Quinn muses about his imprisonment in the comet, the mortality of the people in the mess hall (especially Kes), and casually drops that his greatest wish is to die(?!). Played with kooky whimsy by the soft-voiced Gerrit Graham, Quinn immediately launches into a grandiose speech (while interrupting himself with his own little asides; it’s wacky) containing his Profound Last Words. Everyone just watches in stunned silence as he proceeds to accidentally disappear all the men on the ship instead of himself. “I apologize for the inconvenience,” he says in that IDGAF manner Q seem to have. Janeway is understandably furious.
It’s not long before Q shows up, and Quinn proceeds to transport him and Voyager to a number of weird and bizarre hiding spots – the Big Bang, the subatomic world, and as a tiny ornament hanging from a Christmas tree. It’s a genuinely fun sequence. Janeway stops the two beings from going any further, and decides to honor Quinn’s request for asylum. The episode thus becomes a classic Trek Trial! Quinn conscripts Tuvok as his legal counsel. The story’s reasoning is a little thin, but he seems the most logical (ahem) choice among the crew, and his incisive reasoning proves to be an asset.
Turns out Quinn was formerly one of the Q Continuum’s greatest philosophers until he started advocating for suicide. The Continuum has always been depicted as a very opaque, monolithic force, and the episode presents it as a society with individuals and an internal culture. It’s interesting and casts this mysterious species in a more relatable light. Throughout the episode, Quinn offers his own observations and critiques about the Q, including their lack of manners and tendency to “pop in” on people. At this point the Q have been a presence in the franchise for many years but almost nothing is known about them. The episode shines a fascinating light that helps flesh them out.
In order to demonstrate the value of a Q’s life (that Quinn wants to throw away) and how its effects reverberate throughout time and space, Q calls some wacky witnesses – himself first, followed by Sir Isaac Newton, some dude from Woodstock, and… Commander Riker! It’s all quite wacky and a little dumb (especially that stupid apple story), but it shows how much Quinn has gotten around and the positive effects it’s had on humanity’s history. Tuvok of course points out that he’s been confined to prison for the past three centuries and hasn’t been able to affect anyone. He also notes the hypocrisy in the Continuum outlawing suicide but practicing capital punishment (as they have in the past, a reference to Amanda’s parents’ deaths in The Next Generation’s “True Q”).
Janeway is sympathetic but unswayed by Quinn’s plight, as he does not seem to be infirm or in pain. Similarly, Tuvok cannot see the logic in Quinn’s desire because he doesn’t understand the conditions that have led to his desire to end his life. The only course forward is to visit the Q Continuum to find out…
What follows is the centerpiece of the episode and one of my favorite scenes in the franchise. Because mere mortals could not comprehend the true otherworldiness of the Continuum, Quinn and Q have to present it in a way that makes sense to them. The Continuum thus becomes a metaphorical space that the four of them enter and explore. The term “mindblowing” can be over-used, but I remember my own young mind being blown when finally seeing this higher plane of reality we’ve heard about so often. It’s still an extraordinarily weird but wonderfully effective illustration of the Q.
It all takes the form of a desert stop along a 20th-century highway. The road, an infinite loop, represents the entire universe that the Q have access to. The sleepy outpost is populated by an assortment of silent humans in various old timey garbs, all engaged in mundane activities. I absolutely love all the details – an older gentlemen reads a book (“The Old”) under a handless clock, while a young woman reads a magazine (“The New”). A couple others croquet some planets around. A geezer plays space pinball. There’s a dog. And a Starfeet scarecrow. There’s a dreamy, almost Lynchian quality to it all that conveys the surrealness.
Being a philosopher, Quinn’s argument is appropriately a very heady, philosophical one. The Q were once an active and intellectually curious people but eons of immortality have dulled these qualities. Having reached a state of omnipotence, the Q have also reached a state of stagnancy and silence. No one speaks because there’s nothing left to say. All that can be learned has been learned, and every possible experience has been experienced. “I’ve been the dog,” Quinn quips. “I was even the scarecrow. Because I had never done it before.” (“Oh, we’ve all done the scarecrow, big deal,” Q shoots back)
The Q no longer stand for anything, they have no mission, nothing left to achieve. Like the desert, their existence is barren and without incident. Quinn feels that like his race, he has reached his own endpoint. There’s only one thing left to do that he hasn’t done – die. The prospect of facing eternity in a silent desert is as much hell and suffering as a Q can experience. Quinn questions Janeway, a passionate explorer, on whether she would want to continue living forever if there was nothing left to explore. Star Trek‘s appeal is based on exploration of the unknown, so this idea hits hard. Quinn yearns for death, but what he really desires is meaning. In his estimation, a life without end cannot have meaning.
Quinn also notes the irony of the once-rebellious Q now being the passionate defender of the Continuum’s status quo. “I’m a born-again Q,” he replies. Quinn reveals that it was Q’s troublemaking throughout The Next Generation that inspired him to cause some trouble of his own. Q is genuinely surprised and touched to hear this, and his reaction reveals that despite his insulting posture up until this point, he seems to respect and admire Quinn. Q has always had a boisterous personality (courtesy of de Lancie’s memorable performances), but for the most part he has not been a particularly deep character. The desert scene displays a different dimension to his character and cleverly uses his past antics in service to the plot, and to the character of Quinn. It’s nice to see and rounds out the reality-bending nature of this section with some more down-to-earth characterization.
Quinn and Tuvok rest their case, and Janeway is left to deliberate. She rules on behalf of Quinn, and Q begrudgingly grants him the mortality he so desires. Janeway implores him to stick around and experience the existence of human life. He heeds her advice for about 30 seconds before he ends up dying in sickbay, having taken some space hemlock.
Who gave him the hemlock? Why, that old trouble-maker Q! Having been inspired by Quinn’s irrepressibly feistiness, Q has re-discovered his own irrepressible feistiness and bids adieu to Janeway.
The topic of suicide is of course a monumentally heavy and serious topic, and the episode takes a perhaps shockingly flippant attitude towards it. I can appreciate that this wouldn’t sit well with everyone, but the story at least provides a proper framework and context to understand the desire of Quinn to end his life.
Trek has had many GLB’s throughout its run, but none featured more often than the Q. Despite being depicted so often throughout The Next Generation, surprisingly little insight was ever offered as to who they were. It took until Voyager to give them some life and color and show that being a god isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Trek has repeatedly shown that the unfavorable aspects of our existence – pain, mortality, loss – help define us. A life free of limitations is not really a life, an idea that “Death Wish” illustrates in stark and fascinating detail. The glimpse of a higher, incomprehensible plane of reality only reaffirms that the little things like being surprised or having a conversation make existence worthwhile. Surprises and conversations have always been a key factor of Star Trek– finding out new things and relating to other people. Without them, what is the point?
- The low points of the episode are in Q’s sexist comments towards Janeway, and a very ill-conceived flirtatious scene where he appears in her bed/quarters (although to be fair, he has done this to Picard). Like… could ya not? This will unfortunately inform the storyline in his next Voyager appearance.
- I do like Q’s line after he notices all the men are gone: “Say, is this a ship of the Valkyries or have you human women finally gotten rid of your men?” Not the worst idea, I suppose.
- So as much as I love the depiction of the Q as a race that haven’t talked in millennia, this is demonstrably not the case, based on what we have seen in TNG. We’ve seen the Q speaking with each other on several occasions, and can intimate that some discussion had to have taken place over internal matters (dealing with Q’s antics, Amanda’s parents, etc.). Unless that was all conveyed through nods and blinking?
- Q attempts to bribe Janeway by promising to return Voyager to Earth if she rules in his favor. Of course she doesn’t, and of course he doesn’t return the ship to Earth even though it would take zero effort. Dick.
- Quinn tells Tuvok that despite their seeming omnipotence, the Q do have vulnerabilities. It’s a tantalizing notion he doesn’t expand upon, but it does fall in line with the classic sci-fi idea of super advanced civilizations appearing godly to less advanced ones.
- Just what is the deal with Q’s purple lips?