***Content Warning: Discussion and imagery of Nazis***
“The Killing Game”
Star Trek: Voyager – Season 4, Episodes 18 & 19
Ah, the holodeck. Introduced in the very first episode of The Next Generation, it quickly became one of the most famous (and infamous) plot devices in pop culture sci-fi. And for good reason – the idea of a room where you can create any scenario you desire (non-sexual and otherwise) is insanely literal wish fulfillment fantasy. The only drawback… well, this magical room can kill you if something malfunctions – which seems to happen pretty frequently. But the holodeck represents the basic appeal of Star Trek itself – a technology-based future that’s far, far ahead of what’s currently possible (and in fact may be so fantastical it may not ever be possible). But it fires the imagination (non-sexual and otherwise).
The other drawback of the holodeck – from a dramatic standpoint – is that it’s rarely fun. As said, it’s usually a life-threatening plot device that stretches a lot of credibility. Aside from a handful of exceptions, holodeck-focused episodes often feel contrived, even silly and ridiculous. Why is it so difficult to make a fun story out of such a fun idea?
“The Killing Game” is an epic two-parter that takes place almost entirely on the holodeck(s) of Voyager, and although it has all the elements of a run-of-the-mill holodeck episode, it somehow manages to be an entertaining adventure that’s deadly, pulpy, ridiculous fun.
Extra emphasis on ridiculous. Although the holodeck has some passable science mumbo jumbo mechanics (a combination of holograms, force fields, and treadmills are what make its illusions possible), a lot of what we actually see in holodeck episodes still seems wildly implausible and self-contradictory. Not surprisingly, a lot of what we see in “The Killing Game” is also wildly implausible. There are a number of incredulous leaps of logic that take place to set the story up, but the two episodes are so ambitiously epic and confidently executed that none of it really matters.
The en media res beginning is a perfect choice and plops us down in the middle of the fireworks factory. The recently-introduced Hirogen – a hunting-obsessed race of warriors – overwhelmed Voyager 19 days prior. Half of the crew are locked up and the other half are forced to take part in endless battles and fights in various holodeck simulations. What’s different from regular holodeck stories is that the Hirogen have attached neural devices to the crewmembers that make them believe their roles in these simulations.
The episode begins with the Hirogen leader fighting a Klingon Janeway, and she certainly seems to think and act like a Klingon (Mulgrew really goes for it, and it’s great but all too brief). Again, the believability of this never-before-heard-of tech is nuts, but it’s a huge part of the episodes’ fun and thus easy enough to go along with.
Additionally – and unfortunately for the crew – the safety protocols that normally ensure that holodeck programs are non-lethal have been purposefully deactivated by the Hirogens to ensure more realistic hunts. Every blade, bullet, and phaser blast in the programs is as real as it is outside. Broken Holodeck Episodes always feature the safety protocols going offline as a cheap plot device to create stakes, but here it’s intentional and perversely, makes the story that much stronger. An overworked and frustrated Doctor is constantly mending the injured crew members under the close supervision of the Hirogen.
The majority of the story is focused on the World War II simulation, and with good reason. Historically, it’s one of the most important periods in world history, and dramatically has served as a backdrop for some pretty heavy and interesting stories (when this episode originally aired, Saving Private Ryan was rolling through the box office like an unstoppable Panzer tank division). And it featured the most evil real-life villains to end all villains.
Yeah, we’ve got Nazis.
It’s definitely not the first time Star Trek has featured Nazis (nor will it be the last). The fantasy entertainment value of Nazi villains has certainly diminished greatly with the disturbing rise of white supremacist violence in recent years. So granted, these episodes (as do many Trek outings) certainly ring a lot different in 2021 than in the 90’s. BUT! – and far be it from me to spoil the ending so early in a write-up – rest assured, that before the story is over we get to see a group of Klingon warriors mercilessly fight and kill these Nazi fucks. It’s the best. So stick around!
Besides the general awesomeness and badassery of WWII in general, the thematic link to the real world of these episodes is very clever. Much as the small French town of Sainte Claire is being occupied by Nazis (and Hirogen dressed as Nazis) while the resistance secretly plots against them, Voyager is overrun by Hirogen while the Doctor, Kim, and eventually Seven work to undermine the Hirogens’ control. Poor Harry doesn’t get to take part in the “fun” of the battle simulations, as he’s the guy the Hirogens have put in charge of repairing the ship and expanding the holodecks further. But Harry still shines as he holds his own against the hunters while secretly working out a way to shut down the neural doohickeys.
Although the rest of the main cast are unwittingly playing the parts of characters in the WWII simulation, they still largely reflect their real personalities. Janeway is the owner of a club where she wines and dines the Nazis, Tuvok the bartender, Seven a singer, Neelix a courier, and Torres is… pregnant. But they’re all resistance fighters who decode messages, gather info, and plan attacks against the Nazis. They all fall into their familiar roles, albeit with some great, pulpy as hell dialogue. Paris and Chakotay eventually show up as invading U.S. Army soldiers. That they all believe their parts (thanks to the neural devices) is such a great story move and it’s what takes the episodes to another level.
The episodes end up being a love letter to WWII movies in this manner. The characters’ storylines are broadly defined and draw from classic ones we’ve seen before. Paris and Torres’ characters were of course long lost teenage lovers (who get conveniently reunited). Torres is having a strategic affair with the SS Hauptmann and is pregnant with his child, which recalls Ralph Fiennes’ storyline from Schindler’s List. It’s a clever way to quickly outline these characters’ lives by drawing upon existing motifs.
Janeway’s character, the leader of the town’s resistance, clashes with Seven’s character over their tactics. It reflects the tension the characters occasionally have outside the holodeck. After Seven is injured, the Doctor manages to disable her neural device so she will be able to help deactivate more of them. Unfortunately, it also cuts her off from knowing anything about the time period she’s in, and it places more scrutiny on her from an already suspicious Janeway. It gives the story a lot of great dramatic layers and angles.
Just as Janeway is about to blow Seven away for a perceived betrayal, her neural device goes offline and she comes to her senses as shit starts to hit the fan. The Americans have reached Sainte Claire, the bombs start dropping, and the Nazi command building gets blown to smithereens. The only problem? Well, those darned disabled safety protocols that make everything real means that airstrike blows an actual hole in the side of an expanded, gigantic holo(multi)deck. It’s a crazy visual as the interior of Voyager is superimposed over the WWII-era French city. Taking it as a secret Nazi compound, Chakotay sends his troops in.
The Hirogen Alpha has discovered Kim’s subterfuge (I love Harry’s “Go to hell!”), and now faces an actual, uncontrollable war as holodeck characters start escaping onto the decks of Voyager. The Killing Game has just begun…
Star Trek villains can be a mixed bag. For a franchise that’s very smart and multi-faceted (with characters that are also smart and multi-faceted), it more often than not seems to drop the ball on villains. Perhaps it’s because out-and-out Bad Guys are too simplistic a concept to plop into an intelligent and philosophical show. But Voyager has a decent track record with villains, like Annorax of “Year of Hell.” “The Killing Game” scores big with three decent villains, the primary one being Karr, the Hirogen Alpha who is the driving force behind “The Killing Game.”
Like many of Voyager’s villainous alien races, the Hirogen are especially mono-cultural. They’re set apart from other warrior cultures by their specific focus on The Hunt, which gives them an interesting dimension. The clever thing about “The Killing Game,” is that it leans into the idea of a culture that is so wrapped up in one thing that it’s essentially destroying them. The Hirogens’ hunts are essentially brutal games that are killing not only other life forms, but also… themselves. Thank you.
Karr (played with rumbly-voiced gravitas by Danny Goldring) was able to conquer and occupy Voyager but instead of making the kill, he has forced its crew (and his own) to take part in a number of simulations from the Federation database – Klingon battles, WWII, Wolf 359, etc. Although he’s a brutal hunter, Karr showed himself to be a thoughtful individual in Part 1. The script of “The Killing Game” is brimming with smart ideas and smart writing that compliment the wall to wall action and bloodshed. It’s a winning combination that represents the best Trek has to offer – big explosions and big ideas.
Karr is a curious man, and the information Voyager’s computer contains about Alpha Quadrant cultures (especially humanity) fascinates him. In a weird way, he’s also an explorer, and emphasizes learning about one’s prey to his subordinate. In a great scene inside the WWII simulation, he questions the Nazi Hauptmann about the supposed nature of German racial superiority. The SS soldier gives him the Nazi spiel bullet points, but Karr challenges the notion that the Germans are at all naturally superior to the Jews, and admonishes him for underestimating any prey. It’s great interplay between the trappings of the WWII situation and the more futuristic mindset of the Hirogen (it’s also important in establishing that though he’s dressed like a Nazi, Karr doesn’t actually believe any of their racist horseshit).
Karr tries to impress the importance of learning about prey and their way of life to his right hand man, the Beta Turanj. Turanj is impatient and uninterested in learning anything from the species they hunt. But Karr is invested not only in his own personal growth, but that of his people. As he later tells Janeway, his people have been hunting themselves to extinction. They have become more spread out and disparate over the millennia, and he fears they won’t be around much longer at their current pace. The discovery of Voyager’s holodeck has provided him with a way of salvaging his culture. By simulating hunts rather than traveling through space like bloodthirsty nomads, the Hirogen could potentially come together and be a civilized people once again.
In studying humanity, Karr has come to respect humans’ ability to change and adapt in the face of adversity – such as in World War II. Their cunning has impressed him, and Janeway convinces him to call a ceasefire so that they can end the bloodshed and give them holodeck technology.
Although he is incredulous, Turanj begrudgingly goes along with his commander’s order. That is, until the hologram Hauptmann encourages him to disobey. J. Paul Boehmer is just scary good in this role, really inhabiting the haughty, superior air of an SS soldier. The worst thing about him is that he’s a true believer, and gives an impassioned speech delineating the Nazi’s imperative to dominate all the other lesser races. The script in these episodes is so good, and Boehmer delivers these disgusting ideas with frightening zeal. Unfortunately, it succeeds in striking a chord with Turanj, who decides to counteract Karr’s orders.
He mercilessly guns down Karr and forces Janeway to run away so he can hunt her down. Dick. But she gets the best of him, and he is killed in satisfying fashion. Eat shit, Nazi cosplayer!
Meanwhile on the ground, the Germans have closed in on the Americans (and the Voyager crew) and when all seems lost, the Klingons come to the rescue, courtesy of Neelix and the Doctor! In even more satisfying fashion, Hauptmann gets a bat’leth sandwich to feast on. Eat shit, actual Nazi!
Some time later, the Voyager crew and the Hirogen reach an agreement and Janeway gives a holodeck thingie to the ranking Hirogen. He’s not much interested in the technology but takes it anyway, and the two sides part ways. The End…?
The Next Generation introduced holodeck technology to the franchise, but Voyager finally succeeded in making an epic holodeck adventure to end all adventures. It’s an absolutely bonkers two-parter that shoots for the moon not only in its action but the themes that drive the story. There’s tons of familiar beats we’ve seen in previous installments, but the combination here is infused with a great deal of inventiveness and entertainment value. It’s what makes it the best of Voyager – pushing the limits while reinforcing the appeal of what we all want to see in classic Trek.
- Janeway’s normally pretty hard line about the Prime Directive, especially about sharing Federation technology with other cultures. In fact, the first two seasons was a constant battle with the Kazon (who coveted transporter tech). Janeway readily agrees to give the Hirogen precious technology without even a mention of the P.D. It’s the right move to resolve the conflict, but it’s an interesting about-face.
- This exchange of technology will have consequences and lead to another, decent two-parter down the line.
- Extra kudos to Ethan Phillips as Klingon Neelix, both before his neural device is deactivated and after. Both he and the Doctor provide some great comic relief throughout.
- There’s just so much badassery here. Seven jumping out in her cute outfit and blasting the Nazis with her pistol, and Tuvok unloading (some actual rounds) with his submachine gun.
- The visuals are great throughout. The set design, costuming, visual effects, it’s all pretty impressive.