You Talking Trek to Me? (Best of Voyager) – “Jetrel”

“Jetrel”
Star Trek: Voyager (Season 1, Episode 15)

It’s pretty much a given that a Star Trek series will have a shaky first season. That “finding its footing” period usually spans at least a season or two; figuring out the character dynamics and kinds of stories that play to the show’s strengths takes time. Deep Space Nine and Voyager had pretty cohesive and well worked out first seasons compared to The Next Generation (yikes), although they’re still the most inessential and skippable of both shows. DS9 scored big in its first season with “Duet,” a heavy and affecting dramatic story with Kira facing off against a supposed Cardassian war criminal. It was built upon a mountain of historically-informed backstory concerning unimaginable atrocities and destruction. “Jetrel” is far and above the best example of Season 1 Voyager and is interestingly similar to “Duet.” Both episodes draw heavily from deadly serious historical influences to tell highly emotional and effective stories.

The real world influences of “Jetrel” are not subtle, but they still make for an interesting and memorable science fiction parable. Essentially, we have Dr. Oppenheimer (the architect of the Manhattan Project, which gave us the atomic bomb) meeting a former resident of Hiroshima. It’s a situation rife with plenty of drama that gets grafted onto the framework of Voyager‘s world. The stand-in for Oppenheimer is Jetrel, a Haakonian scientist, and the Japanese survivor part is played by none other than Neelix.

Neelix is a fairly grating character, so it’s a good decision to have an early episode that shows some depth to him (and demonstrate Ethan Phillips’ acting talent). It also provides some color and history to one of the main Delta Quadrant species, the Talaxians.

A small vessel approaches Voyager with a Haakonian wishing to speak with Neelix. The Haakonians conquered the Talaxians 15 years prior, so Neelix is understandably suspicious. When he identifies himself as Jetrel, Neelix is overcome with emotion and bolts from the bridge without a word. Later, he explains to Janeway that Jetrel was the lead scientist who developed the Metreon Cascade, a terrible weapon of mass destruction that devastaed Neelix’s home, the Talaxian moon Rinax. Over 300,000 people were killed, many others horribly maimed, and the atmosphere/environment of Rinax was totally destroyed. It was so horrible in fact, that the Talaxians immediately surrendered afterwards. Neelix was on Talax at the time and was spared, but all of his family was killed.

Again, it’s not subtle, and the episode is peppered with all sorts of historical allusions to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. But this is Star Trek (and science fiction) 101 – filtering historical events and real world issues through the prism of its fantastical world. And in doing so, it tells a gripping story about its characters.

Jetrel is played by Star Trek veteran guest actor James Sloyan (you might remember him from such roles as Future Alexander and Odo’s dad!). He’s always good to see and gives the episode the appropriate gravitas. It’s probably his best performance in any Trek episode.

Meeting with Janeway, Jetrel explains that exposure to the Cascade causes a degenerative illness called metremia. Since the war, Jetrel has devoted his life to tracking down survivors who were exposed to the Cascade, determining whether they have metremia, and collecting data to discover a treatment. It’s deadly and incurable, but each survivor he studies brings him closer to understanding the condition. He implores Janeway to convince Neelix to see him for his own sake and his peoples’.

Neelix refuses, but is eventually pressured by Kes and Janeway to go through with the tests. The episode contains a lot of Neelix-Kes scenes, which are fine. For the record, I was never a fan of their relationship. It struck me as not only icky but also just unconvincing. There’s nary a trace of romantic chemistry between the two and contributes nothing to the series. That’s not a specific fault of this episode, though. Kes provides a sounding board for Neelix to confide his feelings to, so their history is an asset to the story (I think they work better as friends, or even as an older brother/sibling dynamic).

Jetrel, Neelix, and Janeway meet for discussion, and it quickly devolves into bickering about the ethics and morality of Jetrel’s actions. Up until this point, Neelix has been such a happy-go-lucky kind of guy that it’s shocking to see him so full of venom. But it’s completely believable, given the history between their two peoples and the incomprehensible horror Jetrel’s research begat. Jetrel seems to have a dispassionate and morally ambivalent attitude towards his role in Rinax’s destruction, which further incenses Neelix.

But soon enough, Neelix is in sickbay being scanned by Jetrel’s special instruments. His assault on Jetrel’s character doesn’t stop, and he tells Kes a thinly-veiled parable about a device he once built to exterminate vermin and how it blinded him to the moral dimension of what he was doing. Kes is appropriately horrified, and I absolutely love Jetrel’s nonplussed reaction – “Are you finished?” he simply asks. He’s clearly had to deal with this kind of bile being tossed at him constantly for years and simply pushes through with clinical detachment. His scans complete, he dourly informs Neelix that he does indeed have metremia.

However, Jetrel has hope that Starfleet’s amaze-balls transporter technology could hold the key to treating metremia. Voyager sets a course for Rinax to retrieve some atmospheric samples to assist in that goal, and in sickbay Jetrel conducts some more tests on Neelix. Neelix is unrelenting in the hatred he throws at Jetrel, who again, seems completely unfazed by it. Jetrel expresses amazement that the Doctor can deactivate himself . “Is there anything besides science that makes your heart beat faster?” Neelix sneers. “Not anymore,” Jetrel replies neutrally. It’s great.

It’s the key scene of the episode, and Neelix ends up cutting to the core of Jetrel. He muses aloud that if he had been in charge of deploying the Cascade, he would have done it on an uninhabited location to demonstrate the horrifying power of the weapon without sacrificing any lives. It’s a word-for-word rebuttal to the U.S.’s decision to strike at populated civilian areas in Japan rather than an empty island off the coast somewhere.

Jetrel reiterates that he simply developed the science behind the weapon; his government and military were the ones who strategized about its deployment. He also attempts to alleviate some of his responsibility by emphasizing the scientific inevitability of the Cascade – if he hadn’t invented it, someone else eventually would have. He also speaks of the basic value of scientific knowledge and how discoveries must be made regardless of the moral consequences. It’s all elegantly written and acted, with more direct quotes concerning the discovery of atomic power. Their two completely different but correct worldviews come to blows.

Jetrel reveals the consequences he’s had to face since the war. His wife was unable to view him as anything but a monster afterward. She left him and took their children who he has not seen since. Sloyan’s restrained but emotional performance conveys Jetrel’s deep pain remarkably.

“That’s a sad story, Jetrel,” Neelix says in mock pity, unmoved by his familial angst. He goes on to tell his sad story, of being one of the first responders to Rinax. Phillips also shines as he recalls the agonizing ordeal of finding a little girl, still alive but burnt beyond recognition. And watching her slowly die over the next several weeks in a hospital. Jetrel’s emotional detachment finally crumbles and he’s barely able to face Neelix as his eyes well with tears. “There’s no way I can ever apologize to you,” he says somberly. “That’s why I have not tried.”

Neelix continues to push, and posits that maybe Jetrel’s wife was right, that he is a monster. Jetrel recalls the moment when they first tested the weapon, and once he saw the blinding light of the explosion he knew exactly what he had become. He had indeed become death. Neelix hopes he lives with it for a long time, but Jetrel sullenly reveals that he himself has advanced metremia and will be dead in a matter of days.

It’s an incredibly gutting scene, and the two actors’ faces are shot in close ups to heighten the emotional stakes involved. Neelix’s righteous anger is completely justified, but Jetrel engenders an impressive amount of sympathy (thanks entirely to Sloyan’s performance). The karmic retribution of Jetrel dying from his own weapon doesn’t seem to being any relief or satisfaction to Neelix.

Neelix has one of those requisite TV dreams that externalizes his angst with players from his own life, including a horribly burned Kes. Voyager has arrived at Rinax and Neelix once again sees firsthand the ruined place he once called home. What happens next is a bit of a stumble for the episode. Neelix reveals to Kes that instead of being on the Talaxian military’s front lines to go to war with the Haakonians, he didn’t report for duty. He didn’t believe in going to war, but he was also scared.

Both of those are fine and understandable, but up until this point he had been lying about having gone to war, which is… not a great look. It tracks with his tendencies of being a windbag and blowhard, but it seems like an unnecessary wrinkle to the plot and a mark against his character. To his credit, Neelix is at least angry and ashamed with himself for lying. Kes tries to alleviate his shame, since refusal to fight was punishable by death from the Talaxians. So in that way Neelix was actually brave! Or not. I dunno.

But it does explain some of Neelix’s anger over Jetrel – a lot of it is towards the scientist, but some of it is also against himself over his cowardice. It’s fine, I guess. It motivates Neelix to approach Jetrel and explain himself. However, some shit is afoot in sickbay, where instead of conducting his research on the atmospheric sample they collected, Jetrel deactivates the Doctor. He proceeds to reconstitute the gas into a sickly, pulsating thing that looks alive – the visual is quite disturbing. Uh oh.

Neelix enters to apologize and Jetrel tries to shoo him away, but he catches a glimpse of the thing in the jar. Jetrel claims he can help them, and then gives Neelix the ol’ knockout hypospray. Janeway and Tuvok figure something is amiss, and catch Jetrel in the transporter room. It leads to another stumble in the otherwise impeccable story.

Jetrel explains that he thinks there’s a way to bring back the victims of Rinax using transporter technology. The atoms of all the people were disassembled and scattered by the Metreon Cascade, but he’s convinced that the process could be reversed. He appears to be getting weaker by the second as he makes his case, and reveals that Neelix doesn’t have metremia. It was a pretext to get Voyager to Rinax so he could test his crazy theory.

Janeway and a now persuaded Neelix are willing to let him try, so they fire the transporter up. It starts to work, and a Talaxian appears in the transport pad, even moving around and stuff. But unfortunately, it’s too much of a strain on the transporter system and fails. Also failing: Jetrel’s health, and he collapses.

As an overall plot development, it’s fine. The bait and switch of Jetrel possibly being a mad scientist feels a little cheap and a way to inject some unnecessary drama. But his determination to undo what he has done is a good character beat. The reanimation of all the remains still in the atmosphere is a latently disturbing idea the episode doesn’t spend nearly enough time on. The visual of a shadowy Talaxian moving around on the transporter pad like he’s totally alive unfortunately adds to the weirdness. This could have quickly veered into body horror territory, but thankfully doesn’t (the sight of that container is more than enough).

And the fact that Voyager makes… one attempt to reconstitute these people is a weirdly flippant decision. It seems way too easy at first to rematerialize the Talaxian, but then conveniently becomes way too impossible. Maybe give it a second try? Or a third? Or a tenth even? I mean, there are 300,000 lives potentially in the balance. Janeway willingly stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant to protect the Ocampa from the Kazon and save however many lives that was. This doesn’t seem that different. Dangling that hope of bringing them back seems unnecessary. Better to just definitely state that no, their patterns are just too scrambled to ever bring back. And the fact is, that as long as this region doesn’t have transporter technology, those victims are definitely going to remain dead. Voyager is the only potential salvation they have, but the ship quickly gets underway afterward, never to return. It’s a huge, unneeded dumptruck of moral baggage thrown into the story at the 11th hour that raises more uncomfortable questions than it answers.

But anyway.

Jetrel doesn’t have much longer, and is lying in sickbay when Neelix visits. He simply tells Jetrel that he forgives him. The look on Jetrel’s face is of such gratitude and he tries to say something, but collapses in exhaustion. Having unburdened himself of his hatred and granted some comfort to a dying man, Neelix leaves. It’s such a sad end for a man of former great importance. Having been exiled from his world (and his own family) and dying from the thing he invented, he passes away alone on an alien vessel with no one at his side except for a man who hated him more than anything.

Neelix’s act is one of deep generosity and grace, and demonstrates Star Trek’s moral philosophy of its characters doing good things for the sake of doing good things. Maybe Jetrel doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but Neelix is the only one on the ship capable of giving it, so he does. It doesn’t change anything that’s happened, but it provides a dying man with a brief flash of happiness. There’s such a complicated storm of strong ideas and emotions swirling around what’s on the screen, but there’s a peaceful, somber quality to the scene. It’s lit in a very theatrical way, which makes sense given the nature of the episode’s story. It’s a powerful play between two characters, presented with minimalism and powered by acting.

Like its predecessors, Voyager would explore a number of social issues through the lens of its science fiction genre with impressive nuance and impact. The show’s first season is generally not must-see TV, but “Jetrel” sets an excellent precedent for its willingness to tackle interesting and thorny topics. The amount of raw emotion the episode is able to conjure is impressive and believable. It doesn’t solve any of the moral conundrums it raises because there aren’t any easy answers. But it lets the characters wrestle with the implications of history and their own interpersonal issues in well-scripted and well-acted drama. It’s Voyager and the basic premise of Star Trek at its best.


Stray Observations:

  • It’s a little surprising that more wasn’t made of the ship going to Talax either in this episode or in another. It will be the last time Neelix ever sees his home, although he always did seem pretty blase about leaving his home for the other side of the galaxy. I guess the last thing anyone wanted to see was a planet full of Neelixes.
  • I wonder: did Oppenheimer ever meet a survivor of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Part of me kind of doesn’t want to know.