“Equinox, Part 1”
Star Trek: Voyager – Season 5, Episode 26
Alternate timelines have featured in many of Star Trek’s best episodes. Similarly, “what if” scenarios have been a staple of science fiction properties (especially superhero comics). The “Equinox” two-parter that connected the fifth and sixth seasons of Voyager succeeds on the appeal of these story types with a simple but dark premise – what if another Starfleet ship had been stranded in the Delta Quadrant, but one with not nearly the same capabilities and resources of the Intrepid-class USS Voyager?
The USS Enterprise had been the main hero ship for the first two Trek series and (almost) all of the films in some form or another. Each successive ship to bear the name had been larger, more advanced, and more powerful than the previous. Captain Picard’s Galaxy-class Enterprise-D was in fact the largest and strongest ship Starfleet had ever made at the time, the Federation flagship itself. It was the most famous and important ship of Starfleet, going on the most vital missions, tackling the most difficult situations, and responding to the gravest threats. Star Trek: Voyager bucked this trend with the much smaller Intrepid-class eponymous vessel. Although it sported the best engines and most cutting edge tech Starfleet had at the time, it was about half the size of the Enterprise-D and all alone in the Delta Quadrant, cut off from the vast resources of the Federation and setting out on an impossibly long and arduous journey back home.
As comparatively meager as its resources were, Voyager is a pleasure cruise liner compared to the even smaller and punier USS Equinox. A Nova-class vessel intended for short-range scientific missions, it was even less prepared for the same journey Voyager had to undertake. As much as Voyager has been trashed and damaged over the years, the crew always seemed to bounce back and make all the necessary repairs – in fact, the extent to which the ship was able to hum along and always run on spec strained a little credibility for me, personally. But the producers weren’t really interested in a down-and-dirty survival show that Voyager’s premise suggested. “Equinox” gives us a tantalizing window into what a more realistic and gritty show Voyager could have been. And it is not pretty.
The cold open shows the USS Equinox fending off an attack by aliens who appear out of portals that open up all around them. They’re preceded by a high-pitched screeching sound, which adds to the horror of the killer monsters from outer space. The crew fires phasers at the portals to close them, but one manages to break through and kill one of the bridge crew, rendering him a dried-out husk. As with Species 8472, the aliens are CG-rendered, and the views of them are a little too brief to make out the details. They’re reminiscent of the aliens from The Abyss, with their webbed limbs and lack of legs. They do do have some scary looking chompers, though.
Voyager picks up a distress signal from the Equinox and heads over to investigate. Janeway knows its Captain Ransom (cool name brah) by reputation only – he’s a respected scientist who was promoted to captain after making first contact with the Yridians.
Upon approaching the Equinox, Ransom barks at Janeway to extend their shields around both vessels. On cue, the alien portals start to form on Voyager, but quiet down once the shields are up. Multiple rescue parties board the Equinox, which is smashed to all hell. The warp core has some weird enhancements that Torres can’t make sense of. A desiccated body is found. Several crewmembers are found alive, some scared, some freaked the F out. Janeway finds Ransom on the bridge. Turns out they were also brought to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker (more on that later), and he mistakes her for a rescue party sent from Earth.
Later on Voyager (after everyone is cleaned up), Ransom pays tribute to their fallen crew. Played with tight-lipped gruffness by John Savage, Ransom seems perpetually wounded, like a man who hasn’t known happiness in a long time (if ever). But the vibe is pleasant as the two Starfleet crews come together and get to know each other. A little too pleasant in some cases – first officer Burke turns out to be Torres’ ex from academy days and reveals his old nickname for her – “BLT.” Tom is of course a jealous, twitchy mess about it, which is shocking to no one (I love the nickname Harry comes up for him on the spot – “Turkey Platter”).
Ensign Gilmore is the most sympathetic member of the Equinox crew and her anecdotes describe the extremely tough times she’s survived through – she has a panic attack in a turbolift because of a previous attack from aliens in one. She’s eager to distance herself from her old life on her ship and join Voyager. Overall, the casting of the Equinox crew is well done. Their duality is convincing as both likable friendly faces and later on as despicable, morally-compromised heels.
The Voyager and Equinox leaders confer on how to fend off the alien attacks. They’re persistent in continually pricking the ships’ shields, and every time they do the shields lose energy. The aliens can’t exist in our realm for very long, but can do plenty of damage. Burke reveals they built a chamber in their research lab to capture the aliens for study, but it’s conveniently inaccessible because of high levels of radiation. They agree to share the schematics for it, though.
On the Equinox bridge, Janeway and Ransom compare notes on their experiences in the Delta Quadrant. They’re very different people and captains, shaped by their personalities, resources, and experiences. Ransom’s crew doesn’t stand on ceremony and they call him by his first name (Rudy. That’s right, Rudy Ransom. Quite the pro wrestler moniker). Ransom notes how tight a ship Janeway runs, and she reflects that keeping protocol and discipline reminds them of who they are and where they’re going.
As tough as Voyager’s experiences in the Delta Quadrant have been, they’re nothing compared to the Equinox’s. Ransom reveals they spent their first week pushing their way through the Krowtonan Guard’s territory. They lost half their crew and never recovered psychologically from that. Ransom tried to remind his crew that they were explorers and scientists, but the wearying journey at times caused them to forget that. Or even that they were human, he adds. It’s a very haunting confession. Janeway doesn’t (and perhaps can’t yet) fathom the depths he’s sunk to, and marvels at how much they’ve accomplished with such a small and ill-prepared ship.
Ransom asks Janeway if she’s ever violated the Prime Directive, and she admits to bending it, but never breaking. It’s a test and he’s feeling her morals and ethics out. Realizing that she could never understand what he’s done, he emptily repeats her answer for himself. On Voyager, he later tells Burke not to get too comfortable here.
Without warning, the aliens are able to momentarily penetrate Voyager’s shields. They’re stepping up their attacks and changing their tactics. It proves they’re not only persistent but intelligent. Almost as if they have a score to settle…
The Voyager crew draw up blueprints for a forcefield generator device that can repel the aliens and protect both ships. However, they don’t have enough time to get it up and running to fend off attacks for both ships. If they evacuate everyone to Voyager it will speed up the effort. Ransom is not in favor of this, and softly threatens to take his ship and go it alone. According to Starfleet regulations, Janeway – the commander of the stronger vessel – has authority over both ships and Ransom. She lays down the law and Ransom complies. However, he later calls a meeting among his staff and they engineer a plan to double-cross Voyager and steal the generator for themselves. They’re going home, he says.
Seven and Tuvok discover that the Equinox’s lab is purposefully being flooded with radiation to keep Voyager out of it. The Doctor is sent in to investigate, and he discovers the ugly truth. He finds a dead alien body in their chamber, and that its molecular structure stores an incredible amount of energy, which the Equinox crew has been using to power their engines and ship.
Janeway drags Ransom in and demands an explanation – with the remains of one of the aliens sitting on the table in front of her (yikes!). He confirms they’ve been killing the aliens for fuel, but totally feels bad about doing it. He then quotes a Starfleet regulation giving a captain the right to preserve the lives of their crew by “any justifiable means.” It’s a chilling tidbit that Starfleet would have such a rule – Ransom has obviously gone beyond the pale in its leeway, but it’s a darkly fascinating detail.
He bitterly recalls the circumstances that led up to it – the Equinox was running on fumes and the crew hadn’t eaten in 16 days. They had enough power to enter orbit around a planet of which the inhabitants were thankfully friendly and generous with some supplies. They performed a good luck ritual, using a device to summon a spirit from another realm – which turned out to be the aliens that have been attacking them. Realizing they were a high source of antimatter, Ransom’s crew obtained one of the summoning devices and constructed the holding chamber to study it. Something goes wrong, and the alien inadvertently dies. Since it was already dead, why not use its corpse to power the engines…?
The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but I don’t totally buy Ransom’s line of reasoning. They knew the aliens were a natural source of fuel before accidentally killing one. Why would you want to capture one unless you were going to try and extract that fuel in some capacity? Even if there was a way to siphon off some of it safely without harming them, that already crosses a moral boundary – again, these are intelligent life forms. “It was already dead,” Ransom notes, attempting to alleviate personal responsibility after killing it. Using its body, they were able to travel 10,000 light years in two weeks, which is pretty crazy.
Janeway is unimpressed and unsympathetic. She confines Ransom and his crew to quarters. Ransom begs for mercy for his crew, giving her the ol’ “they were just following orders” song. “Their mistake,” Janeway replies in a steely tone. It’s awesome. She vows to attempt to make first contact with the aliens the right way.
Visiting the Equinox again to get more info about the aliens, the Doctor runs afoul of that ship’s EMH. Turns out he was the one who engineered the experiments on the aliens, thanks to the deletion of his ethical subroutines (that’s a thing, I guess). He promptly knocks out the Doctor’s mobile emitter, uses it to board Voyager, and helps break Ransom and his crew out of confinement. They’re able to beam back to their ship, steal the forcefield generator, and escape, leaving Voyager to contend with dozens of portals opening all over the ship…
Star Trek has always prized ethics and high moral values. It’s very aspirational in that way, and generally features storylines where the heroes solve problems by acting good and obeying their conscience. It’s not exactly realistic and at times seems hopelessly optimistic, if not totally naive. Later iterations of Trek did poke at this idea, notably Deep Space Nine with Sisko’s famous “paradise” tirade (among other things). Similarly, Captain Ransom points out that it’s easy to follow rules and regulations when your ship is intact and your crew isn’t starving. It doesn’t morally absolve the Equinox crew of their sins, but it imparts some gritty and disturbing realism on a normally fantastical franchise. Ransom faced a real-life Kobayashi Maru scenario, and much like Kirk, he cheated in order to win.
“Equinox” is a startling episode in that it presents a parallel version of the Starship Voyager. But unlike those typical parallel reality/timelines adventures, this one is all too real and presented without a reset button to make everything all right after the mayhem and destruction. The series began because of a selfless decision made by Captain Janeway to protect innocent lives. It conversely made the crew of Voyager’s lives that much harder as a result, but making the right decisions often can – it requires strength of character to help someone else at personal cost to oneself. By contrast, the Equinox crew throws the high-minded ideals of Starfleet out the window to advance their own cause. The Faustian bargain Captain Ransom makes ensures the survival of his crew and even offers a quick shortcut to get home, but as Star Trek is so fond of asking – at what cost?
I won’t be reviewing the second part of the story for this “Best of Voyager” feature because… it’s not. In fact, it’s probably among the worst of Voyager. Two-parters that stumble in the second halves are pretty common, but this one faceplants hard. Janeway acts like an absolute bloodthirsty psychopath, and there’s a requisite and underbaked conflict with Chakotay over it. She relieves him of duty for stopping her from killing a dude, and there’s literally no fallout from it! It’s all incredibly stupid and frustrating to watch, especially given how well done the first part was. I do like Ransom’s about face and death scene, though. It basically flips polarity with him as the conflicted protagonist and Janeway as the obsessive villain, which is… an interesting choice. And it also introduces a handful of Equinox crewmembers to Voyager who are never seen or spoken of again. Seriously.
- The numbers regarding the alien fuel and warp efficiency are really wonky. Ransom states that from the one corpse they accidentally killed, they were able to convert it into enough fuel to travel 10,000 light years in two weeks. But he also says it will take 63 more to get them home. That… doesn’t add up. The journey from Voyager’s starting position to Earth was originally about 60,000 light years. At this point in the show they’ve probably got 30-40k to go. So that sounds like it would only take about 3-4 alien corpses? Granted, maybe they can’t get a full yield out of each one (especially if they’re babies… my god), but 63 seems wildly overdoing it. Not that killing fewer is more acceptable, but the math doesn’t really make sense.
- OK, the Caretaker. As confirmed multiple times in multiple episodes, the Caretaker brought many vessels from all around the galaxy to study the crew of before sending them back – with the exception of Voyager and Chakotay’s Maquis ship, as the Caretaker died and his array was destroyed before that could happen (also the Cardassian Dreadnought missile, which somehow got away). Is there a reason why the Equinox wasn’t sent back after being studied? How did they get stranded? If the Caretaker had already abducted a Starfleet ship before Voyager, why bother to capture another one? Zero explanation is given beyond “the Caretaker did it.”
- For that matter, how have both of these ships been in the Delta Quadrant for 5 years and never once crossed paths, caught sight of, or heard of each other? From the Equinox crews’ description, they seem to have had a totally different journey back, encountering different species or not encountering the same species at all. Ransom says they never saw the Borg! The only way this makes sense is if they were brought to a different spot in the Delta Quadrant. Except… the Caretaker was only in one spot, near the Ocampa homeworld. None of it makes any sense at all and it would have been slightly more believable to have just used a different plot device to strand the Equinox other than the Caretaker.
- Ransom making contact with the Yridians is a little odd. They’ve been a well-known race since The Next Generation, and Ransom is barely middle-aged, so the timelines doesn’t quite add up.
- Janeway’s decision to abandon the Equinox seems really hasty. Why not just tractor the ship and keep it around after consolidating the crews on Voyager?
- Love this berserk motherfucker.