“One Small Step”
Star Trek: Voyager – Season 6, Episode 8
For a property that is primarily set in space, Star Trek is generally pretty far removed from the realities of actual space travel. The reasons aren’t surprising – traveling into space is colossally difficult (not to mention potentially dangerous), and pretty much all aspects of being in space are a huge pain – isolation, high radiation, zero gravity (and the steady degeneration of one’s body that results from being in it). This is all pretty unsightly from the perspective of a TV series, as well as horrendously expensive to depict.
One of the smartest moves of The Original Series was creating a vision of space travel that was divorced from this reality as much as possible. Instead of landing spaceships or lengthy docking procedures, we got transporters (and eventually shuttlecraft) to quickly get the heroes in and out of places. Instead of floating around, we got artificially-generated gravity that allowed characters to walk and move like normal. And instead of taking hours, months, or years to cross even small interstellar distances, Trek had warp drive that could take its characters to other planets nearly instantly. With these innovations, Star Trek made space travel feasible and cheap enough to do weekly and on a modest budget.
But as much as the various series have gained from ignoring the realistic vagaries of space travel, there was something lost. Astronauts who have journeyed to space posses incredible aptitude, intelligence, and bravery. They’re (rightly) venerated as peak examples of human fortitude – the extensive training required, the acceptance of risk (and even death), as well as the epically poetic idea of leaving Earth to fly among the heavens. Astronauts have been featured on Star Trek before, but “One Small Step” is the first time the scope of realistic space travel has been depicted in the franchise, and all the honor and horror it can entail.
Opening in the year 2032, an Earth command module of the Ares IV mission is in orbit of Mars and contains astronaut Lieutenant John Kelly (a distractingly handsome Phil Morris). Over the radio he shares some light banter with the lander crew on the surface until a gigantic, unidentifiable ball of light quickly approaches the module.
In the 24th century, Voyager witnesses a humongous gravimetric distortion emerging from subspace – seemingly the same glowing orb that approached Kelly’s ship. Right on cue, it starts to go after Voyager but Seven’s Borg knowledge of the anomaly allows them to avoid colliding with it. Starfleet has also encountered it, and it turns out it’s a called graviton ellipse. It’s essentially a cosmic peekaboo vaccuum cleaner, instantly appearing and absorbing anything in it path before disappearing back into subspace. It’s odd as far as spatial anomalies go, but it at least has some personality, easily definable characteristics, and memorable effects.
Chakotay conveniently recognizes it as a similar thing that swallowed up the Ares IV mission and is excited to study the ellipse. After analyzing it, Seven suggests a way of destroying the ellipse. Her exploration heart is three sizes too small and she considers the anomaly too dangerous to explore. Upon further analysis, the crew discovers that billions of different compounds are contained within this thing, including debris that surely came from 21st century Earth. Not only is this the same type of thing that absorbed the Ares IV mission, but it is the exact same one, and the craft could still be inside.
The crew decides to modify the Delta Flyer so that it can safely penetrate the ellipse to explore it. They only have precious hours before it disappears again. Seven thinks this is a foolhardy course of action, and voices her objection to Janeway. She tries to impress upon Seven the value of scientific as well as historical exploration and encourages/softly orders her to join the mission so she can gain a greater appreciation for humanity’s achievements.
Chakotay and Paris listen to a recording of Lt. Kelly’s final transmission and marvel at his calm and measured tone in the face of certain death. They also take note of how easy and safe 300 years of technological advancement has made space travel in their time vs. Kelly’s. Even the Doctor can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of exploring the ellipse. None of this enthusiasm rubs off on Seven, though.
The Delta Flyer heads into the ellipse and find that its center is relatively calm, like the eye of a storm. They find all sorts of crap from all over the universe in the core (and even some from outside the known universe). The Flyer team starts analyzing the ellipse, including debris samples they bring aboard. Chakotay is dorkily thrilled with the stuff they find but Seven is very disinterested in it all, as well as confused by the emotional reactions of everyone. She’s kind of a drag, but it’s consistent with her personality. She doesn’t value the poetic profundity of exploration the way typical Starfleet heroes of Trek do. There’s nothing efficient or utilitarian about it, it therefore has no value to this former Borg.
Amazingly, the Flyer locates the almost intact Ares IV. Chakotay wants to use the tractor beam to bring it back to Voyager. But there’s bad news – a nearby dark matter asteroid is attracting the ellipse to it, and the two objects will collide shortly. Janeway orders the Delta Flyer to leave the ellipse at once. Despite this, Chakotay is obsessed with salvaging the Ares, and orders Paris to tractor it in. Paris is taken aback by the recklessness of this order, and Seven is similarly less than pleased. It’s one thing for Chakotay to be fixated on this mission and the guy who led it, but being so fanatic as to endanger the lives of his crew is wildly crazy and should be a disqualifying offense for him. But, whatever.
Predictably, they aren’t able to clear the ellipse with the Ares in tow, and everything promptly goes to shit – they get trapped inside, lose contact with Voyager, and Chakotay karmically gets electrocuted by the console (a classic!).
Paris tends to Chakotay’s injuries, but he’s hurt bad and needs the Doctor’s care. Seven angrily informs Chakotay that the engines are offline and the ellipse will soon return to subspace. Although she’s been kind of a stick in the mud up until now, she’s (rightfully) pissed at Chakotay for potentially stranding them here forever and is absolutely having none of his shit. It’s so great. Chakotay is maximally unhelpful and mostly a nuisance at this point. It’s really not a great look for him, but he at least admits he screwed up.
Voyager reestablishes communication, but can’t go in and rescue the Flyer, so Torres brainstorms how to get it moving under its own power. They need a new plasma manifold but can’t replicate it on their own. However, the Ares IV conveniently had a part that could be modified to be a substitute. It’s up to Seven to board the ancient ship and try to track it down. Envious of the opportunity, Chakotay begs Seven to download whatever data she can from the craft, and she reluctantly humors him.
Seven board the Ares and soon locates Kelly’s long-dead body, still strapped into the pilot seat. She’s able to power up the ships’ computer, which starts playing Kelly’s final log entries for Paris and Chakotay to hear. He wasn’t killed when his craft was swallowed, but in fact survived to see the inside of the strange phenomena.
Morris really carries this section of the episode as he monologues what he’s thinking and experiencing to the recorder. Kelly scans and records everything he’s seeing, and is amazed to see the debris of an alien ship. As pedestrian as alien ships are in Star Trek, this represents a momentous and mind-blowing discovery for a 21st-century human. He powers up his engines and makes his one and only chance to escape the ellipse, but fails.
Seven finds the manifold, but it’s fused and needs to be jimmied out. They only have 15 minutes before the ellipse disappears, but she resumes playing his logs.
Some time has passed for Kelly. He’s borderline delirious from lack of oxygen and his ship’s power is almost exhausted. But instead of being regretful, he’s convinced that he did the right thing by exploring space – and in a larger sense, humanity is right in exploring space. The confirmation that they’re not alone in the universe has buoyed his spirit and was worth the trip. His only regret? Not knowing who wins the World Series, he gasps wryly (I love me some gallows humor). He then diverts his remaining life support power to feed the sensors so that they can continue recording data for as long as possible and implores anyone that may find his ship to put the logs to good use. Morris shines here as he portrays the physically exhausted and scared but emotionally enervated doomed astronaut.
Ryan’s performance during this section is also great. She doesn’t have much of any dialogue here, but she perfectly emotes Seven’s shifting attitude and growing interest/respect for Kelly through facial expressions and body language alone. Seven is moved by his final act of bravery, and even though her mission is done, she uses precious time by hurriedly downloading all of his logs to her tricorder. Attaching her combadge to his body, she instructs Paris to beam both her and Kelly’s body to the Flyer. They’re able to use the manifold to get the Flyer moving again and they successfully escape from the ellipse before it burrows back into subspace.
On the bridge, the crew holds a funeral for Kelly with full honors. Seven has come to appreciate his contribution to humanity’s future (and her own) and says as much during the service. She honors his dying regret by quietly mentioning the winner of the World Series to him (Tom notices and smiles). The torpedo carrying his body is then laid to rest in the space he gave his life to explore. I’M NOT CRYING, YOU ARE.
The deep reverence for the heroism of astronauts is on fully display in “One Small Step” and John Kelly serves as an admirable avatar for the real life people who have taken some of the largest and scariest steps in humanity’s history. There’s something very appropriate about this story as it applies to Star Trek: Voyager – like the Ares IV (and symbolically, all real life manned missions), USS Voyager is alone in the great vastness of space set against seemingly impossible odds. The danger is great and the number of things that can go wrong is high and chilling. That the crew of Voyager gloms onto Kelly’s legacy and what he represents makes perfect sense and the episode wouldn’t carry the same weight on another Trek series.
Star Trek is about humanity exploring the cosmos with fantastical technology and ships that can do amazingly impossible things. But that’s all just window dressing for what really powers the series’ appeal – the bold sense of exploration that drives the characters to seek out those strange new worlds and phenomena. It’s the same instinct that drives Lt. Kelly to the very end. The crew travel to the heart of a strange anomaly and find an artifact of great historical importance, but also uncover the undying spirit that motivates them as explorers. “One Small Step” is a resonant and unforgettable story that strips away all the trappings of Star Trek while still representing the purity and spirit of its basic appeal.
- Phil Morris is a true Star Trek veteran – he appeared as a child on The Original Series, later on in Star Trek III, and several times on Deep Space Nine (including one of my favorite episodes, “Rocks and Shoals”). His most famous role is probably Kramer’s wacky lawyer Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld. The guy’s range is just crazy and he’s fun to watch whether he’s doing comedy or drama.
- Robert Beltran was reportedly not happy with how this episode went. The story plays up his character’s passion for the Ares IV mission (yet another Chakotay random interest) but then hilariously sidelines him in a really unbecoming way to make it all about Seven. He doesn’t even get any lines at the funeral for this guy he idolized since childhood! It’s kind of endemic of how Voyager proceeded after introducing her character (homer_sheep_outta_the_way_you.gif). But there’s no dramatic edge to the story without Seven’s emotional about face – otherwise, it would just be the characters “Gee whiz”-ing throughout the entire thing, and there’s nothing much interesting or deep about that.
- Chakotay imploring Seven to literally touch a piece of cosmic history is similar to Picard touching the surface of Zefram Chochrane’s ship in First Contact. Like Data, Seven experiences no profundity at physical contact of the object.
- I know it’s an excuse to get Seven aboard the Ares so her exploration heart can grow three sizes, but the conceit that they can just take this SUPER antiquated piece of machinery to repair the Delta Flyer is just ludicrous speed kooky. Like… no. And they spend almost no time reconfiguring it! That shit is NOT plug ‘n’ play. Although I do like how it references the NASA team remotely figuring out how to repair the Apollo 13 craft with knowledge of what the orbiting crew had on hand.
- So, Voyager’s sensors aren’t normally calibrated to detect dark matter? Like, the stuff that is thought to make up 85% of all matter in the universe? In this episode we even have a dark matter asteroid (which is probably poppycock as far as scientific realism goes). That means Voyager could just plow directly into one of these things because their sensors don’t detect them?
- Outside of a few notable examples, we rarely see zero gravity in Star Trek, so the effort here is appreciated and the results are decently convincing.