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

“Muse”
Star Trek: Voyager (Season 6, Episode 22)

The episode I covered just last week was a heavily meta-textual adventure that poked fun at some aspects of Star Trek itself. Interestingly, the very next episode in the season manages to be a less goofy but an even more self-referential romp that peers into the basic appeal of Trek. It’s a fun and clever story that’s incredibly charming and one of the best and underappreciated gems of Voyager.

As I said in the write-up of “Live Fast and Prosper,” one of the quirky aspects of Voyager was a self-referential predilection for exploring its own continuity that at times crossed over to navel-gazing territory. It didn’t always work – for as much as I love self-reference, deconstruction, and internal callbacks, it can come off as lazy and cheap storytelling. Instead of exploring something new or pushing the boundaries of the show, let’s take yet another trip down memory lane of our own past. “Muse” doesn’t fall into this trap because it uses the timeline and mythos of Star Trek: Voyager to tell a unique story that highlights the appeal of the franchise as a whole.

“A long time ago, in a franchise far, far away…”

The episode opens on a primitive planet with a not-Greek (but Greek) alien chorus giving a dramatic re-enactment of a log entry. It’s really clever, explaining that Torres and Kim were on a mission to search for precious dilithium in the Delta Flyer but got lost and crashed, their ship swept away by “stormy weather.” The theater’s regal patron listens in rapt attention and is eager to hear more tales of the “Voyager Eternals.” The poet (and troupe leader) Kelis promises more, but is fuzzy on when that will be. The patron however, is adamant that he see the next chapter in a week. Fans can be so demanding!

Kelis travels into the mountains where the wreckage of the Delta Flyer sits, filled with candles. He awakes Torres and announces he is her servant. She’s been feverish and unconscious for about a week following the crash. Kelis has been doing some good ol’ bloodletting to cure her fever and has, uh, tied her up so she doesn’t escape – as inspiration often does, he says.

One of the pleasant aspects of the episode is that it sidesteps the usual “primitive aliens amazed and confounded by technology” plot point these stories tend to have, as well as the anxiety over cultural contamination. Plus, it’s been done already in a multitude of ways across many Trek series (especially on Voyager). Kelis believes Torres to be an Eternal so in that context, her mystical, otherworldy chariot and its technological wonders makes sense to him. Case in point – how does he already know so much about Voyager and Torres’ ill-fated mission? He demonstrates by tapping on a control panel that plays the audio of her last transmission to Voyager before getting lost and crash-landing. By listening to it he gleaned enough info to create the first chapter of his epic play.

“Hey, what’s that ‘Vulcan Love Slave’ story I saw in your database? Sounds epic.”

It’s refreshing that he’s not ooh-ing and ahh-ing over this marvelous technology, and it serves multiple story functions – it moves the plot along without bogging down in minutiae, places him on more equal character footing with B’Elanna, and shows how single-minded he is when it comes to playwriting. Yeah, all this godly magic is cool and all, but my boss wants a play on his desk in one week! There’s something relatable about that – for as much as it would be life-changing and reality-bending to discover an alien/god, it doesn’t just make our regular lives (and all the concerns they entail) disappear, you know? (There’s a documentary film called Suburban Commando that covers this, it’s very educational and highly recommended)

It also establishes that Kelis, though not a bad person, is a bit self-centered and very ambitious, even greedy – he’s come upon an incredible resource to elevate his plays and he’s not about to just let it fly away… even if it means technically, kinda imprisoning someone?

Fortunately the episode does away with this detail and it’s not long before Torres convinces him to untie her. Grabbing a phaser, she quickly shoos him away and gets started trying to repair the Flyer’s communication systems. The next day, Kelis – apparently totally undeterred – returns with some food for her and pesters her with questions about Voyager. She begrudgingly tells him how the Caretaker blew the ship off course with a “great storm” and how they’ve been trying to get back to the beautiful blue and green “island” of Earth ever since. It’s fun to hear Voyager’s history retold through more primitive, non-science fiction terms. It’s also a great thematic connection to the ancient not-Greek (but Greek) overtones of the story – Voyager’s ill-fated journey sounds a lot like that of Odysseus’. It speaks to the basic, universal appeal of the series’ premise that goes back thousands of years to the time of Homer.

Torres is patient with Kelis up to a point, but she’s as focused on getting the Flyer operational as he is about writing his play. Showing him an image of dilithium crystals, he recognizes them as “winter’s tears” and is aware of their existence. She demands he retrieve her some so that she can share more of Voyager’s journey. He’s hesitant since dilithium deposits are valuable, guarded, and trespassing could get him killed. She demands again, and as she does, a thunderclap conveniently (and hilariously) strikes at that moment. Scared, he leaves to go get her winter’s tears. It’s great.

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. Oh, who am I kidding – of course you would.”

He later returns with the crystals, and she’s come up with an idea for his play – The Rescue of B’Elanna Torres. Soon enough, Kelis’ troupe is rehearsing scenes of the play and he continues to ask her about the elements of Voyager’s world, including the emotionless Vulcans, which he’s simply unable to understand – how can someone not have emotions? Torres hits a roadblock in her repairs and demands that he custom make her a piece of metal. But Kelis plays the reverse card and demand that she tell him more or he won’t get her metal. He crosses his arms defiantly.

The sandal’s on the other foot now, m’lady!

The low-level power struggle between them is fun to watch (they’re both stubborn people butting heads), and it’s nice that the story places equal weight on both the characters and their situations. There’s an almost Shakespearean, love-hate dynamic between them (which totally fits in with the episode’s theme). Torres’ life isn’t in danger, but she would like to get off this planet. Kelis’ life isn’t directly threatened either, but his troupe needs to work (and eat) and he has their collective livelihood on his shoulders (as well as something greater, we’ll learn). Both of their missions are critically important to each of them, and they’ve found themselves in a situation where those objectives are intertwined. Despite the great disparities in their backgrounds (and levels of technology), they have a lot in common and need each other, and there’s something profoundly Trek-ian about this notion that powers the story.

As one of the actors rehearses the part of Tuvok, he lets a tear slip and Kelis castigates him over it – there’s no crying on Vulcan! The actor, also having difficulty with the idea of a character without emotions – responds with one of my favorite lines of the whole show – “If I don’t show emotion, people will think I’m a bad actor!” It speaks to the inherent difficulty of portraying an emotionless character that audiences can relate to (something Leonard Nimoy excelled at as Spock). Another actor interrupts to give some bad news – their patron has declared war on another nearby noble over some slight and battle will soon commence.

Kelis brings Torres her piece of metal but it’s too impure to function in her repairs. He’s intent on crafting the perfect play that will stop the war from happening. Torres is incredulous that a play could even do such a thing, but Kelis insists that she come to their theater to help him with the material. If war breaks out, the mountains will be teeming with war parties and she could be discovered – it’s in both of their best interests to do what they can to prevent a conflict.

Torres agrees and soon enough he’s introducing her as a colleague from a distant land. Again, nobody really makes any hay about the fact that she has a totally different, alien forehead than them (to the story’s benefit). Kelis reviews where the story is, and speaks of common story gimmicks to insert into the narrative – stunning reversals, romantic crescendos, etc. One of the older actors speaks disparagingly of these kinds of tricks and encourages Kelis not to rely on them. Kelis is dismissive, citing modern audiences’ enthusiasm for excitement and passion.

It’s all very clever and there are so many ideas at play – Kelis’ dedication to rigid principles of storytelling, the push and pull of generational attitudes towards entertainment, the backstage vagaries of putting together a production. When Trek gets meta, it’s typically about the outward tropes and surface level story themes. But this is a level of meta that we’ve never seen before – it’s about the actual backstage production of Star Trek itself, a process I’ve always been fascinated by. The writers of the episode are writing about themselves, and though that sounds like it could easily be nauseating, it’s not. I like how much they depict the process as flying by the seat of their pants. Even in a big professional TV production setting, every episode that comes together is a miracle – a confluence of countless moving parts and players. There’s a chaotic alchemy to how it coalesces into a coherent final product that can’t be overstated. It’s even magical, and that especially applies to performance art.

Kelis still doesn’t have an end to the play, though. Torres is unimpressed by the preponderance of romance in his play and unconvinced it’s going to change anyone’s mind about going to war. But Kelis is insistent that it can, and explains how the theater they perform in used to be a temple a century ago where people were ritually sacrificed every winter (another meaning of “winter’s tears?”). One year a play took the place of the sacrifice instead, and the bloody tradition never returned. He’s convinced that drama has the power to stop violence, and yearns to create a play that can. As vain and self-centered as Kelis has been up to this point, we see that he’s driven by a more noble cause. He wants to make the world a better place through his art.

“A hundred years ago, you know what they did here? Full frontal. Swinging pipe, whistling clam, unobscured hole… It was savage.”

From the beginning of its run, Star Trek has been a heavily metaphorical property and it’s featured many an allegorical tale to highlight social, political, and historical issues. Shining a light on the evils (and absurdities) of prejudice, racism, war, and other human vices can enlighten and perhaps even prevent them in the future. An educated and intelligently-entertained society is a better and more humane one, and Star Trek’s hopeful and optimistic tone is often cited by its fans as one of its major appeals. It’s the same quality that Kelis wants to inject into his play, but he’s stumped as to how to put it together.

Torres notes that when war is on the horizon, the last thing anyone want to think about is romance, so all the kissing in Kelis’ play borders on nonsensical and isn’t true to life. In the play, Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine (the Borg queen) are heading towards war. Frustrated, Torres says that as a Starfleet officer Janeway doesn’t want to destroy the Borg – she’d make peace with them if she could. Kelis finally understands, and excitedly crafts the ending story arc – Janeway defeats Seven in battle, but throws down her weapon before making the killing blow and shows her mercy instead. Peace instead of war, life instead of mutual destruction. It’s a great scene because it depicts the back-and-forth spitballing that happens in every writers’ room as they try to find the story. There’s that glorious moment when you realize the perfect story angle and everything falls into place – it’s there beneath all the dead ends and unusable material, you just have to find it.

Torres likes and approves of the ending. Kelis asks her to stay and help him write it, but she declines. He jokingly threatens to kill off her character. It’s adorable.

Returning to the Flyer, Torres runs into Layna, a woman from Kelis’ troupe. It’s the low point of the episode because it injects an unnecessary love triangle into the story. Layna clearly carries a torch for Kelis but the feeling doesn’t appear to be mutual – either because he’s not interested in her, or because he’s too interested in his plays. At any rate, Layna tells Torres to leave her and her man alone or else she’ll spill the beans to everyone (exact words). I guess there’s a need to throw in some sort of wrench/complication at this point in the story, but it’s a little hackneyed and relies on a one-dimensional Jealous Woman character. Although maybe it’s a clever meta-callback to Kelis’ insistence that romantic angles need to be shoehorned in where they don’t belong? OK, you got me there! I don’t hate it.

“LEAVE KELIS ALONE!!!”

She leaves, and immediately Torres gets another visitor – Harry Kim (remember that guy?), alive and well! He also crashed on the planet, but like 100 miles away and it took him forever to get here. Fortunately, he has just the component Torres needs to get the communication system up and running. They eventually do, and are able to send a signal to Voyager to let them know where they are.

The hour of the performance is drawing near and the ending scene is still not written, to the chagrin of all the actors. Kelis sends a messenger into the mountains to deliver a note to Torres. She realizes he still needs help, and decides to intervene – otherwise he’ll “kill” her character. “Who cares?!” a confused Harry asks. But she tells him to wait for her signal and beams herself into town. I just love that although their rescue by Voyager is imminent, she’s invested enough in Kelis’ play to want to swoop in and rescue him. And I also love how dumbfounded Harry is – this is so below the paygrade of a standard Trek hero and he can’t understand why she’s bothering. As far as the standard stakes go, they’re about as low as they can get here. But it’s still important and just as vital to see it happen.

“You and your puny drones are hisssssstory!”

On stage, Janeway holds Seven at spearpoint, but doesn’t make the kill. She says that this path of destruction will not end with them; their people will continue to fight until there is nothing left. The patron watches attentively, spellbound. Backstage, Torres appears to Kelis’ delight and says that she’ll return to her realm before everyone’s eyes. Layna makes good on her threat by outing Torres as an Eternal to the audience. It’s the ol’ “angry/jealous woman ruins everything” trope, but fortunately, one of the older actors swoops in and improvises a bit to explain the interruption and convince the patron it’s all part of the show.

They also convince him not to steal Pee Wee’s bike.

Facing one another on stage, Torres bids farewell to Kelis, who asks her to stay. It’s a sweet, genuine moment – they’re not lines he’s reading, but his actual feelings. He’s clearly infatuated with her – poetically, and perhaps romantically too (you can’t really blame him). Despite Layna’s fears, the episode doesn’t make this angle explicit, which I appreciate. But there seems to be an undercurrent of it. She represents a higher plane of existence, a wellspring of dramatic inspiration, and an unlikely friendship that he’ll miss. B’Elanna seems a little taken with him herself, or perhaps just the idea of being someone’s muse. It’s a magical and tragical situation of two people from different worlds having to say goodbye – that motif always gets to me extra hard (see Picard and Lily’s farewell at the end of First Contact).

“I don’t know what to say, B’Elenna, except…”
“AHH, AHHH! OH MY GOD, WTF!!!”

Torres beams out to the shock and amazement of the audience, and the not-Greek (but Greek) chorus concludes the play, stating that Voyager will continue her journey to the gleaming cities of Earth where hatred has no home. Roll credits, Paramount logo.

What will happen next is left ambiguous, which I respect. Did it sway the patron enough to not go to war? We don’t find out, since like Torres and the crew of Voyager, it’s time to leave. The patron certainly seemed gripped and impressed by the play (especially that SFX-laden ending!), and like the best and most affecting works of fiction, it will be with him for a long time, perhaps including the next time there is war. It’s naive to think that it will provide the stunning and dramatic reversal that Kelis dreams of, but just nudging someone can be enough to make a difference. Has Star Trek itself ever stopped a war from happening? Who knows. Watching it has definitely made me a more thoughtful and hopeful person, and I know it has done the same for others, including those with actual influence and power. It’s always worth trying to make the world better in any way we can, including art.

“Muse” is an unexpected delight of an episode. Like the primitive culture Torres finds herself enmeshed in, its appeal sneaks up and provides a surprisingly gripping experience. Never have the nuts and bolts of Star Trek itself been laid so bare in such a self-referential way. An excessive amount of tinkering and disassembly can rob something of its magic, but like a finely-crafted watch, breaking Trek down into its components only reminds us of the indefinable traits that make it such a compelling and extraordinary machine of drama and allegory. “Muse” performs a clever and immensely satisfying trick – breaking Star Trek down into its parts and reassembling them before our eyes, without losing any of that old magic that playwrights have been using for thousands of years to entertain and enlighten.


Stray Observations:

  • The subplot of the episode it pretty brief and largely unnecessary, but it does come to an amusing head. As Voyager searches for the Flyer, Tuvok exhausts himself in the search by foregoing sleep. It’s pretty weird and random – Tuvok doesn’t really seem to like anyone outside of Janeway, so the notion of running himself ragged over a missing Kim and Torres doesn’t jibe with who he is at all. Like, who is this guy that likes and misses his colleagues all of a sudden? But the entire thing leads to the gag of him falling asleep in the command seat on the bridge, loudly snoring for all to hear. Tom gently wakes him up, to which Tuvok loudly orders “As you were,” as if nothing happened. Fun times.
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  • I appreciate the costuming, set, and makeup effort that went into the not-Greek (but Greek) chorus. As well as the conceptual aspect of it. Everyone is robed and carries masks (that evoke the characters’ appearances) that they raise or lower depending on whether they’re speaking out loud or internally monologuing. And they put on head-shadow makeup to give themselves more dramatic appearances.
“Puny mortal.”
  • Universal translators are all well and good, but how did Torres read the note Kelis sent??? Sure hope someone got fired for that blunder 20 years ago.
  • Layna is played by the late Kellie Waymire, who was also the recurring Ensign Cutler on Enterprise (a much better and more likable character). I’ll always remember her as the flame of George’s who shared his fetish for salted, cured meats on Seinfeld. Despite how thin her character is here, she does put a lot of emotion into it and you do feel her pain – she’s not evil or hateful, just hurt and angry over someone usurping the object of her affection’s complete attention. It’s a shame she died so young. 🙁
  • I love the part where Torres scares Kelis with the phaser – by pointing it at a nearby tree and vaporizing it in front of him. That poor tree! (“Hey, what did I do?!”) Also, how does that not just start a forest fire?