Star Trek: Voyager (Season 7, Episode 13)
For as much as I like to criticize Voyager for its flaws, I do admire its willingness to tackle thorny subjects and difficult social issues. There’s a daring quality to these episodes and gives the series a more forward-thinking energy than its spiritual predecessor The Next Generation. Criminal justice is a topic Trek has touched upon several times before, but it typically does so using colossally exaggerated situations involving alien races to create fairly simplistic parables. “Repentance” takes a much more down-to-earth approach in presenting some angles on an alien justice system that make for an interesting and much more relatable episode. The story asks a simple but enticing question – what if a killer were to be cured of his violent urges?
Star Trek has depicted its fair share of violent killers, and Voyager itself had a recurring character of that type. The killer in this episode is a hardened criminal and is initially as one dimensional as the rest of the murderers that preceded him, but a medical quirk seemingly repairs his violent brain and gives him an opportunity for a different life. Or does it…?
Responding to a distress signal, Voyager finds a damaged ship and beams everyone aboard. Two of the injured aliens are beamed to sickbay, where one of them pulls a scalpel on Seven of Nine. Turns out the ship was a prison transport and all of them are being sent home for execution. Seven is able to easily escape from Iko, who is quickly subdued by security. Played by character actor Jeff Kober (you might remember him from such roles as “psychotic vampire” on Buffy, as well as… “psychotic warlock” on Buffy), he initially plays to his typecast as the super creepy madman, but is thankfully allowed to extend his range beyond that as the episode progresses.
With their own ship too damaged, the Warden Yediq requests that Voyager ferry his crew and prisoners back to their world, and arranges one of his people’s ships to meet them halfway. Chakotay is dismayed that they would help deliver these prisoners to execution (given the Federation’s ban of the practice), and Janeway doesn’t love it either, but Prime Directive, etc.
Iko (right after threatening to kill Janeway and everyone else), is beamed to the cargo bay, where makeshift prison cells are set up for each of the eight prisoners. The guards are even allowed their weapons as long as they’re in the cargo bay. Yediq is a supreme hard-ass and even tries to deny Neelix when he comes to feed the prisoners some homemade stew. Meanwhile, Seven and the Doctor debate the wisdom of capital punishment. The Doctor is predictably against it, while Seven doesn’t see the point in rehabilitation. From her severe Borg perspective, housing inmates for life is an inefficient use of resources.
The prisoners fight among themselves and Iko taunts Yediq by threatening his children (as he does ceiling pull-ups in full psycho mode). In response, Yediq drops his cell’s forcefield and lets his guards brutally beat Iko before the Voyager crew intervenes and takes him to sickbay (again). Janeway is of course not pleased by this, and relieves Yediq and his men of guard duty. According to Yediq, violence is all these prisoners understand, and doesn’t see the big deal in beating a defenseless man. The ability (and even gleeful willingness) of prison guards to dehumanize prisoners is well-documented territory in the real world. And once you’ve stripped someone of their humanity, it becomes all too easy to do whatever you feel like doing to them, as we’ve seen in horrifying examples in and out of Star Trek.
The Doctor works to repair Iko’s head trauma, and asks for some of Seven’s magic nanoprobes to do so. She agrees, although she doesn’t see the point since this guy’s going to get killed by his government soon enough anyway, but the Doctor is insistent on saving his life (because that’s what he does). He succeeds, and Iko regains consciousness. He seems different, and even thanks the Doctor. He tries to talk to Seven and seems interested that she doesn’t fear him, but she’s (understandably) not having it.
Later on, Iko seems to be experiencing physical pain in his stomach – presumably guilt from the people he killed. It’s something he’s never felt before, and blames the nanoprobes they used on him as some sort of punishment. Studying his brain activity, the Doctor confirms that in fixing his headinjury, they also inadvertently activated new neural pathways and re-connected areas of his brain that regulate violence and determine right and wrong. Essentially, they’ve reactivated the conscience he never had because of a birth defect.
It’s a fascinating notion, that a brain’s structure can have an impact on someone’s behavior. Of course there is the question of nature vs. nurture – what makes a killer a killer? There are certain common environmental factors – for example, many violent killers suffer horrible abuse in their childhoods. But what about the people who are abused who don’t become murderers? There has to be some sort of neurological basis for that propensity for extreme violence, and if one day the brain were to be completely mapped out we could conceivably find a cure/vaccine for murderers. Such a development would also bring up about a million other difficult and complex issues regarding how a brain is “supposed” to be. Thankfully, I’ll be dead before all that happens. Whoo-hoo!
Iko’s calmed down, and admits to Seven that he’s feeling scared. She’s reluctant to spend any time with him, but he starts talking about his childhood and looking up at the stars and naming the constellations. As a huge space nerd, she can’t help but get drawn in and engages him in conversation. Later on she brings him a star chart to look at. It’s cute.
The Doctor has determined that Iko’s restructured brain no longer makes him a danger to society; the very idea of violence makes him ill. They try to explain this to Yediq, but he doesn’t care. Janeway and Tuvok force him to help them draft a legal appeal to the family of the man he killed. As per their society’s legal policy, he has to convince the victim of his crime to absolve him of responsibility. But Iko isn’t interested, either. He feels he deserves to die for his horrible crimes and doesn’t want to be saved.
Now believing he doesn’t deserve to die, Seven can’t help but compare his situation to her own – she once participated in mass murder and destruction as a Borg, but an extreme physical change has also made her into a different person. But Iko demands to be put back in his cell where he belongs, not desiring any special treatment. Once there, he even surrenders his food to one of his fellow prisoners he used to always steal from.
Yediq has learned that the family won’t hear any appeals, and Seven is pissed. She thinks they should grant him asylum. Janeway think that Seven’s emotional response over Iko’s fate is because she really wants atonement for herself. It’s really blunt and inelegant scripting, and unfortunately just telegraphs Seven’s motivation rather than allowing us to figure that out or communicate it in a more fluid way. It’s not great.
Suddenly, an alien ship attacks and tries to beam the prisoners out. Power starts to fail in the cells, allowing the prisoners to escape and overpower the guards. They manage to take Yediq hostage and hole up in the cargo bay. One of the prisoners Joleg is about to kill Yediq, but Iko steps out and demands that he do it himself as revenge for when the guards beat his ass earlier. “I knew it was a trick,” Yediq says as Iko points the phaser at his head. But Iko flips the weapon around instead, allowing Yediq to grab it and subdue the other prisoners. Rising to his feet, he realizes Iko really is a different person now. His puzzled, “WTF” expression as he studies Iko really sells the character shift.
Consequently, Yediq later uses his influence to convince the victim’s family to hear Iko’s plea. Iko doesn’t beg for his life to the family, but tells them how much he’s changed. Seven is behind him giving her moral support, and he looks to her as he muddles through it. He’s sorry for what he’s done and puts his life in the family’s hands – if his death will make them feel better, then so be it.
The subplot of the episode is pretty decent and uses some misdirection to craft an unexpected storyline. While feeding the prisoners, Neelix strikes up a conversation with one of the prisoners Joleg (Star Trek recurring guest actor F.J. Rio). Joleg maintains his innocence and blames his incarceration on his race, claiming his people are disproportionately found guilty and incarcerated at higher rates than other races (the fact that the actor is a POC lends this idea additional weight). Soft-hearted Neelix is taken aback by this and does some research about crime stats that supports what Joleg says – his people really are much more likely to be imprisoned and even executed.
Paris and Torres brush it off as Joleg trying to con Neelix. Paris’ stint in a correctional facility informs his attitude that every prisoner has a story for why they don’t really belong in the slammer, and encourages Neelix to disregard it. “Where those prisoners sentenced to death?” Neelix asks, to which Tom has no comeback. Indeed, the ethical and legal particulars of a prisoner’s situation change when capital punishment is involved – you can’t un-execute someone if you’re wrong.
Joleg doesn’t press Neelix for help and seems glumly resigned to his fate. He simply asks for a letter to his brother to be sent, which Neelix happily does. Neelix later realizes that this transmission was what the attacking ship used to pinpoint Voyager’s location, and he hears how readily Joleg was to execute their hostage during the prison break. Joleg then fakes the same stomachache Iko had when he developed his conscience and asks for the same medical procedure Iko got so he can be fixed too. Neelix reacts in disgust, having been duped once again.
It’s an unexpected and well-crafted plot line. Since the A-story is all about the questionable justice being meted out on Iko, we anticipate that Joleg is facing a similar railroading by the legal system. It would be pretty consistent with the themes of Star Trek, but the story swerves to show that sometimes people in prison actually are bad people who should be there. Whether one believes Joleg deserves to die for his crime is of course debatable, but his subterfuge and glee at killing Yediq (before Iko stops him) firmly places him in Bad Guy territory.
Iko hangs out with Seven in the astrometrics lab looking at star constellations on the giant viewscreen. Seven presses him on what his plans would be if he gets released, and he’s not sure. She encourages him to stay on Voyager, and he seems open to it. But it’s not long before Yediq and Janeway come with the bad news – the family has denied Iko’s plea and he has to be taken back into custody again. Seven is visibly devastated by the news, much more thank Iko is. He says goodbye to her and simply asks that she look him in the eye once again, as she was the first person to ever do so without fear. She’s probably the only real friend he’s ever had. It’s a gutting but realistic development – as much as the truth of who Iko is has changed, the system he’s caught in is uncaring and barrels forward with his execution, undeterred.
Talking to Janeway later, Seven is upset that Iko must die for killing one person while she gets to survive, despite the incalculable destruction she participated in as a Borg drone. It’s decent characterization that links the plot to Seven’s past, but it leaves a slightly sour taste for me that she’s kind of making it about her. Like the earlier clunky scene with Janeway where her motivations are spelled out, the dialogue here is a little too literal and largely unnecessary.
Janeway’s response is simply that the Borg stole two decades of Seven’s life, and that’s more than enough punishment for her. It’s effective in tying up everything with a bow, but does Seven really deserve any punishment at all? Any single Borg is completely not responsible for what they do – they’re being controlled by an irresistible force inside of their brains and bodies. I’m sure Janeway isn’t implying otherwise, but maybe just trying to square the whole situation in a way that Seven can digest. If she needs to feel that she requires some retribution because of what she’s done, Janeway’s words attempt to clear her conscience by convincing her that she has already been adequately punished. I’ll buy that.
Star Trek has made brief sojourns into the criminal justice systems of alien races over the years. The one we see glimpsed here is probably the least outlandish, but because of that it ends up being a more realistic and relatable system that has several disturbing parallels to our own. Racial profiling, retributive justice, and state-sanctioned murder are all dark parts of the U.S.’s highly flawed justice system. The specificity of Voyager’s social commentary makes for another powerful and angering hour as we meet victims of an unfair system and witness their fate. A science fiction miracle cure rids Iko of his criminal tendencies, but the machine still requires his blood to be sated. As long as a system is focused on punishing rather than rehabilitating and healing, it will always hunger for lives and force us to continually feed it our own.
- The episode begins with Iko holding a scalpel to Seven of Nine’s throat. Like… a scalpel scalpel? In Star Trek? Was the Doctor doing an old timey show and tell of outdated medical instruments? Luckily Iko didn’t reach for the Doctor’s phrenology diagram mannequin and brain Seven over the head with it. Or strangle her with the belly strap of a vibrating fat burning machine. Thank you, I’ll be here all night.
- I just love Starfleet’s continuing insistence on using forcefields to keep prisoners in… and nothing else. I know it’s the future and everything, but as this episode once again illustrates: metal bars never run out of power, maaaaan…
- Speaking of forcefields, I like how they open up holes in them to pass the prisoners their food. This is a unique feature we haven’t seen before.
- And speaking even MORE of forcefields! Iko does the ol’ “hand on forcefield” thingie (twice!) that Trek psychos are so fond of. Sisko and Tuvok did it better, but I’ll give it a 6.0, pal.
- Like in “Death Wish,” we have an ending where a potential new crewmember plans his bright new future before IMMEDIATELY DYING. Why must you hurt me in this very specific way, Voyager?
- F.J. Rio has been on several Trek series, and the friendly appeal he built up as the doomed Muniz on Deep Space Nine helps the misdirection here. We want to like and believe him.
- Overall, I like Neelix’s subplot, but his wide-eyed shock that a criminal justice system would be unfair to a particular group of people (or just unfair in general) is a little… naive (to say the least)? I mean, c’mon man – you’ve hung out in some pretty rough and uncivilized places. This is news to you? I guess this is what living in the lap of luxury does to you – make you soft like pillow!
- As I mentioned in “Meld,” the Doctor is able to easily determine how Iko’s changed brain chemistry has drastically altered his violent nature, but seemed completely befuddled about where Suder’s killer instincts came from. Iko’s an alien species he’s just getting to know (medically), while Betazoids are a known and presumably well-studied species. And yet the Doctor was unable to come up with any biological explanation for why Suder must KILL KILL KILL? *snorts* Unlikely! Sure hope somebody got murdered for that blunder.