Attention on heck! Don’t try to adjust your viewscreens, person-hell and boo-tenants! What you’re seeing isn’t a creepy clone, a hellish hologram, or a strangely specific alternate universe! For the month of October, we’ll be taking a spine-chilling stroll through Trek’s most horror-iffic outings and spooky adventures! Now why don’t you sit back and try not to let that green blood of yours run cold! If things get a little too intense, don’t hesitate to ask Scotty to SCREAM you up! Hehehehehehehehehe!
Star Trek: Voyager – Season 2, Episode 8
“Weird shit going on” is a classic staple of Star Trek, the engine of which involves a variety of sci-fi phenomena. Illusory telepathic visions is a common one, which “Persistence of Vision” uses liberally to explore facets of many characters’ personalities, including their longings, anxieties, and of course – fears. It’s a weird hour of Voyager that is punctuated by a particularly unsettling conclusion for a memorably spooky time.
The episode begins with a stressed-out Janeway getting pulled in multiple directions by her crew. In engineering, she supervises an experiment by Torres and Kim to project the Doctor into other parts of the ship outside of sickbay (which the Doctor was still confined to at this point in the series). Amusingly, the experiment partially succeeds in making the Doctor appear in engineering, but at about six inches tall. It’s a weird visual that’s appropriate for an episode of strange visions. Sensing Janeway’s irritability, the tiny Doctor orders her to take some time off. The classic trope of the workaholic being forced to take a vacation had been used to comedic effect in The Next Generation‘s “Captain’s Holiday,” in which a hesitant Picard is practically forced to go on siesta. Fortunately, it isn’t a drawn-out ordeal here, and a crouching Janeway immediately acquiesces to the orders of the action figure-sized Doctor. On a more serious note, it’s nice to see the Doctor flexing his medical authority over the captain when necessary and having more confidence in his role on the ship.
Janeway decides to relax by continuing a gothic holodeck novel featured in a couple of prior episodes. She plays a governess of some hoity-toity lord, the subtext of which is fascinating to contemplate (she looks amazing with the costume and hair, NGL). It’s completely at odds with her status as a powerful starship captain weighed down with immense responsibility, but perhaps therein lies the appeal of the program’s servile role. One could interpret it as being no different than reading a romance novel, but the fact that it’s an immersive, role-playing interactive video game does throw the comparison out of whack.
And it definitely is a romance, as her lord and master immediately embraces and kisses her passionately. Computer, replicate me a fainting couch! They’re interrupted by the intimidating housekeeper Mrs. Templeton (Star Trek recurring actor Carolyn Seymour, queen of Romulans). There are mysteries afoot in the house, but before Janeway can dive into them, Chakotay calls her to the bridge. Chuckles, stop blowing my sax!
Voyager has entered Bothan space, and Neelix warns Janeway that ships have mysteriously disappeared in this region, and that the Bothans are very protective of their territory (not to mention that many of them died to… oh wait, wrong franchise). On the viewscreen, a Bothan speaks to Janeway. It’s a weird and spooky visual, as the central figure is shadowy and brightly lit from behind, his features totally obscured. His surroundings don’t look like a typical Star Trek ship, but something strange. He says that the Bothans will have to decide whether Voyager is worthy of crossing their space.
In the mess hall, Janeway sees some random stuff from her holodeck program. And later in the corridor, one of the children from the mansion appears and tells her to get lost. Spectral visions of old-timey little kids, nothing terrifying about that at all!
Applying her logical reasoning, Janeway thinks that Torres and Kim’s experiments with projecting the Doctor is resulting in components of her holo-novel appearing outside the holodeck. But they report that it shouldn’t be causing what she’s seeing. Janeway comes to realize that the things she saw in the mess hall weren’t real, so she reports to the (now regular-sized) Doctor for examination. She sees a vision of the creepy kid again, but the strange thing is that Kes can see her, too. So it’s some telepathic phenomena going on.
Returning to her quarters to rest, Janeway hears the voice of her boyfriend Mark talking to her, and when she tries to leave mean ol’ Mrs. Templeton appears in her doorway and attacks her with a knife! But it turns out it’s all a hallucination and Janeway is still in sickbay (and again, Kes can see her vision). She later relieves herself of command and puts Chakotay in charge.
The Bothan ship contacts Voyager again, and the mysterious figure probes Chakotay with questions. Tuvok cuts him off to report that he’s detecting strange readings, and suddenly two additional ships decloak (one of which is Kazon and the other Tamarian, strangely). They all ambush Voyager and batter the ship with their weapons. The Bothan demands their surrender. Janeway returns to the bridge and refuses, of course. But the Bothan finally steps out of the shadows and reveals himself to be… Mark!
I mean, obviously it isn’t. Because every other person on the bridge sees a different person on the viewscreen – Tuvok sees his wife, Paris sees his father, Kim sees his girlfriend. More disturbing, is that the crew begin falling into a catatonic state, each of them just standing and staring ahead blankly. Spooky!
Torres surmises that a large scale telepathic attack is upon the ship, and proposes remodulating the shields to block the energy. That’s right, reverse that polarity! Chakotay comes to engineering to tell her that everyone else is catatonic and they’re the only two left. He suggest they escape the ship and then suddenly starts sexing her up. So this is how we find out that Torres has feelings for Chakotay, and despite her best attempts at resisting this dramatically inert man-shaped filing cabinet, she succumbs to her hidden desires and sexes him up!
(To be clear, this plot point never, ever comes up again in the entire series. Despite each of them getting romantically involved with all sorts of people, Parisian and otherwise. Their relationship is completely platonic for the duration of the show, and Torres even confides her crazy sex dreams to Chakotay at one point. It’s just so weird that this “crazy shit” episode drops a huge character bomb that the series does absolutely nothing with. But OK.)
So Torres is out, as is everyone on the bridge except for Janeway and Paris. She decides to head to engineering to try and finish Torres’ plan, and tells Tom not to look at the alien on the viewscreen. Don’t worry about me! Paris assures her since he hates his dad, and about 30 seconds later he gets sucked into his disapproving father’s spell. Nice job, buddy. You sure showed him.
Janeway finds Chakotay in the tubolift, having not gotten very far and probably dreaming of beige paint slowly drying. The plot device is a little all over the place, showing the crew things that they fear, things they desire, but also forlorn anxieties that are nagging at them. It might have been more effective and cohesive to just focus on one of those things. The “showing you your worst fear” thing has been done many times in and out of Star Trek. I actually prefer the “nagging anxiety” angle since it seems unique. Paris isn’t afraid of his father, but rather he’s afraid that everything his father thinks about him is. Janeway is on edge because her beloved Mark is on her mind and Lord Kissingham of West Holodeckerton has gotten her riled up. There’s something more interesting and invasive to this kind of mental attack – scaring someone is one thing, but making them feel emotionally bad by turning their deepest insecurities against them is a maximum dick move (the name of my signature dance).
Speaking of, Mark is suddenly in the turbolift with her now and tries to kiss her, but she resists. Oh, so you let the Duke of Lickington French you up, but not me? What the hell, Katy? Mark fumes (actual dialogue). Janeway’s guilt gets the better of her, and she succumbs to the catatonia. Oh no!
With everyone out, the only ones left are the Doctor (a classic Invulnerable One), and Kes, whose telepathic abilities have apparently shielded her from the attack. The Doctor decides that it’s up to them to save the ship. Picardo is great as always, and he plays the Doctor as someone who is totally out of his depth but is doing his best to nervously rise to the occasion. It’s a great character moment for him, and is one of many fish out of water situations he will find himself in throughout the series. He send Kes to engineering to try and finish what Torres started while talking her through it from sickbay.
Kes finds an illusion of an injured Paris in the corridor, but she’s able to resist his repulsive allure. In engineering she starts readying the pulse Torres started programming when Neelix enters. He implores her to abandon Voyager with him and when she refuses he rages at her as her skin suddenly breaks out in horrible, foaming boils. It’s so gross, and Lien lets out a deathly scream as she is attacked. Over the viewscreen, the Doctor implores her to see through the attack and face Neelix/the Bothan head on, at which point the alien shuts the Doctor’s screen off and resumes attacking her. Kes bears down and faces Neelix, and suddenly he’s covered in the same boils and screams in agony as he falls to the ground. Take that, dipshit!
The Bothan reverts to his true appearance as Kes activates the burst. The telepathic field is nullified and the crew start to wake up. Janeway arrives in engineering to face the Bothan, slumped on the ground. The makeup is unpleasant to behold; it’s pretty typical Trek alien stuff, wrinkly and with the corners of his mouth exaggerated downward in an ugly grimace.
The Bothan seems super annoyed at how unexpectedly powerful Kes’ mind is and there’s something generally creepy about him. Janeway demands to know why he’s done this to them, and he simply says it’s “because he can.” Ugh. More on that in a bit, but it’s a super disturbing response. Janeway wants to know how he accomplished the attack, whether it was just telepathy or if he used technology. She threatens to destroy such technology if that’s the case, keep him prisoner in their brig, or even alter his brain waves to prevent him from using telepathy. Wow! That’s dark. Janeway is so fucking done with this chump that she’s prepared to basically lobotomize him to spare anyone else their same fate. Janeway would go on to have an unsettling history of making medical decisions for others against their wishes, so it tracks.
The Bothan sarcastically replies that he wishes he could accommodate her. “But you see, I’m not really here,” he whispers eerily as he disappears. All the ships vanish, too. So did the space battle even happen? In her log, Janeway states that they’re not sure he was ever actually on the ship at all. Super duper mind fuck!
It’s a colossally unsatisfying conclusion, since we’re so used to Trek evildoers getting their comeuppance. But it’s also effectively haunting and more realistic, since assholes unfortunately escape unharmed all the damn time. He was handed a resounding defeat thanks to Kes, but he’s still alive and kicking. He may think twice next time, but will probably keep doing it. Additionally, we don’t know if it’s just him or others of his race that do this. Since it’s well known that other ships have disappeared in Bothan space, it stands to reason this individual isn’t the only one committing such attacks. Voyager is safe now, but what about others?
***Content warning for assault; skip the next paragraph if needed.***
There’s a perfunctory conclusion and parting thought to the episode, but it doesn’t nearly paper over the underlying horror of the situation. Trek has dipped into the terror of what the Bothan represents before in TNG’s “Violations” – AKA the “telepathic rape” episode. It’s one of Trek’s most brutal and unpleasant hours and the tastefulness of it is questionable. But if we consider a universe where telepathy exists, then it opens up all sorts of disturbing possibilities about what malicious beings can do to other beings. The Bothan’s simple and unapologetic justification for why he attacks people is chilling, because it’s simply a matter of abusing his power over others. Which is what rape is about, and why it’s so horrific and scarring. There’s no mention of stealing resources or technology from passing ships, it’s just about messing with people and making them feel powerless. Yikes.
“Persistence of Vision” quickly veers away from this idea and tries to wrap this widespread assault of the crew with a neat little bow. Even for a spooky/horror-themed episode it’s perhaps an idea that’s too dark to interrogate fully. I appreciate the haunting impact that the monster’s reveal lends to the episode, as disturbing as its implications are. And like many horror classics, the villain is beaten but not dead, possibly to return again. Up until then, it’s a fairly standard “weird shit going on” Trek misadventure. But that final stamp of darkness cements “Persistence” as an unsettling and memorable installment. Like the nagging anxieties of the crew that the alien unearths, it’s an uneasy entry that is not easily forgotten.
- I’m kind of surprised Tuvok was so susceptible to the telepathy; he’s like the first one to go down.
- I give the show’s effects leeway given the time in which it was made and its budget, but that brief shot of the planet Vulcan is so hilariously unconvincing.
- The frothing boils here are absolutely nothing compared to the horrors of what Kes accidentally does to Tuvok a couple episodes later in “Cold Fire.”
- The Doctor’s appearance getting glitched was only explored (for laughs) a couple of times. But being able to shrink himself seems like a really useful technique, especially in surgery. Since his physical parameters are all aspects that are variable he could presumably retain his normal strength while small, which gets into wacky Ant-Man territory.