Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's "One Small
Step." If you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.
Nutshell: The message might be as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it's also
sincere and ultimately quite poignant.
Plot description: Chakotay leads a Delta Flyer mission into a spatial
anomaly to retrieve a three-century-old historic Mars mission spacecraft.
Star Trek: Voyager -- "One Small Step"
Airdate: 11/17/1999 (USA)
Teleplay by Mike Wollaeger & Jessica Scott
and Bryan Fuller & Michael Taylor
Story by Mike Wollaeger & Jessica Scott
Directed by Robert Picardo
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ***1/2
"What I've seen proves we were right to come out here."
-- Lt. John Kelley, Aries IV mission, 2032
There are moments during "One Small Step" when you can almost hear the
writers screaming in the background: "Look! See? This is what Star Trek is
about!" Yes, we understand, loud and clear.
Okay, so subtlety isn't this episode's strong suit. You can tell the people
who made it were trying very hard for it to add up to something worthwhile.
The under-the-surface projected self-aware sentimentality is abundantly
Big deal. "One Small Step" is still a quality hour of Trek with some
poignant, emotional moments and a solid story. It might not exhibit the most
original themes ever scribed, but so what? It's sincere and well presented.
I liked it. It says something. It means something. It shows evidence of
knowing what Star Trek is about.
After last week's "Dragon's Teeth," which had a plot that obliviously
steamrollered right over moral issues without any regard for (or awareness
of) them, this episode is refreshing in that it stops to consider what it's
about. It has dialog instead of mindless action, and it's actually about
In many ways, "One Small Step" is an episode that argues (from a thinly
guised 20th century perspective) the necessity of a continued, expanding
space program. These days, manned space missions seem to be covering
well-traveled ground. Sure, the scientific analysis and technological
advances are beneficial, but the question, I think, is when the next "great
voyage" into space will begin. The moon missions were a towering achievement
requiring great risk and human and financial expense. The new question: When
will we go to Mars?
"One Small Step" is not of the same dramatic caliber as, say, Ron Howard's
"Apollo 13," but as an episode of Voyager it does some interesting things.
It frames its questions within the terms of the usual Voyager plot formula.
The formula itself isn't captivating per se (space anomalies, crew members
in jeopardy, etc.), but the addition of the human questions of exploration
makes all the difference in the world. Lesson of the week: Routine anomalies
and jeopardy premises can work just fine when they're part of a bigger
October 19, 2032: Aries IV, one of NASA's early manned missions to Mars, is
a partial success. Astronauts have landed on the surface while a single
pilot, Lt. John Kelley (Phil Morris, whose last Trek appearance was in DS9's
"Rocks and Shoals," where he portrayed the most understandable Jem'Hadar
soldier of all time) maintains orbit. Suddenly a bizarre anomaly appears out
of nowhere and swallows the craft. ("Mankind's first encounter with a
spatial anomaly," Tuvok notes upon reviewing the history. It was obviously
not to be the last.) The 21st century would never hear from Kelley again and
would presume him dead. Weeks later, an emergency mission would rescue the
Three centuries later, Voyager happens upon the same anomaly, which emerges
from subspace unexpectedly. It's an exceptionally rare phenomenon, known as
a "graviton ellipse," which travels through subspace and emerges
periodically (every few centuries). It's well worth studying, so the history
research begins: How old is this phenomenon, and is it the same anomaly that
swallowed the Mars orbiter?
Well, of course it's the same anomaly, otherwise we wouldn't be able to so
literally join 300-year-old history with the current storyline. Naturally, I
must point out that the chances of Voyager being in the right time and place
to encounter this anomaly--the very same anomaly that swallowed a
human-built spacecraft 300 years earlier halfway across the galaxy--has
probably got to be approximately several quintillion to one. But no
matter--this is fiction and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief given the
strength of the underlying sentiments.
From a character standpoint, the show is mainly about Seven and Chakotay,
with some Janeway sentiments thrown in for good measure. Chakotay is
revealed as the story's honorary paleontologist, claiming such study was his
first passion before "responsibility" forced him into Starfleet and the
Maquis. With Paris and Seven comprising his away team, Chakotay volunteers
to lead a Delta Flyer mission into the ellipse in hopes of retrieving the
remains of the Mars orbiter (which, by the way, is *not* suspended in time;
it's been sitting for three centuries and that *means* three centuries).
While we haven't seen this aspect of Chakotay taken so far in the past, it
does strike me as reasonable; he's a guy who has shown interest in legends
Seven provides the counterpoint to Chakotay's earnest interest in the past,
offering up such notions as "history is irrelevant." She doesn't understand
why the crew would take on a dangerous mission for what she perceives as
purely sentimental reasons. When she questions the sentiment, Janeway
encourages Seven to volunteer for the salvage mission. After all, she might
learn something from the experience.
I wonder if Seven was maybe written a little too strongly in the opposing
position. Given all she knows, the notion of her believing "history is
irrelevant" seems a little extreme, even for Seven. And given all she has
learned in the past, it seemed a little bit like the writers turned back the
clock somewhat and wrote Seven for the benefit of those who haven't been
watching the past two years. It wasn't exactly *out* of character, but let's
just say that if you've never seen Voyager before, you'll still instantly
understand that Seven is the newest character who will be learning all the
human lessons here.
So the Delta Flyer enters the graviton ellipse to search for Kelley's
spacecraft. When they find it, it's an awe-filled moment where we see
characters coming face to face with history, uncovering it with their own
eyes. That's a big part of "One Small Step's" appeal; it's about the thrill
of exploration and discovery. One of this series' biggest shortcomings is
that it usually lacks that thrill, because what we find in the Delta
Quadrant is rarely new or unique. But, for once, here's a spatial anomaly
that isn't just something that will threaten the ship. It's like a floating
galactic museum, filled with relics that are literally billions of years
old. The ellipse itself is one of the oldest things a starship has ever
encountered, perhaps not much younger than the universe itself. Chakotay
says he could spend the rest of his life studying it. I believe him.
This story, of course, would not be complete without something in the
mission going very wrong. What's nice is that what goes wrong can be
attributed to human judgment error rather than arbitrary contrivance. The
tech aspects of the plot, for once, don't impede the drama. The way the
ellipse is attracted to objects that emit electromagnetic energy seems
believable, and the script doesn't resort to technobabble excess. There's a
plausible change in the ellipse's course, which sets in motion the bigger
problem: an imminent collision with an asteroid that will cause severe
turbulence in the ellipse that could damage the Flyer. This leads to the
moment of human error, where Chakotay refuses to leave the ellipse without
bringing the Mars spacecraft in tow, which slows them down enough that the
likelihood of escape is decreased. It's a close call that Chakotay loses,
and as a result the Flyer is damaged so severely as to prevent escape from
the ellipse altogether, putting the away team in danger.
I particularly enjoyed the resulting Chakotay/Seven interaction. It's a
character pair-up that we don't often see, and the dynamic proves to be a
good one. Chakotay made a mistake, and Seven lets him have it in a scene
where she's clearly angry at the commander for his following a sentimental
"obsession." Seven's anger is understandable; she didn't want to be on this
mission in the first place, let alone die for it. But Seven is overlooking
the greater importance of the mission, and one can hardly blame Chakotay for
his calculated risk. Given the importance of the discovery, you don't just
give up on something like this when it's just within your clutches. I'd say
Chakotay barely even had a choice. "Obsession" is too a strong word. He
wanted to preserve a piece of history, almost had it, but lost on the roll
of the dice.
So next it becomes a race against the clock: The Delta Flyer team must
figure out how to repair the engines before the ellipse returns to subspace
while they're still trapped inside. The only viable option is to beam over
and salvage a component from the Mars orbiter and adapt it for use in the
Flyer. With Chakotay injured and Paris needed as the expert pilot, the
retrieval mission falls upon Seven.
Ultimately, the hardware aspects of the plot really aren't that important
(although, because of the character interaction these scenes are more
involving than a plot of this type usually is). What's important is how this
all fits in with Lt. Kelley's 2032 mission. Kelley was not killed upon
impact as was believed at the time. While Seven is working to retrieve the
module, she plays Kelley's logs, which include recordings from after he
entered the ellipse. (One wonders if so much of the equipment on board the
orbiter would still work so well after being frozen for 300 years, but I
won't be a stickler.)
Kelley's experience in the orbiter spanned several days. He explored the
phenomenon that swallowed him, and through that exploration he came upon
perhaps some of the biggest possible discoveries of the time, including
proof of other intelligent life in the universe. Ironically, these
discoveries wouldn't see the light of day for another 300 years. It became
clear to Kelley he would not be able to escape the ellipse, but I
particularly liked the writers' notion that he didn't consider the mission a
failure--that "What I've seen proves we were right to come out here."
Watching Seven's gradual change in attitude as she views Kelley's logs
reveals an uplifting poignancy, as if for the first time she understands the
concept of a true explorer and hero. (And I liked that Jeri Ryan conveyed
this change in attitude without a single line of dialog.) People like Kelley
and the other Mars landers paved the way for greater things by forging ahead
through the uncertain at great risk.
Even given the technology advances since the moon missions, it's hard to
imagine that a manned mission to Mars could be anything short of extremely
difficult and risky. Just as Apollo 13 showed us, there are any number of
things that could go wrong with technology and machinery--which might be
reliable but is definitely not infallible--and one small problem can start
the domino effect of disaster. In the Star Trek universe, we're shown
interstellar space travel as an aspect of life that's nearly as routine as,
say, driving a car is today. If there's one thing "One Small Step" seems to
realize, as Paris notes in one early scene, it's that space travel in the
20th and 21st centuries was anything but routine. The dangers were real and
the unknowns were real. Even if a spatial anomaly didn't swallow you up, you
were still alone, at the mercy of your technology. The space travelers of
the 24th century have it easy by comparison.
There is no doubt "One Small Step" has a reverence for the space program and
the astronauts who brave it. The message isn't subtle. But it is fairly
inspiring. In Trek we take space travel for granted, and, especially with
Voyager and its magical indestructibility, it has become easy to get jaded
even though we're supposedly exploring the dangerous vastness of the other
side of the *galaxy*. This is an episode that breaks free and explores the
idea of what it means to be traveling that "final frontier" with no
expectations. By turning back the clock and exploring Kelley's mission, we
and the Voyager crew are able to make first-time discoveries of things that
this fictional universe has long since accepted as routine. That's a
sentiment I find well worth an hour.
Next week: The REAL reason Voyager is in the Delta Quadrant. (Paging Chris
Copyright (c) 1999 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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