101[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Repentance"
- Jul 16, 2001Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's
"Repentance." If you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.
In brief: A reasonably thoughtful, if imperfect, issue episode.
Plot description: When Voyager provides emergency transportation for
alien prisoners sentenced to die, a medical procedure unexpectedly and
radically changes the values and temperament of one of the prisoners.
Star Trek: Voyager -- "Repentance"
Airdate: 1/31/2001 (USA)
Teleplay by Robert Doherty
Story by Mike Sussman & Robert Doherty
Directed by Mike Vejar
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ***
"How do you justify beating a defenseless man?"
"Violence is the only thing he understands."
-- Janeway and Yediq
I'm not a death penalty supporter. Such information might be relevant at
the outset of this review of "Repentance," which is a Trekkian message
show that examines a bizarre death penalty case.
I'm all for the occasional message episode. Earlier in the season we got
"Critical Care," a brutal commentary on HMOs. And here we get a fairly
even-handed treatment of the death penalty issue.
Well, of course this episode is against the death penalty. In the
Federation, there is no death penalty. The supposed last capital offense
under Federation law was explained back in TOS's "The Menagerie," but
even there it was more like a dramatic contrivance than it was a
believable consequence the Federation would be likely to impose.
If memory serves, "Repentance" might very well be the only
straightforward death penalty analysis in the Trek canon. It makes its
points. It's not particularly subtle, but it's not preachy either.
More than anything, this episode highlights what seems to me a
fundamental truth about the death penalty, which is that the issue is
more about feelings than it is about logic -- maybe especially when it
comes to defending the practice. I say this because when society puts
someone to death, society is condoning that killing. In such cases
there's always a lot of talk about deterrence and justice, but when it
comes down to it, it's more about satisfying the victims' (and society's
at large) collective emotional need to take as much as can be taken from
the worst of offenders, without resorting to outright torture.
In "Repentance," we have the death penalty story with a sci-fi twist. We
have a convicted murderer named Iko (Jeff Kober). He's a violent and
thoroughly despicable specimen; even behind locked forcefield he makes
threats he can't possibly carry out, as if he simply enjoys the idea of
Iko and several other prisoners are beamed aboard Voyager when a ship
transporting the prisoners to the Nygean homeworld to be executed is
destroyed in an accident. The ship's warden, Yediq (Tim deZarn), warns
Janeway that these dangerous convicts must be kept strictly in line.
Janeway, in the interests of cooperation and complying with the Prime
Directive, agrees to provide transport to a rendezvous point with another
Nygean ship. Prison cells are set up in a cargo bay.
Yediq represents the hard and weary end of law enforcement; he's seen
enough convicted murderers to last a lifetime and doesn't believe in kid
gloves. When Iko makes a threat aimed at Yediq's children, Yediq and his
men beat Iko within an inch of his life. (Janeway subsequently bans them
from the cargo bay.)
Doc represents the outspoken anti-death penalty partisan. He finds the
whole situation distasteful and essentially says, "Not on my watch," when
Seven asks why resources should be spent to save a dying man who is
scheduled to die in a few days anyway. Doc needs some of Seven's
nanoprobes to repair damage to Iko's brain.
The story's turning point comes when Doc's treatments for Iko have an
unexpected side effect: The nanoprobes repair a non-functioning area in
Iko's brain which, according to further research, has been non-functional
since his birth. It turns out that Iko was essentially born without a
conscience. Now he has one. When he comes to, Iko is a very different
person. He no longer makes threats; he's peaceful and, most
interestingly, wracked with guilt over the murder he committed. He's
never felt guilt before, or even close; he finds it overwhelming.
The implications here are interesting, because they raise questions of
individual responsibility. Iko was a cold-blooded killer who thrived on
terrorizing anyone and everyone (he threatens Janeway for apparently the
sheer fun of it). Now he has become almost meekly pacifist. The
transformation is nothing short of miraculous, and begs the question: Is
this the same man, and does he still deserve to die?
Of course, the inevitable problem with stories like "Repentance" is that
they are almost too metaphorical and hypothetical to be genuinely useful
as commentary. Iko's very literal development of a conscience is an act
of fantasy, not reality. It can be used as a metaphor for the violently
mentally ill, perhaps, but it's far too extreme a case to be relative.
In the real world, mentally ill or unstable people also commit crimes.
Are they less guilty than those who know full well that their actions are
immoral and hurtful? Yes, because crime in our society generally stems
from intent as well as from cause and effect. At the same time, we must
hold individuals accountable for their crimes, regardless of their state
of mind. State of mind is a mitigating factor but not simply an excuse.
Getting back to the death penalty issue, members of the Voyager crew make
the case that Iko can now be reformed and that the death sentence is
unnecessary. Seven begins to develop a rapport with Iko, whose guilt runs
so deep that he says, "I deserve to die," and makes no initial attempt to
even delay his forthcoming execution. Many of the Seven/Iko scenes work,
featuring an understated sobriety that punctuates Iko's realization of
how hurtful his past actions were. Still, I'm not always sure what to
make of Jeff Kober's performance, which is flat and emotionless, having
effects that range from perfectly appropriately disconnected to
One thing that struck me as tired and obvious was the story's tendency to
relate the issue to -- once again -- Seven's guilt over her Borg-life
atrocities. The key Seven/Janeway discussion might as well be preceded
with a title card that says, "OBVIOUS CHARACTER INSIGHT AHEAD," as
Janeway informs Seven that her need to see Iko forgiven for his sins is
equivalent to Seven's need to forgive herself for her sins as a Borg
Not only has this gotten a bit old, I'm not so sure the situations are
equivalent in a true sense. Seven was at the mercy of a collective where
she was but a tiny unwilling participant; Iko was, in the most mitigating
interpretation, at the mercy of his own internal pathology. One is
clearly more directly responsible than the other.
I also could've done without a ship attacking Voyager, which conveniently
sets a few too many plot pieces in motion, including the prisoners
escaping the cargo bay and the deactivation of transporters that could
On the other hand, I did find Yediq to be a believable character. Not to
be mistaken as a needlessly stubborn plot device to butt heads with
Janeway, Yediq has a point of view that seems to grow directly from long
experience and cynicism, and an affirmed conviction that the system he
works within does what it needs to do. Yes, he beats a defenseless
prisoner quite brutally, which is wrong, but there's a ring of truth when
he says, "Violence is the only thing he understands" (which at the show's
outset seems pretty true of Iko). Yediq also is not unreasonable;
ultimately he reluctantly agrees to Janeway's request to appeal to the
family of Iko's victim.
There's another character here, a convict named Joleg (F.J. Rio) who
represents another relevant issue, namely the disproportionate number of
minorities on death row. He is a Benkaran, and he explains to the
always-sympathetic Neelix how Benkarans are "known" by Nygeans to be
criminals, and make up a large percentage of the prison population (and
an even larger percentage of death row convicts) even though they only
represent 10 percent of the general population. Sound like anything that
can be said about the United States?
It's simultaneously truthfully ironic and yet savagely cruel to the
larger issue at hand when the story finally reveals Joleg as a pathetic
jailhouse liar trying to save his own skin. But because such people exist
in the real world, it serves as a sad reflection of reality.
The Nygeans also have a rather strange sentencing policy, in that
families of victims decide the punishment for those convicted of a
murder. This is another example of something that exists far outside the
reality of the issue being dissected, but in terms of the story it
demonstrates very clearly (1) how sentencing can create a wide, unfair
divide based on numerous personal biases or beliefs, or be influenced by
how much money a defendant has available for restitution; and (2) how a
victim's family members in a death penalty case are hardly the most
objective when it comes to the death penalty issue. It's too easy to
confuse revenge and justice when that close to a case; to ask for logic
is merely wishful thinking.
Of course, for the story to work, Iko must die. It's wise that the story
sees him not as an innocent victim but simply one convict who is sent
through a system far larger than himself. He doesn't make excuses for
what he did, but he's genuinely sorry. The family is undeterred in their
sentencing decision -- something that also strikes me as true to life.
Is "Repentance" a great episode? No. But it does make an effort to tackle
a serious issue through observation while resisting the temptation of
melodrama or sweeping changes. The sci-fi angle involving the nanoprobes
is a double-edged sword, astutely highlighting certain arguments while
burying others -- and thus only further muddying the waters.
But it made me think a little. That's a good thing.
Next week: Klingons in the Delta Quadrant. Naturally.
Copyright 2001 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...