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43[VOY] Jammer's Review: "One Small Step"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Nov 28 3:59 PM
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      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
      marooned astronauts.

      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
      and history.

      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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