56[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Muse"
- May 7, 2000Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's "Muse." If
you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.
Nutshell: Slow, self-reflective, and different. Not slam-bang excitement,
but certainly one of the season's most interesting shows to ponder.
Plot description: Torres is stranded on a primitive world, where a poet
wants to use Voyager's experiences as story material for a play he is
Star Trek: Voyager -- "Muse"
Airdate: 4/26/2000 (USA)
Written by Joe Menosky
Directed by Mike Vejar
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ***1/2
"Find the truth of your story and you won't need all those tricks. I don't
know how things are done across the Eastern Sea, but here poets have become
lazy; they rely on manipulation to move their audience. It wasn't always
-- Old man
It helps knowing going in that "Muse" is Joe Menosky's farewell script to
Voyager (since, as many know, the writer/producer will not be returning for
the series' final season). The episode ends up being the ultimate Voyager
self-reflective commentary on the process of writing for an audience. As I
watched the show, I realized I wasn't so much watching people on the screen
as I was watching a writer making comments through characters who were
living out that same writing process. "Muse" is an allegory rolled into a
Voyager tale which itself is rolled into a myth.
Menosky often uses themes of myth, legend, or history in his stories, like
the society in "Blink of an Eye" or Janeway's past in "11:59" as recent
examples, or the truly unique "Darmok" (a TNG classic) as a more distant
one. Even bizarre power-play/mental-takeover premises like "Dramatis
Personae" (DS9) or the failed "Masks" (TNG) revolved around the re-enactment
of ancient conflicts that were more legendary than they were tangible.
"Muse," which centers on an alien playwright who vies to make a difference
with the written word, is a return to the idea of myths while also being an
oddly, almost pointedly self-aware Voyager episode. This is not an
entertainment in the usual Voyager sense; it's slow-paced and cerebral, in a
storytelling universe that generally prefers to be fast-paced, simple, and
stylized. It's a story that seems more personal, and it refuses to supply
the immediate-gratification type of payoffs.
I found it a compelling hour, simply because of the way the real writer's
voice comes through as a melding of the fictional writer's experiences in
telling his own story. That fictional story is of the starship Voyager and
its travels, a story inspired by "actual" events. The playwright is a man on
a primitive world. His name is Kelis (Joseph Will). As the episode begins,
his troupe is performing the story of Voyager, as learned through the logs
of the Delta Flyer, which along with its lone passenger, B'Elanna Torres,
has crashed near Kelis' thinking grounds.
Might as well get the obvious gripe out of the way: Yes, "Muse" employs a
major cliche by crashing the Delta Flyer--again. What's more is how by
episode's end it's not even made clear whether it will be salvaged (one line
of dialog would've sufficed), although we can obviously assume so simply
because of the Law of the Reset Button [TM]. (Away missions in shuttles or
the Flyer are more dangerous than they can possibly be worth; when was the
last time one didn't end with a crisis or crash?)
Anyway, Torres has lay unconscious for eight days (isn't that pretty
serious?), and when she awakens, Kelis wants her help. He needs to write a
sequel play for his acting troupe to perform, and he needs Torres to supply
him with new material about this ship called Voyager. Kelis' troupe performs
for the local patron, the guy who holds the power in this particular clan in
this society's caste system. The world is apparently a fragmented place of
often-warring factions. Kelis' patron liked the first Voyager play and wants
another, and has given Kelis one week to have it ready for performance.
Kelis isn't sure what to do next; he needs his muse, as it were, and
B'Elanna turns out to be it.
"Muse" is patient in a way that is rare these days for Voyager. There are a
lot of scenes where we've just got B'Elanna and Kelis in a room talking,
which is what a lot of Trek used to be about.
I found B'Elanna's approach to Kelis to be true in its pragmatism; she isn't
very nice to him initially. Kelis believes B'Elanna is an "eternal," though
given the situation and conversations I never quite understood the nature of
this people's belief system concerning the eternals (do the apparently
mortal gods routinely fall from the sky, and are they routinely nursed back
to health by the people?). B'Elanna uses her influence as an eternal--and
especially as Kelis' new muse--to obtain resources she needs to repair the
Flyer's communication system. When Kelis says he'll be executed if caught
trespassing on his patron's grounds while looking for B'Elanna's dilithium,
B'Elanna responds with, well, don't get caught. So after Kelis helps
B'Elanna, she has to spill her guts in the interests of fairness, and Kelis
gets his new material. The next day he announces to his actors, "I've been
visited by inspiration herself." Indeed.
The alien society is perhaps excessively humanesque, but no matter--the
point here is the issue of storytelling, and that's where "Muse" is
insightful. The story frequently employs the common Shakespearean device of
the play within a play, and we see several rehearsals that are sort of funny
in their truthful, understated way.
I liked the subtle take on the actor versus the writer, which certainly
happens in television production. Kelis, trying to convey Tuvok truthfully,
has written an emotionless part the actor doesn't want to perform. The
buried dialog here is a take on the TV actor who says, "You don't understand
my character," while the writer is saying, "No, you don't understand the
character I'm writing for you." At the same time, the burden of
responsibility lies on the writer; it's hard to completely blame an actor if
the character as written truly doesn't make sense.
Perhaps the most intriguing moments are the direct reflections on writing
for an audience on a weekly deadline. When you have to turn out a script in
seven days (or even less), what happens if you have no idea how the story
ends? I'm not sure how often that happens in real life for TV writers
(considering a staff's story break process, etc.), but Kelis' problem is
that he's writing on the fly, knowing he has to come up with something
that's satisfying in its journey from A to B, all the while not knowing what
exactly B is. That makes the process an exercise in non-scientific
Hence, standby elements and contrivances. Oh, we know all about Voyager's
use of those (see crash of Delta Flyer above). But so do the writers. And
there's almost a sense of lament in "Muse" that stories have to utilize
formula and contrivances in order to get where they need to go. There's a
point where Kelis is baffled as to where his story is going. He needs
something to surprise the audience--a sudden twist, a reversal of fortune.
What he needs is a mechanical contrivance that's entertaining (like Icheb
turning out to be a bio-engineered time bomb in "Child's Play"; one of
Kelis' twists here is that Seven is really the Borg Queen). A Wise Old Man
emerges from the shadows to remind Kelis that success lies in finding the
truth of the story, and he says that poets these days are looking for the
quick gimmick to manipulate the audience. "It wasn't always that way," he
muses. (And just which road into storytelling hell is Voyager--and all of
us, for that matter--driving down, or should we ask if that's the subtext
Menosky seems to be doing some jibing here. Jibing himself, jibing other
writers, jibing the audience (for demanding certain qualities that lead
shows like "Tsunkatse" to be the highest rated of the season for reasons
that aren't about matters of the intellect), and maybe even jibing the
studio (for dumb-down marketing of said products strictly in terms of their
would-be visceral impact). When should entertainment be art, and when should
it just be potboiler silliness for the masses? (Exercise: Juxtapose "Hamlet"
and "Titus Andronicus.")
There are plenty more interesting touches here, including the in-joke where
Kelis scripts Janeway and Chakotay into kissing. This is a fan fantasy you
will never see carried out on the real Voyager, and we're obviously getting
major winkage on behalf of the writers. What's enlightening is the
conversation afterward where B'Elanna doesn't see the point of all the
frivolous kissing scenes. ("Harry kissing the Delaney sisters?") How is this
relevant beyond getting an easy rise out of the audience? Of course, Voyager
has its own version of this: Lately I've been calling it the Voyager Action
Insert--an "action" scene that exists solely for the sake of action that
might appeal to a mass audience but is fundamentally unnecessary to the
story actually being told. (The VAI was most recently used in "Child's Play"
and "Ashes to Ashes.")
Kelis says his hope is to use love as the language to instill peace into his
patron's heart, doing his part to change the ways of the world. ("The
perfect play might even stop a war," he says hopefully.) Pretty idealistic,
but is it plausible? The story seems optimistic on this point, though it
doesn't expect overnight results. Of course, today in our world, anyone
expecting to change the world with a script is probably just delusional.
Perhaps the best a screenwriter could hope for is a film like Titanic, which
has appeal to every demographic conceivable. Sure, a lot of people
appreciate it, but it doesn't change the world.
As we rise out of the subtext and back into the "text" for a moment, I'd
like to say that the routine plot regarding the search for Torres and Kim
was executed with an understated solemnity that was more effective than I
had anticipated. There's a lot here conveyed with looks and pauses rather
than dialog, and it seemed the crew actually for once *believed* the
possibility that they'd lost two officers. The way the episode keeps Harry
completely out of the show for the first few acts also carries with it a
weird sense of uncertainty; the plot allows us to wonder exactly what
happened while the story involving Kelis is kept at the forefront.
I also enjoyed Tuvok's silent quest through sleepless nights as he worked to
figure out ways of tracking down the missing Flyer. It shows a humanistic
concern for his fellow crew members in a Vulcan-like way, which is never
spelled out in dialog. His scenes are intercut with scenes on the planet
where an actor fears that the Tuvok character will come off as an
unsympathetic monster if he isn't allowed to act out his emotions. (Ah, but
not if the writing establishes the character well.) I also got a kick out of
Tuvok falling asleep on the bridge after days without sleep. After all, he's
a Vulcan, not Superman.
Other touches are subtle too, like the relationship between Kelis and one of
his actresses, Layna (Kellie Waymire), which turns slightly messy when Layna
becomes convinced Kelis is having an affair with the mysterious woman whom
she suspects is an eternal, perhaps even B'Elanna Torres herself. There's a
brief, nicely acted scene where Layna confronts B'Elanna in the Flyer and
asks her to stay away. A scene that could've come across as forced comes
across as sincere; Waymire does a good job with a small moment.
The central crisis of the story involves Kelis having no idea how he's going
to end his B'Elanna-centered play, right up to opening night, and even as
the play is being performed. He needs the answer from B'Elanna, who decides
to help him in the eleventh hour, just as Voyager has located the survivors
and is beginning its rescue operation. (Harry turns up not long before this,
having landed on the same planet in an escape pod. His role here isn't that
What I thought fell a bit short was the payoff, where the real world meets
the poet's world. I see what Menosky was going for here, but there's some
awkwardness in the execution. The end of Kelis' play is unscripted onstage
improvisation, with the real B'Elanna deciding to write the end by making
her actual departure the one that also supplies the play's (ending with the
spectacular "special effect" of her beam-out). But there's some
off-kilter-ness to the way Layna attempts to expose B'Elanna and the way the
patron assumes it to be part of the act. And most notably, I didn't think
B'Elanna's sentimentality here was believable. When she says goodbye she's
practically breaking down into tears, which seems a bit much. This is too
clearly Menosky's sentiment rather than B'Elanna's. I didn't buy it,
although I did find the entire notion of fiction meeting reality to be
The episode was directed by Mike Vejar, Trek's current best. He often shows
a cinematic slickness to his approach, and isn't afraid to move cameras
around or even occasionally go hand-held. Here he's content to underplay, go
slow, and nail down the camera, which is exactly what the material warrants.
Ironically, "Muse" strikes me as something that's precisely what Voyager
typically does not represent. It has no action, no explosions, very little
use of sci-fi technology or jargon, and minimal FX used only for the
purposes of advancing the story at hand. And frankly, if Voyager were like
this every week, I suspect very few people would be tuning in, because we
*do* want to see stuff gettin' blowed up (me as much as the next person).
But that doesn't mean it can't be well thought out in the meantime. When
something explodes and we care, that's a lot better than when we don't.
So what's the answer? Is television simply entertainment that shouldn't be
scrutinized, analyzed, or held to a standard other than sheer, dumb
entertainment value? Or should we demand more intellect, more patience, more
depth in our stories and characters, even if it means ignoring the "wisdom"
of demographics, abandoning quick payoffs, and hoping the sizable portion of
us will stick it out and wait for the slower realizations? The subtext in
"Muse" seems to argue that it's all about the balance between those two
extremes. The hard part is finding it--week after week, on deadline.
Next week: The wrath of Kes.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...