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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Repentance"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager s Repentance. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. In brief: A reasonably thoughtful,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 16, 2001
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      Warning: 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
      terrorizing others.

      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
      inexplicably lobotomized.

      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
      drone.

      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
      restrain them.

      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@...
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