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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Muse"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager s Muse. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. Nutshell: Slow, self-reflective, and
    Message 1 of 1 , May 7, 2000
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      Warning: 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
      writing.

      -----
      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
      that way."
      -- 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
      spur-of-the-moment improvisation.

      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
      here?)

      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
      important.)

      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
      clever.

      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.

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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