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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Workforce"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for part one *and* part two of Voyager s Workforce. If you haven t seen the episodes yet, beware. In
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 7, 2001
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for part one *and* part
      two of Voyager's "Workforce." If you haven't seen the episodes yet,
      beware.


      In brief: An intriguing and thoroughly entertaining premise, featuring an
      eerie take on the workplace and a plot that moves swiftly and confidently.

      Plot description: The Voyager crew is abducted to an alien world, where
      their memories are altered and they are dropped into the large population
      of an industrial labor force.

      -----
      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Workforce"

      Part I: ***1/2 (out of 4)
      Airdate: 2/21/2001 (USA)
      Written by Kenneth Biller & Bryan Fuller
      Directed by Allan Kroeker

      Part II: *** (out of 4)
      Airdate: 2/28/2001 (USA)
      Teleplay by Kenneth Biller & Michael Taylor
      Story by Kenneth Biller & Bryan Fuller
      Directed by Roxann Dawson

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

      "I'm still feeling kind of queasy from that nectar."
      "I treated you days ago!"
      "Whatever you did hasn't worked. Maybe all those command subroutines are
      compromising your medical abilities."
      "Maybe all that sarcasm is compromising your natural charm."
      -- Harry and Doc
      -----

      Perhaps the best thing about "Workforce" is that it's a refreshing escape
      from the reality (as it were) of the usual Voyager situation. Here's an
      episode that looks and feels like good, grander storytelling, taking us to
      an unfamiliar but relatable world where it gives the characters bizarre,
      unwanted vacations from themselves.

      Simply put, the premise for this episode is a neat idea. We join the story
      already in progress, as Janeway begins her first day at work at a massive
      power plant on a mysterious industrialized world. She introduces herself
      as Kathryn Janeway, New Employee. What is she doing here? Other oddities
      pique our interest when we see that Seven of Nine and Tuvok also work at
      this plant.

      Is this an undercover mission? We quickly learn no. Although the plot is
      gradual in giving us all the information, it's clear that our characters'
      memories have been tampered with. What's nice about this plot structure is
      that we have our suspicions even before the story reveals all its cards,
      the whats and hows. We quickly understand that the crew had been kidnapped
      specifically to be dropped into the labor force of this company, as new
      employees.

      Talk about your extreme solutions to labor shortages.

      How did this happen? Doc explains via flashback: Voyager had been ambushed
      in a unique way -- with an invisible mine that unleashed toxic radiation.
      Forced to abandon ship, we see that the Voyager crew was "rescued" by the
      crews of nearby ships. The would-be rescuers were really the perpetrators,
      having put Voyager in this precarious situation to get their hands on its
      defenseless crew. (My only question, best ignored, is how economically
      viable it would be to hire or bribe the crews of armed starships so they
      can round up 100 or so people to work in your plant.)

      It's to the story's credit that we learn these details only after we've
      been able to watch the crew interacting in new situations, unaware that
      their lives had just a few days ago been very different. It gets us drawn
      into the mystery from the very beginning, putting us on the same level of
      unawareness as the characters.

      The only members of the crew not kidnapped are Chakotay, Harry, and
      Neelix -- who were away on a Delta Flyer mission at the time of the
      kidnappings -- and the Doctor, who was left in command to safeguard
      Voyager when the rest of the crew was forced to flee the radiation. (Can
      one person fly a whole starship and fire its phasers? Apparently so, but
      never mind.)

      The idea of bringing back the ECH ("Emergency Command Hologram") -- first
      explored as a comic daydream in "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy" -- is a rational
      plot device, and a pretty smart course of action on Janeway's part. Once
      Chakotay's away team returns to Voyager, the mission is to go to this
      world, called Quarra, and track down the abducted Voyager crew.

      The depiction of the Quarren world makes a big difference in the overall
      impact of the episode, and is nicely realized through effective visual
      effects. If Voyager has demonstrated anything the past few years, it's
      that a healthy budget and outstanding production values *can* make a
      difference in a story's persuasiveness. This show looks and feels like a
      million bucks (especially compared to lesser productions like Andromeda),
      which, along with Dennis McCarthy's more-awed-than-usual musical score,
      helps make this world seem real. Through CGI and mattes depicting large
      structures and lots of people, this mega-industrialized planet comes alive
      with motion and yet still seems appropriately arid, as most of that motion
      comes from hundreds of people walking to their workplaces like Borg
      drones.

      Much of the story's fascination arises from our characters in their new
      identities. Janeway meets a co-worker named Jaffen (James Read), and
      before long they're dating and even living together. Meanwhile, back at
      the power distribution plant, we meet Annika Hansen (Seven of Nine), who
      holds the middle-management position of "efficiency monitor." If anyone is
      perfect for the job of efficiency monitor, it's Seven. And Paris, who
      couldn't keep his job at the plant (fired by aforementioned efficiency
      monitor), finds himself hired at the nearby bar. Appropriate, how his
      somewhat renegade nature still seems a part of his new personality. Torres
      frequents this bar to spend time alone, quietly studying engineering
      schematics -- not unlike our actual Torres. Tuvok is different in that he
      laughs and cracks lame jokes -- which seems contrary to the similarity
      that everyone else exhibits when compared to their actual selves -- but
      since the writers reasonably make Tuvok the subject of the memory-control
      failure, I'm not going to complain.

      After work, everyone hangs out at the same bar for happy hour to relax
      after a shift at the workplace. There's a subtext here on the subject of
      human happiness. As programmed into their memories, our characters -- as
      primarily seen in the Janeway/Jaffen storyline -- are kept in line mostly
      by the belief that their lives now are as good or better than they ever
      have been, and that having this job is the key to success and fulfillment.
      "I'm from a planet called Earth," Janeway says to Jaffen. "Overpopulated,
      polluted -- very little work." They live in decent apartments afforded
      them specifically by, of course, their jobs.

      Indeed, there's a point once Chakotay has found Janeway and is trying to
      figure out how to break the truth of her forgotten life to her. He asks
      her if she's happy. "I have a good job," she responds. Funny, how the
      quality of her job is the first thing she mentions when discussing the
      quality of her life. On this planet of industry, it would seem your job is
      the most important benchmark of your self-identity. Sounds kind of like
      America.

      My favorite human aspect of "Workforce" is the subtly sweet Tom/B'Elanna
      subplot. Here are two characters whose memories have been changed so they
      now see each other as complete strangers ... and yet something prompts Tom
      to care for and try to protect B'Elanna after their chance meeting at the
      bar. Paris is not simply trying to "pick her up" (like his attempts on
      some of his other customers); rather, something makes him approach her
      with a higher respect and concern for her welfare. I liked this a lot;
      it's a quietly affecting story development that brings a human touch to
      the sci-fi theme of memory alteration. If you're one who believes in
      destiny, it might cross your mind here.

      What's nice is how these humanistic subtexts grow out of the main drive of
      the story, which is a kidnapping-conspiracy plot that's surprisingly well
      executed. It involves a crooked brain surgeon named Kaden (Don Most) who
      conspires with administrators at the power plant to deliver fresh laborers
      who have implanted memories that will make them better appreciate their
      jobs. All of Voyager's crew has been assigned to this plant. But something
      in Tuvok's subconscious knows there's something wrong, and when he briefly
      mind-melds with Seven, her own suspicions begin to surface. Meanwhile,
      Chakotay, working from the other end of the game, goes undercover to
      expose the conspiracy and rescue the crew.

      To go into much more of the plot's detail would be superfluous. There are
      a lot of apt little details (like computer records at the plant) that move
      the story from beat to beat and supply us and the characters with clues,
      respecting their intelligence and ours. It's all executed with a
      confidence that makes me wonder how aimless plots like "Prophecy" even
      happen. The story progress feels almost like a "Law & Order" episode,
      which is high praise, since the forward movement of complex plot elements
      on L&O is about as good as it gets on television.

      I especially appreciated that the story featured a guest character working
      on the inside to find the truth, and who is therefore on our side. His
      name is Yerid (Robert Joy), and although bureaucracy often renders him
      powerless, he's no dummy (which is refreshing); with the help of some of
      the victims he slowly begins to chip away at the conspiracy. How he enters
      the story is interesting, and where and when Chakotay decides he can trust
      Yerid -- in a moment of desperation while being rolled away in restraints
      on an operating table -- reveals the story's villains as working on
      multiple levels of deception, thus making the plot even more compelling to
      watch unfold.

      The second half of "Workforce" doesn't play as well on the themes of the
      workplace as part one does, but it probably couldn't have with so much
      plot in motion. There is, however, at least one dead end in part two that
      doesn't pay off, which is the friction between conspirator Kadan and his
      innocent assistant in the operating room, Ravok (Jay Harrington). Much is
      made of a scene (which is weakly performed, alas) where Ravok's suspicions
      about the conspiracy are awakened and Kadan justifies his actions as
      something necessary for society. The friction between the two is set up
      but never resolved. Similarly, John Aniston's role as the Quarren
      ambassador proves to be a mostly unnecessary walk-on that serves little
      purpose other than to conveniently bookend the two hours.

      I also have some reservations about memory alterations being so easily
      reversed without the dialog necessary to explain that ease. There's a
      point where B'Elanna is rescued but doesn't know who she is. Doc describes
      the alterations as "radical," but wouldn't a few lines explaining that
      B'Elanna's real memories were intact but repressed with drugs have made
      this a little easier to swallow, and less like a miracle when she
      inexplicably seems to know who she is a few scenes later? (But don't get
      me wrong -- the scene where she visits her Voyager quarters and realizes
      the waiter from the bar is actually her husband is a moment with true
      emotional resonance.)

      Aside from the solid mechanics of its plot, "Workforce" covers a lot of
      ground in two hours. The relationship between Janeway and Jaffen is
      pleasantly depicted, and explores a "what-if" situation pretty nicely
      (until maybe Janeway's none-too-ambivalent last line to Chakotay in the
      final scene). Chakotay finally gets some solid screen time where he gets
      to take action and play hero without being saddled with a plotted mess
      (see "Shattered"). A comic subplot involving the tug-of-war for command
      between Harry and the Doctor is amusing, albeit hopelessly petty (and
      therefore appropriate for these characters). Everybody gets some good
      moments, making this one of the better ensemble shows on Voyager's record.

      The technical credits are impressive, including the directing. Part one
      (Allan Kroeker) ends with dizzying crosscutting between characters that is
      jarringly effective, as Chakotay flees the authorities, Janeway has a
      romantic encounter, and Tuvok is about to undergo invasive surgery. Part
      two (Roxann Dawson) handles the increasing plot elements with expert
      pacing; Dawson shows she can direct a big show with a good script just as
      well as a small one with a mediocre script (last season's "Riddles").

      The only thing missing from "Workforce" is a powerful ending. The first
      half shows the signs of a subtle message episode, highlighting ordinary
      issues of daily employment as filtered through a harrowing sci-fi premise.
      Part two is skillful, well-characterized plot wrap-up, but with an ending
      a little too routine for my tastes.

      When I think about the bigger scope of my job, I like to think I'm doing
      something useful and worthwhile. Sometimes, by the end of my shift, I'm
      relieved I'm going home, and hardly thrilled about the fact I have to come
      back. Maybe my employer should tamper with my brain; I might appreciate my
      job more.

      --
      Next week: Seven and Chakotay get it on. Say what? (No, I'm not making
      this up.)

      -----
      Copyright 2001 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@... - j.epsico@...
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