In an attempt to find a new energy source to run the replicators (Neelix's coffee substitute being undrinkable and cafetières and percolators being a lost technology in the twenty-fourth century), Voyager enters a mysterious nebula, only to find out it’s not quite what it seems.
The science-fiction plot of this episode revolves around a ‘nebula’ the ship enters looking for an energy source, which turns out to be a living Giant Space Creature. (If that sounds a bit dubious, wait until we get to the Space Sperm episode). But, mildly entertaining though it is, the Living Nebula story is not really the point of the episode. Now that everyone’s been given their jobs, this episode is about how the crew are dealing with a situation that is both a radically new workplace environment and a potentially spectacularly awkward social environment. It’s largely a series of vignettes showing different members of the crew settling into their new life – Janeway trying out Native American vision quests with Chakotay, Neelix and Kes making out in the mess hall, Torres and the Doctor snarking at each other, Paris dragging Harry to his new holodeck programme.
Along the way, this is the episode that introduces Janeway’s coffee addiction. Oh, she might have drunk a cup or two over the previous handful of episodes, but this is the one where her need for coffee becomes a plot point, leading her to utter the immortal proclamation that ‘there’s coffee in that nebula!” It’s one of those lines that jumped out of the screen and stuck with the fans, though it’s hard to say exactly why. Perhaps it’s the sense that, while logical, it’s clearly faintly ridiculous. Perhaps it’s Kate Mulgrew’s wry delivery. Perhaps it just resonated with all those of us who rely on coffee to function. Whatever the reason, it’s a line that comes to define the character and even, to an extent, the show.
One of the strengths of Janeway as a character is that she is highly relatable, both in her need for caffeine and the way she tries to balance her duties with the fact that she has no-one outside of her crew to socialise with. Her concern about the ‘distance’ she usually keeps as a captain and to what extent she should maintain it now that they’re stuck with only each other for company is really rather sweet and while her pool-playing prowess at the end may not be stunningly original, it’s a fun touch and goes some way to establishing her friendly-but-firm persona.
This is also the episode that really kicks off the Janeway/Chakotay ship. The writers seem to have set this off accidentally, not known what to do with it and tried to kill it off several times, presumably fearing the dreaded Moonlighting syndrome, or perhaps they genuinely thought Janeway would lose some of her authority if she was dating her First Officer, because their sexual politics date roughly from Elizabethan England. To be fair, the pair’s working relationship within the armed forces does at least provide a real barrier. But this is one of those cases where two actors simply have too much chemistry to ignore, and the minute they are put into a mildly touching storyline, a thousand fanfics are born. I’m a big fan of Janeway and Chakotay together (to be honest, I think you’d struggle to find a Voyager fan who isn’t), though here their relationship is explored through spectacularly cheesy vision sequences that are probably mildly insulting to Native Americans. But still, it’s an important turning-point.
This episode also introduces Sandrine’s, the crew’s regular holodeck hangout for seasons 1 and 2. I have to say, Sandrine’s is far and away my favourite of Voyager’s standard drinking holes (not counting the completely awesome Chaotica programme from season 5, which is absolutely fabulous, but is a bit more involved than just providing a bar). If I had a holodeck, I might just choose to hang out in a French bar and play pool as well, as long as the illusory wine tasted somewhere near as good as the real thing. It puts the final piece into place in setting up how the crew will relate to each other over the next couple of years, and, like the episode as a whole, firmly establishes Voyager's slightly cheesy but strangely welcoming tone.
Bits n pieces
- Harry snarks Tuvok, and it is a joy to see.
- Janeway flirting watch: her whole conversation with Chakotay about animal guides has subtext written all over it. Chakotay even flirts back - he shows her his medicine bundle, declaring he’s never shown it to anyone before.
- Why is it, in TV-land, that anyone who has ever been in prison for any reason has, while there, learned how to pick a lock and hot-wire a car? Do certain inmates run night classes for the others? ‘Skills to use when you get out, 2 packs of cigarettes per session’?
- Paris puts the same holographic girlfriend in all his holodeck programmes. That’s… creepy.
- Neelix appoints himself ‘morale officer.’ There’s an episode of Red Dwarf where Arnold Rimmer did that. Rimmer’s version was less annoying.
Janeway: “I only wish I felt larger than life. Computer, delete last sentence.”
Kim: “There’s an ancient Chinese curse, Captain – may you live in interesting times. Meal-time is always interesting now that Neelix is in the kitchen.”
Janeway: “Let me guess – yours is a bear!”
Chakotay: “Why do you say that?”
Janeway: “You strike me as the bear type.”
Chakotay: “Thank you. The bear is a very powerful animal…” Hear that? It’s the sound of a bottle of champagne breaking against a new ship
Paris: “I’ll be riding the tail of our torpedo Captain.” Oh so much accidental subtext…
Chakoty: “B’Elanna’s the only woman I know who tried to kill her animal guide.”
Janeway: (to Neelix) “Dismissed. That’s a Starfleet expression for ‘get out.’”
Torres: “Paris, did you program this guy?”
Paris: “Yeah why?”
Torres: “He’s a pig. And so are you.”
Nothing special or even particularly memorable (coffee aside) but it's just… nice. Three out of four cups of Neelix’s coffee.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.
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