While tramping around an alien burial ground, Harry Kim is accidentally transported to a mysterious alien mortuary. While the rest of the crew ponder life and death and wonder if they should give him up and get on with their lives, for Kim, it looks like the only way out is via one of the coffins…
There was some garbled explanation in the first few episodes for why Harry Kim, an ensign on his first big mission, counts as one of the senior officers on Voyager and goes to all the big meetings and everything. I can’t remember what it was, exactly. But deep down, he must know that he’s only an ensign, and even after the uniform change put him in gold instead of red, an ensign is a dangerous thing to be in Star Trek.
One of the things that sets Star Trek apart from the many shows which feature modern heroes in strange situations (including Stargate SG-1, Farscape, Buffy and even occasionally Doctor Who) is the almost total lack of pop culture references. Historical culture gets a look in sometimes, but almost everything that happened after the 1960s is lost knowledge, especially science fiction television. So Harry Kim has never seen Star Trek, or anything like it, and completely lacks the genre savvy attitude of some of his fellow television characters. He doesn’t know that if he beams down to an alien planet with a group of senior officers, narrative law insists that he die horribly.
Or perhaps he does. Because in this episode, Harry Kim leaps into the role of expendable ensign feet first, by finding himself stuck in a coffin and then deliberately allowing himself to be killed and revived. In making Harry the focus of this episode, it’s almost as if the writers are playing with the genre, just a little bit, which might explain why he will go on to be one of the most frequently mortally endangered characters. Granted, Garrett Wang is in the main credits and is a regular cast member, so we all know that none of Harry’s deaths will stick. But still, it’s nice to see some old traditions kept, albeit in a new way.
Character-wise, Harry is very much the focus of this episode, but Kes is kindly and pleasant as usual and Janeway gets some nice moments too. Her observation at the end that the aliens might be floating around the asteroid in a higher level of consciousness after all is nice, and her gentle insistence that Harry should take some time off to deal with having been dead seems sensible. She also demonstrates once more that she’s miles away from Picard in character; when Chakotay tells Kim he should leave the bodies in peace, Janeway agrees with Chakotay, so we know that in addition to preferring coffee to tea, she’s definitely not an archaeologist. Chakotay himself, as it happens, has the beginnings of a pretty good archaeologist despite his reluctance to disturb grave sites.
This is the first of several episodes of Voyager focused on death and afterlife belief, and one of two featuring someone experiencing a crisis of faith because they think their afterlife beliefs have been disproved. The trouble is, in reality, the point of most afterlife beliefs is that they cannot be either proved or disproved. The episode is trying to say something terribly profound about death and philosophy, but it confuses the issue a bit by throwing in the completely separate (and horrific) issue of death being forced on someone with health problems by their family and an afterlife belief that doesn’t quite make sense (surely some people on this planet die before being put in the cenotaph chamber and therefore they must know that a corporeal body is left behind? Or do they think if you die without going into the chamber that you miss out on the next emanation?). This is not Voyager’s worst episode on this topic, but it’s flawed.
Bits n pieces
- This is Harry Kim’s first death, though technically it’s more of an extended cardiac arrest (the total tally of regular cast member deaths now stands at 3).
- Seska, working the transporter, got her two Maquis friends back safely but not Harry – coincidence?
- Harry is a completely different body shape from the alien he replaces for the death ritual, did no one notice? Even the wife who holds his hand?
- Why didn’t Harry lift his head out of the way of the killer tube things? Surely he would have been transported anyway, but alive?
- The alien experts in death are called ‘thanatologists.’ I feel duty-bound as a Classicist to mention that’s from the Greek ‘thanatos,’ ‘death.’ (And ‘logos,’ literally ‘word’ but more broadly 'study,' 'write about' and a philosophical concept opposed to ‘muthos,’ ‘myth’).
Chakotay: “Mr Kim would you like join us?”
Kim: “I wouldn’t miss it sir.”
Torres: “No artefacts, no inscriptions… just some naked dead people.”
Doctor: “In essence Commander, you were strolling through dead bodies.” It’s the look on Chakotay’s face that’s priceless.
Interesting, but a bit muddled. Two and a half out of four expendable ensigns.
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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