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Star Trek Voyager: Prototype

“My God, what have I done?”

When B’Elanna finds a broken robot, she just can’t help tinkering with it. So of course, she ends up being kidnapped by the robot and forced to help it to reproduce so it can win an inter-robot war.

This is one of a sub-set of Voyager episodes centred around B’Elanna messing about with something technological and dangerous. She always gets intensely emotionally invested and it always blows up in her face. What pulls these episodes through is Roxann Dawson’s performance. In the early scenes here she perfectly captures that intense, obsessive need to solve something, fix something or create something that many of us have probably experienced at one time or another.

The other thing that raises this episode above a plain technological run-around is the anthropomorphism of the robot and the prototype and their relationships with B’Elanna. By opening the episode with a nicely directed scene shot from the robot’s point of view in black and white, the episode immediately humanises the Pralor robot and he goes on to develop a relationship with B’Elanna. Her relationship with the prototype she creates is then depicted as a mother/son relationship, ensuring that we feel emotionally invested in the story because B’Elanna is, and we care about her.

Of course, that anthropomorphism leads to some unresolved issues of its own. B’Elanna clearly treats the robots as living sentient beings and asks 3947 how long he’s been “alive”. She then helps him to reproduce and becomes the ‘mother’ of the prototype (there’s a definite streak of the mad scientist about B’Elanna sometimes). She is then forced to destroy the prototype, after, in Janeway’s words, “giving [it] life”. If we assume that all these robots are sentient life-forms, then not only has B’Elanna created life, she has killed her own ‘son’ to prevent the robots’ war from escalating. This is some seriously Torchwood-level dark stuff if carried to its logical conclusion, and the episode raises some really interesting questions in the best sci-fi tradition.

Unfortunately, despite all these genuinely good qualities, the episode overall ends up being a little bit bland and unmemorable. This is partly because the problems B’Elanna needs to work through in the course of repairing the robot and creating a prototype relate to the functioning of non-existent technology. As a result, the solutions are inevitably technobabble based on fictitious substances and concepts like warp plasma. This makes them rather uninspiring. Technological solutions based on intriguing ideas (like a nebula that’s actually a living being) or real science applied in a fantastical way can be interesting, but lengthy conversations about warp plasma just don’t do it for this particular reviewer I’m afraid.

Bits ‘n’ pieces

 - The robot weapons turned on their creators, a not uncommon sci-fi trope seen in, among other things, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘The Arsenal of Freedom’.

 - The design on the robots is rather good; they can look innocent or menacing depending on lighting and acting.

 - So, fixing the prototype is exploration, but helping him to reproduce is breaking the Prime Suggestion. Janeway just makes it up as she goes along, doesn’t she?

 - Data gets a shout-out, yay! On the other hand it’s a bit odd that the Doctor gets totally left out of the conversation (B’Elanna declaring outright that Data is the only sentient artificial life form in their society). This early in the show, the Doctor is clearly considered still a tool, not a life-form.


Janeway: This is a ship of exploration, Mr Tuvok.

Doctor (on seeing B’Elanna appear in her PJs): If there has been a change in the official dress code, I certainly wish someone had informed me.

Doctor: I shouldn't have to remind you, I'm a doctor –
B'Elanna: Not an engineer, right.

Chakotay: You don't mind if the rest of us give you a little help, do you, Paris? I'd hate to lose another shuttlecraft.
Paris: Your concern for my welfare is heart-warming.

Some interesting ideas, but, after the opening, rather uninspired delivery. Two out of four prime directive-breaking prototypes.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

1 comment:

  1. Apologies for the long absence of these reviews - there's just too much going on during the academic/new TV season part of the year! The aim is to do at least 1 Voyager review per week over the summer (probably followed by another hiatus once term/new TV starts up again in October).


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