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Prototype

WARNING: It would be inadvisable for you to read spoilers for VOY's "Prototype" without due warning.

In brief: A bit heavy on the Frankenstein complex, but a pretty decent piece of work nonetheless.

Written by: Nicholas Corea Directed by: Jonathan Frakes Brief summary: B'Elanna Torres reactivates a damaged robot found adrift in space, but the tables soon turn when the robot abducts her to force her to create more of its kind.

"Prototype" was a surprisingly pleasant way to get back into new VOY episodes after weeks of reruns. While the story played itself out along fairly standard lines given its plot, it was nonetheless a story that Trek's done pretty rarely (if ever), and one executed quite well, for the most part.

To start with, the teaser was among the more unorthodox ones we've seen in recent Trek, especially for "Voyager". I don't know if it was Corea's idea or Frakes's to show the entire teaser from the robot's point of view, but that POV gave what could have been a mundane setup a much more atypical feel than usual. Part of me wonders what the show would've been like if it had all been done that way. (The rest of me then answers that hordes of angry fans would descend on Paramount demanding to know why a show this expensive had an episode filmed in black-and-white.)

After that, we got into B'Elanna's obsession with trying to get the robot functional. While that worked well enough, I'm a little curious about why she in particular was *this* slavish about the idea. Yes, she's a good engineer, and as such should be willing to investigate new technologies -- but why one item in particular? It's certainly not a major criticism by any means, but I am curious about whether there might be some reason beyond scientific curiosity for it.

In any event, the execution of most of these scenes made up for the reality that they were mostly marking time until Torres _would_ manage to wake the robot up. Harry's debate with her about who can handle sleep deprivation was entertaining; the exchange with the doctor was at its usual level, aside from the "I'm a doctor, not an engineer" line, which has already gotten extremely old; and even Neelix's stories were somewhat less tiresome than I usually find them. (That scene got helped quite a bit by its opening seconds; I really liked seeing B'Elanna try to drink nonexistent coffee for some reason.)

The real start to the episode, however, came when Automated Unit 3947 actually woke up. B'Elanna's quandary of scientific enterprise vs. caution is a very old one, but a good one, particularly since it was implied that this is probably the first time B'Elanna herself had to face that dilemma. She certainly was in way over her head almost from the start; as soon as she said "yes" to 3947's question, "Are you a Builder?", it was fairly obvious that B'Elanna was the only person who didn't hear the capital B in the question. Once her abilities became known, however, it was a given that 3947 would try to convince her to help them.

Janeway's refusal to help was certainly no surprise; Prime Directive or no Prime Directive, simple *prudence* would dictate that they might want to avoid helping this advanced a group without at least some clue of what they're all about. However, Janeway's speechmaking on the subject was substantially better than many PD speeches we've heard in the past ("Who are we to swoop in, play God, and then just leave without any concern for the long-term consequences of our actions?" pretty much defines the ethos of the PD in a sentence, I think); and more importantly, given some of B'Elanna's past actions there was a real question about whether she'd even be willing to obey Janeway's cease-and-desist order. The fact that she did, with very little hesitation, shows that perhaps she's learned something since "Prime Factors" -- whether it's an actual change of attitude or a simple wish not to anger Janeway again is an open question, but either is interesting.

3947's disagreement and Torres's subsequent kidnapping aren't particularly surprising, but that's not really a problem. What is something more of a problem, though, is the ease with which 3947 got off the ship. His attack was detected well before the transport began, and the transport was detected well before the people beaming off were identified. For Janeway et al. to wait until they knew who exactly was leaving to stop the transport strikes me as poor planning; if the equivalent of weapons fire in a transporter room is detected, you shut down that transporter *then* -- if it ends up being premature, you're a little embarrassed.

The remainder of the episode was really two different stories: the attempts to rescue Torres, and Torres's work under duress on the prototype. Both came off relatively well, I thought. The rescue attempts were particularly good on two levels: first, because the robots were a clearly superior force for a change, which made Janeway and company think about what they could do rather than simply charging in guns blazing; and second, from an effects standpoint -- they were gorgeous, particularly when Paris is heading towards the first ship while the second one looms menacingly as it closes.

Torres's work also came off fairly well, though somewhat less so. One reason it came off less well is because of the rather sheer implausibility of her being able to do in _days_ what the robots couldn't do in decades; although the creativity of a non-mechanical mind is a stable of such stories, the fact that the robots hadn't even been able to see the problem suggests a fundamental flaw in their design. (Now, I suppose that said flaw could have been intended; after all, the Builders didn't want these robots to reproduce. That even works, to a fair extent. Hmm.)

The other reason it came off less well is the nature of the entire premise; it was fundamentally a Frankenstein-complex, "there are things humanity is not meant to do/know" story. That may not sound like a source of objection, and it probably shouldn't be; but given how anti-intellectual society seems to be becoming these days, I always have nagging worms of doubt about anything which seems to support that message. Considering that the negative was mostly cast in terms of jumping in without balanced knowledge, however, and not simply the curiosity itself, the only substantive objection I have to it is that the premise is so overused. (Consider the success of "Jurassic Park", for instance; if that isn't a folly-of-creation story, I don't know what is -- and the novel is substantially more taken with that point than the film.)

My only other criticism of the show as a whole is, as ever, technobabble -- but this time it's an objection of quantity rather than quality, fortunately. At its best, technobabble tends to be filler; at its worst, it's a crutch upon which to base an entire show. Fortunately, here it was simply filler, and my only real annoyance is how *much* filler there was.

Moving on ... from a character standpoint, this was one of B'Elanna Torres's better shows. She had her own curiosity to balance against the wishes of someone she's helped, Janeway's orders, and her own sense of caution. Despite her own misgivings, it becomes more and more clear how interested she is in really seeing if she can manage to solve a problem that's occupied the robots for decades -- a feeling I think most people can easily understand. In fact, more or less everyone was written fairly well this time -- Janeway came off as convincing without being preachy, Kim was both talented and yet inexperienced, Chakotay was a bit more acerbic than usual, and so on.

That pretty much covers the essentials. "Prototype" wasn't up there with the best "Voyager" has had to offer, but it did a more than competent job with the story it had to tell, and managed to be a surprisingly pleasant hour as a result. Given that the last new episode was the excellent "Resistance", VOY is having something of an upturn at present; let's hope it lasts.

So, some shorter takes:

-- Definite acting praise to Rick Worthy as 3947. It's not easy to get across different reactions when your voice has to remain utterly impassive, yet he managed it. His question about whether Federation robots are servants and his calm "we terminated the Builders" were both particularly good.

-- Speaking of the "servants" question, I think B'Elanna broke the Prime Directive a whole lot more there than she did by building the prototype. The latter was a material thing; the former changed a world-view.

-- Until the final act, for some reason I had a sense that the Builders were going to have some connection to the Borg. The overpowering superiority and assurance of victory had something to do with it, I think. It's certainly not the episode's fault that there's no connection, but it felt somewhat disappointing all the same.

-- As usual, MSTing abounded during "Prototype", but this time it was mostly because we *could* rather than because we felt we had to in order to survive. :-) Most of them were standard "Young Frankenstein" references while the prototype's activating, but Tuvok's instruction to Paris about rotating his shield harmonics led us to advise "rotate your shield harmonics every 25,000 miles", and Janeway's argument that the robots' inability to reproduce wasn't a flaw evoked sudden cries of "it's not a bug, it's a feature!"

-- Chakotay's line to Paris about "I'd hate to lose another shuttle" was a breath of fresh air. Someone actually *noticed* that this has been the Season of Lost Shuttles; whew!

That should do it. So, wrapping up:

Writing: An old story well presented; no huge surprises, but no particular disappointments either. Directing: Nice work; B'Elanna's dual conversation with the two automated units and the lighting while she broke the bad news to 3947 stood out in particular. Acting: No real complaints; Roxann Biggs-Dawson did fine, and she was the main focus of the show. OVERALL: Call it a 7.5; not quite a must-see, but definitely worth checking out.

NEXT WEEK: Deals with the devil.

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu "You don't mind if the rest of us give you a little help, do you, Paris? I'd hate to lose another shuttle." -- Chakotay Copyright 1996, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.

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