April 25 2024


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Retro Review: Emanations

6 min read

Kim is transported to a way-station for the dying where the doctors believe he has returned from the afterlife.

Plot Summary: When Voyager discovers a powerful unknown element in an asteroid field, Chakotay takes Kim on the away mission to study it. On one of the asteroids, the team discovers that the element comes from decomposing alien bodies deposited there. A subspace vacuole opens just as the team tries to beam back, and Kim disappears, replaced by the body of a young woman. Since she has only just died, the Doctor is able to revive her, but the Vhnori woman Ptera is panic-stricken not to have been reunited with her dead relatives in the afterlife. At the facility that sent Ptera to the asteroid, a Vhnori doctor finds Kim and assumes that he must have returned from the afterlife, though a soon-to-die man named Hatil becomes as frightened as Ptera is to learn that their beliefs may be wrong. Though Janeway knows of the dangers, she agrees to a risky transport to send Ptera through a vacuole, which Janeway hopes will allow the crew to track Ptera back to her own planet and thus lead to Kim. But Ptera dies in the attempt, and because the vacuoles threaten the warp core, Janeway reluctantly agrees with Torres that they must move on. Meanwhile, Kim concludes that the only way he can get back to Voyager is via the device through which the Vhnori send their dead to the asteroid field. Since Hatil is not terminally ill but only disabled, not wishing to die so much as to please his family, Kim convinces Hatil to switch places with him and allows the alien device to transport him back to the asteroid field, killing him in the process. Voyager crewmembers scan the body, discover that it’s human, and beam it to sickbay so that Kim can be revived. Though he is saddened by the thought that the Vhnori die expecting a glorious afterlife they may never reach, Janeway points out that the asteroid field’s ambient energy as well as the unusual element come from the alien bodies. She reminds Kim that what they don’t know about death is greater than what they do know.

Analysis: I’ve thought of “Emanations” as one of the more forgettable installments of Voyager‘s first season, and indeed I hadn’t remembered any of the details of the episode, so it was a nice surprise to discover that despite being rather slow and talky, it’s a pretty substantive concept. I appreciate it when Star Trek tries to tie spiritual beliefs to scientific facts rather than to dismiss all religion outright as barbaric superstition the way the original series tended to do, and though “Emanations” drops more questions about the Vhnori than it answers, it’s still a thoughtful and fairly unusual story. I wish that we’d seen more of Vhnori culture besides their death rituals, because on the surface they do seem rather horrible, kind of like the society on Kaelon II in The Next Generation‘s “Half a Life” in which everyone is expected to commit suicide at sixty so that the elderly never become a burden on the young. Hatil has a bit of a limp, but we don’t see much evidence that he’s in pain and he’s certainly in full possession of his mental faculties. Given that they don’t seem to lack basic necessities because of the need to care for him, the idea that his family pressures him to die so that they can get on with their lives seems appalling, though we’re expected to accept that they believe he’s moving on to a better place and they’re making a sacrifice to let him go. I’m glad Kim strongly resists this use of euthanasia and wondering what an older Starfleet officer might do in his place – I could see Kirk saying to heck with the Prime Directive and trying to blow up the pods that send the Vhnori to decompose in the asteroid field, while I’d expect Picard not to open his mouth about the dead bodies he saw there before learning more about the culture and beliefs. Kim’s revelation that there may be no Next Emanation may significantly alter a status quo like the one on Kaelon where resources are preserved when the sick and elderly die prematurely.

It’s interesting to see the contrast between Kim and Ptera, who is also thrown amidst a culture she knows nothing about, in a state of far greater confusion because unlike Kim, who has no idea how he got where he ends up, she has a specific set of expectations about where she should be arriving. Kim’s approach is fairly calm and rational because he believes that he can return to his previous reality if he makes the right choices, whereas Ptera is faced with complete upheaval, not really believing she can go home again, unable to arrive at the happy afterlife she has always been promised. Despite her youth, Kes is evidently qualified to serve as a ship’s counselor as well as a medical assistant, for she has both the temperament and interest to help people in psychological distress. It’s interesting to learn that Chakotay, Torres, and Kes all come from cultures that believe in an afterlife, which along with Tuvok’s presumed belief in the Vulcan katra may make Janeway’s crew even more spiritually engaged than Sisko’s. I appreciate Chakotay’s immediate desire to pull back rather than desecrate an alien graveyard, though I wonder what he did in the archaeology classes that we learn later he nearly made his career instead of Starfleet. And I appreciate that Janeway listens to him, both out of sympathy for his background – presumably others among their ex-Maquis crew as well – and personally, because he asks her to leave the bodies in peace rather than press for scientific discoveries and even though she’s a former science officer, she appreciates his perspective. I wonder whether Kim’s contempt for the Vhnori belief system, which is focused largely on his experience with one person being forced to undergo euthanasia, reflects his opinion of other cultures whose beliefs he does not share, despite the training he presumably received at Starfleet in accepting and appreciating other cultures.

All the bodies appearing out of nowhere (and threatening the warp core) give “Emanations” a bit of a horror movie feeling that’s probably unintentional, since there are no other tropes of that genre in play, but the business with the away team walking through decaying corpses is phrased in a way that makes it sound more unpleasant than it looks onscreen. Maybe that’s why some of the crewmembers behave a bit oddly; I don’t like the fact that both Torres and Paris, each of whom Kim has saved from trouble on several occasions, are so quick to abandon him near the end, when it’s obvious that Janeway will avoid doing that unless it puts everyone else on Voyager at risk. I love her decision to let Harry take a few days to think about what he’s learned from his experiences, based on her own regrets about not having more time to do the same – I’m thinking now of the backstory we get on Janeway in the novel Mosaic (written by executive producer Jeri Taylor and integrated into several episodes, so I tend to take it as canonical, which is not true of the other Pocket Books spin-offs). Starfleet officers are supposed to be ready to face death every day, especially on a mission like this one, yet Janeway is willing to let Kim come to terms with his mortality and what could have been a very lonely life abandoned on an alien planet. I’m not entirely sure whether the writers have at this early point thought out Janeway’s perspective on her crew or whether Kate Mulgrew manages to make it look that way – whether she’s going by her gut deciding what balance of officious and parental works best to demonstrate Janeway’s command style. She comes with Kirk’s determination and Picard’s sensitivity, plus a sense of humor. I adore her throughout this first season.

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2 thoughts on “Retro Review: Emanations

  1. Great story idea and subject matter, but with just too many small issues here and there to make it a great episode. Still a good one though. My rating: 7/10.

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