April 17 2024

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Retro Review: Cold Fire

7 min read
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Crewmembers find an array like the one that stranded them in the Delta Quadrant and learn that Ocampa live on it.

Plot Summary: While Kes juggles her lessons with Tuvok in mental discipline and her responsibilities in sickbay, the remains of the Caretaker begin to vibrate. Torres discovers that there are indications of energy from a sporocystian life form nearby, which Janeway hopes might be the Caretaker’s mate. The crew follows the readings to an array much like the Caretaker’s, where Kes is astonished to discover a colony of Ocampa. The leader, Tanis, warns Voyager away, but agrees to meet with the crew upon discovering that they have an Ocampa aboard the ship. Tanis explains that the female sporocystian life form is called Suspiria and has taught his group of Ocampa to use their latent mental powers. They live more than twice as long as any Ocampa Kes has ever known, and they can teleport objects. Though concerned that Kes may decide to go live with these Ocampa, Neelix is pleased for her when she learns to move a teacup and boil its water using the powers of her mind. Kes is initially thrilled to be able to feel the essence of the plants in the hydroponics bay, but when Tanis encourages her to access their life force, she absorbs their power into herself and kills them all. She also nearly kills Tuvok while demonstrating her ability to boil water with her mind, making the fluids in his body overheat. Meanwhile, Suspiria demands that Tanis bring her Voyager, which she has told him is a ship of death, having killed the Caretaker and started a war with the Kazon. When Voyager reaches her location, Suspiria appears to Janeway as a little girl, but when she demands to know why Janeway has killed her mate, she turns dark and begins to torture Janeway the same way she has already done to Torres and the engineers. Kes uncovers the duplicity of Tanis and weakens Suspiria with her mental powers. Janeway uses an anti-sporocystian weapon developed by Tuvok to regain control, but refuses to use it to injure Suspiria, saying that her crew only wants to get home. Once Suspiria takes Tanis and flees the ship, Kes finds that her powers have diminished, though Tuvok encourages her to continue to explore them, even the ones that frighten her.

Analysis: When “Cold Fire” first aired, I said it was a silly episode, which remains true. But now it seems so much worse than that, like a massive opportunity squandered for a single-character story that could easily have been told without bungling the show’s mythology. Voyager’s stranding in the Delta Quadrant after being brought there by the Caretaker is so much a part of the show’s history that it really doesn’t need to be narrated by Majel Barrett over the first moments of the episode…and how much more effective would the storytelling be if that backstory was discussed by the crewmembers in a more meaningful way, reflecting on their terror at being abducted and used for experiments or the shock of finding themselves in a part of space no Federation citizen had ever seen? The bigger problem is that the Caretaker’s mate turns up as a throwaway character in a minor episode, borrowing the tired trope from many other Star Trek stories of appearing as a sweet child who turns scary, throwing a massive tantrum whose reason is never entirely clear – fury over the death of the mate she long ago abandoned? fear for her Ocampa followers? god complex? how come Tanis warned the ship away if she wanted to capture it in the first place? Afterwards, she disappears from the franchise forever. Given that “Caretaker” ended with Janeway promising to track down this second sporocystian, the encounter should have been epic – a season-ender, probably not even this season but after the Kazon storyline had been resolved and their region of space left behind. This alien is a powerful entity who can pull a starship clear across the galaxy; imagine what she could do up against the Borg, or if she decided that all humans represented a threat to her and chose to attack the Federation, sending Delta Quadrant species to Earth as quickly as Voyager was pulled away. Even assuming that this bored sporocystian is as much of a homebody as the Caretaker and wanted to settle down with a nice group of followers, just not in the same place as her former mate, why take some Ocampa with her instead of finding a new species? What secrets will we never learn about the race from which Kes comes? So many amazing stories could have been told!

To be fair, “Cold Fire” is a great exploration of Kes and Jennifer Lien gives a wonderful performance as her character begins to explore both the wonder and terror of her emerging powers. It’s exciting to meet Ocampa who’ve surpassed the limitations of their isolation and brief life span. I just wish that had happened merely by removing them from their homeworld and the influence of the paternalistic Caretaker, whom Kes and others felt treated them as children too naive to explore their potential, something she might have mentioned to Tanis when he scoffed at her naivete. Kes has so often been so sweet and optimistic that it’s almost a relief to learn that she has a seriously scary dark side. She kills her beloved plants in a matter of seconds without even realizing that she’s doing it, and she nearly kills Tuvok because she won’t follow his advice to wait and learn control. That relationship is delightful on so many levels; we know from “Elogium” that Kes misses her father and Tuvok misses his daughter, and the balance between her youthful optimism and his mature logic makes for dramatic contrasts in perspective. We’re still a few episodes ahead of it, but I’m thinking of the scene in “Resolutions” when Kes gets through to Tuvok after no one else can by comparing him and her relationship with him to her father. We really see that closeness beginning to blossom in “Cold Fire,” though at this stage, Kes still tends to confide in the Doctor more than Tuvok. It seems a bit odd that she doesn’t talk to Janeway while she’s considering leaving Voyager (with Neelix) for the colony on the array, given that she’s repeatedly called Janeway a mentor, and in some ways Chakotay and his spiritual journey is a closer parallel to what Kes is going through than the experiences of her other confidants, but Chakotay is practically a nonentity in this episode apart from a few seconds when Janeway apparently catches him staring at her backside on the bridge and he flashes her a cheeky smile (go watch the scene and tell me any other way that look can be interpreted).

There are, however, many ways the Ocampa story could have been told, which would have been more personal to Kes and her people, without involving the infamous second sporocystian. You’d think that Kes would ask to meet more Ocampa, to find out whether they’re all as grateful to Suspiria as Tanis and whether they all find using their life-sucking powers as exciting. We know from the pilot episode that Kazon occasionally abducted Ocampa like Kes for their own ugly purposes; a Kazon sect might have abducted a group of Ocampa who somehow escaped and formed a colony far from home, or the original Caretaker might have transported a group of Ocampa to a new world when he feared he couldn’t protect the ones whose planet he damaged from the Kazon who wanted to steal their water. A new planet with new resources might have affected their life span and might have given them the means or the reason to explore the latent psychic abilities that we’ve already witnessed in Kes. Or the female sporocystian could have taken some Ocampa with her, then abandoned them the way she abandoned their ancestors after giving them the resources to survive on their own, including stronger mental abilities. She could have remained a great mystery out there, offering faint hope during the crew’s darkest moments and a massive threat when eventually the crew came across her. Instead we’re supposed to believe that Janeway encounters the creature she’s been searching for since she was thrown into the Delta Quadrant, learns that said creature is essentially a big temperamental baby, and heads off in a different direction rather than trying to negotiate with Suspiria or the Ocampa. Janeway uses a weapon instead of her words – no wonder Voyager has such a terrible reputation in the Delta Quadrant! And there’s none of the thrill at the idea of getting home that we witnessed in “Eye of the Needle”; Tuvok is distracted by the potential threat to Kes and the rest of them, Kim and Torres are more excited about their ability to use the dead Caretaker as a homing signal than about tracking the new sporocystian to ask her for help, the Doctor is too busy practicing medicine to worry about his fear of the crew leaving when the ship gets home. What a waste of time and opportunity.

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3 thoughts on “Retro Review: Cold Fire

  1. Awesome review. I totally agree that this episode was such a wasted effort. I always thought that finding the female caretaker should have been an epic moment and episode. It should have been important. Instead Suspiria is a total joke. It’s like they wrote the episode pretty much as is and THEN decided that Suspiria could be the female caretaker. It felt thrown in. What exactly was the point of even having her in an episode so early on then? What did we learn? That she’s pissed off and a giant centipede? Like you said, such a wasted opportunity. “Suspiria, take me with you!” WTF?!

  2. I have to say, given what feels like a majority of the reviews being so negative, it’s a wonder Voyager ever survived to have the following it has among some Trek fans today. As for me, I had recently started watching Voyager from the beginning, but these reviews (which have now gotten a few episodes ahead of me) have really sucked the joy out of that. Not that I totally disagree – early episodes in a new series are often uneven and poorly plotted. But I may need to lay off the reviews and just navigate the series on my own to get any enjoyment out of it.

  3. I’ve seen all the episodes multiple times and even the bad ones can still be fun to watch because it’s an interesting cast. While there are certainly really bad episodes, and this is one of them, there are still some really good ones ahead.

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