April 20 2024

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Retro Review: Before and After

7 min read
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Kes finds herself living backwards in time with no memory of who she was before she became an old woman.

Plot Summary: An aged Kes awakens in sickbay near death, hearing the Doctor activate the bio-temporal chamber in which she has been placed. Minutes later, she wakes again, where a boy who identifies himself as her grandson Andrew gives her a ninth birthday present. The Doctor, who now has hair, tells her that she has entered the morilogium, the last phase of the Ocampan life cycle. He believes it is normal for her memories to have deteriorated, but each time Kes experiences a drop in body temperature, she also moves backward in time. Soon she discovers that Andrew is the son of Harry Kim and her own daughter Linnis, born to Kes and Tom Paris some years after B’Elanna Torres was killed during what the crew calls “The Year of Hell” in which many people died, including Captain Janeway. Chakotay has been in command ever since the enemy Krenim used torpedoes that exposed the crew to chronoton radiation. The Doctor has been trying to extend the Ocampan lifespan with a bio-temporal field in order to push Kes’s cells back to an earlier stage of decay, though as she moves backward in time, she learns that the bio-temporal chamber was created hurriedly and as a last resort. Because her body absorbed chronoton radiation during the conflict with the Krenim, the activation of the chamber has not only reversed her aging but caused her to move backward through time. When Kes finds herself in an era in which Janeway and Torres are still alive, she tries to explain what has happened to her, but before they can expose her to anti-chronoton particles to reverse the process, she finds herself on her first day aboard Voyager, then in her childhood on the Caretaker’s world. While she reverts to a fetal stage, the crew detects the chronoton radiation in her body and purges it, allowing Kes to wake in Voyager’s present. Though Tuvok wants to learn about the threat from the Krenim, Janeway advises Kes not to dwell on the timeline she witnessed, since it’s only one possible future.

Analysis: “Before and After” can best be described as yet another Voyager episode that tells a science fiction story well while manipulating familiar characters so much that it’s hard to care in the end. We’ve seen many variations on the crewmember-living-an-alternate-timeline story in Star Trek episodes like The Next Generation‘s superlative “The Inner Light,” in which Picard experiences an entire lifetime on an alien planet, and “Parallels,” in which Worf finds himself married to Troi though Alexander has never been born. The impact of “Before and After” may be lessened a bit by comparisons to both of these and to Voyager‘s very recent “Coda,” which kept hitting a reset button for Janeway, but since we know so little about the Ocampa aging process and we haven’t yet met the Krenim – who will become the memorable villains of the episode “The Year of Hell” in a later season – it’s interesting to watch an aging Kes as she struggles to learn whether her jumps in time are an effect of morilogium-related dementia or a physical reality recognizable to those around her. It’s quite a relief to learn that her condition has been caused by a chronoton weapon rather than a form of senility typical in elderly Ocampa, though it’s never clear whether the loss of memory engrams responsible for her inability to recognize her own daughter and grandson might occur again when she reaches the true end of her life, an alien form of Alzheimer’s disease. In our present, Jennifer Lien’s post-Voyager public life has been a difficult one – arrests, mental health treatment, almost no acting roles – so it’s poignant to see the superb performance she gives in this episode, in which she appears in nearly every shot, a reminder of how bright her future seemed before she was written off the show in a swirl of rumors about her behavior and the producers’ demand for a sexier female character.

I’ve wondered whether my dislike of “Before and After” (which I haven’t watched since it first aired) might be a case of rewriting history, piling on resentments about things that happened afterward. But some of the things dragging down later seasons of Voyager begin to develop during the third season, long before Seven of Nine’s arrival, and “Before and After” puts several of those problems front and center. It’s the second episode in a brief time in which the writers kill off Janeway to toy with the idea of a Captain Chakotay, a concept undercut in “Coda” because he mourns her so deeply and accomplishes next to nothing while Janeway’s consciousness fights off the bad guy, but there’s nothing here to mitigate the fact that the two strongest, smartest women on the crew, Janeway and Torres, lose their lives brutally yet the crew gets along just fine without them. We see Paris far more upset about the prospect of losing others than the few seconds of despair he experiences when Torres dies, while Chakotay and Tuvok both seem more worried about how the rest of the crew will respond to the captain’s death than they appear to be suffering the loss of a dear friend. Whenever we saw Riker in command because Picard was missing, and in the weeks after Sisko’s disappearance in the Fire Caves, their co-workers seemed nearly shattered, and they had Starfleet to fall back on – not like Voyager’s crew in the Delta Quadrant, where Chakotay confidently takes command while Paris and Kim cheerfully move on. We see how valuable both Janeway and Torres are as Kes moves back through time and figure out very quickly what the rest of the crew couldn’t manage during several previous time jumps, yet the emotional slant of the episode is on poor, prematurely aging Kes and the strong, sensitive men of the crew, two of whom are locked into a father/son-in-law relationship even weirder than Edward and Jacob’s at the end of the Twilight series.

Even though Neelix has become a security officer, Kes appears to develop little beyond becoming a mother, something about which she expressed ambivalence in the past. She can’t explain her own life cycle, let alone develop medical technology despite a career in sickbay, so much of the episode consists of her trying to explain things she overheard in one timeline to men who promptly interpret it for her. It’s usually interesting to see Starfleet developments through the eyes of an outsider, but despite Lien’s terrific performance as Kes, the episode gets boring because the rest of the characters are so dull. Neelix expresses almost no reaction to Kes marrying Paris, of whom the Talaxian was once wildly jealous. Paris claims to be happier with placid Kes than he imagined being with a wild, wilful half-Klingon. Kim chooses to marry a woman he watched grow up from infancy, who will likely die before he’s 50 along with their son, yet he seems disinterested in the medical developments that might extend all the Ocampan lives. The Doctor starts off declaring that Kes is the best friend he’s ever had, but spends the rest of the episode spouting medical technobabble about how to save her rather than exploring what it means to be a doctor and a human being facing the prospect of such a big personal and professional loss – as if having hair and a name is more important than his closest relationships – and surely he, too, must have some opinion about Kes marrying Paris, perhaps even more so than Neelix. Paris, Kim, and Chakotay may say they’re doing very well without Janeway around, but they’re unrecognizable, generic people, and since Kes isn’t much emotionally invested in these new versions, the audience doesn’t have any reason to be, either.

As much as Janeway’s absence makes me resent this episode, part of me is really happy to discover that to this day, I couldn’t care less about a Voyager without her, even as I watch her transformation from the wondrous captain of the first couple of seasons into the crankier leader from the Borg years. Take Janeway and Torres out of the equation, and it doesn’t much matter to me whether Chakotay’s a good captain or a bad one, whether Paris finds stability and happiness, whether Tuvok’s secretly more emotional than Spock…whether any of them get home, let alone whether there’s any logic whatsoever in Kes seeing herself returning to the womb and becoming a zygote. Reset timeline episodes are always a risk in that, if they don’t get us invested in new stories and characters who will soon disappear, they feel irrelevant and pointless, but I’m not sorry “Before and After” presents us with all sorts of character developments that will never come to pass. I need to remember to be kinder to Janeway’s version of Captain Nemo when “The Year of Hell” actually arrives, because as frustrated as I get with some of her choices in those upcoming episodes, I’d so much rather see them with her than without her.

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