"Living Witness"

Season Four, Episode 23
Teleplay by Bryan Fuller and Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky
Story by Brannon Braga
Directed by Tim Russ
Main Cast:
Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway
Robert Beltran as Chakotay
Roxann Dawson as B'Elanna Torres
Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris
Ethan Phillips as Neelix
Robert Picardo as The Doctor
Tim Russ as Tuvok
Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine
Garrett Wang as Harry Kim
  Plot:

In an alien museum, a historian relates how, seven hundred years previously, an encounter with the warship Voyager almost destroyed their world.


Review: 

Living Witness is a wonderfully innovative, imaginative episode that employs a clever sci-fi premise to excellent effect. Whilst not without one or two minor problems, this is nevertheless a little gem and clearly one of the best episodes of the series to date. It's also a perfect demonstration of just how effective the show can be, when the writers get their act together and really push beyond their boundaries. It's just a pity that episodes like this aren't the rule rather than the exception.

First and foremost, Living Witness boasts a surprisingly original, ground-breaking premise. Set a whopping seven hundred years into the future, with the exception of the Doctor, we don't get to see the real Janeway or crew at all! I'm very glad the writers didn't turn this into a time travel story, with the Doctor going back in time to prove Voyager's innocence or whatever. That's what I thought was being set up, but instead the writers took an altogether different tack and the episode is all the stronger for it.

A rarity for season four, Living Witness is an intelligent, thought-provoking story with a relevant, well-conveyed message. The Kyrian/Vaskan conflict was handled well with a surprising degree of complexity. Often Trek falls into the trap of making its alien cultures too "black and white", but the delicate handling of the Kyrian/Vaskan racial tension was a nice acknowledgment that resolving social issues rarely comes easy. The exploration of "revisionist history" was intriguing and enlightening, stricking a similar chord to that of Nemesis, earlier this season. Quarren was nicely characterised as a man who, although initially reluctant, is determined to extrapolate the truth about "the Voyager encounter".

Quarren himself was responsible for the outrageously inaccurate depiction of the incident (although you must give him credit -- the sets were near perfect and those actors certainly looked mightily similar to the real Voyager crew! ;-)) so it makes sense that he would want to get to the bottom of things. The heavily-biased "recreation" of Voyager's historical role enabled the cast to play wildly exaggerated charicatures. Kate Mulgrew is clearly having great fun doing her best impression of the Intendant while the rest of the cast add a generous helping of malevolence to their assorted characters. A particularly nice touch was Seven of Nine's Borg "security detachment". All in all, the simulation scenes were darkly comic, which was an interesting contrast to the serious, weighty issues of the main plot itself.

Yup, there's a lot of good, meaty stuff here. There are, however, also a couple of problems. I believe the first is one that has already elicited a great deal of debate; namely the Doctor's "back-up" program. Bit of a cheat, really. It also contradicts previous episodes, such as Message in a Bottle which strongly imply that the Doc's program is irreplacable. Aside from that niggle, the only thing that prevents Living Witness from achieving classic status is its lack of emotional resonance. 

In short, whilst I found the episode absorbing and thought-provoking, it never quite engaged me on an emotional level. Perhaps the slightly uneven, wavering pace was partly responsible, or simply the fact that we don't have an emotional connection to these people. After all, whatever happens, we all know that we'll never see nor hear of these people again. Perhaps if the stakes for the Doc had been more clearly outlined -- ie, that he had to prove Voyager's innocence or bear the punishment -- the episode might have built up a little more dramatic impetus, upping the urgency of the situation.

The Doctor's willingness to sacrifice himself to stabilise the volatile situation was indeed poignant and gave a slight boost in terms of character stakes. A little more focus on the characters and the dramatic stakes to propel the plot would have made an already excellent episode even stronger. As it stands, it's a strong outing, but it lacks the power and resonance of say, DS9's Far Beyond the Stars.

But what a wonderful ending! Although I felt the "let's find that tricorder" resolution was somewhat pat, the final twist -- that the entire incident was indeed another simulation, viewed by a future generation -- was just perfect. Some might argue that it made the resolution of the Kyrian/Vaskan strife seem over-simplistic, but I thought it was wonderful and so true to the spirit of Star Trek. Living Witness may not be perfect, but it's nevertheless a great episode, definitely among Voyager's finest.
 

Rating: 9


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