Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch

Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Learning Curve”

“Learning Curve”
Written by Ronald Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias
Directed by David Livingston
Season 1, Episode 15
Production episode 116
Original air date: May 22, 1995
Stardate: 48846.5

Captain’s log. Janeway’s latest jaunt into the holodeck to do her Mrs. Davenport novel is interrupted by the two children she’s governess for disappearing. It’s one of several systems failures. Tuvok goes to investigate and finds a panel open—and Crewman Kenneth Dalby inside. He found a bioneural gelpack was malfunctioning and swapped it out for a new one. His doing so caused the system hiccups, mostly because he never bothered to report it to anyone. When Tuvok calls him on that lack of reporting, Dalby is insubordinate as hell.

Tuvok meets with Janeway and Chakotay to discuss Dalby’s behavior, which has apparently been a problem for a while. Several of the Maquis crew—particularly the ones who were never in Starfleet—are having trouble adjusting. Chakotay picks the four who are having the most difficulty, and Janeway assigns them to Tuvok. He’s to give them a crash course in Starfleet procedures, just like he did when he taught at the Academy years ago.

Dalby is joined by another human, Henley, a Bolian named Chell, and a Bajoran named Gerron. They all resent this assignment. Chell babbles to the point that Tuvok makes him do laps to shut him up, while Gerron barely speaks and doesn’t look at Tuvok when he speaks (quietly) to him. Eventually, they walk out on Tuvok and reconvene in the mess hall. They assume they won’t be put in the brig for 70 years, especially since they need every person on board. (They don’t mention that they’re already down two people, Seska and Durst, but that’s a factor.)

Chakotay then shows up and asks for their side of the story. Dalby is dismissive of the Starfleet way, saying he prefers the Maquis way, so Chakotay decides to discipline him the Maquis way: by hauling off and belting him. Chakotay makes it clear that the beatings will continue until morale improves, and they’d better not walk out on Tuvok tomorrow or ever again.

Tuvok ends his first complete class by inspecting uniforms, making Gerron and Chell remove jewelry and Henley remove her headband. Later, Dalby is bitching and moaning to Torres about the class, which is interrupted by another systems failure. Yet another gelpack has gone bad. They only have forty-seven replacements, and they can’t afford to keep losing them. Chakotay suggests they switch as many systems over to more traditional isolinear power as possible.

Having found no systemic issue with the gelpack, Torres takes it to sickbay to have the EMH examine the biological components. Sure enough, it turns out that the gelpacks are infected.

Tuvok sends the cadets on a climb through many Jefferies tubes, then go on a ten-kilometer run. It isn’t until they finish, exhausted, that Tuvok reveals that he increased gravity by ten percent on the deck where the run was.

He later takes them to the holodeck for a war-game simulation. Dalby’s in command and when they answer a distress call from a Ferengi ship, they’re challenged by two Romulan warbirds that decloak. Dalby tries to fight back, but loses, and they’re “killed.” Tuvok is disappointed that nobody gets what went wrong: retreat was never considered.

Tuvok is brooding in the mess hall, and Neelix takes it upon himself as self-appointed morale officer to try to cheer him up, showing him a flower they picked up on a planet that has very strong stems that can bend a bit, but don’t break—except for the occasional brittle one. Being a literal-minded doofus, Tuvok assumes that the brittle one that won’t bend is his cadets, but it is, in fact, Tuvok in this analogy.

Neelix has recently made cheese from some milk they acquired, and Tuvok realizes that to make cheese you need bacteria…

Sure enough, the cheese is chock full of bacteria. The EMH examines the cheese to discover that the bacteria is carrying tons of microviruses, which are too small to be picked up by Voyager’s sensors. That’s what’s infecting the gelpacks.

Chell in Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Taking Neelix’s advice, Tuvok invites Dalby to the holodeck to play pool at Chez Sandrine in an attempt to get to know him better. This fails rather spectacularly, as Dalby tells the story of how he wound up on Voyager: after growing up rough on the Bajoran frontier, he fell in love with a Bajoran woman—who was then raped and killed by three Cardassians. So he joined the Maquis so he could kill as many Cardassians as possible.

The infection spreads to more gelpacks. They haven’t had time to switch over to isolinear circuits, and they’re losing many ship’s systems. The EMH realizes that the gelpacks aren’t designed to fight off an infection the way living beings are, by getting a fever. They have to super-heat the gelpacks. Torres hits on a way to do it, but it requires diverting all power to the warp field for a plasma burst, which cuts out life support. The ship becomes incredibly hot, and the air gets stale. Some systems are still overloading and failing.

Tuvok and his cadets are in the cargo bay when the cascade failure of systems initially starts, and he dismisses class so they can report to duty stations—but one of the systems failures is the door to the cargo bay. They’re trapped. Tuvok sends Gerron to check the console.

A junction explodes and releases toxic gas. They manage to get an access panel to a Jefferies tube open, but Gerron is still up in the console room. Dalby wants to go back for Gerron, but Tuvok refuses to let any more of them come to harm, threatening to break Dalby’s arm if he doesn’t go into the tube.

Chell, Henley, and Dalby go into the tube—and then, to everyone’s shock, Tuvok closes the bulkhead behind them and goes after Gerron. He gets him from the console room and then brings him down the ladder before collapsing on the deck. The other three get to the corridor and are able to open the cargo-bay door from outside. Dalby is impressed that Tuvok went against procedure and tried to help Gerron, and he says that if Tuvok can violate procedure, maybe the four of them can occasionally follow it.

The super-heating works, and the gelpacks are “cured.” Voyager is able to restore systems with all the gelpacks functioning normally again.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? The bioneural gelpacks, which were there to make it easier for Voyager to navigate the Badlands, control most critical ship’s systems. Janeway also comments that they’re practically indestructible, so seeing them fail like this is confusing. (Having said that, it’s still relatively new technology. There are always bugs. Almost literal bugs in this case…)

There’s coffee in that nebula! Janeway’s attitude toward training the four Maquis is that it will help them acclimate to the Starfleet way of doing things. She views it as a help to them, though the cadets themselves view it as a punishment. When Tuvok suggests that Chakotay would be better suited to train them, Janeway points out that Chakotay already has their respect. Tuvok still has to earn it.

Mr. Vulcan. Tuvok taught at the Academy for sixteen years. However, his methods, which were completely successful on eager young cadets, are not so much on recalcitrant ex-terrorists.

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH is the only one not affected by the super-heating of the ship. The murderous look that the sweat-drenched Kes gives him as he gleefully says that all is well while being the only kempt person left on the ship is hilarious.

Kes in Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Everyone comes to Neelix’s. Neelix is the cause of the problem, as the cheese he made is full of bacteria. He also tries to help Tuvok out by using a bog-obvious metaphor that still manages to go over Tuvok’s head.

What happens on the holodeck stays on the holodeck. Janeway has progressed to the part of her Gothic holonovel where Mrs. Davenport meets the (rather obnoxious) children she’s now responsible for, Henry, the Viscount Timmons, and Lady Beatrice. The urging by Lord Burleigh to avoid the fourth floor in “Cathexis” is possibly given more context by Beatrice insisting that her mother isn’t dead and she saw her yesterday.

The holodeck is later used by Tuvok for training by re-creating the bridge for a war game simulation, and then again to try to get to know Dalby over a game of pool at Chez Sandrine.

Do it.

“Get the cheese to sickbay!”

Torres manages to say this with a straight face. It is unknown how many takes it took Roxann Dawson to say it with such, however.

Welcome aboard. Armand Schultz (Dalby), Derek McGrath (Chell), Kenny Morrison (Gerron), and Catherine MacNeal (Henley) play the Maquis who are trained by Tuvok. Chell is the only one who’s even mentioned again, as McGrath will be back in “Repression,” and is referenced in dialogue several other times.

In addition, Thomas Dekker and Lindsey Haun play the two holographic children Janeway is governess for in her holonovel. They’ll both return in “Persistence of Vision,” and Haun will also play Belle in “Real Life.”

Trivial matters: This episode wound up being the first season finale, with UPN holding back the final four episodes that were produced for the first season—”Projections,” “Elogium,” “Twisted,” and “The 37s”—for season two. “The 37s” was originally to be the first-season finale, but it instead became the second-season premiere. In the UK, however, those four episodes were shown (and released on home video) as part of the first season.

Writers Ronald Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias had originally pitched a Neelix-focused episode, but the producers went with “Jetrel” instead, so they pitched this. That original Neelix concept would later be purchased for the third season as “Fair Trade.” This is the first Voyager credit for the writing team, who had previously written or co-written “Imaginary Friend,” “Schisms,” “Lessons,” and “Lower Decks” for TNG.

The four Maquis characters all appear as part of Chakotay’s Maquis cell in your humble rewatcher’s The Brave and the Bold Book 2, the first half of which tells the story of how and why Tuvok infiltrated the Maquis prior to “Caretaker.”

While the other three are never referenced ever again, Chell keeps coming back. Besides returning onscreen in “Repression” and being mentioned in several episodes, he turns up in several tie-ins: the video games Elite Force and Elite Force II (in the latter, which takes place after Voyager‘s return home in the series finale, he’s serving on the U.S.S. Enterprise-E); the comic book Elite Force by Dan Abnett, Ian Edginton, Jeffrey Moy, and W.C. Carani; and the Prometheus novel trilogy by Bernd Perplies & Christian Humberg, in which he’s serving on the U.S.S. Prometheus eight years after Voyager’s return.

Set a course for home. “I don’t want to get to know you, and I don’t want to be your friend.” Where last episode was Voyager at its best, this episode is Voyager at its most frustrating.

Back in 2011 when I was rewatching The Next Generation, I mentioned how frustrating it was that the premise of TNG was that there were children and families on the Enterprise, yet nothing significant was done with that until “When the Bough Breaks,” the sixteenth episode of the season.

History repeats itself here. “Caretaker” set up a situation where the Maquis had to integrate with the Starfleet crew to work together to get home, but it’s taken until the fifteenth episode of the season for an episode to be built around it, though, to be fair, it was also part of the texture of “Parallax,” “Prime Factors,” and “State of Flux,” though the latter two would still have worked the same if the crew was just Starfleet, as the being-stranded-far-from-home part was more important than the mixed-crew part of both stories. Still, the events of “Learning Curve” are the sorts of things that should’ve happened much sooner in the first season.

More to the point, it should’ve happened with actual characters we care about. After doing such a good job with Carey and Seska (“State of Flux” mostly worked because prior episodes had established both of them), and even sort of with Durst, they drop the ball here, giving us four characters we’ve never seen before and three of whom we will never see again (the latter is not really this episode’s fault, but it points up to the endemic problem). There are only a couple hundred people on this ship, and they all have roles to play on the ship, and they can’t be replaced. That needed to be a factor more often.

On top of that, the episode completely blows it with the use of Tuvok, because apparently nobody involved with the creation of this episode remembered that Tuvok infiltrated Chakotay’s Maquis cell, as established in the opening scene of “Caretaker.” Janeway said back in “Parallax” that Tuvok provided full information on the Maquis cell he was part of.

So why doesn’t he know them? Why doesn’t he already know Dalby’s story? Why do the four of them appear to be complete strangers to him? He mentions that Chell has been reported to be a bit of a babbler, but Tuvok himself should already know that from his time as part of Chakotay’s cell.

It’s especially frustrating because that could’ve been a plot point. Janeway’s comment about how this was as much about Tuvok earning the Maquis personnel’s trust as it was about them learning how to be Starfleet could have been taken one step further. Tuvok betrayed all of them and lied to them in order to gather intelligence about them for Starfleet. Dalby, Chell, Hanley, and Gerron shouldn’t resent Tuvok because he’s being a hardass to them as their trainer, they should resent him because of what he did to them.

That’s not the only bit of collective amnesia, as apparently everyone also forgot Tuvok breaking regulations to save Janeway an agonizing decision in “Prime Factors,” something that everyone on board was aware of. Tuvok being a hidebound asshole toward the cadets still mostly works because he’s in teacher mode, but Tuvok bending the rules to save Gerron isn’t exactly new behavior given his back-room deal to get the spatial trajector on Sikaris.

Torres’s role in this is just off, too. She’s ex-Maquis as well, and her contribution is strangely muted. She comments to Dalby about how he’s maybe afraid of failing, but that’s as far as it goes. Chakotay’s role, at least, makes sense, and, for all that it’s a cliché, I love when he hauls off and belts Dalby, because it shows up the foursome’s hypocrisy. They’re more than happy to do things the Starfleet way when it comes to Starfleet decorum, where they are generally polite to you even when they’re being hardasses. But they want to be Maquis when it comes to their own behavior, and that one punch makes it clear that that double standard won’t hold. If they want to be ragtag terrorists, they’ll be disciplined like ragtag terrorists.

The final resolution is pathetic. Tuvok does one unexpected thing, and that’s it? Now Dalby and the others will be good officers? Really?

These same two writers did the story for “Lower Decks,” and that TNG episode did right what this episode utterly failed at. The non-regular characters all had specific arcs that came to a conclusion by episode’s end. By contrast, the four Maquis here are cranky and annoyed until the last minute, when Dalby says they’re okay. Since we’ll never see three of them ever again, we have no way of knowing if this will take, and the episode itself failed spectacularly at closing off their arcs.

The actual training is—okay? I guess? The physical fitness makes sense, especially given the circumstance, and I really liked that Tuvok increased the gravity without telling them, as that’s the sort of unexpected thing that can happen. (Hell, the time since they got stuck in the Delta Quadrant has seen much crazier-ass shit happen to them than a simple increase in gravity, what with time distortions, singularities, micro-wormholes, dimensional shifting, and so on.) But the holodeck scenario didn’t feel like it was thought through particularly well, and it really wasn’t much of a teamwork exercise, it was just Dalby making one decision that changed everything.

This could’ve been a great episode, one that highlighted the differences between Starfleet and Maquis philosophy, and how those differences play out when everyone’s stuck impossibly far from home. Instead, it’s a mess, one that ignores the show’s own history twice over to ill effect, and winds up serving neither the main characters nor its guest characters well.

Hilariously, the episode is only getting as high as a 4 rating because of the technobabble B-plot, which is usually a disposable part of any Trek story, but this one works because it’s ultimately about cheese, which is delightful, and is exactly the sort of thing that will happen when you’re in uncharted territory. Very little was done with Voyager‘s bioneural gelpacks as a power system overall, but this was a fun use of it.

Warp factor rating: 4

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be contributing to three Crazy 8 Press anthologies later this year: Bad Ass Moms, edited by Mary Fan, a collection of short stories about mothers you don’t mess with, ZLONK! ZOK! ZOWIE! The Subterranean Blue Grotto Guide to Batman ’66—Season One, edited by Jim Beard, with Rich Handley, a collection of essays about the first season of the Adam West TV series, and the third volume in the Pangaea shared-world anthology series, edited by Michael Jan Friedman, a collection of alternate-history short stories taking place in an Earth that only has one huge continent instead of seven.

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