Written by Michael Sussman and Robert Doherty
Directed by Mike Vejar
Season 7, Episode 13
Production episode 259
Original air date: January 31, 2001
Captain’s log. Voyager comes to the aid of a ship in distress, beaming the personnel aboard just before the ship goes boom. Unfortunately, it’s a prison ship, and the two injured people they beamed directly to sickbay are two of the prisoners, one of whom, Iko, grabs Seven and puts a knife to her throat.
Seven is able to free herself, but then Iko grabs the EMH. This proves less than efficacious, as Tuvok can now shoot him through the hologram.
The warden, Yediq, needs to get the prisoners back to the Nygean homeworld for execution. The Starfleet crew isn’t thrilled to aid and abet capital punishment, but they can hardly strand them, either. Tuvok sets up a cargo bay as a prison, with forcefields and reinforced cells. Yediq’s people will only be allowed weapons in the cargo bay, and Tuvok’s security detail will supplement his people.
Neelix shows up with food, and Yediq doesn’t want to feed them as lavishly as one of Neelix’s meals. (Insert your own joke here.) Neelix insists, backed by Tuvok, as Starfleet has very specific regulations regarding the care and feeding of prisoners. Yediq’s proclivity for starving them for days at a time won’t fly here.
Another prisoner, Joleg, gives Iko a hard time, saying how hard it must be not to also be able to eat Egrid’s meal, a fellow prisoner whom Iko usually bullies. Iko generally acts like an ass, to the point that Yediq’s people start beating him up. Tuvok’s people don’t stand for that, and call it off.
Iko is brought to sickbay, while Janeway bans Yediq’s people from the cargo bay prison. She will abide by Nygean law, but she will absolutely not tolerate brutality. Yediq is pissed, but acquiesces.
The EMH asks Seven for the use of some nanoprobes to help with the edema in Iko’s brain, suffered from all the blows to the head. Seven doesn’t see the point in saving Iko’s life when he’s on his way to being executed. The EMH replies: “If the Nygeans insist on killing him, there isn’t much I can do about it. But I won’t let them do it on Voyager.”
Neelix gets to know Joleg. He is Benkaran, and while he doesn’t out-and-out claim that he’s innocent, he doesn’t admit to being guilty, saying only that he committed the crime of being Benkaran. He was standing near a dead body, so he had to have done it. Neelix does some research, on the pretense of a cultural exchange, and learns that Benkarans make up a disproportionately high percentage of the Nygean prison population, far more than the other member species. He also reads the trial transcript for Joleg, and finds that the evidence against him is circumstantial.
In addition, Nygean jurisprudence is such that the victims of the crime get to choose the guilty party’s sentence. Benkarans often get the harshest sentences.
Iko seems very different after the treatment. He is nicer, calmer, and sadder—no longer reveling in threatening people or gloating about his violent acts, he instead is starting to feel miserable and guilty. Once he obtains more information from the Nygean medical database, the EMH discovers that Iko has a brain defect that prevents him from having a conscience. Seven’s nanoprobes have fixed that defect, and now he has that conscience—and it’s making him miserable.
The EMH appeals to Janeway and Yediq, saying that Iko is almost literally not the same person he was when he committed murder. He should not be put to death—but, as Janeway points out, what matters here is Nygean law. Yediq admits that there is a process by which the guilty party can request to make an appeal to the victim’s family. Janeway asks Yediq to help Tuvok draft that appeal, which the warden very reluctantly agrees to.
Iko, though, doesn’t want to appeal. He wants to die. He and Seven speak at length, with Iko talking about the star gazing he used to do as a child, naming the constellations and even coming up with stories about them.
Neelix also befriends Joleg, teaching him kadis-kot. He also agrees to send a letter to Joleg’s brother.
At one meal time Iko refuses his meal, asking that Neelix give it to Egrid.
The family of Iko’s victims refuse to listen to the appeal. Seven is angry, but Iko is philosophical about it.
A ship attacks Voyager, disabling the cells. The Benkaran prisoners overpower Starfleet security, and take Yediq hostage. Tuvok is able to drive them back to the cargo bay, where Iko convinces Joleg to hand over a weapon so he can kill Yediq—then he, instead, hands the weapon to Yediq, who takes Joleg and the other prisoner down.
Neelix is furious that Joleg tricked him, as the attack came from Joleg’s brother, who used the letter Neelix passed on to track Voyager’s position and attempt a prison break. Yediq, meanwhile, is so impressed with Iko’s behavior that he makes a personal appeal to the victim’s family. They agree to listen to Iko, who doesn’t beg for his life, but simply explains what has happened and that he is a different person now.
The family does not change their position. Seven allows Iko to check out astrometrics before he is taken away for his execution. Seven is upset—not that Iko is being punished for his crime, but that he is being punished for one murder when she gets to continue to live after murdering thousands as a drone. Janeway tells her that being a Borg drone for twenty years is punishment enough.
Can’t we just reverse the polarity? For reasons that are never adequately explained, Tuvok takes the time to construct prison cells in a cargo bay instead of, y’know, using the brig that was already built for that purpose…
There’s coffee in that nebula! Janeway is ripshit when she finds out that Yediq and his people decided to beat up a prisoner for shits and giggles. In every other instance, she’s more than happy to defer to the Nygean way of doing things, but she draws the line at brutality. And good for her.
Mr. Vulcan. At one point, Yediq dismisses Tuvok as unqualified to do the job of prison warden. The later breakout by the prisoners proves him right.
Everybody comes to Neelix’s. When he becomes an advocate for Benkaran rights, Paris points out that Neelix is the softest touch in the Delta Quadrant. Subsequent events prove Paris right.
Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH, programmed as he is with the Hippocratic Oath as part of his very personality, is appalled at the notion of capital punishment, and works his photonic ass off to try to prevent it from happening.
Resistance is futile. Seven is initially skeptical of the notion of helping criminals on death row, but she comes to appreciate Iko’s change of heart, and also gets a heaping dose of guilt for her lack of punishment for her own crimes.
“Our response was justified.”
“How do you justify beating a defenseless man?”
“Violence is the only thing he understands.”
“You seem to have a pretty good grasp of it yourself.”
–Janeway and Yediq arguing about the treatment of prisoners in the latter’s care.
Welcome aboard. The great character actor Jeff Kober, who has made a career out of playing nasty guys, plays Iko. He’ll be back in Enterprise’s “Shadows of P’Jem” as a Coridanite. Past guests Tim de Zarn (Yediq) and F.J. Rio (Joleg) also appear. Rio appeared thrice on DS9 as Muniz in “Starship Down,” “Hard Time,” and “The Ship,” while de Zarn appeared in “Initiations” as a Kazon, in TNG’s “Starship Mine” as a mercenary, and in DS9’s “Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night” as a Bajoran.
Trivial matters: The EMH at one point says that Voyager is a starship, not the Barge of the Dead, referring to the Klingon myth that the dishonored dead travel to the afterlife on that barge to Gre’thor. The EMH learned all about all that in, appropriately, “Barge of the Dead.”
Paris referring to Neelix as the softest touch in the Delta Quadrant is hilarious given that Paris was right there alongside Neelix falling for a grift in “Live Fast and Prosper.”
Set a course for home. “It’s nice to look in someone’s eyes and not see fear.” This is a very well-written episode, with a strong message delivered with a particular lack of subtlety, but without being too sledgehammery, either. It provides some good character meat for Seven, as the more human she becomes, the worse the guilt gets, and the guilt is on overdrive here. Iko only killed one person, but he’s having his life taken from him, yet she killed a lot more than that, and she gets to live a happy life on a starship.
But the episode tries to tell its message in a ham-handed way that in many ways makes it worse. Or at least provides a “moral” that is pretty reprehensible.
Okay, it’s obvious that the Benkarans are meant to substitute for people of color who are disproportionately imprisoned and sentenced compared to white criminals. But instead of shining a light on this disparity, we find out that the Benkaran whom Neelix has befriended is not an innocent person being put to death, but a nasty-ass criminal just like Yediq said he was. He even tries a lame attempt to get the same consideration that Iko got—trying to claim that he, too, is mentally ill.
Meanwhile, Iko is a Nygean, one of the “mainstream” species, and he gets a redemption arc. So the equivalent to the white guy gets to be forgiven by the audience, if not by the victims, and the equivalent to the POC gets to be the asshole who stages a prison break and goes back on his word. This isn’t quite failing your saving roll versus social commentary, but it’s a very very low roll…
It’s especially frustrating because F.J. Rio played Joleg with a quiet dignity that reminds me of a role played by the great Charles S. Dutton on an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. In the “Prison Riot” episode, Dutton played a prisoner who is serving a life sentence for killing the person who killed his son. I was hoping that Joleg would have a similar resigned dignity about him, but instead, they turned him into an idiot thug. It was disappointing as hell, not worthy of Rio’s performance, and not worthy of the message they should have been trying to send across.
Having said that, Jeff Kober does a wonderful job of playing against type, mostly by starting out playing to type. Pre-nanoprobes Iko is pretty much the same character Kober has spent his entire career playing, but then he has his personality shift, and Kober plays it beautifully—still the same person, yet a completely different one as well. He sells the character’s initial meanness as well as his later regret.
I also like the notion that families of victims get to choose the sentence. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrible idea from a real-world perspective, but it’s a fascinating one from a story perspective.
I keep going back and forth on the rating for this. I don’t want to go as low as 6, but I don’t want to go as high as 7, either. I’m going to settle on 7, with the usual reminder that the warp factor rating is the least important part of the rewatch entry.
Warp factor rating: 7
Keith R.A. DeCandido is going to be part of The Gold Archive, a series of monographs on various episodes of Star Trek, from the original series to the current spate of programs on Paramount+. Keith will be writing about TNG‘s “Birthright” two-parter for the series, which will be out some time in 2022.