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Throwback Thursday - Star Trek: Voyager - Course: Oblivion

Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favourite TV episodes from the past.

Star Trek: Voyager 5.18 "Course: Oblivion" Directed by Anson Williams Story by : Bryan Fuller and Nick Sagan Teleplay by : Nick Sagan

I’ve recently spent the past few months binge-watching Star Trek: Voyager so I thought for this article it would be a good idea to write about Course: Oblivion and why it’s one of Star Trek’s finest hours, not just in Voyager, but in the whole franchise. Although I prefer Deep Space Nine overall in terms of consistency - and even favour the classic The Next Generation and the newer Discovery, there’s some stellar standout episodes in Voyager when they dare to break from their premise, or better yet, distil their premise into everything Voyager should have been from the start. Year from Hell was one. The Void another. But the best of all, Course: Oblivion, emerges as leader of the pack. Its bleakness stayed with me several episodes later, and even having finished the series, it packs one of the most emotional punches to the gut in the series’ whole run.

One of the series’ main relationships over the course of the show has been between B’Elanna Torres, half-human and half-Klingon Marquis, and rogue pilot Tom Paris, as we’ve followed their evolution into eventual married couple. We first meet them at their wedding, but it all feels a bit too sudden, as we’ve only just got to the start of their relationship a few episodes ago. Most series usually save weddings til the end of their run, but Voyager manages to pull a brilliant curve-ball on us midway into Course: Oblivion, and that’s by letting us know that the crew you’ve just spent the last several minutes watching do their normal Voyager things, aren’t actually Voyager’s crew. They’re duplicates of the real crew, created when the ship landed on a Demon planet in Season 4’s Demon, which Course: Oblivion acts as a stealth-sequel to but requires no prior knowledge of.

Course: Oblivion is not just one of the most thematically dark episodes of Voyager, it’s one of the darkest episodes in the whole franchise. From the moment the wedding is over, conditions for the duplicate versions of our characters go from bad to worse. Fresh off the wedding, Torress’ health starts to deteriorate and she falls victim to a crippling disease that ultimately takes her life. It’s the inciting incident that causes the rest of the crew to learn their fate from The Doctor, who informs them that they’re not Voyager’s real crew, and are instead imposters. If they are imposters – what then, does that make their mission to Earth? Does it make it a pipe dream – even if they are able to make it to Earth, how would the real Voyager treat their duplicates? How would the Federation treat them? Their families waiting for them back on Earth are very much not their families. These characters may look like Captain Janeway and Tom Paris, they may talk like them and they may have their memories, but that’s where the similarities end. Do they still make the decisions that the real Janeway or Paris would have done, knowing now just how different they are?

The fallout is catastrophic, yet in terms of overall arc and impact on Voyager as a series, it basically doesn’t affect the real crew at all (so there’s nothing new there, Voyager does this on the regular, but this time the situation is so unique and different from your normal Voyager episode it almost becomes consequential because of this). By the time they arrive in search of a distress call the fake Voyager has broken down and disintegrated completely around them, leaving nothing but dust and ashes. There’s not a sign that the duplicates existed at at all, and seeing the real Voyager arrive at the end only to find nothing after everything that the duplicates went through to make themselves and their presence at least be known to the real crew is a harrowing experience. It’s an especially tough episode for Paris, who experiences not only the death of his wife, but also learns that their marriage was never “real” in the first place. It’s one of the most effective and genuine fake-outs in science fiction, and you completely buy every second of Paris’ emotions and grief.

Kate Mulgrew is given some great material here as the fake Janeway is forced to come to terms with the fact that her promise to get the crew to Earth and away from their actual demon planet may kill them. “I promised this crew I would get them home” gives a fascinating weight to the drama even if the decision on paper is clear – If it meant dying over getting everyone back to their real home, surely you’d opt to get everyone home? Course: Oblivion presents this statement in a harrowing way that encourages us to think twice about every situation. This allows us moments of fantastic chemistry between Dawson and MacNeill, distilled into a brief moment that arguably do a better job of examining their connection than across the entire series. The actors bring their A-game to the table in Course: Oblivion, and it’s all the better for it.

The cynical approach to Course: Oblivion works in its favour; this is Star Trek pulling a Black Mirror on us. It builds its story around a set of people and then takes them away from us one by one whilst they’re exploring their identities and who they are as a people. It does its job brilliantly, using the faces of the real Voyager crew to make us care about them and then by the time the rug is pulled out from under us we’re invested in these duplicates. We want them to survive, we want them to remain true to the ideals of Starfleet even if they’re not only not Starfleet officers, they’ve never been Starfleet officers.

Some remain true to their ideals and others do not, but ultimately, despite the crews’ struggles, it doesn’t really matter, in perhaps the ultimate question of morality that Voyager has wrestled with over the course of its run. It’s a direct response to the utopian ideals of episodes like Darmok, and it takes a direction that you’d expect in an episode of Discovery or Picard rather than in Voyager, which normally keeps things light and easy to watch. Except when it wants to. Except when you get situations like Course: Oblivion, a bold premise that Voyager is capable of knocking out of the park.


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