Faced with the prospect of two years without seeing a single star, the crew goes stir crazy. Paris studies sociology on the holodeck, Kim practices his clarinet, and Janeway locks herself in her quarters and refuses to come out.

[The Coffee Nebula]


Plot Synopsis

A planet spins slowly on its axis. The land masses look a lot like Earth, which is curious since we should be in the Delta Quadrant. More curious still, it has the look of a child's toy globe about it. It doesn't quite wobble, but it has the appearance of being suspended in space, hanging in front of a backcloth of unmoving stars. It is most definitely not part of a changing, expanding universe. And it's in black and white. Either the special effects budget has been slashed in half, or we're in...

The holodeck. Still in black and white. A sneering arch-villain with the obligatory goatee beard and widow's peak of his profession, wearing a glittering robe and elaborate helmet that wouldn't look out of place in an Alex Raymond Flash Gordon newspaper strip, is issuing an ultimatum to the planet below. Snarling into an antique microphone, he gives the citizens of Earth a choice. Either they give in and accept him as their ruler, or when he's done conquering them just about all they'll have to look forward to is slavery and the mines of Mercury. Tough choice. Particularly if you suspect that if a guy looks this much like Ming the Merciless there's a better than even chance that you'll end up in the slave mines either way. But he gives them an hour to make up their minds.

This is the moment at which Harry Kim pipes up and tells him that he doesn't have an hour. Somebody - presumably either Harry himself or the decorative but helpless looking blonde who is tied up in the seat next to him - pushed their rocket ship's self destruct button before Chaotica got aboard it. Harry gives Chaotica three minutes before it blows up.

Chaotica is, understandably, less than pleased at having his plans foiled in this way. But he doesn't get a lot of time to dwell on it. The whoosh of a jet pack heralds the opening of an airlock and the entrance of the rocket ship's owner, come to repossess his property. And since the owner in question is Captain Proton - Spaceman First Class, Protector of Earth, and Scourge of Intergalactic Evil - and he's packing a mean ray gun, there's every chance that he'll succeed in saving the day. He looks an awful lot like Tom Paris, incidentally... even before he takes his goggles off.

Our Hero unties Harry and the blonde. Doctor Chaotica can't ever have been a boy scout, since Proton/Paris manages to undo the knots and free their bonds one handed, while continuing to wave his ray gun menacingly at the villain with the other. Foiled but very far from finished, Chaotica utters one more threat to worry the heroes. There is, he warns, one force in the universe that even Captain Proton cannot defeat.

Right on cue, someone else enters. Predictably, the blonde screams in response. Could this be Paris's nemesis?

It could indeed. The Doctor, a scowling vision in glorious Technicolor, complains that Paris has overrun his holodeck slot and is now delaying his own Don Carlo rehearsal. Harry whispers an aside to the computer to adjust the Doctor's spectral frequency to blend in with their monochrome surroundings, and Chaotica pursues his own agenda by ordering his robot to attack, starting with the Doctor, who has committed the heinous crime of ignoring him. The Doctor assumes an irritated expression. The blonde screams, even more shrill than the first time. Harry winces, and puts his hands to his ears. And Proton/Paris frowns. All this noise is affecting his concentration, not to mention his enjoyment of the game. He points his gun even more determinedly than before.

But the Doctor doesn't want to play. He freezes the program amidst Paris's protests, and starts trying to call up his opera program instead. The two of them get into a fight over the holodeck controls, while the Doctor calls Paris's sci fi homage a waste of photonic energy, and Paris claims it (presumably somewhat tongue in cheek) for a serious sociological look at how the twentieth century visualised the future. Finally, the inevitable happens. A panel sparks. The holodeck breaks down.

Oops. Past experience of holodecks indicates that that isn't a good thing.

Meanwhile on the bridge, Chakotay spots a blip on his monitor and calls up the holodeck to see what's going on. The guilty parties hasten to reassure him that it's nothing, just a little power surge, and that they're fixing it right now. And Chakotay lets it slide, with just the comment that they'd better hurry up about the repairs. It would seem that the Doctor's not the only one clamouring for his turn at the holodeck.

Part of the reason why becomes clear as Seven of Nine enters the bridge, and the view widens to show that there are abnormally few duty officers there. Just the first officer and a helmsman. That's a lot of people with leisure time on their hands, and Chakotay's reaction to Seven's report shows that isn't necessarily a good thing. She tells him that her astrometric scans show that there are no star systems for 25,000 light years. Worse still, those beyond that range cannot be seen because the sensor readings are being interfered with by heavy theta radiation. Chakotay stares at the blank viewscreen and voices his misgivings. They have been in this starless void for a mere two months, and the crew aren't reacting well to it. It isn't good news that they might have to endure it for a further two years.

Seven inquires whether she should inform Captain Janeway of her findings, at which thought Chakotay looks still more troubled. He tells Seven that he will pass on the message himself.

The daily briefing is a little better populated than the bridge, but the senior staff don't look any happier than the first officer. Torres comments, a little waspishly, that it won't be much of a briefing since she doesn't have anything new to report. Chakotay, patiently, asks her to humour him, so she elaborates. The warp core is at peak efficiency, as it was last week and indeed the week before that. Somewhat more pertinently, she adds that her staff in Engineering are going stir crazy. So, it would seem, are the senior staff.

Harry Kim has no more to report about Operations. Tuvok does have something to report - a sudden increase in theta radiation - but since the entire area is suffused in it, this doesn't seem anything particularly out of the ordinary. It is, however, about as exciting as things have got on Voyager during the past two months, as Paris's sarcastic comment makes clear.

The Doctor and Neelix chip in with their thoughts on the deteriorating crew morale. Neelix makes some fairly intelligent suggestions about ways and means of boosting spirits - putting together a temporary additional holodeck, swapping crew assignments around to add novelty to the working day - although the effect is somewhat marred when he uses it as a platform to put in his latest bid to join Tuvok's security staff. But then he gets to the point and asks the question that he - and everybody else in the room - has been dying to ask all along. Where is the captain? The crew is concerned about her elusiveness, and that certainly isn't helping morale.

Chakotay plays loyal second-in-command, and tries to pass off Janeway's absence with some talk about it being her choice and privilege to run the ship from wherever she wishes, even her quarters, but it's pretty obvious that even he doesn't believe in his own pep talk. So he mutters something non-committal about them all feeling the pressure, and is thankful when Harry Kim puts his foot in his mouth and creates a convenient diversion. As he dismisses the meeting they're all making fun of Harry's suggestion that they treat their two years in the void like an extended holiday, rather than pondering upon the captain's mysterious behaviour. You wonder if they don't want to think too much about that.

Night time. Neelix wakes from sleep with a whimper, as if from a bad dream, and calls out somewhat shakily to the computer to raise the lighting level to maximum. He orders himself a soothing cup of tea, but before he can take so much as a sip his gaze is arrested by the sight of the porthole in his quarters. Reluctantly, as if drawn to it against his will, he comes up close and peers out, searching anxiously for a break in the blackness. Eventually he breaks away, looking down into his drink, and mutters with a quavering determination that first thing in the morning he'll replicate some curtains to block out the non view. He is obviously deeply disturbed by their circumstances.

Meanwhile, perhaps because they have nothing better to do and are too bored even to sleep, Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres are hanging out in the Mess Hall, drinking coffee and idly playing a game of terada. But tempers are a little too close to fraying, and B'Elanna chooses for once not to take into account that Tom's particular brand of slightly sarcastic teasing is more a method of delivery than anything personal. She chooses to take his words at face value, and he in his turn takes offence at her grumpiness, making a comment about Klingon painstiks. It gets a decisive response from B'Elanna; she takes still greater offence and gets up to leave. At which point they start arguing about arguing itself, and it becomes clear that this is more than just a one-off spat brought about by boredom and tired irritability. Neelix, taking refuge from his own problems in the Mess Hall and looking distinctly off colour, tries to break it up and defuse the situation, but the two of them are obviously in a mood to pick a fight and persist with it in spite of his efforts to arbitrate and distract. So he starts to bawl them out, and to give a speech that wouldn't be out of place on the captain's lips, if only she were here to give it. To their credit, they do stop to listen. But it's when Neelix falters to a halt and starts to hyperventilate that he really gets their attention. One emergency trip to sickbay later, the Doctor diagnoses him as suffering from nihilophobia; a fear of the void itself and the nothingness that it represents. But Neelix is not comforted by the fact that his condition is medical. It mortifies him that despite being the crew's self appointed morale officer he is feeling the effects more than anyone.

Tuvok spends his leisure hours staring at the stars and meditating. But since the view from his quarters is, as he tells Seven of Nine, less than stellar of late, he's been reduced to borrowing the Astrometrics Lab and its galactic starcharts in order to do so. The two of them are debating the respective rejuvenative merits of Vulcan meditation versus Borg regeneration when the long range sensors set off an alert. Seven, checking, reports that they have detected more theta radiation, this time in dangerously high concentrations.

In the subdued lighting of the captain's quarters, Chakotay reports Seven's findings to Janeway. The source is unknown, and it could just be natural background radiation, but it could also mean that there is someone else nearby. Shrouded in the deep shadow, staring broodingly out of her window, Janeway shrugs and approves a course alteration to investigate, then dismisses him. But Chakotay doesn't take the hint. He's looked uncomfortable and worried throughout his report, and now he takes a deep breath and asks her if she'll come and play a few games of velocity with him on the holodeck. He doesn't, however, say it as if he expects an instant and enthusiastic response, and he certainly doesn't get one. When he says he's not leaving until she joins him, Janeway invites him to take a seat. It'll be a while, she says, and her listless but self-mocking tone implies that she doesn't mean a short while.

So, like Neelix in the staff meeting, Chakotay throws caution to the winds and calls her on it. He tells the captain straight out that she's picked an extremely bad time to shut herself away and leave the crew without her leadership.

It gets a response of sorts. Janeway offers him another excuse - that she's just catching up on her reading - but not with any degree of conviction. She moves forward, out of the shadows, which is a start, and confesses that she herself is at a loss to know quite how she's come to cut herself off in this way. She's somewhat clearer on the reasons why she's doing it though. Since they entered the void, she's had the leisure and opportunity to reflect and to brood, and now she passes on some of those darker thoughts to the listening Chakotay. She's almost missing the days of constant attack, even longing for a Borg cube or two to come along for light relief. Because then she wouldn't have time to think about how they ended up stranded in the Delta Quadrant.

Chakotay gives a calm rationalisation of the choice they had to make between getting home and leaving the Ocampa open to attack, tells her that they're still alive, and that they've gathered a lot of data about the quadrant to keep Starfleet happy. He tells her that their mission has been a success. Perhaps he doesn't mention that some of the crew didn't survive, and that a lot of them never signed up for any mission in the first place, but in the kind of mood that Janeway's in she doesn't need any more negativity to feed upon. And besides, his answer is so measured and rational that you can't help but wonder if this speech is also a mantra he uses for himself, if ever the doubts kick in. The one thing he doesn't do at any point is to blame the captain for the crew's predicament. But then he doesn't need to. Janeway blames herself enough for everybody.

Harry has the bridge to himself. Even the helm is on autopilot. Sprawled in the captain's chair, he plays his clarinet to himself and the vacant workstations, something in a minor key which fits right in with the mood of the ship. He breaks off in embarrassment when Tuvok enters, but Tuvok is in a mellow mood and unusually inclined to overlook Ensign Kim's liberties with the big chair. He even nods approvingly when Harry gives him a preview of his concerto, Echoes Of The Void.

Meanwhile, back in the holodeck, Tom Paris is running the Captain Proton program once again. Harry's on duty on the bridge so he's obliged to make do without one of his trusty sidekicks. But, perhaps in deference to Harry's perforated eardrums, he also seems to be trying to recruit a replacement for the blonde screamer. The auditionee is also blonde, but this one thinks that screaming is irrelevant. She seems to have moved beyond thinking that holodecks are irrelevant as well, but she hasn't quite got the idea of holodeck games yet. When Paris invites her to distract the robot while he as Captain Proton saves Earth, she's yanked open the robot's front panel and ripped out its power supply to deactivate it before he can get to his console and push so much as a button.

On the bridge Harry is still playing his concerto to Tuvok, when the ship is hit without warning. Harry breaks all records getting from the captain's chair to his own station, vaulting the handrail in the process. He reports that they have dropped out of warp and are losing power. Tuvok orders a switch to auxiliary power, but it has no effect. And all over the ship, the lights go out.

Even the warp core and the nacelles fade and die. On the darkened bridge Harry comments to Tuvok that this wasn't quite what he'd had in mind when hoping for a change of pace. Be careful what you wish for, Harry... They remove a panel and try to jury rig a power feed from the energy reserves. Chakotay wanders the corridors with the aid of his wristlight. He seems to be moving purposefully towards a definite destination, but then he hears someone sobbing and turns back to investigate. In Engineering they also have the wristlights out, trying to get to the root of the power problem. And on the holodeck, Paris is trying to figure out how to switch on a twentieth century torch.

He seems to be enjoying the challenge but then, arguments with B'Elanna aside, Tom has seemed better able to improvise amusements for himself in the void than most of the crew. He's kept his mind fresh and alert on the holodeck, and has therefore only to adjust from a pretend crisis to a real one. He has a little fun with the torch and roleplaying his holodeck character before becoming all business and directing the light in the direction of a control panel. He and Seven deduce that the power loss is shipwide, including the backup systems, but that certain of the independent subsystems are still operational, such as environmental controls and the holodecks... which explains why they are still in a monochrome environment, if not why the lights have gone off in the holodeck as well.

Seven orders Paris to reroute power from the holodeck to the emergency relays. He gives her a look, but while Captain Proton might take offence at his secretary taking charge and giving the orders, it doesn't worry Tom Paris overmuch if Seven does it. He gives her the respectful, slightly sarcastic "Yes, ma'am" that he normally reserves for the captain to acknowledge that he's noticed the role switch, but attempts to do as she suggests. He fails. The hologrid still looks operational, but it's frozen in its current state.

Chakotay tracks the sobbing to its source; Neelix, curled up in a corner, hugging his jacket to his chest like a comfort blanket. He coaxes him to his feet and takes him along with him. On the bridge, Tuvok and Kim have managed to get back partial sensors, and Harry quickly identifies the source of the power drain as a dampening field originating from a source off the port bow. The viewscreen shows only blackness, so they come up with the idea of using a photon torpedo as a flare, to shed light on the space immediately surrounding the ship.

With the hologrid frozen, Paris and Seven are trapped inside Captain Proton's rocket ship. Looking around for a suitable lever to use in prising open the hatch, Paris's torch finds something that he hadn't expected to find inside the holodeck. A small brown alien, who sparkles slightly as the light catches him, and throws up a hand to shield its eyes as the light beam catches it full in the face. Paris lowers his flashlight slightly as he stares in surprise, and the moment it's no longer pinned by its beam the enraged alien rushes him, shooting him with its weapon. Paris cries out in pain and falls. The offending flashlight, dropped, rolls in the direction of Seven's feet. She snatches it up, grabs Proton's raygun from Paris's unconscious body, orders the computer to disengage the safety protocols, and fires at the alien, hitting it squarely in the chest.

In the corridor, Neelix clutches convulsively at Chakotay, insisting that he's heard something. Chakotay shines his wristlight, but sees nothing. Neelix insists he was right. He might be nihilophobic, but that hasn't affected his eyesight. Besides, he thinks he can hear breathing. Chakotay's light, questing a little further, reveals a second alien which reacts just as indignantly to being put in a spotlight as Paris's alien did. It rushes the two, but is stopped in its tracks by a laser burst from behind.

It turns quickly, spots the twin threat of a compression phaser rifle with a spotlight mounted along the sights and Kathryn Janeway behind the trigger, and opts for the only sensible course of action. It runs like hell.

Tuvok and Harry fire their torpedo. It lights up only the smallest area along its path, but it's enough to show that Voyager has company. Meanwhile, a revitalised Janeway, having been handed the opportunity to act rather than think that she both dreaded and longed for, is doing her best to shed a little more permanent light on the situation. She, Chakotay and Neelix lever the doors to force their way into Engineering with one of the reserve power cells that Voyager was stockpiling for the long journey through the void. Once Torres gets it hooked up to the emergency power supply, Tuvok and Harry get the tactical systems back. By the time the warp core is on line, they've raised the shields, blocked the dampening field, and confirmed the three vessels surrounding them and the seventeen intruders aboard the ship.

The alien vessels do not respond to hails, so Janeway orders Tuvok to fire a few warning shots at one of them. It shoots back, and hurts Voyager rather more than Voyager hurt it. And they don't have propulsion back yet, so running away isn't an option. As the shields go down before the alien weapons, Harry Kim reports that the dampening field is being reinitialised, and that the power drain has begun again. And a panicky Neelix watches as the warp core dulls to grey and slows once more.

The lights flicker, then come back on at full strength. In Engineering an incredulous Chakotay reports to Janeway that the aliens have stopped their attack and are beaming off the ship. Kim contacts them to announce that another ship is approaching. It's big and it packs some serious firepower. Voyager's smaller attackers scuttle off hastily into the night in the face of its hostility. The new arrival hails Voyager and Tuvok, as the senior officer present on the bridge, goes into the standard greetings spiel. He's interrupted by an irate Malon, who complains about the number of spatial charges he had to use to drive off the other ships, demands compensation, and wants to know what they are doing out here in the middle of nowhere.

Janeway, Tuvok and Chakotay meet their rescuer in the transporter room. As he beams aboard, Tuvok cautions that he's bringing high levels of theta radiation with him. Janeway orders him to compensate for it, but as an added precaution she conducts her interview with the newcomer while he remains standing on the transporter pad. Controller Emck of the Malon export fleet is arrogant and high-handed, advising them in patronising tones to turn around and flee back to safety, since they'll never survive another attack from the void aliens without his help. But he brings what seems like good news. When they emphasise their need to go forward, he offers to shepherd them to safety - presumably for a not-so-small consideration - through a spatial vortex that is his private express route to the other side of the void. Unfortunately, there's a price to pay for this gift, and it's not just the reward he clearly expects to receive for his assistance. There is a void alien still on board, the one that Seven injured, and he demands that they hand it over to him. He's also suspiciously evasive about the purpose of his own mission in the void, and the excessive amounts of theta radiation his ship is leaking. When Janeway refuses to do anything until he explains a little more about what he's up to, he presents them with an ultimatum: give him the alien or stay behind. As he beams back to his ship, Janeway decides it's time to hear the other side of the story.

The lights in sickbay have been dimmed, although it's nothing compared to the total darkness of a couple of hours earlier. The Doctor tells Janeway that his patient is extremely photosensitive, and probably indigenous to the void. Since he has evolved to survive in complete darkness, it's hardly surprising that he and his race reacted so violently when faced with direct bright lights, and Chakotay surmises that their power dampening activities were probably as much to do with removing Voyager's ability to generate light as anything else.

The alien's wounds are minor, phaser wounds from which he is recovering, but the Doctor says that he is also suffering from something more serious which he cannot treat. The alien is in the final stages of theta radiation poisoning. Every organ in his body is degrading at the cellular level. Janeway talks to him, and manages to convince him that her crew is not in league with the Malon, and that they have no intention of handing him over to them either. She asks if his race is at war with the Malon, and he tells her that the Malon are poisoning his race, and their space, by dumping theta radiation there, but he doesn't know why. And then, very unusually for a race Voyager has encountered in the Delta Quadrant, he apologises for having attacked them in ignorance and on the mistaken assumption that they were Malon allies. It's enough for Janeway to offer him a ride home.

Chakotay returns to the bridge while Janeway remains in sickbay to liaise with the void alien. His first act upon reaching it is to take Tuvok aside into the Briefing Room for a private chat. A little embarrassed, he says that he needs the Vulcan's advice. He acknowledges that they're not close, and that they've kept each other at arm's length since day one - by which he presumably means the day he discovered that Tuvok was a Starfleet spy and not the Maquis comrade he'd previously taken him for. But now he's sorely in need of the dispassionate clarity of a Vulcan's judgement concerning the captain's condition.

The wind is taken out of his sails somewhat when Tuvok offers the observation that Janeway's recent self-imposed isolation is a direct consequence of four years of guilt eating away at her as a result of a perceived error in judgement in choosing to save the Ocampa rather than take the opportunity to get her crew home, something that Chakotay himself only understands because he pushed her into an admission of it. Tuvok, on the other hand, needed no more than his observation of her behaviour over the past four years to tell him as much. They worry about the captain's tendency to seek redemption for her actions by taking foolhardy risks. And they ponder upon what they can do to prevent it if she should try something reckless now.

The void alien directs them to co-ordinates in the void where he can be reunited with his people. The Doctor, scanning their ships, reports that all of them seem to be suffering from the same theta radiation poisoning that their alien is. The void dweller tells them that his race have lived in the void for millions of years, undisturbed by outsiders until the Malon came. He says that they asked the Malon to stop their indiscriminate dumping of radioactive waste and they refused, that they tried to stop them but they were too strong. Janeway asks whether his people have considered closing the vortex in order to keep the Malon out, but he replies that they don't know how. And he appeals to her for her help.

The Malon ship's mysterious mission in the void is easy enough to surmise once you know the facts. They return to their previous co-ordinates to find Emck's ship dumping vast quantities of contaminated antimatter waste from its holds. Janeway hails Emck, tells him that they won't be sending the void alien to him, and that they have in any case talked to it and discovered the nature of the transport mission that Emck was trying to hide. She questions the morality of using another race's space as a dumping ground for Malon industrial by-product, and offers him a compromise solution. If he will give up polluting the void... and guide them through the vortex to his planet on the other side of it, Voyager will give his planet's scientists the information and purifying technology they need in order to eliminate antimatter waste and dispense with the need for dumping it entirely.

Emck demands that they put their demonstration where their mouth is. Janeway puts Chakotay in charge of giving him the guided tour. And then she settles herself and Seven down to the task of turning the Astrometrics Lab's sensors on the vortex and figuring out how it works, just in case. Seven asks if Janeway intends to destroy it. She gets the Janeway killer glare in response, for having asked a stupid question, but it's only at about half strength. The captain's still not quite herself today.

Engineering pull out all the stops to give Emck a tour of the facilities, presumably after the transporter's biofilters have done a really thorough decontamination job on him. B'Elanna Torres, wearing about as close to a social smile as a volatile half-Klingon can muster, gives him the technical details of the purifying process, and even discusses some of the engineering principles of the Malon's existing technology that can be adapted to the purpose. Chakotay hands over the necessary schematics, and offers to donate some converters to get them started on the process.

Emck approves the design. He goes as far as to say that it would solve a lot of problems on his world. Unfortunately, he then goes on to say that it would also put him out of business, so he's not interested in passing the information on. He has his vortex, which gives him a convenient dumping ground with minimal expenses, and he's more interested in short term profit margins than long term environmental benefits. And he dismisses Chakotay's protests that they won't just go on their way and let him get away with it, by reminding them of his superior firepower. Chakotay sees no other course than to order the accompanying security flunkies to escort him off the ship.

In the light of this reversal, Chakotay and Janeway consider the available options. Chakotay is all for fighting their way past Emck's ship and navigating the vortex on their own. On the other side, he suggests, they can contact the Malon authorities and tell them about Emck's actions, and renew the offer of Federation technology to solve their environmental problems.

Janeway isn't so sure. Emck's self-centred refusal has swung her back towards pessimism again, and she now wonders whether the rest of the Malon will be any more willing to listen to reason. She focusses very much on the existence of the vortex that is Emck's quick and easy route to this part of space. Closing or destroying that would put an end to the Malon's dumping activities in this area and safeguard the void dwellers. She says that there is a way to collapse it, but there's a problem: it has to be done from this end, where its dimensional radius is weakest, and if they destroyed it they would also be destroying their two year shortcut out of the void.

Chakotay considers. He believes he can live with the idea of another two years of nothingness. But then, he was one of those who was handling the void better in any case. Any worries he might have shown were largely concern for the behaviour of others.

Janeway however, states quite flatly that she can't cope with the thought of it. She's only too aware that she had a massively adverse reaction to having time on her hands, and she doesn't welcome an extension of that time to reflect upon past decisions. Besides, the most significant of those past decisions is coming back to haunt her. She sees a parallel between her decision to blow up the Caretaker's array to protect the Ocampa, stranding her crew in the Delta Quadrant, and any decision that might now be made to blow up the vortex to protect the void dwellers... which would strand her crew in the void for another two years. Chakotay argues that the situation is different, but it's too uncomfortably close for Janeway. She considers that it's asking the crew to make too big a sacrifice, and refuses to make the same decision - she calls it a mistake - again.

Chakotay asks what other option they have. She doesn't answer him directly, which is warning enough in itself. Instead she talks of how she trusts him, and considers him to be a fine first officer. And then she asks him if he's ready to captain the ship.

Chakotay having called the senior staff to the bridge, Janeway steps on to it for the first time in a very long while. It's something of a formal occasion. Everyone stands to attention, and the captain takes a grand tour of the bridge, making little personal asides to members of the crew, before getting down to business. Her plan is to send Voyager through the vortex, using whatever means necessary to fight its way past the Malon freighter. Meanwhile, she proposes to stay behind alone in a shuttlecraft and destroy the vortex once they're safely through it. That way she can slay her demons by saving both her crew and the aliens in distress.

The only problem is, her crew aren't prepared to let her sacrifice herself for them, even if it will give her the peace of mind she craves. One by one they object to leaving her behind. A quivering Neelix, who perhaps has more to lose than anyone other than Janeway herself if they remain in the void, speaks up and says that he would willingly brave another two years there if it meant keeping the captain with her crew. Janeway sets her jaw and orders Paris to set a course, then rebukes him when he fails to obey. With obvious reluctance he gets to his feet and meets her eyes, stating with a quiet regret that he can't follow that order. So she tries Harry, who apologises but also refuses. She looks at Chakotay, but doesn't even bother to ask. His answer is obvious enough. Seven refuses to take the helm. The Doctor shrugs. And Tuvok steps forward from his place at tactical and says that she is not the only one to have had time to evaluate the past. Her crew has done so also, and they have not found her wanting.

It's dangerously close to being a mutiny, albeit a benevolent one, and all of them know it. But it's also a vote of confidence, even if it's not framed as such. And that seems to be enough for Janeway. She has the need to make a grand gesture of reparation to assuage her feels of guilt, but she's not actually suicidal, and the crew's solidarity tips the balance back their way. She gives Tuvok a look, and baits them all with the threat of being shot for mutiny, but she's already looking forward towards the next option. Fortunately, Chakotay has one on the tip of his tongue, ready to present, and it's the kind of bold, risky stunt that she generally thrives on - firing torpedoes to trigger a collapse of the vortex as they enter it, then jumping to high warp to race the shockwave to the other end. It's dangerous, but it keeps the crew together. They decide to try it. And, as the crew go to red alert, Janeway accuses Chakotay of having told them what she planned before she got there. He acknowledges it; all part of the duties of a fine first officer.

The Malon start shooting as Voyager closes on the vortex. The Starfleet ship shoots back with everything it has, but it's severely outgunned as Emck had warned. A Malon shot ruptures the port nacelle, leaving Tom Paris to manoeuvre the ship through the barrage of spatial charges on one engine. Voyager tilts and slides its way between an impressive pyrotechnical bombardment, somehow managing to dodge through unscathed. At the helm Paris breaths a sigh of relief, indicating that while it wouldn't do his reputation as the best pilot you could have any good to admit it, that one was just a little bit too close for comfort.

Right on cue, Seven comments, "Captain Proton to the rescue". It gathers her a selection of strange looks, raised eyebrows, and an amused laugh from the helmsman, who's the only person on the bridge who understands what she's referring to. He's a little amazed to find that she's on his wavelength, but Seven has just made a joke and for the first time it doesn't involve an oblique reference to Borg superiority. It sounds like there's a chance Captain Proton may be able to rely upon Constance Goodheart's devastating robot distraction techniques to help him save the galaxy again some day.

But there's no time to explain private jokes to the puzzled bridge crew. With the vortex in visual range, the starboard nacelle is hit and Paris loses the second warp engine. He warns that they're now moving in the right direction on inertia alone, and that one more hit will be enough to stop them. Chakotay worries that without warp drive they'll never outrun the shockwave.

Janeway thinks quickly. They've already reinforced the aft shields as a precaution for the risky race through the vortex ahead of the shockwave. They'd anticipated doing it at warp speed, but now she checks with Tuvok to see if he can reinforce the shields still further with the main deflector, and proposes using the shockwave itself to provide the momentum to push them through it.

The Malon attempt to block their path. Without engines they cannot manoeuvre around them. All they can do is fire on the freighter, aiming for the radiation weakened bulkheads they've detected around its cargo hold, and hope for the best. Then rescue comes from an unexpected quarter. The void aliens have approached invisibly in their ships, and now fire on the Malon to run interference for Voyager. Seven reports that the Malon ship is moving away to intercept the new attackers. Tuvok adds that its shields are weakening, and Janeway orders him to target its cargo hold. The Malon ship blows up as they cross the threshold of the vortex, and Janeway orders another volley of torpedoes, this time deployed like mines, to collapse the vortex behind them.

They ride the shockwave through to the far side of the vortex. It's a rough ride, but they make it, and Seven reports that the vortex itself is no more. And they find themselves back in the blackness of the void. Harry Kim reports that without propulsion they've emerged a little short of their destination. They're still some 200,000 kilometres from the void boundary. An edgy looking Janeway orders that they maintain course... and Voyager drifts slowly forward, presumably on a combination of inertia and impulse drive.

Tom Paris is the first to see a star, an insubstantial pinprick in the blanket of darkness that remains unobserved by everyone else, and causes the Doctor to doubt his eyesight. The Doctor gets the dirty look he deserves, but no further comment is necessary since the conn starts bleeping its own confirmation of Paris's sighting, and shortly afterwards the viewscreen allows everyone to see for themselves, as one by one the stars and nebulae come out from behind the thinning theta radiation.

Janeway, sounding altogether more cheerful, asks Harry at Ops what he sees out there. And, just for once, Harry foregoes his instrument panels and bases his observations on the welcome sight on the viewscreen instead, as he reports that he sees a densely packed region with thousands of star systems.


Random Reflections

There are one or two problems related to the duration of Voyager's passage through the void at the point at which this story opens.

Firstly, Seven states that there are no star systems within twenty five hundred light years. Clearly this is not entirely true. They've been in the void for a mere 53 days according to Chakotay, and even at high warp that would mean that there must be a star system behind them which is no more than a couple of hundred light years away. Presumably Seven discounted their point of origin as irrelevant, but it's somewhat imprecise of her not to make that clear! It probably ought to be assumed however that the void spreads out fairly equally in all directions - above, below, and to either side of them, as well as ahead - since otherwise they would have most likely followed and skirted the perimeter which best matched their general course heading, in order to stay within touch of supply planets.

Secondly, the timescale is wrong. During the previous episode, Hope And Fear, Seven of Nine made a daily log entry on stardate 51981.6. Chakotay's log entry at the start of this story is made on stardate 52081.2, and it is in that log that he states that it has been 53 days since Voyager first entered the void. Now, given the production convention that 1,000 stardates equals one calendar year, then a standard Earth day would equate to about 2.73 stardates. Unfortunately, this means that no more than 36 days can have passed since Seven made that log entry. And certainly when Voyager came out of the slipstream at the end of the previous episode there was no indication of a starless void.

Chakotay could have been referring to stardates rather than actual days, which would work. But that would mean that the crew had only been in the void for a mere 19 days. Hardly enough time for so many of them to have been so seriously affected by the mundanity of their daily existence, you'd think. Although in point of fact, Chakotay's 53 days is really only just acceptable. It may be argued that Neelix's phobia and Janeway's withdrawal into guilt and depression were potential physical and psychological problems that were always lurking just below the surface and which it took no more than the existence of the void to bring out, but the majority of the crew are no more than bored and irritable, and have spent the past four years lurching from one crisis to the next. It seems surprising that the novelty of having some downtime and a freedom from threat should have palled quite so quickly. Not all of this crew are career Starfleet, after all, and those who were had served in what was mostly peacetime. You'd expect them to have enjoyed a break from danger a little more, and also perhaps that they might have been resourceful enough to make their own amusements.

Unless, of course, it is primarily the captain's inexplicable behaviour in the void which is at the heart of her crew's uneasiness about it. If she were a little happier about their two year holiday, maybe they would be too.

These quibbles aside, the void itself makes a certain amount of astronomical sense. The spiral trails caused by the galaxy's slow rotation around its centre mean that there will be vast expanses of space on the edges and between those spirals where there is a less dense population of stars, and it is likely some such phenomenon that Voyager has encountered in the shape of this episode's void. It could be that at some point in time there isn't a long way around. This may be the shortest way across an empty space that must be crossed eventually in order to get back to Earth.

Voyager's course home can never be quite the straight line that Janeway would like it to be. The ship will always need to take periodic detours to planets and systems along its route to replenish supplies, and while it can stockpile and refuel sufficiently to contemplate a two year journey across the void, they'll always prefer to stick rather closer to densely populated space with plenty of star systems. But sometimes that isn't possible. Sometimes they'll need to head across empty space where it takes months or years to reach the next resource rich star system. In many ways I think it's a shame that the temporal continuity of Voyager has to stay so closely tied to that of Deep Space Nine and the Next Generation films. Spending a couple of seasons chronicling their lack of adventures in the void would be tedious, but it would have been interesting to see those stardates fast forwarded through over a two or three parter - without the Year Of Hell reset button at the end - and see the real consequences of the time spent in the middle of nothingness. The crisis of morale shouldn't really come until the mid point, after all, when they're at the furthest possible distance from all those stars. The vortex was useful, in that it nibbled away at another two years of their journey as a bonus, but it was too easy an escape.

Like a great many other people, I grew up watching the old black and white Flash Gordon movie serials, which seemed to be shown just about every school holidays when I was a child. Made in the 1930's, and based on the beautiful Sunday newspaper strips by Alex Raymond, they featured a science fiction/fantasy world of bold heroes with ray guns, beautiful heroines - some resourceful, others purely decorative - and cute bulbous little rocket ships with pointed nose cones, held together with rivets, which flew with the aid of strings and a distinctive roaring whine.

Even today they look quaint and laughable - so you can imagine what the twenty fourth century would think of them - but they have a certain nostalgic attraction in their innocently imaginative guess at the future, something which was at the heart of the 1980 Flash Gordon film - the one with the Queen soundtrack and an international cast of actors who were, by and large, having the time of their lives delivering lines that were simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and paying respectful homage to the original material. I can entirely see why it might appeal to Tom Paris for much the same reasons. And it's a film I'm very fond of, so as you can imagine I was favourably disposed towards Captain Proton from the outset.

There's a lot of Flash Gordon in Paris's holoprogram. The plot, and entire look and feel of it could have been borrowed directly from Alex Raymond's drawings - including the costume of the blonde tied up with Harry in the opening sequence. The arch-villain is a dead ringer for Ming the Merciless. True, the robot seems to have wandered in from some other similar story, and Proton's costume and jet pack seem to have been borrowed from Dave Stevens's The Rocketeer, but it's mainly a homage to a genre rather than any particular example of it. It's extremely tacky, true, but that's half the point. It allows the characters to escape from the often grim reality of their daily lives and have a little fun, overacting and playing melodrama for comic effect... and it's never a bad thing to be allowed to see our heroes at play. It can tell us quite as much about their characters as seeing how they stand up to the tests and strains of a real crisis. Here for instance, it says a lot about Tom Paris and Harry Kim that they're playing the game instead of moping around in their quarters bewailing the potential boredom of the next two years.

One continuity consideration, though. At the point at which the viewer joins Paris's Captain Proton program, Harry is just delighting in informing Doctor Chaotica that the self destruct button on Proton's rocket ship has been activated. In three minutes time , or so he claims, it will blow up. Cue the arrival of Captain Proton, to wave his trusty ray gun in the villain's face, untie his faithful comrades, and demand the return of his rocket ship. But... the one thing he doesn't do, presumably either because Harry forgot to tell him about it or because Chaotica hasn't yet given his unconditional surrender, is to cancel the self destruct.

It may be fortunate that the Doctor interrupted at this point and froze the program. Without that little accident of timing, not to mention the holodeck safeties, Captain Proton's career as protector of Earth and scourge of intergalactic evil might have come to an abrupt end.

Although of course, it didn't blow up when Paris and Seven continued running the program later. But, on the subject of frozen programs, why did the computer allow Seven to disengage the safety protocols so that she could shoot the void alien during the power blackout? If everything was offline apart from environmental controls and the holodeck, and even the hologrid was frozen in its current state, you'd think it would be impossible. My theory is that it was impossible. Seven requested the disengage, but she got no response from the computer, which usually likes to give a warning and a lecture at this point. But with main power down the computer would have been offline at the time, and Paris had already been severely injured by the alien, something which should also have been impossible with the safeties on. I suspect that the safety protocols went offline the instant the computer crashed, and that Seven's request was just a reflex action, asking for something that had already happened without her knowledge.

The holodecks were mentioned as early as the second episode as having an independent power source, so I see no problem with them being listed amongst the independent systems which retain some limited functionality during the power outage. It not only allows the Captain Proton program to continue in black and white with its scenery intact, but also means that Tom Paris has access to the twentieth century flashlight that is amongst its props. But the question remains: if the holodeck is in charge of the ambient lighting - which its ability to alter spectral frequencies would suggest - why didn't it freeze with the lights on rather than off? And are the holodeck's power systems less incompatible with the main power grid than they were in Parallax? When Harry Kim and the Engineering team tried hooking them up then they managed to blow half the EPS conduits. Since this was, of course, a plot device to allow the crew to continue to use the holodeck even when in all other respects power was strictly rationed, I can only assume that nowadays, with the energy reserves comfortably high, continued rationing is more a precaution against future reversals of fortune than a dire necessity, and that someone has indeed come up with the necessary power transfer solution.

There were a few important questions about the void dwelling aliens that went unanswered. For instance, do they live in total blackness all of the time? You would expect their eyes to have atrophied over the millenia of disuse if that were the case, but they appeared to be able to see, and were distinctly uncomfortable when subjected to bright light. (It seems to me that a few intense light sources transported aboard their ships would have been a much more telling retaliation than firing phasers.) I can only assume that they make use of the blackness of the void for stealth purposes - their ships are very good at sneaking up on others unseen - but are as used to low level lighting in their daily existence.

But where did they come from? Where do they live? Voyager is traversing a starless void. It doesn't mean that there aren't a considerable number of starless rocks out there, with void aliens dwelling upon them, but they must be pretty barren of resources and the conditions to promote life. And if the void dwellers live a nomadic life aboard their ships, what's to stop them from simply moving on to an area of space less threatened by the Malon's radioactive dumping? It would seem that they must have a secret and hidden home base within the void, to which they have ties that they don't wish to break, but its existence is somewhat problematic.

Cargo Bay 2 has always been somewhat flexible in its function. It spent much of the first three years of Voyager's journey home as Kes's hydroponics bay and garden, only to have its horticultural career abruptly terminated when Seven's Borg cell adopted it as their home from home in Scorpion: 2. For the past year it has been where Seven goes to spend time alone, either studying or regenerating, when she is not on duty. Now, nobody's actually mentioned moving Seven of Nine into proper crew quarters. These things take time. The Doctor's been hinting at wanting a room of his own ever since he got his mobile emitter in Future's End: 2, and Seven's only been aboard for a year. But you do have to wonder where she's regenerating and/or sleeping nowadays, if Neelix can even consider the possibility of turning Cargo Bay 2 into a temporary third holodeck. (The answer is, of course, in the cargo bay as usual, since she shows up there in Drone.)



Tuvok says that he's been observing Kathryn Janeway wrestling with her guilt over the decision she made that stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant for four years now. Certainly those regrets were visible to the viewer, but they didn't seem to have been of a level to incapacitate the captain in the earlier seasons. But the whole of season four was rather different. Janeway's single minded obsession with taking the shortest, quickest and most direct route home, whether it was safe or sensible, provoked a lot of comment. The captain seemed to have an agenda, and she seemed to be becoming more isolated from those in the crew that she had previously been close to, without ever providing either the crew or the viewer with an explanation for her changing behaviour. It demanded a payoff... and in this episode it finally got one. We now have an alibi for all of Kathryn Janeway's strange and inexplicable decisions during season four, when she definitely wasn't quite herself. And I can live with that. She's still not quite the Janeway that I'd like to see - I prefered the strong but nurturing Janeway of season one, who could be moved to tears but could also tote a phaser rifle with the best of them when the occasion demanded it - but I think that I now have more of a handle on what Kate Mulgrew and the production team are trying to do with the character. Last year I had no idea, and came to the somewhat regretful conclusion that I no longer very much liked one of my favourite characters on the show.

And just because by the end of the episode Voyager has left the void behind, it doesn't and shouldn't mean that Kathryn Janeway is instantly 'cured' of her depression and guilt trip. The decision that has been gnawing away at her confidence in her own judgement for the past four years can't be dismissed so lightly. The plight of the void dwellers in many ways paralleled that of the Ocampa, and it presented her with an opportunity to replay the sequence of events that originally stranded her crew in the Delta Quadrant, and have it come out differently. She offers herself up as a sacrifice, to compensate her crew for the decision that she made four years ago. She can't get them home, but she can get them a couple of years closer to it. The crew turns her down, insists on standing together, showing her that they [a] back her decisions and [b] want her as their captain. She offers them Chakotay instead, and they (and he) refuse.

But while the opportunity to return to action and throw herself back into a busy schedule that was absent in the void gives her a renewed ability to function - not to mention an absence of time to dwell obsessively on past decisions - it's very far from being a cure for all her ills. There's every likelihood that the underlying doubts that caused Janeway to withdraw from her crew in the first place will surface again at some point. And that's as it should be. In view of what it is that she is obsessing about, there can be no complete peace of mind for her until she finally manages to deliver her crew - her family - home to the Alpha Quadrant, when she will have proven to herself that she has been able to make things right for them after sacrificing their quick trip home for the safety of the Ocampa. She needs closure, and no mere vote of confidence is enough to provide her with that. The best she can hope for while Voyager remains in the Delta Quadrant is an uneasy compromise, reconciling herself to doing the best she can to chip away at their journey, reducing the remaining light years bit by bit. At the very least that's going to mean more shortcuts.

For a character who tries so hard to be unremittingly cheerful, Neelix has a lot of personal demons of his own. It's typical of him that he should try to struggle on regardless, despite being almost incapacitated by his phobia of the void. He doesn't always succeed, particularly when the lights go out as well, but he does his best. And he made a valiant attempt to step into the captain's empty shoes when he tried to break up the argument between Paris and Torres. The speech he made was very much something that she might have said.

Talking of Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres... it's very easy to be wise in hindsight, and I've seen Extreme Risk and know that there are problems at the heart of their relationship with each other which are more than just frustration and boredom. It's probably significant that it was with the comment about Klingon painstiks that Tom pushed the argument just too far for B'Elanna to take. In some ways it makes more sense that the argument should stem from their relationship having hit a rocky patch, since apart from this one scene Tom seems to be one of those who is coping rather better with the void than the others. Hmm. That prison in New Zealand had a rather better view, but it might well have been the perfect preparation for an unchanging daily routine and being stuck in the same place for a very long time...

Chakotay came out of this episode pretty well. He's generally at his best when he's allowed to lead and guide the crew, and he did a good job of keeping things going despite an absentee captain. He was just a little bit obtuse about what was at the root of Janeway's troubles though, but I find it convincing that it should be Tuvok who understood what was in her mind all along, and who simply refrained from comment out of respect for her privacy. Despite, or perhaps because of their differences, they're both a necessary part of Janeway's support team - the person she feels able to confess her innermost thoughts to, and the one with whom she doesn't need to say anything.

I like it that Tuvok is still using his meditation lamp, the one he used to use with Kes when he was attempting to teach her control of her powers. It's a nice continuity touch. And, while he doesn't say so, it's possible to imagine that his philosophy that every star represents a single thought may be a way of keeping him in touch with the memory of his Ocampan friend. One of those stars - and thoughts - may be for her.



I confess that I enjoyed this episode more than pretty much anything I saw in season four, where I often found that the characterisation was uneven, jarring, and even inexplicable. Voyager is my favourite of the four Trek series, and that's largely because I was immediately attracted to the characters who made up the crew. I can forgive a lot about the plot itself, if the characterisation is on target and thought provoking enough. But all too often in season four those characters were either missing, or I simply didn't recognise them any more. Some characters got so much attention that it became something of a turn off, however much you liked them, while others got so little air time that they became little more than caricatures of their former selves. There were reasons for the balance being so out of whack, both political and personal, but it's good to see that it doesn't seem to have carried through to season five. The ensemble cast is back with a vengeance, and I couldn't be happier about it. Night not only featured all of the characters and gave each of them their moment of prominence, but better still it was also consistent with their previous characterisation.

I enjoyed the tacky, nostalgic fun of the Captain Proton holoprogram. And I was fascinated by the void and the crew's reactions to it. I'd have liked to have seen a little more of that. It's such a different environment from the one that Voyager usually explores, that I feel they could have done more with it, and taken more time over it. To be fair, the alien conflict in this one did have its part to play in resolving the crew tensions that had already been established before they showed up and didn't seem to have been gratuitously tacked on, but the crew were enough of a threat to themselves that they didn't necessarily need an outside danger to have to react to. Their going stir crazy could have had an episode to itself, rather than just the first third of this one before we fast forwarded on to cure and consequences. But I guess that that's just a way of saying that I liked what was done enough to want more of the same.

It has its flaws, but I rate it pretty highly, particularly in terms of how much I enjoyed it. Definitely my favourite episode since Worst Case Scenario!