Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Natural Law”

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“Natural Law”
Written by Kenneth Biller & James Kahn
Directed by Terry Windell
Season 7, Episode 22
Production episode 268
Original air date: May 2, 2001
Stardate: 54827.7

Captain’s log. Voyager has arrived at Ledos, a world primarily occupied by a spacefaring people. Chakotay is taking Seven to a four-day conference on warp theory via shuttlecraft, and he’s taking the scenic route, as Ledos has some beautiful countryside. However, they collide with a force field and crash.

Paris is stopped by Ledosian authorities while out with the Delta Flyer. It turns out he was piloting recklessly, and by Ledosian law, he must take piloting lessons. Paris tries to get out of it, but Janeway won’t let him.

Seven and Chakotay were able to beam off the shuttle before it crashed, but Chakotay has a hairline fracture and a big cut on his leg. They try to find the debris from the shuttle so they can try to salvage it, and then come across a bunch of hunter/gatherer-type folks who don’t appear to have any technology. Chakotay’s wound is getting infected, so he hides while Seven seeks out shuttle debris. Unfortunately, the locals—who are called the Ventu, and who are genetically similar to the Ledosians, but not quite the same—find him and bring him to their camp. They smash his combadge when Seven tries to contact him—but also dress his wound and apply a salve to it.

Seven tracks Chakotay down to the Ventu camp, and they decide to make the best of it, since they seem friendly and provide shelter in the caves. The Ventu appear to be mute, but converse via a form of sign language. Seven has found the deflector and thinks she can use it to make a beacon that will penetrate the force field. She goes off to do that, leaving Chakotay in the Ventu’s hands. They provide him with a walking stick and he continues to learn their language.

After being teased mercilessly by Torres, Kim, and Neelix, Paris meets Kleg, his piloting instructor. Kleg is a stickler, a hardass, and kind of a snot, and all Paris’ attempts to suck up and to deflect blame fail completely. In particular, Paris tries to blame his violation on poor design, not realizing that Kleg did his research and knows that Paris himself designed the Flyer. Oops.

Screenshot: CBS

Seven does not do well in the great outdoors—she trips and loses her tricorder down a hole. As night falls, a thunderstorm approaches, and she gets cold. However, a Ventu child followed her, and she makes a fire for Seven.

After a good night’s sleep by the fire, and a shared breakfast, the girl leads Seven to a waterfall, then they eventually find the deflector. Chakotay, meanwhile, is concerned about contamination with technology, as the Ventu have found bits of the shuttlecraft that they’re using as jewelry.

Tuvok informs Janeway that Seven and Chakotay never showed for the conference. An investigation reveals that the shuttle went down on a southern sub-continent. It wasn’t part of Chakotay’s flight plan, so he wasn’t warned about the force field. According to the Ledosian ambassador, that force field was put in place by aliens who wished to protect the Ventu from the Ledosians centuries ago. The Ledosians were much less enlightened then, and all attempts to bring down the force field have failed.

However, the Ledosians are perfectly okay with Voyager taking a shot at it. Tuvok, Torres, and Kim work on that while on the surface, Seven tries to modify the deflector in such a way that it will penetrate the force field. She is able to do it, but needs the deflector to be moved, which the Ventu help with.

Once the deflector is activated, Voyager is able to communicate with Seven. However, the Ventu girl was injured when she touched the deflector while it was activated, and Seven requests a delay of her beam-out until she can treat the girl. Chakotay beams back and is treated by the EMH, who is impressed with the Ventu’s medical practices, as his leg is in decent shape, all things considered.

Screenshot: CBS

The Ledosians immediately start transporting into the Ventu territory, eagerly looking forward to exploiting it, and also helping out the Ventu. Seven and Chakotay are not thrilled about this, and Janeway decides that, once their shuttle debris is all recovered, they are going to restore the barrier. The ambassador isn’t happy about this, and he sends a ship to fire on Voyager, disabling their transporter.

Janeway has an ace up her sleeve, though: Paris is still out with the Delta Flyer being tested on his piloting skills. He leaves the obstacle course he’s on, beams the Ledosians out of the force field area, and then destroys the last piece of technology left on the surface before the force field closes. Kleg points out that he’ll never be able to fly in Ledosian space again, but Paris allows as how he’s okay with that.

Voyager goes on its merry way, having pissed off the Ledosians something fierce, but also allowing the Ventu to continue to live in peace.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Lots of technobabble flying fast and furious in this one, as Seven does all kinds of things involving tetryons and phase shifting and other cool stuff, first to keep them from dying in the shuttle crash, then to get them out of the force field.

There’s coffee in that nebula! Janeway is obviously really really enjoying watching Paris squirm as he realizes that he has to take piloting lessons.

Mr. Vulcan. Tuvok gets to have fun with retuning weapons as they try to break through the force field.

Half and half. Torres is taking great pleasure out of teasing her husband regarding his having to take piloting lessons. 

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH is suitably impressed with the Ventu’s ability to heal Chakotay’s leg.

Resistance is futile. Seven thinks very little of the Ventu to start—when Chakotay shows her how they say goodbye, Seven has a classic “why should I care about that?” expression on her face—but she comes to appreciate them.

Do it.

“Inadequate system integration. Visibility impaired by lateral sensor array. Insufficient console accessibility.”

“Y’know, I couldn’t agree more. Those are some of the defects that led to my so-called ‘pilot error.’”

“Polarity thrusters? Oh, they’ve been known to cause accidental acceleration.”

“Exactly my point. Why should I be held responsible for the ship’s design flaws?”

“According to the maintenance records, you were this vessel’s chief designer. I make it a point of professional pride to research every case I’m assigned to. Are you familiar with that term, Lieutenant? Professional pride?”

–Kleg enumerating Paris’ inadequacies and Paris trying and failing to talk his way out of them.

Welcome aboard. Neil Vipond, last seen as the cranky old Klingon Darok in DS9’s “Once More Unto the Breach,” plays the cranky old Ledosian Kleg. The Ventu is plays by Paul Sandman, while Autumn Reeser plays the Ventu girl. Robert Curtis Brown plays the Ledosian ambassador, while Ivar Brogger plays the Ledosian anthropologist and Matt McKenzie plays the Ledosian cop who gives Paris a speeding ticket.

Trivial matters: The Ventu’s movements were choreographed by Albie Selznick. Selznick previously appeared in “Macrocosm,” and developed the movements of the Tak Tak in that episode.

The aliens who erected the force field could conceivably be the Preservers, established in the original series’ “The Paradise Syndrome” as people who save “primitive” peoples from extinction.

This is the eleventh (and last!) shuttlecraft that Voyager loses, and the first one since “Dark Frontier” back in the mid-fifth season. They’d been doing so well, too…

Screenshot: CBS

Set a course for home. “So you can execute a turn at less than three hundred KPH—well done, Lieutenant.” It took the better part of forty years, but Trek finally did a story about Indigenous peoples that doesn’t make me cringe. The Ventu—who are incredibly obvious analogues for Indigenous folk here on Earth, whether Chakotay’s ancestors in the Americas or Aboriginals in Australia or the Inuit in the Arctic—are not treated like pathetic primitives, à la the original series’ “The Paradise Syndrome,” nor as pure noble people of the Earth, à laTattoo.” The Ventu are simply portrayed as people. Seven is quick to dismiss them as primitive, but she comes around in the end. They’re not idealized, but they’re not made out to be fools or idiots, either.

What I especially like about this episode is that it doesn’t beat you about the head and shoulders. Chakotay doesn’t make a speech about how these people are just like his ancestors, as scripter James Kahn assumes at least a modicum of intelligence on the part of the audience.

Where it falls down is in the ending. There are serious Prime Directive issues here, and the episode half-asses it. The problem is that the violation has already happened: Chakotay and Seven have exposed the Ventu to people outside the barrier that was placed around their home, and the Ledosians finally have access to that continent again. The final solution is one that involves Voyager making a decision that is contrary to the decision that the Ledosians have made. And it’s an attempt to put toothpaste back in the tube, which is exactly as messy as that sounds.

Here’s the problem: nobody talks to the Ventu. Chakotay has already figured out enough of their language to at least have rudimentary conversations. The Ventu are the ones who are supposed to be protected, yet nobody actually asks them what they want. Up until the end, the script did a great job of showing that the Ventu are self-sufficient and worthy of being considered a proper civilization, yet when it counts, nobody bothers to give them any agency in a major decision about their future.

Still and all, this is a good science fiction story and a good, if flawed, Trek story. I especially like that the Ventu communicate via a gestural rather than verbal language, as it’s a nice touch. It feels like thought went into this episode and in creating two different alien cultures that also comment on our culture.

Plus it’s got the best B-plot ever. Seriously, Paris getting a speeding ticket and having to take a refresher course in piloting is just comedy gold, with the added bonus of Neil Vipond absolutely nailing the snotty hardass piloting instructor. Paris is the typical privileged dudebro asshole who tries every trick in the book to get out of the consequences of his actions (it’s almost hard to believe he’s the son of an admiral who has a history of being a chronic fuckup), and Kleg doesn’t take a single micrometer of his shit on the subject. It’s a beautiful thing, especially the way his wife, his best friend, and Neelix all tease him relentlessly on the subject.

Warp factor rating: 6

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be a guest at Indiana Comic-Con this coming weekend at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. He’ll be at the Bard’s Tower booth for the majority of the weekend, alongside fellow word-slingers Claudia Gray, Michael A. Stackpole, Megan Mackie, Caitlin Sangster, Brian Anderson, and Christopher Ruocchio. Keith might also be doing some programming. Come by and say hi!

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