"Alice"

Review by Heather Jarman

Oct 24, 1999

When Jim invited me to offer some Alice analysis, I couldn't resist. Even if it meant writing my comments longhand while attending a birthday party for six-year-olds. So here I sit, watching the giggling girls running through an inflatable caterpillar and bouncing on gymnastic mats. My interest in throwing my piece into the vat was primed by following the polarized opinions of fans and Internet critics. The theme in our private Paris/Torres chatroom this week has been "Alice ROCKS." Out in webland, many BBS' are filled with "Alice: the first awful episode of the year" posts. With Julia Houston on one side and Michelle Green on the other, Alice has been running someplace in the "average" range for most garden-variety Trek fans--a solid B-C grade seems to be the norm. Not warranting the overwhelmingly high marks for Tinker Tenor or the universal groans greeting such lovely episodes as Unforgettable, Demon, or Mortal Coil. What can I say that hasn't been said? Plenty.

Let's take care of housekeeping first. After all the clutter and dirt is dealt with, we can consider other contexts. I have three primary grievances:

Most obviously, this story might have been more original if Stephen King hadn't already published Christine. It might have been more original if it had appeared on another sci-fi show like the new "Now and Again," or "Harsh Realm." Heck, even the "The X-Files" might have been able to play this story with more pizzazz. For Trek--and Voyager specifically--Alice fails to take the road less traveled by. Vis a Vis and Threshold spring immediately to mind. How many variations on the Tom Paris "Hotshot Pilot" episode can be done before you hit saturation point? Alice needs to be the last of her kind.

Taken purely at face value, the antagonist herself was problematic. Other than seducing Tom, her long-range objectives failed to move me. "Home" needed to be something more than an excuse for a cool CGI moment. Whether Alice was a legitimate entity that could somehow transform (think Kes here) through a plunge into this particle fountain or whether she was just a high-tech toy in desperate need of Prozac never came through clearly in the plot. Killing herself and taking Tom with her wasn't intellectually compelling. The plot resolution felt overly hasty. Somewhere before act four, the specifics of Alice's agenda deserved a nod or two.

From a storytelling perspective, Alice felt like a script that didn't fully evolve. When the script changed from one focus to another, the clutch wasn't fully compressed to shift to the next gear. As a consequence, some aspects of the script ground along instead of smoothly accelerating to a full on 90MPH. I could hear the pitch: Tom Paris becomes possessed by a sentient shuttlecraft. The original story (my guess) had fully developed Alice as an intelligence that needed a biological entity to help her complete her growth by returning to her "home." The technical side of it (the particle fountain, the nature of her sentience) had likely been more fully fleshed out.

When Alice became a seductive woman and came to represent the extra-marital/relationship affairs that boys have with their toys, another component came into play: how do you deal with Tom's existing relationship with B'Elanna? As Alice completely absorbed Tom into her psyche, the question of who the protagonist was and who the antagonist was started to blur. Who is moving the action here? Alice? Tom? B'Elanna? Who resolves the conflict? What primary "A" story are the writers trying to tell? Is this a story about Tom or is this a story about Tom and B'Elanna's relationship? Iím guessing as the script went through re-writes, some of the more concrete connections between the various storytelling threads unraveled. I'd bet this began as a Tom story but became a Tom and B'Elanna story: the relationship piece emerged as an critical organic element and the most compelling piece as the shooting began and as the actors began working with the material.

Now that I've dispatched with my complaintsÖ

Orson Scott Card in his introduction to the author's definitive edition of Ender's Game wrote (modifications in [ ] and emphasis are mine):

I think that most of us anyway [watch] these stories that we know are not "true" because we're hungry for another kind of truth: the mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life communities that define our own identities and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.

In essence, we bring ourselves and our biases to the fictions we enjoy; we view them through the lenses of individual experience. Consequently, on another week, at another hour and a different juncture in my life, I might have viewed this episode differently--even harshly--but because of a confluence of factors, I found myself strangely responsive to the episode's dynamics.

For the last month, I've lived my life with the gusto of the opening allegro movement of a piano concerto. An unbelievable number of responsibilities, activities, insomnia filled nights and parenting complications have kept things moving at a breakneck pace. Voyager' s opening episodes have been equally stimulating. Four, intense, beautifully executed episodes in a row covering a range of characters and unusual scenarios ranging from the philosophical, the spiritual and the hysterically funny. Maintaining that level of intensity is near impossible--for both Voyager and me.

I knew, though, that the streak was threatened with "Alice." The usual net rumors had the script being re-written, the lead actors being unhappy with it and so forth. Having seen the early summaries, I wasn't confident: I hated Vis a Vis and Alice smelled like reheated, freezer burnt Spamloaf.

Last Wednesday night found me elbow-deep in preschool duty, baking cookies, running to the grocery store at midnight, and cutting pumpkins out of orange construction paper. I anticipated working straight through Voyager. Instead, I sprawled out on the couch and sat, glued for an hour, strangely calm--like I moved into a simple piano solo after being accompanied by a full symphony orchestra.

Intellectually, the critic/writer in me kept screaming, "How stupid can you be? This is your brain. This is your brain on neurogenic interface. Any questions?" After all the mind mucking Voyager's witnessed (Seven could tell Tom a thing or two about how shaping neural pathways isn't like building sandcastles--just ask her buddies from her old unimatrix) you'd think that the Doc, Seven or B'Elanna would insist on thoroughly examining an neural device thoroughly before allowing anyone to use it. And that was just the most obvious problem. As the hour moved on, however, I found that left-brained/super-ego/logical side of myself dismantled. By the last frame, Alice had me snookered too.

Those of you who know my leanings probably assume that I succumbed to Alice's spell because of the Paris/Torres component. I'll repeat here what my 8th grade Algebra teacher used to say about making assumptions: When you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me." It ain't that straightforward folks. Here's my case:

  1. Continuity. Voyager fans scream constantly about continuity. In Brannon's efforts to keep Voyager accessible, the writers often err on the side of making episodes self-contained. Imagine my shock when Alice sparkles with continuity. Within one episode, the writers managed to refer back to "Flashback," "Caretaker," "Thirty Days," "Vis a Vis," "Warhead," and "Bride of Chaotica!" I think that's a record. More than any episode in recent memory, Alice felt like a story that had strong cohesion with five seasons worth of back story. Terry Miles at the "Coffee Nebula" pointed out that the opening scene referred back to Tuvok's second venture into Starfleet ("Flashback") and to the birth of his daughter, an event referred to in an earlier Tuvok episode. Tom recalled his demotion, B'Elanna referred to Tom's tendency to lose himself in his extracurricular activities and Janeway also reminded B'Elanna of past arguments on this subject. Neelix asked about another "anniversary" (the anniversary of their first date was celebrated in "Warhead") and Harry was back to being Buster Kincaid fighting Arachnia. Neelix's trading career and his ship (that Janeway used to rescue Tom and Harry in "The Chute") were also mentioned. There were more subtle inferences, but the primary interconnections are worth noting.
  2. Ensemble work. A companion to continuity is the need to more fully integrate all the characters into episodes as had been done in the earliest seasons. Again, Alice incorporated many relationships and utilized combinations we haven't seen in a while. Chakotay sat in the Big Chair and acted like he deserved to sit there instead of being Janeway's slipper carrying lap dog. B'Elanna confided in her friend Harry, not just Tom's friend Harry. Janeway gave Torres advice when the situation turned critical instead of Torres stomping off to solve the problem herself. Each act brimmed with scenes placing different characters in diverse combinations: Seven with Tom, Seven with Neelix, Tom with Chakotay, Tom with Neelix, Tom with Harry, B'Elanna with the Doctor and so forth. The idea of family--of Voyager being a home--was effectively demonstrated through the intermingling of characters. These people talked to one another and interacted with one another in a convincing fashion. The acting had a nice fluidity to it: I could believe these people had lived together for five years.
  3. I've heard some complain about Janeway not "seeing" Tom's breakdown. For once, I was grateful Chakotay managed personnel--that's allegedly been his job for the past five years. Janeway functioned in a central, but removed capacity and gave the crew a chance to run the show. I, for one, appreciated the changed focus. She doesn't need to have her fork into every pie to be a good captain. As for her being lackadaisical when B'Elanna shows up in her ready room, as I see it, Tom's gone to extremes over projects before--maybe not to this degree. But being late for shifts, running around in "costume" attire and neglecting the people he loves isn't new.

  4. Character Development. Above all, Alice was a character-based episode that required the viewers to keep logic and common sense inside the compartment at all times to appreciate. Solid plotting and character development ideally should co-exist in an episode. In the case of Alice, a weaker plot spawned a rich character study. Since "The Swarm" when Tom accused hot-blooded B'Elanna of living like a Tabern monk, the romantic tie between the characters has been featured off and on. Once love was declared and they became a couple, the relationship progressed in baby steps. Move it or lose it, as I like to say and in this case, the producers decided to move: Alice provided critical leaps forward for Tom, B'Elanna and their relationship.

No groans. No smacking foreheads and saying, "You know, I knew she couldn't make it out of this analysis without waxing poetic about lip locks and cutesy flirtation." Truthfully, that's not where I'm going with this. Tom and B'Elanna exhibited growth independent of one another as well as together.

Take Tom, for instance. Tom's passivity in Alice puzzled me. Supposedly, this was supposed to be a "Tom Paris" episode. Robbie dominates the screen, but once Alice sinks her fangs into him and sucks out his free will, he wanders through the episode like a zombie. He succumbs completely--and willingly--to this artificial intelligence. How could he be the protagonist and still be such a victim? Doesn't he become the antagonist? He seemed almost helpless to resist Alice, like an alcoholic staring down a Vodka bottle. This compulsive need Tom has to merge with metal warrants a closer examination.

I've been reading a book called The Edison Trait about a quirky segment of highly intelligent, non-conforming personalities. Granted, itís a parenting book, but I found myself examining Tom Paris in light of what I learned. Edison Trait individuals derive their labels from the prolific American inventor Thomas Edison, a man whose successes came after a lifetime of failing to conform to societal expectations and norms. These are the kids with high IQs who drop out of college and form billion dollar companies (Insert Bill Gates here). Not all Edison Trait individuals are as successful as Gates. Because of their failure to walk in step with conventionally gifted individuals (insert portrait of music prodigy, ops whiz Harry Kim here), Edison Trait individuals often end up struggling with low self-esteem, fighting addictive behaviors to satisfy their craving for stimulus and rebelling against all expectations. Edison Trait individuals can be found wandering from cheap hotel to sleazy bar as easily as they can be found exiting limos on their way to the boardroom.

What does this have to do with Tom?

Lots of Trek fans like to joke about Tom as the Dumb Blonde Poster Boy. Over six seasons of Voyager, he's seemed trapped in perpetual adolescence be it his Monster Movie Marathons or his Captain Proton games or this tendency he has to fall for a pretty face--particularly if she can exceed speeds of warp 9.7. What we learned in Alice is that Tom, like a boy from another fictional universe, Anakin Skywalker (thanks Jim!), is a child prodigy. He sampled his first Right Stuff adrenaline rush when he piloted his first shuttle as an eight-year-old. A kid who can pilot a spacecraft before he hits puberty has to have more than fabulous eye-hand-coordination--he's going to have smarts as well. This is where the Edison Trait material fits it.

One classification of Edison Trait-ers is the "Discoverer." These folks are the stimulus junkies who crave the stimulation of power, surprise or diversity. If he (Tom) finds people boring, he'll stimulate them by becoming the resident clown (Tuvok) or irritating them (the Doctor). Discoverers enjoy living in the moment without considering long term complications. They live by the motto that they'll deal with what will happen when it happens. In the words of Indiana Jones, another fictional "Discoverer," "I'm making this up as I go along." Spontaneity keeps life interesting.

When the "Discoverer," in this case Tom Paris, is on the trail of an idea or project of his own, he becomes like a Vulcan in Ponn Farr: gratify the urge or else. An unusually intense degree of single-mindedness becomes hyperfocus, excluding all else that might distract the Discoverer from their task.

Tom's hyperfocus is his piloting and the toys he pilots. From the first time he tasted the rush, he's been hooked. He savors the power, the control, and the total stimulation. Tom's compulsion towards his toys and his helm boy persona was only reinforced by his father, the one person in his life he couldn't please. Owen Paris received his own gratification from his son's brilliance: Tom's incredible skills had the potential to earn more medals to place in the Paris Family Hall of Fame. Piloting is Tom's safe place--the place where he's the best and he's in charge. When he's behind the helm, he receives positive strokes from his father, Starfleet, the Maquis and Voyager; he receives recognition from his peers and earns greater social standing. Flying the ship helps him be the hero, not a screw-up.

In many of the areas that mattered--committed interpersonal relationships, friendships, morals--Tom hasn't been stellar. Were it not for Janeway, Tom would be the man we saw in Non-Sequitor. Ironically, Tom's greatest defeats came in his pilot role. His lies about Caldik Prime stemmed from a shuttle accident where he was the pilot. As a Maquis, he was taken into custody while piloting for the rebels. I hypothesize that a key reason why these mistakes devastated him is because he failed while playing the one role he thought he had perfected. If he could foul up the part he was born to play--the part that brought him recognition and acceptance--what else did he have to offer? In Tom's eyes, his other talents or abilities were meaningless.

Recently, Tom has attempted to diversify his roles, expanding beyond the narrow definition he's had for himself. He's become Tom the Friend (Harry), Tom the Pupil (Janeway) and Tom the Lover (B'Elanna). Helm Boy has gradually developed a more stable, maturer side. His choices aren't just about stimulus--he's not merely satisfied with the next big "high." In the past several years, under Janeway's mentoring, Tom has grown as a leader. Having a friend in Harry helped Tom learn loyalty. Instead of rotating through the crush-of-the-week turnstile, he's maintaining a faithful romantic relationship.

But like his ladylove, Tom has Unresolved Childhood Issues. B'Elanna has her mother, Tom has his father. (No wonder they get along so well.) Tom's self-esteem perpetually teeters on the dumpster's edge. He struggles to escape Owen's voice in his head that insists he'll never be enough for anyone. These ongoing Issues make him vulnerable to retreating into the Tom the Pilot role. Tom the Pilot is a safe role, a familiar role, a role he excels in and one that gratifies all those Edison Trait needs. He keeps repeating the same mistake because he hasn't overcome the insecurities that have always stalled his personal growth (not just because the writers can't figure out what to do with him--though that hasn't helped matters J ). Until he recognizes his weaknesses, he'll fall into the same traps.

Which brings us to Alice. On the surface, Alice plays like a bad trip--Tom succumbs to his favorite addiction and takes a bad hit. When you delve below the surface and see it from a character standpoint, it has more meaning.

Alice is the ultimate piloting high. Tom isn't bound by the limits of his skills; he's bound only by the limits of his mind. He can fuse with the sensation--the pinnacle of method piloting: Be the Ship. Combine his craving for the fix with his inability to get past the kid who can only please his dad when he's dodging phaser fire from a Romulan Warbird and why he risks life and limb to merge with Alice doesn't appear quite so crazy. He's doing what he's always done: numb himself up by throwing himself into projects where all the things he's starved for--success, stimulation, excitement, admiration--are within his reach.

There's only one complication. She's about five feet three inches tall and has a right hook that could take out a room full of Tom Parises.

Since The Powers That Be have apparently decided that the Paris-Torres duet is here to stay, an episode like Alice is long overdue. What we've seen in canon has been irregular and one-sided. Lots of Tom angst, virtually nothing from B'Elanna. Tom hovering over B'Elanna in sickbay became a regular event from season four onward. If the audience is supposed to believe that these two are in a relationship and not just using each other for amazingly gratifying "intimate relations" (Someone To Watch Over Me) B'Elanna needed to make a move, but it required her dealing with her Unresolved Issues as well.

B'Elanna took her own journey recently. She trekked to Klingon hell, stared down her fears and emerged a more confident, more secure individual: a woman ready to cast aside the albatross of her past. She's started dealing with those Unresolved Childhood Issues. When she escaped her near-death experience, we wanted to believe that the inner peace she found would last more than one episode. Could she learn to stop pushing Tom away? We had the chance to find out when Tom started flirting with Alice. Would the passive, whiny "You're such a meanie B'Elanna" of Vis a Vis appear or would we see the B'Elanna "I am Klingon Hear Me Roar" from Barge of the Dead?

Welcome to Season Six, B'Elanna, daughter of Miral. You've come a long way baby.

B'Elanna recognizes a threat when she sees it. Alice is immediately identified as the "other woman." But this B'Elanna is confident of her ability to hold onto her man. She refuses to move aside and accept Tom's infidelity. Instead of pouting, she faces down the Bad Seed and almost loses her life. For once, B'Elanna comes to Tom's rescue. She's not the victim or the engineer on the rampage in need of Vulcan meditation. She identifies the problem and solves it. She insists Janeway see Tom's crisis, she "mind melds" with Tom, and she baby-sits the recovering pilot when he's recovering from neurogenic overdose. She saves his life, she resolves the conflict, and emerges a hero. The B'Elanna of the final scene isn't biting or sarcastic--nor is she petulant though as a "woman scorned" she has the right to pursue a vendetta against Helm Boy. We see a sympathetic, tender B'Elanna whose adoration for Her Guy shines through.

What does this all mean for Tom Paris?

From a psychological perspective, Alice and B'Elanna ("A" and "B" has kind of a nice consistency to itÖ) represent the two faces of Tom Paris. Alice taps into Tom's more instinctual tendencies, plays on his fears and insecurities. She's the feminine realization of Tom's stimulus junkie tendencies. Not only does she offer him the chance of a lifetime, she offers him the chance to play the role he's always felt safe in: hotshot pilot, ladies man, single-minded, selfish playboy out for personal gratification. She caters to the mercenary defense mechanisms that Tom developed as a result of his Unresolved Childhood Issues. Tom knows the part Alice wants him to play--he's mastered it. He feels safe in the pilot's chair; he feels competent and in control.

B'Elanna's role in Tom's life requires more risk. Not the risk to life and limb that Alice offers and Tom enjoys, but the risks of growing-up. She's not just an easy scam to be tossed aside after a one-nighter in the convertible; she's home, she's family, she's Wendy to his Peter Pan. Up until recently, B'Elanna's been adequately consumed by her own self-loathing to only be a mild threat to Tom's periodic regressions into Little Boy Land. He's been the steady one in the relationship. He's patiently endured her temper and supported her faithfully. Tom's played the sentimental fool bringing roses and celebrating anniversaries while B'Elanna's demons prevented them from completely transitioning into a more fully realized adult relationship. With B'Elanna's rebirth, she's blossomed emotionally. She's finally found some inner peace. Consequently, she's capable of growing closer to Tom and being his partner in more ways than physical.

When Tom was polarized between these two women, he faced a simple decision: follow the well-trodden pathway of his past, continue playing the hotshot pilot role he's always executed with finesse or grow past his mistakes and move forward. Say good-bye to Never-NeverLand and deal with the Real World? Ouch.

On his own, he doesn't have the inner strength to thwart Alice. He has to be rescued by B'Elanna. Does that make him weak? Not necessarily. Tom needed to realize that B'Elanna could and should be his reality check, his "alarm clock." Had B'Elanna not stepped in to save him, not only would he have been blown to kingdom come along with Alice, but he wouldn't have discovered B'Elanna's ability to be another "safe place" for him. B'Elanna offers him love, strength and acceptance. He doesn't need to be flying with his hair on fire to be valued. He needed to discover that if he let go, B'Elanna would catch him. In part, she helps him take a step towards dealing with some of those Unresolved Issues.

B'Elanna, for once, needed to come to Tom's rescue. She's spent two years hiding from herself and sometimes him (Extreme Risk) while he's been there for her at every critical juncture. The time to reciprocate has long past. Stepping into his mind forced an intimacy that made her wary. But she did what she had to in spite of her misgivings. In saving Tom, she worked towards overcoming some of her own insecurities and fears.

In the end, both Tom and B'Elanna discovered they had finally arrived at the same place at the same time. Both of them figured out they could better resolve their problems together than separately. In short: they make a good team.

To paraphrase a cliché, love can conquer a lot. It isn't a cure-all, but itís a start.

My sister Laurie summarized her pleasure with this episode this way: "In one hour, we covered more desperately needed territory in Tom and B'Elanna's relationship than we've had in two years." And Laurie isn't by any means a P/T fan. The Doctor is her main guy. That even she sat up and took notice tells me that I'm not a total nut for enjoying this character growth.

Now that I've espoused most of my gripes, nit-picks and observations, there's only one more issue to deal with: did I like it?

I began this analysis by quoting Card on how we personalize fictions. For me, I brought to Alice a fairly weighty argument with my mother about my own Unresolved Childhood Issues, a complex, tangled net of academic problems surrounding my own Edison Trait child, a touch of the stomach flu, major sleep deprivation and a life recently lived in perpetual fortissimo. To watch Alice through that lens was only natural.

I didn't need to be wowed by special effects or tantalized by a complex philosophical premise. I needed a more mellow adagio; a movement characterized by a less technically profound score, but gentler on the ears, more soothing to the soul. Alice provided a nice diversion. Sure, mistakes were made. But as the Deep Space Nine fan who enjoyed a lot of "lesser" episodes (The Sound of Her Voice, Looking for Par'Mach In All the Wrong Places, Wrongs Darker than Death or Night, Sons and Daughters) that I was able to overlook the burrs beneath this episode's saddle shouldn't surprise anyone. Sometimes, you want crème brulee, sometimes you want a hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen. This particular week, I didn't need a hoity-toity, nose in the air episode to be happy. Sue me J

Alice won't win any awards for breathtaking originality or stunning storytelling. For me, it was the story of a boy and a girl and how it took a walk on the wild side to make them see that "home" wasn't somewhere over the rainbow (or into the Particle Fountain as it were). But that their heart's deepest desires could be found right in front of them. Tom and B'Elanna wore the ruby slippers; they simply didn't know how to use them.

So yeah. I liked it. Barge of the Dead holds the number one spot on my Season Six chart but I'll always have a soft spot for "Alice."

 

Talk back to me at hcj@reviewboy.com