Overall Ep :
First Aired :
23 Jan 1995
Season Ep :
This episode is one of the biggest Bad Science eps, even by Trek standards. An event horizon is not a "powerful force field", but rather a dividing line drawn around a mass at the point where the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light. It's just as arbitrary as the international date line or the arctic circle on Earth's surface. And since Voyager can actually go faster than light, then there's no real reason why the ship couldn't expect to fly into and out of the event horizon of a black hole quite comfortably.
Body Count :
We open with Joe Carey, Voyager's senior Engineering officer - filling in for the Chief Engineer killed in Caretaker - in sickbay with a broken nose. Turns out he got into an argument with B'Elanna Torres, one of the Maquis who is reputed to be a gifted engineer herself. B'Elanna is half Klingon, and has temper issues which she relieves by occasionally punching people in the face. Chakotay seems reluctant to do anything about the incident, and we soon learn why; he is recommending B'Elanna as the ship's permanent Chief Engineer replacement to Janeway. Janeway is stunned by this recommendation, but Chakotay angrily demands that the Maquis crew must have a real share of the power and responsibility aboard Voyager, not just be a bunch of lower decks nobodies with him as their "token officer", as he puts it.
Voyager picks up a distress signal which is coming from a nearby singularity. They investigate and mount a rescue, only to become trapped within the singularity themselves. Janeway has a chance to show off her "former science officer" credentials, and is surprised to find that the only person who can keep up with her on this basis is none other than B'Elanna Torres. Janeway takes Torres out in a shuttle to find the other ship, only to discover that there is no other ship - it is Voyager herself, and the distress signal they picked up was their own, reflected back in time by the singularity. The pair manage to get back onto "their" Voyager and find a "crack" in the event horizon of the singularity which the ship escapes through. Voyager proceeds on course, with Torres as the new Chief Engineer. Voyager receives a distress call from within a black hole. They investigate and become trapped in a region where the laws of space and time break down. Meanwhile, Chakotay pushes to get the rebellious B'Elanna Torres appointed as Chief Engineer. Carey meets her in engineering and assures her that she has his total support.
Okay, let's get it out the way - the science of this episode sucks like a warp powered vacuum cleaner. First off, here's what a black hole is - any given mass (you, me, the Earth) has a gravity field around it. That field gets stronger as you get closer to the object. Now normally that's not a problem, because you can only get so close before you hit the object itself. But if you squish the object down smaller, then you can get closer, and so the gravity gets stronger. In theory, if you squished any object right down to a tiny, tiny size, then you could get so close to it that the gravity would be really, really huge. Okay so far?
How huge does gravity get? Well one way to measure gravity is by "escape velocity". That's how fast you have to throw something upwards for it to escape the object. For Earth, it's about 11 kilometres a second. Throw something up slower than that, and sooner or later it slows down, stops, and falls back to the ground. Throw it faster, and it escapes the planet and just keeps on going. As you squished Earth, and got closer to it, the higher gravity would mean a higher escape velocity. If you squished Earth small enough, the escape velocity would be SO high that it would equal the speed of light. At that point even a beam of light shone upwards couldn't escape the Earth, and the Earth would have become a "black hole". Now for small things like Earth, or you and me, turning into a black hole isn't something that can realistically happen, but for big stars - several times bigger than ours - when they die the explosion creates a black hole at the centre.
Okay, now let's look at this episode. Voyager approaches a black hole and detects a signal from inside it. The scan and see another ship inside the event horizon. So, see the trouble? First off, given all we've just learned, the whole point of the event horizon is that light cannot escape it. Which means radio signals can't escape it, and sensor beams can't return from inside it. You CANNOT look into a black hole and see what is happening inside the event horizon, that's the whole point of them.
Second, they hang around at the edge of this singularity for a while and then fly into it. Remember we said that the gravity around these things is really, really big? Well it's more than big enough that it should rip Voyager to little itty bitty pieces. We're talking about forces MILLIONS of times greater than normal here.
Then they go in through a "crack" in the "powerful force field" that is the event horizon, and leave the same way. Oy vey. Remember what I said the event horizon is; it's a boundary in space, defined as the point where the escape velocity equals the speed of light. It's an arbitrary, mathematical construction! Yes it has relation to the real world, because the speed of light is an important number in many ways. But it's not a physical or "energy" barrier in the sense of a thing you can touch and interact with. It's like the arctic circle, or the international date line, or the equator. Imagine saying "I've found a hole in the equator, now I can sail into the southern hemisphere!"
There are, actually, a few potential answers to these problems. For instance, whilst light cannot pass out of a black hole, Voyager's sensors don't necessarily use the EM spectrum. We know the ships use faster than light sensors, and so in theory these could penetrate past the event horizon. Indeed the ships themselves can go faster than light, so in theory they could fly into and out of the event horizon. (Actually, in theory, there would be another such horizon even closer to the singularity for any given speed greater than that of light.) And as for the forces involved... well Voyager is made of super strong future materials, after all, with fancy structural integrity fields to make them even tougher. It would still be a hell of a reach but if they had had a decent science adviser on hand then they could at least have put the episode onto a basis that showed that they knew the issues and had made a stab at explaining them.
Enough of the science, what about the actual meat of the episode? Janeway starts out amazed at the idea of Torres as Chief Engineer, and I have to say she does have a point. The episode makes it clear that B'Elanna is an absolute genius at the science and engineering side of things, but she has lousy discipline, lousy interpersonal skills, and terrible leadership skills. Well, what is the job of a Chief Engineer, really? Is it to be the one that solves all the science stuff... or is it to be the one who leads the rest of your staff, creates a good working atmosphere, and inspires people to do their best for you? The episode opts for the former, but I have to say at that point in time, I wouldn't want to be working for her. One of the most impressive moments of the episode comes at the end, when Carey confronts B'Elanna. This woman punched him in the face the day before, and rather than be disciplined for it, she's promoted above him for it. And yet he simply puts it behind him, shakes her hand, and offers his unconditional support. He shows no sign of it, but you just know this guy has to be thinking "what the hell?!" - and indeed the rest of the staff have to be wondering what it's going to be like in engineering now. Discipline of the crew is generally the First Officer's job... and that's Chakotay, the Maquis. The lack of action over B'Elanna's "punch in the face" style of working can only be taken as support for it. Surely these people must be thinking "well is she going to beat me down if I disagree with her? Better just keep my mouth shut and my head down, then."
In fact, when you watch Carey swallow all those doubts up and offer his support... THAT is exactly the kind of thing that a real leader is about; put the personal stuff aside, however hard, and just do what's best for the mission. It's ironic that he shows that he was, perhaps, the right choice even as he's passed over.