Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Star Trek: Deconstructing Voyager

A few months ago, I decided to introduce my kids to Star Trek.  There was no specific reason why.  We simply needed something to watch on TV, and Star Trek is one of those iconic cultural phenomena about which youmust have at least some understanding if you want to understand what’s going on in modern American pop culture.  J.J. Abrams has made two Star Trek movies in recent memory, and although I think his first movie was very clever in some ways, he changed the universe’s aesthetic in some very unfortunate ways.  His follow-up, Star Trek: Into Darkness, was actively bad, but to understand why, you have to have seen Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan and understand its place in the grand scheme of things.  With Hollywood bent on making all these remakes and reboots, it makes sense to arm my kids ahead of time.  We therefore embarked on an extended expedition into the Final Frontier.

From the start, I knew that this project would interest my younger daughter Emma more than it interested my older daughter Hannah.  It’s funny how life turns out sometimes.  Emma shares a lot more traits in common with my wife, but she has the same general interests as me.  On the other hand, Hannah is exactly like me, but she’s not half the geek that Emma and I are.  Both kids liked the original Star Trek TV when I showed it to them—and they both liked The Wrath of Khan—but only Emma has time for the Next Generation, and even then, her interest is grudging.  Emma loves Star Trek: Voyager, however, because it has a female captain, a female-friendly worldview, and an aesthetic that’s much more modern than that of even the Next Generation.  Emma hates the Next Generation’s costuming, for example.  Fortunately, Voyager’s producers worked past most of the ugly unisex uniform problems.  
This is an important point for a ten-year-old.  The original Star Trek makes no apologies for Captain Kirk’s being a man’s man, whom they contrast purposefully with the emotionless, often genderless Spock.  Next Generation, meanwhile, falls all over itself in its attempts to show gender neutrality, with the result that they actually struggle for a while to find a male lead.  It’s only towards the middle of the show’s run that they embrace Patrick Stewart as an unlikely alpha male, occasionally showing him in contrast with the Klingon Worf, who struggles magnificently to balance his hyper-alpha samurai bearing with his near-constant genetic desire to rip fucking lips off of people who piss him off.  
Voyager also struggles with this, of course, but they don’t have a full Klingon against whom to contrast their captain, nor are they in a position to put their captain into near-constant fistfights against badass alien pugilists.  Their solution is better, though.  They bring in the super-sexy Jeri Ryan to play the most sexless character in Star Trek history, and they dress her in a formfitting catsuit to make the point on an ongoing basis.  She only looks sexy.  In reality, she’s a robot.  Literally.  The way she’s scripted, she has considerably less sexual mojo than even the Next Generation’s Data.  In contrast, Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Katherine Janeway is a real woman.  She’s a mother protecting her family on a voyage a long way from home.  The juxtaposition is subtle but constant, and it works fabulously.  Especially in season five, they hammer this theme of home and family, usually to very good effect.
A screenshot from the intro.  This is Emma's favorite part.
Every iteration of Star Trek is of a piece with its time.  The original comes from the 60s, and it’s filled to bursting with allusions to the Cold War and with a heady mix of fear and optimism about the future.  Watching it, one gets the idea that the writers were well aware of America’s power on the world stage, but that this power scared them, that they thought the potential for a catastrophic misstep was real.  In the original Star Trek, space is a dangerous and mysterious place, vast and unknowable.  The Enterprise is exploring a wholly new frontier, out where the map says “Here there be monsters…”
By the time Next Generation hit the stage, though, the world had changed.  It was the mid-80s, and I think we all kind of realized that the Cold War was probably not going to blow up any time soon.  Indeed, in retrospect that world seems comparatively safe.  This is reflected in Star Trek.  The new Enterprise explores parts of space with which its characters are already generally familiar.  There are few god-like antagonists but many lesser-civilizations.  The Enterprise’s crew often acts like space-faring Victorians upholding some sci fi version of The White Man’s Burden.  The Ferengi are never a threat, the Romulans are a known quantity, an at-best an equal power on the verge of social collapse, and the mighty Klingons rule an outright Federation vassal-state.  Q is more Loki than Satan, and when the Borg and the Cardassians hit the show, they represent wholly new threats from a previously unknown portion of the universe.  They’re invaders from outer space—in outer space!  None of this is to say that Next Generation is a bad show—it’s definitely not—but it’s from a time when America bestrode the globe like Colossus.  This is reflected in the show’s essential DNA, which is what makes it both good and bad.  It’s a show for diplomats.  We raise shields a lot, but we almost never launch rounds in anger.  This is of a piece with certain aspects of the Star Trek ethos, but it misses a lot of the red-blooded American fighting man that made Jim Kirk such a compelling hero.
I voted for George H.W. Bush, but by 1995—when Star Trek: Voyager premiered—it was obvious that we were not about to make good on his conceptual New World Order.  If Next Generation was of a piece with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the expansion of NATO, and—finally—Operation Desert Storm, Voyager is from that next period in American history, when it felt like we had a chance to make the world a better place, but we kept stumbling over the way that our desires conflicted with our understanding of situations on the ground.  Bosnia and Kosovo were a success, but they were protracted.  Intervention is Somalia went badly.  Mideast peace went nowhere.  Containment of Iraq was working, but it was expensive, and it looked endless.  In short, the world hadn’t quite descended into chaos, but we could see chaos just over the next rise.  My classmates from the Academy (the Military Academy, not Starfleet Academy, obviously) would spend the period of Voyager’s run deployed all over the world, trying to keep the lid on an increasingly unstable world.  It’s fitting, then, that Voyager starts with the ship getting teleported to the far side of the universe, where its crew is immediately stranded.  As an unintended meta-statement, this is absolutely brilliant.  The crew is unwittingly sent on the longest deployment in Star Trek history, a mere one hundred-sixty people stranded in the back of beyond, lost and forgotten by the Federation, and all they can think of is the importance of upholding their civilization’s ideals amidst a series of chaotic foreign wars about which they know little and with which they have even less desire to engage.  And yet, there they are.  
Meant or not, this series is absolutely of a piece with its time.  
Voyager fights a lot.  They talk about being explorers, and I think the show makes some effort to show the crews’ intellectual curiosity, but the truth is that they’re on a warship in hostile territory.  They do more combat engineering than exploring, and they do a satisfyingly enormous amount of fly-by-night jury-rigging in an effort to keep their ship going.  Voyager loses ten percent of its crew in its opening engagement, and—amazingly—they take on replacements, make field promotions, and keep flying.  They even make a point to have the female cast adhere to something like military hair regulations.  It’s unbelievable, really, but it harkens back to my favorite episodes of the original series, when we see Kirk as the commander of a warship facing off against the Romulans near the Neutral Zone.  For Voyager, space is again a vast and scary place, and that really works.
Kate Mulgrew & Jeri Ryan lead the cast of Star Trek: Voyager.
One last thing I’ll say about Voyager is that I really like Kate Mulgrew.  Voyager premiered in 1995, and if I’ve done my math correctly, Mulgrew was exactly forty when it kicked off.  Watching the middle seasons of the show now, she’s almost exactly the age that I am now.  Meanwhile, I have classmates who’re on the Brigade Command list and one who’s already taken command of a brigade.  A goodly number are on the promotion list to O-6.  That’s interesting mainly because I think starship command is an O-6 slot, and it’s beyond unusual for TV to get this kind of detail right with the ages of its actors.  Mulgrew comes across as a mature adult; she brings dignity and gravity to a role that calls for both, but not in a way that makes her character seem mean or overly mothering or at all unapproachable.  She is attractive, but she’s also tough and professional.  As I was thinking about this article, I looked her up on Wikipedia and was pleased to discover that her career has flourished since she left Voyager.  She’s been on Broadway a lot, she’s done quite a bit of voiceover work, and she’s currently a part of the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black.  When Voyager ended, I remember thinking that Jeri Ryan was about to make a serious star turn.  In fact, Voyager’s captain has had the most successful post-Voyager career by a wide margin.  That’s good.  She’s the thing that makes the show work, though to be fair, this is only obvious once we have Seven-of-Nine acting as her character’s contrast.
Ready to watch Voyager now?  
Here’s what you do:
1. Watch the pilot.  It’s not bad, it explains everything very quickly, and it’s awesome because half the lantern-jawed hero-types who look like they’re gonna be critical cast members get whacked in the first quarter-hour.  Also, when Seven-of-Nine travels back in time to pre-deployment Voyager in Season 5, one of the soon-to-die crewmen asks her out, and when she declines, he says, “Well, see you around.”  Her reply, “Not likely,” is a classic that you can only appreciate if you saw the carnage in the first episode.
2. Skip to the end of Season 3.  Every iteration of Star Trek has its Spock, the character who’s almost human but who doesn’t quite fit.  Next Generation actually has two, Data and Worf, playing opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.  Voyager meant this character to be B’lanna Tores, I think, the ship’s half-Klingon replacement chief engineer, but she’s a self-hating Klingon and a Starfleet Academy dropout.  Frankly, she’s got too much going on to act as the show’s Spock in addition to everything else.  Seven-of-Nine fills this role beautifully, but she’s not added until the last episode of season 3.  Until she’s part of the cast, there’s something missing in the show’s design.  Moreover, the character she replaces, Kess, is so boring that the crew doesn’t even miss her in-character.  She’s actually living with a guy when the show starts, and even he doesn’t seem to notice that she’s gone.
3. Watch and enjoy.  There’s lots of Borg in season 4, a growing sense of home and family in season 5, and plenty of time-travel, none of which is ever taken particularly seriously.  I’ve seen a few online reviewers who actively hate the character Harry Kim, but he’s the protagonist in two of my favorite episodes—one of several in which Voyager is destroyed, and one in which he falls in love with a beautiful alien who gives him a kind of psychic venereal disease—so I guess I must like this shit more than most.  Take that for what it’s worth.
Got anything to add?  Let me know down in the comments.


  1. Brilliant. I never thought of the meta-themes... TNG was my favourite, but I always suspected nostalgia played a big role in that preference. Side note: whenever I see you engaging in geeky pursuits with your girls, I start to wish my boys were older, which is a terrible thing to wish for (they grow up too fast). I am pleased to report that Shark Boy and I are working our way through the Hobbit, and I think Sneakatara will be next when we finally get through it.

    1. Thanks.

      I'd wait on Sneax. I've got a new editor--a guy in my gaming group--and we're working on a re-write. It's not gonna be that bad, but I'm going to re-release a new version this summer, complete with CROWN OF PLUTO in a single volume.

  2. Very nice post Dan. It helped me understand the show more. I guess I should watch it with you too.

  3. "Every iteration of Star Trek has its Spock" Tuvok?

    1. But by the time Voyager premiered, Vulcans were a known quantity.

      In the original Star Trek, Spock's lack of emotions is a consistent part of the series' plotliines. The same is not true for Voyager because we already know who Vulcans are and what they can do. By that point, Tuvok's Vulcan-ness is just a part of the setting. We see him use his heritage as a super-power pretty every once in a while, usually via meditation, but it's a given that he's cold and logical. The plot never hinges on it.