This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.
One of the more interesting aspects of the first season of Star Trek: Voyager is just how much of a throwback the show seems to be. In many ways, the show seems anchored in a very fifties mindset. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has embraced multiculturalism and the wake of the Cold War, the first season of Star Trek: Voyager seems to be dealing with anxieties carried over from the end of the Second World War.
Caretaker reconnected with the “Wild West in outer space” mentality of the classic Star Trek. Episodes like Time and Again and Jetrel are concerned with the splitting of the atom. Cathexis played out a decidedly Cold War paranoia thriller. Good old-fashioned technological espionage – like the leaking of nuclear secrets – was at the heart of State of Flux. There’s a sense that Voyager may have been a piece of fifties Americana that had the misfortune to arrive forty years too late.
Faces is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Splitting a bi-racial character into two halves as part of a science experiment, evoking classic monster movies, and even the decision to define the Vidiians as stand-ins for the Nazis, all give the episode a delightfully pulpy feel. This is Voyager doing a cheesy fifties b-movie. And doing it quite well at that.
Okay, let’s be honest about this. Faces is a bit of a mess. The basic premise is… somewhat questionable as a starting point. Racial and cultural identity doesn’t quite work the way that it’s depicted on screen. It’s a little unsettling that Faces suggests you can neatly separate a character’s personality by tugging their genetic origins apart. It’s a perfectly logical extrapolation of the type of essentialism that Star Trek takes for granted, but it also feels a little simplistic.
After all, one would imagine that both Klingon!B’Elanna and human!B’Elanna were the product of decades of shared experiences, and so there would be a lot more common ground between them. Reducing a character with conflicts over her mixed race heritage into a generic “two halves of the same person at war” feels very generic. Then again, if the conflicts aren’t obvious and clear, then Faces wouldn’t really work as a story.
There’s also the fact that Faces does not do any of this subtly. Both Torres’ human and Klingon sides are portrayed as cliché, their attitudes and responses ridiculously exaggerated. When the Vidiians arrive to take Durst and attack Paris, human!B’Elanna doesn’t respond like a character with years of military experience. She cowers. But she doesn’t just cower. She whimpers and curls herself up into a ball on her bunk, just in case the audience doesn’t get that she is just a puny human now.
“I think that when they extracted my Klingon DNA, they turned me into some kind of a coward,” she later confesses to Paris. It seems a bit redundant to point out that DNA doesn’t work like that – particularly in an episode where a person with a mixed race heritage can be convenient split into two halves – but it’s a particularly absurd plot point, and one that feels particularly ham-fisted.
This is a little bit disappointing, particularly given – as Robin A. Roberts notes in Science, Race, and Gender in Star Trek: Voyager – Torres’ conflicts over her racial identity are among the more interesting aspects of her character:
With her dark hair swept severely back and her large bushy eyebrows, B’Elanna’s racial mix is physically emphasised. Playing the character with bravado and high energy, Biggs-Dawson emphasises the torrid and energetic aspects of the character. Frequent angry outbursts toward the captain and her own lover, crew member Tom Paris, exemplify B’Elanna’s impetuous nature. These aspects type her as both Klingon and Latina.
Yet there is more to this character than stereotype. Rather than reproducing a simplistic identity politics, the show reflects a new sensibility in American society, shown in part by increased interest and awareness of multiracialism (represented by the call for a multiracial box on the next census, for example).
Indeed, there’s something quite clever about the way that Torres’ character plays with the far-too-common “hot-headed Latin character” stereotype that is frequently found in pop culture.
Torres’ surname and the ethnicity of actress Roxanne Dawson type her as Latina. The character is quick to anger and prone to impulsiveness; Parallax had her striking a fellow officer during a routine disagreement. However, while these attributes would typically be used to define her as Latina, the show roots them in the character’s Klingon heritage; her Latina side is actually more restrained and buttoned down, a clever twist that allows the show to play with stereotypes and subvert them somewhat.
So Faces does feel a bit clumsy and on the nose. It’s navigating rather complex waters in a manner that feels somewhat haphazard. The issue of racial identity is always going to be complex, so choosing to tackle it as part of a classic Star Trek plot device (Faces is very much a spiritual successor of The Enemy Within; even if it is a bit less simplistic) feels like it’s not doing the concept justice. Indeed, it feels rather ham-fisted for a show airing in the mid-nineties, when writers really should be more sensitive to such things. It marks Faces as a bit of a throwback.
However, if one is willing to accept Faces as a glorious cheesy forty-five-minute science-fiction b-movie, the episode works very well. It’s goofy and crazy and illogical and nonsensical – but that’s all part of the charm. It is, in many ways an update of The Enemy Within, substituting that episode’s problematic gender issues for some less obvious racial issues. (Sulan even describes the split in terms that evoke the transporter.) This is grotesque sci-fi horror, played as heightened opera.
This is Voyager going gloriously over the top without worrying about coming down to Earth. It is a monster movie, with Sulan playing the role of the monster. It revels in all the tacky old clichés associated with the genre. There’s unrequited sexual attraction with an uncomfortable subtext. There’s a grotesque monster in love with a beautiful woman, who happens to spend most of the episode chained up. There are amoral scientific experiments. There’s an attempt by the monster to win the heart of the object of his affection that is spectacularly misjudged.
These are all classic monster movie tropes, and they all come with a lot of baggage. Faces doesn’t try to redeem or reconstruct these old-fashioned narrative elements, as Emanations did when the crew stumbled across “an Ancient Indian Burial Ground… in space!” Instead, it plays all of these tropes straight. It doesn’t seem like Faces is playing with or teasing out any of the problems associated with these monster movies, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Faces wholeheartedly embraces the monster movie aesthetic.
And it works. Director Winrich Kolbe has great fun with this. The teaser – a short thirty second scene of Klingon!B’Elanna waking up while chained and bathed in green light, observed by a sinister figure in the background – manages to suggest everything that needs to be said about Faces in the shortest introduction of the broadcast first season. Similarly, the reveal of what Sulan has done with Durst’s face is handled masterfully, particularly with Sulan moving through the background of the shot out of focus before we get to see the face.
Even the more ridiculous elements – like human!B’Elanna’s overreaction to the Vidiian assault on Durst and Paris – feel like an attempt to heighten the episode’s melodrama. Kolbe even shoots the episode like a late-night horror film; the shots of the away team searching the two-storey cave set are quite moody, as is the quick cut to the Vidiians crouched in the shadows watching our heroes and waiting to strike. Virtually everything about Faces is gloriously overblown, feeling like a hybrid of gothic horror and fifties sci-fi. That’s the charm of the episode.
The Vidiians remain the most interesting aliens to appear in Voyager. Their make-up is fantastic, their back story is almost sympathetic and they lend themselves to the pulpy vibe towards which Voyager seems to aspire. They are much more a much more convincing adversary than the Kazon, and it’s a shame that the show felt the need to push the Kazon ahead of the Vidiians. (Then again, there are arguably only so many “organ-harvesting space zombie” stories you can tell.)
That said, it is a little weird that Faces is built around a Klingon immunity to the Phage, the disease ravaging the Vidiian people. “For generations my people have been searching the quadrant for a species immune to our disease in the hope that it would lead us to a cure,” Sulan explains. “I believe your genetic structure has phage-resistant nucleotide sequences, yes. But I needed a pure specimen to be certain. My people do not know it yet, but you are their greatest hope.”
The fact that Sulan feels the need to separate human!B’Elanna from Klingon!B’Elanna suggests that human!B’Elanna does not have the immunity that he is looking for. (Indeed, if human!B’Elanna were also immune, you’d imagine that Durst and Paris would also be receiving scrutiny.) This would seem to imply that humanity is not immune to the Phage, which raises all sorts of questions.
Is it possible for the Phage to leap to other species? (The fact that organs harvested from other species can be infected suggests that it can.) Does exposure to the Vidiians carry long-term risks for the crew of Voyager? It might have been interesting to use the Vidiians as window to explore the health scares that were so frequent in the nineties – from paranoia over the spread of the hantavirus through to the hysteria around Mad Cow disease.
The show never quite addresses these questions. Instead, the crew of Voyager often feel like spectators observing Vidiian culture (such as it exists) through the window of a passing space ship. The Vidiians are an absolutely fascinating creation – quite possibly among the most compelling aliens ever to appear on Star Trek – and it feels like Voyager never quite manages to capitalise on these organ thieves.
That said, they work very well in the context of Faces. The decision to reimagine the Vidiians as Nazis works very well in the context of the episode’s retro vibe. Far from independent organ thieves, it turns out that Vidiian society does exist in some form; that they are more than just wandering and disorganised scavengers. Whereas the Vidiians in Phage appeared to be individuals operating for their own well-being, the mining operation here appears to be a government-run installation.
Sulan introduces himself as “Chief Surgeon of the Vidiian Sodality”, and we have little reason to doubt his credibility. The grey uniforms worn by the guards suggest this is an official operation, rather than a private enterprise. In particular, the set up is designed to evoke Nazi Concentration Camps. Explaining why Paris and Durst have been left alive, a Talaxian inmate notes, “They need somebody to dig their tunnels. That’s us.”
The grey uniforms of the guards seem designed to evoke Nazi outfits. The idea of using these prisoners for medical experimentation also evokes horror stories about the Concentration Camps. (Particularly the idea that slaves would be worked until they could no longer stand and would only then be executed.) One of the guards’ sarcastic promise of “a shower and a hot meal” of human!B’Elanna evokes the infamous showers used for mass executions in German Concentration camps.
In a way, once you get past the HIV/AIDs subtext associated with the Vidiians, they work quite well as an analogy for Nazi Germany. According to Motura in Phage, the Vidiians had a rich cultural history in the Delta Quadrant. “Before the phage began, we were known as educators and explorers, a people whose greatest achievements were artistic,” he boasts, explaining that he was formerly a sculptor. This mirror’s Germany’s historical status as a cultural hub in Europe.
However, circumstances inevitably changed. Ravaged by disease, the Vidiians found themselves desperate and powerless, at the mercy of external forces. In their desperation, they made horrible choices in the name of survival. It doesn’t seem too far from the history of Germany leading up to the Second World War – a once thriving culture pushed to the bring of poverty and starvation due to reparations, turning to the Nazi party out of anger and desperation; forsaking a legacy of art and culture for hatred and brutality.
Even Sulan himself seems designed to mirror Josef Mengele, the infamous “angel of death” who conducted unethical experiments at Auschwitz. Sulan’s official position, his status as a doctor in name only and even the way that his questionable work revolves around doubles (as opposed to Mengele’s fixation on twins) all suggest the infamous Nazi war criminal. It’s a very effective approach to the story, defining the Vidiians quickly and effectively through televisual shorthand.
This shift in focus works in the context of Faces. It feels like an allegorical attempt to address issues about guilt and desperation of the German people leading up to the Second World War, observing how external forces can help transform even sophisticated cultures into grotesque societies. Of course, this all seems a little weird in the context of Voyager, a show airing almost fifty years after the end of the Second World War, but it does play into the sense that Voyager has been built as something of a throwback to an earlier style of science-fiction.
Faces is a somewhat troubled episode, one that feels very out of place on television in the mid-nineties. It has some rather troublesome observations to make about racial identity and cultural heritage. At the same time, it also captures the spirit of classic cult science-fiction very well, feeling like a trashy b-movie shot with modern techniques and top-notch production values. The result is mess, but it’s an intriguing mess – a collection of classic tropes and storytelling techniques that hark back nostalgically to another era.
More and more this first season, it doesn’t so much feel like Voyager has been thrown across the galaxy so much as it has been thrown back in time.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager:
- Time and Again
- The Cloud
- Eye of the Needle
- Ex Post Facto
- Prime Factors
- State of Flux
- Heroes and Demons
Filed under: Voyager | Tagged: AIDS, b'elanna torres, concentration camp, face/off, faces, HIV, i'm going to take his face off, illness, mining, Nazi Germany, review, sickness, star trek: voyager, sulan, torres, transporter accident, vidiians, voyager |