This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.
Tattoo is another example of the second season Star Trek: Voyager doubling down on elements that did not work in the first season.
Episodes like The Cloud and Cathexis had suggested that Chakotay might be a problematic character for the show. After all, Chakotay was the first Native American lead character to appear in the franchise, but he was played by a Mexican-American actor. More than that, the first season seemed to draw from an awkward collection of tropes and clichés in its depiction of Chakotay’s culture. The show declined to anchor Chakotay in a single specific Native American cultural tradition, instead drawing from a rake of familiar shallow iconography.
Chakotay didn’t really work in the first season. The problem is that Michael Piller seemed reluctant to accept that Chakotay’s Native American spirituality was borderline racist and offensive. So Tattoo returns to that particular well, with a much greater commitment to patronising and exploiting Native American culture. Exploring the Delta Quadrant, Chakotay comes across a seemingly abandoned moon that turns out to be the home of an ancient alien culture that made contact with Chakotay’s ancestors forty-five thousand years ago.
These aliens were responsible for shaping and molding Native American culture, for putting those groups in closer communion with the land and for fostering a purer spirituality. Not only is the main alien played by white actor Richard Fancy, the make-up design on these “Sky Spirits” emphasises their whiteness. So Tattoo becomes a story about how Native American culture essentially came from a bunch of super-advanced white people. It is astounding that nobody seemed to stop and think about the episode on the way to the screen.
Tattoo began its life as a pitch by writer Larry Brody. However, due to time constraints, Brody did not get a chance to develop the idea into a teleplay:
My latest claim to Star Trek fame is an episode I co-wrote for Star Trek: Voyager called Tattoo. I came up with the idea and wrote the preliminary treatment for the episode, but because of time problems, I was never able to write the teleplay. Executive Producer Michael Piller took it over and, to his credit, made Tatoo into an episode I really liked.
The story was adapted by Michael Piller, who had returned to the Voyager writing room following the cancellation of Legend. Piller was very invested in Native American and New Age philosophy, and that shines through his scripts.
To be fair, the idea of ancient aliens connecting with Native American culture is not an idea original to Brody or Piller. The idea traces its roots back to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and beyond, which suggested that many ancient civilisations on Earth might have had some connection with extraterrestrial visitors. It was an idea of which Gene Roddenberry was highly critical, but which bled into Star Trek in a number of ways during the nineties. Tattoo is just one example; the idea can also be seen in The Chase.
Piller was not even the only nineties showrunner particularly interested in the possible connections between Native Americans and ancient alien visitors. The same year as Tattoo aired, Chris Carter would tie similar ideas into the mythology of The X-Files. Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip would make Native American beliefs a vital part of the show’s on-going story arc. While Chris Carter’s handling of those themes was hardly delicate or sophisticated, he did seem to have a firmer grasp on them than Michael Piller.
As Sierra S. Adare notes in Indian Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction, Chakotay is nothing but a collection of generic Native American (or even just “Indian”) clichés that were well past their sell-by date by the mid nineties:
According to the official Star Trek: Voyager episode guide, Chakotay’s people and their cousins, the Rubber Tree People, are supposedly descendant of “(pre)Mayans.” Yet Chakotay’s culture, as portrayed in the series, provides a perfect example of generic “Indian” culture found in early American newspapers, where many individual cultures were merged into a single “Indian” culture. The first season saw Chakotay practicing a very Hollywood version of Plains-culture religion, when he used a “medicine bundle” and a high-tech device that acted like instant peyote to summon his “spirit guide.” Additionally, Chakotay possessed a “personal medicine wheel” that resembled a stylised compass and supposedly promoted self-healing. In an episode titled Cathexis, Chakotay uses his “Indian” powers of the “medicine wheel” to help the crew, thus becoming the “good Indian” in the classic Pocahontas sense. All these “Indian” trappings are as much a Euro-American fantasy of First Nations cultures as the 1760 account of the Mohawk cannibal mentioned in chapter 2.
Chakotay’s spirituality often extends to stock dialogue and vague wisdom. He is the character who is frequently shown to be most deeply in touch with spirituality in episodes like Emanations.
The plot of Tattoo hinges on the idea that Chakotay has somehow stumbled across a planet inhabited by the ancient aliens who once visited Earth and imparted wisdom to his ancestors. On a purely practical level, that seems rather contrived. The alien at the climax tells Chakotay that it took his people “two generations” to reach Earth, although they seemed to make the commute quite frequently. (He speaks of “subsequent visits.”) Did those journeys always begin on this moon? Or did the aliens set up base close to home?
Does that mean that Earth just happened to be the only planet that they visited? Was there nothing interesting on Qo’nos or Vulcan or Bajor? Why did they return home just to set out on another expedition? Why not just stay in contact? What are the odds of these aliens stumbling across Earth in the first place? What are the odds of Chakotay just stumbling across this moon now? It would really suck if Voyager arrived on this planet and didn’t have a first officer with knowledge of the Rubber Tree People and the Sky Spirits, wouldn’t it?
Even more uncomfortable are the flashback sequences where Chakotay is taken to meet the Rubber Tree People, who live in quiet seclusion away from the other Native American tribes. Tattoo presents them as a pure and spiritual people. “Chakotay, they have chosen to live like this for centuries,” Kolopak tells his son. “That’s why we are travelling on foot and not using a transporter. We honour the Sky Spirits who led our ancestors to this sacred land.” The Rubber Tree People are presented as a romantic ideal.
The Rubber Tree People keep to themselves. “They never left this jungle, and they rarely intermarry with other tribes,” Kolopak explains. When Chakotay eventually encounters members of the Rubber Tree People, they have bumpy foreheads and nose ridges to match those of the Sky Spirits who appear at the end of the episode; the obvious implication is that they have been interbreeding with the Sky Spirits. There is an uncomfortable subtext to all of this, suggesting that the purest Native American tribe is the one with the closest connection to those white aliens.
As Amy H. Sturgis points out in If This Is the (Final) Frontier, Where Are the Natives?, the script for Tattoo makes a very strong connection between the Native American characters and literal aliens:
Instead, Tattoo paints Chakotay’s people – and thus Native Americans – as irrevocably Other. The sacred “Sky Spirits” venerated by Chakotay’s father are the same beings Chakotay finds on an uninhabited moon in the Delta Quadrant. They explain that they had visited Earth forty-five thousand years previously and found ancient nomads who, despite being ignorant of communication or civilisation, deeply loved and respected the land. The aliens admired these people and gave them a genetic bond, marking them as “Inheritors” of the aliens. Chakotay is descended from these early Natives/Inheritors.
The writing is cringe-inducing, and it seems strange that nobody pointed out any of the unfortunate implications during the plotting and scripting of the story.
One of the Sky Spirits recalls his encounter with the Native Americans. “We decided to give them an inheritance, a genetic bonding so they might thrive and protect your world. On subsequent visits, we found that our genetic gift brought about a spirit of curiosity and adventure. It impelled them to migrate away from the cold climate to a new, unpeopled land. It took them almost a thousand generations to cross your planet. Hundreds of thousands of them flourished in their new land. Their civilisation had a profound influence on others of your species.”
It seems like all of the aspects of Native American culture that Star Trek loves actually came from these outsiders. For all that Voyager loves the idea of Native American characters in spiritual communion with the land and aware of deeply-held universal truths hidden from other characters, Tattoo goes out of the way to present these attributes as “an inheritance” or a “genetic gift” from a more advanced race portrayed by white actors in make-up that emphasises their white skin.
In Indian Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction, Sierra S. Adare quotes one Native American viewer who took offense at the implications of this development:
That says Natives would have remained primitive children of nature who respected the land but couldn’t communicate with it or each other or show the land their respect because they had no language or culture until a more civilized, advanced race came across the vast ocean of space to help Natives progress.
It is quite clear that Michael Piller meant well – that he was trying to articulate his own fascination with and fondness for Native American culture. However, he expressed his interest in the must unfortunate manner possible.
In Piller’s defense, it could be argued that Tattoo is more interested in New Age environmentalist themes than it is in actual Native American culture. In Star Trek and Sacred Ground, Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren suggest that the episode is best read in that context:
The New Age link between Indians, Aliens and environmentalism is also mirrored in Tattoo in the hesitancy of the Sky Spirit people to contact the Voyager crewmembers due to humanity’s heritage of environmental destructiveness. The Sky Spirit spokesman tells Chakotay: “We were taught your world had been ravaged by those with no respect for life or land.” Finally, despite their great need, the Sky Spirit people refuse to allow the Voyager crew to take all the mineral they need from the planet, allowing only as much as can be taken without damage to the environment. In his association with Indians and Aliens, the Sky Spirit/extraterrestrial is both definitively Other and ultimately authoritative. As a consequence, he is ideally situated to speak on environmental issues within the context of New Age spirituality.
At the same time, the show is actually called “Tattoo” in reference to the Native American marking above Chakotay’s right eyebrow, and it does suggest an entire alternate history for the people who would become the Native Americans. It is hard to avoid the implications that come with this.
Still, Tattoo does make a number of nods towards its environmentalist concerns. The Sky Spirits have built a world where nature itself seems to function as an immune system to help repel potentially hostile invaders. “Once again, the storm seems to have formed as a direct result of our interaction with the atmosphere,” Tuvok observes. “The meteorological conditions changed radically when we began our entry sequence.” Similarly, Neelix is attacked by a local hawk as an example of the planet’s eco-system resisting the potential invaders.
Even at the end of the episodes, the planet’s ecology is presented as the primary concern. “I’m sorry we cannot permit you to extract all the materials you need,” the leader of the Sky Spirits reflects to Chakotay. Chakotay is mindful of the need to respect the local environment. “You were generous to offer as much as you did.” As with Emanations, Chakotay is presented as the member of the crew who is most firmly aware of the rhythm of life as it exists in the Delta Quadrant.
Interestingly, Tattoo could be seen as Piller’s reluctance to let Voyager grow and evolve. Most obviously, it is an episode that is about Chakotay’s heritage, despite the fact that such stories refused to work in the previous season. It is also an episode based on the premise that the Voyager is still in desperate need of material and resources. When Torres is disappointed with the latest yield, Chakotay assures her, “We’ll find better quality somewhere down the line.” She replies, “That line is going to be cut short when our nacelles burn themselves up if we don’t find it soon.”
In theory, it is nice to get a sense that Voyager remembers the basic premise of the show. This is a series about a bunch of people stranded and alone on the other side of the galaxy. It makes sense that they would have to scavenge for materials. However, the problem is that such references depend entirely on plot. Voyager experiences a fuel crisis in Tattoo, but that did not stop Kim from replicating a clarinet in Parturition or Janeway from using the holodeck in Persistence of Vision. (Never mind that nonsense about fuel sources for separate systems not affecting one another.)
The potential threat facing Voyager in Tattoo is particular to that episode. It is not foreshadowed in the episodes leading up to Tattoo and it is not a problem in the episodes directly following Tattoo. It is hard to get a sense of desperation or need in the context of Voyager. The audience knows that if the crew can simply make it through this forty-five minutes, everything will be perfectly fine by the time that the next episode airs. The idea of a fuel shortage is not a contrivance of itself, but its execution in this particular episode is.
Similarly, an early conversation between Kes and the Doctor reveals how reluctant the show to actually change anything. Even relatively minor character developments are inevitably reset back to factory settings. The Doctor decided on a name in Heroes and Demons, only to revert to anonymity at the end of the episode. Here, Kes is startled to find that the Doctor has reverted back to using the phrase “please state the nature of the medical emergency” upon being activated.
“I thought we changed your programme so you wouldn’t have to say that anymore,” Kes wonders. The Doctor replies, “We did. But I became so uncomfortable trying to find new ways to break the ice, as it were, that I restored it. Let’s just say it works for me.” It feels like a conversation lifted directly from the staff writing room, as the show makes nods towards possible long-term changes only to back away and retreat into more comfortable trappings. It is one of the more frustrating aspects of Voyager.
Tattoo is also notable as an example of the increasingly heated battles taking place between Michael Piller and the rest of the production staff. Since his return to the show, Piller had been rather aggressively trying to change the way that Voyager worked; he met considerable resistance from the staff members who had remained on the staff during his absence. In particular, he made a point to try to modernise his storytelling on Voyager. His script for Tattoo moves quick quickly, with a high volume of short scenes.
In an interview with Cinefantastique, the producer explained that this approach originated in his own research into contemporary television:
“I started to watch a lot more television from an analytical stand-point and realized that many of the shows were writing scenes that were 20-seconds long. It was like watching a scrapbook of little bits and pieces scenes being stuck together to provide a mural as opposed to the kind of writing I had been used to doing. You look at a show and see a four-page talk scene followed by a four-page talk scene and you say to yourself, ‘I don’t think we can get away with this anymore. We have to recognize that the pace of some of these shows is slow and I think we have to start talking about finding ways to make faster-paced television.’ That really bothered a lot of people, but I think it certainly had an impact.
Piller’s interest in faster-paced stories can be seen in Tattoo, which told its story in a complex flashback manner. “Tattoo was written in sort of a rage, because this was right in the middle of my battle about pace,” said Piller. “I set out to prove that there was a way to tell stories without writing long scenes and I turned in a script that had 190 or 200 scenes. Look at all the levels you’re dealing with–flashbacks, a mystery, a culture and an issue of history–there are so many things going on. It was an incredibly ambitious script and I was delighted with it. It is full of dark and brooding emotions. The call from the production people was ‘We can’t do this.’ I said ‘Yes you can. Let’s find a way.’ Maybe it was too ambitious, because something was lost on the way to film.”
It does offer a glimpse at the tensions taking place behind the scenes, demonstrating that Piller was not necessarily dealing with a friendly writers’ room.
This is not to suggest that Piller was entirely wrong. While Tattoo is a disaster of an episode – one of the worst episodes in a fairly terrible season of television – he might have a point. Star Trek was looking increasing dated towards the end of the nineties. Star Trek: The Next Generation had landed at the perfect moment, capturing a lot of the sensibilities and mood of late eighties and early nineties television. However, the success of The Next Generation engendered a complacency among the production team, who were reluctant to keep moving.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pushed forward into a new era of serialisation and pacing, keeping up (and maybe even pulling slightly ahead) of contemporary television. In contrast, the Star Trek shows airing on UPN remained more traditional and old-fashioned. Piller is right that the pacing on Voyager could feel relaxed by the standards of contemporary television. By the time that the production team launched Star Trek: Enterprise at the start of the new millennium, its pacing felt glacial compared to contemporaneous drama.
Piller’s comments about the pacing of Voyager generated some defensive responses from the rest of the production team. In the same Cinefantastique article, Jeri Taylor fell back on the old “what makes Star Trek feel like Star Trek” chestnut:
“There are a lot of edgy, contemporary shows that artificially inflate their pace and it becomes, for their particular style, very effective,” granted Taylor. “Whether or not one can simply paste that style onto Star Trek is another issue. I think Michael in the beginning was trying to do that in some of his stories and as the season wore on that went away and we continued to write the kind of scripts we had always written which seems much more effective for Star Trek. I considered it a minor experiment that didn’t take.“
Taylor hints at the conservativism at the heart of Star Trek, using it to justify the sense of entropy and decay that would take root once Deep Space Nine went off the air and it felt like Voyager and Enterprise were trapped reliving the glory days of the early nineties.
It would be easy to paint the conflict running through the second season of Voyager is a conflict for the future of the franchise. Michael Piller says a lot of the right thinks to position him as a champion of modernisation and evolution, while Jeri Taylor seems to take a much more conservative approach. At the same time, it is impossible to endorse one position over the other; it is not as simple as it might appear. For all that Piller talks a good game, a lot of the issues with the second season can be laid at his feet; in contrast, Taylor offered a more stable version of the show.
For all that Piller spoke about a need to adapt or die, he was reluctant to let go of elements that simply did not work. He repeatedly proved reluctant to abandon elements that simply refused to work. Piller was steadfastly determined to make those unworkable components work, but instead seemed to double-down on the problems with them. It is impossible to put Jeri Taylor on the wrong side of this argument, because she was the arguing against the use of the Kazon as a recurring threat and she did not push for the inclusion of Tattoo.
Tattoo is a disaster of an episode. It is a story that never should have made it to the point of breaking the episode, let alone filming and broadcasting it. There is a very serious argument to be made that Tattoo is the worst episode of the second season, if not the worst episode of the entire show. Given the episodes surrounding it, that is quite an accomplishment.