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Star Trek: Voyager – Manoeuvres (Review)

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.

It is weird to think that the much-maligned Kazon provided perhaps the closest thing that Star Trek: Voyager had to a long-form story arc.

That probably says more about Voyager than it does about the Kazon. In storytelling terms, Voyager was firmly episodic. There were some loose threads that would span and connect multiple episodes, but the bulk of the show was comprised of very traditional “done in one” adventures. It seems fair to observe that Voyager represented something of a backslide for the franchise. It was much more episodic than Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but also less interested in long-form storytelling than the later years of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"This is still more enjoyable than Tattoo!"

“This is still more enjoyable than Tattoo!”

One suspects that the Kazon arc running through the second season had something to do with this storytelling choice. Michael Piller pushed really hard to make the Kazon a recurring threat to Voyager and to place them at the centre of the second season. As a result, they become a loose thread that runs through several of the season’s “big” episodes. They place a traitor on board Voyager in Alliances. They provided Tom Paris with a character arc culminating in Investigations. They provided the season-ending cliffhanger in Basics, Part I.

The arc was not well-received, whether by the fans or by the staff. It is not too difficult to understand why. Even before considering the quality of the arc itself – or the storytelling involved – the Kazon are hardly the most compelling Star Trek villains. Allowing for that, it seemed like the writing staff had no real idea how to serialise a story arc across a season, making all manner of clumsy mistakes along the way. The arc never gathered momentum and it never paid off, which are very real problems when trying something that ambitious.

Either you Kazon... or you be gone...

Either you Kazon… or you be gone…

Manoeuvres effectively kicks off the arc. Although the Kazon had appeared in Initiations earlier in the second season, Manoeuvres features the first reappearance of Seska and Cullah since State of Flux midway through the first season. The episode is perhaps the strongest of the “Kazon” shows, with a sense of momentum driving the first half of the script. However, things rather quickly come off the rails in the second half of the story. Already, the production team’s inexperience with serialised storytelling is showing.

Manoeuvres is perhaps as good as the Kazon ever got. It is nowhere near good enough.

So that's why they call them raiders...

So that’s why they call them raiders…

There is a lot to recommend the first half of Manoeuvres. It is directed by David Livingston, who is one of the best action directors working on the franchise. In fact, the opening act has a very rare sense of urgency for nineties Star Trek, with the Kazon engaging on a desperate raid of Voyager in search of advanced technology. It is a sequence that feels like something from the last two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise, reflecting Michael Piller’s insistence that Star Trek needed to tighten its pacing dramatically.

The raid itself is quite fun. Without transporters, the Kazon effectively launch a boarding party at Voyager. They crash a missile through the hull that happens to have three passengers on board. It is the first time that the franchise has done anything like this, skilfully capitalising on the fact that the Kazon are not particularly technologically advanced. It provides a pretty effective answer to “how do you raid an enemy ship without transporters?” while providing a pretty good reason for the decision to call the Kazon ships “raiders.”

"Toss him out an airlock. We don't want to have to deal with following through on this."

“Toss him out an airlock. We don’t want to have to deal with following through on this.”

There is a sense that the sequence could have extended the tension a bit longer or more firmly capitalised on the action, but it is quite a pacy and effective set piece. There are a few lingering questions – what happened to the Kazon Tuvok shot in the cargo bay? what does Voyager do with the ship/missile? how do those Kazon work the transporter so quickly? – but they are brushed aside in the moment. It is a very dramatic opening to the episode, to the point where it might have been worth pushing the opening credits back further to capture it in the teaser.

(Of course, the logic of it all seems open to debate. Given that the whole “beacon using a Federation signal” ruse will only really work once, it seems like Seska and Cullah are rather modest in their scheming. This would provide the best opportunity to properly seize Voyager and harvest her technology, so it feels like a waste to only grab some transporter technology. Why not amass a stronger fleet for the initial ambush and just overwhelm Voyager? Cullah uses the transporter as leverage later on, but surely it would be possible to rope in some other sects?)

A Maj-or problem?

A Maj-or problem?

It seems like the introductory action sequence in Manoeuvres was written specifically to appease the network. According to Cinefantastique, this “more action” mandate was another executive dictate from the powers at UPN:

The series also received input from UPN, something of a shift from past Trek series that had thrived happily in the relative autonomy of syndication. Voyager carried the burden of being UPN’s flagship show and was its only returning series from the original season. Ratings were critical not only for Voyager’s own viability, but in order to use the series to launch other UPN shows. At one point UPN president Kerry McCluggage met with executive producer Rick Berman, Piller, and Taylor to review market research and discuss the meandering direction of the series, and the reliance on Alpha Quadrant elements. “We were given sort of a mandate by the studio,” said Biller. “They wanted more action, more jeopardy. They wanted cool stuff.”

The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had been lucky enough to air in syndication, freeing them from the sort of micromanagement that was associated with network television. Voyager was not so lucky.

"Okay, I promise I won't bad-mouth the show in public... for at least another three seasons..."

“Okay, I promise I won’t bad-mouth the show in public… for at least another three seasons…”

To be fair, Voyager was reasonably well protected by virtue of its status as the network’s flagship show. It was one of the few shows to air during UPN’s debut year to receive a second season, and became one of the young network’s most reliable performers. The network respected the show, even as they occasionally expressed anxiety about its direction or the creative choices being made behind the scenes. While Voyager did not enjoy the same creative freedoms as its two elder siblings, it operated with a reasonable level of autonomy.

While the network executives would occasionally involve themselves with the day-to-day running of the show, the production team were generally left to their own devices. The network would instruct the staff to avoid the “bleakness” or “hopelessness” of the premise in favour of something more traditional. They would suggest more action. It was more engagement than the Star Trek staff had come to expect from the higher-ups, but it was not so bad. Rick Berman would envy that freedom when CBS took control of UPN in 2002.

"So... we're not going to talk about Persistence of Vision, are we?"

“So… we’re not going to talk about Persistence of Vision, are we?”

Of course, this mandate to write more action-adventure storytelling would generate considerable tension within the writing staff. In an interview with Cinefantastique, producer Michael Piller seemed frustrated with the network’s tight budget restrictions that he felt limited the show’s ability to tell these kinds of stories:

Piller also expressed his concern with what he considered to be a preoccupation with budgetary matters and the impact it was having on the writer’s vision. “The comfort level here in producing TV shows for the budget that we have been given was, I believe, having a detrimental effect on the vision of the show,” said Piller. “In one particular case we had a space battle in which the writer never cut to outer space, because he felt it would be too expensive to show the two ships firing on one another. There were several examples of this during the course of this disruptive period and this indicates the writer’s head was in the wrong place. Look at the first show of the season, the Amelia Earhardt show. It created the conceit that there was a human colony on a planet in space and that it was so attractive that our people had to consider that maybe this was going to be home. That was really the fundamental conflict of the last half of that show and we never show the colony. That didn’t work for me. That’s what happens when production dictates the vision. I want to make it very clear that’s not to say that anybody wanted to do less than the best work they possibly can. It is a question of priorities. If you start from a place where the first priority is the budget you cannot help but make decisions that compromise the vision.

“I think the writer has the right to a vision and that the best results in television come when the vision struggles to be realized within the pressures of somebody else saying, ‘Here’s the budget.’ My philosophy has always been that if you create a premise that involves a space battle, be prepared to spend the money needed to shoot it.”

Indeed, the climax of Manoeuvres seems relatively low-key for a show that finds the ship under attack from four rival Kazon sects. Most of the action is depicted with camera shakes and dimming lights. It certainly cannot compete with the sense of scale that Deep Space Nine was offering with The Die is Cast or The Way of the Warrior.

"We're not detecting any life signs. But that might just be his acting style..."

“We’re not detecting any life signs. But that might just be his acting style…”

It is easy to understand Piller’s frustration. Piller had been used to working with the relatively large amounts of creative and budgetary freedom that came with The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The constraints imposed upon Voyager were completely different. However, Piller was not just at odds with the network. In the same Cinefantastique article, Jeri Taylor responded to his budgetary concerns:

“You can certainly suggest a space battle without showing every shot fired, and that is what we are forced to do to stay on budget. I was very upset about this and during the course of the season this was a topic of great discussion.”

Countered Taylor, “It’s very idealistic to say that the writer should be able to write whatever he wants and realize his vision, but it’s completely unrealistic. We have a budget. Who wouldn’t like to have 27 times more opticals and who wouldn’t like to build the cities, but the fact remains that we can’t. There are limitations. We have to shoot these shows in seven days for the budget that we have been given. Sometimes we go over and when we do, we have to produce some shows that are under budget. “The area in which we probably butted heads — if there was one — was in the area of fiscal responsibility. I was always the voice saying, ‘If you’re going to design a show in which you have 30 alien extras that are going to have heavy prosthetics and make-up, and we have to build a set for them, then we can’t have a lot of stunts and a lot of opticals. You can’t have everything in a show. If you’re going to have one thing, you’ve got to cut down on the other.’ Michael thinks in very large terms and would like to have it all. Wouldn’t we all.”

As with a lot of the second season of Voyager, there is a sense of tension bubbling just beneath the surface. It feels like something will have to give at some point, as Piller repeatedly finds himself at odds with both the network and certain sections of the show’s writing staff. It is interesting to contrast the sense of harmony behind the scenes in the later years of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine with the constant discord on Voyager.

"Well, we can always throw hair rocks at him?"

“Well, we can always throw hair rocks at him?”

Still, the problems with Manoeuvres have nothing to do with the limits imposed upon the show’s special effects budget. Despite the fact that the episode cannot budget for gigantic space battles, it does provide a sense of adventure and scale. There is a palpable sense of movement to the narrative, from the moment that Janeway informs Chakotay of the message buoy through to the point where Chakotay hijacks a shuttle and embarks on an impromptu recovery mission. It is not particularly deep or thoughtful, but it is exciting.

The problems with Manoeuvres become clear once the show slows itself down, once Chakotay surrenders himself to Seska after destroying the transporter technology. At that point, the episode stalls and stumbles. The sense of pace is lost, and the script lumbers clumsily into its final act. Most obviously, the climax of the episode hinges on a whole host of techno-babble nonsense as actors stand on sets trying to make pseudo-scientific gobbledygook sound convincing. Ah well, at least there’s no reset button.

Luckily, Tuvok trained his security team to the marksmanship standards of an Imperial Stormtroopers.

Luckily, Tuvok trained his security teams to the marksmanship standards of an Imperial Stormtroopers.

“By synchronising the transporter’s annular confinement beam to the warp core frequency,” Torres promises Janeway, a string of words that are long enough to paper over any plot holes. “Maybe,” Kim responds, like this is an actual conversation, “but at a relative speed of two billion kilometers per second, it’s pretty tough to get a lock on somebody.” Alas, it is not as easy as those magic words make it sound. Arriving at the scene, Torres gasps, “I had him for a second, but they’ve remodulated the dampening field.”

Ultimately, the situation resolves itself rather neat and tidily when it turns out that Seska has conveniently deployed the dampener over a mere “two metre” radius. So Janeway cleverly beams the senior Kazon over to Voyager and ransoms them for the return of Chakotay and his shuttle. “You will find that our transporters have rendered your weapons useless,” Tuvok explains to his captives, meaning that nobody on Voyager has anything to worry about from this point forward.

You know, a lot of fans wished they'd just done that with the Kazon in general...

You know, a lot of fans wished they’d just done that with the Kazon in general…

The ending seems pretty convenient and lazy on a number of levels. Most obviously, it presents a crisis that Janeway is only able to overcome by virtue of the fact that she has a more advanced ship at her disposal. She doesn’t win by wits or bravado; she wins because Seska made a stupid mistake and because she has a transporter. As a result, it makes the Voyager crew appear both privileged and lucky, suggesting that the real reason Janeway is reluctant to share technology has nothing to do with the transporter; she just doesn’t want to give up a tactical advantage she so sorely needs.

Similarly, it seems rather neat and tidy that Voyager is able to ransom the Kazon leaders back to their people. The Kazon have been repeatedly portrayed as a violent and adversarial race with little time for diplomacy and nuance. They seem to respect leaders by virtue of strength rather than by virtue of right. Given that the Kazon ships have Voyager outnumbered and outgunned, it seems strange that they would give up the battle to protect their leaders. That would be the perfect opportunity for a coup from ambitious Kazon, particularly in a borderline anarchist society.

And with that, we're into the "female cast members" point phallic objects at Chakotay section of the episode...

And with that, we’re into the “female cast members point phallic objects at Chakotay” section of the episode…

Then again, the ending of Manoeuvres is designed to minimise any potential consequences for the crew and the show. Voyager is ambushed at the start of the hour and is heavily outgunned at the climax. It is pounded and beaten by the Kazon, to the point where the episode tries to present a sense of real jeopardy. However, all that the episode gives the audience is some light shaking and some menacing sound effects. By the time that Janeway and Chakotay return to the bridge for the episode’s stinger, everything is back where it should be.

There is never a credible risk. There is no visible damage to the exterior of the ship, despite the fact that it got pounded and punctured. Voyager is functioning at peak efficiency almost immediately after a Kazon shuttle comes crashing through the hull – it seems that all Torres has to do is just dislodge that missile. It doesn’t even seem like the ship needs a paint job. There is no sense of lasting damage, no sense of desperation, no tangible dread. To be fair, the script for Deadlock will do a much better job, but there is no reason Manoeuvres cannot do something similar.

And with that, we're out of the "female cast members" point phallic objects at Chakotay section of the episode...

And with that, we’re out of the “female cast members point phallic objects at Chakotay” section of the episode…

Even Chakotay escapes any lasting consequences of his decision to go rogue. In an interview with Cinefantastique, writer Kenneth Biller was immensely frustrated with the production team’s refusal to punish Chakotay:

“Picard would have thrown him in the $#!?ing brig. That’s what I wanted to do, but I got a lot of resistance on it and ultimately had the scene rewritten on me. He’s the first officer and we need him, but there should have been some consequences to him disobeying the captain. He’s the first officer and we need him, but there should have been some consequences to him disobeying the captain. There have been a few times when crew members disobey the captain and there are no consequences and I think it’s a mistake. There are times when she comes off as indecisive. Hopefully we will address it in the future. We need to find ways of showing her being very active and decisive.

“When I was told that I couldn’t have her really punish him or throw him in the brig, what I tried to do was to attack that problem head on and expose Janeway’s frustration at not being able to do anything about it. She can’t throw him in the brig and can’t replace him or get rid of him. She needs him and hopes that her saying, ‘I’m going to put you on report if that means anything to anybody,’ and having his response be, ‘Well, it means something to me,’ shows that he values the Captain’s opinion.”

It is easy to see where Biller is coming from. Chakotay is the latest in a long line of crewmembers to betray Janeway’s trust in such a profound manner. There is an extra layer of irony in having Torres appeal to Janeway on Chakotay’s behalf, given she was one of the conspirators in Prime Factors.

Drink with friends...

Drink with friends…

It is very easy to frame all of these issues as part of the long-running debate over the show’s steadfast refusal to embrace serialisation or long-form storytelling, but the problems are even more basic than that. One of the most common criticisms of Voyager is the fact that the events of particular episodes have no real consequences outside the episodes themselves. The problem with Manoeuvres is even more basic. The events of the episode have no real consequences inside the episode itself.

It would be nice if the vital materials the crew seek in Resistance were to help repairs to the ship following the events of Manoeuvres, but it is not necessary for either episode. It would be nice if Chakotay spent a few episodes in the brig, but it is not essential. However, if Voyager is going to reject serialisation, it is important for the events of a given episode to carry weight inside that same episode. In Pegasus, Picard did throw Riker “in the $#!?ing brig.” Riker didn’t stay there the following week, and it was never acknowledged again; it was enough to see him there.

"We are being hailed by someone using a Federation signal." Yes, Tuvok, but who? WHO?

“We are being hailed by someone using a Federation signal.”
Yes, Tuvok, but who? WHO?

Manoeuvres denies the audience even that. This is particularly frustrating given that Manoeuvres is intended to kick off a big season-long arc about the Kazon. The script explicitly acknowledges as much by having Seska steal Chakotay’s DNA and taunt him about her pregnancy. It is obviously a hook that requires a follow-up in a more immediate manner than something like Cold Fire. The problem is that it is impossible to trust Voyager to properly follow up on that hook, because it can’t even follow through on the threads of this episode within this episode.

To be fair, this is not a fatal flaw. After all, it is not like Deep Space Nine mastered serialisation immediately. Although everybody remembers the joy of Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, the third season of Deep Space Nine struggled to build up and maintain the idea of the Dominion as a credible threat, often forgetting about them for episodes at a time as the show told stories that seemed at odds with the idea of a looming threat waiting in the darkness. Deep Space Nine got better at this storytelling in its fourth and fifth seasons.

"Fancy meeting you here..."

“Fancy meeting you here…”

The real problem with the Kazon arc is more fundamental than the fact that serialised storytelling was always going to be a learning curve for a prime-time writers’ room in the mid-nineties. The fact that the actual week-to-week storytelling was clumsy and awkward was a problem, but not as big a problem as the story itself. The biggest problem with the Kazon arc is not the “arc” part of the equation, it is the “Kazon.” As with a lot in the second season, there is a sense of the show doubling down on elements that simply don’t work.

The second season takes all of the least satisfying elements of the first season and simply increases the frequency. Did Eye of the Needle and The 37’s feel too familiar and too “Alpha-Quadrant-y”? Don’t worry, we’ve got Non Sequitur, Tattoo, Dreadnought and Death WishEx Post Facto didn’t make a convincing case for “Paris the Rebel”? Let’s give him a rebel arc! The Neelix and Kes relationship is toxic? No, it’s more stable than ever! Caretaker and State of Flux failed to establish the Kazon as a credible threat? Here’s a whole season-long arc about the race!

On your marks, get sect...

On your marks, get sect…

All of this exists in the context of Michael Piller’s repeated attempts to frame the Kazon as a credible threat and as a memorable Star Trek race. In the lead-up to the second season, he boldly promised fans:

“A commitment we’ve made for this season to really open up and meet the aliens and the canvas of this quadrant,” said executive producer Michael Piller. “We met the Kazon last year, and we have been formulating quite a deep investigation of their culture that will turn them, I think, into perhaps one of the top five adversarial alien races in Star Trek history.”

That is quite a prediction, one that history would not vindicate. It is a shame, as it seems that the truly distinctive aliens from the first two seasons were the Vidians. Nevertheless, the show was committed to the Kazon.

"How do they keep this thing so shiny?"

“How do they keep this thing so shiny?”

Before production on the second season began, Michael Piller assigned Kenneth Biller the task of preparing a dossier on Kazon culture and customs that might serve as a template going forward. This was a technique that had worked quite well in the third season of The Next Generation when Piller had tasked Ronald D. Moore with drafting a quick guide to the Klingon Empire that would become the basis for one of the franchise’s best-loved cultures, while providing fodder for one of the franchise’s longest-running arcs.

Of course, there were some sizable differences between the third season of The Next Generation and the second season of Voyager. Moore had enjoyed the luxury of drawing upon decades source material in constructing a tapestry of Klingon culture, pulling from episodes of the original Star Trek alongside tie-in fiction and even fan speculation. In contrast, Biller was working from a blank slate, with only two episodes to guide him. More than that, on a very basic level, Kenneth Biller was no Ronald D. Moore. Then again, few are.

"Bechdel test? What's a Bechdel test?"

“Bechdel test? What’s a Bechdel test?”

There are points where Manoeuvres makes reference to the rather complicated back story that Biller has created, helping to foster the sense of the Kazon as a culture with their own history and traditions. “I could do what no one has done since Jal Sankur united the sects to overthrow the Trabe,” Cullah boasts to Seska, providing a piece of exposition that rather dramatically sets up the plot of the later episode Alliances by suggesting that the Kazon were once effectively a “slave” race. It is probably best not to dwell on that choice here.

There are a variety of little details that suggest Biller has put a lot of thought into this world. Even the naming of the sects hints at a history never articulated by the show. Cullah names “the Relora and the Ogla” as the major Kazon powers, referencing the “Mostral”, the “Hobii” and the “Oglamar” as minor players. The similar names of the “Ogla” and the “Oglamar” invites all sorts of speculation. Was there a schism or a split with the smaller sect breaking away from the larger? Is that how Kazon sects form? How closely related are the sects?

It's a raid!

It’s a raid!

The script even offers a few hints at the back story of Maj Jal Cullah himself. He shares the same first name as the Kazon who liberated his people from the Trabe, suggesting that the Kazon do have a history of hero worship and veneration. Similarly, it is suggested that Cullah is very much coasting off his grandfather’s reputation and that the Nistrim have seen better days. “Your grandfather’s time has passed, Culluh,” Jal Haron taunts. “You’ve presided over the demise of your own sect, whittled away your strength.”

This is a nice touch of characterisation, because it helps to make Maj Cullah seem like more than just a bargain basement copy of Gul Dukat. The problem is that the show never quite capitalises on any of this. The Kazon are never more than two-dimensional warrior guys. Cullah never gets a scene that portrays him as a fully-formed character rather than the sleazy muscle behind Seska. Cullah never gets a script like The Maquis, Part II or a scene like the one between Sisko and Dukat in Defiant. Voyager has no interest in doing Indiscretion starring Jal Cullah.

To be fair, you'd be obsessed as well if you'd spent ten months chasing a single ship...

To be fair, you’d be obsessed as well if you’d spent ten months chasing a single ship…

It does not help matters that Manoeuvres presents Cullah as a cartoon supervillain attempting to assemble his own incredibly bland League of Doom. There is a strange sense that Cullah doesn’t really have a life outside of plotting to destroy or capture Voyager. “Today is the day Kazon children will remember for generations,” he vows. “Today is the day we put aside our differences and join forces to defeat Voyager.” That seems like a fairly modest goal. Why not the Quadrant? Why not a new Kazon Empire? He’s obsessed with those meddling Federations.

All of this might not be a problem if it weren’t for the issues with Seska herself. Seska was one of the more interesting characters in the first season, one of the few members of the Voyager crew who was willing to question and challenge Janeway’s decision-making. Given the show’s desire to play down any potential conflict between the main characters, it was almost inevitable that Seska could not remain on Voyager. State of Flux promptly revealed her to be a Cardassian and had her run off with the Kazon.

"We should probably be more worried about this, right?" "YOLO."

“We should probably be more worried about this, right?”

Seska was obviously too fascinating and compelling a character to abandon completely. As a result, she turns up in Manoeuvres. The episode Cold Fire suggested that Voyager had been in the Delta Quadrant for ten months by this point. While it is not possible to precisely measure the time between State of Flux and Manoeuvres, it seems fair to assume that a couple of months have passed. In that time, Voyager has been warping towards the Alpha Quadrant. Much is made of how much more advanced Voyager is, and how it can outrun the Kazon raiders.

So how exactly are Seska and Cullah able to keep up with Voyager, let alone overtake them and set up an ambush? Do the Kazon have a network of wormholes like the Vaadwaur? Did the Kazon go through their own version of Persistence of Vision when they travelled through Bothan space? Did they have to stock up and refuel on the planet from Tattoo? It is interesting to wonder about the logistics of the Delta Quadrant. Nevertheless, there is a sense that plot dictates Seska’s return more than any internal logic.

Chakotay has an ex to grind...

Chakotay has an ex to grind…

The problem is that the writing staff have no idea how to write Seska. What does Seska want? In the first season, it seemed like Seska just wanted to get home as quickly and easily as possible. Her alliance with the Kazon in State of Play was a means to that end, a way to keep the ship safe from harm. However, when her plan changed, did Seska give up on the idea of getting home? Is Seska content to rule the Kazon by proxy? Isn’t she nervous about what happens if Cullah is deposed or overthrown, or if she outlives her usefulness?

Manoeuvres never focuses on any of these important character questions. It seems like the show is not particularly interested in Seska’s current motivations with regards to her relationship to the Kazon. Instead, it is revealed that Seska is madly obsessed with Chakotay – to the point where she steals his DNA and impregnates herself with it. Manoeuvres explicitly frames this as a sexual assault, with a shot of Seska penetrating her captive with a giant (and not at all suggestive) needle.

"They don't call me Killer Cullah for nothing." "They don't call you Killer Cullah at all." "Fair point."

“They don’t call me Killer Cullah for nothing.”
“They don’t call you Killer Cullah at all.”
“Fair point.”

It turns out that Seska is “baby crazy”, one of those godawful sexist stereotypes that seems to refuse to die. It appears that Seska wants a little piece of Chakotay that she can keep for herself, which is an absolutely absurd development. It is very hard to imagine Deep Space Nine or The Next Generation doing this plot with Gul Dukat or Commander Tomalak. What sets Seska apart from these characters? Looking at the way the plot develops, it is hard not to read some unfortunate subtext into the character arc.

Seska is one of the franchise’s first true recurring female adversaries. Commander Sela, Lursa and B’Etor are perhaps the only major recurring female antagonists before this point. It is worth noting that Sela is introduced as the child of rape, while B’Etor is presented as a hyper-sexual vamp. In light of all that, it should not be surprised that Seska’s big evil plan turns out to involve getting pregnant with Chakotay’s child without his consent. For all her Obsidian Order training, the second season of Voyager presents Seska as “the ex-girlfriend from hell.”

Never mind that Seska is a professional spy who was trained in the art of seduction and manipulation. Never mind that Maj Cullah will probably notice if his heir turns out to have an uncanny resemblance to Robert Beltran. (The Kazon are dumb, but they aren’t that dumb.) It feels like a creative decision that rather diminishes the character, reducing Seska to a collection of stock gender clichés that feel like they were lifted from a seventies soap opera. Star Trek has always liked its heightened melodrama, but this is too much.

In a way, it is somewhat typical of Voyager. One of the selling points of the show was the idea that the Star Trek franchise was going to continue celebrating diversity. With a female lead character and the guidance of Jeri Taylor, Voyager promised to be a feminist piece of Star Trek. Given the miscalculations that the franchise had made in the past, that was a welcome development. The cast had more (and more diverse) female characters than any other Star Trek, and was now poised to have a female central antagonist.

(And Seska was very much the central antagonist. Martha Hackett is listed ahead of Anthony De Longis in the episode’s guest cast. Seska is clearly the character responsible for planning everything that happens in the episode, even as Cullah takes the credit. It is Seska who prevents the rescue of Chakotay. It is Seska who provides the taunting epilogue to the episode. In short, Seska is very much at the heart of the season’s Kazon arc and is a much more important character than Cullah or any individual Kazon.)

However, for every step forward that Voyager took, it also took a step backwards. Janeway might have been an answer to Kirk’s assertion in The Turnabout Intruder that there were no female starship captains, but she was presented as less capable and more erratic than her male predecessors. While the show avoid sexualising its original three lead actresses, the fourth season introduced Jeri Ryan in a cringe-inducing skin-tight catsuit. While Seska was a real threat to the ship and crew, she was defined by her romantic fixation on Chakotay and her desire to be a mother.

It goes without saying that the “baby-crazed woman” is a sexist stereotype with no material basis in reality beyond gender essentialism. Studies have demonstrated that men tend to get “baby-crazy” themselves, it just happens later in life. More than that, apparently men more likely to feel depressed, jealous and angry if they don’t have children. Of course, these are all mere statistics, but the prevalence of the “baby-crazy woman” trope is one of the more unfortunate and outdated sexist tropes in popular circulation.

These are pretty serious problems, and they are baked into the foundation of the second season Kazon arc from the outset. The problem is that these problems only get more pronounced as the series continues, and they are only exacerbated by the fact that the writing staff have no idea how to plot and pace this sort of arc. Manoeuvres might just be the best Kazon episode of the second season, but that is damning with faint praise.

14 Responses

  1. It completely baffles me why they did not have the Vidiians be the season long threat instead of the Kazon. They are both more threatening and more sympathetic than the Kazon ever were.
    The ironic thing, however, is that the Kazon always seemed to be more of a threat to Voyager than the Borg were. They are also memorable, for good or bad, than either the hirogen or Malon.

    • I liked the idea of the Vidiians, but worry that the more we saw of them, the more difficult it would have been to make them interesting and sympathetic villains. They were kind of a one-trick pony, an entire race dedicated to curing a plague. After all, how many times can you have them trying to steal organs before it gets boring?

      I agree about the Kazon. I don’t hate them as much as everybody else seems to, and certainly thought them more interesting than those other races. The idea of a race that’s really technologically inferior is actually quite interesting. Voyager could have been the well-meaning but clumsy giant trampling through other people’s backyards, using its superior technology to interfere in local events in a way that causes resentment (think the US in parts of the developing world). But the show could never commit to Voyager being anything but virtuous, and the Kazon as anything but evil.

      • “But the show could never commit to Voyager being anything but virtuous…”

        I read somewhere that television glorifies everything, by its very nature. I get what Piller was after, but it might have been unreasonable to expect that sort of self-critique from Star Trek. (Some of the nested critique in DS9 is so vague that it took decades for critics like Darren and Joe Ford to pick up on it.)

        Which sort of invites the question: was it worth introducing these quasi-sympathetic desert raiders if the Voyager crew was just going to polish them off at the end of the day. It certainly invited some awkward questions when VOY ended up helping the Trabe, the white imperialists, wipe out a Kazon summit. Of course Janeway tut tuts him at the end. Sort of like how Picard’s solution toward the “planet of the drug addicts” was to comment on how both sides were behaving unsuitably…See what I mean? This series really isn’t at its best when it’s trying to be subtle.

      • I think you’re on to something when you talk about the potential of the Kazon. One of the more interesting aspects of State of Flux is the pity it evokes for the Kazon when they try to use Voyager’s advanced technology. There is something quite sad about these aliens so desperate for transporters or replicators that they would die to try to employ them. Unfortunately, the show never really develops that angle.

        I don’t know about the Vidiians. I think Lifesigns demonstrated that you could do something more than “organ snatchers!” with them, and they add a nice sense of threat to Deadlock, although not the focus of the episode by any measure.

    • I am actually very fond of the Hirogen, but you’re right. For better or worse, the Kazon are Voyager’s defining unique alien species. (And you’re right that they do seem like a bigger threat than the Borg, as ridiculous as that sounds.)

  2. > It was the only show to air on the opening night of UPN to receive a second season

    Er, as the only show on the opening night isn’t that redundant? (more critically, it outlived all the other premiere season shows – Marker, The Watcher, Pig Sty, Platypus Man & Legend; then Live Shot & Deadly Games both debuted and crashed in the fall with only Nowhere Man sticking with Voyager for the winter; Nowhere Man ended that spring along with Homeboys in Outer Space, Minor Adjustments, Paranormal Borderline & Swift Justice but Voyager entered its third year with the surviving shows Sentinel & Moesha, at which point UPN seemed to finally have a notion of what their network should look like and after the failures of Marker, Legend, Deadly Games & Paranormal Borderline, they no longer wanted to be “the Trek network;” who else remembers the Voyager jokes on Pig Sty and Platypus Man? Anyone? Anyone? Just me then)

    I love that screen grab of Hackett’s name – one of your best gags!

  3. This is the reason why Janeway is so controversial in fan circles. She is the only crew member allowed to second-guess the Federation charter who lead with her gut. Worse yet, on the few occasions someone defies her (Chakotay here and in “Scorpion”, Tom in “Thirty Days”, it bears little impact on later episodes, or the shape of the show as a whole.

    Which begs the question of why Janeway is so gun-happy and reckless in the first place. Well, you (or rather UPN) just answered it.

    It’s business.

    • I watched DS9 on the air and I remember at the time many of its self-critiques of Trek were quite apparent. Some fans of Trek resented DS9 for it, thinking it was going too far in criticizing Trek.

      • Well, that is slightly embarrassing. I hadn’t caught onto it until fairly recently, and I know of no one else in my life who did.

      • As much as I wish I could claim to have special insight, I think this is relatively well-trodden ground. I hope I add a bit more depth and nuance in my coverage, but few of the core premises are unique to my reviews.

    • oh not at all. I meant that the DS9 critiques of Trek were “in the air” in fandom. I remember fans and the nascent internet talking about them (and even Ronald D Moore later when he started working on Battlestar). The show itself was never too blatant about it.

    • It is ridiculous that Chakotay didn’t even receive a slap on the wrist for his actions here. It completely undercuts any real tension on the show. (After all, it’s not like Chakotay’d have to spend the rest of the season in the brig; even if the episode had ended with Janeway leaving him there like Picard did with Riker in Pegasus, it might give the impression of some consequences.)

      • This episode is another example of Chakotay’s rather poor decision-making (much like Riker). For God’s sake, he nearly became the father of Seska’s baby (the fact that it turned out to be Culluh’s was such a screenwriter’s copout)! And it’s sad to see the start of the Kazon’s sexism; this was a development they really didn’t need (as if they weren’t disinteresting enough) and never tied in with their earlier appearances.

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