One of the more persistent and convincing criticisms of Star Trek: Voyager is the idea that it was very narrative conservative; that the show got comfortable playing out the familiar formula that had been established by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and so never attempted to innovate or experiment in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or eventually Star Trek: Enterprise) did. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the show as a whole, but it does ignore some of the weird tensions that played out across the first two seasons.
It is fair to say that Voyager never truly experimented. However, there are several moments in the first two seasons where it looks like the show was considering doing something unique or unprecedented. The show walked up to the edge, looking up and down; it never quite made the leap, but it seemed to weigh the possibility of jumping headlong into uncharted territory. However, it ultimately only dipped its toes in the water before getting cold feet and returning to the comfort of the familiar.
The sad truth about the second season of Voyager is that the show made a number of attempts to do something different or unique, only to botch each and every one of those attempts so completely that the production team learned not to even try. The second season’s more adventurous creative decisions all ended in humiliation and farce, explaining why the show desperately sought the warm blanket of a familiar format and an established template. After all, it was the more conventional episodes of the second season that had been (relatively) well received.
The second season of Voyager turned the process of trying something moderately ambitious and failing spectacularly into something of an artform. Of course, given the simmering tensions behind the scenes, it often seemed like the show wanted to fail. Michael Piller desperately wanted to do new things, only to meet resistance from his fellow producers and writing staff. Writers like Kenneth Biller would publicly criticise assignments they had been handed, offering a sense of just how much faith the staff had in these ideas.
Alliances marks perhaps the most ambitious element (and most spectacular failure) of the second season of Voyager. It is the centrepiece of Michael Piller’s attempts to develop the Kazon into a credible (and convincing) alien threat, while also setting up a recurring arc that will allow Piller to push Tom Paris into the role of “lovable rogue” of which Piller was so fond. These were elements that excited Piller a great deal, but left most of the rest of the production team relatively cold.
So there is a great deal of irony in the fact that Alliances is ultimately written by Jeri Taylor, who was increasingly at loggerheads with Piller over the direction of Voyager. In light of that context, it makes sense that Alliances is an episode that aggressively critiques its own existence. Janeway spends most of the episode frustrated at the fact that the story is happening at all, and Alliances builds towards a climax that seems designed to convince the viewer that this whole idea is misconceived on just about every possible level.
One of the more interesting aspects of the creative conflict over the direction of the second season of Voyager is that there is no clear right and wrong party. Piller was trying to innovate and experiment, but his experiments tended to be spectacular failures. Piller is a producer who thought that Tattoo was a good idea, and that the episode was boldly pushing the franchise forward. It is perfectly understandable that the writers on staff would question his direction and guidance.
Jeri Taylor might have been advocating for the conservative and formulaic approach that would come to define Voyager, but it is hard to vilify any creative voice advocating for less exposure of the Kazon. Quite simply, the Kazon are the most spectacularly racist Star Trek aliens since the Ferengi. While the Ferengi were ultimately redeemed (somewhat) by Ira Steven Behr, it seems unlikely that Michael Piller was going to let his staff radically reimagine the Kazon to the extent that they might seem less like racial caricatures.
The unfortunate racial subtext of the Kazon has been bubbling away since they were introduced in Caretaker as a generic “primitive” species to play up the “western” sensibilities of the new Star Trek show. The Kazon at once embodied stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans in classic westerns and also reflected contemporary anxieties about “gang” culture in Los Angeles itself. The writing staff on Voyager was predominantly white and middle-class, so that intersection of racial “other” went about as well as one might expect.
The Kazon are a bunch of primitive savages without the technology of the explorers who have arrived in their territory. Voyager and its crew are presented as a civilised and progressive influence on Delta Quadrant politics; the Kazon are consistently portrayed as a barbaric and backwards species who pose a threat to everything around them. In Mortal Coil, Seven of Nine makes a passive-aggressive dig at the Kazon, suggesting that they are “unworthy of assimilation.” She ponders, “Why assimilate a species that would detract from perfection?”
The Kazon were originally conceived as a vehicle through which the production team could explore the increasing gang violence in contemporary urban society; given that Star Trek was produced in Los Angeles, this made a great deal of sense. As Jeri Taylor explained in Captains’ Logs Supplemental:
We felt with the Kazon we needed to address the tenor of our times and what […] was happening in our cities and recognizing a source of danger and social unrest. We wanted to do that metaphorically.
The Kazon might be named as an allusion to “the Kazan Phenomenon”, but they are clearly rooted in Los Angeles gang culture. (Early production documents suggest sects like “the Crips” and “the Bloods.”) The Kazon were introduced in Caretaker at around the same time as Deep Space Nine was dealing with the issue in The Abandoned.
This is already a highly questionable creative choice. Street gangs in Los Angeles were frequently the subject of sensationalist news coverage, presented in a manner that tended to heighten racial tensions in the community. The reality of the situation was often more complex and nuanced than the twenty-four-hour news cycle would allow; the emergence of gang culture was rooted in all manner of complex socio-economic factors that were less compelling than urban legends about crazy initiations or reports of drive-by shootings.
All indications are that the production staff probably should have been quite careful when dealing with the racial subtext that came with the Kazon; they were obvious stand-ins for a contemporary subculture that was associated in popular media with young black men. As a result, the decision to portray the Kazon as inherently violent primitives was a risky proposition at best. It suggested that the production team were rather tone-deaf when it came to issues of racial politics and subtext.
The second season decided to double-down on this uncomfortable metaphor by revealing that the Kazon had a history of slavery. Kenneth Biller prepared a memo outlining Kazon history, explaining that a race known as “the Trabe” had kept the Kazon as slaves until the Kazon rebelled against their masters and vanquished them. This is a rather awkward addition to an already loaded racial metaphor; the addition of slavery to the history of the Kazon even more explicitly ties them to the African American experience.
In this context, there is absolutely no justification for the decision to repeatedly and consistently portray the Kazon as violent savages incapable of self-government. The treatment of the Kazon in episodes like State of Flux and Alliances seems to suggest that maybe the Delta Quadrant was a much safer place when the Trabe kept the Kazon as slaves; the Kazon seem barely capable of taking care of themselves, they are a major risk to just about any civilised society in the region.
Alliances allows the show to compare and contrast the Trabe with the Kazon. The Kazon are repeatedly and consistently portrayed as backwards. Maj Cullah is repeatedly portrayed as misogynistic in his attitude towards Janeway. (“I won’t have a woman dictate terms to me,” he insists.) At the same time, Cullah is completely oblivious to how thoroughly Seska is manipulating him. While the Trabe share fine wine with crew of Voyager, Neelix meets his old Kazon friend at a strip club; that friend is unable to solve a basic trigonometry problem.
In contrast, the Trabe are portrayed as much more civilised and advanced. “They produced scholars and artists who were widely admired and their technology was among the finest in the quadrant,” Neelix tells Janeway. Mabus enjoys a nice civilised meal with the crew, in which he is allowed to argue that the Trabe were somewhat justified in “protecting” themselves from the Kazon. “I was told they were violent and dangerous, and had to be kept isolated so they wouldn’t get loose and kill us. Which is exactly what they did, but we brought it on ourselves.”
There is something quite reactionary about all of this, as if Alliances is suggesting that the Kazon were better kept enslaved. Even allowing for the end of the episode, the script is sympathetic to Mabus and the Trabe. “Most of the Trabe who persecuted the Kazon are either dead or old men by now,” Mabus tells Janeway over dinner. “Most of us were children when the uprising occurred, and our children are innocent, but the Kazon’s desire for revenge is as strong as ever.” He makes it sound almost unreasonable that the Kazon would harbour resentment and anger.
There are obvious uncomfortable parallels running through all this. Race can be a particularly complicated and sensitive issue in the United States, but Alliances is blunt and offensive on almost every level. It seems like the Trabe were entirely right to keep the Kazon in bondage, given the violence that occurred when they were released; when Mabus complains about the Kazon’s reluctance to move past atrocities that occurred outside living memory, he is repeating a lot of the rhetoric that attempts to divorce current racial tensions from their historical context.
To be fair, Alliances makes it pretty clear that the Trabe are not nice people. Mabus conspires to assassinate the leadership of the Kazon factions in a sequence that borrows rather directly from The Godfather: Part III. However, it does not use Janeway’s experience with the Trabe to inform her other dealings with the Kazon. Indeed, there is a rather unfortunate subtext to Janeway’s different behaviour towards the Trabe as compared to the Kazon. Janeway is willing to ally with former slavers, but finds the prospect of dealing with former slaves “distasteful.”
As such, Alliances becomes a story about how Janeway finds it easier to trust a bunch of white former slave-owners than a group of dark-skinned former slaves. Of course, it is ultimately revealed that Janeway is wrong to trust anybody, but Jeri Taylor refuses to allow that Janeway made any errors in judgment. The message that Janeway learns at the end is not that you shouldn’t trust people who owned slaves; instead, Janeway learns that you shouldn’t trust anybody, not even nice middle-class white people.
Which, of course, suggests another problem with Alliances. Even aside from the uncomfortable racial subtext, the episode is written terribly. The script is credited to Jeri Taylor, but it feels like she drew the short straw. Various elements of the plot seem to reflect Michael Piller’s aesthetic: the emphasis on the Kazon, the moral ambiguity, the sense of compromise, the desire to play up the conflict between the Maquis and the Starfleet crew. These are all elements more in line with Piller’s vision of the show than Taylor’s.
As a result, it seems like Taylor absolutely skewers the very idea of Alliances. With the Kazon growing ever more bold in their attacks on the ship, the crew of Voyager find themselves wondering if their idealistic principles are outdated and irrelevant. Starfleet regulations may not have been written for this particular situation, so why not compromise? The crew are dying in this region of uncharted space, perhaps it is time to accept that tough decisions have to be made. It is a very Deep Space Nine set up. However, Jeri Taylor is not at all interested in any of that.
At its core, Alliances is the story about how Janeway thinks that this particular plot is a bad idea. While everyone around her convinces her to at least try an alternative approach, Janeway remains steadfast in her absolutist rejection of what she sees as a violation of the crew’s core values. Reluctantly and half-heartedly, Janeway attempts a compromise to appease her restless crew and save lives. However, the entire episode is just a set-up to prove Janeway right. She even gets an “I told you so” speech at the end.
Alliances is an episode entirely structured to validate Janeway’s black-and-white morality. At Crewman Bendara’s funeral, Ensign Hogan asks Janeway what she plans to do about the situation. Janeway assures the young officer that he can speak freely; he does so. Almost immediately, Janeway outlines her position. “I appreciate your concerns, crewman, but let me make it absolutely clear. I’ll destroy this ship before I turn any part of it over to the Kazon.” It is more than just an ironic foreshadowing of Basics, Part I. It is a statement of principle.
Janeway is incredibly stubborn and self-righteous here. While still in earshot of Hogan, Janeway practically snaps at Chakotay, “So that’s how the Maquis would do it?” The script for Alliances brings up the conflict between the Maquis and the Starfleet crew for the first time in what feels like ages. Chakotay argues that the desire to strike a deal with the Kazon comes from the Maquis crewmembers. “A lot of the Maquis feel the Federation abandoned them years ago. You may be willing to die for Federation principles, but they’re not.”
In a way, this foreshadows the issues with Alliances. It seems strange that the Maquis should be the only members of the crew vocal on the subject; surely some Starfleet officers have to feel the same way? If Tuvok feels comfortable enough to suggest the alliance to Janeway, then surely there must be a large number of Starfleet personnel who would support a proposed alliance with the Kazon? Either way, Janeway is immediately paranoid. “I can’t believe you’d support that man’s position,” she accuses Chakotay.
“I don’t,” Chakotay responds. “But isn’t there something in between your position and his?” It is a perfectly reasonable and justifiable position. After all, Star Trek has always been built around the idea of integration and understanding. Deep Space Nine and Voyager were airing in an increasingly multicultural world. Would it be so bad for Janeway to learn to work with outsiders; whether those outsiders were the Maquis on her crew or the Kazon in the Delta Quadrant?
Tuvok makes a similar appeal to Janeway, drawing on the history of the Star Trek franchise. “When I was a young man, a great visionary named Spock recommended an alliance between the Federation and the Klingon empire,” Tuvok recalls, another nice piece of foreshadowing of future developments. Tuvok is entirely right here; if the Federation can make peace with the Klingons, why can’t Voyager make peace with the Kazon? It makes Janeway uncomfortable, but all world-changing ideas must seem frightening at first.
However, Alliances eventually validates Janeway’s perspective. She is right; everybody else is wrong. Alliances suggests that it is impossible to make peace with the Kazon, and that it is impossible to trust anybody in the Delta Quadrant. It is a ruthlessly cynical ending, but one that is quite jarring. The ending of Alliances should be a bleak and nihilistic rejection of the franchise’s utopian idealism, given that the crew just learned that they are truly and completely alone in this strange part of the universe. Instead, Taylor’s script plays it as an upbeat ending.
“This appears to be a region of space that doesn’t have many rules,” Janeway tells her crew. “But I believe we can learn something from the events that have unfolded. In a part of space where there are few rules, it’s more important than ever that we hold fast to our own. In a region where shifting allegiances are commonplace we have to have something stable to rely on. And we do. The principles and ideals of the Federation. As far as I’m concerned, those are the best allies we could have.” Janeway was right; it’s easiest to stick to the principles.
Of course, this all misses the point of principles. People don’t adhere to principles because they make things easy. The true test of a principle is not whether you would adhere to it if the alternative were chaos and horror; the true test of a principle is whether you adhere to it when it makes things tougher and harder. Janeway’s decision to stand by her principles would be easier to admire if the entire forty-five minute episode weren’t a Rube Goldberg machine designed to prove that everybody should have just listened to Janeway in the first place.
Discussing Janeway’s reluctance to break from protocol, Chakotay observes, “Frankly I’m not sure they were ever intended for situations like this.” Janeway responds, “I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve let us down.” She is entirely right; but only because Voyager has been structured so as to give the crew a seven-year pleasure cruise. It doesn’t take courage or conviction to stick to your principles when life is easy. Voyager has made sure that its characters have never been hungry, never been stranded, never been desperate. Principles are easy in those cases.
After all, the teaser to Alliances opens with the ship under siege from the Kazon. Voyager takes a pounding; a crewmember is killed, consoles explode, smoke billows. It really feels like the ship is in trouble, as the crew read out damage reports. However, the damage is not substantial. No character we care about is harmed during the teaser; everything is conveniently tidied away after the credits have rolled. Half-way through the episode, there is absolutely no indication that the crew have been under strain at all. As such, it is hard to take the pressure or anxiety seriously.
It doesn’t help matters that Alliances has the crew compromising their principles in the stupidest manner possible. The crew doesn’t fail because the idea is bad, the crew fail because the execution is spectacularly awful. In a way, it feels like the production team are holding up a mirror to the second season as a whole; the second season of Voyager is populated with interesting ideas that are realised in the most atrocious manner possible. Here, it feels like Janeway is actively sabotaging her attempts to strike an alliance, so that she can ultimately be vindicated.
Why would Voyager consider an alliance with the Nistrim? The ship has a long record of dealing with Maj Cullah and Seska, and knows that they cannot be trusted; in fact, Seska sexually assaulted one of the senior staff. Of all the other Kazon sects out there, the Nistrim are the least trustworthy and would be the hardest with which to deal. On a similar note, why ally with the Trabe? How does Janeway imagine that the Kazon will react once she shows up aligned with their former slaveowners?
Maj Cullah is pretty much a two-dimensional villain, but he gets perhaps the most pressing line of the episode. “I find you nothing but a hypocrite, Captain, allying yourselves to the greatest villains this quadrant has ever known,” he remarks. “If this is where your revered Federation values have taken you, I want no part of it.” The episode suggests that Janeway was wrong to compromise her values at all, but it does seem like she made the worst possible choice she could make in choosing to violate those principles. Just to repeat, Janeway allies with slavers.
(The script tries to suggest that this is inevitably where compromise leads. When Chakotay raises the obvious objections to allying with Seska, Janeway reflects, “You can’t have it both ways Commander. If you want to get in the mud with the Kazon you can’t start complaining that you might get dirty.” Of course, this is a rather glib deflection; it is quite easy to set limits on just how dirty you are willing to become, and what compromises you are willing to make. Still, the issue is not about degrees of compromise; instead, these are simply stupid decisions.)
This is to say nothing of just how hypocritical Janeway can be. Her refusal to parlay with the Kazon in Alliances stands at odds with her willingness to negotiate with the Borg in Scorpion, Part I. The show hasn’t yet allowed Janeway’s inconsistencies and contradictions to reach critical mass; however, episodes like Alliances are establishing firm absolutist principles that the show will violate with increasing frequency in the years ahead. Janeway’s self-righteousness is not an appealing character trait, but neither is the fickleness set up here.
In a way, the way that Janeway botches (or sabotages) her attempts at moral compromise reflects the way that Voyager is botching its own attempts at embracing serialisation. The Kazon arc running through the second season of Voyager is perhaps the longest arc running through the seven seasons of Voyager. It is, in no uncertain terms, a complete travesty. It is a disaster on a truly epic scale, and seems quite likely to have contributed to Michael Piller’s departure from the franchise.
Alliances itself has some issues that result from botched serialisation, even if it is only really setting the larger arc in motion. Most obviously, the idea that the Kazon attacks on the ship are taking their toll on crew morale seems to come out of nowhere. Crew morale seemed pretty okay in Resistance and Prototype; it certainly doesn’t take a knock in Threshold. This is the first indication that the show has given of a recurring Kazon threat since Manoeuvres. (Which, of course, reopens the whole “how big is Kazon space?” or “how slow is Voyager moving?” debate.)
Similarly, the plot is spurred by the death of Crewman Bendera. He is a character who does not have any lines; he dies in the teaser, having never appeared on the show before. It is hard to get too shaken up by all this, despite laboured exposition about his history with Chakotay or Torres. Voyager does not have a recurring cast with the same depth or nuance as Deep Space Nine. Joseph Carey has already vanished into history. Alliances introduces Hogan and Jonas; the two characters recur throughout the season, but are both dead by the end of the production year.
In short Voyager is very bad at serialisation. It is a problem that becomes more pronounced as the Kazon arc kicks into high gear. The show awkward shoehorns stilted scenes into standalone episodes, refusing to let organic character development or integrated plot threads map out a larger story. The second season’s Kazon arc is handled horribly, perhaps contributing to the decision to steer away from longer plot arcs in the later seasons of the show; it is understandable that the production team would not want to repeat the experience.
In his infamous exit interview, Ronald D. Moore was extremely critical of the lack of serialisation on Voyager. He argued that the show was patronising and condescending to its viewers:
It’s very hard to write in continuity, because of the nature of television. You are writing ahead, and you are writing at the moment, and you are changing things in post. It’s really hard to keep all the ducks in a row, which we found at Deep Space Nine. In that last ten-episode run, where it was almost completely serialized, that’s a tough act to carry off. But it’s also worth the effort, because the payoff is the world has more validity. The audience can sense there is truth in it. It’s a better show, and it will last longer as a result. If you are really just so concerned that this week’s episode won’t make sense because you didn’t see that episode three years ago, why can’t Star Trek do like Ally McBeal, or The Practice, or ER, all the big successful shows do. Put a little recap at the top of the show: ‘Previously, on Star Trek: Voyager…’ — even if it’s an episode from two years ago. You just quickly get the audience up to speed, because the audience is not stupid. The audience has watched television for a long time. They understand that they have missed some things, that perhaps this is a reference to a show that they didn’t see. They aren’t just going to throw up their hands and move on. If you are pre-supposing that, you are aiming towards the person that is grabbing a beer, and isn’t really paying attention, and is walking out of the room every ten minutes and coming back and sitting down; all you are going to do is dumb down the show. You are reducing it to its lowest common denominator, and what’s the point of that? What do you get out of that? You just get a so-so kind of television experience.
Deep Space Nine was experimenting with serialisation and embracing the future of televised storytelling. Ironically, Voyager would end up being the Star Trek show that boldly and stubbornly remained in place.
Alliances is a misfire on a fairly spectacular level, one that is often overlooked in examining the context and legacy of Voyager. The fact that it aired right before the broadcast of Threshold probably offers insulation and protection that it doesn’t really deserve. It is one of the worst episodes of Voyager ever produced; if not one of the worst episodes the franchise every produced. It is certainly among the most toxic, tainting both the racial politics of the show itself and also sabotaging any credible attempt to modernise storytelling on Voyager.
Filed under: Voyager | Tagged: absolutism, alliances, gangs, history, janeway, Jeri Taylor, kathryn janeway, kazon, los angeles, Michael Piller, race relations, racial politics, reactionary, serialisation, Slavery, star trek, star trek: voyager, trabe, voyager |