This February and March (and a little bit of April), 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 for the latest review.
It featured guest appearances from three alumni of the original show. It was set during the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It featured Tuvok and Janeway dressing up in movie-era uniforms. It was publicised as “a very special episode.” It aired only three days after the thirtieth anniversary, while Star Trek: Deep Space Nine waited nearly two months to broadcast Trials and Tribble-ations. Anybody would be forgiven for looking at Flashback as the obligatory nostalgic celebratory adventure to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Star Trek franchise.
Put simply, Flashback does not work in that context. Although it features Captain Hikaru Sulu, the episode doesn’t actually allow him to accomplish anything. As far as “secret histories” go, the episode turns out to be a bit of a cul de sac. More to the point, the continuity is a mess, both in broad franchise terms and specifically with regards to the feature film it heavily references. Although it is great to see Grace Lee Whitney and George Takei back, the script only allows them to interact with Tim Russ and (fleetingly) Kate Mulgrew.
In fact, it could convincingly be argued that Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II do a much better job of filling the “celebratory thirtieth anniversary story” slot than Flashback, despite the notable absence of any actual characters from the original show. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II feel like a gigantic (and enjoyable) homage to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which is both hugely fun and also weirdly appropriate in a play-on-words sort of way. That is more in line with what fans were expecting for the anniversary: nostalgic fun.
In contrast, Flashback is something altogether stranger. Brannon Braga had been working on the story before it was suggested that Voyager should do a thirtieth anniversary episode, and Flashback plays more as a Brannon Braga script that ties into an anniversary more than an anniversary episode that happens to be written by Brannon Braga. Despite its high-profile guest cast, Flashback has more in common with Braga’s mind-bending scripts for Frame of Mind or Projections than with Trials and Tribble-ations.
Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about Flashback, because it allows Braga to use the springboard of the thirtieth anniversary to talk about memory.
Braga was always going to be an interesting choice for this assignment. During his time on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Braga had established himself as something as an enfant terrible, giving provocative interviews designed to rile the fanbase. Whereas his fellow writers like Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria talked about their influences and their love of the franchise, Braga was fond of talking about kinky sex. It is interesting to wonder just how much of Braga’s divisive reputation can be traced back to those early pieces.
During those early interviews, Braga tended to downplay any real attachment to the franchise. Unlike Ronald D. Moore or René Echevarria, Braga was not a life-long fan who had taken advantage of Michael Piller’s open submission policy to earn a place on staff. Braga’s first fond memory of watching Star Trek is catching The Enemy during the third season of The Next Generation, a year before he ended up on staff as an intern from Santa Cruz. Braga played up the idea that he was not a hardcore fan of the franchise.
Part of this included a boast that he had never even see the original show. This was a bold claim for such a prominent writer. Although he eventually got around to watching (most of) them, he still found himself addressing the issue as late as 2001:
“Yeah, I’ve taken a lashing from the fans, but just for the record, here’s how that started,” Braga told the official magazine. “I think there was a period about eight years ago when I made some stupid comments, in one or two interviews, about never having seen an episode of the original series, which was true. And in fact, when I first started here, when Gene Roddenberry was still alive, he said to me, ‘Don’t watch the original series. If you haven’t seen it, don’t watch.’
“And I (asked) why? And he said, ‘Because you will bring something fresh to the table’ — because he was very adamant that (Star Trek: The Next Generation) not be the original series, and not redo anything. So I was like, ‘Fine.’”
In hindsight, it seems quite surreal that Braga would be the co-creator and showrunner of Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel to the original Star Trek. (Of course, it makes more sense if you think of it as a sequel to Star Trek: First Contact.)
To be fair to Braga, he has softened on that hardline position in recent years. However, in the documentary Before Her Time, Braga concedes that continuity was never an aspect of Star Trek that interested him as a writer:
My relationship with the fanbase – or some of the fanbase, I don’t know how much of the fanbase, it’s hard to tell on-line – started with some dumb interview where I said I’d never seen the original series. Which, I can understand why that would be upsetting. And I think I was viewed as arrogant or something. I think I was just kinda young, and maybe came across as arrogant or something… maybe, I don’t know. And I made a couple of jokes about “continuity porn”, which I thought was a clever phrase but was just insulting, you know, to people who value continuity – like Manny Coto. But, my point was that to me Star Trek was always about “new.” The canon, the continuity, it was a valuable storytelling element on the show, but to me it was always about exploration – about exploring new things. That’s what Gene told me, that’s what Rick told me, that’s what the show was. And I never wanted to get mired in too much continuity.
It should noted that Braga is speaking with the benefit of hindsight in that particular quote. The infamous “continuity porn” interview was given in the lead-up to the broadcast of Broken Bow, years after the release of Flashback. If anything, his position wold have been more extreme while writing Flashback.
Still, even allowing for the fact that Braga was being deliberately confrontational when he talked about having never watched the original Star Trek and for the likelihood that his perspective was beginning to soften by this point in his time working on the franchise, Braga still seems like a very strange choice to write the big thirtieth anniversary script. Flashback is supposed to be one of the “blockbuster” episodes of the season, given prime position and hyped to an absurd degree. Giving it to somebody who is fairly ambivalent about the original Star Trek seems an odd decision.
Of course, it is not as if many alternatives suggest themselves; hardcore Star Trek fans Bryan Fuller and Michael Taylor were not on staff yet, Jeri Taylor was not particularly continuity-obsessed, Kenneth Biller and Lisa Klink were still Star Trek novices. Whereas the Deep Space Nine staff were falling over one another to make their mark on the teleplay for Trials and Tribble-ations, there seemed to be markedly less enthusiasm among the Voyager staff. Brannon Braga seems a more reasonable choice when the alternatives are considered.
It helps that Braga happened to have a story unto which this big anniversary celebration might be grafted. As Braga explained to Cinefantastique, the “viral memory” idea actually predated the whole “anniversary episode” idea:
“When the 30th year anniversary rolled around, [it] was suggested that we do an homage to the original series,” said Braga. “We thought, what a perfect opportunity to use the sci-fi gimmick, mind melding, and go to save Tuvok from a psychic trauma. And back [in] time, that was what we were going to do [originally]. We were going to see Janeway’s first commission. It was going to be more about Janeway and that relationship. We just used that story as a departure and it worked very nicely. But the gag was always the same, to do a time travel story without doing time travel, by doing a meld. Tuvok’s old enough that we can go way back. We went back to Sulu’s ship, and events that happened in Star Trek VI. That was what we combined. But it still ended up being a kind of interesting Tuvok character piece, and you learned more about him, his feelings about humans.”
As such, it is no surprise that Flashback struggles as a big “let’s celebrate Star Trek!” episode, because it was not originally conceived as such. That idea was grafted into a preexisting story. (Not unlike the parasitic contagious memory, to be fair.)
Even without knowing this production back story, it is clear that Flashback is an awkward fit for the anniversary story. Most notably, Captain Hikaru Sulu does not actually appear until fifteen minutes into the episode. As such, the episode feels like a party where the honoured guest can’t be bothered to show up until a third of the way through. Trials and Tribble-ations revealed the Enterprise at the end of the teaser. Relics introduced Scotty before the opening credits. Even Unification, Part I featured Spock’s picture in its opening scenes.
In contrast, the teaser to Flashback ends with Tuvok… falling over. It is an effective sequence, one that plays like a pulpy horror movie, but it lacks the visceral impact of putting the anniversary elements up front. Flashback consciously buries the lede, although it has no reason to do so. The audience knows Sulu is coming. The episode had been hyped for weeks before it aired. Even if viewers tumbled into the episode blind, George Takei is listed prominently in the guest cast credits. So it seems strange to spend so much of the episode waiting for his arrival.
As such, it is no surprise that Flashback was a disappointment to fans eagerly anticipating a nostalgic celebration of the franchise’s history. It doesn’t help matters that all sorts rumours were swirling about the possibility of a Star Trek spin-off starring George Takei and set on board the USS Excelsior. Takei himself had been a massive cheerleader for the idea, reflecting in hindsight:
It was a substantial idea. There was a huge following for it. And after all, Star Trek VI seemed to have opened the door for an Excelsior television series. But for whatever reason, Paramount didn’t pick up the idea. So despite that massive and heroic effort that was launched by all of the people, and I was absolutely convinced that the audience was there based on the reception of Star Trek VI, the idea didn’t go through. I was absolutely baffled.
Despite the fact that it very much feels like an attempt to do a Star Trek spin-off in the mould of Joey or A Man Called Hawk, those rumours simply refused to die. There was a concentrated effort to launch a “Captain Sulu” series after Voyager left the air in 2001, although the production team opted to reach even further back in time. The idea of an “Excelsior” movie was a credible April Fool’s joke as recently as 2012.
Of course, the prospect of launching a “Star Trek: Excelsior” or “Star Trek: The Adventures of Captain Sulu” television series was patently absurd, particularly in the context of 1996. Deep Space Nine was halfway through its run, and Voyager was barely started. A third Star Trek television series would have been overkill, particularly at a point where Voyager was deeply troubled and there was a very credible risk of Star Trek over-saturation for die-hard fans of the franchise, let alone casual audience members.
Nevertheless, there was a recurring suggestion among fandom that Flashback might serve as a “backdoor” pilot for a new series focusing on Captain Sulu. After all, that is how other franchises tended to launch spin-offs, allowing the cast of the parent show to visit the location and cast of the new spin-off. (The CSI franchise would elevate this style of cross-promotional launching to an artform at the start of the twenty-first century.) The expectation seemed to be that this would be a “Sulu” episode guest starring the Voyager cast.
These rumours were consciously stoked and fueled by the guest cast. George Takei would drop the idea into interviews. Even in hindsight, Grace Lee Whitney insisted that there was always the hope of spinning off a new show from the episode:
It was great. They told us it was a (backdoor) pilot for (an Excelsior) mini-series. I’d said, “Why don’t you do this show and bring us on every three months in an episode? We could bring in all of the people, one at a time, from the original show?” But they couldn’t get enough people to support it.
To be fair, if the episode had performed phenomenally – breaking records, cracking the mainstream press, becoming a fan favourite – it might have generated some traction. But it is hard to look at Flashback and think that the episode was written to jumpstart a Captain Sulu series. That is just wishful thinking.
Flashback was always going to disappoint on that front. It was never going to venerate Sulu in the same way that Trials and Tribble-ations venerated the original series or Relics venerated Scotty. Despite all the hype around the episode, the return of Sulu was never the central point of Flashback. The episode might have featured a guest appearance from Sulu, but it was never about Sulu. Coupled with the episode’s flagrant discontinuity, this meant that Flashback was never going to be the episode that the marketing team (and audiences) wanted it to be.
Flashback is, first and foremost, a Brannon Braga script. It comes from a long line of Brannon Braga scripts that engage with high-concept science-fiction ideas as a way to play with fundamental concepts like self and identity. Flashback is very much a companion piece to episodes like Cause and Effect or Frame of Mind or Projections. The comparison with Projections is particularly on point, given that Flashback was another episode produced at the end of the production season but held back until the start of the next broadcast year.
While Projections is a story about identity and reality filtered through the prism of Philip K. Dick, Flashback is more interested in memory. Sulu and the Excelsior very clearly serve this theme, rather than the other way around. Flashback touches on abstract ideas of memory and nostalgia, in a way that feels entirely appropriate for the thirtieth anniversary of the franchise, even if it is not exactly what fans expect from an episode like this. (Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II do a more straightforward tribute to the original show.)
Flashback is full of contradictions – both explicit and implied – between the version of events witnessed by Tuvok and the version depicted in The Undiscovered Country. There are the little niggling details, of course. Tuvok’s account of his opposition to the Khitomer conference in Alliances never mentioned that he was serving on the Excelsior, which is an odd little detail. Certainly, the two facts are not mutually exclusive, but it seems a strange omission. It would be like commenting on the Cuba Missile Crisis without mentioning you were on the bridge of the USS Essex.
It is a strange choice to reveal that Tuvok was actually serving on the Excelsior during the crisis, given that an earlier episode had already filled in some of the blanks around what Tuvok had been doing at the same time. However, given the circumstances, it is a logical contrivance. Tuvok is the only member of the Voyager cast old enough to have been around during the time period of the original Star Trek show. Using Tuvok as a tether to anchor the story makes sense, leaving aside little details like that.
Other bits of back story are harder to reconcile. Sulu describes Tuvok as “an ensign with only two months space duty under his belt.” However, Sulu’s opening log from The Undiscovered Country suggests that the Excelsior just spent “three years” mapping “gaseous planetary anomalies in the Beta Quadrant.” It seems strange (although perhaps not impossible) that Tuvok could find his way on board Sulu’s ship thirty-four months into a thirty-six month mission. Maybe Starfleet just has a terrible H.R. department.
However, there are bigger issues of discontinuity. Most obviously, the fact that the history depicted in Flashback is impossible to reconcile with that of The Undiscovered Country. This is not the first time that Braga would be responsible for trying to awkwardly shoehorn one story inside another one; trying to nest Flashback within The Undiscovered Country very much sets a precedent for trying to slot These are the Voyages… within Pegasus. However, at least the issues with Flashback are explored within the episode itself.
Sulu’s attempted rescue of Kirk and McCoy in Flashback is the stuff of fan fiction – albeit a different sort of fan fiction than that evoked by Resolutions. This particular adventure of Captain Hikaru Sulu is one of those great “but what happens to a particular character when they are off-screen?” stories, the kind of postmodern high concept that inspired Tom Stoppard’s Rosencratz and Gildenstern are Dead. It is too much to imagine Sulu sitting idly by and waiting for Spock to act while Kirk and McCoy are in danger, so Flashback gives him a parallel narrative.
Of course, that parallel narrative does not fit at all with the version of events presented in The Undiscovered Country. In The Undiscovered Country, Sulu explicitly considers staging a rescue mission. When the verdict comes in, Sulu instructs his staff to send a message to the Enterprise that they are “ready to assist.” Later in the film, while Spock is stalling for time, Sulu is woken up to receive word that the Enterprise has yet to return to Spacedock. The next time that Sulu appears, he is guiding the Enterprise to Khitomer.
Although never explicitly stated, the clear intent of these scenes is to suggest that Sulu and the Excelsior were essentially waiting patiently on the sidelines during the crisis, ready to render any assistance necessary but not committing unilaterally to any action. The events of Flashback are hard to reconcile with this. Did Sulu unilaterally decide to mount a rescue mission without informing Spock, who was quietly planning his own rescue mission simultaneously? It seems a little bit of a stretch.
More than that, it is difficult to reconcile Sulu’s confrontation with Kang with the events of The Undiscovered Country. There was a reason that Spock did not charge head-first into a rescue. When Chancellor Azetbur agrees to reopen negotiations with the Federation, she explicitly warns against attempting a rescue mission to recover Kirk and McCoy. “We would consider any such attempt an act of war,” she advises the Federation President. That is also why it is so important that Spock and Uhura infiltrate Klingon space by means of subterfuge.
In contrast, Sulu comes into conflict with the Klingons twice. First, Sulu encounters Kang. Using only the power of technobabble (and a delightful Star Trek analogy of “tossing a match into a pool of gasoline”), Sulu disables Kang’s ship. Given that Sulu is sneaking into Klingon space to recover Kirk, this is clearly an act of war. Even if Kang is not willing to plunge the Klingon Empire into war over Sulu’s intrusion, it seems strange that none of the Klingon ships that ambush Excelsior later in the episode seem to report the incident. It is hard to reconcile this with the film’s plot.
There are other cosmetic inconsistencies. The Excelsior takes quite a beating during the ambush in the nebula. The bridge is on fire, allowing Sulu to step theatrically through a plume of smoke to make his big entrance. However, when Excelsior reappears immediately following Kirk’s rescue in The Undiscovered Country, the bridge still looks new and fresh. There is no evidence of massive damage or destruction. Of course, this is Voyager. It seems to take about five minutes to recover that “new starship smell” after nearly apocalyptic damage.
There are other inconsistencies that cannot be so easily dismissed. Quite pointedly, Flashback focuses on the death of Dmitri Valtane. It is not a trivial detail. It is a massive plot point. Valtane is responsible for “infecting” Tuvok with the memory virus that drives the story. However, Valtane is very clearly alive at the climax of The Undiscovered Country, after the events depicted in Flashback. While there there are all sorts of awkward fixes to this – Valtane is a twin! Valtane is a clone! Valtane got really better for a little while and then died! – it bakes a very obvious continuity issue into the episode’s premise.
All of these little details chip away at the idea that Flashback is supposed to be a continuity-heavy celebration of the franchise’s history by positing a lost adventure unfolding alongside the events of The Undiscovered Country. As the episode unfolds, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept Flashback at face value, as a parallel narrative that runs in the background of the final film to feature the cast of the original series. Flashback is not a nostalgic attempt to fill in the gaps. It is something else entirely.
Braga’s script candidly and repeatedly acknowledges these inconsistencies and discontinuities. Even Janeway has trouble fitting all the pieces together. “Tuvok, why doesn’t your service record reflect any of this?” she demands. “I thought your first assignment was aboard the Wyoming.” Janeway even calls out Tuvok’s memory for its inaccuracy. “He doesn’t look anything like his portrait at Starfleet Headquarters,” she reflects. Tuvok responds, “In the twenty third century, holographic imaging resolution was less accurate.”
This is worth dwelling on. Janeway’s experience of Sulu is explicitly compared to that of the audience watching at home. Janeway is working with the memory of Sulu, filtered through an image captured and projected. Flashback is full of these postmodern touches, particularly in portraying Tuvok’s memory. Tuvok’s memory of events is consciously structured like an episode of television. More than that, it is consciously structured like an episode of Star Trek. The episode repeatedly ties together the idea of memory and media narrative.
Tuvok’s memory begins in media res, with Sulu’s heroic entrance serving as something of a teaser to the episode playing out for Janeway. In fact, as noted above, Sulu’s heroic entrance would be the image expected to close the teaser on a more straightforward and nostalgic version of Flashback. Janeway is cast in the role of the audience, an “objective observer.” Tuvok provides exposition and voice-over, even handling scene transitions. (“This battle was precipitated by an incident that took place three days earlier…”)
As the audience, it is Janeway who is asked to make sense of the events – to properly contextualize and integrate them. “You will help me reconstruct the memory in its entirety,” Tuvok advises Janeway, setting a firm barrier between actor and audience. “And as I am reliving it, you will help me to objectify the experience. By processing the experience, rather than repressing it, I can begin to overcome my fear, anger and the other emotional responses, and to reintegrate the memory into my conscious mind.”
In many respects, the decision to cast Tuvok as the actor and Janeway as the audience is a wry gag of itself. Of course Tuvok is the actor in all this. The character is the only Voyager regular to appear in another Star Trek show at this point, albeit as his mirror universe counterpart in Through the Looking Glass. (Although Robert Picardo would play an alternate EMH and Lewis Zimmerman in Doctor Bashir, I Presume and and alternate EMH in Star Trek: First Contact.) Flashback extends the character’s roots within the shared universe.
More than that, actor Tim Russ is notable for being the first actor to share a scene with the franchise’s first four leads. Russ appeared in Starship Mine as a terrorist playing Die Hard with Captain Picard, and in Invasive Procedures as a Klingon hijacking Deep Space Nine during a storm. Russ also had a small role at the start of Star Trek: Generations, playing a bridge officer on the Enterprise-B during its launch. As such, Tim Russ could make a credible claim to be a nexus for the Star Trek franchise in 1996, tying together Shatner, Stewart, Brooks and Mulgrew.
Casting Janeway as the audience is important. Perhaps it is the audience – more than the actors or writers – who are tasked with creating continuity of narrative. It is the audience who must reconcile and integrate a story. It might be argued that continuity is an external construct, a “meta” narrative constructed by fans to serve as a framework for individual elements. Flashback touches on this idea. “You will be an observer in the memory, but not a participant,” Tuvok advises. “This will give you the freedom to guide me objectively.” However, it is not that simple.
As the memory develops, Janeway goes from observer to participant. She is no longer audience but creator. In some respects, this could be seen to mirror the role of the audience in shaping and fashioning continuity. As Henry Jenkins argues in Textual Poachers, continuity and characterisation are often intuited by fans, pieced together by writing into the space between episodes and dialogue. For example, discussing Danni Bryant’s assertions about Picard’s character:
Yet it is doubtful that any Next Generation episode would perfectly illustrate all of the flaws she locates in Picard’s character. Rather, she is offering a composite view of many different episodes and using that meta-text to comprehend and evaluate the character’s conduct in particular narrative situations. Any new information the series provides about Picard will be fit into this existing grid of assumptions about his character and judged according to its conformity with what has come before. To some degree, such extrapolation is what all viewers do in making sense of program information, but, within fandom, it assumes an institutional status; elaborations become part of the program tradition, gain broad circulation and assume the status of accepted “facts” seen as binding not only on fans but on the program producers as well.
Braga would learn this while producing Enterprise, when fans reacted harshly to the portrayal of the Vulcans in episodes like Broken Bow, The Andorian Incident and Shadows of P’Jem. It did not matter that these episodes were consistent with the portrayal of Vulcan culture as stuffy and superior in episode like Amok Time and Journey to Babel. The portrayal of Vulcans on Enterprise conflicted with the characterisation fans had extrapolated for Vulcans.
Conventional wisdom would credit the writer with responsibility for continuity and character. However, the writer’s vision is filtered and modified. The script is shot be the director, who brings their own emphasis to the material; it is performed by actors, who often have their own interpretations of the character; it is watched by audiences who contextualise it within their own reading of the show. In many respects, arguments over “canon” and “continuity” are often just arguments about the correct way to read the series, what counts and what doesn’t.
Most reviews, including the one you are reading right now, are engaged in this process to a greater or lesser degree – albeit framed in less absolute terms than debates about continuity. How an audience member responds to (or tries to explain) certain elements of a text serves to change their perception and understanding of the larger narrative. Being in an audience relies upon interpretation, and interpretation is just one step removed from storytelling. Flashback touches upon this idea, having Janeway transition from a fan to a participant.
Flashback is full of little touches like this. Outlining the situation near the start of the episode, the EMH conspicuously (and repeatedly) refers to Tuvok’s flashbacks as “episodes.” Although the word is medically accurate, it also draws attention to the nature of the show and of this individual script. These are more than just clever rhetorical touches or nods towards the audience, they seem to hint at a deeper theme within the work, the idea of memory as narrative. It is worth noting that Tuvok’s health issues in Flashback are triggered by a discontinuity in his memory.
The EMH even calls the continuity of the whole adventure into question. When Kes wonders about the nature of the memory that spread from Valtane to Tuvok, the EMH observes that memory is malleable and flexible. “Memory is a tricky thing,” he observes. “If it was a real event, it’s been buried and copied and twisted so many times, there’s no way to tell what really happened.” Perhaps the same is true of continuity, which is arguably rooted just as much in memory as material fact.
(It should be noted that the general characterisation of the Klingons as honourable and the Romulans as treacherous can be traced to the third season of The Next Generation – to Sins of the Father and The Enemy, respectively. This is in marked contrast to the characterisation of the original show, of sneaky Klingons in The Trouble with Tribbles and A Private Little War and of honourable Romulans in Balance of Terror and The Enterprise Incident. However, the Next Generation portrayals are so deeply rooted they carried over to Enterprise without anybody batting an eye.)
Flashback ties the idea of continuity to the idea of memory, suggesting that both are malleable concepts. It is a more modest and conservative application of the approach that Steven Moffat would bring to Doctor Who, suggesting that continuity is inherently subjective and prone to frequent revision. The discontinuity of Flashback feels almost like an affectation, a demonstration of just how malleable and elastic memory can be. How we remember something often has little to do with how it actually was.
Memory is inherently subjective and undeniably fickle. Although it has a significant influence on juries, studies suggest that eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Even the most trusted of memories is not absolute; every time the brain recalls a memory, it effectively re-writes the recollection. The human brain is not a video camera hard drive:
Think about your fifth-birthday party. Maybe your mom carried the cake. What did her face look like? If you have a hard time imagining the way she looked then rather than how she looks now, you’re not alone.
The brain edits memories relentlessly, updating the past with new information. Scientists say that this isn’t a question of having a bad memory. Instead, they think the brain updates memories to make them more relevant and useful now — even if they’re not a true representation of the past.
This is not necessarily a bad thing; our understanding of the world is constantly changing, so it makes sense that our understanding of our own past should also change as well. However, it does suggest that human memory should not be treated as an absolute and objective record of events as they occurred. The past may not change, but human perception of it can.
One of the big recurring themes of Braga’s early Star Trek work is the fragile nature of identity and self; the idea that these fundamental concepts are build upon assumptions, and the question of what happens when those assumptions change. Memory is part of that broader theme. “A structure cannot stand without a foundation,” Tuvok repeats during his attempts at meditation. In many respects, memory is a foundation upon which the concept of self is based. What if that foundation cannot be trusted?
It is an interesting idea for an episode. Brannon Braga’s original pitch for Flashback sounds a lot like his scripts for Frame of Mind and Projections, episodes that deconstructed the reality of William Riker and the EMH. It seems likely that the original idea for Flashback might have done something for Janeway. After all, if her memory of a child falling off a cliff is fake, then how can she trust any of her memories? However, this is a much different story than the version that made it to air, and not just because Tuvok is the focal character.
In the context of the thirtieth anniversary celebrations, Flashback ceases to be a story about personal memory and instead transforms into a tale about cultural recall. In its own weird way, that makes it the perfect story for the year that is in it, even if it doesn’t quite meet the expectations for a celebratory nostalgic crossover episode. Although produced at the end of the second season, Flashback seems to hark forward to the recurring theme of memory and history that plays out across the third season of Voyager.
The second third season episode to be produced was titled Remember. The crew would travel in time in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, marking the beginning of the series’ obsession with time travel. Cultural memory and its awkward relationship with material history would form the basis of Distant Origin. The fourth season would revisit the theme in Retrospect, Unforgettable and Living Witness. This is to say nothing about the use of time travel and history in Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine would also touch on the intersection of memory and history in episodes like Things Past and Ties of Blood and Water. Of course, Deep Space Nine was a show that was largely about trauma and history, so these themes had been baked into the show since it Emissary. In contrast, Flashback marks something of a turning point for Voyager. It should be noted that Brannon Braga was involved in the development of the third season episodes engaging with the idea of memory and identity.
Flashback is very much a story about the distortion of memory, to the point that the episode’s antagonistic force is a viral memory of an event that never actually happened. This is reflected in the way that Flashback engages with The Undiscovered Country. It treats the sixth Star Trek film as a memory, something malleable and abstract that can be reduced to its biggest moments without much concern for the nitty-gritty accuracy about background characters or internal chronology.
For example, while Flashback doesn’t seem to care about whether Valtane was dead or alive at the climax of the film, the episode takes care to duplicate the more memorable Sulu-centric moments. The opening scene of The Undiscovered Country is replicated in great detail, right down to replicating dialogue as the Excelsior is hit by the shockwave from Praxis. More to the point, the imagery is borrowed. The tea cup shattering is borrowed from the film, a memorable image. In fact, Flashback takes enough care to give that iconic moment a back story.
This is, after all, how memory tends to work. The big moments are remembered. The shockwave, the teacup shattering. Those details are more important than the background extras who appear on the bridge of the Excelsior during the climactic fire-fight or the very strong suggestion that Sulu spent most of The Undiscovered Country waiting off-screen to render assistance. The finer details are lost, in favour of the images and the feeling. The specifics are brushed aside for a broader (and more intangible) sense of what the object is.
This feels like a powerful an important theme for a franchise approaching its thirtieth anniversary, certain to provoke think pieces about what Star Trek really is and what Star Trek really means at any given moment. Fans who had grown up with Star Trek understandably felt protective towards it, and there was every sense that the thirtieth anniversary celebrations would effectively be a nostalgic love-in. (Consider the Ted-Danson-hosted special Star Trek: 30th Anniversary Special, featuring the cast of Fraser!)
However, the popular memory of the franchise diverges radically from the real history. Much is made of the show’s diversity, but rarely is it acknowledged that NBC wanted that diversity more than Gene Roddenberry. The importance of Uhura is played up, despite the fact that Uhura was horribly under-utilised and shows like I, Spy and Julia were doing a much better job of fleshing out African-American characters. The show’s liberal politics are lauded, but its endorsement of Vietnam in A Private Little War and The Omega Glory is forgotten.
Indeed, there is a tendency to obscure the details of specific stories in favour of mythologised moments. The show is lauded for the interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura in Plato’s Stepchildren, ignoring the fact that I, Spy beat the show to the punch and the fact that Kirk and Uhura were being forced to kiss against their will for the perverse amusement of god-like aliens. As with the memory depicted in Flashback, the imagery and the abstract sense of that moment is more important that the finer details.
In some ways, it feels appropriate that Flashback should return to The Undiscovered Country. As with Flashback, the sixth film was released as part of an anniversary celebration; the release of The Undiscovered Country was intended to mark the franchise’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Like Flashback, the film received criticism for being inaccurate in its engagement with the franchise’s history, albeit for more general and vague reasons than the inconsistencies within Flashback.
“So ‘VI’ is a film in which the crew of the Enterprise has all kinds of prejudice, racial prejudice, vis-a-vis the Klingons. And some of their remarks, including how they all look alike and what they smell like, and all the xenophobic things which we grappled with — that was all deeply offensive to him because he thought there isn’t going to be that.”
Indeed, the portrayal of the Enterprise crew in The Undiscovered Country was controversial to some fans who objected to Kirk’s “overt racism.”
This attitude was not confined to fandom alone. J.M. Dillard’s novelisation of the film would bend over backwards to write around the racism expressed by the crew in the script, seemingly so indignant at the portrayal as to miss that it was the entire point of the story. Reading Dillard’s novelistion is a very strange experience, as it frequently seems like the author is going out of her way to belittle and dismiss the central thematic points of the work that she is adapting. It is almost surprising that it was published.
As much as this portrayal of the Enterprise crew diverged from fan expectations and the collective memory of the original Star Trek, it was hardly inaccurate. Kirk and his crew were hardly beacons of tolerance and open-mindedness, even against the context of the sixties. As introduced in Errand of Mercy, the Klingons felt like a racist caricature of East Asian communists – with the script explicitly describing them as “Orientals.” This is to say nothing of the portrayal of “the Asiatics” or “the yellow civilisation” in The Omega Glory.
This is not to take anything away from Star Trek. The show was capable of brilliance and insight, wrapped up in a powerful Camelot-era idealism. A Taste of Armageddon is a biting satire of the media management to the Vietnam War, while The Trouble with Tribbles cleverly reduces the Cold War to farcical posturing. Balance of Terror is a powerful and profound anti-war piece, one of the best episodes in the franchise’s history. Mirror, Mirror is a critique of cultural and political imperialism.
However, these issues with Star Trek cannot be easily brushed aside. Even great episodes of the show contain significant problematic elements. Space Seed is a fantastic episode of Star Trek, but its portrayal of Marla McGivers is beyond sexist. The closing scene of The Enemy Within has Spock making a joke about the attempted rape of Janice Rand, a touch that is even more tasteless given what happened to Grace Lee Whitney behind the scenes. Errand of Mercy is a brilliant (and subversive) Cold War analogy, but the Klingons are still uncomfortable.
Reducing Star Trek to an ideal is a falsification, reducing it to an idealised beacon of liberal utopian philosophy ignores the reality that the show (and its creators) were much more complex. Flashback plays with this idea, having Janeway wax lyrical to Harry about the “good old days” of Kirk and his crew. “Imagine the era they lived in,” she reflects. “They were a little slower to invoke the Prime Directive, and a little quicker to pull their phasers.” Kirk and his crew were legends and heroes.
However, the reality is more complicated than all that. There is some irony in Janeway’s assertion that she would love “to ride shotgun at least once with a group of officers like that.” After all, Turnabout Intruder had Kirk make it abundantly clear the twenty-third century Starfleet had no female captains. (It does not help that the episode featured a psychotic woman who tried – and failed – to become a captain.) As romantic as the popular memory of the original Star Trek might be, there is a sizable gulf between that memory and the reality.
Similarly, there is something pointed in Tuvok’s acknowledgement of his own difficulties with Starfleet in the era, the space between the experience he lived and the world Janeway imagined. When Janeway asks if Tuvok is sincere in his criticisms, the Vulcan reflects, “At this point in my life, yes. My experiences at the Academy and on board the Excelsior were not pleasant.” It is one thing for Janeway to romanticise the past, but she should also acknowledge the reality as experienced by Tuvok.
Tuvok’s complaints could themselves be read as criticisms of certain aspects of the original show. “Ever since I entered the Academy, I’ve had to endure the egocentric nature of humanity,” he advises Valtane. “You believe that everyone in the galaxy should be like you, that we should all share your sense of humour and your human values.” In many ways, Tuvok is critiquing the way that Kirk and (particularly) McCoy behaved towards Spock. Again, that was something of a point of The Undiscovered Country, with Azetbur challenging even the naming of “human rights.”
All of this makes it sound like Braga was being overly critical of the original Star Trek, but that is unfair. Flashback takes care to stress that Tuvok has made his peace with the era and its flaws. Part of maturity is learning to accept these problems. “Raising children of my own made me appreciate what my parents experienced raising me,” he observes. “And I came to realise that the decisions I made as a young man were not always in my best interest.” Accepting that there were issues with the past is not the same as dismissing it entirely.
Perhaps Braga is speaking through Tuvok here. After all, the second generation of Star Trek shows was ten year old at this point. The Next Generation had emerged from the shadow of its predecessor and launched its own spin-offs. Although Braga could be brash in his interviews and statements, recent years have seen the producer soften somewhat. He candidly acknowledges that “there are arrogant comments [he wishes he] hadn’t made in interviews.” Whatever issues his stewardship of Enterprise might have, it is absurd to think Braga hates Star Trek.
That said, it should be acknowledged that this dialogue was not in the original version of the script. In the original drafts of Flashback, Tuvok offered a very different explanation for his return to Starfleet. However, as Tim Russ explained to Cinefantastique, the actor objected to the characterisation:
“Initially that whole speech wasn’t in there, a page and a half of dialogue,” said Russ. “She asked me, ‘What made you come back to Starfleet?’ and [Braga] had written some line which really wasn’t consistent with Vulcan character. I said, ‘Brannon, the line itself doesn’t work.’ So I said, ‘Give him a real reason why he came back to Starfleet.’ I expected a paragraph, and I ended up getting a page and a half of dialogue. Things like that do make a difference.”
It is worth noting that Tim Russ made similar observations about the script for Basics, Part I, suggesting that the actors had to improvise changes to the script to help the story flow better. That said, the rewritten script still came from Brannon Braga. It is still his work; the dialogue is still part of his script.
Still, it is important to acknowledge the gap that exists between the popular memory of Star Trek and the realities of a sixties science-fiction show. These issues have to be confronted and explored. Flashback arrives at an important moment for the show. It is the first episode to air after Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II, and was actually produced between the two. The Basics two-parter was essentially Michael Piller’s thesis statement on Voyager, trying to take the show back to the frontier aesthetic of the original Star Trek.
Piller’s vision of Voyager was largely defined by uncritical nostalgia for the original Star Trek show. Sometimes, the second season could come close to emulating the look and tone of classic Star Trek, whether through the ridiculous allegory of Innocence or the wacky transporter hijinks of Tuvix or the abstract imagery of The Thaw. However, Piller’s attempts to bring Voyager back to the franchise’s roots (back to “basics”, as it were) often felt ill-judged and out-of-touch, a conscious attempt to recapture the tone of the original Star Trek without any interrogation.
Piller championed a vision of Chakotay that reduced the character to an offensive collection of New Age clichés in episodes like The Cloud and Tattoo. Watching those episodes, it seemed like the franchise’s attitudes toward Native Americans had not evolved since The Paradise Syndrome. Piller also advocated for the Kazon, a weird blend of influences that drew from stereotypes of contemporary “gang” culture in Los Angeles and the stereotypical portrayal of “primitives” in frontier fiction. The Kazon were as problematic as the Klingons had been in Errand of Mercy.
The production team had banished the Kazon (and Piller) from the show. Flashback was perfectly timed, as a rebuke of the unquestioning nostalgia that had led to Piller to try to build a version of Voyager anchored in the aesthetics (and politics) of the late sixties. Flashback feels like an attempt to get away from all of that, to acknowledge that the memory of the original Star Trek might not reflect the true complexity of the show. Sulu is more than just a holo projection. Sulu is more than just hollow.
If anything, Flashback feels more powerful now than it did on original broadcast. After all, Star Trek is even more of an object of cultural nostalgia now than it was when the episode was first broadcast. With Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, JJ Abrams and his production team have taken the show back to its roots in a manner far more fundamental than Voyager‘s conscious engagement with the frontier aesthetic and sixties imagery. Kirk no longer just haunts the narrative, he is the narrative once again.
Of course, this reflects an even broader trend in contemporary pop culture that seems to pull audiences towards nostalgic fetish objects. Nostalgia seems to be the flavour of the month, if not the millennium. Of course, it is easy to overstate the case. Critics and pundits have always been fascinated with questions about nostalgia, given that the thinkpieces practically write themselves. (Consider, for example, the wave of thinkpieces in 2011, around the time of the publication of Simon Reyolds’ Retromania – Grantland, The New York Times, The Atlantic.)
Even allowing for this, nostalgia seems to be a boom industry of late. So many childhood favourites return to the multiplex and the television screen, with Star Trek Beyond writer Simon Pegg arguing that contemporary pop culture infantalises audiences by appealing to their childhoods. Not only do comic book characters dominate the box office and the television landscape, but concepts like Power Rangers are getting a reboot. Those properties not explicitly rebooted get long-gestating sequels. Jurassic World, Independence Day: Resurgence.
The best of these projects update the source material for a new generation, with Ryan Colger’s work on Creed standing out. However, all too often, the nostalgia feels a little too unquestioning and too uncritical. There are points during the fourth season of Enterprise where it seems like the Star Trek franchise has completely lost any sense of the presence as it delves into the past. Manny Coto’s script of Bound is perhaps the most obvious example of the show’s fourth season buckling under its affection for the past.
It should be noted that the word “nostalgia” was once used to refer to an illness. As Amy Kenyon reflects:
We might all ask what became of its sufferers when nostalgia ceased to be a recognized illness. My suspicion is that the world is full of what we used to describe as nostalgia cases. They live in towns and cities, loosely strung like blinking Christmas lights; there may be acute cases, triggered by life events involving loss, grief, and trauma, but there may also be chronic cases, people constitutionally predisposed to an obsessive attachment to the past. Like the melancholics and hysterics who succeeded them, their symptoms have been subsumed under new diagnostic categories. This is not to say that people suffering from nostalgia cannot find help. Most therapy deals with memory as a matter of course. However, this particular experience of memory – still so widespread – has lost it place in the treatment rooms. And so this leaves us searching for places to speak about it, and constructive ways in which to use it.
Although the term originally referred to something like shell shock, it is a powerful image.
Flashback focuses upon a false and parasitic memory that spreads from Valtane to Tuvok. It is a false memory, but one drawn in broad and archetypal terms. It is a child slipping from the subject’s grip, falling to their death. It is not something that anybody would forget, even though it may never have actually happened. “Memory is a tricky thing,” the EMH reflects. “If it was a real event, it’s been buried and copied and twisted so many times, there’s no way to tell what really happened.”
Nevertheless, it feels real. It passes from person to person, regardless of how real or unreal it might be. It is a wonderfully mind-bending concept, a metaphor for the subtle “knowledge” that passes unspoken from one person to another. In some respects, it captures the reality and fragility of memory; there is some suggestion that many childhood memories are interpolated from stories others tell. If anything, the metaphor of a memory that goes “viral” feels more relevant in the twenty-first century than it would have on broadcast.
In some respects, this parasitic memory feels like the ultimate expression of what Richard Dawkins described as a “meme” in the pages of The Selfish Gene. The word would be appropriated decades later by internet culture, with Dawkins acknowledging that the “viral” metaphor was always a part of his basic concept:
The meaning is not that far away from the original. It’s anything that goes viral. In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.
Knowledge and information passes through social networks like a virus infecting a host organism; it replicates and transmits, occasionally evolving along the way. It does not matter that the memory or knowledge is false. “Beam me up, Scotty” is undeniably tied to the Star Trek franchise, despite the fact the phrase was never uttered on the show.
Flashback is a clever and postmodern script that arguably fits more comfortably within Brannon Braga’s psychological oeuvre than as part of a large scale mass-media anniversary celebration. Still, it is a script that is a lot more ambitious and insightful than is often acknowledged, the muted reaction to it undoubtedly coloured by the fact that it refuses to play its nostalgia straight. Flashback tries to do something more ambitious and self-aware, even if this feels like a very awkward place for such an experiment.
- Basics, Part II
- The Chute
- The Swarm
- False Profits
- Sacred Ground
- Future’s End, Part I
- Future’s End, Part II
- The Q and the Grey
- Fair Trade
- Alter Ego
- Blood Fever
- Favourite Son
- Before and After
- Real Life
- Distant Origin
- Worst Case Scenario
- Scorpion, Part I