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Star Trek: Voyager – False Profits (Review)

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.

If ever there was an argument against the importance of continuity, False Profits would appear to be it.

The Price was not a good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, it was quite a bad episode of television. There is a credible argument to be made that The Price was the worst episode of the third season of The Next Generation. Another contender is Ménage à Troi, another third season episode of The Next Generation that coincidentally (or not) happens to feature the Ferengi. By all accounts, The Price is an episode of television that should be forgotten about, consigned to reference books and ill-considered classic television marathons.

"Now, I know fans don't like the Ferengi episodes, but this is too much!"

“Now, I know fans don’t like the Ferengi episodes, but this is too much!”

Unfortunately, continuity intervenes. The climax of The Price ends with two Ferengi stranded in the Delta Quadrant after the Barzan wormhole collapses. In most stories, that would be the last time that those two characters appeared; they had served their dramatic purpose, demonstrating that the Barzan wormhole was effectively useless. However, once it became clear that Star Trek: Voyager was heading to the Delta Quadrant, that ending became a plot thread. It became a piece of continuity that could be employed by the production team, a storytelling opportunity.

That explains how False Profits came to be, a terrible sequel to a terrible episode that seems to exist purely to satisfy some dangling continuity.

Proxy war...

Proxy war…

To be clear, continuity is not a bad thing by any measure. Character continuity is often the stuff of great drama, with an audience invested in a particular situation because they are engaged with the character. Slowly building characterisation across multiple stories invites an audience to get comfortable with a central character, who allows for greater storytelling opportunities and possibilities. The same is true of themes, with intertextuality allowing creators to build upon what came before to make storytelling more effective and efficient.

More than that, continuity from scene-to-scene (or episode-to-episode) helps with suspension of disbelief and audience investment. If a show unfolds in a strange environment like a space ship or space station, knowing the rules and relationships (and even the details of the sets or the characters) allows the audience to buy into novel settings and unique surroundings. Maintaining consistency (in both storytelling and production) between installments or scenes smooths the audience’s engagement with a show.

You can't get good staff these days...

You can’t get good staff these days…

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has gotten quite skilled at handling this sort of continuity, allowing threads to build across multiple episodes and developing characters through running gags or background details. It could legitimately be argued that background characters like Rom and Damar get as much development over the course of Deep Space Nine as any member of Voyager‘s regular cast, in no small part because the writers maintain a continuity to their characterisation across multiple small sequences across the show’s run.

This background continuity is then rippled through into the politics of entire species and empires, to the point that Deep Space Nine is able to stitch together a fascinating portrayal of Klingon and Cardassian politics and history through small references seeded in conversations and background details between episodes. This is a small-scale continuity, one that used past details as a springboard for future storytelling. This would lead the show to embrace serialised storytelling with large multi-episode epics, expanding the storytelling tableau of the Star Trek franchise.

"This hard drive has the only copy of the episode's script? Go for it!"

“This hard drive has the only copy of the episode’s script? Go for it!”

However, while continuity can be used to expand a story and to open up possibilities, there is also a model of storytelling where the narrative is constrained by continuity. The reality of storytelling means that very few authors can begin a multi-season (or multi-generation) story knowing where it is going to go. As such, there are inevitably contradictions along the way. Convenience trumps long-term planning, so a piece of off-hand exposition winds up boxing in stories to be told down the line.

Star Trek: Enterprise is full of these sorts of contradictions and inconsistencies, with a significant portion of the show’s critics taking aim at its departure from existing continuity; everything from the look and feel of the show resembling Star Trek: First Contact more than anything from the classic series to the fact that Klingons have forehead ridges to the clash between the depiction of the Vulcans and fandom’s idealised concept of them. Even the design of the ship came under fire, for looking too much like an Akira-class ship or not appearing on Picard’s wall.

Prophets are down.

Prophets are down.

Some of these are legitimate storytelling concerns, to be fair. There is a criticism to be made that having Archer embark on his mission with replicators and transporters undercuts the whole appeal of doing a Star Trek prequel by taking away the “rough and ready” of it. However, the simple fact is that a lot of the continuity issues with Enterprise arise from the simple fact that the earlier shows had never been written with the intention of shoe-horning in a prequel, just like the first season of Star Trek was not built to support a franchise.

Enterprise is perhaps the most obvious example, but it is far from the only inconsistency in the Star Trek canon. Deep Space Nine initially suggested that Sisko’s father had passed away, in episodes like The Alternate. However, Homefront revealed that Joseph Sisko was alive and (reasonably) well. Similarly, revelations about Bashir in Doctor Bashir, I Presume are difficult to fit with elements of his back story presented in episodes like Melora or Distant Voices. These issues can all be reconciled, but they do require some contorting and lateral thinking.

Cutting their losses...

Cutting their losses…

As the Star Trek franchise entered its thirtieth anniversary season, it had built up no shortage of continuity. It was easy to see how the demands of thirty years of history across four (or five) television shows and a string of movies might serve to hem in a franchise. Michael Piller talked about that freedom when pitching Voyager, as quoted in Steven Edward Poe’s A Vision of the Future:

Because Roddenberry, in his original concept, was faced with the very same challenge that we’re faced with: We don’t know what we’re going to face there… the true unknown. He didn’t know who the aliens were. He didn’t know anything about Klingons. He didn’t know anything about Romulans. He didn’t know anything Ferengi. He didn’t know anything about any of these things when he started.

All he knew about was a bunch of guys on a spaceship. When he turned these guys loose in space he had no idea what he was going to find. That in a sense is what a writer does every time he sits down at the typewriter. Face the blank page. You don’t know what you’re going to find there.

It is a romantic idea, the sense that Voyager is fundamentally about exploring a universe that is exotic and unknown in a way that the Star Trek universe hasn’t been in quite a while. In theory, it is a great premise. However, Voyager undercut that premise in a number of key ways. Most obviously, Kirk and his crew adventured outward in pursuit of the unknown. Janeway and her crew treat the unknown as an obstacle blocking their return to the familiar.

Not a patch on the original.

Not a patch on the original.

In more literal and practical terms, the first two seasons of Voyager were saturated with the very elements that the production team had sought to avoid; the show was trapped by the continuity that it sought to escape. A Romulan appeared in Eye of the Needle. A Cardassian weapon haunted Torres in Dreadnought. Janeway came face-to-face with Q in Death Wish. Harry Kim even got to return home in Non Sequitor while Reginald Barclay made a guest appearance in Projections. For a show about braving the unknown, Voyager passed through a lot of familiars.

Although held back until the start of the third season, False Profits was produced as part of the second season production block. In a way, it is the culmination of that continuity build-up across the second season. It is an episode that exists purely because of a haphazard plotting decision made long before anybody had even conceived of the show that would become Voyager. It is an episode that would not exist if the Barzan wormhole had opened in extremes of the Alpha or Beta Quadrant, let alone the Gamma Quadrant.

Sage advice...

Sage advice…

However, because The Price happened to inadvertently specify the Delta Quadrant and because Voyager flung its ensemble into the deepest reaches of the Delta Quadrant, False Profits became an inevitability. It does not matter that the idea is fundamentally terrible. It does not matter that the Ferengi have been a troubled species that have never really worked outside Deep Space Nine; even then, the Ferengi certainly don’t work anywhere near all the time. There was no reason that this story should have been told.

More than that, there was no reason why this story had to be told. The Milky Way Galaxy is approximately one hundred thousand light years in diameter; more than that, it is a three-dimensional construct that is tens of thousands of light year thick. Even treating the galaxy as a two-dimensional disc, the Milky Way has an area of 7,850,000,000. That means that Voyager’s journey takes it through less than 0.000009% of the Milky Way. Even allowing for the Ferengi’s arrival in the same quadrant, the odds of finding them is quite literally astronomical.

"Wow. Space IS big."

“Wow. Space IS big.”

The writing staff on Voyager could simply have opted not to tell this story. However, there is a sense that they had to. There had been talk on the fan boards since early 1995, shortly after the broadcast of Caretaker. Ever since it was revealed that Voyager would be set primarily in the Delta Quadrant, the ending to The Price had come an elaborate Chekov’s Gun hanging about the mantle piece to threaten the viewers; a brick joke waiting to be played on the audience.

This is the boomerang effect of continuity, the ultimate expression of the so-called “small universe syndrome”, where nearly eight billion light years of Milky Way is not enough to displace two lost Ferengi. The best thing that can be said for False Profits is that it means that the gun has been discharged. The threat of a Ferengi episode no longer hangs over the rest of Voyager… well, Inside Man notwithstanding. It is terrible, but at least it is an exorcism of sorts. In a way, False Profits brings closure to the Piller era by wrapping up a run of “familiar alien” stories.

Kol under pressure.

Kol under pressure.

Ira Steven Behr is probably the only writer in the history of the Star Trek franchise to really “get” the Ferengi. Even then, he was prone to strike out as often as to hit a homerun. False Profits arrives from a production team with minimal experience writing for the franchise’s failed-villains-turned-comic-relief. More than that, continuity would demand that Dan Shor return in the role of Doctor Arridor, even if the previously mute Kol was recast as Leslie Jordan for this second appearance.

Dan Shor is not one of the strongest performers to play a Ferengi, having initially been cast in the at a point where it seemed like The Next Generation was struggling to cast actors who could articulate through the prosthetics. Shor can make himself heard, but he lacks the sort of theatricality and presence that defines the franchise’s strongest “make-up” performers. Shor is no Armin Shimerman or Jeffrey Combs. Ethan Phillips is more convincing as Neelix playing a Ferengi than Shor or Jordan are as actual Ferengi.

The man has a point.

The man has a point.

The most fundamental issue with False Profits is that it is a comedy episode that is not particularly funny. The Star Trek franchise has a spotty record when it comes to comedy, classics like The Trouble with Tribbles and A Piece of the Action notwithstanding. However, False Profits induces groans rather than laughter, the script going for easy punchlines that still fail to land. If the gags worked with any frequency, it would be easy to forgive the myriad of other issues with the episode.

Unfortunately, the vacuum created by the lack of solid jokes leaves the audience with room to ponder the script. As with a lot of episodes around this stretch of the run, there is a sense that Voyager is settling, both in terms of galvanising into its final form and in terms of accepting mediocrity instead of striving for exceptionalism. Much like The Swarm and Basics, Part II, the status quo exerts no small amount of gravity on False Profits. Even the characters seem resigned to the inevitability of the reset at the end of the episode.

Poxy proxy.

Poxy proxy.

While the primary plot of False Profits follows Arridor and Kol on the surface of the planet, the secondary plot finds Voyager investigating the Barzan wormhole that also appeared in The Price. In theory, the Barzan wormhole would allow Voyager and its crew to return home, arriving safely in the Alpha Quadrant to be reunited with their relatives and loved ones. This is a big deal; this is a shortcut that shaves approximately sixty-eight years off their journey home and ensures that most of the crew will live to see Earth again.

This should be a big deal, but it isn’t. The Voyager crew don’t seem too excited about the prospect of getting home. There are no quiet scenes of characters wondering what will happen next, no conversations between Neelix and Kes about their future, no meditation on the EMH about what happens once the ship returns. There is barely any excitement or enthusiasm. In fact, when the plan ultimately (and inevitably) fails, there is not even a sense of crushing disappointment. It is all business as usual.

Oh, your gods.

Oh, your gods.

There are lots of reasons for this. The most obvious is that Voyager simply does not feel stranded. The show does not feel removed from the Alpha Quadrant. The show has never really created a sense of homesick isolation, and so the desire to return to home is never really palpable. The journey has never seemed particularly tough, with the holodecks and replicators still running, so Voyager’s journey feels less like an odyssey and more like an extended pleasure cruise through exotic new surroundings. (Two years into the show, Voyager still looks new and shiny.)

More than that, the first two seasons of Voyager were stuffed with references and cameos from familiar Alpha Quadrant characters. Even if Deep Space Nine were not running in parallel, audiences would never have had the chance to miss the trappings of classic Star Trek. In fact, the production team dangled convenient shortcuts home (and recognisable Star Trek aliens) in front of the crew as early as Eye of the Needle, to say nothing of guest appearances from Star Trek veterans like Jonathan Frakes, Dwight Schultz and John deLancie.

A lobe off his mind...

A lobe off his mind…

Even allowing for all this, there is a simple reason that the whole wormhole plot thread feels so cynical. As Voyager settled into a familiar shape at the end of its second season and the start of the show, it was becoming increasingly clear that the show was governed by the status quo. There was a strong pull towards the familiar and the routine on Voyager, to the point that Janeway’s decision to split Tuvix back into Neelix and Tuvok in Tuvix reads almost as a philosophical statement about the show’s anxieties concerning change.

By this point in the run, the show’s formula was set in stone. In fact, the end of the second season seems to draw attention to the indestructible formula. The writers could kill off Harry Kim and blow up Voyager itself in Deadlock, but the show would return to business as usual next week. The Kazon could strand the cast in Basics, Part I, but the resolution to that particular cliffhanger was so inevitable that the production team could film three episodes with the crew back on Voyager to broadcast the following season before they’d even mapped out the second part of that two-parter.

What the Zek are you up to?

What the Zek are you up to?

As such, it is obvious to any television (and Voyager) literate viewer that the Barzan wormhole would never take the crew home. In fact, it even seems obvious to the crew themselves. The show’s lack of enthusiasm about the wormhole seems like weariness, like Charlie Brown knowing deep down that Lucy will never let him kick that football. Even Janeway and her staff have acknowledged that there is no way that the ship is getting home in less than seven seasons, and that any hope will quickly be snatched away.

There is more to it than that. False Profits barely bothers to conceal its plot contrivances. The Barzan wormhole is not a threat to the status quo, it is ultimately an agent of Voyager‘s over-active reset button. It exists to provide an easy and convenient wrap-up to the loose ends that might be left dangling at the end of the episode. After all, what is Janeway supposed to do with the Ferengi? Phage had made it clear that Janeway was not a “long-term solution” kind of commanding officer when it came to alien criminals.

Roll up, roll up!

Roll up, roll up!

So the Barzan wormhole becomes something of a vacuum, hoovering up the left-over plot threads that might otherwise prevent False Profits from serving as a purely episodic adventure. The wormhole provides an easy way to get rid of the Ferengi, allowing those comedic villains to survive while also avoiding any long-term consequences for the show. Remember can pick up as though nothing has happened, because the Barzan wormhole ensures that Janeway does not have to trouble herself with two Ferengi prisoners.

(Although it is quite clear that the episode is leaning in this direction from the opening scene, owing to both the law of conservation of narrative detail and the fact that Voyager is not getting home in a late second season episode that was held back to the start of the third season, the final act still feels terribly contrived. Chakotay explains that Voayegr has confiscated Arridor’s shuttle, and then leaves the two Ferengi unattended. The two are able to overpower a security guard (off-screen) and escape the ship, which would be absurd if the episode’s ending did not demand it.)

Does it profit a man if he gains a whole alien world...?

Does it profit a man if he gains a whole alien world…?

The scripting and plotting for False Profits is lazy and awkward, following the path of least resistance to ensure that nothing unexpected happens. It is hackneyed and tired, which means that the show’s jokes aren’t even built around a functional plot. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the narrative of False Profits is the sense that Voyager is truly committing to its mediocrity and its generic elements. The return to the status quo at the end of False Profits is so heavily contrived that it has a bizarre inevitability to it. This is the way Voyager is to be, it suggests.

It does not help matters that False Profits feels a little tone-deaf in its portrayal of the Takarians, the culture exploited by Arridor and Kol. As much as False Profits ties back to an episode of The Next Generation, the whole “crew encounter a bunch of aliens masquerading as gods before a primitive culture” plot feels like it was lifted from a classic Star Trek episode. False Profits fits rather comfortably alongside classic Star Trek episodes like Return of the Archons, Who Mourns for Adonais? or The Apple.

But wait! There's more!

But wait! There’s more!

In way, this cements False Profits as a late second season episode. The tail end of the show’s second season witnessed a very strong engagement with the tone and aesthetic of classic Star Trek. The production design of The Thaw might have been lifted directly from an early episode. The plot of Tuvix was essentially an inversion of The Enemy Within. Even the strange metaphorical allegory of Innocence felt like a weird piece of speculative fiction that would have felt more at home in the context of the sixties. False Profits is part of that tradition.

However, there is something just a little bit distasteful about how False Profits treats the Takarians as dupes taken in by the advanced technology of the Ferengi. The episode seems to suggest that the Delta Quadrant is inherently primitive and backwards, with the teaser closing on the revelation that the Takarians must have had contact with the Alpha Quadrant because they have access to advanced technology. “I’m detecting evidence that these people have had contact with the Alpha Quadrant,” Tuvok states, citing “the recent use of a replicator” as evidence.

The gold standard...

The gold standard…

In a way, False Profits is just a very explicit example of a theme that has been bubbling through the first two seasons of the show. Voyager tends to treat the Delta Quadrant as the equivalent of the third world; it is a region with very few major powers and lots of factional (and unstable) minor powers. As George A. Gonzalez contends in The Politics of Star Trek:

As an iteration of the Star Trek franchise set almost entirely outside of the Federation – read the advanced parts of the world (Western Europe, the United States, etc.) – Star Trek: Voyager can be interpreted as a commentary on the societies and politics of the underdeveloped world. Voyager portrays the violence, religiosity, and authoritarianism that putatively characterises the underdeveloped world. Consistent with neoconservative reasoning – that is, developing world politics as violent and unstable – the Kazon (a species of the Delta Quadrant) are cast as indefatigably and implacably hostile, relentlessly pursuing Voyager over the course of the first two seasons of the series.

After all, the only major powers that Voyager has encountered in the Delta Quadrant by this point in the series are the Kazon and Vidiians, both cultures trapped in a chaotic and violent spiral. The Kazon live on desert worlds and fight for water, without access to basic technology like replicators or transporters. The Vidiians are a once-great culture that have collapsed into themselves.

Beggars belief.

Beggars belief.

(It goes without saying that there are certain problematic elements to these characterisations. The Kazon are an awkward racially-charged metaphor for gang violence, a race of former slaves who have resorted to factional infighting and become a violent menace to entire sectors of space. The Vidiians are decidedly less troublesome, perhaps owing to the fact that they have been used sparingly. Nevertheless, there is something uncomfortable about using a AIDS metaphor as a major galactic power in a region of space evoking the Third World.)

These metaphors become less pronounced in the later seasons of Voyager. While the series continues to present the Delta Quadrant as underdeveloped, the later seasons of the show shift their anxieties and criticisms away from indigenous populations towards exploitative powers. The Borg are perhaps best read as globalisation incarnate. The Malon serve as a critique of capitalist exploitation of indigenous resources. Even the Hirogen could be interpreted as take on the colonial archetype of the “big game hunter.”

Cut throat business...

Cut throat business…

In a way, this shift away from the vast interstellar empires of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine reflected changes in the outside world. The end of the Cold War had a dramatic impact on global politics, particularly the realities of the developing world. The phrase the “Third World” was originally developed to refer to states that existed outside the dichotomy of “East” and “West”, caught between the two global powers locked in an ideological conflict in the wake of the Second World War.

The term was originally defined by Alfred Sauvy in his 1952 article One Planet, Three Worlds. According to Sauvy’s model, the United States and its allies represented the “First World” while the Soviet Union and its satellites were the “Second World.” Those nonaligned nations sandwiched between the two power blocs were classified as the Third World. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Second World crumbled to ashes. It made sense that the gulf between the First and Third World would only broaden.

He's all ears...

He’s all ears…

While the end of the Cold War brought peace and prosperity to the United States and its developed allies, it removed vital support from developing countries. Many of those countries were relatively young, having only emerged after the Second World War. Many were also poor, their legacies often tied to colonial exploitation and abuse. The end of the Cold War removed supporting structures, as Fred Halliday argues in The Third World and the End of the Cold War:

In the economic sphere the end of the Cold War initially raised the prospect of a significant redirection of financial and trade flows away from the Third World towards the newly emerging post-communist world, both because of the strategic threat which crisis in these countries may pose to the ‘West’, ie the developed, OECD countries and because, stripped of their communist carapace, these states re-emerge as what they were prior to the establishment of communism, namely semi-peripheral states, in competition with others, such as in Latin America, for trade and investment; the ‘second’, communist, world is disappearing, with the result that the countries formerly in it are being transferred to the ‘semi-peripheral’ branch of the Third Worlds. As was graphically put by an international banker at a debt rescheduling discussion in Paris in 1991, addressing his Soviet counterpart: ‘I cannot understand it. A few months ago you were putting men into space. Now you are talking like the Sudan.’

Without the justification of an “evil empire” standing in opposition and with the passing of a deficit reduction law, political expedience demanded that the United States dramatically cut its aid to these developing nations during the nineties. By 1996 and into 1997, USAID was dramatically scaled down; twenty-four missions were closed and staff numbers were cut.

A Kol day in hell...

A Kol day in hell…

At the same time, it seemed like the bulk of the United States’ foreign policy involved controlled intervention in smaller countries; Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Serbia. Without government support, Third World debt became a major issue. Jubilee 2000 campaigned for over a hundred billion dollars in debt relief for thirty-five developing nations. The spread of democracy to these developing and former communist nations was a priority for the United States administration. “The world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies,” promised President Bill Clinton.

This change in the geopolitical landscape had been occurring since the end of the Second World War, but the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics helped to draw attention to the new global reality. Voyager arrived during what might be described as the “unipolar moment”, the point at which the United States was the sole superpower. Russia had collapsed into itself, and there was no sense of another superpower that might challenge the United States. Rival empires were so passé.

You ned your purse to pay for the verse.

You ned your purse to pay for the verse.

There is a very conservative and reactionary streak running through Voyager when it comes to this recurring metaphor of a crew of explorers lost in the deep space equivalent of the developing world. While Deep Space Nine suggests that our heroes have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate than themselves, with Sisko and his crew helping to rebuild Bajor following its horrific colonial exploitation at the hands of the Cardassians, Voyager is a lot more dogmatic in its refusal to use its advanced technology to help desperate and impoverished societies.

Initially, this is framed as a debate around the Prime Directive, the guiding principle that Starfleet should not share its technology with “less advanced” civilisations. However, it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case. Janeway is ready and willing to compromise in other situations. In The Swarm, Janeway casually shoots down Tuvok’s observation that “encroaching on the territory of an alien species is prohibited by Starfleet regulations.” In The Omega Directive, Janeway casts aside that non-interference directive to forcibly disarm an alien species.

The (worm)hole in things...

The (worm)hole in things…

Even within the context of False Profits, Janeway is ready to violate (or at least bend) the Prime Directive to suit her own moral compass. When Tuvok points out that the Prime Directive would not “allow [Voyager] to interfere with the internal affairs of this society, as much as [they] may disapprove of what the Ferengi are doing.” Janeway justifies her intervention not by reference to the exploitation of the Takarian people, but by acknowledging that the Federation bears some direct responsibility for putting the Ferengi there.

Across the run of Voyager, it is repeatedly suggested that Voyager’s needs and internal morality are more important than any larger sense of social or moral justice. This leads to a number of tone-deaf creative decisions, suggesting that Janeway is perfectly willing to compromise on her core principles as long as that compromise suits her needs. In Alliances, for example, Janeway decides that she is perfectly willing to share her technology and amenities with aliens, provided they are (predominantly white) former slavers rather than (racially coded) former slaves.

The price is right...

The price is right…

Indeed, Voyager repeatedly justifies Janeway’s reluctance to intervene in Delta Quadrant crises by painting the indigenous populations as savage and barbaric. The Kazon are presented as a stock “primitive” race, violent and duplicitous. At the same time, the show seems to unintentionally render the Kazon sympathetic; they are so ineffective as antagonists that their plight is almost moving. (The horror of their attempts to cultivate transporter and replicator technology in State of Flux only makes them more pitiable.)

This suggests a reactionary and conservative subtext to Voyager, the show’s central philosophy rejecting a humanitarian obligation to help those less privileged and those in need. Ironically, for all the criticism that Deep Space Nine receives for abandoning Star Trek principles with the Dominion War, Sisko and his crew hold true to the humanist ideals of the franchise. Compare Sisko’s insistence on violating the Prime Directive to help the prisoners in Battle Lines to Janeway’s indifference to the suffering of anyone except her crew in The Chute.

It'll be a chaise long time before we see them again.

It’ll be a chaise long time before we see them again.

(The inherent conservatism of Voyager bubbles through the show in a number of ways. Voyager is extremely fond of order and structure. While the crew integrate into a Starfleet command structure immediately, many of the show’s recurring antagonists are portrayed as chaotic and anarchistic. Even the Borg seem on the cusp of collapse throughout the show’s run. Arguably, the series’ rigid formula and adherrance to the status quo reflects this tendency on a meta-textual level.)

Although Janeway does intervene in False Profits, she does so in a way that emphasises the primitive nature of the Takarian people. If Janeway is willing to bend the Prime Directive to remove the Ferengi, why not bend it further to address the Takarians as equals? After all, Picard eventually decided that this was the best course of action in another deity-driven crisis during Who Watches the Watchers? Arridor argues that removing the Ferengi theocratic dictatorship would lead to untold horrors, a thought so troubling to Janeway that she folds immediately.

Good god...

Good god…

Even in terms of basic plotting, this feels horribly contrived. Why would Janeway return Arridor immediately? Why not keep him for a few minutes or hours to formulate a plan? Why not just send Neelix down disguised as a Ferengi to tell the Takarian people directly that the sages have been returned home? Why run the risk of giving Arridor a choice in the matter? Indeed, even after returning Arridor and Kol, why not have Neelix drug them and disable the dampener and then make the announcement himself? It all feels forced.

Even allowing for Arridor’s argument, it seems like Janeway’s decision to play into the Takarian spiritual beliefs is ultimately more patronising and damaging in the long-term. Rather than treating the Takarians as mature adults who can distinguish the difference between “alien” and “god”, Janeway instead decides to stage-manage the abduction of the Ferengi so that it plays out beat-for-beat from the Takarian holy texts. It is a rather humiliating experience for the Takarians, with Janeway subjecting their religious beliefs to the same mockery the Ferengi did.

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

To be fair, False Profits acknowledges as much. The episode’s closing scene suggests that Janeway has not so much deposed the Ferengi in the Takarian religious tradition as replaced them. As the crowd watches Voyager leave orbit, one excitable native declares, “Look. The Holy Ones are going home!” According to False Profits, Voyager is not just a hyper-advanced ship traveling through an underdeveloped part of the galaxy, they are literally gods. In the context of the show’s Third World metaphor, this is problematic.

That said, it does mark the beginning of a recurring trend that runs through the rest of the show’s run, in which Janeway and her crew are repeatedly and consistently mythologised as they journey through the Delta Quadrant. The remaining five seasons hit upon the idea repeatedly, suggesting that Voyager has become a story with a reach even beyond those directly encountered by the crew. This is most obvious in episodes that barely feature the crew, like Distant Origin or Living Witness, but it is also a theme of episodes like Muse and Live Fast and Prosper.

He's kinda a big deal.

He’s kinda a big deal.

False Profits introduces this idea, with the Takarians elevating the Voyager crew to the status of gods. It makes sense that this theme should emerge in a script written by Joe Menosky, given the writer’s recurring interest in the themes of storytelling and mythmaking as demonstrated with scripts like Darmok, Dramatis Personae and Masks. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that Voyager should invest so heavily in this theme at around the time that Menosky officially joined the staff as a producer.

Even allowing for the fact that this myth-making is one of Menosky’s favourite themes, it does not gel comfortably with the recurring motif as Voyager as a ship drifting through a more primitive (and occasionally even backwards) region of space. False Profits is a spectacular misfire, bringing together many of the show (and the franchise’s) worst tendencies to the fore.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the third season of Star Trek: Voyager:

20 Responses

  1. Neat review. Somehow I think I’ve always managed to miss this episode.

    I admit I hadn’t really considered the Delta Quadrant as a chaotic backwater to be that troublesome before, maybe because the Star Trek universe in the 1990s seemed much more strongly inspired by the earlier decades than the one it was created it – Deep Space Nine in particular seemed set in the 1930s and 40s with the steady build towards war with a seemingly unstoppable Fascist juggernaut, a situation not really recognisable in Clintonian American. I suppose it’s the relative weakness of the Federation in Deep Space Nine and some episodes of The Next Generation that makes it hard to see a hyperpower – they are surrounded by other powers that are nearly as powerful as they are (and in two cases – the Borg and the Dominion – are MORE powerful.)

    Voyager is of course rather detatched from this but I suppose it weakens the Third Worldism for me.

    • Lucky you, missing this episode. It is… not a good one.

      To be fair, the third worldism only really dawned on me while watching this episode, when Tuvok’s like “they have replicators! they must have contact with the Alpha Quadrant!” And I kinda worked backwards from there. The Kazon were a fairly obvious example, and then you have the Vidians and their AIDS metaphor. It was honestly the first time that I’d thought about Voyager in those terms, and it just seemed to fit. So I did some digging and found that I wasn’t alone in making the connection.

      Which is, I suppose, the pleasure of an extended rewatch. You can still find new things.

  2. I didn’t an interesting review could be written about this episode, but you managed to do so. Congratulations!
    I have a feeling that this episode was written for the sole purpose of getting Ethan Phillips back into Ferengi makeup. This is supported by the fact that he has the best moments in the episode.
    I do have to wonder how many fans were hoping for Neelix and the other Ferengis would actually be burned alive during the climax.

    • Ypu had to be the hardest of the hardcore to recognize him, at least before IMDb and wikia were invented.

      TV guide used to be pretty good at pointing out trivia like that. I still have the trek anniversary issue they put out…with a sneak preview of enterprise and nemesis.

      Even then, I knew they would be shite.

      Darren asked elsewhere why the production team kept coming back to ferengis. Deep space nine had their own reasons, mostly stealth parody and political satire. Voyager and Enterprise are lazy. They see ferengis as broad cartoon characters and are afraid of what the audience might do if they inject a little levity in other, more portentous species.

    • Thanks William. Yeah, it’s… not a good episode.

      Philips really is the episode’s best Ferengi. Which isn’t a surprise, given how well he wears the make-up.

      • Ferengi episodes are always something to be wary of, and it doesn’t matter what Star Trek show they are. But I’ve read that Ethan Philips makes a better Ferengi than a Talaxian. Here’s an idea – what if Philips played a Ferengi hitching a ride or stowing away aboard Voyager when they got transported to the Delta Quadrant? He probably would have functioned as the show’s Dr Smith.

      • Yeah, Behr is the franchise’s best Ferengi writer, and his hit/miss ratio is still somewhere in the range of 50/50. I’m not sure what the Voyager writing staff would have done with a Ferengi regular.

      • Perhaps he would have run an establishment similar to Quark’s bar but I doubt Janeway would have made him an unofficial ambassador like she did with Neelix.

      • That’s a fair point. But still, it seems like Neelix always needed more “edge” than the show was willing to give him.

  3. I really enjoyed “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. The effect used in the uncharted region of space really make it seem exciting and alien. Which is key because Picard and Data are salivating over the prospect of exploring the area but are hamstrung by their responsibilities to the ship and crew.

    To think the episode in all likelihood takes place in the Delta Quadrant is… depressing.

    “This suggests a reactionary and conservative subtext to Voyager, the show’s central philosophy rejecting a humanitarian obligation to help those less privileged and those in need.”

    And so on to Yugoslavia and Serbia and Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Syria. (And Iran pretty soon.)

    I actually got a much different vibe from older episodes, particularly the Prime Directive discussion in “Caretaker”. When Janeway insists that “we are involved, we are”, I still get a chill down my spine. It’s terrifying to think we have a moral imperative to liberate every corner of the world.

    • It’s a very delicate balance to strike. On one extreme, you have Voyager’s “let’s not get involved and mind our own business”, and on the other you have Civil War’s “we’ll do whatever we damn well please without any accountability.” It’s a tough line to walk in real life, let alone in trying to build cohesive fictional universes.

    • Where No One Has Gone Before provided the nucleus for Voyager. But unlike the Delta Quadrant, Galaxy M33 really seemed like somewhere truly alien. It felt like territory we had never even imagined, much less visited, akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  4. There’s never any doubt in our minds that Voyager will miss it’s shot to use the Barzan wormhole because if it got them home, it would mean the end of the series. But I’m afraid that comes with the territory with these sorts of TV shows where a character or characters are lost somewhere unknown and are trying to get back home. Other examples are Sliders, Quantum Leap, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Red Dwarf, even the cartoon Dungeons & Dragons, etc. All of these shows dangle the possibility of a way home for our heroes only to snatch it away at the last possible second. And the worst thing that can happen is the cancellation of the series before they can even cross that finish line. At least Voyager managed to avoid that.

    I liked what you said Darren about how the characters could have discussed the implications of returning to Earth. Like how the Maquis members would be treated, or what would become of Tom Paris? Wasn’t there a Star Trek novel that told that sort of story after the series had ended? They did broach that sort of thing in Hunters when Tom reflected that his life on Voyager was so much better than the life he left behind back in the Alpha Quadrant. This is an idea for an episode that never got made.

    I would say that False Profits puts a comedic spin on the TNG episode Who Watches the Watchers. Remember when it was suggested that Picard goes down to Mintaka III masquerading as the god they’ve built him into and Picard just shoots that idea down? Arridor and Kol didn’t have a problem at all with that scenario. The whole idea for False Profits no doubt originated from that TNG scene.

    I wanted to call this episode Sage Advice but it occurred to you first Darren. And watching False Profits made me think of that line from Caretaker, “Didn’t they warn you about the Ferengi at the Academy?”

    • Yeah, there’s something to be said for the relative security of Voyager, that the production team could be assured seven seasons. (Of course, the production team starting on Enterprise also thought they had seven seasons, so security is a transient thing.) It is a shame that the writers never took advantage of that opportunity. Bring Voyager home two-thirds of the way through the seventh season, and then do a few wrap-up stories on Earth, maybe with a looming Borg threat to anchor these smaller stories and provide a high-stakes finale. Hell, getting the crew home half-way through the final episode would still have been an improvement.

  5. Thanks for a very good review of an absolutely terrible hour of television. I especially enjoyed your astute observation that “Most obviously, Kirk and his crew adventured outward in pursuit of the unknown. Janeway and her crew treat the unknown as an obstacle blocking their return to the familiar.”

    • Thanks Doug. That kinda becomes a recurring theme in the reviews from here on out. I probably hammer it a little bit too much. But I think it’s the key to understanding why Voyager simply doesn’t work.

  6. Very good points all along, Darren. One thing I appreciate about these reviews is how the less impressive episodes of the show prove as useful as the better ones for your writing. This article touches on something that’s been irking me lately, so my apologies in advance for the length of the comment.

    In recent years, it seems a great deal of discussion of similar series and franchises, as well as discussion of Star Trek itself, has fallen prey to what you describe here as “a model of storytelling where the narrative is constrained by continuity”, in the form of disproportionate fan obsession with “canon” and “lore”.

    I know “canon” and “lore” are far from new as terms, but among today’s fans, they seem to reflect dimmed and constraining counterparts to (respectively) “continuity” and “story”, and all too effective ways to deflect discussion into dead ends. “Continuity” provides opportunities for a story within a larger work; “canon” seems to demand each story be chained down within an area fans know all too well, to keep it from escaping to somewhere uncomfortably novel or deep. “Stories” can be discussed in terms of a fictional world or the context of our own, in terms of their history as creations and real-world continuity; “lore” serves as a taxonomic catalog of “in-universe” pseudo-facts, itself dead and hollow, because it’s disallowed contact with its source in the real world.

    Again, I don’t think either “canon” or “lore”absolutely have to translate into such dire definitions (and for most of their lives they haven’t, as demonstrated by how often they’ve been used by people perfectly capable of thinking outside of them.) But I feel like more and more fan discussion of these series, guided by podcasts, social media arguments and million-view YouTube channels, has deemed the quixotic pursuit of placing stories perfectly within “canon” or “lore” as a prerequisite for the discussion’s validity, as necessary for discussing them at all. It’s tiresome and… muzzling…? when I don’t really care to digress into nitpicking over the “canon” pseudoscience of ship measurements or semi-magical technologies in Star Trek during a discussion of its wider themes. Or into Just-So, “in-universe”, “lore” stories about how the Klingons changed their culture from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, when we’d otherwise be discussing, say, the influence of Ron Moore’s writers’ memo, or Kruge as a character and performance in the real-world project of Star Trek III. The overgrowth of these terms, “canon” and “lore”, perfectly reasonable in their proper place, seems mold-like to me, not completely ruinous but more than a little stomach-turning.

    I wonder how much this has to do with the commercial, marketing-department-guided embrace of the fan idea of the “universe” of a series or franchise. It seems in the best interest of a company, always willing to revise and expand “canon” or “lore” to vacuum up every potential customer, to replace the idea of a fictional “world” (honest in its incompleteness; only exists where and when it serves its stories) with that of a “universe”: in this sense, the notion that every story happens in a cosmos that will eventually ‘reveal’ itself as being as complete and reliable as the physics of our own, if we all just keep “supporting” the product line, allowing the owners to address any problems with “canon” or gaps in “lore”. And again, that’s not what “universe” used to mean to fans, but it almost seems taken for granted nowadays, to the point where I feel leery about fans even using the term at all anymore, lest we end up with even more “False Profits” in a pop culture already overflowing with them.

    • Yep, it’s also the elevation of these pop cultural objects to religious texts, and that leads to a weird zealotry among fandoms where it’s almost religious. People aren’t “new to the show” and finding their own way, they are “new to the fandom” and eager to be told the right opinions to have – which episodes do we like, which to we hate, which characters do we ship, which to we loathe. It’s really weird, because a lot of this stuff is demonstrably wrong. For example, Kirk was a bookish nerd in the early seasons of Star Trek, but that doesn’t fit the cultural memory of him as a derring-do action hero.

  7. I’m curious whether any of the writers on this episode considered Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ as an inspiration, or its film adaptation by John Huston. The story shares more than a few noticeable beats – notably the outsiders with advanced technology claiming to be gods to an ostensibly primitive society, only to eventually be overthrown by their erstwhile subjects, who after all understand their own religion better than the interlopers do. The Ferengi dispensing justice seem to have a certain congruity with Sean Connery’s Dravot arbitrating disputes in the film adaptation as well.

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