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Star Trek: Voyager – Sacred Ground (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.

Sacred Ground is a rather strange episode.

In a way, this is where the second season of Star Trek: Voyager dies. This is certainly true in a literal sense; it is the last of the four episodes held over from the end of the second season, buried between a quarter and a third of the way into the show’s third year. However, the episode also closes out some of themes that were bubbling through the first two years of the show. Michael Piller had imbued the first two seasons of the show with a new age spirituality, mostly through the character of Chakotay. Sacred Ground closes that out.

Holy plot.

Holy plot.

There is a sense that the show is uncomfortable with Sacred Ground. Although it was the first of those four carryover episodes to be produced, Sacred Ground was the last of the four to be broadcast. While the decision to air Basics, Part II at the start of the season makes logical sense, it is strange that the production team would choose to bury the episode as far into the season as possible. Of those four episodes, the production team were ready to air False Profits before Sacred Ground. That is a frightening thought.

It is understandable. Voyager‘s previous attempts at new age mysticism had not gone well, reducing Chakotay to a Native American cliché in episodes like The Cloud and Tattoo. However, it is also quite frustrating, as Sacred Ground comes closer to working than any of Piller’s earlier attempts.

Burying the consequences.

Burying the consequences.

Of course, Sacred Ground comes with all the stock flaws that one expects from Voyager at this point in its run. There are quite a few pacing issues with Sacred Ground, most of which are tied to the show’s reluctance to embrace a truly “off-model” episode. Much like Resolutions or The Swarm, there is a sense that Sacred Ground is deeply uncomfortable with a quiet character-driven episode, and so rushes to substitute in stock Voyager plot elements. These ultimately slow the pacing down and really undercut the episode’s strongest elements.

Sacred Ground is very much written as a showcase episode for Kathryn Janeway. Although it was written and produced at the tale end of the Michael Piller era, it is very firmly rooted in Jeri Taylor’s vision of the character; Sacred Ground is a story about Janeway both as a mother to her crew and as a woman of science. On top of that, the episode is very much a showcase for actor Kate Mulgrew, who is the only member of the primary cast on-screen for entire extended sequences as she completes her journey of spiritual awakening.

Stone's throw away...

Stone’s throw away…

Mulgrew is very good. Although not always well-served by the material she was given, Mulgrew does her best to make Janeway a compelling and intriguing character. In fact, fellow cast member Robert Duncan McNeil was elated to discover that his directorial debut would be a Janeway-centric episode:

“No, it made me less nervous, because I have a good relationship with Kate,” he said. “Kate’s trailer and my trailer are sort of separated from the rest of the cast, just because of the way they’re set up on the lot. I probably talk to Kate most often, because we’re stuck there together. I know what a hard worker she is, and I was thrilled that she had the story for my first episode. We have such a great relationship. We were able to discuss the scenes in more depth than the average directors might.” Mulgrew said that McNeill has a “velvet touch” as a director.

Mulgrew effectively anchors the episode, in much the same way that Patrick Stewart grounded Picard-centric episodes like DarmokThe Inner Light and Tapestry. Of course, Mulgrew isn’t quite as good as Stewart, who remains one of the franchise’s best performers, but she is still compelling to watch.

"We are far from the sacred places of our grandfathers and from the bones of our people."

“We are far from the sacred places of our grandfathers and from the bones of our people.”

The biggest issue with Sacred Ground is the episode’s reluctance to let Mulgrew carry the episode on her own terms. The sequences of Janeway undergoing her spiritual awakening are long and weird, utterly unlike anything the viewers have come to expect from Voyager. There is a minimal amount of tension and very little immediate threat, all giving way to abstract imagery and colourful metaphor. It does not always make sense, occasionally falling back on new age clichés and trite sentiments, but it is interesting and unique.

This strangeness appears to have unsettled the production team in the same way that the EMH-centric plot of The Swarm or the “J and C” elements of Resolutions did, so Sacred Ground keeps cutting away from these quiet planet-based scenes to needless filler back on Voyager. Sacred Ground cannot seem to work a thrilling deep space battle into the subplot, so Sacred Ground keeps cutting away from the scenes on the planet to sequences of the EMH and Neelix bickering over the best course of action and what to do next.

Techno! Techno! Techno!

Techno! Techno! Techno!

Of course, these scenes don’t really do that much. They don’t drive the plot or contribute to the audience’s understanding of the episode’s themes. They are pure filler, designed to make use of the Voyager sets and pad the episode out to the forty-five minute runtime. As a result, the sequences are filled with nonsense techno-babble. At one stage, the EMH speculates, “Neuropeptide levels this high could well create a natural barrier to biogenic energy.” That is a massive (and nonsensical) over-elaboration on the point.

These sequences are clearly intended to build suspense, to reassure viewers that there are active and material stakes to what is going on. Chakotay shows up to offer a number of possible hypothetical scenarios wherein Janeway might be in danger, as if the show is worried that viewers have no interest in watching an episode where Janeway’s life isn’t under immediate threat. There are also repeated assurances that Kes is still in a coma, just in case viewers have forgotten the event that spurred the whole plot into motion at the end of the teaser.

Picture this...

Picture this…

In many respects, Sacred Ground is a reminder that Voyager will never be in a situation where it could produce an off-format episode like Tapestry, The Inner Light, Explorers, or The Visitor. While the show touches on some of those ideas and themes in later episodes, they are always undercut by the demand for scale and spectacle. Timeless is perhaps the best example, a meditation on guilt and regret that still features a mandatory action sequence. Lifeline is another example, the story of a father and son that requires two stunt guest stars to carry it.

Whether at the behest of the network or the production team, this refusal to just embrace a quieter and more introspective story style is a limitation that will hurt the show in the medium-to-long-term. More immediately, it completely kills the mood and pacing of the episode, while suggesting that Voyager itself has little interest in the story being told. It is hard to invest too heavily in Sacred Ground when the very structure of the episode seems to suggest that Janeway’s spiritual quest cannot carry an episode by itself.

"They should really put up better warning signs. I thought the toilet was back here."

“They should really put up better warning signs. I thought the toilet was back here.”

There are other problems with Sacred Ground that are tied to the way that Voyager has decided that it wants to tell stories. As with the ending to The Swarm, there is a sense that the closing scenes of Sacred Ground are aiming for a profundity that it never quite earns. In The Swarm, it is suggested that EMH’s memory has been wiped and that he only has the faintest (subconscious) recollection of his character development from the show’s first two seasons. However, the character is back to his usual self in the very next episode.

Sacred Ground has the same essential problem. At its core, Sacred Ground is essentially an episode about confronting a rational and scientific person like Kathryn Janeway with a profoundly spiritual experience, and watching how that experience affects her world view. The closing scenes of Sacred Ground suggest that these experiences have had a profound impact. When the EMH offers a bases-covering techno-babble explanation for what happened, Janeway half-heartedly responds, “It’s a perfectly sound explanation, Doctor. Very scientific.”

Making quite a mark...

Making quite a mark…

If Kirk is an explorer, if Picard is a diplomat, if Sisko is a builder, if Archer is a pilot, then Janeway is a scientist. Although Voyager never quite gets a steady read on Janeway as a character, the show has hit on this pointed repeatedly in episodes like Heroes and Demons and Cathexis. Indeed, one reading of the character might suggest that Janeway’s difficulties with the burdens of command are rooted in the simple fact that she came up through the science division. At times, it seems like Janeway is even more of a scientist than a captain.

So undercutting that should fundamentally change the character. It should alter the way that the character views the universe and complicate the way that the audience sees the character. The universe is not as black and white as it once seemed; Janeway has undergone a profound experience and been left changed by it. Sacred Ground feels like it should fundamentally change the character, like The Best of Both Worlds, Part I changed Picard or like Accession changed Sisko. It does not have to be a big showy reversal, but it has to be something.

Does not scan.

Does not scan.

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, most of the character changes seemed to be subtle; the evolution of characters like Riker, Geordi and Troi seemed as rooted in the actors playing the roles as the writers who wrote the scripts. Nevertheless, it seemed like every member of the cast had changed significantly between Encounter at Farpoint and All Good Things… Meanwhile, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made a point to give its characters fully-formed arcs, changing them dramatically from season to season.

In contrast, Voyager affords its leads very little room to grow or evolve. Janeway’s personality shifts dramatically from episode to episode, but it is too inconsistent and erratic to be truly considered “growth.” Chakotay, Tuvok and Harry seem unchanged between Caretaker and Endgame. In fact, the closest thing that Chakotay experiences to growth is the writers’ decision to shift emphasis away from his new age mysticism following the departure of Michael Piller at the end of the second season.

A biting criticism...

A biting criticism…

The closing lines of Sacred Ground suggest that the episode should have some lingering impact, but that is not possible within the framework of Voyager as it exists at this moment in time. In a way, Sacred Ground could be seen to stand between the two eras of the show, offering a closure to the mystical new age themes of the Piller era with the half-hearted shrug of the Taylor era. It is an ending to this particular story, but the audience can rest assured that everything will be back to its factory default settings by the start of Future’s End, Part I.

It is a shame, because these elements undercut what is otherwise an endearingly weird little episode. Sacred Ground feels like it fits more comfortably in the ambiguous cosmology of Deep Space Nine rather than the techno-babble driven pulp sci-fi of Voyager, populated by characters who may or may not be deities and driven by events that may or may not be supernatural. The religious archeology of Sacred Ground even prefigures similar touches in Rapture and The Reckoning, while the nose-ridge makeup on the Nechani evokes the Bajorans.

Janeway lightens up...

Janeway lightens up…

Interviewed by Cinefantastique, Lisa Klink confessed that the episode posed an interesting challenge as compared to other Voyager episodes:

“It was tricky, because obviously it was very talky, and philosophical, and you really had to pay attention to keep up with what was going on. That was one of the harder scripts that I’ve ever written. The point of the episode is that you can’t explain everything. That’s really what faith is about. She is someone who has great faith in the ability of science to explain everything. This is kind of a reminder to her that there’s a lot of really weird stuff out there in the universe. It’s just a question of keeping an open mind and allowing herself to just accept some things without being able to actually pin it down, and scan it, and measure it, and explain it all in a nice little burst of technobabble.”

It is not a bad idea, even if it does feel like a microcosm of Sisko’s arc on Deep Space Nine.

Carrying on.

Carrying on.

Klink’s writing has a lot to recommend it. In particular, Sacred Ground offers a very nuanced depiction of religious faith. It avoids the clichés of hard line zealotry and absolutism that frequently accompany portrayals of devout belief. Perhaps the harshest criticism of Nechani would be that they should probably signpost their religious sites better, or at least put up a cordon to block tourist access to the deadly gateway. Broadly speaking, Sacred Ground is sympathetic towards Nechani belief, even their stubborn refusal to allow detailed scans of the site following Kes’ accident.

Many of the guest characters play as subversions of Star Trek archetypes, most notably Harry Groener as the Magistrate. Alien authority figures in stories like this tend to come in two varieties, both hostile; the open hostility demonstrated by Ambassador Liria in The Chute or the duplicitous behaviour of Jor Brel in Remember. Given that Sacred Ground requires Janeway to face resistance from the Nechani, it makes sense to cast the Magistrate as an antagonistic force; the fact he doesn’t even have a name in the opening credits all but screams “obstructive bureaucrat.”

"I mean, think of what would happen to the Nechani tourist industry if she dies. Well, actually, we'd still be one of the top ten places to visit in the Delta Quadrant."

“I mean, think of what would happen to the Nechani tourist industry if she dies. Well, actually, we’d still be one of the top ten places to visit in the Delta Quadrant according to Lonely Galaxy.”

Instead, the Magistrate is shown to be considerate and compassionate. He actively encourages Janeway to do whatever she can, and seem genuinely emotionally invested in saving Kes’ life. “If I could help you, I would,” he explains to Janeway. “I swear it. I blame myself. If I’d watched more carefully, seen that she was approaching the shrine.” He seems genuinely happy at Janeway’s plan to help Kes. “I have been greatly troubled by your misfortune, Captain. If you are able to convince the spirits to spare your friend, no one would be happier than I.”

Sacred Ground takes a lot of care and effort to make sure that the Nechani are more than just stock religious zealots. As far as Delta Quadrant aliens go, they are friendly and open; even allowing for the fact that Kes almost dies visiting their planet, they are still more welcoming than the vast majority of aliens to appear on Voyager. There is no attempt to murder or manipulate the crew, no attempt to cover up genocide. The Nechani appear to be a genuinely pleasant people, when it would have been easy to make them cardboard antagonists.

An illuminating conversation.

An illuminating conversation.

Even their religious leaders respond to Janeway’s desire to investigate their customs with curiosity. “Your creative approach to this problem has fascinated the Nechisti Council,” the Magistrate observes. “They consider it an honour that you want to seek the spirits.” There is not subterfuge or misdirection happening here. The Nechani are well aware of the microprobe under Janeway’s skin, but do not treat it as a violation of the ritual. (Although this does make it strange they won’t simply allow detailed scans of the caves.)

The rituals themselves are very new age, to the point that the Nechani put Janeway in what amounts to a sensory deprivation tank so that she might commune with the Ancestral Spirits. The vision is very mystical and natural, with Janeway imagining herself standing on a beach. It feels like a logical continuation of the new age imagery that Michael Piller baked into The Cloud and Tattoo, albeit without the awkward appropriation of Native American spirituality. In fact, it comes quite close to the early portrayal of the Bajoran religion on Deep Space Nine.

"You know, Captain Ransom recommended this spot."

“You know, Captain Ransom recommended this spot.”

It makes sense that Star Trek should be permeated with new age themes and imagery. As with a lot of the themes and ideas bubbling through Voyager, this fascination with new age spirituality reflected the show’s geographical home; much like the Kazon were intended as a commentary on Los Angeles gang culture and The Chute touched on California’s overcrowded and hyperviolent prison system, these new age themes reflected the mood and spirituality of California in the middle of the last decade of the twentieth century.

California’s religious and spiritual beliefs have always been interesting. Standing at the very edge of the Pacific Ocean, California represents the end of westward expansion and the logical conclusion of Manifest Destiny. California sees the desert giving way to the ocean, and is the very edge of American. From a viewpoint of the settlement of America, it is very much “the final frontier.” Perhaps that is why the region has always had such an eclectic spiritual history, from the Summer of Love to the Manson family to Heaven’s Gate to new age belief.

"Cult figures."

“Cult figures.”

Al Ridenour has suggested that this spirituality is very much part of the fabric of the state, tied up in its history:

Historically, ever since the railroads connected the West Coast to the East, it was always the land of opportunity and utopia. A big part of it was the weather and the escapism that weather represented. It’s a natural place where oranges grew—a sort of Eden, basically. It was like that and then with entertainment and Hollywood, that fueled the whole escapist mentality. Everything worked together to make California and Southern California a haven for cults and movements like that.

It should be noted that Star Trek was far from the nineties only genre show tied up in new age themes; look at The X-Files, for example.

Stripped of command.

Stripped of command.

If Star Trek is to engage with a spirituality, it makes sense for the franchise to embrace new age philosophy. Although results may vary in practice, new age spirituality is often a liberal and open-minded attempt to integrate utopian ideals into a pseudo-scientific framework with healthy helping of multicultural mysticism. As Douglas Groothuis argues in Unmasking the New Age:

Western optimism and belief in progress pervade the new spirituality—something often foreign to classical Eastern religions. The theory of evolution is invested with mystical potency, as we saw in chapter one. Noted New Age scholar Ken Wilber confesses: “I really trust evolution. I really don’t think God would screw us around that bad.” Our present crisis is seen as generating incredible opportunity.

The New Age spirituality is also bolstered by avant-garde theories on “the frontiers of science.” Western respect for science has influenced many people to take seriously the claims that quantum physics, holographic theory or other scientific ideas should push us into the One’s lap. New Age spirituality is not an island of personal mystical experience isolated from scientific concerns; it often looks to science for inspiration and confirmation, as is evidenced by the popularity of Capra’s The Tao of Physics.

Of course, the reality of new age spirituality is a lot more complex. The belief system opens itself up to accusations of cultural appropriation, as ably demonstrated by the way that Chakotay’s spirituality is portrayed. It also something of a generalisation to suggest that “new age” movement embraces progress, given the overlap that exists between “new age” practitioners and the anti-vaccination movement.

Janeway's a little stoned right now.

Janeway’s a little stoned right now.

As such, the “new age” movement is deeply problematic and complicated, a mess of contradictions and irrationality. However, in its purest and most idealistic form, it is a surprisingly comfortable fit with the philosophy of Star Trek. Unfortunately, as episodes like Tattoo have demonstrated, the more ill-judged elements of new age philosophy are also a comfortable fit with the franchise. After all, Star Trek has issues with its racial politics even beyond its handling of new age mysticism.

Still, Sacred Ground offers Voyager‘s most idealistic interpretation of new age philosophy – suggesting a future where religious faith and scientific reason are not at odds with one another. It seems that Sacred Ground accomplishes a lot of what Michael Piller was trying to do with the character of Chakotay, albeit divorced from the context of cultural appropriation surrounding the first officer. As such, it feels almost appropriate that this should be the end point for that particular story (and thematic) thread seeded through the Piller era.

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

However, Sacred Ground also represents a beginning of sorts. It marks the first episode of Star Trek to be directed by Robert Duncan McNeill. In fact, it is McNeill’s first directorial credit at all. Although he had been acting since the early eighties, McNeill had long wanted to be a director:

I’d done a show called Going to Extremes, which was in 1992. We filmed it in Jamaica. I had a lot of time on my hands, being out of the country, away from home. That’s where I started observing directors. I’d always thought about it, but didn’t know what they did exactly and what the process was. So I used the opportunity to observe and learn. That’s when I knew directing was what I wanted to do. Star Trek was the opportunity. I told Rick Berman, on the first day of the pilot, when we walked away from the stage, that I was happy to be on the show, but that if it ran for even only a few years I wanted to start directing, that that was my long-term ambition.

Much like Jonathan Frakes, McNeill would use his experience behind the scenes on Star Trek to transition from an industry role in front of the cameo to a career behind the camera. McNeill has directed for shows as diverse as V, The O.C. and Dead Like Me. He also served as a producer on Chuck.

"Do you guys know the Prophets? Because it seems like you'd get on."

“Do you guys know the Prophets? Because it seems like you’d get on.”

The comparison to Jonathan Frakes seems entire appropriate. After all, McNeill only landed the job of directing Sacred Ground after Frakes pulled out at the last minute to handle directorial duties on Star Trek: First Contact. As McNeill reflected to Cinefantastique:

“It’s kind of ironic, because what happened was Jonathan was scheduled to direct an episode of the show and when he was offered the feature he had to step out and couldn’t direct an episode for us. When I heard that I thought about it long and hard and went to Rick with my list and said ‘Here is what I’ve done and I think I’m ready. I don’t have any expectations, but I want to get on the list of people to take that spot.’ That was the only [episode] available, everything else was booked up. We had a good conversation and I walked away feeling that he did believe that I was ready, but I didn’t really expect to get the episode. I was pushing that one thinking I would get one early next season. About a week or two later he called me in Cincinnati — I was at a convention — to say that they had a meeting about it and wanted to give me the shot. So thanks to Jonathan Frakes I will become the next Jonathan Frakes.”

McNeill does a solid job with the material, although Sacred Ground is a challenging script for a first time director. McNeill makes a conscious decision to ground all the weirdness in Kate Mulgrew’s performance, opting for a straightforward approach to the more supernatural elements. It works well enough.

Neelix is the worst museum tourist.

Neelix is the worst museum tourist.

Sacred Ground is a strange little episode undercut but its refusal to commit to either the strangeness itself or the consequences of that strangeness. In a way, it marks the perfect intersection between the second and third seasons of Voyager.

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

7 Responses

  1. I have said it before, but this is my least favorite episode of star trek. I have to confess to a hatred of new age mumbo jumbo, but the message is also just severely botched. The episode seems to argue that science is like religion, and that people believe in it blindly. That is not science, as science is rational intellectual thought. The episode is also just incredibly dull because the viewer can see the final act, Janeway choosing to believe and embracing mystic nonsense, a mile away.
    Finally, the whole premise of this episode is incredibly contrived. Why on earth did the aliens not warn Voyage of the sacred arch before bringing them down there? It would be like taking an uneducated person to Jerusalem, and not explain the wailing wall.

    • “Why on earth did the aliens not warn Voyage of the sacred arch”

      It’s a sci fi trope. Aliens never, ever explain anything until it is too late. (What if God was one of us? Just a clod like one of us?) The same can be asked of 99.8 percent of TOS. As for Star Trek, it’s more interested in pushing the ‘message’ than it is in internal logic. In the case of “Memorial”, it works, but that’s sort of incidental.

      “a hatred of new age mumbo jumbo”

      How are we supposed to take any of it seriously? The Doctor’s technobabble is worse than anything coming out of Chakotay and Kira’s mouths.

      The Captain’s scientific background rarely came into play, anyway. The episode hinges on a show bible which has already been overwritten. The episode was fruitless in that regard. Bad times. And how annoying that TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT farted around for three years trying to find their voice.

      That aside, I do think there is a place for spirituality. It worked pretty well in X-Files and BSG, even if the writing staff succumbed to the dark side (meaningless visions designed to throw viewers off the track a la LOST).

    • I don’t mind it so much. It’s certainly better new age nonsense than most of the Chakotay stuff. And I don’t mind the idea of science and religion coexisting. I think the idea that they are mutually exclusive is a large part of the culture war. (For the record, I am a lapsed Catholic. It’s the real Irish state religion.)

  2. I always got the impression that Sacred Ground was originally intended as a DS9 episode (even guest star Becky Ann Baker is a dead ringer for Kai Winn) with Sisko in place of Janeway on a spiritual quest to seek the Prophets to cure Jake instead of Kes with Kira as his guide to convince him he’s the Emissary. DS9’s S5 equivalent (another case of these seasons melding together) was undoubtedly Rapture with Sisko taking a similar leap of faith to Janeway’s.

    Some of Sacred Ground’s pacing issues may be due to Robert Duncan McNeill’s inexperience as a director. Original choice Jonathan Frakes would no doubt have given the episode more in the way of snap but I feel that would have been inappropriate to the episode’s tone. Sacred Ground is a more thoughtful meditation on religious themes than the more recent likes of False Profits and all the better for it.

    Was this always intended as a Janeway episode? If this had been a product of the Michael Piller era, Chakotay might have been seeking the Sky Spirits (instead of the Nechani’s Ancestral Spirits) to strengthen the beliefs that he lacked in his youth, except it sounds too similar to Tattoo, and that was a well Voyager would thankfully never revisit again.

    • Ha, I hadn’t quite pegged the connection to Rapture, most likely because I reviewed the Sacred Ground as part of the S2 production block, but you’re entirely correct. S3 of VOY and S5 of DS9 really do line up surprisingly well with one another.

      • And it’s something I’ve only just noticed while reviewing these seasons. There are more examples to come but I’ll cover those when we come to them.

  3. “McNeill has directed for shows as diverse as V, The O.C. and Dead Like Me.”
    How diverse can they be, they all rhyme!
    (And so my periodic contribution to the comments section is complete. Terribly sorry.)

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