Like Remember before it, Distant Origin is a really great example of how Star Trek: Voyager‘s efforts to build a “generic Star Trek“ series can produce memorable and satisfying episodes of television.
There is very little about Distant Origin that demands to be set in the Delta Quadrant. In fact, Distant Origin arguably makes less sense as an episode set in the Delta Quadrant than it would as an episode set in the Alpha or Beta Quadrants. Episodes like The 37’s and Distant Origin (and the lies at the heart of Favourite Son) seem to suggest a lot of traffic between Earth and the Delta Quadrant beyond the Caretaker. It seems strange the Voth would migrate so far in search of a place to call home.
However, for all that Distant Origin feels like a strange fit for the series’ Delta Quadrant setting, it feels very much like quintessential Star Trek. Like Remember earlier in the season, Distant Origin is very much an old-fashioned Star Trek allegory that uses characters in cheesy make-up to comment upon contemporary issues. In Remember, it was the reality of holocaust denial. In Distant Origin, it is the age-old conflict of science-against-political-expedience. There is an endearing timelessness to the metaphor at the centre of the story.
With its dinosaur characters, its fixation upon evolution, and its doctrine of “origin”, Distant Origin seems very specifically tailored to the heated debates around science and creationism in American culture. However, the allegory is powerful enough that it maintains a potency even beyond that. Distant Origin has aged remarkably well, working effectively as a metaphor for climate change denial or even for historical revisionism in favour of the national myth. Distant Origin is both a season and a series highlight.
Voyager is a television show very much rooted in the nineties. To be clear, this is not a problem. Most television shows (and most films) tend to be products of their time. The original Star Trek was perfectly positioned towards the end of the sixties, capturing a cultural moment in amber. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was a story that could only have been told after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Star Trek: Enterprise is a series that speaks to the era of the War on Terror.
Voyager is very much rooted in the tone and mood of the late nineties, which is perhaps best reflected in the way that the show approaches the recurring theme of time. More than any other Star Trek show, Voyager tends to treat the future as something assured and protected. The series repeatedly suggests that there is a future version of Starfleet that stands guard over the timeline in much the same way that Starfleet has traditionally protected space. Individual details of the future might shift in episodes like Timeless or Endgame, but the future was stable. History had an end.
Ironically, Voyager seems much more uncertain about the existence of a past. Repeatedly over the course of the show’s run, it is suggested that the past is a flexible and malleable construct that can be manipulated and distorted by those in authority. In episodes like Remember, Distant Origin and Living Witness, the characters come into contact with alien societies that have grown disconnected from their own past and have manipulated the historical narrative in service of their own cynical ends.
This was a recurring fixation in the nineties, most often finding expression through conspiracy theory narratives that suggested secret histories lurking just beneath the public record. Films like JFK and shows like The X-Files frequently invited viewers to question whether they fully understood the history of the United States, threading cover-ups and obfuscations through established facts and details. Freed from the pressures and demands of the Cold War, it frequently seemed like the nineties were divorced from history.
“You see, we’re also living in a time of antihistory. It’s as though we’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease. There is no past. We have the sound bites that come on–15 seconds of wisdom–and then it’s forgotten. Kids are born, without any fault of their own, with no sense of past. There isn’t any past. The kid says, ‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ and I say, ‘You weren’t. You were born this morning.’ Because there is no yesterday. That’s part of the horror of our day.”
Voyager touches on this idea of memory and history repeatedly. The Voth in Distant Origin are just one example.
Interestingly, Voyager seems to struggle with its own sense of history and continuity. The show has largely abandoned its core premise, moving away from the television show promised by Caretaker in favour of something more generic. None of the characters on Voyager seem to remember that they are actually two crews brought together by circumstance. Nobody on Voyager seems to wrestle with what it means to never be able to see family or friends again. Nobody on Voyager grapples with the tough choices that must come from being the only Federation ship on this side of the galaxy.
Voyager is very much a show without a past. The series has drawn a line under the first two seasons, ruling them a failure and opting for a much safer approach to Star Trek storytelling. It is telling that the Professor Gegan’s pursuit of Voyager begins with the discovery of Hogan’s bones on the surface of Hanon IV, from the opening teaser to Basics, Part II. That was very much a threshold episode for the show; the last episode produced of the second season, the last script from Michael Piller, the first episode aired of the third season. At the moment, Voyager‘s history would seem to begin there.
(Of course, to this point, it is telling that none of the deaths in Basics, Part II have been referenced in the episodes since. Nobody on the cast has acknowledged the death of Seska or Lon Suder, let alone Hogan. Given the relatively small size of the Maquis crew, losing three former members in the space of a single adventure should have made some impression. However,Voyager is a show with no real sense of history or legacy. It is worth comparing the handling of these deaths to the deaths of Tora Ziyal or Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.)
Similarly, it is worth noting that Professor Gegen’s inquiries also lead him to the trading post at the edge of the Nekrit Expanse from Fair Trade. A big cloud of purple space that served to make the very edge of Neelix’s knowledge of the region, the Nekrit Expanse served as a threshold for Voyager. In theory, the Nekrit Expanse promised a bold new direction for the show with infinite possibilities. In practice, the Nekrit Expanse served to draw a line under the first two-and-a-half seasons, allowing Voyager to continue with a blank slate.
There is no small irony here. Not only is Professor Gegen uncovering the secret history of the Voth, he is also investigating the lost continuity of Voyager itself. Distant Origin is perhaps the most continuity-obsessed episode of Voyager this side of The Voyager Conspiracy. The episode seems to insist that Voyager and its crew have left an impression on the Delta Quadrant, despite their best efforts to keep moving forward and leave little evidence in their wake. Distant Origin suggests that Voyager does have a past, even if it takes a lot of work to uncover it.
In some ways, this is a recurring fascination for co-writer Joe Menosky. Menosky has a recurring fascination with concepts like narratives and stories, as demonstrated by his scripts for episodes like Darmok, Dramatis Personae and Masks. His scripts for The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine tend to feature the characters wandering into alien mythologies. In contrast, Menosky’s work on Voyager tends to focus on the characters becoming alien mythologies; the shooting star in False Profits, the invaders in Living Witness, the source of inspiration in Muse.
Voyager serves a similar function in Distant Origin, a myth to be chased and a story to be told by Professor Gegen. Indeed, Distant Origin touches on the interesting gulf that exists between the national (or species) myth of the Voth and their material history. As Duncan Barrett and Michèle Barrett note in Star Trek: The Human Frontier, the Voth are forced to choose between the truth and comforting lie:
The issue of unreliable histories is dealt with on several occasions in Voyager. (“Revisionist history! It’s such a comfort,” the ship’s Doctor comments sarcastically in Living Witness.) The episode Distant Origin concerns a society that cannot face the truth of its own evolution, a story that parallels the furore caused by Darwin’s theories in the nineteenth century. But the model for the treatment of scientists with unpleasant truths to tell – ‘heresy against doctrine’, as these aliens put it – is the punishment meted out to those such as Galileo, whose astronomical conclusions contradicted the religious belief of their time. The episode ends with the alien scientist retracting his ‘distant origin theory’ (that his species originally evolved on earth) in order to save Voyager from destruction. His people’s doctrine – though manifestly false – is allowed to stand.
Indeed, Minister Odala explains the argument in those terms, in how the Voth see themselves. “When I open my eyes to this theory, what I see appals me,” she confesses. “I see my race fleeing your wretched planet, a group of pathetic refugees crawling and scratching their way across the galaxy, stumbling into this domain. I see a race with no birthright, no legacy. That is unacceptable.” Better to believe the lie.
This obviously works effectively as a very broad metaphor for the debate between evolution and creationism. After all, if evolution is a result of random scientific happenstance, then it means that humanity was not chosen by some divine authority for some singular purpose. Taken to its logical extreme, belief in evolution is arguably the acceptance that there is nothing innately special about how mankind developed and that their position at the top of the food chain is just down to chance rather than purpose. That certainly poses an existential dilemma for some.
(Of course, this is a somewhat exaggerated position. It is entirely possible for individuals to reconcile their religious belief with a scientific understanding of the universe. The suggestion that religious faith exists only to provide an individual with a sense of self-worth and self-image is a broad generalisation, something of a strawman argument that runs the risk of belittling the concept of faith. The truth about the complex relationship between religious faith and scientific progress is generally more complex and nuanced than that.)
Distant Origin certainly invites a reading as commentary on this conflict between faith and science. After all, creationism was the source of considerable debate during the nineties. “Neo-creationism” had emerged in the late eighties, with certain religious-minded individuals advocating for the teaching of “intelligent design creationism” that sought to apply a pseudo-scientific veneer to the religious belief system. In 1996, Pat Buchanan launched a popular (but failed) campaign for the Republican presidential nomination with creationism as a core plank.
The episode is quite overt in its religious subtext. When the Voyager crew capture Veer, they make a point to test his cloaking technology on an apple. The apple is one of the most potent Christian symbols, a metaphor for the knowledge than Adam claimed before being exiled from Paradise; it is a symbol that has come to represent forbidden scientific knowledge. Even in conversation among the Voth, there are repeated references to their “deepest beliefs.” When Chakotay suggests this is a challenge to their “place in the universe”, it is an overt nod to Galileo’s persecution.
However, what is most striking about this debate within Voth culture is the way that it comments upon other belief systems that are less explicitly religious. In particular, it feels like a commentary upon various myth of national identity. Professor Gegen’s theory of “Distant Origin” speculates that the Voth have no distinct claim to their place in the galaxy, that the Voth are not guided by providence or manifest destiny. It is telling that the most threatening aspect of Professor Gegen’s theory is that the Voth have no divine right to their home territory.
“By challenging Doctrine, you’re suggesting that everything we believe about ourselves, our history, our ancient and rightful claim over this region of space, the authority of this Ministry itself, is a lie,” Odala states. Professor Gegen explains how the Voth came to see themselves as the righteous owners of their territory rather than simply refugees or immigrants. “Our true origin on Earth lost over the eons, replaced by Doctrine, the myth that we were the First Race.” It is very much an issue of self-image.
While this naturally resonates with the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo for daring to suggest that the Earth might orbit the sun rather than vice versa, it also speaks to broader themes of group (and national) identity. Even Professor Gegen’s daughter struggled with the concept. “Our ancestors came from somewhere else?” she asks, struggling to wrap her head around the implications. “We don’t even belong here?” It goes without saying that this revelation changes nothing material about Voth society, but it does change they way that they see themselves.
As Gegen outlines, “For millions of years our people have believed that we were the first intelligent beings to evolve in this region of space. The first race. This assumption underlies everything that we hold dear.” Watching the episode decades later, it resonates with the fears and anxieties that seem to be driving a resurgent political nationalism. After all, events like Trump and Brexit were driven by fears about the erosion of national identity and national myth through globalisation and immigration.
These myths are comforting to believe, but bear little relation to the truth. “Make America Great Again!” proclaim Trump supporters as they hark back towards the middle of the twentieth century when living in America was a lot worse for anybody who wasn’t a straight white man. “Take Back Control!” scream the Brexit campaigners fighting against the encroachment of a disconnected elite willing to vote for a campaign run by a former stockbroker and a man who studied with David Cameron at Eton.
The Voth are repeatedly demonstrated to be highly invested in this national myth. Minister Odala cannot accept Professor Gegen’s findings because they run counter to what she believes about her people. There is a very strong strand of racism that permeates Voth society, a hint of racial superiority grounded in these toxic cultural myths. Even Professor Gegen falls prey to it, suggesting that humanity are most likely “no more advanced than most endotherms.”
There is a conscious fear of the alien in Voth society. While the Starfleet crew are excited at the very idea of the Voth as “distant cousins”, the Voth seem insulted at the idea of sharing their family tree with a bunch of hairless apes. “You’re proposing we’re related to a mammalian species?” Haluk inquires, barely hiding his repulsion. This sense of racial superiority is enforced after the Voth seize Voyager. “You are non-indigenous beings,” Haluk warns Janeway. “You have no rights under Doctrine.”
These national myths are dangerous things when they are allowed to triumph over the historical record. The United States still refuses to acknowledge the genocide of the Native American population by the European settlers, instead continuing to exploit the lands and resources that were claimed centuries ago. There is a tendency to ignore or gloss over the atrocity of slavery in favour of respecting the heritage and identity of southern states, instead of addressing longstanding issues about racial inequality.
This might explain why a nation founded by immigrants and refugees from Europe has allowed itself to become deaf to the plight of the dispossessed from overseas. This might account for why a nation whose iconography includes a statue welcoming the “huddled masses” might have elected a man who aspires to build a wall along the border. The national myth is a very dangerous thing when it is allowed to run counter to the historical record, as it does in Distant Origin. It is potentially catastrophic for a nation to abandon memory for myth.
Distant Origin also represents something of a departure for Voyager. It is an episode that seems quite unlike any of the other stories airing around it. Voyager has toyed with experimental storytelling during this third season, but has always backed away from the more extreme possibilities. Brannon Braga originally wanted Macrocosm to be a mostly silent episode, but the teleplay that made it to screen was laboured with exposition. Before and After told a story in reverse, but was betrayed by a clumsy script that spent far too much time explaining itself.
Distant Origin is less experimental than either of those two concepts, but that modesty might explain why it works so well. Distant Origin is an episode in which the title ship and its crew are very much presented as a secondary concern. The story opens with Professor Gegen and his associate Veer, who are chasing Voyager through the Delta Quadrant. As Joe Menosky explained to Cinefantastique about the structure of the episode:
“The thing that’s very unique about this episode is that we have a teaser and one full act without any of our characters in it, from the point of view of the aliens. Even when our people come in, it’s taken from the aliens’ point of view for a long time, until everything hits the fan. It’s as if Chakotay were on trial along with Galileo. Robert Beltran was just awesome in it. His scenes, the courtroom scenes, I think are just really wonderful.”
No regular character appears until the second act of the story. Even after that point, most of the action is seen from the perspective of these strange reptilian guest stars who will never appear again. Chakotay and Janeway certainly get moments in the story, but they are clearly secondary. The episode clearly has much graver consequences for Professor Gegen than for any of the Voyager characters.
This is a rather bold decision in the larger context of the Star Trek franchise. When Micheal Piller took charge of the writers’ room on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he implemented a (very reasonable) policy that insisted that all stories should focus on the crew of the ship. Stories should serve characters, rather than vice versa. As Piller stepped away from the franchise, the franchise moved beyond this premise. Deep Space Nine broadened its focus to characters outside the core cast, while Voyager looked at the ship from the outside.
The Voth are a fantastic creation from Michael Westmore, but they are also incredibly goofy. Distant Origin is an episode that hinges on the kind of crazy science-fiction premise that Brannon Braga loves so much. The Voth feel like spiritual descendents of the wacky science in Genesis or Threshold. This is a story about how a group of dinosaurs evolved to the point that they built spaceships and escaped Earth before the asteroid hit. It sounds like conspiracy theory, which was a fixation of nineties television in general and of Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky in particular.
After all, conspiracy theorist Mark Richards claims he was framed for murder for uncovering a similar secret history. One of the most pervasive and enduring conspiracy theories, championed by people like David Icke, suggests that there are actually hyper-evolved lizard people living in secret among mankind. Voyager repeatedly dabbles in notions of conspiracy theory and paranoia, whether through the militia men of Future’s End, Part II or the invasion-by-stealth in Rise. Although Distant Origin is not a conspiracy theory episode, it is at most a “distant cousin.”
So committing to an entire episode base around these lizard people is an intriguing concept. It consciously shifts narrative focus away from the regular cast and crew towards a bunch of guest stars in weird make-up engaging in extended dialogue-driven scenes discussing abstract concepts that will have no long-term impact on the show. In fact, Minister Odala explicitly states as much. “You are to be returned to your ship, where you will set course away from our territory,” she warns Chakotay. “It would be in your best interest if I never saw you again.”
On an easter egg included on the DVD box set, director David Livingston acknowledged that Distant Origin was not the most dynamic or compelling of shows on paper:
Trials are really hard, because you want to keep things moving. I’ve done several of them now, and that one looked okay because you had weird things to look at. You could do really weird angles coming up, and really strong profiles, and do weird kinda tracking shots. Because you’re in a weird courtroom. That particular trial was okay, because of the elements that we had to work with.
It is to the credit of the script and the direction that the episode works as well as it does. However, it should also be acknowledged that this is an example of Voyager pushing outside its comfort zone.
Of course, Distant Origin does not commit entirely to this alien perspective. The demands of the show’s format and structure are evident at several points in the script. The show moves away from Professor Gegen and Veer to allow Janeway and the EMH the opportunity for some exposition from mankind’s perspective. The holodeck scene is worthwhile for Kate Mulgrew’s joy at playing Janeway as a scientist, but it also feels very much like Distant Origin is spelling out the plot for the viewers unable or unwilling to follow along with Professor Gegen.
There is also an obligatory action sequence as the Voth seize control of Voyager. Paris and Tuvok put up a very short-lived fight against the Voth that ultimately amounts to nothing. These sequences work well enough because David Livingston is one of the best action directors to work on the franchise, but they also feel somewhat superfluous. They feel like scenes included to meet a quota, perhaps to satisfy the same network that wanted more sex added to Favourite Son.
Still, there is no denying the impact that Distant Origin had upon Voyager as a television show. The episode was very highly by all those who worked upon it. Even though it violated one of his core edicts, Cinefantastique reported that Michael Piller loved the episode, sending a memo to Menosky that described it as “the best Voyager script [he’d] ever read.” Given the nature (and recency) of Piller’s departure, that was quite a bold statement and endorsement from the creator and former showrunner.
Piller was not the only fan of the episode. Tim Russ acknowledged, “I liked the Distant Origin episode which dealt with evolution–many of the sciences are interests of mine.” In The Star Trek: Voyager Companion, Brannon Braga described Distant Origin as “one episode that was just about perfect. The acting, the effects, and the directing … It was a very complex [and] ambitious show that really turned out great.” In The Star Trek Communicator, Rick Berman noted of the episode, “It’s a really classic piece of Star Trek.”
Distant Origin is certainly a great piece of Star Trek. In many ways, it is a triumph of Jeri Taylor’s approach to the show. It is an archetypal Star Trek allegory with a lot of resonance that uses a science-fiction premise to make a number of very astute observations about the modern world. In fact, unlike a like of Voyager around it, Distant Origin has aged remarkably well. It is an episode that feels as relevant twenty years after broadcast as it did upon initial airing.
However, there is a larger debate to be had about whether Distant Origin is a great episode of Voyager. It is an episode that largely succeeds by brushing the characters and ship aside to focus on a collection of one-shot guest stars belonging to a race that has never appeared before and will never appear again. Distant Origin could easily have been an episode of The Next Generation or Enterprise. More than that, it could easily have been an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.
It is an episode of Voyager that succeeds by abandoning the unique signifiers of Voyager. In some ways, it seems like a confession. It is an acknowledgement that Voyager works better as a concept or aspiration than as the focal point of a weekly television series. It suggests that Voyager is more powerful as an idea to be chased than as a material object to be followed. It seems to concede that Voyager is better studied as a curiousity from the outside than treated as a show with a rich internal life.
Indeed, that is the lasting legacy of Distant Origin. Although the episode is very much a one-off story with no major consequences, it does suggest a turning point for Voyager as a television show. From this point onwards, the series is a lot more willing to treat its characters like guest stars in their own show and acknowledge their lack of agency compared to outside forces. Voyager will come to feature a significant number of shows in which the leads barely appear, or merely serve as a framing device; Living Witness, Course: Oblivion, 11:59, One Small Step.
The third season of Voyager represents the point at which the show solidified into its final form. Distant Origin would prove to be a highly influential episode, one that acknowledged that Voyager was more interesting as a vehicle to tell interesting science-fiction stories than as starship populated by interesting characters. This is heartbreaking, but that does not make it untrue.