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Star Trek: Voyager – Displaced (Review)

The Star Trek franchise has a reputation for being liberal and open-minded.

After all, the franchise is very much rooted in an extension of Kennedy-era liberalism, with the “final frontier” very much an extension of Kennedy’s “new frontier.” It is a franchise that is supposed to celebrate “new lifeforms and new civilisations” that it meets on “strange new worlds”, embracing the alien and celebrating diversity. The franchise is rooted in a utopian version of the future that has been portrayed as at least mostly socialist dating back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the latest.

The end is Nyrian.

The end is Nyrian.

However, there are also points at which Star Trek could be considered to be reactionary and conservative. The original Star Trek was nowhere near as progressive on matters of race and gender as many would claim. The first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise frequently played as endorsements of politics of the Bush era and the fear of the unknown. The third season of Star Trek: Voyager has been particularly conservative in its outlook; consider the treatment of sex in Blood Fever or Darkling, of the traditional family in Real Life, of globalisation in Unity.

Displaced is perhaps the most striking example, an episode that is essentially a forty-five minute treatise on the risk posed by immigration.

Damn space immigrants, clogging up our space hospitals.

Damn space immigrants, clogging up our space hospitals.

There has always a strong conservative subtext to Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was heavily inspired by his service in the United States Army Air Corps. There are any number of points in the original run of Star Trek where the show becomes obsessed with the form and trappings of a military establishment; for example, the court martial plots in Court Martial, The Menagerie, Part I, The Menagerie, Part II or Turnabout Intruder. Roddenberry was the writer who insisted that the Enterprise had a procedure for welcoming President Lincoln onboard in The Savage Curtain.

There is a tendency to laud the show’s pacifistic objections to the Vietnam War in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy, The Trouble with Tribbles or The Day of the Dove. However, there is also a tendency to ignore the series’ endorsements of the conflict in stories like Friday’s Child, The Apple, A Private Little War, The Omega Glory or For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. This is to say nothing of the anxiety around counterculture in episodes like This Side of Paradise or The Way to Eden.

"The pointy end goes in the other guy..."

“The pointy end goes in the other guy…”

James Lileks makes a compelling argument that there was always a strong conservative streak to Star Trek:

Nevertheless, the best Trek was conservative: it was rooted in the unchanging nature of man, be they hooting hominids on the plains of Earth throwing rocks at prey, or civilized spacefarers. Money, power, lust, war: These were the constants, and Star Trek knew they’d follow us to infinity and beyond. At best we could find enlightened, savvy ways to avoid the pointless fights. But some people only understand a photon torpedo up the dorsal vent port, and we’d best be prepared to deal with them. The Federation, after all, had something called General Order 24, which called for the total destruction of a planet’s surface if the civilization was considered a threat to the Federation. As Vader might have said: Impressive.

For all Kirk was willing to let the Gorn live in Arena, he negotiated from a position of absolute strength.

"... not that I'd tell you how to use that thing."

“… not that I’d tell you how to use that thing.”

Of course, it should be noted that political terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are quite flexible and prone to distortion or confusion. After all, there is a solid argument to be made that the Republican Party would actually be three separate parties (occasionally with three competing views) if it existed in Europe rather than the United States. It should also be stressed that the descriptors do not offer a moral value of themselves. Even if those positions were rigidly defined, it would not be as simple as saying that one is “good” and one is “bad.”

For example, it could also be argued that Star Trek: The Next Generation offers a very liberal depiction of the future concerning the relationship between the individual and the state. The early seasons of that series offer an unsettlingly unquestioning endorsement of a sprawling and cumbersome political authority that believes the needs and wants of the individual must be secondary to the demands of the state. Episodes like The Measure of a Man critique this philosophy by demonstrating what happens when collectivism is allowed to so brutally trump individualism.

Keeping the crew in the dark.

Keeping the crew in the dark.

In contrast, it could also be argued that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has a rather conservative view on matters of power and authority. The show has a healthy skepticism of vast controlling governments, instead investing its faith in individuals rather than overarching institutions. In that sense, Deep Space Nine very clearly endorses a “small government” conservatism. However, that small government conservatism is filtered through a profound humanism expressed in episodes like Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II. The key is very much in terms of balance.

Perhaps “liberal” and “conservative” are clunky descriptors in this debate. Perhaps labels like “progressive” and “reactionary” fit better. In its more progressive moments, the Star Trek franchise argues for a more inclusive and open-minded vision of the future. Stories like The Devil in the Dark and Metamorphosis argue that just because something is not monstrous simply because it exists beyond mankind’s frame of reference. For a franchise so dedicating to exploring new worlds and new possibilities, Star Trek loses sight of that idea far too often.

Core appeal.

Core appeal.

The Star Trek franchise certainly does not have the most progressive ideas on gender. After all, Uhura was only permitted to kiss Kirk as part of a grave humiliation (and sexual assault) in Plato’s Stepchildren. It was suggested that women were biologically incapable of commanding starships in Turnabout Intruder. These problems persisted into the twenty-first century; Enterprise struggled with issues of sexism in episodes like Bounty or Bound. This is to say nothing of the treatment of actors like Grace Lee Whitney, Gates McFadden or Terry Farrell behind the scenes.

Similarly, Star Trek has often struggled on issues related to race. Errand of Mercy is a spectacular piece of television, but that does not excuse the decision to cast the Klingons in yellowface. Kirk actually refers to the characters with Asian features in The Omega Glory as “the yellow race.” Again, these problems persisted; the nineties Star Trek shows fixated upon African American gang culture, through the handling of the Kazon in episodes like Initiations, the Jem’Hadar in The Abandoned, and even the Klingons in Real Life.

Disarmed.

Disarmed.

For a franchise that prides itself on being open-minded, these are massive blindspots. However, the third season of Voyager is particularly reactionary in its politics. A number of the shows are sexist nightmares. In The Q and the Grey, Q tries to lay Janeway while introducing his shrewish wife. In Alter Ego, Tuvok is stalked by a psychotic alien woman who is willing to destroy Voyager so that they might be together. This is to say nothing of the recurring suggestion that sex is incredibly dangerous in Blood Fever, Darkling and Favourite Son.

Similarly, the third season of Voyager is also wary of anything outside the established middle-class (and white) social norms. In Unity, the formation of a collective to bring peace to a balkanised community is treated as a truly monstrous and horrifying act. When the EMH creates a holographic family in Real Life, he decides that he does not want his son to hang around with Klingons because Klingons are inherently violent and thuggish. The EMH is then shown to be entirely correct in his racial (or speciest) prejudice.

Disappearing act.

Disappearing act.

However, Displaced takes this idea to its logical extreme. It is essentially a forty-five minute moral panic about the dangers of immigration, about how illegal aliens are infiltrating the systems of governance in order to weaponise those instruments against the rightful owners. The Nyrians play almost as a parody of racial anxiety. First a handful of them appear on Voyager. Then they start clogging up the health service. Then they are sleeping in shanty towns. Then they are revealed as the masterminds of a crazy conspiracy to hijack the ship.

Displaced is a really nasty piece of work. It feels more like a collection of racist paranoia than an episode of television. It recalls all those crazy arguments that illegal immigrants are clogging up the health service, ignoring the fact that the health service is largely staffed by those immigrants. It evokes those fears about terrorists sneaking into the country disguised as refugees, ignoring that fact that Americans are more likely to die as a result of gun violence than terrorismDisplaced a culmination of the reactionary nonsense that has been building across the season.

To be fair, Voyager is a show that cast a Mexican actor as a Native American character. It may neve rhave been the most sensitive of shows.

To be fair, Voyager is a show that cast a Mexican actor as a Native American character. It may never have been the most sensitive of shows.

Although Janeway is suspicious of the Nyrians from the beginning, she turns out to be too soft-willed to prevent the invasion. “How many people does that leave us?” Chakotay asks. “Forty,” Lang responds. Chakotay reflects, “More than one hundred Nyrians. I want access to all systems restricted to authorised voice prints only. Seal off any part of the ship that we’re not using and place security forcefields around sensitive areas. Warp core, armoury, torpedo bays. And let’s hope I’m just being paranoid.” Naturally, he turns out to be completely correct in his assessment.

The Nyrians aim to infiltrate and subvert their targets. It is presented as a hostile invasion, albeit one conducted with a minimum amount of bloodshed because their victims are too weak-willed and too compassionate to take the steps necessary to prevent it. “Is this the way you operate, gradually changing places with the crew of a ship?” Chakotay demands. Taleen responds, quite helpfully, “Ships, colonies, spacestations. We’ve found it’s much more effective than warfare.” It is the subversion of an entire way of life.

Colony collapse disorder.

Colony collapse disorder.

It should be noted that this is very much a literal depiction of how racists feel about the issue of immigration, believing that their country’s culture is under threat of being eroded and subsumed by these aliens. This is the panic that drives the resurgent white nationalism, the fear that by the middle of the twenty-first century whites may no longer be a majority in the United States of America. This is the sort of paranoid thinking that drives slogans like “take back our country!”

As with the anti-globalisation paranoia of Unity, this is an episode that reads quite differently in the context of the twenty-first century as compared to its original broadcast. At the same time, it is not as though immigration anxiety is a recent invention. The issue very much came to the fore during the nineties, following the end of the Cold War. Not only did immigration into the United States increase substantially during the decade, so did the number of Americans strongly opposed to it.

Refugees in absurdity.

Refugees in absurdity.

Most notably, immigration was a seen as a potential campaign plank in the run-up to the 1996 Presidential election. Pete Wilson sought the Republican nomination on a promise to halt illegal immigration:

On a late-summer day in 1995, with the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop, the then-governor of California declared that he was entering the presidential race because “there’s a right way to come to America and a wrong way. Illegal immigration is not the American way. We teach our children to respect the law, but nearly 4 million illegal immigrants in our country break it every day, and Washington—Washington actually rewards these lawbreakers by forcing states to give them benefits paid for by the taxpayers. That’s like giving free room service to someone who breaks into a hotel.”

Wilson failed to secure the nomination, but that was not necessarily a rejection of his rhetoric. After all, Wilson’s campaign was crippled by a number of throat operation that limited his public speaking.

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a transporter buffer..."

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a transporter buffer…”

The nineties saw a marked increase in right-wing populism, perhaps reflecting the fact that the Second World War was slipping from living memory and there was no longer an “Evil Empire” against which western liberal democracy felt the need to align. Even Voyager itself had noted this trend with some concern, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky confronting the dangers of allowing a national myth to triumph over memory in stories like Remember and Distant Origin. All of this makes Displaced even more frustrating.

In France, the National Front won three southern towns during the 1995 election cycle. In 1998, as mayor of Vitrolles, Catherine Mégret introduced a 5,000 franc allowance for babies born to at least one parent of French (or EU) nationality. The Austrian Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, saw its vote share grow to over one quarter of the electorate by the end of the nineties. In the United Kingdom, UKIP was emerging as a force to be reckoned with; it took seven percent of the vote in the last European elections of the decade.

Going nativist.

Going nativist.

Even the historically liberal state of California experienced a strong wave of anti-immigration sentiment during the middle of the decade. Foreshadowing the emergence of Trumpism, Pete Wilson made it a cornerstone of his time as governor:

“Trump’s anti-immigrant tactics are straight out of Pete Wilson’s playbook in 1994,” says Larry Sheingold, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant in California. In both cases, the electorate is awash in economic angst—California faced a paralyzing financial crisis in the early ’90s; now the entire country is struggling to recover from another—and enraged by a seeming lack of response from a government that has been deadlocked for years. Like United States voters today, California’s were older and whiter than the population as a whole and responded to Wilson’s argument that the state’s budget woes required a get-tough approach to immigrants without documentation, whom he blamed for draining state resources. Proposition 187, which local activists successfully placed on the ballot in May 1994, proposed blocking those immigrants from receiving public services like education and health care. It would become the animating force of the election that fall, winning handily in November, and friends and foes alike agree Wilson wouldn’t have won re-election had he not ridden that same political wave.

Perhaps there is a silver lining on this matter. Although there is considerable debate about the causal link, it has often been suggested that this xenophobic policy helped to turn California from a swing state into a reliably source of Democratic electoral college votes. Perhaps electorates inevitably reject racism and fear. Or maybe they don’t.

Of course the Nyrians left Chakotay until last. They probably forgot that he existed until he started sabotaging stuff.

Of course the Nyrians left Chakotay until last. They probably forgot that he existed until he started sabotaging stuff.

It should be noted that, as a television franchise that is produced in Los Angeles, Star Trek has always been particularly susceptible to the politics of the region. After all, Ira Steven Behr was inspired to write Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II in direct response to proposed legislative measures. More than that, the franchise’s disproportionate interest in the threat of gang culture during the middle of the decade reflects an anxiety very much rooted in the Californian experience. Early in the development of Caretaker, the Ogla were known as “the Crips.”

The xenophobia in Displaced is threaded deep through the episode. It seems like the cast and crew should never trust anybody they do not know. Even the mysterious alien Jarleth promptly reveals himself to be a cowardly traitor. He is introduced as a character fascinated with trade and finance, motivated by naked self-interest. When the Nyrians catch him, he immediately betrays the Voyager crew. “I surrender. I’m sorry. It wasn’t my idea. They made me come along. They went around that corner.”

Trading up.

Trading up.

Indeed, the xenophobia of Displaced can handily be traced to a number of stock offensive stereotypes. Although the Nyrians are overwhelmingly white and introduced with no distinctive make-up, the are dressed in clothes that evoke tribal design and come from somewhere that is defined solely as “warm and dark.” Had Displaced been written at the turn of the nineteenth century, they would seem like stand-ins for immigrants from the Dark Continent. With his reptilian features, his avarice and his cowardice, Jarleth feels like a collection of antisemitic stereotypes.

There is a lot of debate about what the core values of Star Trek might be. It seems like every fan has a certain set of expectations for the franchise. As with any media franchise that endures for over a half a century, those expectations and ideals evolve and change over time. It is far too easy to suggest that something is “not really” a piece of Star Trek because it does not meet certain arbitrary guidelines about what the franchise should be. Indeed, it is far too easy to get caught up in debates of what the franchise should be, instead of what it actually is.

Baskets of deplorables.

Baskets of deplorables.

However, Displaced is an episode that seems to run counter to the core promise of the franchise. It is a story about how our lead characters should react with fear and paranoia towards the unknown and the alien, about how the proper response to something unexpected is anxiety and about how anybody who you do not know is inevitably scheming to take everything that belongs to you. Displaced seems diametrically opposed to a franchise based on the idea of welcoming the alien and embracing the other.

Of course, this is not the first or the last time that the franchise will adopt this approach. In the early episodes of the original Star Trek like The Cage or The Man Trap or Charlie X, it seemed like deep space was populated by existential and Lovecraftian horrors. More recently, the second season of Enterprise goes through a crisis of identity following the horror of 9/11, with episodes like Minefield, Dawn and The Crossing seeming to suggest that the universe would be a much better place if everybody simply left one another alone.

Heart of darkness.

Heart of darkness.

Displaced is so jarring because it comes at a point where the world is relatively prosperous and the Star Trek franchise is relatively comfortable in its own identity. At this moment, the franchise would seem to be ideally positioned to call out the dangers of nativism or xenophobia, as it has done with Remember or Distant Origin. Given all of that, Displaced feels like a spectacularly ill-judged piece of television. It is an episode that explains why a certain vocal set of the Star Trek fanbase could object to something as straightforward as “Trek against Trump.”

It is a shame, because there is the faintest possibility of a an interesting story here. How do our highly trained Starfleet crew react to a sudden influx of strange aliens? What happens to our leads when they are forced by happenstance to abandon their homes and find themselves somewhere else? Even the basic premise of a predatory race that eschews military confrontation and technological development in favour of hijacking the resources of other species. Even ignoring the horrible racism of this approach to the story, Displaced simply doesn’t work.

A cool reception.

A cool reception.

Surely every species in the region must be aware of the Nyrians by this point? Voyager seems to be the perfect mark, seen as they are simply passing through. However, surely every other alien ship in the region must know that the first thing that you do when a Nyrian appears is to throw them out the airlock? After all, the invasion is presented as gradual, with one Nyrian replacing one native every nine minutes. That is more than enough time for ships to send out messages and logs explaining what has happened. Nyrian tactics do not seem sustainable in the long term.

Similarly, there is no reason why the Nyrians should keep their captives alive. Displaced suggests that their refusal to kill the Voyager crew is an act of compassion. “I think you’ll be happy here,” Taleen boasts. “The food dispensers have been programmed with selections from your own computer files. We have even downloaded literature and entertainment from your cultural database.” This does not fit with such a mercenary and predatory approach to interstellar relations. It would make more sense to kill the crew, or leave a small handful of survivors.

Stone knives and bear skins.

Stone knives and bear skins.

After all, the Nyrians leave the Voyager crew with enough technology to plan their escape. Tuvok is able to design a phaser using materials gathered from the technology designed to make their stay more comfortable. The habitats are feature secret passages connecting them to one another, whether by design or by fluke. Given how easy it is to escape from the habitat, it seems surprising that Voyager is the first crew to successfully accomplish the feat. Displaced never generates any real tension.

This is because the episode hinges on the sort of stock techno-babble solutions that audiences have come to expect from Voyager at this point in its run. The crew do not escape by outwitting their captors. The crew do not take back control of Voyager through clever plans and shrewd gambits. Instead, the crew win the day by throwing science-fiction-sounding words together in soothing patterns. The escape is driven by “command pathways” and “bioscanners”, “relay circuits” and “capacitors.” It is not satisfying television.

Planet of hats.

Planet of hats.

The Nyrians are hardly the most satisfying antagonists. The Nyrians are a fairly bland design, with no real make-up to distinguish them from more human characters. Michael Westmore has done a lot of great work on the franchise, but Voyager was far too fond of aliens that were virtually identical to humans. However, the problem is more than just make-up related. The decision to cast the Nyrians as primarily middle-aged men and to write them as whiners who complain about the temperature does little to make them menacing. Their hats are the most memorable feature.

Displaced is a shockingly terrible piece of television. It is not simply horribly offensive and ill-considered. It is also somehow boring and entirely forgettable.

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5 Responses

  1. ‘Perhaps electorates inevitably reject racism and fear. Or maybe they don’t.’

    Honestly I don’t think the California experiece is very hopeful in that regard. When Clinton took Orange County – a bastion of California Republicanism – ‘The LA Times’ noted it was because the demographics had shifted so much (http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-orange-county-20161101-story.html).

    Now the reasons that is bleak reading for conservatives are obvious but I’d suggest they might equally make grim readings for progressive idealism – the Democrats didn’t ‘win’ the argument among existing voters, they benefitted because voters already supporting them moved in. A win is a win is a win but it must be pretty disheartening to know minds didn’t change so much as addresses.

    Of course as the article notes a demographic shift helped the Republicans in Sixties, which would confirm that rather downbeat assessment – it just happened to help the other party at that time.

    • “minds didn’t change so much as addresses.”

      Immigration works both ways, too. There seems to be a lot of cross-pollination between California and Texas, for reasons I really can’t explain. (Texas was unaffected the housing bubble and recession, but why Cali, specifically?) But there’s also a brain drain going on in the midwest. The educated and the progressive-minded are flocking to the coastal cities.

      The GOP has responded by slashing education budgets, increasing their majorities.

      “Perhaps electorates inevitably reject racism and fear.”

      Racism is a mood. People who are going up or down the social ladder are more prone to conspiratorial thinking. The plight of poor whites is easy to explain. Less-examined is the macho posturing of gay white men. They’ll rally behind anyone who stands up to feminists and brown people.

    • Yep. So. This has been a fun year, then. 🙂

  2. I remember when I first saw this episode I actually was liking it because the constant shrinking of the crew was interesting, and I was convinced something other than the obvious was going on. When it turned out to be just the aliens to blame, I was very disappointed. The fact that the Voyager crew loses the ship and then gains it back just adds to the silliness.

    I think an example of an immigration star trek episode that was done better was Sanctuary. That episode might not have been perfect, the whole first act dealing with the universal translator malfunctioning felt superfluous, but it did a decent job examining both sides of the immigration debate. At the end, Kira does not come off looking very good, and you almost sympathize with the aliens, but at the same time the episode is not overly moralizing.

    • Sanctuary is a much stronger episode, because it doesn’t treat the aliens as villainous. And I suspect its problems are largely down to the fact that DS9 was still in the “figuring out its identity” stage of development.

      I just watched Day of Honour for review, and it has a very similar reactionary xenophobic vibe to it. Remember when we used to be explorers?

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