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Star Trek: Voyager – Nemesis (Review)

Nemesis is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager pitching itself as generic Star Trek.

This is a story that is not unique or particular to this crew. In fact, the story could easily be adapted to service characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or even Star Trek: Enterprise. In some respects, Nemesis might even work better if Robert Beltran were swapped out for Jonathan Frakes or Colm Meaney or Connor Trinneer. There is very little in the script that relies on the particularities of this show or the nuances of its characters.

The Rifleman...

The Rifleman…

While this lack of a distinct identity is a problem for Voyager as a television series, it does lead to some great episodes. Many of the best episodes of Voyager could easily be ported to or from any of the other shows. It was an approach that really came to the fore during the third season, when Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga made a conscious choice to steer the show away from its focus on a crew stranded far from home and towards a more generic Star Trek sensibility.

At its best, this leads to very strong allegorical storytelling. Episodes like Remember and Distant Origin are very much archetypal Star Trek episodes, extended science-fiction metaphors with a strong moral core that evoke the Star Trek beloved by so many of its fans. Nemesis is very much an episode constructed in that tradition, a metaphorical exploration of the dehumanisation of soldiers through combat training and conditioning. It is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of social commentary and a superb piece of Star Trek.

A hard shoot.

A hard shoot.

As with Distant Origin, there is a certain threshold of ridiculousness to Nemesis. It is not the most tightly constructed episode of Voyager in the history of the franchise, one that leaves a number of very important questions dangling about the mechanics of the science-fiction world that was just presented to the audience. Most notably, there are a lot of questions left hanging about how exactly the Vori function as a society engaged in a long and bitter war against the Kradin.

Initially, the scenario seems quite reasonable. Chakotay is shot down during a routine survey of a planet. He happens to meet a bunch of soldiers engaged in jungle warfare. As he tries to reunite with Voyager, he finds himself drawn into the conflict. He comes to feel sympathy for the soldiers and the civilians trapped in the perpetual warfare. Against his own better judgment, he comes to hate the enemy. Gradually, he is convinced to take up arms in support of their cause.

He's Kray Kray.

He’s Kray Kray.

However, it is then reveal that all of this was a hoax. Chakotay’s shuttle was not shot down by the Kradin, it was shot down by the Vori. He was captured and subjected to “photometric projections, heightened emotional stimuli, and highly sophisticated psychotropic manipulation.” The whole point of his experience was to recruit him as a soldier in this grand conflict between the Vori and the Kradin. He was trained to hate, and then trained to kill.

It is a brilliant twist, just in terms of plotting. Kenneth Biller has improved a great deal as Voyager has gone on. As with the creeping wrongness in the first few acts of Worst Case Scenario, as little inconsistencies and details begin to gnaw at the audience’s expectations, there is a similar build across the run of Nemesis. Initially it seems Janeway has allied with the Vori to find Chakotay. Then it seems like she has sided with the Kradin, but she doesn’t realise that they are monsters. Then it is revealed Chakotay has been brainwashed.

Tied down to expectations.

Tied down to expectations.

Just structurally, that is a very clever build. The script plays entirely fair with the audience, and it builds organically to each major revelation in a way that never feels like a cheat or a cop out. Structurally, Nemesis is a very good script in service in service of some very great themes. However, there is an inherent goofiness to the twist, to the reveal that Chakotay has been subjected to an extended and involved “basic training.” It is a revelation that does not bear too much scrutiny.

It is made abundantly clear that there is nothing particularly special about the conditioning that Chakotay had received. “We tracked you to a Vori training camp,” Tuvok tells Chakotay at the climax. “We infiltrated the facility, but you were gone. They had already brought you here to fight this battle. Before today, nothing you experienced here was real. It is the method the Vori use to conscript and train soldiers.” This is standard operating procedure.

"Damn it, this is the second shuttle we've lost this week."

“Damn it, this is the second shuttle we’ve lost this week.”

Similarly, when Chakotay asks why this happened to him, Janeway responds, “Luck of the draw. You happened to be passing through their space and you were as promising a recruit as anyone else. We’ve been told the Vori have dozens of these training facilities where they conscript their own people, and any aliens they’re able to capture.” How many aliens fly into Vori airspace? After all, this seems to a bush war in the Delta Quadrant; it looks to be confined to a single planet. How is this considered a practical method of recruitment?

There is a suggestion that recruiting aliens is not the primary purpose of this operation, although it is a large enough part of the process to merit discussion. It is explained that the Vori employ this technology against their own people, brainwashing their own soldiers to turn them into killing machines. While a lot of the operation appears to be automated, such as the village itself, at least some of it is real. Chakotay’s conditioning includes Brone, who accompanies him on his first mission. As such, that feels like a very elaborate set-up for a bush war.

The horns of Namon.

The horns of Namon.

Still, as with the craziness of warp-capable dinosaurs in Distant Origin, this leap of faith is entirely justified. Nemesis is a striking and powerful piece of allegorical science-fiction, dealing with big and bold themes. In fact, it should be noted that the episode has a lot in common with the themes and high concepts of Men Against Fire, the fifth episode of the third season of Black Mirror, released in late October 2016. It is an episode built around a number of very clever idea, putting a science-fiction gloss on the dehumanisation of the enemy.

Indeed, Nemesis is quite explicit about its influences. The Vori and the Kradin are very clearly locked in a twenty-fourth century version of Vietnam, with Chakotay handed a contemporary assault rifle and the Kradin flying what appear to be conventional fighter jets. One of the nicer twists in Nemesis is the gradual revelation that the Vori are not stand-ins for the United States, but that these predominantly white khaki-clad soldiers are instead cast as the Viet Cong in this analogy; their villages devastated by the enemy, fighting in the bush, at a technical disadvantage.

The kings of Cong.

The kings of Cong.

There are also shades of the Korean War to be found in Nemesis, with its emphasis on brainwashing and manipulation recalling the reports of experiences of American prisoners of war; these reports would inspire The Manchurian Candidate among other things. Pointedly, Nemesis is very much anchored in the idea of warfare after the Second World War. This makes sense on a number of levels. Most superficially, Star Trek has always treated the Second World War as an origin of its shared universe. However, there’s more to it than that.

Quite simply, the way that modern militaries train soldiers has evolved a great deal since the Second World War. In the aftermath of that conflict, S.L.A. Marchall famously published Men Against Fire. Marshall suggested that soldiers on the field of battle were reluctant to kill the enemy, often firing over their heads or discharging warning volleys. Marshall’s findings are hotly contested, with many arguing that they were exaggerated or drawn from bad data. Still, regardless of merit, his findings prompted further research and investigation.

Now you gun done it.

Now you gun done it.

The sciences of teaching people to kill is known (somewhat crassly) as “killology.” It has attracted considerable attention since the end of the Second World War. As Vicki Haddock notes:

Psychologists who advised the military and law enforcement agencies began to push for changes that would revolutionize training to improve kill rates. Their methods — familiar to those who operate boot camps, police academies and aggressive-response self-defense courses — are a distasteful mystery to most in the outside world. But they work.

The Pentagon improved firing rates. Research suggests that 55 percent of U.S. soldiers fired on the enemy in the Korean War. By Vietnam that rate had climbed to more than 90 percent. Police studies document similar changes in recent decades.

One of the key changes was to get rid of the old firing ranges, where shooters took target practice in an open field aiming at a bull’s-eye. This failed miserably at preparing shooters for real-world confrontations.

Today’s apprentice killers train in situations designed to simulate combat as closely as possible, and they rehearse in a fashion that would be instantly recognizable to pioneers of behavior modification, from Ivan Pavlov to B.F. Skinner. The bull’s-eyes have been replaced by human-shaped targets that pop up without warning, for example, with polyurethane faces on balloon bodies inside uniforms. A trainee spots the targets, fires almost on instinct and gets rewarded with points, badges and three-day passes. Over and over, these “kill drills” build muscle memory and acclimate the brain to the act of killing.

This is understandably a disturbing field of study, but one that has grown in profile and stature over the second half of the twentieth century. Nemesis plays very well as a metaphor for this idea, the Vori having honed the training of killers to a fine art.

Who's Rafin now, eh?

Who’s Rafin now, eh?

The episode acknowledges this in an early conversation between Rafin and Chakotay, as one fresh recruit schools the other in the art of discharging firearms. “It is one matter to fire at clay marks, but much another to nullify the nemesis,” Rafin remarks to Chakotay. “That’s what Namon told, and he told the truth before he went to the gloried wayafter.” Chakotay agrees, “He was right. Killing’s not easy.” It is an exchange that seems particularly potent in hindsight, once the purpose of everything that Chakotay has seen is made clear.

Training soldiers often involves dehumanisation of both the trainee and the enemy. The disruption of normal psychological and biological functions is common. During Vietnam, the United States plied its soldiers with amphetamines to help them stave off physical and mental exhaustion; they are still used today among American soldiers. Soldiers are drilled to shoot at targets that look like the enemy rather than simple bullseyes. It has been suggested that these changes in training psychology may have contributed to increases in PTSD and suicide among veterans.

All fired up.

All fired up.

As Steve Robinson explained, training a soldier to take a life is a very gradual and carefully curated process:

We desensitize soldiers to the idea of killing by starting them off with drills and paper targets that don’t look like anything, and then ultimately transition to moving targets, pop-up targets and things that are shaped like humans, so that your response is automatic. You don’t think. The last thing you want in war while somebody’s bearing down with their rifle onto a target is [for them] to think to themselves, I wonder what the consequences are going to be to my long-term psychological health about this act that I’m about to commit. So reflexively, because of drill, they pull the trigger, because that’s what they’re trained to do.

Chakotay’s experience is a little more involved than that, but it is really just an extrapolation of that core concept.

Here there be monsters.

Here there be monsters.

Everything that Chakotay experiences is designed to manipulate him into taking up arms with the Vori. First, he witnesses the death of Namon. Then he picks up a rifle. Then he puts on the same military fatigues of the rest of the unit. Then he watches them die. Then he is introduced to a village of old people and children, who treat him as a returning hero. He then witnesses the horror of a Kradin occupation first-hand, including their brutal beating of him and their massacre of the local population.

All of this is intended to convince Chakotay that the Vori are innocent idealists and that the Kradin are inhumane monsters. “This nemesis of yours… why do you call them beasts?” Chakotay asks Rafin. He then answers his own question, “You know, sometimes people say terrible things about their enemies to make them seem worse than they really are.” Naturally, the entire training programme is designed to teach Chakotay to hate the Kradin, to the point that he throws himself upon on “the simulated commandant” labeling him a “motherless beast!”

"Nausicaans? Nah, we've never heard of them."

“Nausicaans? Nah, we’ve never heard of them.”

Much like teaching a soldier to discount his own individualism makes him a better soldier, dehumanising the enemy makes it easier to kill them. As Andrew Pomerantz explains:

Very often they will call the enemy by some subhuman name – you know, “gooks.” Who cares about a gook? What’s a gook? It’s not a person; it’s not a human being. Part of the dehumanizing, it’s made a lot easier if the person looks different than us, whether it’s by names or just firing up “God’s on our side; this is our war; we’re fighting this, and we should be fighting, and God is proud of us”; a lot of killing is done just with that as the reason. Anything you can do to make a person think this is not the kid next door; this is not the friend that I grew up with that I’m about to blow his brains out; this is some animal; it’s not a real person – simple.

Indeed, Nemesis even plays into this idea by ensuring that the Kradin have a very similar make-up design to the Nausicaans from Tapestry. These are aliens that feel genuinely alien, in contrast to the Vori who are very human in appearance. It is a classic Star Trek twist, in the spirit of The Devil in the Dark.

Night terrors.

Night terrors.

That said, one of the smarter aspects of Nemesis is the way that it avoids turning the conflict between the Vori and the Kradin into a simple black-and-white conflict with clear good guys and bad guys. Rather than simply reversing the idea that the Vori are the heroes and the Kradin are the villains, Nemesis instead hints at the idea that both parties are trapped in a vicious and brutal struggle. The Kradin might help Janeway to retrieve Chakotay, but the script is careful not to insist that they are the heroes in this extended conflict.

Most obviously, the Vori and Kradin both employ similar language. Some of this might be a function of plot, allowing Nemesis to trick the audience into thinking that Janeway is working with the Vori when Tuvok uses ambiguous phrasing like “the nemesis.” However, the repeated use of the phrase by Ambassador Treen underscores the idea that the Kradin are just as guilty of dehumanising their opponents as the Vori.

"I realise you are probably still a little miffed about that whole Maquis spy business, but this is really not the time."

“I realise you are probably still a little miffed about that whole Maquis spy business, but this is really not the time.”

Indeed, even when Chakotay learns that the Kradin are not “motherless beasts” at the end of the episode, the script is careful to make it clear that this does not mean they are entirely innocent either. “The Kradin don’t kill innocent civilians?” Chakotay asks Janeway. “They don’t desecrate the Vori’s dead?” Janeways does not dismiss these claims as mere propaganda. “I don’t know,” she states. She also underscores the recurring sense of equivalence, “But the Kradin accuse the Vori of the same kinds of atrocities.”

This is a very clever piece of writing, one that rejects the obvious twist of “the Vori were the bad guys all along” and edges it into something altogether more nuanced and sophisticated. This is more akin to the pragmatism of the various Vietnam films, suggesting that war is a situation that rarely allows for clear-cut heroes and villains. War sullies all of those involved, rendering both sides complicit in atrocities and horrors. It is a very strong Star Trek anti-war moral, recalling Gene L. Coon’s work on A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy.

Speak no evil.

Speak no evil.

One of the more interesting aspects of the episode is the language employed by the Vori. It sounds genuinely alien, despite the fact that all of the characters are using English words. In fact, writer Kenneth Biller zeroed in on the dialogue in Cinefantastique, pointing to it as an aspect of the episode of which he was very proud:

“I tried to create an interesting language for the aliens. Our aliens either sound too human or they sound kind of hokey, and it’s tough to find a balance. I decided to try to do something that was more stylized, where the language itself became part of the indoctrination, so that they spoke differently than our people do, and Chakotay began to speak with their language as he became more and more indoctrinated into this culture. We set out to explore the whole nature of propaganda and did it fairly successfully. Disappointments with it were [that] I think we shouldn’t have said at the end that everything was a simulation. It should have been clear that some of these other young soldiers were also being recruited in the same way that Chakotay was. ‘Nemesis’ was probably, of what I did, my favorite of the year. It came out really pretty well, and it had a good twist.”

It definitely deserves recognition. Like the transporter, the universal translator is a stock Star Trek plot device that is rarely examined or explored in any detail. Unless language and communication are the explicit theme of the episode, as in Darmok, spending too long on getting our characters talking to the aliens can seem like stalling or padding on the part of the writing staff, as it did in Sanctuary.

Food for thought.

Food for thought.

As a result, Star Trek very rarely plays with language when it comes to alien societies and cultures. However, Nemesis is immediately striking for the dialogue employed by the otherwise human-looking Vori. This is clear from the first scene after the opening titles, when Namon presents the captured Chakotay to Brone. “We found him in the trunks, a hundred footfalls past Grove Yellow,” Namon explains. Brone berates his subordinate for treating Chakotay as a hostile. “He’s no Krady beast, is he?” Brone asks. “His glimpse is too tame to be a Kradin.”

In some ways, this dialogue is very goofy. It can occasionally sound like something from a bad fifties science-fiction movie, particularly coming from some of the weaker members of the cast. However, there are moments when it works on a purely aesthetic level. There is a certain poetry to the way that the Vori express their ideas through substitutions and simplifications. “You’ve got the trembles,” Namon warns Rafin. “If you don’t wrestle your trembles to rages, ally, the nemesis’ll nullify you.” It conveys a lot, very effectively.

Unfathomnable.

Unfathomnable.

However, it also plays into the broader themes of the episode around it. Much like the Vori training is clearly influenced by the pop science of S.L.A. Marshall, the Vori language plays into the popular notion that language shapes and distorts thought; remove words and limit vocabulary, and you compress the capacity for thought. It is a notion most explicitly articulated by the concept of “newspeak” in 1984, the conscious distortion of language and dialogue as a means of keeping citizens compliant.

There are very clearly elements of that to the Vori dialogue in Nemesis. Most notably, the characters avoid words like “free” or “freedom” or “know.” Instead, they apply synonyms that avoid the larger philosophical concepts. “I’ll set you loose,” Brone advised Chakotay, a rather cumbersome way of avoiding saying “I’ll set you free.” Similarly, the word “fathom” is used repeatedly in place of “know” or “think”, a choice that suggests a more basic understanding; the grasping of a concept rather than its intricacies.

A dark little story.

A dark little story.

As with Marshall’s research into violence in war, the notion that language dictates thought is hotly contested and subject to debate. Obviously, the counter-argument is that the logic in the other direction, that language follows thought and experience; the oft-debated example of Eskimo words for “snow” comes to mind. However, Guy Duetscher argues there is some evidence of connection:

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love. On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

The original basis of Benjamin Lee Wharf’s hypothesis was the theory that the Hopi tribe of Native Americans did not have a concept of time corresponding to that of the European settlers, which was an uncomfortable (and swiftly disproven) hypothesis that served to “other” the Native American. The Vori might approve. Still, there is evidence that some mathematical concepts are easier to grasp in certain languages.

Face of the enemy.

Face of the enemy.

This is a nice science-fiction idea, one that is integrated quite skilfully into the episode around it. The effect of the Vori language is relatively understated, although it very clear impacts Chakotay. As the Vori manipulate the character further, his vocabulary shifts. He begins to use Vori words. It is possible to determine how far the Vori have pushed Chakotay by simply looked at how familiar he is with their dialogue, whether he uses their vocabulary ironically or in earnest.

Early on, he explicitly questions the use of the word “beasts” to describe the Kradin. Later, he feels comfortable enough with the dialogue to assure Karya, “Close your glimpsers, and dream of your gloried brother.” Even later, he unironically describes a Kradin as a “murderous beast.” There is a sense that the Vori have successfully managed to change the way that Chakotay thinks. It is a very effective expression of how thoroughly their brainwashing has affected the Starfleet officer.

It's a jungle out there.

It’s a jungle out there.

This is very high concept science-fiction, playing back into the idea of Nemesis as a great example of Voyager pitching archetypal Star Trek storytelling. It is science-fiction as allegory, using a fantastical situation to play on ideas that are very pertinent to the modern world. Much like the Men Against Fire saw Black Mirror playing with similar ideas about dehumanisation and killology, Arrival is a recent example of a high-profile science-fiction project dealing this theme of the relationship between language and perception.

There is a reasonable argument to be made that Nemesis is the best Chakotay-centric episode across the seven-season run of Voyager, with the possible exception of Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. After the departure of Michael Piller led to a conscious shift away from the New Age clichés of episodes like The Cloud, Initiations and Tattoo, the writers struggled to find a compelling read on Chakotay as a character. The holographic version presented in Worst Case Scenario is more interesting than his flesh-and-blood counterpart.

"A Chakotay episode? Really?"

“A Chakotay episode? Really?”

However, Nemesis works in large part because it plays to the blandness of this iteration of the character. Although Chakotay makes a few fleeting references to killing Cardassians as part of the Maquis, there is a sense that the character has been slotted into the script as “generic human character.” It is not the worst possible approach to Chakotay. Robert Beltran is far from the most charismatic actor ever to grace the franchise, but he can play that average quality in a way that makes his plight sympathetic.

In some ways, Nemesis recalls the format of the “O’Brien must suffer!” episodes of Deep Space Nine, like Whispers or Visionary or Hard Time. The idea of throwing a seemingly normal guy (perhaps the most normal guy in the cast) into a crazy science-fiction high-concept to watch him suffer feels like a reasonable angle for Chakotay’s character development. In fact, there are shades of that in Unforgettable later in the season. However, that episode suffers more obviously from Beltran’s limitations as a performer. Still, he fits in comfortably here.

The production team had an unorthodox manner of dealing with Beltran's complaints.

The production team had an unorthodox manner of dealing with Beltran’s complaints.

Nemesis is a very effective demonstration of how well the “generic Star Trek episode” model can work for Voyager. As with Remember and Distant Origin, it is an episode that functions very well as an example of what the franchise does, even if there is little of the episode specific to Voyager.

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9 Responses

  1. It’s very generi-Trek, but it still works very well (like most of Voyager at its best). It reminded me a bit of the TNG episode about the TNG episode with the imprisoned supersoldiers, which was also Star Trek!Vietnam. That episode though was more about the difficulty of deprogramming human killing machines after the war, rather than the process of programming itself. This episodes also deals with that deprogramming a bit in the final scene, with Chakotay being triggered by the Kradin ambassador using the word ‘nemesis’, though of course it never gets mentioned later.

    You’ve said before that Trek leans heavily on WW2, but I’d say the Vietnam war also definitely left its mark on Trek. Not just the vague musings on the nature of war in TOS, but the results it has on the people actually suffering through it. Maybe DS9 has paid attention to that aspect as well? I’m not as familiar with that show as I probably should be.

    • Yeah, there’s a definite Vietnam vibe to DS9’s attitude to war, whether in the first season episode Battle Lines or the final season episode The Siege of AR-558. Even Soldiers of the Empire has a nod to the infamous “necklace of ears.” I think director Winrich Kolbe actually served in Vietnam.

  2. Interesting review of an episode I might have underated in the past.

    I do find it intriguing, speaking as a non-American how long a shadow Vietnam cast over American popular culture. I remember watching the fourth season finale of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (‘Restless’) which among much else had an extended riff on ‘Apocalyspe Now’. This from an episode of a show first broadcast in 2000 whose nominal target audience (and main characters) were born years after the war ended.

    • “The hope of our nation’s future is a bunch of mulch.”

    • Vietnam arguably shaped the country as much as the Second World War did, perhaps providing something of a counterpoint. I mean, there’s an argument that the nation never quite got over it. Didn’t Trump say something over the weekend about how he remembers when America used to win wars? I mean, surely that was the nineties, but the implication seems to be that he’s talking about the sixties, if not earlier.

  3. ” Robert Beltran is far from the most charismatic actor ever to grace the franchise, but he can play that average quality in a way that makes his plight sympathetic.”

    Yeah, it’s the same reason why he was so satisfying as the Infantry captain (The Killing Game). More so than the supposed all-American Tom Eugene Paris.

    In other words, if Chakotay is Mr. Roberts, Tom is Ensign Pulver.

    • Ha!

      I mean, I do feel a little sorry for the neglected players on Voyager, even if they aren’t all Laurence Olivier. A good writing staff should be able to do something with a cast that isn’t all front bench.

  4. Glad I wasn’t the only one to notice that this episode could be applied to other series. I’ve sometimes thought how certain episodes would fit in other series (How would “The Drumhead” fit airing on TOS, an era much closer to the HUAC and McCarthy hearings?) and I did in fact picture this one working as a TNG episode (probably seventh season) with Riker.

    It’d definitely work on “Enterprise” as well, and while assigning the main role to Trip is kind of obvious, it might be better to show the indoctrination happening to someone younger and more naive (and under-used), like Travis (or even Hoshi).

    • I guess you’re right that Trip is kind of obvious. But I’m not entirely sure Anthony Montegomery could pull it off. Hoshi might be an interesting choice though, particularly as a linguist.

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