Star Trek: Voyager is a very nineties show. Sometimes that is endearing. Sometimes it is not.
Retrospect is an episode that made a great deal more sense in the context of the nineties. It was still troublesome and reactionary, structuring its central allegory in a way that was deeply problematic. However, Retrospect made a certain amount of sense when considered in light of the McMartin Preschool scandal and the satanic panic driven by regression hypnosis in the early part of the decade. Retrospect is very clearly an attempt to turn that talking point into a twenty-fourth century allegory about witch hunts and persecution.
However, there are a number of poor choices made over the course of the episode. The most obvious is build the episode around the character of Seven of Nine. There are any number of reasons why this would be written as a Seven of Nine episode, given that she is the breakout character of the fourth season. However, episodes like The Gift and The Raven have made a conscious effort to portray Seven of Nine as an abuse surviving living with genuine trauma. To put her at the centre of an episode about false allegations of abuse feels ill-judged.
Similarly, the emphasis on the subject of these accusations and his ruined life feels more than a little tone-deaf, even in the context the nineties satanic panic. Retrospect is not an episode about Seven of Nine processing abuse or even coping with distorted memories. It is ultimately the story about how the falsified accusations of abuse (from a character who is a verified abuse victim) can serve to destroy the lives of innocent men. Indeed, the emphasis on the EMH as a proxy for Seven of Nine downplays her own agency in this plot.
These aspects are troubling even in the context of an episode about the dangers of using hypnotherapy as the basis of these charges. However, the scandal has slipped from public consciousness in the years since Retrospect was initially broadcast. When the audience hears about women false accusations against men, it evokes the long-standing myth that men are frequent victims of falsified reports about sexual assault that ruin lives. This was creepy and uncomfortable subtext was obvious at time of broadcast, but has only become more pronounced in the years since.
Retrospect would have been a very clumsy and ill-judged allegory in the context of the mid-to-late-nineties. Decades removed from that original context, it seems almost reprehensible.
It is hard to overstate the impression that the McMartin Preschool scandal left on the popular consciousness, especially for those who did not live through the coverage of the trial and the moral panic over satanic ritual abuse. Indeed, the legacy of the McMartin Preschool scandal and its impact on Retrospect is an interesting case study in how something as simple as a forty-five minute episode of Voyager can be simultaneously stuck and unstuck in time. It is a great demonstration of how something like Voyager evolves and changes, even after its broadcast.
Retrospect is undoubtedly an object of its time, and yet bound to be consumed by an audience that wasn’t even alive on original broadcast. It invites the audience to ponder whether “art” exists trapped in amber after the production team capture a moment, or whether it lives on in the liminal space between object and audience. Perhaps it is both, simultaneously. How an audience member chooses to answer that question will undoubtedly inform their opinion and their attitudes towards Retrospect.
In the eighties and into the early nineties, America was gripped by fears that satanists had infiltrated all aspects of society. There was particular concern about satanists holding sinister rituals in schools using children. It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but the matter was taken very seriously. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie offers one example:
Among the atrocities that Frances and Dan Keller were supposed to have committed while running a day care center out of their Texas home: drowning and dismembering babies in front of the children; killing dogs and cats in front of the children; transporting the children to Mexico to be sexually abused by soldiers in the Mexican army; dressing as pumpkins and shooting children in the arms and legs; putting the children into a pool with sharks that ate babies; putting blood in the children’s Kool-Aid; cutting the arm or a finger off a gorilla at a local park; and exhuming bodies at a cemetery, forcing children to carry the bones.
It was frankly unbelievable—except that people, most importantly, a Texas jury, did believe the Kellers had committed at least some of these acts. In 1992, the Kellers were convicted of aggravated sexual assault on a child and each sentenced to 48 years in prison. The investigation into their supposed crimes took slightly more than a year, the trial only six days.
Frances and Dan Keller spent over twenty years in prison as a result of this moral over alleged satanic ritual abuse. The Justice Department published a monograph thoroughly debunking claims of systemic satanic ritual abuse in 1992, but law enforcement was still producing helpful video guides for investigators as late as 1994.
Understandably, this was quite the hot-button topic for nineties popular culture. These false accusations of patently ridiculous events had ruined lives, demonstrating just how easy it was to whip up a modern-day lynch mob without any tangible evidence. Naturally, writers seized on the opportunity to explore the underlying facets of the moral panic, the excitable emotive response to the charges and the destroyed lives left in the wake of these unsubstantiated allegations.
Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong were particularly fascinated with the scandal, writing episodes about it for both The X-Files and Millennium. Their last script for the second season of The X-Files was Die Hand Die Verletzt, which wondered what it might look like if satanists (and satan) infiltrated a small local school. It was played as black comedy. They played the story a bit more straight with Monster, a story that explored the damage that unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse could have on a person’s life and career.
Even beyond this exploration of group social dynamic, the panic satanic ritual abuse may have resonated with popular culture for other reasons. Most obviously, these allegations of abuse were frequently anchored in memories that had been recovered from children who were thought to be “victims.” As Chris French explains, many of these allegations were founded upon memories that were false or distorted:
During therapy, and often as a result of “memory recovery” techniques such as hypnotic regression and guided imagery, the client may gradually develop clear and vivid memories of abuse having taken place, typically at the hands of parents and other family members.
On the evidence of a huge amount of well-controlled research, we can now be confident that these memory recovery techniques are highly likely to give rise to false memories – apparent memories for events that never took place.
The memories can be detailed and extremely bizarre, involving ritualised Satanic abuse, gross acts of sexual perversion, cannibalism, human and animal sacrifice, and so on. But they may be nothing more than fleeting images. Indeed, some patients never manage to recover explicit “memories” of abuse but are convinced that such abuse must have occurred because their therapist, who is perceived as an authority figure, tells them that it is the only explanation for their unhappiness.
This obviously resonated with nineties popular culture, given the recurring fascination with the intersection between identity, memory and reality. In the nineties, popular culture was fixated with the idea of the unreal; the question of what it meant to exist at the end of the second millennium, what some people had dubbed the end of history. With information overload due to the internet and twenty-four hour news, people legitimately wondered what was real.
This anxiety found a number of different outlets. Most obviously, an anxiety bled through the cinema of the late nineties in films like The Matrix, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenz, The Thirteenth Floor and Pleasantville. What if the world was not real, at least in the way that people understood it to be real? What if all of the assumptions that people made about how the world works were incorrect? What if people could not trust their senses or their memories?
This idea rippled across nineties popular culture, as if the zeitgeist was having an identity crisis. Memory and secret history were a fundamental part of The X-Files, from the repeated emphasis on recovered repressed memory to the conspiracy theory secret history of the United States. Voyager itself had repeatedly dabbled in the tenuous connection between memory and history, in episodes like Flashback, Remember and Distant Origin. It was clear that this subject was very much of interest to the writers.
So it makes sense that Voyager would want to construct an episode around the moral panic over satanic ritual abuse in the nineties. Indeed, the episode’s theme of distorted memory hints at ideas that Bryan Fuller will further explore in Living Witness, the notion that memory is something that is malleable than people would like to believe on both a personal and a cultural level. At its core, Retrospect is about how easily Seven of Nine’s memories can be manipulated and how readily her traumatic history with the Borg has left her disoriented and disconnected.
Retrospect emphasises this in a number of different ways, but perhaps most keenly in the decision to move the EMH to the centre of the story. Seven is initially nonplussed about what might have happened with Kovin on the planet surface. “Resentment is a human trait,” she initially states. “It has no structure, no function. I want no part of it.” However, it is the EMH who spurs a sense of righteous anger and who solidifies her certainty in Kovin’s transgression. “When Kovin gets what he deserves, you’re going to feel much better.”
This storytelling choice makes a great deal of sense in the context of the moral panic over satanic ritual abuse. In Satan’s Silence, Debbie Nathan suggests that these allegations and charges were fuelled in large part by a “sociogenic illness” spread among adults in positions of authority:
The same dynamic seems to operate in ritual-abuse cases, where children become proxies for parents, police, therapists, doctors, and other adult authorities. If the young “victims” in these scenarios are little more than conduits for grownup fears and desires, it is not the children’s motivations that need investigating so much as it is their elders’.
Retrospect certainly plays into this, suggesting that Seven of Nine is effectively relegated to the role of passenger in the pursuit of Kovin. In this investigation, Seven is robbed of her agency.
Retrospect even repeatedly stresses how unqualified the EMH is for all of this. “Treatment would involve integrating the repressed memories into Seven’s consciousness,” the EMH advises Janeway. “I may be able to use a standard therapeutic regression technique.” Janeway responds, “I wasn’t aware that you were programmed for psychotherapeutic capabilities.” The EMH explains, “I wasn’t. But in the absence of a ship’s counsellor, I’ve been developing a psychiatric subroutine to add to my programme.”
In short, the EMH is a self-trained quack who is not a professional psychiatric therapist. The EMH has no idea what he is doing when he tinkers with Seven of Nine’s memories, as much as he can rhyme off psychobabble about a hypothetical “Jungian therapist” or “Amanin of Betazed.” Even allowing for the delicate nature of regression therapy and his own inexperience, the EMH makes a point to improvise. “I’ve integrated the finer points of both to create my own approach to memory reconstruction,” he assures Seven. It all seems like an act of righteous hubris.
However, while all of this exists in the context of the moral panic over satanic ritual abuse, there are several elements of the plot that seem awkward and ill-advised. Most notably, Retrospect strips out a lot of the signifiers of the satanic ritual abuse. Kovin is not part of a cult or conspiracy, his alleged abuse of Seven of Nine is not ritualised or heightened. His alleged exploitation of Seven of Nine, is very much in keeping with the responses to Seven of Nine across Voyager‘s run, in episodes like Think Tank or Day of Honour.
More than that, Seven of Nine is an actual and historical victim of abuse. The Raven made it clear that the process of assimilation left Seven of Nine with scars. Stories like Family and Star Trek: First Contact have explicitly likened the experience of assimilation to sexual assault. More than that, Voyager has never been entirely consistent in its portrayal of Seven of Nine’s maturity. Episodes like The Gift and The Raven suggest that Seven is effectively a child in an adult’s body. However, episodes like Revulsion suggest that she is a sexually mature woman.
The result is that Retrospect plays very much like a story about rape allegations. More to the point, it plays like a reactionary narrative about how unfounded rape allegations can ruin an innocent man’s life. The sexual politics of Retrospect were questionable on initial broadcast, when the story could be framed in terms of the moral panic about satanic ritual abuse. However, even in that context, the allegory is not specific enough. It is not a story about systemic failures or societal panic. It is the tale about one woman who accuses one man of abuse, and in doing so ruins his life.
This is particularly true once Retrospect is removed from that original context. The story is not anchored firmly enough in the particulars of its allegory, so the aspects of the episode that seemed ill-judged and ill-advised at the time come to the fore. After all, even in terms of panics over mass sex abuse, contemporary audiences are more likely to think about the recent revelations of long-hidden large-scale sexual abuse at the BBC or even of the cover-up of the deaths of children in state homes in Ireland.
Given that these horrific events remained hidden for so long because the authorities ignored or overlooked the testimony of witnesses and victims, Retrospect seems decidedly reactionary. More than that, due to the way that the episode is structured and heightened, Retrospect reads like a defense of the oft-cited misogynist argument that falsified rape accusations can ruin a man’s life. As Michelle Erica Green argues:
Seven experiences a brutal assault, then is told that she’s confused, she can’t be trusted, she’s made Janeway and the Doctor bring false charges, she’s responsible for destroying a man’s life. For weeks we’ve been listening to Janeway and the Doctor tell Seven that, if she wishes to be accepted by humans, she must become more compliant, more ingratiating, more accepting of what other people tell her, and here we see exactly what happens when a woman is told to shut up and become what someone else wants her to be. We share directly as viewers in her experience, for we witness her flashbacks. The episode succeeds solely in one way, which is why it should come with a trigger warning: it forces an audience to share the anguish and horror of the victim of an assault as she is first forced to recall the details and face her abuser, then told that she’s wrong and the abuser’s life is more important than her own.
It feels like the defensive rhetoric employed against men who have been accused of sexual assault, arguing that accusing somebody of sexual assault is somehow more egregious than committing a sexual assault. In some ways, it is a more extreme version of the rhetorical trick that treats accusations of racism as somehow more offensive than racism itself.
There are any number of examples from recent memory. Consider the letters of support for Brock Turner, the college swimmer who was caught in the act of raping a fellow student. Among letters from his friends and classmates, his father wrote a letter to the judge lamenting that his son was paying a “steep price” for “twenty minutes of action.” However, the media fascination with the Turner case was arguably a response to the long-standing double-standard that exists with regards to perpetrators in these sexual assault cases.
Anybody making an accusation of sexual assault faces an uphill struggle. It is estimated that only three out of every one hundred cases make it to trial. Studies and research suggest that prosecutors will rarely bring charges in college rape cases. It is estimated that for every one thousand rapes, only six rapists will be incarcerated. Even ignoring the trauma of the original attack, the process of bringing an offender to justice is long and arduous. It takes its toll on the victim, with a relatively small chance of actually accomplishing any of this.
All of this is assuming the case is reported in the first place. There are any number of reasons why a victim might not wish to pursue justice against their attacker. There is a lot of social stigma attached to leveling a charge of sexual assault. Victims are quite likely to find themselves on trial, for the choices that they made or the clothes that they were wearing or the alcohol that they consumed. They are likely to be accused of misremembering or maliciously falsifying reports, often wielding a charge of sexual assault like a weapon against the accused.
There is a tendency to treat the accused as the victim of some vile slander, a strange extension of the presumption of innocence that seems to boomerang back around to level a charge at the person daring to make the accusation. It does not matter that statistics suggest that falsified rape allegations are extremely rare, despite the outsized place that they hold in the popular consciousness. There is a strange dissonance at play here that does not really come into effect with other major crimes. Even accusations of murder are not treated in the same way.
It is hard to believe that even falsified accusations of assault can be so damaging to an individual. Charges of assault against women did little to prevent Mel Gibson from getting a Best Director nomination and Casey Affleck from winning a Best Actor Oscar. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in spite of serious allegations of sexual assault and a tape recorded conversation of him bragging about it. With all of this going on, and removed from its original context, it is hard to stomach the suggestion that a sexual assault allegation is a deadly weapon.
While a lot of this is simply down to the fact that Retrospect has aged horribly because contemporary audiences are more cognisant of these issues than they would have been decades earlier, the writing is still staggeringly tone-deaf. In particular, Retrospect bends over backwards to present a set of circumstances where Seven of Nine’s accusations lead to series of events that culminate in the death of an innocent man.
Kovin is presented as something of a martyr, the patron saint for all those who have seen their lives destroyed by false accusations. Retrospect even has Kovin die as a result of the investigation, although the episode is careful to avoid implicating Janeway and the rest of the crew in his death. Voyager does not fire a shot at Kovin’s ship. His death is effectively brought about by the persecution that he receives from Seven of Nine and the EMH.
Retrospect heavily stacks the deck. Kovin cannot be exonerated. Kovin has no court of appeal. The very act of filing charges against Kovin is the same as passing sentence. Kovin is the victim of a cruel hive mind that would take a traumatised victim seriously enough to launch a preliminary investigation. “Your crewmember, Seven of Nine, she’s very fortunate,” Kovin muses passive aggressively. “She has an entire crew leaping to her defence. I have no one.” As the episode goes on, it seems we are meant to feel sympathy for Kovin.
When Tuvok assures Kovin that a representative of his people will arrive shortly, Kovin scoffs. “He won’t help me,” he states. “He’s more interested in protecting diplomatic relations with people like you.” He elaborates, “You don’t understand. On my world, we depend on trade with alien species. There are strict protocols about those relationships. Even being accused of violating them is a serious offence.” To even consider pressing charges is to brand the accused as a criminal.
This is a ridiculous justice system, even by the standards of the franchise that produced Justice. It seems the reasonable thing to do would be to ask Kovin to submit to a preliminary investigation by Voyager without involving his authorities, but nobody suggests this. Instead, Kovin laments his poor status as a man accused of violating an assault victim. “Once they’re made, the damage is done,” Kovin insists. “I won’t be trusted any longer. I’ll be ruined. Please, I never hurt your crew member. Don’t do this.”
Watching the episode, it is hard to determine what exactly Janeway does wrong. A complaint is brought to the attention of the crew, and an investigation is launched. Over the course of a thorough and impartial investigation into the complaint, Kovin is exonerated. It seems like the whole affair lasts a few days at most. The EMH might become a little over-invested in the investigation, but it is not as though Voyager becomes a draconian nightmare?
What is the take away from Retrospect? That Janeway should have told Seven not to press charges? That Tuvok should have spent more time interrogating Seven rather than investigating the charges on their own terms? That Voyager should not have involved Kovin at all, leaving him free to conduct his business and perhaps even flee the system? The EMH is overzealous, but Tuvok seems perfectly rational. The crazy laws of Kovin’s society, along with Kovin’s dramatic reaction, serve to spur the episode to a ridiculous and overwrought conclusion.
There is something very reactionary about Retrospect, which is not a surprise. Voyager could be a surprisingly retrograde show, in terms of politics and outlook. Displaced was one big paranoid rant about immigration, while Alliances found the crew allying themselves with former slave owners. Over the course of the episode, Retrospect makes repeated jabs at what might be considered “victim culture”, insisting that focusing on trauma is an unnecessary distraction that ultimately causes more harm than good.
Most notably, Seven of Nine is initially nonplussed by what might have happened with Kovin. She is willing to move past any “resentment” of her attacker, which seems an unreasonably magnanimous response to expect from the victim of a brutal assault. However, problems only begin when the EMH starts pushing Seven to embrace her trauma and her sense of victimhood. “Kovin attacked you, violated your rights as an individual,” he insists. “It’s important that you recognise that, so you can understand any hostility or resentment you might be feeling.”
Retrospect seems to suggest that even righteous anger in response to a gross violation of bodily autonomy is toxic and should be avoided. “He violated that individuality,” the EMH assures Seven. “What he did is an affront to everything you are, Borg and Human.” This sense of victimhood leads to the persecution of Kovin, suggesting that Seven of Nine is not entitled to feel angry about an assault upon her person. Given that so much of Voyager is about Seven reclaiming and her individuality, this idea seems counter-intuitive.
In some ways, it plays into the political right’s fixation on “victim culture.” While the criticism might have some merit applied to the most extreme cases, it certainly seems like a rather strong accusation to throw at a character who has been grossly assaulted in the past. There is also no small irony in the fact that the political right has a tendency to engage in its own “victim culture” in response to criticisms of its rhetoric and policies.
Then again, perhaps Retrospect is aiming its criticism more at the EMH than at Seven of Nine. After all, he is the character who really pushes for Kovin to be held accountable. As Robert Picardo acknowledges in Cinefantastique, the EMH actually has a full character arc over the course of the episode:
The Doctor is well beyond embarrassed, he’s humiliated, and completely loses his self- confidence in a way I don’t think we’ve seen thus far. It was actually kind of touching. I saw it, and I’m always kind of cynical when I watch and see if a character that’s supposed to be an artificial life form can actually be moved, or be moving. But it’s really quite touching, because it’s basically the enthusiasm of someone really trying to help out, and really trying to be more than he’s supposed to be, in a crisis situation.
Seven of Nine is heavily marginalised in this narrative, caught between the persecution of Kovin and the zealotry of the EMH. Seven of Nine has no voice in this narrative, with characters frequently lecturing her and speaking over her.
Retrospect does not seem particularly interested in Seven’s perspective. Her memory of assault is quite vivid and potent, but it serves only to spur the false accusation against Kovin. Retrospect is completely disinterested in the question of how Seven must be processing those repressed and traumatic memories of assimilation. The horrific imagery in Retrospect has clearly been percolating in Seven of Nine’s subconscious as a way of dealing with her experiences in the Borg Collective.
However, that context is largely eschewed. There is no acknowledgement that Seven is dealing with the trauma of a gross violation, even if that violation did not occur at Kovin’s hand. There is no acknowledgement that Seven will have to work through that trauma, because Retrospect is far too busy scolding Seven for her misdirected anger and basking in her sense of regret. Seven’s horrific experiences are nothing but a springboard, her suffering nothing but a window into a story about how false accusations can ruin people’s lives.
It could be argued that this is meant to be the point of Retrospect, that the tragedy results from what the EMH projects on to Seven and the fact that nobody engages with what Seven wants. Seven is effectively manipulated by the EMH into pursuing justice, which sets in motion the larger plot. However, the episode never acknowledges this. The EMH learns a lesson at the end of the episode, but it is not a lesson about speaking over the victims of abuse or usurping their voice for his own righteous purpose. The EMH learns that he has to live with Kovin’s death.
More than that, Seven also learns a lesson. Despite the fact that Retrospect minimises her agency in terms of the overarching plot, her final scene makes it clear that the script holds her responsible for what happened. “As a Borg, I was responsible for the destruction of countless millions and I felt nothing,” she admits. “But now, I regret the destruction of this single being.” The EMH explains, “It’s called remorse, Seven. It comes into play when you make a mistake, and you feel guilt about what you’ve done.”
The implication is that Seven made a mistake and should feel guilty. This is very much at odds with the implication that EMH made the mistakes, in terms of using a regression therapy in which he was not qualified and investing so emotionally in the outcome of the case. Retrospect wants to have the worst of all worlds, denying Seven of Nine any tangible agency in the investigation while still holding her to account for the tragic outcome.
Retrospect was a clumsy and awkward episode when it first aired, fumbling with a metaphor anchored in that particular cultural moment. However, time has not been kind to Retrospect. In retrospect, it stands as one of the most painfully dated episodes of nineties Star Trek.
Filed under: Movies, Voyager | Tagged: false accusations, memory, Moral panic, rape, repressed memory, retrospect, Satanic Ritual Abuse, seven of nine, sexual assault, star trek: voyager, trauma, voyager |