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Star Trek: Voyager – The Killing Game, Part I (Review)

In some ways, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II feel like a perfect companion piece to Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.

As with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II during the third season, these two two-part episodes are very much larger-than-life archetypal Star Trek storytelling. While Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II riffed on Star Trek IV: The Voyager Home, and Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II borrowed liberally from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II draw from a broader pool of franchise iconography for a Star Trek: Voyager spectacular.

A cut above.

As with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are very much concerned with themes of memory and history. Much like Henry Starling or Annorax, the Hirogen are presented as villains waging a war upon history. They have no history or culture, usurping that of the crew and distorting it to serve their own whims and desires. Of course, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II features no literal time travel, merely holographic.

However, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II is more than just archetypal Voyager. These preoccupations with memory and history are wrapped up in a whole host of broad and iconic Star Trek idea. Although the two-parter features a number of different plot threads, including the recreation of a classic Klingon conflict, the bulk of the action unfolds in a holographic simulation of the Second World War. Once again, the Star Trek franchise returns to that conflict as a formative and defining moment.

For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.

Indeed, the two-parter even makes a point to weave the franchise’s core humanism into its sprawling epic pseudo-historical conflict. As much as The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are driven by spectacle, writers Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky are careful to integrate classic Star Trek themes into the episode. While the story begins with the Voyager crew defeated and subjugated by the Hirogen, it ends with a peaceful settlement. Janeway grants the Hirogen a chance to save their people. Coexistence seems possible.

As such, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II feels like an intentionally broad smorgasbord of Star Trek themes and iconography. It feels very much like the culmination of the journey that Voyager has been on since the start of the third season, with the production team aspiring to produce a show that might not have its own distinct texture or identity but which retains an archetypal “Star-Trek-ian” quality.

Evil alien space Nazis!

Although less overtly engaged with the question of memory and history that Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, the theme still bubbles through the two-part episode. When The Killing Game, Part I opens, most of the crew have already had their history usurped by the Hirogen. Janeway is introduced on the holodeck, dressed like a Klingon without any sense of identity. She is stabbed through the heart, her memory wiped before she is dumped into another program.

The Hirogen strip the crew of their memories, implanting them with false identities to better integrate them into these narratives. Janeway can be both an angry Klingon warrior and a sassy nightclub manager. Neelix can be an unassuming resistance sympathiser and a boisterous leader of men. Seven of Nine can be both a seductive barroom crooner and the familiar Borg drone. At the behest of the Hirogen, the crew are reduced to cogs in this larger machine, infinitely adaptable and capable of filling any niche.

Implanting memories.

This lack of history and memory is treated as a grotesque violation of the crew, of their identity and their individuality. The Hirogen reduce them to little more than quarry. As Chakotay explained in Prey, Hirogen moral philosophy denies any semblance of personhood or dignity to other life-forms. “They don’t see us as equals. To them, we’re simply game.” When the crew are shot or stabbed, they are sent to Sickbay so that they might be repaired and repackaged. They can be put back on the assembly line, without any acknowledgement or memory of the trauma they experienced.

In some ways, this nightmarish experience subtly parallels that of the Hirogen. “We’ve lost our way,” Karr explains to Turanj towards the end of The Killing Game, Part I. He elaborates, “We’ve allowed our predatory instincts to dominate us. We disperse ourselves throughout the quadrant, sending ships in all directions. We’ve become a solitary race, isolated. We’ve spread ourselves too thin. We’re no longer a culture. We have no identity.” The Hirogen lack a cohesive history, and so lack a firm identity.

The Turanj of the screw.

Indeed, it is worth noting that Karr and Turanj are the first Hirogen characters to be granted names. The Hirogen appeared in three earlier episodes; teased in Message in a Bottle, introduced in Hunters, developed in Prey. However, none of the Hirogen characters featured in these episodes were given names. This was not an oversight. Certainly, the Alpha in Hunters and the Alpha in Prey were different characters with very different outlooks, with neither seeming generic or interchangeable. However, in refusing to give their names, Voyager suggested a lack of identity.

This is why Karr is forced to turn to the history banks on Voyager, pouring over the records and log entries in pursuit of the perfect “hunt.” The Hirogen are a people without a history or identity, so they find themselves forced to coopt the history and identity of the crew. “I’ve been studying Voyager’s database looking for our next simulation,” Karr boasts. “There are many to choose from. These people have a violent history.” Notably, Karr does not attempt to recreate his own past glories or the finer points of earlier hunts. He cannot fashion his history into a narrative.

Karr-y on regardless.

This creates an existential crisis for the Hirogen. A people without a past can have no future. To put it more colloquially, and in terms more pertinent to Voyager, a person has to know where they have been to understand where they are going. “Have you considered our future?” Karr challenges Turanj. “What would become of us when we have hunted this territory to exhaustion?” He insists, “These holodecks will allow us to hold onto our past, while we face the future.”

The issue of memory and identity simmers across the run of Voyager, from the repressed histories of Remember and Distant Origin to the distorted narratives of Retrospect and Living Witness. Memories are a currency in Random Thoughts, an anchor in Unforgettable. Memories can be dangerous is they are allowed to warp, as in Flashback. Losing track of one’s own history can have dire consequences, as in Course: Oblivion. This theme feels entirely appropriate for Voyager, the first Star Trek show about about a crew literally journeying back rather than forward.

Past prologue.

Of course, this theme reflects a lot of the broader anxieties of the decade around Voyager. The Star Trek franchise was over thirty years old, so it made sense to consider its history and legacy. The nineties also saw the fiftieth anniversaries of the Second World War and the Holocaust, with the world forced to confront the idea that those momentous events were slipping from living memory. With the turn of the millennium, the public consciousness seemed willing to take stock of a half-century of America’s global dominance.

At the same time, there was also an anxiety that history was under attack. In the wake of the Cold War, the public were denied the comforting foundation of ideological certainty. Postmodernism invited people to wonder if history itself could be considered tangible and real, or whether such narratives were subjective. Holocaust denial truly entered the mainstream, through the high profile of figures like David Irving. Even more broadly and existentially, people wondered whether the were truly perceiving an objective reality.

No need to wine about it.

There are definite elements of that to The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, with the characters repeatedly through from one reality to another and unable to trust their own memories. The characters become entwined in the unreality of the holodeck, their identities as malleable as the photons and forcefields manipulated by the grid. In some ways, the two-parter prefigures late nineties films like The Matrix or The Truman Show. Indeed, Dark City had opened just the week before.

At the same time, these ideas feel very particular to Voyager. There is a sense that The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are in some ways a meditation on the show that Brannon Braga is about to inherit. If Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II represent Voyager as Braga would most like to imagine it, as the show that he could never actually produce, then The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II look at Voyager very much as the compromised version of the show that Braga can definitely realise.

Taking point.

It is a show without any real history of its own, with a minimal sense of internal continuity or identity. Like the Hirogen, Janeway and her crew wander from system to system and from story to story. Despite the fact that the crew is a patchwork of Starfleet officers and Maquis terrorists stranded thousands upon thousands of light years from home, Voyager never developed its own culture. While the Hirogen have stripped the crew of their identity and history to slot them into these brutal narratives, it seems fair to argue that there was never too much to strip away.

Indeed, there is a rich performative aspect to The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. The crew are essentially cast as actors for the entertainment of the Hirogen, forced to play out rules for the amusement of their captors. It is interesting to wonder if Braga and Menosky imaged the sequences as a commentary on the production of Voyager, the constant need to tailor the plotting and the scripting for both the network at UPN and for the target audience at home.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

There is something very clever in all of this, particularly the way that the writers and actors layer the performances at play in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. This is most obvious with Jeri Ryan, who is offering a performance filtered through at least three layers; Jeri Ryan is playing Seven of Nine as Mademoiselle LeNeuf, who is herself a terrorist masquerading as a performer. More than that, Ryan establishes a lot of this with the delivery of her opening line. “Be generous to Claude this evening. Without him, my voice is empty. Good evening.”

It is a very intricate balancing act, and The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II very shrewdly focuses on the members of the primary cast who are strong enough to layer their performances in this way. It is notable that Robert Beltran and Robert Duncan McNeill are cast as fairly generic all-American heroes; Garrett Wang does not even set foot on the holodeck. Instead, the key performers in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are Kate Mulgrew, Jeri Ryan and Ethan Phillips. Phillips even gets two layers of makeup; Talaxian-as-Klingon.

“So… I now have like a ten-pm-the-previous evening make-up call.”

The script plays up this idea of mediated performance by making a point to preserve key dynamics between the characters and their holographic personas. At one point, Janeway and Tuvok even have a repeated of the same conversation they have been having about Seven since Scorpion, Part II. Janeway urges Tuvok, “If you have suspicions, my old friend, let’s hear them.” He makes a compelling case, “From the beginning, she’s been argumentative, and on more than a few occasions she’s disobeyed your direct orders.”

Tuvok is still an “old friend” of Janeway, and still serves as a bridge between the renegades and the army. Neelix and Tuvok still banter over Tuvok’s stoicism. “I suppose you’re right, but do you have to be so logical about everything?” Neelix protests. Tuvok responds, “In any covert battle, logic is a potent weapon.” Janeway and Seven of Nine still butt heads, albeit with a slightly skewed dynamic; in contrast to their positions in Prey or Hope and Fear, it is Seven who advocates for reckless action and Janeway who urges caution.

“You can f$%k your Ford Cortina, I’ve a war outside.”

This reflexive quality is reinforced by the Hirogen. Karr seems to pitch the experience as more of a “role-play” than a traditional “hunt.” He advises Turanj, “Play the game.” When Turanj insists that Seven of Nine sing for him again, she makes it clear that the curtain has fallen and that the show is over. “Tonight’s performance is over. Return tomorrow.” This is a two-parter that is very much fascinated with roles and performance, and slotting characters into those roles without any clear sense of identity or purpose.

In some respects, this feels very much like a wry commentary on the reality of Voyager. After all, Voyager is very much a show without an identity or a history. Chakotay might find his memory wiped as he is cast in the role of an American military commander, but how much does the audience really know about the character more than three-and-a-half years into the run? The Hirogen cast Tuvok as a loyal supporter of Janeway, so what has the character actually materially lost through this transformation?

Live and let dine.

Then again, there is some small irony in all of this. As much as The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II might be built around Voyager‘s lack of memory and identity, the two-parter is very heavily integrated into the show’s continuity. The fourth season of Voyager features some of the series’ most underrated experiments with continuity, both in terms of thematic echoes and long-form storytelling. While obviously overshadowed by the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the year holds together remarkably well.

The Gift is effectively a postscript to Scorpion, Part II, an entire episode dedicated to the consequences of the season premiere. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are effectively built out of a single line of dialogue from Before and After, late in the third season. Message in a Bottle is a light comedy episode, but it kicks off a number of threads that weave their way through the remainder of the season. It introduces the connection to the Alpha Quadrant that becomes a big deal in Hunters, and sets up a plot point that returns in Hope and Fear.

Mapping out their arcs.

The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II represent the culmination of a another mini-arc playing out against the backdrop of the fourth season, the introduction of the Hirogen as a recurring adversary for the Janeway and her crew. Although the aliens would reappear in a number of later episodes like Tsunkatse or Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, this two-parter feels very much like it is closing the book on a hyper-concentrated mini-arc that found the species featured in five of six consecutive episodes.

Of course, there is not one single story thread running through these five episodes. Unlike the second season’s ill-judged experiments with serialisation, the encounters with the Hirogen are not driven by plot. There is no way to look at their first appearance in Message in a Bottle and foresee the conclusion of their arc in The Killing Game, Part II. However, there is something very compelling in the way that Voyager introduces the Hirogen, successfully builds them up and defines them, and then has Janeway reach an understanding with them.

“Don’t you EVER compare us to the Kazon again.”

Indeed, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are heavily influenced by Voyager‘s earlier misbegotten experiments with serialisation and long-form storytelling in the second season. Indeed, the Hirogen are arguably an update and reinvention of the Kazon, a bunch of nomadic tribal warriors with a savage temperament and with their eyes on Voyager. In fact, the hijacking of Voyager in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II could be seen as an attempt to reconceptualise the climactic Kazon story, Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II.

Perhaps this is why the production team opted to skip the actual takeover of the ship, understanding that the audience had already seen an enemy race hijack Voyager in Basics, Part I. Understanding that there was only so much storytelling real estate, even in a two-part episode, it makes sense to open with the story already in progress. After all, there was apparently some thought given to writing a multi-episode arc with the Kazon in control of Voyager, but it was ultimately scrapped. In some ways, Deep Space Nine picked up that idea and ran with it.

Best idea, bar none.

It is interesting to contrast the Hirogen takeover of Voyager in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II with the Kazon hijacking in Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. Even though The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II unfolds after the Hirogen have taken over the ship and primarily on the holodeck, the story still has a much stronger sense of texture. Although not as damaged as it was in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, it looks like the ship has been put through the ringer.

The Kazon takeover in Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II was remarkably clean. The ship was taken without any major fire fight. There was minimal hull damage. Although there were a few dialogue references to technical problems, everything seemed to be functioning efficiently. Having taken command of Voyager, the Kazon did not try to make it their own. Maj Cullah took control of the Ready Room, but did not redecorate. The ship looked tidier than it had during Deadlock. There were not even any surrounding Kazon ships.

Ready Room to Improve.

In contrast, the Hirogen hijack in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II seems like a much bigger deal. The lighting in the corridors has been turned down. Harry Kim is scruffed and bloody. Sickbay is in triage mode. Voyager is flanked by several of the enemy ships. Trophies adorn the wall of the Ready Room, bones hung in nets from the ceiling as Karr makes himself at home. There is rubble visible, even before all hell breaks loose in The Killing Game, Part II.

Indeed, even the conclusion of the little story arc plays like a reworking of the ending to Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. That two-parter represented the last major appearance of the Kazon outside of small roles in episodes like Living Witness and Shattered, but it was a decidedly rushed conclusion to their arc. The Kazon scrambled to evacuate Voyager, with Seska dying and Maj Cullah taking his son. There was no sense that anything had changed. Indeed, Basics, Part II even rewrites the identity of the child’s father to preserve the status quo.

Leading the Hirogen down a blind alley.

In contrast, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II suggest that the Hirogen’s encounters with Voyager have fundamentally changed their culture for the better. “My people are hunting themselves into extinction,” Karr pleads with Janeway in The Killing Game, Part II. He suggests, “Your holodeck technology might offer us an alternative, a new way of life. Instead of scattering ourselves across the quadrant in pursuit of prey, we could simulate the hunt and give ourselves a chance to rebuild our civilisation.”

Of course, Karr dies before he can realise his dream of fundamentally redesigning Hirogen society. Still, he puts a lot of stock in the power of the holodeck to alter destructive patterns in Hirogen society. “Our civilisation depends on this agreement,” he promise Turanj. Karr and Turanj both die during the climax of The Killing Game, Part II, but the episode ends with Janeway offering the holodeck technology to the Hirogen as a peaceful gesture. She has no idea if they will ever actually use it. “At the very least, you can hang it on your bulkhead.”

“This isn’t what Karr meant when he suggested breaking bread.”

If the episode’s engagement with the failed Kazon arc, coupled with the themes of memory, history and identity, could be seen as a distillation of core Voyager themes and fascinations, the episode’s resolution is pure Star Trek. More than that, it evokes the cultural memory of Star Trek. It is a bright and optimistic conclusion to a brutal episode, hinging on an optimistic and humanist outlook that treats the cast as a force for good in an otherwise chaotic universe. Janeway beats the Hirogen, but she also betters them. It is a very Star Trek ending.

It speaks to the idea of Star Trek, more than to any particular iteration of the franchise. It recalls some generalised impression of Star Trek that has been absorbed through pop culture osmosis. Even people who would not identify as “fans” can recognised the inherent “Star-Trek-ness” of the ending. Janeway changes the Hirogen like Kirk changed Beta III in The Return of the Archons or Gamma Trianguli VI in The Apple or Tyree in A Private Little War. It is in some ways a validation of the characters and their ideals.

A public little war.

Given the focus on the extremes of fan culture within the larger “phenomenon”, it is easy to lose track of just how deeply Star Trek is engrained in the popular culture. Documentaries like Trekkies and sensationalist mainstream news service suggest that the bulk of the Star Trek audience consists of those highly invested in it; the people who cosplay, or write fan fiction, or produce Klingon adaptations of Shakespeare, or redesign their offices to resemble the bridge of the Enterprise. These invested individuals are undoubtedly part of the base, but they are not the majority.

The truth is that a lot of television viewers have absorbed the franchise passively, being familiar with the rough contours of the Star Trek universe even if they cannot name any characters from Voyager or Deep Space Nine. These fans might identify loosely as “Trekkies”, but they might also shrug at the label. They might have seen almost every episode of the original Star Trek in syndication, or they might never have actually sat through a single episode from beginning to end. This was particularly true at the height of the franchise’s popularity, near its thirtieth anniversary.

Crossed wires.

Star Trek had a very strange cultural cache at that point in time. Voyager was able to land a number of fairly prominent guest stars from popular contemporary television shows based primarily on brand recognition; Andy Dick in Message in a Bottle, or Dan Butler in Vis à Vis. Even guest stars like J. Paul Boehmer acknowledged their history with the franchise:

I grew up on Star Trek. I used to race home from school every day to see the episodes when they first put them into syndication. And that was the first big syndication “thing.” I grew up on it. I dreamed about it, made my own model ships. I did all the boy things. So to get to be on the show was a huge dream come true for me. And to be on the show as often as I was, and to play the great characters I got to play, was really exciting. I actually played a Nazi SS officer on both Voyager and Enterprise. For all I know it was the same costume! I have no shame about being a Trekkie. I speak a little Klingon… a little Vulcan… I’ve been known to watch all of the movies over and over.

At this point in the nineties, after the release of Star Trek: First Contact and during the broadcast of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, the franchise had a very important place in the cultural canon. That prominence would erode and decay in the years ahead, perhaps most noticeable in the relative decline of high-profile guest appearances and cameos towards the tail end of the Berman era.

Violence is Nazi answer.

With all of that in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Voyager to pitch itself as the most generic sort of Star Trek series. After all, Deep Space Nine was busy being provocative and transgressive. Voyager could justify its archetypal storytelling by reference to the subversive work being done on the other series. If there was already one provocative and experimental Star Trek series on the air, surely it made sense for Voyager to offer audiences a more “traditional” take on the Star Trek mythos?

Voyager had been trending this direction since the departure of Michael Piller at the start of the third season, perhaps even in response to Piller’s more misguided efforts to transform the series into something bolder and newer. Under Jeri Taylor, Voyager had become noticeably more conservative in its storytelling. The third and fourth seasons constructed any number of stories that were “generic Star Trek”, tales that could have been told on any of the spin-off series; The Chute, Warlord, The Q and the Grey, Macrocosm, Alter Ego, Favourite Son.

Oh, baby.

If this blockbuster episode was intended to serve as something of a broad thesis statement for Voyager, it makes sense to draw in that very broad and archetypal idea of what Star Trek is about. Intriguingly, as Duncan and Michèle Barrett outline in The Human Frontier, these elements were not part of the original plan for the two-parter, but developed over time:

The story of how The Killing Game’s writers, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, came up with this idea is an interesting one. Apparently Braga thought it would it would be “cool” to put the aliens species currently harassing Voyager into Nazi outfits, and the eventual ending – in which the hostile Hirogen follow one dissident and turn towards merely “virtual” holographic hunting of their prey – is, as Menosky puts it, a “kind of Star Trek message where this guy becomes a good guy, and Janeway ends up working together with him.” Rather engagingly, Menosky concludes: “So what started out as ‘Let’s watch some sh!t blow up and see World War II material’, and had an action-oriented or more visual inception, turned into a story with a thematic Star Trek basis.”

Still, it is an endearing evolution. There is something affirming and hopeful in the idea that mere exposure to a better way of life might fundamentally change a person, that Karr could see beyond his own culture and his own baggage to imagine a more prosperous future for his own people. In its own way, the closing scene of The Killing Game, Part II evokes that hopeful image at the end of First Contact, hope for a brighter future through contact with different cultures.

Put a cork in it.

However, this attempt to craft a very archetypal Star Trek ending feels overly broad. It lacks any real nuance. Indeed, the actual conclusion to The Killing Game, Part II feels particularly rushed. Somehow, the Voyager crew and their holographic allies are able to fight the Hirogen to a standstill both inside and outside the ship. Not only to the Hirogen lose a lot of ground within the ship, they are also either unwilling or unable to use the four flanking vessels to destroy the craft. However, this is not the real problem.

The real issue with the ending is that it seems to validate the most superficial reading of the franchise’s utopian worldview. The Star Trek franchise repeatedly suggests that that mankind are capable of great things, and capable of transcending the petty differences that divide them. However, the franchise has been (understandably) vague on the particulars of how mankind moves beyond war or famine or conquest or greed. It is simply taken for granted, to the point that Enterprise suggests that this cultural shift took place before Broken Bow.

Brought to heal.

While there are arguably reasons for avoiding going into too much depth on the question of how mankind became so peaceful and well-adjusted, the lack of explanation leaves room for certain less charitable suggestions. Most notably, it can occasionally seem like the franchise’s utopia is not built upon any change in philosophy or any increased moral awareness, but that the paradise of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries is built on nothing more than the development of advanced technology like the replicator or the holodeck or warp drive.

The replicator should be a tool that can end famine or hunger. The holodeck allows people to engage with the world on their own terms, providing an infinite number of possibilities. Warp drive puts any number of planets within range, eliminating issues like over-crowding and potentially off-setting any need for wars of conquest. On paper, this theory makes a great deal of sense, if one assumes that finite resources like food and space the only causes of human suffering. However, in reality, this seems over-simplistic.

On his bike.

After all, human history has continually demonstrated that the biggest problems are not in the availability of resources, but in the systems responsible for management and distribution. The world produces enough food to feed ten billion people, and yet nearly eight hundred million of the planet’s seven-and-a-half billion population are starving in spite of that thirty-three percent surplus. Approximately one-point-six billion people live in poverty, despite the fact that the world’s combined wealth is in the quadrillions.

There is something rather unsettling in the franchise’s recurring suggestion that mankind will be saved by the development of a post-scarcity economy. After all, the world is moving closer and closer to a model where “work” might be rendered redundant, where the the bulk of economic tasks carried out by human beings at the moment will soon be automated for a fraction of the cost. The response to these changing circumstances has not been utopian and idealistic, but petty and vindictive.

Master of Ceremonies.

To be fair to the use of technology as a gateway to utopia within the Star Trek franchise, it could reasonably (and fairly) be argued that this emphasis on technology is just a convenient way to side-step a lot of the ideological conflicts and baggage that would come with (for example) explicitly embracing socialism. The technology is a trojan horse, enabling depictions of a more idealistic future that is the real object of interest. As Ted Friedman argues in Electric Dreams:

This form of futurism may seem hopelessly technologically determinist, less about the future we want than the future machines will give us. Capitalism may disappear in Star Trek, but only because of a deus ex machina: the replicator. But the presumption of technological determinism actually functions as a cover, authorising a safe space in which to articulate utopian values. The public religion of technology can momentarily suspend the “pragmatist” doxa that derails utopian projects as impossible and utopian thinking as a foolish waste of time. it opens up a space – a utopian sphere – where we can imagine what we might want the future to look like.

This seems fair and reasonable, particularly given the somewhat socialist underpinnings of the twenty-fourth century shows and the rather extreme reaction that the American public have historically had towards socialism as a political philosophy. However, looking at the broad strokes of the Star Trek universe, the franchise occasionally leans into the idea that technological advances are the only sort of evolution necessary to realise a utopian future.

Play it by ear.

Given that The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are positioned as such a broad and archetypal Star Trek story, it is no surprise that they should embrace this very simplistic reading of the franchise’s core philosophy. The episodes suggest that holodeck technology is the key to radically reconfiguring Hirogen culture. Karr believes that the holodeck technology can change the way that his people behave, pulling Hirogen society out of a slow and protracted decline.

Although Karr dies for what he believes, Voyager suggests that he is correct. The Killing Game, Part II hedges its bets somewhat in the closing scene. The Hirogen delegation seems decidedly unimpressed with the holographic technology, while Janeway jokes that it would make a pretty reasonable conversation piece. However, that hope remains. In fact, that hope is ultimately vindicated by the reveals in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. Social change does not require a leader, or even a broad consensus, just advanced technology.

Klingon to life.

Of course, this subtext is largely down to expedience, with The Killing Game, Part II needing to find the way to wrap up the story quickly and optimistically. After all, nobody even discusses how severely Janeway is violating the Prime Directive or how hypocritical she is for offering holodeck technology to the Hirogen when she would not provide the Kazon with replicators to feed themselves. Not only does Janeway seem slightly hypocritical, but also a little vindictive. If holodeck technology can change the Hirogen, could replicators have changed the Kazon?

(This train of thought suggests an interesting conflict at the heart of the twenty-fourth century Star Trek shows, a tug of war between their non-interventionism and their belief in technological determinism. If things like replicators and holodecks make it possible to build a better world without massive social changes around them, what possible moral justification could the Federation have for withholding the technology? After all, the holodeck threatens to transform the Hirogen from a quadrant-wide menace into a functioning society.)

Médecins Sans Final Frontières.

This interesting ambiguity is what happens when Voyager attempts to apply generic Star Trek plotting without really bothering to unpack it. This is arguably also the case with the Second World War iconography in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. In many ways, this is just as much “classic Star Trek storytelling” as anything involving the humanist development of the Hirogen. After all, the Star Trek franchise has long been engaged with the idea of the aftermath of Second World War as the cornerstone of its utopian future.

After all, the idealism of Kennedy era liberalism was rooted in that new world order, with the United States and the Soviet Union emerging as the major political powers in the wake of the conflict. Many of the key creative personnel working on Star Trek had their worldviews shaped and defined by the war. The war’s importance was codified in The City on the Edge of Forever, the penultimate episode of Star Trek‘s first season; changing the outcome of the conflict effectively wiped the Federation (and any other hint of humanity) from the future.

A tear in the skin of reality.

The Second World War remained a formative event, no matter how far the franchise moved away from it. When the franchise’s utopian future seemed in doubt, as the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise found itself facing cancellation, the creative team opened the final season with the two-parter Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II. J. Paul Boehmer even provided some connective tissue, playing another (or perhaps the same) SS officer. Once again, the time stream was thrown into chaos as outside forces attempted to rewrite the outcome of the conflict.

Within The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, the characters repeatedly acknowledge how important the Second World War was to the development of mankind. “Your people have faced extinction many times, but you’ve always managed to avoid it,” Karr reflects in The Killing Game, Part II. “You seem to recognise the need for change.” Janeway agrees, “You’ve got one of those moments running right now on the holodeck. We called it World War Two.” Karr acknowledges, “One of your most difficult eras. And yet you survived.”

(S)evening the score.

In some respects, it makes sense for Voyager to return to the Second World War. After all, the series coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the conflict’s end. As with the Holocaust, there was a fear that the conflict was slipping into memory. One year after The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II were broadcast, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line would go head-to-head for the Best Picture Oscar, coming together to form a holistic perspective on the Second World War. Shakespeare in Love would ultimately win the award.

With the Cold War over, the Second World War could finally be openly discussed. There was a lot of handwringing about the Nazi scientists, like Hubertus Strughold, who had been brought to the United States to work for NASA. There was heated debate over the morality dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, whether it was really necessary and whether it could ever be justified. Voyager had even weighed into this discussion with Jetrel, a thinly-veiled analogy written and broadcast during the show’s first season.

Bunkering down…

Although the holographic simulation unfolds in Europe, the spectre of the atomic bomb hangs over the chaos of The Killing Game, Part II, perhaps as an expression of the collapsing social order. When Chakotay threatens to bomb the exposed aspects of Voyager, Janeway cautions him, “I saw technology in there you can’t begin to imagine. Warheads powerful enough to destroy this entire valley if they’re accidentally detonated.” Turanj plans to use nuclear energy to break through the defenses at the tavern. “I need three nucleonic charges to penetrate the structure.”

In some ways, the chaos of The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II could be seen to reflect the postmodern uncertainty about the Second World War. The popular narrative had cemented the Second World War as the “good” war, the conflict that had been fought by democracy against totalitarianism. However, with the end of the Cold War and the debates about morality, this certainty had been eroded. It is no wonder that The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II floods the Second World War with Hirogen and Klingons and space ships.

Planning ahead.

However, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II goes further than that. Indeed, the episode plays out a weird mini-arc of enlightenment for the Hirogen, forcing them to go through a truncated and abridged version of humanity’s arc towards the Federation. As with humanity, the Hirogen build a better future from the wreckage of the Second World War and with the assistance of the assistance of the replicator. Indeed, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II seems to codify these as the two essential waypoints on the path to utopia.

More than that, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II offer an explanation for why the Second World War was such an important conflict in the broader context of the Star Trek franchise. In his big speech to Turanj in The Killing Game, Part II, the anonymous SS officer suggests that civilisation is a fragile construct that falls before brute force. “The Kommandant speaks of civilisation. The ancient Romans were civilised. The Jews are civilised. But in all its moral decay, Rome fell to the spears of our ancestors, as the Jews are falling now.”

Hunter-gatherers.

Of course, what the anonymous SS officer cannot know from his position inside the programme is that civilisation will not fall beneath totalitarian might. From the audience’s perspective, that would seem to be what sets the Second World War apart from previous conflicts. It is the war that disproves the SS officer’s thesis, the war in which civilisation did not fall to the barbarian hordes. Democratic values were not washed away by the tides of fascism, not eroded by the enemy of the gates. If anything, civilisation was strengthened by the Second World War.

This overly simplified perspective on the Second World War arguably reinforces the idea of the Star Trek franchise as an extrapolation of American liberal and democratic values projected into the future. The Second World War was the event that solidified the United States as a top-tier world power, and so this interpretation of the conflict is arguably part of the national myth. In the same way that The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II offers a very broad strokes version of Star Trek, it also paints a very broad strokes version of the Second World War.

Get with the programme.

This archetypal approach to the Second World War runs the risk of glossing over and trivialising the true horrors of the conflict, most notably in the trend towards treating Nazis as cinematic and televisual short-hand for “really bad guys” without any proper sense of context. This is an understandable anxiety, as expressed by Sara Buttsworth and Maartje M. Abbenhuis in the introduction to Monsters in the Mirror:

Wolfenstein is only one of countless examples of how Nazism is invoked in popular culture as a symbol for inexplicable evil, which, at the same time, is readily and easily consumed. Western society seems to have an unending appetite for all things Nazi, if progamming on the Discovery Channel and History Channel (also commonly known as the “Hitler Channel”) are any guide. It is a rare week if something to do with the Second World War, Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust, or the Nazi past does not feature somewhere on any one of the western world’s leading newspaper web sites. In popular films, pulp fiction, comic books, advertising, television programming, and YouTube videos, the Third Reich is prominently featured and represented. If we are not applauding Indiana Jones for killing a host of nasty Nazis, we secretly indulge in and are horrified by Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, we witness Huey, Dewey and Louie finding a copy of Mein Kampf on a garbage heap, we take affront at Hitler telling us that AIDS is a mass murderer, we laugh at Hitler offering us even more comic relief on Family Guy, we grin at clever remediations of a famous scene in the movie Downfall, in which Hitler gets angry at his generals for losing the war, but this time he is upset at someone having stolen his car, changing the name of the yeast-spread Vegemite, and banning him from X-Box Live. Hitler needs no introduction; his voice and inflection are enough for audiences to draw immediate conclusions. It really does not matter what he says, only that he is saying it. In so many ways, Nazism has become part our everyday wallpaper, that which is always there, needs no explanation, and seems so terribly obvious we barely notice it. Nazis are bad. Hitler was evil. We invoke symbols of Nazism unthinkingly and uncritically, and almost as comfortably as we would wear an old pair of shoes.

In many ways, pop culture has a tendency to treat Nazism as an aesthetic, as a collection of iconography and signifiers rather than as an object of substance. Audience members immediately recognise the Nazi brand, and so it becomes televisual or cinematic shorthand to communicate the unequivocal “evil” of a given character or institution. This even applies to the trappings or stylistic sensibilities of Nazism, as demonstrated by the Star Wars franchise.

In command of the situation.

This is understandably a risk in any media dealing with the Second World War. It is particularly dangerous when Voyager coopts Nazi iconography as part of a consciously archetypal two-part episode that seems to be framing its account of the Second World War in the broad context of the science-fiction franchise. The Nazis in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II exist as shorthand for evil. They are literal projections, so our heroes need feel no guilt about mercilessly gunning them down.

To be fair to Braga and Menosky, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II makes a point to acknowledge the horrors the Nazi regime beyond the familiar trappings. The anonymous SS officer is quite overt in his racism as much as his fascism. In his introductory scene in The Killing Game, Part I, the character talks at length (and with enthuiasm) about the ancestral rights that he asserts against “the degenerate races.” It is a very effective and disturbing scene for what is a blockbuster episode.

Choking on his words.

At the same time, the scene serves primarily to humanise Karr by juxtaposing him with the Nazi. The Nazis remain the ultimate expression of evil, and so Karr seems almost decent by comparison. Growing frustrated with the SS officer’s boasts, Karr throws him angrily against the wall. “You are superior to no one!” he decrees. Karr speaks with the moral certainty of a warrior whose sins amount to slavery rather than committing genocide. Even when the SS officer speaks explicitly of the Jews in The Killing Game, Part II, the horror remains an abstraction.

The Second World War becomes another set of iconography, for the series to enjoy in the same way that Tom Paris does. Once the cease fire comes into effect in The Killing Game, Part II, Paris throws himself into the simulation. “Keep it moving! Keep it moving! Get the lead out of your pants!” He asks Seven, “You got a problem with that, sister?” Seven observes, “You’re enjoying this simulation. I find that peculiar, given the circumstances.” Paris quips, “Loosen up, baby doll, the war’s almost over.”

A Kommanding presence.

Even when things are bad, Paris still treats the Second World War as an aesthetic. When the other characters inquire about the precise nature of the conflict, Paris helpfully explains that the Nazis are “totalitarian fanatics bent on world conquest. The Borg of their day.” That feels like a very crude characterisation that overlooks a lot of what makes the Nazis so terrifying. Indeed, the Nazis rejected assimilation to the point of organising genocide. It seems unreasonable to compare them to the Borg beyond the basic measure of “these are two very bad things.”

It isn’t just Paris who frames this sort of broad comparison. The Killing Game, Part I casts the Hirogen as Nazis and suggests that they share some of the sadism that defined the Third Reich. As Chakotay explained in Prey, the Hirogen consider themselves superior to other races and use that superiority to deny their quarry agency. At the same time, the Nazi belief in superiority and the genocide that stemmed from that belief was very different in character. The Hirogen hunt individual prey for individual glory. They do not partake in systemic genocide.

Ensigns of whatever-is-left-of-command-structures.

To be fair, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are not unique in this approach to Nazism. Pop culture has a long history of treating Nazis as shorthand for “evil”, without feeling any real need to explore why or how they were evil. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are trying to construct an archetypal version of Star Trek, smoothing off any rough edges to approximate the popular memory of the franchise more than the finer detail. It makes sense that these episodes would do something similar to the Second World War.

Indeed, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are ultimately about the distortion and manipulation of history. As the characters are mindwiped and implanted in these false surroundings, it makes sense that the historical reality would also be distorted and warped. There is still something very uncomfortable about the handling of the Nazis and the Second World War within The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, but it certainly feels very much in line with the thematic concerns of the two-parter.

The way of the worrier.

The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II represent a very broad vision of what Voyager is, a very generic blockbuster approach to the Star Trek franchise. The nuance gets lost in this broad strokes approach to storytelling. Identity and history become fungible, leaving only a strong impression of something resembling Star Trek. As such, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are quintessential Voyager.

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10 Responses

  1. Ooh, I love these episodes!

    The discussion about Nazism in pop culture reminds me of one of my problems with ‘Captain America The First Avenger’ where the villains came across as terribly vapid because they were Nazi’s who defected from what was already an extremely watered down popculture brand of Third Reichism in favour of an even more threadbare philosophy stripped of any historical relic of Nazi ideology (I’ve watched that film more that once and I still can’t determine what exactly HYDRA stands for beyond ‘being evul’.)

    Actually the Hirogen always struck me as a possible future version of the Borg. Not any literal sense, but the idea of a once dynamic society in steep decline focused only one monomanical pursuit (hunting or assimilation.) Like the Hirogen the Borg are intellectually, culturally and creatively sterile, stealing and plundering what they want from others even as they affect disdain for primitives. For all their apparent strength there is a real brittleness to the Borg (the near victory of Species 8472 shows how poorly equipped they are to deal with truly out of context scenarios) and I can easily see the Collective collapsing in on itself like whatever society the Hirogen once had seemingly did.

    • HYDRA is more or less “Vandal savage meets Intergang.” They obey some kind of cosmic goddess of chaos, and have been behind all of the world’s worst tyrants.

      Marvel tried to “Nolanize” them in The Winter Solider. Here, the new-Nazi vibe is most apparent. And timely too, what with the revival of old school European facism and racism. Outside of that movie, they are pretty silly villains, no more convincing then the Hirogen cosplayers.

      Now that you mention it, this episode missed a trick with the Nazis. There is a danger of trivializing the Nazis by rendering them as cartoon baddies.

      If I could edit this episode, I would give the Nazis a bit more a bit more agency innthensamemlockein. J.P. Boehmer (the “commandant” or whatever) is really terrific in his speech, but the effect is blunted because we know he’s just a story device to extend the runtime by a few minutes.

      • Sorry about that typo, I’m on mobile

      • Boehmer’s speech in the second part is really great. And it’s genuinely uncomfortable. But then you release that the episode is seriously likening Turanj’s “the most dangerous game” fixation to an organised and industrialised holocaust, and it doesn’t really work.

        And I say that as somebody who loves the two-parter.

    • I really disliked what The First Avenger did with HYDRA, which is to a certain extent being mirrored in the comic book publishing line at the moment. It was just the cynicism of taking swastikas out of the movie so you could release it in Germany. I disliked it even more, when The Winter Soldier played with big and bold ideas, only to retreat back to “it’s because of literal-secret-not-quite-but-kinda-Nazis.”

  2. The whole premise is absurd, but that’s voyager, isn’t it? It reminds me a lot of the video game adaptation I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. No doe,is put in an uncanny recreation of Nazi Germany where everyone behaves as if he’s a head doctor there. Also, the Jewish question is is dodged, here they are bowdlerized at The Lost Tribe.

    I do like your insight here, on how VOY is a collection of stock Trek tropes rather than bold ideas, or even a clever reexamination of old ideas.

    • *Nimdok

    • Thanks Ed. I suspect that’s my big Voyager thesis, in a nutshell. And I suspect that’s why so many casual fans (including members of my family) love it so much. It is, from a certain perspective, the most “Star-Trek-y” of Star Trek shows, in that it contains all of the elements that one associates with Star Trek, packaged in a very sleek and stylish manner.

  3. I think this episode should not have been two parts. If it had been one part, then it could have been a nice tight fun episode along the lines of the Bride of Chatoica. Instead, we get an overextended episode that by the second half just feels as if it is dragging.

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