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Star Trek: Voyager – Living Witness (Review)

Living Witness is a fantastic piece of television, and a great example of what Star Trek: Voyager does best.

Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise, but it is a story told well. Living Witness is one of the highlights of the fourth season, and one of the strongest episodes from the seven-season run.

Command and conquer.

In many ways, Living Witness is the culmination of themes and ideas that have been bubbling through Voyager from the outset. Some of these elements are less than flattering, with the episode’s racial politics evoking the clumsiness with which the Kazon were handled. However, there is also a fascination with idea of history and how history functions in a world rooted in postmodernism and recnstruction. At the end of history, is the past up for grabs? Are facts anything more than pieces to be manoeuvred on a political chessboard?

Given this archetypal quality of Living Witness, how it reflects the themes and pet interests of Voyager, there is some irony in the fact that the episode does not actually feature a single regular character from Voyager. The regular cast appear as holographic representations of themselves, exaggerations and distortions. When the EMH appears almost half-way through the episode, he is explicitly identified as “a back-up programme”, and thus distinct from the version of the EMH who will appear in Demon or One.

Core principles.

In some ways, Living Witness confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager, the fact that the characters are themselves largely irrelevant to the show and that the series is much more compelling as a framework to explore archetypal ideas. Living Witness is just one of several episodes that treat the regular characters as a secondary aspect of the show, almost as guest stars who have crossed over into a completely different series. Living Witness is very much of a piece with stories like Distant Origin or Course: Oblivion, or even Muse or Live Fast and Prosper.

Living Witness is a story about the thin line between history and mythology. In doing so, it consciously reframes Voyager as a story within a story, as concept more powerful as an archetype than as a material object. Living Witness images the ship and its crew as history elevated to mythology.

Any which Janeway but loose.

Voyager is fascinated with the idea of history, and the question of whether history can be said to exist. This preoccupation is reflected in a number of different episodes, in a number of different ways. Voyager‘s preoccupation with time travel in episodes like Time and Again, Timeless and Relativity could be seen as an extension of this. What is Annorax actually doing in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II besides literally rewriting and revising history? He just happens to use a time ship rather than a pen.

This preoccupation with history ripples across the show, most notably in the big event scripts written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II introduced the concept of these big sprawling adventures in which Voyager would ride through the pages of history. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II suggested that the Hirogen were predators of history, a culture without a past that instead usurps the great historical narratives of their victims.

Pro- and con-gramme.

This preoccupation with history exists even beyond time travel. Memory was also subject to distortion and exploration, with Voyager repeatedly insisting that identity was a construct of memory in the same way that a film is constructed of individual images. The trauma that Seven of Nine received at the hands of the Borg broke her memory and identity in Retrospect, Chakotay pondered the connection between love and memory in Unforgettable, while the EMH suffers a breakdown when his memory is manipulated in Latent Image.

Cultural memory was just as prone to distortion, with similar consequences. Remember stressed the importance of preserving the historical record of the Hollocaust, of refusing to allow postmodernist theory to erase or distort the objective accounts of what had happened. Distant Origin was anchored in the idea that the historical framework supporting evolution should not be brushed aside because it was less politically comforting than the mythology of creationism, insisting that objectively verifiable facts are more important than reassuring lies.

Crossed wires.

Living Witness is very explicitly about the challenges of historical revisionism, of the difficulty on agreeing an objective account of things that happened and why they happened. Brannon Braga acknowledged as much to Cinefantastique:

But it’s also a show about revisionist history, which is a very topical issue. Cultures are taking issue with the way history is portrayed in the books right now, and controversies come out of that. Is the revisionist history accurate? Or is it being done to bolster one’s cultural identity in the present? There are no easy answers, and that is one of the issues we try to tap into in that show.

Historical revisionism was very much a part of the cultural conversation in the nineties. Deborah Lipstadt was caught up in a libel trial with David Irving when she accused him of Holocaust denial, which only resolved itself in April 2000. Japan grappled with the legacy of the Second World War.

To be fair, it may just be that the Kyrians took their characterisation of Janeway from Scorpion, Part I or Equinox, Part II.

Living Witness touches on a similar idea. The episode is set hundreds of years in the future, long after Voyager has found its way home. The episode unfolds in a society populated by two unique races, the Vaskans and the Kyrians. Living Witness opens with a historical recreation of their encounter with Voyager, an event that occurred long before anybody in the room was born. The audience is shocked by this supposedly historical account. The EMH complains, “The Captain’s a cold-blooded killer, the crew’s a gang of thugs and I’m a mass murderer.”

The audience knows that this recreation is obviously not an accurate account; the costumes are wrong, the sets are subtly different, the lighting is turned way down, the characterisations have been changed. However, this historic recreation forms the cornerstone of Vaskan and Kyrian identity. It informs the understanding that the two cultures have of one another, and provides a nice framework for their society to function. Most obviously, pinning the responsibility for a disastrous race war on a bunch of travellers avoids casting blame on each other.

Piecing it together.

During the nineties, the United States fought a war over the right to determine what was and wasn’t history. It seemed like every aspect of the nation’s history and identity was up for grabs. As Gary B. Nash outlined in his introduction to History on Trial:

Since the mid-1980s, Americans have been beset by controversies, criticisms, and contretemps over history. Was Columbus not an intrepid explorer but the world’s greatest genocidist? Was Cleopatra black, the pride of Africa, rather than a heroine of Western civilization? Should the New York legislature stipulate that every schoolchild study the Irish potato famine of the 1840s? What other famines in history should legislatures mandate? Should one of Virginia’s most hallowed Civil War battlefields be obliged to share space with a mega-theme park where American families could learn versions of history produced in Disney’s imagineering laboratory? Did the curators of “The West as America” exhibit at the National Museum of American Art in Washington become part of the “embarrassed to be American” crowd when they suggested that the stunning paintings by Bierstadt, Remington, Catlin, and others might be looked at in many ways–as reflections of imperialism and racism as much as Arcadian depictions of the frontier?

Why was Colonial Williamsburg staging an eighteenth-century slave auction, heartrending but allegedly degrading, even if the producer was a talented young black woman who wanted people to understand the brutality of slavery? Were the Smithsonian Institution’s curators and consulting historians really “hijacking history,” practicing “political correctness,” and demonstrating “anti-Americanism,” when they planned an exhibit on Enola Gay, the B-52 that dropped the first atom bomb on Japan a half-century ago? Why did San Francisco’s Art Commission agree to move an 800-ton monument showing a Spanish friar, with finger pointing to heaven, standing over a supine Indian while a vaquero raised his hand in triumph?

All of these–a historical figure, a monument, a site, an event–became lightning rods for sulphurous debates over historical, heritage, and group sensibility.

After all, there had even been huge controversy over the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, with the Smithsonian finding itself in hot water for daring to question whether dropping the atomic bomb upon Japan could ever have been justified. That was treated as an affront to heroism of America’s war veterans.

“He belongs in a museum!”

Although there are plenty of examples of historical revisionism from around the world, to the point that Remember was more overtly engaged with the Holocaust denial more common in Europe at the time, Living Witness is very firmly anchored in the American experience. The politics at play in Living Witness are very firmly rooted in issues of race and the difficulty of creating true equality in a society that was built upon inequality. The inequality in Living Witness is built upon a history of war and conflict, but the episode alludes quite strongly to the legacy of slavery.

At one point, a Vaskan who takes exception to the history that is being taught. “You’re trying to blame the Vaskans for all your troubles the way you always do,” he warns Quarren. “I don’t have a problem with your species. I have Kyrian friends. But I don’t appreciate seeing my people being portrayed as villains in your little simulation, and I certainly don’t want your history taught to my children.” It is a pretty spot-on parody of white discomfort with teaching slavery in history class, right down to the victimisation complex and “I have [black] friends.”

His story.

This was a very real argument during the nineties, another front in the simmering culture wars. As Eric Alterman reflected, attempts to acknowledge slavery and the plight of Native American people in the American history curriculum met with tremendous blowback from conservative pundits who saw it as an attack upon the patriotic myth of American exceptionalism:

America’s children are being taught the “propaganda of an anti-Western ideology,” warns Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, “their minds . . . poisoned against their Judeo-Christian heritage, against America’s heroes and American history, against the values of faith, family and country.” Buchanan, like so many conservatives, is furious about the recent release of a set of voluntary curricula guidelines for teachers and textbook authors called “National Standards for United States History.” Sen. Bob Dole, speaking before the American Legion Convention in Indianapolis last month, called them part of the government’s “war on traditional American values.” Newt Gingrich said the curricula were “beyond the pale.” Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington labeled the standards a “perverse document” and persuaded his colleagues to condemn them by a vote of 99 to 1. Former National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) chief Lynne Cheney hates the standards so much, she even asked Congress to “kill my old agency, please.”

This exists as part of a larger framework of conservative organisations and pundits trying to downplay the impact and horrors of slavery. The argument that this aspect of American history somehow undermines the country’s self-image, that the patriotic ideal of the country is somehow more important than the truth. It is a very depressing argument, but one that still rages to this day.

Better assimilate than never.

After all, there are still long-standing controversies about why the Civil War was fought, with various Southern States downplaying the importance of slavery as a contextual factor. The Confederate Flag is still trearted as an object of veneration and respect, even appearing in the state flag of Mississippi, ignoring the legacy of oppression and bigotry that fueled it. There is still a lot of debate about how the Civil War is taught in American schools and how it is debated in American life.

Slavery is still an open wound, with many senior officials and key personnel refusing to acknowledge the horror of what happened while trivialising the experiences of those who through the experience. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, suggested that slaves were really “immigrants” who imagined the US as a “land of dreams and opportunity.” Donald Trump contended that the Civil War was unnecessary. Ivanka Trump likened her work schedule to literal slavery.

To be fair, that is a very nice reversal.

There is a debate about the function that history serves in a society, about whether history is supposed to tell a people who really are or simply reinforce who they want to be:

Americans want to be descendants of a noble people, explained David Blight, a U.S.-history professor and the director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Americans want to be the people who emancipated the slaves—not the people who enslaved them. “But history’s job isn’t to make people feel happy about themselves or their culture,” he said. “That’s why we have religion, churches, and community organizations. That’s why we have rabbis and psychologists, not historians.”

While it is easy to understand why the truths about slavery and oppression are discomforting to those invested in the myth of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, that does not make them any less true.

Janeway’s feeling dead tired.

There are definite shades of this to Living Witness, with the EMH explicitly calling out the comforting aspects of the history presented. “Isn’t it a coincidence that the Kyrians are being portrayed in the best possible light?” the EMH challenges Quarren. “Martyrs, heroes, saviours. Obviously, events have been reinterpreted to make your people feel better about themselves. Revisionist history. It’s such a comfort.” He has a very fair point, and is entirely accurate in his criticisms of Quarren’s approach to the historical record.

Living Witness wears its racial politics on its sleeves. The tensions between the Vaskans and the Kyrians tap into a collective American anxiety about race relations in the nineties. That is particularly true in California, which had been shaken by both the Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson Trial. These tensions rippled across the nineties Star Trek shows in a variety of ways, particularly informing the portrayal of the Jem’Hadar in The Abandoned or the Kazon in Caretaker.

It’s always the Kyrians who get in in the neck.

These same anxieties simmer through Living Witness. The attack upon the museum evokes the footage of the rioters, while the EMH explicitly worries about the truth prompting “a race riot.” Quarren even frames the dynamics in terms that will be familiar to anybody paying attention to the racial tensions of the nineties. “The Vaskans are more powerful, but the Kyrians are very angry. They’re talking about another war.” The Vaskans are obviously stand-ins for the white Californians, while the Kyrians are African Americans, which makes their make-up choices inspired.

That said, there is a certain clumsiness to the racial politics of Living Witness, particularly in its portrayal of the dynamic between the Vaskans and the Kyrians. Quarren’s history is controversial for the same reason that teaching slavery is controversial, in that it paints the dominant social class in an unflattering light. However, Living Witness leans away from that aspect of the reconstruction. The big controversial reveal in Living Witness is that the Vaskan oppression of the Kyrians was not as cruel and aggressive as Quarren had argued.

Things come to a head.

Although the EMH’s reconstruction suggests that the Vaskan Daleth murdered the Kyrian Tedran in cold blood, it also argues that the Kyrians were more brutal than the history books suggest. The EMH’s account of events portrays the Kyrians as aggressors, launching an unprovoked attack upon Voyager and taking hostages before forcing Janeway to intervene. Given the comparisons that Living Witness consciously invites to slavery, this is a deeply problematic reveal. It is akin to suggesting that African Americans were in someway responsible for slavery.

Indeed, Living Witness seems to suggest that Kyrian accounts of oppression and victimisation are exaggerated. The Kyrian arbitrator argues that this revision is irrelevant. “It doesn’t change the fact my children can’t attend the same academies as yours, or that we are forced to live outside of the city centre,” she states. Her Vaskan colleague shuts down that line of conversation almost immediately. “Today’s problems are not at issue here. This is about history.” There is a sense that Living Witness agrees with the Vaskan representative.

A flash mob.

The Kyrian arbitrator is portrayed as hypersensitive and vindictive. She warns Quarren, “You’ll pay for your crimes.” She protests to her colleague, “I’m only on this commission because you needed a token Kyrian.” Quarren insists, “This isn’t about race.” The Kyrian arbitrator responds, “It’s always about race.” The Kyrian arbitrator plays like a grotesque parody of a hypersensitive African American, the conservative stereotype of the victim who cannot wait to play “the race card” to win an argument.

It is a questionable choice, to say the least, although it does fit with certain strains of political thought during the nineties. At the end of the twentieth century, there was an increased perception among conservative writers and commentators that African Americans had achieved functional equality of opportunity thanks to civil rights, and that the fixation upon slavery as a historical injustice was both unreasonable and unfair. This is perhaps most notable in the political establishment’s firm rejection of the concept of reparations.

Getting to the heart of the matter.

Certain conservative pundits would accuse African Americans of playing “the race card” while attempting to address issues of systemic injustice. Glenn C. Loury outlined the position in his review of the controversial America in Black and White:

America in Black and White is, and seems very much intended to be, a combative book. Reading it, one cannot escape the impression that the enemy is being engaged. Although conceived long before President Bill Clinton initiated his national dialogue on racial issues, the book’s publication at this moment offers, in effect, an opening salvo from the right in that proposed debate.

The enemy on whom the Thernstroms have fixed their sights is the latter-day public philosophy of racial liberalism — what the economist Thomas Sowell once called “the civil-rights vision.” This is the notion that ongoing white racism is the main barrier to black progress, and that some kind of affirmative action is the appropriate remedy. Another crucial feature of the civil-rights vision as depicted here is that it fosters undue race consciousness by sustaining a sense of grievance among blacks of all classes — encouraging them to “play the race card.” Following the political scientist Donald Horowitz, the authors pithily refer to this belief in the enduring power of race as “the figment of the pigment.”

Of course, the truth is decidedly more complex than that. Although the Civil War may have legally ended slavery, the truth is that slavery introduced a system of inequality that shaped the American social and economic landscape. To pick one relatively abstract example, slavery is the reason that the United States has the Electoral College.

Janeway has some very strong opinions about Harry’s latest powerpoint.

Living Witness seems to argue that Kyrian inequality and oppression can somehow exist separate from the historical record. While it is an interesting theoretical position, it is a very awkward argument to make in the context of an allegory for real-world oppression. The economic and political disadvantages experienced by African Americans can largely be traced back to slavery, and acknowledging that history is most likely the best way to heal those long-standing divisions. The two do not exist apart from one another, and they never could.

There is something disingenuous in arguing that the controversial history of Kyrian oppression taught by Quarren is somehow inaccurate or unreasonable. Living Witness almost seems like it would side with Patrick Buchanan or Lynne Cheney on the teaching of slavery in classes on American history, which is a decidedly tone-deaf plot element. Quarren’s inflammatory and controversial history is ultimately disproven, which makes the character seem like a conservative parody of a liberal socially-conscious historian.

Kazon Kameo!

To be fair, this would not be a major issue in isolation. Indeed, it might have been a nice thought experiment. After all, Living Witness seems to accept that the Kyrian people are actually systemically oppressed and that the Vaskan people have never come to terms with their role in that oppression. In theory, historical facts should exist outside that framework. Even if Tedran was a pirate, and even if the Kyrians were the aggressors, the current inequalities cannot be excused or forgiven. However, Living Witness does not exist in isolation.

Voyager has a decidedly reactionary streak running through it, an awkward tone-deafness on issues of race and identity. The Kazon are perhaps the best example, modeled on Los Angeles gang culture as imagined by a middle-class white writers’ room. In Alliances, Janeway actually finds it easier to get along with the (white middle-class) former slave owners than she does to align herself with the primitive and violent Kazon. This is to say nothing of the xenophobia that underlines the immigration metaphor of Displaced or the refugee allegory of Day of Honour.

Flame war.

Still, leaving aside that particular tone-deaf plot element that plays into the more conservative subtext of Voyager, there is a lot to like about Living Witness. In some respects, it is the perfect and archetypal Voyager episode. It is a classic Star Trek story that could arguably be told using any of the series. Indeed, appropriately enough, Living Witness has a strong thematic and literal connection to the franchise’s history. The Kyrian recreation of Voyager might be inaccurate, but the story is crammed full of images and ideas lifted from across the franchise’s history.

Most obviously, the idea of evil doppelgangers of the crew evokes Mirror, Mirror. In fact, the disorderly conduct and the brutal sadism of the holographic crew evokes the chaos seen on the ISS Enterprise. The image of the audience peering into the mess hall through an outside window is lifted directly from The Mark of Gideon. The EMH is reimagined as an evil version of Data, the breakout character from The Next Generation. Even Quarren’s confusion over with Torres is “the chief transporter operator” or “the chief engineer” recalls ambiguity over Scotty’s function.

Chairing the debate.

Living Witness is also an archetypal Voyager episode in that it features no members of the original crew. More than any other Star Trek series, Voyager tended to treat its primary cast as elastic and archetypal. The actors on Voyager would find themselves playing doppelgangers or alternatives with much greater frequency than their counterparts on any other show. More than the surrounding shows, Voyager often used the ship and the characters as a springboard to tell unrelated stories, as in episodes like 11:59 or One Small Step.

In some ways, Voyager could feel like an anthology series. It was a vehicle for telling a variety of Star Trek stories with very speciation. Because the studio had hired an ensemble, those actors tended to appear in almost every episode. However, they were frequently playing replacements or holograms or facsimiles. Very often, the actual characters on Voyager felt incidental to the story being told. These stories could be told using any random Star Trek cast. Often, they could even have been reworked as an episode of The Outer Limits.

Black shirt.

Indeed, Living Witness also embodies Voyager‘s long-standing antipathy towards serialisation and long-form storytelling. Notwithstanding two brief experiments with multi-episode arcs, a disastrous run culminating in Investigations in the second season and a more convincing run beginning with Message in a Bottle in the fourth season, Voyager has largely avoided any sense of continuity between episodes. Almost any episode of Voyager can be watched in any sequence, give or take Kes and Seven of Nine, and allowing for two-parters.

Living Witness plays into this discontinuity in a number of clever ways. Most obviously, the episode opens on a delightfully grotesque representation of Voyager that does not exist in continuity with any version of the ship from any earlier episode. However, once the framing device becomes apparent, it is also clear that Living Witness unfolds hundreds of years after the crew of Voyager are dead. Living Witness might be the twenty-third episode of the fourth season, but it really fits long after Endgame in any chronology of the series.

Hair today, gone tomorrow.

Indeed, this plot element generated some debate among the writing staff, as Joe Menosky explained to Cinefantastique:

For a while we thought it was in the Alpha Quadrant. Was it a Romulan museum? A Klingon museum? We didn’t know. I think it might have been Rick Berman who said, ‘No, it’s got to be in Delta, it’s got to be an alien museum,’ for the very good reason that he didn’t want to let it be known that Voyager had successfully gotten home. If you’ve got the Doctor in a museum 700 years from now, there is a good chance that people at that museum know about the fate of Voyager. We just didn’t want to have to deal with that. So with Rick’s input we realized that it had to be an alien museum.

It is a very cute storytelling concern, if only because the production team seem to believe that there was any way that Voyager would end without the crew getting back to Earth.

Museum musings.

As with episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Relativity, the basic plot of Living Witness assumes that the future is relatively stable. The episode might be written in such a way as to avoid explaining if Voyager gets home, but it does assume a future in which the Delta Quadrant still exists. It imagines a future in which the Borg have not dominated the region, in which no natural disaster has befallen this area of space, in which nobody has weaponised the omega molecule. The past might be up for grabs, but the future is assured. The end of history.

Even the flashbacks within Living Witness are positioned as to be ambiguous. Darleth speculates that Voyager still has sixty thousand light years to travel, but that is a vague enough detail. Similarly, Seven of Nine is on board the ship while Kes is absent. There is nothing in Living Witness to confirm that the episode unfolds between Unforgettable and Demon. It could in theory happen anywhere between The Gift and Timeless. Then again, the discontinuities slyly make it impossible to date. The encounter with the Kyrians could have happened at any time.

It is nice that the Kyrians let the EMH pose for a badass profile picture.

There is undoubtedly a valid criticism there, an observation that the lead characters on Voyager were less developed (and more interchangeable) than the lead characters on any other Star Trek series. Certainly, characters like Chakotay and Harry Kim lack any real personality at this point in the run, let alone a unique history or a distinct identity. The actors on Voyager often felt like cogs in a machine, working parts that could be restructured and repositioned in order to satisfy the needs of a given episodes.

Living Witness belongs to that rich subgenre of Voyager episodes, stories more invested in the idea of Voyager than in the material reality. Deadlock imagines two duplicate Voyagers tethered to one another. Worst Case Scenario and Author, Author feature holographic interpretations of the crew. Course: Oblivion is built around a crew of doppelgangers that have convinced themselves that they are the real Voyager crew. Even Endgame features two versions of Katherine Janeway for the price of one.

Oh, shoot.

In an interview with Cinefantastique, Joe Menosky acknowledged that this theme of doppelgangers and alternates appealed to him:

I heard this quote sometime back on TNG where someone said, ‘Our characters are never more interesting than when they are somebody else.’ In some ways, that’s more true of Voyager. It was really fun to cut lose with what I call the briefing room brawl. It’s a blast to write things like that.

There is definite sense that Voyager does not see the ship or the crew as a concrete and material object with its own arc or its own ambitions. Instead, Voyager treats the ship and crew as abstract concepts.

“You might feel a slight stinging sensation.”

That is particularly true in the case of writer Joe Menosky, who returns time and time again to the notion of Voyager as a mythic object in the history of the Delta Quadrant. Menosky seems to imagine Voyager as a mythic saga about a lost ship and the lives that it touches along the way home. Menosky seems less interested in the lives of the characters on the ship, and much more interested in the impressions and ripples that the crew make on their journey back to the Alpha Quadrant.

This is very much suggested by False Profits, a story that positions the crew as divine creatures interacting with local folklore. In Distant Origin, Gegen tracks Voyager across the quadrant by listening for whispers and stories, even going so far as to revisit the locations of Basics, Part II and Fair Trade. In The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine tries to construct a logical narrative of the crew’s journey to date. In Muse, in which an alien culture reimagines and readapts the crew’s stories for their own entertainment.

Having a blast.

Living Witness plays into that same idea, focusing on a society that only had a fleeting interaction with Voyager. Nevertheless, that small point of intersection had huger repercussions. Living Witness portrays Voyager as tourists, as guests who are just passing through this area of space and who happen to make a sizable impact upon the people with whom they interact. Although Janeway never mentions the Vaskans or the Kyrians in any subsequent episodes, Living Witness suggests that Voyager left quite a mark on those people.

Living Witness stresses that Voyager is an external force at work. “You have shamed us all,” Tedran claims in the original recreation. “We could’ve ended this on our own, peacefully, without her.” The detail is so important that it even recurs in the corrected and historically accurate account of events, with Darlath appealing to Tedran, “Tedran, this is between us. Leave these people out of it.” Quarren acknowledges that Voyager did not hang around to pick up the pieces after these events. “The warship Voyager continued on its way, leaving the Kyrian dynasty in ruins.”

His career is in ruins.

There is something powerful in that image, especially the contrast in scale. It seems unlikely that Janeway ever thought twice about the encounter, but it would define the Vaskan and the Kyrian people. “It took centuries for us to undo the damage that Captain Janeway had done, and the Kyrian struggle for equality is far from over,” Quarren informs his people. “This simulation and this museum are a testament to that struggle.” The events in Living Witness would barely fill an forty-minute episode from Voyager’s perspective, but they shaped centuries of history.

It seems almost like Voyager aspires towards its archetypal status, trying to build an interpretation of the Star Trek mythos that conjures the raw mythic power of the franchise. Voyager is more of an idea than a literal ship, an object of aspiration rather than a fully fleshed-out entity. To the inhabitants of the Delta Quadrant, Voyager is the subject of speculation and rumour, perhaps a children’s bedtime story or a fable repeated at a dark barroom table. Discussing his own childhood with the EMH, Quarren speaks of Voyager as an object of fascination.

Eye, eye, sir.

“Ever since I was a small child, the first time I heard the name Voyager, it conjured up my imagination,” he confesses. Even more than “Enterprise”, the very name “Voyager” distills the spirit of the franchise. When the EMH wonders why Quarren was so fascinated with the “bad guys”, Quarren dismisses the question. He was never interested in the reality of Voyager. Just the idea of Voyager. “The fact you were so far from home, traveling across the stars. Ah, I found it all very heroic. I suppose Voyager is what made me fall in love with history.”

Indeed, there it seems like even the EMH is taken in by the romance of that idea. Although the EMH remains an important part of Vaskan and Kyrian society for many years, eventually he surrenders to that archetypal call to adventure. The EMH is a voyager, in his own way. “He took a small craft and set a course for the Alpha Quadrant, attempting to trace the path of Voyager,” explains a tour guide, centuries after the fact. The EMH tries to chart his mythic course, following in the foot steps of his predecessor.

The Voyager Home.

It is worth noting that Voyager very consciously and repeatedly adheres to a very archetypal mythological structure. In particular, the basic concept of the show evokes Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. As Anna Claybourne remarks in Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology, the plot of Voyager is in many ways inspired by that classic adventure:

The Odyssey’s simple structure of disaster and recovery, the exciting monsters, and the universal theme of longing for home make the poem enduringly popular. The Odyssey has been translated and retold countless times in books, films, and literature. A famous example is Irish writer James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which is based on the Odyssey. The poem has also inspired more recent works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and the TV series Star Trek: Voyager, in which the crew of a spaceship encounters many monsters and strange peoples on their long journey home.

Indeed, it is possible to draw explicit parallels between certain events in The Odyssey and certain episodes of Voyager, most notably Favourite Son. In some ways, this speaks to the idea of Star Trek as an American mythology, a tether between Voyager and the second-oldest extant piece of Western literature.

His is bigger.

Living Witness is a great piece of work. In particular, the opening few acts are particularly memorable. Ironically for a series so fascinated with doppelgangers and alternate versions, Voyager never produced a literal mirror universe episode. As such, Living Witness provides amble opportunity. It transforms the cast into a bunch of violent outlaws in sinister costumes with some effective mood lighting. The little touches are particularly effective and uncanny, from the EMH’s contact lenses to Chakotay’s tattoo to Tuvok’s twisted smile.

In particular, the twisted version of Janeway presented in Living Witness is an absolute delight. Part of this is down to the way that the character is written and designed. The opening shot of Living Witness is brilliant, panning slowly to a fascist version of Janeway staring out at the stars. “When diplomacy fails there’s only one alternative,” she reflects. “Violence. Force must be applied without apology. It’s the Starfleet way.” It is almost a parody of the version of Janeway that Brannon Braga championed in episodes like Macrocosm or The Omega Directive.

Star of the show.

However, a lot of it is down to Kate Mulgrew’s performance. Mulgrew is a fantastic actor, often stronger than the material apportioned to her. She is a joy to watch while she is chewing scenery, indulging her inner ham. Most obviously, Mulgrew excels at cutting one-liners in episodes like Counterpoint. The version of Janeway presented in Living Witness afford Mulgrew the opportunity to play it large, and she responds by playing it to the hilt. It is a joy to watch, even without the nice production joke about how difficult it was to get Janeway’s hair right.

The script for Living Witness is very clever in this regard, offering a sly off-kilter interpretation of how life on Voyager works, almost as though the show were described to a stranger through a game of Chinese Whispers. “Voyager had many weapons at their disposal, including species they’d assimilated along the way,” Quarren explains. “Borg, Talaxian, Kazon. They were captured and made to work as part of Voyager’s fighting force.” It is a sly reference to the similarities in ideology (if not methodology) between the Federation and the Borg.

To hive and to hive not.

Living Witness is notable as the only episode of Star Trek to be directed by Tim Russ. In an interview with Cinefantastique, Russ was justifiably proud of his work on the story:

“The part that’s the most rewarding really is seeing whether or not what you planned or envisioned actually comes about. If you envision a scene a certain way, it’s very rewarding to see the mechanical process of that happen, and then to see it on the screen when it’s played back, in the same way that you envisioned it, to find out whether or not what you had planned was going to come to life. It was very interesting seeing that process happen. That’s the challenge and it’s the fulfillment that comes out of it.”

He continued, “There are a couple of small points here and there, things I would have liked to have done differently. I can’t do anything about that now. Anything that you’ve done as a type of artwork is never completely finished. It’s never done exactly to satisfaction. There’s always something you could do better. But ultimately, the piece is wonderful. And I’ve gotten very good feedback from it as well.”

For an episode that is so far off-format, Russ does a good job. It likely helped that Tuvok had a relatively small part in the episode, which would have afforded Russ more time to invest in directing.

Safe and secure.

A lot of the impact of the early scenes in Living Witness comes from the production design, the way that the scenes are lit or the way that the props have been subtly altered. Russ’ direction is generally unobtrusive, familiar enough with the basic template of the show that he understands how to emphasise the differences and play against the audience’s expectations; the slow pan around the EMH’s head is a nice touch, as is the introduction of Seven of Nine’s Borg army.

However, Russ’ direction never feels as stylised or off-kilter as it might otherwise. It is interesting to wonder what David Livingston might have done with those first two acts, given his willingness to play with camera angles and lenses in off-format episodes like Crossover or Distant Origin. The opening acts of Living Witness work because they are bizarre images shot in a very matter-of-fact manner, but it might have been interesting to play with the audience’s comfort by shooting the familiar sets from more unusual positions or drawing more attention to artifice.

Brought to heal.

In the years since Living Witness aired, Russ has acknowledged that he felt somewhat confined by the house style on the episode:

If I was to redo it today I would change the way it was shot to be more progressive, more edgy style in terms of the cameras and lighting. Not unlike some of the dramas we have now. Voyager was done in the way the Executive Producer at the time [Rick Berman] liked it to be shot. If you brought him something that was shot outside the box he would make you redo it again.

Although Living Witness works very well in its present form, Russ makes a fair point. The Rick Berman era could be very conservative in its aesthetics, particularly in terms of soundtrack and direction.

Seeing red.

Living Witness is a fantastic episode of television, and superb demonstration of what Voyager does very well. Somewhat ironically, Voyager‘s key strength seems to be pitching itself as a container for generic Star Trek stories. Living Witness is a beautiful piece of Star Trek allegory about the dangers of historical revisionism, the politicisation of history, and the perils of a society unwilling to confront the more uncomfortable chapters of its past.

It is an allegory that has aged very particularly well indeed.

15 Responses

  1. I agree that this episode is fantastic, but I would also argue that it is a distinctly Voyager episode. One of the themes of Voyager is that the ship and crew end up changing civilizations all throughout the Delta Quardrant. The theme is present here, but also in Dragon’s Teeth, Blink of an Eye, and Flesh and Blood. I believe in one episode, though I can’t remember, it is even commented on that Voyager seems to bring destruction everywhere they go.

    • That’s a fair enough point. I think the fascination with history and the malleability of the past is also a very Voyager theme.

      But, at the same time, I think you could do this with the Next Gen or Enterprise casts without missing a beat.

  2. Nice Locutus reference with the war doctor. (Turning to expose his artificial eyes and exposed wiring.)

    There is a cycle of victimhood playing out on the planet which is, arguably, a better Nazi/Zionist parallel than anything DS9 tried.

    The show pulls the ol’ Rod Sterling ol’ with the Vaskans. It’s the whole point of “Nemesis”, but here, it adds texture to the story rather than the be-all, end-all.

    I also enjoyed how the Vaskans look vaguely like Aborigine people. They’re still blacked up (as is custom), but they’re relatable… unlike the Nemesis, who looked out of place in his Brooks Brothers suit.

    • *Rod Serling. Sorry, I’m on mobile again

    • “There is a cycle of victimhood playing out on the planet which is, arguably, a better Nazi/Zionist parallel than anything DS9 tried.”

      Yeah, I always had problems with DS9’s tackling of the Nazis and the Holocaust. The problem is that the Cardassians aren’t Nazis, and the Bajorans aren’t Jews. The Jews did not have their own civilization and were not “invaded”. Jewish lands were not strip mined, there was no Jewish nation that Hitler conquered. I find DS9 did better when they made Cardassia it’s own identity, rather then trying to shoehorn them as Nazis. Gul Dukat was at his least interesting when he declared that he wanted to exterminate the Bajorans.

      I found the Nazi speech from the Killing Game hologram, the most effective commentary on the Nazis in the entire franchise. I love Shanter and Nimoy and I understand they are both Jewish, but the Patterns of Force episode made the alien-nazis too goofy to act as any serious commentary, and the Nazis in Enterprise were just “the bad guys”. So it’s weird that Voyager managed to do a better job (in my opinion) with a Nazi recreation hologram (which might be the only hologram that has coerced a real person for sex) then a show that dealt with slave labor camps. Duet comes close, but Nazi death camp commandants aren’t treated with any kind of honor or protection, I suppose those who ran the Gulags might get protection like they do in that episode, but Gulags aren’t analogous to what happened on Bajor.

      • I agree. Ironic that a “Holonazi” is more convincing than the real deal.

        DS9’s more of a meditation on the perils of western imperialism. The Cardassians want their Pax Americana back. The Federation are well-meaning but morally compromised. The Founder can’t suffer any society which doesn’t conform to her rigid cultural standards.

      • Again, I’ll be in the minority and admit to liking the use of Nazis in Patterns of Force, although mileage may vary. But, yeah, the Nazis in Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II were basically cosplayers. Then again, I’ll always have a soft spot for Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II as weird bookends to The City on the Edge of Forever, episodes treating the Second World War as the cornerstone of the Star Trek universe.

        That said, Boehmer’s speech in The Killing Game, Part II is a beautiful (because it is so horrific) and probably the closest that the franchise comes to capturing the sheer magnitude of the horror of Nazi ideology. This is somewhat undercut by immediately equating the Hirogen Turanj to the Nazis.

    • I like the pseudo Nausicaan dude in his suit. It was weird in a way that Voyager seldom let itself be weird.

  3. “Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation ”

    And yet, it wasn’t. We never got the mirror mirror universe Picard. Oh sure, we got that affable duplicate Picard that tried to get the crew to fly into a star, and we got that affable goateed Picard from Future Imperfect, and *cough* Shinzon *cough*, but we never got Patrick Steward hamming it up with Fascist Picard, which is a real shame. Whenever Patrick Steward got intense like “The line must be drawn HERE! THIS FAR, NO FURTHER! I WILL MAKE THEM PAY FOR WHAT THEY’VE DONE” it was always amazing to witness. Alas, it was Voyager that truly gave me what I wanted, in a really good episode no less! We’ll get another episode like this in Author Author, and in this show, they knew that the episode had to be more then just “evil doppelgangers”, these “fun/corny” episodes actually tackled serious topics, and smartly made them Picardo episodes. This I feel, was when Voyager was firing on all cylinders, using their best actors with unmistakable Star Trek stories that tackled real world issues while showing optimism for the future. As much as I like DS9, or Ent’s In a Mirror Darkly, they didn’t use their mirror mirror episodes to really say anything. Voyager maybe archetypal Star Trek, but I never saw that as a bad thing, and sometimes Voyager was the best at these kinds of episodes. Unfortunately, this model of episode would be used in Blink of an Eye which has become controversial due to the episode using too many elements from Dragon’s Egg.

    I really liked Kate Mulgrew in this episode and I’m glad we got to see Fascist Janeway’s ready room in Author Author, adorned with so many weapons it would make the Hirogen blush. Also, it it just me, or is Tuvok wearing the ears that would be used for the Star Trek reboot?

    • To be fair, I seem to be fonder of In a Mirror, Darkly than most, despite the fact I think the fan service is the weakest aspect. I think it uses the mirror universe quite well, playing into the recurring fourth season theme that the franchise’s utopian future is far from certain. A two-parter about the Terran Empire right before Paxton’s big speech about the need for a “human-centric consciousness” in Demon seems like a very overt thematic point. The hopeful future of the Federation is not assured. In fact, at the time that Enterprise was produced, it arguably seemed much further away than it had been during the nineties.

      (A point also suggested in Babel One and United, in which the Romulans (another classic “space!Romans” civilisation) treat the possible emergence of the Federation as a political and existential threat. The original Star Trek used the “space!Roman” civilisations as a commentary on contemporary America. One of the smarter things about the fourth season of Enterprise is bringing back two of those twisted reflections as the War on Terror kicked into gear. I mean, the Romulans even use drone warfare.)

      But, yeah, I am really disappointed that we never got evil scenery-chewing Patrick Stewart.

  4. I never saw this episode as a kid (VOY was what I grew up watching), and ended up seeing it on a whim after a Star Trek mobile game put in a plotline referring to it. I think now it’s easily in my top 5 favorite VOY episodes, even if it is a bit plodding in the middle.

    Delightful concept and great execution, especially in the first act. Up there with ‘Author, Author’, ‘Tinker Tailor’, and the Pathfinder storyline episodes for me. (Yes, they are all Doctor episodes…but VOY’s best non-action episodes tend to be…)

    For me, the most interesting concept explored was how history is rewritten over time and according to the needs/goals of the writers. It’s an interesting issue and not one that I ever expected to see Star Trek tackle.

    • To be fair, I think it’s a theme to which Voyager returns time and time again. Voyager tends to treat the past as something malleable and warpable, whether in a literal sense (as in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II) or in a more abstract and metaphorical manner (as in Remember or Distant Origin or Latent Image).

  5. Living Witness has the most ambitious scope of any Star Trek episode, so it’s all the more surprising it turns up in VGR. VGR was often a show that shied away from its own implications, and while Living Witness takes place in a far, far (far) distant future that could never impact the Voyager crew, one has to admire it for taking this gamble. Living Witness is up there with the very best that Star Trek has to offer.

    Right from the teaser, we know Living Witness will be a very different experience to most VGR episodes. First, we have Janeway sporting a severe hairdo, black gloves and a slightly more muted uniform while looking out one of the windows of her Ready Room. She’s discussing plans with an alien ambassador to defeat the Kyrians, the enemies of his people, the Vaskans. In return, he will stabilise a nearby wormhole that will get them home (to Mars).

    This is only the first of several surprises. Janeway and Ambassador Daleth move to the Bridge where they launch an all-out assault against the Kyrians, until it stops in the middle of the action and we realise we’re watching a recreation of events in a Kyrian museum, set an astounding 700yrs in the future.

    You half expect this to be one of Star Trek’s illusory episodes (and it is in a sense), but Living Witness is still firmly set in an extremely distant future, and it never backs off from that conceit. The fact this is an episode of a TV series rather than a film is what makes it so staggering.

    The museum curator Quarren is immensely proud of his depiction of “The Voyager Encounter”. In his mind, this is an unfailingly accurate account of what happened seven centuries ago. But some patrons are quick to poke holes in the sequence of events. Did the Vaskans truly conspire with Voyager’s fighting force to conquer the Kyrians, or were Kyrians the true aggressors as the Vaskans have long suspected?

    At this point, our heads are still reeling from what the teaser showed us to even begin to answer that question. But Living Witness has far more in store. As horrifying as the simulation is, it’s impossible to deny its power, no matter how fake we know it must be. The crew of the Warship Voyager are a thoroughly wicked bunch (it’s the closest VGR will ever get to it’s own Mirror episode) who use violence, fear and intimidation to travel the Delta Quadrant, rather than diplomacy and good intentions.

    The cast relish the opportunity to trash they’re characters, even if it’s only for one episode. Janeway’s a single-minded sadist, Chakotay and Harry are good cop/bad cop torturers, the Doctor’s a cold, lethal killing machine, Seven has a Borg army at her command, Tuvok’s a grinning, gleeful weapons man, Tom and Neelix are a couple of thuggish heavies, etc.

    It’s hard not to be entertained by this ruthless Voyager crew (even Daleth thinks they’re methods are excessive) that it’s almost a disappointment to press on with the real story (or more to the point, get us back to the real Voyager crew).

    Quarren discovers a module that contains a backup copy of the Doctor’s program, left over from the days of The Voyager Encounter. The Doctor is mortified to see his former shipmates depicted as villains in the Kyrian history books, and endeavours to set the record straight. But his good intentions backfire when it reignites the Vaskan/Kyrian conflict.

    Living Witness is an astonishing episode. Tim Russ’s excellent direction beautifully engineers each shift in the script. Judging from his work here, Russ could have become the VGR equivalent of Jonathan Frakes. Living Witness is arguably in the same class as TNG classics like The Offspring, Reunion, Cause and Effect and First Contact. What a shame Russ never returned to the directors chair again.

    Tim Russ delivers an astounding piece of television in his debut. He tackles each scene with the same confidence, and whether it calls for a horrifying, jarring or thought-provoking approach, Russ just aces it. He draws out some finely shaded performances from the regulars, and some excellent ones from the guest stars.

    It was a stroke of genius to bring back Henry Woronicz from another VGR masterpiece, Distant Origin. Quarren is in some regards not dissimilar to Professor Gegen. They both manage to shake up they’re respective civilisations when each makes a profound discovery. Living Witness has a happier ending than Distant Origin but Woronicz imbues Quarren with the same radical intelligence he brought to Professor Gegen. The two episodes would make a fine double feature.

    It was wise to put one of VGR’s strongest performers at the centre of Living Witness. Robert Picardo rises to the material with relish. Be it the distorted version of the Doctor we know, or the Doctor’s campaign to clear the names of his crew, we’re riveted all the way.

    Living Witness has one of the finest scripts we’ve ever seen in a Trek episode. As well as the vastly different versions of what happened hundreds of years before anyone in the episode was born, it brings up topics like racial diversity, revisionist history, the inevitable race wars, etc. We see more of the internal politics of the Vaskans and the Kyrians in this single episode than we do of most Star Trek societies, right down to the Kyrian arbiter throwing the logic of Quarren’s argument back in his face. In the end, it always comes back to race.

    Even as things invariably lead to a conflict, Living Witness ends on a hopeful note. It turns out that what we’ve been watching this whole time is yet another simulation, set in the same museum a further 200yrs in the future (the furthest we’ve ever travelled in the Star Trek universe), where we’re treated to a glimpse of the Vaskans and the Kyrians as now a united people. It’s a suitably dizzying coda to a vastly ambitious episode.

    Living Witness, along with Year of Hell, are the two best examples this season of VGR fully aware of what it can offer when it remembers what it has to offer.

    • Yep, Living Witness is one of the great Voyager episodes, and one of the ones which has aged better than a lot of those around it. (Indeed, it seems to have gotten more relevant as time marches on, and as the we increasingly see the dangers that nostalgic fantasy can unleash upon the world.)

  6. One way this couldn’t be a TNG episode is that the TNG cast would almost assuredly be remembered as heroes and saints. It’s quite telling that the Voyager crew are remembered as a callous band of violent thugs who selfishly sold out a planet for their own good and then warped off, leaving the broken civilization to pick up the pieces. Though I will say this anti-heroic crew is in some ways more entertaining than most of the regular crew.

    It’s also interesting that the Borg, far from being remembered as an existential plague to the entire quadrant, are remembered as merely Voyager’s thoroughly domesticated muscle.

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