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Trump Trek: How Star Trek: Voyager is Perfectly Trumpian Star Trek…

Star Trek has built up a fascinating pop culture mythology around itself. There is an interesting dissonance between that memory and the reality.

The fond memory of a thing is not the thing itself. It is a cliché to observe that the line “beam me up, Scotty” was never actually said on the original show, but many casual fans associate the phrase with the franchise. Even hardcore Star Trek fans tend to gloss over the historical record in favour of affectionate memory. Many fans remember the pointed anti-Vietnam rhetoric of A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy or The Trouble with Tribbles. Few remember the pro-Vietnam tone of Friday’s Child, The Apple or The Omega Glory.

There is a tendency to believe that Star Trek has always been progressive, that the franchise has always embraced tolerance and actively pursued diversity. However, the reality is often more complicated than that. This why certain sections of the fanbase seem to react in abject terror to concepts like “Trek Against Trump”, a campaign organised by Armin Shimerman to protest the racism and xenophobia espoused by the (then-) candidate Donald Trump. One would imagine that rejecting sexism, racism, white nationalism would be a no-brainer for fandom, but it was not.

Indeed, this reactionary strain of fandom has come up time and again in the context of Star Trek: Discovery. Certain vocal sections of the fan base have objected to the diversity of the primary cast, despite the fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably had a much more diverse ensemble. The backlash has reached the point that the cast have had to actually give interviews that racism is a very bad thing and that the franchise is very much about tolerance and understanding. Similarly, the news that the series would be overtly political has rattled some cages in fandom.

In theory, these reactions should be shocking. The Star Trek franchise has carefully cultivated a reputation for liberalism and idealism. Indeed, the Federation is quite explicitly socialist, something hinted at in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and explicitly confirmed in Star Trek: First Contact. On a more fundamental level, the franchise is about people from different cultures and with different values coming together to work in common purpose. It seems reasonably fair to argue the franchise would disagree with concepts like “the Muslim Ban” or “the Transgender Service Ban.”

However, the truth is that there has always been a reactionary streak lurking within the franchise. And nowhere has that reactionary streak been stronger than in Star Trek: Voyager, bleeding over into the creation and first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise.

To some observers, it is surprising how much of the reaction to Star Trek: Discovery has been reactionary, with a very vocal section of the fandom reacting against the perceived diversity of the cast. In the context of nerd fandom, this is to be expected. What was GamerGate but a response to the intrusion of women and minorities into what had previously been considered a white male space? An all-female adaptation of Ghostbusters became a rallying cry to a generation of white male nerds. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens came under fire for its female and black leads.

Within so-called “geek culture”, there is a sense that these franchises and properties exist as white male “safe spaces.” (The alt-right’s contempt for that phrase seems almost an act of projection, given how much of their energy is expended to trying to force women and minorities out of conceptual species that they deem to be under their control.) Still, the Star Trek franchise seems like it should exist apart from all of this white male posturing. After all, everybody knows that the Star Trek franchise was built on a foundation of liberal humanism, right?

Sadly, Discovery (the first new Star Trek series in over a decade) was not immune to such noxious reactionary posturing, as Manu Saadia outlined:

This being the United States in 2017, Internet trolls are accusing Star Trek: Discovery, the newest incarnation of the sci-fi franchise, due to début on television in the fall, of white genocide. The commotion began last week, when the show’s trailer first appeared on YouTube. It opens with a conversation between the two lead characters, a starship captain and her first officer, played by Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green, both women of color. Very quickly, the comments section was filled with garden-variety Trekkie gripes—the Klingons looked weird, there was too much lens flare, the dialogue was hammy, the uniforms were non-canonical. Many commenters, though, were clearly appalled by the absence of white men in command positions. “Where is the alpha male that has balls and doesn’t take crap from anyone?” one asked. “Is everything going to have to have females in every fucking thing?” another asked. A third person called Yeoh “a reject from a overseas customer-support line.” A fourth dubbed the show “Star Trek: Feminist Lesbian Edition.”

To some Star Trek fans, this vocal online reaction might come as a surprise. However, there has always been a reactionary element to the Star Trek franchise.

It is worth conceding that Star Trek was never as liberal as it claims to have been. For all that Gene Roddenberry took credit for the franchise’s diverse future, the truth is that the cast diversity occurred at the direction of the network. Even claims such as the assertion that Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on American television are readily falsifiable. I, Spy beat it to the punch by a year. More than that, the only black-and-white kiss in Star Trek, in the episode Plato’s Stepchildren was presented as analogous to sexual assault.

Similarly, the Rick Berman era mostly ignored the fight for gay and transgender rights that was unfolding against the backdrop of the late eighties through to the twenty-first century. David Gerrold’s script for Blood and Fire was vetoed. Writer René Echevarria worked gay and transgender themes into the background of episodes like The Offspring and Transfigurations, but they were never articulated. Star Trek: The Next Generation clumsily and half-heartedly built issue episodes like The Host and The Outcast.

Enterprise teased audiences with the potential of the franchise’s first gay regular character, only to retreat at the last moment. When the franchise built an episode about AIDS in Stigma, it focused on the acceptable-to-conservative-audiences archetype of a female rape victim rather than exploring impact of the disease within the cultural context of homosexual community. Even Deep Space Nine fumbled the ball. Rejoined was well-meaning and Chimera was justifiably angry, but mirror universe episodes like The Emperor’s New Cloak still pandered to the fetishisation of lesbianism.

However, broadly speaking, these shows were intended to be progressive. The Next Generation could be almost insufferable in its early days, with the crew offering sanctimonious lectures on how advanced they were in episodes like Lonely Among Us or The Neutral Zone. When The Next Generation tried to create an iconic new alien species for the franchise, the disastrous result was the Ferengi in The Last Outpost, a race of trollish capitalists. Still, however clumsy these attempts might have been, the show’s politics were clearly progressive and utopian.

Deep Space Nine arguably fared better, if only because it seemed slightly more cynical about the preachiness of The Next Generation. Deep Space Nine was less explicitly socialist, embracing the idea of a gently capitalist future in scripts like In the Cards and Treachery, Faith and the Great River. Still, the series endorsed the regulation of the market in stories like The Dogs of War. More than any other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine embraced multiculturalism. The show explicitly tackled race in episodes like Far Beyond the Stars and Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang.

Voyager exists as a contrast to these approaches. The story of a lone starship trapped in the Delta Quadrant, a distant and hostile region of space. Captain Kathryn Janeway finds herself tasked with getting her crew home, managing a fragile coalition of Starfleet and Maquis officers along with a handful of aliens picked up along the way. On paper, this sounds like it should me the most liberal of Star Trek series. In the context of the 2016 election, this should be Hillary Clinton all the way; a diverse coalition all pledging “I’m with her.”

However, it is worth pausing to acknowledge the cultural context of Voyager. There is a stereotype about the entertainment industry, that it is inherently liberal and progressive, a reflection of its California surroundings. After all, California was home to everything from surfer culture to Berkley campus politics to the hippie movement in San Fransisco. As with New York, there is a tendency to view California as disconnected from “the real America”, adopting a patronising and condescending attitude to other regions of the country.

There are certainly aspects of this attitude to be found in Voyager, particularly due to the influence of creator and early showrunner Michael Piller. Like Chris Carter on The X-Files, Piller had a very strong interest in New Age philosophy. This attitude shone through in the character of Chakotay, a Native Americna character with a very hazy cultural background who frequently served as a gateway to plots about New Age nonsense like The Cloud or Tattoo. Even beyond Chakotay, Piller infused the series with a New Age sensibility, as demonstrated by episodes like Sacred Ground.

California is more than just a liberal stereotype. In the mid-nineties, it was a political hotbed. In particular, the state’s racial politics were highly polarised, due to events like the Los Angeles Riots and the O.J. Simpson Trial. There was also tension surrounding immigration into the state from Mexico. For all the state has a liberal reputation, it also has populist leanings. Indeed, Scott Lucas has pointed out that many of the key figures in Trumpism came of age in California:

Under the hood, the state has been the ideological engine of the more heterodox strain of Trumpism now driving much of the president’s policy. Bannon, though raised in Virginia, honed his political identity in Los Angeles, where he spent more than a decade pumping out right-wing documentaries before taking over Breitbart News. White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hard-liner who may be the next-most influential thinker in Trumpland, is a product of the decidedly liberal enclave of Santa Monica. Michael Anton, an erudite high-level National Security Council aide, was raised in Northern California, including ultra-liberal Santa Cruz. Julia Hahn, Bannon’s bomb-throwing fellow Breitbart alum who is now an aide in the West Wing, grew up in Los Angeles, where she attended the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School—also the alma mater of Alex Marlow, the editor of Breitbart, the website that has become the primary media vehicle for Trump’s nationalist agenda.

It is not a coincidence that these populist conservative elements of the Trump administration developed in California during the eighties and nineties. As tempting as it might be to think of California as a state that is perpetually blue, the region has a much more complicated political legacy. (Most superficially, California was also the origin point of Reaganism, elected Ronald Reagan as its governor, and voted for him in both elections.)

Voyager reflects this conservatism in its core concept. More than any other Star Trek spin-off, Voyager marks a conscious effort to return to the “space western” aesthetic that defined the original show. This is particularly obvious from the outset. The pilot episode, Caretaker, unfolds primarily from the perspective of Thomas Eugene Paris, the only white American male in the primary cast. The episode is saturated with western clichés. Chakotay is presented as a faithful Native American sidekick, with the Kazon standing in for the primitives on the frontier.

While Deep Space Nine celebrated the diversity of its cast, Voyager works hard to erase it. Despite the fact that Janeway is supposedly commanding a crew compromised of characters with very differing value systems, the show downplays any sense of cultural difference. On Deep Space Nine, characters like Odo and Kira kept their different uniforms and command structures for the seven-year run of the show. On Voyager, the Maquis crewmembers were wearing Starfleet uniforms by the end of Caretaker, their differences resolved by the end of Parallax.

Deep Space Nine celebrated diversity and multiculturalism, encouraging characters like Quark and Worf and Garak to honor their cultures and their values. Deep Space Nine featured entire episodes focusing almost exclusively on Klingon characters on Klingon ships; Soldiers of the Empire, Sons and Daughters, Once More Unto the Breach. Deep Space Nine built episodes around an ensemble of Ferengi supporting players: Family Business, Little Green Men, Ferengi Love Songs, The Magnificent Ferengi, Profit and Lace.

In contrast, Voyager rejected any suggestion that its characters could exist outside a traditional Starfleet hierarchy. The character of Seska rejected Janeway’s leadership in Prime Factors, but the show immediately revealed her to be a Cardassian spy and cast her off the ship in State of Flux. When Learning Curve pointed out that maybe a bunch of former terrorists wouldn’t readily integrate into a Starfleet hierarchy, the show made a point to beat those round pegs to make them fit the square hole.

Like Trumpism, Voyager seemed afraid of anything different. Like Trumpism, Voyager also leaned authoritarian. Janeway never accepted any debate or any question about her leadership style, never accepted that the unique situation might merit a unique approach to command. In a decision that evokes the nostalgic politics of Trumpism, Janeway refused to accept that the situation had fundamentally changed and instead retreated into the fantasy of a very conventional (and very old-fashioned) Starfleet command style.

Voyager is saturated with the nostalgia that informed a lot of the Trump campaign. Voyager is literally and fundamentally the story of a crew retreating back to the familiar. Star Trek and The Next Generation were about explorers pushing outwards and embracing the wonder of the new. Deep Space Nine is about the intersection of alien cultures and different value systems. However, Voyager is not about exploration. Voyager is about a ship desperately longing to return to an idealised notion of home, much like Trumpism longs for a return to an idealised past.

This nostalgia was reflected in the plotting and structure of Voyager. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had both changed how Star Trek told stories. The Next Generation introduced the idea of character-centric storytelling to the television franchise, with Piller insisting that episodes reveal something about the characters. Deep Space Nine introduced serialisation and long-form plotting. In contrast, Voyager allowed its storytelling to stagnate. In its seven seasons, it never even kept pace with Deep Space Nine, never moving past the template established by The Next Generation.

It is perhaps coincidental that Voyager is also the Berman era spin-off that feels most strongly connected with the fifties, which also appears to be a focal point for the nostalgia of the Trump campaign. This fifties aesthetic permeated Voyager. Consider the trappings of Tom Paris’ romantic holodeck programmes in Lifesigns, Bride of Chaotica! or Repression. Consider the b-movie horror aesthetic of episodes like Cathexis, Cold Fire, Darkling or In the Flesh. Consider the spectre of the atomic bomb in episodes like Jetrel, Dreadnought or Warhead.

However, Voyager‘s populist brand of conservatism becomes particularly clear when it comes to the portrayal of the Delta Quadrant in general. In many ways, it reflects the strong populist xenophobic attitudes within California during the nineties that Bob Galbraith would argue served as a prototype for Trumpism:

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

In California, during the nineties, the state’s white population felt a palpable unease about shifting demographics. They were particularly wary of minorities and immigrants. Voyager very much plays into these base instincts in various ways over the course of its run.

In contrast to the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants, the Delta Quadrant is not dominated by galactic empires or powers. in many ways, the Star Trek franchise had treated the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants as analogous to the western world, with great powers vying for dominance; the Romulans and the Klingons could be stand-ins for Soviet Russia, while the Cardassians and the Dominion could be read as Nazi Germany. In contrast, Voyager presented the Delta Quadrant as a more disorganised and fractured political environment.

If the Alpha Quadrant was the western world, the Delta Quadrant was the developing world. Cultures tended to be less socially and technologically advanced than Voyager. The region was dominated by dictatorships with no respect for human rights, as seen in episodes like Resistance, WarlordThe Chute, Counterpoint. The series was especially fond of the trope of the “cargo cult”, societies building myths around their Alpha Quadrant visitors; worshipping the Ferengi in False Profits, venerating the EMH in Virtuouso, mythologising Voyager in Blink of an Eye and Muse.

These alien species were typically hostile and predatory, often seeking to take advantage of Janeway and her crew. Voyager frequently suggested that Janeway and her crew were right to regard the inhabitants of the region with suspicion. Displaced finds a bunch of aliens gradually replacing the Voyager crew, initially seemingly innocent only to later be revealed as hostile; it is a very literal expression of the fear of being supplanted that underscores so much modern xenophobia. Similarly, Day of Honour finds Voyager held to ransom by a group of conniving refugees.

It is worth contrasting this outlook with that of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. On The Next Generation, it frequently seemed like the Enterprise was an intergalactic bus service carrying a message of peace. One of the stock Next Generation episodes would find the ship carrying an emissary or diplomat from one place to another, or acting as the site of an important negotiation, acknowledging the Federation’s place as a galactic leader; Lonely Among Us, Loud as a Whisper, The DauphinThe Price, The Vengeance FactorSarek, Reunion, and so on.

On Deep Space Nine, the eponymous space station tended to serve as a galactic hub. It was a point of intersection for several major galactic powers, with new visitors from new worlds visiting on a regular basis; Move Along Home, Vortex, The Forsaken. It was a place of negotiation and compromise; The Storyteller, Life Support. It was a place where different cultures could work together; Destiny, Tears of the Prophets. It was also a place frequented by heads of state of the Ferengi Alliance, the Klingon Empire and the Cardassian Union. It even had a Klingon restaurant.

In contrast, Voyager seems practically isolationist. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine are intrigued by the alien, excited at the prospect of understanding new worlds and new ideas. If the Federation is an extrapolation of contemporary America into the future, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine take great pride in the United States’ role as a global leader in terms of international diplomacy. In contrast, Voyager tends to retreat from all of that into a position that is much closer to the foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Much like Trumpism, Voyager is afraid of anything that exists outside its frame of reference. It is a show afraid of immigrants and skeptical of refugees. Voyager point-blank rejects the sense of galactic responsibility that defined The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. When Voyager does interact with alien cultures, like in Prototype or Dragon’s Teeth, they are frequently revealed to be cynical and manipulative. Under Janeway, the ship rejects any sense of social responsibility. Much like Trumpism preaches “America First”, Janeway believes in “Voyager First.”

Voyager is dedicated to preserving its own cultural identity and returning back to the comfort and security of familiar surroundings. One of the most striking aspects of Voyager is the way in which the ship seems static and unchanging. No matter how much damage is done to the ship, no matter how much of the bridge is destroyed, the natural order consistently reasserts itself. Voyager is frequently attacked and damaged, occasionally destroyed; Manoeuvres, DeadlockYear of Hell, Part IITimelessRelativity. However, it always reverts to the default shape.

The crew never have to fundamentally alter the design of the ship, or make any changes to their living conditions. The Borg enhancements added to the ship’s exterior in Scorpion, Part II are quickly removed at the end of The Gift. Although it is implied that some of the enhancements are retained, none of them are ever visible outside of Seven of Nine’s living area. When Torres builds a dilithium refinery on the ship in Phage, it never disrupts the sterile feel of the ship. After seven years in the Delta Quadrant, Voyager looks exactly the same as it did departing Deep Space Nine in Caretaker.

This is also try of the social structures on Voyager. Despite spending seven years in the Delta Quadrant, the Starfleet command structure is never seriously questioned outside of the holoprogramme in Worst Case Scenario and the mind control in Repression. Despite the fact that the crew spend seven years in a tight space together, there is never any indication of social changes or development. In seven years, there is only one marriage on the ship (in Drive) and only one child conceived during the journey (in Lineage). This is less social dynamism than Deep Space Nine.

Writer Ronald D. Moore argued that this very rigid and ordered (and conservative) social structure represented one of the fundamental conceptual flaws with Voyager as a television series:

By the end of the pilot, you have the Maquis in those Starfleet uniforms, and— boom—we’ve begun the grand homogenization. Now they are any other ship. I don’t know what the difference is between Voyager and the Defiant or the Saratoga or the Enterprise or any other ship sitting around the Alpha Quadrant doing its Starfleet gig. That to me is appalling, because if anything, Voyager—coming home, over this journey, with that crew—by the time they got back to Earth, they should be their own subculture. They should be so different from the people who left, that Starfleet won’t even recognize them any more. What are the things that would truly come up on a ship lost like that? Wouldn’t they have to start not only bending Starfleet protocols, but throwing some of them right out the window? If you think about it in somewhat realistic terms: you’re on Voyager; you are on the other side of the galaxy; for all you know, it is really going to take another century to get home, and there is every chance that you are not going to make it, but maybe your children or grandchildren will. Are you really going let Captain Janeway [Kate Mulgrew] rule the ship for the next century. It seems like, in that kind of situation, the ship would eventually evolve its own sort of society. It would have to function in some way, other than just this military protocol that we repeat over and over again because it’s the only thing we know. You’ve got the Maquis onboard. From the get-go they are supposed to be the anti-Starfleet people. They behave exactly like the Starfleet people with the occasional nod towards B’Elanna [Roxann Dawson] making a snide remark about Starfleet protocols, or Chakotay [Robert Beltran] getting a little quasi-spiritual. But in essence, they are no different than any other ship in the fleet.

Of course, this reluctance to take advantage of the narrative opportunities presented by the premise reflects a narrative conservatism on the part of Voyager, a nostalgia for The Next Generation and a reluctance to try anything new and provocative. However, it also reflects a more conservative worldview.

Voyager insists that the ship is a self-contained community where nothing can ever be allowed to change. The design of the ship must be preserved at all costs, even when the ship is all-but-destroyed (or even actually destroyed). The social order must be maintained, even when it makes no sense. Voyager is fundamentally afraid of anything unfamiliar, and the fixation on the preservation of social order on the ship is a reflection of that anxiety. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine are thrilled by the potential of exploration. Voyager retreats from it.

Voyager frequently seems wary of the idea that Janeway and her crew are part of the universe through which they move. They stand apart from it all, an island of stability. The issue of resource management comes up quite rarely on the series. Sure, replicator rations are mentioned frequently and the idea of trade forms the basis of episodes like Fair Trade and Random Thoughts. However, the ship very rarely seems to need supplies in any urgent sense. Demon is a rare episode where the ship seems to actually need raw materials in order to stay functioning.

For the most part, the crew are able to live off the ship itself. Parallax goes out of its way to explain why the holodecks are still working and that there will never be a situation when they aren’t working. The crew of Voyager seem to spend more time in the holodeck than actually exploring; The Cloud, Heroes and Demons, CathexisProjections, Twisted, Lifesigns, WarlordReal Life, Worst Case Scenario, Vis á Vis, NightExtreme Risk, Nothing Human, Bride of Chaotica!, Fair Haven, Spirit Folk, Author, Author. The crew of Voyager retreat inwards rather than push outwards.

This isolation is justified. In the Delta Quadrant, even species claiming to be friendly inevitably seek to exploit these well-meaning tourists. In Nemesis, some warring aliens conspire desperately to draw Chakotay into a conflict that very consciously evokes Vietnam. In Think Tank, a local organisation offers to assist Voyager, promising to trade their help for the blonde-haired and blue-eyed Seven of Nine. When Voyager meets a genuinely friendly species, as in Sacred Ground, even Janeway admits her surprise.

Even the major alien species tend to fit this analogy, playing into western stereotypes about the region. The Kazon were tribal warlords picking through the remains of a colonial power. The Vidiians (Phage, Faces, Lifesigns, Deadlock, Resolutions) were a culture ravaged by disease, perhaps reflecting the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa. The Hirogen (Hunters, Prey, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II) were cast as “great white hunters.” The Malon (Night, Extreme Risk, Juggernaut) were industrial polluters causing damage to indigenous populations.

The Borg might be the biggest exception to this portrayal of the Delta Quadrant, existing as a vast and powerful entity that haunts the Delta Quadrant. However, the Borg play into Voyager‘s populist conservatism in other ways. Voyager repeatedly approaches the Borg as the embodiment of industrialisation and automation, contrasting them with Leonardo Da Vinci’s mechanical anvil in Scorpion, Part I, tying them to Da Vinci’s workshop in The Raven and even using Seven of Nine to evoke automation in One. This fear of automation is itself an underpinning of Trumpism.

It is worth pausing to note the awkward gender politics of Voyager. Although Voyager was the first Star Trek show to have a female lead, it often struggled to consistently characterise Janeway. Voyager was never entire sure whether Janeway was a more conventionally maternal figure to her crew (Prey, Hope and FearThe Disease) or a scientist who found herself struggling emotionally with a long-term command assignment (Heroes and Demons, Persistence of VisionNight) or a mimetic badass (MacrocosmYear of Hell, Part IYear of Hell, Part II.)

Voyager tended to adopt a subtly social conservatism with regards to the role of the women on the cast. Janeway’s first romantic dalliance occurred in Counterpoint, five seasons into the series; Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Archer all had romances within the first two seasons. The character of Torres was assaulted by male colleagues in three consecutive episodes (Blood Fever, Unity, Darkling) without any of them facing consequences. Favourite Son featured a planet of hyper-sexed sirens luring male travelers to their doom. Retrospect was rape apologia.

This is to say nothing of the awkward attempts to sexualise female crew members. The character of Kes was only two years old when she joined Voyager, but the production team still put her in a deeply unhealthy (borderline abusive) relationship with the possessive Neelix, as explored in Phage, Twisted and Parturition. In the third season in particular, the show tried to sexualise Kes, by putting her in tighter cat suits towards the end of her tenure and by insisting in episodes like Warlord and Darkling that her male mentor figures were covertly lusting after her.

All of this would culminate in the introduction of the character of Seven of Nine in Scorpion, Part II. Seven of Nine was an intriguing character, a woman traumatised by her abduction and assimilation as a child. Episodes like The Raven, Prey and Hope and Fear suggested that Seven of Nine had the emotional maturity of a teenager. However, the show repeatedly and consciously sexualised her; the EMH put her in a skintight catsuit in The Gift, she casually offered to sleep with Kim in Revulsion, she was stripped nude in Q2. Seven was a glorified sex object, an outdated cultural relic.

However, the primary overlap between Voyager and Trumpist populism remains a palpable fear of difference, often coded in racial terms. To unpack this, it’s worth exploring the show’s most ambitious narrative experiment: the Kazon arc. Again, this is a reminder that the show existed against the backdrop of the mid-nineties, and that its politics reflected that backdrop. The writers working on the early seasons of Voyager explicitly intended for its Kazon arc to be read as a piece of political commentary.

During the nineties, California was obsessed with the perceived threat of gang violence committed by young minorities. This fear was inevitably racially coded, as gang members were typically presented as African American or Latino teenagers. Urban legends quickly sprang up around these gangs, with horror stories about their initiation rights: that gangs would drive around with their headlights off and kill anybody who dared flash them, that gangs were targetting people wearing white t-shirts, that gangs were bumping cars and killing anybody who got out to challenge them.

Voyager existed in this context. The making-of book, A Vision of the Future, includes this exchange from crew members working on Basics, Part II:

Wil Thoms straddles a bench, facing Charlie Russo. Wil is telling Charlie about his latest run-in with “those little punks” – teenage gang members – who are trying to take over the neighbourhood where Wil lives in the San Fernando Valley. Gang problems have been increasing the last few years, and so has Wil’s antigang crusade.

Despite threats on his life and attacks on his property, Wil has been resolute in his activism. He has been successful in getting some of his neighbours to join his efforts, and as a result the street he lives on is safer and quieter than it once was.

“But those little punks don’t give up,” he tells Charlie. “They just moved to the next street over.” Wil and his neighbours are now expanding their efforts to enlist the aid of the homeowners on the surrounding streets. “They have no right to interfere with our lives,” he says emphatically. “No right.”

This gives a sense of how charged the racial atmosphere was during the nineties, and deeply it permeated the production of Voyager.

This particular preoccupation with youth violence committed by minorities bled into the early seasons of Voyager. The show’s first new alien species was the Kazon. The Kazon were superficially similar to the Klingons, with their forehead ridges, their dark skin, and their warrior culture. However, they were markedly different from any previous Star Trek series in that they were consciously divided into competing sects. The Ogla were introduced in Caretaker, the Nistrim in State of Flux, the Relora and Mostral in Manoeuvres, the Pommar, the Hobii and the Oglamar in Alliances.

The Kazon were clearly created to serve a variety of purposes. In superficial terms, they played into the “space western” aesthetic of Caretaker by providing a stereotypically “primitive” and “savage” enemy species that could be used in a manner similar to the way that fifties westerns had used Native Americans. More pointedly, the Kazon were clearly intended as a commentary on gang violence. In the early second season episode Initiations, Chakotay finds himself dealing with a young Kazon being “initiated” into the Ogla by drawing first blood from an innocent passer-by.

In an interview with Cinefantastique, showrunner Michael Piller acknowledged that the Kazon were clearly meant to be an analogy for Los Angeles gangs:

The Kazon were intended to be [like] Los Angeles street gangs. We were living in a time still under the influence of the riots in Los Angeles that terrified us all. It seemed to me an extraordinarily interesting idea to have an area of space that was ruled by anarchy, not just anarchy, but young anarchy. My original vision for the Kazon was that none of them would live beyond the age of twenty because they killed each other off in these continuing battles for territory and superiority. Youth was all they knew. When we got there, we were surrounded by these wild, young, street-gang kind of people who were not technically superior to us. But through their massive numbers and ruthlessness, they became extraordinarily difficult for us to deal with.

In the early production discussions published in A Vision of the Future, the Kazon were initially identified as “the Bloods” and “the Crips.”

The back story of the Kazon became increasingly problematic. When Michael Piller charged Kenneth Biller with coming up for a “bible” for the Kazon in the early second season, Biller seized upon the racially-coded subtext of the Kazon and explicitly wrote it into their back story. Playing up the idea of the Kazon as stand-ins for young African American men, Biller imagined the Kazon as a race of former slaves that had overthrown their masters and unleashed hell upon the Delta Quadrant as a whole.

This was uncomfortable enough, even before Voyager decided to explore that back story on screen in the episode Alliances. In that episode, Janeway encounters the Trabe. The Trabe are the race that had previously enslaved the Kazon. They are presented as much whiter and much more conventionally “human looking” than the Kazon. Their clothes are neater, their dialogue is more sophisticated, their politics more civilised. While the Kazon are presented as savages, the Trabe are presented as comfortably middle-class.

Tellingly, after more than a year of failing to find common ground with the Kazon, Janeway immediately hits it off the Trabe. The Trabe are very much Janeway’s sort of people. They dine together, they discuss politics, they engage one another. The Trabe seem like thoroughly decent individuals, the very ideal of benign slave owners. Once again, Voyager plays into particular populist white conservative fantasies. One in five Trump supporters believes that ending slavery was a bad idea. Many Trump voters support preserving monuments to people who fought to preserve slavery.

To be fair, the Trabe inevitably betray Janeway at the end of Alliances, but Voyager insists that they have a point. Janeway is never able to feel any sympathy or understanding for the Kazon, who mount a campaign to hijack her ship in the episodes leading up to Investigations and who succeed in such a campaign in Basics, Part I. There is a sense that the Delta Quadrant would be a much safer place if the Trabe had never been overthrown by the Kazon, that slave uprising and revolt serving as another articulation of the fears of certain segments of white America.

(Interestingly, Deep Space Nine ran its own “freed slave” narrative in parallel with Voyager, focusing on the Jem’Hadar. It arguably played on the same problematic racial anxieties, albeit in a more subtle manner. The Abandoned was an episode that explored the idea of racially-coded teenage violence. It was a rather unfortunate episode, but at least it acknowledged that such violence existed in a cultural context. Hippocratic Oath suggested that Jem’Hadar violence was tied to the oppression that they experienced more than any inherent quality. Rocks and Shoals afforded the Jem’Hadar some dignity.)

To be fair, a lot of these attitudes and anxieties bled forward into the first two seasons of Enterprise. Notably, Enterprise was the least diverse Star Trek series since The Next Generation, and the first with a white male American captain since the original Star Trek. In many ways, Broken Bow established Enterprise as Star Trek for the Bush era, commanded by a charming (and relatively bland) American good ol’ boy with deep-seated daddy issues and a need to prove everybody wrong about it.

These impulses within Enterprise were only heightened by the trauma of 9/11. The first two seasons of Enterprise embraced the xenophobic anxieties of Enterprise and ramped them up to eleven. Space was presented as a hostile environment occupied by predatory alien species. Stories like Minefield and The Communicator suggested that it might be best to hope that space was big enough for alien cultures to leave one another alone. Dawn replayed the classic Next Generation story Darmok, forsaking the humanist ending for something far more isolationist.

However, at least the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise sought to exorcise these demons. The third season of Enterprise felt like an attempt to draw venom from the wound, playing out as a recreation of the War on Terror in which the crew struggled (and essentially managed) to recover the franchise’s trademark optimism about the human condition. The third season was not perfect, but it seemed more hopeful about peace and understanding than anything in the prior two seasons of the entirety of Voyager.

To be fair to Voyager, there are some points on which the series departs from the modern populist movement known as “Trumpism.” Repeatedly over the course of the series, Voyager hits on the importance of memory and the dangers of nationalism mythmaking. In particular, Voyager seems very concerned about the dangers of letting the horrors of the Holocaust slip from living memory. Episodes like Remember, Distant Origin, Living Witness and Memorial touch on these themes, stressing the importance of remembering past horrors, even when forgetting is easier.

Voyager would never downplay the horrors of the Holocaust in the way that the Trump administration has consistently done. In theory, memory is very important to Voyager. To alter a person’s memory is to disrupt their identity, and it comes with very serious consequences, as suggested through episodes like Flashback and Latent Image. At the same time, there is something disingenuous about Voyager‘s fascination with memory. Voyager is a show with no real continuity from episode to episode, no real sense of progress or movement.

Voyager is a show that longs to return to the comfortable and the familiar, but never feels like it is moving forward. Perhaps that, more than anything else, explains why it is the perfect Star Trek show for the Trump era.

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20 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed reading through this intelligent and thoughtful piece. It will make me think about the issues you raise. Basically, those of us who love “Star Trek”, in each of its incarnations, make it our own and choose to see exactly what we want to see in the characters and stories. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s 50 years since I sat in the basement with my dad and watched the first episode.

    • Thanks Greer!

      You watched the first episode live (or almost live, if you were in the UK)? Amazing. I can’t imagine coming to the franchise with no real preconceptions and just being able to get sucked in. It sound like something really special.

      • I watched it in Canada. My dad and I shared a love of space travel and that’s what drew me in, when I read the TV guide. Everyone I knew saw my love of the show as additional evidence that I was most odd.

      • Ha!

        I grew up watching The Next Generation with my grandparents. I still have the VHS’ tucked away somewhere.

  2. Posted a link to this on Facebook.

  3. I can’t argue with your points.

    It’s fitting that JFK is so integrated into the Star Trek world, considering his role in the civil rights and struggle (to say nothing of Latin America) was not pretty. But somehow the imagery has succeeded, even if the reality was never there.

    And it endures. “Fully automated luxury communism” is a marketing gimmick. Star Trek is, and always will be, required viewing for the left. Does that make us hypocrites?

    Well, Ayn Rand collected social security.

    • Thanks Warde. I mean, I hope it goes without saying that I love Star Trek, even Voyager. It’s just fascinating to actually unpack it all, and dig into it and discover that it’s not quite what most people want it to be.

  4. You’re Irish. Your opinion on American politics is useless and not wanted.

  5. Once again I am delighted by your additional thoughts about a franchise I mostly watch for entertainment. Even that I never watched Voyager until the end, did not lessen this said enjoyment for me. So, I guess I only want to say ‘Thanks’ again for these general pieces and your blog as a whole.
    Konrad

    • Mulgrew has a certain kind of grace and style, and even the show gave her little to do (Stewart got to play a P.O.W, Brooks actually directed a few episodes), he manages to be the best thing in it. She even gets orgasmic when reciting some of the technobabble which is oddly beguiling.

      Most of the VOY episodes are played for laughs, and even the secondary characters manage to get in a joke or two. More importantly, the show moves at a brisk clip, so there is no time to dwell to plot holes or moral ambiguities. With one line, Janeway can change her entire worldview on a sixpence.

      In comparison, Enterprise moved more slowly. The crew was mis-characterized by a factor of 10, to a point where even an actor of Bakula’s caliber has trouble convincing. This was especially troublesome for the show because it felt like even Archer didn’t believe what he was saying.

      • Mulgrew really is great. She’s one of the three strongest actors in the ensemble, by a considerable distance. Which is remarkable, given Janeway is by far the worst served of those three leads.

    • Thanks Konrad, that means a lot to me. I really appreciate it.

  6. Darren,

    I love and admire your reviews, and I think you constantly raise excellent points I’d never have considered but I honestly think you are trying very hard to stretch something that isn’t there, or that is only partially there. I’m not saying there are no echoes of Trumpism in ‘Voyager’ but if your only mention of ‘Clinton’ refers to Hillary in the election of 2016 in a political article about a show you yourself maintain is firmly of the 1990s it is hard not to see this as a ferociously partisan reading.

    Of course everyone is partisan but for a while now it has seemed this blog has become more and more one sided. That is your right of course and often there is a lot of truth to it, but I’m afraid I’m burned out by the constant conservative bashing here. Trump seems to come forced into every second review at this point.

    I’m going to withdraw from this site. I wish you all the luck in the world and I still think very few people are funny and penetrating a critic, but the constant partisanship is to much. So long and thanks for the reviews.

    -Ross

    • Thanks Ross. I appreciate your comments a great deal, and you’ll be sorely missed. I am sorry that I’ve driven you away, and I hope you’ll return. Maybe in four or eight years.

      That said, I think I should respond to a number of your points with just a number of quick observations:

      (a.) I’m not entirely sure that’s it fair to say that Trump is forced into every second review.

      Of my last twenty articles…
      DS9: Penumbra – no; Trumpian Trek – yes; Voyager: Think Tank – no; Dangal podcast – no; God in pop culture – yes; Voyager: The Fight – no; mother! review – no; IT and eighties nostalgia – yes; DS9 – Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges – no; IT review – no; Voyager: Course Oblivion – no; Cinema Paradiso podcast – yes; Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang – yes; The Black Prince review – no; book launch – no; Patti Cake$ review – no; Voyager: The Disease – no; Dark Frontier, Part II – no; The Defenders: The Defenders – yes; We Stood Like Kings piece – no;

      That’s about 25% of articles that even mention Trump. Which is high, but it’s worth remembering that articles tend to run long. (The piece on God only mentions him in a paragraph, and also mentions George W. Bush, for example.) And, more to the point that two of these articles were explicitly created to minimise Trump references in other contexts. (No mention of Trump in IT, because that’s pushed out to the eighties nostalgia piece, for example. I didn’t want to go down a sociological rabbit hole in the mother! review, so there’s a broader separate piece instead.)

      This frequency is notably greater than mentions of Obama during his tenure for example, but is significantly lower than mentions of the Bush administration or the War on Terror or 9/11 in my reviews of Enterprise or the final season of The X-Files. (Clinton comes up quite a bit in the reviews of the earlier seasons of The X-Files.) However, I’d be reluctant to cite this as partisanship. I haven’t covered any pop culture around the economic crash, which would be the big event of Obama’s presidency, the big threat to the established order and maybe the only event that would be in striking distance of 9/11 or the election of Trump as a threat to the national and international order. I mention Obama quite a lot in my pieces on sixties nostalgia, for example.

      And it’s not uncommon for me to hit the same beats over and over to build a thematic cohesion between my reviews. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Krauthammer’s “unipolar moment” come up more in the Voyager reviews than Trump, as well they should.

      (b.) Trump is disproportionately mentioned in some of the thinkpieces I’ve been writing in the past few months, but that’s because he is disproportionately everywhere. I think there’s some truth in the argument that he is inescapable. So I do mention him on my piece in IT, which seems fair in wondering if there are political the current wave of late eighties nostalgia in pop culture; the last two Republican presidents who created “-isms” seem like fair game for that discussion. (“Bushism” is more likely a reference to a verbal tic than a political philosophy.) This is clearly what’s on my mind, and I create specific channels to let that breath through. It is likely a form of anxiety, and maybe it will pass if things get back to normal. But I do feel better giving voice to it. The siloing of it in pieces like this is quite intentional. (Drop the think pieces and the Trump references drop down to about ten percent. Which is still high, but given the sheer inescapable gravity of the Trump White House, it’s not unreasonable.)

      (c.) My criticisms of these particular threads within Voyager did not suddenly materialise on 16 June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy. My reviews of the first and second seasons of Voyager were published in late 2014, and even then they pointed out the issues with the handling of the Kazon, the centring of the pilot narrative on the sole white character, the abusive undercurrents of the relationship between Neelix and Kes, the difficulty that the staff had writing for Janeway, the patronising approach to Chakotay. Those threads have become more urgent and more pronounced in the current political climate, tethering the modern world to the nineties. (It is worth noting that while Voyager is of the nineties, we are in the middle of a wave of nineties nostalgia. I think it’s reasonable to tie them to the present day. And I think it would be unreasonable not to put them in the context of the Trump administration.)

      (d.) You are entirely correct that I should have mentioned Clinton more in the piece. In particular, her role in perpetuating the “superpredators” imagery, which undoubtedly fed into the portrayal of the Kazon and the Jem’Hadar. In my defense, the piece was already at 6,500 words and I was very tired having finished it. I focused my efforts on buttressing the piece against claims of generalisations about the show, trying to ensure that I painted as broad a picture of Voyager as possible so that I could not be accused of “cherrypicking” episodes and references to suit a predetermined agenda, instead trying to craft a holistic perspective of the show. I mention just about half of the episodes over the entire run of Voyager, just as extensions of the points I’m making. (This is why there are so many TNG and DS9 episodes cited as well, so it wouldn’t look like I was cherrypicking my counter examples.) I devote a reasonable chunk to the first two seasons of Enterprise, but I probably also should have gone into more depth about that. There are a lot of elements of the article I’d love to extend if I had time, but I only had so much energy to pour into the piece.

      (e.) This particular piece did not emerge from nothing either; it’s a response to a number of things clearly outlined in the opening paragraphs. In particular, it’s a response to the general tone of surprise that such a strain of Star Trek fandom exists, that would react with such anger and vitriol to the diversity of a new Star Trek spin-off. It’s an article about how the franchise has generally been considered liberal, and explaining where certain reactionary strands within that fandom have some from. I think this piece is defensible in that context, and I’ve had a few people describe it as such, which is very polite of them.

      (f.) With regard to “conservative-bashing”, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. I know it’s an unverifiable logical fallacy, but many of my friends regard me as relatively conservative. I’d consider myself centrist. (For what little it’s worth, I land almost exactly at the middle of the political compass. I think I may skew < +1 towards right-wing authoritarianism.) I have praised George W. Bush for his immediate response after 9/11 of declining to vilify the Muslim American community. I’ve pointed out Obama’s failure to dismantle some of the enhanced national security apparatus, in fact extending its reach. Personally, many of my acquaintances will note that I was (and remain) deeply cynical about Obama’s 2008 election bid.

      That said, I am undoubtedly and unequivocally critical of Trump. But that’s because there really can’t be any equivocation there. This is a man who has bragged about sexual assault and engaged in overt racism, and whose attitudes are reflected in his policies. Those policies are a grotesque distortion of conservatism, and need to be recognised as something monstrous. And identifying their roots and their growth seems like a fair decision. It’s not unreasonable to describe the Trump administration as a very real threat, existentially and literally, philosophically and concretely. His election has had a massive negative impact on a significant population, fueled the rise of a culture in which the KKK are marching openly and where their endorsement of a sitting president is a major part of his political identity, and which has upended a global order that has preserved peace in the developed world since the Second World War.

      (As an aside, if you want an equivalence or evidence of centrism, I have had more than my fair share of people on the left attack me for crazy ideas like “maybe it’s okay for people to disagree with you when you label a work or artist racist or sexist, as long as they listen to your criticisms and make up their own minds?” or “maybe protesters shouldn’t smash windows and burn cars, no matter how therapeutic it feels?” I’ve been blocked by people on both sides of the aisle on Twitter.)

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