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Star Trek: Voyager – Dragon’s Teeth (Review)

In many ways Dragon’s Teeth demonstrates the chaos that marked the start of the sixth season.

On paper, Dragon’s Teeth looks to be a big blockbuster episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It has top-notch production, a large guest cast, an impressive special effects set-up, a new alien menace, and an emphasis on momentum ahead of character or theme. Just looking at Dragon’s Teeth, it has the look and feel of an “event” story. It seems like an episode with a bold statement of purpose, from the opening teaser that suggests an epic scope by unfolding in the distant past of an alien world through to the ominous closing line that promises that Dragon’s Teeth is just the beginning.

Let sleeping dragons lie…

It seems like the sixth season’s answer to earlier mid-season two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. It even broadcasts in roughly the same stretch of the season as Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II or Timeless. It is an early November episode, intended to help boost ratings during Sweeps.

However, what is most striking about Dragon’s Teeth is how much it feels like a non-event. The episode has all the markers of a big event story, from the promise of a shortcut home to the sight of the ship landing on a planet surface, but the story is actually incredibly generic. Dragon’s Teeth is not necessarily bad, it is simply competent. There is a strange sense watching Dragon’s Teeth that a phenomenal amount of effort has gone into ensuring that the episode works, rather than trying to make it excel.

Sweet dreams.

Of course, this makes a certain amount of sense. Dragon’s Teeth aired almost a third of the way through the season, but it was produced earlier. In terms of broadcast, it fell between Riddles and One Small Step. In terms of production, it came between Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and Alice. As such, it was produced in the midst of the chaos following the sudden departure of Ronald D. Moore and the reinstatement of Kenneth Biller. More than that, it was the first episode of the season to be written by Brannon Braga since that behind the scenes shake-up. As a result, it makes sense it should feel “off.”

Dragon’s Teeth is an episode that spends so much of its energy trying to remain upright that it never manages to take flight.

Oh, mummy.

One of the more interesting (and under-discussed aspects) of Voyager is the way in which it attempted to normalise blockbuster storytelling within the larger Star Trek franchise. Of course, it was arguably on building upon what had come before. Star Trek: The Next Generation had given its stories a sense of epic scale and scope by engaging with intergalactic politics and featuring impressive model and special effects work. With episodes like The Die is Cast, The Way of the Warrior and Sacrifice of Angels, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pushed the technical boundaries of spectacle in the franchise.

However, under Brannon Braga, Voyager embraced the idea of telling spectacular self-contained narratives designed to leave the audience breathless with their sheer audacity. There is a notable difference in the only two-parter overseen by Michael Piller and the subsequent multi-part adventures overseen by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky. There was a clear evolution in style and storytelling, with it often feeling like Brannon Braga was trying to adapt cinematic storytelling for the small screen.

“Am I Vaad to see you!”

Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II feel very much in keeping with the two-part structure that Piller established on The Next Generation with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, two-part stories consciously built around the central cliffhanging image designed to bring the audience back for the next episode. Even those Next Generation two-parters that didn’t build themselves around the cliffhanger image were still easily divided into two units of narrative; Chain of Command, Part IChain of Command, Part II, Birthright, Part I and Birthright, Part II were all distinct episodes.

In contrast, Voyager‘s two-parters often feel like feature films divided by an awkward act break. The cliffhangers to these episodes often seem perfunctory and arbitrary. Janeway is not incapacitated at the climax of Scorpion, Part I, but shortly into Scorpion, Part II. The video footage of Voyager at the end of Future’s End, Part I is not treated as a massive threat in Future’s End, Part II. More to the point, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II aired on the same evening, setting up the idea of broadcasting Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II as a genuine television movie during the following season.

“Yeah, it’s around the time of year where we get a little boost on our journey home.”

Of course, this blockbuster storytelling sensibility was not purely confined to two-part episodes, although they remain the most obvious and best examples. There are several standalone episodes that also illustrate Braga’s preference for this aesthetic, most notably stories like Hope and Fear, Timeless and Juggernaut. This can be seen in how Voyager constructs its stories, and is arguably reflected in the tendency of writers on Voyager to let plot (rather than character) drive the scripts. Voyager is often a show about things happening, more than occasionally indifferent about who they happen to.

This approach to narrative would arguably be hugely influential in defining the Star Trek that followed. There is obviously a strong continuity between Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, given the overlap in creative personnel and the fact that Enterprise literalised the nostalgia driving Voyager. However, this desire to create blockbuster Star Trek can arguably be seen in the JJ Abrams reboots like Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, and the emphasis on plot momentum also plays through Star Trek: Discovery‘s recurring fascination with twists and reversals.

Cooking up controversy.

The sixth season of Voyager is notable as the only season after the second that lacks a mid-season two-parter. The sixth season is bookended by two-parters, with Equinox, Part II serving as the season premiere and Unimatrix Zero, Part I as the season finale. However, each of the twenty-four episodes between those two markers stands alone, with the occasional minor exception; Child’s Play serves as a sequel to Collective and Spirit Folk follows up on Fair Haven. However, there is no big blockbuster two-parter in the season, no mid-year spectacle-driven television movie.

Dragon’s Teeth was originally envisaged as playing that role within the context of the sixth season. It certainly stands out from the surrounding episodes. Ignoring relative quality, it is difficult to imagine formatting a story like Alice or Riddles or One Small Step or The Voyager Conspiracy as big blockbuster television. These are more conventional nineties television episodes, neat and self-contained installments that are built around particular members of the ensemble without saying anything particularly important about them.

“Oh, hi. I didn’t notice you there.”

Braga confessed to Cinefantastique that he had originally planned for Dragon’s Teeth to be a television movie in the style of Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II:

“We thought that Dragon’s Teeth was going to be a two-hour. It wasn’t good enough. We made it into a one-hour. I’m glad we did. because I don’t think those aliens turned out very well. The concept was cool, that they were buried for a thousand years. The problem is, it’s all backstory. It just didn’t go anywhere. Sometimes you create an alien race that turns out really cool, and you keep going with them, and sometimes they don’t quite work. In this case they didn’t quite work.”

In hindsight, it seems perfectly reasonable that Dragon’s Teeth was not extended into a two-parter. After all, there was chaos unfolding behind the scenes, and the production team were working hard to keep the boat upright.

“It’s gonna take several cups of coffee to get through this.”

Braga was still a relatively inexperienced showrunner, and Dragon’s Teeth was the first episode credited to him following the departure of his old friend and writing partner Ronald D. Moore. More than that, Moore had departed under a cloud, straining the relationship between the two old friends. Moore’s exit interview was less than flattering to Braga, and helped to solidify the ire of a certain section of the fanbase against the producer. As such, it made sense that Braga’s heart was not in the episode, that Dragon’s Teeth would not “pop” like his other audacious two-parter scripts.

It should be noted that Braga had done the franchise some service. Braga still has more writing credits than any other Star Trek writer, scripting more than one hundred and ten of the franchise’s seven-hundred episodes. That is a phenomenal accomplishment. Indeed, Braga was responsible for some of the best (and most beloved) episodes of Star Trek ever produced, from Cause and Effect to All to Good Things… Braga was notably the co-writer on arguably the only successful feature film of the Berman era, Star Trek: First Contact.

The ruins of the franchise.

However, there is only so much that one person can give to a project over a sustained and extended period of time; Braga had been working on Star Trek for a decade at this point. In The Fifty-Year Mission, Braga singles out the sixth season of Voyager as the moment that he “burnt out” on Star Trek, explaining why he handed the reins on the seventh season to Kenneth Biller:

I left before Enterprise; I just said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I remember where I was and what I was working on and where I was standing and at what point in time when I officially burnt out on Star Trek. I decided not to do the seventh season of Voyager and then I was asked to create Enterprise.

Indeed, it is debatable how much of Braga’s fatigue carried over into the first two seasons of Enterprise, which feel very much like an extension of his tenure overseeing Voyager. It would only be during the third season of Enterprise, when finally given the freedom to tell his own ambitious serialised story, that Braga would find renewed energy and enthusiasm for the franchise.

Doesn’t stick the landing.

There is a lot about Dragon’s Teeth that practically screams “blockbuster episode.” The episode marks the first time that Voyager lands on the surface of an alien planet since Demon, give or take the unplanned landing in the alternate timeline in Timeless. Despite the fact that Voyager’s ability to land on a planet is one of the things that distinguishes it from the Enterprise, the maneouvre turned out to be quite expensive from a production standpoint and so was only employed on rare occasions. (In this way, it was similar to saucer separation on The Next Generation.)

Even outside of the decision to land Voyager on the planet, Dragon’s Teeth looks like an expensive episode of television. The subspace corridors might recall the special effects used for the quantum slipstream effect from Hope and Fear, but the colour has been changed and the model has been populated with debris. The episode opens with the planet under attack from orbit, with special effects so impressive that they were recycled for the opening of In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II to give that two-parter a cost-effective sense of scale.

Production value!

More than that, Dragon’s Teeth features a fairly impressive supporting cast for a standalone episode of Voyager, with particular attention paid to making the Vaadwaur seem lived-in. Jeff Allin and Robert Knepper are the only guest stars credited at the start of the first act, but Dragon’s Teeth rounds out its cast with Ron Fassler and Mimi Craven playing other Vaadwaur and Bob Stillman playing an unnamed Turei. These actors are all placed under elaborate prosthetics, and fully costumed. Dragon’s Teeth is undoubtedly an expensive piece of television.

Then there are the Vaadwaur. Watching Dragon’s Teeth, it is quite clear that Voyager wants the Vaadwaur to be a pretty big deal: they are given a rather detailed back story and history that ties them to the larger context of the Delta Quadrant, their make-up is particularly elaborate and detailed rather than just a “forehead of the week” design, much is made of the threat that they posed. While Robert Knepper was not yet a big star, he was much more established than he had been when he appeared in Haven, with his “… and …” credit suggesting the production team considered him a big deal.

Won’t be caught Knepping.

In fact, Dragon’s Teeth explicitly ends with a promise that all of this was just prologue. During the climax, a bunch of Vaadwaur ships successfully escape into the slipstream tunnels, presumably in search of other slumbering Vaadwaur colonies. In the closing scene, Janeway and Seven of Nine reflect on the sleeping dragon that is now awake. “They’re a resourceful species, determined,” Janeway muses. “They’ll adapt. I doubt we’ve seen the last of them.” It is an ominous note on which to close the episode.

Judging by Dragon’s Teeth, the Vaadwaur are being set up as a recurring menace; the sixth season’s answer to the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Hirogen or the Malon. Star Trek reporter Larry Nemecek has observed that the Vaadwaur were intended to be “a leading face in the last year of the show.” However, the Vaadwaur were never mentioned on-screen again, instead providing fodder for supplemental material; the Vaadwaur were part of an alliance of second-tier Voyager baddies in Kirsten Beyer’s Atonement and turned up as antagonists in Star Trek: Online.

Vaadlove in the time of Vaadwaur.

Indeed, the failure of the Vaadwaur points out to another structural anomaly in the sixth season of Voyager. It is the only season without a big recurring threat. The first and second seasons featured the Kazon and the Vidiians. The third season built towards the Borg in episodes like Blood Fever and Unity. The fourth season played out an extended arc with the Hirogen through episodes like Message in a Bottle, Hunters and Prey. The fifth season even featured the recurring threat of the Malon in episodes like Night, Extreme Risk and Juggernaut, despite the huge distances covered between.

Some of these aliens were more successful than others. The Kazon were a disaster, but were so fundamental to Voyager‘s aesthetic that they popped up in later episodes like Living Witness and Shattered. The Vidiians were remembered more fondly, even if it never seemed like the show knew what to do with them; they would reappear in later stories like Coda or Fury. The Hirogen were probably the most successful of these one-season villains, even returning for an encore in the final season with Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II.

To be fair, your big new recurring foe probably shouldn’t be outwitted by Neelix in their introductory episode.

The sixth season of Voyager lacks a similar recurring menace. Indeed, the Hierarchy from Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy would arguably become the season’s most successful new alien species; they made a small appearance in The Void and had a featured role in Renaissance Man during the seventh season. It says a lot about the sixth season of Voyager that its most successful aliens were essentially a bunch of portly alien bureaucrats. While a lot of this is down to the charming execution of the concept and the strength of their introductory episode, there is more at play.

There is something very mundane and generic about the Delta Quadrant in the sixth season, populated by used car salesmen like Abaddon in Alice and con men like those in Live Fast and Prosper. There is a sense that the Delta Quadrant has lost what little magic and wonder it ever had, the sense of fear and awe that this alien territory held for these unlikely and reluctant explorers. There is something mundane and old-hat about the alien threats in the sixth season, a recurring sense that these aliens are annoyances rather than opponents.

“They took the discount Sontarans ahead of the discount Silurians?”

After all, the Vaadwaur should work. On paper, the Vaadwaur feel very much in keeping with the general tone and aesthetic of Voyager, playing very much into the series’ particular interpretation of the Star Trek canon. One of the least discussed, but most frequently recurring, aspects of Voyager is the sense that the series has essentially shifted the allegorical focus of the franchise away from the western and northern hemispheres. Voyager is set in the Delta Quadrant, in a conscious effort to get away from the idea of established empires and rival galactic powers.

If Star Trek can be seen as an extrapolation of the American Century into the far future, then much of its internal politics can be defined in similar terms. The simmering tension with the Romulans and the deepening peace with the Klingons in The Next Generation reflect the memory of the Cold War and the complications of its aftermath. In Deep Space Nine, the Dominion is a twisted reflection of the Federation, a monstrous and hungry imperial power that acts in its naked self-interest without humanism or compassion.

The sleep of the unjust.

In that context, Voyager is explores America’s perception of its role in the world at the end of the twentieth century and the dawn of the twenty-first, when there are no more “evil empires” to conquer. Voyager is more technologically advanced than most of the major Delta Quadrant powers, who seem to spend their time bickering and quarreling among themselves with little impact beyond their own borders. Voyager seemed to be wandering through the developing world, with the Delta Quadrant defined by its scattered and decentralised power structures.

This is most obviously illustrated by direct reference to individual episodes. Caretaker established the Kazon as primitives that felt like they might have been lifted from a fifties western, scavengers in the desert desperate for water. Phage introduced the Vidiians as a population ravaged by a disease that played as a metaphor for AIDS, perhaps reflecting the spread of AIDS on the African continent. Even one-shot alien cultures were frequently portrayed as unstable and fragile, caught up in civil war and strife or dominated by dictatorship; ResistanceWarlordNemesis.

Developing worlds.

There was a sense that the Delta Quadrant was not as ordered as the Alpha Quadrant had been. Regional governments were responsible for horrible atrocities on a scale that rarely seemed to happen elsewhere in the galaxy; RememberLiving WitnessMemorial. The show often used the Delta Quadrant as a metaphor for anxieties about the developing world; Displaced was about the fear of immigration, while Day of Honour treated refugees as cynical predators. False Profits evoked stories about cargo cults, natives primitively worshiping those with more advanced technology.

This metaphor plays out in Voyager‘s recurring alien menaces. The Borg could arguably be seen as a metaphor for the outside forces that have long wrecked havoc upon the developing world, exploiting their resources and destabilising their politics for their own ends. The Kazon are (deeply problematic) racial caricatures tied back to the anxieties surrounding the Los Angeles Riots. The Hirogen play into older colonial tropes, serving as “great white hunters” chasing game across the vast wilderness.

Lost City of V.

Notably, the Hierarchy don’t really fit within this metaphorical framework. The developing world is not known for its network of bureaucrats or voyeurs. In contrast, the Vaadwaur feel very much like they belong to the rich vein of colonial fiction that informs so much of Voyager‘s portrayal of the Delta Quadrant. The Vaadwaur feel like they have stepped out of some trashy fifties science-fiction paperback, itself serving as a space-age update of nineteenth century pulp fiction about lost races and slumbering menaces.

Dragon’s Teeth even seems to allude to the colonial roots of this narrative trope when Gedrin discovers what became of his beloved Jisa. Her “bio-pod” ruptured, which led to her body decaying. As Gedrin gingerly and carefully examines her, she looks like most pop cultural depictions of the mummy; her skin is tight on her skull, her eye sockets empty, her skin ashen grey. This seems to suggest what the Vaadwaur truly are, an entire race of mummies resurrected from the tomb and ready to unleash horrors upon the societies built atop their bones.

Underground movement.

The story of the mummy is a familiar colonial narrative, reflecting an anxiety about the revenge of long lost civilisations from beyond the grave. As Ronald H. Fritze reflects in Egyptomania:

Ownership of mummies had both a prestige and an aura of danger that became a reality in mummymania fiction. Possessing a mummy or come grave goods could result in misfortune and even death. If the owner of the mummy managed to survive, such a frightening fantasy could actually be reassuring to Victorian readers living in a rapidly changing economy with a deluge of new commodities. Possession of mummies and other plundered Egyptian artefacts also aroused feelings of guilt among Victorians. Archeologists, especially those working in Egypt with its many tombs, could be regarded as grave robbers. Initially, mummy stories depicted the sufferings people experienced due to owning a mummy or grave goods as a form of justified retribution. In this scenario, archeologists were more villains than heroes. After the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, thanks to the film industry, archeologists were portrayed as heroic scholarly adventurers while angry mummies were not avengers but the revived corporeal forms of a mindless ancient evil. This shift is, in effect, an affirmation or vindication of imperialism and colonialism.

It should be noted that the Vaadwaur would have been conceived and conceptualised during the summer months of 1999, while The Mummy was dominating the American (and international) box office.

Giving as good as he Gedrins.

Indeed, there is something decidedly uncomfortable in how Dragon’s Teeth portrays the Vaadwaur. Reflecting the xenophobic anxieties of earlier episodes like Displaced or Day of Honour, there is some suggestion that the Delta Quadrant is full of cynical and predatory aliens just waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of the crew’s well-intentioned humanism. For a Star Trek series, Voyager is remarkably terrified of other cultures, constantly wary of how these strangers might exploit the kindness of these strangers.

There is no small irony in all of this. Naomi Wildman is the first crewmember to suspect the true nature of the Vaadwaur, when they crack racist jokes at the expense of Neelix. “They said your ears were funny. They said just looking at you made them laugh.” Racism is obviously bad, particularly the idea of mocking somebody based on their physical characteristics. However, Dragon’s Teeth never understands the irony in subsequently arguing that Voyager should have been smart enough to listen to all the folklore and hearsay about the Vaadwaur.

Naive Naomi.

Indeed, Neelix comes to suspect the Vaadwaur through a number of suggestively titled stories in his personal database: “The Demon with the Golden Voice”, “The Tale of the Deadly Stranger”, “The Tale of the Boy who Lost his Head”, “The Tale of the Bloody Hand.” The use of the descriptors “demon” and “stranger” suggest a xenophobic undercurrent to these stories, similar to how western literature and entertainment has a history of demonising other ethnicities. History is written by the victors, and the Vaadwaur were the losers.

It is disheartening to see Dragon’s Teeth embrace such xenophobia. However, Neelix and Naomi’s suspicions prove to be entirely correct. These stories are not mere propaganda spread by the Turei, they are objective truth. “If I were to take you at your word, the ancient Talaxians might call me vaadwaur,” Janeway muses. “Foolish. That’s what they came to call anyone who allowed themselves to be deceived by an enemy.” This deception is inevitably tied to the decision to welcome the foreigner into their home, Janeway opening Voyager up to the Vaadwaur.

Stellar ideas.

Inevitably, the Vaadwaur plot to hijack Voyager and to maroon her crew. Dragon’s Teeth features the Vaadwaur plotting secretly in corridors, hoping to exploit the kindness of the very people who rescued them from their eternal slumber. “After they engage the Turei, they’ll expect us to assist them,” Gaul boasts. “Instead, we’ll attack. We’ll put as many soldiers as we can onto Voyager and take it into the corridors.” The Vaadwaur are not just evil, they are deceptive and cowardly.

The Vaadwaur are also tied other colonial fantasies and tropes. The Vaadwaur planet is essentially a lost city, an archeological discovery unearthed by accident. It recalls the narratives of explorers who went searching for hidden tribes on the continents of South America and Africa, exploring exotic ruins and chasing ghosts through the wilderness. The Vaadwaur are literally creatures of folklore, aliens that do not exist in the data records of the Borg but can be found in the oral traditions of the Talaxians.

Among the ruins.

Although the Vaadwaur ruins are more modern and futuristic than most of those charted by explorers in South America and Africa, they belong to the same literary tradition. The hidden subspace corridors and the clouded lost colony evoke mythic tales of lost worlds that were so popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as Robert M. Carmack, Janine L. Gasco and Gary H. Gossen note in The Legacy of Mesoamerica:

A few of the Atlantis advocates, such as the Scottish mythologist Lewis Spence, attempted to square the tale with scientific findings. But most of the believers in Atlantis were hopelessly speculative. This was the case with Helena Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophy religion, who claimed that one of the seven “Root Races” of humanity came from Atlantis. Upon fleeing the sinking continent, she said, the Atlantis race gave rise to various groups of people, among them Cro-Magnons, Semites, and the “handsome 8-feet tall” Toltecs of ancient Mexico!

The most outrageous of the Lost Continent Romanticists, however, was James Churchwood, who created a continent in the Pacific Ocean out of whole cloth. “Colonel” Churchwood’s so-called “Continent of Mu” was said to measure 5,000 miles long and 3,000 miles wide. About 80,000 years ago its inhabitants began to emigrate in waves, headed for the utmost bounds of the world. One of these migratory groups, the so-called “Quetzels”, was made up of “stalwart, young adventurers with milk-white skins, blue eyes, and light flaxen hair.” They settled in Yucatan and gave rise to the great Mayan civilisation.

Gedrin is a living relic, an artifact of a time long beyond the living memory of the quadrant around him. His memory of the Delta Quadrant is noticeably different than the reality. The Vaadwaur predate the colonial exploitation of the Borg, their civilisation thriving long before the Borg wrought destruction upon the region. “In my century they’d only assimilated a handful of systems,” Gedrin reflects. “It looks like they’ve spread through the quadrant like a plague.”

Consider this a wake-up call.

Like the inhabitants of those lost continents in those enduring myths, the Vaadwaur visited with many of the more primitive civilisations of their time. The Vaadwaur present a secret lost history of the Delta Quadrant. “The old tongue was new when I met your race,” Gedrin tells Neelix. “You traveled all the way to Talaxia?” Janeway asks. “And farther,” Vaadwaur responds. “Our corridors took us to many worlds. I’m curious. Have you heard of us, the Vaadwaur?” This recalls stories of the inhabitants of Atlantis visiting (and even shaping) the civilisations of other regions.

Even the human characters contextualise the Vaadwaur in terms of mythology. “Dragon’s teeth,” Chakotay reflects upon seeing the Vaadwaur sleeping beneath the ruins of their planet. He elaborates, “An old Greek myth. After a dragon was killed in a war, its teeth were spread out over the battlefield. They took root and warriors sprung from the ground to continue the fighting.” It is no coincidence that the idea of Atlantis can be traced back to Ancient Greece, cited as a fictional antagonist in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias.

Lost world.

As an aside, in the larger context of Voyager as a metaphor for the developing world and the show’s xenophobt should be noted that these sorts of myths of ancient hidden civilisations are often coloured by none-too-subtle racism. As David Grann writes of explorer Charles Fawcett’s search for the mythic “lost city of Z”:

Like many Victorians, he held views of indigenous Americans that were often blinded by racism. “There are three kinds of Indians,” he wrote. “The first are docile and miserable people. . . . The second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third a robust and fair people who must have a civilized origin.” He shared the widely held notion that any advanced civilization in South America, if it had ever existed, must have had a European origin—in Phoenicia, say, or even Atlantis. John Hemming, a distinguished historian of Brazilian Indians, has called Fawcett a “Nietzschean explorer” who spouted “eugenic gibberish.”

Such stories tend to be rooted in the idea that indigenous populations could not have accomplished impressive cultural or social accomplishments by themselves, and often serve to anchor the achievements of these societies in terms of their historical connections to pseudo-European lineage. It should be noted that Dragon Teeth avoids overtly making these connections with the Vaadwaur.

Turei of duty.

It is no coincidence that these stories about lost civilisations took root around the time that evidence suggested that life began on the African continent, with fanciful stories about lost worlds like Atlantis or Lemuria or Mu allowing Europeans to argue that they were the root (or could trace their lineage back to the root) of all global civilisation. Archeological discoveries about the ancestors of modern Europeans create a palpable tension with ethno-nationalist beliefs. Hitler’s racial ideology was similarly anchored in the belief of this mythic white history on lost continents.

Dragon’s Teeth very much recontextualises this Lost Continent Romanticism in terms of familiar science-fiction tropes. This is not a surprise of itself, given Voyager‘s long-standing affection for fifties b-movie science-fiction story elements; the colony of abducted humans in The 37’s, the giant viruses in Macrocosm, the space elevator in Rise, the space empire of the dinosaurs in Distant Origin. Indeed, it is more of a surprise that it took so long for Voyager to introduce a concept like the Vaadwaur.

Smiles to go before he sleeps.

It should be noted that there was often a direct overlap between the mystical pseudo-scientists obsessed with lost continents and the writers of this pulpy mid-century science-fiction. Often, the genres were deliberately cross-pollinated by the same writers. As Andrew May noted of writer Richard Sharpe Shaver in Pseudoscience and Science Fiction:

Shaver opened his readers’ eyes to the true nature of reality. Beneath the Earth’s surface lies a vast subterranean world populated by degenerate humanoids called “deros.” These sinister creatures interact with surface dwellers by means of mind-control rays and the occasional abduction. Other technology to be found in the caves – according to Shaver – includes interplanetary spaceships and “thought records” from ancient Lemuria.

There are countless examples of this sort of pseudo-scientific belief being repackaged as science-fiction and vice versa. There is obviously considerable overlap between L. Ron Hubbard’s religious teachings and the pulp fiction being published at the same time. In fact, Hubbard consciously repurposed his own teachings as religious gospel.

Three of his kind.

Dragon’s Teeth is consciously framed in terms of the narrative tropes used to transpose these lost civilisation narratives from pseudo-science to science-fiction. The Vaadwaur are an ancient civilisation who live in gigantic tunnels underneath the surface of the planet, the ruins on the surface belying the advanced technology buried deep underneath. The discovery of the Vaadwaur is very much cast as space age archeology, Janeway leading a team into the bowels of a seemingly uninhabited world to find a race of creatures described in Talaxian myth.

There is also something to be said for the design of the Vaadwaur themselves. Michael Westmore did phenomenal work on the Star Trek franchise, but the Vaadwaur remain one of his most memorable one-shot designs. With their pointed chins, their oval skulls, and their distinctive neck ridges, the Vaadwaur look impressive and imposing. It is almost a shame that the costuming of the characters is so generic, looking like stock space!Nazis dressed in drab shades of brown rather than anything more distinctive.

Their necks on the line.

However, the Vaadwaur are very consciously designed to look like lizards. Their neck ridges do not curve inwards like those on Cardassians, instead flaring (and curving) outwards. The lighter colouring on the inside of this collar evokes the hood of deadly snakes like vipers or cobras. Although they do not have scales, their skin appears to glisten, suggesting the slickness associated with snakes. The Vaadwaur belong to a rich pulp history of lizard-like aliens, such as the Visitors from V or the Sleestak from Land of the Lost.

Even Star Trek itself has a long history of aliens that look like lizards, including several iconic designs; the Gorn and the Cardassians come to mind. However, most likely due to the make-up involved and the pulpy connotations, they are notably less common than more conventionally humanoid aliens like Vulcans or Romulans or Bajorans. Still, it feels strangely appropriate for Dragon’s Teeth to present the Vaadwaur as reptilian aliens, even beyond the obvious thematic connection between the Vaadwaur of the story and the dragon of the title.

The sheer Gaul of this guy.

Lizard people are a familiar trope in these stories of lost (and secret) civilisations, often evoked in conspiracy theories and ancient myths. There is obviously a strong thematic connection to the myth of the serpent in the garden. In A Culture of Conspiracy, Michael Barkun traces the modern preoccupation with serpent people back to the work of Robert Howard, tracing how it came to be incorporated into myths of lost civilisations:

It is clear that by the early 1950s, the pieces were being put together in a manner that would make them available to the Dulce writers nearly forty years later. This is strikingly evident in a 1951 publication by Robert Ernst Dickhoff, Agharta. Dickhoff styled himself the “Sungma Red Lama of the Dordjelutru Lamasery”, though in fact the lamasery was apparently located in Dickhoff’s New York City bookshop. Dickhoff cited The Emerald Tablets, but did not mention Doreal by name. In addition, he wrote about humanoid serpent men who came from Venus, exploiting an antediluvian tunnel system in order to infiltrate and capture Atlantis and Lemuria. Survivors of the sunken continents escaped to underground hideouts in Agharta and in the Antarctic Rainbow City. Although the serpent men seem to have been defeated, they and their agents have infiltrated high policymaking circles through their powers of mind control. The remaining reptilians lie in polar-suspended animation, awaiting the moment to strike.

There are obvious echoes of this in Dragon’s Teeth, with the slumbering Vaadwaur reawakening after being vanquished by their enemies. Indeed, the tunnel systems so common in these sorts of stories are reflected not only in the literal tunnel systems, but also in the “subspace corridors” that they employed. The design and function – and even name – of this transportation system suggests a system of buried shortcuts hidden under the skin of the universe.

Demons of air and darkness.

Lizard people play an important role in modern conspiratorial thinking, reflecting the paranoia that Janeway evokes when talking about the Vaadwaur as “a phantom army that appears out of thin air, destroys entire colonies, and vanishes in the blink of an eye” or when the Talaxian folk tales warn about the subversive influence of “the demon with the golden voice” or “the deadly stranger.”Reportedly twelve million Americans believe that their country is run by lizards wearing people suits. David Icke has consistently argued that the Queen of England is secretly a reptile.

It should be acknowledged that such conspiracy theories tend to have antisemitic undertones, given its similarities to (and possible value as a dog whistle for) historical conspiracy theories about the power held by Jewish “elites.” However, it makes sense that Voyager would play the trope relatively straight. Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky have a long-standing interest in conspiracy theory, particularly in terms of processing the information overload of the nineties. Voyager is a series that is very much rooted in the culture of the nineties, and conspiracy theory is an inescapable part of that.

“I’ll be back. Probably.”

Braga and Menosky included literal conspiracy theorist militiamen during the crew’s trip back to the nineties in Future’s End, Part II and played with conspiracy theory in episodes like Rise or Distant Origin or Latent Image or Bliss or The Voyager Conspiracy. The Vaadwaur feel like a logical extension of this line of thought; a race of lizard people sleeping in vast caverns who secretly influenced and shaped the history of the region before fading into myth and legend. On paper, the Vaadwaur are the perfect villains for the sixth season of Voyager.

However, the Vaadwaur fall flat in large part because Dragon’s Teeth as a whole falls flat. A lot of the plotting in the episode feels strange, as if cobbled together from a variety of different ideas and reference points. Indeed, several of the episode’s plot points feel lifted from other event episodes without any real justification. The subspace corridors recall the promise of a shortcut home in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Indeed, the idea of using advanced technology to shave years off the journey was a feature of other “event” episodes like Hope and Fear or Timeless.

Sticking the landing.

Similarly, Gaul’s off-hand plan to hijack Voyager and ironically punish its crew is lifted directly from Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. As the Vaadwaur attack Voyager, Morin orders his troops, “Once we’ve secured Voyager, execute the crew.” Gaul hesitates in the middle of battle to assure the audience of his sadism. “Wait. We have hundreds of bio-pods still intact. Put them into stasis. In a few hundred years, maybe someone will be kind enough to revive them.” It’s very similar to Maj Cullah’s school of poetic (and inevitably doomed) justice.

(As an aside, it is interesting to wonder whether an extended feature-length version of Dragon’s Teeth might have had the courage of its convictions and actually allowed Gaul to capture the crew and confine them to eternal rest. Doing so would allow Voyager something of a clean break from the recently-wrapped Deep Space Nine, affording the show a time skip that would not have been possible while it was airing in conjunction with another Star Trek series. Of course, it seems unlikely that Voyager would ever have been that adventurous.)

Bridging cultures.

Outside of these recycled plot elements, Dragon’s Teeth is never entirely sure whose story this is supposed to be. Is this a Janeway story about a commanding officer who leads her crew into a dangerous situation and has to resolve it through ingenuity? Is this a Neelix story about how the character is the only member of the crew with an actual grounding in the history of the region? Is it a Seven of Nine story, in which the character allows her curiousity about a strange artifact to effectively threaten the entire Delta Quadrant?

Dragon’s Teeth tries to be all of these things, and more. None of them work. To be fair, there is more room for character-focused subplots in extended two-part episodes. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II allows Paris the opportunity for an anthropological adventure and the EMH to step outside for the first time in the midst of an epic time travel adventure. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II features reasonably satisfying subplots for most of the primary cast. However, Dragon’s Teeth tries to cram too much into forty-five minutes, so its arcs end up truncated.

In Seven’s defense, she wasn’t on the ship during The Thaw. How was she supposed to know that playing with stasis pods was dangerous?

This is most obvious with Seven’s arc. The character awakens Gedrin at the start of the episode. “Seven, what are you doing?” Janeway demands. “I’ve activated the reanimation sequence,” Seven responds. “He may be able to provide us with answers.” This is only really referenced again in the final scene of the episode. “By awakening Gedrin, I initiated a chain of events that nearly led to our destruction,” Seven muses. “I wanted to help revive a civilisation, not start a war.” Janeway offers her sage and balanced advice, none of which feels earned.

Even ignoring the truncated nature of the arc, and the fact that it is neither referenced nor developed across the middle stretch of the episode, the logic doesn’t make any sense. Seven of Nine woke Gedrin. It was Janeway who subsequently made the choice to wake the remaining Vaadwaur, including Gaul. Given that the climax of the episode finds Gedrin not only helping Voyager to escape the Turei, but also to evade Gaul, it seems like Seven’s intervention was actually the best outcome. If anything, Janeway made the wrong call in waking up Gaul at Gedrin’s request.

“We’re going thatta way!”

Similarly, Gedrin’s character arc is also truncated. His early scenes foreshadow the revelation that the Vaadwaur are a dangerous race of nationalist warmongers. “Jisa and I lived there in the old quarter,” he reflects. “We had a garden overlooking the street below. It’s a shame she didn’t show more courage at the end.” When Voyager manages to disable a Turei ship, Gedrin urges them to press the advantage. “One more torpedo will finish them.” In the opening acts, Gedrin’s character is defined in such a way as to assure viewers that waking the Vaadwaur would be a very bad idea.

However, the narrative immediately shifts once Gaul has woken up. Gaul assumes the role of primary antagonist, and inherits the warmongering nationalism towards which Gedrin’s characterisation had hinted. At the climax of the story, Gedrin sudden switches sides and chooses to help Voyager (and the Turei) against his own people. He even sacrifices his own life. “Not all of my people are stuck in the past, Captain.” It is a noble sentiment, but one completely unearned.

Burying his patriotism.

It is a lot to expect any character to betray the last survivors of their own species, let alone an avowed nationalist. Again, this is another story element cribbed from another of Voyager‘s blockbuster episodes, with Karr learning to accept that Hirogen society needs to change over the course of The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. However, instead of unfolding over two episodes, Dragon’s Teeth tries to cram it into the background of a single episode. Put simply, it does not work.

This truncated plotting also accounts for the sheer frequency and volume of red flags that the Vaadwaur raise during their brief interactions with the Voyager crew. “The Vaadwaur have also learned to embrace death without fear,” Morin tells Torres at one point. “As children, we’re taught to fall asleep each night imagining a different way to die.” The Vaadwaur are reduced to comic book villains because Dragon’s Teeth wants to hit so many familiar beats in so little time. The results are not necessarily bad, just uninspiring.

“Today is a good day to lie.”

Dragon’s Teeth feels like a missed opportunity. It is not a terrible episode of Voyager by any measure, but it does feel like a particularly lifeless execution of an ambitious and intriguing central premise. There is a sense that the Voyager‘s aspirations towards mediocrity have consumed even its blockbuster storytelling at this point in the run, with even the sixth season’s big event episode unwilling to strive for a stronger reaction than “that filled forty-five minutes.” In some ways, it feels like the series’ lethargy has reached critical mass, and the audience are witnessing the heat death of the Star Trek franchise.

5 Responses

  1. Excellent use of Neelix here. Normally, I find myself shouting, “mind your own business” at the screen, he’s just so ingratiating and pushy. Here, we see his persuasive skill come to the fore, wheedling the info he needs from Seven. Even his heritage comes into play, and not in an annoying way (My trademark Talaxian omelet…)

    As soon as I heard “the demon with the golden voice”, I knew we were in for a Cardassian remix. And why not? Voyager has recycled from TNG before. Some of them have been duffers, others improved upon the original concept.

    I very much like the Cardassians, as I’ve stated in your older reviews, Darren, but I can admit that the execution was faulty in some ways. Garak and Tain were outliers in a society which was pretty brutal and ‘in-your-face’ violent. They didn’t talk quietly and use five-dollar words, like the Vauduuar do here.

  2. Despite this episode’s short-comings, and my frequent and harsh criticism of Star Trek: Voyager…I have a soft-spot for Dragon’s Teeth. I’m a sucker for world building perhaps, and we get a lot of enjoyable exposition in this episode. The writers throw in all these history nuggets and hints at things they normally ignore or gloss over. I would have liked this to have been a season-long arc or something. Maybe the Vaad’wuar have other troops on other planets, or descendants living under alien rule. The episode held a lot of potential and opened several possible plot paths. Ah well.

    The most Voyager thing about this episode is that they dangle a cool idea out in front of the audience and then casually chuck in the trash with a shrug.

    • I also think this episode could have been made massively better with one simple tweak: Some sort of distinctive creepy music theme for the Vaad’wuar. Snake-people should have a decent musical theme beyond the usual wallpaper music of Voyager. This alone could have added immeasurable ambiance.

  3. The Vaadwaur may have been good as a recurring foe earlier on in the series, perhaps even from the first episode, instead of the Kazon. With their corridors, they would’ve had a way to keep appearing no matter how far Voyager travelled. They would’ve worked better than the Borg.

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