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Star Trek: Voyager – The Voyager Conspiracy (Review)

The Voyager Conspiracy builds off the nostalgia of One Small Step, paving the way for the nostalgia of Pathfinder.

One of the more interesting aspects of the final two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager is the way in which the show embraces a weird nostalgia, both for the utopian future of the larger Star Trek franchise and also for its own earlier seasons. To be fair, the seeds for this nostalgia were arguably sown during the fifth season, with an increased emphasis on the events of Caretaker in episodes like Night, Relativity and Equinox, Part I, as well as elements like Janeway’s exploration of her family history in 11:59, the fake Earth in In the Flesh, and the return to the Maquis in Extreme Risk.

“What’s all this buzz about?”

Nevertheless, the sixth and seventh seasons of Voyager embrace the nostalgia that has been woven into the series from the outset, the journey toward the “familiar” and the “recognisable.” After all, Voyager has always been a show about the desire to return, but it is particularly interesting to see that urge to go backwards including metaphorical journeys into the history of both the Star Trek franchise and Voyager itself. The final seasons of Voyager apply the idea of returning home reflexively, it often feeling like a desire to slip backwards in time as much as space.

It is interesting to wonder what drives this nostalgia for the early years of Voyager in these final two seasons. Perhaps this wistful yearning is driven by the fact that the show is approaching its end, and is reflecting upon its own nostalgia. Perhaps the series is anxious at being the only Star Trek show on the air for the first time in its run, hoping to return to the safety and security of those early years. Perhaps it ties into a broader cultural anxiety about the millennium, a reflection of the same “end of history” anxiety that informed stories like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Living Witness.

Getting into her head.

Whatever the reason, The Voyager Conspiracy feels like an exploration of the Voyager‘s continuity. The plot of the episode finds Seven of Nine effectively binge-watching the first few seasons of the show and trying to structure them into something resembling a cohesive story arc. In doing so, The Voyager Conspiracy includes an uncharacteristic selections of nods and references to earlier episodes; Caretaker, Cold FireManoeuvres, The Gift, Message in a Bottle, The Killing Game, Part I, The Killing Game, Part IIDark Frontier, Part IDark Frontier, Part II.

As such, it is an oddity in the larger context of Voyager, a television series largely defined by the absence of episode-to-episode continuity. Indeed, it is quite telling that The Voyager Conspiracy treats such continuity as inherently dangerous and destabilising influence on Voyager.

Dinner table conversation.

The Voyager Conspiracy was broadcast in late November 1999. By that stage, a revolution in television storytelling was already taking place. Genre shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and The X-Files had demonstrated that it was possible tell long-form stories in an episodic medium, to construct television narratives that extended beyond the rigid confines of the forty-to-forty-five-minute block of story that was delivered on a weekly basis.

More to the point, serialisation was no longer confined to niche genre shows. By the end of the nineties, prestige dramas had embraced the possibility of long-form storytelling. E.R. definitely belongs in the conversation, willing to tell extended stories over multiple episodes. HBO was revolutionising what was possible on television with shows like Oz. Indeed, The Sopranos had premiered in January 1999, the television series that would arguably inspire the stock “novel for television” rhetoric that would come to define discussion of television in the twenty-first century.

Entertainment to chew over.

The twenty-first century would revolutionise television, with many heralding the era as “the golden age of television.” There is perhaps a recency bias to this, a tendency to gloss over earlier evolutions and revolutions in the medium. Nevertheless, as Esther Breger argues, how television was produced and consumed was about to change dramatically:

As chronicled in popular histories like Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, these shows were presided over by small-screen auteurs who spun plots that could take years to be resolved. You could not haphazardly skip episodes. You could not watch while folding laundry. This new breed of series required commitment, to produce and to consume. These shows asked us to pay attention and (we hoped) would reward that effort. They taught us that everything we saw mattered, and so we hoped everything did matter, that everything would eventually add up.

Voyager exists very much apart from this revolution. At the turn of the millennium, Voyager is still mostly churning out stand-alone episodes that have little connection to one another beyond featuring the same regular cast, the same basic premise, and emerging from the same writers’ room. A random audience member could watch Voyager out of sequence between naps on the couch and never lose step with the series.

“Wait, am I still an Ensign?”

Indeed, Voyager was aggressively opposed to this emerging revolution in television storytelling, very consciously embracing an episodic model. It is telling that the series introduced the concept of the “reset button” in its third episode, Time and Again. With that episode, Voyager signaled the lengths to which it would go to keep its narratives self-contained. Repeatedly over the course of the run, Voyager would find itself subjected to experiences that should have long-term consequences, only to avoid potential fallout with a handwave or a high concept; Deadlock, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II.

Ironically enough for a television series about an extended journey, there was very rarely any sense of material progress to Voyager. Week-in and week-out, the crew would inch closer and closer to home without anything to show for it. It never felt like Janeway or her crew were actually in motion, even though they had travelled approximately a third of the journey by the end of the fifth season. They were even constantly coming face-to-face with the same threats despite jumping tens of thousands of light years; the Malon, the Borg, the Hirogen. Voyager had no interest in serialisation.

The Astrometrics Lab was made for binge watching.

Of course, there had been some internal debate about Voyager‘s lack of serialisation. Brannon Braga had wanted to extend story arcs like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II over a number of episodes. When he arrived on the series (briefly) at the start of the sixth season, Ronald D. Moore had advocated for longer-form storytelling routed in consequences:

When I was on my brief tenure on Voyager and I was starting to think in terms of what I wanted to do, I remember sitting with the writing staff and saying ‘I really think… that when Voyager gets damaged it should get damaged, we should stop repairing the ship, the ship should be broken down more and devolving a little bit more.’ One of the ideas I had is that they should start developing their own culture within the starship and letting go of Starfleet protocols and stop thinking of themselves as Starfleet people on some level, even though they still wear the uniform and still try to adhere to the regulations. I thought it would be interesting that by the time this ship got back to Earth, that it didn’t even belong at Earth anymore. That it sort of had become its own culture, it had formed its own civilization which was dissimilar to that which they had left behind…

Of course, none of these ideas would come to pass. Brannon Braga was allowed to write big blockbuster two-parters, but had to put the pieces back in the box when he was finished with them. Ronald D. Moore would depart Voyager very early in its sixth season, when it became very clear that he would not be allowed to reinvent or rework the series, and when it felt like his contributions were being consciously marginalised.

“I know we agreed to never talk about what happened the last time that we encountered a Caretaker, and I want you to know… that we won’t be talking about what happened the last time we encountered a Caretaker.”

It should be noted that the very concept of Voyager seems designed to encourage serialisation. Unlike, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager is a show with a logic endpoint built into the premise. Caretaker established that Kathryn Janeway was on a mission to get her crew home, a set-up that effectively guarantees that the final episode (or the final season) will see Janeway accomplishing that mission. As such, the series had a clear destination from the end of its pilot episode, and it would make sense for the series to use serialisation to chart a course to that pre-determined closing episode.

More than that, Caretaker established that the ship would be crewed by two very different crews. Janeway was a relatively inexperienced commanding officer, a former scientist in charge of what was supposed to be a short-range recovery mission. At the same time, Caretaker found Janeway incorporating the crew of a Maquis raider into the cast, a bunch of terrorists, many of whom had washed out of Starfleet. In theory, there should have been a long road to reconciliation between the two crews, with Maquis and Starfleet crew members learning to work together. Naturally, Voyager never embraced this possibility.

“It is important to properly plan a binge watch. You can skip that one, and that one, and that one. The internet really hates that one.”

To be fair, recent years have seen something of a more measured response to serialisation, with writers like Katharine Trendacosta arguing that commitment to serialising can actually limit the storytelling possibilities on a television series:

And that’s the other thing lost with the push to serialization: variety. The connective tissue was the characters we knew and loved. The seasons had a lot of tonal shifts but no one really complained that it wasn’t “realistic.” It was all fine because of course Mulder and Scully’s whole lives weren’t just chasing down a conspiracy, or light-hearted romps, or terrifying encounters with monsters. Hell, their lives weren’t even all shown to us. Stuff clearly happened between episodes. A lot of the time, now, episodes flow directly from the end of one to the beginning of the next, creating an effect that’s more like a 13-hour movie, where everything is continuous.

To be fair, the sixth season of Voyager includes a number of such “one-and-done” stories that demonstrate the potential of the episodic form: Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and Blink of an Eye. Of course, it should also be noted that it includes a lot of such stories that don’t work, such as Alice and Dragon’s Teeth.

Netflix and the direct opposite of chill.

However, The Voyager Conspiracy feels very much like a conscious (and perhaps even embittered) critique of long-form storytelling at a moment when television was undergoing a major shift in how it constructed stories. The Voyager Conspiracy feels very much like Seven of Nine is trying to impose a long-form narrative framework over the five-and-a-half season run of Voyager, only to be driven insane by all the loose ends and dangling plot threads. The Voyager Conspiracy implies that to take Voyager at anything more than an episode at a time is to invite madness.

Tellingly, The Voyager Conspiracy returns to these earlier thwarted long-form arcs. The episode seems to be picking up the threads seeded in Caretaker and then forgotten about, brushed aside in episodes like Parallax and Learning Curve. In fact, extended portions of the episode find Seven of Nine pouring over footage from Caretaker, to the point that she even interrogates members of the crew about their experiences. The Voyager Conspiracy is very much about picking up long-forgotten plot threads.

A literal plot device.

The basic plot of The Voyager Conspiracy centres upon the crew discovering a “catapult” that will shave one thousand light years off their journey. (The back-of-the-envelop math of the seventy-thousand-year-journey projected to take seventy years suggests that the catapult would save them about a year of travel; however, Kim argues it “would cut a few years off [their] trip.”) This ties into the core premise of the series, Janeway’s mission to get the crew home. Seven even suggests that the technology is the same as employed in Caretaker.

More to the point, The Voyager Conspiracy finds Seven of Nine stoking tension on the ship between Starfleet and the Maquis, tension that the first few seasons of the show largely ignored. Seven manipulates Janeway and Chakotay into turning against one another, leading to a tense stand-off in the cargo bay. It is worth nothing that Voyager arguably developed the tension between Starfleet and the Maquis more in hindsight than it did at the time; episodes like Worst Case Scenario, The Voyager Conspiracy and Repression yearn for a conflict between crews that never actually materialised.

“Oh don’t worry. This advanced propulsion mechanism doesn’t turn you into a lizard person. I looked like this before I used the device.”

The Voyager Conspiracy treats this attention to detail as unnecessary and frustrating, as demonstrated when Seven of Nine attempts to tie everything that happened into a convenient narrative arc. Seven’s desire to connect all of the dots covering more than one hundred individual episodes of television inevitably leads to a mess of contradictions and coincidences, as she tries to tenuously connect the deep-space catapult to early examples of similar technology. The Voyager Conspiracy seems to argue that Voyager could simply never exist as a singular cohesive story.

The Voyager Conspiracy seems positioned to mock the idea of a satisfying resolution teased by so many serialised shows, the promise that everything is important and that everything will make sense – the sort of scrutiny that fans would bring to bear on shows like The X-Files or Lost or Game of Thrones. Seven of Nine is cast in the role of obsessive fan, freeze-framing earlier episodes in order to get some hint of a grander plan, trying to figure out what exactly the writers have in store and what it all means.

“And the show never resolved its most important dangling plot thread…what is Lieutenant Ayala’s first name?”

Some of The Voyager Conspiracy‘s criticisms of serialisation are very precise. Seven of Nine’s theory that the “tetryon reactor” in the catapult must be the same one from the original array feels like a parody of the sort of “small-universe syndrome” that tends to affect long-running serialised shows, where inevitably the most important people in a given fictional universe seem to be on a first-name basis with one another and the primary cast. Even Deep Space Nine occasionally suffered from this, with Rom being Grand Nagus of the Ferengi Alliance because his mother happened to be dating Zek.

Indeed, The Voyager Conspiracy seems to eagerly and aggressively embrace loose ends. Over the course of the episode, Seven of Nine raises a number of interesting points. In particular, she notes that Tuvok destroyed the array with “two tricobalt devices.” She challenges Chakotay, “Are those weapons normally carried on Federation Starships?” Chakotay responds, “No.” Pressed, he elaborates, “I can’t explain that.” Similarly, the episode never accounts for the tractor beam that Seven seems to identify in the sensor data.

“I mean, at this point, it’s kinda more awkward that we’ve never talked about it.”

Of course, it is easy enough to handwave these discrepancies. The tricobalt devices could have been placed on the ship because Janeway was on a mission to hunt down terrorists; they could have been an inventory error. Similarly, the sensor data depicting the tractor beam could have been distorted. “Voyager’s sensor logs were damaged in the Kazon attack,” Seven concedes. Even if the data was supported (or not contradicted) by data from Neelix’s ship, there are any number of reasonable explanations; Neelix’s ship was never top-of-line, and was inside Voyager’s shuttle bay during the battle.

However, The Voyager Conspiracy makes a point to avoid articulating such excuses or justifications. The episode is structured in such a way that none of the characters offer even a halfhearted contradiction to Seven’s conspiracy theories. Naturally, neither of these dangling plot threads will ever be mentioned again. It seems as though everybody has forgotten about them by the end of the episode. Even in cynically mocking long-form storytelling, The Voyager Conspiracy remains firmly episodic.

Her theory doesn’t scan.

Similarly, as much as the plot might play with the idea of serialisation and dangling plot threads, the character dynamics in The Voyager Conspiracy are decidedly episodic. Most obviously, The Voyager Conspiracy requires for Janeway and Chakotay to end up at loggerheads over a bunch of garbled conspiracy theories cobbled together by Seven of Nine. Even allowing for the tension between Janeway and Chakotay in episodes like Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II and Equinox, Part II, it makes no sense as a character beat for characters who have spent five-and-a-half years in each other’s company.

The only way that The Voyager Conspiracy works is to assume that the versions of Janeway and Chakotay introduced in the episode have only ever had fleeting interactions with one another, and have certainly not experienced episodes like The Cloud, Resolutions or Coda in one another’s company. One of the more frequent criticisms of Voyager is that the series occasionally reboots its own characters, with Janeway’s personality varying across the show and Kim constantly reset as the naive young ensign. The Voyager Conspiracy suggests that the show even resets its core relationships.

“I mean, I guess this plot works fine if you pretend that Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor never wrote for the series.”

Indeed, The Voyager Conspiracy ultimately serves to demonstrate the weaknesses of the episodic format. In some ways, Voyager could be seen to be the most archetypal version of Star Trek, the most generic iteration of the franchise. Its primary cast are not characters, but instead cardboard cutouts that can be reduced to a set of predefined traits and reconfigured as individual narratives demand. This is not inherently a bad thing, with episodes like Distant Origin and Nemesis working largely because of Chakotay’s bland everyman qualities. Episodes like Remember or The Chute are archetypal Star Trek.

However, episodes like The Voyager Conspiracy demonstrate the limitations of the form, with these cardboard cutouts bent out of shape in order to justify the plot dynamics. It seems impossible to imagine any of the primary characters on The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine coming to loggerheads over something so trivial without any outside influence as in episodes like Sarek or Dramatis Personae. Even without the characters’ shared history, any two people working together in a professional capacity for several years should be able to avoid an escalation like that between Janeway and Chakotay.

“Postproduction on One Small Step is taking longer than anticipated.”

Still, The Voyager Conspiracy is about more than just continuity and serialisation. As the title implies, the episode is also very much about conspiracy theories. It should be noted that this is not the first Voyager episode to engage with the idea of conspiracy theories. Writers Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky are very invested in the idea of hidden truths and buried secrets; the erased genocide in Remember, the rewritten history in Living Witness, the wiped memory files in Latent Image, the top secret protocols in The Omega Directive, the militia in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II.

This recurring fascination with conspiracy theory is very much in keeping with the broader popular culture of the nineties. Prompted by the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, there was renewed interest in conspiracy theories around the assassination of JFK. Chris Carter helped to mainstream conspiracy narratives with The X-Files. In politics, right-wing news sources spread slander and innuendo about the Clinton family, while Hilary Clinton made reference to a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

That theory is Wild, man.

Of course, it should be noted that conspiracy theories are not a phenomenon unique to the nineties. Some academics, such as Richard Hofstadter, argue that conspiracy theories have been a core part of American politics dating back to the nation’s formative days:

In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.

At the same time, it seemed like conspiracy theories truly entered the mainstream during the last decade of the twentieth century, becoming part of the broader cultural discourse.

“Tetryon reactors don’t melt at those temperatures.”

Indeed, The Voyager Conspiracy alludes rather directly to more than just the form of conspiracy theory discourse, but also to some of its content. Seven of Nine’s paranoid ramblings in The Voyager Conspiracy evoke a certain strain of nineties conspiratorial thought, with particular emphasis on the idea of an encroaching military industrial complex. Positing an alliance between the Federation and the Cardassians leading to Voyager’s mission, Seven insists, “I believe they’re attempting to establish a military presence in the Delta Quadrant.”

This sort of unhinged logic is a fixture of conspiracy theorising, with theories often suggesting that radically opposed political entities are actually conspiring together (and often staging “false flag” operations) in order to manipulate and enslave the public. Seven’s narrative evokes all sort of radical conspiracy theories, but most obviously those concerning a “new world order” threatening to dissolve established governments into a totalitarian one-world political system. The idea is that even politicians who appear to be opposed to one another are working together against the public interest.

This multi-angle featurette is fantastic.

It should be noted that this particular conspiracy theory simmers through Voyager, despite the fact that it would seem diametrically opposed to the core of the Star Trek franchise. After all, the entire “new world order” conspiracy theory is rooted in fear of a hypothetical “one-world government”, despite the fact that the Federation has already moved well beyond a one-world government towards a vast interplanetary political system. Indeed, the idea of the Federation and the Cardassians working together shouldn’t be worrying; as Eddington pointed out in For the Cause, it is the end goal of the Federation project.

Voyager returns time and again to the spectre of the “new world order.” The militia members in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II evoke it when they warn Chakotay and Torres, “The Beast has many heads and I’m looking at two of them.” Although it should be noted that the conspirators insist that “the Federal Government is the Beast”, the term “Beast” has connotations associated with that fear of the “new world order.” Indeed, the recurring threat of the Borg Collective literalises the fear of an all-consuming political entity plotting to destroy individualism. It was a palpable anxiety in the context of the nineties.

Friendly Flyer.

It is no surprise that The Voyager Conspiracy is credited to Joe Menosky. Menosky is a writer keenly invested in ideas of narratives and stories, as reflected in everything from the narratives that rewrite reality in Dramatis Personae and Masks and the storytelling-as-language in Darmok, through to the prophecy in False Profits and the oral storytelling in Muse. Menosky’s narratives are often about characters trying to construct their own narratives or to navigate existing ones, as the EMH does in both Living Witness and Latent Image. Menosky’s interest in conspiracy theories makes sense in this context.

In keeping with Menosky’s interest in narratives about narrative, The Voyager Conspiracy even places an emphasis on how conspiracy theories work as narratives for those who believe in them, allowing such individuals to cast themselves as the hero of an epic narrative in which they are among the chosen few to pierce through the veil and see things how they really are. Tellingly, all of Seven of Nine’s conspiracy theories ultimately circle back to herself. “I finally uncovered your true objective,” Seven warns Janeway at one point. “Me.” Seven becomes the hero of her own conspiracy theory narrative.

Fan theories.

Discussing the episode with Cinefantastique, Brannon Braga conceded that the show proved to be a challenge for bother writer Joe Menosky and actor Jeri Ryan:

The Voyager Conspiracy was a great concept that Joe did a very good job writing, but that was hard to pull off. It worked on some levels, but on other levels it didn’t. It’s a very ambitious episode. It has some of the longest speeches in Star Trek history. Seven’s conspiracy theories are like ten pages long, extraordinarily difficult to act, and extraordinarily difficult to write. Joe Menosky had a twist that he added, where she spins out two completely different conspiracy theories. You could come up with a theory about just about anything with the right amount of information. In this case Seven has a lot of information going into her head, and you start to see connections everywhere.

Braga’s description of conspiracy theory as the inevitable outcome of information overload suggests a reason why conspiracy theory developed into such a popular mode of narrative discourse at the turn of the millennium.

“If the sensor data doesn’t fit, a spark for mutiny will be lit.”

During the nineties, it seemed like conspiracy theories were everywhere. Timothy McVeigh was reportedly inspired by conspiracy theories about the Waco Siege, and his terrorist attack on Oklahoma became a source of its own conspiracy theories. African-American communities speculated that AIDS had been engineered by the government and that fast food was being used to sterilise young black men. Conspiracy theories about vaccination were gaining traction. Belief in the New World Order was taking root.

There are any number of reasons why conspiracy theories flourished during the nineties. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States found itself contemplating its role in the world. Without a grand enemy or a mythic conflict against which the nation might define itself, some citizens were drawn to the comforts of over-arching narratives about sinister men lurking in the shadows. Conspiracy theories impose a moral order on the universe and provide a framework through which the world might be understood.


After all, it is terrifying to acknowledge the world as a random and arbitrary place. As outlined by Robert Dallek, historian and author of Camelot’s Court, conspiracy theories provide a more palatable alternative to uncomfortable truths:

Mr. Dallek is more intrigued by the apparent need to believe in a conspiracy. “They can’t accept that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could have killed someone as consequential as Kennedy,” he said. “To believe that only Oswald killed Kennedy — that there wasn’t some larger plot — shows people how random the world is, how uncertain. And I think it pains them; they don’t want to accept that fact.”

There is certainly an aspect of this to The Voyager Conspiracy. It is no coincidence that Seven of Nine is the character who gets swept up in these conspiracy theories. Seven is Voyager‘s traditional “logic-versus-emotion” character, and these theories are implied to serve as a way of imposing logic on the world.

Driving questions.

At the climax, Janeway frames the events in similar terms. Confronting Seven of Nine on the Delta Flyer, Janeway urges, “I’ve got a theory of my own. Your modified alcove threw your synaptic patterns into chaos and your mind can’t make sense of all the information, so you’re generating theory after theory in an attempt to bring order to that chaos.” Conspiracy theory is treated as a neurological malfunction, the result of a failed attempt to account for every possible variable and piece of data.

Of course, another reason that conspiracy theories became so ubiquitous during the nineties was technological. The internet became more readily accessible to Americans. In 1990, there were 313,000 American computers on the internet; by 1996, there were ten million. By 1999, 41% of adults were using the internet. Whereas the spread of conspiracy theories had previously been limited by logistical concerns that kept circulation of conspiracy zines relatively isolated from the political mainstream, the internet allowed people access to a conspiratorial gold mine. Now conspiracy buzz words are an accepted part of online dialogue.

An Agent of the N(M)WO: The New Milky Way Order.

As Kurt Anderson argued, people seemed overwhelmed by the tidal wave of information unleashed by the internet:

Why did Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan begin remarking frequently during the ’80s and ’90s that people were entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts? Because until then, that had not been necessary to say. Our marketplace of ideas became exponentially bigger and freer than ever, it’s true. Thomas Jefferson said that he’d “rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it”—because in the new United States, “reason is left free to combat” every sort of “error of opinion.” However, I think if he and our other Enlightenment forefathers returned, they would see the present state of affairs as too much of a good thing. Reason remains free to combat unreason, but the internet entitles and equips all the proponents of unreason and error to a previously unimaginable degree. Particularly for a people with our history and propensities, the downside of the internet seems at least as profound as the upside.

There was just too much information to properly process, too much insanity to parse.

Curiosity killed the cat(apult).

The Voyager Conspiracy makes a point to frame Seven’s paranoid breakdown in such terms. The entire crisis results from Seven’s attempts to integrate a “sub-unit” into her alcove, a piece of technology that “downloads newly assimilated data to the drones.” Although Voyager is not a Borg ship and Seven is no longer a drone, she explains, “Voyager collects a great deal of information. Sensor scans, navigational projections, engineering updates, away team reports, scientific analyses.” Seven hopes to pour the contents of Voyager’s computer banks into her head.

This is a potent metaphor for being connected to the internet, where an infinite array of data is available to the user. There is too much information to process. Current estimates suggest that there are one million exabytes of data on the internet, shared across four-and-a-half billion pages. (This is roughly four hundred times the capacity of an entire human brain, as much as those measurements can be considered comparable.) It has been suggested that it would take the average person seventeen years to read Wikipedia, without any breaks.

Carefully screening data.

In The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven attempts to process this huge quantity of data by connecting various strands. This mirrors the way in which the internet facilitates the creation and maintenance of conspiracy theories, as Mollay Sauter argues:

To navigate the web is to beat a path through a labyrinth of links left by others, and to thereby create associative links yourself, unspooling them like a guiding thread onto a floor already carpeted with such connections. Each thread of connection is unique, individualized: everyone draws their own map of the network as they navigate it.

Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.

Though conspiracy theories are, in essence, a social side-effect of human pattern-spotting behavior, the internet’s structure has encouraged a similar obsessiveness. As Kathleen Stewart notes in Conspiracy’s Theory Worlds, “the internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing and no place, floating through self-dividing and transmogrifying sites until you are awash in the sheer evidence that the internet exists.”

In some ways, the network created by the internet mirrors the neural network within a human brain; ides fire, connections are made, incomplete data is contextualised in terms of what is “known” to be true.

“I’m just asking questions.”

The Voyager Conspiracy underscores the folly of such an approach to information by having Seven of Nine use the same set of data to construct two mutually exclusive narratives. Seven doesn’t just use the same ideas in describing her radically different theories to Janeway and Chakotay, she uses the same words. In both versions, the script uses familiar formulations to create a sense of repetition; “a cloaked ship locked on to one of the [array’s tertyon] reactors”, “hiding it from Voyager’s sensors”, “carried by a series of vessels until it was [finally] delivered to Mister Tash.”

Chakotay wryly notes, “Same evidence, two different theories.” There is something very astute in this writing choice, reflecting studies which suggest that it is entirely possible for conspiracy theorists to hold two radically mutually exclusive conspiracy theories to be true. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously argued that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Perhaps conspiracy theories validated his argument by providing a counter-example; they support multiple opposed ideas, but they also impede function.

Kid you not.

In keeping with how Voyager approaches its artificial characters like the EMH or Seven of Nine, The Voyager Conspiracy literalises this idea. Seven of Nine’s attempt to process all of that information through her “sub-unit” manifests itself as a psychological breakdown. As in episodes like ProjectionsThe Swarm, One or Infinite Regress, a technological malfunction is treated as a neurological condition. In some ways, this hints at the most primal of body horrors, the idea that the human body is little more than a machine that happens to be made of meat.

The Voyager Conspiracy suggests that Seven’s conspiracy theorising is the manifestation of two different sorts of breakdowns, a psychiatric breakdown of the individual and a breakdown of trust in a broader social context. In the context of The Voyager Conspiracy, the personal mirrors the political. Although Seven of Nine’s conspiracy theories are falsification and distortions of the historical record, they do expose very real and very serious problems at both a personal and a cultural level.

Miss Trust.

As Aaron Gulyas reflects in The Paranormal and the Paranoid, the central metaphor of conspiracy-theory-as-psychological-break is very much in keeping with how certain theorists like Hofstadter have approached the subject:

That Seven of Nine’s conspiracy mongering and the resulting paranoia among the Voyager crew are the result of a malfunction reflections the conception of conspiracy and paranoia put forward by Richard Hofstadter in the 1960s. Paranoia, Hofstadter argues, was a form of social pathology: a disease that infected democratic societies.

This metaphor is effective. It is not for nothing that rumours and conspiracy theories can be said to go “viral” or that memes can be described as “viruses of the mind.” The Voyager Conspiracy just uses Voyager‘s science-fiction framework to literalise that pathology.

Net losses.

Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of watching Voyager decades after it first aired is in watching the show’s engagement with nineties culture and how that fed into the current political climate. Voyager was always a show firmly rooted in the nineties, as demonstrated in episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II or 11:59. The series engaged repeatedly with the political concerns of the nineties, from fear of globalisation in Unity to anxieties about immigration in Displaced to concerns about refugees in Day of Honour to worries about political correctness in Random Thoughts.

Revisiting these episodes after the fact, Voyager offers something of a bridge from the late nineties into the new millennium. If anything, The Voyager Conspiracy seems tame when compared to the new cycles of the twenty-first century, where the President of the United States openly trades in conspiracy theory jargon, where terms like “truthers” and “crisis actor” have entered the public lexicon, where violent crimes have been committed by individuals who believe in particularly absurd conspiracy theories.

There’s coffee on that briefing table.

The Voyager Conspiracy suggests repeatedly that such conspiracy theorising is damaging to the social fabric, breaking down the trust that is necessary for society to function. The episode suggests as much in the heavy-handed and clumsy subplot focusing on Janeway and Chakotay, bookended with scenes of the two sharing dinner together. Janeway and Chakotay find themselves at odds with one another. Chakotay even seems to sew seeds of discord among the crew, alienating Torres and Kim.

Of course, this plot thread doesn’t really work, for various reasons. Most obviously, it attempts to set two primary characters against one another within a subplot of a single forty-five minute episode. Janeway and Chakotay have been working together for years, and there is none of the underlying tension that underscores other relationships within the Star Trek canon where this plot might play better; Spock and McCoy, Picard and Worf, Odo and Quark, Archer and T’Pol. Janeway and Chakotay have disagreed before, but only in times of crisis, and when the stakes were much higher than they appear here.

Keeping their paranoia at Bay.

While it is possible for primary characters to convincingly go head-to-head within an episodic subplot, like Bashir and O’Brien in Rivals or Odo and Quark in The Sound of Her Voice, it requires a very delicate balancing of tone. The Voyager Conspiracy struggles to maintain a consistent tone in the conflict between Janeway and Chakotay. The framing dinner scenes suggest a domestic dispute, but this does not reconcile with key sequences in which Chakotay tries to undermine the chain of command and in which both characters stand-off while armed with (admittedly undrawn) phasers.

The Voyager Conspiracy might work better if it were willing to favour one approach or the other. With the episode as written, it might be possible to accept a more low-key chill in the cordial relationship between Janeway and Chakotay, even if neither acts upon Seven of Nine’s suppositions; a reminder of how rumours and gossip can undermine interpersonal relationships even when those involved do not act upon them.  However, in order to accept the threat of mutiny and armed combat, The Voyager Conspiracy would need to escalate the “catapult” into something much more dangerous.

“I wanted to call it the ‘slingshot effect’, but apparently that was taken.”

The Voyager Conspiracy works better when it focuses on the toll that paranoia takes on Seven of Nine herself, the psychological break that results from her theorising. At one point, wandering through the corridors, she encounters Naomi Wildman. “The Ktarians were officially with the Federation, but they sympathised with the Maquis,” she states. “Who are you working for, Chakotay or the Captain?” Seven’s fantasies drive her to abandon the crew, hijacking the Delta Flyer in order to escape the influences that she believes to be hostile.

This is perhaps an effective illustration of the damage that paranoia can do to the social fabric, in that it undercuts and undermines the bonds that hold people together. If trust between individuals becomes impossible to maintain, then societies disintegrate into chaos. These cycles become self-perpetuating and reinforcing; mistrust and paranoia only make it harder to trust, accelerating the deterioration. Conspiracy theories divide society into camps, those who are perceived as perpetuating the conspiracy and those who can see through the alleged lies.

Where’s her head at?

(Indeed, there might even be something prescient in the way in which The Voyager Conspiracy seems to use the “sub-unit” as a metaphor for internet access. It seems like the internet has polarised contemporary politics even further, and cut off its inhabitants from the real world. So-called “bubbles” serve to reinforce rather than challenge perspectives, and tend to isolate people from one another. The internet created a forum where it seemed like all things could be true, and so nothing might also be.)

The Voyager Conspiracy is a clever piece of television. It is also a very clumsy one. It occasionally feels like a collection of smart ideas that have been forced into the shape of a story, with little consideration for character or nuance. In some ways, The Voyager Conspiracy resembles the narratives that it is exploring, a collection of interesting observations loosely thrown together to create a decidedly unconvincing account.

8 Responses

  1. I always had a fondness for this episode, and it strikes me as somewhat ahead of its time regarding the arbitrarily and wildly thought up conspiracy theories. Indeed, it seems pretty prescient somehow. And I found the scene at the end between Janeway and Seven very moving, to the point where I had almost wet eyes.

    What confused me though was the whole story with the catapult. Did I sleep during certain scenes or was there barely a mention of Voyager using it themselves? What happened in the end with the catapult? No attempt to utilize it to cut some time off their path home?

    • I first saw this episode during the Trump presidency and it made a big impact on me. I agree the episode is a bit clumsy in the 6th season and would have worked better in the first or second seasons (albeit, Seven of Nine was not on the show then) before Janeway and Chakotay became so chummy.

      But the episode’s portrayal of the conspiracy theorist’s psychosis not only holds up today, it’s actually much more relevant today than it was in 1999 or even 2002. For this reason, it’s the episode of Voyager I remember better than any others and will firmly remain as one of my favourites.

      • You are so right, but the point is: We got a nice happy ending here and a technological reason for Seven’s “malfunction”, especially because the Macquis-Starfleet-struggle was (unfortunately) solved basically at the end of “Caretaker”. Today we see one conspiracy theoriy following the other and pure psychological explanations seem not to work.

      • I’m glad you enjoyed, Chris!

    • I really didn’t care for The Voyager conspiracy on rewatch, because – a lot like Fury and Pathfinder around it – it feels like a rather cynical and dismissive rejection of the changing norms of television. Continuity becomes something monstrous and hostile and dangerous that upsets the status quo and so needs to be rejected to preserve the sanctity or beauty of Voyager. I much preferred stories like Blink of an Eye, which seemed to acknowledge the importance of the passage of time and the need to grow and evolve in a way that Voyager steadfastly refused to do.

  2. This episode seems a little more relevant now, since conspiracy theories are more prevalent than ever in the USA, with QAnon, Flat Earthers, and 9/11 Truthers feeding into social media and crazy paranoia peddlers like Alex Jones.

    The episode offers a surprisingly (rare) anti-tech message for Trek, with Seven arguing for quality over quantity and interpretation at the end. In essence, it is an argument for hermeneutics.

    That said, the episode is structured in an annoying way. I think it would have been a better episode with someone else, so it couldn’t all be explained away by techno-babble. We have had far too many Seven-centric episodes this season already, and this episode subjects the viewer to scene after scene of her barking out her theories. None of the other crew tell her to step back or calm down, when it’s obvious she’s unstable. Often, it seems like Torres is the only character who has no time for Seven’s attitude and privilege. I wish Torres had shown up and just told Seven to shut up at some point.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Seven, but this episode had a lot of very unrealistic dialogue scenes.

    • Going through Darren’s reviews has me reflecting on how surprisingly passive-agressive the Star Trek franchise is to technology, especially Voyager. Technology is heavily relied upon, but there is a fear it will take over, so tech and tech-heavy characters are undermined and subordinated. That biological and mechanical life could equally and peacefully co-exist is rarely explored.

      I agree with you that Seven really needed a character that could reliably be a check on her ability to take over things, and a character like Torres who was influenced more by emotion than by reason would’ve worked well, but Voyager sadly wasn’t interested in those kind of character dynamics.

  3. This might be my favorite episode of Star Trek: Voyager, but that’s only true because I watched too many other episodes that I didn’t like very much at all. I like this episode a lot because I watched more of this show than I should have, probably, after I realized it wasn’t my thing, and this episode effectively satirizes much of what fell short for me. I don’t know what to make of that.

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