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Star Trek: Voyager – Child’s Play (Review)

Interesting, isn’t it?


With all their technology, their opportunity to explore the galaxy, the thing they want most is to get home.

A Trek away from the Stars.

Child’s Play is a fascinating episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in that it might be seen as a firm rejection of some of the show’s core conservatism.

Voyager has always been the most conservative of the Star Trek franchise, the series most likely to panic about gang violence for two whole seasons starting in Caretaker or to rail against immigration in Displaced or to voice its anxieties about refugees in Day of Honour. More than that, what are episodes like Remember or Distant Origin or Living Witness or Memorial but expressions of literal anxieties about the erosion of the certainty of history to postmodernism and moral relativism? At its core, Voyager is a series about nostalgia, about the yearning to recapture what once was, how the only journey is the journey home.

“Everything the light touches is your kingdom…”

Child’s Play is interesting as a firm rejection of the idea of the traditional family unit in favour of a more modern (and less rigidly defined) idea of a “found family.” It is a story about how a child’s best interests do not always lie with their biological parents, and about how some of the strongest and most loving bonds in a young person’s life can be forged by chance rather than biology. Child’s Play is essentially an ode to the kind of complicated family dynamics that were entering the mainstream at the turn of the millennium, a staunch defense of a liberal and inclusive definition of family.

More than that, the episode also seems to be making several very pointed jabs at Voyager‘s traditionally conservative outlook.

“I want to be out there…”

To be fair to Child’s Play, the episode was produced in a very specific context. Many Star Trek episodes are directly inspired by contemporaneous political events, with the writers both seizing on the opportunity to be culturally relevant and simply drawing on the world around them as part of the weekly grind of producing a television series. The Enterprise Incident was famously inspired by the capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korean forces. Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II were inspired by proposed laws that would have criminalised the homeless in Los Angeles.

Even within Voyager, there is a strong sense that the writers were trying to engage with contemporary culture. Concerns about gang violence in Los Angeles informed the creation of the Kazon, and their development in episodes like State of Flux and Initiations. So it is no surprise that Child’s Play should be informed by one particular contemporaneous event. In November 1999, Elián González was brought to the United States by his mother. Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez smuggled her son into the country on a raft from Cuba, dying in the attempt. The boy’s father sought his repatriation to Cuba.

There’s no place like drone.

Child’s Play was broadcast in March 2000, in the middle of this huge cultural controversy about whether Elián González should be allowed to remain in Florida or whether he should be returned to his biological father in Cuba. At the time that the episode aired, González was recounting stories about how dolphins had saved his life on the dangerous crossing by protecting him from sharks. He was also insisting that his mother had survived the crossing, but had simply lost her memory.

The case would develop on long after Child’s Play aired. The following month, González would be seized by armed agents of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. In June, the courts would uphold the decision to return González to his father, to send him back to Cuba. He would be flown home at the end of the month. The controversy held the attention of the American public. In fact, it has been argued that Al Gore’s hedging position on the controversy may have cost him the presidential election, as the contest ultimately came down to a handful of votes in Florida.

Game theory.

The Elián González case was an interesting political moment. It was in some circles seen as an extension of the Pedro Pan initiative, whereby the United States had traditionally welcomed infant refugees from Cuba. The peculiarities of the United States’ relationship to Cuba, and the demographic base of the Republican Party meant that (generally speaking) conservatives wanted Gonzlez to be allowed to stay, while liberals wanted him to be repatriated. There is no small irony in how different this position is from the current status quo, with the Republican Party adopting a staunch anti-immigrant platform.

Surveys at the time suggested that Americans generally favoured González’s repatriation back to Cuba, and his reunion with his father. The incident has had a lasting political impact. It has been suggested that it helped to normalise relations between the United States and Cuba during the Obama administration. It has been suggested that the Cuban American community still holds the Clinton family to blame for the raid that took González away from his extended family in Miami. For his part, González has become one of the most outspoken proponents of the Cuban Revolution since his return home.

“Oh, don’t worry. We bought all of this wholesale off the Ba’ku.”

Discussing the episode with Cinefantastique, producer Kenneth Biller conceded that Child’s Play was undeniably informed by the basic details of the Elián González case:

That was maybe my favorite episode of the year. It turned out to be an episode about the Elian Gonzalez case, this Cuban kid who is in America. Does he go back to Cuba where he doesn’t have all of the creature comforts and all of the opportunities that America affords him? Once we got these Borg kids on the ship, we started developing this relationship that Seven has with these kids. The idea that she had bonded maternally with them created an opportunity to explore another aspect of her character and her humanity, her sense of protectiveness over these kids, and her attitude that this kid was much better off staying with her than going back with his parents. It allowed us to dig into and explore some of those issues about what’s really important for a kid’s development. Is it just parental love, or is it more than that?

This makes a great deal of sense. In some respects, Child’s Play is an inevitable extension of the basic premise of Collective, the logical extension of the episode’s central story beat. If Collective was about the crew rescuing these abandoned drones, then Child’s Play is about taking one of them home.

The third season of Ryan Murphy’s Feud looks to be a corker. (FX/Fox.)

In some ways, this might be seen as a quintessentially American story. The Star Trek franchise has always been rooted in American iconography and mythology, right down to the emphasis on the “final frontier” as the logical (and infinite) extension of the same frontier that was foundational to American cultural identity. More specifically, the original Star Trek might be seen as an extrapolation of the limitless perceived potential of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot”, extended into the distant future. Even Voyager could be seen as a prism through which the audience might examine America during the nineties.

This is true of most of the Star Trek series. Star Trek: The Next Generation captures a lot of the mood and tone of the later Reagan years and the Bush era. Star Trek: Enterprise is very much about exploring what it means to be a Star Trek series during the War on Terror. Even JJ Abrams’ Star Trek speaks to the uncertainties of the Obama era, just as much much as Star Trek: Discovery is informed by the realities of the Trump era. Star Trek can be seen as something akin to an American fairy tale, a science-fiction mirror which reflects American self-image.

Bad Sheppard.

In Drones, Clones, and Alpha Babes, Diana M. A. Relke argues that the story told in Collective and Child’s Play is a story firmly rooted in American cultural identity:

Star Trek’s writers – like most writers of popular television series – are skilled at producing narratives that appeal to viewers across the spectrum of public opinion, and are thus quite fearless in taking on themes from current affairs. Perhaps the most melodramatic detail in the media construction of the Elian Gonzales saga was the representation of Elian as a motherless child – a boy whose mother had sacrificed her life to deliver her son from the evil of communist oppression to the land of liberty, where his individuality could flourish. This is a variation on a popular theme in American cultural mythology, and the theme upon which the liberation of the Borg children plays.

Although undoubtedly inspired by the headlines generated by the Elián González case, the story of Icheb in Collective and Child’s Play seems to hint at something much more primal.

Collective concerns.

The story of the Borg children in Collective and Child’s Play is perhaps an example of a particularly broad cultural myth, the very American idea that a person’s fate or destiny is not predetermined by their family history or their point of origin. The American Dream suggests that the United States is a country where anybody can accomplish anything, if they have enough intelligence and commitment. This is especially true of people who come to America as children, as many immigrants arrived on Ellis Island. Perhaps the most iconic invocation of this myth remains Vito’s arrival in The Godfather, Part II.

Child’s Play even makes a point to stress how exceptional Icheb is. The opening scene has Icheb dazzle the senior staff with his submission to the ship’s first annual science fair, “a high-resolution gravimetric sensor array” that will “augment [Voyager’s] ability to scan for the neutrino flux associated with wormholes. It could help Voyager find a faster way home.” Later on, Icheb idly increases “the resolution of the long range scanners” to get a better look at a passing nebula. Seven is quite clearly correct when she tells Janeway that “the boy has a unique talent.”

“Well, the inhabitants of Fair Haven will be impressed.”

However, the relationship between Icheb and Voyager is very much a two-way street. Not only does Icheb enrich Voyager with his big ideas and his radical concepts, but Voyager affords Icheb opportunities that he might never otherwise have had. “When I was on the Cube, I never thought about what was outside,” he confesses to Seven of Nine early in the episode. “Pulsars, quasars, nebulas. But here in this lab, I feel I can see the entire galaxy.” The relationship between Icheb and Voyager is similar to the romanticised relationship between immigrants and America; those who bring innovation to a society that offers opportunity.

There is something genuinely moving in all of this, something very much in the spirit of Star Trek. One of the fundamental underlying assumptions of the Star Trek franchise is that people are fundamentally decent and capable of incredible things; when adversity is removed, when hunger is eliminated, when materialism is transcended, people will simply work for the betterment of themselves and of others. It is a powerful aspiration, but one which resonates with American self-image.

“Well, ‘Captain Janeway Day’ seemed a little narcissistic.”

The basic premise of Child’s Play is a great example of Voyager doing archetypal and quintessential Star Trek, offering a humanist and optimistic vision of the future through allegory and metaphor. Child’s Play is the story of a child who is allowed to do more than simply look up at the stars and wonder, but instead afforded the opportunity to wander amongst them and to develop to his full potential. (It is telling, for example, that Seven’s parting gift to Icheb includes a telescope, acknowledging his connection to and curiousity about the limitless potential suggested by the sky above.)

At the same time, there is something more interesting happening within Child’s Play. At its core, the episode is a meditation on family, and tells a story about the conflict between found family and biological family. It reflects the fact that contemporary family units were not always as neat and tidy as they might seem, essentially positioning Seven of Nine as a single adoptive mother in a custody battle with Icheb’s abusive biological parents. It is an interesting example of Voyager grappling with a contemporary anxiety, in large part because it is consciously framed as a criticism of Voyager‘s conservatism.

Family misfortunes.

Over the past few decades, ideas about the nature of family have changed dramatically. Popular culture has increasingly come to terms with the idea that the traditional heterosexual nuclear family cemented in the parents’ first marriage is not the only possible family unit. As Bruce Horovitz has argued:

Whatever a traditional family used to be, it is no longer. One in 12 married couples in the U.S. are interracial. American women now make up 40% of primary family breadwinners. And only 62% of children live with their two biological parents.

There are other statistical indicators of how much the archetypal family has changed in recent decades. Cohabitation has doubled in the two decades since 1990. In the United States, more than forty percent of births are to unmarried mothers. Britain has seen a significant increase in mixed race couples and parents.

Feels like… going home.

To be fair, earlier Star Trek shows had touched on these unconventional family units. Spock was the product of a marriage between a Vulcan and a human. Worf had been raised by humans, with a human foster brother. Worf had a child outside of marriage, who was subsequently raised by his own foster parents. This is to say nothing of episodes like Suddenly Human, in which Picard was asked to legislate on the fate of a human who had been discovered and raised by an alien culture, and whose human relatives sought his return.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also demonstrated relatively liberal and progressive ideas of what a family could be. Benjamin Sisko was a widower and a single father for most of the run, finally marrying for a second time in ‘Til Death Do Us Part. Nog was raised by his father and by his uncle, his mother only mentioned in passing and his father remarrying in Call to Arms. Worf married Dax in You Are Cordially Invited…, with his son by K’Ehleyr serving as part of the marriage party. Kira Nerys became an impromptu surrogate for Miles and Keiko O’Brien in Body Parts, creating a strong bond with the child Kirayoshi.

Going by the book.

In fact, by the late nineties, the notion of “family” had evolved to such a degree that more traditional frameworks increasingly seemed outdated and outmoded for articulating and expressing familial bonds. In 1997, author Carol Hurst warned about the delicacy of constructing family trees with young children in the classroom:

While constructing them does make for a good exploration of the subject for kids who are living with or have connections to blood relatives, it’s a very different thing indeed for some adopted children, for those in foster care or for many others whose sensitivity on the subject may be less apparent. Modern family trees can include nonblood relatives and be a map of all kinds of important people in children’s lives. In fact, this whole theme should be explored with utmost sensitivity for we travel on hazardous ground.

You may want to start by having students discuss, with an aim toward defining, family. Just what it is that makes a family? Are there necessary basic components? Do you need parents and children for family? Is a home a requirement? Can you be a homeless family? Is blood relation necessary? Do you have to live together to be a family? Do you need to live together all the time? Has the concept of family changed over the years? Is the concept of family different in different cultures? Since the answers to those questions are more or less self evident, you can start listing various family components encountered by students in real life or in books.

It is an interesting demonstration of the seismic shifts taking place in American and European culture during the last decade of the twentieth century, a reflection on how long-standing social institutions were changing and evolving to reflect the times. These discussion about something as simple as a family tree illustrate how profound these changes were.

Luring in their quarry.

Indeed, these changes has permeated American society to such a degree that it was possible to actually talk about them with children, to normalise these unconventional bonds and to encourage children to define family in their own terms. As Lynette Holloway noted in 1999:

With many families of the 1990’s no longer fitting the nuclear family model of the 1950’s, teachers like Ms. Chu are rearranging lesson plans and redrawing assignments long regarded as staples of the classroom. The revisions reflect the growing diversity of their schools, which include children from families created through international adoptions, children of gay parents and those born through advanced reproductive technology, those in families broken apart by divorce and rebuilt with stepparents and stepsiblings, and children raised by relatives or foster parents.

The most entrenched and problematic of these assignments, teachers, school administrators and psychologists said, is the classic family tree, which requires pupils to trace maternal and paternal ancestral lines.

How the family tree became such a mainstay in schools is unclear. Some educators said it had its roots in the 1950’s, when two-parent households embodied the ideal postwar American family. And the television miniseries Roots in the 1970’s raised the consciousness of Americans, especially black Americans, about tracing one’s family history.

Some educators have reacted to the evolving family constellations by scrapping the family tree altogether, while others, like Ms. Chu, have modified it. Teachers now assign family time lines, family orchards and essays that give children more freedom in telling their personal histories.

All of this suggests a more open and inclusive society, one less rooted in archetypal depictions of so-described “normal” American families and more willing to accept individuals from domestic situations that do not conform to expectations.

Injecting the dejected.

Popular culture has always been about families, to a certain extent. The Star Wars saga may have resonated so skillfully with a generation of young men because it spoke to the reconciliation between a father and his son at a time of real-world generational turbulence in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. Steven Spielberg’s films tended to focus on the dissolution of the traditional family, perhaps speaking to a generation defined by the legalisation of divorce. The family sitcom is an American cultural institution for a reason.

However, during the early years of the twenty-first century, there were clear changes in how popular culture approached the idea of family. The idea of unconventional and found families was reflected in mainstream hits on both the big and small screens; Modern Family is perhaps the most obvious example, it also one of the latest. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Deadpool 2 are very much anchored in the idea of family as a bond created rather than predetermined.

Naomi was so concerned with weather she could, she never stopped to think about weather she should.

Producer Troy Craig Poon argued that the Fast & Furious spoke to that same yearning for family within the popular psyche, contending, “I think what people resonate with in The Fast and the Furious is these characters become a family, an unconventional family. People from around the world can’t wait to see this non-traditional family come together.” It is telling that one of the big (and controversial) revelations in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi was that its central character’s fate was not determined by a dramatic reveal of her parents’ identity.

Child’s Play arrived at a point where popular culture was still wrestling with these questions of what it meant to be a family, and when those matters had not yet been resolved. As a result, there is an interesting tension within the episode when Voyager manages to establish contact with Icheb’s biological parents, Yicef and Leucon. Naturally, Yicef and Leucon want to reconnect with their child and welcome him home. Both Seven and Icheb are initially skeptical of Yicef and Leucon, wary about whether returning home to be with his biological parents is the best thing for the young drone.

One of three.

A traditional and conservative approach would assert that Icheb should be reunited with his parents, that he deserves a traditional nuclear family and that Seven cannot possibly offer the same stability and support that Yicef and Leucon might. Indeed, there was even a subplot within Ashes to Ashes involving the children, in which Seven conceded that she was struggling to deal with the obligations and responsibilities of serving as a guardian to four young recently-liberated drones. Voyager is nothing if not conservative, so there is a sense that the scales are weighted in that direction.

Indeed, even the relatively episodic nature of Voyager would seem to support the argument that Icheb should be returned to his people. After all, Voyager has never been particularly good at hanging on to supporting or recurring cast members for the long haul. Sending Icheb back to his home planet would allow the series to forget about the character, as it had forgotten about Vorik or Carey or Baxter. In fact, Ashes to Ashes had already demonstrated the appeal of such an ending, with a one-shot guest character leaving the ship to live with a bunch of vaguely creepy death aliens.

That warm glow.

Child’s Play very cleverly and very cannily plays with this expectation, understanding that Voyager is the sort of television show that leans into traditional and conservative values. After all, the series was decidedly reactionary in its attitudes towards immigration in Displaced and refugees in Day of Honour. From the outset, it is made very clear that overwhelming majority of the primary cast think that Icheb should be repatriated. It is not even a debate. It is not a matter of discussion. It is not an issue on which Icheb is consulted. From the opening scenes of Child’s Play, it is made clear that Icheb is going home.

When Janeway calls Seven out for criticising Yicef and Leucon, Seven responds, “That doesn’t alter the fact that those individuals may not be suitable guardians.” Seven’s point is entirely valid. Even before the crew become aware of the details of what exactly happened to Icheb, it is very clear that Yicef and Leucon allowed him to be abducted and assimilated by the Borg. However, Janeway will not hear the argument. For her, the morality of the situation is clear. “Those individuals are his mother and father.” Their biological bond trumps everything.

“What a totally non-ominous line on which to close an act.”

It isn’t just Janeway, to be clear. On of the act breaks finds Neelix looking on the family reunion with a smile, declaring, “Nice to see the family back together again, isn’t it?” The music sting and the fade to black put an ironic twist on the beat, even allowing for Seven’s mixed feelings. The EMH is similarly effusive about Icheb’s opportunity to reunited with his biological parents. “Your parents can nurture you in ways this crew can’t,” he promises Icheb. “They can explain the Brunali culture, share their experiences with you.”

Of course, both Seven of Nine and Icheb are skeptical of the crew’s eagerness to reunite him with his biological parents, with Icheb even pointing out the absurdity of the EMH towing the party line on this matter. “You didn’t have parents,” Icheb states. The EMH doesn’t have a response, awkwardly flubbing, “No, but–“ Icheb presses the point, “You adapted to serve a vital function about this vessel, forged relationships with its crew, all without the benefit of parents.” Icheb is entirely correct in this matter.

All the best holograms have daddy issues.

Similarly, Seven questions Yicef and Leucon’s ability to care for Icheb, both in a literal sense and in a broader spiritual sense. “Will he be able to continue his studies in astrometrics and spatial harmonics?” Seven asks. Leucon responds, “If Icheb has an aptitude for science, I’m sure he’ll find that we have a great deal to teach him.” He elaborates, “We’ve developed sophisticated techniques in agricultural genetics which allow us to grow crops in an inhospitable environment.” Seven bluntly replies, “Icheb has expressed no interest in agriculture.”

More than that, Seven points out the dangers of trying to raise a child in the shadow of a Borg transwarp hub. “There’s still the issue of his safety,” she presses. “We’re perfectly capable of protecting our son,” Yifay insists. Seven continues, “Your proximity to a Borg conduit makes you extremely vulnerable. I’m curious if you’ve ever considered relocating.” Leucon answers, “No, it’s all right, Captain. This planet is our home. We will never leave it. We will defend it against the Borg or anyone else who threatens us.” Seven quite rightly responds, “Your courage is admirable but unrealistic.”

Look up to the sky and see…

It is inevitably revealed that Yifay and Leucon are more than just incompetent parents. They are bad parents, who weaponised their son and used him to attack the Borg. They abandoned Icheb to the Borg Collective in an effort to protect their colony, in a move that they considered to be for the greater good. Yifay and Leucon might be Icheb’s biological parents, but they are also monstrous. They are both incapable and unwilling to provide the emotional support and physical protection that the teenager needs.

One of the more subtle and interesting choices in Child’s Play is the reveal that Yicef is the driving force behind the plan to weaponise Icheb. Leucon has a much larger role early in the story, negotiating more often with Janeway and Seven before offering Icheb a tour of the make-shift settlement. However, once Icheb has decided to remain with his parents, it quickly becomes clear that Yicef is the character making the most important decisions regarding the use of her son to attack the Borg Collective.

The mother of all messed-up parents.

“The longer we wait the harder it’ll be for everyone,” Yicef tells her husband, who seems to be wavering. “You know that.” Leucon responds, “Why do it at all? There’s nothing compelling us to go through with it.” Yicef has no such compunctions. “It’s what he was born for,” she simply states. “Leucon, his return was a gift. We can’t waste it.” Leucon emotionally replies, “I don’t want to lose him a second time.” Yifay is cold and pragmatic. “To survive, we all have to make sacrifices,” she assures her partner.

This emphasis on Yicef is interesting in a number of ways. Most broadly, it subverts the gendered assumption of women (and mothers in particular) as excessively emotional and maternal, with Leucon portrayed as both more nurturing and more sensitive towards Icheb. That said, there is the possibility that Yicef could be read as a sexist stereotype as manipulative and deceitful woman, the broad “Lady Macbeth” archetype. However, Child’s Play narrowly avoids embracing that crude caricature by contextualising Yicef within Voyager‘s recurring fascination with motherhood.

Oh, mommy!

The primary relationships within Voyager are maternal rather than paternal. There are important paternal relationships within the cast, but they tend to be secondary; Tom Paris’ difficult relationship with his father is somewhat marginalised outside of episodes like Persistence of Vision or Message in a Bottle, while the EMH’s relationship with Lewis Zimmerman only comes into focus in Life Line. However, the female-centric relationships are stronger; Janeway and Seven, Naomi and Seven, Seven and Icheb. Even Torres’ potential motherhood is given more focus than Paris’ relationship to potential fatherhood.

This is in contrast to The Next Generation, which places a much heavier emphasis on male relationships. The primary familial relationships with the major characters on The Next Generation tend to be male-driven: Picard with his brother and nephew, not to mention his potential son in Bloodlines; Riker with his father in The Icarus Factor and with his transporter twin in Second Chances; Data with his human creator and his android brother; Worf with his deceased Klingon father, his Klingon brother and even his human foster brother in Homeward. Even Wesley’s strongest relationship is with Picard more than Beverly.

Mommy knows best.

In Drones, Clones, and Alpha Babes, Diana M. A. Relke suggests that this is a fundamental difference between Voyager and The Next Generation:

A psychoanalytic critic would probably make a pretty good case for Voyager as the pre-oedipal Star Trek. And if Voyager is the pre-oedipal Trek, then The Next Generation is definitely the post-oedipal. Unlike TNG, which favours relationships among fathers, sons, and brothers – biological, spiritual, or technological, and almost always oedipal in their dynamics – Voyager prefers explorations of relationships based on the mother-daughter model.

It is an interesting distinction, and the characterisation of Yicef can be best understood in this context.

Parent and accounted for.

Indeed, the characterisation of Yicef reinforces the parallels between Child’s Play and Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Although Voyager is rarely interested in continuity, Child’s Play is interesting because it is both a sequel to Collective earlier in the sixth season and a story that exists in pointed conversation with Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II from the fifth season. This is particularly impressive, given an obvious continuity misstep when Seven asserts that she never saw her parents after they were assimilated, despite being confronted with her father in Dark Frontier, Part II.

Nevertheless, Child’s Play may be understood as an echo or repetition of Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. This is true even in terms of big set pieces. Dark Frontier, Part I opened with Voyager under attack by a Borg ship, with the crew cleverly beaming a torpedo on board the ship in order to catch the Borg off-guard. The climax of Child’s Play consciously evokes that sequence, with Voyager employing a similar gambit to outwit a more powerful Borg opponent; this time, they borrow a trick from the Brunali, beaming the torpedo on board a ship that is being taken into the Borg ship.

Appreciating the gravity of the situation.

However, the strongest parallels are thematic. Michelle Erica Green has described the conflict between the Janeway and the Borg Queen over Seven of Nine in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II as a tale of “warring matriarchies”, competing visions of motherhood. Child’s Play suggests the next generation of this particular conflict, with Seven and Yicef engaged in a tug of war over Icheb. This explains why Yicef is revealed as the driving force behind the monstrous Brunali plan, and also creates a nice sense of progress to Seven’s character arc. Seven has become a mother, in her own way.

However, Child’s Play also engages with Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II in ways that feel like gentle criticism of Voyager‘s outlook. In Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, Janeway effectively ordered Seven of Nine to read the recovered logs from her parents’ anthropological study of the Borg. Seven correctly pointed out that Erika and Magnus Hansen both recklessly endangered their daughter in pursuit of scientific glory, but Janeway refused to accept the argument. Janeway contended that this exercise was a necessary part of Seven’s journey towards humanity.

How messed up is this? It’s off the star charts.

Janeway argued that Seven needed to reconnect with her biological parents in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, just as she argues that Icheb needs to return home to his biological parents in Child’s Play. However, Child’s Play is willing to challenge Janeway on this point. While Seven’s efforts to reconnect with her parents in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II lead to a deeper understanding of them, with Janeway even employing some of their techniques during both the heist in the first part and the rescue in the second. However, returning Icheb home in Child’s Play almost leads to tragedy.

Child’s Play feels like a firm rejection of the conservatism at the heart of Voyager. It is an episode that allows Seven to reject Janeway’s perspective, and to make her own decision. To be fair, this isn’t the only time that this has happened, but it does mark something of a departure. While Prey treated Seven’s decision to surrender the wounded member of Species 8472 to the Hirogen as ambiguous, and treated her decision to surrender herself to the Borg in Dark Frontier, Part I as unnecessary, Child’s Play suggests Seven’s criticisms of Janeway’s decision is entirely justified.

The Borg’s Queen.

More than that, Child’s Play allows both Seven and Icheb to realise that it is entirely reasonable (and entirely fair) for children to hate their parents. It is a candid acknowledgement that familial love is not unconditional and unequivocal. One of the smarter character beats within Child’s Play ties back to Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, acknowledging that Seven’s difficulty coming to terms with Icheb’s departure is a relegislation of her troubled relationship with her own parents.

“Anyone who values their own goals over the safety of their children is irresponsible,” Seven states, simply. Janeway responds, “Are we talking about Icheb’s parents, or yours?” Seven admits, “Both.” This is fantastic psychological storytelling, the kind of character-driven narrative beat that is relatively rare on Voyager. Indeed, it suggests a level of nuance and complexity more common on Deep Space Nine; think about the lies that Garak weaves in The Wire, the manner in which Garak projects on to Bashir in Our Man Bashir, the way Kira is forced to confront her father’s death through a similar situation in Ties of Blood and Water.

It’s hip to be square.

To be fair to Voyager, the series has told these kinds of stories before. Part of what made Gravity and Counterpoint such fantastic episodes of television, and among the very best that Voyager ever produced, was a willingness to internalise the struggle of the focal characters. Child’s Play is nominally a story about Icheb, who is a recurring guest character. However, it is also a story about Seven of Nine and her troubled relationship with her own parents. There is an elegance in this storytelling, and a strange beauty in approaching Seven’s character in a relatively oblique manner.

Child’s Play allows Seven and Icheb to reject the oft-cited argument that love must be the cornerstone of every nuclear family, and that every parent wants (and can provide) what is best for their child. This is an outdated and traditionalist approach to the idea of family, one that discounts those families that are found and created, the more resilient bonds that can be formed from the elements of other dissolved and broken family units. Of course, some (and indeed most) biological parents want (and can provide) what is best for their child, but there is no shame in admitting that this is not always the case.

A lesson learned better assimi-late than never.

In the final scene between Seven and Icheb, Seven effectively assures the young man that it is perfectly acceptable for him to hate his parents for what they did to him. “My parents made microgenetic alterations so I would produce the pathogen,” he muses, examining his DNA. “Quite ingenious.” Seven responds, “It’s also barbaric.” Icheb tries to justify their abuse. “They were trying to defend themselves, their way of life,” he argues. “Preserve their species.” Seven explains, “I know how difficult it is to acknowledge your parents’ faults, but what they did was wrong. You don’t have to forgive them.”

This is a grim note, but a candid one. It avoids trite sentimentality for brutal honest. Many people are lucky enough to grown up with biological parents who love them and provide for them, who want what is best and who make sacrifices to protect them. However, there are also children who do not experience that love from their biological parents, who might be lucky enough to find it in an unconventional family unit. To argue the notion of family is directly intertwined with biology is to invalidate and undercut those experiences.

Looks like somebody needs some spiritual healing.

There is something quietly reassuring in how Child’s Play accepts and embraces this fact, and also how the episode plays as a critique of the more conservative impulses nestled within the heart of Voyager. Janeway, Neelix and the EMH are all subscribing to an outdated notion of family that preferences genealogy over love, that suggests that DNA is the gel that holds a family unit together. Not only does Child’s Play argue that they are wrong, it also allows Icheb and Seven to call them out on this. It is a genuinely provocative episode of Voyager.

In this context, there might also be something just a little bit acidic in one of the smaller scenes between Leucon and Icheb. Staring up at the stars together, Leucon reflects on the most “interesting” aspect of the crew’s journey, how despite the “opportunity to explore the galaxy, the thing they want most is to get home.” In the context of the scene, it seems like Leucon is making an argument for Icheb to come home and to reconnect with his own biological family, suggesting that the urge to return to the familiar is universal and overwhelming. It is earnest and sickly sweet, like Janeway’s commitment to repatriating Icheb.

It’s not (settle)ment to be.

However, given the subsequent revelations about what Yicef and Leucon plan to do with Icheb, that short scene becomes a lot more pointed. Leucon was effectively able to weaponise the crew’s conservatism for his own ends, to exploit their prioritisation of the journey home by asserting his right to Icheb. Child’s Play makes a point that the urge to return home is inherently dangerous, that nostalgia can be weaponised, and that these sorts of vague heartwarming sentiments can conceal something truly horrific.

It is worth considering Child’s Play from Icheb’s perspective. Icheb wants to stay of Voyager and wants to continue venturing into the unknown. Icheb wants to experience new things, and wants to explore parts of the galaxy that are unknown to him. While Janeway is going home to Earth, Icheb is instead going somewhere new and exciting. However, when Icheb is sent home, he is immediately trapped within familiar cycles. His opportunities are restricted. His past repeats itself. In some ways, Child’s Play seems to subtly critique the nostalgia and yearning at the heart of Voyager.

“This is my goth cardigan.”

After all, the nostalgia baked into the premise of Voyager paved the way for an entire generation of Star Trek prequels; Enterprise, the Abrams reboot, Discovery. In many ways, it was Voyager that marked the boundaries at the edge of the final frontier, that imposed the outward limits on Star Trek as a television franchise. Voyager was obsessed with the notion of the end of history, so it is somehow appropriate that it would come to represent the end of the future. There is a tangible sense in which Voyager‘s prioritising of the journey home set in motion the long and sad decline of the larger Star Trek franchise.

Icheb is a character with an appetite to explore the vast and infinite cosmos. Janeway is a character who simple desires to return to the comforts of the familiar. It is clear on which side of that divide Child’s Play falls, and the episode makes a compelling argument that the familiar is not always safe.

12 Responses

  1. I watched this episode last night and was actually impressed that the twist in this episode paud off an earlier mystery in “Collective”! A rare bit of forward planning for this show

    • Yep. Child’s Play is massively underrated and undervalued. Which I could (maybe) understand if the series were packed full of all-time greats, but the sixth season of Voyager is really a bit of a slog outside of stories like Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy or Blink of an Eye.

  2. Wasn’t the original pathogen (in Icheb) supposed to destroy more than 1 cube? If so, it failed. If not, isn’t the life of Icheb worth more than 1 cube’s destruction? And the destruction of only 1 cube surely wouldn’t stop the Borg from returning to the planet.

    • The point is that it’s up to Icheb to decide whether his life is worth that. Nobody can make the decision the for him. That’s why we don’t harvest organs from healthy people without their consent, even if it accomplishes “the greater good.”

  3. When Seven tells Icheb he were fortunate to see his parents as she never had a chance to see them, this is only partially correct. Did she not encounter her father as a drone in “Dark Frontier”?

    Aside from this minor issue there is a lot I liked about this episode which I had almost forgotten. In fact, I found it very moving, well written and well paced. The acting especially by Jeri Ryan is superb in my opinion. At times without speaking words her face speaks volume. I liked the interwovenness of her trauma with her new role as a foster mother, as well as the implication that the Brunali’s clinging to their home is comparable to the desperate attempt by Voyager to get home (of course not quite as desperate as the Equinox’ attempt). It was nice to see a legitimate questioning of “home” and parentship just because of biological relationship.

    • Yep. It feels like the kind of storytelling that Voyager should have employed more often. You’re right to single out Ryan. She’s phenomenal here, and it’s easy to see why she’s one of the members of the ensemble who has worked most consistently since the show ended.

      • Quite easy, yes. Though I must confess that there are other pretty good actors on Star Trek shows who simply appear to be stained with their Trek time?

        Ryan’s stellar perfomance in Voyager was one of the reasons why I was all the more disappointed by her Picard appearance. She had so many nuances here and it pains me to see that she was (even if it was due to the plot) reduced to a femme fatale in the Picard show. A huge waste of her skill, I think.

  4. Finally, a decent episode after a long string of pretty bad ones.

    I agree with your point about the critique of the veneration of the family in this episode, although knowing it was due to the crisis with that Cuban kid rather corrupts the point. The American treatment of Cuba has always been highly problematic.

    I also have some issues with Seven being consistantly portrayed as a superior mother, when she is severely emotionally stunted herself. She is Naomi’s surrogate mother (despite Naomi having a mother on-board who is removed in an almost Disney way), and she is of course proven right in all her instinctive suspicions about an alien race here. It’s like an adoptive parent trying to block their kid from seeking out their biological parents. In this case she happened to be right, but there was no guarantee of that, and it’s particularly troubling since Icheb (for all they know) abducted and forcibly enslaved and abused. While it’s true his parents are monsters, this is only conveniently revealed toward the end. I agree with all your points in the review, but I just see some serious flaws in the way Seven intuits the problem far in advance.

    I note that Janeway is reading classic hardcover tomes in low light wearing her purple undershirt. It’s a highly Jean Luc moment. I am surprised she wasn’t listening quietly to Mozart or Beethoven as well. We can see the allusions to TNG here.

    Icheb is informed that the Brunali’s culture is very different than Voyagers. I don’t really see that. They seem to be mid-western Americans in space. They even play a game that seems to resemble baseball.

    I think if I was in the position of the Brunali, I would tear apart all of my technology and live as a hunter gatherer society. It seems like a better option than demanding a highly advanced technological society, always looking over one’s shoulder. The Borg would completely ignore a planet with a hunter-gatherer society. In fact, I can see many worlds in the vicinity of the Borg having strict religious rules about how far tech can advance, akin to Dune. “If you build a warp drive, the demon machine zombies will come, speaking in their many-voiced choir of hell.”

    I’d rather live as a hunter gatherer on a post-apocalyptic earth than try zany genetic suicide child-bomber missions to keep my iPhone.

    • Jed wrote: “an adoptive parent trying to block their kid from seeking out their biological parents”

      That is my reading of the episode, or what I felt were the themes on watching.

      I don’t see how the Elian Gonzalez case maps onto “Child’s Play.” The comments from Kenneth Biller suggest it was just a coincidence.

      For it to be a space version of Elian Gonzalez, the crew of Voyager would have to be split 50-50, heated debate, accusations fly, Seven hides the boy in a closet, and finally Tuvok and a heavily armed security team find and raid the closet, something like that. Since (as the review points out), it was really Seven vs. the Biological Parents, it seems to fit more as a one-to-one adoptive vs. biological parent clash.

  5. What’s interesting to me is the banner proclaiming The 1st Annual Voyager Science Fair, suggesting this would be continued into the future, when in fact it was the first and last such fair owing to the show’s aversion to long-term storytelling.

  6. Regarding the morality of sending a genetically engineered person on a biological-weapons suicide-mission:

    There is no suggestion that this species is sending suicide-biological-weapons attacks against any random neighbors, just the Borg.

    The idea does sound bad, but: Aren’t the Borg much worse?

    The final scene really plays gentle with the whole thing. Icheb himself leans towards thinking the whole thing morally justified (I think he uses the phrase “my destiny”). Even Seven in the final scene concedes that it could be the proper thing that he give his life to fight the Borg and protect his people and homeworld, only stressing that it must be his own decision. (They could well have made the final scene with Icheb raging against his parents and the main Voyager crew lining up to condemn the evil aliens, but they don’t, almost doing the opposite.)

    There is a parallel somewhere in the mist here with (the idea of) War itself, of sending soldiers to war knowing full well that some will die. This seems parallel to the mission they are sending their son on. Families throughout history have okay’ed sending sons off to war, knowing well enough that they (a certain %) will die; but if they die as their side wins the battle far away, the many are spared here at home.

    Is a sneak-attack and a biological-weapon a violation of the norms of war? Yes, but, again, the Borg. The latter violate the norms of war flagrantly, fighting not for negotiable objectives but for extermination (assimilation) of cultures.

    One more thing: Seven’s “It’s okay to fight for your people, but it must be your choice.” If he stays with Voyager much longer, how exactly is he going to get back to his homeworld? Isn’t keeping him on Voyager also unethical because it may well prevent him from ever returning home if he wants to (given how fast Voyager is traveling)?

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