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Star Trek: Voyager – Repression (Review)

There is something almost obligatory about Repression, as if the production team have arrived at the point in every season where they are obligated to do a Tuvok-centric story but without any particularly strong ideas for that Tuvok-centric story. It is there because Tim Russ is a credited lead and Tuvok is part of the ensemble, and because there is a twenty-six episode season order to fill. It is not there because any writer thought that there was a story that needed to be told with Tuvok, some part of his psyche that needed to be illuminated.

The seventh season is populated with episodes like this, stories built around particularly characters in the most archetypal of fashions. Star Trek: Voyager is frequently criticised for recycling premises from other Star Trek series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the show is less often criticised for simply repeating itself. The supporting characters on Voyager don’t really have arcs, often simply having a handful of stories that the series dutifully cycles through on rotation.

“Another fine mess(hall) you’ve gotten us into, Tuvok…”

On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a marathon of character-centric episodes would reveal the slow and gradual evolution of the cast. Julian Bashir changes and evolves over his time on the series, from the generic any-character-will-do narratives of The Passenger and Melora into the weirder and more awkward Distant Voices through to his emergence as a distinctive person in Hippocratic Oath, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening. Bashir is not the same character in What You Leave Behind that he was in Emissary, and watching a chain of episodes based around Bashir would explain and explore that growth.

In contrast, a character-centric marathon on Voyager would be a much more frustrating experience, as the characters inevitably go through the same motion and repeat the same plots. This is particularly true in the seventh season episodes, where the obligatory character-focused episodes underscore how little these characters have actually and fundamentally changed since the first season. In Nightingale, Harry Kim is still insecure and lacking in experience. In Lineage and Prophecy, B’Elanna Torres is once again wrestling with her Klingon heritage. In Drive, Tom Paris is once again the careless flyboy who learns about responsibility.

“The more things don’t change…”

At the same time, Tuvok has always represented a very particular challenge for the writers, in that he doesn’t even really have an archetypal story in the same way that Torres or Kim or Paris does. Tuvok doesn’t have a “lesson” that he needs to learn over and over again, or a default factory setting that he can fall back to in order to learn that lesson. At least at the end of Extreme Risk or Juggernaut, Torres had learned that she should not let her more destructive impulses guide her actions, even if she would forget it and learn again. This allows for a character arc that can be repeated and reiterated. In contrast, Tuvok was generally well-adjusted and well-balanced.

As a result, stories featuring Tuvok tend to take something away from him and watch him struggle to return to normality. As a Vulcan, Tuvok is often stripped of his Vulcan reserve and forced to recover it. The results can be interesting and compelling, with Meld and Gravity ranking among the best episodes that Voyager ever produced. However, these episodes can also feel very trite and formulaic, often reducing Tuvok to a passenger in stories nominally focused on him: he drives a lot of the plot in Random Thoughts, but Torres in the focal character; Riddles is about something that happens to Tuvok, but focuses on Neelix.

Looking at things from a new perspective.

Repression is notably the show’s last Tuvok-centric story. It is also perhaps the most archetypal. As with episodes like Nightingale or Lineage, it is a collection of familiar tropes for a supporting cast member trotted out one last time before the show crosses the finish line. Repression is an episode that has clearly been assembled from a variety of earlier episodes focused on Tuvok, right down to plot points and individual scenes or costume choices; it is Random Thoughts meets Meld, with an extended final-act homage to Worst Case Scenario. All of which reduces Tuvok to a passenger in his own story.

This is a shame, as Repression works about as well as any episode built around its core premise has any right to it. Like Drive before it, there’s a certain pulpy thrill to its core premise that fits comfortably within the heightened retro sci-fi surroundings of Voyager. The story of a detective who is investigating himself, spreading subversive ideas through telepathic assault, Repression is a patently absurd bit of television which feels very much of a piece with earlier stories like Cathexis or Macrocosm or Darkling or In the Flesh. It works much better as a trashy late-night B-movie than as a character-centric narrative.

There’ll be Meld to pay for this.

As with a lot of seventh season episodes, Repression is an episode that is very much typical of executive producer Kenneth Biller’s approach to Voyager. In fact, Biller is given a story credit on the episode, which suggests a fairly high level of involvement for the man overseeing the day-to-day production of the series. According to Bryan Fuller in an interview with Cinefantastique, the idea actually had a long gestation period:

Ken had this story that he wanted to do several seasons ago — what we had basically was The Manchurian Candidate, which Star Trek has done before. In fact, there is hardly a sci-fi series that hasn’t.

So we thought, ‘How can we do this episode and make it interesting and fresh?‘ I thought it would be interesting if Tuvok was ‘Maquis Mary’, as opposed to Typhoid Mary, and was re-infecting the Maquis crewmen with their old, righteous political agendas.”

Fuller is alluding to Mind’s Eye, a fourth season episode of The Next Generation in which the Romulans abducted Geordi LaForge and turned him into an assassin intended to destabilise peace talks between the Federation and the Klingons. It was a fun and pulpy adventure, heightened by some impressive direction from David Livingston and benefiting from a sense of heightened genre-driven playfulness that wasn’t on-brand for Next Generation at that point.

Never mind.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with multiple episodes of Star Trek drawing inspiration from the same basic idea. After all, certain critics would contend that there are only a finite number of plots in existence and that most works of art are just variations on these core templates. To pick an obvious example, the franchise has done multiple homages to The Magnificent Seven, in episodes like The Magnificent Ferengi or Marauders, and the influence of Rashomon can be seen on stories like A Matter of Perspective and Living Witness.

This is to say nothing of how frequently Star Trek has pilfered its own history for story ideas. Journey to Babel established a template for an entire subgenre of Star Trek episodes that arguably include everything from Elaan of Troyius to Lonely Among Us to The Dauphin to Remember to Fallen Hero to Babel One. The transporter accident in The Enemy Within seeded stories like Second Chances, Faces or Tuvix. This is to say nothing of the franchise’s obsession with recreating Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in films like Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek or Star Trek Into Darkness.

“I’m just saying, why don’t they try to redo The Final Frontier? That’s all.”

There is nothing wrong with recycling old ideas. By the time that the seventh season of Voyager entered production, there had been over six hundred pieces of Star Trek filmed and released. Repetition was inevitable. As Kenneth Biller explained in The Fifty-Year Mission, it was almost impossible to pitch an episode without pitching an idea that had already been used at some other point in the Star Trek canon:

I remember going into the writers room dozens of times to see Brannon or Jeri and say, “Oh my God, I’ve got the greatest idea for a Star Trek episode!” And I would pitch them this idea and they’d go, “Yeah, we did that in season two of Next Gen” or “We did that in season three of DS9” or “That was an original series episode.” And it was terrible for me. I thought, “God, how are you ever going to come up with something new?” And it got even worse toward the end of season six and then, seven, when I was brought on really to run the writers room and be the guy, because Brannon was going off to create the next series. I was just in a panic about how we were going to do it. How were we ever going to come up with twenty-six more episodes? Somehow we did. I’m not sure how, but we did.

This is perhaps the best argument that could be made for simply changing the way that Star Trek told stories in the first place, shifting away from the old episodic model. If Star Trek couldn’t tell new stories, it could at least look at telling those familiar and established stories in new and interesting ways. This was another example for how the Star Trek franchise needed to change and evolve, no matter how uncomfortable that made the fans.

It’s all a blur.

However, the issue with Repression is not that the episode is too much like Mind’s Eye. The basic premise is similar enough, with a member of the regular cast mind controlled to serve a political agenda, but the emphasis is distinct. Most obviously, Repression structures itself as something close to a mystery, with Tuvok and the audience oblivious to the culprit responsible for these assaults. In contrast, Mind’s Eye was told from a linear perspective aligned with the experiences of Geordi LaForge, with the audience witnessing his abduction and torture before he returned to the ship.

The big issue with Repression is that it feels derivative of other episodes in other ways, lifting key plot beats and even whole scenes from earlier episodes, stitching them together to fill forty-five minutes of television. In many ways, Repression isn’t a story so much as it is a collection of recycled story beats. Once again, Tuvok has an emotional breakdown, like Meld or Riddles. Once again, the Vulcan mind meld is used as a dangerous assault weapon, as in Meld or Blood Fever. Once again, Tuvok becomes a danger to the crew acting under an influence other than his own, as in Cathexis or Meld.

“There really is a lot of Meld in here, isn’t there?”

Entire sequences seem to have been lifted from earlier episodes. This is perhaps most obvious with the Maquis takeover of the ship, which is a very strange storytelling decision to make with ten minutes left in the seventh season of a show that has largely ignored the existence of the Maquis. It makes sense only in the context of a writers’ room that really enjoyed the holographic fantasy of Worst Case Scenario, and wanted an excuse to play out that dynamic once again. After all, the Maquis even wear the same outfits in Repression, which are supposed to be a rejection of uniforms, but have ironically become their own uniforms.

Even beyond the obvious repurposing of the basic premise of Worst Case Scenario for the episode’s final arc, there’s a lot of Meld in the way that Repression approaches Tuvok; the framing of a mind meld as what Lon Suder would describe as “almost an act of violence” committed upon a crew member, the sequences in which Tuvok is locked behind a forcefield as Janeway tries to reach him (“I advise you to remain outside the forcefield,” the EMH warns Janeway), the breakdown of Tuvok’s stoic Vulcan resolve.

Poor (uni)form.

All of these ideas were radical and subversive when employed by Meld during the second season. After all, it had been a quarter of a century since a live action Star Trek television series had featured a Vulcan regular, and audiences had loved watching Leonard Nimoy fracture Spock’s emotional reserve in episodes like The Naked Time, Amok Time and All Our Yesterdays. Taking that hook and applying it to a mid-nineties psychological thriller was an incredibly canny piece of writing, and there is a solid argument to be made that Meld is one of the best episodes of Voyager ever produced.

However, that idea has been diminished through repetition. It isn’t just that Voyager has returned time and again to the idea of Tuvok losing his emotional resolve in episodes like Gravity, Riddles and Repression. It is also the fact that this is apparently the only Tuvok-centric story that the production team know how to tell. The original Star Trek got a lot of mileage out of the emotions simmering under Spock’s rational exterior, but it also managed to tell stories that used the character in a way that didn’t rely on a near emotional breakdown; The Galileo Seven, Mirror, Mirror, The Enterprise Incident.

“Don’t worry, Tuvok. We promise that this will be the last time that your mental faculties are compromised… as the primary plot of an episode.”

Voyager has never really done this with Tuvok. There have been episodes that feature Tuvok in a major role without diminishing his logical faculties, like Innocence, but they are few and far between. There have been bigger stories that provided subplots for Tuvok, like Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. There are more episodes that treat Tuvok as a secondary featured character without breaking down his logical faculties, like Worst Case Scenario, Alter Ego, Rise, The Raven or Random Thoughts, but these are also relatively rare.

Whenever the “who are we featuring this week?” spinner lands on Tuvok, it’s a safer bet than not that the character will have some sort of emotional breakdown that will fracture his cool Vulcan resolve. This is why Repression feels so hackneyed and familiar. It has nothing to do with being the second Star Trek episode in (just under) a decade built around The Manchurian Candidate, and being the third Tuvok story (out of a super-set of only three Tuvok stories) in three years that hinges on pushing the character to the point of emotional breakdown.

No real Endgame for the character.

Indeed, it is worth noting that Tuvok’s mental breakdowns are such a reliable and defining attribute of the character that even Endgame builds its few Tuvok-centric moments around his deterioration. The series finale introduces an older Tuvok who has been confined to a psychiatric institution after his neural peptides degrade. It is a throwaway character beat, something that was added to the script to ensure that Tuvok would have something to do in the last episode of the series. It also cynically adds some more stakes for the time-travelling Admiral Janeway, on top of Chakotay’s death.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on Tuvok as a character, as Repression is the last episode of the series to really focus on him as a character. This is of itself disappointing; there are twenty episodes left in the seventh season, and it is disappointing that the series could not come up with something interesting for Tuvok to do that wasn’t the obligatory-and-embarrassing “Tuvok finally experiences Pon Farr” subplot in Body and Soul. In some ways, even more than Harry Kim, Tuvok is the character who is most profoundly failed by Voyager.

A time for reflection.

On paper, Tuvok represented a genuinely fascinating opportunity for Voyager. He was the first Vulcan character to be part of the leading ensemble since Spock on the original Star Trek. Given the popularity of Spock, and the essential role that Vulcans play within the larger Star Trek cosmology, this was a big deal. More than that, Tuvok was the first full-blooded Vulcan regular in the Star Trek canon, distinguishing him from Spock’s status as a “child of two worlds.” It helped that Tuvok would not be expected to play the role of “outsider” in the ensemble as Spock and Data had done, that role going to the EMH and (later) Seven of Nine.

Unfortunately, as with a lot of the interesting ideas built into Voyager‘s premise, the production team never really had any idea what to do with Tuvok as a character. To be fair, downplaying the tension between Starfleet and the Maquis after Parallax was likely a major factor. Tuvok was the character who bridged the two crews, having worked undercover as a Starfleet spy within the Maquis; playing down that tension between Starfleet and the Maquis meant sacrificing one of the most interesting angles on Tuvok as a member of the crew.

The thinking Vulcan’s Vulcan.

With that shift in direction, Tuvok often found himself relegated to the role of providing exposition and moral support for other characters. The series repeatedly suggested that Tuvok was a confidante of Kathryn Janeway, although that role was also gradually eroded – first by the tension between Janeway and Chakotay, and then through the mentoring dynamic between Janeway and Seven. This is a shame, as one of the best vehicles for character development is a unique dynamic with another character.

As an example, Tom Paris arguably managed to stay as important as he did through his network of relationships to the rest of the cast. After all, Paris is just as subject to the “same plot, different season” syndrome that affects the other leads. With Paris, the problem is compounded by the fact that episodes like Ex Post Facto, InvestigationsVis à Vis and Thirty Days simply don’t play to the strengths of Robert Duncan McNeill. However, Paris has enough solid relationships that he can play a part in Kim-, Torres- or even Tuvok-centric story. He can also serve to bring the rest of the crew together, as his holodeck program does here.

Projecting.

In contrast, Tuvok’s potential relationships with other cast members were all very quickly and very brutally cut off. Tuvok served as a guide for Kes in episodes like Cold Fire, but Kes departed the ship in The Gift leaving him without a student. The Raven, coupled with Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, suggested a possible dynamic with Seven of Nine, but the writers pushed Seven towards Janeway and the EMH. Tuvok could mentor Kim in Alter Ego and Torres in Resistance or Juggernaut, but the series never fleshed these relationships out into anything meaningful. As a result, Tuvok ended up isolated.

One of the more complicated aspects of how Voyager approached Tuvok rests in the casting. Russ is an African American performer, and so the role becomes coded in these terms. While obviously black Vulcans exist outside of an existing cultural framework, the presentation inevitably plays into contemporary ideas about race and identity. This is why, for example, Avery Brooks was so insistent that What You Leave Behind could not end with a brown father abandoning his son. It might (hopefully) mean nothing in the twenty-forth century, but it carried a lot of weight to twentieth century audiences.

To be fair, Tuvok’s job performance rating is still considerably higher than Odo’s, in that he never jeopardised the entire quadrant to get laid.

As David Greven points out in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, the character of Tuvok provides a point of intersection between the franchise’s portrayals of black masculinity with the broader sense of “otherness” that Spock associated with Vulcans:

Given Trek’s incitement of allegory and its conflictual representation of the black male intellectual, we can consider Trek’s recurring representation of the black male body in a heightened state of physical distress – sweating, throbbing, bleeding, burning, or melting – as indicative of profound anxieties within not only the depiction of race but also the entire allegorical project. In several episodes throughout the Trek mega-text, the black male body undergoes a transformation through a series of traumas that threaten to destroy the body from within and take the repression/explosion tension that is always inherent in the representation of black masculinity to an explicit, corporeal level: in other words, to explode allegory into direct explication.

On Original Trek, some of the most affecting moments of the series occur when Spock, suddenly besieged by a force that strops away his fiercely maintained layers of logic, breaks down, piteously or violently railing against or lamenting his lonely, nether-human-nor-alien condition. Spock’s repression/explosion tension affectingly speaks to several different, related kinds of experienced racial subjectivity – being non-white, mulatto, or Jewish; desiring across interracial lines; racial, gendered or sexual passing; being queer; being queer and of mixed race at once; or simply any feeling of difference from the normative social order. Voyager’s Vulcan Tuvok also poignantly experiences these wrenching assaults on his logical composure. But given that Voyager races its Vulcan character by casting an African American actor in the role, the implications are different and, at times, more disturbing, especially given certain aspects of the way the series chooses to depict these breakdowns of black Vulcan composure.

This is all subtext, never articulated or discussed within Voyager itself. However, it cannot escape the larger context of the series around. Arguably more than any other Star Trek series, Voyager is rooted in racial anxieties.

Inspecting the body of evidence.

Part of this is baked into the larger depiction of the Delta Quadrant, which is frequently characterised in such a way as to evoke the Third World. In contrast to the relative luxury and stability of the Alpha Quadrant, where geo-political powers are clearly defined even in the midst of an epic all-consuming war, the Delta Quadrant is defined by poverty and brutality. There is a recurring sense that the region is impoverished, without any major powers to dominate with without any central political order. Voyager suggests that the Borg might be a reason for this, striking down any civilisation that becomes too powerful.

However, a lot of this is coded in racial and political terms, conforming to popular depictions of continents like Africa and South America as geographically and politically unstable, playing off stereotypical depictions of “primitive” societies. As the crew journey through the region, there is a recurring sense that the region is populated by nomads such as those featured in Darkling or superstitious cultures like those appearing in Sacred Ground or False Profits. These powers are governed by dictatorships like those featured in Resistance or The Chute or Warlord, and societies ravaged by war like those in Nemesis or Living Witness.

An illuminating discussion.

It does not help matters that many of the major alien species featured in Voyager are coded in explicitly racial terms. Caretaker introduced the Kazon as the Delta Quadrant’s answer to the kind of unreconstructed “savages” that would appear in John Ford westerns, with episodes like Initiations doubling down by presenting them as an ill-advised metaphor for Los Angeles street gangs and Alliances focusing on how civil their (white) former masters were. Similarly, the Vidiians were introduced in Phage as a once-great civilisation ravaged by a deadly disease that evoked the spread of AIDS.

Voyager often flirted with racially-charged plots that reflected contemporary American anxieties about outsiders. Displaced was a classic Star Trek allegory, built around the fear of the crew being “replaced” by immigrant aliens. Day of Honour focused on refugees displaced by the Borg, who turned out to be mercenary and untrustworthy. As a rule, the inhabitants of the Delta Quadrant are so hostile that Janeway even expressed surprise in Survival Instinct on meeting some friendly aliens. “After all the xenophobic races we’ve run into, don’t you find it just a little refreshing to meet some people who value openness and freedom?”

Keeping his demons at (Sick) Bay.

As such, Voyager invites a reading of a character like Tuvok informed by his ethnicity and background. In hindsight, the idea of an African American actor playing a Vulcan feels almost prophetic. Seven years after the end of Voyager, the United States would elect its first African American President, Barack Obama. Interestingly enough, one of the stock comparisons for Obama would be to Spock for Star Trek, as Kenneth T. Walsh illustrates:

To some of his supporters, Obama is presiding over a passionless presidency. He seems too cerebral and per­sonally disengaged from the problems of everyday Ameri­cans. Some have compared him to Mr. Spock, the brainy and aloof Vulcan of the Star Trek movie and TV se­ries who tried to base his decisions totally on reason and logic.

In a recent interview, Obama told me that his goal is to “make decisions based on information and not emotions.” Actor Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock on Star Trek, even weighed in. “I guess it’s somewhat unusual for a politi­cian to be so precise, logical, in his thought process. The comparison to Spock is, in my opinion, a compliment to him and to the character.”

To be fair, the comparison is not necessarily conjured from nothing. Barack Obama defined himself as “a nerd”, and was affectionately described by the media as the “geek-in-chief.” More than that, Obama was an avowed Star Trek fan. He would occasionally flash the iconic Vulcan salute, and marked the passing of Leonard Nimoy with a statement reading, “I loved Spock.”

Heated debates.

As such, the comparisons between Obama and Spock did not arrive entirely out of left field. Like Spock, Obama was a tall and handsome man who became an unlikely intellectual sex symbol. In a broader context, Obama’s candidacy evoked the cultural context of the sixties; a young upstart from outside of the long-standing party establishment running on a platform appealing to youth. (Reflecting Obama’s status as an object of attraction and reinforcing the sixties parallels, actress Scarlett Johansson famously boasted of her “email relationship” with Obama, joking with reporters that “[her] heart belongs to Barack.”)

Obama was frequently criticised in office for being too calm and too rational. Observers suggested that he had difficulty connecting with voters because he was not demonstrative with his emotions. This is a highly subjective argument, of course; Obama could be very emotional on speaking about issues that affected him like gun control, but it is also fair to observe that he was in some ways more restrained than other political leaders. Similarly, Obama was frequently attacked for his interest in reason and knowledge, criticisms of the President taking on a decidedly anti-intellectual tone.

“You know, you’d think an attempted mutiny and marooning would leave some anxiety or bad blood on the ship. But nope.”

While Obama was likened to Spock, a light-skinned alien played by a Jewish actor, there was always an uncomfortable racial undertone to a lot of this back-and-forth about Obama’s perceived emotional restraint. As Frida Ghitis observes, Obama himself has acknowledged the importance for a black man to be perceived as calm and rational in interacting with white people:

He gave us the clues to the origins of his coolness in the pages of his memoir Dreams from My Father. “People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves,” he wrote. “They were more than satisfied; they were relieved — such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”

Obama learned to keep calm; to conceal his emotions. But four years in the White House, months of presidential campaigning, the final stretch of competing in an election whose outcome was in doubt until the very end, it takes its toll.

Obama’s calm and collected exterior was very much practiced and very much considered. He was very good at it. Indeed, there is a solid argument to be made that he was aware of how the white population of the United States might react to him if he were to present himself as angry or aggressive or emotional. Instead, Obama was always considered and always careful.

Make the Maquis Great Again.

Of course, this intellectual and rational quality was not a requirement for all candidates to high office. In fact, Barack Obama would be succeeded as President of the United States by Donald Trump. Trump was very much the opposite of calm and collected. He was prone to speak off-the-cuff with no information to back up his assertions and was highly emotionally volatile. Trump was prone to make bold assertions and level serious threats over Twitter, to the point that the United States military was reportedly worried for several minutes that he might declare war on North Korea via a 140-character broadcast message.

There was clealry a double standard applied to Donald Trump as compared to Barack Obama, reflecting the uncomfortable racial politics underpinning Obama’s highly rational (and unemotional) public image. Obama was arguably wrestling with the racist archetype of “the angry black man”, the recurring image in American popular consciousness of highly volatile and highly emotional African American masculinity. One often used to deflate or dismiss criticism. This cliché is rooted in stock racist ideas, most notably the idea that black people are less rational than their white counterparts and that they are more animalistic.

Just popping in.

Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that Obama’s conscious efforts to avoid that racist cliché were a cornerstone of his electoral success:

Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.

This certainly makes a great deal of sense, particularly when considering the country’s discomfort with more confrontational movements like Black Lives Matter.

Voyager into the unknown.

All of this ties back to Tuvok. The idea of a “black Vulcan” is inevitably intertwined with all of these ideas of black masculinity and contemporary American anxiety. While Tuvok predates a lot of these mainstream debates about the portrayal of African Americans in popular culture, it should be noted that California was working through its own complicated racial politics through the nineties into the twenty-first century; arguably more than a decade ahead of the rest of the country. Certainly, episodes like Initiations and Alliances suggest that it is perfectly valid to read Voyager through this lens.

As such, it feels very pointed that the most prominent African American actor on Voyager should be cast as the most stoic and rational member of the senior staff. Theoretically, Tuvok is the least emotional member and most reliable of the primary cast; for example, he is the last person to bid farewell to Janeway in Year of Hell, Part II and he is the only other crewmember to whom Janeway entrusts the revelations about Kes in Fury. He is arguably stronger than any other regular cast member, with the possible exception of Seven of Nine, but he is also the most restrained.

Is he a Vulcan or a Vulcan’t?

There is also something notable in the fact that Tuvok is one of the three primary cast members to leave a loved one behind in the Alpha Quadrant in Caretaker, a plotting choice that serves to (theoretically) preclude those three characters from potential romantic entanglements. In its first season, Voyager effectively renders Janeway, Tuvok and Kim chaste and sexless. It is unlikely to have been a coincidence that the three chaste crewmembers were the older female lead, the young Asian man and the African American Vulcan.

Voyager is particularly anxious about Tuvok’s sexuality, perhaps reflecting broader cultural anxieties about black masculine sexuality. Both Janeway and Kim were eventually allowed to sever their familial attachments to the Alpha Quadrant, embarking on romances in episodes like Counterpoint or Favourite Son or The Disease or Fair Haven. In contrast, Tuvok remained loyal to a wife who was only mentioned by name in four episodes and who only appeared on screen in three episodes. She was played by two different actors in those three appearances.

“Personally, I’m surprised that the writers remembered that I existed to deliver this MacGuffin.”

While a story centring on Tuvok going through pon farr seemed inevitable, given that Voyager was due to run for seven full seasons which was precisely the length between pon farr cycles, the series made a number of awkward attempts to forestall and downplay that looming storyline. In Blood Fever, the plot hinged on another Vulcan going through pon farr. In Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, the idea of Tuvok going through pon farr was played as a delightful musical joke. In Body and Soul, the actual storyline is shunted into the background of an episode about the EMH and Seven of Nine.

This anxiety about Tuvok as a character with a sexual identity arguably simmered through in other aspects of the Tuvok-centric stories. Voyager repeatedly latches on to the idea of a mind meld as an act of violence rather than an act of spiritual communion. The meld remains sexually coded as it was during the original Star Trek, but it is presented as a much more deviant activity. It is “dangerous” when Tuvok melds with Suder in Meld, and he meets with Guill in a shady alleyway in Random Thoughts. Even in Repression, the meld is presented as physically violent; the EMH reports “several microfractures” on the victims’ skulls.

Taking a crack at the case.

More than that, Voyager repeatedly emphasises the meld as an aggressive and non-consensual act, becoming something of a metaphorical sexual assault. In Repression, the first victim is found unconscious in Tom Paris’ holographic simulation of a fifties theatre. Paris had brought Torres there for a romantic encounter. “People didn’t go to the movies just for the movies, you know,” he assures her. As such, the assault is position within an intimate space, having already been defined by the franchise as an intimate act. Even Teero’s assault on Tuvok is filmed to recall the imagined assault on Seven of Nine in Retrospect, an explicit metaphor for sexual violence.

This is particularly apparent in how Repression actually portrays its mind melds. Only a couple of these melds are presented on screen. In both cases, Tuvok is attacking a male victim; in both cases, it is Chakotay. Traditionally, the mind meld has been presented as an act conducted face-to-face, even non-consensual mind melds like Spock’s use of the meld on Valeris in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In contrast, both melds in Repression are framed as aggressive sexual assaults, with Tuvok attacking and subduing Chakotay from behind. It is hardly subtle.

Getting into his (head)space.

Indeed all of this hints at the unease and discomfort that Voyager feels towards Tuvok as a character. The unspoken assumption about Tuvok is that his calm and collected exterior hides an explosively violent interior; that lurking beneath his rational and logical manner is another “angry black man” waiting to escape. Voyager seems uncomfortably fixated upon the idea of tearing Tuvok down, of stripping him of his civility and his control. It reflects the same uncomfortable core anxieties that informed so much of the Kazon arc; racially-driven fears about the perceived dangers of an unrestrained and uncontrolled minority.

All of this is a shame, because there are parts of Repression that work remarkably well. As with Drive, the basic plot of the episode is complete nonsense. This reflects the same weird madcap “throw everything that’s left at the wall and grab whatever the wall doesn’t immediately throw back” tone that defined so much of the seventh season of The Next Generation, a sense that there aren’t really any bad ideas but there most definitely are deadlines. More generously, there is a sense of genuine commitment to absurd ideas, the reckless abandon of writers who know that this may be their last chance to do something like this.

The show is really Tabor-ing off at this point.

In an interview with Cinefantastique, Biller boiled down the gonzo appeal of the episode’s core premise down to a one-line pitch:

“What [would happen] if Tuvok is investigating a mysterious crime and he discovers that the criminal is him?’ That is just a great one-liner that I said to myself, and then started to figure out what could it be.”

Of course, it’s an absurd (and incredibly clichéd) plot, but it is the kind of story with which the writing team could have some fun.

Chasing his own tale.

After all, there is a rich tradition of pulpy investigative narratives focusing on characters who are ultimately investigating themselves. In many stories, this self-interrogation is metaphorical rather than literal. In Red Dragon, Will Graham is terrified at how completely he understands the mind of the men that he hunts and fears that he might become them. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is forced to trade the details of her own life to Hannibal Lecter in return for assistance on the case that she is working.

The concept becomes decidedly more ridiculous when taken literally. A few months after the broadcast of Repression, writer Charlie Kaufman would mock both the hackishness of the concept and the trashy appeal of it in Adaptation. In Adaptation, Charlie’s (fictional) twin Donald pitches a psychological thriller called “The Three” that would would focus on an investigator trying to solve a kidnapping where he was both the perpetrator and the victim. Repression doesn’t manage to rich quite that level of heightened pulp, but it comes close; Tuvok is certainly both victim and perpetrator, but of different crimes.

A fresh angle.

As with Drive, there is a certain appeal in the unapologetic craziness of Repression. The episode works best when it consciously leans into the trashy late-night thriller aspects of the narrative, pitching itself as something between a horror movie and a psychological thriller. Director Winrich Kolbe is a huge asset to the episode, particularly when filming the attack sequences. Kolbe turns the lighting down and positions the camera so as to create a sense of mounting tension and claustrophobia on these familiar sets. The ship becomes a hunting ground, which is impressive given how rarely Voyager creates genuine anxiety.

The script for Repression – credited to Mark Haskell Smith from a story by Kenneth Biller – actually works well enough in these early sequences. The idea of Tom Paris coming up with another twentieth century pop culture marker to amuse himself is a little tired, especially the absurdity of a 3D cinema rendered by state-of-the-art immersive technology. However, the episode is just self-aware enough to pull it off. Torres is just as bemused by the simulation as the audience, reflecting, “Let me get this straight. You’ve gone to all this trouble to programme a three-dimensional environment that projects a two-dimensional image, and now you’re asking me to wear these to make it look three-dimensional again?”

They really need to screen the crew better.

At the same time, there’s some genuinely charming about a monster stalking the crew of Voyager, with its first attack taking place as a fifties b-movie plays in the background. Voyager often struggled to find its own identity, but it owed a lot to fifties and sixties pop culture. The communist panic in Cathexis and In the Flesh felt rather strange in the nineties, but worked better as an affectionate throwback. Similarly, it is easier to imagine episodes like Darkling or Macrocosm as retro b-movies than it is to watch them as Star Trek episodes. The hyper-evolved dinosaurs of Distant Origin or the floating truck in The 37’s tap into the same aesthetic. Bride of Chaotica! arguably cements this association.

Indeed, the mind control aspect of Repression fits very comfortably with how Voyager tells these stories, with a willingness to embrace ridiculous science-fiction tropes for the purposes of its own storytelling. The brainwashing featured in Repression obviously harks back to The Manchurian Candidate, which is itself tied back into fifties paranoia about the torture of American prisoners of war in Korea and the experiments being conducted by the United States military and intelligence services known as “M.K. Ultra.” As a result, the frankly ridiculous plot that drives Repression feels very much of a piece with Voyager, and could easily be the plot of one of Tom Paris’ late-night creature feature.

Getting into Tuvok’s head.

However, Repression inevitably brushes up against some serious internal issues that prevent from working even on these terms. The biggest issue is the ridiculous final-act twist, when it is revealed that Tuvok has been brainwashed by a rogue Bajoran Vedek who plans to use Tuvok’s psychic abilities to reignite the Maquis rebellion on Voyager. Nothing about this plot makes sense. Of course, it doesn’t really have to, if the story is told well. An audience is willing to forgive a lot if a narrative is constructed in an engaging manner, and will overlook glaring plot holes or structural issues. However, Vedek Teero Anaydis is such an absurd concept that he breaks the episode around him.

Most obviously, what the hell was Teero actually planning to do? It is very clear that he correctly deduced that Tuvok was a Starfleet spy sent to infiltrate the Maquis. “It is Lieutenant, isn’t it?” he asks his captive. “I’m sure your Maquis comrades would be interested to know your Starfleet rank. Don’t worry, I don’t plan to expose you.” But… why not? What does Teero have to gain from having Tuvok infiltrate the Maquis as a Starfleet spy while also being Teero’s spy? What is the plan here? What is the agenda? Chakotay explains that Teero “was thrown out for experimenting with mind control. He thought it was a good way to recruit agents.” However, recruiting them for what?

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Presumably, Teero always wanted Tuvok to mind meld with the Maquis and implant certain ideas; after all, Tuvok does not assault any of the Starfleet crew. However, what ideas did Teero want to implant? Chakotay explains, “Teero was a fanatic. He’d go to any extreme for the Maquis. He called the rest of us traitors for rejecting his ideas. Swore he’d fight the war on his own if he had to.” So perhaps Teero wanted to use Tuvok to implant more radical ideas into the heads of the Maquis, to make them more aggressive and confrontational than they had been, to harden the organisation’s resolve and rejecting any attempt to temper their terrorist leanings.

There are three big issues with this motivation. In terms of basic planning and organisation, it seems strange that Teero would need Tuvok to enact this plan. There are other Vulcan members of the Maquis, as demonstrated in The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II. Tuvok is an agent trying to infiltrate the organisation, but surely that makes him more volatile from Teero’s perspective; Tuvok boasts that he has been “trained to resist mind control”, so it seems there must have been an easier mark. More than that, it also seems unnecessary for Teero to have realised that Tuvok was a spy. If he would truly “go to any extreme for the Maquis”, why wouldn’t he reprogramme Tuvok to betray Starfleet in a way immediately useful to the Maquis?

“I mean, if I want you to assault and radicalise the Maquis, why do I even need a trigger phrase? I mean, is there a time when I’m not going to want you to radicalise the Maquis, or should I wait until you turn them all over to Starfleet or what?”

Beyond this, the most obvious issue with the episode’s plot is that the reawakened Maquis in Repression don’t seem particularly extremist. Sure, they stage a mutiny and take over the ship, but this is nothing more extreme than the possibility that Tuvok worried about in Worst Case Scenario and certainly less extreme than Michael Eddington’s actions in For the Cause and For the Uniform. In fact, Chakotay is arguably more civilised than his holographic counterpart in Worst Case Scenario. The Maquis refuse to hurt the Starfleet crew, which is strange given that Tuvok acknowledges to Kim that the Maquis were recently still staging terrorist attacks that killed Starfleet officers without Teero’s intervention.

Even beyond that, the plan makes next to no sense. What is Teero’s objective? He is “a fanatic” who believes in the Maquis, but the Maquis no longer exist following Blaze of Glory. More than that, the Maquis no longer have any need to exist after What You Leave Behind. The Cardassian Union has been shattered. It is presumably being occupied. Even if it is not, it is in no state to be a threat to anybody. So what is Teero actually trying to accomplish? Repression nods towards this, and shrugs it off. “We’re Maquis,” Chakotay states. “We’ve always been Maquis.” Janeway responds, “The rebellion ended three years ago. You know that.” Chakotay replies, “In the Alpha Quadrant, maybe. Not on this ship.” What are they rebelling against?

Rebels without a pause.

Even glossing over the massive plot holes, the pacing of Repression is disastrous. The episode suffers from the issue with a lot of Kenneth Biller stories; The Q and the Grey, Worst Case Scenario, Demon, Thirty Days. There is a sense that the production team ran out of plot about one act from the closing credits, and so offer a sharp right turn that completely up-ends the episode. The Q and the Grey begins as an episode about Q courting Janeway before becoming a story about a Q Civil War; Worse Case Scenario meditates on storytelling before becoming another “holodeck runs amok” episode; Demon burns through a half-dozen ideas to keep moving; Thirty Days stitches a framing device on to a special effects show that becomes an environmental parable.

Even if the tonal shift made sense, it arrives far too late in the episode and in the series. The proper time to tell stories about the Maquis was during the first and second seasons, when Voyager repeatedly hesitated and fumbled the ball. When the matter comes up in the background of stories like Life Line, it feels incongruous and awkward, a delayed attempt to resuscitate one of the best ideas that the show ever wasted. Repression works too hard to revive the idea of tension between Starfleet and the Maquis, whether in Chell’s paranoia or in Tuvok’s interrogation of Kim. “I learned about Max’s death a long time ago,” Kim explains. “I was upset, but I don’t blame the Maquis, and I certainly don’t blame anyone on this ship.” It feels too ham-fisted and heavy-handed.

This plot put Torres right to sleep.

Within the episode itself, the Maquis coup occurs ten minutes from the closing credits. Within the space of a commercial break, the Maquis have overpowered their former colleagues and changed out of their uniforms into their… other non-uniform uniforms. It all happens too quickly for any of this to have any impact whatsoever, to the point where Torres makes an off-hand reference to how “Kim and Paris engineered a little breakout on deck six” through to the fact that Tuvok effective switches sides twice in the space of ten minutes. It just doesn’t work. It is an entire episode crammed into ten minutes of television. It is disorienting, it is uneven, and it greatly undercuts the atmospheric build-up to this point.

Given that this is the seventh season of Voyager, and given that the audience already knows what to expect of the show, it is churlish to point out that this radical climax has absolutely no impact on the show going forward. Chakotay staged a mutiny and tried to strand the Starfleet crew on a distant planet. Torres betrayed her husband as part of this mutiny. Tuvok was a clear and present danger to the integrity of the crew. Of course, all of this can be explained through mind control, but it still seems strange that this should have absolutely no impact on any character dynamics going forward. After all, even if a rational explanation can be provided, human emotions are seldom truly rational in application.

“Je m’accuse!”

So Repression ends with the entire crew sitting down to watch a movie together in Tom Paris’ latest bit of holodeck nostalgia. There is no lingering tension, no unspoken animosity. Chakotay hands the ship back to Janeway with some light banter, and no implication that the two need to have anything resembling a serious conversation about what happened. There is no coda acknowledging the fact that Torres was willing to banish her husband to an alien world. Instead, this is business as usual. It is just another day at the office. In some ways, this hints at one of the deepest underlying frustrations with Voyager, the way that the self-contained episodic format reduces the crazy and the absurd to something as mundane as “just another thing that happened.”

Repression might also be interesting for how it prefigures the arrival of Star Trek: Enterprise, which looms just over the horizon. Tom Paris’ latest holographic simulation foreshadows the use of “movie night” as a social activity in the first two seasons of Enterprise. As in the final season of Voyager, the first couple of seasons of Enterprise find the crew coming together to watch classic cinema; Night of the Killer Androids in Cold Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Sunset Boulevard in Dear Doctor, The Wages of Fear in Vox Sola. Even beyond that, Voyager‘s flirtations with the trappings of fifties pop culture might be seen as conscious lead-in to Enterprise. After all, Enterprise was a prequel to Star Trek, one of the most iconic markers of the sixties.

“You know, I don’t mean to be intrusive, but between this and the whole Flashback thing, you should probably get the occasional neurological check-up done. And maybe cut back on the melding.”

Even beyond the introduction of the concept of “movie night”, the characterisation of Tuvok on Voyager undoubtedly paved the way for the handling of T’Pol on Enterprise. If episodes like Meld, Random Thoughts and Repression suggested that the mind meld was a metaphor for sexual assault, this idea would be literalised in Fusion and Stigma. Even beyond that, Enterprise would fixate on the idea of T’Pol losing control of the emotions simmering beneath the surface with even greater frequency than Voyager did with Tuvok. Episodes like Damage would find T’Pol actively experimenting with lowering her emotional control, instead of having it taken from her.

There is some small irony in the fact that Spock should demonstrate much greater control of his emotional responses than either Tuvok or T’Pol, despite not being a full-blooded Vulcan. Perhaps this speaks to how certain traits of iconic characters get exaggerated over time, and to how episodes like The Naked Time or Amok Time have come to be considered defining and iconic stories for Spock, and so perhaps became the core around which characters like Tuvok and T’Pol were built. Perhaps it simply speaks to Leonard Nimoy’s remarkable gifts as a performer, and the manner in which he aggressively and proactively protected the character of Spock in arguments with writers and producers. Maybe it is just the way things work.

Maquis is catching.

Repression is a mess of an episode, and a reminder of how thoroughly Voyager wasted the character of Tuvok. It has a certain pulpy charm, but even that is lost in the disjointed and ill-judged third act. Repression might be best forgotten.

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2 Responses

  1. Got to give props to Keith Szarabajka, a short, scary man who made a career out of talking softly for lots of cash.

    I love your pointed question, “What are they rebelling against?” Nothing; they want to hijack Voyager because that’s what you do when you’re a bad guy on Voyager.

    • “I know the difference between Vulcans that just need a lesson in manners, and the freaks like you who would only enjoy it. I guess I’m gonna have to try to enjoy it a little more.”

      I suspect Szarabajka is a large part of why I don’t hate Repression as much as I really should. (I don’t think the review pulls any punches, but it’s about as positive as it could be.)

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