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Star Trek: Voyager – Repentance (Review)

Repentance marks another example of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager groping clumsily and awkwardly towards an archetypal Star Trek plot.

The Star Trek franchise has cultivated a reputation for being a vehicle for progressive social commentary, largely on the back of episodes like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Plato’s Stepchildren. Of course, those episodes were decidedly less progressive and more complicated than the popular memory would allow, but there is an argument to be made that the idea of Star Trek as a voice for social progress is worth something even if the franchise did not always live up to those ideals. After all, the franchise also gave audiences The Omega Glory and Turnabout Intruder.

In the neck of time.

The seventh season of Voyager seems to recognise this social commentary as something essential to Star Trek‘s cultural identity, something that essentially defines Star Trek as Star Trek and distinguishes it from other popular science-fiction. This explains why the seventh season of Voyager is so preoccupied with the Prime Directive, which even gets name-dropped within Repentance; it is a major element in stories like Flesh and Blood, Part I, Flesh and Blood, Part II, Natural Law and Friendship One. It is seen as something identifiably Star-Trek-ian in nature.

The seventh season of Voyager builds a number of episodes around big social issues of the late nineties and the new millennium; Critical Care grappled with the healthcare crisis, while Lineage wrestled with anxieties about designer babies. Repentance is very much of a piece with those episodes, although it turns its gaze towards the issue of capital punishment. On paper, this is archetypal Star Trek storytelling, an allegorical exploration of a hot button issue through the prism of science-fiction. However, as with so many of these episodes, the archetypal Star Trek trappings feel superficial.

Hologram for a king’s ransom.

Repentance has very little to actually say about the death penalty. More than that, what it does have to say is deeply confused and unfocused. Voyager is perhaps the most consistently conservative of Star Trek shows in terms of political philosophy, which has led to a number of spectacularly poor decisions like the characterisation of the Kazon from Caretaker onwards or the false rape accusation paranoia underpinning Retrospect. It seems entirely predictable, if no less disappointing, that Voyager stumbles clumsily into an ill-judged take on the application of capital punishment in Repentance.

As with Critical Care and Lineage before it, Repentance is an episode that understands the importance of using a platform to say something important about one of the most pressing issues of the era while also extending a great deal of effort trying to avoid saying anything at all.

“Cue the women in prison fan-fic.”

The death penalty is a logical subject for a Star Trek episode. It is a hotly contested social issue, with very strong feelings in either side. More than that, it is an issue that says something about the society debating it. It is a gateway to a whole host of broader philosophical and moral talking points, from the sanctity that a person places on life to the question about the purpose and priorities of a justice system. As with something like abortion or even gay marriage, the death penalty is a topic that ties an incredibly personal story into a larger discussion about the kind of world in which the audience is living.

Of course, it is worth noting that the Berman era had largely kept silent on these kinds of issues. Star Trek had never (and would never) grapple directly with abortion; it was never discussed as a serious possibility in alien-pregnancy stories like The Child or Unexpected. The closest that the franchise had come to offering an abortion allegory was the muddled allegory about Riker and Pulaski’s rights to bodily autonomy and reproduction in the already muddled Up the Long Ladder.

Force fielding the issue.

Similarly, the franchise had largely avoided exploring the cultural anxiety over homosexuality. The Berman era would touch allegorically on the point in stories like The Outcast and Rejoined, but it avoided taking anything resembling a strong stance on the issue at a time when even sitcoms like Friends were advocating for the rights of gay Americans. (Indeed, Chimera seems to be in part about the franchise’s reluctance to commit to a humanist message about these pressing social issues.)

As such, it is surprising that Repentance tackles the issue of the death penalty head-on. The Berman era always seemed wary of alienating potential viewers by adopting too rigid or too hardlined a stance on any of the issues of the day. After all, Americans were very firmly divided on issues like the death penalty, and so making too strong a statement in one direction or the other would risk alienating a significant portion of the audience. Rick Berman was never a producer who would take such a bold risk on a principled stand. David Livingston had once rushed down to a set to stop two same-sex extras holding hands.

Entering the next phaser of their relationship.

Although there were shades of AIDS allegory to the disease that infected the Great Link during the final season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the franchise would not explicitly deal with the AIDS crisis until Stigma in February 2003. Even then, Star Trek: Enterprise took care to present a sufferer whose affliction would be entirely uncontroversial; a heterosexual woman who was infected with a debilitating illness through an assault. In constructing the story in such away, eager to avoid any controversy, Stigma effectively erased the community most affected by (and most marginalised) during the AIDS crisis.

It is tempting to assume that the majority of Star Trek fans are liberal. After all, the franchise has cultivated that reputation. Much has been written about how influential the character of Uhura was for young black women, and the franchise has been explicit about unfolding in a post-scarcity utopia that has invited observers to suggest that the Federation might be read as a socialist society. Even off-screen, franchise actors frequently advocated for liberal causes; Armin Shimerman is very involved in labour politics and organised the “Trek against Trump” movement, while George Takei is an advocate for gay rights.

“Oh, Iko. Iko. Because Iko.
The man is dead.
The man is dead.”

However, the reality is rather more complex, as any number of anecdotes might demonstrate. Ira Steven Behr recalled receiving angry phone calls from parents when he showed two women kissing in Rejoined. Before it even aired, Star Trek: Discovery received considerable vocal blowback from certain sections of fandom for its diverse (and female-led) primary cast. Republican Ted Cruz asserted that James Tiberius Kirk would be a Republican:

If you look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, it basically split James T. Kirk into two people. Picard was Kirk’s rational side, and William Riker was his passionate side. I prefer a complete captain. To be effective, you need both heart and mind.

I thought your critique might go in a different direction, because Next Generation is more touchy-feely in its politics than the original.

The original Star Trek was grittier. Kirk is working class; Picard is an aristocrat. Kirk is a passionate fighter for justice; Picard is a cerebral philosopher. The original Star Trek pressed for racial equality, which was one of its best characteristics, but it did so without sermonizing.

While early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation like Lonely Among Us, The Last Outpost and The Neutral Zone tended to espouse very aggressively left-wing views on everything from meat-eating to capitalism, the show’s slant became less overtly political in the years that followed. Indeed, it is entirely possible to read the Borg Collective as a commentary on socialism or capitalism depending on perspective.

Brought to heal.

All of this is to suggest that trying to write an episode centring on the death penalty without alienating a significant portion of the audience would pose a challenge for Voyager. At the time that Repentance was broadcast, studies suggested than two out of every three Americans supported the death penalty. This was significantly higher proportion than those in favour of relaxing abortion laws. It was also a much starker contrast than the contemporaneous polling data revealed in the debate about gun control and ownership.

However, there were certain surrounding cultural factors that made Repentance particularly timely. The death penalty had famously been struck down and then subsequently endorsed by the Supreme Court in the mid-seventies, but was a particularly hot button issue at the turn of the millennium. In January 1999, Pope John Paul II used a visit to St. Louis to condemn the use of  the death penalty in the United States. In June 2001, Timothy McVeigh would become the first federal prisoner to be executed in almost four decades.

Executive decision.

The death penalty became a major part of the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush actually paused his presidential campaign in June 2000 to witness the execution of Gary Graham. As Sara Rimer and Raymond Bonner reported, it was a major part of the Bush campaign:

Gov. George W. Bush is certain that the 127 people who have been executed in Texas during his tenure were all guilty.

“I’m confident that every person that has been put to death in Texas, under my watch, has been guilty of the crime charged, and has had full access to the courts,” Mr. Bush said on the NBC News program Meet the Press in February.

But here in Texas, which under Mr. Bush has executed more people than any other state, some of the officials who administer the death penalty, reviewing the case records, considering inmates’ appeals and weighing final pleas for clemency, are not so sanguine. These officials, who support Mr. Bush’s presidential candidacy and believe in the death penalty, said in interviews that they believed Texas ran the risk of executing an innocent person.

As with the contemporary controversies over health maintenance organisations or debates about genetic screening and selection, there is a strong sense that the death penalty was percolating in the public consciousness when Repentance went into production.

The whole nine Yadiqs.

The death penalty had been a public debate for the better part of a decade, dating back at least to those Supreme Court hearings and playing out through popular nineties films like The Chamber or Dead Man Walking. Public support for capital punishment had seemed to peak in the mid-nineties and then trailed downwards, suggesting that there was interest in reopening and relegislating the debate. Indeed, there was even some debate about the public perception of George W. Bush and the United States as “the world champion executioner” by the country’s European allies.

However, even as these debates were taking place and even as prominent campaigns advocated for a moratorium on the death penalty, the United States executed a record 98 people in 1999. This statistic is particularly notable, given that the global trend was downwards; the number of executions worldwide dropped from 2,200 to 1,800 in 1999, despite the record-breaking year in the United States. There was a sense in which the death penalty merited interrogation as a distinctly American phenomenon.

An expert in the field.

Indeed, assessing writer David Garland’s treatise on the subject, Peculiar Institution, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens noted that America’s relationship with the death penalty is unique among developed western nations:

For Garland, the death penalty is “a strange social fact that stands in need of explanation.” He approaches it and debates around it “with the sorts of questions and concepts that anthropologists bring to bear on the exotic cultural practices of a foreign society they are struggling to understand.” In his view, an important reason Americans retain capital punishment is their fascination with death. While neither the glamour nor the gore that used to attend public executions remains today, he observes, capital cases still generate extensive commentary about victims’ deaths and potential deaths of defendants. Great works of literature, like best-selling paperbacks, attract readers by discussing killings and revenge. Garland suggests that the popularity of the mystery story is part of the culture that keeps capital punishment alive. As he explains in Chapter 11, current discourse about death reflects how the purposes that American capital punishment serves have changed over the years.

Garland concludes that capital punishment today is “reasonably well adapted to the purposes that it serves, but deterrent crime control and retributive justice are not prominent among them.” Instead, the death penalty promotes “gratifications,” of “professional and political users, of the mass media, and of its public audience.” In particular, he contends, capital punishment derives “its emotional power, its popular interest, and its perennial appeal” from five types of “death penalty discourse.” They are: (1) political exploitation of the gap between the Furman decision and popular opinion; (2) adversarial legal proceedings featuring cultural tensions between capital punishment and liberal humanism; (3) the political association of capital punishment with larger political and cultural issues, such as civil rights, states’ rights, and crime control; (4) demands for revenge; and (5) the emotional power of imagining killing and death. He concludes that “the American death penalty has been transformed from a penal instrument that puts persons to death to a peculiar institution that puts death into discourse for political and cultural purposes.”

As such, it makes sense for the death penalty to be a focus of an episode like Repentance. In many ways, Star Trek is an extension of the idealised self-image of the United States. Given the unique relationship that the United States has with the death penalty, it seems fair for Star Trek to grapple with it.

Can see right through his arguments.

After all, the Star Trek franchise has always had a somewhat complicated relationship with the death penalty, reflecting an evolving political and social sensibility around it. The original Star Trek seemed to accept the validity of the death penalty; Federation member Ardana was allowed to retain its death penalty in The Cloud Minders and Starfleet itself allowed the death penalty for violation of General Order Four in Turnabout Intruder or General Order Seven in The Menagerie, Part I and The Menagerie, Part II. Although none of these stories implemented the death penalty, they implicitly accepted its validity.

The franchise’s attitude towards the death penalty arguable evolved with the social attitudes in broader culture. The Berman era repeatedly suggested in episodes like Justice and Meld that the Federation had moved past the death penalty. Although Discovery is a prequel, it carried the idea over. In Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum, Admiral Cornwell suggested that the Federation had no death penalty; while it makes sense General Order Seven was not in place a decade before The Cage, it does suggest that the General Order Four was also hastily introduced.

Neelix is on board with all of this.

At the same time, there is a curious ambivalence within Repentance when it comes to dealing with the death penalty. When Janeway welcomes the prisoners aboard and agrees to hold them until an escort can be arranged, Chakotay notes, “Some of the crew may not be comfortable helping to deliver eight men to their deaths.” Janeway responds, simply, “I can’t say I like it either, but we have a Prime Directive to follow.” It is an interesting exchange, not least because the casual drop of the “Prime Directive” seems intentionally invoked to position Repentance as a bit of archetypal Star Trek.

However, this is just a way of sidestepping potentially awkward conversations. After all, the Nygeans are a warp-capable species, and so the principle of non-interference is not as strong as it tends to be in other Prime Directive stories. Janeway is capable of engaging with Nygeans as equals on diplomatic terms. She is taking the prisoners into her own custody, most explicitly following Yediq’s brutalisation of Iko, and then she is turning them back over to the Nygean authorities at the end of the episode.

Getting out of his own head.

As such, there is a moral duty on Janeway that Repentance makes a point to consciously ignore. It is not uncommon for governments like the United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico to refuse to extradite prisoners to the United States if they believe that those prisoners will face execution. Even within the United States, individual states like Rhode Island occasionally refusing to extradite suspects to states where the death penalty would be employed. The prospect of asylum is only broached late in the episode, and only for a single prisoner.

This issue is compounded by the ways in which Repentance has Janeway accept an increasing level of responsibility for the prisoners. “In addition to your staff, two Voyager security officers will remain here at all times,” Tuvok tells Yediq. “Two more will be posted at the entrance to the cargo bay.” Neelix is able to insist on feeding the prisoners by assuring Yediq, “Federation guidelines are quite clear about the treatment of prisoners.” Later, Janeway asserts complete control of the prisoners after Yediq brutalises Iko. “Until your transport vessel gets here, you and your men won’t be allowed in the cargo bay.”

Can’t be beaten.

All of this raises deeply uncomfortable questions. Janeway is no longer just facilitating the delivery of these prisoners to the Nygean authorities, she is actively holding them. More than that, she is aware that the conditions in which these prisoners are held are highly immoral. If Yadiq will beat Iko even under the watchful eye of the Federation, and if he refuses to feed them even when food if offered, what must Nygean prisons be like? There’s a solid argument to be made that handing the prisoners over even without knowing that they are to be executed would be unethical. However, Repentance avoids the issue.

Of course, there is a logistical reason for this. Raising the possibility that Janeway might refuse to ferry eight people to their deaths would involving asking what exactly Janeway planned to do with them. Voyager is not a series with any interest in Janeway taking on that sort of long-term responsibility. As early as Phage, Janeway rejected the notion of holding alien criminals for an extended period of time. The series grappled with the question of how the crew would deal with a long-term prisoner in Meld, but clumsily killed off the character of Lon Suder in Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II when this became too hard.

The whole system is brigged.

As such, it seems entirely possible that Janeway’s complete abdication of any moral authority in Repentance is as much a pragmatic decision on the part of the writing staff as a conscious effort to avoid wading into a political quagmire. Of course, it would be entirely possible for Janeway to take responsibility for these prisoners and for Voyager to simply never mention them again; they would join the rescued crewmembers in Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II or most of the trainees in Good Shepherd. In fact, it would be interesting to imagine what Starfleet found on the ship after it returned home.

Indeed, Repentance even seems cheekily self-aware in this regard. After Iko makes his appeal to the family of his victim, he spends some time in astrometrics with Seven of Nine. Naturally, the conversation turns to what Iko would do if he were to be granted his freedom. “If you’d like, I could ask Captain Janeway to consider letting you stay here,” Seven suggests. “I’m not a scientist,” Iko argues. “I don’t think I’d be much help to anyone.” Seven replies, “There are other ways to be useful. I’m sure we could think of something.” Iko is touched. Iko acknowledges, “I’d like that.”

Rowing over death row.

This is very much the moment that it becomes clear that Iko’s death sentence cannot possibly be overturned in simple narrative terms. Even beyond any larger ethical argument, there is absolutely no way that Voyager would be willing to introduce Iko as a recurring character. In terms of story construction, it would be easier to kill him. This is the guest star equivalent of the reset button, ending in such a way that the guest character can disappear and never even be mentioned again. So the episode follows the path of least resistance.

However, the conscious choice to avoid entangling Janeway in this particular debate feels very much like an abdication of responsibility on the part of the writing staff, trying to avoid engaging too directly with a potentially controversial topic. This is very much par for the course with the seventh season of Voyager. Although Critical Care reflected contemporary anger at health care bureaucracy, it refused to actively engage with any of the underlying issues. Although Lineage broached a number of tough questions about the use of genetic engineering, it devolved into soap opera to avoid dealing with these.

Nanoprobing the issue.

Repentance attempts to construct an episode about the death penalty without engaging with the death penalty. This is obvious in the way that Janeway refuses to take any sort of responsibility for the lives of the prisoners in her care, but it is also apparent in how the episode chooses to mirror the arcs of prisoners like Iko and Joleg. The two characters are presented as two sides of the same coin; both are murderers who strike up a relationship with a member of the regular cast, and who invite sympathy and compassion. The pair are even mirrored in the layout of the cargo bay, positioned opposite one another.

How Repentance approaches the characters of Iko and Joleg is revealing. Iko is framed as an unrepentant murderer. The teaser closes on a shot of Iko holding Seven of Nine hostage, a knife pressed against her throat. “Stay away or I’ll kill her!” Even after Iko is subdued by Tuvok, he is still violent and antisocial. When Yediq warns Iko to fall in line, the criminal taunts, “Boche and Ledara.” He clarifies, “Your children.” He presses the point, “Are you sure they’re safe?” This is meant to present Iko as a monster. As Yediq explains, “Some people don’t understand why we deal so harshly with men like you. It’s because you never learn.”

Iko has improved by an (astro)metric.

However, Iko is revealed to be capable of change and redemption. The big journey of the episode lies in Iko coming to terms with his crimes and trying to redeem himself. Seven of Nine and Yediq both come to advocate for Iko once he shows that he is truly repentant. Although Iko is not granted his appeal at the climax of the episode, it clearly intends for the audience to feel some sympathy for the reformed killer. Repentance very clearly and very strenuously argues that the application of the death sentence to Iko is completely unjust.

It is notable how Repentance chooses to structure this argument. Iko’s transformation does not result from any introspection on his own part. Iko does not find faith or have a crisis of conscience. Iko does not reflect on his life and determine that he made mistake. Instead, Iko is “cured” by the EMH following the brutal assault from Yediq and the guards. It turns out that Iko’s violent tendencies are a result of biology, and that the EMH and Seven have the capacity to fundamentally alter the structure of his brain.

“We’re not quite at full Picard face palm, but we’re getting there.”

“This is a scan depicting a healthy Nygean brain,” the EMH explains. “This node is analogous to the human pineal gland. In addition to controlling behavioural impulses, it regulates decision making. You might say it’s the physiological equivalent of a conscience.” Seven elaborates, “Normally, the node connects to the rest of the brain through a series of neural pathways.” The EMH states, “Now look at this scan of Iko’s node before we applied the nanoprobes. It’s detached.” He summarises, “I believe it’s congenital. A birth defect.”

This is an extremely soft objection to the death penalty, effectively arguing that the death penalty is morally unconscionable in cases where the prisoner is mentally inhibited. Of course, this is an argument that is very worth making, particularly in the context of the time. The specifics of Iko’s case evoke the controversy around the execution of Oliver Cruz in Texas in August 2000, an inmate with an IQ that tested between 63 and 76. (An individual with a score in the 70 to 75 range is deemed to be mentally disabled.) It is notable that Janeway still surrenders Iko to his execution even with this complicating factor.

Getting his head on right.

The way in which the episode treats Iko is complicated by a number of factors. Most obviously, the EMH is able to cure the prisoner using Seven of Nine’s nanoprobes. This is not surprising, given that the nanoprobes were able to effectively cure death in Mortal Coil. However, it does mean that the episode’s central metaphor is somewhat obscured. Repentance is deliberately ambiguous on this point. It is never clear whether the episode is arguing that it is wrong to execute a disabled individual, or whether it is wrong to execute a disabled individual who has subsequently been cured.

Since the audience lives in a world without nanoprobes, that distinction is important. There are very few inmates on death row like Iko, who have been cured of their violent tendencies, and so the episode’s metaphor is not applicable to them. However, there are undoubtedly many inmates with psychological conditions and abnormal brain structures like Iko before he received the nanoprobes; is Repentance arguing for leniency in all of those cases as well? Notably, the EMH avoids running similar scans on the other incarcerated inmates. Repentance avoids offering any clear answers.

Race for justice.

The issue becomes even clearer when Iko is contrasted with Joleg, the other developed inmate character. Joleg strikes up a relationship with Neelix over the course of the episode. The two have conversations, play games, engage in debate. Joleg is not at all what Neelix expects from a death row inmate, as Joleg himself suggests early in their exchanges. “You’re wondering why I’m here,” Joleg remarks at one point. Gesturing to the other prisoners, he states, “You’re wondering what I did to end up with men like them.”

Joleg explains his situation to Neelix, insisting that he is a victim of racial prejudice. “It’s common knowledge that all Benkarans are criminals,” he states. “So when I was found in the vicinity of a murder, I was immediately arrested.” Neelix responds, “Are you saying you didn’t do it?” Joleg evades answering directly, instead warning his new friend, “I told you, I’m Benkaran. What I say doesn’t matter.” This observation is enough to spark Neelix’s interest, and the good-natured Talaxian takes it upon himself to investigate.

Neelix’s views are quite (Ta)lax…

“Did you know the Nygeans govern a sector of space occupied by several different humanoid species?” Neelix asks Paris and Torres later in the episode. “One of those species is the Benkarans. They occupy just ten percent of Nygean space, but take up nearly eighty percent of the space in Nygean prisons.” When Torres asks Neelix if he believes that race factored into Joleg’s sentence, Neelix responds, “According to this, Benkarans are ten times more likely to be executed for their crimes than Nygeans.” He stresses, “It all supports what Joleg told me.”

Over the course of the episode, Joleg makes a number of carefully reasoned and structured criticisms of the death penalty at a systemic level. He explains how the system is weighted against those from certain ethnic and class backgrounds. When Neelix discovers that some murderers did not even serve time in prison, Joleg states, “Some people prefer restitution to revenge. If a defendant is wealthy enough, he can negotiate a settlement with the victim’s family.” Neelix protests, “Oh, that doesn’t seem fair.” Joleg responds, “It’s perfectly fair, unless you’re destitute.”

Another fine messhall he’s gotten us into.

This parallels any number of arguments against the death penalty. There are, of course, philosophical and moral debates about the death penalty that argue against capital punishment from first principle. As the EMH argues, there is a line of thought that “killing is wrong, no matter who’s doing it.” However, there is also an argument against the death penalty rooted in how it is applied and against whom. Certain groups are more impacted by the death penalty than others, and it is no surprise that these groups are often divided by race and class.

Most obviously, African Americans are dramatically over-represented in the American prison system. Minorities are also over-represented on death row. These political realities carry over to the race of the victims, although they are naturally inverted; a suspect accused of killing a white person  is more than three times as likely to receive a death sentence than somebody who kills a black person. Worldwide, those in poverty are more likely to end up on death row than those of means. In the United States, perhaps reflecting this divide, white Americans are more likely to support the death penalty than other groups.

Getting served.

Stephen Bright made the case to the United Nations in 2014:

The death penalty is imposed in the United States upon the poorest, most powerless, most marginalized people in the society. Virtually all of the people selected for execution are poor, about half are members of racial minorities, and the overwhelming majority were sentenced to death for crimes against white victims.

Many have significant intellectual disabilities or suffer from severe mental illnesses. Many others were the victims of the most brutal physical, sexual, and psychological abuse during their childhoods and lived on the margins of society before their arrests. Some are innocent.

They are subject to discretionary decisions by law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and jurors that are often influenced by racial prejudice. Because of their poverty, they are often assigned lawyers who lack the skills, resources and inclination to represent them capably in capital cases.

All of this is true, and all of this is reflected in Joleg’s story of systemic discrimination that landed him on death row.

Dead to rights.

This is an interesting story beat, one that digs at the complicated realities of the implementation of the death penalty in the United States. It is a surprisingly nuanced position for a show like Voyager to take, acknowledging that – even if one accepts the death penalty as valid in theory – there are major systemic flaws in how the death penalty is applied. With the character of Joleg, it appears that Voyager is grappling with a very nuanced and considered approach to the death penalty by looking at how it is implemented.

Naturally, Repentance quickly retreats from that argument. When Neelix confides his belief that Joleg has been unfairly sentenced to Paris and Torres, the pair openly mock him. “I know what you’re thinking,” Neelix admits. Paris states it anyway, “That you’re the softest touch in the Delta Quadrant.” Indeed, the decision to frame this beat between Paris and Neelix is revealing. Paris and Neelix are the outlaws and rogues among the Voyager cast, the grifters and the con men. In fact, the duo had their own insecurities about losing their edge when they were conned in Live Fast and Prosper.

Captive audience.

It is inevitably revealed that Paris and Torres were right about Joleg and that Neelix was wrong. Joleg uses Neelix’s generosity to contact his brother, who attacks Voyager and tries to free him. During the attack, Joleg escapes. Joleg embarks upon a rampage and is about to kill Yediq when Iko intervenes. This clarifies Repentance‘s moral perspective. Iko has been redeemed and does not belong on death row. In contrast, Joleg was just hiding behind statistics and talking points to exploit Neelix’s compassion and decency. “I tried to help you and you took advantage of me,” Neelix protests.

This is an extremely cynical plot development, allowing Repentance to broach these (very real and very unsettling) issues with the application of the death penalty while still arguing that some people deserve to die. Everything that Joleg says, and everything that Neelix believes, is undercut with the revelation that Joleg is a manipulative schemer who cannot be trusted. The narrative logic of the episode renders Joleg’s position invalid, without having to engage with any of the potentially uncomfortable ideas. It is highly likely that Joleg was the victim of systemic prejudice, but it doesn’t matter because he is a bad guy.

For he’s a Joleg offender, for he’s a Joleg offender, for he’s a Joleg offender, and so say all of us!

This is in keeping with how Voyager tends to grapple with these sorts of big issue stories about minorities and systemic issues. Voyager is an incredibly racially anxious piece of television, constantly focusing on how marginalised and seemingly disadvantaged groups are inevitably scheming to take advantage of the relatively privileged Starfleet ship as it journeys through the Delta Quadrant. Time and again on Voyager, issues of racism and prejudice are broached, only for the episode to double back on itself and suggest that these concerns are just a smokescreen used by cynical minorities trying to exploit the crew.

There are several points in its seven-season run where Voyager feels like a collection of xenophobic talking points about the dangerous of engaging with outsiders, even those in need of assistance. Displaced was a story about immigration, in which strange aliens began materialising on Voyager without any idea of how they got there; it was eventually revealed to be a plot to gradually replace the crew and take control of the ship for themselves. Day of Honour finds Janeway trying to help a refugee convoy, only for the refugees to try to hold the ship to ransom.

Warden off evil.

This is apparent in how Voyager approaches stories about oppressed minorities. The Kazon were kept as slaves by the Trabe, and are presented as pathetic rather than dangerous in episodes like State of Flux, but were consistently portrayed as two-dimensional villains in episodes like Manoeuvres. Indeed, Janeway found it easier to negotiate with the Trabe than the Kazon in Alliances. Similarly, episodes like Revulsion, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II present holograms as oppressed minorities, only to also present them as dangerous and deranged threats to the primary cast.

As such, it is no surprise that Repentance decides to completely undercut any point that Joleg might make about systemic racial prejudice in the justice system by revealing him to be a stone-cold murderer. Ultimately, the Benkarans are just like the Kazon or Iden’s holographic revolution; they might be subject to very tangible oppression, but they are also clearly painted as villains so that the episode doesn’t have to acknowledge systems of oppression. Tellingly, Iko is a Nygean, and so his case is handily insulated from having to grapple with the issue of race as it relates to capital punishment.

I go, Iko.

Repentance offers a very clear (and very warped) moral perspective on the death penalty, one rooted in individualist rather than systemic arguments. The plot thread focusing on Iko suggests that the death penalty is unconscionable in cases where somebody quite literally becomes a new person. As Seven tells Janeway, “By some definitions, Captain, he’s not the same man who committed the murder.” In contrast, Joleg’s criticisms of racial bias within the system are treated as irrelevant and cynical rather than as arguments with any substance.

The trite nature of the exploration of the death penalty in Repentance is only deepened by the episode’s strong preoccupation with Seven of Nine. Seven of Nine is very much the breakout character on Voyager, and arguably has been since her first appearance in Scorpion, Part II. However, this is particularly apparent during the seventh season. Seven gets a number of character-centric episodes over the course of the season; Unimatrix Zero, Part II, Imperfection, Body and Soul, Human Error, Natural Law. This is appreciably more episodes than characters like Kim, Chakotay, Tuvok, Neelix, Torres, Paris.

The only thing bruised was his Iko.

However, Seven also takes up considerable narrative real estate in stories that are not nominally about her. Seven is a major supporting character in Nightingale, where she essentially lectures Harry Kim on how best to lead. Seven is also a major supporting character in Shattered, her past self having a much larger role in the narrative than any regular character beyond Chakotay and Janeway. In Repentance, Seven of Nine is the primary character who gets the strongest character arc. She goes from believing – “being objective” – that Iko’s sentence should be carried out to advocating on his behalf to Janeway.

To a certain extent, this narrative approach makes sense. One of the big innovations that producer Michael Piller brought to the third season of The Next Generation was the idea that every story should reveal something about the primary cast of the show, the characters with whom the audience is engaged. Guest stars were great, but a television series was anchored in the central ensemble. As a result, The Next Generation tended to write big issue-driven episodes with a strong emphasis on individual characters; The Outcast is a Riker-centric episode, Ethics is a Worf- and Crusher-centric episode.

Starry-eyed explorers.

In many cases, this means presenting a character with a particular situation and watching them react to it; that reaction reveals the finer details of the character’s perspective and also illuminates some nuance in the premise of the episode. The High Ground is an episode about terrorism and politically-motivated violence, but it uses Beverly Crusher as a viewpoint character. Even seemingly guest-star-centric episodes seemed to pick a member of the ensemble to bring into focus; Geordi in Aquiel, Data in Silicon Avatar, Picard in Sarek.

As a result, it makes sense that an episode like Repentance would try to provide a member of the core ensemble with a character arc rather than focusing exclusively on a set of one-and-done guest stars like Iko, Yadiq or Joleg. The issue is the substance of this arc. Repentance is a story about people coming close to the end of their lives, about to be sentenced by a justice system that is incredibly arbitrary and deeply flawed. Indeed, Repentance is fairly explicit on this front. Both Iko and Joleg will be executed after they are handed back to the Nygean authorities.

Dead Nygean walking.

As a result, there is something deeply frustrating in the arc that Repentance chooses to give Seven of Nine. Over the course of the episode, Seven gradually warms to Iko, coming to respect and trust him. This works relatively well, particularly given that the teaser ends with Iko holding a knife to her throat. It feels like a real humanising journey with Seven learning to see Iko as more than just a statistic or a curiosity. This is a stock feature of death row narrative tropes, the outside who recognises the humanity in the prisoner; Susan Sarandon’s character in Dead Man Walking, Kate Winslet’s reporter in The Life of David Gale.

The issue with the use of Seven of Nine in Repentance is that the episode doesn’t merely use the character as a witness, it tries to fundamentally reframe the episode as about her. In some ways, this reflects the way in which Voyager has come to orbit around Seven of Nine, with many episodes framed in terms of what they tell the audience about Seven and how they inform Seven’s growth. This is most obvious with episodes like Dragon’s Teeth, where a completely unrelated primary plot is stopped and slowed down in order to explore how Seven reacts to it.

Such repentance is better (assimi)late than never.

Here, Repentance shifts the focus away from the death sentences facing Iko and Joleg to fixate upon the idea that Seven feels guilty for the horrific atrocities in which she was complicit as a member of the Borg Collective. “I think part of you still feels responsible for the violent acts you committed when you were a Borg,” Janeway bluntly explains when Seven takes up Iko’s cause. “Maybe you believe if Iko is found not guilty, somehow you won’t be guilty either.” The episode endorses this perspective, allowing Seven to talk to Iko about her complicity in the assimilation of countless individuals and species.

Seven very clearly equates her situation with that of Iko. “It’s difficult for me to talk about, because I forced others to undergo the same procedure,” she confesses. “I was compelled to do so by the Borg Collective. I wasn’t in control of my actions, just as you weren’t in control when you took a life. My nanoprobes have given you control. You’re a different person now.” The logical implication is that Seven is herself a different person now. That is a fair analysis. After all, the process of assimilation subsumes the individual into the collective.

This’ll be the death of him.

There is an interesting story to be told about Seven’s guilt – or, more accurately, Seven’s sense of guilt – as it relates to her time in the Borg Collective. How does somebody process that feeling of responsibility and powerlessness? After all, the franchise explored this question with Picard in stories like Family or Star Trek: First Contact. In fact, there is some very interesting stuff that could be done involving Seven as a character discovering her own sense of moral responsibility (relatively) late in life and so recognising her potential culpability in horrific deeds.

(This hypothetical story is very much in keeping with Voyager‘s own recurring themes and motifs; the question of memory and collective guilt run through some the series’ strongest episodes like Remember, Distant Origin, Living Witness, Latent Image and Memorial. It would be very engaging to explore that issue through the prism of Seven of Nine. Indeed, there were hints of this to be found in earlier stories like Infinite Regress, which suggested that the character’s subconscious was a mausoleum haunted by the memories and personalities of countless casualties of the Borg.)

“Oh, can’t anybody travel through the Delta Quadrant without needing our assistance?”

However, that story really does not work in the context of Repentance, because it only serves to underscore the privilege of the Voyager crew as they journey through the Delta Quadrant. Iko and Jogel will die because they had the misfortune to be born in a different part of the galaxy and to belong to different species, while Seven is afforded the opportunity of redemption because she happens to be human and because Kathryn Janeway just happened to take an interest in her. It ultimately just underscores the moral cowardice of Janeway’s decision to unquestioningly surrender these individuals to their deaths.

Repentance could theoretically use this set-up to explore the arbitrary nature of capital punishment, to acknowledge that Seven has been lucky in a way that Iko has not. Instead, Repentance places its emotional weight on absolving Seven of any sense of guilt that she might have about her circumstances. “As a drone I took thousands, but I was never punished,” Seven admits, awkwardly. Janeway responds, “You lost twenty years of your life to the Borg. I’d say that’s punishment enough.”

There is no meditation on the suffering of Iko or Jogel, just a reassurance that Seven should not feel bad about escaping a reckoning with her own past. Again, this is very revealing of how Voyager approaches issues like this, with an emphasis on absolving the crew of any moral responsibility when compared with the lives of those less fortunate. The crew of Voyager live lives of privilege and luxury, with functioning replicators and working holodecks. Many inhabitants of the Delta Quadrant are starving and suffering. So much of Voyager is devoted to ensuring that the crew do not feel guilty about this.

(The portrayal of the Kazon as violent thugs in the first two seasons is a great example of this, as is the recurring use of the Vidiians as organ-harvesting pseudo-Nazis. There are lots of individual examples, such as the refugees in Day of Honour or the immigrants in Displaced. It is even the subtext of Living Witness, where Voyager is turned into the villain of the story for trying to help. Voyager is full of aliens just looking to take advantage of the crew’s generosity, to take whatever they can from these well-meaning voyagers. In fact, Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II are perhaps the best example of this.)

It is possible to tell this story with a character arc for a primary cast member that does not end up reducing the suffering of supporting guest characters to a prop for internal angst. Deep Space Nine did a very good job of this with The Quickening in the late fourth season, in which Julian Bashir attempts to cure an alien population afflicted by a horrific disease. Bashir struggles, and those struggles lead him to feel guilty and insecure. However, Dax very quickly and very bluntly places that guilt and insecurity in perspective. Bashir’s feelings are not any less important than the lives of the people actually suffering.

Voyager is repeatedly and consistently oblivious to this simple reality, which leads to a really strange dissonance. Repentance is clearly intended to be an episode about the death penalty, but ultimately becomes a story about how Seven of Nine really shouldn’t feel so bad about her time as a member of the Borg Collective.

10 Responses

  1. I think you spent more time thinking about the moral implications of this episode than the cast of Voyager did 😛 It’s interesting to think about how central to popular culture the death penalty was when this episode aired. I was in junior high in LA at the time, and I remember the topic was a very common one that we tackled in debate club.

    Were you able to find any discussions on this episode by former cast & crew? I’m doubtful there’s much out there but would be curious about their thoughts on what the episode was setting out to accomplish.

    By the way, will you be moving on to ST: Discovery reviews after you wrap up Voyager?

    • Ha! Yeah, cultural context is important to me. Everything is a product of its time, and often understanding that is important to understanding the thing itself. Voyager and Enterprise are especially products of their times, and very transparently so.

      Not sure what the plan is next. Maybe X-Files, maybe Next Gen. Discovery may make the list, but may also wait until it has finished its third season.

  2. Halfway to the finish!

  3. I am glad not to be alone in being shocked by Neelix’ cynical attitude near the end and the overall cynical nature of this plot development. In general Neelix seems to be a nice guy in the beginning, only to become quite vindictive and unforgiving. He always has strong opinions and seems like a child, unable to grasp realities in a universe not always encouraging his frank and open-arm attitudes. A very unfriendly trait, I dare to say.

    • It’s even weirder because the early seasons actually introduced Neelix as a rather cynical and jaded operator – effectively tricking the crew into helping him save Kes in Caretaker and trying to weasel his way out of various assignments and missions.

      • Never thought of this aspect, but you are right. I just always remeber Neelix enjoying a hot bath in Caretaker… He does have quite a bit of character development. Not sure if it was for the best in all aspects. He pretty much became not a morale officer, but a moral “faultfinder” (not sure if the word is correct… I mean the German “Besserwisser”, one who always hits you with a “Moralkeule”).

      • It is, but I’m not so sure it’s character development as just a soft reboot. A sense of “the creepy possessive possibly pedophile warthog isn’t working, so let’s reboot him as a cuddly teddy bear” some point in the third season.

  4. This was a decent episode, even if the execution was flawed. It is certainly better than the one that comes after it. However, I agree with most of your review. I struggle often with episodes like this one or Critical Care, because they are Americans talking to themselves about problems that all other Western nations no longer face: the death penalty or for-profit healthcare. It comes off like a sort of farce or throwback to other western viewers, where Voyager seems at best antiquated, while to Americans it is some utopian dream. Healthcare as a human right, wow! A society that doesn’t commit communal murder as a form of ‘justice’, imagine that!

    The guest actors were good. The sudden involvement of Seven was tiresome. Does every even involve her personally? It often seems so. From the first moments where she plays a pretty blonde in the arms of the assailant (we all know we would care less if Neelix had been the one held hostage), to her exponential take-over of the moral point of the plot. “Don’t worry Seven, your conscious is free of all the horrors you committed, just as mine is free of all the people who will be assimilated due to my alliance with the Borg against a race they had attacked first.” Janeway’s moral compass is far from steady or tied to anything other than plot resolution.

    You write: As such, it is no surprise that Repentance decides to completely undercut any point that Joleg might make about systemic racial prejudice in the justice system by revealing him to be a stone-cold murderer. Ultimately, the Benkarans are just like the Kazon or Iden’s holographic revolution; they might be subject to very tangible oppression, but they are also clearly painted as villains so that the episode doesn’t have to acknowledge systems of oppression. Tellingly, Iko is a Nygean, and so his case is handily insulated from having to grapple with the issue of race as it relates to capital punishment.

    I agree. I found the closing scene with Neelx to be predictably jaded. Obviously there are some people who should be imprisoned for life, but Voyager uses this ploy to undermine the issue of systematic racism. They do this kind of thing very, very often.

    It’s particularly jarring when you think that this episode aired in the middle of the run of OZ, the excellent HBO prison drama.

  5. For a franchise that prides itself on being so moral, Star Trek tends to portray morality as being pretty fragile, at least for non-humans. While bodies were referenced as “meat vehicles” in a comment on a previous episode, here is an alien whose body is basically a meat machine with some faulty wiring. The pineal gland is the center of morality, apparently, and if it’s not properly wired, sociopaths are created. It reminds me of that terrible storyline in Descent where Data’s morality is wiped out by disabling an ethical sub-routine, or some such thing, and he’s ready to torture his best friend to death. Next episode the doctor’s programming will be changed so he will agree to a morally questionable procedure. Vulcans have been shown to become murderously violent during pon farr, despite their restraint. The lesson may be that individual morality is precarious but collective morality can be trusted. Of course, Deep Space None notably flipped this dynamic around.

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