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Star Trek: Voyager – Prophecy (Review)

The big surprise with Prophecy is not that Star Trek: Voyager is doing a Klingon-centric story, despite being set on the other side of the galaxy. The big surprise with Prophecy is that it took the series so long to get around to it.

Of course, there are lots of very good reasons why Voyager should never have had to resort to a Klingon-centric story. After all, Voyager is a series about a ship stranded half-way across the galaxy. The whole premise of the series is to get away from the familiar and established Star Trek aliens, to take a break from the familiar and iconic races like the Romulans or the Klingons, and to introduce new aliens like the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Hirogen, the Malon. Caretaker threw the crew into the Delta Quadrant to give the show a clean break.

Klingon in there!

However, the pull of the familiar is strong. Voyager wasted little time in building episodes around familiar alien menaces; Eye of the Needle featured a Romulan, Death Wish featured Q, False Profits featured two Ferengi, Blood Fever reintroduced the Borg as a potential menace. Few Star Trek aliens are as iconic as the Klingons. Even the most casual of audience members knows the name “Klingon” and probably has an understanding of how the culture works. Next to Vulcans – and even then, arguably just Spock – Klingons are Star Trek to casual viewers.

Indeed, Prophecy is far from the first time that Voyager has indulged its fascination with Klingon culture. Torres was split into human and Klingon halves in Faces. Holographic Klingons played significant roles in episodes like Day of Honour, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Ronald D. Moore only worked on Voyager for a very short time, but – with the assistance of Bryan Fuller – helped to send Torres to the Klingon afterlife in Barge of the Dead. Indeed, even Endgame will feature recurring actor Vaughn Armstrong as a secondary Klingon character.

“You can’t make a mess in here, this is the mess hall!”

All of which is to say that while Voyager took its time to do an episode built around a major guest cast of new flesh-and-blood Klingon characters, the series had a long-standing interest in these most memorable and distinctive of Star Trek aliens. In its own weird way, the inclusion of such an overtly Klingon-centric episode plays into the seventh season’s weird fixation on the perceived “Star-Trek-ness” of Voyager, a strong desire to assert the aspects of Voyager that connected it to the larger Star Trek canon.

However, as with a lot of these recurring “Star-Trek-y” elements in the seventh season of Voyager, there is a strong sense with Prophecy that the production team have no greater understanding of the Klingons than their long-standing connection to Star Trek lore.

Today is a good day to try.

The cultural impact of the Klingons can probably be traced back to a number of factors. The Klingons were not the first of the “major” alien races to debut in Star Trek; the Romulans appeared early in the first season with Balance of Terror, while the Klingons appeared towards the end of the season in Errand of Mercy. However, the Klingons were immediately and appreciably “alien” in a way that the Romulans were not. Kor and his soldiers might have been racial caricatures – with their goatees and bronzed skin – but they were visually striking.

This might sound superficial, but there is a lot to be said for the importance of a solid design for an alien species. After all, there are any number of aliens from the original Star Trek that became iconic after only a single appearance, based primarily on their unique design. The Gorn might have only appeared in Arena, but they arguably have a large pop cultural foot print than more nominally “important” aliens like the Cardassians or the Bajorans. Similarly, the Tholians and the Andorians were objects of fandom curiousity long before they popped up on Star Trek: Enterprise.

No Star Trek species holds a candle to the Klingons.

That first design of the Klingons perhaps gave them the edge over the Romulans, but they were helped by the fact that they were one of a handful of alien races to recur over the run of the original Star Trek, alongside the Romulans and the Vulcans. When Star Trek made the leap to the big screen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Klingons were the first major characters to appear on screen. The Klingons were a large part of expanding Star Trek beyond a beloved piece of syndicated television and a family cartoon show.

The Klingons were further elevated by a number of other choices. The Klingons were major players in about half of the original movie franchise; Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Even in those films where no Klingons actually appear, their presence is keenly felt. The Kobyashi Maru simulation in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan uses Klingon ships, while Kirk pilots a Bird of Prey in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

“Everybody loves a Klingon episode.”

The casting of Michael Dorn as Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation probably sealed the deal. Although Deanna Troi was half-Betazoid and Data was an android, Worf was the most prominent completely alien character in the ensemble. More than that, despite the production team’s desire to stay away from familiar threats like the Romulans and Klingons in early seasons, the Klingons exerted considerable gravity. Some of the best episodes of those troubled first two seasons are Klingon-centric; Heart of Glory, A Matter of Honour, The Emissary.

So Klingons occupy a very high tier on the hierarchy of “Star-Trek-y” story elements; below the Enterprise, below Kirk and below Spock. However, they are something that just screams Star Trek. This is why Klingons are almost ubiquitous within the franchise. When the fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine needed a retool, it drafted in Worf and launched an expanded storyline that plunged the Federation and the Klingon Empire back into conflict with one another in The Way of the Warrior, which shaped the show’s final four seasons.

Not for the faint hearted.

Klingons are effectively Star Trek shorthand, slotted in wherever they can fit. When it was decided that the next Star Trek series would be a prequel, Broken Bow was built around the story of the first contact between Earth and the Klingon Empire. The Klingons appeared several times in the first and second season of Enterprise, in a move that often felt like the series was trying to assert that it as a Star Trek series. Episodes like Unexpected, Sleeping Dogs and Marauders had little to say about the Klingons as a culture, but used them as handy plot elements.

As such, it is no surprise that the JJ Abrams reconceptualisation of the franchise as a series of summer blockbusters would lean heavily into the Klingons. Star Trek featured a deleted subplot that would have seen Nero and his crew condemned to Rura Penthe. Nominally, this subplot explained to answer the question of what Nero had been doing while waiting for the older version of Spock to arrive. However, it seemed an overly convoluted and elaborate explanation for something that did not need a justification. It seemed a way to include the Klingons in the film.

“Bring on the Blingons!”

Although those scenes were cut from the film, Star Trek Into Darkness made a point to include an extended plot about a potential war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, including a light redesign of the species’ make-up. In an interview with Star Trek Magazine, Abrams just seemed happy to be able to bring the Klingons into the film in a meaningful way:

“It’s an important story point, as you’ll see in the movie. While the idea of Klingons was something we wanted to do in the first movie, they ended up being superfluous, given the story of Nero. It complicated his back story a little bit, and now there’s a real logic to why we bring them into this film. Plus we couldn’t do two movies and not have the Klingons,” he chuckles. “The idea of an action sequence that is harrowing, exciting, and scary, involving Klingons and our characters, was too delicious to pass up.”

It should be noted that JJ Abrams has described himself as a casual Star Trek fan. As a result, his eagerness to play with the Klingons reflects their status as archetypal Star Trek aliens, part of the franchise’s iconography and cultural footprint.

Hear the Kohlar of destiny…

Indeed, the Klingons have generally been part – in one way or another – of every effort to introduce Star Trek to a new audience. When Star Trek jumped to the big screen with The Motion Picture, Klingons were there to ease the transition. When The Next Generation brought the franchise back to television in the late eighties, a Klingon was standing on the bridge. When Enterprise tried to reach a new audience, even dropping the “Star Trek”, the Klingons were there. The Klingons were even present in the blockbuster Star Trek, although their scenes were cut.

As such, it is no surprise that the Klingons would be brought back as the focal point of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, the most recent effort to introduce Star Trek to a new audience and to find new ways of telling Star Trek stories. The first season of Discovery was given over to depicting the war between the Klingons and the Federation, the back story that informed so much of later stories and films. The Klingons served as something of a bridge. Along with Michael Burnham’s familial connection to Spock, they signalled to casual viewers that this was Star Trek.

No T’Greths.

As such, it is no surprise that Voyager should want to develop a Klingon-centric episode. The only real surprise is that it waited until the middle of the seventh season to actually do it. Writer Larry Nemecek reportedly sold the basic pitch before the series even premiered, and it just remained on the shelf. As Kenneth Biller told Cinefantastique:

We bought a story from Larry Nemecek [author of The Next Generation Companion and editor of the Star Trek Communicator], about running into a generational Klingon ship in the first season, and we never did it. Suddenly it occurred to me that this would be a good time to do it – Klingons are very popular characters. Then it hit me one morning that maybe they are religious fanatics. Maybe they believe that B’Elanna’s unborn baby is their messiah. What would that be about?”

An optimistic read of the situation might be that the writing staff seized on the undeveloped pitch because they realised that the show was coming to an end and this would be the last opportunity. A more cynical argument would suggest that the writing staff as just grabbing blindly for story ideas to get them into the home stretch.

They haven’t a prayer.

To be fair, the basic premise of Prophecy is relatively interesting. Indeed, the episode’s starting point is one of those basic story ideas that should have been baked into the premise since Caretaker. Much like Dreadnought, Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II asked what would happen if the crew encountered another a ship dragged to the Delta Quadrant by the same phenomenon that plucked the ship from the Badlands, Prophecy is rooted in the idea that the ship could encounter traffic moving in the opposite direction.

So much of Voyager is about a ship trying to get home, mapping a course from the Delta Quadrant towards Earth. However, what about those ships that are journeying outwards towards the Delta Quadrant. The Star Trek universe is built on the concept of exploration and adventure, of going “where no one has gone before.” In contrast, Voyager is a show that is fundamentally about retreating towards the familiar, setting up the more blatant appeals to nostalgia that would arrive in Enterprise or Discovery.

A flowering friendship.

It makes sense for the two to collide, for Voyager’s journey backwards to intersect with another journey outwards. The seventh season seems an ideal place for this to happen. Within the world of the show, the crew are approximately half-way home in terms of distance; they are almost as close to Earth as they are far from their starting point. Anything that they encountered at this point in the adventure would have travelled almost as far outwards as they have journeyed inwards.

More than that, the final season of a show can often be a point of introspection or analysis, particularly when the production team know that the series will be coming to an end. The crew might be reaching the halfway point of their journey in terms of light years travelled, but they are almost home in terms of episodes produced. This is the moment for introspection. It should be noted that the seventh season of Voyager uses this plot point repeatedly; they pass outward boundaries for both the Klingons in Prophecy and for Starfleet’s probes in Friendship One.

“Going where some Klingons have gone before…”

Of course, the sheer scale of space means that the actual odds of Janeway encountering any ship travelling outwards would be minimal at best. Prophecy explicitly acknowledges this in dialogue. In the closing scene, Paris asks Torres, “I mean, what were the odds that they’d run into the one ship in the whole quadrant with a Klingon aboard?” It makes relatively little sense in terms of how space works, but it is perfectly rational when considered in terms of narrative logic.

Indeed, as with Friendship One later in the season, there is a strong sense that Voyager is being confronted with the franchise’s history and legacy. Again, this makes sense in the world of the series; any ship that had ventured out this far would have most like had to begin it journey long before Voyager left Deep Space Nine in Caretaker. The probe in Friendship One predates the Federation. In the opening scenes of Prophecy, it is clearly stated that the Klingons come from an earlier point in time.

Point of light.

“Tetryon readings indicate it’s a D7-class cruiser,” Kim states, identifying the Klingon ship as the same kind featured in Elaan of Troyius or Day of the Dove. Paris offers context for those less versed in their Star Trek lore. “D7?” he repeats. “They were retired decades ago.” The Klingon ship becomes a ghost of Star Trek past, almost an accusation. It evokes a time when Star Trek was a franchise about exploration and pushing outwards, in marked contrast to the way in which Voyager was a show about longing to return to the familiar.

In some ways, the outdated Klingon ship prefigures the paradoxes of both Enterprise and Discovery, shows that would render the literal journey of Voyager as a metaphor; the idea of finding a way back to Star Trek by regressing to the franchise’s roots. Voyager is a series about journeying back to a nostalgic idea of “home”, which Enterprise and Discovery are about trying to recapture a long-past sense of optimism about the future. Voyager is a show about getting back to those places that people have gone before.

All sect.

There’s no small irony that the D7 cruiser is explicit evoked in Point of Light as the future of the Klingon Empire. The audience already knows how that vision ends, with one of the last D7 cruisers still in service self-destructing half-way across the galaxy. In its own weird way, this reinforces the wry paradox of the Klingon Empire, an institution that has apparently always been in decline and always been on the verge of collapse. The Klingon ship in Prophecy might be journeying outward to “where no one has gone before”, but every journey reaches an end.

To be fair to Prophecy, the episode seems to understand that much about the Klingons. Asked to explain his crew’s journey to Janeway, Kohlar states, “More than a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather was part of a sect which believed the Empire had lost its way. They discovered a sacred text. It told them to embark on a journey to a distant region of the galaxy.” This is a very familiar narrative choice. Repeatedly over the course of the Star Trek franchise, characters have worried about the decline and fall of the Klingon Empire.

Bridging the generations.

In terms of the franchise’s internal continuity, that fear was first articulated by T’Kuvma in The Vulcan Hello, wary of how contact with the Federation would inevitably erode Klingon culture and identity. However, the prequel setting positioned this speech as grand tragedy; the audience had already seen this collapse play out in slow motion. In Heart of Glory, Commander Korris was cast as another rebel trying to break with a dying empire like Kohlar’s great-grandfather. More than a decade later, Ezri Dax reiterated the reality of the situation to Worf in Tacking Into the Wind.

Unfortunately, this is about as much insight as Prophecy has into Klingon culture and society. The Klingons appearing on Voyager is a big deal. The Klingons are a recognisable and iconic piece of Star Trek lore. However, Prophecy never justifies the decision to fold them into the narrative. The episode never really feels like anything more than an effort to do “a Klingon episode” before the clock runs out, to check one more item off Voyager‘s checklist of “things that people associate with Star Trek.”

“She’s not the messiah, she’s a very naughty unborn child.”

The seventh season of Voyager is full of these sorts of episodes, the episodes that are built around elements that are superficially “Star-Trek-y”, the kinds of concepts and ideas that fans and casual audiences associate with the franchise as a whole. Critical Care and Repentance are the sort of big “issue-driven” allegorical stories that fans associate with the franchise, recalling Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or A Private Little War. Flesh and Blood, Part I, Flesh and Blood, Part II, Friendship One and Natural Law are all recognisably “Prime Directive” stories like The Apple or Pen Pals.

Even episodes like Drive and The Void find the crew engaging with emerging power structures comparable to the Federation. The seventh season of Voyager seems commited to looking like Star Trek, to adopting the hallmarks and iconography of the franchise. It is unclear whether Voyager is simply trying to appeal to fans with a very set and very rigid idea of what Star Trek should look like or whether Voyager is trying to asserts its own place in the larger Star Trek canon as the curtain comes down. However, the seventh season never does anything interesting with these ideas.

Kohlar me surprised.

Despite the fact that the Klingons have been a part of Star Trek dating back to the first season of the show, it is possible to do new and interesting things with them. Drafting Worf and the Klingons into the fourth season of Deep Space Nine could easily have been a cynical move, but it allowed the production team the perfect opportunity to explore Klingon culture. Episodes like Soldiers of the Empire, Sons and Daughters or Once More Unto the Breach were told with largely Klingon casts from a largely Klingon perspective.

It is also possible to use the Klingons in an interesting way as a vehicle for social commentary. In Judgment, writer David A. Goodman had the ingenious idea of reconceptualising the Klingons, repurposing them from a metaphor for Russia or China, and instead using them as an allegory for the United States during the War on Terror. Later episodes like Affliction and Divergence built on this. Similarly, Discovery repurposed the Klingons as a metaphor for extreme nationalism, reflecting the world around the show.

Social disruptors.

It is possible to use the Klingons without needed a new angle or an in-depth approach. The Motion Picture and Into Darkness very effectively used the Klingons for the weight of their iconography, without focusing too heavily on them. The Motion Picture set early scenes on a Klingon ship that was promptly destroyed, avoiding any need for development. Into Darkness built a plot that heavily involved the Klingons, but only involved a handful of scenes and a short action sequence that required actual Klingons to appear.

This is the problem with Prophecy. The episode features the Klingons too heavily to be able to coast on their mere appearance. Unlike the short Klingon-centric sequences in The Motion Picture or Into Darkness, Prophecy is stuck with its Klingon characters for a full forty-five minutes. However, Prophecy has nothing especially interesting or insightful to say about the Klingons. There is no attempt to recontextualise the Klingons, to find a new angle on them or even to explore their culture in more depth.

“Again with the Klingons!”

Prophecy is pretty much a collection of things that the audience might expect from a “Klingon episode”, arranged without any particular finesse. The episode opens with combat between Voyager and the Klingon ship, Kohlar vowing, “We will not surrender to sworn enemies of the Klingon Empire.” It reveals a lot about Voyager that – seven seasons into the run of the show – it assumes that a Klingon ship attacking a Starfleet vessel as a “sworn enemy” is a strong enough beat on which to close the teaser and cut to opening credits. That sets the bar for the episode that follows.

Over the next forty-five minutes, there are all the obligatory “Klingon scenes” crammed into the episode; the Starfleet crew deal with the Klingons being aggressive in the mess hall, Torres partakes a mystic ritual with Kohlar, Paris is challenged to hand-to-hand combat with T’Greth, the Klingons eventually try to hijack the ship setting in motion a phaser battle during the last act. There is gagh, there is singing, there are jokes about the aggressive nature of Klingon lovemaking. None of this seems to exist in service of anything greater, it is just there to be “Klingon stuff.”

Fandom is gaghing for the Klingons.

As with a lot of the seventh season of Voyager, there is a sense that Prophecy is setting up the first season of Enterprise. The prequel series would return to the Klingons regularly in its first two season, but often with little idea of what to do with them. Broken Bow purported to show the “disastrous contact with the Klingon Empire” that Picard had suggested in First Contact, but it all seemed rather milquetoast. (The Vulcan Hello would prove a much better execution of that concept.) Unexpected reduced the Klingons to a punchline, Mauraders to generic villains.

To be fair, it is possible to pack a Star Trek episode full of this generic “Klingon stuff” and make it work. Indeed, Prophecy seems to have been largely built from the same core ingredients as The Way of the Warrior. Once again, the Klingons and the Federation are at odds. Once again, the crew have to put up with the agitation of having Klingons in close proximity. Once again, the episode climaxes with the Klingons trying to take control of the title location. The Klingon drinking song that Neelix sings in Prophecy is even the one from The Way of the Warrior.

(Dance Music!)

However, The Way of the Warrior used all of these ingredients in service of a larger plot, and as a vehicle to explore themes about Klingon culture. The Way of the Warrior sketched a portrait of an empire in rapid decline, manufacturing a war in order to hold themselves together. It was a potent allegory for the existential tensions of the late nineties, of a world without rigidly defined enemies. Indeed, The Way of the Warrior arguably only grew more relevant in the years that followed, foreshadowing the War on Terror.

In contrast, Prophecy is an absolute shambles of a script. Structurally, it is a disaster. The teaser is incredibly limp, leaning on nothing more than the presence of the Klingons to catch the audience’s attention. However, the biggest problem is the climax of the episode. Prophecy sets up the idea that the child of Paris and Torres will be a messiah figure for these Klingons. However, the rigidly episodic structure of Voyager means that the show cannot set up this idea and wait to pay it off when the baby is born. It has to be set up and paid off in a single episode.

Warriors… come out a play-ay!

In an interview with Cinefantastique, staff writer Bryan Fuller explained that this was writers wanted to do something unconventional with that set-up:

“The child being a chosen one was something that we came up with early on. Ken came up with the disease, that they were dying from this mutant strain of something in their Klingon DNA. That’s what we were looking for all along, was a way for the baby to actually be a saviour, but not in a conventional way.”

There is nothing wrong with doing something unconventional. Indeed, with a story about prophecy, doing something unconventional is often the only path to a satisfying pay-off.

No nehrets.

The issue is how Prophecy chooses to pay off that plot point. The climax of the episode reveals that the as-yet-unnamed-child happens to carry the cure for an illness that the Klingons have contracted – “the nehret.” This is a questionable enough story choice of itself. Given that the Klingons left Qo’nos long before Voyager left Deep Space Nine, and given the peace treaty between the Klingons and the Federation, it seems likely that the EMH would recognise “the nehret” if it were an existing medical condition.

Instead, it is implied that “the nehret” is something that the Klingons have picked up along the way, whether simply through their extended journey or as a result of the somewhat restricted gene pool. As such, it makes the prophecy at the heart of the episode seem particularly cruel and pointless. If the Klingons had never left Qo’nos, it seems highly unlikely that they would have been infected in the first place, and so they never would have needed a “Kuvah’Magh” to save them.

Not for the faint hearted.

However, this is not the biggest structural issue with the episode. The biggest structural issue of the episode is that “the nehret” is not even mentioned until thirty minutes into a forty-odd-minute episode. The concept is not properly seeded. The first indication that something is seriously wrong and that there is any urgency to the eponymous prophecy comes when T’Greth collapses during his fight with Paris. It seems like Prophecy introduces the concept of “the nehret” at the last minute so that it can be solved within the next act.

There is a frustrating laziness to all of this, a transparent cynicism to the logic holding the episode together. Prophecy seems built around external needs rather than internal logic. The Klingon ship is destroyed, so the Klingons are all beamed on board Voyager. The Klingons are revealed to be suffering from an illness, so they can all be cured. T’Greth stages a revolt against Kohlar, so the episode can have the obligatory Klingons-versus-Starfleet action climax. None of these beats feel especially organic or well developed, just items on a checklist.

“We’ve never thought of the nehret as a disease. It’s more like old age. It just kills you randomly, at any age, without any warning, and is contagious. But, aside from all that, it is exactly like old age.”

It does not help matters that Prophecy approaches the Klingons in a manner very typical of Voyager. Generally, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had a genuine curiousity about the workings of Klingon culture, even if those workings could be unsettling or troubling. In contrast, Voyager seems content to gawk and point. Touring the mess hall, Neelix tells Janeway, “Some of the Starfleet people have been complaining about the smell.” Janeway responds, “Maybe we can adjust the environmental controls to filter out the musk.”

It’s a rather uncomfortable exchange, particularly because the episode is so casual about it. It reflects a certain strain of casual racism. Historically, it evokes Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that African Americans have “a very strong and disagreeable odour.” To pick a few recent examples: Fergus Wilson’s refusal to rent his property to “coloured” tenants “because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy”; Israeli minister Gideon Ezra’s observation that Arab immigrants should be used as security guards because only they have “the sense of smell needed to smell other Arabs.”

Neelix has a nose for racism.

This is indicative of how Voyager approaches other cultures, as something exotic and different, always juxtaposed Starfleet as the accepted “norm.” After all, every character on the ship wears a Starfleet uniform, with the exceptions of Seven, Icheb, Naomi and Neelix. Episodes like Learning Curve and Good Shepherd demonstrated that Voyager found it impossible to imagine any characters on board the ship who did not conform to those expected parameters. As such, the Klingons in Prophecy are treated as especially exotic, rather than as just another culture.

At one point in Prophecy, Paris alludes to the conversation that he had with Torres in Lineage about how suffocating it could be to live as an alien in an overwhelmingly conformist environment like Voyager. However, Prophecy seems to suggest that Torres was being a hypocrite in that earlier episode, and that she no longer yearns for the multiculturalism that she claimed to want for her daughter. “I thought you’d be glad to have other Klingons around,” Paris states. “You’ve always told me how uncomfortable it is being the only one.”

“See, living on a majority human ship is not so bad, is it? I’ve never told you that you smell bad.”

As with Lineage itself, that conversation seems to miss the substance of Torres’ complaints. After all, one of the more consistent aspects of Torres’ character through episodes like Faces and Day of Honour was that she had never been entirely comfortable with her Klingon heritage. Paris knows this, having witnessed this firsthand in both cases. As such, it is entirely possible for Torres to be skeptical of the suffocating conformity of Voyager and to also be uneasy around Klingons, in large part due to internalising that sense of conformity and resentment.

This unfortunate subtext plays through the episode’s most prominent subplot, focusing on the Ch’Rega’s pursuit of Kim. After all, the Klingons are a fictional species. The casual racism that the crew demonstrate towards the Klingons has no real impact on the world, because Klingons do not actually exist. However, it does speak to a larger worldview, one better demonstrated by the show’s portrayal of the dynamic between Kim and his would-be suitor.

Having a blast.

The subplot hinges on the now-familiar joke about Klingons being very aggressive in their romantic pursuits, an idea seeded as early as Riker’s time on board the Pagh in A Matter of Honour and later developed in episodes like Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places. The franchise has made it very clear that Klingons – especially Klingon women – are very physically aggressive during the act of love-making. It’s a somewhat tired cliché of the exotic Amazonian, but it is part of franchise lore. However, what is interesting is how Prophecy applies it.

Prophecy derives a little humour from Ch’Rega’s aggression, but she is barely defined as a character. She has a total of four lines in the episode, and only one of them is spoken directly to Kim. The bulk of the humour in the episode is delivered at Kim’s expense. As far as Prophecy, the joke isn’t so much that Ch’Rega is hyper-aggressive and assertive compared to what culture expects from a woman, the joke is that Kim is much more demure and passive than standard depictions of masculinity have conditioned audiences to expect.

Sizing him up.

This plays into rather uncomfortable but ubiquitous stereotypes about Asian men. As Vincent Ann explains, pop culture has a long history of emasculating Asian men:

When I asked the sample of Asian-Americans at Wash U how the expectations and stereotypes differed for Asian-American men, both the men and women picked up on several key stereotypes. First, that Asian-American men are expected to be more “quiet, timid, and passive” than other men and “won’t stand up for themselves.” Second, that Asian-American men are stereotyped to be short and skinny rather than to fit hegemonic expectations of being built and muscular. Third, that Asian- American men “lack confidence” and are of the “awkward, nerdy, study type.” Finally, they noted that Asian-American men “lack game” in the realm of dating and may even be stereotyped as unattractive and unromantic. “Asian men are told they’re not sexual creatures, said one respondent. “They can be smart, intelligent, [and] good at martial arts… but no movies ever portray us in a romantic or sexual light.” The strength of these stereotypes led another respondent to ask, “Is there even an expectation for Asian men to be masculine?”

We have to understand that degrading media images are not solely to blame for these stereotypes. From early laws that forbade Asians from marrying whites, to race riots, and to the forced internment of Japanese- Americans during WWII, America has had a long history of white hostility, discriminatory legal practices, violence, and negative attitudes towards Asian-Americans. Images in media have simply reflected, and continue to reflect, some of the lasting impacts of these attitudes.

The portrayal of Kim in Prophecy feels very much of a piece with these racial stereotypes about the virility of Asian American men.

Ch’Raging hormones.

Kim is portrayed as completely incapable of dealing with Ch’Rega’s affections. He lacks even the assertiveness to tell her that he has no interest. It should be noted that while Klingon romance has been portrayed as violent and aggressive, it is not outside the capacity of other species to handle. B’Elanna Torres is the product of such a union. Jadzia Dax enjoyed a long relationship with Worf. Even in Prophecy, the writers seek to underscore Kim’s esmaculation by having Neelix romance Ch’Rega in his stead.

After all, Neelix has hardly been presented as the epitome of conventional masculinity on Voyager. Following the end of his relationship with Kes in Warlord, Neelix has largely been consigned to the role of caregiver. Neelix is the member of the crew who tends to the children in episodes like Once Upon a Time or The Haunting of Deck Twelve. As such, it might be tempting to look at Neelix’s successful romance of Ch’Rega in Prophecy as a subversion of that stereotype, a reminder that unconventionally masculine men can be virile and amorous.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve read the Twilight books. This is perfectly normal.”

Unfortunately, the episode seems to treat Neelix’s intervention as a joke at Kim’s expense. In From the Gilded Ghetto to Hollywood, Darcy Coover argued that the stereotypical portrayals of asexual Asian American men were so ubiquitous that Kim might almost seem like a counter-example:

In a 2003 interview, Wang pointed out that Asian men are rarely portrayed in romantic roles, particularly opposite non-Asian women, saying, “I’m very proud to say that I’m one of the few Asian American male actors who has been able to kiss a woman onscreen.” Indeed, Chinese American men before Bruce Lee were almost always presented as desexualized at best, and effeminate at worse. The early stereotypes of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan did not fall into the latter category, but the classic depiction of the Chinese coolie lounging on pillows in a Chinatown opium den nearly always did, conjuring the image of the exotic, emasculated, and high-voiced Oriental. While Jachinson Chan has noted that Bruce Lee did much to challenge these stereotypes by presenting the image of a strong, virile (and often bare-chested) Chinese man, he rarely engaged in any direct romantic or sexual liaisons onscreen. Moreover, the same is true even for stars of later decades. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat none ever seems to end up with the girl, particularly if the girl is white. Garrett Wang’s excitement at his character’s onscreen dalliances, then, is understandable. Additionally, Wang said in the same interview, “I’m positive I had the first kiss onscreen between an Asian man and an African American woman.”

There is certainly some truth in that. Indeed, Kim has probably had more romance-of-the-week plotlines than any other Voyager regular. This might be considered a good thing, an affirmation of the character’s sexual agency and autonomy.

A biting response.

However, the substance of these romances should be considered. Kim might have a few romance-of-the-week plots, but the character of these flirtations is different than those that characterised Kirk on the original Star Trek or Riker enjoyed on The Next Generation. Indeed, they are also different from the romances that Paris or Chakotay have on Voyager. Most of the Kim-centric romances on Voyager focus on the character being very much out of his depth and completely incapable of handling such an attraction or a relationship.

Voyager has acknowledged this. In Ashes to Ashes, Paris even starts to rhyme off Kim’s romantic embarrassment. He cites Kim’s attraction to a hologram in Alter Ego, a hologram that turns out to be an eavesdropping alien that develops her own attraction on Tuvok. He also references Kim’s attraction to Seven of Nine, memorably leading to a sequence in which Seven’s candour about sexuality reduces Kim to a stuttering wreck in Revulsion. It should be noted that Ashes to Ashes finds Kim falling in love with the reanimated corpse of an old friend.

Another fine mess Neelix has gotten us into.

Even then, Paris misses a few headlines. Most notably, Favourite Son found Kim lured onto a space station by a race of beautiful women so that his DNA might be harvested. In The Disease, Kim decides to pursue an illicit affair with an alien woman, but ends up immediately contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Taken together, these stories portray Kim as clumsy and virginal figure, a young man with no sexual experience or agency, easily seduced and romanced, and prone to make bad decisions as a result.

This characterisation is markedly different than how Voyager approaches the romantic lives of other male characters. Paris might be a convenient patsy in Ex Post Facto, but his ill-advised dalliance with the wife of an alien official is portrayed as cynical rather than naive. Chakotay’s romance with Kellin in Unforgettable is treated as much more earnest, but also given a lot more weight; the episode assumes that both parties have some idea what they are doing. Similarly, even Chakotay’s flirtation with Archer in In the Flesh feels knowing and sophisticated.

“You have no idea how much paperwork Harry’s sex life generates.”

In contrast, Kim is consistently portrayed as a character who lacks any real sexual assertiveness, compared to his male peers. This is especially true in Prophecy, when he finds himself in Sickbay following an encounter with Ch’Rega. Explaining the bite mark on his cheek, Kim states, “She wasn’t provoked. She was aroused.” The EMH notes, “I’m not surprised. I’ve studied the section on Klingon mating rituals in their cultural database.” Kim pleads, “Then maybe you can tell me how to convince a female twice my size that I’m not interested.”

Of course, Kim has just been subject to a sexual assault. Prophecy is leaning into the familiar and offensive comedic cliché that it is impossible for a woman to sexually assault a man. (This would certainly be in keeping with the politics of sexual assault articulated in Retrospect.) Prophecy plays this as a punchline, treating Kim’s helplessness as an illustration of how emasculated he is. Indeed, the EMH doesn’t even seem to take Kim’s request for assistance seriously.

Impressing the importance of the matter upon him.

“As I understand it,” the EMH states, “you have two options. Kill her, or mate with her. Since the first option is clearly unacceptable…” The EMH prepares “authorisation” for Kim to have sex with Ch’Rega, which is another joke at the expense of Kim’s sexual agency; not only is Kim unable to ward off the advances of a sexually aroused woman, he also has to fill out paperwork in order to sleep with her. More than that, he doesn’t want to sleep with her, so he has to be directed to. The EMH helpfully adds, “Be sure to get the Captain’s approval as well.”

Kim’s problem is eventually solved by the timely intervention of Neelix, the episode suggesting that Neelix is more of a conventional man than Kim will ever be. Even this is something of a joke playing on conventional ideas of masculinity, where hints of subversion give way to more stereotypical depictions. The romance between Neelix and Ch’Rega in Prophecy obvious echoes Quark’s courtship of Grilka in Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places, but Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places at least develops both characters.

Kahless is more.

As David Greven argues in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, the romance between Neelix and Ch’Rega in Prophecy is the broadest sort of sexual farce, reduced to absurdity:

Anticipating this heteroerotic coda to his character arc, that season’s Klingon episode Prophecy – in which Voyager accomodates a huge bunch of Klingons, and Neelix and Tuvok must be bunkmates – has Neelix presumably making passionate violent love to a ferocious Klingon woman, a scene that might be seen as spellbinding in its total distinction from the previous four seasons’ depictions of Neelix as wholly sexless. Yet even this depiction of carnal explosiveness is handled with pointed ambiguity. The Klingon woman with the voracious sexual appetite has been hounding Harry Kim; Neelix relieves Kim (who is wholly uninterested in her) of the burden of her attentions. When Tuvok, in the comic resolution to the scene, discovers Neelix and the Klingon woman supposedly in flagant delicto, Neelix is fully clothed, albeit dishevelled. We have no way of knowing if any kind of sexual experience occurred between them, or if merely a violent bout of Klingon wrestling had taken place. This scene is comic, a sexual burlesque. As the Amazonian, feral Klingon woman looms above his relatively puny frame, Neelix is presented not as the phallic pursuer but as the butt of a sexual joke.

Even allowing for this, the largely desexualised Neelix is still presented as a much more conventionally masculine figure – more assertive, more virile, more confident – than Kim.

This whole religious prophecy seems pretty holey, if you ask me.

Taken together, all of this feels clumsy and ill-judged, an example of how the casual attitudes incorporated into the characters’ views of different culture also echo through the show’s own use of racial and social stereotypes about the minorities within the primary cast. The show’s portrayals of Tuvok and Torres are similarly loaded. Episodes like Repression play with racially coded fears about the perceived emotional volatility African American men. Similarly, Torres is a walking embodiment of the “hot blooded latina” archetype.

Prophecy is another misfire from the show as it prepares to enter the home stretch, an episode rich with potential and driven by some great ideas, but which ultimately fails do anything interesting with either. The result is an episode that feels like it is just marking time, checking “Klingon episode” off some vast “to do” list as the series approaches its conclusion.

3 Responses

  1. While I am kind of tired of Klingon episodes, found some aspects of this episode and the last one to be quite redundant in comparison to “Barge of the Dead”, and the genetic engineering using human DNA to be a precursor to ENT season 4, I must admit that this show worked fine as some sort of ironic closure of B’Elanna’s arc. Not great, but at least you can see the attempt. That made me accept even the ludicrous idea of Voyager accidentally stumbling over a Klingon ship in the vastness of the Delta Quadrant.

  2. I found it quite odd that Torress goes from nearly committing unspeakable crimes against her child in the same of internalized racism, and self-loathing, to praying with a fellow Klingon and grunting over chest-thumping stories with other Klingons in the mess hall. These two stories are separated by a mere two episodes. Do the Klingons find out the mother of their messiah tried to erase its Klingon genes out of disgust at their race? What would they do if they found this out?

    I kind of wished the Klingons had managed to seize the ship and Voyager turned into “Star Trek: Qapla'” I’d be fine tuning in to watch a crew of warriors roam the Delta Quadrent.

    I remember watching this episode when it first aired when I was a teen, and shouting at Kim to let the Klingon Amazon ‘have her way’ with him. The dude supposedly plays BDSM games with the Delaney sisters in the holodeck. This should be his wildest dream come true. It made no sense.

    I have to assume Neelix spent an entire night having sex over and over with the Klingon woman. That’s what I think we’re expected to believe.

    It basically feels like Voyager is already in the Alpha Quadrant, or just over the horizon from it. The writers can’t wrap this series over fast enough.

    One new Klingon cultural world-building fact added in this episode was mandated prayer mat prayers each day, which evokes Islamic religion. This should have been something Worf would have been devoted to, but we’ve never heard of it. It also has massive implications. I found it frustrating how casually this was written in. I wonder what Ronald D. Moore would have said if he’d still been around.

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