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Star Trek: Voyager – Workforce, Part I (Review)

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II form an interesting two-parter.

To a certain extent, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II are overshadowed by the other “event” stories of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager. Notably, with the exception of the season premiere Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the late-season two-parter was the only multi-part seventh season story to air as a conventional two-part story, with the two halves broadcast one week apart. Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II had aired on the same night as a television movie, similar to how The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II had been broadcast during the fourth season. Endgame would air as a two-hour special episode, in the manner of other Star Trek series finales like All Good Things… or What You Leave Behind.

Labouring under false pretenses.

As such, there is something very traditional about Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, a two-parter that feels more like old-fashioned two-part Star Trek stories than many of the episodes around it. It recalls some of the mid-season two-parters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, like Birthright, Part I and Birthright, Part II or Gambit, Part I and Gambit, Part II. Unlike episodes like Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, it never feels like Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II were conceived as an “event” story. Instead, it feels like the story developed organically and that the production team realised that the story justified two separate episodes rather than being designed to provide a sense of scale or spectacle.

The seventh season of Voyager invests a lot of time and energy in chasing the sensibility of “classic” Star Trek storytelling with clumsy issue-driven narratives like Critical Care or Lineage or Repentance. Often this feels cynical and crass, particularly given how hard those episodes strain to avoid saying anything potentially controversial or divisive. As such, there is something refreshing in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, which feel very much like “old-fashioned” Star Trek storytelling in format as well as content.

Not all there.

Voyager has aged in a number of interesting ways, as a capsule of particularly nineties anxieties. Notably, the show prefigures a lot of the racial and social anxieties that define contemporary American politics, perhaps reflecting how much modern American politics owe to the politics of California in the nineties. Individual episodes have aged terribly in the decades since the show originally broadcast; Retrospect made a certain amount of sense in the context of nineties paranoia about Satanic Ritual Abuse, but plays as rape apologia when removed from that context. In some cases, it seems unfair to blame the writers and producers for this; it is hard to know how society will involve and what will happen one decade into the future, let alone two.

However, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II represent the flip side of that particular coin. These episodes have aged remarkably well, particularly once removed from their original social and political context. Modern audiences looking at Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II are likely to see biting social commentary on capitalism as a political and moral philosophy, coupled with condemnation of the sort of exploitative work practices that are far too common in the developing world. However, examining these episodes in the context of the nineties suggests a much more complicated and nuanced subtext to this story of exploited immigrant working populations.

In the neck of time.

The United States has long been a particularly attractive destination for skilled immigrants. As Caglar Ozden, Mathis Wagner and Michael Packard note in Moving for Prosperity, this was particularly true during the nineties:

In the United States, immigrants make up more than a quarter of all STEM jobs in the health care, information, finance, and education industries. Additionally, immigrants represent more than half of all computer scientists, software developers, and software engineers with master’s degrees and 60 percent of all STEM workers with PhDs. Furthermore, engineering and technology companies founded by immigrants between 1995 and 2005 produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers in 2005.

It is notable that – throughout Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II – the characters repeatedly and insistently emphasise that the crisis on Quarra is the lack of “skilled labourers.” This is not a population looking for fruit pickers, but instead looking for competent hyper-skilled individuals.

Some piece of work.

Interestingly, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II code the jobs on Quarra as distinctly working class. Most obviously, Paris finds work at a bar. However, the teaser to Workforce, Part I features workers filing their way into the “power distribution plant” in a manner that evokes classic depictions of factory workers. Similarly, Janeway spends a lot of time in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II walking around what amounts to a factory floor checking in on large pieces of mechanical equipment. As such, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II feature most of the crew working what amount to assembly line job, doing basic tasks in a repetitive manner.

That said, this may simply be the most efficient way of codifying the labour that the characters are doing. Although nineties film and television increasingly focused on officers and cubicles, from Chandler’s vaguely defined job in Friends to the absurdist hell of Office Space, there is a sense that the industrial setting of Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II is simply visual shorthand for what “work” looks like in the public imagination. It is notable that, in practice, Janeway is doing the equivalent of an office grind – inputting data and calculations into a system rather than physical labour – but it just happens to be codified in a manner that “looks like” work has traditionally been presented in popular culture. (The episode’s design and themes owe a lot to Metropolis.)

In-console-able.

In the context of the nineties, there was a palpable anxiety about the arrival of highly skilled immigrant workers into the United States. Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II were broadcast in February 2001. In May 2000, the Clinton administration had announced plans to extend visa schemes in order to recruit highly-skilled foreign staff:

Racing to keep up with a booming economy, President Clinton today proposed an increase of more than 85 percent in the number of skilled foreign workers who could be admitted to the United States to fill job openings in high-technology industries.

Mr. Clinton asked Congress to provide 200,000 visas for such workers in each of the next three years. The existing law, adopted in 1998, limits the number of such visas to 107,500 in 2001. After that, under existing law, the ceiling will fall back to 65,000 a year, the level in effect before Congressional action in 1998.

In January 1998, the Clinton administration said it did not support an increase in the number of visas. But the president, under pressure from Congress and the computer industry, agreed to support a modest increase six months later. Since then, technology companies say, the demand for computer programmers, engineers and other skilled workers has outstripped the supply and exceeded official expectations.

Of course, the United States is still an attractive destination for highly-skilled labourers. In 2017, the United States was the most desirable destination of skilled immigrants, three times more popular than its closest competitor, Germany. This is perhaps why technology companies have been among the most vocally opposed to attempts to restrict or limit immigration.

The last laugh.

Indeed, there was a very vocal opposition to this skills-based immigration during the late nineties and into the early twenty-first century. For example, Peter Brimeclow’s Alien Nation argued against even allowing skilled non-white immigrants into the country. It is notable that the Trump Administration is attempting to reduce the immigration of skilled labourers as well as refugees and civilians. (Notably, the policies of that administration have had a chilling effect on on workers seeking visas for highly skilled labourers.) Again, Voyager seems to be ahead of the curve because of how heavily influenced it is by contemporary California politics; many of the high-skilled labourers immigrating into the country during the nineties would have been hoping to work at Silicon Valley.

As such, this concern about immigration would very much have been very much in keeping with the recurring anxieties and preoccupations bubbling through Voyager. Notably, the show had long been anxious about the challenges of immigration; Displaced played like a moral panic story about the dangers of a community being “replaced” by invasive new arrivals, while Day of Honour presented battered and dispossessed refugees as cynical and exploitative freeloaders. Voyager was a series informed by racial and social anxieties, dating back to the introduction of the Kazon in Caretaker, where they served as both stand-ins for stereotypical Native Americans and as a metaphor for the highly-charged (and highly-racially-coded) fears around gang violence.

Drinking in the atmosphere.

Watching Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, it seems very obvious that the story is an allegory about coming to work in the United States. Quarra is repeatedly framed in such a way as to invite comparisons. “It’s nice to be in a place where different species get along so well,” Janeway notes, reflecting on the “melting pot” multiculturalism long associated with the United States. She adds, “There’s a lot of violence where I come from.” As such, Quarra is presented as analogous to the United States in the nineties, a safe and stable political superpower, in contrast to the turbulence unfolding around it. Janeway also notes, “I still haven’t adjusted to the weather here. It gets so cold at night.” This recalls the stereotype of migration from warmer climates.

Indeed, that conservatism is evident in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II even outside of the two-parter’s anxiety about immigrant labour. In Workforce, Part I, Paris notices that Torres has been coming into the bar and sitting by herself. He tries to strike up conversation, only to hesitate when she reveals that she is pregnant. “Still want to get together?” she asks. Paris assumes, “You’re married.” Torres replies, “No.” Paris is taken aback. “Oh.” There is a lot to unpack there, including the assertion that a woman should be married before becoming pregnant. In fact, actor Roxann Dawson has explained that this was the logic in marrying Paris and Torres in Drive before she became pregnant in Lineage. It is a small example of Voyager being socially conservative.

Reunion cute.

(To be entirely fair here, even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine adhered to these social conventions. Worf and Dax were married in You Are Cordially Invited… before deciding to have children together in Tears of the Prophets. Similarly, Sisko and Yates got married in ‘Til Death Do Us Part before Yates became pregnant in The Dogs of War. It is notable that although single parents could appear in the franchise, it was rarely in a wholesome light. On The Next Generation, Beverly Crusher raised Wesley as a widow. Worf raised Alexander after K’Ehleyr died, but promptly sent him back to Earth. In The Child, Deanna Troi was impregnated by an alien force, but the episode hardly stands as an endorsement of single-parenthood. Kira was a surrogate in Body Parts.)

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II benefit from a couple of factors, some within the control of the production team and some outside of their influence. Most obviously, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II neatly sidestep the worst of the awkward reactionary politics of Displaced or Day of Honour by telling this story from the perspective of the immigrant community, rather than treating them as a threat. Other Voyager stories tend to treat the crew as privileged, fighting off greedy aliens trying to take advantage of their kindness and to exploit their technology; the Kazon trying to steal the ship in Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II, the eponymous organisation trying to “buy” Seven of Nine in Think Tank, the slavers in Tsunkatse.

Brain-meldingly complex.

What stands out about Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II is the decision to position the crew as underdogs, as the immigrants being cynically exploited by a cruel and uncaring system. This allows Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II to be a cautionary story about the challenges of immigration that is told from the perspective of those directly affected. The audience is inherently aligned with characters like Janeway and Seven of Nine and Tuvok, so watching them go through this process means that the narrative invites the audience’s sympathies to align with the disadvantaged. It’s a clever narrative and structural choice, something common to the strongest Voyager stories about predatory Delta Quadrant aliens, like Nemesis.

This allows the writing teams of Bryan Fuller, Kenneth Biller and Michael Taylor to do something interesting with the premise. The labour migration in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II is not flawed because of racialised anxieties about immigration, but instead because of the capitalist exploitation of these immigrants by existing structures. Quarra is very much coded as a metaphor for the United States, but Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II makes it clear that this is also a commentary of systems of cynical capitalist excess, the reduction of individuals into anonymous automatons who serve as cogs in a vast and inhuman machine.

Keeping his forehead in the game.

This is not the first time that the seventh season of Voyager has broached these ideas. Notably, both Critical Care and Repentance were stories that were structured as allegories for crises unfolding in contemporary America; the nightmares of healthcare management and capital punishment at the turn of the millennium. However, Critical Care and Repentance lacked the courage of their convictions to make a meaningful criticism of systemic issues. Critical Care insisted that bureaucracy was the biggest issue with contemporary American healthcare, rather than the crass commercialism of the existing system. Repentance focused more on the individual narratives of prisoners on death row instead of exploring the broader culture.

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II at least acknowledges the exploitation of these immigrants as something resembling a systemic problem. The main culprit behind the scheme to kidnap aliens and wipe their memories to create the eponymous labour force is the barely-developed Doctor Kadan. He is not a character with a defined arc, so much as an expression of systemic corruption. “A physician with more experience would be able to see this in the larger context,” Kadan tells his young assistant. “The true public health threat is the labour shortage, and the only cure is to find more skilled workers.” He sees himself as a doctor treating an entire society. “The treatment I provide improves their lives and makes them better workers. In turn, our economy benefits.”

A cure for society’s ills.

Naturally, Kadan has his own agenda. “You’re profiting from this, aren’t you?” Ravoc demands. Kadan concedes that he does have personal financial motivation to perpetuate this exploitation. “Doesn’t a physician deserve to be compensated for his services?” Kadan inquires. When Ravoc threatens to report him, Kadan dismisses his associate’s posturing. “To whom?” he inquires. “My research is funded by the Ministry of Health.” When Ravoc suggests going to the authorities, Kadan responds, “As you may recall, the Director of Investigations was the one who ordered Amal Kotay be placed under my care.” There is a sense in which there is something deeply rotten in Quarran society, and it is pretty deeply embedded.

To be fair, Workforce, Part II does punt on this point. “Does everyone know about this?” Ravoc demands. Kadan concedes, “Not everyone. Just a few trusted associates.” In fact, the climax of Workforce, Part II stops just short of condemning Quarran society as a whole. It is revealed that the conspiracy is actually fairly isolated. Even within the “power distribution plant”, Janeway seems to suggest that the plot ran no further up the chain than the anonymous “shift supervisor” who was guilty of “acquiring workers illegally.” The status quo is maintained. Jaffan receives a promotion, working at the same plant. Quarran culture is not dismantled or unrecognisably altered.

Gripping stuff.

It even turns out that that the ambassador who was so confrontational towards Chakotay is a pretty decent person, horrified by the revelations of what has been happening under his nose and committed to seeing justice done. “If it weren’t for your efforts, this whole conspiracy might never have been uncovered,” the ambassador assures the crew. There is no acknowledgement of his own passive complicity in the scheme, having chased the ship out of orbit while warning the crew, “I suggest you look elsewhere to increase your labour supply. And if you attempt to disturb any of our citizens, we will respond with force.” As such, the earnest hopefulness of the ending of Workforce, Part II, and its faith in Quarren institutions, feels largely unearned.

Then again, this is very much in keeping with the philosophy of Voyager. In keeping with the episodic nature of the series, Voyager seems to trust societies to handle seismic social changes without missing a step. Night might be one of the best examples of this, with the crew presenting the Malon with technology that will radically alter their entire relationship with the universe. Controller Emck refuses to accept the technology because it would render his present job redundant, but the series seems to take for granted that Malon Prime would easily adapt to such a radical social shift if Emck could be convinced to bring the technology back with him. (To a certain extent, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II explore the fallout of such a decision.)

Helping Tuvok change his mind.

By the end of Workforce, Part II, one of the largest industries on Quarra has been implicated in horrific atrocities, but the crew assume that the authorities can manage the situation. However, there is no discussion about how those authorities will deal with the labour shortage at the “power distribution plant” and the presumed trickle-down implications of that. Are there homes and hospitals going without power? Are rolling blackouts affecting the planet? It is implied that this is the only facility implicated in this scheme, but what about all those other employers on the planet surface? It seems like this sort of revelation should have a profound impact upon Quarren society. However, the closing scenes of Workforce, Part II shrug off these implications with a few lines of dialogue.

There are some other uncomfortable elements of Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, most notably the fact that Kadan is controlling the workers through their “inoculations.” As with the preoccupation with the smallpox vaccine as a method of social control in The X-Files, this is a piece of nineties conspiracy theory that has aged awkwardly in the ear of anti-vaccination protests. Similarly, for a two-parter about the perils of workplace exploitation, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II are both very aggressively about everything belonging in its proper place. To a certain extent, it seems like Janeway and the crew have to leave Quarra not because they are being exploited, but because they already have a different job to do.

Don’t innoculate it until you’ve tried it.

This is most obvious in the subplot focusing on the EMH, who has implemented the “Emergency Command Hologram” programming suggested by Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy in the early sixth season. With the crew abducted by the Quarren, the EMH is forced to take command of the ship. However, once Chakotay and Kim return, there is immediate tension over the chain of command. At one point, Kim summons the EMH to astrometrics. “I appreciate your input, Doc, but I didn’t call you down here to help me scan,” Kim states. “I’m still feeling kind of queasy from that nectar.” The EMH complains, “I treated you days ago.”  Kim responds, “Whatever you did hasn’t worked. Maybe all those command subroutines are compromising your medical abilities.”

Later on the EMH makes his sense of frustration clear to Kim. “That’s something I’ve been meaning to discuss with you,” he states. “Once we’ve succeeded in this mission, and I’m certain we will, I’d like you to help me programme a new medical hologram.” Kim effectively summarises the EMH’s thoughts, “You don’t like the idea of going back to your old job now that you’ve had a taste of command.” The EMH is insistent. “I’m a skilled officer,” he assures Kim. Kim is not convinced. “No offense, doc,” he responds, “but that skill was programmed into you.” He continues, “I’m sure once you’re back to your old self, you’ll be happy being a full-time doctor again.”

A commanding presence.

This is a disheartening conversation, in large part because it explicitly mirrors what is happening on the planet surface. The EMH is suffering from “dysphoria syndrome”, a sense that he doesn’t belong in the job that he has been assigned. Given that Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II feature the crew coming to realise that they don’t belong at the “power distribution plant”, it might make sense to mirror that with the EMH realising that he doesn’t belong in the role of Chief Medical Officer. Instead, the two-parter seems to endorse Kim’s argument. This is disheartening, to the point that it seems to largely miss the central themes of the entire two-parter.

There’s a tangible sense that the EMH belongs in sick bay, that he has a function on the ship and an obligation to fulfill that function without any room to better himself or expand his expertise. The climax of Workforce, Part II finds the EMH conceding command to Kim during an attack by Quarren vessels. When the EMH can find “nothing relevant” in his “tactical database” to help the ship defeat its attackers, Kim is forced to improvise. Kim rigs a couple of escape pods to function as mines, disabling the enemy ships. The implication is clear; the EMH is not well-suited for command. Kim was correct, it would be better for the hologram to understand his role on the ship without aspiring to anything better. It’s a strange conclusion to Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II.

Lighten up.

However, time has been kind to Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II. Removed from their original context, the two episodes work rather well as a broader allegory about exploitation rather than as a tale about the risks of immigration. In particular, twenty years removed from their original broadcast, the Quarran labour practices most explicitly evoke the predatory practices of Qatar and United Arab Emirates. In 2017, Jonathan Liew reported on the conditions endured by labourers working to prepare Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022:

Alas, when you land in Doha, the goalposts have shifted slightly. This much becomes apparent when you’re handed a helmet and a high-viz jacket and told to present yourself at a building site at 6am the following morning. You’re not working as a clerk in an office, you’re building a football stadium. They’re not quite sure who told you the $400 a month figure, but it’s actually going to be $200, less miscellaneous costs. The recruitment fee isn’t $200 as you’d agreed, but $2000, plus the cost of your flight to Qatar. Your crisp new passport is confiscated. You cannot quit your job. You cannot leave the country. And before you have even clocked in for your first shift, you owe your employer the equivalent of two years’ wages.

And so quite suddenly, you are plunged into a bewildering world of alienation and exploitation, long hours and back-breaking toil in baking heat. Twelve hours a day, six days a week. At night, you sleep on a filthy bunk bed. At least your wages are getting paid on time. You’re one of the lucky ones. Talking to other migrant workers in one of the many makeshift camps dotted around the outskirts of Doha, you find others who are having money withheld for two, three, sometimes even six months.

It is a world of instability and euphemism. Co-workers keel over, and within minutes they’ve been spirited away under a thick blanket, declared “absent” and never seen again. If you try and visit a shopping mall on a rare day off, a stern-looking security guard will tell you this is a “family zone” and escort you off the premises. Really, you’re not an employee at all, but an indentured labourer. And really, you’re not building a football stadium. You’re building a mausoleum.

These are countries that need foreign labour in order to build infrastructure, and so cynically recruit them under false pretenses before trapping them and exploiting them. The labour practices in countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are horrific even beyond this use of what amounts to slave labour; this exploitation is enshrined and enabled through mechanisms such as the “kafala” system, where domestic workers cannot move to a new job without their employer’s consent.

To dine for.

Although written decades before these abuses would come to light, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II feel almost perfectly tailored to them. The Quarra are similarly cynical and exploitative of their labour force, promising them a better life in these industrial surroundings while refusing to allow them to leave. The Quarran system literally pathologises efforts of workers to assert their own identity and their own personality, describing it as “dysphoria syndrome.” This means of control is presented as a kindness rather than overt oppression, the with the supervisor insisting, “We’re already taking steps to ensure the safety of all our employees.” However, this is a velvet glove around an iron fist.

After all, even if Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II suggest that the brainwashing employed against the crew is the exception rather than the rule, it is notable that the entire planet is encased in a “shield grid” that prevents unauthorised departures. This obviously serves an important narrative function in the story, preventing Chakotay from just beaming the crew back and bringing the two-parter to an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. However, it also suggests that it is very difficult for workers to leave the planet surface after they have arrived. The Quarran government appears to tightly regulate access to the planet, but they welcome new arrivals. The only purpose of the shield is to prevent those arrivals from leaving without proper authorisation and approval.

Not-so-super-visor.

Again, this metaphor would seem heavy-handed if it weren’t entirely accidental. As Jeena Sharma noted, countries like the United Arab Emirates effectively hold their immigrant workers hostage by taking control of their passports:

“When a prospective employee is interviewed, the company rarely ever talks about the passport,” Rehani says. “The candidate also refrains from mentioning it because they don’t want to endanger their chances of securing the job.” He says that, after signing a contract, the employee must submit a passport in order to process an employment—a stage he refers to as a “twilight zone.” Because, “once they hand over their passport,” he explains, “employers have no intention of returning it.”

What follows is a period of constant follow-ups, odd rebuffs, and excuses, until finally the employee is simply told that it’s company policy for the employer to retain the passport. At that point, many choose not to report the issue as they have already set up their expenses, made promises of sending home some money, and have been assured their passport is only being held for “safekeeping.”

As with the means of social control employed by the Quarran government in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, this is cynical exploitation disguised through a combination of obfuscation and disingenuous concern.

A rad solution.

There is also a sense in which this accidental allegory seems to fit with the broader themes and context of Voyager. As a television series, Voyager has always been something of an allegory for the experience of drifting through the world beyond the United States at the end of the twentieth century; episodes like Resistance or False Profits tended to treat the Delta Quadrant as an allegory for the emerging and developing world, a space free of empires and defined by minor powers often struggling with authoritarianism or scrounging over resources. There has always been something vaguely exotic about the Delta Quadrant on Voyager, a region of space defined by tinpot dictators in episodes like Warlord and small-scale wars in episodes like Living Witness.

As such, it strangely seems more appropriate to read Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II as an allegory for something happening in the Middle East rather than as a piece of political commentary about the contemporary United States. It helps that Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II do not exoticise the Quarra, never reducing them to a clumsy racial “other” as Voyager had done with aliens like the Kazon. Because Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II were written before these stories of abuse entered popular consciousness, they are not burdened with uncomfortable racial or cultural stereotypes. Almost by luck, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II stumble into a powerful contemporary allegory.

Putting his nec(tar) on the line.

In this sense, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II play as the inverse of episodes like Retrospect. When it was originally broadcast, Retrospect played as a commentary on the heightened “satanic ritual abuse” panic of the early nighties, similar to other episodes of nineties television like Die Hand Die Verlatzt and Monster. However, in the years since, its subtext morphed into a grotesque parable about how false rape accusations can ruin the lives of a good man and that victims of sexualised abuse should be treated with skepticism and cynicism. It is heartening to see that same process working in reverse, that time smooths over some of the rough edges of the original context.

Voyager hasn’t always aged especially gracefully, especially when compared to Deep Space Nine or The Next Generation. It is nice to have a rare exception to that trend.

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