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Star Trek: Voyager – Natural Law (Review)

Natural Law represents another vaguely nostalgic entry in the final season of Star Trek: Voyager.

Most superficially, Natural Law evokes the vague New Age sentiment that defined a lot of the early episodes focusing on Chakotay – episodes like The Cloud or Tattoo. It feels entirely appropriate that Chakotay should be part of the away team to encounter the Ventu, as the presentation of the Ventu evokes a lot of the early approach to Chakotay’s own Native American heritage; a romanticised ideal of a more primitive culture. In fact, it seems entirely plausible that the aliens who build the shield to protect the Ventu – the mysterious “Species 312” – might in fact be the same white-skinned aliens encountered in Tattoo.

“I can see what’s happening, and they don’t have a clue…”

More specifically, though, Natural Law represents a familiar archetypal Star Trek episodes. Although the words are not actually spoken within the episode itself, Natural Law is pretty much a textbook “Prime Directive” episode. It belongs to that familiar subset of stories about the crew encountering a group of primitive aliens affected by a piece of outside technology, and trying to weigh their obligation to help that society with their desire not to directly intervene. The Ventu are a familiar native archetype, albeit one handled with a little more grace and dignity than the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI in The Apple.

There is something very interesting in Natural Law, particularly in the context of the seventh season’s recurring fascination with tying Voyager back to the roots of the Star Trek franchise with references to Kirk in episodes like Q2 and Friendship One. Ironically, Natural Law only underscores how far removed Voyager is from the original Star Trek. Kirk often struggled to justify bending the Prime Directive to liberate societies trapped in oppressive circumstances and kept in arrested development. In contrast, Natural Law strains to justify the washing of the crew’s hands. More than that, Natural Law reveals the true purpose of the Prime Directive has nothing to do with primitive cultures.

The rise and falls…

The premise of Natural Law is interesting. Voyager was a very nineties television series, and its anxieties and interests were often framed by that context. The nineties were an era of increased globalisation and connectivity, as the world seemed to get smaller and communities grew closer together. These anxieties rippled through Voyager in a variety of ways; most notable with the reintroduction of the Borg in Unity, but also in its anxieties about immigration in Displaced or refugees in Day of Honour. Even beyond that, Voyager was often fascinated with the flow and processing of information, often overwhelming the cast; The Swarm, The Voyager Conspiracy, Infinite Regress.

Natural Law gets at one of the strange fascinations of the globalised world, those rare cultures that have managed to preserve their identities and autonomy in an increasingly interconnected world. The Ventu evoke those isolated tribes in remote parts of the world. The “uncontacted” tribes in the Amazon are one such example, communities that have been observed but have yet to interact with outsiders. There are also examples to be found in New Guinea; ironically enough, in keeping with the name of the unseen aliens at work in Natural Law, there are three hundred and twelve tribes living on West Papua.

Well, Chakotay had to be a breakout character somewhere.

In many cases, laws exist to protect these indigenous tribes from outside interference. According to Doctor S. Venkatanarayanan, the Indian legal system works hard to protect such isolated communities from outside interference:

Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tribal Panchsheel were the guiding principles after Independence to formulate policies for the indigenous communities of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Based on them, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation (ANPATR), 1956 was promulgated by the President. This Regulation protected the tribals from outside interference, specified the limits of reserved areas and said no land in a reserved area shall be allotted for agricultural purposes or sold or mortagaged to outsiders. Those violating the land rights of the tribals were to be imprisoned for one year, fined ₹1,000, or both. Despite this, there continued to be constant interactions between the tribals and settlers/outsiders.

A policy of non-intervention was also proposed by an expert committee on the directions of the Supreme Court. The committee submitted its report in July 2003. The trigger for this was a 1999 petition that sought to bring the Jarawas into the mainstream. The committee recommended protecting the Jarawas from harmful contact with outsiders, preserving their cultural and social identity, conserving their land and advocated sensitising settlers about the Jarawas.

In 2005, nearly 50 years after it was promulgated, the ANPATR was amended. The term of imprisonment as well as the fine were increased. However, in the years in between, the Andaman Trunk Road had already ensured increased interaction with the tribals. In the case of the Jarawas, this had led to the spread of diseases, sexual exploitation, and begging. Similarly, a policy for protecting the Shompen tribes was released only in 2015. However, in spite of the 2005 amendment, videos of commercial exploitation of the Jarawas in the name of “human safaris” were widely reported in the media. Following this, the government amended the ANPATR yet again in 2012, creating a buffer zone contiguous to the Jarawa tribal reserve where commercial establishments were prohibited, and regulating tourist operators. Despite all these amendments and provisions, there continue to be numerous reports of civilian intrusion into the Jarawa tribal reserve.

There are tribal communities this live in isolation around the world, such the Sentinelese who live on North Sentinel Island. In November 2018, John Allen Chau was killed by inhabitants of the island after breaking the law in an effort to convert them to Christianity.

Ventu, vini, vici.

Natural Law offers a very romanticised depiction of this sort of isolation. In fact, the episode goes out of its way to avoid any potentially uncomfortable readings or subtext of this isolation. When Janeway discovers that Chakotay and Seven are trapped inside an energy shield, she contacts the local authorities. The local authorities are quick to assert that they are not responsible for placing the barrier around the Ventu. “It was erected by aliens hundreds of years ago,” the ambassador helpfully explains. “They haven’t been back. The technology is a mystery to us.” This is a very canny narrative choice on the part of Natural Law.

If the Ledosians had been responsible for erecting that force field around the Vendu, the metaphor at the heart of the episode would become uncomfortable. The Ventu would become a metaphor for indigenous populations placed in “reservations” by colonial authorities. It would turn Natural Law into an uncomfortable metaphor exploring the actual treatment of the Native Americans, instead of glossing over that history of imperialism and violence like The Cloud or Tattoo had done. Then again, given how awkwardly Journey’s End turned out, this act of narrative evasion might have been for the best.

Chakotay has his reservations about this plot.

By embracing the idea of “ancient astronauts”, Natural Law is able to avoid the spectre of the genocide of the Native Americans. This is very much in keeping with how Voyager approaches issues like this. Dating back as early as Caretaker, Voyager defined itself as a metaphor of the classic American frontier. The Kazon were presented as untrustworthy violent savages from a John Ford western, right down the abduction of a pretty young white girl. Chakotay was cast as a loyal sidekick to the heroes, with early episodes like Cathexis or Initiations exoticising his spiritual beliefs rather than actually developing or exploring his character.

That nostalgia explains a lot about the characterisation of the Ventu. The Ventu are an idealised indigenous population, in contrast to the brutality of the Kazon. They represent a more pure primitive perspective. They exist in isolation from forces like colonialism or imperialism. The crew have a clean slate in interacting with them. They are a romantic ideal of an indigenous population, one that has been preserved and protected, and so allowed to flourish without outside intervention. This is a take that feels very much in keeping with the New Age sensibility that informed a lot of Michael Piller’s later work on the Star Trek franchise, especially Star Trek: Insurrection.

A bungle in the jungle.

Of course, the “ancient astronauts” element that links Tattoo and Natural Law is problematic of itself. As Julien Benoit argued, these sorts of ancient astronaut theories exist in order to robe ancient (and inevitably non-white) civilisations of their agency:

Africa has an extensive archaeological record, extending as far back as 3.3 million years ago when the first-ever stone tool was made in what is today Kenya. The continent’s cultural complexity and diversity is well established; it is home to the world’s oldest-known pieces of art. And, of course, it is the birth place of modern humans’ ancient ancestors, Homo sapiens.

Despite all this evidence, some people still refuse to believe that anyone from Africa (or anywhere in what is today considered the developing world) could possibly have created and constructed the Giza pyramids or other ancient masterpieces. Instead, they credit ancient astronauts, extraterrestrials or time travellers as the real builders.

Well, you may ask, so what? Who cares if relatively few people don’t believe the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids? What’s the harm? Actually, there is great harm: firstly, these people try to prove their theories by travelling the world and desecrating ancient artifacts. Secondly, they perpetuate and give air to the racist notion that only Europeans – white people – ever were and ever will be capable of such architectural feats.

Tattoo steered into the worst possible implications of this, revealing that Native American culture originated from a bunch of space-travelling white people. Natural Law at least avoids the more overtly racist aspects of the theory. However, Natural Law still uses it to deny the Ventu any agency in a narrative that is nominally about them.

A sign of the times.

Notably, the Ventu lack a voice. To be fair, Natural Law makes it clear that they can communicate through sign language. Recurring Star Trek guest star Albie Selznick is credited as choreographer, which makes sense. Selznick’s previous credits include the Tak Tak Consul in Macrocosm. That is notable because the Tak Tak also communicated through gestures, appearing in the teaser as a nice thematic foreshadowing of the original intention to film Macrocosm as a mostly-silent episode. The sign language of the Ventu is interesting to watch, and adds a level of visual storytelling to Natural Law that is very welcome, but it also draws attention to the episode’s biggest issue.

The Ventu have absolutely no say in what happens to them. They lack a voice, both literally and metaphorically. This is one of the more interesting aspects of Natural Law, because it pushes the subtext of the Prime Directive to the surface. The Prime Directive is not really about helping other societies. It is not a rule that exists to ensure the best possible outcome for any alien species that happens to come in contact with the Federation. Instead, the Prime Directive is ultimately about the Federation itself. It is about ensuring that the Federation feels good about itself, rather than about pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

“We, who are about to leave, salute you.”

To a certain extent, this is inevitable. As Edward Clint argues, the entire concept of the Prime Directive has derived from a very particular social and historical context:

The Prime Directive is almost surely a reflection on the tragedies of the imperial age in which western European nations invaded, destroyed, and exploited many peoples of the rest of the world as well as the proxy wars fought by the United States against communism. This imperialism and warfare was largely justified by an ethnocentric bigotry, an assertion of racial superiority and the judgment of indigenous peoples as inferior. The Prime Directive articulates one form of liberal response to this: stop interacting entirely, and stop using judgment of any kind. The latter sentiment is known as moral relativism, the notion that nothing is inherently good or bad and can only be judged from inside a culture and not from without or between. This response is intellectually lazy, refusing to consider that intervention can have a mix of effects, and in fact can’t always be avoided no matter the intention. It is nothing we should celebrate. It leads, even in fiction, to immediate horrors and tragedies and is demonstrably impossible to uphold even by those fictional virtue warriors who swear by it.

The primary goal of the Prime Directive is not to stop bad things from happening or to minimise their impact. The primary goal of the Prime Directive is to avoid directly implicating the Federation in anything the might happen.

Deflecting any questions.

The logic is horrifying, particularly in the context of the American Century that emerged from the wake of the Second World War. Even fifty half a century removed from the Second World War, Voyager is shaped by it; just look at Phage, JetrelRemember, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, The Omega Directive. The Holocaust was an incredible human tragedy, but it unfolded in large part because other nations stood by and did nothing. Ships carrying Jewish refugees were routinely turned away. The media and the government ignored and minimised accounts of the atrocities taking place.

There is a tendency to ignore the moral obligation to act. This is evident in the modern world, in frequent protests against refugees fleeing genuinely horrific oppression. It is reflected in a push towards global isolation, and away from international obligations. To be fair, a certain skepticism of foreign intervention is justified and necessary. The origin of the “Prime Directive” in the original Star Trek coincided with national anxiety over the Vietnam War. Notably, Natural Law is the last “Prime Directive” episode to air before the War on Terror began, which would create a whole new slew of anxieties about foreign entanglements.

Comfort blanket.

However, it is possible to treat this skepticism as absolute, and to turn it into an excuse for inaction and complicity. The sort of logic at play in Natural Law is very much in keeping with that interpretation of the Prime Directive. It doesn’t actually matter what happens to the Ventu. After all, there is not a single named Ventu character and the episode’s final scenes ignore them completely. What matters is that the crew might feel guilty or responsible for something bad happening. This is the context of the final scene in the Cargo Bay. Seven confesses her anxieties. They concern her actions and responsibilities, not the fate of the Ventu. “If I’d never made those modifications…”

To be fair, this is much a structural problem as a narrative one. The script for Natural Law is credited to James Kahn and Kenneth Biller. The flow of the episode is very much in keeping with how Biller scripts Voyager. There is a sense of the episode needing to generate more story right up until the final act; the sudden addition of deadly stakes in the second half of Worst Case Scenario comes to mind, as does the ever-shifting throw-ideas-at-the-wall plotting of Demon. As such, the actual moral dilemma that forms the substance of Natural Law isn’t properly broached until the final act. So the actual moral debate in the episode is extremely rushed and incredibly light.

Huddled at the shuttle.

Notably, that debate involves the crew arguing on behalf of a species that two of them only met a few days earlier. “That barrier has to go back up,” Chakotay insists. “They’re intelligent people,” Seven counters. “Exposure to education and technology may give them better opportunities.” Chakotay is not convinced by the abstract possibility. “Can you honestly say that you know what’s better for them?” Chakotay wins the argument in the abstract; after all, this sort of first contact has rarely been advantageous to the less-advanced species. However, nobody in the room raises the obvious solution to this impasse. Why not ask the Ventu what they want?

The internal logic of Natural Law does not see this as an issue that materially impacts the Ventu, despite the fact that it very clearly does. Instead, Natural Law treats its central moral debate as an abstract debate that weighs most heavily on the primary cast. Chakotay and Seven were responsible for bringing down the barrier, which then led to first contact between the Ventu and the Ledosians. The dilemma should be centred on how to deal with the consequences of that action, to minimise the harm caused in a meaningful way. Instead, Natural Law argues that the correct moral solution to this crisis is negation; to raise the barrier as if Seven and Chakotay had never taken it down.

Into the wild.

This is a cop out and a betrayal. Anybody with any understanding of this sort of situation would see that the genie cannot go back in the bottle, that Janeway cannot hit the reset button by beaming her technology back to the ship and restoring the barrier to its previous state. The proper thing to do is to acknowledge the consequences of Chakotay and Seven’s actions and work to pursue and outcome that minimises harm on all sides. In other ways, Janeway should position herself between the Ventu and Ledosians, and ensure (at the very least) that both parties fully understand the situation and (if possible) find a resolution satisfactory to both parties.

Natural Law argues that the central purpose of a non-interference directive is to absolve the conscience of the powerful, not the rights of the weak. It is a very bleak and depressing moral prerogative, but one that largely speaks to the thematic concerns of Voyager. For all that the seventh season of Voyager aspires to be classic Star Trek, there is a strange moral vacuum at the heart of the series. There is no thirst for exploration, no desire to push the frontier outward, no wish to leave the Delta Quadrant a better place than they found it. Instead, the crew simply wish to leave the Delta Quadrant without making any mark upon it.

Shielding the native population.

There is no small irony in this, given how many earlier Voyager episodes – like False ProfitsDistant OriginLiving WitnessHope and Fear, Live Fast and Prosper and Muse – emphasised that the ship and crew had entered local myth and legend. Largely driven by departed writer Joe Menosky, earlier seasons of Voyager insisted that the characters had left an imprint on the region. Episodes like Friendship One and Natural Law reject any implicit moral authority left by that impression, that the mere presence of these characters might have had a positive impact on the inhabitants of the systems through which they passed.

Friendship One and Natural Law argue that the crew should not hope to make things better for their presence, but to minimise any impact of their presence at all. As far as the seven season of Voyager is concerned, the best way for the ship and crew to travel through the Delta Quadrant would be to keep entirely to themselves and avoid any contact with any other civilisation whatsoever. Friendship One was a brutal and cynical repudiation of the franchise’s optimism and humanism. Friendship One documented a first contact that went horribly wrong, almost destroying an entire civilisation. This was followed by a second contact that ended with the death of a supporting character.

Maps to the stars.

In the closing scene of Friendship One, Janeway and Chakotay contemplated a model of Voyager encased entirely in a glass bottle and seemed to wonder whether that might be an ideal approach for the real ship and crew to take; to reject exploration and communication because of the risks inherent. Natural Law develops this idea, with the entire crisis arising from Chakotay’s curiosity about the planet surface and escalating due to his interest in the Ventu people. Much like Friendship One insists that curiosity comes at too high a price, Friendship One does not hesitate to frame Chakotay’s desire to explore this alien world as something grotesque and monstrous.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Chakotay asks Seven. Seven responds, “A sensor analysis would have provided the necessary information.” Chakotay replies, “Just admiring the view.” The shuttle hits the energy barrier, and Chakotay and Seven end up trapped on the surface. Seven expresses her frustration directly at Chakotay, “We wouldn’t be stranded at all if you hadn’t insisted on admiring the view.” When Chakotay becomes interested in the Ventu, he suggests using them to help find the shuttle debris. “Maybe one of them could guide you,” he suggests. “I’m still trying to limit our contact with these people,” Seven replies. Chakotay insists, “The sooner you get to the deflector, the sooner we can get out of here. They know the terrain. Maybe they can get you there faster.”

(Chako)tay out of line.

Notably, Chakotay later changes his perspective. “We shouldn’t involve them,” he advises Seven later. Seven acknowledges that he has changed his tune. “Do I detect a change in attitude, Commander?” she asks. Chakotay admits, “Your concern was justified.” At the end of the episode, he apologises to Seven for his curiosity. Seven rejects his apology. “As a matter of fact, I wanted to thank you for that,” she states. “I was, but you were right. Warp Mechanics can be studied any time. The Ventu, on the other hand…” However, even this is informed by regret and guilt. “I’m concerned for their well-being,” she concedes of the Ventu, admitting that she worries about he part in taking down the shield.

As with Friendship One, this feels like a firm rejection of the importance of exploration and communication. As with Friendship One, there is a sense that the characters would be happier if they had never contact an alien race, if they had decided to mind their own business instead of indulging their curiosity. This is bleak, a firm rejection of one of the central themes of the larger Star Trek franchise, the idea that people coming together is something to be celebrated that it is possible for people to accomplish anything through cooperation and mutual understanding. Deep Space Nine is frequently accused of being cynical, but even it suggested that characters like Quark and Garak grew through their exposure to those values.

Lighten up.

Once again, Star Trek: Enterprise appears to be manifesting itself early. Enterprise existed in the shadow of the War on Terror, in the wake of the attack upon the World Trade Centre in September 2001. In episodes like Shadows of P’Jem, Minefield, Dawn and Cogenitor, it offered a portrait of the universe where the alien was scary and terrifying, and where the best thing that different cultures could do would be to leave one another alone. This was a rejection of the core humanism of the Star Trek franchise, the result of a cultural wound so deep that long stretches of the third and fourth seasons (and of Star Trek Into Darkness and even Star Trek: Discovery) would be devoted to asking what Star Trek looked like after the War on Terror.

The seventh season of Voyager has no such excuse for its cynicism. It exists before the paranoia and crisis of the War on Terror would fundamentally alter the United States’ perspective of the wider world. There is no justification for the fears and uncertainties that bubble through Voyager, the awkward insistence that the universe would be a better place if everybody kept to themselves and if people were never distracted by beautiful sights and new surroundings. Then again, all of this is baked into the premise. As Voyager approaches its conclusion, it remains ever true to itself. Voyager is about a journey backwards, not forwards. It is not about pushing the boundaries of the human experience, but retreating to comfort.

Shattered hero.

Voyager offers a very insular, very narrow ideal of the human condition, where different cultures can exist and celebrated, so long as they remain within their bubbles.

9 Responses

  1. 3. More. Episodes!

    You don’t sound as tired as I’d expect, honestly, coming near the end of this seven year long slog. Power to you.

  2. You’re so right about the coldness and emptiness of series seven Voyager. I think Berman’s selection of the dreadful Biller as head writer shows how little of a damn’ he gave by that stage.

  3. I am torn between agreeing with your review and the “ecological” parts of myself. On the one hand I found the end pathetic, where Chakotay of all people tells Seven he was glad to be back on Voyager, but the context in which he said that matters: to tell Seven she did not need to care about the danger that soon the industrialized population will find ways to circumvent the shielding. Seven seemed to be much more on the side of interventionism – to save those people against the “natural law” of exploitation. It is an intervention to prevent interventions, and I must admit that I somehow would love to have such barriers on wide parts of our planet. There would be so many places where I would welcome it, even if that meant no chance of exploration. Because whenever you explore sth, the companies are in your back. It is just a matter of time until there is no “independent” nature on this planet any more. Is humanity part of nature? Is culture? Maybe so, but still I fear the Borg-like outlook our planet is about to face.

    This whole concept of a barrier reminded me of the novel “Die Wand” by an Austrian feminist writer, obviously written in the attempt to show a woman protected from the outside, on her own, in the wild.

    One thing I do hate so much is whenever Chakotay’s past or some natives are shown this stereotypical native music starts. It is such a cliché.

    • Yep. Even when Voyager moved away from the more overt stereotyping of Chakotay, it still was fond of those ethnic stereotyping soundscapes. (The X-Files was very bad at this as well.)

  4. You make a good point about The Prime Directive being like some sort of giant liability clause, which makes sense considering the USA’s legal culture, haha.

    It’s also hard to imagine how the Prime Directive would really have much point in a galaxy with Klingons and Cardassians running around, who would have zero issues with landing on pre-Warp planets and conquering them at will. One can imagine the Federation standing by while colonial and fascist regimes just hoover up thousands of weak pre-warp inhabitable worlds.

    I note the Ventu lack any voice or agency. They’re also literally painted red so that no audience might mistake what they’re suppose to represent. This episode dances dangerously close to Tattoo-levels of tone-deafness, though it’s not quite that bad. The episode seems to be a bit of a metaphor for the Yanomami and other South American indigenous groups.

    The sub-plot with Paris was obviously inserted purely for the amusing pay-off at the end, although it made its purpose a bit too overt and clumsily.

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