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Trump Trek: How Star Trek: Voyager is Perfectly Trumpian Star Trek…

Star Trek has built up a fascinating pop culture mythology around itself. There is an interesting dissonance between that memory and the reality.

The fond memory of a thing is not the thing itself. It is a cliché to observe that the line “beam me up, Scotty” was never actually said on the original show, but many casual fans associate the phrase with the franchise. Even hardcore Star Trek fans tend to gloss over the historical record in favour of affectionate memory. Many fans remember the pointed anti-Vietnam rhetoric of A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy or The Trouble with Tribbles. Few remember the pro-Vietnam tone of Friday’s Child, The Apple or The Omega Glory.

There is a tendency to believe that Star Trek has always been progressive, that the franchise has always embraced tolerance and actively pursued diversity. However, the reality is often more complicated than that. This why certain sections of the fanbase seem to react in abject terror to concepts like “Trek Against Trump”, a campaign organised by Armin Shimerman to protest the racism and xenophobia espoused by the (then-) candidate Donald Trump. One would imagine that rejecting sexism, racism, white nationalism would be a no-brainer for fandom, but it was not.

Indeed, this reactionary strain of fandom has come up time and again in the context of Star Trek: Discovery. Certain vocal sections of the fan base have objected to the diversity of the primary cast, despite the fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably had a much more diverse ensemble. The backlash has reached the point that the cast have had to actually give interviews that racism is a very bad thing and that the franchise is very much about tolerance and understanding. Similarly, the news that the series would be overtly political has rattled some cages in fandom.

In theory, these reactions should be shocking. The Star Trek franchise has carefully cultivated a reputation for liberalism and idealism. Indeed, the Federation is quite explicitly socialist, something hinted at in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and explicitly confirmed in Star Trek: First Contact. On a more fundamental level, the franchise is about people from different cultures and with different values coming together to work in common purpose. It seems reasonably fair to argue the franchise would disagree with concepts like “the Muslim Ban” or “the Transgender Service Ban.”

However, the truth is that there has always been a reactionary streak lurking within the franchise. And nowhere has that reactionary streak been stronger than in Star Trek: Voyager, bleeding over into the creation and first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Profit and Lace (Review)

Profit and Lace is a disastrous misfire, a late-season catastrophe that many would consider to be the absolute nadir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. At best, it is an episode that belongs in conversation with Meridian, Prophet Motive, Let He Who Is Without Sin… and The Emperor’s New Cloak. It is a very bad piece of television. It could reasonably be argued that the toxicity of Profit and Lace is not even quarantined. The episode is so bad that it becomes a retroactive taint upon Deep Space Nine‘s attempts to develop and flesh out the Ferengi.

Some of the show’s best episodes focus on the Ferengi characters, like House of Quark or Family Business or Little Green Men or The Magnificent Ferengi, not to mention all manner of very solid stories like The Nagus or Bar Association or Body Parts. The writers on Deep Space Nine did a tremendous job developing and humanising the Ferengi, but the late one-two punch of Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak erases all of that good will. Suddenly, the Ferengi are appearing in episodes as tone-deaf and ill-advised as The Last Outpost.

How Ishka got her groove back.

There are any number of reasons why Profit and Lace is so horrible. On a very basic level, it is a comedy episode that is simply not funny. The script is built around jokes that were already tired by the standards of fifties Hollywood, but refuses to do anything interesting or compelling with them. It is uncomfortably backwards-looking and regressive, its sexual politics feeling horribly outdated. The direction veers wildly between something approaching earnest world-building and broad slapstick, resulting a tonal mismatch that is toxic to the touch.

Profit and Lace is a stinker, by just about any measure.

A Quarky installment.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Gift (Review)

The Gift belongs to a very particular subgenre of Star Trek episodes.

It is an episode that fits comfortably alongside the other second stories of the other fourth seasons, alongside Family on Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Visitor on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Home on Star Trek: Enterprise. It is a relatively quiet and contemplative piece, more rooted in character than plot. In fact, very little of note happens during the episode, even as it is positioned at an important point in the larger run of Star Trek: Voyager following Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II.

Things come to a head.

Things come to a head.

As with FamilyThe Visitor and HomeThe Gift is a breather episode following a more epic adventure. As with Family and Home, The Gift is explicitly about working through the consequences of earlier episodes. Family allowed Jean-Luc Picard to work through the trauma of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, while Home provided an opportunity for Jonathan Archer to make sense of everything that happened between The Expanse and Zero Hour. (Let’s not worry too much about Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II.)

The Gift is an episode of contrasts, driven by the demands of the series rather than its own distinct plot. It is very heavily serialised, playing almost as the third part of Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II; much like Family played as the third part of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. However, there is something very cynical in the use of serialisation in The Gift, as the episode rather transparently exists to transition away from where the show was at the end of Scorpion, Part II towards a more sustainable status quo.

Kes of death to an established character.

Kes of death to an established character.

The Gift is also a tale of arrivals and departures. It is an episode about introducing Seven of Nine to the cast of Voyager, establishing her character arc and setting up her journey across the rest of the series building on her separation from the Borg Collective in Scorpion, Part II. At the same time, it is an episode about the departure of Jennifer Lien from Voyager, bidding farewell to Kes as a result of her exposure to “Fluidic Space” in Scorpion, Part II. There is something quite poetic in that set-up.

However, The Gift is just as much an episode of extremes in terms of quality. The story focusing on Janeway and Seven of Nine is rivetting and compelling, but the thread focusing on Kes plays almost as an afterthought. More than that, the episode’s final act plays as a gigantic cop out, another example of Voyager retreating from some of the bolder ideas in its core concept. The result is a curate’s egg of an episode, a reminder of Voyager‘s discarded potential.

Breakout character.

Breakout character.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Favourite Son (Review)

Favourite Son feels like the culmination of something that has been festering across the third season of Star Trek: Voyager.

The Star Trek franchise is generally regarded as progressive and forward-thinking. There is some debate to be had about whether this is an accurate summary of the franchise, given some of the creative decisions made over the course of its half-century run. However, there are times at which the franchise feels particularly liberal and points at which it feels particularly reactionary. A product of the mid-nineties, running through to the turn of the millennium, Voyager tends to feel very conservative in places.

This is a little bit what watching the episode feels like.

This is a little bit what watching the episode feels like.

In the second season, this reactionary tendency played out through the treatment of the Kazon in episodes like Initiations and Alliances. In the third season, with the Kazon long gone, it seems that Voyager has turned its reactionary gaze upon its female cast members. To be fair, the show’s first two seasons had any number of unfortunate creative decisions when it came to various female characters. Most notably, the decision to turn Seska into a baby-crazed maniac in Manoeuvres did not bode for the first female-led Star Trek series.

Nevertheless, a misogynist streak has manifested itself across the third season as a whole. In some cases, this has been relatively subtle; like the awkward insistence upon sexualising three-year-old Kes in the eyes of her two mentor figures in Warlord and Darkling. In other cases, this has been the entire point of the plot; like the decision to have Q try to sleep with the franchise’s first female lead and introduce his shrewish wife in The Q and the Grey or to introduce a psycho stalker in Alter Ego.

The original red wedding.

The original red wedding.

Other times, this sexist attitude has bubbled through the background of various episodes to the point that it builds to critical mass. Torres is victimised by her male colleagues over the course of three straight episodes, and none of them are held accountable; she is sexually assaulted by Vorik in Blood Fever, stunned by Chakotay in Unity, and tortured by the evil!EMH in Darkling. In each of those cases, the show seems to shrug off the violence committed by male characters against one of the show’s female leads.

All of these elements come to the fore in Favourite Son, an episode that would have been painfully retrograde had it aired as part of the original series during the sixties. Favourite Son is that most uncomfortable myth dressed up in science-fiction drag, the tale of an island of beautiful women using their sexual prowess to lure men into their clutches to emasculate them. It is terrifying to think that this episode made it to air in the late nineties.

A beautiful dream.

A beautiful dream.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Q and the Grey (Review)

The Q and the Grey is an extraordinary cynical piece of work.

What better way to mark the release of Star Trek: First Contact into cinemas than to ensure that the very next episode of Star Trek: Voyager to broadcast features a guest appearance from one of the most beloved recurring characters to have appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation? After all, the series had just led into the release of the movie with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II providing a mid-nineties reimagining of the beloved Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Pitching Q.

Pitching Q.

More than that, with Michael Piller gone from the writers’ room, the production staff had laid out a vision for the future of Voyager. The series effectively jettisoned any number of ideas that Piller had fostered over the first two seasons, from tension between Starfleet and the Maquis to the Kazon to Lon Suder to the idea of long-form storytelling to the relationship between Neelix and Kes. Instead, Voyager had decided to pitch itself as the most generic Star Trek ever, with little reference to the central premise of the series from here on out.

Indeed, The Q and the Grey is the second story in a very short space of time to make light of the crew’s journey home by refusing to press a more powerful guest star for assistance. In Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the ship’s temporally displaced return to Earth was shrugged with only a few lines of dialogue used to explain why this trip halfway across the galaxy could not be exploited to shorten their journey home. In The Q and the Grey, Janeway declines Q’s offer of assistance to get the crew home.

Bold-faced liar.

Bold-faced liar.

“My crew and I will get home,” Janeway informs Q. “We’re committed to that. But we’re going to do it through hard work and determination. We are not looking for a quick fix.” It is effectively the “building character” excuse for why Janeway doesn’t simply ask Q to return the ship home at the end of the story when the dust settles; nobody actually knows why that is, but it is probably best to offer some moral argument. The fact the Q could easily return the ship home, saving the lives of those who will die in the years ahead, is glossed over.

However, that does not matter, because Voyager has largely rejected its central premise. This no longer a series about a crew desperately longing to get home, except when it provides a convenient motivation. This is a Star Trek spin-off that is content to offer reheated leftovers inherited from The Next Generation. In this case, The Q and the Grey feels like a retread of Q Pid, a particularly uninspiring Next Generation episode. Next, Macrocosm will offer its own take on Genesis, another less than iconic Next Generation story.

And your little dog, too.

And your little dog, too.

All of this is building, to Voyager‘s most blatant and obvious inheritance from The Next Generation. The Borg are coming to Voyager, in greater numbers and higher concentration than they ever appeared on The Next Generation, as the show continues awkwardly trying on its older sibling’s clothes. It is disappointing and uninspiring by equal measure, watching Voyager abandon any pretence of its own identity in favour of something safer and more familiar. Then again, this was always a Star Trek show about longing for the comforts of home.

However, The Q and the Grey is not merely unoriginal and uninspired, it is also unfortunate. Kenneth Biller’s script is cringe-inducing and embarrassing, illogical and misogynistic. The biggest issue with The Q and the Grey is not that Voyager has settled for offering a pale imitation of The Next Generation. The problem is that that the imitation is downright terrible in its own right.

It fingers.

It fingers.

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Star Trek – Turnabout Intruder (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

This is the end.

And what an ignominious ending it is. Turnabout Intruder is the last episode of the original Star Trek run, bringing down the curtain on three years of boldly going and bidding farewell to this cast… at least for the moment. It is also an infamously terrible episode of television, in which Captain Kirk finds himself swapping bodies with the psychotic scientist Janice Lester. Lester is repeatedly categorised as insane, but her primary motivation seems to be rebellion against Starfleet’s institutional sexism.

It's full of stars.

It’s full of stars.

Seen as this is a Gene Roddenberry story, Turnabout Intruder sides entirely with Starfleet on the matter. This was the same writer and producer who would later balk at The Measure of a Man because he thought that Data should willingly surrender himself to Starfleet experimentation. So, instead of becoming an exploration of sexism and discrimination, Turnabout Intruder instead becomes a vigorous defense of institutionalised misogyny. Of course Starfleet doesn’t allow women captains, the episode suggests, they could never handle the strain!

It is an episode that really puts paid to the show’s claims of liberal progressivism, credited to a writer who would in later years cultivate a mythology of himself as the architect of that liberal progressivism. Turnabout Intruder is just about the most damning argument against the franchise’s utopian idealism imaginable, which makes it particularly insulting as a series finale.

William Shatner did not react well to news of cancelation.

William Shatner did not react well to news of cancellation.

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Star Trek – The Paradise Syndrome (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

As with Elaan of Troyius, it feels like The Paradise Syndrome casts an awfully long shadow for such a simply awful episode.

Much like Elaan of Troyius before it, The Paradise Syndrome marks out what will become a particular subgenre of Star Trek episode. To be fair, Elaan of Troyius had a much greater influence; it demonstrated that the basic “Enterprise ferries diplomats” plot from Journey to Babel was something that could be repeated, throwing a healthy helping of “our hero falls for an alien princess” into the mix. In contrast, the basic template defined by The Paradise Syndrome is a lot more specific.

Going Native American.

Going Native American.

The Paradise Syndrome effectively posits a “what if…?”, wondering what might happen if Kirk gave up adventuring to settle down into a more mundane existence. It is an idea that Star Trek: The Next Generation would revisit to much greater effect in The Inner Light. It is also the basic template employed by Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II during the final season of Star Trek: Voyager. It is very rare to point to Voyager and argue that it executed an idea much better than the original Star Trek, but this is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

The Paradise Syndrome is also (and unavoidably) a clumsy racist misfire of an episode.

"That'll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better."

“That’ll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better.”

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