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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: Voyager – The Fight (Review)

“No, make them stop!”

The Fight is a disaster. To be fair, it’s not the worst episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It is not as overtly racist as second season offerings like Tattoo or Alliances, even if there is still something deeply uncomfortable about the way in which the show approaches Chakotay’s Native American heritage as a gateway to pseudo-mysticism. It is neither as xenophobic as Displaced nor as misogynist as Retrospect, although its approach to mental health is… questionable. Mostly, though, it is just a bad episode of television, not a spectacularly awful one.

Don’t worry. Jason Alexander will be here next week, if you can make it until then.

The problems with The Fight are somewhat typical of Voyager. It is an episode that decides to invent a new character trait in a regular character in order to justify the plot, revealing a lot of details about Chakotay that had never been suggested before and which will never be mentioned again. It is also overly reliant on techno-babble, with dialogue referencing nonsense like a “trimetric fracture” and a “paralateral rentrillic trajectory.” There is a pointless framing sequence designed to extend the runtime. There is nothing insightful about the characters or their world.

However, the biggest issue with The Fight is how it squanders a potentially compelling idea. Like Once Upon a Time before it, it is a great example of Voyager trying to write around a risk idea and effectively writing anything interesting out of the finished product.

Chaos and them.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Disease (Review)

One of the curses of Star Trek is the tendency to saddle the weakest and most ill-defined members of a given ensemble with a generic soul-destroyingly dull love story.

Deanna Troi has Haven, The Price and Man of the People. Geordi LaForge has Booby Trap and Galaxy’s Child. In the first few years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, both Bashir and Dax were subjected to such plots. Bashir had Melora, and Second Sight was originally developed with his character in mind. Dax got a similar story in Meridian. Chakotay has Unforgettable, and was shipped with both Janeway and Seven at various points in the run of Star Trek: Voyager. Even Mayweather’s subplot in Demons and Terra Prime was romantic in nature.

Kiss and Tal.

Of course, there are any number of compelling and interesting  romantic episodes built around characters over the history of the franchise. Kirk had The City on the Edge of Forever. Spock had All Our Yesterdays. Tuvok had Gravity. Even the more developed seventh season version of Bashir had Chrysalis. However, it frequently seems like the production team’s go-to plot for an underdeveloped regular character is a romance-of-the-week plotline, perhaps because it is a fairly standard story and because it can be applied to almost any type of character.

However, the problem with building these romantic storylines around undeveloped characters is that they lack any real hook. The audience implicitly understands that the romantic interest is unlikely to stick around, so the story has offer a compelling insight into the regular character. This is understandably difficult if the production team have chosen to tell this story with this character because they really cannot think of any other interesting story to tell. As a result, these episodes can feel like an exercise in boredom, in watching wheels turn.

“Dammit, Harry. I thought we had this conversation after Favourite Son.”

This is particularly true in episodes built around weaker (or more disinterested) members of the ensemble. In a romantic installment of an episodic show, the audience needs to invest in the love story very quickly. This puts a lot of pressure on a performer to sell the romantic attraction. On a weekly schedule, with two performers who may not know one another particularly well, this can be very difficult to accomplish. Robert Beltran is a relatively serviceable performer with the right material, but he would never make a convincing romantic lead.

The Disease is a romantic episode built around Harry Kim. While the script has its own very severe problems, the biggest issue is that Garrett Wang simply cannot sell the intense attraction that is necessary for the episode to work.

Colony ship collapse disorder.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dark Frontier, Part II (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has a morbid fascination with the Borg. Quite literally.

Time and time again, the series returns to the image of the Borg dead and dying. Blood Fever ends with the discovery of a Borg corpse. Unity features the extended autopsy of that corpse. In Scorpion, Part I, Kes is haunted by the image of a grotesque mound of Borg drones, torn apart and reassembled. In Unimatrix Zero, Part I, the Borg Queen tears the heads off her drones and mounts them on spikes. There is a very similar image in Dark Frontier, Part I, where Janeway wanders casually through the wreckage of a Borg ship.

Queen of minds.

Star Trek: The Next Generation worked hard to establish the Borg as a credible threat. If the Borg were associated with death, it was only because they delivered something akin to it. In The Neutral Zone, the Borg scooped an entire outpost off the surface of a planet. In Q Who?, Picard had to literally beg Q to save the Enterprise after the loss of eighteen crewmembers. In The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, the Borg tore through the Federation like it was made of tissue paper. The trauma of that invasion informed Emissary.

In contrast, Voyager seems preoccupied with the destruction and desecration of the Borg Collective. This is an interesting creative choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, it severely undercuts the menace and threat posed by the Borg Collective. Janeway seems to travel through the Delta Quadrant leaving a trail of broken Borg bodies in her wake. It is hard to believe that the Borg are a big deal, when Janeway seems to decorate her ship with their remains. The Kazon, the Vidians and the Hirogen have all taken Voyager at some point. The Borg have never.

Green light for reassimilation.

Perhaps this fascination with Borg corpses and remains simply speaks to their visual aesthetic. With their pale skin and their lack of individual identity, the Borg have always evoked the walking dead; Star Trek: First Contact was essentially a zombie movie in deep space. However, perhaps this desecration of the Borg speaks to something buried deeper within the psyche of Voyager. The Borg are perhaps the most iconic aliens of the Berman era; they represent the moment that The Next Generation came into its own. Perhaps their decay mirrors that of the Berman era itself.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II represent something of a final frontier for the Borg Collective. While the Borg had been in decline for some time, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II marked a point of no return. Regeneration is an underrated return to form for the iconic cyborgs, but it is too little and too late. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II is effectively a funeral for the most iconic adversaries of the Berman era. However, they would remain shuffling lifeless for another two-and-a-half seasons.

Subject to change.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dark Frontier, Part I (Review)

The fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager arrives at a point when the Rick Berman era of the Star Trek franchise has hit its midlife crisis.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is coming to an end, bring down the curtain on a seven-year period where there were always two franchise series boldly going simultaneously. Star Trek: Insurrection had been released into cinemas as a snapshot of that midlife crisis, where Michael Piller’s last script for the franchise found the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation desperately chasing their own youth and vitality on a planet with a fountain of youth.

Seven gets back in touch with her roots.

On the fifth season of Voyager, it seemed like the show turned inwards. The scripts for the fifth season are surprisingly retro and nostalgic in tone; Janeway’s reflections on the events of Caretaker in Night, the return of the Maquis and the Cardassians in Nothing Human, the indulgence of retro thirties sci-fi in Bride of Chaotica!, Tuvok’s childhood flashbacks in Gravity, the “telepathic pitcher plant” in Bliss, Seven’s trip back to the launch of Voyager in Relativity, Janeway’s investigation of her ancestor in 11:59.

However, there was a fundamental problem with all of this introspection. Voyager was a television series that had long struggled to define a unique identity, too often feeling like a half-hearted reheat of the leftovers from The Next Generation. It was very hard to turn the focus inwards when there wasn’t a lot unique or distinctive about Voyager. This is a show that was much closer to its end than to its beginning, and it still lacked any true sense of identity or self.

There’s coffee… I mean transwarp coils in that there Borg Sphere.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II serve as an example of this nostalgic indulgence, both in form and plot. It is a two-parter consciously designed to recapture the success of broadcasting The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II on the same night in the late fourth season. It is also a television movie that is very clearly patterned off the story for Star Trek: First Contact, borrowing key story beats and clear characters from that memorable Next Generation film.

However, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II also demonstrate the shallowness of Voyager‘s own internal memory. This is a story built around an act of narrative archeology within the larger Star Trek universe, touching on the secret history of humanity’s true first encounter of the Borg. However, that history is ultimately illusory, built around what feels like a misremembrance of one of the franchise’s most iconic alien species. As Voyager turns its gaze backwards, it discovers that it has no real history.

Drone warfare.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Gravity (Review)

Gravity is a powerful story, all the more effective for its relative simplicity.

Tuvok has been one of the most overlooked and ignored regular cast members on Star Trek: Voyager. The later seasons tend to neglect Harry Kim and Chakotay, but they had been given considerable focus in the earlier years of the show. Chakotay had been a major focus in The Cloud, State of Flux, Cathexis, Initiations, Tattoo, Manoeuvres and Basics, Part I. Kim had taken centre stage in Emanations, Prime Factors, Non Sequitur and The Thaw. In contrast, Tuvok remained relatively anonymous, more of a supporting player than a narrative focal point.

Vulcan on a ledge.

In hindsight, this appears a rather strange choice. Tuvok is the first full-blooded Vulcan character to appear as a regular on a Star Trek show. Spock is easily the most iconic character in the franchise, to the point that he would be the torchbearer for the JJ Abrams reboot and his family still haunts Star Trek: Discovery. As such, having a fully Vulcan character should have led to all manner of interesting stories. After all, Tuvok was introduced in Caretaker as a spy working undercover in the Maquis. There should have been a lot of material to mine in the set-up.

However, for most of the run of Voyager, Tuvok seemed cast in a supporting role. He was the investigator in episodes where the crew were falsely accused, as Paris was in Ex Post Facto or Torres was in Random Thoughts. He was a reliable sounding board for other characters, as with Kes in Cold Fire or Neelix in Rise or Seven of Nine in The Raven. He was even effectively employed as a mind-controlled monster in episodes like Cathexis and Repression. Tellingly, most of the handful of episodes focusing on Tuvok focus on events where he is not himself; Tuvix, Riddles.

Vulcan love slave.

This is a shame, as there is a lot of fertile ground to explore within Vulcan psychology. Logic is never as clean or simple as Spock made it sound. Existence is full of logical contradictions and inconsistencies. The two best Tuvok-centric episodes of Voyager tend to focus on these inconsistencies. Meld is an episode in which Tuvok asks questions for which there can be no answer, and in which his insistence that the universe is an ordered and logical structure pushes him to some very dark places. Gravity explores the long-standing myth that Vulcans are emotionless.

Gravity is a surprisingly influential episode of Voyager, an episode that explores the implications of an idea which the larger Star Trek franchise had taken for granted for more than thirty years. It is an episode that feels unique in the larger context of Voyager, one build as much around character as action. It is story about love and repression, one rooted very much in who Tuvok is. It might just be one of the best Vulcan-centric stories in the franchise.

Tuvok lightens up.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Bride of Chaotica! (Review)

Bride of Chaotica! is an enjoyable mess.

As its title implies, Bride of Chaotica! is a celebration of nostalgic futurism. It is a culmination of a number of themes running through the series. Most obviously, this particular brand of retrofuturism has been a recurring gag since Night at the start of the fifth season, but it fits within a broader context. From the outset, Star Trek: Voyager has been engaged with a more nostalgic sci-fi aesthetic than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Bride of evil.

Voyager‘s retrofuturism has taken various forms; the old school “space western” tone established by Caretaker, the retro sci-fi trappings of episodes like Innocence or Rise, the monster mayhem of episodes like Phage or Macrocosm, the Cold War paranoia of Cathexis or In the Flesh, Tom Paris’ nostalgic holoprograms in Lifesigns or Vis á Vis, the abductees from the early twentieth century in The 37’s. However, perhaps the most basic is baked into the concept of the show. Voyager is literally a series about the desire to return to a safer and more familiar time.

In some ways, Bride of Chaotica! cements this nostalgia in the context of the larger Star Trek canon, embracing the anxiety that has become increasingly apparent in the years since the thirtieth anniversary. After all, the surrounding feature films all literalise the pull of the past. Star Trek: First Contact has Jean-Luc Picard literally journey back to twenty-first century Earth while revisiting his most iconic moment. Star Trek: Insurrection has the crew discover the fountain of youth. Star Trek: Nemesis confronts Picard with a younger clone of himself.

Radio Chaotica!

It is perhaps telling that Voyager was the moment at which the Star Trek franchise stopped pushing forward. During and after Voyager, the franchise would become increasingly backwards-looking. Star Trek: Enterprise would invite the audience to meet James T. Kirk’s childhood era, trying to recapture that old magic. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot would focus on a young version of Kirk and Spock. Star Trek: Discovery will feature a central character who is something close to Spock’s sister. There is a conscious pull of nostalgia.

Perhaps the future was better yesterday.

Never too far afield.

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