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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 – Course: Oblivion (Review)

Course: Oblivion is a fantastic piece of television, in large part because of how strange and surreal it feels. Like Distant Origin or Living Witness, it is an episode that demonstrates how effective Star Trek: Voyager can be, once it is willing to push itself beyond the template of familiar Star Trek storytelling. Course: Oblivion is a staggeringly weird piece of television, a bottle episode filmed with the primary cast on standing sets, but which only features the briefest of appearances from the regular characters.

More than that, Course: Oblivion effectively weaponises many of the long-standing weaknesses and clichés associated with the storytelling on Voyager. It is the very definition of a “reset” button episode, in that the events (and the ending) of the episode are both catastrophic in scale and utterly inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. In some ways, Course: Oblivion is the quintessential Voyager episode, distilling the destruction of Voyager and the death of Janeway into a tragedy with absolutely no repercussions.

‘Til death do us…

Voyager could often feel generic and disconnected, a show without a unique identity. In many ways, Course: Oblivion is very unique to Voyager in that it builds those core ideas into the very fabric of the episode, constructing an episode that reflects Voyager‘s identity by channeling its identity crisis. As with various other episodes of the fifth season, like Night and TimelessCourse: Oblivion builds a meta-text around the anxieties rippling through Voyager at this point in the run.

However, Course: Oblivion is more than just an effective illustration of Voyager‘s storytelling tropes and unique sensibility. Course: Oblivion is also an episode that taps into a lot of the anxieties bleeding through the zeitgeist at the turn of the millennium. Voyager was undoubtedly a television of its time, and tended to reflect the existential paranoia of the nineties. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to grapple with a person’s own unreality, to wrestle with an existence where meaning no longer exists, and everything is illusory.

“… well, that was quicker than expected.”

Even beyond those themes that anchor Course: Oblivion is the cultural landscape of the late nineties, the episode ties back into broader Star Trek themes. One of the great strengths of the Star Trek franchise is the freedom to use a science-fiction template to explore big questions. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to face death, in a manner very distinct from the way that television usually treats death. The death in Course: Oblivion is not meaningful or epic or heroic. The death in Course: Oblivion is inevitable decay, a murmur in an infinite void.

The result is one of the most striking and effective episodes that Voyager ever produced, and easily the most ambitious episode of the fifth season as a whole.

Face off.

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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 – Bliss (Review)

Bliss is a textbook example of Star Trek: Voyager doing textbook Star Trek.

The episode feels like a stew composed primarily of leftovers, the residue of past meals thrown together to serve up something lukewarm and familiar. Bliss is not necessarily a bad episode of television, per se. It is rather lifeless and generic, but it is hardly the weakest episode of the season or the series. Instead, Bliss is the kind of episode that fades gently from memory, a hollow confection that doesn’t taste particularly nice, but which at least offers something to chew over.

Good Sheppard.

Bliss is a cocktail of familiar Star Trek plot elements. At the centre of the story is the sort of gigantic monstrous space entity that haunted earlier tales like The Immunity Syndrome or Datalore, a reminder of how weird and dangerous space can be. The “pitcher plant” in Bliss recalls the parasites from Operation — Annihilate! or the space vampire from The Man Trap. It feels like something almost Lovecraftian, a “beast” with tendrils that reach into the minds anybody near enough so that it might lure them to their doom. It is unfathomable to those caught within its grasp.

Qatai exists in opposition to this malign entity, caught in an immortal struggle with a force more vicious and more powerful than he could ever be. The EMH compares Qatai to Ahab, acknowledging the debt that Bliss owes to Moby Dick. Of course, the Star Trek franchise is populated with stories built upon that classic template; Obsession, The Doomsday Machine, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek. It is hard to think of a more generic source of inspiration for an episode of Star Trek.

The show could use a shot in the arm.

Even beyond that, Bliss touches on plot ideas and elements that will be familiar to most Voyager viewers. As with episodes like Eye of the Needle or False Profits, the crew are tempted by a phenomenon that seems to promise the possibility of getting the crew home quickly. As in Hope and Fear and The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine becomes preoccupied with the notion that she is the only member of the crew with an objective perspective that allows her to see the truth. As with The Cloud or One, this might be deemed an “anomaly of the week” episode.

The result is something the feels very much like a representative distillation of Voyager, the statistical mean of the series derived to a decimal point. Bliss is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Voyager as a television show. It is neither truly great or truly awful, it is merely there.

Coming down to Earth.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Thirty Days (Review)

Thirty Days is a fascinating misfire.

Thirty Days is build around a number of interesting ideas. In terms of character, there is the framing device that finds Tom Paris sentenced to spend one month in the brig after an act of crass insubordination, suggesting a relapse into the “bad boy” persona that was largely forgotten after Ex Post Facto, barring the occasional revival for episodes like Vis á Vis. It also hints at questions of discipline on the ship, something around which Star Trek: Voyager has skirted in the past in episodes like Prime Factors and Manoeuvres. There is a compelling story here, somewhere.

Watching Thirty Days can feel like…

In terms of science-fiction plot elements, Thirty Days features the first ocean planet in the history of the Star Trek franchise. That is interesting of itself. What wonders lurk within an ocean world? What would life look like had it never left the sea and set foot on land? There is something decidedly pulpy and magical about a planet that has no surface of which to speak, instead comprised of waves and tides. Even with the flimsiest of plots, this element alone should provide fodder for an exciting installment.

Unfortunately, Thirty Days fumbles both of these interesting elements, falling victim to a recurring issue with the plotting on Voyager. The pacing is awkward, the plot points are under-developed, the framing device is hackneyed. The script for Thirty Days seems far more concerned about hitting the forty-five minute mark than it does with using these elements to tell a compelling story. The result is a bit of a wash.

Water conservation.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Timeless (Review)

The one hundredth episode of any television show should be a cause for celebration.

After all, one hundred episodes exists at a number of interesting points in the life of a show. It tends to arrive late in the fourth season or early in the fifth season of a twenty-odd-episode-a-season series, meaning that any television show making it to that point has amassed some cultural cache. By that stage, most of the original contracts are expiring (or close to expiring) and so there is at least some sense as to how secure the future is. One hundred episodes also marks the series as viable for syndication; one hundred episodes airing five days a week can fill substantial airtime.

Ice to see you again.

To be fair, the other Star Trek series tended to mark the occasion with some low-key celebrations. The one hundredth episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was Redemption, Part I, which was primarily notable for reasons behind the camera; both a set visit from Ronald Reagan and the end of the fourth season that had so frustratingly eluded the original series. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine marked both its one hundredth hour (The Ship) and its one hundredth episode (… Nor the Battle to the Strong) as “business as usual.”

However, Star Trek: Voyager turns its one hundredth episode into an epic event. It is the perfect distillation of the “Voyager as blockbuster Star Trek” aesthetic championed by Brannon Braga: a truly jaw-dropping computer-generated action scene, with Voyager crashing on the surface of an ice world; a high-stakes time-travel plot, with a killer hook; a guest appearance from a beloved Next Generation actor. Timeless is an incredibly ambitious piece of television that practically screams “this is a very special occasion!” to the audience at the top of its lungs.

LaForging ahead.

And, yet, for all of that, there is something decidedly funereal about the episode. The episode opens with the memorable shot of the eponymous starship buried under the ice on some forgotten and unnamed world. The crew are long dead, but the ship itself remains preserved and trapped in amber. While Timeless might eventually end with future!Kim changing the timeline and shaving ten years off the journey, the episode’s most iconic images are destructive: Voyager crashing and bouncing, the familiar sets encased in ice.

This is not a birthday party, it is a wake.

Seven and the EMH never saw eye-to-eye.

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Star Trek: Voyager – In the Flesh (Review)

In the Flesh is a curiously nostalgic episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Nostalgic in a number of different ways. Most obviously, it opens on what appears to be Earth, bringing the Voyager crew to something resembling home. The campus recalls visits to Starfleet Command in earlier episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine like The First Duty, Homefront and Paradise Lost. There is even a prominent guest appearance from Boothby, the groundskeeper who was referenced as early as Final Mission. When it is eventually revealed to be a ruse, it is explained as a ruse orchestrated by old villains Species 8472.

Picture imperfect.

However, In the Flesh feels nostalgic in a deeper sense, extending even beyond the Star Trek canon. There is something very retro about the threat presented here, about a top secret facsimile of a distant world being used to train infiltrators in a deep space cold war. In the Flesh feels like a piece of fifties paranoia, with specific creative choices evoking film noir storytelling and even the aesthetic of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Night of the Living Dead. The most prominent guest star is Ray Walston, a veteran of cult sixties sci-fi show My Favourite Martian.

To be fair, Voyager has always had a strong nostalgic streak for pulpy fifties and sixties science-fiction, but it is strange to see it so pronounced. In its own weird way, it fits with the general nostalgic tone of the fifth season as a whole.

Look at the “8” in their eyes.

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