In the yesteryears of the mid 90s, Paramount Pictures looked to continue the Star Trek boom begun by Star Trek: The Next Generation (which had recently ended) and expanded by Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Wishing to both return the series to its adventurous roots while breaking new social boundaries, they premiered the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager on January 16th, 1995. Featuring a female captain and a surprisingly diverse helping of crew members (by the end of this episode, at least), Star Trek: Voyager would continue on for six years and offer the setting to one of the best Star Trek games ever released (Editor’s Note: This was not a part of the agreed introduction, Tim.) (Tim Response: Don’t care, my phasers are set to frag!).
Every Monday we share a roundtable discussion about a Voyager episode featuring experts pulled from the close group of friends we could easily bribe. This week’s group consists of Seth, film/tv critic Ryan and yours truly. Naturally, spoilers are a matter of course with this territory, and portions of our conversation drew on our knowledge of other episodes of both Voyager and other Star Trek shows. You have been warned.
This week covers the sixth episode of Season 1, “The Cloud.” Seth utters the incantations and sets us on our discussion…
Seth – Okay, I’ll start this off. Since my bag so far has been been comparisons to other Star Trek series and minor character details, I’ll start with Tuvok chastising Kim via a whispered combadge message. What did people make of that character moment? It’s the first time I can think of where someone used a combadge for a surreptitious conversation with someone else in the same room.
Tim – It definitely got a chuckle out of me. It also, for a brief moment, provided one of the few characterizations we have of Tuvok (in my opinion), aside from “Hey, a Vulcan!”
Ryan – It was definitely amusing and it involved Tuvok a little more with the rest of the crew. We haven’t really gotten a lot of characterization or development for him, besides the fact that the actor who plays him plays the Vulcan perfectly.
Tim – Absolutely.
Seth – It’s also a reminder that Ensign Kim is pretty new to being a senior officer. I found it interesting that Tuvok felt the need to chastise Kim on the spot (albeit discretely) rather than wait for another moment.
Ryan – I also thought it was a moment slightly soured by the retort from Kim afterward. That seemed to happen pretty frequently this episode. There’s quite a few character development moments this episode to talk about (as a matter of fact, that’s pretty much all “The Cloud” was: minor character developments surrounded by a rather flimsy plot). I’m definitely curious what you guys thought of the Spirit Animal subplot.
Tim – OH GOD I WAS WAITING. Yeah, this pretty much nails, for me, one of the most problematic aspects of Star Trek in general (at least the few episodes I’ve seen that involve Native American culture- or as they call them on TNG, “North American Indians.”
Ryan – For the record, Captain Janeway jumps into it whole heartedly and without a shred of cynicism or even really skepticism, which one might expect for the scientific mind she is shown to have.
Tim – That’s a fair enough assessment of her character, sure. For me, I just feel uncomfortable with the way in which Star Trek overgeneralizes Chakotay as “the Native American,” and this episode kinda’ brings that out.
Ryan – I loved that the Federation has developed a hand-held Peyote Osmoser.
Seth – Right? It seems like the only recreational drug that exists in the Federation is alcohol.
Tim – It feels just a bit romantic and exotic, while basically cherry-picking from what was a vast multitude of different cultures and religions.
Ryan – Yeah, the elements of his character and the spirit quest were all very cliche (the medicine bag and its contents in particular).
Tim – It seemed more like what white people think Native Americans act like rather than reflecting any particular tribe themselves. Of course, the huge issue here is that Chakotay was not a character made for me and my middle class euro ancestry. So, really, my uncomfortableness could be completely off base.
Ryan – I hesitate to ask, but does anybody know if any of that has roots in Native American tradition?
Tim – There are tribes that did spirit quests and used medicine bags, sure, but it wasn’t universal. That isn’t necessarily even my issue- it’s the fact that Chakotay’s ancestry (aside from being the Native American) is so vague that makes the characterization so problematic for me. It’d be one thing if he was, like, Sioux and utilized Sioux characteristics.
Ryan – Tim, do you feel like it might be similar to Kim, for example, revealing that he’s a martial arts expert?
Seth– I think it’s less about the stereotype (although there is that angle) and more about treating Native Americans as interchangeable. It’d be as though they just tossed anything vaguely “Asian” onto Kim.
Ryan – Definitely, Seth. Well said.
Tim – That’s a fair question- I think it could be similar. I’m not sure if I’d be as sensitive to it, though- part of this is because a portion of my thesis was on how Catholic Missionaries constructed the idea of Native Americans in their missionary documents.
Ryan – Now that’s interesting, though, part of your objection is that this is rooted in much deeper misinformation about Native Americans and that Voyager did little to address that, despite have a Native American advisor on staff?
Tim – Considering their explicit purpose with Chakotay was to provide an Uhura for Native Americans, yeah- I think that they missed a huge opportunity. This all sidesteps that they also hired a Hispanic actor instead of a Native American, but I’m not about to really make it a huge issue when there aren’t exactly a plethora of Hispanic actors being cast in anything either.
Seth – Shades of casting Ricardo Montalban as a Sikh. One thing that’s weird is that it’s implied that Chakotay does this easily for anyone, which is a strong contrast to the usual, guarded way in which they approach this sort of thing.
Ryan – I felt like it was a mixed portrayal. They at least treated what they chose to depict with seriousness and respect (as much as they could muster having Janeway talk to a lizard, instructed by the disembodied voice of Chakotay).
Murmers and nodding were shared by all. A harrumph came from the back of the room. Cigar smoke cleared, the discussion continued…
Ryan – Well, let’s keep moving through our character vignettes. The episode started with a voiceover from Janeway wondering how she could better get in touch with her crew. How do you guys feel like they resolved that?
Seth – I liked the way they circled back to that by having her accept Kim’s invitation to the holodeck.
Tim – I think that was pretty well resolved, and I think it was nice that they tied that into the debate between Kim and Paris about whether or not to include her in their own things. As always, Paris was wrong, carrying on our theme of the season.
Seth – It makes me wonder if they plan to use that program like TNG used the recurring poker games (which, notably, Picard did not join until the final episode, and wondered why he had waited so long).
Ryan – It’d be odd for them not to return to it. The setting is one of the few casual environments we’ve seen for the crew to interact in thus far.
Tim – It is- and it’s clear that this is one of the few places they can go to feel like they’re home, so it would make sense for that place to keep recurring, at least from a psychological point of the characters.
Ryan – It’d be interesting if Voyager gave us an actual flashback in that location to show us how Paris’ personality has infused his version of the patrons…but I don’t know if I think Voyager is going to be that kind of show