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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 ninth episode of Season 1, “Emanations.” Right away Ryan bests Tim and Seth in the roll for initiative…
Ryan – Gentlemen, I have Things To Say about this episode.
Tim – Awesomesauce!
Ryan – So I’m not quite sure where to start with this one. I feel this episode marks my turning over a new leaf with Voyager. The last several episodes have not been entirely to my liking, and I’ve often been the sole voice of dissent.
Tim – This one was actually one that made you feel a bit better about it, though?
Ryan – I feel like I reconnected with what episodic 90s Star Trek could be with this episode of Voyager. In short-form: utopian sci-fi that teeters on the edge of being hokey while still managing to touch on deeper themes.
Seth – I agree, while the Prime Directive has been evoked as couple of times in earlier episodes, this one really seemed to grasp the drama and importance of it.
Tim – Absolutely.
Seth – Which is hugely important, because the Prime Directive is all about the Federation trying *really hard* not to be colonialist, and part of that is not deciding that your culture’s answers to the Big Questions are better than other ones.
Tim – I feel like a lot of the earlier endorsements we’ve seen for the Prime Directive all came from a sense of protecting other civilizations from how destructive (or at least disruptive) the Federation can be- it was really nice to see it in an even more positive light here.
Ryan – And I think this episode illustrates how sometimes that can be a really difficult line to avoid crossing. Kim has seen the physical reality of their supposed afterlife, he learns how families are even encouraging enfeebled members to “move on,” and is about to be taken away for medical experimentation as a kind of living angel and still he tries to avoid damaging or explicitly contradicting their beliefs.
Seth – And yet…and yet…he can’t just say *nothing*, and he has to deal with the fact that his very presence is sending ripples through this civilization.
Ryan – Oh, he’s incredibly disruptive. The subversive ramifications to the alien species’ theological power structure I think are definitely alluded to in this episode.
Tim – Very true- I suppose what I meant is that in previous episodes the Prime Directive was endorsed as being…hrm…trying to think how I’m working here. The ramifications for not following through on it were shown very clearly, such as in Caretaker, Time and Again, the Cloud- when the Federation shows up they kinda’ (accidentally) instigate the problems, at least in those last two episodes. But with this one we can see it working in a bit more of a positive light, through Janeway and Kim’s approach to the Vhnori beliefs.
Ryan – That’s what they were called! And, yes, you’re absolutely right. There’s respect and care in both how Janeway treats the Vhnori female they revive on the ship and how cautiously Kim tiptoes around telling his ‘captors’ about his reality regarding vis a vis the next emanation.
Seth – A major difference between this episode and the previous ones is that we can actually see the cultural subversion that’s happening. In The Caretaker, there isn’t much attention to how the Ocampa are affected, and they’re already compromised by The Caretaker anyway. In Time and Again, Janeway and Paris are mistaken for agents as opposed to aliens, and anyway the time reset undoes any damage they might have caused. And then in The Cloud, we’re not entirely sure the nebula creature is even conscious, much less sapient or possessing a culture. But here we see immediate changes happening in the culture and the Vhnori are capable of articulating the effect that all of this is having on them.
Ryan – It’s entirely possible that Kim’s arrival will long-lasting implications for the Vhnori culture, especially considering he helped Hatil escape into the mountains. He claimed he wanted to live out the rest of his life in peace, but who’s to say this story doesn’t spread and become a heretical counter-narrative in Vhnori culture?
Seth – This kind of brushes up against one of the problems in Star Trek and a certain brand of sci-fi narrative in general: The implication that an entire alien species is one monolithic culture. I did find myself thinking during the episode “Is this belief about the afterlife really believed in across the whole species? There aren’t any competing ‘religions’ or ‘atheists’, for lack of a better term?”
Ryan – Seth’s point kind of ties back in with what I was articulating at the very beginning of our discussion. The way that Star Trek deals with its one-off alien species tends to be, as he mentioned, monolithic – almost metaphorical. And, to me, it always teeters right on the edge of ridiculousness. In Trek terms, alien seems to me be denoted by oddly shaped foreheads and colorful dress. Maybe throw in some elfin ears for good measure.
Tim – You know, I kind of felt like there may have been dissidents we didn’t know about. After all, Hatil is going off to live in the mountains with people who won’t tell his family- you’d imagine if there was universal approval of the things they were doing, he’d only end up moving in with a group that would vote to kill him off too.
Ryan – Definitely, Tim, that’s actually how I interpreted Hatil’s reference to “friends in the mountains”: dissidents or renegades who didn’t agree with the orthodox view of death and the afterlife.
Seth – Yeah, that and Hatil’s admission that he had some tiny doubts beforehand is what made the seeming monolith of Vhnori culture a bit more palatable to me. I could imagine a situation similar to Western culture not that long ago, where you had atheists, but the prevailing climate made it unwise to air your beliefs.
Ryan – It seemed like the episode never strayed far from the religious building where the Vhnori held their ceremonies anyway. So I think just the hint of doubt in one of the present is enough to infer a counter culture that exists somewhere else.
Tim – Can I make one slight aside for a joke I’ve been waiting all week to make?
Ryan – Please do.
Tim – Usually I’m not one to pick up on stuff like this, but in this episode, wow. There’s only two things I don’t like in my Star Trek Episodes: People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures…and the Dutch…angles. Just…dutch angles. Dutch angles everywhere. I felt like I was in an early MTV music video, or Vanilla Ice’s landmark film “Cool as Ice.” A lot of the episode was great, in my opinion, but that very nearly took me out of it.
Seth and Ryan exchange looks before leaping back to smash a hitherto unnoticed glass box marked “BREAK IF TIM DERAILS CONVERSATION!” Pulling the knives from the box, Seth and Ryan descend upon Tim. Read more on the next page!