Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Voyager" - the Trekkiest Trek?

by Salman Hameed

I still have not seen the new Star Trek yet. I was disappointed and sad by the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek franchise last time, as it kicked aside the optimism and curiosity in exchange for brainless action sequences and problematic politics. It seems that the Into Darkness is a slightly better film but it goes even further in militarizing Star Trek. Compare this to the fact that  Gene Roddenberry created the series to challenge and bypass established norms of the 60's America. After all, it was Star Trek that featured the controversial interracial kiss (between Captain Kirk and Uhura). Here is a wonderful segment from a documentary Pioneers of Television: Science Fiction that presents the context for Star Trek (it also talks about the story behind the episode with the interracial kiss):

At the same time, yes, I also found the original Star Trek to be cheesy. But, I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation (of course). With episodes like All Good Things...,The Best of Both Worlds, Yesterday's Enterprise, The Measure of a Man, and Ship in a Bottle, it could compete with the best of science fiction literature. I did watch the Deep Space 9 and then Star Trek Voyager. However, I never really got into Voyager. Part of the reason was that the series was set 70,000 light years from the Earth and all the familiar villain alien races were missing. However, here is a fantastic article that provides a different context for Voyager and argues that it is the Trekiest of all Treks - and I think he has a point (though it has only a few memorable episodes). It is a feminist Star Trek and it shows the horrors of war. So while we fret over the mutilation of Gene Roddenberry's vision at the hands of JJ Abrams, here are some excerpts from this article about Voyager:
As we mourn Abrams’ macho Trek obliteration, it’s a good time to revisit Voyager, at once the most Star Trek-ian of accomplishments and the most despised object of fanboy loathing in the franchise's nearly 50-year history. From 1995-2001, it offered American audiences something never seen before or since: a series whose lead female characters’ agency and authority were the show. It was a rare heavy-hardware science fiction fantasy not built around a strong man, and more audaciously, it didn't seem to trouble itself over how fans would receive this. On Voyager, female authority was assumed and unquestioned; women conveyed sexual power without shame and anger without guilt. Even more so than Buffy, which debuted two years later, it was the most feminist show in American TV history.  
Voyager wasn’t some grrl power screed in Starfleet regalia. The ideas and emotions it explored were very much in the Star Trek wheelhouse; it just came at them from a fresh--and to some viewers, off-putting--angle. Led by Kathryn Janeway (Obie-Award-winner Kate Mulgrew), the first female Trek captain to carry a series, Voyager brought us some of the most convulsively inventive humanist science fiction this side of early Stephen Moffat-era Doctor Who.  
Set in the 2370s, Voyager episodes ping-ponged wonderfully between genres and modes. We got a revolution fought in the safety of dreams (“Unimatrix Zero”) and a metaphor-rich engagement with childhood violence and memory (“The Raven”). Some episodes spotlighted the kinds of spiritual engagements that frequent Voyager scripter Ronald D. Moore would import whole-hog to his post-9/11 remake of Battlestar Galactica.
And yet to this day, Voyager is often despised in the most grotesque terms, as a Star Trek apostate.

Here is the bit about the choice of lead characters and how it played with the expectations:
As the critic Alan Sepinwall reminds us, a great show teaches us how to watch it. With Voyager, the fanboys would have to learn how to live without a default male lead to identify with, a hero in Kirk/Picard/Riker mode. They would have to learn to identify beyond gender, and the challenge didn't end at the captain's chair. Along with Mulgrew's fascinating, maddening Captain Janeway—bullheaded; childless by choice; at once doctrinaire and impulsive---the showrunners gave us a prickly/brilliant Chief Engineer named B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) struggling with her biracial half-human Hispanic, half-Klingon identity. By season four, ship botanist Kes (Jennifer Lien) left Voyager; her screentime was filled with a 103-episode-long redemption tale about a bemused, tragic and insanely svelte de-assimilated Borg called Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).  
The show also expected viewers to spend time with an Asian Operations Officer (Garrett Wang), a half-black, half-Vulcan tactical officer (Tim Russ), and a Native American First Officer (Robert Beltran) before finally meeting the crew's significant male Caucasians, none of whom fit the traditional Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/Luke Skywalker/James Kirk descriptors. One was the hilariously arch medical hologram played by Robert Picardo. The other was helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill).  
In the context we're exploring here, Paris is particularly fascinating. In theory, he was there carry the flag for straight male heroic signifiers, but there were clues that he was actually there to tweak people's expectation that science fiction adventures had to put a straight white guy at center-stage. The character spent his off-time saving helpless women in his virtual reality simulation of ‘30s SF serials, Captain Proton -- a sweet spoof of the brand of outer-space swashbuckling that  Roddenberry embraced on the original Star Trek, and that continued, in a more intellectualized way, on The Next Generation
Here is the about its depiction of war:

This series wasn't built around officers that could project military force, which is itself essentially masculine, whenever they needed to, and expect to be backed by the full faith and credit of Starfleet, even when they'd done something wrong or stupid. They were isolated, deprived of the usual political-military support network that made all other Trek adventures, including Deep Space Nine, so comforting to fans. 
The story began when the USS Voyager was hurled by an energy wave 70,000 light-years, to the butt end of the universe. After that, her mission was simplified: aim Earthwards for a 75-year journey home that the crew was unlikely to survive. 
And that was it. No Starfleet hijinks, no strutting around the galaxy, just 150 or so people stuck together for life. Voyager often feels less like a continuation of Trek as we know it than a challenge in the form of a question: "So you think you know what Star Trek is?" The series is an anti-action, existential feminist family drama, shot through with a persistent melancholy that reflects the crew’s desperation. 
Yes, it's still Star Trek, but the sheer unfamiliarity of the crew's predicament was disorienting. This far end of space is haunted by the violence of war. Mass violence carries more weight here, arguably, than in any other incarnation of Star Trek, and it's no stretch to suggest that the show's tragic attitude toward war comes out of its female-centered perspective. 
Here, military violence is portrayed not as a stereotypical male general might see it, but as it might be viewed by the equivalent of a diplomat, or a representative of the Red Cross, or the United Nations. It's a catastrophic event that engulfs whole civilizations, displaces whole species. It causes wounds that don't heal for generations, or starts new conflagrations. Voyager constantly meets races and species that are starting a war or recovering from one, and keeps stumbling upon the ghostly remnants of obliterated civilizations. This strain of sadness is so persistent that the show often feels like gentle critique of the military-macho strain that ran through the original series, the films based on it, as well as many episodes of the more self-aware The Next Generation.
Read the full article here


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