Monday, July 6, 2015

Why I Love Star Trek: Voyager

It occurred to me today to write a post devoted to Star Trek: Voyager, a programme I've mentioned often enough. I've watched a lot of it in the last few months-- or half-watched it, since I usually have it on when I'm making dinner or cleaning up.

It's true that I've written a post on Star Trek as a whole (and if I link to it again, I'm liable to prosecution under the Control of Self-Promotion Act of 1932), but I think Voyager deserves an article of its own. It's a very different show.

(I am a little bit hesitant of going all Trekkie on my blog. But, then I think-- why ever not? Most people like Star Trek, after all.)

Star Trek: Voyager has been described as 'the red-headed step-child' of the franchise, and I can understand why. Despite running for a whole seven seasons-- which is impressive, considering the cancellation-happy nature of American TV networks (after all, the original Star Trek was cancelled after two seasons)-- it hasn't got a very good reputation. Most people who are at all interested in science-fiction TV profess a fondness for The Next Generation and for Deep Space Nine, but are withering about Voyager.

It's hard to disagree with most of their criticisms. I don't usually like bullet point lists, but I feel one coming on here:

  • The whole Maquis/Starfleet device is dropped almost as soon as it is introduced. To those who don't know, the set-up of Voyager is that a Starfleet ship is stranded in a far part of the galaxy, out of contact with Starfleet, and-- through plot mechanics that I won't go into-- many of the crew belong to the Maquis, a terrorist/resistance organisation on which Starfleet frowns. This was obviously to set up dramatic tension in the series. But the two groups gel so quickly that it hardly seemed worth setting up, despite occasional (rather clumsy) attempts to revive this plot element later in the series.
  • Many of the main characters are just dull. Commander Chakotay, the Native American second-in-command of the ship, has a face tattoo instead of a personality. The Vulcan head of security Tuvok, like all Vulcans, eschews all emotion in favour of logic. How exactly are the audience supposed to relate to such a character? The fresh-faced Harry Kim is everybody's little brother, but he doesn't really have much going for him apart from that-- he seems to have no interests or passions, other than an occasional amorous streak.
  • Time travel is overused mercilessly. I'm not a big fan of time travel myself. It doesn't make sense to me. If you can change the past (or the future), isn't everything infinitely provisional? Doesn't that leech the drama out of everything?
  • The aliens are terrible. When it came to inventing antagonist races (or even other races in general), Voyager was really the pits. Nearly all the races they run into are militaristic, beligerent, honour-obsessed races like the Klingons-- who are themselves the most boring of the classic 'Trek' aliens.
  • The Borg and the Q, both brilliant concepts when they are introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, are overused in Voyager to the extent that we grow contemptuous of them. The Borg, when first glimpsed, were terrifying and all-but-unstoppable. By the end of Voyager, they are about as terrifying as a koala bear.
But Voyager had a lot going for it, as well. Since I perpetrated one bullet list, I might as well have another:
  • The captain, Katherine Janeway. When I first saw Voyager I was rather dreading a female captain. Not because I have anything against the idea of a female captain per se. But because I assumed they were going to make her the antithesis of every stereotype of femininity, and we would have a hardass, ball-busting Captain with ne'er a streak of tenderness.

    Thankfully, this counter-stereotype was avoided. Captain Janeway is as tough as anyone could ask for, but she's also very feminine. She's even maternal towards the crew. Above all, she is simply a very well-drawn character. Her particular combination of toughness and tenderness is very believable. A lot of this is surely down to the skill of the actress, Kate Mulgrew-- who is staunchly pro-life, as it happens!
  •  There are other excellent characters, as well. Tom Paris, the jaunty and fun-loving pilot who has a love for twentieth-century Americana, is someone I would like to have as a friend. I'd like to be more like him, too. His romance with the half-Klingon Bel'anna is very believable, and their rocky courtship is well portrayed. I've always had a crush on Bel'anna. Fiery, brilliant women are the best, even when they have head ridges.

    Neelix, the perpetually upbeat alien they take along for the ride, is also an endearing and well-delineated character. And then there's the Doctor and Seven of Nine...but I want to devote a whole bullet to those.
  • The set-up of the story is very compelling. A protagonist (or a set of protagonists) trying to get home is one of the most timeless and powerful narratives you could imagine. Indeed, I think that only the Christ story runs deeper in our collective consciousness.

    It's just occurred to me that, although Voyager is a very obvious reversal of the basic Star Trek premise-- "to boldly go where no-one has gone before"-- it actually has the best of both worlds. They are exploring unknown parts of space, but they are not exploring for its own sake-- they are desperately trying to get home.

    Star Trek Voyager has an 'all or nothing' dimension that The Next
    Generation lacked. The crew will either get home, or they won't. It gives the whole drama an added intensity and poignancy.

    Of course, as the journey
    goes on, the crew more and more come to see the experience as something valuable in itself. This is a theme that is very deliberately and quite skillfully brought out. Harry Kim, the eager-beaver young crewmember who is most intent on getting home, at one point gives a toast to that effect: "To the journey!". I just googled "To the Journey" and the first result was a Voyager fan podcast. I think this is an important theme, too. So many of the challenges in our lives are challenges we would never have chosen. If we can embrace them all the same, if we can affirm them, it is quite a triumph.

    The plot conforms to another classic story-tellin
    g convention-- the group of people who are thrown into a common situation, a common dilemma. This may be a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason-- it works. There is such a loneliness at the core of the human condition that having a similar experience to others is of huge importance to us. It's why people join support groups and veteran groups and, well, groups of every kind
  • The Doctor and Seven of Nine. The Doctor is an emergency medical hologram on a ship with no human doctor. As the series unfolds, his programme is enhanced, so that he becomes more and more like a human.

    Seven of Nine is a liberated Bor
    g drone who was captured by the Borg as a little girl. At first, she is none-too-happy about being restored to humanity, and her path to becoming an individual (the Borg are a 'hive mind') is long and painful.

    Obviously, both of these characters are 'Pinochhio' characters-- they are both strivin
    g to become human. This could be seen as a blatant retread of Data, the android who wanted to be more human from The Next Generation. And indeed, it is. But I don't see anything wrong with this kind of self-plagiarism. Indeed, I think the Doctor and Seven-of-Nine out-Data Data.

    Seven-of-Nine was introduced in season four, and immediately boosted ratin
    gs. It's easy to see why-- she is undeniable eye candy, and she wears a skin-tight catsuit that shows off her impressive physique to its best effect. There were complaints about the cynicism of this move, and understandably so.

    But there's a lot more to her than eye-candy. Her story arc is incredibly poi
    gnant, especially in episodes like 'Raven' and 'Someone to Watch Over Me'. First of all, there is the fact that she has gone from being part of a hive mind to being an individual, with all the sense of isolation that would entail. Secondly, she has to come to terms with her past as a Borg, where she helped to 'assimilate' millions of others into the Borg collective. And thirdly, she learns about her own personal past, and the fact that she was herself 'assimilated' as a little girl, when her parents-- who were scientists studying the Borg-- were captured. She feels conflicted about whether she should explore this past or not. At the end of one episode, she very poignantly puts aside the newly-discovered diaries her parents kept, accepting that she is not ready to look at them yet.

    Seven-of-Nine used to be my favourite character, but she has now been overtaken by the Doctor. (He has no name, as he keeps puttin
    g off choosing one.) Indeed, the Doctor has become my favourite Star Trek character of all. He has a longer story arc than Seven-of-Nine, featuring from the first episode to the last. He gets more humorous moments than Seven-of-Nine, given his tendency towards gross vanity and pomposity. (Obviously, there is a tender side to this, too, as his vanity is frequently both bruised and subsequently salved by his crewmates.)

    Most importantly, he is played by Robert Picardo, a wonderful actor. I'm not the bi
    ggest fan of the acting profession. I think rather too much noise is made about (and indeed by) actors in this world. And yet there are some actors I greatly admire, and Robert Picardo is one of them. He has the sublime confidence of the best actors.

    He seems to be a pretty
    good and fascinating guy, too. I follow his Twitter account (it's the only Twitter account I do follow) and I've watched various videos of his speeches at Star Trek conventions, which are always funny and graceful, and display an obvious desire to give the fans their money's worth. He's a practicing Catholic, too, who sometimes tweets about his faith! (Although, unfortunately, he did celebrate the SCOTUS decision on gay 'marriage'. Oh well.)

    This is what I said about both these characters in my 'purple notebook' series (perhaps a bit too self-revelatory, but I need to be self-revelatory to explain, and I want to explain):
    I find these characters fascinating because they are both learning to be human, painfully and in unusual circumstance. Apart from finding this dramatically compelling in its own right, I identify with them. Other than reading or writing, I was a slow starter in nearly everything-- sometimes to a spectacular degree. Tying my laces, flying on a plane, leaving the country, having a job, making friends, drinking alcohol, going to a party, dating, experiencing a first kiss-- I did them all later and often way later than most people. So much so that it's often hard to find my experience mirrored in fiction, other than Seven of Nine and the Doctor. And the fact that their story is interesting, that they are sympathetic and admirable characters, makes me feel better about my own story.
Star Trek: Voyager isn't really a quarter as good as Star Trek: The Next Generation. (I don't really care very much for the original Star Trek or for Deep Space Nine, and I've barely seen Enterprise.) But, in a way, I'm actually fonder of Voyager-- maybe even because it's not as good.

I suppose I've always had something of a tenderness for the second-rate. It's hard to describe. I'm not talking about a fondness for the underdog. I do have a fondness for the underdog, in buckets and buckets, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

I think it has something to do with being born in Dublin, and growing up there, and spending the vast majority of my time on Earth there. Not only is Dublin a capital city, but I think it's fair to say that it's one of the great cities of the West. Dublin was the second city of the British Empire (though I see that other cities vied for that title, but let that pass). You couldn't throw a stone without hitting a house where some famous writer, artist, statesman or intellectual was born. Every back alley is knee-deep in history. Indeed, Dubliners are often accused of forgetting that there is an Ireland outside Dublin.

As for myself, I was never a very proud Dubliner. (Though it's more complicated than that...but that's a story for another time.) Dublin always seemed to me like the bastion of metropolitan and liberal values, while rural Ireland was the stronghold of traditional Ireland. On my summer holidays to my aunt's farm in Limerick, I always felt more of an affinity with the red-necks (or 'culchies') than I ever did with cynical Dubliners. (And I grew tired of being confidently informed that "You wouldn't like it as much here in winter".)

However, I'm veering off the subject a little. My original point was that, as a metropolitan, I have always been fascinated by all things provincial-- by the very notion of the provincial. (This is why I like Trollope.) I still can't really get my head around the idea of living in a city that isn't the capital. Being at the centre of things seems like the ordinary, humdrum thing to me. Being a provincial seems downright exotic.

That is, perhaps, one source of my fascination with the second-rate, the second-place, the not-quite, and the off-centre.

Another source is that it seems less intense, in a way. Personally, I can never understand why anyone would want to stand in a noisy pub on a Friday or Saturday night, fighting to get the attention of the barman and making reluctant trips to a filthy bathroom. I like pubs where there is enough liveliness to create an atmosphere, but you have room to sit down and relax-- midweek pubs. Similarly, I don't really get the appeal to cramming into a cinema on the release day of a big movie. I prefer half-empty cinemas. And so on.

More abstractly, I like things that are a little bit neglected-- relatively neglected. I like the fact that I'm in a minority when it comes to being a Voyager fan. It's a popular show, but not nearly as popular as Picard and Co. I like that. It makes it more mine, somehow. It makes it more special, somehow.

But the thing I like most about Star Trek in general- both Voyager and its big brother-- is the basic set-up. 

In my favourite book of all time, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote: "Nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable." I think that this is the magic of Star Trek. It combines the ideal of adventure, of exploring new places and new situations, with the ideal of home-- of community-- of family. Wherever the crew go, they are always on Voyager, or on the Enterprise. That's very comforting.

And the tightness of community on Star Trek is something I find very appealing. Part of the reason I like my job in UCD library is because it's almost military in terms of how immersive it is. University College Dublin isn't just like a small town. Essentially, it is a small town. All the amenities are there-- shops, cafes, restaurant, bank, post office, church, swimming pool, cinema-- almost everything. It's a world unto itself.

I grew up in UCD. I was twenty-three when I arrived, and extremely shy and immature. I had no friends. I made my first friends in UCD-- many of whom I still have. In fact, I had an experience very similar to the Doctor and Seven-of Nine.

The drama of the individual is something I find fascinating.  Perhaps this is not very conservative of me. Perhaps I have been infected by our era of life coaches, self-actualisation, self-esteem, navel-gazing, 'head space', personal growth, and the inner child. But I don't really care. I do think there is something sublime in the fact that every man and woman is a unique personality in the history of the world. I do think it's fascinating that we have so many different needs, beyond our purely physical needs-- the need for community, the need for self-expression, the need for belonging, the need for adventure, the need for growth. I like Star Trek because it follows its characters not only in their external journeys but in their internal journeys. Perhaps more than anything else, that is what keeps me going back to it, when there are so many other TV shows and movies I've never watched, and so much else to see and do in our little span of time.

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