Star Trek: Voyager: Tattoo   Rewatch 
March 27, 2017 7:33 AM - Season 2, Episode 9 - Subscribe

I'm not saying that it was aliens... but it was aliens.

Memory Alpha wants to make it very clear that "A-koo-chee-moya" does not actually appear in this episode:

- This episode had the working title "First World". The story was originally planned for inclusion during Star Trek: Voyager's first season. Co-writer Larry Brody commented, "I came up with the idea and wrote the preliminary treatment for the episode, but because of time problems, I was never able to write the teleplay [....] 'Tattoo' was sold after about half a dozen meetings with the Voyager staff." The evolution of the plot was initially problematic. Executive Producer Michael Piller offered, "It was [...] a story that had been pitched and we bought but which didn't turn out right. Nobody could figure out how to make it work." Consequently, the story was virtually abandoned. The episode was resurrected by Michael Piller. As such, the outing was the first of four from Star Trek: Voyager's second season that he was involved in writing (apart from an uncredited rewrite on the earlier Season 2 installment "Parturition"). In its final form, the story developed from a series of meetings designed to get the series back on track during its second season. "This is the first story," declared Michael Piller, "that came out of the emergency development meetings that we had." Piller was intensely interested in further developing the narrative. "I'd always been attracted to the idea of the pitch," he said, "which was that Indians have these myths about sky spirits, and a natural extension of that myth was that these could have been travelers from space." Piller also reminisced, "I had always had a fondness for [it] [....] The idea always appealed to me that it was part of the Native American lore that sky spirits came down and affected them or blessed them in some fashion." The opportunity to explore the character of Chakotay was another factor that appealed to Piller. He remarked, "For Chakotay to find evidence of these sky spirits seemed to be the beginning of a terrific personal journey." Piller elaborated, "Here's a man who has lost his faith, and he gets it back through this journey. That's a very interesting thing to write [....] I looked at this as an opportunity to really delve into his character."

- The episode's B-story, concerning The Doctor dealing with Levodian flu, was originally suggested by actor Robert Picardo. "That was the first story idea that I suggested that has actually been used by the writers," Picardo reflected. "I pitched that idea first to Jeri Taylor and then to Michael Piller. Not having any interest in writing myself, I was doing it just because I thought it might be a fun thing to act. In my version, Captain Janeway, in an effort to teach me a lesson, changed my program. But being a much smarter man than I, Michael Piller had the notion to make it my own challenge to myself, and that I altered my program to prove that illness would not in any way affect my job performance." Moments later, a laughing Picardo remembered, "I said to Michael Piller that, of course, the holographic doctor, once he has this [flu], he became an absolutely terrible patient. I suggested simply a common cold, but I think in the world of Star Trek the common cold has long been cured. Michael took that kernel of an idea, and created a great 'B' story, and was very appreciative of my suggestion." Another addition that Robert Picardo made to the story was the content of the first scene of the episode's first act. "I [...] suggested that the first scene be with Ensign Wildman," Picardo explained. "I thought it would be very funny for the audience if I was showing absolutely no sympathy for a very pregnant woman. I wanted to pick a situation where the audience was most likely to find my lack of sympathy objectionable."

- Alan Sims was responsible for hiring the trained hawk for this episode that swooped down and attacked Neelix. The fact that the bird was filmed on location became problematic during production, however, as the hawk did not do what was required of it. "Instead," recalled Alan Sims, "the hawk spotted a crow and went off after it in the opposite direction. It took hours to find him. The delay was a nightmare."

"I don't have a life, I have a program."

- The Doctor

"She's far more devious than I ever suspected."

- The Doctor, to Harry Kim about Kes

Poster's Log:

Oh, boy. This episode, what it set out to do and what it actually did, unintentionally. I'm not sure if it's the worst VOY episode ever, or even the worst one this season, but the larger cultural context that it occurs in--both the good intentions behind it (and Chakotay's character in general) and what it actually said about Native Americans and their culture--is really, really, really problematic.

I'll just cut to the meat of the matter: the whole Chariots of the Gods? thing--the idea that extraterrestrial visitors to Earth in ancient times are responsible for many early accomplishments in science, engineering and architecture, notably the Pyramids--has disturbing racist overtones, since it tends to focus on the alleged improbability that non-white, non-European cultures could have done these things. (The sole European exception, Stonehenge, was built well before Romans or Anglo-Saxons came to Britain, and is therefore arguably not an exception after all.) In this version, the "Sky Spirits"--who, you may have noted, are whiter than anyone on the crew--genetically engineered into the proto-Native Americans not only their spoken language, but their "spirit of curiosity and adventure." That's why they crossed the Bering Land Bridge and settled the Americas and fulfilled their ultimate destiny of giving white middle-class New Agers a sense of spirituality that their own lives lacked--they were biologically compelled to do so, unlike those Europeans, who just did shit without such intervention, I guess. FFS. As the kids say these days, I can't even. And, somehow, the good intentions behind it--representation and all that--just make it worse. It kills me a little inside thinking that this was the result of their intention "to get the series back on track during its second season." It may seem like I'm making much ado about nothing, since the ancient alien intervention thing is woven throughout our culture, all the way from Lovecraft through to my own beloved Mass Effect game franchise, but the way that this is put--not just plopping a few pyramids down on the landscape, but essentially creating their spirit of curiosity and adventure--is a bridge too far.

I almost hate to give the episode credit for getting anything right, but I liked the B-story, even though the Doctor had already experienced physical discomfort in "Projections." I'm particularly impressed by the inside baseball information that Picardo actually wanted his character to appear less sympathetic. I've spent some time working with doctors, and quite a few physicians of the meat-sack type could learn this lesson, as well.

Poster's Log, supplemental: In addition to not remembering that the Doctor has felt pain (in this same season, in fact), the episode also missed the bit of information that, even though Chakotay's combadge was beamed up, the tricorder has combadge circuitry incorporated into it so that the information can be uploaded directly to the ship. Also, some mention might have been made of the TOS episode "The Paradise Syndrome", which, despite the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans, seems less problematic than this one, because, instead of retconning all of Native American culture as being the result of alien genetic intervention, the Preservers are intent on, well, preserving the cultures that they find.
posted by Halloween Jack (22 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
And let's not forget that the leader of The Whitest Sky Spirits U Know is played by the guy from Seinfeld who played Elaine's boss at Pendant Publishing.

Yeah, you're not belaboring the point IMO, Jack. So far I am considering this the worst episode of VOY, worse than "Threshold," and at the moment I can't remember any that are worse in the seasons to come. On top of the insulting concept and insultingly-stupid execution, the A story is just too overstuffed to possibly work. On the MA page, Piller talks about how enamored he was with his script, that it was super ambitious and profound and whatever. Instead, you end up with things like that really long and really ridiculous memory-sharing sequence. How do you get even cheesier than TOS. I literally LOLed during this sequence, having forgotten it from my first (and only prior) viewing of the episode.

I literally remember almost nothing about the B story because the A story's absurdity overshadowed it, and I only saw this about a month ago. If I had to think of a positive, I guess I agree with Tim Russ who (on the MA episode page) enthused about the sets.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:52 AM on March 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


Particle of the Week: Giving it to anti-thorons. Of all the technobabble in the opening, they just sound like the most fun. Like, great for getting rid of pesky thorons?
Pointless STO Comparison of the Week: Intrepid class starships are still in use during the Star Trek Online era, but are only Tier 4 on a 6-tier scale of overall starship power. Other Starfleet choices at that level include the Galaxy class and Tactical Escort (like the Defiant). One of the earliest meetings with Voyager involves the protagonist saving it from a few Kazon ships. I have shuttles with better firepower than Voyager's canon layout, even accounting for the inexplicable tricobalt warheads in the pilot.

Times like this, seeing it almost destroyed by strong winds, really bring home how accurate its unimpressive game stats are.

Ongoing Equipment Tally: No changes this week.
* Photon Torpedoes: 37
* Shuttles: Down 3
* Crew: 151
* Bio-neural Gelpacks: 47
Credulity Straining Alpha Quadrant Contacts: And the 'sky people' make 4.

Notes:
Good goddamn do I hate this episode. The racism is layered enough that it calls for multiple points. In no particular order:

* The 'two cultures' thing again.

This is something I touched on a bit while sputtering with rage after watching 'Faces.' I'm biracial. On my biological father's side of the family, the culture was Muslim, and my birth certificate reflects that. Mom's side of the family was Catholic, as was my upbringing post-divorce: I have a name change to something boringly Western, and I attended Catholic school for several years. Altar boy and everything.

By Trek law, I should've had to pick one or the other because of genetic determinism, but I'm my own person. I'm a non-theist entirely, and I'm just an American. I've formed my opinions about life, the universe and everything upon my own extensive study of a variety of topics, rather than letting it be handed down for generations by *anyone*. I do not give a crap what my ancestors thought unless it can survive peer review, except to give me historical context when looking at their lives.

The idea that being 'torn between two cultures' is even a *thing* is very much an invention of clueless white people who are very confused about what it must be like to come from Lands That Are Hard to Spell. Trek's had it from the get-go with Spock, and it's frustrated me for a very, very long time.

(I will mention that the one character who does get cultural displacement right, IMO, is Worf. As a Klingon raised by humans, his reaction to that is to latch onto Klingon culture in a very idealistic and naive way - he believes the literature rather than the facts on the ground, and he is desperate to belong. That does ring true to me, especially because he mixes this with human perspectives and habits whether he means to or not. He actually does read as an accurate, culturally-adrift person. But pretty much every other time? Mordax smash puny Trek writers.)

* Good grief, the 'aliens gave you culture' thing.

White people come up with culture? Let's study and celebrate that. Reams of books about the Romans, the Greeks, the birth of democracy, blah blah blah blah.

Brown guys have culture? Build giant cities? Pyramids? Must be fucking aliens that jabbed it into their brains. Heaven fucking forbid that Native Americans learned how to *talk* on their own.

Fuck you, Voyager writers. Upon reading Halloween Jack's excellent post, fuck you in particular, Michael Piller.

(I will also note that '45000 years' is a really, really recent guess for the development for spoken language based on a cursory peek at Wikipedia.)

* Rubber People, WTF?

So, I took a few minutes to try and figure out what the crap they were going on about, and the Rubber People look to be the Olmecs, dubbed that by the Aztecs. In other words, they can't be around in the era of TNG because they were ancient history when the episode was *written*, never mind when it was set. Also, the noble savage thing? People surviving that way through the Eugenics Wars? First Contact? Borg attacks? Breen? Without anything? On purpose, because they're magic stereotypes?

Not to mention the guy who came along for the ride who plainly speaks English well enough to understand Young Chakotay, but will only speak his native tongue because reasons.

Yeah, I'm gonna go with 'Fuck you, Voyager writers' for a second time for pushing that noble savage bullshit, with a side of 'I feel sorry for Robert Beltran.'

* More about Jamake Highwater:

So, this asshole was exposed in 1984, well before TNG even came out, but dumb shits kept buying his shit up until his death. The correction on the NYT obit? Notably *not* to offer his actual background. I suppose I'm mostly just glad he's no longer able to spread horrible racist lies, and I don't much care what stopped him. I'm also aghast that his fake obits have been left to stand without correction, but I guess my opinion about our media can't sink much lower after 2016.

* What is it with tattoo exposition episodes?

Didn't work for Lost, either.

In closing, I guess some other stuff happened. The Doctor was pretty funny, and Kes was great. I actually laughed at Neelix's talk about orchids with Tuvok, and I almost never laugh at his shit. I did notice them name check Sulu. But mostly, I can't get past the seething wrath that I feel when I watch or even think about this episode.

Grade: F for 'furious.'

Upon reading CheesesofBrazil:
So far I am considering this the worst episode of VOY

Torn between this and either Parturition or Elogium, as I feel like I might end up on some kind of watch list for those. Any of these are worse than Threshold, IMO.

Voyager: Which can we handle worse, racism or sexism?
posted by mordax at 8:52 AM on March 27, 2017 [5 favorites]


The idea that being 'torn between two cultures' is even a *thing* is very much an invention of clueless white people who are very confused about what it must be like to come from Lands That Are Hard to Spell.

Also.. hell, I know people do struggle with this, but they mostly struggle with it because the people in their lives force them to make these choices, not because there's something inherent in our genes that makes us have to pick. When these sorts of questions come up on Ask, it's always about people, (usually family), trying to push someone one way or another, refusing to accept someone's choice to pull a good idea from somewhere else.

So I guess Chakotay's asshole dad rings true too, but authorial intent is clearly that he's right, not that he's the problem. So, uh, thinking about this another five minutes and giving them a little more credit just made me more angry. Good job, Voyager?
posted by mordax at 9:07 AM on March 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm just sort of shocked at how many of these recaps include the showrunners basically admitting they have no fucking idea how to tell a story, much less identify a worthwhile one to tell.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 10:53 AM on March 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


I remember watching this when it first aired and ever since then when I realized an upcoming rebroadcast or streaming episode was this one the instant reaction is, of course, "Oh fuck! This episode."

I've never watched it since. It had that stock hawk sound over and over again didn't it to indicate that we're dealing with a native population with special powers or in this case alien powers. And did it feature the standard "mystical" soundtrack of genocide?
posted by juiceCake at 9:10 PM on March 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


For whatever reason, Kate Mulgrew as Janeway doesn't remind me of Red from Orange is the New Black at all, but every so often she'll say a line and it will take me a couple minutes to recalibrater her away from being Flemeth from Dragon Age. It's usually when Janeway is testy.

I'm mentioning this because I was really concentrating on what aspects of Kate Mulgrew's voice seemed most Flemeth-like while watching this episode, possibly out of self-preservation.

This was a bad one, and Mordax covered a lot of why. I guess it's good that they sort of gave a region for Chakotay to be from, but then it makes no sense (rubber. . . . tree. . . people. . .). And at least it was sort of like Robert Beltran's own ethnic makeup, I guess? I mean, so obviously native beliefs and cultures differ depend on what culture or tribe you're talking about, but it also matters what larger cultures are informing that Native culture's view of itself, and Star Trek just took this super distorted view of the Native American experience as explained by a white guy and plopped it into a completely different context, making it even more wrong.

Let's start with they 'oh hey, we dropped by back in the 20th century, but it looked like White people killed all of the Native Americans under the guise of exploration, so we peaced out'. I mean, they didn't - clearly they didn't, there are still Native people in the US, and the 'oh well, they're all dead now' line of thinking is usually used as an excuse for cultural appropriation and ignoring ongoing injustices being perpetuated by the larger American culture onto Native American people (see DAPL). But the US has one of the lowest - if not the lowest - percentage of Native populations within the Americas - even if you don't count Mestizo populations, because ethnicity is complicated. So the typical sheltered White view of 'All the Native Americans died off, except for a few that are okay because they run casinos' is still deplorable, but with less than 1% of the population, it's conceivable that they really don't know anybody of Native American heritage if you're not living west of the Mississippi or taking anyone of Latinx heritage into account (How can anyone ever be two things, ever?)*. But that makes no sense if you're looking in Guatemala, where the population is approximately 40% Native American, 40% Mestizo and 20% White. Or Mexico, which is 62% Mestizo, 28% Native American. It's ridiculous to imagine them going to Central America, looking around, and thinking 'Man, I don't see any descendants of Native Americans anywhere!'

Likewise, Chakotay's dad's reaction to going to Starfleet Academy almost makes sense if you're talking about a culture that has a living memory of residential schools or American Indian boarding schools. It's still a shitty reaction and one that seems more like You Must Be One thing than an informed choice, but you could almost imagine where they might have been coming from if they were only a generation away from 'going to boarding school' meaning 'you will forcibly be assimilated into Whiteness'. But that wasn't really a thing in Central America, nor would that really be a living cultural memory 350 years from now unless it happened again.

Then there's the fact that they also seem to be Amish for some reason? Why do they think they shouldn't have transporters? Do they honestly think Amerindians don't have cars? . . . and the unfortunate answer is yes, because for whatever reason, when when people imagine nonwhite people who have ever come into contact with colonialism, they think their culture completely stopped upon first contact with white people. And that, sometime in the future, they'd be figuring out for the first time how to interact with the dominant culture - Europeans have been in Central America for 500 years now. I think it's possible that there's been a few discussions about it. And the thing that gets me is that we know this, when it comes to white people. Nobody thinks that Irish culture stopped 800 years ago when the British took over, or that Judaism stopped evolving the first time the Jews were threatened (for one thing, we'd have a lot fewer holidays if that was true). Nobody thinks the Welsh don't drive.

And there's a lot of good material there - what happens to a culture that has lived under oppression, what their culture looks like once it's allowed to rediscover itself. Post-colonialist literature and thought is a deep vein. Though admittedly, not one I'd trust the Voyager writers to handle well.

And the fucking aliens built (nonwhite) civilization. Ugh.

The B-plot was there. It was short. I guess it wasn't horrible.
posted by dinty_moore at 5:53 AM on March 28, 2017 [6 favorites]


I don't know if this or Space Hiroshima or Elogium was the worst episode, because they're all bad in their own special way.
posted by dinty_moore at 5:55 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


One of the things that I've been thinking about WRT this episode was whether or not it was fixable. "Jetrel" could have been fixed, I think; ditto for "Elogium", even if it was to back out all the way to the ur-premise that Kes' biology is really different, and let's not assume that it's anything like human just because she looks humanoid. "Tattoo", though... I agree with dinty_moore that a better way would have been to look at how Native American culture had developed through to the 24th century. If they wanted to do anything with the "ancient astronauts" thing, they could have lampshaded it, with Janeway or somebody getting all excited about the possibility that the Sky People (who shouldn't be copy-paper white, please--while we're at it, let's consider the message that's sent with the Q-level energy beings almost always being portrayed as white humans; the Prophets of DS9, who take the form of whichever people the person meeting with them knows, are a major exception) met with the proto-Native Americans, and what influence did they have on your culture? Hey, maybe they gave you fire! And Chakotay is trying not to roll his eyes, and when they finally do meet up, the Sky People are like, hey, what do you mean, what did we give them? They seemed to be doing fine, and besides, we've got the Prime Directive too. You know who we almost broke it for? The Europeans, those motherfuckers were crazy! They invented the Nazis and the Eurovision contest! And Janeway and Paris are looking away all embarrassed, and Chakotay has this little grin.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:42 AM on March 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


the 'oh well, they're all dead now' line of thinking is usually used as an excuse for cultural appropriation and ignoring ongoing injustices being perpetuated by the larger American culture onto Native American people (see DAPL).

Yeesh. I didn't even think of that one.
*full body shudder*
Good catch.

the Sky People are like, hey, what do you mean, what did we give them? They seemed to be doing fine, and besides, we've got the Prime Directive too.

I love this.

As ever, I really appreciate the thoughtful discussion you guys bring. It's why I went ahead and watched this, even though I knew I'd spend like an hour writing an angry rant about it afterward.
posted by mordax at 7:41 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Also, hit post too fast. Still thinking about this stuff:

"Jetrel" could have been fixed, I think

I think so too. Jetrel's overall message at the end is horrible, but it isn't *embraced* until the last few minutes. Even just cutting Jetrel's tidy death and Neelix's appalling 'well I forgave him because the writers obviously put words in my mouth' would've gone a ways toward correcting my impression. Even just letting Jetrel wander off in his ship, knowing that he couldn't reverse what he had done or get forgiveness from Neelix would've been a good first step in script doctoring. Like, the message of that story should've been 'redemption isn't easy or the burden of the victims, and if you do something bad enough you may have to live with it forever.'

Really, the dynamic they needed to be looking for was 'Kira works with Damar to save Cardassia,' but nobody here is really up to it. Ethan Phillips is no Nana Visitor, and I think the nuance and meaning in that story arc was probably lost on the Voyager people, who generally seem to have a less sophisticated view of... everything, I guess.

they're all bad in their own special way.

For what it's worth, that's part of what makes this rewatch interesting. There's this bit in Game of Thrones where Tyrion talks about how 'a lot of study is made of great men, but not idiots,' so he studied an idiot for awhile.

I have long thought this too. I read stuff like twelve Anita Blake novels, I've seen Twilight voluntarily, been reading Fred Clark's Left Behind deconstruction since near its inception and so on. Part of this is cautionary: for instance, it's my view that the lowest circle of writing hell is a *boring* story, not a nonsensical one. An audience's desire to pick something apart is plainly reduced by entertainment value, and that's true even for people like me, who understand that. Like... I could nitpick Guardians of the Galaxy a bunch of different ways, but fuck it, I like those guys and I had fun, so I don't want to.

I'm also motivated by a desire to see what bad ideas people have, because a story has to come from somewhere, and the underpinnings of it come from the assumptions the writers make about life, the universe and everything. Good stories and bad stories both have to do that, so looking at the bigger picture of any narrative is *fascinating*. It's even really weird to look at my own stuff over that sometimes.

Voyager's this... complicated stew of unexamined assumptions held by a particular sort of clueless privileged person. Like, I even *enjoyed* the episode Initiations, but the idea that the Kazon are basically street gangs presupposes a larger authority maintaining order in the Delta Quadrant. Like, the writers can't even picture a place where the rule of law isn't even a thing, the best they can muster is 'it doesn't work very well.'

Tattoo could be shown in classrooms to show everybody 'here's a checklist of stuff that is wrong.'
posted by mordax at 8:11 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Hmm, while there is no question about many of the different problems with the episode others have brought up already, instead of repeating those I'll offer a slightly alternative take on some of the less remarked upon incidents and suggest this episode could have been saved had it been handled just a little differently, and earlier.

It seems to me that, for the character of Chakotay, this episode made more sense in the context of there being more of a divide between Starfleet and the Maquis than there ended up being. It provides Chakotay a reason for his joining them and abandoning Starfleet as well as giving a glimpse of some internal conflict he might have coming from his father's death and his estrangement from him at that time. This would have made more sense had there been some level of tension on the ship that this backstory would go a way towards illuminating and could serve as a basis of disagreement, and possibly some reconciliation, between Chakotay and Janeway had they ever bothered to flesh out that relationship more early on.

Chakotay as portrayed by Beltran comes to both learn to accept some of his father's ideas about tradition and values, but, without expressly saying so, might also still be seen as a character who maintains some disagreement with his father over the values of 24th century life and in breaking with some traditions. It is, after all, Chakotay the former Starfleet officer who meets the "sky spirits" not his father and that comes through his life outside the tribe. It would have served the show well, I think, to make it more expressly clear that Chakotay isn't just tied to his father's traditions and that he can disagree without being seen as somehow no longer "Native American" enough or something.

Beltran, I think, plays his character that way, where his own needs are tied to a sense of failing his father and through that his beliefs in a way that causes Chakotay guilt. This episode goes a little way towards alleviating that guilt, but could have gone farther by expressing the idea more clearly. In meeting the the sky spirits his father saw as quasi-mystical beings in the flesh should have showed Chakotay that there are not beings of mystical power, but other star voyagers like himself, though with some of their own singular gifts. That meeting then should tie his path to his fathers in a way that provides both with some sense of satisfaction, where values meet between the traditions and the life led away from them.

Of course expressing that as such could provide other problems connected to the Chariots of the Gods ideology. Where the traditional belief is being relegated to sci-fi trope by the show, but as a kind of metaphor it makes sense for Chakotay and gives his character some balance. Though even there it should lead to some kind of more sensible follow up as to how meeting these "spirits" would effect Chakotay's beliefs, but the show plays a little fast and loose with that by having the hawk still mystical even as Kolopak is more decidedly "real".

Beltran, I think, does an excellent job with some touchy material in much of the episode, though it is mostly in a low key way. His look of shame when he has to tell Tuvok and B'Elanna to put their phasers away when they show up to "rescue" him shortly after his saying that violence is no longer their way is really nice, but bettered by his wistful half smile when telling Kolopak "We've tried to change our ways since the last time you stopped by." It suggests both an acute awareness of the past along with his recognition of his being in this specific moment in a really lovely way. That moment, to my mind, almost justifies the episode as it does really speak to Rodenberry's vision of what the Trek universe should be, acknowledging the past and taking pains to improve ourselves as a species enough to overcome our worst tendencies. That whole scene is filmed quite well too, with a strong visual tie in to the compassion Kolopak seems to be showing for Chakotay and the bond Chakotay seems to develop with him through his new understanding of his history.

All that said, however, yeah, there are a lot of problems with the episode too. It seems clear to me that the writers intended Kolopak and his people to just be aliens and fell into default white mode for their representation and seemed to take the story of their meeting Chakotay's ancestors as showing those were more advanced humans than others on the planet, but they fucked it all up by not thinking it through in anything other than default white mode. The same with the "torn between two cultures" thing, where it seems they were making an attempt to analogize a leaving the reservation story, which has some meaningful precedent and isn't inherently flawed, but had neither the background or thought things through enough to make that element of the story work quite as it would need to.

All in all, the real problem here is in having a minority group represented by those from outside that group without the necessary background being in place to understand enough of the implications of what they're doing. It's a tough situation in some ways, where one obviously would prefer more minority hiring in the production end, but absent that the interest in portraying minority characters is a good one, but doing it badly isn't necessarily a help. Which leaves TV and film production crews in a tough spot, where they may not be qualified to produce works their values are trying to support and where, on individual shows without sufficient control, they may not be to bring in people needed if they don't have the backing of the money behind the scenes. So while it isn't a no win situation, given some greater research and effort could be put in to avoid some of the issues, it isn't an easy problem to overcome especially if those involved aren't aware of the limits of their own knowledge or are otherwise forced to compromise to get something on the air.

Time in the episode is really wonky, with Chakotay, evidently, being on the planet for over thirty hours, as judged by the progression of the doctor's flu, and the descent by Voyager to the planet taking an exceptionally long time to get from 20,000 ft to the surface, with B'Elanna saying she needs and seemingly gets 20 minutes at that point to give them added power, yet 2000 feet pass in few seconds.

I don't quite get what the idea was with the tribe Chakotay and his father visit in the Central American rainforest. They appear to be alien, and are said not to breed with outsiders, yet Chakotay's father is a relative of some sort? Both, I guess, descended from the group that met the sky spirits.

Wouldn't Janeway and Chakotay be a little more excited about the markings being on both earth and in the Delta Quadrant since that might suggest someone could travel to and from earth there and therefore could possibly have some method to help Voyager reach home as well. And maybe a little more interested in sticking around to learn more about the aliens that changed humanity from the start. I mean that isn't just a Chakotay history thing, but one of the more important pieces of historical information anyone is likely to come by about humankind I'd think.

Neelix's continued use of "Mr. Vulcan" when speaking to Tuvok continues to grate a bit as it reminds me of Princess Leia's "I'd rather kiss a Wookie." moment in that those kinds of comments really fail to grasp the reality of the characters or how that kind of attitude translates once one takes Vulcans or Wookies seriously as races as that kind of talk would be really toxic were the races held as real. At the same time I do at least give the writers some credit for keeping that as a running gag from Neelix's introduction to Tuvok, so that alleviates the issue a tiny bit anyway. Plus Neelix gets his eye shredded for no good reason other than to bring the doctor back on to the screen, so that's a plus.

It's not a good episode, but it isn't my least favorite in part because I can see a "good version" of this one that wouldn't be all that far removed from what we have, even with what we ended up with being the mess it is.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:10 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Or, to put it another way, if you'll pardon my excess here, there are some really good reasons Chakotay could be an excellent addition to the Star Trek legacy as his character as a Native American provides a really solid match for how the shows view the importance of tradition in telling us who we are. Look at how much emphasis they've placed on Vulcan and Klingon traditions and what those mean to the characters portrayed as being of those races. Their traditions, in the Trek view, inform their perspective on how they approach the universe they inhabit and provide a grounding of belief for those characters which the viewer can follow. Having Chakotay could provide something along that same sense of history informing a better future by dint of a history of real beliefs matched against a history of prejudice and abuse.

Unfortunately that also points to the problem the show has with Chakotay, which is he is effectively treated as being more like Vulcans and Klingons than he is the rest of the crew in those beliefs, which is to say, alien. He isn't simply a human being like Janeway or Picard or Kirk, he's something "different" and that doesn't work. At the same time, even with that value placed on tradition, it isn't entirely clear in a show marketed to a mass audience how to best get around that problem.

Look at Harry Kim, for a counter example. He's the character on the show who, so far, has shown the most interest in past Earth high culture, but it's all been Western white culture so far; Beowulf, Moliere, Mozart. Would Harry be a better character if his interests were more strongly tied to his racial heritage or would that then fit all too neatly into the Asian's are like this, while Europeans are like this mode media so easily falls into? A mix of interests, of course, makes the most sense, but in show terms that is often seen as losing character definition and is often viewed as making those characters more alienating when they are exploring their own heritage or too vague if they keep bouncing around between interests.

It's easy to accept Harry's interest in "the classics" because in Western society those are The Classics and in the world of Trek they need no defense since that is the default point of view on what great works in that history would be. It raises no questions by being default European, so people don't push back on his character like they do on Chakotay being default Native American. That isn't to say that view is wrong, or that finding fault is a mistake either way, but that there is some further complications involved that makes this sort of balance more difficult than it appears without a lot more attentiveness than most shows will provide. It isn't a defense of Voyager's handling of Chakotay, I'm just trying to make sure I don't go too far overboard with the criticism either when there was at least the germ of an attempt to do something decent involved.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:58 AM on March 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


Incidentally, checking out Larry Brody's writing/production credits is pretty amusing. (Brody came up with the story for this episode.)

He was involved with tons of shows, a lot of them pretty nutty, like David Cassidy- Man Undercover, where Brody was the creator of the show where Cassidy plays an undercover cop operating in the LA youth scene, which is so seventies.

Brody wrote a number of episodes of The Magician, with Bill Bixby as a crime fighting illusionist, a show I dug as a kid. And he sold scripts for all sorts of other detective and quasi-sci-fi shows big and small, like Cannon, Ironsides, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Fall Guy, Spider-Man Unlimited, some Silver Surfer show I don't remember, The New Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Automan (starring Desi Arnaz Jr as the creator of a computer generated superhero, Superforce (An astronaut turns vigilante when his cop brother is murdered), an animated tv show version of Diabolik (?!), Heaven Help Us (John Schneider and Melinda Clarke as a dead couple who help people in order to make it to Heaven or something, with Ricardo Montalban as the Heavenly gatekeeper), Xyber 9:New Dawn (an animated show back in 1999 with Rene Auberjonois and Tim Curry about some kid finding a powerful AI device and fighting an evil king or some such), and, more to the point of this thread, an episode of Star Trek the Animated Series with a plot that sounds a little familiar:

The USS Enterprise is exploring the center of the galaxy, looking for the heart of creation. When the ship is caught inside a tornado made of pure energy, a devil like being calling himself Lucien appears to save them. Lucien takes Capt. Kirk and his crew to the magical planet of Megas-Tu. But when the Megans discover the presence of humans, they put them on trial the same way they were treated when they visited Earth centuries earlier.


I haven't seen the episode, but it too features a ship swallowing cyclone and a past visit to earth by aliens who were subsequently mistreated by Earthlings, in the Salem Witch Trials it appears, and now are suspicious of Federation era human motives and actions. It's a much nuttier looking thing than this episode, with a devil like being, Lucien, and the crew of the Enterprise practicing magic and drawing pentagrams, but the outlines of this Voyager episode are all there in rough form.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:32 PM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't Janeway and Chakotay be a little more excited about the markings being on both earth and in the Delta Quadrant since that might suggest someone could travel to and from earth there and therefore could possibly have some method to help Voyager reach home as well.

This actually gets at another problem I have with this episode: Chakotay doesn't tell anybody much of anything. He doesn't explain why he thinks the markings on the ground mean something, he doesn't explain why people should disarm and so on. He just keeps quiet and cryptic about all of this, and there's never an explicit discussion of why he wouldn't share.
posted by mordax at 11:59 PM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Well, he did have that initial talk with Janeway, which I found sort of interesting, but, yeah, he really needed to share more. It could have provided a nice way to bring some more development to his relationship with Tuvok, given the importance of tradition in Vulcan society, and in better bridging that logic vs instinct divide in some way other than falling back on the usual, logic doesn't explain everything note they tend to hit so often. Tuvok wasn't really citing logic, just Starfleet protocol, he should have been able to grasp the thought process behind setting aside the weapons, even if he felt security protocol should be the more important.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:36 AM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


I imagine this is another symptom of the episode being overstuffed. It had to cover so much territory that taking time for Starfleet protocols may have been deemed impossible.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:46 AM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's really interesting that Brody wrote "The Magicks of Megas-Tu", because I think that it's probably a much better episode than this one. TAS is really a mixed bag, with some episodes that are straight-up sequels of TOS episodes, some that are just weird and don't really fit into Star Trek (like the one with the giant Spock clone, or the one that effectively retrofits much of Larry Niven's Known Space continuity into Trek continuity), and ones like this, that would have made pretty decent TOS episodes, save for a few details (like Lucien's goat legs) that would have been difficult to do well with the effects of the time. (This still from the episode tickles me because, if you look closely, you'll see that Arex's stocks have three holes for all of his hands.) It's kind of similar to Apollo showing up in "Who Mourns for Adonais?", but the aspect of the crew being put on trial for the crimes of humanity would later be used in TNG's first episode, "Encounter at Farpoint", and repeated in the last episode. and the idea of the devil being an alien in "Devil's Due."
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:13 AM on March 29, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think this is ultimately coming down to whether it's better to have bad representation or no representation, which can be contentious. But I'd make the point that this representation is outdated even for the mid-90's - it feels like a 70's/Chris Claremont-esque attempt at representation - which was often the result 'well meaning white person likes idea of diversity, doesn't consult the people they're trying to portray'. In the 90's, the model was more to have ethnic consultants hired (and sometimes ignored, but that's a different story), which is where Jamake Highwater comes in - but since he's not giving anything factual out, so it's just more white people opinions. But also - I think that some of the problems with this episode are bad enough that they really should have been obvious to non-woke white people 20 years ago. It's not exactly a secret that there's a lot of living brown people in Central America, and they're sort of telling a leaving the rez story about people who never were in reservations. I do think that doing justice to a Central American Amerindian story would be difficult to do on 90's television - it'd be a lot of explaining of foreign cultural contexts to people whose best chance of being introduced to them was seeing El Norte. But even selecting a singular tribe that was somewhere in the US or Canada that the Sky Spirits adopted, rather than the population of two continents, would have made the episode less objectionable.

The other reason why I'm still not tempted to give them very much leeway is that I realized that a lot of what we'd mentioned as possibilities to fix this episode - more focus on reclaiming identity after oppression, maybe meeting incredibly powerful creatures worshipped as gods, but doing so in a way that's respectful to the people's beliefs - that was currently happening in the Bajor storylines on DS9. If I have the air dates correct, this episode aired right around the time there was the episode where they both try to bring back the caste system, and Sisko and Kira have the awkward conversation about how Kira sees Sisko as both a religious figure and her boss. It doesn't have to look exactly the same as DS9, and I don't want the show to be DS9. But a large part of why that was successful was that DS9 was willing to shift from white human dude as default in a way that Voyager is unwilling to do (see: The showrunners thinking we need to see a lot of Tom Paris). Whether or not it's a heavy order, it's something that Trek is able to do. And that's also getting to the part of the Jamake Highwater debacle - the reason why he was able to get work even though he'd been debunked a decade previously was because it doesn't seem like they really cared about getting it right, as long as they could pay someone to put a stamp of legitimacy on the whole thing.

I don't know, even grading this on a 90's white person curve, it seems to fail.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:46 AM on March 29, 2017 [7 favorites]


For me, I guess my only real difference in grading would be to give Beltran full credit for getting the most out of what he's given and give the rest of production side around the main plotline a D- instead of a fail for at least suggesting some potentially more meaningful ideas even as they never really explicitly address them.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:00 AM on March 29, 2017 [6 favorites]


But a large part of why that was successful was that DS9 was willing to shift from white human dude as default in a way that Voyager is unwilling to do (see: The showrunners thinking we need to see a lot of Tom Paris). Whether or not it's a heavy order, it's something that Trek is able to do. And that's also getting to the part of the Jamake Highwater debacle - the reason why he was able to get work even though he'd been debunked a decade previously was because it doesn't seem like they really cared about getting it right, as long as they could pay someone to put a stamp of legitimacy on the whole thing.

Oh, and this is exactly right. Trek really does need to get past default Euro-white mode for it to work as it should. It's something both Voyager and TNG really struggled with and often didn't succeed in doing. In TNG they tended towards neutralization and in Voyager made a number of flat out bad choices, not the least of which was bringing on Highwater as a consultant in vague "Indian" lore.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:11 AM on March 29, 2017


I think this is ultimately coming down to whether it's better to have bad representation or no representation, which can be contentious.

I struggle with how I feel about that internally. I guess 'acceptable vs unacceptable representation' is sort of like obscenity to me - I'm not sure I could spell it out, but I can tell the difference for myself when I look at a work.

I'm obviously brown, but I'm not Native American, so this isn't up to me to decide. Ultimately, I think it should be up to that community whether this is all right. However, if it were my place, I think the thing that puts it over the line into 'don't even mention brown people' is the bit where aliens gave Native Americans language. If that plot point were recast as 'aliens were totally their buddies and came to visit' without removing anything else awful, this episode would rise to 'okay, you meant well guys, you're just dumb.'

I don't know, even grading this on a 90's white person curve, it seems to fail.

I'm pretty sure that some of the affluent whites I knew in the 90s would've been able to tell this was an insulting story back then, yes. Probably not all of them. Probably not exactly why in the sort of detail we can muster today - my analysis would've been shallower as a teenager. But I'm pretty sure my smarter or more sensitive pals would've gotten 'hey stereotype alert, this is a dumb or offensive story,' because we did sometimes have that kind of discussion about particularly cringe inducing work.

For me, I guess my only real difference in grading would be to give Beltran full credit for getting the most out of what he's given and give the rest of production side around the main plotline a D- instead of a fail for at least suggesting some potentially more meaningful ideas even as they never really explicitly address them.

I'm not willing to concede the final idea - that they deserve credit for raising these issues - on the basis of the objection above. However, the rest is a fair point: Beltran is a fine actor who does the best he can with the dreadful material he's offered, and I could see someone giving this a mild bump for a decent B-plot.

I wouldn't argue with a D-. It just isn't as pithy - at a D-, I'd only be 'dangry' instead of 'furious.'
posted by mordax at 8:51 AM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


(Followup note: none of us cared enough about about Voyager to pick it apart like this back then, few of us sticking with it even through S1. Most of my friends in this era were white, and we were all way more interested in Babylon 5 in those days. Voyager was plainly so terrible that Tattoo just never even came up around the gaming table.)
posted by mordax at 8:57 AM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


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