Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.5: Fantastic Voyager

The Cloud

Star Trek Voyager The Cloud

‘Hey Ric! RIC! I was Inner Space, dude! Why not make the title about that? “Inner Spaceship“! Huh? Huh? Hello?’

An obvious title, I realise. Mine I mean, though Gods know “The Cloud” isn’t something anyone should feel proud about coming up with either. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t feel bad about going for the easy reference. This isn’t an episode trying to hide its influences, after all. We should respect that degree of directness. We should appreciate a willingness to get to the point.

“I Just Popped Round To Borrow A Cup Of Coffee”

There was never any chance this epsiode’s nebula creature could fill up the run-time. Not without unacceptable levels of padding. Michael Piller is on record as saying as much, but we don’t need his experience of writing for television to figure that out.

There’s nothing wrong with a slight main story, of course. Indeed, I complained that the very last episode of Voyager had far too much going on for it to work as a whole. An installment as decompressed as this one is an obvious corrective to that. I’m also entirely with Piller’s call to fill the rest of the episode with small character moments.  That’s just the sort of thing we need to help us to get to know this new crew. Whether or not things actually work out that way is something we’ll come back to. But having noted how unusually unimportant the A-plot is this time around, let’s get it out of the way first.

At first glance, the “cloud creature” concept maybe doesn’t look all that impressive. And I mean that literally as well as metaphorically. The original idea was to use this episode as a showcase for the visual wizardry the franchise could pull off after eight years of continuous practice. That had to quickly be jettisoned when it was pointed out everyone’s experience was in creating stuff that looked cool, not in magicking up the swimming pool of cash needed to pull off what this script called for. In truth the episode hardly looks bad – there’s a lot about the cloud’s visuals I like – but it soon became clear that the story couldn’t rely on spectacle alone. It would help if among all those omicron particles, there was some tasty metaphorical meat.

In actual fact, we don’t really get that much to chew on, but I don’t think that particularly matters. Yes, stating that a Starfleet crew won’t leave a creature to suffer after they’ve accidentally hurt it is pretty banal. There’s something in here about Federation arrogance, perhaps – seeing a cloud 8AUs across and assuming it’s a nebula is no smarter than seeing movement through an electron microscope and thinking you’ve found a doberman pinscher – but there’s not much here to build that reading on. You could maybe squint at it just so and see a shadow of anti-imperialist sentiment – gone are the days of sending a ship into someone else’s territory to sweep up everything of value before sailing away giggling – but even that says nothing uncontentious to anyone not wittering on about the British Empire 2.0. It’s just too clear to everyone that helping the alien out is the right thing to do (well, to everyone but Neelix, but we’ll get to that).

Fortunately, this simplicity isn’t a problem, because the program’s youth and its conceit combine to make it all work. It’s precisely because this is such an easy call for our crew that it’s interesting. Let me explain what I mean. Right now Janeway is happy to puff herself up and lecture Neelix on the fact that this is How Things Are Done. But we know that next week our crew will still be stuck in the Delta Quadrant. We know that next week, she might find the luxury of burning those energy reserves as far out of her reach as is a decent cup of coffee.

This was never a show that lacked for potential. In some ways, it had more to offer than any of its fellow spin-offs. The greatest strength Voyager had over the shows that came before is the built-in capacity for change. Not just in spatial terms, though the ability to wipe the board clean every so often and basically begin the Delta Quadrant anew was itself a pretty nice feature. More important though – if such is your bag – was the capacity for circumstances to deteriorate and characters to become more desperate, without needing some kind of intrusive plot arc sucking up all the oxygen. Deep Space Nine needed to tie every third episode to a horrifyingly destructive interstellar war to interrogate how the Federation’s approach to utopianism might warp under the pressure of an existential threat. The USS Voyager just needed to keep moving forward. Every episode of this show would be harder for our characters than the episode before, simply because of entropy. So sure, Janeway won’t countenance leaving this creature to suffer and maybe die today. What about a year from now? At what point does the resulting energy drain simply become too high a price to pay?

Considered from this angle, what “The Cloud” does is twofold. Firstly, it makes clear that Janeway doesn’t regret her choice of principle over expediency in “Caretaker”. That is to say, the basic ideals of Starfleet have very much followed her into the Delta Quadrant. She didn’t save the Ocampans due to the moral equivalent of muscle memory. Second, it sets up a pair of potential paths going forward, both of which have great potential in very different ways.

The first of these would use this episode as a yardstick, allowing each season to show how far the crew has come since the earliest days of the voyage. Again, I’m referring to more here than simple distance. It might have been season seven would have opened with the main characters standing around a dying fire fueled by their own furniture asking themselves what the hell they’d been thinking burning a fifth of their energy reserves for a cloud creature that was no damn use to anyone. “The Cloud” would become the high point of the ship’s moral approach against which all later actions could be measured.

It’s rather ironic that this is the first episode of Voyager that Ronald D Moore worked on (edit: in fact this is Ronald B Moore’s first episode, and I’m the latest in a long line of idiots who have confused the two men), because the obvious comparison here is his version of Battlestar Galactica.

Moore of course has gone on record as having resurrected the franchise at least in part as a response to how little he enjoyed working on this show. William Adama and friends only came about because Moore decided he had to write about a knackered, lonely ship trying to reach safety in the way he thought it should be done. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Moore improved upon Voyager with his militarised grimdark misery-drenched squabble-fest (and I adored it at the time), obviously. One way in which the Trek iteration potentially had the edge , though, was its ability to start with business as usual and descend only slowly into nightmare. Things got worse for the Colonial Fleet too as the years went on, of course, but the downward spiral couldn’t help but look pretty shallow compared to the initial catastrophic drop. Seeing desperation and cynicism begin to drip into a Federation crew could actually have been more gripping than watching the survivors of interplanetary armageddon drowning in an ocean of it.

Or maybe things would go the other way. Maybe the series would refuse to take a single step backwards from the position it takes here. Perhaps Janeway would draw a line in the comet dust and stand firm in upholding the ideals of the Federation on every single day of their epic hike home. If this was the route the show took, this early, easy shout would become the template for the rest of the show. Each episode would feature our increasingly frazzled, bruised crew totally refusing to compromise who they are, even in the face of direst need. The dilemmas would become more and more testing, but this crew would defy the odds and damn the photon torpedoes throughout. They would not move a single inch from the people they were, and thereby would become ever more inspiring. It’s not that this approach to the show would ignore the kind of difficult decision BSG focused on. It’s just that it would refuse to come up with the same cynical answers.

Either option is stuffed with possibility, and requires something like this to get it started. This is the opening note in a stirring concerto. It doesn’t need to be fascinating in and of itself. It needs to let you know something has begun.

Union Rules

With the A plot covered, we’re free to move into the more interesting half of the episode. Before we start considering any of the character vignettes in any detail, though, we should think about the overall structure. Almost without exception, each of these small moments either deals with or leads up to dealing with the issue of Janeway’s boundaries regarding the crew (paralleling the ship’s own breaching of the cloud’s boundaries). Kim and Tuvok swapping bitchy notes on the bridge is about the only example I can think of that doesn’t fit the pattern, and that exchange could have been in almost any episode (also, Harry? Volunteering ignorance is not the same thing as confessing it when pressed for an answer). Everything else points in the exact same direction.

On balance, shifting everything here back to the captain seems a good idea. There are risks, obviously; implying the most powerful person on the ship is also the most important runs into all sorts of problems. This early into the series, though, going down this route is understandable. The focus has to be somewhere. And certainly, bringing up Janeway’s concerns about captaining crew-members who can’t request transfer or resign their commission for the next seventy years or so makes a lot of sense.

Effort has clearly gone into thinking how to structure this, too. Take Torres, for instance. My partner pointed out it didn’t seem like her to be so concerned at the idea of a surprise inspection. Actually, I suspect B’Elanna’s case of nerves stems from how much she’s into Janeway – “I didn’t realise there was an inspection scheduled” is only a minor variation on “If I’d known you were coming I wouldn’t be in my sweats”. Either way, though, I think B’Elanna is being bent slightly out of shape here in order to make a point. She’s acting like a standard Starfleet officer so as to contrast how they react to a captain’s surprise arrival with what Neelix does. Torres responds the way Janeway expects precisely because Neelix isn’t going to. The chief engineer reacts to an unexpected Janeway sighting by getting nervous. Neelix reacts by trying to hit on her.

In the process, Janeway’s brief opening stroll efficiently demonstrates her general problem. Her mere presence can cause crew-members to undergo a minor freak-out. At best they’ll make awkward small talk like Kim and Paris, clearly counting the seconds until she leaves and they can relax again. She needs to find some way to connect with them, if only so she doesn’t go crazy from the isolation. On the other hand, though, Neelix here demonstrates what the captain risks if she goes too far in that direction; over-familiarity to the point of borderline sexual harassment. Plus, obviously, an unhealthy dollop of unsolicited second-guessing.

The thing is, though, Neelix isn’t exactly wrong when he criticises Janeway for steering clear of his locally-sourced beverage. It really is important she set an example, replicator rations notwithstanding.  He’s also got a point about throwing the ship back into the cloud, for that matter, for all that narrative logic leads us to side with the captain. Plus, by rallying from his dressing-down by declaring himself a union rep he achieves his finest hour in the show to date. Of course the ship is going to need some kind of alternative work schedule, given crew rotation options are now sorely limited. I’m not sure serving finger food during jaunts through an alien’s innards is necessarily the best idea, but at least he’s trying. It’s really a shame that Janeway shoots him down before he can launch into some Billy Bragg.

As irritating as he might be, then, Neelix is forcing Janeway to flesh out her approach to running Voyager in the Delta Quadrant. Clearly this is something someone has to do, if the captain won’t make the effort herself (note how Janeway’s concerns this episode are entirely about her own attitude, whereas Neelix immediately realises there’s a more general problem). And ultimately, the choice he prompts her into making is a rather simple one. She lets her crew decide. She retains both the right and the ability to let them know when they’ve pushed too far – “That’s a Starfleet expression for ‘get out’!” – but up to that point, it’s for them to decide how close they want her to get.

All of which leads Janeway to a dark bar on a Paris waterfront, and into the private lives of her crew. Which results in a kind of cheesy ending, I guess, but ultimately a well-intentioned one. Better to go for heart-warming and miss than make absolutely everything about sniping and misery. There’s also something quite nice about watching Janeway hustle Chakotay, given I suspect that’s what he’s been doing to her all episode. I’ll come back to that at the end of the post, though. First I feel obliged to talk about Chez Sandrine itself. Because while the basic idea may be sound, there’s some things about it that bother me about it, and even more so its creator.

Pool Breaks And Break-Ins

Tom’s holodeck program sets off all kinds of alarm bells.  Who programmes two women to fight over them? One of whom he pushes into all his programs, no less. I guess his obsession with her is expressed by enjoying seeing her jealous. That’s not at all creepy, right? And this is his third stab at it! Best not speculate why he didn’t invite Harry to meet Ricky during whatever scenario the first two involved

Yet it gets worse. Tom has slapped together a program of a famous pool player and, at best, overruled the computer when it asked whether he wanted his creation to be misogynistic as all hell (this is the twenty-fourth century; of course the computer checks if you want your holodeck characters to be appallingly sexist). More likely specifically asked for this attitude, figuring that this is simply how manly men used to behave. What are the feelings of his female coworkers compared to (what he thinks is) rigid historical accuracy? It’s a recreation of a mid-20th century pool hustler. It wouldn’t be realistic for him to not be awful!

It’s all desperately and uncomfortably sleazy. The fact this place was thought up by the production team to be something akin to the Enterprise-D‘s poker nights makes me wonder how much anyone involved actually understands what made the older show work in the first place.

(The most obvious objection to all this is that we’re meant to understand this kind of attitude is just part of Paris’ character. That won’t wash, though. The show too clearly has no problem with what he gets up to. In fact, Memory Alpha’s page on this episode tells how Garrett Wang asked the director why none of the women in Chez Sandrine seem all that into him, and was told it was because he was “the nice guy”. So well done for reinforcing BS misogynist theories on set as well as on screen, guys!)

None of that however bothers me as much as him breaking into Kim’s quarters and looming over his bed. That’s just completely, horrifically unacceptable. I mean, how can that not have been clear to literally everyone involved? It’s obviously unnecessary, for one thing. Paris has a communicator and Kim has a door chime. Even if there was no other way for Tom to get a hold of Harry, though, getting to him this way wouldn’t be justifiable for anything but the direst emergency.  This is just the most utterly despicable violation of privacy. In an episode that spends so much time focusing on where and how Janeway should best draw up her borders, it’s tremendously aggravating seeing how completely Kim’s own boundaries are casually torn through. And all in the name of making Paris seem edgy and cool. Because what could be cooler than sneaking into people’s bedrooms while they sleep, right?

(Seriously. Combine Paris’ obvious issues with women and his willingness to trespass into the most personal spaces, and you’ve got a character any right thinking person would mace before letting him lead them into the holodeck late at night).

On an average week, that might be the worst thing an episode would have to offer. On this occasion, though, there’s potential competition. I can’t finish this post without taking a look at how “The Cloud” makes use of Chakotay’s Native American heritage.

Akoonah Matata

First: the disclaimer. I am not even remotely close to an expert in anything pertaining to any off the hundreds of cultures and peoples encapsulated or touched upon by the term “Native American”. The distance between me and expertise on this would make Voyager‘s odyssey look like nipping to the corner shop. So you’ll need to look elsewhere for an informed discussion of Chakotay’s success as a Native American character. All I can do is summarise what those links and many others have said. Chakotay’s heritage has no equivalent in reality, and that’s not simply because different writers had different ideas about where he was from. Even within this episode, there’s no consistency in the cultural elements. His medicine bundle is a grab-bag of different traditions, none of which match up with the peyote use he simulates through his akoonah [1]. Then there’s the fact he refers to the idea of animal guides as a “Native American tradition”, which makes no more sense than a German referring to lederhosen as “European clothing”, or a Norwegian calling lutefisk “a European dish”. His facial tattoo seems to mark him out as Maori.

All of this is pretty irritating, and it will only get worse as the show tries to make its mind up about where Chakotay comes from. Fans have spent a lot of time trying to find a way to make all the various clues hang together, including trying to link Chakotay to Dorvan V, the world colonised by various Native American tribes that the Enterprise-D visited a year earlier. Apparently the dates don’t actually match up, so it doesn’t work. To be honest, though, I’m not really that interested in this approach in any case. I think that if you’re looking for some kind of explanation for how little sense Chakotay’s sense of culture makes, there are two obvious choices.

Let’s go through the depressing one first, so things can improve later. Chakotay’s heritage may look like a jumbled combination of disparate elements because that’s all the horrors of history has left him. Perhaps the final centuries before the emergence of the Federation finally managed what the previous five or six had only threatened, and rendered Native American cultures essentially extinct, at least on Earth. Chakotay and those like him might lack a historical analogue to their culture because they’re trying to reconstruct something now lost as best they can from whatever parts they have to hand. Well, not lost. Stolen. Forcibly removed by generations of warfare and plague and oppression and systemic violence. Perhaps the 24th century Native Americans honour their ancestry in the same way many African Americans embrace Kwanzaa – something intentionally pan-continental in approach to maximise a sense of comradeship between those oppressed so badly for so long that their history itself has been beaten beyond easy recognition.

There are multiple reasons to reject this idea. It’s miserable as hell, for a start, but much worse than that; it’s an act of erasure. It suggests Native Americans have almost no role in our species’ future. An unfortunate absence about which regrettably nothing can be done. That’s something that already has too much support as an approach out in the real.

And that’s a huge problem. It turns a contemporary outrage into a historical regret. As Maureen Kincaid Speller points out in her brilliant essay “They Are Not Ghosts”, this is its own form of oppression. When you pretend someone is dead, you exonerate yourself of any responsibility to support their struggle to stay alive.

So let’s not go down that road. Instead, let’s choose the one that is both far more fun and much more likely. Maybe Chakotay’s description of his culture makes no sense because he’s just making this stuff up to screw with Janeway.

“I Use My Replicator Rations To Mess With People”

Because imagine just how much fun that would be for Chakotay. He starts off referring to a profoundly personal aspect of his spirituality as a “Native American” tradition, to see whether Janeway even knows enough of the basics to question so odd a phrase. When she doesn’t, he moves to phase two; launching into an attack of a Famous and Important White Man for thinking he’d revolutionised thinking by glomming onto what millions of people across the Atlantic already knew. Presumably the Captain earns points for not instinctively defending Jung. Chakotay establishes that she’s not a knee-jerker, which is something. What she clearly is, though, is desperately over-eager. She’s wrapped up in the old idea of the “exotic” Native American; the specifics don’t really seem to matter.

So Chakotay moves on to phase three: the fake medicine bundle. Something he just whipped up moments before from replicator rations and stuff he happened to have lying around in his quarters. “I’ve never shown it to anyone before” he says somberly, as he shows Janeway a rock he picked up on a whim during his last away mission, and tries not to giggle.

We know this is all fake. We know it because there’s no way a bird’s wing could have survived Chakotay’s exploits in “Caretaker” had it been on his person, and it couldn’t have made it off his ship if it hadn’t. But that’s a pretty subtle clue, so the script brings in Torres to makes things as clear as possible without actually spelling things out. If Chakotay has never shown his medicine bundle to anyone before, how could Chakotay have helped B’Elanna meet her own animal guide? How much more obvious can it be that Chakotay is messing with Janeway? And really, what else do you do with a white American so desperate to connect with the spirituality of a culture her ancestors may very well have tried to exterminate (depending on where Chakotay actually is from). It’s basically Voyager’s best joke ever, and underplayed delightfully, just as we’d expect from him.

And as I say, it feels like Janeway eventually cottons on, at least in part. Hence her decision to hustle Chakotay at the episode’s end. She’s saying “We can both play this game”, basically. And if I’m wrong on that, and Janeway is hustling Chakotay without any awareness that he’s already done the same to her, that’s probably even funnier.

So there we are. A far from perfect episode, but one with a lot of nice moments. More than that, though, there’s the feeling “The Cloud” is the first episode of Voyager that’s actually offering us a template for how the series is going to develop. Right now, it’s a conscious attempt to recapture the magic of The Next Generation, only without the sense of taking itself so seriously. But that idea is fundamentally in opposition with the narrative’s wider context, so we exist here in tension between what we’re being shown and what must inevitably come next. It’s very exciting.

Unless of course it throws away every scintilla of its potential and just decides to be lightweight fluff. But no-one would do something so foolish as that, surely?

[1] The akoonah itself caused some controversy when it was used, though so far I haven’t been able to track down what specifically bothered people. Naively, I can see some benefit to a machine that lets Starfleet officers (or resistance fighters for that matter) engage in the rituals of their ancestors whilst risking being mid-fugue when the ship gets jumped by Nausicaans. I am speaking from ignorance here, though, I realise.

Ordering

1. More Tribbles, More Troubles

2. Captive Pursuit

3. The Cloud

4. Where No One Has Gone Before

5. The Enemy Within

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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