Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.8: “You Really HAVE Gone Where No Man Has Gone Before”

Emanations

Star Trek Emanations

Who the hell are these people?

Right then. Death, the Star Trek way.

Say “No” To Mummy Mining

At heart, “Emanations” is a story which displays two different cultures’ attitudes towards the end of our lives. What’s interesting is that the displays run completely independent to each other. There’s almost no attempt at comparison whatsoever, beyond the occasional throwaway comment and Kim’s distaste for the Vhnori approach.

Direct comparison was always going to be difficult, though, given the focus on the Vhnori attitude to death. There just isn’t anything equivalent on the Federation side. There is no Federation approach to considering death; it’s far too heterogeneous a society for there to be some kind of orthodox approach. What we explore here instead is the Federation attitude to the dead. This turns out to be more or less exactly what we might have expected, but it’s still worthwhile to confirm just how committed our protagonists are to honouring the mortal remains of people they never met.  Once the crew realise they’ve stumbled into an alien graveyard – which looks just right, actually, sad and slightly spooky like all the best things are – the debate which breaks out is over whether to be really respectful or really really respectful. Even better, the episode looks like it’s presenting Kim’s desire to perform light grave desecration FOR SCIENCE and Chakotay’s observer effect militancy as opposing positions for the captain to come down between. Instead though, Janeway immediately sides entirely with Chakotay. I don’t know if this is because she’s aware of his experience as an anthropologist and happy to take his lead, or if she’s just primed to pick the most respectful option presented to her. Either way, having her totally reject some hypothetically reasonable middle ground on the issue is a strong indication that humanity has finally reached a place where it will not compromise an inch in its respect for other cultures, even at the expense of major material gain.

Speaking of which, I love how the actual reason for being in the caves to begin with – getting samples of what could prove to be the most important substance to the Federation since dilithium – is abandoned without comment or discussion the instant it’s learned the super-element is people. Kim argues for additional investigation in order to learn more about this culture, but the idea of taking samples of the material itself isn’t mentioned again once we learn where it comes from. There’s not even the briefest argument for the sake of form; it’s just immediately and universally decided this unimaginably precious resource won’t be stripped from the dead. The counter-argument is too horrible to even accept it exists.

(I’ll note in passing the political importance of a Native American character telling a white American captain how the sacred spaces of another culture should be respected above her own needs, and for them to immediately agree. Neither Robert Beltran nor Chakotay are Standing Rock Sioux specifically or Sioux in general, but the Dakota Access Pipeline protests comes to mind when I think about this scene. Again, note that the episode considers the position of putting profit and expediency over the sanctity of another culture’s holy sites so appalling that it won’t allow any of its characters to even suggest it as a possibility.)

This is all tremendously pleasing on its own terms, but it also feeds back into comments I made on “The Cloud“. Back then I argued that as Voyager continues on its journey, it will get increasingly tempting for the crew to creep by inches away from their Federation ideals (this won’t even take long; we’ve got “Prime Factors” coming up next). The longer they’re in space, the more damaged their ship becomes, and the more friends they lose and enemies they gain, the easier it will be to justify compromise in the name of pragmatism.  I realise that we’re only two episodes further along, but the continued holding of that line is an encouraging sign. Not for this episode some grimdark BS hypothetical about how there might be a situation in which strip-mining the dead is a good thing. One could easily imagine an episode of late-period Enterprise where robbing graves and processing the dead was necessary for the fight against the Xindi, leading to Archer frowning a lot before finally going through with it. Mainly, actually, this is easy to imagine because they did something kind of similar in season 3. Here, though, the line is held. Our heroes will remain themselves.

The Spiritual Dimension

Being a science fiction show, of course, Voyager gets to take things a little further, and eventually Janeway finds herself demonstrating her attitude to dead people to someone who actually used to be one.

I confess to being rather ambivalent about the character of Ptera, as I don’t think the episode treats her particularly well at all. She shows up to deliver exposition, and act as though a society advanced enough to build the euthanasia pods they rely upon never came up with CPR. Then she becomes a prop to demonstrate Janeway’s kindness before finally being summarily dispatched.

None of that is Janeway’s fault. though. Her handling of Ptera’s miserable confusion is pleasingly sympathetic in general, but what’s really nice is the heroic efforts she goes to in reassuring Ptera her faith needn’t be cast aside. It is of course a well-worn trope for a character to briefly die and then freak out because they weren’t immediately rushed to the pearly gates, or whatever it was they were expecting. “All I saw was blackness. All I felt was nothing”, that sort of thing. Hell, Voyager itself uses this precise cliché in “Mortal Coil”, three years later. This has always struck me as a pretty cheap way of bringing about an existential crisis. I’m not qualified to talk about other religions, but as regards Christianity at least it seems ridiculous to think you’d be swept upwards to briefly receive your heavenly reward in circumstances where an all-knowing God is fully aware you’re just taking a momentary break from this sorrowful life.  It’s like coming back from a weekend break and being amazed no-one’s moved into your flat.

“Emanations” skips this problem by having Ptera explain that death for the Vhnori means an actual transfer into another body on the other side of the emanation, something which quite clearly hasn’t happened. The only physical forms on this side of the rifts are quite clearly dead as hell. Ptera’s religious beliefs have been disproved about as conclusively as is possible.

And yet Janeway is absolutely determined to offer as much hope as she can to Ptera. She insists the woman’s arrival on Voyager proves nothing one way or another. This, obviously, is entirely lovely. With the franchise seemingly almost allergic to exploring the specific spiritual beliefs of its human characters, it’s in these small acts of kindness that we learn the most about our species’ 24th century concepts of religion. Whatever has caused this odd dearth of religious reference across the Alpha Quadrant, we discover here it most certainly isn’t anti-theism. Instead, Janeway’s first instinct when talking to someone struggling to maintain faith in a theology literally alien to her is to try and offer spiritual support. Despite coming from an apparently more technologically advanced society and having strong reason to believe the erstwhile religious beliefs of a stranger are scientifically impossible [1], Janeway refuses to offer up some New Atheist smugness about foolish barbarians and their prima facie ridiculous ideas.

Janeway’s response doubles as a possible explanation of the absence of obvious religious practice I mentioned above. Perhaps no-one talks about religion any more because they don’t feel the need to. Perhaps everyone is now so secure in the validity of their own perspectives, and so totally aware of the need to respect everyone else’s, that each person’s private religious beliefs remain just that: private. In this reading organised religion isn’t necessarily dead amongst humankind (depending perhaps on how one defines “organised”), it’s evangelism that’s gone. You’re still getting the service, just not the ad buys. No-one tries to bribe you with Heaven or blackmail you with Hell (actually, eternal damnation as a concept probably is dead). Unless you want someone to help you out with an ongoing spiritual crisis – something presumably rather less common in a post-scarcity culture – it’s probably too private a topic to raise over replicated coffee and cake.

An Antiquated Approach

From the implicitly bespoke spiritual leanings of the Federation, we travel to the apparently worldwide Vhnori obsession with death. I’m guessing nobody needs me to point out the parallels here, which are not so much obvious as they are inescapable.

Star Trek Emanations 2

SUBTLE VISUAL CLUES

From the bandaged proto-corpses stuffed into sarcophagi, through to Ranora’s hat and Neria’s golden scarab-esque bling, there’s nothing even approaching doubt regarding what we’re seeing here.

Picking it apart is a rather different matter, however. I know very little about the reality of life along the Nile thousands of years back. What’s worse, I’ve seen it represented in fiction so many times I can’t even rely on what I think I know. Complicating matters even further, the sheer amount of time that passed between the rise of the First Dynasty and the fall of the Thirty-first means even those meager scraps of genuine knowledge I possess probably don’t hold true across the entire span of the cultures we lump together under the label “ancient Egypt”.

Despite all those caveats, I’m comfortable saying that for at least some of the pharaohs, whatever happened after death was pretty damn important. You don’t arrange for 800 tonnes of stone a day to be added to a structure over twenty years if you’re not all that bothered about what the end product will mean for you. Like the Vhnori, many ancient Egyptians believed that death was a transition into a new stage of life, and – again like the Vhnori, – that the nature of that new existence depended on the circumstances of your death and burial.  It wasn’t just the size of your pyramid that showed how awesome a ruler a given pharaoh was, it was the complexity of the mummification process, too.  Meanwhile, if you were poor, you were thrown into a pit, and had to rely on the hot, dry conditions to mummify the body naturally.

(Note by the way the historical irony of the Egyptian ruling class having to pay through the same nose their brain would be pulled out of so they could fund research into an expensive and complex chemical/surgical method of mummification, jut so it would convincingly fake the results of just being left outside after death. It appears rich people spending their money to mimic the poor – rather than, y’know, actually help them not be poor – isn’t a new idea.)

The process this episode is referencing via Hatil’s burial shroud and the euthanasia chamber, then, was essentially the preserve of the dynastic one percent. Not the sort of people, in other words, who might feel compelled to agree to assisted suicide so as to no longer be a burden on their families.

This might seem like nitpicking. What does it matter if iconography from millennia ago is re-purposed and applied to a different class, in a different society? This is fictitious fictional fiction, mate, yeah? You’re allowed to make changes. Thanatologists didn’t even exist until the start of the 20th century, and judging by Neria’s dialogue and appearance they’ve never been as commonplace or as well-regarded as they are on Vhnor. We’re clearly not supposed to be watching a history lecture.

In fact, though, by replacing the pharaohs with a family struggling so much to feed a non-productive adult that having him killed seems like a sensible solution, the script reveals the central problem of this story-line. Braga has spoken of wanting to address the topic of assisted suicide with this episode, but his conclusions here have no weight, because he totally ignores the economic angle. It’s not just that I think he’s wrong to conclude that legalising euthanasia might be a slippery slope. It’s that he’s missing so much of the picture it’s impossible for him to be right. The question that needs asking isn’t “If we legalise euthanasia what’s to stop families pushing their unproductive relatives into suicide?”. It’s “how do we remove the economic pressures that, if we legalise euthanasia, would compel families to push their unproductive relatives into suicide?”.

If you’re worried about a real-life Hatil and Goria, your response shouldn’t be to demand thousands of people be subjected to incurable debilitating agony for the rest of their lives (I’m always amazed at how much actual suffering some people will insist upon in order to avoid entirely hypothetical problems). You should be tearing down whatever structures are preventing those who are unable to work from living their lives without burdening their loved ones. You should be flinging yourself full force into whatever terrible norms exist in your culture that suggest those who can’t work don’t deserve the same quality of life as those who can, and that they’re best left to die if they don’t become productive again quickly enough.

Because the problem here isn’t that euthanasia might lead to a cheapening of life. It’s that life has already been cheapened, and the debate over euthanasia forces us to recognise that.

A Brief History Of Harvest Time

In short, Braga is making a poor case for a poor position. What’s more interesting than his actual argument, though, is why he chose this particular set-up as the vehicle to deliver it. It’s clear our aliens-of-the-week weren’t just thoughtlessly cobbled together to allow the plot to function. Our introduction to Hatil and Goria is, I believe, the very first scene in Voyager so far to not feature a single member of the main cast. Clearly we are meant to see these people and their culture as more than mere cyphers. So which direction is their nature pointing us in?

The most plausible answer is that Braga is pointing out the dangers inherent in a society that gets too caught up in the promised glory of the world beyond. The more you’re supposed to look forward to being dead, the easier it is for other people to decide your life isn’t worth keeping around once you stop producing. That’s not a particularly complicated or original thought, but it’s still worth reminding people of from time to time. What I don’t understand is why the production team thought they needed to reach for the iconography of ancient Egypt in order to sell it. The idea of an eternal reward being so glorious that humanity’s corporeal existence is essentially an afterthought is already thoroughly ingrained into western culture.

I’m going to talk now about the problems inherent in the idea of an eternal reward in the afterlife. Since I know this is something many of my readers may fervently believe exists, please note that I am not questioning that. I have no idea what happens to us when we die. The fact an idea can be twisted in a way that makes it harmful doesn’t invalidate the idea itself. Evolution didn’t stop existing because the social Darwinists were terrible human beings.

With that said, let’s talk about how ideas like the Vhnori belief in the next emanation can do and have done real harm in our own world.

Feudal Europe was not a great place to be for almost anyone. Sure, if you were one of the aristocrats life was pretty sweet, but since hardly anybody was, that wasn’t really much comfort. For the vast majority of people, life was hard and unpleasant. For the peasants that made up so much of the population, the system was simple. You were graciously allowed to live on a small portion on your lord’s land, in exchange for which you spent your entire life producing food on that land, almost none of which you got to keep. You couldn’t simply farm for yourself, because every piece of land you could use for that had already been claimed by men with soldiers and swords, so it was farm for someone much richer than you, or die. Occasionally someone would show up and tell you the harvest was being delayed that year because you had to grab the nearest farm implement and march to war against someone you’d never even heard of. You’d need luck not to die, and more luck not be so badly injured you become useless to your lord, and more luck still to make it back home and find no-one had burned it down in the meantime.

The moral outrages of the feudal age were quite obvious, then. But so too was the practical problem those outrages created, if you were a member of the ruling class. Thousands were living an awful life because you forced them to dedicate themselves to making you food and money and keeping you safe. And if the masses decided you didn’t actually have the right to steal almost everything they produced just because your ancestor exiled or murdered a bunch of people to claim the surrounding land, things could get very ugly very quickly.

So you say you don’t want a revolution. What’s the play? Well, traditionally, the thing to do is find a way to persuade your serfs that the status quo is as good for them as it is for you. And that’s where religion turned out to be really handy. All you need do was convince the peasantry that the only way for them to get into heaven was to toil for the benefit of yourself, their divinely appointed master. And the job’s a good ‘un: death became the only reward in and for a life deliberately stripped of almost all the others.

This is already a fairly monstrous way to structure a society, a vast lie told and retold at every level to ensure a tiny fraction of the population need not do a day’s work in their entire life. Somehow, though, it gets worse. Because now you’ve secured a workforce by promising them eternal happiness after death, you have to make sure no-one buys their one-way ticket to Eden before they’ve finished being able to produce the goods. You don’t want those sneaky damn peasants cheating you by dying before you’ve wrung a whole lifetime of labour from them, do you?

And so you make suicide utterly taboo. You tell everyone that death is the only way out of a lifetime of back-breaking work for the benefit of the wealthy, but if you try to take that route before your time comes, it’s an eternity of damnation for you. The Catholic Church, the greatest religious influence in Western Europe at the time and far from an enemy of the aristocracy, labelled it an unpardonable sin. That’s despite the Bible not actually saying this, and arguably even directly contradicting it.

Obviously, we’re not living in a feudal society any longer. The problem is that there’s more similarities between that structure and our own that we might want to admit. Our cultural subconscious has a very long memory indeed. And this is what I see at play in Braga’s conclusions on euthanasia. By ignoring those who want to end their lives in favour of focusing on those pressured into it, he reinforces the idea that suicide is not a neutral proposition, but something that must be prevented for the common good. The possibility this squeamishness might stem from rules of behaviour [2]  put in place to ensure a compliant workforce is completely missed, and as a result any comment “Emanations” offers on the topic isn’t particularly useful.

Having turned his back on the elephant in the room, Braga is reduced to shovelling up its crap and wondering aloud about where it came from. He’s reduced to fretting over relaxing a cultural taboo put in place to keep people working to enrich others might be bad for those who can’t work at all. It’s true of course that dire economic need is a form of coercion, and cases of people being pushed into euthanasia against their will would be theoretically possible (though in practice doctors by definition are neither idiots nor uncaring about the reasons a patient might request to die). But this isn’t evidence that euthanasia is unworkable, any more than the existence of organ-harvesters should make us think twice about letting people volunteer to be kidney donors. We understand the proper response in that circumstance is to allow people to donate organs whilst hunting down and arresting the criminals who abuse the system.

While I obviously understand the difference between donating an organ and ending a life, I don’t think that’s the sticking point here. I think Braga has too deeply internalised the way we’re told the world is supposed to work. He knows it’s common knowledge that suicide is bad, but he hasn’t fully grasped why. More importantly, his acceptance of the status quo means it can’t occur to him that the powerful people who steal your labour whilst you can work and then leave you to rot the instant you can’t are no better than organ harvesters. Worse, really; at least organ harvesters don’t give you lectures on the importance of a strong work ethic whilst they’re cutting into you.

I mean, clearly Goria loves her husband. Her final goodbye to him alone is proof enough of that. And yet despite that love she’s asking him to kill himself because keeping him alive represents an impossible financial burden on the rest of the family.  To imagine such a scenario and decide it proves assisted suicide is a bad thing for a society to allow seems almost willfully perverse.

Kept Under Wraps

For all the disappointments we’re given through this episode, though, the central injustices that Braga skirts around are so huge and heavy that they still find a way to break through into the episode. The ending in particular is actually fantastically bleak. Braga might not have realised the problem with Vhnori society is economic and not spiritual, but he still manages to capably demonstrate how totally the process of sending the injured to the next emanation leads, for lack of a better term, to their dehumanisation.

Consider this: Kim’s plan only works because no-one gives enough of a damn about Hatil to recognise that’s clearly not him inside the shroud. The body shape isn’t quite right, his forehead seems to have shrunk, and obviously no-one noticed the fake limp on the way to the sarcophagus. This is supposed to be a ceremony recognising Hatil’s sacrifice and/or sharing in his joy about the beginning of his new stage of existence, and yet no-one at any point needed him to even speak. He’s just a body to be processed. And what’s perhaps even worse, Hatil knows that. Kim has thrown a Hail Mary because he’s basically out of options; the idea you could get through a religious ceremony centered on you without anyone wanting to see your face or hear from you is a fairly implausible one. And yet Hatil knows that this is probably the case, that as long as the sacred shroud is wrapped correctly (notice how much more the tradition of the ritual matters than its participant) no-one is going to ask questions. Because this is a society that literally requires as a point of protocol that those thrown into the next emanation not be recognisable whilst it’s happening [3]. The whole scene is dark, cynical brilliance, which is pretty impressive considering it almost certainly only takes the form it does so as to make Kim’s switcheroo possible.

Unfortunately, this rather underlines the basic problem with the story-line set on Vhnor – its major success is accidental, and its various failures are built into its very foundations. Added to this is the fact that this is the closest we’ve come yet to an episode centered on Harry Kim, and yet we learn almost nothing about who he is as a person. Not liking the idea of suicide for financial reasons doesn’t really count as a characteristic, and his desire to not play fast and loose with the rules of first contact is barely any better. Both are simply what we’d expect from a generic Starfleet ensign. It’s concerning that eight episodes into this show there’s still nothing separating Harry from that basic mold beyond him being sure he remembers his mother’s womb(!).

The resulting story is a missed opportunity for at least two different reasons. There was so much that could be made of the underlying idea and yet Braga drops almost every ball he’s juggling. What we learn about this fictional future is rather nice, but judged by its own intention to be a comment on a current debate, it’s misguided to the point of being harmful. As a result, I ended up preferring the fairly unambitious reheated stodge of “The Battle”, because at least that clears the low bar it sets itself. “Emanations” could have been exceptional, and the fact it fails to be more than sporadically interesting is a profound disappointment.

After two episodes which showed much of how Voyager might be able to make itself work, we’re back to seeing why it so often didn’t. It’s not a lack of ideas. It’s a baffling inability to make those ideas work.

[1] Though not any more impossible than M-class asteroids with Earth-normal gravity, you’d think. I rather wonder whether the asteroids have actually been terraformed somehow to allow people to live on them. Which might suggest the Vhnori faith might have something to if after all. Maybe this all just some corrupted race-memory of a long-expired interstellar package holiday deal.

[2] OK, sure, there’s nothing specifically in the script that says only the well-behaved get to go through to the next emanation. It’s pretty much an unavoidable conclusion from what we’re presented with, though. The number of Vhnori that can be pushed through to the asteroid graveyard is limited by how often the rifts open. Sooner or later there’s going to be more people waiting for a trip in the sarcophagus than there are rifts to take them. At that point, who gets chosen? Even if it’s done by drawing lots, there will be a system in place that limits the number of people eligible to receive a straw, just like there’s never any shortage of people prepared to argue that there are those in Britain who don’t deserve the free medical treatment we (theoretically) offer to everyone.

This raises another question, actually, which is what the Vhnori believe happen to those who die before they can be taken through a rift. Does it still work if the body died two days earlier? A week? A year? What happens if someone’s body can’t be recovered? Do those souls go somewhere else? What did the Vhnori do and believe before the rifts were discovered and harnessed? Did they/do they have some kind of analogue to Original Sin, suggesting that if someone can’t be thrown into a rift it’s all very sad and all, but ultimately it’s the Vhnori’s own fault?

[3] It does push credulity a bit to suggest even Loria doesn’t realise the man in the shroud isn’t her husband. One could argue this further underlines how totally the ritual isn’t about Hatil, but I suspect it’s rather more likely that Loria has worked out what’s going on and is totally on-board with it. She says her goodbyes, and means them, because she knows she’ll never see her husband again. But she knows he’s escaping to a rather more certain life than the next emanation offers.  I think when she was pushing the glories of the afterlife  earlier in the episode, she was trying to persuade herself as much as she was Hatil, because she saw no other way out. I think she’s fully aware of how messed up the whole situation is, and is relieved her husband has found a way to escape through Kim.

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

Ordering

1. The Magicks Of Megas-Tu

2. The Battle

3. Emanations

4. Miri

5. The Passenger

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