Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.1: “…Because We Can’t Find Reverse”

Caretaker

Star Trek Voyager Caretaker

Which one is this again?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a Starfleet officer and a survivor of Cardassian rule walk into a bar. Then an incomprehensibly powerful alien force flings a Federation ship to the other side of the galaxy.

As a game of “spot the lack of difference”, it’s almost too easy, isn’t it? They haven’t even changed the jumpsuits. This is “Caretaker”, the pilot that leans so heavily on its predecessor that the USS Voyager literally uses Deep Space Nine as its starting point.

So, given that it’s almost trivially simple to consider this double-length episode as aping “Emissary”, at least in broad strokes, it’s more interesting to dig as deep as possible into where DS9 and Voyager – born just two years apart, and with Jeri Taylor the only difference between the two shows creators – actually differ, and think about why those differences matter.

Let’s start with the Maquis. On a surface level these ragtag paramilitary types clearly serve a very similar purpose to the Bajoran militia on DS9, providing an alternative viewpoint that Starfleet can compare itself to, bounce off of, and source criticism from. But this process of comparing philosophical notes takes a very different shape in each show. On the space station there’s a sense of a middle ground both Starfleet and the Bajoran militia need to reach for. In “Emissary”, for instance, Sisko has to process the fact that he no longer lives in the post-scarcity utopia of the Federation, whilst Kira has to start figuring out that Starfleet is not an invading force to be treated with the same sneering contempt she did the Cardassians.  At heart, it’s a show about the ongoing use of diplomacy as an alternative to entrenchment (at least initially). Sisko and his crew can go home any time they like, either through a transfer request or resignation. They stay because they believe the process they are engaged in is too important to abandon.

The crew of Voyager has no such choice, obviously. They too will need to seek compromise with a group who have massively different outlooks and aims to themselves, but not simply because of a commitment to dialogue over isolationism. It is now a question of survival. Sisko’s success was contingent upon seeing things from the Bajoran viewpoint (or more accurately, from the multitude of viewpoints that make up Bajoran life). Janeway, though, has to go further. For her success is survival, and that requires that she can live like the Maquis. Cut off from support or reinforcements, always on the run. Surrounded by those who at best would happily see her dead, and at worst are actively trying to kill her and her crew. It’s no surprise the first enemy they make is by refusing to allow an alien race to invade and subjugate another one. The Kazon are the new Cardassians – even their names are similar [1]. So of course the struggle for the array is a parallel to the struggle for the celestial temple.

Well, except it isn’t. Or at least the only reason why it’s parallel is because the two pilots are flying in exactly opposite directions. The franchise’s new focus on action-adventure (Voyager premiered less than four months after Sisko was first given the Defiant to fly around in whilst shooting things) totally upturns the structure of “Emissary”. The first DS9 episode opens with the horrific massacre that was Wolf 359 so it can comment on the way in which war not only kills, but also derails the lives of the survivors. The climactic space battle in “Emissary” isn’t a battle at all, but a weathering of Cardassian fire. Even the Bajoran officer who has spent her life being horribly outgunned and opening fire anyway realises the weapons she has at her disposal can be put to better uses than trying to blow things up.

(Whilst we’re gazing backwards, actually, note how “Emissary” and “Encounter at Farpoint” perform similar tricks, using photon torpedoes not as weapons of war but as a method of distraction and bluff. In both cases the central question is how the crew will survive a situation they can’t fight their way out of. Voyager, in contrast, absolutely fights its way out here. That said, “Caretaker” also nods to “…Farpoint” through its use of weapons. Back in my write-up of the TNG pilot I pointed out the fundamental importance it placed on forward motion, to the extent that when crew-members first fire their phasers, it’s in order to deal with a door blocking their progress. Here we get a similar scene with the first phaser fire from our crew used to force passage through a barrier. This time, though, it’s a barrier they passed into once and now can’t escape. Forward motion isn’t being impeded, the trip back is. Which makes perfect thematic sense for Voyager, obviously, but also serves as a reminder that the ship itself has in some sense been forced into doing exactly what Picard refused to; to turn around and go back home. Yes, Janeway firmly – if clumsily – makes the point that they can and will continue to explore as they travel home. But that mission is forever going to be undercut by the need to get back to Earth, and it’s hard not to feel that on some level the show has already failed to live up to the challenge set by the Enterprise-D.)

In marked contrast to the use of weapons in “Emissary”, the battle for the Caretaker’s array is framed as sheer spectacle, to the point where the show invents a new super-powerful explosive device so as to provide a literal bigger bang. Presumably its status as violent eye-candy is why the whole thing makes so little sense. It surely matters very, very little in the scheme of things that it’s ridiculous that a Maquis ship can do more damage via impact than can the best weapons the 24th century has to offer us, for instance, though it still annoys me. So too does the more important issue of Janeway deciding to destroy the array. Not because I’d have been comfortable leaving the Ocampa at the Kazon’s mercy, and certainly not because of any fealty to the Prime Directive. What rankles is how ill-defined the actual crisis here is. OK, it will take hours for Voyager’s crew to crack the Caretaker’s secrets and find a way to get home. So what? Are they worried the Kazon will have overwhelming reinforcements by then? If that’s the case, then the choice isn’t between getting home and saving the Ocampa, it’s between whether or not you let the Ocampa be brutally enslaved as you retreat into the Delta Quadrant. But if Janeway thinks her brand new ship can survive the next few hours – it’s clearly more than the equal of the local forces, and further reinforcements could easily be detected and might be days away – her refusal to use the array because it sacrifices the Ocampa suggests that a woman who spent most of her career as a science officer isn’t aware of the concept of a timed explosive.

Yes, it’s obvious why neither of these routes were taken. One would break the show immediately, and the second would mean Janeway is forced to remain in the Delta Quadrant by necessity rather than as a moral stance. But the more necessary a plot point, the harder you have to work to ensure it holds up, and this doesn’t, at all. Mainly, as far as I can tell, because the focus here is more on making sure people yell at each other than on giving them a sensible reason to be fighting in the first place. This is not an encouraging approach.

For me, though, the inversion of “Emissary” that most rankles is the replacement of the Prophets with the Caretaker. Again, the similarities are evident, so let’s focus on the differences. Even just visually, the innards of the Array have nothing on the strange world of the Celestial Temple. The latter starts as an impossibility; two totally different landscapes existing within each other, and then becomes a swirling, strangely-lit barrage of times and places as the Prophets take on various human forms to interrogate Sisko. The Array is a farm where Paris tries to get laid.

Yes, of course, the in-universe explanation for this is explicitly stated: the Caretaker wanted a place where Voyager’s crew could feel comfortable. But actually, that just makes things much worse. An American farm at least four hundred years in the past? One coded via music, dress and cuisine to be in the midwest or even the deep south? That’s what this crew finds most comforting? Watching a bunch of white people carrying on in land made space for by genocide and developed through enslavement? I can’t imagine finding that comforting, and I come from a background far less considered and egalitarian than the Federation is supposed to be. This isn’t relaxation. It’s weaponised nostalgia, which in the very first episode of a new Star Trek show is a very worrying choice.

So what else could they have used? Well, that’s the thing. Nothing. I mean, since the Maquis haven’t signed up by that point, you could just about stick everyone into the grounds of Starfleet Academy and at least guarantee everyone was familiar with what they’re seeing, but even then the idea that everyone would be relaxed seems ridiculous on its face. Surely the whole point of the Federation is that it contains too many peoples and creeds and viewpoints and philosophies for anything to generate the same emotion in everyone. Any attempt to sum up the inhabitants of the Federation should be doomed by default – that’s precisely what makes its ideal as a galactic melting pot so wonderful a concept. And even were such a place to exist, it’s hard to believe it would be on Earth. That’s just what the Earthlings would like us to believe.

So no. Earth’s past – particularly so politically loaded a slice of it – will absolutely not do as an image of comfort within the Star Trek universe. Quite the opposite. Finding comfort in looking back is the favourite pastime of the conservatively-minded, especially when – as it is on the Array – what they’re looking back at never really existed in the first place. That sort of thing should exist in total opposition to the franchise. And yet looking backward has been baked into this show at its most fundamental level. Of all the parallels and inversions “Caretaker” gives us of what has come before, it might be this that proves the most damaging going forward.

It’s also exactly what large swathes of fandom keep demanding. They demanded it when TNG was first mooted (“Bring back the original crew!”), they demanded it when DS9 started circling too far outside what they considered “proper” Star Trek (“Bring back the space-ship!”) and they did it when Abrams decided to essentially reboot the entire franchise and start from the beginning – not that I’m particularly inclined to defend Abrams’ contributions to the franchise. My point is that right out of Utopia Planetia Voyager already feels like too much of a sop to the kind of people best not relied upon for input, and the result is a show that almost immediately sinks below half the regular viewership of TNG and ends up being lucky if it can pull in a fifth of the numbers Picard and co enjoyed. The franchise here is in real trouble, relying on past glories rather than bringing enough new ideas and viewpoints to the table. Tumbling backwards instead of pushing forward. Something bold and fresh and unexpected is needed, as big a jump onward from the now-familiar structures and narratives of the 24th century as TNG was from the original five-year mission.

So obviously, what we’ll come to next is Enterprise.

Ordering:

1. Emissary

2. Encounter At Farpoint

3. Beyond The Farthest Star

4. Caretaker

5. The Man-Trap

[1] Which rather adds some extra bite to Torres’ fury over Janeway’s decision to destroy the Array, actually. If the Kazon are the Cardassians, it’s easy to see the Ocampa as approximations to the Maquis; a small population about to be abandoned by the major power that’s supposed to protect them. You might expect that to make the Maquis engineer more sympathetic to the Ocampan’s plight. Maybe Torres’s reaction is her way of saying “Oh, these guys you’re going to help? You never bothered with us, did you? You just screwed us over and mumbled some crap about ‘the greater good’. Kind of like you’re doing now.”

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