Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.2: “School’s. Out. For. EVER.”

Parallax

Star Trek Voyager Parallax

“You and me babe, how about it?”

Sometimes you’re sure you’re moving forward when all you’re doing is circling back around. Sometimes you’re zeroing in on precisely those things you thought you’d left behind.  Sometimes you’re convinced you are looking at the new you, but all that’s reflected is the same old person, just seen through a distorted mirror. Like catching your reflection in a frozen lake.

Our last two episodes were about how well the crews handled the kind of circumstances they had signed up for. Sisko’s officers passed their trials with grace and skill and Picard’s incredibly did not, but in both cases what they were dealing with was business as usual, as much as that idea can have any meaning in a galaxy boasting infinite complexity. “Parallax”, though, involves a crew in the first days of dealing with the fact that their central mission is completely unlike what they were expecting. The Maquis are seventy-five years away from the homes they swore to defend, and those with Starfleet commissions have lost access to the families they loved and respected and wanted to bore rigid with detailed descriptions of their explorations every time they came home for shore leave.  For both crews the sudden separation from almost everything they recognise and identify with must be overwhelmingly difficult to process. I’d imagine that in such straits you’d grab for any sort of coping mechanism you could find.

I’ve heard it said that when someone can’t go home anymore, they recreate it as best they can. I guess most people have heard that, actually, including the writers of this episode. It certainly explains a lot about Janeway’s behaviour here. What she thinks are attempts to move forwards are actually steps back.

You could argue I’m overreaching. Why assume our captain is slipping backwards? Couldn’t she just have been stunned into standing still? Maybe it’s just that the extremity of Voyager’s situation hasn’t fully sunk in yet. Perhaps she’s insisting that all her officers be Starfleet graduates, and that senior staff status is a necessary prerequisite for having good ideas because that’s the approach to command she was planning on taking a week earlier, back when things made sense.

Those are perfectly reasonable arguments, obviously. I just don’t think they go far enough.

There are obvious clues that this is regression rather than simple stasis. Besides this episode has Voyager interacting with its own past, I mean, or the fact the whole damn series is centered around the ship having to travel backwards to end up where it started from. The first clue is Janeway performing the analysis of the singularity herself. That simply isn’t her job anymore. I can accept the idea that there’s no-one left on Voyager with Janeway’s scientific credentials (for all that I’m sick of the very idea of “science officers”, as though you could ball up every branch of scientific theory and get a single expert to swallow it). A lot of crew-people were lost last episode, after all. But every minute Janeway spends as a researcher is a minute she can’t spend being captain. And those are important minutes. The crew has already started turning on itself, Janeway doesn’t have the repair teams she needs to keep her only doctor capable of surgery, and rations are so low she might soon have to rely on meals grown in a shuttle-bay and cooked by someone who hadn’t even heard the word “Federation” this time last week. Janeway isn’t running an analysis of the anomaly because she has a few quiet hours and wants to indulge what is now basically a hobby. She’s burying herself in the one part of all of this she can still recognise, and snatching work from the remnants of her science officers in the process. Maybe Seska rebelled out of sheer boredom.

Exhibit B is Janeway’s veneration of the Academy. Kathryn has been in the service long enough to know there’s a big difference between how you’re taught to Starfleet and how you actually Starfleet. It should be beyond obvious that experienced Maquis crewmen might well be better at their jobs than fresh-faced ensigns in jumpsuits. By making this about who did or didn’t go to a specific school – something which in our world has all kinds of ugly classist undertones – she’s clinging to an obsession with a person’s education that any command officer in Starfleet should have had knocked out of them very quickly. An organisation comprised from people from a hundred species and thousands of planets should leave no space for snobbery about where someone got their degree.  Just like graduates stop asking “where did you go to university” after a few years of employment, any starship captain should be long past wondering how people spent their school days.

The Captain isn’t the only one flashing back to San Francisco, though. Torres too is letting her Starfleet past bleed into her present. Which is a problem, considering how much she disliked the experience last time around. The resulting internal tension is probably what made her snap, in fact. For all that Chakotay tries to cover for her by insisting the Maquis is an organisation in which you sometimes have to shove people aside to get things done, it’s difficult to believe Torres used to physically assault her fellows aboard the Valjean. Chakotay isn’t an idiot; he must know a crew can’t long survive its members assaulting each other. Not if discipline is going to be founded on respect, and not on fear. Doubtless Torres’ attitude has always been on the prickly side – a fact she blamed last episode on her Klingon heritage, as though a quick temper is genetic – but almost forcing people’s noses into their own brains? This has to be new.

It’s also pretty concerning, though I want to hold back on discussing the assault on Lieutenant Carey for the moment. Right now I want to focus on something more positive. Because there are advantages to Janeway and Torres mixing the then and the now, too. I mean, obviously there is; the past shouldn’t be discarded any more than it should be desperately clung to.  Probably the best part of the episode is how totally these two women click when discussing the singularity. Janeway in particular is quite clearly in the early stages of a major crush. Synchronised technobabble reads as cheesy on paper, but the sheer enthusiasm Mulgrew and Biggs-Dawson bring to it saves things completely here. It’s like seeing two freshers excitedly discussing the first module they’ve taken in their lives that has really fascinated and challenged them. By the time we get to Janeway pretending only two people can fit in a shuttlecraft (thereby cock-blocking Paris, which is pretty funny given how things turn out), it should be pretty clear to us what’s on her mind, even if it isn’t to her.

Quickly though it becomes clear that their shuttle jaunt is as much group support session as it is a first date. Janeway helps Torres reconsider her academy experiences, and in return Torres shows that neither grasp of theory nor performance under pressure is something only Starfleet graduates can do. They together come to the realisation that the present isn’t the past – hell, that the past isn’t even the past – and from there figure out what the future is going to look like. This would be fairly clear in any case, but to really underline things the shuttle-flight ends with the two of them having to distinguish one last time between the actual present and an image from the past that might look like the present if you’re not careful.

Then they reach the bridge and Janeway orders Paris to punch it. Because that’s something experience has told her you sometimes need to do. The academy can’t teach you everything. The insistence that everything be done based on where people went to school has now been completely swept aside. Janeway, like all of us, should know better, and now she does.

The Doctor gives us another story of flawed perception and regression in his C plot. He too is letting past experiences skew his current behaviour. Sure, those experiences have been programmed into him, but what difference does that make? I really like what the show does here, using his unique status to directly link this overarching theme of distorted self-image to his actual physical appearance. The Doctor’s constant shrinking might fail utterly to be funny, but that isn’t the only reason it’s there. Whether that’s enough reason for its presence is another matter, of course; I’d argue the fact that this subplot makes the Voyager crew like like idiots (seriously? It’s not a major repair priority to make sure your only physician and surgeon can perform his duties?) rather lessens its usefulness in driving home the point.

Star Trek Voyager Parallax 2

“How dare you ignore a physician of my… stature?” “You are terrible at this.” “COME DOWN HERE AND SAY THAT! And bring a medical tricorder; I am concerned you may be suffering from peritonitis.”

I want to finish my discussion about reflection and self-image by talking about Chakotay. Voyager‘s new first officer is playing two very different roles here. The first is offering up some badly-needed push-back against Janeway’s position. It’s not that she isn’t right about the fact that giving Maquis members positions of seniority will cause grumbling among the original crew – though she’s chosen someone widely reviled for manslaughter by pilot error to be on the senior staff and to be her pilot, so apparently pissing off her crew isn’t a total no-no for her. But that the only sensible response to that position is: so what?

Consider what Janeway’s “solution” to the issue of two crews on a single ship actually involves. Chakotay’s crew has to fully integrate into hers, has to follow the same rules and demonstrate the same attitudes her people do, and should be discouraged from thinking of themselves as having their own distinct status. But at the same time as having to work to look and sound and act like a Starfleet crew, they have to accept none of them bar Chakotay will ever be in positions of any seniority because they’re not Starfleet. They’re being told, explicitly, that they must assimilate without hope of equality. That’s a remarkably unpleasant position to take, which isn’t to say no-one in our own world ever takes it.

That’s why I take such great pleasure in seeing Chakotay tear Janeway’s nonsense into tiny shreds. The problem here isn’t that Chakotay still sees the Maquis crew as “his people”. It’s that Janeway refuses to see them as hers.

Which is more than just ugly politics, actually. Janeway’s approach is a path to guaranteed disaster. Chakotay gets that because he alone can see the future, not the past, reflected in the present. He understands immediately that Tuvok’s by-the-book approach to Torres isn’t going to work long-term, but also that he can’t allow his former crew to throw shade in private. He knows exactly how straight and narrow a path he’s going to have to walk if neither side is going to end up doing something clueless enough to start a mutiny, and he has no problem getting into the Captain’s face if he needs to in the service of that goal (though note that at all times he shows respect to her; he’s a man letting his anger show to help persuade his superior officer, not an arsehole trying to shout a woman down).

And yet… OK, so here’s the thing. I completely understand Chakotay’s decision to back Torres to the hilt (in public, anyway), and he’s absolutely right that Janeway has to at the barest minimum choose another senior officer from among the Maquis.  None of that makes me feel any better about the member of Chakotay’s crew getting the promotion being someone who assaulted and nearly killed one of her colleagues just hours earlier.  That’s just completely, utterly unacceptable behaviour. I can’t think of any way to justify letting Torres completely off the hook for this, which is presumably why the episode doesn’t even try. “She’s half a Klingon” doesn’t excuse what happened. Klingons aren’t animals, they’re sentient beings, and as such can and should be held accountable for their actions just like everyone else. In fact, if her Klingon heritage has any bearing here, it makes things look worse for her, since the additional strength it lends her makes any punch she throws all the more dangerous. Plus, if the alien races in Star Trek are supposed to be metaphors for human behaviour – which they quite clearly are – arguing people shouldn’t be judged harshly or indeed sanctioned at all for grievous bodily harm if they were really mad at the time is utterly appalling. Aside from anything else, that’s an argument that people still make in real life about all forms of violence up to and including domestic abuse. “She made me do it”. “The beer went mad”. “If they hadn’t made me so angry…”. For similar reasons, justifying Torres’ assault by the fact Carey is a condescending ass doesn’t work either. That’s transparently victim-blaming, even before we factor in the fact that we only see Carey’s interactions with Torres post-assault.

This is the downside to how completely Janeway and Torres click over the course of the episode. It results in Janeway ending the episode looking very pleased that she’s just promoted someone over a colleague they almost killed a day earlier. I could understand it if this had been a story about how Janeway desperately didn’t want to promote someone who punches out their colleagues, but felt compelled to do so for the good of the ship and the mission. That’s a very grimdark, Moore-esque story, I realise, and so might easily have failed for different reasons.

Either way, this is a bum note; something that mars the episode rather than ruining it. The rest of what’s here ranges from understandable failures to genuinely lovely moments. It’s still enough though to lower this episode below the level of “Past Prologue” (which is much more interesting, lacks the terrible stabs at comedy, and ‘only’ has Sisko grab Kira’s arm, rather than trying to split open her face), and “Yesteryear”, which had similarly problematic ideas about Vulcans, but at least didn’t have them smiled upon by a main character.

(I wonder if Carey even got that apology Chakotay demanded. Somehow I doubt it.)

We could leave things there, I think, but before we head over to the second installment of “Enterprise”, I wanted to briefly talk about Neelix. I’m determined as we go through this season of Voyager to not just regurgitate the standard “Neelix is awful” line. Not because I don’t agree – though this is the first time I’ve watched this season since it was first broadcast on UK terrestrial television, so my opinion is pretty dated – but because I want to try and understand how things went so wrong, as well as to pull out whatever positives I can. If nothing else, Ethan Phillips is a performer with sufficient chops to do him the courtesy of studying a role he performed for several years – in make-up he described as torture to wear and in a work environment in which it’s clear not everybody was getting along – with a view to doing more than snipe.

I’d love then to say Neelix acquits himself better here than his reputation suggests.  The trouble is, he doesn’t. Things really do start going wrong almost from the very beginning. The script here seems to be deliberately portraying him as an irritating rambler. Janeway shoots down the one idea he offers in response to their crisis.  That old joke where you cut someone off when they’re jabbering on too long about something gets used, when he tries to explain singularities to Kes (meaning he recites the exposition the show felt was required and then gets punished for it). At one point he’s made to wander directly between Janeway and Chakotay to allow them to stare at him with exasperation for getting underfoot. And all of this in the same scene. Not a single character seems to find him anything but an irritating requirement for Kes’ participation (note that she actually contributes to the senior staff meeting, whilst Neelix just whines about not having been invited). In a sense this approach has merit within “Parallax” itself, because it feeds into the wider idea here about people being forced to work together despite really not respecting or understanding or liking each other – this is basically Dilbert in space. In the long term, though, once you start off treating a character like a charmless, unaware bumbler, you have to put a lot of effort into pulling them out of that pigeon hole, and I don’t remember Voyager ever really bothering.

So that’s “Parallax”, then. “The Naked Now” was how Picard’s crew failed to perform at the most basic level, and “Past Prologue” concerned itself with showing how a competent crew can almost effortlessly handle a typical day on a complicated and stressful job. “Parallax” is a third distinct take on this idea, being about how crews respond when a typical day simply doesn’t exist anymore, and in doing so lives up to Voyager‘s potential as a show about people with very different positionalities getting along whilst making their own viewpoints heard.

Of course, it’s also a show about people jumping across star systems without a safety net.  Which neatly brings us on to the second episode of Enterprise, where there is also not really any such thing as a typical day, and where learning how to get along with strangers is of vital importance.

Unless those strangers are slugs, obviously. In that case, screw ’em.

Ordering:

1. Past Prologue

2. Yesteryear

3. Parallax

4. Charlie X

5. The Naked Now

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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