In the yesteryears of the mid 90s, Paramount Pictures looked to continue the Star Trek boom begun by Star Trek: The Next Generation (which had recently ended) and expanded by Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Wishing to both return the series to its adventurous roots while breaking new social boundaries, they premiered the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager on January 16th, 1995. Featuring a female captain and a surprisingly diverse helping of crew members, Star Trek: Voyager would continue on for six years and offer the setting to one of the best Star Trek games ever released (Editor’s Note: This was not a part of the agreed introduction, Tim.) (Tim Response: Don’t care, my phasers are set to frag!).
Nearly every Monday we share a roundtable discussion about a Voyager episode featuring experts pulled from the close group of friends we could easily bribe. This week’s group consists of only Seth and film/tv critic Ryan! Yours truly, sadly, was missing- but remains a vague notion of himself, piecing together the conversation from the threads of words spun by his dancing spiders…anyways, spoilers are naturally a matter of course with this territory, and portions of our conversation drew on our knowledge of other episodes of both Voyager and other Star Trek shows. You have been warned.
This week covers the fourteenth episode of Season 1, “Faces.” We return to find the two heavy hitters of the discussion, huddled together around a dimly lit table…
Ryan – So the Neelix schtick, in the funny chef’s hat and amazing technicolor dream apron, was wearing a bit thin this episode. Voyager seems to like doing these soft opens with random characters before it gets into the meat of the episode, but I really think I’d like to start seeing Neelix out of the kitchen.
Seth – Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen a little of him in different settings, but he’s feeling a bit one note.
Ryan – But aside from learning Neelix likes his home cuisine spicy, we got to see the return of the Vidiians this episode. And might I say the medical experimentation stuff this time around was a heck of a lot darker than teleporting out someone’s lungs.
Seth – Yeah, to be honest, I thought it ended up a bit over the top. I mean, they had already well established that the surgeon guy was completely creepy and messed up, but then they had him wear Durst’s face in case anybody had somehow missed that. It felt to me like a waste of a character, even if Durst was a very minor one.
Ryan – Hahah, yeah, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre moment. That was kind of nuts. But even the idea of strapping someone down and infecting them with the Phage to watch the results was more hands on evil than being a lung thief. Of course, that brings us right into the guts of the episode, the fact that they split B’Elanna into two separate “pure” human and Klingon individuals…90s Star Trek seemed (from the little bit I’ve watched) to like using sci-fi as metaphors to take stabs at social issues, but this one in particular (identity politics) has become even more of a nuanced and discussed in the years since.
Seth – I’m going to say something that I don’t think I’ve ever said in these discussions: I really disliked this episode.
Obligatory pause to allow for gasps from the audience.
Ryan – …Yes, yes, let your dislike flow. Come to the Dark Side…and actually I’m really interested why.
Seth – I think they did a terrible job crafting their metaphor, and they used a terrible premise to set it up.
Ryan – Yeah, I think they went in over their heads on this. This was a really tough angle to do correctly.
Seth – The problem with using sci-fi species as an analog for race is that it’s really easy to imply that races have essential elements, because different sci-fi species usually do. When they’re as caricatured as they were in this episode they completely lose the nuance.
Ryan – Right! They seemed to reduce each aspect of B’Ellanna to just a few characteristics. There’s also the strong implication that being of mixed-species and, as they were probably implying, mixed-race involves being in a perpetual state of internal conflict too.
Seth – The exchange between Paris and Torres when Torres open up about her past infuriated me, because Paris completely doesn’t get it and the writers don’t seem to be aware of that, meaning they didn’t really get it either. I mean, Torres basically says to Paris “When I was a child I was ashamed of my racial heritage,” and Paris’s response is “My Dad used to give me bad haircuts.” No one and nothing acknowledges that utter lack of equivalence between those two things.
Ryan – Paris seemed to act as the anchor for Human B’Ellanna, to help her come to terms with what were depicted as her newfound weaknesses. Which, by the way, great choice, we know how much of a developed character Paris is…
Seth – Right? To say nothing of how silly the fact that the scientist made a Human Torres in the first place is. Because there’s no reason he needed to do that and he obviously didn’t care about the Human version. It’d be one thing if he kept her in the lab as a control group or a point of reference, but he just tosses her aside and forgets her.
Ryan – Yeah, that was one of the larger plot holes in the episode. And a fact that points directly to their intentions to deliver us a metaphor.
Seth – I mean, I think we’ve established that I’m willing to go along with some pretty serious plot holes and silly science if it takes the story in an interesting direction, but they didn’t. And good point about Human B’Ellana’s exaggerated weaknesses. It’s weird that for most of the episode, Klingon B’Ellana is pretty capable while Human B’Ellana is constantly collapsing and panicking.
Ryan – It seemed like they got it wrong right from the get-go. Rather than having two fleshed out individuals they went with characters who embodied just the stereotypical traits of these two Star Trek races. Except that on the human side, they went even weaker and more panicky then most any other human character we’ve seen on the show.
Seth – Perhaps than any character period. She was basically at Neelix’s level.
Ryan – I could ramble on about it for a while. They could’ve even made some half-hearted technobabble explanation for how each of the two Torres’ were not complete individuals, but they asserted exactly the opposite, that these were clones, essentially, that were reduced to one species apiece.
Seth – And then at the very end they came up with a technobabble explanation for why they had to put Torres back together instead of giving her character the agency to make that choice herself.
Ryan – I think, maybe, they meant to imply that Torres was a stronger individual with these two “halves of herself” from different species, to make that claim they really had to assert that who she was as a person was necessarily defined by her parentage, by the “conflict” of being “mixed.” That’s something you could argue for on a social level, being only that there could certainly be said to be conflicts inherent in being of mixed descent in certain/many social situations, but Voyager overstepped that entirely and went right to genetics.
Seth – When genetics has nothing to do with race, and that completely screws their metaphor. Klingon B’Ellana isn’t tough and belligerent and fearless because she was raised in the Klingon warrior culture, she’s that way because apparently all Klingons are “naturally” like that.
Ryan – Precisely.
Ryan – So, if I can digress for a second, now that we’ve established that the writers are guilty of almost as many textual crimes this episode as the Viidians were guilty of horrible medical ones, what ever happened to Janeway’s promise to destroy them if she ever encountered their race again? Or am I misremembering their first exchange?
Seth – No, yeah, she was pretty clear previously that she wasn’t going to put up with Viidians messing with her crew again. Her precise words were “If I ever encounter your kind again, I will do whatever is necessary to protect my people from this harvesting of yours. Any aggressive actions against this ship and its crew will be met by the deadliest force.”
Ryan – That threat seemed largely forgotten this time. And the encroachments upon her crew were definitely more aggressive and severe.
Seth – Most definitely. She doesn’t even make a token show of force against the Viidians to express her displeasure with their actions.
Ryan – Retaliation is certainly not a very Star Fleet action, but I don’t think we get any kind of resolution with the Viidians after the two Torres make it back to the ship. Weren’t there more prisoners down there? Won’t they be just continuing to conduct more of these experiments?
Seth – More prisoners, one of their crew dead, and they just pick up and move without even reflecting on it.
Ryan – And I just want to include this quote from Kenneth Biller who co-wrote the episode, and let the creepiness kind of speak for itself: “If I were this scientist with this incredible technology and I encountered a species I’d never seen before and it seemed that there was some promise she might hold the secret to a cure to this disease, I would do exactly what [Sulan] did.”
Seth – It creeps me out that the reaction to being cautioned against making patently evil aliens was not to scale back Sulan’s actions, but to try to make us sympathize with someone who performs deadly medical experiments on unwilling subjects and wears a guy’s face.
Ryan – Haha, I think we’re reading the same set of quotes on Memory Alpha.
Seth – Yeah, pretty much…It boggles the mind.
Ryan – I’m trying to think if any other shows more recently have done something as tone deaf as this in recent years, or if a sci-fi episode trying to make a metaphor of mixed racial identify is more of a relic of the 90s.
Seth – Nothing exactly like this.
Ryan – I mean, I guess it’s still a common theme. Using the “half-this, half-that” character as a bridge between two groups, but not quite with such strong real world implications and not with the propensity to reach for the stars with its metaphors like Star Trek.
Seth – I feel like it’s something that sci-fi has done less, but that fantasy still seems to do it a fair amount.
Seth – I will say that I found the Voyager’s crew’s cautiousness about confronting the Viidians interesting. When the spotted the Viidians in the cave, I expected at least a brief exchange of phaser fire but instead they immediately beamed out.
Ryan – I gathered from that reaction that they thought they were in pretty immediate danger.
Seth – I mean, I can completely understand being reluctant to fight someone who can teleport your lungs out of your chest.
Ryan – Right! Which puts the lack of serious response from Janeway again in sharp relief.
Seth – If she wanted to send a message to the Viidians not to attack the Voyager, she’s completely failed.
Ryan – Agreed.
Join us next week for another installment of Roundtable Voyager! We’ll be discussing Star Trek: Voyager s01e15 “Jetrel.” If you would like, watch the episode ahead of time and contribute your own thoughts in the comments of this post! We’d love to have you help shape our discussion! Or, if you’re more interested in “Faces”, was there anything you feel we missed, or theories about the episode that you would like to share? Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below!