“Living Witness” (Star Trek: Voyager – Season 4, Episode 23)
If I were to do a word-association exercise with all the Trek series, my immediate, gut reaction to “Voyager” would be “wasted potential.” Despite its intriguing premise and interesting building blocks, I never felt it lived up to its promise as a rightful successor to The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine.
That isn’t to say that the show is a waste of time, and there are in fact many episodes I enjoy. Ultimately, I am glad that the show exists and there are interesting and ambitious stories that can be appreciated individually. One could even make the case that the show occasionally succeeded at some more daring commentary and examination of issues than the previous Trek series attempted, such as this one.
Right off the bat, we get a deliciously evil and dark alternate version of the Voyager crew. The show thankfully never dabbled in the evil Mirror Universe that The Original Series, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise did, but we essentially get a Mirror version of the intrepid players. There was clearly a lot of fun had by the cast and crew in re-creating the setting and characters. Instead of peacefully exploring the galaxy on its journey home, the “Warship” Voyager brutally destroys countless civilizations while enslaving and assimilating lesser species into its ranks when its vile and vicious crew aren’t clawing at each other’s throats. It’s over the top and super fun. The cast act like a bunch of mean idiots and it’s great (Beltran especially, as a bad actor parody of himself).
My favorite detail is the Doctor as a cold and lifeless android carrying out the murderous, genocidal wishes of Janeway. Picardo is positively chilling in a deader modulation of his regularly lively performance, but gets to shine in the rest of the episode as himself.
The hokey fun of its premise recalls the endearing hamminess of The Original Series, but it gives way to a more complex and thoughtful story of racial tension and interpretation of history. In fact, TOS also had a notable episode ruminating on the nature of racism that was anything but subtle, but it was certainly memorable.
But here’s the thing: racism isn’t subtle. Denying someone their rights as a human being because of the color of their skin or place of origin is as broad, ugly, stupid, and loud a thing as you can do. And as we’ve painfully seen in the past few years, these loud and ugly racists are only getting louder and uglier. So why should a story dealing with racism have any sort of subtlety? Racism fucking sucks, and we need to be screaming that at full volume all the time as long as it exists.
I’m getting all worked up here. Deep breath…
The ideas and plot developments in this episode are sadly relatable to what is going on right now in America and the entire world. Gigantic groups of people have been consistently gathering for months now to protest the intolerable racism of the United States. Recent, tragic events have inspired them, but the racism being protested has unfortunately been with this country since the beginning, woven into the fabric of our society.
The episode smartly and efficiently builds a world we can relate to in this respect. Its two peoples, the Kyrians and Vaskans, cohabitate mostly peacefully 700 years after their initial war, but there is tension. It is the tension of a still inequitable and divided society, for the Kyrians are an oppressed people who aren’t allowed into the same echelons of society that the Vaskans are.
The deniers of racism in our current society brush off the existence of racism, citing the abolishing of slavery, the victories of the civil rights movement, and even the temporary occupation of highest elected office as evidence. But the grim specter of this hatred casts a long shadow that will loom for some time until properly dealt with, and we see that reflected between the two species in this episode.
Over two centuries after slavery was abolished in this country, it is still not safe to be Black. You can be killed for a minor offense, you can be killed for following instructions, and you can be killed in your sleep. Seven centuries after resolving their initial conflict, the Kyrians and Vaskans still find themselves on the brink of another war. Because they never properly dealt with the aftermath of their original struggle, the war never really ended. We live in a nation that did the absolute bare minimum to handle its racism problem, if that. And because we have not done the work required of healing from it, we are a wounded society. The blood spilled everyday is the same blood that was spilled since our nation’s founding.
At the episode’s climax, the tension finally boils over and violent riots ravage Kyrian and Vaskan society. Several people are dead, and war seems imminent. As I write this this very night, the same thing is happening in a different part of the country I call home. The timing of this review is spooky, sad, and angering. I hate having to draw the parallel, but it’s the world we live in, and we need to deal with it in a substantive way or we’ll never move on.
The episode throws in some not-quite-understated details and lines of dialogue to paint a portrait of its racially divided society. A confrontational and snotty Vaskan claims that “some of his best friends are Kyrians.” A Kyrian official complains that she’s merely a token member with no real power or influence, and her people aren’t allowed to go to the same schools as the Vaskans. Again, the episode is not painting with a fine brush. It’s broad and loud with its message. But you know what? I’m fine with it. It needs to be yelled and painted in letters 100 feet tall.
When it comes to parable episodes like this, I think it’s important not to expect a perfect, 1:1 comparison to specific modern situations and conflicts. There is some uncomfortable subtext in the history of the Kyrians and Vaskans. Though the Kyrians are the subjugated people and believe themselves to have been the initial victims, the Doctor’s version of events reveal that the Kyrians were in fact the aggressors. The man they held as a martyr was actually a violent, terrorist instigator. The episode doesn’t go anywhere near suggesting that the Kyrians brought this on themselves, but it’s perhaps a detail that muddles the story’s message. On the other hand, in our own racist society, the defenders of racism will cling to any excuse to justify the murder of Black people – not following instructions properly, having done anything wrong in their life prior, etc. Historically, the Kyrians prove to be “no angels,” but that hardly condones their mistreatment. There is perhaps their fear of being imperfect in anyway destroying their credibility to the privileged class.
Mixed in with its metaphor about racial tensions is the somewhat related but distinct theme of historical interpretation, specifically in how historians like Quarren have had to reconstruct events with partial knowledge. This is a theme that has been explored in other Voyager episodes and Trek series (the holographic element recalls The Next Generation episode “A Matter of Perspective”).
One of the persistent themes of Star Trek is the idea of objective, observable truth, and the value in seeking it out. Though he is a researcher and historian, Quarren is still influenced by emotions and biases that prevent him from initially accepting the Doctor’s version of events. But like any good-natured Trek character, he is able to set his irrationalities aside in pursuit of the truth. Science and exploration are major guiding forces in Star Trek. Our heroes like to explore because it’s exciting and cool, but philosophically, there is value in uncovering and understanding the truth of things, whether they be stellar phenomena, personal stuff, or historical events (it is in fact the first duty of Starfleet officers, according to Picard). The Doctor bravely offers to delete himself to prevent further violence and suffering, but Quarren is insistent that the truth be determined and its implications dealt with. It’s a great character moment for both.
The framing device of the episode is clever and creates immediate interest. We don’t see any of the actual crew members until around 20 minutes in, which is a gutsy move that pays off. Picardo is the most watchable and entertaining of the cast, and he carries the episode beautifully. The artificial/immortal aspect of his character presents all sorts of fascinating story possibilities that the series used well (“Timeless” is another great example and possibly the series’ best episode). The initially prickly interplay between him and Quarren is fun, and their growing mutual respect is also nice.
The episode ends on a thankfully positive note. Though destructive, the riots force the Kyrians and Vaskans to face their unresolved issues and build a better society. The truth uncovered by the Doctor forces them to do this, just as our country is perhaps beginning to face its own truth. It will not be a quick and easy journey, but as an optimistic Trek fan, I have to believe it’s possible.
- Quarren is played by Henry Woronicz, who also portrayed Gegen in the Season 3 episode “Distant Origin.” The two episodes have a lot of interesting parallels. In both, Woronicz is an alien scientist who comes to ensnare a Voyager crew member that helps them uncover a huge truth that shake their respective societies to the core. Both end on wistful but positive notes.
- Although it’s a plot device that allows the episode to exist (while still allowing the Doctor to remain with Voyager), the Doctor’s backup module seems kind of ridiculous. Previous episodes have indicated that his program is not something that can be easily copied or recreated, which is reasonable given its complexity. In “The Swarm” we see the EMH diagnostic program (also played by Picardo as Dr. Zimmerman) which sacrifices itself to save the Doctor, indicating that he’s not just a bunch of files that can be easily duplicated. And the Doctor’s mobile emitter is presented as amazing 29th century tech that can store his program, whereas this backup module is not that much bigger. The episode is good enough to forgive the inconsistency, though.
- I really have to commend the evil versions of the crew again. Mulgrew is great as a quietly sadistic Janeway. All the boys are such violent boneheads, it’s priceless. Everyone dunking on Paris is hilarious. Some of their petty bickering references earlier character conflicts in the show before that was all done away with (Paris-Neelix, Paris-Chakotay). Tuvok’s weird ears, lol.