No, not that “Nemesis”…
Star Trek: Voyager (Season 4, Episode 4)
War is hell, y’know?
It’s a fundamental message that’s been a part of Trek since The Original Series, and explored in a number of episodes throughout each subsequent series (especially Deep Space Nine). I mean, obviously war sucks – even when it’s kind of glorified it’s still a brutal affair no sane person wants any part of. But what makes successful War is Hell Trek episodes work is that they explore the reasons why – the effects it has on the individual and the effect is has on societies in interesting and novel ways. “Nemesis” is a classic War is Hell story told in a unique and effective way, with an impactful sci-fi twist at the end for good measure.
“Nemesis” is an interesting affair because it’s very wise and strategic about the flow of information to the viewer. It gives us important details while withholding many others, even after the climactic reveal. It’s a clever approach because it puts us in the same position as the episode’s protagonist, Chakotay. Likewise, it’s an appropriate way to tell a war story – from a soldier’s perspective at the ground level, with access to a limited amount of information and scope. To paraphrase Eric Bana’s quote at the conclusion of Black Hawk Down, war is ultimately all about the guy next to you, and that’s it. Strategy, politics, international relations – all that high level stuff doesn’t really matter when you and your company is getting blasted by an unseen enemy in a dense jungle.
War brings out the worst and best of people. It drives us to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty, but also motivates us to perform unfathomable acts of bravery. War can play upon our protective instincts, to look after one’s fellow soldiers, or to safeguard civilians that are in harm’s way. The forces that draw Chakotay into being an active participant of this war prey upon those basic, altruistic instincts that all our Starfleet heroes have. They’re subverted and taken advantage to serve a very sinister purpose.
The episode begins at night in a forest with a company of soldiers discovering a dazed and tussled Chakotay. His shuttlecraft was shot down and he finds himself in a military platoon. They’re the Vori, your standard Human-Looking Aliens, garbed in green camouflage and carrying rifles. Not phaser rifles, mind you, but actual guns. We rarely see guns in Trek (outside of time travel stories), so it’s an interesting and effective decision that heightens the tactility of the conflict (the Vori are technologically sophisticated, so it’s a notable detail).
But the most intriguing aspect of the episode is its use of language. The Vori men speak English, but they have a distinct vocabulary/slang. Thematically, it factors heavily into what goes on in the episode. The dialect almost sounds Old English (or if you turned the Whedonizer dialogue dial up to 11), but it’s easy enough to pick up on. Alien languages are part and parcel of Star Trek, but they rarely use language in such a thematic way, and it makes the episode very memorable.
The Vori are in a brutal war with the Kradin, who they blame for shooting down Chakotay’s shuttle. They’re talked about as savage, brutal beasts who attack viciously, kill innocent civilians, and desecrate dead bodies by leaving them strung up facing the sky (in direct opposition to Vori funeral customs). Most of this background is established during the night as Chakotay sits with the soldiers as they talk. There’s a clear Vietnam War vibe with the lush forest surroundings, a bitter unending conflict, and tough talking young men. The war sounds like it’s taken a toll on them, consuming their waking moments and filling their thoughts with the “Krady Beasts” and how eager they are to pay them back for all the carnage they’ve caused.
Except for inexperienced Ravin (character actor Matt Levin), who is clearly nervous about facing the Kradin and unconvincingly parrots the tough guy act his teasing comrades embody. Chakotay listens, and tries to impress upon him how easy it is to objectify and monster-ize (it’s a word, look it up) one’s enemy in wartime. There are probably young Kradin who are just as afraid of them, he suggests. It’s all your standard boilerplate “we’re all the same underneath” Trek philosophy but it helps in establishing Chakotay’s initial outlook vs. where he ends up by the episode’s end.
Chakotay is the best choice of character for this story because of his Maquis background and experience in fighting the Cardassians. It’s brought up a couple of times and establishes some emotional background as to how he relates to the Vori-Kradin conflict. He isn’t some green young guy who gets swept up in this war all willy-nilly; he’s an older veteran who knows about war and what it does to you. Which makes how things go that much more chilling.
Chakotay is sympathetic to what these men are going through, but is adamant about finding his shuttle and trying to contact Voyager. Brone, the leader of the platoon, insists on sending an escort with Chakotay. Chakotay finds some wrecked debris of his shuttcraft, and they’re immediately ambushed by black-clad Kradin soldiers. The escort is killed, but the rest of the platoon swings in and kills the attackers.
Without his shuttle, Chakotay will have to walk with them to meet up with another unit. They bury their fallen soldier, and Brone gives Chakotay the man’s clothing (to blend in with the forest) and weapon. Chakotay is hesitant to get involved in their war, but Brone is insistent that he fight and defend as long as he’s with them. It seems like the first stone on the road to hell, but it’s already like the fourth or fifth, we’ll learn…
At night, the platoon discovers a dead Vori soldier whose corpse has been strung up by the Kradin. The unit they were supposed to meet up isn’t answering on the radio, so a couple scouts go to check it out. They report back that the entire unit has been killed and strung up like this poor guy. The platoon is horrified but quickly work themselves into a jingoistic lather and are instantly attacked by the Kradin. They take heavy fire from all sides and again, the Vietnam tone is pretty heavy – getting shot at by an invisible enemy in some godforsaken jungle. An enraged Ravin gets himself killed, Chakotay is hit, and he’s able to escape the skirmish. He walks until daylight where he comes upon a Vori civilian settlement. He’s greeted as a proud soldier before collapsing of exhaustion.
We finally check in with Voyager (the first time we’ve seen the ship, and we’re already halfway in), where the search and rescue attempt is underway. Neelix has been in touch with an ambassador who speaks of the bitter war that’s been going on for the past 10 years against a savage aggressor. Sounds like those Krady beasts, right?
Back at the settlement, Chakotay is tended to and fawned over by the Vori villagers. He explains that he’s just a passerby who’s trying to contact his ship, but they’re pretty adamant that he’s just as much of a hero as one of their “gloried defenders.” They’ve all been driven from their lands by the Kradin and aren’t left with much. There’s a distant restock unit Chakotay can go to contact his ship, but the villagers convince him to rest for the night. A cute young girl idolizes Chakotay and speaks proudly of her brother, whom Chakotay realizes was in that killed unit he was supposed to rendezvous with. The war has taken such a toll on these people that it seems to be all that they talk or think about…
The next day, Chakotay sets out for his destination, and almost immediately upon leaving the village, he sees fighter aircraft flying overhead and explosions from behind him. The village!
As he feared, the Kradin have attacked the settlement and Chakotay is quickly captured. Soon the Kradin start separating the old people from everyone else, apparently to send them off to the death camps. It’s the first good look we get of the Kradin, and they’re appropriately monstrous looking. The makeup (clearly inspired by the Predator) is horrifying, they wear villainous black uniforms and have electronically-distorted voices. The commander creepily taunts the young girl whose grandfather is being hauled away for execution. She begs Chakotay to help her, and he snaps, attacking the Kradin commander. “Motherless beast!” he snarls as he strikes the Kradin before getting knocked out cold.
On Voyager, Janeway greets the ambassador who’s been helping them to try and find Chakotay. Rather than send an away team, Tuvok feels it would be most effective (and safest) for him alone to infiltrate the war zone with their help. The ambassador and his staff beam aboard and they’re… Krady beasts? He speaks disparagingly of his people’s bloodthirsty nemesis the Vori. Uh oh.
Chakotay awakes to find himself strung up like the desecrated Vori corpses he had seen. Fortunately, Brone is still alive and comes by to set him free. Chakotay is grateful and now understands why the Vori call the Kradin beasts. He asks about the villagers, and Brone says they’re being marched away. He’s going to meet up with another unit to try and free them. Brone says he will take him to command so that he can contact his ship, but Chakotay refuses. Now speaking with the same dialect as the Vori, he wants to help Brone and the others free the villagers.
Soon enough, Chakotay (and a unit of Vori soliders) is in a heated skirmish with the Kradin. They get surrounded, and a Kradin approaches Chakotay, claiming to be Tuvok. Chakotay is enraged and incredulous, but as the Kradin explains the situation, his appearance changes to the familiar Vulcan. He explains that the Vori captured Chakotay and have been indoctrinating him to fight their war. In fact, nothing he’s experienced before this battle was real…
Tuvok leads Chakotay to the Vori training camp, and they find the settlement that was attacked and destroyed earlier, except everything is like it was and the exact same people greet Chakotay as if they’ve never seen him before. Whoa.
It’s quite a mindfuck of a climax. Aboard Voyager, the Doctor explains how the Vori used a combination of “photometric projections,” heightened emotional stimuli, and psychotropic drugs to coerce Chakotay into fighting with the Vori. It was all a simulation, and attacking the Kradin commander was his graduation to the real thing.
One of the great things about the ending is that for as many answers as it provides, there are still unanswered questions. If it was all a lie, does that mean the Kradin don’t commit the horrors he heard of or desecrate dead bodies, Chakotay asks? Janeway doesn’t know. She says that the Kradin accuse the Vori of the same horrors. Likewise, the exact nature of the simulation isn’t explained in detail, and there’s something generally unsettling about how nebulous it all is. War is brutal and any two sides will invariably commit all kinds of heinous acts. Are the Kradin as awful as the Vori say? Are the Vori as awful as the Kradin claim? Maybe both. What is the war even about? We don’t find out.
The Kradin ambassador comes into sickbay to warmly greet Chakotay – the electronic distortion is absent from his voice and he seems like an incredibly friendly (if fearsome-looking) guy. Chakotay is horrified by the sight of him, and abruptly leaves the room. Janeway follows him, and he admits that it isn’t as easy to stop hating as it is to start. It’s a bit of unfortunate and unnecessary over-explaining that slightly spoils the effectiveness of the ending. Chakotay’s reaction is really enough to sell this message without it being spelled out and underlined, but anyway.
Twist endings are a staple of sci-fi going back to The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. They can be a hokey and clumsy plot device when relied on too much, but the twist is used effectively here. It’s actually two twists – that the Vori are the bad guys and that the entire ordeal was all a simulated piece of propaganda. The makeup of the two aliens are used to subvert our expectations – the human-looking Vori are the villains of the episode, while the scary Kradin are the friendly, helpful allies. There’s something very Trek-ian I like about that – the monsters aren’t necessarily the monsters (but again, we don’t actually know that…).
The effectiveness of the plot is heightened on subsequent viewings and you can appreciate the path that the propaganda leads Chakotay down from the very beginning. He enters the simulation with the best of intentions and the standard enlightened Federation ideals, but it still gets subverted and he gets programmed successfully. The altruism and heroism of a Stafleet officer seems as much of a drawback to Chakotay as an asset here. By his graduation, he chooses to go after the Kradin in order to free the villagers. The simulation might not have worked on a coward, but someone who’s brave and willing to fight to protect innocents? Bamboozled. The episode works so well because it takes a lot of our expectations of Trek and uses them against not only the main character, but us the viewers as well.
There’s something almost cartoonish about the Vori mindset as presented in the simulation, how consumed by the war everyone is. But the kind of Total War they’re embroiled in is something we’ve seen in many societies, including the good ol’ U.S. of A. The best propaganda is that which doesn’t seem like propaganda. How has the steady stream of cop shows that have filled TV for decades influenced how people view law enforcement? A culture of war begets more war, because it surrounds people so completely that they can’t even see it. And even if you do see it, you still can still get caught up in it, as Chakotay unknowingly does here. The Vori’s Big Lie is a gripping story that sneaks up and engulfs him, just like some of the best Trek episodes do.
- The jungle setting and alien makeup give a total Predator vibe, and the music even has a tinge of that, as well. The Kradin makeup is pretty sick.
- I’ll always remember Matt Levin from Starship Troopers, which is a very appropriate thematic connection to this episode.
- Paris is such a dork here. He unhelpfully blames himself for not going with Chakotay, and tries so hard to volunteer to rescue him. Like, just… shut up, Tom. The grownups are talking. Since when do you even like Chakotay this much, dude?