Star Trek: Voyager – Season 6, Episode 14
As is tradition, Star Trek: Voyager has dipped its toes into War is Hell stories several times already and returns to this persistent Trek theme with another effective and haunting episode. It bears a lot of similarity with “Nemesis” in that it features a raw and intense first-person account of war (and its after effects) with a sci-fi twist, but it manages to be a unique story. That it involves most of the cast and gives them all an opportunity to flex their acting muscles makes it a very memorable installment.
After a two week mission (!) in the Delta Flyer, Paris, Chakotay, Neelix and Kim finally return to Voyager. They’re all a bit cranky from having been cooped up with each other for so long, which is very understandable (again, two weeks in a shuttle!). But Torres has a non-sexual surprise for Tom – a replica of a 1950s-style television set! (Regretfully, Tom has to mansplain that remote controls didn’t exist in the 50’s – even though they did – how does B’Elanna resist this hunk???) Although it seems yet another wacky excuse to indulge in the show’s penchant for 20th century Americana, it does lead to the main plot in an interesting way.
Tom quickly gets engrossed in the vintage shows, commercials, and movies Torres has programmed into the TV (he starts “uh-huh”-ing her as she talks about her day – men, amiright?). Many hours later while watching a war movie, he notices the combatants are using futuristic energy weapons and starts to see himself among them. Torres wakes him from the dream, and he’s rattled at how intense and real it felt.
Meanwhile, Ensign Eager Beaver Kim is working in a Jeffries tube when he has a similarly distressing experience and hears sounds of war before scrambling out. The Doctor believes it to be exhaustion and orders him to rest for a couple days.
Neelix cuts vegetables in the mess hall, and he’s a twitchy mess – Phillips really sells his frayed mental state. Naomi Wildman enters, and when she burns her hand on something, Neelix overreacts and seems to spiral into a war flashback. He barricades the two of them in the kitchen and security has to be called.
Chakotay is having a vivid war dream where he tries to stop his fellow soldiers from firing on civilians. Like in “Nemesis,” these scenes take place in a forested night setting, which heightens the thematic darkness and frantic chaos of war. He angrily confronts his commander in the dream (Saavdra), who retorts that the civilians are the ones who are firing at them.
Waking up in a panic, Chakotay is called to assist Tuvok in dealing with Neelix. Chakotay tries to talk Neelix down, and Neelix references Saavdra from the dream. He surrenders Naomi and stands down, after which they all end up in sickbay for examination. The Doctor diagnoses the away team with PTSD, and confirms that they’re not dreaming – these are real memories they’re (re-)experiencing. But according to Chakotay, nothing unusual happened during the mission.
They all meet and Janeway tries to piece together the events of what they all remember. It’s an intense and remarkable scene as Paris, Kim, Neelix, and Chakotay share their memories of the battle they were all apparently in (it recalls the infamous holodeck scene from “Schisms” where the gathered characters put their experiences together). All the actors really dial it up to 11 and they quickly get lost in their feelings as they recount and argue about what happened. They display a range of emotions in response to their experiences – anger, self-hatred, fear, panic. The makeup is effective in making them look like hell, too.
The four of them seem to have been involved in a civilian evacuation by the military. They don’t want to be moved, but Saavdra is intent on having them out that night. Seeing how tired the soldiers are, Chakotay tries to convince him to wait until morning when they’re more rested, but Saavdra has promised command they’ll have it done tonight. It’s a subtle illustration of the moral hazards a chain of command entails – people are often compelled to make decisions that go against their instincts for the sake of complying with orders. As militaristic as Starfleet is depicted, the series often emphasizes the moral duty to interpret orders and not follow them blindly. The episode quickly demonstrates what happens when you don’t.
During the evacuation some stray shots from an unseen combatant cause a panic (to the episode’s credit, we never find out from who – the soldiers or the civilians). The civilians start running and the soldiers quickly lose control of the situation. Some start firing on the civilians, and it immediately devolves into a bloodbath as the unarmed people get gunned down by the soldiers. Kim runs away and hides in a cave, where he finds an old man and his daughter hiding. Wang really shines as he depicts someone who’s jacked up on a cocktail of adrenaline and fear and is half a hair away from completely losing it. Unfortunately he does, and when the old man slips up Kim panics and blows them both away.
Back on Voyager, they’ve finally put it all together – they killed 82 civilians that night; no survivors. Paris is distraught and hates himself for what he’s done. Torres tries to comfort him, but he’s not having it. Janeway, Chakotay, and Seven review the Delta Flyer’s mission logs. Before long, Janeway starts experiencing memories of the same bloody night. It throws and interesting wrinkle into the story, since she wasn’t on the mission with them. How could she be involved?
In the aftermath of the massacre, Saavdra orders his men to start vaporizing the dead bodies. Janeway absolutely loses her shit when she realizes what he’s doing, and I’ve never seen Mulgrew so raw and crazed. Her voice is wild and hoarse as she screams at Saavdra (and the rest of the soldiers); it’s a brief but impressive performance. She implores them to stop, but Saavdra (who seems to be barely holding it together himself) is hellbent on covering up their horrible mistake.
Janeway wakes up in the mess hall, which the Doctor has turned into a makeshift extra large sickbay (as he had done in “Year of Hell“). Several dozen crewmembers are now experiencing memories of that horrific night. Janeway remembers where the planet is, and they head there to investigate.
Neelix and Seven get a nice scene – he’s distraught over scaring Naomi and asks Seven how she deals with remorse over her previous life as a Borg. She says that guilt is a powerful feeling that can compel one to not repeat mistakes. This idea is ultimately the theme of the episode and the key to what is going on.
Prepared for the worst, Voyager reaches the planet ready for battle but doesn’t detect any life signs. They do detect a powerful energy source and beam down to investigate. It’s the same forested environment, and although it’s daytime, there’s a tension that fills the scene as they all separate and look around. Kim and Tuvok find the cave he hid in, and Kim has a panic attack as they enter. They find the remains of the two dead people, but it appears they died 300 years prior – so it definitely wasn’t Harry that killed them.
Janeway and Chakotay find the source of the energy – a towering monument in an open field. It’s a telepathic transmitter that is able to beam thoughts into the minds of anyone who gets close enough to the planet. The writing on the monument itself speaks of words not being enough to convey the horror of what happened or sufficient in preventing it from happening again. It’s a memorial designed to communicate the experience of the massacre firsthand.
Chakotay is pretty pissed, as the device forces innocent people to be traumatized by something they had nothing to do with. He’s not wrong. The memorial is losing power and will go offline soon. The staff meet and confer about what to do. Most of them are unanimous in shutting it down, but Neelix is adamant that it should stay operational. As the victim of great destruction (his home Rinax), he understands why preserving the memory of that horror is necessary and beneficial.
Janeway decides to repair the memorial but leave a beacon in place that will transmit a warning to anyone who comes near about what they will experience. It’s a decision that splits the difference between everyone’s concerns effectively. With the memorial at full power, Janeway notes that although they’ve been through hell because of it, it will help preserve the memory of what these people died for, and Voyager departs.
As is often noted, history forgotten is history repeated. But even when historical accounts are freely available, the past can still be taken for granted and cast aside (as has been made so painfully clear in modern times – the existence of information does not guarantee the absorption of information). The memorial device is a horribly intrusive idea – forcing people to not only remember a massacre, but to actually be the ones to take part in it. The morality of it highly questionable and like many Trek situations, it serves as an ethical puzzle that the heroes have to deal with. One of the strengths of the episode is that there isn’t a clear right or wrong answer – being unwittingly traumatized is an assault that isn’t really defensible. But how much more likely are the people who experience it to not fire first if they ever find themselves in a similar situation? How many lives will that trauma potentially save? Is an injury to someone’s mental health worth the actual life of an innocent person down the line?
There aren’t any easy answers here, and the conclusion is similarly haunting and somber. Janeway’s decision isn’t presented as a correct or incorrect one – everyone experiences the same situation, but they all react to it differently. The inclusion of the warning buoy softens the ethical harm, although it does seem to neuter the efficacy of the memorial – if there’s a warning that certain anguish and PTSD lies ahead, surely any sane person would turn around? Not many people are interested in uncomfortable truths and go out of their way to seek them out. Underbaked sci-fi twists can rob a story of its efficacy by unnecessarily complicating things and introducing extraneous plot holes, but “Memorial’s” twist succeeds because it opens up a number of interesting moral questions and angles. Like the best twists, it provides a compelling mind-fuck element that deepens the ideas the episode raises.
Memorials can take many forms, ranging from simple statues and monuments to storied entertainment and complex productions. The ultimate goal of these various mediums is the same – to educate and to preserve a memory of what took place. Seeing events acted out can help connect us to them in a way that is personal and memorable, playing on our humanity. Star Trek often uses historical events as the basis for its stories and in these cases it elevates the show to allegory that can enlighten and/or dismay. It’s a show that has made me a more thoughtful and morally responsible person for having experienced it. The towering monolith of this episode ultimately does the same to the crew of Voyager. Despite the pain it caused and the murky ethics of its nature, the memorial – like any good piece of historical edutainment – ensures that its lessons won’t easily be forgotten.
- When Tom vegges out while watching TV, Torres even does the nagging wife thing where she says something totally absurd to test if he’s listening (which of course he isn’t). For a brief moment this episode turns into a crappy sitcom, but it’s unexpected and amusingly meta enough to be entertaining (Tom makes a good lunkhead). If this show had been made today, I could see it doing a more extended Wandavision-style sitcom pastiche starring these two as a means to get more mileage out of Tom’s Americana obsession.
- I like this shot. Voyager has a good overhead profile.