Sunday, May 1, 2016
“The Final Voyage”: Journey's End, The Maquis, Preemptive Strike
No, not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I've always maintained Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are effectively the same show (or should be read that way), the only difference being what part of the universe the camera lens shines on at any given moment. And never has this basic, yet frequently overlooked, truism been more clear than now, because when Star Trek: The Next Generation goes down, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine goes down with it. Where one leads, the other will follow, bound inexorably together by the ties of fate and kinship. And while yes, something *called* Star Trek: Deep Space Nine continues for another five years after this moment, it's fundamentally a very, very different creature from what we've been watching since January of 1993. The shared universe that we've been witnessing unfold has suddenly and violently been torpedoed by friendly fire, and it's only a matter of time now. There's plenty of brilliant material left to cover that this world has opened up for us to be sure, but as far as the studio higher-ups are concerned, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can't get their asses out the door fast enough.
Star Trek Voyager has arrived, and Star Trek Voyager is all that matters anymore.
Plans for a frankly nonsensical fifth Star Trek series were in the works as early as 1993, which I honestly find kind of scary to think about. No sooner did Star Trek: Deep Space Nine debut and make a case for being the future of the franchise than Paramount executives were busy drafting up its replacement. *Technically*, of course, Star Trek Voyager was intended to replace Star Trek: The Next Generation, but this only begs the question: Why go to all the trouble to draft up a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the first place, a show that has from the outset been so self-consciously walking a tightrope between complimenting its older sister and defining itself in opposition to it, if the studio was always just going to go ahead and do “more of the same, but cheaper” anyway? After all, the mantle was supposed to be Deep Space Nine's to inherit eventually...Or so we were told.
I won't talk about the premier of Star Trek Voyager here because it's still a year away and the series doesn't even technically exist yet in a material form, but you better believe it does in every other form. But for the purposes of this essay, I'll have those of you know who weren't there that this was an event. It was a massive entertainment media blitz the likes of which hadn't been seen since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, and all throughout 1994 nobody would shut the fuck up about it. *Everyone* in every reference book and sci-fi periodical published that year was talking nonstop about the upcoming Star Trek Voyager and how exciting it was going to be and what a marvelous time it was to be a Star Trek fan. Malibu Comics in particular sticks in my mind for how much they loved reminding you every month that they had the license for the hottest new property of 1994-5 and were looking forward to expanding their Star Trek comic universe (they proceeded to then promptly lose it within about six months). As someone who was only a casual Star Trek viewer who was only just now fully getting into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I did miss the majority of this, though it was hard to avoid. And by the next year and all the following years to come I made up for lost time on that count fast.
I have to wonder why Paramount made such an insanely huge deal about this. It's something I've thought a lot about on and off ever since. Why did they move so quickly with it, and why did they make the creative and commercial decisions they did? I believe I even said it myself: Once spinoffs start to come out, that's a strong sign a TV show doesn't have long to live. Star Trek: The Next Generation may have been a special case, but it was still a bit long in the tooth by 1991. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1993? Starting work on a spinoff then would have been like a major network commissioning a pilot and than hurriedly greenlighting a sequel or spinoff before the thing even goes to series. In fact, no, it's not “like” that, it is exactly that.
The argument that I frequently see written up in the history books is that Star Trek Voyager was created to continue the success of having two Star Trek shows on the air concurrently, as had been proven by The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine running together. But that argument doesn't really hold water for me, mainly because the fucking thing was greenlit before anyone who wasn't clairvoyant or actually a Temporal Cold War agent could have physically have been able to see how that system worked in practice. And anyway even if they had, the smart money would seem to go *against* Star Trek Voyager, because The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were already having issues competing with each other in certain syndication markets because particularly thoughtless programming directors would air the two shows opposite each other (just like they did in my local affiliates). Not only that, but some affiliates were even running TNG and DS9 opposite reruns of TNG and DS9.
For me, the answer comes down to one of two equally plausible scenarios. One is basic greed; Paramount wanted to milk the proverbial Star Trek cash cow for all it was worth for as long as possible, damn the consequences. This is the sequence of events preferred by Rick Berman, who was expressing concern about this as early as 1994, but only got (in)famous for saying it after Enterprise was cancelled in 2005. However, there's another possibility, and it's one I'm increasingly in favour of entertaining (with the disclaimer a lot of this is speculation on my part). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was created in part to carry on the populist legacy and audience of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and for a year and a half that's precisely what it did. It was a smash hit with mainstream audiences, “Emissary” alone mustering some staggeringly astronomical numbers, and was an unmistakable and iconic tenet of pop culture for a good three years. *However*, it wasn't doing quite as well in the ratings as Star Trek: The Next Generation, which only makes sense if you stop to think about it: Naturally the upstart new series is not going to overtake the biggest show on television when it's barely a year old.
But as big as Deep Space Nine was, and people always forget that it really was, it was not doing well with one specific demographic Paramount considered vitally important: Namely, hardcore (white, straight, cis, male) Star Trek fans. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a big hit with normal people, but the fanboys hated it because they thought it was “too slow”, “too boring”, was too much like a “soap opera” (meaning it had girls in it and people occasionally talked about their feelings), didn't have enough action (because Deep Space Nine was not a show about rayguns and spaceship battles) and, perhaps most damningly, was set on a space station: This elicited cries of “But they don't go anywhere!” (you must visualize this being delivered with the whiniest, most nasal voice you can imagine) from the fans, who decided this meant the Deep Space 9 team were not real explorers and thus the show was not a true Star Trek show.
My theory is that Paramount saw this and panicked. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been guaranteed at least six seasons so they couldn't just cancel it, but they could get people to stop paying attention to it. So they redoubled their efforts into the prospective Star Trek: The Next Generation film series, which was to be for the mainstream audiences as well as legacy fans, and the new show, Star Trek Voyager, which would be everything the fans wanted and felt they weren't getting on Deep Space Nine: A fateful decision that, in my view, left the Star Trek franchise with its days numbered. Either way, this would mean Voyager was to be the new heir apparent and the studio's golden girl, and no material or metaphorical expense would be spared to ensure it would be the biggest event they could possibly muster. As the new face of the studio and the franchise, Star Trek Voyager absolutely *had* to work and, more to the point, it had to work the way they wanted it to work.
So what does Star Trek Voyager have to do with these three episodes? You may recall how last year “Chain of Command” served as kind of a lead-in to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a setup for its world, going out a few weeks before the debut of “Emissary”. This is precisely the same thing that's going on here, except multiplied times four and stretched out for half a year. The sheer hubris of this arc bloat, and the fact the studio felt they needed this long to set up the backstory for Star Trek Voyager, is an absolutely perfect microcosm for the stark differences between the way this transition is being helmed and the way the previous one was, and it's a bitterly perfect example of the extravagance and shortsightedness that's come to characterize Paramount's business dealings. Furthermore, “Journey's End”, “The Maquis” and “Preemptive Strike” are all utterly reprehensible stories on just about every single level, and certainly do not leave me in good spirits about the future Star Trek Voyager is set to bring about.
The common thread that links all of these episodes is the titular group from “The Maquis”. They're a group of former Federation colonists who settled in the demilitarized zone between the Federation and the Cardassian Empire who are now being forced to relocate after the treaty renegotiation following the end of the border wars ceded their planets to the Cardassians. As a result, they've turned to insurgence terrorism to get the attention of the colonial powers with their demand of being allowed to remain on the planets they settled. In “The Maquis”, Commander Sisko is introduced to them when his old friend Cal Hudson is revealed to be an influential leader in the Maquis. Sisko is forced to confront him when the Maquis' actions risk destabilizing the Federation-Cardassian alliance, and ends up siding with Gul Fucking Dukat to bring him in and crush the rebellion. Similarly, in “Preemptive Strike”, Ro Laren goes undercover to infiltrate the Maquis, has a crisis of conscience about her loyalties given how much they remind her of the struggles of her own people, and ends up defecting. We never see her again.
While not mentioned by name in the episode, the Maquis are absolutely the focus of “Journey's End”. This story sees Wesley Crusher returning (so we're already off to a great start) and going up against the Enterprise crew when they're ordered to relocate a settlement of Native Americans away from a planet in a part of the demilitarized zone that is now considered Cardassian territory. Wesley throws a fit, whines a lot, and ends up leaving with The Doctor in the TARDIS, er, I mean, ends up exploring space on a higher plane of existence with The Traveller. And you better believe everything that this team could possibly have screwed up and racefailed on in a plot about Native Americans they absolutely screw up on. It's a veritable checklist of cultural cluelessness: Native Americans portrayed as essentially homogeneous and interchangeable, being more innately “spiritual” and “connected to the land”, check and double-check. And on top of it all imperialism, neo-colonialism and Wesley Goddamn Crusher. Gods above.
There's two interwoven threads here, apart from these episode just all flat-out sucking. One is that the Maquis were intended to be the setting gimmick for Star Trek Voyager in much the same way the Cardiassian-Bajoran conflict was for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: On its maiden, er, voyage, the USS Voyager was to encounter a hostile Maquis fighter, but before they could act both ships were flung to the other end of the galaxy where they would be forced to learn to put aside their differences and work together. In fact, Chakotay, the Native American captain of the Maquis ship who becomes Captain Janeway's first officer, was to have come from the same planet featured in “Journey's End”. So this explains the heavy exposure the Maquis got on the tail end of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: It's merely a thinly veiled ashcan prequel to Star Trek Voyager. This is the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine version of “Assignment: Earth”. And just like that episode, it makes the crew of the current series look like a bunch of worthless buffoons in order to make the new show look cool and contemporary.
Because there is absolutely no getting around the fact that the crews of Deep Space 9 and the starship Enterprise come across as absolutely ethically unforgivable here. Actually, I don't think they've ever been depicted worse. We've seen moral ambiguity (or “moral ambiguity”) on the show before, of course, but there's a big fucking difference between being forced into a bad place and making the best of it and deliberately, overtly siding with the bad guys. Seriously, Commander Sisko throwing his lot in with Gul freaking Dukat is basically tantamount to him siding with Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump and is effectively character assassination. I shudder when I look back and remember I actually used to like this two-parter and considered it well-done drama. And that's not even touching “Journey's End”, which basically has the Enterprise blaze the Space Trail of Tears, or “Preemptive Strike”, where they spy on a bunch of oppressed people. Make no mistake, the crew are the villains of these episodes: We're absolutely meant to side with Cal Hudson, Ro Laren and Wesley Crusher. And, by extension, Star Trek Voyager.
(Speaking of oppression, you may be wondering, given my chapter on “Lower Decks”, why I don't have more to say about there being a group of displaced peoples in this supposed post-scarcity utopia. Honestly it sort of makes sense to me given that the Federation and Cardassians have always operated like empires or neocolonial powers in spite of everything. The Maquis are a logical end result of the political structure of the Star Trek universe, I will give the show that, I just think it was inexcusable of it to not have our supposed heroes side with them. On the rare times Star Trek's idealism actually meshes with its worldbuilding, it does so by showing how utopian results can be achieved by resisting and rejecting this kind of system. That the show so explicitly doesn't do this here is to me conclusive proof of the franchise's ultimate overall failure.)
Although really, I can't see how this bodes any better for Star Trek Voyager. Given how appalling poorly Starfeet comes across in these episodes, how impossible it is to not side with the Maquis...Is anyone actually looking forward to potentially six years of a starched collar Federation crew and a rowdy group of justly angry rebels reaching a “tentative alliance” based around “setting aside differences”? How is that going to make Katherine Janeway look any better than Jean-Luc Picard, Will Riker or Benjamin Sisko? How is this whole concept not just going to fall flat as the milquetoast myth of liberal compromise and restitution? Star Trek's central artifice is shaky enough as it is-The franchise's idealism has always been in constant conflict with its militarism and it's hard to jettison one in favour of the other without it ceasing to be Star Trek. But here, the entire coherence of Star Trek as a collective work has been unraveled. By explicitly separating our protagonists from the people and ideologies which are so unambiguously in the right, Star Trek has made them stop being heroes. And it's hard to watch a show where there are no heroes anymore.