Chakotay goes on the lam with his tiny murder son.
I first caught this episode on VHS back in the ’90s, and I haven’t watched it — or thought about it, or remembered its existence at all — since. So I was actually surprised to find myself enjoying it, a little.
Which is not to say “Initiations” is especially good. If you’ve seen a TNG or DS9 episode about Klingons, you’ve seen “Initiations” — it doesn’t pass the “is this a story that could only be told on Voyager” test.
But Chakotay gets some long overdue attention and, despite being an episode featuring the Kazon and Chakotay’s spiritual beliefs, what we have on screen isn’t even all that racist.
(Behind the scenes, writer Kenneth Biller was told to study the Kazon by going out and talking to gang members and police officers. He declined to do so, and read a book instead. The final script is less about mid-90s gang violence specifically than toxic cultures and criminal organisations in general, and for once in my life, I’m glad that Voyager decided to go with the generic rather than the specific.)
Adolescence is terrible, regardless of species
All Chakotay wants is to take a shuttle out for a few days of solo time so he can perform a sacred ritual in memory of his late father. But he wandered into Kazon territory, and thirteen-year-old Kar is despatched to kill him, which will serve as his initiation into adulthood.
Sadly for Kar, a Kazon ship is no match for even a Starfleet shuttle. Worse, Chakotay saves his life, and just keeps on refusing to kill him, the big jerk. They’re captured, they escape, Kar is going to reclaim his honor by killing Chakotay. Aaaaaaany minute now. Watch. He’s just working up to it.
None of this is groundbreaking, but it’s fun to see how Chakotay goes from zero to MUST PROTECT MY TINY MURDER SON the very moment he realises his attacker is a child.
Kar is played by Aron Eisenberg, who already had a significant recurring role as the teenage Ferengi Nog on Deep Space 9 — the ’90s having been a pretty bleak era for good child and teen actors, he was ultimately the best person for the job.
He has great rapport with Beltran, and gives a really good performance that’s very different from his work as Nog, but his voice is so distinctive that it’s impossible to forget that it’s the same actor. This is a real shame — with his prosthetics experience in Star Trek, he could have gone on to be the short Doug Jones, but his voice work simply isn’t as versatile.
And Beltran is … as expressive as he ever gets. He’s hampered by a script which has Chakotay declaring that he’s a “gentle man” whose Starfleet uniform is as intrinsic to his identity as his name. Like, dude, six months ago you were running your own terrorist cell. I have to tell myself that Chakotay is overcompensating, because I just cannot believe that Voyager’s writers have forgotten that extremely key piece of canon.
(They absolutely forgot. I know it.)
This is a perfect isolated standalone episode. How isolated? If you have never encountered Klingons, or spotted Nog in DS9, or know anything about Chakotay, I think it would be really enjoyable. The dialogue is snappy, the execution is solid. It’s quintessential Star Trek in its depiction of cultural clashes and the Federation as the only good guys in town.
It just doesn’t work in context.
Back on Voyager
The vestigial B plot involves Neelix feeling like he’s not doing enough to assist Janeway, which culminates in his successfully intimidating the Kazon.
The highlight is Janeway as Neelix argues for a bigger role on the ship.
Neelix: I have never left your side or failed to support you since I came on board.
Janeway’s face: Mate, you spent the first few episodes railing against my decisions and demanding to wait out the scary parts in your own little ship.
I really enjoy Neelix when the script knows there’s a gap between his self-image and his reality, and this was pretty good.
But I note that, needing a guide on the Kazon training world, it’s Kes who accompanies the away team. Neelix’s experience with the Kazon isn’t entirely unique. (And it’s nice to see Kes get more to do than support the Doctor.)
- A throwaway line tells us that the Kazon were enslaved by another race until just twenty-six years ago. We’ll learn more about that later this season, but it struck me that twenty-six years is a shockingly short period of time in which to go from “slaves” to “chaotic yet powerful force in this region of space”. Maybe too short?
- It certainly explains why their society is so unstable, why they’re short of resources and suspicious of outsiders.
- Coherent worldbuilding? In my Voyager? It’s more likely than you think!
- A nice bit of subtle characterisation: when Chakotay’s shuttle is attacked, he doesn’t leave his medicine bundle on the deck, but retrieves it and carefully folds it as he returns to the cockpit. We were told in “The Cloud” that it contains objects which are sacred to him, he treats it with care.
- “I am not your son, Federation. I am your executioner!” Okay, I know I said the dialogue was snappy, but this made me laugh.
Solid, but skippable. Two angry and confused teenagers out of five.