Voyager rewatch 2.09 – “Tattoo”

*slaps top of script* This baby can hold so many racist tropes.

Let’s list the ways in which “Tattoo” is racist. Come on, it’ll be fun.

1. Ancient aliens

“Tattoo” posits that Chakotay’s ancestors were visited by ancient spacefaring aliens who, seeing within them an admirable respect for nature, gifted them with genetic gifts including curiosity and persistence, which enabled them to migrate to South America, where they thrived until the European invasion.

We usually see the ancient alien “theory” being applied to physical structures, the idea (such as it is) being that “primitive” cultures could not have erected, say, the pyramids of Egypt or the statues on Easter Island. Applying it to actual people is a new twist, but no less racist.

2. Noble savages

Both the ancient aliens and Chakotay’s father — seen in flashbacks on an expedition to find the reclusive Rubber Tree People from whom he believes they’re descended — frame their respect for these Indigenous groups in terms of noble savagery. They’re simpler! More in touch with nature!

The aliens, in fact, go so far as to describe their ancestors as having “no culture other than fire and stone tools”, which reminds me a lot of the way British invaders described Indigenous Australians. And I’m not up on my prehistorical cultures, but given what we know about Neanderthal burial rituals, for example, it doesn’t sound especially accurate in any context.

3. White saviours

So the aliens who gave the Rubber Tree People their culture and drive to explore?

White people. They’re all white actors with latex foreheads.

I mean.

4. General stereotypes

The whole depiction of Native American people here is in line with ’90s stereotypes: spiritual, in touch with nature, wise and … you know, chill.

In Piller’s defense, it could be argued that Tattoo is more interested in New Age environmentalist themes than it is in actual Native American culture. In Star Trek and Sacred Ground, Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren suggest that the episode is best read in that context:

The New Age link between Indians, Aliens and environmentalism is also mirrored in Tattoo in the hesitancy of the Sky Spirit people to contact the Voyager crewmembers due to humanity’s heritage of environmental destructiveness. The Sky Spirit spokesman tells Chakotay: “We were taught your world had been ravaged by those with no respect for life or land.” Finally, despite their great need, the Sky Spirit people refuse to allow the Voyager crew to take all the mineral they need from the planet, allowing only as much as can be taken without damage to the environment. In his association with Indians and Aliens, the Sky Spirit/extraterrestrial is both definitively Other and ultimately authoritative. As a consequence, he is ideally situated to speak on environmental issues within the context of New Age spirituality.

(source)

5. Indigenous people: are they actually, themselves, aliens?

It’s not really a trope, but I do want to point out that, when Chakotay and his dad meet the Rubber Tree People, they are also Rubber Forehead People. It’s never commented on, but I assume we’re meant to believe that this community are in fact descended from the aliens themselves?

Nevertheless, there is a single redeeming feature…

And that’s Chakotay, and the journey we see him take, from the moody, rebellious teenager of flashbacks to the adult man who regrets that he does not speak the language of his ancestors.

Robert Beltran gives basically his best performance of the whole series here, noting in interviews that aspects of the story were personal to him:

For example, in the episode, Chakotay says, ‘I don’t understand the ancient language of my people,’ and my Spanish is passable but I’m always revealing that I’m not yet able to participate fully in conversation with my own people.

(source)

And in specifying that Chakotay’s people come from South America, the series finally takes a step towards correcting the problem of having a Native American character played by a Mexican American. There’s still the issue where a lot of his practices are a mishmash of North American cultures, but it’s a step.

(Typically for Star Trek, we never learn anything about his mother except that she gave birth to him; I recall the general fanon being that she traced her heritage back to several Nations across North America.)

Meanwhile, I’m nominating Kolopak as one of the lesser Bad Dads of Star Trek

Mostly for the way he declares that he “allowed” Chakotay to study other cultures and modern societies. Like, mate, are you running a cult here?

The B plot is inoffensive

And completely unrelated to the A plot: called out by Kes for his lack of compassion for his patients, the Doctor infects himself with a holographic virus.

This is mildly amusing, especially when the Doctor realises that Kes has prolonged his holographic suffering. “She’s much more devious than we realised.”

But I found it depressing that his pain management was more or less on a par with what you get from the average GP now — just one of those instances where the “utopia” doesn’t quite stick. Expectations have changed, even if the reality hasn’t.

Further reading

The M0vie Blog is a really enjoyable pop culture blog whose occasional Voyager coverage takes the form of quite detailed essays. I highly recommend their piece on “Tattoo”, excerpted above, which puts the episode in a wider context.

Other observations

  • Neelix is attacked by a birb. The delta quadrant’s a long way for an eagle to go just to attack one (1) Talaxian, but you have to respect its dedication.
  • Wig Watch: Janeway’s bun is extra intricate this week.

In conclusion

This is a terrible episode. You could argue that it’s the worst episode of the entire series and a low point for Star Trek as a whole. Minus one racist trope out of five.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

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