It turns out the real alliances are the principles we made along the way.
“Alliances” is not a good episode. But it’s not quite as bad as I had thought.
This is faint praise. It’s still terrible.
We open with Voyager being absolutely slammed by (sigh) Kazon ships. There are fatalities — worse, Janeway’s hair starts to come loose.
This has been going on for weeks, and Voyager’s not doing well. Janeway has superior firepower, but I guess the Kazon have the numbers. And now Beloved Crewman Bandera (no, we’ve never seen him or heard of him before now), who was just the bestest, nicest, coolest guy in the Maquis, has died.
So people are restless. Other former Maquis, Crewmen Hogan (the mouthy one) and Jonas (the actually treacherous one) are calling for revolution, or at least a change in policy. So is Chakotay, albeit with more tact and also some invasion of Janeway’s personal space.
(In fairness, she started it with the chest touching. Apparently some people are just really into debates about principle versus pragmatism.)
(Not me, though, obviously. *eyedart*)
Here’s an important lesson about life aboard the USS Voyager: if Tuvok and Chakotay agree on something, it’s either a brilliant idea, or a very bad one.
And here, they agree that Voyager should form an alliance with a local power. Like, you know, the Kazon. One or two sects, enough to maintain a balance, they support Voyager in exchange for food and medical supplies and some level of mutual protection, but no advanced techology or weapons.
In theory, this is a solid idea. Yes, it goes against Starfleet principles and everything Janeway believes in, but the deal as proposed feels like a solid balance between pure pragmatism and blind idealism.
In practice, as we very quickly see, it’s little more than a waste of time. Mostly because Maje Cullah is too misogynistic to make a deal with a woman — there’s a point where Janeway and Seska make eye contact, and you can practically see them agree silently that this would be a hell of a lot easier if Cullah wasn’t such a jackass.
As for the other Kazon sect they want to deal with, although Neelix recalls them being moderate and friendly (by Kazon standards), they’ve taken a turn for the purely xenophobic. Neelix is quickly arrested in what we’re told is a general round-up of non-Kazons — although the prominent exotic dancer, gyrating tamely on a stage, is presumably exempt. (Does Voyager ever achieve a depiction of sexuality that’s not both exploitative and mildly embarrassing? I can’t recall.)
In Kazon Jail (actually it’s just the usual cave set), Neelix befriends some fellow prisoners, led by a nice white man named Mabus. They’re the Trabe, who once enslaved and oppressed the Kazon, and now, having been overthrown just a generation ago, wander the stars in search of a new homeworld, forever pursued and persecuted by their former slaves.
And, well, Mabus is so friendly, and well-spoken, and nicely dressed, and white — why, he and the rest of the Trabe convoy are the perfect ally for Voyager!
Okay, I have to give Voyager credit where it’s due
I remembered this as an episode where Janeway and her crew were instantly enamoured of the nice, clean, white Trabe — as opposed to those scary, unreasonable explicitly-based-on-LA-gangs-so-that-means-black Kazon. But, in fact, it’s more nuanced and self-aware than that.
For one thing, although Mabus is the only Trabe with dialogue, his group is somewhat diverse, especially by the crowd scene standards of the day.
And Janeway et al aren’t instantly enamoured — they like the Trabe, but that’s partially because Mabus is very upfront about the fact that his people enslaved the Kazon, and he was a child who didn’t know, but they still have to wear the consequences. And even after that conversation, there’s still debate about whether or not the Trabe are the right allies for Voyager.
On the other hand, these discussions feel incredibly naive and, well, written by white people. It seems unlikely to me that Chakotay, of all people, would expect the Trabe and Kazon to put the past behind them after just thirty years. Yes, the adult Trabe were children when the Kazon rose up, but there are Americans alive today who not-so-secretly yearn for the days when they were allowed to own slaves.
So it’s not quite as offensive as I had thought, but it’s still pretty hamfisted and ugly.
Anyway, the alliance is sorted, everyone’s happy — but Mabus has a better idea. Why not, he says to Janeway, take advantage of their new position to create a lasting peace between the Trabe and the Kazon sects?
And Janeway’s like, “I’m from the Federation, I love lasting peace!”
Prime Directive? What Prime Directive?
This, to me, felt … strange. It’s one thing to create an alliance which, by nature of Voyager’s mission, is temporary. Joining up with the Trabe convoy and offering food and medical supplies doesn’t seem even remotely problematic from a Prime Directive perspective.
But jumping in and organising a peace treaty between two warring peoples? When you’re new to the area and have no intention to stick around? And have only a rough idea of the history? It’s a bit like Jared Kushner announcing he has a plan to bring peace to the Middle East.
Why does Janeway agree to this so quickly? She was outraged at the very suggestion of a temporary alliance, but completely altering the balance of power in this sector is okay? It’s beyond belief. I know Voyager gets a lot of criticism for Janeway’s changeable approach to the Prime Directive, but she’s usually at least consistent within a single episode.
No one can hear me shouting from 20 years in the future, so peace talks are organised without my input. Tables are laid. Pyramids of Ferrero Rocher are assembled. Oh, and someone’s been spotted skulking around outside the venue. Is one of the Kazon sects plotting to sabotage the talks?
Of course not.
Make The Trabe Great Again.
“Seemingly nice, friendly white men can be more dangerous than angry, aggressive ‘black’ men” would be a crunchy, interesting, significant twist — and a storyline that’s even more relevant now than in the ’90s.
But, although Voyager tries, it can’t quite pull it off here. Because the Kazon have never been portrayed with enough depth or nuance to be interesting — and even in “Alliances”, they’re only cartoons.
The script tries to be self-aware about the biases of its characters and audience, but at the same time, it’s the Trabe who are fleshed out. We know as much about them after a single episode as we do about the Kazon after a season and a half. There’s a sad irony here, but that doesn’t make for a good episode. It just highlights the thinness of the writing around the Kazon.
“Initiations” is the closest we’ve come to meeting Kazon who have any vision beyond space piracy, who have aspirations or a desire for a common good. We don’t even know what “common good” means for the Kazon. The Kazon we know best is Cullah, who is too shortsighted to put his ego aside even temporarily for a long-term benefit. Without Seska, he’s completely incompetent, and he doesn’t even realise it.
That doesn’t make for an interesting villain, or an interesting culture. The history we have here, with the Trabe and the very recent emancipation of the Kazon, had potential, but it’s never explored — and I can only assume that’s because the writers didn’t actually care about the Kazon except as moustache-twirling villains. The Trabe describe the Kazon as violent and primitive, and that is exactly how they’re portrayed.
In conclusion, we believe in our beliefs
“Alliances” could have been merely bad, but the Picard speech at the end takes it right down to terrible.
That’s not a dig at Kate Mulgrew. Not even Sir Pat Stew could have pulled that one off. The episode ends with Janeway proudly declaring that she always thought an alliance was a bad idea, and she was right, and the only lesson to be drawn from this is that no one should ever doubt her righteousness.
It’s just bad writing. And maybe you could overlook it, except — we’ve seen her make another really terrible decision. When she realises the peace talks are about to be blown up, and Mabus is to blame, she beams out with him.
Of course the Kazon think Voyager was involved! What other conclusion could they draw?
A better option would have been to beam out, leaving him to die. And an even better option is to stay where she is, not letting Mabus escape either, and having the whole “I won’t make alliances with murderers” conversation in front of the Kazon. It probably wouldn’t have improved relationships with the Kazon, but it’s a hell of a lot better than beaming out with the man who attempted to murder them. Not even leaving him to his fate!
It’s bad writing. It makes Janeway look cowardly and stupid, and follows that up with this self-satisfied speech.
Also we have an arc now
We can’t even put “Alliances” behind us and pretend it never happened, because Voyager chose now to make a vague attempt at serialised storytelling! While Hogan blustered, his buddy Jonas decided to actually throw his lot in with Seska, because … I dunno, why wouldn’t a former Maquis decide to team up with a Cardassian spy and the biggest idiot in the quadrant?
That’s really the only mystery about this subplot, and I don’t recall it getting much resolution. This is the opposite of mystery box storytelling — more like getting a shoe box, opening it, and finding shoes inside. The only question is whether they’ll turn out to be sneakers or dress shoes.
The most notable thing about Jonas is that he’s played by Raphael Sbarge, who is best known these days as the voice actor behind Kaiden Alenko in the Mass Effect games. Seeing his face is always a bit of a headspin, because Kaiden is your standard bland video game beefcake, and Sbarge … is not.
(Let Ashley Survive Virmire.)
At least we have Tuvok
The one good scene in “Alliances” is Janeway’s visit to Tuvok in his quarters: he talks orchids, like the big botany nerd he is, and tells Janeway about how, as a young man, he opposed Spock’s rapprochement with the Klingon Empire, but was ultimately proved wrong. This is some solid character work, and once again I’m appalled at how I’ve slept on Tim Russ in all my past Voyager watching.
I mean, Tuvok’s still wrong about the alliance, and comparing the Khitomer Treaty to a temporary alliance with the Kazon is … well, they’re really very different. Oh, and he’s also wrong about the Khitomer Accords being stable, but in his defence, he’s stuck in the Delta Quadrant and isn’t up to date on Deep Space 9, where “The Way of the Warrior” — in which the treaty was dissolved — aired three months earlier.
- I have this idea in my head that season 2 is very dingy and dimly lit — and I stand by that. With just a couple of exceptions, it’s all filmed on soundstages, and mostly indoor settings. This is not a visually exciting season.
- Seska is having a bad time right now — her fate is more or less in the hands of an idiot, plus she’s pregnant, which can’t be easy when you’re more or less an idiot. But her hair is freshly trimmed and looks great.
- Maybe that’s why Jonas switched sides?
This is very skippable. Yes, it opens up an arc. Doesn’t matter. One doomed alliance out of five.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the galaxy
My dear friend Jules has started a similar series of blog posts for Deep Space 9 over at Bad Pajamas. She loves DS9 the way I love Voyager, which is to say, with a lot of shouting, flailing and, sometimes, facepalming.