Voyager rewatch 2.08 – “Persistence of Vision”

If you sit too close to the holodeck, you’ll get square eyes.

“Persistence of Vision” is not an especially good episode, but I like it.

Why? Because all my life, I’ve been the type of sadist who really likes to see her fictional favourites suffer, and here, for the first time, we begin to see Janeway unravel.

She’s overworked. Lonely. Vulnerable. And that’s before a space edgelord starts gaslighting her and her entire crew.

The Doctor’s solution to Janeway’s stress: the holodeck. This is a time-honoured approach to mental health in the twenty-fourth century, going right back to “The Big Goodbye”, the first-ever Holodeck Gone Wrong episode.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t actually understand how interacting with realistic people can possibly be considered stress relief, but I panic if I select the wrong dialogue option in a modern RPG.

And there’s nothing worse than thinking you’re just having a polite, friendly interaction with an NPC, only to have him decide you’re his girlfriend now. It’s a bit too much like real life, you know?

Which is maybe what Janeway is thinking when “Lord Burleigh” declares his love for her.

(Question: if your holonovel includes a scene where your character is kissed without consent, are you considered to have consented by entering the scenario? Do holonovels have content warnings? Has the medium of the holonovel made sexual assault as a plot device obsolete? Can you adjust the settings according to your preferences?)

Janeway seems less shocked by the kiss itself than by her own reaction to it. She’s been alone for almost a year, now, and I don’t want to be so crude as to suggest she needs to get laid, but it’s definitely been a while. And she’s the queen of repression, and probably thought she was fine until Lord Burleigh and his holographic sideburns made her realise what she was missing.

Luckily she’s saved from having to address her own needs by the call of duty. Voyager is preparing to enter space controlled by the Botha, a secretive people whose claim to the region may or may not be legitimate. Neelix’s sources say that ships entering this territory have been known to vanish without a trace, so Janeway needs to be in peak condition to deal with these jerks.

So it’s probably a bad sign that inanimate objects from her holonovel are appearing in real life. Cucumber sandwiches. A significant tea cup.

To me, a person who has watched any Star Trek at all, this is a clear sign that Shit Is Kicking Off. (Also, I’ve watched this episode at least three times.) Janeway isn’t aware that she’s a fictional character, so she just goes about her day until the “hallucinations” become impossible to ignore. That is to say, they go from passive-aggressive guilt trips to active-aggressive stabbings.

Fortunately, Kes has been attending Tuvok’s School for Baby Telepaths, and she can not only see the apparitions, but repel them.

But she’s only one woman, and soon the Botha — the source of the hallucinations, try to be shocked — are casting their influence over the whole ship.

This is where “Persistence of Vision” moves from a character piece about Janeway to something more like an ensemble episode. I have a lot of stuff to say about sex, relationships and Janeway, but this to me is the big structural weakness of the story. If you start out with aliens targeting Janeway, she should probably get to play a part in seeing them off.

That’s Kes’s job, in the end, and despite my structural complaints, it’s cool to see her drive the narrative.

But before we get to her showdown with the Botha, we catch glimpses of the other regulars’ hallucinations.

Tuvok, ironically, is the first to go down, tempted by a vision of his wife, his home and his lute. Tell us again how you’ve mastered your emotions, dude. (I love him.)

Harry succumbs to a vision of Libby. Tom holds out for a while against his father, but just as debating with trolls only makes them stronger, he’s sucked in as soon as he responds to his “father’s” abuse.

We don’t see Chakotay’s vision, but he turns up in B’Elanna’s, claiming the ship is disabled and they really ought to head for the escape pods — but not before stopping by her quarters to have uncomfortable ’90s television sex.

Now, I can absolutely buy that B’Elanna has a subconscious attraction to Chakotay. But that whole scene is so by the numbers, dripping with cliches out of stereotypical romance novels — you can really understand why B’Elanna is so horrified and discombobulated later.

(We will later learn that trashy romance novels are her favourite type of reading material — so we come back to the issue of “experiencing something is quite different from reading about it”.)

Kes’s hallucinations involve the men in her life, because … that’s how she’s written, really. It probably says something that the hallucinations of both Tom and Neelix are needy and whiny, but the important thing is that she fights them off and saves the ship.

And why has the Bothan individual behind it all done this? “Because I could,” he spits. Because he really is an edgelord troll.

But let’s talk about the space politics, though!

We never see the Botha again, but I find their whole … thing here really interesting.

Like, they’re not friendly to outsiders, ships enter their space and disappear, and there are rumours that their claim to this territory isn’t even legitimate.

It’s that last bit that intrigues me. Can territory disputes be the subject of rumour? “Okay, don’t tell anyone, but I heard that Cardassia annexed Bajor. Not sure, though. I heard it from a friend.”

But here we have aliens whose powers of telepathic manipulation are on a par with the Talosians of TOS. Maybe their whole thing is moving into an area of space and simply making people believe they’ve always been there, always been in control. But you can’t gaslight the entire quadrant, so Neelix gets stories which don’t quite line up.

I am hugely enthusiastic about this concept, even though it’s only tangiental to the episode itself. Fake news, propaganda, subjective and conflicting memories: I love that stuff.

Sex, relationships and Kathryn Janeway

“Persistence of Vision” sees the (hallucinated) return of Janeway’s fiance, one Mark Johnson.

I hate him.

He exists for two reasons, and two reasons only:

  • To demonstrate that Janeway is not a full-time ball breaking feminazi, but a heterosexual woman with a long-term partner and a “normal” sex life.
  • To give her a reason to avoid having intimate relationships with anyone else.

Janeway’s sexuality was a serious problem for the team behind Voyager. There were a lot of ugly ideas and assumptions going around, such as Kate Mulgrew’s feeling that Janeway would “lose her power” if she slept with anyone.

(As much as this seems like an incredibly old fashioned attitude, I recall Mary McDonnell saying something similar about Laura Roslin a decade later. I would like to think that Kat Cornwell’s friends-with-benefits relationship with Lorca in Discovery is a sign that times have changed, but I note that the original ending of “Lethe” had Lorca sending her to her death, the traditional narrative punishment for women who break the “rules”.)

For Janeway, Mark was a convenient way of avoiding the issue, at least for a few seasons, but without suggesting that Janeway was, you know, gay.

The problem is that Mark … is not a good character. I’ve discussed my issue with male love interests in Star Trek in general — they tend exist on a spectrum with “milquetoast” at one end and “overbearing asshole” at the other. Mark falls closer to milquetoast, but Jeri Taylor’s account of their relationship in Mosaic is quite unpleasant for all the reasons Pixie gives here.

Maybe it’s not fair to judge Mark by the actions of an alien jerk masquerading as him, but Janeway doesn’t seem to find him out of character here. He comes across as manipulative and jealous, accusing her of cheating on him with a hologram.

Now, “if you have sex with a character on the holodeck masturbation or ‘real’?” is one of those questions that ’90s Trek never answered, probably because it was meant to be family friendly. (Maybe the Picard series can finally address this burning issue?)

(I’m distinguishing holographic characters from sentient holograms like the Doctor, although we’ve seen that the former can evolve into the latter, which raises a whole separate suite of ethical issues around having sex with them.)

Certainly, people form strong emotional bonds with holographic characters, but hey, I can think of five fictional characters I’d marry in a heartbeat, and at least two are cartoons. 

At the very least, I think it’s safe to say that you can have an emotional affair with a hologram. But that’s not what Janeway is doing here! I realise that Mark’s words are an expression of her own guilt (KATHRYN, OF ALL THE THINGS YOU HAVE TO FEEL GUILTY ABOUT, THIS IS VERY VERY FAR DOWN THE LIST) but he still comes across as the sort of guy who posts to r/relationships complaining that his girlfriend is playing Mass Effect and loves Garrus more than him. 

Other observations

  • “Persistence of Vision” marks the final appearance of Janeway’s holonovel. I’m not precisely going to miss it, but I’m a bit sad my prediction (that the “deceased” mother of the demon children to whom Janeway is playing governess) is a vampire will never be proven right. 
  • This is one of those “a character is experiencing something weird and no one suggests it’s all in their head” episodes, except … I dunno, I feel like maybe the possibility of extreme stress should have been raised.
  • How does Neelix find time to prepare elaborate meals for the crew and research the local area and advise Janeway accordingly? Cooking for a hundred and forty-odd people is not a one-man job!

In conclusion

Okay, yes, you can skip this. But if you really like Janeway, or Kate Mulgrew’s facial expressions as she wavers between defiance and exhaustion, it’s a pretty solid episode. Three demon holodeck children out of five. 


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