Fighting fascism through the power of amazing hair and very special guest stars.
I have to be honest. “Resistance” is one of my favourite Voyager episodes, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’m starting this post before I actually rewatch it.
It’s another simple little set-up: in need of techno doodads, Voyager makes contact with a resistance group on a world controlled by xenophobic fascists. (Why? Isn’t there a better way to get this stuff? What does the prime directive have to say about this sort of thing?) The trade is interrupted by the local authorities; Tuvok and B’Elanna are captured, an injured Janeway is rescued by a man who mistakes her for his lost daughter; and Chakotay has to deal with the government to get everyone out.
Okay, maybe it’s not that simple. And, yes, if you get caught up wondering why they’re dealing with these people in the first place, you find yourself with questions that have no good answers.
But “Resistance” — like the best of Voyager — works on an emotional level. B’Elanna and Tuvok share some rare bonding time in prison, while Janeway, free but vulnerable, tries to save her people without hurting the old man who thinks he loves her.
It’s the perfect storm of a great script and a magnificent guest star, Oscar winner Joel Grey as Caylem. (You may remember him from such roles as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. You probably don’t remember him from such roles as Chiun in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, in which he played a Korean martial arts instructor — yes, in yellowface — but Kate Mulgrew played the female lead in that movie.)
The script was written by Lisa Klink, who had been hired as a staff writer after doing a script for DS9. She’s one of the very few women staff writers of this era of Trek, and it’s notable that she was hired and mentored by Jeri Taylor. She’ll go on to write and co-write thirteen scripts for Voyager in total — a handful of very good ones, one notably terrible one, and the rest varying levels of okay.
The story was pitched by freelancers. According to Memory Alpha, Klink recognised right away the where it was likely to fail: it would be too easy to make this a story about Caylem, and forget to give Janeway any agency. Her script walks a fine line in that regard, but never forgets that, even when there are Very Special Guest Stars around, this is Kathryn Janeway’s series.
The directing, too, doesn’t let us forget who the lead actor is. As Caylem delivers a long monologue, recalling a letter he wrote for his imprisoned wife, Janeway stands in the background, out of focus — but still a presence, reacting to his story with wordless empathy.
This is the first episode of the series where Janeway is totally vulnerable: separated from her ship and crew, with limited resources and few allies, she nevertheless sets out to rescue Tuvok and B’Elanna and complete her mission.
Remember how I mentioned last week that “Maneuvers” was probably the second episode of Voyager I saw after the pilot? I saw “Resistance” the same evening. And this is the episode where I went from liking Janeway quite a lot, to being fairly obsessed with her.
I’ve been pondering, as I write this blog post, why that is. What changed?
There’s no magic formula that will make me fall in love with a character to the point of obsession. Every time I try to make a generalisation about my “type”, I think of an exception. And it’s the same when I try to identify an inciting incident that tips me over the edge.
But here, with Janeway, I do remember: it was her vulnerability. Followed, when I saw “Resolutions” just a short time later (man, our viewing of season 2 was a mess), with the recognition that Chakotay was in love with her, that she could be an object of affection.
This probably doesn’t say much for my feminism at age fourteen. Which is fine, fourteen year old me was deeply conservative, and even if she wasn’t, we all learn and grow and stuff.
Awkward fact, though: I fell in love with Kat Cornwell in “Lethe” because (a) she sleeps with Lorca, giving her the extra dimension of a personal life and a sex partner; and (b) she’s stoic yet terribly vulnerable when she’s captured by the Klingons.
So, uh, I guess we can never leave our younger selves behind? We love what we love, and I am my own problematic fave.
Janeway’s vulnerability in “Resistance” drives her to a strategy which feels controversial even today: unable to secure weapons, she gets into the prison facility by posing as a sex worker.
I didn’t have internet access back when this first aired, but I recall reading about the debates. UPN promoted the episode in the tackiest way possible, implying that Janeway was actively selling sex to protect her crew. (Nope, that only happened in fic. So much fic. I definitely read it all.) Showrunner Michael Pillar declared that, based on the trailer, he wouldn’t have let his kids watch it. And, after it aired, there was a lot of feminist grumbling — if not actual rage — in fandom, where second wavers largely predominated.
Lisa Klink and Jeri Taylor discussed the issue in an interview. Warning for offensive terms around sex workers:
“There was a lot of discussion about that. Somebody – I forget who, but it wasn’t me – came up with the idea of her distracting the guard by pretending to be a hooker. We went round and round on that for a while. Is that going to diminish the Captain in some way? Is that the typical bimbo thing to do?” – Lisa Klink
“When we [first] talked about that, every eye in the room turned to me and said, ‘Are you alright with that?’ If I were down there, trying to save my people, I would do anything and if that seemed like a good idea I would do it in a minute. Would my dignity and my sense of feminism prevent me from helping my people? Absolutely not.” – Jeri Taylor
In some ways, Taylor’s ideas about sex work feel as dated as Klink’s language. But I think it’s worth pointing out here that — for me, personally — this was my very first encounter with the idea that sex work was not inherently shameful or bad. Taylor’s feminist defence of that scene introduced me to a whole new take.
On the other hand, Star Trek has quite often seen characters playing the parts of sex workers — including in previous Taylor scripts. The only point of hesitation here seems to be about Janeway’s authority, and whether it would be somehow diminished. There wasn’t the same concern about Beverly literally securing passage for her team by performing a sex act on a Ferengi smuggler in “Chain of Command (part 1). And it’s always the women in this role — we never see Tom Paris or Harry Kim getting dolled up.
And I never forget that sex work seems even more stigmatised in the US, and amidst US audiences, than here in Australia, where certain forms are legal. I’m often taken aback by American attitudes towards sex work — and I am not that woke on the subject, being not-at-all knowledgeable about it — compared with here. These scenes, and whether sex work has a place in a “utopia” at all, are still controversial now.
Star Trek and sex work are a complex combination, and if you want to know more about it, I recommend Women at Warp’s episode on the subject, which includes actual sex workers in the conversation.
Believe it or not, there are even other people in this episode
Though “Resistance” isn’t really a B’Elanna episode, she’s still a very strong presence, and her scenes in the Mokra prison show us a lot about her personality. And it is shown, not told — any chance she gets, she’s examining her cell, finding ways to pull it apart.
There’s nothing generic about the way Klink writes B’Elanna, and her interactions with Tuvok — with whom we’ve never seen her spend much time — are fantastic, as she realises with horror that Vulcans can indeed feel pain, and scream, and as Tuvok counsels restraint, not open hostility.
Chakotay and Harry also have big roles, and though their characterisation is less specifically them than in other cases, they’re still written as intelligent, engaged and proactive.
Chakotay’s decision to engage directly with the Mokra authorities to secure their people is interesting — it seems to go directly against the grain of a former Maquis resistance fighter. But it’s not really a Starfleet sort of move, either.
And it means that we get to see the public face of fascism: Alan Scarfe’s Magistrate Augris appears first as a reasonable man, a mere bureaucratic cog in an ugly machine. He even seems reasonable: wary of Voyager, whose reputation (SHIP OF DEATH!) has preceded it, but willing to do everything in his power to accommodate Chakotay and locate the lost away team.
Then we cut to the next scene, and realise he’s the man responsible for their imprisonment, and Tuvok’s torture.
Augris is very much a bad guy, and not a particularly complicated one, but the decision to depict him as a person who seems accommodating and sensible — someone you can do business with, to paraphrase Thatcher, God help me — struck me as rather insightful.
In praise of worldbuilding
“Resistance” does a lot with a little.
Most of the action takes place in a town square built on a soundstage. Star Trek has done thousands of these sets, and they’re usually pretty generic. A bit artificial.
Now, if you’re the sort of person who pays attention to set design, or who just watches “Resistance” more than any other episode in the first three seasons of Voyager, you will absolutely see that this is a set. But it’s a really good one.
It’s crowded. There are posters on the wall, and neon signs in alien languages. There are different types of businesses. There are plants, which don’t even look like they’re growing in pots. There are signs of wear and tear. There are even different types of people: there are a couple of lizardy-looking aliens in the crowd.
You can extrapolate a lot about the world from this one square alone. They may not have transporter technology, but they have warp drive. They’ve encountered aliens. They may be living under an oppressive government, but they still have art, and jewellery, and humour.
Am I being too generous?
Maybe? But I like this episode. I think it’s the best of the season — and honestly, we have some pretty decent episodes coming up. (And “Threshold”.) I’m not going to second-guess myself just because criticism gets more clicks than praise.
- Two sex workers are visible in all the crowd scenes — Janeway trades a jacket for the sparkly scarf one of them wears. They are so very nineties in their appearance and demeanour that I think of them as Romy and Michelle.
- I really like the costuming here. Janeway spends most of the episode wearing various coats over a non-descript grey-green dress which occasionally shifts to reveal a rather shocking amount of leg.
- Seriously, fashions have really moved on in the last twenty years. Sometimes I see the quantity of leg on display in the nineties and come over all Victorian. Ankles! Well, I never!
- Anyway, B’Elanna’s civilian outfit is very drab, and doesn’t seem like her usual style — it’s almost a more tomboyish variation on Kes’s tunics. But she’s wearing it with the magnificent knee-high laced boots of her Maquis days.
- Neelix is also back in his “Caretaker” costume. Whereas the Discovery crew hear “go undercover” and think “yessssss, time to bust out all the leather!”, certain members of Voyager’s crew revert to terrorist/scavenger chic.
- On the other hand, Tuvok wears a quilted grey waistcoat. I don’t want to talk about it.
- The Doctor and Kes don’t appear in this episode. And, you know what? Good. It’s better to do justice to a few than spread the story too thin over a large ensemble.
“Resistance” is Voyager‘s first real stand-out. I’m giving it four out of five sparkly scarves, and only withholding a fifth because I know there’s even better stuff to come.