Voyager rewatch 3.07 – “Sacred Ground”

Janeway embarks on a spiritual journey.

It’s another “Star Trek talks about religion” episodes, guys. Or, as I’ve started to think of them, another “Star Trek imposes a very specific understanding of religion, gleaned primarily from late 20th century Protestantism, on all religions in the universe, and thus we’re going to talk about Science Versus Faith again”.

This is a recurring thing in western science fiction — Doctor Who went through a stage in the seventies where it felt like every second planet had a culture divided into Scientists, Who Are Mostly Men, and Oppressive Anti-Science Faith-Havers, Who Are Also Mostly Men But Might Be Led By A Woman. It’s not an intrinsically bad theme, but it’s so often handled by writers who aren’t themselves religious, so they’re addressing a thin straw man.

“Sacred Ground” isn’t the worst example of the genre, but I don’t love it. It’s uncomfortable to see the Voyager crew treating another culture’s sacred space as a tourist attraction, and worse when, after Kes is injured, B’Elanna and Harry immediately become hostile. Janeway is more diplomatic, but she still treats the Nechani’s separation of church and state as a minor inconvenience that they should set aside.

The story gets a lot stronger once Janeway finally begins her journey. It’s predictable, of course, that she would eventually have a spiritual encounter, and equally predictable that there would be a scientific explanation for the inevitable “miracle”.

But as a Janeway fan, I enjoy seeing her isolated from her crew and pushed to her limits. What can I say, I only hurt the [fictional] ones I love.

I liked her interactions with the Guide. I wish there had been a little less of the Guide telling Janeway about herself, and then Janeway fulfilling those exact expectations, but I think Mulgrew and Becky Ann Baker had enough chemistry to make these scenes work.

I do wish we knew more about the Nechani religion; what we get is sort of classic Hollywood “I’m more spiritual than religious”. But that’s probably not in keeping with the small scale of this story, and Voyager can’t always be catering to my hunger for MOAR WORLDBUILDING.

There is no B story

Like “Remember”, another Lisa Klink script. I wondered if this was intentional, but these were written and filmed quite separately — “Sacred Ground” was tacked onto the end of season 2 — so I think that’s just Klink’s style and preference.

And it works! I really respect her willingness to ignore the standard Trek structure and let her stories stand on their own. Klink’s scripts for Voyager include some standout episodes (along with the absolutely vile “Retrospect”, which she co-wrote with Bryan Fuller), and I think it’s a shame she hasn’t done much since.

Liz plays “what if”

I’m constantly using these posts to imagine a different episode than the one we got — this week, I’m wondering if this could have been a Chakotay episode.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that this is a Janeway story, and the lengths she’ll go to for her people. This needed to be her episode.

But I do think that, in-universe, Chakotay might have been a better choice for this one: he wouldn’t have gone in scoffing at the idea of a spiritual encounter, and his anthropological background might have served him well.

Do I like the end?

It troubles me a little that Janeway ends the episode saddened that there’s a scientific explanation for Kes’s recovery. It smacks of taking her down a peg or two, whereas Picard’s atheism was never criticised or questioned.

On the other hand, I did complain that the Guide tells Janeway about herself, and is right every time. Maybe Janeway needed that growth? But I feel like a conclusion where she accepts the Doctor’s report with relief — her universe is once again orderly — might have been more consistent with her personality.

Other observations

  • This was Robert Duncan McNeill’s first directing job! I think he did very well, although the lighting in Janeway’s second encounter with the ancestral spirits was a bit … reminiscent of TOS.
  • Speaking of the spirits, they turn out to be, essentially, Statler, Waldorf and George Constanza’s mom. I don’t know why I expected anything different.
  • Although, actually, that makes me wonder if this episode would read differently to a Jewish viewer; as my Jewish friends like to point out, that is a religion where participation in sacred rituals does not necessarily imply literal belief in a deity.
  • Janeway’s ordeals are created out of her own expectations, and the rituals are different for everyone. Which begs the question: how many Nechani supplicants went in expecting some sort of sex thing?
  • I mean. When the Nechani start stripping Janeway down, what was she expecting?

In conclusion

I’m giving this three ancestral spirits out of five, but I’d say you can skip it if you’re not a massive Janeway fan. I like this episode, but I try not to think about it too hard.

One thought on “Voyager rewatch 3.07 – “Sacred Ground””

  1. “Statler, Waldorf and George Constanza’s mom” 🤣🤣🤣

    Jewish person here, and I agree with your analysis. I understand the episode is supposed to show Janeway “changed” due to her spiritual experience, so I think the end would resonate more if the character growth (?) had been maintained.

    Anyway, thank you for this essay on an episode I’ve always liked, but also felt uneasy about for reasons you note here.

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