Voyager rewatch 3.23 – “Distant Origin”

It’s Jurassic Park, but the dinosaurs are racist.

I have a vague idea that “Distant Origin” is not widely regarded as a good episode. I might be wrong — I stopped reading other people’s Voyager reviews a while back, because I wanted to be certain my opinions were in fact my own — but that’s the impression I’ve gleaned.

I like it a lot. It’s a great piece of science fiction, an intriguing set up for a story, and gives most of the regulars a moment — or several — to shine. The cultural worldbuilding gets into more depth than Voyager usually allows. The story is carried by two guest stars in heavy dinosaur make-up, and yet they pull it off. There’s even a hint of political allegory. It’s classic Star Trek, and hardly reminiscent at all of that ’90s sitcom about dinosaurs.

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Dinosaurs (ABC, 1991-1994, an actual show that was made and aired and watched by viewers)

Sometimes, Voyager trusts its audience

I just wanna congratulate the writers for not actually mentioning Galileo. Yes, we have a scientist on trial for pursuing a theory which conflicts with the doctrine of his people, but we don’t get so obvious as to have Chakotay mention the G-man.

The parallels are there, and intentional, but what’s interesting about the worldbuilding is that the Voth’s opposition to the distant origin theory — the idea that they were not the first intelligent species to evolve in this sector, but were in fact refugees from one of Earth’s extinction events — is not precisely religious, but political. (I understand this was partially the case with Galileo, too, but it’s not an area I know much about.)

The Voth are nativist lizards; they are deeply horrified at the idea that they themselves are descended from immigrants. This might be one of those cases where the allegory is more powerful now than it was in the 1990s, as former colonies and nations built by immigrants (at the expense of the indigenous people) try to close the door behind them.

I like the concept of a spacefaring power whose authority depends on a false belief in their indigeneity, and this is one of those cases where a single episode of Voyager could have sustained a season-long arc, as Voyager travels through this area of space and deals with the fall-out of having unintentionally upset the balance of power. On the other hand, even if the writers had had the will, maybe this would have been difficult to execute without winding up in ugly (racist) territory. For one thing, we already have…

Unfortunate racial implications

In one respect, having Chakotay be the human “specimen” captured by Gegen really works: it lets him have the spotlight, and highlights his diplomatic skills, while also reminding us (obliquely) that he is an anthropologist-or-sometimes-an-archaeologist in his own right.

But. This is also a case where a Native American character, played by a Mexican actor, is captured, restrained, dehumanised and treated as an object. Which is … fraught!

And it (sort of) ties in with the episode’s main weakness: we learn a lot about the Voth, and this is a wonderful character study for Gegen, but the regulars don’t get to develop. The outsider’s point of view is fun (although I rolled my eyes at the conclusion that human society is a matriarchy, because that whole bit would not have been included in a series with a male captain), but can only carry us so far.

I think, if this story had been more personal to Chakotay, if the implications of his treatment had been addressed head-on, this would have been a better episode. Not that it’s bad, but it could have gone from a B+ to an A.

Speaking of the Voyager characters

Six out of the nine get at least a substantial scene or two. Excluded: Neelix, Kes and Harry Kim.

I can understand why Neelix and Kes were moved to the background — as aliens, not even native to the alpha quadrant, they don’t have much to contribute here. And with a cast this big, sometimes you do need to accept that some regulars will be more like glorified extras.

But I’m confused that Tom Paris gets so many scenes. His early interactions with B’Elanna? Fine. Great, in fact, I love seeing these two argue their way into a relationship.

However, why is it Tom doing science with Tuvok, and not the more logical (heh) choice — Harry? This is a mystery to me, and also a disappointment, given that “Alter Ego” ended with Tuvok and Harry becoming friends.

(Tuvok went into season three with one friend, and so far he’s up to three. I’m so happy for him.)

Don’t get me wrong, Tuvok and Tom are a fun combination. But it feels a bit like the writers have given up on Harry. (Perhaps anticipating the end of season cast shuffle?)

Other observations

  • Remember what I said about “Before and After”, and Voyager having the confidence to refer back to earlier episodes? Here we are again, with the return of the hell planet from “Basics (part 2)” and poor old Hogan.
  • It bugs me that Gegen and Veer don’t seem to notice or care that Voyager’s crew are multi-species, and that B’Elanna, for example, is not fully human.
  • It also bugs me that Veer has the same name, differently spelled, as the character from Babylon 5. Which is silly, but there you go!
  • Trek has a regrettable tendency to give us aliens who seem all-male, unless some women are required for plot reasons. But the Voth have two! whole! women!
  • And — just putting this out there — the nice dinosaur ladies don’t have mammary glands. Because they aren’t mammals.

In conclusion

Like I said above, I think this is a B+ sort of episode. That’s roughly about three and a half hadrosaurs out of five.

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