Voyager: “I want to take a controversial stance with a storyline.”
Voyager: “What if … the Vietnam War … was bad?”
Me: “It’s 1997.”
Voyager: “Too soon?"
— Liz 🦑 (@_lizbarr) April 25, 2021
“Nemesis” is almost the quintessential Star Trek episode. You have a moral dilemma (the training of soldiers to dehumanise the enemy), a world populated by familiar tropes (the seasoned soldiers, the green recruits, the kindly civilian villagers), and an alien society constructed through language rather than expensive sets. Oh, and the whole thing is a metaphor for a topical issue: the Vietnam War.
Oh yeah. When I said this is the quintessential Star Trek episode, I meant The Original Series.
This is the second Voyager episode which has left me going, “This is good, but it really feels like someone unearthed Gene Coon or Dorothy Fontana’s old notebook and updated it.”1
Which is not to say that “Nemesis” is bad — I actually think it’s very good — but I think it says something about the political toothlessness of ’90s Trek that they followed last week’s “Actually, refugees cannot be trusted” story with an anti-Vietnam allegory, which is only controversial if you’re Henry Kissinger. Or my mum. Rather than engaging with the genuine issues of the 1990s — queer rights, for example, or the Rwandan genocide or the break-up of Yugoslavia and ensuing refugee crises — Star Trek is telling a story designed to appeal to liberal Boomers who want to be reminded of a time when they were cutting edge.
Full Metal Chakotay
Nevertheless. “Nemesis” really is good.
It’s not doing anything remotely new, but the use of language to create an alien culture, rather than simply slapping foreheads on everyone, is a stroke of mild genius. Yes, it results in some slightly mannered performances, especially from the younger, less experienced actors, but that gives rise to a sense of unreality — it’s like watching Vietnam conscripts trying to do Shakespeare — which supports the growing unease we’re meant to feel as Chakotay gets drawn into this war.
And as a Chakotay story? I don’t know that it would be as effective with any other Voyager character — even though this is yet another instance where the literal leader of a terrorist cell bangs on about how much he loves peace and abhors violence and blah, blah, blah.
I totally buy that Chakotay believes this about himself! He absolutely aspires to be The Peace Guy! And he’s usually making this claim when he’s isolated, cut off from his crewmates and acting as the sole representative of the Federation/Voyager. It makes sense — but at the same time, his claim that he didn’t hate the Cardassians even a tiny little bit feels like a cop-out.
There are also troubling implications about a story which refuses to allow an Indigenous person to express rage or hatred against those who have harmed him and his people, especially when you consider that Chakotay is written as the stoical Native American of stereotype. How much is this intrinsic to him as a character, and how much is because he was created by white people, working with a hypothetical white audience in mind?
And I wonder if Beltran was beginning to ask similar questions, because his performance here is … merely adequate. In the past, he has given performances that are both subtle and intense, but in many scenes here, it felt like he was only half-present. Is he underplaying, or sleepwalking?
And yet, as I keep saying, I really enjoy “Nemesis”!
This is one of those posts where I get into the weeds with questions and speculation because I had a lot to think about, not because I wasn’t engaged with the story. Although I will confess that I’m not remotely familiar with the tropes and styles of war movies, and I suspect there’s a lot happening with the meta-narrative of the training simulation that I’m not aware of beyond “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of these tropes”.
(Stay tuned for The Greatest Generation‘s take, I guess.)
My real criticism of the story is, well, why tell THIS story at THAT point in time? And even that’s not a criticism, just a … point of ongoing confusion. (And “Because it hadn’t been told before and we thought it was clever” is a perfectly legitimate answer.)
Anyway, we’re down another shuttle
Not that I’m counting — I rely on Memory Alpha for the numbers — but I’m just saying, we’ve lost seven shuttles so far in the series (three in the last three episodes!) and three were being piloted by Chakotay at the time. He has killed shuttles before, and he will kill shuttles again.
- This is the first and final post-“Scorpion” episode where Seven of Nine doesn’t appear. Which is interesting! They weren’t quite ready to relegate her to background player status for an episode.
- (Being on the Not Every Character Needs To Appear In Every Episode train, I approve.)
- Have I discussed Janeway’s ponytail? I’m sure I have, but I just need to say (again?) that I have no idea how it works. Save that if you look closely at the back of Kate Mulgrew’s head, you can see where her real hair ends and the wigs begin.
- Yes, wigs plural. I’m sure of it.
- Anyway, does anyone know if it’s a good idea to get involved in this war in Asia?
An odd, oddly enjoyable throwback. Three and a half adorable moppets out of five.