Voyager rewatch 4.18 – “The Killing Game” (part 1)

In which real violence causes violent video games.

It’s been a while, friends. I wrote my “Retrospect” post in late 2021, and now it’s mid 2022. There are new covid variants, the planet is a bit warmer, and I survived almost a year of weekly new Trek.

We dodged a bullet when I decided not to blog about Strange New Worlds

Mostly because I don’t like it and I don’t think it’s very good, and you can listen to Antimatter Pod if you want the details, but suffice to say, my blog would have been a drag.

But it was interesting to watch “The Killing Game” and “The Elysian Kingdom” within a few weeks of each other, because while they are very different episodes, they hit on some similar themes and ideas.

Hey, remember how I don’t love holodeck episodes?

In case I haven’t had this rant enough: I don’t like holodeck romps or costume stories or situations where we have to watch the characters LARP. As far as I’m concerned, that genre peaked with “The Big Goodbye” and no one has improved on it.

However. There are exceptions to every rule. I liked “The Elysian Kingdom” (despite nitpicks) because it was a story about an under-served and under-appreciated regular, and because it was about the value of story, and of subverting existing narratives. As a fic writer, that’s my jam.

And I like “The Killing Game” because it is ALSO about the value of story, but in a much darker way.

“The Elysian Kingdom” sees a lonely, dying little girl and a newly-sentient nebula team up to create a false reality based on Rukiya’s book (apparently written by Benny Russell, a character from another episode about the value of story). There’s no malice in their actions, and no real harm comes to the people involved — save the grief Rukiya’s father experiences when she transcends her dying body to become one with the nebula. (One of my pet peeves about SNW is about how it keeps introducing children — human-ish and monstrous —  whose entire purpose in the narrative is to die. Rukiya fared better than any of the other kids, and yet…)

In “The Killing Game”, a member of a dying culture imposes a false reality on the Voyager crew, forcing them to re-enact violent scenarios from the Federation’s history. Where Rukiya sees her scenario as a game played with her father, and changes the story to suit her understanding of the narrative, the Hirogen leader forces everyone, from the Voyager crew to his own men,1 to follow the story without diversion.

Dying girl, dying culture. A game versus a hunt. Improvisation versus re-enactment. The parallels and contrasts are fascinating, because these episodes are really completely different, yet they have the same core idea: stories are important and a fantasy life is necessary for survival.

(“The Cage” has also been on my mind lately, for SNW reasons, and it’s notable how that episode has the opposite message — that fantasy is dangerously addictive and should be indulged with caution. Of course, “The Cage” was written in television’s second decade, when it was a new technology. Needless to say, I overall prefer the newer stories. But then, I have a perfectly healthy relationship with fiction, just ask my AO3 account.)

It’s about the characters, stupid

“The Killing Game” has one very, very big advantage over “The Elysian Kingdom”: despite the implants which make them believe they’re part of the simulations, the Voyager characters are still very much themselves. Whether she’s a Klingon warrior or running a resistance cell in Nazi-occupied France, Janeway is still Janeway. Neelix is still a provider of food and nonsense, Tuvok is still logical, Tom and B’Elanna are still into each other, their personalities are still there.

Whereas, with “The Elysian Kingdom”, as much as the cast was clearly having a ball, it felt much too early in the series to simply drop all but two of the characters for an episode. DS9 made a similar mistake early on with “Dramatis Personae”, and it’s mildly frustrating that SNW hasn’t learned from that.

But that’s enough about SNW. What’s really important here is that the main arc of the season, the mistrust between Janeway and Seven, is still being advanced. Even if they’re “Katrine” and “Mademoiselle de Neuf”.

And Katrine is well hardcore — believing Seven’s a German spy, she was ready to put a bullet in Seven’s head before the implant was disabled. Katrine (along with Tuvok’s unnamed French Resistance counterpart) represents Janeway at her most ruthless.

The problem with the whole “let’s have a romp in nazi-occupied france” concept

Yep. It’s the genocide-shaped elephant in the room. Star Trek, representing a “secular” future where most human religions don’t exist, has to talk around Nazi Germany’s atrocities, or else the audience might start wondering what happened to all the Jews in Gene Roddenberry’s future…

That’s prrrrrrrrobably an unfair reading. Nazis were the go-to bad guys of late 20th century pop culture, portrayed as Pure Evil without getting into the specifics of why they were so evil. Co-writer Brannon Braga described this as “not really an episode about Nazism, per se”, and it’s sadly true — this was conceived as a fun adventure, not a story about crimes against humanity.

But is this ethical? J. Paul Boehmer, as the true-believer Nazi who impregnated “Brigitte”, gets a rant about “degenerate races” who “defile” Europe, but no one actually acknowledges the Jews and other groups whom the Nazis wanted to wipe out. And that feels deeply dishonest.

Now, there is a long history — especially in the UK — of doing comedy, or at least fun romps, set in Vichy France. I am of the generation that had to sit through ‘Allo ‘Allo reruns with my grandparents. And there were multiple facets of WW2, which was, after all, a world war. But it feels disingenuous to have a story set in Vichy France and not at least nod to Katrine and her resistance cell smuggling Jews out of St Clair.

I know I’m asking too much of a show made in the 1990s. And if “is this ethical?” was a question routinely asked in a Star Trek writers room, we wouldn’t have wound up with “Retrospect”. But I can’t help but feel that this sort of “fun” depiction of Nazism leaves an odd taste in the mouth.

But I believe Harry Kim will save the world

Apparently Joe Menosky and Brannon Braga left Harry out of the simulations because they didn’t care about the character and didn’t think Garrett Wang was up to it. Which just goes to show you should never underestimate Garrett (or Harry), because instead, as the only non-EMH on the outside, Harry is as much the star of this episode as anyone else.

It’s amazing to me that we’re into the fourth season and STILL dismissing Garrett Wang’s skills, but hey, anti-Asian racism is a hell of a drug.

Costuming notes

  • Janeway’s white tux inspired a whole generation of queer women
  • Seven’s hair ornament is a similar shape to the implant beside her ear, which is a lovely touch
  • 1940s maternity wear was NOT flattering, condolences to B’Elanna/Brigitte
  • Tuvok should wear a white suit every week
  • EVERYONE should wear black tactical turtlenecks all the time, no one ever looks bad in a black turtleneck
  • I have one quibble with the costumes: Seven’s day dress is too short for an adult woman in this era, and she should be wearing stockings (or at least appear to be wearing stockings — this was the era of painting one’s legs to simulate a seam if stockings were unavailable) rather than bobby socks. A couple of extras are dressed the same way. This is how adult women of the era dressed they were roughing it on holiday, not at home in their little city.
  • Likewise, none of the women are wearing period underwear, and I’m sorry, but you can tell
  • Honestly Mad Men just ruined all other period dramas forever for me, if you’re not sourcing or making girdles for your actresses what are you even DOING?

Other observations

  • Klingon Janeway in the teaser is a warrior of House Mo’Kai, the house of secrets and spies which also gave us L’Rell
  • Now Tuvok has a machine gun, ho ho ho
  • Much was made of Jeri Ryan’s singing back in the day, and she has an okay voice, but the hype was a bit over the top
  • Cool starship captains and ex-Borgs walk away from dive away from explosions

In conclusion

Should you watch this episode? Hell yes! It’s not that deep, but it’s also not entirely shallow. But also, let’s be real, we’re here for the tux. Four and a half stolen masterpieces out of five.

  1. Yes, they’re all men. Again.

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