Voyager rewatch 4.23 – “Living Witness”

In which we get tantalisingly close to mirror!Voyager, while the writers ask the really big questions. Like, “Did the victims of a near-genocide maybe bring it on themselves?”

This is what I remembered of “Living Witness”:

  • Janeway is evil and SUPER HOT but not in an overtly sexualised way
  • like, you could put her in a scene with Emperor Georgiou and she wouldn’t be out of place, but she’s not a cartoon like Intendant Kira
  • SHE WEARS BLACK LEATHER GLOVES
  • honestly everyone has a very attractive evilsona in this episode, it’s super fun
  • also there’s a boring plot about the Doctor and history and then a twist at the end where you realise that, too, was an historical recreation

And this is what went through my mind, watching it for the first time in years:

  • man, evil!Janeway is AMAZING
  • like, her hair is TERRIBLE, it’s Janeway’s worst hair ever, and YET it’s great?
  • BLACK LEATHER GLOVES, MAN
  • it’s kind of racist that evil!Chakotay has a full face tattoo, but at the same time his whole “I’m a man of peace, I feel really bad about torturing you” is SO insightful
  • Tim Russ did not have to make evil!Tuvok this sexy, but he did and we are grateful
  • everyone’s leaning and crouching and maybe not chewing the scenery, but at least gently nibbling at it, it’s so good
  • aw man, the Doctor plot is here
  • oh, this ‘historian’ is more of a propagandist, isn’t he?
  • oh no
  • oh no, oh dear
  • oh NO this is bad
  • that’s a yikes from me, buddy
  • I want to revert to my previous understanding of history this episode, where my biggest problem was Janeway’s hair

I’ll let Brannon Braga speak for himself

It’s [partly] a show about revisionist history, which is a very topical issue. Cultures are taking issue with the way history is portrayed in the books right now, and controversies come out of that. Is the revisionist history accurate? Or is it being done to bolster one’s cultural identity in the present? There are no easy answers, and that is one of the issues we try to tap into in that show.

“Is [revisionist history] being done to bolster one’s cultural identity in the present?”

I dunno, man, I just feel like maybe looking at history from the perspective of the Indigenous, the enslaved and the otherwise marginalised is a good idea?

Because that’s what “revisionist history” was in the ’90s. I don’t know exactly what was happening in the US, but in Australia, it basically boiled down to “some historians suggest that Indigenous Australians were not terribly enthusiastic about having their land invaded and stolen, and then the white establishment lost its goddamn mind.”

This was actually a big issue in my household at the time, because my parents both studied history, and were deeply horrified that I was being taught about Indigenous perspectives at school. Albeit in a clumsy, well-intentioned way, but even that was too much. A lot of notes flew between my parents and history teachers when I was in high school, and my mother straight-up wrote a couple of my essays because she didn’t like the facts turned up by my research.

Imagine my amazement when I attended my dad’s retirement party a couple of years ago, and learned he is one of the leading revisionist Singaporean historians.

Without this context, “Living Witness” can be read as a ham-fisted but well-intentioned attempt to talk about the nuance and complexity of history. But I know the context so well that I cannot set it aside.

America didn’t have a “history war” the way Australia and Canada did in the ’90s — they seem to be doing that right now, with the kerfuffle around “critical race theory” and teaching students that slavery was bad. But it definitely feels like the three white men credited for this script were looking around at the growing attention given to the history of the marginalised and going, “Yeah, but maybe political correctness has gone … too far?”

But also, Quarren is just not a good historian

Part of the problem is that “Living Witness” has a very simplistic understanding of history and historians. Facts, dates and objective truth — high school level stuff.

It’s clear from his exhibit and his behaviour that Quarren is more propagandist than historian, but the script doesn’t seem to recognise the difference. It’s natural for historians to have biases, especially when they’re dealing with the fraught history of their own people, but Quarren is so very set in his beliefs, and determined to make new facts conform to his pre-existing ideas, that it’s difficult to understand how he is qualified to run this museum.

It’s not all about YOU, Doctor!

The Doctor offers to have himself decompiled, in the belief that this will stop the race riot taking place outside. It’s an offer which is naive and frankly obnoxious in its egotism, and frankly adds a dash of the white saviour narrative to a story which really didn’t need it.

Okay, let’s talk about what I did like

Honestly, Evil Voyager is iconic. So much so that the IDW Mirror Voyager comics use Janeway’s hair from this episode, even though it’s terrible. (I will die on this hill.)

Obviously Kate Mulgrew is the standout, but I cannot overlook the great work by Robert Beltran, Tim Russ and Garrett Wang as their evil counterparts. Wang does a particularly great job, playing Harry as a cringing bully who’ll beat a prisoner to death if the Doctor doesn’t stop him, but kneels to bring news to Janeway.

Some people think we missed out by not getting a mirror universe Voyager episode, but I haaaaate the DS9 version of the mirrorverse that I feel like we got lucky — instead, we got this, which is equally and similarly dysfunctional, but no one has to wear a rubber catsuit. Well, I don’t know what the foundation of Seven’s full Borg costume is, but it still looks better than what poor Nana Visitor had to endure.

Also, Tuvok’s sly little half-smiles? Yes, please.

Other observations

  • Man, it sure would have been handy if the Doctor had a back-up before now…
  • Hey, I guess these aliens would download an Emergency Medical Hologram!
  • The Doctor is reactivated 700 years in the future, or roughly — as we know from Discovery — around the time of the Burn. Which maybe explains why these aliens seem unaware of the Federation (which has reached the Delta Quadrant by now).
  • We don’t know how much time passes before the Doctor leaves for home, but again, the Burn is a factor. He could arrive … heck, just in time for Discovery’s fifth season!
  • Look, he’s not my favourite character, but I’d be into that.

In conclusion

Flawed but not without merit, if you know what I mean. *waggles eyebrows* Two bad haircuts out of five. Keep the fast forward button close to hand.

2 thoughts on “Voyager rewatch 4.23 – “Living Witness””

  1. You know, when this episode was being made there was full-on attempt being made to revise the history of the American Civil War by the “Oh, it was all about States’ rights and money and slavery had nothing to do with it” crowd, which was utter BS of course. But I heard it being parroted by otherwise sane and reasonable people.
    That’s the thing about revisionist history; the reason for the revision is yet more history.

    1. Oh, of course! I should have remembered that — my mother did a US history course around this time, taught by an American who was so into the “state’s rights” story that he had made himself unemployable in the US.

      …this doesn’t make “Living Witness” look any better, does it?

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