Voyager rewatch 5.19 – “The Fight”

Chakotay’s mentor and some extra-dimensional aliens agree: he needs to get punched in the face more.

Conventional wisdom has it that “The Fight” is a bad episode. Some people say it’s the worst episode of Voyager, which is absurd, because it’s not “Retrospect”. There is, at least, a general consensus that it’s the worst episode of Voyager‘s fifth season. I remember virulently disliking it when it first aired, and I’ve made a point of never watching it again.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying it.

A lot.

But I have a key advantage when it comes to “The Fight” — I follow MyLittleRedGirl on Tumblr, and she watched it fourteen times and literally printed the transcript out and cut it up in attempt to impose order on the non-linear story. And she failed! This episode does not actually make sense! But watching her do that work, I started to feel like there must be more to “The Fight” than I realised back in 1999, and that when I reached that stage in my rewatch, I should try to have an open mind.

(Like Chakotay when it comes to letting aliens take up residence, this can be a challenge for me.)

Anyway, MyLittleRedGirl has a whole post breaking down “The Fight”, what she thinks works and what fails. You can go read that, and you should, because I suspect I’m about to repeat her work.

A swing and a miss … or is it?

Here’s the problem with “The Fight”: as MLRG proved, the narrative doesn’t make sense. You can’t turn it into a linear story because it is broken.

Here’s a rough breakdown of the episode:

  • Teaser – we open in media res with Chakotay having a breakdown in sickbay
  • Act one: we build on that scene before flashing back to the beginning of events–
  • –Chakotay is sparring in his holographic boxing ring. Before he gets knocked out, he sees something strange. Voyager gets sucked into chaotic space, Chakotay continues to have hallucinations, and learns that the gene for a hereditary cognitive disorder has been activated
  • He thinks he can control the hallucinations by going on a vision quest (sigh), but wakes up in sickbay. He interacts with various characters, but his next round of hallucinations sees him … waking up from the vision quest
  • Did that last act not happen? No, because the other characters remember conversations they had with him!
  • More hallucinations, Chakotay confronts his greatest fear (senility, cognitive decline, however you want to frame it) and Voyager escapes, roll credits

ALSO, I have to point out, Janeway spends a lot of time in Chakotay’s space and gets quite handsy. And, because this is a Chakotay episode, there are racist pan pipes.

But clearly, the episode is broken. The structure doesn’t work. It feels like a half-assed revision, or someone got confused. Aside from the audience, who are extremely confused.

The thing is … this kind of work for me? Here’s an episode which takes Chakotay to the edge of his sanity and makes him question his reality, and then it goes and traps the audience in a loop they can’t resolve! It’s definitely not the first time I’ve felt like Star Trek was gaslighting me, but it’s definitely one of the rare occasions I feel like maybe it’s a bit intentional.

(It is absolutely not intentional. According to Memory Alpha, the framing story in sickbay was a last-minute addition because the episode was running short. Which means it was a half-assed revision! And also this is the second time this season that has happened, WTF, guys, you’re not new at this. But truly, I know it breaks the episode, but ALSO it works. For me. Obviously not for anyone else.)

Begin round one

At its core, this is the most basic Star Trek episode. It’s so basic that Strange New Worlds did a knock-off with season 2’s “Lost in Translation”, though that also rips off “The Cloud”, “Demon”, “The Devil in the Dark” and the whole fourth season of Discovery.

But “The Fight” really worked for me because I was less interested in the plot — and knew there was no point trying to make sense of it — so I could focus exclusively on the character stuff.

And this is a really good Chakotay episode. He has been almost completely sidelined through season 5, and frankly, it hasn’t made a huge difference to the series. Is he the captain’s foil? No, that’s Seven now. Is he her trusted advisor? Sure, him and Tuvok. And Neelix. And sometimes Seven. Is he her love interest? Yes, but also no. Does he have strong ties to other characters? Only when it’s necessary to the plot.

And yet. Just as literally any Harry Kim episode is an argument for why he should have a bigger role, “The Fight” argues that Chakotay should be a much more valued member of the ensemble. Beltran spends almost the whole episode in a panicked frenzy, but it’s a panicked frenzy with layers. He plays Chakotay’s teenaged self, and the adult at his most vulnerable. Chakotay gets to be an asshole as he tries and fails to suffer with grace. This is good.

Most importantly, we learn several seemingly contradictory facts about Chakotay. His grandfather suffered from a degenerative cognitive disease and refused treatment; and the young Chakotay bore the responsibility of caring for him. And, at the same time, Chakotay is a boxer, pursuing a sport which was infamous for causing brain damage long before anyone knew of the dangers of football.

Chakotay has always been a man of contradictions. He’s an ex-terrorist who presents himself as a man of peace. A freedom fighter who is easily persuaded to change sides. He’s a scientist who practices his religion. Even on the extra-textual level, he’s a Native American character played by someone of a different heritage, and I’ve seen First Nations fans who recognise the harm that does, but who also find great significance and meaning in his presence.

And no one out in the real world is one hundred percent consistent all the time. I have a family history of heart disease and diabetes, yet I don’t eat well or exercise. Honestly? In a situation where brain damage can be fixed in 30 seconds, I think Chakotay’s making the better choices here.

(Is it plausible that boxing would still exist in the 24th century? I think so. This is another opinion I’ve changed since 1999 — but humanity has had “fight but make it sport” for as long as we’ve existed, and with advanced medical technology reducing the risks, why wouldn’t boxing or something like it still be around? I suppose we could have made this episode about one of the futuristic sports already established in Trek lore, like Parisees Squares, but … we know boxing. The iconography is familiar and the rules are straightforward. I can suspend disbelief.)

is this an ableist episode?

It’s definitely not a comfortable one, the way Chakotay throws around terms like “crazy”. Even by the standards of Star Trek in the ’90s, that felt glaring at the time.

But I think “The Fight” walks a really fine line: it does not endorse Chakotay’s attitude to his grandfather, but asks the audience to understand where it comes from. I’m at the age where a lot of my friends are starting to deal with their parents’ declining health, including cognition, and I think that fear is very real: fear that their loved ones are suffering, and fear that they too will suffer like this.

Of course, Chakotay’s grandfather doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort. He might be experiencing hallucinations, but he’s not suffering. I complained a lot about the depiction of Yvette Picard in season 2 of Picard, and the horrible “person with mental illness refuses treatment because the drugs make them less creative/special/themselves” trope.

But Chakotay’s grandfather is refusing treatment for a different reason: as he sees it, his condition is a part of him and his spiritual beliefs, and he’s not just rejecting treatment, but the whole western/colonialist system which pathologises the experiences of First Nations peoples.

And Chakotay is reacting to that decision as a young man raised in a very traditionalist society, who at that age very much wants to buy into that western/colonialist system. We actually don’t know what Chakotay the fully-fledged adult in full command of his senses thinks about his grandfather’s decision because that Chakotay barely appears in this episode. It’s very clear (“We’re going to be in trouble”) that the guy we see looking after his grandfather in the hallucinations is a teenage boy.

In that sense, “The Fight” is a particularly interesting story about mental health, and avoids the trap of “My loved one has a mental illness and that’s so hard for me, the real victim here”.  It’s very far from a perfect episode, but it’s not nearly as bad as I had remembered.

Hey, you wanna know the real reason fandom hated this episode?

I mean, I can only speak for the specific subgroup of fans I hung out with in the late 1990s, but … well. It was fatphobia. Here’s a whole episode about Chakotay, Our Beloved (shut up), and not only does he keep his shirt on the whole time, but he’s pudgy and has a bit of a double chin and a soft belly, and how dare.

As I write, there’s a lot of talk on Twitter about the fatphobia of the early ’00s, and particularly how it impacted women. But it didn’t come out of nowhere as the calendar ticked over to 2000, and it wasn’t just applied to women. Fandom, in this case, white female fandom, felt extremely entitled to Robert Beltran’s body, and was positively unhinged when it was deemed unsatisfactory.

And now, in 2023, I’m like, he looks great. More like a wrestler than a boxer, but do I actually know the difference? Beltran looks solid and healthy and gives a hell of a performance, I cannot believe we were being horrible because a 45-year-old man did not have rock hard abs. At least I had the (dubious) excuse of being a stupid teenager!

Having said all this, the costumes are both ugly and unflattering, and while in theory I applaud the decision to give Chakotay a Clooney-style Caesar, his hair badly needs a trim. These were choices that people made, and I do not understand.

Other observations

  • Just say no to racist pan pipes
  • B’Elanna barely appears in this episode except for one hallucination where Chakotay moves through engineering, and she poses against a railing and watches him … seductively? Sir, I have questions
  • In one hallucination, Harry claims he has always looked up to Chakotay, and I had to stop and work out if they’ve ever interacted before
  • The final shot, in which Chakotay’s boxing glove lands on the camera and we fade to black, is cheesy AF and I love it
  • It’s kind of depressing that this post will drop just weeks after Beltran reminded us all that he’s an asshole. Hugely talented, but also deeply unpleasant. I would love to see Star Trek: Prodigy replace him with a Native American voice actor going forward.

In conclusion

This is a terrible episode. This is a great episode. Three boxing gloves out of five. I love it.

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