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Voyager and Stories

For some reason Star Trek Voyager has a particular interest in the nature of fiction. There are a number of episodes which centre around, or involve, stories—not just holodeck adventures, but especially stories about Voyager itself. (There are also alternate realities, but that's different.)

"Worst Case Scenario" (VOY)

A holonovel is discovered hidden in the computer, about a mutiny aboard Voyager. The holonovel was well hidden, no doubt because of its provocative storyline. Unfortunately it's unfinished. It emerges, to everyone's amazement, that the author is Tuvok: it wasn't meant to be a novel, but a training exercise as he initially feared a Maquis mutiny. He had abandoned it as he had realized the two crews were becoming one. Tuvok thinks he should delete it, but Captain Janeway decides that they need some fun, and that, being isolated, they need to produce their own entertainment. Tom Paris volunteers to finish it, but finds he needs Tuvok's assistance to access the file.

Tom is planning some plot twists. Tuvok objects that according to the Vulcan principles, "a character's actions must flow inexorably from his or her established traits" and that Tom's proposed next twist (that Captain Janeway would execute the conspirators) was completely implausible. Tom's argument is striking: "This isn't real life, Tuvok. It's fiction. Don't get so caught up in logic."

In this scene, Tuvok and Paris represent two contrasting approaches to fiction: the logic of character and the arbitrariness of stories. There is a fairly clear reference to Star Trek itself, which shifts between the two, usually managing some sort of balance. There is a temptation, when watching Star Trek, to get too caught up in logic, because it is such a huge system. But as Tom warns us, it's fiction. "Plot holes" only matter if they are obvious enough to bother you.

When Tom and Tuvok open the file for new input, they find that Seska (dead for some time) had set a trap in it, as revenge against Tuvok. They are trapped in the story, and it is now designed to kill them. The real crew cannot yet get them out, due to Seska's booby traps, but they are able to introduce small alterations in the story—a plasma extinguisher to save them from a blaze, and so on. They gain crucial time by having an alien ship come to help them, and after it's all over, Captain Janeway remarks, "Who says deus ex machina is an outdated literary device?"

"Muse" (VOY)

The episode opens with a sort of Greek chorus performing a story about Voyager. It emerges that the playwright got his material when he came upon B'Elanna Torres' crashed Delta Flyer. In return for materials to seek help, she gives him some more details—couched in terms of the local mythology of the "Eternals", of which he identifies B'Elanna as a member. The playwright has to produce another play for his patron, a local ruler, who is crude but does not seem all bad.

The playwright explains things about Voyager to the other players, and this parallels what we see on board the starship, which is searching for B'Elanna and Kim (also missing). Tuvok is pushing himself to the limit in his determination to recover the two missing crew members, but remaining apparently unemotional. "The land of Vulcan has no laughter, and it has no tears. It is a very quiet place. Calm, just like Tuvok," says the playwright. The actor objects that Tuvok will seem a cold monster, but he explains: "They'll realise that beneath your unfeeling exterior is a heart that's breaking, silently, and in more pain than any of us can possibly understand, because that's what it is to be Vulcan." All this reveals the characters and the stories of Star Trek, which lie behind the special effects and funny make-up.

The ruler, however, is about to go to war with his neighbour—he's been insulted! The playwright believes that he may be able to get through to him with his play, and persuades B'Elanna to come in disguise as a fellow poet. Her proposal for the story is simple: rescue, or not. He complains: "Where is the mistaken identity, the discovery, the sudden reversal? Mistaken identity, a character who is someone else. Discovery, the moment when that identity is revealed. Reversal, a situation that turns from good to bad in a blink of an eye." But an old chorus member tells him to "Find the truth of your story and you won't need all those tricks."

This comes down on Tuvok's side, or at any rate, against Paris. Rather than twists and turns, what counts is the truth of the story. But in fact the play, when performed, does have its share of revealed identities and reversals. Eventually, the characters Captain Janeway and the Borg Queen realize that unless they cease their war, everyone will be destroyed. (B'Elanna helps out with a dramatic beam-out.) We see the ruler's face: it's a great moment; he is an unsophisticated man suddenly seeing—or even half-seeing—a different possibility. Nothing is said, but we know there will be no war.

In my view this is one of the great Star Trek episodes. It is, among other things, a reflection on what Star Trek is really about. Special effects are not the point: the stories could be performed by a Greek chorus.

"Author, Author" (VOY)

The doctor writes a holonovel about the oppression of holograms, and is having it published by an Earth publisher. (This is late in the series, when they have communication with Earth.) By the way, see my comments about the Earth (i.e. Federation) economy. The problem is that he sets it aboard a thinly-disguised Voyager. Any resemblance to actual characters or incidents is purely coincidental, of course. The Captain is Captain Jenkins, not Captain Janeway. Lieutenant Paris becomes Lt. Marseilles. He's quite different from Paris, though, because he has a moustache. The central character is a fictionalized doctor, who is oppressed by people who don't acknowledge him as a person; hence the title, Photons Be Free. (Actually, the doctor isn't concerned about himself but about all his counterparts back home condemned to a menial existence when they were replaced by upgraded holographic doctors.) Everyone is up in arms, but the doctor points out that he writes about what he knows, namely, starship life. The characters are not the Voyager crew.

But the crew wonders, will people think there must be something in it? Tom fights back with a modified script where the doctor is a lecherous buffoon, and, more seriously, makes the point that he doesn't really care what people on Earth think, but he does care if this is how the doctor sees him. The doctor is persuaded to put his novel on hold while he revises to avoid the problems, but finds that the publisher claims he has no rights because he isn't a real person—exactly the attitude the novel was supposed to be protesting against. So there has to be arbitration. At this point the story changes tack and becomes another in the series of Star Trek stories about to define a living being.

The doctor's holonovel is both engaging and (more often) hilarious, with lots of nice touches; for example the evil security chief (Tulak) has a goatee (of course).[1] The Seven-of-Nine character is the doctor's only real friend. Tom's parody is brief but even more fun.

The episode raises questions about the relationship between real life and the fiction which is ultimately produced from it. Is it really true that characters are as completely changed from real people as authors maintain? Does it matter? Do people have difficulty seeing the difference? It's surprising how often people seem to be unclear about the difference between the narrator, the character who is telling the story as "I", and the author, the real person who is writing the story. That is, the fact that the narrator is one of the characters, and is not necessarily representing the author any more than other characters.

"Living Witness" (VOY)

The Doctor is revived from a backup, seven hundred years in the future. Voyager is accused of historical atrocities, and there is a holographic museum illustrating the official version of history (according to which the Kyrians were victims of aggression). The Doctor has a rather different version of events, which the Kyrians don't want to hear.

The museum's reconstruction of Voyager and the crew is recognizable but a lot of details are wrong. More significantly, it shows the Voyager crew as a violent, thuggish group. It's a bit like the Mirror Universe, but not quite so whole-hearted. It's rather fun. The themes are more about national myths than about narrative, though.

"Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy" (VOY)

A bit marginal for this category, perhaps. The doctor creates a subroutine for daydreaming. His daydreams have an interesting range, and initially it's fun to watch. Some of them involve various women competing for his attention, or painting a nude Seven. In others he becomes the "Emergency Command Hologram" and saves Voyager from the Borg with his photonic cannon (an invention of his own, of course). But a lot are about gaining his companions' approval.

It goes out of control, and the daydreams are being played out in the holodeck in order to assist diagnosis of the fault—and as a result everyone sees them. Their responses are interesting. B'Elanna is annoyed by a daydream in which she is a romantic character, who the doctor restores to Tom. Kim just seems to be amused. But Captain Janeway watches one in which the doctor addresses her. "Thank you for this opportunity, Captain. All I ever wanted was to live up to my full potential, to hone all my skills, expand my abilities, to help the people I love"—and looks with compassion and understanding.

The story involves a hostile alien ship which has tapped into the daydreams under the impression it is seeing the actual Voyager. As a result the doctor ends up really in the Captain's chair, and does rather well.

Another note on stories: Q

In TNG, Picard more than once turns down offers of help from Q. Humanity will do its own thing! In particular Q is grateful after being restored to the Continuum in "Deja Q". You might think Captain Picard would try to enlist his help when the Borg attack, for example—at least put up some sort of barrier to stop them??

The reason he can't is that to bring Q into non-Q stories would completely derail every other sort of plot. Q would be Deus ex Continuum. We can have Q in stories about Q, but not otherwise.

This is not a problem as long as we accept that Star Trek is a semi-mythic journey where the voyagers encounter marvellous new stories. If we try to make the whole thing into a totally consistent canon where everything adds up, we will get unresolvable problems.

[1] A homage to Spock in "Mirror, Mirror" [Return]

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