Star Trek is an enormous and complex cultural entity whose impact on politics, technology, and storytelling are undeniable. It’s also as flawed and problematic as any other massive media franchise. Lifelong Trekkie and Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief Dylan Roth attempts to make sense of it all for die-hards and outsiders alike in his monthly column: Infinite Diversity.
“I can already tell this is going to be much better than my last job.”
– Captain Kathryn Janeway, who can’t possibly know how right she is. (“Workforce, Part I” [VOY])
Welcome to another edition of Infinite Diversity: SUFFICIENTLY RANDOMIZED, in which I roll a 728-sided die and watch whatever Star Trek episode or movie it lands on. Last time around, I kicked off the first ID:SR with a look at the two-part story “In Purgatory’s Shadow”/”By Inferno’s Light,” a high-water mark for Deep Space Nine. Wouldn’t you know it, I’ve managed to roll yet another two-part story, this time “Workforce” from the seventh and final season of Voyager.
As always, I endeavor to make this column totally accessible even to those who’ve never watched Trek before, but if you’re a total beginner then I encourage you to read the very first Infinite Diversity to get the bare basics before reading on.
The Other Star Trek Movies
With the exception of late Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, most Star Trek episodes are standalone one-hour stories, sometimes with longer running subplots weaving through multiple episodes. Two-part episodes are usually reserved for season-ending cliffhangers, but now and then audiences are confronted with a surprise “To Be Continued…” mid-season. Most of these two-parters really earn their longer running time, delivering an epic or exceptional story, but each TNG-era series has one really forgettable feature-length story. The Next Generation has “Gambit,” Deep Space Nine has “Past Tense,” and Voyager has “Workforce.” It’s not that they’re bad episodes, they’re just not particularly special, and that mediocrity is all the more puzzling because these stories were chosen to be two-parters.
(If you’re looking for good movie-length Trek stories, I recommend TNG‘s “Chain of Command, Pts. I & II,” DS9‘s “The Way of the Warrior,” and Voyager‘s “Dark Frontier.”)
Voyager is the story of a Federation starship that gets lost in a far-off corner of the galaxy called the Delta Quadrant. Isolated from the rest of the Federation, Voyager and her crew travel alone on the long journey back to known space, interacting with as-yet-unknown civilizations along the way. They look for resources, problems to solve, and shortcuts home, and they occasionally have to contend with hostile factions like the Kazon or the Borg.
Voyager is a standard episodic Star Trek show, in which each episode stands mostly by itself. There are some running subplots, but for the most part each story is totally new-viewer friendly. It should be noted, however, that since this episode takes place during the show’s final season, the characters are at the end of what could charitably be called their “arcs.” Will they/won’t they couple Chief Engineer B’Elanna Torres and Helmsman/Nurse/Resident Wiseass Tom Paris are married and expecting a child. Liberated Borg Seven of Nine has more or less recovered from her decade spent as a cybernetic slave drone, and now interacts pretty smoothly with the rest of the crew. Everyone aboard ship is sort of settled; they’re a family now, and Voyager is their home, so getting back to the Federation is beginning to feel a lot less urgent. They’ll get there when they get there.
“Workforce, pts. I & II” (VOY)
Season Seven, Episodes Sixteen & Seventeen
Written by Kenneth Biller, Bryan Fuller, & Michael Taylor* (*=pt. II only)
Directed by Allen Kroeker (pt. I) & Roxann Dawson (pt. II)
Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Astronauts
“Workforce” drops the audience midway into a weird mystery plot and slowly fills in the mystery over time. This is something that Voyager is actually pretty good at, occasionally abandoning the standard Captain’s Log infodump, and opening with a “what the hell?” teaser. In this case, it’s Captain Janeway arriving for her first day of work at an alien power plant. “I can already tell this is going to be much better than my last job,” says Janeway, smiling, as the teaser fades to black. What happened? How did she get here? What happened to Voyager? Right off the bat, we’ve got questions, and we’re going to have a few more tacked on before we start getting any answers. The mystery is built up pretty well, but the payoff isn’t terribly exciting.
As it turns out, Janeway and the rest of the crew have been kidnapped, had their memories altered, and been put to work in a massive industrial complex on the planet Quarra. None of them remember knowing each other, but they each believe that they came to Quarra willingly in search of work, and that their former lives were miserable by comparison. They’re still the same people, with the same skills and same basic personality, but their minds have been altered in subtle ways, specifically to keep them from discovering the truth.
Apparently, Quarra is in the grips of an urgent work shortage, and when Voyager, a ship full of experienced space scientists, wanders into their territory, a syndicate of high-ranking baddies knocks out the crew, mind-wipes them, and sends them to work. The two-parter follows the crew’s efforts to discover the truth, recover their true selves, and escape from the planet. The actual investigation and escape are pretty dull in execution, but there are some interesting ideas built into the episode.
For most of “Workforce,” we’re following what amounts to alternate versions of the regular cast, which is potentially the most intriguing element of the story. We’re being offered a peek into the characters’ psyches—how much of who they are is because of their time together on Voyager, and how much goes deeper than that? What sort of undercuts this premise is that the changes are specific to each character, and wildly inconsistent.
Janeway’s experience as a captain has been removed, but so has her ambition to command; as a result, she’s more jovial, less burdened, but is that a symptom of the changes made to her mind, or is what the Quarrans intended?The stoic Vulcan Tuvok now smiles and laughs, but what does that have to do with anything? Has his mental discipline been stripped from him along with his specific memories? Why? Pilot Tom Paris is exactly the same guy, except now “space travel makes [him] sick,” so he’s not tempted to try to fly anything. While everyone else seems programmed to enjoy their work and their lives on Quarra, B’Elanna is still as grumpy and standoffish as always. Because the Quarrans’ treatment seems to have affected each of the crew differently, it’s difficult to derive meaning from their characterizations, defeating the purpose of the entire exercise.
Compare the device in “Workforce” with a similar one in the TNG episode “Conundrum,” in which the crew of the Enterprise has their memories erased by an alien influence who tries to trick them into fighting their war for them. Like in “Workforce,” the aliens in “Conundrum” have altered the main characters’ minds specifically to make use of their skills and resources, but in “Conundrum,” every character has been affected in in same way—their specific life experiences are gone, but their personalities and values remain intact. What remains of each character after this change, and the way they each react to it, tells you a lot about them. “Workforce” doesn’t really shed light on the Voyager crew at all, and that’s a shame, because after seven years it’d be nice to finally uncover some depth to some of the cast.
Emergency Double-Standard Hologram
While most of the Voyager crew is down on Quarra failing to explore their true selves, Commander Chakotay, Ensign Harry Kim, and Head Chef Neelix are off on an away mission and are spared the aliens’ mind-whammy. This is the single best decision writers Kenneth Biller and Bryan Fuller (yes, that Bryan Fuller) made when plotting this story, as Chakotay, Kim, and Neelix are without a doubt the least interesting regular characters on the show. There is zero story potential in peeling back layers of their characters. So, instead, the three of them become our viewpoint characters in unraveling the mystery, since they, too, missed the story’s inciting incident. They team up with Voyager‘s Doctor (yes, that’s his name) to track down and retrieve the crew.
For those of you unfamiliar with Voyager, The Doctor is a hologram, a projected artificial intelligence programmed with an exhaustive medical database and his designer’s acerbic personality. While he’s only really designed for use in short spurts, he’s been left online more or less continuously for years, which has allowed him to develop into a sentient being with feelings and hopes and dreams completely independent from his original programming. He’s considered a close friend by most of the crew, who loves and trusts him.
During his five days alone on Voyager, The Doctor has been making use of a recent software patch that turns him into the Emergency Command Hologram, temporarily overwriting his medical training with centuries’-worth of starship command booklearning. Even The Doctor’s personality seems to subtly change—he’s more confident, more stern, more poised. He carries himself differently. It’s a direct parallel to what’s been taken from Janeway down on the planet, and while that comparison is never overtly pointed at in the episode, it’s some very interesting subtext.
When Chakotay, Kim, and Neelix return to Voyager and discover what’s happened, Chakotay immediately takes charge of the situation. Fair enough, he is the ship’s first officer, and The Doctor sort of sighs and relinquishes command. But when Ensign Kim (the lowest ranking bridge officer) starts bossing him around, Doc is justifiably peeved. After all, Kim isn’t even a command officer. Trouble is, The Doctor technically isn’t an officer at all. He doesn’t even have personhood in the eyes of Federation law, though that’ll be resolved a few episodes later in “Author, Author.” He is, however, way more qualified to command the ship than Kim, who has all the gravitas of Plank from Ed, Edd, n Eddy.
(Just for some context: officer ranks in Starfleet are based on those in the US Navy, where you’re all but guaranteed a promotion from Ensign to Lt. J.G. after two years of service. Kim has been an Ensign for six. Tom Paris has been promoted to Lieutenant and demoted back down to Ensign in that same space of time, and he originally came aboard the ship on work release from PRISON. Harry Kim sucks.)
Alright, so maybe Harry is on a bit of a power trip—there are very few circumstances under which he would possibly be allowed to command the ship, and he’s not about to let some collection of photons and forcefields stand in his way, even if said collection is A) his friend, and B) the individual responsible for keeping him alive for the past six years and into the forseeable future. But what really pushes Kim into true privileged bully territory here is his response to The Doctor’s ambitions of training to become a real bridge officer. The Doctor really enjoys being the Emergency Command Hologram, and asks Kim to help him program a replacement medical hologram so that he can remain the ECH indefinitely. Kim shuts him down, laughing at the very concept that a hologram could ever be an effective starship commander. Keep in mind that when Voyager embarked on its mission, the android Data was the second officer aboard the Federation flagship.
Commander Chakotay (himself failing to exercise any sort of authority) orders Kim and The Doctor to essentially share command while he and Neelix conduct their rescue mission, because Chakotay apparently believes that he’s the straight man in a Three Stooges short rather than the XO of a starship that can level continents with the push of a button. Kim and The Doctor manage to set aside their differences and learn to respect each others’ skills by the end of the episode, but boy howdy could this have been a disaster.
Sadly, The Doctor would never get the opportunity to pursue his ambitions of command, at least not before the end of the series a few months later.
Sex Organs are Not Earlobes
The A-plot of the episode belongs to Captain Janeway—or “Kathryn” as she identifies while mind-boggled on Quarra—as she embarks on a whirlwind romance with a co-worker, Jaffen. Good for her! Like Kirk before her, Janeway has difficulty maintaining romantic or sexual relationships, as she has ethical concerns about dating anyone under her command, and anyone else she meets along her journey back to Earth will inevitably have to be left behind. She mostly only gets her rocks off with one-off guest stars (also like Kirk), or in romantic holonovels, which as we’ve established, isn’t the same thing as a real relationship. So, good on Kate for finding happiness with the charming Jaffen, who thankfully ends up being neither a victim nor a perpetrator of the nasty mind-wiping conspiracy. He really is just a guy who came to the planet looking for work who fell in love with her.
But there’s something about Jaffen that doesn’t make any sense, and it drove me crazy all episode. Early on in Part I, we hear Jaffen telling an amusing but apparently true story at a bar. We only get the end of the story, but it goes like this:
“…[inaudiable], all of them about my father, and he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t insulted. Finally I just had to tell him. I’m Norvalen, I don’t have a father!”
Apparently Jaffen’s people procreate in some way that doesn’t involve heterosexual reproduction. Okay, cool. Do you mind if I ask you some follow-up questions? WHY DOES YOUR SPECIES HAVE MALES? What are you doing walking around with a penis if it’s not necessary to your species’ procreation? More to the point, why are you very aggressively flirting with Kathryn? Why do you have a sex drive at all if males aren’t involved in Norvalen reproduction? Why do you then embark on an explicitly sexual relationship?
You see, sex organs are not earlobes. They serve a purpose. Their assignment at birth may be arbitrary, but their existence is not. If sex or gender functions differently for Jaffen’s people, that’s fuel for some interesting science fiction. This is a two-hour episode, meaning that there’s enough time for those little plot-irrelevant conversations that add texture or quirky details. Wouldn’t it have been kinda cute for Kathryn and Jaffen to have to sort of muddle through their early physical relationship whilst they try to figure out how each other works?
But, alas, the episode provides none of this, and it’s never brought up again, which begs the question as to why Jaffen’s joke couldn’t have been about literally anything else. Yet another missed opportunity to introduce something outside of Trek‘s rigid heteronormative standard.
Which reminds me, I should probably get around to talking about that soon…
Infinite Diversity will return next month! Follow @DeadshirtDotNet on Twitter to keep up with what’s new here on Deadshirt, and feel free to tweet @DylanRoth to talk about Trek. He truly never gets tired of that. If you want to vote for the topic of the next Infinite Diversity column, become our supporter on Patreon!