In the seventh episode of the third season of Voyager, Janeway must challenge herself mentally and physically to save Kes. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
I don’t often talk about being an atheist. Part of that comes from the over saturation of terrible atheists online in recent years; I just don’t ever feel the need to add my voice to that din, even if I’m trying to be conscientious about it. But being a non-believer is a very personal thing for me. I can certainly argue theology or religion, or I can talk about Catholic dogma or the political nature of American Christianity. Yet if you ask me why I’m an atheist, I can boil it down to an uncomfortable personal truth: I am cosmically alone in the universe. I can’t shake the feeling no matter how hard I try.
Now, I’ve written about that before, but I want to revisit it while discussing Janeway’s journey because it’s relevant for me. This is a deeply uncomfortable episode, but that’s a good thing. It forced me to think about how Star Trek resolves stories; I had to consider Janeway’s characterization as the relational captain; and I had to admit to myself that I’m not sure I could have done what she did here. That’s a pretty heavy thing to experience from one episode, but I think it explains why Janeway appeals so much to me. She deals in absolutes and confirmations. And shit, I do, too! I’ve had to for most of my life. I don’t think I’ll go into detail about that too much, but I’ll say this: when your life is volatile and uncertain as a kid and a teenager, faith doesn’t necessarily work the same way for you. I’ve been disappointed, let down, and exploited way too much for one lifetime, by people, by religion, by the state, by external forces I couldn’t control. So I latch on to what I can depend on, which, frankly, isn’t much.
So I see myself in Janeway and her commitment to Starfleet principles, to the rigorous demands of science, and to rationality. That’s why this conflict is such an existential nightmare. What if her science or her rationality were meaningless? What if she were asked to do something purely on faith and nothing else? What if she was never given the scientific closure she’s so used to getting? Here, her loyalty to her crew wins out, but not without disturbing her in the process. The ritual she goes through to save Kes is frustrating precisely because she torments herself by refusing to let go of her rational, logical mind. It’s what got her through Starfleet and through the challenges of being lost in space. Why would she risk something like that?
As much as “Sacred Ground” toys with Janeway, it also toys with us. The audience most likely expects the kind of ritual that Janeway goes through. Feats of endurance! Mental tests! Puzzles! Yet even when Janeway’s guide assures her that it’s all meaningless, I certainly didn’t believe her. That was part of the test, wasn’t it? So in a way, this episode is almost like a gentle parody of spirit quests in fiction, right down to the fact that in the end, we never truly get an answer to what caused Kes’s coma or how that temple worked. It’s all faith. Which is a bold thing for a science fiction show to do, especially one that often can get bogged down in the details of its own science.
This is honestly going to be one of my favorites in all of Voyager. And I say that as an unrepentant atheist. I may not be a believer, but I want fiction to challenge me like this episode does. It was entertaining, illuminating, and like nothing I’ve ever seen.
The video for “Sacred Ground” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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