In the twenty-third episode of the third season of Voyager, everything’s a hoot until THIS EPISODE GETS VERY SERIOUS AND THEN EVERYTHING HURTS. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
I love this episode, even though it tore my heart out and stomped on it.
It seems that this week, Star Trek is out to ruin me. Coming off the heels of “Real Life,” I was somehow shocked YET AGAIN by the length that a story went to commit to its premise. Even more so than the previous episode, I utterly believed there would be a happy ending, right up to the moment when the rug was pulled out from under me. Instead, Voyager gives us one of their most political polemics yet, and it stung. In hindsight, there’s an almost goofy tone to the way that “Distant Origin” unfolds, at least until the Voth kidnap Voyager, but it’s only goofy because of the circumstance. Brannan Braga’s and Joe Menosky’s script toys with the idea that to other cultures, the humans on Voyager are a strange, foreign species. But that deliberate playful attitude is intentional! To Veer and Gegen, this is a journey of exploration, one that brings them to their genetic relatives.
Yet there are implications to this discovery, so it could never be a goofy episode. It was always going to end with this inevitable tragedy. It’s fitting that the belief system at work here is called the Doctrine because it’s a direct reference to the ways in which dogma can infiltrate a society and control it. So yes, I expected that the Minister would reject Gegen’s findings, but to what extent? And how could someone ignore what he had found?
And my god, WHAT A DISCOVERY. This alternate view of our own history isn’t fleshed out entirely – we still have no idea how the ancestral Voth constructed a space ship and somehow left no remains of said construction – but it still works. What if there were some dinosaurs who didn’t die during the great mass extinction that killed out most of their kind? What would happen if the evolved in isolation? What if they escaped Earth, which was hostile to them, and eventually settled elsewhere? It’s a cool story, and even if all the details aren’t give to us, it still worked for me. It’s a mind-blowing premise, but it’s what the show does with this idea that excited me more. Yes, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the first third of “Distant Origin.” Seeing humanity and Voyager through the eyes of a couple daring scientists is adorable.
But what happens when Gegen confirms his hypothesis? What happens when he receives undeniable evidence that his people are descended from Earth? Well, he got excited, first of all, AND I CAN’T BLAME HIM. “Distant Origin” does a fine job of translating that excitement to the screen, which means that I also dreaded the eventual confrontation with Minister Odala. Gegen’s discovery directly contradicted the Doctrine of the Voth, who had long believed that they were the most superior species in that region of space – because they originated from there. Thus, power is derived from this premise. If the premise is wrong, then what?
The horrible irony is that Chakotay outlines exactly how Odala could have used this discovery to her advantage, and yet? She refuses to budge. I imagine that this was intended to be a reference to the Catholic Church, or perhaps to Joseph McCarthy. It’s not hard to see how you could draw parallels between either phenomenon, and I’m sure we could all sit here and come up with a ton of other examples of this specific power dynamic. History is full of people in power denying incontrovertible truths because it suits them.
I’ll repeat what I said earlier, though. I expected Gegen to refuse to recant what he’d said. I expected Minister Odala to react badly. But then Chakotay gave that incredible monologue about resilience and creativity and bravery and HE WAS TOTALLY REFERRING TO VOYAGER IN HIS OWN WAY, TOO. I KNOW IT. It was a fantastic moment for his character and the episode. I thought that Chakotay had outlined a brilliant way for Odala to own this discovery, to craft a new national legacy and myth. But Odala’s own selfishness and xenophobia was too strong. In her mind, coming from Earth made them nothing but “refugees” or “immigrants,” as if those are things to be ashamed of.
In the end, Gegen sacrifices himself and his work to save Voyager. It is HEARTBREAKING, one of the saddest endings to a Voyager episode ever. AND I JUST WATCHED “REAL LIFE,” OKAY? But the commitment to this theme makes “Distant Origin” hit all that much harder. This is easily one of my favorite episodes of the show because of it.
The video for “Distant Origin” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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