Monday, August 10, 2015

Star Trek Voyager: 20 Years Later

When I attended the Shore Leave Con panel on Voyager: 20 Years Later, I was shocked by the overwhelmingly critical tone. In particular, panelist Kirsten Beyer, author of the current Voyager novels asked, "Twenty years later, did Janeway make a difference?"

The answer from the panelists and audience seemed to cohere around "No." I was stunned.

As a young girl growing up in the '90s, Captain Janeway was an icon. I grew up watching Next Gen and reruns of the original series with my dad. I remember asking him, "How come there aren't any girl captains?"

"There are girl captains," my dad replied. "It's just that the TV shows focus on the Enterprise, and Kirk and Picard happen to be men. There are lots of other ships out there too, and some of them have girl captains."

This made sense. But I wished, I wished, that we could have a TV show with a girl captain. And so, when Star Trek Voyager was announced years later, I was ecstatic. Finally, we were going to get to watch a girl captain!

My family watched the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager together, and we continued to watch every Wednesday night at 8. We watched the entire series, week by week, season by season. My brother was born during that time period, and so he grew up watching a female captain on TV. I remember my brother, my sister, and me watching the very last episode and having to keep it quiet from our dad, who had been away on a business trip, until he could watch the tape.

It's true that I see Voyager through the rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia, because I remember watching it as a kid and enjoying it as a family. But what it meant to me was and is very real. As I listened to the critiques of the panelists and audience members, I can acknowledge many of their concerns. The conflict with the Maquis was over too abruptly. Kes's character never quite made sense. Janeway's character is uneven in places. Nothing significant happens to Harry Kim in seven years (I would disagree a bit here, if only because all that physical and emotional trauma must have affected him, and there are episodes that deal with his character growth. But, yes, nothing huge in his life is obviously different in the first and last episodes).

Some of the issues are issues with Star Trek in general, with the possible exception of DS9 and certain Enterprise arcs. Characters are supposed to return to neutral after each episode. It's how Star Trek was conceptualized. Every episode is self-contained. No really intense conflict between the main characters is allowed. Really strong emotions, like depression, can't last past one or two episodes. But these critiques should not be unique to Voyager.

What is unique to Voyager is the oft-remarked fact that Captain Janeway almost never engages in romantic relationships, certainly never with the same frequency as the male captains (though particularly Kirk). This is not a Star Trek in general trait because the male captains or male crew members engage in romantic relationships with some frequency in individual episodes, even though the return to neutral requirement means that each of these connections is an episode long (Tom and B'Elanna on Voyager, and DS9 in general are exceptions).

As a young girl, I loved this about Captain Janeway. In fact, I actively hoped that the girl captain would not waste her time with romance. I thought girls in movies and TV shows wasted way too much time being "girly" and talking about boys. I considered this gross. I wanted girls who were friends with both boys and girls, girls who led adventures, explored new worlds, made amazing discoveries. If UPN was trying to appeal to a very young female audience, they were successful in this regard. At least for me.

I really liked, however, the friendship that developed between Janeway and Chakotay. I thought it was awesome. Finally, we could see a grown up woman and a grown up man just being friends. This was my first clear picture of such a relationship in media, and I relished it.

That being said, much later on, when I was older, and Seven started a relationship with Chakotay, I felt a pang. Chakotay was supposed to be with Janeway! After all this time, and all they'd shared together, why couldn't they fall in love or better yet, just be platonic life partners?

Kirsten revealed that not only did the writers not want to put Janeway in a romantic relationship for fear of undermining her, which I knew, but Kate Mulgrew objected to it as well. Instinctively, I have always liked stories about women that do not concentrate on romance, and so that's a position that I admire and am comfortable with. However, I do understand others' concerns in comparison to the male captains.

Those who object to Janeway's lack of romance complain that she is, as a woman, singled out for this treatment, and also have a legitimate argument in that romantic relationships are often a part of women's lives and should not be, or need not be, perceived as undermining their authority. I agree with the sentiment. I am also sure that there might have been nuanced ways to introduce a romantic relationship into Janeway's life, and that portraying the balance of power in a romantic relationship between a captain and first officer would have been interesting (I guess the other question is, does Starfleet even allow that?). But, ultimately, I personally am comfortable with the idea that Janeway as an individual did not want to pursue romance. She was faithful to her fiance. She was wedded to her ship. You can say these are stereotypes about women that we should break (that women can have power or love, while men can have both), but I say that we should also respect that women like Janeway are real and do exist.

Besides, in the Voyager series, there are other examples of women in prominent positions who also have loving relationships. Chief Engineer B'Elanna gets married and has a baby on the ship. Seven and Chakotay are starting something just as the show ends.

The last argument that came up in the panel that I want to touch on has to do with the Bechdel test. One audience member mentioned that Trekkie Feminist did a Bechdel test for each of the ST franchises, and all did badly, including, surprisingly, Voyager. However, when I looked at the results myself, Voyager had an 87.5% pass rate, higher than any other Star Trek. So, I wouldn't consider that doing badly, but also consider the following: One, that percentage only counts scenes where two women explicitly addressed each other. The results were 89.2% counting scenes where the captain addresses the mixed-gender crew. Two, two female characters discussing a male character may have been a frequent occurrence on Voyager, but how many of those conversations were about romance vs. about how to save X male character from X situation? Three, how many conversations did male characters on Voyager have with each other that did NOT involve discussing a female character? In fact, I'm betting almost all of those conversations mention the Captain, conversations between the Doctor and Neelix frequently mention Kes or Seven, and conversations between Tom and Harry frequently revolve around B'Elanna.

It's clear that not everyone shares my love for Voyager, and that's okay. But it hurts me to think that, 20 years later, Captain Janeway has not made a difference. I know, for me, she's a role model of a strong woman leader. Another audience member at the panel mentioned a younger female family member that had gone into engineering and spoke of Janeway as an inspiration. I know other women my age who admire and look up to Janeway. My brother has never considered that there couldn't be a female Star Trek captain. And plenty more tough women have been portrayed in sci fi since, and had plenty of romantic relationships. Think Starbuck and Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, and Clarke Griffin and Raven Reyes on The 100.

From what I kept hearing at the panel and around the con, the representation of women in media is down, and that's upsetting. But don't downplay the roles of incredible female leaders who are inspiring young girls and women past, present, and future.

Also, here's the reason I've been a little less present on the blog the past few months, my new dog: Janeway.

Note: I don't mean to imply that the panelists and some audience members did not also have affection for Voyager. Obviously, Kirsten Beyer is very fond of these characters she's spent so much time writing. I hope it goes without saying that they wouldn't be critiquing if they didn't care!

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