December 31, 2016

Anthony Michael Morena

Latent Images

 

Fans haven’t been kind to Star Trek: Voyager. It isn’t completely undeserved.

~

A few complaints that usually come up when people talk about the show: it was boring, it didn’t live up to its potential, didn’t do anything new, there were enormous plot holes, the characters weren’t interesting, the aliens didn’t look very good, it was not as good as Deep Space Nine. In some ways all of these things were true.

~

Deep Space Nine was always going to be a tough act to follow. Voyager itself grew out of one of the worst plotlines on Deep Space Nine: the Maquis. An anti-Cardassian militant group made up of mostly Federation citizens, the Maquis took their name from the French Resistance and also sort of dressed like them, in frumpy earth tones. The concept for Star Trek: Voyager was to take a Federation ship and a Maquis ship and to strand them both in the Delta quadrant, 70 years of warp travel away from Earth, forcing the two crews to work together if they ever wanted to get home. It was a set-up that could have led to a lot of unpredictable chaos, exactly what you don’t expect from a tightly-run Federation starship. But the chaos never materialized. The distinction between the two crews pretty much disappeared after one or two seasons.

~

I didn’t watch Voyager much after the first few episodes. I was in high school then, in a public school in Manhattan, where the crowded hallways and constant war footing of DS9 resembled my life a lot more than Voyager did. Voyager was just a lonely ship trying to make it home, and at 15, I was trying to get as far away from home as possible.

So, for a good portion of the time after DS9 ended in 1999 and my second year of college, I wasn’t watching any Trek. It was also about that time that my life began to unravel.

~

Voyager did try. It was the first Trek show with a woman for a captain. But great as Kate Mulgrew was to watch as Captain Katherine Janeway, she was hamstrung by an ensemble cast that resembled airplane salad more than a starship crew. The Doctor was one exception: not a human but the ship’s emergency medical hologram (EMH), a hologram projected through the sickbay’s holo-emitters and running full-time as the ship’s chief medical officer. Played by Robert Picardo, the EMH is one of the best comedic characters Trek ever produced. He also was featured in a lot of the same Pinocchio-real boy philosophical dilemmas that Data the android on The Next Generation was known for: At what point does artificial intelligence become more than a computer program? Do beings like this have the same rights as people? Do they have souls? What is the definition of a person? With each season it became less and less funny for someone on the crew to just shut the Doctor off, causing him to disappear.

~

Quietly, and while I wasn’t watching, something unexpected happened: Voyager got good. It got even better when DS9 ended. With all of Paramount’s resources behind one show, the reintroduced threat of the cybernetic Borg, and a compelling new cast member in Jeri Ryan’s sexy rehabilitated Borg drone, Seven of Nine, it was—for Voyager more than the entire Trek franchise—a renaissance.

~

I didn’t begin to watch these episodes until they were in syndication, just about the time the show was ending its seventh and final season, in 2001. By that time I had been in and out of school, in and out of work, and crashed back home in just pieces.

I don’t know what happened to me earlier that year. I was hurt by people who were close to me. The reasons for it are complicated, too complicated for me to process even now. I know that I was experiencing a depression worse than anything I had gone through before. A psychotic level event. What had happened to me? I know that it happened while I was unconscious. Was I violated sexually? I don’t know that I was. But I don’t know that I wasn’t. My perceptions afterwards were so skewed by delusions that it’s difficult to know what I imagined and what was real. My instincts always told me that I was abused. The only thing I know for certain: I was hurt by people who were close to me. Friends, I thought.  They might know what happened. I doubt they would say.

If this sounds like a rape scenario that many women have experienced, I guess that’s what it sounds like. It’s probably a rape scenario that many men have experienced too.

~

I went home. I didn’t leave my room much. I watched Voyager every night.

~

I think it helped that a lot of the good episodes of Voyager were about healing trauma: The entire crew begins to melt only to discover that they are not the crew, and that they only have a few hours to make a record of their existence, some proof that they were real people whose lives had any value before they disintegrate. The crew finds a wormhole that leads right back to Earth, and they begin to get messages from all the people back home that they love—it’s actually a giant space whale, trying to eat the ship. In another episode, Tuvok, the Vulcan head of security whose logical discipline is so strict he makes Spock look emo, suffers brain damage and loses his ability to control his emotions, forcing him to relearn how to function psychologically as a person. Seven links her mind into the ship’s computer in “The Voyager Conspiracy” and the overwhelming amount of data leads her to begin seeing conspiracies everywhere she turns, conspiracies that everyone around her is untrustworthy and out to cause her harm. And soon after this, the severely anxious engineer from TNG, Reginald Barclay, begins to make recurring appearances on Voyager, overcoming his fears to help them get home.

In each of these cases, the characters have to come to terms with a personal oblivion. Usually with help. For me, sitting, watching these episodes in syndication, night after night, became the kind of therapy I needed.

~

The episode that I think about the most from that time is Season 5’s “Latent Image.” In “Latent Image” the Doctor is giving annual check-ups using a holo-imager—a camera for all intents and purposes. He is taking medical images of the crew down to the sub-atomic level. But while holo-imaging one crew member, Ensign Harry Kim, the Doctor discovers something strange. Ensign Kim has been operated on—by the Doctor himself—and it’s an operation he has no memory of performing. Worse still, Ensign Kim says he doesn’t know about it either. So the Doctor begins to ask the crew and the captain, and everyone denies knowing why the Doctor’s memory is incomplete. But he knows something is wrong here. With Seven of Nine’s help he is able to retrieve some deleted images from his holo-imager’s memory: hazy snapshots, all confusing. In several of them there is a mysterious crew member the Doctor has no memory of. Most disturbing of all, there are images of an alien attacking this mysterious crew member, the Doctor and Ensign Kim.

What is going on here? Other people seem to know more about what happened to him than he does.  The Doctor begins to get hostile. They’re keeping things from him. They’re lying! Finally, after the Doctor catches the Captain trying to tamper with his memory, she tells him what happened.

There was an attack by an alien and the Doctor could only save either Ensign Kim or Ensign Jetal: the stranger he saw in the holo-images. The Doctor chose to operate on Ensign Kim and Ensign Jetal died. But because the Doctor’s program was not designed for that type of moral coin-toss, after the operation he began to act erratically, even violently. His program was beginning to degrade. To save him, the Captain decided to wipe out his memory of the event and Ensign Jetal. After all, she says, he is just a computer program, not a real person.

~

For one half of the episode the Doctor’s anger was focused on the knowledge that he had been tampered with by his friends. They had gone into his program and messed around with his code. I felt the same way. But the Doctor’s inability to cope with choosing Ensign Kim over Ensign Jetal—agonizing over his choices—was a lot like my thought process too. At the time I was sure that what happened to me was because I had done something wrong. That there was a way I could have chosen differently and not ended up a broken person. That I was to blame for what happened. That everyone else knew what happened. I didn’t.

~

The captain’s actions don’t sit well with the Doctor, or with Seven of Nine. So this time, instead of wiping his memory again, the Captain decides to let the Doctor resolve his conscience, no matter how long it takes.

They give him a round-the-clock vigil for two weeks as the doctor struggles with the weight of his memories. He is sitting in a recliner on the holodeck. Finally he realizes, there was nothing that he could have done differently. From the moment of the creation of the universe, a random series of events he had no control over resulted in the existence of starships and chicken soup. He had nothing to do with it.

As he comes to this realization he is insulted that Captain Janeway, in her sixteenth hour watching over the Doctor that day, is lounging with a book.

“How can you read at a time like this?” he wants to know.

“It helps me think” she says. “It is relevant to your situation.”

It is poetry. La vita nuova, by Dante.

~

My pants were open when I woke up. Damp.  Someone had been taking pictures, I think.

~

“Too many possibilities,” the Doctor laments, “too many pathways for my program to follow.”

~

The frustrating thing about most Star Trek episodes is their relative isolation from each other. There are story arc plots in Star Trek, but in The Next Generation and Voyager, most of the events of one episode hardly have bearing on what comes next. These aren’t dropped plot lines so much as they’re the work of multiple hands, with one writer unaware of the work of the next. The TV we watch is different now. Audiences can’t accept that the characters are dancing puppets made to enact a writer’s scenario; the plot and the characters have to be inseparable parts of the story, and the story has to drive the season, if not the show. On Voyager, we never hear how the Doctor’s rehabilitation has gone. We leave him reading La vita nuova alone, healing. There is no follow up that tells us if it was a complete success or a total failure. He is operable in the next episode “Bride of Chaotica!” and for all of the episodes after that. His main storyline involves his pursuit of social justice for holographic beings such as himself, not the repair of his psyche. He is never seen reading poetry again.

This is the most frustrating thing about the Doctor’s momentary lapse of sanity. It doesn’t seem to scar him in any way, he never has to learn how to use different muscles to make up for the parts of him that no longer work. He doesn’t seem to be affected by these events. Not because he doesn’t mention them—until now I didn’t mention what happened to me to many people—but because he never changes afterwards.

~

I am not the same. Yes, it’s been more than ten years, soon it will be twenty. Of course I am different now than I was then, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t live the trauma this event inflicted. You would notice it if you saw me. The Doctor always looks like he can function when someone walks into sick bay; I have days when I can’t be in the same room with other people. I don’t want the Doctor to handle his trauma in this one-off plot. I want to see him run to that book of poetry again, to need to read as a reparative act. To be whole, and still not feel whole.

But being there night after night, syndicated, comforting, dependable, Voyager was there for me in a way that no other Trek show was. I knew that by nighttime I would be in my room—I wasn’t leaving the house at all, I wasn’t talking to anyone outside of my immediate family at the time—and out with Voyager in the Delta quadrant, in repeats.

~

By the time Enterprise came out I was back in school, it was after 9-11, and I was too numb to feel anything about that.

I was getting better.

~

In that book which is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words: Here begins a new life.

~

The Federation of Kirk’s day seemed more reckless than in The Next Generation-era. Ninety more years of hanging around Vulcans seems to have rubbed off on Starfleet culture. People are methodical, rational, at ease in most situations. Boring even. Rarely do characters seem at a loss, emotionally or psychologically, or ready to take bizarre measures for any reason. This is definitely how Picard and Janeway run their ships. Sisko gets mad, Sisko can even have breaks with reality, but he’s a religious figure, he has an excuse. DS9 on a whole is a little bit irrational. It leaves the audience without its Captain, on a messianic note—he may return some day. Voyager is different.

Travelling through an unfamiliar part of space without many allies or direct link back home is traumatic, but the crew actually turns surviving that trauma into their mission. Getting home, getting back to normal is the very essence of the show. And they do it. Voyager gets home. Not only that, Janeway decides she could have done it better, so she goes back in time and makes that happen.  She reconstructs the way the world is built. She decides what is unacceptable, and she erases the events she doesn’t like in the ship’s past.

She creates a better show.

~

I have to ask myself: Am I actually going to share a picture of me that was taken that night? It is a good picture, but I know something happened after it was taken, and I’m not sure who else will recognize it if they see it. I lost a bunch of my clothes and stuff that night. I don’t know what happened to them. I don’t remember picking myself up off the floor and leaving that house, but I do have this picture, and I’m smiling in it.  I run it through some Instagram filters. The square frame and hazy fake nostalgia actually distance me from the original, until it’s not that night anymore. That night never existed. And if they know, they should know that I know too.

 


Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv.  He is the author of The Voyager Record (Rose Metal Press, 2016) and an assistant fiction editor for Gigantic Sequins. His writing has appeared in The Establishment, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, The Ilanot Review, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He’s been watching Trek his whole life and he thinks the J.J. Abrams movies are pretty bad. Find him on Twitter @anphimimor and at anthonymichaelmorena.com.

 

Image: “Scotty” by James F. Woglom