‘Year of Hell’ – How to Deal With 2017 Using ‘Star Trek: Voyager’

During season 4 of Star Trek: Voyager there is an episode called ‘Year of Hell’. It’s pretty self-explanatory; everything that can go wrong for the crew aboard the SS Voyager, does go wrong. Unimaginably so. To give a little backstory to those who have never seen Star Trek: Voyager  before: a Starfleet crew and a Maquis crew (traditional enemies) are stranded in the uncharted Delta quadrant, many lightyears from home. The two crews band together in an attempt to cross the galaxy, a journey that will take over 70 years. It’s desperate, it’s tough and (unsurprisingly) it’s pretty eventful. The crew is headed up by Captain Janeway (queen of my life) who won the hearts and minds of so many Trek fans as the first female Captain. She’s badass, she’s strong but she’s also weighed down with the massive task of bringing her people home.

‘Year of Hell’ and ‘Year of Hell Part 2’ are possibly the most desperate episodes of the series. The crew, including Janeway, lose hope of ever returning home. Things just keep going from bad to worse, to ‘let’s just give up now’. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s been a bit like this through 2016, and it’s probably going to carry on next year. Okay, we aren’t lost in a galaxy far from home and we aren’t being continually attacked by unknown alien species. However, we have had to suffer through the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the West, and the conflicts in Syria and the Middle East are just getting worse. It’s been a really tough year. What makes it worse is that all of the repercussions of Trump, Brexit etc are going to come to fruition in 2017 – meaning that we aren’t even nearly out the other side. The proverbial shit has only just hit the fan, as they say.

 For some reason, for me anyway, watching the Voyager crew struggle through their own shit, feeling helpless but overcoming the odds every single time has been…well…pretty comforting at times.

I began my re-watch of Voyager before the major shitstorms of 2016 began. Like the other Star Trek series, Voyager portrays a world where Earth is a peaceful planet. People of all races, ethnicities, countries and genders work harmoniously together. Starfleet is a organisation of space exploration, and the prime directive is not to interfere with alien species that they encounter. A far cry from Britain’s colonialist past, or the Western involvement in any country that has oil. Star Trek, as a franchise, depicts a hopeful future for humanity, and Voyager is no different. Janeway and the crew could blast their way through the galaxy, destroying anyone who stands between them and home, but they don’t. They explore, they learn and they face moral dilemmas at every turn.

Considering that Star Trek represents a unified world, free from racism, sexism, misogyny and hatred, it couldn’t be more relevant that I began re-watching it this year. The UK’s departure from the EU (which I have to keep telling myself has not happened yet), represents the complete opposite of what Star Trek hoped to achieve. Though the Federation itself has some questionable initiatives, it succeeds in uniting the entire of Earth and various alien species along with it. Brexit Britain is basically the complete opposite, and America’s President-elect has made it clear that he has no intention of uniting with other nations – unless it’s in the mutually assured process of destruction. Yippee.

Shortly before ‘Year of Hell’ and ‘Year of Hell Part 2’, Seven of Nine joins the Voyager crew. She is a former Borg, assimilated into the Borg Collective at a very young age, and whilst some of the crew have their doubts – Janeway decides that Seven should be allowed to stay with the crew and be treated as part of it. The Borg are a universally hated species, owing mostly to their tradition of assimilating or destroying every species they come into contact with.

The hatred of the Borg species is actually really interesting, because pretty much all Borg were formerly another species that has been assimilated into the Borg Collective. There are humans, Vulcans, Klingons… you name it, the Borg have probably assimilated some of them. Throughout the Delta Quadrant, whomever Voyager came into contact with – the response regarding the Borg was always the same. We hate them.

Though in many, many ways very different, there is a similar and awful feeling all over the UK since June 23rd. Of course, I am not for one second suggesting that immigrants and refugees are comparable to the Borg (UKIP are much more comparable due to their lack of empathy and general bloodlust), but the intense and widespread xenophobia that the vote revealed in society has been shocking. Instead of seeing people as individuals, the Leave campaign wanted us to see immigrants as ‘groups’ (or a collective, perhaps). They aren’t individual people who have been forced into a tragic situation, Farage and co want us to see refugees as part of a hive-mind – brainwashed and radicalised yet wholly responsible for their own situation. Seeing refugees as an ‘evil’ and dangerous collective completely dehumanises them, hence why Match of the Day received complaints when Gary Lineker dared to suggest that perhaps those fleeing war were human, and you know, might require our help?

Much the same way as Donald Trump, refusing to acknowledge refugees as individual people who need our help makes it so much easier to ignore them.

In ‘Year of Hell’, Seven of Nine proved to be one of the most valuable crew members. She continues to be an integral part of the crew right up until the series finishes. Of course we shouldn’t rank people solely based on their economic or social helpfulness, but it still proves that we should never, ever discount people based solely on their race. Or gender, or sexuality, or religion for that matter. Instead of opening our borders and enriching our society with different cultures, traditions, languages, creativity, thought and ideas, we have chosen to close them off. Instead of a future of togetherness, collaboration and unity, we are faced with a sense of impending doom. Janeway would be furious.

All we can hope is that our year of hell is not followed by ‘Year of Hell Part 2’, as it is in Voyager. If it is, I guess we will all have to try to be more like our beloved Captain Janeway…We’ll hold our heads high, be counted and stand up for what is right.


Time of the Month: B’ELANNA TORRES (ST: VOYAGER)

Let’s talk about Star Trek: Voyager. I wrote some of my dissertation on Voyager, and I still maintain that it is one of the most progressive series of all time, and certainly one of the most progressive Star Trek series.

We are all aware of how ground breaking and ceiling shattering the original Star Trek is. I could go into great detail about just how ahead of it’s time the original series was by American, Japanese and Russian crew members all sharing equal responsibilities at the helm of the ship, in a series that aired in the 1960s. Or introducing one of the first black women to have an onscreen role as a qualified scientist and communications expert, not as a maid or servant. Or how forward looking Gene Roddenberry was to try and envision a world of global peace despite creating the series during the Cold War – an era of fear and global distrust. Yeah, we could go into that, but that’s not why we are here today.

We are here to celebrate one of the greatest characters on Star Trek: Voyager – B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson). Originally a part of Chakotay’s crew, B’Elanna and the rest of the Maquis reluctantly join Janeway’s crew on Voyager in the first episode, as they are stranded in the Delta quadrant. Lightyears from home (no exaggeration, they are roughly 75 years from Earth), the two crews are forced together – despite the fact that Voyager’s original mission was to apprehend the Maquis and bring them home. The two opposing sides have to join together in order to navigate their way back, through a quadrant so far uncharted by Starfleet.

So it’s a rocky start. B’Elanna is the Maquis ship engineer and would quite like it to stay that way. She’s slightly hot headed, has a quick temper but she is incredibly good at her job. Typically, in sci-fi or otherwise, engineer’s have always been a male fronted profession. So it’s a very welcome surprise when Janeway selects B’Elanna to be the ship’s Chief Engineer, placing the (male) Starfleet engineer as her second in command. This is a bold move. Women are rarely given “important” jobs or roles in science fiction, at least not until fairly recently. It’s regularly argued that Voyager actually paved the way for women to be involved in sci-fi in a much more prominent way, and the case of both Captain Janeway and B’Elanna, that is certainly true.

B’Elanna securing the role of Chief of Engineering sees her overcome the odds because of two things. Firstly, that she is female and secondly, that she is part Klingon. The Klingons, traditionally enemies of StarFleet, have reconciled with the human race by the time Voyager is set and so it is not ‘out and out’ racism directed at B’Elanna. She is, however, subjected to stereotypes that other crew members point out about the Klingon race. There is still stigma attached to being Klingon, and B’Elanna probably feels this prejudice worse because she is also a woman. Klingon’s exhibit traditionally masculine characteristics – you know, aggressive, intelligent, enjoy a good fight, that sort of thing. Though Voyager tries its damn hardest to come across as ‘post-gender’ (Captain Janeway’s refusal to be called “Sir” or “mam”, simply “Captain”), the show is still making a very critical point by giving the Chief of Engineering role to B’Elanna over her competitor: a white man. B’Elanna’s background means that she is at a unique intersection. She is a biracial feminine character and talented scientist, leader and engineer, who is logical, rational and highly intelligent.   However, her Klingon side is far more irrational, aggressive and ‘masculine. B’Elanna, quite literally, has two separate sides inhabiting her body – as explored in the season 1 episode ‘Faces’ (which we’ll discuss in a minute).

From the start, we understand that B’Elanna is probably going to go through some identity struggles throughout the show – possibly amplified by the fact that she is a woman too. Typically, characters who are part-human and part-*insert alien species here* tend to have narratives where they explore what that really means to them, and how they navigate it. Spock, Worf and Seven of Nine, Data and the Doctor (the latter two being human programmed holograms/androids)  all have in depth episodes exploring their identities.

B’Elanna is no different. In ‘Faces’, B’Elanna is physically separated into her two identities. An alien race, the Vidians, believe that they can cure a disease which ails their race by using Klingon DNA. They successfully kidnap and separate B’Elanna into two bodies – one of which is entirely human, the other of which is Klingon. Klingon B’Elanna has strength and courage, but is unruly and uncontrollable. Human B’Elanna is unconfident and scared, but is rational and patient. Though the two halves only meet towards the end, Human B’Elanna is convicted in her utter hatred for Klingon B’Elanna. She tells Tom Paris how she has spent her life trying to suppress her Klingon side, and we can see the whole episode as a physical manifestation of B’Elanna’s deep rooted identity issues. ‘Faces’ is probably the best episode in season 1 – and Dawson is fantastic as both the human and Klingon B’Elanna.

At the end of the episode, when B’Elanna is back to normal, she concludes to herself that, ‘I just have to accept the fact.. That I’ll spend the rest of my life fighting her’ (‘her’ being Klingon-B’Elanna). Throughout ‘Faces’, B’Elanna expresses a clear preference for her human side, but there is the small revelation that without her Klingon identity she would never have been able to escape the Vidians, or save her friends. We can see her ‘biraciality’ is overwhelmingly a good thing, but she has yet to learn that.

Though Faces’ is probably the closest we get to dissecting B’Elanna’s identity, there are several other moments where we get glimpses into how complex she really is, and her relationships with other crew members – notably Captain Janeway.

In ‘Dreadnought’, a deadly machine that B’Elanna programmed herself before Voyager’s arrival in the quadrant, is set to destroy Voyager and millions of people on nearby planets.  B’Elanna’s actions in programming the Dreadnought show how far she has come since her days on the Maquis crew ship, before joining Voyager. Despite her not being at fault, B’Elanna takes it upon herself to board the Dreadnought and attempt to stop the machine before it kills everyone. Her desire to save the Federation crew overrides the pride she has in re-programming the machine in the first place (a feat admired by most of the crew). As B’Elanna attempts to change the Dreadnought’s trajectory, her own pre-programmed security voice speaks to her – she essentially ends up arguing with her past self  via the Dreadnought. The whole situation is allegorical of B’Elanna’s changes in identity; Klingon to human, Maquis to Federation.

Interestingly, as in ‘Dreadnought’, B’Elanna and Janeway often disagree on the best way to tackle a problem. Whilst Starfleet regulation is pretty clear that Starfleet is not a democracy and the Captain dictates the orders, Janeway appropriately twists this rule when necessary. It’s important to note that Janeway respects and supports B’Elanna in her decisions (we can especially see this in ‘Dreadnought’), and to recognise that Janeway is a white woman who commands the respect of the crew, whereas B’Elanna is a mixed race woman (Roxann Dawson is also Latino) who has a troubled past. It’s an important symbol of the ‘equality’ that Voyager tries to portray.

In a lot of sci-fi/action films or television series, the ‘tough girl’ trope is regularly employed. B’Elanna seems to fit this trope – she is undeniably tough, she is a leader and she has a lot of traits that we understand as typically masculine. The ‘tough girl’ (also known as the ‘strong female character’) denies herself any kind of femininity, and constantly seeks to prove to the audience that women are just as capable as men, essentially becoming ‘pseudo-men’. B’Elanna definitely starts out as a ‘tough girl’,  but seems to move away from the stereotype later in the series. She starts to understand herself and allow herself to feel emotions – as is evident with her relationship with Tom Paris. She is proof of the multi-dimensionality that female characters can have – she can be a terrific leader, engineer, lover, friend and eventually mother too. B’Elanna isn’t defined by any one of these roles, she encompasses all of them.

Basically, B’Elanna Torres is probably the most underrated character in Voyager (and quite possibly the entire Star Trek universe). Thoughts?