Sunday, 10 October 2010

Star Trek Voyager: Living Witness


This is one of the very best episodes of Voyager - possibly the best, though the same (fourth) season's two-parter 'Year of Hell' gives it a run for its money. 'Living Witness' has a great opening with one of Star Trek's fondest tropes, the evil version of the crew, but done with some beautiful subtlety among the eeeeevil cackling and black polo necks (including Janeway playing with her eeevil black glove, Tuvok having slighter larger ears, the Doctor as an android and so on). But this episode uses a different rationale than the usual mirror universe or altered timeline. This episode is a reflection on the nature of history and the evil version of Voyager's crew are the result of misunderstood historical evidence.

The sequence that opens this episode is a recreation on an alien holodeck in a museum. A new archaeological discovery allows the museum curator, who is an expert in the study of 'the Voyager Encounter', to activate a back-up programme - i.e., call to life the Doctor, though, since this is a back-up programme, there is still a Doctor on Voyager as well. (A few episodes previously, it had been established that it was impossible to back-up the Doctor, but this is neither here nor there - it's a fantastic set-up for an episode, and maybe they just worked really hard in between the two episodes to make a back-up possible).

Of course, the Doctor comes to life and is absolutely horrified at the way he and his crew have been interpreted by the historians on this planet. A combination of misinterpretations of the archaeological evidence and biased accounts from the survivors, who are still embroiled in racial tensions 700 years later, when the Doctor is re-activated, has resulted in a complete misunderstanding of what Voyager was - in this account, Voyager is a warship with its own mini-Borg collective and a crew of thugs (the episode is also, as all classic episodes must be, hilarious in places - the best line is the Doctor's horrified refutation, crying that none of the crew behaved like that - 'well, except for Mr Paris'). The racial tension on the planet itself is interesting as well, as, unusually, the Kirians, who are persecuted and kept down in the planet's present, turn out to be the aggressors in the past conflict, who made Voyager out to be the villains to protect themselves, so that nothing in this story is black and white and there are no clear good and bad guys, adding another layer of subtlety to the story. The most important point, though, is that the historical view of Voyager is utterly inaccurate, a point which becomes urgent as the Doctor, having been reactivated, may be put on trial for war crimes.

Eeeeevil Chakotay

The truth is, we might have got the ancient world as wrong as these aliens got Voyager. Archaeology is a fascinating discipline but it is not infallible, and all the textual sources we have are biased, they have been embroidered for literary effect and in many cases they were written decades, if not centuries, later. Many if not most of our sources are more interested in telling a good story than getting to the truth of the matter. For all we know, Caesar and Alexander were wet sops manoevered into position by their commanders, Livia was a saint who spent her time making soup for the homeless and Cicero bored his entire audience to tears. None of these things are particularly likely, but a less exaggerated misunderstanding may indeed have taken place.

This is, of course, why there is still work for historians to do. Every now and again, there will be a general reappraisal of something and we will come to the conclusion we've been wrong all along. A housemate once asked me in horror how I could possibly tell my students that there was no right or wrong answer - I tried my best to explain that we do not *know* anything about the ancient world, we only make (very well) educated guesses and try to piece together what we think the ancient world was like. That's partly why I love this episode so much - it highlights what being an historian is really like and how easy it is to become misled.

Towards the end of the episode, there is a riot in the museum, carried out by Kirians who do not want the Doctor to expose the darker side of their past. This is another frequent problem with the study of history in all periods - people bring their own issues, prejudices and loyalties to their research. The Doctor doubts whether knowing the truth - something he, of course, has unique access to - is worth violence and unrest in the present. The curator argues passionately that it is more important that people understand the truth of what really happened, rather than living with comfortable lies. In real life, until we invent a time machine, we will never have the kind of access to the truth of the past that the Doctor has, though the reaction of those who feel they have discovered or uncovered a new angle on something, who usually push it harder than ever if it is particularly controversial, suggests that perhaps most of us would agree with the curator here.

Although the story is about an alien planet, many of the themes of this episode touch upon the sort of issues that come up at the cutting edge of archaeology now, just as the archaeological remains from Voyager kick off events in the episode. It is also simply a wonderful episode, with lovely personal touches - Roxann Dawson, for example, could not appear as she was on maternity leave, so the Doctor describes B'Elanna instead - and a poignant ending that always makes me well up, as the Doctor, almost a millennium after the main events of the episode, sets off for home even in the full knowledge that his crew are long dead. It's a shame B'Elanna couldn't be in it, but an episode with humour, an evil version of the crew (always fun), a solid emotional base and musings on the nature of history - for me, that's pretty darn hard to top.

The museum curator. Whose particular form of bumpy-headedness is Kirian, by the way.

6 comments:

  1. I suppose they could have cloned the Doctor by purposely duplicating the accident that created Tom Riker. At least if he had his "light bee" (I know, that's Rimmer, but it's the only term that's popping into my head this late), it might have worked. I only remember this episode vaguely (that line about Paris stands out), but it is a relatively positive memory.

    It would have been interesting to see what they did with B'Elanna. She would probably have been a bloodthirsty killer, but they could have made her a total milksop, too.

    As for your ancient alternative suggestions, I'd have to say Caesar and Alexander, no way. (Though I am in the school that says Alexander conquered the world to get away from his mother.) Livia, well maybe; I bet she wasn't quite as evil as the sources make her out to be. Cicero could very easily have bored everyone to tears (outside of the courtroom anyway). I mean he was out there constantly blowing his own horn and I bet he had a bit of a country accent, too. In any case, I bet most references to him in everyday conversation included the Roman equivalent of "jumped up little so-and-so".

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  2. Fascinating.
    I've often wondered what we've gotten wrong about the ancient world, simply because most of the records were created by those that ruled it. I love reading articles that say "oops, it looks like it might have been a bit different than we thought".
    To me, it puts a more human face on history.

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  3. Great post Juliette, I really must dig this episode out and watch it again. Did you ever see the Mirror Universe episodes of Enterprise.. they were phenomenal!

    @DemetriosX - is it still fashionable in some parts of the world to bash Cicero?! I can also imagine the people who muttered such things under their breath were one whose achievements were based on murder, money or both, rather than being a man of letters with some quite real and human flaws. Of the larger than life characters History has preserved a facsimile for us, Cicero is one of the most unique - no grand army, no claimed divine lineage, yet still he persists. As modern commentators on the past like he was, I wonder how our words will resonate 2 millennia hence?

    Alexander and Caesar can drown in the styx for all I care, if I could meet a couple of characters from the past, it would be Cicero and Tiro!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi
    threepipeproblem.blogspot.com

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  4. @H Niyazi - I confess I'm a bit conflicted about Cicero. OTOH, he was probably the last best hope for the Republic and Caesar seems to have really respected his opinion. But on the other hand, he could be a sanctimonious prig, and he really screwed up his family. He did a really lousy job raising his son, while simultaneously denigrating his nephew at every turn (and the nephew appears to have been twice the man the son was). And I'm sure all the old-money city patricians sneered at him behind his back.

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  5. I have to admit to loving Voyager, though I'm not really into Star Trek. Partly because of B'Elanna. But I love your read into this episode. It's worth noting that individual prejudices and viewpoints enter in even (especially?) with family histories.

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  6. @Just Another Sarah - yes, so true - '11.59' highlighted that really nicely, it can be a real problem

    I'm going to keep quiet about Cicero (I find him deathly dull, with far too high an opinion of himself and all round fairly unpleasant, I only read him when forced - usually the Pro Caelio - urgh! - or the better De Divinatione). Give me Alexander or Caesar any day. And please note that my examples of things that may have been different to how we view them were supposed to be extreme - I don't actually think that about Alexander or Caesar.

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