Since the Internet ate television, it has issued a seemingly never-ending bounty of innovative, high quality, and occasionally challenging original programming. There are so many shows with committed fanbases to attest to their worthiness that I couldn't possibly follow all of the ones that I have reason to believe would be worth my time. I still haven't seen Transparent or the third season of House of Cards. I have a long list of shows bookmarked on Netflix, but as often as not, when my day is done and I climb into bed, fire up my non-work laptop, and look around on Netflix, I decide to watch an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, a show from the 1990's which I watched sporadically and haphazardly when it was originally broadcast. Later, I watched it from beginning to end on VHS tapes rented from a local video store when I lived in Australia in 2002-2003.
Now, 13 years later (I started late last year), I've been watching the series in order starting with the last episode of season 3. Last night, I watched the 20th episode of season 6, "Good Shepard." It's a strange compulsion that has me watching Voyager because, as much as I love the show, I have to admit that it's really not all that good. The writing and acting are both stiff, the plots formulaic, and the multitudinous alien races who all are human-sized and human-shaped except for some novel arrangement of latex on their heads ridiculous. But something about it still works for me.
The best part of any episode usually comes in the set-up. The resolutions are typically formulaic, chock-a-block with technobabble, and absurdly tidy. Last night's episode was a paradigmatic example.
Cybernetic sex kitten, 7 of 9, has conducted a ruthless efficiency evaluation of every department and traced all of the crew's shortcomings to three individuals.
Billy Telfer is competent at whatever his job is, but he is a cartoonish hypochondriac who is always pestering the ship's doctor about some imaginary illness and thereby decreasing the sickbay's efficiency rating. He's a throw-away character who's just there to make the misfits a trio rather than a mere pair. The other two misfit crew members are what make the episode worth watching.
Crewman (the lowest rank for any Star Fleet personnel on a starship) Tal Celes is Bajoran and comes from the same war-torn culture as Major Kira on Deep Space Nine and Ensign Ro on The Next Generation. Unlike those other two characters, who were effortlessly competent at their jobs but hamstrung by anger issues and conflicted loyalties, Tal is ruled by frustration. She works under 7 of 9 in astrometrics where she makes so many mistakes that she is a liability to her department. We see her staying up late doing work that is unnecessary but which should have been completed hours ago. She hides under the covers of her bunk and makes secret calls to her friend, Billy, for help. Later, in a heart to heart talk with Captain Janeway, Tal admits that if she hadn't been Bajoran, a favored ethnic minority in Starfleet, she never would have graduated from Starfleet Academy, where she had to work three times as hard as everyone else and rely on the charity she received because of her race in order to barely squeak by. She says that if Voyager weren't decades away from Earth that she would have been transferred off the ship years ago, a claim Captain Janeway can't dispute.
The third misfit is a genius cosmologist named Mortimer Harren. He needed one year's experience in space in order to get into a prestigious institution of higher learning, and he was serving out that token year onboard Voyager when it got flung to the far side of the galaxy. Now that his promising career is on ice indefinitely, he is surly and embittered, and he uses his condescending attitude to rebuff all potential friends and allies. He works alone in the bowels of the ship doing a task that seems like it could easily be automated and which requires only the tiniest fraction of his attention. He spends his days immersed in the abstractions of theoretical cosmology.
Captain Janeway reviews the service records for all three square pegs and notices that none of them has ever been on an away mission. She decides that she's going to take them on a mission in the Delta Flyer (a tricked-out, delux shuttle craft) to explore some novel astrological phenomenon. Of course, they experience unanticipated peril, and all three misfits overcome their personal shortcomings in order to meet the challenge. By the end of the episode, everything is all better. Yawn.
For me, the high point of the episode came near the beginning when Commander Chakotay made what I thought was a very sensible and humane suggestion. He reminded the captain that a certain percentage of starship crew members reliably don't last a year onboard before they are re-assigned. It's not a life for everyone, and if the ship weren't stranded on the ass-end of nowhere, none of these three misfits would still be onboard. He argued that they were of no practical use and that forcing them to go through the motions of pretending to contribute to the functioning of the ship was pointless and cruel. It would be better to release them from service and let them pursue their own interests.
Janeway will have none of it. She likens freeing them from their busy work to the Borg deactivating a defective drone. No, she's going to bring them into the fold with a weekend of Outward Bound adventure. I was reminded of Colonial Jessup, Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men, who told his colleague, "Maybe, and I'm just spit balling here, maybe, we have a responsibility as officers to train Santiago. Maybe we as officers have a responsibility to this country to see that the men and women charged with its security are trained professionals. Yes, I'm certain that I read that somewhere once. And now I'm thinking, Col. Markinson, that your suggestion of transferring Santiago, while expeditious and certainly painless, might not be, in a matter of speaking, the American way. Santiago stays where he is. We're gonna train the lad!"
Voyager has replicators to supply all of the food, clothing and manufactured items the crew needs to survive. It has practically limitless clean energy from the magic crystals at the heart of the ship's warp core. The dangers they encounter often stem from Janeway's choices, as is the case in this episode. Given this wealth of technology, the competent members of the crew could easily afford to let Billy, Tal and Mortimer pass the decades immersed in engaging hobbies. There is no reason, except for some unspecified moral principle which I assume boils down to the Christian work ethic, to force them to do work which is stressful to them and of no practical benefit to anyone.
As is so often the case on Star Trek, the writers use stories of high technology in the far future to validate our cultural assumptions of the moment. In this case, the assumption is that everyone has to work; not because their labor is necessary, but because sloth and indolence are sins that imperil the soul. I see that as a maladaptive mindset and one that will bedevil our civilization as we try to come to grips with the reality that automation and artificial intelligence continue to render an ever-growing portion of the population economically redundant.