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Living witness

Constructing the past on Star Trek: Voyager

One of Josho’s favourite episodes of the science-fiction television series Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) deals with the problems inherent in reconstructing the past, how the past influences the present, and how it paves the way to the future.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Reconstructing the past is not simply a matter of reading some texts or removing dirt from an object. The past is not there, waiting to be unearthed; the evidence does not consist of facts that speak for themselves. Indeed, some would argue that it’s effectively impossible to reconstruct the past at all; what we have are fragments from which we create something that we hope is some kind of accurate approximation of what once was.

As I have noted before, in their book tellingly titled Re-Constructing Archaeology (second edition, 1992), Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley have stressed that archaeology is above all a social practice in the present. There is no such thing as “the past”. As Matthew Johnson puts it in his Archaeological Theory: An Introduction (third edition, 2019): “the past doesn’t exist anywhere outside our own heads. I have never touched, kicked, or felt the past” (p. 10).

Indeed, Shanks himself has reiterated this point several times. In his Classical Archaeology of Greece: Experiences of the Discipline (1996), he observes that “Our sources, material and ruined, are both partial and indeed not identical with ‘the past’. The ruins of the past are resources with which knowledges [sic] may be constructed by archaeologists, historians and indeed anyone with the interest and energy to acquire the necessary skills” (p. 5; original emphasis).

It is rare that popular culture focuses on the possibilities and pitfalls regarding how we construct our ideas about the past. But one episode of the TV series Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) deals precisely with this issue: the season four installment entitled “Living Witness”, written by Bryan Fuller and Brannon Braga with Joe Menosky, and based on a story by Brannon Braga.

Lost in space

Star Trek: Voyager first aired in 1995. It is the third series to have spun off from the original 1960s Star Trek, following in the footsteps of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Many elements of the show are familiar: Voyager is a Federation starship that each week has to deal with – and somehow solve – new problems.

In the series’ pilot episode, Voyager is pulled into a distant part of the galaxy. The ship and its crew are from that point onwards “lost in space”: it would take them 75 years to get back to Earth even at maximum speed. Over the course of seven seasons, we follow the crew, isolated as they are in the hostile “Delta Quadrant”, while they slowly make their way back home.

By the time of the fourth season, we are intimately familiar with the crew, led by Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). We have spent literally years with them, and we have grown to know the characters. We know that Janeway is a tough go-getter captain who is guided by her principles, and that the other characters are all, to the core, good people. It is at this point that we get the episode “Living Witness”, which initially relies on subverting everything that we know about the show.

The opening scene sets the stage, with Janeway looking out of a window aboard the ship, saying, “When diplomacy fails, there’s only one alternative: violence. Force must be applied without apology.” She then turns around, wearing a black undershirt beneath her uniform instead of the normal grey one, and wearing black gloves to boot. She spreads her arms and adds as a matter of fact: “It’s the Starfleet way.”

This scene loses its effect if you are completely unfamiliar with Star Trek in general, or Voyager in particular. Briefly, just to be sure, the Federation is a peaceful organization, with Starfleet as its defensive and exploratory force. Starfleet only engages in violence as a last resort. It is most definitely not “the Starfleet way”. A regular viewer will rightly wonder, what’s going on?

Janeway is talking to an alien who wants Voyager to intimidate the rival Kyrians. In exchange, he will provide her with the coordinates to a wormhole that can take Voyager back home. Janeway demands details regarding the Kyrians and the alien promises to deliver the information within the hour.

We then cut to the bridge where we see other unfamiliar things: a Kazon warrior in a Starfleet uniform (the Kazon were enemies in the early seasons of the show), and Neelix (Ethan Phillips), the ship’s cook, in uniform at one of the stations rather than in his usual attire, pottering about in the galley. Kyrian ships are approaching and Janeway orders the firing of “assault probes” – whatever those are. She then hails the ships and introduces herself as Captain Janeway of the “warship” Voyager. The Kyrians don’t reply and Janeway turns to her executive officer, Chakotay (Robert Beltran) – but she stresses the wrong syllable, and Chakotay himself has a different facial tattoo than normal.

The Kyrian leader has gone into hiding and Janeway suggests using “biogenic weapons” to infect the most populated Kyrian territories. Even the alien who asked Janeway to take down the Kyrian leader is taken aback, saying that their conflict is not with his people. Janeway doesn’t care. “You wanted victory,” she says. “You’re going to get it.”

In sickbay, the Doctor (Robert Picardo) has made the necessary preparations. We know from every episode before this one that the Doctor is a hologram, but this sinister Doctor appears to be an android. Ignoring his Hippocratic oath, he has prepared the weapons to unleash death on the planet below. Janeway seems happy about this and orders the attack. We see the ship from the outside and it looks different, with various additional weapons attached to the hull.

Then, all of a sudden, the image is frozen and it’s revealed that we are actually watching a historical recreation of events that happened 700 years earlier. Since Voyager is set in the 24th century, this means the current episode takes place in the 31st century. We are in an alien museum. A Kyrian man, the museum’s curator Quarren (Henry Woronicz), proceeds to tell us about the “warship” Voyager, “armed with photonic torpedoes and particle weapons”, which “could wipe out an entire civilization within hours.”

A witness from the past

Some of the museum’s visitors ask Quarren further questions, such as how large the crew of Voyager was. He answers: “We believe they had a complement of over 300 soldiers.” Here again we have the advantage, since we know that Voyager actually had a crew complement of less than 150. And so on.

Clearly, the Kyrians have tried their best to piece together what happened 700 years ago based on limited evidence. The end result is familiar, yet different. The crew are all there, but they look and act different from what we are used to. Perhaps the most unsettling change is how the normally emotionless Vulcan security officer, Tuvok (Tim Russ), is shown to smile malevolently. It makes us wonder how much our own ideas about the past are off the mark.

Similarly, the Voyager that the Kyrians feature in their reconstruction includes a collection of Borg drones. The Borg are cybernetic lifeforms that are among the most dangerous enemies faced by Voyager in the Delta Quadrant: they assimilate entire planets into their Collective, removing all trace of individuality. At this point in the series, they have managed to save one of them, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), removing most of her implants so that she appears more human. But in the Kyrian reconstruction, she appears as a full Borg drone, even if her own personality has somehow been preserved.

The curator (Henry Woronicz) shows a reconstruction of Voyager’s attack against his planet. Despite some of the high-tech exhibits in the museum, including a holographic reconstruction of Voyager’s interior, a lot of it is very traditional, with display cases and objects on shelves and tables.

A little later, the Kyrian curator interrupts a visitor who is poking inside one of Voyager’s photon torpedoes, which is on display. He tells the young man to be careful. “If we damage any of these relics, they can never be replaced.” Truer words were never spoken. “The history of our people,” he adds, “should be respected.”

Another visitor, a Vaskan rather than a Kyrian, then asks perhaps the most pertinent question about “that history”, which he clearly does not consider his. How does the curator know that any of it is true? The curator simply tells him to look around the museum. “The evidence,” he says, “is all around you.” But the Vaskan finds this insufficient; the evidence, as we know, does not speak in and of itself. He also doesn’t like his people, who have somehow come to dominate Kyrian society, to be depicted as the villains. He stresses that he doesn’t want his children to be taught this Kyrian history.

This episode immediately cuts to the heart of the matter, and something that frequent readers of Ancient World Magazine are no doubt familiar with: history isn’t neutral. But the Kyrian curator waves the Vaskan off. They have recently found a storage device that will prove him correct. He says that the device likely holds records, perhaps even Janeway’s own logs. “We could be hearing Voyager’s version of these events in their own words.”

“And what if those words,” the Vaskan asks, “tell a different story?” The Kyrian swallows for a moment. “We will change our view accordingly,” he says. Of course, this is key to any discipline where a new piece of evidence forces us to revise our ideas about something, and especially where our ideas about the past are concerned.

The Voyager storage device indeed turns out to be such a piece of evidence. The curator tinkers with the device and finds that it contains more data than expected, and concludes that it contains a hologram. He activates it and comes face to face with Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram, or EMH for short. The curator recognizes the Doctor and exclaims: “You’re not android!” The Doctor responds “Of course not. What are you talking about?”

The Doctor recognizes the curator as a Kyrian and immediately tries to call for help from the vessel’s bridge. However, the curator explains that nothing functions; they are inside a holographic exhibit in the Museum of Kyrian Heritage. The Doctor accuses him of stealing his program, at which point the curator tells him that around 700 years have passed since Voyager passed through this area of space.

The Doctor realizes that his crewmates are all dead. “Am I some sort of fossil?” he asks. “No,” the curator responds, telling him that he is “a living witness to history.” He tells him that the Doctor can help the Kyrians better understand what really happened in the past, since he “lived through those times. You helped to shape them.”

The Doctor wonders what will happen to him. The curator explains that artificial lifeforms are considered sentient in his world, and are expected to take responsibility for their actions. He explains that the Doctor may have to face charges for his crimes. The curator claims that the Doctor designed the bio-weapons that killed eight million Kyrians.

“I did nothing of the sort,” the Doctor says.

“All of our evidence shows that you were a war criminal.”

“What evidence?” the Doctor says. He walks over to a screen showing a reconstruction of Voyager and says that it’s nothing like what the ship was actually like. The Kyrian responds that they based the reconstruction on “a partial schematic”. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, he admits: “We were bound to get a few details wrong.”

The Doctor explains that Voyager wasn’t a warship, that they were explorers. The Kyrian responds that he knows, “trying to get home, to Mars.” The Doctor corrects him: it was Earth, not Mars. He then asks to see the Kyrian version of what happened, saying that he can help put the record straight.

The curator shows the Doctor a briefing room scene in which the senior staff behave entirely out of character. They insult each other, and eventually Janeway suggests that they should stop focussing their attacks on the military installations and instead should target the general population. The Doctor from this reconstruction agrees, calling it an “excellent idea”. He says he’s been studying the Kyrian genome and will be able to produce an effective bio-weapon within the hour.

“Pure fiction!” our Doctor exclaims.

Janeway stands over the corpses of two Kyrians that she just executed. To regular viewers of Star Trek: Voyager, this is all very strange.

“This is a reasonable extrapolation from historic record,” Quarren retorts. But if the Doctor wants to point out any inconsistencies, he’s free to do so. The Doctor waves around and says he doesn’t know where to begin. He says that his crew didn’t behave like this. “We helped people,” he explains. “We were an enlightened crew.”

The curator is astonished. Does the Doctor deny that Voyager ever got involved in the conflict between the Kyrians and the Vaskans? The Doctor admits that they did get involved, but that events were different from what the curator has reconstructed.

The Doctor explains that a briefing did happen, which did involve Vaskan ambassador Daleth. But he adds that the talks were interrupted when the ship was attacked by the Kyrians. “They’d picked that moment to start a war and we were caught in the middle.”

This confuses the curator. “The Kyrians were the aggressors? No, no, that can’t be right.”

The Doctor says that Voyager did have a trade agreement with the Vaskans, but were not on their side. The curator tells him to save his objections until he has seen the entire recreation. They continue, and again the story that is presented is simple: the crew of Voyager is shown to be cruel and merciless, with the Kyrians as the victims.

“You’ve portrayed us as monsters,” the Doctor tells the curator.

The curator asks the Doctor to tell his version of events and it’s naturally very different. According to the Doctor, the Kyrian man, Tedran, who was believed to have been shot at point blank range by Janeway, was actually the one leading the attack.

The curator tells the Doctor he is lying. The Doctor retorts that Quarren is lying, too, to protect himself. “From the truth,” he adds indignantly. After all, the Doctor says, it’s surely no coincidence that “the Kyrians are being portrayed in the best possible light.” He then makes the observation that “events have been reinterpreted to make your people feel better about themselves. Revisionist history,” he says, “it’s such a comfort.”

But the curator replies that the Kyrians were the victims of the Great War. Indeed, he points out, they are still being repressed by their Vaskan overlords. The Doctor responds by saying that he doesn’t care about the current situation between Kyrians and Vaskans. He is only interested in telling Quarren what he saw 700 years ago.

The curator then tries to shut down his program, but the Doctor says he can prove that he’s telling the truth. His medical tricorder – one of the artefacts on display – contains the answers. But Quarren switches him off. “Lies,” he says.

The politics of the past

We cut to some time later. Quarren is dictating a report. The version of the Doctor that he had reactivated was apparently a backup of the original. He is clearly uneasy about his discoveries. After all, they thought the Doctor was an android, but he turned out to have been a hologram instead. “If we were mistaken about that,” he says, “I wonder if we might also be wrong about Voyager itself.”

Quarren reactivates the Doctor. “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” he says.

The Doctor convinces Quarren to give him access to the museum’s holographic systems so that he can create his own reconstruction of the events, to show him what really happened. Of course, the reconstruction of these events as programmed by the Doctor are vastly different.

In many ways, the Doctor’s version of events is closer to what we would expect having watched the show. But in some ways, this version of events also feels a little off to me – the Starfleet crew are perhaps a bit too perfect here, as if the Doctor is overcompensating. The strength of this episode is that we never actually get to see what really happened; we only have the reconstructions made by Quarren and the Doctor to guide us.

In any event, the Doctor’s version of events seem closer to what we might expect. Captain Janeway behaves diplomatically and with understanding instead of being cruel and aggressive. She has struck a deal with the Vaskan ambassador. She will give them medical supplies in exchange for dilithium, the crystals that the ship needs for faster-than-light warp travel.

The ambassador notes that Janeway should make the exchange quickly. He explains that the neighbouring species, the Kyrians, pose a real threat and may decide to start a war at any moment. He says that they tried to exhaust every diplomatic option available, “but the Kyrians are a violent, stubborn people.”

Almost immediately, the Kyrians attack. Three ships shoot at Voyager. Janeway contacts them and tells them to back off. Four Kyrians manage to make their way aboard the ship and hole up in Engineering, where they kill four Voyager crew members. They try to grab as much technology as possible and also abduct Seven of Nine.

“How typical of the Kyrians,” the ambassador says, “they fight the same way as they live: deviously.”

Janeway, the Doctor, and the ambassador manage to locate the Kyrians in the Mess Hall, where Janeway tries to talk to them. Security guards enter the door, providing a distraction. Seven hits her assailant, Tedran.

Tedran falls to the ground, at which point the Vaskan ambassador seize the moment to shoot him. Janeway says no and grabs the man’s arm. The Doctor scans the Kyrian and concludes that he’s dead. “A tragic, needless death,” he says.

He then adds that Voyager was attacked by more Kyrian ships and his program was disabled, probably because the Kyrians stole his backup module.

The Doctor’s old medical tricorder, in the foreground, is a 700 year old artefact that holds the key to understanding what really happened when Voyager encountered the Kyrians and the Vaskans. Our interpretation of the past may hinge on even the smallest scraps of evidence.

By this time, the Arbiters have shown up at the museum. They are to judge the Doctor’s case and they are not yet convinced. “Do you have any evidence to support your explanation?” the Vaskan Arbiter asks.

The Doctor explains that the tricorder that is on display is the same one that he used to scan Tedran at the moment of his death. The scan will reveal that he was killed by a Vaskan weapon, not a Starfleet one.

The Kyrian Arbiter says that all of this is beside the point. Tedran died on Voyager, who cares who pulled the trigger? But the Vaskan Arbiter says it does make a difference: were his people the ones who started the Great War, or were the Kyrians the aggressors?

“This changes everything,” the Vaskan says.

The Kyrian Arbiter points out that whatever happened, the oppression they now live under is real. Her children, she says, “can’t attend the same academies as yours,” nor does it change the fact that Kyrians “are forced to live outside of the city center.”

The Vaskan Arbiter says that “today’s problems are not at issue here. This is about history.” The Doctor still doesn’t care either – he just wants to point out that Voyager is innocent in all this. The Kyrian Arbiter is amazed that Quarren would go along with all of this.

Quarren replies simply: “The facts are turning out to be more complex than I expected.”

The Kyrian Arbiter argues that the Doctor should face the charges, but the Vaskan Arbiter says that it is not her decision to make. She implies that this would never be her decision, because she is just the “token Kyrian”.

Quarren says it’s not about race, but she replies curtly: “It’s always about race.” She turns to her Vaskan colleague. “You seize every opportunity to keep yourselves in power.” This part of the episode has particular resonance today: at its best, Star Trek was always a show heavily invested in social issues.

The Vaskan tells Quarren to continue the investigation.

Picking sides

Quarren and the Doctor work on the tricorder and Quarren starts asking the Doctor about B’Elenna Torres, who he thought was the Chief Transporter Officer; the Doctor corrects him. Is Quarren starting to believe the Doctor?

“Well,” he says, “let’s just say I’m trying to keep an open mind.”

They are interrupted by explosions that rock the building. Angry Vaskans are pouring in and are smashing up the place, angry about the “lies” being peddled there. Quarren rushes towards the young Vaskan that was asking him questions at the beginning of the episode. He tells him to stop.

“We know about the hologram,” the Vaskan says, “this museum is filled with lies!”

Later, the museum is abandoned, but weapons fire can be heard from outside. “It’s getting worse,” Quarren tells the Doctor. “Protests, vandalism… two people have been killed.” He tells the Doctor not to worry; the museum has been cordoned off.

But the Doctor says that his own safety is not his concern. “Two deaths, a race riot, all because of me?”

“You were only the catalyst,” Quarren says. “The pressure’s been building for years. It was only a matter of time before something set it off.” The tricorder was lost in the confusion and it’s imperative that they find it again. The Doctor wants to know what will happen.

“The Vaskans are more powerful,” Quarren explains, “but the Kyrians are very angry. They are talking about another war.”

The Doctor says that there is only one solution: “Delete my program.” As long as he’s around, he’s afraid the fighting will never stop. Quarren says he might have agreed a few days ago, but now the facts are important.

“Facts be damned,” the Doctor says in a fit of postmodernism. “Names, dates, places… it’s all open to interpretation. Who’s to say what really happened? And ultimately, what difference does it make? What matters is today and the future of your people.”

“Doctor, you were there. You can’t deny what happened,” Quarren says.

“I can,” the Doctor replies. “And I will. Tedran was a martyr for your people, a hero. A symbol of your struggle for freedom. Who am I to wander in 700 years later and take that away from you?”

“History has been abused!” Quarren replies. “We keep blaming each other for what happened in the past. If you don’t help us now, it could be another 700 years.”

The Doctor mulls this over for a moment.

“Let’s find that tricorder,” he says.

A longing for home

As the Doctor and Quarren search the refuse in the museum, the camera pans to a window and we see a group of Vaskans and Kyrians looking in.

“It was a pivotal moment in our history,” a woman says, revealing to us that what we thought was the present was itself a holographic reconstruction. This means that the reconstruction we saw at the beginning of the episode was a reconstruction within a reconstruction.

“As a result of the Doctor’s testimony,” the woman explains, “a dialogue was opened between our peoples. Eventually we found a new respect for our divergent cultures and traditions. The efforts of people like Quarren and the Doctor paved the way for unity.”

By engaging with the past, the Kyrians and Vaskans were able to forge a better understanding between them. Of course, we have no idea if the reconstruction they came up with was in any way accurate, but that is besides the point. The past that they created served their purposes.

The woman explains that Quarren died six years after the events we just saw, “but he lived long enough to witness the Dawn of Harmony.” The Doctor served as “Surgical Chancellor” on this planet for a long time before he decided to leave.

“He took a small craft and set a course for the Alpha Quadrant, attempting to trace the path of Voyager,” she explains. “He said he had a longing for home.”

And so, in the span of about 45 minutes, a science-fiction show demonstrates just how difficult it can be to try and (re)construct the past, how knowledge isn’t politically neutral, and how powerful ideas about the past can be in the present.