You never realize how many plagues are in Star Trek until you are in the middle of one. Perhaps that’s why I find myself drawn to Star Trek: Voyager during this pandemic, and maybe, so should you.
Star Trek: Voyager follows Captain Janeway and her crew, as well as a sundry band of Maquis rebels, flung by the Caretaker into the Delta Quadrant. Over the course of its seven-season run, the crew expands to include the holographic medical doctor, a telepath, and a former Borg drone. Far from the known risks of the Alpha and Gamma quadrants, supplies, and Janeway’s adorable Irish Setter, Mollie, the disparate group aim to survive a projected 70-year trip back to Federation Space.
And so, for the homebound, may I suggest watching those bound for home?
While I haven’t been slingshot to the far reaches of the galaxy, life as I know it has changed dramatically in the past few weeks. My job as a college instructor has shifted from in-person to online instruction and suddenly my children are home. All the time. I am acutely aware of how small the universe can get in a short period — mine wouldn’t take decades to cross, but seconds. And during those seconds, it’s likely my children will have asked for two more snacks and spilled one of them on the floor already. My three kids are under the age of seven, and with daycares closing and schools closed, we are all together — in close quarters — for the first time in my parenthood.
It’s not that we’ve never spent time together before, but without the routines of school and daycare, plus libraries to visit, playgrounds to climb, and playdates to plan, we are rudderless. Perhaps if I refer to my young children as my crewmates, that help us all get along? I’m not a starship captain and they’re not anti-Cardassian rebels (that I know of), but the close quarters have already started getting to all of us.
Early in Voyager, the differences in style and organization between the Maquis and Federation crew become apparent. Maquis would rather fight than talk, would rather do than get permission. The Federation runs on order and chain of command. Chakotay, a former Federation officer turned rebel, seems like the natural leader to bring the crew in line, but instead Janeway appoints Tuvok that job in “Learning Curve.” Tuvok’s Vulcan logic would seemingly be the best way to ice those hot tempers, right?
Let me tell you about my kids and “homeschooling” right now. Day one: four worksheets, a digital field trip, built a puppet theater. Day two: two worksheets and play-doh time. Day three: scrub play-doh out of the carpet, then an educational show. (That counts, right?) Day four: Stop body slamming your brother. Three shows of dubious-educational value. Day five: The puppet theater is not for wiping your boogers on and for god’s sake if the only thing you learn from this is to be clean and wash your hands it will have been enough!
There is no shore leave here. There is no map. There is no one coming to visit this ship. Like Voyager, we are adrift.
But we might be okay. Tuvok, after struggling with his new recruits, finally realizes he must bend to accommodate them. Neelix demonstrates this with flowers: the ones who survive are not the brittle ones. When the ship itself gets a virus in its gel-packs during that episode, it is the Maquis who aid in the problem-solving. Likewise, I’ve lightened my expectations for color-coded schedules and am letting my kids lead me to what they want to know and explore. We’ve learned about spiders and how video games are made. We invented new spiders and have watched a lot of Sesame Street.
I had coincidentally started my re-watch of Voyager before Covid-19 hit America. I discovered Star Trek in my thirties and, like many late-comer Trekkies, I enjoy the pleasure of binging plot lines that used to take months to untangle when the shows aired live. Voyager gets the rap of being a quieter show, but it is the perfect bingeable series for this era. The lesson of every episode seems to be “do your best”, and honestly, that’s all we can ask of ourselves, is it not?
Where Jean-Luc demands higher moral accountability, Janeway demands survival. Where Sisko defends and fights, Janeway persists. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
The best episodes to watch come during season four and are no doubt the most famous of the series. Don’t let the title “Year of Hell” dissuade you, or its overall darker themes. In this two-parter Voyager finds itself attacked by a temporal weapon wielded by an alien race called the Krenin, led by their captain Annorax. Not only do Voyager’s systems fail and the crew disbands, but Chakotay and Tom Paris are taken captive by the Krenin who are bent on resetting the universe to undo a pandemic that killed Annorax’s wife.
Part of the surrealness of watching these episodes during quarantine is the focus, from the beginning to the end, on the idea of the family. In the first scene, before the attack, the holographic Doctor gives a speech about how close the crew of the ship has become. Time and again in these episodes, Janeway does something I don’t remember other captains doing often: referring to the crew as family. No spoilers, but the plot unfolds to challenge every member of that family as they weigh what is worth sacrificing.
If you need another incentive, any episode featuring Janeway in a tank top promises high levels of badass.
I can’t channel Janeway in my house when I’m forced into the roles of captain, cook, engineer, and morale officer, all at the same time. I am an imperfect instructor right now, but I hope to lead my students to knowledge in some form by the end of the semester. I am an imperfect mother right now, but I love and listen to my children and let them make whatever messes help them learn. Janeway was the perfect imperfect captain to unite her ragtag crew, and like her, I need to stay flexible to ensure we can adapt to new changes. Even if we, like the Voyager crew, escape a bit too often into imaginary worlds built by computers and screens, we will survive. While we don’t have a Holodeck, at least we have windows to watch the daffodils come up outside and some Star Trek to watch inside, together.
Rachel Mans McKenny is a writer, professor, and parent in the Midwest, found @rmmckenny on Twitter. Her book, featuring a Star Trek-loving heroine, is coming out from Alcove Press in late 2020.