Trek Voyager’s “Death Wish”: They Don’t Dare Feel
Sad, If Only They Would, That Would Be Progress.
By Gayle Gorman
The television series Star Trek: Voyager show (1995-2001), as a part of our visual culture, has much to teach us in the way of example. The show followed the Starfleet vessel Voyager’s crews’ experiences as they slowly make their way back home to Earth’s solar system after inadvertently ending up in the unexplored (by humans) Delta quadrant of the galaxy, 70,000 light years away. Like the Star Trek shows that came before it, Voyager circulates around the science-fiction theme of what it means to be human and, like the Star Trek series before it, this view of what it means to be human specifically involves the Humanistic ideal that our species is fated to progress from what are considered “bad” qualities, to “good” ones: to be human is to be “humane”, to learn from one’s mistakes and to become more ethically sound, more tolerant, more compassionate, and less violent.
These ideals are embodied in the institution of Starfleet as a body of varied interplanetary races who work together through diplomacy to maintain peace. When Starfleet, through the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek: Next Generation, encounter an immortal being with the power to manipulate time, space and matter at will – a member of the Q Continuum – this “Q” reflects back to the humans their violent history in a biting, scathing critique. Captain Jean-Luc Picard combats these accusations by claiming that humans have evolved, that they have learned their lessons through hard and troubled times in their collective history, and that they are now truly “humane” in their non-judgmental approach to, and reverence for, all life forms.
The episode “Death Wish” from the second season of Voyager (1996) introduces another member of the Q Continuum: a once-esteemed Q philosopher who rebelled against the Continuum’s stagnification by trying to commit suicide in order to bring about societal change; the Q, he argues, have become placid and stultified by their immortality. Having done and seen it all, the Q Continuum no longer offers risk or surprise, which he maintains are necessary for the evolution of a species. This “Rebel Q” has been locked up in an asteroid by the Continuum for eternity in order to keep him from killing himself and thus shaking up the status quo of Q life; in order for them to, indeed, continue.
The “First Q” arrives to represent the Continuum. Fought out in the context of a hearing for political asylum aboard Voyager, Rebel Q makes his desire for suicide an issue of individual freedom, as First Q argues for the greater need of the community’s stability. Captain Janeway, acting as judge, has to decide whether or not to grant Rebel Q asylum, which would lead to his suicide. By proving to her that life in the Continuum, because of its lack of newly generative ideas and experiences, causes him to suffer, he wins his case to take his life into his own hands, even if he will then choose to end it: his immortality as a member of the Continuum is shown to be more painful for him than the punishment of being locked in an asteroid. One form of suffering weighed against another, he is given the freedom – through justice and due process – to die, to end his suffering. First Q’s stance is shaken as Rebel Q informs him that his former rebellious and quirky behaviour throughout time was an inspiration for his own theories that spontaneity, conflict and risk are needed components of an evolving society.
When Captain Janeway grants him asylum, his immortality and powers are stripped by the Q Continuum and he becomes a mortal human. Janeway hopes that he will choose this new life and not death but Rebel Q drinks hemlock and dies, although there were no means for him to obtain the poison: during the course of the hearing he had convinced First Q of the ethics of individual freedom and of the need for change within the Continuum, so First Q supplied him with the hemlock and goes on to take up his cause for individual rights as he returns to life with the Q as a freedom fighting rebel who eventually divides the community and starts a civil war.
“The individual’s rights will be protected only so long as they don’t conflict with the state,” states First Q during the hearing. Rebel Q replies that, “they’re afraid of me because of the unknown.” The questions that this pop culturally contextualized conflict raises in regards to our own real-life history (ie: Socrates, revolution, the power of the state, etc…) involve the negotiation with – and definition of – societies’ “disruptive elements” and their role in “progress”: according to the fictional human history of the Star Trek narrative, humans are – in 2007 -– still in the age of barbarism.
Progress Report from Earth, 2007:
- In 1989, a kilogram of ivory was worth about $100. By 2006, the price had reached $750, leading to “an explosive growth in the number of elephants slaughtered in Africa every year.”
- “Tigers are being hunted to death. Their body parts, used as folk medicine, are a giant business in the Far East. These wild animals are also going hungry as hunters kill the animals food supply….big cats reside in 40 percent less habitat than was believed a decade ago.”
- “In 2001 the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report established that the Arctic sea-ice extent and thickness is diminishing at an increased rate from half a century ago, decreasing at around 40% in the summer and fall of recent decades.”
- According to the website Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (http://icasualties.org/oif/), the number of Iraqi civilian deaths in January of 2006 was 779, and in February of 2007 it was 1531.
- Suicides for Canadian males aged 15-19 in 1960 are estimated at 48, in 1982 at 200.