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The Never-ending Sacrifice [in Star Trek]

September 30, 2012


After watching TNG and DS9 and Voyager back to back over the last few years, I’ve realised something about Trek.

It likes to sacrifice.

I mean, the characters like to sacrifice themselves, or, in the case of the main players, attempt to sacrifice themselves [Janeway is probably the worst offender, though Picard does like to reach for the auto destruct more than a few times a season].

Is this a problem?

I don’t know. People love a good sacrifice; it gives them goose-bumps. But if you repeat it too often it becomes dull, especially if it’s a main player as you know there’s a ninety-nine point six per cent chance they’ll survive. This seems to be a problem on Voyager, probably for two reasons. One, they’re in an unknown part of Space and every episode has a new threat to make it suspenseful. Two, it’s Voyager, it can’t help itself.

Has the ‘sacrifice’ been repeated too often?

Let’s find out. [All of these sacrifices are off the top of my head, there may be more…]

TNG: Season One
Okay, this series is so bad, I can’t recall anything. Does Tasha Yar sacrifice herself?

Season Two
The writers definitely sacrificed their credibility with ‘Shades of Gray’…Riker in tension-less coma?
Anything else?

Okay, let’s just fast-forward to the sacrifices I can remember…yup, let’s go straight to ‘Voyager’. In no particular order:

Year Of Hell – Janeway sacrifices herself to destroy the Kremin time ship.

The one where Harry Kim dies – One version of Voyager sacrifices itself to save the other from the Vidiiiiiiiians.

29th Century Borg – The trendy, new Borg drone sacrifices itself to save the Voyager crew and Seven’s breasts.

Dark Frontier – Janeway is willing to sacrifice pretty much everything to keep Seven [and her breasts] on the show.

Unimatrix One – Janeway, Tuvok and B’lanna sacrifice parts of their faces to save Seven again. It’s okay though, they have a new way to stop becoming ‘full borg’, a way that no other species has ever come up with even though a lot of other species are more advanced than the Federation and have still fallen to the Borg and the Borg are supposedly a lot more advanced than the Federation too. In fact, if the Borg are all about ‘adapting’ to every new technology they encounter, and they’ve been doing their ‘thing’ for over 1,000 years then surely anything Voyager comes up with will be useless…won’t it?

Dragon’s Teeth – The dragon’s teeth don’t appear, but one of the war criminals changes both his mind and entire cultural perspective to sacrifice himself for Voyager. It’s okay though, he’s just a guest star, his sacrifice is meaningless. The Voyager crew doesn’t even acknowledge it afterwards.

Basics – The sociopath sacrifices himself like any good sociopath would. Actually, there’s a chance he thought he might survive it [the Kazon aren’t the most accurate shooters in the quadrant], but it’s still a ‘hero moment’ and we all knew it was coming. What else could Voyager possibly do with a sociopath?

[This brings up a separate point with Voyager – as a show, because of its core concept of a ship lost 70,000 light years from home, it had the chance to really explore what would happen if you couldn’t just dump your problems at the nearest star base. Sadly, it mostly ignored that chance, resolving a lot of issues in a facile way e.g. The Equinox, Suder, Marquis etc.]

Equinox – Captain Something sacrifices himself despite Janeway giving him at least two valid options to save himself. I think the transporters also ‘go down’ suddenly, which often happens when there’s a sacrifice on the way. This one is quite a drawn-out sacrifice too, as the Captain puts on some holo-glasses and spends his last moments on a very dull-looking beach. It’s a nice idea, but who gives enough of a shit about the character to feel anything? Imagine if that were one of the main characters, like Tom Paris…that’s when a sacrifice should be used, when the person might actually be missed.

The Caretaker – Chakotay contrives to hurt his ankle or leg while climbing some metal stairs, and Paris has a choice to make. Save a guy he might have to share a ship with for the next seventy years or laugh as he falls to his death. Naturally, he saves him, despite Chakotay saying, ‘you could’ve left me to die.’ And it’s true, he could’ve, which would’ve been the strangest thing. Can you imagine a Voyager without Chakotay? It’s like TNG without Picard, almost unthinkable.

Homestead – Neelix finds a ghetto on an asteroid and decides to leave Voyager, mostly so he can fuck a Talaxian who doesn’t find him annoying [yet]. There’s a moment near the end where Neelix steers his ship into a falling mine, preparing to sacrifice himself for the good of the ghetto, but it lasts for all of two seconds as the Delta Flyer appears and saves him.

Actually, this one is probably the nadir of the ‘Trek sacrifice’. The moment almost doesn’t register because it’s so short and you know Neelix won’t be killed by a falling mine. And this is the problem in a nutshell. The sacrifice becomes expected, predictable…we know the fucker’s coming from the first few minutes of the episode.

So, what can Trek do to bring meaning back to the ‘sacrifice’? Well, there are two or three things I can think of.

1] Make more of character deaths

If a recurring character dies, then don’t just deal with it in that episode, bring it up in other episodes. It doesn’t have to be much, but some references would be nice. Actually, I take that back. They referenced Tasha Yar a lot on TNG after she died, but it never made anyone give more of a shit about her.

No, the best way might be to have another character feel depressed for a few episodes and act strangely. Or at least give them a storyline related to the death of the other character. Like Worf when he first came to DS9 and slept on the Defiant, you could feel his longing for the Enterprise and there were a few scenes which dealt with it. Or when B’lanna had depression at the start of Season Five because of the deaths of other Marquis members. It was brief, but it was there.

In general, continuity is often a dirty word in Trek shows, with the exception of DS9. TNG was infamous for forgetting about things, like the time Geordi was brainwashed by Romulans and then appeared fine the next episode, or the time Worf broke his spine and the next episode, he was standing by his conso-…you get the idea.

Here’s a simple formula: Continuity (events + consequences) = emotional depth

2] More resistance to sacrifice

Humans are not Klingons, they should not be so willing to die. It’s just not in their nature in the same overwhelming way it is for the Bat’leth dudes. Where are the characters that aren’t so willing to sacrifice themselves? They can still have honour, but it’d be nice if they’d think of ways to stay alive before they go on a ridiculously dangerous mission. Or show some doubt/hesitation when Janeway orders them to make a suicide run at an enemy ship.

3] More conflict when sacrifice is the only way

If there must be a sacrifice then at least show them struggling with the idea. Example, if your ship is about to explode, it’s unlikely you’d be calm. How about some heavy breathing or something? Maybe even a panic attack? Or…remember in Aliens when Vasquez and Gorman blow themselves up? They hold onto the grenade so tight, as if gripping it like a madman will make the thing easier. This is probably a more natural reaction actually [apart from trying to run away from the grenade], the increase in energy [the gripping] makes your adrenaline levels go up and blocks your fear. It’s the same idea as when you go into a cold swimming pool. The more tentative you are, the longer you’ll feel the cold. But if you just dive straight in…

So, that’s the way to deal with it all.

Now, whenever this new Trek series comes along, let’s hope it dials back on the sacrifices…and let’s also hope that Robert Orci is locked out of the writing room and never finds a way back in…did you know his name is an anagram of ‘Robot Trick’?

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