Saturday, July 23, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"Sacred Ground"

There you go, folks. Janeway naked. For an episode that centers heavily on the theme of faith, nearly viewing Kate Mulgrew’s bare behind has to strike a devastating blow to your faith in humanity. Mulgrew cites “Sacred Ground” as one of her favorite Janeway-centric episodes, so it must have been a thrill of some description for her. I go back and forth about it myself. The episodes explores the balance between faith and reason, but does not draw a satisfactory conclusion.

Do note this is a Janeway-centric episode, but not one written by Jeri Taylor. As such, it is not officially a Janeway is awesome episode. Arguably, Janeway comes across as diminished when considering how the episode largely plays out because of a big misconception on her part. But that is also difficult to determine. This is a Lisa Klink script and therefore a muddled mess. It certainly is amusing to picture Taylor having to be sedated in order to endure Klink’s messing with her beloved Janeway.

Several members of the crew are on a guided tour of a monastery when kes, impetuous and curious as she is, wanders off to investigate a portal through which lies the spirit world. Kes is struck down by an energy blast and rendered comatose. In order to find a treatment, the crew wants to scan the portal. The monks say no, because kes has been punished by the spirits for trespassing.

Neelix researches history and discovers an ancient king whose son had approached the portal and been struck down the same as Kes. The king was allowed to go on a vision quest to meet the spirits and plead for his son’s life. He succeeded. Janeway, claiming as captain she has as much responsibility for a member of her crew as a father does for his son, requests to endure the vision quest herself.

This is the point at which the theme of faith v. reason gets muddled beyond all comprehension. Janeway thinks these religious rituals are a bunch of silly mumbo jumbo and has no problem sharing her skepticism with Chakotay, the doctor, and anyone else on Voyager who cares to listen. Ther only reason she is willing to go through the vision quest is because the doctor will insert a subnormal scanner so she can covertly gather scientific data during the experience. She thinks that is the only way to find a cure for Kes. The monks somehow know this is what she is doing, but allow her to do so anyway.

Janeway endures a stereotypical string of endurance tests, many of which are close to the kind she mocked in front of Chakotay earlier when she was researching the subject in preparation. She is stripped naked, which is more an endurance test for us, body painted, made to hold a heavy rock for hours while waiting for a sign, made to climb a wall free hand, bitten by a snake, locked in a sarcophagus for nearly two days, and generally starved and dehydrated. In the end, the sub dermal scanner finds what the Doctor assumes is a viable treatment for Kes.

It is not, however. It makes her even worse. In a huff, Janeway returns to the monastery to try another route. This time, she debates the value of science verses faith with three old monks sitting on a bench. The debate is too farfetched to go into here, but the gist of it is the cure would work, but Janeway is too misguided in her faith that science is the only answer. She needs to have faith that sometimes things do not work out the way they rationally should. In the end, Janeway carries Kes back through the portal even though scans say the emitted radiation will fry them both. Instead, because Janeway has no doubt the portal will cure Kes, it does with no harm done to her, either.

An examination of Kes they could have just put her into the portal again in the first place, but without being allowed to scan it, could not know that. Thus, the whole point of the episode is to teach janeway to have faith in somwthing other than the cold, hard facts. Which is, frankly, dumb.

I make no secret of my Christian beliefs. While I do not consider science the mortal enemy, I am inclined to often spiritual explanations even when there is a “valid” scientific explanation. Not to spark off a tangential debate, but the easiest way to explain it is that the gaps in which god is supposedly hiding are not as tiny as rationalists would have you believe. More relevant to the point, science and religion are not the same. You do not have to have faith in science for it to work. The idea that Kes cannot be cured until Janeway believes she can be is absurd.

Janeway’s experience is a knock on both faith and reason. Her endurance tests in the vision quest were self-inflicted because she believed those are the kinds of struggles one goes through during such a thing. She suffered because she believed in a caricature of religion, and it ultimately failed her. Conversely, none of the accurate scientific data she gathered, which should have cured kes, worked because Janeway had too much faith it would and needed to let go instead. I do not buy for a second Janeway had removed all doubt the radiation from the portal was going to fry both her and Kes. But it does not matter. According to the doctor’s analysis, it would have cured Kes anyway. They just did not know that in the beginning.

So what is “Sacred Ground” ‘s message about faith v. reason? Beats the heck out of me. Janeway had faith when she was supposed to have faith, and failed. She relied on reason when she was supposed to be reasonable, and failed. It was when she had faith in reason she succeeded, but who cares? You do not need to have faith in reason for it to work. That is why it is called reason!

Lisa Klink, folks. She is a victim of the modern intellectual trap of when in doubt, doubt rather than commit to anything school of thought.

“Sacred Ground” is generally panned by fans for the reason I just described. Star Trek fans are generally skeptics who will not accept the idea science and religion are on equal footing. I outlined why I, as a devout Christian, have my own objections to what the episode is trying to say. It is interesting to examine the flaws in the message, however, and for that reason, I am going to award “Sacred Ground” three stars. If you like for your Star Trek to espouse your personal views or at least present a decent rationale as to why it is going in the other direction instead, you will really hate this one.

Fun note: one of the monks in the science v. reason debate is played by Estelle Harris, who played George Costanza’s mother on Sereinfeld. George was played by longtime Star trek fan Jason Alexander, who will go on to play a character in VOY’s sixth season. We will get to that one sometime in October, Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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