Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Voyager, Season 3: Sacred Ground

Voyager, Season 3
"Sacred Ground"
Airdate: October 30, 1996
42 of 168 produced
48 of 168 aired


When Kes injures herself while touring an alien monastery, arch-rationalist Captain Janeway finds herself called on to undergo a spiritual journey on her behalf.

I told you, Captain, flashing the Ancestral Spirits some side boob is meaningless.


Matthew: The Star Trek creative staff have tried several times to send several characters on a vision quest of one sort or another. This is perhaps the most successful of those attempts, though it isn't without significant flaw. On the plus side, I enjoyed seeing Captain Janeway wrestle with her prior assumptions about the world. As someone who considers himself a secular humanist with a scientific bent, the notion that there may be something else out there, something not accessible by rational means of investigation, something that I may have hardened my heart to, is interesting and even compelling. I enjoyed her rather dismissive take on spirituality, and I was involved when she was challenged.

Kevin: I will agree that I was engaged by Janeway's arc over the episode, but I am going to add that I think that was largely on the strength of Mulgrew's performance, not the script per se. I'll get to my take on the issues of the episode in a minute, though. I agree that there is something to the emotional arc of the episode that is quite compelling. I particularly liked the moment when Janeway realizes that she is experiencing the things she expected to experience. Whatever issues I may have with the science versus religion issues of the story, having such a powerful character confront her assumptions about the world is inherently interesting.

Matthew: All positives aside, there were several annoyances. Memo to the Nechani: If you have a fatal door to oblivion, let your visitors know, will you? This Nechisti order seems about as on top of things as the Edo's tourism minister. One thing I dislike about the religion on display here (and this is a similar criticism to my feelings on the Bajorans) is that there really is no mystery, despite what they keep telling us. There is a shrine, people do stuff, and they actually speak to their spirits. No internal, subjective meditation, no debatable insights or personal, ineffable experiences that can't be shared. Shit, Janeway got to talk to them within 10 seconds of beginning her journey. It undercuts what I take to be the basic message of the story, that there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. The spirits themselves are blithe and annoying instead of mysterious and awe-inspiring. Is this a religion based on Jewish comedians?

Kevin: First, if there were some sort of religion based on Jewish comedians, I would convert in a second. I could pray to Mel Brooks, no problem. That aside, there was something very contrived about both the set up and the resolution. If it's so dangerous, why even allow off-worlders in the shrine? Also, the solution felt very "click your heels three times" to me. It was almost like the solution to television amnesia being hit the head again. A broader problem I have though is the apparent equivalency the episode treats faith in a religion and the scientific method. I do not have faith in science; I accept based on the evidence the scientific method and its model for observing, explaining, and predicting the natural world. Those are not the same thing. Even if the answer may not be found on a usable time scale for my purposes, it does not mean no answers exists. One of my favorite lines in an otherwise uneven season of House M.D. comes to mind, "Just because it's 'inexplicted' doesn't make it 'inexplicable.'" Science's failure to save Kes would not be a repudiation of science as the way to explore and analyze the world. If the opposing view is right, and there are not only unexplained forces in the world, but forces that are beyond explanation and therefore manipulation, what point is there in anything, really? If my preferred outcome pleases the 'spirits' than nothing I do or do not do would have an impact. I could go about my life ignoring them, even defying them, and achieve the same result. I also fully agree that apparently ceding the objective reality of their spiritual life robs the episode of some more interesting possibilities.

I just want to add that I am watching this episode at a point in time here in the real world in which there is an ongoing measles outbreak in about a half dozen states, so I should probably disclaim that I am not feeling particularly charitable to opaque, arbitrary religious points of view right now, and I fully admit it may be coloring my view of the this episode. Not to put too fine a point on it, but prayer seems to randomly cure some of the people some of the time, where vaccines consistently prevent the disease in almost all of the people all of the time, so right at this moment, science is winning hands down for me, and vague, condescending pronouncements about why the predictability of mathematics is somehow a bad thing just get under my skin.

Matthew: I think you're quite right about the misrepresentation of scientific worldviews as scientistic worldviews (look it up, folks). It's lazy writing. Anyway, I think there was a missed chance here to tell a topical story - I would have liked to have seen more about brain death and life support. They almost got there with Neelix arguing against Janeway taking Kes down to the planet due to the risk. Maybe we could have indicated that Voyager stays there for so, with so little apparent progress, that people on board start to argue for pulling the plug, for the greater good of the mission. Maybe we could have had a scene in which Chakotay actually threatens (or better, carries out) his prerogative to relieve Janeway if she becomes irrational.

Kevin: That's certainly an interesting angle, and one I had not considered. I think another is one that would have allowed the same exploration without quite getting lost in the reeds of religious relativism. The strongest moments for me in this episode were watching Janeway contemplate whether her scientific model of the universe would fail Kes. Regardless of whatever broader truths the episode may brush on, that kind of play on the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario could have been more fun to explore. We get notes of it in that final scene in Sickbay, but I think that could have been more developed to be the focus of the episode. I also think as a matter of character notes, Chakotay should have been more agreeable to all this. He has been presented as the character with an active religious life. I think the debate would have been more interesting pitting Chakotay's faith against Tuvok's rationalism.


Matthew: Kate Mulgrew does a bang-up job of enlivening somewhat subpar dialogue. I'd say her best scene was with Chakotay in the Ready Room. She did a great job of portraying the kind of superior attitude, bordering on condescension, that many science-y types (myself included) can have. Beltran had some decent scenes, too. Picardo handled his technobabble with aplomb.

Kevin: Yeah, whatever else my problems with the episode are, and they are many, but Mulgrew SELLS every scene she is in. She really infused it with notes of an almost unconscious condescension to the Nechani worldview. I mean, sure I agree with her, but it's really an artful stroke to color her cultural relativism with just a hint of benign cultural superiority.

Matthew: I liked Becky Ann Baker as the monk guide. It was a really nice example of casting against type, and it served the episode. It helped keep us off balance with our expectations, and she delivered her lines, well. The spirits... Estelle Harris (Costanza's mom) was actually pretty good. She has a distinctive voice to be sure, but she gave the character an intellect that wasn't grating. The other guys just irritated me, and I would have banged on the door to get out, too. Brief note: Harry Groener did a pretty good job of de-Tam-Elbrunning himself here.

Kevin: I agree fully on Baker. She's  really nothing like the standard Virgil for these types of things, but there was something warm and playful and genuine that made her extremely interesting. I agree that Harris really overcame the fact that she is George's mother in this episode. She felt very...lived in...I suppose is the phrase I am going for. You got a sense that either through actually being an old woman or being a sage of some kind, she really had a big picture view of the world.

Production Values

Matthew: The planet was rather dim and boring. We get yet another instance of the silly slipper-shoes that I guess were all the rage in the mid-nineties (see "False Profits"). The Nechisti order was clad in pretty stereotypical monk gear. Just once, I'd like to see monks decked out in seersucker suits, pocket squares, and gold watch chains. The alien makeup was a basic Westmore butt-nose appliance. Yawn.

Kevin: The caves were pretty boring. They did a decent job with the shrine arch itself. Sure, it was just a Klieg light off stage, but the shafts of light it produced were pretty good. Beyond that, I agree, everything was super dark.


Matthew: Although I think this is lacking the sort of ambition that could elevate it higher, there is a basic competence here. Mulgrew does a fine job, and there are interesting ideas hinted at (but not developed fully). This is a thoroughly average 3 for me.

Kevin: I find myself saying this a lot this season, but the performance of Mulgrew (or Dawson or Picardo depending on the episode) really keeps a 2 off the table. I find the point of this story to be somewhat annoying and somewhat contradictory to the secular humanist message Star Trek seems designed to espouse, but the emotional arc portrayed by a talented actress cannot be denied, and it makes into average territory for me as well. I am going with a 3 as well for a total of 6.


  1. "I dont pretend to understand why the spirits do what they do." I just believe in them, worship them and believe them to have all the answers to this universe's mysteries and questions. Other than that, I dont understand anything about these spirits.

    I think it is safe to say that this about sums up this episode for me.

    Because, truth be told, when I hear religious people talk and try to reason their religion and fairy tales into something remotely resembling reality, it would appear as though facts and research can only go so far as far as they are concerned, and to TRULY understand the bible/god/spirits etc. you must first be lobotomized.

    Forgo all rhyme, reason, intuition, facts and anything pertaining to reality in service of wishful thinking, also known as faith.

    I liked this episode because it was done well and becasue it was showing us how the exact same issue can be explained away by both the spiritual person and the scientific person.

    The problem with this is that it makes it look like both had equal and valid footing when it comes to explaining things. Which is not true. Religion is not able to explain anything. "Bible" "God says.." and "faith" are not evidence for the veracity of your faith based, unscientific claims.

    Moreover - and this I didnt like - this episode was making the point for religion and especially for having faith and the value inherent in having faith.

    And I have to ask: why?

    I have never understood the value of believing something or in someon based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. I am not talking about having faith in people or hope about things in your life, I am talking about faith in the context of god and religion. Believe the unbelievable and know that your faith may serve as the switchboard.

    why is believing in something, having faith in something, without evidence and proof a good thing? Why is there value in that? Why does everyone consider it such an admirable, honorable and even superior trait – like a badge of honor?

    And, more to the point, is there proof that faith works?

    Seems to me like faith is nothing more than wishful thinking – at best. Someone tells you to believe something to be the truth and to not ask questions. Just believe it, even if you know better, in the hopes that it may happen. That is all that faith is. Say you see three lights, even if you see four. Say you see three lights.

    Finally, why do deities and important spirtis always hide out in dark, musky, echoing places?

    Why would a spirit want to be worshipped? Or why would you create beings (by apparently clicking your heels three times), hide in weird, dark musky caves under mysterious circumstances and then spend the rest of your existence being worshiped by the subjects you created in exchange for blessings?

  2. Even in this alien culture here you have people who spend their whole lives serving the spirits (Looks like gods all around the galaxy have "being worshiped" as their first and foremost requirement, in common with one another.

    It is always the same theme - even among alien species it seems - powerful omnipotent god creates subjects, is all elusive (because, of course he is. Coming right out and saying what you mean would make way too much sense) and demands to be worshiped in exchange for bliss and happiness. And if it doesnt happen for you then it is because you either didnt have enough faith (ha, here's that word again) or because the spirits have a reason for not making it happen the way you want. Trust them.

    The faith argument is almost bullet proof as far the spiritual/religious person is concerned: if things dont go as you had hoped for, then it's becasue it isnt time yet or because the higher powers that be have different plans for you. Plans that are part of the grander scheme of things (ding, ding ding: Prime Directive).

    And if they go the way you wanted it, then it is because you had enough faith and did something right. Bravo.

    No matter what the outcome it will be the exact outcome the spirits have intended all along (which, incidentally also nullifies choice and agency. When things happen exactly as they were meant to, then what you do is irrelevant. You are then nothing but a puppet in a sequence of events that have been set in motion long before you and will continue to unfold as they should, as the BIG ONE intended (Prime Directive!) long after you are gone.)

    I think sprits and gods and creators everywhere seem to have a serious ego issue.

    And they also seem to be collective dicks too: i mean Kes gets hit by some energy beam and the gods will kill her as punishment. Punishment for what? For having crossed a scared barrier she didnt know existed? How could she have known? Through faith?

    The people, the other "waiters' here were not only mocking Janeway and her science and fact-based approach but they were fucking with her mind the whole time, playing around with Kes' life like that - as a means to coax faith, submission and compliance out of her. Always this back and forth. Like it's a fucking game. Like this young woman's life being at stake was all a game to them. How cruel is that? Bargaining with someone;s life like that for your own amusement and to make the point about your grandness?

    For creationists and intelligent design folks I am sure this episode feels really deep and reconciles their fairy tales with reality in a way Fox news probably never could. But it went a little too far down the religion/spirituality path for me. The abuse Janeway underwent to save a life that was endangered by the abusers in the first place. I never enjoy it when Star Trek tries to give validity to religion.

    1. I get the feeling that this episode irks you, somehow.

  3. Not this episode really. Religion.

  4. This episode feels like "Voyager" doing a lame take on DS-9's Prophets.

    1. I definitely agree on that. Here are obvious aliens who do precious little to hide themselves, being worshiped by culture X as if they were mysterious.

      This episode was good despite the ancestral spirits, not because of them. It was a good Janeway story.