December 28, 2014

Review of Voyager: Tattoo

I've been watching old episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. This weekend I saw Tattoo, the ninth episode of Voyager's second season. I don't remember if I saw it when it aired originally, on November 6, 1995--perhaps not.

Here's a summary of it:Chakotay's away team finds a marking very similar to one used by Chakotay's own tribe. When he experiences flashbacks from his own youth and decides to investigate, he meets an alien who claims that Chakotay's tribe were seeded on Earth by a group of spacefaring wanderers.And some reviews:

Star Trek Voyager: TattooI’m having some trouble summing up the plot of this episode. Here’s the general gist; back when he was 15 and fighting with his dad, because that’s what TV-15-year-olds do, Chakotay and some others of his tribe met some people in a rainforest, who they were related to (speaking the same language and with the same stories of the Sky Spirits). They gave Chakotay’s father a tattoo like the one the older Chakotay has.

Many years later, Voyager finds a planet where the same native American symbols appear, and which throws up a storm every time they try to land or beam down. Then some people with Chakotay’s tattoo turn up. It turns out they are the Sky Spirits, they’re real, they’re aliens and this is where they live. Oh yes, we also find out why Chakotay got his tattoo, to honour his father after he died. This is also why he joined the Maquis. The trouble is, he just tells us all this, without it really having any impact on the plot, such as it is.
TattooSigh. We finally get Chakotay's backstory, and it's New Age Romantic Indian Fluff. First of all, I think there's something racist about the suggestion that all the accomplishments of Native Americans were because they had genetic and cultural influences from outer space. Moreover, I was willing to buy that Chakotay didn't have one discrete tribe because it was possible that by his century, the tribes had begun to intermarry and merge their discrete traditions on planets like Dorvan V. But to learn that he's really some vague mish-mosh of faux legend and culture...what a disappointment.Lynch's Spoiler Review: "Tattoo"As is all too typical in episodes which refer to Chakotay's ancestry, I'm also annoyed at the lack of an actual tribe being named. The more "my tribe this" and "my tribe that" gets mentioned without putting any distinct specifics on, the stronger the feeling becomes that no one wants to take the time to research those specifics and remain true to them. That's annoying, and it strikes me as the cultural equivalent of what Trek's done with biology lately: name the buzzwords without examining the meaning.Rob's review

The first two reviews touch upon perhaps the most serious problem, which happens when Chakotay meets the alien "Sky Spirits." Memory Alpha describes the scene:45,000 years previously the group of beings visited Earth and ran across a group of primitive nomadic humans. Impressed by their respect for the land, the beings gifted the people with a genetic bond. They are the Sky Spirits Chakotay's people have worshiped for countless generations.

The humans lacked language and culture until the aliens gave them the "gift." This also instilled "creativity and a spirit of adventure" in the humans, leading them to cross the planet and eventually to populate the Western Hemisphere. The SF Debris video review explains:So here's Star Trek's message: We have a great respect for the cultures of the Native Americans, and we show this by saying that they were backwards language-less cavemen until they were touched by white men from outer space.Yikes!

Nor was this "message" some sort of thoughtless mistake. As Memory Alpha notes, the writer explicitly intended it:Michael Piller was intensely interested in further developing the narrative. "I'd always been attracted to the idea of the pitch," he said, "which was that Indians have these myths about sky spirits, and a natural extension of that myth was that these could have been travelers from space." (Captains' Logs Supplemental--The Unauthorized Guide to the New Trek Voyages) Piller also reminisced, "I had always had a fondness for [it] [....] The idea always appealed to me that it was part of the Native American lore that sky spirits came down and affected them or blessed them in some fashion." (Cinefantastique, Vol. 28, No. 4/5, p. 88) The opportunity to explore the character of Chakotay was another factor that appealed to Piller. He remarked, "For Chakotay to find evidence of these sky spirits seemed to be the beginning of a terrific personal journey." Piller elaborated, "Here's a man who has lost his faith, and he gets it back through this journey. That's a very interesting thing to write [....] I looked at this as an opportunity to really delve into his character." (Captains' Logs Supplemental--The Unauthorized Guide to the New Trek Voyages)Thus, "Sky Spirits." Because Piller just couldn't resist the ten-thousandth claim that Indians were too primitive to develop civilization without alien help. This condescending idea goes back hundreds of years, to the first explorers of the continent, but Piller found it fresh and interesting.

More problems

Tattoo has other problems besides the racist "ancient astronauts" and the lack of cultural specificity:

  • A stereotypical screeching hawk appears several times and attacks Neelix for no apparent reason.

  • If I understand the story correctly, Chakotay's people left Earth to colonize another world a couple hundred years ago. Twenty-five years ago, Chakotay and his father returned to find the Rubber Tree People, their ancestral tribe, in Central America.

    Okay, but when they find their relatives, these people all have nose ridges like the alien Sky Spirits. Why? Did the aliens impregnate the Indians? Why doesn't Chakotay's group have the nose ridges if they share a common ancestor? And why doesn't anyone comment on this issue? "Hey, these Indians look unnatural. Has anyone tested them? If they have alien DNA, the Sky Spirits must've been real, not a legend."

  • Some reviewers consider Tattoo a decent episode, even above average. I'd say it's bad. In particular, the Native aspects are handled poorly, at best. Only the subplot about the Doctor's infecting himself keeps the episode from being a complete loss.

    For more on the subject, see Star Trek Voyager: Chakotay.

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