Thursday, August 25, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager - Banjo, Part 5

Even Starfleet officers tend to think of normal in exactly the kind of why you’d expect. “Normal” is exactly the firsthand experience you grew up with, and everything else is anything but. In theory we’re supposed to have dedicated our lives to exploring, to eradicate once and more all any meaningful definition of “normal”…but the truth is, we’re just as petty as the next guy. We want everything to be identifiable, to be interesting, sure, but in a word, safe. It’s an embarrassing admission, and by no means do I want you to assume it belongs exclusively to yours truly, Walter Baxter, but it’s as universal a truth as you’re likely to find within the ranks of the venerated Starfleet.

I try to look back at its history and try to discover where it all began, and I always fail. I know plenty of people who like to believe that Starfleet began with James T. Kirk, but that’s simply not true. He wasn’t even the original commander of the Enterprise, and I’d say its previous captain, Christopher Pike, had a far more interesting fate, voluntarily stranded amongst telepathic aliens who shaped Pike’s illusions to suit their own aims. Kirk died recently. It’s a little difficult to explain, but I kind of respect it. He gave up a similar delusion he never asked for, in order to save the universe, one last time. It’s probably the only real respectable act of his career, if you ask me. He was always about bravado. He owns the most cherished ego in Starfleet history, but maybe in another life, he was a better man. No, Kirk’s not the place to start. There’s also Jonathan Archer, captain of the original Enterprise, who stumbled his way to helping found the United Federation of Planets, the wider organization Starfleet ended up serving under, inadvertently setting one precedent after another, at a time when humans found very little respect among other cultures, least of all the Vulcans. I’d say maybe that’s when it all began. Vulcans hated us. We decided to like ourselves all the more in return. It’s true humans founded Starfleet, but that doesn’t necessarily explain why they still make up the bulk of the fleet.

No, “normal” means human, the human experience. In a lot of ways, Starfleet is about making everything feel a little more human, even the incredibly alien things. I’m as guilty as the rest of them. Hell, the Maquis were a bunch of Federation colonists who reacted so poorly to the Cardassian War, even though they had blatantly settled near Cardassian space, that they rejected their Federation membership, became rebels, and even managed to recruit from within Starfleet. Now that I’ve set the context, can you really find that so hard to believe? So in many ways, it really wasn’t such a difficult thing to accept those Maquis into the Voyager crew. They weren’t as different as they seemed.

A lot of Starfleet thought is dedicated to its own myth, that its core values interpret “normal” more liberally than most people. Truth is, Starfleet is a conservative organization disguised in liberal language, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because it allows a lot of moderate thinkers to mistakenly embrace it, and thus blur those lines a little. I like to think I’m one of those people, even though I’m constantly battling with myself. Take, for instance, the Ocampan, Kes by name, we took aboard thanks to Mr. D.

Ocampans live for nine years. It’s such an absurdly brief lifespan many of us didn’t believe it when we were first told. That’s the whole point I’ve been trying to reach. I learned a great deal about why they die so young from Banjo Man, that they became so reliant on his assistance that they simply gave up actively participating in their own lives, giving up incredible telepathic abilities in the bargain. A risk-free life is apparently a short one (though a risk-filled one is, too). Some of the other members of the crew learned some of it on their own, and that only added to their dubiousness. I know when Kes actively defended the EMH to me, my first thought was to dismiss her beliefs, simply because her very existence seemed absurd to me.

As I think I’ve noted, a lot of the crew doesn’t entirely respect the holographic doctor we’d been forced to rely on, simply because, technically speaking, he doesn’t exist. He’s just a combination of programming and photons, a personality meant to give the appearance of consciousness. Kes was the first one to champion his existence on any other level. I believed she was spouting nonsense. I knew all about the android Data who’s been serving with Picard for years, but there are plenty of individuals in Starfleet who don’t acknowledge even his right to autonomy, even though he serves aboard the flagship (also called, conveniently enough, the Enterprise); by the time I took the Voyager assignment, life of that kind should have been old hat.

Some of the crew also likes to complain (as does Mr. D!) about all the excursions Janeway likes to take, exploring just like we’re on a regular cruise, which sometimes gets us into trouble, into all kinds of weird situations. We encounter aliens like the Vidiians, and some of us stop believing in an benevolent deity, at least those who believed in one to begin with. The longer I’ve been aboard this ship, the more the captain has me believing in the Starfleet ideal again. What can I say? It seems to be a veritable conspiracy. But then, I know plenty of others for whom the opposite is true. I call them reactionaries. Maybe I really am becoming a better person. I consider Kes “normal.” I’m accepting a lot of things as normal these days. I switched career tracks to security, not out of fear, or self-preservation, but in the hope that we’ll all survive this. I know what people think of me, what my reputation is. I hope to make good.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager - Banjo, Part 4

Being something of an outsider among outsiders, my regular friends aboard ship can be a little tricky to cultivate. I want to keep tabs of everything that’s going on, but I don’t want to seem as I’m just somewhere for the sake of being there. No one wants to be a busybody, and certainly not on a voyage like this. Things are stressful enough as they are. A lot of the crew tends to keep to itself. It doesn’t seem like that should be the case, because it’s a small crew, and we’ve demonstrated in the past that we’ve become quite dedicated to each other, despite certain opportunities that’ve come along that might have allowed those less satisfied than others to seek other opportunities. It might sound to some as I’m talking specifically about Mortimer Harren, here, but I’m actually thinking about Lyndsay Ballard.

Despite being a close personal friend of Harry Kim, Lyndsay is about as visible as the Delaney sisters among the general population. The Delaneys are at least notorious, not just because of Harry and Tom Paris, but because they have the most obvious and personal relationship onboard, and truth be told, more than a few of us have been jealous at various times. Lyndsay, however, is crazy, and I mean that as nicely as possible. She’s the only crew member I know who actually seems to like the Talaxian’s cooking. If you tasted it you’d share my alarm! She’s one of Torres’s many engineers, and is in constant competition with Joe Carey, Vorik, and I don’t know how many others, even Hogan and Jonas, I guess, to somehow impress her, as if they don’t care about Captain Janeway’s opinion. In any other ship, it’s always the captain everyone cares about. Not this one. I can’t figure it out myself.

Lyndsay spends so much time in the Talaxian’s mess hall, we all think she’s in competition with Chell to take it over. I’ve tasted Chell’s cooking. I’d rather take my chances with Lyndsay. We’ve shared replicator rations a few times, and we both prefer an athlete’s diet. What could we possibly lose? Then again, she’s one of the most disorganized people I know, and maybe that’s why her profile is so low, because hardly anyone can stand to be around her long enough to appreciate her potential. She’s so brimming with energy, and has such a positive attitude, I wish she could better understand what she’s capable of accomplishing. I think she would easily fit in with some random alien crew, if any of us ever found ourselves in such a scenario. She could adapt. Here she’s just stifled. Here you either find a specific role, or you risk getting left behind, which again is a little irony that’s lost on few of us.

I might as well spend some time talking about the Talaxian. What an annoying creature! Almost from the moment we were stranded in the Delta Quadrant, we found ourselves saddled with this appalling little alien, who took it upon himself to join our crew and insinuate himself into every conceivable role not previously assigned by regular Starfleet regulations. Thanks a lot, buddy! His name is Neelix, but it should really be Mr. D. I have many things “D” stands for, and none of them are pleasant, and I like to amuse myself by cycling through as many of them as he manages to make apparent during any particular encounter. He’s not really too bad, though. He’s a lot more useful than most of the crew gives him credit for, especially in a predicament like this. He’s a guide where we obviously needed one, even if he’s not the guide anyone would have selected given any real options. I actually kind of like him, to be honest. He’s fearless, not in the ways you ordinarily think about, but in the sense that he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about him. On occasion, we’ve gotten to see a more vulnerable side to him. Let me rephrase that: On very rare occasions…But seriously, I’d like to spend more time with him. I’d also like to see what an airlock looks like on the other side.

Just kidding! Love you, Mr. D.! The plus side is the Ocampan he brought with him, but I will probably talk about her next time. She brings up a lot of complicated matters, not the least of which I’m pretty sure I saw her during my encounter with the Caretaker. Didn’t know anything about that one, did you?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager - Banjo, Part 3

I have to confess I had no real context on how to react to the Maquis when we were first forced together, as many of the Starfleet officers initially considered it. While their own captain gladly acquiesced to Janeway’s ideas, there were others, like Kurt Bendera, who seemed to relish every opportunity at the slightest sign of differences. I knew many of the Maquis had served in Starfleet, either in attending the Academy, or in Chakotay’s case a considerable amount of time in the regular fleet, but like a lot of the people I tended to talk with, I knew them best as the rebels who’d been making Federation policy extremely difficult for the last few years.

Bendera wasn’t an instigator so much as the perfect accomplice. He was more than willing to join in on any fight that might break out. He actively cheered when B’Elanna Torres struck Joe Carey, something that would have led to court martial in a heartbeat, if only we’d been several dozen lightyears closer to home. The one thing I can say about Kurt was that he was a good hand in the Talaxian’s mess hall. Joe had nothing nice to say about him, but I was surprised when Harry Kim of all people came to his defense. Harry had been tangled up in the Caretaker affair a little more directly than most of us, and he shared that experience with Torres, the half-Klingon hothead Janeway made chief engineer. I thought that was it, the only reason Harry would care to be sympathetic, but then I found out he was more experienced with Maquis history than I’d previously suspected. When he was attending the Academy, Harry wrote an editorial for the school paper about the budding Maquis rebellion, something no one else in Starfleet had dared do, or would have been aware of. I’d only heard about them a few months before the Voyager assignment. Like I said, I assumed like everyone else our real mission would be against the Dominion. Voyager itself was more a combat ship than a research vessel. It seems weird to say that now, but I came to appreciate that fact more and more, especially with every clash against the Kazon, the Vidiians, even the weird alien phenomena we seem destined to find at every turn.

Harry knew about all the unrest in the colony worlds. Plenty of us in Starfleet knew all about Cardassians already, with the almost-constant conflict we enjoyed for decades, but few of us could actually be considered veterans with real experience. Harry didn’t have that experience either, obviously, but he was a keen student in almost every regard, and he was a great observer, apparently right from the start. He was probably the first voice to say anything positive about the Maquis, which isn’t to say he was any more comfortable, on the whole, with them aboard his own ship than the rest of us. He was always able to handle it better.

Joe and I, even Hogan, we all had our problems. If it wasn’t Bendera, it was Michael Jonas, or creepy Suder. Seska, ironically, was someone we thought we could trust. How to even begin with her? For starters, she was like to opposite of Tuvok. Neither of them were what they seemed to be, among Chakotay’s Maquis crew. Tuvok was a Starfleet spy. Seska was a Cardassian spy who’d disguised herself as a Bajoran. Try to figure that one out! If anyone has a problem with Chakotay, it’s that he still lets Seska get under his skin. This is a bad thing, because she defected to the Kazon months ago. As if anyone needed another reason to dislike the Kazon! Go wash your hair! Oh, right, those thugs consider water to be a luxury. Figures.

Sometimes I try to imagine how the Maquis considered the Caretaker. Did they find him disguised as a Banjo Man, too? Were they transported to the same illusion as we were? Sometimes I wish I’d gotten Tuvok’s assignment. He couldn’t possibly have enjoyed it. What am I saying! Actually, the more Maquis stories I hear, the more I wish I could have enjoyed it, I really do. Sometimes I think this whole experience is the aftermath of an even greater story, and we’re all just getting a lot of time to process it. How do we even manage? Hardly anyone talks about the Caretaker, except in relation to his mate. Talk about your nightmares! I actually had quite a few of them, but again, I can’t rush into all of that. I’ve got a lot to process myself. Most people take me for something of a goof, the guy who keeps injuring himself in the gymnasium, who’s always up for every challenge, restless, careless, ideally suited for this predicament. I don’t honestly know how much of that’s changed, or if it’s even accurate. The truth is, I’m leery of admitting much. Janeway is a little like that. She doesn’t trust that holographic doctor any more than I do. She’s just better at pretending otherwise. The Ocampan keeps trying to get me to feel otherwise about the EMH, but I saw that program in its development stage. I know what I’m dealing with. Why should I humor it? I know plenty of people on this ship who could transfer to the medical staff, and who I’d trust a great deal more.

I’ve got to end this entry, though. I’ve got some holodeck time. Where did I put that banjo?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager - Banjo, Part 2

One of the first things we all did when we got here, aside from a third of us dying, was be transported to the Caretaker’s array. Most of the crew was thrown for a loop by what we found when we got there, but believe it or not, I’d attended one of those country festivals in my hometown before reporting to Voyager. It was the last “normal” thing I ever did, in fact, normal to me as a regular event in my hometown, anyway, something I always looked forward to, even after enlisting in Starfleet. No matter my assignment, I always managed to make it back home for the Cornhusker’s Rodeo. Most of my family couldn’t muster the same kind of excitement, especially after twenty years living there and experiencing it annually, like clockwork, but I came to accept it as part of my residential identity, which became more important when I found myself surrounded more by stars than farmland.

I entered Starfleet bent on making that kind of impact. Most captains aren’t all that well-known beyond the crews they command, but if I was able to obtain even that kind of profile, I figured I would have been satisfied, and never thought twice about it, until Voyager. It wasn’t until the botched attempt to integrate the Sikarian space-folding trajector that I realized I wanted to switch career fields. Subsequent encounters with the Kazon didn’t help, either. I quickly traded ego for security.

A lot of that thought process had to do with Captain Janeway. I haven’t been too kind to her so far, but there’s a lot to be said for someone who was able to keep this crew together even this long, the fact that she was able to convince a bunch of Maquis to obey her, or rather work with her, when she had no one to support her. A lot of what defines who I am would never have believed any of this was possible, and most of it is because of Janeway.

To start with, she quickly realized that this was an extraordinary mission, even before any of us realized it was anything but ordinary. Her security chief had been placed deep undercover with the Maquis, and her one goal was originally to retrieve him. She chose to facilitate its success by relying on Tom Paris, a Starfleet and Maquis failure who happened to be the son of her mentor. I should have known she’d be uniquely capable of figuring out this situation when she began placing the emphasis on family long before it was necessary. That security chief I just mentioned was a Vulcan named Tuvok, and he just happened to be a longtime friend of Janeway’s. She somehow is able to be objective and subjective at the same time. She still saw potential in Paris. Most of us only saw a bad echo of Nick Locarno, one of the most infamous cadets in Starfleet history.

I’m going to end up sounding like I’m contradicting myself, the more I continue this log, but I guess that’s how we normally experience things. The more I think about it, the more it all makes sense.

I do want to get back to the reception we received at the Caretaker’s array, but there’s so much to say about the family Janeway helped shape. Paris had started on the road to redemption by befriending a green ensign by the name of Harry Kim while awaiting final transport on Deep Space Nine. I had just been talking with the late Lt. Stadi, who had the privilege of escorting Paris to the ship. She told me all about Tom’s more lecherous impulses. She also told me about Harry Kim’s budding career, how he’d graduated top of his class in ship design. He probably knew Voyager better than I did, even though I had several months head start on him.

It’s true that I got to know Joe Carey pretty well, but I could see why Janeway would tend to go with another option for chief engineer given the opportunity. He was a competent engineer, but he was rarely up for a challenge. I should know. I used to care about challenges, before I was overwhelmed by them, before I became a member of the Voyager crew. It takes a special breed to thrive in the way a ship in this position needs. There came a point where everyone was given the chance to leave ship, to settle in a human colony, and word got around to me that a lot of people expected that I would take that chance. And in many ways, I would have done so, in a heartbeat, if only it had been five years earlier, five weeks earlier, five days. I began rethinking everything, you could say, the moment the new crew came together, with its singular mission, to get back home. It sapped my greater instincts, you could say. Where’s the challenge when the most you want out of life is to get back to the familiar?

I know, it sounds ridiculous. We have a long journey ahead of us, with plenty of possibility and danger inherent in that journey. That’s plenty challenge right there. But there’s a difference, I learned, between someone who sets a long-term goal and another person dedicated to the short-term. I’m a short-term kind of guy. I think that’s the difference. Janeway realized her kind of people were long-term. She had that friendship with the Vulcan, the project that was Tom Paris, and even the task of integrating crews that until recently hadn’t seen eye-to-eye in years. We realized we’d need to operate the short-term Emergency Medical Hologram long-term, too! How much metaphorical can you get? To say nothing about the Ocampan girl we took on with the Talaxian. Do you know Ocampans only typically live nine years? What am I saying? Of course you don’t. We’re the first ones to have ever heard of Ocampans, Talaxians, Kazon, Vidiians, Sikarians…In a short time, we’ve already made intimate contact with a record number of new alien races. You’d need a whole set of Xindi to match our record!

The Caretaker though…I think I was among the first to actually encounter him. He appeared as an old man playing a banjo. He reminded me of my own mentor, someone I left behind years ago. To be more accurate, my own Banjo Man died ten years ago, to the day. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this now. I owe it to him, to his memory.