Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch

Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Sacred Ground”

“Sacred Ground”
Written by Geo Cameron and Lisa Klink
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
Season 3, Episode 7
Production episode 143
Original air date: October 30, 1996
Stardate: 50063.2

Captain’s log. Voyager has been invited by the Nechani to take shore leave on their world. The Magistrate gives Torres, Kim, Neelix, and Kes a tour of the caves that serve as religious shrines. Kes and Neelix peel off to check out an altar, but it turns out that it’s forbidden to go there unless you’re a monk, and Kes accidentally crashes into an energy field that puts her in a coma.

The EMH has no idea what it is that hit her and can’t even begin the possibility of treatment. Attempts to scan the altar fail, as the monks won’t allow tricorders in the cavern and it’s too far underground for Voyager to scan it from orbit. The Magistrate says that, as far as the Nechani are concerned, Kes is dead. There’s no cure for being hit with that force field. Only the monks can survive it. The Magistrate is abject in his regret and apologies, as he feels responsible, as he let Kes and Neelix wander off.

Neelix is going binky bonkers, so Janeway gives him a task, as much to get him out of the EMH’s hair as anything: go through Nechani history and stories and see if there’s some way to deal with this. Sure enough, Neelix finds an old story of a king whose son did the same thing Kes did. The king underwent the same ritual the monks undergo to be able to enter the chamber and petition the Spirits directly. Janeway petitions the Magistrate to do the same thing as that old king.

The Magistrate is impressed with her ingenuity and puts it to the monks, who accept it. The EMH puts a subcutaneous monitoring device in Janeway to make sure she stays safe during this ritual.

She goes down to the planet and meets a guide. Her uniform is removed and markings are painted on her face and body, and then she’s given a simple one-piece outfit to wear. The guide—who takes Janeway’s tricorder and also says that she has no idea what the ritual will actually entail—then sends her into a waiting room. Sitting there are three older folks, who are also waiting to go into the ritual. They say they’ve been waiting for as long as they can remember.

Not willing to sit around for years waiting to cure Kes (plus, y’know, she’s got a ship to get back to), she goes through a door and finds the guide, who puts her through a whole bunch of tests and rituals and tasks—though from the very beginning, she says it’s meaningless. Janeway does all of it, from holding up a rock for hours on end to rock-climbing to putting her hand in a bag that contains a poisonous animal. The guide eventually puts her in what looks like a coffin for a bit, and she comes out no longer poisoned.

Back on Voyager, Chakotay is concerned about Janeway’s safety, but the EMH assures him that she’s healthy enough, plus he’s getting data that may be useful in curing Kes.

Janeway finally is able to petition the spirits, but they say that her request is inconsequential, because Janeway has all the information she needs to cure Kes. The guide gives her back her uniform, and she beams back up to Voyager.

The EMH thinks the animal bite is the key, and he uses the biological data from Janeway’s bloodstream to re-create it and inject it into Kes. But it doesn’t cure her—it makes her worse, in fact—and the EMH is forced to conclude that Janeway’s entire ordeal was meaningless.

Having heard that word also from the mouth of the guide, Janeway returns to the planet. It turns out that she wasn’t just being vague and metaphorical when she said that the rituals were meaningless. She just underwent them because she believed that that was what she was supposed to do. When Janeway admits that she has no idea what to expect, then the guide sends her back to the waiting room with the three crotchety old farts. They tell her that she needs to not rely on science so much and to take a leap of faith, to take Kes through the force field and believe that she will be cured.

Janeway has Kes beamed down and carries her into the altar. She wakes up and both of them are unharmed by the force field.

Returning to the ship, the EMH explains how Kes must have been cured with a bunch of technobabble, which Janeway tunes out.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Janeway is told that she has to let go of her faith in science in order to cure Kes which comes about through means that are totally scientific. Sure.

There’s coffee in that nebula! So conditioned is Janeway to the clichés of television that she has to go through various mental and physical regimens in order to be worthy of petitioning the spirits that that’s what she goes through, but it’s solely due to her expectations, not because that stuff actually helps.

Half and half. Torres and Kim are seriously pissed off when the Nechani’s response to Kes falling into a coma is to give her up for dead.

Mr. Vulcan. When Janeway first beams down to start the ritual, Tuvok gives her a phaser, which she declines. I get where Tuvok’s coming from, but Janeway’s refusal was 100% the right attitude for someone asking a favor from a newly contacted alien species.

Everybody comes to Neelix’s. Neelix uses his mad research skillz (I didn’t know he had them, either) to dig up the old story of the king who begged the spirits to save his son.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH is a calming presence both with Neelix stressing over Kes’s health and Chakotay stressing over Janeway’s.

Do it.

“Mr. Neelix, you’re wallowing.”

“I’m wallowing?”

“In useless remorse. I’ll have to ask you to stop. It’s bad for the patient.”

–The EMH speaking for an entire audience to Neelix while he’s hovering over Kes in sickbay.

Welcome aboard. Becky Ann Baker is delightful as Janeway’s guide, and Estelle Harris, Keene Curtis, and Parley Baer are equally delightful as the old farts in the waiting room.

But the big guest is the brilliant Harry Groener in his second of three Trek roles as the Magistrate, having already been brilliant as Tam Elbrun in TNG’s “Tin Man,” and who will be brilliant again in the Enterprise two-parter “Demons”/”Terra Prime” as Nathan Samuels.

Trivial matters: Just as TNG and DS9 was supportive of actors taking their turn in the director’s chair, so too did Voyager, starting with Robert Duncan McNeill this episode. Like Jonathan Frakes before him (and Roxann Dawson after him), McNeill will parlay this directing opportunity on the Trek show he starred on to become a very in-demand TV director, which will supersede his acting career. McNeill will go on to direct three more Voyager episodes (“Unity,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “Body and Soul”) as well as four episodes of Enterprise.

Ironically, he only had the opportunity because Frakes had to pull out of directing it because he was tapped to helm the movie First Contact.

This is the last of the four episodes that were produced during the second season for budgetary reasons but intended to be aired in the third (along with “Basics, Part II,” “Flashback,” and “False Profits“). It is, therefore, the last episode that lists Michael Piller as one of the executive producers. Though it is the last of the four aired, it was the first of the four that was produced.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Set a course for home. “You do realize that all of this is meaningless.” It’s been a while since an episode of a TV show made me actively angry, but this episode managed it. My anger at least partly stems from our current nightmare dealing with COVID-19, but in general this script’s embracing of tossing aside science is revolting.

One of the hallmarks of Star Trek is its rationalism, though rarely as a substitute for faith. Worf and Kira (to give two examples) could still be very spiritual, could still have faith in their particular beliefs, but it didn’t make them idiots who rejected science, and it didn’t put them at odds with characters who were not spiritual.

In “Sacred Ground,” though, the entire episode is built toward getting Janeway to cast aside her “belief” in science, to take a leap of faith instead.

Here’s the thing: science isn’t a belief. The stupid and dangerous notion that science is a matter of belief and faith is why there are idiots walking around right now not wearing masks even though there’s a virulent pandemic floating around in the air.

Faith is about believing in something regardless of the evidence, and that faith is generally unchanging. Science is about examining evidence and about adjusting as new evidence comes in. The two have nothing to do with each other, and also aren’t mutually exclusive. (Plenty of scientists have been deeply religious. Hell, I learned biology in high school from a nun, and the intricacies of biology and evolution just made her believe more in a supreme deity.)

Watching this episode, I was reminded of the words of Tim Minchin from his spoken-word song/poem “Storm“: “Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic.”

Supposedly, this episode is about Janeway casting off her preconceived notions and embracing the unknown, but while the first part of that works—I love that she goes through all sorts of clichéd hardships because that’s what she expects from this sort of thing—the second part really doesn’t. Janeway embraces the unknown all the time, it’s the mission statement of the organization she’s dedicated her life to. And she’s also a scientist, someone who gains immense pleasure and satisfaction from learning how things work and how to fix problems and all that.

So to have her just throw that all away because three cranky old farts told her to makes no sense. What makes even less sense is that in the end, the EMH provides an actual scientific explanation for how Kes was cured—and Janeway dismisses it as if it’s unimportant and not sufficiently poetic, and I’m sorry, but no. For Janeway, that’s the cool part!

By providing that explanation, whatever message the episode is trying to haphazardly give is diluted and made, to use a word this script loves, meaningless.

Lisa Klink has been Voyager’s best scripter up to this point, but this one just falls completely apart. It doesn’t even take advantage of Chakotay’s presence, as someone who is spiritual, beyond one brief exchange between the two of them on the subject that doesn’t really go anywhere. This was an opportunity to use Chakotay’s background to good effect for once, and they blew it.

It’s too bad, as there are individual bits that are great. Kate Mulgrew is magnificent as ever, the three old farts are hilarious (though their constant dismissal of Janeway’s rationalism comes across mostly as Luddite nonsense), Becky Ann Baker’s guide is sweet and joyful, and Harry Groener is never not wonderful.

Warp factor rating: 1

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s next Star Trek project was announced last week: he’s one of the contributors to the Star Trek Adventures Klingon Empire Core Rulebook, now available for preorder (print) and download (PDF) from Modiphius. See Keith talk about the new rulebook alongside fellow scribes Derek Tyler Attico and Kelli Fitzpatrick, as well as Jim Johnson, Chris Birch, Nathan Dowdell, and Sam Webb from Modiphius, and special guest, award-winning Trek illustrator Rick Sternbach from the “Day of Honor” event.

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