If Deep Space 9 demonstrates how the casting of African American commanders in chief – and their election – may constitute or create a backlash disguised as “progress,” it has implications for other mass-mediated expressions of the heroic fantasy and sci-fi genre, and the ST universe. Star Trek: Voyager and its lone “black” character, the Vulcan Lt. Tuvok, deserve attention. Lt. Tuvok (portrayed by Tim Russ), officially Lt. Commander Tuvok by season 4, joins a long history as the “first” black Vulcan to be featured in a major ST role.
* * *
With the arrival in the 1950s of the Cold War-blessed Civil Rights Movement and the high-profile, globally embarrassing footage of dogs, water hoses, police batons, and white police officers riding their chargers into protestors, the era of unapologetically public and violent white supremacy had reached its conclusion.
Until now. Given the era of Trump and the abyss dividing the nation, a new chapter has begun that threatens to makes patent the real lesson latent in the simple, good-US-democracy vs. evil-USSR-communism binary: Along with the threat of World War III (supercharged by global warming and spiced by pandemics), civil rights progress in a Cold War context unleashes a powerful realpolitik that warps the perceived status quo. As the turmoil following 1954’s Brown decision and the Obama and Trump administrations indicates, the appearance of domestic progress is part of a broader warped binary that lurks just beyond direct public discourse. Focus on the apparent deepening of the traditional liberal-vs.-conservative, integration-vs.-segregation divides distorts reality because, at the same time, liberal/Democrat and conservative/Republican geopolitical interests align in one camp with two tents: America’s Exceptionalists and Progressives. For America-is-Exceptional(ists): Not only did Obama wreak “carnage” or Trump’s approval rating reach historic lows, but the US’s fall in global opinion polls and status as a “backsliding democracy” indicate real-time damage to its brand. For America-is-Progress(ives): Reality contorts, constituting a mix of “progress,” nostalgic backlash, and powerful hegemonic interests quietly engineering new methods of retrogression. The crisis responses by Exceptional(ists) and Progress(ives) are distinct and yet complementary. Geopolitical crises are “social dramas,” argues noted anthropologist Victor Turner, that shift the social fabric, temporarily aligning “mutual . . . interests,” revealing “hidden” but “crucial principles,” and dramatically affecting the “major genres.”1 Exceptional(ists) and Progress(ives) doubled down on the challenged master narrative, when 1954 desegregation and the 1960s Black Arts Movement ushered in a revolutionary new Humanities and, now, when the Obama-vs.-Trump presidencies opened the racial Pandora’s box.
The result? A real-time, realpolitik rewriting of the master narrative, either through Exceptional(ists)’s always-cinematic bravado with its heroes and heroines of a thousand faces, or Progress(ives)’s Orwellian doublethink, their pro-democracy effusions and bemoaning of the-other-elites continually missing the point painfully felt by minorities and the poor. This near-future, dystopian-horror reality directly relates to my current concern: the 1950s/1960s cultural revolution and the cultural backlash, as seen through Gene Roddenberry’s original multicultural Star Trek crew and Star Trek: Voyager’s treatment of Lt. (Cmdr.) Tuvok, a black-skinned Vulcan.
COINTELPRO 101: The New, Warped Humanities
Typically, when we reflect on how 1960s activists eyed the prize of racial equality, it is from the perspective of Dr. King’s and Rosa Parks’ nonviolence, and occasionally Malcolm X’s militancy – seldom from the perspective of those who, today, champion the “Lost Cause” memorialized by Confederate monuments. The irony of this viewpoint is that it represents “progress” and, indubitably, a terrible mistake. Progress, we know too well from the standardized and simplistic textbook narratives, let America “triumph” over its racial demons. That triumph set us on the footpath toward some future equality – in due time and all deliberate speed. We, the People, are One nation, under God . . . always Triumphant. Something like that.
That’s the Cold War narrative, a moral arc ever-progressing toward a post-racial miracle that culminated in the election of Barack Hussein Obama. Because the Obama-led progress collapsed so precipitously and traumatically for many undocumented people, victims of US drone strikes and police brutality, and believers in “Change,” Progress(ives) should now admit their terrible mistake. It is the mistake of ignoring or not-knowing what happened to that Cold War-dispersed virulent white supremacy, or the police-dispersed Black Arts/Power activists who birthed a new Humanities curriculum. Did the mistake dry up like an albino raisin in the sun? Was it inked out of existence with a flourish of Lyndon B. Johnson’s executive magic? Danced away with the international rage of 1970s disco and its multi-chromatic, spinning balls? Did the nation, as Nancy Reagan urged, “Just say ‘no’?”
While the answer to these questions was an emphatic “Yes!” for many, the mistake occurs when proponents of racial equality confuse amplified minority-progress reports for the real cultural politics that obtain in the nation. Science fiction (and speculative fiction) is important here – Star Trek’s tele-verse, in particular – because it envisions humanity’s future and represents the mass-scaled modes of cultural production that explore other-world possibilities. Sci-fi’s also a peculiar version of a new Humanities that, I argue, is the incredibly sophisticated product of the 1950s-1960s’ Cold War-era white supremacist, liberal-Eurocentrist adaptation. Sci-fi is perhaps most symbolic as an underappreciated, futuristic form of this new Humanities that anticipates modern technologies. Moreover, sci-fi and superhero cinematic representations are among the few forms that can compete with new technologies arriving daily at the doorsteps of our lives to capture our imaginations. When you add to this racial surveillance – a long-standing fact of African American literature as old as Thomas Jefferson’s discrediting of Phillis Wheatley as a poet in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), and as comprehensive as J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of African American writers from 1919 to 19722 – you have the makings of a very unhealthy regime comprised of (c)overt white supremacists, Exceptional(ists), and Progress(ives).
None of this is surprising. Long before the Cold War, surveillance operated as root logic, from the earliest days of the colonial-plantation project – incorporated into the Constitution by the founders/framers, practiced by slave patrollers, planted by plantation owners among the enslaved – to J. Edgar Hoover’s twentieth-century ministrations. Writers like Richard Wright in “FB Eyes” (1949), a blues poem, and scholars like Frances Stonor Saunders in the The Culture Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999), William Maxwell in FB Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (2015), Eric Bennett in Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writers During the Cold War (2015), and Annie Levin’s “How Creative Writing Programs De-Politicized Fiction” (2022), most recently, collectively narrate how writers were spied on, US literature and criticism was shifted away from social realism to a more apolitical modernism, creative writing programs became factories of Cold War craft, and the US exported this aesthetic ideology abroad. “A growing group of [international] scholars,” according to Bennett, are now “asking: How much were writers warped and coerced?”3 Journalists have routinely shown that state, regional, and federal (FBI and CIA) law enforcement officials have infiltrated the Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, and other movements.
I have personally taught upper-level ethnic studies classes and had to ask myself, with conservative majority and minority students in mind, “Why are you here?” And what should I make of a white-female student in one of my African American literature survey courses, an absolutely brilliant reader of my tracing of epical realism – basically, how epic and racial performance undergird exceptionalism – in contexts and literary texts from the antebellum to the present? She absorbed the material, expressed interest in majoring in ethnic studies (which she did), and then . . . nothing. If I’d sparked this burning interest in an ethnic studies major, is it possible for her to never have any communications with me afterwards? So I wonder. . . .
The writing is on the wall for professors’ classes like mine, ethnic studies scholars striving for equality in – and often against – a deep (red) state: We – literary and cultural studies-oriented people like myself, that is, have been training the enemy. Call it, perhaps, COINTELPRO in the classroom. COINTELPRO 101. While the core Humanities has been in marked decline for decades, starting at about the same time as the birth of the Black Studies programs, a new, Warped Humanities has emerged based not on ink-to-paper writers alone but, increasingly, on screenwriters versed in the languages of the new (entertainment) technologies.
Trekking Multiculturalism: From Roddenberry’s 1960s Enterprise to DS9 and Voyager
It is this surveillance-steeped, racially attuned Warped Humanities and its future ironies that constitute the mistake I’ve been writing toward. It’s remarkably insidious, particularly because so much sci-fi content is marketed to children – and so little activism (and education) addresses the particular problem posed by the Warped Humanities. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is a prime-directive example, a cult favorite from Baby Boomers to the newest generation (like my son), many of whom harbor a desire to act out their dreams of being on the USS Enterprise. Who doesn’t want to have a Star Trek cameo, to at least be the red-shirt-typecast character who is offed because they are a red (wearer)? The 1960s genesis of Roddenberry’s multicultural enterprise continues through scores of movies – successful big-screen runs for two series – and multiple pioneering series culminating, arguably, in Star Trek: Discovery, a serial that features an African American female lead, even though she’s the first officer, not the captain.
Star Trek’s pilot episodes, starting with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (aired Sept. 22, 1966), are cautionary tales – warnings about what could happen when a mortal acquires infinite power – in which the heroic derring-do of Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is clearly overshadowed. “Roddenberry’s multicultural, anti-militarism, Vietnam War-era ideals are hailed today, but Star Trek, the official story goes, failed with its network audience. This official story is early evidence of warping. Roddenberry’s ideals and equally important lessons were similarly muted, according to Nichelle Nichols, in her autobiography, Beyond Uhura.4 Uhura, a Swahili word meaning “freedom” (Nichols’s choice), was created by Roddenberry to be one of the “big four” characters. Roddenberry’s early scripts demonstrated “Gene’s intention to build stories around an ensemble of basically equal characters,” but NBC, holding to serial formulas that featured a star, co-star, and supporting cast, rejected his forward thinking. There was apparently considerable tension between Roddenberry’s visionary control over Star Trek – an integrated starship, Federation mandates against cultural interference, preference for nonviolent solutions, and “IDIC[,] Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” – and the network’s editorial authority over the scripts right from the start, because of the casting of Nichols. Roddenberry imagined Uhura as a “strong, independent black woman” of the twenty-third century, but the networks continually reduced her role with cuts of Roddenberry’s original scripts. Nichols experienced the diminished roles throughout the first year of Star Trek, but had to endure constant racial antagonism as well from the network and production studio personnel. The final indignity that concretized her decision to quit came when she met two mailroom employees, by chance, and they sheepishly admitted that her mail was being withheld by the network, except for some small portion: “‘You don’t get your fan mail. We have stacks – bags! – of letters for you. Yours is the only fan mail that matches [William] Shatner’s or [Leonard] Nimoy’s.’” Days later she visited the mailroom, and saw “boxes and bags of mail from all over the country, from adults and children, all colors, all races.” This led Nichols to tender her resignation, and reject Roddenberry’s fervent plea for her to remain and not let the network “win.”
Nichols remained only after fate intervened, in the form of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, that very weekend at a Hollywood fundraiser. Introduced as a “big fan” – a Trekker or Trekkie in today’s terms – of Star Trek’s Uhura, he urged her to remain. Nichols was a “role model” not just for black females, Dr. King stressed, but “for everyone.” So, she couldn’t quit.5 Nichols rescinded her resignation that very next Monday, and went on to become a defining icon of Star Trek, but at what cost? Was her presence, the dignified taste of diversity without its substance, the fast-production menu future ST writers would replicate and serialize?
Since then, Star Trek has achieved global, cult status as the “Trekkie”/“Trekker” phenomenon and morphed into an industrial form often antithetical to Roddenberry’s original measured-heroic, multicultural vision. Seemingly, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager both upheld Roddenberry’s anti-racist, female-empowered vision by featuring, respectively, Avery Brooks (an African American) as Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko and Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway. Notwithstanding the ostensibly progressive casting, the Warped Humanities irony operates in both series, ingeniously beaming a subtle, but powerful and consistent, racist sub-structure into the imaginary.
Cmdr. Sisko is in command, no doubt, but is an oddity among the leads in the Star Trek serials. Rewatch the Deep Space 9 episodes, doing your own racial coding homework just as I have with my son, and you will see what I mean. Cmdr. Sisko is seldom vindicated as the most capable commaner, and is never as intellectually capable as Dax and Dr. Bashir or heroic as Maj. Kira Nerise). The implication – read from the white supremacist’s take on affirmative action – is that he’s the “commander, alright, but not really deserving of the post.” The representation of his son, Jake Sisko (portrayed by Cirroc Lofton), makes this genetic, racial character of Deep Space 9 even more evident.
Actually, although I lacked the critical insight to discern this when I originally followed the airings of Deep Space 9 episodes, I had an epiphany years later that transported my Deep Space 9 understanding to another galaxy. This happened in 2011 as I read K. W. Jeter’s Warped (1995), the first Deep Space 9 novel to be released in hardcover. Jeter’s novel is a prime mark for critical examination of the Warped Humanities and racial irony, for it interlaces two post-colonial universes: Deep Space 9’s science-fictional post-coloniality featuring the planet Bajor, a former Kardassian colony now under the protection of the Federation-controlled Deep Space 9 station, which the Kardassians built; and vestiges of actual post-coloniality implied by the novel’s antagonist, McHogue, whose Irish-styled surname invokes British colonialism. Jeter weaves the two post-colonialities together around Cmdr. Sisko, an African American, as the dust jacket summary explains:
Jeter concocts a gripping tale that pits Commander Sisko against the most dangerous foe he has ever faced. As the story opens, political tensions on Bajor are once again on the rise, and the various factions may soon come to open conflict. In addition, a series of murders on the station have shaken everyone on board. While Security Chief Odo investigates the murders, Commander Sisko finds himself butting heads up against a new religious faction. . . .
Odo soon traces the murders to a bizarre and dangerous new form of holosuite technology – a technology that turns its users into insane killers and that now has Commander Sisko’s son Jake in its grip. As the situation deteriorates on Bajor, Sisko learns that the political conflict and the new holosuites are connected. They are both the work of a single dangerous man with a plan that threatens the very fabric of reality.
The plot is darker than anything Sisko has faced before, and to defeat it, he must enter the heart of a twisted, evil world that threatens to overtake the station. It’s a world where danger lurks in every corner and death can come at any moment – from the evil within Sisko himself, from his closest friends, or even at the hands of his own son.6 (italics mine)
The italicized material brings the quote full circle, as its writer very astutely leaves two equally plausible readings: One, based on the literal plot, that McHogue is “the most dangerous foe,” but the other – the warped racial irony – indicates that this “foe” is none other than “the evil within Sisko himself, or even . . . his own son.” To defeat this, the synopsis indicates, Sisko “must enter the heart” – here, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Congo of central Africa, strikes me as clearly implied – “of a twisted, evil world.” Again, this should literally be read to mean McHogue’s holosuite, a rich Deep Space 9 plot masterfully crafted by Jeter. However, it should also be understood, ironically, as code indicating that Conrad’s heart of “evil” darkness exists “within Sisko himself, or even . . . his own son.” This is substantiated in Warped as Kai Opaka tells Cmdr. Sisko, in Judeo-Christian terms thinly veiled, that she’d seen through the “external manifestation of this evil’s consequences”: “This being you call McHogue – he is an ancient enemy, one who wears this man’s face as a mask, the better to deceive those who see only with their eyes and not with their hearts.”7 The unique blend of seemingly incompatible material – fundamental Judeo-Christian “evil” discourse with Star Trek sci-fi, seasoned with racialized sub-narratives – is explained in part by Jeter’s author bio. He is, the dust jacket notes, the “author of over twenty science fiction, fantasy and thriller novels, including . . . the STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE novel BLOODLETTER. . . . By the time you read this, he and his wife will also have returned to God’s country, specifically Portland, Oregon.”8
Moreover, astute readers of Nixon’s “law and order” and Reagan’s “War on Drugs” dog-whistle, eagle-eye9 campaigns will easily recognize how Jake Sisko is racially positioned. He is one of the “users” held in the “grip” of the “holosuite technology,” meaning nothing other than the warped fact that he – the black son of the black commander – is an addict. While the typically American prosecutorial prejudice of disproportionately zeroing in on the black[ened] criminal is no doubt operative, Warped is nevertheless substantively distinct in a way that merits special attention. Yes, Deep Space 9 provides the imaginary visuals, but the governing order is our very real post-1960s enabled “color-blind” environment, a warped time when a states’ rights civil war still struggles against integration born of geopolitical interests and massively mediated image control. For the pre-Trump white supremacist, it was literally harder than ever to be patently racist at the same time that an African American commander held the highest place in the Deep Space 9 galaxy, space being the symbolic domain of white exploration, pioneering, and sublime technology. In other words, exceptional figures like Commander Sisko, and all African Americans who challenge racism, could not be directly attacked, although the warped reality is that they were subject to more insidious attention.
If Deep Space 9 demonstrates how the casting of African American commanders in chief – and their election – may constitute or create a backlash disguised as “progress,” it has implications for other mass-mediated expressions of the heroic fantasy and sci-fi genre, and the ST universe. Star Trek: Voyager and its lone “black” character, the Vulcan Lt. Tuvok, deserve attention. Lt. Tuvok (portrayed by Tim Russ), officially Lt. Commander Tuvok by season 4, joins a long history as the “first” black Vulcan to be featured in a major ST role. Tuvok/Russ also joins Cmdr. Sisko as “progress”: Voyager’s creator-writers, equipped with post-civil rights-era forms of expression, insights, and methodologies, masterfully deployed the racist ironies of the Warped Humanities. Specifically, discourse created by Black/ethnic studies and feminism underpins the role of Lt. Tuvok, a dark-skinned Vulcan, in Voyager, which is feminist, multicultural, and intergalactic in ways so obvious that a racial subtext would seem delusional. Captained by a white female science-action dynamo (Capt. Kathryn Janeway) and helmed by a white male rebel-type (Lt. Tom Paris), the crew features a First Nations commander (Cmdr. Chakotay), a hybrid Latina/Klingon (Lt. B’elanna Torres), a Korean American (Ens. Harry Kim), two Delta Quadrant aliens (a Talaxian chef and guide, Neelix, and his romantic interest, a blond-haired and blue-eyed Ocampan, Kes), and a medical hologram (the Doctor).
Literary irony works most brilliantly in this regard, with Voyager creators co-opting the viewers’ common-sense interpretations of stock situations, characters, and themes to slide their own subtext(s) into the narrative. Lt. Tuvok’s treatment is hard to discern in the first season, but do the racial coding for Voyager, attuned to him, and it becomes clear that his trajectory follows the fate of Nichols’s Lt. Uhura. Spock, Roddenberry’s half-Vulcan, half-human multicultural icon, is endearing to Trekkies as an emblem of surpassing logical superiority, but Tuvok’s dark-skinned Vulcanness and logic are continually eroded beginning with the pilot episode. While Capt. Janeway, a former science officer, is peerlessly brilliant, there are episodes devoted to the ingenuity of all the major cast members, not excluding the Doctor. Tuvok is never in such a position until the end of the first season, a fact that relegates him to a tertiary status, despite his close relationship to Capt. Janeway and place as “tactical officer” on the bridge. His logic is often portrayed as overly cautious and, worse, as simply a faulty, uncreative way of reading the situation.
The regularity with which Capt. Janeway brusquely rejects his “logic” leads one to wonder why she’d value him as her tactical officer in the first place. His decision-making is considered so problematic in “Resolutions” (season 2, episode 25), as he follows Capt. Janeway’s order, that he literally confronts a mutinous crew led by Ens. Harry Kim. As “commander in chief,” albeit temporarily, the Voyager creators make his brief command an unequivocal failure, except for his agreement to follow the counsel of Ens. Kim after the latter, in a remarkable show of insubordination fraught with racial angst, has a face-to-face showdown with Tuvok.
In short, Lt. Tuvok is a foil who is, at best, a “Captain Obvious” to be ignored, or a Lt. Arrogant whose opinion – delivered in the grandiose rhetoric as is his wont – is simply wrong. He is a foil, indeed, but far more insidious is his object status because no one’s the wiser: As a walking, talking farcical contradiction, Lt. Tuvok literally moves to and voices the racial whimsy of the Voyager creative company. They have free rein, racially, to go where no one has gone before, far beyond Deep Space 9’s wormhole-based post-coloniality and into the distant Delta Quadrant. Given life by Russ under the Voyager creators’ direction and warped irony, Lt. Tuvok is a real-world, television-based lab specimen onto which, under the premise of sci-fi multiculturalism, various centuries-long, race-based ideas and practices, and futuristic forms of racial experimentation, can be injected and projected.
Stardate 496555.2: Enter Tuvix, Enter Miscegenation
“O starless night, of boundless black . . .”
– Vulcan funeral dirge, performed by Neelix
As interracial relations has been one of the most vexed spaces in the American racial imaginary, there is little wonder that the focus of Voyager’s warped irony appears in a spring-time episode that covertly explores miscegenation under the guise of a transporter accident. I do not recall watching “Tuvix” (season 2’s episode 24) when it aired on May 6, 1996, but after I watched it again in May 2017, the anti-miscegenation plot and mistreatment of Lt. Tuvok were disturbingly evident. In “Tuvix,” it is Stardate 496555.2, and Tuvok and Neelix are on an alien planet collecting flora samples. During their return to the Voyager, the specimens cause a transporter malfunction. The alien orchids’ form of sexual reproduction, a merging known as “symbiogenesis” that takes place in lieu of pollination, is the culprit. Gone in a transporter instant are Tuvok and Neelix, two crew members with their own separate lives and responsibilities; and born in that same instant – from a “minor glitch,” Lt. Torres reports, “in the molecular imaging scanner” [2:30]10 – is an orchid-made hybrid humanoid. The humanoid, who opts to call himself “Tuvix” (Tuvok + Neelix), has no fault in this, and represents a blending of the best qualities of two antithetical personalities. This hybrid Tuvix would not have had a chance to demonstrate his superiority if the process could have simply been reversed, but the crew does not know the cause, and then, after it identifies the orchid (thanks to Tuvix), needs time to determine how to reverse-engineer the process.
There’s much to discuss about this episode’s racial substance, but the form of presentation is noteworthy because “Tuvix” is unique among the episodes. In IMDB, “Tuvix” comes with an extended synopsis/commentary – unattributed11 – meant to frame our reading, which I quote in pertinent part:
This is a tale about a transporter incident in which the disparate bodies and minds of opposing characters Tuvok and Neelix are fused together into a third man . . . known as Tuvix.
The fact that the result is truly a third man is the precise moral dilemma that this episode tackles. Should this third man supplant both Neelix and Tuvok? Or should he be removed in order to bring those men back to their own beings? . . .
Writers Andrew Shepard Smith and Mark Greenberg create an episode deserving of an award with this “Star Trek: Voyager” morality play which examines some of the deepest and darkest elements of individuality, coexistence and morality. Not just the writers deserve credit for this excellent episode. . . . Further, veteran actor Tom Wright, with considerable assistance from director Cliff Bole and teleplay writer Kenneth Biller, takes viewers deeper into the characters of Neelix and Tuvok than either Tim Russ as Tuvok or Nathan Phillips as Neelix had yet been able to do. Tuvix becomes a popular man aboard Voyager, with his most memorable quote coming as he is beseiged in the mess hall and asked on what authority he orders them all out: “As Chief of Security or as Head Chef, take your pick! Out, out!” Wright’s interpretation of the material results in an absolutely stunning character, a true “fusion” of Neelix and Tuvok, and his aggressiveness in the role demonstrates not only his versatility as an actor, but an apparent deep understanding of “Star Trek” ideals.
The ugly underside of this episode is its exploration of the death penalty. Tuvix exists for weeks as . . . [the crew attempts] to bring back Tuvok and Neelix separately. In the process, Tuvix ingratiates himself to many of the crew, including Neelix’s squeeze, Kes. But the separate persons, Tuvok and Neelix, are not forgotten, and it is discovered that the only way for those men to be returned to Voyager is to essentially “execute” Tuvix. The unique “Star Trek: Voyager” [creative team members] . . . all end up examining not just the morality of capital punishment, but its definition. Is Tuvix, as an individual, in being fully halved so as to revive the two individuals, Tuvok and Neelix, an innocent victim of the crew’s desire for its familiar colleagues, or is the elimination of Tuvix worth those colleagues’ return? Is it an execution? Does Janeway commit capital punishment? If so, why? Why aren’t other solutions sought? Why isn’t it simply accepted that Tuvok and Neelix are dead, but that they live, and quite illustriously so, within Tuvix?12 (emphases mine)
The IMDB synopsis/commentary above, by virtue of its length and iteration of certain motifs, invites academic discussion on the moral dilemmas of technology, the value of life, and capital punishment – but Tuvix is not guilty of any offense. In fact, he calls his fate “murder” as he desperately pleads to the stony-faced crew and Capt. Janeway, the final and supreme judge. Because there is no crime, capital punishment should not be a motif. Nevertheless, capital punishment, a curious insertion in the synopsis, anticipates another equally odd detail: “Tuvix ingratiates himself to many of the crew, including Neelix’s squeeze, Kes.”
“Squeeze?” Squeeze, as deployed here, is slang that alludes to inappropriate sexual advances. The Oxford English Dictionary denotation, “A close friend, esp. a girlfriend or lover; a sweetheart . . . slang (chiefly N. Amer.),” draws upon black vernacular: “squeeze, close friend, favorite female lover or companion,” as defined in Edith A. Folb’s Runnin’ Down Some Lines: The Language and Culture of Black Teenagers.13 Since Tuvix is the sum of Tuvok/Neelix, his interest in Kes is both reasonable (in Vulcan terms) and to be emotionally expected (in Neelix’s). But the synopsis/commentary writer’s sudden injection of the hip idiom “squeeze” disrupts synoptic objectivity in a context demanding rhetorical sobriety. Instead, a hip, mainstream expropriation of black English vernacular – “squeeze” –implies miscegenation and sexual violation together.
Voyager: Ancient Greece’s Odysseus and Nymphs in the Delta Quadrant?
What is going on? As indicated by “squeeze,” far more than what is officially presented. Thanks to the “fabulous makeup department at Paramount” and “considerable assistance from director Cliff Bole and teleplay writer Kenneth Biller,” and the images of the three relevant actor/characters below, it is readily apparent.14
On the one hand, visually, you have the pre-Tuvix given. Lt. Tuvok is – much as Russ’s phenotype dictates – a Vulcan descendant of whatever “race” passes for Earth’s African American equivalent. Kes is more or less a blond-haired, blue-eyed pixie who is totally Nordic but for her barely noticeable Ocampan ear shape, while Neelix is a spotted, blond-haired Talaxian who is “white” by modern European/American standards – notwithstanding his red pupils. They join the Voyager crew as a couple from the outset, which is by design. As Stephen Edward Poe indicates in Star Trek: Voyager – A Vision of the Future (1998), the Voyager creators first conceived of Kes as a “mayfly,” literally an insect, and guide through the Delta Quadrant. Eventually, Kes was paired with a second mayfly character, Neelix.15 But the mayfly is an ancient ironic figure, for mayfly youths are known as nymphs or naiads, terms that parallel Nymphs or Naiads of Greek mythology, the beautiful young demi-goddesses or demi-gods of nature known for their joyful song and dance. Neelix and Kes are Talaxian and Ocampan, literally, but also double as Greco-European aliens who guide Voyager. Here, one must think of Odysseus’s long-lost ship, albeit with a feminist reimagining of Homer’s nymphs and sirens, an analog in keeping with how some scholars see Capt. Janeway as a female Odysseus.16 Kes and Neelix are ostensibly second-tier main characters, in part because of their eccentricity, but their secondary role as Delta Quadrant guides is underpinned by a much deeper significance: As mythological icons, together these cultural guides anchor Voyager to European cultural roots, Homer’s Odyssey in particular. These Google images visually establish the normativity of their relationship in terms that clearly speak to the series’ targeted viewership.
On the other hand, the episode introduces a new identity, portrayed by Wright, another actor of African descent: a dark-haired, dark-skinned Talaxian, officially represented by the image shown here. So what “Tuvix” presents, as a “morality play” or another genre, is a visual/ideological/racial dilemma the synopsis/commentary writer clearly alludes to using warped irony: Would and should Kes be the “squeeze” of Tuvix, a mulatto Talaxian?
This question represents the unstated, ironic premise of the “Tuvix” episode, and guides the creative touches of the plot, right from the opening as it turns out. The naturally ebullient Neelix, down on the planet with Tuvok to collect flora, attempts to loosen up the Vulcan and the mood by singing an impromptu Vulcan song, “O starless night, of boundless black …” [1:48]; a dirge because it is the most cheerful song he can find in Vulcan culture. This anthropological non sequitur – Neelix’s behavior is illogical since humor translates poorly between cultures – literally denigrates Tuvok as a cultural representative and, by foreshadowing death, plants the seeds of what Martinique-born, anti-French-colonialism psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon would call black “phobia,” specifically “negrophobia.” Addressing white men’s Jewish phobia and negrophobia in Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) (1952; 1967, in English), Fanon frames the way in which Tuvix enters this episode:
Projecting his desires onto the Negro, the white man behaves “as if” the Negro really had them. When it is a question of the Jew, the problem is clear: He is suspect because he wants to own the wealth or take over the positions of power. But the Negro is fixated at the genital; or at any rate he has been fixated there. Two realms: the intellect and the sexual. An erection on Rodin’s Thinker is a shocking thought. One cannot decently “have a hard on” everywhere. The Negro symbolizes the biological danger; the Jew, the intellectual danger.17
An irony of ironies since Nimoy, the first Vulcan, was Jewish, Tuvix is “fixated” in “two different spheres,” akin to a black Jew, in all the ways Fanon excavated almost seventy years ago; the transporter accident perfectly fuses these different spheres, the result being an Orientalized self. Consider these two early exchanges, the one immediately below being Tuvix’s first meaningful interaction with Kes, which occurs in the Science Lab as she conducts a more thorough examination of him. It begins, quite pointedly, when she asks him, “Do you feel as if you’re thinking with two minds, two separate minds?” [8:37] (italics mine). Thoughtfully, but with a hint of pique, he retorts that if she means to imply that he has some sort of “multiple personality disorder” [8:48], he doesn’t think so:
Tuvok/Neelix: I seem to have a single consciousness. You must find me very odd, Kes.
Kes: No, of course not. Try to keep still.
Kes, being professionally brusque and detached as if he were a total stranger, walks away to a console.
Kes: So, what shall I call you? [9:08]
Tuvok/Neelix: Ah . . . a name!
Tuvok/Neelix: I hadn’t thought of that. What an intriguing question. I can see why the Doctor’s finding it so difficult to choose one. A name can have a significant effect upon
CUT TO: Kes
Tuvox/Neelix (voiceover): a person’s sense of identity.
Tuvox/Neelix: Ah, I got it. . . .”
Kes (excitedly): What?
Tuvok/Neelix: Why don’t you call me . . . “Neevok.”
CUT TO: Kes, who seems to hesitate.
Tuvok/Neelix: this is better. How about . . . “Tuvix”?
Kes: “Tuvix” it is?
Tuvix: I’m so glad you’re here to help me through this, sweetie.
CUT TO: Kes (quickly looks up, disturbed).
Tuvix: I’m sorry, it was instinct.
CUT TO: Kes (silent), obviously upset after this exchange.
Tuvix’s dual threat as both “intellectual” and “instinct[ual]” reinforces Fanon’s analytic. Kes silently vetoes “Neevok” because it foregrounds Neelix; but “Tuvix,” an acceptable name, privileges Tuvok and insinuates “cervix” – “sweetie.” Kes’s reaction to Tuvix’s “instinct” reprises Fanon: “An erection on Tuvok the Thinker is a shocking thought.”
Along with Fanon, the dialogue I italicized – Kes’s “two minds, two separate minds” and Tuvix’s “single consciousness” – will remind many readers of W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic articulation of “double-consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the tension between “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Du Bois explains that this double-consciousness arose in his distant youth when his “visiting-card,” a romantic gesture, was “peremptorily” rejected by one of his white female classmates.18 Kes rehearses this moment, her query about his “two minds” and his statement that she must find him “odd” together echoing the existential question Du Bois situates in the first paragraph of his narrative: “How does it feel to be a problem? they say,”19 meaning that “they” – other whites – find him “odd” as the first black Harvard University PhD recipient. An “odd” specimen to examine.
Du Bois’s psycho-social conceptualization anticipates Fanon’s psychoanalysis, which explored the role of popular culture as a colonizing tool. Just as Fanon posited negrophobia as racism rooted in the biological – albeit a projection of white-male libido, not a reality – Tuvix’s use of “sweetie” is, by his own confession, an instance of “instinct.” To make too much of this now and claim it as definitive Fanonian logic is to put the “cart before the mule” – or, more appropriately, “before the mulatto.” Considered a hybrid human, mulattoes were much feared/despised and desired in America’s past and present. As biracial figures they bridged the impassable racial gulf, stoking racial fears, but also represented jazzy fusions of “race” whose appearance and abilities often trumped notions of white purity as superiority. Indeed, blueblood white males of the nineteenth century couldn’t get enough of the quadroon and octoroon mulattas, who became contest figures in a high-stakes racial chess duel that burdened biracial people especially. Though often alienated from the black community, they were seized upon by anti-racism activists as proof of the fallacy of racial purity (hence the “tragic mulatto/a” trope of African American literature from William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter  up into the Harlem Renaissance), and demonized by hysterical proponents of white purity who policed white desire for such mulatta/os. Transporting Fanon’s negrophobia – white-male desire projected onto blacks – to Tuvix, a black mulatto, makes total sense here.
Talaxian “Sex”: Tuvix’s Black/Mulatto Desire
Tuvix’s mulatto “instinct” calls into question those “‘Star Trek’ ideals” referenced by the synopsis/commentary writer. Though the exchange quoted above must be borne in mind, here it is an aside because it occurs very early in the episode. At this point, Tuvix is literally, logically, and legitimately feeling Neelix’s “instinct” toward Kes. Kes is still in shock at Neelix’s disappearance, possible death, and perhaps permanent replacement, so one must make allowances given the logical sequence of the plot. Far more revelatory is the exchange at the senior staff briefing called by Capt. Janeway to determine how the transporter accident occurred. The crew has proposed several ideas, and Cmdr. Chakotay is voicing another when Tuvix suddenly ejaculates a hypothesis:
Tuvix: Sex [13:38]
CUT TO: Kes and Lt. Tom Paris (side by side, heads turning)
Capt. Janeway: I beg your pardon!
Tuvix: What I mean to say is, and I apologize for cutting you off,
CUT TO: Commander Chakotay and Ensign Kim (heads turning).
Tuvix (voiceover): Commander, I think we’re on the wrong
Tuvix showcases his brilliance by introducing and explaining symbiogenesis, which turns out to be correct, and his sexual proclivity. My decision to use “ejaculates” is appropriate here both for the topic he introduces (“Sex.”) and how its sudden force issues from his silence. Significantly, Cmdr. Chakotay fails to take exception to Tuvix’s interruption as Capt. Janeway, a white female, is made to respond. Although a battle-trained Federation captain who faces uncharted challenges of the Delta Quadrant, she is clearly taken aback by the form and substance of the moment. It is, to return to the synopsis/commentary, perhaps the most critical instance in which Wright showcases “his aggressiveness in the role.” There is emphatic violence in Tuvix’s “Sex” (speech) act, which moves “sweetie,” Neelix’s term for Kes, from innocence to a very public sexual “aggressiveness.” “Sex” is now out in the open, and a foreshadowing of developments to come.
It doesn’t take long before this utterance quickens the plot, for just two minutes later, Tuvix and Kes have another encounter. No surprise here, for the camera has leaned on their relationship since Tuvix appeared: Kes is in the briefing room with the senior officers above when her shoulder is gently graced by his hand, an intimate touch reserved for her. A clear camera shot. Consequently, Tuvix asks Kes, who is walking down a corridor, if she’d like to join him for dinner. Apparently, on Wednesdays Neelix makes Trellian crepes, Kes’s favorite: “Why break with tradition just because of a little transporter accident?” he asks [16:17]. Less than two minutes later, they are both in the galley, alone, when the “Sex[ual]!” tension becomes so palpable that it could be cut like a Trellian crepe:
Tuvix: I admire your strength, Kes. [17:38]
Kes: Why do you say that?
CUT TO: Tuvix and Kes
Tuvix: I know I am not Neelix, but I can posit with complete certainty that if the situation were reversed, if suddenly he found himself without you in his life, he’d be absolutely lost.
CUT TO: Kes’s two hands and Tuvix’s right (holding two oranges) – her left resting atop his left, her right atop an orange – as Tuvix’s left hand comes to rest on Kes’s two pink hands.
CAMERA PANS UP TO:
Kes: I-I have to go. Thanks again for dinner.
Here Kes turns abruptly and exits, but not before discerning viewers will notice how conspicuous are her blue (albeit alien) pupils and blond hair, and how much she resembles a pixie/fairy/sprite in this scene: Think adult-sized Tinker Bell, a folk figure – capricious, jealous, and even violent – straight out of James Matthew Barrie’s 1911 Romantic-era imaginary that Walt Disney’s studio transformed into a cutesy-sexy, innocent little cartoon fairy. Kes is cutesy-sexy and yet innocent, womanly kissable and yet girlishly huggable, but all of the sexual liability and threat goes to Tuvix. This is Fanon’s 1950s negrophobia revisited, only the oppositions in Voyager – a totally desirable petite femme (Kes), and a burly black-mulatto beast of total desire (Tuvix) – follow a well-rehearsed journey that launches from the codes working in America’s racially charged collective unconscious. Lynchings are sublime American moments that transport the victim’s sense, as photographic evidence, private photographs and postcards bearing postage marks, documents easily enough. No imagination required here. As many innocent African American men discovered, literally surrounded by thousands, Tuvix’s journey is a descent into darkness – a bloody past, a “space-opera” future – on which it can never be said, “Where no [American] man has gone before.”
So where, exactly, are we going with this? From the Doctor’s clinic (Kes: “So what should I call you?”), to a chance encounter in a corridor somehow redolent with “tradition” (Tuvix: “Why break with tradition?”), to the galley, where it’s just the two of them in a quasi-public private moment, to the next logical place in this journey: Kes’s private quarters, particularly her bedroom. If “a man’s home is his castle,” a white-American female’s bedroom is her chastity, an intimately private space imagined as pure that has been a veritable, extrajudicial capital punishment in-waiting for the burly black sexual predator.
Let me set the scene of the implied capital crime: Kes is in her quarters, which is lit with two white candles as she meditates. It is a somber moment, for the previous scene ended with the Doctor saying he feels, because the “condition is untreatable,” as if he’s “lost two patients” [21:08]. The camera lingers on Kes, establishing her interiority at the loss of Neelix her lover, and perhaps Tuvok her meditation mentor (a candle for each?), when she gets the Voyager door chime and she tells the person to “Come in” [21:42].
Entering, completely silhouetted (shadowed) in the door frame (the lighted corridor in the background) and entering – merging – into darkness, is Tuvix. Kes explains to him how the ritual relates to the places of both Neelix and Tuvok in her life. As this scene unfolds, an important chromatic divide that marks their identities is constructed and, at first, maintained: Kes speaks from a lighted camera angle, in the interiority of her private space, while Tuvix remains embedded in shadow, inside but still hovering safely at the threshold. Palpable but unstated between them is “Sex” It is still at a distance, however. Until, that is, he crosses the room from the shadowed entryway and enters her lighted space, initiating this exchange as they take a seat:
CAMERA PANS RIGHT (follows Tuvix as he enters)
Tuvix: But I can’t help feeling like, like some sort of impostor. [22:39]
Kes: Maybe we can help each other get through this.
Tuvix: That’s what I’ve been hoping.
Tuvix: I know this is going to sound very strange to you, perhaps even illogical, since in a way we’ve only known each other a few days . . . but I want you to know, I love you, Kes.
When Tuvix says this, as he “ingratiates himself” by invoking the pity of one labeled an “impostor,” he is framed by dark hues, blue/black. “Impostor” is a loaded term, clearly criminal and yet clearly inappropriate as an expression of his state of mind in that space. The logic of the episode, sampled above, makes it very clear that Kes is uncomfortable with him in the public space of the Doctor’s medical bay and more uncomfortable when they have a private moment in the public galley, so Tuvix’s failure to be mindful does make him suspect – an “impostor” to the awareness and proper distance Neelix and Tuvok, respectively, would show. An “impostor” in that very private intimate space is a “Sex[ual]!” threat; a rapist, symbolically, through the deployment of the episode’s warped irony. Tuvix does not have to literally act the part of the racist because all of the carefully constructed irony – a combination of America’s long-standing canons of racially coded readings, the actual dialogue and narrative of the episode, and the use of shadow, color, and placement in the scene – dictates this close reading. No wonder then that Tuvix’s “I love you, Kes,” declared in close proximity to Kes and in her lighted zone, is embedded in blue/blackness when scened from his camera angle. Tuvix’s intimate, interracial speech act is a shadowing and, because of procreation, a foreshadowing of blue/black love – in other words, an ill-fated tragic love that is also criminal. When the camera CUTS TO: Kes, her background is filled mostly with a brighter/lighter blue – matching the innocent blue of her eyes:
Kes: But I hardly know you. A-and besides, what about – what about Tuvok’s wife, for one thing?
CUT TO: Tuvix
Kes (voiceover): He was completely devoted to her. What happens when
Kes: Voyager gets back home? Are you just going to forget her? [23:09]
Tuvix: I could never forget T’pel. I carry Tuvok’s love for her inside me. And I would never ask you to forget Neelix.
Kes (shaking head): How can you talk this way?
Tuvix (voiceover): Because
Tuvix: I carry Neelix’s love for you inside me as well, and I always will.
CUT TO: Kes
Tuvix (voiceover): You heard the Doctor.
Tuvix: It could be years before he finds a way to bring Tuvok and Neelix back . . . if ever. For you, that might be a lifetime.
Kes(getting up): Please go.
Tuvix (rising to meet her): I’m sorry. I should’ve controlled my emotions. All I really came to say is that I’ll be here for you,
ANGLE: Kes and Tuvix
Tuvix: if you need me.
His right hand reaches up to stroke her right cheek,
ANGLE: Tuvix and Kes
and then he places a kiss on her left cheek before he abruptly leaves.
Tuvix’s reference to a “lifetime” – Kes’s species lives much shorter lives by comparison to other humanoids – imports an urgency to his appeal. She will die, he implies, without a consummation of her relationship with Neelix, and he still is Neelix – hence the stroke and the kiss – but he is also radically Other. Clearly, if one thinks of the unity between love and capital crime, patently opposed concepts, the “lifetime” sentence unites them in a very peculiar way: Marriages are idealized as lifetime events, and capital crimes warrant lifelong incarceration or a foreshortened lifetime, the execution. Tuvix unifies this moment by virtue of two criminal elements: He is, first, a black/mulatto Talaxian, a crime in and of itself in the American racial imaginary and, apparently, under Voyager ideals; and, second, a capital offender because he dared cross the interracial threshold of intimacy. The first alone makes him guilty and unworthy, an abomination in no way fit for the Voyager crew, but the second necessitates the ultimate finality of capital punishment as retributive deterrence.
Tuvix: The Prosecutor’s Perfect(ed) Criminal
The fact that Tuvix utters “lifetime” just halfway through the 45-minute episode [23:56] is disturbing because it signals his sealed fate long before the conclusion, when he makes this desperate appeal to the crew and Capt. Janeway: “Commander [Chakotay]! Are you going to stand by and do nothing while she commits murder?” [40:50]. Yes, he will and does, in utter silence, even though the Maquis rebels to which Cmdr. Chakotay belonged were willing to abandon and fight against the Federation, which they accused of putting politics before justice. Nothing Tuvix says or does matters. He even tries to flee when the security Capt. Janeway called to the bridge arrives: A white woman and, of course, a black male. They apprehend him, and lead him from the bridge. He is the dead man walking and no longer talking, a peculiarly trans-historical (past-present-future) carceral figure whose bodily nullification on the basis of racial/sexual precedent – race judicata – is the most sure thing since the halfway point in the episode. The Doctor, to his credit, does dissent – “I am a physician, and a physician must do no harm. I will not take Lt. Tuvix’s life against his will” [42:47] – but he is, after all, merely a hologram. The last words in the disposition of the case are not a hollow-graphic Doctor’s empty Hippocratic Oath, as the transporter dematerializes Tuvix and splits him in two and into nonexistence:
Kes: Neelix! [44:29]
Neelix: Hello, sweetie.
Innocent love is rematerialized in Tuvix’s stead, with Victorian-era sympathy sending Kes toward her love, and Neelix (and his non-”Sex[ual]!” utterance) receiving his soul mate.
And yet, literally, none of this matters, if I am wrong and the racial coding is my own overactive victim consciousness gone into warp-drive. It is merely a “glitch” transporter accident, which removed two crewmen, and the agony of addressing the problems caused by their replacement with a third man. End of story.
But the genius of the warped irony is that it requires this surface to achieve its effect, which is a warped reading that transports knowing readers past “The End” of the literal surface and into the depths of racial allegory lying beneath. While most viewers may not be cognizant of this shift, since they – like myself back in May 1996 – do not know such depths exist, there are hints, in retrospect. Racialized allegory of this nature causes rupture because the authors, per force, must allow for the fissures savvy white readers/viewers will detect, or unsavvy viewers will perceive. “Tuvix” has such fissures. I’ve identified one already, namely the false imposition of a capital punishment motif – when Tuvix says his fate amounts to a “murder.” Indeed, after this accusation, he even uses the language of forgiveness to exonerate the entire crew!
However, I suggest that another telling fissure in “Tuvix” occurs because of a certain disposition the episode takes on. Like most if not all of the Star Trek series and films, the sci-fi plot is conveyed with as much realism as possible. Trekkies/Trekkers demand no less. But “Tuvix” is out of sync with the series because of the excessive gravity – seriousness – leaking from those fissures. For one, the “Sex[ual]” politics clearly runs afoul of Star Trek, notwithstanding Capt. Kirk’s wont for sexual exploits – which are always flippant, innocent, inconsequential. It is a black/mulatto male’s desire that seems to give this a dangerous heft, represented explicitly by his “Sex[ual]” speech act, the word “sex” itself violating the Prime Directive of the Star Trek creative universe. Perhaps this explains, as a separate but direct extension of this logic, the gritty, sexually insinuating psycho-social – negrophobic? – milieu pervading the episode.
Moreover, the hostility and lack of sympathy of the crew, including Capt. Janeway, is unbelievably uncanny. They are suddenly Other in their sense and sensibility: Not just unsympathetic or apathetic, but almost coldly, cruelly antipathetic toward one who did them no harm. No one, not a single person (again, the Doctor is not), dissents on his behalf. This makes no sense, even if viewers are meant to assume Tuvix’s point of view, for it indicates that the Voyager crew’s senior officers – each and every one – are capable of this total rejection of their humanity. Or perhaps, it does make sense if, on Tuvix’s behalf, we replace the formal language of capital punishment and Tuvix’s charge of “murder” with their ugly, extrajudicial cousin: the lynching.
What if, instead of declaring, as he does in effect, “This is a murder!” Tuvix had proclaimed, “This is a lynching!”? Since Roddenberry explored race in ways literally recognizable to his 1960s viewers, it is conceivable that Star Trek’s original ideals – born at a time when lynchings were still practiced – might have extended to such a theme. However, it is evident that Voyager, “based on ‘Star Trek’ created by” Roddenberry, has other pure-racial “ideals”: a warped irony since, our racial “progress” narrative suggests, we are supposed to be decades and galaxies beyond them.
Naysaying Trekkers/Trekkies might demur to my argument on the grounds that I’m over-reading and overreaching, finding race in a space where there could be none. But the Voyager creators – just sixteen episodes later – return to the theme of interracial, warped love under the mask of interspecies love: “Alter Ego,” episode 14 of season 3 (episode 55). It is a rerun of “Tuvix” featuring an interstellar miscegenation plot coming to rest on Lt. Tuvok’s shortcomings as a senior officer. “Alter Ego” ends with Tuvok apologizing to Ens. Kim for not respecting the complexity of his emotions. This is problem enough since, the plot established, a masked alien manipulated them both – and arguably Tuvok even more.
But there is more. Watch the episode, and watch the play of shadow. Both men are in soft shadow, but as Tuvok apologizes, dark shadows play across his face, while Ens. Kim’s face remains relatively enlightened, by comparison. This is domain of the Warped Humanities, where an underlying narrative is combined with a visual surface to produce an ironic effect difficult to unmask.
Conclusion: A “Coda”
“Coda” (aired 29 January 1997), the episode following “Alter Ego,” is officially described as one in which “Chakotay and Janeway crash on a planet and are stuck in a time loop where Janeway dies.”20 This main plot has nothing to do with “Alter Ego,” but a disturbing logic links the two. “Coda” literally starts in a manner suggestive of a continuing celebration and the promise of yet another: Neelix is pursuing Capt. Janeway to ask her to make the event monthly (crew members showcasing their artistic talents – Ens. Kim’s clarinet, Janeway doing a swan lake dance, etc.), which she finds agreeable. He then asks her to keep Lt. Tuvok busy on the bridge on that evening, and she agrees. Why? Not as a surprise for Tuvok but, as Cmdr. Chakotay makes clear when they are both on the shuttle, it’s because his reading of Vulcan poetry is awful. In other words, “Coda” serves as a coda on “Alter Ego” even as it doubles in reference to an unfolding plot. The crew’s comments about Tuvok in the early moments of “Coda,” well before that title has a meaning in the episode it names, serve as a coda with a clear message: Tuvok should be alienated, sectioned off, segregated from the festivities.
All of this raises two troubling questions: What to do about the advent and prevalence of these Warped Humanities? What kinds of liability should attach to racially constructed public television programs whose audience includes, very likely, tens of millions of children?
The emergence of the Warped Humanities reflects both market forces – a rebuttal to the fundamentalist dogma that the market corrects itself – and creative, racially coded deployment of ethnic studies’ rich cultural insights in ways antithetical to the core mission of such programs. The changes that took place in season three of Voyager seem to be a case in point. With the eponymous “Tuvix” episode as exemplification, Voyager up to the middle of the third season featured an emptied-out Lt. Tuvok, an ironic foil to the other core characters, plots, and interpersonal relationships. The season-3 shake-up – a sudden, inexplicable shift in the plot, characters, and interpersonal relations, all of which (except for Tuvok) became edgier, sexier, darker, more action-driven – seemed to be an attempt to elevate Nielsen ratings and please producers. Kes and Neelix are no longer each other’s “sweetie,” and her hairstyle and attire are suddenly no longer those of a kissable Tinker Bell transported into Voyager. The Kes[sable] kewpie doll of season 3, episode 17 (“Unity”: aired Feb. 12, 1997) is, just one week later in “Darkling,” single, has grown sexy golden locks, and sports a skin-tight bodysuit that anticipates the arrival of her season 4 replacement, the Borg-assimilated and -designated “Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One” (Jeri Ryan). Assimilated as a child, Annika Hansen is saved and resurrected as a blue-eyed, blond-haired, and buxom comic book shero adorned in a silvery-slick bodysuit that whets the male imagination. No longer the innocent Annika, or the Borg’s Seven of Nine, the new “Seven” personifies the Western male’s sci-fi desire to deflower the logical, icy, and yet outrageously sexy woman that “doesn’t need a man.” Likewise, B’Elanna Torres, the half-Hispanic, half-Klingon engineering genius, also has a new, fuller hairstyle, and a new romantic interest as Lt. Tom Paris and she are abruptly thrust into a closer friendship, Hollywood’s telegraphing of a budding romance. B’Elanna Torres – read: beautiful Latina bull – is a more Klingonish, Amazonian version of Seven, while Paris recalls his Homeric namesake. The market logic of the casting suggests that the producers hoped epic sparks would indeed fly at light speed as a “white” Latina-Klingon and mainstream American top gun tapped the Hispanic viewer base. Moreover, the specter of mutiny enters the plot, as a fictional holodeck program (a “holonovel” written by Lt. Tuvok in “Worst Case Scenario,” episode 25; he failed to delete it properly, so a hacked version of it nearly destroys the ship) featuring Cmdr. Chakotay and a Maquis rebellion.
These changes were and are bewildering, be-warping. Dramatic creative changes are quite understandable as the natural by-product when the warped engine fueling Voyager fails. The allegorical Tuvok undercuts the creative imaginary Roddenberry envisioned, and personifies a larger Hollywood and cable-television problem in that programs – controlled, produced, edited, and marketed for race – clearly put a creativity ceiling on the stories, characters, conflicts, histories, and future possibilities. Voyager was too boring for American viewers, and maybe even Trekkies/Trekkers, but the serious changes of season 3 left untouched the core racial dynamic as the creators merely reconfigured the surface of their Warped Humanities. The market for the white viewing demographic continued, with outreach to Latin(a) and Asian audiences (domestic and, presumably, international), while Lt. Tuvok is still blackened and commodified, a racial ore mined from the body of ethnic studies’ social justice work to produce a rarefied, white sci-fi adventure. However, the unforeseen irony is that Lt. Tuvok’s ironic, allegorical centrality ultimately renders all the other characters too rarefied: that is, too talented, too capable, too compelling, and thus too flat. Capt. Janeway is an icon of feminist empowerment – championed by feminist scholarship21 – that deflects charges of racism. But Janeway is “white,” and has an abiding relationship with European culture, specifically with her holodeck re-creation, Master Leonardo Da Vinci. (Even he finds a way of belittling Lt. Cmdr. Tuvok!) Seven, Cmdr. Chakotay, B’Elanna Torres, Ensign Kim, Kes, Tom Paris, Neelix, and even the holographic medical Doctor excel in their posts, personalities, and challenges often in direct antithesis to Lt. Tuvok, the butt of their collective jokes in ways Mr. Spock never was.
So, what can be done about the advent of these Warped Humanities and their past products, such as Voyager, and newer versions? At the very least, “Tuvix” could have been written another way, far more carefully, if a responsible teleplay that explored interracial/interspecies love could have been found – what if, perhaps, Kes had found Tuvix “odd” at first, understandably, but came to love him more than Neelix because he perfected Tuvok’s greater mind and Neelix’s comfort with emotions? Tuvix’s insights into the souls of both would have made him able to more adeptly ask about, and respond to, her problems.
When I put the issue of how to correct Tuvok’s racialized treatment to my (then) eleven-year-old son, and asked for a list of what the creators could do, number one (of nine) was “Show how the captain depends on Tuvok,” and number two was “Show how Tuvok’s logic works in many cases.” These were his ideas, a solid launch pad to reveal “more about his family” (#5), “his history and his status on Vulcan” (#7), or “how he came to become part of the Voyager crew” (#8). All together, these constitute a fine foundation for recasting the character, rounding him out, and thus improving the crew. This exploration of the past of a humanoid who is tall, logic-based, physically stronger than humans, isolated emotionally, and driven by a deep sense of superiority occurred in season 4, but, of course, Lt. Cmdr. Tuvok – who fits this description absolutely – was not the protagonist. Instead, his status as a foil is perfected in “The Raven” (episode 74), which follows Seven-of-Nine’s flashbacks to her childhood assimilation aboard her parent’s ship, the USS Raven: Compelled to leave Voyager by some homing beacon the Borg placed in the remains of the Raven’s wreckage, Seven outwits the crew and commandeers a shuttle with frightful Borg efficiency. Lt. Paris and Lt. Cmdr. Tuvok give chase and, when the latter beams aboard her ship – against Lt. Paris’s suggestion (“Is this such a good idea?”) – he is quickly bested, intellectually and physically. She swiftly put Lt. Commander Tuvok, along with his black Vulcan supremacy, in his place.
The second and related question, equally challenging, involves the individual liability of the thespians who are deployed for the cause of the Warped Humanities. Since their characters are staging grounds for the warped projection of centuries-old racism into imagined regions where no man or woman has gone before, what are the liabilities of Tim Russ (Tuvok) and Tom Wright (Tuvix)? It’s hard to imagine that we can or should rely on Russ’s and Wright’s ability to read the racial irony informing the creators’ intention, but this collapses the two questions above into one: What praxis is necessary to unmask the racism of a script and an edited episode before it airs, or to penalize the creators and the production studio for the discriminatory damage? Isn’t protest already not enough, given that the practitioners of the Warped Humanities (Voyager) not only resist the “progress” of the civil rights movement, but ingeniously do so under the very cloak of social justice? Should there be criminal responsibility as well as civil, such as equity relief (permanently banning the episode from broadcast and public showing) and damages?
These questions and suggestions are not an escapist, academic exercise. Star Trek: Discovery, after several delays that extended almost a year, a period that coincides with the massive electoral and cultural shift that brought Donald Trump into White (House) power, debuted on September 24, 2017. The co-extensiveness of Trump’s presidential rise with the delay of a Star Trek series featuring an African American female in the most prominent role for the first time is, it goes without saying, blueprint for a warped irony. Maybe this is just my hyperactive victim’s consciousness acting up again, warping off into racial fantasy, but Trump did not simply conjure an election victory out of (pop) cultural nothingness. Given the violent turn in our culture toward a civil war, the familiar engines that produce our future visions must be watched carefully, for they are most easily manipulated by these new Humanities we take all too much for granted. Indeed, Voyager seems to follow Roddenberry’s strict adherence to “diversity,” for he, as Stephen Edward Poe wrote, “mixed races and cultures with seeming abandon, in a kind of anthropological soup of characters” in a way that was “affirming [of] the cultures” of each and every one as he “created a family” on each Federation ship. The Voyager creators inherited this decades-long diversity along with all of the rich details. According to Voyager screenwriter Brannon Braga:
Specificity and limitations spawn creativity. You have this Gene Roddenberry universe where the Starfleet people are ideal human beings. They’ve pretty much gone beyond their pettiness, their racisms, and their conflicts. You’ve got twenty-five years of Star Trek history and lore and technobabble. It’s great.22
Braga spoke just three decades into Roddenberry’s diversity, and yet issuing from the Voyager series was a well-rehearsed negation of meaningful cultural diversity. We are now fifty years beyond Roddenberry’s “ideal,” at a time when a retrenchment of openly demonstrated white supremacy is fueled by the alt-right’s “technobabble,” and the real and the science-fictional, normative and horrific, democratic and fascistic are indistinguishable. This is the brave new world into which Discovery will journey, delayed, by coincidence, during the fall 2016 election campaign and then again in January 2017, and making an ironic, anti-diversity (or anti-anti-racism) statement with its name. “Discovery” is a centuries-long Catholic concept, used by Europe and then even the US Supreme Court,23 to justify the violent taking of native lands.
Indeed, it should be every well-meaning person’s “discovery” that “based upon ‘Star Trek’ created by” is just another way of warping and undercutting the critical awareness we need, for the sake of their kids and ours . . . the ones (like my son) who are always going where no one has gone before. Humanity’s future.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the shows discussed.
- Victor Turner, “The Anthropology of Performance,” The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986, 72-98, at 90-97. [↩]
- See William J. Maxwell, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2015. [↩]
- Eric Bennett, “How America Taught the World to Write Small,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 28, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-america-taught-the-world-to-write-small. [↩]
- Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. New York: Putnam, 1994. [↩]
- Ibid., at 155-165, 167. [↩]
- K. W. Jeter, Warped (Pocket Books: New York, 1995), dust jacket. [↩]
- Ibid., at 252. [↩]
- Ibid., on dust jacket. [↩]
- Use of racialized images to inflame white (male) voters. Bush’s Willie Horton ad campaign was prefigured by D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915). [↩]
- “Tuvix,” Star Trek: Voyager, Dir. Cliff Bole, Writ. Andrew Shepard Price and Mark Gaberman, Teleplay. Kenneth Biller, 6 May 1996, Netflix. [↩]
- Unattributed, but one wonders if the British actress Leila Reid is the author. Since Reid is noted for her “naturally sun bleached Auburn hair and her blue eyes” (see https://www.starnow.co.uk/leilareid1 and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2376277/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm), could Kes’s similar appearance indicate a racial and cultural affinity? [↩]
- “Tuvix,” IMDB Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0709000/). [↩]
- Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard UP, 1980. [↩]
- Supra, note x. [↩]
- Stephen Edward Poe, Star Trek: Voyager – A Vision of the Future (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 98. [↩]
- Aviva Dove-Viebahn, in “Embodying Hybridity, (En)Gendering Community: Captain Janeway and the Enactment of a Feminist Heterotopia on Star Trek: Voyager,” Women’s Studies 36 (2007): 597–618, makes the observation that Voyager is “[f]ollowing in the footsteps of countless homecoming stories, from canonized classics like The Odyssey,” although Capt. Janeway herself is an “embodiment and construction of hybridity, community, and a heterotopian space.” See Dove-Viebahn at 598-99. [↩]
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (1952; New York: Grove Press, 1967), 165. [↩]
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; New York: Library of America Paperback Classics, 2009), 7-9. [↩]
- Ibid., 7. [↩]
- “Coda,” IMDB Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0708865/?ref_=fn_tt_tt_54). [↩]
- See, e.g., Aviva Dove-Viebahn, supra. [↩]
- Ibid., 131, 291. [↩]
- Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823). [↩]