Life and Love in the Delta Quadrant

For a series with such a strong female influence, it’s a shame that Star Trek: Voyager is so wary of exploring normal human emotions.


As you will have gathered from my earlier essay Wesley, I am your father…or am I? I was a devoted follower of Star Trek: Voyager (Hell, after the TV channel that screened the first season seemed reluctant to screen the second I watched the following six seasons on hired video. At $7 for two episodes that comes to a lot of dosh!) However, there was one aspect of Voyager that totally flummoxed me. For a series that had such a strong female influence, not only in a cast with a female captain and a female chief engineer, but in Jeri Taylor in its production team, Voyager was the Star Trek series which seemed the most wary of exploring emotional relationships.

From the first season it is foreshadowed that, as Voyager might take 75 years to get back to the Alpha Quadrant, crew members will pair off and children will be born. Yet while it is often intimated that members of the lower ranks are pairing off, in the first six seasons there is only one birth on board and that child was conceived before her mother signed on (and then only born after a gestation that lasted almost two years!) So if the lower ranks are pairing off, most of those relationships must be only casual or purely platonic! For the upper ranks relationships are even more restricted.

As I also mentioned in Wesley, I am your father…or am I? Gene Roddenberry insisted that there should be no conflicts between Star Trek’s main characters. This stipulation has the unintended consequence of precluding intimate relationships between them as such relationships will naturally also involve moments of conflict. This legacy has a profound and perverse effect on Star Trek Voyager because if there is one Star Trek premise that intrinsically entails conflict between the main characters, it is that of Star Trek Voyager.

Warning: Spoiler alert.

The series begins with the newly commissioned Voyager being sent on its first assignment into the Badlands to find and detain a crew of Marquis — Federation citizens, some of them ex-Starfleet, who have taken up arms against the Federation to resist the terms enforced on them in the wake of the Federation’s peace treaty with the Cardassians. When both ships end up in the Delta Quadrant and the Marquis ship is destroyed, the Marquis crew join the Starfleet crew under their captain, Kathryn Janeway, with their own commander, ex-Starfleet officer Chakotay, as her second-in-command.

Yet while there are some moments of conflict between the independently minded Marquis crew and the more disciplined Starfleet crew — and one Marquis member, Seska, proves to be particularly troublesome — by the end of the first season, the two crews have coalesced into one. Indeed strong individual bonds are formed, in particular between Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay, who happily hands command of his crew over to Janeway and serves under her with absolutely no resentment. In fact, to any observer, it would seem obvious that a romantic attachment has developed between them. They seem comfortable coming into each other’s space, touch each other, share intimate confidences and private jokes, and have bitter arguments. Chakotay even expresses some jealousy when Q proposes mating with Janeway.

No doubt, this harmonious relationship was created by the producers to ensure that there would be no residual conflict between the series’ two central characters. They may well have reasoned that the only way a man as strong as Chakotay could possibly submit to a woman would be if he is in love with her. Yet at the same time it seems they did not have the courage to carry what they had begun through to its logical conclusion.

Kathryn Janeway and Chakotay enjoying civilian life while stranded on an unhibaited planet in the episode Resolutions
Kathryn Janeway and Chakotay in Resolutions

In the second season episode Resolutions, Chakotay and Janeway are bitten by an insect and contract a disease that even the Doctor cannot cure. The only way they can survive is to stay on the lush but uninhabited planet where they were bitten. They are given all they need to settle down, while Janeway hands command of Voyager over to Tuvok and sends them on their way with strict orders not to approach the organ-harvesting Vidiians for a cure. While Chakotay tries to make the best of things and build a home for them, Janeway is determined not to give up and sets out to research the insect that bit them and find a cure.

Chakotay is hurt by her attitude. It is obvious he is happy to be alone with Janeway and wants her to feel the same. Only after a fierce storm destroys all of Janeway’s research equipment will she finally accept their situation. However, it is not until Chakotay tells her how he feels about her in the form of an ‘ancient legend’, that Janeway finally understands he is in love with her and they join hands. After that they are much more relaxed with each other and when Voyager returns for them, having risked all to get a cure from the Vidiians, they are devastated. When they return to their stations on Voyager, they do not dare look at each other.

Now, as adults, we can infer that their more relaxed attitude towards each other denotes a release of sexual tension and that they have been to bed together. We might also infer from their reactions to returning to Voyager that they have developed an intimacy that cannot continue on board the vessel. But we do not even see them kiss to confirm such a conclusion. It seems that the producers want to leave it open as to whether or not they did. Is this so that when Chakotay later describes himself merely as Janeway’s friend, we can take him at his word? Or is it rather so that we do not have to explore the repercussions of a sexual relationship between them, or its frustration?

We might assume that, as captain and first officer, they are forbidden to be in a relationship, but this has yet to be established. On the contrary, Janeway has said that Starfleet does not interfere with its personnel’s private lives. If that is the case, why is their personal relationship not allowed to flourish? The inevitable tensions inherent in the conflict between their professional and personal relationships could make for riveting drama, but perhaps that is exactly what the producers want to avoid.

Instead what we have to make do with for the following five seasons is an intimate yet platonic relationship with occasional reminders of what might have been. In order to maintain this unnatural balance, Chakotay, this once proud warrior, becomes totally emasculated, while Janeway becomes completely oblivious to his feelings. In fact, by the sixth season, Janeway is treating him like an old girl-friend, confiding in him about her blossoming romance with a hologram, which he accepts with no reservations whatsoever. It is only when she develops second thoughts that the Doctor, in encouraging her to follow her heart, reveals at last that there are Starfleet protocols which preclude her from forming romantic relationships with her subordinates, i.e. any member of her crew.

Despite this tardy justification, I would suggest that the fact that Janeway and Chokatay do not get it together has nothing to do with military regulations, (which, if the writers had willed it, could have been waived in Voyager’s unique situation) but everything to do with the producers’ terror of confronting normal human emotions.

It would seem that I was not the only Star Trek fan who felt confused by the contradictions in the relationship between Janeway and Chakotay. The producers seemed to have determined to finally put the question to rest before the series finally ended. In the Season 7 episode Shattered, different parts of the ship are in different time periods. When a Janeway from the past asks a Chakotay from the future how close they would get, he tells her there was one barrier they did not cross. Janeway looks disappointed, and so she should, letting a gorgeous man like Chakotay slip through her fingers! As it is rumoured that it was Kate Mulgrew herself who vetoed any romance between the two, she indeed had only herself to blame.

However, if Mulgrew was so determined that there should be no romance between the two commanding officers, it would have been helpful if she had communicated that demand to the producers before the possibility was so clearly foreshadowed. To make up for the frustration of this obvious pairing, the producers tried to make it up to Chakotay in the series’ concluding episodes by finally allowing him and Seven of Nine to form an intimate, but most unconvincing, relationship.

This terror of human emotions is also demonstrated in the relationship between Neelix and Kes, and in particular in their break-up. Neelix and Kes join Voyager as a couple and freely express their love for each other. Kes is entirely loyal to Neelix, and cannot bear being without him, desperately pleading for him to be returned to her when he is joined with Tuvok to become Tuvix. (See Life, Death and the Starfleet Captain). Neelix is overly protective and possessive of Kes, almost coming to blows with Tom Paris when he shows too much interest in her. However, their relationship is more like a teenage ‘going steady’ than an adult sexual relationship. It is implied that they have separate quarters, and when Kes suggests he father her child, Neelix clearly panics.

Kes (Jennifer Lien) and Neelix (Ethan Phillips)

Since Kes was very young when she got involved with Neelix, it is no great surprise that she should grow out of him, especially after she is possessed by the ruthless tyrant, Tieran, in the third season episode Warlord. When she comes back to herself she has matured a great deal and acknowledges that she will feel very differently about all her relationships. However, we never see what becomes of her relationship with Neelix. We are only told in passing a couple of episodes later that she and Neelix have broken up. Thereafter they interact only as colleagues and it is not until Kes is on the verge of leaving Voyager at the beginning of the next season that she and Neelix speak as ex-lovers.

Given Neelix’s devotion to Kes, it is hard to imagine that he would watch her drift away from him and merely shrug his shoulders and accept it. Ethan Phillips, who played Neelix, tells us that a scene in which he acknowledges that their relationship is over was filmed for a subsequent episode, but was dropped for reasons of time. But even this scene would have been skirting the issues. In the break-up of such an intense relationship one would expect confrontations, scenes, arguments, demands to know what has gone wrong, pleas to give the relationship one last chance. But, no, Star Trek cannot allow any of that. Two devoted lovers will break up with barely a sigh in Gene Roddenberry’s idealised future.

Of course, the reality was that Kes (Jennifer Lien) had to leave the series to make way for the liberated Borg, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). Every Star Trek series has to have one character that is learning to be human — Spock in the original series, Data in The Next Generation, Odo in Deep Space Nine. It gives the writers the opportunity to give us lectures on what it means to be human. (Although, for Star Trek being ‘human’ actually means being an idealised American, but that is a topic for another time.) For Voyager, that had been the holographic Doctor, but by the third season he had become all too human, so another apprentice human was required. The budget would not allow for an additional major cast member so someone had to go. (Given the failure of Jennifer Lien’s acting career and her subsequent battle with mental illness, it must have been a devastating blow for her.)

For the romantics among us, the end of Kes and Neelix’s relationship at least allowed Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres to get together (and belatedly have the second child born on Voyager), although this only confirmed for us that the rule on Voyager was that only one relationship was allowed at a time between members of the senior crew. Everyone else on the bridge would be condemned to a life of celibacy!

This celibacy rule falls hardest on Harry Kim, a lovable, romantic young man with a knack for falling for the wrong woman. Harry’s passion is never returned until the Season 5 episode The Disease. Unfortunately, his affair with a beautiful alien leaves him glowing in the dark and in Captain Janeway’s bad books. Apparently, sexual relations with an alien species are governed by a complex Starfleet protocol which required Harry to get a medical clearance and permission from his captain beforehand. Really? I thought when I heard this. Really? In The Next Generation, Commander Riker seemed to get his end away with every attractive alien female (or androgyne) he came across and I do not remember one occasion where he paused to get medical clearance, or got ticked off by his captain. Once again, the rules around relationships on Voyager seem tighter than anywhere else in the Star Trek universe!

As a lover of science fiction, I can understand that the writers were more interested in exploring the exciting and intriguing possibilities offered by space travel, rather than writing a soap opera. But if that is the case, if they had no intention of following through, why did they set up these relationships in the first place? It shows a certain disdain for their audience.

© Pauline Montagna 2016

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