Thursday, September 17, 2015

Voyager Re-Watch: Distant Origin

When I was in undergrad I went down to see some of my family in North Carolina. I'd recently fallen in love with Anthropology and discovered I had a natural knack for the cultural and physical aspects of the field. Human skeletal identification, kinship charts, societal organization? Awwwww, yeah. That's my bag. Anyway, I told my grandma (a deeply devout Southern Baptist) that I'd changed my major and was really excited about it and her only question/comment was: "They don't teach evolution in that do they?"

I thought a lot about that moment as I re-watched Distant Origin. (Johnny! It's finally here!) This is actually one of my favorites and it's maybe Voyager's most successful allegory-type episode. It follows an alien, reptilian paleontologist named Gegen as he tries to track down the species whose skull he found in a cave (leftover from the episode, Basics) which shares genetic markers with his own species. Gegen's theory is that his species--the Voth--didn't evolve in the Delta Quadrant but somewhere else, far away. The problem here is that his superiors are way into the idea that the Voth not only evolved in the Delta Quadrant but that they have a hereditary claim to that space and everyone else should just live under their thumb (or whatever lizards have). To challenge that notion is to challenge doctrine and that's kind of a big deal to these dinosaur-type folks. Gegen and Chakotay team up to do some challenging but, inevitably, it's of no use.

Since 2015 is already, for some reason, the year I suddenly appreciate Chakotay, I loved him in this one. Robert Beltran does a fantastic job here and his speech to the Voth council is powerful and resonant. I think it's interesting that his character is likely the most spiritual yet he's the one who comes to Gegen's defense. It's a great move, actually, to show how a man of faith can reconcile his beliefs with scientific evidence, to show that doctrine isn't more important than truth. It's also ultimately frustrating (in a good way) because we don't get a Trek-style happy ending. Gegen is forced to give up his position, his life's work, his claims about his species' origins. Everything he believes in. Chakotay and Voyager continue on their way but, before parting, Gegen is given a gift--a small globe--the earth where Gegen's people evolved.

My grandma wasn't interested in reconciling her beliefs with science. After a lifetime spent watching her daily life, her relationships, her decisions as they were influenced by her religion I wasn't interested in trying to change her mind. She didn't want to think about human evolution and no amount of discussion regarding Lucy's footprints, flint knapping, or taxonomy was going change that. Unlike Chakotay, I walked away. Ten years later, my grandma is a very sick woman and her beliefs bring her comfort and solace as she faces what, to her, is not an unknown but the gift of eternal life and peace.

What it seems neither my grandma nor the Voth Minister understand is that, to me, the wonder itself is a gift. Science is the comfort. My skepticism is fueled by curiosity and questions. Studying the most distant branches of my family tree fills me with joy, excitement, almost pride. Our distant ancestors survived, against all odds, and, because of them, we're here now, writing blogs and eating ice cream and asking our granddaughters uncomfortable questions.

Sometimes I wish that, ten years ago, I'd been more like Chakotay. I wish I'd defended my position with a calm resolution. But I don't think I could have. And I don't think it would've made a difference even if I had. And I guess that's why, as much as I love, Distant Origin, it also always made me sad.

Bonus Points:
-Tom and B'Elanna are on the road to hooking up here and I love it.
-This episode is firing on all cylinders: the writing, acting, makeup, and design are all on excellent.
-The early scenes where Gegen and his assistant are spying on Voyager's crew are fantastic
-BYOB = Bring Your Own Bat'leth  


  1. My absolute favourite Season 3 episode, and contender for favourite of the entire series. And I got a shout-out in the entry!! *blush*

    Your grandmother and my mom have a lot in common. I've long-since walked away, rather than challenge her world view. She believes I'm demon-possessed for being gay, so there's very little in the way of dialogue that can happen. I don't believe in gods or devils or demons. Life goes on.


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