Natural LawBy Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 13, 2004 - 11:26 PM GMT
See Also: 'Natural Law' Episode Guide
Chakotay gets distracted while accompanying Seven of Nine in a shuttlecraft on the way to a Ledosian conference, and doesn't notice a giant energy barrier that nearly destroys the shuttle until Seven uses phasers to cut a hole through. The shuttle explodes and Chakotay is injured as they beam out, but Seven escapes without a scratch. In a lush jungle that looks just like the one from New Earth, the two find they can't communicate through the barrier, though their tricorders work well enough inside for them to discover the Ventu, a group of pre-warp aliens genetically similar to the Ledosians. The Ventu heal Chakotay's wound while Seven goes looking for salvaged parts to make a distress beacon.
Chakotay communicates via drawings and sign language, initially pleased with his progress making contact, but later concerned that the aliens are mimicking him overmuch -- particularly when they copy his tattoo and Seven's eyepiece. Seven, however, goes from initially dismissing the aliens as primitive to finding them helpful and resourceful, particularly a girl who helps her find the shuttle wreckage when she loses her tricorder. Meanwhile, Tom Paris gets the Ledosian equivalent of a speeding ticket and is forced by Janeway to obey local law and attend pilot safety school. By the time Tuvok informs Janeway that Chakotay and Seven are missing, he's already gotten in trouble for his impatience.
Janeway asks a Ledosian ambassador about the previously unknown energy barrier, which was erected by aliens hundreds of years earlier to protect the Ventu from pollution and invasion. She expects resistance to her plan to try to lower the barrier, but the Ledosians welcome Voyager's involvement -- they want to remove the barrier so that they can exploit the resources of the Ventu lands. The bridge crew is unsuccessful in penetrating the barrier, but down on the planet, Seven enlists many of the Ventu to help move the shuttle's deflector dish so she can try to penetrate the barrier at a pivotal spot. Seven is successful in breaching the barrier, but the girl who helped her is injured. While Chakotay beams up to Voyager, where the Doctor pronounces him cured by the Ventu, Seven stays on the planet and uses a Voyager medkit to heal the girl.
When the Voyager crew learns that Ledosians have entered the Ventu enclave, Seven and Chakotay argue for the protection of the less-developed culture by restoring the barrier. Janeway tells the Ledosians of her intention to do just that, leading to protests and an attack on Voyager's transporters. Janeway hails Paris on the Delta Flyer, telling him to skip the piloting lessons and disable the deflector. Just after Paris is informed that he has failed his Ledosian safety test, he destroys the deflector and does some impressive flying to get through the barrier before it closes. Chakotay admires a blanket given to Seven by the Ventu girl and says he's glad to be back on Voyager, but Seven is still worried that the Ledosians may copy her deflector modifications and invade Ventu territory again.
For the second week in a row, Voyager sets up a major Prime Directive issue but resolves it without considering precedent either from previous Starfleet missions or previous Voyager encounters. Like last week's "Friendship One," this episode presents a technological conundrum not native to the planet being affected, but in this case it isn't Earth-based technology causing the crisis. So Janeway has no qualms about a little meddling to rescue her crewmembers, and no qualms about a little more meddling to restore the previous status quo. Under Starfleet rules she's right to take back the deflector, but to the Ledosians -- who have already had to live with the results of alien meddling for generations -- it must seem horribly unfair.
"Natural Law" has a potentially brilliant setup, raising questions about the responsibilities of technically advanced cultures to those that have developed in different directions. It's clear in "Friendship One" that Starfleet should try to undo the damage caused by an Earth probe, but Janeway's decision to restore the Ventu barrier seems as debatable as her decision to destroy the Array to protect the Ocampa in "Caretaker." In both cases, a culture ends up isolated in circumstances that offer extreme limitations. Kes wanted to leave Ocampa, Seven's Ventu companion wanted to learn about her technology, but in both cases a Starfleet captain deemed their curiosity inappropriate for other members of their species and closed off the option for others. Chakotay might argue that the creation of a barrier around an indigenous species smacks of building a reservation. No one wants to see the Ventu destroyed by a Ledosian invasion, but if the Ledosians had been portrayed as slightly less imperialistic and warlike, it would be hard to draw conclusions about whether Janeway did the Ventu any favors.
The "primitive" Ventu cure Chakotay's relatively uncomplicated infection, though Seven must use Starfleet medicine to take care of the injured girl. If Seven hadn't had a medkit, or if Chakotay had died of conditions that could easily have been treated by Voyager's Doctor, wouldn't we have a different perspective on the desirability of cultural change? The Ventu want to learn, and seem open to development. This is a variation on Deep Space Nine's "Paradise," in which a leader used powerful technology to keep her followers living in simple conditions where her authority could not be questioned.
Prosperous nations in our own era make excuses about not wanting to exert undue influences on native cultures as one reason for withholding food, medicine and technology, yet people living in many cultures would be willing to risk changes to their traditions if their families could enjoy greater health and prosperity. It's a colonialist attitude to deny support to developing cultures just as it is to force one's own values and traditions onto others. The Ventu are shown as an idyllic species with no disfiguring diseases, no evidence that the women are oppressed or the weak enslaved, no signs of inequity or suffering. Yet Chakotay and Seven develop only a very primitive understanding of their language and society. Voyager's crew is incapable of determining whether the Ventu might welcome new technology, new ideas; the assumption that such growth would destroy Ventu society is obnoxiously paternalistic.
The issue of cultural imperialism is far more complex than Star Trek ever acknowledges, and "Natural Law" covers no new philosophical ground. It's too similar to the terrible Next Generation episode "Homeward" in theme if not in plot, with noninterference being used as an excuse to abdicate responsibility for those with less technology. I doubt there's a way to address such a problem conscientiously in a one-hour episode. Voyager certainly hasn't made an attempt to work through any of the issues consistently over its seven-year run. Still, "Natural Law" is one of the better episodes of this season because at least it raises so many questions. It's more interesting to think about than playing Survivor in "The Void" or witnessing a half-baked holo-revolution.
Though we've been assured in "Author, Author" that Paris has grown up and doesn't need to be slapped down like a bad boy rebel, this week Janeway is adamant that Paris must obey local law and attend pilot safety school. Then, when local law comes into conflict with the captain's own principles, she orders him away from his lessons. What sort of message does that send not only to Paris, but to kids in the audience? I don't really think Tom needs safety lessons to make up for one speeding ticket, but if Mama Janeway had let Q2 off the hook as easily as she lets Paris off the hook when she needs him for her own purposes, the omnipotent brat would still be terrorizing the galaxy. A single line about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one would have defused the situation, but we don't get any sense of resolution, which is particularly disturbing since Paris' behavior seems to degenerate over the course of his training -- and he gets rewarded for it.
I suppose I must say something about the Chakotay/Seven interaction, given that the two are going to become a couple in Voyager's finale, as UPN keeps hyping in its early previews. I am trying to be objective -- at this point I honestly don't care if we never get J/C, J/7, or Doc/7 because the characters are all such dimensionless cardboard creations. But I still have to wonder what the writers are thinking. Robert Beltran has had chemistry with pretty much every woman he's ever shared the screen with (Kate Mulgrew, Roxann Dawson, Jennifer Lien, Martha Hackett, various guest stars); they're pairing him with one of the rare exceptions to that rule. There are no fireworks whatsoever between Chakotay and Seven, whether they're debating or flirting, and the contrived "I was just enjoying the view" double entendre just makes him look like a jerk, particularly since his admiration leads to him wrecking their shuttle. It's pretty sad when the first officer he doesn't know as much about shuttles or science as his Borg non-crewmember.
Pairing Chakotay with Seven a few seasons ago would have been repugnant since the writers were still dropping hints that he and Janeway had feelings for each other, but it really would have made more sense. He's the man who first called her "Annika," who broke her connection to the Collective. He could have been a friend and mentor instead of an officer with whom she's barely ever had a conversation that didn't have to do with the astrometrics sensors. They've never discussed the things they have in common -- lost family members, a sense of isolation from Starfleet regulations, and the biggest one, violation by a Borg collective. Chakotay chases after every long-haired woman he can find to go native with, yet his primary interest in Seven seems to be as an educator. And though she may find him attractive enough to reproduce as a sex toy, Seven talks to Chakotay with more condescension than she uses with Naomi Wildman. If these two haven't managed to become friends, and if hormones haven't driven them to seek romantic companionship thus far -- particularly since such companionship could endanger Seven's life -- why in heck should they now become lovers?
If I could get past my antipathy for her, I would have to say that Seven deserves someone smarter, though I can't think whom that might be. The combined intelligence of Janeway, Torres, Tuvok and Kim can't plot a way to breach the barrier as quickly as Seven does -- isn't she going to be bored to tears with someone as dull as Chakotay, who'd rather look out the window than do sensor sweeps? Little Miss Perfect. I must admit that my favorite scene all episode was when she tripped, fell on her face and lost her tricorder. I can't root for this character who has everything handed to her on a platter, Borg implants notwithstanding. She's got the brains, she's got the beauty, she's got the credit for saving the ship two dozen times, now they're even giving her the man she wants. So her emotions are muted, big deal; so are Janeway's and Chakotay's, or they'd have arguments and laugh and cry like normal human beings. Seven isn't someone like Xena who spends every week fighting her own demons and those of the world. She's the queen of magic nanoprobe shortcuts, who gets everything her way because she's been designed to. I wish I understood what anyone finds about her to like or admire, because to me she's a big plot gimmick with bigger tits.
Michelle Erica Green reviews 'Enterprise' episodes for the Trek Nation, for which she is also a news writer. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.