Living Witness

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 13, 2004 - 3:36 PM GMT

See Also: 'Living Witness' Episode Guide

Captain Janeway, sporting a sleek new haircut and black gloves, announces to Ambassador Daleth of the Vaskan Empire that violence is the Starfleet way and agrees to his offer to trade her help in capturing the enemy Kyrian leader for a way to stabilize a wormhole and get home. On the bridge, Neelix is at tactical, with a grinning Tuvok at weapons and a heavily tattooed first officer giving orders to a Kazon. Janeway calls him "CHAK-otay" and suggests using biogenic weapons against the Kyrians. Daleth says that that's excessive, but Janeway tells him to shut up if he wants victory.

The shot widens to show that this is a scene being played in simulation in a museum. A docent explains that it is 700 years since Voyager passed through the system, but the effects of the warship's brutality are still being felt. As the simulation continues, Janeway announces that genocide is an effective way to defeat an enemy and puts the protesting Vaskan in the brig. Chakotay and Kim interrogate a Kyrian prisoner, who starts talking when the Doctor (here an android with eyes like Data's) injects the Kyrian with a substance to dissolve his neural tissue. Chakotay tells Janeway where to find Tedrin, the leader of the Kyrians, but when several Kyrians attack the ship, Janeway calls out the Borg defense unit and tells Seven to assimilate the survivors.

Janeway demands complete surrender from Tedrin, who tells Daleth that they could have settled their differences peacefully, without involving an alien warship. Daleth is willing to talk, but Janeway isn't; she shoots Tedrin's accomplice and then Tedrin himself when he refuses to accept her vicious tactics. The museum simulation ends. The docent reveals that the Kyrians blame hundreds of years of oppression on Voyager, and they have a warhead from the vessel in their museum as proof. A Vaskan demands to know whether there might not be another side to the story, but the Kyrian docent - who is also a scientist - says that they have just discovered an ancient artifact from Voyager with live data that will confirm everything.

Using period tools from the simulation, the docent activates the optronic data and discovers that it's Voyager's Doctor - or, rather, the EMH backup module, which the Doctor indignantly exclaims the Kyrians must have stolen from Sickbay. He tries to contact the bridge, but the Kyrian explains that hundreds of years have passed and he's inside a museum simulation. The Kyrian says that the hologram could be made to face charges for his war crimes, but the Doctor insists that Voyager was not a warship and begins correcting errors both minute and enormous in the Kyrian version of history. When the Doctor says that the Kyrians attacked Voyager, not the other way around, the Kyrian scientist says that he's just protecting himself from being put on trial, and shuts down the program.

Later, however, the Kyrian wonders: why would a medical hologram have been programmed to lie about history? If the Kyrians were wrong about his being an android, they might have been wrong about other things. He reactivates the Doctor, who offers to create his own holosimulation of the truth. In this version, Janeway was negotiating for medical supplies with Daleth. Tedrin and his people invaded Voyager, and Daleth shot Tedrin during the ensuing struggle. The Doctor says that if he can access the medical tricorder taken from Voyager by the Kyrians, he can prove that it was a Vaskan rather than a Starfleet weapon which killed the Kyrian martyr.

A group of Vaskan and Kyrian dignitaries on the museum board are inflamed by this new simulation. The Vaskan leader says it vindicates his ancestors' belief that they didn't start the war, but a furious Kyrian says the Vaskans will use this as one more excuse to oppress and vilify her people, which proves that it's just one more Vaskan lie. When they are alone, the Doctor tells the docent he wishes he could find out whether Voyager got home, and the docent admits that even though he's Kyrian, he always wondered that too - when he was too young to understand the politics, he was always fascinated by the story of the voyagers lost so far from home. While they talk, intruders break into the museum. A Vaskan announces that they've learned about the hologram, and know the museum is filled with lies. They destroy all the artifacts, and more fighting erupts outside in the streets.

The Doctor tells the Kyrian docent to erase his program because it's causing real and immediate harm, which not only goes against his programming but his sense of justice: who cares what happened seven hundred years ago, if the Kyrians have always revered Tedrin as a martyr? That's more important than the facts. But the docent strongly disagrees, pointing out that if people aren't shown the truth, they're going to continue to kill each other over the same old lies and misunderstandings. They set out to find the missing tricorder which will prove that Daleth killed Tedrin. The shot widens again, revealing yet ANOTHER museum. A new docent announces that after that day, with the data from the Doctor, the Vaskans and Kyrians embarked on a new era of peace. After working as a surgeon among them, the Doctor finally decided to go home to Earth.


This, like "Tuvix," was an excellent but disturbing episode. At its crux, "Living Witness" asks whether we can ever truly know the facts of history, or if they're always so subject to interpretation that the truth can never enable us to move beyond the old conflicts. It suggests that in most cases, we can't - and maybe we shouldn't try - which is a very scary attitude.

It seems obvious that the U.S. Holocaust Museum was a model of sorts for the Kyrian museum. Speaking as a Jew, I have always been bothered by the extent to which contemporary Judaism is defined by the Holocaust - the fact that a museum commemorating the near-genocide gets more attention than museums celebrating living, thriving Judaism. The emphasis on death in the fictional Museum of History, rather than on what Kyrian culture was all about, is quite unnerving in a similar way. On the other hand, I don't think there are many people with any education who have not been educated about the Holocaust or who fail to understand the historical and social implications of what the Nazis did, which is vitally important on a global scale to prevent its reoccurence. Yes, there are revisionist nuts who claim that the Holocaust never happened, but most people understand that the atrocities were real, and were carried out by ordinary people, not an isolated group of monsters.

Is this episode suggesting that it's not fair to have only the perspective of the slaughtered represented, and we need equal time for the Nazi point of view? It's interesting that the Kyrians are obsessed with the origins of the genocide (and with proving their innocence, as if one should have to prove innocence to be spared ethnic cleansing) rather than with the effects of the crimes. The ending of this episode is ridiculously pat: we're supposed to believe the Kyrians agreed a false myth of origin justified centuries of oppression and slaughter? And the Vaskans agreed that being restored to the role of good guy during the initial conflict made them feel empowered enough to look for common ground with a millennia-old enemy? It's thoroughly unrealistic, and doesn't address the troubling questions raised, like: if Janeway wasn't really a Hitler, does that mean that it's fine to believe Hitler wasn't really a Hitler, or was only "a Hitler" from the point of view of the winnners since he would have justified his actions had he successfully conquered the world, wiping away anyone who spoke against him?

I thought the Voyager episode "Remember" did a more subtle job on those kinds of issues. Revisionist history is a very dangerous subject for Trek - which is not known for subtlety in dealing with big political issues like this one. We never learned anything about either the Vaskans or Kyrians beyond their hatreds: I still have no idea what the war was over in the first place. Is that irrelevant? If so, then the Doctor was right, and all of history should be irrelevant - only its effects are real. Of course, that would suggest that people are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, as they so often do anyway. I have an impossible time relating to the young Kyrian who fantasized about the heroic explorers despite the fact that they were considered mass murderers: there was never a time when I was so young that I could have had idealistic fantasies about Nazi heroes separate from the knowledge of what they'd done to my own relatives. I guess things change over 700 years, but if that's the case, one would think - or hope - that the fighting wouldn't break out again quite so fast.

I thought the cast was great in this episode, particularly Kate Mulgrew, who was Janeway enough to be recognizable and also pure evil. I am sorry to say that I dug some things about her, from her casual friendliness with Tuvok to her apparent relaxation in her own skin, lounging comfortably on the bridge as if it's obvious she owns the place; I also thought the slick hair was considerably sexier than the dowdy bob. Robert Picardo gave an elegant, restrained performance, but I almost wished for more emotional intensity at the end, when the Doctor realized how much was at stake. However, I must ask: backup EMH? A handful of episodes ago, when Tom took over Kes's duties in Sickbay, it was clearly stated that Voyager does not have a backup EMH! Come on, lazy writers, at least give us a one-line explanation.

I wish the characters got dialogue this witty when they were NOT alternate-universe versions of themselves; why is it that Trek does evil twins better than ongoing characters (like Torres, who was completely absent from this episode except in mention due to Roxann Dawson's maternity leave, but when the alien said she was chief transporter operator and the Doc remembered mostly her beauty and sensitivity, I had to say that was about right). Although I mostly liked the writing of "Living Witness," it seems necessary to mention the similarity in concept to Babylon 5's superlative last-season-ender "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars," which also contained a holographic simulation from out of the past which decided to correct the present.

I am not going to bother to worry about all the stuff Voyager apparently left behind or the three dead engineers, since I'm sure we're expected to treat this as a reset button episode. I did flinch when the Doctor announced that Earth was home to the crew, considering that many if not most of them aren't human. If the point of this episode is that real accounting is necessary to avoid social tragedies which can lead to the repression or erasure of people from history, that seems more than a minor point. But don't get me wrong: this was a well-done episode, superbly directed, and quite enjoyable to watch.

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

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.