Sunday, March 21, 2010

Before Six, there was Seven

The first few times I saw "Star Trek: Voyager," one of my impressions was that the beautiful Jeri Ryan was the weak link in the show. My complaints were that she seemed like the token "babe," she looks nothing like a Borg drone, and, while I am no expert on acting, I thought there was something overly stilted in her delivery. I also found it annoying that she pronounces the word "futile" in the American way, so that it rhymes more or less with "poodle" and doesn't sound very threatening.

I've now watched the series in its entirety, and my opinion has changed. I still don't like the way she says
"futile," but Seven is a really interesting character, and Ryan, while probably not the best actress on the show, does a fine and sometimes quite inspired job portraying the rescued drone. This is one of a few pleasant surprises I had while watching the last couple of seasons of "Voyager."

I began watching "Voyager" about two years ago — I never watched it when it was current — and in general it was a great surprise. I liked it almost as well as "The Next Generation," and perhaps would have even liked it better if the latter didn't score so many points for nostalgia. I enjoyed "Voyager" for its premise (of a ship lost in distant space, impossibly far away, trying to get home), for its darkness, and most of all for its characters. Of these, Seven is a standout.

The first time I wrote about "Voyager" on this blog, I had just reached the halfway point of the series, and Seven had just debuted, more or less replacing Kes, the "other" blonde female crew member. Kes (Jennifer Lien) was an Okampan — an alien — but personalitywise she was just as human as anyone else on the show. In fact, she served as a foil to several of the "less" human crew members, especially the Doctor, a hologram, and Tuvok, the Vulcan. Kes was sweet, she spoke in a soothing voice, and she shared a warm rapport with the maternal Captain Janeway.

By contrast, Seven is technically human but, because of her years in the Collective, unsure of what that means. She observes people with a fresh, logical eye, making observations that are sometimes biting and often hilarious. To some in the crew, Seven is an object of fascination and uneasiness. To others, she is a protégé, sometimes an unwilling one. She too has a close relationship with Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), but if Kes was the good daughter, Seven is the difficult, rebellious one, which, let's face it, makes for more interesting developments.

Some of my favorite Seven episodes are
"Someone to Watch Over Me," where the Doctor (Robert Picardo) tries to teach her to go out on a date, and "Child's Play," where she has to say goodbye to one of the children Voyager rescued from the Borg. In both shows, she is weirdly stiff, and yet you can relate to her quite a lot, which is the beauty of the character.

The show, which started out as an ensemble, actually comes to focus on Seven a bit. In some respects this is a downside — I would have liked to have seen more of other good characters, especially Tuvok (Tim Russ) and B'Elanna (Roxann Dawson). In the series' second half, B'Elanna's role is basically reduced to being one half of a rather annoying couple with Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeill), though I did really like the episode where they got engaged ("Drive"), and I thought she was brilliant in the episode where she argues that her unborn baby's Klingon characteristics should be genetically modified before its birth ("Lineage").

The show scores wins other areas as well. For example, I was glad to see that in its second half, the series continues with its attention to visuals — space always looks beautiful from Voyager. On this show, a spatial anomaly isn't just an explanation for a plot twist, it's also something cool to look at. Perhaps this is because "Voyager" was produced in the age of the Hubble.

This respect for imagery carries over into the design of some of the alien worlds that Voyager visits. I especially liked the richly imagined city that was featured in the two-parter "Workforce." In this episode, Janeway, Seven, and others have their memories erased and are made to work in a vast factory, where the walkways look like wrenches.

Sadly, as often happens with long-running TV shows, some of the characters become inconsistent. This is especially true of Janeway. In most episodes, she's as perfect as Jean-Luc Picard, yet the latter half of the series has her occasionally veering off to Planet Inexplicable. In one episode, she recklessly endangers Voyager in order to pursue a rogue Starfleet captain ("Equinox"), and in another she ignores her duties as captain because of her own melancholy ("Night"). A season five episode has her cavalierly describe the Doctor, whose rights as an individual she previously had protected, to a system as insignificant as a replicator ("Latent Image"). In most of these cases, the seeds of Janeway's flaws are realistic, but the show's writers take them so far that they stop being believeable. In some ways, it's refreshing to see a Star Trek show feature a captain who is imperfect, but the approach should have been more measured. It's also slightly annoying that the franchise chose the first female captain to be the first with leadership flaws.

For me, the absolute worst episode in the series has nothing to do with character — it's just really bad. In "Threshold," Tom Paris evolves into a weird being that the Doctor pronounces a highly evolved form that humans will reach in the future (apparently he can either see the future or doesn't know that future evolution occurs based on yet-to-be-determined environmental factors). Janeway herself later evolves to this form, then both she and Tom roll back to a primative step on the evolutionary ladder, becoming lizardlike creatures who mate and have lizard babies before being restored to their properly evolved present-day selves, without the misplacement of a single hair in Janeway's auburn bob.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of my favorite episodes is "The Void," in which Voyager is sucked into a starless pocket of space, where there are no resources of any kind, and no exit — just other captive ships that troll about looking for people to prey upon. Like many of the best episodes, it's both creative and dark, and rather like another series I enjoyed — the reboot of "Battlestar Galactica." That program owes a bit to "Voyager," I think, both thematically and in some of its details, such as the use of hot pseudo-human characters with numbers for names. As I watched these last few "Voyager" installments, I found myself wondering more than once, could there really have been a Six without Seven?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Unfreeze the Charles

According to lore, the song "California Dreamin'" gained little attention in the all-important Los Angeles market when it was first released. But after it got air time in Boston, where people could truly appreciate lyrics such as "all the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray," it became a hit.

I thought of this story today, as I looked out my office window at the bleak city. My company's office space has a view of the Back Bay, the Charles River, and the southern border of Cambridge. We moved into the building in January, and ever since then, the Charles has been a cold hard strip of gray. Up until last week, anyway.

Last Wednesday we saw a large vessel pushing through what I had thought was still ice; my Belarussian co-worker joked that the craft was a Russian ice freighter. Monday was the first time I saw the water move, and then today, as snow drifted lazily down, one of my co-workers called out that there were sailboats on the Charles, braving the flakes.

Despite these signs of spring, some of us are still feeling the chill.

Earlier in the week I asked my overworked colleague Jon if he needed to pick up some lunch. He sighed in a way that told me he didn't have time and said, "Sasha, I need to go LA or San Diego today, too, and that's not gonna happen either."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Searching for the Promised Land

Their hope was fragile but compelling.

The mother and daughter weren't sure what lay ahead. As their plane prepared for its final descent, the daughter looked out the window and reflected on earlier journeys she had heard of. Decades before, her mother and grandmother had fled Nazi Germany, traveling separately and ultimately meeting two very different fates, one tragic. As the daughter pondered this, she hoped that this current journey, this quest for a new life, would be different. She hoped that their choice to travel together would bring good fortune.

But it didn't. Their move to Jonestown, Guyana, ended in fear, pain, and death.

This is part of Deborah Layton's narrative in "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple." The book describes Layton's seven years as a member of Jim Jones's church.

I decided to read "Seductive Poison" after watching a documentary about Jonestown. The documentary was great, but afterward I still wanted to learn more. What made people join the group and stick with it? What kinds of lives did they live? Would I have joined?

Different survivors would undoubtedly answer such questions in different ways. Layton addresses them in a way I found quite satisfying — but the book deals with more than just Peoples Temple. For one thing, it's a mother-daughter story far more insightful than any I've come across in fiction. If that's not your thing, "Seductive Poison" is also a suspense tale that I imagine would hook any reader, regardless of whether they're particularly interested in Jonestown. A comment from Amy Tan on the back of my paperback copy indicates that she read it in one night. If I didn't have a job, I probably would have, too. Instead I read it in a couple of nights, staying up well past my bedtime each evening and paying the price next morning, when I groggily explained to co-workers that I was reading a book that was a bit too good.

The story begins with Deborah's privileged but troubled childhood, focusing in part on her mother, Lisa, a non-practicing Jew who initially kept their ethnicity secret from Deborah. Likewise, many years passed before Deborah learned of Lisa's mother's suicide in the wake of her escape from Nazi Germany.

Deborah met Jim Jones when she was 17 and joined his church the following year. I probably can't adequately summarize all the reasons she was drawn to it, but it seemed like a mix of things: she was feeling adrift in life, he made her feel special, and once she joined, participation in the group was something she succeeded at. The church became a place where she could accept responsibility and do good works.

Of course, the Temple community was tightly controlled by Jones and reflected his sometimes sadistic and paranoid tendencies. As time passed and Deborah witnessed events that troubled her, she pushed her doubts down. At one point she writes, "My inner voice screamed something at me, but I could not hear it."

Deborah eventually became a high-ranking member of Peoples Temple, and her interactions with Jones are fascinating to read about. She offers a detailed glimpse into the upper workings of the group.

After Lisa also joined the church and the two traveled to Jonestown, Deborah became disillusioned. Instead of finding the Promised Land she'd been told to expect, she found a totalitarian encampment, hidden deep in an inaccessible jungle, where she and her mother had no rights and no reasonable prospects for leaving. Upon their arrival, their passports were confiscated, as was Lisa's pain medication, a treatment for her cancer (it later turned up in Jones's personal stash). Deborah was forced to work long hours in fields, and their lives were so austere, reading about it made me extremely grateful for my ability to make coffee and take hot showers whenever I want. Moreover, like other residents of Jonestown, they were continuously warned that mercenary forces were coming to kill them, and threatened in ways both overt and subtle, all of them chilling.

The story of Deborah's escape is riveting. I won't say more about it except that it reads like a top-notch thriller, complete with one interlude so surreal, it's almost Lynchian, though this story is more disturbing than anything David Lynch has yet dreamt up.

I was really impresssed with Layton's writing, which is spare, eloquent, and effective. Given that the book is only 300 pages long, she clearly pared down her many years of memories into just those necessary to tell the best possible story. Everything she writes feels real and compelling.

Consider her brief reflections on U.S. values. For me, after living through eight years of George W. Bush, I'm not especially taken by patriotic overtures — in the Bush-Cheney era, so many statements of American patriotism seemed manipulative and false. But Deborah Layton's are the real thing:

"Mud splattered my arms and face while I gazed out at the scenery, my prison, and I thought about all the times I'd hoped for my escape. I thought about that evening when I had sat on this same truck. ... jerking and bouncing after a long day in the field, promising myself that if I ever got another chance, if I ever again looked at a sunset from the United States of America, I would always cherish the gift of freedom."

It's worth noting that not all residents of Jonestown share Layton's dismal memories of the place. Some people were happy there. (One example is Laura Johnston Kohl, whose moving account is published on the web site Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.) If you do additional reading about Jonestown, you'll find that some writers seek to reconcile these differences using a "who was right?" approach. But if you consider that 1,000 people lived there, at varying periods, in varying proximity to the force of Jim Jones's overwhelming presence, it seems believeable that different people had very different experiences, that both types of memories are true and right.

Layton's story is one of my favorites because she tells it so well, and because I can empathize with so much of what she must have felt. The fact that her initial accounts of Jonestown helped spur Congressman Leo Ryan's ill-fated visit to the encampment makes the story historically significant as well, and doubly sad.

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.