How Star Trek Voyager Changed the Sci-Fi Heroine
I was raised on Wonder Woman, Princess Leia and She-Ra. These were the heroines of my childhood. Always beautiful, always smart and resourceful, she didn’t do a whole lot of whining. She was also known to get the guy, one who invariably didn’t deserve her, but had some redeeming quality that only our heroine could see; just another example of her benevolence.
The sci-fi heroine as an archetype hasn’t changed too much in the past thirty-plus years. However, when a franchise as storied and established as Star Trek introduced their first true heroine, Captain Kathryn Janeway, the fandom exploded and sci-fi changed forever.
Not your father’s captain
Perhaps the biggest surprise with instating a female captain was how very different she was those who had come before. Captain James T. Kirk was modeled in the image of Buck Rogers and Saturday matinee idols. A true alpha male, he never wavered in his decisions, rarely heeded outside advice and put the moves on anything in a uniformed-miniskirt.
Jean-Luc Picard, a kinder, gentler captain, was less a playboy and more a college professor. However, he was still portrayed as a sex symbol, lusted after by alien visitors and crewmembers alike. While Riker was the beefcake, Picard was the thinking-woman’s man who could recite Shakespeare and the Prime Directive in the same breath.
Commander Benjamin Sisko further changed the Trek universe as he was the first commanding officer with a son in tow. While Deep Space Nine signaled a fundamental shift in the Star Trek ‘verse for a few reasons, it was Star Trek Voyager that turned the entire franchise on its head by putting a woman in the captain’s chair.
Janeway would have told Kirk to take a hike
Kathryn Janeway would not have been one of Kirk’s conquests. A strong, forthright woman, she was smart, funny and a little bit sexy, in that I’m-giving-you-orders kinda way. The show’s premise presents Janeway with a challenge none of her predecessors ever encountered—she and her crew were quite literally on the other side of the galaxy.
Cut off from the alpha quadrant, Starfleet and everything familiar, Janeway becomes den mother to an integrated crew of misfits, by-the-book officers, a couple of aliens and a holographic doctor. She must contend with a feisty half-Klingon, half-human chief engineer, a playboy pilot and a stalwart Native American second-in-command.
She must also deal with being separated from her fiancé and her dogs. She must accept that Voyager’s situation has changed and that she and her crew may never see their loved ones or Earth again.
However, Captain Janeway isn’t going to accept that. In fact, much of the first season she spends looking for any way, dangerous or otherwise, to get home. She drags Voyager across the Delta Quadrant, strikes deals with aliens of questionable character and pushes herself, her crew and her ship to the breaking point on a few occasions. The entire time it is her first officer, Chakotay, who pulls Janeway back from the brink of self-annihilation and dispels the crew’s mutinous tendencies too.
Love among the stars
Maybe the slipperiest slope for any female in a position of power is the question of love. Too often, strong female characters change drastically the moment they enter a relationship, and normally not for the better. They either become simpering and weak or domineering and unlikable.
Voyager sidesteps the issues by never putting Janeway in a serious committed relationship. Considering the ship traversed the Delta Quadrant for seven years, it’s fairly unbelievable that Kathryn would spend that entire time single. There is the hint at a relationship with Chakotay throughout seasons one and two, culminating in the season 2 episode, “Resolutions,” which finds Janeway and her first officer left behind on a planet to avoid dying of a mysterious disease.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this episode is that it’s at once a complete departure for the show, giving an intimate look at these two intensely private characters and also, a 47-minute distilling of Voyager’s entire conceit: what happens when you’re forced to leave behind everything familiar and start over again?
As Janeway demonstrated throughout the show, she does not take their new situation at face value, believing she and Chakotay will find a cure and reunite with their ship, while Chakotay believes they should make the most of their new situation and build a life.
I’m not certain that Janeway ever accepts their plight, but after her research is destroyed by an errant plasma storm, she must at least make peace with it. And this is where we see some real indicators of what might have been between Chakotay and his captain.
Maybe it’s the knowledge that Janeway doesn’t have to be the “captain” anymore and can let her guard down. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s standing on firm ground again, breathing oxygen-rich air and growing her own food that allows her to feel a modicum of peace. It raises the question of whether she could ever become that comfortable on Voyager, perhaps no longer pushing for a way home, but allowing her crew the chance to find a new place in this distant corner of the galaxy.
There is no evidence, in canon or the episode, that Chakotay and Janeway consummated their burgeoning relationship before being rescued by Voyager at the end of the episode. By returning Janeway and Chakotay to their “normal” lives, we also lose the chance to explore Janeway in a relationship. However, we have glimpsed a new side to her and that leaves the door of possibilities open just a crack.
Compassionate doesn’t mean weak
This interlude with Chakotay, along with a few that would come after, didn’t weaken Janeway. Instead, she was compassionate and empathetic without turning her into a weak-willed, emotional woman. She was steely and strong when necessary, understanding and caring when the situation called for it as well.
I believe this is best demonstrated at the end of season three, beginning of season four, when the show transitioned out Kes and brought Seven of Nine aboard. In many ways, Janeway does become a “mother” to both of these characters. Kes embodies the wide-eyed innocence of exploration, everything that is good and pure about the universe and the wonders it contains. Janeway is attracted to this, attracted to not only fostering Kes’ growth, but perhaps soaking up a little bit of her optimism to keep Janeway from getting jaded. The scenes where Kes and Janeway say goodbye are some of Kate Mulgrew’s finest acting on the show. Seriously.
And then we’re introduced to Seven of Nine. Aside from the fact that she was an obvious ploy to attract the waning attention of fanboys, Seven presents Janeway with a unique challenge: to embrace the ultimate enemy, the Borg, while acknowledging that Seven is even more in need of her guidance and compassion than many of the others they’ve encountered.
I could write an entire treatise on Seven of Nine and Janeway, but for the purposes of this article, let’s summarize it this way: for Janeway, Seven is at once the most frustrating child you’ve ever had and the most amazing. One minute she is the light of your life, the next minute the total bane of your existence.
Janeway deserves a place in the sci-fi heroines Hall of Fame
Were such a place to exist (and, oh my god, wouldn’t that be awesome?!?!?), Janeway would have been inducted years ago. Like the heroines I referenced in the beginning, Janeway holds her own in a setting normally relegated to men, keeping together a crew of over 150 disparate personalities while steering them toward home. She doesn’t do a lot of whining, she’s super-smart, beautiful, resourceful and kicks major ass. The only thing she doesn’t do is get the guy, although, I think we all keep our own council on what exactly happened between her and Chakotay.
A female captain in a notoriously male-dominated universe, Janeway was a risk for Star Trek and one I don’t know if they’d take again. But from a purely selfish standpoint, as a fan of sci-fi and strong female characters, I’m glad they did. I’d follow Janeway to the Delta Quadrant and back because I know she wouldn’t rest until she got us home.
And I’d never think for a second that she couldn’t.
*Information from StarTrek.com was used in this article.