Well I took a bit of a reviewing hiatus over the past month or so because I made a major move for work, but now I’m settled in Ottawa and feel like tackling an epic Janeway episode: “Bride of Chaotica!”
“Bride of Chaotica!” is probably among the best holodeck-gone-wrong episodes. It’s written by the fabulous Bryan Fuller (teleplay co-written with Michael Taylor) and set mostly in Tom Paris’ Flash Gordon-inspired Captain Proton holonovel, which is suddenly invaded by “aliens from the Fifth Dimension” – photonic lifeforms. Proton’s nemesis, Chaotica, engages in a war with the invaders and in order to extricate Voyager from the space-problems caused by that, the Voyager crew – particularly Captain Janeway – must take on roles in the story to help the aliens defeat Chaotica.
But will they defeat retro sexism at the same time?
Retro sexism is modern attitudes and behaviours that mimic or glorify sexist aspects of the past, often in an ironic way. I’d say the worst Trek example is “Our Man Bashir,” in which Bashir role-plays a James Bond-type holosuite program where the women are reduced to heavily stereotyped vamps and sex kittens (Dax’s name is actually Doctor Honey Bare”).
In one of her early Feminist Frequency videos, Anita Sarkeesian tackled the idea of retro sexism in advertising, and helps explain why it’s problematic:
The retro sexism in “Bride of Chaotica!” is there from the first scene, with Harry and Tom discussing their mission to defeat Doctor Chaotica.
Kim: What’s the plan?
Paris: This is the part where we defeat Chaotica’s soldiers, steal their uniforms, and make our way through the underground caverns.
Kim: Hey! I thought you said there were slave girls in this chapter.
Paris: After we infiltrate the Fortress of Doom, we’ll free Chaotica’s harem. Let’s go.
Kim: I’m right behind you.
Nope, nope, nope. The idea of “slave girls” isn’t something that’s funny or cool now and it definitely shouldn’t be in a supposedly more enlightened 24th century.
Luckily, we get back to the 24th century we know and love pretty quickly because there’s a problem on the holodeck – weird purple vortices are appearing and meanwhile, Voyager is stranded on a “subspace sandbar,” or so Janeway, Seven and B’Elanna find out by jointly sciencing the shit out of the situation, while Paris kinda just hangs out.
Can I just say how nice it is to get Seven, B’Elanna and Janeway all together in a non-briefing room scene? This doesn’t happen all the time – it feels like at times after her arrival the writers felt Seven could just be subbed in for B’Elanna in sciencey situations, and it’s cool that the writers thought this was an issue where each one’s expertise was required.
Meanwhile, on the holodeck, which is still running, two photonic aliens in fancy suits appear through the vortices and are promptly slaughtered by Chaotica’s forces. Uh-oh.
But then, one of my favourite Janeway scenes of all time, which perfectly encapsulates how I feel when I have to talk to people before coffee.
After Janeway’s coffee fix, they figure out the holodeck is still running because of the photonic aliens, who are also related to the ship being stuck. An investigation on the holodeck reveals Chaotica has been killing the photonic aliens, and Paris suggests the Voyager crew must work with the aliens to defeat Chaotica, in character. Janeway reluctantly agrees to play Doctor Chaotica’s love interest, Queen Arachnia, ruler of the Spider People.
Unfortunately, there’s one more cringe-worthy moment, when Janeway exits the briefing by saying, “I’m a size four.” This is ridiculous not only because it seems so un-Janeway-like to care about her looks, much less brag about her weight to her senior staff, but also because it really reinforces that being a size four or less (something most women are not) is something to be proud of.
But anyway, from this point the tide really starts to turn on the retro sexism, and the biggest challenge comes from Janeway’s amazing facial expressions as Paris explains the premise of the Captain Proton universe and her role in it.
There’s this look:
And this one:
And this utter disbelief when he tells her to “uncork the pheromones” – literally, Arachnia has spider pheromones she can use to put Chaotica under her spell.
Janeway’s amazing reactions keep the episode fun but also send a clear message about how incredibly ridiculous this fantasy is from a modern perspective, especially for women.
Janeway as Arachnia is everything.
You can see Mulgrew is having so much fun in this role, and yet still making this Janeway at the core – owning the role and making Chaotica eat out of the palm of her hand.
Paris, Kim and The Doctor (who’s taken on the role of the President of Earth) and Satan’s robot are all helping out and being hilarious and adorable.
Doctor: Isn’t anyone going to sing Hail to the Chief?
Kim: Mister President. How’d it go?
Doctor: My performance was unimpeachable.
But even after being restrained by Chaotica, Janeway never becomes a damsel in distress who needs saving. Nor is she a faithful example of the black widow trope, despite being queen of the spider people. Yes, Arachnia is a female villain who seduces men and incapacitates them, but Janeway as Arachnia is working with Proton. She’s a good guy using the trope as cover to trick equally one-dimensional characters like Chaotica.
She uses the pheromones on one of Chaotica’s guards, disarms him, gets Chaotica to take down the lightning shield, and then shoots him.
Paris: I was about to say, Captain Proton to the rescue, but I see you have everything under control.
Janeway: I’m the Queen, remember?
So other than two particularly cringe-worthy moments (the “slave girl” part and the “size four” line), I think Bride of Chaotica is a really enjoyable episode. It’s a fabulous Janeway episode and I’d put it among the best holodeck-gone-wrong episodes too. Does it challenge retro sexism or reinforce it? Maybe a bit of both. There’s no explicit commentary on the problematic content a la Sisko in “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” but Janeway’s facial expressions and the way the story turns out help flip the script on some of the major sexist tropes of the era.
Bechdel Test: Pass. Janeway, Seven and B’Elanna talk about the subspace sandbar.
For more on this episode, check out our Women at Warp Voy-oween discussion.