Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Tattoo"

***

Air date: 11/6/1995
Teleplay by Michael Piller
Story by Larry Brody
Directed by Alexander Singer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"I feel like I'm fading ... just fading away. You don't know what that means to a hologram! My simulated virus is leading me to a simulated death." — Doc, with a simulated illness

Nutshell: Not great, but good. The backstory of Chakotay is especially engaging.

While on a routine mission of scouting for necessary resources on an M-class planet, Chakotay sees a symbol from his native past drawn on the ground of the planet. Rather startling since, just as in "The 37's," it would seem impossible to find such an Alpha Quadrant trait somewhere in the Delta Quadrant.

This is a good but not great Voyager episode. Despite a number of flaws in the story details, "Tattoo," like "Initiations," can pass with three stars because it works in the end. It's one of the season's more original stories, with a genuine Michael Piller teleplay (from a story by Larry Brody) that features cerebral storytelling centering around a relevant character core.

On long-range sensors, the Voyager picks up an M-class planet with an alien presence. Maybe they know something about Chakotay's symbol. Unfortunately, the aliens don't respond to hails, and the away team can't beam down to the surface because every time Torres tries to establish a transporter lock, a storm mysteriously forms at the precise beam-down coordinates, preventing transport. So Chakotay, Neelix, Torres, and Tuvok take a shuttle to the surface to have a closer look. On the surface, Chakotay finds a number of natural objects that he thought were indigenous to Earth, which he had seen in a South American jungle some 20 years ago while on a spiritual quest with his father.

Can you guess there's a connection between the aliens on this planet and Earth's history? That's what the underlying story of "Tattoo" does, and with fair success. Unfortunately this happens in the midst of some typical plot devices, like the away team being forced to abandon Chakotay when a strong storm "zeros in" on their position and separates them from the Commander. And later, the story introduces an unimpressive and completely unnecessary jeopardy angle when Janeway attempts to rescue Chakotay by landing the Voyager (an overused trick which seems to happen for the sake of happening) only to get caught in an intense atmospheric disturbance which causes the ship to begin plunging toward its doom. This scene makes me wonder if it's really a good idea for Janeway to be landing the ship on a whim—jeopardizing the entire crew for one officer.

But the successful elements of "Tattoo" are how it affects Chakotay. This episode is good character piece. During the away team's survey, Chakotay is reminded of the time he went with his father on a quest through undisturbed lands using ancient techniques. Piller's teleplay makes decent use of flashback to the past when Chakotay was a teenager. The editing together of the flashback scenes with the scenes taking place in the present is done smoothly with visual correlation, creating a strong narrative sense. Chakotay's backstory is compelling from a character point of view, answering a number of questions the series had yet to address.

Young Chakotay (Douglas Spain) was quite a different person. He didn't really believe in much of the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of the Chakotay of today, and wasn't happy to be on a quest in the middle of the jungle with no technology. Chakotay's father (Henry Darrow) was the type who respected land as a permanent home. He didn't believe in living for extended time on starships, and wasn't really happy with the fact that his son wanted to join Starfleet. Their scenes together are enlightening, although Spain's performance is way off the mark here. His line delivery is either just plain bad, or he's trying desperately to cover up an accent. I'll give him one thing though—he sure looks a lot like a young Robert Beltran could've looked.

On his quest, Chakotay and his father met a unique tribe who isolated themselves from the rest of the world. They wore strange markings and had unique stories to tell. Twenty years later and some 70,000 light years away, Chakotay meets a race of aliens on this planet who provide him with the answers to several questions from that day in his past, including where the tribe people originated, why they isolated themselves from society, and why they wore the marks above their eyebrows—the same tattoo Chakotay bears today to honor his father. While this is not as dramatically moving as the episode wants to purport, it does make for an interesting story—far more interesting than most Voyager stories of late.

Piller's story finds its strengths in character building scenes and aiming at a higher brow in science fiction premises. On a lighter note, Piller also supplies a reasonably amusing B-story where the Doctor attempts to justify his lack of bedside manner to Kes by programming himself with a simulated virus to prove that sick people don't need sympathy.

But the story's weaknesses appear in scenes that try to pad out the episode. One of those is the aforementioned Voyager-in-jeopardy plot, where the ship is saved by a ridiculous deus ex machina seconds before impact. Also, there are a few visual details that remain unclear. Take, for example, the hawk that attacks Neelix. Why did it attack him? And at the end of the episode, the hawk shrieks out, and Chakotay says to his new alien friend (Richard Fancy), "I hear what he's saying." Then there's dramatic music as if this is the story's big payoff moment. Okay drama, but what does it mean?

There's also the feeling here that Star Trek enjoys writing itself into history to get little messages across. This is the third Trek plot this season to do such a thing. First we had "The 37's" and now we have "Tattoo"—coincidentally aired the same week as DS9's take on historic events, "Little Green Men." Is this an intentional endeavor by the writing staff?

Oh well. Despite some objections on the plotting, I'll give this one an A for effort. It has some good characterizations and backstory, and it tries to be different.

Previous episode: Persistence of Vision
Next episode: Cold Fire

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23 comments on this review

Big Jones - Mon, Mar 24, 2008 - 1:12am (USA Central)
No mention of Beltran nearly breaking character and being on the verge of laughter for half the episode? That was the best part. :P
Anthony2816 - Fri, Jun 13, 2008 - 2:25pm (USA Central)
The writers have no concept of the size of the galaxy. Voyager just happens to find a floating Ford pickup truck. Voyager just happens to find the planet of Chakotay's Sky Gods. Later, Voyager just happens to find a couple of displaced Ferengis.

This just completely ignores probability!
Occuprice - Mon, Jul 7, 2008 - 10:08pm (USA Central)
I don't know, I never really liked this episode. I guess I'm just not a Chakotay fan.

Well, at least not with his Spiritual Crap. I usually love spiritual and religious plot threads and such. Sisko (and Kira too) on DS9 and Roslin (and all the others) on BSG are fascinating with their spiritual and religious journeys.

I've always found myself unimpressed and annoyed when watching Chakotay struggle with similar issues.
Jhoh - Mon, Oct 27, 2008 - 10:09am (USA Central)
I always thought these episodes about Chakotay were extremely stupid and racist, turning Native American cultures into a big mash of sci fi magic, most of it completely made up and having absolutely nothing to do with the real original culture. Having the "sky gods" turn out to be aliens that they just happen to find is pretty much George Lucas territory. The only thing missing from episodes like this is a Jar Jar character. As I remember, Beltran himself was very disappointed with his character's treatment as far as episodes like this go.

For perspective on how horrible these episodes are, just imagine if Voyager ran across a dragon, and Harry Kim has to explain that Chinese people believed in dragons, and through the course of the episode they reveal that dragons were real all along and they live in the delta quadrant, but visited China (specifically China) a very long time ago, and it leads Harry to come to some kind of spiritual awakening (which has no real bearing on his character in the future anyway). Or I have one, let's say that Captain Kirk flies the Enterprise into the center of the galaxy to find god, and it turns out it's just a big alien head that zaps people with lightning, and Heaven is really Needles, California (there sure are a lot of bark scorpions in Heaven).
Nic - Thu, Oct 22, 2009 - 9:14am (USA Central)
I agree with previous post. Terrible episode that had no impact on the character. Saved only by the fantastic Doctor story.
Mal - Fri, Oct 30, 2009 - 12:54pm (USA Central)
It's amazing: what passed for enlightened television back in 1995, is obviously ridiculously bigoted today. Just goes to show you how much progress we have really made in 14 years (fuck, fourteen years! we're old...).

I agree that the show is awfully narrow-minded. But remember, when Jammer wrote this review, America was even more narrow-minded.

A little empirical evidence of progress:
- In 1995 there were NO (zero) black governors, today there are two (2). (When the episode aired, there was only 1 female governor, today there are 4).
- In 1995 there had never been a black Attorney General; the current AG is the first.
- In 1995 there had never been a black Secretary of State; Colin Powell was the first (2001).
- In 1995 there was one (1) black Senator; today there is... one (1). Well, some things don't change :)

That said, I wonder if TV is actually worse off? Back in 1995, Avery Brooks (the Sisko) was the lead of a non-black show. Today, how many non-black shows have a black lead? Any?

And what do blacks have to do with Native Americans (the subject of this episode)? Nothing, but frankly, Native Americans are still pretty much fucked, and I just don't see that changing...

That said, compared to the crap that Voyager had been spewing out for weeks (months!) prior to Tattoo, this was certainly a three-star effort.
Hapworth - Tue, Feb 2, 2010 - 12:17pm (USA Central)
Yeah, like others, I'm bothered by the coincidences--Voyager coming across the 37s, Voyager bumping into a race of aliens that made contact with his tribe long ago. I'm all for putting logic aside, and I'm no hardcore sci-fi type (the type that demands, for instance, that physics must support (right down to the level of equations) a particular story detail), but when Star Trek--in all its guises--enters La La Land I have to admit that I inwardly groan. It's the biggest fault of Roddenberry and his successors: too many episodes simply don't pass as quality "SCI" fi (emphasis on the "sci"). There must be a way to have Chakotay's past come out more naturally and believably.
Carbetarian - Sat, Apr 16, 2011 - 11:00pm (USA Central)
I agree with Jhoh. The comparison to Harry Kim finding dragons pretty much sums everything up. But, I'll still give this episode three stars based almost exclusively on two things:

1) Neelix getting pwned by that bird. HA!

2) The doctor gets sick, and becomes even more hilarious than usual.
Matthias - Tue, Aug 16, 2011 - 8:35am (USA Central)
"Can you hear what the hawk is saying?" Yes it's saying "CAAAWK BRING ME THE TALAXIAN SO I MAY FEAST UPON HIS EYEBALLS!"

Too much Indian Magic and Universal Village for my tastes, thank you very much.
Nathan - Sat, Oct 29, 2011 - 4:40pm (USA Central)
Bleh. At least it wasn't a TOS-style parallel Earth.
Justin - Sun, Mar 11, 2012 - 11:25am (USA Central)
One thing I like about this episode is the use of the flashback. It's a great character development tool which would eventually be used to perfection in LOST. I recall at least 2 later Tuvok episodes which used flashbacks as well as at least one Seven of Nine episode. Too bad they didn't do more of this. It would have been a great, consistent way to set Voyager apart from the other series.
Justin - Sun, Mar 11, 2012 - 12:45pm (USA Central)
Also, @Jhoh - I don't find anything particularly "racist" in this episode. At worst it's well meaning and maybe a little naive. Then again, if the writing were good enough, I wouldn't mind seeing an episode where a group of interstellar Christians try to convert other worlds, or a Bhuddist civilization on a Federation colony, or space-dwelling Hare-Krishna's. I don't mind Trek's primarily agnostic sensibility, but exploring Earth religions in an interstellar context might have been interesting to see.
Paul York - Wed, May 2, 2012 - 4:15pm (USA Central)
The emphasis on respect for nature of indigenous people and the disrespect of using firearms was good, I thought. It shows that respect for nature is universal, not indigenous to only Earth, and that space travellers can share these values. I did not buy the idea that the Federation respects nature, as Chakoty claimed. In fact the Federation and Starfleet have imposed a technological empire, just as our industrial society has done.
Roger Lynch - Thu, Jul 19, 2012 - 2:10pm (USA Central)
Other than the most writers in this block, I always enjoyed this episod. Maybe, because I grew up with the writings of Mr. Erich v. Däniken. I am fifty by now and in the seventies the man´s opinion has been a hype.

Jhoh - Thu, Sep 20, 2012 - 6:29am (USA Central)
One thing about the idea of interstellar Christians and so on, if they were ever done in a Trek episode, they would have to be the villains, yet Chakotay's dad is practically identical but "he's right" because indians in this story are magical (in the interest of the story wanting to have a good heart or whatever it is). It's a well intended racism but it's still racism.

Personally the best review of this episode is the one done by SF Debris on blip.tv, it's a good second opinion.

I will agree that compared to a bunch of the other Voyager episodes around this time, this really is more like a 3 star episode. For Voyager anyway.
Lt. Yarko - Tue, Jun 11, 2013 - 6:28pm (USA Central)
Eh.

Native Americans were not only enlightened, but enlightened by ALIENS! And, of course, the European invaders were nothing but diseased jerks. Yeah, yeah. I know this story. I never really fell for all the romanticizing of native american culture that became sort of popular in the late 2000s. Not that I don't respect their culture as I respect any, but I think that some people think their culture was more peaceful and enlightened than it really was. Native American stories bore me, to be honest. Avatar was like this. Boring. The only one that I can think of that didn't bore me was Dances with Wolves, but that was more because of the humor and high production values. Primitive drawings, medicine bags, and dancing around the fire generally put me to sleep.

And, don't even get me started with the magic storms appearing out of nowhere then disappearing again. I suppose they came up with that technology while worshiping hawks. Ugh.
Ian - Wed, Jul 24, 2013 - 2:54am (USA Central)
I really get tired of the "native good, white man evil," drivel. Those who constantly accuse others of racism usually make such accusations to make themselves feel superior, like they claim 'racists," do.
For the record NO ONE is all good or all bad.
Europeans may have defeated the native-americans but they usually got help from other native-americans.
Cortes and 500 Spainards defeated the Aztecs civilization of a million because the other natives in Central America were tired as serving for humna sacrfices by having their hearts ripped out by the thousands every year.
Scalping was a tried and true method of killing by others and their is eveidence that an earlier culture and people that was closer to caucasians actually existed in the early Americas before the native-americans, who we call native-americans actually killed them off...
T'Paul - Thu, Sep 5, 2013 - 3:51pm (USA Central)
I think one thing is criticizing this episode and another is using it as a proxy to attack indigenous Americans.

Yes, it is perhaps implausible to come across a symbol of Chakotay's ancestors on a random planet in the Delta Quadrant, especially just where Chakotay and co. beam in, but hey, it's a TV series about humans in space, and the stories revolve around that.

Voyager has a character of indigenous American descent, and this is a way of exploring his character.

It's a story, a fairly harmless one I would say, and as a US program, I think it's legitimate to have native American themed programs, when there is a dearth of them, and transfer these stories to a sci fi context. Nobody is saying that this is the truth, it's simply a story.

As for the last comment, the Spanish didn't win because of an uprising of the oppressed in Central America, but through introducing diseases that the local residents didn't have and through political machinations, motivated by greed to obtain natural resources... this is just a fact.

Having said that, some indigenous societies (in fact almost all) did significant damage to the environment well before the Europeans arrived, and it is true that a certain romanticism almost universally ascribes them a love and concern for the environment that may not have been true.

Where the difference lies is the huge scope of the change to the environment that often accompanied colonization, which is perhaps at the heart of indigenous resistance to change wrought by settlement. It's not that everything was perfect, but a certain balance was knocked off, which leads to indigenous people yearning for things to be the way they were before colonization, yes, perhaps idealizing certain things, but aren't we always motivated by ideals? (Surely a question that needn't be asked of Star Trek fans). If idealizing our ancestors, accurately or not, helps preserve the environment I'm all for it. I think if we don't start to take care shortly, then we may start looking on that past that some others above have criticized so lightly with much kinder eyes
Mad - Wed, Sep 18, 2013 - 12:00am (USA Central)
"Yes, it is perhaps implausible to come across a symbol of Chakotay's ancestors on a random planet in the Delta Quadrant, especially just where Chakotay and co. beam in, but hey, it's a TV series about humans in space, and the stories revolve around that."

No. They revolve around situations that are supposed to make sense within the context of that TV series.

"Voyager has a character of indigenous American descent, and this is a way of exploring his character."

Except they don't. Chakotay's "American descent" is nothing but bunch of ignorant stereotypes, that only hurt actual native Americans. And even if it wasn't, there are much better ways to explore that, than more racist magical Indian nonsense. And frankly why do they need to explore that? Can't they just make him interesting person on his own?

"If idealizing our ancestors, accurately or not, helps preserve the environment I'm all for it. I think if we don't start to take care shortly, then we may start looking on that past that some others above have criticized so lightly with much kinder eyes."

Because nothing helps your cause more than using lies and reducing entire culture of people to bunch of stereotypical bullshit.
inline79 - Wed, Sep 25, 2013 - 3:40pm (USA Central)
To distract from the politics above, what numbnuts designed the transporters on Voyager? These things never work!


Anyways, One scene that hit home was when Chakotay couldn't speak the ancient language. How many of us North Americans are carrying names from ancestors whom we wouldn't be able to communicate with if they appeared today? Be it German, Chinese, Ukrainian, Hebrew, etc, etc... I know I'm one.
Caine - Sun, Oct 13, 2013 - 8:22am (USA Central)
So ... one of your ancestors was called Inline?

;)
Ric - Thu, Mar 20, 2014 - 4:21am (USA Central)
Once again, the transport beam is not working. What is a direct proof that writers' creativity wasn't either.

Another example is the main plot. As Jammer has said, it is just another episode of Trek telling us about alien background of ancient cultures in Earth. The first, second or third times it may sound smart, fresh, amazing. At this point it is just predictable and sort of boring.

And what about minor flaws like Kes suddenly knowing how to reprogram a holo-experiment? Blah. And what about the universal translator missing precisely when Chakotay encounters new aliens? Pfff

Sure, the character development here is nice and welcome. Sure the B plot with The Doctor is amazing. Funny and touching at the same time, as usual. I also enjoyed the nice thouch of the "that's the way human conquerors often introduce themselves".

Still, the show seems a bit tired at this point and I hope it got better later.
Vylora - Wed, Aug 20, 2014 - 12:16am (USA Central)
Admittedly, there's some decent effort given to this episode. However I have a feeling that the writers, at times, delve into story ideas without really thinking them through. The Chakotay story here was admirable enough but some of it didn't feel quite right. It didn't help that too many contrivances were involved. The parts involving the Doctor, though, were fantastic.

2.5 stars.

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