Saturday, August 27, 2022

Character Damage Control: Commander Chakotay

 Oh, Star Trek: Voyager, like my parents' attitude in regards to myself, I do love you for what you are, but I also know you were capable of so much more.

You know my story, I'm a huge fan of the TNG Trek era (That's pretty much from 1987 to 2005) but Voyager was special because it was the first one I was going to properly watch from the beginning. And I was hyped from first episode to the last. But in the more than 20 years since the final episode aired, me and a friend have always thought of ways that we would improve things.

So I'm back again, this time to maybe build on a character who had a lot of potential but sadly they never reached their full potential with and that would the show's First Officer, Commander Chakotay, played by Robert Beltran.

That touch of gray in his hair will be gone by the end of season 3...

Chakotay's actually the first character in the series to say a line as he's leading his band of Maquis outlaws in escaping a Cardassian warship.
In their attempt to escape, their ship is flung to the other side of the galaxy. The starship Voyager is soon dispatched to search for them and they find themselves equally lost.

By the end of the pilot episode, both crews are stranded, Chakotay's Maquis ship is destroyed and his crew now have to work with the very people who were trying to capture them if they want to get home in one piece. Oh, and he's also got some previous beef with Voyager's helmsman, Lt. Tom Paris.

Wow, sounds like there's going to be some compelling drama, right?

Well...not really. The following episode does address these tensions as does the final episode of the freshman season but for the most part, it just feels like standard Star Trek as the series went on. 
Unless a character was named "Captain Janeway", "Seven of Nine" or "The Doctor" there wasn't a lot of character development or backstory. Oh, sure, occasionally there'd be something mentioned or hinted at but it was never built upon. Heck, after the pilot Chakotay and Paris' tension just vaporizes.

And again, where's the drama, where's the conflict? Oh sure, Chakotay would occasionally disagree with the tactics of Captain Janeway but in the end he was always deferring to her. For any Voyager fans who might be reading, the most interesting thing that happened to Chakotay was in the finale when it was just dropped on the audience that he'd been dating Seven for a while.

Like me, most of the audience was left asking, 'Wait, when did THAT happen!?'

But what would I, the Right Honorable Schweitzer-Man, do to give the character of Chakotay some intrigue, some depth and maybe even personality? Well...I'd do more than give him a first name which they never address in the show.

First off, I'll build off of what was previously established in the show. Chakotay grew up on a colony close to the Cardassian border and prior to the TNG era shows, it's established that the Cardassians and Federation were engaged in a conflict that came to be known as the "Border Wars".

    That's not what I was referring to!

The Border Wars were mentioned from time to time by another Star Trek crew member, Miles O'Brien, who was on both The Next Generation & Deep Space Nine. He often mentioned an event called the "Setlek III Massacre". 

Be honest, you thought I was making all this stuff up, didn't you?

So if I'm writing this, Chakotay is at Lieutenant, leading a team during the Border Wars and thanks to his actions, he's able to repel an attack on another colony that would have had casualties greater than or equal to what happened at Setlek III. Doing this makes him a hero to those border colonies as one of their own who rose to the occasion. 

Let's say he rises through the ranks, makes it to the rank of commander and serves as an XO for a year before being offered a position at Starfleet Academy where he'll be teaching Advanced Tactical Studies (A fact that was established later in the series). 

He earns a reputation as a tough, but fair, professor. And then come the Maquis. See, even though the war between the Federation and Cardassians was over, the Cardassians were still attacking Federation colonies in the newly established Demilitarized Zone. The colonists, feeling abandoned by Starfleet & the Federation, are taking matters into their own hands to fight back.

Chakotay initially sympathizes with their position but at the same time, he can't fully support it. Yes, he believes that the Federation should be doing more to protect them and offer support but he can't get behind the bombing of vessels and other terrorist tactics that the Maquis employ.
However as time goes on, things change, especially when he keeps seeing reports of violence at his home colony.

Suddenly he's more sympathetic to their cause and begins openly questioning Starfleet's policy in the DMZ. Then one day he's called into a meeting with a few Admirals who let him know they're offering him the Captain's chair.

Thrilled at this opportunity, Chakotay accepts. He'll be overseeing the refit of an Excelsior-class vessel at a shipyard close to the DMZ; that's where the official promotion ceremony will take place. But as he's onboard the Runabout taking him to this shipyard, he learns what his first mission will be: Tracking down and eliminating Maquis bases in the DMZ.

And that's when it all starts to hit Chakotay; Starfleet is using him. They're putting this hero of the colonies on this ship to hunt down his own people.
If the Maquis attack this Favorite Son, almost a living legend, they risk alienating a lot of their own colonists sympathetic to their cause.
It's no longer about doing what's right, but just maintaining a treaty which the Cardassians don't seem intent on honoring.

Upon this, Chakotay turns his back on Starfleet & the Federation. He hijacks the Runabout and takes it to the DMZ and one of the top leaders of the Maquis. So even though he was supposed to be a Captain, in the end he left as a Commander.

This is a huge departure from what's actually established in the show where it's established that Chakotay just...resigned from Starfleet. 
How...thrilling?

So the pilot ends and these ragtag renegades now have to work with the Starfleet crew in order to survive. Like I said before, that should be a source of drama but it isn't. You'd especially think that Chakotay, the leader of these rebels would be the most vocally opposed to it but if anything, he's the one who adjusts the quickest to it.

Heck, the pre-opening credits scene to the second episode has him threatening two of his own crew with charges of mutiny when they suggest he should try and take over the ship. THIS is the terrorist leader?

What would have added to this drama is if they changed a crucial part about Captain Janeway; make it that she wasn't Voyager's initial Captain but rather the First Officer.

Before you set that phaser to 'kill', hear me out.

Voyager's original First Officer was killed when they were flung to the other side of the galaxy so that's why Chakotay was able to fill that position. But suppose a different character was Captain and instead Commander Janeway is the first officer?

Here, Janeway would be involved with Starfleet Intelligence, not having served on a starship in maybe...five to seven years, taking part in this mission purely in an observational standpoint as her recent duties have had her focusing on defeating the Maquis. Yes, I know in the show Janeway was primarily a scientist but let's say she can be both.

So what a contrast. On one side you would have Janeway, a Commander who is forced to take the role of Captain even though she may be unprepared for it. On the other side, Chakotay, a man who was all but destined to be Captain but now back to being a subordinate. These two different personalities trying to work together to get their people home would have been really interesting to watch.

A Captain who is primarily an intelligence/science officer and maybe unprepared for her new position as leader of a crew of 150 and a First Officer who is probably more qualified to be in charge and has a more tactical way of getting things done.

It probably would have lead to better stories and not gotten Robert Beltran to be so openly critical about the series. Heck, I wasn't even on the show and I sympathize with his position.
Beltran was vocal about the writing while Voyager was on the air but perhaps the years have mellowed him out a little? Right now he's back to playing Chakotay on the animated series Star Trek: Prodigy.

I have no plans to watch that series but who knows, maybe that'll be the series to give the character the depth that he was worthy of.

"Potential character development? Finally, something to smile about!"

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