Let’s face it, Star Trek can have really bad luck with women. Whether it’s being seduced by salt-sucking shapeshifters or being so damned suave that an intergalactic peace offering bonds to you, the moment our illustrious men get rose-colored glasses on we can be sure there will be broken hearts and angst by the end of act three.
But rarely do these encounters come off as so truly damaging as Seska and Chakotay’s relationship in the first three seasons of Voyager. The train wreck of emotional abuse and manipulation comes to a head when Seska, after betraying Voyager and joining the Kazon, admits to stealing Chakotay’s DNA and impregnating herself.
Let’s hard stop there for a moment. Seska straight up admits to raping Chakotay, or if not raping in the strictest sense, severely sexually violating him.
Now this isn’t the first time that Star Trek has dealt with the issue of rape, sexual assault, and pregnancy (and, I might add, poorly, as evidenced by The Next Generation’s “The Child”), but in this case we do see a not often explored side of these issues. Often, even in Trek, pregnancy is defaulted into a happy, natural, morally-pure thing, even when the circumstances around the pregnancy are less than ideal. However, in the episodes dedicated to Seska’s character arc, it’s used in a much more dynamic and realistic way.
There are people in our world who “baby-trap” their sexual partners by lying about or sabotaging their chosen method of birth control, whether that means secretly going off the pill, poking holes in condoms, or removing contraception mid-encounter. This is one of the most manipulative things that can happen in a sexual relationship, because it works off the assumption that the partner cannot leave once a pregnancy is involved, due to social pressure, financial responsibility, guilt, or legal obligation. Attitudes toward this kind of abuse are couched in the language like “A baby will make it better” and “pregnancy brings couples closer together” that makes it seem like less of a violation of trust and more of a happy surprise when really, one person is deciding their partner’s entire future for them (or at least their future for 18 years).
Now, what I do love about this arc is Seska’s character. She’s a manipulator and a spy. She’s heartless and ruthless and will do whatever she can to come out on top. She’ll play whole sects of Kazons against each other and knows how to use Culluh to her best advantage. She’s a villain and a woman. And her womanhood doesn’t excuse or invalidate her actions.
She doesn’t ignore her identity as a woman nor does she ignore the expectations that her situations put on her as a woman. She uses the Kazons’ misogyny to manipulate them and uses her relationship with Culluh to get safety with the Kazons. She’s a strategist and a manipulator that uses her feminine identity to her advantage, like any good spy would. Seska’s a delight to hate, and she doesn’t get away with being hated less or more because of her gender. She’s a good villain written to be a good match for Voyager.
The largest flaw I find in her story arc is the way that the crew of Voyager have a more or less null reaction to Chakotay’s violation. Chakotay finds out about the assault on the bridge, in front of the main bridge crew and Captain Janeway. And yet, there seems to be very little concern about Chakotay’s mental wellbeing or how this may impact his place of authority. We never get a scene that asks Chakotay to question himself and understand any personal anguish he might be feeling. The news is mostly seen as the latest complication to the crew’s journey, not as something that should have a complex emotional weight to their First Officer.
One scene where Chakotay is asked to dig into his personal feelings would flesh out the whole plot device, but instead we jump to several months later without seeing any wrestling from Chakotay. This is damaging because it supports both the idea that male sexual assault/rape isn’t valid if the assailant is a woman, and that men aren’t as emotionally connected to their roles as parents as women are. Chakotay is surrounded with people he is emotionally close to, and yet he doesn’t have a conversation about his attack with anyone on the ship. It would have been easy to give Chakotay a moment with The Doctor as impartial counselor to solidify the emotional toll that an event like this would instil.
The only introspective scene that we get with Chakotay is between himself and the spirit of his father in “Basics, Part I,” the season 2 finale. But even that discussion only comes around because of Chakotay questioning his responsibility toward a child he had no agency in creating. And while the conversation is poignant and important to understanding Chakotay’s cultural history and decision making, this introspection only happens when he knows that this purported child is in mortal danger; we never see Chakotay try to emotionally question his responsibility to his child born to an emotionally abusive and manipulative mother in a dangerous environment.
And when we find out the kid isn’t actually Chakotay’s it changes the audience’s entire perspective on the chosen risk. When we do see an emotional reaction from Chakotay, it’s one of anger, which enforces masculine stereotypes. We see him angry about letting Seska sneak under his radar and guilt about making Voyager vulnerable. We see him make rash decisions and go after the Kazon himself to “fix the problem,” but all of these reactions are external anger and frustration. This plotline could have been used to explore a very seldom seen story of sexually abused and manipulated men, but we don’t get that. Instead we get a convenient pronouncement of “he is not the father” and a wrap up.
The Seska-Chakotay relationship could have been an in-depth discussion about choice in procreation and what the difference is between being someone’s biological parent and their chosen parent. I would’ve loved to see Trek ask the Voyager crew, and by extension the audience as well, to think about what it means to not only seek out new life, but be part of its creation.