Fact or Fiction: Suspending Disbelief in Star Trek: Voyager
How often do you find yourself questioning the reality of a situation on TV or in movies? Do you wonder ‘how did they do that?’, or ‘where did they get those tools?’, or ‘how did they know that?’ How is The Doctor on Voyager able to expand his program, seem like a real human? How does Holography work? How can B’Elanna invent a skeletal transporter lock and use it successfully two seconds later? When Tuvok acquires the “trajector” from the Sikarians, how come it automatically fits with Voyager’s console in engineering? Just why do Janeway and Paris mate as salamanders just because they broke the warp threshold?
The answer is… there is no answer. It doesn’t matter. A lot of plot development relies on us, the viewer. The writers cannot explain everything, and when they do, we need to pay attention and remember details. Time can advance between commercial breaks; ships in movies are well equipped, even if we don’t see it in action until fifty-eight minutes into the movie. Very minor details can be there in the frame, and we are supposed to see them. For example, in the movie Passengers, with Chris Pratt, most people ask how his character, Jim, knew where to access tools, metals, and stuff, when he is the only one awake. If you look closely, for a split second, there is a frame that clearly shows his name on the storage box he opens, and everything he uses is in that box. Therefore, the answer is: he brought his stuff with him, and he would know where it is because they would have told him when he boarded the ship. We, the viewer, were supposed to see that and make the connection. In addition, in TV series, we are expected to remember plot and character details from former episodes and seasons.
However, the biggest idea we, as viewers, need to understand is the concept of “suspending your disbelief,” as suggested by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (The Art of Watching Films, by Dennis W. Petrie and Joseph M. Boggs, 8th ed., p. 9) In his book Biographia Literaria, he wrote about “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” He was suggesting that, to enjoy fictitious works, we must let go of reality and immerse ourselves in the fantasy of fiction. Fiction can delve into the remote past or probe the distant future, it can make a few seconds seem like hours or compress a century into minutes. Fiction can explore the intellectual, philosophical, and fantastical. Fiction can run the gamut of feeling from the most fragile, tender, and beautiful to the most brutal, violent, and repulsive. If we fail to suspend our disbelief, we will miss the chance to feel those emotions, connect with the characters, find insights into our own lives, and we lose an appreciation for the story.
In the Star Trek: Voyager episode titled “One”, who cares where The Doctor found bio-stasis beds for the whole crew all of a sudden, four years into their journey? What matters is that we saw Seven of Nine overcome her fear and loneliness to keep the crew alive. We saw integrity, determination, loyalty, and victory. We saw the rest of the crew put their trust in Seven of Nine, which helps solidify their bonds of friendship. How they had over 100 biobeds doesn’t matter. How they could have stored all those beds on an Intrepid-class ship doesn’t matter. Suspend your disbelief.
In “Course: Oblivion”, you have to accept the premise of the duplicates. How they either duplicated or created a starship named Voyager doesn’t matter. What matters is that we saw the duplicate characters fight for their survival against all odds. We see them persevere in the face of hopelessness and despair. Moreover, we get to imagine all the possibilities that real-life space travel could present us with. Suspend your disbelief.
How can the Vidiians travel with healing medics who are dying from the Phage themselves? It doesn’t matter. What matters is we see how strong Captain Janeway’s commitment to her crew is, as well as the ever-present significance of their Starfleet principles. In the episode “Phage”, she is forced to let the Vidiians live and not kill them for Neelix’s lungs, but she gives them a stern warning, showing us her strength and fortitude as Captain, which sets up our faith in her for the resolution to many controversial and life-threatening conflicts in the series. Suspend your disbelief.
What matters is absorbing the intent of the writers. They are not perfect and there are flaws in their writing. Suspend your disbelief of the writing choices and see the story, not the unrealistic analysis that comes from judging fiction with ideas from reality.
Suspend your disbelief, let your understanding of reality go, and free yourself from our usual human constraints. It is Fiction, after all.