Rebellious Subtitles

Like any good trekkie, I’ve turned the subtitles on for my fifth or sixth rewatch of Voyager so that I can be sure I’m not missing the spelling of any important names/people.

Look at them!

Look at them!

There’s plenty of important ways in which subtitles change the experience of the casual* Trek viewer, but one of the things it gives you is insight into how the people making the show** see their work. Take this, for instance:

2017-01-29 23.13.44The ‘triumphant theme’, for anyone who doesn’t recognise the tail end of that distinctive solar flare (FOR SHAME) is, of course, the Voyager theme itself. It is, I suppose, a triumphant piece of music – but that’s not the first adjective I’d have gone for, so it’s interesting that that’s how it’s seen here. In particular, it’s interesting because Voyager‘s setup – each episode (bar one) always-already closing with the ship’s continued isolation in the delta quadrant – seems ill-fitted to the idea of a perpetually triumphant signature tune. That, arguably, speaks to one of my broader ‘issues’ with Voyager, which is that it simply isn’t unpleasant enough (we are told that Ron D. Moore writes Battlestar Galactica, with its very harsh emphasis on survival in space, as a direct reply to the unusually cossetted lives of Janeway & co). But let that pass. The point is only that the use of the word ‘triumphant’, here, not only imposes partiality on a supposedly neutral relation of audio, but surprises us by demanding that we read the theme music in a new way.

So far, so obvious. You’ll imagine how far I sprayed my doritos, though, when whilst watching the very next episode I looked up and saw this:

2017-01-29 23.57.30Majestic! Now here’s a word we (or at least I) can more instinctively accept. The Voyager music is slower, warmer, and perhaps less ribald than the themes of the original series or The Next Generation. But it doesn’t have the ponderousness of the Deep Space 9 theme, either: unlike that music, which triumphs in establishing the mood of the first Trek show which is not predicated on the idea of movement, the Voyager music soars, rather as does the (literally) more aerodynamic little starship over the opening credits. But of course the exciting point here is not that we’ve found a better word to describe the music, but that our source for both words is a subtitle to the exact same shot. Since the credits sequence itself does not change at all between episodes, either visually or aurally, this little incident only serves to draw our attention to the fact that it inevitably reads (and, more, asks to be read) differently depending on the material which precedes and succeeds it.

That the same text can have its meaning altered by context is no new insight, but I hadn’t thought about it in relation to to the credits sequences of late-nineties science fiction shows before. The first screenshot comes from the season 4 episode ‘Retrospect’, which opens with the Voyager crew setting up an arms deal with a sinister local – the pre-credits teaser closes with Seven of Nine punching the local in the face, a sight which will never be entirely devoid of ‘triumph’ for me. ‘The Killing Game: Part 1’, meanwhile, which is where our second shot comes from, opens one of the season’s lavish two-parters, a deliciously ambitious holodeck saga at the start of which the Hirogen have already subdued the crew of Voyager and taken over the ship. ‘Triumph’ hardly seems fair in these circumstances, so the remooding of the credits music invites us to focus, rather, on the spectacular nature of the show in general and of this promising double installment in particular.

Tinged, now, with a growing nostalgia was well as with whatever prejudices about orchestral music and long opening sequences we might bring with them to the beginning, these identical sequences are already highly unstable. Netflix’s recent Series of Unfortunate Events acknowledges this by altering the lyrics (and some visual details) of its opening sequences between episodes; Game of Thrones, of course, changes the geography of its cartographical titles to match (roughly) the settings of each instalment. What Voyager‘s subtitling crew reminds us – urges upon us – is that even when these overt changes are not made, no title sequence is the same twice.***

* it is possible, I will admit, that I’m not in this demographic
** okay, probably some guy on minimum wage in a company contracted by the distributors of the people making the show, but let’s just breeze past that
*** FYI, I did some further checking on other episodes: many don’t have a subtitle on the solar flare shot at all (WHOLE SEPARATE BLOG POST), others seem most commonly to reuse ‘majestic’, but ‘triumphant’ makes reappearences too. I’ve yet to see a third adjective in play, but I’m only at the end of season 4.

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