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From the Final Frontier to the Audacity of Hope: How Star Trek Voyager led to the Obama Presidency

By Tom Anderson

For today’s article in my ‘Chains of Consequences’ series, we won’t be going so many years back in time. Only about a decade separates the start and end of this chain, which makes it all the more bizarre considering how unconnected they appear at first glance.


Barack Obama, President of the United States between 2009 and 2017, had a meteoric rise to power remarkable for its brevity. It’s instructive to look to the year 2000, in which most candidates for the 2016 presidential election were already prominent figures: Donald Trump and John Kasich both made abortive runs for the presidency, while Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate as the obvious first step for her own run. By contrast, in 2000 Barack Obama was an obscure member of the Illinois state senate who attempted to enter Congress by a primary challenge to Congressman Bobby Rush, but lost by a two-to-one margin. Yet just eight years later he was elected to the highest office in the land, leapfrogging many more prominent candidates in the process and becoming the nation’s first black president. How was this possible? Well, strangely, Star Trek: Voyager was one factor in the mix.


Debuting in 1995, Voyager was the fourth Star Trek series and the last one for which Gene Roddenberry lived to see at least the preliminary planning stages. It had a powerful, promising concept: a ship flung to the other side of the galaxy, with a female captain and a divided crew including recruits from former rebels, being forced to work together to travel home over a matter of decades. However, overly cautious writing and a reluctance to move away from episodic stories to story arcs (among other factors) meant that the promise of this setting was never fully exploited. The result was that the series struggled to establish itself and, by the end of the third series, was facing declining ratings. Brannon Braga, one of the show’s writers and later showrunners, had an idea for how to revitalise it.

The Borg, introduced by Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989, were an implacable and nigh-invincible foe, a collective of cyborgs with a shared consciousness and free from emotion or mercy, seeking only to ‘assimilate’ other races’ technology to perfect themselves. From their enormous cube-shaped ships, they would issue their iconic announcement in thousands of voices speaking as one: WE ARE THE BORG. YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. They had briefly assimilated the protagonist of The Next Generation, Captain Picard, and accessed his knowledge to wreak havoc on the Federation, murdering thousands of friends and colleagues in the process. One such victim was the wife of Commander Sisko, the protagonist of Deep Space Nine, and that loss went on to define his character. The Borg had also been the villains of the hugely successful and then-recent film Star Trek: First Contact, in which dialogue had confirmed that the Borg’s original home was in the Delta Quadrant, the region of space in which the USS Voyager had been flung. Therefore, it was natural that they would eventually feature in the series.


Braga’s idea, though, was that the Borg was not remain solely a chilling and faceless foe, but that a new cast member would join Voyager’s regulars, a human assimilated into the Borg as a child but now freed and forced to come to terms with her lost humanity. (Ironically, this idea had already been used by Star Trek novel writer Peter David in his book Vendetta years before, in which the producers of the show had forced him to include a disclaimer that David’s vision of the Borg was different from theirs, in that they would not routinely assimilate humans!) Braga saw this new character as being what Voyager needed as an archetype like Spock from the original Star Trek series or Data from The Next Generation, someone who could look in on humanity as an outsider and struggle to comprehend emotion. Rather more cynically, he also had the idea of making her a young attractive woman for the lowest common denominator ratings points.


The new character, dubbed Seven of Nine in the Borg’s bluntly numerical designations, was duly cast. Some actresses considered included Claudia Christian (Ivanova from Babylon 5) and Hudson Leick (who went on to play Callisto in Xena: Warrior Princess, citing later that she felt that the emotionless character of Seven would be unsatisfying to play). In the end, however, the showrunners selected German-American Illinoisan actress Jeri Ryan—and unintentionally changed the course of US politics forever.


Jeri Ryan had been married to Chicago investment banker Jack Ryan (not the Tom Clancy character!) since 1994. Her acting career with Voyager meant that they took turns travelling between Chicago and Los Angeles, which put a strain on the marriage, and they divorced—seemingly amicably at the time—in 1999.


Star Trek: Voyager came to an end in 2001, and despite the successful revitalisation of the ratings from the character of Seven, it remained one of the less well liked Star Trek series and has few defenders even today. Few could have expected that it would go on to have an unintentional impact on history three years after it ended.


In 2004, as George W. Bush was campaigning for re-election as President against John Kerry, Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald decided to retire and his Senate seat became an open race. Barack Obama, still a state senator, won the Democratic primary by an unexpectedly large margin, in part due to his opposition to the then-recent Iraq War. Meanwhile, Jack Ryan decided to contest the Republican primary and won it. However, as the campaign then progressed, the Chicago Times campaigned for Ryan to open his sealed divorce papers with Jeri Ryan and their child custody papers, though Ryan argued that they should remain sealed to protect the interests of their child. Eventually that fight was lost and the papers were released, containing allegations by Jeri Ryan that he had taken her to sex clubs and demanded she perform sexual acts in public. Ryan was forced to withdraw from the race, particularly thanks to Republican anger that he had not shared this potential for scandal with the party before his run.


The Illinois Republican State Central Committee was forced to pick a replacement candidate at short notice without a primary, and quixotically picked Alan Keyes, an African-American diplomat based in Maryland with extreme-right views. Lacking connections to Illinois and its political culture, Keyes trailed Obama in the polls. Obama’s Senate campaign became so high-profile that he even campaigned in other states on behalf of fellow Democrats. He was invited to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, raising him to national awareness, and won over many Democrats with his charisma and his memorable background and life story, being born in Hawaii to a Kenyan immigrant father and a Kansan white mother. Obama soundly defeated Keyes in the Senate election, even as Kerry lost to Bush nationwide. Remarkably, after serving only half his Senate term, Obama then chose to run for President for 2008—and won against the odds, defeating the favourite for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton.


So, without Jeri Ryan joining the cast of Star Trek: Voyager, would Jack Ryan’s marriage have broken down and led to his withdrawal from the Senate race? Would Obama have faced more of a fight and perhaps even lost the race? Of course, it may well be that the Ryans’ marriage would have ended anyway and Obama might have beaten Ryan regardless, but from an alternate-history perspective it is fascinating to consider that a casting choice on a Star Trek spinoff may have helped transform the idea of a black president from science fiction to science fact.


Conversely, of course, there is the irony that Voyager—the first Star Trek series to be set on a ship with a female captain—therefore could also be said to have delayed the election of the first female US president, as in the absence of Obama, Hillary Clinton would likely have won the nomination and (given the financial crisis) the presidency in 2008. At the time of writing this article, we still do not know who the first female US President will be—and when she will be elected. Perhaps we should pay close attention to the casting of any new characters introduced into Star Trek: Discovery…

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