“What we don’t know about death is far, far greater than what we do know.”
There is always doubt. There will always be doubt. I have a theory about what happens after death. If we live our lives in a time-based reality, then the “afterlife” everybody keeps fighting over must also be time-based. We know of no other way to live but on a schedule. Sun up. Sun down. Plethora of gods aside, there is always doubt. “Emanations,” for the Vhnori, is a peek behind the curtain of death and the supposed next stage in the life process. While studying mineral deposits on an asteroid, an away team consisting of Chakotay, B’Elanna, and Harry discover dead bodies wrapped in a bio-polymer.
Chakotay assumes this is a sacred burial ground and asks the landing party to put away their tricorders and make only visual observations of this place. Chakotay is only half-correct, and it is his single-mindedness on the subject that ultimately causes problems. It is a burial ground, but it is not sacred. It’s basically a landfill for bodies a device called a cenotaph sends to the “Next Emanation,” a place where physical law has no meaning, and the Vhnori evolve into higher beings. Or do they? During a transporter malfunction, Harry is swapped with a recently-dead Vhnori person. Harry materializes inside the cenotaph and freaks out the attendees at the memorial service.
The swapped Vhnori is a frightened woman named Ptera, who is revived and cured of her illness. To quote Richard Pryor, she looks up at Janeway, Kes, and the Doctor, and thinks, “Ain’t this a bitch? I done died and wound up in the wrong motherf***in’ heaven!” They try to explain to her that she isn’t dead, but she was apparently looking forward to the afterlife so she could see her brother again. She is disturbed to discover the “Next Emanation” is nothing more than an asteroid filled with bodies. She isn’t looking at it the right way. She doesn’t believe in the value of the soul, just the body and the changes the body would endure after death.
The Vhnori have a selfish theology that permits a grand evolution after death and then promotes that theology as some kind of a commodity. They even encourage assisted suicide when the body becomes too frail to care for, or becomes a drain on the family’s time and resources. Harry meets a dying man named Hatil who is preparing for his journey to the “Next Emanation,” but what he and Ptera share is a prevailing sense of doubt. They wonder whether any of this is true. Hatil doesn’t want to die. In fact, there is an underground railroad of people who escape death-by-cenotaph and live out the rest of their lives off the grid. He switches places with Harry in the hopes Voyager will intercept the cenotaph transport and recover his body before brain-death.
This is ridiculously deep material for Voyager so early in the show’s run. The episode succeeds for me because it raises the questions, and gives us a little bit of hope for an “emanation,” whatever that is. The fact that there are doubts shows that horrible mistakes could be made, and no society should exert so much control over a populace based on a desire to see heaven. The Vhnori are a race that spends so much time dying that they forgot what matters most is life. They place too much value on death.
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