But the big element in the episode is the inclusion of Amelia Earhart. My first reaction, I must admit was, Why? But as the show progressed it became clear why and my attitude changed quite a bit.
Now first off it must be stated that this is not a historical depiction of Amelia Earhart, rather it is a Theme Park History version of her. An idealized caricature.
When I was a kid growing up in Philadelphia we would often take field trips to the historical areas of the city. Once there we would inevitably be greeted by a Ben Franklin. And I want to emphasize a Ben Franklin not simply Ben Franklin. Because the Ben we kids were met with was a Theme Park Historical representation. He would be a kindly old man of indiscriminate middle-age. He would wear white knickers pulled up to his knees and black shoes with large buckles and a tan waistcoat with lots and lots of buttons. And his hair would be white and long and bald on top and his half-moon glasses would perch daintily on the edge of his nose. When he spoke to us it was in a soothing, calm way as he imparted wisdom in pithy aphorisms.
This was not meant to be a depiction of the real Benjamin Franklin but rather an idealized version – the nation’s Grandfather – not the complex, nuanced individual that helped start a revolution and various other interesting things.
It was the same with the Tom Jefferson (always in a rushing by, quill in hand, to write a treatise on liberty) or the George Washington (squared-jawed and commanding, always ready to lead men to freedom) or the Betsy Ross (frumpy but beautiful frantically sewing stars in a field of blue), no mention would be made of the idiosyncrasies or the disputes or the flaws or the, god forbid, slaves that were owned. That would tarnish the shiny exterior of the image that was being presented. This was Theme Park History – sanitized for our protection.
These representations were not meant to be history but rather they were used as metaphors for what a perfect American should be – noble, brave, witty, honest and true – symbols of virtue, a fetishistic versions of an ideal.
Star Trek does this sort of Theme Park History all the time (and to be fair so does sci-fi in general). When the Next Generation crew meet Mark Twain it is the white-suited, walrus mustachioed, cigar chewing humorist always ready with a quip and down-home folksy advice. And when the original crew met Abraham Lincoln he was ol’ honest Abe in a stovepipe hat being decent and wise.
So in The 37s when we meet Amelia Earhart it is not surprising in the least it is the most iconic version you can imagine. She is pretty, tough, extremely talented, smart and in control. She becomes the defacto leader of the titular 37s by sheer charisma, intelligence and gumption. People instinctively follow her because she exudes command and authority.Essentially she is a prototype Captain Janeway. And that is the role her presence in meant to achieve.
See back in the mid-90s the idea of a female captain on a fictional starship was unheard of and, ridiculous as it may sound now, was met with scorn and criticism. So by questioning her authority in-story and then reestablishing it via a historical precedent was effective. Sure, the use of Earhart as a metaphorical comparison was clumsy, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work. Janeway’s character emerges stronger because of this episode and worked to silence most of her detractors.
Now in real-life complaints about a female captain didn’t quite cease (because there will always be idiots and stupid people) but the majority of fans found themselves appeased and in-story her leadership was cemented. In that way this episode was remarkably effective.
And so, with status quo reestablished, premise restated and a captain in full, undeniable command we set off on the second season of Voyager. And it will just get better and better from here on in.
Well, fingers crossed anyway.