Detour: Star Trek Voyager Season One


You know, I could get used to this Netflix thing.  I’ve just switched from a combination streaming and one-DVD out at a time membership to two DVDs out at a time.  I don’t have anything against streaming video, but I do prefer to watch on my TV for any number of reasons.  At any rate…I decided it was time to begin watching some fun science fiction television to go along with the relatively serious stuff in the movie list.

For reasons which aren’t entirely clear to me, I chose to begin with Star Trek: Voyager.  I could have started with the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, starring James Edward Olmos and Mary McDonnell, two sterling performers in a fantastic series which raised the bar for science fiction on television.  Or perhaps the underrated Babylon Five, a ground-breaking show with more than just a nod to E. E. “Doc” Smith‘s Lensman series, along with a superlatively drawn four-year long meta-story.  But I’d seen both of those much more recently…then there’s the excellent and ground-breaking Farscape, which features some amazing performers in Ben Browder and Claudia Black, along with an astonishing writing crew…but I was in the mood for something a little more traditional, and had very fond memories of Voyager, so I decided to spend a little time with Paramount’s only female captain and her mis-matched crew on their 70,000 light year journey home instead.

So why review it at all?  Why not just watch and enjoy?  It’s an old series which went off the air back in 2001 after a seven-year run, and I’m aware that anyone who wants to see it has probably already done so.  And yet…I loved this show when it was on the air, watching it without fail for seven years.  So it’s sort of an old friend, and I decided to go back to it and see how it held up.

Star Trek: Voyager occupies a fairly unique place in the Star Trek franchise, which consists of five television series along with a number of movies.  It was the first, and so far only, series to anchor an entire network, being one of the flagship shows of UPN, Paramount’s venture into network television.  It was also syndicated, though at one point UPN ended the syndication deal and fans outside of the UPN’s broadcast area lost access to the show…

Caretaker (Star Trek: Voyager)

First, the setup.  Simply put, a Federation starship, Voyager, and the Maquis (a group of terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective) get stranded in the Delta Quadrant 70,000 light years from the Federation.  They were drawn there by the Caretaker, an alien who’s been looking after the Ocampas—providing them a safe existence, including food and energy, in an underground city with the planet’s only available water supply.  The Caretaker is motivated by guilt because he accidentally destroyed the planet’s hydrocycle.  To make matters worse, he’s dying and is looking to have children using a compatible life form so that he will have a worthy and motivated successor to protect the Ocampa when he dies.  The Ocampa are threated by the Kazon, a nasty bunch with some fairly capable ships who would love to get their hands on the Caretaker’s Array.  During the fight which erupts around the Array after the Caretaker’s death, the Maquis destroys the main Kazon warship by ramming it.  The crews of both ships, now on Voyager, watch as Captain Janeway uses her entire supply of tricobalt explosives to destroy the Array so the Kazon can’t get it.

Then Voyager, with both Starfleet and Maquis personnel on board, starts off on the 70,000 light year journey home.  They think it will take about seventy-five years.

The important characters:

  • Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), the captain of Voyager;
  • Chakotay (Robert Beltran), a former Starfleet officer who resigned his commission to join the Maquis and defend his family, captain of the Maquis ship pulled into the Delta Quadrant, and First Officer on Voyager;
  • Tuvok (Tim Russ), a Vulcan member of Starfleet with a long-standing relationship with Captain Janeway who infiltrates Chakotay’s Maquis crew for Starfleet, and after Voyager catches up to the Maquis ship, returns to Voyager as Chief Security Officer;
  • Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeil), a disgraced son of a Starfleet admiral who was dishonorably discharged, joined the Maquis, and was captured, after which Janeway pulled him out of a penal colony in order to pilot Voyager on its mission to the Badlands;
  • B’ellona Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson), a half-human half-Klingon hybrid member of the Maquis who struggles with anger issues and winds up serving as Voyager‘s Chief Engineer;
  • Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), a Starfleet ensign who is assigned to Voyager for his first mission fresh out of Starfleet Academy;
  • Neelix (Ethan Phillips), a Talaxian native to the Delta Quadrant who joins the group and serves as cook and unofficial morale officer;
  • Kes (Jennifer Lien), Neelix’s main squeeze, an Ocampan girl with undeveloped telepathic powers who takes up medicine; and
  • The Doctor (Robert Picardo), a holographic artificial personality originally intended as a temporary emergency medical officer.

Right from the start, it looked like Voyager was going to be a much more serious show with a harder edge than the sometimes-maligned, very optimistic Star Trek: The Next Generation, perhaps even an equal to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Look at the setup for a minute:  half the crew of Voyager are former terrorists who are on Voyager because it’s the only ride home after the events of the pilot.  Add in that Voyager’s security officer infiltrated the terrorist group, and that some of the terrorists wind up holding positions of authority on Voyager, passing over Starfleet personnel in the chain of command, and that Captain Janeway blew up the way home in order to protect a species which none of them knew or cared about, and which had only five or six years before they’d have to emerge from their protective caverns, and you’ve got the makings of some fairly serious conflict.  Oh, yes, and they have limited supplies and no way to conveniently get the things they need—including photon torpedos—as well as the fact that they’ve come in conflict with a species which is rather angry about their actions to date.

Somehow, though, a lot of that got muted or lessened in the first season.  It felt less like a desparate group of people with serious divisions in desparate circumstances, and more like a group of people in semi-bad circumstances who are determined to pull together and make things work.  I think that may be why I liked the show, upon reflection.  It retains the hopeful vision of Gene Roddenbury, that people can get along if they try, and they can take pleasure and explore along their journey.  It also captures the essence of the first series, with the exploration element being foremost, though in the context of a near-Utopian, perfect Federation.

To put it another way:  this show is not about a heroic journey in which the characters achieve heroic stature.  They already have it—they’re representatives of a near-perfect society in a near-perfect future.  You will see character development, as various characters confront both a hostile universe and elements of themselves, but you won’t see people struggling to do what’s right; this group knows what’s right, and is looking for the right way to do what’s right.  In some ways, that’s a bit of a weakness for a television show.

The first season had some pretty bad episodes, which seems to be the rule for series in general as they get into gear and figure out what the show’s about and what the characters and settings are capable of.  The low point is probably the first episode, Parallax, in which Voyager finds itself in a “quantum singularity.”  Only they don’t realize it and try to rescue themselves.  Sound confusing?  It was a mite silly, with Voyager somehow traveling outside the singularity while it was still inside it.  I didn’t understand it either, though there was some technobabble about a temporal distortion, and I suppose in the grand scheme of things this low point can’t touch, for example, DS9’s “Run Along Home” for sheer unadulterated stupidity.

In addition to the inevitable “anomaly in space” type episodes (Parallax, Time and Again, The Cloud, Eye of the Needle, Emanations, and Heroes and Demons), we also get to meet the Vidiians, a race of disease-ravaged folks who steal organs and skin to survive (Phage and Faces) as well as an “arc” episode in which a traitor is unmasked, with the potential for subsequent drama (State of Flux), an original series-like episode featuring brain vampires who want to eat the crew’s neural energy (Cathexis), and three Next Generation-like episodes (Ex Post Facto, Jetrel, and Learning Curve).  The stand out episode, from the vantage point of originality, is probably Prime Factors, a unique episode in which a concept like the Federation’s Prime Directive is used to justify not sharing a potential way of traveling 40,000 light years in a single hop with Voyager.  Cathexis successfully creates a paranoid environment as the crew is serially possessed by an entity that seems to be trying to stop the ship, all unaware that it’s Chakotay trying to save the ship.  The two Vidiian episodes are well done, and State of Flux is a good story in which we discover that Seska, a Maquis, is actually a Cardassian infiltrator who betrays the entire ship to the Kazon.  We know we’ll see Seska again…

Two of the episodes run right up against the Gilligan’s Island problem:  in both Prime Factors and Eye of the Needle, the crew is presented with a way of either getting home or cutting their journey time in half.  You know, right from the beginning, that it won’t work.  If it did, it would completely undercut the show’s basic premise and require a complete retooling of the show—or its ending.  In both cases, though, the writers handled those series-busting concepts intelligently, and the question was not whether the crew would find a way home, but rather how it would deal with the inevitable disappointment of the method not working.  In other words, the shows illustrate, in a bizarre meta sort of way, that it’s not the journey’s end that’s important, but the journey itself.

On the plus side, we get some nifty character development.  Captain Janeway emerges as a woman you don’t want to cross—she’s well aware of the capabilities of her ship, and almost arrogant about what’s right and wrong.  Though she’s a scientist by training, she’s definitely the captain of the ship, and she shows a willingness to shoot first if she believes the situation requires it.  Kes emerges as a compassionate, bright and burgeoning young woman with some serious intellectual, and perhaps telepathic, gifts.  Chakotay is another stand-out character, demonstrating an unswerving loyalty to Janeway, presumably initially founded on respect for a Starfleet officer who is trying to do what’s right instead of what’s convenient, as well as a deep understanding of the needs of his crew (both parts of it).

There is some fun stuff along the way, of course.  I love the fact that Kathryn Janeway is willing to go to great lengths to get more energy so she can get coffee.  Her relationship with Belanna Torres emerges quite nicely, with the two women—one a former scientist turned commander, the other a free-thinking engineer with a knack for problem solving, bond over the technical issues facing the ship.  And watching Torres split into her human and klingon selves due to some Vidiian medical know-how is great fun, as is the Doctor’s slow emergence, under Kes’ patient and compassionate urgings, as a real person.

All in all, the short first season satisfies.  It’s not great, but it is fun, I enjoyed watching it—though I’m looking forward to Season 2 with high hopes for the show getting into second gear.

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