A Soap Opera In Space: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two

Star Trek: Voyager:  The fourth television series set in the Star Trek universe, Voyager takes place in the same general time period as The Next Generation but features Star Trek’s first female captain of a much smaller, though unique, starship lost in the Delta Quadrant 70,000 light years, or twenty years’ travel time, from home. I’ve already reviewed season one, and since I’m still watching and enjoying, here’s my take on season two.

Star Trek: VoyagerI’m not sure exactly what was going on during the second season, which was Voyager‘s first full season, but it produced some amazing drama and a great deal of fun for me.  It may be significant that Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga, two writers from Star Trek: The Next Generation, played a large role in the second season, writing or contributing to 11 of the season’s 26 episodes.  On the other hand, Braga wrote what was arguably the worst episode of Star Trek ever, so…

What made this season so much fun was the soap opera quality it brought to the table.  A storyline might begin in one episode as a seed, and grow throughout several episodes until it flowers into the center of an episode all its own.  The major plot line revolves around Seska, the Maquis crewman who was actually a Cardassian spy who betrayed Voyager in season one, escaping to join the Kazon, Voyager’s mortal enemies.

Martha Hackett, who played Seska, was a brilliant antagonist for Captain Janeway, and she always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else.  Admittedly, I’d hate to see the series’ heroes consistently outplayed, out-fought, and out-thought every episode, but Seska proved to be a tenacious and dangerous adversary who had Starfleet, Maquis and Cardassian experience and training.  Seska manipulates Chakotay easily, and finds the Kazon Nistrim Cullah easy prey as well.  Before everything is said and done, she has both Chakotay and Cullah believing that they are the father of her baby (a soap opera style plotline if there ever wasy one).  Hackett’s performances simply stole the show in all of her episodes (it’s hard to believe that this plotline was central to only four episodes).  Indeed, this storyline wound up being critical to the season’s cliffhanger ending—something I’ll address again a little further along.  But before we hit the ending, we get intriguing glimpses into an arrogant but extremely capable woman, the Kazon culture in which she’s immersed herself, and the character defects of our heroes.  In a way, it’s a shame that the goodness had to end…

But that’s hardly all that Season 2 had going for it.  A love triangle involving Kes, Neelix and Paris added fuel to the fire.  Neelix displays insane jealousy throughout the first few episodes of the season, while Kes constantly told Neelix that Paris was just a friend, and Paris actually backed off when he realized he was beginning to feel something for Kes.  All of this may have worked better if Neelix and Kes had more or better chemistry, but Neelix generally came off as more of a mentor or protector for Kes, with no hint of sex or romantic involvement.  I guess since they’re both aliens, that’s okay.  At any rate, we get the first food fight in space when Neelix’s temper boils over, and the boys wind up stranded on Planet Hell, where their shared experience allows them to bond.  All in all, a nice arc for the two, which has ramifications for their friendship, and the chance to tug on the viewer’s heartstrings, throughout the rest of the season.

As an aside, “Investigations” featured then Prince, now King, Abdullah bin al-Hussein II of Jordan in a non-speaking role.  Hussein was a fan of the show, but could not be given a speaking role because he was not in the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Paris’ character development through the second season was nothing short of amazing.  In the first season, Paris is clearly trying hard to fit in and be a member of the crew, and in season two, that continues, but in Paris’ own way.  His emotional armor is up, and he’s never without a quip or a joke.  Paris holds everyone at a distance even while being the life of the party, even—or perhaps especially—with his best friend Harry Kim.  But in “Threshold,” which is in many ways the worst hour of Star Trek ever filmed (only DS9’s “Run Along Home” can really compete), Paris displays what really moves him: he’s a pilot, first and foremost, and he wants to be the first to achieve warp 10.  Somehow during the process the Paris shell cracks and we get a chance to see what really moves the man, and we get insight into how his mistakes may have flowed out of his conflicts with his father, a Starfleet Admiral.

A word about “Threshold” before we continue, since I’ve labeled it one of the worst hours of Star Trek in history.  The basic premise of the story is that you can’t achieve warp 10, because when you do, your speed is infinite and you exist throughout space simultaneously.  There are obvious advantages to such a speed, if you can reach it, namely that every point in the universe is accessible in an instant, and so Voyager‘s crew is assiduously researching this idea.  The flaw in the episode comes about from the consequences of achieving warp 10, which our intrepid crew manages to do: Paris changes rapidly into a superhuman being, the purported endpoint of human evolution.  And what, you may ask, is Star Trek’s view of such a perfected being?  It’s a lizard of some kind, apparently.  I could have lived with that if that was just something that happened to Paris through some quirk of his DNA or something, but since it also happened to Janeway, and since the crew rescued the two but left their litter of hyper-evolved children behind, I’m less than sanguine about the episode.  Brannan Braga, who wrote the episode, has acknowledged that they were not successful in what they were trying to do, and that this was in fact the worst episode he wrote.*

In the wake of “Threshold,” Paris’ character takes a turn for the worse as he develops seditious and downright insubordinate traits.  This progresses and worsens throughout the second half of the season until Paris leaves Voyager—all of which was a ruse, cooked up by Janeway, Tuvok and Paris in order to flush out a traitor supplying information to the Kazon and Seska.  The situation comes to a head in “Investigations,” in which “A Briefing With Neelix,” Neelix’s television-like contribution to morale, uncovers the true traitor and restores Paris’ good name.

Another intriguing aspect of the season is Captain Janeway’s never-named holonovel, which appears to be something along the lines of a Victorian novel in which Janeway takes the role of a nanny to a strange family where the mother may or may not be dead.  It gives the writers an excuse to put Janeway in a subservient, but not menial or lesser, role, and dress her up as well.  The holonovel becomes a focus for some telepathic skulduggery, but the holonovel does show us a different aspect of the otherwise tough-as-nails Janeway.  Incidentally, that episode, “Persistance of Vision,” does some intriguing things—especially for Star Trek.  The alien (his race was Botha) is driven off by Kes, who shows off some impressive (if passive) telepathic abilities, but interestingly, the alien was bad because it was fun, and Voyager neither got the last word nor stopped him from doing his thing to others…

Another fascinating episode came up when the crew realized that they had a serial killer aboard the ship.  It turned out to be Ensign Suder, a Betazed (and therefore telepathic) former Maquis.  Brad Dourif played Suder, and his chilling monologues about violence were actually a little scary.  His telepathic mind-meld with the Vulcan security officer Tuvok proved to be scary as well, upsetting Tuvok’s rather tenuous emotional controls.  Dourif played Chucky in Child’s Play, by the way, and true to season two’s form, this would not be the only episode featuring Suder.

Ensign Samantha Wildman, a secondary character, comes to Captain Janeway and tells her that she’s pregnant—her husband, and the baby’s father, is in the Alpha Quadrant and doesn’t even know that Wildman is pregnant.  The pregnancy persists throughout the season, culminating in a birth which would go on to have ramifications for the rest of the series.

The second season is also the first time in which the phrase “ship of death” is used.  Turns out that the Kazon have been spreading nasty rumors about Voyager and her crew, though to be fair, there are a lot of explosions and whatnot when Voyager comes around.  Still, this is the first time we’ve seen a Next Generation era starship operating so far from the Federation, and it’s refreshing to see alien reactions to the cloyingly noble Federation.

In the first episode of season two, we learn that Voyager, in addition to its other unique qualities, can actually land.  That’s a first for Star Trek, and it probably says more about the evolution (and cost) of special effects than anything else.  Sadly, once the writers got it into their heads that Voyager can land, they seemed to want to bring it up, and season two sees the starship on the ground three times.

B’ellana Torres continues to develop as a character, having faced and understood her Klingon half, and she seems more at peace in season two.  She’s also less inclined to flout the rules, which may have something to do with her continuing bonding with Captain Janeway.  The two are always riveting when they’re on the screen together, and though that usually involves science and engineering, the aptly-titled episode “Maneuvers” features an impassioned Torres defending the actions of a wayward Chakotay to Captain Janeway.  These two actors really work well together, and they are tremendous fun to watch when they’re together.  Torres’ embarrassment at seeing a fellow crewmember in the near-altogether is also amusing.

Chakotay gets a lot to do this season, and it’s not all being manipulated by Seska—for whom he apparently had very strong feelings at one point.  But we do get to see more of his background both as a Maquis and as a Native American, which is both good and interesting.  Poor Harry Kim continues in his role as the ensign to whom wierd things happen: in this season, he has to leave a doomed Voyager in one reality and board another Voyager which lost its Ensign Kim, as well as being transferred to an alternate timeline in which he was never aboard Voyager at all.  The holographic doctor continues to develop as a person, even falling in love and having a brief romantic relationship, while Kes displays new strengths as well as her trademark compassion.  She even tricks the holodoctor at one point by programming a simulated illness to last longer than he expects, in order to teach him what it’s like to be sick.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Tuvix,” an episode which has generated substantial fan and critical response as well as philosophical analysis.  To be honest, I found the episode a little trite, and felt that some of the characters’ actions were difficult to understand.  In brief, a transporter accident fuses Tuvok and Neelix into the title character, a new being with some of the characteristics of both individuals.  Needless to say, the question of what to do with the fused being is at the heart of the episode’s moral ambiguity.  After two weeks, the doctor discovers a way to take Tuvix apart and retain Tuvok and Neelix, but by then, members of the crew have bonded with Tuvix and he himself views the procedure as a death sentence.  Ultimately, Captain Janeway has to intervene, and the episode seems to garner strong emotional responses from viewers.

Voyager ends season two with one heck of a bang.  Seska, having cemented her position in the woman-hating Kazon culture, manages to lead Cullah and his Kazon Nistrim in a raid and then an ambush which succeeds in taking Voyager.  At the end of the episode, Paris has escaped in a shuttle, while the Doctor and Ensign Suder, the serial killing Betazed, are left on the ship and the remainder of the crew is marooned on a dangerous planet.  It’s one heck of a season finale…

* I think I need to defend Braga, in spite of his numerous detractors among Star Trek fans.  Let’s face it: the man wrote almost 150 episodes of Star Trek in 15 years, an astonishing output which included some very fine episodes, many of which showed up in Voyager.  He wrote the scripts for the highest and second highest grossing Star Trek movies (Generations and First Contact).  He’s a creative powerhouse who, like all of us, has made a few mistakes along the way, but we shouldn’t lose sight of his successes. (Jump back!)


6 Responses to “A Soap Opera In Space: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two”

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this article. I have seen all of TOS and TNG, and I’m currently working on Voyager, DS9, and Enterprise simultaneously. In terms of Voyager, I am just beginning Season 4. Some quick thoughts, Threshold is indeed one of the worst episodes not just of Voyager, but of all of Star Trek that I have seen thus far. I honestly just felt depressed after watching it. Viewing the season in terms of Soap Opera is interesting, but I differ in that I dislike many of these episodes for that reason. With the exception of the Doctor, none of the characters are that engaging. I’m simply not interested in the minutia of their lives. This is especially true in terms of Chakotay and Harry Kim, the latter of which is painful to watch at times. Seska is effective, but I do not feel the Kazan work as adversaries. They strike me as poorly organized and honorless Klingons. That said, I loved the article and will be reading more in the future.

    • I really enjoyed Season Two. I’m about half-way through Season Three, and finding it a little more difficult going, absent a few bright points. Season Two simply gave us something new for Star Trek; it’s as if the writers were experimenting with a more Babylon 5-like structure and at least the rudiments of a continuing story, where the events of one episode might well come back in another. I like that non-static approach to story-telling, especially when the writing seldom approaches that of Season Two’s “Tuvix” or “The ’37s” (an episode I didn’t care for very much when it first ran, but which appealed to me greatly this time round).

      Regarding the Kazon, I think the entire point is that they ARE ineffective on their own. It’s only when Seska is pulling strings and providing her strategic and tactical knowledge that they become dangerous!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly about enjoying the development of longer story arks. The “one and done” of the first half of TNG got tiresome. I was just implying that the content of the story arks thus far were less than thrilling. The seeds of other narratives have been dropped, and I am most interested in revisiting them.

    The Kazon are certainly a match for Voyager with Seska in charge, I simply meant that the Kazon were “beneath” Voyager as adversaries. (As opposed to the Romulans, Cardassians, Klingons, and the Vidians.)

    On a semi-related note, I am about to reach the Dominion wars episodes of DS9. Are you familiar with DS9 and are your thoughts somewhere on the website?

    • I can see your point, certainly—there are episodes, subjects and characters which do not appeal to me, as well. As an aside, one of the things I’m very conscious of is that my liking or disliking something isn’t always related to quality! At any rate, I do prefer the story arcs to stand-alone episodes without consequences or change, either to the characters or the circumstances.

      The Kazon…well, they sure aren’t a patch on any of the TOS or TNG “villain” races. They’re rather pathetic, or at least the Nistrim are, and I’m not sure what the writers were doing or thinking there. As you might remember, the Kazon turned out to be a slave race which rebelled against their masters, the Trabe, and stole their technology and ships. That could be a noble thing, but that’s not how the Kazon play out. Perhaps the sense was that a race which really had it going on would have stopped a single Federation starship 70,000 light years from home in its tracks. I can hardly imagine the Klingons, Romulans or Cardassians having much trouble with Voyager in similar circumstances; they’d eat them alive if they were stranded in their territory. So perhaps that’s why the Kazon are ineffectual.

      The Vidiians are a little more terrifying, aren’t they? They bring advanced medical know-how, a terrible disease, effective ship combat doctrine and weapons, and a horrible but understandable moral vacuum to the screen. The Vidiians have a “there but for the grace of God” feel to them, though, which may account for the general reluctance to use them. And once the Vidiians were humanized, instead of demonized—as well as the potential for a cure thrown out in the very first season—their dramatic potential lessened…

      My feelings about DS9…well, they’re mixed, and they’re not on the web site anywhere, unfortunately. I suspect I’ll go on to look at DS9 after I finish up with Voyager. My memories about it are that it’s a character-driven series which features strong performances and strong characterization across the board—not just the “A” level characters, but also the “incidental” ones as well. You might not like all of the characters, but they are all interesting and make interesting choices and decisions. They’re far more likely to be flawed, or hiding a secret, than most Star Trek characters…. When the show was running, I have to confess that I missed it more often than not due to scheduling, and then there was some kind of syndication snafu that pretty much eliminated my ability to watch the series for the last two to three years. I do remember that it gave us a very different look at the Star Trek universe, though, and exposed the seamy underside of the Federation. I’m actually sort of looking forward to seeing it now…

  3. Your point is well taken about “liking” something versus claiming something is of a certain quality. (Though understanding why you like or dislike something is an important step in analyzing something.) When I suggest that I think the content of the story arks are less than thrilling, I am making a subjective claim. I am not claiming the writing is bad or the episodes are poorly acted. I simply do not care about who is with whom romantically and who is sad and alone. This is because I generally don’t care about such things. While I think the cast of Voyager is quite weak, this is both a subjective claim and one that I think is grounded in an “objective” determination.

    I think your explanation for the Kazon makes good sense. I just find them mildly disappointing/distracting. My complaint is largely moot, because they have not made an apperance in quite some time and I am not sure if they will return.

    A brief digression, by pointing out what I deem flaws, I do not wish to convey that I dislike Voyager. I in fact like it very much. I just like deconstructing things. I do this with films and television shows that I have loved a great while. I do not wish to offend with my views.

    I would indeed recommend DS9. It is quite a bit different and is very proficient at developing longer narrative strands, which delve heavily into the politics and ethics of The Federation. It is quite amazing how things like Netflix simplify show-watching, an activity which used to be so much more complicated.

  4. […] A Soap Opera In Space: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two (top50sf.wordpress.com) Share this:FacebookMorePinterestTwitterPrintLinkedInEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Category : Uncategorized Tags : brain, Captain Janeway, couch potato, Guiding Light, hg, hulu, hyperemesis gravidarum, Kathryn Janeway, Lost, mother, nausea, netflix, Pregnancy, Star Trek: Voyager, StarTrek, television, vomitting, Voyager […]

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