Star Trek: Voyager

Star Trek: Voyager

Yes this show ended some time ago; that doesn’t mean that it’s not still underrated.

A relative late convert to Star Trek, this author committed to traversing the Delta Quadrant having finished The Original Series, The Next Generation, Discovery & Picard to date. Deep Space Nine is next; like the Doctor I don’t know anything about this ‘Dominion’ but they seem important and we’ll get there.

Having now finished Voyager, here’s the (spoiler-filled) thoughts of someone who came to the bridge afresh and savoured the light-hearted nature of the show. Yes TNG demanded more attention and the episodes herein that do are generally better, but for relaxed, semi-serialised adventure Voyager is a high point.

We’ll start with the negative and get to the fun stuff.

From the get-go there was a jarring disconnect between the premise and goals of the show. If a ship more advanced than any in the region is travelling really fast in one direction they’re not going to keep running into the same people; better begetting a saga poised for episodic rather than serialised fiction. The writers and audience were evidently a little tired at this point of TNG’s slavish devotion to wrapping everything up in 40-odd minutes so wanted to try variations on a theme; it was the right approach for the time accompanied by a smart premise that didn’t match.

And a stellar premise it was only set to be buoyed by the Federation-Marquis dynamic. Also partly squandered, corresponding grounds for strong tension and stories were left by the wayside – characterised by Chakotay’s ill-established, apparently immediate and seemingly endless trust in Janeway; together major failings of the show.

On continuity, and just so it’s out of the way; no they don’t show it but it’s clear the crew just manufactured more photon torpedoes like they did so much else.

Commencing with one of the best episodes, there is rarely a subsequent moment as character-defining as Janeway destroying the array. Don’t get me wrong, Kate Mulgrew is great, but she alike Kirk and Picard are, as fleshed out as they become, for stretches bare variations on a tired theme; young headstrong hotshot dedicates their life to the stars to become a reasoned, seasoned Commander. ‘Tapestry’ did it best and there was no need to explore this further.

Voyager had a general problem with characters that took several seasons to grow; it was a long time before Neelix stopped being grating and his earnestness became endearing. There is too very little you can relay about Tuvak beyond his being a Vulcan and a little sardonic, or Harry besides his yearning for advancement or Chakotay aside his membership of the Marquis and focus on his cultural background.

The stand-out worst episode of the entire show was Chakotay finding out that the Sky Spirits central to his people’s religion were actually from the Delta Quadrant; you can garner Robert Beltran’s clear ambivalence (at best) to such material. This author is aware of the significant tension between the actor and others on set; I can understand the frustration at a lead cast member belittling the series in public but the directions and emphasis the character took in later seasons was something else, as were the music cues whenever his or some others’ cultures came up.

Star Trek, and notably The Original Series, is often (but not always) shrewd for both telling stories addressing the place of culture, religion and community in people’s lives while not overly if at all drawing attention to particular characters’ backgrounds. To Beltran’s credit, he only made the disaffection perceptible on screen in the episodes that were of poor taste, as opposed to the ones that were just bad. There are many lousy episodes of The Original Series but what near always makes it enjoyable is Shatner et al’s absolute commitment to the bit. One of the very worst episodes of Voyager is the one where Harry is lead to believe that he’s actually from a planet in the Delta Quadrant full of attractive women; yet no one in Star Trek ever needs to look bored reading their lines. There are good ones and bad ones and we’re along for the whole ride.

There’s also that one where Tom and the Captain turn into salamanders, start life on a random planet and somehow transform back into their usual selves with these shenanigans never brought up again. Yeah that was awful but it was preceded by a generally decent few acts centred on exceeding warp limits; reputation aside it wasn’t quite down there.

On Alpha Quadrant folks being in the Delta Quadrant, as much as I missed the Klingons they did not need to rock up latently and near the very end; there were plenty of better ways to give B’Elanna an arc. One of the more interesting characters, she offered a variation on Worf’s overwhelming pride as a Klingon, though she barely got enough episodes to shine and these were predominantly featured much later on. And when the show stopped pretending Tom was the cocky pilot we’ve seen dozens of times before he too managed to get a whole lot more interesting.

It would have made a lot more sense for McNeill to just directly continue his character from TNG’s ‘The First Duty;’ alas.

Also welcome were the insights into the Borg; even if they became a lot less eerie it was great to learn that much more about them, though nothing, save the introduction of Seven, bettered the recuperating drones who were the ship’s first Borg encounter. The Borg children were also very funny (the related Voyager pick-ups in Picard were excellent) and should have stayed on the ship longer so Seven could say more things like “fun will now commence;” she can only say “Naomi Wildman” deadpan, as good as it was, so many times.

Heralded by such a superb actress, Seven and the Doctor thrillingly shared dual arcs akin but distinct to Data’s and each other’s, permitting us to relish their gradual growth and revel in their leaps forward. Seven’s narrowing down of eligible crewmen, unlike Chakotay’s later courting, was a particular highlight, as was her month of isolation when the crew were in stasis and the one where the Doctor overtook her node.

The Doctor however emerges the best character, far and above all others save the near as interesting Seven. Picardo’s charisma and stage presence, well-befitting an exaggeratedly humanistic, bombastic piece of programming, only propelled the most relatable arcs in the series; his desire to fit in and, as any, make a contribution. The Doctor’s opening number in ‘Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy,’ but one occasion where Picardo’s vocal abilities were graciously integrated into the series, by this author’s judgement is the funniest sequence in seven seasons.

‘Message in a Bottle’ with the Doctor centre was too among the very best of the series. Mining any opportunity for comedy we can nonetheless be grateful, alike TNG, that they kept the bald jokes to about one per season. 

As asides, it was lovely to see Reginald Barclay return and realise his aspirations in one of the best and most heart-warming episodes of the saga, while the singular and very obvious inspiration one episode draws from Predator proved amusing for just being so unabashed.  

‘Scorpion’ was amazing as was anything to do with Species 8472. Captain Proton, acknowledging the entire franchise’s schlocky roots, was a definite recurring highlight, with Mulgrew in one installment clearly having no end of fun alike the cast’s enjoyable turns in late 90’s Los Angeles alongside Sarah Silverman. Speaking of guest stars, seeing The Rock was a nice surprise though with hindsight they may never have cast him given Star Trek shrewdly chose to not have celebrity appearances overshadow the show. But hey, they can’t see the future; at least cleverly opting to obscure Jason Alexander in piles of costuming. 

‘Year of Hell’ is good, but the premise befitted an entire season and alike the lacklustre finale nothing really matters (with some well-executed exceptions) if you can just go back in or erase time. There were many, many episodes that shouldn’t have been contained within forty minutes and deserved longer-form devotion, ala ‘30 Days.’ ‘Timeless’was a much better (and unusually technically-focused) variation on the aforementioned themes and it was fun to catch Geordi, as it was Deanna and especially Sulu. ‘The Omega Directive’ was cool; ‘The Thaw’ was great.

The fable-esque nature of the franchise has always been enjoyable and digestible given the show is partially aimed at kids, though there are episodes where it’s just a little too direct, and characters take a little too much pause. ‘Alice,’ the one where Tom almost cheats with his ship as an overly obvious parallel about why you shouldn’t have sex with other people if you have a girlfriend, if a good lesson, in execution was a tad much.

On reflection this author was surprised to discover some of the least generally favoured episodes, among them the Fairhaven double. It may be my great personal affection for Ireland but it makes perfect sense that given the time available this sort of world would be created and characters might pursue holo-relationships, a theme underexplored in Voyager yet still covered to great effect. The established technical deficiencies of holo-technology in such regular use should not come as a surprise when they recur.  

The one where Kes comes back was actually a later highlight; her character was never very well handled and no it wasn’t that blast off into the sunset but sometimes old friends lose their way and it’s the job of old friends to set them on the right path.

Most surprising was the dislike directed at ‘Tuvix.’ The difference between Voyager and much heavier sci-fi is that herein characters make a lot of decisions that are hard, not ones that are difficult. The destruction of the array was devastating but not morally questionable within the confines of the show. As a tangent, you could argue that had Janeway made the decision to return to the Alpha Quadrant at the beginning of the series that it would have been the morally correct decision given that, as we see in ‘Hope and Fear,’ another highlight, the ship would not otherwise have been a factor in much disorder and destruction. The show was not however so expansive philosophically as to greatly tread such ground as the franchise otherwise managed in the likes of ‘City on the Edge of Forever.’

In ‘Tuvix’ Janeway, a figure, like Chakotay, who often shifted characterisation to fit the requirements of any given story, was faced with a difficult decision with no easy moral out nor ethically unquestionable approach. It was a refreshing change and correspondingly dark denouement to boot apparent in the likes of ‘Latent Image,’ another fine instalment with the Doctor.

‘Eye of the Needle,’ the only episode this author has watched twice to date and a deeply empathetic early high point, save ‘Balance of Terror’ is the best treatment of the guarded but necessarily relatable Romulans (I haven’t seen all the movies!). ‘The Void’ bookends the show as a later stand out while the in respects not dissimilar ‘Night’ bears one of the darkest challenges and finest, most resonant endings. 

This brings us to the ‘best episode;’ one featured regularly in top ten lists but seemingly not a very favourite.

‘Blink of an Eye’ is everything that is exceptional and aspirational about Star Trek. Stranded in the stratosphere of a planet where time passes with greater rapidity, the curious presence of Voyager in the skies begins to influence the society to the point where the inhabitants develop space travel to face the spectre.

A commentary on the Prime Directive as deft as any and a relatively novel variation on both the time travel and petri dish tropes resplendent throughout sci-fi and Star Trek, the episode is also a fabulous meta-commentary on the place of the franchise in popular culture much less crude than Janeway bemoaning the Doctor’s fleeting interplanetary fans’ obsession with every aspect of his personal life. Incorporating a fair bit more science than is typically par, the astronaut’s moving decision to help them, as with his staring into the heavens as Voyager finally departs, speaks to the selfless ethos and sense of overwhelming curiosity so intrinsic to the most basic lore of Star Trek, the most beloved episodes and all that Gene Roddenberry best achieved.

It’s also an amazing meditation on first contact principles and pitfalls which unlike many episodes doesn’t borrow story bones from TNG.

A more than welcome reprieve from a pandemic, I didn’t spend as long in the Delta Quadrant as the crew but for what I did I was glad to relish with them.

Star Trek: Voyager is now streaming on Netflix