Star Trek: The Long Road Home

In January of 1995 the fourth installment of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek franchise started out on what could have been the franchise’s greatest installment. The idea was ripe with promise but, by the end of its run, Star Trek: Voyager would prove great ideas don’t always translate to great shows. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Voyager for what it was. But it could have been more and some of us will always wonder at what could have been.

Voyager started by throwing a lot of the playbook out the window. The starship Voyager wasn’t just a ship on a mission of exploration, it was a ship lost in space. A series of events left it on the opposite end of the galaxy from Earth, with an eighty year trip home in front of it. Captain Janeway would have none of the prestige of the Federation’s name to back her or the threat of Starfleet reprisals to deter danger. No one in that sector of space knew what a human was, much less whether their government was worthy of respect. Gone also was any attempt at relevance to the current political situation – it didn’t even exist in slight nods like we saw in DS9 with the Maquis or the Cardassian occupation. The idea was to bring back the hard driving captain, a la Kirk, and the danger of the unknown and surprising.

With DS9 on route to the Dominion War and a bruising, exploration free future Voyager was something the franchise badly needed. It sought to keep Rodenberry’s dream alive while presenting us with new and exciting vistas and cultures for the franchise to explore. It succeeded only in part.

The first two or three seasons of Voyager present us with a section of the galaxy that looks an awful lot like home. There are analogs to the Klingon in the Kazon and the Ferengi in the Talaxians – and that’s just in the first episode. We even see analogs to the ancient Iconians later on in the series. If the hope was to take us to a new and fresh section of the galaxy it sure started off feeling a bit old and stale. But there were new cultures and cool new ships and new planets and new problems and Voyager tackled them all with vim and gusto in spite of its rocky start. That part was fine.

What was less fine was the attempt to shoe horn in some nonsensical interpersonal squabbling in the form of the Maquis. You see, Voyager was not the only ship stranded in the Delta Quadrant. The Caretaker, a very powerful alien who brought them to the Quadrant, had pulled in many different ships and one of them belonged to the terrorist group Voyager had been chasing. The idea was to combine these two groups and let personal conflict erupt. This was a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, the Maquis were all Federation colonists or former Starfleet officers estranged from their government by a peace deal with the Cardassians. They had very few philosophical or moral differences from Starfleet – the conflict arose almost entirely from differences to political circumstances that, once both groups were a galaxy away from home, no longer existed. As a result there were only a few avenues for good story conflicts to explore without venturing into the realm of the truly ridiculous. Once they were all mined out the idea was dropped and Voyager functioned as a Starfleet ship for the rest of the series. The idea of two crews with shared goals but fundamental differences in morals or methods that made working together hard would be explored again, but much better, in the episodes “Equinix I & II”.

But the biggest misstep in Voyager was the Caretaker itself. Not it’s inclusion, but discarding it so quickly. The Star Trek universe has a number of mostly forgotten civilizations that travelled huge swaths of its galaxy long before humanity took to the stars. The Preservers and Iconians both controlled large chunks of the galaxy, according to the lore. But no take on the franchise has ever explored them in depth. It would have been nice to see the Caretaker tied to one of these civilizations – or perhaps even a new one – that Voyager could have encountered on a recurring basis as it made its way home. The Voyager crew as travelling interstellar archeologists would have been fun. As it was, Voyager only encountered one other Caretaker in a fairly forgettable episode. While Enterprise would play with the idea of a powerful civilization scattering artifacts throughout a section of space in its third season even the Sphere Builders wouldn’t receive that much in the way of development. It was a missed opportunity that could have really made Voyager distinct, possibly even a standout in the latter half of the franchise’s life. Alas, it was not to be. The Caretaker served as a MacGuffin to get the crew away from the Federation and was promptly killed off and ceased to be of much relevance.

Voyager did expand on the lore by adding three new antagonistic species that were interesting and fun. The Hirojen are basically the Predators for the Star Trek universe and seeing how Janeway dealt with them was pretty interesting. The Malon introduced interstellar junk haulers to the clean and tidy Rodenberry future and added a very unique spin to a number of situations that could have been very generic. And Species 8472, also known as the Undine in later spinoffs, added a new juggernaut race to the galaxy for humanity to worry about.

The showrunners also decided to bring back two big NextGen antagonists in a totally new way. The Borg returned in a big way, acting as a recurring obstacle from season 4 onwards. Everyone knew this was coming, Picard met the Borg in the Delta Quadrant after all, but the necessity of dealing with the Borg on a semi-regular basis and the fact that the series couldn’t ever let Voyager get caught stole some force from the menace of the implacable Borg. Add in the fact that the writers applied the (aptly named) Worf Effect to them in order to build up Species 8472 and the fact that we tend not to fear things we understand (rightly or not) and the Borg overall lost some of their sense of danger as the show went on.

Q also made a return, this time dealing with the internal politics of his race and the problems that come with phenomenal cosmic power. While the change to the way the Borg were portrayed probably had to come if they were to continue being an antagonist in Star Trek, the shift in Q was not necessary, needed or even very good. Once he was no longer the face of the impersonal weight of the universe bearing down on humanity he ceased to be a useful antagonist and just became a cosmic powered nuisance. It was an interesting line of thought but ultimately the story itself went nowhere.

In short, it seems as if the showrunners behind Voyager weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go. The show has no strong theme, and thus no quintessential venue. It feels much like actual exploration, in fact. We saw many things, and they were interesting. But they didn’t always connect.

After Next Generation and Deep Space Nine it may have been inevitable that the cast on Voyager wasn’t quite as strong as we were used to. They were all fine actors and had many good scripts to work with but nothing we ever saw from them equals the incredible talents of a Spiner or Stewart or the longform character development of Nog or Odo. Never the less, Kate Mulgrew as Janeway, Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine and Robert Picardo – probably the best actor in the series – as the EMH did get to show a broad range of acting talent that was greatly appreciated.

It helped that these three characters were the most interesting on the ship as well. Star Trek has a history of putting characters who struggle with humanity in the show to help push certain kinds of stories along. Seven serves that role from her appearance at the end of season four until the show’s conclusion. It’s interesting to see Star Trek, a franchise normally very vested in multiculturalism and leaving things as they are, push so hard into the realm of cultural deprogramming and reindoctrination. And make no mistake – that’s what Voyager’s treatment of Seven amounts to. In the process the show makes a sound argument for why such actions might sometimes be necessary, high minded ideals not withstanding.

The Emergency Medical Hologram, a holographic emergency stopgap that the crew activates when their living doctor is killed, is another interesting take on the “what is humanity?” shtick scifi in general and Star Trek specifically loves so much. He struggles with the very narrow scope his original programming gave him and getting the crew to think of him as a person, rather than a convenient tool. Unlike many of the characters chasing humanity in the franchise’s history, the Doctor does not have a flat, emotionless disposition. Rather, he’s abrasive and overconfident, saddled with his creator’s personality – not something particularly conductive to his job. He also struggles early on with being confined to specific parts of the ship, another kind of handicap the show has never explored before.

Last but not least comes the captain herself. I’ve always found it interesting that, even among fans who don’t consider Deep Space Nine the best incarnation of the franchise, Benjamin Sisko is considered the most human Star Trek captain. This is not at all intuitive. Both Kirk and Picard are larger than life figures, to be sure, and little time is spent with their flaws. Sure, Sisko had a hobby in his baseball obsession and a son, then later a steady girlfriend and a wife. And those were very appealing parts of his character. He also made morally questionable choices. But he tended to get away with his lapses of character without consequence, or even much in the way of guilt, which hardly qualifies as believably human in my book. Then there’s the whole religious icon thing and the Sisko as the everyman captain starts to fall apart. Especially as there’s two other contenders for the title.

Captain Archer of the NX-01 Enterprise was a much more humble man, with prejudices and moral failings. He has a hobby and deals with a fair amount of romance, although never a long term relationship. But, as you may guess given the subject of this post, I don’t give the title to him.

You see, as a captain Kathryn Janeway is a bit of a trainwreck.

Other than Kirk, no captain shows quite the same level of disdain for Starfleet regulations as Janeway. For the good captain, survival frequently came first. She wasn’t afraid to meddle in local affairs or skirt the Prime Directive to get the crew closer to home. She was also remarkably vengeful for a 24th century starship commander, occasionally persecuting vendettas against certain aliens – or even Starfleet commanders – to a degree that worried her crew. She came from a scientific background, rather than a pure command career, and her priorities were often towards the immediate care and safety of her crew rather than long term principles. But most of all, Janeway’s moral decisions are in constant doubt. While most captains made one or two difficult calls they tended to get left behind very quickly.

Janeway’s most questionable moral decision was the one that permanently stranded her crew in the Delta Quadrant to begin with. She could have gone home, you see, but that would have required leaving the Caretaker’s technology in the hands of very brutal and amoral people. Staying in the Delta Quadrant was the only way to ensure the Caretaker’s array was destroyed without any part of it falling into the wrong hands. The very harsh consequences of that decision dog her every step of the seven year journey home. That kind of heavy weight is something truly human, and it makes Janeway interesting and complex – even if I wouldn’t exactly want her to command my starship.

Like the other two shows of its era, Voyager ran for seven seasons and produced its fair share of good episodes. It also had some of the weakest episodes of the franchise, particularly in the first season or two. But even so, the good outweighed the bad. Episodes to watch include “Message in a Bottle”, “Future’s End” Parts 1 and 2, “Relativity”, “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”, “The Year of Hell”, “Living Witness” and “Deadlock”.

“Blink of an Eye” is a masterpiece of high concept scifi like the franchise hadn’t seen for a while. It features Voyager getting caught in orbit around a planet with a different subjective time than the rest of the universe. A year passes on the planet for every minute that the crew lives in orbit. They watch civilizations rise and fall from above and, in turn, those below look up and wonder what the light in the sky means and what the people there might want with them. The concept was so good that it would get reused again in the first season of The Orville.

On the other hand, “Life Line” tells a very personal story about the Emergency Medical Hologram visiting his creator, legendary hologram engineer Louis Zimmerman. The clash of two such very similar, overinflated personalities is a tour de force, fun and witty but still emotional enough to resonate. It features the return of Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi, veterans of The Next Generation as well used guest stars. It also features a masterpiece of acting by Robert Picardo, who plays opposite himself in most of the important scenes. Star Trek acting doesn’t get better than this unless Spiner and Stewert are on the screen.

“Timeless” and “Endgame” Parts 1 and 2 both feature the same basic premise. Members of the Voyager crew get back to Earth but try and bend time so that the dead left behind can make it home too. “Timeless” features Garrett Wang’s best performance as Ensign Kim in the series and deals in the kind of classic, high concept scifi that made Star Trek great. “Endgame” is the series finale and, in spite of the similar premise, has several key differences. For starters, this time the gambit works and Voayger gets home. Also, it features Janeway as the viewpoint character rather than Kim, and it goes to great pains to wrap up most of the loose plot threads the show left behind, making it a slightly messier – but still satisfying – tale. In a nice bit of self reference, future Harry has a ship commanded by Geordi LaForge show up to stop his time travel attempt in “Timeless” then, in “Endgame”, another future Harry shows up as Janeway starts her Both stories are worth watching for Trek fans, but “Timeless” will probably suit the general scifi viewer not interested in watching the whole series better.

The Borg always had a limited lifespan, as mentioned before, and I think the showrunners had realized that. As I said two weeks ago, the decline of the Borg really started with “I, Borg” back in NextGen but they still had some legs left in them. “Scorpion” Parts 1 and 2 sent them fully into decline with a bang, introducing a new race that even the Borg couldn’t handle and adding Seven of Nine to Voyager’s crew. This is a pretty light episode in terms of scifi but it’s solid space opera with good production values for TV of its era, and the decision making in the episode is both tense and fun to watch, even if you guess what’s coming before it happens. Seven would become a good window into the new Borg status quo, allowing us to discover all the cracks and weaknesses the Borg always had as she did, and coming to understand how an unstoppable force can actually be a stampeding herd one step ahead of disaster.

“Equinox” Parts 1 and 2 is the epitome of what many people wanted Voyager to be – two crews, each with supposedly shared values, but one turned sour by years of merciless peril. When the Equinox and Voyager meet it seems like a bright spot in a long string of trials – for both crews. But the revelation that the Equinox was under constant attack because the crew had decided to deal in genocide in a desperate bid to get home… that was a horror in itself. The punishing conflict that results is tense and marvelously acted. “Equinox” is Voyager at its best – but unlike many it’s not what I feel the entire show should have been. Still, a very clever scifi plot and a great piece of drama as well.

Voyager went off the air in 2001 with the good ship and its crew home at last. It was the last offering of the franchise’s heyday, a great concept that wasn’t everything anyone wanted from it but still acquitted itself well, packing new ships, races and spacial phenomenon into Star Trek lore with reckless abandon. It probably has the smallest enthusiastic fanbase of any entry in the franchise, at least before Discovery, but ideas introduced in it were staples of the expanded lore during the long, twelve year drought between the end of Enterprise and the beginning of Discovery. The Delta quadrant would be better realized as a location than the Gamma quadrant, and the seeds of technological innovation Voyager brought back with her would spin off into several novels. However, even with all that potential, the decisions made at the beginning of the next installment of the franchise showed how Star Trek was beginning to creak under its own weight…

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