Actually, I can't really believe it's already been fifteen years since Voyager debuted. I vividly recall watching the series for the first time in 1995. I was 25-years old...and met Voyager with great enthusiasm and hope as a continuation of the Star Trek mythos.
The series premise - a solitary Starfleet vessel lost in another quadrant of deep space -- promised an important quality in 1995: accessibility.
Starting out the journey, I was impressed. Voyager was indeed more accessible than the other latter-day Treks (DS9 and Next Gen). It's also the only Star Trek besides the original series that my wife, a novice fan, can stomach. In addition -- strikingly -- Voyager seems far stronger in terms of ensemble acting. In fact, no Star Trek TV cast before or after Voyager gelled quite so quickly or so ably.
Kate Mulgrew's Captain Kathryn Janeway promptly became my favorite Star Trek Captain after James Kirk, and I loved the way that Mulgrew's distinctive voice, -- her command "purr" -- would transform into a sort of guttural tiger's "growl" as her ship faced off against the menace of the week.
I also appreciated Mulgrew's seemingly boundless energy level. Janeway was a captain who hardly ever sat down in her center seat. She was constantly in motion on her command bridge; as though to sit down was to slow down the mind; to miss a vital fact or necessary information.
Mulgrew was, in my opinion, a great anchor. She brought a larger-than-lfe dimension to Janeway on Day One (like Shatner's Kirk) and I appreciated that mythic approach after the more work-a-day performances of Stewart and Brooks in the other programs.
Simply put, there was no crisis that a good deus ex machina couldn't get the crew out of. Next Gen and DS9 suffer equally from the same affliction, so this malady was hardly unique to Voyager...but it was still disappointing to see it replicated and re-transmitted. In the humanist realm of Star Trek, reshuffling the tech-of-the-week shouldn't have been the solution to so many important crises. Not when you had a woman as strong as Janeway as our moral, emotional guide.
But okay okay, this post isn't supposed to about cursing the darkness, but rather praising the things that were indeed good and memorable about Star Trek Voyager. I can say this with some degree of certainty: the early Voyager years, produced by Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller and featuring Kes, are a great deal stronger than some of the later episodes. Here's a brief survey of some high points from Season 1 and 2.
The first story after the pilot "Caretaker," titled "Parallax" is a techno-babble story in terms of the scientific threat-of-the-week, but the installment nonetheless boasts authentic character fireworks as Chakotay (Robert Beltran) lobbies Captain Janeway on behalf of the volatile half-Klingon, B'Elanna Torres. Chakotay thinks she should be chief engineer; Janeway thinks she's not Starfleet material. This story is written with real passion, and is one of the few Voyager episodes that pays more than lip service to the concept of two unlike crews (Starfleet and Maquis) attempting to blend. Over the course of the episode, Janeway comes to realize that Torres boasts a thirst for knowledge similar to her own, and the rapid-fire theoretical dialogue comes across at warp speed. This show is alive with the possibilities of new discoveries, and since the characters are engaged, so is the audience.
"Prime Factors" is another great episode, primarily because it involves Voyager running afoul of an advanced, peaceful civilization that refuses to share its superior technology (and send Voyager home...)...simply on principle. This is exactly what Starfleet officers do every day with General Order One, or the Prime Directive. They deny those planets more primitive the benefit of their know-how and help. I'll never forget smug Captain Picard condemning a drug-addicted race to a horrible, painful fate in the Next Gen episode "Symbiosis," for instance. In Voyager's "Prime Factors," the shoe is finally on the other foot as Janeway must contend with somebody else's self-righteous sense of morality. Some Voyager crew members ultimately attempt to steal the alien technology in this episode, in a surprisingly real (rather than idealistic) portrayal of human beings.
"Phage," "Faces" and "Deadlock" are three episodes that feature Voyager's best villain: the Vidiians, an alien race dying of a terrible plague. The Vidiians aren't interested in diplomatic relationships or treaties. They show up in space, lock onto your ship, and harvest your organs...in seconds (thanks to a weapon/medical device based on transporter-style technology). All the Vidiians care about is their continued survival, and that single-mindedness makes them Star Trek's scariest and most effective villain after the Borg. It also makes them, perhaps, the most tragic. We learn in their introductory episode ("Phage") that the Vidiians were once a race of artists and musicians, for instance, but now their entire economy and culture is geared towards fighting the plague, the phage. In one downright vicious episode ("Deadlock"), we witness the Vidiians overtaking Voyager, and cutting crew members down in the corridors for organ harvest. It's all incredibly nightmarish.
One of my favorite of all Voyager episodes is "Alliances," during which Chakotay urges a "new" way for Janeway, suggesting she makes alliances with races (like the evil Kazon) she finds reprehensible. It's a good episode that could have been the basis for a multi-episode arc in the vein of Coppola's Godfather, since it involves betrayal on an epic scale, and even a mob-like "hit" at episode's end. Alas, the segment ends with utter retrenchment: Janeway would rather have a philosophical ally in Starfleet rules and regulations than an alliance in real life, with flawed partners. If her kind of thinking ruled in the Alpha Quadrant, the Feds would have never made peace with the Klingons...
One of the best episodes of Voyager -- one so good it takes your breath away -- is "The Thaw." It concerns a conceit I hate: holodecks, but manages to do something interesting and new with the concept. In this case, Voyager runs across a group of scientists on an alien world who are wired into their own holodeck/virtual reality environment. To everyone's terror, this computer-generated realm is dominated by a surreal carnivalesque atmosphere and a gruesome clown (Michael McKean), Fear Itself. And the trick of this world is familiar to fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series: if you die in the holodeck, you die in real life. And that clown has a nasty habit of putting those who disobey him under the guillotine...
What I admire about this episode is that it deploys all these surreal, bizarre visual compositions to assert the clown's total dominance over the dream scape and ends without bells and whistles, but rather with a one-on-one, intimate battle of the wits between Janeway and Fear. Like I said above, it's just stunningly good and superbly written and orchestrated.
In "Resolutions," Voyager is forced to strand Captain Janeway and Chakotay together on an idyllic forest planet, and -- without regard for the cliches of the genre (evil aliens, etc.) -- the story observes simply how the two characters cope with their sudden marooning. Chakotay finds acceptance quickly, and settles into his new life without looking back or asking questions. Janeway, on the other hand, never stops fighting, and never relaxes. If she's occupied, she believes, she won't feel alone...or left behind. Again, it's just a simple story of two alternate worldviews, but it is handled in a compelling, character-based fashion.
Star Trek: Voyager is clearly not the paradigm shifting sci-fi outer space series that Farscape or Firefly or Battlestar Galactica proved to be. It was just the latest in a familiar concept, tweaked and twisted to seem "new enough." I do believe that if the makers of the series had truly been bold in their choices -- turning off holodecks, featuring arguments between the two crews, and asking the characters to make moral compromises in a world of limited resources -- the series would be remembered today in much more positive terms.
The early seasons of Voyager are strangely inconsistent: one week the series daringly breaks formula and the next week it offers a storyline you've seen on Star Trek a dozen times. A prime example of the latter is Brannon Braga's "Threshold," which involves a galactic breakthrough and an unwelcome twist in human evolution. In other words, it's "Where No Man Has Gone Before," only dumber.
I don't know if you've given Voyager a try in the last fifteen years, but the good episodes are so good ("The Thaw," "Parallax," "Deadlock," "Resolutions") that you really mourn what amounts to a lost opportunity to update and modernize the increasingly-familiar and trite Star Trek universe.
I guess my ultimate statement on Voyager is this: a lifelong Star Trek fan, I stopped watching the series regularly by season six (about the time "The Rock" was guest-starring as an alien gladiator...). I didn't stick around to see the lost crew get home (though eventually I did watch that episode...), because I'd lost faith in the writers to wrap up the show in a novel, exciting and legitimately dramatic fashion.