Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 104: Star Trek: Voyager - The Early Seasons (1995-1996)

So...I've been wanting to post an article here to celebrate 2010 as the fifteenth anniversary of Star Trek Voyager's premiere on the (now-defunct) UPN Network.

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.


At last, general viewers could experience an untangling of the intricate, overlapping, dense mythologies that had transformed Gene Roddenberry's once clear-cut, moral universe into Space Politics 101. Voyager's Delta Quadrant format was thus a restoration of the formula vetted in the Kennedy-1960s: going where no man has gone before on a weekly basis. Voyager also promised the uncertainty of an effort like Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space:1999 by sending Starfleet officers on an unplanned galactic sojourn without back-up, without infinite resources, and without allies.

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.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for Star Trek: Voyager waned significantly. Looking back at the first two seasons today, you can see how the writers relied too heavily on fictional Star Trek techno-babble to save the day. Optronic relays, ODN circuits, EPS systems, baryon sweeps, Heisenberg compensators and so forth...it all just makes your eyes glaze over. There's no connection between this imaginary tech and the human experience. It's all just jargon.


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.

Another problem was that the series never seemed to authentically cope with the very important idea of limited resources. I was deeply disappointed to see Voyager resort to familiar holodeck stories (only here based on Victorian literature rather than 1940s film noir). I mean, in a universe of limitations, was it really prudent to use the holodeck (especially since use of the replicator was rationed)? The series attempted to explain that that holodeck worked on a different kind of energy matrix than the rest of Voyager, and therefore its energy couldn't be harnessed in other realms.

Uh-huh. This was really just a crutch for the writers, and seemed to negate the very premise of the series. I see this failure of creativity as an example of Voyager refusal take real chances, and play it safe instead. I once asked Johnny Byrne, story editor of Space:1999 what he thought of Voyager, since it boasted a similar premise. He said, famously, "Look, when I start to see people with big ridges on their heads, I tune out...Voyager is the antithesis of Space:1999. I think it's dull and formulaic. It's lost any sense of urgency. My problem is that the characters have so much, but accomplish so fucking little."

Then, when Voyager unceremoniously sacked one of the most interesting characters ever created in the Star Trek universe, Kes (Jennifer Lien) -- an alien nymph (Ocampa) who had the limited lifespan of nine years -- for a 7-foot tall Amazon in a cat-suit, Borg babe Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), I knew the series was really and truly on creative life support.

For the character of Kes offered talented writers everything a Star Trek series could possibly require in terms of story lines.

Here, embodied in one package, was a person who could go from childhood to puberty, to adulthood, to old age, to death. Every aspect and stage of "humanity" and the mortal existence could have been examined through Kes alone over a seven-to-nine year series span. Youthful exuberance, teenage rebellion, adult drive, middle-age regret, wise old age...acceptance of death. Just imagine the stories that could have been told.


Finally, here was a character as rich in potential as the logical Mr. Spock had been in the 1960s, but one not in a Spock-imitation mode (like Data or Seven, or T-Pol). Watching Kes age across a seven year span, our crew would have been forced to consider their own human mortality too. And the best part was Kes wasn't suffering from a "disease," and her impending death wasn't reversible...it was natural. Kes and her friends on the crew just had to "accept" her life-span as a fact of life.


But Kes -- and all her potential -- was dumped for overt sexuality. Ryan was fine as Seven of Nine, but the commercial crassness of her appearance and her sudden prominence in the story lines (to the detriment of the other characters) was hard to forgive in a show supposedly about "human" values. Imagine just for a moment how unforgettable it would have been had Kes stayed with Voyager throughout the series and actually died of natural causes as the ship neared home in the Alpha Quadrant. This character-based story would have granted the final episode, "Endgame," a kind of melancholy, emotional, character-based lift that it clearly lacked. The joyous (a return to Earth) would have been mixed with the sad (Kes's demise), and the episode would have reflected more accurately the essence of our human existence; the way that the good goes hand-in-hand with the bad.

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.


12 comments:

  1. This is great look back, John. When Voyager came out, I had high hopes with it. I agree with you that the early episodes could be feast or famine with original ideas. I wasn't a fan of Janeway at first, more for that voice. But, given her different style of command (the gender differences) began to heighten my curiosity and appreciation of her as a leader. The latter seasons seem to have had the need to sex it up more for ratings (which is always what the studio desires, let's face it). And I probably watched it more for the catsuit wonder (yes, I can be such a guy).

    The other factor that caused to me to hold back on Voyager was that it wasn't DS9. For me, DS9 started meekly and grew better because it grew darker and more complex because of its politics (and striving to be the less clean and neat version of its older sibling, The Next Generation). I guess I appreciated its noirish take The Federation. That, and Capt. Sisko (Avery Brooks) grew into his own with the role. But, I digress...

    I really liked your summary of the early Voyager seasons, JKM. The episodes you highlighted were spot-on, and for the reasons you deftly cite. Great review. Thanks for this, my friend.

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  2. John, I have all of the box sets and look forward to watching it myself someday from start to finish. It's funny how DS9 and Voyager have their advocates and detractors. Your thoughtful look back from time to time has me cautious about the series, but I'll go forth just the same.

    I love your final remarks because I felt they were so applicable to where I was with Lost. I gave up after the end of Season Five. It was so unfulfilling and predictably unpredictably stupid. I have no plans to watch Season 6 and for many of the same reasons listed here. Strong start, but...

    As always, a terrific read and one that has me looking forward to some aspects of Voyager.

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  3. Le0pard13 and The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you both for your comments and thoughts on Voyager.

    You know, I used to realy enjoy DS9 and The Next Generation but when I watched several episodes recently I found them virtually unwatchable (especially Next Gen). I just couldn't believe how bad they were in terms of acting, storyline and even visualization (again, especially next gen).

    I turned to Voyager in despair, and sort of re-evaluated it with new eyes. I liked it more than I ever had, while still seeing how flawed it was.

    I still need to watch Lost from start to finish someday. I turned away in Season Two, picked it up in Seasn Three, then lost track in Season 4 when my son was born and sleep was at a premium in my house! :)

    best to both,
    JKM

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  4. Hey John,

    I am probably going to massively disagree with you on the DS9 issues you brought up in the essay and in your comments but maybe we can do a seperate dialogue about that some other time.

    In regards to Voyager: I judge a lot of things, in terms of entertainment, on if I can watch them with my dad. My dad is VERY picky and very JUDGEMENTAL. It just comes with his age. He was a teenager and an adult during some of the greatest periods in television history. Now, my dad likes Star Trek. We used to watch TNG together and we were aggresively into the final four years of DS9. We did, in fact, watch the first two seasons of Voyager but we both kind of looked at each other during season 2, he was in his early 40s, me in my high school teens, and said, 'what else is on?'

    Voyager, I agree, stands out as having a wondrous first season. The potential was so high especially with the Maquis which was, oddly enough, very nuanced and interesting in TNG (a show known for it's generalities and metaphors as oppossed to live, living breathing characters-organizations). But alas. . .

    My biggest issue was with the Star Trek-ness of it. A friend of mine who does the GeeksOn podcast said that after episode two the uniforms should have come off. Like the show itself within the Star Trek mythos, Voyager became a bubble in space. Inside the ship was this strange Star Trek world completely alien to the surroundings the showrunners put them in. The Kazon were just Klingons with lice. And when all the ideas ran out: BORG!!!!!!

    And since you knew the show would last seven years, since that was part of the template of Trek shows, you knew the show would end after seven years (in fictional time). The creators never messed with anything temporarily either and when time was running out and there was still a lot of time to go for the crew to get home: Kes is back and she whisked us away 10,000 light years! Yeah! Mark fof another 10 years.

    Wouldn't it have been cool if they got home in year six and then year seven was them adjusting. And for a show that is all about GETTING HOME (and why do the humans get preference on home. . .there are other species from different worlds right?) they don't even show them getting home. The final shot is of them returning to Earth in space. Waaaaah?

    Anyways. I guess all this means I agree with you on the first few seasons. Sorry for the blathering! Great job.

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  5. Hey William,

    I love your comment!

    I'm as shocked as anybody that I don't enjoy DS9 anymore. I always loved it when it was on, and was of the opinion that it was the hands down, absolute best of all Trek spin-offs.

    I lived by that belief through the latter half-of-the-nineties and all through the last decade.

    Then I went back and watched 'em again recently and didn't enjoy them much (except for the war episodes in the final seasons). Believe me, I wish this wasn't so!! :)

    I agree very strongly with you in terms of Voyager. That would have been amazing if the ship had returned home in Year Six, and the crew had time to "re-adjust" for a season. That would have been a brilliant, unexpected curveball. As it stands, the ending now is kind of underwhelming: Voyager comes home. Fireworks. The End. (And I still think my idea about Kes dying would have added a touch of humanity to the finale too...).

    I also agree with you about Voyager becoming a kind of Star Trek bubble in space, and that the Star Trekness of the whole enterprise is the very thing that brings it down.

    You can see the writers, in Year One and Year Two, trying to break through that bubble, but by mid-season three, the effort was a bust. Beyond that, the show just gets really bad (which is why I too stopped watching it...).

    And the overruse of the Borg was a big mistake.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the show. Drop by anytime!

    best,
    JKM

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  6. A bit late to the party. Great article, and I agree with Johnny Bryne, there was no sense of urgency, the show sat too smugly on its formulaic franchise and never really pushed the concept. I recall this lack of shaping in Voyager was one of the reasons Ron Moore jumped ship.

    While on reruns the episodes are actually fairly enjoyable time filers, what annoyed me with Voyager was it was pretty much the final straw in franchise laziness. When I heard the premise, I thought "Battlestar Galactica - a lone ship, fleeing, trying to survive.. probably having to search for foods, refits.. ship will need to be customised and jury rigged as the tools to repair a Fed starship won't be available.." and it was just Star Trek again.

    While I quite liked 7 of 9, the ultimate insult that reminded me how far Star Trek had fallen from its proposed ideology was the shift in the Doctor/Seven's relationship to pair her off with Chakotay. I recall Picardo saying at one point the people above felt the Doctor was too old and ugly for audiences to want to see paired off with beautiful Seven. For a world that promoted equality, respect and a future free from intolerance, this seemed a stupid and insulting stance to take. If the fact they've never had one single lead represent male homosexuality wasn't enough to question whether the show was too far removed from what it preached, that decision really did just nail Star Trek's coffin for me.

    In a decade where B5, Lexx, Farscape et al were trying to break new Science fiction boundaries, the mainstream TV sci-fi flagship was just coasting. A bitter disappointment in its potential, though not terrible TV to watch on a Sunday afternoon.

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  7. James:

    I agree very much with your comment. It was absurd to, in the last few episodes, suddenly pair 7 of 9 off with Chakotay. It was an insult, and we all knew how phony (and arbitrary...) it rang. For both characters, actually.

    I also concur that the show rested on its Star Trek laurels, to its ultimate detriment.

    Great comment! Thanks!

    best,
    JKM

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  8. To add to James' comment (and Enterprise took my next point to the NEXT level) is that when ideas were dry (well, ideas in the formulaic Star Trek canon. . .I think Voyager could run 16 more years with good ideas that are non-Trek-like) they would just go (or so I imagine), 'um, so, a kid Q comes on the ship and. . .um. . .Seven of Nine gets NAKED! or 'so, part of Seven of Nine's past is that she gets assimilated but while NAKED!' or 'well, this Kim thing isn't working. . .let's get her hooked up with Chakotay. . .and she'll be NAKED!' It never ended. It was lame.

    Garrett Wang, during an interview on podcast GeeksOn, said that Kate Mulgrew hated the 7 of 9 thing so much that she refused to talk to Jeri Ryan as an act of defiance. Wang said that it made work so very, very, very hard for four years because the two wouldn't even look at each other. I wouldn't have insulted the actress myself but I, as a female lead on a once respected franchise, would have been PIIIIIIIIST too. It negated anything she accomplished as the woman of the future.

    God. . .thinking about Voyager's potential makes me so angry especially when they would sometimes dip into territory that seemed so brilliant. 'Year in Hell' should have been one whole season long and the crew in 'Equinox' should have been half or all of Voyager's crew (minus some of the evil). Argh.

    Oh, and James, Moore came on to Voyager after DS9 ended and quickly left since it sucked (in fact, it partially damaged his and Brannon Braga's relationship). But he did leave the show with an episode called 'Barge of the Dead' which was brilliant.

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  9. William: I agree very much. The Year in hell should have been a season, it should have been a tone I think the whole show had and it should not have had a reset button!

    I always felt that Voyager would have succeeded more if there was a less.. laid back approach to writing their struggle back home. There should have been more pressures that banded the characters together. I remember in the first season (and this was when alarm bells chimed for me) when they go to a planet - one of their first I think that a) used the same matt backdrop as an alpha quadrant episode, b) they all spoke English - yes, TV conceit, and yes, universal translators etc, but still breaks the premise structure somewhat of trying to make you believe they were far from home, c) it had a dog in it - see point b.

    I just never felt there was enough attempt to make you feel they were far from home, lost in the real Final Frontier. It all felt to Alpha Quadrant - too much need to ensure success by not breaking the successful Trek formula.

    Thanks for the reply John - glad we all agree! Wasted, great opportunity. Held together, for me, by Mulgrew and Picardo mainly.

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  10. Anonymous10:45 AM

    I've always considered Voyager to be as underrated as Deep Space Nine is overrated. As with any show that lasts (at least) seven seasons, a bit of viewer fatigue sets in. I'd never sit throught viewing all seven seasons of Next Generation either. Many fans consider the fifth season of Voyager to be the best ( I agree, as it's the only season of the show I bought on DVD). Voyager's holodeck ep "Bride of Chaotica" (spoofing Flash Gordon style serials) was so much more fun than ST:NG's often tired holodeck stories.

    The early eps of Voyager were inconsistent, but the pilot remains the best of all the Trek pilots. I found Kes to be a boring character. As with Dax on ST:DS9, what was initially an interesting concept quickly became boring. Her early departure did spare viewers from an anticipated long drawn-out (and dreary) death. Seven of Nine added a much needed jolt of energy to the show.

    As a huge Space:1999 fan, its great to see Johnny Byrne's views on Voyager. Many critics find S:99's characters to be lacking, so I thought he might be more sympathetic to these characters.

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