Star Trek: Voyager Revisited - A Look Back At Season One
As Star Trek: Voyager celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2020, The Digital Fix looks back at each season of the fourth live-action Star Trek series...
It's been 25 years since Star Trek: Voyager made its debut on US network UPN. With the massive success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, revitalising the Star Trek franchise and heading to the big screen with Star Trek: Generations, and spin-off Star Trek: Deep Space Nine about to head into its third season, the future was bright.
Star Trek: Voyager was designed to represent a more traditional star ship-based series, in the vein of the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But rather than simply be another ship patrolling the Federation while the Enterprise headed to the movies, the premise from Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor and Rick Berman was much bolder. Stranded at the other side of the galaxy, more than 75 years from home, the USS Voyager would encounter completely alien worlds and species. Furthermore, the crew would be divided; half Starfleet, half Marquis terrorists, who would be forced to work together on the long journey back to the Alpha Quadrant.
Its a wonderful premise, one ripe for rich storytelling that would offer something new and exciting to the Star Trek universe. Furthermore, it would capture the spirit of the original 60s series, exploring the deep unknown, without any of the familiar comforts experienced by Captain Picard and his crew. The Marquis had already been seeded in the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, former Starfleet officers breaking away to fight a noble cause against the Cardassians; not surprisingly, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ran with the idea it inherited and delivered some epic and thought-provoking tales, right up to the outbreak of the Dominion War at the start of its fifth season - one of the most daring concepts ever attempted in the Star Trek franchise.
Twenty five years on, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is wildly regarded as the best Star Trek TV series ever produced. While Star Trek: The Next Generation is arguably the best example of star-trekking, it's immediate successor was the one to push all the boundaries and still stands up years later. Star Trek: Voyager, with its exciting premise and promise to make every strange and exciting again, should have done just that. If Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was about fighting to keep the Federation alive, than Star Trek: Voyager should have been what happened when all those comforts were taken away, when you couldn't just repair the ship at the next Star base, where half the crew were opposed to Federation ideals. Where the idea of the Prime Directive should have been challenged to its very core.
Does Star Trek: Voyager season one live up to its potential? No. Quite simply, it squandered its premise the first set of credits even roll. Which is a shame, as the pilot, Caretaker is arguably one of the strongest pilots in the franchise; the first half is packed with plenty of twists and turns, not least the massacre of half the crew. When Voyager is thrown into the Delta Quadrant, Janeway looses her first officer, pilot, engineer and seemingly the entire medical staff. It's a huge catastrophe that will have major ramifications for the rest of the series. In the second half of the pilot, there is a real sense that Voyager is in the deep unknown, forced to work together with the Marquis crew they were sent to hunt down, Chakotay learning that Tuvok was a Federation spy all along, while dealing with an omnipotent force in the Caretaker (just as Picard and Sisko dealt with Q and the Prophets in their first episodes respectively). There is a real sense of chaos and disorder, from the roving Kazon gangs and the distinct lack of civilisation and order that dominates the Alpha Quadrant. Janeway's decision to save the Ocampa at the loss of getting home is a decision that will weigh on her during the show, though perhaps not to the extent you would imagine.
The Kazon themselves are not the new Klingons Star Trek; Voyager imagined them to be, though the far more interesting Vidiians would be just round the corner, a recurring alien menace harvesting organs to save themselves from a debilitating disease, the Phage. The decision on the show to focus on the Kazon is one of it's biggest early mistakes; the Vidians are a truly interesting and terrifying threat - indeed some of the most shocking moments in the first season come when Nelix has his lungs surgically removed or Torres comes face to face with a Vidiian wearing the harvested face doomed crewmember Durst. Of course, the other issue with season one - and two - is that Voyager seems to spend far too long in one part of space, encountering Kazon and Vidiians on almost a weekly basis, when surely they should both have vanished after a couple of appearances.
The other big issue is the complete disposal of any tension between Starfleet and Maquis. Season one of Star Trek: Voyager tackles it on occasion; the second episode Parallax deals with Torres and Chakotay integrating into the crew and finding their new roles as Chief Engineer and First Officer. The tension is very superfluous though; they are already in Starfleet uniforms by the end of the pilot episode and the episode feels more concerned with the weird anomaly the ship is dealing with; the show is far more focused with being stock Star Trek then doing anything interested with the premise. The virtual finale Learning Curve (due to four episodes carrying over into season two), is centred around Tuvok getting four former Marquis crewmen into shape with a harrowing Starfleet regime that is far more concerned with making sure they all follow Starfleet to the core. It also doesn't help that these crewmen have not appeared before and never will again.
It's a mistake, Star Trek: Voyager continually makes. This isn't the Enterprise; Janeway's crew is much smaller and with no new personnel to enlist at any point in the future, there is the sense that we should be running into a whole host of recurring characters every episode. A few appearances of Torres's early 'rival' Carey aside, the background crew and guest roles differ week on week. It makes it feel like Voyager has a crew of a thousand, rather than a hundred.
The one exception is Martha Hackett's Seska, the real standout of season one. A Bajoran Marquis and close friend of Torres and Chakotay, she is the only crewmember to question Janeway, to do things her way rather than the Starfleet way. Hackett is a far better performer than most of the main cast and her season one Bajoran persona is far most interesting than her season two Cardassian villain. There should have been other characters like Seska, challenging the status quo, forcing the likes of Torres and Chakotay to question their Starfleet positions. Her actions, at least, chip away the pretense that everything is all happy and shiny on the ship. Which makes the reveal that she is a Cardassian spy in State of Flux all the more disappointing. The only reason she can be a rebel is because she was neither Starfleet or Marquis in the first place. Star Trek: Voyager disposes of one of its most interesting characters far too early.
Season one of Star Trek: Voyager doesn't feel as fresh and new as it should be. Most of the episodes feel like recycled stories from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show is so focused on trying to imitate its predecessor that it doesn't attempt to embrace the rich potential it has. The third episode Time and Again is a generic Star Trek story about trying to avert a disaster on an alien planet, all reset handily by the episode's closing moments. The Cloud features the second space nebula in the first five episodes. The seventh episode Ex-Posto Facto doubles down on the idea of Tom Paris as a rebel, becoming embroiled in an affair with an alien's wife and her husband's murder; it all feels like a carbon copy of a similar Riker episode from way back in Star Trek: The Next Generation season two. Emanations is another stock TNG episode, which sees Voyager accidentally involve themselves in the religious beliefs on another alien race. Cathexis, meanwhile has all the stock Star Trek elements; a mysterious nebula and an alien presence that can control others.
In fairness, season one of Star Trek: Voyager isn't bad. It's just a little bland. Even its best stories fail to pack the right punch. The two mid-season episodes Prime Factors and State of Flux offer perhaps the most ambitious storytelling at this stage; the mutiny started by Seska and led by Tuvok to steal alien technology to get Voyager home taps into the raw protentional of the divide between the crew, with the security officer's involvement and genuinely unsettling moment for Janeway. The following episode delves into this theme further, with the horrific moment the Kazon try to use the stolen replicator technology on themselves, leading to the reveal that Seksa is a greater threat than she first appears. Had she remained a mutinous Bajoran Marquis member, it might have worked better. Had there been consequences of Tuvok's betrayal, there may have been genuine cracks in Voyager's shiny, clean façade.
But there aren't really consequences. As much as Voyager hints at rebellions and dwindling supplies, it looks as pristine by the end of the season - and indeed the series - as it did when it was flung into the Delta Quadrant. The search for new food supplies and technology, the rationing of replicators; they all feel mere storytelling devices, when it is convenient to use them. The truth is, you could replace Voyager investing a planet for fuel supplies with the Enterprise studying a new planet in the Alpha quadrant, and nothing much would change.
Another big frustration, when watching the first season, is just how little the characters evolve beyond their initial stories. Torres remains an angry half-Klingon, Paris a wannabe rebel, Kim a young, eager Ensign, Chakotay a spiritual, reserved leader. Despite the best intentions of the actors, there isn't enough meat to these characters to lift them beyond their original trappings.
But there are some characters that do work well. Janeway's rise from science officer to captain pre-Voyager shows in the way she throws herself into every situation - that wide-eyed wonder at a new nebula or strange world. It marks her as different to other Star Trek captains and Kate Mulgrew brings a certain gravitas to the role. Kes is rather bland in season one - she would ironically show some real development just before Jennifer Lien was kicked off the show in favour of Seven of Nine. Neelix can certainly be annoying, but there are moments where Than Phillips shines as an actor, particularly in late season one episode Jetrel that deals with the holocaust against his people. It's no Duet and its one of many, many episodes of Star Trek: Voyager that is resolved by technobabble, but Phillips really sells the pain his character has endured. There are moments where his comic timing is good, though his disturbingly emotionally manipulate relationship with Kes borders on abusive at times.
The breakout character of Star Trek: Voyager season one (and indeed the series) is Robert Picardo's Emergency Medical Hologram. With the entire medical staff killed in Caretaker, he takes on the Data / Spock role of the non-human trying to become more human and Picardo's performance elevates even the weakest of episodes. His relationship with Kes is one of the most endearing in the early seasons. While the first inevitable holodeck episode Heroes and Demons is rather terrible at times, his first 'field trip' into the legend of Beowulf is made fun by his earnest, comic timing.
Season one's best episode is Eye of the Needle, which sees the Voyager discover a wormhole back to the Alpha Quadrant. It's a good episode, dealing with the loss the crew feel in being so far from home, while teasing a potential journey back. But the trouble is, it's episode six of season one. The twist - the Romulan Telek R'Mor is communicating to them from the past - is a doozie, dashing any hopes of Voyager sending a message back to the Federation. But the failure to return home is an inevitably. It doesn't help that it features the Romulans too - a common race in all previous Star Trek series. When Star Trek: Voyager should be looking to new races and civilisations, it constantly turns to Romulans, Cardassians, Klingons and Ferengi, meaning the show never feels as fresh and new as it should be.
The debut season of Star Trek: Voyager has its merits. While the Kazon are second-rate Klingons, the Vidiians are a much more interesting alien race. Season one Seska is terrific, playing into the 'conflict' only hinted at outside the first couple of episodes. The EMH is a delight to watch from the start and Janeway's scientific curiosity is a nice change of pace to her predecessors, even if she spends more time worrying about getting home and less studying every strange phenomenon they come across. Oh, and it has the best title sequence of any Star Trek TV series.
But it also squanders its premise far too quickly and focuses too much on being a generic Star Trek show that it feels totally unrealstic. There is no damage, no wear and tear. The Marquis become model Starfleet officers almost overnight. Even the highlight of the season - Eye of the Needle - is one big tease that can't let go of the Alpha Quadrant the show left behind. Still, it is better than season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation and there isn't an episode as bad as the worst of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's debut season. It's all just a little safe, a little too Star Trek play by numbers, when it has the richest potential of all the live-action series, to be so much more...
Season One's Best Episode: Eye of the Needle
Despite being one big tease of a return home to the Alpha Quadrant that is never going to materialise, Eye of the Needle is anchored by a compelling performance by Vaughn Armstrong as Romulan Telek R'Mor, a deeper exploration of the sense of loss the crew are feeling and a twist ending with just enough bite to end the episode on a bittersweet note.
Season One's Worst Episode: Cathexis
While certainly not the worst episode Star Trek: Voyager ever produced, Cathexis is a bland, token space nebula mystery, anchored by the uncompelling, cliched attempts to tap into Chakotay's native American heritage and another return to Janeway's terrible gothic horror holodeck novel
Season One's Best Moment: A Vidiian Face-Off (Faces)
Torres is confronted by a Vidiian wearing Lieutenant Durst's face in a moment of chilling horror that cements the Vidiians as the best recurring villains of the early years.
What are your thoughts on Star Trek: Voyager's debut season? Let us know in the comments below...