Year of Hell? Star Trek: Voyager – The First Year under the Microscope

Star Trek at 50 Voyager Year One

Star Trek at 50. Having celebrated the 50th anniversary of that incredible first season of Star Trek’s Original Series, Jokerside jumps to the television franchise’s fourth incarnation. In the Golden Age of Star Trek, could USS Voyager propel the franchise on to further success in its first year?

This is an updated version of an article originally published in two parts by those kind folks over at Some Kind of Star Trek.

A THOUGHT THIS GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY. DURING THE GOLDEN AGE OF STAR TREK, 1995 MIGHT JUST HAVE BEEN THE GOLDEN YEAR. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) had ended its hugely successful small screen run, but only to leap to the big screen. I a year’s time that crew would find their finest hour against the Borg on 21st century Earth. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9)was shrugging off that most common of franchise issues, a couple of weak seasons, and kicking off its seminal Dominion War story arc. And then there was Star Trek: Voyager.

Unlike previous series, Voyager was designed as a flagship that would sit on franchise owner Viacom’s brand new United Paramount Network. Before that channel morphed into The CW in 2006, Voyager stood as the network’s second longest running series, claiming the allotted seven years that the two proceeding series had and would enjoy. In the heady-mix of 1995, Star Trek fans knew that they had something good, but it was impossible to predict the incredible swerves DS9 would take nor the triumphs and failures of The Next Generation on the big screen over the next few years. If anything was certain, it was that Star Trek: Voyager was embarking on a voyage with a specific mission. To replace TNG as the franchise’s premier ship bound series.

Over two decades on, it’s easy to see the perils and promise of 1995. It was inevitable in those early days that Voyager would make its way home from its catapulting to the far side of the Delta Quadrant. Were Voyager made today, or even a few years later as Enterprise soon discovered, that happy ending might not have been so obvious. When that third Star Trek live action sequel series started on 16 January 1995, it wasn’t evident how impressive the gauntlets that each of its forebears had laid down were. From the moment Voyager met her fate in the Badlands, DS9’s stock started rising. While other Star Trek series had achieved success in their own lifetime, even the first incarnation to begin with, let alone on the big screen viewers of the purposefully awkward DS9 are always just that little more partisan.

Post-Deep Space Nine

“Dismissed. That’s a Starfleet expression for ‘get out’.”

So there’s a vested interest there. There are people who don’t like DS9, just as there are those who don’t take to Star Trek. It’s an awkward series, that certainly didn’t help itself the minute young upstart Commander Sisko was immensely rude to Captain Jean-Luc Picard during the pilot. Yeah, that was an awkward jumping off point. But it was a confrontational, slightly odd move that the show made its speciality. It rewarded regular viewing, becoming a crucial player in the rise of American arc-based television revolution. As with TNG, the first two seasons of that second sequel series were hardly classics. In fact, of all the Star Trek shows, only The Original Series has any claim to have hit the ground running. But at Voyager’s launch, while Deep Space Nine was starting to forge forward with genuine originality that would not only lay the path for Battlestar Galactica and all manner of other arc shows but also inadvertently undo the grip of star ship shows on American TV, Voyager was moving in the opposite direction. While DS9 actively cut a path away from the syndication model that had defined the success of previous series, Voyager stuck resolutely with carrying on the mantle of The Original Series (TOS) and TNG. It may have been built on a large and overarching arc, but it saw no reason why that should change the nature of incident, adventure and monster-of-the-week structure that was there from the first season of TOS. Perversely that wilful glance back sat at odds with the format of the long journey home.

So, about that vested interest. Jokerside completed a leisurely retrospective of that DS9 vintage before its 20th anniversary in 2013. A viewing so leisurely that the Federation could have stumbled across the Dominion and kicked off a war in the same three year timeframe it took to complete all seven series. But that retrospective confirmed my suspicions: Deep Space Nine is an incredible achievement. Despite the many early bumps, it seized its position as the younger, difficult brother of TNG, with cynical and audience grabbing stunts and a flash new non-syndicated competitor and melded them with the strengths of its strong cast to produce something really special. It was real end of the century Star Trek. But also so prescient of the formative of the 21st century. And fresh from that retrospective, Jokerside took on the shortened first series of Star Trek’s New Hope. And of course, that means Jokerside accidentally started watching Star Trek: Voyager.


“I need a better description than that, Mr. Kim!”

In 1995, you couldn’t move in genre circles for news of the imminent Star Trek show. It was a lean time outside the domination of Star Trek. Joss Whedon’s Buffy was still two years away, as was the even bigger Stargate SG1 invasion of the small screen. With Babylon 5 battling it out with the lone Star Trek series of Ds9 on the networks, Voyager was everywhere. The American import Star Trek MagazineThe Radio Times coverage, the Telegraph article addressing Geneviève Bujold’s sudden departure from the lead role. The pilot was dutifully bought on VHS, the covers noted as being inferior to the beautiful portraits on the DS9 equivalents, and eager eyes waited for the BBC to screen the full series… Only to find it on Sunday afternoons. Pretty bloody inconvenient. This left the show with higher ratings, but unable to generate many fond memories in the UK. It’s time for a re-evaluation of that first year, even if One of Seven sounds like a fairly average Borg. So, how does that first season stand up now?

In summary, that first year of Star Trek: Voyager is watchable and more cohesive than might be expected, even though a trigger finger’s never too far from a reset button. There are the good points you’d expect from the talent involved but not the highs or seizing of the format’s potential that you’d hope for. Some great acting, some great science-fiction and some great scripting… But that just underlines the opportunity that was missed. Unfortunately, glaring problems are evident. Painfully evident in view of the vastly changed television landscape we have now and which the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery will step into. And that’s not something that can be said of DS9, the sister series that saw the future coming.

Voyager’s Premise

“It seems I’ve found myself on the voyage of the damned.”

A quick and unnecessary recap shows that Voyager marked a further simplification of the Star Trek story. The five year mission had turned into the continuing mission which led to Starfleet’s incursions into the Gamma Quadrant and then led to this journey home. The voyages of, er, Voyager. Not the Earth-threatening 20th century satellite but the latest ship in the fleet, carrying bio-neural circuitry, 42 photon torpedoes and the unexpected weight of a 75 year journey back to Federation space with a skeleton crew of Montagues and Capulets. The drilled Star Fleet officers we’ve known since 1966 and the Marquis, the dissident terrorists opposing the Cardassians and the Federation who had emerged at the end of TNG, caused havoc in DS9, set to form a significant plot role in Voyager’s journey home.

It sounds interesting. More so perhaps than a space-station orbiting a ravaged planet of a highly spiritual people. But as Voyager’s so utterly in-line with the core exploration idea at the heart of Star Trek, it’s a shame that any comparison with Deep Space Nine comes up. The ingredients were all there. The separation from the Federation, a whole new quadrant, with unlimited new species and one very specific foe in waiting, almost entirely untouched but in need of exploring and navigating as part of that single-minded quest to return home. One of the greatest one-sheet pitches in Trek history surely? Deep Space Nine got stick for its anti-exploration agenda, but DS9 personnel could disappear for months infiltrating the Orion Syndicate or taking shore leave on Earth. Not on Voyager. On that star ship there were two nuanced enemies forced to work together to find a way home against adversity. In-built momentum.

The Star Trek Mould

“I need to know if we did serious harm to that life-form”

The problem is that didn’t quite work out that way. Perhaps the myth of Star Trek was too great. There’s the sense that such a confrontational formula could rock the Star Trek ship too much. Perhaps it was a natural response to Deep Space Nine’s early criticism, perhaps a sign that too many Star Trek stalwarts were involved, perhaps that too much rested on its flagship status as a launch show on the brand new UPN. The show should have had more confidence to break the mould for its own dramatic good.

The under-exploration of the Maquis rabble suddenly forced into Starfleet uniforms was a major criticism levelled at the show when it premiered. Another typical case of over-promising in pre-publicity, it’s odd that a show that seemed to have pursued diversity at all costs (compared to TOS where Spock was the only alien crew member), missed that trick. While there was nothing especially wrong with its approach to diversity compared to previous shows in the same timeline, and the Maquis and Star Fleet integration did throw up a few surprises, the emphasis seemed to be on the wrong area. Yes, the Captain was female, the First Officer a Native American, the Helmsman a criminal, the Security officer a full Vulcan but Voyager needed to do more than bung that diversity on the Bridge. It needed to confront and use that inherent diversity, in Star Trek’s most alien locale yet.

Why have the Maquis aboard if you are not going to use them as the main fuel for drama? Certainly in that early year. Maquis issues had virtually dissipated by the end of the pilot and the unfortunate mantra “We’re all in this together” (State of Flux) became a watch phrase for that under-explored dynamic. But it wasn’t just the crew dynamics that were scuppered in this new spin on the Star Trek mould.

The Voyager Sigh

“I’ll try to contain my disappointment”

Failing to adhere to a clear and direct mission, the Voyager ‘sigh’ quickly developed. That’s the sigh that came whenever an episode began with a variation of “We’ve taken a diversion from our journey home to…” Under the slightest of pretences, too many stories from the first series could feature in any Star Trek show. It’s an issue that Deep Space Nine soon found a release from thanks to interesting arcs and the benefits of its static soap-style locale. In Season OneVoyager barely takes its finger off the episode reset button. Each week, despite tackling profound issues that could have carried serious weight with them throughout the entire journey, few things are implicated the overall arc. As the series progresses, it’s easy to forget that the ship is speeding along in one direction to one specific goal. The journey often feels arbitrary as the format allows it little concession.

The first season’s pitfalls aren’t just a re-run of TNG‘s early, harmless rip-offs of TOS stories, like The Naked Time, but the horrid result of limited danger curdling with repetition. Within three episodes we’ve seen two incidents of multiple USS Voyagers and several rather dull discussions about contravention of the Prime Directive. Incidents like this, possibly poor scheduling, perpetuated the idea that Voyager lacked ideas, that the franchise was wearing thin. But the main problem was the show runners’ indiscipline in sticking to the core story, instead that purity was quickly and continually diluted. Instead of creating danger, Voyager’s mission decreased it. While the Prime Directive seemed logically pointless as soon as the USS Voyager’s plight became obvious, the brig is constantly dismissed as a luxury in straitened circumstances. All in all, any court martial is a long way off. And all is especially painful as the great Michael Piller was a show runner during the opening year.

Of course, Voyager delved into the holodeck, choosing to move away from Deep Space Nine‘s wonderfully ambiguous suites to holonovels. While I’m mindful that the season split doesn’t help, it looks half-developed. In the last episode of Season 1, Janeway’s struggle as a governess in her holodeck has clear parallels with Tuvok’s belated tackling of Maquis discipline and attitude – but these links aren’t drawn out. Future seasons would return to the concept of the brig, the holonovels and the Prime Directive, but it doesn’t sit pretty in the isolation of that first year. Star Trek was simplifying on the small screen before our eyes.

As with any Star Trek series, Voyager must be judged on the strength of its characters, cast and plots.

Novelty Characters

“There is no way I can apologize to you, Mr. Neelix. That is why I have not tried”

By slavishly sticking to the Star Trek formula, while simplifying the message, an unfortunate but inevitable implication was that Voyager religiously retained the character of the week format. As with other Star Trek series, rather than share the load of the intense mission home, that immediately put a lot of strain on characters, many of whom were difficult to warm to. Unsurprisingly, novelty characters Neelix and Kes were the hardest hit. Within three stories Kes’ nascent psychic abilities emerge in the episode that’s (surely) wryly titled Time and Again. Within five stores Neelix had his lungs transported out. Neelix! Sadly that episode wasn’t called They’ve Beamed out my Lungs! but that’s right – we were supposed to care about the Talaxian Morale officer’s fatal condition just five episodes in. Both Ethan Phillips and Jennifer Lien tried with their awkward but often blandly obvious characters. Special mention should go to Jennifer Lien’s wonderfully level voice – so calming – but a nine year lifespan and insatiable swotting does not a likeable character make. Fuse in the sudden telepathy – promptly ignored for several stories – and the comparisons with another franchise counsellor are unflattering.

That said, the show demonstrated some strengths from the off. Many of the same weak points are shared with other Star Trek series and as had happened with those, there were some great characters and actors ready to step up. In its earliest days, the show was kept together by Kate Mulgrew’s sturdy performance on the Bridge and Robert Picardo’s brilliance in a gift of a role in the sick bay.

Cast off

“On the contrary, the demands on a Vulcan’s character are extraordinarily difficult. Do not mistake composure for ease.”

Turning to the crew of Voyager, Mulgrew really is great. She has that a distinctive voice and eye acting that manages to fuse Picard and Sisko in a fresh example of command. A good thing too, considering how central she is to the show. Often the camera just hovers around her, and unsurprisingly so. Picardo adds flesh to an extended exploration of a classic science-fiction trope. Years of Rimmer in Red Dwarf demonstrated the innate comedy of holographic characters, and this Doctor doesn’t let the hard-light side down. He produces moments of great comedy that Ethan Phillips in his irritating role can only hope for. The Doctor is instinctively funny from the off even if the concept doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Elsewhere in the crew, Robert Duncan McNeill isn’t bad despite being given little to do except brat on about his piloting skills and never being given the material to balance his Star Fleet legacy and early fall from grace. Of course, McNeill had already played the bad boy Star Fleet cadet as Nic Locarno in TNG. The consequences of that episode were deemed to serious for redemption, not least the need for Paramount to pay a writer’s fee for the reuse of a character. But having settled on reanimating that bad boy in a different guise, it’s a shame that the show’s concept diminishes his past rather than makes use of it. The end result is a slightly more developed clone of The Next Generation season one La Forge; smirking at the Conn. Kim isn’t too bad either… Just a dull Star Trek trope that would be shown up far more by Enterprise when the same blandness was shared across several characters on the Bridge. Combine Kim and Paris though and their early exchanges relationships are excruciating. This was while the fascinating friendship between Miles O’Brien and Julian Bashir was developing quickly over on DS9.

Part of the issue is the increased direction, budget and design. In a more sophisticated production than earlier Trek series an unfortunate spotlight was shone on some characters. Robert Beltran puts in some great moments, but has a bit of a rough ride as a Riker clone, if a more spiritual one. It would be a few years before Beltran started to publically express his boredom with the show, but he seems a little disinterested from the start. With every sweeping camera shot that keeps Kate Mulgrew’s nuanced performance in focus, his red decked form is slumping despondently in the background blur. And on such a compact, high-tech Bridge, that’s a bit of a shame.

In Voyager, the Spock archetype was fielded to Torres, who must contend with being both Klingon and human – despite reaching her mid-20s without previously doing so. Faces is an episode that shows the range that Roxann Biggs Dawson could bring to the show given the right material. But as is probably realistic, the realised hybrid is a booming, glaring, mid-sulk teen. Ah, but there’s a character arc with her tussling with complying with Starfleet you say? Yes. It lasts at least three episodes.

Then there was Tuvok, good old reliable Tuvok. There’s a reason that Spock was half human, why Romulans are great villains: full Vulcans are dull. Very dull. Following Worf and ahead of Reed’s gung ho weapons lust in Enterprise, he really falls flat. It makes you yearn for the old phaser bank rooms of TOS. Tuvok’s position of confidant to the Captain is an interesting one but worth so much less when the Maquis dynamic isn’t properly followed explored and Chakotay installed at her left. Tim Russ can’t be faulted for his performance which offers a slightly different Vulcan and even a hint of exasperated disapproval – if such a thing were possible. It’s certainly not a terrible thing that he has garnered more Vulcan screen time than anybody else. But it is clear that all characters would have benefited from full serial arcs rather than standard jumping between single focussed episodes that give a fair share of the action to lesser characters. That was an approach that season three of Enterprise benefitted from.

Shadow agents

“Captain, there’s something out there!”

That said, Voyager was a show dramatically seeded more than many other Star Trek series, whether the obvious and interesting dynamics were explored or not. Seska is interesting for one, creeping into the show in much the same way as O’Brien in The Next Generation. Her reveal is a nice distraction late in the season, but draws another unfortunate comparison with Deep Space Nine. While true to Cardassians’ stereotypical treachery, it’s a bit of a step back from Deep Space Nine’s subtly. Just a few episodes later we see Tuvok attempting to discipline Maquis (yes, all four of them)… And Seska’s name doesn’t even come up. Chakotay’s inner-turmoil is a nice touch but it can only go so far as a metaphor for Maquis integration. It’s hardly filmic. You can also see Torres’ promotion scrap as a microcosm for the paperwork surrounding other Marquis crew members’ positioning – if you look really hard – but it’s all rather, to use a word, Basics. Thinking about it, the fact there were so many Maquis on one ship in the Badlands seems a dramatically radical redrawing of how we’ve seen the terrorist movement before.

The Best and the Worst

“If we don’t get more power to the warp drive, we’re going to have to get out and push.”

The first series has more than its fair share of generic Star Trek episodes, but there are glimmers. An episode like Emanations really does go where no one has gone before; a believable, other quadrant conundrum. The two appearances by the Vidiians show that there are some good aliens on the horizon. By Faces, they’re injecting some good old fashioned body horror into proceedings (but poor old Durst, he’d only had one line before).

A nadir has to be Ex Post Facto, where an interesting conceit falls to a poor attempt at making a Voyager version of a Deep Space Nine ‘Give O’Brien Hell’ episode. Aside from the monochrome flashbacks, aiming for a rather misplaced noir feel, we also see Tuvok assume the role of Poirot – he even gathers the suspects in a room at the end! In retrospect a Vulcan is not the most charismatic of detectives, but that novelty is where any strengths firmly end … We’re just weeks into a new quadrant and the Baneans are only the second civilisation that the Voyager crew have met. Having initially sent off two scouts, Janeway then diverts the ship from its crucial journey to free her man. Indeed, Voyager‘s adherence to the Second Directive (the needs of the few) falls flat as soon as Paris and Chakotay make-up in Caretaker Part II. We see a cordial meeting with the alien race without a hint of translation issues and even better even shake hands and they let Tuvok into their prison facility with a phaser! It’s an incredibly sloppy execution of a new alien culture, demonstrating that attention was focussed elsewhere. It really exposes where the creators’ interests lay: They were willing to forgo consistency to pursue an idea. The episode collapses under the weight of the creators completely forgetting the show they were making.

Yes, it’s even worse than Neelix losing his lungs.

On the flip side, one highlight is Eye of the Needle. It’s an episode that’s fascinated Jokerside since its first transmission. There’s the interesting temporal hook and of course, it features a Romulan – and that’s enough to sway us. The episode is a neat, if slight 44 minutes. It’s mainly let down by the delivery of its denouement. Laugh a minute Tuvok chooses a rather un-dramatic (and illogical) time to check the ship logs and tell the crew that the Romulan died some years previously, before any news of Voyager’s survival could be passed to the Federation. “I thought I’d wait until the Romulan had gone before I ruined your day’” effectively. That said, while it’s narratively undermined, this is the grey, tonally changing kind of science fiction that Voyager should have strived for more.

Special mention should to the great holodeck romp Heroes and Demons. Mainly because it’s a Picardo-centric episode and had the courage to draw parallels with one of the earliest works of the English language. Brave stuff.

Language and Legacy

“Heisenberg compensators”

It’s difficult to evaluate Voyager without considering its script and language. That’s one thing that Voyager didn’t simplify. Its use of technobabble is truly atrocious. It really does feel like it was deliberately ramped up because that’s what viewers wanted. And I’m yet to find one of those viewers. I presume that the same would have happened in DS9had they spent more time phasing anti-time and less time talking politics, but it’s a long shout from the debates of Kirk, Spock and McCoy aboard the original Enterprise. In Voyager, the technobabble is immediately off-putting and in Janeway’s case it diminishes her hands-on nature as a scientist. Of every franchise captain, Janeway’s career history is pulled out the most. Such technobabble was a trick that The Next Generation never resorted to – or was it? On that revered show, the cast called it ‘Piller-filler’ in reference to executive Producer Michael Piller. A brilliant wrier, but again, show runner of this first year.

The late Michael Piller is not just regarded as a legend of Star Trek. The first episode of Best of Both Worlds remains one of the greatest pieces of television ever made. But with Star Trek: Voyager, something went a little awry. Was it him or co-creators Rick Berman or Jeri Taylor..? Could it be one of the producers including Brannon Braga and Biller? It’s not just that the The Next Generation crew had split for the franchise’s production schedule, as Klingon specialist Ronald Moore jumped to Deep Space Nine and time fetishist Brannon Braga was been left to Voyager for the majority. They were split like Maquis and Starfleet. And the result was broadly the same. Everyone involved had and has produced great film and television at points, but the premise of Voyager, the dynamics of the central characters, the approach to the simple central conceit… While it must have looked good on paper, it wilfully bucked growing trends of contemporary television.

If anything Voyager was a show that looked back to the 1980s and not forward to the 21st century. There should have been the courage to commit to the innate drama of the series and not find a middle-ground by including at least ten stories that would look extremely average in any Alpha Quadrant set show. In fact, Voyager would have been far better off finding a different solution to its pitch than the 75,000 light year trek.

A Simple Quest

“Captain, I think I should tell you I’ve never actually landed a star ship before.”

As it is, Voyager took on one of simplest tales in Star Trek history – the quest. It’s The Odyssey. It’s the search for the Grail. It’s the powerful, instinctively human quest story that has been told for millennia, the kind that mythologist Joseph Campbell’s eyes would widen at. This was Star Trek’s only prolonged stab at something that monumental. And they kind of missed.

Sure, Enterprise’s stab at the Prometheus myth would similarly flounder in its first season some years down the line, but it’s Voyager’s errors that always niggles the most. Before beaming on to Voyager’s following six seasons, one fact about that first year is hard to avoid. The first season was shortened as episodes were carried over to the second year. As such, we were presented not with The 37’s as the close to an admittedly still shortened season of 17 episodes, but the ship-bound Learning Curve. Just when you expect a cliff-hanger in true Star Trek style… That dull adventure reveals its antagonist, its great and mysterious villain, to be some cheese. Actual cheese.

“Get the cheese to sickbay”? How did they let that one through?

Sadly, at the end of the first season it looked as though Voyager, unlike the villainous cheese would take a long time to mature. The golden age of Star trek dimmed just that little bit. But ahead were the Borg of the big screen and small, the return of the contemporary microscope and brilliantly executed references to the past with Enterprise, a big screen reboot and the promise of Discovery from former Star Trek: Voyager writer Bryan Fuller. Star Trek’s golden age sat in the middle of its so far 50 year heritage, despite the early year stumbles every series suffered. But even though that age brought access to every Quadrant of the galaxy, it’s satisfying to think, in the most optimistic Star Trek fashion, that another golden age is just around the corner.

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