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. Read more…

1966: Star Trek at 50

1966: Star Trek at 50

It’s 50 years to the day that Star Trek first transported onto NBC at 8:30… In celebration of five decades of the intergalactic pop-culture giant that followed, Jokerside takes a look at that classic first year…

Star Trek: The Original Series

IT WAS THE FIRST SERIES OF STAR TREK THAT SET A CRUCIAL LINK BETWEEN THE SHOW AND TIME. Three instances to be specific, and one of those, City on the Edge of Forever, remains a science-fiction classic. Time travel would return to Trek again and again… But it was just one of the staples of the franchise that came ready-made for exploration in the 29-part season that aired between 1966 and 1967. So much of what would become synonymous with Star Trek was set in those early days, but it’s just as well time travel was present and correct. Because pinning an anniversary on Star Trek could take Spock months of slingshot calculations.

The past

“To boldly go…”

A key date was April 1964 when creator Gene Roddenberry pitched his draft for Star Trek draft to Desilu Productions, run by Lucile Ball and producer of her shows including I love Lucy and at that time The Lucy Show. The concept developed from the adventures of Robert April Captain of the S.S. Yorktown to the first pilot The Cage, centred around Captain Christopher Pike in the form of Jeffrey Hunter. The Cage was commissioned in May 1964, filmed later that year and promptly passed on by NBC. Famously dismissed as “too cerebral” they did see a glimmer of something in the premise. And so, against all expectation they commissioned a second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, which switched control of the Enterprise to William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk. Accepted, series production commenced and Where No Man Has Gone before aired on 22 September 1966. But wait, that’s not right…

Star Trek had a tortuous genesis. The kind Khan Noonien Singh would happily defrost to detonate. In February 1966, four months before production on that second pilot started, when that script was emerging from its own difficult selection process, Desilu almost called time on the embryonic show. Used to half hour productions, they were financially overburdened by their risky new space venture and their other hour-long production, Mission Impossible. It was Head of production Herb Solow who managed to calm things down. Then, when it came to transmission, the running order threw up all sorts of issues for the show’s uncertain network. So, in the event Where No Man Has Gone Before was screened third in the running order, the premiere falling to on 8 September. To make matters slightly more confusing, Star Trek was properly first broadcast on 6 September, 1966 on Canada’s CTV network.

But then, from difficult beginnings… For all its triumph on the big screen, grossing $2.3 billion over 13 films so far, television is the real berth of the good ship Enterprise. And that’s why 8 September is the date. When Star Trek hit its home nation network and began a classic and influential year. All the more idiosyncratic that it couldn’t shake off its unusual production history.

Hitting the ground running

“Out here we’re the only policemen around”

It wasn’t simply that Where No Man Has Gone Before stepped back in the running order. Just about the first third of that first year is jumbled around thanks to the network’s desperate juggling of themes and stories. Looking at the produced episodes, many of which were spilling over schedule thanks to on-set rewrites, they felt their toes chill. There are some dynamic effects from the transmission order as it emerged that Fall. It’s strange to see Uhura’s role reduce then grow again, just as it is for old pal Gary Mitchell to pop up three episodes in, about the same time as the ship’s complement decides to change uniform for a week (a switch back to the heavy crew necks of The Cage uniforms). But it’s not insurmountable. And while that running order makes watching the first series a little more difficult than it should be, as the network’s decisions knock the balance of that first year off, it immediately highlights the rugged survivalism built into the concept. The strength of the conceit and the core characters was there almost instantly, and from its formative days Star Trek was girded for the future.

The show would burn brightly and quickly. Cancelled after a reduced third year, it would be years spent in syndication that developed its true following and proved its enduring appeal, leading to its mild television resurgence in the 1970s, shift to the big screen and proliferation in the 1980s and 1990s. Those glorious days before story arcs, where running order was irrelevant to broadcast. Star Trek took the test with its first episode and proved that optimism is everything. And so it was that when The Man Trap aired on 8 September it easily won its time slot with a 40.6 share of the audience.

What unfolded until 13 April 1967 was a quite incredible 29-part run. There’s barely a dud among the bunch, quite the opposite of the reputation that subsequent Star Trek series would earn for their weak opening years. What’s particularly astonishing is how easily Star Trek managed to reflect contemporary culture, for good and bad, establish a template for talented creators to comment on that contemporary culture and also set so many of the themes, facets and recurring elements that have remained with the show and film series for 50 years. No doubt those will be present and correct when Star Trek Discovery hits in 2017.

What better way to celebrate the show than look at those crucial ingredients. Read more…

Star Trek: “It is a reminder to me that all things end” RIP Spock

RIP Spock Leonard Nimoy

 

A legend passes on following over half a century of making popular culture a richer place.

THE RECENT LOSS OF LEONARD NIMOY CONTINUES TO SEND WAVES AROUND THE WORLD. That may last a while. As a definitive figure of popular culture for 50 years, it’s almost impossible to take in the impact in one go.  And it’s not just Trekkies, Trekers, Geeks, Nerds and Fans.  Nimoy was an actor, director, poet… And of course, a singer. He gave us Three Men and a Baby; he gave us The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. He also secured Star Trek a long future and an incredible legacy.

Of course sadly he’s not the first major death from the Original Series cast. Sulu, Chekov, Uhura all fortunately stride on as William Shatner reaches new levels of legend every day. But the engine room went with James ‘Scotty’ Doohan in 2005.  The passion of the series left with DeForest Kelley in 1999. But it was the third side of the Original Series triangle that has proved the most endearing, and the most important to Star Trek. The legendary Spock. In the rebooted films of 2009 and 2013 they just couldn’t leave him alone. And even though his appearance in Star Trek Into Darkness was largely irrelevant, his presence enhanced the film. The reborn franchise has wiped every Star Trek series from the galactic map bar Enterprise and one other crucial element. Spock, the bridge of the Next Generation universe who gets to rebuild the Vulcan race.

Yes, Leonard Nimoy was even immune to a reboot, a rare privilege well-earned in front and behind the camera.  And when it came to pastiching the Original Series’ second film as this new crew went Into Darkness, he couldn’t not be there.

Nicholas Meyer’s two militaristic masterpieces gave him his finest hour of course.  The death of Spock at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan set the agenda for the successful run of Original Series films.  And it was Nimoy who stepped up to direct the third and fourth parts. In doing so he set the template for actors of the franchise moving behind the scenes. American television is all the richer for the alumni of Trek who have cut their shouting skills on the set of Star Trek.  Of particular note is that other legendary first officer of the Enterprise, Jonathan Frakes, who in turn helmed two Star Trek films including the 1996 classic First Contact. Read more…

Star Trek: The Needs of the Two

Khan Borg Star Trek Jokertoon

As sequel Star Trek into Darkness rides high in the charts – and eventually zooms into America – a look at the other ‘second’ Star Trek films

IT’S ALMOST CRUEL THAT THE NEW STAR TREK FILM, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS IS OPENING IN AMERICA ONE WEEK AFTER THE UK AND A FEW OTHER LUCKY COUNTRIES.  Possibly the most hyped Star Trek film in the franchise’s 12 film career – the film has created anticipation as much as it seems to have been shaped by it.  You can read into that as you will if you’ve seen it – but no spoilers here.

A few months ago I took a look at the possible identity of the new film’s villain, John Harrison, not at all seriously.  But I also highlighted the importance and legacy the on Star Trek of the ‘Number Two’.  That’s not just in Trek lore but also apparently in the boardrooms of phaser twitching execs as well.  Two hangs heavy over Star Trek history and with good reason.

The anticipation for the new film owes a lot to the series’ history – and uniquely that ‘history’ includes two previous ‘second films’.  Not only is Into Darkness the third ‘second’ film in the franchise, but both of its predecessors are rightly regarded as Star Trek classics.  The pressure was very much engaged as soion as 2009’s Star Trek was a success.

1982’s The Wrath of Khan (TWOK), remains the pick of the 12 film bunch.  It’s a tightly wound film, propelled by relationships and tension which improves with every viewing. As the second big screen voyage of the Original Series crew, upon its release it set box office records and makes assembling Star Trek films look effortless.  Kirk’s struggle with Khan, the genetically enhanced and time-displaced despot quickly spread its influence far and wide, sinking into popular culture like few other pieces of science fiction – from Kill Bill to Family Guy.

Beaming forward 14 years, Star Trek: First Contact (FC) entered a whole new world.  Entering a vastly different film environment, riddled with the CGI that TWOK had pioneered, it was time for a new ship and a new crew.  The Next Generation had arguably delivered the success that The Original Series had failed to.  Generating vast quantities of money over seven series, spawning another three spin-offs and contributing some of the best television moments of all time (the superb Best of Both Worlds), its crew had inevitably moved on to the big screen in 1994.  That first film, Generations, is a bit of an anomaly, including as it does a starring role and rather unfortunate farewell for Captain James T Kirk.  However, it must stand as the first Next Generation film, with 1996’s FC hurling them full throttle into a fight with their most definitive nemesis, the Borg for the sequel.  Having already set a high benchmark on the small screen with those villains, the challenge was again a difficult inevitability.  However, with phasers blazing, FC was the most action packed Star Trek film since TWOK, and really hasn’t been challenged until Into Darkness.

In 47 years, with Star Trek’s version of ‘regeneration’, it’s no surprise to find the reboots making their way to the big screen. What’s interesting is not so much the long ruminated, but ultimately false, theory of even Star Trek films being better than their odd brothers – but that the second instalments of each sub-franchise are always so damned good.

As Star Trek Into Darkness proves however, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The shadow of TWOK hangs so heavily over the franchise that references bordering on riffs and remakes can seem essential to guarantee success.  TWOK will always be the benchmark, no matter the crew or century involved.  FC certainly held TWOK in high regard, with many common links filtering through the two films.

The Code of Two

Both films share a theme of retribution as their heart and in both cases, this links back to events in their earlier television incarnations.  Both feature ships as plot devices and highlight the military implications of space exploration and Starfleet itself.  Both, in their own way, are bloody well made films as well – from relatively young and inexperienced directors.  TWOK was Nick Meyer’s second film as a director and FC was Jonathan Frakes’ first – although both had been involved behind the camera in various capacities before.  Both films also carry a supreme confidence… But despite the many similarities, most interest lies in their differences.

Star Trek: Second Contact

Following the bloated Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a superbly realised film, but one that missed the inherent comedy of Star Trek – TWOK got a lot of decisions right.  By moving the action forward 15 years, TWOK not only matched the comparative age of its actors but built the acknowledgement – or ignorance of – aging in as a crucial part of the narrative.  TWOK works along the heavy lines of consequence, age and foreshadowing.  Of many significant contributions to the Star trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru test is one of TWOK’s masterstrokes.  It allows for a brilliant opening where most of familiar Enterprise crew are annihilated and then proceeds to link and weaves through the film as an exploration of Kirk and counterpoint to the main plot.  Commander Saavik becomes one of the franchise’s most effective guest characters, perhaps all the better because she is Vulcan.  Her main role is to constantly pester Kirk about how he beat the test until, when it appears all is lost, he finally reveals his secret.  He doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario.  Cue Act III.

By its end TWOK had revealed itself as a full-blown submarine film.  The increased military feel of Starfleet had been well realised throughout, with sharp and effective new uniforms and strict procedures about the only think that’s allowed to linger on screen.  The final act is pure war film, where the cat and mouse game between the USS Reliant and USS Enterprise that may just as well be acted out in the North Sea in 1941.  Part of the finale’s effectiveness is the brilliant special effect work provided by ILM, the George Lucas owned company wisely brought on after its Star Wars revolution.  Perhaps the main reason for the film’s effectiveness is its most astonishing one:  For all the wrath, history, hatred and battling, Khan and Kirk never meet.  Not many films have proved to be as powerful, effective or influential under those circumstances.

Star Trek: The Wrath of Picard

In contrast, FC chose to abandon subtlety for all out action chuck-in-the-replicator action.  Not attempting to ape TWOK’s submarine claustrophobia for long, FC quickly descends into an all out assault film.  Within the first 15 minutes, the crew of the Enterprise has reformed, a new ship introduced, a Borg Cube engaged and defeated and time travel to the Earth’s past undertaken.  It rarely comes up for breath, propelled both by a fantastically villainous race done justice and also an unapologetic ethos of chucking everything at the screen that Star Trek fans have ever wanted.  I recall seeing it in on release in 1996 and having to constantly higher the bar under an onslaught of brilliant set pieces.  Just when I was marvelling at the time-travel, danger-uninhibited Holodeck and phaser rifle assault missions, they went and raised the ante yet further with an upside down space walk.  Then again with a ship-wide evacuation.  Subsequent viewings (many) have put a strain on the coherence of the breakneck pace, but it still endures as a very well realised film.

Perhaps most interesting is the way the Borg are expanded.  A continuing topic in this blog seems to be the necessity of expanding antagonists, but also the inherent dangers in doing so.  Assimilating the big screen, the Borg had an effective upgrade in the make-up department.  It was also the first time we could see wholesale assimilation and Frakes and co had many inspirations to draw on.  Body-horror is a necessary part of the Borg impact and in FC it is very much put to the fore.  Not only that, the expansion to include a Queen figure is a bold concession to horror in design and dialogue.

While the two pronged neck injecting of Borg virus makes it clear that assimilation is akin to vampirism, the Queen’s dialogue moves quickly from biblical to Hellraiser Cenobite.  The dark body horror stylings of the race can’t help break that association.  In many ways, this is teenage Clive Barker but a precedent for trek horror combined with action was set by TWOK, itself a violent and occasionally sadistic film.

“From Hell’s Heart…”

The broad difference between TWOK and FC however, comes from motivation.  While FC draws on rage that comes from a frankly understandable human feeling of frustration and helplessness, it is siphoned into Picard.  His is a single-minded and cold vendetta for most part, albeit one that we had already seen the roots of in The Next Generation two-parter The Best of Both Worlds.  That vengeance triggers most of the character points in the film – whether driving a wedge between Picard and Worf’s relationship or providing an injustice for random guest star Lily to fight against.  Along with the rather flat Pinocchio and friendship messages Data carries, this rather crude characterisation is perhaps the film’s only downfall.

In contrast, TWOK carries many intricate lines of development, with emotion hanging on every beat.  The Father-son sub-plot may be its weakest, but lines of friendship and consequence run through every scene until the tragic finale.  A fairly simple plot allows room for themes to layer on each other.  There’s also space for what may be the definitive Kirk, Spock and McCoy clash.  TWOK allows its themes to breathe, while FC never does.

Another contrast comes in the root of the films’ plots.  TWOK is effectively a sequel to the Original Series episode Space Seed, with vengeance mainly springing from events in the interim that we have not directly seen.  In fact, it was retconned into Star Trek history, and very well done it was too.  The vengeance in FC however, is based on events and fear that we have experience of.  While in 1982 we truly watched the wrath of Khan, in 1996 we witnessed the wrath of Picard.

“We Fall Back…”

Interestingly, both films choose to hang their main themes on literature, and perhaps because of TWOK’s success, they share one source of inspiration.

TWOK works two main strands into its story.  While Kirk is presented with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities on his birthday, Chekov stumbles on Khan’s ship the SS Botany Bay where the rogue has for years been feasting on not only Moby Dick, but Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost among others.  The themes of A Tale of Two Cities become crucial not only at the film’s climax but also as a central tenet of Trek from that point forward: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Also, what better reflection on the continuing voyages of the Enterprise than that book’s opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

Of course, Moby Dick has the most significant impact on the film.  In his rage, focussed through super-intelligence, Khan appears simultaneously obliviousness,  and almost perfect in the self-analysis of his own obsession.  The result is a chilling  disconnect.  Montalban must have chewed through hundreds of copies of the novel.  He quotes and paraphrases Moby Dick  constantly, while filling the gaps with barbed nonsense lines like “Let them eat static” and moments of scripting  genius such as a certain influential Klingon proverb…  Despite its rather full on approach – Khan may as well hijack the USS Analogy – those literary roots are neatly woven into the story.  It’s a trait common to many Meyer scripts, and he would  successfully repeat the trick, although with less impact, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

That literary super-allusion was the main carry-through to FC, where Lily’s correct, albeit lucky, comparison of Picard to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab is the moment that  The Next Generation Captain’s growing obsession is broken.  Quote-wise, its effect is not as pronounced; plot-wise its impact it is far more significant.  Star Trek is about many things.  From western, to frontier exploration, to comedy, to adventure…  But those atavistic ideas of the mythical and powerful beast that creates and feeds obsession and those associated dark places of humanity that man must go are also fair game.  In fact, it’s essential.  Where No Man has Gone Before is also where man has always ended up going.

In some ways it was impossible for the current third ‘second’ Star Trek film to go anywhere but to  Into Darkness.  At least commercially, that’s the place that works for Star Trek films – especially when they’re even-numbered.  If anyone has any problem with the direction the latest film has taken it well be worth remembering  TWOK and FC and asking whether there was really any other choice.  Parallel universe or not, there are beats and themes that, quotes notwithstanding, certain Star Trek films just have to follow.

To paraphrase what might be the first novel of the Twentieth Century, in respect of one of that century’s most enduring fiction properties: these too have been some of the dark places of the universe.

Find the Tweetnotes of both films Storified here – concessions should be made for a far too conscientious autocorrect… Messrs Khan, Borg and Mellville have been informed.

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