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…

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Star Trek: The Number 2 and Just Who the Hell is John Harrison?

Sherlock Khan

A foray into the world of Trek signs, portents, speculation and fever-pitch excitement as the resolutely un-colon Star Trek Into Darkness draws ever closer.

Note: though I’ve seen nothing of the film, there may be a few spoilers lurking below at impulse speed…

FRANKLY, THINGS ARE GETTING UNBEARABLE FOR STAR TREK FANS. Still basking from January’s 20th anniversary of Deep Space Nine – or they should be – each week brings new promotional material for the next big Trek ‘thing’ – and man, are they working on the build-up.

All in all, the last few months have possibly been even bigger than that time when (the original) Voyager fell through a black hole at the edge of the galaxy, maybe met some Borg and then came back to the Solar System for a family reunion (and that’s less than a decade away in the new fangled Trek universe!). Yep, it’s big. BIG.

You see, in case you didn’t know, there’s a new film coming out. A new Star trek film, emerging into the new, refreshed, post-fatigue final frontier.  It’s film two of this brave new universe, this shiny new Star Trek. And Trek is a franchise that holds the number two in particularly high regard.

It was the second pilot of Star Trek that set the whole franchise rolling, when the vibrant Kirk replaced Jeffrey Hunter’ s rather flat Pike, the doctor grizzled a little and the green blooded science officer fully lost his emotions. Where No Man Has Gone Before, a simple exploration of friendship, the corruption of power and the threat of the great unknown -and it still contains some of the most chilling scenes in Trek to date.

I think it’s fair to ignore the Animated Series, which leaves the ’Second phase’ project – a reboot of the original series that was aborted in the late 1970s, but laid the foundations for Star Trek’s to move to the silver screen.

Eight years later there followed the real second series, 1987’s The Next Generation.  That did rather well – a billion dollars a year well in fact.  After seven years that moved onto the big screen itself, and inarguably reached its peak with its second film, First Contact.  A high octane Sci-fi/horror roller coaster, First Contact explored the possibilities of its ‘enemy’ so effectively there was little else you could do with the Borg – just ask Voyager.  (Chillingly, my fingers find themselves typing this theory on none other than the 22nd broadcast anniversary of that second series’ episode, itself called First Contact!).

When First Contact was released in 1996, there may well have been high expectations for that second son of the second son and for very good reason.  For while the number two had proved itself key to Trek success previously, there was one prime example that bestrode the franchise like an Alpha Gorn.  It’s a cultural reference point so large, one day it may well trigger its own Genesis device.  From the Original Series sprung, like a celluloid photon torpedo casket, the sublime The Wrath of Khan.  Not only another film number two, but also so darned influential it was quoted at the start of Kill Bill vol.1. High praise indeed.

So, now 31 years after Khan set the sequel bar, the pressure’s on for the third second Star Trek film.  I hope you’re keeping up.  Following the rip-roaring success of 2009’s Star Trek, which deftly rebooted the whole franchise while returning to its original roster (but also inadvertently wiping out Deep Space Nine –best not think about that) expectations are once again high.  The build-up has so far been quite relentless, and there’s still three months until Star Trek Into Darkness is released.

So far the promo wagon train to the stars has chucked out a teaser trailer, a more sombre full trailer and then a large dollop of IMAX stretched 3d lens flare (placed front of The Hobbit – selected screenings only). There then followed the Dark Knight Rises aping posters showing a decimated London, the hi-octane Super Bowl advert and the new narrated motion poster (A rich man’s poster or a poor man’s trailer?).  And then the last few days have let slip a further preview of the first 28 minutes of the film (plus some key scenes) showing off a bit of reediting, just to let us know that this is a responsive ‘work in progress’ until May.

Reaction has been good.  Now social media turns everything into a spoilerific minefield, the usual array of previews and bullet points about the film have appeared – in their way a nice throwback to prophecies and pulp predictions.  Even these seem to be charging the right phaser.

In all, it almost makes up for the fact that last Christmas was the film’s original release date.

But with all the anticipation and constant promotional material, the refreshed franchise manages to hang on to a key part of Star Trek’s mythos.  For what is essentially (once again) a western, the enemies are key.  Here he may have been named, heard and seen but we still have no idea who he is.  Another sci-fi franchise with another question hidden in plain sight. We know he’s been labelled John Harrison, initially in a throwaway photo caption, but is that it? He seems to have super strength and agility, can fisticuff with a  Vulcan, but still – who is Benedict Cumberbatch actually playing?

Complying with the rule of two, there was always a prime suspect, something the promos have done little to dispel.  Aside from talk of returning and one shot seemingly nicked from The Wrath of Khan, one incontrovertible message, well known to Trekanardos has been loud and clear: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’. That’s been the second directive of Star Trek ever since, er, that well known second film (c’mon, you know the first directive). Combined with those choice shots, this looks to be a herring as red as one of the new film’s alien landscapes…

“You think your world is safe. It is an illusion… I have returned.  To have. My. Vengeance.” Growls Cumberbatch in the motion poster. ‘I can’t believe people are still saying it’s Khan’ exasperate  the film’s actors in any media they can.  But why wouldn’t they.  We’ve all been following the film’s production all the way through the casting and will eagerly snap up snippets, mistrust the film’s creators and gloriously speculate on a whim.  That is after all, most of the fun.

And so the potential candidates for John Harrison run as follows:

Khan Noonien Singh, Gary Mitchell, Harry Mudd, Gorn #452 and…  John Harrison.

Hmm. Here’s the logic, why John Harrison may indeed turn out to be plain old Johnny H and none of the other dapper suspects:

  • He’s not jovial, cheerful, slightly obsese or with any women on display. Not Harry Mudd.
  • He’s wearing a Starfleet uniform true (black!), but as his eyes aren’t all shiny there’s no sign he’s Kirk’s best buddy (incidentally, or not, a best buddy missing from the first film).  Also he seems very keen on non-telekinetic smack downs. If he were, it might not mean much:  Gary Mitchell’s (for it would be he) has already had his famous storyline, Where No Man has Gone Before, retold in the reboot universe comics.  And they’re canon. We know because the film’s writers told us so.  And protective Hollywood screenwriters NEVER lie. Not Gary Mitchell.
  • He’s not an 8 foot tall reptile in a gold one-piece. Not a Gorn.
  • He may have super strength, super agility, like the sound of his own voice, be ‘better’ and have ‘returned’  (evidence really stacking up here)… But he’s no Khan.  Not at least, from what we’ve seen.  Khan’s a leader, here’s he’s a loner.   The big KNS is presumably still floating around on the Botany Bay shuttle with his band of genetically engineered supermen (as a cut-scene in the first film was originally going to suggest).  So at the time of the new film, they’re still no doubt dreaming about the Spice Girls (Khan and co hail from the eugenics war of the ‘90s – the Spice Girls survived!). They’ll be picked up in a couple of years in this universe no doubt and have some restless energy – but there’s little reason to think the Nero incursion altered their hibernation cycle.  But again, there’s an inherent flaw in thinking it may be Khan.  Yes, the super-man would be a little mopey having evacuated from a war he was losing, but the events of the second film chart Khan’s wrath against Kirk.  I.e. he’s not going to be really pissed off for another two decades.   There will be years until a certain sun goes supernova and Lieutenant Chekov – who this time could be at Kirk and Kahn’s first meeting, unlike in the other universe – makes a fateful landing…  So that’s it, he’s no Khan.  He’s alone and it’s too darned early.

Sherlock Khan cuHe could be a forerunner of Khan for sure – if he’s human, he’s been augmented… But then why dilute a Khan who may well turn up later.  Equally, Harrison could be a surgically altered Romulan member of Nero’s crew come to take revenge – but surely JJ and co want to expand the universe, not constrict it.  The key has to be that Harrison, as he kind of suggests, has popped back home.  Don’t be distracted by accents – he may well be from Home Counties, Pluto.  After all, Khan himself had bizarrely shifted from Indian sub-continent to the Americas during his ill-fated colonisation.

So, John Harrison he is.  But again, who the hell is that?  New, with a hint of back-story tying into the Star Trek we know?  Hmm maybe.  He’s Starfleet, maybe the son of an admiral, maybe some black ops (surely not Section 31, DS9 fans?)…  Maybe it’s just a statement of subversion.  What he definitely is though, is a terrorist.  He’s angry and he kicks the merry Gherkin out of London.

Eager to get in on the speculation, and prove myself by reading the signs laid out before us I have drawn up a highly probable shortlist based on the fact that he seems to be human and yes, his name is indeed John Harrison (well, approximately):

Cadets, Non-coms and officers – this is my probable shortlist:

  • John Harrison – descendent of 19th century US Presidents William Harrison (9th) and Benjamin Harrison (23rd).  Appalled with their lack of biopics by the 23rd century he returns to Earth to seek vengeance.  This is my favourite theory.
  • John Harryhausen – An easy misprint, but quickly dispelled by a  tricorder scan, John is indeed the great-great-great-great (and so on…) grandson of legendary special effects supremo Ray Harryhausen  – inheriting a taste for the spectacular but seeking lapsed payments on behalf of the estate, he seeks revenge.  This is now my favourite theory.
  • He’s Sherlock Holmes.  Well, he is a master of disguise.  Quickly becoming my favourite theory.
  • He’s actually Harry Johnson, Lt Harry Johnson – it’s just that they muddled his name up.  Oh, and he’s pretty angry about it.  You would be if you looked up the wrong sites on the internet… Pretty much my favourite theory.
  • John Harrison, ant overlord –As a tribute to his conservation work, Harrison Ford has  gifted his name to an ant.  A lovely story, and one that goes very well until Pheidole harrisonfordi, realised that Ford had also gifted his name to a type of spider.  What an insult. Accelerating and subverting their evolution, the ant swears vengeance.  This explains why he hates humans, possesses super strength and – for the first few milliseconds of the trailer anyway – all the buildings look like humans from an ant’s perspective.  This storms ahead as my favourite theory.

I know: all of these seem perfectly plausible.  In fact, one of them would be guaranteed were it not for another compelling piece of evidence which suggests his name may not be a variant on john Harrison at all.  All the misdirection of the number two, baiting Khan…  But what you see in the final scene of the trailer…  Is five fingers.  Five.  Yes, this is a remake of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  The clues are all there: As Pike tells us in the trailer, Kirk’s a little full of himself – you know, maybe ‘let’s go and take on God’ full of himself.  It also explains Harrison’s super strength – he can beat a half Vulcan because he’s a full Vulcan, none other than Spock’s half brother Sybok!  (John Harrison sounds remarkably like “Sybok”if you say it really quickly, preferably drunk).   After the events of the first film, Sybok’s understandably upset.  Look, in certain bits of the trailer, Harrison’s ears look a little pointy!

I mean, surgically altered Romulans would seem a little dull compared to an angry Vulcan suddenly harnessing emotion…  Revenge!  Hell yeah!  Also, helps with those less important things like neat cyclical enforcement and the exploration of the new dynamics of the Trek universe…  The fact that there are other planets full of virtually genetically identical species to Vulcans (Romulus!) notwithstanding.

The opening prologue (now re-edited) shows Harrison stepping into a familiar trope regarding future medicine – yes, just like McCoy’s tragic recollections of his dad in… Star Trek V!   But then perhaps the most compelling evidence that Into Darkness is virtually a shot for shot remake of The Final Frontier.  If you swap the private hospital for a desert, realise that Harrison is Sybok… Well, then Noel Clarke’s the bald guy at the beginning of the fifth film.  (Grins goofily – “You’re a Vulcan”).  His name on the Star Trek V script? J’onn.  An easy name for Sybok to adopt from his lieutenant for his Starfleet incursion. It all makes sense.

Yes, now that…  That is my favourite theory.   Live long and prosper.

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