Thursday, July 03, 2014

#755: Seven Reasons - Star Trek: Voyager

Listen, I know all about Star Trek: Voyager's reputation.  If Enterprise hadn't come along after it, Voyager would have easily been the least popular Star Trek series ever (at least among the fans who don't fanatically remember Deep Space Nine).  Captain Janeway became increasingly polarizing as the series progressed, reaching a crescendo in the sixth season (which itself wasn't...popular; we'll leave it at that) when she and Chakotay clashed over the issue of torture ("Equinox, Part II," one of many episodes in the franchise that would take on far greater significance in later years), and helped define opinions on Voyager as a whole.  Yet the most controversial aspect of the series was tied intrinsically into its premise: a Starfleet ship stranded tens of thousands of lightyears away from home, with a crew comprised of a mix between loyal officers and Federation rebels known as the Maquis.

The creators of the series made the choice to keep Voyager similar to the kind of series that had come before it, which meant the characters lived by a set of relatively fixed moral ideals.  The ship itself managed to make it through seven seasons intact (with an infamously endless supply of shuttlecrafts), the crew didn't end up killing each other, and the Starfleet code of behavior was upheld.  A lot of fans thought these were terrible mistakes.

Surprisingly, Voyager dipped into alternate scenarios about what might have happened on a number of occasions.  Here's a list of seven such stories:

1. "The 37's"
via Trek Core

Usually understood to be the second season premiere, this was the Amelia Earhart episode, but more significantly this was also the first opportunity the crew had to leave the ship and settle down in the Delta Quadrant.  Among all the other scenarios, this one is least often considered because of course it's the least exciting.  By the time Janeway figures out what's really going on concerning Earhart and other human abductees, she decides she's found an ideal place for her crew to be able to decide for themselves if they want to stay on the journey home, which will probably take decades and consume the best years of their lives, or simply start over someplace new.

2. "Cold Fire"
via Robert Beltran (fansite). Not Soval, but the same actor.
The whole reason the ship is in this predicament is because of the eponymous being in the series premiere, "Caretaker," who mentions during the course of that episode that he has a mate somewhere.  Among the other chances of finding an easy solution home, this is clearly the most natural one.  Except when they find her, she's is far less accommodating.  "Cold Fire" occurs during the second season.

3. "Worst Case Scenario"
via Trek Core

This is the third season episode that addresses definitively the potential for decisive conflict between the Starfleet and Maquis crews, cleverly extrapolated from a holodeck program created by tactical officer Tuvok.  Other episodes ("State of Flux" from the first season, "Repression" from the seventh, and pretty much the entirety of the second season) suggest how things might have developed beyond successful integration (which began with Chakotay becoming first officer and B'Elanna Torres chief engineer early on, and then the rank and file trickling in thanks to efforts like the one in "Learning Curve"), but this one, which also features the one Maquis who did refuse to play along (Seska, whose relationship with Chakotay served to provide the series with some of its best material, culminating in "Maneuvers" and the two-part "Basics"), explains pretty well why things played out the way they did.

4. "Year of Hell, Parts I & II"
via Iain's Blog

Otherwise known as the Battlestar Galactica Option, wherein everything that can go wrong does, with the whole ship disintegrating over time, crew complement dwindling, captain going down with her ship, you name it.  This one was one of the earliest two-hour events, from the fourth season, which became a staple for the series.  It's worth noting that although Battlestar was a critical darling beloved by its fans, it still had anemic ratings.  In fact, until recent times, and with the exception of X-Files, every single genre series fans turned to as alternatives to the Star Trek experience wasn't anymore popular than Star Trek itself, and in most cases in fact fared worse with the public.  For fans to say this is how it should have been done still boggles me, because even Battlestar turned less bleak (and arguably less appealing to even its own fans) as it continued.

5. "Message in a Bottle"
via My Year of Star Trek. Be quiet, Andy Dick!
Contact with home started becoming a staple in the fourth season thanks to a Hirogen relay network, which enabled Voyager's irrepressible Holographic Doctor to make a house call (or two), starting with this episode.  Being far easier to transplant from one place to another, the Doctor was always a secret trump card.  Except he couldn't take everyone else with him.

6. "Equinox, Parts I & II"
via Cinema Blend

What if Janeway constantly compromised herself?  That's the basis for this cliffhanger that straddled the fifth and sixth seasons, in which a different Starfleet crew in the same predicament is encountered, and that's exactly what Captain Ransom did, throwing away his Starfleet principles in order to gain whatever edge he could.  When faced with this ugly counterpart, Janeway is herself pushed to the edge.  In other episodes like "Night," fans got to see the incredible strain she was under to remain the stoic idealist she was throughout the series, but this is the one where she nearly crosses the line (to say nothing of the Borg).

7. "Live Fast and Prosper"
via Furious Fan Boys.  (Probably wouldn't like this post.)

Narrowly beating out "Worst Case Scenario" and "Message in a Bottle" as the most fun episode on this list, "Live Fast" is, like "The 37's," an option fans rarely considered for a ship completely cut off from home.  Being on their own and still attempting to represent not just itself but all of Starfleet without any actual Starfleet to back them up left the crew vulnerable to a group of con artists to go around pretending they were the crew.  A different kind of danger than outright hostile aliens could ever represent (and the crew certainly faced plenty of those), these guys visited numerous worlds, making bargains they never intended to live up to, all while presenting themselves as rough proximities of Janeway, Tuvok, and Chakotay.

And because fans often forget that Voyager could actually be pretty good on its own terms (and beyond), here's a bonus list of seven good episodes:

  1. "Non Sequitur" (second season) Harry Kim often gets labeled as one of the worst main characters in franchise history.  Regardless, he's got at least two of the best episodes of this series under his belt ("Timeless" is the other).  This one features one of his alternate lives, in which he never joined the crew.  I think the fact that he was the prototypical officer who was never promoted makes Harry emblematic for a lot of frustrations.  It bears remembering that Ensign Kim was in fact fresh out of the Academy at the start of the series.  In a lot of ways, he's exactly the character the new Star Trek films refashioned Chekov to be, the wunderkind who was instantly fantastic at his job.  "Non Sequitur" confirms Harry's potential as he's still a standout even at home.  When he meets up with Tom Paris in this reality, who's a bum because he never had his shot at redemption among Janeway's crew, everything Harry accomplished right from the start, his willingness to believe in Starfleet ideals (he's also the one who exhibits the most growing pains throughout the series, perhaps best featured in "Nightingale," in which we see a bit of Sulu Complex in him), is pushed into sharp contrast.
  2. "Death Wish" (second season) One of the finest Q episodes isn't from Next Generation but rather Voyager, and features the impish figure in rare dramatic form, forced to confront another member of the Continuum who took his most rebellious instincts to their most extreme conclusions.  This is probably the most commonly acknowledged standout episode of the series.
  3. "Distant Origin" (third season) You don't have to be a fan of Voyager to love this one.  Told almost entirely from the perspective of the featured aliens, "Distant Origin" is an allegory about government repression, and the scientist who dares to hold true to his ideals.  One of the finest episodes of the whole franchise.  A similar experience can be found in "Blink of an Eye."
  4. "Living Witness" (fourth season) I could've listed this one in the above list, except the story is more about the perils of corrupted history (think Richard the 3rd) than specifically our crew itself.  A backup program of the Doctor's is activated centuries in the future and is forced to stand trial for an errant interpretation of the ship's visit to that world.
  5. "Thirty Days" (fifth season) The nature of Tom Paris's conflict with his father as well as his past as a troubled officer booted from Starfleet is revisited in this one.  Voyager had a lot of episodes that explored its characters in great depth.  This is not even the best one, but it explains Paris so well without deliberately doing so, more as reflection based on a current predicament than what might have been done with flashbacks in any other series, that it answers one of the many complaints about the series, that the setup in "Caretaker" was never properly exploited.
  6. "The Voyager Conspiracy" (sixth season) The most famous character of the series wasn't introduced until its fourth season.  Initially, Seven of Nine was greeted with great fanfare, because, well, she was a hot chick in a catsuit, but as time wore on the fans started to grate on her increasing dominance, and began to consider her a cheap ratings ploy.  Yet she was was responsible for some of the best character moments of the series.  This is a whole episode that reflects not just on Seven, but Janeway and Chakotay as well, looking at some of the very alternate scenarios explored above but in a still less-obvious manner.  
  7. "Child's Play" (sixth season) Along with Seven came the Borg, of course.  A lot of fans had a huge problem with this.  It seems the more the Borg appeared the more of their mystique was lost.  And apparently a huge part of the Borg's allure was their mystique.  Yet there were considerable benefits to their increased exposure, such as exploring their untapped story potential.  Earlier there had been "Hope and Fear," in which an alien attempts to take revenge on the ship for the fallout of events from "Scorpion," the two-part episode that started the Borg rolling in Voyager.  "Child's Play" concerns Icheb, one of the drone youths introduced a few episodes earlier, a sort of revamped Wesley Crusher whose parents apparently engineered him to be a weapon against the Collective.  Yikes!


Pat Dilloway said...

The Year of Hell episodes were pretty cool, more of what would have made the show better. You know if there had been actual consequences to most things that happened. Really the Maquis submit way too easily to Janeway and the Starfleet Way.

My brother and I used to refer to most Voyager episodes as "Alien of the Week" as they revolved around contacting some alien who tries to take over the ship until the Doctor and/or 7 of 9 stops them. DS9 was a much better series.

Tony Laplume said...

I think a lot of fans forget or overlook what the Msquis actually were. Both Chakotay and Torres were actually in Starfleet prior to joining the rebels, who by the way were reacting against and fighting Cardassians in protest of losing Federation territory in a treaty. Chakotay was a seasoned officer when he left. Torres never made it out of the Academy, but that had more to do with her own conflicted nature than being incapable of functioning within Starfleet itself.

No, I'm pretty sure most fans simply thought: Hey! People who aren't Starfleet! They'll never commit to the Starfleet way!

Pat Dilloway said...

I think fans hoped for that because the Starfleet Way is pretty boring, especially since we already had 7 years of TNG. So it would have been nice if they had been more Han Solo and less Will Riker. Which incidentally is why people still love Firefly to this day.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Of all of these "Year of Hell, Parts I & II" are my favorite. Yeah, compared to Enterprise, this show is a masterpiece. I have to go back and watch the episodes again and see if my opinion of the show has changed. Good reminders Tony!

Tony Laplume said...

Hey Maurice, I'm doing Enterprise next...

And Pat! "People" "love" Firefly enough for the movie revival to have been...a spectacular failure. Just saying. "The Internet" doesn't count as people.

The Armchair Squid said...

I'm quite fond of Voyager. I don't know it as well as I know TOS or TNG but I think it's fun. I even like Seven of Nine. The purists hate Seven of Nine.

Tony Laplume said...

The thing is, she's a fantastic character, one of the best Star Trek ever came up with.

The Armchair Squid said...

I agree.

MOCK! said...

I watched the first two seasons as they aired and then drifted away. My son and I have recently discovered it together. He has seen some TNG and TOS and ENT but this is the series he always asks to revisit...I'm really enjoying it.

Tony Laplume said...

Breaking off after the first two seasons was probably as opportune a moment as there was in the series. The series took a different tack in the third season after some fairly heavy serialization in the first two.


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