Bonus: Re-Watching Star Trek: Voyager’s Worst Episodes
I made this list through the unscientific process of googling to see what came up the most. It’s not my worst-of list; it’s the internet’s. So, thanks for choosing what I couldn’t fast forward through, internet.
WTF: Tom Paris, breaks the warp barrier on a test flight, which means he travels at infinite velocity. He spends the rest of the episode freaking out behind a force field in sickbay while he turns into an amphibian and monologues about his childhood. Then, he kidnaps Janeway and turns her into an amphibian, too. They mate with each other and, when Chakotay, finally catches up with them, he’s just like, “I can’t even.” They leave their amphibian offspring in a swamp somewhere and the Doctor turns them (Paris and Janeway) back into humans.
Re-watch: I’ve never hated “Threshold.” That’s my darkest Star Trek secret. I think it’s funny, and I think the device of having Tom Paris monologue while he thinks he’s going to die actually does a decent job of fleshing out his character. I feel like I learned more about him in this episode than I did in the rest of the series.
I do find it weird that they just left their offspring – who are also supposedly the next evolution of human life – in a swamp, but I found some solace in a line from “Parturition” where Paris explains that “common lizards” abandon their young. Common lizards, indeed.
“Fair Haven” / “Spirit Folk”
WTF: The crew starts running a 24-hour holodeck program that lets them roleplay as 19th century Irish villagers. In the first episode, Janeway reprograms one of the characters to be her ideal boyfriend and then realizes that that’s weird. Then the Doctor convinces her that everyone will accept her and the computer game as a couple, and the only person who thinks it’s embarrassing is her. In the second episode, Tom Paris messes up the finer points of programming the characters and they start to notice player behaviour that they should filter out – like people making the holodeck doors appear or changing the weather with a voice command. The villagers conclude that the crew of Voyager are spirit folk trying to cast a spell on them, until Janeway’s imaginary boyfriend calms them down. The villagers then accept the crew as spacemen from the future.
Re-watch: I don’t have a problem with someone having sex with a holodeck character, and I actually think it’s kind of appropriate that Janeway tried to turn this program into a romance novel, since that’s the kind of program we’ve seen her run before. But I find the idea of Janeway’s coworkers celebrating her imaginary boyfriend so uncomfortable that I can barely watch these episodes. Literally my only reaction to “Fair Haven” is “Why couldn’t you wait and do this in private, OMG, OMG, OMG?” Like, I would fully accept that her only course of action after the events of that episode is to bail off the ship.
Otherwise, the major issue with these episodes is that they play pretty fast and loose with the holodeck, in ways that aren’t carried through to the rest of the series. Because the Doctor is a sentient holoprogram, there are a lot of sticky questions in Voyager that never get fully addressed, having to do with what exactly makes the Doctor different from other holocharacters, and why it’s okay to treat other holocharacters like objects if he’s a person. Episodes like “Fair Haven” and “Spirit Folk” muddy the waters without seriously engaging with those questions, and I find that disappointing. There’s a great moment where Janeway’s imaginary boyfriend says, “Where do you go when you leave me?” that made me wish, in a really powerful way, that the show had been more interested in the consequences of that blur between objects and people, or done more of a Blade Runner 2049 than a wacky situational comedy.
WTF: Voyager enters something called “chaotic space” and the aliens who live there try to communicate with Chakotay through hallucinations because he has a genetic predisposition to psychosis. He has to overcome his fear of going crazy in order to let the aliens tell him how to escape their territory. This happens through a really drawn-out imaginary boxing match, but he succeeds and everybody listens to him while he rants and raves about how to escape, so Voyager is saved.
Re-watch: This episode is boring, and I wish that we had been told about Chakotay’s apparent life-long fear of having the same illness as his grandfather at any point before it became convenient for the plot. However, I like the central idea, and I like the sequence near the end where the aliens communicate with him by jump-cutting bits and pieces of earlier conversations in the episode. That’s a nice piece of editing.
For me, this one gets filed away under “missed opportunities” more than “bad episodes.” It’s an interesting idea that would have been more interesting if the character relationships hadn’t been nuked in the seasons leading up to it. Chakotay hallucinates that he sees almost everybody from the main cast at some point, and those moments could have been a lot richer if his relationships with those people were more developed. As it is, there’s a nice little moment where Janeway taps his foot to get his attention in sickbay, and it’s the only thing that reminds me he has friends.
WTF: Janeway tells everyone a long boring story about her ancestor, and the action cuts between the crew reminiscing about their relatives and Kate Mulgrew playing Janeway’s ancestor in a storyline set in the early 2000s. As the episode goes on, it becomes apparent that the story Janeway learned about her ancestor is slightly different from what actually happened, but not in a way that has any real moral or social consequences. In the end, she accepts that her ancestor was a good person in spite of not being a famous astronaut, because the lie about her being a famous astronaut still inspired Janeway to go to Starfleet.
Re-watch: This is the episode I was least excited to watch again, purely because I don’t like it when we burn all of our screen time on random strangers instead of the main characters. This is not the only time Voyager does that, but it’s the instance that’s most disconnected from anything else. The revelations about Janeway’s ancestor aren’t very consequential, and the whole thing’s basically a shoddy version of How I Met Your Mother where, as soon as the two main characters meet, we know with absolute certainty that they’re going to get married, but we have to watch them have a courtship anyway.
There’s something in there about being stuck in the past vs excited for the future, but this was a weird way to execute it. The plot also has the disadvantage of talking about historical events that blatantly did not happen, since it’s set in the early 21st century, and we don’t have an experimental biodome city where a shitty bookstore used to be. I wish we did. Aside from that, it’s funny to hear Janeway’s ancestor explain how email works.
“Once Upon a Time”
WTF: The random child on Voyager, Naomi Wildman, plays a didactic holodeck game that teaches children about problem-solving and cooperation. Meanwhile, her mother is in a shuttle accident, and her godfather, Neelix, insists on pretending everything’s okay until they know for sure whether Ensign Wildman’s dead or alive. In the end, Naomi finds out anyway, and it turns out she can deal with the situation – the person who can’t deal with it is Neelix, because he’s remembering how he felt when his family died in the war. In the end, Ensign Wildman is okay.
Re-watch: I really don’t think this is bad. The only interesting thing about Neelix – which we already know from “Jetrel” – is that his whole family died in the war and he feels guilty about it not only because he survived, but because he survived by being a draft dodger. Watching him project his pain and emotional fragility onto Naomi before realizing that he’s trying to protect himself is really interesting, and taps into the core of what this character is.
If I had to take a stab at why this ends up on so many “worst” lists, I’d say it’s probably because of the family friendly holodeck program taking up so much time, or the emotional manipulation of watching Ensign Wildman and Tom Paris say goodbye to their loved ones on video when we know they’re obviously going to survive. I could have done without the videos, but I found the holodeck program interesting if only because of what it shows us about Federation culture and the way young children are socialized.
WTF: Two Ferengi pose as gods on a primitive world in order to enrich themselves. The Voyager crew is concerned that forcibly removing the Ferengi will traumatize the population, so they try to trick the Ferengi into leaving by sending Neelix to impersonate a high-ranking government official. The trick doesn’t work, and then the villagers decide to burn Neelix and the Ferengi at the stake to send them back to the sky. Voyager beams them all out in time, but then the Ferengi manage to collapse a wormhole that could have sent Voyager home, so it’s still a bummer.
Re-watch: One of the things I notice about this episode is that none of the characters act like they sincerely believe the wormhole will take them home – probably because the wormhole is just a device to explain how the Ferengi got there and then dispose of them again at the end of the episode.
This is not the deftest or most interesting portrayal of the Ferengi, but it’s also not the worst Ferengi episode I’ve ever seen. Some of the jokes are a little bit funny. It’s just that, when the entire idea of this show is that everyone’s desperate to go back to the alpha quadrant, it’s weird to bring two random people through a wormhole from the alpha quadrant as a joke. Like, “LOL @ your sincerely held desire to see your family again. Random swindlers can come and go as they please.”
WTF: The crew stumbles across a civilization that’s gone into stasis and is being attacked by a clown in their dreams. The clown takes Harry Kim hostage and tortures him for a while, trying to scare him to death. Janeway eventually comes up with a way to trick the clown by holoprojecting herself into his simulation and getting him to let the others go. She shuts down the simulation and he’s scared because he’s going to die.
Re-watch: I fucking love this episode and I’m not ashamed of that. I get why people think it’s stupid, but I actually think the core idea — “We created an AI to show us our fantasies and instead it started showing us our fears” – is really interesting, and some of the clown’s behaviour is genuinely creepy and unsettling. For example, there is a chillingly insightful scene where the clown stops playing carnival games and just shows Harry his fear of being old.
This isn’t, like, the greatest characterization even done on television, but showing the character his specific, idiosyncratic fears is also a really interesting way to show us who he is. I wish the episode had gone father, and I wish it had been deeper, but I think it’s a cool idea that at least partly succeeds in execution.
WTF: Kes left the ship in season four, when her telepathic abilities spiked, and she believed she was turning into something greater. In “Fury,” she comes back as an old woman who believes Voyager screwed her over by filling her head with false dreams and taking her off her path. She travels back in time to kidnap her younger self and return to her home world before it’s too late. She almost succeeds, but Janeway and Tuvok stop her and convince young Kes to record a message for her future self, convincing her to stop blaming Voyager for the way her life turned out and to return to her home world alone.
Re-watch: On re-watch, I had the benefit of watching this episode immediately after “The Gift,” and the change in tone is really shocking. The thing I dislike most about it is that it retroactively turns Kes’ story, which was about growing, changing, and becoming more, into a story about delusion, failure, and disappointment. I would have liked to have known what happened during the intervening time to make Kes so angry and bitter.
There are some nice details in the episode – like, how Kes travelling back in time trips Tuvok’s telepathic senses after he spent so much time training her – but it also steps on itself by turning something that should be very emotional for the characters (and was likely quite emotional for the cast) into a convoluted puzzle that needs to be solved.
WTF: Harry Kim feels a powerful sense of familiarity as Voyager approaches an alien planet, and learns that that’s because he was actually born on that planet and sent to be raised in the alpha quadrant. He’s always wanted to believe he was special, and this seems to confirm his belief. However, he soon discovers that the whole thing is a lie and that the women of this planet lure in alien men by telling them this story, so that they can do a preying mantis and kill them while they’re having sex.
Re-watch: I forgot that it turned out to be a lie and, for a minute, I was like, “Holy shit, Voyager made Harry Kim seem interesting.” Then, I remembered that they murder people after doing some very light bondage and tapping a stick on the ground, and I felt disappointed.
I like the idea that Harry’s vulnerable to this lie because he always wanted to believe that he was special, and didn’t feel like he was measuring up. I wish that that had been explored more, or that it had been evident in his characterization before this episode. I also like the idea that maybe he could just straight-up be an alien. I’m not as jazzed about the part where it’s like, “Yay, you get three wives, and 50 Shades of Grey before they murder you” and I’m actively put-off that Harry would tell them he’s never heard of blindfolds being used for sex before. What is the future, even?
“Barge of the Dead”
WTF: Torres has a near-death experience and wakes up convinced that her mother’s going to Klingon hell unless Torres can board the Barge of the Dead and take her place. She hallucinates a bunch of stuff where she first tries to trick the Barge into taking her when she has no intention to stay, and then agrees to take her mother’s place in hell for real. At the end, she decides she’s more at peace with her Klingon heritage, even though she accepts that maybe none of this was real and her mother’s still alive.
Re-watch: The most interesting thing about this episode for me is that Torres hallucinates her coworkers being really weird and racially insensitive while they bully her for not being Klingon enough. People bullying her for not being Klingon enough is a thing that happens now and then on the show and usually isn’t flagged as being inappropriate in the same way it might be getting flagged, here.
Aside from that, I had trouble getting interested in most of what was happening because the stakes weren’t super clear, and because I was already satisfied by the message we got in “Faces” – i.e., that Torres will always be conflicted about her identity, and she has to learn to live with the conflict. “Barge of the Dead” is a lot less insightful, and is more of a history lesson about Klingon religion, which I don’t really care about. As a side note, Deep Space Nine told us that the first two Klingons killed the gods that made them – “Barge of the Dead” tells us that the male half of that couple has a crummy job captaining the Barge. I want to know what happened to the female.