Star Trek: Identity Crisis / Voyager

WTF is Star Trek: Voyager?

Star Trek: Voyager is the series that overlaps Deep Space Nine and comes before Enterprise. It’s about a Starfleet ship called Voyager, captained by Kathryn Janeway, that gets trapped in the Delta Quadrant, seventy-thousand light years from home. Due to Circumstances, the crew has to share their ship with a band of Maquis outlaws who hate their guts, as well as two aliens who kind of fast talk their way on board and, a few seasons later, a Borg. Every week, they either meet something that tries to kill them, or something that refuses to help them get home.

Because Voyager’s always on the move, there aren’t a lot of long-term story arcs in its seven seasons, besides the question of whether the ship will ever manage to get back to Earth, and whether Janeway will go completely insane. The first two seasons are largely focussed on conflict within the ship, and the relationships that form between specific characters. After that (and after two changes on the production team), the show slowly shifts to focus on how the crew, who become much more homogenous, face outside threats, many of which come from time travel or the Borg. The whole thing spills into a conclusion where Voyager does eventually get home, using both time travel and the Borg, because Janeway is completely insane, and the series sends really mixed messages about that.

Despite being UPN’s flagship show at the time, Voyager is usually treated as a disappointment, and, in the years since the series first aired, the cast have been unusually forthcoming in discussing everything they didn’t like about it. I loved it when I was twelve, though, so I was curious to see what I thought of it two decades later.

If Voyager’s bad, it’s mostly because it keeps morphing into different shows before the current show can flourish

Voyager gets dragged for its very worst episodes more than the other series do. There’s one where Tom Paris, the pilot, turns into a giant space lizard; the multiple holodeck episodes about superstitious villagers who think the crew are spirit folk (and the crew’s bizarre determination to befriend them instead of just turning them off); and the one where Chakotay has to have a never-ending boxing match for some weird reason. Having re-watched a whole lot of Star Trek over the past few years, I actually don’t think any of that’s worse than the stupidest parts of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The real problem – and the reason I suspect so many people remember Voyager as being a disappointment – isn’t that the worst episode are so much worse than anything else in Star Trek history; it’s that the very best episodes of Voyager, while totally decent hours of television, don’t come close to the very best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There is no “Chain of Command” or “Darmok” or “In the Pale Moonlight” among them.

In fact, the very best episodes of Voyager usually come with an automatic reset button that makes it so they never happened – like “Year of Hell,” where the ship gets pummelled by aliens who can alter the timeline and the solution is to make it so the whole thing never happened; or “Timeless,” where the young Ensign Harry Kim makes a mistake that causes the ship to crash on an ice planet and the solution is to make it so the whole thing never happened; or even “Course: Oblivion,” where it turns out that the whole crew are clones and they disintegrate before they can tell anyone they existed, which is pretty much the same as if it never happened.

Despite having to constantly invent new alien races, Voyager never comes up with one as iconic as the Borg, or as well thought-out and layered as the Cardassians, and it arguably makes the Borg and the Cardassians worse. The audience doesn’t get to know most of the aliens Voyager encounters well enough to learn much about them, and the ones who become recurring enemies, like Species 8472 or the Hirogen, get neutralized pretty fast. The first two seasons make an effort with the Kazon and the Vidiians – two antagonists who at least have good reasons for being antagonistic – but Voyager flies away from them in season three, and they never come back.

The characters, although they’re given interesting back stories and conflicting objectives at the start of the series, don’t take the same kind of journey that we saw Data or Sisko or Worf or Odo take. Most of them change personalities at least once as the series pivots, but it’s less an example of growth than of modification – just straight-up replacing the characters’ personality traits with different ones and pretending that’s how it always was.

The important point to be aware of, though, is that Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine didn’t start off amazing in their very first seasons. It took time for both shows to find their footing and figure out what they were trying to be. The problem Voyager has is that, whenever it starts to get traction with anything, the entire direction of the show suddenly changes and everyone has to start all over again. And the place that’s most evident is right after the second season.

The first two seasons of Voyager are a completely different show, and it’s a show I really like

I started off re-watching Voyager all out of order, and felt confused about why I used to like it, until I noticed that I enjoyed even the weak parts of the first two seasons more than the rest of the show. If I had to say why, I’d say it’s because, for the first two seasons, this is a much more character-driven show. There’s often a tech-based problem of the week, but outside of that, it’s about a group of people who kind of don’t like each other, and kind of don’t trust each other, and kind of don’t agree about some very important things, but have to live and work together anyway.

In the first two seasons, there are story lines about how Janeway feels awkward making friends with the crew, and Chakotay hates Tom Paris because Tom Paris betrayed the Maquis, and Seska is a actually a Cardassian spy who’s trapped in a weirdly long con, and Chakotay is first officer officially but Janeway still goes to Tuvok first when she needs something, and Kes is in love with Neelix because he’s the first person she met who’s not from her own species but now she’s meeting lots of other people, and the Maquis never asked to be in Starfleet and feel like their leader is selling them out, and there’s a serial killer named Suder on board whom they’re all just kind of stuck with because they don’t have a prison in the delta quadrant. And more, and more, and more.

After season two – like, literally starting in the season three premiere – 99% of the character stuff that builds in the first two seasons, including stuff with the Kazon and the Vidiians, gets erased. Lots of inconvenient secondary characters get killed. Everyone stops talking about sabotage, or mutiny, or abandoning the ship. Almost all of the characters like each other and get along. Every single love triangle gets obliterated. The Doctor, who’s been trapped in sickbay, because he’s a hologram – which is a pain in the ass to write around but interesting – gets a magic piece of tech that lets him go wherever he wants. Maybe most distressingly, Janeway, who was a really kind person in the first two seasons, gradually gets mad at everyone, stops trying to make friends, and gains a boring super power where she’s always 100% right.

I would have been really curious to see how the show might have evolved from its first two seasons if it hadn’t been completely torn apart and put back together again. I would have liked to have known how Kes’ journey through her natural life span – which would have seen her pass through adolescence, adulthood, and death by the end of the series – would have mapped onto the crew’s journey. I would have liked to have seen Chakotay try to share a ship with Seska after Seska turned out to be a Cardassian spy (and possibly, I would have liked to have seen them try to raise their child together with her in the brig). I would have liked to heave seen an episode in season seven all about how the voyage looked from the Doctor’s perspective, while he was alienated by being trapped in sickbay. I would have liked to have seen what would happen if the Voyager crew were continually confronted with situations where their principles didn’t make sense or seemed inhumane. I would have liked to have seen Tom Paris find a more convincing reason to stop being a dick than “LOL I guess I’m good now.”

I would be curious to know why the show suddenly swerves so hard in season three, but, whatever the reason, Voyager almost completely reboots itself during the next two seasons, and the biggest symbol of that reboot is the Borg.

Seven of Nine is the most memorable character partly because she’s the only one designed to suit the new format

Seven of Nine, the Borg in a shiny silver catsuit, is introduced in season four, and almost any description you read of the series will claim that Voyager becomes completely about her as soon as she arrives. That’s how I remembered it, too, but, having watched the show again, I’m not sure that’s accurate. Voyager doesn’t become about Seven of Nine in the sense that she gets way more screen time or has way more episodes about her than anyone else – she doesn’t and she doesn’t. The issue is more that Seven of Nine makes a much stronger impression when she’s on screen, partly because she’s the only character who was specifically created to suit the new vision for the show.

The later seasons of Voyager are more focussed on solving the tech problem of the week – often with very little or sometimes no room for character beats in between. Seven of Nine is a walking solution to a whole host of tech problems because she knows magic – her Borg technology is so advanced that the other characters and the audience accept not understanding it and let her nanoprobes solve everything. That’s why so many episodes that are ostensibly about the whole crew end up having a pivotal role for Seven of Nine – she’s one of the only characters (besides the Doctor, who also gets magic powers and rises to prominence in later seasons) who can just be dropped into whatever situation and believably resolve it.

If you’ll let me use a metaphor: the first two seasons of Voyager are about muggles and the last three seasons are about wizards. Seasons three and four are a cross-over period that tries to bridge the two things. If you’re an actor who signed a contract to play a muggle on a show about muggles, I get why you’d be pissed when it turns into a show about wizards. If you’re a writer who was hired to write about wizards, I get why you wouldn’t know WTF to do when almost all the characters are muggles. This is what I mean when I say the show was weird because it kept changing hands.

Once Janeway, Seven of Nine, and the Doctor are wizards (Janeway’s wizard power is always being right), the only thing anybody else can do in the A-plot is react to watching wizardry. I don’t like the wizard show as much as I like the muggle show, but I get how the rules of that show work.

What I don’t get as much is the claim that Seven of Nine was introduced because there wasn’t really a foil for Janeway, or because Janeway needed someone to challenge her worldview. It seems clear that, when people say “foil” in this context, they mean, “a character who misunderstands something about humanity” and not “a character who has a different worldview that contrasts with Janeway’s.” Because the premise of this show is that the ship is full of people who have different, contrasting worldviews that serve as a foil for Janeway. Tuvok, Chakotay, and Torres are all good candidates for “foil” during the first two seasons and it seems to me that the problem solved by introducing Seven of Nine in season four is a problem created by the same producers by neutralizing everybody’s personality in season three.

Which brings me to the most upsetting part of Star Trek: Voyager.

What Voyager did to Janeway

When I was twelve, Janeway was the biggest selling point of this series for me. After seeing a random episode in the first season, I started watching because I thought she seemed cool, and I stuck with Voyager for seven years after that for Janeway, in spite of how much I started to hate her. When I went back to re-watch the series this year, I was prepared to end up writing a blog post about what an asshole she is… until I watched the first two seasons again and remembered why I loved her.

Janeway starts out as a totally decent, likeable person who makes selfish decisions based on her gut feelings, but usually tries to be kind to others. She has friendships, she has morals, she has personality flaws, she has regard for the opinions of others. She’s capable, but not omnipotent. She’s well-regarded, but not an object of blind, fanatical worship. And she’s portrayed with a lot of layers by an actor who had a really hard job to do.

If you want to know my favourite thing she ever did in the entire series, it was awkwardly try to make small talk in “The Cloud.”

Janeway becomes an absolute fucking ice storm after Seven of Nine comes on board, and it’s hard to separate that from what I now know about Kate Mulgrew’s anger during the show’s later seasons. Even so, I noticed on the re-watch that Janeway’s personality actually starts to change before Seven of Nine, and that the change seems to coincide with a shift in how the show views leadership in general.

All seasons of Voyager try to present Janeway as a good leader, but the definition of “good” changes over time. In the first two seasons, a good leader is someone who genuinely cares about the people she’s responsible for, tries to do the right thing even if it has harsh consequences, overcomes her own prejudice in an attempt to be fair, gives people a second chance when everyone else turns against them, and is generally respected by the people following her, even if they don’t (and can’t) always support her decisions.

Starting in season three, a good leader is someone who always knows the right answer, asserts her authority by yelling at and threatening people, knows how to do every job on the ship better than the people doing it, makes final, authoritative judgements in every legal or moral dispute that comes up, makes personal medical decisions for people under her command, makes sure people know they’re garbage human beings who don’t deserve another chance after everyone turns against them (Noah Lessing, look it up), and is held up as an example of perfect, flawless leadership by all with eyes to see.

In other words, Voyager becomes an authoritarian dictatorship in the show’s final seasons, while the characters who aren’t Janeway stand around saying, “This is amazing!”

The most frustrating part is that it isn’t just my expectations that get reversed in the later seasons – it’s a reversal of things the show has actually said. Examples:

  • In “The Gift,” the Doctor explains that he can’t perform even a life-saving surgery on a patient who doesn’t consent, and, in “Persistence of Vision,” he says directly that the Chief Medical Officer outranks the Captain in health matters. But then, in “Nothing Human,” he doesn’t even blink when Janeway orders him to perform a surgery on Torres that Torres has explicitly forbidden – everyone involved takes for granted that this is a normal thing for Janeway to do.
  • In “Counterpoint,” Janeway acknowledges that she’s (proudly) broken the Prime Directive multiple times, but, in “Equinox,” she claims she would never break the Prime Directive, and that that’s what makes her morally superior to the episode’s villain.
  • In “Prime Factors,” Janeway forbids Torres to study a piece of technology that could cut decades off their journey, because it would violate rules about respecting the aliens’ laws. In “The Swarm,” Tuvok tells Janeway that it violates Starfleet regulations to invade the territory of an alien race, and she flat-out says she doesn’t care, because the alternative is taking a detour.
  • In “Year of Hell,” we learn at great length that it’s wrong to try to change history because every small change has a ripple effect that can wipe out civilizations. In “Shattered,” Janeway agrees with Chakotay that it’s wrong to try to change history specifically to prevent Voyager from going to the delta quadrant, because it would undo all the good that came from their journey. Then, a couple of episodes after “Shattered,” in the series finale, Janeway commits a massive time travel crime to undo decades of history concerning Voyager, probably having a ripple effect on countless civilizations.

Some of that’s a clash between the first two seasons and the rest of the seasons, but a lot of it isn’t. A lot of it is people just forgetting what they said last week so they can get through this week’s episode.

The Janeway of latter day Voyager hangs completely on a line of dialogue she had in season one, where she said, “Sometimes you just have to punch your way through.” That becomes the gospel underlying everything she does in later seasons, without any of the nuance that came from being insecure about her first command, or not being sure if she made the right decision by stranding the ship in the delta quadrant, or being confused about how close to get to the people serving under her.

I can see a school of thought that says making her a megalomaniac means making her a “strong” leader and “like a man would be,” but I don’t think megalomania is an attractive quality in leaders of any gender. And besides that, Picard was a male leader who felt love and used diplomacy, so I don’t think being kind is limited by gender. Janeway hugging people who are scared instead of screaming at them to eat bugs (which she literally does in the season three premiere) doesn’t make her a weak leader or an un-feminist leader, and it isn’t something that needs to be “corrected” in the way that someone seems to want to correct it later on.

In conclusion, this is 2.5 different shows smashed together, one of which I like

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes bullshit about how this show got made, and about the politics of the time, and what it meant to have a female captain, and what it meant to air-drop Seven on Nine into the fourth season, and the scrutiny the actors were under, and the way their bodies were presented on screen, and the way people’s contracts were handled, and the way people behaved toward each other on set, and what was going on with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at the time, and it’s all kind of a quagmire.

There’s no such thing as a perfect TV show, or a TV show that’s perfectly free of whatever ideas are circulating in the culture that made it, and Voyager was sometimes home to some troubling ideas. But the characters had a point when they repeatedly lectured us that you don’t throw away the whole journey because parts of it are terrible. There are parts of this show that I really like, and there are aspects of what it represented that are positive.

The show probably would have been stronger if it had been able to commit to one particular vision and stick with it – and the vision I would have most enjoyed personally was the vision behind seasons one and two.

Overall, re-watching Voyager made me wish it had had a better ending – like, I mean, even literally just the last episode – which is pretty much how I felt the first time around. That said, I at least now remember why I liked it in the first place.

Image: Star Trek: Voyager; Paramount | April 27, 2018