A commendable start for the cast and crew of Star Trek: Voyager gives the new series a chance to establish its identity. While the drama isn't quite as striking as "Emissary," the Deep Space Nine pilot of two years ago, "Caretaker" serves its primary purpose first and foremost—very successfully launching the new USS Voyager and its substantial cast of nine with an entertaining but not entirely spectacular story. The episode is solid, with first-rate production qualities and special effects.
"Caretaker" begins with a renegade Maquis ship being chased by Cardassians through the Badlands. After narrowly escaping them, the Maquis ship becomes caught in a mysterious energy pattern. Starfleet designates the ship as missing, and sends a ship to search for it. Not just any ship, but the USS Voyager—a sleek, fast and powerful new Intrepid class starship with some interesting features and improved computer technology. (For the record, this new vessel bears the registry NCC-74656.)
The Voyager is commanded by Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who enters the episode on Earth where she recruits prison inmate Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) to help track down his Maquis former-allies. The Voyager begins its search of the Badlands after a quick stop at Deep Space Nine. On the station we meet fresh-out-of-the-academy Ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), an inexperienced but mature "kid" with a good head on his shoulders.
Paris has a bit of a tarnished past and bad reputation. In less-than-subtle ways, several senior staff members display their distaste of him by giving him the cold shoulder at every turn. Officially labeled an "observer" with no rank, Paris is faced with life aboard a ship that hates him. Kim, of open mind, gives Paris the benefit of the doubt and accepts him as a friend, opening the door for the first friendship aboard this series' Federation starship.
In the Badlands, the same energy pattern that grabbed the Maquis ship also takes the Voyager by surprise, causing some serious damage and heavy casualties. The first officer, doctor, and chief engineer are all killed by the impact. This leaves the emergency holographic doctor (Robert Picardo) in charge of all medical situations, for which there are plenty.
After stabilizing the situation and assessing damage as best possible, the crew discovers they have traveled over 70,000 light years to the Delta Quadrant—at maximum warp it would take them 75 years to reach Federation space. The Voyager finds the missing Maquis ship orbiting a mysterious array that kidnaps both ships' crews and performs experiments on them. Three days later, the two crews awake on their respective ships. One member from each crew is missing. Kim is missing from the Voyager, and Maquis engineer B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson) is missing from the Maquis vessel.
The two crews decide they must work together to find a way back to the Alpha Quadrant. Janeway leads an away team back onto the array along with Maquis leader Chakotay (Robert Beltran), a Native American who left Starfleet on principle, and Voyager security chief Tuvok (Tim Russ, supplying the first regular Vulcan role on Star Trek since the original Spock), who unbeknownst to Chakotay had infiltrated his Maquis group to arrest them.
On the array, the away team meets a mysterious lifeform known as the Caretaker, who tells them they were probed for medical information in his search for a compatible replacement. The Caretaker is dying, and he needs someone to take his place to oversee the welfare of the Ocampa, a race of humanoids who live on a nearby planet. Further, the away team learns that Kim and Torres were sent to this planet for further study as potential Caretaker replacements.
Janeway sets a course for the Ocampa's planet. On the way, the Voyager encounters a space-junkyard owner named Neelix (Ethan Phillips), from a race known as the Talaxians. In exchange for a supply of water (a very limited resource in this quadrant), he agrees to guide them to the Ocampa homeworld and help them deal with the Kazon, an unfriendly race who has claim in nearby areas of space. By the way, no one in this quadrant has transporter technology, which gives the Voyager an edge in several instances.
Meanwhile, Torres and Kim are analyzed by the Ocampa, who, based on their inferior medical knowledge, inform Torres and Kim that their chances for survival are slim. The only realistic goal is to get off the planet and seek treatment in the Voyager's sickbay.
Around this time, Janeway and her team beams down to the Ocampa planet's surface, but can't get into the Ocampa's underground cities, which are surrounded by force fields to prevent Kazon intruders from robbing the planet of its resources. Here, the away team is met by an aggressive Kazon force holding a young Ocampa woman hostage. Using water as a negotiation item, Neelix (who has obviously had dealings with these Kazon before) distracts the Kazon leader and then turns on them. He rescues the Ocampa woman, who is actually his intimate companion Kes (Jennifer Lien).
Kes knows of access tunnels which may allow Voyager to rescue Kim and Torres. At the same time, an Ocampa helps Kim and Torres to these same tunnels in their attempt to get to the surface. The rescue attempt is successful, complete with earthquakes and collapsing bridges, and a scene where Paris saves Chakotay from falling to his death in an attempt to show a good gesture for his earlier betrayal of the Maquis. This action scene is okay, but sabotaged by an all-too-quiet, unexciting score by Jay Chattaway.
As the crew beams back aboard the ship, they are confronted by Kazon warships which attack them. Janeway and Tuvok beam onto the array again to talk to the Caretaker, whose imminent death is marked by his last wish that Voyager destroy the array to prevent the Kazon from using it to conquer the Ocampa. Unfortunately this would mean no way for the Voyager to return to the Alpha Quadrant.
Meanwhile, Voyager and the Maquis ship battle the Kazon is some well-done pyrotechnic numbers. Best of all is the spectacular Kamikaze attack Chakotay runs with his Maquis ship toward the large Kazon ship, beaming out the moment before the collision which destroys both ships. This is a great, exciting effect.
Janeway returns to the Voyager and destroys the array, which makes instant enemies of the Kazon who attempted to claim it as theirs. They withdraw, however, leaving the fight for another day. With the array destroyed, the Voyager has no quick way back to the Alpha Quadrant. Their new mission becomes the voyage home, but not without exploring this vast, unknown region on the way.
"Caretaker" does what it's supposed to. This show does an excellent job of introducing its characters and giving them all something to do. It's remarkable how much we learn about everybody. The combining of the Starfleet and Maquis crews promises to show friction in future episodes. At the same time, the writers introduce some friendly aliens (the Ocampa), and some enemies (the Kazon) right off the bat. It's a very good way to jump-start the series, and there's the feeling that with these two short hours, the series has already done a great deal in establishing its tone.
However, there are some fundamental situations about the show that aren't set up nearly as well as they could've been. For example, the Ocampa's introduction is nice, but why is it Janeway sides with them so easily? It's really hard to feel sympathetic toward the Ocampa when we hardly know them, and the writers really give no reason to care, unless we automatically accept what the Caretaker says about the Ocampa and the Kazon. Making the Ocampa look like cute, innocent, elves alone is not enough. It would've been nice to know more about them.
For that matter, why does Janeway decide to destroy the array, sacrificing the only reasonable way home, based solely on the Caretaker's wishes? Tuvok is quick to point out that this is a Prime Directive issue. It's clear, he says, that it is not up to Voyager to see that the Ocampa are safeguarded from the Kazon. So why does Janeway decide to "interpret" the Prime Directive some other way? She says something like, "We didn't ask to be involved, but we are." This line is weak and vague. It really doesn't mean anything if you think about it. Yet Janeway destroys the array and makes enemies with the Kazon because the Ocampa need to be protected. This is very noble, but hard to understand based on everything Star Trek lore says about the Prime Directive. I would have no problem with it if the writers would have found a better way of explaining it. Instead it seems very much like an arbitrary decision.
Most troubling however is Janeway's selection of Chakotay as first officer. I don't disagree with her decision. I just don't understand why the writers don't explain why she decided to make him second in command. There is no real explanation; just a passing reference to it when she names Paris a Lieutenant. The scene where she gives Paris rank and duty is good, but it's bothersome that there isn't a similar scene for Chakotay. When we're going to live with this decision for the entire series, it would be nice to know where it comes from.
Aside from these quibbles, I liked "Caretaker." Voyager shows promise with its action, adventure, exploration, and characters. While this isn't the best Trek to hit the screen, it does the job quite nicely.
Next episode: Parallax