Nutshell: Much like second season, the writing is still inconsistent and the major themes of the series still sorely disappoint because of the general lack of direction. However, the ambitious final stretch of episodes proves the series still has some energy left in it.
So, the highly-touted season of "big change" on Voyager has come and gone, and once again we're at the analysis stage of the "big picture." Just like last year, this recap will cover as much ground as possible. Even if you haven't read a single review I've written for the past season of Voyager, you will get my low-down of every episode in this recap, which I'll gladly hype as the "most comprehensive review for Voyager that I'll write all year." The first section consists of the capsule reviews. The second section is the analysis of the season as a whole. It's basically self-explanatory, so let's begin.
Part 1: Capsule Reviews
Basics, Part II — Air date: 9/4/1996. Written by Michael Piller. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
Looking back at "Basics," I think this may be an indication of what much of Voyager as a series has become: relatively superficial adventure plotting with only half-credible logic. The highlight of "Basics II" was Ensign Suder's problem of facing the violence and demons within that he thought he had left behind. Unfortunately, the arbitrary way they kill off the character is unforgivable. The stranded crew, meanwhile, has to cope with an extreme environment, which leads to some pretty good action scenes under Kolbe's skillful direction. The script, unfortunately, feels too much like a calculated exercise going through the motions. The way many details are resolved, like the issue of Chakotay's "son," for example, are brushed over too quickly and easily, so that when all's said and done, the two-parter feels pre-determined and not very sincere. In retrospect, the underwhelming death of the treacherous Seska and the unspecified permanence of leaving the Kazon behind both come across as less than interesting, lacking the dramatic finality that a year's worth of development warrants.
Flashback — Air date: 9/11/1996. Written by Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
As a "30th anniversary of Trek" episode, "Flashback" was entertaining and had some sincere doses of nostalgia (although it can't touch DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations"). It's fun watching the events of Star Trek VI unfold from the Excelsior's point of view, especially the lame lie that Sulu concocts as an explanation to Kang why he's in Klingon space—which not even Sulu can keep a straight face through. High marks are also deserved for Tim Russ' performance and the interesting backstory of the young Tuvok—a Vulcan who disliked the presumptions of humanity. What doesn't work is the disappointingly weak performance by Grace Lee Whitney as Commander Janice Rand; and also the end of the episode where the repressed memory that causes Tuvok's flashbacks turns out to be an virally-induced "infection"—something with no character relevance whatsoever, just when character insight seemed to be the key to the episode. But even though the ending isn't what it could've been, the premise's notion is sincere and most of it works nonetheless.
The Chute — Air date: 9/18/1996. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller. Story by Clayvon L. Harris. Directed by Les Landau.
This rare vehicle gave Garrett Wang a chance to shine as Harry Kim, dropping him into an extremely difficult, violent situation rather than leaving him on the bridge to recite jargon-heavy dialog about spatial anomalies as many episodes tend to do. Putting Harry and Tom in prison together puts a fresh spin on a reliable friendship, and then puts both in jeopardy with "the clamp," a device that induces paranoia and aggression. The prison-set scenes are superb, featuring stellar production values and atmospheric direction under Les Landau; the episode remains one of the darkest and bleakest-looking episodes of Trek on record. Unfortunately, there's an ineffective B-story—involving Voyager's cliche-heavy negotiations with the excessively hard-headed alien government—that too often interrupts the power of the main plot. I also don't think the ending said everything it could've. The absence of the fascinating character Zio in the action-oriented final scene is a bit perplexing. A good episode overall, but, given the ambition, it could've been more.
The Swarm — Air date: 9/25/1996. Written by Mike Sussman. Directed by Alexander Singer.
"The Swarm" is a very frustrating episode, because it has moments of wonderful characterization that are so good that it demands respect, but then it shoots itself in the foot with unimpressive subplot storytelling that, despite having the potential to be neat, is depressingly underdeveloped and dramatically shallow. Specifically, we're supplied an engaging story about Doc's malfunctions causing him severe memory loss—which leads him to discuss the problem with a holographic diagnosis program that takes the form of Lewis Zimmerman. The result is a series of amusingly acerbic and original dialog scenes where Picardo skillfully plays dual roles. But then there's the Swarm: faceless bad guys that come packaged as neat special effects, but who are underwritten to the extreme and defeated with the arbitrary technobabble procedure of the week. There's also the long-term implications of re-initializing Doc's program, which promises to have tons of character consequences but never does. Five episodes later we're given a single line about it; other than that there's not a single sign that it ever happened—which is simply not acceptable.
False Profits — Air date: 10/2/1996. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by George A. Brozak. Directed by Cliff Bole.
No, I'm not a big fan of either Neelix or the Ferengi, so you can imagine my dismay when I saw a preview featuring Neelix masquerading as a Ferengi. Unfortunately, "False Profits" did little to make my feelings of skepticism anything but justified. As always, the Ferengi of this installment are transparent cartoon characters, who are so stupid that one can't help but wonder how they survived long enough to find a planet in the Delta Quadrant that would be gullible enough to be suckered by them. Most of this is just not very funny, and the use of the premise of Trek characters mistaken for gods is handled poorly, asking relevant questions only when extremely convenient for the plot's purpose—but never probing deeper for any real drama. What really destroys the show is a horribly handled ending in which Janeway's attempt to capture these silly Ferengi causes Voyager to miss a chance at getting home through a wormhole—under contrived-to-the-extreme circumstances that harbor alarmingly annoying implausibility.
Remember — Air date: 10/9/1996. Teleplay by Lisa Klink. Story by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
"Remember" is probably the most mature story Voyager has ever told. It's hard to go on at length about this episode since its success simply boils down to the pure emotional power of its own allegorical meaning: that of a culture that has managed to cover up the genocide of an entire subset of its own population. The episode's title says it all, as a dying telepath reveals to B'Elanna via telepathy the buried history of the people she helped destroy in her youth, so that history won't die with her. B'Elanna experiences the past through a series of vivid dreams from the telepath's point of view. Kolbe's direction is stellar as usual, skillfully shifting between the dreams and reality. Dawson's performance is a real highlight, subtly creating what truly seems like a different character in the dream settings. A good allegory handled sensibly by pretty much everybody involved.
Sacred Ground — Air date: 10/30/1996. Teleplay by Lisa Klink. Story by Geo Cameron. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
This remains one of the most mixed bags in the series' run so far. I respected a lot of what the writers tried to do with this one, but the end product—both script and execution—just doesn't deliver. There are ambitious questions of faith and doubt presented here; a good setup of a science versus religion argument. The problem is the story's attempts to answer its questions with all-too-easy solutions that vaguely satisfy both sides of the argument from certain points of view. It accomplishes this by simultaneously sidestepping all real-world shades of grey in favor of sneaky, manipulated answers. The bottom line is that the story doesn't play with fairness or sincerity, and it doesn't take any real stand. Instead, it tries to have its cake and eat it too. On the execution side, there are too many pretentious details involving Janeway's ritual, and too much medical technobabble involving Kes' bizarre comatose condition. It's not a bad show overall, but it's not something I would call "enjoyable." It's a very difficult episode that prompts active thought, but it unfortunately falls apart under close scrutiny.
Future's End, Part I — Air date: 11/6/1996. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by David Livingston.
Where "Sacred Ground" was a failed attempt at probing issues, "Future's End, Part I" was a successful exercise in simply fun plotting. There's not a whole lot of meat here, but the plot of Voyager getting stuck in 1996 is surprisingly entertaining, and superbly handled as setup material. I'm a sucker for the time paradox when it's used for this much mayhem. (There's a gleefully enjoyable scene involving the crazy Captain Braxton's convoluted explanation of the paradox.) Livingston's breakneck pacing is dead on, and the character interaction works (with the exception of the annoying Sarah Siverman as Raine Robinson). The timeline machinations are fun, and the setup of Ed Begley, Jr. as the bad guy is cleverly handled. And I just loved the home video of Voyager flying out of control over Los Angeles. "Future's End" highlights the other end of the often serious and socially conscientious Star Trek: the side that is just good, clean fun with fast-moving adventure, amusing one-liners, and an ensemble that convincingly comes together on the screen.
Future's End, Part II — Air date: 11/13/1996. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Cliff Bole.
The second half of the 20th century time-travel story is fun, but definitely not on par with the skillfully established first half. Ed Begley, Jr. makes an effective villain—slimy and self-serving, his only concern being his plan to travel into the future, and then steal and profit from its ideas (damning the consequences of killing billions in the process). I appreciated the way he was always one step ahead of the Voyager crew, and his use of technology was neat. On the other hand, there's a completely pointless and unrelated subplot mired in here—in which Chakotay and Torres are held hostage by militiamen—that has nothing to do with anything. Also padding out the episode is a host of action movie cliches that don't venture far enough into satire to be anything more than simply clichés. Some sizable plot holes, a confusing wrap-up of the time paradox, and an all-too-familiar reset button concept detracts from the episode's story credibility. It's entertaining, but bears little scrutiny.
Warlord — Air date: 11/20/1996. Written by Lisa Klink. Directed by David Livingston.
This is a mediocre Voyager offering virtually saved by Jennifer Lien's energetic, magnetic, manic, and gleefully over-the-top performance. Let's face it: The alien possession story has been done many times, and "Warlord's" take on it is just as corny and banal as usual. It features the desire of a long-deceased tyrant to use Kes' unique mental abilities to retake an old throne by force. (Who really cares about these aliens, anyway?) The thing that's surprising is that Lien puts so much effort into the role-playing that it almost succeeds in stretches. The mind battle existing inside Kes' brain is handled reasonably, proving that measured, determined will beats out brute strength. Livingston's cinematography images in the surreal mind sequences are effective. But don't stop and think about this one for more than a few seconds.
The Q and the Grey — Air date: 11/27/1996. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller. Story by Shawn Piller. Directed by Cliff Bole.
When Q asks Janeway to procreate with him, we're first bombarded with a slew of silly jokes, filled with amiably-portrayed but less than impressive Q/Janeway sexual innuendoes. Finally the story begins to evolve, explaining that Q needs to have a baby because the Q continuum is locked into civil war due to the events from second season's "Death Wish." (How a baby will help things is never clear.) There's a big problem here, and it's that the episode goes against just about every established idea that we've ever learned about the Q. The Q are supposed to be omnipotent, but "Q and the Grey" is a completely misguided story that will have us believe the Q require the insights of human beings in order to understand simplistic questions they should, by definition, know the answers to. Then it gets worse when Janeway and the Voyager crew are pulled into the middle of the Q civil war—where they find they can actually interact with the metaphorical rendition of the scenario. Um no. That's absurd. Besides, you don't tell trite, little human allegories using omnipotent beings who have the ability to do anything or go anywhere. It just doesn't work. The notion that the pesky humans of the Starship Voyager can change the face of the Q continuum (the same elite beings who have the universe at their fingertips) is downright silly and presumptuous. There's also way too much technobabble involving Voyager's unfathomable crossing into the Q continuum.
Macrocosm — Air date: 12/11/1996. Written by Brannon Braga. Directed by Alexander Singer.
It occurred to me while watching "Macrocosm" that Brannon Braga may perhaps be the most two-faced writer currently in Trek. Here's a guy who can write or co-write terrific scripts that supply sly wit ("Projections") or punchy action combined with interesting issues (First Contact, "Scorpion, Part I"); yet he'll also bring us the low-end of technobabble terror ("Threshold," "Cathexis"). This episode seems to have emerged from the latter. It amounts to little more than a relatively brain-dead, heavy-on-cliches res rendition of Alien meets Outbreak. Singer's direction is lackluster, many of the special effects are disappointing, and the episode gets awfully repetitive (Janeway tentatively pointing her phaser gets very old quickly). The middle of the episode interrupts the building of any possible suspense with a ludicrous flashback explaining how the "macrovirus" threat came about. And the ending, particularly the "movie bomb," is laughable. Don't forget about the massive plot holes. Am I the only one who wonders where Neelix disappeared to, not to be seen again until the next show?
Fair Trade — Air date: 1/8/1997. Teleplay by Andre Bormanis. Story by Ronald Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias. Directed by Jess Salvador Trevino.
This is the best vehicle Neelix has ever had. For once, the Voyager writers placed him in the middle of a difficult situation where he had to make (gasp!) hard choices and wriggle with his conscience. I much appreciated that. Neelix's actions in this episode were that of a real person with a real problem, rather than that of a transparent comic relief character. The beauty of the plot is how it lowers Neelix into the problem slowly, one small step at a time. The root of all these problems—a Talaxian character named Wixiban—is another of the show's high points: a character who is obviously nothing but trouble, but makes it tough for Neelix to say no by using the hard sell of past obligations against him. Neelix's hot spot in the middle actually felt genuine, which is respectable given the character's history. And the ending, where Neelix had to face the music, also worked very well. Unfortunately, this show—which could've been pivotal for Neelix's character—meant almost nothing in the long run, which is one of the series' many "big picture" problems. But that's another issue entirely
Alter Ego — Air date: 1/15/1997. Written by Joe Menosky. Directed by Robert Picardo.
"Alter Ego" looked like a predictable holodeck fiasco from the stupid trailers (another unfortunate curse upon the series), but it instead turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant, lightweight outing. The show wasn't audacious or anything like that, but it took Tuvok and a charismatic holodeck character named Marayna and sparked an interesting intellectual chemistry between them, which was performed in an effectively low-key manner. What didn't work was the forced, unnecessary anger Harry directs toward Tuvok once he discovers Tuvok has "betrayed" him, and the somewhat silly "action" scenes where Marayna takes over the holodeck and bombards the ship with energy beams. Still, that proves inconsequential when considering the amiable ending of the episode, which tells a nice little story about the loneliness of the real Marayna, who tapped into Voyagers computer from a nearby space station and created the holodeck rendition simply as a diversion. Some good closing dialog between Tuvok and Marayna keeps the story's focus on the human aspects.
Coda — Air date: 1/29/1997. Written by Jeri Taylor. Directed by Nancy Malone.
Ouch. "Coda" was a return to sub-par storytelling, utilizing an overused premise that states that a main character must temporarily die (Janeway in this case) and then the rest of the episode must devote itself to milking the situation for all the unoriginal drama the premise is worth (crew grieves, tells stories about what the captain meant to them, etc.). Unfortunately, "Coda" was nothing more than a pedestrian attempt at sentiment. Some of the sentiment was okay, but most of it was just sort of there. What hurt the most, however, was the bombardment of unimpressive plot turns and Voyager cliches. Ts. The show begins with a familiar shuttle crash, proceeds to become an anomaly episode (with an apparent time-travel element), then settles into the "dead captain" drama theme. Then it becomes a typical ghost story in which Janeway talks to her dead "father" while watching the crew as an invisible entity—and then the whole episode turns out to be an alien ploy to coax Janeway into surrendering her consciousness into his "matrix." The last third of the episode is predictable to the extreme. Only the reasonable performances from Beltran and Dawson manage to keep this one out of the gutter.
Blood Fever — Air date: 2/5/1997. Written by Lisa Klink. Directed by Andrew Robinson.
This is "Amok Time" in the Delta Quadrant. "Blood Fever" is, in two words, "entertaining" and "glib." The production is quite nice, featuring the handsomely produced caves of a planet decimated by the Borg, who are introduced into the series when the crew finds a Borg corpse. The alien survivors make decent aliens of the week—ah, but who cares, anyway? This show is about Torres, Paris, and Vorik, and the mayhem that breaks out when Vorik's attempted mind meld during his Pon Farr somehow ends up scrambling Torres' brain. Ultimately she and Paris are stranded in the caves together, with Torres' sexual hungers ready to explode. The results: plenty of expertly performed heavy breathing by Dawson (who never disappoints), respectable restraint on the part of Paris, and a big, superficial fight scene between Torres and Vorik in what feels like an episode of the original series. What can I say? It's fun. A bit of a rehash, perhaps, but a rehash done with style.
Unity — Air date: 2/12/1997. Written by Kenneth Biller. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
As this installment and "Scorpion, Part I" seem to confirm, it's hard to go wrong with the Borg (although, I suppose TNG's "Descent" doesn't necessarily support that hypothesis). "Unity" took a reliable element of Trekkian lore, brought it to the Delta Quadrant, and then applied a fresh spin that gave us the opportunity to see the Borg from a new perspective. Specifically, Chakotay lands his shuttle on a planet to find a colony of Alpha Quadrant survivors who used to be Borg, but broke free of the collective when their Borg vessel was damaged several years earlier. The implications of former-Borg becoming individuals again is interesting, as is the idea that some of them want to re-establish the collective in order to overcome the problems of their warring colony. The colonists vow that this new collective will be a "cooperative" with non-destructive intentions. But the point of this episode is just that: Can these people maintain their principles in the face of such unified power? The actions of the colonists—their taking control of Chakotay's thoughts to reactivate the downed Borg vessel against his will—raise some serious doubts. An intelligent story with outstanding production values. Only some Voyager cliches and minor logistic errors detract from the viewing experience.
Darkling — Air date: 2/19/1997. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Alex Singer.
And so the big troubles began. Voyager's uneven season had been treading water up to this point, but with this installment it began to drown. "Darkling" was an episode of alarmingly inept superficiality, weighed down by the usual cliches. Ws. We have Doc's program malfunctioning for reasons that are completely contrived, with ends that seem inspired by someone's desire to get "Jekyll and Hyde?" printed in TV Guide. The use of Kes' character lacks all motivation, simply reducing her to the status of a person to be dragged around and terrorized by "Evil Doc." The dialog is atrocious, the plotting is obvious, and the motives are insincere—we're supposed to care about Kes' "crossroads" in her life, but the story doesn't treat them with any semblance of seriousness. The episode is virtually a zero-substance exercise with an ever-so-occasional redeeming moment.
Rise — Air date: 2/27/1997. Teleplay by Brannon Braga. Story by Jimmy Diggs. Directed by Robert Sheerer.
"Rise" was not quite as superficial as "Darkling," but it wasn't as "fun," either. This was an episode of standard, unambitious Voyager sabotaged by absolutely awful execution. Sheerer's direction is incredibly choppy and uncertain, the plot is riddled with more holes than Swiss cheese, the special effects are surprisingly unconvincing, the guest performances are bad with a capital "W" (for "worse than bad"), and to top it off we have Tuvok and Neelix engaging in arguments that belong in the realm of after school specials. (Neelix remains within character, I suppose, which merely highlights a bigger problem.) The plot resolves itself with conveniences and stock battle scenes that come about with almost no credibility. And to top it off, a closing scene supplies Neelix with dialog that explains to the audience the plot's uncertainties—never a good sigh, er, sign. No, thank you.
Favorite Son — Air date: 3/19/1997. Written by Lisa Klink. Directed by Marvin V. Rush.
For the record, if there was ever a moment when I sincerely thought I was close to completely giving up on Voyager, "Favorite Son" was that moment. It's one thing to have a slump. It's quite another thing to air three shows that rank among the worst of the series one after another. The less said about this episode, the better. The first two acts are watchable, but after that it's time for defenestration. (Defenestration is a rather useless word that means "the act of throwing somebody or something out a window"; but such a useless episode demands a useless—even if totally appropriate—word.) The DNA tricks are barely above the level of "Threshold," the guest stars are as bad as "Rise's," the drama is hopelessly corny and predictable, and the notion that a race of primarily female genetic engineers needs "more males" is, in a word, dumb. There's nothing more worth saying here, so I won't exercise futile effort in doing so.
Before and After — Air date: 4/9/1997. Written by Kenneth Biller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
And just when Voyager seemed beyond hope and redemption, along came this gem, which may very well go down in my book as "the episode that saved Voyager from its calamitous demise." Mired in ambitious confusion and surprisingly tolerable technobabble, this is among the series' best episodes to date. The show puts the issue of Kes' aging process in the middle of a time manipulation plot, takes us six years into the future, and then begins working backward in time. Sound like fun? It is. The details of the "what if" scenario makes the premise fascinating, showing us the recovery of the wounded Voyager in the future and then plunging into the despair of the "year of hell" as the timeline works itself backward into a brutal war and the deaths of Janeway and Torres. In the middle of everything is Tom Paris, who recounts to his to-be wife Kes about his now-deceased lover B'Elanna. Subtle details and meaningful dialog makes all the difference in this dramatically engaging sci-fi high concept.
Real Life — Air date: 4/23/1997. Teleplay by Jeri Taylor. Story by Harry Doc. Kloor. Directed by Anson Williams.
"Real Life" continued the trend that I hoped to see emerge from "Before and After" with an overall solid offering. The episode consists of a superb character story for Doc paired with a forgettable subplot that can be summarized as "Twister in the Delta Quadrant." The "astral eddy" angle is rather standard filler, but it's not insulting. Unlike the frustrating "Swarm," which exhibited a similar structure involving Doc and a subplot, this installment doesn't need to worry about botching something potentially interesting. It knows what it is and keeps its priorities reasonably straight. That leaves us the main focus of Doc creating himself a holographic family, which begins with comic '50s-like family satire and then turns into '90s drama once B'Elanna reprograms the simulation. The result is a fascinating, down-to-earth analysis of Doc's ability to cope with real-life problems and even tragedies. The powerful ending is surprisingly gutsy and effective. But I've since grown skeptical of whether we'll even see this family of Doc's again—which, as far as I'm concerned, is absolutely mandatory for this to mean anything in the long run. It works in the short run, in any case.
Distant Origin — Air date: 4/30/1997. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by David Livingston.
In my original review for this show, I called it "one of the best-produced so-so episodes Voyager has yet come up with." I think that wording was a little harsh. No, this wasn't perfect. I still think the high concept of "dinosaurs evolving, inventing space travel, and leaving Earth" is a bit over-ridiculous as a basic starting point. I also think that this episode travels a rather rough road of uneven action to get where it's going. But where it does end up taking us—into an analysis of the Voth dogma and Gegen's clashing with that dogma in his attempts to bring forth evidence of his unprecedented theory—is quite thought-provoking. Chakotay's speeches are also well-delivered, if a bit long-winded. What really stands out here is Livingston's stellar direction, featuring some breathtaking cinematography techniques.
Displaced — Air date: 5/7/1997. Written by Lisa Klink. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
This underwhelming entry was the sole weak spot in the promising final stretch of third-season Voyager offerings. When you go with stories that are almost solely plot-based, it's a really good idea to have a good plot. The problem with "Displaced" isn't that it's particularly bad; rather, it's just really, really nondescript. I can't really think of one thing that grabbed me as interesting in this episode. The alien takeover of the ship takes awhile to happen—and it works for the most part—but once Janeway & Co. are imprisoned in the alien biosphere, nothing nifty happens. There are far too many examples of Our Heroes winning because of either (a) contrived conveniences or (b) the stupidity of the Bad Guys. Examples include the villains leaving crucial areas of their ship unguarded; Tuvok all-too-easily being able to access the aliens' technology; the villains following Torres and Paris into a frigid environment none of them can possibly survive instead of simply leaving the two trapped. And so on. Sure, I like action—but not at this level of the mundane.
Worst Case Scenario — Air date: 5/14/1997. Written by Kenneth Biller. Directed by Alexander Singer.
And then Voyager bounced back again, with this tale of a fantasy mutiny in the form of a holodeck simulation. "Worst Case Scenario" is a flawed episode, but it's also extremely entertaining. The show is split into two parts. The first half is superb, and promises realistic drama of perspective; the second half is fun, but doesn't capitalize on those promises. The cleverness factor remains constant throughout, as the first segment centers around the question of who wrote the controversial program, and why it remains unfinished. The idea of the crew writing an end to their own story leads to some hilarious moments, like Paris' absurd notion that Janeway would execute the mutineers. The argument of "plausible character actions" versus "unexpected plot twists" that arises between Paris and Tuvok is thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, what could've been a classic episode of Federation and Maquis perspectives turns into a fairly unnecessary jeopardy premise that drops Paris and Tuvok into Seska's own end to the program—with, of course, the safeties off. While not up to what came before, this ending is fun, featuring Seska's humorous, albeit illogical, sadism (including a hilariously sadistic Doc, and a Janeway who vaporizes herself with a rigged phaser). The idea of Janeway and Torres manipulating the program's characters from outside (a literal deus ex machina) is, in a word, clever. It's tons of fun in a glib way. But, given the setup, couldn't it have been so much more?
Scorpion, Part I — Air date: 5/21/1997. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by David Livingston.
So ends the season with not a whimper but an enthusiastic bang that pulls all the stops out. "Scorpion I" is very ambitious, and takes the pure bigness of spectacle to the extreme—not with the usual single Borg cube in a camera frame, but rather 15. Then it one-ups Borg spectacle with the notion that between the Borg and the new evil species 8472, the Borg are the weaker group. As an all-out action-adventure sci-fi premise, "Scorpion" is a long time in coming, finally turning the Delta Quadrant into something interesting and fresh—a characteristic it has been seriously lacking since the onset of the series. While the "intent on destroying everything!" harbored by species 8472 is not very deep material, what is challenging is the compelling issue that arises when Janeway decides she owes it to her crew to get through the vast, dangerous Borg space—and in doing so makes a deal with the devil. The dialog scenes between Janeway and Chakotay—regarding both the danger and morality of forming a temporary truce with the Borg in an attempt to destroy 8472—provide standout drama, with interesting arguments and good performances. The balance of the character themes with the engaging action plot is wonderfully handled. The episode sports the most impressive production design the series has yet envisioned, with beautifully elaborate sets and impressive visual effects. Guided by a marvelous, atmospheric direction by David Livingston, the setup is top-notch, and hopefully so will be the conclusion.
Part 2: Season Analysis
Before it even began, Voyager's third season came hyped by Jeri Taylor as a season of change. She promised a focus on more "fun" and "adventure" and fewer of the qualities that had made the second season the disappointment it had been for most viewers (as well as the impact it apparently had on the show's ratings). So now that the third season has come and gone, I find myself asking: Has Voyager kept its promise? Has it been "overhauled" as planned? Do Taylor's initial comments really end up meaning anything? Has Voyager improved? Where is the series going now?
Ah, such questions.
Well, to say my feelings about the "big picture" of Voyager this season are mixed is a bit of an understatement. Without a doubt, the production quality of Voyager has improved; most third-season shows sport better overall production than the first two seasons' episodes did. The photography and directing has been generally good. Winrich Kolbe, while only directing two episodes all season ("Remember" and "Basics, Part II"), showed his usual expertise. But the prolific David Livingston's style and pace (in such episodes as "Scorpion, Part I," "Distant Origin," and "Future's End, Part I") has been the standout of the year—making him the best director Trek currently retains. Foundation Imaging's CGI special effects—while not quite as convincing as motion photography can be when it's in its top form on Trek—are very ambitious in design and have markedly improved Voyager's visuals. And the regular cast is just as skilled as ever, although the guest stars could still use some work.
But while production has been improved, I'm not sure I can say the same about the writing. The rest of this analysis will focus on writing and characterization, because, as usual, the writing is what really defines the direction and purpose of the show. The show's storylines are what primarily answer the questions posed above.
This season, like last, was quite inconsistent from a writing standpoint. Once again, we had 26 episodes, but I'm still not convinced that these episodes either (a) took us in a fresh direction (with an exception of the final stretch of shows, but we'll get to that in a moment), or (b) utilized the fundamentals of the series the way they scream to be utilized. One year after my peaked frustration concerning Voyager's disappointing second season, I'm still frustrated with Voyager overall—and I'm hardly satisfied. I might as well say it now: Voyager will never touch the level of sophistication DS9 has achieved with its storylines, because Voyager, unlike DS9, has forever run away from its most initially promising topics of potential.
That brings us back to the basic premise of Voyager—something that wasn't put to reasonable use last year the way it should've been, and something that has grown even more scarce this season. That premise is: Two separate crews (Federation and Maquis) are stranded alone in the Delta Quadrant (an area presumably full of wonder and amazement) and, alone, must work together in an extreme environment to overcome new problems and find a way home. The failing here is that the writers have simply chosen to ignore this fundamental aspect of the series yet again. In fact, I'm fully convinced that they willfully chose to completely abandon it—almost as if it were simply extra baggage weighing down the narrative of the series. There is virtually zero dramatic tension between the two different crews anymore.
I might've been able to deal with that if the two crews had evolved to coexisting attitudes, but that didn't happen. All Maquis attitudes vanished without a trace after the first season, because the Maquis were all-too-easily assimilated into the Starfleet crew. Was the Federation crew impacted by these attitudes? Has the Starship Voyager become a different kind of Starfleet crew with a different approach to typical problems? Not a chance. We therefore have no conflict; no remaining drama will emerge from what was the most promising intention of the first season, and what is now simply a defunct aspect of the series. Even "Worst Case Scenario," an episode that could've analyzed a lot about what the Maquis/Federation relationship has become in its cooperative state, failed to do anything but be an entertaining holodeck show.
But I suppose there's no point in living in the past or contemplating what could've been. As I said, that aspect of Voyager appears to be dead and gone now, so I should instead ask "what's left?". Well, basically, third season has emerged as a watered-down "TNG in the Delta Quadrant." It seems the issues that could've made Voyager a situation-based analytical action series like DS9 are not what Voyager wishes to stress. What Voyager wants to be is a show where a viewer can tune in once a week and be entertained by a stand-alone adventure or character show. Long-term issues are apparently not the main idea. That's not to say they don't show up from time to time, but the lasting power of a single episode is decidedly much more important here than the lasting power of an entire season.
So the question is: Does the approach work? As always, such as it is with Voyager, the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. This season told a lot of different stories, very few of them having an impact on the long-term aspects of the series. The first two-thirds of the season had the same problem season two had: too much unevenness, and not enough consistent quality. While there were definitely some real winners here (the allegory of "Remember," the cleverness of "Future's End I," the probing depth of "Unity," and the dark atmosphere of "The Chute" all make good examples of standouts), the first two-thirds of the season meandered along like much of season two, with the all-too-frequent bad shows (like "False Profits," "Macrocosm," "Coda," etc.). And, as a whole, it seemed the series had little idea where it was really going. Very little of what we were seeing was new, so the series seemed to be doing just what it couldn't afford: business as usual.
Now, to the series' credit, there were some decent touches that made things better throughout this first two-thirds. One idea that made Voyager feel like it was actually moving through space (rather than travelling in endless circles like second season) was the entering into the Nechrid Expanse in "Fair Trade," and the idea that Neelix had reached the limits of his Delta Quadrant knowledge. That was certainly relevant, and a long time in coming. And then there was "Blood Fever" and "Unity," which foreshadowed the possibilities of the Borg being a Delta Quadrant nemesis.
Unfortunately, what didn't work was the over-reliance of cliches to get the job done. Voyager had just as much, if not more, technobabble than any season of Trek I can remember. Enemies like the underdeveloped Swarm of "The Swarm" too easily succumb to it when drama should be the driving force. Medical jargon like its excess in "Sacred Ground" clutter up the dialog in episodes and provide concrete answers to complicated problems. The pure arbitrary nature of it makes foregone conclusions like the wormhole premise in "False Profit" that much more intolerable. And sometimes it's just damned annoying in its pointlessness a la "The Q and the Grey." Of course, other cliches, like the ridiculously done-to-death Shuttle Crash ("Coda," "Rise"), which became even more laughable this year than last, continue to stump me when I ask myself why in the world the writers resort to them. Even if a story takes a forced situation to make it work, hammering that home with a cliche sure doesn't help the cause. In addition, there's the overuse of the Stock Battle Sequence, which I also complained about last year. Do the writers really think we enjoy watching circuits explode on the bridge when it's put to such limited dramatic use? These details may not seem important, but when they occur so often, they create a cumulative effect of damaged credibility.
What concerns me more, however, is that the characterization hasn't evolved as much as it could've this season. On the positive side, Janeway and Chakotay's relationship has taken on some subtle power that really worked for me this season ("Scorpion I," "Future's End I," and parts of "Coda" for example); Tuvok received some good backstory work in "Flashback"; and "Before and After" used Kes' life span rather nicely in an intricate, well-acted story (as well as benefiting other characters in its hypothetical premise). But the rest of the cast has been forced to endure missed opportunities. In particular, I'm very bothered at how neither of Doc's interesting character issues—his memory loss in "Swarm" and the family he created in "Real Life"—have survived to see any consequences. While the family idea may survive to next season (though I'm not holding my breath), the memory loss issue completely vanished without a trace. Why was this? Did the writers simply change their minds and choose not to pursue it? If that's the case, it makes one wonder if they really think these things through before committing to them.
Another missed opportunity was Neelix. In "Fair Trade" I hoped we would see a new Neelix—a man searching for a new purpose—emerge in subsequent installments. Nope. There's no indication that his experience in that ordeal did anything to change the way he sees anything. What we need here is character growth—seeing things in new lights—not this ridiculous, trivial banter that still takes place between Neelix and Tuvok (a la "Rise").
On the other hand, all these characters seem to work reasonably well when a story is interesting. The cast knows the routine, and they're good at it. But when you're faced with relatively stagnant characters in a series that refuses to deal with its primary issues (see above Maquis/Federation rant), that leaves a bulk of the success (or failure) riding on the execution of plot—which brings us back to the quality of storytelling.
As I said, the third season's first two-thirds was uneven. It was unimpressive, but tolerable. But after about the two thirds mark it entered a low, low point which may very well be the low of the series. It was a point where I assumed Voyager would never recover from where its second season had lowered it. It was a point where if you asked me which season of Voyager was the worst, I would've said "Season three, hands down." That point, of course, was the back-to-back-to-back airing of "Darkling," "Rise," and "Favorite Son," which seemed to prove the series had absolutely no idea where it was headed to or coming from. In the large scheme of things, this short section of the season highlights exactly how rough a road Voyager will probably continue to travel if such mistakes are permitted to happen.
But despite how hopeless things seemed at this low point, Voyager did something that I was not at all expecting given its tarnished track record: It made a comeback in the final six episodes. I can't stress how much this revived the series, at least for me. "Before and After," the first of the trend, was incredibly entertaining—basically re-energizing the entire series in one hour. I say this not because "Before and After" was the best episode of Voyager (although it was very good and one of the season's best), but because after it there was a consistent streak of writing that I don't believe I've seen the series ever do before. With the exception of "Displaced," every episode after "Before and After" was engaging. And the season finale, "Scorpion," as I've said many times since it aired, managed to do what seemed impossible: It made the Delta Quadrant feel frighteningly fresh and exciting, rather than stale and routine. Voyager hasn't ended on an enthusiastic note in quite a while, and by coming back from a slump to harbor such enthusiasm is a promising sign that could lead to a promising fourth season.
So will Voyager ever be the series I hoped it would be?—the series it could've been given its premise? Without a doubt, no. It has traveled too far from what it was for anyone with any sense of reality to expect it to return. I think I've finally managed to accept that. I'm not really happy about it, but I am realistic, and I can hope for getting my enjoyment out of Voyager on another plane. That plane is the "bold adventure" plane which seems more evident now than ever. With the cliffhanger involving the Borg and "species 8472," the Delta Quadrant is fresher now than ever; it at least feels like a place where new, exciting things can happen.
The bottom line is that the potential for interesting things to happen on the "fun" and "adventurous" planes of Voyager's "big picture" is yet possible. And while this season was not the "overhaul" nor the "turnaround" that was promised (unless "Scorpion I" turns out to be the first piece of a fourth season overhaul), I would definitely say it is an improvement over last season. I may not get anywhere near the drama DS9 delivers, but perhaps "TNG in the Delta Quadrant" can work for Voyager this fall if the energy level manages to sustain itself. I hope to see you then.