Star Trek: Voyager
"Fifth Season Recap"
For episodes airing from 10/14/1998 to 5/26/1999
Series created by Rick Berman & Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor
Executive producers: Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Nutshell: In terms of stand-alone episode quality, the show is about as good as season four was. Looking at the bigger scheme of things, however, I'm not nearly as optimistic.
And, once again, here's the annual season-in-review article, which, in keeping with my self-created cliche, is of course dubbed "the most comprehensive Voyager review I'll write this year." Where have we gone? Where are we going? What was that thing known as Voyager year five? Such questions I will attempt to answer in the words below. As always, part one has a brief (although maybe not brief enough) look at each episode; part two has the general commentary.
Part 1: Capsule Reviews
Night — Air date: 10/14/1998. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by David Livingston.
Welcome to the era of Brannon Braga. Could you tell the difference? Well, "Night" didn't scream anything new for good or ill. It contained a good setup premise and many reasonable character elements; most notably was the acknowledgement of the Voyager of yesteryear via Janeway's distress at subjecting her crew to yet another emotional difficulty. The psychological aspects of being alone in a completely dark, starless area of space were especially creepy (this is one of few examples of Trek truly capturing the feeling of deep, deep space). Alas, what didn't seem all that true to character was Janeway shutting herself into seclusion because of guilt. The episode became too derivative when Voyager was pulled into a conflict between two alien races, including the Malon, who would eventually become the aliens of the season, and a race of people who somehow evolved in an area devoid of light (figure that one out). The end features a big explosion and a Janeway tagline ("Time to take out the garbage")—all-too-easy standbys. Overall, not bad, but certainly not a fresh start to a season.
Drone — Air date: 10/21/1998. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller and Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Bryan Fuller and Harry Doc Kloor. Directed by Les Landau.
The reason "Drone" works so well is because it has an intriguing central character—an innocent Borg drone that Seven might be able to teach the lessons of humanity. The show maintains a great sense of mystery and wonder surrounding this bizarre but almost always pleasant Borg individual. Implicitly, the show is a masterstroke of perspectives, as we can see the possibility emerge that a Borg not influenced by the collective can come to a vastly different set of conclusions and values—perhaps simply because he has been "assimilated" by a culture with different goals and ideals. J. Paul Boehmer turns is a remarkable performance as the drone, and Ryan gets some standout moments, particularly in a heartfelt ending involving the drone's noble sacrifice. These are the types of "nature of humanity" shows that Trek has often been known for, and with "Drone" we get a classic Voyager episode, and classic Trek.
Extreme Risk — Air date: 10/28/1998. Written by Kenneth Biller. Directed by Cliff Bole.
On the other hand, "Extreme Risk" exemplifies a lot of Voyager's problems. This is a character show about B'Elanna, which right there should've been an immediate plus in my book. ("B'Elanna show" and "character study" when combined in the same episode seems to me like a formula for success.) Unfortunately, this episode fails because it simply isn't credible. Suddenly we have B'Elanna thrust into a deep depression that is explained by emotional circumstances—namely her learning of the slaughter of the Maquis in the previous season's "Hunters"—which haven't been remotely evident until now. There are some reasonable ideas, like the construction of the Delta Flyer and most notably the powerful standout scene where Chakotay confronts Torres on the holodeck about her problem, but they can't save a show that otherwise comes off as unfairly and insincerely conjured. The over-simplistic notion of Torres' problem being cured thanks to a daring mission of importance and some banana pancakes shows precisely how Voyager's adamant nature for doing single-shot stories—without any believable lead-ins, consequences, or follow-ups—hurts the most.
In the Flesh — Air date: 11/4/1998. Written by Nick Sagan. Directed by David Livingston.
In true TOS fashion, "In the Flesh" offers us a competent lesson in the value of trust. In this case, it's an attempt for humans and 8472s to put aside their mutual fear of each other in the interests of peace. This is an example of Trekkian themes about as unmistakable as they come. It feels like a Cold War allegory more than anything else, but as I said in my original review, the Cold War is over so the themes feel about a decade late in their arrival. But that's okay, because the plot works on the surface and gives Chakotay a rare turn as the lead. There's the argument that this episode completely neutered 8472 as a useful enemy, but let's face it: 8472 really had nowhere to go after "Scorpion, Part II" was over (unless you wanted them to conquer the galaxy or have their attempted takeover once again crushed by the lone starship Voyager). The logical Trekkian solution—end hostilities and turn enemies into friends. Not the newest idea ever conceived, but here it comes across reasonably.
Once Upon a Time — Air date: 11/11/1998. Written by Michael Taylor. Directed by John Kretchmer.
Here's an example of oversimplistic routine storytelling. There are too many cliches here, and there's no interesting spin put on them. We've got our usual Shuttle Crash and Stranded Survivor cliches forming one half of the plot, and we have the Rescue Operation forming part of the other half. Why even bother milking any suspense out of it? If there's a point here, it surrounds Neelix's role as Naomi's godfather. To be fair, this is probably the only substantive story that Neelix the Cipher had all season, and it gave Ethan Phillips some meaty, emotional dialog for a change. But, other than that, I don't know what's particularly worthwhile here. The story played out exactly as expected, leading to a "heartfelt" payoff that wasn't the least bit satisfying. In the end I couldn't help but feel that the show was mostly a waste of time and a recycling of ideas. I also didn't go for the "cute" holo-novel characters, who weren't interesting enough to warrant the screen time devoted to them.
Timeless — Air date: 11/18/1998. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by LeVar Burton.
Now here's an example of the Voyager concept at its best. We've got here plenty of reliable elements, including timeline paradoxes, the crew vying for a way home, and slick sci-fi solutions to tricky problems with moral questions looming overhead. Simply put, "Timeless" embodies one of the most perfect ways to assemble all those parts into a whole that simultaneously makes an enormous amount of sense and plays up many of Voyager's strengths and unique elements. Would only they all be like this, the series would be in good shape. The writers proved here that Harry Kim can be a very worthwhile and captivating character, and Garrett Wang's uncharacteristically powerful performance proved he can carry a show bearing a great deal of emotional weight (too bad the rest of the season wouldn't affirm my beliefs here concerning Kim). The story is engaging from start to finish, and Burton's direction is right on target with some technique-driven parallelism in the timeline narrative that is reminiscent of TNG's "All Good Things." In the end, the story even allows Voyager some progress toward home, making the effort feel worthwhile. This is a Voyager must-see in my book.
Infinite Regress — Air date: 11/25/1998. Teleplay by Robert J. Doherty. Story by Robert J. Doherty and Jimmy Diggs. Directed by David Livingston.
The poster child for high concept comes knocking with an episode that boils down to "Borg multiple personality disorder." An interesting sales pitch, but does the show work? I think so, albeit it's more about technique than it is about story. Jeri Ryan is up to the challenge, and throws herself into one characterization after another as Seven is hijacked by one phantom personality after another. The plot holes involving the cause of this problem—a Borg "vinculum"—are plentiful, and a not-so-helpful group of aliens provides the usual conflict, but the direction and acting keep the episode's energy level high, and the go-for-broke attitude of the show maintains an edgy appeal to make "Infinite Regress" a solid hour of entertainment.
Nothing Human — Air date: 12/2/1998. Written by Jeri Taylor Directed by David Livingston.
"Nothing Human" contains many elements Voyager should attempt to exploit more often. Unfortunately, it also shows the wrong way of using such elements. I like moral arguments, but "Nothing Human" requires us to accept a great deal that I simply find unacceptable. First and foremost is Crell: The idea of a fully functional, nearly sentient holographic surgeon slapped together with a few computer commands and personality files is downright absurd. But more than that, Crell causes the story to sidestep several real-world conditions about the use of information obtained by questionable means, and instead the hour rides on narrow, manufactured circumstances—muddying the waters so much that the arguments become unworkable. The annoying walk-on of a to-date-unseen-and-never-to-be-seen-again Bajoran Maquis character, used to set the plot in motion, is equally unforgivable. That's too bad, because this episode has many compelling possibilities and strong performances.
Thirty Days — Air date: 12/9/1998. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller. Story by Scott Miller. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
A good Paris show. Granted, his love of the ocean had never been seen before this, but big deal—this is backstory that settles into the story because it has a sense that Tom Paris is a real person and not a jar of disjointed personality pieces (cf. "Vis A Vis"). The underwater world explored here was visually impressive and managed to bring the wonder factor back into the Voyager equation. And the flashback narrative (which according to the writers was written and filmed because the episode ran short) fit well into the story, strengthening it by giving us a chance to get into Tom's head. Paris' demotion to ensign seems a tad bit glib in retrospect (it didn't really mean anything down the road), but I liked the idea of Paris standing up for a cause he believed in and taking the heat for it.
Counterpoint — Air date: 12/16/1998. Written by Michael Taylor. Directed by Les Landau.
You can see the gears turning in "Counterpoint," but that's okay, because the whole show is about two captains silently scheming and hiding things. This is probably one of the best examples of how to use all the standard Voyager elements and apply them with well-above-average skill. Janeway comes across as smart, edgy, sardonic, and resourceful. And the writers supply her with a well-written adversary with much more charisma and intelligence than the average Voyager bad guy. And even though Janeway is able to anticipate the treachery and wins the game, I liked the fact that betrayal still hurts. Unfortunately, Mark Harelik goes a tad overboard with Kashyk's overplayed smugness, and some of his earlier actions don't seem plausible once the game is revealed. Let's put it on the high end of the three-star shows.
Latent Image — Air date: 1/20/1999. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Eileen Connors and Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Mike Vejar.
Inside the good "Latent Image" is an even better story trying to get out. Don't get me wrong—this episode has a thought process behind it that is truly compelling, as the writers explore the possibilities of Doc's sentience in a way that, conceptually, is highly admirable. Picardo is mesmerizing in a role that constitutes one of the season's heaviest character-reliant episodes, and the final scene is effectively atypical and eerie. BUT—the unevenness and continuity problems are hard to overlook. I for one thought the issue of Doc's sentience had long been established before this, and seeing Janeway's attitude that Doc is a piece of equipment more than he is a person is disturbing—something that should've belonged in the first or second season. Coming in season five it seems like sudden character regression. I also had a tough time swallowing many of the details involving the cover-up of Ensign Jetal's death. That's too bad, because the ideas behind "Latent Image" are very worthwhile, and some revisions could've made this a true standout.
Bride of Chaotica! — Air date: 1/27/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Michael Taylor. Story by Bryan Fuller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
One of the most inspired holodeck premises in a long time ends up being a surprising disappointment. This should've been non-stop fun, but instead the humor never really takes off. The pacing is off, giving us scenes inside the black-and-white holodeck settings and then switching gears to a standard Voyager technobabble plot that, frankly, I couldn't care less about. Some of the gags in the holodeck are worth a grin or two, but overall there's not enough energy. The replication of the old sci-fi serials is done with great skill and attention to detail, but that's not enough for success. Attitude needs to carry this hour, and attitude is precisely what's lacking. There's also an ironic subtext that proves to be the show's own undoing: Here's an episode that pokes fun at 1940s sci-fi schlock while embracing and exploiting 1990s sci-fi schlock. The fatal mistake is that it takes the 1990s schlock far too seriously. As a result, it's hard to accept this as a full-blown parody; instead it comes across as Voyager business as usual.
Gravity — Air date: 2/3/1999. Teleplay by Nick Sagan & Bryan Fuller. Story by Jimmy Diggs and Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan. Directed by Terry Windell.
It's a very competent Tuvok show, but clunky plotting keeps getting in the way. This almost seems to prove that cliches comprise the method of choice for getting things done. Shuttles crash, subspace sinkholes threaten to collapse and kill the main characters, aliens provide counterfeit conflicts (why have both the collapsing sinkhole and the alien confrontation when only one is necessary to get the job done?), and lives hang in jeopardy ... and yet none of that is really the point. What is the point, and what fares the best, is the analysis of Tuvok's past and Paris' attitude as Noss falls for Tuvok and Tuvok is forced by his Vulcan ways to push her away. Russ and McNeill are right on target (especially in the "just you, me, and the rocks" scene), but Lori Petty's rendition of Noss, alas, seems off-kilter. The final parting scene is nice.
Bliss — Air date: 2/10/1999. Teleplay by Robert J. Doherty. Story by Bill Prady. Directed by Cliff Bole.
As a self-aware embracing of cinema archetypes this episodes knows what to do and how to do it. Monsters in space? Vengeful but likable old space hunters? Seven of Nine and a kid saving the ship? You got it. Deep, meaningful, or relevant in the slightest? Not likely. "Bliss" knows what it is and gets the job done based on competent execution, avoiding the most important pratfalls by not pretending that it's going to get its crew home, and by making Seven the sole reasonable character among a crew of grinning, brainwashed fools. ("Fools" used in the affectionate way, naturally.) The nature of the bliss-causing hallucinations is probably way implausible, but oh well. This is good clean fun, so overanalyze I won't.
Dark Frontier — Air date: 2/17/1999. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Part I directed by Cliff Bole. Part II directed by Terry Windell.
From a production standpoint, "Dark Frontier" is easily the most ambitious two hours of Voyager ever made, and ranks up with some of the best-produced sci-fi I've seen in episodic television. From a story standpoint, "Dark Frontier" is an entertaining two hours with some good writing and Seven backstory ... but it suffers somewhat from the fact that it doesn't deliver the lasting significance one would've hoped. The production and special effects sequences are first-rate eye candy. And conceptually, some action sequences—like the Borg's assimilation of an entire species—pack some punch. A lot of this is fun and at times exciting, but what's frustrating is the oft-disregarded continuity and especially the lack of motive behind the (surprisingly hollow) use of the Evil Borg Queen (bwahaha) and her unclear need to assimilate humanity—a species so frequently labeled as flawed and imperfect that one wonders why the Borg even want us in the first place. A closing "suspense" scene involving a standoff with lots of Big Guns lacks the edge it seems to want. All in all, it's good stuff but not great stuff.
The Disease — Air date: 2/24/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor. Story by Kenneth Biller. Directed by David Livingston.
This "Disease" just made me sick (ba-dum-bum). If you thought that joke was bad, just try watching this travesty of television romance centering on Harry "Chump" Kim and featuring plenty of unconvincing, invented sexual protocol. The central idea could've been workable, but the presentation here was simply awful. The dialog was atrocious, with hopelessly pathetic lines like "Boy meets girl on the wrong side of the galaxy; boy loses girl." (Yes, that line actually took itself seriously.) The plot was positively perfunctory, meaning the hour's success/failure resided on the leads' performances and chemistry. Alas, there isn't a shred of believable chemistry to be found anywhere in this lifeless mass; every performance falls flat on its face. The Harry histrionics in particular are laughably inept. The only worthwhile issue here, involving Janeway letting Harry "grow up," is yet another supposedly "meaningful" character development that refuses to have any lasting impact on anybody. And Harry is still the same Harry as always: a straight-laced goofball with none of the edge this show pretends to give him.
Course: Oblivion — Air date: 3/3/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan. Story by Bryan Fuller. Directed by Anson Williams.
I'll grant that this episode is superior to its brainless predecessor, "Demon," but that's about all I'll grant. "Course: Oblivion" might have an appropriate title considering the story's apparent intentions to crush a tragic alternate crew, but the episode fails to generate any good reason for me to care about these people. The technobabble contrivances border on the unbearable, forming the basis for a manufactured plot that is unworkable unless the viewer is willing to embrace out-and-out credulity. For me, everything about this episode rang false, as the doomed Voyager crew faced one convenient failure after another. When all was said and done, I was left angry and disturbed, but not in any way that could be attributed to the story's effectiveness. The plot's manipulations simply seem cynical to me, not tragic. At the end, my overwhelming feeling was, "Who cares?" If the writers were trying to convey pointlessness, they should've done it in a way that had a point.
The Fight — Air date: 3/24/1999. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Michael Taylor. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
Alas, in the spirit of season three, season five ends up with its own "trilogy of terror," having aired three consecutive shows that were completely botched. "The Fight" is all style and nearly absolutely zero substance, and the stylistics are unfortunately not worth the time. This is packed full of imagery and ominous notes, but what's lacking is any semblance of a useful purpose behind it all. The plotting is laborious and bland, Boothby's appearance strikes me as gratuitous, Beltran's stilted performance fails to rise to the occasion, and Kolbe's direction seems to have overcompensated to the extreme with atmosphere scenes that simply scream "Look at the weirdness!" instead of having any actual point. The result is a murky, incomprehensible mess that puts the tech stuff way before any of its characters. It's a perfect example of science fiction that severely lacks the sense of wonder and human interest required to make the story worthwhile.
Think Tank — Air date: 3/31/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Terrence O'Hara.
Here's a perfect example of what Voyager is. I was reasonably entertained for 60 minutes (though hardly riveted), I didn't really have to think a whole lot because the show did most of the thinking for me and explained its thought processes in clear-cut terms, and there was a character theme (Seven's purpose on Voyager) that was worth the screen time devoted to it. What was lacking, as usual, was any hint of lasting impact, any trace of moral grey areas, and any notion that anything worth seeing in the Delta Quadrant can be construed as something other than a threat. We've got ourselves a game involving the smug "think tank," which of course means Janeway must deal the think tank their just deserts. (Thanks, but "Counterpoint" was a much better example of scheming.) As far as the game goes, it should've been more clever. I get the feeling that if Kurros was really so smart he would've anticipated something as basic as (gasp!) Janeway and Seven lying to him.
Juggernaut — Air date: 4/26/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan and Kenneth Biller. Story by Bryan Fuller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
Two words: "shallow," "slick." Here's another Torres episode in a season that was decidedly not all that great for the character. This one suddenly resurrects the Wrath Within B'Elanna, as her temper control problems come to the surface in a way unseen for years. Taken to the extreme it is here and used for such an obvious character theme (save the closing minute, which is interestingly opaque), it seems sudden and excessive. Meanwhile, the plot at hand is the ultimate in simplicity, featuring the type of action that mandates passive viewing. The rest is all style and production and smoky sets and blowing stuff up real good. As such, it's fairly entertaining. But like "Extreme Risk" it shows Voyager's unwillingness to look beyond the hour at hand to the bigger picture.
Someone to Watch Over Me — Air date: 4/28/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor. Story by Brannon Braga. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
In the season's most pleasant episode, Seven takes dating lessons from Doc, in a situation where one would expect the inevitable "test date" would be a disaster. Well, of course it's a disaster. But it's a rather hilarious disaster that still comes off as sincere, in character, graceful, and good-natured. Ryan carries the show with a performance of wondrous Seven-innocence, and Picardo is graceful in his usual role of Doc's charismatic, well-intended overzealousness. Brian McNamara is likable as the date victim, whom the episode allows to be a nice guy who tries to salvage the awkward evening. The story's uncovering of Doc's emerging feelings for Seven brings with it bittersweet pangs. Just call it an hour of delight.
11:59 — Air date: 5/5/1999. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Joe Menosky & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
In one of the quietest, gimmick-free episodes in recent memory, the writers reflect upon histories and identity in an understated way through Janeway's introspective look at the past. Told mostly in flashback, "11:59" tells the simple, pleasant story of Shannon O'Donnel, Janeway's distant ancestor whose desire to look toward the future in the "Millenium Gate" project gained her hero status in Janeway's eyes. By the end of the story, Janeway has learned that her ancestor wasn't quite the "hero" she thought she was; historical records have proven innacurate. I liked the way this episode told its story without the usual cliches and simple payoffs. There were some key scenes that were lackluster, particularly O'Donnel's final realization and the somewhat oversimplified way she persuades Henry Janeway to let go of the past. But the ideas here are what matter, and they're relevant. Coming together are the concepts of the childhood hero in myth more than fact, the value of keeping our historical roots in perspective, and the Voyager-heavy sentiment of the nuclear family (i.e. crew) bonding together. Nice stuff.
Relativity — Air date: 5/12/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan & Michael Taylor. Story by Nick Sagan. Directed by Allan Eastman.
"Relativity" is a confused mass of cavalier time-travel craziness. Is that praise or criticism? Probably both, methinks. Really, there's not much going on behind the zany plotting of this episode; the timelines are used mostly as a playground for the writers to send characters from point A to point B to point Question Mark in a fourth-dimensional implementation of that universal cinematic device known as The Chase. By the end, very little of it makes any sort of practical sense, but the focus on the fun keeps the story confidently on track. Scrutiny is pointless; either you found it enjoyable or you didn't.
Warhead — Air date: 5/19/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor & Kenneth Biller. Story by Brannon Braga. Directed by John Kretchmer.
Nothing about "Warhead" was new or original, so its level of success lay solely on the level of tension the story could maintain. About all I can say is that the story didn't maintain the tension, so as a result I really didn't care about much of what was going on. The issue of "outsmarting the smart bomb" just didn't have the cleverness necessary to be a plot that could claim to be about outsmarting anything (and no, Seven's nanoprobes didn't count). The issue of a sentient smart bomb seems a little dubious; I still can't figure out why anyone would give a bomb sentience in the first place (especially if the bomb is at the mercy of contradictory directives). The themes here aren't bad, but they feel too rehashed from TOS, and the Trekkian self-pride sets in a little bit too hard-core by the end.
Equinox, Part I — Air date: 5/26/1999. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by David Livingston.
Really, the jury will be out on this one until September, but for now I'm optimistic about the moral grey areas that "Equinox" has presented. Through the desperate crew of the starship Equinox, this episode brings back many of the qualities I think Voyager should've been using throughout its run. I've asked it before and I'll ask it again: What's more interesting to see? A crew forced to change because of extreme situations, or a crew that does business as usual under a situation that isn't really extreme but pretends to be? Whether next season will choose to make any changes to the Voyager attitude remains to be seen, but for now I'll take "Equinox" as it is—a story that shows a different side of life in the Delta Quadrant. The cynical side of me thinks we'll most likely get burned with "Equinox, Part II," but for now what we have works. Captain Ransom fares well as a shady yet still understandable hypocrite whose actions have crossed the line. Cliffhangers are done-to-death cliches and I could've done without the "cliffhanger action ending" presented here, but so it goes.
Part 2: Season Analysis
This is where things turn a bit harsher, I'm afraid, as I look at Voyager's biggest weakness: The Big Picture.
This season has been a strange mix of enjoyment and extreme frustration, and I've been asking myself a question over the past few months: Is there even much of a point in my doing a general season commentary for Voyager? The capsule reviews might provide a handy recap, but is there a lot to say (or, more specifically, a lot good to say) about Voyager's fifth season as a whole? I'm not quite so sure, because this series lends itself to analysis in episode-by-episode pieces, and not as a whole.
Ideally, an article like this would be most worthwhile if there were sweeping changes to report or new directions to discuss. At the very least, this would be a place to note the year's trends. The thing about Voyager is that, really, there are no cohesive trends to note. Conceptually, this series is all over the place and I can't put my finger on any direction it's headed in. If this sounds like old news, it is, and I apologize. I've been saying basically the same thing again and again for three years now.
At the end of last year's recap, I wrote the following: "Maybe next season will be a SERIES instead of a collection of shows. Maybe not. ... With Brannon Braga ... taking over the creative processes of the series I'm not sure if we'll see any significant changes or not, but I can hope that we'll see some interesting new things come out of season five, and perhaps more emphasis on long-term thinking."
So now to answer the question: What has Braga's role at the helm meant in terms of a change in the big picture at Voyager? Well, to be as blunt and as honest as I can be, my answer is simple: "Nothing." For good nor ill, there has been no change in attitude, no change in direction, no change in format, and no real discernible change in storytelling. Much—far too much, in my opinion—was made of Braga's taking of the helm in light of Jeri Taylor's retirement at the end of season four. Some alarmist fans feared that "Evil Brannon Braga" would drive the series into the ground with his approach to storytelling. Please, people, give me a break. I figured the chances of Braga driving Voyager into the ground were pretty close to zero. And as season five got under way, I also began to sense Braga's impact on the new season would have very little noticeable difference in the way the series operated or the way stories were told. And why should it? Braga has long been a creative force on Voyager. Why should his assumption of command really change much of anything?
The sense I'd gotten (whether I'm right or wrong is another story) was that the producers were happy with the performance of season four and they wanted season five to be like the fourth season, with more "great high-concept storytelling" and "great exploration of the characters," etc. If another season four was what they wanted, then I'm of the opinion that they mostly delivered on that count. I'm inclined to say that overall "Season Five" is essentially "Season Four, Part II."
Moving along, the next question is whether that's a good or bad thing. Did Voyager even need to change? I was of the opinion that Voyager's fourth season was the best Voyager effort up to that point, so I'd certainly rather see more of a fourth-season attitude than, say, a second- or third-season attitude.
And there lies both sides of the argument: Either Voyager was inadequate and in need of changes to become a successful series, or Voyager was adequate and season five continued the trend.
Well, I think most people pretty much know where I stand on the matter, so I'll just come out and reiterate my long-standing attitude on the series. In a sentence: While Voyager has its merits, I doubt I'll ever be satisfied with the bottom line. Why? Because of the following qualities: (1) It doesn't make the long-term investments in its stories or characters to keep us compelled on an ongoing basis, and that attitude sometimes also leads to strained credibility. (2) Because there are no long-term aspirations, we must live in a short-term environment that simply isn't consistently fresh enough to overcome the fact that there's so much Trek material in the history books in danger of duplication; as a result, stories too frequently feel recycled, derivative, or pedestrian. And (3) the series has failed to realize these two other points and continues to do what Voyager does best: business as usual.
Now, to be fair, Voyager as a sci-fi series is not a failure. The production values are generally quite good, the cast is generally solid, and some of the stories really do deliver. In strictly episode-by-episode critical quality terms, I can report at least some positive news in that this season wasn't a downfall in stand-alone episode quality; in fact, the average numbers are virtually identical to fourth season's (by my ratings, anyway)—registering just an ever-so-slightly increased average. Looking at the top five: Episodes like "Drone" and "Timeless" both qualify as Voyager classics for me, the former being a wonderful character study and the latter an ensemble piece where everything clicked into the Voyager-specific mindset perfectly; "Someone to Watch Over Me" displayed a refreshing change of pace with broad human comedy; "Dark Frontier" showed that seamless production and decent writing can take action a long way; and "Counterpoint" showed that a nondescript premise can be turned into a gem with good execution, careful character attention, and clever writing. These are examples of the Voyager "one-shot wonders"—although I should probably point out that with Voyager it's either a one-shot wonder or a one-shot okay/mediocre/failure. Very little of a show's success has much to do with the scope of the series beyond the broadest aspects, like the fact that the same characters populate the stories.
Another problem arose through mischaracterization. In two words: B'Elanna Torres. Here was one of my favorite characters, and the writers had her so all-over-the-map this season that it merely became annoyingly unconvincing. "Extreme Risk" invented her manic-depression and then glibly discarded it. "Nothing Human" gave her a conflict with Janeway that would immediately afterward be forgotten. "Juggernaut" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" suddenly fired up her temper to an overstated excess. And "Equinox" suddenly made her soft and pleasant. Who is this person anymore?
B'Elanna's probably the only bigger trend worthy of mention. Most everyone else remained within the boundaries of what came before—which is fine—but there's no real sense of anybody heading in any direction with a destination to reach. It would be nice to see these people and their personalities put to a bigger test beyond solving each week's plot. That's not to say the characters get completely lost, because they don't. Janeway, Seven, and Doc all have strong cores that shine through even without challenging new material. All had good character shows—Janeway with "Counterpoint" and "11:59"; Seven with "Drone" and "Someone to Watch Over Me"; and Doc with "Latent Image." But it's an episode like "Latent Image" that finds something worthwhile and uncovers a dire need for digging deeper. And, frustratingly, Voyager just cannot bring itself to go the extra mile. (You can't have a story about a character driven to torment about the nature of his existence and then pretend next week like nothing happened to him.)
Other characters seem lost in the shuffle. Paris was reasonable but somewhat underutilized save "Thirty Days" and "Gravity." Tuvok even more so outside "Gravity"—and Chakotay and Neelix were virtually nonexistent for most of the season, aside from walk-on roles with little building value. (Neelix fared okay in "Once Upon a Time," but Chakotay's "Fight" featured characterization that was murky and useless.)
And as for Harry Kim, don't even get me started. "Timeless" was a riveting example of the wealth of potential inside the loss-of-innocence Harry (and shows just what Voyager is capable of), but "Disease" was an utter disaster that erased all good will, and everything post-"Disease" affirmed that, no, Harry will never change; he's simply a laughable Teflon-man of a character. I can't say I've been pleased with Wang's performances, but the writers have totally dropped the ball, giving the poor slob almost nothing worthwhile. Naomi Wildman, Voyager's surprisingly effective rendition of The Kid as portrayed by the capable Scarlett Pomers, actually has been much more tolerable on the screen than Harry because I at least don't get the sudden fear I will be forced to cringe.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Voyager is dependent more on its plots than its character development. On that end, one thing I appreciated about this season was its attempted emphasis on plain-and-simple traveling progress. Among the big problems with the second season was the absurdity of the series seemingly running around in circles, laughably diverting into the heart Kazon space at season's end. With this season we actually had some big progress toward the Alpha Quadrant with the two huge jumps forward. Finally the crew's efforts—experimenting with engine technology ("Timeless") and undertaking a daring mission against the Borg ("Dark Frontier")—actually paid off with some progress that could boost morale and make the series seem (at least temporarily) to break out of the status quo.
But given its resources, Voyager is still a stark underachievement. Everything from the characters to the basic premise lend themselves to much greater things, but the show seems perfectly content to play it safe. Worse yet, it almost displays an unconscious contempt for anyone willing to pay attention from one month to the next. A big example is the way the writers made references to aliens that shouldn't have been anywhere near Voyager's position after the two big jumps. There shouldn't have been mention of the Devore in "Think Tank" and most certainly shouldn't have been a Malon ship casually cruising around in "Juggernaut." Sure, these complaints could be explained away with some imaginative excuses (like perhaps saying the Malon have very fast ships and the dialog simply didn't address it), but that's not the point. The point is, this isn't nitpicking; this is valid concern for a fundamental carelessness within the show: It alleges to make big progress and then disregards all consequences on a whim. The only possible interpretation of this attitude is that the big picture isn't valued by the creators; the immediate goal is. If that's the attitude, I'm thinking the immediate goal had better be well worth the sacrifice to the bigger picture. But way too often that's not the case.
Looking ahead to the near future, what does Voyager need? Well, it needs what it has needed every year. Voyager needs to think for more than one hour at a time. This is not a new idea. Honestly, I don't know why I bother saying it again and again, because by this point I should know it will never happen. From a writing standpoint Voyager simply isn't a series that looks at the long term, because the producers and writers, for better or worse, have consciously come to the conclusion that operating in the short term is what works for them.
Quite frankly, what Voyager needed was Ronald D. Moore. Now, I rarely comment on the behind-the-scenes soap operas in my reviews (criticism should be applied to the work on the screen, not the rumors and news going on behind production), but in this case I'm going to make an exception.
For those of you reading this who are unaware of what has been going on in the Star Trek producers' offices the past few months, I'll give a quick recap: After work wrapped on Deep Space Nine, Ron Moore (whom, incidentally, I consider to be one of Trek's all-time best writers) announced that he was going to move over to Voyager to work on the show. Not long afterward, the rumors began flying that there was a massive falling out between onetime friends Moore and Braga, and that irreconcilable differences in opinion led Moore to reluctantly resign from the Voyager writing staff. A few weeks later, Moore confirmed in an online posting that he had left Voyager, though he gracefully refused (and rightfully so) to air details and dirty laundry in public.
I'm not here to speculate on the nasty rumors that have been going around concerning Braga; I hasten to remind that rumors are not necessarily facts and that every story has two sides. At the same time, however, Moore left the show for a reason, and something is clearly suspect in the state of Bragaville. In any case, I can't see Moore's departure from Voyager as anything but the series' loss. Voyager could've used the fresh blood—some fresh blood that has years of experience writing for Trek with methods that could've been of great value to Voyager. Alas, that will never be.
Looking to other possibilities in Voyager's future, other rumors circulating have promised that Voyager will "absolutely" get home midway through next season, though Braga has been quoted as denying it. Because the Delta Quadrant isn't very interesting, I would probably welcome the change in format (although something cynical inside me fears that our crew might get home to an Alpha Quadrant that has already totally recovered from the Dominion War and Voyager would in no way acknowledge the changes in the Federation put into place by its now-finished sister series). If you want my current speculation for season six, the most likely scenario I envision is "Season Five, Part II" (or "Season Four, Part III," if you must). All the quotes emanating from the Voyager producers are along the lines of happiness with the series from a creative standpoint, so there's no reason to expect change.
It's occurring to me that this wrap-up article is perhaps coming across as unrelentingly negative in tone—more so than I imagined when I set out to write it. I think that can be attributed to the fact that Voyager does in fact work better when shows are analyzed case by case. And on their own, many shows this season worked and worked well. For that I give credit where credit is due. Unfortunately, the longevity of Voyager (and any Trek) will not hinge on analysis in individual pieces. The cumulative effect—where the series ventures—is what people will remember. And after five seasons, it's still hard for me to figure out what Voyager is all about and what of significance people will remember about it. Perhaps it will be remembered for its fragments.
It is perhaps the greatest of all ironies that one of DS9's biggest criticisms when it launched in 1993 was that the setting was "too static." Now, more than six years later, DS9 has ended as the Trek series to have supplied the most ongoing changes in story and setting, while Voyager is still essentially doing the same things it always has—wandering a Delta Quadrant that offers little in terms of new settings, cultures, ideas, or story approaches. We just have lots of "space." But what's in this space? As of now, I'm inclined to call it a static, primarily empty area of space—traveled by a starship that covers a lot less ground than a certain space station sitting stationary at the mouth of a certain wormhole.
It's too bad Voyager can't hold up when one steps back and looks at everything, because the paradox is that I find the series still supplies reasonable, enjoyable entertainment in short bursts. The indictment, I think, is that it could and should supply a lot more than that. See you in the fall.