Another year, another season of Voyager in the books. It looks like it's time for the annual recap and retrospective. What was this season all about? What did the subtraction of one cast member and the addition of another mean to the outlook of the series? Such questions will be addressed in this season review, which, as always, I'll hype as "the most comprehensive Voyager review I'll write this year." Part one has a brief take on each episode. Part two is the general commentary on the "big picture." Pretty simple, so let's proceed, shall we?
Part 1: Capsule Reviews
Scorpion, Part II — Air date: 9/3/1997. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
"Scorpion, Part II" was a good way to launch the fourth season. The combination of Trekkian adventure, character conflict between Janeway and Chakotay, and the intriguing, well-utilized thematic elements involving the nefarious Borg collective was balanced well, making for a story that competently resolved the elements set up in the first half. Still, the largeness of part one made it very difficult for part two to pull everything together without it all feeling a bit too easy. A lot of the story elements had a downside: Harry's recovery was almost laughably easy, Janeway and Chakotay's conflict was resolved with an argument that was too lightweight, and the use of the super technology to defeat Species 8472 didn't go very far beyond the expected. But "Scorpion II' is solid science fiction, which sits pretty well with me.
The Gift — Air date: 9/10/1997. Written by Joe Menosky. Directed by Anson Williams.
After bringing Seven of Nine on board in "Scorpion II," "The Gift" went on to send her in the direction that would encompass a great deal of the rest of Voyager's fourth season. In that regard, this episode was effective, featuring the painful moments for a single drone who had been disconnected from its hive. The scenes between Janeway and Seven are incredibly taut and intriguing; both Mulgrew's and Ryan's performances shone in the initial outing for what would become the most intriguing character relationship of the season. On the flip side was the loss of Kes, who is written off the show in a disappointingly ineffective manner that comes off as arbitrary and incomprehensible (and packaged with a silly "action" finale). There wasn't nearly enough closure between Kes and the other characters. But using Janeway as the core of the Voyager "family" was nicely done, as she offers her sense of maternal wisdom to both Kes and Seven.
Day of Honor — Air date: 9/17/1997. Written by Jeri Taylor. Directed by Jesus Salvador Trevino.
The most intriguing aspect of "Day of Honor" was the way it paired up Paris and Torres by way of an extreme situation (that is, stranded out in space as they run out of oxygen). The situation itself was a bit of a cliché, but Torres was especially well-characterized in her scenes with Paris; the idea that she can't come clean about her feelings, building up walls of self-defense in the process, is very in tune with B'Elanna's personality. Aside from the romance angle, there isn't much here. The use of some stock-issue aliens called the Cataati as a 20th-century analogy of impoverished people turning to crime is reasonable but not very compelling, especially given the ineffectively bland-to-bizarrely-quirky performance of the primary Cataati guest star.
Nemesis — Air date: 9/24/1997. Written by Kenneth Biller. Directed by Alexander Singer.
A turn to the more cerebral side of Trek was the focus for one of the few Chakotay-oriented episodes of the season. The theme is certainly reliable, if derivative, as it serves as an indictment on hatred and violence. The story is slow-moving but effective in the long run, with some nice details of war cruelty. The idea of "brainwashing" worked reasonably well by challenging the commonplace dramatic assumption that it's easy to label someone the "good guys" and the others the "bad guys." The finale, where the situation is resolved but Chakotay still can't get past his lingering inner-hatred, also sends a strong statement. The execution isn't standout, but the story is certainly interesting and socially respectable overall.
Revulsion — Air date: 10/1/1997. Written by Lisa Klink. Directed by Kenneth Biller.
There's not a whole lot worthy of being said about "Revulsion," for good or ill. It's a standard plot with some interesting snippets of dialog. The performances by Picardo, Dawson, and Leland Orser (as Dejaran, the crazy, tortured hologram looking for vengeance) worked reasonably. The story itself is predictable and relies on stock thriller conventions, lacking a fresh slant on its material. Characteristically, Doc's non-reaction to Dejaran's eventual demise is a particularly evident weakness. As for the Seven-and-Harry B-story—it's amiable and forgettable. In fact, the entire episode is an hour-long diversion that can be quickly forgotten afterward. There are some enjoyable little character moments spread across the episode, but it isn't quite enough to give the episode much in terms of relevant context.
The Raven — Air date: 10/8/1997. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller. Story by Harry Doc Kloor and Bryan Fuller. Directed by LeVar Burton.
Somewhere inside the so-so "Raven" is a better episode trying to get out. Sure, there's a plentiful cache of interesting backstory for Seven here, as it shows the circumstances surrounding her assimilation all those years ago, but it's constantly at the mercy of such a tired array of plot pieces, including the typical Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week™, who push Janeway so far that I was hoping she would punch one of them. Of course, after Seven flees the ship in search of answers, the Hard-Headed Aliens are a source of counterfeit conflict every step of the way in response to Janeway's attempted diplomacy—right down to the obligatory action finale. That's too bad, because I liked the backstory for Seven (even if it's highly unlikely that the crew would happen upon her old ship), and Tuvok and Seven work well together. Levar Burton's use of imagery was also compelling stuff, although I still don't buy the "symbolism" angle of a psychological connection between "Raven, the bird" and "Raven, the ship."
Scientific Method — Air date: 10/29/1997. Teleplay by Lisa Klink. Story by Sherry Klein & Harry Doc Kloor. Directed by David Livingston.
After a solid opening stretch, Voyager took its first major stumble of the season with a completely plot-oriented episode that relied on preposterous Fun With DNA™. The episode wasn't completely intolerable, mostly because it chose not to take itself too seriously and is punctuated by some interesting moments of manic energy (most notably, Janeway in crazy mode as she goes over the edge and pilots the ship between the two stars, and the opening sophomoric goofiness—silly as it was—of Paris and Torres making out all over the ship), but the plot was so jerry-rigged and disconnected that it felt like an episode written by a committee of people, each on a different controlled substance of choice. The end result is not pretty, and falls into serious disarray under any scrutiny. It all grows very tedious, with characters who are jerked around, thus coming off as unwitting plot pawns rather than people.
Year of Hell, Part I — Air date: 11/5/1997. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
Back in "Before and After," the idea of a year of desperation was intriguing. Here it became interesting for very different reasons. The hope that "Year of Hell" would work as a dark and probing drama vanished almost as soon as the Krenim made their first appearance. In place of that hope came the complex time-manipulation games brought about by Annorax and his time ship. It makes for some solid sci-fi, and Annorax's quiet obsession is the most intriguing angle (thanks to a strong performance by Kurtwood Smith). The Voyager crew's lengthy problem also worked reasonably, with some nice character details and another revisit to the Janeway Family Theme™. As a setup, "Year of Hell, Part I" was solid, entertaining stuff.
Year of Hell, Part II — Air date: 11/12/1997. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Mike Vejar.
The dreaded Reset Button™ returned with a vengeance at the end of the "Year of Hell" wrap-up, but, really, anyone who didn't see it coming a week in advance (if not more) is probably naive. I could complain and nitpick and rip apart the time-manipulation paradoxes, but why? This episode was still very reasonable as a self-contained adventure, which is what Voyager is all about these days. Considering the interesting parallel between the tragic Annorax and the no-nonsense Janeway and the duality of their obsessions, as well as Chakotay's intriguing sympathy and understanding of Annorax's dilemma, this episode packs some respectable character-oriented punch alongside its adventure storytelling. The arbitrary reset ending was weak and unsatisfying, but I'm not going to complain too loudly. Maybe none of this two-parter actually "happened," but for once I really don't care.
Random Thoughts — Air date: 11/19/1997. Written by Kenneth Biller. Directed by Alexander Singer.
After an effects-laden two-parter, Voyager settled back into conventional Original Series format by visiting an alien world and analyzing a culture-shock problem when Torres has a violent thought which is transferred to one of the telepathic citizens, leading him to violently beat another person. "Random Thoughts" suffers occasionally from a campy nature; the death of Neelix's new "friend" is corny in execution, and the images of "ultraviolence" aren't all that effective. But the meaning behind what's on the screen comes across well, with a few higher-brow-than-usual statements about violent tendencies and dark inner-demons (including the notion of a "black market" for violent imagery). Gwynyth Walsh turns in an effective performance as Nimira, whose sincerity in tackling the growing problem is respectable, as is the chemistry between her and Tuvok. It wasn't a standout offering, but it certainly utilized many of Voyager's strengths well.
Concerning Flight — Air date: 11/26/1997. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Jimmy Diggs and Joe Menosky. Directed by Jesus Salvador Trevino.
And then came this fluff piece, which hung on a silly premise about some random aliens who steal the Voyager computer core. The setup is no more than an excuse for a lot of irrelevant exposition between Janeway and Leonardo da Vinci (a character who, despite Rhys-Davies' charisma, strikes me as a needless role to be wasting screen time on given the large cast this series has), who go down to a planet to track down the thieves. The plot is full of unlikely conveniences and stock action, and the arrogant presumption that a historical figure and all his knowledge can be dropped into a holographic program isn't something I particularly care for. By the end, especially with the obligatory flight in da Vinci's craft, the self-important creative narcissism behind the whole da Vinci/Janeway relationship becomes all too evident. The performances are quite watchable, but the episode is a needless endeavor too set on being cute and clever. It didn't work for me.
Mortal Coil — Air date: 12/17/1997. Written by Bryan Fuller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
This episode didn't leave the lasting impact I hoped it would. Neelix, naturally, is still one of the most shallow, pointless, and uninteresting major characters Trek has ever had, despite the Annual Serious Neelix Analysis™ that "Mortal Coil" provided. Nevertheless, this outing was sensible and utilized the side of Neelix we rarely see, offering issues of religious faith that Trek rarely explores. Watching Neelix come to terms with his crisis of doubt was surprisingly compelling, and the episode's use of imagery proves effective. Chakotay's role in the episode was also nice, especially the fact that his spiritual guidance offers "no quick fixes." Neelix's near-suicide was actually a moment of true suspense. But I sincerely wish the writers would find a purpose for this guy, because an episode like this, while good, shows how much of a bland cipher he is 99 percent of the time (and thus isn't consistent with the "big picture" of his character).
Waking Moments — Air date: 1/14/1998. Written by Andre Bormanis. Directed by Alexander Singer.
In my original review of this episode, I called it "the epitome of so-so," which I think still stands. The crew's dreams become the topic of another plot-heavy episode, which brings about a sometimes-entertaining but thin story about aliens who take over the ship in a collective crew dream. It's the second-best Chakotay episode of the season (which, unfortunately, doesn't say much considering he only had three shows and one of them was "Unforgettable")—this episode managed to show him competently taking action, which is rare these days. Unfortunately, there isn't much about the plot that is fresh; the story is often too mechanical in its plot advances, and the motivation for the aliens, who exist in an unlikely dream state, is about one step shy of total incredulity—proving to make them yet another alien race who exists simply to provide a forced conflict. Keeping the episode in the realm of "okay" is some good "moon imagery" and a few twists where we aren't sure whether Chakotay is awake or dreaming. But these touches aren't enough to make the episode wholly worthwhile.
Message in a Bottle — Air date: 1/21/1998. Written by Lisa Klink. Directed by Nancy Malone.
In some ways, "Message in a Bottle" is an extremely frustrating episode. Don't get me wrong—it works on many more levels than it fails on. In particular, it's a great example of the season's overriding sense of fun; it's an action comedy that gets the job done very nicely, with the constantly flabbergasted EMH programs portrayed by Robert Picardo and Andy Dick in way over their heads, where they trade one-liners and kick some Romulan butt (well, sort of). The USS Prometheus is a neat ship with ambitious production design (even if a fully automated "vector assault mode" is pushing it). But, as the pivotal episode where the crew of the Voyager finally gets a message back to the Alpha Quadrant and realize they are "no longer alone," having such an important issue shoved to the back burner like an afterthought is simply wrong. If the writers can't take this huge issue seriously, how in the world can we? For what it is—a balance of entertaining cartoon and drama—"Message" is very effective but there's also a lot of wasted potential.
Hunters — Air date: 2/11/1998. Written by Jeri Taylor. Directed by David Livingston.
And then "Hunters" did it again. If we have an unprecedented episode where a lot of screen time is devoted to crew members receiving letters from their Alpha Quadrant ties, why in the world do we need a subplot where Tuvok and Seven are captured by the Hirogen? If that wasn't bad enough, we've got the most cartoon-acted Hirogen "characters" ever, who yell and growl and look really dumb. No, thanks. Transparent use of Harry and Neelix doesn't help much (and don't even get me started on what turned out to be in the "mysterious Starfleet message" that the crew receives). Fortunately, much of the letter-receiving angle of the story works extremely well, as Janeway finds out her fiancee hae has moved on while Chakotay and Torres learn the Maquis have been wiped out—the first mention of the Maquis in a very long time (and a very welcome one, at that). The Paris angle, if a bit rehashed, was reasonable. But the episode left me thirsting for more. Call my bottom-line verdict a guarded recommendation.
Prey — Air date: 2/18/1998. Written by Brannon Braga. Directed by Allan Eastman.
Four episodes (five, if you count "Message in a Bottle") featured the Hirogen, and "Prey" was probably the only good use of them. Like many of the better Trek outings, this episode drops Janeway into the middle of a tricky moral dilemma when an individual from Species 8472 seeks safety from Hirogen hunters on board Voyager. Trek has always been good at humanizing past enemies, and here it puts an unexpected spin on an old conflict, going so far as to make an 8472 pitiable. Just about every element in "Prey" works, and works well. On the technical level, Allan Eastman's direction is good stuff, with suspense that's well above average. Meanwhile, Tony Todd's presence offers the first believable Hirogen character. But what really sets this episode apart is its decision to introduce a fiery conflict caused by the clash of opinions between Janeway and Seven. The latter's decision to sacrifice the 8472 to save the ship is a gutsy move by the writers, and the consequences bring forth challenges for both characters. Intriguing arguments all around make this one of the season's best (and the best in terms of Voyager's current goals)—an episode that had me genuinely involved.
Retrospect — Air date: 2/25/1998. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Lisa Klink. Story by Andrew Shepard Price & Mark Gaberman. Directed by Jesus Salvador Trevino.
Seven continued to be the core of the season in an episode where plot and character are nicely interwoven to emphasize the consequences of Janeway & Co. being on the wrong side of a judgment call while trying to protect one of their own. True, the plot is a bit convenient in execution at times. In particular, Kovin's extreme reaction to being accused runs just a little too haywire; that he would ultimately accidentally blow himself up is a bit much. But the story keeps its focus on character. Watching Doc vie for justice is compelling, particularly the way he fires up Seven's anger in the process of convincing her she has been wronged. Picardo and Ryan are both terrific as two people who get caught up in prematurely presuming Kovin's guilt as they struggle with embracing their own humanity. Their regret in the final scenes following the tragedy is particularly well conceived. "Retrospect" is a winner that uses its characters wisely.
The Killing Game, Part I — Air date: 3/4/1998. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by David Livingston.
The first half of the deadly-Hirogen-holodeck-games two-parter was all setup and no payoff, and on those terms it was okay. David Livingston's pace over the story took a relaxed pace, allowing the story to unfold on agreeable terms, although there were some questionable elements. While the technology that transforms the characters' identities strikes me as a convenient device for gratuitous role-playing, I did find some of the details of the WWII setting somewhat entertaining, and it was interesting to see the various personalities (most notably Tuvok's, Janeway's, and Seven's) carry over into the holodeck characters. The introduction of a Hirogen character who wants to preserve his endangered society through holodeck usage is also a palatable idea. But the setup as a stand-alone outing wasn't consistently solid enough to be worthy of a recommendation, and spilling WWII onto the decks of the ship didn't exactly leave me enthralled.
The Killing Game, Part II — Air date: 3/4/1998. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Victor Lobl.
"Killing Game II" was an exercise in manic plot-induced excess, and a lot of it simply became boring. Gunfire and more gunfire punctuated endless scenes of holograms fighting each other with holographic ammunition (what could be more pointless?). The historical perspective of the entire setting is rendered all but irrelevant, and the only interesting Hirogen character is killed off in an unsatisfying manner, reducing the audience's stake in the Hirogen problem to null. The truce at the end prompts incredulity. The only reason to see this episode is the same as the sole reason to go see the new Godzilla movie: if you want a sorry excuse for a story as a means to propel mindless destruction on a grand scale. On that level, I guess, this episode delivers if you like seeing the holodeck and sickbay blown up with no regard to consequences. "The damage to Voyager has been extreme," says Janeway. But who even cares since it will all be reset to normal by the next episode?
Vis A Vis — Air date: 4/8/1998. Written by Robert J. Doherty. Directed by Jesus Salvador Trevino.
The vis-a-vis in "Vis A Vis" occurs with a literal body-switching experience for Paris when an alien named Steth steals Tom's identity in exchange for his own. The premise is a high concept, but there's surprisingly little done with it, keeping the story firmly rooted in the realm of the mediocre. Steth does a number on Paris, Torres, and then Janeway, but several character consequences of Steth's deception (most notably, his seduction of B'Elanna) are never addressed, and the plot doesn't take enough risks. The most interesting acting possibilities (imagine Robert Duncan McNeill as Kathryn Janeway!) are left untouched. What hurts here most, though, is the misuse of Tom in the early scenes, where he experiences an identity crisis that emerges from virtually nowhere, and then bites B'Elanna's head off for no apparent reason in a scene of alarming juvenility. The characterization of Paris here is a rehash at best, and unconvincing regression at worst.
The Omega Directive — Air date: 4/15/1998. Teleplay by Lisa Klink. Story by Jimmy Diggs & Steve J. Kay. Directed by Victor Lobl.
Now here's an example of the right way to do a tech plot. While the idea of the omega molecule is so big that it opens a dangerous can of worms, the use of that bigness motivates Janeway and the crew rather nicely, going so far as to rescind even the Prime Directive. Issues of trust come to the forefront, and the largeness of the problem adds a level of high-stakes excitement. It's probably one of the most solid plot-based sci-fi-oriented outings this season (although I'm still a bit confused about whether the molecule can be created at will given the effort of production, or if it has to be found to be replicated). Good use of Janeway/Seven highlights Seven further accepting her social limits, and the final realization—a spiritual moment for our former Borg—is a wonderfully intriguing character touch.
Unforgettable — Air date: 4/22/1998. Written by Greg Elliot & Michael Perricone. Directed by Andrew J. Robinson.
The final stretch of episodes continued its up-and-down trend with the ironically titled "Unforgettable," an episode that shows how not to do romance on Trek (perhaps the Voyager equivalent of DS9's "Meridian"). We have two characters exchanging bland dialog, who fall in love in a manner that is hardly believable and completely lacking in any sense of chemistry. It's a shame that Chakotay has been reduced to a character of such apparently indifferent dispassion. (By the way, dispassion is not a way to approach a romance story.) The idea of a people who can't be remembered strikes me as a little implausible, and the episode never seems to understand how its own rules work, but I'm more frustrated that the plot isn't put to any use beyond the most obvious and predictable (not to mention the built-in, self-acknowledged reset button). There's very little here, and what's here is so pedestrian that the hour grows incredibly dull.
Living Witness — Air date: 4/29/1998. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller and Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Brannon Braga. Directed by Tim Russ.
Ranking up there among the best hours Voyager has ever done is "Living Witness," an example of great Trek that doesn't use the particular series' strengths to its advantage, but rather exists outside the normal confines of the Voyager reality. (DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations" comes to mind as a similar one-shot wonder.) It's an original, absorbing story that takes a fresh perspective, works up a nice sense of wonder, has the reasonable and sympathetic central character of Quarren (effectively portrayed by Henry Woronicz), puts Doc in a sticky situation where the moral stakes run deeper than the safety and image of the Voyager crew, and uses "evil crew" role-playing in a way that is both entertaining and dramatically sound. The only significant flaw—the idea of a "Doctor backup program," which seems to go against everything previously established about his existence—is still a mentionable drawback that opens up an annoying can of worms, but it's not nearly enough to bring down this impressive installment. Nice work.
Demon — Air date: 5/6/1998. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller. Story by Andre Bormanis. Directed by Anson Williams.
Coming off the heels of the season's best episode came the season's worst, which is probably the worst episode of Voyager since "Threshold." The setup premise of "running out of fuel" was hopelessly arbitrary, conjured, and absurd (not to mention a demonstration of a total lack of competency among the entire crew), leading to even more preposterous absurdity and the worst use of Trek "science" I've seen in a very long time. Deuterium shortage? People who don't fry at 500K? Half-sentient liquid metal? Please. None of this makes sense if you think about it for a microsecond, and it's so chock-full of self-contradictory plot holes that it's difficult even to keep track of them. Add all that to a terribly unfunny B-story that makes Neelix look sillier than he has in years, and a forced notion where Harry suddenly becomes "more assertive" (which might've worked if it weren't so blatantly obvious) and you have an example of science fiction near its worst.
One — Air date: 5/13/1998. Written by Jeri Taylor. Directed by Kenneth Biller.
Plot holes abound in "One." How did the crew fail to detect the nebula until they were standing right next to it? Where did all those stasis chambers come from? How could Paris survive after climbing out of his stasis chamber? How did cutting life support deplete all oxygen on the ship in 30 seconds? I really don't care. This episode was set on saying something about its central character, and I liked what it had to say. It made for a good analysis of Seven's dual needs for independence and the presence of others, and serves as a possible turning point in her opinion of socializing. The narrative was excessive at times; by the end Seven's hallucinated images proved almost too pervasive as the story drove its points home with a sledgehammer (and I could've done without the alien intruder as a red herring), but this has something substantive to say about a character who has been an integral part of much of this season's successful elements. Me likes.
Hope and Fear — Air date: 5/20/1998. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
Was I expecting the crew to actually get home? Not really. Was I expecting some sort of progress to come out of this episode? Perhaps. Did I want the entire episode to be another example of how to reset all possible progress back to zero? Certainly not. "Hope and Fear" is a plot that apparently exists to toy with us, making us care about a problem and open our minds to a possibility just so the writers can say, "Sorry, but none of this is what it seems." I can see where they were going with some of this (Janeway's skepticism concerning the whole matter helps), but the plot uses far too many contrivances so that the clues can be read two ways. It's sneaky and manipulative and I don't like it. What's the point of a story that baits our interest with a ruse only to show us how elaborate that ruse can be? The notion of an encrypted message that just says "sorry, you're stuck" is dubious at best (I don't care if it had "information about the Delta Quadrant" in it, because that's a lackluster way to resolve a potentially interesting mystery), and the alien's faux Federation ship is simply too perfect in detail to come off as anything but a product of a skilled TV production design staff. On the upside we have some wonderful Janeway/Seven character work that supplies the bookend for the season, phenomenal production values, good use of the Borg as closure, and a genuine sense of wonder. It's too bad that wonder is conjured out of an alien plot that strains so much credibility that I slowly became aware I was watching writers plan a calculated course of failure for the Voyager crew. The episode earns several points for characterization, showmanship, and plotting ingenuity, but it earns several dozen demerits for convenience and deception.
Part 2: Season Analysis
Lately I have been struggling over a question, a question that I have been trying very hard to answer but still, after four seasons, cannot come up with a definite answer for. That question is: What is Star Trek: Voyager all about? If I asked that question back in season one, I think I would've had an answer for what I thought Voyager was and would become, but that answer has long since been rendered obsolete. The series changed direction and purpose somewhere during the second season and has never looked back. Now, change isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially seeing as season two did a lot of things wrong with the setup premise established in the first season. But seasons three and four have proven over and over again that Voyager is a series that tends to wander and wander—and I'm not sure where exactly it's wandering to.
Maybe that's part of the point. Maybe we're just supposed to tune in to see what unforeseeable problem the Voyager characters run into each week and how they solve it—sort of like the point of The Original Series. Maybe Star Trek: Voyager is simply The Original Series reconceived for a 1990s television market. Maybe wandering blindly into the unknown is all there is to it. After all, Voyager has without a doubt become a series that is sold on entertaining for one hour at a time (whether I happen to agree with that method of storytelling or not). Nearly every episode this season was a self-contained story that any new viewer could tune into and probably fully comprehend without feeling the need to go back and look up backstory. It's all about simple adventure—about what you can find when wandering in the unknown.
But there's a dangerous pitfall in taking that attitude, I think, which is that there's already a lot of Star Trek material out there. If you count all of the four series' episodes, the number is rapidly approaching 500 hour-long episodes (a number the franchise will surpass almost immediately next season), not to mention the soon-to-be nine feature films. We've done TOS. And we've done TNG. So it seems to me that Voyager needs to be more than TOS or TNG projected into the Delta Quadrant. But without its own plot arcs or identity, Voyager puts itself in danger of becoming simply TOS or TNG revisited, which I think is potential left disappointingly unrealized. Voyager needs to be more than a series of occasional one-shot wonders filled with pedestrian adventures in between. An approach similar to DS9's over the years strikes me as a suitable one. I'm not saying DS9 is infallible or even close (this season of DS9 has had its own notable problems), but I am saying that episode-to-episode trends that at least claim to pay respect to consequences and build on prior events are something that we need to see a lot more of.
But we need more than trends; we need trends that utilize the important aspects of Voyager as a series. Again and again I have to ask myself: Just why is Voyager in the Delta Quadrant? What are we finding in the Delta Quadrant that we couldn't, essentially, find anywhere? Beyond the most basic elements of dialog and storytelling, what is being said about this ship and crew that couldn't be done in the Alpha Quadrant? Who are we meeting out here that brings anything new to the human question? How is the crew reacting to the prospect of being alone for 60 years? The unavoidable and most truthful answers to those questions, in order, are: I'm not sure, not very much, nothing of consequence, nobody to speak of, and they aren't. I don't understand the appeal of this premise if it refuses to acknowledge the most important dramatic advantages that it could bring to the series. In short, Voyager is not playing to its strengths about being a ship that needs to fight for survival. And it's also not exploring the unknown—it's exploring the derivative under a pretense of the unknown.
Now, I hate to sound like a broken record (because I feel like I've been saying the same thing for the past three years now), but in order for Voyager to succeed (and I do want to see it succeed, contrary to those people who allege that I "hate" the show, which I don't), I think someone needs to take a closer, more serious look at what being stranded is all about. Being stranded does not mean dropping in an occasional line about replicator rations, searching for food, or, worst of all, the idea that we've suddenly run out of fuel ("Demon") when fuel is an issue that hasn't even been acknowledged for years. Being stranded does not mean you trash half the ship—blowing up the holodeck, blowing up sickbay—and then write it off with a single line about damage to the ship being extreme ("The Killing Game"), never again to be considered even as an afterthought. Being stranded does not mean that when the characters do see a promising chance to get home ("Hope and Fear") and it doesn't pan out they simply shake their heads quietly and forget the opportunity was ever there. Being stranded does not mean losing crew members ("Scientific Method," "One," or the long-forgotten dead who are never acknowledged in "Message in a Bottle" or "Hunters" when the crew makes contact with their Alpha Quadrant ties) can be a subject treated as lightly as on TOS or TNG.
So, to sum up, I think that "wandering" is not enough. There has to be a context, and there must be goals. Yes, I know that Janeway and her crew are trying to get home, but it seems to me that the rewards and failures of the journey are more often used as a product of plot convenience packaged in the form of twisted fortune (or misfortune) than it is a credible dramatic device. To date, the most significant progress the crew has had in finding a faster way to the Alpha Quadrant has been the magical farewell gift from Kes that threw them 10,000 light-years in 10 seconds ("The Gift"). Honestly, it doesn't say a whole lot to me when the crew goes through a grueling hour of "hope in check" only to realize they're only going to gain 300 light-years ("Hope and Fear"), yet can gain 10,000 light-years under almost arbitrary circumstances. This doesn't say to me that survival, determination, and ingenuity will get Voyager home; it says to me that magical circumstances that emerge from the most unlikely and contrived of places will. Dramatically, I see that as a problem, and that's why "Hope and Fear" left me so cold. Sure, there was some nice character work, but in a season finale you almost expect the producers will supply a story that demonstrates what the series is all about. If the series is about getting home, then maybe some progress toward that goal would be prudent if we're going to sit through a plot that tantalizes us about that goal for 40 minutes. Even 5,000 or 10,000 more light-years might've supplied the crew with a sense of renewed hope.
But single-hour "fun," while entertaining (as many hours of this season have been), is not enough to get the job done on a drama series—at least, not for me. I think there needs to be more emphasis on creating a common stream of thought that can be seen throughout a season. There has to be an overriding purpose lurking somewhere behind 26 plot-based sci-fi adventures. I'm not at all saying that the series has to be an elaborate, interconnected web of episodes telling a single story. But there has to be purpose somewhere in all these plots, and I don't feel that a purpose is evident. Part of the problem is that some of the characters seem to exist more to get the plot from one point to the next than they exist to be people. In a big way, this season has been bipolar when it comes to characterization. This has been a year featuring some of the best character-oriented episodes and arcs in the entire series' run, but also featuring some of the biggest lapses in terms of using characters as people instead of plugging them into a plot to move a story along.
So what is it that I do want to see? Well, I want to see people taking actions and having to live with the consequences. I want to see that the crew is at least in partial control of their own fate rather than being the unwitting subjects of a coin-toss situation manufactured by the writers. I like to see characters evolve and learn from their pasts. I like to see characters who represent a point of view. In short, I like people who have identities and opinions and who are not simply a writer's pawns.
On one front, this season of Voyager has displayed some of precisely what I want to see, and, with its best character work to date, shows exactly what could make this a solid series. I'm referring, of course, to Seven of Nine, whose controversial introduction into the cast back at the beginning of the season had some skeptics suspicious and angry, especially with the reports that Jennifer Lien was canned in favor of a co-star with more sex appeal (reports which I'm neither confirming nor denying, because I honestly don't know the circumstances surrounding Jennifer Lien's departure). I'll be the first to admit that the series has shifted significantly to telling mostly "Seven of Nine" stories, often at the expense of other characters who get relatively little screen time as a result. Many feared that Worf's addition to DS9's cast in its fourth season would overshadow the rest of the characters, which turned out not to be the case since he was used as part of the ensemble. On the other hand, those who feared Jeri Ryan's addition to this cast would cause the focus to keep landing on the same character rather than being spread around equally probably had a reason for concern. I doubt I would argue with anyone who claims this series right now is "Star Trek: Voyager starring Kate Mulgrew and Jeri Ryan."
But Jeri Ryan has proven that she is a talented actress and the writing staff has such a handle on this character that, hell, I'm glad when I see a trailer that reveals next week's episode will be another Seven story. While I still think her conveniently form-fitting outfit is an annoying sign of what her sole original appeal might've been, Jeri Ryan and the writers have proven that Seven is much, much more than a token Borg character with a great body. (Still, I personally wish her outfit would be replaced with a Starfleet uniform, symbolically linking her to the "family" once and for all, but that probably won't ever happen since it would be too risky in perceived ratings terms to potentially abandon viewers who do watch the show because of the "Borg Babe.") Seven represents the age-old "humanity question" that has always been at the core of Trek, whether it was Spock, Data, Odo, or the Doctor, and the character's growth this season has been consistent, compelling, and very entertaining. It's the perfect example of how to use characters as people and personalities, rather than as caricatures or plot pieces. The balance of tension and guarded understanding between Janeway and Seven has proven over and over again to be something on this series that is worth watching, and there has always been the sense that just as Seven is learning from Janeway, Janeway is also learning from Seven more about those very issues centering around the "human question." (Although, sometimes it gets a little more black-and-white than I would care for, making Janeway too often rigidly "right.") Seven has brought a lot of multi-episodic character-oriented storytelling to this season—something I haven't seen done effectively since the first season when all the characters were still new.
But while Seven and Janeway have kept this season interesting and focused, I have some serious doubts about where other characters are headed, assuming they're headed anywhere. It's perhaps a telling sign that the loss of Kes at the beginning of the season had almost no impact on the series. With all due respect to Jennifer Lien's admirable talents, if characters aren't complex or essential they probably won't be missed and I frankly don't miss Kes much at all. In strictly utilitarian terms, the loss of Kes in favor of Seven of Nine has been a blessing on Voyager. Unfortunately, it makes me wonder just how essential some of these characters are to the series, particularly Harry Kim (a.k.a. "Ensign Former-Green") and Neelix (a.k.a. "Talaxian Chump"). Harry's decision to become "more assertive" ("Demon") was so blatantly spoon-fed that someone should've just posted a sign on Garret Wang's forehead prior to filming that said, "CHARACTER CHANGE IN PROGRESS." Even though I didn't like the way the change was brought about, it might prove worthwhile if it's handled believably next season, but such a follow-up is essential and I've been burned by such follow-up hopes too many times (Doc's holo-family from "Real Life" comes to mind as an example). Harry Kim cannot continue to be the shallow Ensign Green; he needs meatier stories with an edge. The same goes double, if not septuple, for Neelix, a constant trouble point when it comes to characterization, mainly because he has no discernible purpose. He is or has been everything from "cook" to "morale officer" to "talk-show host" to "ambassador," and never (since first season, before he became the obligatory comic relief character) has any of it been remotely interesting. His only reasonable story this season was "Mortal Coil," which, really, had nothing to do with who he typically is.
Harry and Neelix have always been problematic; what worries me more is Chakotay, who I'd say has severely received the short end of the stick this season. I've always liked Chakotay (even if Robert Beltran is sometimes a little more low key than I'd like) but this year he has become a bland source of often-blind moral support for Janeway and little more. "Nemesis" was good, and "Waking Moments" had him taking some action for a change, but ever since he and Janeway reached that agreement in "Scorpion, Part II," Chakotay has been surprisingly devoid of opinion, insight, or personality—just when I thought we were getting somewhere when "Scorpion" showed that these two aren't always on the same page. I like his low-key humor and ability to understate situations, but what happened to the passion and will? Virtually gone. Instead we have a cold, calculating, and procedure-oriented Chakotay (a la "Unforgettable"), who no longer seems to have a set of opinions or agendas. His role is simply to be a confidant for Janeway (or, as someone said to me in a tongue-in-cheek e-mail, his role is to say, "Yez ma'am. Whutevah you sez, ma'am"). Being a confidant is okay at times, but I'd much rather see what this guy is thinking and feeling, even if it means butting heads with Janeway.
When characterization becomes mechanical like it has had a tendency to do this season where Janeway and Seven aren't concerned, stories are completely dependent upon the ability of the plot to get the job done. And when plot is completely driving the series, it's going to have a tendency to cause hit-and-miss trends, particularly like the unevenness at the end of the season. This may explain why an episode like, say, "Vis A Vis" fails while an episode like "One" works. Both have plot holes, but because "One" has a clear character development goal in mind, it's easier to look past the flaws in the plot. "Vis A Vis," on the other hand, fails on plot and then has the problem of being completely confused in its assessment of its central character. Bottom line: When your story is all plot and completely self-contained, sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't. This is why we sometimes get one-shot wonders that literally exist outside the confines of Voyager reality ("Living Witness" and "Year of Hell," as obvious examples), and other times we'll get clunkers that are almost completely irrelevant ("Demon," "Scientific Method," "Unforgettable"). This season of Voyager has been good in that it has found a happy middle ground that has proven more consistent than past seasons. Most of the episodes fell in the 2.5- to 3-star range, with only a few clunkers at the 1.5-and-below area. At the same time, I haven't been blown away with many great episodes in the 3.5- or 4-star range. The only episodes I would qualify as absolute "must sees" would probably be "Living Witness" and "Prey," with "Scorpion II," "Retrospect" and "The Omega Directive" as the runners-up.
So what we have here is a respectably middling season of Voyager, which is okay, but could still be much improved upon. There's little shame in a 2.5-star-rated episode, because that means an episode is doing something right (even though I don't completely recommended it). But there's also no great pride in it, either. It's just adequate. And a steady diet of "simply adequate" can be frustrating. Even though Voyager is doing generally better than in seasons past, it still suffers from a lot of the same problems it had in those earlier seasons, the primary problem being that we aren't really making much notable progress.
The Delta Quadrant still isn't a very fascinating place, and is populated with too many stock alien races that exist solely for the sake of counterfeit conflict. Glib conflict doesn't often tell us much about the characters; it's more a device for standard action. (If I've learned anything about Voyager, I've learned that, so why haven't the creators?) Why can't we have more relationships with alien cultures who are (gasp!) peaceful and perhaps tell us a little something about ourselves? Why is everyone bent on taking over or destroying the ship? Surely there has to be someone out there with more depth than that. Conflict is about real problems, like those in "Living Witness," not about blowing up the bad guys with technobabble.
Just look at the Hirogen for a prime example. Here was a culture whose presence spanned six episodes and thus can be labeled the primary aliens of this season (if you don't count the Borg, which have been abundantly present in spirit). But since the Hirogen were pack hunters, their purpose most of the time was to seek out and destroy the starship Voyager, which simply isn't a fresh approach to alien encounters. Sometimes something interesting can be done with such a premise ("Prey" did a phenomenal job, and parts of "The Killing Game" were interesting, even if the episode itself was a big mess), but I've had enough of stock aliens that are so limited in motivation, and whose conceptions are so limited in imagination. If we're not going to analyze the realistic problems of being stranded (which I might as well give up on, since time after time the ship and crew takes a pounding and time after time it simply doesn't matter), we at least need to see something fresh and exciting out here in the vastness of the unknown. Why can't we be surprised? This is, after all, science fiction, with almost limitless possibilities. I say push the envelope.
I'm often critical of this series, but it's not out of anger; it's because I want to see Voyager live up to its potential rather than settling for so much less, which it has a tendency to do more often than not. Given its technical resources and cast talents, I think it's capable of putting out much more than it has to date. I think someone at the writing stage needs to step back and look at what more can be done aside from spinning the wheels from week to week. Risks must be taken. The status quo must occasionally be shattered. We have to feel like we're going somewhere. If we're going to find out what Voyager is all about, we need to know more about how characters other than what Janeway and Seven think and feel. Each of the characters needs more to do, and the writers need to set goals for them to strive toward. Voyager also needs to reiterate its mission statement, because if the crew is not going home for a long while, then we need for them to find more out here in the Delta Quadrant than convenient little devices which create a problem that can quickly be solved. One-shot wonders are fine and dandy, but a TV drama series is typically more than a hit-and-miss string of isolated little stories. We need to see a reason for Voyager to do what it does rather than just wandering into random situations. There needs to be a driving purpose, and it can start with character arcs. Janeway and Seven had character arcs this season; now it's time to extend this nature to everyone else—before it's too late.
Voyager is by no means a series to give up on, in my opinion. But nor is it something to be enthralled about. In general, it's shallow, one-hour entertainment. On those levels, it sometimes comes through, but I think it's high time that somebody looks at how Voyager can transcend the limits that have grown around it the past four seasons and make it worthwhile as a series. The key word is SERIES—a set of stories that have something to do with one another beyond having the same characters in each individual installment.
Maybe next season will be a SERIES instead of a collection of shows. Maybe not. With the end of the fourth season also came the end of Jeri Taylor's reign over the series. (I'd like to send out a kind farewell to a long-time Trek writer/producer who has, in my opinion, often been unfairly maligned here in the Internet realm, for reasons I still don't understand.) With Brannon Braga (who has been harshly targeted even more than Taylor, and just as unfairly) 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. I'll be back in August to find out. See you then.