Nutshell: On the starship USS Voyager, the people are represented by two separate yet equally frustrating groups: the characters who pretend to develop, and those who don't even bother with that pretense. These are their stories. <CLANG-CLANG>
And again, it's the annual Jammer Review summer tradition—the season recap article. It's the most thorough analysis of Voyager as a series that I'll write this year. Unlike previous years, I'm not calling it "comprehensive" (even though it is—so ha), because I need a change. And, whoa, what a change that was. I feel different already. But seriously, folks, as we head into the final haul, it's time to look back at Voyager's penultimate season and talk about what we had and didn't have, as well as looking ahead toward next season. As always, part one has a short review of each episode; part two has the general commentary on the Big Picture, as it were. On with it...
Part 1: Capsule Reviews
Equinox, Part II — Air date: 9/22/1999. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by David Livingston.
"Equinox II" exemplifies Voyager as a series in so many ways it's almost scary. Here's an efficiently made episode that features plenty in terms of good entertainment value—solid action, a meaty conflict between Janeway and Chakotay, Janeway stepping perilously close to crossing the line, and Ransom having an attack of the conscience that reveals that he is, after all, human—but in terms of its credibility for the series, what is it? Absolutely nothing. This episode brings up a huge, huge issue that rings all the way back to Voyager's original, long-jettisoned premise: the idea of limping through the Delta Quadrant on limited resources and with a fragile crew. By the end, we've had a pretty good ride and have even taken some brief looks at What We're About, but then what? The end. It's a non-issue and everyone forgets that it ever happened. We bring aboard several Equinox crew members, who are never to be seen or heard from again. So what's the point? Against my better judgment, I'm going to keep this episode rated at three stars because it's a good view that holds up in a vacuum (which is, after all, what Voyager is about), but it reveals just how little there is to this series as a whole (but more on that later).
Survival Instinct — Air date: 9/29/1999. Written by Ronald D. Moore. Directed by Terry Windell.
Despite the fact that it's a good episode, perhaps the most notable fact about "Survival Instinct" is that it's the answer to the behind-the-scenes trivia question: "What was the only Voyager episode to be scripted by veteran Trek writer Ronald D. Moore?" I honestly don't have anything new to say about "Survival Instinct." It's a good show that invests the time necessary in its central character (i.e., Seven) and the decisions she makes, and it uses the concept of the Borg collective as an avenue into Seven's past and the guilt she now holds for having created "The Triad's" problem. It's not much of a departure from the beaten path (especially considering this series' focus on Seven ad nauseam), but it does feature quietly thoughtful scenes and an attention to personalities, particularly in a standout Doc/Seven scene that shows that more than Seven's guilt is at work here, but also a sense of personal responsibility and a disdain for the collective she once called home.
Barge of the Dead — Air date: 10/6/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller. Story by Ronald D. Moore & Bryan Fuller. Directed by Mike Vejar.
I might be the only person on Earth who thinks "Barge" deserves to go down as one of Voyager's all-time best installments, but so be it. This is one of the most complex, involving character studies I've seen on this series, and it goes a long way toward making me believe the Voyager writers have the ability to deal with characters intelligently—without neat-and-tidy answers—and transcend the mechanics of sci-fi plots. I found B'Elanna's plight moving—she's a character filled with uncertainty, turmoil, and self-misunderstanding, and it takes a near-death experience for her to move beyond the limits and isolation she's imposed on herself. Add that to the fact that this is a visually impressive episode with standout direction by Mike Vejar; good performances all around; an intense score by David Bell; interesting discussions, particularly between Torres and Chakotay; and solid use of symbolism that works on several levels, and you've got an episode that really comes together. Does it bring about future change to B'Elanna's character the way it probably should? No, but more on that later.
Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy — Air date: 10/13/1999. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Bill Vallely. Directed by John Bruno.
Hilarious, with its heart in the right place. It's a simple idea—Doc daydreams—and the concept is put to good comic ends. The gags are very funny, with a genial focus on Doc's sizable but never mean-spirited ego. (There's the "Emergency Command Hologram," the photonic cannon, etc.) The subplot involving the aliens is wisely and organically incorporated into the story—not as a threat, but instead as a low-key complementing comedy. Underlying the humor is a pleasant human story about Doc's desire to continue improving himself and expanding his horizons. Picardo enthusiastically goes for broke in virtually every scene, and easily gets away with it; the guy is a real talent. I'm willing to call it one of Trek's best comedies.
Alice — Air date: 10/20/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Michael Taylor. Story by Juliann deLayne. Directed by David Livingston.
"Alice" got ripped apart by a lot of Internet viewers. I personally didn't think it was that bad, but I certainly didn't think it was good. This was the Big Tom Paris Show of season six, and on that level it's sorely disappointing. Sure, this guy is an ace pilot, but what else? Judging from this episode, that's about all there is to his personality. Okay, he also likes Torres (apparently almost as much as old ships), who gets peripheral involvement in the plot mostly so she can be nearly killed. But this episode emphasizes—surprise, surprise—the mechanics of its confused plot first and character depth a distant second. What depth that's here is pretty superficial (and therefore not really "depth")—Paris likes restoring creaky old ships and dreams of some sort of "perfect" flight. BFD. The plot is short on logic and answers (why would anyone build an intelligent ship that kidnaps pilots, and what is the mysterious "home" that Alice wants to enter?), but fortunately this manages to sustain just enough sci-fi mystery to avoid the threat of boredom. A tip: Any tech device with the capability of tapping directly into a character's brain should immediately set off alarms for the Voyager crew.
Riddles — Air date: 11/3/1999. Teleplay by Robert J. Doherty. Story by Andre Bormanis. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
In another perfect example of why this series is so damned frustrating, "Riddles" provides for us the ultimate Reset Button Character Show. Tuvok, in one of few episodes this year to give him any real emphasis, has his brain zapped by an alien weapon in a way that renders him incapacitated and changes his personality into that of a scared child. As a result, he takes to Neelix and develops a friendship with him that the normal Tuvok would never have permitted himself to exhibit. There's some good work here by the actors, but it's ultimately fruitless; the episode is a pointless exercise with zero real-life consequences. Tuvok is restored to his regular self by the end of the episode, thanks to a cure that is downright magical in its convenient nature. By the end, there's not even a sense that Tuvok will grant Neelix the gratitude for helping him through a troubling time, so why did we even bother? Apparently, the lesson here is that overcoming major life obstacles doesn't bring about any change in one's personality (and Vulcan or not, such a lesson is a waste of my time). This is possibly the most blatantly annoying reset button usage since "Unforgettable."
Dragon's Teeth — Air date: 11/10/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor and Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Michael Taylor. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
The intent behind "Dragon's Teeth," I think, was to show how a threat which had essentially been bottled up for centuries (the remaining Vaadwaur civilization here) could come back to be a problem again when someone comes by and inadvertently uncorks the container. The first few acts, as we subtly uncover the possibility of the threat, are interesting, but then the premise comes apart at the seams. First of all, simplifying an entire culture to a couple broad characters (one "nice," one "mean," both at the mercy of a plot and not supplied remotely believable actions given their situation) is not practical. Second, the idea requires our characters to ignore some very obvious warning signs, like Chakotay mentioning the "dragon's teeth" tale and then everybody forgetting about it as the story presses onward. Third is the chaos that results when the story paints itself into an action-oriented corner; we have Janeway bouncing around trusting one group and then the other, and ultimately imposing what is essentially a death sentence upon the Vaadwaur when she gives away their position to their enemies. The final act is a big mess that doesn't have a brain in its head or any regard for realistic consequences or moral questions (and Chattaway's obtrusive score undermines the proceedings). The closing dialog alleges that 50 of these Vaadwaur in their lame little antiquated ships constitutes a Major Threat, which is simply BS.
One Small Step — Air date: 11/17/1999. Teleplay by Mike Wollaeger & Jessica Scott and Bryan Fuller & Michael Taylor. Story by Mike Wollaeger & Jessica Scott. Directed by Robert Picardo.
It's a sad fact that few episodes of Voyager manage to capture a sense of genuine exploration. But "One Small Step" is one of those few. This is a rare episode that actually feels like a crew exploring a situation in order to learn something. It's proof that tech anomalies can be put to good use; in this case we've got something so old drifting through the galaxy that it serves as a sort of galactic museum, and we believe Chakotay when he says he could spend the rest of his life studying it. The primary artifact found inside is, of course, the Ares IV Mars orbiter, preserved for 350 years—a wonderful find, along with its long-dead pilot, Lt. John Kelley (played in the flashbacks by Phil Morris in an affecting performance) and his introspective logs. By the end, even Seven, who initially resists the idea of historic sentimentality, cannot deny the emotional impact of Kelley's quest to fulfill a dream. Make no mistake—this episode is abundantly self-aware of the sentiment it puts out. But so what? If the sentiment is genuine, then run with it. That's what this show does, and the result is a story that resonates. "What I've seen proves we were right to come out here," Kelley says. Well put.
The Voyager Conspiracy — Air date: 11/24/1999. Written by Joe Menosky. Directed by Terry Windell.
"The Voyager Conspiracy" plays sort of like an episode of The X-Files transplanted to the Delta Quadrant. It's a storyline in love with audacious theory, and completely willing (and wanting) to ignore facts, plausibility, and proof, because such things would get in the way of the theorizing. Whether or not you get anything out of this episode is completely dependent upon whether or not you enjoy Seven's paranoid mania and the way she assaults Janeway and Chakotay with her slew of facts culled from old episodes. No, none of it makes sense for a second. I still think the scene where Janeway and Chakotay run into each other in the cargo bay and play their reactions ever-so-carefully off each other's suspicions is a mini-masterpiece performed to perfection. But, of course, none of this tracks with the fact that these two characters shouldn't have been so easily persuaded by Seven's off-the-wall theories in the first place—or, if they were, so quick to then dismiss their suspicions. In the end it's nothing but an implausible exercise (and a rehash of Janeway trying to win Seven's trust), albeit sort of a fun one to watch unfold.
Pathfinder — Air date: 12/1/1999. Teleplay by David Zabel and Kenneth Biller. Story by David Zabel. Directed by Mike Vejar.
If there are any arcs at all to find in this series, the one hinted at in "Pathfinder" (and continued in "Life Line") might be it. As we head into the final season, I would expect at least some sort of emphasis on the crew's contact with the Alpha Quadrant. As such, many of the seeds are planted in "Pathfinder," in which Lt. Barclay masterminds a crazy plan to contact Voyager in the Delta Quadrant using experimental methods. This premise supplies a compelling backdrop for a brilliantly acted character study focusing on Barclay's loneliness and his comforting but nonproductive escapes into the holodeck, where he has made friends with holodeck simulations of the Voyager crew. Perhaps never before has Barclay (or any Trek character) seemed so emotionally isolated, and I found myself caring about this guest character more than any other Voyager regular the rest of the season (which is perhaps a commentary on this episode as well as the series). Dwight Schultz is terrific with the constant verbal fumbling, and creates a complete character out of what could've come across as a stunt performance. In the end, Voyager gets its first synchronous conversation with the Alpha Quadrant, showing that crazy, unpopular ideas sometimes pay off.
Fair Haven — Air date: 1/12/2000. Written by Robin Burger. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
When I originally reviewed "Fair Haven," I said I was conflicted over how the story treated the arguments about holograms as artificial people. A little over a month after I wrote that review, a sequel episode called "Spirit Folk" came along and made up my mind for me: This is all a very bad idea, and I want no more of it. Holodeck characters are not people (and "Life Line" basically argued this point as well). A possible argument one could make is that it's a special situation for Voyager because they're alone in the middle of nowhere and might be more likely to turn to holograms for relationships (as Janeway does here). Let me hasten to remind that no other issue regarding Voyager's isolation has ever really been taken seriously, including the ones that really deserved to be. So why in the world start with the holodeck? Anyway, this episode is still mediocre Trek romance stuff. There's not much in terms of chemistry between Janeway and holo-boyfriend Michael, and the setting of Fair Haven (read: Hollywood backlot), while handsomely constructed, is simply not very imaginative. Essentially shore-leave filler.
Blink of an Eye — Air date: 1/19/2000. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Michael Taylor. Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont.
"Blink" is good, solid sci-fi. And more than that, it's sci-fi that's framed in terms of a culture and history. The premise of Voyager stuck in orbit around a planet where time is accelerated is a neat idea. It bears resemblance to the TOS episode "Wink of an Eye," but is much smarter; we see the actual impact this strange light in the sky has on this world's mythos, as the society evolves from primitive to technological. The eerie scene of the astronauts' historic first visit to the "Sky Ship" is filled with wonder and awe. There are some quirks in terms of time passage being flexible for the plot, but nothing too severe. Also, some weak guest performances mar what could've been more powerful scenes. And if there's a scene that everyone involved in making this show should've realized didn't fit and should've been cut, it's the casually established throwaway notion that Doc had a lover and began raising a son while on his three-year away mission, which could've been an entire episode on its own! Ah, well. This is a thoughtful, involving tale nonetheless.
Virtuoso — Air date: 1/26/2000. Teleplay by Raf Green and Kenneth Biller. Story by Raf Green. Directed by Les Landau.
Here's a mediocre episode that had the potential to be much better. Picardo can carry just about any material given to him and make it watchable, but when he's surrounded by weak guest stars that undermine the scenes, it's just not going to work. Too bad, because there's stuff here that's fun, like Doc distributing mini-holo-recordings of his singing performances. His final performance and then the "improvement" travesty that follows him comprise a really good sequence that's simultaneously funny and sad. Alas, the good moments are sandwiched between scenes that fall flat, especially the laughable "one plus one" scene, which is ostensibly a crucial turning point in the story that truly doesn't work. Doc's naivete is forced, and Janeway is right: He should know better than to expect that people as selfish as the Qomar (who are pretty annoying by concept) won't drop him as soon as something new comes along. Also, the thinly guised commentary on fandom didn't do much for me; Mulgrew's delivery of the sentiment seemed way too smugly cute, and Seven isn't so naive as to need the explanation anyway.
Memorial — Air date: 2/2/2000. Teleplay by Robin Burger. Story by Brannon Braga. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
"Memorial" is in the spirit of Classic Trekkian Message Shows, and as such it works pretty well. Subtle? Don't count on it. There's no mistaking the point here, because the creators aren't going to let you escape the hour without making you understand (even if it means use of a sledgehammer where only an open backhand was necessary). There's a certain visual and psychological intensity that's effective here; the flashback sequences, repressed in our characters' memories, feel like distant nightmares. When the mystery is solved, those psychological visuals are all the more haunting, because we see the remains of the massacre centuries after the fact, in what just moments ago seemed to be happening for our characters. The first shot of the monument is a powerful one because of good timing that coincides with our realizations. Unfortunately, the creators don't trust their audience enough to get the message even when it's obvious. The exposition scene in astrometrics ("It's a memorial." No kidding?) is totally unnecessary. The crew's arguments that follow are intriguing but seem somewhat unfinished, and the final decision grows a bit too much out of a Janeway Mandate.
Tsunkatse — Air date: 2/9/2000. Teleplay by Robert Doherty. Story by Gannon Kenney. Directed by Mike Vejar.
It's Seven of Nine, arena fighting, and The Rock. Do I smell a "Smackdown" ratings stunt? But this is one that ends up being surprisingly entertaining considering how the previews had me prepared for the worst. In a way, this is a perfect example of what Voyager honestly wants to be: safe, appealing to the masses, simple on the intellect scale, full of marketable action, and easy to play in the promos. And as basic entertainment it works fairly well. Despite the fact the plot is formulaic and predictable. And our crew is wearing blinders. And the ending, in which Seven's Big Choice is rendered moot by a contrivance, undercuts any drama that there was left here. But effective guest performances by Jeffrey Combs and J.G. Hertzler help the simple story along. (Tell you what: If you want arena combat, go see Gladiator. Its story may not be great either, but at least it's sold with conviction.) Earns bonus points for being promoted via Trek's most outlandish trailer of all time.
Collective — Air date: 2/16/2000. Teleplay by Michael Taylor. Story by Andrew Shepard Price & Mark Gaberman. Directed by Allison Liddi.
"Collective" is little more than an excuse to bring aboard the four (five?) Borg children for use in subsequent episodes. On that level I suppose it's a success, though I must again ask what happened to the infant (at this point I'm guessing it died off-screen, but never mind). On its own, this really isn't much in terms of a compelling story. It's a hodgepodge of hostage negotiation, conflict between neo-natal Borg drones, and technobabble. It's lacking in energy and interest, and the actor who plays the First (Ryan Spahn) is not very credible as a Borg. Jeri Ryan's performance puts these other Borg characters to shame, though it's perhaps not fair to compare since she's so much more experienced. There are some hints that this is a story about the assertion of authority, but it's pretty muddled within the confines of plotting and hazy Borg rules. The final act falls apart; the hostage crisis is resolved largely with meaningless tech exposition while the Borg conflict on the cube suffers from clunky execution.
Spirit Folk — Air date: 2/23/2000. Written by Bryan Fuller. Directed by David Livingston.
Bleah. The chaos-filled, very mad, bad plot of "Spirit Folk" is essentially a string of horrid, unbearably contrived holodeck clichés, featuring an underlying premise that shouldn't even exist in the first place. After "Fair Haven" made me question the wisdom of having characters taking holographic situations so seriously, "Spirit Folk" had the gall to ask me to accept that the captain is going to risk the lives of two of her crew rather than shut down a simulation. And why? Because we don't want to reset a malfunctioning holodeck simulation to which our characters have grown soooooo attached. Please. (Ironically, this sort of reset is exactly what happens to the real Voyager characters in between nearly every episode, so what's the big deal?) The plot takes great liberty with holodeck technology and basic common sense, and by "great liberty" I mean that it's all a load of crap. And, of course, all the characters are required to be hopelessly stupid in order to fulfill the ridiculous demands of the plot. Just be thankful that this was the last we saw of Fair Haven. Hopefully that will be the case for next year as well, assuming we continue in the tradition of one holodeck theme per year.
Ashes to Ashes — Air date: 3/1/2000. Teleplay by Robert Doherty. Story by Ronald Wilkerson. Directed by Terry Windell.
It's another good example of throwing continuity to the wind, but I'll be a nice reviewer and ignore the fact that there are dozens of lines of dialog here that technically don't track with what came before. What I'm more concerned with is whether or not the reappearance (read: invented and retro-inserted into history) of the dead Lyndsey Ballard is played for any good emotional content. Actually, it is—sort of. Ballard's weird situation of choosing a life path is worth empathizing with, even if contrived (she travels for six months to find Voyager only to ultimately change her mind in a seemingly 15-minute period) and firmly established in formula (Second Chances and the New Lease on Life). And we get Harry used reasonably in what is perhaps his season's most notable role. Forget about logic, which would require Ballard to travel probably 40,000-some light-years in six months—but, again, say it with me and the Voyager writers: "Continuity doesn't matter." On its terms it's an okay show that doesn't quite take off. The B-story with the Borg kids is fun.
Child's Play — Air date: 3/8/2000. Teleplay by Raf Green. Story by Paul Brown. Directed by Mike Vejar.
Another thing this series tends to do is overuse the Voyager Action Insert. Wanna see something blow up? Well, you're gonna even if you don't. In this case, it's a Borg sphere; the last act is sound and fury that—while admittedly workable in terms of the overall story ultimately being told—isn't a natural outgrowth of the story we started with. I have nothing against twists and turns that are entertaining, but when they seem to be cheating the audience, I get a bit more resistant. Specifically, we have a quiet little tale about Icheb returning to his parents, which near the end is suddenly turned into a more sinister plot about how he was manufactured as a time bomb to infect the Borg. Fine and good, and not of disinterest, but I'm uneasy about how the story forces us to question the way Icheb's parents are initially so sympathetic and sincere. It seems dictated more by marketing than by characters. Still, "Child's Play" works because it does deal with the emotions it puts forth—even the ones that arrive at the last minute. And it does so with good acting and (usually) patient storytelling.
Good Shepherd — Air date: 3/15/2000. Teleplay by Dianna Gitto & Joe Menosky. Story by Dianna Gitto. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
The strange aliens in this outing are 100 percent McGuffin. This just goes to show that episodes that feature routine (or unspecified, as in this case) sci-fi plotlines are only as good as their characters and dialog. As such, this episode works because it simply takes three unknown crewmen and the captain, and puts them in the middle of a crisis and watches how they react to it. More specifically, it's a good examination of unconventional (for Voyager) personalities and how they mesh with one another. We've got a character full of cynicism, one full of self-doubt, and one who's a paranoid hypochondriac—all who are at the bottom of the chain of command. Put these three into a pressure cooker and give them some good dialog and you've got yourself an episode that works. It's not a breakout show, but it does well painting its characters as people (until the abrupt ending, which unfortunately short-changes everybody).
Live Fast and Prosper — Air date: 4/19/2000. Written by Robin Burger. Directed by LeVar Burton.
Here's a neutral episode that just didn't really do much of anything for me, for good or ill. The premise of "interstellar con artists" is potentially fun, but the story just never takes off. A big problem is the gullibility of the aliens who get conned, which turns into viewer frustration when we have to put up with long scenes of misunderstanding where the Voyager characters are accused of theft by stubborn, bone-headed alien characters who really need to be told to take this nickel and go buy a clue. Mayhem that should be fun—like when the con artists, Voyager, and a recently conned third party all end up meeting at the same time—is instead clumsily executed in a way that makes no one look particularly smart. There are a few clever twists here that toy with our expectations while also illustrating just how often crew incompetence has been used to move a Voyager plot from A to B. It's an interesting dilemma: Robin Burger's script is more clever than any of the characters in it really can be.
Muse — Air date: 4/26/2000. Written by Joe Menosky. Directed by Mike Vejar.
"Muse" is like Voyager Opposite Day. It's a slow and cerebral outing in a universe typically determined to deliver the fast and simple. As such, it's a refreshing change of pace. What we have here is essentially a play within a play. But the inner-play is a sly reflection upon the outer-play, which breaks down the "fourth wall" in some intriguing ways. Through this clever device, we have scenes that shed a great deal of light on the writing process, acknowledging through the poet's struggle—and with an ironic awareness—the basic story devices that the series itself often employs to get the job done ... ranging from audience manipulation to contrivance to the idea of giving the crowd what it wants. (At one point, an old poet tells the younger poet to "find the truth" of his story.) Perhaps something worth saying that I didn't mention before was explained to me in Menosky's follow-up e-mail to my review of this episode: One intent of "Muse" was also to show that the playwright isn't simply writing a play, but essentially writing his own Star Trek episode, highlighting many of the usual Roddenberry themes (like the nonviolent solution "Janeway" uses in the play when confronting "Seven" as the Borg Queen). And so it is. I suppose this makes "Muse" the Voyager equivalent of Homicide's "The Documentary," in which the detectives chased a suspect into the middle of a cop-show filming crew, where they then met Barry Levinson. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about, press onward and pay no mind.)
Fury — Air date: 5/3/2000. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Michael Taylor. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by John Bruno.
Kes comes back real mad, travels back in time, and attempts to deliver the Voyager crew into the hands of some nasty Vidiians. Why? Well, that's the problem—the rationale is poorly conceived to say the least. Kes' rage isn't the slightest bit believable or worth caring about, so with the most important aspect of the story promptly thrown away, all that remains is a mechanical time-travel plot and a slew of pointless special-effects scenes that aren't worth caring about either. The time travel makes less sense than usual, creating a paradox where the characters (especially "good" Kes) are aware of the paradox, and yet we're supposed to believe that given this knowledge everything plays out the same way between five-plus years ago and the day Kes leaves (and then three years later when she returns). Oh, come on. The ending is a 180 of arbitrary characterization piled upon another 180. I hope Jennifer Lien at least got paid well.
Life Line — Air date: 5/10/2000. Teleplay by Robert Doherty & Raf Green and Brannon Braga. Story by John Bruno & Robert Picardo. Directed by Terry Windell.
Picardo times two seems like a recipe for success, and in "Life Line" that proves to be the case. Doc meets Zimmerman thanks to his program being transmitted to the Alpha Quadrant. The result is an hour of well-written banter and fun dialog ("Computer, deactivate iguana." "How dare you!"), but with also a solid character story underneath it all. Picardo creates Zimmerman's character in a manner that's both similar and different from Doc in subtle and believable ways. Zimmerman's personal problem runs deep in ways that prove to be worth a good deal of our sympathy. The story brings back Barclay and Troi and puts them to good use as supporting characters. Also of note is Haley (Tamera Craig Thomas), a hologram who turns out to be an important little part of the story. The episode is a perfect example of how to use FX as a narrative means, rather than abusing FX for the sake of themselves: Picardo acts alongside himself in scenes of seamless convincingness. This episode also gives me hope that the writers are thinking ahead about issues regarding Voyager's possible return to the Alpha Quadrant, as evidenced by Admiral Hayes' ominous inquiry about the Maquis.
The Haunting of Deck Twelve — Air date: 5/17/2000. Teleplay by Mike Sussman and Kenneth Biller & Bryan Fuller. Story by Mike Sussman. Directed by David Livingston.
Zzzzzzzz. I find it hard to believe the producers signed off on a story that can be encapsulated, "A technobabble lifeform seizes control of the ship and gives ultimatums through the computer while the characters wander aimlessly through the darkness, performing mundane tasks and occasionally being attacked by noxious nebular gas." (Okay, maybe it was pitched with a little more conviction.) Fortunately, the narrative framing device of "Neelix's scary story" occasionally alleviates the plot boredom with some moments of mirth. And David Livingston does what he can with some director's techniques. But it's not nearly enough to make an interesting story out of relentlessly uninteresting events.
Unimatrix Zero, Part I — Air date: 5/24/2000. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Mike Sussman. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
All setup and no payoff characterizes yet another Borg-oriented season-ending cliffhanger, but a cliffhanger that works on its bottom line—entertainment value. The Borg have been twisted into a new version that doesn't seem to resemble the Borg that once were (the collective voice is not even heard once in the course of this episode). The Borg Queen is revealed here as having no purpose beyond serving as a narrative tool for the audience. But as a story it still manages to work, so I'm not going to dwell on the plausibility issue. The story brilliantly establishes the new idea of a "Borg virtual reality" where drones exist as individuals, and hints at the possibility of a Borg civil war (if we're going to keep using the Borg, these issues are where the gold lies). Seven's personal stake in the VR world, where she once existed, is put on hold. The twist is that Janeway, Tuvok, and Torres get assimilated, and that it's part of the plan. Yes, these people are clearly insane. I'll reserve judgment until part two; until then, what we have here is a reasonably engaging hour of sci-fi with some promise (as well as the potential for pratfall). The Borg may seem like a crutch, but they can still be used in effective stories.
Part 2: Season Analysis
Possibly the best way I can sum up my feelings based on what I saw in Voyager's sixth season is to say that I was tempted to open my fifth-season year-in-review commentary file and copy-and-paste the text into this space. Of course, I won't take that easy way out; I have plenty to say, even if the main points are largely the same as they were a year ago. My feelings on Voyager have changed little in the last year, though they've perhaps intensified significantly in some ways.
Am I satisfied with Voyager? Not even close. Will I ever be? Doubt it. (After all, there's only one year left to make up for six seasons of meandering.) This series has had time to stake its claim in the Trek universe for six seasons now, which is longer than most television series can even hope to run. Of course, a year ago I could've guessed that we'd be exactly where we are now. In fact, I did—as far as I'm concerned, season six has become exactly what I predicted it would be: "Season Five, Part II," which is also equivalent to "Season Four, Part III." With the reintroduction of the Borg and the addition of Seven of Nine, season four was the biggest turning point in this series from a creative standpoint (even though there weren't massive changes in story attitude). I wasn't truly satisfied with season four either, but in looking at things now, I see that it probably represents the high point for Voyager as a series in terms of looking for a purpose. It had an interesting new character and interesting things to say about her. It was venturing in some new directions. Seven of Nine was growing, exhibiting goals the writers had supplied her. Now, almost three years later, it seems we've reached the point of exhaustion again. Sure, there were certainly some high points and worthwhile stories this season, without a doubt. But in terms of this series staking out any coherent direction whatsoever, it's just not happening. At all.
Voyager seems like it's waiting around for something and just burning time in the interim (albeit sometimes entertainingly). I guess that goes back to the original problem with Voyager, the problem that will continue to haunt it until either the series ends or the crew gets home, whichever comes first: the fact that the creators chose to blatantly ignore the most potentially compelling and believable aspects of their series, namely the whole idea of Voyager being on its own outside the Starfleet system. Should I bother discussing this again? You know how it goes: Voyager is alone with a crew that once was split down the middle, so it should exhibit its own unique flavor and personality and not simply be a rehash of past Trek series transplanted to an area where we get "new aliens." I've said it before and I'll say it again: Assuming you want to see something new in your Star Trek (and maybe you don't, but then what's the point?), what's more interesting—the idea of a crew having to change and adapt to a new environment, or the idea that doing business as usual in an unknown wilderness will get you by just as easily as it did back home?
One needs to look no further than this season's premiere, "Equinox, Part II," which dealt with the very issues I'm referring to. Captain Ransom and his bunch were a desperate group of people who were dirty, tired, hungry, pushed to their limits, and therefore changed. Right or wrong, they broke Starfleet's moral rules because they felt they had to. They were backed into a corner, a stark contrast to Voyager. But once "Equinox" ends, we're snapped back into reality, or rather Voyager unreality, where such issues simply do not exist. "Equinox" proves that the Voyager creators know these issues exist in some form and that they're worth exploring, but because it exists independent of everything else, all "Equinox" does is highlight the road not taken by the series. I'm not saying that Voyager as a series ever had to be as dark as "Equinox," or even close, but they could've examined these issues in ways that gave this series its own flavor. Challenge the Starfleet code as we know it. But it never happens. Voyager is content to be TOS or TNG revisited, and it tells very few stories that couldn't have been told on those previous series. Again, it ignores its main premise and wants to live in a universe with which we're familiar—too familiar. It tries to tell us new things, but it goes about it in the most difficult way—by using the old formula, rather than adjusting the formula to facilitate the creation of new stories.
Of course, this is nothing I haven't said before, possibly ad nauseam. Perhaps I should focus on something that isn't about the series' original premise. After all, why continue to cling to old issues that have long since been abandoned? Why not look at the series based on what it is today? Well, okay. I can try to do that.
So what is Voyager? Well, it's not a series. (In most cases, the only thing that makes it a series is the fact that it uses the same cast every week.) The creators go out of their way to ensure that each story is a self-contained little adventure. In this series' ideal world, a show written two years ago could just as easily be written next week and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. What the show wants to be, in a very conscious and deliberate way, is a collection of "one-hour TV movies." I doubt any of the show's producers would argue with that assessment. Clearly, their hope is that any average Joe can on any week of the year tune into Voyager, understand what's going on, and be entertained for an hour, whether they've seen 100 other episodes, or none. Does this work for such a person? Are they honestly entertained? I honestly can't say. I've seen every hour of Voyager since it premiered in 1995. I couldn't tell you what the casual viewer (or non-viewer) thinks of the series (maybe they're entertained, maybe they're not), except that, yes, they probably would understand it. The creators usually keep the stories so simple that, hell, what's there not to understand (aside from technobabble and gaffes in logic, naturally)?
Personally, I think the Voyager writers too often grossly underestimate the intelligence of their audience (given the general attitude the series generally holds, it's almost amazing that an episode as patient as "Muse" could be made). They evidently don't think we can follow a story if it contains continuity, and they usually prefer to offer stories with explicit answers and simple payoffs. Something Ron Moore said in his now-infamous interview really stuck with me. He said: "The audience has watched television for a long time. They understand that they have missed some things, that perhaps this is a reference to a show that they didn't see. They aren't just going to throw up their hands and move on. If you are pre-supposing that, you are aiming towards the person that is grabbing a beer, and isn't really paying attention, and is walking out of the room every 10 minutes and coming back and sitting down; all you are going to do is dumb down the show. You are reducing it to its lowest common denominator, and what's the point of that?" I agree. I want to be challenged, not assumed as an idiot. There are millions of people watching shows like ER that maintain season-long character continuity, and shows like Law & Order with tricky moral grey areas and complicated legal dialog. If we're watching these shows in great numbers and apparently liking them, then it's safe to conclude we understand them and are not stupid.
But anyway. I guess the question is whether or not the concept of "one-hour movies" works in practice. As the answer always is: sometimes yes, sometimes no. But in terms of a SERIES that holds any water, the answer is, well ... no. In order for a series like this to feel like it's going anywhere, there has to be some sense of direction and progress. What can you point to in Voyager's sixth season that signals any sort of progress for anyone?
To be fair, I can actually think of a couple things. Most notably is Barclay contacting the Voyager crew in one of the season's best offerings, "Pathfinder." This is a plot advancement that also later played into "Life Line," and there's virtually no doubt now that contact with the Alpha Quadrant will play into the final season. It was a good choice to wait until season six to finally make this major breakthrough—and also a good idea to wait until late in the season to follow it up with even more progress ("Life Line"), namely the discovery that there will be monthly data transfers possible between Voyager and the Alpha Quadrant. Interestingly, the only common theme (take note: the Borg are not a theme) woven into the fabric of the series is the notion of the crew getting home. This seems natural, but since getting home is something reserved for near the end of the show's run (assuming at all), the writers owe us better use of themes that are based in the Delta Quadrant, where the series is set. Not surprisingly, it's exactly this aspect of the series that is woefully lacking. (It's probably been years since we had any sense that the crew was exploring a completely foreign area. They all seem like the Delta Quadrant is "been here, done this" and that they'll probably get home in a year; they certainly don't seem to think it will actually take 30.)
Another thing that comes to mind concerning progress this season is Torres coming to grips with herself in "Barge of the Dead," a powerful story about personal struggle and ultimately the progress that comes in overcoming it. Unfortunately, this is the sort of progress that Voyager ultimately doesn't get right, because we get the allegation of such progress, but no subsequent evidence of it. Torres has changed, you say? Well, prove it. Show me that she is different somehow after "Barge of the Dead." Show me that she has embraced herself and the culture she has shunned for so long. Nope. As far as Torres' character is concerned, every episode after "Barge" might as well be interchangeable with every episode before it, and that's a waste.
Which brings me to this year's main theme for the Jammer Voyager Commentary: the season's almost complete disregard for character development. Being the "one-hour movie" show that it is, this series has rarely emphasized complex, growing characters, this season or otherwise. But in the past it at least tried to give the characters something to do a few times each season—something based on personality or character insight. (The most noteworthy and useful example was of course the ongoing Janeway/Seven turmoil of season four.) This season, however, seems to have even further abandoned several characters, giving them even less to do than usual. The year's biggest victim: resident Vulcan Lt. Cmdr. Tuvok. Last year he at least had "Gravity," which looked into his past and some Vulcan subtleties. In season six, Tuvok was virtually nonexistent, except in the most superficial of ways. He's mostly the guy who stands at his post on the bridge and utters lines about phasers and shields. That's a waste of Tim Russ. It's also a waste to give him one pointless reset-button episode called "Riddles" in which he's basically playing the central role of "Flowers for Algernon" in reverse. This guy was interesting back in season one, when he was Janeway's confidant and made big decisions in shows like "Prime Factors." Now he's a cipher. It's appalling.
The same goes for Chakotay. Aside from "Equinox" and "Unimatrix Zero," where he was playing his usual supporter/non-supporter role opposite Janeway, Chakotay's most notable exhibition of any sort of sentient existence was probably in "One Small Step," where he showed his interest in history and taught Seven a lesson about its importance. Other than that, Beltran has been relegated to the status of a gratuitous walk-on whose dialog could've been given to anyone.
Now, I hate to sound harsh and beat a dead horse, but what Voyager has forgotten (or perhaps never understood) is that characters can indeed be more than devices to expel dialog that advances the plot. They can have personalities and opinions, attitudes and beliefs, personal obstacles and goals. Especially goals. Voyager needs more concrete goals for its characters beyond Solving This Week's Plot™. Throwing in vignettes of personality here and there is nice, but if it they aren't consistent and don't add up to anything in the long run, they really aren't contributing to the larger canvas, are they?
A perfect example of this problem reveals itself in "Unimatrix Zero" when Paris is promoted from ensign back to lieutenant. I must ask: Why? What's the dramatic reason for this promotion? Why Paris and not also Kim? We haven't seen anything representative of Paris making the captain particularly proud. (If anything, he's been as neglected as Tuvok or Chakotay, and the limit of his character depth has been established through his mid-20th-century TV watching and whatever we were supposed to get out of "Alice.") At the same time, are we to assume that six-year-ensign Harry Kim has just been a slacker? Or maybe that he's still being punished for having illegal sex? I mean, what, if anything, does this mean? When character points are arbitrary, they're not interesting—or worse, they undermine themselves because they have us simply scratching our heads. We need to have a reason to care.
Interestingly, the one character that actually had a bit of a turnaround and benefited from this season was Neelix. He still may not have much of a plausible purpose (I don't buy him as an ambassador for a minute), but the stories seemed to make an effort to give Ethan Phillips more to chew on, like his believable historical research in "Dragon's Teeth" or his attempts to help Tuvok in "Riddles" (misguided as that episode was) or even the not-unreasonable idea of telling stories to kids in "Haunting of Deck Twelve." (Although, seeing as I rated each of these episodes at two stars or lower, maybe this is faint praise. So it goes.)
Is it any surprise that the season's best episodes—"Barge of the Dead," "Pathfinder," "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy," "Life Line"—were shows that actually focused on characters and gave them problems that we as people could understand? It may perhaps be of some irony that two of these shows focused on guest characters rather than regulars (Barclay in "Pathfinder" and Zimmerman in "Life Line") and two of them were Doc-oriented ("Tinker Tenor" and "Life Line"). This may be why I have a particular soft spot for "Barge"—it's an episode that has sympathy for one of the show's regulars who doesn't also double as one of the obvious stars of the series. In other words, it's not about Seven, the Doctor, or (to a lesser extent) Janeway. There's also "Muse," which was less about characters than pure storytelling (and full of irony given its subject matter), but it still gave most of the hour to Torres, which is rare, though thankfully not as rare as a lot of the other characters, who seem positively abandoned these days.
Which brings us to another thing I see as a current problem on Voyager: the blatant overuse of Seven of Nine. I didn't mind it in season four when she got so much attention; after all, she was new and fresh. But now it's become almost ridiculous how often the writers fall back on Seven as what is increasingly bearing the resemblance of a crutch. Seven and the Doc are of course easier to write sci-fi stories about, since they're sci-fi characters by nature. But what about these other people? It's almost as if the writers are uncomfortable writing about them, or just don't care. Tuvok? Chakotay? Kim? Paris? Who? The Seven Spotlight really began to tire this season, and even her character is showing signs of wearing thin, repeating lessons rather than learning from them.
What Voyager reveals itself as is a series that's all about plots. Not characters. This would be okay if enough of the plots worked as well as, say, "One Small Step" (which was about the concept of real exploration) or had something to say like "Memorial" (which supplied a classic Trek message narrative). But when we get by-the-numbers sci-fi stories like "Alice" or "Haunting of Deck Twelve"; or mark-missing action-oriented messes like "Dragon's Teeth" or "Collective"; or concepts that willfully throw logic to the wind like "Voyager Conspiracy," "Spirit Folk," or "Fury," then it's harder to take these plots on their dubious terms. And, of course, there's blatant disregard of basic elements of the series like in "Ashes to Ashes" or "Fury," which seem to make the Delta Quadrant the size of your average backyard, where ships can travel 40 or 50 thousand light-years in six months. Even "Pathfinder" couldn't seem to get the geography right, operating under the assumption that Voyager was 60,000 light-years out. Do none of the writers know or care about the distance remaining on this trip? If not, why have we bothered making all these jumps?
I'm not a nitpicker and can overlook these things sometimes. But by being strictly about plot, the show becomes dangerously process oriented. And Star Trek—and sci-fi in general—should not be about a process. Shows like Law & Order can do stand-alone stories that follow the mechanical formula of a plot presiding over its characters, because they're about a process; that's the point. Sci-fi is about imagination, characters, dialog, and possibilities. When it becomes an "action" process, the point is lost. Voyager, in several cases this year, has walked perilously close to becoming a series about a bland process, and not about interesting sci-fi stories.
As a side effect of becoming process-oriented "action," we get a symptom of over-reliance on those action scenes and twists, which is that the series just plain lacks conviction. We don't believe the suspense because not even the characters seem to believe there's any real danger lurking out there. I provide the example of "Unimatrix Zero," where three characters get assimilated on purpose. Granted, we don't know how this will play out, but any plot where characters dive into a situation knowing they're going to be surgically mutilated and connected to a hive mind is a plot where the characters must be as aware of the Reset Button as we in the audience are. The illusion breaks down and all suspense is lost. The same goes with having battles every week with no dramatic point or consequences. I'm not saying that we have to see every crisis followed up and all damage to the ship logged and referenced in some subsequent episode—not at all. But what I am saying is that Voyager action is boring precisely because it's overused to the point of routine (camera shakes, people lurch, circuits explode, etc.). It loses its impact and seems gratuitously inserted for the purposes of having a way to market the episode in the promos. (Marketing itself seems to be a possible problem behind all these problems. The studio appears so concerned with mandating safe formulas and avoiding risks that might "alienate" their audience that they've forgotten that maybe people are still willing to watch a show because it's good, not because it's demographic-friendly.)
Now, I certainly don't mean to say this series is all bad, because it's not. Really. Accepted on its terms, considering each show independently—which is what, if I listen to the creators, is what I'm "supposed" to do—then the shows improve somewhat. And by the virtues of direction, solid regular cast (albeit a not-so-great guest cast) and first-rate production values (Voyager is possibly the best-looking and best-produced sci-fi on television in terms of visuals and art direction) this series manages to create a believable-feeling, fast-paced universe stylistically and atmospherically, even though the stories don't always live up to the technical skill. Like last year, I'll note the paradox that I find this show more enjoyable considered in isolated slices—if I allow myself to forget that everything that comes before and after doesn't matter—but thinking about it later leaves a bitter taste because I realize that very seldom does anything lead out of anywhere or into anything. The starship doesn't have the necessary ostensible purpose beyond the real one that we're not supposed to be thinking about: that they exist purely as a diversion for us.
Still, if you're talking in terms of straight-up story quality, I propose that it could be much worse than it is, simply by juxtaposing this season of Voyager with this season of The X-Files, which has become an unwatchable travesty of laughably ill-conceived plots, bad comedy and self-parody that sinks like a brick, and boring "larger themes" that are so ridiculously tired and muddled beyond any sensibility for intrigue that it makes Voyager look solid and well-thought-out by comparison. (But I digress.) It seems to me that the Voyager creators, by treating every episode on its own and starting from ground zero every week, perhaps have stacked the deck against themselves by making their jobs harder than they should be, yet somehow manage to work within those confines anyway. Why they do it is beyond me, but they deserve some sort of credit for attempting the impossible, I guess.
Or maybe not. I'm sorry, but the approach we get to storytelling on Voyager doesn't cut it. It's a series whose message is essentially "nothing really matters, so just enjoy yourself." And in the meantime we get some good episodes, some bad episodes, and a lot of mediocre episodes. A steady diet of mediocre makes it a little harder to enjoy oneself. And if while we're watching, none of it convinces us that it matters, who honestly cares? There's the key problem.
Voyager's sixth season also marks the departure of two veteran Trek writer/producers in Ron Moore (who left after three episodes last summer under unhappy circumstances) and Joe Menosky (who will not be returning to staff next season except possibly for the cliffhanger resolution). Both these guys have been known to track fan opinion on our niche out here on the Internet, and for that I'm glad. Personally, I'd also like to thank Menosky for letting me rend his ear from time to time and for inviting me out to the studio this past March.
Looking ahead to season seven, and trying to offer a little bit of optimism to counter my dwelling on the negatives, I'll close with a positive sentiment: Since Voyager is in fact heading into its last season and the creators know this, they might be motivated to deal intelligently with the issue of Voyager returning to the Alpha Quadrant. Touches like Admiral Hayes' curiosity about the Maquis in "Life Line" give me a glimmer of hope for a season that, if not for the expectation of Voyager returning home, I would write off as doomed by precedent to become "Season Four, Part IV." We may have given up on the Delta Quadrant, but there's still quite a bit of potential here in going back to the Alpha Quadrant. Voyager's track record doesn't have me enthused, but hope springs eternal. Heck, they'd better do something, dammit.
I'll see you this fall for Voyager's final season. Hopefully, it won't suck. Maybe it'll even be good. Until then, ciao.