In brief: A competent job of doing primarily Voyager business as usual, featuring an ending that goes out more with a routine whimper than a risky bang.
And, one last time, here it is in annual summer-tradition style — the Voyager season roundup, rehash, and all-around recap-and-commentary article. It's the most comprehensive overall look at Voyager I'll make this year, and the last official Jammer Review for Voyager I'll probably ever be posting. How did season seven fare? What was done well? What was FUBAR? Read on to find out. As usual, part one has a short review of each episode; part two has the general commentary on the Big Picture. Fasten your seat belts, because this jet is taking off...
Part 1: Capsule Reviews
Unimatrix Zero, Part II — Air date: 10/4/2000. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Story by Mike Sussman and Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Mike Vejar.
Much like the final episode, the season's premiere is a good example of the Voyager legacy — beautifully produced action-adventure TV without the logic, freshness, or character insight to make a true lasting impact. There are so many plot absurdities here they're hard to count, the most egregious being the way the crew go undercover to be willfully assimilated/mutilated by the Borg, something that's dismissed outright in comic-book terms. Meanwhile, the Borg have basically been reduced to routine street thugs, featuring a Queen who serves no purpose beyond that of a narrative tool, and a network with worse security than Windows 95. The most interesting aspect of the episode — that of a civil war that will "change the Borg forever" — is rendered obsolete by the lack of any consequences as demonstrated in "Endgame," so I'm not so sure what we're supposed to take from the BS-laden "Unimatrix Zero" other than another hour of impressive production design and admittedly well-staged action.
Imperfection — Air date: 10/11/2000. Teleplay by Carleton Eastlake and Robert Doherty. Story by Andre Bormanis. Directed by David Livingston.
A key component in Seven's brain begins shutting down, and the result is a sincere and well-acted terminal illness allegory. Yes, Seven's Quest For Humanity is pretty much a Voyager cliché by this point, but there's a good reason the writers keep going back to it, which is that these stories are relatable to real life. The performances are good — particularly a notably understated turn by Manu Intiraymi as Icheb — and so is the dialog, including a scene where Seven and Icheb discuss dependence vs. independence, and another where Seven and Torres discuss the possibility of an afterlife. The encounter with Hard-Headed Aliens and the resulting chase through the junkyard is yet another gratuitous Voyager Action Insert, but so it goes.
Drive — Air date: 10/18/2000. Written by Michael Taylor. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
It's the first in what would be a season-long family arc for Torres and Paris, one that I personally found quite gratifying. After years of virtually ignoring the relationship, the writers decide to finally tackle this couple head-on and put them at the most crucial juncture of their relationship to date. The result is a marriage that would be aptly revisited several times later in the season. Larger consequences aside, "Drive" is almost too by-the-numbers, with a thin and predictable subplot about the attempted sabotage of a peacekeeping racing event. Harry Kim figures into this subplot in a way that only reinforces how much of a gullible goof he is, as if the writers are underlining his chumpiness intentionally.
Repression — Air date: 10/25/2000. Teleplay by Mark Haskell Smith. Story by Kenneth Biller. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
In one of the most woefully contrived and pointless plot exercises in recent memory, Tuvok becomes the instrument of a Maquis mutiny orchestrated from the Alpha Quadrant, for crying out loud. It begins as a halfway plausible Tuvokian investigation, but then quickly degenerates into a ridiculous mess that wants to pretend the writers actually care about the Maquis storyline, long ago abandoned. Teero, the Bajoran guy pulling the strings from afar, has absolutely no useful or believable motive to instigate a mutiny on Voyager. None. The fact that Tuvok could be mind programmed seven years earlier to be Teero's unwitting pawn is way beyond implausible. The Vulcan mind meld is used here in spectacularly absurd ways, to essentially reprogram former-Maquis crew members to "help them remember" where their loyalties lie. Do I even have to mention that all of this is resolved in the magically inane final five minutes with absolutely zero consequences whatsoever? Ugh.
Critical Care — Air date: 11/1/2000. Teleplay by James Kahn. Story by Kenneth Biller & Robert Doherty. Directed by Terry Windell.
In another of the Voyager writers' somewhat rare attempts to tackle a social issue, the Doctor is kidnapped to an alien hospital that uses twisted ethics and prioritizing for determining the treatment of its patients. A good but not great social commentary, "Critical Care" does a good job showing the bureaucratic absurdity of HMO-type organizations, and has an ice-cold pragmatic system that places value on life in terms of an individual's overall perceived worth to society. The episode has a lot of good individual moments and points, although the ending seems somewhat unsatisfying and uninformative, reducing the whole problem of a society down to the hospital administrator, who is put through the somewhat obvious irony of becoming a patient in his own hospital. Though an overall solid effort, the story doesn't tackle with much insight the issue of whether the larger problems presented here are or aren't fixable.
Inside Man — Air date: 11/8/2000. Written by Robert Doherty. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
After our visits to the Alpha Quadrant twice last season in "Pathfinder" and "Life Line," both with excellent results, this third outing with Barclay & Co. is a major disappointment of wasted potential and uninspired storytelling. The episode boils down to a Ferengi plot to use the Pathfinder array to trick Voyager into venturing through a spatial anomaly so the Ferengi can get their hands on Seven's nanoprobes and sell them for huge profit. Yes. The use of Barclay this time around is, at best, a rehash of certain issues in "Pathfinder," and, at worst, the writers making fun of him instead of sympathizing with him. Meanwhile, we've got the whole issue of the Voyager crew being manipulated into thinking they've got a safe shortcut to the Alpha Quadrant, which is a bad story device because (1) it's already been used too many times, and (2) it succeeds only in making our characters look foolish. (You'd think after "Hope and Fear" the crew would know better.) No, thanks.
Body and Soul — Air date: 11/15/2000. Teleplay by Eric Morris and Phyllis Strong & Mike Sussman. Story by Michael Taylor. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
Silly high-concept done entertainingly, in which Jeri Ryan must play Seven under the influence of Doc's program. Light and inconsequential, the episode basically boils down to whether we're amused by Ryan's gleefully over-the-top performance as Doc in a human body. Well, I was amused. I was also impressed by the more subtle nuances within the otherwise unsubtle Ryan performance — which, by the way, is exactly right since the Doctor's outgoing expressiveness all but requires that he would be anything but subtle about his experiences here. Aside from some "hologram rights" thematic backdrop for "Flesh and Blood," the plot is basically insignificant filler that lets Ryan take Doc's role and run with it. A successful example of a show that puts all its eggs in one high-concept's basket.
Nightingale — Air date: 11/22/2000. Teleplay by Andre Bormanis. Story by Robert Lederman & Dave Long. Directed by LeVar Burton.
Harry Kim as a captain? Say it ain't so. The problem here is that the episode tries to pass Harry off as someone we should respect when he does nothing to earn our respect. He exudes an annoying air of arrogance that's self-defeating, he micromanages needlessly, and it takes Seven kicking him in the ass before he shapes up. Sorry, but respect must be earned. "Nightingale" is perfect evidence of one of this series' biggest failures: the inability for it to develop its supporting characters (especially Harry) in gradual, believable ways. By throwing us such ham-fisted Harry actions, the story doesn't really give us a sampling of Harry's abilities but instead examples of why he shouldn't even be in the captain's chair in the first place. I've long been annoyed with the lack of Harry's development, and this pedestrian last-ditch attempt to provide him with a new challenge only punctuates the lost cause. I'm not sure what's more at fault here — the episode or the series at large.
Flesh and Blood — Air date: 11/29/2000. Part I: Teleplay by Bryan Fuller. Story by Jack Monaco and Bryan Fuller & Raf Green. Directed by Mike Vejar. Part II: Teleplay by Raf Green & Kenneth Biller. Story by Bryan Fuller & Raf Green. Directed by David Livingston.
Though not as centrally important, one question on the mind of "Flesh and Blood" is similar to one at the heart of Steven Spielberg's A.I. released earlier this summer — what sort of human responsibilities do we have toward artificially intelligent beings that we create? That's a tough question, because it's hard to define "sentience" in the terms of extremely elaborate programming. The cans of worms are abundant, but I'm heartened by the fact that this year the writers try to deal with them (here and in "Author, Author") rather than sweeping such questions under the rug in favor of holodeck tomfoolery (see last year's "Fair Haven"/"Spirit Folk" travesty). My solution: Don't create artificial sentient-like beings if you're not prepared to deal with the ethical consequences (although the Hirogen get around that by maintaining that there's simply not an issue here, which is a valid position of its own). All that said, "Flesh and Blood" uses some of these issues as a backdrop for a Voyager action movie with a lot to recommend. The Doctor's willingness to be drawn into this plight is both understandable and commendable, and Picardo puts in a typically good performance. Many of the guest players are pretty good, too. Probably the most subtly interesting aspect of the story is the way Iden, the holographic terrorist leader, cannot overcome his programmed predisposition for violence, whereas Kejal, the holographic Cardassian engineer, is able to grow beyond those programmed instincts. While I'm not so sure I agree with all of the messages that "Flesh and Blood" puts forward, its ability to spark some entertaining sci-fi debate makes it worthwhile.
Shattered — Air date: 1/17/2001. Teleplay by Michael Taylor. Story by Mike Sussman & Michael Taylor. Directed by Terry Windell.
This year's Anomalous Time Plot, in which Voyager is shattered into various timeline pieces and only Chakotay might be able to put the ship back the way it should be. The plot, like most time-manipulating episodes, makes no sense — which is to be expected — but what's peculiar here is how mundane, repetitive, and talky the story allows itself to get, using so many unnecessary alternate-timeline versions of various characters and a slew of references to old episodes for no good reason ... unless we're supposed to be playing Name That Episode from our living rooms. Chakotay's ongoing interaction with a Janeway from the past is a saving grace of sorts, but the episode doesn't take full advantage of the idea and needlessly spends time watching Chakotay interact with Seska and engage in repetitive scenes where he must explain to other characters what's going on ... and then later explain some more. It's not terribly unpleasant, but it's certainly not interesting. The Humpty Dumpty of time-travel shows.
Lineage — Air date: 1/24/2001. Written by James Kahn. Directed by Peter Lauritson.
Quiet-ish and with smaller human problems instead of bigger galactic ones, "Lineage" is not your typical Voyager action outing. It is, rather, a well-executed character drama that focuses on relevant relationship issues. I'll grant that not all viewers tune in to Voyager for this, but every once in a while you need to explore the characters with genuine focus without resorting to needless plotting. That's exactly what "Lineage" does, by diving into B'Elanna's troubled past and tying it into her and Tom's future. The pregnancy, as I've said before, is an apt symbol for these two characters finally becoming something Voyager has been in need of for a long time — the basis for a true, front-and-center nuclear family that is founded in and grows in the Delta Quadrant. B'Elanna's torn-between-cultures identity has rarely been depicted with more clarity and immediacy than here, where she fears the Klingon blood in her and the baby will eventually tear her new family apart, much like it did her childhood family. The episode benefits from rational dialog, good acting, and a straightforwardness that avoids the temptation of obvious plot distractions or contrivances. The show succumbs to excessive melodrama at the end, but remains a moving character outing nonetheless.
Repentance — Air date: 1/31/2001. Teleplay by Robert Doherty. Story by Mike Sussman & Robert Doherty. Directed by Mike Vejar.
It's the death penalty issue, done with a certain degree of thoughtfulness and a significantly lesser degree of subtlety (which is to say not much). It's the classic "contemporary issue with a sci-fi twist" treatment, which is accomplished here through Seven's nanoprobes (groan), which give the contemptible convict Iko a conscience where he never had one before. Arguments of responsibility are both explicit and implicit as Iko undergoes a stunning transformation. Most clearly shown here is how the death penalty is rooted more in emotional responses than logical ones, which is perhaps why society at large should not be carrying it out (completely aside from all the flaws in a system that claims to be just and impartial but cannot presume to make such claims). "Repentance" has numerous flaws (certain arguments exist in a fantasy world where the usefulness of the message is skewed by sci-fi convenience), but in the final analysis the episode is actually about something, which is part of what makes Trek what it is.
Prophecy — Air date: 2/7/2001. Teleplay by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong. Story by Larry Nemecek & J. Kelley Burke and Raf Green & Kenneth Biller. Directed by Terry Windell.
Don't forget your Klingon decoder ring. Not that you'd need it, since the hollowly concocted prophesying in this episode allows for the widest of interpretations in order to hold Torres' baby up as a Klingon messiah. (With a little more effort, perhaps Janeway could've been recognized as the Kuva'Mach, even without being Klingon or pregnant. Okay, maybe not.) This episode is simply a mess, featuring a score of disjointed clichés from the Delta and Alpha quadrants alike. There's no discipline here, and I'm convinced the episode came together by jamming together at least two independent story ideas. Or twelve. The final two acts in particular cause viewer whiplash, jumping aimlessly and implausibly from an honorable Klingon swordfight to a deadly plague to a Voyager takeover with the usual lousy-shot bad guys. In trying to do everything, it ends up doing very little. The emotional core is largely absent.
The Void — Air date: 2/14/2001. Teleplay by Raf Green & James Kahn. Story by Raf Green & Kenneth Biller. Directed by Mike Vejar.
In the season's most unintentionally ironic episode, the writers decide to create a premise that represents just about everything Voyager as a series probably could have (and should have) represented from day one. They do this by pulling the ship into a starless void with no resources, where trapped ships pummel and steal from each other for survival. Well, this of course is what the Delta Quadrant itself could've been about (albeit to a lesser extent). To stack an irony atop another irony, history repeats itself when Janeway decides that sticking to Starfleet ideals is what will help Voyager create alliances making an escape possible. That was a troublesome and naive turning point for the series back in second season's "Alliances," where the situation was very different (and less tuned for such Starfleet-esque thinking), but here it makes sense because being the friendly one is a viable way to get attention. Indeed, given the situation, it's the only viable option for escape. While I find it pretty silly that no one aside from our gallant crew had the sense to think of any of this before (cooperation — what a novel concept!), it does a good job showing the classic Trek ideal in action.
Workforce, Part I — Airdate: 2/21/2001. Written by Kenneth Biller & Bryan Fuller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
"Workforce" is very simply a good and well-executed sci-fi adventure concept. It's fresh and mysterious, dropping our characters into strange situations and making us witnesses to a gradually evolving mystery. The construction of that mystery is revealed at just the right pace; we know something is askew even as the characters themselves — whose memories have been tampered with — do not. Outstanding production values do a fine job of creating the active-but-arid essence of this highly industrialized world through the use of well-placed special effects, convincing set design, and good editing. Also commendable is the apt use of our reprogrammed characters, who retain many of their own personality traits. Seven is most appropriate as an "efficiency monitor," and Janeway's emerging relationship with a coworker hints at the simple pleasures that seem to be lacking in her life as a captain. And there's a subtle, effective message behind the plot, where this society is almost insidious in its devotion to employment, in a Borg drone sort of way.
Workforce, Part II — Air date: 2/28/2001. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller & Michael Taylor. Story by Kenneth Biller & Bryan Fuller. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
Taking part one to its inevitable conclusion, part two is highly efficient plot maneuvering (with a lot of it, expertly paced), its wisest choice being that it gives us a guest character who is on "our" side in trying to uncover the conspiracy. Even when bureaucracy renders him powerless, he's not an idiot. Meanwhile, the best character angle in play is the sweet interaction between Paris and Torres, who are unaware that they are, in fact, married in their actual lives. Paris feels a need to protect Torres even while being completely unaware of their marriage on a conscious level, which is reassuring. Other plot aspects, like Chakotay trying to get through to Janeway, are effective but less memorable. The ending falls short of satisfaction by being too cut-and-dried and by too simply brushing aside the issues of the memory alteration. Also lost in the shuffle is part one's eerie message of drone-like workforce existence.
Human Error — Air date: 3/7/2001. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Andre Bormanis. Story by Andre Bormanis & Kenneth Biller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
It's not the worst episode of the year, but it's certainly the biggest disappointment. Parts of this story are so engrossing, so intriguing, so well-realized that we want the writers to see the story through to its logical conclusion — one that would make Seven realize she's not quite who she thought she was. Nope: She's a Borg drone with a built-in emotion inhibitor that doubles as the show's plot-resetting device. "Human Error" is the epitome of pointless Voyager status-quo mandates and the type of repeating time loops many characters seem trapped inside as a result. Once again Seven has a chance to grow and doesn't. Once again the audience is cheated with an incredulous plot contrivance pulled from thin air. Even though "Endgame" would have Seven change her mind and undergo the procedure Doc proposes here, it's too late by then because few results of any interest play out on the screen. The ending of this episode, even given the "Endgame" development, is still utterly inexplicable and gutless — perhaps even more so. I'm left to wonder whether pairing Chakotay and Seven in the finale was done only because Robert Beltran challenged Brannon Braga to do it.
Q2 — Air date: 4/11/2001. Teleplay by Robert Doherty. Story by Kenneth Biller. Directed by LeVar Burton.
I forgot to mention in my original review of "Q2" that the teenage Q premise wasn't even original — it was done in TNG's sixth-season episode, "True Q." And it was done there much better, I assure you. Here, being a Q is reduced to the dumbest variety of sophomoric parlor tricks, where Q Jr. decides omnipotence is handy for throwing a party in engineering or making all of Seven's clothes vanish. Yippee. Little of this story is funny, and even less of it is thoughtful; the show's biggest miscalculation is that it thinks our characters should be teaching the mighty Q silly human lessons like the importance of the nuclear family or owning up to responsibility. If I wanted that, I'd watch an after-school special. The Q are supposed to be teaching us. The ending borders on nonsensical, with a trial unconvincingly thrown in as if somewhere along the line a rule was written saying the Q Bench must always show up to physically sit in judgment of somebody. This, along with "Repression," sinks to the bottom of the seventh-season barrel.
Author, Author — Air date: 4/18/2001. Teleplay by Phyllis Strong & Mike Sussman. Story by Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
The last great episode of Voyager, in which wit and insight play a key role in a story about Doc writing a holographic novel that becomes the center of controversy over the similarities (and noted differences) the fictionalization has when compared to the Voyager crew. It's a brilliant premise that plays like the best elements of "Worst Case Scenario," "Living Witness," and the various "hologram rights" shows, and would've been the ideal sendoff starring vehicle for Doc (if not for the needless "Renaissance Man"). Sharp dialog and attention to the nature of the characters makes for an engaging dissection of personalities and attitudes. The comic high point comes when Paris decides to give Doc a taste of his own medicine by reprogramming the holo-novel; the jokes and performances are inspired. The episode turns into a "rights of the artificial" courtroom-like premise when Doc learns that he has no rights as an author because he's a hologram — which is savagely ironic given the subject of his holo-novel. The subplots involving other characters having scheduled chats with family members prove to be surprisingly enlightening and perfect to fill the time in between Doc's scenes. The ending strikes me as sane: Doc's status as an author cannot be ignored, but nor is Starfleet quick to grant all holograms the legal status of people.
Friendship One — Air date: 4/25/2001. Written by Michael Taylor & Bryan Fuller. Directed by Mike Vejar.
A middling affair which serves as this year's attempt to be "One Small Step," except without the genuine sense of reverence for space exploration. There's an over-reliance on clichés here, particularly in the hostage standoff between Janeway and the "bad guys," who are supposed to be sympathetic but whose motivation as written is suspect, to say the least. The alien leader is written with little subtlety or willingness to hear reason, while other members of the alien race are reasonable. Poor Joe Carey meets his long-deferred demise in what proves to be an arbitrary hostage killing with zero emotional payoff whatsoever. How cynical. The show's overall message is okay: Consequences Can Come Unexpectedly. But then unfortunately Janeway's final line about how exploration shouldn't cost any lives is among the most ill-thought-out lines of dialog ever written on this series.
Natural Law — Air date: 5/2/2001. Teleplay by James Kahn. Story by Kenneth Biller & James Kahn. Directed by Terry Windell.
The year's most uneventful episode, in which Chakotay and Seven engage in — not sexual escapades — but the most reliable of all Voyager clichés: the Shuttle Crash. They then find themselves trapped in an alien cultural preserve with a primitive people, and the episode spends a lot of time watching Chakotay's attempts to communicate with them. It's not annoying, but it's certainly not compelling. Meanwhile, Janeway & Co. attempt to negotiate with some aliens, who finally of course open fire on Voyager, etc. The B-story about Paris going to traffic school is a waste of bandwidth. To say this episode bides its time is putting it mildly. By the time we get to the "issue" there's no time to flesh it out. It's perhaps worth noting that it's hard to step wrong when you don't attempt to do much of anything at all. Wake me up when we get there...
Homestead — Air date: 5/9/2001. Written by Raf Green. Directed by LeVar Burton.
Neelix meets a colony of Talaxians (how did they get out here?) and through a series of events finds that he has a chance to offer his talents as an all-around good person and build a new life with them. While the alien miners here aren't exactly villains from the Cinema School of Kitten-Drowning Manipulation, they aren't exactly subtle either, as they threaten a young boy and intend to blow up the Talaxians' home in the interests of making a few bucks. Neelix & Co. step in to help the Talaxians save themselves. "Homestead" is not great or remotely groundbreaking, but it sends Neelix off with a palatable dose of dignity. Neelix's silent departure and Tuvok's farewell gesture turn out to be surprisingly affecting.
Renaissance Man — Air date: 5/16/2001. Teleplay by Phyllis Strong & Mike Sussman. Story by Andrew Shepard Price & Mark Gaberman. Directed by Mike Vejar.
A mostly needless exercise in Doc redundancy where our multitalented Holodoc must pretend to be various members of the crew in order to complete a secret mission (stealing the warp core) for aliens who hold the captain hostage. Yes, another hostage plot. The kidnapping and operation-in-secret premise is a flimsy excuse for the undercover work — pretty much the way these things usually go — but the plot manages to move along at a good clip, offering up enough gags to be fun without falling into too much tedium. Still, in a season where many of the characters are devoid of any sort of reasonable development, do we really need another average action/adventure plot? The two kidnappers seem frankly incapable of being the threat they claim to be to the captain, particularly since one of them eventually helps Doc turn the tables on the other. Oh well — any episode that features Janeway talking to voices in her head is at least worth a look.
Endgame — Air date: 5/23/2001. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller & Robert Doherty. Story by Rick Berman & Kenneth Biller & Brannon Braga. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
The series finale is the typically watchable Voyager "event," complete with Big Budget and Big FX; more Borg; Paradoxical Time Travel; a Will-They-Get-Home Premise; and an ending with lots of 'splosions and inevitably hollow comeuppance. There are things that are impressive and rare, like the awesome sight of a Borg transwarp hub. The future timeline is established with a reasonable amount of care and interest. Does it all add up to anything? Yes and no. Yes, there are some good ideas in here, like Janeway in conflict with a time-displaced version of herself, and her struggle over whether to take the way home that sits in front of her or to help strangers (a la "Caretaker"). No, in that the whole premise has a time-paradox loophole that negates the dramatic power and indeed the very need for Janeway's difficult decisions, allowing everybody to have their cake and eat it too (most notably the writers). In the meantime, the Borg are a joke, their Queen is an even bigger joke, and the (non)aftermath once Voyager arrives in the Alpha Quadrant doesn't begin to scratch the surface of any of the real issues that were interesting about the crew returning home in the first place. Entertaining? Well-made? Yes. Satisfying? Well-envisioned? No.
Part 2: Season Analysis
Like in previous years, I might as well start this thing out by quoting myself.
One year ago, in my season six recap, I wrote:
"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."
Disappointingly, all I can report is that getting home was scarcely a factor beyond the two-hour finale for the series. And in "Endgame," getting home was the only part of the issue. Being home meant nothing, because zero screen time was devoted to the idea. In the Alpha Quadrant, Voyager emerges from a Borg sphere after being inside it and blowing it up (how does that work?); Janeway says, "We did it"; roll credits, end of series.
Gee, thanks for all the wonderful insights on the matter.
Not that it comes as a huge surprise.
Call it "Season Four, Part IV," I guess.
A year ago I would've called this the worst possible scenario for dealing with the issue of Voyager returning to the Alpha Quadrant. I probably should've just called it the most likely scenario. As season seven roared on and the news and spoilers rolled out onto the Web and into magazines, it became increasingly obvious that Voyager getting home was going to be held for the final episode and, indeed, the final minutes of the final episode. At a certain point it probably just becomes too late or inconvenient to deal with larger issues. The audience expects the series to end on a climactic bang, and if getting home wasn't that bang, what could it be?
It really isn't surprising that the Voyager creators didn't plan out a second dramatic bang so that we could get the ship home earlier in the season and deal with those questions that were the most tantalizing. I'm frankly not appalled that the series ended without any insight, because I really wasn't expecting any. If nothing else, Voyager is consistent. The series is television at its most basic, existing to fill screen time, sell advertising, and entertain viewers. All very necessary things, mind you, and things Voyager probably did adequately. But what's missing is the series' ability to take it one step further — to challenge the audience with new ideas, to challenge the characters with fresh problems and perspectives. Now that it's over, I think I finally know what Voyager the series is. It's a stage, pure and simple, for telling Trek stories in the most traditional and safest of confines. It's not a series about new perspectives, original ideas, or challenge. It's not a series that usually stops to ask tough questions. It's a series run by those who, for whatever reason, believe that growth and challenging expectations are asking too much of the audience ... creators who believe an audience will not stand for something different in their Trek. Who knows — maybe they're right.
Of course, this all goes back to my long-held stance on the series, which is that it has forever ignored its own premise and promise. You know the drill, because I've said the same thing every year for what seems like, well, forever. (Do not fret; this year's rehash will be brief.) From the standpoint of a Broader Perspective, Voyager might as well be the Time Loop Trek Series. The characters are mostly stuck in time, destined to forever repeat their overall experience without growing or changing. Even when hypothetically stuck for 30 more years on a starship, it's hard to imagine, based on the evidence we've seen, that many of the characters are or would be different from who they were when the journey started in "Caretaker." Janeway has her Starfleet ideals (which she either observes or discards when convenient), and "Endgame" proposes that an additional 16 years in the Delta Quadrant would turn Janeway into a bitter cynic. But why should we believe that? Seven years hasn't changed Janeway much at all, and in essence she's already gone through most everything her future self probably could; she's already lost at least one or two dozen crew members. It's only when she hypothetically loses Seven of Nine that she becomes more hardened and less idealistic. Unfortunately, that's not a statement about Voyager as a family; that's a statement about Janeway's personal relationship with one individual ... not to mention that it's all hypothetical anyway. BFD.
The same problems that have plagued this series in past years were still evident in season seven. Look no further than Harry Kim, the series' most egregious symbol of the series' biggest problem. Here's a guy who was straight out of the academy, who got conned by Quark in the very first episode, and who had a lot to learn. Who is he today? Practically the same damn guy, making what looks like freshman mistakes, laughable when he tries to play captain, intentionally held up as the writers' eternal chump of the series in episode after episode, like some sort of cosmic joke. Why hasn't this guy grown up over the past seven years? The reason: Because Voyager in its broad strokes would rather be about static archetypes than evolving characters. Janeway is the Leader, Seven and Doc are Human Proteges, Tuvok is the Vulcan, Harry is the Court Jester, Neelix is the Kind Soul, etc. Many of these people haven't changed much at all, because they're icon types instead of people.
Granted, some have changed. Doc and Seven have always been on a continuing journey of learning about humanity. Seven never quite went as far as I'd hoped, thanks to cowardly, non-committal reset-button plots like "Human Error" (and she seemed stuck in that time loop, repeating lessons rather than learning from them) — but she at least had the mission. Doc might be the best character on the show. He was a clean slate when first activated in "Caretaker," and now he's a man with passions and hobbies, opinions and personality, and has even taken up a cause for his fellow holograms. His cause grew out of a thematic concept this season that I never thought could've worked as well as it did. After years of stupid holodeck hijinks, the Voyager writers finally managed to take a holodeck idea and make something interesting by asking if Doc would take a stand on holograms being exploited (see the standouts "Flesh and Blood" and "Author, Author"). Yes, it represents a massive can of worms and debatable arguments that can be shot down, but it still makes for interesting storytelling.
This year also spent some time finally addressing Paris and Torres' relationship, which was quite frankly way overdue. A lot of people scoff at Paris/Torres (including former executive producer Brannon "Voyager is not a relationship series" Braga), but I think their presence is important in demonstrating what may be the only recognizable bigger theme this series has left — that of a developing family aboard a starship whose crew is out of touch with their families back in the Alpha Quadrant. When you have a crew stuck on a starship for what could be a bulk of their lives, you can't just pretend that life consists of reporting for duty every morning and talking about shields and transporters. There has to be a sensibility away from the Starfleet life that says these people are going to be human beings with life goals apart from their jobs. That has often been an important ingredient lacking on this series (because no one truly believes they're stuck on this ship, or if they do they're fine with it). But this season's willingness to explore Torres/Paris is a saving grace that should not be underestimated.
To those who say Trek should just be a stage for a starship and a crew that "boldly go," I pose the question: Then why bother having a fresh and extreme premise? Why pretend that getting home is important or that resources are limited? Why not just send these people off on a deep-space mission and be done with it? (In short, Voyager writers: You made your bed; now lie in it.) I will admit that I've had my own biases and hopes for what Voyager as a series could've been, but if they're giving us a mission statement of sorts (two crews, alone in the unknown, overcoming differences, reevaluating perspectives, living in a survival situation, etc., etc.), they should probably use it to gain some sort of insight into the human condition. But Voyager isn't often an exploration of the human condition; it's more an exploration into the ways the creators can resolve a new (or old) plot, or assemble an action sequence.
At the outset of this season, the big behind-the-scenes change was that Brannon Braga was out (busy working on Enterprise development) and Kenneth Biller was in. Anti-Bragites were ecstatic. I was unmoved. Voyager has long been an unchangeable mass of the Status Quo, a series far more focused on the individual episode to have any sort of sweeping change brought about by a new head writer. Anyone expecting a new Voyager from Biller probably was fooling themselves. We certainly didn't get much that was out of line with what came before.
On the level of the individual story, season seven seemed to be a steady diet of competence. There were fewer big losers this season than in many if not most seasons ("Repression" and "Q2" go down as the biggest losers, yet I didn't feel a need to break out the one-star rating), and at the same time only one episode I'd qualify as truly excellent ("Author, Author"). And, of course, there were a lot of shows falling into the categories of decent, middling, and mediocre, and a few good standouts. Sadly, well less than half the shows fell into the category of something I'd solidly recommend.
On the whole, Voyager served the general purpose of TV for viewers, which is to entertain for an hour at a time, but without taking us to many places of genuine wonder. If I sound a little unenthused by that observation, it's because I am. The freshness just isn't there. After watching the way Deep Space Nine went through a war and challenged the very survival of the Federation — taking its characters to extremely hard places in the process — watching a crew go head-to-head with the Borg again and again (by getting themselves assimilated on purpose, etc., no less) feels like an unconvincing comic book. Where's the originality and conviction in such recycled plotlines?
Biller's biggest contribution to the Bigger Picture (aside from any and all workplace operating styles, irrelevant to this article) seems to be that he was open to the idea of exploring the aforementioned Torres/Paris relationship (especially in the sleeper standout "Lineage") that Braga apparently did not want to touch. That's a good thing, in my view.
Other than that, season seven looked a lot like season six to me, especially in its clueless regard to using supporting characters. Chakotay is still a bland cipher with practically no reason for being, his biggest show being the unarresting time story, "Shattered," and his arbitrary last-minute relationship with Seven seeming more motivated by behind-the-scenes chest-thumping (Robert Beltran basically dared Brannon Braga to do it, and Braga obliged) than anything remotely within the parameters of either character. Tuvok is perhaps the most appallingly overlooked character, an individual who had great potential in the early seasons when he was Janeway's close friend and confidant. Now he gets to star in absurd vehicles like "Repression," where his Super Vulcan Mind Powers are exploited as a way-beyond-ridiculous plot device. Aside from a good line or moment here and there, I'm exceptionally disappointed in how Tuvok turned out; he's just "the Vulcan" instead of a well-rounded character, something he easily could've been. The fact that Tim Russ makes Tuvok the best-performed Vulcan since Leonard Nimoy's original Spock only highlights the lost potential. Meanwhile, Neelix gets a good sendoff in "Homestead" but otherwise has been another character largely without direction or meaning. And don't get me started on Harry "one of the franchise's all-time worst regular characters" Kim; as far as I'm concerned, the less said — or seen — about him, the better. None of this analysis should come as a shock, since I've made these cases before.
So was season seven a success or a failure? I guess that depends what your definition of this series is. As a whole, I certainly can't call it anything close to a success because this season staked out very little new territory, answered almost no questions about what being in the Delta Quadrant or what getting home meant (which was the beyond-obvious gold to be mined this year, but was left untouched), and was content to do what this series has always done best and/or worst: business as usual. I only recommended 11 out of 24 episodes this year, which is hardly an impressive hit-to-miss ratio. Yet I can't call the season (or the series) a complete failure because it often did what it set out to do with great skill, telling individual sci-fi or character stories that stand on their own as reasonable hours of television, and sometimes with enough style or substance to be worthwhile. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it that's not enough, because I think we ultimately want more than middle-of-the-road routine in the broader strokes of our Trek franchise. It's especially disappointing because Voyager had what was arguably the best premise of any Trek series, but squandered it to rehash a formula we've seen played out for years.
And the disappointing stock-issue adventure ending resolves very little of any significance, unless you were just dying to see the Borg get blowed up real good again — which I for one was not. In so many ways, "Endgame" is the ultimate statement for Voyager, the perfect microcosm: It's a great-looking action/adventure outing that can be fun and offer up some interesting sights and even compelling ideas, but it's too often contrived, artificial, unbelievable, and a disappointing cheat to those of us who think the show could and should offer more than the mastery of the superficial. It has skill, but little depth. Such is Star Trek: Voyager, the perpetual Trekkian underachiever, which now is over.
But the Trek franchise continues — and immediately, it would have it. At the end of next month, the latest entry to the franchise, the prequel series Enterprise, premieres. I will be watching it. And I will be reviewing it, staying on the Trek reviewing beat for a while longer. If you too are on board for Enterprise, I'll see you there ... and soon.
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