Saturday, August 27, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager, Reinventing The Wheel

Looking to capitalize on the resounding success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the middle of that show’s fifth season, Paramount asked the producers to begin work on a second series to run simultaneously—what was to become Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As different from Next Gen as it was, the two did well running side-by-side. The experiment having paid off, when in 1993 Next Gen was due to go off the air, Paramount decided to begin production of a fourth series to replace it. Soon after the writers began to weave elements of the Voyager background story into both Next Gen and DS9.

It was important that the creators of this new Trek series set it on a ship again. Many fans had complained that DS9 betrayed the spirit of The Original Series by being set on an immobile space station. After all, Trek has always been about jumping from planet to planet once a week, exploring the unknown. Of course, even if the new series was set on a ship again, it still wasn't really possible to return to this older model. Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had so thoroughly explored the goings on in the Federation (down to Episode I-esque trade disputes, etc. in DS9) that you couldn't really do a plain old Federation ship and it be anything but more of the same. It's that "Roman centurion patrolling the provinces" feeling we've talked about before.

So, what do you do? You throw a Federation ship on its maiden voyage half way across the galaxy into completely unknown territory. Suddenly it's a lot like The Original Series (or early TNG) again, though drawing on the best of Next Gen and DS9 as well. There was a lot about Voyager that was original, though. Captain Janeway, for instance, was a completely different kind of captain than we had seen before. Besides being a woman, where Kirk had been a warrior, and Picard a scholar, Janeway is a scientist. As a result, she takes a far more active role in the day-to-day operations on the ship. When she gives an order, she doesn't sit by like she's royalty and wait for everybody else to do it, she gets down and dirty too. Over time this makes her less like a military or political leader and more like a mother. I'm not saying this is better or worse than the way Kirk or Picard captained their vessels, but it ends up working.

Having been thrown halfway across the galaxy, you'd think the writers would be able to come up with some cool villains we've never seen before for Voyager to take on. Some of the new alien species turned out to be pretty awesome actually. Like the Hirogen, the nomadic hunter species, and the Vidians, who suffer from a horrifyingly debilitating disease and have resorted to stealing the body parts of those they capture to survive. For every really inventive alien like those, though, there's a Kazon to balance it out. The Kazon were the first Delta Quadrant species Voyager encountered, and they were pretty much just a rehash of TOS-era Klingons. It's just laziness, really.

Also, the show was super 90s. There were far too many characters included just to be 90s about it. "Ooh, let's have a woman captain. Ooh, let's have a black Vulcan. Ooh, let's have a female Klingon. Ooh, let's have an Indian on board." Excuse me, Native American. Lord, they played that card waaay too many times. You start to get really sick of vision quests about halfway through Season 2. That's not to say these characters didn't grow and mature into actual people as the show progressed, but early on, they're just hollow shells of affirmative action.

Something that really bugs me about Voyager was how much time travel there was. In Next Gen time travel episodes were really rare. You got really excited when they came around because you knew this was gonna be a cool one. They're like a dime a dozen in Voyager, and familiarity breeds contempt. (Same thing with Vulcan mind melds, by the way.)

One of the things Voyager did really well was to incorporate a lot of the serialization aspects from Deep Space Nine while still remaining a largely episodic show, which is at the heart of Trek. What you end up with is more overarching character development from episode to episode than Next Gen could achieve, but without being so obvious about it like DS9 was. From what I understand that was pretty much a soap opera sometimes.

Later in the series, rather than actually carrying over plot points from episode to episode, a couple of times something that was seemingly resolved in an earlier episode (sometimes even seasons previously) comes back to bite the crew of Voyager. The best example of this is an episode entitled “Course: Oblivion.” Early in the episode the crew is gathered in Engineering to inaugurate the new slipstream drive they have developed. Soon they begin to notice that the new engine is causing the crew to come down with some awful side effects. Basically, it’s making them dissolve. Over the course of the episode, they realize that they are not, in fact, the real Voyager crew at all. They are the duplicate crew that was created in an earlier episode entitled “Demon.” It seems they built themselves a duplicate Voyager and somehow forgot who they really were. In the end, they cannot stop the process and dissolve completely before help can arrive—help from the real Voyager, who never discovers that they exist. Which is also a bummer because they could have used that slipstream technology the fake crew developed.

Another good example is “Flesh and Blood,” which revisits what happened when Janeway gave the Hirogen holographic technology so that they could hunt simulated prey. Didn’t turn out so well. There are lots of these sort of “tie-in” episodes. I like them because they aren’t straight serializations (so it doesn’t turn into a soap opera like DS9 or Lost), but they lend the show a certain cohesiveness across seasons—they show that the actions of the Voyager crew have consequences. A lot of times in Next Gen, the Enterprise left orbit and whatever huge problem they had to solve was never mentioned again, which doesn’t seem realistic.

Voyager was a series that started out as a poorly-executed show with fantastic potential. Over time, much of this potential began to be realized. I have a theory that Voyager's quality is directly related to Captain Janeway's hair style. Over the course of the show it went from this...

...where they're obviously trying to make her look mannish so we'll buy her as captain, to this...

...where they've finally realized that it's her very femininity which makes her successful, albeit in a completely different way from Kirk or Picard, but successful nevertheless.

Of course, there was one other change that went along with Janeway's hair. This... this...

You decide.

All in all, the show was never perfect, but there are times when you really are on the edge of your seat, when you just have to be like "Whoa, that's pretty awesome," and when you actually care about these people trapped on a tiny ship all alone 60 years from home.

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