Wednesday, 18 September 2013

One of Seven: Voyager Year One – Part One

In the first of a two part retrospective, Matt Goddard turns back the clock to 1995 as he ventures into the Delta Quadrant to relive the initial season of Star Trek's fourth incarnation as he begins a seven season rewatch...

So how does Star Trek: Voyager Series 1 shape up?  A Year of Hell, displaying Lifesigns or signalling Future’s End..?

This post comes with an air of inevitability, just like Voyager making its way home.  Was that ever in doubt?  It might be if Voyager was made today, but times have changed.  When the third Star Trek live action sequel series started, it wasn't immediately evident, but each of its forebears had laid down an impressive gauntlet.  As Voyager met her fate in the Badlands, Deep Space Nine was still in its infancy, but the intervening years have seen its stock rise considerably.  Of course, the other Star Trek series had achieved incredible success in their own lifetime on the small and large screen - but viewers of the awkward Deep Space Nine were always a little more partisan.

Post-Deep Space Nine

Voyager departs Deep Space Nine on its fateful journey

Earlier this year I completed a long and leisurely retrospective of that Deep Space vintage.   It was so leisurely that the Federation could have discovered the Dominion and kicked off a war in the same three year timeframe it took me to complete all seven series.  Satisfyingly however, the conclusion came in this the show’s 20th anniversary year.  Even more satisfyingly, it confirmed my suspicions:  Deep Space Nine is an incredible achievement.  It took its position as the younger, difficult brother of TNG, with cynical and audience grabbing stunts and a flash new non-syndicated competitor and melded them with the strengths of its strong cast to produce something really special.  Something that Trekkies should be proud of.  I might tell you about it some time, but you hopefully know it already.

That’s the problem I had.  Fresh respect for Deep Space Nine.  So for my next mission I was torn where I should go. Jump backwards?  Hmm, perhaps forwards, ready to lap myself when Deep Space Nine makes it on to Blu-ray?  I was at yellow alert for some time before... Then I accidentally started watching Star Trek: Voyager


It was Caretaker I couldn’t resist.  At the show’s launch in 1995 I read more about Voyager than I had about any other Trek show...  The American import Star Trek Magazine, The Radio Times coverage, the Telegraph article addressing Geneviève Bujold’s sudden departure.  I dutifully bought pilot on VHS and waited for the BBC to screen the full series...  Only to find it on Sunday afternoons. Pretty inconvenient. The result was a distinct lack of fond memories.  Oh, I was familiar with it.  I watched the first couple of seasons more than intermittently.  I was at university by the fifth season and was then routinely pulled back by the Borg (and the founder of this blog I may add – still, as far as I’m aware, un-assimilated) a couple of times after that. 

But that’s where the inevitability comes in.  I was always going to return to consider the series in its totality one day...  And that day has come.  I’ve just completed the first, shortened season so I’m about a seventh of the way through...  One of Seven sounds like a fairly average Borg, but how does that first season stand up now?

Well, put simply, it’s not as bad as I remember.  There are good points, as you’d hope with the talent involved.  It’s certainly watchable, there’s some great acting and it’s more cohesive than I remember...  But those points just serve to highlight the opportunity that was missed. Unfortunately, glaring problems are evident.  Painfully evident.  My biggest challenge viewing Voyager now is to remove the 18 intervening years of prejudice as well as a massively changed TV climate and scan the show anew.

Montagues & Capulets. And Neelix.

Voyager’s Premise

A quick and unnecessary recap shows that Voyager marked a further simplification of the Star Trek story. The five year mission had turned into the continuing mission which led to Starfleet’s incursions into the Gamma Quadrant and then led to a journey home.  The Voyages of, er, Voyager.  Not the Earth-threatening 20th century satellite but the latest ship in the fleet, carrying bio-neural circuitry, 42 photon torpedoes and the unexpected weight of a 75 year journey back to Federation space with a skeleton crew of Montagues and Capulets. 

It sounds interesting.  More so perhaps than a space-station orbiting a ravaged planet of spiritual people.  As Voyager’s so utterly in line with the core exploration ideal of Star Trek, it’s a shame that the comparison with Deep Space Nine necessarily comes up.  The first two seasons of that second sequel were hardly classics.  In fact, of all the Star Trek shows, only The Original Series has any claim to hitting the ground running.  But at Voyager’s launch, while Deep Space Nine was starting to forge forward with genuine originality that would not only lay the path for Battlestar Galactica and all manner of other arc shows but also inadvertently undo the grip of star ship shows on American TV, Voyager was moving in the opposite direction.  And that perversely is at odds with the format of that long journey home.

The ingredients were all there.  The separation from the Federation, a whole new quadrant almost entirely untouched and that single minded quest to return home.  One of the greatest one-sheet pitches in Trek history surely?  Deep Space Nine got stick for its anti-exploration agenda, but DS9 personnel could disappear for months infiltrating the Orion Syndicate or taking shore leave on Earth.  Not on Voyager.  On that starship there were two nuanced enemies forced to work together to find a way home against adversity. 

The Star Trek Mould

The problem is that didn't quite work out that way.  Perhaps the myth of Star Trek was too great.  There’s almost a sense that it had the potential to rock the Star Trek ship too much.  Perhaps it was a natural response to Deep Space Nine’s early criticism, perhaps a sign that too many Star Trek stalwarts were involved, perhaps that too much rested on it as a launch show on the brand new United Paramount Network.  The show should have had more confidence to break the mould for its own dramatic good.

The under-exploration of the Maquis rabble suddenly forced into Starfleet uniforms was a major criticism levelled at the show when it premiered.  Another case of over promising in pre-publicity, it’s up there with Doctor Who promising every Dalek ever in a season premiere...  At the time I thought that Voyager had pursued diversity at all costs, but I was wrong.  There was nothing especially wrong with that differentiation from previous shows.  Yes, the Captain was female, the First Officer a Native American, the Helmsman a criminal, the Security officer a full Vulcan but it wasn't the diversity that was the issue.  The problem was the show's failure to confront and use that inherent diversity. 
"We're all in this together": State of Flux

Why have the Maquis aboard if you are not going to use them as the main fuel?  Maquis issues had virtually dissipated by the end of the pilot and the unfortunate mantra “We’re all in this together” (State of Flux) became a watch phrase for that under-explored dynamic.  But it wasn't just the crew dynamics that were scuppered by the Star Trek mould.

The Voyager Sigh

Failing to adhere to a clear and direct mission, the Voyager ‘sigh’ quickly developed.  That’s the sigh that came whenever an episode began with a variation of “We've taken a diversion from our journey home to...”.   With just the slightest of pretences, too many stories of the first series are ones that could have featured in any Star Trek show.  It’s an issue that Deep Space Nine soon found a release from thanks to interesting arcs and the benefits of its static soap-style locale. In Season One, Voyager barely took its finger off the episode reset button.  Each week, despite tackling profound issues that could have carried serious weight, there was little arc implication.  As the series progressed, it was easy to forget that the ship was speeding along in one direction as the journey often felt arbitrary in a format that gave it little concession. 

This wasn’t just The Next Generation's early, harmless rip-offs of The Original Series shows like The Naked Time, but a horrid mix of limited danger and repetition.  Within three episodes you had seen two incidents of multiple USS Voyagers and several rather dull discussions about contravention of the Prime Directive.  Incidents like this, possibly poor scheduling, perpetuated the idea that Voyager lacked ideas, but the main problem was they diluted the purity of its central story.  Instead of creating danger, Voyager’s mission decreased it.  While the Prime Directive seemed pointless from the beginning, the brig is constantly dismissed as a luxury.  All in all, that court martial is a long way off. 

Janeway's disciplinary technique meets the Voyager 'Sigh'
Of course, Voyager delved into the Holodeck, choosing to move away from Deep Space Nine‘s questionable suites to holonovels.  While I’m mindful that the season split doesn't help, it looks half-developed.  In the last episode of Season 1, Janeway’s struggle as a governess in her holodeck has clear parallels with Tuvok’s later tackling of the Maquis – but these aren't drawn out.  Future seasons would touch back on the brig, holonovels and the Prime Directive, but here I’m only looking at the season that surfaced in 1995.  While Batman was simplifying on the big screen, Star Trek simplified on the small screen.  

As with any Star Trek series, Voyager must be judged on the strength of its characters, cast and plots.

In part two of this retrospective, I’ll look at those elements as well as what went right and what went wrong...

Matt Goddard is a spectacularly accomplished writer, providing articles for the UK's Daily Mirror newspaper and in particular two pieces relating to the premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness earlier this year which can be found here and here. If you want you can follow his thoughts and meanderings on Twitter as @JokerMatt

You can read Part Two right now by following this handy link

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