Friday, 16 January 2015

20 Years to the Journey


January 1995. I was in secondary school and with a lot to learn.

But enough of me.  January 1995 was the first time we'd step aboard the Intrepid Class USS Voyager and start our trip home,  70,000 light years away in the uncharted Delta Quadrant.

As a few of you may or may not know I'm not a big Voyager fan although my rewatch is barely three episodes of Deep Space Nine away but with the 20th anniversary here and now, what better time to go back and revisit the fourth incarnation of the show?

At the time that we first saw Caretaker, Deep Space Nine was airing Past Tense (literally yesterday) and really growing into a Star Trek force to be reckoned with. It's best years were undoubtedly still ahead but there were already signs of greatness. We were in the wilderness between Generations in 1994 and First Contact in 1995 and securely inside the "golden age" of the franchise. Two crews were flourishing and into the arena stepped Captain Janeway and the turbulent mix of a Starfleet and Maquis crew desperate to return home.

The concept itself wasn't all that fresh with series such as Lost in Space and even Battlestar Galactica in the 1970's searching for Earth, mixing different personalities together on the long, arduous trip but here was the opportunity to tell the story from a Star Trek perspective on a small, resource-limited ship not designed for long-term deep space deployment. Stir in the chance to see some amazing new aliens in a totally fresh segment of the universe and this could only be a winner.

For me though it wasn't. Now I am counting the days until the Voyager season one box set comes out of the shelf for the first time with a slight sense of trepidation and not just because it'll be coming after What You Leave Behind. The first episode, Caretaker, is a damn good opener. It establishes, as you would expect, the two crews, joins them together and has them stop a villainous, tribal race from getting hold of advanced technology. All good, game on, top marks.

Caretaker is much more action orientated than Deep Space Nine's Emissary, setting the show as the punchy new kid on the block, a young person's Star Trek if you will with a host of younger, quirky characters along with a no-nonsense, hands-on hips and bun-on-head captain and one of the greatest characters in the whole franchise, the Doctor to add gravitas to the proceedings. Before we forget it also brought to us one of the Nicest People on Twitter Ever, Garrett Wang (see you at FCD, Garrett!) as eternal Ensign Kim.

Problem for me is that while the pilot sets up the conflicts, the long road ahead, the challenges and the risks, this all seems to get forgotten within weeks. The crews integrate scarily quickly, regular off-course detours take presidence and the less said about fromage the better. Caretaker does everything right, it gives us interesting characters in a diverse crew, the options to continue plotlines and expand on the ethos of the ship and it's dysfunctional crew but these significant strands seem to get as lost as the ship itself and just about as quickly. All of which gets walked all over in a matter of episodes. In fact the big hope of finding the second Caretaker is all wrapped up by the midpoint of the second season and fairly disappointingly as well. 

My good friend at the time, Stephen Bond was a big Voyager fan and I would agree that there are episodes which are of an exceptional standard but there's always that "what if" factor with the show. It just never quite hit that high mark even with the addition of Seven of Nine. A great character without question but still not enough to propel Voyager from the shadow of either The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. Was this the straw that broke the franchise's back? Was it the show too far? Possibly since it did flood the marketplace with a third active generation across TV and cinema but we were lapping it up in droves and I don't recall us complaining that there was too much Star Trek available - and new star Trek at that. Hey, look at it with the benefit of living in 2015 where we're clawing for any news on a rebooted movie franchise following a lacklustre second installment and it's nearly comical.

Caretaker, 20 years on is in my mind a pilot better than Encounter at Farpoint  and on a par with Broken Bow. I still remember buying the VHS cassette and admiring the way it had been packaged with tech specs and episodic detail. Very in-line with what had been produced for Deep Space Nine but perhaps more anticipated. I had been very excited because this could well be a fine replacement for The Next Generation

I do tend to lean favourably on Emissary for a lot of reasons (which I talked about a while back here) and from a development perspective it'll always be good to return to and see where the show came from. We can say that the show was definitely not stagnant and while it wasn't stationary we still managed to get some wonderful recurring villains - the hunting heavies the Hirogen, the budget Klingons aka the Kazon (hmmm), the cleverly realised Vidiians and ultimately Star Trek's greatest alien villain creation, the Borg in their natural environment of the Delta Quadrant. My opinion on their return is not the best since Voyager had to borrow a baddie from The Next Generation although they did expand on the background however I personally felt the Borg were ruined by the show through overuse. That said, Scorpion has one of the best, shortest teasers ever and more cubes than we'd ever seen in one place before. In it's fourth season conclusion, Seven was a mark of genius and worked well to explore the human condition from the outside perspective that Odo, Data and Spock had done before and which was evidently missing from the spin-off.

Seven certainly resonated with the fans and for the first few seasons only the Doctor really shone for me. Janeway was tough, uncompromising but still fair (and nearly extremely French) while her first officer seemed to be near non-existent at some points or being stereotyped hunting for spirit guides. Tom and Harry were troublesome kids, B'Elanna wasn't quite hitting the mark as a Klingon or a human and took a lead from Chakotay, grumping through the first few years. Then there was something altogether unsettling about the relationship that Neelix had with the short-lived Ocampa, Kes. Neelix has to be one of the worst conceived main characters in Star Trek history and that's not a smear on Ethan Phillips who worked as much magic as he could on what seems to have been a cuddly comic relief that attempted to be Quark in the Delta Quadrant and missed the boat. You might even say that the best characters had already been written in the preceding three shows and now the ideas were running dry which didn't make for good viewing early on. The first few seasons really did show it took a while for Voyager to find her landing legs.

Even when there weren't great villains or maybe an attempt at a character piece, Voyager could pull out a good concept story and there are a ton to choose from - Living Witness, Blink of an Eye or Memorial jump to mind immediately and in this respect it did take some chances that neither of its immediate peers had done. Being that little detached did mean there was a lot more to play with although we did get a good reminder of what the show could have turned out like in the landmark two parter Equinox. One of the finest stories of any show ever.

The return of Barclay (on occasion with Troi) made for great viewing with Pathfinder taking place anywhere but Voyager on the real ship as indeed did Course: Oblivion (again) for the most part. Certainly there was no chance of getting too familiar with the setup here as the writers weren't averse to trying something different. You can certainly say it's identity was distinct from Deep Space Nine. Taking the time to regain contact with the Alpha Quadrant was well timed. It could have happened early on but instead that was thrown in unexpectedly in the fourth season through a clever multi-story arc. Season four is one of the years I look forward to the most with that Hirogen/Earth arc (and the Prometheus), Year of Hell and a personal favourite in Hope and Fear. Tragically at the other end of all that there was a Threshold, a Jetrel or a Q2. And talking of the omnipotent ones, how much damage did that episode and The Q and the Grey do? I loved the story of Death Wish - one of the show's early crowing glories but any step into the world of Q after that was an utter disaster. Even Q-Less was better and that's only due to the Picard line. It was, to say the least inconsistent and that's why it'll never make it as my favourite show. Sometimes hit but sometimes an uncomfortable miss as I could lay at the uneven Flashback. Bizarrely though I was having a brief chat with Wayne Emery from TrekMate that touched on guilty pleasure episodes and I could probably pick more than a handful from Voyager if truth be told - The 37's would certainly be one (and watch the come back on that remark!)

I don't want to get too heavily into the mechanics of the exactly 20 year old Caretaker here because I haven't watched it for years and to review something with a slight haze of memory would do the show and this blog a great disservice. I can say that when I do watch it I will give it a fair trial(!) and report my findings warts and all.  I have some great memories of the show and over the next few months these will bubble to the surface and I'll end up jotting a few notes down here and there. I do promise not to go blow by blow on every episode - not my thing! I do hope that my memory has just been playing horrible tricks and actually Voyager is much better with the passage of time - apparently Enterprise is from what I hear.

So let's leave it with this thought. Voyager was a bold move and the Marmite series that divided fans opinions in the years that followed the closure of The Next Generation. The beginning of the end of Classic Star Trek? For many the best show there was?  I'm sure this year we will be keenly reminded of the highlights of the Journey and what it brought to the franchise. For now though let's fold those nacelles and get ourselves right back home.

Happy memories 20 years on or is this the series that still leaves you cold? Why not drop a line and tell us why!