Friday, 26 June 2015

Eating My Words: Caretaker

For years I regarded it as the lesser Star Trek, the series too far, the show that really disappointed and a point in my full run-through that I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy.

Star Trek: Voyager is, as you might have noticed, 20 years old and recently I finally finished Deep Space Nine (massively let down with that last episode this time round) which meant lining up Caretaker

For us in the UK, today has even more significance. It's 20 years exactly since we hurried down the high street to Woolworths and purchased the pilot of the third spin-off, cracked open the plastic case and digested all the wonderful tech info and teasers contained on the sleeve. It was a wonderous experience and these were the days when the box was more than just a transportation item - it was a way into the franchise before you even stuck the tape into the player - and hoped it didn't get chewed on first viewing.

I still recall that first watching; being amazed at the Doctor, loving the hand-over at Deep Space Nine and finding it such a different take to the previous two incarnations. We were back on a starship, somewhere new; the unknown with possibilities galore.

I haven't seen Caretaker since the early 2000's - most likely around the time I watched Endgame and even then it would have been on that very same VHS; Volume 1.1 from CIC Video. 

I flashback to 1994 and remember the rumours, the cast suggestions, the arrival and speedy departure of Genevieve Bujold as Nicole Janeway which only mounted more expectation and hype onto this new child of the franchise. When it did arrive on UK shores some seven months later in July of 1995 to say excitement and anticipation were at fever pitch was very far from the truth; we were way beyond that mark by about March.

Two decades on and Caretaker is, honestly, a great pilot episode. I've derided Voyager a lot in my time for Warp 10, cheese, Neelix, making the Borg all cuddly, having an infinite number of shuttles/torpedoes/crew (delete as applicable) but in Caretaker there is a gold (maybe latinum) mine worth of potential - and the show literally threw it away by the end of the first year and chose another path.

Caretaker is action and adventure to Emissary's more cerebral, philosophical and typically Roddenberry approach to Star Trek. It opened an arc, set the pieces in place and laid out a gameboard that could be developed over subsequent seasons. It would be in one place (which was also true of The Next Generation to some degree) but with Voyager they were alone, lost and would be constantly on the move. Change would be the most constant element and that was one of its unique selling points.

However that's not what appealed to me at the start. I was sold on the conflict, the inter-crew relationships, the difficulty of two crews that disliked each other having to work together for the sole goal of getting home - with the more than occasional detour to look at the anomaly of the week or for Janeway to waste some resources playing at Victorian nanny.

Deep Space Nine had two crews united for the good of Bajor and the Federation who wanted to work together because there was a bigger vision while on Voyager the crews were only looking to be comrades for a short time (maybe) with a sole purpose in mind. But, all the conflict was ditched as soon as the credits rolled on Parallax and Torres was made Chief Engineer. There were touches during the second season's Kazon arc that culminated in Basics and then Worst Case Scenario in year three would drop like a stone to remind us of what could have been - imagine if the season one cliffhanger had been the Maquis trying to take the ship rather than Tuvok playing teacher to some dropouts? Imagine a second year with the Maquis taking priority.

The show chose to play it safe and avoided playing to whatever made it different but Caretaker remains that snapshot of what could have been. The anger and mistrust that could have developed from the Chakotay/Tuvok relationship would have been great to see evolve as would the slow, difficult integration of the two crews. It's perhaps only in season two with that Kazon/Michael Jonas story that we see that thread gather any pace. When we do have stories about the Maquis crew though it makes their swift amalgamation into the crew even more obvious and makes the landmark decisions of the pilot episode seem a distant memory.

But let's focus on Caretaker some more before discussing the rest of the show as I will in my season reviews. Harry Kim has a huge role within the pilot, being captured by the title character and being the audience's eyes and ears within the Ocampan city. His role is pivotal alongside B'Elanna to give the viewpoints of both crews which is something that no other Star Trek series had previously attempted. The #eternalensign ends up spending the rest of the season scanning nebulas and it's only the late second and early third seasons where we see him begin to shine in episodes such as The Thaw, The Chute and getting to take command in Future's End.

While Harry might spend his entire trip home on the bottom rung of the ladder, it's amazing how much of the other characters' backgrounds is laid aside. Janeway's boyfriend is only mentioned fleetingly, Tuvok's age and experience are rarely impressed upon and Paris' rebellious nature gets parked for less a less than desirable womanising aspect of his personality notably until Thirty Days which is a fair way off at this point.

The Doctor at least was given the chance to develop as was the nature of his program within the story although in Caretaker he's not actually used that much. Mind, he is one of the best bits even if he has minimal screen-time. Then there's Neelix and Kes. who certainly polarised fans nearly to Wesley/Keiko levels and while only one of them made it to the seven year distant finishing line, some would argue it was the wrong one.

Caretaker has one element that is consistent with these latter pilots - a distinct, huge alien issue. For Picard's crew it was Q, for Sisko it was the wormhole aliens/the Prophets and pushes the crew to the limit from day one. Having the female version mentioned gave us something to look forward to and a lot of fans including myself may well have believed that her appearance - or at least her final appearance - would close off the show. In reality it provided a simple get-out clause if the concept of a lost starship didn't work and from the fact they sunk Cold Fire into season two and never mentioned Suspiria again you kind of tend to believe it had worked or at the least garnered enough support not to require a quick trip back to the Alpha Quadrant. The Caretaker is unusually not the threat here, desiring to find a solution to his Ocampan issue while holding off the hippie Kazon.

Encounter at Farpoint embraced its predecessor's episodic formula and drove that forward across its seven years, not setting too much up or expecting too much up from its cast. Yes, the first year is barrel-scrapingly bad on occasion but there were signs of gradual improvement once we skip over Code of Honor and get to know the developing characters. Deep Space Nine set a couple of bits in place - the wormhole, the Cardassians, but its fixed point in the Alpha Quadrant meant that these points could never be evaded, they had to be addressed and managed over seven seasons. Voyager could on the other hand escape plot points, move from one arc to another over the course of its trip and explore those differing opinions by placing the crew(s) into a variety of situations where one side might not always be right.

On that front it failed, perhaps in that there was too much front-loaded into the pilot that could not be effectively carried into subsequent single-length episode stories. Considering how the nine characters in this, the largest ensemble in Star Trek were managed, its not a surprise that balls were dropped and might explain why so few of the cast were given any considerable amount of time as the show evolved.

For me, Caretaker represents a dream, a possibility and a vision of Star Trek that may have truly offered that diversity and conflict that we couldn't get from the tight-knit crew of Picard's Enterprise while also giving us the week on week changes that Deep Space Nine's set location could not. However, this all said there would be some truly excellent stories, appearances and ultimately I believe that Voyager is the greatest Star Trek series for concepts - Timeless, Living Witness, Blink of an Eye...the list could easily go on as it tried to push the envelope knowing that each week it could dare to do something different.

Perhaps that gaggle of characters weren't too bad after all and their idiosyncracies really made the adventures into adventures, perhaps this was the ultimate Star Trek action show that occasionally just used a little too much technobabble to dodge a sticky ending. It perhaps was never meant to be a people show, rather about the phaser fights and the big set pieces with those bits of character detail purely there to make these people a bit deeper than action heroes. I now look forward to my own journey through the show and while it isn't Emissary, Caretaker is still a damn good place to meet these guys for the first time.

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