Saturday, 20 August 2016

Voyager Season Three: The Big Reveal

The conclusion of Basics proved that Voyager could capably complete a two-parter and make it work over two seasons.

The loss of Lan Suder was perhaps inevitable but even a few years later I still wonder how he would have affected the ship if he'd survived. I mean the guy is a one man killing machine taking down a whole engineering team of Kazon to save the ship. I do enjoy Voyager's two-parters and the third season packs in this one plus Future's End which is another top notch 90 minute effort.

Let's start properly with Basics though. The shipboard scenes are great with the cat and mouse game being played out by the Doctor and Suder against the Ogla led by Cullah and Seska. It successfully closes off two years of Kazon antics and these guys are never seen again in an original episode. Many hurrahs for sure across fandom but there were definitely worse enemies in this show than the "short Klingons". The crew's encounter with the natives on their new home feels like filler and you are clock-watching for when Voyager will show back up.

Future's End drops the crew onto 90's (at the time present-day) Earth and provides the Doctor with the mobile emitter but it does more than that, introducing Captain Braxton and confirming that Star Trek is in an alternate universe since Chronowerx is blatantly a social comment on Microsoft/Apple. Filled with action, gadgets and a baddie who still makes me uneasy, it's a worthy double-length story slap-bang in the middle of the year. Anyone else wonder about the Eugenics War???

The early stages of the year are somewhat less spectacular than Tom and Tuvok chasing a truck in a VW camper, Sacred Ground and False Profits are left overs from the previous season and aren't that bad to be honest. Sacred Ground brings out the Prime Directive and the whole non-interference topic once again and is pretty effective with Janeway taking a prime spot to save Kes' life. False Profits brings the two Ferengi from The Next Generation's The Price back as we discover them taking full - and not unexpected - advantage of a naive race. Back on first-run these two cheesed me off no end. Filler, average and nothing interesting but 20 years later they are both signs that Voyager was getting better. It's about characters, it's about exploring the rich background of the franchise and answering the "what if's". In fact False Profits is a decent Ferengi episode where Neelix is useful and contributes to some great scenes. There are far, far worse than these two eps - in this season as we will see - but first there's Flashback.

Cards on the table, it's not Trials and Tribble-ations. Nowhere near. George Takei (who wasn't in The Trouble with Tribbles) and the late Grace Lee Whitney are back to replicate their scenes from The Undiscovered Country plus some extra bits in a story that seems like it's taped together around the 1991 movie. Seeing Sulu and Rand in Star Trek again is a feast for fans but I just don't think either is totally comfortable here and the model work isn't up to scratch either. I know the Excelsior isn't the same model as in The Undiscovered Country and adds another nail into this substandard anniversary show. Going up against Deep Space Nine's seminal episode was a Kobayashi Maru if ever there was one but at least they tried.

Worst Case Scenario might not draw on history that far back but it does take a leaf out of the Voyager Origins casebook with one of the show's clever "What If" episodes along the same lines as Living Witness and the two-part Equinox, (there's another but I'm coming to that...) offering a view of the ship had the Maquis managed to take control. Only a holodeck program that goes wrong (again) but one possible option we never got to experience. Bringing back Seska (she's back again in season seven's Shattered) works very well and even more chilling is her after-death "revenge" on Tuvok by re-writing the scenario. A great story, it gets lost in an otherwise average year.

The only other episode this year to really draw on the past of the franchise is The Q and the Grey, returning everyone's favourite omnipotent being accompanied by the ever-watchable Suzie Plakson. Now I've loved Plakson as Selar, as K'Ehleyr and as Andorian Tarah in Enterprise. I even love her here as she's one of my favourite guest actresses but as a Q episode this is barrel-scraping, so much so that when we get to Q2 in season seven (yep, four Q-free years after this garbage) I think the producers were on the verge of ordering a new shiny reinforced barrel. A civil war and Q procreation are awful concepts not too far off the Warp Five speed limit controversy of The Next Generation's final year. Gladly it's not repeated, just heaped on top.

Macrocosm attempts to do for Janeway what Starship Mine did for Picard and while it doesn't quite manage to turn her into the female Starfleet John MacClaine it's a valiant effort with a rare (at this time) CGI alien being that's a little bit terrifying and makes this episode a little bit of a guilty pleasure. It's pure action, moderate nonsense but very enjoyable as the captain suits up to kick some bacterial arse.

Season three seems to have a few episodes I either erased from my mind or never paid that much attention to in the '90's. There are two of those culprits later in the season, the first one being Fair Trade. Even the three line synopsis on the DVD gave me no clue as to which episode this was. Ten minutes in and I was none the wiser and even by the closing credits I was still wondering if I'd ever watched it in the first place. Now it's not a shocker, it;s probably one of the stronger Neelix episodes and it has something that actually shows that time - and space - have passed in that the Talaxian is starting to become "redundant". Great touch that I felt worked well for the development of the series and this maligned character. 

Neelix also has a prominent role in Tuvok and the Great Metal Elevator or Rise as it's titled here. A whodunnit in the classic confined space combined with one of sci-fi's biggest tropes. While Voyager was always seeking the concept angle it's heavily recycled here providing average season filler with little character exposition for the sake of some nice CGI.

Another one from the vault that my memory forgot is Coda. I remember there being a massive build up for this one which saw the return of the Vidiians and acted as a springboard for Jeri Taylor's Mosaic novel (which I managed to get hold of last year). Examining Janeway's character it's the strongest episode to focus on the character from the start of the show, opening up both her strengths and weaknesses in a so-so episode. 

Things don't tend to really kick into gear until the closing seconds of the Lets All Pon Farr episode, Blood Fever where the Borg finally turn up. We have to wait another ten episodes for them to actually prove a viable threat but even the hint of their presence in the show - something we had been waiting for since Caretaker - meant the remote possibility that this series was going to take it up a notch or three. On this note I was actually right but let's come to that in a moment.

To get to that season finale there's a ton of good and bad. The Borg-teasing Unity brings familiar Alpha Quadrant races back into the fold who want to be in a collective rather than have their total individuality. A good Chakotay story (yes, seriously) that places him in a very precarious role and at least the experience is something that the writers chose to reuse in the conclusion of Scorpion at the beginning of the following season.

Talking of underused characters, Ensign Kim is almost conspicuous in the third season after The Chute. That episode is one of my favourite stories of the year however and even knowing the twist on a rewatch didn't ruin it. There's a lot to like here and entrusting the bulk of the screen time to Wang and McNeill works really well. It is a lost situation for them as they try and survive as best they can and there are some very distinct religious and social overtones that are less than subtle throughout. Watch for the "Christ" moment if you know what I mean! 

Harry's other big story before he's attacked by Species 8472 in Scorpion is Favorite Son. Is Harry an alien? No; not a chance in hell and guess what - he isn't. Now if they had kept that in it would have been a moment of genius totally inspired and against all expectations but the fact that we just know there will be a reset and Ensign Kim is 100% human from the start takes all the emotional power from the tale. Voyager had a tendancy to do grandiose, dangle the carrot and then whip the rug out from under your feet on a few occasions - just check out the ending of Year of Hell if you want to see probably it's biggest offender or perhaps the final 30 seconds of Endgame.

The Doctor also gets a fair share of screen time to indulge in flippant wastes of ship resources especially in the torrid Real Life although his turn as something not far off Jack the Ripper in the earlier Darkling is almost inspired if a little predictable even before the "big" reveal not that far into the episode. Potentially that early epoch saves the episode from ruin and heavily relies on Robert Picardo - a trait that would continue with zest in the later years when coupled with Seven of Nine.

For me within that end of season batch there are a couple of stand out episodes. One is Before and After and the second is Distant Origins. I'll address the Kes time travel one first in that it might be standard temporal breakfast for Star Trek but it's a late blast of greatness from Lien given that her exit from the show would come so abruptly in the fourth season. It drops a few hints at what is to come from the Krenim in Year of Hell plus provides a glimpse of how Voyager might have evolved had the journey taken the lifetime it was suggested back in the first season. I think this is one of those stories we needed to see to tempt us with the future and the "could be" options just in the way that Parallels did very late for The Next Generation. One note though that the Krenim were originally supposed to have been the third season cliffhanger but Scorpion took that slot relegating Annorax and co to the following year.

To be fair it had been a pretty poor year for old Kes since her only other major starring role had been in the (equally good) Warlord chewing out cast and scenery in what should be a standard body-swap episode. This is fairly by numbers from start to finish but Jennifer Lien's swaggering performance does raise its profile but not enough that it's going to scar any top 20's.

As I said though, the end of the year also presented what I consider to be one of the show's classics; Distant Origin. Proving that Voyager could nail high concept once again, the episode is much more orientated to the perspective of the dinosaur-descended Professor Gegen and the Voth than it is the main cast. It's a good move allowing an unusual look at the human condition and contemplating just how we might be considered from another viewpoint. In fact our existence debunks their very idea of evolution. A good Chakotay episode again! Wow, they really screwed with this guy in the later years didn't they?

Season three does close with one of the show's biggest ever episodes that I would easily include in the same breath as Living Witness, Blink of an Eye, Timeless and Equinox - Scorpion

Returning the Borg to the small screen after their makeover for First Contact can't have been that easy and it's a finale that gets a lot right but isn't perfect. I still question the decision to give the Borg their own nemesis if you will but you can't fault the power of the pre-titles teaser nor the scope of Voyager's first Borg encounter proper.

Species 8472, Star Trek's first major CG baddie are a huge threat to just about everything and fortunately weren't overused by the show (although they still did a humanise-the-enemy ep which was unnecessary) and left Voyager to take on the Borg as its main threat. Scorpion showed the true opportunities that the series could explore - the real dangers of the Delta Quadrant and a storyline that could truly be ongoing. Of course we had no idea what the concluding part would bring - or who.

What was the highlight of season three? Do you think Voyager was right to bring back the Borg?

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