Saturday, 23 February 2019

Borg Free: Voyager's Fourth Season

What is it with fourth seasons?

Deep Space Nine brought in Worf and then two years later Seven of Nine steps onto Voyager

It's a landmark moment for the show as Kes departs and Jeri Ryan eased (perhaps not the best word) into the catsuit. Scorpion, Part II which kicks off the year is devoid of silvery bodywear however as we see Janeway forge a Borg alliance to defeat the CG-evil of Species 8472. A bold move to make the Borg an ally for the episode and rightfully they do go back on their word/try and do things better almost from the word go. Seven of Nine provides a voice for the Collective in much the same way as Locutus although there is never a desire to leave the Borg at any point unlike Picard's enforced alter-ego.

I like Scorpion and both parts are solid instalments and I do wonder how it would have worked if not for the Seven-as-contact device used here. Understandably the year is dominated by her arrival and she is used at every possible occasion although the only real Seven episodes are this opener, The Raven which eludes to some of the former drone's backstory as well as introducing us to her parents' crashed research vessel. A necessary tale to give us some breadcrumbs around Seven's origins which would be revisited a year later.

The other major Seven episodes of the year actually close out the year. Firstly there's the One letting Ryan flex her wings solo for a good portion of the episode as she oversees the ship through a region of space deadly to the crew if awake. Then there's Hope and Fear, which acts as a bookend to the season and notes how far Seven has come. The Janeway/Seven relationship is clearly evolving at this point.

While we were welcoming a Borg, we said goodbye to Kes. Her story would most likely have taken the line of Before and After, seeing her grow old over the course of the series but instead she ascended to some higher plane of existence which allowed for a return if required. The Gift is her episode but not Lien's strongest as it's there to do a job to finalise her arc and quickly show what could have been. Well, we might get another opportunity...

The biggest events of the year were keystoned with two stunning two-part stories. Year of Hell - originally envisaged as the finale of season three, its Voyager going concept once again but on another level. The vision to play out a whole year of action is like nothing else before it. Voyager is battered within an inch of oblivion, not everyone survives and again we're teased with a what-could-have-been before the big reset button gets pressed. 

The other huge season moment came in the form of the Hirogen mini-arc that trailed through Message in a Bottle, Hunters, Prey and finally The Killing Game. The first part introduced their communications network and brought Voyager into contact with the Alpha Quadrant for the first time proper and I feel marks a cornerstone of the show opening up a whole new direction that would be further realised though the Pathfinder thread in seasons six and seven. Hunters and Prey revealed the true nature of the Hirogen who remain my favourite original Voyager villains and are very much episodes there to set up the excellent two part arc finale.  

For the second time in Star Trek history the Second World War takes centre stage as one of the multiple scenarios the Hirogen are running across Voyager's expanded holodecks to continue the hunt.  In a similar way to the later Workforce, the crew are unaware of whom they truly are,  forced to endure life-threatening injuries over and over as the Hirogen hone their skills. It's one of Voyager's more violent moments but executed ever so well, possibly because I find the Hirogen so watchable. Their only other appearance however would be in season seven's Flesh and Blood. Talking of reappearances, the episode Demon would also introduce a duplicate biomimetic crew who would return a year later in Course: Oblivion. While this first story brought these creatures into the show, it would be that later sequel that would really be the stronger of their two appearances.

Along with the Hirogen arc and Hope and Fear,  the real highlight of season four has to be Living Witness. Sending us into the future beyond Voyager's time, the Doctor is reactivated on a world which sees the Starfleet vessel as a terrifying battleship crewed by dark misinterpretations of Janeway and the others. Part investigation,  part exploration of the way in which history can be rewritten to suit a cause,  Living Witness may be a Doctor story but the ideas and changes that are made within the narrative are very, very clever indeed. I would rate it as one of Voyager's best ever episodes and demonstrated that the show was much better when it pushed the envelope and went into conceptual territory that neither Deep Space Nine.

Aside from these the rest of season four is surprisingly mediocre. Each of the main cast gets their moment in the limelight but there are very few major standout episodes. One, in which Seven is the only crew member left awake to run the ship when Voyager chances across a toxic area of space, certainly leaves Jeri Ryan to shine in a season which has definitely focused on the new arrival. One leaves the actress very much solus and takes her exit from a collective consciousness to another extreme of solitude. Seven also turns out to be the saviour of the moment with the Doctor in Scientific Method. An episode that borders on slight horror, the crew are being subjected to experiments that they are unable to see. When Seven does get to take a glimpse out of phase we see all sorts of contraptions being stuck to the crew to aid the Srivani's "work".

Concerning Flight earlier in the year is a Janeway moment for example but more than likely remembered for the second - and final - appearance of John Rhys-Davies as Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci. Taking a character off the holodeck is fun but by this point its getting old hat. Bit too much formula recycling on this one even if it does rely on the holoemitter rather than a transporter accident. Kate Mulgrew's other biggie of the year (besides the finale) is The Omega Directive which turns thirty years of lore on its head just with the title. The concept of something that could overrule the Prime Directive is inspired with Janeway going super-secretive under the ruling of one of Starfleet's most serious commands. Adding a Borg perspective into the episode made it even better especially since we got to see what they aspire to become.

Chakotay even manages a decent outing in Nemesis. An early entry to the year, it deals with mind control and conditioning pretty successfully. The first officer is totally immersed in the belief that he is fighting a dangerous enemy when in fact he's been influenced through an impressive "media" campaign/training programme. Only let down? Some of the "alien" communication forms are a bit cliched. Still one of those episodes which improves over time as I was never that taken with it in the 90's.

He's also centre-stage for the nightmare episode Waking Moments. Taking a lead from both Night Terrors and Schisms it seems we have baddies lurking in a sleeping state who plan to take over the ship through the crew's sleepy time. I actually really enjoy this one because it is just so perverse and a little crackers. Tragically any call for Chakotay to seek out some mystical stuff is a bit cringe-inducing and somewhat wrong that Native Americans are being stereotyped into this hole by the show. 

And the others? Well, B'Elanna gets to drift around in space for her Day of Honor in a low rate Klingon-related story that has her flitting about her mixed heritage. Shame with these is that anything Klingon was being nailed a lot more successfully on Deep Space Nine with Worf and/or Martok. B'Elanna also gets top billing in Random Thoughts again at the early end of season four. With the arrival of Seven you do get the feeling that the producers were keen to remind us this wasn't a three horse show before it solidly became just that. Random Thoughts plays on that Klingon background again with the added bonus of a black market trade in violent thoughts. Where does Voyager come up with these curve balls? The season does offer a lot of variation if not all of top quality. In this case the story does become a little over talky but does deliver something provoking that pushes me to rewatch it.

Paris perhaps fairs the worst of the main cast, getting just one strong individual outing in Vis a Vis. It's a good opportunity for Robert Duncan McNeill to shine and play a different character and add an ounce of comedy into his performance. Not a top liner for the season in this story but certainly enjoyable and easier to recollect than some others I can think of.

As for Neelix well, he dies. Maybe this was some kind of sick joke by the producers but he does actually kick the space bucket only to be revived by Seven's nanoprobes within the televisual hour of Mortal Coil. Therein follows a ton of soul searching and moral dilemmas which, probably, no-one watching was really fussed about. Probably the drabbest moment of the year and certainly instantly forgettable as an episode. Would I drop this into my worst of the show list? Yep. Unquestionably.

The concluding episode of the year - and oddly not a cliffhanger either - is the superb Hope and Fear. As noted it does play on that Janeway/Seven combination that became a staple of the show and certainly had its moments in this year most notably with this episode. Hope and Fear has a simple enough plot which links in the communication with the Alpha Quadrant, a possible way home, the Borg, key relationships and a cool new ship design all in just 45 minutes. Potentially one of the most packed Voyager episodes ever and yet it works out perfectly.

A strong year for Voyager and one that would indeed be built on with the equally notable fifth season. Back in the day I did enjoy a good episode from the show but this return 15 years later has highlighted how great and original it could be. As with Deep Space Nine, Voyager was doing things that neither The Original Series nor The Next Generation could with their more singular episodic outlook.

Was season four Voyager's finest hour? Did it build on the legacy?

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