Friday, 17 January 2020

Caretaker, Voyager and 25 Years On

A small raider is pounded by phaser fire from a Galor Class starship; a diversion into the Badlands follows, using the plasma storms to slow the Cardassians. 

The Maquis ship is scanned and then hit with an energy wave of unknown origin...and so begins the seven year adventure that was Voyager

Designed as the starship successor to The Next Generation, Voyager still had to be markedly different to that series and from the off it was clear this wouldn’t be as comfy a ride as we were used to. Gone was the familiarity of the Alpha Quadrant, Klingons, Romulans, the Federation and Deep Space Nine with a whole new quarter of the galaxy to explore. 

New allies, new enemies, new worlds to explore and a virtual free reign to create something totally new as the USS Voyager and her mixed crew of Starfleet and Maquis were forced to cooperate to survive and make it 75000 light years back to Earth. 

Caretaker is one of the stronger Star Trek pilots delivering action and adventure in spades and providing a handy contrast to the more spiritual and cerebral Emissary from two years previous. It offered viewers the potential for inter-crew conflict, differences to be settled and a new, formidable enemy to keep the crew on their toes.

Now at the time my Star Trek affiliations leaned more heavily towards the static Deep Space Nine than the pioneering Voyager. Granted, the Kate Mulgrew-led series had a much better first season, it was plagued with temporal anomalies, swirly-things in space and the like plus an odd urge to try and tie things back to the Alpha Quadrant with both the Romulans (Eye of the Needle) and Barclay (Projections - filmed for season one and shown with season two). Deep Space Nine had endured a rocky first season and this was much smoother running; each week a new story as the ship travelled home plus the occasional return of the Vidiians or the Kazon to up the ante and provide some form of continuity that had been missing from The Next Generation for instance.

But by the time Voyager premiered, Deep Space Nine was cutting a distinct mark in the Star Trek universe and was already deep into its third season which would really kick off the ongoing Dominion story arc plus herald the arrival of the popular USS Defiant. There was conflict, the station was host to a variety of characters within the main and secondary cast and this would only go from strength to strength to strength under the watchful eye of Ira Steven Behr.

Voyager on the other hand really had me lost when it came to its continuity and the promise from Caretaker and this wasn't just something that occurred in the first season. As documented and discussed numerous times, the conflict with the Maquis quickly fizzled and it's most evident if you watch Parallax with Torres and Carey and sporadically over the first two seasons from pre-Cardassian Seska and then Jonas as we head towards Basics.

In some respects, Voyager played its first year very, very safe which was a shame after the promise of Caretaker which still holds up today. The Doctor for one is tremendously watchable in his series of fleeting appearances, Kim has something to do and it's not just scan an anomaly, Chakotay has a bit of spark and Paris hasn't been neutered. There's lots bubbling away in that hour and half story which even makes the Ocampa and the fake-Klingons seem interesting. 

Voyager needed to keep its edge and with all the Maquis setup from The Next Generation's Journey's End and Pre-Emptive Strike through Deep Space Nine's The Maquis two parter, the resulting powder keg was flooded with water, only reminding us in Worst Case Scenario and Shattered significantly later in the run that there had actually been two crews in the first place.

Voyager did look great from the off and there are some wondrous gems in the first year; The Phage, Eye of the Needle, State of Flux and maybe add in there Heroes and Demons for the Doctor. These offered standout moments but the uniqueness of Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation isn't there. The sense of separation and reliance on limited supplies doesn't have an impending urgency to it and for me, Voyager only really comes to life when it enters its third season, putting distance between itself, the Kazon and any mouldy cheeses that might be lying around.

Ok so it does the traditional thing of taking a season and a bit to really get going and we can debate Blue Alert, the never ending number of shuttles, Kim’s rank and lizard sex for hours but the fact is that the legacy of Star Trek: Voyager has lasted and, fair play to it, the show launched a network. When Netflix announced which episodes were most watched, it was The Next Generation and Voyager that dominated all ten positions with Endgame as number one most re-watched and the show taking six of the slots. Christ, even Time and Again got in there.

Where Voyager eventually succeeded was in pushing out into more high concept stories and away from a simple story relying on an anomaly or the holodeck (however there would be some exceptions - looking at you, Fair Haven). Check out Blink of an Eye, Living Witness, the mesmerizing Counterpoint and even later episodes like Workforce to see that Voyager became the series where anything went. It's the only series in which a regular is reduced in rank - and it's for more than the length of the episode, for example. It managed to handle lots of standalone stories but still encompassed more than one story arc with the Hirogen, the Borg and the Pathfinder project all offering contained plots along the way.  Interestingly the one that you would have expected to have lasted right to the final episode, that of finding the female Caretaker was firmly closed mid-way through season two with Cold Fire which left the ending very open indeed.

As a crew goes, Voyager is probably full of the most vanilla characters in Star Trek leaving the later seasons firmly in the hands of Janeway, Seven of Nine and the Doctor with the remaining ensemble filling in where necessary. That trio are some of Star Trek's strongest and most memorable creations and were the most heavily explored almost from the second that Seven stepped out of the dry ice in Scorpion, Part II. For many, that was a massive restart for the show although for myself I'd finally succumbed (not to Deep Space Nine levels) with the third season's Future's End as well as season two's brilliant Death Wish and the clever build up to the arrival in Borg space.

For me, Voyager was the series I could go to if there was no Sisko and a wormhole while for many it was top of the list even ahead of Kirk or Picard's adventures and perhaps there's an even bigger indication of how much love Voyager has within fandom over its oddball space station cousin. Janeway turned up in Nemesis and with next week’s arrival of Picard we will see Seven back on screen for the first time since 1999 with rumours already circulating that the Doctor could be putting in an appearance for season two. Any sign of Deep Space Nine characters? Not a word.

So 25 years on and Voyager is still flying strong, demonstrating that Star Trek needed that new frontier, its first female captain and a bold brave step into the Delta Quadrant. What will the effect of the technology it brought back have had on the Federation? Will this be something that we will have explained and explored in the near future?

For now let's just celebrate the last Star Trek series to complete a planned run and not be cancelled short. It is one of only three to date to have a fully planned and realised conclusion and a show that has a plethora of well-constructed episodes that push writing boundaries more than any other Star Trek series. 

Happy 25th Star Trek: Voyager!

What's your memory from watching Caretaker for the first time?

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