Last week I got so caught up in how Voyager’s first episode failed to ease new viewers into the situation, I forgot to actually cover anything else. Also, taken by itself, last week’s post might give you all the impression that I didn’t like Voyager. Truth is though, I do like Voyager. Sure, in a lot of places Voyager didn’t quite live up to the legacy of its predecessors, but I still enjoyed it. So today’s post is going to be a more thorough in-depth breakdown of the series, once again coming at it from a writing perspective. As someone who finds public speaking and performance to be right up there with skydiving in terms of the unspeakable dread that fills my soul, I’m in no position to criticize people’s acting. Overall, I think Voyager tackled very important moral and ethical questions in an entertaining matter, and kept true to the spirit of Star Trek. Sure it might have made a few mistakes, some of them pretty big, but basically its heart was in the right place.
Going over everything I liked about the show would be a huge task, so instead here are a few things I found exceptionally well done in the show:
The Doctor was a character that actually experienced growth during Voyager’s early seasons. The first season sees The Doctor (hereby to referred to as Doc) being constantly ignored by the crew and confined to sickbay, a tiny section of the ship. At first he’s just a program and he becomes annoyed when crew members forget to turn off his program. More to the point however, he’s distrustful of the rest of Voyager’s crew and dismissive of their physical complaints. At one point he basically tells a pregnant woman suffering back pain to “suck it up” and get back to work.
Luckily we have Kes, a friendly alien Voyager picks up from a nearby world. Since she wasn’t born in the Federation she doesn’t have the same prejudices against Doc as a holographic lifeform, and thus treats him as an actual human being. To the rest of the crew, and even to the audience at times, Doc is simply another holodeck character; a lifeless cipher with absolutely no value. It was actually quite a brilliant move to make a holographic character in this series, because long term viewers of the series would share the prejudice that holograms aren’t people. If you’ve been watching Star Trek since TNG like I had, you’d have seen countless holograms all vaporized into nothingness in countless episodes. Trying to accept that a hologram could become sentient was a journey that the audience got to share with the crew of Voyager. Over the course of three seasons he slowly moves from a small comic-relief character with pretty much no personality, to a full-blown individual who undertakes away missions and is forced to survive difficult circumstances that challenge his beliefs.
Like I’ve said many times before, a character that grows and changes during the course of the story is infinitely more interesting than one who remains static. By Season 4, The Doctor is a really well rounded character: Arrogant, compassionate, intelligent, and artistic. He developed various interests ranging from writing to opera (and has a great singing voice to boot.) As many of the crew on Voyager say, The Doctor outgrew his programming. He adapted and changed throughout the series.
Unfortunately after Kes leaves the show to be replaced by a larger cup size, The Doctor’s growth as a character comes to an end and for the rest of the series he remains more or less static. I think 7 of 9’s introduction to the series is ultimately what led to The Doctor’s stagnation, but I’ll get back to that later.
These were Voyager’s landmark episodes, the episodes where Voyager showed TV audiences its true potential as a series.
Scorpion part 1 and 2 were the cliffhanger episodes between Seasons 3 and 4, detailing Voyager’s navigation through Borg space and the introduction of Species 8972. I still remember watching this episode as a kid and gasping as I watched two Borg Cubes disintegrate before my eyes during the opening moments of the episode. The Borg are the biggest and baddest villain in the Star Trek universe, a single cube is capable of wiping out entire fleets of ship and assimilating millions of people. Voyager took the Borg and dialed them right up to 11 by suddenly throwing dozens of cubes at us, and then showing us a species that destroy them with as much ease as swatting a fly. The away mission to the destroyed cube is one of the most intense and atmospheric scenes I’ve ever seen in Star Trek, slowly creeping through a devastated ship with dead Borg littering the hallways. Then we get some pretty impressive CGI as the enormous 8972 bursts through a god damn wall and practically slices Harry Kim in half. Okay, maybe not in half, but it was intense. Harry Kim’s near death experience heightens the sense of danger in the story, which is rather rare in a Star Trek episode, and reinforces the horrific nature of the alien menace by telling us that Harry is essentially being eaten alive by the alien cells that have invaded his body.
Now there is the rumor that Garret Wang (Harry Kim) was actually going to leave in Season 3, until he was named sexiest man in some magazine and the producers kept him, opting to fire Kes instead. I have no idea if that’s true, but it does explain why the imminent death of Harry Kim managed to feel so real in Part 1 of Scorpion and the suddenness of his recovery in Part 2. Whatever the reason, this was really the first episode in the series where I ever felt that Voyager was in actual danger of being destroyed, which is something that was sorely lacking in the series, and if Voyager’s survival had remained that uncertain throughout the series, I think the show would have been considerably improved. The Year of Hell series of episodes gave a brief glimpse of what might have been.
The Year of Hell
The Year of Hell was a special 2 part episode where Voyager is being constantly attacked, and by the end of part 1, so damaged that a majority of the crew is forced to abandon ship. Now, while Voyager used time travel waaayyy too much during their run, this was one episode that actually did something with the idea of time travel aside from just using it as a convenient plot device. The giant Krenim Time Ship was a pretty awesome weapon to contemplate, and I thought they did an excellent job of showing the ramifications of altering time. When Chakotay simulates destroying a comet, he fails to consider the entire history of that comet, which results in the comet never seeding several alien worlds with primitive DNA and thus several species never come into existence. It’s then revealed that Annorax made the same mistake, eliminating the Krenim’s greatest rival, but in the process opening up their species to a vicious plague. The final climax of the episode arc, as the Time Ship collapses around him, is Annorax’s realization that his attempts to save his wife always failed to account for one critical detail: the existence of the time ship itself. Once the ship is destroyed, time is restored, and Annorax regains his wife by never having made the thing.
I think that’s the difference between a meaningful plot device and a Deus Ex Machina designed to save the characters from danger: it has an important impact on the story and the device affects the character’s beyond simply saving their lives. Basically if the plot device exists only for its own sake or to save the characters, it needs to go. I think I’ll go into plot devices and the Deus Ex Machina in this weekend’s post, other wise this post is going to really go off the rails. What I really liked was the damage that Voyager accumulates over the episode and the increasing sense of desperation along the way: it’s a microcosm of what Voyager could have been.
See my biggest complaint about Voyager is that you never really feel like Voyager is really in any danger, and that’s a crucial part of any story. Voyager is supposed to be 70+ years away from Earth, and any form of logistical or strategic support. No reinforcements, no replacements for dead crew members, no supplies. They’re having to survive in the wild basically, yet we never see any sort of deprivation among the crew. The holodecks work, the replicators provide ample food, and no one really seems all that bothered that home and heart is 50,000 lightyears away. I think Voyager should have been the Year of Hell over the course of it’s entire run. Here’s how I envision it could have gone down:
Over the course of seven seasons, Voyager slowly begins breaking down. All the fighting and the normal wear and tear on the ship would eventually take its toll, right? Voyager meets countless space-faring races during its time in the Delta, where Voyager can do its normal song and dance of exploration and diplomacy, but get something tangible in return. Over time Voyager would start replacing broken parts by jury-rigging alien technology to replace them. Slowly we’d see Voyager turn from a pristine Federation starship, into an amalgamation of different parts from all different types of species working together to form a whole. Voyager would basically turn into a small, flying version of the Federation (an amalgamation of different alien species working together to form a whole). I think thematically, it could have been a great addition to the story of Voyager.
Among the crew, we could see how each person adapts to life on the frontier. Do they turn into a ruthless band of pirates trying to survive by any and all means necessary? Or do they (more likely since it’s Star Trek) band together and survive everything the Delta quadrant throws at them. Now, to be fair, Voyager basically is the latter option, but my main complaint is that the entire crew already seems to be at that point by the start of the second season. We, the audience, never get to see any of the strife and conflict that would inevitably break out in a situation like that. Where’s the initial panic when they find out they’re all trapped? Where’s the desperate search for food when their energy reserves are too low to use the replicators? Where is our glimpse at a crew slowly getting cabin fever after years stuck in the same ship?
Instead of showing us all the possible scenarios being stranded in space that might happen, we get a lot of contrived dangers instead. The Kazon, while an interesting race in their own right, were never really all that threatening to Voyager in terms of reinforcing the stakes of the narrative. Did anyone really doubt that Captain Janeway would get Voyager back at the end of Season 2? The writer’s of Voyager came up with a whole ton of episodes centered around some contrived threat to their survival, when all along they had a treasure trove of good, logical story lines just waiting to be told about Voyager’s fight for survival…stories that were never told and now never will be. Which brings me, inevitably, to the two greatest mistakes Voyager made…
Mistake 1: Neutering the Borg
I think the Borg are the greatest sci-fi villain I’ve ever seen in any sci-fi story. Whoever helped come up with the idea of the Borg, designed their ships, and came up with the look of the Borg Drones, is a god damn genius. It’s the the idea of the Borg that is truly the most frightening, because think of what other typical species come up with in terms of danger: they just want to kill you. Oh sure, they kill you in impressively inventive ways, but at the end of the day you’re still just dead. Hell, we all die eventually, the fact that our end might come at the end of a pair of alien pincers just spices up the doldrum of the normal routine.
The Borg, however, don’t let you drift quietly into that good night. Instead you’re taken aboard their ship, borg nanites invade your body like a virus, and painfully invasive procedures are performed (up to and including amputation of limbs) to implant you with advanced cybernetic systems. The worst, part however, is that your mind is linked into their collective consciousness. In that instant everything you are is gone, your hopes, dreams, fears, memories, everything that makes you who you are vanishes in an instant. According to Jean-Luc Picard after his assimilation experience, you remain conscious the whole time as well, watching helplessly as your body does as the collective commands and unable to do anything but witness the atrocities you commit with the hands you no longer control.Now that is scary. Then you add in their relentlessness, their technological superiority, and their seemingly endless number and you’ve got the biggest, baddest villain ever to grace the human imagination.
That was before Voyager declawed, defanged and deballed the entire species in only a handful of episodes. Okay, actually it all started with Star Trek: First Contact by introducing the Borg Queen. Part of the Borg’s menace was the fact it was ruled by a collective conciousness, there were no leaders. That meant that they played by a whole other ruleset: greed, lust for power, political gain, territorial expansion, all the things wars are normally started over weren’t applicable to the Borg. They were like the Reapers (from ME1 obviously), they were so alien that understanding them was beyond us. But then the Borg Queen comes along and turns the Borg from an unknowable force pursuing goals beyond our comprehension, into an insect colony.
But Voyager took a bad situation and made it infinitely worse. By the end of Season 7, they were completely neutered. One episode shows a Voyager stealing a transwarp conduit from the Borg and then infiltrates the Unimatrix of all the borg, and manages to escape unharmed using technology developed by Seven of Nine’s parents. Not to mention we continually run into Borg ships neutralized by simple single-celled viruses waayy too often. And remember how scary the whole “your individuality is gone” concept was? Well apparently all you need is a hypospray to prevent you from becoming part of the hive. At the end of Season 6, Janeway and company purposefully allow themselves to be assimilated, but its okay because they took a hypo of space magic that kept them from being integrated into the hive. Ummm…okay?
Yeah, apparently Captain Picard was just being a gigantic pussy that whole time he was Locutus of Borg. This all culminates with the Finale where the Borg are utterly discredited as a threat as Voyager plows through dozens of cubes and blows up a Borg installation the size of a large planet all by itself. Which brings me to my final complaint:
Mistake 2: The Ending…Again
Seriously, what’s the matter with you people?! ‘
No really. I need to know why everything I love seems to fumble the ball right at the 1 yard line.
So yes, once again, the ending of Voyager is terrible. In fact it’s like a dress rehearsal for the failure of Mass Effect 3, they both fumble the ball at a critical moment. Aside from the overly convoluted plot of the final episode, which once again drags time travel into the mix as if that hasn’t been done fifty times already in the series, there’s also that one critical issue that we’ve all seen before: A lack of resolution.
Much like in Mass Effect 3, Voyager gives up any meaningful character growth or relevant plot developments in exchange for an overly dramatic final confrontation with a big baddie (this time the Borg Queen and not a Catalyst). There’s a bunch of worthless battles, old and tired repetitious arguments about time travel (again) and some really contrived coincidences like the Borg having a tunnel leading right to Earth, but for some reason never used it to assimilate Earth because…well they just couldn’t be bothered I guess. And then we get the final scene of Voyager:
Now, I’ll admit right now that Janeway’s “Set a course for home” gave me goosebumps. Still does. However, Voyager floating off toward Earth is insufficient closure for a 7 year series. Once again we fail to get that slow release of tension, and we fail to see the character’s return to a more normal state. We don’t even get to see Tom Paris hold his daughter, even though that was a major plot point for the entire final season. We never get to see any of the crew members we’ve been rooting for reunite with their families. Compare that above video to The Next Generation’s ending:
Look at how long that took, 2 minutes and I leave that scene with a smile on my face and a warm glow in my heart. Or if they wanted to go the bitter sweet route, they could have done like it like Deep Space 9’s ending:
These are scenes where the audience can slowly relieve that tension that was built up, and remember all the great times they’ve had watching the show. It’s hopeful, uplifting and yet ever so slightly depressing because you know everything is coming to an end. The characters are going on with their lives, going their separate ways, but they’ll always share the bond they forged on Deep Space 9. Deep Space 9’s ending had issues too, but it wasn’t the final resolution/closure part, and that in my opinion, is the most critical part of any ending.