15 January 2013

Voyager Season 1

Voyager Season 1 Rocky, but Shows Promise
By Kristin Battestella

Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her state of the art Intrepid class vessel Voyager enter the Badlands region of space in pursuit of former Starfleet office Chakotay (Robert Beltran) and his missing Maquis renegades- whom Janeway’s tactical officer, the Vulcan Lieutenant Tuvok (Tim Russ) has infiltrated. The mysterious Caretaker pulls the Maquis ship into the far-flung and unexplored Delta Quadrant, and the pursuing Voyager suffers the same fate. Stranded 75,000 light years from Earth, Starfleet Command, and The United Federation of Planets, Captain Janeway and her small skeleton crew – including ex-con pilot Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeil), a holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo), alien refugees Neelix (Ethan Phillips) and Kes (Jennifer Lien), and the angry half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres (Roxanne Biggs-Dawson) – must adhere to Prime Directive protocols as Voyager encounters friends and foes on the long journey home.

I was a bit apprehensive as our recent Star Trek re-watch omnibus segued from Deep Space Nine to the next live action spinoff Star Trek: Voyager.  Honestly, my memories of Voyager will filled with a whole lot of meh and Next Generation backward déjà vu. However, I actually positively recalled more episodes of this debut season then I expected, including “State of Flux,” “Heroes and Demons,” and “Jetrel.” The full-length season opener “Caretaker” is a good little adventure and shows Voyager’s potential for unique concepts and additions to the Trek canon. Yes, the TNG kinship is often too apparent, and this brand spanking new show waits two whole episodes before invoking clichéd time travel cause and effect paradoxes in “Parallax” back to back with “Time and Again” – which also finishes with a seriously premature reset button.  Though well acted with interesting SF adventures and space faring spins, it is just too early in Voyager’s journey to unnecessarily resort to stock material.  Repeat techno babble, same old same old visual effects, and other Trek conveniences are also obvious in exposing the well-worn wizard behind the curtain. “Phage” uses the same fun house mirror reflection devices as in “Parallax” – an otherwise fine Maquis versus Starfleet integration episode – and “The Cloud” is another “let’s break out of this anomaly!” hour.  Didn’t they just do this last week? We might get to know players in a crisis, sure, but we hardly know them daily – and that special ship bound tension is where Voyager’s strengths lie. The cast and quest are here, so stop interfering with this busy busy rehashing out the gate and let these new stories be told.

These behind the scenes hesitancies hamper Voyager indeed. Though set 75,000 light years from earth, Janeway and company encounter not just humanoid aliens, but peoples indistinguishable from humans. For “Time and Again,” the captain just changes her clothes to fit in – and that must be one heck of a Universal Translator to so expertly speak these never heard before languages!  Promising Prime Directive debates, crew stress, and political tensions are swept under the deck for a lot of unbelievable filler. The show runners want re-wrangle TNG viewers who left Deep Space Nine behind, that’s understandable. However, the core fan base is grossly under estimated at the same time. Today a show with this generic formula probably wouldn’t get a full 15-episode chance. And yes, the only reason the powers that be got away with having an entire network riding on Voyager’s nacelles was because of the Trek brand.  I feel I’ve been negative but make no mistake- the premise of Voyager is sound. The concept actually makes me wonder why there weren’t more one off movie length or three part limited Star Trek series- perhaps based on sanctioned novels or Excelsior adventures. 

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem like the staff had any inkling or forethought on how to proceed beyond their initial premise. Spec scripts were bought, but entire treatments were changed to the simplistic standard.  It almost feels like none of Voyager was planned ahead of time. The Star Trek team struck while television was ripe for it, but expansion is supposed to happen when your franchise is at its best, not when it is facing mediocrity on all fronts.   In reading the series’ background information, producer Brannon Braga sounds like an ass, complaining about buying scripts, rewriting, and generally being unhappy with this or that in the production process or televised outcome. If he was so unhappy from start to finish, why did he bother?  Why weren’t Voyager’s reins given to someone more interested in taking its angles on Trek to the next level beyond network interference? UPN scheduling made the charming lower decks conflict story “Learning Curve” the season finale, but the change feels like the safe familiar standard and a culmination of this misfire of possibility.  

Thankfully, Kate Mulgrew (Ryan’s Hope) has some lovely cinematic struggles as Captain Janeway. There’s no overt statements made about her having any difficultly captaining a starship because she is a woman, and that in itself is refreshing. Today everything is about chicks being chicks and feminism and careers versus family. Janeway had to leave her home life when Voyager was stranded, but so did everyone else. One could swap a male leader in almost all of her situations, as Janeway’s womanhood is not the fulcrum show in and show out. Her difficulties with adhering to the Prime Directive in “Prime Factors” are heavy and well done.  Although we do get to see hints of home dilemmas and her Bronte-ish holoprogram in “Eye of the Needle,” without superiors Janeway is allowed to go on away missions and get into the action. Unfortunately, this makes her second in command Chakotay a bit too dry. By necessity Janeway’s push ‘em thru feisty attitude is developed over Chakotay’s being a true masculine force. We should know a lot about him – Chakotay’s an ex- Starfleet loyalist who wears his heart on his sleeve – and there’s no lacking of him going to bat for others. However, this overly sensitive style takes a backseat to all the big Delta Quadrant decisions.  One is left wondering how this teddy bear with the wool pulled over his eyes could have been a ruthless Maquis leader. He’s unconscious and out of body in “Cathexis,” wow.

Robert Picardo (China Beach), by contrast, has quite the dynamic concept on Voyager. His holographic Doctor is bemusingly stuck between being an emergency system that is ignored by the rest of the crew and a vital person upon which they must all rely.  The Doctor’s deadpan bedside manner makes for some fun moments and personal touches with each of the cast, and yet episodes like “Phage” offer serious dilemmas for a character that technically isn’t even there. “Heroes and Demons” is also a charming Beowulf exploration for the Doctor, with a nice mix of heroism and humor amid good alien science fiction and storytelling. This type of individual holodeck adventure is a fine way to get to know the players, and more of this should have been done before some of the knock off plots that retread tired ideas. Likewise, the crew initially treats Ethan Phillips’ Neelix as somewhat quaint or annoying. However, his knowledge of the quadrant and his ideas on cooking and native customs shouldn’t be mocked. His tactics are quirky and fun, but new alien friends and Neelix’s serious SF issues and parallels in “Jetrel” are critical to both the ship and show. Jennifer Lien as Kes is also honest and heartwarming, even if her convenient budding psychic elements are too Betazoid headache. Though their friendship feels genuine, I do find her romance with Neelix a bit too awkward.  A pretty girl and a hedgehog?

He’s a louse with a chip on his shoulder to start, but Tom Paris isn’t as important to Voyager’s first season as perhaps he was supposed to be. There’s a bit of an angry Riker wannabe feeling, and the wronged man with the second chance to whom we must relate feels too forced. Young ensign Harry Kim is also too bland to be interesting, and “Emanations” doesn’t endear him at all. It’s a touch offensive in its empty views of the afterlife, actually. Harry’s devoid “I don’t know” answers on the subject don’t advance him or the plot, and yet this kind of heavy is the radical, deeper science fiction that Voyager should have built upon. Instead, the show feels hollow when it fixes death with a hypospray before moving on to another lightweight adventure. There is quality conflict and potential with the half Klingon Maquis engineer B’Elanna Torres, although her decent split halves dilemma in “Faces” is a bit typical and perhaps the episode comes too soon into Voyager’s journey. We don’t get to know B’Elanna as a whole before the bizarre is mucking her up. Tim Russ’ Tuvok is also given some disservice, as his rank isn’t even official because of a costume glitch!  “Ex Post Facto” is too much like Next Gen’s “A Matter of Perspective” and it should be about an unjustly treated but jerky Tom Paris. However, Tuvok’s investigations in “Ex Post Facto,” his bemusing Vulcan quips, and the crisscrossing over love to hate guest Martha Hackett as Seska in “Prime Factors” and “State of Flux” are more interesting.

Voyager’s then state of the art effects and ship design still look magical compared to today’s bells and whistles, yes. One unfamiliar with 24th century Star Trek designs can be impressed indeed. However, the borrowing of sets and props give Voyager some more nagging déjà vu.  I admire the ingenuity of doing a show on a tight budget, using what you have, and making it look good. Sadly, some of the cracks in Voyager’s imaginative armor are caused by its internal, Trek incestuous cheapness with too familiar looking ships, uniforms, and aliens. Those lookalike people in “Time and Again” are distinguished by their old-fashioned guns and corsets! There are realistic examinations of what is out there in the big, bad Delta Quadrant, how alone Voyager really is in toeing delicate lines, and how her presence is destabilizing far flung aliens civilizations. Crew desperation over food, supplies, survival, and the impossibility of getting home are felt. Voyager should remain in this vein, not rely on old standbys and crackpot filmmaking.

Star Trek was big in the 90s – again, you can’t blame them for striking while the iron was hot – but perhaps the franchise fatigue was already setting in behind the scenes. I’ve long thought the fandom’s turn against Enterprise and the subsequent Trek burnout was actually caused by Voyager’s faulty execution. Despite the promise of Trekdom yet to be had, the stock feelings can be more apparent than Voyager’s promise. The show has numerous half-decent and even very decent science fiction concepts and aspirations in this abbreviated debut. Yet there is very little follow thru and an incomplete, even amateur aftertaste for longtime fans who will spot all the TNG reminders. At its best Voyager feels inferior to some of Deep Space Nine’s multi part specialty – though one might argue such comparisons are premature, granted.  Viewers can’t expect a first season full of growing pains to exceed its predecessors. However, if you can’t at least equal the best of the previous, then what was the point of another spinoff? Voyager has big shoes to fill and it isn’t totally off on the right foot. Are there enough likeable players and infinite possibilities goodnesses to follow thru for Year 2? Yes.  The potential for good shows and characters is there if given the room to grow. Science fiction fans of all ages can certainly enjoy Voyager, and those who tuned out of other Star Trek spinoffs can begin anew with this Lost in Space Trek style. 

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