Wednesday, 25 September 2013

One of Seven: Voyager Year One – Part Two

Continuing a look back at Star Trek: Voyager Series One. A gourmet extravaganza of adventure helmed by Matt Goddard

 

In part one of this retrospective I looked at the premise of Star Trek: Voyager and its persistence in working against that in its first season.  It was unlucky, coming as the third live-action sequel, but its lofty mission was derailed by the perceived confines of the Star Trek series.  Now it’s time to look at the cast of Voyager, considering some of its strengths and mulling over the best and worst episodes before thinking long and hard about the worst season finale in Star Trek history.

Help! They've beamed out my lungs!
Novelty Characters

I completed part one of this retrospective considering how Voyager had simplified the Star Trek message.  An unfortunate an inevitable implication of this was that Voyager stuck religiously with the character of the week format.  As with other Star Trek series, that immediately put a lot of strain on characters who were difficult to warm to.  Novelty characters Neelix and Kes were hit the hardest.  Within three stories Kes’ nascent psychic abilities had emerged in the episode was (surely) wryly titled Time and Again.  Within five stores Neelix had his lungs transported out.  Neelix!  Sadly that episode wasn’t called They’ve Beamed out my Lungs! but that’s right - we were supposed to care about the Talaxian Morale officer’s fatal condition just five episodes in.  Both actors tried with their difficult and often blandly obvious characters.  Special mention should go to Jennifer Lien’s wonderfully level voice - but a nine year lifespan and insatiable swotting does not a likeable character make.  Fuse in the sudden telepathy - then ignored for several shows - and the comparisons with another counsellor are unflattering.

The show had strengths from the off though, don’t get me wrong.   Many of those weak points are shared with other Star Trek series.  The show was kept together by Kate Mulgrew’s sturdy performance and Robert Picardo’s brilliance. 

Picardo: A bargin at five times the size
Cast off

So, the crew of Voyager.  Mulgrew really is great.  She has that a distinctive voice and eye acting that fuses Picard and Sisko.  A good thing too, considering how central she is to the show.  Often the camera often just hangs around her, and unsurprisingly so.  Picardo plays a classic sci-fi trope but produces moments of great comedy that Ethan Phillips in his irritating role can only hope for.  The Doctor is instinctively funny from the off even if the concept doesn’t actually make much sense.  Elsewhere in the crew, Robert Duncan McNeill isn’t bad despite being given little to do except brat on about his piloting skills.  The result is a slightly more developed clone of The Next Generation season one La Forge. Kim isn’t too bad either...  Just a dull Star Trek trope that would be shown up far more in Enterprise when the same blandness was shared across several characters. Combine the two however, and their early exchanges relationships are excruciating.

The direction, budget and design were more sophisticated on Voyager than on earlier Trek series and that shone some unfortunate spotlights.   Robert Beltran puts in some great moments, but has a bit of a rough ride as a more spiritual Riker clone. It would be a few years before Beltran started to publically express his boredom with the show, but he seems a little distracted.  With every sweeping camera shot that keeps Kate Mulgrew’s nuanced performance in focus, his red decked form is slumping despondently in the background blur. That’s a bit of a shame. 

Full Klingon Torres: Mid sulk
In Voyager, the Spock archetype was fielded to Torres, who must contend with being both Klingon and human – despite reaching her mid-20s without doing so. It’s an episode like Faces that show the range that Roxann Biggs Dawson could bring to the show.  But as is probably realistic, the end result of the hybrid is a booming, glaring, mid-sulk teen.  Ah, but there’s a character arc with her and Starfleet you say?  Yes, at least three episodes of it.

Then there was Tuvok, good old reliable Tuvok.  There’s a reason that Spock was half human, why Romulans are great villains: full Vulcans are dull. Following Worf and ahead of Reed’s gung ho weapons lust in Enterprise, he really falls flat.  The position of confidant to the Captain is an interesting one, but worth so much less when the Maquis dynamic isn’t properly followed explored.  Tim Russ can’t be faulted for his performance which offers a slightly different Vulcan and even a hint of exasperated disapproval - if such a thing were possible.  It’s not a terrible thing that he has garnered more Vulcan screen time than anybody else.
It’s clear that all characters would have benefited from full serial arcs rather than the jumping between standard single episodes featuring the lesser characters – just as season three of Enterprise did.  

Seska: Not keeping up with Cardassians
That said, Voyager was a show was seeded more than many other Star Trek series.  Seska is interesting for one, creeping into the show in much the same way as O’Brien in The Next Generation.  Her reveal is a nice distraction late in the season, but draws another unfortunate comparison with Deep Space Nine.  While true to Cardassians’ stereotypical treachery, it’s a bit of a step back from Deep Space Nine’s subtly.  Just a few episodes later we see Tuvok attempting to discipline Maquis (yes, all four of them)...  And Seska’s name doesn’t even come up.  Chakotay’s inner-turmoil is a nice touch but it can only go so far as a metaphor for Maquis integration.  I can also see that Torres’ promotion scrap as a microcosm for the paperwork surrounding other Marquis crew members’ positioning (if I look really hard) but it’s all rather, to use a word, Basics.  Thinking about it, the fact there were so many Maquis on one ship in the Badlands seems very out of character.

The Best and the Worst

The first series has more than its fair share of generic Star Trek episodes, but there are glimmers.  An episode like Emanations really does go when no one has gone before; a believable, other quadrant conundrum. The two appearances by the Vidiians show that there are some good aliens on the horizon.  By Faces, they’re injecting some good old fashioned body horror into proceedings (poor old Durst, he’d only had one line before)

Ex Post Facto: Hercule Tuvok takes the floor
So, the best and worst:  A nadir has to be Ex Post Facto, where an interesting approach to a Star Trek Ex Post Facto’s a poor attempt at making a Voyager version of a Deep Space Nine ‘Give O’Brien Hell’ episode.  Aside from the monochrome flashbacks we also see Tuvok as Poirot – he even gathers the suspects in a room at the end! In retrospect a Vulcan is not the most charismatic of detectives, but there any strengths firmly end ...  We’re just weeks into a new quadrant and the Baneans are only the second civilisation that the Voyager crew meets.  Having initially sent off two scouts, Janeway then diverts the ship to free her man – Voyager's adherence to the Second Directive (the needs of the few) falls flat as soon as Paris and Chakotay make-up in Caretaker Part II.  There’s a cordial meeting with the alien race, with not a hint of translation issues. They even shake hands as standard and they let Tuvok into their prison facility with a phaser!  It’s incredibly sloppy but exposes where the creators’ interests lay.  They were willing to forgo consistency to pursue an idea. The episode collapses as if they completely forgot what they were making. Yes, it’s even worse than Neelix losing his lungs. Evoking a noir crime thriller at the beginning,

Eye of the Needle: Never trust a Vulcan Captain...
On the flip side, one highlight is Eye of the Needle. I’d been looking forward to it actually - I remembered its interesting temporal element and of course, it features a Romulan!  It is a neat, if slight 44 minutes.  It’s mainly let down by the delivery of its denouement.  Laugh a minute Tuvok chooses a rather un-dramatic (and illogical) time to check the Ship logs and tell the crew that the Romulan died some years previously.  “I thought I’d wait until the Romulan had gone before I ruined your day’” effectively. That said, it’s not a clean-cut story and although it’s narratively undermined, it’s the kind of science fiction that Voyager should strive for.

Special mention should also to the great holodeck romp Heroes and Demons.  Mainly because it’s a Picardo-centric episode and had the courage to draw parallels with one of the earliest works of the English language.  Brave.

No! Not Piller-filler...
Language and Legacy

It’s difficult to consider Voyager without thinking about its script and language.  That’s one thing that Voyager didn’t simplify.  Its use of technobabble is truly atrocious.  It really does feel like it was deliberately ramped up because that’s what viewers wanted.  I presume that the same would have happened in DS9 had they spent more time phasing anti-time and less time talking politics.  In Voyager, it’s off-putting and in Janeway’s case it diminishes her hands-on nature as a scientist.   It was a trick that The Next Generation never resorted to – or was it?  On that revered show, the cast called it ‘Piller-filler’ in reference to executive Producer Michael Piller.

The late Michael Piller is not just regarded as a legend of Star Trek.  The first episode of Best of Both Worlds remains one of the greatest pieces of television ever made.  But with Star Trek: Voyager, something went a little awry.  Was it him or co-creators Rick Berman or Jeri Taylor..?  Was the many producers including Braga and Biller?  It’s not just that the The Next Generation crew had split – for instance Klingon specialist Ronald Moore had jumped to Deep Space Nine and time fetishist Brannon Braga had been left to Voyager for the majority; split like Maquis and Starfleet.  Everyone involved has produced great film and television at points, but here the premise, the crew construction, the approach to the conceit... While it must have looked good on paper, it wilfully bucked growing TV trends.  

If anything Voyager was a show that looked back to the 1980s and not forward to the 21st century.  There should have been the courage to commit to the innate drama of the series and not find a middle-ground by including at least ten stories that would look extremely average in any Alpha Quadrant set show.  Voyager would have been far better off finding a different solution to its pitch than the 75,000 light year trek.

A Simple Quest

As it is, Voyager took on one of simplest tales – the quest.  It’s The Odyssey, exactly The Odyssey.  It’s the search for the Grail. It’s the powerful, instinctively human quest story that has been told for millennia, the kind that Joseph Campbell’s eyes would widen at.  This was Star Trek’s only prolonged stab at something that monumental.  And they kind of missed. 

Sure, Enterprise’s stab at the Prometheus myth would later similarly flounder in its first season, but Voyager always niggles the most.   As I look on to Voyager’s following six seasons, I find one fact hard to avoid.  In the final episode of an admittedly shortened season one (16 episodes), just when you expect a cliff-hanger in true Star Trek style...  The antagonist turns out to be actual cheese.

"Get the cheese to sickbay"?  How did they let that one through?

Sadly, at the end of the first season it looked as though Voyager, unlike the villainous cheese, may take a long time to mature.

(NB - the actual season finale was supposed to have been The 37's but the last four episodes produced for season one were shipped to the beginning of season two. A shame as the ending of The 37's makes a hell of a lot more sense as a season closer than Learning Curve - Clive)

You can also read Part One of this article right now by following this link