Set Course For Home: In Defense Of STAR TREK: VOYAGER

It's time to give the most-reviled STAR TREK another shot.

The arrival of Star Trek: Discovery put Star Trek fans into a precarious position. Fond as Trekkies are of ranking things, a major question looms: where does Discovery fit in the Trek pantheon? Given the controversial ups and downs of its first season, the first question up is: how does it compare to Star Trek: Voyager, the series often labeled Trek’s worst? Which demands another question: is Voyager really as bad as everyone seems to remember?

Clearly, a re-evaluation is in order, and following exhaustive research, I am here to tell you ain’t as bad as you think.

I won’t try to argue that Voyager is better than any other Star Trek series. The only series it could hope to compete with is Enterprise, and that show’s third and fourth seasons are so consistently good I’d be hesitant to do so. But upon rewatch, Voyager is still a surprisingly solid show. Though it contains some of the worst individual episodes of Star Trek (and there are some bad Star Trek episodes out there), it also contains some of its best - and it’s anchored by one of its most interesting lead characters.

Star Trek: Voyager’s pilot episode, “Caretaker,” is surprisingly low-key in its action and stakes, but makes huge promises for the show to come. If you’re unfamiliar or hazy: Career Starfleet officer Kathryn Janeway gets her first command in the science vessel USS Voyager, assigned to locate a missing rebel Maquis vessel in the turbulent region of space known as the Badlands. But upon making contact with the ship, both are flung into the far reaches of the Milky Way’s uncharted Delta Quadrant by a mysterious being known as the Caretaker. Making an executive decision to protect the peaceful Ocampa from the warlike Kazon, Janeway destroys the array that transported them across the galaxy, leaving Voyager - and the anti-Federation Maquis crew - stranded 70,000 light-years (and 70 actual years) from home. And so begins the Star Trek franchise’s most literal trek across the stars.

One of the most common complaints leveled against Voyager is that it never followed through on its central ideas - those of a lone Federation ship journeying across unfamiliar space with no help in sight, and of a Federation crew merging uncomfortably with Maquis rebels. As far as the rebels go, that’s a fair point: the two crews get along surprisingly smoothly for two populations bordering on civil war, although friction between them drives more episodes than viewers probably remember. The complaint about Voyager’s journey being too easy, though, derives most of its fuel from continuity nitpicking. Voyager crashes more shuttlecraft (including a ton of Delta Flyers) and fires more torpedoes than it’s technically got to lose, sure - but such complaints misinterpret what Voyager was really about.

Upon a revisit, it's clear Voyager was never meant to be the gritty survival show fans thought they wanted (largely retrospectively, it’s worth noting, thanks to the rebooted “anti-TrekBattlestar Galactica premiering shortly after Voyager’s conclusion). Viewed with fresh eyes and an open mind, Voyager was always about making the best of a bad situation: a crew made up of sworn political enemies, coming together to seek out their shared home - and taking the opportunity to do some honest-to-Science space exploration along the way. In other words, it’s BSG’s search for Earth, but fueled by Star Trek’s sense of discovery and optimism. In a sense, it’s almost a direct refutation of the political greyness of Deep Space Nine, refocusing attention at how tiny and precious is our pale blue dot - and how petty are our disagreements over it.

Voyager’s captain - Kathryn Janeway, played with empathy and edge by Kate Mulgrew - is one of the show's greatest and most misunderstood assets. Separated from the Federation by 70,000 light years, Janeway has different priorities to her fellow Starfleet officers. She is frequently forced to juggle the sometimes clashing responsibilities of being Starfleet's only envoy in the quadrant, while keeping her crew alive with little external support. More often than not, Janeway is forced to bend Starfleet regulations, finding compromises for the sake of survival, making Janeway surprisingly ruthless and creative. She’s a woman of science (in fact, a totally excitable nerd); she’s got a sly sense of humour; she bonds with her crew on a more personal level than usual - and Kate Mulgrew nails all of it. She's amazing. Is Janeway a perfect, by-the-book commanding officer? No, but that makes her more interesting as a character. Criticisms of Janeway often hinge upon her status as a matriarch, and I’d wager that were Janeway a man with the same qualities, she’d be universally seen as a total badass.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag of genuinely great characters and wasted potential. Many decry the supporting characters as dull, and they're certainly not the vivacious lot that populate Deep Space Nine, but they could've been so much more. Even the most-vilified characters started out with promise. Harry Kim began as a blend of wide-eyed excitement and determined ambition. Chakotay, an avowed Maquis rebel for reasons that linked back to his Native American heritage, was appointed as first officer purely to keep the peace between his crew and Janeway's, becoming a strong voice of dissent in the process. And Tom Paris (originally Nick Locarno from the Next Generation episode “The First Duty,” but renamed for licensing reasons) was plucked from a freaking penal colony, where he'd stewed for years over a shuttle crash he'd caused and developed a serious disdain for authority.

These are fine characters, but much of their potential could only have been fully explored through open intra-crew conflict. The show's emphasis on family likely precluded that, as with whatever Roddenberry influences remained. Whenever the showrunners depicted conflict amongst the crew, it almost always came via recurring characters, like Seska ("State of Flux") or Lon Suder ("Meld") or Vorik ("Blood Fever"). It’s an approach that led to some memorable story arcs, but few that saw main characters develop in a substantial way.

Generally speaking, though, the main cast of Voyager was far stronger than collective memory would have it. Tuvok is not just the show's funniest character, but the funniest Vulcan in Trek, largely thanks to Tim Russ’ wry line deliveries. Robert Picardo comes in a close second with his more broadly comic holographic doctor: AI, dreamer, and grumpy bastard all at once. Chakotay and half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres were often thinly written, but Robert Beltran and Roxann Dawson consistently turned in committed performances that elevated their material. Jeri Ryan scored the best character arc as ex-Borg Seven of Nine, and it's a crying shame her excellent, evolving performance was so overshadowed (in marketing, in fandom, and in the show itself) by her character's physical appearance. Even Neelix becomes more watchable in retrospect, his annoying attributes fading under sheer good-heartedness, though his true love Kes never quite came into her own.

Aside from the ongoing, backgrounded voyage home, Voyager largely eschewed the serialisation favoured by Deep Space Nine, the latter seasons of Enterprise, and now Discovery. Instead, the showrunners opted for a more Next Generation-like approach, advancing conflicts and relationships occasionally while mostly telling episodic stories. Some ongoing arcs took the form of low-key character relationships, like Tom and B’Elanna's romance or the friendship between Seven and the Doctor. Others embraced the “family” theme, like the birth and childhood of Naomi Wildman, Seven's adoption of a group of Borg children, or the odd integration issues suffered by the Maquis crew members. Occasionally, one-off episodes would get sequels years later, as with the episodes set in the “Fair Haven” holodeck programme, the Q Civil War arc of "Death Wish" and "The Q and the Grey," "or the notoriously dumb pairing of “Demon” and ”Course: Oblivion.” But most arcs were centred around the villains.

Voyager's recurring villains were, admittedly, a weak point. Robbed by galactic geography of the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and (bar one episode) Ferengi, Voyager's writers struggled to invent Delta Quadrant aliens as iconic as the Alpha Quadrant's residents or as complex as the Gamma Quadrant's Dominion. The Kazon were confusing; the Hirogen, cheap Predator knockoffs; the Malon, galactic trash collectors. Among the more interesting villains, Species 8472 were notable mostly for being the one species the Borg couldn't handle (bar “In the Flesh,” where they perplexingly built a training simulation of Earth), while the Vidiians - organ thieves who killed to sustain their congenitally plagued species - ended up more pitiable than menacing (“Phage”).

The one exception, of course, was the Borg. Though it took time for Voyager to finally encounter them, the spectre of the fan-favourite cyborg empire loomed over the early seasons - and after entering centre-stage via terrific two-parter “Scorpion,” they made regular appearances right up until the finale.

It made sense to cast the Borg as Voyager's arch-villains. The only reason they weren't more prevalent in The Next Generation was that they originated in the Delta Quadrant - right where Voyager found itself. Of course, numerous Borg episodes required, for dramatic purposes, that the Borg became fleshed out as antagonists, and therein lies another huge criticism from fans.

Voyager gets perhaps the most shit for allegedly defanging the Borg Collective, giving them depth beyond The Next Generation’s monolithic cyber-horror. But making the Borg imperfect, though counter to their core philosophy, also made them more interesting. Giving them a religion of sorts, centred around an ostensibly “perfect” subatomic particle, made a weird cult-like sense (“The Omega Directive”). Other episodes, like “Unimatrix Zero,” which introduced a shared dream state for certain Borg, deepened our understanding of what it is to be a drone. For every silly instance of the Borg Queen pursuing vengeance against Janeway, there was something profound, like a colony of former Borg struggling to find their way without a collective consciousness (“Unity”). And of course, much Borg development emerged through the avatar of Seven of Nine - the only “learning to be human” character in the franchise to have had their humanity stripped from them. Hers is a story of post-traumatic stress and psychological recovery (see "The Gift" and “The Raven” for a starting point) the likes of which few Star Trek regulars got to explore.

Most of the best Voyager episodes, then, took the form of one-off, self-contained sci-fi stories. Like the best Star Trek, these episodes illuminate something about the human condition, ask profound philosophical questions, put the characters into singularly trying situations, or simply tell an exciting adventure tale. With writers like Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Michael Taylor (DS9’s “The Visitor” and “In the Pale Moonlight”), and Joe Menosky (TNG’s “Darmok”) contributing scripts, such episodes were bound to eventuate.

Here’s a short list of some of my favourites (not counting episodes discussed elsewhere in this article):

  • “Year of Hell,” a two-part epic in which Voyager becomes collateral damage in an alien commander's time-altering quest to erase an entire civilisation from history in order to save his wife. A brilliant portrait of obsession, brutal perfectionism, and the concept of “acceptable casualties,” with great turns from Mulgrew and guest star Kurtwood Smith.
  • “Blink of an Eye,” which would be a classic in any Trek: Voyager discovers a planet on which time passes hundreds of times faster than in the rest of space, and watches a society grow from primitivity into paranoid spacefarers, nearly destroying themselves through war. A comment on the entire of human history that’d fit right in with the conceptual sci-fi of The Original Series.
  • “Distant Origin,” in which an alien researcher faces government ridicule for suggesting his species evolved on a different planet - Earth - and shares common ancestry with humans. It’s a poignantly pro-science parable that has echoes throughout our own history, even up to today - and it’s got a really big spaceship in it, too, if that’s your thing.
  • “Timeless” - Voyager’s 100th episode is a high-concept time travel ep with a compelling emotional hook, wherein an aged Chakotay and Harry Kim, 15 years after reaching Earth alone in an experimental shuttle, try to send a message back in time to prevent the rest of the crew from crashing into a desolate planet. Beltran and Wang both get to stretch their wings further than usual, LeVar Burton (who also directed) shows up as Captain Geordi LaForge, AND you get to see Voyager crash into a glacier.
  • “Critical Care,” a potently political story that’s more literal than allegorical, in which the Doctor is kidnapped to a vast hospital ship where medical care is distributed according to one’s class, with the poor left untreated. Tragically still relevant in America 18 years later, it's a strongly human rights-oriented episode with a pointed message.
  • “Remember,” a rare episode that actually gave Roxann Dawson some dramatic meat, wherein B’Elanna becomes the receptacle for a torrent of memories from a species that's suppressed knowledge of the genocide it once committed. It’s an obvious metaphor for the Holocaust, but more broadly a parable about the importance of remembering and doing justice by the past.
  • “Living Witness,” in which the Doctor is reactivated after 700 years by a civilisation that, thanks to a historical misunderstanding, sees Voyager's crew as murderous harbingers of death and destruction. The mutability of history is the centrepiece here - not to mention a fun, comic-booky take on an alternate, evil Voyager crew.
  • “Equinox,” a two-parter season finale/premiere that explored a potent what-if scenario. Voyager encounters another Federation vessel that’s been pulled across the galaxy in a similar way, but that’s made enormous progress thanks to unethically harvesting energy from living organisms for fuel (a debate that, curiously, would be brought up again in Discovery). In the Equinox, we see the mirror image of Voyager, if the crew had abandoned its principles entirely. Good stuff.
  • “Tuvix,” a riff on the classic transporter-malfunction trope, in which an accident creates a hybrid of Tuvok and Neelix bearing a combination of the two characters’ attributes. It doesn’t make scientific sense, but it presents intriguing ethical conundrums regarding the sanctity of accidentally-created life. That Tuvix is actually a more engaging character than either Tuvok or Neelix is a tribute to actor Tom Wright’s work; it’s almost a shame to see the series regulars return at the end of the episode.
  • “One Small Step” and “Friendship One,” two separate episodes dealing with early space vessels from Earth that wound up in the Delta Quadrant. “One Small Step” is a love letter to exploration, via a recovery mission of a piece of Earth history, while “Friendship One” engages with the notion of taking responsibility for damage caused by one’s people, via an alien planet devastated by a lost probe’s breached antimatter reactor. These episodes helped connect Voyager to Earth - and to the future history of Star Trek.

Once Voyager entered its final two seasons, momentum began to build towards an ending - and towards Earth. The episodes that made up this arc are some of the series’ best, embodying all the hope and problem-solving that characterises Star Trek at its finest. It wouldn't have seemed likely , but establishing communications between Starfleet and Voyager not only buoyed crew morale, but audience morale too. These episodes (starting with “Pathfinder”) introduced a more-mature version of The Next Generation's Reginald Barclay as a recurring character - a decision that expanded the Voyager family in strange and delightful ways. Janeway always ran a consciously inclusive ship, and her embrace of weirdo loner Barclay fit that mould perfectly.

All of this led up to a finale, “Endgame,” that often lambasted (correctly) for its obsession with “cool” Star Trek cliches - time travel, an angry Borg Queen, big new sci-fi weapons - but underneath its ablative armour plating, quietly served as a final character study for its captain. “Endgame” centres on two Janeways - the Janeway of the show’s standard continuity, and an older Janeway whose Voyager limped home after decades in space, having suffered severe casualties. Getting to see the aftermath an alternate-universe return home - with some crewmembers dead, others losing their minds, and the rest bitter - is a dramatic treat. More importantly, this older Janeway is a distillation of the character's darker attributes: her compassion is gone, her sense of family refocused into grim determination, and her sense of humour whittled to its bleakest stub. The interplay between the two Janeways gets to the core of the character and of the show: what kind of moral and literal sacrifices can be justified in order to get the crew home in one piece?

Star Trek: Voyager likely suffered from airing immediately after The Next Generation, and concurrently with Deep Space Nine. The last of the three ‘90s Treks to arrive, it met an audience already saturated with largely-beloved Star Trek content. Voyager’s character and tone were distinct, but perhaps not defined enough to truly set it apart; its visuals certainly adhered firmly to the established style, and probably helped to inspire Battlestar Galactica’s break away from those conventions. The “bumpy foreheads, grey corridors, and Steadicams” approach could only work so long, and given that Voyager doubled down on the notion of the ship as a home, it’s no surprise its creators got complacent - or its audiences stir crazy.

Looking back from a distance, what’s immediately clear is that Voyager was above all else inconsistent. Some of the franchise’s direst moments came from Voyager; nobody’s ever going to dispute that. But while its low points are pretty low, its highs are stratospheric - and it’s not like the other series lacked clunkers either. Star Trek: Voyager was imperfect, goofy at times, and more touchy-feely than most of its cousins. It wasn’t a gritty space survival show, but something altogether more Star Trek. Rather than showing the ship go to hell in a handbasket, Voyager showed what could happen when its crew and captain pulled together, doing their best to maintain their humanity and ideals even under extreme circumstances. 

What I’m saying is: you owe Voyager another shot - even if you just take a tour through the best episodes.