The 1998-1999 season was the last time Star Trek would overlap itself on TV, ending a seven year stretch that saw the franchise reach the apex of its cultural appeal at the time, and its steady decline. Star Trek: Insurrection would be released in the middle of the season, marking the first of two nails in the coffin of the film series from this incarnation, proving that even the once-mighty ‘Next Generation’ crew was not immune from this loss of interest, even though, two years earlier, it had just reached perhaps its widest mark of approval with Star Trek: First Contact. So while Deep Space Nine completed its seven year run, Voyager was about to find out if it could carry the weight of expectations. Its fifth season would be crucial indeed.
The season premiere ought to serve as an indication of what kind of show Voyager ultimately was, whether it was truly an episodic duplicate of Next Generation or a true successor of Deep Space Nine, full of cumulative leanings. Just as “Hope and Fear” had been an appropriate and stirring finale the previous season, “Night” saw the reboot reach its culmination. In many ways, the long-denied emotional impact of events since the pilot was now truly ready to be felt by Janeway, and so that’s exactly what this episode was about, with a cleverly constructed pretext built to hang this sense of guilt on, in case any new viewers were looking for some standalone material to slip into. But I think this is exactly what helped put a nail into this show’s coffin, too, because it was one more contradiction. This was exactly the opposite of what Voyager should have been doing, at the start of its fifth season, at least by the prejudices of fans who had grown jaded with the franchise. Instead of finding Star Trek growing more complacent, it seemed to be filling all the more with a sense of itself, not by any definition that would have made sense to those who wanted more of what they had already been seen, or to be surprised with what they might have been expected, but Star Trek continuing to be true to itself, which is essentially the message of the franchise. And here, of all places, you can see that message unfolding. It feels a little crass to note for the record that yet another nasty Delta Quadrant species, the Malon, makes its debut here. Crass, but appropriate. Also, the debut of Captain Proton! In that second development, you can almost see Star Trek start to react to expectations by ironically noting how far sci-fi has really gotten, no matter what fans might think.
From an episode that baffled fans to one that delighted them, an unorthodox Borg entry that even extreme skeptics enjoyed, featuring J. Paul Boehmer making his second appearance in the series as a drone that forms from the unholy mingling of Seven’s assimilation tubes and The Doctor’s mobile emitter, which being from the future results in this drone being far advanced from anything the Collective currently knows. Basically an improved version of “I, Borg,” which surprisingly wasn’t seen as heresy. Possibly because nobody thought of it that way at the time.
5x3 “Extreme Risk”
My favorite Torres episode, and one that cleverly ties her Maquis past with events that had been occurring in Deep Space Nine, combining the introspective aspect of “Night” with the best leanings of arguably the show’s best character. This is exactly the kind of episode I was trying to talk about, a definite sign that Voyager wasn’t just spinning its wheels, no matter what fans might have thought, making it a must-see for skeptics. Also the debut of the Delta Flyer.
5x4 “In the Flesh”
Like their appearance in “Prey,” Species 8472 defies expectations (like its refusal to accept the death of Trip Tucker later, Pocket Books would later contradict the events of this episode to its own, more conventional ends, helping to forge another link in what I like to call the Pocketverse) and turns out to be pretty reasonable, with a little help from a simulation of Boothby (Ray Walston), making the first of two appearances in the series. Previously established as an improbable mentor of Picard’s at Starfleet Academy, his influence is revealed to extend further, first to Janeway here, and later to Chakotay as well. Personally, I loved everything about the episode. Tucker Smallwood makes a franchise appearance as well.
5x5 “Once Upon a Time”
Scarlett Pomers makes her debut as Naomi Wildman in this episode that helps flesh out Neelix’s relationship with the family, which has helped soften the character and given him a more permanent sense of home aboard the ship. You might think of this as the reverse of those ‘Next Generation’ episodes that saw a traumatized child become adopted by a main character.
The show’s hundredth episode, it’s also the ultimate Harry Kim episode. If this was the only time the character ever appeared, it should still easily have solidified his place in franchise lore, in a time-twisting adventure that sees Harry save the ship from his own mistake, with commentary on any number of relevant topics. If there was any doubt that this season had a lot on its mind, then this one should have put that to rest.
5x8 “Nothing Human”
Even I didn’t quite appreciate at the time how much Voyager was trying to pay homage to Deep Space Nine during the season, but along with “Extreme Risk,” this is the other big one, featuring The Doctor calling up a holographic simulation of an infamous Cardassian physician in order to treat Torres. It just seemed like a random event, but it makes a little more sense now.
5x9 “Thirty Days”
The show was finally ready to do the Tom Paris episode everyone had been expecting from the start, this time without any of the trickery it had attempted in the second season, with the brash officer getting himself in trouble, listening to his own set of principals, which here can be understood as noble if a little misguided, at least by conventional standards (which is really no surprise after all). Warren Munson makes his final appearance as Tom’s infamous father, Admiral Paris, the example he could never hope to live up to.
Janeway does her own “Unforgettable,” basically, in a similarly twisty episode with another complicated romance. Randy Oglesby makes another franchise appearance.
5x11 “Latent Image”
The Doctor reaches his most significant point of development, one of my favorite episodes, as the stark differences between him and Star Trek’s other famous artificial life-form, Data, are made pretty clear. Where everyone rallied around the android in “The Measure of a Man,” everyone struggles alongside The Doctor, most notably Janeway, including one of the best final scenes of any episode in the franchise, as the captain sits next to the conflicted hologram as he contemplates his future.
5x12 “Bride of Chaotica!”
Otherwise known as the Captain Proton episode, one of those trademark franchise entries where the crew is allowed to really cut loose around a loony premise. See: “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “QPid,” “Our Man Bashir.”
Here’s an episode I myself really need to revisit, the rare look back at Tuvok’s formative days, flashbacks that reveal his surprisingly conflicted origins as he struggles through a mission in the present. Lori Petty guest stars.
W. Morgan Sheppard happens to cut a tremendously memorable appearance in this episode, as another traveler caught up in a struggle with one of those typical alien entities Star Trek crews encounter out in space.
5x15 “Dark Frontier, Part I”
Seven’s backstory, at least her parents’, is finally explored, in the epic two-parter that memorably cast franchise regular Susanna Thompson in the first appearance of the Borg Queen since Star Trek: First Contact. Might it be something controversial to suggest that Seven ultimately didn’t as completely dominate the show as it seemed at the time? Maybe it’s just the way I make it sound while I’m recapping, but it hasn’t seemed that way to me.
5x16 “Dark Frontier, Part II”
The first battle of wills between the Borg Queen and Janeway concludes, with Seven caught in the middle.
5x17 “The Disease”
In a season that seemed eager to address a lot of things, Harry gets his chance to leave Starfleet behind (remember, this ship was his first assignment upon graduation from the Academy), in another of his seemingly endless irregular and extremely intimate encounters with alien species in the Delta Quadrant. This one just happens to involve romance directly.
5x18 “Course: Oblivion”
This one seemed, in addition to being a sequel to “Demon,” a direct calculation to remind viewers how desperate everyone was to get home, since even duplicates who shouldn’t care as much once they find out the truth, still have the same drive.
5x19 “The Fight”
Boothby makes his second appearance of the season, as Chakotay has another of his trademark episodic crises, having to literally box his way out of a conflict with unconventional aliens.
5x20 “Think Tank”
What was thought at the time to be, famously, the Jason Alexander episode, really served as another reflection point, where it’s revealed that the memorable Vidiians from the early seasons have finally been cured. How else could a show like this bring about that kind of resolution, other than come up with a convoluted group of eccentric geniuses who more or less end up exactly like any other collectors franchise fans have encountered in the past? Here, Seven essentially plays the part of Data.
It’s hardly ever easy to be Torres. Here, she gets to “enjoy” the return of the Malon. Ron Canada makes another franchise appearance.
5x22 “Someone to Watch Over Me”
The high point of Seven’s relationship with The Doctor. If you misconstrue that statement, well, so does The Doctor, so don’t be too ashamed.
Here’s another of my personal favorites, a look back at Star Trek history, its version of the turn of the millennium, as Janeway’s ancestor ends up working with Anthony Cooper, I mean Kevin Tighe (so memorable in Lost in the aforementioned role), basically the captain’s version of “Dark Frontier,” another reminder of the heavily reflective nature of the season.
Bruce McGill takes on the role of Captain Braxton, the time-traveling Starfleet officer from “Future’s End,” recruiting Seven in a complicated series events meant to cover his own tracks, but end up becoming his own undoing. Carey (Josh Clark) makes a rare appearance.
5x26 “Equinox, Part I”
The season ends just as appropriately and symbolically as it’d begun, with a look at what kind of series (like “Year of Hell”) it might have been if the creators weren’t so enamored of the apparently nauseating Starfleet ideals (at least as far as fans were beginning to think) Janeway originally insisted on. The crew encounters another Starfleet ship (populated by such notable names as John Savage, Rick Worthy, and Titus Welliver, who would one day become the original incarnation of the Man in Black in Lost) that has chosen to go about it quite a different way. Not to get ahead of myself, but the fact that a lot of fans chose to use “Equinox” as one of their definitive arguments against Janeway and thus against Voyager says a lot about how little they actually cared for the show they were apparently still watching, but failing so utterly to understand. If anything, this should have been another sign that the show really understood itself, should have been a definitive argument that it had truly earned its place in franchise lore.
But that simply wasn’t to be. With Deep Space Nine coming to a monumental end, it’s a wonder they were paying attention at all (and might explain how little they really were). During this season, I was pretty distracted myself, attending my senior year of high school, marking one of life’s great transitions, yet I still managed to juggle two great Star Trek seasons (and I even managed to give Earth: Final Conflict a fair shake for a second season that was equally dismissed far too easily by fickle fans).
If anything, the fifth season of Voyager might be considered its strongest, filled with work that not only reflected back on its own origins and development, but back on the franchise itself, in a variety of subtle ways.
In a way, the season was clearing room for even bigger things, though…