Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Star Trek: Voyager Season Four

For some reason, Star Trek was never really good about changing cast members. The original series completely recast itself once, but it was between pilots, so no one ever really knew, before adding Chekov (the shaggy-headed Russian meant to boost popularity) in the second season. Next Generation lost Yar in the first season, switched doctors in the second (before quickly switching back in the third). Deep Space Nine brought in Worf in its fourth. But it’s safe to say that no Star Trek ever affected a complete reinvention with the addition of a single character like Voyager did with Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).

4x1 “Scorpion, Part II”
The Borg/Species 8472 story becomes all about the introduction of Seven, the first female drone since the Queen in Star Trek: First Contact, who starts out as just a liaison, before things go horribly wrong and she’s forcibly disconnected from the Collective, and then becomes Janeway’s latest lost sheep, even if she becomes the most reluctant of them…to put it mildly. If you really need another reason to try and understand why the show handled the Maquis transition the way it did, you might look to how it handles Seven. The Maquis were already explained, and with some added emphasis on Chakotay and Torres, with plenty of Starfleet background, so it wasn’t as extreme as it seemed. But with Seven, it was going to be a lot more difficult, because her humanity at this point in her life would be totally, well, alien.

4x2 “The Gift”
As Janeway attempts to help guide Seven into her new life, the character she’s replacing gets to move on. That means this is the final episode for Kes, reaching a culmination point from the personal growth she’s been working toward since the start, exploring the limits of Ocampan evolution. This would easily be the most interesting point of the character’s existence, and right on time, too. As you can tell reading through these recaps, if you were filling in the blanks, you’d notice that I left out a lot of Kes episodes. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t care for her so much as believed the stories written specifically for her worked a little less than those for other characters. She was a weak link in that regard, always an outsider, in a bad way, so it was a natural choice.

4x3 “Day of Honor”
Here’s where the Torres episodes really start getting good again, from where they started in the first season, centering back squarely on the character, who I always described as a Deep Space Nine character in a Voyager world. Basically she has a really bad day, but everything revolves pretty directly around her, which includes the first acknowledgment of her relationship with Tom Paris.

4x4 “Nemesis”
Chakotay, like I said, was by far the character who suffered the most from the lack of fan interest in the early seasons (which if you’ve been reading closely can only conclude as having baffled me), but for some reason, the writers kept figuring out how to make episodic material work really well for him. Here he gets stuck in the midst of an indigenous conflict with a culture which happens to feature a distinctive speech pattern. Call him Darmok.

4x5 “Revulsion”
The series seemed to come up with a lot of different ways to explore holographic life, whether it involved The Doctor directly or served to contrast with him. Here he gets to explore the latter firsthand, with Leland Orser making another memorable franchise appearance as a homicidal “Isomorphic Projection.”

4x6 “The Raven”
The first regular Seven episode sees her drawn back to the ship her parents used to study the Borg when she was a child (which turned out to be not such a great idea).

4x7 “Scientific Method”
The kind of episode the series fell back on frequently, the crew having to figure out how a group of mysterious aliens is manipulating them, this one helps formulate the Seven-Doctor dynamic, which might be seen as important as the former drone’s with the captain. In a move that was typical for the show, the story also finds time to feature the Torres-Paris relationship.

4x8 “Year of Hell, Part I”
A story that seemed to be fashioned to directly address one of the nagging concerns from the fans who thought it would be realistic for the ship to suffer cumulative damage. Those fans were probably right, but as this two-parter demonstrates, that would be pretty hard to watch after a while. Even Battlestar Galactica never did this.

4x9 “Year of Hell, Part II”
Kurtwood Smith’s Annorax really starts to command the story in the second half, the tragic nature of his obsessive quest to reshape time (especially in the chilling epilogue) fully explored, thanks to his two new passengers, Chakotay (who gets some interesting work as he begins to identify with the villain, perhaps an allusion to his Maquis past) and Tom Paris. Easily one of the most interesting two-parters of the entire franchise, no matter what you might think otherwise of Voyager.

4x11 “Concerning Flight”
Leonardo da Vinci (and his favorite Voyager pupil, Janeway) receives his own episode. What else do you really need to know?

4x12 “Mortal Coil”
Here’s the most dramatic example of the periodic attempts to wring pathos out of Neelix, as he suffers a near-death experience and apparently discovers everything he thought he knew isn’t true after all. It also happens to be the first Wildman family episode, with Naomi making her first regular appearance. Has always been one of my favorites.

4x13 “Waking Moments”
Combing two typical episodic elements from the series, here’s a Chakotay episode with a “see what aliens are doing to the crew” episode, but again, everything seems to work pretty interestingly.

4x14 “Message in a Bottle”
Here’s my sister’s favorite episode, The Doctor taking on a very interesting away mission, to the Alpha Quadrant, thanks to a Hirogen communications relay (oh, making this the first appearance of the Hirogen), which leads to the introduction of the new Emergency Medical Hologram, played by Andy Dick, who happens to be even more quirky than the original model. The interplay between Andy and Robert Picardo is unique, to the least. As a matter of continuity, this one’s also pretty important, featuring the Romulans (again) and referencing the Dominion War, and setting a direct course for later developments, because now Starfleet knows what really happened to the ship.

4x15 “Hunters”
Seven and Tuvok are taken captive by the Hirogen, allowing viewers to learn a great deal about the newest alien menace of the series, probably the best attempt, a more successful version of the Kazon, nomadic predators who have a good excuse to keep showing up. Tiny Ron makes his second appearance as a Hirogen. The episode also features some poignant letters from home, made possible by the communications array, the first regular contact with the Alpha Quadrant of the series.

4x16 “Prey”
Tony Todd takes on another memorable role, as a Hirogen who comes aboard the ship so he can hunt Species 8472, marking an increasingly unpredictable path of appearances.

4x17 “Retrospect”
The Doctor and Seven in their first real mishap of an episode together, now that their dynamic has been established, both of them making some pretty goofy mistakes and getting into trouble for it. No biggy. Happens all the time.

4x18 “The Killing Game, Part I”
The Hirogen are back, in their biggest hour yet. Because it’s actually two hours, the second two-parter epic of the season, trying to be even more ambitious, by throwing our crew into the French resistance during WWII. J. Paul Boehmer makes his first Star Trek appearance as a Nazi on the holodeck, as the Hirogen attempt to understand their prey, the leader of this particular batch (Danny Goldring) thinking (as a Jem’Hadar once did in Deep Space Nine) that there might be more to life than just huff-huff, smash-smash.

4x19 “The Killing Game, Part II”
The crew converges and, thanks to Harry Kim, the only one who has managed to evade the Hirogens, breaks free from captivity on its own ship. As a throwaway adventure, it works surprisingly well.

4x20 “Vis a Vis”
Tom Paris gets saddled with another episode that sort of calls to mind the kind of character he was originally supposed to be, but this time, it also serves as commentary for how far he’s actually come, with a significant emphasis on the increasingly emerging Torres relationship. Also memorable for me because Tom is referenced as a “grease monkey,” which might be seen in retrospect as an allusion to the Delta Flyer, which would become his passion project.

4x21 “The Omega Directive”
One of the trickier things the show managed to pull off was to retain the ship’s connection to Starfleet without any real contact with it, and this would probably be one of the more significant attempts at demonstrating that, as Janeway enacts protocol that doesn’t sit well with her crew, thanks to standing procedure that turns just about everything on its head. Also, we get a new perspective on the Borg, a reminder that the Collective is basically a giant nerd organization (or maybe a religious one). Anyone who really wants to insist that Voyager ruined the Borg really has to be pretty obstinate, especially with examples like this that help illustrate how much the show was able to do with a formerly one-dimensional enemy (unless that really is a preference, but then, you’d have to say you like the Klingons strictly as warriors, and then ignore what the bulk of the franchise did with them).

4x22 “Unforgettable”
Virginia Madsen helps remind viewers that Chakotay does pretty well as a romantic figure as well in this latest standalone episode. Maybe it’s just that Robert Beltran was really good at simplifying complicated stories, because this was definitely another one of those, but that’s what he got most of the time.

4x23 “Living Witness”
Here’s another thing that Voyager got to do thanks to its unique premise, which was exploit the possibility of being a representative of an entire fleet, but being cut off from it, and thus pretty much only really representing itself. Featuring The Doctor in the rare episode that exploited an abnormal lifespan’s true possibilities (though technically this one featured a backup version of his program), and getting to be the lone representative himself, for a civilization that completely misconstrued its encounter with the ship. Fascinating and awesome.

4x24 “Demon”
Harry and Tom get into a lot of trouble when they inadvertently duplicate themselves in a puddle of goo. Okay, that’s the way to describe this one so that it, too, can be misconstrued. Anyway, another pretty interesting episode, one that actually got a follow-up story later, and probably counts as Harry’s own real spotlight of the season, which is kind of sad, but he worked so well as a downplayed character doing what he can, which was usually pretty amazing, that it didn’t really matter. Sometimes that very characteristic really worked for him, as he’d find out next season.

4x25 “One”
The kind of episode that was so popular among the staff that it needed to be done again later in ‘Enterprise,’ Seven finds herself having to run the ship on her own, the rest of the crew having to be put in stasis in order to cross a dangerous region of space. Wade Williams makes a guest appearance.

4x26 “Hope and Fear”
Drawing on a number of previously established elements, this was a wonderfully natural season finale. The coded Starfleet transmission introduced in “Hunters” is brought back, while the crew takes on a passenger who turns out to be a badly traumatized victim of the bargaining Janeway had done with the Borg during “Scorpion,” and the crew receives a huge tease for a quick trip home. Probably about as perfect as a strictly Voyager episode can be.

It’s funny that the show could never shake the notion that it was basically a Next Generation clone, because in many ways, it was far more like Deep Space Nine, with an intrinsic sense of its own possibilities, regardless of viewer expectations. Like the show set on a space station, the premise was a launching pad to a far greater saga; the Borg was like the Dominion insomuch as it was an enemy that allowed new elements of the premise to come alive, and so the fourth season of Voyager was like fresh territory with familiar surroundings. Combining the new approaches of the third season with the strong character sensibilities of the earlier seasons, it allowed the show to finally reach its potential, thanks to the introduction of Seven, whose presence helped galvanize everything around her. Janeway had a new purpose, a new demonstration of her nurturing instinct, but far from making the first female captain seem less identifiable to a broad audience, it gave her new room to exert an already strong presence. The show was literally only getting better.

Then again, maybe all of it was a little too ambitious, a little too taxing and perplexing for a show that would always be perceived as cheap exploitation. Voyager was just another Star Trek, an unforgivable crime in an unforgiving genre. It had no right to aspire to more…

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