Monday, August 2, 2010

Star Trek: Voyager Season One

In 1995, Paramount achieved its greatest dream buy launching its own TV network with a Star Trek, something it had been trying to do since the 1970s. That show was Voyager, conceived to replace Next Generation as a traditional space-faring adventure and contrast to Deep Space Nine. But it wouldn’t be entirely episodic, since it was equipped with the high concept of a Starfleet crew abandoned far from home, and forced to join with rebels who had previously rejected everything it had stood for.

1x1/1x2 “Caretaker”
Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is assigned to track down a Maquis ship but is instead fatefully drafted into a new mission, the long journey back home after she destroys the one means to make it a swift trip thanks to her Starfleet ideals. Trouble is, she got those Maquis along with her now, which will certainly help to make things interesting.

1x3 “Parallax”
While a surprising amount of the season was devoted to surprisingly generic problems, there was also a fair bit of character work to counterbalance this, which was always the strength of the series. Seska (Martha Hackett) and Lt. Carey (Josh Clark) debut, which is appropriate, given that they are Maquis and Starfleet, respectively, and the episode is really all about B’Elanna Torres (Roxanne Dawson) proving that she can integrate these two worlds, no matter how difficult it may seem.

1x5 “Phage”
Neelix (Ethan Phillips) displays the first signs that he is going to be more than the oddball source of suspect comic relief that he at first seemed, and rather a source of unusual dramatic pathos, and the Vidiians make their debut, a species that would become known almost exclusively for the bizarre illness that defines their appearance - and motives.

1x7 “Eye of the Needle”
Since it was pointedly set up to avoid everything that was familiar, Voyager wasn’t supposed to do an episode like this, but it was both necessary and compelling, as the crew comes into contact with a Romulan (portrayed by Vaughn Armstrong in just one of his many Star Trek faces) who has the potential to solve their dilemma, but is instead revealed to be communicating with them from the past. Not the only time the series would manage to use the Romulan in such a refreshingly new way.

1x8 “Ex Post Facto”
One of the charges leveled against the show that it lacked the conviction to truly pull off what it set out to do, and Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) was probably seen as one of the prime examples. Labeled a rebel, he didn’t seem to act the part, at least not in any way Star Trek would be willing to do, the worth of the character was really lost by the audience. Here was an early episode that helped illustrate the character for what he actually was, someone who just seemed to walk into trouble because he couldn’t help himself. But then, even the show’s creators didn’t seem to understand this one, considering it at the time to be a mistake!

1x9 “Emanations”
Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), the naïve young ensign who never managed to be promoted, even though he was easily one of the most consistently brilliant and useful members of the crew, has his first real spotlight, in one of those episodes you really have to watch again to fully appreciate, exploring the idea of culture contact that Star Trek used, as an idea, as one of its central tenets, but rarely really pulled off. This is one of the winners.

1x10 “Prime Factors”
Here’s another episode that was deemed a failure, but is really an undeniably important and interesting story for the series, in which stoic Tuvok (Tim Russ), Janeway’s best friend and closest associate, especially now, begins to wonder if there are ways to look beyond normal ideas of what’s appropriate, aligning himself with Carey and Seska in accepting alien technology that has previously been officially denied the crew, even though it would be of tremendous help.

1x11 “State of Flux”
One might even argue that, at least in its early seasons, that Voyager was far more serialized than Deep Space Nine, especially with an episode like this one already playing a confident and bold hand, turning recurring character Seska into a completely different but entirely natural new role, as an enemy, while twisting the knife still further by revealing new aspects of her relationship with Chakotay (Robert Beltran), the Maquis captain who accepted a reduced position as Janeway’s first officer and who has been struggling all this time to encourage the integration. Also the debut of Maje Culluh (Anthony DeLongis), the highest profile Kazon, a signature alien race of the early seasons, introduced in the first episode.

1x12 “Heroes and Demons”
The Doctor (Robert Picardo), in his first starring role, on the holodeck, naturally, since he’s an emergency medical hologram, and until this point, hasn’t been able to leave sickbay. Basically a riff on the story of Beowulf, still serves as a more than adequate humanization of a previously cantankerous character. Easily an early favorite.

1x14 “Faces”
The show takes the bold step of addressing the Klingon-human struggle of Torres pretty directly, and pretty early in the series, while also bringing back the Vidiians, and attempting to humanize them, too. Brian Markinson, a character actor not unfamiliar in the franchise already, marks his second appearance as Lt. Durst, so he can “borrow” the face for the Vidiian he’s actually been cast to play. But this episode is really all about Roxanne Dawson, who is easily one of the finest actors to grace Star Trek, though she hardly ever gets that recognition.

1x15 “Jetrel”
We learn a great deal about Talaxian history when Neelix meets Star Trek’s version of Oppenheimer, portrayed by troupe regular James Sloyan. This is basically the Voyager answer to “Duet,” the defining episode from the first season of Deep Space Nine, but again, as is the show’s fate, you’d hardly know it from reputation.

1x16 “Learning Curve”
Tuvok trains a bunch of delinquent former Maquis, marking his defining moment of the season, and effectively the concluding note on the struggles to integrate the crews.

Well, how you read that last one really goes a long way to explaining how you feel about the series, because believe it or not, most fans seemed to think that the Maquis should have been a regular and frequent thorn in the side of the Starfleet officers (would it be worth noting that even Kira pretty quickly warmed to the idea of serving Starfleet masters, or that Ro did it during the course of a single episode?), and was thus indicative of the weakness of the series, that it wasn’t serialized enough, a view that persisted for seven seasons. This despite the fact that for seven seasons, even Deep Space Nine was never fully serialized, except for limited and specific arcs, and rarely delineating specific arcs beyond the general Dominion arc, which Voyager did on a regular basis, right from the start.

I think what really bothered certain Star Trek fans was that Voyager was able to do Next Generation with a Deep Space Nine flavor, right from the start, which even Deep Space Nine, when it was more interested in episodic material, couldn’t do. It wasn’t, and this is not the argument I’m trying to make, that Voyager was better, but that it was always better than fans allowed it to seem, that its hallmark was an extreme understanding of its characters, how to use them, and how to move them along, because that’s exactly what the series was about, and what it needed to do. In a sense, there was never a Star Trek that better exemplified the warm feelings that the original series had engendered in the first wave of fans. And yet, it was Voyager that truly began the exit of those fans, and the inability to make new ones.

Go figure…

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