Thursday, August 19, 2010

Star Trek: Voyager Season Six

In the fall of 1999, Voyager began its final two seasons as the only Star Trek anyone would see at that time, a novelty that was lost on fans who had already grown jaded. Its sixth season would in fact turn out to be its least popular, which was not so surprising, given the circumstances. It was also a downright shame.

6x1 “Equinox, Part II”
Continuing both literally and figuratively where the fifth season had left off, the series saw Janeway at her most passionate since rescuing Seven and starting the road to reclaiming her humanity, which was ironic, because all the captain’s actions here seem to suggest that it’s Janeway herself who’s losing it, unwilling to show even the slightest compassion for a wayward fellow Starfleet crew, which has offended her by failing to live up to her own ideals. It actually makes you wonder what she would have done if Chakotay and the Maquis had been less accommodating, yet another aspect of the story that was completely lost on viewers at the time. More than Sisko in his famous dark hour “In the Pale Moonlight,” it’s the rare opportunity to see a Star Trek character in completely unsympathetic light. But it’s completely reasonable, too, considering the strain Janeway has been living with. But it’s also the first stop on the road to recovery, a personal trial she ultimately passes.

6x2 “Survival Instinct”
Think I’m pretty far off the mark with that kind of thinking? The second episode of the season is another Borg episode, which really shouldn’t be so much of a surprise, with Vaughn Armstrong making another appearance as the leader of a group of former drones with personal ties to Seven, making this basically her Deep Space Nine episode (roughly a Kira experience). But I would also call this a version of Janeway’s own “I, Borg.”

6x3 “Barge of the Dead”
Another exceptional Torres episode (and not to mention a clear gift of Ronald D. Moore’s brief association with the series) sees the beginning of the transition to a strong focus on her Klingon half, as she makes a journey to the afterlife to help out dear old mom. Eric Pierpont makes another guest appearance.

6x4 “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”
The Doctor is in a transition of his own, having grown steadily more bold over the seasons in the course of his development. Here he daydreams a secondary role as Emergency Command Hologram, something that actually becomes a reality. The episode also sees the debut of the Overlookers, otherwise known as the Potatoheads, the rare portly species. The name “Phlox” turns up for the first time in the franchise, too.

6x5 “Alice”
Tom Paris is up to his old tricks, getting himself into horrible trouble thanks to a ship he’s acquired, which proves to be a little more than he can handle. The dude’s luck just stinks. John Fleck guest stars.

6x6 “Riddles”
Tim Russ gets another chance to stretch a little as Tuvok undergoes another crisis of his own, undergoing neurological damage that undoes much of his Vulcan personality and making it incredibly easy, relatively speaking, to get along with Neelix for a change. Always my favorite kind of character episode, speaking about the intrinsic truths of an ordinary situation by exploring it in extraordinary circumstances (which is basically the story of Voyager itself), this is probably also my favorite Tuvok entry.

6x7 “Dragon’s Teeth”
Robert Knepper makes another Star Trek appearance, one that is probably more familiar to fans today than when he showed up as Deanna Troi’s intended beau, as a representative of a potential new alien foe that doesn’t ultimately pan out, and was probably more memorable to fans as a result (the complete opposite of the Kazon).

6x8 “One Small Step”
Phil Morris in perhaps his most memorable Star Trek appearance (his first being Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), the centerpiece in a paean to the space program, something that franchise regularly did (understandably), but probably never better than here.

6x9 “The Voyager Conspiracy”
When fans suggest that Voyager couldn’t be intelligent, much less brilliant or clever, this is the episode I think about every time, because it’s all of that in spades. Seven, probably in one of her finest hours, inadvertently puts herself into Borg overload and starts seeing conspiracies everywhere (at the time, The X-Files, which was one of many shows fans and critics where trying to replace their Star Trek fixation with, was not yet at the point where it lost its own support, so the idea for the episode was also timely), eventually grilling both Chakotay and Janeway about their motives, which was a great way to tie a character who wasn’t around at the beginning of the show back to its origins. But the best part of the episode is when the captain finally brings the drone back down from her sugar high, tracing the arc of their relationship, an emotional moment that resonates with the best of what Star Trek has ever done.

6x10 “Pathfinder”
If any single episode truly represents the transition that began in the sixth season, the moment that divides the final two seasons from the earlier five, it’s this one. Richard Herd finally assumes the role of Admiral Paris, but more importantly, Barclay returns, and begins his last and greatest obsessive quest, which ends with his earning an honorary place among the crew, since he’s the one that ultimately, after a fashion, brings it home. While the Hirogen made regular contact with the Alpha Quadrant possible back in the fourth season, this is the episode that makes it a real staple. Marina Sirtis also makes a guest appearance as Troi. But of course, fans being what they were at the time, they boiled this episode down as a reboot of Barclay back to “Hollow Pursuits.” Perhaps they might think better of it now?

6x11 “Fair Haven”
Janeway’s transition, meanwhile, might officially start here, her road to redemption beginning, improbably, with a relationship in the holodeck. Ever since many of the developments of the early seasons were moved on from, including that potential romance with Chakotay, the captain became increasingly isolated. Her work with Seven certainly helped alleviate some of that, but after finding out Mark didn’t wait for her, Janeway lost some of her center, a sense of normalcy that was vital to maintaining her balance in this stressful situation. Fans didn’t understand this one, either, lumping it into the follow-up “Spirit Folk” as just Harry and Tom at their worst, and the series itself losing all sense of restraint (is that really a bad thing? apparently so, when you don’t have the respect to begin with). Anyway, Richard Riehle makes another Star Trek guest appearance.

6x12 “Blink of an Eye”
One of the episodes I always thought really should have helped fans think a little better of the season, an innovative look at the unintended consequences of accidental first contact, with the ship being lodged in the atmosphere of a planet that revolves more quickly than the norm, resulting in an alien civilization that advances quickly and learns to embrace this strange satellite as a vital part of its culture. Daniel Dae Kim makes a notable appearance as the astronaut who finally makes contact with our crew.

6x13 “Virtuoso”
Continuing the somewhat presumptuous series of bumbling attempts at expanding his horizons, The Doctor believes he’s found some real respect from an alien species who is apparently enamored of him and his singing ability. He’s horribly wrong, of course.

6x15 “Tsunkatse”
Another great sin of the season, or so went the reasoning at the time, was allowing a professional wrestler to guest star, a crass example of network exploitation, given that UPN at that time had just launched ‘Smackdown!’ to incredible ratings, and there was Voyager, ready to ride its coattails. But that wrestler was The Rock, whom movie audiences would eventually embrace pretty readily as Dwayne Johnson. Plus there’s also Jeffrey Combs and J.G. Hertzler making guest spots, making this an incredible episode to revisit on any number of accounts, just in case fans might finally want to admit they might have been a little hasty in their judgments. Hertzler in particular is pretty notable in his own right, appearing as a Hirogen who has more or less fallen into a Martok situation, an unwitting gladiator fighting for the amusement of others. Oh, and for the record, this is also technically a Seven episode.

6x16 “Collective”
Together with a few other stranglers who made recurring if comparatively unmemorable appearances for a while, Icheb (Manu Intiraymi) debuts in this episode, the one that finally looks at the Borg maturation concept, something that had been suggested ever since “Q Who?” This is the other great development of the final two seasons, the addition of a signature new character, one that helps shed light back at prior incarnations of Star Trek, with Voyager getting its own version of Wesley Crusher. Okay, so if some fans were still disgruntled with the season at this point, that might definitely have been their own problem, an issue this show just couldn’t help them with. Except that Icheb was probably better than Wes ever was.

6x17 “Spirit Folk”
The one that sort of ruined “Fair Haven” for everyone is itself also entertaining, but for entirely different reasons, like “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang,” attempting to make a romp of a regular holographic recreation, but unlike Vic Fontaine, this one just didn’t catch on. And was never heard from again.

6x18 “Ashes to Ashes”
One of the standard explanations for why a series shouldn’t be taken seriously is when it tries to introduce new characters who have technically been around from the start, but who have never actually been seen before. The reasoning is, if they were really that important, the writers would obviously have been using them all along. The most famous recent example would be Nikki and Paolo on Lost, whose appearances in the third season seemed to be the catalyst for the belief that the show had completely, well, lost it. I call bunk on that whole line of reasoning. When you’re talking about a fictional reality, it’s pretty stupid, one way or another, to even begin imposing that kind of reasoning, especially when you can watch a reality show like Survivor for an entire season and not really know everything and every relationship that has been going on all season, despite the fact that everyone has obviously been around all along. Anyway, “Ashes to Ashes” was another great sin for this season of Voyager, because it dared to breach this subject, by introducing a previously unknown friend of Harry’s who was lost some time earlier, and returns, but with weird alien complications. But even the reasoning for why this episode didn’t work wouldn’t actually hold up, because the same fans who hated this one were completely indifferent when an actual recurring character, Lt. Carey, was finally killed off later. So that just goes to show you, when someone hates something, they’re just going to hate everything, and have (or “find”) a new reason all the time. It’s just an amusing experience to follow. The episode, by the way, isn’t too bad, either.

6x19 “Child’s Play”
Icheb’s finest hour arrives pretty quickly, as learn his complicated backstory, how his parents tried to use him (and try again during the episode) as a pawn against the Borg, making this another episode that explores as only Voyager could the working realities of the Collective. Where some fans claimed the show ruined the Borg by using them too much, I would argue the show didn’t do enough, and that there was plenty left over when it ended. Who wouldn’t have wanted to finally and truly explore the origins and possible eventual undoing of this giant geeky science experiment? Even the Pocketverse didn’t end up doing that, as far as I can tell.

6x20 “Good Shepherd”
And then we have, perhaps naturally, the completion of Janeway’s redemption, as she realizes there are a number of crewmen aboard whom she has never really gotten to know, the metaphorical lost sheep of the title that have been left over from the stuff the early seasons were doing. Effectively closes the loop opened by “Night.” Tal Celes (Zoe McLellan, who would have more prominent stuff to do in JAG) briefly becomes a recurring character.

6x21 “Live Fast and Prosper”
Finally, the series does the episode that the premise has implicitly made possible, aliens who have no working concept of Starfleet and the Federation exploiting the presence of a ship that has, for all this time, ostensibly been representing both, with no practical means of truly making a context of it. Essentially the comic inversion of “Living Witness,” and another of my undeniable favorites.

6x22 “Muse”
Kellie Waymire, whom I’m pretty sure I saw in a final season Seinfeld episode in a completely atypical performance to what Star Trek fans would come to know during her recurring role in the first season of Enterprise, makes a guest appearance in this Torres episode that has a look at storytelling and was actually something those difficult fans actually enjoyed.

6x23 “Fury”
The hypocritical fans who hated “Ashes to Ashes” for all the reasons I outlined earlier hated this one, too, even though it was clearly that same episode, but with a very familiar face. In fact, you might make a case that “…Ashes” was always intended to act as the emissary to this one, prepping fans for the return of a beloved character dropped off after four years to make room for Seven. But Kes is not a happy camper here, and understandably so. It might need reminding that even at four years old, for her species she was still pretty young, and experiencing things none of her kind had even thought about for centuries, so while “The Gift” and her own arc certainly seemed ideal at the time, this was probably inevitable, an angry comeback. Far more compellingly executed than, say, “Legacy,” this should have been another highlight of the season, but was instead another deadly sin, another episode that was completely misunderstood.

6x24 “Life Line”
The Doctor finally takes a break from his own questionable arc and gets to meet his maker, literally, when Barclay determines Lewis Zimmerman could use some treating of his own. Essentially a follow-up to “Pathfinder” with a unique conceit to help justify it, Troi also returns, as does Admiral Hayes, whom Jack Shearer last portrayed in Star Trek: First Contact (he’d made another Voyager appearance, as another admiral). You might also consider this episode the only real overlapping of The Doctor with Data, where Robert Picardo finally gets to play both incarnations of his Star Trek role together, as Brent Spiner had done repeatedly in Next Generation.

6x25 “The Haunting of Deck Twelve”
A completely generic episode, disguised for Neelix to tell as a bedtime story to the Borg kids, hence the title.

6x26 “Unimatrix Zero, Part I”
Susanna Thompson returns as the Borg Queen, just in time for Janeway to hatch a plot against the Collective, thanks to Seven’s unexpected reunion with old friends.

This recap became a little more lengthy than normal, owing to my direct reactions to the criticisms the season originally received. I think I probably would still have talked at length about it, because it’s one of my favorite seasons, notable in so many ways, across the board, with an incredible variety of stories to tell, which made it clear that the series hadn’t run out of stories to tell, especially with its captain, who had a clear purpose and arc lined out from her, which stretched all the way back to the pilot. What’s more, the season directly set up the chain of events that would lead to the show’s conclusion, with the season finale acting like testing ground for that very event.

Yet I can’t help but wonder, does anything I say here even make a dent in the intense criticisms that mounted during the season, that helped torpedo any remaining interest in the series, that helped deflate the entire franchise? If it weren’t for the failure of this season, it’s quite possible that everything that happened over the course of the next five years would have been very different. Enterprise might, at the very least, have gotten the traditional seven seasons. Star Trek Nemesis might not have failed. But then, we might not, and probably not, have gotten Star Trek (2009). In some ways, fans might actually thank this season, for helping to prove beyond a doubt that a fresh start might actually be needed.

In the end, even with my fond affection for the work so many fans rejected, I guess I ultimately don’t mind what developed as a result…

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