This is as far away from traditional wisdom as I’m willing to go: no Star Trek had a better second season than Voyager. Flush from a strong push in the early months of 1995, and thanks to some production and network quirks, a few episodes from that early run were held back for the new season that started in the fall, but even from that point, the show only seemed to grow stronger and more bold, building the first true long arc of the franchise, at the same time that Deep Space Nine was only just getting the hang of the Dominion, and getting a tad scuttled in its own efforts by the same studio (remember that Voyager debuted during the other show’s third season, and so was in its second season as the older show went on to its fourth, with the debut of Worf and infusion of Klingons). How’s that for revisionism?
2x1 “The 37’s”
It was a stroke of genius to choose this one from among the several shot after “Learning Curve” to serve as the second season premiere, especially as its ending served as a moral victory for Janeway when she learns her crew is ready to stand behind her, exactly the note necessary at this point of the show’s run. But perhaps more interesting was the decision to build the hour around Amelia Earhart (Sharon Lawrence, then well-known from her years on NYPD Blue), and an entire colony of displaced humans from alien meddling. On the surface, this was just a new treatment of a story already seen in “Space Seed” and “The Neutral Zone,” but far from a disadvantage, I would argue (again, against tradition) that increased knowledge of its own abilities made Star Trek easier to make, and thus, potentially better. At least in this instance, that much was true.
The Kazon grew to be seen, I don’t know how quickly, as crude imitations of Klingons, probably based on looks alone (I never had a problem with that either), so any viewer who was tired of them after “Caretaker” was only baffled by the second season, which focused all the more heavily on them, which to those who didn’t like Kazon, could only be all the more baffled by their continued presence, especially on a show who’s professed goal was constant onward mobility, which should have made it difficult to continue seeing any alien species for long, much less one that wasn’t much liked. But as a species, the Kazon were uniquely suited and situated for this role, especially in the early years, to help build the context and drama of the show, as a nomadic species, splintered and spread out by definition, and already designed as the ship’s first enemy, which should have been viewed as pretty important, since without backup, could it possibly be any more vulnerable? To watch it all unfold should have been fascinating. And in this episode, the first one to truly focus on them, the Kazon even get their culture explored, as Chakotay stumbles into a training camp and a troubled recruit, played by Deep Space Nine recurring star Aron Eisenberg, who, for a number of reasons, should have been able to win over at least some of the disgruntled fans for the species. Did I mention this was the first episode filmed directly for the second season?
The Voyager debut of Barclay (Dwight Schultz, making a second career of a second career), whose presence would increase in later seasons, folded into the mythology for the first time as Lewis Zimmerman’s assistant during the creation of the Emergency Medical Hologram. This is relevant, because both Zimmerman (also played by Robert Picardo) and Barclay appear for the first time in a twisty tale that explores for the first time The Doctor’s existential problems, which would themselves increase and grow in significance later.
The first real spotlight for Kes (Jennifer Lien), the character most affected by the appearance of Voyager in the Delta Quadrant, a member of the species who was saved by Janeway in her decision to strand the crew thousands of lightyears from home. At first cast in a complicated relationship with fellow passenger Neelix, it wasn’t long before Kes started forging some of her own relationships, particularly with The Doctor and Tuvok, not to mention Tom Paris, much to Neelix’s chagrin. But this episode is all about Ocompan biology, and could be likened to “Amok Time,” when she’s forced to undergo reproductive changes. But for those keeping continuity score, this is also the debut of Samantha Wildman (Nancy Hower), whose own pregnancy forces Janeway to seriously consider what the future of her ship may really be, which would have some real developments soon enough. Another holdover from the first season production schedule.
2x5 “Non Sequitur”
The second episode filmed expressly for the second season, this one features Harry Kim on a mind-bending journey that features an intriguing what-if scenario rebooting back to the start of the series with Kim, not to mention Tom Paris, never having joined the Voyager crew. At the very least, an innovative way to look back at what Harry left behind, including girlfriend Libby (Jennifer Gatti).
Remember that knotty love triangle I suggested about Kes, Neelix, and Tom Paris? Well, as of this episode, consider that explored pretty thoroughly. What the premise of the series, like Deep Space Nine aboard a space station, necessitated, was a definite exploration of relationships, and I always thought that was the real triumph of Voyager. This was an early culmination-of-sorts, not the one Paris fans would have been looking for (something that was definitely abandoned was the complicated rivalry he shared with Chakotay in the pilot, that was pretty much never seen again), but one that was still satisfying, for three characters.
2x8 “Persistence of Vision”
The big tease of home and family from the early seasons, that gave viewers glimpses of Tom’s domineering dad Admiral Paris (early on played by Warren Munson), Janeway’s fiancée Mark (Stan Ivar, last seen in the pilot, and another plot point dropped a little too soon), and Tuvok’s wife T’Pol (Marva Hicks).
Something that the show never really explored was the concept of destiny, but it’s not hard to imagine that the idea was at least somewhere in the kernel of this episode, which took a look at Chakotay’s origins, including, yes, how he got that distinctive facial art. I think if Chakotay himself would have proved more popular, this episode would have grown in importance, as would this entire season. But in the strength and failure of the season, one can see the unraveling of the whole franchise, at least in this incarnation.
2x10 “Cold Fire”
Otherwise known as the Female Caretaker episode, a direct sequel to the pilot; Kes finds herself in the unlikely position of having the chance to rejoin her people (much as Neelix would at the end of the series), but a few too many complications make the deal impossible. Gary Graham makes a notable and early Star Trek appearance, before joining Enterprise in a prominent recurring role.
This one’s like a sequel to “State of Flux,” as Chakotay gets to enjoy a forced reunion with Seska and Culluh, which more or less kicks off the season arc. Has always been one of my favorite episodes of the series, strictly for its dramatic weight, which Robert Beltran was particularly suited to carry, and which was sorely missed later in the series. No wonder the guy grew bitter.
A poignant episode featuring guest star Joel Grey working as a perfect counterbalance to Kate Mulgrew’s usual steely resolve as Janeway, who’s forced to watch as her new friend Caylem degrades himself, believing it’s the only way to survive and save the day. An episode even those not caught up in the series took note of.
Torres was like the O’Brien of Voyager, constantly getting herself caught up in unlikely disastrous scenarios, usually at her own initiative. Here she unwittingly reactivates a war by repairing the robots which had ended up fighting it for the species who long ago killed each other off. An episode struck very much from the original series mold. Rick Worthy voices the robot she spends the bulk of the episode with, thereby setting up his own recurring role in the Star Trek acting troupe.
The season arc continues, this time with more Kazon! Seriously, you can’t get more heavily Kazon than this episode, which reveals how the species splintered into warring tribes by dangling the promise of a reunification, with Janeway attempting to fill the diplomatic role Picard made so famous in Next Generation (and not succeeding as such). Seska and Culluh appear, and Jonas (Raphael Sbarge) makes his first appearance, as the mole our villains have aboard the ship, another former Maquis.
The most infamous episode of the series sees Tom Paris attempt to break Federation speed records, only to wind up in testing other laws of science, including apparently precious ideas the audience might have about evolution.
Arguably Tuvok’s finest hour, and the episode where Tim Russ truly gets to stretch a little when Ensign Suder (Brad Dourif) is revealed to be an unstable, homicidally so, member of the crew, whom the Vulcan tries to bring under control, with some pretty disastrous results, at least for a while.
Just in case Torres didn’t get into enough trouble with her engineering skills in “Prototype,” this one sees a reunion with a Cardassian weapon she’d previously worked on pre-Delta Quadrant, which proves not so much cooperative here, either.
2x18 “Death Wish”
The most famous episode of the season, and possibly of the series, Voyager does a Q (John De Lancie) episode, and makes the idea totally its own by exploring the nature of the Q Continuum for the first time, thereby setting a precedent for how later appearances would feature the irascible entity. It doesn’t hurt that De Lancie has better chemistry with Kate Mulgrew than he did with Avery Brooks.
The Doctor in his first real brush with love, as he treats a brilliant Vidiian (Susan Diol) with a holographic representation of a disease-free appearance, so he can help her physical body recover. Also a key episode for the recurring subplot of Tom Paris’s apparent rogue behavior meant to expose Jonas, the only time that anticipated conflict with Chakotay would ever surface, which also exploits viewer expectations for the kind of character Paris was supposed to be.
Neelix plays an instrumental role in exposing Jonas as Tom Paris’s ruse reaches its natural conclusions. An important climax to part of the season’s arc as well as a necessary link in the show’s development since the start of the series.
In another iteration of a kind of disaster episode that Voyager repeatedly turned to in its early run, this was the most successful one, and the most significant. Technically, the Harry Kim from this point on is an alternate one, and Naomi Wildman is born.
Tuvok plays well off of kids. That’s the lesson of this one, which actually cleverly inverts that statement by the end of the episode. You might even consider it a weird sort of inversion of “The Galileo Seven” if you want to.
2x23 “The Thaw”
This is another strong standalone story, featuring our crew stumbling awkwardly into a deceptively deadly scenario, featuring Michael McKean in a role that easily have become recurring if anyone had thought of it, and a strong appearance by Janeway, who finally figures out how to defeat him.
Here’s an episode that seemed designed to test the viewer’s affection for the show by introducing a combination of Tuvok and Neelix (brilliantly portrayed by Tom Wright) and seeing what it would be like to wonder if it was better to have him stick around, or bring back the status quo. It was Janeway’s first moral dilemma since “Caretaker,” and the first time viewers seemed to believe she erred. It was a matter of credibility for skeptics, and a strong continuity hour for fans. Take away all the questions about the Kazon, and you’ll find that “Tuvix” influenced opinions far more than “Death Wish,” or “Threshold,” for that matter.
One of the running plots early on, or one of the running passions at least, among fans was whether or not Janeway and Chakotay would develop a romantic relationship. This episode was all about exploring that idea, testing its limits. The characters, and actors, were up to the task.
2x26 “Basics, Part I”
The Kazon arc reaches its logical conclusion in the cliffhanger season finale that sees Seska and Culluh launch a successful assault on the ship, claiming it for themselves and abandoning the crew on a primitive world.
It wasn’t just the arc driving much of the season that helped make it memorable (and historic) for me, but the fact that the series was able to expand on its potential, and explore episodic material productively, that helped convince me that Voyager made a viable addition to franchise lore. Even though I was coming off my most cherished memories of Deep Space Nine (you’ll remember that its third season was my favorite), I was still ready to embrace a new crew and new stories. This was a strong foundation, no matter what other viewers might have thought.
Yet ironically, the third season would set about an immediate change of creative direction…