In January 2020, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut, I started a Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch on Tor.com. I’d said in the past that I had no intention of doing a rewatch of Voyager, even though I’d done the original series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine.
I changed my mind for a number of reasons. I had finished “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch,” I was trying to figure out what to do next for Tor.com, and I came to several conclusions: 1) it was unfair to not do Voyager, given the above three, plus the fact that I’d been reviewing the new Trek series on CBS All Access for Tor as well; 2) it was the show’s 25th anniversary; 3) many people whose opinion I respect love Voyager and thought I was being unfair to it; 4) I hadn’t actually watched any Voyager episodes in ages, and I’m older and, I like to think, wiser.
Having done the rewatch for the better part of a year now, I find that I’m really enjoying it. Part of it is just the comfort of having a regular thing going that I can share and talk with people about twice a week during this spectacular shitshow of a year, which of course I didn’t see coming in January.
But I also have a greater appreciation for the show — which, full disclosure, I really disliked on first viewing — than I did. I’m frustrated by their unwillingness to embrace the premise and their insistence on jumping up and down on the reset button, but unlike the first time, I knew that going in, so it doesn’t bug me as much. And when they worked within those constraints (which were externally imposed by their fledging network — Voyager, remember, was the flagship of the brand-new United Paramount Network in 1995), the show could be really really good. They were also blessed with great acting, particularly from Kate Mulgrew, Robert Picardo, Tim Russ, Jennifer Lien, Roxann Dawson, Jeri Ryan, and Robert Beltran.
Yes, you read that right. When given actual good material — which was vanishingly rare — Beltran did great work. Unfortunately, Chakotay was sabotaged by one thing that we all know now that was less well-known 25 years ago: the Native American advisor they hired, “Jamake Highwater,” was really a con artist named Jackie Marks who wasn’t Indigenous, didn’t know shit about being Indigenous, and provided them with a lot of bullshit masquerading as being authentic. This torpedoed Trek‘s first and only regular Indigenous character (on screen at least), and it’s damage the franchise still hasn’t addressed properly.
Anyhow, here are some highlights from 2020’s Voyager Rewatch entries for the first season of the show (I’ll do posts for seasons two, three, and four over the course of the next week and a half or so):
Okay, if there was a TNG episode in which Riker, Ro, La Forge, Crusher, and Ogawa were all killed, it might, y’know, get mentioned once or twice. In fact, it would devastate the crew and have repercussions from which the characters would struggle to recover.
Yet the equivalent characters on Voyager are all killed, and by the second hour nobody seems to give a shit. Janeway’s waxing rhapsodic about talking to Kim’s parents and how he forgot his clarinet, and Kim’s just missing for a bit. What about your first officer who died? What about Stadi? What about the entire medical staff, who aren’t even given the dignity of names, or the chief engineer, who isn’t given the dignity of a name or a face? (And hey, did they just keep all those dead bodies in stasis for seven years?)
Voyager’s journey through the Delta Quadrant has on its foundation an appalling number of deaths, yet those characters are utterly forgotten about by the second hour of the pilot and never even mentioned again over the next seven years, which is despicable and unintentionally makes the characters out to be uncaring shits. There isn’t even a memorial service for those crewmembers. It’s not good when the characters act like they know who has billing. One of the reasons why Discovery’s “The Red Angel” was so powerful is that Airiam wasn’t an important character to the viewer, but she was part of the crew, and was therefore important to the characters, and deserved a memorial service.
Having said all that, I love watching this episode anyhow, not because of the terrible science, which is spectacularly terrible, but because of what Braga has always been good at, going back to his time on TNG: character development. It was mentioned in “Caretaker” that Janeway was a science officer back in the day, and we explore that. One of the things I like about the various Trek spinoffs is that each captain has a different background, and Janeway’s being a science nerd is a fantastic thing, aided by her bonding with Torres. Science stuff in Trek has previously mostly been the purview of men (with the notable exception of Jadzia Dax), and it’s nice to see Janeway and Torres doing the same nerding that Spock and Scotty did on TOS and that Dax and O’Brien did on DS9 and La Forge and Data did on TNG.
I like the twist in this one that it turns out that the attempt to rescue Janeway and Paris is what caused the planet to be destroyed in the first place—but then they blow it by having it fixed with literally no consequences. This was a real opportunity to do some meaty, in-depth storytelling, and they utterly ruined it by hitting the resettiest of reset buttons. Only Kes has the faintest idea what happened, and what could’ve been a hard lesson for the crew about consequences—and perhaps an actual colloquy on the Prime Directive, since this world is a classic case of why the PD exists—is instead an utterly inconsequential episode because nobody remembers what happened.
Instead, we get the same appalling version of the PD that we got in “Who Watches the Watchers?” (though at least Janeway figures out what Picard didn’t figure out in that TNG episode, to wit, that the damage had already been done and his continuing to not interfere was only going to make things worse) and “Homeward” (in which our heroes became out-and-out murderers).
While the Vidiians will go on to be an effective antagonist, their introduction is lackluster, because we don’t really get any sense of their desperation. We’re told it, but we’re not really shown it, and it lacks the gravitas the script wants it to have.
However, if you want gravitas, we’ve got Kate Mulgrew, who in that very same scene imbues Janeway with fury, frustration, anger, and resentment. She very much wants to punish the Vidiians, but can’t do so in good conscience, especially since she’s got no actual authority here. So she falls back on compassion, letting them go with a (very stern) warning. And, in true Star Trek fashion, compassion is rewarded: the Vidiians do fix Neelix by performing the transplant that’s beyond Federation medicine.
I must also sing the praises of Robert Picardo, who provides one of the single funniest bits of business in all of Star Trek. The EMH is limited to sickbay (at least for now), and so when the crew on the bridge is discussing the “nebula,” the EMH is on the viewscreen. He’s babbling, as usual, so Janeway mutes the audio feed. For several seconds, we see the crew batting ideas around, with the viewscreen in the background, and on the latter, the EMH is wandering, fidgeting, grumbling, and then he obviously has something to say, so he starts waving and jumping up and down. Everyone’s got their back to the viewscreen, though, so nobody sees him except Paris—who takes his sweet time telling Janeway that she should maybe un-mute. It’s a hilarious sequence, beautifully played by Picardo.
In many ways, this episode does right what DS9’s “The Sound of Her Voice” would later do completely wrong, as the surprise about the time jump makes much more sense in this episode than it will on the DS9 episode, where the conversations were longer and friendlier. It also gets the one thing that the DS9 episode did right, to wit, a great guest character, as Vaughn Armstrong does yeoman work making R’Mor a rounded, complex, fascinating character. A respectful friendship develops beautifully between Janeway and R’Mor, starting with the heartfelt audio conversation in Janeway’s quarters, all the way to their goodbyes in the transporter room. Just fabulous work by both Armstrong and Kate Mulgrew. Mulgrew also is wonderful alongside Roxann Dawson in another nerdy technobabble exchange between Janeway and Torres when the latter suggests using the transporter. The joy both characters take in doing science is always tremendous fun.
As a police procedure junkie in general, and also a fan of the character of Tuvok, I love the episode. It’s a good use of twenty-fourth-century technology as part of an investigation, from the insertion of memory engrams as punishment to the ARA analysis (which, of course, only proves that Paris believes he’s telling the truth). I also like that the main reason why the doctor (and why the hell wasn’t he given a name?) was almost able to get away with it is because he could not possibly have known that there was someone on Voyager who was telepathic. Only Paris saw the images, and he assumed the text was part of the process (hell, I assumed it was some kind of status update or other when we first saw it in the teaser), and most people don’t notice relative heights. (Points to director LeVar Burton, who avoided showing Paris and Lidell standing straight next to each other until the climactic gather-the-suspects scene.) Only Tuvok’s hyper-observational nature saved the day.
I did love the final scene between Janeway and Kim, showing how much the captain cares about her crew’s well being. And in general, this is a nifty science fictional concept that shows the difficulties of cultural relativism, especially when you’re not prepared for a first-contact situation. I also like the fact that we never do find out exactly where the Vhnori homeworld is. Neria talks of other dimensions, and it’s perfectly possible that they are in an other dimension. We just don’t know, and I find that appropriate in an episode that is about the greatest unknown of them all, death.
Ronald Guttman has been a favorite of mine since his role as the chief engineer in The Hunt for Red October all the way to his recent brilliant turn as an old man turned into a vampire in Preacher, and he’s perfect here. He’s a hedonist, and he is all over Janeway, but he also offers the crew something they desperately need. Honestly, he’s the perfect predator, which is exactly what the role calls for. Indeed, all the Sikarians are to a degree, as they are hungry for new experiences, and are willing to manipulate people and give them pretty gifts in exchange for it, whether it’s Labin’s offer to give Janeway tons of clothes, Otel’s offer of the trajector, or Eudana taking Kim to another world.
And as soon as Janeway sees through it, he gets pouty and angry and throws a tantrum, blaming her for harshing his mellow. It’s classic predator behavior, and Guttman just nails it. To Janeway’s credit, the minute he shows his true colors and makes it clear that there’s no longer a benefit to her crew to stay, she packs up and leaves.
Watching it now, twenty-five years later, when I know full well that she’s the traitor, it’s also fun to watch as an acting exercise for Martha Hackett, who really sells the notion that she’s an innocent Bajoran who’s being singled out. She’s very convincing in her denials, right up until the EMH pours cold water on her Orkett’s Disease cover story, which probably would’ve been good enough for whatever mediocre medical treatment she might have gotten in the rough-and-tumble world of the Maquis, but doesn’t pass the smell test for a hologram programmed with all the medical knowledge available in the Alpha Quadrant.
And as soon as she’s exposed, Hackett does a wonderful job changing her mode. She’s been a fairly typical Bajoran—brittle, cranky, cynical, but generally friendly, if prickly—but once the jig is up, she goes full Cardassian—arrogant, high-handed, snotty.
And yet, I love this episode all to pieces, mostly because of the one element that makes it uniquely Voyager: the EMH. Robert Picardo shines like big giant shining thing in this one. The doctor’s usual crankiness and sarcasm is leavened by a combination of enthusiasm and dread, which both come from the same source: he’s on a non-medical mission outside sickbay. He’s at once thrilled at the notion of seeing trees and a sky and yet completely unsure if he’s even capable of doing what Janeway’s asking him to do.
What he gets is far more than expected, and I particularly love the little touches, from the EMH feeling and smelling plant life for the first time in its natural state to the tentative manner in which the doctor first eats food, as if he’s never done it before because, well, he hasn’t. Plus, his tale of derring-do is solving a measles epidemic on Voyager, and the looks of confusion on Hrothgar’s subjects is hilarious.
One of the frustrating notions of Voyager’s first season is that Paramount spent the second half of 1994 promoting their upcoming new show as being all about a Starfleet and a Maquis crew being forced to work together to get home. The promised conflict between antagonistic crews never really materialized on the show, though, even when it would have made sense.
The first two people who are possessed by Chakotay and conscripted to do odd things are Paris—a criminal—and Torres—one of the Maquis. This is a perfect opportunity to sow seeds of dissent, to tease the possibility of a Maquis plot to take over the ship, or some damn thing. Instead, Janeway gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, never suspects anything other than weird outside forces, and it’s just maddening.
And then we have the utter ineffectiveness of the Voyager crew. We start with Chakotay showing up to rescue Paris and leaving the Talaxian behind. Why the hell didn’t they take him with them? The guy helped the away team out, giving water to Torres and covering for her inability to work, and in gratitude they leave him behind to be slave labor and have his organs harvested. Nice. (If nothing else, he served on a ship, so maybe he could be useful, given that, again, Voyager is down two people.)
On top of that, Janeway is completely undermined by her own lack of action here. Her exact words in “Phage” were that “any aggressive actions against this ship or its crew will be met by the deadliest force.” Yet in this episode, the Vidiians take extremely aggressive action against the crew—kidnapping and enslaving three of them, maiming one, murdering another—and it is met with absolutely no force whatsoever. They just snatch the away team back and go on their merry way, leaving behind a planet full of kidnapped slaves.
Our theoretical heroes have failed on two levels here. They fail as people dedicated to upholding Federation ideals by not rescuing the Vidiians’ other victims, and they fail as a group of people defending themselves in hostile territory. To threaten deadly force if something happens and then not actually go through with the deadly force when it does happen makes you a toothless tiger, and there’s no reason for anyone to think of Voyager as anything but pushovers. The Vidiians literally get away with murder here.
I said back in the rewatch of “Caretaker” that Neelix was at his most interesting when he had an edge to him, which he had during the rescue of Kes from the Kazon and its immediate aftermath, and which has been depressingly absent from the dozen or so episodes in the interim. But it’s back in full force in “Jetrel,” and it’s a joy to see. Freed from having to be the goofball, Phillips shines. The roller-coaster of emotion in his performance is superb, from his near-panic attack when Jetrel identifies himself to his frustrated disgust when Janeway and Kes try to convince him to see Jetrel to his pure contempt when he first confronts Jetrel (the line quoted in the “Do it” section above about convenient distinctions may be Phillips’s best moment in the entire seven-year history of the show) to his depressed hiding in the mess hall until Kes finds him to his passionate retellings of his experiences on Rinax to both Jetrel and the bridge crew. It’s a bravura performance, bringing depth to a character who was utterly bereft of it up until this point.
And that lack of depth is given an explanation. Neelix has lost everything, and worse, he lost everything when he himself was hiding from his duty, and the guilt is overwhelming. With that much tragedy, retreating into a ridiculous persona is a perfectly understandable bit of psychological self-trickery.
On top of that, the episode completely blows it with the use of Tuvok, because apparently nobody involved with the creation of this episode remembered that Tuvok infiltrated Chakotay’s Maquis cell, as established in the opening scene of “Caretaker.” Janeway said back in “Parallax” that Tuvok provided full information on the Maquis cell he was part of.
So why doesn’t he know them? Why doesn’t he already know Dalby’s story? Why do the four of them appear to be complete strangers to him? He mentions that Chell has been reported to be a bit of a babbler, but Tuvok himself should already know that from his time as part of Chakotay’s cell.
Worse, they come up with a nonsense notion that holodecks run on a different, independent power system, which is absurd on every level, solely so the crew can still go to the holodeck and play dress-up, because heaven forfend we not have access to the holodeck. True, it also gave us “Heroes and Demons,” which was delightful, but still, holy crap! I mean, first of all, this is Star Trek where characters come up with crazy-ass workarounds all the time. You’re trying to tell me that Torres, the great out-of-the-box-thinking Maquis engineer, can’t come up with a way to dump holodeck power into other systems so they don’t have power-supply issues?