This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.
The 37’s did not close out the first broadcast season of Star Trek: Voyager, as the producers had intended. The last episode produced in the first season run, it was held back in the schedule into the second season – a decision made by UPN to allow Voyager to get an early start the following autumn. Still, the decision to reposition The 37‘s as the premiere of the broadcast season is quite telling.
Airing ahead of the three episodes produced before it, and ahead of any episodes produced specifically for the second season, there’s a sense that the production team intend The 37’s to be an important episode. After all, the season premiere is just as important as the season finalé in the basic structure of a broadcast season. The finalé serves as a capstone for what has come before, while (hopefully) indicating what might follow. The premiere is a way of setting up what is yet to come.
So the positioning on The 37’s is interesting, because it indicates just how much the production team had invested in the episode. This is a big episode of Voyager, this is an important episode of Star Trek. As such, it makes for a completely unsatisfying experience. The 37’s isn’t a bad episode by any measure – it has a few interesting ideas and a few memorable elements – but it’s not ambitious. It doesn’t radically change Voyager, but it also doesn’t distil it. It doesn’t offer the sense of purpose lacking for morst of the first season.
The 37’s just sort of is. It’s an episode that would be functional shuffled into the middle of a season – a few episodes earlier or later than broadcast. However, it simply doesn’t work when scheduled into a high-profile slot, particular when it has been moved so consciously and so purposefully.
Brannon Braga outlined the perceived importance of The 37’s in an interview with Cinefantastique, claiming it offered a new mandate for the series:
The 37’s was intended to mark a new direction for Voyager, the resolution of Maquis/Starfleet friction and the bonding of the crew as one. “This is the episode we designed to be the final show of the season,” said Braga. “We were interested in having the crew show a little solidarity and standing together saying, ‘We will make the best of this situation.’ There’s nothing worse than tuning in to a TV show where everyone hates to be where they are — unless it’s a comedy. I would like to see people whining less about home. Enough already. It’s going to start getting tiresome. We’re going to focus more on exploration. That will be the over-riding concern. We are always looking for ways to fulfil the promise of this mysterious and dangerous quadrant of space. If there is one complaint I have about the first season, it is that there wasn’t enough different about this quadrant. The aliens we met were painfully reminiscent of earlier shows. Our imagination fell a little short of what we’re capable of doing.”
Braga’s logic here is hardly convincing.
Most obviously, he seems to be starting from something of a false premise. The first season of Voyager never seemed like a show about a bunch of people who didn’t want to be there. While the show’s central premise is about a lone Federation starship trying to find the way home, the first season never really explored that idea. Episodes like Eye of the Needle and Prime Factors used the idea of getting home as a story hook – and it even played into State of Flux – but the crew of Voyager have never felt stranded.
There are a number of reasons for this, and most of them have to do with the show’s refusal to move away from standard Star Trek tropes. The crew of Voyager have never seemed like they were stuck in hostile territory. Episodes like Ex Post Facto and Jetrel feel like the “planet-of-the-week” stories from Star Trek: The Next Generation, relying on the idea that Voyager can forge diplomatic relationships easily and can be located by other powers on a whim – rather than treating it as a lone ship lost in an alien ocean.
More than that, Voyager has been trying to have its cake and eat it with regards to Earth. Although the ship is stranded on the other side of the galaxy, home is readily available to the crew. In Cathexis and Learning Curve, Janeway retreats to a holodeck simulation of classical England. In Heroes and Demons, Harry Kim visits medieval Scandinavia. Tom Paris has built a holographic simulation of Paris, populated with a quirky (and recurring) human supporting cast.
Yes, these are all simulations, and obviously can’t substitute for the real Earth. However, the show never seems too preoccupied with the distinction. As an audience watching at home, it’s impossible to feel homesick. Indeed, on the face of it, the crew of Star Trek: Voyager seem to spend more time on versions of Earth than the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s hard to not to wonder what show Braga was watching; a show where the crew were constantly mopping about getting home. The show has spent more time telling us the crew are getting along than exploring what such isolation must feel like.
So it feels like Braga is complaining about a problem that doesn’t exist – talking about something that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem even if it did exist. So it feels like The 37’s is an attempt to fix something that isn’t broken. More than that, it feels a little strange to try and fix something like that so early in the process. It was produced for the end of the first season and broadcast at the start of the second.
That seems rather early to draw a line under the whole “seventy years from home” narrative through-line, which was really one of the central appeals of Voyager as a Star Trek spin-off. (The other, of course, being the collaboration between Starfleet and the Maquis, which was quickly forgotten about.) One of the real problems with Voyager – and it’s a problem mirrored in the characterisation of Janeway as a character – was the sense that there was never a clear direction for the show. Voyager would try something for a year or two, then try something else, never committing to any model long enough to get it working.
This was, in a large part, due to the changes that occurred behind the scenes. Voyager started out as a Michael Piller show. He then left during the first season to produce Legend. When Legend was cancelled, he returned for the second season. He then left at the end of the second season, turning the show over to Jeri Taylor. Taylor tried to steer the ship for the third and fourth seasons, before leaving. Then Brannon Braga took over.
Each of those producers had their own competing aesthetic, and it seemed like each shift altered the direction of show dramatically, with each vision of the show opposed to the other two. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine went through several seismic production team changes – but not with the regularity and uncertainty of Voyager. Once Piller took control of The Next Generation, the show’s creative vision was set for the rest of the run. When Piller handed control of Deep Space Nine to Ira Steven Behr, there was an understanding that their perspectives on the show were at least somewhat aligned.
In contrast, the shifts behind the scenes on Voyager felt like ping-pong, with a number of incompatible perspectives trying to realise their own vision what the show should be. It’s a shame that there is yet to be a full and frank account of the behind-the-scenes turmoil on Voyager. The production materials and guides all feel rather disengaged from the production of the show, lacking the transparency and insight afforded by the production staff on the other Star Trek shows.
Part of what makes The 37’s so interesting is that it’s an episode written by two of those distinct voices. It is the only shared collaboration between Brannon Braga and Jeri Taylor during their time working on Star Trek, which is interesting of itself. The two are quite comparable, arguably more compatible than Braga and his frequent collaborators Moore or Menosky; Braga and Taylor both joined The Next Generation during its fourth season, both served as Executive Producer on Voyager, and both went on to create a spin-off.
However, Braga and Taylor each have their own unique vision of what Voyager should be. Part of the reason that The 37’s feels like such a mess is because these elements are at odds with one another. Taylor seems most interested in the character of Janeway. Indeed, Taylor seems to be the only writer on Voyager with a solid idea of what Janeways should actually be. While Taylor’s version of Janeway is distinct from the version presented by virtually very other member of staff, it feels more internally consistent. Taylor’s Janeways feels like she might have developed into a fully-formed character as Picard and Sisko did.
After all, Taylor didn’t just contribute Janeway’s biography to the Voyager writers’ bible. She also wrote an entire novel dedicated to fleshing out the character of Janeway. It’s worth noting that Mosiac was published at the start of the show’s third season – the point at which Jeri Taylor had full control of the reigns. It is very hard to divorce the character of Janeway from Jeri Taylor’s vision of Voyager.
At the Launch of Star Trek: Voyager, Jeri Taylor confessed her sense of ownership of (and identification with) Janeway:
“I think Kate Mulgrew and I will both say ‘I am Captain Janeway’ and we’re both right. I bring a lot of my sensibilities to the writing of it, she has brought all of her exquisite sensibilities to the playing of it, its a very collaborative kind of thing.”
Even toward the end of Voyager‘s seven-year run, Taylor was joking about having to share Janeway with Kate Mulgrew:
“I think Janeway would have to rank as my most significant character. There is so much of me in her that in the beginning it bothered me to share her with Kate Mulgrew!” she joked. “Of course those feelings didn’t last, because Kate breathed life into her, but it shows how close, and how proprietary I felt about Janeway. I’m terribly proud of her.”
Taylor’s vision of Janeway has come under criticism from fans, with some contending that Janeway is Taylor’s “Mary Sue” character.
Even getting past the questionable roots of the term itself, there’s an uncomfortable sense of sexism to these claims, as they inevitably ignore the fact that Kirk spent all of the original Star Trek – and Picard spent most of The Next Generation – as an idealised and almost flawless character. Taylor made quite a few missteps with Janeway – insisting that the character retreat into the holodeck to play governess while the ship is still getting used to its situation is the most obvious error so far. And, yet, at least Taylor does have a consistent vision of Janeway.
The 37’s wears that vision on its sleeve. It is very clearly written an appreciation of Janeway as a trailblazer. She is a female starship captain in a franchise that doesn’t necessarily have the best history of dealing with gender issues. With considerable hubris, the show invites comparisons between the story of Kathryn Janeway and the legend of Amelia Earhart. It has been argued that Earhart was not necessarily as much as a pioneer as might have been claimed, benefiting from myth-building unavailable to her female predecessors and contemporaries.
However, The 37’s is not interested in the real and historical Amelia Earhart. It’s interested in the myth of Amelia Earhart and her importance as a feminist icon. In an interview with Starlog before the show premiered, Taylor explained why she identified with Janeway so strongly. Unsurprisingly, Taylor pointed out that she and Janeway are unique in the Star Trek pantheon:
Taylor’s comment about there being elements of herself in Janeway can’t be allowed to slip by without being addressed. She laughs, knowing full well that the follow-up question has to concern the matter of how- much of her is in the new captain. “A lot. I think. I identify with Janeway.” she notes. “I am a woman of authority, unique in the Star Trek annals. There has never been a woman who has had the title of executive producer besides myself. I have a staff that I work with and take responsibility for. The successful running of a TV series is. at least in part, up to me. There are many pressures and a lot of stress. So. I bring my personality to bear on this job. Naturally, it is those sensibilities I tap into when I write Janeway.”
There’s very much a sense that Jeri Taylor is fascinated with the importance of Janeway as a potential icon – as the most prominent female figure in a mythology heavily populated by men; just as Earhart was the most prominent female figure in an industry dominated by men; just as Taylor herself is one of the two most successful female production staff member to work on Star Trek.
(It is worth pausing here to note that Star Trek veteran D.C. Fontana did run Star Trek: The Animated Series, and was probably the most influential writer on the original Star Trek series who never officially got to set the direction of the show. At the same time, Fontana’s position was much lower-profile than Taylor’s – to the point where her contributions are easy to overlook – and Voyager was a much more high-profile gig than The Animated Series.)
As a result of this strange set-up – historical feminist icon meets up with science-fiction franchise trailblazer – The 37’s was always going to seem hokey. Then again, it’s hardly unprecedented. Even outside of the holodeck, the franchise has a long history of allowing its characters to interact with historical figures. While Picard’s encounter with Mark Twain in Time’s Arrow might not rank as a series high-point, everybody remembers that time that Kirk teamed up with space!Lincoln.
In fact, The 37’s seems to be daring casual fans to call the episode out on its absurdity. The opening sequence is consciously designed to evoke The Savage Curtain. Sure, Janeway might not receive a hail from space!Earhart who proceeds to use politically incorrect terms to describe the crew, but the teaser’s shot of the Ford pickup floating in space is clearly a shout-out to that memorable visit from the sixteenth President of the United States.
Along with the distress signal that only a Ford pickup can receive, The 37’s is framed very much in the style of a classic Star Trek episode – as if Voyager is trying to reconnect with its own franchise roots. It seems likely that these pulpy science-fiction elements originated with Braga, but they do a nice job of justifying the set-up – allowing Janeway to meet Earhart. The biggest problem with the episode isn’t how hokey all of this is. The biggest problem is that the episode doesn’t have the space to get past this hokeyness to say something profound or insightful.
The problem with Taylor’s “Janeway meets Earhart” premise is that the show never does anything with it. There are all the conversations that you might expect about how Earhart was a pioneer, and a nice juxtaposition of two female pioneers stranded on the other side of the galaxy. However, we never spend enough time with Janeway and Earhart to get past the most basic form of hero worship.
Earhart never seems like anything more than an embodiment of a feminist ideal, a symbolic representation of how Taylor sees Janeway. While that’s interesting, it feels a little superficial. There’s nothing in their interactions that gives the viewer any more insight into Janeway or Earhart than they had before. The most nuanced element of The 37’s is the way that it consciously hints at a forbidden attraction between Janeway and Chakotay by revealing an attraction between Earhart and her navigator.
It doesn’t help that The 37’s comes with some unfortunate subtext. On the other side of the galaxy, the crew of Voyager discover a bunch of people who have been kidnapped from Earth and taken to the Delta Quadrant. There’s an astonishingly diverse cast of characters here. According to the script, the abductees include “a Japanese officer, an African-American farmer, an Indian woman, and a Scandinavian fisherman.”
And yet, while the African-American farmer and Japanese officer get lines, the only two developed abductees are the white man and the white woman. These are the two characters that drive the action. Given the story’s focus on the high-profile white woman among these diverse characters who also disappeared, it almost plays as a prescient parody of the infamous “missing white woman” syndrome. The Briori kidnap hundreds of humans, and it’s the white woman everybody misses.
There are other unfortunate choices. Choosing to wake up the frozen humans, the Voyager crew decide that these people should not wake up to any alien faces – the only crew members present at the awakening are those that can “pass” as human. This is an understandable decision, even if it feels a tad unnecessary. These people are going to have to deal with aliens sooner or later, and it’s not as if Tuvok would be particularly shocking for any of them. (Indeed, Worf was present from the awakening of the frozen humans in The Neutral Zone.)
This decision itself isn’t a problem. The problem is the tone that it sets. There’s never any hint of racism from the thawed humans, which is a nice touch. However, there’s a rather strange suggestion that while these people might be comfortable interacting with different ethnic groups, they’d much rather keep to their own kind. Discussing the possibility of remaining behind, the Japanese officer reflects, “There are many Japanese here. I could be very happy.” This isn’t treated as a questionable comment. Why couldn’t he be happy if there weren’t many Japanese here?
Coupled with the fact that the descendants of the original slaves are unambiguously white, this has an uncomfortable subtext – it suggests that there’s very little mingling and integration here, even hinting that the various ethnic groups have decided to keep to themselves. It feels like it undercuts a lot of the diversity that Star Trek had championed so proudly, suggesting that there’s really a limit to the tolerance we can expect people to demonstrate. It is an unsettling subtext to the episode.
Then again, it is perfectly in keeping with the nostalgic mood of The 37’s. This is where Brannon Braga’s aesthetic choices conflict most directly with those of Jeri Taylor. While Taylor is interested in crafting a character-driven story about Janeway meeting one of her idols, Braga seems most interested in offering a pulpy science-fiction adventure. At this stage of his Star Trek writing career, Braga was fascinated with science-fiction throwbacks. This was around the same time as his b-movie tributes in episodes like Genesis and Threshold.
Braga seems to have a fondness for that sort of old-school science fiction. In an interview before the launch of Star Trek: Enterprise, the writer admitted that he saw Star Trek as an anthology show:
I’ve always thought of Star Trek as an anthology show. We can do any genre and we have over the years done everything from a Western to Medieval times to time travel to romance, we’ve done every genre of drama, because science fiction allows you to do that, between the holodeck and time travel you can virtually do anything. So, it’s been creatively rewarding.
This fits quite well his early approach to writing for the franchise. Many of Braga’s early scripts could have worked as episodes of an old-fashioned anthology series, featuring fascinating hooks and occasionally questionable science.
And so The 37’s is cast in the mold of a classic science-fiction story. It’s a pulpy adventure about aliens who came to Earth and abducted slaves who have lived for generations on the other side of the galaxy. While it ties into the nineties fascination with alien abductions it harks back further to stories about alien enslavement and cryogenics, hallmarks of classic trashy science-fiction. The 37’s is dripping in science-fiction nostalgia – even before you get to the Ford truck or Amelia Earhart.
In this respect, it fits quite well with the rest of early Voyager. Much of the show’s first season feels strangely nostalgic, as if the show is trying to hark back to an earlier time in the franchise’s history. Caretaker attempted to consciously evoke the Wild West. Episodes like Time and Again and Jetrel weighed on the splitting of the atom. Faces felt like a monster movie informed by the horrors of the Second World War. The 37’s goes back even further – aspiring to an innocence before the war in question.
It’s worth noting that science-fiction has a tendency to feel nostalgic – to hark back to the perceived “golden age” – as Judith Berman has noted:
SF writers and fans seem increasingly gripped by the iron hand of the past. I find it striking that at cons writers and fans are always talking about the history of the field, and the great practitioners of the past. The fact that Asimov’s begins each issue with Silverberg’s column, which is practically dedicated to Golden-Age nostalgia, fits in perfectly with the discourse of the field as a whole. Convention panels gripe endlessly about the bad new days and look back fondly toward the good old ones. Convention discussions often devolve into exchanges of trivia about Golden Age writers who have been transmogrified from being merely a part of SF’s historical canon into cult figures.
There are those – such as Orson Scott Card – who would argue that Star Trek has always been rooted in nostalgia for an earlier form of science-fiction, contending that “the series was trapped in the 1930s — a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas.” Perhaps that accounts for Voyager‘s nostalgia – nostalgia for the original Star Trek‘s own nostalgia.
Perhaps it is something more. Writer Gareth L. Powell noted that the nostalgia within science-fiction perhaps reflects a wider societal nostalgia:
Some fans will always cling to the ‘golden age’ works of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and I can understand why. They provide a magic door back to the simple pleasures of a simpler world – a world before global warming, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic uncertainty; relics of a world where the future was easily understood, and (largely) American, middle class and white in outlook, origin and ethnicity.
There is some uncomfortable subtext to these attitudes.
And, yet, this sort of nostalgia remains popular. Aaron Sorkin once boasted that he would have loved to live in the forties. There’s an appeal to the idea of living in a simpler time. Writing of the seventies in Through the Lens of the City, Mark Rice noted the nostalgia for the thirties:
Davis said that “the current wave of nostalgia for the thirties [can be explained by] the more positive moral and civic tone obtaining then, e.g., the humour in the midst of economic adversity, the deep belief in the eventual efficacy of social reform, the sense of participation in contrast to the present mood of alienation.” Exemplifying Davis’s observation, Scott based his nostalgia for the 1930s on his perception of the decade’s “civic peace.” A 1970 article in Newsweek titled, simply, “Nostalgia” also illustrates this perception of the 1930s: “Once upon a time, there was a land of laughing kids and confident grown-ups called America the Beautiful. In that simpler country – or so at least it seems in rosy retrospect – the Hollywood of the stars and the golden voice of radio, innocent comic books, funny papers and the Big Bands all blared out a message of cockeyed optimism… Look for it now only on late-night TV, for it is no more than a dream remembered, an America gone with the end … Or is it? Nostalgia for the American dreamland is sweeping the country like a Kansas twister.”
So it’s easy to imagine Voyager in general – and The 37’s in particular – as an example of this sort of nostalgia as Tom Paris geeks out over the Ford pickup truck and Janeway gets to meet Amelia Earhart.
However, there are problems with this sort of blind and unquestioning nostalgia. The world may have appeared “simpler” in the old days, but the problems were simply better hidden. The thirties might be an idealised fantasy for healthy middle-class heterosexually able-bodied white people, but they weren’t much fun for anybody else. There’s a tendency to gloss over that when phrases like “the Greatest Generation” are casually thrown out.
This feels like one of the biggest problems with The 37’s. Braga’s nostalgia and Taylor’s hero worship create an uncomfortable white-wash of history. The fact that none of the abductees express out any of the uncomfortable racial or sexist attitudes that they likely would have held doesn’t make them go away. Watching the crew get so excited about the past allows the episode to gloss over the fact that the farmer was likely living through the Great Depression and the Japanese soldier was likely participating in war crimes in Manchuria when they were abducted. All that romanticism allows any hint of real history to slip through the cracks.
In many respects, The 37’s feels like the opposite of The Neutral Zone. The show’s premise bears quite a pronounced similarity to the first season finalé of The Next Generation, which isn’t too surprising; Voyager has already expressed its intent to emulate its elder sibling. Both episodes feature the crew coming across some cryogenically frozen humans from Earth’s past; both episodes allow our heroes to awaken them and interact with figures from their own history.
The Neutral Zone was an incredibly patronising piece of work – with Picard and his crew taking every opportunity to stress how far humanity had evolved in the years since those people were frozen. The crew react with smug superiority to their predecessors, mocking them and condescending to them. In fact, Picard can hardly wait to kick them off the ship so he can continue to boldly go. It was one of the most awkward and patronising examples of Gene Roddenberry’s utopianism in a heavy-handed first season. Only The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us could compete.
In contrast, The 37’s sees the crew reacting with uncritical hero worship to the revived humans. There’s no acknowledgement that humanity has changed at all. The humans seem to adapt quite well to the twenty-fourth century, all things considered. They even eat in the messhall with Neelix together, while Janeway has candid conversations with a figure she has idealised from childhood. The 37’s adopts the opposite approach to the relationship between twenty-fourth century humanity and its forebearers.
There’s a sense that the correct approach lies somewhere in the middle. Rather than worshipping the past or smugly condescending towards it, perhaps it might be best to actively engage with it. It isn’t necessary to smugly lecture the viewers on how humanity can become saints in post-scarcity economy, but it also isn’t necessary to paint over the fact that mankind has a somewhat questionable history when it comes to issues like tolerance.
(Indeed, Deep Space Nine‘s Past Tense did a much better job of telling this sort of story – allowing our heroes to witness how fundamentally broken human society can become, while still recognising that lecturing from a position of a fictional post-scarcity society is probably not the best approach to the problem. However, Voyager is more interested in defining itself relative to The Next Generation.)
Even from a writing standpoint, The 37’s is a mess of an episode. It pulls several different directions at the same time. The final act features an interest story hook. What if the crew of Voyager decided to settle down in the Delta Quadrant? What if they decided to lay down their burdens? What if they didn’t want to spend what might be a life-time travelling? This is a pretty interesting idea for a story, and arguably more interesting than the “they almost get home… but not really” hijinx of Eye of the Needle or Prime Factors.
Unfortunately, it’s only raised towards the end of an over-stuffed episode. While Brannon Braga’s plan to expand the episode into a two-parter would like have over-extended the story, there is a sense that there’s too much going on in The 37’s for a regular episode of the show. It’s not just the problems with the final act, but also in the way that Jeri Taylor’s Janeway/Earhart story fights for room with Braga’s high-conception alien abduction story.
The result is a muddle of an episode that really fails to satisfy on any front. It’s not as bold or as daring as it wants to be, and it doesn’t execute any of its good ideas well enough to elevate the episode. It just sort of is.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager:
- Time and Again
- The Cloud
- Eye of the Needle
- Ex Post Facto
- Prime Factors
- State of Flux
- Heroes and Demons
- Learning Curve
Episodes produced during the first season, but carried over to the second:
Filed under: Voyager | Tagged: 1937, amelia earhart, Brannon Braga, captain janeway, janeway, Jeri Taylor, kathryn janeway, nostalgia, science fiction, star trek, star trek: voyager, the 37s, thirties, upn, voy, voyager |