This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.
In some respects, the second season of Star Trek: Voyager can be seen as a conflict over the future of the show.
On the one hand, Michael Piller had returned to the franchise following the failure of the television show Legend. With Ira Steven Behr overseeing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Piller returned to focus his attention on the second season of the younger Star Trek show. After all, the second season was a disorganised mess, with the production team struggling to get the necessary scripts together on time. Having a safe pair of hands on board to help guide the show might come in handy.
On the other hand, Jeri Taylor had been around the show since Caretaker. She had taken over the reins after Piller’s departure and had supervised the tail end of the first season. Taylor had arrived on the Star Trek franchise just a year after Piller, and had been a vital part giving Star Trek: The Next Generation its unique voice and mood. Over the course of the second season, it became increasingly clear that Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor had very different visions for the future of Star Trek: Voyager, and those visions were coming into conflict.
History ultimately vindicated Jeri Taylor. The second season of Voyager was the last television season of Star Trek to be directly overseen by Piller, while Jeri Taylor become the guiding light of the third and fourth seasons of the show. Whatever problems might exist with those two seasons television, they are at least more stable and consistent than the first and second years of the show. It is, of course, arguable that Piller never got his own change to exercise his own vision of the show unimpeded – and so that is not a fair measure.
In a way, the conflict between Piller and Taylor’s versions of Voyager is quite clearly typified in this early run of episodes. The show had breezed through the four episodes left over from the first season production block, and desperately needed ideas to keep afloat. The senior producers rolled up their sleeves and got involved. Piller was largely responsible for Parturition and Tattoo, while Taylor oversaw Persistence of Vision. None of these episodes are perfect, but it is quite clear that Taylor is increasingly the show’s safest bet going forward.
Persistence of Vision is a very flawed episode of television, playing to some of Taylor’s more uncomfortable recurring motifs. However, it is much more interested in actually moving Voyager along than either of Piller’s contributions.
In an interview with Cinefantastique, Michael Piller acknowledged Persistence of Vision as one of the most successful episodes from the early stretch of the troubled second season:
“We needed anything we could get in the beginning of the season,” said Piller. “It wasn’t until Jeri’s script Persistence of Vision marked the beginning of the turn. This was a script that she was struggling mightily with and I think James Conway did a fabulous job in making a fairly average story into an excellent piece of television. We started building on that momentum and I think from that show on we consistently started doing interesting things.”
It is worth noting Piller’s praise is somewhat qualified. A later issue of Cinefantastique would expand Piller’s quote to add, “The show turned out particularly well, yet it’s not a show that is about anything.”
Piller could be very blunt in his assessment of the franchise; that was what made him such an effective showrunner and what had helped him to manage (and cultivate) The Next Generation, allowing that spin-off to reach its full potential in its troubled third season. Piller is not entirely unfair in his assessment of Persistence of Vision. It is not a script that seems likely to rank among anybody’s “top ten episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.” It seems likely to be remembered by audiences as a collection of moments rather than a single story.
At the same time, Persistence of Vision does tower above a lot of the surrounding episodes of Voyager. The fact that it is a functional forty-five minutes of television helps, particularly the sense that Jeri Taylor is actually interested in the psychology of the characters on the show. Taylor would famously expand her biographies of the Voyager characters into two full-length novels, so it seems entirely appropriate that she should be the writer to handle the more character-driven narratives of the season.
According to Taylor in Captain’s Logs Supplemental, this was an idea that had been gestating for quite a while, but one that had met with considerable internal resistance:
It was a show that I had wanted to do since last year. I got a great deal of opposition from the studio, in both story and script form. They thought it was a very soft story and they just didn’t get it. They want more fights and more aliens. They weren’t high on this at all and didn’t want it to appear as early in the year as it did.
It is easy to understand why Persistence of Vision might generate such a degree of controversy. It is a very talk show that unfolds primarily on the ship itself, with only one significant alien guest star.
Persistence of Vision is a lot less adventurous and exciting than the rest of the early second season episodes; these was particularly important considering that these shows with be mixed in with the bottle shows left over from the end of the first season. In fact, the episode features a largely pointless space battle sequence that seems to exist solely so the production team can include footage of Voyager shooting at stuff. It makes no sense in the context of the episode, since the Bothan seem to wage a more psychological form of warfare.
Still, Persistence of Vision is interesting because it actually engages with a lot of the underlying issues that are haunting Voyager at this point in its life-cycle. Using the framing device of a telepathic attack upon the ship and crew, Jeri Taylor is able to deal with pretty fundamental problems with the storytelling on Voyager. As such, there is a sense of forward movement to the episode; a sense that the show is actually identifying and articulating its problems rather than simply trying to paper over the cracks.
A lot of the second season of Voyager seems fixated on ideas that simply did not work in the first season. Non Sequitur sends Harry Kim back to Earth, despite the fact that the show has not been gone long enough for fans to miss it. Parturition is built around the romantic triangle between Kes, Neelix and Paris; however, it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that the relationship between Neelix and Kes is perhaps the creepiest relationship in the franchise’s long history of creepy relationships.
Tattoo, Dreadnought and Death Wish return to the idea of connections between the Alpha Quadrant and the Delta Quadrant, helping to create the impression that Voyager has really not travelled too far from the Star Trek universe that audiences know and love. That clean break and new frontier do not look as bold as they appeared in Caretaker. Initiations, Manoeuvres, Alliances and Investigations hang the Kazon like an albatross across the neck of the show, despite the fact that Janeway and crew should be racing towards Earth.
To be fair, Persistence of Vision is packed full of questionable elements from earlier episodes. Most obviously, Taylor returns to “Janeway Lambda One”, the gothic holonovel into which Janeway seems to retreat whenever the going gets particularly tough. The program appeared in the first season episodes Cathexis and Learning Curve, generating a rather muted response from fandom. This reaction was understandable; the first thing that Brannon Braga would do on ascending to showrunner would be to mock the idea of Janeway locking herself away from he crew in Night.
After all, Janeway should be a commanding officer holding her family together. Kirk would go camping with Spock and McCoy in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Picard would take Data and Crusher to the holodeck in The Big Goodbye, and play with Guinan in Clues. Sisko regularly cooks meals for his staff, as demonstrated in episodes like Equilibrium. The situation on Voyager is more desperate than on any other Star Trek show; more than any other Star Trek cast, Voyager’s crew needs their captain to rally them.
Taken on its own merits, “Janeway Lambda One” is actually quite fascinating. As Janet Horowitz Murray notes in Hamlet on the Holodeck, they represent a significant step forward in the portrayal of the holodeck:
Like Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, which established the governess gothic genre, Lucy Davenport takes place in a mysteriously haunted household and emphasises the perils of the governess’s intense social relationships rather than the physical terrors of the situation. When Janeway is shown relishing a verbal contest with the sinister housekeeper, promising the reluctant Henry that she will be a challenging math teacher, or trying to assuage the grief of the clearly anguished young Beatrice, we can understand what engages the resourceful starship captain in this particular virtual world. As her name implies, Janeway has much in common with her fictional predecessor Jane Eyre, including a strong resistance to being bullied, a willingness to stand on principle, and the courage to face fear and isolation head-on.
It is not a bad idea, in theory. The execution of the idea just feels rather clumsy. Then again, it is hard to imagine Janeway inviting Chakotay to play out “Janeway Lambda One” with her.
Still, there is a sense that the program works within the context of Persistence of Vision. Taylor structures the episode as something of a gothic horror story. “There are lots of rumours about ships entering Bothan space, never to be heard from again,” Neelix tells Janeway. Janeway chases an imaginary child through the corridors of the ship, evoking Don’t Look Now. She is confronted by a creepy child in a corridor, recalling The Shining. At one point, Janeway is creeped out by strange noises in her quarters.
Persistence of Vision aired right before Halloween, in a rather fortuitous piece of scheduling. As such, Janeway’s explanation of the phrase “walking your grave” to the Doctor and Kes feels appropriate. (“How macabre,” the Doctor reflects.) Even allowing for the thematic resonance between “Janeway Lambda One” and the surrounding episode, the problem is the context. “Janeway Lambda One” might be an interesting idea in isolation or even in this episode, but the way that it is written into Janeway’s arc on the show is seriously problematic.
Having Janeway repeatedly retreat to the holodeck feels like a miscalculation. There are a few points in the show where it seems like Voyager is consciously suggesting that Janeway is just as unqualified for her job as Archer would be for his own. Janeway is primarily a scientist who was put in charge of what was intended to be a short-term rescue mission; Archer was a test pilot who found himself overseeing the most important manned space flight in history. However, Janeway is not written consistently enough for this approach to really work.
To be fair to Taylor, Persistence of Vision works better than Cathexis or Learning Curve because it seems to acknowledge this issue. A recurring theme of the episode is that the crew of Voyager are being forced to confront their own flaws and insecurities – and that Taylor is writing those flaws and insecurities in a rather self-aware manner. Of the course of Persistence of Vision, it seems like the characters are attacked by criticism of their development or their arcs.
So “Janeway Lambda One” ultimately tries to kill Janeway, perhaps a literal representation of how that particular choice in characterisation was seen as one that harmed the audience’s perception of Janeway. In fact, there are points where it feels like Taylor is directly addressing stock criticisms of the program. Persistence of Vision has Janeway confronted by a version of her boyfriend Mark, who effectively tries to shame her for her choice of recreational activity.
“What about the man on the holodeck?” Mark demands. “You didn’t seem to mind him touching you, did you? In fact, I think you liked it. Now I ask you, Kath, is that fair to me? I’ve stayed faithful to you. I’ve vowed to wait for you no matter how long it takes. Shouldn’t you do the same?” It is an interesting argument, and one that perhaps requires a more complex exploration of gender and sexuality than Voyager is willing to provide. After all, a major part of the program involves Janeway (in character) making out with Lord Burleigh.
“I haven’t been unfaithful,” Janeway insists, in a statement that opens up all sorts of questions. Is Janeway unfaithful to Mark if there is no third party involved? Is a tryst on the holodeck any different than an idle romantic fantasy? Is there a difference where the romance is a component of the story rather than the centre of it? Is this ultimately just a form of self-pleasure? There are obviously a lot of questions for the show to unpack there. Persistence of Vision at least suggests there is an element of complexity to the situation, even if it refuses to explore them.
More than that, Persistence of Vision has Janeway actively ordered to take part in her fantasy. And the script itself seems to parody some of the reflexive sexist responses that Janeway’s recreational activity might prompt from fans. Due to Bothan manipulation, Janeway finds herself trapped by the fantasy and unable to perform her duties. When she mentions her difficulties about discerning the program from reality, Neelix responds in the most patronising manner possible. “Would you like a cup with flowers on it?” he asks. “I’m sure I can replicate one.”
It should also be noted that Janeway actually manages to overcome the hallucinations that are tied into “Janeway Lambda One.” She shakes the visions off just in time to come to the bridge as the Bothan confronts Chakotay. Janeway is ultimately paralysed by a vision of Mark, suggesting that the character has no issue prioritising her real problems over her holodeck fantasies. The decision to confront Janeway with Mark could be seen as something of an exorcism for the character, a necessary step going forward.
After all, the character of Mark is constantly hovering over Janeway – despite the fact that he only appeared on screen for a few moments at the start of Caretaker. The existence of Mark serves to keep Janeway relatively asexual and isolated during the journey home, depriving her of the opportunity to engage in the sorts of romantic relationships that Kirk and Sisko (and even Picard and Archer) took for granted during their tenures in charge of extended deep space missions.
There is a sense of something of a double standard here. Janeway will never have the same sexual freedom of her male colleagues, because the producers have to be worried about the possibility of a sexist response from the audience. Kirk would never be “slut shamed” for his frequent amorous encounters, but Janeway would likely find herself subject to all manner of gender-based criticism if she allowed herself to get emotionally involved with a male character. (Even after Mark is tidied away, Janeway remains much less sexually active than her male counterparts.)
There is a sense of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” when it comes to Janeway’s romantic or sex life. Much like any singular and strong characterisation of Janeway runs the risk of being categorised as (or even turning into) a sexist cliché, her relationship with Mark become a double-edged sword. It is a transparent excuse to keep Janeway romantically detached from anything in the Delta Quadrant, but it also means that even the slightest hint of romantic tension also comes with the faintest possibility of unfaithfulness or infidelity.
In Where No One Has Gone Before, writers J.M. Dillard and Susan Sackett acknowledge that Taylor was explicitly aware of these issues and that she was trying to fix them:
The episode Persistence of Vision is noteworthy in that it explored the characters’ personal lives and conflicts. The show “began Janeway on a journey she needs to take,” Taylor says, “which is resolving the matter of her lover Mark. We cannot put her into romantic situations until she decides he has given her up for dead and moved on, and the only wise thing for her to do is the same.”
However, it would not be until the fourth season of the show that Taylor would have the opportunity to explicitly separate Kathryn Janeway and Mark Johnson, in Hunters.
That said, there are some rather unpleasant decisions in Persistence of Vision. Most notably, the episode incapacitates its three female characters by reference to their love lives. To be fair, Tuvok is distracted by his wife and Harry is caught off-guard by Libby, but the episode is just using those long-established relationships as storytelling shortcuts to write the characters in question out of the action. The male character with the most developed visions is Tom Paris, who imagines his angry father berating him.
In contrast, the show spends a great deal of time making reference to the love lives of Janeway, Kes and Torres. Janeway is confronted by Mark and accused of cheating on him with a holographic character. (There are similar undertones to the confrontation between Janeway and Miss Templeton, who accuses Janeway, “Everything was fine until you came here. I took care of him. He trusted me.”) Kes is haunted by visions of Paris suffering and is bullied by an image of Neelix, the two characters caught in a romantic triangle with her.
The most frustrating example concerns B’Elanna Torres, who imagines a rather physical tryst with a vision of Chakotay. She is distracted by the idea of Chakotay arriving to take her away from all of that. “I want you with me,” he urges her. “I’m the Chakotay you want me to be. The one who loves you. This is what you want, isn’t it? The secret you’ve been keeping? You want us to be together. And we can be.” It is a rather odd romantic pairing for the show to throw out so casually, to the point where it seems like Taylor just picked the most eligible bachelor.
It is not exactly a plot point that the show has properly foreshadowed or set up. The most extended interaction between Chakotay and Torres came in Parallax, where it was quite clear that they respected one another greatly and that they trusted each other strongly. The possibility of a romance between Torres and Chakotay is never suggested again. In fact, the firs season had already made a number of small nods towards a possible flirtation between Janeway and Chakotay in episodes like The Cloud, a flirtation that will develop across the season.
Actress Roxann Dawson was not entirely convinced by the possibility of romance in Persistence of Vision. In an interview with Star Trek Monthly, she reflected:
People can interpret B’Elanna’s feelings for Chakotay in a lot of different ways. I see Chakotay as a combination of mentor and father figure for B’Elanna. She might have some romantic feelings towards him in a kind of Freudian sense, but I don’t see them getting together on any other level than as a mentor and pupil.
Ultimately, the show would decide to push Torres into a relationship with Paris. Although the show did not necessarily do a lot of groundwork to set up the relationship, it ultimately worked out well for both characters.
While this rather blunt definition of the major female characters on Voyager by reference to their romantic (and sexual) desires is a somewhat unfortunate element of Persistence of Vision, it does feel like Taylor is trying to do something the visions that haunt the crew over the course of the episode. In some respects, Persistence of Vision could be seen as something of an attempted exorcism for certain deep flaws in the show at this point in its life-cycle. By exploring the characters’ own fears and insecurities, Taylor can try to push past them.
Kes’ vision of Neelix represents the very worst aspects of their dynamic. The version of Neelix who arrives in engineering is little more than an emotionally manipulative bully who tries to intimidate Kes into doing what he wants. In short, he is not too far removed from the character who appeared in Phage or Twisted, treating Kes in an emotionally abusive manner. “You’re becoming annoying,” this fake version of Neelix remarks, brutally. “Move away from that console.”
Similarly, the episode affords a fairly significant role to Admiral Owen Paris, allowing Tom Paris to work out his deep-seated daddy issues. (Notably, Paris is the only male character whose nightmares are thoroughly explored.) “In your heart, you believe you’ll fail again,” this version of Owen Paris taunts his son. “And of course you will. You can’t do anything right. You’ll fail. Why even try?” It is easy to see how Tom’s life might have imploded so spectacularly. It doesn’t exactly seem like he had a loving childhood.
Taylor had repeatedly objected to the portrayal of a damaged and broken (and flawed) Tom Paris in episodes like Ex Post Facto. This feels like an attempt to bring all of those issues to the surface so that the show might be able to move on a little bit. As with the tension around Janeway’s relationship to Mark, there is a sense that articulating them is half if the battle. If the show can acknowledge these aspects as the worst possible reading of the characters, it can begin to move past them.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between the approaches taken by Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor towards the second season of Voyager. Piller was dedicated to fixing the elements that did not work, while Taylor seemed to be more pragmatic. Taylor conceded as much in Captains’ Log Supplemental, explaining the decision to drop “Janeway Lambda One” from this point forward:
The holonovels are something that she does like. I read adventure novels and thrillers – as a stress reliever. So these are like reading in the twenty-fourth century. You go and you actually play one of the characters. So it’s the only place where she can forget about being a captain for a couple of hours and get into a completely different situation, where she has a husband and she has children and she lives a life utterly unlike the one that she lives. It’s more that kind of motivation than an intellectual curiosity about a period of history. In my heart I would like to see her sort of finish this novel and start another one next season. Whether that will happen, I cannot say. We may return to a different novel for her, but that was one of those things that we were not getting the feedback from the fans that seemed to justify its continuing. A lot of people had problems with Janeway being in what would be considered a servile position. A lot of people just aren’t fans, as I am, of Gothic novels and just sort of didn’t get it. I thought it was great fun, but I’m never afraid to cut our losses if something isn’t working. We wrote a conclusion in which everything got knitted up, because I thought it was a shame to just leave it.
It is quite clear that Taylor was very fond of this particular plot element, but she was willing to acknowledge that it was not working and that its failure to work was harming the show around it. As a result, Taylor was perfectly ready and willing to move on to the next big idea. In contrast, Piller tended to fixate on the ideas that did not work and would attempt to fix them.
To be entirely fair to Piller, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty whether any of the problems he tried to fix were completely beyond redemption. It took the staff on Deep Space Nine three full seasons to figure out how to tell a Bashir-centric story; it would have been a lot easier to just cut and run. (After all, the studio allegedly wanted to cut Bashir from the cast in the first couple of seasons.) But, quite simply, Voyager never worked as long or as hard to fix any of its broken elements.
Maybe the Kazon might have worked at some point; maybe Neelix could have been more than a chef; maybe Tom-Paris-as-rebel could have clicked. Anything is possible. At the same time, these elements all seem broken in a more fundamental way than any of the troublesome elements of Deep Space Nine. More than that, the attempts to “fix” these problems in the second season of Voyager typically felt superficial and shallow, rather than sincere and meaningful.
Taylor’s approach offered a more immediate and appreciable pay-off. The third season represents a massive increase in quality and consistency over the second; the fourth season represents a massive increase in quality and consistency over the third. Neither is a truly classic season of Star Trek, but they come a lot closer than the first two seasons. It would seem that Taylor’s approach was more effective in the short term. Even Persistence of Vision represents a substantial improvement over surrounding stories, without being a spectacular episode.
That said, it must be acknowledged that Taylor’s approach to Voyager did have a number of negative consequences. Most obviously, it prevented Voyager from ever evolving into a functioning ensemble. Realising that characters like Harry Kim and Chakotay did not always lend themselves to compelling narratives, the show largely stopped writing for them. Instead, effort was concentrated on the characters like Janeway and the Doctor (and later Seven); characters who were popular and who did tend to prompt successful episodes.
For better or worse, Persistence of Vision feels like a mission statement for Jeri Taylor’s vision of the show going forward. It suggests that the best approach to the more uncomfortable or problematic elements of the show is to jettison them into space and to allow the ship to simply continue on its way. It is not a bad approach, all said; even if it has some pretty severe consequences down the line. Still, it seems like a more favourable approach than that taken in some of the season’s other episodes.