This February and March (and a little bit of April), 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 for the latest review.
The second season of Star Trek: Voyager was a disaster.
There is no other way to describe it. The second season of Voyager is a messy run populated with malformed episodes and terrible creative decisions, compounded by the sense that the production team has turned upon itself and the network is feeling more and more uncomfortable with its flagship show. The first season of Voyager had debuted at the franchise’s cultural zenith, as the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation transitioned to the big screen with Star Trek: Generations and as Paramount chose the franchise to be the cornerstone of its new network.
However, there was very clearly trouble in paradise. It could be argued that Voyager was in a large part the victim of the franchise’s success. Frustration over how Paramount chose to assign the writing duties for Generations led Michael Piller to divorce himself from the franchise to develop other ideas.While UPN was very lucky to have a show like Voyager, the network consciously pushed the production team away from narrative experimentation in favour of cookie-cutter plotting.
The basic premise of “Starfleet and Maquis find themselves roughing it in the Delta Quadrant” was eroded surprisingly quickly over the course of that first year. All the Maquis crew members were in Starfleet uniforms by the start of Parallax. Any hint of conflict between the two was downplayed with a joint Starfleet and Maquis mutiny in Prime Factors. Luxury items like the holodeck were able to run in episodes like Heroes and Demons and Cathexis. A Romulan guest starred in Eye of the Needle. So the first season betrayed a lot of what made the initial idea interesting.
The second season represented an attempt to roll back some of these changes. Michael Piller returned to the writers’ room at the start of the second season, following the failure of his show Legend. Piller immediately began reintroducing elements that the production team had downplayed in his absence. The result was a clear tension between a showrunner and his staff, with each fighting frantically to overwrite each others’ version of the show. The result was the worst of all possible worlds.
Piller got his way in some respects. The Kazon returned in Initiations after an absence of half a season, and came to dominate the show’s sophomore year to the frustration of the writing staff, the actors and the fans. Tom Paris reverted to a sleazy womanising rebel in episodes like Non Sequitur, Parturition and Investigations. Seska became a recurring foil in Manoeuvres and Alliances. The divisions between the Maquis the Starfleet crew came up in stories like Meld and Investigations.
However, there was a clear sense that the show was being pulled in dozens of different directions from moment-to-moment. Jeri Taylor pitched a slower and more emotive form of storytelling in episodes like Persistence of Vision and Resolutions. Brannon Braga was writing pulpy science-fiction horror in episodes like Cold Fire and Threshold. The Alpha Quadrant was never more than a stone’s throw away in episode like Non Sequitur, Dreadnought or Death Wish. The aesthetic of the original Star Trek was evoked in Innocence, The Thaw and Tuvix.
However, this sort of conflict between different creative visions of Voyager was not simply played out across separate episodes; it was often played out within episodes themselves. Alliances and Investigations were episodes very firmly tied to Michael Piller’s vision of the show, but they were both written by Jeri Taylor who objected loudly and repeatedly to his focus on the Kazon. Indeed, Investigations seems to have been written to provide the most anticlimactic conclusion imaginable to Piller’s long-form Kazon arc.
Piller outsourced a lot of the development of the Kazon to writer Kenneth Biller. Not only was Biller responsible for the scripts to Initiations and Manoeuvres, but he was also the writer that Piller tasked with preparing a memo fleshing out and developing Kazon culture. Biller seemed to spend most of his time in the fan press mocking and ridiculing the Kazon, putting Piller in the strange position of seeing his largest experiment implemented by writers who were publicly and vocally opposed to it.
(This issue was perhaps taken to its logical conclusion with Piller’s script for Basics, Part II. Although credited to Piller, his original intent was butchered at the behest of the rest of the writing staff. Piller’s final credited script for the show erased a lot of the elements he had worked so hard to develop through the second season; Seska’s child was conveniently not Chakotay’s son, Lon Suder was neatly killed off, the Kazon disappeared only to appear in flashbacks and distorted historical records. Piller could not even realise his vision for the show in his own scripts.)
None of this is to let Michael Piller off the hook for his own spectacular errors in judgment during the season. Piller might have been attempting to use Tattoo to demonstrate a faster choppier narrative style that reflected the accelerated pacing of contemporary television, but that is not the most memorable attribute of the episode; Tattoo is essentially an episode about how the bulk of Native American culture is the result of contact with (conspicuously white) aliens they mistook as gods. (Okay, “Sky Spirits.”)
Even if Piller did not write most of the Kazon episodes, he is still in some sense responsible for the horribly racial caricatures that they became, with Initiations attempting to use the Kazon as a metaphor for Los Angeles street gangs who happened to be descended from a race of former slaves who were coded as a race of primitive savages who live in acrid desert climates. To be fair, this problem was apparent from as early as Caretaker, but the decision to return to the Kazon and double down on their more unfortunate attributes feels somewhat ill-judged.
(Not that the awkward racially coded subtext is the only unfortunate storytelling decision about the Kazon. With her plot to harvest Chakotay’s DNA to impregnate herself in Manoeuvres, Seska is transformed from a duplicitous and manipulative antagonist into a baby-crazed sexist stereotype. Along with the Kazon, this version of Seska feels like she escaped from a pulpy fifties paperback, which may explain a lot of Piller’s choices when it came to characterising Hanon IV in Basics, Part II.)
Even getting past the writing staff’s obvious indifference to his ideas and the fact that many of those ideas were just terrible, Michael Piller’s vision for the second season of Voyager ran into other problems. Quite simply, even the good ideas were implemented terribly. For example, it is a good idea to use long-form storytelling on a series like Voyager that has internal conflict, a potentially large cast trapped in a confined location together, and a clear objective to accomplish by the end of the production run.
Voyager is a ship about people who shouldn’t get along working together to accomplish a very specific goal. As with the basic premise of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the central thread lends itself to serialisation and development. How do the crew integrate? How do they adapt to their unique situations? What happens when they have to fend for themselves? How do they sustain themselves without access to support infrastructure? What efforts are they making to get home quicker?
Piller seemed to understand that television (and genre television in particular) was shifting away from episodic storytelling towards a longer-form mode of storytelling. Of course, there had been serialised prime-time dramas before, like Dallas and Dynasty, but the poor syndication sales of those shows had made networks nervous. During the mid to late nineties, serialisation was creeping back in thanks to the popularity of shows like The X-Files and the emergence of shows like Babylon 5. History would vindicate Piller’s arguments for serialisation.
However, history would not vindicate Piller’s attempts at serialisation. Quite frankly, Piller had no idea how to write a compelling long-form story. Instead of rooting his long-form narrative elements in character development or recurring themes, he built them around external factors. The character of Michael Jonas was introduced for the sole purpose of this arc, selling Voyager out to the Kazon. Tom Paris was involved in a needless complicated subterfuge that was concealed from both the audience and Chakotay for the vaguest of reasons.
The second season of Voyager aired at the same time as the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, which did a much job at embracing serialisation for quieter character moments. The flirtation between Worf and Dax played out through a conversation about the best Klingon weapons that was spread across multiple episodes. Rom slowly came into his own as an engineer, setting up a late-season career change. All of these elements felt organic and natural, an example of writers simply building and elaborating upon smaller elements that had worked before.
In contrast, the Jonas plot on Voyager does not work. It feels awkward shoehorned into various episodes, existing only so the production team can boast about having a long-form arc. More than that, these elements distract from otherwise strong standalone stories. Meld and Lifesigns rank among the strongest episodes of the season – if not the entire seven-season run – but they suffer when the primary plot has to give way to a “runner” about how Jonas is helping the Kazon or Paris is not fitting in properly.
These elements were ill-judged; it is no wonder that the remaining seasons of Voyager were so conservative and unambitious. Voyager had tried experimentation and innovation, only to see those elements backfire horribly and leave the writing staff shattered. As much as Piller is trying to push Voyager to become a bolder piece of television, there is also a sense watching the second season that the writers are settling into a comfortable groove. After all, Voyager was launched when the franchise was at its peak. Why mess with a winning formula?
The third and fourth seasons would really codify the Voyager format, the rigid insistence that the status quo be restored at the end of every episode. Nevertheless, there is a creeping sense of certainty about life on Voyager across the second season as a whole, as if the characters themselves are aware of the force that the familiar exerts upon the narrative, the strange gravity that pulls everything back to its place for the start of the very next episode. Voyager will never change. It will always be the same.
This is perhaps most obvious in Deadlock, Brannon Braga’s thrilling science-fiction action adventure that handily sets up the recurring motif of destroying Voyager only to conveniently reset everything at the end of the episode. Deadlock is a fantastic piece of television, but it is very clearly setting the template for Year of Hell, Part II, Course: Oblivion and Timeless. As with any dazzling trick, that twist loses some impact with each iteration. Even apocalyptic action is susceptible to the law of diminishing returns.
Deadlock is just the most overt example. Across the second season, it seems like Janeway is motivated primarily by the decision that will not alter the status quo. In Manouevres, she refuses to punish Chakotay for mutiny; she argues that he is too valuable to lose, even if the character chould have been punished off-screen. (Janeway had similarly declined to punish Torres and Tuvok in Prime Factors.) However, Janeway is perfectly willing to order the cold-blooded murder of the eponymous character in Tuvix, because it restores the opening credits cast.
There is something very rote and familiar about all this. Because the status quo is such a powerful narrative force, it seems like the characters themselves are unwilling to embrace change or movement. The second season repeatedly teases the idea of some or all of the cast getting home, but there is never any emotional depth that possibility. The audience obviously knows that Janeway and her crew will not be returning home two seasons into a seven-season run, but it frequently seems like the characters know that as well.
After Janeway defeats Suspiria in Cold Fire, she does not broach the possibility of returning the crew home. In fact, it seems like the return of the Nacene in Cold Fire was intended to close the possibility of the crew getting home before the show completed its run. When Janeway encounters Q and Quinn in Death Wish, she never asks either to send the ship home. Sure, it would be a violation of her impartiality during the hearing on Quinn’s request for asylum, but what about either before or afterwards? Or as a gesture of good will from both parties before the hearing?
In fact, it seems like the only reason that Harry wants to return to Voyager in Non Sequitur is because Garrett Wang’s name happens to be in the opening credits. Harry is so desperate to return to the ship that he never stops to think about what being on Earth could mean for the crew lost on the other side of the galaxy. Harry is the only person who knows that Voyager is still out there, but the show is so eager to reset the status quo that Harry never stops to properly process what has happened.
Although not part of the broadcast season, False Profits reinforces this sense that the crew is aware that they will not get home ahead of schedule. Produced as part of the final production block and pushed back until the start of the following season, False Profits has the crew discover a wormhole back to the Alpha Quadrant. However, nobody on the crew seems to get too excited, as if aware on some primal level that the wormhole only exists to ensure that the Ferengi guest stars do not become a recurring concern. Nobody is too disappointed when the wormhole disappears.
Even in Threshold there is a sense that none of the crew are really too excited about the possibility of returning to Earth. Tom Paris cracks the warp ten barrier, turning into a grotesque b-movie salmon monster in the process. However, the EMH devises a way to cure Paris of that strange affliction. In theory, this means that everybody on the ship could go through transwarp back to Earth. In fact, the crew could even just send Paris with a dose the antidote in order to let Starfleet know where they are. However, this idea is never even mentioned.
Of course, it is hard to believe that the Voyager crew could ever get homesick. The second season of Voyager is packed with familiar elements from the Alpha Quadrant. Projections was produced during the show’s first season, but broadcast during its second; the episode features Dwight Schultz reprising his role as Lieutenant Barclay from The Next Generation. Later in the season, Death Wish features guest appearances from Next Generation alumni John DeLancie and Jonathan Frakes.
Earth itself makes appearances in both Non Sequitur and more briefly in Death Wish. Janeway visits a holographic Earth in Persistence of Vision while the EMH basks in the holographic Earthlight in Lifesigns. That is to say nothing of the recurring use of Chez Sandrínes, a little piece of Earth tucked away on the holodeck. A Cardassian missile turns up in Dreadnought. Janeway and Tuvok journey back to the Alpha Quadrant in Flashback. The Ferengi return in False Profits. The first two-parter of the third season will send the crew back to present-day Earth.
For all that Voyager was supposed to get away from the standard Star Trek tropes and aliens, it seems to luxuriate in them. In fact, it seems likely that Voyager spends far more time on Earth (and facsimiles of Earth) than The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. As a result, the show never feels properly lost or divorced from what came before. The show is meant to be about a crew lost on the other side of the galaxy, but they spend far too much time running into people they know from past lives.
The second season of Voyager is a spectacular failure. While the individual quality of the episodes is (noticeably, if not emphatically) stronger than it was during the first two seasons of The Next Generation, there is less of a sense of purpose and a stronger sense of confusion and disorienting. This is striking, because the first two seasons of The Next Generation were largely about figuring out how to do Star Trek on television after a seventeen-year hiatus. The second season of Voyager arrives after eight years of solid production, but seems amateurish and clumsy.
Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of all this is that the show seems reluctant to try anything new or striking or bold. Piller’s experiments were horribly ill-judged and out-of-touch, but there is a definite sense of inertia around his efforts to push the show’s storytelling towards something more ambitious. Watching the second season of Voyager, there is a recurring sense that the show is resting on its laurels, that it does not see a need to change or grow. There is a perverse confidence to the second season, one that does not feel earned given the quality of the season as a whole.
However, the second season does serve as something of an exorcism for the series – and, arguably for the franchise. Given that Deep Space Nine would ultimately prove to be a severed evolutionary limb in the grand history of the larger Star Trek franchise, it is the second season of Voyager that sets the tone for the future of the Star Trek universe. The second season of Voyager marks the point at which the Star Trek franchise consciously and decisively rejects change as something potentially frustrating and highly unnecessary.
The second season ends with the departure of Michael Piller, the producer largely responsible for a lot of behind-the-scenes tension and terrible storytelling decisions. In a way, the rest of Voyager feels like a reaction to the trauma of this second season. If evolution is something as painful as Alliances or Investigations, then why bother with it? Voyager was still coasting off the franchise’s cultural zenith. It is easy to understand why the production team felt that they could simply reject the very idea of change rather than these particular misguided changes.
The second season of Voyager is a terrible and informative season of television. While Voyager does not entirely commit to what it wants to be during this stretch of the run, it does firmly decide what it doesn’t want to be under any set of circumstances. That can be just as important.
- The 37’s
- Non Sequitur
- Persistence of Vision
- Cold Fire
- Death Wish
- The Thaw
- Basics, Part I
Episodes produced during the second season, but carried over to the third: