In many ways, the Jeri Taylor era of Star Trek: Voyager represented a reaction to the direction that the show had taken under Michael Piller.
Michael Piller had imagined a more dynamic and adventurous version of the show, focusing on two crews thrown together by fate and forced to coexist while journeying through uncharted territory. After seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Piller was understandably (and perhaps justifiably) concerned that the second iteration of Star Trek might have been growing somewhat stale. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was in the process of breaking new ground, and Piller felt that it was necessary for the franchise to find a new direction and identity.
This is a good idea in theory. In practice, Michael Piller’s vision was disastrous. Piller wanted to do new things, but found himself working with a staff vehemently opposed to his vision of the series and phoning in scripts that should have been provocative like Alliances or Investigations. More than that, Piller was unable to properly realise his own ambitions, citing scripts like Tattoo as incredibly accomplishments rather than recognising them for the embarrassing failures that they were. When Piller was ousted after the second season, Jeri Taylor took over.
Jeri Taylor would oversee the third and fourth seasons of Voyager. She had a very clear vision of what Voyager should be, a rather conservative and generic iteration of the larger Star Trek franchise. Traditionally, the third season had served as a point of transition for the Star Trek spin-offs. It was in their third seasons that The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine really broke the mould and discovered their own unique identities. In contrast,t he third season of Voyager marked a point of retreat from the basic premise of the show.
Taylor wanted to focus on telling very safe and familiar Star Trek stories, ones that did not necessarily rely upon the premise of the show. There are any number of episodes where this approach simply did not work, with episodes like Warlord or The Q and the Grey or Alter Ego feeling like reheated Star Trek leftovers. However, there were points at which Taylor’s approach paid off. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II were pure popcorn, but they worked on those terms. It didn’t matter that nobody seemed too bothered at getting Voyager back to Earth.
Coda is another example of the strengths of Taylor’s approach to Voyager. It is a very familiar and archetypal episode of Star Trek, one that might have been assembled from the leftover pieces of Cause and Effect or Tapestry. However, that relative simplicity becomes a strength, allowing Taylor to craft a script focusing on Janeway and giving Kate Mulgrew some meaty material into which she might sink her teeth. There is nothing particularly new or exciting here, but there is something to be said for executing old standards with such charm.
Coda does a better job of establishing Jeri Taylor’s vision for Voyager than any episode to this point in the show. Like Fair Trade, it serves to draw a clear line in the sand over everything that came before. Although the episode features the return of the Vidiians, the script repeatedly insists that they are an artifact of Voyager‘s past returned to haunt the narrative. Coda treats the Vidiians as a culture that are no longer an on-going concern for the series, characters from a chapter that has been closed.
“The signatures are Vidiian,” Chakotay reports after examining the weapon blasts on the shuttle. Janeway is shocked. “Vidiian?” she wonders. “I thought we’d moved beyond their space.” Later, when Janeway is diagnosed as suffering with the Phage, she insists that the EMH must have a cure. “You’ve studied the Phage in great detail,” she observes. “Have you made any progress in finding a cure?” The EMH reflects, “I hadn’t pursued the matter since we seemed to have moved beyond Vidiian space.”
All of this rather forcefully insists that Voyager has moved on since wrestling with the Vidiians in episodes like Deadlock and Resolutions. There is something horrific in the implication that Voyager has not. Indeed, the first few acts of Coda find Janeway and Chakotay trapped within a repeating time loop, living the same few hours over and over again. The repeating time loop is a Star Trek staple, most notably demonstrating in Cause and Effect. However, Coda presents this repeating loop as something more existential.
Coda seems to suggest that being trapped within this repeating time loop is a form of eternal torment, one as potent as the “matrix” teased in the final act. As far as Coda is concerned, there is something horrific in being trapped in the same repeating cycle over and over. Given how forcefully Coda insists that the Vidiians are an artefact of the show’s history, it is tempting to read all of this as a statement of the show’s own deep-set anxieties and uncertainties. Coda is an episode that imagines Voyager trapped in a never-ending loop where it never escaped the first two seasons.
At the same time, Coda serves as an example of Jeri Taylor’s vision for the series. Taylor had taken the reigns following the departure of Michael Piller, and had much more conservative ambitions for the series. Taylor seemed to imagine Voyager as the most generic of Star Trek shows, a series built in large part off the model pioneered and refined by The Next Generation. As such, Taylor pulled back from a lot of the aspects that made Voyager unique, whether the isolation of the crew or the tension between Starfleet and the Maquis.
This is quite obvious from the teaser to Coda, which offers a glimpse of how Taylor imagines life on Voyager. This is a ship where everybody always gets along with one another, where the crew are constantly having a good time, and where everybody is practically family. The crew work together and play together, never disagreeing on anything. Under Taylor, Voyager seemed like a pleasant place to work. The crew were never stressed and always professional, with everybody tending to agree upon the best course of action in given circumstance.
The teaser to Coda unfolds following the ship’s first talent show. “I was thinking of making it a regular feature, say once a month?” Neelix suggests. Certainly, it never becomes a regular feature as far as the audience is concerned. However, it establishes a tone for life on Voyager. This is a ship where everybody gets alone and there are no problems. The crew are not worried about supplies or about alien threats. They are not even particularly preoccupied with finding a shortcut home. Voyager is not journeying so much as cruising.
In some ways, this represents a clear betrayal of the show’s core premise. It is particularly striking after Fair Trade teased the further development of that central idea. Voyager is a story about a ship far from home, trapped without a support structure in alien space commencing a long journey to a distant haven. Treating Voyager as a retread of The Next Generation represents a fundamental betrayal of that promise, akin to strapping engines on the space station on Deep Space Nine. Still, this particular battle was fought and lost a long time ago, as early as Parallax and Time and Again.
Acknowledging this, Coda makes a reasonable case for Taylor’s vision of Voyager. Indeed, for all the flaws with the third and fourth seasons of Voyager, it has to be acknowledged that they were much more consistent than the first and second had been. Taylor might have had a more conservative vision of Star Trek, but it also brought a sense of stability to what had been a troubled series. Coda is a great example of this, an episode that demonstrates the appeal of Voyager as a show about people who like one another hanging out on a starship together.
Again, this is obvious even from the teaser. Embarking upon a mission together, Janeway and Chakotay affectionately banter about the talent show in a scene that plays very much like the “Piller filler” that helped to flesh out the characters on The Next Generation. Desperately looking for a talent that Chakotay could bring to the crew’s new talent night, Janeway suggests, “Maybe I could stand with an apple on my head and you could phaser it off?” Chakotay quips, “Sounds great. If I miss I get to be Captain.”
It is a very obvious gag, but it adds a sense of warmth to the relationship between Janeway and Chakotay. Robert Beltran is not the most naturally charismatic member of the cast, and so Chakotay needs small moments like this to humanise him. More than that, the production team have seldom taken the time or effort to properly flesh out Janeway as a character. These little beats are the kind of moments with which Voyager has struggled, with the writing staff typically favouring plot-driven action beats over quieter character moments.
In fact, there is an incredible sense of warmth to the interactions between the cast and crew over the course of the episode. It seems like the only point of contention on the ship concerns the relative merit of “Tuvok’s reading of Vulcan poetry.” Even then, care is taken to avoid hurting his feelings and everybody else seems to agree that it might be a good idea to keep the character busy on the bridge during the next talent evening. There is certainly no relationship as contentious as that shared between Odo and Quark on Deep Space Nine.
There is something oddly appealing about this vision of Voyager as an ideal workplace populated by likable characters who constantly take the time to listen to one another. Even in the middle of a high-stakes fire-fight with a Vidiian ship, Chakotay finds the time to praise Janeway’s aim with the shuttle’s phaser, “Nice shot.” After Janeway is pronounced dead, and Kes claims to have “felt” her presence, no member of the crew questions whether Kes was imagining the experience. They get right to work without any hesitation.
Even when the crew decide to give up on Janeway, they do so as a unit and without a hint of discord. After failing to sense Janeway during a telepathy session with Tuvok, Kes does not latch on to the idea of Janeway’s survival. Instead, she accepts Janeway’s passing in a very detached and rational way, in step with the rest of the crew. “There is a point at which we must accept the inevitability of her death,” Tuvok states. Kes does not object. “Thank you for helping. I don’t think I would have accepted it if you hadn’t at least tried. Goodnight.”
Of course, this all an elaborate illusion created by a predatory alien keen to feast upon Janeway’s rich neural matter, so these flows make a certain amount of sense. But it is telling that Janeway seems to accept all of this quite readily. This is how Janeway sees the crew, as a well-oiled machine who move in unison and without any disagreement or hesitation. In its own ironic little way, the Voyager crew can feel like a miniature Borg Collective that reaches decisions through consensus and agreement.
It very much feels like this is how Jeri Taylor sees the crew, and there is a certain appeal to it. Of course, there are also issues. Ignoring the betrayal of the core premise of the show, there is also a sense that the production team are telling rather than showing when it comes to developing a sense of life on the ship. This is perhaps most obvious in having the characters discuss “talent night” without offering a glimpse of what the night in question actually involved, but also in how Voyager establishes its character relationships through exposition.
When ghost!Admiral Janeway tries to convince his daughter to leave the ship and its crew behind, Kathryn refuses. “I have to know what’s going to happen to them,” she insists. “To see Kes continue to grow and learn. To know if Tom and B’Elanna will ever stop sparring with each other and develop a real friendship.” There is a sense that Janeway is describing things that that the show has not developed, dumping out character beats that the series has never actually earned.
When have Tom and B’Elanna ever “sparred” with one another? They share a few small scenes in Alter Ego, but never in a way that feels like character progression or which suggests a particularly compelling dynamic. Those scenes seem to exist solely as set-up for the creepy dysfunctional “triangle” between Paris, Torres and Vorik in Blood Fever. This is the way that Voyager has always approached character development, as something utilitarian rather than organic, something designed to serve an end purpose rather than something that happens organically.
This is not like the flirtation between Worf and Jadzia in the fourth season of Deep Space Nine that seemed to be leading, rather naturally, towards an interpersonal relationship in the fifth season. It seems more like the writers on Voyager decided at some point in the third season that they wanted to pair off Tom and B’Elanna and so began consciously constructing plot beats to serve that purpose. Even though this represents a rare use of set-up and pay-off for the writing staff, there is something decidedly inelegant about this approach.
At the same time, this idea of a competent and cordial crew fits rather neatly with the recurring suggestion in the third season that Voyager is aspiring to be the most conventional and archetypal Star Trek series. Were “Star Trek” an adjective, it seems like Jeri Taylor plans for Voyager to be the superlative form. This is a show that eagerly wants to be the most “Star-Trek-y” of the Star Trek shows. Not the best, not the most distinct, not the most defined. This aspires to be a show that viewers can point to and say, “That is definitely Star Trek.”
There are any number of valid criticisms of this approach, and the long-term damage that it did to the franchise. However, it is worth stating that there any number of good reasons for Voyager to embrace this philosophy. For all that Deep Space Nine embraced its more esoteric aspects, it was widely criticised by fandom for its departure from the narrative conventions of the franchise. More than that, the second season of Voyager had toyed with embracing the show’s unique aspects and had been disastrous for all involved.
It is also worth stressing that Jeri Taylor assumed the reigns during the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary season, when there was a strong celebratory vibe in the air. Star Trek might never have been cool, but it had been embraced by the mainstream and had been recognised as a piece of the pop cultural landscape. Star Trek was something that people seemed to want, something that they seemed to appreciate. With that in mind, tailoring Voyager to seem more like an archetypal iteration of the franchise seemed like the reasonable thing to do.
This approach could work. Coda is proof of that. The episode is one of the strongest episodes of the third season, serving as a proof of concept for the author’s vision of Voyager. This is an episode that outlines how Jeri Taylor sees Voyager, and the result is an engaging and exciting piece of television. If Voyager could produce a solid eight or ten episodes of this quality in a season, along with a handful on par with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II and some more adventurous narratives like Distant Origins, then the series would seem a lot sturdier.
There are certainly issues with Coda, particularly when it comes to matters like plotting and pacing. The episode breezes through any number of concepts before settling on its final act. The story opens as a standard “away team under siege” story, with Janeway and Chakotay trapped on an alien planet by the Vidiians. Then it transforms into a time loop story, evoking Cause and Effect. Then Janeway and Chakotay break out of the time loop and it becomes a “Janeway has the Phage” story. Then it becomes a sci-fi ghost mystery, recalling The Next Phase.
Indeed, the episode has hit the two-thirds mark by the time that “special guest star” Len Cariou comes strutting into Engineering in the hopes of convincing Janeway that she has died and that it is time to move on. In fact, the meatiest subject matter of the entire episode is crammed into the final act, as Janeway tries to decide whether she wants to remain on Voyager as a ghost or whether she is ready to move on to whatever lies beyond. Naturally, there is also a nice science-fiction mystery as Janeway tries to discover what exactly has taken the form of her father.
Any of these ideas would make for a relatively strong episode of Star Trek. Each of the individual acts in Coda could easily have been extended out to fill a forty-five minute episode of television. Seeing all of these plot points thrown together as part of one larger story occasionally feels a little disjointed and irrational, particularly given the final reveal. Why would the alien masquerading as Admiral Janeway take so long to appear? Surely running through multiple illusions shatters the sense of verisimilitude for the victim?
There is a sense that the production team had simply thrown several preexisting story ideas into a blender, creating a highly concentrated Star Trek story smoothie. Jeri Taylor acknowledged as much to Cinefantastique:
It was a combination of several threads of ideas that we had been kicking around. None of them seemed to be working on their own. Then we began cobbling them together, and all of a sudden we had this wonderful, rich mystery.
That might be something of an overstatement from Taylor. Coda does not feel like the most elegant of mysteries. It feels very much like a patchwork design of various ideas thrown together. As Kate Mulgrew confessed to Cinefantastique, “We had to do a great deal of reshooting.”
In spite of all this, Coda works. There is something very exciting about the episode’s sense of energy and momentum as it breezes through these concepts. Voyager was seldom thrilling television, often feeling quite staid and lethargic as it went through the motions on standard Star Trek plots. Coda moves very rapidly for a Star Trek episode, bouncing from one plot to another with the momentum of a pinball. The inconsistencies in the episode’s plotting are easily forgiven, because the script never dwells on them for long enough.
Coda is riddled with all manner of logical gaps and strange contrivances, far too many to simply excuse with the convenient “it was all a dream!” resolution. What are the Vidiians doing here? Never mind, time loop! Wait, why would the EMH euthanise Janeway without even trying to cure her? Hold on, sharp left turn incoming! Why would Janeway trust anything that she is experiencing here? Oh, wait, it’s her father! There is an infectious energy to Coda, which turns these potential problems into part of the fun.
The fact that Coda works at all is a testament to Jeri Taylor, who might be the strongest writer in the Voyager staff room at this moment in time. Given the dog’s dinner that the Voyager writing staff were able to make of seemingly straightforward premises like The Q and the Grey or Alter Ego, to say nothing of the basic structural issues with simple scripts like Warlord or Fair Trade. Given all the different ideas bouncing around inside Coda, it is remarkable that Jeri Taylor maintains a clear throughline.
This is very much the hallmark of Jeri Taylor’s tenure as executive producer. Whereas Michael Piller pushed the show to try new things in the worst possible ways, Jeri Taylor tends to focus on executing tried and tested tropes in a reliable and consistent manner. This is very much the hallmark of Taylor’s strongest scripts for Voyager, with episodes like Persistence of Vision and Coda standing out relative to the scripts around them by virtue of executing a somewhat modest premise in an effective and streamlined manner.
It helps that Taylor chooses to use Kathryn Janeway as the script’s single throughline. Janeway is a notoriously troubled and ill-defined character, with the writers never properly settling upon a single approach to the ship’s commanding officer. Janeway was occasionally an introvert and recluse, as suggested by her retreats into the holodeck in episodes like Cathexis or her month alone in Night. However, Janeway was just as prone to fits of single-minded monomania, as in episode like The Omega Directive or Equinox, Part II.
Of all the writers who worked on Voyager, it was Jeri Taylor who had the strongest sense of a single fully-developed character. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that Taylor spent a significant stretch of the second and third seasons writing the novel Mosaic on her weekends. Mosaic was effectively a biography of Captain Kathryn Janeway as transcribed by Jeri Taylor, perhaps the most detailed biography of a Star Trek regular ever written by a member of any production team. By that logic, Janeway should have been the most developed lead character in the franchise.
In interviews given around the publication of the novel, Jeri Taylor seemed to argue that Mosaic would be treated as canon by the production team working on Voyager:
Yes, I expect Mosaic will be held as canon. I’ve already included details from the book in our episodes, and the other writers are starting to do so as well. This is a luxury I have as Executive Producer, and I intend to indulge it!
To be fair, Taylor’s writing would be contradicted in later seasons. Most notably, Brannon Braga would throw out a lot of the back stories that Taylor established for the crew in Pathways. Continuity is a fickle mistress.
Coda is an episode that makes a very overt reference to that back story that Taylor established for Janeway. When ghost!Admiral Janeway first appears, Kathryn points out that it could not possibly be her father. “My father died over fifteen years ago,” Kathryn states. “Yes,” the alien posing as her father acknowledges. “Drowned under the polar icecap on Tau Ceti Prime. It was devastating to you.” It is a small detail, but it references a very major event in the book and a key part of Kathryn Janeway’s personal history.
All of this is to suggest that Jeri Taylor firmly understands the character of Janeway. In fact, Taylor seems to suggest a suitably archetypal interpretation of Janeway that parallels the other major Star Trek leads. Kirk is the adventurer or the explorer. Picard is the diplomat. Sisko is the veteran or the builder. Archer is the test pilot. What is Janeway when framed in those terms? Taylor seems to suggest that Janeway is the scientist, the investigator with an incredible curiosity about the universe around her.
There were shades of this in a number of early episodes, from Parallax to Heroes and Demons to Cathexis to Persistence of Vision. In fact, there are a number of scenes in the first season where Janeway and Torres seem to bond with one another through their curiousity about some impossible phenomenon or other. There are even traces of this approach to be found in episodes like Sacred Ground, in which Janeway approaches a religious ritual with a desire to neither debunk nor embrace it, but to understand it.
Coda hints at this approach to Janeway, most notably in her final confrontation with the mysterious alien creature masquerading as her long-dead father. That confrontation is a long dialogue-driven scene that is heavy on exposition. It could very easy capsize the episode, particularly given Voyager‘s long-standing issues with incorporating technobabble as a go-to solution. However, Taylor very shrewdly treats this information dump as an opportunity to tell the audience something about Janeway.
Janeway reasons out the identity and objective of the alien all by herself, based on nothing more than observation. “My father would never act like this,” she states. “He always believed I had to learn my own lessons, make my own mistakes. He never tried to shield me from life. Why would he try to shield me from death? You’re not my father. I could be imagining you, but I don’t think so. You have such a specific agenda. You’re determined that I go with you somewhere.”
All of this is reasonably obvious to the audience from the outside of the narrative, but it is interesting to see Janeway figure it out using just the clues presented to her. Kate Mulgrew is legitimately great in the sequence, and Janeway genuinely seems like a force to be reckoned with. In episodes like Macrocosm and Equinox, Part II, Brannon Braga seemed to suggest that Janeway’s strength lay in her readiness to handle a phaser rifle. In contrast, Coda suggests a more subtle and internal source of strength.
Jeri Taylor is understandably proud of the work that she did with Janeway, pointing to Janeway as her most significant contribution to the larger franchise. In fact, Taylor even conceded to Warp 10! magazine that some of the details that used to flesh out Janeway in Mosaic were drawn from her own life experiences:
I drew on a lot of my own experiences for this book, but I’ll leave it to the reader to try and sort out just what they were! Certainly emotional underpinnings were familiar to me, even thought the specifics may have been altered. Some things I will admit to: I was born and raised in Indiana; I do play tennis; and it took me even longer than Janeway to figure out what makes for a good relationship with a man.
That answer suggests more than just some casual background information drawing from Taylor’s own interests. That implies that Taylor poured her essence into the character as she existed on the page. That is a phenomenal commitment from a writer, particularly in a medium like television.
In some ways, this explains the inconsistencies with Janeway as a character during the various stages of Voyager‘s life cycle and under the pen of various writers. If Kathryn Janeway was a character fashioned from Jeri Taylor’s personal experiences, then nobody could ever hope to write the character as convincingly as Taylor had. Michael Taylor and Brannon Braga had to write different versions of Janeway, if only because they were not drawing upon the same well of life experiences that Jeri Taylor had employed.
That said, there is a stronger argument to be made that Taylor’s interest in Janeway as a character was just one particular example of a broader approach to Voyager as a show. While Taylor wrote Mosaic to flesh out the back story of Kathryn Janeway, she also wrote Pathways to flesh out the back stories of the rest of the cast. “I think a shift happened in the series after Jeri Taylor left,” Robert Beltran acknowledged when discussing how the later seasons moved away from character development. He has also suggested that “the writing suffered” when Taylor departed.
To be fair, Taylor was never the sole architect of Janeway as a character. Even in early interviews, Kate Mulgrew acknowledged that her own interpretation of Janeway was informed by different factors than Jeri Taylor’s take on the character:
Jeri and I will have to sit down one day and see if any of these historical ideas are matched. I believe she is an only child. And I would place her in Boston. I think that the love of science grew out of her father – association thereof – it has been determined and established that he was an ardent scientist, a very respectable one–
Her mother too, wasn’t she?
Her mother not so much, but this is me speaking about what is important to me in the development of my character. I think her mother was a total human being. I see her mother as being rather patrician, slightly arrogant, highly intelligent, and deeply loving.
So you think the career came from her father and how she acts in her career came from her mother?
I think that Janeway has a remarkable level of self-esteem, born out of what clearly must have been not only a sound but extremely compelling family history – I think that those dinners at that table must have been rich in ideas and dreams, she’s a dreamer.
You think her parents supported her decision to go into Starfleet?
Absolutely. But I think that her father must have been rather tough on her – and that her mother was no pushover either. I think that even in that house in the future, when the issue was raised regarding a Starfleet future and discipline, I think that there must have been one or two raised eyebrows – ‘Are you sure you want to do this, Kathryn, do you know what this means?” -and that her curiosity, her deeply inquisitive mind and soul could lead her in no other way, so that finally I think her parents accepted this and then embraced it wholeheartedly.
Whereas Robert Beltran felt abandoned when Taylor departed at the end of the fourth season, and the production team moved away from trying to flesh out the characters, Kate Mulgrew ultimately felt liberated. Mulgrew has argued that her own interpretation of Janeway only really shone through once Taylor left.
To be fair, it is possible to overly romanticise Taylor’s approach to characterisation and development. After all, Deep Space Nine (and even The Next Generation) were light years ahead of where the third and fourth seasons of Voyager were in terms of fleshing out these characters. There is a clumsiness to how these episodes approach character beats like the possible relationships between Janeway and Chakotay or between Paris and Torres. However, there is also a sense that Taylor is pushing the show to play with those dynamics more than it would after she left.
Coda is not a revolutionary episode of Voyager. It is messy and disjointed. However, it also has an endearing energy that carries it further than many of the surrounding episodes. More than that, it is anchored in the character of Kathryn Janeway. It trusts Jeri Taylor’s script and Kate Mulgrew’s performance to hold all of these crazy ideas together. And it works. It is a shame that Voyager does not trust its writers and its actors more often.