The third season of Star Trek: Voyager marks the point at which the show stops trying.
To be fair, it is not as though the opening two seasons of the show were marked by a surplus of ambition. Caretaker was a bold piece of science-fiction that promised a host of interesting ideas for the new Star Trek show, but all of those fascinating conflicts were quickly brushed aside by episodes like Parallax and Time and Again, which insisted on formulaic plotting and familiar storytelling. In many ways, the first season of the show felt like a cheaper eighth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
During the second season, the production team did attempt something a little bolder. Michael Piller returned from his work on Legend convinced that the franchise needed a dramatic shake-up and reinvention. So he attempted to introduce long-form storytelling on the series, with an arc building the Kazon as a credible threat to ship and crew. This arc failed spectacularly for a variety of reasons, with episodes like Alliances and Investigations ranking among the worst in the series’ run.
The Voyager writing staff were apparently traumatised by their experiences on that second season. Piller stepped aside at the end of the year, forced by the threat of mass resignations. Piller bid farewell to the show with Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II, effectively allowing the staff a clean slate coming into the third series of the show. Jeri Taylor stepped up into the role of showrunner, trying to steady a ship that was very clearly on troubled water. Three years into the run, how did Voyager define itself?
The third season has traditionally been a formative year for the Star Trek spin-offs. Michael Piller took charge of Star Trek: The Next Generation during its third season and established the template for the franchise heading into the nineties. Ira Steven Behr solidified the direction of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine during its third season, outlining many of the concepts and ideas that would play in the stronger fourth and fifth seasons. Even Star Trek: Enterprise came into its own in its third season, telling its own stories.
Voyager did not come into its own during this third season. Jeri Taylor’s direction for Voyager set the series on a course back to familiar territory. The third season of Voyager marks the point at which a troubled series adopts the path of least resistance, content to stop pushing itself in any direction and let itself be pulled by the gravity of the franchise around it. The third season of Voyager marks the point at which the series becomes content to be generic Star Trek.
To be fair, this is not the worst criticism that could be made of any Star Trek show. The third season of Voyager coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Star Trek franchise. There was clearly an appetite for nostalgia and affection, for Star Trek that felt very traditional and very old-fashioned. After all, Star Trek is an evocative and iconic franchise, there is something to be said for having a Star Trek series that embodies the archetypal qualities associated with popular culture’s long-standing affection for the franchise.
After all, the third season is not as exhausting and soul-destroying as the second season had been. The second season of Voyager is one of the worst seasons in Star Trek history, existing as the perfect midpoint between the almost consistent awfulness of the first season of The Next Generation and the smothering mediocrity of the second season of Enterprise. The third season has its share of stinkers in episodes like The Q and the Grey and Displaced, but even they are not as awful as Tattoo or Threshold or Alliances or Investigations.
In contrast, it should be noted that many of the best Voyager episodes have that sort of archetypal quality to them. Many of the strongest Voyager episodes are not specific to this setting and these characters, but could easily be told using any other iteration of the franchise. In the third season, stand-out episodes like Remember and Distant Origin are the perfect encapsulation of the franchise’s humanism and idealism, but they do not say anything specific about Voyager as a television series.
Indeed, the third season of Voyager cautiously pioneers the “blockbuster” approach that will drive some of the strongest storytelling in the following few seasons. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II form the first mid-season two-parter, and the first two-parter to be written by Joe Menosky and Brannon Braga. The two-parter is very broad, but incredibly fun. In some ways, it is a very archetypal Star Trek story. It is much a thirtieth anniversary celebration as Flashback, a two-part tribute to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II very consciously maps out a kind of storytelling that will be employed by later episodes like Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II or The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Indeed, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II signal that this is very much a way forward for the show. Again, there is very little of this storytelling that feels specific to Voyager. They are highly enjoyable Star Trek television movies, but what makes them unique to Voyager?
This is also true of standout episodes in later seasons. Nemesis and Blink of an Eye are hardly specific to Voyager as a television series in the same way that The Way of the Warrior or The Visitor are specific to Deep Space Nine. During the third season, it becomes increasingly clear that Voyager is not so much a television series of itself, but a vehicle for delivering fairly stock Star Trek stories. How many Voyager episodes are genuinely unique to the show’s core premise and characters? How many could not be adapted for The Next Generation?
The third season of Voyager consciously plays up this archetypal quality, most frequently under the pen of writer Joe Menosky. Episodes like False Profits and Distant Origin suggest that Voyager is becoming something of a legend in the wider Delta Quadrant, part of an interstellar mythic framework. As with the broader and more archetypal stories in the third season, this approach proves influential. Later episodes like Living Witness, Course: Oblivion and Muse take the measure of Voyager through the footprint that it leaves in the Delta Quadrant.
Of course, as appealing and logical as this archetypal approach to Star Trek storytelling might be in places, there is something deeply disappointing in how readily Voyager has abandoned all of its potential and its uniqueness. Voyager was a television series built upon a number of clever ideas that it promptly abandoned: two rival crews stranded on the other side of the galaxy with no resources or back-up, embarking on seventy-year mission back home. How does a crew adapt to that? What does it look like? What happens now?
There is a narrative conservatism to Voyager that is disappointing, a reluctance to experiment and an unwillingness to embrace bold new ideas. Distant Origin is one of the most experimental episodes of the season, reducing the primary cast to guest stars in their own shows. Not coincidentally, it is also one of the best episodes of the year. Unfortunately, the third season of Voyager repeatedly brushes up against interesting concepts only to retreat from the more daring implications.
Fair Trade suggested that Voyager might finally live up to its potential. As the ship reached the Nekrit Expanse, there was a sense that the crew were crossing a threshold. Neelix no longer had any knowledge of what lay ahead, while Starfleet had no frame of reference for what they were seeing. With no obvious trading opportunity in sight, the crew were forced to barter with aliens at a dingy trading outpost. For the first time, it seemed like Voyager might actually be doing something interesting and unpredictable.
However, what happened after Voyager journeyed into the Nekrit Expanse? What did they find? They found familiar aliens, encountering a derelict Borg ship in Unity. They faced generic plots and standard anomalies of the week in Alter Ego. The Nekrit Expanse was a wasted opportunity for all involved, a big deal made out of something that amounted to nothing. There was never a sense that supplies might run out, except when the plot demanded it in episodes like Real Life.
To be fair, the broadcast model might have been an issue. The writers always seemed unsure when a give episode would air in the season. This made it difficult to manage long-term storytelling. Most obviously, the EMH undergoes a complete psychological breakdown and reboot in The Swarm, early in the third season. However, because that episode is surrounded by second-season hold-overs like Flashback and False Profits, the thread is never developed. The only fleeting mention of that huge character beat comes in Future’s End, Part II.
Similarly, the episodes in the middle of the season were frantically jumbled around in an effort to capitalise on sweeps. As a result, the ship’s passage through the Nekrit Expanse was disjointed. The broadcast of Fair Trade was directly followed by Alter Ego, an episode that had been produced before it. Although Blood Fever was the episode produced directly after Fair Trade, it would not air until almost a month after Voyager entered the Nekrit Expanse. These production realities would have made it difficult to build story threads and consistency.
Even in terms of individual episodes, that narrative conservatism held Voyager back. Brannon Braga had originally conceived of Macrocosm as an episode that would unfold almost in silence, with a bare minimum of dialogue; it was ultimately overburdened with techno-babble exposition. The exploration of the traditional family unit in Real Life teased out concepts of masculine identity and even suggested serialisation; the resulting episode was just a collection of cliches and a horribly tacked-on techno-babble subplot.
Repeatedly, Voyager brushed up against bold ideas, only to push back against them. This is perhaps most obvious in the decision to focus on the Borg as the big recurring threat of the third year. Having cast aside the Kazon and the Vidiians as reliable antagonists, Voyager opted not to create a race that could menace the crew with some regularity. Instead, the show returned to the Borg, the most iconic new aliens of the Rick Berman era who had just anchored Star Trek: First Contact, the most critically and commercially successful film of Berman’s tenure.
The Borg were essentially a hand-me-down from The Next Generation to Voyager, much like Deep Space Nine had inherited the Ferengi and the Cardassians from The Next Generation, and The Next Generation had accepted the Romulans and the Klingons from the original Star Trek. However, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had also made a point to both create new species to hold the audience’s interest and to further develop pre-existing alien races. Voyager did neither.
The Borg are teased in Blood Fever, before appearing in Unity and returning once again in Scorpion, Part I. However, these episodes constantly shy away from doing anything striking or memorable with the aliens. For all that Blood Fever and Unity suggest that Voyager is entering Borg space, episodes like Darkling and Real Life suggest that business is continuing as usual for the crew. There is no sense that any of the aliens encountered between Unity and Scorpion, Part I live their lives in the shadow of the Borg Collective.
More than that, Voyager is reluctant to do anything big with the Borg. Unity teases an interesting idea suggested in earlier episodes like Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II: what would happen if the Borg Collective collapsed? It is a very clever concept that would provide years of story material, while reflecting the wider cultural concerns of the nineties following the end of the Soviet Union. It would also fit with Voyager‘s recurring fascination with the Delta Quadrant as a region of space equivalent to the third world, inhabited by “minor” powers.
Instead, Unity makes it clear that only a single Borg ship has collapsed into disorder and that the Borg Collective is still a force to be reckoned with. This creates all manner of problems when Voyager has to build stories around the Borg Collective. How threatening can the Borg Collective be? The crew of Voyager reliably defeat or outwit them once or twice every year, despite being a single ship stranded far from home without any support infrastructure. Indeed, Scorpion, Part I kickstarts the trend by introducing an alien that can curbstomp the Borg.
Of course, this reliance on the Borg as a new antagonist reflects a broader desperation and dependency on the part of Voyager. The Borg are simply the most overt hand-me-down inherited from The Next Generation. The Q and the Grey follows up on one of the best and most innovative Q-centric stories in the franchise to effectively offer a cover version of Q-Pid. Macrocosm harks back to Genesis. Coda hybridises Cause and Effect, The Next Phase and Tapestry.
These are just the most specific examples of this tendency to reference earlier stories. The third season of Voyager is packed full of familiar Star Trek tropes. The evil body swap felt like a tired Star Trek cliché when the fifth season of Deep Space Nine resorted to The Assignment, but it feels par for the course when it shows up in Warlord. The holodeck runs amok with forgettable results in Alter Ego. There are shades of Amok Time to Blood Fever.
For a show a ship charting new territory, Voyager felt very familiar. Then again, Voyager was always about trying to get back to the safe and the familiar. In some ways, that premise might have been the series’ original sin. Star Trek was always about the final frontier pushing outwards, about exploring new concepts and new ideas. For the first time, Voyager suggested that the Star Trek franchise needed to push back and to retreat to the comfort of the known.
In some respects, the show’s narrative conservatism overlapped with its political conservatism. For a show set in a liberal-minded twenty-fourth century, Voyager could seem quite reactionary at times. This was most notable when it came to portrayals of sexuality. Episodes like Blood Fever and Darkling were nominally about how sexual repression is a bad thing, but the series was so squeamish when it came to matters of sexual identity that they ultimately play like moral panics about the dangers of sexuality in general.
This, in turn, intersected with the show’s occasional stumbling into outright misogyny. In three consecutive episodes in the middle of the season, B’Elanna Torres is victimised by three male co-workers; Vorik in Blood Fever, Chakotay in Unity, the EMH in Darkling. None of these male co-workers appear to be punished for their transgression. This is to say nothing of Q’s attempts to sleep with Janeway or the shrewish portrayal of female!Q in The Q and the Grey, nor of the psycho-stalker in Alter Ego, nor the sirens in Favourite Son.
There is also something deeply uncomfortable with the third season’s increased interest in sexualising Kes. Notably, this is the season where actor Jennifer Lien starts wearing a catsuit and wearing her hair long, as opposed to her childish elf-like appearances in earlier seasons. Purely in terms of costume and make-up design, the third season marks the point at which Voyager begins a transition between the infantalised version of Kes introduced in Caretaker and the sex bomb version of Seven of Nine who appears at the end of The Gift.
To be fair, Kes has always been a problem character for the show. The abusive tone of her relationship to Neelix in episodes like Twisted and Parturition was deeply unsettling. However, the third season walks an awkward line in trying to portray Kes as a character with sexual agency despite only being a child relative to other major characters. There is an uncomfortable subtext to episodes like Warlord, Darkling and Before and After, most often because the episodes repeatedly suggest that all of Kes’ father figures harbour sexual attraction to her.
There is something disheartening about the sexism that permeates the third season of Voyager. After all, this is the first Star Trek series to have a female lead character and a female head writer. Given the demographics of the cast and crew, Voyager should be a very progressive and open-minded television series, one consciously pushing forward and outward. Much is made of the progressive philosophy of the Star Trek franchise, so there is something unsettling in the reactionary tone of the third season as a whole.
This is quite clear from the season’s handling of issues are gender and sexuality, but it also plays out in the scripting of Displaced. That is an episode that is fundamentally about the dangers of immigration. It is a story in which the Voyager crew discover that a bunch of seemingly innocuous alien travelers are planning on taking their jobs. However, there are also shades of it to the anti-globalisation paranoia that filters through Unity.
While the third season of Voyager might be telling archetypal Star Trek stories, it is very much anchored in its cultural moment. There is a certain timeless quality to Deep Space Nine that has aged very well, but Voyager is a show firmly rooted in the zeitgeist of the nineties. After all, Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II represent the first time that a Star Trek crew has journeyed back to “the present” since The Voyage Home. The series will make a similar trip in 11:59.
Certain episodes of the third season of Voyager can be traced back to specific mid-nineties concerns. The Chute is a story about the horrors of punitive justice at a point when California’s prison system was on the verge of collapse. As with the Kazon in the first and second season, the anxiety over Klingon teenagers in Real Life is coded heavily in racial terms. Unity touches on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the xenophobia of Displaced is anchored in California’s fervent anti-immigration politics of that cultural moment.
Conspiracy theories abound in the third season of Voyager, from the militia in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II to the stage-managed natural disasters in Rise to the reptile people and their secret history in Distant Origin. These are elements that feel of a piece with other nineties pop culture, like The X-Files or the work of Oliver Stone. Similarly, the theme of cultural memory is suggested by Remember and Distant Origin; it will become a recurring theme in later episodes like Living Witness and Retrospect.
Perhaps the most nineties aspect of the third season is the preoccupation with the end of history. On Voyager, it frequently seems like the past is less certain than the future. The third season of Voyager introduces a number of glimpses into the future in episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Before and After. In each case, the show emphasises how little has actually changed. Future’s End, Part I reveals a twenty-ninth century Starfleet, while Before and After suggests that Voyager is practically identical six years later.
At the start of the nineties, some speculated that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the end of history, that liberal democracy had emerged triumphant and stood unchallenged. Voyager seems to embrace this philosophy, believing that things will remain constant and table. It is a viewpoint that should be contrasted with the fifth season of Deep Space Nine, a show where all of those assumptions and certainties were always up for negation or reversal. Voyager instead believed that the future moved in a straight line.
Of course, history has not been kind to that theory about the end of history. The twenty-first century has demonstrated that liberal democracy faces substantial threats both internal and external. However, it feels appropriate for Voyager to embrace this philosophy at this point in its run. This might not be the end of history, but this is in some ways the end of the Berman era. The third season of Voyager is the point at which the franchise stops pushing itself to move forward.
It is not quite that simple, of course. Deep Space Nine would continue to innovate and evolve on its own terms, but it would prove something of a dead end in the larger context of the Rick Berman era. Enterprise would begin to experiment in its final two seasons, but by then the franchise was already dead. The third season of Voyager marks the point at which the main evolutionary thread of the Rick Berman era stops dead in the water, and refuses to move forward even an inch over the next six seasons.
Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II suggest that the biggest threat to the future of Earth is a dramatic explosion. The third season of Voyager suggests that the biggest danger to the future of the franchise is mere entropy.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the third season of Star Trek: Voyager:
- Basics, Part II
- The Chute
- The Swarm
- False Profits
- Sacred Ground
- Future’s End, Part I
- Future’s End, Part II
- The Q and the Grey
- Fair Trade
- Alter Ego
- Blood Fever
- Favourite Son
- Before and After
- Real Life
- Distant Origin
- Worst Case Scenario
- Scorpion, Part I