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Star Trek: Voyager – Night (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager typically bridged its seasons with epic two-parters, a sprawling single narrative told over two forty-five minute episodes separated by the three-month summer hiatus. In fact, it was somewhat striking when the production team chose to end the fourth season with Hope and Fear, a standalone episode with a very definite conclusion. However, it becomes even more ironic once the fifth season opens with Night. Rather than one story split over two episodes, Night feels like two narratives compressed into a single chunk of television.

Of these two narratives, one is definitely more interesting than the other. The first half of Night essentially focuses on the ship and crew as they venture through an empty (and starless) section of space known as “the Void.” No light can get in. Nothing seems to live in there. There are no anomalies to investigate. “Anything to report?” Tuvok asks Kim. Kim responds, “Not even a stray electron.” It is so dull that even Tom classifies the detection of “a sudden increase in theta radiation” as “excitement.”

Starless, starless night.

This is an interesting approach to storytelling, particularly for a show so focused on plot. More than any other series in the franchise, Voyager runs on plot beats. Stories tend to progress from one revelation and escalation to the next, affording little room for character development or exploration. As such, the first half of Night seems like a very ambitious piece of work, an introspective character-driven drama where there are no plot beats to distract from character. It is a very brave and compelling set-up.

Of course, Night somewhat fumbles the ball in this first half. The thread is never explored as thoroughly as it might be, the character never allowed to properly express themselves. There is far too much emphasis on the holodeck, and the ship’s ability to simulate comforts and illusions even in this most depressing of surroundings. However, compared to the way that Voyager usually tells stories, the first half of Night is refreshing. Ironically, it is genuinely exciting, because it feels like the writers are pushing outside their comfort zone.

A darker side of Janeway.

Unfortunately, it cannot last. Night can only resist the comfort of plot for so long. Eighteen minutes into the hour, the second plot kicks into gear. It is a much more conventional Voyager episode, particularly for these later seasons. There is a broadly drawn piece of social commentary that ties into the both Voyager‘s New Age sensibilities and its attitude towards the Delta Quadrant as a whole. There are new aliens introduced, that will become recurring foils. It is all very standard, and all very rushed. The second half of Night makes up for those missed plot beats.

The result is an episode that is deeply frustrating, a game of two halves were each horribly undercuts the other.

A black-and-white issue.

The first half of Night is interesting for a number of reasons. Most compellingly, it captures something relatively unique to Voyager, as compared to that of the original Star Trek or Star Trek: The Next Generation. Unlike either Enterprise, Voyager is not on a mission of exploration. They are not receiving new mission briefings from Starfleet each week, directing them to particularly interesting situations or phenomenon. They are not a flagship, and they are not the “a-list” crew. They are just trying to get home.

Voyager’s mission is to fly in a straight line from the Delta Quadrant back to the Alpha Quadrant. The crew has fixated upon Earth as a destination, perhaps because Tuvok is the only Alpha Quadrant native on the senior staff without a strong tie to the planet. Still, Voyager is not on a mission of exploration or discovery. It is not their responsibility to make scientific breakthroughs or to establish diplomatic contact. It is their job to complete a journey that spans seventy thousand light years.

Music to his ears.

Of course, the nature of Voyager as a television series belies this idea. Voyager is broadcast weekly, producing twenty-six episodes in a season. The nature of storytelling dictates that something must happen in each of those twenty-six episodes. Because the production team on Voyager are not particularly ambitious, these episodes almost inevitably fall back into the familiar pattern of Star Trek and The Next Generation, a hybrid of “forehead of the week” and “anomaly of the week.” As such, it is easy to forget that the real objective is to travel in a straight line.

Part of what makes the first half of Night so compelling is that it captures that sense of what Voyager is about. The first eighteen minutes of Night follow the crew as they fly in a straight line, with no distractions and no mysteries, with no plot points and no guest characters. The crew don’t have a crisis to face, just their own sense of boredom. It is a fascinating way to build an episode, and one that feels very specifically tailored to what Voyager is about. This an episode that wouldn’t work on Star Trek or The Next Generation, but which fits easily in the context of Voyager.

Shades of grey.

After all, space is big. Space is also mostly empty. It can be quite difficult to fathom how empty. NASA have estimated that the average distance between stars in the galaxy is over four thousand light years. To be fair, these stars tend to cluster in the spiral arms of the Milky Way, which are effectively interstellar “traffic jams” that may increase the density of stars within a specific space. Given all of these factors, it is amazing that Voyager passes within sensor distance of any stars on their way home, let alone a new star system every week.

Of course, that wouldn’t make for a very compelling weekly television series. Indeed, the Star Trek universe runs on a series of contrivances designed to avoid the barriers that the universe erects to exciting storytelling. Warp drive allows the ships to travel impossible distances at the drop of a hat; the transporter ensures that the crew can make planet fall easily; the universal translator ensures that the crew can comfortably interact with aliens; most of the aliens look human for reasons of budget and practicality.

The inner workings of the franchise.

However, there’s something intriguing about the premise of Night. There is a sense that this is what most of Voyager’s journey home should be like. After all, the ship is efficient enough that the crew doesn’t need to worry about power supply or food on a regular basis, except when the plots to episodes like Demon demand it. For better or worse, Voyager is built like a pleasure liner. So most of the ship’s journey should be long stretches of boredom punctuated by the occasional obstacle like Krenim space or a vast interstellar phenomenon.

Night is also visually interesting, particularly the decision to blot out the sky. In theory, the ship should be able to observe stars thousands of light years away. In 2022, scientists predict that an explosion formed by two stars nearly two thousand light-years from Earth will be visible to the naked eye. Kepler’s supernova was visible 20,000 light years from Earth. It is possible to see Andromeda unaided from Earth, if the conditions are right, two-and-a-half million light years away.

Night flights.

This is an interesting choice, one handwaved with talk of “theta radiation” obscuring the sensors and clouding the vision. The episode is visually striking, an image made all the more intriguing by the complete absence of light. It leads to some fascinating creative choices, as Mitch Suskin outlined:

The audience can assume that, even though you usually don’t see the sun, or whatever is lighting the Voyager, it’s obviously being lit by something. When there is nothing there, we have no way to cheat the lighting. We had to come up with a lighting scheme that made it appear that the Voyager was being lit by its own lights. We went through numerous iterations, with Mojo at Foundation Imaging trying to make that work.

The optical effects in Night are some of the most interesting in the franchise, in large part because it is so unusual to see Star Trek without any stars in the background. Even in regions of space without stars, like the Nekrit Expanse in Fair Trade or “fluidic space” in Scorpion, Part II, there is a heavy emphasis on colour. In Night, it looks like Voyager is going to be swallowed up by darkness.

A window to the soul.

There is something very pointed in the idea of Star Trek without stars. There is something very disconcerting in the notion of a night sky that is completely empty. “Every sailor’s nightmare,” Chakotay reflects. “It’s like being becalmed in the middle of the ocean. If it weren’t for sensors we wouldn’t even know we were at warp.” Without the stars, there is no sense of direction and no sense of movement. There are no fixed points against which the crew might gauge their relative position. There is no frame of reference.

There is something uncanny and disturbing about all this, in a way that recalls the monstrous amoeba from The Immunity Syndrome. It seems like there is a hole at the centre of things. The crew refer to this region of space as “the Void”, while the EMH diagnoses Neelix with “Nihiliphobia, the fear of nothingness.” This would be a striking choice in any context, but it is particularly disconcerting in the context of a fifth season premiere. Brannon Braga effectively opens his tenure as showrunner by imagining a world in which Star Trek has no stars by which to navigate.

Night mares.

By the time that Night aired, the Star Trek franchise was clearly in decline from its commercial peak. The franchise was four years beyond that remarkable Outstanding Drama Series nomination for The Next Generation at the Emmys. It was also two years past its massive thirtieth anniversary celebrations, which included the release of the wildly popular (and commercially successful) Star Trek: First Contact. At the end of the season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would be retired, and no new franchise series would be announced to replace it.

Ratings has been in a slow but clear decline from the moment that The Next Generation was retired, something tacitly acknowledged by fourth-season change-ups in the casts of Deep Space Nine and Voyager; Worf and Seven of Nine had been added to shore up the ratings of both shows, but did little in the long term. The franchise had halved its audience between the launch of The Next Generation and Voyager. Although there were a variety of factors at play, it was still a disheartening statistic.

A brief decline.

A year after the broadcast of Night, Robert Wilonsky would outline the franchise’s fall in grace for Salon:

There are signs that the cash cow is on feeble legs. As Shatner pointed out, box office for the movies is undeniably dropping, ratings are down and convention attendance is on the decline. Some of the licensees are even dropping off. One source says that Playmates, the company that has manufactured Star Trek dolls since 1992, will let its licensing agreement with Paramount expire in December. (A publicist at Playmates won’t confirm or deny this.)

Perhaps the answer to Star Trek’s decline in popularity is a simple one: It’s simply too ubiquitous to remain special. There have been three TV series since 1987, nine films, hundreds of novels, several awful comic-book series and dozens of computer games (many featuring the voices of Trek regulars); and it’s the subject of its own Paramount-distributed, monthly glossy magazine, Star Trek: The Magazine. Too much of a mediocre thing will kill off any franchise, even one as golden as Trek.

“When Deep Space Nine and Next Generation were on the air simultaneously, that was the beginning of what some would say was the overkill — beating it into submission, exploiting the crown jewel,” says Altman. “Plus, Star Trek was being merchandised to death — from coffee mugs to condoms, anything they could put the insignia on.”

Night seems to tap into these fears, the sense that the franchise has lost its way and its direction. There were no stars against which it might set its course.

Shadows and symbols.

This was particularly true of Voyager. After all, Deep Space Nine was entering its final season. It had a clear identity and purpose. It knew what it was about and how exactly it wanted to be about it. In contrast, Voyager had long struggled to chart its own course, to define its own identity distinct from The Next Generation. Although the fourth season had arguably been the show’s most creatively and commercially successful year, it still struggled to find a unique voice. What made Voyager stand apart from the crowd in an over-saturated market place?

To be fair, there was arguably a broader crisis unfolding in popular culture. Voyager is a show very firmly rooted in the attitudes and anxieties of the nineties, reflecting uncertainty about the end of history and the looming millennium, imagining a topsy-turvy world where the future is set in stone while the past is up for grabs. The Star Trek franchise had been built on the promise of a utopian future, of a “final frontier” that stretched on from Kennedy’s “new frontier.” It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that Star Trek was a futuristic riff on Kennedy’s Camelot.

A chaotic time.

However, there was a sense that utopian idealism was hard to find at the end of the twentieth century. Writing in January 2000, Steven Weinberg reflected on the disappointing tallying at the turn of the millennium:

The most influential utopian idea of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was socialism, which has failed everywhere. Under the banner of socialism Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China gave us not utopias but ghastly anti-utopias. It is ironic that in the heyday of utopian thinking, in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx himself sneered at utopian thought, and claimed to be guided instead by a science of history. Of course, there is no science of history, but that’s almost beside the point. Even if we could decide that some type of government or economy was historically inevitable, as Marx believed communism to be, it would not follow that this would be something we would like. If Marx had been an honest utopian, and recognized his responsibility to describe the society he wanted to bring into being, it might have been clearer from the beginning that the effort would end in tyranny. Hitler’s Germany, too, started with utopian rhetoric: socialism combined with a maniac vision of a master race.

It is worth noting that the utopian future of the Star Trek universe was itself frequently framed in socialist terms, particularly in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the early seasons of The Next Generation.

“That’s damn fine coffee.”

Of course, socialism was far from the only source of utopianism, even if the two philosophies were intertwined. In the context of the sixties, American popular culture was consciously aligned against the threat posed to liberal democracy by communism. However, utopianism remained a vital part of the cultural conversation. After all, the original Star Trek was quite utopian in places even as James T. Kirk was willing to go toe-to-toe with surrogate communists in episodes like The Return of the Archons, Errand of Mercy, A Private Little War and The Omega Glory.

The space race captured the imagination, suggesting a future of limitless possibility for mankind. Starting in 1960, mankind began launching probes at Mars. There were several plans to colonise the moon; from the United States’ plans for a secret moon base to be built by 1967 to the ambitious 1962 proposal to construct a subterranean habitat in the Sea of Tranquility. The first manned mission would land on the lunar surface in July 1969, shortly after the broadcast of Turnabout Intruder.

Engineering a better future.

Some of the more enduring science-fiction stories and films of the fifties and sixties have a decidedly utopian angle to them. As mankind took to the stars in the real world, creative imaginations bristled with possibilities. Wally Wood’s Judgment Day imagined a future for mankind when racism had been consigned to the history books. 2001: A Space Odyssey suggested a clean future in which space travel was the norm and in which mankind had begun to map out the solar system.

Even beyond space flight, the sixties were brimming with possibility. Counterculture suggested an infinite array of possibilities on the surface of this planet. The anti-war movement suggested that peaceful coexistence was possible. The Summer of Love dared to imagine a world of mutual understanding rather than mutually assured destruction. It arguably defined a generation, creating a deep divide between older conservatives and younger liberals. Of course, the idealism of the sixties arguably gave way to the cynicism of the seventies, even in popular culture.

A little light in the darkness.

As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, it seemed like popular culture was willing to ruminate on this lost utopian ideal. In February 2000, Edward Rothstein observed:

As a result of such suspicion, there has now arisen a bit of nostalgia for the utopian spirit, a wish that it could rise again, older, wiser and perhaps a bit less . . . well, utopian. Mr. Jacoby, for example, has no patience with sentimentality, yet he misses the energy that utopianism gave to the political left. Now, he suggests, ”the belief is stone dead. Few envision the future as anything but a replica of today.” Krishan Kumar, a historian of utopianism and a professor at the University of Kent in England, has suggested that utopianism, for all its flaws, is in need of some rehabilitation.

What is missed by those who miss utopianism is not the prospect of utopia itself but the prospect of trying to reach it. What is missed is the conviction that there are methods that might be reliably used to improve the human condition. It may be that the most challenging political question in a knowingly wary world is how to envision progress without envisioning a utopia.

It seemed like Voyager was subject to the same failures of imagination. Episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II, Timeless, Relativity and Endgame all struggled to imagine a future that different from the current status quo, even into the twenty-ninth century.

The future will be brighter tomorrow.

As a show very much entangled in the cultural crises of the nineties, the fifth season of Voyager was very engaged with this turn-of-the-millennium anxiety. Night comes at the start of what would be the last season to be fully broadcast before the start of the year 2000. Voyager would opt to explore that transition from 1999 to 2000 in 11:59, a rare episode of Star Trek set in the twentieth century involving no form of time travel. (For its own part, Deep Space Nine was engaging with its own millennial anxieties in episodes like The Reckoning.)

With this in mind, the introduction of the Captain Proton! holoprogram in the teaser to Night is especially informative. It is an endearing bit of cheese, heightened by the clever (and, for Voyager, bold) stylistic decision to shoot the sequence in black and white. However, Captain Proton! also plays into this anxiety about the death of utopian thought. It represents nostalgia for earlier visions of a more idealistic and optimistic future. “Take a look around you,” Paris urges the EMH. “This is how the twentieth century saw the future.”

Adding a little colour.

The joy and hope of Captain Proton! provides a compelling contrast with the depression of Night – and arguably the mediocre complacency of Voyager itself. In the starless void, there is no sense of direction or movement, there is nothing by which Voyager might set its course. Captain Proton! offers a dynamic and striking vision of a world that could yet be, even as Chakotay laments that he has to check the instrumentation to be sure that Voyager is still moving forward. It is a compelling study in contrasts, and reflection on lost utopianism.

On top of all of this, Voyager was undergoing a major shift behind the scenes. Michael Piller had departed the show after Basics, Part II, at the end of the show’s second production season. Jeri Taylor had overseen the third and fourth seasons, but departed after Hope and Fear. Those were two massive influences on nineties Star Trek, and two of the three writers credited with creating Voyager. Piller and Taylor had been around for a very long time, having provided the distinctive voice for the later seasons of The Next Generation.

Captive audience.

To be fair, Piller and Taylor would remain involved with the Star Trek franchise even after stepping away from the day-to-day running of the series. Jeri Taylor would provide the script for Nothing Human later in the season, while Michael Piller would still provide feedback on scripts and had even written the script for Star Trek: Insurrection. Both would remain part of the wider Star Trek franchise, providing retrospective interviews and commentaries when Voyager was retired at the end of its seventh season.

Rick Berman was the third credited creator of Voyager, and the only one who would remain actively engaged with its production across the length and breadth of the seven-year run. However, Berman was overseeing the franchise as a whole, and was more of a producer than a writer, so it would have been a step down for him to take over the day-to-day running of Voyager. Instead, the torch passed to Brannon Braga to take of the writers’ room on Voyager, to chart the course for the final three seasons of the series.

You can’t go home again.

In some ways, Braga was the perfect choice to run Voyager. Braga was easily one of the most ambitious and promising writers to have worked on the Star Trek franchise. During his time on the series, he would be credited on over one hundred scripts across three different series and two different films. He produced a number of genuine masterpieces on The Next Generation, like Cause and Effect, Frame of Mind and All Good Things… Braga had been a shooting star on The Next Generation, one of the franchise’s most promising young recruits.

More than that, Braga was by a considerable margin the strongest writer on Voyager, producing episodes like Projections, DeadlockDistant Origin and Living Witness. To a certain extent, Braga had helped to codify Voyager‘s approach to blockbuster Star Trek, credited with Joe Menosky on massive two-parters like Future’s End, Part IFuture’s End, Part IIScorpion, Part IScorpion, Part IIYear of Hell, Part IYear of Hell, Part IIThe Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. He was the most logical choice for the role of showrunner.

Navigating without stars.

However, there were also lots of reasons why Braga was a poor choice to run Voyager. Most obviously, he had no substantive experience outside the franchise. Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor and Ira Steven Behr all had long careers before working on the Star Trek franchise, and that experience arguably served to ground them. Braga had arrived on the fourth season of The Next Generation as an intern, and had quickly (and deservedly) been recruited to the staff. But he had no basis for comparison, no outside experience upon which to draw.

Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that Star Trek worked best when it received an infusion of new talent. Michael Piller arrived on third season of The Next Generation with little practical understanding of Star Trek, and reinvented the show from the ground up. This was crucial to the show’s success, following the disastrous first two seasons that had been run by Star Trek veterans. Ira Steven Behr had to be specifically recruited by Piller to work on Deep Space Nine, after quitting The Next Generation in its third year.

Braga rights.

Even Star Trek: Enterprise would be reinvigorated by an infusion of new talent. Manny Coto joined the third year of the show straight from his work on Odyssey 5, and turned in some of the best episodes of the third season in Similitude, Azati Prime and The Council. More to the point, when Coto took over the fourth season of the show, he infused Enterprise with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. An outsider perspective can bring something new and exciting to the franchise, and can also challenge expectations about how the franchise is supposed to work.

There are other reasons why Braga might not have been the best fit to manage the day-to-day running of Voyager. He was only thirty three years old, which meant that he was much younger than Rick Berman, Jeri Taylor, Michael Piller or Ira Steven Behr. He lacked the age and experience to allow him to stand up to Rick Berman on Voyager in the same way that Ira Behr could argue for his writers on Deep Space Nine. More than that, there are legitimate criticisms that Braga was unprofessional in how he operated, both to writers on staff and to outside writers pitching.

Controversial command style.

Braga would be the first to admit that he was relatively underqualified for the post of showrunner on a franchise as big as Star Trek, explaining in The Fifty-Year Mission that the challenge of showrunning Voyager was part of the reason that he turned down the opportunity to script Insurrection:

This was, without a doubt, the hardest moment of my fifteen years with Star Trek, because I was being offered the next film. But I had just been promoted to showrunner on Voyager, and this was truly the most agonising decision probably of my career… and probably the worst decision that I made in my career in retrospect. But at the time I was really worried that we didn’t have a good creative direction for the next film. Rick was thinking of doing something more of a romp, like the whale movie. I liked the idea, but wasn’t quite sure. I was fearful since I would not be working with Ron.

Quite frankly, I honestly did not think I could run Voyager. I’d never run a show alone before. And to do the movie at the same time seemed impossible, so I turned Rick down.

Braga was a very young an inexperienced producer when Voyager was placed on his shoulders. Colleagues like Bryan Fuller and Ronald D. Moore have talked at length about how the dynamic around Braga as showrunner was not conducive to a healthy work place or to good television, in part due to his inexperience.

Minimal drama.

There are certainly shades of that Night. Indeed, it is tempting to read at least some of the first section of the episode as a commentary by Braga on his new role as showrunner. Most notably, Night presents Voyager as trapped in an existential crisis in which there is no sense of direction or purpose, while everything is nominally functioning according to plan. Voyager was still struggling to distinguish itself from Star Trek and The Next Generation, and still dealing with slowly declining ratings, but it was also still relatively stable.

The writers’ room was a lot more stable than it had been during the second season, when Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller had clashed over the best direction for the series and the relative importance of long-form storytelling. The cast had settled down slightly following the turbulent addition of Jeri Ryan to the ensemble at the start of the fourth season. By most accounts, Jeri Ryan would become involved with Brannon Braga during the fifth season, which Ryan claims convinced Kate Mulgrew to mellow towards the cast’s newest recruit.

Bridging generations.

So Braga was not facing any immediate crises, or fighting any fast-burning fires. To a certain extent, Voyager was a well-oiled machine at this point. Braga would not face his first true professional crisis until Ronald D. Moore agreed to join the staff at the start of the sixth season. So, while Braga was undoubtedly placed in a position with a lot of stress and very high stakes, there was also a sense that the metaphorical ship was steady. All Braga had to do was maintain course and speed.

In some ways, the idea of Janeway shutting herself off from the crew to explore her inner world reads as a criticism of some creative decisions made by Jeri Taylor during the first two seasons, her tendency to disappear into “Janeway Lambda One” at a point when the crew really needed to be brought together like a family in episodes like Cathexis, Learning Curve and Persistence of Vision. However, the characterisation of Janeway in Night might also reflect Braga’s own sensibilities and his own approach.

Grey-t ideas.

One of the more consistent characterisations of Brannon Braga’s tenure as showrunner on both Voyager and Enterprise was that he struggled to manage the demands of a writers’ room. Even before Braga took over, he had a tendency to cut himself off from the rest of the staff to hammer out a story, as Action! demonstrates during the creative process for Hope and Fear:

“I just don’t think the character conflict with Seven and Janeway works for this story,” [Menosky] says.

“I do!” Braga insists. Then, abruptly, he says, “Maybe we should just erase the whole board right now and throw it out.”

“And do what instead?” Jeri Taylor asks.

It is 1:45pm. Beyond the glass windows of the show’s south wall, El Nino-driven clouds cover the sun. Winter hasn’t been this cold in California over eight years. And no Voyager break session has been so devoid of ideas in the show’s four years. The room is silent. The staff sits motionless, as if waiting for an epiphany.

Braga makes a sudden decision. “I want to take this back to my office and work out this story,” he says. “I think it works and I think I can make it work. Gardner, type up what we’ve got there.”

This approach made Braga a great writer, his willingness to power through any issues and to break a story in his own way. Indeed, Braga had an impressive work ethic. By his account, he effectively rewrote most of the episodes from the first season of Enterprise himself, which is a tremendous commitment in terms of time and energy. Braga was a fantastic workhorse.

Running the programme.

And, to be clear, it can be difficult to manage a writers’ room. Ira Steven Behr did a tremendous job on Deep Space Nine, while Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor did a great job on The Next Generation. However, Piller struggled to get the writers working as a team during his time on Voyager. Even outside the Star Trek franchise, there is no singular right way to run a writing staff. Aaron Sorkin has his own process, which has its own problems. It has been joked that giving David E. Kelley a writing staff was a needless expense for the network. Chris Carter turned his writers into mini auteurs.

However, Braga inherited a model from his predecessors that was very firmly anchored in the tradition of the classic writers’ room. Voyager had a fairly large staff of writers, who worked within a franchise with rigidly defined boundaries and who needed varying degrees of supervision. Running a writers’ room was going to be a big part of the job, and Braga could not sequester himself away from that responsibility. Again, there is that tension between the obligations of being a writer and the responsibilities of being a showrunner.

Meditations in an emergency.

The way that Braga ran Voyager and Enterprise could be a source of frustration to come of the staff. Enterprise writer Chris Black confessed as much in The Fifty-Year Mission:

At the end of the day it wasn’t about writing. I remember showing up there and you’d sit around all day with nothing to do. Finally, it would get to be six or seven p.m., and I’m, like, “Let’s go.” That’s when Brannon would emerge from his office and say, “What do you guys got?” Why don’t we start this at ten in the morning so people with kids and family and lives could go off and do that?

It is easy to draw a connection between Braga’s approach to managing Voyager and Janeway’s approach to running the ship in Night. Both leaders cut themselves off from their staff.

Here come the fireworks.

Night solidifies the characterisation of Janeway heading into the final seasons of Voyager. Janeway was arguably three different characters over the course of Voyager; the removed scientist of the early seasons, the maternal authority figure of the middle years, and the unstoppable (and unstable) badass of the final few years. These iterations were not always delineated and distinct; Braga set out the template for “badass Janeway” in episodes like Deadlock and Macrocosm, while curious scientist Janeway would occasionally simmer to surface in episodes like Concerning Flight.

The fourth season very much engaged with the idea of Janeway as a no-nonsense action hero in scripts like Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I, The Killing Game, Part II and The Omega Directive. However, Night is the first script to properly suggest that Janeway might be obsessive verging on suicidal, and that her sense of responsibility about what happened to her crew might push her over certain lines. In that regard, Night very clearly paves the way for Janeway’s characterisation in Equinox, Part I, Equinox, Part II and Endgame.

Caretaker to her crew.

Night explicitly suggests that Janeway is suicidal. Tuvok even suggests that Janeway has always been suicidal, retroactively inserting a grim anecdote into her back story. “She sent an away team to survey a volcanic moon,” Tuvok recalls. “Their shuttle was damaged by a magma eruption and three crew members were severely injured. The next day she returned to the moon alone to complete the survey. She wanted the crew to know that their suffering had not been in vain. She could have been killed.”

At the climax of Night, Janeway proposes something similar. “Your orders are to proceed to the vortex,” she instructs the crew. “Use whatever means necessary to fight your way past the Malon freighter. I’ll stay behind in a shuttlecraft and destroy the vortex. Tuvok, I’ll need a class two shuttle armed with photon torpedoes.” Naturally, Janeway is willing to doom herself in order to save the crew. This idea of self-sacrifice bookends Braga’s tenure, with future!Janeway doing something similar in Endgame.

A patient approach.

Night acknowledges that this characterisation compromises Janeway, that it makes her seem unstable. “Captain Janeway’s methods are unorthodox,” Tuvok reflects. “It is her strength as a leader, but unfortunately, it is also her greatest weakness.” Chakotay acknowledges, “Stubborn as a Klingon.” Tuvok agrees, “To put it mildly.” This is perhaps the first time Star Trek has acknowledged a fundamentally flawed leap character since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But Voyager never does anything with this.

The version of Janeway cemented in Night is wildly erratic and unpredictable. She seems genuinely psychologically unhinged at certain points over the final three seasons of the show, more prone to take risky decisions and to rely on force rather than diplomacy. There is certainly an interesting story to be told there, and an interesting character to be explored, but Voyager never entirely commits to this version of Janeway. It never explores her depressive and obsessive moods. It never gives her a story like Far Beyond the Stars or In the Pale Moonlight or even Damage or Home.

Mulgrew has gone on record with her fondness for this interpretation of Janeway. Mulgrew has talked about how her own version of Janeway often seemed at odds with that written by Jeri Taylor, and has also singled out Brannon Braga’s contributions to the series. Even at the time, Mulgrew praised his work:

“The scripts I think are terrific this season; Brannon is incredibly smart, and dark and creative and funny in a way that I love,” she said. “It’s rather naughty and mischievous, which is just so provocative and fascinating. He knows Janeway’s voice and Mulgrew’s voice, and has married them very nicely.” Mulgrew added that she liked the work she did last season; “Janeway in seasons one, two, and three was a little goody-two-shoes for my taste, not really who Mulgrew is as Janeway. Brannon has watched me closely as an actress in the last four years, so he knows where I can go, and what my strengths are.”

Mulgrew and her co-stars have described last season as a seminal year, with Braga beginning to take control of daily production duties from Taylor. “This year Brannon has taken over completely, and it’s galvanizing,” said Mulgrew. She explained that she didn’t think there would be more action necessarily, but “a much greater exploration of the personalities. We’ve completely neglected the Maquis side of Chakotay and B’Elanna. I have a feeling Tuvok is going somewhere, he’s drier, he’s funnier, he’s naughtier than he’s ever been before – it’s just smarter language, which seems to fit very well in Tuvok/Tim’s mouth.”

Of course, it should also be noted that Mulgrew was not entirely comfortable on Voyager in spite of these changes. There would be rumours towards the middle of the fifth season that Mulgrew was considering leaving the series, stoked by Mulgrew herself.

What a waste.

What is interesting is the source of Janeway’s depression in Night. Talking with Chakotay early in the episode, Janeway explains that her decision to cut herself off from the crew is a direct result of her guilt over the decision that she made in Caretaker. She asks Chakotay, “How did we end up here, Chakotay?” He outlines the event of the pilot, “We were faced with a difficult choice. We had the means to get home but using it would’ve put an innocent people at risk, so we decided to stay.” Janeway protests, “I decided to stay. I made that choice for everyone.”

Later on, Janeway makes her fixation on that original sin even more explicit. When she realises that protecting “the void” from the Malon would mean adding two more years to their journey, she confesses, “Four years ago I destroyed the Caretaker’s array to protect the Ocampa. That act of compassion stranded this crew in the Delta Quadrant. I’m not about to give that order again.” It is a striking character motivation, in large part because Voyager has tended to avoid any real sense of long-term continuity or reflection.

Showing some flare.

To be fair, the fourth season of Voyager did experiment with continuity and long-form storytelling, most notably in the way that The Gift built upon the events of Scorpion, Part I or Scorpion, Part II and in the way that the events of Message in a Bottle rippled across the remainder of the season from the crew’s contact with Starfleet to the introduction of the Hirogen. However, this was very much an aberration. Voyager would never embrace that model of storytelling again, even in its final season. So these references to Caretaker are striking.

However, these references are even more intriguing because they signal a renewed interest in the show’s history and back story that ripples across the fifth season as a whole. Seven of Nine would explore her own history in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, before journeying back to the launch of Voyager in Relativity. Janeway would reflect on one of her ancestors in 11:59. Tuvok would recall his own troubled history in Gravity. The crew encounter another Starfleet vessel abducted by the Caretaker in Equinox, Part I.

Oh, it’s Malon now.

Indeed, Equinox, Part I provides an interesting bookend to Night, in that it touches on the same questions of what Janeway would and would not be willing to do in order to get home. Captain Rudolph Ransom is a funhouse mirror of Captain Kathryn Janeway, a cautionary tale of the monster that Janeway might have become if she indulged her darker impulses instead of sticking to her principles. The Equinox suggests an alternate version of Voyager, a show that would have taken a darker turn after Caretaker.

Interestingly enough, Ray Walston would reprise his role of Boothby in two episodes of the fifth season; In the Flesh and The Fight. Boothby was a character anchored in The Next Generation, repeatedly referenced by Picard and properly introduced in The First Duty. Indeed, The First Duty is part of Voyager‘s own history, featuring Robert Duncan McNeill as Nick Locarno, who would serve as a template for Tom Paris. Of these two Boothby appearances, In the Flesh finds the ship visiting a pseudo-Earth, allowing them a strange opportunity to come home.

It should also be noted that the fifth season’s recurring holographic fantasy was a fifties science-fiction serial, which arguably represents a reflection on the pulpy roots of Voyager. Many of the episodes of Voyager (like Cathexis, Faces, The 37’sTuvix, Cold Fire, Darkling, and so on) felt like throwbacks to the style and tone of fifties and sixties b-movie science-fiction. To be fair, Voyager‘s holographic settings tended to be historical; Janeway Lambda One, da Vinci’s workshop, Fair Haven. However, Captain Proton! was implicitly part of Voyager‘s history.

This sense of reflection and retrospection is interesting, if only because it seems to be a feature of shows that enter their fifth seasons. The X-Files made a point to feature three slightly contradictory origin stories for the investigative unit in its fifth season, in Unusual Suspects, Travellers and The End. In its own fifth season, Deep Space Nine returned repeatedly to the Cardassian Occupation; in flashback in Things Past and Ties of Blood and Water, but also in theme and conversation in Rapture, The Darkness and the Light, Empok Nor and Call to Arms.

There are any number of reasons for this more reflective attitude in the fifth season. It might be as simple as a five-year itch, a reflection on the series’ half-decade in production. It might also be more pragmatic, a reflection on fact that the fifth season marked the point at which many shows crossed the one hundred episode mark that made them viable for syndication; for all practical purposes, having fulfilled their reason for existing. In Voyager‘s case, it could just as easily be a result of Brannon Braga taking over the running of the series.

There are some minor quibbles with the opening half. Most obviously, Night repeatedly underscores just how comfortable the crew are on their journey home. Even travelling through “the void”, the ship has all the amenities necessary to keep them comfortable. Everybody is aware of how useful the holodeck is. “The last thing we need is a broken holodeck,” Chakotay observes. Neelix suggests, “The holodecks have been in high demand. I was thinking we could install a few emitters in Cargo Bay two. Turn it into a third holodeck.”

When Neelix feels uncomfortable staring out at the empty space, he can just replicate some curtains. When Tuvok needs some stars to help him meditate, he can just visit astrometrics. However, this is not necessary a huge problem. While it would be interesting to see the crew “roughing it”, in some ways Night is more interesting for the way that it explores the emptiness of the crew’s affluence, the hollow pleasures on a ship that has everything. Their existential crisis is all the more effective for the fact that their material needs (and wants) have all been met.

Still, however interesting an idea like this is, the most frustrating aspect of Night is the complete bungling of all these fascinating thematic and character beats in favour of a more conventional episode. Night is compelling viewing for the first eighteen minutes, when it seems like it might almost become a weird character piece. However, less than half of the way into the episode, the power cuts and all of a sudden the Voyager crew are investigating a mystery that will lead to an allegory that will lead to an action sequence. Business as usual.

The writers acknowledge this flaw with the episode. Joe Menosky and Brannon Braga offered a fair critical assessment of the finished product to Cinefantastique:

Said co-writer and supervising producer Joe Menosky, “A good, solid melancholy is in some ways a dignified response to a profound, personal, introspective crisis. But I don’t think it was really sold. If you are going to have a big crisis like that you can’t do it in the course of a single episode, wrap it up at the end and make it believable. It was the wrong way to go, and it did not come off particularly well, no excuses. It was just a lot of pieces of different story elements.”

Executive producer and co-writer Brannon Braga added, ‘To kick off the season, why not have Voyager hit a region of space that is utterly devoid of anything? It’s a dangerous way to start a story, of course. I don’t feel that the night aliens and the Malon freighter guys were all that captivating. I liked it, but I wouldn’t say it was one of our best.”

This sudden shift is hugely frustrating for a number of reasons, most obviously that it undercuts the interesting existential angst that underpins the first half of the episode.

The wormhole in things.

There is a sense that Night might have worked better as a season premiere leading into a multi-episode arc set within “the void”, that its themes and ideas would have carried more weight if there had been room to investigate them. After all, Janeway is introduced having shirked her responsibility and retreated into depression, but she only stays isolated for the first twenty-two minutes of the episode. She dives right back into action before the midpoint of the episode. It undercuts a lot of the tension.

Even Sisko spent two full episodes away from the rest of the crew at the start of the seventh season of Deep Space Nine, only leaving his father’s restaurant at the end of Image in the Sand and only returning to the station at the end of Shadows and Symbols. It is interesting to imagine a version of the fifth season of Voyager that opens with an extended multi-episode arc set in “the void”, willing to really let the audience feel the isolation. It would still be possible to tell the Malon story, just as part of a different episode.

Indeed, as Joe Menosky explained to Star Trek Monthly, the original plot of Night was very different from what made it to screen:

With Night, we originally had this expanse [of empty space] and then somewhere in the middle of it we were going to find this planet which was essentially going to be the alien equivalent of King Tut’s tomb. We had this huge, ancient temple and these creatures which are half-alive and half-dead and came flying out like locusts and attacked the ship. I wrote at least 10 pages of that stuff, and that’s what everybody was expecting to see. The outline and the story had been done, and we just looked at it and thought, ‘This isn’t working,’ and it was all thrown out.

That sort of horror vibe certainly fits more readily with the vibe of the first half than the trite environmental metaphor. There are a lot of stories to be told within “the void.”

It might be tempting to look at Night as a metaphor for Voyager itself. This is a story with a great premise, but which squanders that premise in search of something far more generic. The second half of Night is the typical Voyager episode, a narrative aiming for that “archetypal Star Trek” feel with a metaphor about illegal dumping and the exploitation of weaker societies by the industrialised world. The plot beats and reversals come thick and fast, with no room to unpack any of it. More than that, it offers a tidy resolution to all the big issues of the first half.

The second half of Night is very typical of Voyager. It introduces a new recurring alien menace for the season ahead, like the Kazon for the first two seasons or the Hirogen for the fourth. The Malon will appear several times over the course of the fifth season, notably in episodes like Extreme Risk and Juggernaut. The Malon are very much in keeping with the metaphor of the Delta Quadrant as a deep-space third world. If the Kazon are intended as freed tribes in a postcolonial world, and if the Hirogen are great white hunters, then the Malon are polluting industrialists.

A toxic alien species.

This is something that really happens. It was a matter of some public discussion. The current affairs programme Frontline even dedicated an episode to it in late 1990, as Walter Goodman outlines:

The problem, as Bill Moyers lays it out, begins in the United States, which produces much more than its share of industrial waste and also has the world’s strictest laws for disposing of it. Instead of paying the high cost of safe disposal, many companies and state and local governments make deals for their noxious wastes, old chemicals, banned pesticides and all sorts of scrap with middlemen who in turn ship it to foreign countries. The business is not exactly illegal. As one of the most successful former waste exporters, Charles Colbert, says in a surprisingly engaging interview, the laws are not clear. He calls himself a pioneer in ”the surplus chemical business.” Charles Colbert and his brother, Jack, who did more than half their highly profitable trade with government agencies, were speaking from Federal prison. Their crime lay not in exporting the waste but in mislabeling it and storing it dangerously.

It remains a pressing concern, with the United Nations reporting that many developed nations are exporting huge quantities of industrial waste into the developing world. Indeed, some poorer countries have even begun building industries around handling waste that developing countries would never allow.

Boy, this place is really a dump.

As such, the introduction of the Malon is very timely and very earnest, and very in keeping with the larger aesthetic of Voyager. The Delta Quadrant seems populated by societies that are less advanced and less politically organised than the major Alpha Quadrant powers, which makes them easier to exploit by the larger players. The Kazon are a galactic menace. The Borg are treated as a storm sweeping across the cosmos. The Hirogen hunt with impunity. The Malon toss their garbage through a wormhole and into somebody else’s backyard.

However, the big issue with Night in particular and with the Malon in general is that Voyager draws them so broadly. The Malon evoke the Ferengi, a very broad and very exaggerated caricature of capitalist excess. The Malon physically resemble pigs, with their high foreheads and big nostrils; Emck is introduced as a chubby man with a jovial demeanour that belies his greed. Coupled with the fact that Emck’s very first line is about “compensation”, the result is an incredibly shallow alien species that are obviously evil from the moment that they first appear.

Fuming.

Indeed, this is the central problem with the second half of Night. The environment metaphor is well-intentioned, but so blunt that the episode feels like a bludgeon. This is particularly true when the Malon are contrasted with the native population. The native population feel like a crude parody of the tired and offensive “noble savage” cliché, a remote and isolated community that needs protection from the encroaching forces of globalisation. (Or “galacticisation”, maybe?)

Voyager always had some very strong New Age tendencies, but they were particularly pronounced when Michael Piller was in charge; The Cloud and Tattoo come to mind. However, those tendencies would occasionally bubble to the surface after his departure, particularly in episodes about Chakotay; Waking Moments and The Fight are good examples. The aliens in Night feel like a very crudely drawn exotic caricature of “primitive” societies that are being exploited by capitalist forces.

Native concerns.

The EMH describes the creatures as “indigenous”, which immediately evokes the exploitation of native societies by colonial settlers in countries like the United States, South Africa and Australia. Their skin is quite literally as black as night. They do not wear uniforms, their nakedness recalling the stock depiction of indigenous tribes in western popular culture. They are wise and compassionate, accepting Janeway at her word and remaining even-headed despite everything that has happened. Their voice is deep, their English forced even through the universal translator.

There is no room for nuance here, no space for ambiguity. Although the native aliens are powerful enough to raid passing ships in a way that evokes the cliché of Native American raiding parties, they are not resourceful enough to figure out the need to seal the wormhole that allows the Malon into their territory. They are innocent, but they are also strangely helpless. Janeway must act as the great white saviour to protect this indigenous population from cynical exploitation. Night is crass in that way, trying to pitch itself as Star Trek‘s answer to the crying Native American.

Keeping the crew in the dark about their culture.

The whole metaphor is undercut with some handwaved dialogue that is designed to prevent viewers from feeling too uncomfortable about their possible passive complicity in an arrangement not too different from that practiced by Emck. Cutting the Malon off from “the void” would force them to ask tough questions about the way that they live, force them to consider their way of life. After all, a society producing that much waste cannot be healthy, but it is impolitic to just say that out loud. If Emck cannot dump the waste in the void, what is he to do?

That is a potentially interesting and complicated question that would challenge viewers with the realities of environmentalism; protecting the planet and reducing waste means making compromises and sacrifices, at least in the short term. It costs money, and it means not having everything all at once. It is a reality that demands a lot from a person, which asks them to surrender some of their own freedom and autonomy (and money and wants) for the greater good. There is an interesting debate to be had there.

Em(ck), what you talkin’ about?

Unfortunately, Night bypasses all of this by insisting that Voyager can magically fix the problem so that the Malon do not generate any waste. It is a very trite “everybody wins” solution that avoids saying anything potentially interesting about the big metaphor at the centre of the episode. This is a very facile solution, akin to suggesting that the solution to global warming is just to wait for scientists to come with some convenient techno-babble that will neatly resolve the whole crisis without anybody having to give up anything.

It is a great example of Star Trek‘s tendency to lean into technological determinism, the idea that technology holds the solution to all of life’s problems. It is a big problem with certain iterations of the franchise, most notably the early episodes of Enterprise, where it seems like mankind has not so much learned from their mistakes as learned to invent the replicator and the holodeck. It is an approach that ignores the need for social or cultural change in order to make the world a better place.

Core concerns.

Even Emck seems to acknowledge as much when touring Engineering. He admits that the possible solution seemed too good to be true. “I came here hoping your claims were exaggerated, but I can see they’re not,” he reflects. This plot element exists to prevent Janeway from having to make a tough moral call. If the Malon really were generating all that toxic waste, and could not get rid of it, would Janeway be willing to force them to wallow in their own refuse to protect the indigenous population of the region? That’s a story with a bit more bite.

More than that, the plot of Night insists that the Malon must refuse this peaceful solution so that Janeway might be justified in providing the episode with a dynamic action-driven climax. As a result, the Malon become even more cartoonishly evil. “This would solve a lot of problems on my world,” Emck remarks. “Unfortunately, it would also put me out of business.” He elaborates, “Your technology would throw the waste export industry into chaos.”

Emck is clearly motivated by greed, but the sort of venal short-sighted greed that feels like a crude parody of the idea. After all, Chakotay’s correct counter-argument to Emck’s objections would be that Emck would effectively be operating a monopoly on the ability to get rid of waste. He could charge almost anything he wanted to install and maintain the equipment, and he would also cut the overhead and expense of managing a freighter and crew.

“I already have the advantage,” Emck insists. “The vortex. No one knows about it except me and my crew. By ejecting my cargo here I cut expenses in half. I won’t sacrifice that.” Of course, that’s a very risky business model in such a cut-throat industry. What if one of his crew double-crosses him? Surely the expense of moving the waste could be cut completely by eliminating it at the source?

It is all designed to lead to a climax designed to play as a retread of Caretaker, with Janeway forced to choose between getting her crew closer to home and protecting an indigenous species. Through the power of techno-babble, Night insists that Janeway can do both, in some ways playing as an in-universe riff on the classic “why didn’t Janeway just rig a timer?” school of plot nitpicking in Caretaker. It is designed to satisfy the most plot-focused viewers, but it completely undercuts the moral value of the choice.

After all, doing the right thing without having to make a sacrifice is easy. It is very easy to help a stranger if that decision costs nothing. However, the dilemma at the climax of Caretaker was whether Janeway would do the right thing if it cost her an easy way home. However awkwardly the climax might have conveyed that point, it is was still important. Janeway was stranded by an act of heroism, which was a nice character beat. Night effectively replays that scenario insisting that Janeway could be a hero and avoid any consequences. It is a very frustrating conclusion.

“It’s full of stars.”

Then again, Night is an incredibly frustrating episode. And another wasted opportunity.

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