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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 5 (Review)

It is hard to discern a central arc or purpose to the fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

There are certainly recurring preoccupations and ideas simmering through the twenty-six episodes of the fifth season, reflecting the interests of the creative team. Indeed, many of these themes culminate in Equinox, Part I, the fifth season finale. However, there is never a sense that any of these ideas are being assembled in service of anything, never a sense of what exactly the production team want to say about these themes or where they want to go with these concepts.

The fifth season of Voyager feels rather listless. This may be due to a combination of factors. Most obviously, the fourth season of Voyager was arguably the show’s best season, one marked by a sense of purpose and forward momentum. Thanks to the introduction of Seven of Nine and the miniature arc focusing on the Hirogen, along with the clever bookending of Scorpion, Part II with Hope and Fear, there was a sense that the fourth season of Voyager had ended in a different place than it began.

The big issue with the fifth season of Voyager is that it feels like the series is running in place.

The fifth season was the first season of Star Trek to be produced by Brannon Braga. Although Braga had been working on the franchise since the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he was a relatively inexperienced television producer. Braga had never worked in television outside the franchise. Indeed, his first credit outside the franchise would be a story credit on Mission: Impossible II, shared with Ronald D. Moore. However, that movie would not be released until a year after the end of the fifth season.

Braga is one of the most talented writers to work on the Star Trek franchise. He really pushed the narrative boundaries of The Next Generation in stories like Cause and Effect and Frame of Mind. More than that, Braga quickly established himself as one of the defining storytellers working on Voyager. In many ways, Parallax set the tone for the series; an emphasis on weird pseudo-science over interpersonal dynamics. Deadlock established an action-driven blockbuster template rooted in science-fiction concepts that became a cornerstone of Voyager‘s storytelling.

During Jeri Taylor’s tenure as showrunner, Braga became one of the strongest voices in the writers’ room. Working with Joe Menosky, Braga oversaw the big “event” stories, the two-part epics that would air during sweeps or to bridge seasons; Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. These were stories that were really set a template for what Voyager could be, a blockbuster version of Star Trek on the small screen.

Overseeing the day-to-day production of a television series is a momentous task, particular when dealing with something on the scale of Star Trek. Many of the producers who worked on the franchise came to it with a lot of television experience. Michael Piller had worked as a producer on shows like Simon & Simon and Miami Vice. Jeri Taylor had worked on Quincy, M.E., Blue Thunder, Magnum P.I., In the Heat of the Night and Jake and the Fatman. Ira Steven Behr worked on The Bronx Zoo and Fame.

So even though Braga was a logical choice to run Voyager, he lacked experience outside the franchise. There is a sense that Braga understood this. Braga consciously declined to work on Star Trek: Insurrection because he was trying to manage his workload. It is no coincidence that the first episode of his tenure, Night, focuses on a leader questioning her ability to guide her subordinates. Braga has talked at length about his ambitions for Voyager, but his inexperience meant that he would face an uphill battle trying to implement them.

Indeed, several members of the production team have talked about the difficulties that Braga faced in trying to impose his own vision on Voyager. Bryan Fuller acknowledges that Brannon Braga wanted to push the envelope with the storytelling on Voyager, but frequently met resistance from the more conservative impulses of Rick Berman. While Ira Steven Behr had the experience and authority to implement his creative vision on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, there was a power imbalance between Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.

The fifth season of Voyager suffers from this imbalance. Faint hints and traces of Braga’s vision bleed through in certain episodes, particularly early episodes in the season. However, they never cohere into anything meaningful or satisfying. This is most obvious in the characterisation of Kathryn Janeway. Braga had long advocated for giving Janeway a rougher edge, perhaps more in line with the characterisation of Sisko in episodes like The Ship or In the Pale Moonlight or Tacking Into the Wind. Braga had hinted at this in earlier stories like Deadlock or Macrocosm.

This approach to Janeway is suggested in episodes like Night or Nothing Human or Latent Image, when the show suggests that Janeway might adopt a much tougher approach to command than she had during the Taylor years. This was not the concerned and maternal figure suggested by episodes like Resolutions or Coda, this was something just a little bit more ruthless. In Night, Janeway contemplates a suicide mission. In Nothing Human, she forces Torres to undergo surgery against her will. In Latent Image, she alters the EMH’s programme. These are bold choices.

However, none of this characterisation sticks. For all of her ruthlessness towards Torres and the EMH in Nothing Human and Latent Image, for all her willingness to put the safety of the ship ahead of an individual crew member’s autonomy, Janeway still puts the rest of the crew at risk to rescue Seven of Nine in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Janeway happily hands over a weapon of mass destruction to an alien species in Infinite Regress, but then refuses to stand by while smart bombs fly to their target in Warhead.

Indeed, the season finale Equinox, Part I positions Janeway as the arbiter of moral righteousness in contrast to the compromised Rudy Ransom. (Ironically, Equinox, Part II features Ransom repeating Janeway’s transgressions from the fifth season; subjecting a female crew member to a medical procedure against her will for the good of the ship, reprogramming the EMH.) Janeway’s moral certainty and piousness in Equinox, Part I feels unearned, as if the character has compartmentalised the soul-searching and compromise that mark the earlier fifth season episodes.

Still, there are hints of introspection scattered across the fifth season. Most obviously, the fifth season seems quite nostalgic and reflective. Night finds Janeway ruminating on her decision in Caretaker, and Equinox, Part I confronts her with a path not taken. In the Flesh features a perfect facsimile of Earth. Extreme Risk and Nothing Human return to the legacy of the Maquis on Voyager, one of the cornerstones of Voyager that was abandoned very early in the run. Relativity takes the audience back to Voyager’s launch. 11:59 takes the show back even further.

The fifth season doesn’t just turn its gaze to the past, it also ruminates upon the show’s missed opportunities. Repeatedly over the course of the fifth season, Janeway and Voyager are confronted with their shadow selves, hints of what might have been. The Disease features a colony ship on a long-term mission. Course: Oblivion features a perfect duplicate of the ship and crew. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II reimagines the Borg collective as a matriarchy focused on Seven of Nine. Equinox, Part I teases a lost Federation ship powered by moral compromise.

Each of these episodes seems to tease Voyager with its wasted potential. The Disease wonders what life would be like on a long-term mission with a less rigid command structure. Course: Oblivion opens with Paris and Torres getting married. Equinox, Part I introduces another Federation ship that looks like it has spent five years alone wandering through hostile territory. In contrast, Voyager seems static and stale. Voyager seems to be running in place, boldly going forward while seeming to stand still.

It constantly feels like the fifth season retreats from its more ambitious ideas. This applies even beyond Brannon Braga’s vision. Repeatedly over the course of the fifth season, Michael Taylor was forced to water down ambitious and high-concept episodes into something more generic. Once Upon a Time was originally pitched as a story unfolding from the perspective of Naomi Wildman, but developed into a far blander holodeck episode. The Fight originated as an ambitious science-fiction concept before becoming a disjointed mess.

Taylor was a writer with considerable form. His earlier contributions to the Star Trek franchise included The Visitor and In the Pale Moonlight, two classic episodes of Deep Space Nine. Taylor’s original scripts were admittedly rewritten by senior members of the writing staff, René Echevarria for The Visitor and Ronald D. Moore for In the Pale Moonlight, but they demonstrated a lot of raw potential from the writer. However, Taylor’s pitches for Once Upon a Time and The Fight were both deemed too ambitious for Voyager, and were subsequently pared down.

The fifth season also represents the point at which many of the criticisms of Voyager solidify into compelling arguments. At the very least, it’s the point at which many of the series’ recurring tropes become old hat, where what were once interesting quirks become a familiar routine. Perhaps the most immediate issue is the gravity that Seven of Nine exerts on the show. This was obvious from her introduction in the fourth season, but at least the fourth season afforded Seven an organic character arc that made sense as a focal point for the year. The fifth season just fixates on Seven.

Seven is a central character in Drone, Infinite Regress, Bliss, Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II, Think Tank, Someone to Watch Over Me and Relativity. Seven is also a vitally important supporting character in episodes like Latent Image or Course: Oblivion. There is a sense that the character is sucking the air out of the show, leaving only breadcrumbs for most of the primary cast. The season has a wonderful Tuvok focus in Gravity, but its focus on Kim in The Disease and on Chakotay in The Fight is very much uninspired.

The fifth season also marks the point at which the Borg Collective truly become a joke within the larger context of Voyager. In Drone, a transporter accident creates a super!Borg, which leads Voyager to get menaced by a Borg Sphere. The crisis provides the climax to the episode, but is handled in a very casual and off-hand manner. The Borg Collective is no longer the apocalyptic force that it was in Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II or Hope and Fear. Similarly, another Borg ship is casually dispatched at the very beginning of Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II.

Even beyond the neutering of the Borg as a threat, the fifth season leaned a little bit too heavily into what were already over-emphasised narrative tropes on Voyager. Earlier seasons of Voyager had leaned quite heavily on time travel, but often in the context of big event episodes. Barring the clumsiness of Time and Again, time travel was largely the focus of two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. (Although not technically time travel, there were shades of it to The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.)

The fifth season is a lot more casual in its use of time travel. Time travel is the central narrative device in the series’ landmark one-hundredth episode, Timeless, in which future versions of Kim and Chakotay try to wipe themselves from existence in what is also a recurring Voyager motif. It works very well in the context of that episode, but it is also used later in the season for Relativity. The issue is not that Relativity is bad; Relativity is bland and generic. However, it demonstrates that what was once a big “event” narrative device has become tired.

Time travel is not the only other blockbuster storytelling tool that feels overused in the fifth season. The fifth season blows up Voyager and kills Janeway no fewer than three times; Timeless, Course: Oblivion, Relativity. Of course, these are all alternate timelines or duplicates, but there is something rather unsatisfying in how casually Voyager plays that particular cast. Again, the destruction and reset of Voyager is nothing new in the context of the show; Braga codified in in Deadlock and Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. However, the fifth season is incredibly casual about it.

It is interesting to wonder whether these recurring annihilation fantasies reflect a number of deep-seated anxieties within Voyager. After all, Deep Space Nine was reaching the end of its seventh season, and Voyager would soon be the only Star Trek show on the air. That put a lot of pressure on Voyager, and it made sense that the series might buckle under the weight. More than that, the ratings decline that had been in motion since the end of The Next Generation was undeniable. For the first time in a long time, the Star Trek franchise was vulnerable. Did Voyager reflect that?

Even the original elements of the season are uninspiring. The fourth season introduced the Hirogen as new antagonists for the crew. While the creation of a predator species was hardly an innovative or radical science-fiction concept, the Hirogen were interesting in execution. They were introduced as a genuine mystery and menace in Message in a Bottle and Hunters, and anchored some of the season’s best storytelling in Prey or The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. More than that, their appearances were clustered, suggesting Voyager moving through their territory.

In contrast, the fifth season of Voyager introduces the Malon. The Malon are a rather unexciting concept, effectively villains from Captain Planet transposed into the twenty-fourth century. They are illegal dumpers with a broad capitalist ideology. They provide stock antagonists in Night and Extreme Risk, and a decoy antagonist in Think Tank. They receive some much-needed development towards the end of the season in Juggernaut, but it is far too little and too late. They are not a memorable addition to the canon, and it never seems like even the show itself is particularly interested.

The appearance of the Malon at opposite ends of the season conjures up memories of the improbably vast Kazon space from the first two seasons. Discounting the two-and-a-half thousand lightyear jump in Night, which should have brought them closer to Malon Prime, the rest of the season makes Malon space seem huge. Voyager jumps ten thousand lightyears in Timeless and twenty thousand in Dark Frontier, Part II. This means the ship covers more than thirty thousand light years between Extreme Risk and Juggernaut. That is half their journey home. And there are still Malon?

As trivial and irrelevant as this observation might sound, it captures the primary frustrations of the fifth season. There is a sense that Voyager is very much running in place, that the ship is no closer to home than it was in Caretaker, because the writers are just throwing up episodic stories with no tangible sense of progress or evolution. The Malon do not appear in Juggernaut because the writers have decided that Malon space is thirty thousand lightyears wide. They appear in Juggernaut because the writers decided the Malon were to be the recurring antagonists of the fifth season.

None of this is to discount the fact that there are good episodes in the fifth season. Taken on their own terms, many episodes of the fifth season are solid and enjoyable. A handful of them are even brilliant. Has Voyager ever produced four consecutive episodes that measure up to Counterpoint, Latent Image, Bride of Chaotica! and Gravity in terms of sheer quality? Course: Oblivion and Someone to Watch Over Me are among the best episodes that Voyager ever produced. Even Warhead is several steps up from its fourth season equivalent, Demon.

More than that, the fifth season demonstrates that there is considerable creative talent working on Voyager, even if they are shackled by the format of the show and the demands of the producers. Nick Sagan is a promising addition to the room, as demonstrated by his work on In the Flesh, Gravity and Course: Oblivion. Bryan Fuller is a phenomenal writer waiting to be unleashed, as demonstrated by his work on Bride of Chaotica!, Gravity and Course: Oblivion. Michael Taylor’s original pitches for Once Upon a Time and The Fight were brilliant.

There are moments when the fifth season of Voyager swings for the fences, but they are fleeting. Someone to Watch Over Me suggests a lighter and more character-driven Voyager, an interpersonal drama that doesn’t need a pseudo-science subplot to buoy it like The Swarm or Real Life. It is more akin to the narrative style of Deep Space Nine, and it works. 11:59 is clumsy and awkward, but at least it represents something novel and exciting. However, these episodes are the exception that prove the rule. Too much of the season around them is conventional and safe.

The vast majority of the fifth season of Voyager feels like “business as usual.” While Brannon Braga struggles to realise any of his bolder ideas of what Voyager should be, his recurring interests and fixations bleed through into the season as a whole. The overlap between memory and identity comes up time and time again in the fifth season, from Seven’s breakdown in Infinite Regress to the tinkering of EMH’s memory in Latent Image to the reveal of Janeway’s secret family history in 11:59 to the mangled history of Relativity to the eponymous weapon’s identity crisis in Warhead.

Similarly, the fifth season continues to blur the lines between reality and unreality. In the Flesh features a perfect replica of Starfleet Command in the Delta Quadrant. Counterpoint features various nested schemes and betrayals. A bunch of aliens become convinced that only the holodeck is real in Bride of Chaotica! A telepathic pitcher plant lures the crew into its grasp in Bliss. In Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, the Borg Queen suggests Seven was a deep-cover Borg operative all along. In The Fight, aliens communicate through memories and hallucinations.

These are all stock Voyager themes. More than that, these are all themes of specific interest to Brannon Braga as a writer and a producer. Braga’s influence on the show can be seen in the increased emphasis on these recurring tropes and conventions in the fifth season, casually scattered across the twenty-six episodes of the season. These concepts don’t add up to anything particularly meaningful or insightful, feeling like extensions of conceptual ground that Braga marked out in Projections. However, they are very much in keeping with his vision of the franchise.

It should be noted that the fifth season also marks the point at which the “blockbuster” impulse on Voyager kicks into overdrive. Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky had pioneered this approach with a series of epic-in-scope two-parters that formed makeshift television movies in the third and fourth seasons. (They also hinted at the approach in a couple of standalone episodes, like Macrocosm and Rise.) One of the more interesting aspects of Braga’s stewardship over Voyager‘s fifth and sixth seasons is that they actually feature fewer two-parters than the fourth or the seventh.

To be fair, at least part of that is down to the decision not to bridge the fourth and fifth seasons with a cliffhanger. So the fifth season only features one two-parter and a cliffhanger leading into the sixth season. (The third season as broadcast opens with the second half of a season-bridging two-parter and closes with the first half of another.) However, there is also a sense that Braga was trying to steer the show away from the epic two-parters that he codified during Jeri Taylor’s tenure.

It is not that Braga was trying to steer Voyager away from these blockbuster storytelling sensibilities. Quite the opposite. Although the fifth season features only one epic mid-season two-parter, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, it does feature a number of spectacle-driven single episodes. Episodes like TimelessThirty Days, Think Tank and Juggernaut all place an emphasis on scale and action that would have been impossible a few years earlier. Braga seemed to be arguing that individual episodes of Voyager should have been able to encapsulate that blockbuster aesthetic.

This is perhaps the fifth season in a nutshell, where the transition from Jeri Taylor to Brannon Braga is not demarcated by a seismic shift in authorship, but instead a subtle shift in focus. Voyager is still Voyager, just with a very slight change in emphasis. Business continues as usual. There are no alterations to the course.

6 Responses

  1. The writers of DS9 wanted the USS Sutherland to be a recurring “party ship”, but not can quite match the floating fun palace known as season three Voyager.

    That was all Taylor. In hindsight, Braga may have over-compensated a little to pack in all the carnage and excitement the fans were ‘owed’ after Basics.

    Who knows? It conflicts with Ron Moore’s version of events. He paints a portrait of a jobsworth who resented having to write other peoples’ characters into his otherwise fine concept episodes.

    Personally, I considered Braga to be a good ideas man who struggled with the human element, and Berman a good executive who perhaps lacked imagination and possibly fetishized TNG a bit too much. (I find it convenient that he stated his love of time travel episodes after the commercial success of First Contact.)

    • Yep. You get the sense that Berman and Braga was the worst possible combinations of their worst attributes; Berman being too conservative to encourage Braga to take risks, Braga being too inexperienced to push back against the boundaries imposed by his producer. They both worked very well with collaborators who pushed them; Berman is undoubtedly a vital part of the success of TNG and DS9, when he would be frequently challenged by more ambitious and experienced showrunners, while Braga worked at his best under showrunners who encouraged and supported him to go a little further like Piller and even Taylor.

      That said, I think the third season of Enterprise is proof of the kind of showrunner Braga could have been, had he been allowed a little more freedom or had a little more leverage. And it’s a good season.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog posts on the Star Trek universe. Rarely has anyone written so intelligently about this science fiction mythos.

    I was curious, you sometimes talk about those great “generic Star Trek” episodes we see in Voyager (Distant Origins, for example). Which episodes of Voyager are good because they actually embrace the potential of the show’s premise, which is typically ignored?

    • Thanks Nikolai.

      It’s an interesting question. There are probably a lot more “generic” episodes than “specific” episodes. If I were to pick a handful of episodes of Voyager that are enhanced by the setting, it’d be pretty small. There are a lot that nod to the premise, but could easily be reworked as generic Star Trek stories; the subplot in Darkling, the murder mayhem in Fair Trade.

      The big one is Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. It’s a story that can only be told with an isolated space ship in hostile territory, and doesn’t work if Janeway can call for support or back-up. (Indeed, if it were a more generic Star Trek story, it would probably look more like the Dominion War.)

      After that, the influences of the show’s premise on individual episodes are a bit more subtle. Counterpoint obviously relies on the show’s premise, Janeway having to travel through Devore space and being hopelessly outgunning, without a superior to direct her. It’s hard to imagine reworking that for The Next Generation or Enterprise, outside of maybe the third season of Enterprise. I think it’s subtly there in the background of Gravity, which is a story that can only work if you believe that Tuvok is separated from his wife and children for more than just the period where he’s stranded in the “sinkhole.” You could probably make Meld work for The Next Generation, but there are some interesting questions hanging in the background of the episode as a result of being a Voyager story, most obviously Tuvok’s discussion of justice and what that means on a ship like Voyager. (Of course, he’s out of his mind, but still.)

      Equinox, Part I is also certainly enhanced by the setting and premise, although Equinox, Part II never fulfils the potential of telling a story like that in this setting. It’s perhaps the sharpest drop in quality of a Voyager two-parter. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II are interesting. You could totally tell this story with Picard and Starfleet. Indeed, it might be more interesting with Picard and Starfleet. However, the contours of Voyager’s unique situation do add a charge to Janeway’s decision.

      Interestingly enough, there are a host of first and second season episodes under Piller that try to capitalise on the show’s unique setting, but just don’t work. You couldn’t do the Kazon arc on The Next Generation, for example, without radically altering it. I do wonder whether the quality of those kinds of stories would have improved if the production team had kept trying instead of giving up when they imploded in Investigations.

  3. I wonder why it is Jeri Taylor left the show, anyway? Given how invested she was in the characters, especially Janeway, and how she’d struggled to wrest control of the show from Michael Piller, I’d think she’d have tried to stay on to the end to keep navigating Voyager down her desired path.

    • I wish I knew. I’d love more inside information. However, even The 50-Year Voyage is very quiet on that topic, which is surprising how candid it is about almost everything else.

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