Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

Star Trek: Voyager – One Small Step (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager marks the end of the future.

Many fans would point to Star Trek: Enterprise as the moment that the larger Star Trek franchise turned its gaze backwards and embraced a sense of broad nostalgia for a future that was already behind that explored in the original series. After all, the last television series of the Berman era took the franchise back to its roots and paved the way for both J.J. Abrams’ pseudo-reboot in Star Trek and for Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman’s prequel in Star Trek: Discovery.

First (and Last) Flight.

However, this overlooks the importance of Voyager in signposting this shift. In some ways, Voyager represents the end of the final frontier. Chronologically speaking, Endgame is the last episode of the larger Star Trek franchise, the future beyond the finale explored only in Star Trek: Nemesis and as part of the back story to the rebooted Star Trek. Chronologically speaking, Voyager represents the last television series within the Star Trek universe. However, Voyager very carefully and very consciously seeds the nostalgia that would later envelope the franchise.

This is obvious in any number of ways. Voyager is a show that is literally about the desire to return home rather than to push forward. Caretaker established the show as an extended homage to fifties pulp storytelling. The politics of the series – reflected in episodes as diverse as Real Life, Displaced and Day of Honour – were decidedly conservative. Even the genre trappings of the series were often framed in terms of mid-twentieth century pulp fiction; the space lift in Rise, the broad allegory in Innocence, the atomic horror of Jetrel.

We come not to praise Voyager, but to bury it.

However, all of this is rooted in a very conscious yearning on the part of Voyager to connect to its roots. Numerous small scenes across the seven-season run of the show hint at this sentiment; Janeway discussing the romantic past in Flashback, the literal journey home in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the retrofuturism of Tom Paris’ various holoprogrammes, Janeway’s fascination with her long-lost ancestor in 11:59. There was a sense that Voyager was a series as intent on journeying backwards in time as much as space, even outside of its time travel obsession.

One Small Step stands out as one of the most obvious and blatant examples of this nostalgia within Voyager, in many ways feeling (like Friendship One in the subsequent season) like an attempt to seed the literal prequel that would materialise in Enterprise.

It turns out that John Kelly crossed over into a subspace anomaly drawn by Jack Kirby.

Voyager‘s nostalgia is an interesting aspect of the series. It is worth unpacking and exploring that sense of nostalgia and yearning. Is this something unique to Voyager, or does it reflect some broader cultural trend? Is it a fatal flaw, or the inevitable consequence of being the third live-action spin-off from a beloved science-fiction show premiered in the mid-sixties? It can be hard to parse, and it is often difficult to properly quantify and explain the sense of nostalgia that courses through Voyager. After all, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also had a strong connection to its past.

Ira Steven Behr was a huge fan of classic Hollywood, to the point that he even pitched several episodes as adaptations of classic films; Profit and Loss was Casablanca, Rules of Acquisition was Yentl, Meridian was Brigadoon, Fascination was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This investment in the past could be seen in the resurrection of three classic Klingons for Blood Oath or the revival of the mirror universe in Crossover, not to mention the recreation of classic Las Vegas in His Way or the decidedly retro baseball episode in Take Me Out To the Holosuite.

“Look, at the rate that Voyager loses shuttles, can we really afford to just leave this floating here?”

However, Deep Space Nine arguably tempered its nostalgia better than Voyager. It is telling, for example, that two of the three returning Klingons died at the end of Blood Oath; the survivor was eventually killed off at the end of Once More Unto the Breach. Although Deep Space Nine did a fantastic Star Trek homage in Trials and Tribble-ations, the production team infamously had to be talked into contributing to the thirtieth anniversary celebrations. Although Bashir loves his sixties fantasies, Sisko deconstructs those fantasies in Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang.

More than that, though, Deep Space Nine actually pushed forward while occasionally glancing back. These small nostalgic flourishes were very much the exception rather than the rule, and unfolded against the backdrop of some of the most ambitious and exciting storytelling in the history of the Star Trek franchise. Deep Space Nine might have been about a crew on a space station, but it boldly went where no Star Trek series had gone before. It is difficult to imagine Voyager attempting Necessary Evil, Explorers, The Visitor, Doctor Bashir, I Presume, Call to Arms, In the Pale Moonlight.

Reruns.

Voyager certainly wasn’t pushing the franchise forward. It was largely telling the same types of stories, using the familiar model that Michael Piller had helped to refine during the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Appropriately enough for a show about characters journeying from somewhere new to somewhere familiar, Voyager took a lot of comfort in the routine and the rote. Many episodes of Voyager could easily have been recycled from The Next Generation, with only a quick find-and-replace of the characters’ names.

The nostalgia that came to define Voyager might have been rooted in any number of factors. Most obviously, following on from The Next Generation, Voyager arguably entered the point at which the Star Trek franchise entered a decline that would culminate in the cancellation of Enterprise and a fourteen-year absence from television. The ratings declined sharply across the run. The vultures seemed to be circling in the press. With all of that in mind, it made sense that the production team on Voyager would look backwards to when the Star Trek franchise was successful.

Funeral for a franchise.

However, there was also a broader cultural context for this nostalgia and reflection. Voyager was very firmly anchored in the late nineties, in many encapsulating the idea of the decade as “the end of history.” With liberal democracy seemingly standing triumphant in this “unipolar moment”, it seemed difficult to imagine meaningful progress towards some aspirational future. The nineties seemed unstuck in time, an era without any clear direction or momentum on the cusp of a new millennium.

In a very literal sense, Voyager struggled to imagine a future for the Star Trek franchise that was meaningfully different than the present. Episodes like Timeless and Relativity suggested that Starfleet and the Federation would continue largely unchanged or unaffected by galactic politics, even as the Dominion War raged on Deep Space Nine. Indeed, Deep Space Nine argued repeatedly for change and evolution, even as it wound down; episodes like Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and What You Leave Behind hinted at future radically different than the present.

Same as it ever was.

Voyager perhaps reflected a culture of broad nostalgia that was taking root on the eve of a new century. Charlie Lyne speculates that this looming twenty-first century nostalgia is rooted as much in technology as in culture:

It’s not hard to imagine why ours might be a uniquely nostalgic era. The internet has concentrated our perception of what’s new, but it’s also given us countless ways to revisit the old. No longer is nostalgia something that catches us by surprise. Now it’s something we consciously seek out. Next time you’re out with a group of friends, try vaguely describing a cartoon from your childhood featuring a girl in a beret and her magic pencil. I guarantee you someone will be playing the Penny Crayon theme tune out of their phone before the evening’s up. Our pop-cultural past is now just a Google search away, and that immediacy has turned nostalgia into the dominant cultural force.

While the cultural ubiquity of Google was still a few years away as Voyager was wrapping up, the internet was allowing fans to connect with one another, to bond over dissections and discussions of shared interests. More than that, home media was going through a revolution with digital versatile discs, which made it easier to sell entire seasons of classic television series to audiences.

“Wait, you’re going back to the past of the future?”

Whatever the reason, nostalgia had clearly taken root within the Star Trek franchise. There were already rumours about the fifth live action Star Trek series, which had been spoken about as “Series V” in hushed tones since some time around the late fifth season of Voyager. Part of this was simple logic; Star Trek might have been in decline, but it was still too successful for Paramount to let it lie fallow when Voyager was retired at the end of its seventh season. As that seventh season approached, speculation and gossip spread like wildfire.

Heading into the sixth season of Voyager, Berman had argued that the new Star Trek show would be “dramatically different” from what came before. Very quickly, it was suggested that the fifth live action Star Trek show would be about “the Birth of the Federation”, with even Ronald D. Moore suggesting as much before the official announcement. News trickled out over the final years of Voyager, right down to confirmation that the series would explore the disastrous first contact between the Klingons and Starfleet.

“Allow me to pitch Chakotay: The Academy Years.”

Of course, the idea of doing a Star Trek prequel made perfect sense in the context of the time, and may even have been slightly ahead of the curve. The prequel boom arguably began with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in May 1999, but it soon seemed like every science-fiction franchise was doing prequels. Aliens vs. Predator was very much a prequel to Aliens and Predator, down to featuring a character who would inspire a generation of androids in the earlier (though chronologically later) films.

Terminator: Salvation was either a prequel or a sequel to the earlier Terminator films, depending on how audiences chose to look at it; Terminator: Genesys would be a more conventional reboot/rewrite of the franchise’s continuity. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes was a reboot of the iconic sixties science-fiction, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes would explicitly position itself as a prequel. Ridley Scott would develop a number of prequels to his iconic Alien, developing the back story of the universe in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

Getting past it.

This is to say nothing of a general sense of nostalgia creeping into pop culture in general, a yearning to return to the culture with which an older generation had come of age. Quoted in John Strausbaugh’s Rock ‘Til You Drop, Bill Repsher railed against what he perceived as the all-encompassing baby boomer nostalgia that had taken root in the nineties, refusing to cede the stage to the culture of a younger generation:

“I think the ultimate problem is boomer hubris – they can’t stand the idea that this ‘wild’ generation, the one that ran around getting stoned and F%!king in wheat fields, can’t possibly be topped by anything that follows,” he continued. “And, unfortunately, the idiots following you are sitting around pretending that everything they liked at the age of 16 is the coolest thing since Brando. It’s this sick youth culture we’ve constructed in post-war America that began with a bang and has turned into a pure money-making machine, the more slovenly and stupid the better.”

There is a certain sense of cultural panic to all this. After all, there is a cottage industry in pop cultural pundits decrying generations lost to nostalgia; Simon Reynolds’ Retromania is a fantastic read on its own terms, and a good example of this. However, there is some truth in the matter. After all, the original Star Trek, the version of the franchise chased by the franchise’s recent nostalgic impulses, is very much an example of baby boomer pop culture.

“The next greatest generation.”

As with Friendship One in the seventh season, it feels almost like One Small Step is consciously seeding the idea of Enterprise. Although not as overt, it is similar to the manner in which The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine seeded the Maquis leading into the first season of Voyager. In fact, it feels more calculated than the introduction of the Cardassians and the Bajorans during the middle seasons of The Next Generation in the lead-up to Deep Space Nine.

With One Small Step, Voyager invites viewers to step into a lacuna of Star Trek history. It is a story that is very much engaged with the gap exists between the present day and the utopian future associated with the Star Trek franchise. Of course, it should be noted that this is nostalgia rather than continuity, more engaged with the vague cultural memory of the franchise’s utopian future than the finer contours of its own richly-developed internal history.

Rock and roll?

Once again, Deep Space Nine provides an interesting contrast. In many ways, Deep Space Nine seemed particularly invested in the internal history of the Star Trek franchise rather than any real-world history. When Sisko, Dax and Bashir were thrown back in time in Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II, it was to an event vital to the evolution of the Federation. When Sisko travelled to the fifties in Far Beyond the Stars, he found himself positioned in the history of pulp fiction that very clearly led to the creation of the Star Trek franchise.

In contrast, Voyager‘s nostalgia is much more concerned with attempting to align the world of the audience with the world of the franchise, often glossing over the finer details of continuity in favour of some vaguely defined memory. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II unfolded in Los Angeles in the late nineties, with no reference to the Eugenics Wars as established in Space Seed. The deep space mission in One Small Step would have been contemporaneous with the Third World War in Star Trek continuity, but the episode never even alludes to it.

“Hey, it’s a world war, right?”

As Duncan Barrett and Michèle Barrett point out in The Human Frontier, episodes like these could be read as more keenly engaged with the audience’s future than the franchise’s past:

In many ways, we can see One Small Step – in its attempts to bridge the gap between the future crews of Starfleet and our own (broadly speaking) contemporary astronauts (something not really attempt in Star Trek since The Original Series) – as paving the way for Enterprise, which also relies on ‘futuristic nostalgia’ to present a time that is at once past and future: the past of Star Trek as we know it (the show takes place a hundred years before the time of Kirk and Spock) and the future from the perspective of the viewer. Indeed, although the show was billed quite explicitly as a prequel when it was first broadcast, many fans were frustrates at its refusal (until the final season, at least) to meaningfully tie-in to The Original Series. In many ways, the design of the show (for example, the crew’s uniforms and the use of contemporary LCD monitors) seems more redolent of the real world than the imaginative, and stylised, world of Star Trek. Thus, some fans have argued that Enterprise is better understood as ‘a sequel for us’ than as a prequel to The Original Series.

It is a very strange tightrope for the Star Trek franchise to walk, as if needing to explain how the audience’s future and the franchise’s future might ever align again.

“Hey, he can get UPN out here!”

There is a sense of retrofuturism to all of this, a strange paradoxical pull that traps the Star Trek franchise between the future and the past. It no longer seems enough to imagine the future might be, the production team instead asking the audience to remember what the future once was. “The future will be better tomorrow,” suggests a quote often attributed to Vice-President Dan Quayle. However, Voyager increasingly seems to suggest that the future was better yesterday.

Of course, the utopian future of Star Trek had always been imaginary, but this fixation on prequels and futuristic nostalgia added another layer of abstraction to the process. Popular culture seemed unable to dream of a better future, and instead had to remember what it was like to dream of that idealised world. The future of the Star Trek franchise seemed one step further removed from contemporary audiences. As the Star Trek franchise turned back into itself, it felt very much like a retreat.

A gravitonne of foreshadowing.

Perhaps this additional distance was tied to a deeper anxiety, one reflected in later stories that suggested the utopian Star Trek future was no longer assured to audiences; arcs the Temporal Cold War, stories like Babel One, United and The Aenar, films like Star Trek Into Darkness. As Devon Maloney noted in discussing the explosion of science-fiction prequels, the near future is perhaps a lot easier for modern audiences to accept than some distant possibility:

In this era of rapidly encroaching climate change, nuclear threats, and relatively negligible success in achieving anything even close to space travel, it’s harder than ever to believe in the extended future of the human race, let alone predict what it might look like thousands of years from now. Today, many of the technological promises of classic science fiction have come true. We have mountains of empirical evidence of our ability to turn science fiction into science fact. But with idealism has also come the dystopian: intentionally or not, our efforts to realize our flashy dreams of smartphones, AI assistants, and one-hour grocery delivery have also realized the economic and racial inequality foreseen by stories like The Hunger Games, the concern over eugenics spotlighted in Brave New World, and the catastrophic climate change predicted in Blade Runner. The future of our species is in question like never before, which has made farsighted optimism an unusual challenge. When tangible signs of humanity’s collapse are omnipresent, it can feel impossible to imagine humans surviving the next hundred years, let alone emerging into a utopic technological wonderland in the 26th century. This goes for consumers just as much as creators; truly imaginative futures like that of Valerian, for example, bomb with audiences for being too far-flung without real critical purpose. They’re untethered and tone-deaf to the existential issues we’re facing in this very instant.

It should be noted that this obsession with remembering a better future also overlapped at a cultural moment when it seemed like popular culture was increasingly obsessed with dystopia. Science-fiction is still producing new and compelling worlds, it just so happens that many of them were horrific and unsettling. Hope is an increasingly rare commodity, even in science-fiction. It often seems that the best that pop culture can do is to remember hope.

Getting past this.

One Small Step is very explicit in its pop cultural nostalgia, with the episode explicitly casting the Voyager crew as deep space cultural archeologists. “If scientific knowledge was all we were after, then the Federation would have built a fleet of probes, not starships,” Janeway explains to Seven. “Exploration is about seeing things with your own eyes. In this case, we’re exploring the past.” This feels entirely in keeping with the general attitude of Voyager. Janeway got to explore the twenty-third century with her eyes (or mind) in Flashback, and to investigate her ancestor in 11:59.

It could be argued that Seven’s character arc over the seven seasons of Voyager represents its own nostalgia. Unlike Data in The Next Generation, Seven is not trying to discover who she is. Seven is explicitly trying to recapture who she was, to reengage with a humanity that was stripped from her. Unlike the EMH, Seven is not trying to become something new. Episodes like Scorpion, Part II and The Raven emphasis Seven’s lost childhood as Annika Hansen. In fact, her memories play out in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II.

It doesn’t scan.

One Small Step even frames this desire to engage with the past in terms of Seven’s character arc. “As a Borg, you didn’t study the past, you ingested it,” Janeway informs her protege. “You’ve never really developed an appreciation for humanity’s history. Maybe this is an opportunity to do some exploring of your own.” The crew’s attempt at cultural archeology is suggested as something more profoundly personal for Seven of Nine, an act of personal archeology and a chance for her to reconnect with some lost humanity.

One Small Step even hints at the flip side of nostalgia, which is often about more than just glamourising (or retreating into) the past. In Low Life, Luc Sante defined “nostalgia” as “state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future”, suggesting that this longing for a long lost past was mirrored in a vague feeling of disdain for the modern world. There is a sense that the past is better than the present or the future, that modern (and future) generations cannot possibly measure up to their predecessors.

Deep Space Syndication.

There is a sense of self-loathing in the way that One Small Step valourises the past. Paris and Chakotay discuss the history of space flight, dismissing their own experiences in this effusive praise. “That’s dedication,” Chakotay states. “The man’s life is about to end, but he won’t stop taking readings.” Paris reflects, “Makes you wonder if those old-timers were made of sterner stuff than we are.” Chakotay asks, “You think we have it easy?” Paris responds, “Are you kidding? Warp drive, shields, transporters. We’re traveling in the lap of luxury.”

In the context of the Star Trek franchise, this argument makes little sense. In the decade prior to One Small Step, the Federation had endured no shortage of horrors; the infiltration of the parasites in Conspiracy, the Borg invasion in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, the Klingon conflict following The Way of the Warrior, the Starfleet coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost, the Dominion War that began in Call to Arms. These are merely the societal threats; episodes like The Naked Now, Contagion and Empok Nor affirm that space is still a risky business.

I mean, c’mon. Kelly only had to deal with one giant space whale. Voyager bumps into roughly one a year.

Even just in the context of Voyager, a show largely insulated from these catastrophes, this seems like a strange argument to make. Countless members of the crew have perished during this long journey home, often in horrific ways. A significant portion of the cast was brutally killed off in Caretaker;  Durst had his face carved off in Faces; Hogan was eaten by a giant lizard in Basics, Part II; Bandera was killed by the Kazon in Alliances; Bennet died in a shuttlecraft in Innocence; Martin was murdered by a possessed Kes in Warlord.

This is already a much higher rate of fatality than any period of the space race, even without factoring in the weird stuff that the crew has to deal with on a weekly basis. Paris was transformed into a salamander in Threshold; the crew were stranded on a hostile world in Basics, Part I, were attacked by giant sentient viruses in Macrocosm and were subject to genetic experimentation in Scientific Method. This is to say nothing of the existential anxieties presented by episodes like Deadlock and Timeless, or the trauma of stories like The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

“I also never had to endure Spirit Folk.”

In the context of the Star Trek franchise, this nostalgia makes no sense. It would seem that those early pioneers were the ones who actually had it easy, at least compared to the characters who find themselves subjected to twenty-six adventures a year for seven years at a time. Of course, this obvious affection for a long-lost past often has very little to do with the realities of the present. In One Small Step, this nostalgia feels like something of a clumsy cop-out from the writers, using this romanticisation of the past as an opportunity to let Voyager off the hook for some of its biggest issues.

In some ways, this conversation between Paris and Chakotay feels like Voyager acknowledging one of the most persistent criticisms of the series, the tendency of the characters on Voyager to resolve the threat of the week through the liberal application of techno-babble. Watching Voyager, it can often feel like there is no problem that cannot be solved by the application of the right vaguely scientific-sounding words in the right order. As a show set in the twenty-third and twenty-fourth century, Star Trek often had to make up science, but Voyager often treated this as a crutch.

“Dammit. If only he had thought to tech the tech.”

On the surface, an appeal to the past could be seen to acknowledge this criticism. Paris and Chakotay seem to be longing for a return to the time when there were no magic “deflector shields” or “photon torpedoes” to solve problems, and the characters had to rely on practical experience to deal with challenges. There is something comforting in this idea, and it seems to outline some of the superficial appeal of a prequel television series. Going back to the past would allow the Star Trek franchise to avoid the swamp of “transwarp drive” or “subspace corridors” or other lifeless mumbo jumbo.

However, there is a very obvious problem with this. The techno-babble was never the real problem with Voyager. After all, both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine relied on techno-babble from time-to-time. The issue was how the writers on Voyager chose to apply the techno-babble. After all, the Star Trek universe is not a real place, it is entirely constructed. The only reason for the characters to use techno-babble as a miraculous crutch to resolve a given episode’s plot is because the writers chose to put it in the script.

“Well, at least this is still more compelling than the second season of Enterprise.”

This is quite apparent when the same production team would actually attempt to recapture that lost and nostalgic past in Enterprise. On paper, Enterprise offered a perfect opportunity to prove Paris and Chakotay’s argument, to demonstrate how the early pioneers of space travel were truly roughing it. Instead, Enterprise quickly fell back on the same tired clichés of twenty-fourth century Star Trek, just swapping “phasers” for “phase pistols” and “tractor beams” for “grappler hooks.” In Broken Bow, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga wrote out “war, disease, hunger” in a single line.

This demonstrates both the false comforts of nostalgia and how poorly Voyager had identified its own central flaws. It was entirely possible for Voyager to make a convincing argument for its central characters as “pioneers”, to make their voyage as perilous as those undertaken by early explorers. However, this had nothing to do with the fact that series unfolded in the fictional twenty-fourth century as opposed to the fictional twenty-third or the fictional twenty-second. Instead, it reflected the weaknesses of the writing staff, and their own creative shortcomings.

The final frontier.

That said, One Small Step‘s nostalgia for the space programme is quite interesting. After all, Star Trek has a long shared history with NASA, and One Small Step can be seen as part of that. The episode arrived at an interesting time in the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In the early nineties, there was a clear sense that NASA was past its prime. As Peter Carlson reflected in May 1993:

In the spring of 1993, NASA somehow seemed like an old home-run king who’s past his prime, going flabby in the gut and creaky in the legs, on and off the disabled list, hitting .220, and yet still capable, at some dramatic moment, of launching one, sending it into orbit, thrilling the crowd, bringing back memories of the magnificence of his youth.

And how magnificent NASA was in its youth! It was the home of the Right Stuff, the agency that performed feats out of science fiction. It launched Mariner 10 past Mercury and Venus. It landed Viking 2 on the surface of Mars. It shot Voyager 2 more than 2 billion miles into space, past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, sending back stunning color pictures of previously unseen worlds. It sent Pioneer 10 right out of the solar system and into interstellar space. And, of course, it put men on the moon and brought them safely home. Six times.

NASA is the only civilian agency of the federal government that has attained the status of legend, the only one that has inspired ticker tape parades. NASA made the astronaut and the shuttle symbols of America, like the cowboy and the Statue of Liberty. Even now, when NASA has become a punching bag for politicians and a punch line for comedians, more than 8 million people swarm into the National Air and Space Museum every year while tens of thousands attend space camps and crowd Florida highways to watch shuttle launches.

The space program is an odd mixture of myth and reality, nostalgia and futurism, idealism and cynicism, adventure and bureaucracy, and I was curious to take a closer look. Of course, I wasn’t alone. For years, NASA has been studied by countless panels and task forces and committees and commissions that have issued reports with titles like “Leadership and the Future in Space” and “Toward a New Era in Space.” But I was interested in something different. I wanted to get the feel of the space program, to see if the magic was still there, to plot the border between the legend and the reality. And to find out how we’d gone from the First Man on the Moon to the Last Action Hero.

NASA suffered from a loss in credibility and public interest during the nineties, the public seemingly drifting away from an agency that could no longer offer the sort of groundbreaking spectacle that it had accomplished by placing a man on the moon in the late sixties. The X-Files touched on this diminishing interest in Space. The Simpsons riffed on the challenges facing the agency in Deep Space Homer.

Ares and graces.

In the late nineties, NASA attempted to recapture some of that public attention by setting its sights on Mars. The Pathfinder mission was launched in December 1996, aiming to explore Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. The probe landed on Mars in July 1997 and began broadcasting the first colour pictures from the surface of the planet. NASA even made a point to share these images with the public online, streaming them via their website. It was a tremendous accomplishment.

It seems likely that this mission explains the renewed interest in Mars in pop culture at the turn of the millennium. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars would be released in March 2000. Red Planet would follow shortly in November 2000. John Carpenter would offer something decidedly pulpier with Ghosts of Mars in August 2001. Even Voyager seemed very invested in Mars. Significant portions of Relativity unfolded at Utopia Planitia, orbitting the red planet. One Small Step dramatised an early mission to Mars. Even Pathfinder would borrow the name of the NASA project.

Personal space.

As Jason Callahan argues, the late nineties suggested the possibility that humanity might possibly expand beyond the surface of Earth:

By the second half of the 1990s, planetary science experienced a moderate increase in funding, resulting in an increased flight rate for new missions. A new generation of space enthusiasts marveled at the first photographs from Mars in more than a decade as NASA distributed video from the Mars Pathfinder’s rover Sojourner over an increasingly popular internet. Pathfinder was the first mission of the incredibly successful Discovery program, focused on small planetary missions. NASA also launched the flagship mission Cassini, which became the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and is still operating today. During the 1990s, planetary science represented 33 percent of the space science budget, and 4 ½ percent of NASA’s total budget.

While this renewed interest never hit quite the peak of the moon landing, it did seem to raise NASA’s public profile.

On the record.

Of course, it was not all smooth sailing. There was still a sense that NASA was an organisation facing any number of operational obstacles in its efforts to extend mankind’s reach into the cosmos. NASA found itself operating on an incredibly tight budget, forced to cut corners and to take risks in order to pursue its stated goals. The organisation lacked the sort of resources necessary to mount a credible expedition to the red planet, even contracting out the shuttle programme to private operators. Indeed, the Mars programme would feature a number of humiliating public setbacks.

In some ways, going into the later nineties, it seemed like the fates of Star Trek and NASA were intertwined. Both institutions seemed to find themselves facing existential crises, particularly when it came to offering a future vision that might align with past promises. To a certain extent, the role of NASA in human space flight has been somewhat usurped by private companies. There is a corporate space race taking place at the moment, with companies (more than governments) competing to land humans on Mars.

“Hm. I guess nobody showed Kelly how to use the reset button.”

One Small Step is notable as the second (and final) episode of Voyager to be directed by Robert Picardo. Picardo had directed the somewhat forgettable Alter Ego during the show’s third season. Discussing the episode with Cinefantastique, Picardo mused that he found himself operating under considerable pressure:

“I was very proud of that. That was probably the more exhausting experience, because you are exercising areas of your brain that you don’t have to as an actor. You have to keep so many balls in the air, directing. We get the material late, so you are thinking so much at the last minute, and so quickly. But with what limited prep time you have when you finally get the material, you really have to do a lot of visualizing… take the overview position and say, ‘How can I tell this best? How can I make it exciting and arresting to look at?’ [That’s] just something that I am not used to doing. It takes extra time, and there was no time.”

One Small Step is structured so as to minimise the involvement of the EMH, who appears fleetingly in the episode – he has one big conversation with Seven, and appears again briefly as Chakotay listens to Seven’s eulogy at the end of the episode.

The direct approach.

The pressures described by Picardo fit with the chaos behind the scenes on the sixth season of Voyager, with the production team scrambling to keep things on an even heel in the midst of a tumultuous period. Ronald D. Moore had left abruptly two-and-a-half episodes into the season, and Kenneth Biller had been desperately drafted in to help right the ship. Alice was thrown together to fill a production gap; Dragon’s Teeth had been planned as a feature-length episode, but was abruptly shortened to forty-five minutes.

Indeed, One Small Step is a disjointed and uneven episode of television, one that often feel sutured together from a number of different concepts. As with a lot of Voyager scripts – from Worst Case Scenario to Demon – the episode plays out in such a way that it feels like the production team is desperately scrambling to fill the prescribed run time. While there is a clear arc to the episode, and a fairly logical character angle into that plot, One Small Step bounces from one plot point to the next.

This is most obvious in how the episode chooses to focus on Kelly’s time on the Ares IV module. Survival Instinct is hardly the most graceful of flashback episodes, given the transparent plot mechanics used to justify structuring the flashbacks throughout the episode. Nevertheless, it feels much more sophisticated than the storytelling in One Small Step. Rather than weaving them through the scenes on Voyager to parallel Kelly and the crew, One Small Step clumsily dumps most of Kelly’s scenes in one extended ten-minute sequence towards the end of the episode.

The result is that Kelly feels like a phantom presence for most of the episode before being thrust into the spotlight at the climax. One Small Step opens with a teaser focused on Kelly, but he is only glimpsed in recordings as Voyager mounts its recovery mission of the Ares IV. However, the episode then jumps back in time to explore Kelly’s time inside “the graviton eclipse” as Seven beams on board the Ares IV to salvage the “ion distributor” from the older craft. This is a poor narrative choice on a number of levels.

“Hm. I guess there are aliens. Okay.”

Most obviously, the audience has no firm emotional connection with Kelly before suddenly being thrown into his last days on a lost craft. Due to the limited space available, Kelly’s arc feels compressed. Phil Morris is a wonderful and charismatic performer, but he is being asked to do something impossible. Over the space of a single act, One Small Step confronts Kelly with a strange anomaly, the existence of aliens, a failed escape attempt, and the slow acknowledgement of his own death. These beats could sustain a whole episode, and feel crammed into a single act.

The issue is compounded by the fact that this entire story plays out during what should be the climax of the story involving the Voyager characters. Seven is engaged on a risky mission to save the Delta Flyer. Indeed, Paris even makes a point to stress that they are working to a deadline, advising her, “Make it quick. We’ve got less than fifteen minutes.” As such, jumping back in time to spend an extended flashback with a character that the audience knows to be long dead saps any sense of momentum from the episode.

“Well, at least I’m well-rested for my big episode!”

Interestingly, and perhaps another example of how the compressed production schedule affected the episode, One Small Step was originally intended as a Chakotay-centric episode. However, as the story and script developed, emphasis shifted away from Chakotay and towards Seven of Nine. As Robert Beltran confessed to Cult Times Magazine:

“That’s the dangerous thing about talking to me about this sixth season, because I’m on vacation now, and it was like taking a huge yoke off of my shoulders, because I didn’t have fun this sixth season. It was pretty dreary and tedious for me. And I can’t speak for some of the others, but I have a feeling it was the same for some of the others in the cast. I don’t have many memories of the sixth season that are positive and that I can say were worthy of [praise], because I don’t remember very many of them at all.”

And those that were notable each time veered off into the territory of Janeway or Seven. On One Small Step, for example which was originally scripted as a journey of self-exploration for Chakotay, the focus then switched to Seven of Nine. “Everybody was so impressed and saying what a great script it was; I wasn’t so impressed with it, because it ends up the same way – Seven of Nine saves the day, and Chakotay’s prostrate on the bed and impotent, not able to do anything. It ultimately became all about Seven of Nine appreciating something that she hadn’t appreciated before. And how many times have we all seen that? So to me, it was the same thing dressed up in a different cloth.”

Beltran’s increasingly public frustration with Voyager would become one of the more memorable aspects of the production, with the actor taking every opportunity to complain about how he had been shortchanged by the writing staff. (To be fair, he was not the only unhappy actor on the cast. Even Mulgrew had considered quitting the show during the fifth season.)

Somehow, this is exactly how I imagined Chakotay spent his downtime.

To a certain extent, the viewer can watch this shift in emphasis happen over the course of One Small Step. The episode opens with a delightful scene focusing on Chakotay in his quarters while off-duty, only for the computer to go completely crazy around him. (This is not only a cute sequence of itself, but it plays into the episode’s nostalgia; Kelly never had to deal with such mild annoyances from such advanced technology.) There is something strangely charming in the idea of Chakotay, the blandest character on Voyager, unable to sit down with cup of cocoa and what looks like a coffee table book.

Indeed, One Small Step initially sets itself up as a Chakotay-driven episode. When Janeway embraces the idea of recovering the lost Ares IV from the “graviton ellipse”, she points out, “We’re going to need a mission leader.” Chakotay responds, “I volunteer.” Janeway nods, “I thought you might. Let’s do it.” Chakotay’s enthusiasm and excitement for the mission seems to drive the episode. Even though this is another hobby that seems to come out of nowhere, his interest in early space travel is not as jarring as his interest in boxing in The Fight.

The Fight Stuff.

In fact, it is Chakotay who ultimately makes the mistake that leaves the Delta Flyer trapped inside the “graviton ellipse”, his obsession with recovering the Ares IV leading him to push the mission further than practical. In a standard Star Trek episode, Chakotay would have a very clear character arc. Chakotay would learn not to let his obsessions get the better of him, and would learn to accept that sometimes the past is not recoverable. One Small Step hints at a fairly solid Chakotay-centric episode, something in the mould of Nemesis.

However, One Small Step takes a number of sharp left turns to take the focus away from Chakotay and place it squarely on Seven of Nine. Immediately after allowing Chakotay to lead the team, Janeway effectively forces Seven to “volunteer” for the mission. When the away team are inside the anomaly, Paris and Chakotay offer detailed and enthusiastic observations about the contents of the “graviton ellipse”, Janeway has one pressing question, “What do you make of it, Seven?”

“Um, I’m sorry. This is supposed to be my episode?”

This focus on Seven of Nine is frustrating for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, Seven of Nine is massively over-exposed as a character at this point in the run. The character’s gravity seems to distort episodes around her, to the point that she steals focus even within ensemble episodes. She receives her own arc in Equinox, Part II and her minor decision at the start of Dragon’s Teeth is the focus of the episode’s final scene. In fact, One Small Step comes sandwiched between both Dragon’s Teeth and The Voyager Conspiracy, two other Seven-heavy stories.

One Small Step is a minor variation on a recurring theme, with Janeway effectively forcing Seven of Nine to embrace some lost aspect of her humanity. The suggestion that Janeway has to force Seven to acknowledge her humanity has been repeatedly explored, most notably in episodes like The Gift, Prey and Hope and Fear. Indeed, the idea of Seven excavating her connection to humanity has already been the subject of episodes like The Raven, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II.

“No, really. This is supposed to be my episode.”

More to the point, Seven makes a fairly underwhelming protagonist for an episode like this. One Small Step is supposed to be about the wonder of mankind’s journey into the cosmos, with the characters taking the opportunity to appreciate the incredible accomplishments of the astronauts who journeyed beyond Earth in search of something more. This is an episode that needs an enthusiastic and excited protagonist, a character whose optimism and interest can carry the audience along, infecting the viewer. Chakotay’s enthusiasm for the mission seems genuine.

In contrast, Seven of Nine spends most of One Small Step resenting the assignment, acting like a spoiled child who has been asked to finish up an important piece of homework. More to the point, there is something deeply frustrating in the way that Janeway “encourages” her to volunteer for a mission in which she has little interest. Rather than allowing the audience to embrace Chakotay’s genuine excitement at the mission, One Small Step instead forces the audience to watch Janeway impose her interests upon Seven of Nine.

“Fine. Wake me up for the next big blockbuster two-parter.”

As such, One Small Step feels more like a chore than a shared interest. It is not the excitement of watching somebody speak with passion about what holds their interest, it is the dread of being cornered at a party by somebody who insists that you really must share their taste for something. Of course, One Small Step culminates in Seven learning to appreciate the ambition of Ares IV and the bravery of John Kelly, but this only happens at the end of the episode. Indeed, the handling of the Kelly-centric subplot does little to help the audience share Seven’s affection.

Interestingly, One Small Step seems to tease Beltran’s frustration at being usurped from his own episode. “Ironic,” Chakotay muses as Seven journeys over to the Ares IV. “You’re doing what I’ve always dreamt of.” Studying the data of the anomaly, Chakotay muses, “I could spend a lifetime studying the things it’s collected.” Seven responds, “And leave Voyager without a First Officer?” Chakotay replies, without any obvious bitterness, “They’d manage.” There is something darkly comic in how One Small Step allows Chakotay to acknowledge his own uselessness.

“I think we all learned an important lesson today. Like how useless it is to try to base an episode around Chakotay.”

One Small Step is an underwhelming episode that wallows in nostalgia. Ironically, in doing so, it seems to tease a glimpse of the franchise’s future.

Advertisements

2 Responses

  1. You forgot the twist in this episode: Seven wanted to grow up to be a ballerina.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: