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Star Trek: Voyager – Pathfinder (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has always had an awkward relationship with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was always the rebellious middle-child, prone to make bold and defiant gestures like blowing up a surrogate of the Enterprise in The Jem’Hadar, bringing Jonathan Frakes back to play Riker’s evil transporter duplicate in Defiant, and have former Enterprise crew member Chief Miles Edward O’Brien praise Sisko as the best captain in the fleet in The Adversary. It was a television series that was dedicated to defining its own unique identity, and at least some of that identity was defined in opposition to its direct predecessor.

Taking his Neelix.

In contrast, Voyager always felt a little more desperate, a little too eager to assert its connection to The Next Generation and to insist upon itself as a spiritual successor to that beloved (and incredibly successful) series. Despite the fact that Voyager was set primarily in the Delta Quadrant, the series never missed an opportunity to crossover with The Next Generation. Barclay appeared as a hologram in Projections, Riker was summoned across the universe in Death Wish, LaForge was rendered a captain in the future presented in Timeless.

This is to say nothing of the minor crossovers taken at every available opportunity; the use of Q and the Borg Queen among the relatively small number of recurring guest stars, the original plan to build 11:59 around Guinan, the decision to produce the dire False Profits as a sequel to the dire The Price. Repeatedly over the show’s run, Voyager feels very much like a young child digging through its elder sibling’s wardrobe for something that might possible be claimed as a hand-me-down. It is depressing, particularly considering the raw potential that was baked into the premise of Voyager.

Course correction.

Pathfinder is perhaps the apex of this approach. It is effectively a stealth episode of The Next Generation, packaged and released under the Voyager brand. The primary plot of Pathfinder focuses on two characters from The Next Generation sitting around and talking about how great Voyager is, with one of those characters even escaping into a holographic fantasy of life on board the ship to help him think. In many ways, Pathfinder could be seen to prefigure These Are the Voyages…, the catastrophic finale to Star Trek: Enterprise that borrowed the same template and somehow pushed it even further.

There is a smell of desperation about Pathfinder. Whatever the plot of the episode might suggest, Voyager feels more lost than ever.

The Last Generation.

There is a sense of resignation in the final seasons of Voyager. It is not merely that the show’s best years are behind it, but the potential of those years has also been lost to time. Once it emerged from its traumatic two opening seasons, Voyager never pushed itself particularly hard, accepting that “good enough” was good enough. As such, the sixth and seventh seasons of Voyager occasionally feel like they are coasting, moving forward under nothing but the thrust of those earlier years, finding comfort in the certainty of a seven-season run.

To be clear, the Star Trek franchise was not in a particularly happy place. Star Trek: Insurrection had underwhelmed both critically and commercially, securing its position as the second-lowest-grossing Star Trek film at time of its release. The vultures were circling. The fan press seized upon the departure of Ronald D. Moore at the start of Voyager‘s sixth season as proof that the franchise was in terminal decline. The outside press had even begun to notice signs of fatigue setting in.

“But it’s okay. I’m sure that the next movie featuring the Next Generation cast will be better.”

With that in mind, it makes sense that Voyager would retreat to the comforts of nostalgia that inform this weird sixth season triptych; the memories of NASA’s “new frontier” in One Small Step, the attempts to thread a singular continuity with The Voyager Conspiracy, the shameless efforts to recapture the glories of The Next Generation in Pathfinder. When the future seems hostile and antagonistic, the past seems welcoming by comparison. More than a year before the broadcast of Broken Bow, the Star Trek franchise had already begun looking longingly to its own past.

Interestingly, Pathfinder reaffirms the idea that the Voyager crew are largely incidental to the show itself; cogs in a narrative machine rather than fully formed and developed characters. It is interesting how many episodes of Voyager consciously sideline the crew, whether by featuring doppelgangers and stand-ins or by rendering them guest stars in another story; Distant Origin, Living Witness, Course: Oblivion. This is to say nothing of episodes that feature versions of the characters reset by history, their experiences wiped and erased at the end of the story; Time and Again, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, Timeless.

You were never really here.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with this. After all, beginning with its third season in episodes like Remember and The Chute, Voyager made a conscious effort to pitch itself as the most “archetypal” of Star Trek series, more a vehicle to tell Star Trek stories than a series with its own distinct identity. Particularly compared to series like The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, the characters on Voyager often seemed interchangeable. They were blank slates, to be manipulated as the plot demanded. This explained Janeway’s inconsistent characterisation, to pick one small example.

As such, it is not particularly unusual for Pathfinder to marginalise Voyager‘s primary cast. For most of Pathfinder‘s runtime, the actors only appear playing broadly sketched holographic versions of themselves, recalling the set-up of Living Witness. The flesh-and-blood versions of the characters only appear in the closing moments of the episode, as the guest stars desperately reach out to them in an effort to establish communication, recalling the ending of Course: Oblivion. So Pathfinder is not unique in terms of basic premise and structure.

A lot to unpack here.

However, what distinguishes Pathfinder is how it chooses to employ these elements. Pathfinder is very different from episodes like Distant Origin, Living Witness or Course: Oblivion. It is not a broad science-fiction story that happens to be told using these characters in an archetypal fashion. Instead, Pathfinder is trying to be something very specific. It is not a science-fiction story that happens to feature the Voyager cast, it is very much an attempt to extend The Next Generation that just happens to use Voyager as a vehicle.

This is quite clear from the scenes book-ending the episode. The opening scene finds Counselor Deanna Troi visiting Lieutenant Reginald Barclay on Earth. The Enterprise just happens to be in orbit, and Barclay just happens to need a sounding board. Barclay then recounts the story of his current existential crisis, which provides the meat of the story. There is something very cynical in this storytelling, most obviously in the weird decision to open the story in media res without any justification.

“Yes, this is the opening scene.”

Voyager has a history of adopting this approach with no real justification, particularly in its later seasons; Thirty Days, The Fight, The Haunting of Deck 12.  The conceit usually feels like an attempt to pad a script out to fill forty-five minutes of television, and an effort to front-load a potentially interesting set-up ahead of several acts of underwhelming set-up. The framing device in Pathfinder serves a slightly different purpose. It is primarily a way of foregrounding the aspects of the episode that the production team feel are important: Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi.

Watching Pathfinder, one detail of the episode becomes very clear very quickly: there is absolutely no reason why this story needs Deanna Troi, and the framing device exists largely to justify her inclusion in the narrative. Indeed, there are several points within the episode when it seems like Pathfinder is suggesting that Troi might be a holographic character created by Barclay to help him articulate his feelings and to indulge his nostalgia. However, Pathfinder consciously avoids that reveal, in a manner that is very telling. To Pathfinder, Troi is a lot more real than the characters on Voyager.

The Dwight Schultz.

To be fair, Pathfinder is using an established television playbook, hoping to reel in audience members with “stunt casting” in an effort to boost ratings. It happens all the time, particularly during the quarterly “sweeps”, when networks are trying to draw bigger audiences to help them set advertising fees for the coming season. Star Trek itself is no stranger to stunt casting. The third season of the original Star Trek featured Frank Gorshin in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, and Lee Meriwether in That Which Survives. The Next Generation had Paul Sorvino in Homeward.

In fact, Voyager has had its own share of stunt casting, to the point that Voyager arguably has the highest concentration of recognisable one-shot guest stars in the franchise; Michael McKean in The Thaw, Joel Grey in Resistance, Ed Begley Junior in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, John Savage in Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II, Dwayne Johnson in Tsunkatse. However, even allowing for all of this, there is something different about the use of Troi in Pathfinder.

Looking for a fresh angle.

After all, Marina Sirtis is hardly a household name. Even among cast members of The Next Generation, Sirtis is hardly top-tier. However, the “stunt-casting” in Pathfinder is not “Marina Sirtis.” It is “Counselor Deanna Troi” and all that she represents. It is a tangible connection to The Next Generation. Indeed, it is telling how frequently and thoroughly Pathfinder name-drops elements from The Next Generation. The teaser includes references to “Geordi” and “Data”, while Troi later references “Captain Picard.” (In fact the trailer really capitalised on that name drop. “I’ve decided to ask Captain Picard for help.”)

It should be noted that there is no reason why Pathfinder needs Troi. This is a story that would work just as well, if not better, without Troi’s involvement. Indeed, the structure of the story is strange and disorienting purely because it is designed to bookend with scenes between Barclay and Troi. The bulk of the story effectively unfolds through flashback, with Barclay clumsily narrating his story to an old friend who just happened to be around.

“This is absolutely, undoubtedly, completely the first time that I have even heard the name Barclay, Captain.”

It undercuts the idea of Barclay’s social isolation, and somewhat devalues Paris’ toast to “the newest honorary member of the Voyager crew.” After all, Barclay formed a connection to those travelers half the galaxy away because he felt lonely. The episode’s climactic suggestion that Barclay was not just howling into the void, that his imaginary friends can hear him too, is undermined by the fact that Barclay is telling this story to one of his oldest and dearest friends. It is quite apparent that the story is only told like this in order to emphasise Troi’s involvement.

Of course, Star Trek has been guilty of this sort of cross-pollination before. Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as Spock in Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II was a massive pop cultural event. However, that was a very different situation. It is good to see Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi again, but neither character has anything approaching the cultural weight of Leonard Nimoy playing Spock. Pathfinder feels less about trying to draw in outside audiences and more about circling the wagons around Voyager.

Neelixing that ice cream.

Perhaps Pathfinder is the culmination of Voyager‘s long-standing fixation on The Next Generation, an obsession simmering through the show’s seven-season run. As Cinefantastique quoted Ronald D. Moore:

At its heart, Voyager secretly wishes it was Next Generation. It really wants to be back in the Alpha Quadrant — just let us be normal Star Trek. Voyager is on the other side of the galaxy. On the other side of the galaxy they have already run into some alien race recreating Starfleet Academy. They’ve run into Ferengi. Romulans. Already it doesn’t feel like they are that far away from home.

After all, this isn’t even Barclay’s first appearance on Voyager, although the EMH makes no reference to his appearance in Projections. One of the great ironies of Voyager, that it seemed to recall the history of The Next Generation more easily than it could remember its own.

Struggling to be Herd.

Reinforcing this weird sense of Pathfinder‘s discontinuity with Voyager, the episode recasts the role of Admiral Owen Paris. Warren Munson had previously played the role in Persistence of Vision, but Richard Herd steps into the breach in Pathfinder. This is not only a recasting, but a minor reconceptualisation. Owen Paris is recast from a stern patriarch to a gentle old man, demonstrating more compassion towards Barclay than any previous description of his character would support. In contrast, Pathfinder repeatedly stresses that Barclay and Troi are the same characters from The Next Generation.

To be fair, the references to The Next Generation tend to be quite broad and clumsy, with Pathfinder repeatedly drawing attention to its nods towards the elder series. “Is there something I can get you?” Barclay asks Troi. “Some… some coffee, tea? Oh wait a minute, don’t… don’t tell me. Chocolate ice cream.” When Barclay introduces Troi to his cat, she responds,  “Maybe we should introduce him to Data’s cat, Spot.” What an odd bit of exposition for two close friends to repeat. At the same time, Pathfinder very heavily draws on the plot of Hollow Pursuits, an episode that aired almost a decade earlier.

Counseling against it.

Of course, there is a tangible connection and continuity between The Next Generation. Many of the production team working on Voyager had cut their teeth on The Next Generation. As Marina Sirtis noted in discussing her guest appearances, there was a sense in which she was checking in with close family members rather than simply dropping by extended relations:

And that was like going home again because they inherited our crew. It was like, “Hi, everybody. How are you?” I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me. I got to work with Dwight (Schultz) again, after working with him so many times on TNG. I got to work with Bob Picardo, who I see a lot at the conventions. And he’s great. We were just at a convention a couple of weeks ago. I love him, love his wife, love his kids. So it was fun to do Voyager. The only bad thing is, of course, you have to make sure your spacesuit still fits. I was determined that they weren’t going to have to make me a new one, that I’d fit into the old one. So there was a little dieting involved. Other than that, it was all good.

After all, showrunner Brannon Braga’s first job in television had been working as an intern on The Next Generation. Veteran Next Generation producer Michael Piller was still occasionally providing notes and feedback on scripts. Voyager was still being overseen directly by Rick Berman, who provided a strong sense of continuity dating back to Encounter at Farpoint. Occasionally, there was a sense that Voyager was just keeping Next Generation‘s seat warm.

“Really, Reg? Deep Space Nine, I could understand. But Voyager?”

Indeed, there’s a certain sense that Pathfinder is aware of this. Barclay explicitly treats the cast of Voyager as convenient stand-ins for the cast of The Next Generation, more budget-friendly imitations. “Ever, ever since I… I left the Enterprise, things haven’t… haven’t been the same,” Barclay tells Troi. “It’s as if I lost my family.” The Voyager characters fill that gap. They serve as a substitute, a surrogate, a replacement. It is not a flatter comparison between Voyager and The Next Generation, but there is some honesty in it. Voyager pitching itself as methadone for Next Generation.

Pathfinder is not subtle in this regard. It is telling that Barclay helps to clear his mind by playing poke with Chakotay and company; a recreational activity that has never really been of interest on Voyager, but which was so core to The Next Generation that it provided the closing scene of All Good Things… The scene reinforces these parallels by having Barclay offer his own variation on Picard’s closing lines, outlining the rules of the game. “Now, you all know the rules. Deuces, one eyed Jacks and suicide kings are wild. Five of a kind beats a straight flush every time.”

Bum deal.

Interestingly enough, given how shoehorned the scenes between Barclay and Troi feel in the context of the story being told, Pathfinder also suggests another weird inspiration. The Sopranos haunts a lot of turn of the millennium television, David Chase’s mob psychodrama casting a long shadow and embraced as a game-changing piece of work almost from its premiere. Pathfinder broadcast almost a year after The Sopranos premiered, so it is interesting to have an episode of Voyager built around an extended therapy session for the protagonist.

This is perhaps a tenuous link, but there is a sense that the final seasons of Voyager understand how far they have slipped behind the curve. The Voyager Conspiracy is very much a criticism of the kind of long-form storytelling seen on shows like Deep Space Nine and The Sopranos. There is no doubt that the Star Trek production team were aware of The Sopranos as a television series. Sopranos cast members Steven R. Schirripa and Joe Maruzzo would play exaggerated forties gangsters in Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II.

“You’re really Troi-ing my patience here.”

Of course, as with the teasing of serialisation in The Voyager Conspiracy, there is a sense that Pathfinder is inviting this comparison in order to present a sharp contrast. In this respect, Pathfinder is much more successful than The Voyager Conspiracy. One of the most endearing things about the weird fetishisation of The Next Generation within Pathfinder is the conscious embrace of the series’ utopian idealism. It may allude to The Sopranos, but Pathfinder is a decidedly gentle piece of television, one focusing on people who want to help one another.

It should be noted that Voyager often seemed to abandon the utopian ideals associated with Star Trek in favour of paranoia and xenophobia. There are aspects of Voyager that seem decidedly reactionary, particularly on issues of race; the treatment of the Kazon in episodes like Alliances, the anti-immigration anxiety of Displaced, the fear of refugees in Day of Honour. As such, the gentleness of Pathfinder is quite striking. (Even in the context of episodes about Starfleet, Pathfinder suggests a gentler organisation than Non Sequitur or The Omega Directive.)

For Pete’s sake.

This is perhaps most notable in the characterisation of Peter Harkins, Barclay’s supervisor on the project. The plot of Pathfinder requires conflict between Barclay and Harkins; Harkins transparently exists to create obstacles for Barclay to overcome. However, even allowing for that, Pathfinder goes out of its way to present Harkins as a rational and even-handed individual. More than that, Harkins clearly respects Barclay a great deal, even complimenting him upon his imagination and work ethic.

Harkins is not a bad boss by any measure. He reaches out to Barclay and invites him to dinner. “Reg, why don’t, why don’t you drop by tonight when you’re through here?” he inquires. “Come to the house. Have some coffee. Angie’s sister’s in from Boston. I… I think she might like you.” It is a very sweet gesture from a superior officer, particularly one whose primary function in the plot is to stand in Barclay’s way. Even when Harkins stops Barclay from pitching his idea to Admiral Paris, Harkins seems genuinely concerned about raising his superior’s hopes of reuniting with Tom.

“Hm. I’ve never actually seen the holodeck work like it’s supposed to before.”

Even at the climax, as Barclay disobeys orders and uses Starfleet equipment for his own agenda, there is a sense that everybody is responding in a sane and even-handed manner. There is no escalation like in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. “Stop him,” Harkins orders his security officers. “Stun him if you have to.” Even the holodeck safeties work exactly as expected, a rare occurrence in the franchise. When Owen Paris arrives, he seems genuinely disappointed at how events played out. “You’ve put me in a difficult position, son.”

It could reasonably be argued that the characters in Pathfinder are arguably more welcoming and friendly towards Barclay than the crew of the Enterprise in Hollow Pursuits. Of course, there are justifications for this. Barclay seems to have his addiction under control in Pathfinder, and is proactively turning out good work. In contrast, in Hollow Pursuits, Barclay was largely useless and clumsy. It is easy to understand why Hawkins might embrace the socially awkward man with brilliant ideas, while LaForge balks at the socially awkward man who contributes nothing.

Overseeing the project.

Nevertheless, there is something very endearing in all of this, in the sense that Pathfinder feels like it captures the same pleasant professionalism that defined The Next Generation. On The Next Generation, there was a constant sense that people acted in good faith towards one another, even when they disagreed. Voyager occasionally had difficulty replicating this dynamic, despite smoothing over the Maquis conflict early in the run. Pathfinder feels most like an affectionate homage to The Next Generation in these interactions around Barclay on Earth.

Unfortunately, not all of the other elements align as smoothly. This is perhaps most obvious with the character of Barclay himself. Dwight Schultz is great in the role, as usual. Barclay was one of the most endearing supporting characters on The Next Generation, and it is always a pleasure to see the socially awkward officer is thriving in his own way. Barclay is still neurotic and dysfunctional, but has proven that he can work as part of a team and even has a cat that depends upon him.

Well, as much as cats depend on anybody.

However, there’s an interesting shift in how Pathfinder approaches Barclay’s neuroses. The Next Generation was always compassionate and sympathetic to Barclay, but it also pushed him to be better; he learned to socialise in Hollow Pursuits and to embrace the transporter in Realm of Fear. There was a sense that Barclay was, like most real people, a work in progress who improved just a little bit with every adventure. The issue with Pathfinder is that Barclay has stagnated, and not just in the sense of literally reliving the plot of Hollow Pursuits almost ten years later.

Most obviously, Pathfinder reveals that Barclay is using the holodeck again. Heavily. He is spending a significant amount of his off-duty time in the holodeck, sleeping in the holodeck, even justifying some of his time in the holodeck as work. “All the extra time you’ve been putting in,” Hawkins notes. “If I checked the holo-logs, would I find you’ve been spending those hours in here?” Barclay concedes that he spends “maybe… twenty or thirty hours a week” in the holodeck. This is very troubling behaviour, particularly given Barclay’s history of addiction.

Holo reassurances.

Of course, Barclay confronts these charges head-on, from both Troi and Hawkins. “It’s not what you’re thinking, Deanna,” he promises. “This isn’t a relapse of my holo-addiction.” When Hawkins discovers what is happening, he is less charitable. “You’ve struggled with holo-addiction before. From where I stand it looks like you’ve had a relapse.” Hawkins’ position makes a great deal of sense, given the evidence in front of him. However, Pathfinder ultimately sides with Barclay in his assessment, suggesting that Barclay is actually benefiting from his time in the holodeck.

In Pathfinder, the holodeck is helping Barclay. When Barclay tells Troi that he “worked out technical problems” in the holodeck, the episode cuts to a scene of Barclay sincerely working through his technical problems, insisting that Barclay is honest in his assessment of the holodeck’s functionality. Naturally, Barclay’s use of the holodeck is vindicated when his plan succeeds. More than that, the holographic versions of Tuvok and Torres both actually help Barclay when Hawkins tries to apprehend him.

“You can’t spell ‘relapse’ without ‘real.’
“Actually, you can, Reg.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.”

This is all aside from Pathfinder‘s suggestion that Barclay can dabble in the holodeck while still remaining functional; turning in good work for Hawkins and even providing for his cat. This is obviously not how addiction actually works. Recovering alcoholics are wary of the lure of “just one” drink. Recovering gambling addicts struggle with scratch cards. Addictive behaviour is very rarely something that can be managed. As David Nutt observes:

Modern neuroscience research, which involves imaging the brains of people with addiction, tells us that there are brain changes that predispose to drug use and addiction. Once someone is addicted, the brain changes in a way that creates an enduring vulnerability to craving and relapse. The personal and social risk factors for relapse are also understood, with stress, impulsivity and (paradoxically) episodes of success making people more vulnerable. Some forms of intensive psychotherapy such as motivational interviewing, and Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous with their group- and buddy-support systems, can help.

Indeed, Pathfinder makes it clear that Barclay is really in the perfect position to suffer from a relapse. He is isolated, alone. He lives in a nice apartment, but has yet to unpack and make it a home. He has moved away from his friends and the support systems that they offered. In one of the most moving moments in the episode, Barclay holds back the tears as he talks about how it felt to leave the Enterprise. As such, his use of the holodeck should be a big deal.

Real trouble.

However, Pathfinder never challenges Barclay’s use of the holodeck. The episode never suggests that Barclay is really slipping back into destructive patterns of behaviour. The big conflict in the episode is not Barclay managing his addiction and carefully regulating his use in order to avoid a relapse; it is the characters around Barclay worrying about his use of the holodeck, only to eventually be proven wrong. Barclay is vindicated by the narrative, his escape into fantasy becoming a vital part of the creative process that ultimately contributes to establishing contact with Voyager.

There is something genuinely unsettling in all of this, something that speaks to a broader shift in the outlook of the larger Star Trek franchise. In Hollow Pursuits, Barclay’s retreat into fantasy is treated as an unhealthy response to the outside world. The Next Generation seemed to imagine a vast and limitless world that existed outside of the holodeck, to the point that Barclay deleting his immersive fantasies (“except programme nine”) was deemed the best step forward for the character. In contrast, Pathfinder suggests that it is perfectly healthy for Barclay to live inside his fantasy, sleeping and eating there.

Virtual insanity.

This suggests something of a shift in how Star Trek approaches the character of Barclay. Hollow Pursuits featured Barclay as a stand-in for Michael Piller, his social anxiety reflecting that of the showrunner. Of course, there were shades of obsessive fan behaviour to be found in his appropriation of the images of the crew and his incorporation of those images into narratives of his own invention. However, Barclay was not an obsessive Star Trek fan in the same way as Kivas Fajo was in The Most Toys. The fannish subtext was very much beneath the surface in Hollow Pursuits.

In contrast, Pathfinder explicitly foregrounds Barclay’s fannish obsession with Voyager. In fact, the teaser closes with a horrific admission from the officer. “I’ve lost myself, Deanna,” he confesses. “In Voyager. I’ve become obsessed with Voyager.” He has named his cat “Neelix”, with Troi pointedly noting, “That’s an unusual name.” Barclay even describes his imaginary constructs of the crew as his “best friends” at a time when he admits to feeling isolated and alone, echoing Fry’s comments about the power of Star Trek in Where No Fan Has Gone Before. Characters on Star Trek can feel like friends and family.

Barc-ing mad.

Indeed, Pathfinder plays almost like an ode to obsessive fandom, with Barclay’s slavish devotion to Voyager ultimately saving the day. As Sue Short notes in Star Trek: The Franchise!:

Reassigned to Earth in Star Trek: Voyager, he is declared unfit for work by his commanding officers in the episode Pathfinder because of an overriding obsession with contacting the Voyager, which is at large in the Delta Quadrant. Although his interest in this seemingly “lost cause” is misread as a symptom of his former “holodiction”, Barclay proves himself, and is reinstated, when he discovers a micro-wormhole through which contact with the crew is finally made possible. In the series finale Endgame, he ultimately acquires heroic status by detecting a transwarp aperture that allows the ship to get home while averting a potential Borg invasion through the same portal. Barclay triumphs, on his own terms, when his imaginative tendencies reach into the depths of space and eventually help return Voyager’s lost crew – personnel that have notably been forfeited by his superior officers. In doing so, far from being derided as a Trek-nerd warranting little respect, or reprimanded as a poacher stealing images that do not belong to him,  Barclay might stand as an idealized representative of the fan community at large, one whose faith in the franchise has seemingly surpassed production figureheads such as Brannon Braga and Rick Berman in continuing to conceive possibilities for saving another seemingly lost cause, Trek itself, and proving capable of doing so. Barclay is never fully assimilated into Starfleet, yet is honored nonetheless, his skills, despite being undervalued at times, finally shown to be invaluable to an organization that largely misunderstands him.

It feels very telling that this reinterpretation of Barclay as a heroic and devoted fan arrives at a point where the production team on Voyager were feeling a lot of outside pressure about the possible future of the Star Trek franchise. Pathfinder is effectively a story about how only hardcore fans can save Star Trek.

Admira(b)l(e) restraint.

This is frustrating on a number of levels. Most obviously, it demonstrates how consciously the Star Trek franchise retreated from the mainstream in the years following the end of The Next Generation. It is tempting to believe that Star Trek was a cult phenomenon, but The Next Generation had an impressively large impact on broader pop culture. Patrick Stewart was voted the sexiest man on television. Ronald Reagan visited the set. The series earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. During the era of The Next GenerationStar Trek was avowedly and unashamedly mainstream.

The Next Generation was a cultural phenomenon. This can be hard to process, particularly at this moment in time when it increasingly seems like there is no truly centralised and universal mainstream television events. Episodes like Hollow Pursuit and The Most Toys seemed consciously wary of what might be described as obsessive fandom. During the era of Voyager and Enterprise, it increasingly felt like Star Trek was being produced with a target market of existing “Star Trek fans”, as though attempting to solidify the base rather than pushing beyond it.

“Where did it all go wrong?”

The franchise consciously shied away from broader cultural trends and social engagement. In terms of embracing change in how television stories were told, Voyager never truly embraced serialisation and Enterprise only siezed upon the possibilities in its penultimate season. In terms of engaging with broader universal social issues, the Star Trek franchise would not feature openly gay series regulars until the rebooted Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek Beyond and Paul Stamets in Star Trek: Discovery.

Voyager stood back and watched as the rest of pop culture moved past Star Trek, a creative decision that undoubtedly contributed to the slow and steady decline of the franchise in the decade after the end of The Next Generation. Instead of trying new things and pursuing new audiences, Voyager doubled down on giving fans what it thought they wanted; familiar alien species like the Romulans and the Klingons and the Borg, familiar guest characters like Riker and LaForge and Troi, familiar stories that had already been told countless times in the franchise’s history.

You’re the fan, Reg.

This approach is pandering and condescending to these hardcore fans. It feels like a conscious effort on the part of the production team to double-down on the hardcore fan base. In some ways, this could be seen to prefigure the twenty-first century tendency to market poorly-reviewed and shoddily-constructed franchise films as “for the fans.” This approach fuels a sense of entitlement among certain sections of established fandom, which can lead to that fandom becoming increasingly insular and adversarial. It excuses such behaviour as “passion”, and “passion” should be encouraged.

In its own way, it seems like Voyager is preparing the Star Trek franchise for the twenty-first century. There is something very revealing in the contrast between how The Next Generation and Voyager treat Barclay’s escape into fantasy. Hollow Pursuits makes it clear that Barclay needs to live out in the real world, surrounded by real people and embracing real possibilities. Pathfinder is perfectly happy to let Barclay inhabit the holodeck, embracing this virtual reality as a world that is as tangible and as valid as the world outside its walls.

Massaging the truth.

Of course, this arguably reflects the late nineties anxieties about virtual realities and imaginary worlds as reflected in films like The Matrix, The Truman Show, eXistenZ, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor. Even in terms of fandom, the internet had created an easily accessible virtual reality in which fans could indulge their passions, whether through fan fiction or role-playing or any other mechanism. Reality was a much more malleable construct than it had been during the production of Hollow Pursuits. In the late nineties, it increasingly seemed like pop culture encouraged audiences to choose their own reality.

It should be noted that there are various reasons why franchises like Star Trek would encourage fans to embrace their virtual and augmented realities. Star Trek was an industry unto itself, selling everything from marshmellow dispensors to “Romulan Ale.” It should be noted that this merchandising was nothing new. For all that “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” is a beautiful and evocative summary of the franchise’s ethos, it was also invented to help Gene Roddenberry sell mail-order ornaments in Is There in Truth No Beauty?

Maps to the stars.

Still, this merchandising reached fever pitch during the late nineties, when it frequently seemed like the Star Trek brand was being stuck on everything and anything. As Mark Altman told Robert Wilonsky less than a month after Pathfinder aired:

“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.”

Indeed, with all of this licensing taking place, it’s not too hard to believe that Star Trek fans could live a life quite similar to that of Barclay in Pathfinder, filled with replicas and facsimiles. In fact, Chakotay is even dressed quite like one of his Playmates action figures.

Putting the “super” back in “supervisor.”

It has always been easier to sell a lifestyle than a product. During the nineties and beyond, Star Trek merchandise and memorabilia has increasingly been built around faithful and loving recreations, encouraging fans to own an experience of the franchise. The immersive Star Trek: The Experience opened in January 1998, less than two years before Pathfinder was broadcast, promising to steep attendees in the world of Star Trek. The video game Elite Force would be released in September 2000, allowing players to walk the decks between missions and interact with the crew much like Barclay does in Pathfinder.

Although computer games, fan fiction and role-playing all predate The Next Generation, they were a lot more advanced and ubiquitous by the time that Voyager was winding down. This might explain why Pathfinder is more sympathetic to Barclay’s immersion into these fantasy worlds than Hollow Pursuits had been. Modern writers and audiences are perhaps more likely to accept that immersion than their earlier counterparts would have been. Much like these real-world examples, this level of intense engagement serves to cement and deepen Barclay’s attachment to the Voyager crew.

He’ll always have Paris.

Peter G. Stromberg has described this process as “enthrallment”, a complicated and multifaceted relationship between fiction and its fans. As Stromberg argues in The “I” of Enthrallment, it is a process of identification and immersion:

The I of enthrallment becomes visible through pragmatic features of communicative behaviour because such features constitute social realities. Careful attention to pragmatics reveals that role-players construct a complex social situation in which persons are at once fully aware of their surroundings, as conventionally defined, and closely identified with characters in a collectively defined narrative. Although it is in once sense accurate to refer to this as a “blending of fantasy and reality”, such language does not do credit to the complexity of the communicative processes whereby both reality and fantasy are constructed and maintained.

It is a complex process, and one which suggests the nuance at play with fandom identities. As those fandom identities became more pronounced and influential in the twenty-first century, these interactions became more central to understanding and navigating popular culture.

A tale of two Parises.

Pathfinder is very much a story about fandom, and one that is very consciously engaged with fandom at the cusp of the twenty-first century. It serves to bridge Voyager and The Next Generation, while also emphasising the space that exists between them. There is something very candid and honest about Pathfinder, particularly when compared to the previous two episodes that struggled in their engagement with the past. Pathfinder is an episode that has a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the past and present than One Small Step or The Voyager Conspiracy.

However, there is still something uncanny and uncomfortable in Pathfinder. The episode is very candid about Voyager‘s relationship with The Next Generation, while also understanding how much Star Trek has changed in the six years since the broadcast of All Good Things… However, the mostly upbeat and joyful tone feels clumsy and unearned. Pathfinder celebrates the franchise’s slow drift away from the cultural mainstream, valourising Voyager‘s commitment to a more hardcore and devoted core fanbase over a broader mass audience.

“We need to go back. Back to the future!”

There is something tragic in the idea that Pathfinder should be so fixated on the past. The title Pathfinder implies forward movement, and contact between Starfleet and Voyager suggests that Voyager might be entering its endgame. However, Pathfinder suggests that all roads lead backwards, doomed attempts to recapture past glories. As Brandon Ambrosino argues, this was a broader cultural movement:

But all of that momentum started slowing down in the final third of the twentieth century, as Professor Andreas Huyssen notes in Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory : “Since the 1980s, it seems, the focus has shifted from present futures to present pasts.” Indeed, what began as a century on the edge of tomorrow ended with its eyes fixed anywhere but ahead.

The closer we got to the new millennium, the slower time seemed to pass. Sure, we were creeping ever forward, guided by our politics and medicine and technologies, but something was … off. The time felt, if not out of joint, then at least severely sprained — particularly in pop culture. And as Simon Reynolds says in his 2011 book Retromania , it feels especially wrong for culture-makers to have their gazes locked on yesterday.

Voyager had always been nostalgic, from its “back to basics” premise to the western aesthetic of Caretaker to the fixation on the Second World War in early episodes like Phage and Jetrel. However, as it reached the end of its seven-season run, Voyager‘s gaze shifted more firmly to its own past and its relationship with that past.

Talking it out.

One Small Step, The Voyager Conspiracy and Pathfinder are all episodes about the weight of history pressing down on Voyager, a theme that would be reinforced by later episodes like FuryShattered, Friendship One. What makes Pathfinder so striking is the ease with which it slips back into the past, the enthusiasm with which it tries to frame a story about Voyager as some lost episode of The Next Generation. Tellingly, the episode does not end with a toast from the primary cast of Voyager, but focused on two guest stars visiting from The Next Generation.

As Voyager draws to a close, the Star Trek franchise has entered a phase of its history when the popularity and triumph of The Next Generation are a source of comforting nostalgia. Pathfinder very consciously paves the way for These Are the Voyages…, affirming the sense that the production team believes both Voyager and Enterprise should be seen as imperfect reflections of the glory that was The Next Generation. At the same time, Pathfinder does not just acknowledge the gulf that exists between Voyager and The Next Generation, it celebrates that divide.

He’s just a Reg-ular guy.

Pathfinder is nominally about trying to move forward, but instead finds comfort in retreating into the past.

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4 Responses

  1. Surely the gentleness you noticed is linked to the program’s conservatism as you’ve noted before? The retreat from the unfamiliar, the idolizing and fetishizing of the past – that’s business as usual for this series.

    You just know one of Tom Paris’ historical obsessions had to be Pizzagate.

    • That might be the case. This was the era of compassionate conservatism, after all. If so, it’s a shame Voyager didn’t showcase this gentleness more often. I appreciate the whimsy of episodes like Concerning Flight over the paranoia of episodes like Displaced or Day of Honour.

  2. As a child of the 90s, I saw Voyager before TNG, so it was an unpleasant surprise for me when I saw Barclay in his original episode, both because he’s waaay more awkward in TNG, and because both Geordi and Riker come off as terrible bosses/coworkers in that episode as well. It’s hard to see how Barclay could possibly be so nostalgic for such a miserable workplace (perhaps a subtext in itself for how nostalgia can make ST fans forget the worst excesses of past series).

    One thing that I like about Pathfinder is that it feels like one of the few episodes that actually pushes the core Voyager storyline forward. It would have been great if there were 2-3 episodes like this in every season, so that the finale would have felt more “earned” at the end. The long-running anime show “Detective Conan” employs this structure by focusing on case-of-the-week episodes, but with 1-2 episodes per season pushing forward the “core story” of Conan’s conflict with the villainous ‘Black Organization.’ Ah well, it was not to be.

    • To be fair, there is a sense that the crew came to like Barclay once he came out of his shell. (That said, my favourite Barclay relationship on TNG is his interaction with O’Brien in Realm of Fear, because they feel like two working-class stiffs on the edge of the narrative involving the traditional heroes, and because O’Brien is just the best.)

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