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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 6 (Review)

The sixth season of Star Trek: Voyager was not an easy season, by any measure.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had come to an end during the previous television season. Paramount had made a conscious decision not to launch a new Star Trek television series to fill the gap on the airwaves. This was a rather ominous decision. When Star Trek: The Next Generation had finally wound down in the mid-nineties, Paramount had committed to having two different spin-offs on the air at the same time and springboarding the cast and crew on to the big screen with Star Trek: Generations less than a half a year later.

In contrast, the silence following the end of Deep Space Nine was deafening. Following the critical and commercial disappointment of Star Trek: Insurrection, it would be four years before the Next Generation cast returned to the big screen in Star Trek: Nemesis. At the same time, there was increasing concern about declining ratings for the larger Star Trek franchise in both the fan and mainstream press. Although there were already plans in place for the series that would become Star Trek: Enterprise, it was decided that no new series would premiere before Voyager ended.

Voyager had never been more alone than it was during its sixth season.

The sixth season of Voyager was tumultuous. The season began with cause for celebration, with Ronald D. Moore migrating over to Voyager from Deep Space Nine. This was great news, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Moore was one of the best writers in the history of the franchise, one of the genuinely ambitious and innovative script writers that had helped to make The Next Generation such a breakout hit. Moore was responsible for any number of classic episodes; The Defector, Sins of the Father, Family, Tapestry, The Pegasus.

Ronald D. Moore had been a frequent collaborator of Brannon Braga, who joined the writing staff as an intern less than one full season after Moore. The two would work together on some of the most influential and defining Next Generation scripts. The pair were responsible for All Good Things…, the final episode of the series. They also wrote both Star Trek: First Contact. However, the two writers were split up when The Next Generation came to an end, which makes sense; they were two of the best writers on The Next Generation, so it was practical to share the love across the two spin-offs.

Moore was dispatched to Deep Space Nine, working with Ira Steven Behr. Behr had worked with Moore on the third season of The Next Generation, and had been a major influence on the young writer. Deep Space Nine allowed Moore room to grow and develop as a writer, to push against the limits and expectations of the franchise. Moore’s work on Deep Space Nine included groundbreaking scripts like House of Quark, The Die is Cast, Our Man Bashir, Doctor Bashir, I Presume, Soldiers of the Empire, Rocks and Shoals, Waltz, In the Pale Moonlight, Once More Unto the Breach, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Tacking Into the Wind.

Braga was assigned to Voyager, and established himself as one of the most consistent and reliable writers on the young show. Even when the series struggled to find its feet, Braga could generally be relied upon to provide solid and engaging scripts; episodes like Projections, Deadlock. As with Moore on Deep Space Nine, Braga’s interests came to shape and defined Voyager. Braga pushed the series towards a blockbuster sensibility with episodes like 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 and The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

Although Moore was always hugely influential on Deep Space Nine, he never ascended to quite the heights that Braga did on Voyager. While Deep Space Nine remained relatively steady in the hands of Ira Steven Behr following Michael Piller’s migration over to Voyager, Voyager itself experienced some significant creative turnover in its early years. Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller wrestled for control of Voyager during its first two seasons, with Piller effectively ousted at the end of the second season through threat of mass resignation. Taylor stood aside at the end of the fourth season. Brannon Braga took the reins.

The arrival of Ronald D. Moore from Deep Space Nine to Voyager should have been cause for celebration. This was a celebrated Star Trek writer joining one of his old friends and most reliable collaborators. However, things went wrong almost immediately. Moore clashed aggressively with his new colleagues over the story to Equinox, Part II, the opening episode of the season and the follow-up to Equinox, Part I. Moore found himself being squeezed out of meetings and marginalised on the staff.

Moore quit shortly thereafter, within weeks of arriving. His departure marked the end of a ten-year association with the franchise, which he had loved since childhood. It was a pretty big deal in the grand scheme of things, even before Moore started offering interviews articulating how deeply toxic the work environment had been. It is a testament to Moore as a professional and prolific writer that he got a teleplay credit on Survival Instinct and a story credit on Barge of the Dead in so short a time.

This hobbled the sixth season of Voyager out of the gate. The production team were forced to re-hire Kenneth Biller in order to help manage the chaos; Biller’s first major contribution to the sixth season would be the Christine-inspired Alice. Meanwhile, executive Brannon Braga acknowledged that he was feeling drained and boxed-in by the franchise, a sentiment that was reflected in a number of what should have been the big blockbuster scripts of the season like Dragon’s Teeth or Fury. Braga’s creative energies would be rekindled with Enterprise, but he had lost any real on-going interest with Voyager.

The sixth season of Voyager has a handful of good episodes. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is a fantastic riff on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, focusing on the daydreams of the EMH. Child’s Play is an unexpectedly pointed critique of the manner in which Voyager tells stories, and the awkward conservative outlook of the series. Memorial is a welcome companion piece to the earlier Holocaust-centric episodes like Remember or Living Witness, meditating upon history and memory as the core themes of Voyager.

However, the sixth season is largely populated by bland and indistinct episodes. Riddles is a fairly stock story in which an alien attack strips away Tuvok’s emotional reserve. Virtuoso has the EMH encounter an alien culture that is mesmerised by his singing. Good Shepherd finds Janeway taking a group of inexperienced crew members under her wing. None of these episodes have any long-term or lasting consequences, all neatly wrapped up in forty minutes without any complications or any real introspection.

However, the sixth season also has a decidedly dark and funereal tone running through it. Barge of the Dead takes Torres into the literal Klingon afterlife. Dragon’s Teeth unfolds in the ruins of a resurrected alien society. One Small Step has the crew discovering a lost relic floating in the void, a tomb for an ancient human astronaut. Memorial finds the crew bombarded with visions of a brutal massacre. Collective features a gigantic dead Borg Cube. Ashes to Ashes features aliens that reproduce using dead bodies they find in the void. Fury finds Kes confronting her mortality. Lewis Zimmerman contracts a terminal illness in Life Line.

There is a very morbid throughline to the sixth season, a recurring rumination on mortality and loss. The sixth season of Voyager returns time and time again to the toll that time exacts, perhaps most dramatically when Voyager watches an entire civilisation involve right in front of their eyes in Blink of an Eye. Entropy and decay are powerful forces within the sixth season of Voyager, and the season repeatedly emphasises how Voyager itself seems to exist outside of the flow of time. There is a repeated suggestion that this might be a blessing, particularly given the slow erosion experienced by those who move through time.

The alien culture in Blink of an Eye are subject to the whims of time; most of the guest characters are dead by the closing credits, and Gotana-Retz has lived an entire life in the space between scenes. Fury implies that time caught up to Kes the moment that she left the ship in The Gift, and that her three years on Voyager had done little to protect her from time’s cruelty and violence. Because time does not flow in any meaningful sense for the characters on Voyager, the crew are spared the ravages visited upon the Vaadwaur in Dragon’s Teeth or upon Lieutenant John Kelly in One Small Step.

The sixth season suggests that Voyager remains frozen in a perpetual now. When Barclay models the crew in Pathfinder, two years removed from their last fleeting contact with Starfleet in Message in a Bottle and five-and-a-half years removed from their departure in Caretaker, his holographic representations of the crew are remarkably similar to the flesh-and-blood characters that the audience has visited with each and every week. Time has affected Barclay, who is no longer serving on the Enterprise and who is managing a long-standing addiction, but the crew of Voyager seem trapped in amber.

The sixth season repeatedly emphasises that Voyager only exists in the present. Fury and The Haunting of Deck Twelve both re-write significant chunks of the show’s history in a way that completely undercuts anything that the audience had seen on screen over the previous five years, effectively offering a soft reboot of the series in order to support the plot demands of the episode in question. Fury reveals that Janeway and Tuvok had secretly known that Kes would menace the crew in Fury from the earliest days of the first season. The Haunting of Deck Twelve suggested an alien had been hiding on Voyager for most of the season.

There is something quite defensive in all this, in the way that the sixth season insists that Voyager must exist outside the regular flow of time and that any attempt to build a history within the show is openly hostile. In The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine tries to introduce continuity to Voyager, trying to provide a cohesive and unifying “theory of Voyager”, only to go insane as a result. When Admiral Hayes broaches the question of what happened to the tension between the Maquis and the Starfleet crew in Life Line, Janeway is practically offended by what should be a perfectly legitimate question.

The sixth season of Voyager feels inert, frozen in a particular moment and trapped in amber. To be fair, there are some small hints at continuity in the season, such as the introduction of a group of children into the ensemble. However, even they are couched in the fact that time is not a concept that exists on Voyager. When the writers decide to introduce a bunch of children into the cast in Collective, they do not do so by following the characters as they grow up. Instead, the children are introduced fresh from their “maturation chambers” at the age that the writers want them to be. There is no long-form plotting here, no larger arc.

Voyager has repeatedly suggested that the show and its characters exist more as stories than as actual characters, whether as visiting gods in False Profits or as myths to be chased across the quadrant in Distant Origin. More than any other Star Trek series, Voyager was populated by doppelgangers and surrogates; the holograms in Worst Case Scenario, the silver blood clones in Course: Oblivion. However, the sixth season seems particularly devoted to this idea. Voyager becomes a source of stories repeatedly over the course of the season, a legend drifting softly through the Delta Quadrant in search of home.

In Blink of an Eye, the inhabitants of a planet where time moves at an accelerated pace look up to the ship with awe and wonder, building a complex mythology around the mysterious craft and its crew. In Muse, Torres becomes a source of stories for a playwright working on a distant planet, who translates various stories about Janeway and the Borg Queen into epic tragedies hoping to prevent the outbreak of war. In Live Fast and Prosper, the crew even have their stories and identities stolen by a group of enterprising con artists trying to profit off their reputation and credibility.

In some way, it feels like the sixth season of Voyager is engaging with what it means to be Star Trek in a very abstract manner. Over the course of the sixth season, Voyager is approached as a Delta Quadrant mythology, as a story that can be interpreted and reinvented, with great power to shape a wider culture. Given the legacy of the Star Trek franchise, it seems like the sixth season Voyager is using its characters as a vehicle to explore the impact that Star Trek has had upon this world. This fits with the sombre tone running through the season as a whole.

This meditation upon Star Trek feels almost like a living eulogy for the Berman era, written in the understanding that the franchise is unlikely to continue in this form in perpetuity. The Berman era would continue for another half a decade after the end of the sixth season of Voyager, but there was a sense that it was in a slow and steady decline. These stories meditating on Star Trek as a mythology all end the same way, with the crew leaving. In Blink of an Eye, the closing scene finds Gotana-Retz watching the ship finally leave orbit. In Muse, Torres is beamed to safety at the climax of Kelis’ play.

(Even Live Fast and Prosper might be seen as a meditation upon the rival science-fiction shows that had flooded the market following the success of The Next Generation. At the turn of the millennium, it must have seemed difficult to distinguish Voyager from genre shows like Stargate SG-1, Crusade, V.R. 5, Earth: Final Conflict or Andromeda. To Voyager, these series must have looked like inferior imitators that were bringing down its share of the market, squeezing Star Trek out of a television landscape that it had helped to shape.)

Interestingly enough, this recurring engagement with the idea of Star Trek was mirrored in a renewed infatuation with The Next Generation. Of course, Voyager had always been relatively close to The Next Generation. Barclay had guest starred in Projections. Riker had cameoed in Death Wish. Geordi LaForge had appeared in Timeless, the show’s one hundredth episode, commanding a Galaxy-Class ship. The Ferengi from The Price had turned up in False Profits. Q and the Borg were recurring guest stars.

However, the sixth season pushes the idea even further, turning Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi into recurring guest stars and clumsily name-dropping Captain Picard in both Pathfinder and Life Line. These episodes occasionally felt like long-lost episodes of The Next Generation that just happened to feature the cast of Voyager. Certainly, Pathfinder is a narrative focused around Barclay, a recurring character on The Next Generation who had only previously appeared as a hologram on Voyager. Both episodes strain to justify including the character of Deanna Troi, who is completely superfluous to the stories being told.

However, perhaps the most blatant and clumsy of these homages to The Next Generation is to be found in the season-bridging two-parter Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. The Borg had always been part of what Voyager inherited from The Next Generation, and the third-and-fourth-season-bridging two-parter Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part I was very much a mirror of a similar two-parter on The Next Generation, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II.

This made a certain amount of sense, given that the Borg were the most important new alien species of the Berman era, and Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II aligned nicely with the release of First Contact. It was excusable, and the similarities were broad enough that it felt like homage rather than theft. Once again, our heroes encountered the Borg. However, the dynamics had been fundamentally altered. In The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, the Borg launched an invasion of Federation space. In Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, it was Borg space that was being invaded.

In contrast, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II do not attempt to disguise how much they are repurposing from The Next Generation. The basic premise of the two-parter involves the emergence of a Borg subculture centred around individualism, recalling the basic story of Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. That is an interesting choice of reference, given that Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II are unlikely to be considered among the most beloved or respect of Next Generation two-parters. It seems like a reference that exists largely to be a reference.

However, things get even stranger towards the cliffhanger that bridges Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, as Janeway leads an away mission on to a Borg Cube and promptly gets assimilated. The season-ending cliffhanger is a shot of Tuvok, Torres and Janeway all assimilated. It is a blatant lift from the reveal that Picard had been assimilated at the end of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, one of the most iconic cliffhangers in television history and the moment that The Next Generation truly came into its own.

However, the decision to close the sixth season of Voyager with such a blatant lift of the cliffhanger from third season of The Next Generation feels like a candid acknowledgement of how truly lost Voyager is at this point in its run. Unimatrix Zero, Part I awkwardly assumes that it can top (or maybe even just match or compete) with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I simply by tripling the number of characters assimilated by the Borg. It is underwhelming and pathetic, a sense that the production team simply are not trying any longer.

There is a strange desperation in these crossovers, as if Voyager has given up any real hope of attracting an audience based on its own identity as opposed to the guest appearances of characters from the Star Trek series that everybody liked. There is a weary cynicism to the sixth season as a whole. There is no other way to explain Tsunkatse, another of the sixth season’s crossover episodes. Tsunkatse is a crossover between Voyager and WWF, two UPN shows passing one another as the network’s priorities shifted. Tsunkatse is much better and smarter than it needs to be, but it also feels completely unnecessary and calculated.

This weariness extends even beyond cynicism. The sixth season of Voyager features both Fair Haven and Spirit Folk, two episodes focusing on an imaginary Irish village constructed within the ship’s holodeck. They are decidedly uninspired pieces of television, clichéd whimsy that never manages to strike the tone towards which they aspire. It should be noted that Fair Haven and Spirit Folk seemed to kill the holodeck episode on Voyager in the same way that Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak killed the Ferengi episodes on Deep Space Nine.

As easy as it is to complain about the use of the holodeck on Voyager, some of the series’ most popular episodes use the technology as a jumping-off point; Worst Case Scenario, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, Bride of Chaotica! This is similar to the way that some of the most beloved episodes of Deep Space Nine centred around the Ferengi characters; House of Quark, Little Green Men, The Magnificent Ferengi. However, much like Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak tainted those early successes, Fair Haven and Spirit Folk retroactively smeared Voyager‘s holodeck episodes.

There is a tiredness and exhaustion that permeates the sixth season of Voyager, as if the show has grown tired of running in place but still cannot find any forward momentum. In its own weird way, the sixth season of Voyager suggests the point at which the future of the Star Trek franchise has run out. The basic premise of Voyager suggested that the Star Trek franchise had stopped pushing outwards, focusing as it did on a crew thrown past the boundaries of known space and desperately trying to retreat to the familiar.

However, the sixth season of Voyager marks a point at which the production team seem to just give up on the idea of Star Trek pushing forward and embracing new possibilities. The sixth season is lacking the sense of scale and energy that propelled the fourth and fifth seasons of Voyager. Most notably, the season lacks an epic two-parter like Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II or The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. This was not a conscious choice; the production team intended Dragon’s Teeth to be an epic two-parter, but simply could not get it to work.

Dragon’s Teeth points to the other notable absence from the sixth season. Previous seasons of Voyager had each made a point to introduce a new threat to the series, in order to give the audience something new. The first and second seasons introduced the Kazon and Vidiians as recurring threats to the ship. The third season reintroduced the Borg as an ominous opponent. The fourth season featured the Hirogen as a major new nemesis. The fifth season focused on the Malon as potential antagonists. Dragon’s Teeth suggests that the Vaadwaur could serve that role in the sixth season, but they never appear again.

Given the failure to launch the Vaadwaur as a recurring adversary in Dragon’s Teeth, it is revealing that the sixth season’s most important new addition to the Star Trek canon is the Hierarchy. The strange alien race was introduced in Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy; although this would be their only appearance during the sixth season, they would return during the seventh season in both The Void and Renaissance Man. The Hierarchy are a very strange race, by Star Trek standards. They are a group of potato-like creatures that have organised their society into a large and labyrinthine bureaucracy.

There is something quite refreshing about the Hierarchy, in the way that they consciously brush up against the demands that recurring alien threats be impressive or scary like the Vidiians, the Borg or the Hirogen. The Hierarchy are nominally a credible threat to Voyager, capable of overwhelming the ship’s defenses in Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy. However, they are also a source of amusement and absurdity. They do not carry big guns, they are not a source of constant menace, they don’t easily integrate the style of “blockbuster” storytelling that defines Voyager.

There is something telling in the fact that Hierarchy are the sixth season’s most enduring addition to the Voyager canon. They are an alien race defined by their complete lack of imagination or creativity or initiative. No decision can be made without sign-off from senior management, innovation is frowned upon, everything is done according to rigidly-defined protocols. In some ways, these aliens seem to embody the creative aesthetic of the sixth season of Voyager, a season of Star Trek with relatively little ambition or identity. It is largely boilerplate Star Trek, constructed to specification but not beyond it.

With all of this turmoil behind the camera and mediocrity in front of the camera, it made sense that the franchise’s gaze would turn inwards and backwards. The final season of Deep Space Nine made a point to hint at a future beyond the confines of the seven seasons, with Luther Sloan already planning for the next galactic war in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, and the crew all having plans for the future in What You Leave Behind. The final season of Deep Space Nine was structured in such a way that it was possible to imagine a future beyond the confines of the series for the various characters and the larger world.

In contrast, the final seasons of Voyager turn increasingly inwards and backwards, suggesting that there is no future for Star Trek beyond the end of this seven-season run. Instead, the sixth season of Voyager confirms that the Star Trek franchise had now fixed its gaze on the past. Pre-production had begun on Enterprise, with Brannon Braga invigourated at the prospect of going back to the roots of the Star Trek franchise. One Small Step provided a strong link to the era, as Friendship One would the following year. In Fury, even Kes travels back in time in order to recapture a lost and wasted youth.

There is something incredibly morbid and depressing about the sixth season of Voyager, simmering beneath the polished exterior and the mediocre storytelling. Following the end of Deep Space Nine and the departure of Ronald D. Moore, it seems like the Berman era had received a terminal diagnosis. The future had evaporated. All that Voyager can do is to stare longingly at the past, occasionally seeking either to recapture the glories of The Next Generation or to rewrite its own internal history. Either way, Voyager was contemplating more than its own mortality.

Voyager had long fixated on the end of history. Now it was pondering the end of Star Trek.

7 Responses

  1. Great piece, Darren.

    Does this blog exist outside of time? Because your reviews are getting better as the years roll on.

  2. More recent fans wonder whether Voyager was disliked at the time like it popularly is today. Personally, this is where I checked out.

    Even as a less critical teenager who kept up with Voyager by buying/renting the videos and considered it his second favourite Trek (only because it was current!), as soon as DS9 finished and *this* was the only new Star Trek I could watch or read about in the magazine, I finally realised how lightweight and pointless the series was, and that retrospectively applied to the earlier years too. I didn’t make it to the end of the season and I’ve basically blanked the series ever since like a spurned lover.

    Why would I keep on watching Voyager when Stargate and Farscape were more fun? There was zero jeopardy right from the start that they weren’t going to get home in episode 7×25-26, the characters probably realised that themselves at some point. Saying all that, these reviews and screencaps have made me pretty nostalgic for episodes I haven’t watched in almost 20 years, so I’ll have to take this trip again some decade!

    • Ha! I hope you enjoy.

      Voyager was hated at the time, as was Enterprise. Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were very much hated when they premiered as well, as was The Wrath of Khan. However, Voyager and Enterprise sustained that hatred in a way that the others didn’t. I suspect part of that is simply quality, but also I wonder if the emergence of the internet as a cultural force played a part in cementing that hatred.

      • How much do you know about the critical reception of DS9? I know TNG turned things around with critics in Season 3 (and rightfully so), but I’m not sure about DS9. I think Seasons 3-5 received more positive reviews, but I’ve also read some reviews (like David E. Sleuss of Cynics’ Corner and Christopher L Bennett, who I read on Keith DeCandido’s semi-recent re-watch but I’m pretty sure thought the same thing when the seasons originally aired) who maintain that the series came apart at the seams in Seasons 6 and 7.

      • Interesting. I though that season six was adored. (Which is odd, because I’d rank it the lowest of the final four seasons in terms of consistency, even if it has the highest highs.) But the general consensus is that (at least) the fourth season of Deep Space Nine is a masterpiece, right?

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