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Star Trek: Voyager – Drive (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has always had a pulpy sensibility, perhaps more than any other Star Trek series outside of the original.

There is something very retrograde about Voyager, something that harkens back to the plotting of old B-movies. The Communist paranoia of Cathexis or In the Flesh, the goofy science-fiction high-concepts of The 37s or Innocence or Tuvix or Rise or Macrocosm, the monster movie stylings of Threshold, the exaggerated campy horror aesthetic of Darkling or Revulsion or Alice. Even older science-fiction staples like the body-swap episodes Vis á Vis, Body and Soul or Renaissance Man. There is a reason why Voyager felt so comfortable doing an episode like Bride of Chaotica!

Photo finish.

With all of that in mind, Drive seems lie a perfect fit for Voyager. It is admittedly an absurd premise, a story about a racing tournament organised by four alien species as a testament to the fragile peace that they have built. Inevitably, Paris gets involved with the Delta Flyer. Inevitably, the crew uncover a wave of shady double-dealing that involves sabotage, attempted murder and terrorism as part of a plot to destabilise the entire region. It is completely and utterly ridiculous, feeling like the kind of low-budget trash that an audience member might stumble across flicking through the channels very early one weekday morning.

And yet, there’s a certain charm to it. Drive is a deeply flawed episode, with all manner of serious plotting and character issues. However, there’s also a sense that the production team are enjoying themselves. At a point when so much of Voyager feels like it is going through the motions, there is a certain appeal in a piece of pulpy entertainment that relishes its own existence.

The event wasn’t marr(i)ed.

One of the more persistent criticisms of the era of Star Trek following the Berman era has been that films like Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness represented an attempt to shift the franchise away from cerebral science-fiction storytelling towards high-stakes action. Of course, this relies on a highly selective reading of the history of Star Trek; there is a reason that Kirk throwing down with the Gorn in Arena or with Spock in Amok Time has permeated popular culture, and it is not for the cerebral science-fiction storytelling.

Even allowing for that, the attempt to transform Star Trek into a blockbuster franchise began much earlier than that. Star Trek: The Next Generation is perhaps the closest the franchise ever came to embodying that cerebral ideal, but there was a conscious shift in its transition to film. The climax of Star Trek: Generations hinged on a fist fight on a planet surface, while Star Trek: First Contact was a zombie movie in space, Star Trek: Insurrection featured Picard leading a rebellion, and Star Trek: Nemesis allowed the character to ride around in a dune buggy.

“How come we never got to drive a dune buggy?”

There is also an argument to be made for the scale and spectacle of the Dominion War on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, especially in big episodes like The Die is Cast, The Way of the Warrior, Sacrifice of Angels or Tears of the Prophets. While those stories were undoubtedly part of a larger and more explicitly humanist story, as best articulated in how the war comes to an end in What You Leave Behind, they still increased the scale of action-driven storytelling within the Star Trek franchise.

However, it was Voyager that really doubled down on the idea of Star Trek as a blockbuster franchise. Under the pen (and later management) of Brannon Braga, Voyager became a home for spectacle-drive storytelling. Janeway went full Ellen Ripley in Macrocosm. The series embraced a bombastic narrative style with epic two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part IIYear of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II and Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Even standalone episodes like Thirty Days or Juggernaut or Timeless or Dragon’s Teeth seemed designed to showcase impressive (for the time) special effects.

A strong drive to make this sort of episode.

Indeed, special effects supervisor Adam Lebowitz argues that the transition to computer-generated imagery that happened around the third and fourth seasons of Voyager (and the fifth and sixth seasons of Deep Space Nine) emboldened the production team in terms of what they could actually put on screen:

Actually Voyager started off with both traditional miniature and CG work. Obviously Babylon 5 showed them it could be done, so it just took a few episodes of “all-CG” for them to eventually come around. I think the creature we did in Basics showed them how CG could deliver shots they would never have had the money for using traditional means. It took them a while to get comfortable with it and for the writers to realize they could put more imagination and “scale” in the shows. Honestly, I think Scorpion was the first time they rolled their sleeves up and just decided to have some fun with their new toy!

However, the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Sacrifice of Angels was quite literally the turning point in the Star Trek franchise — starting with that episode, the line was drawn in the sand and the visual effects teams were told “no more models.”

This, coupled with the assent of Brannon Braga to the position of showrunner, represented a significant change in the kind of stories that Star Trek could tell. Drive is a story that simply could not exist without this shift.

Hanger-in’ around.

Of course, the computer-generated imagery employed by Voyager was cutting edge at the time, but has not always aged especially well. The computer renderings appear a little smooth and simplistic, particularly compared to those employed in blockbuster cinema at the time or even on modern television. This is particularly apparent when used for establishing shots including computer-generated people; Drive includes one such sequence in the ship’s shuttle bay, and Voyager has used this approach for a number of planet-based establishing shots.

Nevertheless, Star Trek has come a long way since a sequence in Elaan of Troyius involving a Klingon warship and the Enterprise required so much postproduction that the second episode of the season to be shot became the twelfth episode of the season to be broadcast. Even in contrast to the model work employed on The Next Generation, advances in computer-generated special effects allow for more flexibility in terms of action beats involving space craft or interstellar phenomenon.

A Flying finish.

Drive is simply an episode that would not have been possible even five years earlier, in terms of delivering a story that requires this many special effects sequences involving this many space craft interacting with one another so dynamically. There is a debate to be had about whether this mode of storytelling represents an ideal for Star Trek, but there is no denying that Voyager has embraced it. Drive is an episode that largely hinges on special effects; on the malleability of the Delta Flyer model and the capacity to arrange (and move) computer-generated models in a variety of interesting ways.

Of course, the basic premise of Drive is absurd. Tom Paris enters the Delta Flyer in what amounts to a deep space race involving four rival powers. The race has become the symbol of a fragile peace between these alien powers. Of course, Drive doesn’t really tell the audience anything about these alien species or the region, or even the history of the tournament. It is really just an excuse to put Tom Paris in a snazzy new flight suit and to tell a decidedly pulpy story that begins with high-intensity deep-space racing and escalates to terrorism and assassination.

In an interview with Cinefantastique, Bryan Fuller explained the origins of Drive as rooted in a decidedly pulpy storytelling tradition:

“Drive was Mike Taylor’s opus. Mike wanted to do Death Race 2000 for quite some time. Finally we sat down and figured out how to do an Olympics-type event. We came up with a goodwill event idea to do this episode.”

Death Race 2000 is the infamous mid-seventies exploitation film produced by Roger Corman, something of a pulpy cult classic.

Never too far afield.

This makes a certain amount of sense as a Michael Taylor script. Taylor is perhaps best appreciated for his more cerebral and highbrow contributions to the Star Trek canon, particularly his credits on The Visitor or In the Pale Moonlight. Even on Voyager, Taylor has proven himself capable of elevating the material. Counterpoint is easily one of the best episodes that the series ever produced, and it benefits from taking the series and its characters entirely seriously. Taylor also developed the story for Blink of an Eye.

However, as strange as it is to imagine that Drive came from the same writer as The Visitor, it certainly fits with some of his other storytelling sensibilities. Taylor is a writer with a great deal of affection for pulp, which really shines through in his collaborations with another of the younger writers working on Voyager. Working with Bryan Fuller, Taylor scripted the delightful fifties homage Bride of Chaotica!, the time travel romp Relativity, the gonzo Stephen King homage Alice and the tonally awkward Kes revenge fantasy Fury. It seems fair to observe that Drive is of a piece with those works.

Passing the (Cyia) Batten.

As much as Taylor might be drawing inspiration from a cult seventies grindhouse hit with Drive, the episode also seems to tap into a number of contemporary anxieties. Voyager was always more firmly anchored in its time and place than many critics give it credit for, a reflection of Californian politics during the nineties. The Kazon arc in episodes like Initiations and Alliances tapped into California’s anxieties about race and young gangs. The Chute grappled with the state’s massive prison industrial complex. Displaced reflected the Golden States xenophobic nineties paranoia about immigration.

Drive seems to tap into a contemporary fascination with the idea of street racing. It reflects a lot of contemporaneous news coverage of racing tournaments that would be held in the city, in which young racers would drive enhanced vehicles through abandoned streets, competing for fortune and glory. Obviously, the race in Drive is a bit more above board than these late-night street racers, but the influence of this phenomenon on the script seems quite clear. After all, the race is over a relatively confined geographical area in short-range craft, around an obstacle course including various natural phenomena.

Maps to the stars.

Street racing was something of a national obsession during the nineties, but particularly in Los Angeles. As Sherry Joe Crosby reported in March 1997:

Mike McNulty’s knees were still trembling from the adrenaline rush. He had just won a 100-mph race on a quarter-mile stretch of De Soto Avenue — and the thrill of victory was intoxicating.

“It’s kind of scary, but it’s kind of good when you know you’re winning,” said McNulty, an 18-year-old North Hollywood grocery store clerk who drives a 1989 Mustang GT.

Every week across L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, McNulty and other amateur racers gather with their souped-up cars at fast-food parking lots and car washes, where they wager hundreds of dollars and even their car pink slips on speed.

The stakes are high — as high as life and death itself.

While these events were obviously dangerous and illegal, they were also exciting. They attracted public speculation and attention.

Starting gun.

This interest in street racing would inspire The Fast and the Furious, a low-tier urban western that would eventually develop into a globe-trotting blockbuster mega-franchise. Released in June 2001, seven months after Drive, it could reasonably be argued that The Fast and the Furious was one of the last films of the nineties. It was adapted from a news story in Vibe magazine, looking at New York drag racer Rafael Estevez. Indeed, there were reports of street racing taking place all over the country; Baltimore, Miami, Chicago.

The Fast and the Furious was a portrait of masculinity in crisis, young men in souped-up cars but with nowhere to go. As with race in Drive, the racing in The Fast and the Furious occasionally seemed to exist to buttress a fragile peace between opposing ethnic groups. Even beyond The Fast and the Furious, the idea of street racing was permeating pop culture at the turn of the millennium. One week after the broadcast of Drive, Rockstar Games would release the video game Midnight Club set within the world of urban racing. There was something in the air.

“So… eh… are they coming around again?”

Voyager was very much of its cultural moment, a reflection of the cultural landscape from which it had emerged. Drive seemed to tap into something in the zeitgeist, that turn-of-the-millennium image of young men who were literally going nowhere as fast as their engines could take them. This is itself a potent metaphor for Voyager itself, a show about a crew heading towards a fixed destination, but without any tangible sense of forward momentum. It is perhaps revealing that Paris and Torres don’t actually finish the race in Drive, instead cutting the engines and drifting while they attempt to get their lives in order.

Perhaps this also suggests the key weakness in Drive. Tom Paris has never been the character that Voyager wants him to be. Repeatedly, Voyager has returned to the idea of Tom Paris as a rebel; Caretaker, Ex Post Facto, Investigations, Vis á Vis, Thirty Days. In short, Tom Paris is the kind of character that the series thinks can anchor this millennial story about hot shot young men going around in circles, a rebel looking for his place in the world. However, the issue is that Robert Duncan MacNeill has never convincingly played that version of the character. MacNeill plays Paris as a man indulging his midlife crisis by buying a sports car.

Marriage of inconvenience.

Drive is at its weakest when it tries to tie its pulpy premise to bigger ideas, whether in terms of plot or character. Drive is notable for being the episode where Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres finally get married. This is only the franchise’s second wedding between credited leads, following You Are Cordially Invited… In fact, this sort of long-form character development is so out of form for Voyager that MacNeill recalled laughing at the idea in an interview with Starlog:

“We were talking about life and making small talk,” the actor remembers. “And I said, ‘So, what’s going on this year?’ They looked at me and said, ‘Well, we’re going to have you and B’Elanna get married. Then she’s going to get pregnant and you’re going to have a baby. And, if we get back home, you’ll be bringing back a baby.’ They spilled all of this out at once and I looked at them and laughed. I didn’t believe them. I really did not believe them. When we started the season, they had the whole journey for the characters in their heads. That has given them some strength, a foundation to work from. So we’re not floundering every episode, as we did for a season or two before that. There was no goal. We were just kind of seeing what would happen, so nothing happened with the relationship.”

The relationship between Paris and Torres has moved largely in fits and starts. It was teased a little bit in third season episodes like The Swarm or Alter Ego, before being articulated in the clumsy and messy Blood Fever. The series then left the couple in limbo until Day of Honour forced the issue, confirming that they were in a loving and stable relationship in Scientific Method. Since then, the pair have been a fixture of Voyager, but with no real sense of momentum.

Pilot scheme.

In many ways, Paris and Torres encapsulate one of the big issues with Voyager, the sense that show is never actually moving forwards. The ship is stranded on the other side of the galaxy, potentially a lifetime away from contact with friends and families. Ignoring plot contrivances and the expectation of a seven-season run of a Berman-era Star Trek series, there is no reason that any of the characters should ever expect to see home again. As such, these characters should be preparing to live the rest of their lives on the ship.

In theory, that means tough questions for the crew of Voyager. These people are no longer just crew mates assembled by chance, they are all effectively life partners to one another. They are neighbours. They are not a military or scientific vessel, they are a floating city. Characters should be entering relationships with one another, starting families together, sharing spaces. Paris and Torres should be just one example of this, one illustration of how the crew are adapting to the idea of a seventy- (or even just thirty-) year journey together.

An engin(eer)ious solution.

However, Paris and Torres seem stuck in place. They are in a relationship together, but there’s no real sense of the two of them growing closer together or making long-term plans with one another. It is suggested that the two characters still live in separate quarters, based on episodes like Juggernaut or Memorial. There’s never been a sense of the pair thinking about become more than just a conventional and generic couple. None of the modern sexual ambiguities of Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, nor any moves towards becoming a more traditional family unit.

Course: Oblivion famously opened with the wedding of Torres and Paris, in one of the most pointed and deliberate fake-outs across Voyager‘s seven-season run. That teaser sequence seemed to hint to the audience that something was wrong. Naturally, it was all an elaborate misdirection; these weren’t the real Torres and Paris. It played almost as a critique of Voyager, suggesting that the only way that these characters could actually grow was if the production team promised to reset everything at the end of the episode by revealing them as clones and blowing them all up.

It is very revealing that Voyager waited until the start of the final season to allow Paris and Torres to get married. It perhaps speaks to the show’s inherent conservatism that the pair had to get married before they moved in with one another. Indeed, as Dawson explained to TV Zone, the marriage was arguably necessary as a stepping stone to the story about Torres’ pregnancy:

“All this is just the tip of the iceberg for Tom and B’Elanna,” says Roxann Dawson, who plays the half-human, half-Klingon Torres. “There’s still the actual birth of their child to look forward to and all that follows. I feel it was important for them to finally make a commitment. This was also necessary if they [the show’s producers] were going to follow through with the pregnancy storyline. I mean, Tom and B’Elanna had to be married beforehand, otherwise what kind of message would we be sending to our viewing audience?”

To be fair to Voyager, Deep Space Nine also made sure that its major characters were married before having children. Dax and Worf got married in You Are Cordially Invited… before announcing plans to have a child together in Tears of the Prophets. Sisko and Yates got married in ‘Til Death Do Us Part shortly before Yates discovered that she was pregnant in The Dogs of War.

Join the club.

Torres would become pregnant in Lineage, but the seventh season of Voyager would be structured in such a way that she would only give birth in Endgame. She was delivered at the last possible minute, as Voyager was in the transwarp conduit that would deliver it to Earth. As such, Voyager never had to explore any of the potentially interesting ideas about what it meant for Torres and Paris to form a family in the deepest reaches of the Delta Quadrant. It was a very cynical move, but one entirely in keeping with how Voyager approaches long-form characterisation.

As such, Drive is unconvincing in its efforts to explore the relationship between Paris and Torres. The early acts of the episode are interesting, when Paris completely forgets about an important date with Torres in order to focus on his obsession of the moment. It initially appears like Drive is cannily avoiding melodrama, refusing to portray Torres as emotional or hysterical or aggressive in how she responds to the news. She is clearly disappointed, but she is also understanding. “It’s all right,” she tells him. “The holodeck will always be here. This race won’t.”

“You know, I found that whenever my relationship was in trouble, I’d just become bullying and controlling. It was a lot easier when I was dating a two-year-old.”

It’s a very even-handed and mature response. It’s a considered compromise from Torres. She is hurt by the fact that Paris forgot, and doesn’t try especially hard to hide it. However, she also cares enough about her partner to understand that this is important to him and that he should have the opportunity to do something that matters. This is a very grown-up approach to interpersonal relationships, one that suggests the sort of work and consideration that is necessary for two people to be together; the push-and-pull between individual wants and desires, and a partner’s understanding of those factors.

Unfortunately, Drive very quickly undercuts this clever characterisation and veers directly into heightened melodrama. Torres visits Neelix in the messhall and confesses her frustrations and anxieties. “He just entered this big race, and he’s really excited and, I don’t want to spoil it for him,” Torres explains to Neelix. When Neelix points out that Paris would drop it all if Torres asked him to, she agrees, “Probably. But he should be able to do what makes him happy.” She understands that just because he would drop it all doesn’t mean that he should drop it all.

The good (relation)ship Voyager.

However, then the episode drops the romantic subplot atomic bomb. “It’s time I faced facts, Neelix. Tom and I just don’t belong together,” Torres states. “There’s a Klingon phrase my grandmother used to use. Mok’tah. It means bad match. That’s what Tom and I are. I just hate that it’s taken me three years to realise it.” All of a sudden, the episode dramatically reverses the dynamic of those earlier compromises. Suddenly, Torres is no longer a loving partner who cares enough about her partner to give up their time together for him.

With that reflection, Torres is suddenly considering dumping her long-term partner without actually talking to him about the issues that she sees in their relationship. In the space of a handful of lines with Neelix, the relationship between Paris and Torres transforms from a nuanced depiction of a grown-up relationship to a heightened melodrama about people who refuse to clearly communicate with one another. It also serves to generate stakes for the episode, asking the audience to wonder whether the relationship between Torres and Paris could possibly survive the episode.

Putting the work in.

Ignoring how contrived and mean-spirited that set-up feels, it is also disingenuous. Part of the issue is that the audience hasn’t really spent enough time with Paris and Torres as a couple to properly assess what they mean to one another. Following Day of Honour, there are very few stories about Paris and Torres as a couple. Across the three seasons that the couple have been dating, they tended to have individually-focused stories in which the other only plays a small supporting role. Paris was a small part of Nothing Human or Barge of the Dead. Torres barely registered in episodes like Gravity.

Once the characters on Deep Space Nine started pairing off, it was customary to dedicated episodic subplots to their adventures. Sisko frets over Yates moving to the station in Indiscretion, and worries about her being a Maquis spy in For the Cause. Dax and Worf go to Risa together in Let He Who Is Without Sin…, babysit together in Time’s Orphan, take an undercover mission together in Change of Heart. Even Rom and Leeta go through their ups and downs, with Rom worrying about Leeta taking advantage of him in Ferengi Love Songs and finally getting married in Call to Arms. There are few similar Paris and Torres plots.

A disgrace to the race.

Even accepting these stakes as presented, the audience likely understands that Voyager is unlikely to break-up Torres and Paris. Ironically, that would represent a much bigger change to the status quo than having them get married. Instead of just interacting as they have for the past three seasons, every scene between the two characters would have to be laced with subtext, and the audience would expect Voyager to put them back together in time for the series finale. Breaking up Torres and Paris would actually be more work for Voyager than keeping them together, so it is unlikely to happen.

Similarly, the episode doesn’t even commit to the idea of the relationship between Paris and Torres. Their marriage is practically an afterthought. There is no opportunity to show the ceremony, with the episode closing as the couple embark on their honeymoon in the Delta Flyer. It all feels very perfunctory, to the point that Paris and Torres are both wearing their uniforms while on honeymoon together, implying that they went home from the ceremony, changed out of their clothes (or dress uniforms) and got back into their work clothes before running away for some time together.

Tilting at windmills.

In her interview with TV Zone, Dawson defended the decision not to show (or focus on) the wedding as the ceremony had already been shown in Course: Oblivion:

“I thought Drive was good. Some people complained they didn’t get to see the actual wedding but I don’t think you really needed to. It would’ve taken valuable time away from what actually brought Tom and B’Elanna to the altar. Also, we’ve seen them get married before in another episode [Course: Oblivion] where we witnessed the entire ceremony in all its details. Of course, it was an alternate reality, but it was still the same characters. It would have been unfair for the longtime viewers to have to sit through it all over again.”

This is a cop-out of an answer. It doesn’t explain how what should be a life-altering decision for the characters is thrown into the final act of an episode about a high-stakes space race.

The ten-minute engagement.

The speed at which Torres and Paris get married hints at how frustrating the relationship can be. Torres and Paris do not get married because it is the next logical step in their relationship, or because they’ve given it a lot of thought and consideration. They get married because they have a desperate conversation when Torres attempts to dump Paris, which is interrupted by a major crisis. Torres jokes at one point, “I thought you only asked it because we were about to explode.” It is a sly aside, but it creates the sense that the speed of the wedding is not motivated by love, but in response to a perceived crisis.

This is not a particularly healthy approach to matrimony. There is a reason why engagements can last a long time in real life, as couples get used to living with one another and accept the reality of their relationship before making what should be a long-term commitment. On Deep Space Nine, outside of episodes like The Muse, the regular characters all broach the prospect of marriage an episode or two before the ceremony itself. Dax promises to marry Worf in Call to Arms, while Sisko first suggests marriage to Yates in Penumbra. All of these feel much more organic than the marriage of Paris and Torres in Drive.

Piecing it all together.

Similarly, Drive struggles a little bit with the heightened stakes that Taylor tries to bake into the episode. Nominally, Drive is an episode about Paris competing in a race. Those stakes should be enough to sustain an episode. Deep Space Nine has anchored entire episodes in the idea of the cast goofing around together without the need for some massive external threat to motivate them. Take Me Out to the Holosuite was an episode where there was nothing more at stake than Sisko’s pride. Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang did put Vic Fontaine in danger, but never threatened the station or a regular cast member.

Even Voyager has occasionally offered these sorts of low-stakes stories, such as Seven’s flirtation with romance in Someone to Watch Over Me. Unfortunately, these sorts of stories are the exception rather than the rule. Drive sets up these its nominally low stakes in the early scenes between Paris and Janeway. “Now that we’re in this race, we’re in it to win,” Janeway assures Paris. “After all, Starfleet’s honour is at stake.” It’s undoubtedly goofy, but there is nothing wrong with goofy. There should be an episode in this.

A strong course of action.

However, Drive has already begun adding weight to what should be a simple race. The race is not just a race, it is a profound philosophical statement. “Captain, this race is more than just a sporting event,” Paris tells Janeway. “Until recently this region was a war zone. Four different species fought for nearly a century to control it.” Kim continues, “Now, for the first time, they’re competing peacefully to commemorate the new treaty that ended the war.” This adds a lot of weight to the goofy premise. Then again, there is precedent for sporting events to anchor lasting peace, at least in popular narratives of history.

Interestingly enough, Drive marks a strange point of strong engagement by the seventh season of Voyager in the utopian ideals of Star Trek. Since Jeri Taylor took over during the third season, Voyager has consciously defined itself as a particularly archetypal sort of Star Trek series, with generic Star Trek plots that could easily have been told on The Next Generation. However, the seventh season of Voyager seems particularly engaged with idea of Star Trek as a utopian presentation of the future. In fact, the seventh season repeatedly and consciously evokes the romantic ideal of the Federation.

Richard Bashir’s attempt to escape prosecution is going remarkably well.

In Drive, Paris tells Janeway, “This race embodies everything the Federation values. Peaceful coexistence, free exchange of ideas…” Sure, Paris is just trying to get Janeway to sign off on his participation, but there’s just enough sincerity beneath the surface. There’s a sense that Drive believes completely and unironically in what the Federation stands for, in a way that bubbles through the rest of the seventh season as a whole. It isn’t especially subtle, it is explicitly baked into the premise of several of these stories.

The Void finds Janeway establishing a miniature Delta Quadrant alliance, musing at the end of the episode, “It was almost like being part of a Federation again.” (She cites “the Federation Charter” as a major influence in founding the alliance in the episode.) Natural Law is the kind of old-school “Prime Directive” episode that dates back to the earliest episodes of The Next Generation, evoking “General Order Number One” in a manner that evokes Justice or Pen Pals or Who Watches the Watchers? It is represents a sort of an escalation of the “archetypal Star Trek” vibe that Voyager has been cultivating since its third season.

Fed up.

Perhaps the best example of this is Friendship One, which offers both a literal and metaphorical connection back to the Federation. In literal terms, the episode finds Voyager asked to recover an old Starfleet probe sent to a distant world. In metaphorical terms, Friendship One exists largely as a morality tale that justifies the existence of the Prime Directive. More than that, Friendship One exists as a companion piece to One Small Step, as an example of Voyager excavating the internal history of the Star Trek universe.

This actually works reasonably well in thematic terms, as the ship and crew get close to home. After all, Voyager has always been a nostalgic show about looking backwards rather than pushing outwards. It makes sense that Voyager would feel an intensifying connection to the Federation (and to the nostalgic archetypal utopian Star Trek ideal that it represents) as it enters the home stretch. Of course, these engagements are largely superficial and generic, often directly invoking the connection between the Federation and the franchise’s utopianism rather than interrogating it as Deep Space Nine did.

The golf between these societies is huge.

Friendship One would also suggest another possible explanation for this powerful nostalgia for the Federation running through the seventh season of Voyager, the looming arrival of Star Trek: Enterprise. The fifth live action Star Trek series was only a year away, with Brannon Braga having moved away from Voyager to focus on building up a writers’ room for Enterprise. There was considerable buzz and excitement around the franchise’s first prequel, and there are aspects of the final season of Voyager that seem to be consciously playing into that; establishing the importance of the Federation before jumping back to its origin.

At the same time, this emphasis on the race as a sort of a proto-Federation for the region provides the necessary stakes for the episode, when Irina’s ship malfunctions and her co-pilot is incapacitated. Tuvok discovers evidence of foul play. “This may be more than a simple case of cheating, Captain,” Ambassador O’Zaal suggests. “I think someone’s trying to end the peace.” O’Zaal’s suspicions prove correct, when it is revealed that Irina is planning a terrorist strike at the finish line, turning the Delta Flyer into a suicide bomb.

Trying to start a race war.

The episode keeps Irina’s motivations suitably vague and ominous, although they are framed in opposition to the broad liberal humanism associated with the Federation and the race itself. “Not everyone is as comfortable mixing with other species as you are, Harry,” Irina remarks to Kim. “Some of us believe it was better when we were separate.” There is no larger context provided, no greater motivation. There is simply a vague philosophical statement there, with no real explanation of why Irina believes what she believes, and what drove her to this point.

It is very superficial, underscoring how shallow this whole plot point is. There is no need for the terrorism or the attempted bombing. They just exist to escalate the stakes beyond the race itself. This is a shame. There is something to be said for watching characters enjoy themselves, even when there are no lives at immediate risk. Voyager is entering its final season, and the show should trust its cast enough to carry something light and enjoyable on its own terms. Then again, it took Deep Space Nine several years to grow confident enough to embrace this mode of storytelling, and Voyager has never been Deep Space Nine.

“You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly commentate.”

Still, allowing for these sizable flaws with the episode, there is a lot to enjoy about Drive. The episode seems quite aware of its own ridiculousness. Although a lot of the jokes are broad and hokey, there is something incredibly appealing in Neelix’s enthusiastic “race updates” and the way that Tuvok’s initial disinterest in the race gradually morphs into eager interest. Even if the emotional pay-off of the episode feels unearned, there is something nice about watching Torres and Paris spend time together, Torres doing something that Paris loves. A few more episodes like this might have sold the marriage.

More than that, there’s a cheekiness in some of the writing, particularly the knowing and winking way that Drive never tries that hard to conceal its antagonist. Asaan exists as a possible red herring early in the script, but he disappears quite quickly from the narrative once he has denied the sabotage of Irina’s vessel. Indeed, the script rather knowingly tips its hand when Kim falls for Irina. On discovering Kim has found his way on to her team, Paris quips, “I was just going to congratulate you. She’s not a Borg, she’s not a hologram, and she’s not dead. Looks like you might have finally found yourself the perfect woman.”

“To be fair, this still ended better than my last three alien hook-ups.”

That line all but confirms that Irina will turn out to be the villain of the piece, by acknowledging that it is actually impossible for Kim’s romances to end in anything other than brutal disappointment. After all, Kim has endured Favourite Son, The Disease, Ashes to Ashes. To be honest, it might be best that he got this bad romance out of the way so early in the final season. The line demonstrates a canny self-awareness that was often lacking from Voyager, and demonstrates that the writers have been paying enough attention to pick up on their own storytelling crutches.

Of course, the reveal is still somewhat forced and Irina is still under-developed, but that little knowing acknowledgement suggests that the episode is at least in on the joke. That is perhaps the best thing that can be said about Drive. The episode is a mess, and one that suffers when it tries to engage with anything approaching a big idea, but it also has an infectious energy and playfulness that carries it much further along than the basic premise arguably merits. Drive is hardly an exceptional episode of television, but it occasionally feels fun.

Approaching the race with such Ziy(a)l.

The just about gets it across the finish line.

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4 Responses

  1. They knew they could never top the Worf-Jadzia wedding. So they didn’t even try.

    And you could say that it was a foregone conclusion, that a series produced as a quick-and-dirty cash-in on TNG, wouldn’t try very hard.

    You can see the same thing happening on the CW, with regard to the superhero craze.

    • I remember that “You Are Cordially Invited” wasn’t that great of an episode though.

      • I don’t mind it too much. I think it works well as a pallet cleanser, and it showcases Moore as a comedic writer. And there are lots of little touches that I love. (Individual scenes, mostly; Worf and Martok discussing Klingon multiculturalism, for example.)

    • I don’t know. I feel like Piller wanted to try hard to do something new with Voyager in the first two years. Well, the first half of the first year and then the second year. He just made such a gigantic clustef&%k of it and received no moral support for his writing staff. And I’m also sympathetic to Taylor over-correcting in the opposite direction as a response to that.

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