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Star Trek: Voyager – The Void (Review)

The Void feels like a belated mea culpa on the part of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is unfair and an exaggeration to say that The Void finally delivers on the potential of Voyager. After all, there have been several earlier episodes that flirted with following the basic premise of the show to its logical conclusion; Alliances, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, Night, Counterpoint, Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II. Of course, many of those episodes ultimately ended with a repudiation of that premise, a retreat back to the safety of a familiar formula. Voyager has always been a television show terrified of the implications of its own starting point.

Conflict aVoidant.

Nevertheless, there is a strong sense that The Void looks and feels a lot more like Voyager should have looked and felt from the outset. It is the story of explorers trapped in a strange environment with limited resources, facing tough choices in order to survive, and desperate to forge alliance to keep them afloat. The eponymous “void” feels like a metaphor for the Delta Quadrant itself, the teaser playing like a truncated version of Caretaker. An intrepid crew plucked from familiarity and thrown into a hostile world of scavengers and pirates, stripped of their comforts.

Of course, The Void ultimately retreats from this premise. Much like the eponymous anomaly is just a pocket universe, this exploration of the show’s premise is just an episodic diversion. If it took Voyager six-and-a-half seasons to find a way to explore its core premise, it only takes forty-five minutes to wrap a bow around it and return to business as usual. The Void is a fluke and an aberration. Even ten episodes from away from the finale, Voyager can only briefly imagine how things ever might have been different.

In the Void, here’s a ‘noid…

To a certain extent, The Void feels trapped between the past and the future. As with Friendship One later in the seventh season, it seems like an episode that exists in the shadow of Star Trek: Enterprise. This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, there has always been some sense of continuity between the various Star Trek shows, particularly in those moments where there was a clear handover from one generation to another. There was always some desire to tie the past to the future; to buttress what was to come by reference to what had been.

To pick an obvious example, the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation had a very strong connection to its own two younger siblings. After all, this was the first time a Star Trek show had left the air while another was being broadcast. The Maquis played an important part in episodes like Journey’s End or Preemptive Strike, tying together the three twenty-fourth century spin-offs. The character of Quark became the most unlikely ambassador between the three series, appearing in both Firstborn and Caretaker as a way of tethering each of the three shows to one another.

Power failure.

The seventh season of Voyager marks a similar point of transition. Although produced by the same creative team of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, Enterprise was clearly intended to serve as a new departure for the Star Trek franchise. Certainly, Broken Bow was intended to be a very different sort of Star Trek pilot. More than that, the fact that Enterprise would be a prequel series marked a clear point of departure from Voyager. There would be no linear continuity between the two, no sense of organic progression from one show to the next.

Certainly, there could be none of the narrative threading or character cameos that tethered the three twenty-fourth century Star Trek shows to one another. The unique setting meant that Picard couldn’t show up as he had in Emissary, and that Riker’s evil twin could not drop by as he had in Defiant. Tellingly, Broken Bow had to look to Star Trek: First Contact for its torch-passing cameo, recruiting James Cromwell to reprise his role as Zefram Cochrane to help launch the eponymous starship.

“Have you seen Damage? If not, this’ll all seem very new to you.”

That said, there was considerable overlap between the three twenty-fourth century Star Trek shows and the first season of Enterprise. Regulars and recurring guest stars from the other Star Trek series tended to pop up quite frequently in that first season. Voyager regular Ethan Phillips played a Ferengi in Acquisition. That episode also featured Jeffrey Combs, who popped up as the Andorian Shran in The Andorian Incident. Most overtly, Oasis featured a guest appearance from René Auberjonois, while also sharing a few similarities with the Odo-centric episode Shadowplay.

The connections between Voyager and Enterprise were more abstract than literal; veteran production team members, familiar guest stars, and a shared outlook. After all, Voyager was a show about a crew making a long nostalgic journey back towards a home that they recognised, and what was Enterprise itself by a long nostalgic jump backwards towards the most familiar iteration of the Star Trek franchise? At the same time, a palpable anxiety runs through the seventh season of Voyager about the impending arrival of the first season of Enterprise.

“Look, neither of us is going to get to cameo in Enterprise.”

There are a number of possible reasons for this. Most notably, the production team working on Voyager might have been worried about being overshadowed by Enterprise. During the final season of Voyager, there was considerable mainstream media attention devoted to the impending launch of a new Star Trek series. Michael Logan was writing about the show that would become Enterprise in TV Guide. CNN was eagerly reporting on casting rumours and polling fan opinion. Variety was reporting on the boost that the new Star Trek series could give to UPN.

There was more to it than that. While the cast and crew of The Next Generation undoubtedly spent a lot of their final season putting up with a lot of press and attention devoted to the launch of Voyager, there was no denying that The Next Generation was a huge cultural success; the final season earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series and the crew would transition directly into a big budget feature film with Star Trek: Generations. There was no anxiety that The Next Generation would be eclipsed or replaced by its successor.

Star Warrior.

In contrast, the seventh season of Voyager could feel a little neglected and overshadowed, as if it were coasting towards a tidy conclusion to make room for a younger and sexier version of Star Trek. Notably, showrunner Brannon Braga had stepped back from the day-to-day running of the final season of Voyager to focus on the first season of Enterprise, making it clear where his priorities lay. The seventh season of Voyager was being showrun by Kenneth Biller, who had previously left at the end of the fifth season to make room for Ronald Moore’s shortlived time on staff.

With all of this in mind, it makes sense that the production team on Voyager would have one eye on the development of Enterprise. It should be noted that various details of Enterprise entered the public consciousness during the seventh season of Voyager. Ethan Phillips teased the concept in at United Fan Con in England in November 2000. Although no longer involved with the franchise, Moore acknowledged the rumours in December 2000. Enterprise would not officially get a name and official summary until March 2001.

“We are detecting large quantities of shade being cast.”

Voyager showrunner Kenneth Biller acknowledged that he was aware of how Enterprise was developing in Pasadena in January 2001, telling assembled reporters, “They have a script and there is a concept. … I know what it is, but I’m not allowed to tell you what it is. I wish I could, but I can’t.” As such, it is no surprise that little bits of the premise of Enterprise would work their way into the final season of Voyager, most obviously with a plot built around a probe that predates the Federation in Friendship One.

However, the echoes were a lot deeper than that. Voyager had resisted the urge to do a show about Klingons for more than six seasons, so it seems strange that Prophecy should arrive less than a year before Broken Bow depicted the disastrous first contact between the Klingons and the Federation. More than that, one of the earliest and most persistent rumours about Enterprise was that it would be a show about “the birth of the Federation.” Indeed, the rumour had been reported by TrekToday as early as November 1999. As such, The Void feels a little pointed.

Tonnes of funnels.

The Void is transparently a show about the founding of a federation, metaphorically standing in for the Federation. Janeway repeatedly cites “the Articles of the Federation.” The episode’s original title was literally “Federation.” In Cinefantastique, Bryan Fuller summarises the episode explicitly in those terms:

“That was a pitch that Raf Green got, that he brought in and as very excited about. It was basically to put Janeway in a situation here she had to assemble her own federation to survive.”

As such, The Void feels very much like an effort on the part of Voyager to preemptively beat Enterprise at its own game, to demonstrate that Voyager is just as capable of telling a “birth of the Federation” story as Enterprise could ever hope to be, without the luxury of a prequel setting to justify it.

Putting the “lie” in “Alliance.”

Indeed, as with the destruction of the ancient D7 cruiser in Prophecy, there is a hint of tragedy to all of this. Despite the initial hype around Enterprise as a show about the “birth of the Federation”, there was relatively little engagement or development of that idea in the early seasons of the show, outside of allusions in time travel episodes like Cold Front or Shockwave, Part I and Shockwave, Part II. It was only in the final season with episodes like Babel One and United that Enterprise really developed into a show about the founding of the Federation.

As a result, The Void is arguably responding to a version of Enterprise that would not actually exist until its fourth and final season. There is something very wry in this, but also very compelling. The Void suggests that Star Trek does not need to disappear into its own past in order to recapture the sense of optimism and utopianism associated with the franchise. The Void suggests that Voyager can still be competent and engaging Star Trek without needing to journey backwards into the franchise’s own history and back story. To a certain extent, The Void beats Enterprise at its own game.

“Boy, television reception is really crap out here, right?”

There is a rub, of course. The Void has one eye on the future, gesturing towards Enterprise and hoping to prove that Voyager can do anything that Enterprise might hope to do. However, it also turns its gaze backwards. The Void might proactively condemn the impending failures of the first two seasons of Enterprise, but it more overtly damns the preceding six seasons of Voyager. After all, The Void argues that it is not necessary to travel back in time to tell a story about utopian idealism, while drawing attention to how rarely Voyager has managed to tell these sorts of stories.

As with other episodes like Worst Case Scenario or Course: Oblivion, The Void effectively tries to construct an alternate and more compelling version of Voyager within the space of a forty-minute episode. The premise of The Void as an episode is effectively the premise of Voyager as a television series: a ship is thrown into a strange region of space and forced to fend for itself, forced to interrogate its priorities and to wrestle with its moral prerogatives.

Food for thought.

There are several points in The Void where the words “the void” might easily be replaced with “the Delta Quadrant” to pitch an alternate pilot for Voyager. Those conversations often feel like conversations that should have been more assertively argued during the show’s first season. At one point, Chakotay tells Janeway, “We want to be clear about what our policy’s going to be while we’re here in the void.” When Janeway tries to forge an alliance, Garon warns her, “Good intentions are like deuterium reserves. They tend to get lost in the void.”

The void is a microcosm for the Delta Quadrant. It is a chaotic region of space, without the rigid power structures associated with the Alpha Quadrant. Like the Delta Quadrant, the void is a Hobbesian environment populated by hostile aliens desperately scavenging for resources. Voyager is attacked by two ships upon its arrival. General Valen intervenes, but makes his own intentions clear. Valen suggests that region is populated by “dangerous predators.” This is just a more intense version of how Voyager has portrayed the Delta Quadrant.

Talking in circles.

This comparison is most obvious if the premise of Voyager is treated metaphorically rather than literally, in keeping with George A. Gonzalez‘s interpretation of Voyager in Lost in the Developing World:

Star Trek: Voyager represents a metaphor of being lost in the so-called Third World. Through this metaphor, Voyager focuses on two specific motifs: pragmatism and race relations. The show begins when the star ship Voyager is transported seventy thousand light years from Federation space. It is estimated that to get back to Earth it would take Voyager seventy-five years using the propulsion means at its disposal. During the course of its daunting effort to traverse this massive expanse of space, the Voyager crew encounters numerous situations fraught with moral/ethnic quandaries.

All of these core aspects of Voyager‘s starting premise are reflected back at the series in The Void. To a certain extent, The Void might be best described as “what if Voyager did Voyager?”, the series taking its own starting premise and running with it.

“We’ve found that turning down the lighting makes my cooking fifty percent more palatable.”

After all, Voyager retreated very quickly from the more interesting and engaging aspects of its premise. It was nominally a show about two very different crews forging a precarious alliance, but both crews were wearing Starfleet uniforms by the end of Caretaker. Any suggestion that a lone ship on the far side of the galaxy might have to ration energy or food was quickly dismissed; it was confirmed that the holodecks ran on a separate power feed in Parallax, and Torres could handily build a dilithium refinery onboard without disrupting any of the ship’s functions in Phage.

Any crew members who could not conform to Starfleet operating procedures were either kicked off the ship in State of Flux or brought into line in Learning Curve. Despite hints of fraternisation between members of the crew in Elogium, the birth of Naomi Wildman in Deadlock would be the only time that a child was born on the ship while it was in the Delta Quadrant. Paris and Torres would be the only crew members to get married during the trip, tying the know in Drive.

“Don’t let my reptilian appearance, senior military rank, or dark uniform fool you… I’m really a decent guy.”

Most obviously, the show consciously shut down any exploration of what it would be like to be a single Starfleet vessel stranded in the Delta Quadrant without any support. Janeway refused to compromise on the Prime Directive in Prime Factors, effectively ruling out any debate about the necessity of trade or partnership with native species. Similarly, Janeway refused to consider any long-term cooperation with native species in Alliances, preventing any meaningful cultural exchange or evolution.

Despite the fact that Voyager was supposedly a show about a crew trapped in hostile space without any support, the ship’s crew lived lives of luxury. Janeway and her senior staff would frequently host lavish parties to welcome guests in episodes like Remember or Someone to Watch Over Me. The crew would indulge in frequent holographic adventures in stories like Heroes and Demons or Fair Haven. Tom Paris even got to build his own special shuttle craft in Extreme Risk. The crew were able to design a new astrometrics lab for Seven of Nine in Year of Hell, Part I.

Shedding some light on the matter.

Watching Voyager, there was a strong sense that this was a crew that never knew hardship. When they did know hardship, it was frequently erased or rewritten. The damage done to the ship in episodes like Deadlock or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II was conveniently reset through plot contrivance. The damage inflicted on the ship in episodes like The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II or Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II was conveniently tidied away at the end of the episode. The characters of Voyager have had a very lucky and privileged existence.

The Void is very consciously aware of this. It is telling that the teaser opens with four members of the senior staff being treated to a lavish and luxurious dinner. “Pinot noir, Commander?” Neelix asks at one point. Chakotay responds, “I’ll have another glass of the Chardonnay.” This is very much a typical day on Voyager, where the toughest choice that the crew have to make is between the Pinot noir and the Chardonnay. This is quite removed from life in the Delta Quadrant as revealed in Caretaker, where even clean water is considered a luxury item.

Nothing to wine about.

Naturally, the teaser throws all of this into chaos. The ship is hurled into a strange region of space. Notably, the opening sequence makes a point to focus on the damage caused to this idyllic dinner setting. The illusion of civility is shatter. The life of luxury is destroyed. Glasses are thrown from the table. The waiting staff is knocked to the floor. The meal is interrupted. This feels very much like a statement of purpose from The Void, an acknowledgement that the crew of Voyager will have to face the reality of life in the Delta Quadrant.

All of this echoes back to the first season, to the point when Voyager decided that it would not explore these sorts of questions or play with these sorts of ideas. Notably, The Void includes some very heavy-handed callbacks to those early seasons. When Seven of Nine discovers that the EMH has taken the luxury of naming one of the strange creatures that lives in the void, she wryly notes, “In six years you haven’t chosen a name for yourself, but you’ve given Fantome one in a few days.”

Somebody is going to have to clean this up…

Although a frequent point of discussion in early seasons – notably in episodes like Heroes and Demons or Lifesigns or Real Life – the EMH’s anonymity has not been explicitly broached for a long time. Indeed, the invocation of that old debate in The Void seems to signal that the episode is hoping to relegislate some of the other abandoned core concepts of Voyager. Most notably, The Void is a show about the challenges of surviving in a hostile environment while preserving one’s principles, which probably should have been a core part of Voyager from the outset.

The Void does a good job selling the sense of desperation about the crew’s situation. “How long will our reserves last?” Chakotay asks at one point. Torres replies, “If we shut down life support on all but a few decks, deactivate astrometrics, turbolifts, ration replicator use, maybe a week.” There is a palpable sense of desperation to all this, which has very rarely featured in Voyager. There is a sense that the crew are in a genuinely precarious situation.

Approaching the situation from a new angle.

Director Mike Vejar helps to sell this idea. The lighting on the standing sets is turned down low, creating a mounting sense of dread. It removes a lot of the bright and cheerful sterility associated with Voyager. The sets might be as clean as they usually are, but everything appears murkier. Vejar has always been one of the franchise directors with the strongest sense of visual style, having directed episodes like Empok Nor. Throughout The Void, he uses odd angles and dim lighting to render familiar sets unsettling and uncomfortable. He also uses intense close-ups to similar effect.

The Void benefits from Vejar’s direction in other respects. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Star Trek franchise was very aesthetically conservative by the standards of contemporaneous television. The franchise was very old-fashioned in its storytelling. This was particularly true on Voyager, which frequently seemed stuck in an early nineties mode of television. It really shouldn’t be impressive when a television show uses music and montage instead of laboured exposition, but the use of the technique in Counterpoint and The Void is so rare that it deserves acknowledgement.

Close call.

Writers Raf Green and James Kahn deserve credit for the script, developed from a story by Raf Green and Kenneth Biller. The Void is structured cleanly enough as a progression of events that build in an organic and logical manner. Again, it seems strange that this deserves praise, but the structuring of Voyager episodes tends to be haphazard and chaotic. In The Void, there is a clear build through the story. Ideas are seeded and paid off, set up in advance before they come into play later.

This is obvious in a number of small but meaningful choices. The ship depletes its energy on falling into the void, but it is very clever to raise the stakes with a botched escape attempt at the end of the first act; it provides a clear sense of escalation. Similarly, the Hierarchy’s eavesdropping technology is neatly set up several scenes before it provides motivating information at the climax. This is a much better structural choice than the decision to hold back the reveal of “the nehret” until the final ten minutes of Prophecy, to pick a random example.

Not a vermin, but a ver(y-cultured)-man.

All of this serves as a springboard into forcing Janeway to have the kinds of conversations that Voyager has largely been avoid for the previous six seasons. When Janeway refuses to raid Valen’s ship, Tuvok and Chakotay confront her about it. “You think we should have taken Valen’s food,” she states. Tuvok replies, “Logic suggests we may have to be more opportunistic if we intend to survive.” Chakotay admits, “We may not like Valen’s tactics, but he and his crew are still alive after five years in here.”

As with the directorial choices, there is a sense in which The Void stands out for doing things that Voyager probably should have been doing from the outset. The episode seems impressive, despite showing up more than half a decade behind schedule. The Void appears commendable when measured against Voyager or the first two seasons of Enterprise, but it is still well behind where Voyager should be at this point in its run.

“We’ve been watching PBS. Tell me. Have you ever heard of a Sontaran?”

After all, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had wrapped up almost two years earlier, and episodes like In the Pale Moonlight or Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges were much more engaging or provocative explorations of these core themes than The Void could ever hope to be. The Void deserves recognition and praise for trying to make up for lost time, but it is starting so far behind the curve that it has no chance of catching up. The Void is a stronger and more commendable piece of television than most of the seventh season of Voyager, but that’s not good enough.

Indeed, The Void is driven by good intentions, but it inherits a lot of Voyager‘s fundamental flaws. For example, there’s a strong fetishisation of the idea of the Federation purely because it’s a recognisable piece of Star Trek lore. In response to Tuvok and Chakotay’s concerns, Janeway replies, “I thought maybe I could get some guidance from the Federation Charter. I was hoping I’d find a loophole that would allow us to take actions we ordinarily wouldn’t take.” This is very strange moral argument to make.

“Have you considered the Airbud approach to interpretation, Captain?”

The Void seems to suggest that it is not wrong for Janeway to steal Valen’s supplies for any intrinsic moral reason; she wouldn’t be wrong to take those supplies because they don’t belong to her, or because taking those supplies might condemn Valen’s crew to death. The Void seems to argue that it would have been wrong for Janeway to steal Valen’s supplies because it would violate the Federation Charter, because it would go against the rules as laid down by an institution that is thirty thousand light years away.

This is a very strange moral argument, because it implies that Janeway would be entirely justified to pilfer Valen’s ship (and others) if she could find that “loophole” to exploit. It is a very strange central thesis around which to construct an episode. It is not rooted in any particularly strong moral belief in the value of others’ lives or property, but an institutional faith in the inherent goodness of organisations like Starfleet and the Federation. Indeed, it’s telling that Janeway explicitly models her alliance in The Void on the Federation.

A safe teleport in every storm.

After all, the Federation is not the only model of inter-species cooperation that exists within the larger Star Trek universe. The final seasons of Deep Space Nine featured an alliance between the Federation, the Romulans and the Klingons that functioned effectively enough for them to withstand the Dominion threat. That sort of alliance makes a great deal more sense in the context of The Void, particularly given that Janeway’s alliance is only ever meant to be a temporary measure that will last long enough to help the members escape the eponymous anomaly.

Then again, this is perhaps looking at the episode from the wrong perspective – treating the alliance as an extension of the premise, rather than seeing the premise as a justification for the alliance. As with a lot of the seventh season episodes, The Void feels like a bold assertion of Voyager‘s place in the Star Trek canon, an effort to consciously and overtly contextualise Voyager as a television series that adheres to everything expected of a Star Trek show. The Void is not even the first episode of the season to feature a proto-Federation in the Delta Quadrant; Drive got there first.

Crouching alien, hidden gremlin.

In Lost in the Developing World, George A. Gonzalez singles out The Void as an example of Voyager embracing a quintessential Star Trek moral:

Through collaboration and solidarity, Janeway argues that the ships in the void can work together to escape. In shaping this reasoning, Janeway draws inspiration from the example of the Federation: “The Federation is based on mutual cooperation – the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Voyager can’t survive here alone, but if we form a temporary alliance with other ships maybe we can pool our resources and escape.” Voyager shares its limited food and medical supplies, as well as joins in common defense, to build trust and establish (what Janeway calls) the “Alliance.” Through the Alliance, Voyager’s food supplies are enhanced: “One of the crews that joined us had technology that tripled our replicator efficiency … We can feed five hundred people a day now using half the power it took us a few days ago.” Led by Voyager, the Alliance ships escape the Void. Those that refuses to become members stay behind.

Therefore, Star Trek posits the argument that a stable, ethical society can only be based on a classless society based on modernism – one that is free of gender and ethnic biases.

In this sense, the episode is very much of a piece with other episodes like Critical Care, Lineage and Repentance, which overtly constructed as broad Star Trek allegories.

Sitting it out.

To a certain extent, this is to be lauded. However clumsily and narrowly, and however rooted in a very specific vision anchored in the franchise’s iconography, The Void is a story about the benefits of cooperation and collaboration. It rejects the politics of self-interest that have defined so many Voyager stories; the decision to trust oppressors over the oppressed in Alliances, the wariness about collectivism in Unity, the paranoia about refugees in Day of Honour. More than most Star Trek leads, Janeway could benefit from embracing cooperation and collaboration.

However, there is something very cynical and calculated about this. As with a lot of the other gestures towards that intangible spirit of Star Trek during the final season of Voyager, the championing of cooperation and collaboration in The Void feels very shallow and superficial. As much as “the alliance” is presented as a free exchange of ideas, there is never a sense that Janeway sees herself as equal to any of her partners. Janeway is not part of a ruling coalition of aliens working towards a shared goal, but a commander of a group of aliens working to her goals.

Making a meal of it.

Much is made of Janeway giving up supplies and rations to the other members of the alliance, but those are intangible. The audience never gets any sense of consequence to those sacrifices. Nobody dies as a result of the choices that Janeway makes, nobody starves. The rest of the crew might object, but never with any urgency. In contrast, there is never a sense that Janeway sees aliens like Garon, Loquar or Bosaal as genuine peers.

On Deep Space Nine, Sisko and Martok both saw one another as equals. Even in episodes like Tears of the Prophets or The Dogs of War, the representatives of the Romulan Star Empire were given some sense of agency or autonomy. In contrast, Janeway’s relationship with the other members of her alliance is strictly utilitarian. The Hierarchy are very good at spying as demonstrated in Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, so they eavesdrop on other species. The Nygeans are very militant as demonstrated in Repentance, so they provide the muscle.

“This show really needs to work on its pacing.”

More than that, the alliance at the heart of The Void is only temporary. It dissolves at the end of the episode when it has served its purpose. “You’re welcome to have a meal with us anytime,” Janeway tells Garon, who acknowledges that they will never see one another ever again. The alliance in The Void was never about anything long-term or meaningful. It only happened because it was necessary, not because such collaboration had any intrinsic moral value of itself.

If Voyager’s supplies weren’t drained when it jumped into the void, and if they weren’t further depleted by the escape attempt, then there would be no alliance. As much as The Void might espouse the importance of collaboration in pursuit of peace, Janeway is only forced to cooperate due to her circumstances. Nothing has changed. The journey will continue as though this diversion never happened. As interesting as this experiment might have been, all of the toys are placed back in the box by the closing credits.

“To the Death Sentence!”

This is the issue with the way in which the seventh season of Voyager approaches these quintessential Star Trek ideas. The seventh season of Voyager very clearly wants to tell stories that are recognisably “Star-Trek-y” and which are populated by “Star-Trek-ian” elements. In Braving the Unknown, Brannon Braga talked about these elements as important to Star Trek‘s brand:

I think Star Trek is to science-fiction what Disney is to animation. I think that people who like Star Trek know that it is Star Trek. They know that they’re going to get a certain level of production value. And that they’re going to get a certain level of storytelling, that it’s going to have something deeper to say, that it’s gonna have good character stuff. That it’s not just gonna be a more schlocky kind of science-fiction, it’s not going to be nuclear armageddon – post-apocalyptic. It’s going to be unique, and it’s going to be a certain brand of science fiction that has a certain level of quality.

To be fair, Voyager has been pushed towards a more generic sort of Star Trek before, most notably in the third season under the stewardship of Jeri Taylor. However, Taylor was very much informed by her work on The Next Generation. In contrast, none of the writing staff on the seventh season of Voyager had actually worked in the writers’ room on The Next Generation.

Some stellar cartography there, Seven.

This might explain why there is something more awkward and urgent in how the seventh season of Voyager clutches at these recognisably “Star-Trek-ian” elements, why this feels more like a hollow imitation of Star Trek than an actual example of it. Voyager was in its final season, contemplating its legacy and aware that it would soon be replaced by a shiny new Star Trek series. Brannon Braga, the only writer who had worked on The Next Generation, had both feet out the door. Voyager was trapped doing its best impression of echoes of Star Trek.

The most notable thing about all these “Star-Trek-ian” episodes of the seventh season of Voyager is how little they actually say. Lineage broaches the topic of genetic engineering, but quickly abandons it to focus on Torres’ issues with her father. Repentance brings up the spectre of capital punishment, but is unwilling to take a bold stand against it. Critical Care is a story about the horrors of the American healthcare system that takes broad aim at bureaucracy rather than actually confonting the nightmare of medicine under capitalism.

A generally sketchy dude.

At each point, there is a steadfast refusal to make any argument that might potentially alienate an audience member or cause a viewer to become uncomfortable. To a certain extent, the greatest failures of the late Berman era lie in what it refuse to do, rather than what it actually does. If the seventh season of Voyager wants to embrace the trappings of Star Trek, there are meaningful ways to do that. However, the seventh season of Voyager is far too timid to actually follow any of these ideas through to their conclusions.

The seventh season of Voyager is trying to capture the allegorical power of the original Star Trek, but without taking any of the risk. The original Star Trek offered bold and timely allegories for the issues affecting late sixties America; A Taste of Armageddon and Errand of Mercy were as timely allegories for the horror of Vietnam as anyone was likely to find. However, the seventh season of Voyager is too afraid to upset the applecart to construct episodes like that. The boldest argument that The Void makes is that “sometimes other people listening to you is a good thing.”

Everything burns.

If the seventh season of Voyager really wanted to position itself as a orthy successor to that school of socially conscious science-fiction, all that it needed to do was to take a strong moral stand on the issues of the day. As Ronald D. Moore pointed out in his exit interview, there was one big issue on which Voyager (and later Enterprise) would be shamefully silent:

“Tell me why there are no gay characters in Star Trek,” says Ron Moore. “This is one of those uncomfortable questions I hate getting when I was working on the show, because there is no good answer for it. There is no answer for it other than people in charge don’t want gay characters in Star Trek, period. This stuff about, ‘How would you know? Maybe there are lots of people walking through those corridors that are actually gay. What would you have us do? Show them holding hands? That would be ridiculous. Our regulars don’t hold hands,’ which its own kind of a sad commentary on the state of human relations, that they can’t even hold hands. Just think about what it would say to have a gay Starfleet captain. It would mean something in Star Trek. It would mean something in science fiction. It would mean something in television. Why isn’t Star Trek leading the way anymore, in the social, political front? Gene always said, whether this is true or not, that he saw Star Trek as a way to explore social issues, without the networks catching on. Because it was all couched in space aliens, and ray guns, and space opera type stuff, it gave him a chance to explore these other issues.”

Deep Space Nine had acknowledged this prejudice in Rejoined and Chimera, but in both cases had to dance around the elephant in the room. (It was also responsible for The Emperor’s New Cloak.) Still, it was more than Voyager or Enterprise did.

Alien nation.

That alone demonstrates how shallow and superficial episodes like The Void are in attempting to evoke the spirit of Star Trek. There is something incredibly cynical about the seventh season of Voyager that milquetoast non-statements like Lineage and Repentance pass as pieces of social commentary and that episodes like The Void are presented as profound statements of what Star Trek should be. It reduces the identity and essence of Star Trek to a few markers and references, allusions to ideas rather than ideas itself.

As with the Klingons in Prophecy, the seventh season seems to believe that there is no need to actually do anything with these ideas or concepts. It is enough to allude to them. There is no need to explore what partnership and cooperation looks like, as long as Janeway references “the Federation Charter.” There is no need to explore the cost of tough decisions, just as long as those tough decisions are seen to be made. There is no need to follow ideas to their conclusions, as long as those ideas are acknowledged as present.

Cooking up a twist.

As a model of the show that Voyager could have been, The Void is a highly commendable piece of television. As a highlight of the seventh season, The Void is a damning indictment of what Voyager has become.

9 Responses

  1. One of the best episodes in Season 7, I think. Its only competition is Workforce and maybe Author Author? This shows how good Voyager could have been with a little more ambition.

    • I’d agree with you, but I still think they’re fairly bland. Mostly inoffensive rather than actively good, if that makes sense.

  2. >To pick an obvious example, the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation had a very strong connection to its own two younger siblings.

    In addition to your examples, I’d point to ‘Lower Decks’, not only for casting Alexander Enberg (who went on to play an identical character on Voyager) but at the time the episode was actually thought by fandom to be a lead-in to Voyager, to the point where fans thought it was a ‘stealth pilot’ for the series.

    >I think Star Trek is to science-fiction what Disney is to animation.

    He said, shortly before Disney closed their traditional animation department.

    • Brannon Braga, noted master of the self-own. (I say, as a man with a soft spot for Braga.)

      • You’re about to cover his best material on TNG-just looking on Memory Alpha at his work: it includes “Reunion”, “Cause and Effect”, “Frame of Mind”, “Timescape”, “Parallels”, and “All Good Things”-some of my favorite episodes of the show’s run. Though he’s very hit-or-miss.

      • Oh yeah, I’ll concede as much. As with, say my defense of Game of Thrones, it largely comes down to the fact that he is nowhere near as bad as fans online like to suggest that he is. That doesn’t mean he’s consistently brilliant (although he can be brilliant and is a lot more than some writers) or even that he’s consistently great. Just that the average level of his output does not justify the incredible level of backlash against him.

  3. I like this episode more than most in the last season. That is mostly due to the aesthetics, and that it finally engages with the sensation of being alone and lost. I don’t know why Voyager’s lights all go out when they lose a bit of power, but I also don’t care because it added a great deal of beauty and mood to the ship so that it no longer feels like a supermarket or cruise-ship.

    One question? How many hobbies does Seven have? Now she’s a gourmet chef. I think Seven has more interests and hobbies than most of the rest of the crew combined. The only character who can give her a run for her money is the Doctor. Many of the cast struggle to have even one interest or personality trait outside their ‘duties’.

    Janeway is back to preaching the virtues of the Federation to her senior staff. I guess it serves the plot this week. Who knows what her values will be next episode.

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