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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 7 (Review)

The seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager is not the worst season of Star Trek ever. It isn’t even the worst season of this particular show.

It contains nothing as spectacularly ill-judged and tone-deaf as Alliances or Tattoo. None of its central characters are as insufferable as those presented in Parturition. There is nothing here quite as soul-crushingly boring as Twisted. Indeed, the seventh season of Voyager is a mostly competent season of television. Producer Brannon Braga had turned his attention to the launch of Star Trek: Enterprise, leaving the day-to-day running of the series to veteran Kenneth Biller. Biller approached that role as one of simple maintenance. He kept the trains running on time.

The result is that the seventh season of Voyager features no spectacular embarrassments. In its own way, this is an accomplishment for a Star Trek series. After all, final seasons tend to be filled with the kinds of episodes that reflect a production team desperately clutching for story ideas, leaving them open to mockery from a fandom with fixed ideas of what Star Trek should be. Final seasons tend to be home to misfires like Spock’s Brain, … And the Children Shall Lead, Interface, Dark PageForce of Nature, Journey’s End, Prodigal Daughter, The Emperor’s New Cloak.

The seventh season of Voyager largely avoids those sorts of embarrassments. Even episodes that threaten to tip over into high camp, like Drive or Repression, maintain an even keel. The seventh season of Voyager is much more consistent than the seventh seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There is a neatness to it, a stability. It feels like “business as usual” for the series in a way that those other final seasons did not. Episodes like Imperfection or Human Error could easily have come from any of the three prior seasons.

Of course, this is a double-edged compliment. As much as the seventh season of Voyager is more stable and more consistent than other final seasons, it is also much more modest. The final season of The Next Generation was incredibly inconsistent, but it was still playful and ambitious, resulting in gonzo delights like Masks or Parallels. The final season of Deep Space Nine might have sagged in the middle, but it still pushed the boundaries franchise, engaging in biting criticisms in Chimera and attempting to wrap up with a sprawling ten-part series finale.

The seventh season of Voyager is not the worst season of Star Trek ever. it is, however, one of the dullest.

Fandoms tend to grow conservative in their old age. They have little patience for novelty or innovation, for the idea that the thing that they love might need to change or grow or evolve. Almost every attempt to innovate within a major franchise meets with some fandom resistance. The history of Star Trek is proof of this. Fans reacted aggressively to the death of Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fans reacted aggressively to the launch of the new cast in The Next Generation.

Fans responded particularly aggressively to attempts to innovate and modernise the franchise in Deep Space Nine. It wasn’t just fans. Over the years, key creative personnel critiqued and complained about Deep Space Nine, including Majel Barrett Roddenberry, George Takei and Marina Sirtis. It was common to hear arguments that Deep Space Nine was “not Star Trek.” This may be why Deep Space Nine became an evolutionary dead end for the franchise. Ronald D. Moore moved over to Voyager after then end of Deep Space Nine, but left under a cloud shortly thereafter.

This explains a lot about Voyager in general and the seventh season in particular. Following the trauma of the second season, producer Jeri Taylor consciously pushed Voyager towards a more archetypal sort of Star Trek storytelling, encouraging the show to tell the kind of stories that could easily have worked on the middle seasons of The Next Generation. There are any number of generic examples, from The Chute to Warlord to Vis à Vis to Unforgettable. There was a conscious sense of Voyager adhering to the template that had been established by The Next Generation.

There are points at which the creative choices on Voyager map neatly to those that had been made by The Next Generation. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II mirror The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, and arrive at the same point in the run. Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II mirror Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II, and also arrive at the same point in the run. However, there is just a broad sense that Voyager was aiming a very archetypal idea of what Star Trek could or should be.

While Deep Space Nine was (mostly) telling stories that only it could tell, Voyager was telling stories that any Star Trek series could tell. This was not always a bad thing. Many of the very best episodes of Voyager fall into this broad category: Remember, Distant Origin, Nemesis, Living WitnessBlink of an Eye, Memorial. However, those episodes the familiar trappings of Star Trek to tell stories that had their own big themes and ideas. These episodes adhered to the familiar Star Trek template, but they were about more than just looking and feeling like Star Trek.

This is the issue with the seventh season of Voyager. It plays very much like a season of television that is singlemindedly devoted to the idea that the primary goal of Star Trek is to look and feel like Star Trek, and that anything that might get in the way of that should be stripped out. This is Star Trek tailored for those Star Trek fans who felt alienated or challenged by the innovation and experimentation of Deep Space Nine. It is designed to appeal to the nostalgia of those fans, to offer them a steady diet of exactly what they expect.

In-tractor-able.

It is common for final seasons to feel nostalgic and reflective, to allow the characters and the audience to reflect on the journey that they have enjoyed together. However, the final season of Voyager never feels particularly nostalgic of Voyager itself. Shattered represents the season’s primary engagement with its own history, outside of a somewhat clumsy attempt to restage the moral dilemma from Caretaker in Endgame and the belated sequel to The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II with Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II.

Instead, the final season of Voyager feels nostalgic for The Next Generation. Dwight Schultz reprises the role of Reginald Barclay in Inside Man, Author, Author and Endgame, creating a strange situation whereby Barclay has appeared more often on Voyager than on The Next Generation. Indeed, Inside Man serves as a Next Generation nostalgia fix; the villains are revealed to be the Ferengi, while Marina Sirtis reprises the role of Deanna Troi. John deLancie reprises the role of Q in Q2, four seasons after his last appearance in The Q and the Grey.

There is a clear desire on the part of the seventh season of Voyager to root itself in the existing context of the larger Star Trek canon. The seventh contrives to involve the Klingons, with Janeway and her crew encountering a wandering Klingon ship in Prophecy. Little touches of Star Trek are scattered through the season, from Neelix’s celebration of “First Contact Day” in the teaser of Homestead to the lost Federation probe at the heart of Friendship One to Icheb’s presentation on the heroism of James Tiberius Kirk at the start of Q2.

The seventh season of Voyager is dedicated to asserting that it is Star Trek, dedicating itself to telling recognisably “Star-Trek-ian” stories, narratives that are recognisable as broadly adhering to established Star Trek templates. This is most notable with the classic “Prime Directive” narrative, typified by earlier episodes of the franchise like The Apple or A Private Little War or Pen Pals or Who Watches the Watchers? To be fair, Voyager has employed this template before in episodes like False Profits or Blink of an Eye, but never as frequently and consistently.

Within the seventh season of Voyager, Flesh and Blood, Part I, Flesh and Blood, Part II, Friendship One and Natural Law are all recognisable as “Prime Directive” stories, cautionary tales about the dangers of more advanced civilisations interacting with cultures that are less technologically sophisticated. It may also be possible to stretch the definition to include the moral relativism debate in Repentance or the unwitting involvement in an alien conflict in Nightingale. These are all episodes that adhere to a long-established template.

Of course, the readiness with which the seventh employs this familiar narrative belies more interesting debates about it. While the Prime Directive nominally exists to avoid even accidental cultural imperialism, it also often excuses disengagement and serves to erase any sense of wider responsibility. Deep Space Nine handily dismissed the Prime Directive as a moral imperative in Battle Lines, and never really returned to it. In contrast, Voyager never actually engages with the substance of the Prime Directive, never interrogates the underlying assumptions or motivations.

There is a shallowness to the seventh season of Voyager. This carries over to the issue-driven stories in the season, which again are recognisable “Star-Trek-ian” narratives, stories that examine contemporary issues through the prism of science-fiction. There are any number of classic Star Trek episodes that do this, from the Vietnam allegories at play in A Taste of Armageddon and Errand of Mercy to the criticism of racism in The Devil in the Dark. Even Voyager has done this before, for example tackling medical ethics in Nothing Human and Scientific Method.

The seventh season of Voyager builds a couple of obvious allegory episodes. Critical Care is designed as a critique of the American healthcare system, in particular the bureaucratic inefficiencies of health maintenance organisations. Repentance is intended as a critique of the death penalty, arriving at a point where George W. Bush’s presidential campaign had brought the issue to the fore. These are not bad ideas of themselves. It is good to see Star Trek wrestling with big ideas. The problem is that these episodes have nothing to say.

Critical Care attempts to criticise the chaos of the American healthcare system while keeping that criticism entirely separate from any larger critique of hypercapitalism, which renders it completely meaningless. Repentance tries to have its cake and eat it, refusing to make a cohesive statement on the issue for fear of alienating viewers of either political persuasion. The result is a hollow approach to political and social commentary. The seventh season wants to look like it is saying something important, while avoiding saying anything the might matter.

Again, this plays through the season in other ways. The seventh season of Voyager makes a concerted effort to articulate the sorts of humanist values associated with the Star Trek franchise, but without ever having to actually engage with what those values mean. The crew encounter a proto-Federation in Drive, a narrative detail that is largely irrelevant to the story being told while making it seem more important. Janeway establishes her own makeshift Federation in The Void, but with no long-term plans or any exploration of what that actually means.

Voyager is so dedicated to looking and feeling like Star Trek that it never devotes any energy to actually being Star Trek. This is perhaps most obvious with the late season episode, Author, Author, which serves as interesting hybrid of third-season Voyager episode Worst Case Scenario and all-time classic Next Generation episode The Measure of Man. On paper, it seems like a good idea. Voyager is affirming its franchise bona fides by staging a loving homage to one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. However, the homage is so thoughtless that it does the opposite.

The Measure of a Man was the episode in which Data attempted to assert his personhood, to prove that he was an individual under the law. The episode ended in a bittersweet manner; the court allowed Data the right to make his own choices, but refused to rule on whether he was a person. That question was punted down the road. Author, Author finds the EMH taking up that legal baton, arguing for his own personhood. Again, the court refuses to make a clear and definitive judgment on the matter.

However, Author, Author suggests an incredibly cynical perspective. In The Measure of a Man, Picard argued that refusing to acknowledge Data’s individuality would consign an entire race of artificial people to lives of slavery and servitude. Author, Author reveals that this has come to pass; that the Federation has created an entire under-class of people, the holograms who mine for ore and dream of freedom. This is as bleak an indictment of the Federation as anything Deep Space Nine attempted in episodes like In the Pale Moonlight, Inquisition or When It Rains…

It would be very clever, if there was any sense that the production team had intended it to be read as such. However, the seventh season of Voyager doesn’t seem particularly critical of this status quo. Indeed, the seventh season of Voyager marks an uncomfortable return to the anxieties that haunted the portrayal of the Kazon in the first and second season. The biggest fear in the seventh season of Voyager is not the exploitation of an entire race of people, but instead the possibility of a reckoning for that systemic abuse.

The seventh season of Voyager is haunted by the spectre of a slave revolt, with holograms filling the narrative role that the Kazon had played in the first and second seasons. This is an improvement; holograms are not as uncomfortably racially coded as the Kazon had been. Nevertheless, these narratives still play into familiar racial anxieties. The Lokirrin experience such a revolt in Body and Soul, and the Hirogen face their own uprising in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II.

Janeway does not side with the oppressed against their oppressors. In fact, there is a recurring sense that the EMH needs to learn his place and not get ahead of himself; he learns to be thankful for the freedoms and opportunities that Janeway has provided him after spending time with Iden in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, Kim bristles under the authority of the Emergency Command Hologram in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, and the crew feel betrayed by his attempt to articulate the prejudices that he has faced in Author, Author.

This speaks to the more reactionary impulses within Voyager as a television series, expressed in episodes like Displaced, Day of Honour or Retrospect. Indeed, the seventh season of Voyager often seems openly skeptical about the core Star Trek ideals of multiculturalism and exploration. In Prophecy, it is never seriously suggested that the Klingons could coexist on the ship with the Starfleet crew. In Friendship One, Janeway argues that the cost of first contact and exploration is often far too high. In Homestead, Neelix discovers that Voyager could never be his home.

This is an incredibly bleak and cynical perspective, one that runs counter to the liberal and humanist values that are often associated with Star Trek. Indeed, this was precisely the criticism that Deep Space Nine made of the larger franchise in its seventh season episode Chimera. Whenever characters on Voyager talk about feeling suffocated or excluded or diminished – as Torres does in Lineage or the EMH does in Author, Author – they inevitably learn that they are wrong to feel that way and that there is nothing wrong with how the ship works.

It is little surprise that Author, Author suggests no meaningful progress has been made since the events of The Measure of a Man. After all, Voyager is a show that has been largely running in place. To be fair, the seventh season offers some small suggestion of progress as the season marches on. The contact that the ship established with Earth in Pathfinder becomes a recurring element; a holographic Barclay comes on board in Inside Man, the crew establish live contact in Author, Author, and the ship even receives a mission from Starfleet in Friendship One.

However, there is little else that suggests any meaningful sense of progression within the season. The Borg are still scattered across the Delta Quadrant, with the crew encountering them whenever it is convenient for the plot; they appear in Unimatrix Zero, Part II, Imperfection and Endgame. The crew encounter the Hirogen in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II for the first time since The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, more than thirty thousand light years closer to home.

More than that, characters are stuck in familiar rhythms and routines. When Torres discovers that she is pregnant in Lineage, it serves as yet another exploration of the conflict between her human and Klingon nature; the same basic dynamic that has defined Torres-centric stories since Faces (if not Parallax) and through episodes like Extreme Risk, Juggernaut, Barge of the Dead. Similarly, Kim finds himself struggling with command in Nightingale, playing the same arc that has informed so much of his character since the first season – notably in episodes like Demon or Warhead.

However, at least Torres and Kim get actual character-centric episodes during the season. Tuvok is the focal point of Repression, an episode that largely uses him as a plot device. Chakotay is technically a major character in a number of episodes in the season – the primary focal point of Shattered, a co-lead in Natural Law, the lead on the rescue mission in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, and the major secondary character in Human Error – but none of them have anything to say about him as a character.

The seventh season of Voyager narrows its character focus to Kathryn Janeway, Seven of Nine and the EMH. These characters each get a number of major episodes designed to showcase the range of their performers. This is a defensible approach to writing Voyager. Kate Mulgrew, Robert Picardo and Jeri Ryan are comfortable the strongest actors in the ensemble. It makes sense to play to them. As with a lot of creative decisions made during the seventh season, it feels like the path of least resistance. Focusing on these three performers mitigates risk.

Even then, there is relatively little character development between episodes. Seven develops an attraction to a holographic facsimile of Chakotay in Human Error, but this does not inform any of the many scenes that Seven shares with the real Chakotay in Natural Law. There are so many EMH-centric episodes within the season that they begin to cannibalise one another. The final standalone episode of the seventh season is Renaissance Man, and it feels like a hybrid of two earlier episodes from the same season. It is a blend of Inside Man and Body and Soul.

There is a frustrating laziness to the seventh season of Voyager, a sense that the production team are no longer pushing themselves and are content to settle for the low bar of “good enough.” Watching the seventh season of Voyager feels like watching a copy of a copy of a copy of a much better episode of The Next Generation. Over a decade after Michael Piller refined the character-driven episodic template during the third season of The Next Generation, Voyager is awkwardly stuck offering a pale imitation of that approach.

There is a recurring sense that the writing staff on Voyager has forgetting the actual purpose of this approach, and have reduced it to a simple routine designed to churn out forty-five minutes of television once a week. There is a clumsiness to some of the plotting on the seventh season of Voyager, which perhaps reflects Kenneth Biller’s stewardship of the series. Biller is a writer who tends to just fill the airtime. His scripts historically cycle through ideas until they reach the designated end point, often introducing new ideas instead of developing existing ones.

Worst Case Scenario begins as a look at an alternate version of Voyager where the tensions between the Maquis and Starfleet were allowed to develop, before turning into a story about authorship, before devolving into a clumsy runaround, before ending. Demon starts a story about low supplies, before building into a survival thriller on a hostile planet, before becoming a body swap horror, before turning into a standard Star Trek allegory about loving the alien. Biller’s stories tend to cycle through ideas until they hit the expect page count.

This is obvious with a number of seventh season episodes. Drive is a story about a space race that transforms into a high-stakes political thriller. Repression is a mystery story that evolves into a riff on The Manchurian Candidate that becomes an homage to Worst Case Scenario. Prophecy begins as a reason to bring the Klingons back to another look at Torres’ relationship with her Klingon heritage to another attempted mutiny. Even Author, Author devotes a lot of its first half to riffing on Living Witness or Worst Case Scenario before becoming The Measure of a Man.

Perhaps this speaks to how exhausted the Star Trek franchise had become. After all, there were more than six hundred episodes of Star Trek at this point. The series had done a variation on almost every possible story. The writers have talked openly about the challenges in trying to crack new stories – in pitching ideas that had already been covered by The Next Generation or the original Star Trek. By the end of the season, Voyager is actively steering into the skip; Endgame is transparently retreading the ground covered by All Good Things…

This is negligence. This is death. This is what killed the Star Trek franchise. The seventh season of Voyager is more concerned with being competent Star Trek than it is with being good television. Its consistent refusal to push itself has caused the Star Trek franchise to stagnate, leaving it behind as television marches onward into the twenty-first century. It is revealing that Enterprise would not truly find its feet until it moved past the standard episodic template to tell more ambitious and more serialised narratives.

Even as the seventh season brushed against these sorts of limitations, there was never any idea to transcend them. Voyager had retreated any real formal or narrative ambition after its catastrophic second season, but the seventh season is particularly cynical in its approach. Numerous episodes end with characters consciously retreating from growth or change. There are no lingering consequences from the traumas inflicted on the crew in Repression or Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II.

Paris and Torres do get married in Drive, and Torres becomes pregnant in Lineage, but the season is structured so that Torres doesn’t give birth until the final few minutes of Endgame. Seven of Nine spends all of Human Error grappling with human emotions, and then opts to reset her emotional state afterwards. The EMH betrays the crew in Flesh and Blood, Part I, Flesh and Blood, Part II and Renaissance Man, but faces no serious repercussions from that. Tuvok’s pon farr is treated as comedy subplot in Body and Soul.

All of this feels empty. There is no substance here. There is no real highlight to be found in the seventh season. Even the troubled first two seasons could produce gems like Projections, Meld, Lifesigns, Deadlock and The Thaw. For all that Voyager struggled to find a unique identity for itself, it could be consistently relied upon to produce a handful of noteworthy episodes in a given season. The seventh season of Voyager works so hard to avoid producing anything humiliating that it never manages to produce anything worthwhile.

This is how franchises die. They don’t implode. They don’t collapse. They just wither away. They stop innovating. They stop trying. They offer audiences exactly what they expect, and refuse to take gambles on anything new or innovative. The seventh season of Voyager superficially looks like Star Trek. It checks all of the boxes. It offers completely unchallenging and unsophisticated television that has been carefully calibrated to hit just enough marks that it can readily be identified as a Star Trek television show, without ever being mistaken for anything more.

The seventh season marks the end of the line for Voyager. It also suggests the death knell of this iteration of Star Trek.

6 Responses

  1. Hello Darren,

    Will you make a complete review for the series, just as you did for DS9 and Enterprise? Many thanks.

    Sincerely
    Ande

  2. Thanks for reviewing all seven seasons of Voyager. Your reviews are actually the reason I finally decided to watch it for the first time this year.

    I’ve been a huge Star Trek fan since I was in my early teens watching the original series episodes over and over again when they were in syndication after school in the early 1970s, but by the time Voyager aired I was just out of college and I was suffering from Trek fatigue. I loved DS9 and it remains far and away the best Trek to date, but Voyager’s Gilligan’s Island premise did not appeal to me. I think I also had some difficulty getting UPN at the time. I did actually watch the first episode of Voyager when it was aired, but I was less than enthralled and I don’t think I watched a single other Voyager episode until this year.

    I really appreciate that your reviews analyze not only what each episode was about, but often also how it was about it by discussing the craft of story construction and television production. You also do a very good job of putting the episodes in the social context of the time they were produced. As an American I think you have a good understanding of US political and social issues and even how those were particularly influenced by southern California and Hollywood. In contrast, I couldn’t begin to attempt to make any sensible commentary on Irish political or social issues.

    It’s only your reviews that made the effort of watching Voyager worthwhile. In fact your reviews are usually better than the episodes themselves. Although you are certainly Voyager cheerleader, you have a greater affection or at least tolerance for the show than I have. Having watched the entire series now I can say I don’t regret for a moment not watching it when it aired, and I doubt I will ever watch a single episode of Voyager again. I don’t think the best Voyager is particularly great, and the average episodes are just numbingly bland.

    The Voyager writers showed little interest in three fourths of their cast so I don’t know why the viewer should be expected to care. Even though I had not watched the shows, I knew (or had read) that Picardo was excellent as the holodoctor. The real revelation to me was just how outstanding Jeri Ryan was as Seven of Nine. I think her performance is really the only reason to watch the show, but as befits Voyager’s general mediocrity they never found a good balance. Seven was overused when the character was introduced, but mostly ignored by the end of season 7.

    Apparently Voyager remains very popular with a large segment of Star Trek fans. I won’t begrudge anyone for liking whatever they choose to like, but I don’t see the appeal. I rank Voyager as the worst Star Trek television by a fairly significant margin. I respect anyone who cherishes Voyager and I recognize the importance of Janeway as the first woman to lead a Star Trek series, but I just wish they had given Mulgrew a higher quality and more interesting show.

    • Thanks Doug! I’m actually very touched to hear that I helped prompt your watch. I hope you don’t consider the time wasted. And thank you for your kind words. I worry I went a bit too heavily in certain directions over the course of the show, but I am very proud of the end product. (I will note that I think American political issues are better documented than Irish ones, which helped me a lot.)

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