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Star Trek: Voyager – One Small Step (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager marks the end of the future.

Many fans would point to Star Trek: Enterprise as the moment that the larger Star Trek franchise turned its gaze backwards and embraced a sense of broad nostalgia for a future that was already behind that explored in the original series. After all, the last television series of the Berman era took the franchise back to its roots and paved the way for both J.J. Abrams’ pseudo-reboot in Star Trek and for Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman’s prequel in Star Trek: Discovery.

First (and Last) Flight.

However, this overlooks the importance of Voyager in signposting this shift. In some ways, Voyager represents the end of the final frontier. Chronologically speaking, Endgame is the last episode of the larger Star Trek franchise, the future beyond the finale explored only in Star Trek: Nemesis and as part of the back story to the rebooted Star Trek. Chronologically speaking, Voyager represents the last television series within the Star Trek universe. However, Voyager very carefully and very consciously seeds the nostalgia that would later envelope the franchise.

This is obvious in any number of ways. Voyager is a show that is literally about the desire to return home rather than to push forward. Caretaker established the show as an extended homage to fifties pulp storytelling. The politics of the series – reflected in episodes as diverse as Real Life, Displaced and Day of Honour – were decidedly conservative. Even the genre trappings of the series were often framed in terms of mid-twentieth century pulp fiction; the space lift in Rise, the broad allegory in Innocence, the atomic horror of Jetrel.

We come not to praise Voyager, but to bury it.

However, all of this is rooted in a very conscious yearning on the part of Voyager to connect to its roots. Numerous small scenes across the seven-season run of the show hint at this sentiment; Janeway discussing the romantic past in Flashback, the literal journey home in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the retrofuturism of Tom Paris’ various holoprogrammes, Janeway’s fascination with her long-lost ancestor in 11:59. There was a sense that Voyager was a series as intent on journeying backwards in time as much as space, even outside of its time travel obsession.

One Small Step stands out as one of the most obvious and blatant examples of this nostalgia within Voyager, in many ways feeling (like Friendship One in the subsequent season) like an attempt to seed the literal prequel that would materialise in Enterprise.

It turns out that John Kelly crossed over into a subspace anomaly drawn by Jack Kirby.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dragon’s Teeth (Review)

In many ways Dragon’s Teeth demonstrates the chaos that marked the start of the sixth season.

On paper, Dragon’s Teeth looks to be a big blockbuster episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It has top-notch production, a large guest cast, an impressive special effects set-up, a new alien menace, and an emphasis on momentum ahead of character or theme. Just looking at Dragon’s Teeth, it has the look and feel of an “event” story. It seems like an episode with a bold statement of purpose, from the opening teaser that suggests an epic scope by unfolding in the distant past of an alien world through to the ominous closing line that promises that Dragon’s Teeth is just the beginning.

Let sleeping dragons lie…

It seems like the sixth season’s answer to earlier mid-season two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. It even broadcasts in roughly the same stretch of the season as Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II or Timeless. It is an early November episode, intended to help boost ratings during Sweeps.

However, what is most striking about Dragon’s Teeth is how much it feels like a non-event. The episode has all the markers of a big event story, from the promise of a shortcut home to the sight of the ship landing on a planet surface, but the story is actually incredibly generic. Dragon’s Teeth is not necessarily bad, it is simply competent. There is a strange sense watching Dragon’s Teeth that a phenomenal amount of effort has gone into ensuring that the episode works, rather than trying to make it excel.

Sweet dreams.

Of course, this makes a certain amount of sense. Dragon’s Teeth aired almost a third of the way through the season, but it was produced earlier. In terms of broadcast, it fell between Riddles and One Small Step. In terms of production, it came between Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and Alice. As such, it was produced in the midst of the chaos following the sudden departure of Ronald D. Moore and the reinstatement of Kenneth Biller. More than that, it was the first episode of the season to be written by Brannon Braga since that behind the scenes shake-up. As a result, it makes sense it should feel “off.”

Dragon’s Teeth is an episode that spends so much of its energy trying to remain upright that it never manages to take flight.

Oh, mummy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Riddles (Review)

Riddles is very much a stock episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Like Barge of the Dead and Alice before it, Riddles is a character-focused episode of the sixth season that largely retreads character dynamics that feel thorough explored by this point in the show’s run. One of the big issues with Voyager is that it never got past more than a single line of biography for many of its lead characters; Torres is angry, Paris is a restless rebel, Tuvok is logical, Kim is inexperienced. Indeed, in the case of Chakotay, the series even dropped that one-line character synopsis after Michael Piller departed and never bothered to draft a new one.

Stopping to smell the roses.

Riddles is a Tuvok-centric episode that brushes up against the fact that Voyager doesn’t really know (or care) that much about Tuvok beyond the existence of his pointy ears. Tuvok is a Vulcan, and so his stories tend to be about logic and the challenges that it presents. This is not a bad thing, with Tuvok’s repression and logic providing the basis for Meld and Gravity, two of the best episodes of Voyager ever produced. However, Riddles is somewhat underwhelming. It feels like the story has been done before. More than that, this feels like a particularly stock iteration of that story.

Riddles is not a bad episode of Voyager by any measure. It is also not an especially good episode of Voyager either. Instead, Riddles is a perfectly familiar episode of Voyager.

Putting the pieces together.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Alice (Review)

Alice is a misfire.

To be fair, the episode seemed doomed from its original set of premises. Star Trek: Voyager has never been particularly good at capturing the sense of Tom Paris as a restless unreliable rebel. The episodes of Voyager focusing on the character’s rebellious tendencies tend to be spectacular misfires; Ex Post Facto, Investigations, Vis à Vis, Thirty Days. These stories do not play to the strengths of either the writing staff or Robert Duncan McNeill, feeling largely incompatible with the character of Tom Paris as he developed in the wake of Caretaker.

I’ll never get used to not living inside of Alice.

However, Alice literally weds this familiar and unsuccessful premise to another recurring Voyager trope with a less-than-impressive rate of success. It is not enough for Alice to be another story about Tom Paris proving that he has a rebellious streak, that premise has to be woven into a broad science-fiction gothic horror in the style of Threshold or Macrocosm. Indeed, Alice is explicitly a psycho-sexual horror in the mode of Blood Fever or Darkling, inevitably butting up against the difficulties of constructing an episode that is about sex but can never discuss sex.

Alice is flawed from the ground-up, but those flaws are only further revealed in the clumsy execution and the disappointing storytelling. Alice is a very bad piece of television.

A deep-space dust-up.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy (Review)

With Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Star Trek: Voyager is back to business as usual.

The first episode produced after the departure of Ronald D. Moore, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is in many ways an archetypal Voyager story. Equinox, Part II was the second part of a season-bridging two-parter; Survival Instinct was a dark fable about consequences and trauma that was the last script credited to on the franchise’s most beloved writers; Barge of the Dead was a surreal and ambiguous adventure into the Klingon afterlife. As such, it is strange that an episode that opens with a playful operatic number about Tuvok’s pon farr should mark a return to normality.

“My Delta Quadrant TripAdvisor review is going to be scathing!”

Nevertheless, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is a very neat standalone episode with a clear beginning, middle and end. It is built around the character of the EMH, leaning into actor Robert Picardo’s comedic chops. It is very much in keeping with Voyager‘s recurring fascination with the notion of fractured reality as expressed in Projections or Deadlock or Retrospect, and also in using a technologically-derived character to literalise the process of a psychological breakdown as in Darkling, Infinite Regress or Latent Image.

Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy story has its own themes and ideas, and everything is neatly resolved by the closing credits. It is a reminder that the serialisation that defined Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would remain the exception, rather than the rule, that it would not be inherited by its surviving sibling. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy could almost be watched at any point in the show’s run, although the involvement of Seven of Nine would suggest the final four seasons. Nevertheless, the episode never feels particularly tethered to this moment or this season.

Fantasy figure.

However, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is also an example of how this approach can work. Voyager received (and deserves) a lot of criticism for failing to evolve with the times, for allowing the Star Trek franchise to fall behind the curve of contemporary television science fiction. However, the series was occasionally capable of demonstrating the merits of standalone episodes, the appeal of being able to transition from one self-contained story to another twenty-six times in the course of a season.

Of course, the issue was that a lot of Voyager episodes were bland and forgettable. However, every once in a while the series would produce a self-contained episode that demonstrated the appeal of this narrative model; Remember, Distant Origin, Concerning Flight, Living WitnessSomeone to Watch Over Me. Appropriately enough, coming after another turbulent period in the history of the show, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is another fine example of this capacity to construct satisfying and engaging stand-alone narratives.

Painting a pretty picture.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Barge of the Dead (Review)

There is some small symmetry in Barge of the Dead.

When Bryan Fuller first pitched to Star Trek, he pitched to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The first idea that he sold was The Darkness and the Light, which felt like something approaching a gothic serial killer horror about a deformed killer stalking his victims using the franchise’s hyper-advanced technology. That original idea was heavily re-written by franchise veteran Ronald D. Moore, who also brought a more substantial thematic weight to the story by focusing on themes of violence and retribution.

Barging in.

In contrast, Barge of the Dead is the last television story that Ronald D. Moore would pitch for the franchise, coming at the very end of his time on Star Trek: Voyager. The episode has its roots in an earlier pitch by the writer, the original idea for Soldiers of the Empire. However, Moore would depart the franchise before he could finish work on Barge of the Dead, and so the writing of the script fell to Bryan Fuller. Much like Moore had subtly shifted the emphasis of The Darkness and the Light to his own thematic interests, Fuller embraces his own sensibilities in reworking Barge of the Dead.

Moore had re-written Fuller’s last story, and Fuller would re-write Moore’s last story. There is some sense of poetry in this.

Tom’s idea of a romantic evening certainly needed some work.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Survival Instinct (Review)

Survival Instinct marks the beginning and the end of Ronald D. Moore’s involvement with Star Trek: Voyager.

Moore had been one of the most influential writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore had famously been drafted into the Star Trek franchise with no outside experience; The Bonding was based upon a speculative script that he wrote, and he had been invited to join the staff when The Defector proved that he was not a one-script wonder. Moore had inspired producer Michael Piller to open the franchise to speculative scripts, a decision which led to the recruitment of writers like Bryan Fuller and Rene Echevarria.

Drone warfare.

Moore had consistently pushed the envelope in terms of what Star Trek could be. Several of Moore’s scripts feel like trailblazers, expanding the storytelling language of an established science-fiction franchise; the Klingon-centric script for Sins of the Father, the quieter character drama of Family, the epic scale of Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II. Paired with Ira Steven Behr on Deep Space Nine, Moore really pushed the boundaries of what Star Trek could be; Soldiers of the Empire looked at life on a Klingon ship, In the Pale Moonlight stretched (and maybe broke) Star Trek morality.

All of the other writers on Deep Space Nine chose to bow out gracefully with What You Leave Behind, to part ways with the franchise having provided their own unique take on the Star Trek mythos. However, Moore was convinced to migrate across from Deep Space Nine to Voyager. There are any number of reasons why Moore might have chosen to stay when writers like Behr and Echevarria chose to take their exit; Moore was the longest continuous-serving writer on the Star Trek franchise to that point. In terms of second-generation Star Trek, only Rick Berman could have claimed to have a deeper impression.

Armed and dangerous.

Moore arrived on the sixth season of Voyager and immediately looked to make his mark. Like Brannon Braga, Moore had always been an extremely productive Star Trek writer. He was typically credited on six or seven scripts in a season of The Next Generation and Voyager, while also scripting Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. Although not credited on the script, Moore was actively involved in the back-and-forth over the script to Equinox, Part II. He scripted the second episode, Survival Instinct. He was working on the story to third, Barge of the Dead.

And then the unthinkable happened. Like so much of Voyager, Moore’s arrival proved to be something of a false dawn. In early July 1999, Ronald D. Moore left Star Trek. This was within a month of the broadcast of What You Leave Behind, and nearly three months before the premier of the sixth season of Voyager. Even before Moore and Braga elaborated upon the particulars of what had happened, it was clear that something had gone disastrously wrong.

What We Left Behind.

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