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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 4 (Review)

The fourth season is probably the show’s best season.

Of course, that is arguably damning with faint praise. By any measure, the fourth is probably weaker than at least four seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and four seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is also weaker than the first two seasons of Star Trek or the final two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. In the grand scheme of things, that places the best season of Star Trek: Voyager around the franchise median. Somehow, this feels entirely appropriate.

The fourth season of Voyager has some of the show’s best episodes. As such, it also has some of the franchise’s best episodes. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II are spectacular television, while Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II offer a glimpse of the show that Voyager could have been while also developing some of the series’ core themes. There are also truly great standalone episodes like Nemesis, Prey, and Living Witness. More than that, there is a lot of really fun storytelling as well, with lighter episodes like Concerning Flight and Message in a Bottle.

However, there is also an unevenness to the season. While there are arguably fewer truly terrible episodes than in the earlier seasons, there are a couple of true stinkers like Retrospect or Vis á Vis. More than that, there are quite a few disposable and dull episodes, stories quickly forgotten after the end credits. Stories like Scientific Method, Random Thoughts, Waking Moments, Unforgettable and Demon fail to make a lasting impression. They just fill up the season order adding very little beyond a familiar Star Trek beat sheet.

In some ways, this is the central tension of the fourth season, one reflected in the addition of Seven of Nine and the focus on Borg culture. The fourth season of Voyager is caught between mediocrity and brilliance, between being a perfectly serviceable mid-tier Star Trek show and being something a little more ambitious. The fourth season is a weird synthesis of generic Star Trek and something unique, reflecting the fusion of organic and mechanical that defines the Borg Collective.

The fourth season of Voyager ultimately retreats back to the comfort and safety offered by familiarity, but there are moments when it looks like the show might finally be ready to take flight. Unfortunately, it never really gets off the ground, but there is something heartwarming in the effort.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Hope and Fear (Review)

Hope and Fear is a reasonably solid conclusion to the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, the episode has a number of very clever ideas. There are a number of creative choices in Hope and Fear that feel entirely appropriate for the final episode of what has been a relatively strong season. Various concepts and ideas are brought back into play, from Janeway’s alliance with the Borg in Scorpion, Part II through to her conversion of Seven of Nine in The Gift and up to the secret coded message from Starfleet suggested in Hunters. It makes sense to bring all of these ideas back into play for the grand finale.

The fourth season comes to a head.

More than that, it makes sense to build the episode around the dynamic between Janeway and Seven. One of the recurring tensions in the fourth season, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, has been the debate about the prominence of Seven of Nine. In the year since she was introduced, Seven has effectively become one of the three most important members of the cast. There is a credible argument to be made that she is the most important member of the cast, an anxiety played out in One. As such, it is logical to build Hope and Fear around Janeway and Seven.

At the same time, there is a certain clumsiness to the plotting of the episode. There is a very rushed quality to the story, which never really takes the time to develop or explore these big revelations and twists. Hope and Fear races towards its conclusion as if it has been sucked into quantum slipstream, a very disorienting and disjointed effect. Certain character arcs feel under-explored, and certain gaps in the plot logic are brushed aside. Hope and Fear feels like a story that deserved a bigger canvas.

The hard cell.

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Star Trek: Voyager – One (Review)

One is a solid episode.

Indeed, One is so solid that it is the rare episode of Star Trek: Voyager to be repurposed for Star Trek: Enterprise. The prequel series tended to borrow stock Star Trek plots, but it tended to borrow most heavily from Star Trek: The Next Generation and even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; Oasis was Shadowplay, Vanishing Point was Realm of Fear, Dawn was Darmok. However, One would be reworked as Doctor’s Orders, another pseudo-horror bottle episode in which a member of the cast finds themselves driven insane by isolation.

Everything’s gone askew…

However, One has an in-built advantage over Doctor’s Orders, in that it is centred on a character who practically begs for this sort of treatment. Seven of Nine is effectively a reformed Borg drone. While Jean-Luc Picard was assimilated in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and recovered in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, and while Chakotay brushed up against a pseudo-collective in Unity, Seven of Nine is the first franchise regular to have spent the bulk of her life inside the Borg Collective. The nature of the Borg means that Seven is perfectly suited to a story about isolation.

One is a messy and clumsy episode in a number of ways, particularly in its drive for big action set pieces and tangible threats. In particular, the penultimate act of One feels awkward, as if the production team do not trust the audience to engage with a purer breed of psychological thriller. However, One leans very heavily on the character of Seven of Nine and on the performance of Jeri Ryan. Luckily, both character and actor are up to the task.

Voices in her head.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Demon (Review)

Demon is an episode with some interesting ides that cannot make up for a lackluster execution.

The writing staff on Star Trek: Voyager had been playing with the idea at the heart of Demon for quite some time. It had been a candidate for the third season finale, before Brannon Braga settled upon the story that would become Scorpion, Part I. It was considered for a mid-season two-parter, but the writing staff could never come up with a way to make the story work; Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II were all written to fill gaps left by a story that refused to materialise.

Spaced out…

As such, there is a faint scent of desperation to Demon. The episode arrives in the final stretch the fourth season, at a point when the production team is very clearly fatigued and where writers are generally desperately grasping for anything resembling a workable story. The harsh production cycle of television means that the start of a twenty-six episode season can be planned over the summer hiatus, but that the tail end of the season is typically assembled on the fly. This is the stretch of the season where even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produces Profit and Lace or Time’s Orphan.

The problems with Demons are compounded by the fact that it is very obviously a budget-conscious show. While it features a number of elaborate computer-animated sequences, it also films primary on standing sets and features no credited guest stars. The result is a curiously plodding show, one full of extended dialogue scenes that inform neither plot nor character, and which feel like a conscious attempt to sideline the more ambitious elements of the story. The result is the waste of an interesting idea on a forgettable episode.

Something’s wrong here, though Torres can’t quite put her finger on it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Living Witness (Review)

Living Witness is a fantastic piece of television, and a great example of what Star Trek: Voyager does best.

Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise, but it is a story told well. Living Witness is one of the highlights of the fourth season, and one of the strongest episodes from the seven-season run.

Command and conquer.

In many ways, Living Witness is the culmination of themes and ideas that have been bubbling through Voyager from the outset. Some of these elements are less than flattering, with the episode’s racial politics evoking the clumsiness with which the Kazon were handled. However, there is also a fascination with idea of history and how history functions in a world rooted in postmodernism and recnstruction. At the end of history, is the past up for grabs? Are facts anything more than pieces to be manoeuvred on a political chessboard?

Given this archetypal quality of Living Witness, how it reflects the themes and pet interests of Voyager, there is some irony in the fact that the episode does not actually feature a single regular character from Voyager. The regular cast appear as holographic representations of themselves, exaggerations and distortions. When the EMH appears almost half-way through the episode, he is explicitly identified as “a back-up programme”, and thus distinct from the version of the EMH who will appear in Demon or One.

Core principles.

In some ways, Living Witness confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager, the fact that the characters are themselves largely irrelevant to the show and that the series is much more compelling as a framework to explore archetypal ideas. Living Witness is just one of several episodes that treat the regular characters as a secondary aspect of the show, almost as guest stars who have crossed over into a completely different series. Living Witness is very much of a piece with stories like Distant Origin or Course: Oblivion, or even Muse or Live Fast and Prosper.

Living Witness is a story about the thin line between history and mythology. In doing so, it consciously reframes Voyager as a story within a story, as concept more powerful as an archetype than as a material object. Living Witness images the ship and its crew as history elevated to mythology.

Any which Janeway but loose.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unforgettable (Review)

Unforgettable has perhaps the most ironic title in the Star Trek canon.

The episode is very generic in nature, very much in keeping with the style of Star Trek: Voyager. It is a love story centring on the character Chakotay, although he seems to have been selected as the focus of the episode by chance. There is nothing about Unforgettable that would not work as well as an episode built around Harry Kim or Neelix or even Tuvok. It is an episode with an alien of the week, with a strange society that leads to a dilemma that can be neatly resolved within the forty-five minutes allotted to the episode, leaving no lasting mark on the series.

Forget me not…

Unforgettable has any number of interesting ideas. The Ramuran are an interesting high concept, an alien race with the power to erase themselves from the memories of those they encounter. That should be an interesting story hook, particularly given Voyager‘s recurring fascination with memory and identity. This is also an episode built around a guest appearance from cult icon Virginia Madsen. Madsen is a fantastic guest star for Voyager, an actor who really deserves a meaty and memorable role, like Andy Dick was afforded with Message in a Bottle.

Unfortunately, none of these ideas coalesce. Unforgettable is a bland romantic episode that moves a glacial pace towards an inevitable outcome, either unable or unwilling to exploit either its clever concept or its top-tier guest star to tell a memorable story. Unforgettable is ultimately anything but.

Memories are made of these.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Omega Directive (Review)

The Omega Directive plays like Star Trek: Voyager is trying to push itself.

It is an episode which finds Janeway acting secretively and unilaterally, casually brushing aside the Prime Directive in service of some hidden agenda. This is a very big deal. On the original Star Trek, it frequently seemed like the Prime Directive was something for Kirk to outwit. However, since Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise has taken the rule to have a lot more moral weight. Even more precisely, since Caretaker, Janeway has emphasised that it is not her place to intervene directly in the affairs of alien civilisations.

The be-all and end-all.

So there sound be something very shocking about Janeway keeping secrets from her crew and forsaking the moral principle that had been the cornerstone of her first few years in command. Given how conventional Voyager has been, how carefully the show has pitched itself as the most archetypal of Star Trek shows, this should be a pretty big deal. What would get Janeway to consciously (and even enthusiastically) cross those lines? How far would she go? What else is she concealing from the people around her? It should be a powerhouse episode of television.

However, The Omega Directive falls flat. Part of the problem is timing, with The Omega Directive sandwiched between Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight in terms of the overall franchise chronology. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been transgressing and subverting franchise norms for years at this point. The Omega Directive feels like something relatively small-scale, juxtaposed against the activities of Section 31 or Sisko’s complicity in murder. The Omega Directive thinks that it is playing in the same league, but it is not even the same sport.

An explosive new development.

More than that, there is a clumsiness to The Omega Directive. The episode touches on a number of interesting ideas, but the story’s thematic weight is quite consciously removed from the core premise. The Omega Directive works best as a weird episode touching on Borg spirituality, and on the question of the Collective’s motivations, but the episode invests so much energy in the black-ops norm-shattering framing device that these elements do not feel like satisfying pay-off. The core themes of The Omega Directive feel like they belong in another episode.

The Omega Directive is a wasted opportunity, its underwhelming subversive trappings distracting from what might have been a compelling meditation on faith and belief.

That healthy blue glow.

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