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Star Trek: Voyager (Reviews)

The story of Star Trek: Voyager is the story of the long and slow death of a particular iteration of the Star Trek franchise.

Voyager arrived when the Star Trek franchise was at the peak of its popularity. Star Trek: The Next Generation had become a television institution. It had retired the previous year, of its own volition after more than one hundred and seventy episodes. That season had been nominated for an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy Award, still a rarity for a genre series even after Game of Thrones. The final episode of The Next Generation, All Good Things…, had been watched by over thirty million people. Patrick Stewart was leading the cast to the big screen with Star Trek: Generations.

The Star Trek franchise had come a long way since the original series had been cancelled at the end of its third season. Voyager arrived with a lot of expectation and considerable investment. When Caretaker premiered in January 1995, it was the first television show to air on UPN. UPN represented Paramount’s ambitious efforts to break into national broadcasting. The channel would have a very rough and storied history, before eventually being merged with the WB to form the CW in September 2006. It says a lot that Voyager was chosen to serve as the network’s foundation stone.

In those rough early seasons, Voyager was a steady and reliable performer for UPN. It was the crown jewel in the line-up. Notably, it was the only series to survive the network’s chaotic first season. (To be fair, that season included such oddities as Platypus Man and Pig Sty.) The early years of Voyager overlapped with the franchise’s halcyon days. In those early seasons, it seemed like Star Trek was on top of the world, its influence greater than it had ever been. It is notable, for example, that the episode Investigations features a cameo from the noted Star Trek fan, Crown Prince (later King) Abdullah II of Jordan.

In fact, Voyager‘s third season neatly overlapped with the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations, which it marked with its own crossover episode Flashback and arguably with its delightful homage to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. The third season also overlapped with the release of Star Trek: First Contact, the most commercially and critically successful of the movies starring the cast of The Next Generation. During Voyager‘s fourth season, Star Trek: The Experience opened in Las Vegas.

No Star Trek series had more going for it. Voyager had perhaps the most compelling starting premise of any Star Trek series: a tale about two crews stranded in alien territory, forced to work together and overcome their differences in order to survive while taking in wonders previously unseen by human eyes. It had an impressive production budget, a writing staff that was largely drawn from those who had worked on The Next Generation, and a reliable blueprint for success. By these metrics, the story of Voyager should be one of triumph and glory.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. Voyager very rapidly squandered all of that good will and potential, collapsing into itself and sacrificing any forward momentum for familiar comforts. Time marched on past Voyager. UPN shifted its focus away from Voyager as the audience stopped reliably turning in. Towards the end of its run, Voyager felt out of place at a network now focused on African American comedies and professional wrestling. More than that, it felt curiously out of place in a television landscape that was on the cusp of what would be described as a “Golden Age.”

This is a tragedy with very real stakes. Voyager left the Star Trek franchise woefully unprepared for the challenges and opportunities of twenty-first century television, creatively hobbling its successor series Star Trek: Enterprise. At the start of its journey, Voyager seemed to hold the entire world in its hands. By the time that it reached the end of its journey with Endgame, all of that potential had been squandered. The audience that had hungered for more Star Trek after The Next Generation had abandoned Voyager once it became clear that it would not be pushing outwards, instead repackaging safe and familiar stories.

Voyager is a fatal wound on the Star Trek franchise. Of course, the show got to finish its seven-season runs on its own terms, coasting to its conclusion with one of the most lackluster and dull seasons of Star Trek ever produced. That might be a more revealing indicator of the good faith that The Next Generation had accrued rather than a reflection of Voyager‘s intrinsic quality. Enterprise would limp towards slowly towards cancellation, its anxiety palpable even within the troubled first season. By the end of the second season, a serious retool was necessary. By the end of the third, the prognosis was terminal.

The story of Voyager is a tragedy. Like many of the best tragedies, the show’s fate is intrinsic to its character. The stock criticism of Voyager is that the show was too conservative for its own good, and there is certainly some truth in that. As with any creative failure on this scale, there is a scramble to assign blame. It has been argued that UPN pushed the show to tell simpler and more conventional stories, to avoid attempts at serialisation, to more closely emulate The Next Generation. Other sources assign the blame to creative conservatism of Rick Berman, a producer unwilling to push the show in bold new directions.

Regardless of where precisely the blame falls, it should be noted that Voyager was more experimental than many of its critics will acknowledge. However, it also lacked the courage of its convictions. Producer Michael Piller had always kept an eye on contemporary television. A last-minute blow-in on the third season of The Next Generation, Piller had found himself in the hot seat as showrunner when Michael Wagner quit after only four episodes. Piller threw himself into the role, and aggressively modernised a series that had struggled greatly in its first two seasons. The result was one of the best seasons of television ever.

Piller very clearly wanted to push Voyager in that direction. However, there were a number of complications at play. Piller had left Voyager halfway through its first season, most likely directly related to a disagreement over the production of Generations. (Piller had wanted to write the film, but had been told that he would have to pitch against two junior writers. He objected to this, based on his seniority.) Jeri Taylor had steadied the ship during that half-season, bringing her own aesthetic to the for. Piller produced Legend for UPN, a series which did not last past its own first season.

As a result, at the start of the second season, Piller found himself back working on Voyager. There was a palpable tension through that second season, as Piller tried to force his vision on the series and the rest of the writing staff struggled against it. The second season of Voyager attempted to engage in long-form storytelling, focusing on the development of the Kazon as primary antagonists and on a plot involving a Maquis saboteur on the ship. Piller was committed to this idea, while Taylor and the rest of the staff were not.

This resulted in a strange situation, where members of the writing staff often found themselves writing episodes of which they were openly critical. Kenneth Biller was tasked with fleshing out the Kazon, as Ronald D. Moore had done with the Klingon, but his efforts resulted in mediocre stories like Initiations or Maneouvres. Taylor vocally objected to the entire arc in the fan press, but somehow ended up with two of her solo writing credits from the second season on the dire Alliances and Investigations. Piller, meanwhile, was more involved with standalone episodes like Meld and Death Wish.

None of which is to exonerate Piller. Piller is a one of the key creative figures of nineties Star Trek, and is largely responsible for shaping the era’s creative highlights. However, the tail end of his Star Trek career is overshadowed by questionable decisions and poor choices. He was responsible for the horrible New Age fixation on Chakotay’s background in episodes like The Cloud and Tattoo. He was also responsible for pushing the Kazon as the primary antagonists of the first two seasons, one of the most spectacular errors of judgment in the franchise’s history. He would go on to write Star Trek: Insurrection.

It is fair to describe this experiment with long-form storytelling as a trainwreck. After the second season, Voyager retreated from the idea of serialisation. There were a handful of exceptions. The show’s strongest season is its fourth, which includes an extended run of stories that build on one another from Message in a Bottle to Hunters to Prey (even into Retrospect) before culminating in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. However, by and large, Voyager adopted a rigourous episodic format after that point. Indeed, the very idea of serialisation was openly mocked by The Voyager Conspiracy.

It is possible to judge Voyager too harshly on these terms. Showrunner Brannon Braga has talked about his own ambitions for Voyager, from wanting to expand Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II beyond a simple two-episode sojourn to the present day through to his initial plans for Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II to take up an entire seasons. Braga has talked about wanting to kill off Seven of Nine in Endgame, and suggested that his more ambitious plans for the series were undermined and undercut by those higher up the foodchain.

Even acknowledging this, it is worth noting that Braga did use Voyager to change the kind of storytelling that was possible on televised Star Trek. Braga attempted to properly introduce scale and spectacle to Voyager. Of course, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was doing its own thing with the Dominion War around the same time, but Braga seemed to genuinely envisage Voyager as blockbuster television. Braga pushed Voyager to tell bigger and bolder stories than Star Trek had ever told before, stories that were much more propulsive and energetic than The Next Generation.

Braga’s biggest innovation on Voyager was the way in which he consciously scaled up the spectacle in two-parters like Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II and Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. Episodes like The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II and Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II were broadcast as television movies. Even within standalone episodes like Deadlock and Timeless, Braga tried to craft Star Trek with genuine mass appeal. To a certain extent, Braga’s use of spectacle redefined what Star Trek could be. In hindsight, it foreshadows how JJ Abrams would reinvent the franchise with Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Of course, this is a limited success and a controversial one. It deserves more recognition and acknowledgement than it receives. However, it is a much more modest accomplishment than the way that The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine radically reinvented what Star Trek could be. The truth is that Voyager was broadcast at a time when television was undergoing a series of radical changes that would redefine the medium, and the creative team refused to let the show evolve because of the traumatic experiences of the first two seasons.

This retreat was an act of creative cowardice. Any production team that hopes to grow must be willing to experiment, and understand that with these sorts of experiments there is always a chance of failure. Deep Space Nine understood this. Like Voyager, Deep Space Nine emerged from the shadow of The Next Generation. However, unlike Voyager, Deep Space Nine understood the need to keep moving forward. The show embraced concepts like serialisation and long-form storytelling, and pushed at the boundaries of what could be done within the trappings of the Star Trek framework.

History has been kind to Deep Space Nine, as evidenced by What We Left Behind. However, it should be acknowledged that Deep Space Nine‘s early experiments were often no more successful than those on Voyager. As successful as the serialisation in Deep Space Nine‘s fourth and fifth season might have been, they were grounded in the risks taken during the troubled third season. The third season often struggled to manage pacing and structuring, to balance set-up and pay-off, to figure out where its focus should lie. However, rather than giving up, Deep Space Nine kept trying.

Indeed, many of the best episodes of the fourth and fifth seasons are rooted in risks taken during the third season. The Way of the Warrior is a much more confident attempt to produce a second pilot, honing the success of The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II in the previous season. Episodes like The Visitor only seem possible building from experiments like Explorers. Even the stakes and spectacle of the Dominion War would only become possible after Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast demonstrated that stories could be told in that manner. In order to succeed, a show must be willing to fail.

This extends beyond experiments with serialisation or long-form storytelling. For the first three seasons of Deep Space Nine, characters like Julian Bashir and Jadzia Dax posed a serious problem to the Deep Space Nine writing staff, resulting in episodes like Dax, The Passenger, Melora, Meridian and Distant Voices. However, the production team never gave up. In the fourth season, Bashir and Dax really came into their own as the focal points of episodes like Hippocratic Oath, Rejoined, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening. Again, this would not have happened had Deep Space Nine not put in the work.

In contrast, Voyager immediately and reflexively shies away from anything that looks like a risk. The early seasons established a number of characters as challenging to the writing staff. Whether down a problems with the script or difficulties with the actors, characters like Chakotay, Tuvok and Kim struggled to find their own distinct voices in the ensemble. Instead of putting the work into these characters, the writing staff simply stopped writing for them altogether. There are points at which Voyager seems to forget Chakotay, Tuvok and Kim even exist. When it does remember, they are largely used as generic plot movers.

It is not as if the rest of the cast fare better. Early on, Voyager settled on a shorthand for characters like Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres. Paris was a rebel facing a midlife crisis, while Torres was a woman struggling to come terms with her Klingon heritage. However, the show failed to treat these descriptions as starting points. Instead, every episode focusing on these characters tended to simply reiterate (rather than develop) these characters. Paris acted out in Ex Post Facto, InvestigationsVis à Vis, Thirty Days and Alice. Torres dealt with her issues in Faces, Day of Honour, Extreme Risk, Juggernaut, Barge of the Dead and Lineage.

There was a strong sense that Voyager was stuck going around in circles. Indeed, many of its episodes felt like familiar retreads of existing Star Trek stories. Bliss offered yet another Star Trek take on Moby Dick, following on from The Doomsday MachineObsession and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It occasionally even repeated itself, encountering sentient space bombs in Dreadnought and Warhead or having a crew member mutiny in The Raven, Repression or Renaissance Man.

More than that, it was also easy to imagine many of the basic story ideas had been repurposed from The Next Generation. Sometimes, these connections were quite straightforward; Scientific Method felt like a slightly different and more conventional take on some of the same ideas at play in Schisms, while Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II mirrored The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II down to their placement within the larger run of the series.

Sometimes the stories were simply generic. Episodes like Coda or Waking Moments or Unforgettable could have been reworked to feature the casts of The Next Generation or Enterprise without any real work. The characters populating Voyager often felt like archetypes, and so could easily be slotted into whatever roles the show needed. Chakotay could be interested in history in order to spur the plot of One Small Step, or suddenly develop an affection for boxing in order to anchor The Fight. These characters are just cogs in a machine.

To be fair, this generic approach wasn’t always a bad thing. Voyager produced some of the best episodes in the franchise. Some of those episodes were the rare stories to take advantage of the show’s unique premise, but others played into the idea of Voyager as a delivery mechanism for generic Star Trek. Episodes like Remember, Nemesis and Memorial rank among the best episodes in the franchise, and there is very little within them that makes them unique to Voyager.

Indeed, Voyager would often lean into its generic nature, with episodes that barely featured the actual crew. The main characters of Distant Origin are a set of aliens who abduct Chakotay to prove their dangerous theories. The EMH is the only regular character who appears in Living Witness, confronted with holographic recreations of the rest of the cast and crew. The real ship and crew only appear fleetingly at the end of Course: Oblivion, the episode focusing on the doppelgangers who had been created in Demon towards the end of the previous season.

This is to say nothing of how often the crew had their memories wiped or their pasts reset. The entire horrific timeline was reset at the end of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, along with the crew’s experience of it. Alternate versions of the ship were frequently blown up in stories like Deadlock, Relativity or Timeless, even though the show would reset everything to normal for the very next episode. Characters were often confronted with holographic duplicates of themselves, in stories like Worst Case Scenario or Author, Author.

This generic quality could lend Voyager an almost mythic quality. The ship and crew quickly became legends in the Delta Quadrant. Their story became myth at the end of False Profits. They were a source of rumour and speculation to the Voth in Distant Origin. They were historical villains to the Kyrians and the Vaskans in Living Witness. Kelis turned their adventures into epic stage plays in Muse. Con artists impersonated the crew in Live Fast and Prosper. The ship become an inspirational symbol to an entire planet in Blink of an Eye.

All of this became possible because Voyager embraced a particularly generic approach to Star Trek. It would have been difficult for the ship and crew to bleed so completely into Delta Quadrant mythology if Voyager had a stronger sense of its own identity. In its own way, Voyager occasionally felt like an effort to interrogate what it meant to be the fourth live-action Star Trek series at the turn of the millennium, a set of symbols and iconography that had taken on an almost mythic weight.

It was a very different approach from Deep Space Nine, which ruthless interrogated the underlying assumptions of Star Trek, but a valid approach on its own terms. There was something decidedly postmodern about Voyager, particularly the emphasis that show placed on the idea of performance and storytelling. It occasionally felt like a commentary on Voyager itself. Was it enough for Voyager to embody an archetypal version of Star Trek? Did it matter if there was nothing especially distinctive about the show, so long as it looked and acted enough like Star Trek?

This is an interesting premise, and Voyager deserves more credit than it receives. Deep Space Nine seemed to ask how far a television series could push at the established boundaries of Star Trek while still remaining Star Trek. In contrast, Voyager whether it was possible for a Star Trek series to exist without anything unique or distinctive underpinning the familiar iconography. It is impressive that Voyager managed to run for as long as it did, demonstrating just how powerful the iconography of the Star Trek franchise could be.

Still, regardless of how conceptually interesting this approach to Star Trek could be, it still represents one of the show’s greatest disappointments. After all, Voyager was never meant to be generic Star Trek. It was supposed to be a high-concept television show. It wasn’t meant to be the generic adventures of a random space craft within the larger Star Trek universe. It was supposed to be the story of two crews snatched out of the Alpha Quadrant and dumped in unexplored territory, looking for a way home.

The premise of Voyager was supposed to represent a fresh start for the franchise, to get away from the familiar trappings of Romulans and Klingons. However, the Delta Quadrant seemed to be crowded with familiar faces. Several members of the primary cast of The Next Generation turned up in guest appearances, with Riker appearing in Death Wish, LaForge appearing in Timeless and Troi appearing in both Life Line and Inside Man. Romulans appeared in Eye of the Needle and Message in a Bottle. Outside of the holodeck, Klingons appeared in Prophecy. The Ferengi appeared in False Profits and Inside Man.

This is one of the paradoxes of Voyager. The show clings so furious to the familiar trappings of The Next Generation that the Borg and Lieutenant Commander Reginald Barclay actually appear more frequently on Voyager than they did on The Next Generation. Q is a recurring character, playing out a minor character arc across Death Wish, The Q and the Grey and Q2. There is a sense that these elements are more fundamental to Voyager than anything originating within the series, appearing more frequently than some of the show’s own recurring characters and creations.

This is one of the truly depressing aspects of Voyager. After all, the series had so much going for it. The premise was striking and unique. There had never been a Star Trek series with a more interesting starting point. Voyager was supposed to be a show about a Starfleet crew stranded half-way across the galaxy without any of the infrastructure or support that Picard or Sisko could take for granted. What would that be like? How difficult would it be for that crew to stick to their principles? Would they have to compromise, and to what degree?

Voyager immediately fudged the answer to these questions. Parallax made it clear that the ship would operate just like the Enterprise. The Maquis would wear Starfleet uniforms, only distinguished by slightly different pips on the collar. Episodes like Learning Curve and Good Shepherd made it clear that there would be no attempt to adapt the chain of command to accommodate those who did not wish to conform. State of Flux made it clear that anybody who disagreed with Janeway’s approach would be very quickly removed from the ship.

There was never any sense of peril or any mild discomfort. In Parallax, it was explained that the ship’s holodecks would continue to run because their energy was not compatible with other systems; enabling holodeck-centric episodes like Heroes and Demons, Alter Ego or Bride of Chaotica! Torres was apparently able to build a dilithium refinery on the ship itself in Phage. Whenever the issue of supplies did come up, as in Demon, it was often just a handy way of driving the plot of a single episode, rather than as a reflection of an ongoing concern.

The ship itself remained immaculate throughout the run, even after taking a beating in Deadlock or being half-assimilated in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. While Torres suggested keeping some Borg enhancements in The Gift, the show was careful to ensure that none of them would disfigure or warp the show’s aesthetic; Seven of Nine’s regeneration alcove in the Cargo Bay remains the most serious architectural contradiction on the ship. Indeed, the ship is so well supplied that the crew are even able to build Seven of Nine an astrometrics lab in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.

To a certain extent, this spoke to Voyager‘s unique cultural context. The Next Generation had launched in the last days of the Cold War, but was still somewhat shaped by the conflict. In episodes like The Neutral Zone, The Enemy and The Defector, the Romulans still worked as stand-ins for the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union both collapsed during the run of The Next Generation, and certain aspects of the show spoke to American global dominance in the so-called “unipolar moment”, but The Next Generation was still a series shaped and defined by the end of an epochal conflict.

Interestingly, although Deep Space Nine was invested in the postcolonial and multicultural anxieties of the nineties, the decision to structure the series around a brewing conflict between the Federation and the Dominion arguably lent the series a more timeless sensibility. Episodes like Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight arguably felt even more timely during the War on Terror than they had on original broadcast. So Deep Space Nine operated at a remove from contemporary politics, although they undoubtedly informed touches like the millennial anxieties in The Reckoning or the politics of The Abandoned.

This meant that Voyager was tasked with defining Star Trek for the Clinton era. The economy was strong. Crime was in decline. Although the United States would involve itself in conflicts in places like Haiti and Bosnia, the global climate was largely stable. The United States had won the Cold War. For the first time since the start of the Second World War, it could unequivocally be argued that the United States was at peace. Liberal democracy had triumphed. Francis Fukuyama went so far as to argue that the United States had reached “the end of history.”

Star Trek had always held a mirror to the United States, presenting an extrapolation of “the American Century” forward into the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries. Voyager reflected the prevailing mood of the nineties. It is notable, for example, that Voyager was the first Star Trek television spin-off to send its cast back to contemporary Earth in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. It even explicitly articulated millennial anxieties in 11:59, an episode focusing on an ancestor of Kathryn Janeway who watched the twentieth century give way to the twenty-first in Indiana.

Although the show’s relative stability made little sense in the context the high-concept premise of a bunch of explorers trapped alone on the far side of the galaxy, it reflected the general mood of American in the nineties. More than any other Star Trek series, Voyager invested in the idea of the status quo. Nothing ever changed. The ship would always be okay, even if it was destroyed in episodes like Deadlock, Year of Hell, Part II, Relativity, Course: Oblivion and Timeless. No matter how much damage was inflicted on the ship, everything would look brand new again the next week.

Discounting casualties suffered in Caretaker, Janeway lost at least twenty-eight crew members over the show’s seven seasons, including Seska. That is a sizable death toll for a ship with a crew complement of only one-hundred-and-fifty, however it never seems to disrupt the ship’s routine. Similarly, Voyager loses no fewer than ten shuttlecraft over the course of the show’s seven seasons, if not more. As with the deaths of crew members, there is minimal disruption to the ship’s routine. The crew only ever constructs one replacement for all those lost craft, with Tom Paris designing the Delta Flyer in Extreme Risk.

For the most part, Voyager seemed to believe that every day would be pretty much identical to the one that proceeded it and the one that would follow it. This worldview could be extrapolated forward. Voyager frequently pushed the audience even further into the future than The Next Generation or Voyager. It is notable that Living Witness takes place at the extreme limit of the franchise’s future chronology to that point, the thirty-first century. It unfolds against the backdrop of a relatively stable Delta Quadrant, one that has not been overrun by the Borg or Species 8472.

Voyager also featured a couple of trips to the twenty-ninth century, offering a glimpse of the future of Starfleet in episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Relativity. There was a sense that Starfleet and the Federation would always be around, expanding their role as galactic peacekeepers to protect the time itself. There was no sense that anything would ever challenge the status quo. Not only did Voyager extrapolate the American Century into the twenty-fourth century, but also suggested that the ensuing political stability would extend well beyond that.

This was a reflection of the prevailing mood in the nineties. The version of twenty-ninth century Starfleet in Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Relativity is a literalisation of the end of history. The liberal democratic ideals championed by the United States and the Federation had won, and would never be challenged. It is interesting to contrast this with the War on Terror anxieties that permeate Enterprise. The very idea of the Temporal Cold War articulated in episodes like Shockwave, Part I and Shockwave, Part II suggest that the franchise’s utopian future seemed a lot less assured in the twenty-first century.

This contemplation of the end of history also played out in other ways. Despite the fact that Voyager never embraced serialised or long-form storytelling, it was fascinated with idea of memory and manipulation. Perhaps tapping into the fear that the trauma of the Holocaust was slipping from living memory, Voyager touched time and again on the horror of revisionist history and importance of preserving memory. Remember and Memorial were explicitly about memorialising genocide. Distant Origin and Living Witness were more broadly about the dangers of erasing history to suit political narratives.

This anxiety over the erasure of memory applied as much individuals as to society. Voyager frequently treats the manipulation of memory as a negation of the self. In Unforgettable, Chakotay discovers that he has had a love affair with an alien who completely erased herself from his memory. In Latent Image, the EMH finds out that Janeway has altered his memory banks. In both Retrospect and Survival Instinct, Seven of Nine comes to terms with repressed traumas. In Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, Janeway orders Seven to reconnect with her memories of childhood before her assimilation.

Voyager taps into nineties anxieties in a variety of other ways as well. The show was fascinated with questions about the nature of reality. The series was populated by simulacra and facsimiles; the silver blood replicas in Demon and Course: Oblivion, the con artists in Live Fast and Prosper, the actors in Muse. Characters often found themselves duplicated or combined, confronting replicas or replacements; Janeway faced versions of herself in both Deadlock and Endgame, multiple Sevens appeared in Relativity, Neelix and Tuvok were combined in Tuvix, Torres was split in Faces.

While Voyager was over reliant on the holodeck as a narrative device, it tapped into that fundamental anxiety about what was real and what was not. Real dangers manifested on the holodeck in Heroes and Demons and Bride of Chaotica!, with the photonic aliens in the latter refusing to accept organic lifeforms as real. Kim fell in love with an alien who disguised herself as a hologram in Alter Ego, while Janeway fell in love with a hologram in Fair Haven. The EMH fell in love with holograms in both Heroes and Demons and Lifesigns, with the latter being complicated because it was a “real” person in a holographic persona.

The EMH served as a nexus point for many of these anxieties about the nature of reality. Voyager would often push characters rooted in technology like the EMH and Seven of Nine to the point of nervous breakdown; the EMH in Projections, Darkling, Latent Image and Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Seven in Infinite Regress and The Voyager Conspiracy. These breakdowns were often metaphorical in nature, allegories for the challenges of successfully processing and reconciling vast quantities of data in the information age.

Voyager repeatedly asked its audience to mediate what was real and what was not. The crew were presented as holograms in episodes like Distant Origin, Worst Case ScenarioLiving WitnessPathfinder and Author, Author. Holographic entities that were created be complicated computer programming grasped at personhood in stories like Revulsion or Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. Artificial people often elicited genuine emotion from the crew, whether Janeway’s relationship with Leonardo DaVinci in Concerning Flight or the EMH’s computer-generated family in Real Life.

Over the course of its run, Voyager argued that the EMH was a distinct person with his own inalienable rights. However, it also consistently reminded the audience the the EMH was something very different from any of the other characters on the show; he was an entity distinct from Neelix, Tuvok or even Seven. The EMH could be rewritten and recoded, as in Latent Image or Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II. He could hide inside Seven’s implants in Body and Soul or impersonate the entire crew in Renaissance Man. None of this made him any less of a person, but it also never ignored how alien he was.

All of this captures an anxiety that permeated late nineties culture, finding expression in a variety of pop culture from The Matrix to Dark City to The Thirteenth Floor to Harsh Realm to eXistenz to The Truman Show. There was a palpable anxiety at the end of the nineties that the world wasn’t actually real, and that nothing actually existed. It was perhaps a response to the collapse of the rigid ideological framework of the Cold War, the collapse of that ordering principle opening the popular consciousness to more abstract existential queries.

While Voyager never managed to entirely distance itself form the trappings of The Next Generation, the series did manage to differentiate the Delta Quadrant from the Alpha, Beta and Gamma Quadrants. Again, this was largely a reflection of Voyager as a show that spoke to nineties American self-image. The Alpha Quadrant was largely defined by the politics of empires that stood in opposition to one another; the Romulan Star Empire, the Ferengi Alliance, the Klingon Empire, the Cardassian Union, the United Federation of Planets. This spoke to a vision of politics rooted in the Cold War

In contrast, the Delta Quadrant is not defined by any major power. There is some suggestion that this was not always the case. Caretaker suggests that the Nacene had once been a major force in the Delta Quadrant, but their power and influence decayed over an extended period. The Vaadwaur had once struck fear into the heart of the Delta Quadrant, before they were eventually vanquished and forced into hibernation until they were awoken in Dragon’s Teeth. Episodes like The 37’s and Tattoo suggest a lost era when Delta Quadrant aliens regularly travelled to and from Earth.

There is a sense that the Delta Quadrant was populated by species living amid the ruins. Before it was destroyed in Hunters, the Hirogen laid claim an impressive communications network designed by a long lost civilisation. The Trabe had collapsed decades before the start of the series, leaving the Kazon to fight over what remained in stole ships. The Talaxians had been humbled and conquered by the Haakonian Order. The Vidiians had been a bastion of artists and creatives, before a highly contagious disease turned them into scavengers and predators.

Voyager often focused on less advanced civilisations, such as the planet that Arridor and Kol swindle in False Profits or the one that mythologises the crew in Muse. Some civilisations were nomadic, like the Mikhal Travellers in Darkling. A lot of Delta Quadrant civilisations had descended into fascism, such as the Devore Imperium in Counterpoint or the Mokra in Resistance. Conflict was common. Sometimes that conflict was external, as with the war between the Kraylor and the Annari in Nightingale. Sometimes that conflict was internal, as with the Ilari in Warlord.

These civilisations often struggled to properly employ advanced technology; an entire civilisation was destroyed by an energy explosion in Time and Again, Kazon experiments with advanced technology led to horrific results in State of Flux, while Janeway had to prevent a primitive culture from unleashing untold destruction in The Omega Directive. Even more advanced and powerful civilisations like the Malon are defined as less technologically advanced than the Federation, with Voyager casually offering to singlehandedly solve their pollution problem in Night.

Voyager eventually provides an explanation for this. Blood Fever finds the remains of an ancient civilisation living among the scattered ruins of their once-impressive culture. In the jungle, Chakotay finds the body of one of the invaders who reduced these people to hermits; it is a Borg drone. In Day of Honour, Janeway encounters a convoy of Caatati, who have been dispossessed by the Borg. In Child’s Play, the crew discover that the Brunali have been repeatedly ravaged by the Borg and have been forced to offer one of their children up as a sacrifice to the Borg Collective.

As such, the Delta Quadrant represents what George H.W. Bush described as the “new world order” of the era following the Cold War. The Soviet Union had collapsed, leaving a number of smaller states scrambling to hold themselves together. The United States was the world’s only superpower. (Some even began to use the word “hyperpower” to properly quantify the amount of influence that the United States held.) Voyager reflected this sense of shifting global perspective. Indeed, the show’s recurring meditation on genocide in episodes like Remember and Memorial arguably reflected events in Rwanda and Kosovo.

However, this worldview could also become inherently conservative and reactionary. Whereas The Next Generation took a real pleasure in exploration and discovery, Voyager tended to regard alien species with suspicion and paranoia. Indeed, it was so rare that the ship encountered a friendly alien species that Janeway even remarked on it in Survival Instinct. Alien species often regarded the ship with envious eyes. The Kazon seized control in Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. The Hirogen took over in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

The Delta Quadrant is full of predatory aliens just ready to exploit the crew. In Phage, a couple of Vidiians steal Neelix’s lungs. In Favourite Son, a group of aliens seduce Kim and attempt to harvest his DNA to repupulate their species. In Think Tank, a seemingly helpful collection of aliens tried to manipulate Janeway into surrendering Seven of Nine to them. In Tsunkatse, a deep-space fight promoter abducts Tuvok and Seven to fight in his brutal games. Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II finds the crew abducted and brainwashed to serve as labour for the Quarren.

Even aliens that initially seemed friendly were often revealed to have sinister ulterior motives. The aliens mysteriously appearing on board in Displaced initially seem friendly, but quickly reveal themselves to be invaders trying to take control of the ship. In Day of Honour, a group of ungrateful refugees attempt to hold the ship’s warp core to ransom. In some ways, Voyager was reflecting the racial and cultural anxieties that defined California in the nineties. Nineties California was very much caught up in a wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, and that carries over to Voyager in a very real way.

Voyager is a very conservative television series. The Next Generation had adopted a utopian perspective, embracing the idea of seeking out “new lifeforms and new civilisations.” In many ways, Deep Space Nine was an exploration of the struggles that were necessary for peaceful coexistence in a multicultural world. In contrast, Voyager seemed openly wary of the idea of alien contact and peaceful coexistence. Indeed, the episode Friendship One closes with Janeway ruminating that any sacrifice made in the pursuit of knowledge was too steep a price to pay.

To be fair, the show’s influences reflected this conservatism. While Voyager was very rooted in the nineties, it drew a lot of influence from the fifties. Tom Paris’ holodeck fantasies evoked a nostalgia for the mid-twentieth century; the Cadillac on Mars in Lifesigns, the auto-repair workshop in Vis à Vis, the Captain Proton adventures in Night, the 3D theatre in Repression. Even the show’s plotting often borrowed from atomic era creature features, most notably in episodes like The 37’s, Threshold and Macrocosm. Indeed, episodes like Cathexis and In the Flesh even directly invoked fifties anti-communist paranoia.

This fifties influence makes sense in the larger context of Voyager. The show values conformity ahead of individuality, especially in contrast to Deep Space Nine. Torres alludes to this in Lineage, talking about the fears that she has about raising a quarter-Klingon child on a predominantly human ship. In Homestead, the show argues that Neelix could never really belong to the crew because he is a Talaxian and so could not possible integrate with the crew no matter how hard he might try.

This conservatism is obvious in the show’s anxiety around race. Voyager is strangely preoccupied with the prospect of slave revolts. In the first couple of seasons, this fear is played out using the Kazon. Again, the Kazon are the reflection of a particularly nineties anxiety – fears about gang violence in Los Angeles. However, the Kazon quickly evolved into a racialised nightmare, a hyperviolent species that had been freed from centuries of slavery and promptly terrorised the entire region. Episodes like State of Flux and Alliances seemed to suggest it might have been better for all if the Kazon had never been freed.

Voyager moved beyond the Kazon in its third season, but the anxiety remained. During the show’s final season, that anxiety found expression with the fear of holographic revolution – a more conventional science-fiction allegory for slave revolt. Episodes like Body and Soul, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II and Author, Author suggested that these lifeforms would inevitably rise up against their oppressors. It is revealing that Voyager refused to explicitly side with these revolutions in either case, often treating them as dangerous inconveniences rather than indictments of broken societies.

Voyager reflected the nineties, often for better and worse. However, it remained largely stuck in place. Characters very rarely changed and grew. There were exceptions, of course; Paris and Torres formed one of the most unlikely-yet-endearing couples in the Star Trek canon. However, it is difficult to argue that characters like Kim or Chakotay or Tuvok were fundamentally changed by their journey together. Kim remained an ensign for all seven seasons of the series. Paris was demoted in Thirty Days and then promoted again to his original rank in Unimatrix Zero, Part I. All in all, Voyager seemed to be running in place.

Meanwhile, television was moving on and evolving. Shows like The X-Files were embracing serialisation. The Sopranos would launch during Voyager‘s fifth season and change the face of television forever. Even Deep Space Nine showed a remarkable willingness to move with the times, experimenting with different storytelling styles and multi-episode arcs. Voyager was largely the same show when it launched in January 1995 and when it ended in May 2001. The show never really grew or evolved. Instead, it ended up running in place.

For a show that was explicitly about the journey, Voyager struggled to measure time and distance. The ship crossed huge distances in episodes like Timeless and Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, but kept running into the same old faces over and over again. Malon space seemed to span more than thirty thousand light-years, which makes no sense. Borg space was concentrated in one corner of the Delta Quadrant, but with hubs seemingly scattered randomly around the ship’s path home. There was never any sense that the distance covered by Voyager mattered, in any meaningful sense.

Perhaps this was appropriate. After all, Voyager was the first Star Trek show that was explicitly about retreating from the unknown towards the familiar. Both Star Trek and The Next Generation had been shows about pushing outwards, about ships at the edge of known space encountering new and unknown phenomenon. Deep Space Nine was about a space station that sat at the centre of a galactic nexus point, including a wormhole to uncharted territory. In contrast Voyager started by throwing the crew into the unknown, and then became a show about retreating towards “home.”

In a very real sense, Voyager marked the edge of the final frontier. Voyager would be followed by Enterprise, the first Star Trek series to be a prequel. That would be followed by JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, which would explicitly take the franchise back to the era of Kirk and Spock. However, the nostalgia that would come to define the Star Trek franchise was woven into Voyager from the outset. Caretaker explicitly positioned Voyager as a space western in the style of the original Star Trek, down to casting Chakotay as a friendly Native American and the Kazon as more old-fashioned “savages.”

Episodes like Time and Again adopted a decidedly sixties aesthetic in terms of costuming. Episodes like Cold Fire characterised Kes as an elf experimenting with consciousness expansion, a collection of very retro sixties influences. Janeway openly yearned for the days of explorers like James Tiberius Kirk in Flashback, while Icheb offered a presentation on him in Q2. Indeed, Voyager was also very engaged with the history, with the crew recovering lost pieces of Earth’s history in episodes as diverse as The 37’s, Tattoo, One Small Step and Friendship One.

As such, Voyager marked the point at which Star Trek stopped looking outward. It marked the point at which Star Trek lost any real interest in the unknown or the unexplored. It could perhaps be argued that Deep Space Nine turned the franchise’s gaze inwards, encouraging reflection and analysis, but Voyager turned its gaze backwards. Voyager was a show that wasn’t interested in boldly going where no one had gone before, in expanding humanity’s understanding of the wider universe. Voyager was only interested in getting back to where Star Trek had already been.

This is the thread that ties all of Voyager together; the awkward racial politics, the ill-judged reactionary perspective, the suffocating nostalgia, the desperate resistance to innovation and experimentation. Voyager was the first Star Trek series that was completely and totally uninterested in expanding its horizons. It was a show about a crew who had been confronted with the unknown and who only wanted to get back to what they knew and what they were familiar with. It is perhaps no surprise that this aspect of the premise should overwhelm all of the interesting ideas simmering beneath it.

Voyager doesn’t just set the outer boundaries of the Star Trek franchise. It quickly retreats inwards, away from them. For a franchise like Star Trek, that was a death knell.

voy-caretaker11Season 1

January 16, 1995 – May 22, 1995

voy-basicspart1ySeason 2

August 28, 1995 – May 20, 1996

Season 3

September 4, 1996 – May 21, 1997

Season 4

September 3, 1997 – May 20, 1998

Season 5

October 14, 1998 – May 26, 1999

Season Six

September 22, 1999 – May 24, 2000

Season Seven

October 4, 2000 – May 23, 2001

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