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Star Trek: Voyager – Year of Hell, Part II (Review)

Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II might just be the most representative episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.

Taken together, these episodes perfectly embody the restrictions placed upon the third Star Trek spin-off. They are a boldly ambitious story of a ship that finds itself in hostile territory surrounded by a hostile force with superior firepower, all while playing into the recurring themes and fascinations of the wider series. However, they are also a two-parter that wraps up with an incredibly convenient resolution that handily resets the status quo in a manner that allows the ship (and the series) to avoid any lasting consequences from this blockbuster story.

The hole in things.

The hole in things.

The result is one of the most thrilling and engaging stories of Voyager‘s seven-season run, among the most satisfying of the series’ impressive “blockbuster” two-parters. However, its sense of scale and scope exists very much in contrast to the episodes around it, a truly epic story that leaves no lasting mark. An audience member skipping from Scientific Method to Random Thoughts would be completely oblivious of the episode. For an episode of such weight, great care is taken to ensure that its passage causes no disturbance.

Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II do an excellent job capturing the essence of Voyager.

Annorax-ed with guilt.

Annorax-ed with guilt.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Year of Hell, Part I (Review)

Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II might just be the perfect episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.

Taken together, these episodes perfectly demonstrate the raw potential and strength of the third Star Trek spin-off. They are a boldly ambitious story of a ship that finds itself in hostile territory surrounded by a hostile force with superior firepower, all while playing into the recurring themes and fascinations of the wider series. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II are effectively a story that finds history itself under threat, while emphasising Brannon Braga’s interpretation of Janeway by setting her against a similarly obsessive opponent.

Things fall apart.

Things fall apart.

The result is one of the most thrilling and engaging stories of Voyager‘s seven-season run, among the most satisfying of the series’ impressive “blockbuster” two-parters. Although the show is still being broadcast in the standard nineties 4:3 aspect ratio, it feels like a widescreen story. Part of that is due to the fact that the two-parter unfolds over three quarters of an entire year, part of that is the expanded room for storytelling, part of that is the fact that history itself hangs in the balance, part of that is the fact that Voyager itself feels at stake.

Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II do an excellent job capturing the essence of Voyager.

The Voyager cast Christmas party took a heavier toll than usual.

The Voyager cast Christmas party took a heavier toll than usual.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Scorpion, Part I (Review)

In some ways, Scorpion, Part I is the perfect cap to the third season of Star Trek: Voyager.

The third season has largely seen the show retreating from ideas and concepts that would render it unique in the larger Star Trek canon. Although the first two seasons were hardly radical in terms of storytelling style or substance, Michael Piller did make a conscious effort to build off some of the premises unique to this show. The Kazon might have been a terrible idea in both concept and execution, but they were at least something new. While the second season botched its attempts at serialisation, at least it made the effort.

This is perhaps a metaphor for what Voyager is going to do to the Borg...

This is perhaps a metaphor for what Voyager is going to do to the Borg…

In the third season, the production team seem to have settled upon the idea of producing generic Star Trek, rather than telling stories unique to Voyager. This is something of a mixed blessing. While the third season features a host of forgettable episodes like Warlord and Alter Ego, it features few episodes as soul-destroying as Alliances or Investigations. More than that, episodes like Remember or Distant Origin demonstrate the appeal of producing generic Star Trek stories, ranking among the best episodes that the show has produced to date.

More than that, the production team have consciously pushed the show much closer to the model of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is most obvious in the handling of Q as a character. While Death Wish found something novel and interesting to do with the character after All Good Things…, The Q and the Grey returns the character to his default settings for a cringe-worthy dress-up episode that owes far too much in concept and execution to Q-Pid. There are plenty of other examples.

This might also be a potent metaphor for what Voyager is about to do to the Borg...

This might also be a potent metaphor for what Voyager is about to do to the Borg…

However, Voyager‘s most overt embrace of the legacy of The Next Generation came with the introduction of the Borg. The Borg are in many ways the most iconic creation of the Berman era, perhaps the only new alien species liable to recognised alongside the Klingons or the Romulans or the Vulcans. After all, the Borg were the antagonists of Star Trek: First Contact, the theatrical release intended to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary. Their aesthetic influence can even be felt on Star Trek Beyond, the theatrical release intended to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary.

The Borg made their first appearance at the end of Blood Fever, in a postscript scene that feels like almost like a post-credits tease that arrived ten years too early. The Borg also appeared in Unity, an episode which featured Chakotay encountering the survivors from a disconnected Borg ship desperately trying to reconnect their shared link. However, neither of these episodes featured the Borg Collective, the powerful and single-minded collective consciousness that drives the hive mind.

Building a bridge...

Building a bridge…

So it makes sense that the Borg Collective would appear in full force for Scorpion, Part I, the third season finale and cliffhanger bridging to the fourth season. Once again, this is a creative decision right out of the Next Generation playbook. The Next Generation really cemented its distinct cultural identity with the broadcast of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I at the end of its third season. Part of this was simply down to the fact that it had outpaced the original Star Trek, which only lasted three years. However, part of it was also that the cliffhanger was spectacular television.

Scorpion, Part I is not spectacular television. It is good television. It is a satisfying blockbuster epic, with a strong sense of momentum and some interesting ideas. However, it also smells a little bit of desperation. It feels like Voyager has completely abandoned its own sense of identity and followed the path of least resistance. Insert your own joke there.

Or, you know, don't. Whatever floats your boat.

Or, you know, don’t. Whatever floats your boat.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Distant Origin (Review)

Like Remember before it, Distant Origin is a really great example of how Star Trek: Voyager‘s efforts to build a “generic Star Trek series can produce memorable and satisfying episodes of television.

There is very little about Distant Origin that demands to be set in the Delta Quadrant. In fact, Distant Origin arguably makes less sense as an episode set in the Delta Quadrant than it would as an episode set in the Alpha or Beta Quadrants. Episodes like The 37’s and Distant Origin (and the lies at the heart of Favourite Son) seem to suggest a lot of traffic between Earth and the Delta Quadrant beyond the Caretaker. It seems strange the Voth would migrate so far in search of a place to call home.

Skullduggery.

Skullduggery.

However, for all that Distant Origin feels like a strange fit for the series’ Delta Quadrant setting, it feels very much like quintessential Star Trek. Like Remember earlier in the season, Distant Origin is very much an old-fashioned Star Trek allegory that uses characters in cheesy make-up to comment upon contemporary issues. In Remember, it was the reality of holocaust denial. In Distant Origin, it is the age-old conflict of science-against-political-expedience. There is an endearing timelessness to the metaphor at the centre of the story.

With its dinosaur characters, its fixation upon evolution, and its doctrine of “origin”, Distant Origin seems very specifically tailored to the heated debates around science and creationism in American culture. However, the allegory is powerful enough that it maintains a potency even beyond that. Distant Origin has aged remarkably well, working effectively as a metaphor for climate change denial or even for historical revisionism in favour of the national myth. Distant Origin is both a season and a series highlight.

The bones of a theory.

The bare bones of a theory.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Rise (Review)

Rise is in many ways a very typical episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is an episode that certainly has an interesting premise. For all its myriad flaws, Voyager tended to have a genuine interest in playing with science-fiction concepts. At its worst, this attitude manifested itself through the various “anomaly of the week” stories that followed a familiar pattern of the ship encounter some sort of strange phenomenon with predictable results. Often this phenomenon involved time travel or interstellar dust clouds, a trend that could be traced back to early episodes like Time and Again or The Cloud.

That crashing feeling.

That crashing feeling.

However, Voyager did occasionally use its interest in science-fiction storytelling to construct interesting stories. Deadlock might have set a damning precedent for the show, but it was compelling television. Blink of an Eye is a very clever little story. In true Star Trek fashion, Voyager would even use these science-fiction ideas to construct engaging allegories like the exploration of holocaust denial in Remember or the meditation on creationism in Distant Origin.

These concepts gave the series a sense of texture. They served to distinguish the show from its siblings. For example, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was generally less interested in science-fiction high concepts than in characterisation and politics. When those sci-fi elements did show up, they were usually to torture O’Brien in episodes like Whispers, Visionary, Hard Time and Time’s Orphan. Of course, Deep Space Nine had sci-fi concept-driven stories like Playing God or One Little Ship, but they tended to stand out more from the series around them.

Up on the roof's the only place I know...

Up on the roof’s the only place I know…

Rise has a suitably high concept, a core idea that could easily have been lifted from the pages of the same pulp magazines that inspired The Cloud Minders. The episode is essentially a paranoid thriller unfolding within a confined space, but that confined space just happens to be a giant elevator that stretches from the surface of the planet into orbit. The premise is ridiculous, feeling like it was lifted from forties or fifties periodicals with giant insects and half-naked men on the cover. In other words, it feels of a piece with Innocence or The Thaw or Tuvix.

It is too much to argue that Rise has a brilliant concept, but it at least has an intriguing one. While it might be hard to use the basic elements of Rise to construct a classic, it should be relatively straightforward to construct a thrilling episode of television. Unfortunately, Rise simply does not work. More than that, Rise does not work for the most boring of reasons. As with a lot of Voyager, the episode is an interesting premise undercut by both a deeply flawed (and half-hearted) execution and the show’s own long-standing structural weaknesses. This happens all too often.

A dark moment for the series.

A dark moment for the series.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Darkling (Review)

There is something to be said for the pulpier side of Star Trek: Voyager, the aspect of the show that plays like a cheesy sci-fi b-movie.

Brannon Braga is very much the driving force behind this aspect of the show, as evidenced by his scripts for the belated Cold War body-swapping horror of Cathexis or the psychological nightmare of Projections or the trashy psychedelic terror of Cold Fire or even the weird evolutionary anxieties of Threshold and Macrocosm. These sorts of episodes often feel like they belong in a late night movie slot reserved for forgotten horror flicks from the fifties and sixties. Of course, Braga is not alone in this; episodes like Meld and The Thaw also fit the pattern.

Blurred lines.

Blurred lines.

Of course, these episodes do not always hit the mark. Charitably, it could be argued that they land about half the time and misfire spectacularly about one third of the time. However, there is something strangely compelling about these episode. They feel distinct from what audiences expect from Star Trek. Even if they are arguably just an extension of late Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes like Sub Rosa or Genesis or Eye of the Beholder, they feel like something different from the show’s more conventional “let’s do archetypal Star Trek” plotting.

Darkling is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but which is oddly endearing in its dysfunction. It is a ridiculous central premise executed in a deeply flawed (and occasionally uncomfortable) manner. However, there is something weirdly compelling about wedding the show’s science-fiction premise to gothic horror through the fractured psyche of a computer program.

Patchy.

Patchy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Macrocosm (Review)

If Star Trek: Voyager is going to commit itself to emulating Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are probably worse ways to do it.

Macrocosm is not a bad riff on Genesis, another sci-fi monster story from Brannon Braga. Braga has an interest in the overlap between horror and retro science-fiction, as demonstrated by scripts from Schisms to Sub Rosa to Threshold. While none of these episodes count among Braga’s best work, and many are considered among his worst, they very clearly represent a subject of interest to him. Given the third season misfires with Warlord and The Q and the Grey, a light run-around action story is not the worst episode that Voyager could produce at this point.

Going viral.

Going viral.

Macrocosm has more than its fair share of problems. It is structured oddly, it is laboured with exposition, it is not technically as tight as it needs to be. However, there is a lot to be said for an episode that casts Kathryn Janeway as John Rambo, stalking killer monsters through the dimly-lit corridors of her own starship. It is at the very least a refreshing change of pace. Besides, if Jean-Luc Picard gets to be an action hero in scripts like Starship Mine or Star Trek: First Contact, it seems only fair that Janeway should get her chance.

The biggest problem with Macrocosm is the episode that it might have been. The original pitch for the episode was much more ambitious than the version that made it to screen. Unfortunately, this is very much the narrative of the third season of Voyager, and perhaps the show as a whole. Macrocosm was a bold idea that was gradually watered down to form a passable imitation of The Next Generation.

"It's going to get very First Contact in here, very quickly."

“It’s going to get very First Contact in here, very quickly.”

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