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Trump Trek: How Star Trek: Voyager is Perfectly Trumpian Star Trek…

Star Trek has built up a fascinating pop culture mythology around itself. There is an interesting dissonance between that memory and the reality.

The fond memory of a thing is not the thing itself. It is a cliché to observe that the line “beam me up, Scotty” was never actually said on the original show, but many casual fans associate the phrase with the franchise. Even hardcore Star Trek fans tend to gloss over the historical record in favour of affectionate memory. Many fans remember the pointed anti-Vietnam rhetoric of A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy or The Trouble with Tribbles. Few remember the pro-Vietnam tone of Friday’s Child, The Apple or The Omega Glory.

There is a tendency to believe that Star Trek has always been progressive, that the franchise has always embraced tolerance and actively pursued diversity. However, the reality is often more complicated than that. This why certain sections of the fanbase seem to react in abject terror to concepts like “Trek Against Trump”, a campaign organised by Armin Shimerman to protest the racism and xenophobia espoused by the (then-) candidate Donald Trump. One would imagine that rejecting sexism, racism, white nationalism would be a no-brainer for fandom, but it was not.

Indeed, this reactionary strain of fandom has come up time and again in the context of Star Trek: Discovery. Certain vocal sections of the fan base have objected to the diversity of the primary cast, despite the fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably had a much more diverse ensemble. The backlash has reached the point that the cast have had to actually give interviews that racism is a very bad thing and that the franchise is very much about tolerance and understanding. Similarly, the news that the series would be overtly political has rattled some cages in fandom.

In theory, these reactions should be shocking. The Star Trek franchise has carefully cultivated a reputation for liberalism and idealism. Indeed, the Federation is quite explicitly socialist, something hinted at in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and explicitly confirmed in Star Trek: First Contact. On a more fundamental level, the franchise is about people from different cultures and with different values coming together to work in common purpose. It seems reasonably fair to argue the franchise would disagree with concepts like “the Muslim Ban” or “the Transgender Service Ban.”

However, the truth is that there has always been a reactionary streak lurking within the franchise. And nowhere has that reactionary streak been stronger than in Star Trek: Voyager, bleeding over into the creation and first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Basics, Part II (Review)

This February and March (and a little bit of April), we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

With Basics, Part II, the second season comes to an end.

In both technical and spiritual terms, of course. The production team decided to retain the strategy that they had employed during the show’s first season, adding an additional filming block on to the end of the season in order to film a bunch of episodes that would be broadcast at the start of the third broadcast season. At the end of the first season, four episodes were produced and held back – Projections, Elogium, Twisted, and The 37’s. As such, four second season episodes were produced after Basics, Part ISacred Ground, False Profits, Flashback and Basics, Part II.

Picking over the bones. An apt image for the third season premiere.

Picking over the bones.
An apt image for the third season premiere.

So, Basics, Part II marks the end of the show’s second production season. Even though it was the first episode of the third season to be broadcast, it was the last episode of the second season to be produced. It is very consciously designed to bring the curtain down on a particular era of the show. Basics, Part II marks the end of the line for various threads running through the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. It is the last Kazon story, the last Seska story, the last Lon Suder story, the last Star Trek television script written by Michael Piller.

Basics, Part II seems written in the hope that it might end a troubled era for the show and for the larger franchise. While things undoubtedly got smoother, it remains highly debatable whether the franchise ever properly recovered.

Let sleeping eels lie...

Let sleeping eels lie…

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

This February and March (and a little bit of April), we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

With Basics, Part I, the second season comes to an end.

In a very specific sense, of course. The production team decided to retain the strategy that they had employed during the show’s first season, adding an additional filming block on to the end of the season in order to film a bunch of episodes that would be broadcast at the start of the third broadcast season. At the end of the first season, four episodes were produced and held back – Projections, Elogium, Twisted, and The 37’s. As such, four second season episodes were produced after Basics, Part ISacred Ground, False Profits, Flashback and Basics, Part II.

Heading home alone.

Heading home alone.

However, Basics, Part I marks the end of the show’s second broadcast season. It is very consciously designed as season finalé, something that the first season had struggled with by slotting Learning Curve into the broadcast slot. Basics, Part I also marks the beginning of the end for various threads running through the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. It is the first part of the last Kazon story, the last Seska story, the last Lon Suder story, the last Star Trek television story written by Michael Piller.

It marks the beginning of the end of a troubled era for the show and for the larger franchise.

Hitchhiking in this part of space is very dangerous.

Hitchhiking in this part of space is very dangerous.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Investigations (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Investigations is a misfire. It is a spectacular misfire.

Investigations is the episode that pretty much single-handedly killed any chance of Star Trek: Voyager embracing long-form storytelling once and for all. The first season had enthusiastically embraced an episodic structure, but the second season had played with the idea of playing out an arc across the majority of the season. Tying together the Kazon with the idea of a traitor on Voyager and the redemption of Tom Paris, the production team decided to attempt something relatively novel for Star Trek.

Kill me. Kill me now.

Kill me.
Kill me now.

It is worth stressing just how experimental this kind of story was. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had played with the idea of serialisation. Threads like the Romulan and Cardassian invasion of the Gamma Quadrant were carefully seeded through episodes like Defiant and Visionary, but there was not the same tension and momentum afforded to the arcs of Michael Jonas and Tom Paris in the second season. The Romulans and the Cardassians were not discussed in every episode leading up to Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast.

At the same time, Deep Space Nine eased into serialisation in a way that allowed for failures and miscalculations that did not publicly humiliate the show. Bajoran politics could be quietly eased into the background when they weren’t quite working, characters like Primmin and T’Rul could be dropped when they weren’t what the show needed. The second season of Voyager was perhaps a bit too bold in its attempts at long-form storytelling, creating a situation where there was no way to pull back from an arc that wasn’t working.

"Well. That escalated quickly."

“Well. That escalated quickly.”

It became quite clear early on that the Paris and Jonas arc was not working. Episodes like Threshold and Dreadnought ground to a halt so that the audience could get yet another scene of Jonas selling out Voyager to the Kazon; treachery that never seemed to actually go anywhere. At the same time, Paris’ rebellious behaviour was tackled in a superficial manner in episodes like Meld and Lifesigns, with no real exploration of the interesting side of such a sting operation.

Investigations serves to bring the arc to a close, but in a manner that feels perfunctory rather than compelling. It is resolved out of a sense of tired desperation rather than any real inspiration. There is a feeling that the production team have determined this to be a failed experiment, of which they will never speak again.

See? I told you EVERYBODY's thought about it.

See? I told you EVERYBODY’s thought about it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Lifesigns (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Lifesigns is a fascinating piece of television.

In hindsight, it seems a shame that the production team decided to focus on the Kazon during the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. The Kazon are perhaps the most unfortunate and misguided recurring alien species to appear across the entire Star Trek franchise, never quite afforded the redemption that turned the Klingons and Ferengi from two-dimensional caricatures into fully-formed and well-realised species. The Kazon were a misguided creation in Caretaker; they remained so in Basics, Part II. Shattered offers no redemption.

The face of the frenemy...

The face of the frenemy…

In contrast, the Vidiians are much more interesting. To be fair, it is possible that the Vidiians are so interesting precisely because they are underused; their appearances tend to be motivated by the demands of individual episodes rather than by some grand desire to create an iconic Star Trek species. At the same time, it is perhaps too much to suggest that the Vidiians are fully-formed or multi-faceted; the show never offers them the same opportunity for development afforded to species like the Kazon or the Borg or the Hirogen.

Despite all this, Lifesigns demonstrates the Vidiians can be used in an interesting and creative way. Even as the episode dedicates considerable space to demonstrating that Kazon are a much less interesting new species.

Starin' at the stars...

Starin’ at the stars…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dreadnought (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Dreadnought is arguably a much better version of Prototype.

Both are essentially horror stories about B’Elanna Torres essentially creating a new mechanical life form, making a decision that has unforeseeable consequences. There is an element of reproductive horror to all this, reinforced by the clever decision to have B’Elanna literally give the eponymous warhead her own voice and watch it engage in a course that is quite literally self-destructive. It is perhaps the quintessential reproductive horror story, the fear that we might create something that will supplant us; that our children become the worst reflections of ourselves.

Engine of mass destruction...

Engine of mass destruction…

It is interesting that Dreadnought followed Meld so closely; both are essentially stories about how Star Trek: Voyager (and its characters) cannot cleanly escape their past, as much as the show might push it (and them) towards a generic Star Trek template. The middle of the second season sees an emphasis on the idea that Voyager is composed of two radically different crews – that Starfleet and the Maquis are not as integrated as shows like Parallax or Learning Curve might suggest.

Alliances, Meld and Dreadnought all build on the idea of underlying tensions that were mostly glossed over during the first season. Of course, this creates a weird dissonance, as Voyager seems to actually be moving backwards rather than forwards – attempting a half-hearted do-over of some of its earliest miscalculations.

Engineering a solution...

Engineering a solution…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Alliances (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the more persistent and convincing criticisms of Star Trek: Voyager is the idea that it was very narrative conservative; that the show got comfortable playing out the familiar formula that had been established by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and so never attempted to innovate or experiment in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or eventually Star Trek: Enterprise) did. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the show as a whole, but it does ignore some of the weird tensions that played out across the first two seasons.

It is fair to say that Voyager never truly experimented. However, there are several moments in the first two seasons where it looks like the show was considering doing something unique or unprecedented. The show walked up to the edge, looking up and down; it never quite made the leap, but it seemed to weigh the possibility of jumping headlong into uncharted territory. However, it ultimately only dipped its toes in the water before getting cold feet and returning to the comfort of the familiar.

"Everyone liked Godfather III, right?"

“Everyone liked Godfather III, right?”

The sad truth about the second season of Voyager is that the show made a number of attempts to do something different or unique, only to botch each and every one of those attempts so completely that the production team learned not to even try. The second season’s more adventurous creative decisions all ended in humiliation and farce, explaining why the show desperately sought the warm blanket of a familiar format and an established template. After all, it was the more conventional episodes of the second season that had been (relatively) well received.

The second season of Voyager turned the process of trying something moderately ambitious and failing spectacularly into something of an artform. Of course, given the simmering tensions behind the scenes, it often seemed like the show wanted to fail. Michael Piller desperately wanted to do new things, only to meet resistance from his fellow producers and writing staff. Writers like Kenneth Biller would publicly criticise assignments they had been handed, offering a sense of just how much faith the staff had in these ideas.

"You wouldn't like me when I'm angry..."

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”

Alliances marks perhaps the most ambitious element (and most spectacular failure) of the second season of Voyager. It is the centrepiece of Michael Piller’s attempts to develop the Kazon into a credible (and convincing) alien threat, while also setting up a recurring arc that will allow Piller to push Tom Paris into the role of “lovable rogue” of which Piller was so fond. These were elements that excited Piller a great deal, but left most of the rest of the production team relatively cold.

So there is a great deal of irony in the fact that Alliances is ultimately written by Jeri Taylor, who was increasingly at loggerheads with Piller over the direction of Voyager. In light of that context, it makes sense that Alliances is an episode that aggressively critiques its own existence. Janeway spends most of the episode frustrated at the fact that the story is happening at all, and Alliances builds towards a climax that seems designed to convince the viewer that this whole idea is misconceived on just about every possible level.

Blooming disaster...

Blooming disaster…

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