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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Prototype (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.

In what is becoming a recurring theme for the second season of Star Trek: Voyager, Prototype is a mess.

As with a lot of the surrounding episodes, its production was fraught and tense; tensions seemed to be building among the production team as the season progressed. Prototype was an episode that was largely driven by Michael Piller, and one opposed by Jeri Taylor. Kenneth Biller was responsible for tweaking and rewriting Nicholas Corea’s script, but he does not seem particularly fond of the episode. These tensions and disagreements would build to a climax in the second half of the year.

Bride of 4739...

Bride of 3947…

Prototype is not a good episode, by any measure. There are a lot of elements that are interesting on their own terms, but there is also something quite nasty and uncomfortable sitting at the heart of the hour. It is a story about motherhood, but one which suggests that unconventional motherhood must be monstrous and grotesque. Even beyond the awkward subtext of the episode, there are problems. Despite Piller’s attempts to energise storytelling on Voyager, the pacing of Prototype is atrocious.

Prototype is not the biggest misfire of the season. Given the season around it, this should not be misconstrued as an endorsement.

(Warp) core values...

(Warp) core values…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Manoeuvres (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.

It is weird to think that the much-maligned Kazon provided perhaps the closest thing that Star Trek: Voyager had to a long-form story arc.

That probably says more about Voyager than it does about the Kazon. In storytelling terms, Voyager was firmly episodic. There were some loose threads that would span and connect multiple episodes, but the bulk of the show was comprised of very traditional “done in one” adventures. It seems fair to observe that Voyager represented something of a backslide for the franchise. It was much more episodic than Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but also less interested in long-form storytelling than the later years of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"This is still more enjoyable than Tattoo!"

“This is still more enjoyable than Tattoo!”

One suspects that the Kazon arc running through the second season had something to do with this storytelling choice. Michael Piller pushed really hard to make the Kazon a recurring threat to Voyager and to place them at the centre of the second season. As a result, they become a loose thread that runs through several of the season’s “big” episodes. They place a traitor on board Voyager in Alliances. They provided Tom Paris with a character arc culminating in Investigations. They provided the season-ending cliffhanger in Basics, Part I.

The arc was not well-received, whether by the fans or by the staff. It is not too difficult to understand why. Even before considering the quality of the arc itself – or the storytelling involved – the Kazon are hardly the most compelling Star Trek villains. Allowing for that, it seemed like the writing staff had no real idea how to serialise a story arc across a season, making all manner of clumsy mistakes along the way. The arc never gathered momentum and it never paid off, which are very real problems when trying something that ambitious.

Either you Kazon... or you be gone...

Either you Kazon… or you be gone…

Manoeuvres effectively kicks off the arc. Although the Kazon had appeared in Initiations earlier in the second season, Manoeuvres features the first reappearance of Seska and Cullah since State of Flux midway through the first season. The episode is perhaps the strongest of the “Kazon” shows, with a sense of momentum driving the first half of the script. However, things rather quickly come off the rails in the second half of the story. Already, the production team’s inexperience with serialised storytelling is showing.

Manoeuvres is perhaps as good as the Kazon ever got. It is nowhere near good enough.

So that's why they call them raiders...

So that’s why they call them raiders…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tattoo (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.

Tattoo is another example of the second season Star Trek: Voyager doubling down on elements that did not work in the first season.

Episodes like The Cloud and Cathexis had suggested that Chakotay might be a problematic character for the show. After all, Chakotay was the first Native American lead character to appear in the franchise, but he was played by a Mexican-American actor. More than that, the first season seemed to draw from an awkward collection of tropes and clichés in its depiction of Chakotay’s culture. The show declined to anchor Chakotay in a single specific Native American cultural tradition, instead drawing from a rake of familiar shallow iconography.

"Oh, here we go again..."

“Oh, here we go again…”

Chakotay didn’t really work in the first season. The problem is that Michael Piller seemed reluctant to accept that Chakotay’s Native American spirituality was borderline racist and offensive. So Tattoo returns to that particular well, with a much greater commitment to patronising and exploiting Native American culture. Exploring the Delta Quadrant, Chakotay comes across a seemingly abandoned moon that turns out to be the home of an ancient alien culture that made contact with Chakotay’s ancestors forty-five thousand years ago.

These aliens were responsible for shaping and molding Native American culture, for putting those groups in closer communion with the land and for fostering a purer spirituality. Not only is the main alien played by white actor Richard Fancy, the make-up design on these “Sky Spirits” emphasises their whiteness. So Tattoo becomes a story about how Native American culture essentially came from a bunch of super-advanced white people. It is astounding that nobody seemed to stop and think about the episode on the way to the screen.

"Oh, hey. That's a new level of offensiveness."

“Oh, hey. That’s a new level of offensiveness.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Parturition (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.

One of the more interesting aspects of the second season of Star Trek: Voyager is its stubborn refusal to give up on elements that simply do not work.

Time and again, and often at the behest of producer Michael Piller, the second season returns to concepts that were problematic and troublesome in the first season. The obvious goal is to fix those problems so that those elements can be successfully reintegrated into the surrounding show. This is why the second season returns to concepts like the Kazon as a threat and Tom Paris as a rebel and Neelix as a character with a useful function on the ship. This is not a bad approach. If the first season of a show is about experimentation, then the second season is about calibration.

Two men and a lizard lady...

Two men and a lizard lady…

It is hard to begrudge Michael Piller this approach. After all, it had worked quite well on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In particular, it took Deep Space Nine about three years before it figured out how to make characters like Bashir, Dax and Quark capable of carrying their own episodes without making the audience want to bash their heads against a large blunt surface. It is not unreasonable to take the same approach to dealing with the elements of Voyager that are not working.

There is a very significant difference, though. The problematic elements of Voyager have little to do with execution; they are fundamental problems with the concepts. The Kazon do not work as a threat because they are one of worst alien species that Star Trek ever produced, rooted in some rather unpleasant racial stereotypes tied to contemporary Los Angeles gang culture. Tom Paris does not work as a rebel and womaniser because Robert Duncan McNeill works better as a charming goof. Neelix’s romance with Kes is toxic because she is a child and he’s possessive.

Cooking up a storm...

Cooking up a storm…

As such, it feels like the second season of Voyager spends a lot of time fixing problems that are fundamentally unfixable. One of the great aspects of the premise of Voyager is the fact that the show is in a constant state of movement. Unlike the cast of Deep Space Nine who are fixed in a single place, the cast of Voyager are constantly moving forward. It is possible for Voyager to jettison the parts that are simply not working. (Cue lazy joke about the size of Kazon space.)

Parturition is an example of this phenomenon, as Voyager tries to “fix” the toxic relationship between Neelix and Kes, while offering Tom Paris some small semblance of character growth. Unfortunately, it seems very attached to the idea of Neelix and Kes as a romantic couple and Tom Paris as a playful romantic rogue, which means that the best that it can hope to do is to not make the underlying problems any more obvious. While Parturition is nowhere near as bad as Elogium or Twisted, it still feels like a series treading water.

It's time for the Delta Quadrant's favourite fifties sitcom, "Last Tango With Paris."

It’s time for the Delta Quadrant’s favourite fifties sitcom, “Last Tango With Paris.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 1 (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

The best thing that can be said about the first season of Star Trek: Voyager is that it avoids being actively terrible.

This might sound like damning with the faintest of praise, but it’s worth looking at the show in the context of its siblings. None of the Star Trek spin-offs have had illustrious first seasons, often struggling to find their feet. It’s worth noting that Voyager‘s first season doesn’t contain any episodes that are as flat-out bad as something like Code of Honour, Angel One or The Passenger. While the show has more than its fair share of problems, it’s hard to look at the concept behind any episode in Voyager‘s first season and think “this is truly bad idea.”

voy-caretaker2

Of course, the logical counterpoint to that argument is the observation that the show hasn’t produced anything of equivalent quality to Heart of Glory, Conspiracy, Duet or In the Hands of the Prophets. This is perfectly legitimate criticism, and it really explains the problem with the first season of Voyager. While the show has avoided any spectacularly embarrassing decisions, it did this by completely avoiding any real risk.

The first season of Star Trek: Voyager is almost perfectly calibrated to land in the Star Trek comfort zone.

voy-learningcurve18

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Star Trek: Voyager – Initiations (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Broadcast as the second episode of the second season, Initiations was the first episode produced as part of the second season of Star Trek: Voyager. As three of the four shows carried over from the first season – Projections, Elogium and Twisted – were essentially budget-saving bottle shows, the plan was to shuffle some location-heavy episodes into the broadcast order to offer something a bit more exciting and engaging.

Initiations also marked the return of producer Michael Piller to the fold. Piller had left Voyager mid-way through the first season to work on another science-fiction show for UPN. After Legend was cancelled, Piller returned to work on Voyager and found himself presiding over a very troubled second season. The second season of Voyager would be the last time that Piller was actively involved in a season of Star Trek, and so it feels like a pretty momentous occasion for the franchise.

While not spectacular, and suffering from some lingering Kazon-related problems, Initiations is still an effective forty-five minutes of television.

Stargazing...

Stargazing…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 3 (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

The third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a turning point for many reasons. The most obvious was that Star Trek: The Next Generation had gone off the air, meaning the first half of the third season was broadcast during a window where Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek show on the air. The show was no longer the goofy kid brother to a much beloved mainstream television show. It was out in the syndication market place by itself.

More than that, though, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was no longer the child of the franchise. With Star Trek: Voyager on the way, launched as the flagship of UPN, Deep Space Nine was left to its own devices for the first time since it was created. Voyager was the high-profile standard-bearer for the franchise, serving as the cornerstone of a new network. In contrast, Deep Space Nine chugged along in syndication, with the powers that be working overtime to bring Voyager to screen.

ds9-thesearchpart1a

In some respects, this was a tough time for Deep Space Nine. It was no longer the newest and freshest Star Trek. It was no longer the bright promising future of the Star Trek franchise. The novelty of having a second Star Trek show on the air had worn off. (Indeed, the decision to treat Voyager as the eighth season of The Next Generation was largely a response to how Deep Space Nine was not filling the niche.)

At the same time, the fact that Michael Piller and Rick Berman were focused on other projects meant that Deep Space Nine really came into its own during the third season. Ira Steven Behr had helped run the writers’ room towards the end of the third season of The Next Generation, and was the logical choice to take the reigns on Deep Space Nine. His influence on the show had been obvious since the beginning, becoming more pronounced after The Maquis.

ds9-defiant19

However, the third season saw Behr becoming the driving creative force on Deep Space Nine, a changing of the creative guard. Ronald D. Moore and Rene Echevarria joined the show from the staff of The Next Generation. Given all this drama behind the scenes, the third season was as chaotic as you might expect. There were all manner of production problems that haunted the third season, with a sense that Deep Space Nine was being produced by the seat of the producers’ pants.

Episodes tended to get shifted around in production order. Various scripts ended up produced under time constraints so tight that there was no opportunity to properly polish them before putting them in front of the camera. There were rumours that Colm Meaney might have been considering leaving;. Episodes had to be extended into two-parters at the last minute. The show had great ideas, but difficulty realising them. The season as a whole was rather oddly paced, plotted haphazardly. And yet, despite all this, the chaos felt necessary.

ds9-explorers28

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Star Trek: Voyager – Cathexis (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Cathexis has a vaguely interesting premise, but it gets a little bit too caught up in science-fiction high concepts and New Age mysticism.

Once again, there’s a sense that the wrong writer has been assigned the wrong brief. The New Age spirituality elements of Chakotay’s character were largely championed by Michael Piller; the “romantic period mystery” story for Janeway clearly comes from Jeri Taylor. The only part of Cathexis that clearly comes from credited writer Brannon Braga is the somewhat generic Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot line – and, as such, it seems to be the only thread in which Braga is particularly interested.

So we get a bunch of half-hearted New Age stuff unfolding, with Chakotay’s wandering spirit represented by a camera with a blurry filter swooping through familiar sets. Once again, Chakotay’s Native American heritage becomes a launching pad for some ill-advised mysticism and exoticism, which Cathexis never even bothers trying to explain.

Frankly, I'm surprised Tuvok put up with this for so long...

Frankly, I’m surprised Tuvok put up with this for so long…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Heroes and Demons (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

In many ways, Heroes and Demons is a watershed moment for Star Trek: Voyager. The two previous episodes, Prime Factors and State of Flux, may have been far from perfect, but they did at least hint at a direction for the show. They suggested that maybe Voyager might be interested in engaging in some of the big philosophical questions raised by the crew’s unique situation. Stranded seventy thousand light-years from home, the ship was cut off from the Federation. It was isolated and alone. That meant that tough choices at least had to be debated.

While neither Prime Factors nor State of Flux made for particularly exciting television, they were episodes that felt specific to Voyager in a way that a lot of the first season really doesn’t. Unfortunately, Heroes and Demons represents a step backwards. Far from telling a story specific to Star Trek: Voyager, this feels like a script that could easily have been recycled from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Can the Doctor hack it?

Can the Doctor hack it?

It’s written by veteran Next Generation writer Naren Shankar, who had also served on the staff of Deep Space Nine. He wrote Heroes and Demons as a freelancer, pitching the idea very early in the development cycle. Perhaps what is most remarkable is how little of Shankar’s script was adapted or edited from that first draft. In fact he described it to The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine as “the best experience I’ve ever had as a writer, in terms of writing something as a first draft and then seeing those exact words on screen.”

There’s a sense that Heroes and Demons is a fun story that could have really worked in any context, and doesn’t fit particularly well into the mould of Voyager‘s first season. This should be the year where Voyager is trying to find its own voice, rather than simply imitating that of its older siblings.

Only mostly armless...

Only mostly armless…

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