Recently, I did a re-watch of Star Trek: Voyager. From Caretaker to Endgame, it was quite a journey through the delta quadrant. Now, 20 years since the series finale, I have a few thoughts I’d like to share.
The Journey Begins
I have a bit of a mixed history with Voyager. I watched the show when it first aired. Here in Australia, it aired every Thursday, 11pm, on Channel 9. I was just 12-13 years old, when I watched the premier double episode, Caretaker. Until that point, I’d been a casual, newish fan of The Original Series, which I liked mainly for its fun, retro aesthetic and creative plotlines.
Voyager was the new, shiny Trek. Each Thursday night, I’d set the VCR to time-record the show on VHS tape. As the show continued on, I missed a few episodes here and there. I watched a fair bit of it, but never saw it through to the end. I’m not sure it was just my tumultuous teenage years getting int the way, or if Channel 9 stopped airing the show. Either way, Voyager was an unfinished chapter for me. I never knew if or how the crew made their way home.
Many years later, as a casual Trek fan, I discovered The Next Generation. Despite the shaky first couple of seasons, I grew to like, then really like, then love the show. TNG remains for me the pinnacle of Trek. At its best, TNG was in a league of its own.
Once TNG ended, I had a starship sized hole in my life. I watched most of Deep Space 9, but struggled to click with the show (to this day it remains my least favourite Trek). Then I moved onto Voyager. The first double episode, although not perfect, was still a cracker, and kicked things off in a big way. Stranded 75 light years from home, in an unexplored region of the Galaxy, this ragtag group of Starfleet personnel and Marqui rebels would have to work together to find their way home.
… and so, the most common criticism of Voyager laid itself bare before my eyes. Many people complain that the show failed to fulfil its premise. Just a few episodes in, everyone is getting along just fine. The Marqui rebels are now part of the crew. Edgy characters find their edges filed down to a smooth curve. Rick Berman, the infamous produce of Voyager, famously stated that audiences would soon tire of an intra-ship conflict between the two sides. Translation: Hit the status quo early and start churning out some seriously vanilla Trek.
The show quickly settles into monster-of-the-week storytelling. Fans bemoaned the show’s tendency to re-use elements from The Next Generation. “Recycled storylines” is a common criticism. But what I found more annoying for the subtler similarities in character. For instance, The Doctor is obviously Voyager’s Data. Two artificial intelligences striving to be more human. But where Data plays classical violin, The Doctor sings opera. Wow, so different! Similarly, where Captain Picard likes to drink plenty of “Tea, earl grey, hot” — Captain Janeway drinks black coffee. Wow, so different!
Beginning, Middle and End
Novelist Brandon Sanderson, in his excellent lecture series on storytelling, breaks the three act structure of a story into three major areas: Promises, Progress and Payoff. Using this as a framework, it’s easy to see why Voyager struggled to keep a strong audience.
Voyager started off by offering its audience an exciting set of promises. The Caretaker thrusts two warring sides, Starfleet and Marqui, into the delta quadrant. They must work through their differences to find a way home. It sounds cool, right? Except, the show then breaks this promise. As mentioned above, within just a few episodes one can’t tell a Marqui from Starfleet. Characters like Tom Paris and B’elanna are promised to be edgy, intransigent characters. Instead, Tom becomes a cuddly teddy bear and B’elanna, half Klingon, barely raised her voice even once.
Sanderson states that the middle act of a story should show the characters progressing towards their goal, as they overcome various challenges along the way. The key is progress. Obviously, Voyager was churning out 25 episodes per season, so not every episode was going to advance their journey back to Earth significantly. But Voyager has virtually no sense of real, meaningful progress. Yes, occasionally an episode will end with Janeway sipping a cup of black coffee, giving her Captain’s Log and saying, “But at least we managed get cut a few years of our journey…” But none of these minor wins result in them getting anywhere near Earth by season 7. Never, at any point, does the audience feel a genuine sense of progress. It’s monster-of-the-week, every week. Although both its predecessor, Deep Space 9, and its successor, Enterprise, both featured heavily serialised storylines in their later seasons, Voyager thoroughly eschewed the idea of serialisation.
Despite some criticisms, Voyager had a decent double-episode finale. Endgame had it all: a promise to get back home, a price to pay, a chance to deal serious damage to the Borg… and of course that old Trek favourite; time travel. But with a set of broken promises and no sense of progress, the finale feels rushed and tacked on. Seven years, hundreds of crazy adventures, and then: “Whoah hey look a wormhole back home. Too bad it’s filled with Borg…” Watching the last season, I remember watching the second last episode of Voyager ever, and thinking to myself: “They are still in the f****** delta quadrant”.
The Re-watch 1&2
After watching The Next Generation, I struggled with Voyager. Half way into season 1, I gave up. But recently I gave the show another go, picking up where I left off. Slowly, slowly… the show wormed its way into my heart. In order to enjoy the show, one must simply accept that it is 100% a monster-of-the-week show. It is not a show about a crew working together to find a way home. The show is about a diverse group of folks encountering a bunch of crazy delta quadrant aliens and having a bunch of wacky adventures. One must disregard to promises, forgive the lack of progress, and enjoy it for what it is.
There are some nice, continuous aspects to the show. Watching Naomi Wildman get born, and then grow up on the ship, is oddly satisfying. Seven and The Doctor have decent character arcs, particularly in the later seasons. The Tom/B’elanna romance was a stroke of genius; we even see them get married and have a child. The show’s subplots, if that’s the right term, are actually more consistently serialised than TNG. It’s the main plot that gets stuck in the weekly rut.
A Tale Of Two Voyagers
There is a marked different in Voyager between its first three seasons, and season four onwards. At season 4, the show suddenly feels more settled, and more consistent. It’s funnier, even. A lot of what we think of as Voyager’s major plot points start at season 4. The Tom/B’elanna romance is introduced. The Harry Kim/Tom Paris bromance is solidified. And of course, Seven of Nine is brought in — which kicks off her friendship with The Doctor and her tumultuous relationship with Captain Janeway.
But the first three seasons, for me, offer a kind of goofy, sentimental satisfaction. Neelix and Kes feature heavily in the earlier episodes — and although neither character was a fan favourite, I always found them to be entertaining to watch. Indeed, I was sad when they gave Kes the boot to make way for Seven. There were plenty of excellent episodes: Future’s End, Deadlock and Death Wish come to mind as real standouts.
However, it’s hard to deny the show gets better in season 4. It’s as if the show’s writers finally settled on where the characters needed to be. The show leans a bit too much on the Borg, sure, and sometimes it feels like “The Seven of Nine Show: featuring the Starship Voyager”. And if you hope, by the later seasons, you will see some genuine progress in their journey back to earth… well…
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Once I accepted Voyager was an imperfect, wildly inconsistent, occasionally derivative, monster-of-the-week show — I had a great time watching it. In an age of complicated, violent, serialised tv shows, it was nice to watch family friendly, self-contained stories. I could watch an episode here or there without feeling an urge to go crazy and binge. I could watch it while I was cooking. I could watch an episode while I ate lunch, my dog Charlie snoozing on the couch beside me.
Voyager has a lot of strong points that are sometimes overlooked. The cast is exceptional, and every actor brings their A-game to the set, and does their absolute best even when the material isn’t perfect. Kate Mulgrew shines as Captain Janeway. The show took surprising risks, often launching an episode on an alien world with a set of unfamiliar faces — as slowly the connection back to Voyager was revealed. Tuvok delivers some hilarious lines. Harry and Tom are a crack up with their Captain Proton holodeck adventures. At its best, Voyager was uniquely charming and so much fun to watch. At its worst, it was often still goofy and fun.
If you want to love Voyager, you simply have to accept it for what it is. Is it as good as TNG? For me, no. But that’s not really the point. Because it is, ultimately, its own show. It’s no wonder the show has had a real resurgence of late. Thanks to Netflix and Paramount+, fans are rediscovering the show or watching it for the first time. It was the last of its kind. TNG, DS9 and VOY are all birds of a feather. But for me, Voyager will always remind me of that 13-year-old boy, setting up his VCR to record the show; the boy who couldn’t wait to find out what this week’s adventure would be.