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STAR TREK At 50 - VOYAGER (1995-2001)

We continue our tribute to 50 years of Star Trek with a look at the franchise's first female-led series.

Words by Michael James (@chinstroker)

"Star Trek is Trekking again!", read the headlines, focusing on the fact that the newest incarnation of the franchise would be launching Paramount’s new network, UPN, as well as a thinly veiled dig at the "motionless" Deep Space Nine. When Star Trek Voyager launched in 1995 it seemed to be the cherry on the top of an unprecedented run of multimedia success for the franchise. The Next Generation had done the impossible and had (for the time being at least) overshadowed its parent show as well as spawning a spinoff of its own. In fact The Next Generation’s ubiquity was such that nobody questioned it when they took the theatrical baton from Shatner et al in the preceding year's feature Generations. Deep Space Nine was thriving (if not to the zeitgeist levels of its predecessor) and the Pilot episode of Voyager would drop between the Generations and First Contact movies that saw Picard and crew very successfully emulate the big screen success of the original Enterprise.

The combination of this giddying success, and the sense that Deep Space Nine’s more experimental nature was fine when it was the kid-brother show, contributed to the sense that whatever came next would be a traditional "exploration" based series, and Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor were happy to accommodate what seemed to be an insatiable appetite for content. As was the case with Deep Space Nine, certain fundamental elements of Voyager's DNA would be written into the preceding show, and one of Voyager's more interesting elements (in theory at least), that of the rebellious but idealistic Federation fringe group The Marquis, was to be the latest carry over, the idea being that the crew was ideologically split. This was designed to continue the inter-character friction successfully exploited in DS9, as well as exacerbating the central conceit that the ship is stranded in a different quadrant with a long journey home. Another advantage of this conceit was that the crew would be a long way from the carpeted walls, hot replicated Earl Grey and councillors of the 24th Century Alpha Quadrant. This promised us conflict and a slowly dwindling crew, devoid of creature comforts, the reassuring bosom of the peace-keeping armada they belonged to as they encounter a startling array of unfamiliar allies and foes. Except this never quite happened...

I mentioned in my previous piece about Deep Space Nine that the show had certain dramatic advantages over its predecessors: the fact that the primary characters have differing back grounds (and often) agendas, resulted in a hitherto unexpected level of inter character conflict. The stationary nature of the environment also lead to a sense of dramatic consequence once our protagonists were stripped of the ability to warp off from any of the messier after-effects of their adventuring. The inclusion of the Marquis as half of the crew is almost completely dealt with by the end of the pilot with all of the crew (including Chakotay, Commander of the Marquis cell) agreeing to fly the Federation flag. These differences would occasionally rear their head once in a while when it was dramatically convenient, but this aspect (long lingered over in the pilot) is quickly jettisoned. Another element that also had its sharp edges ground off was that of the lost ship limping home. Star Trek alum Ronald D Moore exploited this concept more fully and satisfyingly with his Battlestar Galactica, where the rag tag fleet would make their own moonshine as the ship, and indeed their uniforms, fell apart around them; their missions often being as mundane as finding water. But on Voyager it was business as usual, crisp, clean uniforms, living environment and food. One of the main characters was even a chef!

This cavalier attitude towards the universe's verisimilitude is echoed in the casting. The choice of a female Captain felt right, and strong female commanders (Tricia O’Neal as the Captain of the ‘Enterprise C’ springs to mind) were nothing new, but after the casting of the African-American Avery Brooks in DS9, political correctness almost demanded that this be the case. Kate Mulgrew however opts for a harsh School-Marm persona with a strong maternal instinct to return her crew to safety, which is sometimes successful, but the limited range of Mulgrew combined with her unusual line delivery choices and awkwardness in comedic scenes creates a distance between the character and the audience. Too often we are told what she is like by other characters, too infrequently are these traits demonstrated. The rest of the crew are for the most part forgettable television actors grudgingly playing new age clichés and composites of other Star Trek characters. Robert Beltram plays that great '90s-guilt-figure - the wise, spiritual Native American. The actor’s well-known contempt for the material is apparent in the lethargic delivery he favours, which is a shame; an interesting dynamic between the Captain and First Officer could have saved both roles. Harry Kim, Kes, and B’Elanna have literally no personality; B’Elanna is essentially "Klingon Spock"; battling between her two cultural identities, which basically means she is a dull human and occasionally gets angry for no real reason (like, y’know a human would..).

The diamonds in the rough are the ever reliable Robert Picardo as the holographic Doctor (who would be this show's "outsider looking in at humanity" character, until a certain voluptuous Borg appeared on the scene). Picardo hits the correct balance of broad comedy and heavily projected (pun intended) pathos and would have fit in a treat on The Next Generation. Tim Russ is underrated in the role of Vulcan security officer Tuvok and is for my money in the exclusive club of actors (Leonard Nimoy, Mark Lenard) who truly "get" how to play Vulcan. It is not as simple as being blank faced and level headed; there is a subtext of very subtle frustrated humour that Russ hits again and again. In the same way that The Defiant and Worf were introduced to DS9 to give the show a shot in the arm, it was the introduction of Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine that would see an increase of interest and quality at the onset of its fourth year. It has been remarked on before that Trek shows (original series discounted) take a couple of years to find their feet, so once Voyager stopped playing it safe after three seasons, it was a case of "too little too late".

By as early as Season Two of Voyager, I recall hearing the phrase "Trek fatigue". While Deep Space Nine was taking risks and was the critics’ darling, many Trek die-hards avoided it as it was perceived as "desecrating" Roddenberry’s vision (utter nonsense, but that's another article), Voyager seemed to be going too far the other way. The uninspired villains (The Kazon were slightly less hirsute Klingons), vanilla-cast and a premise that took the crew away from all of the exciting stuff (the Alpha Quadrant had the Dominion War going on for Christ sake!) meant that fans were now watching out of duty as much as interest. With DS9 and non-Trek shows like Babylon 5 and The X-Files experimenting with longer form storytelling, Voyager (and as a result the franchise itself) started to seem like a Dinosaur. Even the elements of the show that were lauded were trading off past victories; the reintroduction of the Borg not only neutered them through overuse, it made a mockery of the show's promise of exciting new villains. In fact it was only a matter of time before we see Klingons and Ferengi as well as numerous characters from previous shows (Q, Troi, Barclay). It is as though a realisation was reached that the two elements of a show that cannot be fixed (concept and casting) were flawed, and a default fall back setting of Star Trek’s greatest hits was resorted to. In fact, I have found that a great deal of "non-fans" find Voyager to be an enjoyable show, the bite size way that the show repackages elements of the franchise’s history is probably appealing to the casual viewer, which is reflected by the show's generally healthy viewing figures.

Star Trek: Enterprise is often blamed with killing the franchise as it was the first Trek show to be cancelled since 1969, but really it was just left holding the bomb. The mediocrity of seven years of Voyager, followed by an admittedly lackluster first two seasons of Enterprise (its third and fourth seasons on the other hand provided some of the best Trek since DS9 was really cooking) was enough to do the trick. What Voyager proved was that it would take an auteur, not a committee, to get the franchise fully back on commercial track. But that would take a little while.

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