New Life Forms
Star Trek: Voyager is the third spin-off inspired by the groundbreaking series Star Trek (following Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). According to creators Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Taylor, they were responding to frustrations voiced by Star Trek fans during the mid-1990s. Though the previous decade had seen hundreds of new Trek adventures in books, comics, films, and TV series, few of these had the same sense of wonder and discovery that characterized the original series.
Voyager injects both in a hurry. Catapulted by a powerful alien into the depths of the remote “Delta Quadrant,” the Federation Starship Voyager must find its way back to Earth. At the helm is Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who calculates that the journey home may take some 75 years. As Janeway intones for the show’s opening voiceover, their mission is “to explore new worlds and new life forms.”
Paramount’s newly released second season DVD collection (packaged in a futuristic looking, semi-transparent colored plastic case) reminds us of the series’ similarities to most of the Trek narratives. Namely, it benefits from good special effects, decent acting, and well-developed characters. It also includes a feature on the “real science” behind Voyager, and a short documentary on the making of the special effects, neither extra remarkable.
What does distinguish Voyager—at least from previous Treks—is Janeway. While Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) universe famously included women and racial minorities, their roles were primarily “supporting.” Janeway stands out, and through her, the series’ melodrama combines more easily with its customarily “masculine” action. In most episodes, she’s as worried about defending Voyager from alien threats as she is concerned about pregnancies, friendships, romances, and other personal matters aboard her ship. More maternal than Amazonian, Janeway serves simultaneously as the crew’s protector and counselor.
Her efforts to balance gender stereotypes result in some memorable episodes for the second season. Such is the case in “Tuvix,” in which a transporter accident causes two members of the crew, Tuvok (Tim Russ) and Neelix (Ethan Phillips), to merge into a single creature, aptly named Tuvix, which possesses the memories of both men but is its own being, apart from them. Janeway finds a way to split Tuvix back into her two crewmen. At this point, she realizes that such an action means the execution of the noble and innocent Tuvix, and this makes her question her decision to perform the separation procedure.
Not all episodes are as philosophically stimulating, and Voyager has its share of utterly bizarre situations. As Janeway states, “Weird is our business.” In “Non Sequitur,” one of her crewmembers is transported to an alternate timeline; in “Twisted,” a spatial aberration changes the ship’s layout, and the crew struggles to find their way around the distorted ship. “Deadlock” features an unusual quantum effect inside a plasma cloud that disables Voyager, creating a duplicate of the entire ship and its crew. And in “The Thaw,” an episode clearly inspired by Stephen King’s It, a computer creates a virtual environment inhabited by a frightening clown, the embodiment of “fear itself.”
Such peculiar plots remind us that Star Trek never follows a “hard” science fiction narrative, or even rigid internal logics. Still, it’s unfortunate that the Voyager crew so often confronts situations similar to those faced by the Enterprise crews in the first two Trek series. After 10 films and hundreds of TV episodes, the franchise looks confined to “safe,” formulaic stories.
Besides the above mentioned transporter accident and time anomaly clichés, we have a computer that develops feelings (“Lifesigns”), a seemingly unstoppable killer robot (“Dreadnought”), a holodeck incident (“Projections”), and the appearance—again—of the omnipotent Q (John de Lancie, in “Death Wish”). Any respectable Star Trek connoisseur will be aware of the previous occasions where Captains Kirk, Picard (Patrick Stewart), and Sisko (Avery Brooks), had to face exactly these types of situations.
Even more problematic is Voyager‘s predictable suffering from the same narrative hole that troubled the original series. This is the absurd situation where most of the aliens encountered by Voyager are English-speaking humanoids whose morality is evaluated according to 20th century “American” ideals. After a few episodes, it becomes unbearable to watch Janeway and her crew repeatedly providing unsolicited sermons on the importance of good moral values, preaching peace and freedom across the galaxy.
Rare is the occasion when Voyager’s intrepid crewmembers find themselves conflicted regarding their own presumptions concerning “alien” or indigenous values. More often, they’re inclined to fire a few photon torpedoes against “primitive” and otherwise resistant cultures like the Vidiian and the Kazon. Unsurprisingly, Voyager condones such aggressions, presenting them as necessary to defend the Federation’s values against those of “evil” adversaries.