[26 July 2004]
The third season of Star Trek: Voyager may have been as close as the venerable franchise has ever come to a narrative crossroads. After more than 80 episodes of the original series, eight big-screen movies, more than 150 episodes each of the spin-offs Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and two full seasons of Voyager, there was a legitimate question asked by Star Trek’s wide but diminishing audience in 1996: Is there any alien left to encounter, any adventure left to undertake, any further phaser to be fired in self-defense?
That this point would be reached so quickly by the show, in what was to be its seven-year run, however, had as much to do with Voyager‘s conceptual and dramatic flaws, as anything. A series intended to break new ground in the Star Trek universe had already largely failed in that task.
The series’ original concept was promising. Voyager, a small Federation starship, is hurled by an alien to the other end of the galaxy, the Delta Quadrant. (The basic Star Trek world is the so-called Alpha Quadrant.) To make matters worse, the crew had taken on a band of Federation rebels called the Maquis, who had forsaken Starfleet. The ship, alone and with no support in unfamiliar space, began a trip back home that was to take decades.
But once that premise was established, the series’ producers (Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor, both of whom played key roles in TNG) seemed to abandon it almost immediately. The conflict between the Maquis and Voyager’s starch-shirted Starfleet officers dissipated seemingly overnight, as the rebels were absorbed into the general crew. By the third season, any trace of intra-ship unrest had long been wiped away.
There were opportunities to break loose from the traditional and somewhat confining TNG model. Ostensibly, a crew cut off from the sober comforts of the familiar Federation universe would have to claw, scrape and struggle to survive. Technology might fail, supplies would become exhausted and discipline could begin to unravel. None of that ever happened. Instead, the show became about a crew clinging to its moralistic, Starfleet (and therefore superior) values in the face of a chaotic universe, as if Rudyard Kipling had been catapulted into the Delta Quadrant as well.
Given that the series’ best chance for achieving something truly distinctive had passed, the challenge before the show’s producers in Season Three was coming up with any reason for its continued existence. As it turned out, the season would be a transitional one, in which a new paradigm for the show would be established, but only at the end of 26 episodes.
The season begins with the second part of a cliffhanger, one that epitomizes everything frustrating about Voyager. In “Basics, Part II,” the entire crew has been marooned on a barren volcanic planet by a hostile race called the Kazon. (Third-rate bad guys at best, the Kazon look like they’ve had bonsai trees glued to their heads and this episode, mercifully, would bring their presence on the show to a deserved end.) The Kazon now control Voyager and plan to use it as a weapon of mass destruction. But instead of a truly gripping show about either a desperate struggle to retake the ship or a despondent crew coming to grips with spending the rest of their lives on an alien rock, we receive neither.
Instead, in what was the series’ most distressing pattern, the show follows a pedestrian A/B action plot structure, in which the marooned crew must battle hostile natives and goofy cave creatures while a small band of stowaways on Voyager engineer a rather simple (and rather ridiculous) re-capturing of the ship. There’s even an insufferable sequence in which first officer Chakotay (Robert Beltran), the Native American/New Age-y crewman who embodied Star Trek’s ultra PC approach of the 1990s, risks his life to save a native of the planet, thereby establishing yet again that Starfleet values are universal ones and we really can All Get Along.
The eternal problem with Voyager was that the show existed in a television universe (separate from the Delta Quadrant) where storylines were resolved in 60 minutes. But it was a series that demanded more. This was a crew that should have become wearier and more desperate by the week, but instead, each teaser was a new day and each coda an absolute resolution.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t some highlights. In the third season, character elements began to surface more regularly. That meant helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and young officer Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) would find their friendship tested in a savage alien prison in “The Chute.” The half-Klingon, half-Latina engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) would be victimized by Vulcan mating rituals in “Blood Fever” and innocent alien telepath Kes would find herself traveling backward in time in perhaps in the season’s best episode, “Before and After.” Regrettably, there’s also plenty of screen time devoted to the alien character Neelix (Ethan Phillips), an obnoxious Delta Quadrant native who’s sort of a cross between an Ewok and Rip Taylor. To make matters worse, a small featurette in the seven-disc package is devoted to Neelix’s seven years on the show.
However, the character who really leapt to the fore this season was the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo). In Trek-speak, the Doctor is a hologram, a computer-generated entity that, through the course of the series, begins to think for itself and develop a personality. In “The Swarm,” his program reaches its technological storage limits, begging the question whether he is a life form or a simple computer that requires a reboot. And in “Real Life,” an as emotionally affecting episode as Trek has ever produced, the Doctor creates an artificial, holographic family and ultimately experiences the death of his young daughter. It sounds preposterous in print, but it is particularly moving.
Throughout it all stands the rock of the series, the captain, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). In the somewhat arcane world of Trek message boards and Internet forums, Janeway has been assailed for years, for being too belligerent, too cold, too soft, too trigger-happy or too kind. What she really has never been forgiven for, frankly, is for not being a male, in the mold of other series principals like James Kirk (William Shatner), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). But Mulgrew’s Janeway is a true TV original, probably one of the strongest women ever to exist on the small screen. A leader who isn’t afraid to be feminine, but a person of iron clad determination. There is never a doubt for a moment in any episode that she is in charge and has the respect of her crew. How many women in television history can you say that about?
Additionally, in the tradition of Trek theatrical stars like Stewart and Brooks, Mulgrew is a real actor. She brings an emotional life to Janeway that the other Voyager characters lack. In “Coda,” her pain is evident as she seemingly takes form as an apparition observing her own funeral. In “Scorpion,” the last episode of the season, she clashes with her second-in-command, Chakotay, and she evocatively illustrates both her hurt in being second-guessed and her conviction that her decision is the correct one.
“Scorpion” is the episode that would alter the Voyager universe in a way that would be much criticized, but ultimately successful. Near the end of the third season, the producers (as detailed in the accompanying short feature “Braving the Unknown, Season Three”) decided that the stakes in the Delta Quadrant needed to be raised. Building on the theatrical success of the Star Trek film First Contact (1996), the decision was made to establish the fearsome cybernetic race the Borg as Voyager’s arch nemesis.
“Scorpion,” as the last episode, marks the high point of the season, combining unprecedented (for Voyager) CGI effects with dramatic storytelling. The cliffhanger, in which Janeway cements an alliance with the Borg, would pave the way for the introduction of a new character, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). In the fourth season, she would effectively assimilate Voyager (as well as an army of 13-year-old boys across America), becoming the series’ best-known and most controversial creation, before ultimately moving on to impact a different chaotic and threatening universe—the Illinois Senate race.