Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting Lost In The Star Trek Universe Makes Us Wish For More: Star Trek: Voyager Season 1

The Good: Excellent initial characters, Good villains, Good acting
The Bad: Abandonment of characters, Somewhat "done" plot
The Basics: When Kathryn Janeway and her crew of intrepid explorers find themselves 70 years from home, they sacrifice their differences (and character) to make the journey back.

As a huge fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I will commit possibly the ultimate sacrilege by honestly saying that when I sat down to the series premiere of Star Trek: Voyager, I was impressed. "Caretaker," the pilot episode of the show, is easily the strongest Star Trek pilot, exceeding even "The Cage" (reviewed here!) for making the viewer want to come back the next week. It pains me to say it, but after the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager, I began to contemplate the idea that maybe Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would not be the peak of the Star Trek franchise.

And then the second episode aired. Sigh. It's sad when a show goes out of the gate with such a bang and then falls, flat-faced, into the dirt. The boxed set DVD of the first season of Star Trek: Voyager, though, clearly illustrates the serious flaw that the show had. Unwilling to have two Star Trek series' where the characters had a great deal of conflict, Star Trek: Voyager quickly pacified the leaders of the franchise and destroyed all of its best potentials. Here's why:

A group of renegade Federation citizens living in the borderlands between Federation and Cardassian space have formed a militant terrorist group known as the Maquis. The Maquis have been a threat to Federation security and when one of their ships disappears in the Badlands near Bajor, Captain Kathryn Janeway is sent to find it. Her security chief, Tuvok, was aboard that particular ship and so Janeway enlists an ex-Maquis pilot names Tom Paris to help her navigate her ship, the USS Voyager, into the Badlands to search for it. Once there, the ship is abducted by the same force that abducted the Maquis ship, resulting in the two crews finding themselves 70,000 light years away from home.

The problem is, once they find themselves trapped 70 years away from home, these two crews, diametrically opposed in philosophies, begin working together as a single StarFleet crew. So, Captain Janeway and her Maquis first officer Chakotay, begin to lead their crew home through the space of the angry Kazon and Vidiians, with the help of two locals, Neelix and Kes. The ship is held together by a Maquis half-Klingon engineer, steered by Tom Paris, defended by Tuvok, navigated by (his position is hard to define, he mans the sensors) young Asian Ensign Kim, and the health needs are seen to by the holographic doctor.

Within the span of the first two episodes, Star Trek: Voyager takes the wonderful potential of a series rooted in opposing philosophical ideologies struggling toward a common goal and trashes it in favor of a recast Star Trek: The Next Generation. The stories almost immediately take on episodic qualities, instead of the more obvious serialized style. That is to say, the episodes to not seem to build on each other, which would make sense if they were trying to tell the story of how the crew is working to get home. Instead, the first season of Star Trek: Voyager reads as "we're trying to get home, but here are some stops we made on our way."

The problem is in the characters. In the first episode, they have so much potential to be interesting and deep. Kathryn Janeway is an explorer who is leaving behind her love and her puppies. She opponent, Chakotay, is a Native American Indian who fought for his colony and has been running on hate for over a year. He is domesticated by the second episode and there is almost no conflict between him and Janeway after the second episode. In fact, the only two characters that retain their immediate interest after the first episode are Kes, a young Ocampa woman who has a very limited lifespan and is eager to grow and learn and experiment with her newfound psychic powers and the Emergency Medical Hologram, who is acerbic, humorous and intriguing, but unable to leave Sickbay, save for the holodeck.

The adventures start out interesting with a clear sense of purpose. The ship journeys into a black hole type phenomenon, a giant gaseous creature, and fend off the Kazon, a splintered people who want water and, now, Federation technology. They find one of their crew accused of murder, a traitor in their midst, and another possessed by an alien life form. The best episode of the season finds the Holographic Doctor on his first adventure, a holodeck story that takes him to the world of Beowulf.

Adding to the sense of purpose is the fact that the crew is hounded by two villainous races throughout the first season. The Kazon rank as possibly the least impressive Star Trek villain ever, but the other adversary is one of the most terrifying. Utilized in the first (and second!) season are the Vidiians, a race of people who have been afflicted with a crippling disease known as the Phage. They search the galaxy harvesting organs from anyone they encounter and their two episodes "Phage" and "Faces" are easily two of the creepiest, most intense hours of this series.

The acting in Star Trek: Voyager is decent and the opening scenes are played out with remarkable skill. The first meeting between Janeway and Tom Paris ought to go well; Robert Duncan McNeil, who plays Paris, had performed the scene several times with the previous actress to play Janeway, a bonus we are allowed to see on the DVD. The supporting cast is decent, with a lot of talent evident in Garret Wang (Harry Kim), Ethan Phillips (Neelix) and Tim Russ (Tuvok). Three talents shine above the others, though.

Robert Picardo has perhaps the best role as a character with a great deal of potential as the holographic doctor. Picardo does not waste the role, immediately making it his own through a great use of stiff body language and tightly controlled facial expressions. Picardo easily convinces the viewers he is a computer by-product and he is cunning as an actor to inch his way toward growth, making the character development seem very organic.

Jennifer Lein excels as Kes. She plays an adventurous young woman who takes a stand and joins the Voyager crew and she seems very at home in the role. Having met this perpetually shy actress, her very social performances are amazing to see and a testament to her greatness as an actress. Lein plays Kes as consumed by that spark of life that inhabits us all and it a real pleasure to watch.

Ultimately, it comes down to the captain and Kate Mulgrew is an inspired choice for Janeway. Despite the petty notion many people have about Mulgrew's voice (I don't see it as any sort of problem), she is excellent at playing Janeway as an authority figure. Her presentation of Janeway establishes her as a rightful Star Trek captain and not simply "a woman captain." Mulgrew brings a zest and wry humor to the piece that has been absent since Captain Kirk of Star Trek. She is especially good in the moralistic moments when she must play high drama.

All in all, Star Trek Voyager's complete first season is decent, but not great. The show starts out with a real bang and falls off too quickly on the character front, which I believe is the most important aspect of the show. Still, it is entertaining and the first season is one of the show's two best. Unfortunately, it did not aspire to be more.

Knowing that the DVD box is completely unhelpful as to the contents, check out my reviews on the episodes contained in this boxed set! The fifteen episodes of the first season are:

Time And Again
The Cloud
Eye Of The Needle
Ex Post Facto
Prime Factors
State Of Flux
Heroes And Demons
Learning Curve



For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the shows and episodes I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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