Saturday, September 8, 2012

Star Trek Sells Out To The Baywatch Audience With Star Trek: Voyager Season Four

The Good: The Doctor, Most of the acting
The Bad: Replacement of Kes with Seven, Terrible stories, Ridiculous villains, Selling out
The Basics: As Star Trek: Voyager hits its midpoint, the show changes direction focusing on a new character with supposed sex appeal over stories with substance.

When the U.S.S. Voyager was last seen, at the end of season three of Star Trek: Voyager Captain Kathryn Janeway was attempting to save the galaxy by allying herself with the villainous Borg to save the Delta Quadrant from invaders from fluidic space known only by a Borg designation. Harry Kim lay near death and Kes' mental powers were expanding exponentially, allowing her to look inside the mind of the invading villains. As dodgy a premise as that might be, it was enough to make the average viewer tune in for another go round. And as executive producer and co-creator of Star Trek: Voyager Jeri Taylor departs and is replaced by one-trick-pony Brannon Braga, the show takes a turn toward the utterly nonsensical.

Defeating the invaders with relative ease, Voyager is betrayed by the Borg, who have sent advisors, who they more or less defeat. This leaves them with a rogue Borg who soon becomes more or less independent. Kes takes a turn for godhood, throws Voyager ten years closer to home (theoretically outside Borg space) and Voyager limps through Hirogen territory while the viewer wonders why.

From day three of Star Trek: Voyager, I was bothered by how the show was doing episodic television for what is an ideal serialized arc. With the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast of characters, the show takes on slightly more serialized stories, a la Data's quest for humanity on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The fundamental problem with Star Trek: Voyager now becomes that: 1. It is no longer the story of the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager (this is the first season of "The Seven of Nine Show") and 2. The overall storyline no longer makes sense.

The first problem is one of the most significant ones that Star Trek: Voyager faces as it reaches and passes its midpoint. Out of the twenty-six episodes in the fourth season, Seven of Nine eight of them could reasonably be called Seven of Nine episodes. The character that has the next best exposure is The Doctor who has three episodes that are distinctly his, but because he is frequently paired with Seven of Nine, he reaps a great deal of airtime, especially in the Seven of Nine episodes. Janeway has only a single episode that is distinctly hers and her role in many of the ensemble cast episodes (episodes that are actually about events more than any one character) is largely just support (though she does get the final bang in "Year Of Hell, Part II"). The show does more ensemble work, with a full seven episodes being more devoted to circumstances the U.S.S. Voyager finds itself in as opposed to actual character-driven episodes or situations. When Star Trek: Voyager turns toward the cheap gimmicks of plot-driven ideas as opposed to character conflicts, the show takes a dive in terms of purpose and quality.

And that leads us to the second big problem with the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager. As the show evolves into the Seven of Nine Show (with the Doctor acting as Ed McMahon to Seven's Johnny), the plot-driven stories become more and more absurd and the aliens become flat-out ridiculous. First, the concept of "Borg Space" is somewhat chilling and pointless. Borg space would be an assimilated wasteland with nothing but Borg. Perhaps the producers realized this and that's why they had the ship tossed much closer to home.

But then we get the concept of the Borg Transwarp Conduit. This ridiculous notion utterly and irrevocably weakens the concept of the Borg. The Borg are the soulless villains who simply wander the universe assimilating civilizations and technology to make their Collective more powerful. They don't (traditionally) negotiate, surrender or have much in the way of weakness as their hive mind allows them to adapt extraordinarily quickly. Transwarp conduits are - in Star Trek: Voyager lore - tunnels through space that allow travel at extraordinarily fast speeds with point to point precision, kind of like wormholes. If the Borg had these, why don't they simply swarm everywhere they want to assimilate? Since Star Trek First Contact (reviewed here!), they have virtually instantaneous assimilation time. Now they have virtually instantaneous transportation. Five Borg ships ought to be able to take transwarp conduits, swarm a planet, assimilate its people and move on within a day. Given the implied number of Borg ships in an area ten years wide at normal warp speeds, the Borg ought to have conquered the Delta Quadrant within a week and the entire galaxy in under a year.

And for those nitpickers who wish to argue that the transwarp conduits came from Star Trek: The Next Generation ("Descent," reviewed here!), one only has to note that the ship using them was not Borg and given that it came from Lore, the implication - unresolved on the show - was that Lore stole it, meaning that it was not actually a Borg ship. The aliens that the U.S.S. Voyager encounters after passing through Borg space, like the Krennim and the Klingon-wannabes Hirogen are particularly easy targets, which begs the question, why haven't the Borg simply assimilated them?

Of course, that's using reason to something that is supposed to be entertainment. The reason, however, so many people who become enamored with the Star Trek franchise do so is because they like the rules of the universe that are established. In the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager so many of those rules are tossed out the window. If it doesn't work, make a last second reversal at the end of the episode. Some of the closest to impressive episodes make utterly no sense in their resolutions, most notably "Year Of Hell," which sees the U.S.S. Voyager destroyed without a satisfactory explanation of how it resets the timeline.

The best episode is a quiet, character driven story that is buggered by an annoying Seven of Nine b-plot. "Day Of Honor" finds Chief Engineer B'Elanna Torres stranded in space alone with pilot Tom Paris. As the two float around waiting for death, they talk, actually talk!, and the result is a pretty wonderful piece of work. Unfortunately, it's almost the high point of the season and it's the third episode in. The only episode that is arguably better, "Mortal Coil," involves Neelix's resurrection at the hands of Seven of Nine and the simple resolution to the episode robs it of some of its impact.

The show ought to be about characters, but failing that, here's where the principles are this season:

Captain Kathryn Janeway - Muscled out of significant airtime, Janeway holds onto Voyager against the Borg, a time-travelling menace, and hunters who recreate Nazi Germany throughout the ship. Her sole episode involves spending time on the holodeck with Leonardo da Vinci,

Chakotay - After the first officer uses his Borg Reserve status (way to throw back to a prior episode!), he becomes part of an alien war, then sits quietly until very late in the season when he has a one-episode love show,

The Doctor - Having lost Kes, he takes in Seven of Nine. As a result, he supports Seven on her witless quest to be more human but has moments on his own where he attempts to thwart a homicidal hologram, figure out who is tormenting Voyager's crew, save Neelix's life, journey to the Alpha Quadrant, and ends up in the distant future trying to make sense of the voyage of the U.S.S. Voyager,

Tuvok - He investigates evil, yet again, when Torres is implicated in a murder. He shows up occasionally otherwise, but is relegated to support this season,

B'Elanna Torres - After professing her love for Tom Paris, Torres finds herself at odds with Seven of Nine, accused of murder on an alien planet, wrestling more with her Klingon half and ultimately shocked when news from the Alpha Quadrant comes Voyager's way,

Tom Paris - No longer even remotely rogue, Paris flies by the book this season and opens up to Torres, runs around the holodeck, and occasionally flirts with Seven of Nine,

Seven of Nine - Rescued from the Borg, Seven of Nine coincidentally discovers her parents' lost ship, begins a witless quest to be more human, seems caught up on assimilation and is stacked like a woman from Baywatch and stuck in a catsuit for the bulk of the season,

Harry Kim - Is he even in this season?! Without even a lone Kim episode, he is relegated completely to support of scenes this season. Which begs the question, why was he saved in the premiere? (Seriously, he briefly has a few scenes as Seven’s would-be guide),

and Kes - Departing after the first two episodes of the season as a quasi-god, Kes is missed.

What is missed this season are moments of character to back up the acting. Seven of Nine is clearly brought on for sex appeal and Jeri Ryan fills that adequately. It's not Star Trek, though and the sellout is insulting to the fans. The other actors, notably Kate Mulgrew and Roxanne Dawson, do their best to work around it, but they're not given much to do to make that work.

The actor that pulls the show is Robert Picardo. While Jeri Ryan is given technobabble and set to parading around her breasts, Picardo does the heavy lifting with exploring his character in greater depth. The Doctor, ironically, becomes the human foil to Seven and Picardo does an excellent job of playing the role both awkward and brilliant. He continues to infuse his brilliance in the show and it almost makes the season bearable.

Almost, but not enough. Ultimately, this season is dragged down by plot-driven stories and the attempt to market the show to an audience that craves sex appeal over substance. That's not traditionally the Star Trek audience and it's insulting to most of us that the show tries to keep us with that.

For more of the content of this season, be sure to check out my episode reviews of each of the season’s episodes. The fourth season is comprised of:
Scorpion, Part 2
The Gift
Day Of Honor
The Raven
Scientific Method
Year Of Hell
Year Of Hell, Part 2
Random Thoughts
Concerning Flight
Mortal Coil
Waking Moments
Message In A Bottle
The Killing Game, Part 1
The Killing Game, Part 2
Vis A Vis
The Omega Directive
Living Witness
Hope And Fear


For other Star Trek reviews, be sure to check out my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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