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  • Ric Crossman

5.1 What We'd Left Behind

Voyager Season 1 Retrospective

For a show about the future, Voyager is surprisingly tied up in the past.


Take Five


Let’s take an unusual stance for this blog, though, and respect causality. Before we document the show’s birth pangs, let’s go back to the circumstances of its conception. To cut out as many of the squishy details as possible: Voyager’s parents were the desire to continue the recent trend of two franchise shows running in parallel, and the need for a flagship show for the UPN Network.


(Both of those impulses came from Paramount, which I guess is where the already questionable pregnancy metaphor collapses by the roadside and breathes its last.)


There are worse reasons to create a TV show than a desire to make more money, I suppose – if indeed that’s a motivation that can ever truly be avoided. That said, the request to replace the most successful US sci-fi show ever at the time, in circumstances where creating a hit had never had more riding on it, was no small ask, attached to no little pressure. How was anyone supposed to come up with the next The Next Generation?


Complicating matters still further was the fact that even TNG had stopped being able to measure up to TNG. Viewing figures for season 7 were down, on average, a million viewers compared to season 6 (this excludes the gigantic bump the show saw for its finale, apparently the 15th most watched final episode in US TV history, as of 2018). Deep Space Nine was also failing to shine as brightly as past glories. After outperforming TNG for its first two stories – as one might expect from the new kid on the block – ratings for its first season were generally between two and four million short of those enjoyed by its elder sibling, episode-for-episode. That gap didn’t shorten as the show entered its second year, either, despite a dip in TNG‘s popularity.


It would be ridiculous to suggest that either of these shows was in dire straits, in general terms. Even given the high cost of production, netting upwards of eight million viewers a week is hardly catastrophic by the standards of the time. Nor am I building to some kind of “franchise fatigue” argument, a term now far more tired than the franchise it was coined to criticise. There’s all sorts of alternative explanations as to why Trek saw a dip in its popularity as TNG began its home lap – not least a simple case of statistical noise.


Easy for me to say, of course. When you’re under orders to capture lightning in a bottle and use it to power a TV network, any suggestion of a drop in voltage is going to cause concern.

So what’s a new spin-off to do, when it looks like staying the course won’t get it to where it needs to go?


One option would be to shake everything up. It certainly worked for The Next Generation, which jettisoned almost everything recognisable from its source material [1]. Deep Space Nine cleaved rather closer to what came before, but still distinguished itself in multiple important ways – a static location rather than a starship, a sharp uptick in the importance of both politics and religion, a location on the frontier that would sharply reduce the comforts and complacency of Federation living, and a cast of characters in which Starfleet officers were barely a majority.


The problem for those creating what would eventually become Voyager was twofold, though.

Firstly, a policy of distancing clearly hadn’t worked as well for DS9 as it had for TNG. Secondly, if Voyager was to define itself in terms of what it alone could bring to the table, it now had two contemporary points from which it had to maintain sufficient distance, rather than the single one DS9 had needed to reckon with.


This wouldn’t be easy. As Piller and Berman had quickly realised when first discussing the possibility of a TNG spin-off, there’s really only three things you can do with a Federation crew. You put them on a ship, on a station, or on a planet. And there’s not actually all that much functional difference between those latter two options, either; it’s just that the latter would be much more expensive to film if you wanted to take any real advantage of the setting.


I’m not trying to argue there were no alternatives – I’ll be covering “The Galileo Seven” next, after all. Jumping forward in time once more was an obvious option [2]. Another possibility was a show not centered on a Starfleet crew, or even the Federation at all. As I’ve said before, the fact that every TV show from outside the sci-fi/fantasy drama exists on a single planet, means the opportunities for what a Trek show can do are necessarily much, much larger than they are for just about anyone else.


We’ll never know whether boldly going would have ended up working out. The will simply wasn’t there. Perhaps there was only so far three people intimately involved with the relaunched Trek franchise were prepared to let that franchise drift. Perhaps they saw Trek as something which, while still more or less stable, had finally stopped accelerating, and decided an uncertain future required tried and trusted methods. Whatever the truth, Voyager was squarely aimed at recapturing past glories. It strip-mined Deep Space Nine for what its creators considered its most successful ideas, but the new show put almost all its chips on trying to turn back the clocks to the glory days of TNG.


A new Federation crew in a new Federation starship. It had worked before. Where was the harm in trying it again?


Rewind To Reset


That’s a rhetorical question, but it’s also a bloody obvious one. As I pointed out right at the beginning, Voyager hobbled itself almost immediately by presenting its journey home not as one in space, but in time, a search for some lost era of peace and neighbourliness that never really existed in the first place (particularly for those who didn’t look like Roddenberry, or Berman). It wasn’t so much that the show was looking to the past for inspiration, so much as it didn’t understand that past in the first place.


I’m not just talking about the past in general, either. This is about the specific history of Trek as a franchise. Why does the first female captain to anchor a Trek show want to spend her time in a holonovel in which she’s bossed around by an aristocratic boy who demands to be called “my lord”? Why did no-one realise the poker games in TNG worked because they focused the characters through a new lens, something unlikely to be achieved by watching people explain pool to each other?


Neither of these are particularly major problems in themselves, I accept. A larger issue with Voyager wanting to return to the franchises’ heyday was its decision to move away from anything even approaching a serialised format.


This is not to say that Trek in 1994 was particularly serialised. It was showing signs of creeping in that direction, though. Deep Space Nine had given Trek its first ever three-part episode when “The Homecoming”, “The Circle” and “The Siege” opened its second season. Those stories themselves pick up on the changing Bajoran political situation introduced in the finale to the first season. By the time “Caretaker” was being filmed, DS9 had not just introduced the Jem Hadar, but revealed Odo’s race as the originators and controllers of the Dominion. It was still very far from a single ongoing story, but the show was clearly committing to the idea of building on itself as it went on. The TNG model, in which only cosmetic changes and departing actors made it difficult to watch the show in a more-or-less entirely random order, had been left behind.


In theory, the set-up of Voyager was almost perfectly designed (Taylor-made? NO REGRETS) to replicate, or even extend this approach. A starship with maybe 160 people aboard, seventy years from any chance of repair or resupply? That’s just crying out for a clear sense of progression as the voyage stretches on and the situation gets more desperate. Instead, season one of the show seems to take an almost perverse pleasure in refusing to diverge from the status quo established in its second story. Precisely two events occur after B’Elanna’s promotion that shake things up, and one of those is Neelix opening a mess hall. As its name suggests, “State Of Flux” brings us closest to a genuine game-change, but even here the principle difference in the following five episodes is that Martha Hackett no longer shows up as a guest star.


This isn’t just a missed opportunity on its own terms. By avoiding exploration of any kind of building pressure or exhaustion, even the ship being lost in the Delta Quadrant begins to echo the past. A single ship encountering new and potentially dangerous life forms, too far out to call in back up, constantly flying by the seat of the pants? This is just The Original Series with holodecks and subtler sexism.


Blue Skies Bring Tears


So far I’ve talked a lot about how Voyager consciously tried to ape the first two live-action Trek shows. As I mentioned, though, Deep Space Nine wasn’t entirely ignored as a source of inspiration. The influence is most obvious in the idea of a crew drawn from two distinct organisations. DS9 combined Starfleet officers with members of the Bajoran militia, and the tensions between the two organisations regularly produced some of that show’s best material. It was an incredibly impressive way to square the circle, in fact, letting the show sidestep Roddenberry’s rules on there being no intra-crew conflict without betraying his underlying ethos.


I’ll talk more about that when we come to the end of Deep Space Nine’s first season next month, though. For now, what’s relevant is that Voyager clearly saw the dramatic advantages this set-up offered, and went for a similar approach, with the role of the Bajorans now being taken by Maquis. Indeed, it’s worth noting just how small a change this is – two of the Maquis characters we see in the first season are, or claim to be, Bajoran, and the common thread of hating the Cardassians because of their oppression of their home planet(s) is inescapable.


I’m not suggesting that this should be seen as derivative. The difference between the Barjorans recovering from Cardassian oppression and the Maquis fighting ongoing violence is already a non-trivial difference – a major part of why the wrinkled nose is so common a sight among the latter is precisely because so many Bajorans don’t agree that the era of armed resistance to the Cardassian Union is over. Which makes it terribly interesting that the Maquis on Voyager are also no longer fighting the Cardassians. Not because, as with Major Kira, their war is over, but because they’ve been forcibly removed from an ongoing war that they are now helpless to do anything about.


This should have been Voyager’s masterstroke. While both crews realise they need to integrate for them to each have the best chance to return home, their definitions of the word “home” are all but unrecognisable to each other. The Starfleet officers want to return to expanding the borders of their paradise. The Maquis need to return to the front lines of a secret war for their people’s very survival. Janeway and Kim are worrying if their partners will move on with them gone. Chakotay and B’Elanna are worrying how many of their friends will be raped, tortured and murdered by Cardassians while they’re seventy years away from the trenches. This is why Chakotay has so important a role on the ship. It’s not just that he has belonged both to Starfleet and the Maquis. It’s that he inhabits the liminal zone between their two conceptions of reality.


All of this should hang like a rain cloud over everything the ship does. If nothing else, it’s entirely clear to everyone on board that Janeway is transporting a hundred-odd Starfleet officers back to the fleet, and two dozen criminals to the penal outposts.


Instead, with an efficiency so impressive it’s almost hard to believe it wasn’t deliberate, Voyager works tirelessly to dissipate every erg of energy the set-up could generate. I’ve discussed on a couple of occasions how little is made of the Starfleet/Maquis split, but this is a good time to summarise. In the 15 stories that make up the first season of Voyager, only six of them mention the Maquis at all, with two of those using them as almost an afterthought. Between the first two stories of the season and its last one, only “State Of Flux” really gets to grip with the Maquis, and between that episode and “Learning Curve”, it quickly starts to look like the only worth the show sees in its Maquis contingent is as a pool of potential traitors and malcontents.


Compare all this with the numbers for Deep Space Nine. That show’s first season mentions Bajor and/or the Bajorans in 18 of its 19 opening stories, and only fails to mention the Cardassians in three of them. Even more telling is the fact that, specifically in order to set up Voyager, TNG and DS9 between them mention the Maquis in five episodes broadcast before the airing of “Caretaker”. In other words, the show that required those shout-outs referenced the Maquis just 20% more times than the shows that were just trying to help out. And that’s to say nothing of how crucial the Maquis were to “Preemptive Strike” or “The Maquis” two-parter, compared to, say, “Eye Of The Needle” or “Ex Post Facto”. Given this, it’s hard to argue with the position that the seeding of the Maquis in TNG and DS9 failed. I’m no expert on agriculture, but I’d think that if your crop yield weighs only 20% more than the seeds you sewed, you can’t count yourself much of a farmer. Crops need rain to grow, and its entirely on the production team that the clouds were never allowed to burst.


Grading On A Curve


Since I’m playing around with numbers, let’s do a little more counting. By my reckoning, of the fifteen stories in this season, there are four (“Phage”, “The Cloud”, “Ex Post Facto” and “Faces”) which would need little alteration to be set in the Alpha Quadrant, and four more (“Time And Again”, “Emanations”, “Cathexis” and “Jetrel”) that could be effortlessly rewritten as TNG stories [3]. The overall impression is one of missed opportunities, not only to move the franchise on, but to make good use of where it was.

.

Here’s the thing, though. For all the above criticisms, the first season of Voyager is at this point in the top half of the rankings. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a better watch than the first fifteen episodes of TNG. In that sense, its attempts to recapture what made The Next Generation into a cultural and commercial juggernaut can’t be considered a total failure. The season offers solid or even great material not just with episodes genuinely inextricable from the ship’s situation (“Eye Of The Needle”, “Prime Factors”) or from its characters (“Heroes and Demons”, “Faces”), but just by coming up with a good idea and delivering it with skill (“Phage”, “Ex Post Facto”, the first three quarters of “Jetrel”). At the other end of the scale, the importance of Voyager’s specific circumstances to “Learning Curve” didn’t save it from being the worst episode in the entire year.


While it’s fair to say Voyager wasted its chance to start off as a brilliant show, then, it certainly succeeded in quickly reaching a baseline level of competence. It's noteable that the second half of the season never dips below second place in the IDFC rankings. The lessons Berman, Piller and Ryan had learned over their years making Trek had clearly not been completely forgotten. Truthfully, it’s a measure of their own success that Voyager could give us a fundamentally solid first season and it still be considered a disappointment.


But a disappointment is still what this is. Moreover, it’s a disappointment for very obvious reasons. The first season of Deep Space Nine works because of its choices. The first season of Voyager works despite them – most obviously the decision to run screaming from everything DS9 was taking pains to do right. Like its crew was supposed to be – and clearly isn’t – this is a show at war with itself, uncertain of what it should be or what it should do. It’s almost too perfect that by the time the writing team got to the intended season finale (“The ’37s”, ultimately held back to be the season 2 opener), they’d agreed the crew should spend less time talking about how they missed Earth. The Kazon could only dream of sabotaging Voyager as often and as comprehensibly as its own producers seemed determined to.


Yet ship and show endured. And at this point in the IDFC project, it’s certainly not the show that least deserved for that to happen.


[1] At least until there was a script crunch, and we ended up with “The Naked Now”. Which of course was terrible, rather adding weight to the idea that discarding as much of the past as possible was one of the best moves early TNG made.


[2] In fact, whispers at the time had it that this was precisely what was being proposed, though how fully plugged in my fourteen-year old mate Ben was to the ’94 Los Angeles rumour machine was never really determined.


[3] “Jetrel” is the toughest adaptation here, but that’s only because you’d need to be careful about who to give the back story of the destruction of Rinax to.


Episode rankings


4. Phage

6. Faces

12. Jetrel






Rewatch List


(Episodes in bold are particularly good, the others are rather less indispensable. Episodes in italics are important to the ongoing story, but not recommended on their own terms.)


Caretaker

Parallax

Phage

The Cloud

Eye Of The Needle

Ex Post Facto

Prime Factors

State Of Flux

Heroes And Demons

Cathexis

Faces

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2 Comments


Liam Kavanagh
Liam Kavanagh
Jun 10, 2022

There's got to be a bitter irony in the Maquis being used on TNG and DS9 primarily to set them up for Voyager, and then both those shows making better use of them than Voyager itself did.

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Angelo Carybdis
Angelo Carybdis
Jun 20, 2022
Replying to

Absolutely. Depresses me every time I think about i

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