Friday, July 19, 2013

Voyager, Season 1: Caretaker

Voyager, Season 1
"Caretaker"
Airdate: January 16, 1995
1 of 168 produced
1 of 168 aired

Introduction

While on a mission to capture a Maquis vessel and crew, USS Voyager finds itself whisked away by a strange alien force to the other side of the galaxy. Once there, the Starfleet and Maquis crews form an uneasy alliance. They must navigate a tricky path between dangerous adversaries, internal tensions,  and the prospect that they might never return home.

Poor, warm, sensual Stadi. We hardly knew ye.




Writing

Matthew: Voyager may have the most successful pilot episode yet in terms of setting up character stories and relationships. TNG was pretty good, introducing two key romantic dyads and one "Pinocchio" story arc. DS9 was strong on the father-son story but kind of weak on everyone else. To me, Voyager really nailed its characters, right from the get-go. My favorite is Tom Paris: he starts off in prison (which is a neat look at the underside of the Federation utopia) and goes on a real heroic journey in just this episode. He is cynical and distrustful at the outset, but makes a friend in Harry Kim, runs into poor treatment over his past among the crew, finds a tad of redemption under the wing of Captain Janeway, ad earns a field commission. It's a really compelling character story in my book. Should he have been Nick Locarno? Maybe. But I honestly didn't care by the end of the pilot.

Kevin: I would agree that the show does the best job of establishing the characters from the beginning. Both TNG and DS9 has characters that shift dramatically in tone as writing teams changed and they got around to recognizing the actors' respective strengths. The characters are consistently realized over the series, and that is definitely a feather in the cap of the premiere. I never responded to the Paris story with the same intensity that Matt did, but I agree it's a good idea. It's my understanding that they initially started with Nick Locarno, said "Get me a Robert Duncan MacNeill type," eventually casted him, and then changed the character when they realized they would have to pay the writer of "The First Duty" every episode for the use of the character he created, so they tweaked the name and the story. I will eventually be really annoyed that we don't get the full story of this character, but that is certainly not a sin of this episode.

Matthew: Captain Janeway is the center of the show, and her character is really well drawn. She is a career woman, but not some "bulldyke" feminist. She leaves a real-feeling romantic relationship behind, and has a nice emotional rapport with her young crew while still remaining a credible taskmaster. It's a delicate balancing act, even on today's television, and Voyager gets it absolutely right from word one. I also really enjoyed her confidante relationship with Tuvok. Their conversation in the ready room really cemented the characters and made them feel like real people, even moreso than, say, TNG with Captain Picard. My overall impression is that the characters created by Jeri Taylor, Michael Piller, and Rick Berman were really well thought out and developed before the beginning of the first script.

Kevin: I agree that Janeway always came off as a real person, not merely an attempt to create a female captain by the writers. There's a pitfall in writing for women in power where there's a tendency to flatten the character through being too perfect. Whereas flaws make male heroes more interesting, the fear is that giving the female hero a flaw will be scene as diminishing the idea of a female hero. A friend termed this the "Batgirl effect," because Batgirl got to drive the Batmobile despite Robin not being allowed to in like fifty years of comics, because telling Batgirl she can't drive the car would feel wrong. Fortunately, they avoid this almost completely for the course of the series. Janeway is talented and capable, but not artificially so. She's a scientist, but not an expert in every field. She's professional, but not cold; empathic, but not soppy. I think a lot of the credit goes to the actress, but the writing is certainly right there. I am on record with my problems with Voyager, but Janeway has never been one of them. I think what I liked the most about her portrayal is that she manages to be a very different kind of captain than Picard, but one I could easily accept is on par with him. It's neck and neck between her and President Roslin on BSG for my favorite three-dimensional woman in power in science fiction.

Matthew: As far as the plot details, the Maquis tie-in with previous continuity was nice. It really makes the universe feel cohesive. Even the scenes on DS9 felt organic. The interplay between Quark and the green-horn Ensign Kim was really funny. The abduction of the ships was fine, it only really become questionable after the Caretaker plot developed. If he has the technology to whisk ships from across hundreds of thousands of light years, why can't he fix one planet's atmosphere, or just relocate the Ocampa? Or, for that matter, whisk the Kazon that many light years away to protect the Ocampa? His motivations and limitations were left somewhat unclear by the end, and not in a particularly good way (a la 2001). So the Caretaker is kidnapping and raping aliens from one species to make up for its damage to another species? This sort of odd morality should have been explored. Is it Utilitarian? Some sort of moral sense theory? I'm willing to believe an alien morality might encompass these actions, I just want to see it discussed. Also, if the Doctor can just cure Harry and B'Elanna just like that, why can't the Caretaker?

Kevin: I like the Maquis plot tie in, though I will say the intro text summarizing the plot was less scintillating that the Wolf 359 lead-in in DS9. The scene with Quark was perfect. Like McCoy on TNG and Picard on DS9, it's expected there is a tie-in, and I like that they used it to show us something about the characters rather than merely check off the box. The morality of the Caretaker really nagged me. He felt guilt at harming the Ocampa accidentally, but then seemed to have no qualms harming other intentionally. In the end, it feels like they worked backwards. We need a reason to get Voyager there and then strand her, and they tailored the Caretaker plot to make that happen. Honestly, I almost would have enjoyed it more if they mechanism and reason for their being taken the to Delta Quadrant would have been more fun and lead to some interesting plots in season 1. My biggest problem with the Caretaker plot overall, though, is that once they get to the hootenanny (or was a hoedown?), the episode starts to drag a little. It picks up again with the final Kazon battle and the destruction of the array, but the middle is a little soft.

Matthew: I think the Caretaker "mystery" (i.e. that he was the one guiding Ocampan society should have lasted for longer, perhaps Harry Kim and B'Elanna could have been the ones to uncover it down on the planet (why were they sent to the planet, anyway?). It was basically understood within ten minutes of Voyager arriving, which robbed it of a little drama. The basic Caretaker idea (advanced being ossifies lesser culture) is very TOS, and I think it would have been fun if the mystery had developed in a more TOS way. Believe it or not, I actually wanted to learn a bit more about the Ocampa. How were they retarded by the Caretaker's influence? What does this short life cycle mean for transmission of knowledge? That would be like one Ph.D on Earth... How did the youth crave new exotic tastes at all, if they were sequestered underground for untold generations with food provided for them? The Neelix/Kes scenes seem somewhat shoehorned into the story, and may have been better in a second episode, allowing these Ocampa details to breathe a bit more.

Kevin: I think the idea of the Ocampa, both their society and their lifespan are ideas that read better on paper than play on television. Maybe they are ideas better suited to a book where they could be better explored. Even if they mature faster, a lot of growth is experiential not just innate, so how do you amass experience in that time? I was never a fan of the Kes/Neelix romance. It felt really creepy.

Matthew: The Kazon kind of make no sense as truly dangerous villains. I get that they were going for warring gang factions, but it wasn't established here at all. It might have been better if they had been more similar to Voyager technologically, withholding technology from poor peoples, but for other reasons (domination as opposed to prevention cultural contamination). Can a space faring race really be short on water? That said, I like the basic idea of Voyager being far ahead of its surrounding aliens, because it creates interesting ethical issues as well as answers some basic plot questions as to how they could survive.

Kevin: They just needed to pick a different resource, like dilithium or the ability to synthesize antimatter. The lack of water, enough that an entire region of space seems to suffer from it is just odd. How did sentient life even develop? Maybe they could have tied it into the Caretaker. He could have caused more widespread destruction. Overall, I think the Kazon are a bigger whiff than the Ferengi. Even the pre-Quark Ferengi were good for the occasional chuckle. Worse, in like two episodes, we are going to get the perfect villain in the mottled form of the Vidiians, and that makes focusing on the Kazon even more unforgivable.

Matthew: Overall, the story did a really good job of making Voyager feel like a real place. Like the Enterprise in tone, but different and special in its own way. The Maquis element is an interesting setup for conflict, and we can't blame "Caretaker" for not developing it better in future shows. I think just a tad more detail establishing their intractable choice in destroying the array would have helped. More argument from the Maquis (or even other Starfleet crew members) would have helped at the end, too.

Kevin: I was rewatching "First Contact" (episode not movie) on the treadmill yesterday, and it was at the scene when the hospital director refuses to wake Riker and gets fired. It reminded me that nothing is as dramatically interesting as members of the same group disagreeing about things. I can see Chakotay agreeing with Janeway, but certain Starfleet officers not. I could see Paris not caring since there isn't anything at home for him. This cried out for a good conference scene, really.

Acting

Matthew: As has been true of every Trek series so far, the whole series kind of lives or dies by the casting choice on the captain. That may be even more true here, with a female captain. Kate Mulgrew really sets the tone, pitching her performance with great nuance, striking just the right note of command mixed with real, strong, femininity. She is really good at technobabble, too, which sells us on the world (writers would probably come to rely on this too much as the series progressed. She gets one awful line: "The Kazon-Ogla? Who are the Kazon-Ogla?"

Kevin: Her ability with technobabble is especially commendable given her stated loathing of it. I always appreciate professional dedication. She really had an internal life. Her scene with Mark about her dog really felt like she had an internal life, not just setting up something for her to miss. Much like Mary MacDonnell's Roslin, I really enjoyed seeing a woman in power, who wields it thoughtfully and decisively, but whose defining character trait is not her ambition.

Matthew: Robert Duncan McNeill was great as Nick Locarno in "The First Duty." He is even better here. He really injects inner life into his character, showing Tom Paris' inner conflict even when the script doesn't fill in all the blanks. He is convincing in his action scenes, as well as his more tender scenes of friendship. If anything, I think his male presence might have pushed Robert Beltran, who was very good here, to the wayside a bit in future shows.

Kevin: Beltran was good in the action scenes, but I thought his handling of exposition always reads a little flat. Like I said, I don't love Paris as much as Matt, but that's not to say I don't like him. He is good here. I even liked him when he was hitting on Stadi in the shuttle. His best scenes were probably with Kim in Quark's and the mess hall. They really help establish his attitude is a bit of an act.

Matthew: Roxann Biggs-Dawson shows good vulnerability as B'Elanna Torres. She gets her real spotlight in the next episode, but she establishes her character well here. Tim Russ was perfect as a Vulcan in this episode, and he only gets better as the show goes on. He is every bit as logical as a Spock, but plays it more straight, which makes sense given his character's full Vulcan heritage. Garrett Wang seemed like a green rookie. Is it his fault that he never advanced beyond that in the series? It's hard to say. But he fit the bill well here. Robert Picardo is a scene stealer as the Doctor, and it's obvious why the writers started giving him lots to do as the series progressed.

Kevin: Picardo is a genius, a character actor on par with Shimerman. I agree with your assessments of the main cast, generally. I think Dawson pitches her Klingon anger a little differently later in the season and I like it more then. Wang never did anything for me as Harry. Maybe it's the writing, but I don't think it's entirely that, but we'll discuss that when get to those episodes. I never really responded to Tuvok the same way as I did for Spock, but I don't think that's an acting problem.

Matthew: I remember initially really disliking Neelix. But watching this show now, I've got to say Ethan Phillips really owns the part. He is warm, funny, strange, and actually not all that annoying, at least in this episode. Jennifer Lien is pretty ho-hum as Kes.

Kevin: I hated Neelix. I like Ethan Phillips who is very funny, but I can't imagine living on that ship without wanting to punch him, especially in the early seasons. Also, I got really tired of the jokes about his cooking. It seemed that literally no one didn't hate his food, so why is he still the cook? And yeah, Kes, with a couple of exceptions, is always pretty flat for me.

Production Values

Matthew: I love the opening theme by Jerry Goldsmith. It's probably my second favorite, after Goldsmith's own TMP/TNG theme. It is married to a really nice opening video, probably also my favorite in that it tells a kind of story, and shows us scenes of exploration. The visual effects throughout were great, especially the reflection on the planetary ice rings.

Kevin: I liked the gas swirling behind the warp nacelles. It is a gorgeous song and opening.

Matthew: Voyager is a great looking ship. The exterior looks great, in that it is a natural sort of "cruiser" variant of the classic Starfleet design. I really like the arrowhead saucer, and the look of the shuttle bay. Interior sets are truly top notch. The bridge has a nice look (though second in my book to The Enterprise D), engineering is a great multi-level set with a neat looking warp core. The mess hall is a great addition to Trek - sort of a more workaday Ten Forward, which served as a great platform for scenes. The ready room is also a visually interesting set, with Janeway's couches and the windows behind them. The production designers created a cohesive look that basically stayed the same for seven seasons - which is a good thing. They got it right the first time.

Kevin: I liked the Voyager sets, overall. I like Engineering a lot, though not as much as TNG's. I also thought that like the Enterprise-E, the stations were too spread apart and closed off. I like the overall color scheme, and the large Voyager display behind the captain's chair is gorgeous too. I liked that the deflector is the same as the Nebula-class Phoenix. I was not a fan of the pivoting warp nacelles. Whatever its utility, it seems like a lot of mechanical things to go wrong in a really sensitive system. The sickbay set is by far the best so far of the franchise. I haven't seen Enterprise in a while, so I'll have to take another look at Phlox's sickbay before declaring it the best overall.

Matthew: Visual effects ran the gamut. The badlands effect was just OK, but the wave impact was pretty good, especially when it sent the ship listing and crooked. The Caretaker array looks good, and its energy effect to the planet was competent. I like the new transporter effect with the "separating highlights." The Kazon ship was an OK design, but kind of lacked in terms of scale and detail. I couldn't tell how big it was supposed to be. Visible engines or windows may have helped. The Maquis ship looked nice. The Ocampa planet was a good mix of locations and visual effects, with animated mattes and video screens. It looked pretty good and not too much like a real office building. The farm house was competent, and the desert had a good look. The water vats, however, had obvious spigots that were supposed to be holes caused by phaser fire.

Kevin: The badlands were very 90s CGI. I was able to catch the same background on the Ocampa causeway going behind the characters several times in the same conversation, which was a bit of a giveaway that they were using an office building. The Kazon ships never did anything for me, much like the Kazon themselves. I was also not the biggest fan of the "type 3" phaser rifles. They lacked the streamlined elegance of the TNG phaser rifle. And lastly, Kes' wig is awful.

Conclusion

Matthew: What does a pilot need to do? It needs to introduce characters, it needs to set up the premise of the show, and it needs to be a good story in its own right. Both of our previous TNG-era pilot shows have more or less succeeded at this, with TNG being weak perhaps in the pacing of the story and DS9 being a bit weak on the character end. I think Voyager may have the most successful pilot out of the box, with only a few flaws in storytelling. It nails the characters, making them instantly warm, interesting, and relatable. It certainly sets up the premise of the show, stranding the crew in a distant area of the galaxy that plays by different rules.I think the Kazon were a weak villain, and the nuts and bolts of the stranding were just a tad questionable. The actors came to play from the outset, with several standout performers. The sets and visual effects were at the best level in the franchise thus far. Overall, despite any story flaws, this is a really successful show, and I think it's in the upper quartile of trek, for a 4.

Kevin: I certainly wanted to see more of Voyager after this episode, and the character interactions are top notch. The set up of the stranding is a little weak, and it causes the middle third of the episode to drag a little. There's a lot to like here, and I will get to my problems with Voyager as a whole once they present themselves. Taking this episode on its own, this is very good and really interesting. I agree with the 4 for a total of 8.

Podcast


2 comments:

  1. I totally forgot to mention Stadi in my review. I thought the actress was great and they did a great job of casting someone who looks vaguely like Marina Sirtis. They totally should not have killed her off. She would have been a great recurring character, cause then Paris could get time at the helm but always be competing with her for it.

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  2. I thought Paris' background as described here was pretty close to Locarno's story. I mean come on, a pilot error, a flight accident, he falsified the reports, took him a while to admit it, he came forward, people died. he got kicked out of starfleet. It's got all but Locarno's name on it.

    I really wish it had been Locarno - it would have made perfect sense and the continuity would have been beautiful.

    I dont understand the copyright stuff about having to pay the writer who created Locarno royalties everytime. I thought the writing and direction is dictated by the show runner and staff writers fill in, not that they set the tone or can claim copyright. So why would a staff writer for one of the Trek episodes hold copyright over every single word or name or character or concept used in that particular episode? If that was the case, a serious mess would ensure across the industry. No one would ever get anything done or would bother with continuity out of fear that someone at some point may step in and claim copyright on a word or thought or concept or even name. That just doesnt make sense to me. Which is why I think the other theory, namely that Locarno was not picked because the writers thought his character was not redeemable makes more sense to me. At least more so than the copyright thing.

    Personally ,I didnt find Locarno irredeemable. On the contrary. in First Duty he did take the fall for his team mates and just didnt seem like a devious asshole. So if this is really the reason they did not use him in Voyager, then it is a lame one because his character was plenty redeemable.

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