The Trek franchise expands into its second post-Roddenberry series with Voyager. It was in some ways a departure from what has come before, with a female captain and a completely different setting than the previous series. In other ways, it might be seen as a return to form, with less serialization and stories much more focused on new civilizations and strange new worlds.
OK, now give us... "Le Tigre!"
All you Voyager haters on the internet can stick this in your pipes and smoke it: Voyager is good. I don't think Kevin and I are some sort of milquetoast easy graders. We've given several entire seasons of this thing we love below average ratings. We're critical and thorough when something stinks, and we represent at least a certain level of diversity of opinion (albeit not diametrically opposed opinion), finding different things compelling.
So let's just accept it. Voyager is good. We can discuss why people hate it another time. I'd rather try to analyze why, at least in this first season, it has succeeded.
Casting is, I think, first and foremost here. Maybe it's the fact that they have 8 seasons of television under their belts, but it seems clear that the Star Trek company of creators and producers have become good at determining who will fit in. They axed a terrific actress, Genevieve Bujold, because the fit was wrong, and chose Kate Mulgrew instead. She was a complete and total resounding success. She perfectly embodies the heroism of the Starfleet ideal, all while being a compelling emotional presence and realistic, three-dimensional woman. I think Mulgrew hits the ground running faster than any actor in the center seat since William Shatner - Stewart took a season or so to really get comfortable in the role, Brooks perhaps a bit longer.
We've also sung the praises of Roxann Biggs-Dawson, and I think beyond her very good set of performances here, it needs to be said how impressive it is that two such well-rounded female characters are anchoring a major television show, neither of whom are romantically involved with anyone. Robert Duncan McNeill is terrific as a redemption-seeking Tom Paris, and Tim Russ is the first actor to play a Vulcan who seems even close to as natural at it as Leonard Nimoy. Am I being too effusive here? I think not. Robert Picardo is instantly perfect in the role of the Doctor, providing much needed comic relief. Some actors will take longer to find their legs on the show, but none of them are bad.
Jeri Taylor deserves a bolded bullet point all her own, but I would be remiss not to praise the whole creative staff. It is clear from her prequel novels that Taylor is one of, if not the, driving force behind making the Voyager characters so three dimensional. They each have flaws, but they each have qualities that draw us into their lives, and have us rooting for them to succeed. I care as much or more about Voyager's cast of characters than I do those of any other Trek series. But let's not give her all the credit. Berman, Braga and Piller each did their parts in creating a fertile setup and keeping the tone of the show solid and consistent from the outset. Both TNG and DS9 suffered from some wild fluctuations in their initial seasons, but Voyager does not. The tone and the themes of season one would fit just as well in season seven.
Production Values often get short shrift in our reviews, because it can be difficult to find a dozen ways to say "it looked nice." But the same praise of story, theme and tone above applies even moreso to the show's audio-visual aspects. The models, the sets, the costumes, and the visual effects are all at an extremely high level. I for one remember feeling, basically instantly, that this was a real place that was totally cool, a place I wanted to visit every week. This show definitely was the successor to TNG in this regard. TNG was off the air, the place I wanted to live. Voyager was a pretty able replacement, unlike the tonally very different DS9.
OK, I've been fulsome in my praise, but I will not soft pedal some of Voyager's glaring flaws, which are easily evident this early.
The first is a distressing reliance on technobabble problems and technobabble solutions. Several episodes rely on a key piece of equipment breaking, malfunctioning, losing power, needing fuel, and so on. These stories tend to lack the narrative punch of those that are focused on character growth and clashes of ideals.
The second is the "alien/anomaly of the week" issue. Several stories have focused on an anomaly threatening the ship, or on a particular alien culture. This is not to say that such episodes can't have value, indeed some are quite good. But they always run the risk, if the anomaly or the culture isn't interesting enough, of rendering the 45 minutes of episode we're watching boring. The Kazon are one such alien culture, and they would have been lame enough in just one episode - we are unfortunately doomed to see 15 episodes featuring them. The Vidiians, on the other hand, will see less than half that number. To some extent, the very structure of the show (unidirectional journey) does one of two things - makes it unbelievable that we keep seeing a particular villain (just how big is Kazon space anyway?), or makes it a certainty that potentially interesting villains will be prohibited from recurring too frequently. It's a real catch-22, and I think it will come back to bite the series.
All in all, though, I am very pleasantly surprised by how consistently good and entertaining this season has been. It feels good to be vindicated in a fervently held belief. For my part, what I've seen includes very good characterization, some interesting ethical conflicts, and some solid sci-fi execution. Voyager is good, and those who hate it, well, either they haven't really given it a chance or they have drastically different priorities than I do.
I will say I was surprised by how high season one for Voyager came in, but I will also say that my problems with Voyager aren't with its first season. Whenever asked to summarize my problems with the series, it tends to boil down to the overuse of the galactic reset button and what they did to the Borg, and those haven't happened yet. Beyond that, I just think the show never really mined the concept for as much as it was worth, either as a Federation starship cut off from material support or the combining of two different crews. The show largely forgets both these problems after this season. I continue to think those are valid criticisms of the series, but it would be unfair to punish season one for seasons two through seven may or may not do.
Matt mentions the tonal differences of DS9, but that was always something I liked the show for, even in the dark early days. I really liked seeing them stretch the Trek story, even if they weren't always successful. As much as the show may seem like an eighth season of TNG in terms of tone and production quality, that's not going to be enough for me over the long haul. It can't be enough to just keep doing a show for the sake of doing it. My criticism of Voyager not mining the stranded story or the Maquis crew enough is that it sets up a concept to separate it from TNG, but then doesn't pay it off. As much as I love TNG, even at the same quality, too many more seasons of exactly the same would eventually wear thin.
But all this is really a discussion for later seasons. Taking this season for itself, there is a lot to like. Characters like Janeway and B'Elanna shine from the word go. More than TNG or DS9, the basics of the show are established early and permanently, and that is certainly marks in the show's favor. I didn't respond to Paris or Tuvok's characters as much as I responded to other characters on Voyager or the other series, but especially analyzing Russ' performance more critically, they were certainly well done.
One opinion that really hasn't changed that much is finding Neelix really annoying. Jetrel and one scene on Learning Curve presage a slightly more rounded character, but the one we got here is grating and almost laughably useless. That plus the creepy jealousy with Kes really turned me off of him early on. I agree with the other criticisms Matt points out about the alien/anamoly/technobabble of the week problem and the fact that the Kazon aren't a very good enemy.
Matthew: "Caretaker" gives us everything we need in a pilot in terms of setup, sci-fi, and character creation, and tells at least one excellent and satisfying character growth story in that of Tom Paris (the Janeway/Tuvok scenes deserve special mention as well).
"Phage" is a great sci-fi story told extremely well. It takes a concept current to the world of the 90s, a debilitating and incurable disease, and asks tough questions about the society dealing with it. The horror aspects of stealing organs and grafting them onto the thieves is the icing on the cake. Janeway gets a great chance to show both her empathy and her toughness.
"Ex Post Facto" is a film noir investigation meets Agatha Christie mystery, and a good sci-fi hook. What if the victim's last memories could be used as both testimony and punishment for the crime?
"Jetrel" lets us examine the ethical and emotional questions behind a dark incident in our own past, the atomic bombing of the Japanese during World War II. It also gives the Neelix character a rare chance to shine. Add one of the best guest stars in Trek history, and you have sure-fire winner.
Kevin: I liked "Faces" a great deal. It has a few significant issues, but overall, I think the science fiction elements and the character growth for a main character are pretty damn good.
Matthew: "Cathexis" features a villain so uninteresting that they never show up, are completely inexplicable, and are flushed from the viewer's memory as soon as the episode is complete - and not in a cool sci-fi way, either.
"The Cloud" features an anomaly of the week that lacks originality, being a retread of a past show. Then, the show introduces a subplot, Chez Sandrine, which completely contravenes the basic idea of the anomaly, that Voyager lacks energy. It's a mess.
Kevin: I almost hate to mention it, because the Doctor was fun in it, but "Heroes and Demons" lacks enough story elements to justify the outing.
Matthew: You the readers have not been privy to the extensive discussions Kevin and I have had regarding Voyager, why he thinks it sucks just a bit, and why I think it doesn't. I call Kevin's attention to the preceding charts and graphs, in which we arrive at the same rating. I also ask all of you to imagine the trademark laughter of Nelson Muntz.
Kevin: My argument has never been that the idea had no potential or was an unmitigated disaster. As I said above, my problems with Voyager are with the series taken as a whole and where and how it fails to payoff on this season. I remember liking this well enough when I watched it. That being said, several of the threes we gave out came with the explicit caveat that we will not like some element later in the series, but won't penalize the instant episode for the future problems. A more concise summary of this season in relation to the series as a whole could not be written.
Something I found interesting is where this season falls in relation to other seasons. It is better than season 7, but not as good as season 6 of TNG. Thinking of this season as a whole, that sounds about right. It is as good as the TNG I just stopped watching, but doesn't reach the heights of TNG's glory days.
Matthew: Voyager filled a void for me after TNG left the air. It was stylistically similar enough, yet different in setting and character, such that I enjoyed it all the way through. Season One gets it off to a rip roaring start. There will be a few bumps along the way, bumps whose origins are evident in these first 15 shows. But the characters remain strong throughout, and there is always enough solid sci-fi to keep the interest of even the most die-hard Trekkie, as long as they approach it with an open mind.
Kevin: Whatever else comes later, I agree that this is a solid season, even more than solid. That's an achievement especially given the rocky first seasons of TNG and DS9. I disagree slightly with the appellation "rip roaring," but it's still good, and I definitely wanted to see season 2.