Season 4 saw some major changes in Voyager. Gone was one main cast member in Kes and new to the show was Seven of Nine. Episodes also took on a bit of a darker edge with a heavier emphasis on action. How did the show fare?
So much going on in this picture! Garrett Wang reveling in his "Hollywood's Sexiest Young People" magazine nod, Robert Beltran closing all the windows and shutting all the doors as he checks out for good, Roxann Dawson trying to hide something from the producers, Jeri Ryan trying not to pass out, Kate Mulgrew barely concealing her irritation... and Robert Duncan McNeill - what are you doing with your legs?
I remember being dubious of the changes when Voyager Season 4 hit the airwaves. My concerns were quickly quelled, though. Jeri Ryan was not just a pair of big boobs and a tight outfit - the woman can act at a very high level, and the writing rewarded her with interesting scripts and plenty of emotional development. Is Season 4 quite heavy on Seven of Nine stories? Sure. But at no point during this season (an important caveat) was I tired of it. They needed to establish her as a deep, interesting character, and they did so in spades. They gave her a credible origin which expanded continuity in not awful (but still questionable?) ways. It really makes you wonder what they might have done with Kes given a similar level of focus. Could the character have been made interesting? Could Jennifer Lien have acted up to the task? As with most counterfactuals, it's hard to say.
What we can say given the season we receive is that things are more focused, and they're more action-packed. Time was spent establishing new villains like the Hirogen. While not all the Hirogen episodes were successful, none of them were terrible, and overall the whole development of them felt purposeful.
Interestingly, the creative staff seemed to settle on the Janeway/Seven dynamic as the one to go to early in her character's introduction. Later, of course, we will see her paired with the Doctor just as much, if not more. But it was a good pairing, and just works on a lot of character levels. Having two women butt heads is a refreshing change, and showing us Seven as a rebellious adolescent-type character really worked.
My posts this season I hope have served as something of an apologia to Jeri Ryan. By initially dismissing her because she was an attractive blond woman, I was engaging in the very sexism I presumed the producers were engaging in when they cast her. In my mild defense, I was 15 and 15-year-old boys have loads of dumb ideas. Whatever sins I may tag on the writing later on, I cannot find them her. While relatively numerous proportionally, the episodes to fit together as an effective arc from drone to obstinate individual. Looking back, I can't help but think about Data's arc, and it's interesting to see one that focuses on the stubborn streak rather than the wide-eyed wonder of your average toddler.
The show has definitely gained confidence. Other secondary characters may get some short shrift this season, but regardless, everyone's character is pretty firmly set and a couple of characters get some good growth. B'Elanna's belligerence is shaded by her vulnerability, and the result is probably one of if not the most genuine romances depicted in Trek.
Looking over the scores and notes for this season, it really is driven home for me how often Janeway has been the center of a story for the last four years. The only characters that get nearly as much screen time are the Doctor and Seven. As much as we view the show as a kind of season 8 and on of TNG, the central dynamic of a captain on the frontier counseled by the humanitarian healer and the ruthless pragmatist rings much closer to TOS. If I ever get Brannon Braga in a room, after giving a firm 19th century duel-initiating slap for "These Are the Voyages...", I will ask him about that...
Matthew: "Living Witness" is one of my two favorite Voyager episodes, ever. So it's a shoe-in for a Season 4 highlight. It's got quintessential Trek elements and a good character story to boot. It's an allegory that works, in that it isn't too obvious and really engages the brain. It gives us a mirror-universe-like treatment of the crew, with the Kyrian interpretation of events 700 years gone by. And it gives us questions of historiography in doing so, making us question our own histories, and their utility in the world of today. A superb show.
"Message In A Bottle" pulls of a relatively rare Trek feat - featuring great comedy as well as good action and overall series plot development. It also seamlessly places Andy Dick into the Trek universe, which says a lot for both writing and acting.
"The Killing Game" is one I liked more than Kevin, but it's a lot of fun and I stand by it. The inventiveness of the plot, the fact that we've got Nazis as bad guys (always fun on Trek), and Seven of Nine as a lounge singer. Only a somewhat weak ending keeps this from the uppermost echelons of Trek episodes.
"Concerning Flight" lives by the strength of the chemistry between Mulgrew and Rhys-Davies. This stands as a pretty inventive use of the mobile emitter, and I really liked the notion of an arms dealer stealing Leonardo along with the computer core. It gave us an interesting look into Janeway's heroes and her scientific bent.
"Day of Honor" is, in the scheme of things, a pretty average episode. But it gives us perhaps Voyager's greatest contribution to Trek canon: a well developed, believable, non-creepy, romantic relationship between two adults. It pays off the considerable chemistry the two actors share on screen, truly develops their characters both individually and as a unit, and sets the stage for many good future stories concerning their bond.
I've gone on record as citing "Living Witness" as one of the best episodes of Voyager, and one of Voyager's best hopes for landing an episode in the top ten overall. It's just dripping with the things that made nerds in the 60s and the 80s keep tuning into this franchise. Aside from its Trekness, it does the thing all good drama should do, it gives every character big or small a credible internal motivation.
For similar reasons, "Year of Hell" stands out for me. Annorax has to be able to hold his own story and he does. It's also the darkest look at what Voyager's isolation really means. A comparison I have made before in Voyager is to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and I loved the first two and a half seaosns of that show and that's because it so awesomely explored what it must be to be a deep space ship on the verge of complete collapse at any time. and I wished Voyager had gone there more often than random references to MacGuffin elements needed to drive apparently both the ship and the episode's plot. The villain is interesting and watching Mulgrew dance on the edge of turning into Ahab is super interesting.
I'll point to "Day of Honor" as an episode that I like more than its score indicates. I will always respond well to an interesting, layered woman face a hard truth about herself. And Dawson acted the hell out of it.
Matthew: "Nemesis" makes me want to close my glimpses and head to the gloried wayafter. Ugh, what a slog. It even has a good concept (battlefield brainwashing) and a fun twist (the monstrous aliens are the good guys). The unbearably twee "creative" dialogue just sinks it. Folks, there are ways to make aliens of the week interesting. Bashing us over the head with bizarre naming or language conventions isn't one of them. Just give them a rubber head, have them talk like humans, and make them actually interesting, for f's sake.
"Revulsion" fails to ask or answer any of the potentially interesting questions its plot allows for. How and why did this holographic personality become psychotic? What is the nature of its sentience, and what does that sentience mean for the respect we owe it, and what respect it owes us? Does the Doctor learn anything about himself? A grating, irritating performance by the guest actor sealed the deal on this stinker.
I really can't stand "Nemesis," just on the grounds of a person who enjoys language and interesting applications of language, so all the weird double speak just grates on my soul. Sidenote: Speaking of interesting and unexpected applications of language, I saw Hamilton this weekend and you should absolutely go see it if at all possible. Mortgage your home. Sell your car. It's worth it. It's so good that I'm not even bothering to attempt to thematic tie in to Star Trek. It's just awesome. And honestly, it's more fun to discuss Hamilton than Nemesis.
"Demon" just missed the mark on several vectors. The need for deuterium is the worst of the MacGuffin elements and all the really interesting implications of the silver people are skipped over. Meh.
"Vis a Vis" just feels like they expected MacNeil's charisma to carry an episode, but the result was a tedious slog where everyone has to be stupid to make any of the plot elements move forward.
Matthew: So, using TNG as a benchmark, this season seems to be somewhere between Seasons 2 and 6 as far as quality. Not as good as 3-4-5, better than 1-7. Which, not to pat ourselves on the back (nooooo.....), sounds about right. Season 4 is really solidly good, with a few highlights and lowlights, but a lot of creamy middles. I think it's fair to say that the addition of Seven of Nine has lent a bit of focus to the stories being told, and the greater emphasis on action villains such as the Hirogen or Species 8472 has lent some entertainment value. The back half of the season is particularly consistent, which leads me to believe that some of the early scripts were holdovers from prior seasons (e.g. Nemesis, Revulsion, ugh), while back half shows were written specifically with the new crew dynamic in mind. Happily, in my estimation, there is still a good amount of science fiction afoot, too.
Kevin: I think the season definitely has a the most highs of the series, four tens. Last season never cracked a nine. The key difference between this and the heights of TNG I think is consistency. I think in the best of TNG, an episode like "Day of Honor," a solid, character driven episode was the baseline, maybe even the low end of it. We didn't give out any 1s, but we gave out almost as many 2s as last season. There's a stretch through "Revulsion" and "Nemesis" that just sticks out as a bit of a let down after the opening of the season.
Matthew: Every show seems to have a season in which it definitively hits its stride. Season One started out really strong but probably benefited from early momentum, new stories, and a shortened schedule. Things meandered and got steadily worse for two seasons of interminable Kazon stories. But Season 4 returns to the steady success of the first season and even busts out a few classics. Those who stuck it out were rewarded, I think, with such consistency and entertainment value in the following seasons as well. It took its sweet time, but Voyager has arrived.
Kevin: I agree that this is the best season of Voyager so far, by a fair margin. I agree that this places in the solid middle but not best of TNG, but hey, if I made a TV show as good as season 7 of TNG, I would be extremely proud of myself. If I didn't know what was coming next (i.e. a hyper-reliance on the Borg) I would be pretty excited about what's coming. And to be fair, the complaint I have pre-loaded for the next season is that we get too much of the Seven/Janeway stuff, but given how successful it was this season, I can't say that was an insane jumping off point.