Voyage(r) Over

I started watching Star Trek: Voyager, starting with its pilot, two years ago on April 8, 2004 (no, I didn't memorize the date; I looked it up on Netflix). This Saturday, I finished the saga (meaning I can now start all over again!). Following are my overall reactions to the show and my specific reactions to the finale.

Overall, I think the show is the most consistent of the Star Treks in terms of writing. It has few "classics" on the order of "The City on the Edge of Forever" (from Star Trek: Original) or "Sarek" (from Star Trek: Next Generation), but the overall writing is consistently high and seems to entail much more thought than many Next Generation episodes. I have compared Next Generation episodes to old, old stories being told in a science-fiction setting--hence, the mythic and implausible, if delightful, nature of Next Gen plots. Voyager's episodes are more about character interactions or "what ifs" (for instance, what if we contacted a planet that underwent its entire history while we watched).

Of course, the problem with such stories is that while it is possible to lay out a myth in under sixty minutes, it is very difficult to do the same thing with a character or what-if plotline. Voyager episodes tend to aim for complexity, bringing up all the variables and problems of an issue, and then, oops, only got ten minutes left, falling back on a deus ex machina after all. Consequently, as I have often maintained, Star Trek: Voyager has some of the best 2-parters in all of Star Trek history, since in the 2-parters, the writers can work out all the variables and problems without the easy short-cut. ("The Killing Game" is a great example.)

Now, one solution to the deus ex machina resolution is the Babylon 5 approach where you have endlessly complicated and ongoing plot lines. But that sort of thing makes me tired, so I'm glad that, overall, Voyager avoided it.

On the other hand, as Eugene points out, "[O]n Voyager, a few episodes after supposedly going through a . . . cataclysmic confrontation, it's like somebody's rich uncle showed up with a platoon of lawyers, handed out wads of cash, hauled the vehicles off to the body shop, and made the accident 'go away.' Presto chango. The next day you'd hardly known it happened. A good day's work for the insurance company, but bad day for storytelling." This is, I agree, one of the weirdest things about Voyager. One of the best 2-parters is "Year of Hell" (with the multi-talented Kurtwood Smith--That 70's Show). It is a very dark, very gripping episode which explores the problem of time manipulation. Kurtwood Smith's character keeps trying to change single events in the past, hoping that each single event will change his own time period back to the way he wants it. It doesn't work, of course--each change alters the universe in various ways, but he can never recreate the exact conditions he is hoping for. It's a great episode: Kurtwood Smith's character is very much the flawed Ahab beloved by Star Trek writers; as a by-product of "Ahab's" choices, Voyager is caught up in these (mostly negative) alterations and is practically destroyed.

And then, oops, our two hours are almost up, so someone flicks a switch and Voyager is back to its usual self, all clean and new and pretty again.

Now, granted "Year of Hell" was one of those back-to-the-future-we-can-pretend-it-didn't-happen episodes, but the new and improved Voyager shows up even after battle-intensive shows that don't involve time-manipulation. And I always wonder, "Who are the planets that keep repairing this ship?" and "Will they send the bill to Starfleet?"

I think Voyager could have afforded to look a *little* damaged--one of the things I like about Deep Space Nine is O'Brian's constant struggle to keep the station from exploding, especially as he stumbles across Cardassian booby-traps (a great Deep Space Nine episode is when a Cardassian booby-trap goes off, Gul Dukat shows up to gloat and then can't leave the station.)

On to Voyager's finale--when I first saw the finale, I was disappointed. I thought the beginning was very smart (start with the end!) but the end of the episode has none of the gentle sentimentality of "All Good Things" (Next Generation). (I demand sentimentality at certain times.) I also remembered the episode as a cop-out. I don't mind time-manipulation episodes for fun, but I hate having the denouement, the final achievement, rely on time-manipulation.

After seeing the finale again, I have to qualify my initial reactions (to a point). First of all, time travel is an ongoing theme of Voyager (what with the Federation "Timeship" chasing them all 7 seasons). Also, the Borg was Voyager's primary enemy (and such a useful one!). And Janeway's regret over stranding her crew in the Delta Quadrant is, while not a recurring theme, a returning issue (meaning, it crops up when the writers want it to). The finale dealt with all these things. It also dealt with what I think is the true theme of the show: Voyager retains its standards even though it is far from home. Yes, yes, in practical human terms it seems highly unlikely that the ship would retain its crew or its culture. But this is the mythic aspect of the show, and, I think, one of its strengths. Janeway has to hold her crew together and hold them to an ideal without any backup (i.e. Starfleet breathing down her neck). There's an X-Files "The truth is out there" religious element to the whole thing, and it makes for a great theme.

And I think Janeway, as acted by Kate Mulgrew, plays up to this theme very well. The underlying problem, of course, is that while it's fine for God to expect everyone to hold themselves to a standard, it's much less fine when a flawed human does it, and people tend to resent the flawed human in spades. By necessity, Janeway's command style was more in line with the demi-god nature of Star Trek's Original captains than with the administrative, diplomatic nature of Next Generation's captains. Yet I also thought it within character for Janeway's older self to regret the choices she had made. And I thought it within character for her younger self to stick to the rightness of those decisions.

But I sure wish the writers had emphasized all this. The idea--that it isn't worth getting home unless Voyager can get home with integrity--is there in the finale, but it is bypassed rather quickly for the sake of all the other stuff. And the other stuff isn't even the Borg! The finale focuses a lot on the Voyager crew in the future. I would have preferred more emphasis on the Voyager crew after they got home (the second time): Does 7 go see her aunt? Do Tom and B'Elanna maintain their relationship? Does the Doctor really decide to go with 'Joe' as his final name choice? More than anything, though, I would have liked them to focus on the problem of "What is more important? Getting home or how we get there?" I realize that some resolution was needed, but I kind of wish the episode had ended with Janeway making the same decision that had stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant in the first place--that is, I wish she had opted for the "Hey, if it takes us sixteen year, it takes us sixteen more years!" option. Thematically, I think that would have been great. It would have underscored the show's repeated claim (shown through the Doctor and 7-of-9) that life, despite suffering and risk, is worth being lived.

As I continue to mull the show over (and begin watching it again), I will probably have more blog posts. For now, as the good Doctor would say, "I must say there's nothing like the vacuum of space for preserving a handsome corpse."


1 comment:

mike cherniske said...

Perhaps my favorite Voyager episode of all time (most of my favorites,actually) focuses on the doctor. it's the one where he wakes up in a museum on an alien world almost a hundred years after voyager had visited. It was clever, had a great moral, and really explored how history can be manipulated to favor different parties. I also loved that it was a double flashback, in that it began with a crowd watching a video and ended with a crowd watching a video, thus showing you that everything you had seen, even the previous video, was in fact the latter video. Makes little sense when you explain it, but FUN to watch.

Voyager was fun, but it was rather conservative with the risks it took. Often the really great episodes ended with the time travel clean-up or the alternative universe explanation. The Episode that is mot guilty of this was the follow-up to "silver blood." it shows the crew finding a new warp drive and a shorter route home. but they soon discover that they are not the crew but clones of them. they knew this, but had forgotten (lame!). They do find the real voyager, but they never succeed in passing on their knowledge. It made for a depressing ending and I felt cheated out of an hour of TV. Why watch something if it has absolutely NO effect on the ongoing story????