Our reviews of Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two (published September 27th, 2004), Star Trek: Voyager, Season Three (published August 30th, 2004), Star Trek: Voyager, Season Four (published November 17th, 2004), Star Trek: Voyager, Season Five (published November 24th, 2004), Star Trek: Voyager, Season Six (published January 12th, 2005), and Star Trek: Voyager, Season Seven (published February 2nd, 2005) are also available.
"Seems I've found myself on the voyage of the damned."—The Doctor, "Time and Again"
By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation finished its seven-year run, with sister series Deep Space Nine already in full swing, the popularity of the Trek franchise was at an all-time high. Buoyed by The Next Generation's success, and looking to create a successor to keep the Trek factory humming, executive producer Rick Berman got together with TNG producers Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor to create a brand new series: Star Trek: Voyager.
Voyager began life with what was, in terms of Trek history, an ambitious mission—to leave the established Star Trek universe behind and wipe the proverbial slate clean by setting the series in a distant part of the galaxy, tens of thousands of light years away from the Federation. Not only would this provide the series with built-in closure—the journey home to Earth—but by placing the U.S.S. Voyager in completely uncharted space, Voyager would recapture the spirit of the original Star Trek series, drawing the focus away from the interplanetary politics that was DS9's métier and back to Star Trek's fundamental themes of exploration and discovery.
For a show that seemed to have everything going for it, Voyager was beset with controversy from its very inception. As odd as this may sound today, ten years ago the notion of a Star Trek series revolving around a female (gasp!) captain stirred a few waves in the famously male-dominated ranks of Trek fandom. Charges of "political correctness" abounded, and compounded with the introduction of Tuvok, a Vulcan character played by African-American actor Tim Russ, part of a racially diverse cast including Garrett Wang (Ensign Harry Kim), Robert Beltran (Commander Chakotay), and Roxann Dawson (Lt. B'Elanna Torres).
Once the series began airing in January of 1995, fan response to Voyager quickly polarized, with a sizable portion of the Star Trek nation rejecting Voyager as "TNG Lite" and a misguided rehash of earlier Trek incarnations. Though Voyager hung on through seven seasons, and was more warmly received outside of hardcore Trek fandom (it has been referred to as Star Trek for people who don't like Star Trek), the series never caught on the way TNG had, and for most of its run suffered a steady stream of criticisms from viewers who pointed out the episodes' numerous plot holes, continuity gaffes, and instances of lazy or poor writing. It seemed Voyager could do nothing right, with each attempt to placate the fans (such as the later seasons' increasing focus on the ever-popular Borg, and the introduction of ex-Borg bombshell Seven of Nine) seeming to provoke fresh waves of disdain. (One has to wonder why so many fans apparently tuned in each and every week while professing to hate the show.)
Nearly three years after the final Voyager episode, Star Trek: Voyager, Season One comes to DVD in a five-disc set featuring all fifteen episodes of the first season, giving fans a chance to revisit the series and give it a fresh viewing. Was Voyager really as awful as its detractors insisted? Or is it, in fact, a worthy member of the Star Trek family?
Facts of the Case
"You can't care a great deal about your crew and introduce them to the spectre of death at every opportunity!"—Neelix, "The Cloud"
Leaving the safe confines of the Federation and the Alpha Quadrant far, far behind, Star Trek: Voyager ventured further into the final frontier than any Trek series to date, all the way to the other side of the galaxy. With a premise that recalls both Battlestar Galactica and (rather less fortunately) Lost in Space, Voyager wasted little time getting its crew stranded so that the journey could begin. The main crew roster includes Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), the tough but nurturing captain of the U.S.S. Voyager; first officer Chakotay (Beltran), a Native American and former Maquis leader; Tuvok (Russ), Voyager's security chief and Janeway's longtime confidant; B'Elanna Torres (Dawson), Chief Engineer on Voyager and also a former Maquis; the Emergency Medical Holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo), or "The Doctor" for short, Trek's first holographic regular character; naïve greenhorn Harry Kim (Wang); and bad-boy pilot Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill). Rounding out the cast in this first season are Ethan Phillips as Neelix, the irrepressible Talaxian cook and morale officer; and Kes (Jennifer Lien), the waifish and mysterious Ocampan who tags along for the ride.
The fifteen episodes of the first season (truncated because the show debuted in January and a few first-season episodes were held over for Season Two) are spread across four discs, with a fifth disc reserved for bonus features.
"Time and Again"
"Eye of the Needle"
"Ex Post Facto"
"State of Flux"
"Heroes and Demons"
"This ship is the match of any vessel within 100 light years, and what do they do? 'Uh, well, uh, let's see if we can't find some space anomaly today that might rip it apart'!"—Neelix, "The Cloud"
Star Trek: Voyager is one of those maddening series that is just good enough to be disappointing that it isn't better. Like many Trek fans back in 1995, I had high hopes for the show and was excited by its enormous potential to shake up what was, even ten years ago, a franchise that was showing some wear. The notion of a Federation starship alone in an uncharted region of the galaxy, on a desperate mission to make it back home, promised unlimited possibilities. Freed from the constraints of an established universe, Voyager could go where no Trek had gone before; one could imagine epic storylines with a ship and crew that could build its own identity, its own rules, outside the boundaries of Starfleet. What would this crew be like, seven years down the line? How would the combination of desperation and limitless freedom shape these characters?
Needless to say, the series never made the most of that freedom, but it didn't entirely squander the opportunity, either. Without the need to fit its stories into existing continuity, and away from the Starfleet chain of command that so often made TNG's Enterprise feel more like a corporate entity than a vessel of exploration, Voyager was free to explore social and ethical issues to a degree the other series couldn't match; since Captain Janeway had no means of running her decisions past Starfleet Command, she was placed in the unique position of acting as final arbiter in the many moral quandaries that faced the crew. This made for some thought-provoking, suspenseful stories, and numerous opportunities for characters to make tough choices—sometimes correct, sometimes disastrous—that are the heart of drama.
For all that Voyager did wrong during its run, it also did quite a few things right, beginning with the character of Kathryn Janeway, my favorite Star Trek captain (next to Kirk, of course). Janeway was a rarity in science fiction television—a female character who wasn't either a sex-kitten bimbo or a cast-iron bitch. Instead, as played by Kate Mulgrew, Janeway is a strong but nurturing leader who is fiercely loyal to her crew, a very human captain who is firmly in command of her ship yet never too remote to show warmth or vulnerability to her subordinates.
As for the rest of the Voyager cast, I found this crew to be among the most appealing of any Trek series. TNG was a terrific show in its own right, but let's face it, aside from Picard, Worf, and Data, the Enterprise crew was about as charismatic as the IT department at a large credit union. That series struggled constantly to come up with interesting stories for its cheerfully bland secondary characters—a problem that plagues the similarly bloodless Next Generation feature films—and rarely generated much heat. Voyager does much better in this regard; compare the half-Klingon, half-human B'Elanna Torres, a fiery-tempered engineering whiz with a rebellious streak, with TNG's resident dorkwad Geordi LaForge. Sorry, but B'Elanna's got chunks of guys like Geordi in her stool. Or compare Tuvok's ultra-dry, sardonic Vulcan wit with annoyingly earnest Data. And Voyager's ship's doctor, the perpetually annoyed EMH played to acidic perfection by Robert Picardo, is one of the best characters Star Trek has ever produced.
Voyager also benefits from one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores, a sweeping, melancholy theme that captures the loneliness and yearning for home that lies at the heart of the series. Production values are consistently high, with some terrific visual effects work by Foundation Imaging and an engaging, energetic visual style, albeit less apparent in this first season than in later years.
On DVD, Voyager is probably the best-looking of all the series so far, with a gorgeous transfer boasting impressive clarity and bold, vivid colors. As with previous Trek outings, darker scenes do look a little grainy, but overall the image quality is terrific, as good as or better than I remember from the original broadcasts. The audio quality is even better, with Voyager getting a Dolby Digital 5.1 makeover with a dynamic surround mix, most noticeable when it comes to ambient sounds (such as the starship's background rumble), action scenes, and starship flybys. The original 2.0 Surround track is also included, but pales by comparison.
A word on packaging: the love/hate relationship Trek fans have with this show is likely to extend to the Voyager box set itself, with a, shall we say, innovative package consisting of a transparent Day-Glo orange plastic case inside two clear plastic outer pieces that you have to lift off to get to the discs. The discs themselves are bare silver, with subtle printing indicating the series/episode titles and other information. The effect is rather stylish—this is the best-looking of the Star Trek box sets—with a cool, minimalist look that visually echoes the kind of transparent-plastic doodads you always see engineers fiddling around with on Trek series. Personally, I much prefer plastic packaging to cardboard, which is too easily damaged and shows its age poorly, and I find fold-out sets annoying when there are more then three discs in the set, so I like this packaging, although admittedly the discs are difficult to read, and the "naked" presentation makes it too easy to get the top disc dirty.
On the discs themselves, the menus are sharpened up a bit from previous Trek releases, but still basically the same-old, same-old. One extremely welcome innovation for these sets is that Paramount finally has organized chapter stops so that you can skip past the opening credits directly to the first scene. Star Trek is about nothing if not progress. Bravo.
Now to the extras. Since there are only fifteen episodes in this set, there had better be a slew of bonus features, and indeed, there's quite a bit of additional material. Unfortunately, there are still no episode commentaries—a glaring omission given the history and vast subculture that is Star Trek—but this is par for the course for Trek releases. (Let's hope the upcoming TOS season boxes rectify this oversight—if there's a Trek show that demands cast and crew commentaries, it's the original series.) The Voyager set offers eight behind-the-scenes featurettes, a photo gallery, and the usual set of Easter eggs (I counted five). Since the Easter eggs aren't that different from the featurettes, I don't know why Paramount hides them this way, but whatever.
"Braving the Unknown: Season One" covers the development of the show, and features Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Taylor offering their stories on Voyager's inception. It's an informative featurette, but not especially detailed, and suffers from the absence of Brannon Braga, who was such a dominant influence on the series.
"Voyager Time Capsule: Kathryn Janeway" has Kate Mulgrew, in both newly-recorded and older interviews, talking about her auditions—audition footage is included—her feelings about Star Trek and its importance in her life and career, and a little plug for her Katharine Hepburn play Tea at Five. Mulgrew seems genuinely grateful and affectionate toward Voyager, and indicates that she's eager to play Janeway again if the opportunity comes up.
"The First Captain: Bujold" is what hardcore Voyager fans have always wanted to see: a glimpse of the original Janeway, as played by French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold (Dead Ringers, Tightrope). Bujold, originally cast over Mulgrew for the part, only lasted a couple of days in production before…well, stories differ as to whether Bujold walked away or was pushed, but I for one have always admired Bujold's acting and have always been curious to know how she fared as a starship captain, and how Voyager would have been different had she stayed on. Having finally seen Bujold's Janeway in action, all I can say is, thank God she left! While Bujold isn't entirely horrible in the role, her delivery is stiff and oddly detached. There isn't a shred of warmth in her mannered performance, and her take on Janeway is ponderous and dry—my guess is that she was modeling herself after Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard, affecting a similarly dignified, slightly regal demeanor. Again, it's not a bad performance per se, just wrong for Voyager. Fortunately, there's a wealth of footage included, with an entire scene from "Caretaker" pieced together, and additional commentary from (a carefully neutral) Rick Berman, so fans can make up their own minds as to who's the better Janeway. Berman doesn't say exactly why Bujold left, but this footage strongly suggests that it became obvious that Bujold wasn't working out.
"Cast Reflections: Season One" consists of interview snippets with various members of the cast at around the time of Voyager's series finale. DS9's Armin Shimerman also makes an appearance, talking briefly about his cameo role in the series pilot.
"Red Alert: Visual Effects, Season One" is a short (10 min.) but fascinating in-depth feature on the show's visual effects, including footage of the Voyager and other starship models, and demonstrations of the pyrotechnic effects.
"Real Science with Andre Bormanis" offers an interview with Bormanis, the science consultant for Voyager (currently writing for Star Trek: Enterprise) and presumably the man responsible for the show's often impenetrable stream of technobabble. While Bormanis seems largely unrepentant for his role in one of Trek's most-derided elements, he does have some interesting things to say about how fact blends with fiction to heighten the show's dramatic impact.
"Launching Voyager on the Web" has StarTrek.com webmaster Marc Wade taking viewers through the original Voyager web site. Seeing what was, in 1995, a cutting-edge web site—but which now looks a little quaint—is a fun trip down nostalgia lane.
"On Location with the Kazon" is merely a few minutes of on-location footage from the filming of "Caretaker," and I'm not sure why this was presented as its own featurette, but it's a diverting enough peek behind the scenes at Star Trek's version of the Hell's Angels.
Rounding out the extras are the requisite photo gallery (are there people out there who actually care deeply about the inclusion of this feature on DVDs?) and, of course, Easter eggs aplenty. While the hidden material isn't special enough to really warrant the "Section 31" treatment, it's pretty interesting, ranging from some insights from Mulgrew into a crucial scene from "Caretaker," to Brannon Braga surfacing to talk about "Phage" and Janeway's character, to an amusing anecdote from Piller concerning Janeway's hairstyle.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Get the cheese to sickbay!"—Torres, "Learning Curve"
The main problem with Voyager isn't so much that it's a bad show—truthfully, it's about on a par with TNG in most respects, though better in some aspects and worse in others—as that it failed to live up to its potential. The story of Voyager is a story of lost opportunities; the show had a tendency to introduce fascinating plot elements—such as the Maquis-Starfleet friction within Voyager's crew—only to quickly iron them out and dismiss them. You only have to look at DS9's epic conflicts between the Bajorans and Cardassians to see how much narrative gold could be spun from the tensions between opposing groups thrown together, yet Voyager did next to nothing with the possibility of an ongoing struggle between the ship's Maquis and Starfleet crew members. Why even introduce this element if the series was never going to explore it? Other potentially fruitful storylines, such as this season's clash between Torres and Lt. Carey, were introduced only to be forgotten.
The series also wimped out in dealing with the potentially fascinating challenges inherent in being a Starfleet ship stranded half a galaxy away from Starfleet. The infamous "disposable shuttles" perfectly exemplify this weakness—instead of making repair and supply problems a major factor in the series development, it was never used as much more than a plot device and ongoing irritation. Voyager could be practically destroyed in one episode, merely to be magically regenerated in the next. Over the course of the series, the dreaded "reset button" was hit far too many times, further wasting a valuable opportunity to explore multi-episode or season-length arcs the way DS9 did. (Having said that, it is to Voyager's credit that it did do a pretty good job in that direction now and then, especially in later seasons.) Numerous lapses in continuity and story logic—not to mention the constant flood of technobabble—also hampered numerous episodes.
Most depressing is the fact that, all too often, Voyager fails in its promise to explore new alien races and stories that TNG and DS9 couldn't tell. "Ex Post Facto" is only the most egregious offender in this regard, giving us aliens that supposedly live 70,000 light years away from Earth yet dress like Earthlings and behave just like people on Earth. This was a major problem during Voyager's run; again, why send the ship across the galaxy only to give us aliens identical to those in the Alpha Quadrant? Sometimes, as with the photonic beings of "Heroes and Demons," we did get some truly different aliens, but too often they were right in line with Star Trek's endemic lack of imagination when it comes to creating alien species beyond the tired "forehead of the week" variety.
Failure of imagination and lazy writing too often kept Voyager from achieving what it set out to accomplish. Given its "clean slate" premise and completely open horizon, Voyager could have written its own story, but chose too often to rewrite the same stories we'd seen many times before.
"Why pretend we're going home at all, when all we're really going to do is investigate every cubic millimeter of this quadrant?"—The Doctor, "The Cloud"
Star Trek: Voyager embodies the best and worst of Star Trek in the era of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. Excellent production values, strong acting, and fascinating high-concept storylines keep fans coming back to the table, even as a basic lack of vision and nerve—motivated, no doubt, by a misguided need to water down Star Trek to make it more palatable to the mainstream viewer—prevents the series from realizing its potential. Torn between wanting to do something different and wanting to maintain the familiar tropes of Star Trek, Voyager too often falls somewhere in the middle, a mixed bag of original moments and familiar retreads. It's understandable that so many diehard Trekkers rejected the show, but looking back at this set of first-season episodes, it's hard to see what the fuss was about. Year One of Voyager is a solid, consistently watchable season that offers far more highs than lows.
Star Trek: Voyager, Season One is hereby sentenced to seven years of recalibrating the EPS manifolds and resonating the phase-modulated chronotons into the flux matrix.
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• "Braving the Unknown: Season One"
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