Warning: This lengthy recap article contains plentiful spoilers for the
fifth season of "Star Trek: Voyager."
Nutshell: In terms of stand-alone episode quality, the show is about as
good as season four was. Looking at the bigger scheme of things, however,
I'm not nearly as optimistic.
Star Trek: Voyager -- Fifth Season Recap
Capsule Reviews & Season Analysis
For episodes airing from
10/14/1998 to 5/26/1999 (USA)
Series created by Rick Berman & Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor
Executive producers: Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
And, once again, here's the annual season-in-review article, which, in
keeping with my self-created cliche, is of course dubbed "the most
comprehensive Voyager review I'll write this year." Where have we gone?
Where are we going? What was that thing known as Voyager year five? Such
answers I will attempt to answer in the words below. As always, part one
has a brief (although maybe not brief enough) look at each episode; part
two has the general commentary.
PART 1: CAPSULE REVIEWS
"Night" -- Airdate: 10/14/1998. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky.
Directed by David Livingston.
Welcome to the era of Brannon Braga. Could you tell the difference? Well,
"Night" didn't scream anything new for good or ill. It contained a good
setup premise and many reasonable character elements; most notably was the
acknowledgement of the Voyager of yesteryear via Janeway's distress at
subjecting her crew to yet another emotional difficulty. The psychological
aspects of being alone in a completely dark, starless area of space were
especially creepy (this is one of few examples of Trek truly capturing the
feeling of deep, deep space). Alas, what didn't seem all that true to
character was Janeway shutting herself into seclusion because of guilt. The
episode became too derivative when Voyager was pulled into a conflict
between two alien races, including the Malon, who would eventually become
the aliens of the season, and a race of people who somehow evolved in an
area devoid of light (figure that one out). The end features a big
explosion and a Janeway tagline ("Time to take out the
garbage")--all-too-easy standbys. Overall, not bad, but certainly not a
fresh start to a season.
Rating out of 4: **1/2
"Drone" -- Airdate: 10/21/1998. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller and Brannon Braga
& Joe Menosky. Story by Bryan Fuller and Harry Doc Kloor. Directed by Les
The reason "Drone" works so well is because it has an intriguing central
character--an innocent Borg drone that Seven might be able to teach the
lessons of humanity. The show maintains a great sense of mystery and wonder
surrounding this bizarre but almost always pleasant Borg individual.
Implicitly, the show is a masterstroke of perspectives, as we can see the
possibility emerge that a Borg not influenced by the collective can come to
a vastly different set of conclusions and values--perhaps simply because he
has been "assimilated" by a culture with different goals and ideals. J.
Paul Boehmer turns is a remarkable performance as the drone, and Ryan gets
some standout moments, particularly in a heartfelt ending involving the
drone's noble sacrifice. These are the types of "nature of humanity" shows
that Trek has often been known for, and with "Drone" we get a classic
Voyager episode, and classic Trek.
"Extreme Risk" -- Airdate: 10/28/1998. Written by Kenneth Biller. Directed
by Cliff Bole.
On the other hand, "Extreme Risk" exemplifies a lot of Voyager's problems.
This is a character show about B'Elanna, which right there should've been
an immediate plus in my book. ("B'Elanna show" and "character study" when
combined in the same episode seems to me like a formula for success.)
Unfortunately, this episode fails because it simply isn't credible.
Suddenly we have B'Elanna thrust into a deep depression that is explained
by emotional circumstances--namely her learning of the slaughter of the
Maquis in the previous season's "Hunters"--which haven't been remotely
evident until now. There are some reasonable ideas, like the construction
of the Delta Flyer and most notably the powerful standout scene where
Chakotay confronts Torres on the holodeck about her problem, but they can't
save a show that otherwise comes off as unfairly and insincerely conjured.
The over-simplistic notion of Torres' problem being cured thanks to a
daring mission of importance and some banana pancakes shows precisely how
Voyager's adamant nature for doing single-shot stories--without any
believable lead-ins, consequences, or follow-ups--hurts the most.
"In the Flesh" -- Airdate: 11/4/1998. Written by Nick Sagan. Directed by
In true TOS fashion, "In the Flesh" offers us a competent lesson in the
value of trust. In this case, it's an attempt for humans and 8472s to put
aside their mutual fear of each other in the interests of peace. This is an
example of Trekkian themes about as unmistakable as they come. It feels
like a Cold War allegory more than anything else, but as I said in my
original review, the Cold War is over so the themes feel about a decade
late in their arrival. But that's okay, because the plot works on the
surface and gives Chakotay a rare turn as the lead. There's the argument
that this episode completely neutered 8472 as a useful enemy, but let's
face it: 8472 really had nowhere to go after "Scorpion, Part II" was over
(unless you wanted them to conquer the galaxy or have their attempted
takeover once again crushed by the lone starship Voyager). The logical
Trekkian solution--end hostilities and turn enemies into friends. Not the
newest idea ever conceived, but here it comes across reasonably.
"Once Upon a Time" -- Airdate: 11/11/1998. Written by Michael Taylor.
Directed by John Kretchmer.
Here's an example of oversimplistic routine storytelling. There are too
many cliches here, and there's no interesting spin put on them. We've got
our usual Shuttle Crash and Stranded Survivor cliches forming one half of
the plot, and we have the Rescue Operation forming part of the other half.
Why even bother milking any suspense out of it? If there's a point here, it
surrounds Neelix's role as Naomi's godfather. To be fair, this is probably
the only substantive story that Neelix the Cipher had all season, and it
gave Ethan Phillips some meaty, emotional dialog for a change. But, other
than that, I don't know what's particularly worthwhile here. The story
played out exactly as expected, leading to a "heartfelt" payoff that wasn't
the least bit satisfying. In the end I couldn't help but feel that the show
was mostly a waste of time and a recycling of ideas. I also didn't go for
the "cute" holo-novel characters, who weren't interesting enough to warrant
the screen time devoted to them.
"Timeless" -- Airdate: 11/18/1998. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky.
Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by LeVar Burton.
Now here's an example of the Voyager concept at its best. We've got here
plenty of reliable elements, including timeline paradoxes, the crew vying
for a way home, and slick sci-fi solutions to tricky problems with moral
questions looming overhead. Simply put, "Timeless" embodies one of the most
perfect ways to assemble all those parts into a whole that simultaneously
makes an enormous amount of sense and plays up many of Voyager's strengths
and unique elements. Would only they all be like this, the series would be
in good shape. The writers proved here that Harry Kim *can* be a very
worthwhile and captivating character, and Garrett Wang's
uncharacteristically powerful performance proved he can carry a show
bearing a great deal of emotional weight (too bad the rest of the season
wouldn't affirm my beliefs here concerning Kim). The story is engaging from
start to finish, and Burton's direction is right on target with some
technique-driven parallelism in the timeline narrative that is reminiscent
of TNG's "All Good Things." In the end, the story even allows Voyager some
progress toward home, making the effort feel worthwhile. This is a Voyager
must-see in my book.
"Infinite Regress" -- Airdate: 11/25/1998. Teleplay by Robert J. Doherty.
Story by Robert J. Doherty and Jimmy Diggs. Directed by David Livingston.
The poster child for high concept comes knocking with an episode that boils
down to "Borg multiple personality disorder." An interesting sales pitch,
but does the show work? I think so, albeit it's more about technique than
it is about story. Jeri Ryan is up to the challenge, and throws herself
into one characterization after another as Seven is hijacked by one phantom
personality after another. The plot holes involving the cause of this
problem--a Borg "vinculum"--are plentiful, and a not-so-helpful group of
aliens provides the usual conflict, but the direction and acting keep the
episode's energy level high, and the go-for-broke attitude of the show
maintains an edgy appeal to make "Infinite Regress" a solid hour of
"Nothing Human" -- Airdate: 12/2/1998. Written by Jeri Taylor Directed by
"Nothing Human" contains many elements Voyager should attempt to exploit
more often. Unfortunately, it also shows the wrong way of using such
elements. I like moral arguments, but "Nothing Human" requires us to accept
a great deal that I simply find unacceptable. First and foremost is Crell:
The idea of a fully functional, nearly sentient holographic surgeon slapped
together with a few computer commands and personality files is downright
absurd. But more than that, Crell causes the story to sidestep several
real-world conditions about the use of information obtained by questionable
means, and instead the hour rides on narrow, manufactured
circumstances--muddying the waters so much that the arguments become
unworkable. The annoying walk-on of a
to-date-unseen-and-never-to-be-seen-again Bajoran Maquis character, used to
set the plot in motion, is equally unforgivable. That's too bad, because
this episode has many compelling possibilities and strong performances.
"Thirty Days" -- Airdate: 12/9/1998. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller. Story by
Scott Miller. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
A good Paris show. Granted, his love of the ocean had never been seen
before this, but big deal--this is backstory that settles into the story
because it has a sense that Tom Paris is a real person and not a jar of
disjointed personality pieces (cf. "Vis A Vis"). The underwater world
explored here was visually impressive and managed to bring the wonder
factor back into the Voyager equation. And the flashback narrative (which
according to the writers was written and filmed because the episode ran
short) fit well into the story, strengthening it by giving us a chance to
get into Tom's head. Paris' demotion to ensign seems a tad bit glib in
retrospect (it didn't really mean anything down the road), but I liked the
idea of Paris standing up for a cause he believed in and taking the heat
"Counterpoint" -- Airdate: 12/16/1998. Written by Michael Taylor. Directed
by Les Landau.
You can see the gears turning in "Counterpoint," but that's okay, because
the whole show is about two captains silently scheming and hiding things.
This is probably one of the best examples of how to use all the standard
Voyager elements and apply them with well-above-average skill. Janeway
comes across as smart, edgy, sardonic, and resourceful. And the writers
supply her with a well-written adversary with much more charisma and
intelligence than the average Voyager bad guy. And even though Janeway is
able to anticipate the treachery and wins the game, I liked the fact that
betrayal still hurts. Unfortunately, Mark Harelik goes a tad overboard with
Kashyk's overplayed smugness, and some of his earlier actions don't seem
plausible once the game is revealed. Let's put it on the high end of the
"Latent Image" -- Airdate: 1/20/1999. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by
Eileen Connors and Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by Mike Vejar.
Inside the good "Latent Image" is an even better story trying to get out.
Don't get me wrong--this episode has a thought process behind it that is
truly compelling, as the writers explore the possibilities of Doc's
sentience in a way that, conceptually, is highly admirable. Picardo is
mesmerizing in a role that constitutes one of the season's heaviest
character-reliant episodes, and the final scene is effectively atypical and
eerie. BUT--the unevenness and continuity problems are hard to overlook. I
for one thought the issue of Doc's sentience had long been established
before this, and seeing Janeway's attitude that Doc is a piece of equipment
more than he is a person is disturbing--something that should've belonged
in the first or second season. Coming in season five it seems like sudden
character regression. I also had a tough time swallowing many of the
details involving the cover-up of Ensign Jetal's death. That's too bad,
because the ideas behind "Latent Image" are very worthwhile, and some
revisions could've made this a true standout.
"Bride of Chaotica!" -- Airdate: 1/27/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller &
Michael Taylor. Story by Bryan Fuller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
One of the most inspired holodeck premises in a long time ends up being a
surprising disappointment. This should've been non-stop fun, but instead
the humor never really takes off. The pacing is off, giving us scenes
inside the black-and-white holodeck settings and then switching gears to a
standard Voyager technobabble plot that, frankly, I couldn't care less
about. Some of the gags in the holodeck are worth a grin or two, but
overall there's not enough energy. The replication of the old sci-fi
serials is done with great skill and attention to detail, but that's not
enough for success. Attitude needs to carry this hour, and attitude is
precisely what's lacking. There's also an ironic subtext that proves to be
the show's own undoing: Here's an episode that pokes fun at 1940s sci-fi
schlock while embracing and exploiting 1990s sci-fi schlock. The fatal
mistake is that it takes the 1990s schlock far too seriously. As a result,
it's hard to accept this as a full-blown parody; instead it comes across as
Voyager business as usual.
"Gravity" -- Airdate: 2/3/1999. Teleplay by Nick Sagan & Bryan Fuller.
Story by Jimmy Diggs and Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan. Directed by Terry Windell.
It's a very competent Tuvok show, but clunky plotting keeps getting in the
way. This almost seems to prove that cliches comprise the method of choice
for getting things done. Shuttles crash, subspace sinkholes threaten to
collapse and kill the main characters, aliens provide counterfeit conflicts
(why have both the collapsing sinkhole and the alien confrontation when
only one is necessary to get the job done?), and lives hang in jeopardy ...
and yet none of that is really the point. What is the point, and what fares
the best, is the analysis of Tuvok's past and Paris' attitude as Noss falls
for Tuvok and Tuvok is forced by his Vulcan ways to push her away. Russ and
McNeill are right on target (especially in the "just you, me, and the
rocks" scene), but Lori Petty's rendition of Noss, alas, seems off-kilter.
The final parting scene is nice.
"Bliss" -- Airdate: 2/10/1999. Teleplay by Robert J. Doherty. Story by Bill
Prady. Directed by Cliff Bole.
As a self-aware embracing of cinema archetypes this episodes knows what to
do and how to do it. Monsters in space? Vengeful but likable old space
hunters? Seven of Nine and a kid saving the ship? You got it. Deep,
meaningful, or relevant in the slightest? Not likely. "Bliss" knows what it
is and gets the job done based on competent execution, avoiding the most
important pratfalls by not pretending that it's going to get its crew home,
and by making Seven the sole reasonable character among a crew of grinning,
brainwashed fools. ("Fools" used in the affectionate way, naturally.) The
nature of the bliss-causing hallucinations is probably way implausible, but
oh well. This is good clean fun, so overanalyze I won't.
"Dark Frontier" -- Airdate: 2/17/1999. Written by Brannon Braga & Joe
Menosky. Part I directed by Cliff Bole. Part II directed by Terry Windell.
From a production standpoint, "Dark Frontier" is easily the most ambitious
two hours of Voyager ever made, and ranks up with some of the best-produced
sci-fi I've seen in episodic television. From a story standpoint, "Dark
Frontier" is an entertaining two hours with some good writing and Seven
backstory ... but it suffers somewhat from the fact that it doesn't deliver
the lasting significance one would've hoped. The production and special
effects sequences are first-rate eye candy. And conceptually, some action
sequences--like the Borg's assimilation of an entire species--pack some
punch. A lot of this is fun and at times exciting, but what's frustrating
is the oft-disregarded continuity and especially the lack of motive behind
the (surprisingly hollow) use of the Evil Borg Queen (bwahaha) and her
unclear need to assimilate humanity--a species so frequently labeled as
flawed and imperfect that one wonders why the Borg even want us in the
first place. A closing "suspense" scene involving a standoff with lots of
Big Guns lacks the edge it seems to want. All in all, it's good stuff but
not great stuff.
"The Disease" -- Airdate: 2/24/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor. Story by
Kenneth Biller. Directed by David Livingston.
This "Disease" just made me sick (ba-dum-bum). If you thought that joke was
bad, just try watching this travesty of television romance centering on
Harry "Chump" Kim and featuring plenty of unconvincing, invented sexual
protocol. The central idea could've been workable, but the presentation
here was simply awful. The dialog was atrocious, with hopelessly pathetic
lines like "Boy meets girl on the wrong side of the galaxy; boy loses
girl." (Yes, that line actually took itself seriously.) The plot was
positively perfunctory, meaning the hour's success/failure resided on the
leads' performances and chemistry. Alas, there isn't a shred of believable
chemistry to be found anywhere in this lifeless mass; every performance
falls flat on its face. The Harry histrionics in particular are laughably
inept. The only worthwhile issue here, involving Janeway letting Harry
"grow up," is yet another supposedly "meaningful" character development
that refuses to have any lasting impact on anybody. And Harry is still the
same Harry as always: a straight-laced goofball with none of the edge this
show pretends to give him.
"Course: Oblivion" -- Airdate: 3/3/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Nick
Sagan. Story by Bryan Fuller. Directed by Anson Williams.
I'll grant that this episode is superior to its brainless predecessor,
"Demon," but that's about all I'll grant. "Course: Oblivion" might have an
appropriate title considering the story's apparent intentions to crush a
tragic alternate crew, but the episode fails to generate any good reason
for me to care about these people. The technobabble contrivances border on
the unbearable, forming the basis for a manufactured plot that is
unworkable unless the viewer is willing to embrace out-and-out credulity.
For me, everything about this episode rang false, as the doomed Voyager
crew faced one convenient failure after another. When all was said and
done, I was left angry and disturbed, but not in any way that could be
attributed to the story's effectiveness. The plot's manipulations simply
seem cynical to me, not tragic. At the end, my overwhelming feeling was,
"Who cares?" If the writers were trying to convey pointlessness, they
should've done it in a way that had a point.
"The Fight" -- Airdate: 3/24/1999. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by
Michael Taylor. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.
Alas, in the spirit of season three, season five ends up with its own
"trilogy of terror," having aired three consecutive shows that were
completely botched. "The Fight" is all style and nearly absolutely zero
substance, and the stylistics are unfortunately not worth the time. This is
packed full of imagery and ominous notes, but what's lacking is any
semblance of a useful purpose behind it all. The plotting is laborious and
bland, Boothby's appearance strikes me as gratuitous, Beltran's stilted
performance fails to rise to the occasion, and Kolbe's direction seems to
have overcompensated to the extreme with atmosphere scenes that simply
scream "Look at the weirdness!" instead of having any actual point. The
result is a murky, incomprehensible mess that puts the tech stuff way
before any of its characters. It's a perfect example of science fiction
that severely lacks the sense of wonder and human interest required to make
the story worthwhile.
"Think Tank" -- Airdate: 3/31/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor. Story by
Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Terrence O'Hara.
Here's a perfect example of what Voyager is. I was reasonably entertained
for 60 minutes (though hardly riveted), I didn't really have to think a
whole lot because the show did most of the thinking for me and explained
its thought processes in clear-cut terms, and there was a character theme
(Seven's purpose on Voyager) that was worth the screen time devoted to it.
What was lacking, as usual, was any hint of lasting impact, any trace of
moral grey areas, and any notion that anything worth seeing in the Delta
Quadrant can be construed as something other than a threat. We've got
ourselves a game involving the smug "think tank," which of course means
Janeway must deal the think tank their just deserts. (Thanks, but
"Counterpoint" was a much better example of scheming.) As far as the game
goes, it should've been more clever. I get the feeling that if Kurros was
really so smart he would've anticipated something as basic as (gasp!)
Janeway and Seven lying to him.
"Juggernaut" -- Airdate: 4/26/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan
and Kenneth Biller. Story by Bryan Fuller. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
Two words: "shallow," "slick." Here's another Torres episode in a season
that was decidedly not all that great for the character. This one suddenly
resurrects the Wrath Within B'Elanna, as her temper control problems come
to the surface in a way unseen for years. Taken to the extreme it is here
and used for such an obvious character theme (save the closing minute,
which is interestingly opaque), it seems sudden and excessive. Meanwhile,
the plot at hand is the ultimate in simplicity, featuring the type of
action that mandates passive viewing. The rest is all style and production
and smoky sets and blowing stuff up real good. As such, it's fairly
entertaining. But like "Extreme Risk" it shows Voyager's unwillingness to
look beyond the hour at hand to the bigger picture.
"Someone to Watch Over Me" -- Airdate: 4/28/1999. Teleplay by Michael
Taylor. Story by Brannon Braga. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
In the season's most pleasant episode, Seven takes dating lessons from Doc,
in a situation where one would expect the inevitable "test date" would be a
disaster. Well, of course it's a disaster. But it's a rather hilarious
disaster that still comes off as sincere, in character, graceful, and
good-natured. Ryan carries the show with a performance of wondrous
Seven-innocence, and Picardo is graceful in his usual role of Doc's
charismatic, well-intended overzealousness. Brian McNamara is likable as
the date victim, whom the episode allows to be a nice guy who tries to
salvage the awkward evening. The story's uncovering of Doc's emerging
feelings for Seven brings with it bittersweet pangs. Just call it an hour
"11:59" -- Airdate: 5/5/1999. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Story by Joe Menosky
& Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
In one of the quietest, gimmick-free episodes in recent memory, the writers
reflect upon histories and identity in an understated way through Janeway's
introspective look at the past. Told mostly in flashback, "11:59" tells the
simple, pleasant story of Shannon O'Donnel, Janeway's distant ancestor
whose desire to look toward the future in the "Millenium Gate" project
gained her hero status in Janeway's eyes. By the end of the story, Janeway
has learned that her ancestor wasn't quite the "hero" she thought she was;
historical records have proven innacurate. I liked the way this episode
told its story without the usual cliches and simple payoffs. There were
some key scenes that were lackluster, particularly O'Donnel's final
realization and the somewhat oversimplified way she persuades Henry Janeway
to let go of the past. But the ideas here are what matter, and they're
relevant. Coming together are the concepts of the childhood hero in myth
more than fact, the value of keeping our historical roots in perspective,
and the Voyager-heavy sentiment of the nuclear family (i.e. crew) bonding
together. Nice stuff.
"Relativity" -- Airdate: 5/12/1999. Teleplay by Bryan Fuller & Nick Sagan &
Michael Taylor. Story by Nick Sagan. Directed by Allan Eastman.
"Relativity" is a confused mass of cavalier time-travel craziness. Is that
praise or criticism? Probably both, methinks. Really, there's not much
going on behind the zany plotting of this episode; the timelines are used
mostly as a playground for the writers to send characters from point A to
point B to point Question Mark in a fourth-dimensional implementation of
that universal cinematic device known as The Chase. By the end, very little
of it makes any sort of practical sense, but the focus on the fun keeps the
story confidently on track. Scrutiny is pointless; either you found it
enjoyable or you didn't.
"Warhead" -- Airdate: 5/19/1999. Teleplay by Michael Taylor & Kenneth
Biller. Story by Brannon Braga. Directed by John Kretchmer.
Nothing about "Warhead" was new or original, so its level of success lay
solely on the level of tension the story could maintain. About all I can
say is that the story didn't maintain the tension, so as a result I really
didn't care about much of what was going on. The issue of "outsmarting the
smart bomb" just didn't have the cleverness necessary to be a plot that
could claim to be about outsmarting anything (and no, Seven's nanoprobes
didn't count). The issue of a sentient smart bomb seems a little dubious; I
still can't figure out why anyone would give a bomb sentience in the first
place (especially if the bomb is at the mercy of contradictory directives).
The themes here aren't bad, but they feel too rehashed from TOS, and the
Trekkian self-pride sets in a little bit too hard-core by the end.
"Equinox, Part I" -- Airdate: 5/26/1999. Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe
Menosky. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky. Directed by
Really, the jury will be out on this one until September, but for now I'm
optimistic about the moral grey areas that "Equinox" has presented. Through
the desperate crew of the starship Equinox, this episode brings back many
of the qualities I think Voyager should've been using throughout its run.
I've asked it before and I'll ask it again: What's more interesting to see?
A crew forced to change because of extreme situations, or a crew that does
business as usual under a situation that isn't really extreme but pretends
to be? Whether next season will choose to make any changes to the Voyager
attitude remains to be seen, but for now I'll take "Equinox" as it is--a
story that shows a different side of life in the Delta Quadrant. The
cynical side of me thinks we'll most likely get burned with "Equinox, Part
II," but for now what we have works. Captain Ransom fares well as a shady
yet still understandable hypocrite whose actions have crossed the line.
Cliffhangers are done-to-death cliches and I could've done without the
"cliffhanger action ending" presented here, but so it goes.
PART 2: SEASON ANALYSIS
This is where things turn a bit harsher, I'm afraid, as I look at Voyager's
biggest weakness: The Big Picture.
This season has been a strange mix of enjoyment and extreme frustration,
and I've been asking myself a question over the past few months: Is there
even much of a point in my doing a general season commentary for Voyager?
The capsule reviews might provide a handy recap, but is there a lot to say
(or, more specifically, a lot *good* to say) about Voyager's fifth season
as a whole? I'm not quite so sure, because this series lends itself to
analysis in episode-by-episode pieces, and *not* as a whole.
Ideally, an article like this would be most worthwhile if there were
sweeping changes to report or new directions to discuss. At the very least,
this would be a place to note the year's trends. The thing about Voyager is
that, really, there are no cohesive trends to note. Conceptually, this
series is all over the place and I can't put my finger on any direction
it's headed in. If this sounds like old news, it is, and I apologize. I've
been saying basically the same thing again and again for three years now.
At the end of last year's recap, I wrote the following: "Maybe next season
will be a SERIES instead of a collection of shows. Maybe not. ... With
Brannon Braga ... taking over the creative processes of the series I'm not
sure if we'll see any significant changes or not, but I can hope that we'll
see some interesting new things come out of season five, and perhaps more
emphasis on long-term thinking."
So now to answer the question: What has Braga's role at the helm meant in
terms of a change in the big picture at Voyager? Well, to be as blunt and
as honest as I can be, my answer is simple: "Nothing." For good nor ill,
there has been no change in attitude, no change in direction, no change in
format, and no real discernible change in storytelling. Much--far too much,
in my opinion--was made of Braga's taking of the helm in light of Jeri
Taylor's retirement at the end of season four. Some alarmist fans feared
that "Evil Brannon Braga" would drive the series into the ground with his
approach to storytelling. Please, people, give me a break. I figured the
chances of Braga driving Voyager into the ground were pretty close to zero.
And as season five got under way, I also began to sense Braga's impact on
the new season would have very little noticeable difference in the way the
series operated or the way stories were told. And why should it? Braga has
long been a creative force on Voyager. Why should his assumption of command
really change much of anything?
The sense I'd gotten (whether I'm right or wrong is another story) was that
the producers were happy with the performance of season four and they
wanted season five to be like the fourth season, with more "great
high-concept storytelling" and "great exploration of the characters," etc.
If another season four was what they wanted, then I'm of the opinion that
they mostly delivered on that count. I'm inclined to say that overall
"Season Five" is essentially "Season Four, Part II."
Moving along, the next question is whether that's a good or bad thing. Did
Voyager even need to change? I was of the opinion that Voyager's fourth
season was the best Voyager effort up to that point, so I'd certainly
rather see more of a fourth-season attitude than, say, a second- or
And there lies both sides of the argument: Either Voyager was inadequate
and in need of changes to become a successful series, or Voyager was
adequate and season five continued the trend.
Well, I think most people pretty much know where I stand on the matter, so
I'll just come out and reiterate my long-standing attitude on the series.
In a sentence: While Voyager has its merits, I doubt I'll ever be satisfied
with the bottom line. Why? Because of the following qualities: (1) It
doesn't make the long-term investments in its stories or characters to keep
us compelled on an ongoing basis, and that attitude sometimes also leads to
strained credibility. (2) Because there are no long-term aspirations, we
must live in a short-term environment that simply isn't consistently fresh
enough to overcome the fact that there's *so much* Trek material in the
history books in danger of duplication; as a result, stories too frequently
feel recycled, derivative, or pedestrian. And (3) the series has failed to
realize these two other points and continues to do what Voyager does best:
business as usual.
Now, to be fair, Voyager as a sci-fi series is not a failure. The
production values are generally quite good, the cast is generally solid,
and some of the stories really do deliver. In strictly episode-by-episode
critical quality terms, I can report at least some positive news in that
this season wasn't a downfall in stand-alone episode quality; in fact, the
average numbers are virtually identical to fourth season's (by my ratings,
anyway)--registering just an ever-so-slightly increased average. Looking at
the top five: Episodes like "Drone" and "Timeless" both qualify as Voyager
classics for me, the former being a wonderful character study and the
latter an ensemble piece where everything clicked into the Voyager-specific
mindset perfectly; "Someone to Watch Over Me" displayed a refreshing change
of pace with broad human comedy; "Dark Frontier" showed that seamless
production and decent writing can take action a long way; and
"Counterpoint" showed that a nondescript premise can be turned into a gem
with good execution, careful character attention, and clever writing. These
are examples of the Voyager "one-shot wonders"--although I should probably
point out that with Voyager it's either a one-shot wonder or a one-shot
okay/mediocre/failure. Very little of a show's success has much to do with
the scope of the series beyond the broadest aspects, like the fact that the
same characters populate the stories.
And speaking of characters, that's where the Big Picture begins to suffer a
bit. This season, I must say, was probably not as good as season four in
terms of creating consistently useful characters. For example, as a theme
last year we had the ongoing development of Janeway and Seven's
relationship. Perhaps it was overused, but at least it was something we
could step back and see as a source of progress once the season was over.
goals. In theory, the idea of a more ensemble-focused series is a good one
(it's what often made TNG work best), but the hang-up with season five was
that the nature of the stories--and I hate to say this yet again--had a
tendency to treat the characters as cogs in the plot rather than people
making decisions. Stories like "Once Upon a Time," "The Fight," "Think
Tank," "Warhead," "Relativity," etc. are so caught up in plotting that deep
characterization nearly becomes irrelevant.
Another problem arose through mischaracterization. In two words: B'Elanna
Torres. Here was one of my favorite characters, and the writers had her so
all-over-the-map this season that it merely became annoyingly unconvincing.
"Extreme Risk" invented her manic-depression and then glibly discarded it.
"Nothing Human" gave her a conflict with Janeway that would immediately
afterward be forgotten. "Juggernaut" and "Someone to Watch Over Me"
suddenly fired up her temper to an overstated excess. And "Equinox"
suddenly made her soft and pleasant. Who *is* this person anymore?
B'Elanna's probably the only bigger trend worthy of mention. Most everyone
else remained within the boundaries of what came before--which is fine--but
there's no real sense of anybody heading in any direction with a
destination to reach. It would be nice to see these people and their
personalities put to a bigger test beyond solving each week's plot. That's
not to say the characters get completely lost, because they don't. Janeway,
Seven, and Doc all have strong cores that shine through even without
challenging new material. All had good character shows--Janeway with
"Counterpoint" and "11:59"; Seven with "Drone" and "Someone to Watch Over
Me"; and Doc with "Latent Image." But it's an episode like "Latent Image"
that finds something worthwhile and uncovers a dire need for digging
deeper. And, frustratingly, Voyager just cannot bring itself to go the
extra mile. (You can't have a story about a character driven to torment
about the nature of his existence and then pretend next week like nothing
happened to him.)
Other characters seem lost in the shuffle. Paris was reasonable but
somewhat underutilized save "Thirty Days" and "Gravity." Tuvok even more so
outside "Gravity"--and Chakotay and Neelix were virtually nonexistent for
most of the season, aside from walk-on roles with little building value.
(Neelix fared okay in "Once Upon a Time," but Chakotay's "Fight" featured
characterization that was murky and useless.)
And as for Harry Kim, don't even get me started. "Timeless" was a riveting
example of the wealth of potential inside the loss-of-innocence Harry (and
shows just what Voyager is capable of), but "Disease" was an utter disaster
that erased all good will, and everything post-"Disease" affirmed that, no,
Harry will never change; he's simply a laughable Teflon-man of a character.
I can't say I've been pleased with Wang's performances, but the writers
have totally dropped the ball, giving the poor slob almost nothing
worthwhile. Naomi Wildman, Voyager's surprisingly effective rendition of
The Kid as portrayed by the capable Scarlett Pomers, actually has been much
more tolerable on the screen than Harry because I at least don't get the
sudden fear I will be forced to cringe.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Voyager is dependent more on
its plots than its character development. On that end, one thing I
appreciated about this season was its attempted emphasis on
plain-and-simple traveling progress. Among the big problems with the second
season was the absurdity of the series seemingly running around in circles,
laughably diverting into the heart Kazon space at season's end. With this
season we actually had some big progress toward the Alpha Quadrant with the
two huge jumps forward. Finally the crew's efforts--experimenting with
engine technology ("Timeless") and undertaking a daring mission against the
Borg ("Dark Frontier")--actually paid off with some progress that could
boost morale and make the series seem (at least temporarily) to break out
of the status quo.
But given its resources, Voyager is still a stark underachievement.
Everything from the characters to the basic premise lend themselves to much
greater things, but the show seems perfectly content to play it safe. Worse
yet, it almost displays an unconscious contempt for anyone willing to pay
attention from one month to the next. A big example is the way the writers
made references to aliens that shouldn't have been anywhere near Voyager's
position after the two big jumps. There shouldn't have been mention of the
Devore in "Think Tank" and most certainly shouldn't have been a Malon ship
casually cruising around in "Juggernaut." Sure, these complaints could be
explained away with some imaginative excuses (like perhaps saying the Malon
have very fast ships and the dialog simply didn't address it), but that's
not the point. The point is, this isn't nitpicking; this is valid concern
for a fundamental carelessness within the show: It alleges to make big
progress and then disregards all consequences on a whim. The only possible
interpretation of this attitude is that the big picture isn't valued by the
creators; the immediate goal is. If that's the attitude, I'm thinking the
immediate goal had better be well worth the sacrifice to the bigger
picture. But way too often that's not the case.
Looking ahead to the near future, what does Voyager need? Well, it needs
what it has needed every year. Voyager needs to think for more than one
hour at a time. This is not a new idea. Honestly, I don't know why I bother
saying it again and again, because by this point I should know it will
never happen. From a writing standpoint Voyager simply isn't a series that
looks at the long term, because the producers and writers, for better or
worse, have consciously come to the conclusion that operating in the short
term is what works for them.
Quite frankly, what Voyager needed was Ronald D. Moore. Now, I rarely
comment on the behind-the-scenes soap operas in my reviews (criticism
should be applied to the work on the screen, not the rumors and news going
on behind production), but in this case I'm going to make an exception.
For those of you reading this who are unaware of what has been going on in
the Star Trek producers' offices the past few months, I'll give a quick
recap: After work wrapped on Deep Space Nine, Ron Moore (whom,
incidentally, I consider to be one of Trek's all-time best writers)
announced that he was going to move over to Voyager to work on the show.
Not long afterward, the rumors began flying that there was a massive
falling out between onetime friends Moore and Braga, and that
irreconcilable differences in opinion led Moore to reluctantly resign from
the Voyager writing staff. A few weeks later, Moore confirmed in an online
posting that he had left Voyager, though he gracefully refused (and
rightfully so) to air details and dirty laundry in public.
I'm not here to speculate on the nasty rumors that have been going around
concerning Braga; I hasten to remind that rumors are not necessarily facts
and that every story has two sides. At the same time, however, Moore left
the show for a reason, and something is clearly suspect in the state of
Bragaville. In any case, I can't see Moore's departure from Voyager as
anything but the series' loss. Voyager could've used the fresh blood--some
fresh blood that has years of experience writing for Trek with methods that
could've been of great value to Voyager. Alas, that will never be.
Looking to other possibilities in Voyager's future, other rumors
circulating have promised that Voyager will "absolutely" get home midway
through next season, though Braga has been quoted as denying it. Because
the Delta Quadrant isn't very interesting, I would probably welcome the
change in format (although something cynical inside me fears that our crew
might get home to an Alpha Quadrant that has already totally recovered from
the Dominion War and Voyager would in no way acknowledge the changes in the
Federation put into place by its now-finished sister series). If you want
my current speculation for season six, the most likely scenario I envision
is "Season Five, Part II" (or "Season Four, Part III," if you must). All
the quotes emanating from the Voyager producers are along the lines of
happiness with the series from a creative standpoint, so there's no reason
to expect change.
It's occurring to me that this wrap-up article is perhaps coming across as
unrelentingly negative in tone--more so than I imagined when I set out to
write it. I think that can be attributed to the fact that Voyager does in
fact work better when shows are analyzed case by case. And on their own,
many shows this season worked and worked well. For that I give credit where
credit is due. Unfortunately, the longevity of Voyager (and any Trek) will
not hinge on analysis in individual pieces. The cumulative effect--where
the *series* ventures--is what people will remember. And after five
seasons, it's still hard for me to figure out what Voyager is all about and
what of significance people will remember about it. Perhaps it will be
remembered for its fragments.
It is perhaps the greatest of all ironies that one of DS9's biggest
criticisms when it launched in 1993 was that the setting was "too static."
Now, more than six years later, DS9 has ended as the Trek series to have
supplied the most ongoing changes in story and setting, while Voyager is
still essentially doing the same things it always has--wandering a Delta
Quadrant that offers little in terms of new settings, cultures, ideas, or
story approaches. We just have lots of "space." But what's in this space?
As of now, I'm inclined to call it a static, primarily empty area of
space--traveled by a starship that covers a lot less ground than a certain
space station sitting stationery at the mouth of a certain wormhole.
It's too bad Voyager can't hold up when one steps back and looks at
everything, because the paradox is that I find the series still supplies
reasonable, enjoyable entertainment in short bursts. The indictment, I
think, is that it could and should supply a lot more than that. See you in
Copyright (c) 1999 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...