Saturday, September 18, 2010

Voyager, Season 1

Thanks to an affordable DVD of Season 1, I can finally start reviewing the fourth of (so far) five Star Trek series. Star Trek: Voyager debuted on January 16, 1995, and continued for seven seasons, ending its initial run in May of 2001. This first season is a short one--15 episodes, counting the feature-length pilot--owing to its mid-season startup, typical of the spinoffs after TNG.

Paramount had been the studio of Star Trek since The Original Series' second season (the first year of the show was produced under Desilu). Paramount had gambled (and won) on the success of a syndicated restart of the series, resulting in seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). Later, Paramount took another successful roll of the dice by putting out two syndicated Star Trek series at the same time, with Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) running alongside TNG for its first year. By the time TNG went off the air, Star Trek had performed so well that Paramount was poised to start its own television network, the UPN. So they approached the creative team behind post-Roddenberry Trek--Rick Berman and Michael Piller--and invited them to pitch yet another Star Trek series, which would anchor the fledgling network's first season of programming.

Together with veteran TNG writer-producer Jeri Taylor, Berman and Piller brainstormed quickly. What could they do with Star Trek that would result in fresh stories? First, it could be a starship-based series, like TOS and TNG, since the latter was ending and DS9 revolved around the unmoving center-point of a space station. So fans wouldn't have to choose between two starships' weekly missions. Second, to open up new realms of storytelling outside the confines of the already well-canvassed alien races of the known Trekiverse, this new starship had to explore a different region of space. Third, to sweeten the stakes a bit, the show would pull out the safety net of a weekly reset to business as usual; for the new crew's adventures would form parts of a single, ever-developing arc. So, pulled against their will to a remote part of the galaxy, the crew's mission would be, essentially, to get home. Fourth, to inject a little more drama into the character dynamics than was strictly in keeping with Gene Roddenberry's vision of Starfleet as a vision of hope for humanity's future, there would actually be two crews on board the new ship: enemies forced by desperate circumstances to combine their efforts to reach home. And finally, to continue Trek's trajectory of breaking new ground (e.g. with DS9's Ben Sisko, the franchise's first black hero-captain), the spanking-new U.S.S. Voyager was going to have a female captain.

Auditions were held. The producers picked French Canadian actress Genvieve Bujold to play their new captain. Filming began. By the middle of Day 2, it was evident to all that Bujold was not working out. I did not see the scenes shot with Bujold as the captain until last night, on the "special features" DVD that came with the Season 1 box set. Even now I can hardly imagine how different the show would have been with Bujold in the captain's chair--petite, deadpan, with a stiff accent in her rather deep, flat voice. Production was halted, auditions were re-opened, and the original "runner-up" for the role--Katherine Hepburn impersonator Kate Mulgrew--was chosen. And the rest is history. Mulgrew inhabited the role of Capt. Kathryn Janeway so completely that, even after seeing three or four familiar scenes with Bujold in the role, anyone but Mulgrew playing Janeway seems inconceivable. Her combination of toughness and sensitivity, intense emotion and calculating intellect, tortured loneliness and motherly protectiveness toward her crew, are enough by themselves to make Star Trek: Voyager's seven seasons well-nigh unforgettable.

Janeway's ship is state-of-the-art, 24th-century technology, with "bioneural gel-packs" integrated into its circuitry, nacelles that jack themselves up like the wheels of a pneumatic pimp-mobile before the ship goes into warp, and an "Emergency Medical Hologram" who comes in handy when the entire medical staff is wiped out in the first episode. The EMH, familiarly known as "The Doctor," is played by Robert Picardo, a character actor whose face was already familiar from his numerous minor film roles and regular or recurring TV roles, especially in The Wonder Years and China Beach.

Replacing Janeway's original first officer (also killed in the pilot) is Chakotay, the leader of a ring of Maquis guerillas whose fight for freedom, caught in the crack between the Federation and the Cardassians, was set up by DS9 Season 2 and TNG Season 7 in a canny prelude to this series. Potrayed as a member of a Native American tribe that took to the stars in order to recover its cultural and spiritual traditions, Chakotay was played by Robert Beltran, until then known mostly for his roles in cult films such as Eating Raoul and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and made-for-TV movies like Dream Warrior. In spite of his role's popularity, Beltran was a notoriously vocal critic of the series while it was being filmed.

Also transferring from the Maquis ship to the Voyager is its chief engineer, the half-Klingon (on her mother's side) B'Elanna Torres. One of the most memorable threads in the fabric of the show is B'Elanna's struggle to balance the aggressive, Klingon side of her nature with the kinder, gentler human side. Playing her was minor television actress Roxann Dawson, credited as Roxann Biggs-Dawson until Season 3, previously married to Casey Biggs (late "Damar" of DS9) and, since Voyager, more involved in directing and producing than acting.

Star Trek's first regular Vulcan character since TOS's Spock is Lt. Tuvok, Janeway's security chief and longtime confidant. Unlike Spock, Tuvok is 100% pure Vulcan--which spares him the inner conflict that Star Trek visits on its halfbreed characters (in this series, that falls to B'Elanna). In contrast, Tuvok is the epitome of serene logic, frequently at odds with other, more emotional characters because of his unique perspective. In the tradition of "Bitchy-Spock," Tuvok sometimes seems irritated with the inferior beings around him; but it's a delicious kind of irritation, because you see him trying to control it while (for example) Neelix pushes him closer and closer to the edge. Actor Tim Russ totally owns this role, having guested on both TNG and DS9 in 1993 and appeared in many other roles, including the desert-combing soldier in Spaceballs who reports: "We ain't findin' $#%+!!!"

Robert Duncan McNeill plays Lt. Tom Paris, a galaxy-class disappointment to his Admiral father. After his ne'er-do-well ways ruined his Starfleet career, Tom joined the Maquis and swiftly got captured. By the time Janeway finds him in the pilot, he is doing time in a Federation penal colony. He is initially meant to be on the Voyager only as an observer, while Janeway investigates the disappearance of the Maquis ship on which Tuvok is acting as an undercover agent. But one thing leads to another, and he ends up becoming the ship's helm officer, ace shuttle pilot, Doctor's assistant, and (years later) B'Elanna's husband and baby-daddy. McNeill had previously played a roguish Starfleet cadet in TNG's "The First Duty," a performance this show's creators had in mind when they developed the character of Tom Paris. Like many other Trek cast members, McNeill took advantage of the show's on-set film school and has since moved behind the camera.

I have already mentioned Neelix, a slightly seedy representative of the "Delta Quadrant" race known as Talaxians. He comes aboard Voyager in its pilot episode, offering his services as a guide, cook, morale officer, etc. In spite of his exotic appearance and goofy mannerisms, Neelix is pretty much just a regular guy, and thus often serves as a sort of detached observer. This enables the show's viewers to look at humanity's peccadilloes, as it were, from the outside. He is played by character actor Ethan Phillips, a nebbishy type who co-starred with DS9's Rene Auberjonois on the early 1980's series Benson, and who guested as a Ferengi on both TNG and Star Trek: Enterprise.

The most junior of Voyager's "senior officers" is freshly-minted Ensign Harry Kim at the ops station, whose clean-cut, boyish innocence make him a handy foil for Tom Paris. Actor Garrett Wang brought youthful, Asian-American good looks to the role and, sorry, not much else. His Harry is a nice kid, fairly bright, a little green (in the "fresh out of Starfleet Academy" sense), musically talented (though we don't see him play his clarinet until Season 2), faithful to Mom, Dad, and a girl named Libby he hopes will be waiting for him when he gets back to Earth in, oh, 75 years or so.

Finally (as far the first-season cast goes), we have Jennifer Lien: a then-21-year-old actress who had co-starred with DS9's Avery Brooks in American History X and whose role as Kes was written off the show at the beginning of Season 4. Just now, in my research for this post, I learned that Harry Kim was originally meant to be the one written out to make room for Jeri Ryan's role as reformed Borg drone Seven of Nine; but when Garrett Wang made People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful" list, the producers decided to ax Kes instead. In my opinion, this was a big mistake!

To be sure, Kes was an unpopular character with the guys I watched this show with in dorm TV lounges from Minnesota to Indiana. Some of them perceived her as a pointless character; some positively loathed the actress who played her. I, for one, thought Kes was a cool character, a completely guileless being from a race (known as Ocampa) whose members typically live only nine years. Fascinated with everything, game for any new experience, able to see instantly through any subterfuge, and haunted by tantalizing glimpses of her race's long-forgotten mental powers, Kes seemed to be a character full of awesome story possibilities. I was very disappointed when the show tossed all that potential overboard. In Season 1, at least, Kes flies as a passenger on Voyager, due to her romantic invovlement with Neelix. To make herself useful, she dabbles in the hydroponics bay (not actually seen in this season) and studies to become the Doctor's assistant. In fact, so many of her scenes take place in Sickbay that she almost seems to have more of a relationship with the Doctor than with Neelix.

Caretaker ...This feature-length episode launched the series, and the perilous mission of the Voyager and its crew, with a cosmic bang. A couple of them, actually. First, Chakotay's Maquis ship gets pulled into the Delta Quadrant by a mysterious alien power; then the Voyager follows, after a stop at DS9 (featuring a crossover appearance by Armin Shimerman as "Quark") to tie the show in with the Star Trek franchise. The alien power in question turns out to be a blob of transluscent goo who usually appears to humans as an old, banjo-playing man. This "Caretaker" is desperately seeking someone to look after the Ocampa (Kes's people) after he dies, because otherwise their gentle, subterranean culture will be an easy prey to hoodlums like the Kazon (example pictured). Forced to take command not only of her own crew but of the restive Maquis as well, Janeway must now choose between using the late Caretaker's space array to travel instantly home, and destroying it to save the Ocampa. Hmmm. If she had chosen differently, what a different series this would have been! Or maybe there wouldn't have been one...

Parallax is the first "Villain-Free Jeopardy" (VFJ) episode of the season, with Voyager meeting herself coming and going, thanks to an astronomical singularity that totally sneaks up on her and snaps her upside the nacelle with its event horizon. The real purpose of this episode is to wrap up some business left unfinished by the pilot: Capt. Janeway's difficult decision to make B'Elanna Torres her chief engineer. At first it's tough to see why Chakotay thinks she's the woman for the job. Face it, it's tough to see much when you're constantly having to duck out of the way of the huge chip she carries on each shoulder--the one for being half-Klingon on one side, and for being Maquis on the other. But when B'Elanna comes up with the plan to get Voyager out of the singularity, the job is hers. Josh Clark makes one of his seven appearances as Lt. Carey, the engineer Torres beat (in more than one sense) out of the job.

Time and Again is one of Star Trek's great "Time Travel Paradox" episodes. Beaming down to a lifeless planet that, only the day before, was home to a vibrant civilization at about our present-day level of technology, the Voyagers learn that an accident in a *technobabble* power reactor wiped everything out. It also, incidentally, left fractures in space-time, with the result that Janeway and Tom Paris get stuck in the day before. While the crew races to use more technobabble to save them, aided in part by Kes's developing psychic powers, Tom & Kathryn look for a way they can prevent the accident from ever happening. But, of course, it turns out that the Voyagers' rescue attempts caused the whole thing... So if they hadn't tried to save the captain from the results of what they caused, they would never have caused them and nobody would have needed to be saved, and maybe they wouldn't even have visited the planet in the first place... Ow! Gross! There goes my brain, all over the wall! Anyway, don't try to make sense of it, just enjoy it!

Phage is the one where Neelix gets mugged. Only, instead of his money, the thieves make off with his lungs! Thus, Neelix spends most of the episode confined to a device restricting his bodily movement, so that a pair of holographic lungs can do the breathing for him. This gives Ethan Phillips an opportunity to bring the insecure side of the Delta Quadrant's most extroverted alien into high relief. For example, in a fit of jealousy over Kes, Neelix describes Tom Paris as "just one big hormone walking around the ship." His whole "your ceiling is hideous" speech is equally priceless. In the end, the episode is important mainly because it introduces the recurring menace of the Vidiians, people who have fought a flesh-wasting plague called the Phage to a stalemate over two thousand years, through a combination of advanced medical technology and a willingness to sacrifice the lives of innocent, healthy people to replace the failing organs of their own. For my money, the Vidiians were among Trek's most daring and innovative threats.

The Cloud is already the year's second VFJ episode. What at first seems to be a nebula full of promising *technobabble* turns out, instead, to be a humongous, single-celled organism. Voyager passes easily through its membrane going in, but finds it next to impossible to get out without injuring the creature. Out of a sense of responsibility that drives Neelix to the point of despair, Janeway insists on flying back into the "wound" they inflicted and using *more technobabble* to stitch it up. It's one of those episodes where everything is more interesting than the plot, such as the first appearance of Tom Paris's "Chez Sandrine" holoprogram and Harry Kim's revelation that he remembers being in his mother's womb. The captain takes Chakotay's advice and seeks the counsel of her animal spirit guide, and the Doctor lobbies to be allowed to turn himself on and off.

Eye of the Needle tantalizes the Voyagers with a cruel glimpse of a potential way home. The wormhole they discover does indeed lead back to the Alpha Quadrant (i.e. the side of the galaxy where the Federation is located). There are just three things wrong with it. First, it's so small that even their smallest microprobe gets stuck inside it, and it's only going to get smaller until it collapses completely. Second, though the microprobe enables them to bounce a comm signal into the Alpha Quadrant, the only person who can receive it is a Romulan scientist whose culture and political situation compel him to take a suspicious view of a Federation crew. And finally... well, that would be telling, but it's a heart-breaker. The reluctantly sympathetic Telek R'Mor (pictured) was played by frequent Trek guest Vaughn Armstrong.

Ex Post Facto is Voyager's controversial nod toward film noir, complete with a yapping dog, a cigarette-smoking femme fatale, and the first Star Trek footage ever shot on black and white stock. It's absolutely ridiculous in terms of conceptual continuity, and its potboiler depiction of a 1950s suburban housewife having an affair with a 24th-century Starfleet officer is halfway between confusing and offensive. All this on a planet where people grow both feathers and hair on their heads, and where (at last! a sci-fi concept!) convicted murderers are condemned to relive the dying memories of their victims, over and over, for the rest of their lives. This is what happens to Tom, thanks to the untimely death of a scientist (played by the same Ray Reinhardt who also appeared in TNG's "Conspiracy"), until Tuvok puts on his deerstalker cap and runs the game down with his relentless logic. And a yapping dog.

Emanations is the episode where Harry Kim accidentally gets transported to a dimension where people think our world is the "next emanation"--i.e., the afterlife. Instead of being reunited with their loved ones and progressing to a higher level of consciousness, however, their bodies materialize and decay on the moons in a gas giant's ring system. This is hard news for Harry to have to deliver, especially to a culture where many people allow themselves to be euthanased before their time in order to move on to the next emanation. The episode submits the question of "what happens when we die" to a surprisingly thoughtful and balanced discussion, though of course it's totally science fiction! Jerry Hardin (whose multiple TNG appearances included the role of Mark Twain) guest stars as a "thanatologist" in this profoundly dark episode that, somehow, succeeds in spite of the limitations of Garrett Wang as the focal character.

Prime Factors guest-stars Belgian actor Ronald Guttman as the leader of the pleasure-loving Sikarians, who try to tempt the Voyagers to abandon their long journey home and to join their advanced and carefree culture. Naturally, there are problems with this hospitable invitation. Problem #1: The Sikarians have a technology that could send the Voyager more than halfway home, if not all the way--but they refuse to share it, allegedly because of ethical principles. Turns out the Prime Directive isn't so nice when you're on the receiving end of it! Problem #2: Once Janeway sees through their hosts' self-indulgent narcissism, the prospect of staying on Sikaris no longer holds much appeal. I just wish I knew what that stuff on the Sikarians' heads is... I mean, I've seen aliens with antennas before, but never of the UHF variety!

State of Flux is the episode that reveals that Bajoran, former Maquis crewwoman Seska is in fact a genetically-altered Cardassian spy. Played by Martha Hackett in all of 13 episodes between "Parallax" and Season 7, Seska is one of Trek's great bad girls--and a particular thorn in Chakotay's side. Here's a sample of some of this season's best writing, from a scene in which Chakotay reflects that everyone in his Maquis crew seems to have had him fooled.
CHAKOTAY: Can I ask you to be honest with me, Lieutenant?

TUVOK: As a Vulcan, I am at all times honest, Commander.

CHAKOTAY: That's not exactly true. You lied to me when you passed yourself off as a Maquis to get on my crew.

TUVOK: I was honest to my own convictions within the defined parameters of my mission.

CHAKOTAY: You damned Vulcans and your defined parameters! That's easy for you.

TUVOK: On the contrary, the demands on a Vulcan's character are extraordinarily difficult. Do not mistake composure for ease. How may I be honest with you today?
Heroes and Demons is the episode where "Star Trek does Beowulf," complete with Babylon 5 actress Marjorie Monaghan as Freya, British sci-fi & horror maven Christopher Neame as Unferth, and four-time Trek guest Michael Keenan as Hrothgar. Another story that at least partly qualifies as VFJ, it begins when a photon-based life-form gets trapped on board Voyager and interferes with Harry Kim's Beowulf holonovel. Chakotay and Tuvok investigate Kim's disappearance, only to discover that the Ensign has been killed by the photonic being in the guise of Beowulf's demon nemesis Grendel. When they too are swept away by Grendel, it becomes clear that only a photonic hero can fight a photonic demon. So the Doctor gets his first name (Schweitzer, for this episode only) and his first away mission. He has a ball, he saves the day, he renounces his name (which you knew had to be a tease)... altogether a great Doctor-centric adventure!

Cathexis is the one where "Star Trek does Fallen." You know, that Denzel Washington movie about the demon that moves from one person to another, possessing anyone within, like, a seven-mile radius until there's nobody left... That's the idea in this episode, where there turns out to be not one but two disembodied life-forces floating around Voyager's decks, taking control of different people and causing them to do things that, afterward, they have no memory of doing. One of the two beings seems to be trying to steer Voyager toward a certain nebula; the other, like a gremlin in a WWII bomber, sabotages the mission in every way it can. Meanwhile, Chakotay lies brain-dead in sickbay. Shown here, Neelix feels an uncontrollable urge to rearrange the stones on Chakotay's *mystical technobabble*. How impressive is that? Even Indian mysticism gets a tech upgrade in the 24th century!

Faces is a good title for this episode in more ways than one. First, its the episode where B'Elanna faces the Klingon side of her personality. Literally! For this she has a Vidiian physician to thank--one cleverly played by the same actor as a Voyager crewman introduced in the previous episode, all the better to give you a gruesome surprise! If I told you the other level the episode's title works on, I would be spoiling the surprise for you. Or maybe, if you're clever, I've already spoiled it! I'm avoiding saying much specifically about this episode because, to tell the truth, I hate it. The whole concept of it grates against my sense of realism in the same way as Spock talking about the conflict between his human and Vulcan sides. Maybe I'm missing some sci-fi philosophical premise on which a person of mixed planetary heritage is actually two persons in one body... but I simply can't see how intelligent grown-ups can write crap like this. How many real persons can really be sure which parent each of their moods, motivations, and character traits comes from? Maybe with Leonard Nimoy, or even Suzie Plakson (TNG's K'Ehleyr) selling it, I wouldn't be quite so bothered. But unfortunately, Roxann Dawson resorts to the crassest of stereotypes to sell the difference between her human and Klingon halves. The result is not one, but two unwatchably bad performances by a single actress, who, moreover, is usually very watchable. Do over!!

Jetrel guest-stars, in its title role, the same James Sloyan who appeared twice each on TNG and DS9. Even under tons of Haakonian prosthetics, his facial mannerisms are so distinctive that you'll probably be wondering who else in Star Trek he has played. FYI: a Romulan defector, a Bajoran scientist (twice), and a time-traveling Klingon who proves to be Worf's son all growed up. Here he plays a Delta-Quadrant type of Robert Oppenheimer, whose timely invention of the "metreon cascade" put an end to his planet's war against Neelix's Talaxian people. I know, I should have said *insert technobabble*, but "metreon cascade" has such a pretty ring to it. What it does isn't so pretty. In the case of Neelix's native moon of Rinax, it turns hundreds of thousands of people into swirling clouds of dust, instantly. And now, it seems, it has a second, slower form of deadliness: a disease called metremia, that causes *oops! technobabble!* Before he dies of the disease, Jetrel comes aboard Voyager hoping Neelix will help him find a cure. At first he relies on Neelix's sense of self-preservation, claiming that the Talaxian is the one afflicted with metremia. But what the episode is really about, cool special effects aside, is whether or not someone like Jetrel can take responsibility for the part he played in mass murder... and whether or not someone in Neelix's position can forgive him.

Learning Curve Is the episode where B'Elanna delivers the unforgettable line: "Get the cheese to Sickbay. The Doctor should look at it as soon as possible." The cheese, if you'll forgive me for spoiling the paper-thin veneer of sci-fi plot making this episode worthwhile as a Star Trek episode, is the vector of an infection (VFJ again!) that has gotten into the ship's bioneural gel-packs, resulting in one system failure after another. There's a nice bit where everyone on the ship nearly dies of the heat because they have to give Voyager a fever to fight off its flu; but otherwise, most of the episode is about a remedial cadet class Tuvok runs for ex-Maquis crewmen who haven't quite adjusted to Starfleet protocol. Other than the joy a Tuvok fan can derive from seeing the unflappable Vulcan swallow his frustration with a group of people so obnoxious that even Chakotay punches one of them in the mouth--other than that, I say, it's a pretty lame episode, especially for a season finale.

Of course, it wasn't filmed as the season finale. Several additional episodes were filmed during Voyager's first production season, but the UPN decided not to air them until Season 2. And so, alas, that's all there is for Voyager, Season 1, except for a cute little "webisode" filmed for the show's website. I remember well that Voyager was one of the first TV series that had a big internet footprint throughout its initial run. I followed it online as well as on the tube, beginning with the then-brand-new computer lab at my undergrad college. In my nostalgic moments, I tend to connect this season of Trek with the beginnings of my life online. And now, as I wrap up its post-mortem, it seems that I've come full circle...

Want to brush up on your Star Trek? See my reviews of TOS seasons one, two, and three; of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven; and of DS9 seasons one, six, and seven. As a control group, see also my review of Babylon 5 seasons one, two, three, and four.

PICTURED (from "The Caretaker" on): A Kazon "maje" on the Ocampa homeworld... Voyager trying to cut its way out of a singularity... Janeway spilling her guts to an eco-terrorist... Nelix submitting to an involuntary organ donation... Voyager suturing a wound in a nebula-sized life form... Vaughn Armstrong as a Romulan two decades out of time... A Banean magistrate in full plumage... What dead people from another "emanation" look like... Ronald Guttman as Gathorel Labin of the planet Sikaris... Seska (Martha Hackett) appealing to Chakotay's protective instincts... "Schweitzer" the hero... Neelix feeling compelled to rearrange the stones on Chakotay's dream wheel... The two sides of B'Elanna... Dr. Jetrel (James Sloyan) appealing to Neelix... Three of Tuvok's cadets... and (at left) a representative of the Phage-ravaged Vidiians.

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