A Cynic’s Guide to Star Trek: Voyager

The years haven’t been terribly kind to Star Trek: Voyager, which marked its 25th anniversary this month. It’s sort of the Weezer “Green Album” to Deep Space Nine’s Pinkerton. Both shows were follow-ups to the beloved Star Trek: The Next Generation Deep Space Nine struggled in first-run syndication while Voyager was a hit for a new network (UPN, RIP), but after a quarter-century of hindsight, the critical consensus is that DS9 was a groundbreaking gem while Voyager was safe and commercial, the beginning of the end for a once-mighty pop cultural force that some maintain has never recovered. 

A loud segment of Trekkies delights in tearing into Voyager (on account of it’s easy to do), but just as many have fond memories of the series and will defend it to the end of the galaxy. And while Voyager’s flaws are glaring and systemic, there’s still a lot to enjoy if you’re willing to take the journey.

What Could Have Been

Voyager’s cardinal sin is its failure to live up to its premise. The two-hour opening chapter, “Caretaker,” (S1E1) strands Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and the USS Voyager in the Delta Quadrant, a distant corner of the galaxy far from the United Federation of Planets where all previous Star Trek series take place. We’re introduced to our cast, made up not only of traditional Starfleet heroes but also a band of outlaws called the Maquis who don’t care for Starfleet’s rules and directives. They’ll have to learn to work together as they face hard choices with zero relief and zero oversight, visiting strange new worlds not just to explore, but to survive.

The series pitched in “Caretaker” could have been a nice change of pace after Star Trek: The Next Generation, whose setting was basically a heavily-armed flying luxury hotel backed with the authority of a galactic superpower. Sadly, Voyager devolved into The Next Next Generation, with the Maquis seamlessly merging into the Starfleet hierarchy far too quickly and the ship herself always in working order no matter what kind of pounding it took in the previous episode. Apart from the need to limit the use of food replicators in favor of home-cooked meals from local produce, any implication of higher stakes or rougher conditions aboard Voyager are easily dismissed. Voyager’s crew famously uses over three times the number of “irreplaceable” photon torpedoes they’re said to have at the start of the show, wrecks at least ten shuttlecraft without comment, and is seen relaxing in the holodeck at least as often as any other crew.

Star Trek: Voyager

It’s not identical to TNG — let’s not overlook the impact of Trek’s first female lead, or Voyager-specific hallmarks like retiring the “Captain’s Log” trope in favor of in medias res teasers — but for fans looking for more than a new coat of paint on their old favorite show, Voyager is a disappointment. 

Every once in a while, though, Voyager captured the excitement that it should have been delivering every week, such as in “Prime Factors” (S1E10). Here, Voyager encounters a friendly culture who possesses the technology to transport the crew home instantly, but they won’t, citing the same non-interference directive that has been a staple of Starfleet itself since The Original Series. Starfleet isn’t allowed to influence civilizations who haven’t reached a certain technological threshold, which is meant as a safeguard against colonialism but has also led to Star Trek protagonists passively observing a lot of suffering. Now, Janeway and company find themselves receiving a taste of their own medicine, splitting the crew right down the middle. It’s a story tailor-made for Voyager and stands out as the series’ first great episode.

Years later, a pair of two-part episodes give us a glimpse into the alternate universe in which Voyager is a gutsy sci-fi drama with stakes, but each does it in a way that lets the producers have their cake and eat it, too. The first is “Year of Hell” (S4E8 & S4E9), in which a widower from a crumbling military power (Kurtwood Smith, the fucking dad from That ‘70s Show) recklessly erases entire civilizations from history in an attempt to create a better timeline for himself and his empire. The movie-length story packs the kind of damage Voyager could have been taking all along into two hours, but since this is a time travel episode smack in the middle of a season, you can probably guess how it ends.

As it turns out, that edgy alternate Voyager series was happening all along, just out of view — in “Equinox” (S5E26 & S6E1) Voyager encounters another Starfleet ship that’s been lost in the Delta Quadrant just as long as it has, except their experience has been wall to wall misery and it’s transformed them into amoral monsters.

“It’s easy to cling to your principles when you’re standing on a vessel with its bulkheads intact, manned by a crew that’s not starving,” says Janeway’s counterpart, Captain Ransom, as if it’s the tagline for his own series that we didn’t see. Of course, Star Trek is built on a core of hope and optimism and seven seasons of Star Trek: Equinox would have been a bridge too far even for most fans of the edgier Deep Space Nine, but it makes one wonder what could have been if the essence of this story had been diluted throughout the series. Episodes that hit the sweet spot of depicting Voyager as a scrappy underdog without undercutting the show’s tone include “Night” (S5E1) and “Counterpoint” (S5E10).

Star Trek: Voyager

Emotional Arcade Mode

In fairness, Voyager didn’t exactly invent negative continuity in Star Trek, and serialized television was still pretty rare in American primetime during the 1990s. But what separates Voyager from the more warmly-remembered Next Generation, which also rarely referenced previous episodes, is that Voyager had a habit of swinging for the fences with stories that seem like they should have a massive impact on the characters and then never addressing them. Some of the best Voyager episodes are like great playthroughs of a game that’s always erasing your save file.

“Tuvix” (S2E24) begins with a comedy premise — the bland, stoic Vulcan security officer Tuvok (Tim Russ) and the obnoxious chef Neelix (Ethan Phillips) are in a transporter accident that combines them into a single being who calls himself Tuvix (Tom Wright). While the change is a shock to their friends and loved ones aboard Voyager, Tuvix quickly establishes himself as the best of both worlds, a charming, thoughtful member of the crew, and by the time a method is found to separate him back into two people, Tuvix decides he doesn’t want to be split up. But there’s a problem — Tim Russ and Ethan Phillips are series regulars with contracts. And so, what could have been farce takes a sharp turn into heavy drama.

It’s likely not a spoiler for you that Tuvix doesn’t stick around. What is shocking is how it all goes down, how dark the episode gets, and how none of it is ever brought up again. A horrible event takes place that has zero consequences beyond the end credits. But this recurring problem for the series does not detract from the episode itself, which is gripping and emotional and stands a good chance of making you cry.

Star Trek: Voyager

Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram, usually just called “The Doctor,” is one of the series’ most interesting characters and brought to life by its best regular actor, Robert Picardo. The Doctor is a computer program designed to fill in for a living doctor for short periods of time, but since Voyager’s entire medical staff perishes in the first episode, The Doctor is left on continuously, allowing him to evolve into a fully sentient being. He’s the character whose growth is most apparent, but that growth feels mostly divorced from the handful of shattering traumas that he endures throughout the show’s seven seasons. These are best experienced for yourself spoiler-free in “Real Life” (S3E22) and “Latent Image” (S5E11).

Lucky Number Seven

Voyager’s seven seasons can be easily split into two eras — the Kes era and the Seven of Nine era. Kes (Jennifer Lien) is a member of a species who typically only lives about nine years and is already two when we meet her in the series premiere. The implication was that the audience would witness Kes’s entire adulthood over the course of the series. This wasn’t meant to be as the producers decided to shake up the cast at the start of the fourth season, but we get a nice taste of what that might have been like in “Before and After” (S3E21).

Kes was ushered out and a new character was brought on board over the course of the action-packed two-part “Scorpion” (S3E26 & S4E1) and its character-focused companion episode “The Gift” (S4E2), which together introduced Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a woman rescued from the influence of the cybernetic hive mind known as The Borg. Seven’s path to self-actualization and her mentorship by Janeway and The Doctor become core to the series. For highlights of those relationships, check out “Prey” (S4E16) and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (S5E22), respectively.

Star Trek: Voyager

The series’ increased focus on the new girl in the skintight catsuit led to a lot of bruised feelings among the cast, but the addition of Seven kicks the show into a whole new gear. Seven even gets her own movie of sorts in “Dark Frontier” (S5E15, S5E16), which fleshes out her backstory and serves as the apex of her character arc, in addition to generally being pretty cool. Seven remained popular enough after Voyager wrapped up that Jeri Ryan is now reprising the role on Star Trek: Picard.

Totally Classic Trek

It’s easy to criticize Executive Producer Rick Berman, who led the franchise throughout the heyday of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and later Enterprise, for his desire to play things safe and stick to what works. But one also has to acknowledge that trying to reproduce the success of shows like Star Trek and The Next Generation is not a terrible goal to have. Most of Voyager’s 172 episodes are simply attempts to make more Star Trek, and while there are some significant stinkers in there, the majority rate as firmly “watchable.”

Here and there during the run of Voyager, an episode will crop up that you could easily slide into the run of a different, better Star Trek series. Episodes like “Mortal Coil” (S4E12), in which Neelix discovers his promised afterlife doesn’t exist, and “Living Witness” (S4E23), set in a future where a civilization scapegoats Voyager for a historical atrocity, don’t involve Voyager’s specific conceit at all, but they make great use of the artifice of Star Trek as a whole.

Voyager contributes a few strong episodes to each of the staple Trek subgenres. Writer-Producer Brannon Braga, who got his start on The Next Generation, never liked the show to use the same time travel device twice, resulting in highlights like “Timeless” (S5E6), “Relativity” (S5E24)”, and the aforementioned “Year of Hell,” which each have a different spin on time travel. Voyager having a working holodeck hurt the show, but it did allow for really fun costume adventures like “The Killing Game” (S4E17 & S4E18) and “Bride of Chaotica!” (S5E12). “Death Wish” (S2E18) is a dalliance into Trek’s tradition of courtroom dramas. Guest starring beloved TNG foil Q (John DeLancie), “Death Wish” asks: “Does a god have the right to die?”

While it’s most closely related to The Next Generation, Voyager also takes aim at Star Trek: The Original Series from time to time, such as in “The Thaw” (S2E23), which matches the bizarre, silly/scary vibe of classic episodes like “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Michael McKean guest stars as a computer simulation of a clown who lives in your head and kills you by turning your fears into performance art — there is no lack of creativity at play here. 

But the best example of Voyager delivering a pitch-perfect, non-denominational Star Trek episode is “Blink of an Eye” (S6E12). In this episode, Voyager becomes trapped in the orbit of a world for whom time passes much more quickly than in normal space, so each minute above is about a day below. From their vantage point, Voyager bears witness to the rise of an entire civilization, but the audience also sees this from the opposite perspective. Each act, we visit the surface during another chapter in the civilization’s history and see how the presence of “the sky ship” has influenced their culture, religion, and pursuit of scientific discovery. It’s fascinating on the macro level, but the story turns more personal when we meet an astronaut (Daniel Dae Kim) who dreams of meeting the people who’ve watched over his world for millennia. It’s an intriguing sci-fi concept (cribbed from a 1980 novel) attached to a human story with a message of communication and discovery — a perfect Star Trek sandwich.

That’s ultimately the key to enjoying Voyager — recognizing that while it may not have been breaking the mold of classic Star Trek, it was bearing the torch for it. It’s not often challenging, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be satisfying in the way TOS and TNG can. And if you’re going to have multiple Star Trek series running concurrently, as DS9 and Voyager did, is it so wrong for one of them to be poppy and familiar? As long as we already have Pinkerton, what’s so bad about “The Green Album?”

And oh, why not, here are the referenced episodes in release order:

  • “Caretaker,” (S1E1)
  • “Prime Factors” (S1E10)
  • “Death Wish” (S2E18)
  • “The Thaw” (S2E23)
  • “Tuvix” (S2E24)
  • “Before and After” (S3E21)
  • “Real Life” (S3E22)
  • “Scorpion” (S3E26 & S4E1)
  • “The Gift” (S4E2)
  • “Year of Hell” (S4E8 & S4E9)
  • “Mortal Coil” (S4E12)
  • “Prey” (S4E16)
  • “The Killing Game” (S4E18 & S4E19)
  • “Living Witness” (S4E23)
  • “Night” (S5E1)
  • “Timeless” (S5E6)
  • “Counterpoint” (S5E10)
  • “Latent Image” (S5E11)
  • “Bride of Chaotica!” (S5E12)
  • “Dark Frontier” (S5E15, S5E16)
  • “Someone to Watch Over Me” (S5E22)
  • “Relativity” (S5E24)
  • “Equinox” (S5E26 & S6E1)
  • “Blink of an Eye” (S6E12)
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