This review is cross-posted from The Tolerability Index with permission from the author. (That Crow T. Robot up there is Prole Hole’s icon!)
Before we begin, a couple of points of explanation. Hi. I’m your host for the reviews of Star Trek: Voyager and will be picking up more or less where the AV Club’s official Trek reviews came to an end. While I’ll stick to roughly the same format as those reviews I want to take a slightly different approach to the content – while this is a review post, I will also be attempting to integrate a “redemptive reading” of certain aspects of the show, hopefully trying to cast certain elements in new or more interesting light. Now of course some things need to be praised just as others need to be criticized so there will be plenty of that too, though as with the A.V. Club’s DS9 coverage I won’t be posting letter grades – if you feel the urge to, well that’s what comments are for. And it goes without saying that there will be spoilers throughout the course of these reviews. I hope you’ll join me on this little trip through Voyager, and I hope you will keep an open mind. That’s all I can ask. Now, on to business.
Season 1, Episode 1 / 2 “Caretaker”
No pilot has an easy job. In the space of one or two episodes a situation needs to be established, characters need to be introduced, an idea of where the show is going to go needs to be laid down, and all this has to be done while trying to provide an engaging episode that will hold the viewers’ attention and get them to tune in next week. That’s not a simple task at the best of times, especially not when, as happened with “Caretaker”, your pilot has been selected to launch a new network and you have a vast number of highly-critical Star Trek fans to please as well, with all the support and baggage that brings with it.
Traditionally, Trek pilots have had a fairly rocky ride but “Caretaker” takes its time to learn from some of the mistakes of the past, at the very least finding a different story to tell from “The Cage” (humanity is judged by a superior being), “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (humanity is judged by someone who becomes a superior being) “Encounter At Farpoint” (humanity is judged by a superior being) and “Emissary” (humanity is judged by a mysterious superior being). “Caretaker” has a straightforward, action-adventure plot that sets up exactly the kind of show Voyager will be – fun, exciting, a little silly in places and a grand old ride. In other words – Star Trek.
Wasting just a few seconds on an opening scroll, that action-adventure plot kicks in straight away when we see Chakotay and his crew being menaced by a Cardassian ship as they attempt to flee into the Badlands. This is all familiar stuff – the Cardassian on-screen is Gul Evek, who we’ve met before a few times in both DS9 and TNG – but smoothly executed, and we get to see Chaktoay at his best, more thuggish and commanding, demanding solutions from his crew. In fact it’s surprising how effective Chakotay is throughout “Caretaker”, and Robert Beltran proves much better at playing this version of the character than the one that comes to be defined by little more than his Native American heritage as the show carries on. Here he stamps around the place, shouting at people to get answers, sacrificing his ship to ensure the safety of Voyager and generally just getting things done. Yet he also shows immediate, obvious respect for Janeway and concern for his missing crew-member, as well as the festering enmity between him and Paris, giving him dimension and agency beyond the walls of this episode. It’s an effective use of both character and actor, and establishes his situation well in a few short scenes before his ship is engulfed by a coherent tetryon beam…
As with “Encounter At Farpoint” and “Emissary”, “Caretaker” maintains the tradition of having a cameo from someone from the previous series crop up for no readily apparent reason other than to provide a link to the past, and in this case it’s Quark, who turns up trying to sell some worthless gemstones to Harry on Deep Space 9. While it’s pleasing the effort is taken to show Deep Space 9 functioning as an actual way station, its purpose is to allow the beginning of a burgeoning friendship between Tom and Harry as Tom saves Harry from being conned, which it does effectively enough. There’s really very little else to say about it (the cameo that is. There’s plenty more to say about Harry and Tom, especially by the time we reach “The Chute”).
And then, following a bit of starship porn as an anonymous Betazoid thoughtfully gives us a fly-by of Voyager, and one of the corniest lines in all of Trek is delivered (“Do you always fly at women at warp speed, Mr Paris?” “Only when they’re in visual range!” Ouch), it’s off to the Badlands, and from thence the Delta Quadrant, as the same beam that pulled Chakotay’s ship across the galaxy also ensnares Voyager. The Caretaker, the entity responsible for this, is an interesting one. Another explorer, responsible for the environmental collapse on Ocampa (the planet can no longer produce rain because… science! That is to say, there’s a bit of bafflegab about the absence of nucleogenic particles in the atmosphere preventing rain, but really it just motivates the Caretaker’s guilt and “the debt that can never be repaid”), he feels the weight of responsibility to protect the people that he and his mate accidentally caused such devastation towards. This parallels exactly the responsibility Janeway herself feels towards her crew and her inherent instinct to protect them, but also the conflicting desires to return home, and what that return might cost. The Caretaker sacrifices his entire life (over a millennium, we’re told) to stay and care for the Ocampa while his mate takes the easy path and leaves, and Janeway sacrifices her crew’s chance for an easy ride home. The responsibility of their actions weigh heavily on both of them.
And that brings us to Janeway herself. As is widely known Kate Mulgrew was second choice for the role after Geneviève Bujold, though given how terrible Bujold is in her recorded couple of scenes and how effortlessly Mulgrew plays the part it’s hard to see why that would have been the case. It’s not clear how long Janeway has been a captain but it’s a fair assumption that it’s not long. She’s obviously less experienced than either Kirk or Picard (and not commanding the Federation’s flagship) and she doesn’t have Sisko’s built-in world-weariness. During Janeway’s first scene with Paris at the penal colony where she persuades him to join the mission to the Badlands and her second chatting to her fiancé, Mark, she’s terribly jolly-hockey-sticks, off on her grand adventure for a couple of weeks while her dog gives birth to puppies. That attitude is very quickly shot down after Voyager is flung across the galaxy, and she immediately waylays any doubt either about her casting or the first (series-led) female captain, whether she’s storming down to Engineering to take care of the warp core’s micro-fracture, or lamenting in private with Tuvok over the fact that she never takes the time to know members of her crew. She’s especially effective in the latter, and Mulgrew and Russ have an easy, casual rapport that immediately speaks to the years of service the two characters have together. If anyone had any doubts about either Janeway or Mulgrew, they’re laid to rest here. She also manages to be distinct from her predecessors but not so distinct that she feels distant – she’s probably closest to Shatner in terms of performing style, but her righteous anger, especially later in the series, recalls Brooks, and her annoyed tick when the Caretaker refers to humanity as a “minor bipedal species” mimics the same annoyance that Stewart would deliver when Q turned up for his annual romp – and she takes command right from the moment she first sits in the central chair.
Of course, she also gets to have her Big Moment Of Decision at the end of the episode, when deciding whether to either destroy the array to protect the Ocampans or whether to keep the technology and use it to get home but sacrificing the Ocampans and possibly many others in the process. It’s a nicely handled moment – there’s no doubt what Janeway will do, since if she used the technology to get the crew home there would be no show – but she’s allowed to make the decision, clearly and without bias and it’s impossible to imagine that Kirk, Picard or Sisko would have come to any different conclusion. Janeway’s line, “I ‘m not willing to trade the lives of the Ocampa for our convenience” sums everything up, and when B’Elanna angrily demands what gives her the right to be making those decisions Chakotay’s quiet, understated “she’s the captain” pulls everything into focus.
Not everything in the pilot is quite as effective though, and the most obvious flaw here is the whole “water” situation and its apparent scarcity in this region. Given that our level of technology can produce water now, it seems inconceivable, or at the very least vastly improbable, that races capable of building faster than light ships and energy weapons can’t produce something as simple as water. Perhaps for the Ocampa – coddled in their underground city, dependent on another for all their needs, and encouraged not to think for themselves – this makes sense, but for Neelix and the Kazon? Not so much. Still the water does at least act as a symbol of the surplus-rich Federation with their comparative luxury and easy life, and the poverty-stricken status of everyone else (Neelix is first seen in a debris field looking for anything of value that can be scavenged which Janeway offhandedly brands “worthless”), and if it makes no sense literally it does function symbolically. The flow of water also represents passing, and when Neelix holes the water containers on the surface of Ocampa we are given the symbolism of many passings – the passing of the Ocampan dependency on the Caretaker and the passing of Kes’s innocence as she moves into a new phase in her life specifically. But regardless of its symbolism the scarcity of water in the region is only mentioned in the pilot, then quietly dropped – the right decision.
Kes and Neelix themselves will become contentious parts of the show, though in truth both get comparatively little screen-time here and what we do see isn’t especially problematic. Neelix, in particular, is smart enough to manipulate Janeway into rescuing Kes without her realizing it (and Janeway’s mild amusement at Neelix during their first conversation is nicely played by Mulgrew), and the start of the long-running affection Neelix has for “Mr. Vulcan” begins here too – Tim Russ is already developing Tuvok’s dry sense of humour and it’s perfectly deployed during the scene where Neelix takes his first bath. Janeway’s decision to keep Neelix on-board as a local guide also makes sense – they really are lost without any knowledge of what lies before them, and Neelix has thus far proved himself to be wily and loyal. Kes gets so little screen-time there’s really very little to be made of her here.
And speaking of flaws, the Kazon also make their debut. It’s worth remembering that, at the time of broadcast, they were just this week’s bad guy rather than the recurring aliens they will become, and as random bad guys of the week they’re actually not that bad. Unremarkable, certainly, and fairly anonymous, but no more or less good than any other random bad guy of the week, and they fulfill their function of providing a bit of threat perfectly satisfactorily. There are also hints of something more interesting about them – the fact that we are told there are Kazon sects right from the word go makes a nice change from the more common Trek approach towards treating societies as homogenized – but there’s little of this explored here. We’ll be coming to it later though…
The two episodes that comprise the pilot were both directed by Winrich Kolbe, an old lag and a steady pair of hands on the tiller, and it shows. The action sequences are competently handled, the special effects are well integrated into the live action, almost everyone is given a moment to shine and there’s a confidence and pacing to both episodes that really helps to drive the momentum of the plot. Scenes set on Chakotay’s ship (of which we see no more than the bridge) feel cramped and claustrophobic thanks to Kolbe’s tight shots, sharp cutting and very low lighting levels, and the shot of the ship crashing into the Kazon cruiser while Chakotay beams out at the last second is carried off with great aplomb. This contrasts nicely with the bright, wide, open shots of Voyager’s bridge and the space everyone has to stride around in it. The long corridor of abducted personnel lying on their backs on the Caretakers array, heads facing out rather than feet and arms splayed to either side is similarly effective, and throughout both episodes there are touches that show someone who is really putting in the effort.
And then, suddenly, the pilot comes to an end. The array is destroyed, Voyager is trapped on the other side of the galaxy with a 75-year journey home, two crews need to work as one crew (a Starfleet crew, as Janeway pointedly emphasizes during her big Episode Closing Speech), and the series is off to a fine start. It’s not flawless – none of the Trek pilots are – but it’s big, confident and hugely entertaining, which as an introduction to a new series is about as much as you can ask for. It establishes the show with a splash of style, with its own distinct identity away from both TNG and DS9, and in Mulgrew finds Trek’s first leading lady. The journey has now begun.
• That title sequence still looks great all these years later, and the theme tune is terrific too. They work incredibly well together.
• The original ships Doctor is killed when Voyager is flung across the galaxy – the little of what we see of him he’s no loss to the crew or the series (being replaced by wonderful Robert Picardo probably doesn’t help his case much either).
• Ocampa is the same old stretch of desert that crops up in every iteration of Star Trek, shot through a filter. Surprise!
• Unless they are particularly great or especially terrible, I won’t be saying much about the special effects. For a special effect to be successful it needs to accurately portray on-screen what needs to be conveyed from script and by the time of Voyager CGI has advanced to the point where this is almost always the case. However, “successful” is not always a synonym for “good”, so there may be the odd exception along the way.
• The underground dwelling of the Ocampa is surprisingly well realized (it’s the LA Convention Centre integrated with backdrops), and though we see little of their society what we do see is pleasingly well-rounded – there’s a couple of black Ocampa in the background implying ethnic diversity, we at least see some of the structure of their society, and we get to see something as simple as how they eat meals. Given their limited screen time it nice to see such an effort being made. It’s also nice that, as the away team try to make their escape to the surface from the underground dwelling, effort is made to show them actually going up, rather than just running through the usual collection of horizontal caves (though there’s plenty of them too), another nice touch from Kolbe.
• Speaking of ethnic diversity, it seems impossibly difficult to remember that Tim Russ’s casting as the first black Vulcan was controversial at the time. Nobody, curiously, seems to have had a problem with a half-Latino Klingon.
• Mark, Janeway’s fiancé ,will be seen later in the series and will be just as wet and ineffectual as his brief appearance here. She could do so much better.
• Harry and B’Elanna look very cute in their medical gowns when on Ocampa, and there’s an instant rapport between Dawson and Wang. Some fans have lamented that they never got a chance for a romance together but it’s actually nice that their spark grows into a friendship rather than going down the more obvious relationship road.
• I’m not commenting on Janeway’s hair.
• Since this is a review of a pilot it is also a “pilot review”. I’m posting this now as a pilot and the reviews of the rest of the Voyager reviews
will begin have begun on a weekly basis when now that the incomparable Zack Handlen has finished up his DS9 reviews over at the A.V. Club mothership.
• “Will it make me a uniform like yours?” “No. It most certainly will not.”
EDIT: Note from your WeStreamTV Admin– These reviews began at TI a few months ago (hence the references to “when Zack is finished at AVC”, etc., which has already happened by now) , and are only now being cross-posted. For the first 3 reviews (of the first 6 eps), if you’d like to comment then the best place to do that is probably TI, where a discussion is already ongoing. Beginning with Episode 7, the cross-posting will happen within
a day days of the original and you’re welcome to comment here.