There are lots of people who dislike Star Trek Voyager. Some cite the characters, others the “stranded and trying to get home” concept. Even fans of the show, such as myself, concede it has flaws. The Borg lost some of their fearsome edge. The ship had critically limited resources, but still managed to blithely lose nearly twenty shuttlecraft. Neelix survived multiple near-death situations. But what I’m here to talk about today is something a little different – namely, how the show’s episodic focus wasted a great chance to tell a longer and more complex story.
The decision to make Voyager primarily an episodic show was not an accidental one. Those involved in the show’s production looked at the Star Trek shows that had gone before – namely TNG and DS9, and drew some simple conclusions. Everyone loved TNG, which was set on a starship and had mostly standalone stories. People were less enamoured of DS9, which was mostly set on a space station that never went anywhere, and aimed for longer arcs. Clearly the key to success was to stick with the ‘episodic series set on a starship’ formula, and milk it for all it was worth.
The trouble was, not only wasn’t Voyager TNG, but it really needed to forge an identity of its own. And, to some extent, it did, but let’s pause and take a moment to think about some of the missed opportunities.
At the start of the series, Voyager adds a galley to the mess hall for Neelix, and an airponics bay for growing produce. The season three finale and start of season four add Borg alcoves and a new astrometrics bay for Seven of Nine. Other than that, however, Voyager remains remarkably pristine for a ship stranded 70,000 light years from the nearest Federation starbase.
From both a story and aesthetic point-of-view, it would have been interesting to see more of an evolution in the look of the ship over the years, as Federation components failed and alien technology had to be used as a replacement.
Comings and goings
At the end of the pilot, Janeway welcomes aboard not only Chakotay’s Maquis crew, but also Delta Quadrant locals Neelix and Kes. Given how annoying Neelix is, it’s no wonder that she waits several years before allowing anyone else to join the crew!
It might have been interesting, however, to have a bit more turnover of local aliens coming aboard Voyager for a while. What if Janeway had rescued some prisoners from the Vidiians, or maybe taken aboard Kar, the junior Kazon from Initiations? Maybe some of the ex-Borg from Unity would have liked the opportunity to try to get back to the Alpha or Beta Quadrants. Perhaps Janeway would need to recruit local talent to fill in some of the gaps left by the frequent deaths among her own crew.
It’s not that I think these new characters should have had top billing, or even been in more than a few episodes, but it would have been interesting to have some B or C stories dedicated to the comings and goings of various aliens. Just think, they could have used the screentime allocated to awful Neelix episodes like Once Upon a Time!
Remember how DS9 had a whole raft of minor and recurring characters that only actually appeared in a couple of episodes each, but felt somehow integral to the show? Voyager didn’t do nearly as well on this score, mainly focussing on the Wildman family and Icheb, and forgetting everyone else existed. The ex-Maquis from Learning Curve were seen in the background a couple of times, and Lieutenant Carey appeared once after a six-year absence just to get shot in the chest, but neither of these instances make for a decent character arc.
It’s a shame, because Voyager could have really put together some ongoing threads with more of its minor characters. In particular, I’m thinking of the crewmembers who came aboard after the events of Equinox. Janeway warns them to effectively “straighten up and fly right” at the end of the two-parter, and clearly they do, because they are never seen again. I would have loved to have seen them have to deal with settling in aboard Voyager, working to gain the trust of their new colleagues and move on from the traumatic events on the Equinox.
In fact, instead of giving us rich threads of minor characters, Voyager pulls “much loved despite never before having been mentioned or seen onscreen” characters out of its arse on multiple occasions. Remember Ensign Jetal, described on Memory Alpha as “popular and well-liked among the crew; she was even friends with the senior staff”? She only appeared posthumously, in flashbacks in the episode Latent Image. How about Harry Kim’s close friend Lyndsay Ballard, who he never once hung out with onscreen until she returned from the dead, having been revived by alien technology? Even the underperforming crewmembers from Good Shepherd only show up in one episode.
The heart of the problem seems to be that the Voyager writers treated the show like TNG. On the Enterprise-D, people were joining and leaving the ship all the time, so of course you might not see the same faces from one week to the next. The ship’s complement was also seven times that of Voyager, so of course you’d never get to know everyone on board. But Voyager was an ever-diminishing crew of people who had no choice but to get to know each other and work together for seven years, and that’s a dynamic we could have seen on screen.
Voyager could definitely have done with more multi-episode arcs, but what should they have been about? Even the writers admit that there were things they would have liked to have done more slowly. Let’s examine a few possibilities.
- The Maquis: The Maquis/Starfleet conflict was meant to be one of the initial selling points of the series, but apart from Parallax, Prime Factors and Learning Curve, we don’t really see much of it. To be honest, I think this storyline would have gotten tired pretty quickly if it had stuck around, but maybe we could have had a more graduated “Maquis settling in” subplot across season one.
- Seven of Nine: Seven of Nine’s mental transformation from Borg to human was pretty much top billing for four years, but one thing the show skipped over were her physical changes. Of course I get that when you have an actress as good looking as Jeri Ryan, you want to up the ratings by stuffing her into a catsuit as quickly as possible, but let’s take a step back here. Imagine if, in the first half of season four, we’d actually seen her slowly lose the worst of the Borg implants and regain the colour of her skin. Instead, the Doctor “takes the liberty of stimulating follicle growth”, and she’s good to go.
- Year of Hell: At one point, the Year of Hell two-parter was meant to be an entire season. Now, obviously doing the time reset at the end of a season-long arc would have been “Dallas shower dream” levels of awful, and no one wanted to live in a timeline where Tuvok was blind and most of the crew had left the ship, but there was still potential here. Could the Year of Hell story sustained itself for maybe five episodes? Perhaps.
- The Void: In this season seven episode, Voyager gets stuck in The Void – a region of space where resources are scarce and the strong prey upon the weak. Janeway’s response is to ignore the status quo and form an alliance of ships who work together to to do what none of them could have achieved alone – escaping The Void. It’s a great example of how falling back on Federation values can save the day.
The trouble is, it’s all over within 45 minutes. This story could have easily lasted longer, with Janeway having to first survive, then slowly form alliances while fending off enemies and watching out for traitors from within. I know what I’ve described is essentially what was meant to be the plot of the TV show Andromeda, but since Andromeda completely failed to put together a compelling or coherent narrative, Voyager should have had a shot at it.
- Janeway v. Chakotay: Remember how the events of Equinox drove a wedge between Janeway and Chakotay, with their friendship tested to breaking point? Just a few episodes later, everything seems fine again, with them chatting casually and sharing pot roasts just like old times. But what if the writers had properly developed this, with a tension between them that took a while to go away? Janeway and Chakotay learning to trust each other again would have made for great television.
I could hardly end any critique of Voyager’s missed potential without talking a little about Captain Janeway. Janeway often gets criticised for being written inconsistently, and whilst this is true of many other Star Trek and TV characters, it would be remiss not to touch on it.
In some episodes, Starfleet rules and morals are Janeway’s guiding light. She strands Voyager in the Delta Quadrant to keep the Caretaker’s array out of Kazon hands, refuses to steal the Sikarian space projector, insists they can’t change the timeline in Eye of the Needle, and even follows the Omega Directive to the letter. Yet at other times, she’s willing to throw the rulebook out of the window, saying “we’re a long way from Starfleet”. In Endgame, she cares enough about Chakotay and Seven of Nine to change the timeline significantly in order to save their lives, but other crewmembers just have to stay dead because they aren’t close friends of the captain. At times, Janeway is a hawk, promising violent retribution to the likes of the Vidiians if they dare harm her crew again, or picking unnecessary fights with the Borg. At others, she insists that Federation principles mean that pacifism and a softly-softly approach is the way to go.
There’s a lot that can be done to put together a coherent narrative for Janeway. She’s clearly reactive to the situation, and doesn’t just blindly apply the same logic regardless of specifics. Starfleet principles are important to her, but the heavy burden of having to keep her crew safe can override that. And yet, there are still times when she seems to contradict herself. Just a little more attention to detail could have saved this – we could have seen more of her internal conflict as she agonised over decisions or talked things out with Chakotay. I hesitate to even suggest this, but maybe she could have worked out her problems in the time honoured Starfleet tradition of immersing oneself in a holodeck program. Just not that awful period romance one.
Voyager had plenty of good moments, but it also passed up a lot of opportunities to truly make its mark and distinguish itself as more than a wannabe TNG. Will Discovery season three, also set in a “far from home” scenario, offer us a less episodic and more integrated take on this situation?
What would you have liked to see in Voyager? Comment below and let me know.