Return To Gilligan's Island
Looking back over my own reviews of Star Trek Voyager this year, I am surprised at how wildly uneven they are. I really liked a few episodes, I thought a few others showed great potential. But too great a number were self-contradictory or just plain ludicrous, and in the end, I still find myself watching the same lost-in-space series.
My overall impression of this season is that it was vastly better than the previous one...but compared to the fifth seasons of The Next Generation, Babylon 5, and especially Deep Space Nine, it's still pretty poor. This year brought more balance in terms of getting to see characters other than Seven of Nine save the ship, but we're still watching too many episodes about the need to save the ship - some of which have rather disturbing endings.
At this point on TNG, we knew the characters and the themes. Since the ship wasn't exploring aimlessly, there were groups of familiar aliens setting up situations which permitted ongoing storylines without requiring arcs: Worf's relationship with the Klingons, for instance, Data's contacts with his father and Lor, Wesley's struggle to be a worthy Starfleet officer, Troi's complicated relationship with her mother. We could guess how Picard would respond in Prime Directive situations, we knew Riker genuinely didn't desire command. Even without the sort of complex storylines Babylon 5 developed and consummated in five short seasons, TNG provided multi-layered stories, characters with depth, and a good sense of humor to wit.
At a parallel point in its history, Deep Space Nine was beginning to show the potential to become the pinnacle of Star Trek, though it was coming off its weakest season. As war with the Dominion became inevitable, a series of isolated yet interlinked episodes - "The Ship," "Nor the Battle To the Strong," "In Purgatory's Shadow" - dealt with the characters' slow realization of the coming changes. At the same time, spread over several shows, Worf and Dax fell in love, Rom and Leeta got married, Odo came to terms with his love for Kira - who was in turn bearing a child for the O'Briens. Story arcs and character development wove together seamlessly, so that the momentum leading into the final two seasons has never let up.
So where's Voyager at the end of its fifth season? Pretty much where it's been, despite having made it halfway back to the Alpha Quadrant. In terms of plot, character, and theme, Voyager has been going in circles. The captain has become schizophrenic; we never know whether we're going to see the Janeway who's a daring explorer, the Janeway who's a walking Starfleet rule book, or the Janeway who suffers from chronic depression. It's not clear from week to week whether her top priority is getting her crew home, protecting Starfleet's ideals, checking out every anomaly in the Delta Quadrant, or espousing her personal philosophy to aliens everywhere. Picard was flexible enough to be unpredictable in various circumstances, but we always knew who he was as a captain. Janeway...I have less and less of an idea the longer the series runs.
That can't be good for her crew or her audience. While I liked Janeway very much in certain episodes - defending One's right to life in "Drone," for instance, and fighting the Borg Queen in "Dark Frontier" - I hated her self-indulgent sniveling in "Night," and her snooty Starfleet posturing in "Equinox." "Course: Oblivion" was both the most disturbing Janeway episode all season and the most characteristic: she forced her crew and her ship to be destroyed in her obsession to reach a home which wasn't even really her own. I wish I could say the silver blood made her behave out of character, but this isn't very different from the Janeway in "Timeless" who tried to bribe her first officer with dinner and dessert to go along with her dangerous plan to try risky slipstream technology which would have killed them without illegal intervention from the future.
While we got some heroics from the long-neglected Chakotay and Kim, I'm no closer to understanding them as people than I was four years ago. So Chakotay still meditates to talk to his ancestors: that's nice to know, but why doesn't he have enough backbone to come up with ideas when the ship's in trouble, and get the captain to try them? Is he planning to keep chasing long-haired alien babes? Does he feel passionately about anything? Not that I can tell. Harry, meanwhile, alternates between responsible Bridge officer and kid who has to be lectured on the necessity for using protection while indulging his own sexual proclivities. What does he want to get back to the Alpha Quadrant for? I'm no longer sure.
Then there's Captain Proton, who sometimes masquerades as pilot Tom Paris, and his sidekick, former chief engineer B'Elanna Torres. I can't decide which I dislike more, the sexism in Tom's holonovel or the condescension with which he treats his lover. While his rebellion and demotion represented an interesting return to his character of four seasons ago, I'm not sure what the point was since the senior officers' relationships with him seem to have changed not a bit. Torres now outranks him despite her Maquis origins, but he's had to bail her out more times than I care to remember.
B'Elanna is the first Klingon in the history of Star Trek who gets treated as if Klingon heritage is a pathology one must recover from. It's repulsive, a trend which goes against the very essence of the franchise...though Tuvok, too, was humanized in episodes like "Gravity." Reminds me of the aforementioned terrible year on Deep Space Nine when Worf lost his Klingon family and became human, when Quark lost his Ferengi citizenship and became human...what's the point of paying lip service to Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations if everyone has to fit into a narrow vision of appropriate behavior?
Reluctantly I turn to Seven of Nine, Savior of Voyager (the series as well as the ship, or so says her press). Last year I tried not to hate Seven too much because I'd been told so often that I had her to thank for their still being a Voyager...and besides, she did a reasonable job resisting Janeway's demands that she become a conformist blueprint of lowest-common-denominator human connection. But you know what? I no longer care about Seven's good points. I don't care how much the young men watching this show like to see her cleavage and listen to her barbs. How can they NOT be bored with her nanoprobes as the all-purpose technical solution to any problem the ship encounters? Seven has given the writers an easy way out of virtually every conundrum, plus a crutch visual for directors who haven't got a clue how to make the material interesting. She saps creativity rather than inspiring it. If I have to listen to her debate humanity with Janeway one more time, I'll become Klingon myself.
Neelix and the Doctor both had a good year, but this is because Ethan Phillips and Robert Picardo seem to possess an uncanny ability to make even the most implausible dialogue sound witty and fresh. The Doctor, too, is often used as a gimmick rather than a character - he's The Guy Who Can Walk Through Rooms Full Of Poison - but character crises like "Latent Image," "Nothing Human," and "Someone To Watch Over Me" provided deeply moving moments. How come the writers have done the best job with the humanity of the one character who's really only a projection? Neelix in turn had some sweet moments with Naomi Wildman (an excellent addition to the crew with the exception of her ship-saving turn in "Bliss," which was too Wesley Crusher-ish for my taste). He was also charming advising Seven of Nine, Tuvok, and the captain about their respective need to get over their superiority complexes and worry about the needs of the crew. And he's become a good ambassador. I'd put him in command of the ship if it weren't for that pesky issue of Starfleet training.
I find myself thinking about the concluding episodes of the season, which were really quite good, but in an odd way. "11:59" reminded us that Kate Mulgrew has terrific range when she's given decent material, and when she finds a way to have fun with it; she was wonderful in the silly "Bride of Chaotica" because you could tell she was enjoying herself, but there was nothing she could do with the stagnant gloom and doom in "Night." "Relativity" held my interest despite the silly plot because it featured the return of the old Captain Janeway, the one I still think of as the real Captain Janeway...a woman with sensitivity and humor, who loved her job, who cared about people as individuals. It's so interesting that we got these episodes back to back, almost as if the writers were trying out test Janeways for next season.
"Equinox" was most interesting of all, however, because I found its captain to be more compelling than Voyager's captain. Ransom was the Janeway of "The Year of Hell" and "Course: Oblivion" taken to an extreme: so desperate to get home that morality as well as rationality has been sacrificed. While our heroine was prissily citing regulations which said that her big guns made her best able to command, Ransom was dealing with the destruction of his crew - not a mixed Starfleet-Maquis band of rebels, but a group of Federation scientists in a desperate situation. The Equinox was thrown into the Delta Quadrant like Voyager, but instead of meeting semi-reasonable Kazon or stupider-than-average Borg, they had to fight all the way.
Of course they lost some of their ideals, and plausibly so; what's implausible is that no one on Janeway's crew (other than Janeway herself) has recommended veering from Starfleet regulations in years. Ransom's crew lost protocol, but they become the sort of family in space that Voyager doesn't even pretend to be, despite Janeway's lip service to family at crew gatherings. It's laughable, because she's the most isolated member of all. I could have wept at her surprise that Ransom let his crew call him by his first name. Janeway sees that as the first step down the primrose path to murdering aliens - forgetting that she handed over nanoprobes to the Borg to slaughter 8472s in order to save her own ship. She doesn't seem to realize that on Kirk's ship, for instance, the loyalty of Bones and Scotty and Sulu and the rest was what saved him, the Enterprise, Spock, and ultimately Earth. If "Flashback" taught her anything, it should have been that.
Bottom line: I don't really like Janeway anymore. And that depresses me more than I can say. I blame Seven's intrusiveness, I blame Chakotay's ineffectuality, I blame Tuvok's failure to be the sort of friend she claims he is, I blame the Doctor for not recognizing and treating her depression, I blame a whole list of aliens who've hardened her...but mostly I blame a franchise that seems to have put a woman in command just to knock her down. Kirk was the enthusiastic explorer of the galaxy, Picard was the committed leader of a research vessel with great tactical skill, Sisko was Emissary to the Prophets of Bajor as well as a Federation ambassador to a volatile region. Janeway's the sinking captain of a sinking ship.
Scariest of all, I don't see how this series can be saved. Certainly not by returning this crew to the Alpha Quadrant, as is most often suggested, since I will find it absolutely laughable if any of the crew choose to stay on the ship after finally getting home! The prospect of a contrived Maquis trial, of the crew re-enlisting out of personal loyalty, of these people wanting to stick together in the wake of their ordeal and the Dominion War is just not exciting. And really, I don't want Seven of Nine mucking up the Alpha Quadrant for potential future forays by the Enterprise and Defiant crews.
I guess that if Voyager stayed in the Delta Quadrant and finally turned into that family in space they've pretended to be for years, that might make the show worth watching. Now that Ron Moore is aboard from DS9 and Kate Mulgrew has agreed to stay the course, maybe we can find out if it's possible. I can hope, which is what I've been doing for five seasons now. It's getting harder and harder to see why anyone should.