In the Home Stretch, Can Voyager Find Closure?
Star Trek: Voyager's penultimate season wasn't its best, but it could have been a lot worse. There were some excellent episodes during season six - "Dragon's Teeth," "One Small Step," "Life Line" - which made up for stinkers like "Alice" and "The Voyager Conspiracy." Although the finale, "Unimatrix Zero," had some flaws, it also left considerable potential for the next and last year of the show. All in all, things are looking up on Janeway's island lost in space.
Any summation of a television series is inevitably going to be subjective, so let me state my prejudices right now. I believe any Trek series needs solid science fiction plots, a strong captain, and a spirited and comradely crew who are fun to watch even during hard times, with a decent dose of Gene Roddenberry's idealism. Voyager has scored very well on the UPN network criteria - superb babe factor by having Jeri Ryan featured front and center, excellent fighting factor by having The Rock guest star and Torres wrestle dead Klingons, decent Trek factor with guest appearances by Next Generation and Deep Space Nine alumni. But ratings gimmicks alone do not a series make.
So let's take the issues one at a time.
Solid Science Fiction
Purely on a plot level, Voyager had an excellent year. "Dragon's Teeth," "Blink of an Eye," and "Memorial" were somewhat derivative of original series episodes, and "Survival Instinct," "Riddles," and "Unimatrix Zero" were reminiscent of Next Gen episodes, but that's hardly a flaw: even the best original Trek episodes often borrowed ideas from classic sci-fi novels, and if Voyager wants to expand on concepts from the previous series, that only enhances our sense of continuity in the franchise.
"Dragon's Teeth," for instance, had strong similarities to "Space Seed." In both cases, the crews woke sleeping giants in suspended animation and nearly triggered interstellar incidents. But both stories allowed the respective captains to consider their ethical obligations, make tough choices, and unite their crews to stave off a rising menace. Similarly, "Blink of an Eye" - like the classic "Wink of an Eye" - focused on a society that lived at a much faster pace than most of the humanoids in the galaxy. But while Kirk and crew were forced to get involved against their wills, Janeway discovered that her ship had inadvertently affected the course of civilization, and struggled with her Prime Directive obligations to do as little harm as possible in extricating her crew.
This is the stuff of which good science fiction is made: technical gimmicks leading to character stories and complicated social issues. It would be nice if there were more continuity to the stories - if the horrific violence the war in "Memorial," for instance, had had an impact on the crew's feelings about the staged fighting in "Tsunkatse" - but it's not necessary, and many of this season's Voyager episodes stand strongly on their own merits. "One Small Step," the story of an astronaut dead for centuries who taught Seven of Nine the value of personal history, doesn't appear to have influenced her one week later in "The Voyager Conspiracy," but it's still a moving, optimistic episode. "Riddles," in which Neelix became mentor to a damaged Tuvok, didn't reflect their previous bonding in "Tuvix," but we still saw character growth.
Since Voyager is heading into its final season, however, more continuity is called for. The current writing staff often seems to have forgotten the previous several seasons and shows. They don't seem to know that Neelix lost his lungs in "Phage," that Vulcan mental discipline requires years of training rather than just species genetics, that the Maquis in the Alpha Quadrant have been disbanded - and, moreover, that their initial complaints against the Cardassians were dead right. There are loose ends which could disrupt any superficial attempts at closure, such as our knowledge from "In the Flesh" that Species 8472 may be planning an invasion of Earth, and the Romulan threat discovered by the Doctor in "Message in a Bottle."
If the arc which brings Voyager home is to be moving and meaningful, it must incorporate the show's history in a significant way, not just toss out some token conflict over the Maquis and the casual assumption that Delta Quadrant natives Neelix and Seven will fit right in at home. What happens to Paris and Torres when they're no longer cooped up together on the ship? Who will Janeway turn into when she's not defining herself solely as the captain of Voyager? How will Naomi Wildman react when faced with meeting the father she has never seen, and leaving the only home she has ever known? These are large, potentially profound issues. They deserve to be explored with consistency and care. Since Voyager has made contact with the Alpha Quadrant and will apparently have regular communications with them from now on, all of next season can be devoted to the slow process of reintegration.
Thus far the Borg have proven to be Voyager's most compelling adversary. But at the same time, they're practically domesticated. Several ex-Borg live and regenerate in the cargo bays. Janeway's on a first-name basis with the Borg Queen - a character who shouldn't even bother to acknowledge the individuality of those she comes up against, let alone flirt with dominatrix-style and villainously taunt. The queen may add a titillation factor, but she diminishes the terrifying mindlessness of the hive mentality. (And let's not even get started on the number of humans allegedly assimilated at Wolf 359; there wasn't a cube left working to take them back to Borg space, so the suggestion makes absolutely no sense.)
Moreover, the mere existence of Unimatrix Zero makes Seven's backstory less compelling. Suddenly she no longer seems like a poor human child who was stripped of her individuality and forced to function within a heartless, mechanized system; she's more like an engineer who had a terrible day job but spent her nights at a lovely resort with a long-term boyfriend and a crowd of people who understood her. If Janeway is successful in her quest to inspire a Borg revolution centered in Unimatrix Zero, she won't only be defeating the Federation's most formidable foe; she'll be destroying them as compelling adversaries, making us wonder why we were ever afraid of them in the first place. In TNG's "The Best of Both Worlds," a single Borg cube demolished a huge chunk of Starfleet and nearly laid waste to Earth. Nowadays Voyager can cruise through Borg cities undamaged and offer liberation from the hive mentality they represent. It almost makes me want to root against Janeway.
A Strong Captain
Speaking of whom...I received a note from a friend yesterday asking whether I think Janeway is a saint or insane for her actions in "Unimatrix Zero." Of course I answered promptly, "Insane," but that's not really fair; it wasn't her decision to get assimilated that made me question her stability. I've had my doubts about Janeway since fifth season's "Night," when she decided to sulk in her quarters for a month instead of commanding her ship, and her decision to go on a deadly vendetta against Starfleet renegade Captain Ransom this year did nothing to improve my opinion. Chakotay and Tuvok nearly staged a mutiny over that incident, and my major regret was that they didn't go forward with it.
Janeway has had two major projects in the past three years: to get her crew home even if she has to kill every man, woman and child on board to succeed (as "Timeless" and "Course: Oblivion" have indicated), and to turn Seven of Nine into the woman Janeway wants her to be. These obsessions have made it impossible for her to have friends or even be collegial with the people on her ship, though she did thaw a tiny bit this season in "Good Shepherd" and "Barge of the Dead" in a maternal capacity.
Of course she doesn't have anything resembling a private life. When she has a fling with a hologram, the entire crew hears about it during her bridge tirades against her programmable boyfriend. When her hologram's program is endangered, she considers risking live crewmembers to save him. Is this the act of a caring, selfless woman or a completely berserk one? I think the answer is obvious. And, since her decisionmaking is so questionable in "Fair Haven" and "Spirit Folk," we then have to wonder about the choice she makes to have herself, Torres and Tuvok assimilated in order to "save" the Borg.
One could argue either way about whether she made the right decision: it was so dangerous as to be foolhardy and it violated the noninterference directive, but it's certainly what Kirk would have done, and possibly what Picard would have done if he were in an "I, Borg" mindset rather than a "Descent" mindset (Sisko's another matter; the Borg killed his wife). I have no idea how she intends to pull this off, so the conclusion will either dazzle me or make me sneer - since she's been assimilated, the Borg now know everything she has planned, including whatever top secret provisions she's made with Chakotay to rescue her after the virus she's apparently carrying liberates the Unimatrix Zero drones. The Doctor can't even swear that the virus will work. If it does, then Janeway could the heroic liberator of the Borg, and of all the races they would have continued to oppress, including humanity. But if it fails, she's left Voyager without a captain, chief engineer, a chief security officer...and a single secret from the Borg, since her knowledge is now their knowledge.
One of my colleagues at Mania argues that now is the perfect time for a direct military strike against the Borg. "If Janeway's mental processes are actually assimilated by the Borg, the Federation could not ask for a greater military advantage," notes Steve Johnson. "Janeway is schizo, and we want the Borg to make stupid, inconsistent mistakes." In fact this is so sadly true as to be hysterically funny. Janeway's rabid inconsistency - going on humanitarian missions that could jeopardize her entire crew, then refusing to grant an iota of understanding to Seven's conflicts about human values or Torres' desire to make her own ethical choices or Captain Ransom's desperate measures to save his own crew - makes it impossible to predict from week to week whether she'll be sulking in her quarters, threatening to throw her senior officers in the brig, or reaching out the gracious hand of the Federation to species they're unlikely ever to encounter again.
Is she a saint or is she nuts? Maybe both. But even under the best of circumstances, I don't think a saint is the ideal person to put in the captain's chair. I hope Chakotay knows what he's doing, because he needs to have a plan of rescue that Janeway and the Borg could never predict.
The Intrepid Crew
Did Chakotay have a good year or a bad year this year? Well, there are certain factors in his favor. For one, he didn't have a single fling with an alien bimbo. Of course, this is probably because he's been indulging on the holodeck, as he admitted to Janeway in "Spirit Folk." But for all my dislike of people turning to holograms for intimacy, it's a lot safer than the command crew having flings with dangerous aliens. At moments this season it seemed that Chakotay had recaptured the feelings for Janeway he had way back in "Resolutions" and "The Q and the Grey," but hand-holding on the bridge aside, they've been too inconsistent together and as individuals for me to have any idea how they might feel about one another romantically at this point.
On the other hand, the season finale was notably lacking the annual Great J/C Argument. In the past several seasons, Janeway and Chakotay have finished out the year hurling tribal legends, Starfleet regulations, and personal insults at one another. This year, Janeway announced that she was going on a suicide mission to save the Borg...and Chakotay said he thought it was a great idea! This is the same man who stormed out of the conference room in "Scorpion" when Janeway proposed a measly alliance with the Borg, on the grounds that the Borg would turn around and bite them in the assimilation tubes because that's the nature of the Borg.
What does Chakotay believe in these days, anyway? That it's safer for his career to follow Janeway than to argue with her, considering that she has to report back to Starfleet on the status of the Maquis on her ship? That Voyager has done so well against the Borg to date, the Borg must be stupider than he originally thought, so it's worth taking risks with them? Or, for some professional or personal reason, has he decided to support the captain unconditionally, no matter how extreme her decisions? Maybe it's as simple as the fact that this time, she asked him before committing to a course of action. Then again, she also listened to him when he ordered her to take Tuvok and Torres with her on the mission. Something's changed, but it's hard to say what, or where it might be leading.
Paris was much more vocal in his insistence that he did not want Torres to join the Borg, even offering to give up his newly restored rank. I'm not sure exactly what that means, though, because I've never been sure how much the rank means to him anyway. Janeway's respect matters to him. Chakotay's respect matters to him. Starfleet? Hard to say at this point. And Torres? We've heard him complain about her in a half-dozen episodes. Try to get away from her in "Alice," even if he was under the influence of an alien ship. Whine to Seven about her. Choose to sit and watch television during his first evening with her after a long away mission in "Memorial." B'Elanna, for her part, seems to value her emotional bond with surrogate mother Janeway as much as her affair with Tom. Are they really in love or just in need of companionship, which seems to be a problem for virtually everyone on the ship? It's not clear.
At least Torres was back in engineering this season; we barely saw her for awhile because of Roxann Dawson's pregnancy, so Seven got to solve virtually every scientific conundrum. Now both Torres and Kim are playing a bigger role in keeping the ship running, but they're still not contributing much to the big decisions. Those still largely fall to Janeway, and the person whose advice she seeks most often is Seven - not her first officer, not her longtime friend Tuvok. It must be extremely frustrating to the trained Starfleet officers to be bypassed for a staff consisting of three Maquis criminals, one Delta Quadrant alien, one ex-Borg, and one hologram. Can ordinary officers get ahead anymore? "Good Shepherd" focused on a group of misfits who apparently have fallen through the cracks for the past six years, but what about the ordinary hard-working folk with little chance of advancement on a ship where they may be stuck for the rest of their lives?
Voyager may be on its way home, but I still wouldn't be surprised if there were a mutiny. Kim was joking when he asked why he didn't get a promotion like Paris', but it's a good question - why on earth is he still an ensign, after he saved the ship and the timeline in "Timeless"? Why haven't Neelix and Seven been offered field commissions like the one Paris has - why don't they wear Starfleet uniforms? Seven's position in particular is extremely problematic. On the one hand, Janeway wants her to be as human as possible, to serve as a member of the crew, to feel a bond with the people around her. On the other hand, she's ostracized, isolated in astrometrics, expected to work as a Starfleet officer without being given the benefits. She lives in the cargo bay with the children she's supposed to babysit, she has no privacy that we know of.
How bad could the Borg seem to Seven after her time on Voyager, especially now that she knows of Unimatrix Zero? She had a lover, she had friends, she had more personality as Annika Hansen than she does now. She's been subjected to social skills lessons from a hologram who hasn't himself grasped the finer nuances of humanoid interaction, as he discovered in the witty but flat "Virtuoso." I'm not a fan of Seven of Nine episodes - we've had far, far too many of them over the past three seasons, and if she ever saves the ship again, I will scream - but she deserves to be taken seriously as a character. If she's supposed to be experiencing basic human needs and desires, not only Janeway but the writers need to come to some conclusions about what those needs and desires are. Tossing kids at her to explore her nurturing side and giving her a potential romance with her social skills teacher don't begin to cover the territory.
The Doctor had the best season of any of the Voyager crew. Three episodes - "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy," "Virtuoso," and "Life Line" - focused solely on him. The captain finally seems to be acknowledging her double standard concerning his holographic nature; after slapping down his demands for autonomy, she agreed to let him try to save his programmer in "Life Line," and though she let him pretend to be in charge in "Tinker, Tenor," she slapped him down as well when he tried calling her by her first name. Then again, she might react in a similar manner to any crewmember other than Chakotay or Tuvok calling her Kathryn.
I'm in no way trying to argue against equal rights for holographic people, but there's something rather ironic about the fact that the Doctor has the richest "human" life on the ship. Despite his crucial role, he has lots of time to pursue a variety of hobbies. He's fallen in love twice, plus he's carrying around strong feelings for Seven of Nine that we've seen some indication she may share. This character gets no privacy either, now that the entire crew has gotten inside his head in "Latent Image" and "Tinker Tenor," but he's been more vocal fighting for his independence than most of the Starfleet crew. Plus, he had the good sense to treat the holograms in Fair Haven as a dangerous distraction rather than playthings for the crew.
There are a few reasons I can think of that the Doctor has become Voyager's dominant character. One is that the writers always seem to have an easier time creating the would-be-human characters than the fully human ones; Data was the most fleshed-out person on the Enterprise, Odo grew tremendously on Deep Space Nine, now Seven and the Doc are Voyager's brightest lights. There's also the fact of Robert Picardo's enormous talent and his ongoing interest in the character's development; he's still pitching stories and ad-libbing lines while the rest of the cast relies on cue cards and complains at conventions of how bored they're getting. The Doctor potentially faces the greatest crisis when Voyager returns home - after all, Starfleet could decide to take his 29th century mobile emitter and turn him off in favor of a later model EMH. The Doctor is sometimes tedious, but never boring.
Still, what does it say about a show that grants more personality to its holograms than its principal characters? Janeway reprogrammed Michael, her inflatable boyfriend, to her exact specs, then found herself falling in love with her fantasy. The Doctor, who has a strong personal interest in defending holographic rights, told her he didn't think that was a bad thing since she couldn't afford emotional involvement with her crew. I'd argue that emotional involvement with her crew is exactly what she needs, before she forgets what it means to be human.
After six years, many are still wondering what Voyager is about. What has it contributed to the Trek legacy? A woman captain, even if she does have periodic nervous breakdowns, and a humanized Borg, though we've seen little development not touched upon by Picard in various TNG episodes and First Contact. By the end, presumably, we'll have seen the crew triumph over adversity and get home against all odds. But how well do we know this crew? Apart from Harry's occasional clarinet solos and Tuvok's long-forgotten orchid collection, surprisingly little. We know pretty much what we knew in the first season - that Torres struggles with her Klingon heritage, that Paris has problems to work out with his father, that Neelix wants to carve a niche for himself among the Starfleet crew. Not much else.
I have no clue who Chakotay is - macho Maquis warrior, Native American shaman, or would-be-househusband who cooks and gets the carpets cleaned? He's been all of the above, though never at the same time, so there's little sense of him as an integrated person. Is Starfleet a uniform he threw back on for six years with no intention of continuing to serve once he returned, or is he grateful to have had the chance to wear it apart from the problems of his people in the the Alpha Quadrant? What about the rest of the Maquis - do they consider themselves Starfleet officers entitled to all the privileges of commissioned officers, or are they biding their time till they can escape from Starfleet strictures?
If we're truly to care about the homecoming, these questions must be addressed. And if we're to care about this show, we must know what this journey as meant to all the people on the ship, not just the triumphant captain and the newly humanized Borg. What does Voyager bring home that can help the Federation recover from a devastating war? Not just what knowledge, but what unique experiences will Janeway present to Starfleet to help plan long-term missions? What will become now of these people who have spent more than six years in a familiar hierarchy, a tiny traveling community which surely has experienced more friendships, fights, holidays, love affairs, weddings, funerals, and rowdy parties than we've seen on the screen?
Of any of the Trek shows, Voyager has boldly gone where no one has gone before. The ship has been all over the galaxy, traveled backward and forward in time, encountered civilizations no one back home has ever heard of, and it's bringing back members of civilizations tens of thousands of light years from Earth. It's time for this crew to stop wasting its time in recreations of old Earth, given its mixed crew and its incredible progress. These people should be celebrating what they've built together and thinking about whether during their voyage home, they've changed their attitudes about where "home" really is. Because if they haven't - if Voyager has just been a seven-year detour from the lives they'd have preferred - then what was the point for us watching?