Can The Tiny Ship Keep UPN Flying?
This week, Star Trek Voyager airs its 100th episode, a milestone reached by only one other network science fiction series: The X-Files. While other Trek shows and various non-network series have lasted longer in syndication, the original Star Trek ran for only 78 episodes on NBC, while flops like Prey and even success stories like Viper, now in its third year as a syndicated show, lasted less than a season on network.
But Voyager isn't on one of the Big Three networks like the original series, nor on highly successful upstart Fox. It's on UPN, which has been struggling since its inception and angered genre fans twice in the past few months - first dropping The Sentinel in the middle of a cliffhanger, then cancelling Mercy Point after only a couple of episodes. Despite UPN's insistence that the introduction of Seven of Nine has brought a great ratings surge, there's no escaping the fact that Voyager has had a very up-and-down existence for the network and viewers alike.
The 100th episode, "Timeless," was directed by The Next Generation's LeVar Burton and features a storyline set fifteen years after the destruction of the U.S.S. Voyager, which crashed into an icy planet, killing all aboard. Chakotay and Kim, who survived because they were aboard the new Delta Flyer shuttle, concoct a plan to return to the scene of the tragedy in the hope that beneath the ice, they can find a way to reverse the fate of their long-dead friends and colleagues. In an interview with syndicated columnist Ian Spelling, Kate Mulgrew said that the episode features past, present, and future timelines, like the acclaimed TNG finale "All Good Things..."
Yet like so many Voyager episodes, "Timeless" is what is referred to by fans as a "reset button episode": by the conclusion, most of the events are negated as if they never occurred. Last year's sweeps month two-parters were also reset button episodes - in "The Year of Hell," the events of the episodes were erased from history, while in "The Killing Game," the events which transpired were holographic and forgotten by the crew. Since its third episode, "Time and Again," Voyager has featured at least eight reset button episodes, plus numerous others where the characters end up where the started out - both literally, like in "Future's End," which returns the crew to the Delta Quadrant after a trip to Earth, and figuratively, like in "Resolutions," where three months of experiences are apparently forgotten in a matter of moments.
The reset button is one of several problems which have repeatedly plagued Voyager, the others being the lack of a strong central character, ratings which have been in a steady decline despite publicity suggesting otherwise, and UPN's problems marketing itself. While there are several dormant plotlines which could be revived, such as Maquis-Starfleet tension and the on-off relationship between Janeway and Chakotay, there's no evidence that the producers intend to put closure on these issues. And while the network's insistence on pushing Seven of Nine generated considerable hype for the actress who plays her, the captain no longer appears to be the central figure on her own ship.
What will happen to Voyager, now that the show has passed this latest milestone? Of any series I review, I've been most hesitant to make predictions about Voyager. Well into the fifth season, there's still no evidence of a story arc or even character arcs lasting more than a couple of episodes at a time - in fact executive producer Brannon Braga has been quoted as saying that he resists story arcs because they make it harder for new viewers to tune in. Still, Braga has fed rumors that the ship and the show will return to the Alpha Quadrant; with Deep Space Nine going off the air and leaving the franchise without a show that can feature Klingons, Cardassians, and evil admirals, this seems likely to happen late this season. While the decision to return will eradicate the uniqueness of Voyager - a ship lost in deep space, exploring as they make their way home - it also seems a necessary and logical extension of the series to date.
Why has it taken this series so long to find an identity? Initial reviews of Voyager were quite good - considerably better than were Deep Space Nine's two years earlier. Its pilot had ratings that placed it in the top 20. Since then, however, two of the executive producers who created the series have left, in addition to one major character (Jennifer Lien's departure was reportedly the first time a series regular was released from a contract at the behest of the studio, instead of at the actor's own request as was the case for Denise Crosby and Terry Farrell). The show has been plagued with rumors that other actors wish to depart, the latest such report exploding over the internet last week when a TVGEN article misquoted Kate Mulgrew to suggest that she intended to leave before the conclusion of the series.
Each year, the producers announce that this will be the season when Voyager comes into its own. At the start of the third season, they heralded the arrival of Jeri Taylor's takeover from longtime Trek executive producer Michael Piller. At the start of the fourth season, they heralded the coming of Seven of Nine. At the start of this season, the buzz has been about the retirement of Taylor and the promotion of Braga, who is as controversial for his lewd media image as he is acclaimed for the First Contact screenplay and other superb scripts. Several of the actors expressed excitement at the commencement of shooting about having Braga in charge, stating that the dialogue has more snap and episodes more cohesion, which they do. What lacks cohesion is the concept of the series as a whole.
Is Voyager suffering from being the fourth series in a franchise which has oversaturated its market, and is well on the way to choking itself on its own greed, as Jeri Taylor told author Jeff Greenwald? Is it a victim of poor marketing by UPN, the network which can't seem to do anything right? Was it - dare I suggest - a mistake for a series resolutely targeted at young males to put a woman in the captain's chair? Or, in fact, are things about to turn around for the series, which has had a decent November sweeps so far and seems to be undergoing an unprecedented wave of cast enthusiasm? I am reluctant to make predictions on that count as well, considering the number of factors affecting it.
Voyager's ratings are up somewhat from the end of last season, but that's not saying much. Total Voyager ratings for the end of last season were lower than they were for summer reruns the year before. The producers have blamed this on the defection of UPN stations to the WB network in a competition for affiliates which gave WB the upper hand, but the ratings slide actually began before the stations defected. In addition, it's not the Wednesday night network ratings which have been most affected, but the total ratings - which take into account syndicated showings, moved or postponed showings, and repeats.
Let's look at the overall composite ratings totals for the third and fourth seasons of Voyager. One ratings point represents 970,000 viewers. In 1996/7, total ratings among households averaged at 6.2; in 1997/8, they averaged 5.4. Even among the coveted men 18-49 demographic, they dropped from 5.1 to 4.4 over the two seasons. The decline was gradual at first. Season premiere episodes "Basics II" (1996/7) and "Scorpion II" (1997/8) posted high numbers - 8.2 and 8.5 respectively. For the remainder of the new first-run episodes of each season, the numbers stayed fairly high, though there was a more dramatic drop-off during the fourth season than there had been during the third season.
The most telling numbers are for November sweeps, which networks use to determine commercial prices and to lure advertisers. In 1996/7, Voyager was averaging more than seven million viewers per week, and the two-parter "Future's End" concluded with an 8.2 rating. In contrast, the much-hyped "Year of Hell" two-parter from 1997/8 concluded with only a 7.4 rating, leaving a sweeps month average of less than six million viewers. At around this time, magazines started hyping the network's excitement with the ratings that Seven of Nine had brought in. What they failed to mention was that those ratings were only among very young men, and they did not remain consistent. Among female viewers and households, ratings dropped over the entire course of the season. This February sweeps total ratings were also much lower than last season's, and one new spring episode managed to attract barely five million viewers - lower than most of the previous year's reruns.
What does all this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the network is distorting the facts when it claims that Seven of Nine has brought in better ratings: the character may be attracting more young men to the initial Wednesday night network showing, but she's not improving ratings overall. In fact, one can draw the opposite conclusion from looking at the numbers. Though there's no denying that Jeri Ryan's stunning figure was an early draw for the most desirable demographic viewers, and the network went out of its way to include her in virtually every preview, episodes about her character have not fared better than episodes in which she barely appeared. The love story "Day of Honor" posted the highest ratings for the early period of either season, while the Seven of Nine-heavy episode "The Raven" had mediocre overall ratings.
The numbers also suggest that Robert Beltran's Chakotay isn't really a draw for viewers in the role of series stud. His two big episodes last season, "Nemesis" and "Unforgettable," were the most poorly-rated installments for their cycles. Taylor and Braga have both suggested that viewers don't want to see romance ("soap opera") on the series, but the highly rated Paris/Torres episodes of last season and the even more highly-rated Janeway/Chakotay episodes of the season before would seem to contradict that judgement. Moreover, Braga has given Chakotay two love interests and a great many prominent scenes in the early episodes of this season, while Captain Janeway has played a less-central role; in more than one instance Chakotay has taken on a more authoritative role than she has vis a vis the crew.
All of this brings up the issue of how the producers are still struggling to make a show with a female captain marketable to a male demographic. If the number of changes to Kate Mulgrew's hairstyle are any indication, then it seems clear that they're not sure what a woman in command should look like, let alone talk like, think like, or act like. At the start, Janeway was authoritative but compassionate, perhaps a little too Starfleet, a little too humorless, but not much different in that respect from Picard and Sisko. She was rather physical with her crew in a maternal manner and sometimes even flirtatious with her senior officers, which was apparently a problem for the more military-minded in the audience in spite of Kirk's track record in that regard.
Since then, however, Janeway has become virtually sexless, increasingly sarcastic, and prone to isolate herself, expressing frustration and fear of the unknown. While there may be more psychological realism here than on previous Trek series where the burdens of command never seemed to be taken as seriously, she has not been a particularly strong captain in recent months...nor a particularly strong woman, and it's been ages since we've seen her be commanding and feminine at the same time as she was in early episodes like "Eye of the Needle" and "Elogium." I am not faulting Mulgrew, or any of the actors, for inconsistencies in character; this is a very talented cast which fused into a strong ensemble more quickly than any of the previous Trek shows. It's the writing which has created the problems.
The series' three creators were all adamant that Voyager should have a woman in command, though the network was reluctant; now I wonder exactly what the executive producers were fighting for. Is Janeway supposed to be a character, or a figurehead? Is her presence on the bridge an ideological statement or a marketing move, and to whom? I have run Kate Mulgrew's fan club for four years, yet I confess that I have very little idea what Kathryn Janeway is like. She's become less consistent without becoming more multidimensional. I can't begin to guess how she'll act from week to week when faced with a crisis - will she face it head-on, or turn to her senior staff in something akin to panic? Will she quote the Prime Directive or break it? This wavering without an underlying character arc to justify the changes have weakened her greatly.
When one looks at both the numbers and the internet feedback, even the male demographic isn't reacting as predicted, regardless of UPN's claims. Strong episodes about Janeway have generally gotten good ratings and good reviews, much more so than episodes about Seven of Nine. And if the goal is to attract male viewers, what were the producers thinking when they decided to show an episode about a little girl's fairy tales during sweeps month this season? Last week's "Once Upon a Time" had nearly identical ratings among women to the previous week's episode, but lost about a full point among men. The episode was creative and well-acted, but internet reaction among fans has been scathing among the most coveted viewers, while women and those over 30 have been very positive. Perhaps the Trek producers have a different sense of their viewers than UPN, but where does that leave the series? Seven of Nine can only take the show so far, no matter how many viewers her costume attracts. The rest is up to the writers.
If Voyager does get home at the end of this season, I expect the dynamics to change once again. It will be clear at that point that the crew of Voyager is aboard by choice rather than necessity, which might permit for greater levity and more episodes about the joy of exploration. It also might alter Voyager's unique closed system in which red shirts can't be killed gratuitously (though shuttles can) and most character names recur even for people we've never actually seen on the series. I hear we're meeting the Delaney sisters this year at long last; will we also hear Ayala speak, or find out what Nicoletti looks like? Those dropped names go far towards creating a sense of continuity for the series, since previous episodes are rarely mentioned and there aren't any enemies who last more than a season or so. While Voyager is ostensibly an ensemble show, episodes still tend to spotlight one or two characters largely in isolation from the rest of the crew. This season has featured a bit more continuity than previous seasons, but character development has not been consistent for any of the principals; they have a lot of catching up to do.
Last week David Bauder of the Associated Press predicted that UPN may not survive long enough for Voyager's producers to make such decisions. The overall ratings for the network have been dismal this year, and it has come under fire for many of its programming and marketing decisions. What might become of Voyager if its network folds? No one seems certain. Paramount Television, which produces the series for UPN, might be able to syndicate new episodes, but there might be contractual reasons why that wouldn't work. Even if the network does survive, which is probably more likely than not - it only takes one hit series to keep a network afloat - reportedly the series must complete filming by the end of 2000, meaning that the seventh season would have to be shorter than previous seasons even if the show shot straight through the spring without a hiatus.
The good news? Voyager's still here. It's opened up the entire galaxy to Trek. Even if the series meets an untimely end, there's always the possibility of crossover with the TNG movies, or with whatever might follow from the franchise...most recent rumors suggest either a Starfleet Academy series or a new Alpha Quadrant ship-based series, perhaps both over the next decade. Though convention attendance is down somewhat, fans are still going, and the resurgence in science fiction overall may ultimately prove good for the franchise. If Voyager finds itself this season, it has time to position itself as Deep Space Nine has for its final seasons with a compelling arc and beloved characters.
Brannon Braga was asked on a Yahoo chat this week how long Voyager would last. He replied, "That's up to people like you, Paramount Pictures, and God. Hopefully He is a fan."