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The Voyage Home

By Colin "Zeke" Hayman
Posted at June 13, 2001 - 10:07 AM GMT

"Now the labourer's task is over,
Now the battle day is past;
Now upon the farther shore
Lands the voyager at last."
- John Ellerton

For the past seven years, we've watched their travels. We've seen them pursue a common cause against impossible odds; we've seen them live, love, fight, and die. Now, with the crew of Voyager at the end of their onscreen journey, it's a good time to ask ourselves one basic question: was it worth the trip?

Bashers say no. Gushers say yes. Average fans have mixed feelings. Morn is silent, but we all know what he's thinking. It's not a new question, but it's especially relevant now. When Star Trek's most controversial series wrapped in May, it completed its 171st hour -- a little more than a week in total -- and many of us have watched every one of those hours at least once. That's a lot of time out of our lives. Should we demand a refund?

There's your intro. I'm Zeke, Trek enthusiast and amateur parodist, and today I'm your guide on a retrograde trip through Voyager's voyages. Have a bag of airline peanuts.

Divide and Conquer

So what makes a series worth its while? For me, there are basically two criteria: enjoyment value and depth. The two work together -- I won't like a show if it doesn't make me think, but I'll be none too happy with it if that's all it does. Sitcoms and documentaries are at opposite ends of this spectrum, with Star Trek traditionally somewhere in between. So, by my definition, a good ST show is one which I enjoy watching and which leaves me thinking afterwards.

The criteria overlap a bit, but each can be loosely broken down into categories that are easier to define and work with. Under "enjoyment value" I'd list characterization and visuals; under "depth," plots and themes. A fifth category that doesn't quite fit in either column is the Big Picture (TM). So how does Voyager measure up?

Nine's a Crowd

(How were the peanuts?...That bad, eh?) Any look at characterization on Voyager has to begin by recognizing one factor: there are a lot of characters. The total at any given time is 9, which is a pretty large cast as casts go. And the trouble with juggling that many regs is that you're bound to drop a few.

Voyager's opponents argue that the show is elitist. According to them, Seven, Doc, and Janeway get more than their share of screentime, while underdogs like Harry Kim are left timeless. Has this happened? Well...yes. Doc and Seven have been too present in recent years, at others' expense. Is it excusable? Hard to say. Episodes like "Author, Author" and "Workforce" have demonstrated that it's possible to work all nine characters into one story without shortchanging any; shouldn't the same be true of a full season? But then again, wouldn't the show feel less focused if it divided its attention equally in nine different directions? There's only so much time to go around. It's a tricky point.

Quantity can sometimes be balanced by quality. What does it matter if a character has only one hour onscreen if that hour defines him? Well, it's not as clean-cut as that, but there's a case to be made that low screentime doth not an underused character make. So how does Voyager do on those grounds? Alas, at this point we leave the realm of the absolute. No two fans completely agree about how well-developed a given crewman is. There are "Kim is an interesting character" people and there are "Kim is barely a character at all" people. Thus Voyager's success in this department eventually boils down to opinion.

Mixing in a bit of the plot category, Voyager has also been maligned for a shortage of character arcs. Chakotay, for example, hasn't significantly changed since about Season 4. There's something to be said for this point -- character arcs can be a lot of fun to watch, and they add an extra level of complexity, even suspense. My contention, however, is that giving one to every character isn't realistic. How often do real people have experiences that drastically change their personalities? There's usually at least one in any given life, but they're rare. So it's pretty unlikely that nine people would all have character arcs in the same seven-year period; I think the amount we got makes more sense.

One last point I'll mention here is retrocharacterization. Whenever we discover something new about a character's interests or history (Paris' love of the sea, say, or Chakotay's boxing hobby), the inevitable response from critics is "Yeah right! If this is so important to him, why haven't we seen it before?" That sounds reasonable on paper, but it's not really how life works. Talking with a friend the other day, I was startled to learn that she was an avid clarinetist -- and she was startled to learn the same about me. We've known each other quite a while now, it just hadn't come up. Is it such a stretch for the same to happen with a TV character when we've only seen snippets of his life?

If Looks Could Kill, They'd Get the Chair

(Here, have another package on the house. Maybe these ones will be less stale.) The next category is visual effects, and there's not much debating the fact that Voyager's are the absolute best in the business. "Who cares?" cry the bashers. "FX=nothing. Writing=everything. Therefore Voyager=crap. Q.E.D." Hard as it is to argue with such an airtight chain of reasoning, I beg to differ. TV is an attempt to appeal not just to the mind but to two senses: hearing and sight. A show with off-key music or shoestring-budget visuals is just not going to be as enjoyable to watch as one whose production values are as good as it gets. (It helps to have a budget the size of Mexico, of course.) I think Voyager's effects are an important factor in deciding whether or not the show was worthwhile -- it may just be packaging, but good packaging does help.

The Write Stuff

(Yes, there are instructions on the package. "Open and eat." What?...well, yeah, it's pretty obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people get stumped.) So how has Voyager done with plots? This may be the most relative of the categories, with each viewer having a completely different set of opinions. There are a few constants. Pretty much everybody thinks "Caretaker" is a great episode. Pretty much everybody but Rob McNeill thinks "Threshold" stinks like a rotten fajita. But there's a lot of variation with most of the episodes. Can we make any absolute judgements here?

Actually, I think we can make a couple. One plot thing that's not a matter of opinion is originality: either a story resembles past tales or it doesn't. And this is an area where Voyager does not always smell like roses. Granted, there's a heckuva lot of Trek content to avoid repeating, but far too many elements of VOY episodes have just plain been done. Take "Fair Haven," for example. Crewman falls for a hologram? Seen it. "Booby Trap." Janeway falls for a hologram? Seen that too. "Persistence of Vision." Captain must decide if a relationship compromises the leadership role? Seen it. "Lessons." The episode had a few original aspects, but too often it felt like a hodgepodge of Treks gone by. Likewise, Voyager has a bad habit of falling back on series clichés (stubborn aliens, shuttle crashes, convenient Borg technology) and franchise clichés (holodeck breakdowns, spatial anomalies, artifical sentience debates).

Another non-relative aspect of plotting is coherence, i.e. how well the story holds together. Fortunately, Voyager's record here isn't bad -- uneven, but not bad. Yes, there were some nonsense plots like "Spirit Folk," filled with holes you could fly a Voth city-ship through (holograms shooting out their own safety protocols, anyone?). But that was an extreme case, and there weren't too many like it; the average Voyager episode made pretty good sense internally.

Then there's complexity. Basically, this is about how well the plot avoids predictable turns and creates situations that challenge the characters. Is the plot too obvious? Does it provide easy answers? Is the ending a cop-out? And so on. Here, at last, is a category where Voyager does really well. There were episodes like "Counterpoint" and "Projections" whose plots took unexpected turns; there were episodes like "Tuvix" and "Nothing Human" which put the hero in a dilemma with no right answer; there were episodes like "Course: Oblivion" and "Latent Image" whose endings were somewhat bleak, but honest. Don't get me wrong -- there were exceptions, ranging from failed attempts at unpredictability ("Prophecy") to pure action episodes ("Basics, Part I"). But more often than not, Voyager's plots made the effort to put the characters in tough situations and to be fair in resolving the situations.

So how does Voyager measure up in the plot category? Not brilliantly, but not badly either -- at least in the areas where we can be objective. As always, your opinion will adjust this.

That Is the Theme For This Evening, Isn't It?

(Hey, put down that battleaxe! I know the package is tough to open, but can we say "overkill"?) So far, we've looked mainly at issues which relate to individual episodes. The themes category, however, looks beyond that. What broader ideas did Voyager focus on and develop over its seven-year run? The most important ones (the obvious example being the crew's homeward journey) are built into the series' concept, and I'll talk about them in the next category because they fit better there. Here I'll mention some more subtle material.

One of Voyager's most frequently-visited themes is the idea of guilt and repentance. Nearly every major character had a story along those lines, and for some it became an integral part of the character. The best example is Seven of Nine, who spent years grappling with her guilt over her actions as a Borg (the major episodes being "Retrospect," "Endgame," and "Repentance" (natch)). Tom Paris is another good example -- his career on Voyager was the redemption he desperately needed for his actions in Starfleet and the Maquis. The theme touched many other characters (Janeway in "Night," Harry Kim in "Timeless," Neelix in "Jetrel," B'Elanna in "Lineage", the Doctor in "Latent Image"), providing an important step in each one's character development. Was this intentional? Maybe, maybe not -- but it's there.

Another theme, usually tied to the Doctor, was that of "holographic rights." This arguably began in "Projections" and reached its logical conclusion this year with "Flesh and Blood" and "Author, Author." Voyager took the interesting step of having the main character start out unconvinced that artificial sentience was possible; right up until "Latent Image," Janeway wasn't quite sure what to make of the Doctor. Like Picard, she became a vehement defender of her synthetic crewman; unlike Picard, she took convincing. Robert Picardo has suggested that holographic rights were a metaphor for the rights of various human groups, and who would know better?

Other "mini-themes" weren't as strongly emphasized, but were still present. The question of whether Starfleet morality and the Prime Directive can hold up in a hostile environment was asked in episodes like "Alliances" and "The Void." The closely-tied issues of memory alteration and revisionist history were examined in "Remember," "Living Witness," "Nemesis," "Memorial," and others. Inner conflict was an important theme; Tuvok and Torres both struggled with their violent tendencies, and self-combat was second nature to Janeway (as seen most overtly in "Endgame"). Some of these themes are subtle, but they are themes and they are there.

Picture Perfect?

(All right, you open the package like this...oops. Hmm. I guess they're pretty inedible now. Ah well, this joke was getting staler than the peanuts anyway.) We've now reached the final category -- the Big Picture (TM). You can sum it up in four simple words: "What is Voyager about?"

It's an vital question for any show to answer, and some can do it more easily than others. The original series was about adventure and exploration. Deep Space Nine was about interstellar politics, often as a metaphor for our own. M*A*S*H was about the effects of war on ordinary people. The answer doesn't have to be particularly deep -- The Simpsons is about farce, for example, and Seinfeld prided itself on being about nothing. But whatever the answer to the question, you have to have one, or your show will be meaningless in the end.

Voyager began with a premise that paralleled many of the world's great literary works, most notably The Odyssey. The story of a group of people who are lost and need to return home is archetypal. Is Voyager about returning from a long absence? No, because we knew from the start that it would take years for the crew to return. What about the theory advanced by Harry Kim in "Endgame" -- that Voyager is more about the journey than the arrival? This jives with Jeri Taylor's remark before Season 3 that the crew would gradually come to "embrace the adventure." So is getting there all the fun?

My view is that Voyager was about something even more basic, something we've all heard many times before, but something the world needs to keep hearing. I think the show's message is this: "Unity is strength."

Right from the start, Voyager united diverse people and views into a single crew...Starfleet officers, Maquis rebels, exotic aliens, an artificial lifeform, "and even Mr. Paris." (Doc's singling him out in "Year of Hell" was a reminder that Tom was an outsider from everyone's perspective, at least at first.) All of the show's major threads reinforce this. Every time the crew gained a new member, their chances of making it home improved. The Paris/Torres relationship became a symbol of the larger crew's unity; when Miral was born, it was a joyful moment for the entire crew, not just her parents. The maternal metaphor associated with Janeway was a natural step as Voyager's crew became more and more like a family. The show's core relationship -- the sometimes-warm, sometimes-turbulent Janeway/Chakotay alliance -- grew as the series progressed and was the most important symbolic step that united the Starfleet and Maquis crews. (Even Voyager's bridge design reflects this, with two symmetrically-placed central chairs instead of the Enterprise's three or the Defiant's one.)

A new message? Hardly. An important one? Oh, yes. And it's one that hearkens back to Gene Roddenberry's vision, the heart of Star Trek. As long as we continue fighting among ourselves, we'll never reach the stars -- but together we can do it. Voyager's crew is greater than the sum of its parts, and so is the human race.

The Windup

I've tried to be as objective as possible in most of these categories; unfortunately, all such efforts are doomed to fail. Voyager has no "absolute value" that everybody will agree about. If you don't see any merit in the show, I'm not likely to change your mind -- and neither of us will be able to fully explain why we feel the way we do. Some of it will always come down to opinion. As for the original question ("Was Voyager worth the time spent?"), I'd have to say that it was about as worthwhile as anything else. I'm evading the question a bit, because I'm not convinced that any human activity is worth 171 hours out of a short life.

Finally, I'm going to drop even the attempt at objectivism and say a few words. I was too young to watch the original series in first-run; by the time I could really understand what was going on in a TV show, TNG was going strong. Deep Space Nine and Voyager are the two Trek shows I've "understood" from the start. What does all this mean? First, the TNG characters are the most hard-wired into my system; when somebody says "Star Trek," I think of Next Gen first. And I consider DS9 the best series, with its complex plots, interesting characters, and writing that ranged from ludicrous to brilliant. But Voyager will always be the closest to my heart. I feel more at home watching that show and those characters than I do with any other series. Don't ask me to explain it; I can't. It's just the way it's happened with me. And I'm grateful to the actors, the producers, and (yes) the writers for providing seven years of television that I for one will never forget. You did good, folks -- bon voyage.

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Colin "Zeke" Hayman is a student at Carleton University and webmaster of the parody site Five-Minute Voyager, which is what you get when you pile Voyager scripts into a trash compacter full of nitrous oxide. Or maybe not. Zeke has slowly insinuated himself into the Trek community and probably can't be removed at this point without some sort of explosives.

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