Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ryan Reviews: Star Trek Voyager

Star Trek: Voyager is kind of the whipping boy of the Star Trek community. The people who didn't like DS9 or ENT simply avoided them, while Voyager offered a sort of perpetual hope that it would improve, so more people stuck through it than other Treks.

I was originally among the haters, but since Anna had fond memories of Voyager, and we are kind of on a completionist kick. My earlier conceptions have been confirmed, but I've been enjoying it more than I used to.

Voyager's biggest problem is that it was set up to be a serial, but ended up being the most episodic show of the modern-era Treks. In terms of sheer quality, it's not that far from DS9, and closer to TNG than it seems. In terms of fulfilled potential, it's extremely low.

The acting: On a character-by-character basis, the case of Voyager is very strong. Janeway, Tuvok, the Doctor, Kes, and especially Seven are all very strong actors, with B'Elanna and Tom right behind. Neelix is sabotaged beyond all hope by terrible writing, and Kim should have been killed off instead of Kes.

Chakotay is much better than I remember, at least in the first four or so seasons. He is a victim of bad writing as well, as other than the 'otherness' of his being Native American he has very little depth. His spirituality is occasionally used to good purpose, but not enough. As the seasons progress he becomes more and more a cipher (turning in fewer and fewer good performances). His relationship with Janeway, when they actually develop it, is one of the strongest of the series: Janeway is able to have a less-hierarchical relationship relationship with him than she does with any other member of the crew (except Seven, who eventually replaces him as the-person-who-has-a-relationship-with-Janeway).

So, the problem is not the cast. What about the plot?

The plot is not the problem. In fact, if you described the premise of each show to a person who knew nothing of the execution of the show, Voyager is by far the best. The Maquis-Starfleet crew combination is a perfect way to generate tension--TNG was great, but there was little inter-personal conflict. The 'journey home' aspect ensures that the villains are not simply re-hashed TNG villains, keeping the canon intact but without any of the baggage that being a sequel entails. The scarcity of resources--something that normal Trek never has to deal with--is an actual problem. The scarcity of people cuts off one of the cheapest Trek (and otherwise) tropes: introducing a (good-guy) character and killing him off in order to resolve the plot.

The problem was the writing.

In particular, three problems: continuity, bad science, and a lack of originality.

Voyager ended up adopting the episodic nature of not only TNG, but TOS. It seemed like the studio was fine having one Trek telling a serialized story--DS9--but wanted a Trek that people could tune in to and not miss a beat. Now, I have nothing against episodic TV shows, but Voyager *needed* to maintain some continuity. The Maquis-Starfleet plot would have involved rapidly changing relationships, tensions over different issues that sometimes exploded into a plot point, and so on. Resource scarcity can allow for the crew to set, and achieve goals over many episodes. Travelling through the Delta quadrant can allow for some foreshadowing (kind of like they did with Borg space) and show a gradually changing alien landscape. On this same point, the lack of continuity let the writers allow for characters to become disconnected from one another. Sure, there were some relationships, Tom-B'Elanna, Tom-Kim, Janeway-Chakot/Seven, Neelix-Kes-Doctor, Doctor-Seven, and so on. But there were so many holes in the relationship-network. In TNG (and DS9 to a lesser extent), every character had some sort of unique relationship with the other members of the crew. Not the case in Voyager.

It's obvious that some among the writers wanted to promote continuity, as episodes like The Year of Hell and Course: Oblivion prove. But such glimpses of continuity only served to remind us what Voyager could have been normally.

Bad Science. This manifests in two forms. First, the techno-babble. Techno-babble, even more than killing off new characters, is a plot crutch. A good plot confronts the characters with a challenge, and requires that characters come up with some creative resolution or make some sacrifice in order to solve the problem.

Because techno-babble decreases the price of one sort of resolution, it allows for the creators to 'produce' more 'problem,' in other words letting the writers get the characters into and out of bigger problems. This leads to an unfortunate spiral (that started in TNG), where drama requires problems of increasing intensity, and increasingly contrived solutions. This ultimately makes it impossible for the writers to credibly commit to danger or drama of any type.

The science itself is also terrible, especially regarding DNA and Evolution. The infamous 'Threshold,' where Paris and Janeway exceed Warp 10 (to infinity- and beyond! To hell with evolution, basic fractions escape the writers. If you exceed infinite speed, this means that you travel and infinite distance in some finite length of time. They would never have seen the Delta Flyer again). They then turn in to lizard people from their DNA changing. The writer of that episode, Brandon Braga, stated that he wanted to convey that 'evolution doesn't always go forward - it can go backwards too!' In Distant Origin, Voyager 'simulates what a dinosaur would look like if it evolved for another 300 million years.' The 'progressive modernist' view of history is annoying enough, a 'progressive modernist' view of evolution (evolution without selection, a.k.a., not evolution) is worse.

The lack of creativity manifests itself in two places, one of which is more obvious looking back than it is now. One is a lack of technological change. It's been joked elsewhere, that some of the most life-changing technologies in our lives are completely missing from Star Trek. Social media (#ShitSiskoSays), interactive display devices (for more than reading), any sort of technology that makes people 'better,' or cyborgy, is completely lacking from Voyager. I don't expect these exact things (but human modification seems a no-brainer, especially with the precedent of Geordi), but the only technological advances that Voyager makes are 'in universe' advances and not 'lifestyle' advances. Bioneural gel, Slipstream drive, etc, are all 'advances' that have zero implications for the characters.

The second creativity failure is in the failure to produce a good Delta Quadrant culture. They tried with the Kazon, but 1) They hung around for *TWO YEARS* going at high warp. The same Kazon. and 2) the Kazon sucked. What would it be like to travel across the United States on foot? There are certainly distinct cultures, but the change is gradual, people know the surrounding area, and have relationships with each other. In Voyager, it's a little bit like stepping from the Bronx into downtown San Francisco, then the next block is Amish country, and so on. And then you get to the Borg. Kind of.

To be fair, there are quite a good number of 'creative' episodes which are really good. The episodic nature of Voyager allows it to come up with a really good stand-alone now and then (while Enterprise and DS9 had to deal with both the arc and the episode, for the most part). I'll come up with a list of them soon. It's probably as long as DS9's list.

Next time: What should Voyager have been?