We need to talk about STAR TREK: VOYAGER

So I have a confession to make about Star Trek: Voyager. I have never sat down and watched, in its entirety, the last two seasons of the show. I didn’t watch them back when they aired around 20 years ago. I haven’t watched them since. I’ve watched some, here and there, but not all.

Technically, as a result, despite being a self-professed Trekkie and fan since I was a child, I’m not a Star Trek completist. This isn’t the case with any other show, either. I’ve seen all of Enterprise, for example. I’m up to date with Discovery. So why Voyager? Those episodes have been around for decades yet I have never felt the urge to revisit them. I think it goes back to my problematic relationship with the third spin-off series to Gene Roddenberry’s initial vision, one I’ve had ever since 1995.

I’m discussing this now as Voyager is, this week, a princely quarter of a century old which a) is fantastic and b) is terrifying for someone who grew up with it. Voyager first debuted when I was 12, almost 13 years old. I had discovered Star Trek on TV probably around a year earlier, having wore out VHS copies of The Search for Spock and The Wrath of Khan while in single digits. I liked The Next Generation. I already *loved* Deep Space NineVoyager, therefore, I greeted with enormous excitement. This was back in the days when in the UK they would release two episodes of a season in VHS tapes for DS9 & VOY every few weeks (these would cost more than a monthly Netflix subscription does now) and I bought them religiously up until, I would say, probably about the end of Season 4. Then something happened.

Well, two things happened. Firstly, this was around 1998 and as a sixteen year old leaving school, I was beginning to discover that being a Star Trek fan openly wasn’t doing me any good if I ever wanted to cop off with a girl. Secondly, I realised that I didn’t actually *like* Voyager all that much, and maybe I never had. Not in comparison to DS9, which aside from The X-Files and Babylon-5 around this point was the show I had lived and breathed during the 90’s. I started to realise that, a few episodes aside, I never found Voyager at all compelling.

So when Season 5 came around, I abandoned buying the VHS tapes and I would only watch, sporadically, when they were broadcast on Sky or BBC2 later. By the time Season 6 came around, certainly after Equinox II which kicked the season off, I had stopped watching. This overlapped with the point when I wondered if I was starting to outgrow Star TrekDS9 was ending. Enterprise hadn’t begun. Voyager was it. And maybe it wasn’t enough.

I hadn’t thought about this for a long time, actually, before pondering what Voyager’s 25th anniversary meant to me. I really *did* almost let Star Trek go at the turn of the millennium. I’ve always been what I would describe as a “geek in plain sight”; someone who, as a child, grew up in a world where professing a love of genre fare like Trek or Star Wars was just not a good idea. They’re still not enormously ‘cool’, as such, amongst teenagers, but there is far less stigma associated with enjoying Star Wars or comic books now as there was during the 90’s or even Noughties. 

I wasn’t a strong enough person as a teenager to forge my own path with these hobbies, either. If I went to a convention dressed in a Starfleet uniform—which I did do and did own, sadly no pictures exist as proof—it would be a big secret amongst my peer group. The X-Files was okay for a time, when it was the most popular thing on TV, but it wasn’t like being a fan of the latest pop star or best football team. You still had to low-key much of this stuff if you wanted to exist in the world of the ‘normal’ kids who were accepted and liked.

Looking back, of course, I would love nothing better than visit 15 year old Tony and tell him all of the ‘normal’ kids whose validation he sought were dull as ditchwater and to wear his fandom with pride, but that personal acceptance comes with age and discovering the right peer groups to share those passions with. Being a geek becomes much easier with age, thankfully. Yet I wonder just how much of this late-teenage reticence to indulge my love of Star Trek led to my fractious relationship with Voyager.

I remember how unusual the whole show felt back in 1995, even if with distant, critical eyes the series immediately sought to transpose the style of storytelling inherent in The Next Generation to an entirely different region of space. This feeling was undoubtedly due to the fact I had been indoctrinated as a fan to be used to Kirk & Picard’s crew, and had adapted to Sisko & co (and let’s face it, VOY was practically routine compared to the weirdness and diversity of DS9). A ship that wasn’t the Enterprise seemed weird, for one thing. This was before the Defiant on DS9 fully became a proxy exploration vessel when convenient, but even then it always remained in the shadow of the space station. Voyager was an all new ship, an all new design, and an all new crew. TNG may have introduced us to new characters but they were still on the Enterprise, albeit a redesigned one. Voyager was all new, soup to nuts. It’s easy to forget how strange that felt from our vantage point.

None of that crew truly blew me away though and burned into my mind, not in the manner characters like Odo or Kira did on DS9, or Spock had done in The Original Series movies (which I grew up with as opposed to the 60’s series, which I didn’t watch fully until the early 2010’s, believe it or not). I immediately liked Kathryn Janeway as a leader, and she remained a dynamic force who truly kept the show on the rails for the run of the series, but the ensemble never truly clicked with me, and still haven’t to this day. I always found the Doctor mildly irritating. Seven of Nine, while a narrative shot in the arm for the show, was actually quite a bland character, almost as bland as the badly underwritten Chakotay. 

Everyone else served their cod-TNG purposes but I never felt they were people I was desperate to know more about. My favourite character was always B’Elanna, who sometimes felt ported in from a better series, filled with a fiery intensity and swagger yet vulnerable sensitivity that made her likeable. For a show filled with characters for whom true development seemed like anathema, only a few rose above the pack, and Voyager didn’t have DS9 or even TNG’s luxury of recurring, strong supporting characters to give the series a boost when the regulars were not always cutting it.

I had also, by the time of Voyager, come to expect more from my storytelling in Star Trek. We were spoiled by the 90’s advances in character work and internal mythology, really. In fairness to VOYDS9 eventually very much became a television novel, a story with a definitive beginning-middle-end, and it was a structure Voyager never had. The end was presumably one of two choices – they get home or they remain lost. There wasn’t any nuance there. It was a straight line back to normality for the ship, crew and indeed the series, and as Darren Mooney very aptly points out in his stellar canon of reviews for each episode of the showVoyager very quickly worked to adopt a formulaic, recognisable structure onto a series which refused, point blank, to truly engage with the possibilities of its premise. I’ve always been thrilled by Ronald D. Moore’s candid interview about Voyager’s failings, and how he ported a lot of what he would have done on the show into Battlestar Galactica later, because it cuts to heart of what Voyager feared.

Though I didn’t realise it at the time necessarily, this is also part of why Voyager never became appointment television for me. I wanted more from the idea and from the way it would tell these stories. I was one of the few people who actually liked the semi-serialised Kazon storyline across Season 2, even if the execution was a bit awkward. Though critics accused the show of pandering to fans, I was heartened when Scorpion truly brought back the Borg, even if at this point VOY truly morphed into just another TNG variation, except with different, albeit similar, aliens in fancy make up. I loved The Killing Game, which felt like the kind of holodeck two-parter TNG would have done. Indeed, if there is one season of Voyager that truly works, it is Season 4. That’s a damn good year of TV, with some quality Star Trek tales. But from then on, it’s all downhill. The show never truly capitalises on what it could have been, or what the premise truly might have allowed possible, bar one or two distinct exceptions.

Look at an episode like Worst Case Scenario, right at the end of a Season 3, which explores what might have happened had the Starfleet crew headed by Janeway and the Maquis rebel segment led by Chakotay fought, effectively, a civil war aboard ship. Or what about Year of Hell? A two-parter in which an alien supervillain uses a time ship to erase entire timelines, leading to the Voyager crew spending a year of being pummelled almost into oblivion. Then there’s Night, which opened Season 5, and saw Voyager plunged into an area of space without any stars, leading to a psychological effect on the crew equivalent to cabin fever.

These are just examples, and Voyager had many more, of episodes which could have formed longer story arcs or concepts that underpinned entire seasons, had the show been brave enough to experiment. Much as I’m not the biggest fan of Discovery, and Voyager existed in a very different era with different expectations, that show is willing to double down on a long-running serialised arc and fully explore the corners of it, for better or worse. Voyager never had the bravery to go down this road.

Despite all of this, the older I get, the more I find Voyager eminently watchable. Maybe it’s because the more I yearn these days for episodic television of the stand-alone variety, saturated as I am by serialisation. I’m really not one of these people who believes television has got worse – on the contrary, I believe the opposite – but Voyager reminds me of a time where shows were free to embrace told stories within a broader conceptual framework. That’s Voyager to a tee. You could watch many episodes of the show, no matter from what season, roughly in any order and you would not be lost. Sometimes I’ll throw on a Timeless or a Relativity, maybe Future’s End or The Omega Directive, episodes which work independently of the other but all satisfy in a variety of different ways. Interestingly, all of those episodes are from what is arguably the strongest point of Voyager – Seasons 3-5. That’s the era I’m most inclined to revisit and it’s Voyager at the most entertaining and confident point.

Looking back, I don’t think Voyager was the reason I left Star Trek behind for a while. I don’t think the average quality of its later season helped but then equally I feel Enterprise did more damage, again adopting the TNG model but turning the franchise inward, becoming effective fan fiction for die-hard fans as opposed to searching the cosmos for the next generation. Though I would still watch Star Trek from time to time, and my passion for it was galvanised again by the JJ Abrams reboot movie, not to mention discovering online communities who would discuss and even write Star Trek (for which I’ve done my own fan fiction in the past), the franchise stagnated in my mind as a fan in those awkward teenage to adult years. My reticence in embracing the franchise at that age just happened to coincide with Voyager limping to a conclusion, and a deeply divisive final episode, Endgame (which I actually really like) in which, spoiler, they do get home. But that was never *really* in doubt, was it?

Though I can’t see myself ever loving Voyager like I do DS9, for example, I am glad the show has found a reappreciation over the last few years. There is a strong Voyager fan community that no doubt helped the decision to bring Seven into the imminent Star Trek: Picard, and who knows? Maybe eventually Admiral Janeway. The fact Voyager still has currency, and looks set to be hugely celebrated this year at fan conventions the world over, is something to enjoy. 

It could even well lead me to finally sit down and watch those final two seasons properly for the first time.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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