Tony Fyler goes back to the beginning for the Voyager crew.
Star Trek has always been a line in the sand of human psychology. A statement of optimism, that humanity – and other species too – could overcome their natural baser instincts if things like need, religious intolerance, and hatred of the different could be overcome. One of the reasons it’s survived in our cultural environment for fifty years is that it’s a profound philosophical statement of positivity.
Gene Roddenberry, its creator, was understood not to like Deep Space 9, because it seemed to exist in the grittier, oiler, realities of the front line – not so much an exploration of the galaxy for its own sake as a game of politics with new species that made the whole Trek universe feel a little less pristine and positive, a little less bright, as futures go. As such, the idea of the Maquis was the most un-Roddenberry move the show ever really made – citizens of the Federation made unhappy enough by its usually all-knowing beneficent decisions to go into open revolt against its treaty with the Cardassians? Trouble in the Federation’s Paradise?
When Star Trek Voyager began, it had many mission statements: continue the franchise, take it somewhere new, get back to an earlier ‘vision’ of Star Trek by reinforcing the ‘frontier’ idea of a single ship alone, unsupported by a massive Federation infrastructure. But part of its remit too was to ‘undo’ the Maquis direction, to put Star Fleet and the Maquis in the same environment, on the same ship, and ultimately prove the positive influence of the Federation.
Caretaker, Voyager’s first two-episode storyline, therefore has a lot to do. It begins in almost apologetic, Star Wars-aping style, with an on-screen explanation of the backstory to its own existence, and a space battle, with a Maquis ship positively bursting with Federation potential (a human, a Vulcan and a Klingon-Human hybrid) working to escape their Cardassian aggressors, when they get his by a wave of Something Weird – and cue titles. When Kate Mulgrew makes her grand entrance, it’s Old Hollywood through and through, the classy, together heroine coming to break the loveable rogue out of prison because she needs his help to track down the missing Maquis ship – lose the Maquis, bring in some Nazis and you could be talking Bogie and Bacall, rather than Mulgrew and McNeill. The set-up is something of a love song to those old, truly great black and white adventure movies. But what Voyager does from moment one is seed characterisation. From Chakotay, Torres and Tuvok, through Paris and Janeway, to Harry Kim, to the Emergency Medical Hologram, to Neelix and Kes and so on, it’s a tight lesson in establishing characters that can take us on a long journey (perhaps one of the reasons why the original Janeway, Geneviève Bujold, didn’t work that well).
We quickly learn that Janeway’s a much warmer human being than, say, Picard, rather more in the Sisko mould – she has a relationship, and a dog, and isn’t afraid to show her feelings to her man – but she’s got an engaging combination of a serious, let’s-do-this attitude and a twinkle in her eye, a half-curl in her smile that make you immediately want to travel through space with her, for all she herself feels she needs to make a better effort to get to know the crews she commands. We learn Paris is ‘not exactly a good luck charm’ – a warning made eerily prescient when the two people we see openly disrespect him die instantly when the Caretaker’s displacement wave hits (along with the woman who simply doesn’t respond to his warp-speed advances! Seriously, do not mess with Tom Paris, he’s a freakin’ Jonah!). There are solid connections established – Tuvok is Janeway’s old friend and security chief, Torres and Chakotay are old friends, Chakotay and Paris have angry history etc, while the show works really hard to establish new connections too – Paris and Kim, Neelix and Kes, the hologrammatic Doctor and everyone who forgets to turn him off – as it establishes some initial connections in the Delta Quadrant. It’s all quite neatly done, but it’s all designed with one purpose in mind – to give us characters we’ll want to come back to.
Storywise, Caretaker’s a tale of two halves – getting everyone, somewhat cumbersomely, to the Delta Quadrant and the first encounter with the Caretaker in the first half (with a delicious riff on the first stories of both Next Generation and DS9 – meeting incredibly powerful beings, having them either insult or misunderstand our species), and the mystery of the Ocampa and their Caretaker in the second.
Is Voyager’s first outing all great? Not really – the ship itself looks as though someone on the design staff read Douglas Adams’ description of the starship Heart of Gold as ‘a giant white training shoe,’ jettisoned their irony filter and thought ‘That’s be cooool,’ so you half expect to see a big tick and the words “Just Do It” painted down the side. While the Kazon being split into various warring and trading sects is a new development, showing a break away from that singularity of species-intent that was the mark of old-style science fiction, they are to all intents and purposes Delta Quadrant Klingons here, big, powerful, with weird hairstyles and impressive firepower, who make the Voyager crew their enemies. The Ocampa are more successful in terms of an experiment in societal philosophy, making the very capitalistic argument that a nation or species on effective ‘welfare’ – depending on a Caretaker to meet their every need – becomes dependent, unable to shift for itself and essentially doomed to indolence and ultimate societal failure unless they get off their butts and learn to survive for themselves, even against the mean girls and boys of the Kazon Ogla on the surface. And the whole moral at the end of Janeway’s responsibility to her crew as ‘Caretaker’ of Voyager is muddled by the fact that she also takes on the responsibilities of the Ocampa’s Caretaker, for reasons that are not sufficiently convincing given that Tuvok tells her the Prime Directive applies to their intervention in the Delta Quadrant, and B’elanna Torres, rather more convincingly, becomes the voice of the Maquis, screaming that she has no right to make the decision to strand them all in the Delta Quadrant (especially not the Maquis, given their relationship with Star Fleet), leaving the first two episodes feeling like a lot of characterisation along a plotline unrealistically manipulated specifically to provide x-number of seasons of Delta Quadrant adventuring.
That said, what Voyager’s first story does is give us a lot of characters, each of whom have bags of potential for development and intertwining, set up the dynamic of potential tension between the Federation and Maquis crewmembers, and exactly re-establish Star Trek as a ‘new frontier’ show, with only the behaviour of the Voyager crew as the Delta Quadrant’s representation of what to expect from humankind and its allies. There’s a convenience to the beginning where Federation technology is beyond anything the locals have encountered, putting a target on the Voyager’s back but also meaning they have a responsibility for the wise usage of that technology. Clearly though, given the fact that the Caretaker himself had technological abilities far in advance of Voyager’s, the potential is out there for the Delta Quadrant to be a very lonely place, a very dangerous place for a single sleek running-shoe of a ship carrying this tiny vestige of Federation principles.
Caretaker makes you want to tune in and find out what happens to this crew next – and we kept on tuning in for seven full seasons.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk