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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Week of Review - Why I Love Voyager

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As I continue to celebrate Star Trek’s 50th anniversary and the release of the new film, we come now to Star Trek: Voyager.  This is the series where most hardcore Trek fans consider the franchise to have stumbled, citing Voyager and Enterprise, along with the last 2 TNG films, as the collapse of the franchise in its final years before the reboot.  Personally I can’t say I agree with that. 

Certainly, the two final films of the TNG series are awful but having gone through all of Voyager and Enterprise they are not bad Star Trek, in fact I’d rank them well above Next Generation and, most pertinent to this conversation, I’d actually say Voyager is my favorite Star Trek show of the entire franchise.  Not necessarily the best, that’s probably still reserved for Deep Space 9 or the original series, but definitely the one I liked the most, the one I tend to revisit most often, and the big reason for that is, bizarrely, that everyone on the ship seems like horrible people. 

If you’ve never heard of Voyager before, here’s the deal: the show revolves around a state of the art ship called the USS Voyager tasked to hunt down a group of human terrorists in a disputed part of space.  While engaging the terrorists, the Voyager and their opposing force get sucked through space to the other side of the galaxy, into the Delta Quadrant.  

After a brief adventure where the star fleet and terrorist crews are forced to team-up, these are the type of terrorists who don’t commit a lot of terror attacks and have sympathetic motivations, the device that brought the crew to the Delta Quadrant is destroyed along with the terrorist ship.  Now forced to collaborate as one crew, the Voyager must traverse the vast unknown space and all its perils in an attempt to make the 75-year voyager home. 

That’s a pretty solid set-up for a Star Trek show, dropping the characters in a totally new area with no chance of outside help.  What’s more, the structure of having the Voyager be the ONLY ship in the quadrant nicely subverts the well-worn trope of being “the only ship in range.”  

Additionally, the clash of crews was a clever basis for character drama, emphasizing the difficulties of integrating two groups of people committed to defeating each other now bound in common cause.  Add in the Voyager’s slow degradation and the necessity of collecting alien technology and crewmembers and, on paper, that’s a solid Star Trek premise. 

However, the ultimate show we got was anything but solid.  The clash of cultures between the two crews is downplayed to the point of non-existence, the strange new races of the Delta Quadrant are barely developed, and the wear and tear of the ship almost never pops up in any meaningful way.  

We got the occasional glance at those larger elements of the show, like the two-parter ‘Year of Hell’ in which the Voyager spent a year fighting a time travel based civilization only to have the encounter wiped from history, but that was the exception not the rule.  No, instead the show fell much more into a TNG style structure with a lot of one-off episodes cycling through various crewmen of focus and their unique foibles and interests with very little continuity. 

Now that might sound like I’m being hard on the show, but the weird thing is that said formulaic structure actually turned out to be the show’s greatest strength.  This all comes down to an ill-advised mix and match of structural elements that result in a very unflattering vision of these characters that ends up shockingly funny and kind of endearing.  

Even though the show wants to structure itself like Next Generation it still tries to use things like the isolated setting and amoral nature of the crew to its advantage.  The result is that all of the characters are made out to be really terrible people, a fact that the show ends up playing completely for laughs, often by accident. 

See, without an element of continuity, remembering the events of past episodes, every trauma and atrocity committed by the crew just becomes a kind of passing quirk about them.  So, when ship’s pilot Tom Paris tries to give his fiancé brain damage so he can put the AI of a ship in her body because he loves the AI- no one ever mentions this again, it’s a thing he does.  

The show is littered with stuff like this, like the time the holographic doctor had to euthanize his holo-daughter, when they gave the first officer brain damage to make him crazy so he could communicate with a race that spoke madness as a language, or the time security officer absorbed the personality of a serial killer and tried to murder everyone. 

Eventually, all these little instances form a titanic avalanche of repressed awfulness that seems to indicate the crew is in some deep, deep denial.  Watching the show as a binge, remembering all the terrible things done and coupling that with the nonplussed nature of the characters, basically turns the experience into It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia but in space. 

That’s a big part of why I like Voyager so much, the relationship I formed with the show while binging and the plot holes I ended up filling in myself during that time.  That’s admittedly a very personal approach to media but at the same time this is the fan-fic era of nerdom, we’re all about adding our own flourishes, theories, and head canons to the material we ingest.  Also, if I can back to that first sentence, the relationship you form with the material is the more important thing than the stories you make up about the episodes to form said relationship. 

As I was watching Voyager I’d often tweet about the constant lack of continuity with itself or even Star Trek as a whole and the various other failures of the show but, as I went a long, I realized complaining about those failures had become a kind of joy in its own right.  I had developed a relationship with the show, reveling in its flaws and seeking to correct them in my own way. 

That’s not to say the only reason I liked the show was the conclusions I brought to it, as, at some point, the show seems to have had the same realization that I did about how terrible the crew and their situation really are.  A great example of the show realizing how much its characters are in denial is the character of Neelix.  

He’s a goofy alien the show picked up in the pilot that acted as ship’s cook and morale officer but what I love about Neelix is that his life is awful but he never let’s that get him down.  I mean, the dude has his lungs stolen in the 2nd episode and still gets up every day to make stupid puns and smile like his life isn’t a never-ending cycle of disappointment.  

When you start looking at the characters with that kind of realization it actually makes a lot of their quirks and ticks seem a lot more believable.  For instance, both the ship’s holographic Doctor, named the Doctor, and the former Borg science officer 7 of 9 are defined by their ego and confidence, but when you take into account all the horrors they’ve suffered those traits go from simple quirks to a pretty clear defense mechanism, much like Neelix’ cheerfulness.  

That blend of awfulness through implication and assumption ends up affording Voyager the other major reason I love it so much: it acts as a bizarre kind of self-critique of the Star Trek mythos overall.  Much in the same way Deep Space 9 was about forcing average members of Star Fleet to deal with an extraordinary situation, Voyager is all about what happens when you take the Federation out of the equation for Star Fleet’s Z-listers.  

This goes right back to the premise of the show, I mean the Federation is a utopia- who do you get in a utopic society to go hunt down terrorists save for your worst citizens?  Hell, the ship’s pilot Tom Paris was actually in prison when Captain Janeway recruited him in the pilot. 

That same contradiction of terms extends to the Voyager itself; it’s presented as the cutting edge ship with all new tech but, as we see in the series, the new tech is universally awful.  For instance, the ship’s computer now runs on bio-tech gel packs to simulate human neurons.  It sounds like a good idea but the gel packs need to be constantly refilled and can actually get sick with things like the common cold.  The whole ship is like that; seemingly great innovations that just make things worse, it’s basically a huge boondoggle that Star Fleet just wanted out of the way.   

The best example of what I mean, though, would have to ship’s engineer B’Elanna Torres.  Torres is actually my all time favorite Star Trek character, which is probably a little strange because she is by far the worst engineer in any Star Trek show.  She’s one of the terrorist characters who actually flunked out of Star Fleet before joining them and her main role on the show is not really being able to solve most of the engineering problems that come her way.  Here’s the thing though- that failure is exactly why she’s such a great character.  

Look, Star Trek has offered us a lot of character types but in every other show the engineers are always amazing. From Scotty in TOS literally writing the tech manual, to Geordi on TNG reversing the laws of physics, to O’Brien on DS9 fighting a whole war, and even Trip Tucker on Enterprise pioneering new technology- they’re all amazing.  Torres isn’t like that, she can’t fix a warp core with string and chewing gum or invent a new engine overnight, she can honestly barely hold the ship together, that’s her secret- that she’s not very good at engineering. 

What makes her stand out, though, is that even though she’s not very good at engineering she still does it.  Even though the entire world has told her “no!” from day one she’s still an engineer on a star ship because doing engineering, even if she’s bad at it, is better than not doing what she loves.   And, in a strange kind of way, that’s Voyager’s outlook as well- sure, it could be a different show, maybe even a better one, but it’d rather do what it loves poorly than force its way into something different, and I find that kind of beautiful. 

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