Voyager is, perhaps, the least loved of all the different versions of Star Trek. I watched most of it when it was first on, though as a fairly casual viewer: I followed it for a couple of years and then drifted in and out.
Extraordinarily, it’s now 20 years since Voyager finished; it ran from 1995 to 2001. It was a major source of methadone for Doctor Who fans during Who’s wilderness years. It wasn’t my favourite Doctor Who substitute: I preferred Buffy and Babylon 5: the former was better written and the latter more imaginative (at least, it was until its woeful final season).
I’m not really a Trek fan as such. I like it, but I don’t have the same emotional attachment to it as I do to Doctor Who. They’re very different, of course; as an over-generalisation, Trek is bound by a “realism” and a strict – maybe constricting – adherence to its vision of the future and strict series bible; Doctor Who cheerfully ignores its own continuity and any other constraints that might get in the way of telling a good story – or, at least, it does so when it’s at its best.
That said, Trek can be very good. Of all its incarnations, I prefer the original series and the films with the original cast, though I’ve enjoyed the other series. (Most of them, anyway. With the exception of the Captain Pike episodes, I find Discovery dreary, formulaic, and preachy. Didn’t like Picard, either.)
The pandemic has driven many of us back to our screens and I’ve probably been watching far too much television. This has included watching all 172 episodes of Voyager; indeed, in one slobby couch potato week, I got through 43 of them. Beat that!
As a result, I offer to you, dear reader, an appraisal of the adventures of Captain Janeway and her crew. This is in the humble hope that my deathless prose might entertain, and inspire you to see if you fancy having a gander at the series for yourself. There are worse ways to pass an otherwise dull evening and it beats sitting through yet another episode of Pointless. Permit me, then, to drone on about what I made of Voyager, 20 years and more after I first saw it.
Well: I enjoyed it. Voyager is much better than I remember it being: it’s not without its faults, but it’s considerably better than its reputation might lead you to think.
Its real problem is that it takes a long time to get going. A very long time. This is a problem that seems to be endemic to Trek; both The Next Generation and Enterprise didn’t really take off in their first couple of years; their later episodes were much better than the early ones. By Season 3, both TNG and Enterprise had got into their stride. But the problem with not hitting the ground running is that you lose a lot of your audience; they’re not always going to stick around if you don’t deliver from the outset.
Voyager suffers from this syndrome in spades. Enterprise and perhaps TNG took off in their third seasons; Voyager doesn’t really get going until its fourth. Once it does find its voice, it really does get good – but it did so far too late. I suspect a lot of its comparatively poor reception is based on its first three seasons. The responsibility for this has to be laid at the door of the showrunners, who floundered around for too long and hoped that the TNG audience would transfer their loyalty, uncritically, to the new show. There are some good individual episodes in Voyager’s first three years but they’re fairly rare: for every two “meh” ones, you get a good one.
(If you’re considering watching it again, this is actually a strong argument for watching it out of order. It’s a good idea to start with Season 4, work through to Season 7, and then go back and watch the first three. Actually, there’s a two parter which bridges Seasons 3 and 4, so maybe start with Scorpion Part One at the end of Season 3.)
Before it found its voice, Voyager also suffered too much from being “Trek by numbers”. It came across, at least at first, as a pale imitation of TNG: similar, but not as good. The attempts by the showrunners to differentiate it from its predecessor were worthy but not always well realised. So, it would have a female captain – but one who lacked the charisma of Picard. It would be set in the Delta Quadrant rather than the Alpha Quadrant of the Milky Way – but that deprived the writers of old favourites like the Klingons, the Romulans, the Ferengi, et al., and the substitutes just weren’t as compelling. The ship would not be crewed just by Starfleet personnel but by mixture of Starfleet and Maquis (freedom fighters against the Cardassians). It was felt this would introduce conflict among the characters – but this quickly became subdued and the Maquis soon fitted in snugly, contentedly, and rather unrealistically among their Starfleet peers. They occasionally grumbled, but they happily wore Starfleet uniforms and their leader Chakotay learned obediently to follow his Captain’s orders and be a good little first officer. One of the crew was originally a criminal – but Tom Paris, too, soon learnt to conform.
Losing the Klingons and the Romulans and their ilk would have worked if decent new aliens had been found. But the Kazon, the primary threat in the early years, are bland, lucklustre substitutes: it’s as though the writers looked at the Klingons, renamed them, changed their appearance a bit by giving them daft Bride of Frankenstein haircuts, and got rid of all the characteristics that made the Klingons interesting. The Kazon are dull. So, too, are the Vidiians, a race decimated by plague and who are rather over-enthusiastic in their advocacy of the virtues of organ donation. (They nick your organs, you see. They have no need of anaesthetic to do so because your boredom with them has led you to doze off long before they can get you.) Voyager could, in its early years, be seen as the bland story of a bland ship having bland encounters with bland aliens in a bland region of space.
Maybe that’s a bit harsh. Seasons 1 to 3 aren’t total failures. As I said, there are some good episodes. But the cast generally manage only a fairly low energy level; some of them try to compensate and to up the energy level — as a result, they often just end up over-acting.
Voyager coasted on its journey for the first three years, pootling along on impulse. Then it went fully into warp with Season 4, and Seasons 4 to 7 are absolute belters.
I’m getting ahead of myself here. Back to the origins. And then on to the characters. (I’m going to concentrate mainly on them rather than other aspects of the series; if I commented on everything, this piece would become impossibly long. After all, if you watched every episode of Voyager for 10 hours a day, it’d still take you nearly two weeks to get through them all. So there’s a lot more that could be said. You gotta start – and stop – somewhere.)
Deep Space Nine overlapped with TNG, then TNG finished, and a new series, set on a starship rather than a space station, was deemed to be required. The lead would be female – this was 22 years before Jodie Whittaker was cast as Doctor Who; Trek got there first, by a long margin. The producers were adamant that the approach to Elizabeth Janeway would not be tokenistic or stereotyped in any way. She wasn’t the lady Captain: she was the Captain. She wouldn’t be romantically involved with any of the crew; she had a fiancé back on Earth. She certainly wouldn’t bed them; still less, unlike James T Kirk, would she react to any alien she met by either snogging them or smashing them in the face.
The character’s given name was changed when the part was cast. Captain Nicole Janeway was to be played by Geneviève Bujold, a highly regarded French-Canadian actress, known primarily for her work in film.
Oh dear. Bujold managed two days of filming before she left.
The studio and the director had reservations about the casting from the outset. Some studio suits still hankered after a male lead. Others were concerned that Bujold hadn’t really anticipated the sheer amount of work the part would involve: gruelling days of 14 hours or more for months, and then for years. It seems the actor, too, was deeply worried about the workload.
And then there was her performance. In general terms in acting, less is more, but Bujold’s characterisation was so understated that it seemed to vanish entirely. Exhortations from director Winrich Kolbe to give it some welly fell on deaf ears. Nicole Janeway appeared to combine the personality of a mildly frosty librarian with a rabbit caught in car headlights. And she even found it hard to learn her lines. It took 15 takes before her first entrance onto the bridge was in the can.
It didn’t work, the studio realised it didn’t work, and Bujold, hesitant about taking the role in the first place, handed in her resignation. Shooting on the pilot continued for a week, for scenes which didn’t involve the Captain. Kolbe then admitted defeat and production shut down for a week, until the Captain could be re-cast.
Enter Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway: now Kathryn, rather than Nicole or Elizabeth.
Poor old Kate came in for a lot of stick when the series first aired. A shame, because she’s a fine actress – as anyone who’s seen her as Red, the Russian gangster in Orange is the New Black, will know. She has a rather odd voice: without being unkind, it’s a bit gravelly and nasal, and it got on the nerves of a lot of reviewers. She was also hampered by one of the studio executives’ obsession that her hair should look “great”, resulting in some crazy beehives, buns, and cottage loaves in the early seasons. Mulgrew herself was irritated by her hairdos and the dafter styles were ditched in later seasons, when she was allowed to wear her hair in a more conventional way. She also threw herself into the part with gusto; as a result, she overplays it in the early years: hands on hips, barking orders, chin jutting, eyes flashing – but then, she was being closely scrutinised by studio bosses, who had strong reservations about whether a woman could pull off the role, and probably had decided that she was damn well going to show them. (It is, of course, a phenomenon never found before in Star Trek that the Captain overacts, cf the restrained and subtle performance of the mighty Mr Shatner.)
Voyager took a while to find its voice and Kate Mulgrew took a while to find the Captain; once she’s settled into the part and has ditched the overplaying, she’s actually very good. Janeway is a convincing human being and Mulgrew plays her well. The problems with the characterisation mirror the problems with the series as a whole: it took a while to settle down and work out what it was trying to do.
The best character in the early seasons is the Emergency Medical Hologram, beautifully played by Robert Picardo. As with some other holographic projections in Trek, if you leave their programs running long enough, they will eventually achieve sentience. Variously sardonic, grumpy, smug, arrogant, pompous, self-obsessed, and irritating, he’s also very, very funny. In many ways, he’s rather like the protagonist in Professor T. (Why is it that Trek’s most interesting characters are so often the ships’ doctors? McCoy, Phlox, and the EMH are all absolute gems. I exempt from this generalisation, however, Dr Bashir and that deeply dull bloke in Discovery.) Picardo lifts any scene he is in. It’s also notable to Doctor Who fans like me that the character is known simply as “The Doctor”; I very much doubt that this is a direct lift, however — it’s more likely just a coincidence.
And so to the rest of the crew.
To be honest, I think this is an area where Voyager has, overall, to be judged as a bit of a failure. Chakotay, Tom Parris, and Harry Kim are well acted – but they’re also rather bland, too. They’re okay; they’re even pretty good on occasions, but they’re not a patch on Sulu, Uhura, or Scotty from the original series. Too generic, and basically little more on paper than Stock Trek Character 1, 2, and 3. (This tendency to conceive and realise stock characters is much more marked in Discovery, where the main descriptor in most of the character outlines is “bland”.) B’Elanna Torres, the half-Klingon chief engineer, is much better – though even here, Roxann Dawson takes a couple of years to settle into the character; she’s too shouty and aggressive in the early episodes.
I’m never quite sure what to make of Tuvok. As he was playing the first Vulcan since Spock to be a series regular, poor Tim Russ had a very hard act to follow. He’s good — it’s just that Nimoy gave such a superb performance that it’s almost impossible not to make comparisons. That said, Tuvok is a full Vulcan, when Spock wasn’t. He has no human side to keep in check. Tuvok is dedicated to logic and the cool pursuit of Vulcan philosophy. The problem is that this cool pursuit means that Tuvok can verge on being positively chilly. Spock had a warmth and a charm that made him hugely charismatic; Tuvok is actually a bit of a cold fish. Spock was strongly motivated by his compassion; so, perhaps, is Tuvok, but it’s almost totally internalised and subdued. If you found yourself stuck on a starship, Spock is someone you’d like to spend time with. Tuvok is someone you’d like to avoid as much as possible.
Emotionless people are actually very hard to realise. Martin Landau, one of the actors considered for Spock, turned the part down because he didn’t want to play a block of wood. Vulcans aren’t truly emotionless, either: as you doubtless know, they have feelings but they seek to master them. Vulcan philosophy is basically updated Stoicism. There are some inconsistencies in the way the various incarnations of Trek have portrayed the race, and the attitude towards Vulcan philosophy is a bit ambivalent. It may be a good thing not to give in to anger, hatred, envy, greed, arrogance, and all that (though even GCSE Psychology students know that always bottling up anger is a good way of allowing it to ferment into clinical depression). But suppressing love, happiness, friendship? Hmm. So, Vulcans are shown to be capable of friendship, even if only a rather chilly and stiff-upper-lipped version is permitted to such as Tuvok. And both Spock and Tuvok seem to have a strong sense of humour, even if it can only be deadpan. Eliminate all emotions and you end up with Cybermen, not Vulcans. But the Vulcans do seem a bit inconsistent in what they’re allowed to express and what they aren’t. Tuvok’s clearly a good and compassionate man, but these elements are so suppressed that you probably wouldn’t notice he was actually a goody unless you’d been around him for years.
Well. I think the problem with Tuvok is the character himself. He’s just too chilly to be genuinely charismatic, with the result that he’s nothing like as interesting as Spock. Tim Russ gives a strong performance; it’s just that I do sometimes wish he would drop the po-face occasionally. His default setting seems to be one of mild irritation, nearly all the time. He is clearly particularly irritated by Neelix.
Ah. Yes. Neelix.
Neelix – the bumptious, jovial, jolly, maddeningly cheerful, and relentlessly chirpy Talaxian trader – topped the list of “Trek characters I most want to strangle” when the series was first shown. Only viewers with the strongest stomachs will never find him irritating. Most confess to shouting obscenities at the screen whenever he appears and to nurse hopes that, having been disappointed in previous weeks, each new episode will finally delight everyone by depicting his horrible, painful death.
I confess that I quite like him. (Writer retreats behind shield of dustbin lids to protect himself from hurled rotting foodstuffs.) Even so, I can see why he gets under people’s skins. The showrunners should probably have anticipated that having Mr Irritating as a lead character was not a good idea. Once the character was conceived, they also don’t really know what to do with him. His function as guide in the Delta Quadrant is understandable – but what are they meant to do with him the rest of the time? Sticking him in the galley as head chef is lame and gives rise to lots of silly jokes about “isn’t Neelix’s cooking shocking ho ho bloody ho”. Oh well. Ethan Phillips has the unenviable task of bringing this horrifying conception to life and, it has to be said, he does a very good job of it, warts (and silly hair) and all.
Neelix is in love with Kes, too.
I am probably unusual in finding Kes much more irritating than Neelix.
You see, Kes is nice. Very, very nice. Kes’s chararacter outline was limited to one word: nice. Say what you like about Kes, you can’t deny that she is frightfully, frightfully nice. For some unfathomable and incomprehensible reason, she reciprocates Neelix’s love and does not notice that Neelix is a jerk. Kes has funny ears, helps the Doctor sometimes, gives the writers problems as they scratch their heads over trying to give her something to do, stands around a bit with her arms behind her back, and smiles a lot. This is because she is nice. No fault of the actress: Jennifer Lien does her best, but the character’s one of the weakest elements in the programme.
Kes was dropped as a regular. Hard for the actress but probably a wise decision. Jennifer Lien only appears in a couple of episodes of the fourth season, credited no longer in the title sequence but just as a guest star. (Sadly, Jennifer Lien went on to have huge problems with her mental health in later life; whether her being dropped from Voyager was a contributory factor in this isn’t clear. It’s probably none of our business, either. I do hope she gets well; it’s said she’s less ill now and I trust that that’s the case.)
The replacement for Kes was a new character called Seven of Nine – and it was with her arrival that Voyager finally took off.
Much of the improvement in Voyager is down to Jeri Ryan’s stunningly good performance. Replacing Kes with Seven gives a huge boost to the series’ energy, reinvigorates the show, and finally gives the writers something to get their teeth into. Removing a Borg from the Collective had been done before with Hugh in TNG; he was okay, but there were fewer layers to his character than to Seven’s. She struggles with her newly found humanity and, in her early episodes, rages against it (Ryan compared her rebelliousness to that of a truculent adolescent). Her response to Harry’s attempts to chat her up is terrifying. She snarls at her crewmates and looks down her nose at them because they have tiny brains.
(It has to be said that the Borg do bear a remarkable similarity to the Cybermen, though, for this writer at least, the Cybermen are nastier. Were they a rip-off? I expect we’ll never really know; however, Doctor Who was a fringe show in the States when the Borg were originally conceived, and it’s doubtful that the writers had even heard of the Cybermen. While a cyborg race was a radical concept in the mid-Sixties, it had become a standard sci-fi trope by the Eighties, so it’s probably just a coincidence. But “You belong to us – you will be like us” is much more scary than “You will be assimilated” so ner ner ner to Star Trek.)
Eventually, Seven of Nine calms down and settles into a semi-aloof but workable relationship with the rest of the crew. She even develops a rather stern friendship with Naomi Wildman, the only child born on the ship; this could have been emetic but it’s actually rather well done. The character was so successful that they recast her, crossed out “Borg” and wrote “Vulcan” in its place, called her T’Pol, and stuck her on the Enterprise.
Seven’s arrival, though, caused some consternation. There was that costume, you see.
I’m not the sort of chap who searches the internet for things to get cross and self-righteous about, or to take offence when none is offered. But alas and but yet: the costume for Seven of Nine is ridiculously OTT. Even such a dunderhead as I can see that it’s not possible to defend the makers of Voyager from the charge of sexism. If the Maquis crew adopted Starfleet uniforms, why didn’t Seven of Nine? Well, of course, we know why. They toned down the original silver catsuit and there were different coloured variants – toned down, but not by much. Poor Jeri Ryan couldn’t even go to the loo without having to take a 20 minute break, losing precious shooting time, because she had to have help to get out of the thing. The original costume was so constricting and uncomfortable that it made her feel ill.
It’s a shame and you’d never get away with that look now. Seven appears in much more conventional clothes in the recent Picard. Jeri Ryan’s acting is so good that it’s a blot on Voyager as a whole that the producers felt she needed to wear that garb for us to pay any attention to her. Pretty insulting, really: both to the actor and to the audience. They never thought of sticking Chakotay into a catsuit and a corset. Funny, that.
Kate Mulgrew reacted badly to the introduction of Seven of Nine. Quite legitimately, she felt that the depiction of women in Voyager had been respectful and has given due weight to their dignity – and then suddenly, you had a hugely sexualised realisation of a female character, not in the playing but in the look. As a result, Mulgrew sometimes got grumpy with Ryan, leading to the latter’s feeling hurt and bewildered, and to a less happy atmosphere on set. (One should probably not get too condemnatory of Mulgrew. Most of us can’t put our hands on our hearts and say we’ve always treated colleagues with absolute courtesy and kindness.)
Seven’s not featured heavily in all the episodes of Season 4, but the character was a strong one and it came to dominate. It’s much easier to write for strong characters; many of the episodes came to be about the trio of Janeway, Seven, and the Doctor, mirroring the original series’ trio of Spock, McCoy, and Kirk. While such episodes tend to be better than the others, the rest of the cast confessed to feeling sidelined. Robert Beltran (Chakotay) got particularly fed up with only coming in to work for one day a week, just to say, “Shields have failed,” when he’d previously carried much more of the action.
Just a few more observations, then.
Voyager can look a bit dated now. The CGI can be woeful and was so even at the time; Foundation Imaging, the company who’d done marvels with Babylon 5, were brought in but did much less good a job on Voyager. Species 8472 aren’t a patch on the Vorlons. Foundation Imaging’s involvement meant that the design for the CGI sequences can end up looking much more B5 than Trek; some of the starships would look much more at home in the universe of Captain Sheridan than that of Captain Janeway. (There’s a timeship which even has the same middle section as Babylon 5 itself, with a nose almost identical to a probe that menaced the Straczynski space station. It was commanded by a man called Annorax. A splendid name for a science fiction character. Am I the only person to find this funny?)
Overuse of the holodeck as a plot device. Fortunately, the rotten Jane Eyre-style holonovel that Janeway half-heartedly takes part in is soon ditched. I always felt that holodecks were better used for scientific simulations than for live action roleplay. It seems a bit nerdy to me to think that grown up people would want to act out their fantasies in 3D simulations. Why, were it possible, for example, to simulate the interior of the Hartnell TARDIS, I simply cannot conceive that I would want to be inside that simulation for hours, happily playing with the TARDIS’ knobs and levers, saying, “Check the radiation detector, Susan,” and basking in the joy of having my very own TARDIS. Nope, simply cannot conceive such a thing.
On the other hand, the holodeck does produce some very funny sequences: Harry and Tom’s recreation of a black and white 1930s sci-fi serial, complete with a Ming the Merciless lookalike, screaming heroine, and crummy robot is an absolute delight. If you only ever watch one episode, do see Bride of Chaotica! One of Voyager’s real strengths is when it does comedy, and it does it really well. The comedy episodes are marvellous.
So: a few comments to round up.
Voyager is genuinely good and it’s well worth seeing; it should appeal to most fans of Doctor Who and it’s better than its general reputation might suggest. It isn’t the best version of Star Trek (despite its faults, the original series remains my fave) but it’s far from being the weakest. It is infinitely superior to the dreary Discovery. At its best, it’s superb; even when it dips, the stories are no worse than for any other version of Trek. It never reaches the nadir of, say, The Way to Eden or that dumb original series episode where a rubbish rock monster conjures up Abraham Lincoln to help Kirk and Spock fight for all that is good and decent and patrician and homely. Voyager’s particularly strong when it’s comedic, it has stand out performances from Jeri Ryan and Robert Picardo, and the rest of the cast are pretty good too.
Yes, even Ethan Phillips and Jennifer Lein. It’s not their fault they got lumbered with playing Neelix and Kes. Somebody had to.
If you don’t want to watch entire seasons and want a different way in to the series, here are a few recommendations for some individual episodes. Voyager’s available in the UK on Netflix at the time of writing.
End of Season 3 / first episode of Season 4:
- Scorpion, Parts 1 and 2
- Waking Moments
- The Killing Game, Parts 1 and 2
- Drone (this refers to a Borg drone and not to Kate Mulgrew’s mode of speech)
- In the Flesh
- Infinite Regress
- Bride of Chaotica!
- Survival Instinct
- Life Line
End of Season 6 / first episode of Season 7:
- Unimatrix Zero, Parts 1 and 2
- And the Voyager finale, Endgame – though you might want to leave that for now!
And finally, finally:
You may know that the theme tune to the original series of Star Trek had lyrics. They were written by Gene Roddenberry, because by a legal quirk he could then get 50% of the royalties whenever the theme tune was played. They are execrable and are, mercifully, rarely performed.
However, no one has similarly written lyrics to the theme tune for Voyager.
Here, then, is my attempt at a title song for Voyager. You can sing along each time you watch the title sequence. I was, in this, inspired by the curious shape of the starship itself, whose design seems to be based on what might happen if you sat on a model of the Enterprise and then pulled its nose out of shape.
Here is my song – wot I wrote all by myself.
My spaceship’s front
Is shaped like a toilet seat.
A toilet seat,
A toilet seat,
Toilet, toilet seat!
My spaceship’s front
Is sha-aped like a toilet seat!
A toilet seat,
A toilet seat!
O yeah. (Etc.)
(Now try to get these lyrics out of your head whenever you hear the theme tune. Bet you can’t.)
And if you want to see more about Star Trek through the lens of a Doctor Who fan, check out the Doctor Who Companion Annual 2022, free to download right now!