Saturday, October 8, 2011

TV Time - Star Trek: Voyager

Who would have thought after mid-1969 that Star Trek, then just a freshly cancelled TV series, would have grown steadily to become a juggernaut of a franchise, spawning 11 movies (across 3 iterations of the franchise), 5 follow-up series (including an animated continuation of the live-action original), and a multi-billion dollar industry including toys, props, costumes, novels, comic books, video games and conventions worldwide?  I suspect if Gene Roddenberry were alive today, he would even be surprised at the level the Star Trek saga has become ingrained in the cultural lexicon.  Despite the long-running popularity of Star Trek in some form or another, some iterations of the franchise have been regardless as "lesser" in the Trek canon, often unfairly.  One of the more slighted portions of the Trek universe has been the unfairly maligned Star Trek: Voyager series.

Voyager comprised many firsts for the Trek universe.  It is the first show to feature a female captain, the first to feature a ship designed for scientific exploration (versus diplomatic missions like the Enterprise), the first ship to incorporate bio-electric circuitry (the "gelpacks"), and the first to put the crew in a long-term situation where zero Federation support is available during the course of the show's run.  After the ratings for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were less than what Paramount was probably expecting, Rick Berman and company were probably looking for ways to recapture much of the finge "Trek audience" that weren't rabid fans, per se, but were fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation because of it's emphasis on exploration and "bottle episode" plots, while still weaving in drawn-out plotlines, character development, and a general underlying theme.  Personally, I feel they accomplished this with Voyager.

In case you, the reader, are one of the folks who never saw Voyager, here's the synopsis.  Captain Catherine Janeway has been given command of Voyager, a starship from the new "Intrepid class" whose chief mission will be scientific exploration.  However, their initial mission will be to thwart the Maquis, a group of cessationists who were protesting (and fighting against) the Cardassian occupation of the Bajoran system.  The Maquis vessel had gone missing in an area of space known as The Badlands.  During the course of the mission, both the Maquis ship and Voyager got caught up in a subspace phenomenon that pulled the ships over 70,000 light years into a region of space yet explored or charted by the Federation known as the Delta Quadrant.  The area of space where the Federation is based (on Earth) is known as the Alpha Quadrant, for comparison's sake.  Once they were thrown into the Delta Quadrant, they encountered several new races, one of which was the being responsible for bringing them that far, who died shortly after their arrival.  Due to this being's death, they were unable to be transported back to the Alpha Quadrant, and thus was born the show's primary underlying plot line - getting back home.  Both being stranded and needing to rely on each other for survival, the Maquis and Federation crews banded together and became one crew aboard Voyager to find a way to get back home, despite the fact that at maximum warp, it would take some 70+ years to do so.
You've come a long way, baby... 

It is in this goal, and the determination of the crew to find ways of shortening their trip home, that the show finds its initial footing.  However, viewers are quickly drawn into the myriad storylines, and are quickly prompted to care about the characters in the ensemble cast due to the vulnerability of their situation, their determination to get home, and their "humanity", indeed, even for those characters who aren't even human.  Alien crew members who joined the Voyager crew early on whose "humanity" was evident early on include the Ocampa named Kes, and her love interest, the Talaxian junk dealer known as Neelix.  Perhaps the most shining example of character "humanity" is the "Emergency Medical Hologram" doctor, played expertly by Robert Picardo.
Did someone forget to deactivate me AGAIN?

The thing about Voyager that makes it so endearing is that the cast is so well chosen for the show based upon the characters they play.  Half-Klingon, half-human B'Elanna Torres can be at once fired up and yet still tender, accentuating both sides of her personality.  Janeway is a strong lead with a commanding presence, yet she reveals her layers and gives viewers a reason to rally behind her as the captain.  Ensign Harry Kim may have the nickname "Starfleet" from Belana, and his "by the book" approach may seem a bit silly in the face of the odds the crew faces, but he's just such a nice guy that he's hard not to like.  Tom Paris' renewed sense of responsibility and desire to experience life is infectious, and who doesn't like Neelix and his over-eager personality and "people-pleaser" mentality?  Then there's Kes, who, despite only being on the show for 3 seasons, manages to capture a child-like wonder (indeed, for a race that only lives between 7 and 9 years, at 2 she is still very much a child) that is inspiring.  Let's not forget Chakotay, who nicely balances his Maquis bravado with his previous Starfleet sense of duty, and then The Doctor, who brings much comedy to the preceedings.

Captain, I have a delightful Leola Root Stew you simply must try...

Now in 2011 (10 years after the show's run ended), though the show looks a touch dated due to changes in hairstyles, updated CGI and special effect techniques, Voyager still looks pretty good and still manages to impress, though not in the same way TNG did years after its debut.  Still, it's no slouch when it comes to the visual department.  Depending on your chosen format for viewing, some of the visuals may be a touch "jittery".  Now that Voyager is on the Netflix Instant service, that's where I'm watching it (though I do plan on purchasing either a DVD or perhaps BluRay set at some point), like the intense orange lighting in portions of Engineering on the ship.  It's slightly off-putting at first, but you get used to it, considering the timeframe when it was made and the limits of the effects technology at that time.  In terms of sound, the modern Trek series have always been good about sound editing, and Voyager is no different.  Rarely do you need to either crank the volume up, or turn it down in order to avoid being "blasted" by your TV, or to catch that lingering word or phrase.  The show has always had well-balanced sound.  A handful of the early episodes are unintentionally funny at times, in part due to the cast sort of feeling their way through their characters - like when Kes freaks out due to being unendingly hungry and Neelix throwing her over her shoulder to haul her off to the doctor - her reaction is priceless.  But then TNG suffered from a very "stiff" cast for about the first season and a half or so, which makes this less a complaint and more an observation.

I guess the thing that makes me most nostalgic about Voyager is that I never properly finished it.  Voyager, like the other modern Star Trek series, was in syndication, and not long before it moved exclusively to UPN is when I stopped watching because we had no UPN affiliate where I lived.  So while I watched long enough to see the introduction of the much-lauded Seven of Nine character (Jeri Ryan's calling card), I didn't get to see much of her character development before I was unable to watch the show.  I wasn't madly in love with Jeri like most other Trek fanboys were - honestly, with what little I saw, I preferred her in Boston Public after Voyager ended.  That said, I am anxious to see the development of her character fully, as I understand it was an interesting evolution from dyed-in-the-wool Borg to a more fully realized individual.  And perhaps that's the thing that Voyager boasts, at least as much as The Next Generation - that ability to take a cast of characters and propel them into a situation that forces you to care about them from the word "go", and then keeps you interested by making them as real as possible within the context of the fantasy world they were created for.  That, and the blissfully utopian view of society that Gene Roddenberry espoused, are the endearing qualities that give Voyager a leg up over much TV sci-fi fare, and certainly allows the show to hold its own against its other Trek alumni.  If you haven't jumped on the Voyager bandwagon, now's a good time to start.

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