I’m aware this isn’t a book (I do not and will not read the novelisations… at least not until I run out of Trek to watch), but it is SFF and I just posted sufficient angry tweets about it that I think it merits a post.
For several years now, I’ve been slowly working my way through all of the Star Trek serieses in a vague semblance of chronological order (not an episode-by-episode chronology, as I couldn’t be bothered to work that out, but each series in chronological order, dated by the first episode, so: TOS, TAS, TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise). I’m currently two series into Voyager, and a lot of my opinions about it have changed. It used to be that I couldn’t decide whether DS9 or Voyager was my least favourite Star Trek series. Now, having seen all of DS9 and over 50 episodes of Voyager, I can tentatively suggest that Voyager is better. It’s actually pretty good (and DS9 is awful… maybe I should make a post about that too, hmmm…), in all the respects I really care about. I like Janeway as a captain; she shares a lot of what I liked the most about Picard. Both of them are highly moral individuals who refuse to compromise their ideals (and those of the Federation) for the sake of an easy life, while at the same time being keenly concerned with the value of life, and the importance of placing the preservation of life above other considerations. Obviously these two ideals come into conflict and interest moral debates ensue. It’s the thinky stuff I really enjoy about so much of Star Trek, after all. Even TOS, when you look past the ridiculousness of dogs with unicorn horns, William Shatner (also here and here) and penis rocks, can do some really thought provoking stuff. TOS is also very richly inspired by a lot of things outside of its own sphere of interest. Particularly of note for me, it draws on a lot of Classical sources, not just in the obvious episodes like “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “Plato’s Stepchildren”, but it more subtle ways (from the naming of alien worlds and peoples to some of the philosophies espoused by characters). It does what I think is one of Trek’s best features – it makes us think. Voyager does not draw so much on the Classics (and we can all weep about that, but alas, not everything can be about the Greeks), but it does do a lot of the thoughtfulness that TOS and TNG manage. One of the episodes I’ve just watched was an argument for whether an immortal being should be allowed by his society to end his immortality (and ultimately commit suicide as he wishes to do) or whether that choice – which would alter the very nature of the society from which he comes – should be taken into the hands of those he will affect by his death. This is not mindless telly. We also have debates on whether an artificial consciousness is as “real” a life form as one of flesh and blood, and the ever present Star Trek debate on the Prime Directive*.
Add to this the fact that Voyager manages to meet in the middle point of TNG and DS9 on the monster-of-the-week vs. overarching plot dilemma. It manages to avoid being a soap opera like DS9, while preserving a sense of continuity that TNG sometimes lacks, and TOS certainly abandons. A large part of this is probably down to Voyager’s mission. Because the Enterprises of TOS and TNG both are merely explorers, with no specific goals, their plots are difficult to tie to one coherent narrative, because it would draw them away from their aim, which is essentially to find a new exciting thing every week. TNG helps a little by often being pulled back into Federation Space to deal with various problems or current affairs, and by the end is tied up in bigger events so has gained a greater coherence. But being expeditions of exploration means they do have to find new things. Voyager, on the other hand, has a coherent goal they are seeking to achieve – they want to find their way home. But they are stuck in unfamiliar space and must have frequent dealings with the same groups of people as they pass through**. This obviously forces some continuity, but because they are constantly travelling like the Enterprise, they are also forced to do some monster-of-the-week shenanigans. Wonderful balancing act there. Hurrah.
Then there are the characters. I think the crew compliment of Voyager is one of the more pleasing selections. There’s a good handful of non-humans (off the top of my head, Vulcan, half-Klingon, Ocampa, Talaxian, Betazoid, hologram and those blue dudes with the seam on their face) as well as a mixture of Starfleet and Maquis crew (cue political troubles, woo). The Vulcan is very Vulcan. In the best way. The doctor gets some development in the same vein as Data on the “what it means to be human when I myself am not so but strive to be” theme. The Ocampa (Kes) is telepathically capable but untrained. The betazoid guy is so violent (and apparently without the telepathic abilities of his kind) that he actually breaks the Vulcan guy when they mind-meld. Lots and lots to work with in terms of “ooh, shiny new exposition”.
This is all sounding wonderful.
But there’s a catch. And it sounds like a little one, but it’s not. It should be a little one. It should not be possible for something so small to ruin the excellence of everything else, but there is one character who manages to spoil the entire show for me by being utterly irredeemable. Neelix. He starts off as a necessary component of the crew, as he possesses knowledge of the area of space they’re in and they do not. But the further they travel, the more unlikely his knowledge becomes, and the more his function within the crew has to be crow-barred in. This alone would be irritating but bearable. On top of this, he seems to be intended as some sort of cheery, comic-relief style character, but it has turned out just… grating. He also seems to be capable of pretty much anything (he was a scrap dealer, but apparently he can join in with conversations about theoretically impossible quantum theory on ship propulsion, among other things). He takes it upon himself to do things that don’t need doing and actually cause problems, and no one seems willing to call him out on it because they seem to like him. God knows why. He has a lovely, intelligent, compassionate girlfriend (despite his many personal flaws) and proceeds to be incredibly jealous. He frequently accuses her of being sucked in by other men (she insists he can trust her and he basically dismisses her agency in any matters of romance in the sort of “yes of course I can but I can’t trust them” way… because of course she couldn’t possibly resist unwanted advances on her own), sometimes tries to stop her being friends with them, and becomes suspicious on the slightest grounds (because she knew which deck someone lived on, for instance). He even physically assaults men he thinks may be involved with her. And no one treats this as unacceptable. He does exactly what he wants, often to the detriment of those around him and to the only purpose of his self-aggrandisement, and gets away with it too. He is treated with respect that seems unmerited. He is also very cringey, which is a sin I cannot forgive. And he appears in way too many episodes.
I ought to be able to look past the utter rubbishness of one character who is not the lead in order to enjoy the merits of the rest of the series, but I can’t. He is so constantly infuriating that he actually ruins all the good things the series manages to achieve. And as such, I cannot consider Voyager to be a good Star Trek series. Just because of him. It makes me very very sad.
I do like some of the characters though. I think Janeway is an excellent character, and I like how people occasionally make an issue of her gender and it gets dealt with wonderfully (the Kazon, for example, are very sexist and “refuse to have terms dictated by a woman“). Right from the first episode, when she discusses how she wishes to be address, she is putting her gender in the spotlight. In DS9, and apparently in the world of Voyager too, it is normal to refer to senior female staff as “sir”, as with male staff. Janeway insists to Kim that she doesn’t like this, however. He offers “ma’am” and she accepts that but only “when it comes to the crunch”. Her preferred term of address is “captain”, and I think this gesture is an important one. By refusing “sir”, she makes a point of being a woman. By refusing “ma’am” she makes a point that old-style female honorifics are incompatible with her position in command. And by insisting on “captain”, she commands the respect she needs without sacrificing her gender to a male standard of command language, or her authority to the inherent misogyny of traditional honorifics for her gender (mountain successfully made out of molehill there, I think). She does what so few female characters do, in essence, and manages to be completely female and completely successful, without needing to give in to male patterns of behaviour to gain respect, authority and worth. This sounds dumb, but seriously. Most of the “strong female” characters are just giving in to the whole “punch it = power” mechanism that is essentially male. I’m not saying that women can’t punch things. By all means they can and should (in morally appropriate contexts). But worth as a character needs to be constructed not solely on a male model of power and value, and it is important to have characters who incorporate aspects of traditional (or non-traditional) femininity while being also portrayed as entirely worthwhile and achieving success in their own ways. Basically, Janeway makes the feminist in me very happy. And being fun to watch.
She’s not the only excellent character. I have a great deal of love for Tom Paris, Harry Kim and the Doctor too. But she is the one most worthy of discussion because it’s not just a case of liking her, but of her being a genuinely and I think objectively worthwhile choice for the show. And excellently acted by Ms. Mulgrew. Tom Paris is just fun to watch, Harry Kim is adorable and the Doctor… well, I’m always a sucker for the non-human, emotionless-but-seeking-humanity characters. Data, for instance. The Doctor is Data plus sarcasm, minus naivety.
I really really want to love Voyager. It has really suckered me in. I actually care about what happens to the characters (whereas I was willing misfortune upon those of DS9). But Neelix makes it all quite hard going. And if he weren’t there, I honestly think I might consider Voyager on a par with TNG, if not the best Trek series of all.
*Ok, I should probably, for honesty’s sake, admit that DS9 has its fair share of moral dilemma and thought-provoking discussion too. I dislike it for other reasons (though I suspect chiefly because I find the captain to be morally unpleasant at best, and abhorrent at worst).
**That said, I am beginning to be confused by the possible inconsistencies of their relations with the Kazon, particularly the Nistrim… they’ve now been travelling near-constantly for about a year, and yet have not left the space controlled by the Kazon, and indeed keep meeting the same Nistrim guy, despite the fact that the Nistrim’s space travel tech is not much different to Voyager’s, so they cannot be zooming ahead to meet them, and presumably that one guy has other stuff to do rather than just trying to follow Voyager around all the time, since he is the head of a faction of a large, multi-planetary civilisation and all. But maybe I should not pick holes.