Star Trek: Voyager

As long as I signed up for CBS All Access to watch Star Trek: Picard, something made me decide to watch Star Trek: Voyager. Longtime readers may recall that I was not a fan of The Next Generation, and I only made it through a season and a half of Deep Space Nine before I hit the eject button, as by that time Babylon 5 had sucked all the air out of the room for television science fiction. (It’s still the best SF series I’ve ever seen.) So I had little interest in Voyager when it debuted in 1995.

I think what made me decide to watch it this time was hearing that it had a bunch of time travel episodes, and I’m a sucker for a good time travel episode. Once I decided to watch that many episodes, I figured I’d draw up a list of the supposed best episodes and go through those. I didn’t really have the interest or patience to watch the whole thing, and while I assumed I’d miss out on some nuance of character development over the full 7 seasons, I also figured – based on the other “NuTrek” series between 1987 and 2005 – that characterization would not be the series’ strong suit. If the episodes I came up with ended up being surprisingly great, then I could branch out to some second-tier episodes.

We powered through the 48 episodes on my list (plus one we watched by accident) throughout June and July, and the verdict is: It was okay. Not great. Most episodes were watchable, none were great, none were outright awful. Definitely some disappointments, though. But I doubt I’ll watch any more than this. (It’s over a quarter of the series, which seems sufficient.)

Anyway, spoilers for a 20-year-old TV show in case you care about such things.

Here are the ones we watched, with my grades (on an A-F scale):

  • Caretaker (season 1 episodes 1-2) C+
  • Parallax (S1 E3) C
  • Time and Again (S1 E4) C-
  • Eye of the Needle (S1 E7) B
  • Non Sequitur (S2 E5) D+
  • Deadlock (S2 E21) B-
  • Flashback (S3 E2) C
  • Future‚Äôs End (S3 E8-9) D
  • Unity (S3 E17) C+
  • Before and After (S3 E21) B+
  • Worst Case Scenario (S3 E25) D
  • Scorpion (S3 E26, S4 E1) B
  • The Gift (S4 E2) C
  • Year of Hell (S4 E8-9) D
  • Message in a Bottle (S4 E14) B-
  • Hunters (S4 E15) C
  • Prey (S4 E16) C+
  • Living Witness (S4 E23) B
  • Demon (S4 E24) C-
  • One (S4 E25) C
  • Hope and Fear (S4, E26) C
  • Drone (S5 E2) B-
  • In The Flesh (S5 E4) C
  • Timeless (S5 E6) C
  • Dark Frontier (S5 E15-16) B
  • Course: Oblivion (S5 E18) D+
  • The Fight (S5 E19) D (this is the one we watched by accident)
  • Relativity (S5 E23) C+
  • Equinox (S5 E26, S6 E1) C+
  • Survival Instinct (S6 E2) B
  • The Voyager Conspiracy (S6 E9) B-
  • Pathfinder (S6 E10) C-
  • Blink of an Eye (S6 E12) B-
  • Memorial (S6 E14) B-
  • Collective (S6 E16) C
  • Unimatrix Zero (S6 E26, S7 E1) C+
  • Repression (S7 E4) C
  • Shattered (S7 E11) B+
  • The Void (S7 E15) B-
  • Homestead (S7 E23) C-
  • Endgame (S7 E25-26) B

I also erratically live tweeted watching these episodes, and if you care you can read my at-the-moment reactions in this thread.

For those unfamiliar with Voyager, the premise is that the USS Voyager is captured and taken to the Delta Quadrant by an alien called the Caretaker, along with a ship of insurgents from a group called the Maquis. The ships end up stranded there, with casualties on both, and integrate into a single crew on the Voyager, captained by Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who makes the Maquis captain Chakotay (Robert Beltran) her first officer. 75,000 light years away from the Federation, it will take them 75 years to get home, through entirely unknown territory.

“Caretaker” appeared on several best-of-the-series lists, and while it wasn’t a bad episode, I figured if it ended up among the ten best of the series then I was going to be glad I didn’t watch the whole series. Having not watched deep (heh) enough into Deep Space Nine I didn’t have any knowledge of the Maquis, but I could take them on principle. So the first half of the episode was mostly based around Tom Paris (Maquis) and Harry Kim (Starfleet ensign), which was enjoyable enough, but once the Doctor showed up, he overshadowed everyone else as a character.

I didn’t have many episodes in the first 3 seasons in my list, and what I did have wasn’t great. Despite being a bit padded, “Eye of the Needle” was the best episode of the first 2 seasons, with a nifty kicker which I wondered whether it would become relevant near the series’ end (it didn’t). “Before and After” was a touching episode which foreshadowed some future events, but unfortunately those didn’t really play out very satisfyingly either. The other time travel episodes were pretty mediocre. “Future’s End” was sort of the centerpiece of these three seasons, I guess, but it was basically another dumb “go back to the 20th century” yarn.

Maybe the best episode of the whole series was “Scorpion”, which introduced Seven of Nine. It was a solid adventure, gripping at times, with a fairly smart interaction between Voyager and the Borg. Species 8472 is (briefly) a breath of fresh air in introducing aliens which look and feel alien compared to the typical Star Trek fare, and it’s just about the only episode of the series which has a genuine “yeah!” moment when Janeway tells Chakotay to execute “scorpion”.

It’s not exactly all downhill from here, but it’s a bumpy ride from here. The biggest change is that Seven of Nine sucks most of the oxygen from the room as far as characterization goes, as she far overshadows almost everyone else in interest and development. Tom Paris had been nominally the point-of-view character (certainly he seemed to be the one with the best mix of practicality and moral compass), but he gets smothered by Seven. I guess there’s a subplot which leads to him and B’Elanna Torres getting married, but Torres was not a very interesting character to me.

The biggest disappointment of the series was “Year of Hell”, touted as the best episode of the show in at least one list, and teased in “Before and After”. It was basically a big waste of time, the dumbest of time travel episodes (everything gets reset at the end), with lots of questionable decisions by Janeway and others. I guess it was trying to ramp up the tension and the stakes, but it was all so artificial and manipulative it was hard to take it seriously. And of course it didn’t track with “Before and After” at all.

“Living Witness” was a nice little surprise in the middle of a bunch of otherwise unremarkable episodes, feature the Doctor being revived 700 years later to help set straight what happened when the Voyager encountered a particular planet on their journey. While not an entirely original premise, it was one of the best executed of its type. I certainly enjoyed it more than the maudlin NextGen episode “The Inner Light”.

The biggest disappointment of Voyager was without a doubt the portrayal of Captain Janeway. While I guess they were aiming to show her as less perfect than Kirk or Picard, in a different way from Sisko, she was written very erratically, often headstrong and stubborn and honestly something of a tin dictator at times. “Year of Hell” had some of this, but the peak of Janeway stupidity was “Equinox”, in which the Voyager encountered another Federation ship, the Equinox, which had also been pulled to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker and had been trying to get home despite being a short-term research vessel. That ship ended up making some morally reprehensible choices to try to get home, which by the end of the first half left the Voyager in a bad spot. But in the second half Janeway goes around the bed, engaging in her own morally disgusting actions, and everything comes to an end when the Equinox captain has a change of heart for no apparent reason. A great set-up wasted by lousy writing in the second half.

(Several Equinox crew end up joining the Voyager, and I assume are never mentioned again – they weren’t in any of the episodes I watched.)

Though if she was frustrating as a Captain, her interactions with Seven and Chakotay were her high points. I suspect I missed the full nuance of her mentoring Seven to become a functioning human being, but even the glimpses I got were engaging. Jeri Ryan’s portrayal of Seven as imperious and haughty felt a bit off in her debut as a full Borg, but seemed more and more spot-on as Seven’s personality developed. Seven got many excellent moments, disagreeing with Janeway, confronting other Borg, interacting with one of the few children on the ship. She was surely the high point of the season.

Then, Chakotay ended up filling Tom Paris’ role from the first 3 seasons, as the ship’s even keel and moral compass. One of the final season episodes, “Shattered”, was a clever way of revisiting a number of key moments from the series without doing a clip show, but it was Chakotay as the featured character who held it all together, recruiting and convincing a much younger Janeway to help.

One interesting dynamic was Janeway and Chakotay meeting privately, since they were effectively the only people on the ship who were truly equals. They could air their differences, and argue all they wanted, as long as it was behind closed doors where their reports couldn’t see. This was one of those bits where the show almost seemed to understand what it had – a chance to show the power dynamics among Starfleet personnel, especially in a high-stake scenario – but it mostly treated it as an opportunity for NuTrek’s patented irrelevant character moments, showing things the character liked or remembered or experienced without really giving us a reason to care about it.

What about the rest of the cast? Well, in true NuTrek fashion there were just too many characters for all of them to be treated as major characters. The aliens Neelix and Kes were both somewhere between “just there” and outright annoying (though Kes at least got a good story in “Before and After”). Most of the rest just never really grabbed me, either. Torres was the typical “grumpy former rebel”. Paris also kind of filled that role, but with a vaguely self-destructive, sarcastic attitude, but I wish they’d played up a lot more. Ensign Harry Kim seemed like a cousin to Geordi LaForge, especially in that both of them were a little too earnest and a little too underdeveloped. The real missed opportunity was Tuvok, in whom Tim Russ turned in a pretty good Vulcan performance in the style of Leonard Nimoy, but the character himself was quite generic, and could have just been “Vulcan Science Officer #1”.

The only other character that worked for me was the Doctor, as Robert Picardo immediately brought humanity and humor to the role of the ship’s artificially intelligent medical officer. He got several good stories to play off of characters other than the main cast, including off of himself in “Equinox”. He was also the best part of “Blink of an Eye”, which was a fairly routine “this planet is in a faster time frame than our heroes” story elevated primarily by his performance.

Watching Voyager in 2020, it seems like a series of missed opportunities for story and character development: The ship just flits from place to place with no continuity. When the Equinox showed up I wondered just how they were able to make it through the obstacles Voyager had just barely cleared with far fewer resources. Sometimes they’re badly outclassed by the Borg, other times they’re willing to face them directly. The characters change in very small increments, but mostly there’s no character development here. All of this was par for the course for The Next Generation, making Voyager a natural successor to it, but it’s also very much an 80s/90s series with storytelling that seems shallow by today’s standards. It shows just how far ahead of its time Babylon 5 was compared to Star Trek.

The series finale, “Endgame”, is one of the very few episodes I’d seen before. When I did, I was glad I didn’t sit through 7 years of stories just for that. Watching it again, it works to the extent it does largely because of Kate Mulgrew’s performance as Admiral Janeway, who is driven to save her old crew but is also convinced by her old self to try something different. The story ends very abruptly, with no denouement, no winding down of the characters after they make it back to Earth, despite the backstories they’d all built up. It was pretty disappointing, and other than a brief appearance by Janeway in a NextGen film, and Seven appearing in Picard, I don’t think we learn anything about what happened to the others. (I imagine other media covered this, but I don’t care about anything other than what’s shown in TV and movies.)

So am I glad I watched it? Glad enough, I suppose. It wasn’t bad, but it always felt like the really good stuff was right around the corner… right up until the end, when it still felt that way.

Star Trek: Discovery: Seasons 1 & 2

If Picard represented a brave new world of solid storytelling for Star Trek after more than 35 years, Discovery is, well, the same old thing, lightly refurbished to meet modern dramatic television sensibilities. Since I subscribed to CBS All Access to watch Picard, I decided to give Discovery another try, despite the first episode having been so bad that I mocked it live on Twitter.

Overall the show is, well, better than that first episode, but not very good. The first season is very hard going, partly focused around a war with the Klingons, but also spending several episodes in a strange digression. The second season is more coherent and generally improved, but still kind of disappointing. The general feel of the series is one of flamboyant and nonsensical plotting, without much of a message. The characters are generally pretty flat. Overall it feels very much of a piece with NextGen and the later series, albeit with a rougher edge, but that’s not really a good thing.

Lots more – with spoilers – after the cut:

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Doctor Who, Season Twelve

Jodie Whittaker’s second season as the Doctor was an incremental improvement over her first, and while it introduced a big mystery into the Time Lord’s existence, the show seemed reluctant to go all in on that to craft a full story out of it, opting instead to have pieces at the beginning, middle, and end, and otherwise make the season another set of standalone episodes. Much like last season, the stories were enjoyable enough but kind of nondescript and thus forgettable.

And as for that big mystery, well, some of it was carried off quite well, and some of it was not so great. I enjoyed it overall, but it really should have been a lot more than it was, and ultimately while it sets up some interesting stuff for future seasons, if the series continues in this vein I think it’s going to feel more like an afterthought, possibly one thrown away by the next showrunner.

Anyway, if the last five seasons of Doctor Who are the kind of thing you like, then you probably liked this one too.

Spoilers after the cut:

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Star Trek: Picard: Emotional Resonance

“Et in Arcadia Ego” part 2 brought the first season of Picard to a close, and overall I’m quite happy with how it turned out. I think the final episode was a little overstuffed so that not everything was as smooth as I’d hoped. In some cases I think they should have restructured the last three episodes a bit to have some threads get resolved earlier, and in others I think they made some poor storytelling decisions. But the most important thing is that I think they got the emotional resonance of the story right, as there was a lot to cheer about.

For convenience here are links to my earlier reviews of the season:

  1. Remembrance (episode 1)
  2. The End is the Beginning (episodes 2 & 3)
  3. Absolute Candor (episodes 4 & 5)
  4. The Impossible Box (episodes 6, 7 & 8)
  5. Et in Arcadia Ego (episode 9)

Now, on to the spoilers!

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Star Trek: Picard: “Et in Arcadia Ego”

Wo-ow, “Et in Arcadia Ego” part one, the first half of the conclusion to this first season of Star Trek: Picard, was one great hour of television. Past Star Trek series had plenty of visits to idyllic worlds with a dark underbelly, but here we’ve had a season of build-up to visiting the planet of the synthetics, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Google Translate tells me that “Et in Arcadia Ego” means “And in Arcadia I am”, where Arcadia is a poetic term for a utopia, which is certainly appropriate here.

One thing to watch for in this episodes is the spectacular acting by much of the cast; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a virtuoso ensemble performance in any episode of Star Trek, where Patrick Stewart might not be delivering the best or even the second-best performance.

I’d originally planned to review the last two episodes together, but this one had enough stuff in it that I decided to cover it separately.

Onwards to the spoilers!

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Star Trek: Picard: “The Impossible Box”

Three episodes of Picard this time around, and they’re an odd set to review together:

“The Impossible Box” finishes the second third of the season, as Picard and company make it to the Borg cube and find Soji. It’s the most exciting episode of the season to this point, and starts moving the story into high gear.

So, oddly, the next episode, “Nepenthe”, isn’t really part of any of the three parts of the season (beginning, middle and end). Rather, it’s a pause, a time for the characters (and viewers) to reflect on where we are. While the popular focus has been on the return of Will Riker and Deanne Troi, it also allows Soji and Picard to adjust to recent developments which have left them reeling, while the crew of La Sirena deal with some their own problems.

Finally, “Broken Pieces” resolves several plot points, in a way clearing the decks for the two-part finale, as well as giving us some insight – finally – into Captain Rios.

All three episodes are quite good, and quite different, and everything seems to be coming together. More after the cut:

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Star Trek: Picard: “Absolute Candor”

The fourth and fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard operate as a pair of sorts. Where the first three episodes concerned Picard learning that he had something he needed to do and arranging to be able to do it, these episodes see him and his band leaving Earth and learning where they need to go. They’re more adventurous – in the literal plot sense – than the first three, but they’re also a little awkwardly dropped into the story: Whereas the second episode “Maps and Legends” felt like it was moving pieces into place for the purposes of the plot, these two have a similar purpose but to get to their goal they’re developed in the context of a pair of smaller stories.

(My review of episodes 2 & 3 is here.)

Onward to the spoilers!

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Star Trek: Picard: “The End is the Beginning”

After the first episode, “Remembrance”, I’d thought maybe I’d write a review for each episode of Star Trek: Picard, but the second episode, “Maps and Legends”, didn’t feel like it needed a review. It wasn’t a bad episode, and certainly I didn’t expect it to be as good as the first episode as it was a hard act to follow, but it was mostly a moving-the-pieces-into-place episode, without much of a narrative arc.

The third episode, “The End is the Beginning”, jumped the quality back up and made me decide to cover both of them at once.

I figure if you haven’t watched the first episode, or if it didn’t grab you, then you’re not likely to be reading this, so I’m just going to jump to spoilers after the cut:

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Star Trek: Picard: "Remembrance"

Why did I even watch Star Trek: Picard? I noped out of Star Trek: Discovery after the godawful first episode. I’ve been pretty consistently disappointed with Star Trek ever since The Voyage Home back in 1986. I went into The Next Generation with optimism, but was quickly disenchanted with its character-light, conflict-free, unimaginative storytelling, bailing in the second season. I came back to it late in the third season (the series’ modest high point) when I started participating in rec.arts.startrek, but bailed again in the sixth season. I ejected from Deep Space Nine in its second season, and other than a brief fling with the first season of Enterprise, that was it for me and Star Trek on television. I did enjoy the first J.J. Abrams film, but the other two were pretty meh.

(In the unlikely event you’re curious what twentysomething me thought of mid-series Next Generation, you can read a bunch of my reviews here.)

That said, I do enjoy Star Trek: Nemesis, and I enjoy it more now than my review at the time says I did at the time. Indeed, I think it’s the best NextGen film, though it’s not perfect, but it boiled down NextGen to its two best characters: Picard and Data. It struggles to fully develop its themes, but at least it has themes.

Star Trek: Picard seems to have highly variable word-of-mouth. Some people love it, some people hate it. I inferred from context that big fans of NextGen did not enjoy it. So maybe that meant I would? And the more I learned about it, the more appealing it seemed: Michael Chabon is involved. Picard is struggling with recriminations in his retirement involving Data’s death and the destruction of Romulus (a plot point in the Abrams reboot).

And, well, Jean-Luc Picard was the best thing about NextGen.

So tonight I signed up for CBS All Access, and watched the first episode.

And it was a fine hour of television.

My spoiler-free reaction to the first episode, “Remembrance”, is that Picard is a deep character who is indeed dealing with some of the traumas of his career, and the story overall moves Star Trek substantially forward from The Next Generation, rather than just rummaging around in the show’s past. There’s drama and action, and the promise of a lot of suspense and ratcheting up of the stakes to come. But – perhaps most importantly – it moves beyond the feel-good utopian-future nonsense of The Next Generation: Picard is fallible, the Federation is fallible, people make mistakes and have feelings about it. Like humans.

A more spoilers review after the cut:

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Doctor Who, Season 11

After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).

For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):

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