Welcome as always to ‘Final Frontier Friday‘! Our countdown to the premiere of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is now entering the homestretch (a metaphor that may have been more appropriate for the ‘Deep Space Nine’ installment…). This week we’re taking a look at the two hour debut of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’. So settle in as we begin our look at ‘Caretaker’.
By the end of 1993, ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ had begun what was to be its final season. With preparations underway to wrap up the long running series and transition its crew to the big screen, Rick Berman was approached by Paramount to launch another ‘Star Trek’ series. By this time, the franchise was a ratings mainstay. While they still had ‘Deep Space Nine’, which was entering its second season, the studio had greater ambitions than a single show in first run syndication. You see, at the same time that work was beginning on ‘Star Trek: Voyager’, Paramount was preparing to launch a television network of its own – UPN. That meant they needed a flagship show to anchor the fledgling network’s programming. What better show than ‘Star Trek’?
As with ‘Deep Space Nine’ before it, Berman and his collaborators (chiefly Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller) set out to differentiate ‘Voyager’ from what had come before. With ‘Deep Space Nine’ centering on a space station, the obvious step was to return to the starship setting of ‘The Next Generation’ and the original series. But while that would certainly set it apart from ‘Deep Space Nine’, setting it on just another starship wouldn’t do much to give the show its own identity. The solution, then, was to do something different with that starship.
The premise that was ultimately settled on was inspired in part by ‘Next Generation’ episodes like ‘Q Who?’, in which the Enterprise would find itself transported to some far-flung part of the galaxy. As co-creator Michael Piller explained, the writers would have to work out where the ship was, what it was doing there, and how it would get home, all in the course of a single episode. ‘Voyager’, then, would ask the question “What if they actually were stuck there?” While this would give the show a clean slate to work from creatively, it also meant they wouldn’t be able to revisit familiar settings or characters. So there could be no Klingons, no Ferengi, and so on. It was a gutsy move and one that would arguably prove beneficial to the broader franchise, as it meant that ‘Deep Space Nine’ and ‘Voyager’ would both have free reign over their respective corners of the galaxy.
As had been the case with ‘Deep Space Nine’ a few years earlier, the producers of ‘Voyager’ also sought to build in a way of sidestepping the so-called “Roddenberry rule”, a decree issued by Gene Roddenberry during the development of ‘The Next Generation’ that there would be no conflict between members of the franchise’s Starfleet crews. Though intended to demonstrate just how far humanity (and by extension, the Federation) had evolved beyond what Roddenberry would likely describe as twentieth century pettiness, this left much of the writing staff feeling as though their hands were tied, and prompted them to find ways to violate the letter of the rule while maintaining its spirit. ‘Deep Space Nine’ did this by building a crew of both Starfleet officers and Bajoran nationals, along with civilians like Quark. ‘Voyager’ took a similar approach, combining Starfleet and non-Starfleet crews. The non-Starfleet element here would come in the form of the Maquis, an amalgam of colonists and former Starfleet officers who took up arms in defense of their homes. As this was done in defiance of a treaty between the Federation and the Cardassians, the Maquis quickly came to be seen as terrorists and renegades. As if that wasn’t enough, before being stranded, Voyager had originally been assigned to arrest the Maquis crew.
With all the pieces in place, it was time to begin the long journey home.
We open on the Maquis raider Val Jean as it flees from a Cardassian warship. With the Cardassians hot on their tail, the Val Jean manages to reach the Badlands, an area of space that is home to intense plasma storms. Just as the Maquis seem to have made good their escape, they are scanned by an unknown party and engulfed by a massive displacement wave.
Back on Earth, Captain Janeway pays a visit to a Federation penal colony in New Zealand. There, she meets with Tom Paris, an inmate and son of her former commanding officer. Paris was briefly involved with the Maquis before being arrested. As he is not only familiar with the Maquis but with the Val Jean’s commander (a former Starfleet officer named Chakotay), Janeway wants him to help lead her to the Val Jean. Paris agrees, in exchange for time off his sentence. Some time later, Paris arrives at Deep Space Nine, where Janeway’s ship, the USS Voyager, is preparing to embark on its mission to the Badlands. In Quark’s bar, Paris meets (and rescues) a young ensign named Hardy Kim before the Ferengi bartender can completely swindle him. The two then head back aboard Voyager to report for duty. With her crew assembled, Voyager sets out for the Badlands.
Upon arrival at the Badlands, Voyager enters the plasma storms and begins a search based on data provided by the Cardassians. Before long, they are scanned and engulfed by a displacement wave, just like the Val Jean. The crew loses consciousness. When they recover, they find the ship more than a little worse for wear and several crew members dead. They soon find that they are located near an alien array 70,000 light years from where they started. They also find the Val Jean, seemingly abandoned. While Janeway heads to main engineering to avert a warp core breach, Paris and Kim make their way to sickbay to lend a hand. With the medical staff Dead, they activate the Doctor, a hologram designed as an emergency supplement to the medical staff. With the immediate crisis behind them, they are scanned by the Array and the crew is beamed away. The crew finds themselves in a simulation of a farm on Earth. The “locals” are friendly, if a bit odd. That changes when Kim’s tricorder detects life signs in the barn. Those life signs are soon revealed to be the Maquis crew, unconscious and seemingly in the midst of some sort of experimentation. The Voyager crew promptly vanishes, and when next we see them, they are in the same position as the Maquis.
The crew awakes back on Voyager, three days later. As soon as they come to, the Maquis (also returned to their ship) attempt to flee, though Voyager is able to lock on a tractor beam. Both ships soon realize they’re missing crew members: Ensign Kim on the Starfleet side, and Maquis engineer B’Elanna Torres. Facing a common problem, Janeway and Chakotay begin working together to locate their missing officers and find a way home. With Chakotay and Paris in tow, Janeway returns to the Array. Though they once again find themselves on the farm, it is much less active than before, with only a single occupant: an old man with a banjo. When questioned, Banjo Man is less than forthcoming, saying only that he must “honor a debt that can never be repaid,” and that while the two crews don’t have what he needs, the missing officers might. Declaring that he doesn’t have enough time, he transports the away team back to Voyager.
Kim and Torres awaken in an alien hospital with strange growths on their bodies. By studying energy pulses that are being sent out from the Array, Voyager is able to deduce that Kim and Torres are likely on the fifth planet of a nearby star system. But there’s something strange about this planet, as even though it is otherwise M-class, its atmosphere is incapable of producing rain. Regardless, Janeway resolves to investigate the planet once repairs are complete.
En route to the fifth planet, they encounter a salvage merchant named Neelix. Neelix clearly has some familiarity with their situation, having crossed paths with similarly afflicted ships in the past. He agrees to help them find their missing crew members in exchange for water. Back on the planet (which Neelix has identified as home to the Ocampa), Kim and Torres begin to get to know each other. The Ocampa explain that the two are considered honored guests sent by the Caretaker (the banjo playing alien who controls the Array). The two learn that ever since an environmental catastrophe turned the planet into a desert, the Caretaker has earned his name by providing for all of the Ocampa’s needs. Finally, they learn that the growths are indicative of a disease that the Ocampa do not know how to treat.
When Voyager arrives at the Ocampa planet, Neelix directs them to scan for a settlement on the southern continent. There, he says, they will find the Kazon, with whom they may be able to barter for information. On meeting with the Kazon, Janeway is able to do exactly that, offering water in exchange for information that might lead them to the Ocampa. The Kazon leader, Jabin, insists that there is no way to reach the Ocampa, though he has an Ocampa prisoner that he offers to exchange not for water but for a replicator. When Janeway refuses, Neelix grabs Jabin and holds him at gunpoint. After shooting holes in the water tanks for a distraction, Neelix beckons the Ocampa prisoner (a young woman named Kes) to his side and suggests that Janeway should get them out of there. On the ship, it soon becomes clear that Neelix has a history with Kes and arranged the meeting with the Kazon in an effort to rescue her.
In the city, Kim and Torees explain to the Ocampa that the only way they’ll survive is if they can get back to their own people. While most are unwilling to defy what they believe to be the Caretaker’s wishes, one of the younger Ocampa shows them to an ancient tunnel leading to the surface. On Voyager, the crew learns from Kes that the Ocampa city is underground, and despite Neelix’s desire to simply leave with Kes, she insists that they stay and help. Kes leads Janeway to the Ocampa city, where she butts heads with her elders before leading Janeway and the away team in search of Kim and Torres. As Janeway, Chakotay, and Tuvok search the city, the Caretaker opens fire, attempting to seal the conduits he has been using to supply the city with power. With this last piece of information, Tuvok is able to deduce that the “debt that can never be repaid” is a debt to the Ocampa and that the Caretaker is dying. Meanwhile, Neelix, Kes, and Paris find the tunnel that Torres and Kim are taking to the surface. With the transporters down, our heroes are forced to make the climb to the surface, where Kes shows them where the can pass through the security barrier. When one of the Caretaker’s shots hits a little too close to home, Paris and Neelix go back into the tunnel for Janeway, Chakotay, and Tuvok, who were bringing up the rear. Neelix is able to get Janeway and Tuvok to the surface, leaving Paris to pull Chakotay (who has a broken leg) off of a damaged piece of scaffolding before it collapses. He narrowly succeeds, but not without lots of petty bickering.
With the crew back on board, Voyager and the Val Jean return to the Array as a pair of Kazon warships also approach. While the Kazon open fire, Janeway returns to the Array, hoping to convince the Caretaker to send them home. Speaking with the Caretaker, Janeway realizes that the Caretaker was (accidentally) responsible for the environmental catastrophe that devastated the Ocampa planet. The Caretaker further reveals that he was not infecting his abductees with a disease. Rather, he was searching for a compatible biological structure so that he could procreate and leave an heir to continue his work. That, of course, has failed.
Under heavy fire, Chakotay beams his crew aboard Voyager and prepares to ram the Val Jean into one of the Kazon vessels, transporting out at the last second. Tuvok, meanwhile, has learned how to configure the Array to send Voyager home but notes that it would take hours. Time that they do not have, in other words, as the Caretaker has set a self-destruct. Just then, the damaged Kazon ship collides with the Array. This damages, among other things, the self-destruct system. As the Caretaker dies, he pleads with Janeway to destroy the Array in order to prevent the Kazon from taking control and annihilating the Ocampa. A reluctant Janeway returns to Voyager and honors the Caretaker’s wishes, defending the Ocampa at the cost of stranding Voyager seventy-five years from Earth.
In the aftermath, Janeway and Chakotay agree to combine their crews, Neelix and Kes offer to stay aboard as guides, and for the first time, Janeway instructs Paris to set a course for home.
While ‘Voyager’ unmistakably has some of that familiar ‘TNG’ flavor, the producers’ efforts to set it apart from ‘Deep Space Nine’ are evident nearly from the word “go.” If ‘Emissary’ is a thoughtful, more deliberately paced affair, ‘Caretaker’ is an unabashed adventure story. Put another way, ‘Emissary’ is ‘The Cage’ and ‘Caretaker’ is ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’. That’s not to say that ‘Voyager’ neglected its characters in favor of shallow action, but there’s little question that it wasn’t set up to be quite as character driven a show as its contemporary.
While I’m well aware that ‘Voyager’ isn’t the most popular ‘Star Trek’ spinoff, it nevertheless gets off to a solid start. And with all respect to the show’s writers, much of that strength (especially in the early days) is owed to the strength of the cast. In particular, Kate Mulgrew and Robert Duncan McNeill are the standouts in the pilot. Robert Beltran also makes an impression as Chakotay, but many of his best moments come from his banter with McNeill’s Paris. Other cast members would also get their chance to shine as time went on, particularly Robert Picardo as the Doctor, who would prove to be, if not a breakout character, then certainly a favorite among the writing staff.
If the episode has a weak link, though, it is without question the Kazon. They were never the most impressive or engaging villains, and that was evident from the start, despite the fact that they would serve as central antagonists for the first two seasons. Indeed, perhaps the biggest misstep of the early years of ‘Voyager’ (of which the Kazon are emblematic) is that the writers decided to drop the ship into what was, relatively speaking, a galactic backwater. Even acknowledging that they’re cut off from the Federation, the fact that Voyager is a markedly more advanced ship than anything else they encounter (with the notable exception of the Caretaker’s Array) robs the show of a certain tension. You want your villains to be threatening in ways that aren’t limited to strength of numbers. And even on a good day, the Kazon were never more than an uninteresting, poorly executed analog for L.A. street gangs (they are even referred to in early production documents as “Crips and Bloods”). ‘Star Trek’ can and has done better.
Thank you once again for joining us. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts on ‘Caretaker’ in the comments. And of course, make sure you join us next week as we continue our coverage and take our first look at the premiere of ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ with our coverage of ‘Broken Bow’.