VOY S01E01-2 Caretaker (2 out of 5 stars). Genevieve Bujold lasted about a day. The idea was kinda nuts. Counting The Original Series, three different Star Trek shows had established beloved characters by casting experienced TV actors, none of whom were household names. And the actors with the highest profiles prior to their casting (LeVar Burton and René Auberjonois) had been rendered pretty much unrecognisable underneath costume and makeup. So there was no need to cast a movie star in the lead of Voyager, no matter how much pressure there was to make the third Star Trek spin-off a success.

And there was pressure. For many years, American television had been ruled by the Big Three networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. Fox had launched in 1986 but it was still struggling. The way seemed open for another network. Two major media conglomerates – Warners and Paramount – decided to have a go, each seemingly unaware of the plans of the other. Finding an audience for a fourth network seemed plausible. Finding an audience for a fourth and fifth network seemed a lot less likely.

The WB launched in January 1995, with one night of programming per week, and it gradually added more. Flagship shows included The Wayans Bros, Unhappily Ever After, and it scored a big hit in 1997 with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The United Paramount Network also launched in January 1995, and Star Trek: Voyager was the first show to be aired. It was the lynchpin of the project and as it turned out, one of the only UPN shows to last more than one season.

Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor devised the format and Piller turned Deep Space Nine over to Ira Steven Behr so that he could focus on the new show. Ron Moore stayed with DS9 but Brannon Braga came over to Voyager. Voyager took over the stages which TNG had been using, and the Berman machine kept on trekking.

The might of that machine should have been enough to guarantee success, but somebody somewhere wanted a film actor, possibly to counterbalance the perceived risk of building a show – in 1994! – around a female leading character. Either way, it didn’t work out, and Bujold walked off the set on day two, citing the rapid pace of television production. The part was offered to the “first runner up” and the result is that Kate Mulgrew is still playing Janeway today (lending her voice to Star Trek Prodigy). Bujold would have been Nicole Janeway. Mulgrew is Kathryn. Everything Bujold shot can be seen on the DVD box set. She doesn’t look comfortable.

Far more than either TNG or DS9 the first episode is a “premise pilot”. Encounter at Farpoint and Emissary are both mainly “Here’s the world of the show, and these are the people in it.” Caretaker is chapter one – but it also has to establish the world and the characters. The world, well, initially that looks like a done-deal. It’s the world that Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana and so on established in 1987, which by now is seven years ago. As with Emissary, we begin with scrolling text to set the scene for new viewers – the Cardassians, the treaty, the Maquis. Then a whizzy space battle gets underway and we meet some new characters. The captain of the Maquis ship is a Native American named Chakotay. Other officers include a half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres and Vulcan, Tuvok. They’re heading for “The Badlands” briefly mentioned in a recent episode of DS9. They’re a pretty bland bunch, despite their very different backgrounds. Their dialogue is all business. Titles.

After using two classic pieces of Star Trek music stapled together for TNG, one of that show’s small stable of regular composers was tasked with coming up for the theme for the first spin-off. The result is a slightly constipated march which keeps threatening to develop into a really catchy melody and doesn’t quite succeed. So, for the new show, proper movie composer Jerry Goldsmith was engaged to come up with a theme. And he produced a slightly constipated march which keeps threatening to develop into a really catchy melody and doesn’t quite succeed. Sigh. The CGI Voyager with nacelles that move into position when it goes to warp is cute though.

Next, and slightly bafflingly, we meet Tom Paris in a Federation penal colony. This is Nicholas Locarno in all but name – he even has basically the same backstory. Possibly he has been renamed to provide greater freedom for the writers – possibly it’s to avoid paying a freelance writer for the IP. We also meet Janeway. While Robert Duncan McNeill is as generically rebellious here as he was in The First Duty, Mulgrew makes an instant impression. With her smooth Katharine Hepburn purr, she’s as warm as Kirk and as commanding as Picard. I liked her at first sight. Compare Mulgrew and Bujold’s versions of the “clarinet” scene. We got lucky here.

On board the Maquis ship lost in the Badlands was Janeway’s chief of security, undercover. Janeway wants Paris to help her retrieve ship, chief and all, but she makes it clear he will just be there as an observer. Voyager is a brand new ship, with a brand new crew. Introducing us to lots of new faces and then killing off some pretty major players – including Janeway’s first officer, medical officer, and a Betazoid ensign that Paris is sharking after – is a baller move, reminiscent of the first episode of Red Dwarf. But it somehow doesn’t feel as shocking as maybe it ought. Everybody is so bland that it’s hard to spot who’s going to survive to episode two and who isn’t, but it also doesn’t seem to matter all that much. A big deal is made of Voyager having “bio-neural” circuitry. I look forward to that being a major plot point very soon.

Just as Picard was there to give Sisko a send off, Quark is here to give Harry Kim his introduction to the world of Star Trek. He’s yet another bland figure whose only defining characterisation appears to be “young”. Even Bashir managed “young, cocky, doctor”. The bridge is a nice set, halfway between the hotel-in-space of the Enterprise and the Das Boot aesthetic of the Defiant.

The displacement field fries the ship (just after Tom Paris has got through telling Harry Kim he’s not exactly a good luck charm) and we get our first sight of The Array. What follows is some pretty convoluted storytelling. Now stranded on the other side of the galaxy, in a badly damaged ship, Voyager needs some friends (and some consoles that don’t explode when the ship gets damaged). Shutting down the warp core feels like drama, but doesn’t really impact the plot or reveal character. Again, it’s all business.

If this sounds like I’m dunking on this a bit – just you wait. Replacing the deceased doc is one of the show’s masterstrokes. Robert Picardo is genius casting, and the character of the Emergency Holographic Doctor is genuinely original and will be endlessly fascinating as the series develops. Picardo holds a lot back here – a smart move – but it’s already easy to see the potential.

Suddenly, and ridiculously, we’re on location in a southern plantation. Thankfully, Janeway figures out immediately that this is an illusion. Given the trauma of the situation, no-one seems especially bothered about their crippled ship, the enormous distance they’ve travelled or the loss of close colleagues and vital crew. And now the superfluous holography is done away with, and the truth is revealed. After sticking the crew with needles, everyone but Kim (and Torres from the Maquis ship) is returned. Janeway offers Chakotay a truce and Tuvok unmasks himself.

Robert Beltran makes zero impression as Chakotay, snarling at Paris and then curling up with his tail between his legs as soon as possible. Roxann Dawson makes more of an impression as Torres – at least I believe her when she snarls – but, rather like Dax she’s suffering from species instead of backstory (just as Paris is suffering from backstory instead of characterisation). Familiar face Tim Russ gives a good performance as Tuvok, suggesting tiny flickers of suppressed emotion, it’s just that I’ve seen that performance before when Leonard Nimoy did it on TOS.

What happens next is all rather confusing and convoluted. Characters visit the array, get knocked out, return, get sent back, get experimented on, protest, analyse data, go back, make some new friends, Paris and Chakotay re-enact the end of Second Chances with extra racism… Nothing feels like it has much of a purpose, and almost nobody seems to think that any of these problems require anything even approaching urgency. It all builds to Janeway’s decision to destroy the Array rather than risk the sector’s badguys, the Kazon, getting their hands on it – a choice which smacks of “there must have been another alternative.”

Quark has proven that a TNG-style drama adventure series can stand a comic relief character, and so Ethan Philips as Neelix is slotted into this role. He’s charming enough and I can understand why a local guide might be included, but again, it’s hard to understand what drives him, compared to Quark or Data or Odo (or even Troi!). Far less necessary and even blander than Kim, Chakotay or Paris is Jennifer Lien as Kes. So whereas TNG started off with at least five very able actors who made instant good impressions (Stewart, Spiner, Burton, Dorn, Crosby) and DS9 had one of the strongest casts in the whole franchise, here I’m clinging on to Mulgrew and Picardo and hoping for good things from Russ and Dawson – and the rest are kind of a right-off. It’s amazing how, after seven years of doing this, Berman, Piller and Taylor struggle so much to devise, write and cast characters we’ll want to follow for multiple seasons.

That’s problem number one. Problem number two is that the purpose of this first episode is to establish two main plot engines for the series. One is that this crew has been patchworked together from Starfleet officers, Maquis terrorists and locals. This is basically unwritten before the episode’s end, as everyone puts on a Starfleet uniform and Janeway’s authority becomes absolute and unquestioned. The second is that now they are stranded on the other side of the galaxy, there can be no resupply, no refitting. If they lose a shuttlecraft, it’s lost. If they damage something, it can’t be replaced. This rarely seems like it’s actually an issue, and so what we are left with is: it’s Star Trek, but we don’t have the benefit of building on any existing stories and have to start from scratch. It’s all a bit misbegotten – probably my least favourite pilot episode so far.

VOY S01E03 Parallax (3 out of 5 stars). The Voyager crew is at each other’s throats (and noses). In a very rare instance of the kind of  inter-crew squabbling we were seemingly promised, B’Elanna Torres has committed what would be a court-martial offence in other circumstances, but Chakotay is clear that they are both no longer Maquis. The dialogue here is pretty clichéd: “I will make a full report.” “You do that.” Ugh.

Lipservice is also paid to the fact that what was once routine maintenance isn’t without access to a Starbase. Again, if memory serves, you won’t hear much of that over the next 170 or so episodes. About the only concession to their self-sufficient status is Neelix in the galley. At this stage, he dragging Kes around like she’s a ventriloquist’s dummy. Janeway gives her the task of creating a hydroponics lab in cargo bay 2, and gets Tom Paris to train with the EMH (who is either “I am the embodiment of modern medicine” or has only “very limited capabilities” depending on who you ask). She also agrees to try out Torres as chief engineer. There’s a decent scene between Chakotay and Janeway regarding Torres, but Beltran is completely outclassed by Mulgrew. I guess that’s the right way round, but still…

But it’s not all crew rosters and personnel admin this week, it’s also gibberish science. Voyager encounters a “type IV quantum singularity” which sounds an awful lot like a black hole to me, except that the description of its event horizon is so off-beam that even Red Dwarf’s Holly could come up with a more accurate explanation from his Junior Encyclopaedia of Space. This turns out to be the Singularity that Jack Built and there’s a weird scene where Torres and Janeway aren’t sure which is the real ship and which is a ghost image, and Janeway is convinced to give Torres her promotion when Torres picks the wrong ship and Janeway picks the right one. Also, Paris calls their ship “the Voyager” which sounds completely wrong.

VOY S01E04 Time and Again (3.5 out of 5 stars). So, this is the show. It isn’t Voyager and our urgent need to survive long enough to get home. And it isn’t how will these two crews manage to work together? It’s The Next Generation without Starfleet command. We’ll keep turning up to new planets and finding plots there. While Michael Piller and Rick Berman have oversight of both shows, over the next few years and months, DS9 becomes the Ira Steven Behr all-pain-no-game show, while Voyager turns into Brannon Braga’s wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey time. So it is here. We arrive at a planet which is a burnt cinder, but when the away team goes to investigate, Janeway and Paris are plunged into the past.

This is the second timey-wimey story in a row, and even has similar dialogue about widening a fracture. Couldn’t we at least vary the technobabble we’re applying to our space problems? Other than that, this is decent adventure-of-the-week stuff, and Janeway makes a great hero, instantly calling the terrorists’ bluff (“I’m a hostage”) and then the bluff-caller has her bluff called. This is more interesting and (slightly) more layered than Parallax but it’s all about situations and actions and barely at all about characters. And of course, it ends with a big ol’ reset switch. Still, if you get the lead right, there’s time to sort out the rest, and I’d follow Janeway to the end of the universe at this point.

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