WARNING: This article contains a great many spoilers for the series premiere of "Star Trek: Voyager", entitled "Caretaker". Those not wishing the awesome responsibility of caring for said spoilers had better leave while they can.
In brief: Not bad at all, particularly for a pilot.
One-line summary: When the USS Voyager crew attempts to find a lost Maquis ship, everyone finds themselves hurled to the other side of the galaxy, where both crews must unite in an attempt to stay alive and find their way back home.
That sentence, in a nutshell, is the premise we're presented with that gets this latest series out to where the creators want it to be: back in the Great Unknown [tm]. No longer are we going to be seeing exploits on the Enterprise, Federation flagship and all-around pleasant place to be -- the Voyager is a smaller, more down-to-earth, and (thanks to the premise) far more desperate ship than any that have been the center of attention before. For good or ill, that is undeniably a different sort of Trek than any we've seen in the past two decades (and to some extent beyond that, as even the TOS-era Enterprise had frequent communications with Starfleet).
It's difficult to gauge the promise of a series based only on a pilot, of course; any pilot by definition is almost bound to have bumps to smooth over and blind alleys to dodge in the future. That's not going to stop me (or anyone else, I'll bet) from trying, naturally :-) -- but it means that any such prediction is going to be a little suspect. Anyway, onwards:
I. The Story and The PremiseEdit
"The cast of characters is propelled into a bizarre, surrealistic environment by a mysterious alien force that turns out not to have entirely hostile intentions."
Hmm, let's see. Am I talking about TNG's pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint"? Yep, sure could be. DS9's pilot, "Emissary"? Absolutely. "Caretaker"? A heartily resounding yes. The pilot of the *next* series to start, years down the line? Probably. :-) There is a certain ... similarity to be found here, certainly. However, that's not entirely surprising. Since one of the primary purposes of a pilot is to introduce the audience to the characters, it's often useful to put them in positions where some of their core concerns really rise to the foreground -- and one of the ways to do that is to toss them into a strange set of circumstances.
(Note that another way to do it is to have several of the characters not know each other at first and have to fill each other, and thus the audience, in on their history. Sound familiar?)
Now, the more complicated and history-filled the premise is, the more the story in a pilot is going to have to focus on establishing the situation rather than anything more involved. Looking at TNG's pilot, the backdrop to the series was simply "ship exploring the galaxy", and it took about that long to say that before the story moved on to Q and Farpoint. DS9's pilot needed a bit more effort to establish itself: we needed to see Wolf-359 to understand some of Sisko's motivations, we needed a bit of exposition about the Bajoran/Cardassian conflict to understand much of the backstory (well, anyone watching TNG regularly didn't, but new viewers certainly did). "Voyager"'s pilot, on the other hand, had to establish who the Maquis were, *and* get both crews stranded out at the other edge of the galaxy, *and* introduce us to a whole cast of new alien races, which probably left it the least amount of "real story" time to unfold a plot.
As such, it's not surprising that the plot itself was, well ... not surprising. The majority of it was Janeway and company figuring out the secret behind the Caretaker's actions -- and we had our own revelation surrounding the Caretaker's situation and intent well before the crew did -- though, admittedly, we had the advantage of having all the knowledge *any* section of the crew had. What's more, many of the story points -- the crew joining forces by necessity, Paris going back down to look for Harry, Paris going back down to save Chakotay, Neelix and Kes wanting to stay to help -- were expected and almost telegraphed.
I tend to think, though, that what a pilot needs to be a success is not so much a good story (though that's certainly a help!) as a clean way to get us accepting the situation the characters will face, and to get us accepting the characters themselves, preferably with as few passages of "let's stop and be expository for six minutes" as possible. And on *that* level, I found "Caretaker" a major success. Compared to other SF pilots in recent history -- TNG's, DS9's, and "Babylon 5"'s being the three that come to mind -- "Voyager"'s was a bit surprising to me in how free of heavy exposition scenes it was. For instance, I can't recall anything that I'd call comparable to Odo's "I was found in the Denorios Belt" speech or virtually anything Picard said to Q from "Encounter at Farpoint". (I could give a host of B5 examples, too -- but I'm sticking to Trek, partly because, in fairness, B5 had to introduce an entire *universe*, not just a setting. B'Elanna could get away with saying "it's the Klingon side of me" without having the audience wonder what she meant, for instance, something that wouldn't apply to a non-Trek situation.)
As for the premise itself, I found myself pleasantly surprised by its plausibility. While it was, of course, somewhat suspiciously coincidental that the Caretaker would choose this particular section of the galaxy to search, not once but *twice* in the space of a fortnight, it doesn't seem a gigantic stretch -- and once the abduction had occurred, it was a case of introducing us to an entirely new situation more than anything else. [It was also a little fortuitous that both the people on Voyager we saw who were totally hostile to Paris, the original exec and Dr. Toast, just happened to be the ones who got killed early on. I'd be a mite suspicious of Paris, myself. ;-) ]
The idea of the Caretaker was a sound one and fairly well constructed, but a little less interesting on some level than DS9's Prophets were, in my opinion. The Prophets had an actual puzzle *they* were trying to work through -- the Caretaker was just being enigmatic for their and our benefit, and that's less intriguing to me. I also had to wonder from whose mind the "waiting room" scenario was constructed. It's not like *any* of the Voyager crew we saw felt remotely at ease in it -- so if it was meant as a pacifying agent, it seemed not to work particularly well.
In other premise-related issues, I liked most of the Delta Quadrant that we've been exposed to so far, but I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the Kazon as an enemy. What we've seen of them so far hasn't been particularly interesting, really; they're greedy and have some good weaponry, but no finesse and no real intelligence to them in terms of planning. That may well change, to be sure -- but then again, remembering that the Ferengi were supposed to be TNG's most fearsome villains at the outset, maybe not. In any case, while the Ocampa seem to be a race with interesting story potential, the Kazon at present need more development before I'll want to see them.
The "WAY out on the frontier" idea underpinning the show has good points and bad points, both dealing with the lack of connection to other Trek material we know and are comfortable with. A drawback is that it may feel "less Trek-like" to those who equate Trek with Klingons, Romulans, the Federation, and other assorted parties -- it may lower the comfort level for those people. (Some students I've talked to at school have just that feeling, in fact.) Similarly, "Voyager" will definitely *not* be a show for those who only want nuts-and-bolts cultural politics in the 24th century, such as what DS9 was doing so well last season. While I wouldn't say I only want that, I do miss it -- and I know for a fact that I won't find it on "Voyager".
On the other hand, "Voyager" has, by merit of its premise, removed a hell of a lot of baggage from the show and a lot of constraints. No one can "fall back" on a Klingon story, or a Romulan story, or any other sort of "cultural" story we've had in the past, because those cultures aren't out in this neck of the woods. In short, this gives the writers both the opportunity for and the challenge of major universe-building -- and that has a lot of potential. (One other side note: Janeway's final speech about their primary goal gives an explicit rationale for why Voyager will undoubtedly run into all kinds of strange spatial effects -- they'll be actively seeking them out.)
Two traps immediately come to mind, however, that this premise easily invites. The first is the "Land of the Lost" trap -- namely, the "hey, we've found a way home! But ... NO! We must stay behind to make some sort of noble sacrifice! [cue depressed look]" Some of those are undoubtedly going to occur -- in fact, one already *has*, in the pilot itself, albeit not quite so melodramatic. But let's keep it down to once or twice a season, tops. The other trap is the "Gilligan's Island" trap, or the "Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space" trap if you're a little younger. :-) This is the trap where they appear to be all set to make it home, but somebody blunders somehow and the way home is lost. I hope this one's avoided altogether.
That's really most of the plot-related issues that come to mind. Everyone seemed to behave pretty intelligently, and the plot, while holding little that blew me out of my seat, also held nothing of consequence to make me protest. In short, it was a pilot.
That brings us to...
II. The CharactersEdit
... who are the most important part of a series anyway, I'd argue. Given that the pilot is introducing us to them as well, then, one hopes it did a good job. Let's start at the top, namely Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew).
After all the hue and cry during the casting of "Voyager"'s captain this summer/fall, I must admit to feeling a little trepidation about whether it was going to all work out right. I needn't have worried, it seems, as Janeway seems a fine captain and Mulgrew extremely fit for the part. Mulgrew's voice takes a little getting used to, I think (a friend of mine says he keeps hearing Hepburn when Mulgrew is speaking, which while a nice image isn't exactly conducive to a Starfleet persona :-) ), but I'm happy with it -- and more than anything else, what's important is that Ms. Mulgrew very clearly has a strong commanding *presence*. It's not any one particular trait I could put a finger on, but her demeanor as shown definitely projects an air of authority, and of well-respected authority at that. There were one or two places where Janeway came off as a bit stiff or a bit *too* intense, the opening conversation with Paris on Earth being an example of the former, but that strikes me as par for the course for most pilots. (After all, if Patrick Stewart could be as stiff as he was in TNG's pilot, I figure one had better make allowances for anyone!)
What's more, Janeway occasionally has a very flip edge to her that I like a *lot*. The moment when I decided Janeway was going to work where I was concerned is an easy one to pick out: it was the line "Mr. Kim -- at ease before you sprain something." Any character who can get a line like that and make it work is one I'll be able to get along with, no question -- I've found myself using very similar phrases in the classroom, after all. :-)
Moving on, I thought Chakotay (Robert Beltran) was something of a mixed bag. I like his passion and his anger a lot, and think there's a lot of mileage to be had in the friction between him and Paris, not to mention any other Starfleet people he happens to dislike. However, there were times, especially early on in the show, when I thought Beltran's delivery felt off. Again, given that this was the pilot, that's understandable and hopefully will decay quickly -- and it *was* much better for most of the show, particularly when he bristles at Tuvok's betrayal. "Were you going to deliver us into their waiting hands ... Vulcan?" was a fairly vicious line in that regard.
I'm also wondering just how much is going to be made of Chakotay's cultural heritage. So far, given Paris's few lines here and the foundations laid in "Journey's End" last season in TNG, I'm feeling profoundly apprehensive. I'll readily confess to not knowing nearly as much about Native American culture as I should, but from my perspective the treatment has so far felt a little shallow. Hopefully I'll be proven wrong, or the subject will be dropped.
Speaking of Tom Paris, he's mostly a keeper. Frankly, given Robert Duncan McNeill's presence and the fact that Paris was written with a shady past to live down, I really think Paris *should* be Nicholas Locarno; it would have been an interesting little coda to "The First Duty", and the comparisons will be absolutely inevitable anyway. However, despite some of the stock moments we saw with him in the pilot, I think Paris's scoundrel streak will be to the show's benefit -- as long as it isn't muted to make the character more "pleasant" later. I did particularly like his stated rationale for saving Chakotay -- the phrase "your life belongs to me" is one that kind of rolls off the tongue nicely.
[I imagine we'll find out more about Paris's "accident" as the series rolls on, and I hope I'm not the only one wishing that we do NOT have some sort of revelation that it wasn't really his fault after all. Paris is coming with built-in baggage; let's have him actually redeem his own reputation rather than having it magically restored for him.]
Next up ... let's take Tuvok. Let's *definitely* take Tuvok -- anywhere he wants to go. I think I'm going to like him a bundle. It's a pleasure seeing a full-blooded Vulcan who, as a friend put it, "definitely has that Vulcan *smug* bit down". Tuvok pretty clearly brings to the forefront what's been stated all along -- that while Vulcans are reserved about how strongly they might express emotions, they certainly have them and are willing to show them when needed. Tuvok's scene with Janeway in her quarters was one of the few that truly had me feeling very excited on a character level, in particular -- this is a pairing that already shows signs of beautiful chemistry. Tim Russ has never really impressed me in Trek before (at least positively; I actively *disliked* his guest shot in DS9 last season), but he's making me re-evaluate him -- fast.
Rounding out the Starfleet end of things, there's Harry Kim (Garrett Wang). I think the words "we'll see" come to mind here; while Kim's naivete can be entertaining (the scene with Quark, for instance), it also strikes me as something that could get wearing very quickly. I think this is going to depend a great deal on how Kim's used, but for some reason I don't feel I came away with much of a feel for the character yet.
[I'm also not sure how I feel about the Paris/Kim pairing we're evidently going to see a lot of. There doesn't seem anything about it that's rubbing me wrong, but it didn't have the immediate spark to it that Janeway and Tuvok did, either.]
B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson) is another character I don't have much of a feel for yet. I suppose there always needs to be one character torn by conflicting sides of his/her personality, and half-human/half-Klingon is as good a choice as any. Like Chakotay, her fire is impressive ... mostly; I'm not sure her outburst in the Ocampa hospital was a good sign. As in Kim's case, though, I haven't seen enough to form much of an opinion yet.
I've formed an opinion on Neelix (Ethan Phillips), though -- I don't want to hear him sing again. Ever. :-) That was a truly annoying moment in the show. I do, however, think that Neelix in general is a pretty promising character -- he's presumably got his own people we'll be hearing from for story purposes, and his reactions to Voyager have generally at least been entertaining. The thing that impressed me most about him, though, was his clothes sense ... no, wait, that definitely _wasn't_ it; good Lord, the man makes Colin Baker look subdued. :-) Seriously, what impressed me most here was the character's hidden, *very* canny side: he manipulated the crew into helping him rescue Kes very smartly. If he is truly to be as much of a help to Janeway and company as he claims he will, we need to see more of that.
Kes (Jennifer Lien) is a character who might well have potential -- once she *gets* a character. All I've been able to tell so far in Kes's case is that I like Lien's performance a lot -- but I know virtually nothing about Kes herself so far. There's plenty of time to develop her, so this isn't a criticism per se -- but I hope we do find out more about her fairly soon. I also hope she proves herself useful to the crew -- it was glaringly obvious that her character felt unformed when Neelix rattles off a list at the end of how he could be useful, and Kes said nothing beyond "we very much wish to join you." Great -- and what can *you* do?
Now that I've taken care of all the non-holographic characters, I suppose that leaves the doctor. (No, not *that* Doctor; the holographic one. Sheesh.) About the best I can say about him so far is that I keep telling myself "Data started out as comic relief ... Data started out as comic relief...", and hoping it repeats itself. I found most of the scenes in sickbay pretty jarring -- granted, Janeway shutting the program down in the middle of it ranting was pretty amusing, but that's about it. The doctor needs a real character or a smaller role, I think.
That's it for the characters -- and frankly, this is getting rather long. So, a few other points I noticed during the course of the show (with luck, even arranged chronologically):
- The special effects have definitely jumped up a notch or two. The Badlands looked pretty good, and the final battle between the Kazon ships and the good guys was very impressive.
- Ditto for the opening titles (leaving the solar system; a nice little reference to TNG's opening credits), and for the opening theme. I think I'll learn to like it.
- The phrase "bio-neural circuitry" has me very worried. Not the concept, as it seems usable (it shouldn't make things *faster*, as was stated in the show, but perhaps better at problem-solving) -- but some of the avenues it opens up for stories. Given the talent Trek has had for completely screwing up any sort of plausible biology, I'm already wincing in preparation of the first story involving this aspect of the ship. (Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. This one isn't one I'm holding my breath for, though; I've been burned too many times.)
- I think it was an interesting choice dramatically *not* to show us what was going on inside Voyager when the abduction actually occurred, but instead to cut to its aftermath. It gave the situation a very different flavor.
- The 70,000 light-years reference is actually very plausible. That corresponds to about 21 kiloparsecs or so, which would put it (_very_ roughly) at being just about exactly across the galaxy from us. Someone did their homework on this one. (Granted, this means they may have a possible central black hole to worry about if they ever try to take the direct route home. Of course, it's only an issue if the series runs thirty years. :-) )
- I think Jay Chattaway did a better-than-usual job with the music this time around as well. In particular, most of his battle music and the "disaster in Engineering" scene work really jumped out at me as pretty impressive.
- Between the collapsing bridge at the end and several scenes in a barn, I hope we weren't the only ones saying "wait, didn't we just see this in 'Generations'?" :-)
- Nomination for Silliest Line: "Break out the compression phaser rifles." And that's all I have to say on *that* subject.
- From the Familiar Faces zone: lots of recycled actors here. Scott Jaeck (the soon-to-be-late first officer we see briefly towards the beginning) played the Ressican administrator in TNG's "The Inner Light". Scott MacDonald (the ensign who stayed on board ship and reported frequently; I didn't catch a name) has shown up at least twice, as Tosk in DS9's "Captive Pursuit" and as N'Vek in TNG's "Face of the Enemy". Bruce French (the Ocampa doctor) played Sabin in TNG's "The Drumhead". Lastly (I think), David Selburg (the Ocampa elder Kes argues with) has also shown up twice, as Whalen waaaaay back in TNG's "The Big Goodbye" and as Dr. Syrus in "Frame of Mind". That's a lot of repeat business.
- The escape from the Ocampa city was reasonably well done, but seemed to end very suddenly. I wonder if something got cut.
- Speaking of sudden, the cure of Kim's and B'Elanna's illness happened completely off screen. At least we saw them in sickbay, but I would have greatly preferred just a line or two about how easy it proved to treat. As it is, it felt a little convenient.
- The battle with the Kazon was *extremely* well executed, I think, right down to Chakotay's suicide run. The impact in particular, as seen from *inside* the Maquis ship, was stunning. (A fire in space, though? Ugh.)
- There's a very brief line on board the Array at the end about the program to send them home needing several hours to run without the Caretaker's help. I think that solves a lot of otherwise obvious problems, like "why didn't they simply rig a bomb to blow as soon as they left, thus saving the Ocampa *and* getting home?" With that delay built-in, and Voyager's weapons systems hurting as well, the chances would not be good.
- I trust everyone heard Tom Paris's middle name.
- And as for the Voyager's warp nacelles ... I'm sorry, but all I see are "flip-up" car headlights. :-)
That about takes care of it. All in all, I'd place "Caretaker" a bit below "Emissary" as Trek pilots go, but way above "Encounter at Farpoint". "Voyager" has a lot of potential -- now it remains to be seen what's done with it.
So, wrapping up:
- Writing: A nice introduction. The plot was a bit thin owing to the necessities of the pilot, but there really doesn't seem to be much in the way of plot holes or character idiocies, which is a good way to start.
- Directing: Sharp. The show kept moving; that's all one needs to say.
- Acting: A little stiff out of the starting gate for a few people, but everything seems pretty promising. Tim Russ in particular is off to a terrific start.
OVERALL: Call it an 8.
NEXT WEEK: One Singularity Sensation...
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) firstname.lastname@example.org "Mr. Kim -- at ease before you sprain something." -- Kathryn Janeway Copyright 1995, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.