Tuesday, August 16, 2011

'Star Trek: Voyager' Season Three (1996)

Starring Kate Mulgrew, Robert Beltran and Robert Picardo
Created by Rick Berman, Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller
Based upon 'Star Trek' created by Gene Roddenberry

The third season of "Star Trek: Voyager" opens with the crew marooned on a barren alien world, forced to live without the precious advanced technology they had refused to share with the vicious Kazon-Nistrim.  Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) tries to lead her crew to find food and shelter, contending not only with a primitive people who appear to be hostile, but also the planet's geological instabilities and giant man-eating, cave-dwelling snake creatures.

Meanwhile, back on the ship, the Doctor (Robert Picardo) finds that he and former murderous crewman Lon Suder (Brad Dourif) are the only two Starfleet officers left aboard, and must devise a plan to retake the ship from Maje Culluh (Anthony de Longis) and the traitorous Seska (Martha Hackett).  Elsewhere, Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) has formed an alliance with a group of Tallaxians to aid the Doctor in retaking the ship and saving the rest of the crew.

As the season progresses, Voyager will once again come into contact with strange aliens, bizarre space anomalies, evil villains, and ultimately the dreaded Borg Collective.

Season Three is a strange creature.  While Season Two had some nice highs, it also had some incredible lows.  The third season mostly differs in its sense of tone.  There are a number of episodes in this season that simply go for broke, as though the show suddenly decided it was time to just let loose and have fun.  This is most evident in the two-part "Future's End," which sees the starship Voyager flung back in time to 1996 to do battle with a corrupt businessman who has stolen future technology for his own personal gain.

The episode, guest starring comedian Sarah Silverman as a 20th century astronomer and Ed Begley Jr. as greedy Henry Starling, is a fun, colorful romp.  Sure, there are some logic gaps and it even ignores a prominent event in 'Star Trek' history, but with it's big action sequences, bolder than usual musical score and impressive special effects, it's hard not to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The episode "Flashback," produced for the 30th anniversary of 'Star Trek,' is also a fun episode that uses the Vulcan mind-meld as a vehicle for Tuvok (Tim Russ) and Janeway to travel back to the starship Excelsior under the command of Hikaru Sulu (original series star George Takei) as it attempts a mission into Klingon territory to rescue Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy during the events of "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."  Takei is clearly having a good time back on the bridge of 'Star Trek,' and the production crew does an excellent job recreating scenes and sets from the film.

The season has a greater reliance on simple action-adventure stories, though also a reliance on episodes that seem ripped off from "The Next Generation."

"Macrocosm" finds Janeway and Neelix returning to the ship only to find the crew incapacitated by a macrovirus - that is, a virus that has grown until the individual viral cells are over a foot across (gross) - which is reminiscent of the seventh season TNG episode "Genesis."

In "Coda," Janeaway and Chakotay (Robert Beltran) believe they have become stuck in a time loop, much like TNG's fifth season episode "Cause and Effect." Ultimately, it's revealed to be something else entirely. The episode is a total mess, and I was hard-pressed to discover a point to it all - especially the final 'twist' ending that reveals some kind of soul-eating alien ... or something?

"Before and After" at first feels like a riff on TNG's series finale, "All Good Things..." with Kes living her life backwards in time across a series of uncontrollable jumps.  Eventually it finds its own course, but the initial setup feels very familiar.  It's a decent enough episode that features the introduction of the Krenim, a species whose weapons are time-based.

As the season progresses, more episodes with premises that border on the absurd are introduced.  In "Favorite Son," Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) is told that he's not human, he's actually an alien who was sent to Earth to learn about its culture and report back.  This, of course, isn't true at all, and the episode veers off into such bizarre territory as Kim actually beats a young woman unconscious and runs around in what looks sort of like a man's dress, and is then assaulted and beaten by a bunch of women with wooden sticks.  It's basically just the 'Star Trek' version of the godawful Nicolas Cage remake of "The Wicker Man."  I was highly entertained, but only because of my affinity for laughably bad movies, and this episode fell squarely into that category. 

Other bizarre episodes include "Distant Origin," in which Chakotay is kidnapped by, get this, dinosaurs in space.    Yeah, you read that right.  A species called the Voth, it turns out, are sentient descendents of Hadrosaurs, and apparently evolved and developed space travel and then left Earth millions of years previously.  But while such an absurd premise seems to demand a balls-out action episode, "Distant Origin" proves to be frustratingly boring as Chakotay becomes involved in a court hearing to squash a Voth scientist's theory that the aliens evolved on Earth and not in the Delta Quadrant as their 'Doctrine' depicts.  The idea of closed-minded doctrine versus truth is a very 'Star Trek' basis for an episode, but, seriously, who wants to watch that when we're talking about dinosaurs in space?

Q (John de Lancie) returns in "The Q and the Grey," a hilarious follow-up to the more downbeat season two episode "Death Wish."  Here, Q has decided that to fill the void in the Q Continuum and stop a dangerous civil war, he must mate with Captain Janeway.  The end of the episode goes totally off the rails, with the crew entering the Continuum and getting to don the costumes and weaponry of the American Civil War.  The episode also features popular 'Trek' guest star Suzie Plakson as a female Q who gets a lot of laugh-out-loud funny lines.  This episode is a winner, another example of the cast and writers simply having fun.

The biggest development of the year is a small story arc of "Blood Fever," "Unity" and the epic season finale, "Scorpion" that features the return of the Federation's deadliest enemy, the Borg.  "Unity" is a decent episode in which the crew discovers a colony of former Borg drones who were liberated when their ship was damaged in a nebula.  It only fails in that the Chakotay character has long-since ceased to be interesting and Robert Beltran doesn't seem to be putting much effort into his performance.  Given how under-utilized his character often is, I can't say I blame him.

And the season finale, "Scorpion," is a winner as well.  It's the kind of go-for-the-balls action-adventure episode that allows "Star Trek: Voyager" to really shine.  The show can rarely handle the effective drama and deep themes of its predecessors, but it is certainly a technically proficient show.  And when the writers and cast grasp onto something, they can produce quality entertainment.  In "Scorpion," Voyager enters the domain of the Borg Collective, faced with the prospect of crossing a vast region of space filled with ships and planets assimilated by the Borg.  But when they come across a decimated fleet of ships, they discover that the Borg are at war with a vicious alien species from another dimension... and the aliens are winning.  In a bold move, Janeway forms an alliance with the Collective: information on how to defeat the aliens in exchange for safe passage through Borg space.

Big action sequences, a huge leap forward for the show's computer-generated special effects, and a memorable musical score make this a true highlight of the season.  Everything is ratcheted up to eleven in this episode, including a rare conflict between Janeway and Chakotay that the two actors seem to relish in playing.  While the show has gone to great lengths to grow a bond between these two, they seem almost too eager to tear it down here, and the results are a lot of fun.  It's a little hint about how 'Voyager' should go - they clearly respect each other, but neither one is willing to back down on their opinion in this situation.  If only there were more episodes that treated the characters in such a mature fashion, 'Voyager' would likely be a far better, deeper show.

And, of course, it ends on a pretty cool cliffhanger, to boot.

In the end, even though there are bad and mediocre episodes, the sense of fun that permeates this third season makes it an improvement on the previous one.  'Voyager' is still far from being a great show, but at least it seems to have found its niche.  The show excels not when it's trying to be a great drama, but when it finally just lets its guard down, and throws out some fun action sequences and fancy special effects.