Monday, August 8, 2011

'Star Trek: Voyager' Season Two (1995)

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

The captain and helmsman of Voyager.  SERIOUSLY.
The second season of "Star Trek: Voyager", and the show's first full season (the first was truncated due to a January launch for UPN), is damn near a disaster.  While the first season was decent but slight entertainment, the second season features some truly atrocious episodes that drag the whole thing down, even if the majority of them are still fairly decent.

In the series premiere, "The 37s," Voyager comes across a human colony in the Delta Quadrant populated by the descendants of people abducted from Earth in the late 1930s.  Frozen in stasis they find a number of those 20th century abductees including... Amelia Earhart (Sharon Lawrence), the legendary female pilot who disappeared on her flight around the world.  Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) offers her crew the opportunity to stay on the planet with the human colony, but in the end, the entire crew decides to stay on board Voyager for the journey home.

Throughout the course of the season, Voyager will deal with the fallout of Seska's (Martha Hackett) defection to the Kazon.  Seska has allied herself with Maje Culluh (Anthony de Longis) of the Kazon Nistrim, and devised a plan to rob Voyager of its advanced technologies.  To this end, another traitor aboard Voyager, Michael Jonas (Raphael Sbarge) begins feeding the Kazon information, and even helps to sabotage Voyager's systems.  Ultimately, this will lead to a showdown between the Voyager crew and the Kazon, one that could cost the crew everything.

There are a lot of good ideas milling around in the second season of "Star Trek: Voyager."  For example, the ongoing storyline with the Kazon has a lot of potential.  Little seeds are planted throughout earlier episodes that pay off in later ones, while other ideas become a bit more persistent.  Multiple times throughout the season, alien races make reference to the Kazon spreading lies that the Voyager crew are in fact sadistic conquerors who attack other ships without warning.  More than once, Voyager's bad rep leads to misunderstandings with alien races in the Delta Quadrant, while allies like the Talaxians are in short supply. 

Unfortunately, the execution of a lot of these ideas ranges from decent to atrocious.  This season contains two of the absolute worst episodes of "Star Trek" I've encountered in this project so far. 

First there's "Threshold," which has a reputation amongst fans: people actually argue over whether or not this is the worst episode of "Star Trek" ever produced.  I'm not so sure of that (honestly I think the "Star Trek: Enterprise" series finale takes that cake) but this is a pretty damn lousy hour of television.  In it, Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) figures out a way to break the warp 10 barrier, which would theoretically allow Voyager to travel back to Earth instantaneously.  Not a bad idea for an episode, but in execution it falls apart.  After his successful flight (in which he doesn't warp home, by the way) Paris begins to mutate into a strange new kind of lifeform.  He gets to pull out his tongue and have other various body parts mutate and fall off, all the while bitching and moaning like a jerk. 

Ultimately, where this episode goes completely off the rails is when Paris kidnaps Janeway, takes her on another warp 10 flight where they both mutate into giant salamanders... and mate with each other.  The jaw-dropping absurdity of this is almost impossible to describe.  The episode was already bad enough with the excruciating scenes of Paris' mutation in sickbay, but then it doesn't just jump the shark, it straps on a rocket pack and flies past the shark to the next continent. 

And then there's "Maneuvers," a key Kazon-centric episode.  In this episode, the Kazon-Nistrim stage a daring raid and manage to steal a piece of Voyager's transporter technology.  Later, Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) defies orders to get it back on his own.   This sounds like a great episode, and by all rights, it should be... but by god, is it totally idiotic once you start watching it.  The initial raid on Voyager is loaded with obvious logic errors.  The raid isn't successful because the Kazon are vicious, effective warriors; the raid is successful because the crew of Voyager are complete morons.  When Seska defected, the first thing that should have happened should have been to change any access codes to the ship's systems that she would be aware of.  But at the beginning of this episode, Chakotay comments that the Kazon are using Voyager's own codes to get through the ship's defenses.  When the Kazon manage to board the ship, Tuvok (Tim Russ) is sent to repel intruders.  He shows up with only two other guys, doesn't even bother to cover the exits to the room and waits until the Kazon fire first... then they literally just run out of the room while Tuvok is essentially helpless up on a catwalk above them.

This kind of idiocy is absurd, and totally ruined the entire episode.  Instead of making the Kazon better villains, the writers managed to make the Voyager crew lesser heroes, a cardinal sin when it comes to writing action/adventure storylines like this one.  The idiocy doesn't stop there, either.  Later in the episode, Chakotay boards the Kazon ship and destroys the stolen transporter technology... except then he gives himself up to the Kazon for no reason that I can determine.  In doing so, they take possession of his shuttle - which has more Federation technology than what the Kazon had already stolen. 

I sat dumbstruck and even offended throughout this episode, trying to figure out just what kind of cruel joke the writers were trying to play on me.  "Threshold" didn't really have the potential to be anything all that great; it's premise is too slight, so even though that episode sucks, it's not like I went into it hoping it'd be some great classic.  But "Maneuvers" held so much more promise to heighten the conflict between Voyager and the Kazon, and Seska and Culluh are both fun characters portrayed by talented performers.  But the episode falls so incredibly hard on its face that I couldn't help but me insulted that the producers of this show intended this to be their big, badass, dramatic action episode. 

Deep breath.

There are a number of other mediocre installments like "Innocence," in which Tuvok finds himself alone on an alien world, caretaker to several children who have been sent there to die, or "Dreadnought" in which the crew find a Cardassian missile that B'Elanna Torres (Roxanne Dawson) had programmed years earlier.  That episode makes very little sense; the conceit is that the Caretaker from the show's pilot had also brought this missile to the Delta Quadrant.  But the Caretaker was searching the galaxy for certain genetic structures, so what is he doing bothering with an unmanned Cardassian missile?

Further, "Cold Fire" brings Kes (Jennifer Lien) into contact with a lost colony of Ocampa watched over by Suspieria, the companion to the Caretaker.  But she is not kindly like the Caretaker, nor are these Ocampa the friendly folks Kes grew up amongst.  The saving grace of this episode is guest star Gary Graham, who would later play a recurring role on "Star Trek: Enterprise."  Aside from this, the episode is kind of a waste, and nothing comes of the ending, either. 

"Parturition" is a wholly aggravating episode which focuses on Tom Paris and Neelix (Ethan Phillips) fighting for Kes' affections while stranded on an inhospitable world.  Neelix's intense jealousy that rears up anytime anyone even looks at Kes is thoroughly un-entertaining.  To base an entire episode around it was a total mistake, and the end result is just as obnoxious as it sounds.  Other episodes throughout the season are riddled with problems.  The show completely abandons the idea that you can't beam through the shields in "Prototype." Muddled holodeck hallucinations permeate the thoroughly dull "Persistence of Vision."  "Resistance" finds Janeway stuck with a senile old man while trying to break Tuvok and Torres out of an alien prison and lays on the senile way too thick.  I could go on and on. 

Still, despite all this negativity, there are a few bright spots in season two.  "Death Wish" is a fun episode featuring the return of Q (John de Lancie) who fares better here than he did in his sole episode of "Deep Space Nine."  In "Death Wish," another Q (Gerrit Graham) requests asylum aboard Voyager so that he may shed himself of his immortal existence and commit suicide.  The original Q arrives, and Janeway is forced to hold a hearing to determine the second Q's fate.  Not only is this a fun episode that brings back the trickster Q, but it also does a good job exploring the theme of whether or not a person has the right to take his own life, and the consequences of such an act on the people around him.

In "Tuvix," a transporter accident merges Tuvok and Neelix into one being.  When it takes too long to figure out a way to separate them back, Janeway is faced with a moral dilemma of whether or not it's right to kill one person to save two others.  This episode isn't a home run, in fact it suffers from several problems, but I have to give it credit for being ballsy.  This is one of the few times when "Voyager" doesn't take the easy way out of a story.  It puts its characters into a no-win scenario, and even though the outcome is obvious, it doesn't make it easy.  Tuvix (Tom Wright) pleads for his life right to the very end, and even the Doctor (Robert Picardo) refuses to perform the procedure to end it, forcing Janeway to push the button herself.

There are also some good B-level action/adventure episodes spread throughout the season.  In "Deadlock," the ship is split into two identical universes, but in one the ship is savagely damaged, Harry Kim is killed and Ensign Wildman (Nancy Hower) loses her baby.  In the other, the ship is undamaged, but faces an invasion by the Vidiians.  It's a fun, new twist on the alternate reality story that I rather enjoyed watching, and has some nifty special effects and action sequences to bolster it.  "Investigations," the culmination of the Michael Jonas traitor storyline, is also a decent bit of fun and doesn't suffer the same problems as the dreadful "Maneuvers."

The season finale, "Basics, Part I" has some of those troubles, but they're far more minor.  I find it hard to believe that no one aboard the ship realizes what the Kazon plan is, why they keep attacking the same supposedly non-critical part of the ship (which turns out to be absurdly critical, by the way).  I also find it hard to believe that the Kazon can so readily operate Voyager's systems once they board the ship.  It's lazy writing when the filmmakers are forced to eschew logic in order to move the story forward. 

I've been watching a lot of "Star Trek" recently, and this second season of "Voyager" is the first one in a good long while where the bad episodes outnumber the good.  There are too many installments in this season that don't rise above the level of "meh," and a few that are just outright terrible.  The high points of this season outshine the high points of the previous one, but there aren't enough to mitigate the circumstances.  The second season of "Star Trek: Voyager" is a huge disappointment, a frustrating exercise in squandered potential and bad storytelling.