Wednesday, September 7, 2011

'Star Trek: Voyager' Season Five (1998)

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

I've felt like Seasons Three and Four of 'Star Trek: Voyager' showed a good deal of improvement, at least in terms of just sheer fun.  The show wasn't getting better in terms of becoming a greater drama, but instead going more for pure, special-effects driven entertainment.

Season Five begins several months after the events of the season four finale, "Hope and Fear."  Now, the Starship Voyager has found itself on a months-long journey through a vast region of space devoid of both stars and planets, causing the crew to begin to suffer from cabin fever.  Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is racked with regret and guilt over her decision years earlier to strand her crew in the far-off reaches of the Delta Quadrant, and locks herself away in her quarters, leaving heavy duties to her first officer, Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran). 

But within the void live a race of beings who evolved in total darkness.  When they board Voyager, Janeway initially believes it to be an attack.  Instead, it is the beings who are in danger from another race known as the Maalon, interstellar waste haulers who are using this empty region of space as a dumping ground for their dangerous radioactive waste products.  In defending these beings from the Maalon, Janeway is once again faced with a difficult decision: help save a race of innocent aliens, or shave a couple years off her crew's journey home.

Over the course of the rest of the season, the crew of the Starship Voyager will encounter more strange, wild new creatures and civilizations.  Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) is coerced into rejoining the dreaded Borg Collective.  The Doctor (Robert Picardo) faces a Sophie's Choice that causes a dangerous glitch in his programming.  Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeil) disobeys orders to save an alien ocean and is busted down to the rank of Ensign. B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) begins to take ever-increasing risks on the holodeck to deal with her grief over the deaths of her Maquis friends in the Alpha Quadrant. Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) falls in love with a beautiful alien woman, but finds that he's now physically linked to her as well.  Commander Chakotay comes face to face with members of Species 8472 who are planning to invade the Federation.

And at the end of it all, a revelation is made that will change everything: Voyager is not the only Federation starship stranded in the Delta Quadrant.  But the crew of the Starship Equinox are not like the crew of Voyager - they have abandoned their morals and their Starfleet code, brutally torturing aliens to use their bodies as an energy source to get home sooner.



Honestly, Season Five is by far my favorite batch of episodes of "Star Trek Voyager."  Starting right on from the season premiere, "Night," on through the finale, "Equinox," this is the only year of "Voyager" that seems to be of mostly consistently high quality.  The episodes delve further into the basic psychology of its characters than previous seasons did, with everyone getting at least one good spotlight episode.  "Night," as I explained, explores Janeway's feelings of guilt over her decisions.  The next episode, "Drone," takes a look at Seven of Nine's feelings about the Borg and her ability to make emotional connections.

Easily my favorite episode of the season is the show's 100th episode, "Timeless."  In this episode, the Voyager crew has rebuilt the quantum slipstream drive first seen in Season Four, an engine capable of getting the crew home in a matter of days.  Unfortunately, the experiment goes horribly wrong, and only Harry Kim and Chakotay make it home - Voyager slams down hard into a barren ice planet, and remains buried there for over a decade before Harry and Chakotay find it and implement a risky plan to alter the past.  The whole episode is great; it gives the entire cast some good spotlight scenes, though mostly it focuses on Harry, it's really well-paced and edited, and it features some really fantastic special effects.  It even has a fun little cameo by LeVar Burton as his "Next Generation" character, Geordi La Forge. 

Some other great, fun episodes in this season include "Thirty Days," in which the ship comes across an actual ocean floating in space.  This one has a good storyline for Tom Paris, and some really excellent special effects, too, in addition to its rather inspired premise.  It's also an episode with some consequences, however minor: Tom is reduced in rank from Lieutenant to Ensign.  Though he remains an Ensign for the next season and a half, it doesn't really affect things very much, so it's a small consequence, but it is one that the show sticks with for some time. 

Also fun is "Bliss," which has the ship swallowed by a massive space creature that eats starships.  This episode guest stars the wonderful W. Morgan Sheppard as an alien Ahab-type.  It's well-directed, with more excellent special effects, and, again, a rather inspired premise.  "Relativity" is a silly time travel episode that brings back Captain Braxton, who first appeared in Season Three's "Future's End," for an adventure that sends Seven back in time to find a saboteur as Voyager is still being constructed in orbit over Mars.  "Course: Oblivion" shows the return of the duplicates of the crew from the episode "Demon," and has a cool twist ending and some bizarre makeup work. 

Another excellent episode is "Latent Image," which begins with the Doctor suspecting that the crew is conspiring against him.  He eventually learns that they in fact erased part of his memory to save his life after his program began to degrade.  Given a choice of two patients, each with an equal chance of survival, but treating one will mean the death of the other... how does he choose?  Robert Picardo's performance in this episode is, as always, excellent.  Ultimately, what makes the episode great is how the Doctor is treated as a person who must come to grips with his choice, rather than simply altering his program again.

Season Five also presents a rare experiment for the show: a romantic comedy episode, and even more rare, one that works.  "Someone to Watch Over Me" involves the Doctor attempting to teach Seven the finer aspects of dating, with hilarious and heart-breaking results.  It's yet another example of why the Doctor is the finest and best-written character on "Voyager," and another excellent showcase of Robert Picardo's talents.  It also includes a couple of fun musical sequences for the cast.  The Doctor realizing both that he's both in love with Seven and that she doesn't return those feelings is well-played, making this one of the series' best episodes.

Less successful is the 90-minute episode "Dark Frontier," which promised to be a big, two-part Borg extravaganza but instead ends up being dull and plodding.  The Borg Queen returns, this time played by Susanna Thomson.  Voyager attempts to infiltrate a damaged Borg ship to steal a piece of engine technology that could get them home sooner, but the Borg Queen blackmails Seven of Nine into rejoining the Collective.  Instead of letting her go, Janeway decides to use their stolen engine to travel back to Borg space and rescue Seven.  On paper, this sounds like a great episode, but in execution it's quite flawed.  The biggest problem is, ultimately, that it's rather boring.  For a 90-minute episode, it lacks the big bang action that "Voyager" typically goes for in its two-parters, and also features some lax continuity.  It explores the history of Seven of Nine's parents, who were apparently scientists studying the Borg... years before Starfleet supposedly had ever heard of the Collective.  In addition to straining the continuity of the series, these sequences aren't particularly well acted or produced in any fashion.

Another failed episode is "The Fight," in which Chakotay suffers from bizarre hallucinations in which he fights an alien boxer.  I have no idea what the point of this episode is, and Robert Beltran didn't seem to, either.  He overacts at every turn, and the director's attempts at creating scary dream-like images are annoying at best.

But overall, this is a very successful season for "Star Trek: Voyager."  While still not the great drama "The Next Generation" or "Deep Space Nine" ever were, this season is the closest it will ever come.  At the same time, the show is still an impeccable technical production, with ever-improve special effects and detailed sets and makeup work.