Sunday, September 4, 2011

'Star Trek: Voyager' Season Four (1997)

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

Season Four is a time of great change for "Star Trek: Voyager."  At the end of Season Three, Voyager finally entered the domain of the Borg, who the crew finds are at war with mysterious and vicious aliens known as Species 8472.

Species 8472 hails from another dimension, a realm of space filled with some kind of dense fluid.  The Borg are unable to withstand the attacks of this species, unable to adapt as they have so often in the past.  Luckily, Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her crew have devised a weapon that can harm them, and formed an alliance with the Borg - safe passage through their space in exchange for the technical specs of the weapon. 

But after their Borg escort is destroyed, Voyager finds itself alone in the war zone, with only a handful of drones to guide them and help construct the weapon.  Among them is Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a human woman assimilated into the collective years earlier as a young girl.  At the end of the confrontation with Species 8472, Janeway enacts a plan to rescue Seven from the Collective, allowing her to regain her human individuality.

Not long after, Kes (Jennifer Lien) finds that her mental abilities are growing beyond her ability to control them, even to the point of threatening the ship.  So as the crew welcomes a new member, they also must say goodbye to a close friend.  The arrival of Seven of Nine causes much friction amongst the crew, who view her with suspicion and fear.  Seven's almost total lack of social graces often puts her at odds with people who think she's rude and ungrateful.  Over the course of the year, she'll form a special bond with Captain Janeway, whom she comes to see as a mentor and a guide, and Janeway, likewise, sees Seven as almost like a daughter.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew all get to have their own adventures.  The Doctor (Robert Picardo) gets to have an adventure in the Alpha Quadrant in "Message in a Bottle." Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) swaps bodies with an alien identity thief.  Chakotay (Robert Beltran) is drafted into an alien war.  B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) is arrested on a world where violent thoughts are a crime... and a highly sought-after black market commodity.

But the biggest change of all is a moment that the show has been building toward for four years: Voyager finally makes contact with Earth. 



The fourth season of "Star Trek: Voyager" did have many new things going on.  Certainly, the cast change with Jeri Ryan taking the place of Jennifer Lien is the biggest, most obvious change.  It's a change, however, that while conceptually quite interesting is also rather flawed in its execution.  The Seven of Nine character, while decently written, is essentially paraded around as a sex object.  Ryan is fitted in a skin-tight catsuit that seems to serve no practical purpose other than to show off her admittedly attractive body. 

The show again places a greater emphasis on action and adventure, and this is helped by a quantum leap forward in computer generated special effects.  The Voyager studio model was retired, appearing only in stock shots filmed for the first season, while the CGI model took over the regular duties.  This allows the writers to create bigger, badder action sequences.  The center-piece episode for this concept is the two-part "Year of Hell," which finds the ship under constant attack from aliens called the Krenim, first seen in season three's "Before and After."  In these episodes, we follow Voyager through an entire year as they are hounded and pounded by the Krenim, devastating entire sections of the ship until much of it is uninhabitable, forcing Janeway to eventually order the crew to abandon ship.

The big action doesn't stop there, either.  A short story arc unfolds through the middle portion of the season which finds Voyager encountering the Hirogen, a race of alien hunters.  This leads them to one of the biggest moments in the show's history, contact with Earth after the crew uses a series of alien satellites to transmit the Doctor some 60,000 light-years back to the Federation.  Following this, the Hirogen capture Voyager and force the crew to participate in an endless series of holographic simulations in which they are hunted by the Hirogen.

"The Killing Game" is, much like Season Three's "Future's End," a highlight of the series not because it's good, but because it's just so much absurd fun.  Much of this two-part episode takes place in a holodeck simulation of World War II, but it really doesn't pick up until the second part when the simulations spill out into the rest of the ship.  The images of Nazis fighting Klingons on the decks of a Federation starship are a hoot and a half, the kind of mind-bogglingly bizarre stuff that you just can't help but say, "that is cool." 

Of course, as always, "Voyager" is fairly lacking in what you'd call serious drama.  As a brightly-colored action adventure show, many of the episodes in Season Four succeed greatly.  But if you're looking for the kind of great, classic storytelling of previous 'Star Trek' series,  you're looking in the wrong place.  The characters are still rather basic, and the cast is only barely competent (aside from Robert Picardo, who always steals every scene he's in).  At this point, they've all developed a fine chemistry with each other, though, which is a plus.  They're clearly having a lot of fun in a bunch of these episodes, usually the ones that feature a lot of action and special effects. 

So while many things have changed, including the cast, the status quo of the show, and the quality of the technical production, many things have also stayed the same in that "Voyager" is still just surface-level entertainment.  If that's all you're looking for, you could do far worse than this.