This week is the 18th anniversary of Star Trek: Voyager. Yep, it can go to war, but it can't drink.
Voyager's pilot episode, “Caretaker,” is, in my opinion, one of the more successful introductions to a broad-canvas show with big ideas and multiple characters. I'd put it above TNG's “Encounter at Farpoint” and DS9's “Emissary” for sure. I'll have to take a second look at Enterprise's “Broken Bow” (as a part of that general Enterprise second look I've been meaning to take for some time now.)
I popped my DVD in today and took some notes on what “Caretaker” does right and what “Caretaker” does wrong. Tell me if you agree.
- Captain Janeway is the boss. Right from the get-go she is approachable but stern, decisive, and exudes authority. I still go back and forth over whether Kirk or Picard is the greatest captain, but Janeway is absolutely and forever a cut above Sisko and Archer. Anyone who disagrees with me will have to step outside (into the middle of the cold expanse of the Delta Quadrant.)
Even as late as 1995 having a “woman Captain” was a big deal. People weren't sure if the fans could handle it. (Maybe another franchise, but not ours.) When Harry Kim first addresses the Captain, he calls her “sir.” Janeway tells him that, despite Starfleet protocol, she doesn't care for “sir.” He quickly pivots to “ma'am” and that's where she nails it. “I prefer Captain.” Boom. Just like that all gender hang-ups evaporate from the series. Janeway is the Captain. Treat her as such.
(Note: some research shows me that in the U.S. military, female officers are called ma'am. On Battlestar Galactica, they were called sir. But on Battlestar Galactica they said a lot of weird frakkin' things.)
- I get Tom Paris now. When Voyager first aired, I was a bit snippy during the first few seasons. Paris was, I thought, supposed to be some Han Solo rogue. And Robert Duncan McNeill isn't really all that… dangerous. His character eventually grew into a totally new persona, but watching this again with a little more age and wisdom I recognize what was actually going on. He's just a rich kid, pretending to be a badass! (And failing at it – booted from the Academy and pinched during his first Maquis run.) I couldn't see it before, but he's perfect! I'd like to retroactively apologize to you, Tom Paris, for the few early seasons when I claimed your character wasn't working.
- In “Caretaker” you meet a bunch of key members of Voyager's crew. And then they drop dead. The chaos of the ship's kidnapping, especially as seen through noob Harry Kim's eyes, makes it clear up front that Voyager is for real. First Officer Cavit, Pilot Stadi, the Chief Engineer, the Chief Medical Officer (the guy who was mean to Paris in the mess hall) and his nurse are all DEAD about 20 minutes into the first episode. When watching it the first time, when we didn't know who were the characters who were gonna stick around, this made for a disorienting feeling. And that helps us understand how the characters feel being 70,000 light years from home.
NOT SO WIN COLUMN:
- There's a great moment toward the end of “Caretaker.” Janeway has decided to destroy the Array, thus saving Ocampa, but marooning everyone out in the Delta Quadrant. B'Elanna Torres, understandably, starts freaking out. “Who is she to be making these decisions for us?!” the Maquis dissident asks. “She's the Captain,” Chakotay responds.
It's a terrific line, and when they show the clip at conventions it gets a big round of applause. But does it make sense? I agree that Chakotay would, eventually, see the sense in joining forces with Voyager and following Starfleet's rules. But so quickly? Not sure.
- By destroying the Array, Janeway saves Ocampa.
I mean, it looks great. The Array blows up. This means the Kazon-Ogla can't take it over. But the plan is a little fuzzy. And more importantly, they never tell the Ocampans anything. Maybe I missed it?
- While I'm picking nits, how the heck did Kes and Neelix ever meet and fall in love? It wasn't like he could get to the underground Ocampan community (which looks like a giant food court, by the way.) He must have met her while she was being held by the Kazon-Ogla, during one of his trading sessions. But do the Kazon-Ogla look like the type to just let Neelix stroll around and schmooze with one of their kidnapped slaves? I don't think so.
Well, despite these problems, I still like “Caretaker” does a great job of taking our characters out of a comfortable setting and dumping them off where no one has gone before. If “Caretaker” is fresh in your mind maybe you can weigh in on what you think works well and what works… not so well.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.