Star Trek Voyager tells the story of a ship (and maybe a sci-fi franchise) getting lost and finding home in surprising places.
Newly installed as Captain, Kathryn Janeway (who must be named after Katherine Hepburn, right?) takes her ship Voyager to capture members of the Maquis, a rebel group unhappy with the Federation’s dealings with the Cardassian/Bajoran conflict. (Which is a confusing back story thing that’s explained in a crummy, Star Wars-style opening crawl and has little to do with events of the series.)
The rebels from the Maquis and the Starfleet officers on Voyager are both thrown suddenly into the Delta Quadrant, further than any Starfleet ship has gone before. These two crews will have to work together, as one crew, since the Maquis ship was severely damaged in the journey.
Together on one ship, the two enemies must unite first to discover how they arrived in the Delta Quadrant, and second to return home. The leaders of both crews, Janeway and Chakotay, form a truce and order their people to honor it.
They determine that they’ve traveled 70,000 light years by the work of a powerful alien satellite array called ‘Caretaker.’ They can use Caretaker to return home. There’s an ethical wrinkle: it’s discovered that it had been protecting a defenseless species called the Ocampa for all these years. The Ocampa had been forced underground by the thuggish Kazon. Without Caretaker, the Ocampa would not have access to any of the planet’s limited water supply and the Kazon could take it all. Ocampa extinction.
Voyager‘s crew finds that Caretaker is dying and so they must act fast. Janeway’s dilemma is pretty tough: use the Caretaker to get home or destroy it so the Kazon can’t use it to terrorize the Ocampa.
Janeway decides to destroy the Caretaker, trapping Voyager 75 years from home but protecting the Ocampa from being overpowered by the Kazon.
And thus begins the journey home…
Voyager is a show that is openly maligned by many Trek fans. Fairly. There are some very weak years of this show. The ending is not only unsatisfactory, it’s offensive. Characters go for years saying little more than, “Aye, Captain.” The show had promise, as evidenced by Janeway’s fantastic speech above, but it quickly wasted it on weird stories, Seven of Nine overload, and no clear direction.
But the promise of this show was bright. I remember when it first aired, a year after Deep Space Nine. I loved it. It had a feel to it that Star Trek hadn’t had in years: it felt wild, rickety, and untamed. The old show had that feel too. Enterprise occasionally had this kind of old west mood. But TNG and DS9 definitely did not.
Voyager, on the fringe of Trek’s interior universe (the Delta Quadrant) and on the fringe of Trek’s exterior universe (UPN), there is the sense that anything could happen. The benefits of being the fourth-born (or fifth, if you count The Animated Series). This show could do good weird stuff like bring a Borg on board as a regular crewman, or go back in time to fight with Ed Begley Jr. The freedom given this show could also lead to bad weird stuff like turning Janeway and Paris into a lizard couple, or dully explaining the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, or pretty much anything in the third season.
We’re here at the start though.
We start with a farewell to the Alpha Quadrant. All its comforts and all its dangers are summarily waved goodbye to as Star Trek the franchise leaves the political closeness of Deep Space Nine and the philosophical wanderings of Starfleet’s flagship Enterprise-D. With Voyager, the franchise returns to Kirk’s destination: “Out there.”
Voyager, ship and crew, are on their own. There are no starbases they can dock at, no subspace they can call home with, no shore leaves they can count on. And the world created by The Next Generation and explored for another seven years on Deep Space Nine is gone.
Spiritually though, Janeway leads her crew in maintaining the ethical standards of Starfleet. Her standards are tested right here as the mission to return home begins. She has a way home. But this way will endanger another group of people.
The right thing to do is obviously to inconvenience – even endanger – yourself so that those endangered will not be put in danger.
Picard or Kirk may have faced similar situations. Given the repercussions of this decision, it could almost be compared to a Kobayashi Maru scenario. Janeway and her crew won’t die…immediately. But they would be banished to the Delta Quadrant, likely never to return home. Unlike her predecessors, Janeway’s decision to do the right thing is not followed by a trick so that everybody gets what they want. There’s no last-minute fix so their warp engines kick in at just the right time.
They do the right thing and are stuck for it.
As the show goes on, they use plenty of quick fixes to get out of jams. That kind of Star Trek technobabble is very well represented on this show.
The repercussions of this first decision are not fixed by a quick ‘polarity reversal’ or a ‘rephasing of the tachyon emitter.’ The decision is made and they all have left is to deal with it.
The reaction of the crew is what I want to talk about. The crew is comprised of explorers (Starfleet) and freedom fighters (Maquis). Before being suddenly sent to the far side of the galaxy, both groups are ready for the rough life, away from home. They’ve signed on for it. None of them joined Starfleet or the Maquis to be comfortable or expecting to visit home frequently. Just like people today wouldn’t join the military or the mission field or Greenpeace to be comfortable or visit home a lot.
Once their situation becomes known and they set about the actual work of returning home, the crew’s main desire shifts from taking sides in the Cardassian/Bajoran conflict to daydreaming about the homestead.
The philosophies of our species roughly correspond to the missions of each Star Trek series. Believe it or not. Real quick:
Explore this world – Star Trek
Examine it – Next Generation
Manage it – Deep Space Nine
Go back to where we started, see what went wrong – Voyager
In the days of our ancestors, whose thoughts have all dried up, spreading out was the goal. Leaving this place because the next might have more food. As God put it, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it… I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” Exploration of the whole earth was expected.
The world that the great philosophers of Ancient Greece inherited wasn’t offering the same kind of politically free exploration as their forefathers in the Garden of Eden enjoyed. This world was limited by the complicated dealings with other people and nations. This world needed taming, as the phase of The Next Generation also served to tame and refine the galaxy they were exploring.
I imagine every nation reaches a point where looking at itself and examining itself no longer keeps its people existentially fed. And so the nation decays; its strings can be seen and its people and neighbors are tired. And so the job of managing comes to the front. Keep the bad guys out, sort out the differences between those two groups, keep the peace, hope you don’t get fired. That’s what Deep Space Nine broadly represents. Management replaces examination which replaces exploration.
We come now to the phase of thought that Voyager reflects. This is the Renaissance. Things are working, but they’re also not working. The people are being fed; the politics are being managed; the wars aren’t happening as frequently. And nobody seems to care about the beauty of this world. Who does care? The people of the past cared. Just as the people of the Renaissance looked back to the ancients for guidance in seeing the beauty of the world, so did Voyager find its place by looking back.
Just with less style.
The crew wanted management. They were pursuing the political dissidents of the day. They got exploration instead. And they found their feet again. By spending years away from their known world, they reclaimed the wonder of exploration.
To go out, you must come back in. The passion to return home is what opened the eyes of the crew of Voyager. The desire to see the familiar in a world unrelentingly alien awakened the true heart of the explorer: Not only to boldly go where no one has gone before, but to bring something back to share.
“And as the only Starfleet vessel assigned to the Delta Quadrant we’ll continue to follow our directive: to seek out new worlds and to explore space…But the primary goal is clear…Somewhere along this journey, we’ll find a way back.“