‘Caretaker’ was originally shown as a single double-length episode, so I’m reviewing both parts together here.
Whatever else critics have to say about Star Trek: Voyager (least beloved offspring of the Star Trek stable until Enterprise came along) there are two things most agree on. One, Voyager has the best credit sequence of any of the Trek shows, with a stirring theme and beautifully rendered graphics showing assorted space phenomena. And two, it also has one of the best pilots.
The first half hour of Voyager’s pilot is stunning. It wants to be Star Wars – it actually opens with a text crawl explaining some of the backstory and a shot of a spaceship passing above the camera. We meet three of our regulars-to-be mid-battle, entering the ominously named ‘Badlands’. Brief introductions for the rest of the Starfleet contingent follow, but one of the things that makes Voyager’s pilot unique is that half the apparent cast will be killed off within the first twenty minutes.
Coming to the pilot with a full knowledge of the show, it’s hard to imagine what first time viewers thought as they watched what looked like the standard Star Trek cast come together – hot Betazoid, grouchy doctor, authoritative First Officer. Did they guess which of these were, ultimately, expendable? (The answer is ‘all of them’). I’d say the Betazoid pilot was probably more obviously marked for death since we’d already heard Paris’ boast that he was the best pilot around (the accidental deaths of three fellow cadets notwithstanding) – but the Doctor must have come as quite a surprise.
Following an action-packed beginning, things slow down a bit once Voyager has been dragged into the Delta Quadrant and the crew transported to what looks like an all-American farm (which must be thoroughly confusing to the remaining Vulcan crewmember). It wouldn’t be a Star Trek pilot without a god-like alien working mischief, but at least the titular Caretaker has more solid motivation than most, in his desire to protect the short-lived Ocampans from environmental disaster and Klingons with bad hair. The Kazon are one of the pilot’s misfires, one which would unfortunately be repeated throughout Voyager’s first two seasons before we finally got rid of them, but luckily we don’t spend too much time with them here.
One of the things Voyager’s pilot was determined to do was to make the set-up ‘darker’, following the success of the ‘darker’, more soap-opera-like Deep Space Nine. So we have one regular who’s an ex-con, one who’s a mercenary intergalactic rag-and-bone man, two terrorists and even the Vulcan security officer is a pretty badass spy. The tension between the Starfleet crew and Chakotay’s one-man’s-terrorist-is-another’s-freedom-fighter group was supposed to be a source of on-going internal conflict in the series going forward. Neelix as written here is also a much darker and more selfish character than he later became, and although Paris achieves a level of redemption by the end of the pilot, he was supposed to be a bit harder-edged as well.
How much you like Voyager as a whole will ultimately depend whether you were deeply disappointed that the ‘darkness’ promised here wasn’t really carried through to the series proper. Personally, I like my Star Trek light, and was perfectly happy with the direction the show ultimately took. This is at least partly because the Maquis issue is, for me, better left alone. Originating on Deep Space Nine, it’s clear from the name ‘Maquis’, taken from the French Resistance, that we’re supposed to have a fair amount of sympathy with the terrorist group (Voyager’s finale aired in the summer of 2001 so it never had to back-peddle on Trek’s unfortunate 1990s habit of sympathising with terrorists). For me personally, I prefer quietly to pass over that aspect of the show’s set-up. On the other hand, it’s perhaps a shame that later episodes left the pilot behind so completely. Neelix, in particular, might have benefited from the more complex characterisation he’s given here.
But I digress – this review is for the pilot episode. Corny farm sequences aside, this is an action-packed hour and a half that introduces a diverse and interesting group of characters with plenty of potential. Best of all, with Voyager stuck on the wrong side of the galaxy, every planet is new and every situation unknown. Space is, for the first time since the original series, a real frontier – wild, lawless, unexplored. And that’s a very promising start for a new show.
Bits ‘n’ pieces
- In the end, Voyager is stranded in the Delta Quadrant because Janeway made a choice she believed to be right. That’s one source of conflict that is sometimes revisited, and one of the most fruitful sources of internal drama on the ship.
- Harry Kim sometimes seems worryingly like a slightly older version of Wesley Crusher, but he bounces well off both Paris and Torres, pairings to which the show would return many times.
- It's traditional to see at least one cast member from a previous series in a new Star Trek pilot, and Quark is probably the best choice yet; his appearance feels natural and unforced, and provides nice character establishing moments for Kim and Paris.
- The Ocampa are rather bland, but Kes is immediately likeable. It’s clear why Neelix fell for her – why she fell for him, less so.
- The whole business with Chakotay’s life belonging to Paris because he saved him is cheesy and horrible and best forgotten. As, indeed, it is, by the next episode.
- I completely love Tuvok, who manages to be ass-kicking, a constant source of dry wit and incredibly touching, while maintaining absolute Vulcan-ness at all times.
Janeway: “Mr. Kim, at ease before you sprain something.”
Janeway: “I never seem to have a chance to get to know any of them… I have to take more time to do that.” Don’t worry Janeway, you’re about to get all the time you need.
The Doctor: “This is a sickbay, not a conference room.”
Janeway: “We’re alone, in an uncharted part of the galaxy. We’ve already made some friends here, and some enemies. We have no idea of the dangers we’re going to face, but one thing is clear; both crews are going to have to work together if we’re to survive. That’s why Commander Chakotay and I have agreed that this should be one crew – a Starfleet crew. 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 our primary goal is clear. Even at maximum speeds it would take 75 years to reach the Federation. But I’m not willing to settle for that… we’ll be looking for wormholes, spatial rifts or new technologies to help us. Somewhere along this journey, we’ll find a way back.
Mr. Paris, set a course – for home.”
An excellent start. Four out of four god-like aliens.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.
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