Why Star Trek: Voyager's fourth season is the best
In the second of a series, Juliette argues why Star Trek: Voyager's fourth season is the best of the lot...
This feature contains spoilers.
Poor Star Trek: Voyager spent many years as the under-appreciated black sheep of the Star Trek family (until Enterprise came along, at least). This was at least partly because, following its excellent pilot, it got off to a rather slow start. Season one has its high points (Eye of the Needle, Faces) but also some memorably bad lows (Learning Curve’s "Get the cheese to sickbay!" for one) while season two is, to put it bluntly, bad. Although it contains the occasional impressively thought-provoking hour (Meld, Death Wish, Tuvix, The Thaw) the season was far too concerned with its interminable Seska/Kazon plot, and it also has the honour of having produced Threshold, the only episode to give Spock’s Brain a run for its money in the competition for Worst Episode of Star Trek Ever Made, so bad it was later ret-conned out of Voyager’s canon.
But this is not the whole story. In season three, Voyager found its feet and seasons three, four and five are all excellent examples of classic Star Trek. Yes, story arcs tend to take a backseat to more stand-alone storytelling for the most part, and the show tends to press the re-set button at the end of every episode, but as season two had proven, complex, plot-driven story arcs were not really Voyager’s forte (though it was a bit better at long-term character development through smaller arcs). The rest of the show focuses mainly on the crew jumping around from one Planet of Hats to another, because that is what Star Trek is at its heart, and seasons three-seven of Voyager do their job with enthusiasm and a sense of fun sometimes missing from more po-faced iterations of the franchise.
Season three was the season that found the right tone and finally dropped sub-standard Klingon substitutes the Kazon for more stand-alone stories and, eventually, a much better recurring bad guy, the Borg. Following their introduction toward the end of season three, the show became somewhat obsessed with the Borg; season five is the last season in which these formerly terrifying bad guys really make an impact. Season six floundered a little and included two episodes which, as far as we’re concerned, are actually much worse than Threshold (which has a certain cheesy, so-bad-it’s-funny awfulness to it); Fair Haven and Spirit Folk are painful to watch. Season seven became a tad self-congratulatory and introduced some controversial developments in the personal relationships amongst the crew, but brought the ship home with its dignity mostly intact.
Seasons three to five, however, are solid seasons of television. Season three has some fairly low points (The Swarm, Coda, Favourite Son) but two-parter Future’s End showed that Voyager could deliver entertaining fluff when the occasion called for it, while Unity introduced the threat of the Borg, which came to fruition in the brilliant season finale, Scorpion Part 1. Season five included the magnificent one hundredth episode Timeless (easily Harry Kim’s finest hour) and made a conscious effort to delve deeper into the psyches of the crew and how damaged they are in episodes like Night, Extreme Risk and Latent Image, but it also took the time to let it all go and just have fun in classic comedy hour Bride of Chaotica!
Voyager’s best season by far, however, was season four. This was the season that wrote out Kes (a perfectly nice character, but one for whom the showrunners had run out of ideas) and replaced her with provocatively-dressed ex-Borg Seven of Nine. If Seven of Nine were just Jeri Ryan in a catsuit and no substance, the character would not have worked. But Seven was so much more than that – she had a genuinely compelling character arc, slowly re-discovering her humanity, and her combination of the best aspects of Vulcans and Data made her a great source of humour (as well as a useful plot device at times). Ryan’s performance is note-perfect and manages to make the character likeable even at her frostiest. Just don’t ask yourself why she has apparently no desire to wear clothes.
Seven of Nine is not the only jewel in season four’s crown though. Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres’ romance finally got going and softened both characters, while Tuvok, Star Trek’s best full-blooded Vulcan but eternally under-used, bounced off Seven of Nine surprisingly well. The crew’s Favourite Holodeck Programme Of The Season became Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop – not as much fun as season five’s Chaotica programme, but far more sophisticated than season three’s eternal luau or the first two seasons’ unremarkable French bar. And, having been shunted ten years closer to home by Kes in the season’s second episode, halfway through season four the crew are finally able to make contact with Earth for the first time in four years, offering an emotional and touching set of episodes, as well as high comedy when the Doctor is faced with his own replacement.
Some of season four’s highlights include:
Scorpion Part 2 introduces Seven of Nine; The Gift balances her gradual acceptance of her new life with Kes’ bittersweet departure.
Janeway’s occasional utter recklessness actually becomes part of the plot.
Year of Hell Parts 1&2
This two-parter represents two of finest hours Voyager produced. Yes, it ends with the reset button, but that’s because this is a story about wiping things from existence and that’s the natural ending to these stories (see also Red Dwarf’s The Inquisitor). But picking up from the set up in season three’s Before and After, Year of Hell gives us the entire crew being put under as much pressure as they can take, the ship falling apart, Chakotay insisting that a single life is significant, Janeway hugging Tuvok (and Tuvok hugging her back) and Janeway’s glorious suicide-run to put everything back to normal. ‘Time’s up!’
That rare thing, a Good Chakotay Episode, in which the crew are attacked in their dreams, allowing the story to open with a naked Vulcan gag. Daft, perhaps, but so much fun.
Message in a Bottle
This might be a perfect Voyager episode – rooted deeply in the series’ unique basis, utterly hilarious (there are countless classic one-liners here) but ultimately genuinely touching, as the Doctor succeeds in making contact with Starfleet and ‘sixty thousand light years… seems a little closer today.’
The Killing Game Parts 1&2
Does this two-parter, in which Voyager is taken over by enemy forces for the second or third time, entirely make sense? Not really. Does it matter? Not at all, not when we have Janeway being even more Katherine Hepburn-like than usual, Chakotay and Paris in World War Two fatigues and the Doctor heading off to fight Klingons with a wry, ‘Tally-ho!’ Loads of fun.
Although Year of Hell has the bombast and the drama, for those of us of a history-geek persuasion, Living Witness might just be the best of all Voyager’s 172 episodes. Offering a fresh take on the ‘evil version of the crew’ cliché (beautifully directed by Tim Russ, with subtle touches in the way the crew move around the set adding to the black shirts and exaggerated features of the ‘evil’ crew), this episode is a meditation on the nature and meaning of history. We can never know for sure how accurately we have understood the past, but this episode explores how we might try to understand it and how that understanding relates to the problems and concerns of the present without offering easy answers. It’s also very funny, and features a bittersweet emotional ending that easily competes with The Gift or Message in a Bottle, as the back-up Doctor sets off for an Earth his crew reached centuries earlier because he has ‘a longing for home.’
Season four of Voyager had its weak points, like any other season – Mortal Coil and Retrospect spring to mind. It also favoured Seven of Nine and her relationship with the captain to the detriment of just about everyone else, leaving the viewer desperate never again to see another scene of Janeway telling Seven what it is to be human. But overall, this season combined the strongest background story arcs (Seven of Nine rediscovering her humanity alongside Voyager making much bigger steps towards getting home than they’d ever made before) with the strongest set of individual episodes in Voyager’s run, culminating in a finale so sure of the story it needed to tell, it isn’t even a cliffhanger. Marvellous stuff.
Juliette is a part-time lecturer and full-time Trekkie. Her thoughts on what the Greeks and Romans have done for us can be found here.
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