In January 1995, I was a high school freshman and fairly recent convert to science fiction/fantasy (adding the science fiction to my already dominant fantasy tendencies). I was writing Star Wars fanfiction — even though I didn’t know that “fanfic” was a term — and had fallen for the crew of the starship Enterprise in the movie I would refer to as: “you know, the whale one.” I was perfectly primed to commit to a long-term relationship with Star Trek and, lo and behold, a new series was starting…
Star Trek: Voyager could have been timed just for me. Sure, it aired at an inconvenient time and night for my central time zone household, but I wanted to be on board that ship from the start of its adventures. From what I recall of those more than 20-year-old memories, I was immediately taken in by the women of the series: Voyager’s stern (but not too stern) captain, Kathryn Janeway; her hot-headed engineer, B’Elanna Torres; and the compassionate, short-lived alien who joined her crew when everything went awry, Kes.
My relationship with the series waned in light of other high-school-aged responsibilities and a cross country move to start college early — but, oh, those early days held a rosy image. I wondered, all these years later: Would the show hold up to my expectations? What would I notice as an adult that I’d missed as a teen? And, despite my willingness to love the show so wholeheartedly, would that pilot episode that had drawn me in actually be any good?
I will admit that I was hit with a hefty dose of nostalgia I wasn’t expecting. It struck as soon as the Voyager theme came on. I was transported back to that first watch because I recalled very little of the plot that started the series. Voyager isn’t everyone’s favorite Star Trek, but rewatching the pilot, I can understand why it was mine…
“Caretaker” begins by explaining — in scroll text — that a rebel group is fighting against the Cardassians. Because the Cardassians are supported by the Federation, these rebels (called the Maquis) are not in good standing with the Federation. (Research now tells me the conflict with the Maquis was spread over Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation as well — so for multi-series viewers — this wasn’t news.)
Rather than opening with Starfleet, the pilot first introduces the audience to a Maquis ship fleeing from the Cardassians. They’re outgunned, and they’re in trouble — but, if they can just hold on, they can get to their home base. It’s the kind of scenario that creates sympathy, even for a group on the Federation’s most-wanted list. Maybe especially because of that. But, just when everything looks golden and the Maquis rebels about to escape, a new threat comes in and the ship disappears.
Cut to a penal colony in New Zealand where we meet Captain Kathryn Janeway, the first female captain to serve as the central character on a Star Trek series. Janeway is every ounce a captain in this first appearance, and she offers to more-or-less spring Tom Paris, convicted of working with the Maquis (and some other things, too) in order to find the missing Maquis ship.
We get a bit of background for both characters: Janeway was a science officer earlier in her career who has great admiration for Paris’ admiral father, while Paris views himself as a mercenary— but that’s just his cynical shell hiding a rather noble and loyal interior. (He also, I roughly quote, “flies at women at warp speed” as long as they’re “in visual range.”) The Voyager crew apparently needed a bit of a rake for the series to work. The charming, sarcastic, yet wounded Paris fit that bill.
Next, we briefly visit Deep Space Nine where Quark harangues newly-assigned Ensign Harry Kim in an attempt to get him to buy something. Harry is rescued from Quark’s accusations of speciesism against Ferengis by Paris. Paris is an outcast. Kim decides to be his friend regardless, beginning an epic friendship that would span the length of the series. Elsewhere on Deep Space Nine, we see Janeway’s softer side as she has a com conversation with her boyfriend (fiancé?), who offers to take care of her pregnant dog while she’s on the mission. The plot shifts into gear as the crew of Voyager sets off on its mission to find the missing Maquis ship…
Suddenly, Voyager is warped into the same crazy situation that saw the Maquis disappear days earlier. They’ve been transported to the other side of the galaxy, putting them — at top speed — 75 years from home. What the two crews — and us viewers — spend the episode finding out is that they’ve been transported by an entity known as the “Caretaker,” an all-powerful being who, in his death throes, is trying to find a species with whom he can procreate. All of this in order to continue his mission to protect a species called the Ocampa, whose planet was earlier destroyed by the Caretaker’s species.
Through a few twists and turns, the two crews come together, win the assistance of a couple of locals, and end up fulfilling the Caretaker’s last request — even though it dooms them to find another way home. (Giving the show its overarching premise.)
Somewhat surprisingly, this pilot really did hold up the way I’d hoped. It gave us a crew full of variety — in motivations and background, in their feelings about authority, in their ethnicities and genders, in their ages and experience — and the promise of exploring those differences moving forward. In the pilot, B’Elanna Torres confesses her frustrations with being half-Klingon (and struggling with her temper) to Harry Kim. Later, Kim confesses his fears that he’ll die on his first mission.
Chakotay defers to Janeway almost by default, despite beginning the episode thinking of her as an enemy, and is notable for being one of the few mainstream representations of a Native American character in science fiction. (The introduction of his ethnicity comes from a few stereotypical jokes from Paris, which Chakotay deflects, in part because his leg is broken and Paris is doing his best to save his life. It’s a flip way to handle it, but the dialog makes it clear that Chakotay very much identifies with his Earth-based culture as much as he identifies with his role as a Maquis rebel, fighting for justice and fair treatment against the Cardassians).
Tuvok, Janeway’s Vulcan security officer, who earlier infiltrated the Maquis, is Janeway’s sounding board and is played by black actor Tim Russ. And Kes, who has a life span of only nine years, is a voice for progress among her people: introduced as a beaten slave, she loses none of her spirit, speaking against falling meekly in line with whatever the Caretaker expects of her people. (Interestingly, with the exception of Robert Beltran, aka Chakotay, the first four actors billed are women, which I’d never have noticed as a teen.)
It’s a mismatched group, to be sure, and full of characters who don’t fit the Starfleet mold — even more so than any of its Star Trek predecessors. I’ll let you decide for yourself if, as a standalone installment, “Caretaker” is a Star Trek episode for the ages or not. Personally, I think it represents what Star Trek: Voyager as a series was trying to accomplish, years before Hollywood got called out for failing at it so awfully: bringing a truly diverse crew to the screen, and to the Star Trek canon.