By Tom Anderson
“The thing about ‘Caretaker’ that must be remembered in all discussion,” said Michael Piller, who wrote the titular Star Trek: Voyager (VGR) pilot together with Jeri Taylor and Rick Berman, in a later interview with Star Trek Magazine, “is that it was created in the shadow of DS9: [Star Trek: Deep Space Nine]”. It’s unsurprising that Piller felt the need to emphasise this, as it has often been forgotten in later critical appraisals of the fourth small-screen incarnation of the Star Trek franchise. At the time of VGR’s (lengthy) conception, Paramount generally regarded DS9 as a failure. VGR was therefore conceived to be as different a direction as the creators could envision. This was manifested in two primary ways. Firstly, as I discussed in part 14 of this series, there was the fact that much opinion (not just hardcore fans but casual ‘normie’ viewers) were still angry about the fact that DS9 was based around a stationary location. VGR therefore must be a reversion to a starship, well, voyaging, which would eventually be taken to extremes as the idea evolved. Secondly, Piller, Taylor and Berman felt that one of the reasons for DS9’s perceived failure was that it was ‘too cerebral’. They therefore wanted to push more of a back-to-basics, action-adventure style with VGR.
These are just two of the decisions taken for the beginnings of VGR that look reasonable on paper, but frequently ran aground in the realities of the show on screen. Every virtue can become a vice. Attempts to evoke the exploratory spirit of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) often turned into just reusing TNG episode ideas wholesale, sometimes ignoring the very different setting (which we’ll get to). Moving away from the ‘cerebral’ DS9 approach meant that VGR’s cast of characters often could not live up to the solidity of their DS9 or even TNG counterparts, who could sell a poor script to the viewers because we still want to see Worf get angry and Data say ‘Intriguing’. The recurring problem of VGR would be one of lacking follow-through, coming up with decent driving concepts off the bat and then never doing enough with them. This was foreshadowed by how concepts were given rather childish placeholder names by the writers while developing the pilot – the crew would include a group of ‘misfits’, they would meet the ‘mayflies’ and have to fight the ‘Crips and Bloods’. (Maquis, Ocampa and Kazon, respectively).
The idea of a mixed crew may actually predate the most central concept of VGR – that the ship would be flung across the galaxy and take years to get home (initially pitched as ten years, later increased to 75 – I actually think a shorter timescale would’ve been more interesting). Piller, Taylor and Berman were inspired by TNG episodes such as “Q Who?” and “Where No One Has Gone Before” where the Enterprise-D is flung a vast distance, but of course always makes it home by the end. “What if it didn’t?” It’s certainly a good idea to give VGR an identity that’s more distinct from TNG while still being about, well, voyaging, but it rarely lived up to its potential. Some critics like to say that the 2000s Battlestar Galactica remake did it better. I am not one of those people. I normally take the attitude that everyone should enjoy what they enjoy, but BG is one of those edge cases where it actively influenced (and, in my view, spoiled) other franchises – practically killing the Stargate franchise single-handedly. But I digress.
Depending on how you count things like Phase II versus “The Motion Picture”, VGR had one of the longest development times of any Star Trek incarnation, beginning in mid-1993, while the first episode aired in January 1995. This did have some advantages; it gave time for the creators to insert foreshadowing into DS9 and even TNG (the introduction of the Maquis and the Badlands) and I remember reading the one-paragraph hint about the coming new series written into the 1994 Star Trek Encyclopaedia. Later the same year I attended the Star Trek Exhibition in Edinburgh (the same one where I got to see Soran’s trilithium missile from “Generations”) and there was a display on the coming Voyager. It consisted primarily of a group shot of the bridge crew and a giant wall display of the USS Voyager seen from below, accompanied by music – which was a very slowed down version of the TNG theme, as the actual theme hadn’t been written yet, but I didn’t realise that. As well as expecting the wrong theme tune, I also incorrectly assumed that Voyager would be a Nova-class starship as teased at the end of the TNG Technical Manual. Ironically, that class name would be used for a completely different ship in a much later episode of the show.
The two-part pilot “Caretaker” opens with an infodump recap scroll, similar to DS9’s about the Battle of Wolf 359, but in this case it is about the origins of the Maquis. We then cut to a Cardassian ship chasing a Maquis raider through the Badlands, the dangerous area of space where the Maquis hide out – which looks a lot more impressive there than it did when it first appeared in DS9, wink wink. Incidentally, the Maquis ship is never named on-screen, with the result that different supplementary materials confusingly used three different names at different times – Zola, Selva and Val Jean, eventually settling on the latter. Sometimes it’s best just to be clear from the start.
We see that the ambiguously-named Maquis ship is captained by Chakotay, played by Robert Beltran; like many of the Maquis he is a former Starfleet officer who left the service. Chakotay was the first Native American main character in on-screen Star Trek (although the animated series and comics had done it years earlier, as mentioned in previous articles). Earlier drafts identified him with a particular tribe, but this attempt at representation came across as tone-deaf when they eventually settled on making him a member of a generic, fictional people so they could make up whatever they wanted about their culture and beliefs. Beltran’s acting was sometimes criticised as wooden; in later series the writers would also have a tendency to make up new interests he’d ‘always’ had in order to do something with the character. Also part of the Maquis crew are B’Elanna Torres (Roxanne Biggs-Dawson, as she then was), half-Klingon half-human engineer, and Tuvok (played by veteran Trek actor Tim Russ and one of the first cast), a Vulcan – and secretly a Starfleet infiltrator. I remember when VGR came out, the fact that Tuvok was a black Vulcan was constantly mentioned in British media reports as though this was the most mind-boggling thing ever, never mind that Worf had already been a black Klingon.
A swirly-thing phenomenon damages the Cardassian ship and the Maquis ship disappears altogether. We cut to Starfleet’s most feared penal colony – NEW ZEALAND! Here, Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill, who also played Nick Locarno in TNG’s “The First Duty”) has been sentenced to prison for being (briefly) part of the Maquis. (I should say that his backstory is also very similar to Locarno’s, and the creators themselves seemed a bit confused at first whether he was the same character under an assumed name; some early novels also hint that he is. However, we eventually see that his father is Admiral Owen Paris, so he can’t be). Paris is recruited by our main protagonist, Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate ‘Mrs Columbo’ Mulgrew) to help investigate the missing Maquis ship. A note on Janeway’s character in the script evolution: originally named Elizabeth Janeway, her name was changed to Kathryn, then Nicole at the request of Geneviève Bujold, a Canadian film actress originally cast to play the part. Both creators and fellow actors had a lot of concerns about Bujold, both because of the punishing pace of TV production and because her performance on set was lacking. She eventually quit after just two days of filming (any comparisons to recent Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom are purely coincidental) and was replaced with Mulgrew – much to the relief of the rest of the cast, who felt they had finally come together as a community under her leadership (nice bit of unintentional metatextuality there!) Much as VGR is criticised, it is important to reflect that it could have been a lot worse.
Janeway being the first female Star Trek protagonist was also much-reported by the media at the time, both in the US and UK (and elsewhere), many of whom thought she was supposed to be the first female captain in-universe, which annoyed us hardcore fans no end. Anyway, she recruits Paris as an ‘observer’ to help her ship navigate the Badlands and look for the Maquis and Tuvok, who’s her friend and subordinate – though Paris insists he’s the best pilot she could have. Paris travels to Deep Space Nine on a shuttle to meet Janeway’s ship, the USS Voyager, which is docked there. The link to DS9 – Quark also briefly appears – was a nice way of sending off the new show, just as TNG had helped send off DS9.
We learn that Voyager is Intrepid-class (not Nova-class) and some of its isolinear computers have been replaced by bio-neural gel packs, reflecting recent interest in biomimetic technology in reality. Less compellingly, the ship is also said to have a ‘standard cruise velocity’ (not even maximum speed) of Warp 9.975, which both shows the limitations of the logarithmic warp scale and makes it feel like this bit was written by me when I was six. I was ten when ‘Caretaker’ actually came out and even then knew those sorts of inflated numbers sound ridiculous. Needless to say, in its long voyage home where speed is essential, Voyager never actually goes that fast. As a design, the ship nicely captures the same aesthetic of TNG while still looking distinct from the much larger Enterprise-D. The working design gave it ridiculous sled-looking warp nacelles and a sharp triangular hull, and I’m glad that they switched late in the day to the design we got, even if the ‘small equals advanced’ nacelles are also bit of an acquired taste. The nacelles also tilt up when it goes to warp, for the very important reason of looking cool, I mean according to supplementary material it’s to get around that warp-speed limit polluting subspace thing that we mentioned once in one TNG episode about environmentalism and then decided to forget about. (As I said at the time – this metaphor for climate change is almost too good).
Paris meets the eager young ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) and rescues him from one of Quark’s schemes – the two rapidly become best friends, and their relationship is a go-to social framing for early VGR episodes. Don’t get used to the rest of the crew, though, because Voyager blunders into the same swirly thing in the Badlands and finds itself flung 70,000 light-years across the galaxy, with several members of the crew dead from the experience – including Commander Forgettable the first officer, the chief engineer, the entire medical staff, and more poignantly, the Betazoid officer who piloted Paris’ shuttle and flirted with him a few minutes ago.
There’s a nice sequence where engineer Carey and the remaining staff manage to seal up a warp core microfracture before it blows. Desperate without medical staff, they turn to the Emergency Medical Hologram or EMH, one of VGR’s breakout ideas. Robert Picardo, who’d had some other science fiction roles but was new to Star Trek, originally auditioned for the role of Neelix (more on him later) but was eventually persuaded to take the role of the character then called ‘Doc Zimmerman’ as the creators expected him to take on that name. (In the end, he was just The Doctor, insert your own Doctor Who joke here). Treated as some emergency stopgap measure whom real medics dislike (there’s a good bit in “First Contact” where the Enterprise-E’s own EMH, also played by Picardo, is dismissively used by Beverly Crusher as a barrier to slow down the Borg), VGR’s EMH grows as a character to show he is capable of more than just his programming, like Data before him. But the character is also often snippy and know-it-all, which Picardo excels at playing. Incidentally, those paying attention at home may have noticed that the cast includes Robert Beltran, Robert Duncan McNeill and now Robert Picardo. Apparently they went by Robert, Robbie and Bob respectively on set to avoid endlessly confusing the directors.
The crew discover they have been transported over 70,000 light-years to the Delta Quadrant, on the other side of the galaxy (which had only previously been mentioned a couple of times in Star Trek, and in fanon was thought to be the home of the Borg, but this was not confirmed until “First Contact”). Both Voyager and ‘the Maquis ship’ (unnamed) find themselves scanned and their crews transported to a mysterious space station, sorry, ‘array’. (‘Array’ is one of those words, like ‘probe’, that 1990s-2000s Star Trek writers think is way more profound-sounding than it is). Inside the array they’re plunged into an image of a southern U.S. farm including a guy playing the banjo, because it is absolutely compulsory that all Star Trek pilots include something random and preferably Americana like that (the postatomic horror court in “Encounter at Farpoint”, the baseball vision in “Emissary”, the farmer shooting the Klingon in “Broken Bow”, etc. etc). It turns out that scene was entirely pointless, because the crew are then immediately knocked out and subject to genetic experimentation before being returned to their ships.
The two crews agree to team up, with one member from each still missing and not returned (Harry Kim from Voyager, B’Elanna Torres from the Maquis ship). Chakotay faces off with Janeway and is angry to learn that Tuvok was a spy and that Paris is on board, but they agree to work together. Janeway returns to the array to attempt to get answers out of the old guy with a banjo, who vaguely says they don’t have what he needs and he is trying to repay a debt that never can be, before sending them away again. Meanwhile, the array has been sending pulses of energy towards a nearby planet, and they are accelerating. We see Torres and Kim waking up in an underground city on the planet, initially with mutual suspicion, but Torres agrees to work with Kim, initially just calling him ‘Starfleet’ (a nickname which didn’t last). On Voyager, Janeway is pensive about the loss of Kim, who she barely knows, and incautiously promises to get everyone home.
On the way to the planet to investigate, the Maquis ship and Voyager encounter a debris field including a small ship whose pilot warns them off. And this is where the show starts to go downhill. It’s not entirely clear exactly what went so badly with the conception of the character Neelix (initially called Felux or Felox – a name reused for Phlox in Enterprise) because Ethan Philips is a good actor and had previously worked in Star Trek, but for many viewers Neelix would be a primary reason for disliking VGR. He was conceived as a local guide character with some dodgy connections, and I feel the problem could be adequately summarised as ‘they wanted Lando Calrissian and they got Jar Jar Binks’. Anyway, Neelix is impressed that the crew has access to unlimited water – in this part of the Delta Quadrant nobody has discovered the transporter or replicator, so this isn’t a post-scarcity scenario like the Federation. (Neelix also encounters the stiff Tuvok and they try to set up an odd-couple relationship, with him mistaking his race for his name and referring to him as ‘Mr Vulcan’, a nickname which did last).
By this point we are in part 2 of the pilot (when it was later cut into two) and the writers had already come to the (accurate) conclusion that they were having trouble getting a handle on things. Jeri Taylor in particular was concerned that they could not coherently come up with a moral issue for the crew to make a decision on. At one point this was conceived as the crews making a decision of whether to stay on a planet or try to make the journey home, and about Starfleet values – a little of that did survive into the final script. The ‘Crips and Bloods’ aliens were also imagined as warring gangs where our crew teams up with one of them, an idea that was dropped – which makes the Kazon (as they became) feel not only superfluous to the plot, but also actively negative as they still remain the origins of the final moral dilemma. But let’s get back to the final version.
In a scene which left shadows of silliness across the whole series, Neelix suggests going to the Kazon for information. Specifically, the Kazon-Ogla, as there are multiple feuding Kazon ‘sects’ (a legacy of the ‘gangs’ from the early script planning) but we only get to see that one in the final script, making it feel a bit pointless. The Kazon definitely lack something as an antagonist force, although this is still in the era of Star Trek with good VFX and set design people who gave them a unique ship architectural style (with a forward keel thing) which does help the Delta Quadrant feel different. Anyway, Neelix plans to trade Voyager’s water to the Kazon (I get the whole no-replicators thing, but if you have space travel surely you can just get water from comets?) but opens his big mouth and makes the mistake that leaves the crew stuck in the Delta Quadrant, but few people seem to point this out. He tells the Kazon leader, Maje Jabin, that the Federation ‘has technology that can make water out of thin air’. Unsurprisingly, the suspicious Jabin now doesn’t merely want containers of water if he could get this technology, and from that point forward, every Kazon the crew encounters tries to steal that tech. Nice going, Neelix.
So that encounter ends badly, with the crew only learning that the Ocampa (the short-lived ‘Mayfly’ aliens) live underground – which Jabin just gives away, there wasn’t even a need for a negotiation – and the crew rescues an escaped Ocampa named Kes, a rebel who sought a way out of the city to live on the surface. (Jennifer Lien basically just regurgitates the character description from the script notes and then we rarely go back to that). Meanwhile in the underground city, Torres and Kim are suffering from aftereffects of the genetic testing inflicted by the alien banjo player, or ‘the Caretaker’ (title drop) as the Ocampa call him. Others (from earlier abducted ships?) have previously been sent to the city suffering from similar effects, and they all died. However, with Kes’ help, the crew are able to rescue and treat Kim and Torres.
At this point the script starts getting even less coherent. We learn that the Caretaker’s energy pulses allow the Ocampa city to survive and he has accelerated them, giving them enough energy for five years – he then switches to a weapon and fires on the city to seal it off from the Kazon. As Janeway eventually learns, the Caretaker and his female companion (who got bored and left to provide a sequel hook/get out clause if the showrunners wanted to return to the Alpha Quadrant early) were two members of a powerful exploring species who accidentally desertified the Ocampa homeworld. Ever since, he has been acting to keep them alive as a penance, but now he is dying. Meanwhile, the Kazon have shown up (again, nice going, Neelix) and hope to steal the Caretaker’s technology when he dies. The Caretaker sees the Ocampa as children but, as Janeway says, children have to grow up.
It’s at this stage that we get the attempted moral dilemma, and it makes no sense whatsoever and overshadows the entire rest of the series. It is pitched as ‘Voyager could return home using the Caretaker’s technology, but then the array would fall into the Kazon’s hands and the Ocampa would get conquered, so we must destroy the array according to the Caretaker’s wishes’. The most frequently-made criticism of this is that they could just set a time bomb, or have one volunteer stay behind to blow up the array. However, more obviously, exactly what is gained by blowing up the array? As Janeway just said, the Ocampa only have five years before they (presumably) either starve to death or have to come to the surface – and the Kazon could just conquer them then anyway. As the sort of moral dilemma that’s meant to test Starfleet values, they could have done better – almost anything would have been better. The fact that the Kazon just sort of flap loose as a factor here is clearly an artefact of the fact that there were originally supposed to be two or three Kazon sects in the episode, and the crew might have to side with one against another, perhaps even bring new crew members on board from them. Or why not feature other displaced ships, such as those from an antagonist Alpha Quadrant race like the Cardassians? You could have a setup where the Caretaker’s array can be used to EITHER transport the Ocampa planet away from the Kazon to a safe place OR send Voyager home. Again, literally anything would be better.
But no. Chakotay smashes the Maquis ship into a big Kazon ship so the VFX guys can put that model back in the box, there’s a bit of a nod to him vs Paris but it goes nowhere, Voyager blows up the array with ‘tricobalt devices’ (which we never see before or since) and the Kazon tell Janeway she’s made an enemy today. In fact, the Ogla sect appear in precisely one other episode, and are mentioned twice more. Good going with the arc antagonists, lads.
Janeway tells the crew it’ll take 75 years to get home, but they’ll do it, as one crew, a Starfleet crew. Chakotay, Torres and the other Maquis join the crew to replace VGR’s lost personnel, all wearing the exact same Starfleet uniforms (glad you thought it was worth using replicator power for those when you’re trapped in the Delta Quadrant) but with slightly different rank insignia so the viewers at home can tell the difference. A recurring theme in later VGR seasons is writers hinting at how certain aspects could’ve been done better, and one example is that much later, Reg Barclay has a holographic simulation of Voyager based on his own incomplete understanding, and the Maquis crew members still wear their old clothes. Commenters on the SLP forums have also suggested that a good compromise would be for the Maquis crew to get uniforms in a big symbolic moment at the end of season 2 after they have been battle-tested together, or that sort of thing. Also Tom Paris has a regular Starfleet insignia even though he had also been demobbed, because shut up.
Some have suggested that “Caretaker” is the most complete or understandable of the Star Trek pilots, which, as you can see, I do not agree with. Its own flaws were not helped by the first few episodes that followed it, which really showed that the showrunners had run out of ideas and were not embracing the possibilities of the new setting (mostly). This is not to say that VGR had no good ideas or episodes, far from it. For a start, it does the Mirror Universe better than any other Star Trek series – i.e. it doesn’t have a Mirror Universe episode. (Less snarkily, the episode “Living Witness” does the concept of the Mirror Universe far better and more realistically – and in a way relevant for AH no less!). However, like most Star Trek series, good episodes were a bit thin on the ground in the first couple of seasons. Next time, we’ll look at those.
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.