By Tom Anderson
In this rundown of AH factors in Star Trek (and an overview of the franchise in general) we’ve seen that a pattern developed in The Next Generation (TNG) and Deep Space Nine (DS9) whereby a shaky start to the series would eventually be eclipsed by an increase in quality in the third and fourth seasons. Indeed, both TNG and DS9 had important multi-part episodes bridging (if less directly in DS9’s case) the third and fourth seasons with dramatic, big-budget stories that changed the status quo of those shows. As we’ll see, the same does apply to Star Trek: Voyager (VGR) if, perhaps, not quite always in the same way.
One thing that fans had speculated about, ever since VGR was first announced as being set in the Delta Quadrant, was whether the Borg would eventually feature. In fact, back in 1993, Michael Okuda had suggested the Delta Quadrant for VGR’s setting to Rick Berman precisely because it had been unofficially established that the Borg were from there. A background graphic by Okuda in the TNG episode “Descent” indicated the Borg were from the Delta Quadrant; however, it was not spoken in dialogue until “Star Trek: First Contact”. Once this had been firmly made clear, fans eagerly awaited the first appearance of the Borg in VGR.
At first, the show actually showed commendable restraint in this, not featuring the Borg at all in its first two seasons, and then slowly introducing them over the space of the third season. Ultimately, the Borg would be such a winner for VGR that they would end up being overused in later seasons, hence jokes like the one in the title. (Or, on the Nitcentral forum, I recall someone doing the Monty Python ‘Spam’ sketch but with the VGR writers saying ‘you can have temporal anomaly with Borg, causality loop with Borg, Harry Kim dies with Borg, Borg with Borg…’ Snarking aside, though, the Borg link was also responsible for some of the genuinely best stories and concepts in the show and likely saved it from early cancellation. In this article I’ll cover seasons 3 and 4 of VGR and how the Borg changed it.
As previously discussed, season 3 opens with the conclusion of “Basics”, in which the crew get the ship back, Seska rather anticlimactically dies, and Voyager leaves Kazon space altogether. The Kazon and Vidiians would henceforth only appear in flashbacks and time-travel episodes explicitly calling back to early VGR. Speaking of time travel, we then get one of two special crossover episodes celebrating the 30th anniversary of Star Trek (the other being DS9’s “Trials and Tribble-ations”), “Flashback”, in which a similar nebula in the Delta Quadrant gives Tuvok a traumatic flashback to events from many years ago – the opening of Star Trek VI. It turns out that Tuvok served under Captain Sulu on the USS Excelsior and witnessed the explosion of Praxis and the events of the film. He ended up becoming disenchanted with Starfleet and leaving the organisation for many years, only to rejoin it (hence his relatively low rank compared to his time in service). This was a great concept (also used in the Double Helix books I’ve mentioned and the first Captain's Table book); Tim Russ actually played many minor characters before Tuvok, and it’s a shame this wasn’t foreseen as he plays a bridge office on the Enterprise-B in “Generations” in the same era, but the character is visibly human rather than Vulcan.
Anyway, Janeway mind-melds with Tuvok and relives his memories with him as a ghostly figure only he can see. However, the memory starts to break down and Sulu and the others can see Janeway – with new footage recorded by George Takei and Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand). It turns out all of this was caused by Tuvok getting infected by a mind parasite when he helped one of the Excelsior bridge officers who was killed in the battle with General Chang. Compared to “Trials and Tribble-ations”, it’s less fun and more serious in style; whereas the DS9 crew could come across as a bit mocking towards elements of the sixties show, instead here we have Janeway pooh-poohing the frontier attitude of Kirk and Sulu, even though she does the same herself in the Delta Quadrant. However, the fact that it includes interactivity rather than just stock footage makes a big difference, and led to some long-running fan demands for a spinoff show starring Takei and the Excelsior, which came to naught in the end.
This is followed by “The Chute”, where Harry Kim and Tom Paris try to escape an alien prison only to find it’s a space station; “The Swarm”, which has a really interesting alien race concept (a mass of tiny ships latching on and draining energy) which is never seen again, and also the Doctor has a breakdown from being on so long which is also never mentioned again; and “False Profits”. This was another unintentional sequel hook from TNG which fans had been looking forward to – in the TNG episode “The Price”, two Ferengi had been lost in the Delta Quadrant thanks to the unstable Barzan wormhole. It turns out they exploited a less advanced world they found there, and now the VGR crew have to eject them without violating the Prime Directive. And, of course, they’re interested in using the Barzan wormhole to get home themselves. Amusingly, one approach they take is to have Neelix put in Ferengi makeup and pose as a Ferengi envoy, when Ethan Philips previously played a Ferengi. In the end, of course, the Ferengi end up falling into the wormhole but no hope for Voyager using it.
“Remember” and “Sacred Ground” are two fairly forgettable episodes with quite generic plots, the only memorable part being that the latter involves Janeway being forced to confront her own reliance on the scientific method when a crisis may be spiritual. This is followed up by a time-travel extravaganza, “Future’s End”. Voyager encounters a future Starfleet ship from the 29th century (because Star Trek writers have no sense of scale and like big round numbers – in this case ‘500 years in the future’). The Aeon is a small timeship commanded by a Captain Braxton, he informs them that in the future, the Solar System has been destroyed by a huge explosion and traces of Voyager’s hull were found in the debris. Therefore, obviously he must destroy them now (evidently by the 29th century everyone has forgotten about predestination paradoxes). Of course, the Voyager crew manage to beat him despite being 500 years less advanced, and inadvertently cause a temporal rift that sends them both back to Earth – but the Aeon to 1967 and Voyager to 1996 (which, BY PURE COINCIDENCE, is when this episode was filmed).
This episode is mostly more fun than serious, though the stakes are high. The crashed Aeon was found by a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs stand-in named Henry Starling, who reverse-engineered it and used it to build a dominating 90s tech company called Chronowerx (whose logo is the 29th century Starfleet delta). Almost thirty years later, the Voyager crew go to California (because Star Trek must remind us that contemporary California sucks at least once a decade or so) and find Braxton is a homeless drifter who explains what happened. Neelix enjoys watching every intercepted TV channel at once while Harry Kim and Tom Paris chase down a SETI observer called Rain Robinson who spotted Voyager in orbit and is now on Starling’s hitlist. (This leads to some amusing scenes because Paris knows ‘the 20th century’, but his expertise is in the 1950s, so he attributes the baddies to being Soviets – when Robinson points out the USSR has fallen, he mutters ‘That’s just what they want you to think’. Well, in hindsight…)
Starling also attacks Voyager with a computer weapon, as his tech is ultimately derived from the same Starfleet sources, and steals the Doctor’s programme – equipping him with a 29th century mobile holoemitter which lets him appear anywhere. In a rare status quo change for VGR, he will retain this and gain the freedom to go anywhere moving forward. “Future’s End” really sums up the indecisive way in which Trek (especially on-screen Trek) tries to deal with its future predictions being obsoleted; there is no mention of the Eugenics Wars, which TOS had said had been happening in 1996, but a background image shows the launch of Khan’s SS Botany Bay. (A similar mismatched approach is seen in “Star Trek: Picard”). I suppose the issue is that Star Trek always has to be ‘our future’ to be hopeful, but personally I’d rather make it explicitly AH at this point. Stuff like mentioning Elon Musk in “Discovery” just comes across as cringe-inducing.
Anyway, Starling blasts out of his big dotcom bubble tower with the repaired Aeon and Janeway, being Janeway, manages to blow it up before he can travel further in time. Surprisingly, this somehow fixes everything (don’t pull that thread on whether Chronowerx still exists and if there’s a temporal causality loop in where Starfleet tech comes from) and Braxton shows up again to escort them back, with no memory of all this. (Until he does again when he reappears in a later episode, but never mind). As silly excuses to visit contemporary Earth, I mean, California go, “Future’s End” is a fine addition to the tradition of Star Trek IV and so on.
“Warlord” is another forgettable one where Kes gets mind-controlled by the titular warlord and uses her increasing telepathic abilities. “The Q and the Grey” is an absolutely awful follow-up to “Death Wish” in which the Q Continuum is in civil war over Quinn’s decision to commit suicide in that episode – which Janeway perceives as battles in the US Civil War. OK, fine, like how she saw it as a dead motorway service station in the earlier episode, but... The battles have the real-world impact of causing supernovae, which just coincidentally all seem to be happening in one area of the Delta Quadrant, ahem (maybe one near Romulus just took longer to happen…) Q appears and so does a Q female he has the hots for (“Suzy Q” as the producers called her) who ends up stuck on Voyager. However, she can bring them to the Continuum by driving straight into one of the supernovae(??) and then Paris and co beat the opposing Q army because she’s given them ‘their weapons’ which they see as Civil War rifles (???) All of this makes precisely zero sense, and it ends with Q and the female being the first for a long time to have a child, even though the TNG episode “True Q” had already featured a Q who’d been born recently and raised human. Whoops. Yes, it’s not surprising Picard season 2 decided to pretend all this didn’t happen, isn’t it.
In case we hadn’t had enough stupid science, “Macrocosm” was summed up by one Sky TV continuity announcer I heard as ‘Janeway dons a vest and plays Die Hard with giant viruses’. It’s fun action if you turn your brain off. “Fair Trade” is supposed to be about them reaching the edge of Neelix’s knowledge and him feeling useless, which could be an interesting plot but isn’t, of course at the end of season 7 they’d forget this and find some more Talaxians decades of travel away with no explanation. “Alter Ego” is a plot that’s been done at least twice before in TNG and DS9 so no further discussion required. “Coda” has Janeway supposedly trapped in a time-loop where every cycle ends with her death, including one where her shuttle was attacked by Vidiians and the Doctor euthanises her because she has the phage. Wait, didn’t I say earlier the Vidiians no longer appeared? Well I was right, because it’s all an illusion done by malevolent energy being of the week #32, who’s posing as her father and a psychopomp to guide her to the afterlife – but actually just wants to feed on her. Very creepy and Outer Limits.
“Blood Fever” is a stupid episode in which Vulcan crew member Vorik (who was introduced on TNG as Taurik but then they absurdly couldn’t get the rights to the name) gets pon farr and goes after B’Elanna Torres, but it’s OK because they fight each other and then it’s fine because reasons. (VGR would, naturally, contradict this when Tuvok suffers from pon farr in a latter episode, where Paris makes a hologram of Tuvok’s wife – kind of weird, Tom – but it doesn’t work for Vorik in this episode. I mean they made a hologram of another Vulcan woman for Vorik to sleep with, not Tuvok’s wi – let’s move on). However, the fact that this episode is terrible actually weirdly helps its final reveal have impact. We are used to this being get another VGR filler episode, with a background subplot involving an alien attack on some other aliens who feature in the episode, fine…and then right at the end, Janeway gets called down because the crew have discovered the body of one of the attackers. A Borg.
This leads into the Borg’s first true appearance in VGR in the following episode, “Unity”. Unfortunately, this plot was spoiled for me by the dreaded Teletext Star Trek Rumours Page, whose headline at one point was CHAKOTAY TO BE ASSIMILATED BY THE BORG. The plot is actually quite clever and subtle, not at all the crash bang wallop use of the Borg VGR would later become infamous for. Chakotay encounters two groups of feuding people on a planet while, separately, Voyager finds a dead Borg cube that was disabled in a space storm thingy. It turns out the people are former Borg drones who escaped the collective when the cube was disabled. They include both Alpha and Delta Quadrant races, with some humans supposedly assimilated at the Battle of Wolf 359 (that ship was destroyed, but then, Picard raised that about the Queen surviving in “First Contact”, so who knows). The former Borg are now feuding amongst themselves and seek to reactivate their neural link from the dead cube to return their old sense of unity – which they do, but destroy the cube before it can turn on Voyager. The plot was inspired, allegedly, by discontent in some former Soviet nations after the fall of Communism. Either way, it’s a good original way to bring the Borg in, and Chakotay does end up being assimilated – well, slightly – which has long-term plot consequences.
“Darkling” and “Rise” are two more forgettable episodes, except that the second unusually features a space elevator (which usually don’t arise in Star Trek because of transporter technology). “Favourite Son” is a story that somehow mysteriously arrived in the 1990s from the 1950s or 1930s, where Kim is adopted by a planet of nearly all women that want to bonk him and, amazingly, has a dark secret. What a twist. “Before and After”, by contrast, has plenty of interest from an AH or time travel angle. Set in 2379 (‘now’ in the series is 2373) Kes has reached the end of her short natural lifespan and is now dying. The Doctor (who has taken the name Dr Van Gogh and has hair) uses a biotemporal chamber to try to de-age her, but ends up sending her back in time. We get glimpses of Voyager’s future adventures, in particular a period called the ‘Year of Hell’ where the ship was repeatedly attacked by a race called the Krenim and damaged. The Krenim use chronoton torpedoes which can penetrate shields by time-phasing out and in of ‘now’, and Kes had to defuse one that lodged in the hull. In the process, she was contaminated with chronoton particles, hence why she reacted to the chamber in that way.
The episode is indecisive in whether it’s seriously trying to show the future of the show or not. There are several elements that seem very unlikely would ever have been used – e.g. Janeway is killed during the Year of Hell and Chakotay becomes captain, with Tuvok as first officer. The Doctor getting hair and calling himself first Mozart and then Van Gogh also feels like more of a future-imperfect spoof. However, the episode was building up to the Year of Hell storyline actually happening, which was originally planned for the end of season 3 but ended up being delayed to season 4. Most obviously, the episode is Kes-centric and Jennifer Lien would end up departing the show at the start of season 4, but that hadn’t been decided yet, making it unclear. One TOTALLY NOT WEIRD OR CREEPY element to this is that Tom Paris marries Kes, they have a daughter Linnis, she ages to adulthood within four years and then marries Harry Kim, and they have a son Andrew, making Kes a grandmother and Tom Harry’s father-in-law. Even the Hapsburgs would probably have questions. Anyway, Kes is sent ever further back in time to when she first joined the ship with Neelix, then to her own birth, but it’s all resolved and everything is fine.
In “Real Life” the Doctor creates his own holodeck family, but makes them too perfect and Tom has other ideas about making things more realistic. “Distant Origin” is somewhat similar to the TOS novel “First Frontier” but a lot stupider – an advanced race called the Voth turn out to be descended from Earth dinosaurs, not because they were taken from Earth by Preservers or whatever, but just left the planet in a fleet of spaceships because they were already an advanced race we have obviously discovered no archaeological trace of. Also they don’t seem that much more advanced to say they already had space travel 65 million years ago. Anyway it’s just an excuse to do the Things Galileo Didn’t Actually Say Or Do plot about science vs faith and the nature of truth, with the usual irony that it’s based on a baseless legend of what Galileo supposedly did rather than what he actually did. The Very Clever Irony is that in this case the pro-science side is saying evolution is wrong and the Voth didn’t evolve in the Delta Quadrant, you see. Stargate SG-1, which I’ll probably cover at some point in the future, acquired a reputation for similar plot ideas to contemporaneous Star Trek and did this idea way more cleverly and less ‘look, dinosaurs!’ in “New Ground”. Also this episode does the usual nonsense with misunderstanding what evolution is by having the crew ‘simulate the future evolution of dinosaurs’ on the holodeck – with no new information, mind you, so anyone back on Earth could’ve done this at any time – and ending up with a Voth. I hate to break it to you, lads, but dinosaurs are not Pokémon, their future evolution is not decided by Game Freak ahead of time. You are definitely qualified to do a story about the nature of scientific ‘truth’ vs faith. Ugh, moving on.
“Displaced” is a mystery plot where crew members are swapped with unknown aliens, and of course it turns out the aliens are doing this to take over and dissembling. So whatever you do, never trust anyone claiming to be a needy refugee, kids. Actually the most interesting aspect is that I think this is the first time we see anyone in the Delta Quadrant with any kind of transporter-type technology. “Worst Case Scenario” is yet another ‘holodeck gone awry’ episode, where it turns out Tuvok made an emergency programme to study the prospect of a Maquis revolt early in season 1. This is presented as silly and even offensive by B’Elanna when we see holo-Chakotay leading the revolt and so on, which really illustrates how VGR never made enough of its ‘mixed crew’ concept. Anyway Seska tinkered with the programme before she left because (sound of tumbleweeds) so our heroes have to escape real danger. It’s basically just a slightly superior clip show to save money before the finale.
We then come to that finale, bridging seasons 3 and 4. As a reminder, TNG’s equivalent two-parter was “The Best of Both Worlds”, involving the Borg, high stakes, and is often considered the best episode(s) of the whole show. All of this is also true of VGR’s story, “Scorpion”. Actually in my opinion the biggest misstep in the story is a subtle one in the teaser. We see the Borg, at long last, in all their glory, approaching the camera and giving their ominous spiel about “Existence as you know it is over, your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own, resistance is futile” only for a thrashing beam of orange energy to strike from offscreen and blow them up. As the script says ‘Someone has just beaten the Borg!’ and then it cuts straight to the opening titles. An excellent teaser, but just undermined by the fact that they made it two Borg cubes instead of one. This is the very first time we’ve ever seen more than one Borg cube on-screen at the same time. It would carry way more impact if it was just one cube and was more analogous to the fights in “The Best of Both Worlds” and “First Contact”. They really just got a bit CGI-happy, same as how the Borg from now on have an ominous green glow from inside their ship which, to my mind, looks too ‘generic alien’ and I prefer the way they used to look. But this is nitpicking, it’s still a great opener.
Indeed, Voyager has finally encountered the core territory of the Borg Collective and their biggest test yet. They cannot go around. But they find an area of space with less Borg presence, which Janeway calls the ‘Northwest Passage’ (in the same sort of ‘didn’t think this metaphor through’ logic as calling a ship Icarus, as the Northwest Passage was a fool’s errand that claimed many ships and never existed). However, turns out the reason why there are so few Borg ships is that they’re being destroyed by a new unknown alien presence. Indeed, Voyager gets hurled about in a ‘stampede’ by a group of more than a dozen Borg cubes fleeing them (this would have been a much better first reveal of more than one Borg cube on-screen at once). The new aliens are known only by their Borg designation, Species 8472, and (again, the VFX people getting a bit over-ambitious with their cracking new CGI) reminded a lot of viewers of Babylon 5 Shadows and Vorlon ships. Importantly, their ships are biological living beings that they have symbiotic relationships with. The Borg are unable to assimilate them, and because the Borg learn by assimilating, they cannot adapt or respond to their weapons. (This is a bit of a contradiction of what we saw before, but let’s roll with it).
One of Species 8472 injures Harry Kim and their cells start literally eating him, because their cells have 100 times as much DNA in as human cells. (Another bit of bad science, having a very big genome often implies inefficiency if anything, and I don’t see lungfish – which have a genome 14 times bigger than humans – consuming us or avoiding Borg assimilation). Janeway has an incredibly bold plan – she’ll approach the Borg about an alliance to help fight Species 8472 with Starfleet analytical techniques, which don’t rely on assimilation, in exchange for safe passage through Borg space. Chakotay (who, remember, was assimilated by the Borg) is strongly opposed to this plan. He tells the story of a fox crossing a river with a scorpion on its back, only to be stung halfway – why would the scorpion do that when he’ll drown too – he can’t help it, it’s his nature, just like the Borg. (I had misremembered them misattributing this Aesop-inspired Russian fable to Generic Native American stuff again, but apparently Chakotay just calls it a parable he heard as a child, so OK). Janeway overrules him and proceeds.
What makes Scorpion really excellent, and in my opinion the best Borg story since “The Best of Both Worlds”, is that it puts a lie to the idea that you need the stupid Borg Queen concept from “First Contact” to make the Borg approachable. Instead, we just have the collective voice speaking as in their first appearance; Janeway is beamed aboard a cube and is told “STATE YOUR DEMANDS”. (Unfortunately, VGR would later bring back the Queen concept). The first part ends with a Species 8472 attack and that cube fleeing, towing Voyager in a tractor beam.
The second part opens with the Borg proposing to assimilate Janeway, but she refuses and instead asks them to nominate a speaker as they did with Locutus of Borg. (This is very nicely done – the suggestion comes from Janeway, not the Borg, showing that they normally do not see the need for these things). Their speaker is a drone named Seven of Nine – which should really be ‘Seventh’ according to the terminology previously established, but henceforth they go with this method instead. Seven of Nine, played by Jeri Ryan, would both be inadvertently responsible for Barack Obama’s election as President (see my previous article on this subject) and also become the breakout character who would help keep VGR afloat for another four seasons. Anyway, Seven and a few other drones are transported to Voyager when the Borg blow up their whole cube just to take out a pursuing Species 8472 bioship. The Doctor, meanwhile, has figured out how to alter Borg nanoprobes to kill the alien cells, and uses this to cure Kim. (This is another bit of bad science, albeit a more widespread version, in that the nanoprobes look all metallic and evil – in real life you wouldn’t make a nanite out of metal anymore than you’d make a battleship out of pasta, there is a reason why all the very real nanotechnology your body is naturally made of uses things like amino acid-derived proteins as its basic building blocks). Incidentally, the big rumour was that Kim was going to die and he’d be the character leaving VGR, but that was not to be.
Janeway is injured and in a coma, so Chakotay takes over and breaks the agreement with the Borg according to his own convictions. However, we have one of the best sequences of the episode, where we see distant scenes of Borg cubes being destroyed deep in space, with the collective voice speaking emotionlessly in the background: “SPECIES 8472 HAS PENETRATED MATRIX 0-1-0 GRID NINETEEN. 8 PLANETS DESTROYED; 312 VESSELS DISABLED; 4,000,621 BORG ELIMINATED. WE MUST SEIZE CONTROL OF THE ALPHA QUADRANT VESSEL AND TAKE IT INTO THE ALIEN REALM.” Aside from why would the Borg use the ‘Alpha Quadrant’ terminology, this is one of the best-done examples of the Borg really being presented as an indomitable and unknowable hive mind, as opposed to all the stupid Borg Queen stuff. Seven seizes control of Voyager and uses the main deflector dish (because, as in “The Best of Both Worlds”, it’s always the main deflector dish) to create a quantum singularity and pull them into an interdimensional rift. In the process, Chakotay opens the cargo bay to vacuum to try to stop her, and all the drones except Seven are blown into space.
It turns out this is the origin point of Species 8472, an alternate dimension called ‘fluidic space’ where there is no vacuum, rather gelatinous fluid extends as far as sensors can reach. Janeway recovers and, pissed off, allows Seven to enhance the ship with Borg technology. The crew are able to stop the hostile Species 8472 using torpedoes equipped with the Doctor’s modified nanoprobes, before returning home. In the process, though, Janeway learns that the Borg were the ones to intrude into fluidic space and start the war with Species 8472. When Seven tries to seize control of the ship again, they use Chakotay’s old Borg connection to distract her and then break her off from the collective.
Like “The Best of Both Worlds”, this excellent story continues into a follow-up aftermath episode, “The Gift”. Seven, who was revealed to be human, struggles to adapt to life on the ship and tries to escape, with the Doctor removing many of her implants, stimulating her hair follicles and putting her in a silver catsuit to help with the ratings. Meanwhile, Kes’ psychic abilities are growing so strong they are endangering the ship, so she leaves it and is able to fling Voyager free of Borg space, ten years closer to home. This is the first of several instances in VGR where the ship really does make a substantial jump in her journey back. Of course, the Borg will still reappear in the future. With the departure of Kes and the addition of Seven of Nine, VGR was now set up to start arguably its strongest season.
“Day of Honour” as an episode was already discussed in my article about the titular book series it’s a tie-in to. “Nemesis” (not to be confused with the film) has Chakotay brainwashed by aliens recruiting them into their war. “Revulsion” has the Doctor encounter a hologram from another civilisation, but one who has become obsessive about organic life forms being disgusting – a new take on the robot uprising concept, which we’ll see more of in a later season. “The Raven” follows up on Seven of Nine’s story, as she experiences needs such as eating for the first time in years. She has hallucinations of the titular raven. It turns out her true name is Annika Hansen, and the Raven was her parents’ ship, crashed on a nearby planet – they were some of the first humans to be assimilated by the Borg, and she was a child when it happened. (I have previously mentioned that the character of Seven of Nine feels somewhat influenced by Reannon Bonaventure from Peter David’s earlier novel “Vendetta”, but with a rather happier outcome). This is one reason why she generally sticks to her Borg designation rather than her original human name. This episode also features an antagonist race called the B’omar, who (1) are surprisingly well-developed aesthetics-wise for one-episode random baddies, and (2) have a name suspiciously similar to a Star Wars group, the B’omarr monks. If you think I’m reading too much into this, in a later episode Janeway encounters someone called Inspector Kashyk (Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld) and the season 2 episode “Persistence of Vision” had an alien referred to as a Bothan. Somebody was cribbing names from a Star Wars reference guide.
This is followed by “Scientific Method”, in which Tom and B’Elanna go out with each other and also some hidden aliens test diseases on the crew like lab rats, yet another recycled TNG plot. However, we then finally get to the real “Year of Hell” in a two-part story of that name. This is really quite interesting from an AH discussion point of view, because VGR goes into a dilemma which I find fascinating but isn’t actually discussed as much as it should in AH. 200 years ago (the timescale is hazy) a scientist named Annorax (meant to be a reference to Prof Arronax from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but just sounds like the word ‘anoraks’ to British viewers sadly) developed a temporal weapon that could erase things from history. Exactly how it works is not discussed in detail, but if fired at a geographic focal point in the past it can trigger a change in the earlier timestream (e.g. erasing an entire alien race and civilisation, leaving an uninhabited planet).
Annorax, a patriot for the declining Krenim Imperium, sought to use his invention to eliminate the Rilnar, the Krenim’s greatest foe and one to whom they were losing a war. Annorax was successful, but failed to anticipate that contact with the Rilnar had introduced a crucial antibody to the Krenim genome, with the result that disease devastated the Krenim instead. Annorax tried a second intervention, and this time reversed the disease outbreak but wiped his wife, family and their entire colony from history. Ever since, he has been obsessively trying to recreate what he had in the very beginning, erasing race after race from history (while keeping examples of their art and culture as heirlooms in his timeship – the ship is unaffected, and he and the crew do not age, due to its temporal shielding). Early in the episode, he manages to a 98% restoration of the Imperium, but his home colony and family are still missing, so he persists, a second intervention having unforeseen butterfly effects that smash the Krenim back down to a decaying remnant, then another which brings them back up to 52%, but still without his family…
This is a really interesting take on the classic AH concept sometimes crudely called the ‘national-wank’, in which a time traveller seeks to change history to benefit his own country at the expense of others. A question that’s rarely asked, outside of this story, is what good does it do him to see his flag flying everywhere if the changed history also means every individual person he’s ever known and loved was never born. Indeed, Annorax has now lived long enough that presumably his wife would be dead by now even if he did restore her to the timestream, making it all the more tragic.
So the villain and concept of this story are already compelling even before we consider the framing device. Initially the writers had ambitions to make a full year of the show into a serialised adventure in real time, but Rick Berman rejected this – obviously serialised continuing stories will never catch on in Star Trek… Though disappointed by this, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky instead tried to fit a year’s worth of events into a two-parter, with an on-screen rolling day number and the ship getting gradually more and more damaged by Krenim attacks. “Year of Hell” is therefore one of a few examples of the writers trying to do, on a small scale, what many would have liked VGR to be liked from the start. Annorax’s temporal interventions play a plot role – for example, a Krenim ship is transformed from a pathetic non-opponent to a terrifying battleship that wrecks Voyager and then back again as history is changed repeatedly. The chronoton torpedoes from “Before and After” also reappear and wreak havoc as they are able to penetrate shields. Tuvok is blinded, others are killed or injured and damage accumulates over the days and weeks.
I could discuss this story in more detail, but ultimately Janeway manages to build a coalition of two of the surviving enemy races of the Krenim and attacks Annorax’s ship with makeshift temporal shields that can repel its weapon. In the end Janeway personally pilots the evacuated, badly damaged wreck of Voyager on a ramming course to destroy Annorax’s ship with the pithy one-liner “Time’s. Up.” This scene is so iconic that I’ve noticed a number of casual viewers think Star Trek overuses the concept of ramming, but this is the first time it ever actually appeared on-screen! Anyway, in an unusually heartfelt use of the famous Voyager Reset Button, we then revert to the start of the episode; the explosion of Annorax’s ship erased it from history and reverted all the changes it had made. A strong Krenim warship warns Janeway and her undamaged ship not to cross their space, which she agrees to. We end with Annorax on his home colony (in the past, presumably) seemingly being persuaded to abandon his temporal research by his wife – presumably this is the POD, in AH terms. This two-parter is both one of the best VGR stories made and executed, and also of great relevance for an AH audience, arguably one of the most thoughtful when it comes to speculation about the nature of AH and changed timelines.
Of course we have to follow up that extravaganza with a string of forgettable episodes: “Random Thoughts”, “Concerning Flight” (where Janeway’s Leonardo da Vinci hologram accidentally ends up on another planet with help from the Doctor’s holoemitter – Star Trek has forgotten that da Vinci is supposed to actually be Flint from TOS, of course), “Mortal Coil” in which Neelix dies, is resurrected by Seven’s nanoprobes and then begins to doubt his belief in the afterlife; and “Waking Moments” in which some aliens trap the crew in a dream as a collective unconsciousness, but Chakotay gets them out of it using a lucid dreaming technique that is definitely a real Native American spiritual thing and not something the writers just made up.
After those duds, though, we then get something very unusual for VGR – an actual change to the status quo. In “Message in a Bottle” the crew find an ancient alien communications stations that’s part of a network that reaches all the way back to the Alpha Quadrant. Just one Starfleet vessel, the USS Prometheus, is in range of it, so they beam the Doctor as information there to alert Starfleet to Voyager being lost in the Delta Quadrant. However, once there he discovers that the ship is a new advanced prototype that’s been stolen by the Romulans. He has to work with his replacement, the EMH Mark II, to foil their plot. This episode is great, not least because the Prometheus turns out to have a ‘multi-vector assault mode’ where it splits into three to attack enemy ships from all angles. In the end (and this was a big surprise for regular VGR viewers like me used to the reset button) the Doctor is beamed back to the Delta Quadrant and tells Janeway that Starfleet have been informed of Voyager’s survival. He comes with a message – “You’re no longer alone.” From henceforth, Starfleet will work to try to bring Voyager back home, and we actually see the result of this in later seasons. This felt like a real sea change on par with Seven’s addition to the cast.
Just as surprising, the next episode “Hunters” follows on from this, with a new antagonist race called the Hirogen claiming ownership of the comms network. The Hirogen are somewhat interesting baddies, being similar to the Hunters seen in DS9’s early episode “Captive Pursuit” but better developed, with their culture focusing around hunting increasingly ambitious quarry. Starfleet, meanwhile, is sending letters to the crew from their relatives, leading to all sorts of heartbreak like Janeway learning her boyfriend has moved on and married, and Chakotay Torres finding out about the Dominion destroying the Maquis and killing their friends. (This is all a really well conceived plot idea in my opinion). Unfortunately Voyager ends up destroying the station as a way to take out Hirogen attackers, meaning Paris never got his letter and part of the datastream remained undecrypted. (Roxann Dawson, who played B’Elanna Torres, suggested a good plot idea would have been if part of this had been an order from Starfleet to put the Maquis crew in the brig until further notice, which could then have been a big reveal later). Although it seems the reset button has been pushed, there will be long-term consequences from the brief communication and this won’t be the last time Starfleet is able to get in touch.
The Hirogen plot continues in “Prey”, where a member of Species 8472 left behind when they retreated is hunted by a Hirogen and Seven has mixed feelings. After the controversial side episode “Retrospect” we return to the Hirogen with the two-parter “The Killing Game”, where the Hirogen have taken over the ship and put the mind-controlled crew in various holodeck scenarios from Earth history. The one we mostly see is a French Resistance WW2 programme where Janeway appears to be playing René Artois from ’Allo ‘Allo. Alright, I know Secret Army is a thing but I can’t unsee it. “You are probably wondering why I am stuck in ze Delta Quidrant viz ze fallen Borg drone viz ze big boobies”, etc. In the end the Hirogen are defeated but Janeway gives them holodeck technology so they can work out their hunting impulses by hunting holograms, which as we know, are not real people, just ask the Doctor. (Yes, this comes back to bite her later).
Speaking of French, the episode titled “Vis à Vis” features an alien with an experimental drive who befriends Paris, but it turns out he’s actually controlled by a parasite that steals others’ bodies and swaps them. “The Omega Directive” is another really interesting concept; there’s a molecule out there called Omega which is an ultimate source of power, but can easily also be mishandled and trigger an explosion that destroys the ability to use warp drive. This is so likely to be damaging that Starfleet has a secret directive which overrides even the Prime Directive – any ship that detects Omega being used by an uncontacted alien civilisation must intervene to prevent its use. Despite Voyager’s isolated position, Janeway feels she must act. This is the sort of idea that the early seasons were really crying out for. I don’t even care that the science makes no sense this time.
“Unforgettable” is a Chakotay episode where he has a relationship with a woman from a race who naturally have an ability that means others do not form long-term memories of them, leading him to write it all down afterwards. “Living Witness” deserves discussion, because it’s my go-to example of how to do the Mirror Universe tropes without the nonsensical waste of time that’s the Mirror Universe itself. 700 years in the future, an alien museum has depictions of the deadly attacks of the Warship Voyager with its cruel and sadistic crew. However, when a curator unexpectedly resurrects a backup copy of the Doctor, he provides an inconvenient alternative perspective to these aliens’ historiographic narrative. The episode both lets our writers and cast go crazy with portraying evil versions of the characters (without having to make it realistic because they don’t actually exist), while also making a serious point about re-examining biased history. As usual, Robert Picardo’s acting ability also helps.
This is followed by “Demon”, where the crew go to an inhospitable Class-Y ‘Demon’ planet to obtain fuel, only to find a strange mercury-like life form there, the Silver Blood, which makes copies of members of the crew. Speaking of bad science, the episode was ridiculed for treating deuterium fuel as something rare and precious, which – to be fair – a later episode did try to address and correct. Another later episode in season 5 would be a very interesting follow-up to this story. Also Voyager gets to land on the planet, which does at least happen more often than the Enterprise-D ever separated her saucer.
The penultimate episode “One” has Seven and the Doctor having to run the ship alone as it passes through a nebula which has a deleterious effect on the rest of the crew – who are all relegated to stasis pods, because obviously they have the resources to replicate hundreds of those but can’t make any more torpedoes. Chuck Sonnenburg quipped that the concept of the last human and their hologram companion and everyone in stasis sounds rather familiar to viewers of Red Dwarf. Anyway, Seven is more isolated than ever before and has to struggle with hallucinations and uncertainty from her loneliness, especially when the Doctor’s systems fail as well.
We then conclude the fourth season with “Hope and Fear”, which goes full circle from the beginning. An alien named Arturis comes from a race which the Borg encountered early but have never managed to succeed in assimilating; he does not hold it against Seven because he says his people view the Borg as an impersonal force of nature like a storm. Arturis is a linguistics expert and helps the crew decrypt the encrypted Starfleet message mentioned before. Starfleet have sent an uncrewed ship with an experimental new faster-than-warp ‘quantum slipstream drive’ technology, the USS Dauntless NX-01-A, to rendezvous with the crew and bring them home. Indeed, the ship is found and the crew rejoice, but Janeway grows suspicious. It turns out that Arturis faked the message and the Dauntless is actually his own ship, disguised with holograms. The slipstream drive technology is real, but Arturis’ plan was to trap the crew and hand them over to the Borg. It turns out that the Borg have successfully assimilated his race at last, and Arturis blames Janeway for helping the Borg defeat Species 8472 at the start of the season so they could turn on his race. Fortunately, the crew are able to replicate the slipstream technology on Voyager and pursue the Dauntless, meaning that Janeway and Seven are rescued and only Arturis is left there to accept his fate as he is surrounded by Borg cubes.
The copied slipstream tech lets Voyager make it another 300 light-years closer to home – not a lot but still a third of a year’s worth of journey. The viewer at home may be thinking ‘well surely they could do more with it’ – worry not, for it will show up again in season 5. And also in Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda because plagiarism. One thing that fascinated me about this episode at the time was the fact that the Dauntless has the registry NX-01-A, which perhaps implies that Earth’s first proper warp ship was also called Dauntless with the registry NX-01. This was the first implied appearance of that registry number. Unfortunately, the writers chose to make it Enterprise NX-01 in the series that debuted three years later; it would have avoided a lot of continuity snarls about ‘the first Enterprise. and so on if they’d just called the series Star Trek : Dauntless.
So that is VGR’s third and fourth season. The fourth in particular does represent a tremendous increase in quality and helped ensure the show would make it to seven seasons. However I would also argue that in many ways it was the peak, and VGR never quite managed the consistent heights of TNG or DS9. Regardless, it had made its mark on the Star Trek setting.
Next time, we’ll look at some of the DS9 and VGR tie-in material that had come out in the intervening years.
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.