Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Classics: Voyager 1:1 - Caretaker

Overall Rating: 6.5

As an opening to a new series, this pilot felt a bit too much like an ordinary episode and not quite enough like something special.  It did open up a number of brilliant possibilities for the show's future, but, looking back on it now, this feels more tragic than it should.

Plot Synopsis:

A full description can be found at Memory Alpha - the fan reaction is discussed there as well.  As noted above, most Trek fans reacted with muted optimism, though a fierce debate was sparked over the plot point which officially stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant.  We all wanted to love Voyager...those were the days...

The Skinny:

I knew we were off to a bad start when we got a really cheesy text message from the producers explaining the Maquis while retarded bombastic battle music played for evidently no reason.  The battle having then commenced, the writers demonstrated no understanding of battle tactics with their spectacularly simple evasive maneuvers and the Cardassians stupidly flying right into a really obvious plasma storm.  Incidentally...what the heck does it mean to say "plasma storm density increasing by 14%" while flying toward one particular plasma storm?  Voyager's writers never were very good at technobabble...and it began on day one.  But that's a minor problem.  I will not focus on technobabble blunders and such in these reviews...it's a known problem and not one I am prepared to spend my life chronically.  I will, however, call attention to failures in logic that make plots fall apart.  Such as why this massive displacement wave used by the caretaker array to scoop up ships and move them 75,000 light years away for experiments only appears in a region of extreme plasma turbulence when our ships can't even use their sensors or (worse) warp drives?  :)  Or why the crew of Voyager can talk to their away team in the Ocampan city when their sensors can't even see that said city exists.  FAIL, guys...FAIL.

Anyway...the bigger problem with the pilot is the series of character archetypes they created to populate their show.  DS9 had some of this, but quickly worked to expand the roles of characters and make use of their natural conflicts.  On Voyager, we had some very basic models:

  • Captain Janeway: Fiercely principled (sometimes to a fault) Starfleet captain who believes in tough love to bring back lost causes (supposedly like Tom Parris and Chakotay).  What else there is to know about her?  Who can say...the blueprint never evolved much.  I actually rather liked the Janeway we met in this pilot...the one who regretted not knowing her crew very well and was willing to compromise her principles if she felt that doing so was more moral than not.  That Captain never materialized outside the pilot, however.
  • Chakotay: one name will do.  Some kind of Native American stereotype who, of course, favors the Maquis because they are fighting a similar battle to the one his ancestor fought against evil white Europeans, not that any of that is ever really explored.  The Chakotay we met in the pilot was hot-headed, passionate and witty.  What happened to THAT version?
  • Tom Parris: Nick Locarno (TNG fame) with a different name and crime.  Washed out of the fleet after pilot error and subsequent cover-up and joined the Maquis (rather than getting a pilot killed doing an illegal maneuver and attempting to cover it up after the fact...SEE...it's TOTALLY DIFFERENT!).  Parris is theoretically supposed to be a hard-to-contain ladies man with a heart of gold buried under layers of cynicism who Janeway will remake into a model officer.  The hatred of him on both sides of the Starfleet/Maquis divide disappears in about two episodes, and his edgy "my life sucks so I look out for me" attitude disappears before the first episode even ends.
  • B'Elanna Torres: A brash half Klingon who struggles to control her Klingon temper but is an engineering genius (whose engineering skills seem to be portrayed rather pathetically most of the time...but this is the failure of the writers to know anything about science fiction, not a character flaw).
  • Tuvok: The duty Vulcan guy and chief of security working undercover for Janeway to infiltrate the Maquis.  In the FIRST EPISODE, he claims that Vulcans do not worry.  This is ludicrous and demonstrates a total lack of knowledge about Vulcan culture.  Vulcans have all of the same emotions that humans do...they just do not express them actively and work to suppress their power to influence decisions.  We saw this with Spock, T'Pol (yes...even her!) and Sarek...we know it to be true.
  • The Doctor: An EMH hologram with sentience...a medical wizard with no bedside manner and very limited social skill who grows to become a multifaceted fully realized person and whose holographic nature will be used with great effect to explore issues ranging from slavery to artificial intelligence.
  • Kes: An Ocampan child of one from a race that becomes fully grown at one, and dies at nine years of age...a mysterious race that has been coddled into an infantile and pointless life by the Caretaker but with mental capabilities beyond our understanding.
  • Neelix: The comedy relief...a character with no knowledge of human social pleasantries, but a big heart who tries too hard and frequently puts himself in a position to fail due to lack of ability...but who will theoretically learn to become a valuable member of the crew (their execution on this score is iffy at best)
  • Harry Kim: The fresh-faced young ensign...eager to please and socially inept, he seeks role models and finds the affable Nick Locarno...er...Tom Parris (forgive me...they're the same character and played by the same actor) to be like a big brother.  He's definitely Janeway's bitch for most of the show due to his over-eagerness.
The point is...they had starting templates that COULD have worked and been interesting to explore, for the most part, but they didn't have enough historical thought going into what made these people tick and had no clue at all where they wanted those characters to go (except perhaps The Doctor and, later, Seven of Nine...is it any wonder that those two were the best utilized of the group?).  Bottom line...while the DS9 writers had a clear idea of what the conflicts were going to be for each of the characters for the first year or two...the Voyager writers either didn't have such a concept or weren't brave enough to stick with it after some older Trek fans poo-pooed DS9's darker tone.

With the intro comments about the characterization out of the way...let's move to comments about the plot of this pilot.  And what a plot it is...right up to the part where it makes no freakin' sense.  But we'll get to the big "WTF" later.  Let's start with little things like:
  • Where did the Caretaker get its inane idea for a welcoming environment for the Voyager crew when they arrived?  They say he scanned their computer and chose a comfortable waiting room for them.  Um...odd choice from a civilization that long ago abandoned country cooking for food replicators.  Maybe we can blame Janeway...she is from Iowa, after all.
  • What exactly did it hope to accomplish by mating with people?  Why not simply TEACH someone how to run the array?
  • Why would Harry Kim instantly decide that he wubs Tom without even knowing the guy?
  • Why did they bother with the crabby CMO if he was just going to die two scenes later anyway?
  • How exactly is it evolutionarily feasible for an Ocampan civilization to be built around life that matures and dies in nine years?  How can something that lives for such a short period of time ever develop sentience??
  • And just how the flying hell did a race of warriors with interstellar travel capabilities and very powerful weapons develop and thrive when it's organized around chaotic African-like tribes constantly at war with each other in a region of space without much water or food?  If the Kazon were really supposed to be a long-term threat to Voyager, shouldn't they have come up with a race that, rather than struggling for survival in a harsh environment, was...um...actually powerful?
  • And finally...and here's the BIG one...how in the HELL does Janeway's decision to forego the Prime Directive make sense here?  Blowing up the array is the same thing as making a decision about who lives and who dies...going home is removing yourself from the natural progress of both species.  But somehow...going home is seen as a moral violation?  Are the Kazon evil because they have bigger guns than the Ocampa?  We know, later, that the Kazon are, in fact, brutal and aggressive, but at this point, all we know is that they're desperate for water and the Ocampa have it bogarted.  But that isn't even the real problem with this plot.  Voyager is a major source of trouble in the Delta Quadrant whether they use the array to get home or not, but it's a false dichotomy anyway.  Why couldn't they simply leave ONE person behind to blow it up after they got home??  Like...say...THE GIRL WHO BELONGS ON OCAMPA ANYWAY?!?!

Let's Go With It!

Let's go with this silly notion that the Kazon are, at the same time, powerful and possessing military supremacy in this entire part of space and desperately short on basic things like water and food.  Could we maybe put three seconds worth of thought into how to make those seemingly disparate things add up?  How about...oh...noticing the fact that the Ocampan home world was populated by intelligent beings who had water and food and technology and had it wiped out by the Caretaker?  Maybe the Caretaker arrived in this part of space, fucked up all of the Kazon worlds, including Ocampa, and chose to protect the Ocampans because the Kazon hierarchy was warlike and belligerent while the Ocampans were friendly?  Heck...maybe the Kazon CAUSED the disaster in the first place by drawing the Caretaker into a firefight in self-defense and his energy signature became too strong?  Give us SOMETHING to work with here, guys!

Let's go with the bizarre idea that the Ocampans could have evolved this far and yet lived only 9 years.  Maybe this is a recent biological development?  Maybe they live such short lives because the Caretaker has sped up their evolution in order to save them before his demise?  Wouldn't that have been cool to find out?

There's no getting around the plot hole involving why the Caretaker didn't simply teach the Ocampans how to use his technology without an explanation like...the tech is keyed to his unique biochemistry (a la the Ancients on Stargate)...of course if you do that, the Kazon can't use the array either...but perhaps if they can't use the array and neither can Voyager...they could have begun their journey in the Delta Quadrant on a note that didn't make Janeway look abjectly evil in her self-congratulatory "principled" decision to blow the damned thing up and maroon her crew to save the Ocampans.  We could simply have been screwed naturally.  Without the need for obnoxious and nonsensical "I have spoken for us all!" decisionmaking from the Captain.  Of course, Tuvok thinks he can figure out the array in A FEW HOURS...so the writers didn't picture this logic...meaning we can't even give them the benefit of the doubt.

They were close here...close to an interesting plot that would have stranded them in a painful way and made them an enemy (the Kazon - who could have seen Voyager blow up the array after it became unusable to anyway as an aggressive act, never believing Janeway's story about it being useless to the Kazon and the Federation alike.  Or we could have NOT blown up the array and STILL made an enemy in the Kazon by refusing to share our technology.  Yes?


It's gonna be a long seven seasons.

Writing: 6.0

Plot holes galore and some seriously cheesy cliched writing to introduce us to the character archetypes...but all of this does go along with a relatively engaging flow and there are charming moments that leave you with hope for the future.

Acting: 7.5

Kate Mulgrew and Ethan Phillips do particularly well here...most of the regulars do a credible ...even the less popular folks.  Kim, Tuvok and Chakotay rarely get to emote in the rest of the franchise, but here, they show that they are capable of it.

Message: 6.0

The final decision makes no sense, but Janeway.  Has.  Spoken!!  I get that she was trying to protect the lives of the Ocampans, but...she JUST GOT DONE making a speech about how the Ocampans should learn to care for themselves!  A speech I really liked.  They were taken here against their will...they would do less harm to the natural progress of these peoples by finding a way to get back home than by sticking around to fight the Kazon for the next three years.  But whatever.  Any good feelings I had when Janeway talked about personal responsibility and hardship breeding progress were blown up when she acted like she believed the opposite.

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