Star Trek: Voyager’s Enduring Popularity?

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What is it about Star Trek: Voyager that inspires so many casual Star Trek fans to declare it to be the “Best Star Trek show!“?  It had its moments, certainly, but can Voyager’s finest hours even begin to compare to some of those of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?  Does Voyager have an episode en par with, say, In The Pale Moonlight?  I dare say, no.  And I think the reasons why Voyager’s popularity is perhaps to surprisingly enduring lie ““ unfortunately ““ relatively close to Jeri Ryan’s chest.

Star Trek: Voyager had a few firsts.  It was, obviously, the first Star Trek incarnation to be led by a female captain.  It was also the first to feature a regular cast member in a catsuit, in the form of Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine.   And ask any passer-by what they think of when they think Star Trek: Voyager, one of Captain Janeway or Seven of Nine will usually spring to mind first (followed some time later by a mention of “Oh, and that Doctor dude”).  Voyager’s increased recognition of sexuality certainly matched its outlook.  It was a definite departure rather than continuation from the format of its immediate predecessor.  Deep Space Nine had brought us dark, deep angst; Voyager provided a lighter show, free of the burdensome story-arcs that had weighed heavily upon DS9’s later seasons.  It was, in a word, more fun: more accessible to the average Joe.  And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Voyager.  Some of the moments, dialogue and scenes were extremely memorable.  But Voyager can never be viewed in the same league as Deep Space Nine.

The Avery Brooks-led cast of Deep Space Nine provided a much, much finer ensemble.  A strong collection of talented actors, DS9 had characters with multi-dimensional facets and tremendous depth.  Voyager’s cast essentially formed a triumvirate in the later years: a Janeway/Seven/Doctor tripod which gave the show its backbone.  The rest of the senior staff were relegated to little footnotes in the memory of the show.  And name a memorable Voyager villain”¦  I can’t really think of one either.  There’s no Dukat, Weyoun or Damar to fall back on: no insidious Founders.  Instead we have an over-reliance on a tired concept in the Borg, and some “˜cool’ new CGI aliens in Species 8472.  The only truly memorable villain unique to Voyager was Anorax, in “˜Year of Hell’.  Why?  Because he has depth: an element of human tragedy that makes his character both driven and empathetic, as well as relentless ““ hallmarks of a classic villain.  He does also stand testament to the fact that Voyager had its moments.

And Seven of Nine’s struggles to find her humanity certainly had strong moments in the pursuit of the truth about her parents, and Janeway’s motherly approach to her education.  But too often Voyager fell back upon the over-sensualised sexuality that drove its later years.  Seven dating.  Seven kissing.  Seven’s lusting.  The list goes on.  These were subjects that I don’t altogether abhor being presented, I merely found the manner in which they were so juvenile.  They were approached with comedy in mind ““ light-hearted entertainment which concealed the sensitive education which could be gleaned from such stories in Deep Space Nine.

For even in terms of humanity, Deep Space Nine surely blows Voyager out of the water.  The contrasting marriages of Worf/Dax, Keiko/O’Brien, Rom/Leeta handled a myriad of issues, all sensitively, and were hardly bereft of comedy.  But they were realisitic.  O’Brien’s moaning to Bashir about Keiko’s attitudes etc. provided optimistic lessons on how marriage can work.  There was no marriage on Voyager.  There was early Neelix/Kes undertones, but Kes was thrown out the window by Season 4.  If the shows were relationships, Deep Space Nine would be a tempestuous, complex marriage whilst Voyager enjoyed a one night stand.

Frivolous terms in which to examine the shows, perhaps, but meaningful nonetheless.  For Deep Space Nine used its approach to communicate a depth of thought Voyager ““ for me ““ never achieved.   The Ben Sisko/Jake Sisko familial relationship was heart-warming and realistic.  Odo’s feelings of isolation on the station were, for me, conveyed far more realistically than Neelix or Kes’s similar situation. 

Alas, television changes.  Today, Deep Space Nine would be shown on HBO.  Voyager, on the CW.   UPN ““ the network airing Voyager back in the day ““ used the show as their flagship.  They steered their network image very much away from sensitive drama towards a more open, accessible youth demographic.  Jeri Ryan’s casting was a testament to that (for the record, I do quite admire Jeri Ryan’s acting ability, I merely hold great cynicism towards the motivation behind her casting). 

Thus, Deep Space Nine was designed intentionally to achieve something very different from Voyager.  Neither show failed, for they achieved what they tried to be.  Deep Space Nine, living in the shadow of The Next Generation, and then Voyager in many ways, was always given the creative freedom to be more adventurous dramatically.  Voyager was the show that was designed to bring in the ratings.  UPN believed this could be achieved by subtle and not-so-subtle actioning-up of the show, coupled with greater sex appeal.  Voyager, therefore, achieved what it set out to do: running a full seven years.

So when someone declares Voyager to be the best show, I suppose it very much depends what you’re looking for in your Star Trek.  Am I being a dramatic pedant ““ a televisual snob looking down about the degenerate, illiterate working classes of today?  Perhaps.  I have strong opinions about why I prefer DS9 to Voyager, and perhaps they are overly cynical.  But there is substance behind my allegations, and I for one, when watching Trek, watch it to be challenged, not turned on.

Stunning though Seven’s figure may have been, Sisko’s monologue from “˜In The Pale Moonlight’, or Dukat’s meltdown in “˜Sacrifice of Angels’ will stay with me for the rest of my life.  They will carry lessons Voyager never conveyed.  I feel simultaneously proud and humbled to have learned the lessons Deep Space Nine taught ““ to have fed from the minds and talents of so many gifted people.  Voyager ““ I enjoyed.  I was happy to be entertained.

I guess I’d rather be humbled, than laugh at Seven and the Doctor swapping personalities for an hour. 

Each to their own.

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