While searching for a lost Maquis ship, Voyager encounters a displacement wave that throws the vessel 70,000 light years from Federation space.
Plot Summary: When a Maquis ship disappears in the Badlands, Captain Kathryn Janeway recruits Tom Paris – a onetime Starfleet officer now in prison for joining the Maquis after being courtmartialed – to help her track the missing vessel. But Voyager encounters the same energy wave that overcame the Maquis ship, and the crew finds itself deep in the Delta Quadrant. Many crewmembers die from the displacement and Ensign Harry Kim disappears after the crew is abducted and scanned on a nearby array. The Emergency Medical Hologram treats their injuries while Janeway suggests to Chakotay, the captain of the Maquis ship, that they work together to find their missing crewmembers and a way back to the Alpha Quadrant. Chakotay discovers that his crewmember Tuvok has been working undercover for Janeway, but puts his anger aside to search for Kim and Maquis engineer B’Elanna Torres, who have been sent beneath the surface of a nearby planet. There, a race called the Ocampa receives food and energy by a Caretaker from the array. Determined to escape, Torres finds sympathetic Ocampa who promise to help her and Kim reach the surface. Meanwhile, Voyager comes across a trader named Neelix who offers to help find the missing crewmembers, but when Neelix introduces the crew to aliens called the Kazon on the barren surface of the Ocampa planet, Janeway quickly discovers that he only wanted to rescue an Ocampa named Kes whom Kazon leader Jabin has taken prisoner. Indebted to Voyager’s crew, Kes helps them enter the underground city, where they find Torres and Kim in the ancient tunnels that lead to the planet’s surface. But the Caretaker is sealing the tunnels, and Tuvok hypothesizes that he must be dying, trying to protect the Ocampa from the Kazon above. Once Paris has rescued the injured Chakotay so the crew can beam away, Janeway visits the array in the hope of using it to return to the Alpha Quadrant, but the Caretaker insists that it must be destroyed or the Kazon will use it to exterminate the Ocampa. After beaming his crew to Voyager, Chakotay defends the starship from a Kazon attack by flying his own ship into the Ocampa vessel. Unwilling to risk the deaths of all the Ocampa, Janeway blows up the array, stranding Voyager in the Delta Quadrant. She then invites Chakotay’s crew to join hers and makes Paris the new helm officer for the long journey home.
Analysis: Last winter my sister asked me whether I’d read a novel called Station Eleven, in which a quote from Star Trek: Voyager plays an important role. I had never heard of it. For years I’d avoided not only Voyager itself, but anything connected to the show. I had no intention of reading Station Eleven, but when I later needed a book to occupy me for a long flight, I said what the heck. I was sure it wouldn’t have much to do with Voyager anyway. The novel is set on an Earth that has been ravaged by a pandemic, where things once familiar have been utterly changed; the story focuses on a troupe of actors whose lead caravan and leading lady have a line from Voyager painted and tattooed upon them, “Survival is insufficient.” I’d been debating whether I was ready to watch the show again, whether I was capable of reviewing it fairly, and I found this novel about loss and transformation to be the perfect metaphor for thinking about it. I was, shall we say, over-involved with Voyager when it aired. For five years, I ran Kate Mulgrew’s official fan club. I’d met or interviewed nearly every member of the cast and crew. During the final season, when I was extremely bitter at how the series was concluding, I was angry at nearly all of them. I realize now that that was unfair, that no one person bears responsibility for the direction of a TV show, that there were network heads and producers and all sorts of people meddling, that Mulgrew herself had no control over Janeway’s arc. Watching “Caretaker” again now, I feel only gratitude for what Voyager gave me. I don’t want to pretend that I can be entirely objective, since running her fan club changed my life – I met some of my best friends because of it, I’m still close with several of the members, all of whom are extraordinary people. And, since I became a fan of Jeri Ryan once I could separate her from the catsuit – I loved her on Boston Public and Shark and Dark Skies when I finally caught up – I am resolved that this time around, I am not going to resent Seven of Nine. To borrow a metaphor from Station Eleven, I am going to stop dreaming of the old world. Or, to borrow a metaphor from Voyager itself (sorry about that “Persistence of Vision” review, Jeri Taylor), I am going to stop wishing for the Voyager I always wanted it to be and accept it for what it is.
I’d watched “Caretaker” half a dozen times during the show’s first couple of years on the air, yet not for more than a decade since. Rewatching now, I realize I’d forgotten all about lots of small and large things. I didn’t remember the Star Wars style opening explaining the Maquis, even echoing A New Hope with the little rebel ship being chased by the much bigger enemy warship. It’s curious that the series starts not with the Starfleet officers but with the Maquis, then immediately shifts our sympathies to Tom Paris, who’s both ex-Maquis and ex-Starfleet, an all-around bad boy (and I forgot how good looking Robert Duncan McNeill was). All the attention on Tom Paris used to bother me, especially by those who didn’t think the show was doing right by him, taming him and turning him into a proper Starfleet officer, but I can see now that they were right: Paris and Chakotay both become awfully bland awfully quickly. My concern was that if subordinate (male) officers were constantly challenging the first female captain who ever got more than one episode’s worth of screen time, it would make her look bad, but Janeway never had any trouble holding her own among them – her quick retorts to Paris, her “at ease, Mr. Kim, before you sprain something,” her getting in Chakotay’s face when he looked like he might try to punch Tuvok and Paris at the same time for betraying him – and the show had a different kind of energy early on, when it seemed like everyone might be a Starfleet rebel (possibly even Janeway to some degree, integrating a Maquis crew with whom she must have had a degree of sympathy to accept so easily). Anyway, it’s interesting that Paris is thrown at us so quickly and through him we get to know so many other characters – Kim, Chakotay, even the Doctor. Every person who treats Tom really badly is dead within the first fifteen minutes of the show. Evidently someone thought he’d be our hero. There’s quite a bit too much telling instead of showing, soon-to-be-dead pilot Stadi bragging about Voyager’s blueprints, Torres admitting to a near-stranger that she feels she can’t control her Klingon half, Chakotay narrating resentments against Tuvok and Paris that are apparent without words. Kim’s declaration that he doesn’t need anyone else to pick his friends for him is extremely reminiscent of another Harry declaring to Draco Malfoy in children’s book style that he’ll stick with Ron Weasley, not exactly sophisticated characterization or storytelling.
But these are small sins compared to those of “Encounter at Farpoint,” with which “Caretaker” compares extremely favorably. Janeway! Without my rose-colored blinders on, I can see the things many people complained about – the three changes of hairstyle in this single episode, the hands-on-hips defensive gesture and the hands-behind-back stiffness when walking, the early emphasis on her love life (she wriggles suggestively when she tells Mark he never bothers her except the way she loves to be bothered – try to picture Picard or Sisko doing that in uniform). She looks kind of embarrassed when she finds out the Caretaker thinks they’ll all feel comfortable at an old-fashioned hoe-down, something the Caretaker probably took out of her Indiana-influenced upbringing since he didn’t get it from Paris, Kim, Vorik, et al (unless one of them was a fan of Ray Bradbury or The Twilight Zone – come on, why is Caretaker wasting energy on holograms when he’s desperate and near death?). Yet I feel completely justified in my love at first sight. We as a culture are horrible to powerful women – look right now at the things being written about Hillary Clinton and Michele Bachmann regardless of politics, it’s their demeanor and hairstyles and neck wrinkles and family priorities under constant scrutiny – so given that she stepped in to the role relatively last-minute, replacing Genevieve Bujold, it’s a miracle how perfectly Mulgrew nails the balance of warmth and sensitivity with toughness and resolve. “I don’t know what you need, and frankly, I don’t care.” “‘Ma’am’ is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer ‘captain’.” “I’m not willing to trade the lives of the Ocampa for our convenience.” “You are speaking to a member of my crew.” “I need a better description than that, Mister Kim!” Looking silently pleased, all proud body language when Kes tells the Ocampa it’s time they start thinking for themselves. If Janeway’s a little too motherly about Kim, she makes up for it with the body block she throws Chakotay when he’s about to get in Paris’s face. Right from the start she reminds me of the things I love most about Kirk, Picard, and Sisko – going with her gut, taking counsel from both intimates and outsiders, never forgetting the importance of family and friends. If life in the Delta Quadrant eventually wears some of that down, who can blame her, really?
That we now know Chakotay will remain a half-scripted enigma doesn’t make him less intriguing when he starts out that way. He blows up his own ship without Janeway even asking, to protect the lives of his own crew and hers, trusting Paris to rescue himself and everyone else. We’re told that he joined the Maquis when the Cardassians threatened his people, turning his back on Starfleet, yet he agrees to work with Janeway after a single request, he puts down his weapon because she asks, he decides to become her first officer and integrate his crew with hers before he has any sense of what she’s like as a person, even if he agrees with her decision to sacrifice a quick trip home to save the Ocampa. Does he miss Starfleet? Does he just like the way Janeway thinks? He behaves like her first officer before he has any reason to suspect she’ll offer him anything besides lodgings in her brig. Though I think crew tension would have made for better dialogue and storylines later in the show, and I wish his Native American heritage had been explored in something resembling depth, I like the idea that Chakotay is a man who can put his resentments behind him. Strangely, Tuvok is the one with all the snark – he mocks Neelix outright, telling him to have a bath, being sarcastic about Neelix’s delight over the food replicator – he seems less Vulcan than Spock, who’s half-human. It’s not immediately clear how close he and Janeway are, despite the fact that she knows his family; after all, she talked to Kim’s mother, and she served under Paris’s father. At this stage Neelix is mostly a caricature and it’s hard to tell whether Kes will be interesting or just whimsical, while Torres has all the worst Klingon attributes without any of the positive ones on display – are we all tired of growling and posturing from Klingons at this stage? Like Neelix, the Doctor suffers from caricature, being used more for comic relief than drama during what could be grim medical scenes, but the potential for the character (and Picardo’s skill as an actor) shows up early: as an artificial person confined by his programming, he combines the struggles of both Data and Odo.
When I first reviewed this show, I said, and I quote, “The only drawback I can see from here is the possibility that this show will become too invested in its hung-hero premise, namely: their ostensible goal in life is to get home, but if they get home, then the series is over, so they can’t do that. I don’t want to watch a bunch of episodes about them trying and failing and being sad and comforting one another. I want to watch them growing and exploring, making new lives, deciding that the future is more exciting than the past. That’s what Star Trek is all about.” I feel that this was a valid concern because a lot of my least-favorite episodes center around that circularity, the crew wanting to get home, moping because they can’t, being angry at whomever they blame for this fate – usually Janeway, and it’s particularly intolerable in stories like “Night” when she too blames herself and refuses even to emerge from her quarters. Yet it’s also hard not to think when the ship stops so often that they’re dawdling, losing sight of the promise to get home while being distracted by every shiny planet and phenomenon they pass. Perhaps as a viewer I failed to embrace the adventure as much as the crew did at times. I want to do better this time around. I will do better this time around, because all the disappointments are in the past. I just want to relive the ride.