As the Hirogen pursue Voyager, the crew receives messages from home via their relay system.
Plot Summary: Voyager picks up a garbled message from the Hirogen communications network. The crew hears the beginning of a message from Starfleet Command, but most of the transmission is lodged in one of the Hirogen relay stations. When the ship arrives to try to recover the message, they find that the station is powered by a quantum singularity, requiring that Voyager maintain a safe distance during the process of retrieving data, which allows the Hirogen to detect Voyager’s approach and prepare to defend the station. As Seven of Nine decodes the message, Janeway discovers that it primarily contains letters from home, though there is also an encrypted file from Starfleet. While Kim wishes for and Paris dismisses any hope of parental contact, Tuvok is told that he has become a grandfather, Janeway learns that her betrothed has married someone else, and Chakotay finds out that the Maquis have fallen as a casualty of the Dominion War. Though Torres does not expect any personal messages, she is devastated to hear that her friends have died. Because the information stream is degrading, Janeway gives Seven and Tuvok permission to see if they can strengthen it by taking a shuttlecraft closer to the station. The Hirogen tractor the shuttle and abduct the pair of crewmembers, though the aliens are more interested in collecting body parts than in Federation technology or Borg secrets. Refusing to leave without Tuvok and Seven, Janeway works with Kim and Torres to weaken the field around the singularity, which sucks in the Hirogen ships as Kim beams the Voyager crewmembers out. But the singularity also collapses the relay network, destroying not just the remaining private letters but any possibility of future communication with Starfleet. Though upset at her lost connections to home, Janeway agrees to go with Chakotay to a mood-lifting party Neelix has planned for the crew.
Analysis: I have not forgotten my promise to try my best to like Voyager‘s later seasons on this rewatch. I am, in fact, appreciating Seven of Nine a lot better than I did on first viewing, though that has more to do with the nuances of Jeri Ryan’s performances than with the few-and-far-between subtleties of characterization in the scripts. I’ve done my best to put aside expectations I might have had the first time through about how I wanted to see the crewmembers grow and develop and interact. I know that some of my hopes for the series were never realistic and others were only going to happen after being dragged out for months and months because the writers were playing a long game. I’m really trying to see the shape of the series as it is and not as I wished it would be. But when I reach an episode like “Hunters” – an episode that should be a major turning point for Voyager, rewarding long-time fans who’ve stuck with the series for half its run, yet feels instead like a lukewarm reboot – it’s impossible not to be deeply disappointed even on a rewatch. Some storytelling elements are inexcusable, like the fact that Chakotay goes prancing off to a party after only a couple of minutes of expressed regret over the deaths of nearly all his Maquis friends and family, while some are just sloppily written, like Kim’s acting like a young child at sleepaway camp during mail call who’s less concerned with actual news from home than with wanting to make sure his mommy has not forgotten him. I’ll buy that Kim has had trouble growing up, considering that he’s been stuck in the same ensign’s position for years now, but how come Neelix is back to being merely a cheerleader instead of having significant feelings about the crew’s contact with the people who mattered to them before he ever met them? How come Torres, who said in “Eye of the Needle” that everyone she cared about was on Voyager, is more shattered about the Maquis than Chakotay, a Maquis leader who left Starfleet to defend his home? How come a paternal admiral is the only relative of Tom Paris in the entire universe?
I admit I’m incapable of being objective about this episode because I saw the original script, which had some marked differences to the half-baked version that actually aired. If you go look on YouTube for UPN’s fourth season promo trailer, in which Janeway asks Chakotay whether she should indulge her feelings for him or hold fast to protocol, you’ll know how “Hunters” would have ended if the producers had any courage (there was a kiss in the first draft, which various people have claimed was filmed and then cut – Robert Beltran joked in a recent Reddit AMA that it was filmed at Kate Mulgrew’s house on her video camera for private screenings). Janeway did not mention Mark once while she and Chakotay were stranded in “Resolutions”; she didn’t lament that she and Mark would never marry while she was counting her regrets in “Coda”; she has expressed no longing to see him or talk to him the way she misses her family; she doesn’t have a hologram of their favorite date spot. Even without a Dear John letter, we’ve all known that relationship was dead for more than two years. Mark hasn’t been her excuse for celibacy, the ship has been that. I acknowledge that Beltran’s comments probably prove Mulgrew right in her claims during interviews that the Voyager writing staff couldn’t have written a mature relationship without compromising Janeway’s authority, yet to this day I still think it Voyager would have been a more engaging show if they had risked it. Instead we get more episodes like this one, rehashing character trivia we already know from “Persistence of Vision” and “Coda” not to mention the pilot…Harry wants his parents to be proud, Tom thinks his father will never love him, Tuvok is a family man, Janeway misses her dog and her fiancé (possibly in that order). We get no new concerns for any of them, nor do we get any depth of feeling from Neelix or Seven about the possibility of a return to Earth and the massive changes that would mean for two people whose entire adult lives have taken place in the Delta Quadrant. We see some charming humor during which Seven reminds the Doctor that he may be deleted for a new model, but laughs are no substitute for addressing a real thematic fear of loss.
Nostalgia works in funny ways: it’s not just for things we once had, but for things we thought we could have had at a particular moment, except the moment passed and eventually it became too late even to fight to have those things. I’d expect Voyager’s crew not to spend so much time obsessing over the things they left as with the possibilities they left – what might have happened over the course of the past four years instead of what did. But if the premise of “Hunters” doesn’t shake up the characters the way it should, and make them stop obsessing about the homes they’ve left – most of them signed up for Starfleet, which champions journeys over destinations – it does offer one tremendous avenue for a paradigm shift. The Maquis now know that their cause is defeated, and in many cases their friends and family murdered. So it makes me want to scream when Chakotay and Torres spend more time comforting Janeway and Paris over private family dramas than they do contemplating this enormous loss. I like the relationship scenes, intimate without being romantic per se, but the priorities feel very skewed. The Maquis on Voyager are pretty much all that’s left of an organized resistance to Starfleet’s short-term thinking, which let military leaders gamble away the lives and homes of thousands in the name of a peace that barely lasted half a decade. I wouldn’t blame any of the Maquis crew for needing to exist as a group again, setting time and space apart from Starfleet protocols to honor those lost. Realistically, they should seek out other Maquis for shared solace or private fury. We could learn whether Ayala’s sons survived, whether Bendera or Hogan’s families wrote letters not knowing that their relatives had died, whether the Doctor told Starfleet about Seska’s infiltration. Instead we get a new alien menace who has far too much in common with an old alien menace from Deep Space Nine, the Hunters who pursue the Tosk, while we never hear enough about the awesome extinct race that built relay stations around black holes. It isn’t just nostalgia that makes me feel “Hunters” represents a big wasted opportunity. The crew deserves more complex character development, and so do the viewers.