HEAT VISION

How 'Star Trek: Voyager' Narrowly Missed Out on Greatness

The series, released 25 years ago, was going to break free of the confines of 'Next Generation,' but it didn't fully deliver on its premise.
Photofest/Paramount Pictures
The series, released 25 years ago, was going to break free of the confines of 'Next Generation,' but it didn't fully deliver on its premise.

Star Trek: Voyager is a noble misfire. 

Twenty-five years ago today, Voyager aired its two-hour pilot, “Caretaker.” It gave us Captain Janeway and her crew — stranded 75,000 light-years from home in the uncharted Delta Quadrant — and made TV history by being the first Star Trek series to have a female captain (this was a centerpiece of the series’ marketing launch on then-new network UPN). The series would spend seven seasons (the first two very bumpy) trying to get Janeway and a diverse group of Starfleet personnel and former officers known as the Maquis back to Earth. How does a starship survive this far away from all the comforts it, and the fans, are used to? There are no starbases at which to refuel or make repairs. Space is full of unpredictable alien races with hidden agendas and no motivation to help a lost ship. Also, the cybernetic villains known as the Borg are out here — which raises the stakes for Voyager even more. 

The promise of all that rich, uncharted drama and big emotional stakes, sadly, went mostly unfulfilled. Fans were promised that when Voyager would get into a battle, the damage would have lingering consequences. Instead, things were usually back to normal by the time the next episode aired. At the end of the pilot, not one member of the crew protests when Janeway essentially says the ship will make pit stops and explore this sector of space on their way home. I’ll believe Klingons and food replicators are real before I’ll ever believe an entire crew almost eight decades from home would be fine sightseeing the scariest parts of space as they try to get back to their families. 

It was business-as-usual, mission-of-the-week storytelling. Again. Ironically, for a show designed to be free of all that confined its more successful predecessor, Star Trek: The Next Generationthe farther Voyager wanted to venture out on its own, the more it seemed to gravitate toward playing it safe. 

Voyager seems like a show ahead of its time, given its conceit being perfect for serialized storytelling. Had it come out now, it likely would have found an execution more worthy of its premise than it did then. So why didn’t it reach its full potential? Blame the often hermetically sealed, “don’t-color-outside-the-lines” feeling of '90s Trek under executive producer Rick Berman. Had Voyager fully been allowed to venture outside that very specific and confining box, it could have achieved true greatness — on par with former Trek writer Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot — instead of often being a show filed under “Next Generation lite.”

In fact, Voyager is somewhat responsible for Moore’s BSG

The story goes that while Moore was working on Voyager’s writing staff, he wanted to push the arc of the series toward the more realistic consequences a crew would face in the farthest reaches of the Final Frontier, but there was pushback. Ultimately, Moore left the series, and Star Trek as a whole. While Voyager’s loss was ultimately sci-fi TV’s gain, with BSG giving fans a glimpse (tonally) of what Moore had in mind for Janeway and her crew, it’s hard not to imagine the highs Voyager could have reached by telling its stories this way. (The closest Trekkers would get to seeing the show put through a more Battlestar lens would be the season five finale two-parter “The Equinox,” which focused on another starship that suffered Voyager’s fate but with a crew unmoored from Starfleet’s higher principles and governed more by doing whatever it takes to survive.)

That’s not to say Voyager didn’t take risks or was of poor quality creatively; the show has some great episodes. Think the “Scorpion” two-parter’s introduction of the instantly iconic Borg drone Seven of Nine. Or the series’ 100th episode, “Timeless,” and the feature-quality “Year of Hell, Parts I & II,” among the best and most compelling takes on time travel ever attempted. 

While Voyager lacked a truly landmark episode on par with, say, TNG’s “Best of Both Worlds” or a finale as satisfying as Next Gen’s “All Good Things…”, when the series did take big swings, it did so in ways that connected with and embraced the core tenements of what Star Trek is all about: tackling socially relevant themes and putting them through the sci-fi lens of phasers and warp drive. Voyager used the alien character/Delta Quadrant tour guide Neelix to tackle suicide and existential crisis in the underrated episode “Mortal Coil.” In “Counterpoint,” the show did The Diary of Anne Frank in space by having Janeway harbor telepathic stowaways who are being hunted by a Nazi-like alien species that fears and hates them. The show even killed off one of its main characters, Ensign Kim, and replaced him with his doppelganger for most of the series’ run. 

Star Trek: Voyager is full of great moments, but it’s difficult to call it a truly and consistently great show. Still, its legacy still holds up a quarter century later. It paved the way for Star Trek: Discovery, inspired legions of fans, and was home to some of the franchise’s most popular characters. 

Next Gen cast a long shadow, and Voyager faced the unenviable task of boldly going where no one had gone before within it. While Voyager’s path was an uneven one, attention must be given to the impact it made on audiences. A quarter century later, Janeway’s unyielding compassion and unique skillset, coupled with the show’s inclusive crew and the inspiring, relevant dynamics they represented, still resonate long after the credits have rolled.

Jan. 17, 9:43 a.m. A previous version incorrectly stated how many light years Voyager was from home. 

  • Phil Pirrello
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