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“The biggest decision was whether or not we actually wanted them to get home. That was a decision that really came down to the wire.”
That was the creative challenge facing Star Trek: Voyager’s series finale, according to former Voyager showrunner Brannon Braga in a 2001 interview from Star Trek Monthly. Whether or not “Endgame, Parts 1 and 2” was entirely successful in meeting that challenge is a debate fans have had since the feature-length final episode aired 20 years ago on May 23, 2001.
“Endgame” centers on a future Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) altering the past to ensure that every member of her crew gets back to Earth after spending seven years stranded in a distant corner of the Final Frontier known as the Delta Quadrant. One would think our intrepid heroes would be given more than a scene or two depicting their dream coming true, of seeing their home planet again, but that’s all “Endgame” gives them. The episode’s abrupt final moments (less than three minutes of screentime!) end the series on one of the franchise’s most underwhelming and anti-climatic notes. As beloved as Voyager is among fans, even they struggle to overlook how “Endgame” falls short of giving this iconic series and crew the ending they deserved.
Like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine before it, Voyager’s creative staff was afforded the rare gift of essentially being able to “cancel” themselves after the series’ seven-season run. That bittersweet privilege came with a figurative kitchen crowded with cooks who had a deserved say in how the show wrapped. That included Mulgrew and executive producers Braga, Rick Berman and “Endgame” co-writer Kenneth Biller — with the latter taking over showrunner duties from Braga during the series’ final season. (Biller brought on then-Voyager staff writer Robert Doherty to help with scripting duties.) The creative input from stakeholders ultimately resulted in a “dish” that incorporated Biller and Berman’s suggestion of time travel, along with Mulgrew’s request that Janeway had to go down with the ship, “but not at the full cost of her being.”
The end result opened 10 years after Voyager’s journey ends, with what’s left of the main crew gathering to celebrate their homecoming’s 10th anniversary. A silver-haired Admiral Janeway reviews old footage of Voyager doing a flyby over and around the Golden Gate Bridge outside Starfleet Command. (This choice works in a “cool teaser” way to hook in audiences, but ultimately is less effective in the context of the overall episode; we are shown a version of Voyager’s homecoming in a way that somewhat undercuts the actual event the characters fans have invested in for seven years will experience.)
Admiral Janeway is haunted by the fact that she was unable to get all of her crew home; she lost Seven of Nine in this timeline’s attempt to get Voyager back. So, with the help of time travel — and one last explosive, big screen-worthy battle with the Borg and the Borg Queen (played by Star Trek: First Contact’s Alice Krige) — Janeway succeeds in saving her crew and bringing all of them to Earth.
Voyager zooms toward Earth under starship escort before the end credits roll. And that’s it. After spending seven years with these characters, approximately three minutes of screentime is all that’s spent on the realization of their dream to get home. There’s no real exploration of the emotional impact this endpoint would have on the crew.
“We were really struggling with it,” writer Ken Biller recalls in Star Trek: Voyager — A Celebration, Hero Collector’s 2020 book about the series. “Is the end of the show just that they get home? That’s a bit of an anticlimax. Did we want some people to die?”
Braga certainly did. Even though he no longer oversaw the day-to-day needs of the show, Biller and Berman sought Braga’s input on how to end the series, and one of his wishes was to kill off a beloved character.
“I think Seven of Nine should have bit the dust,” Braga told TrekCore.com in 2013. “I think there had to be a real sacrifice for this crew getting home; a real blood sacrifice. Seven of Nine was, for me, designed to be a character that was gonna die tragically. I planned that.” Braga was overruled by Berman at the time, and that’s a good thing; otherwise Star Trek: Picard would have been denied one of its masterstrokes of adding Seven to its cast.
But her death, or a story choice similar to it, would have helped distinguish “Endgame” from previous Trek finales, especially TNG’s landmark “All Good Things …”, which Braga co-wrote with Ron Moore. Voyager’s finale echoes many structural elements and narrative touchstones of that classic episode, including: time travel, a temporal anomaly requiring closure using a beam from the main deflector, and a ship being rescued mid-battle with the Klingons by an advanced Starship. “Endgame” being caught in the shadow of “All Good Things …” — or feeling like a cover of Voyager’s 100th episode, the exceptional “Timeless” — was not lost on Voyager’s writers, as Biller told Cinefantastique magazine that the creatives made a conscious decision not to “shy away from that. It’s a different set of characters, and a different show, and ultimately it is a different story.”
What would have made it truly stand out would have been if Biller and company pursued some of their original ideas. In the development of the episode, one story that was floated was a mini-arc about the crew getting home before the finale — an option that castmember Roxanna Dawson was in favor of.
“My only criticism,” Dawson told Star Trek Monthly at the time, “is that I wish we had started to deal with the ending a little bit earlier, instead of just in that last two-hour episode.”
Another plot considered involved Janeway’s sacrifice and the Borg, which stemmed from discussions around a previous Voyager two-parter: “Unimatrix Zero.” While a version of this story appears in “Endgame,” the original iteration would have been nothing short of epic.
The idea was that Janeway would surrender Voyager to the Borg, and the battle-damaged starship would be assimilated by a Borg cube. But this was all a ruse by Janeway; once in the Borg’s clutches, the Doctor (Robert Picardo) would activate a reverse assimilation virus.
Then-Voyager writer Bryan Fuller pitched to Star Trek Magazine this idea’s major beats: “As we were assimilating the Borg ship from the inside, and re-assimilating ourselves, we would use a Borg transwarp conduit to get back home. The idea was this great final image of the Borg armada approaching Earth, and then out of the belly of the beast of the lead ship came Voyager, destroying all of the other Borg in its trail. It felt like an epic conclusion to Janeway’s journey with the Borg, and freeing Seven of Nine. That got abandoned somewhere along the road.”
Admiral Janeway does a smaller version of this reverse assimilation in her final scene with the Borg Queen, which allowed the writers to honor Mulgrew’s request for her character’s sacrificial play without having to truly “kill” the iconic heroine.
The episode’s needs to deliver an action-packed finale doesn’t quite shake hands with the audience’s expectations to have that action supported by emotionally honest character beats that honor what it would feel like for a crew who often thought they may never get home finally getting there. In Admiral Janeway’s timeline, her first officer, Chakotay (Robert Beltran) is dead. One would expect the Admiral to have mixed feelings when she sees her lost friend alive and well on Captain Janeway’s bridge again; instead, the episode doesn’t even acknowledge this. We just get a montage paired with a Captain’s Log entry showing the Admiral working with Chakatoy on the bridge. And one of the show’s fan-favorite characters, the exiled Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) is reunited with his estranged father, a Starfleet admiral — but only via the viewscreen. And even then, the two characters do not exchange a line or even a look, which is a glaring missed opportunity.
Despite the uneven, half-baked storyline that its own cast bumped into — “We don’t even step foot on Earth!” Garret Wang, who played Ensign Kim, told StarTrek.com — what “Endgame” gets right really works. Janeway squaring off with her future self, at odds over changing history to save the lives of a select few, is a very Trekian moral and ethical quandary. (These scenes also allow Mulgrew to deliver a tour de force performance, with her character’s unrelenting drive to make good on her promise to return her crew to Earth providing the actor with some of her best emotional moments in the role.) We also get to see Voyager in action one last time, with advanced armor plating and weapons against the Borg in a climactic battle that rivals what most of Trek’s feature films have pulled off.
The last shot of “Endgame” plays in a way that viewers at home feel like maybe they missed something, as this crew’s seven-year odyssey back to the Alpha Quadrant concludes with less fanfare than that which starts the episode. And while the finale as a whole falls short in terms of the sum of its parts, it does, in its own weird and charming-ish way, reflect the equally bumpy nature and spirit of Voyager as a series. For as Ensign Kim monologues during a memorable “Endgame” scene, maybe it’s not the act of crossing the finish line that matters. Rather, “maybe it’s the journey.”
In that respect, the journey audiences shared with Star Trek: Voyager was one that was definitely worth the trip.
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