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WASTED CONCEPT: The Void + Voyager in general

December 27, 2013

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Episodes featured: The Void, A Matter of Honour, various Voyager eps

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Never has a series of Trek wasted so many great ideas as often as Voyager did.

Even the concept of the show itself was wasted.

Concept: Starship gets sucked 70,000 light years across the galaxy and has to find a way back home through unexplored and mostly unfriendly space.

It’s been said a thousand times already that the first two seasons were shit, but even then there was a lot of potential.

The Maquis, for instance.

Or the idea that Federation principles would have to be bent in order to get the crew back home.

Both wasted in the first season.

The Maquis were integrated almost instantly, with zero problems, and Janeway made it clear very early on that she would not deviate in any way from the Prime Directive [until the Borg showed up].

I suppose this was admirable and one of the things I generally like about Trek, but it makes for pretty boring characters if all of them are noble at all times on all days on all occasions. And at times, it was just comical…especially the early episode of the first season where they go four days back in time and Janeway refuses to warn the natives that their planet is about to be destroyed because it would interfere with their cultural development. To be fair, she changes her mind twenty-five minutes in, but it’s still bullshit character work.

I guess the problem was that, up to this point, they’d strictly defined Janeway as ‘stubborn’ and nothing else as it was only the fourth episode of the first season. If they had made her more flexible, people might’ve been confused about who this character was, what defined her etc. so they played it narrow. She upholds the prime directive, always. That’s who she is.

Compare this to season seven Picard on TNG…he’s probably even more stubborn than Janeway on Prime Directive issues, but even he shows flexibility and breaks the rules sometimes. Or 13 times according to the Drumhead episode.

I’m not super-familiar with all the episodes but, in the first two seasons, I can’t remember Janeway breaking the rules once…which is ludicrous considering their predicament.

But then…’ludicrous’ is not a stranger to Voyager.

I’m going off track…

The point is: the first two seasons of Voyager wasted the main concept because everything went so slowly and seemed so arbitrary. In one episode, they needed some crucial resource for the ship, whereas in most others, the ship just flew along at max warp with no troubles at all…as if there were a gas station every few miles they could stop off at and refill.

The Kazon drifted in and out, easily defeated most times.

The Vidiians had about three episodes in two seasons then pissed off to parts unknown…possibly to planet South Korea where they could get some decent plastic surgery…

The standalone, exploration/high concept episodes were tedious.

Harry Kim wakes up on another planet where people volunteer to die and get dumped on a deserted moon. Don’t care.

Chakotay finds Native Americans on a jungle planet. Don’t care.

Tom Paris breaks warp 10 and turns into a lizard. Don’t care, but at least with this one they were trying something different.

It’s hard to keep count of all the bad or boring episodes in Voyager. I guess the best rule of thumb is to just count all the episodes in each season and knock 2-3 off the total. Isn’t this a shocking average for a show with such a great concept?

What exactly was the aim for the first two seasons of Voyager and how did they fuck things up so badly?

Voyager is well known for being tame. Dull characters, no real threats until the Borg turned up, weak writing, Chakotay etc.

To be fair, it is also well known that TNG started slowly…slowly being a kind word…some of those season 1 episodes were unwatchable…or maybe watchable in the same way Crazy Ethel or Samurai Cop is watchable.

Note: Crazy Ethel has a scene where Ethel eats cereal for twenty minutes.

No, actually, that’s wrong…early TNG was terrible because everyone was so stiff. Even a decent season 2 episode like the one where Riker does an internship on a Klingon ship…even that started badly. Remember? There’s a scene where Riker sits on the bridge and watches the ship dock at a star-base…then he gets up and goes to the transporter room to meet the new recruits…we then see Data on the bridge saying the recruits are ready for transport, and switch to Riker in the transporter room…

Now, think about this…what exactly is the point of the first part of this scene? Why not have Riker already in the transporter room and Data on the bridge?

It’s terrible, terrible writing…possibly padding to stretch out an episode that really shouldn’t have needed it.

The only possible reason I can think of for the inclusion of this scene is…they wanted a thematic link between the start and the end of the episode, when Riker is sitting in the captain’s chair on the Klingon ship.

Episode theme = look, Riker can be captain of any ship, if he wants to!

That would’ve made some kind of sense.

But really, when you start structuring your episodes around a shitty ‘theme’, you probably know you’re not making ‘Blake’s 7’ standard science fiction. [Note: I think ‘Blake’s 7’ is great].

I’ve gone off track again…I can’t help it with Trek, there are so many things which are connected…

So what was the aim for Voyager?

I think what they tried to do was start slowly and find their feet with both characters and the Delta Quadrant.

The concept: you can’t bring in the big guns like the Borg or really powerful aliens until the audience cares about the crew. Or knows them a little at least.

The problem with this concept: It’s a load of shit.

Did you know you can also get to know characters through conflict?

Did you know you can have high concept episodes that actually push and/or reveal character?

Did you know the Maquis and the Federation are enemies?

Did you know it’s not okay to recycle plots from TNG, and bad ones at that?

Yup, I’m talking about the first season Tom Paris episode where he’s accused of being Riker and murdering a scientist and banging his wife.

To help the concept along, the writers introduced species like the Kazon and the Vidiians, both of who weren’t really that interesting or much of a threat.

If they really wanted to follow the concept, why didn’t they just focus on exploration episodes at first? Don’t bother with recurring alien species, just concentrate on the initial struggle of getting resources, exploring new parts of space, Maquis vs Federation principles, relationship between the crew etc.

Then…later, when you introduce the first powerful/interesting alien species, both the audience and the crew will be ready for them. Or, even better, not ready for them, which would inevitably lead to conflict and…yup, drama.

On the other hand…why didn’t they just do a different concept right from the start? Why not introduce one distinctive alien race [not the Kazon] in the first season and have them pop up a lot, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile…make them more powerful perhaps, but complicated at the same time. Perhaps they are stuck between helping Voyager and taking its secrets so they can find out more about the Alpha Quadrant…I’m just thinking off the top of my head, but a complicated alien species is surely better than something like the Kazon.

Obviously, they didn’t do any of this…they decided to produce two seasons of the crew fighting guys with rock formations on their heads…but what about the rest of it…?

Did Voyager get any better in later seasons?

A little bit, but not much. The Kazon slinked off back to Season 1 space, better episode concepts appeared…but there were still the same problems…and also some new ones.

Same old problems:

Every season must have a Chakotay episode

Every season must have a Tom Paris episode

Every season must have a Harry Kim episode [to be fair, I enjoyed some of his eps…The Chute was okay, and the character itself improved as the seasons ticked by]

Each episode ended with a danger to the ship and zero tension or complexity

New problems:

Wasted concepts

The Borg

I don’t know if you’d call the Borg a problem…it would’ve been illogical to not have them appear as they do take up a lot of the Delta Quadrant, but still…even in TNG they were becoming over-familiar…in Voyager, they became like Crazy Ethel clinging to the ships exhaust, begging for more episodes. It reduced them in the worst way possible, making them almost akin to the Kazon in terms of feebleness. No one was really scared of them anymore, no one shat themselves when a Borg cube appeared on the main screen…by the end of Voyager, they just seemed like extras dressed in fake-metal suits, instead of what they were before: super strong, assimilating machines.

Leaving the Borg to one side, the same old problems were pretty much unfixable…they were stuck with the characters they’d made…but once again, they started to fuck up very neat, very interesting concepts.

Which, after four pages, brings me to the main point of whatever this thing is…wasted concepts.

Have a look at this list of shame:

Displaced

Shattered

Worst Case Scenario

The Void

Year of Hell [This one was okay, but could’ve been much better with the TNG or DS9 crew]

The Killing Game

Each one of these episodes has a great idea that has been utterly wasted just by being used on Voyager.

Each one has been squashed into one episode when something like ‘Workforce’ was given two parts.

Who the hell made these decisions?

I’ll do something on all of these wasted concepts eventually, but first let’s start with the biggest waste of all…The Void.

If you can’t remember what is was about, just go to wiki and look it up or follow my brief guide below:

Plot: Voyager is pulled through a funnel and into a void, a piece of space about 9 light years across with no star systems, and is immediately attacked by alien ships. It turns out all manners and etiquette have gone out the window in the void, and all of the other ships pillage each other for vital resources like food and water and power cells and porn. Janeway decides the best way out of the void is to form an alliance with other ships…her plan is to persuade them to work together to escape and to share resources until that happens. Some alien ships join them, some don’t, some are racist, some leave, some attack Voyager and its alliance ships at the end, but ultimately it doesn’t matter as they escape, with Federation principles intact.

Length of episode: 43 minutes, more or less.

Number of montages? 1

Does Trek usually do montages? No. Trek has never done a montage in its entire history. At least none that I can remember.

Note: I’ve just remembered…there was a montage in DS9 episode ‘It’s only a paper moon’, but that one actually had a point and fit well into the episode. The Voyager montage was the exact opposite, which I’ll explain in more detail in a bit…but the basic fact is: if I watched it and thought it was the first montage Trek had ever done, it means it stuck out badly and should not have been there.

Main problem: It is too rushed. The crew is not pushed to any kind of limit.

Really, this should’ve been two parts. Or even better, a TNG movie, with Klingon and Romulan and Cardassian ships. Imagine a piece of shit like ‘Generations’ or ‘Insurrection’ replaced with an idea like ‘The Void’…

It would have been incredible. I really believe that.

The worst part is: the concept has now been used and is unlikely to be re-tooled for another crack.

Is the episode really that bad?

No, it’s actually quite good. That’s what annoys me. That’s the whole reason I’m calling it a wasted concept. They did okay, typical for Voyager, but nothing more.

Simply put, I don’t think they ever developed the Voyager characters enough to be able to do this kind of concept justice. Maybe I’m wrong…Janeway was a strong character by this point and I liked her quite a lot. I know I liked her because she really pissed me off in ‘Year of Hell’, but stayed in character. The same way I know I liked Picard because I got annoyed when he did something I disagreed with…e.g. when he told Worf’s brother to leave the natives of the soon to be dead planet to their doom, because that’s what the prime directive says. It’s in character for him to do this, but it annoys me…this is a good thing, I think.

But apart from Janeway, the Doctor and Seven of Nine, you’ve got a load of dross that are each only very narrowly defined, even after seven seasons of this shit.

Harry Kim is loyal and by the book.

Chakotay is Native American

Tuvok is logical and sometimes annoyed.

Torres is angry and emotional.

Tom Paris is caustic and blunt

Neelix is a kindergarten art project that talks

In TNG [sometimes] or DS9 we get a sense of the characters living their lives and, more importantly, having lived a life before the series. With Voyager you just get a bunch of people who like things or did something once…you don’t get a sense that they’re defined by what they’ve done in their lives.

Which means…they can say dialogue and action and mouth whatever opinions the writers need them to mouth at any given time.

E.g. why does Chakotay disagree with Janeway’s plan? He’s always been open to diplomacy before…even though that goes against him being part of the Maquis before…sometimes he’s been pragmatic, yes, but not when it turns the crew into thieves and murderers…

It doesn’t make any sense.

Tuvok disagreeing with the plan, that makes sense…kind of. He is Vulcan and they don’t make much sense on a fundamental level…

Vulcans = logical, peaceful, pragmatic [spot the adjective that doesn’t fit].

…but at least they get an opinion. The other crew members just get on with things. Only Seven and the Doctor have some thematic part to play, and that’s because they’re the only other interesting, competently defined characters.

Let’s ask the piece of cardboard flying the ship what he thinks of all this?

No, let’s not.

I think I need to go through this in more depth…

List of wasted opportunities in ‘The Void’

1] There are no resources in the void

It’s stated pretty early on that the only resources in the void come from ships pulled in through the funnels. In the first twenty minutes, Voyager loses power fast until we are told, finally, that they have enough food to last a week. Janeway says they’ll share food in an attempt to reel in alliance members, and that they may only last two days instead of seven, but they won’t lose who they are [cardboard].

Up to this point, I have no problem with anything. The set-up is perfect, if a little rushed in places. Things look bleak. Janeway is as stubborn as ever. They have a plan that can’t possibly work.

But then, five minutes later, the inevitable happens: Voyager fucks it all up in one scene.

Captain’s Log: ‘after securing two charter members, we have attracted other ships interested in being patronised by us.’

What happened to the two days of no food?

Where’s the desperation?

All we get is an admittedly decent scene of Voyager defending a new ship full of those ‘stocky penis’ aliens from General Valen & co., before being helped by the guys in red jumpsuits.

If this were a two-parter, I have no doubt we would have seen the crew starving and questioning the orders of the captain. As it is, we get the captain making a decision and the crew becoming a single mass that has no opinion on anything, but it doesn’t matter cos two scenes later everything’s okay; no one has to slam their fist on a table or grow a beard or eat their own shit.

Just to make it clear: I like the concept of the episode. I like the way Janeway sticks to her principles. I like the idea of optimism overcoming pragmatism.

But to give this meaning, you have to give the idea room to breathe. You have to allow other characters to chafe against their better selves due to eating cup noodles every day. You can’t just let five minutes pass and expect us to feel tension when you’ve made no effort to build any.

2] The other ships are all run by one alien

This is fifty-fifty – with limited time, Voyager actually does quite well in setting up four main alien opponents/adversaries. Each one is distinctive in some way and is well-written for the purpose they serve…but…

…where’s the rest of their crew?

At least the red jumpsuit alien had two aides when he came to Voyager. General Valen doesn’t have anyone, neither does the other guy. It’s a little thing, but important, I think. You see it when the two red jumpsuit aliens react to Janeway’s plan…they think she’s out of her fucking tree, which shows that their captain probably has a strength of character that they don’t just to hear her out. But it is a nice little touch that shows each ship suffers the same burdens.

Maybe if this had been a two-parter we would’ve seen General Valen’s crew going hungry and asking for more from their captain? Maybe we would’ve seen him ruling them with an iron fist?

Anything would have been better than nothing…it would’ve expanded the scope of the episode, truly delineating how distressing the void really was…but like I said, this is more a problem of the standalone episode format, and the writer’s probably did the best they could considering the restraints.

3] If you need a montage, your episode is dead

It’s true, I’ve never seen a montage in Trek before and, Gods willing, I won’t live long enough to witness another. [Yeah, I said earlier there was a montage in ‘it’s only a paper moon’…but I’m too lazy to delete the above sentence and it’s more persuasive the way it is #iamthemedia.]

What was so bad about it?

Everything.

The music was shit.

The scenes were showing things we already knew were happening.

The way the director tried to move the camera like it was ‘E.R.’, in complete contrast to the shooting of the rest of the episode.

Everything.

I’m wondering now if the montage was actually filler to make the episode stretch longer…because there was no real need for it.

I don’t know, the last ten minutes of this episode were a disaster. I just don’t know what they were thinking.

Did they know how badly they were wasting this idea?

4] ‘They [the scruffy aliens] were born in the void, Captain.’

No, they fucking weren’t.

Look, I don’t know a lot about science, but I know aliens cannot be born in Space, unless they look like a glowing manta ray. The Doctor says the void species can conserve oxygen for a long time, but they still need it, right?

Also, no stars = no light = no life

No planets/forms of mass with gravity = where the fuck were they born?

Do they mean the aliens were originally from a planet, got sucked into the void and have lived on various ships ever since?

That’s the only possible way they could’ve been born in the void. But if that were the case, why the hell would they want to stay there? Being on ships and hunted down like animals in the void, or living on a planet or their own ship in normal space? Tough choice. Did the Doctor even explain to them what normal space was like?

This is typical of Voyager: introduce some alien race, explain how impossibly unique it is then never say how or why.

‘Just when you think the galaxy can’t surprise you anymore,’ says Janeway.

‘Just when you think these assholes [scriptwriters] have a basic grasp of writing,’ says Kate Mulgrew.

I think that covers everything.

Now for the fix. How could ‘The Void’ have been better?

First of all, I’d have liked to have seen a two-part version of ‘The Void’, just to be fair to the writers. As a standalone episode, I don’t know if there’s much else they could’ve done to improve it.

Perhaps take out the void species?

That’s the only fix I can think of that would’ve cut enough time to give the other aliens more to do.

Now, if it were a two part episode…I would’ve done the following:

1] Keep the first twenty minutes almost exactly the same.

The opening dinner scene, where the crew eat fancy shit and drink expensive wine, is a great juxtaposition for another scene that never really comes. I suppose you could say the scene where Neelix feeds Tom and B’elana is the counterpoint, but it would’ve been better if the same crew members had been sitting in the same places, eating cup noodles. Remember Year of Hell? That did the ‘dilapidated rec room’ look quite well, and they should’ve done something similar here.

After that, the episode moves fast and everything is pretty good. I would give General Valen at least one aide to show he has other people on his ship, but apart from that it’s okay.

When Janeway decides to adopt the Federation principles of mutual co-operation around the twenty minute mark, I would have Chakotay a little closer to her side and Tuvok as the counterpoint. The scene works well already, but it seems a little out of character for Chakotay to be oppositional in this scenario, especially as he’s been so calm and conciliatory in episodes like ‘Distant Origin’.

But then, Chakotay’s never been the most consistent character, has he? Remember that episode where he tried to tug Neelix off?

Actually, the more I think about it, this scene could be kept the same. It’s not the biggest reach to have Chakotay being pragmatic…it just seems a little off to me…as if they realised he had nothing else to do in this episode so had to give him this one bit.

After this scene, my version would go its own way. Until the end of the episode, I would have Voyager running from other ships, trying to set up alliances and failing, running out of food, other members of the cast voicing their opinions of the captain’s orders etc.

To end the first part, I would have Voyager, damaged and vulnerable, moving to defend the incoming ship, the crew accepting their fate/probable deaths with a ‘fuck it, at least we’ll die with honour’ shrug. I would then end it on Voyager close to being destroyed…

…then the second part would open with Voyager being saved by the red jumpsuit aliens and starting their mini-federation.

2] Deal with thieves and murderers, don’t ignore them.

Early in the episode it’s said many times that the other ships in the void are thieves and murderers…yet the only ones who seem to fit this profile are General Valen and the guy who wants to exterminate the void aliens. It’s implied that the red jumpsuit aliens raided ships for a long time before, and really, due to the situation they’re in, so did all the ships Voyager encounters.

In the second part, I would explore the difficulties of the alliance and the heavy consciences of the red jump suit aliens.

This would’ve allowed two things to happen:

i] The red jump suit aliens could’ve served as avatars for what the Voyager crew could’ve become if someone like Tuvok had been in charge. It would’ve given them more depth and made them real people instead of just red jump suit aliens.

ii] The other cast members could’ve interacted with them, seeing parts of themselves in the other aliens. Example: Tuvok and Chakotay listen as a red jump suit alien tells them they followed the same policy as the two of them advocated to Janeway. They ask what happened. The red jump suit alien tells them they’ve raided ships for resources…and worse, they’ve watched other ships being destroyed when they could’ve intercepted. And perhaps destroyed ships themselves too…

This would be interesting on two levels: one, the sense of shame from the red jump suit alien, vicariously felt by Tuvok and Chakotay, as well as a rebuke against the concept of the Prime Directive and its non-interference.

Basically, the fact that the alliance is working makes the red jump suit aliens feel more shame because they never tried the same thing earlier.

Added to this, I would spend the first twenty minutes of the episode with Janeway and the new members debating whether or not to hunt down the other, hostile ships and destroy them before attempting to escape. The logic being: they’ll try and stop us anyway, why not eliminate the potential threat?

To build the tension, I would also have one ship pretend to join the alliance, take a lot of stuff and then be shot down by another alliance ship and destroyed.

Janeway, against her better judgment, lets the alien captain persuade her that it was necessary and to not kick him out of the alliance. This would grant Janeway an entire episode to overlook the ‘thieves and murderers’ in order to escape, before re-reading the Federation rule book and feeling ashamed, and then telling the most ‘motherfucker-ish’ of the alliance aliens to do one.

I suppose this kind of plot is more compatible with DS9, but Voyager did come up with the Year of Hell and the Killing Game so it’s not unheard of for them to go this dark. And I think it would’ve made the episode much, much better.

3] No Montage

In a two-parter, it would never have happened. The ending would’ve been five minutes longer at least, and given plenty of time to breathe.

4] The ending stays optimistic

I like the fact that every ship on the alliance survives. It would’ve left a sour taste if one of them had been destroyed, so I wouldn’t change this part. In fact, this is what I love about the episode: the positivity. This is what Trek does best, as much as I love DS9 and its misery-fiction.

Also, the dark parts of the episode are only used to enhance the light [relief] shown at the end. The coda is optimistic, but the journey there is as harsh as it needs to be, which would not betray the principles of Trek in any way.

Remember ‘Balance of Power’ from TOS? Same thing.

5] Forget Voyager, re-tool this concept for a movie

It probably is too late to recycle this plot for the new Trek films, but not impossible. If you include all my fixes, I think it would be glorious.

All you need to do is:

Change the red jump suit aliens to Vulcans

Make General Valen a Cardassian

Put some Klingons and Romulans in there too, and you’re set

You could even change the dynamics a little…if it’s the new Trek timeline, you could make the Klingons enemies at first, until they realise they have a lot in common with humans and form an alliance to escape together. The Cardassians could be friends at first, but ultimately treacherous.

There are so many possibilities.

Okay, I think I’m done.

Next: The erratic representation of tits in Trek: why Seven of Nine should’ve worn a jacket

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