Friday, 18 October 2013

Not to specification: The crew of Star Trek: Voyager

So recently I have been re-watching Star Trek: Voyager.

There, I’ve said it. Let’s get past that. I needed something undemanding on the brain, OK? I didn’t set out to watch it – I was a victim of circumstance.

The trouble is I am a child of the Blockbuster Video age. I just can’t wrap my head around streaming. The infinite choice makes it impossible for me to take a chance on something (as I was forced to in the days of video rental) because the lure of some mysterious TV Eldorado urges me on, through a jungle of countless pages and options. The quest inevitably grows hopeless, whereupon I become disgusted with myself and fall back on old favourites from my teenage years:

Hence Voyager.

Watching it again I was struck by a couple of things: First was the memory of the shameful connotations the show has for me, more than any other scifi viewing. I think its because I got into it (aged 18ish) through my brother, who in turn discovered it through a chef at the hotel where we worked.

I seem to recall spending an evening with them both, "doing a Voyager-a-thon" in a disused hotel room the size of a broom cupboard. I remember eating crisps in shimmering blue TV light, choking on the scent of the chef’s sweat, listening to my viewing companions occasionally say something like: “Tuvak rocks”. I remember the chilling sense that I had fallen very far from the cool tree, and may never find a way back.

There's always an
exception to the rule
However, on this latest viewing what really hit me was the writing. I don’t mean the usual Star Trek complaints, like the way characters have to refer to space animals with irritating binomials: “You’re as stubborn as a Talaxian mule”, “as keen-eyed as a “Therbian Hawk”, "as greedy as a Bolian pig" etc. (to which I always wind up yelling at the telly: “Just say pig! I don't care where the pig's from!”)

I’m talking about the manner in which a tremendously promising ensemble of characters was almost immediately allowed to stagnate into a crew of un-relatable Mr Perfects.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great stories in there, and one or two crew members - notably the Doctor, Seven and Tuvak - have their moments. But for the most part the Voyager writers have a perverse habit of refusing to write characters to their own specifications.

Here are just a few examples:


Specification: A half-Klingon member of the Maquis, the resistance fighters who have been waging a desperate war on the edge of space. Generally regards Starfleet as appeaser of an evil, occupying alien force. Thrown to the far end of the galaxy by “The Caretaker” and forced to join up with Starfleet Vessel Voyager. Proud, violent, impulsive, furious.

Ooh, she is stroppy
Sounds promising right? After all, Kirk himself told cadet Savik that “the Klingons don’t take prisoners” - as many Maquis of WW2 refused to do. She should clearly then be someone who has summarily executed her fair share of foes, and therefore a destabilising element on Voyager.

Yet the writers give her nothing to do but propose fixes (“it might be enough”) to the endless stream of remarkably unthreatening threats which the ship encounters. Oh, she has the occasional tetchy moment, but the writers don’t go close to exploring how the rebel hell-bitch they specified would act if forced to accept Starfleet orders - espcially from a Captain like Jinxed Janeway.

If she led a mutiny, or harboured a homicidal grudge, then maybe I’d believe she was a member of a warrior race. I might also be interested in her. Instead she is pretty much indoctrinated into Starfleet living death by halfway through season 1.

Meanwhile those warrior genes are only explored through jaw-splittingly tedious “coming to terms with my heritage” episodes, spent buggering about on the holodeck reenacting hunting rituals - which all has the feel of a "one-eighth Hopi" New York stockbroker spending a weekend in a tepee.

Speaking of which...


Specifications: Resigned from Starfleet on principle. Leader of a privateer-style Maquis group. Has spent years fighting a desperate war at the edge of reason. Presumably seen some serious sh*t and done some serious sh*t in order to survive/ fight his war. Domineering, ruthless, brave.

So why is he such a bloody bore? I have no trouble with him deciding to make the alliance with Voyager work, but he should maintain discipline among his people as a pirate captain would – tossing them in airlocks, slapping them about, employing a bit of a Kirk-style itchy trigger finger. He should be untidy and uncomfortable in that dumb uniform. Instead he is manicured and hair gelled, wearing that tattoo with all the authenticity of a Chinese character on the back of a student’s neck.

His personality is all wrong too. He should be gruff, instinctive, fatalistic. Instead he spends most of his time remembering everyone’s birthday and handing out pep talks. The writers also insist on exploring his bloody heritage again. Do we really want this guy to be moaning about how “I don’t understand the ancient language of my people?” Hell no. We want him slapping anyone who suggests he tries to grow. And as for dream quests, well…let’s not even go there.

It's a real shame, because if he did come across as more of a frontier gun-slinger it might, you know, make him likable. It might also create genuine sexual tension between him and Janeway, which would be interesting - and certainly more entertaining than the chaste tea-and-biscuits thing they have in the show.

Tom Paris

Specifications: Disgraced protégée from illustrious Starfleet family. Covered up his own mistakes in a crash that killed three colleagues – later, racked by guilt, he confessed. After being dumped by Starfleet he joined Maquis, but was captured on first mission. An opportunist convict who brings shame and disgrace wherever he goes. Cynical, reckless, gifted, insecure.

The writers obviously started out loving this guy. How do we know that? Because in the opening episode we have his fat back-story dropped in our laps. Compare him to Janeway, supposedly the lead character, of whom we learn nothing save that she’s a brassy lady with big hair. You’ll also notice that they cast a bloke with one of the sleaziest faces in TV history. You can tell the writers wanted to have fun with him.

Then, just as with the others, it’s all jettisoned like an overheating warp core. I can forgive Paris accepting his field commission on arrival in the Delta quadrant, because hey, he needs some time to
Deeply sleazy
figure his next move. But wouldn’t a guy like this plan to dump these losers the first opportunity he gets? Why doesn’t he pinch the Delta flyer and sneak off in the small hours, planning to camp on some secluded planet with nice beaches and gullible natives? Of course he would come back eventually - he could even rescue Voyager from some peril if they liked. But it would make him a little unpredictable.

But no. Nothing happens. From episode two his character is loyally entombed on the bridge, bleating “Yes maam” to every crazy Janeway order. Even during an episode like 30 days, during which he is demoted for disobeying orders, he does it all in the name of literally saving a world. He has no questionable intentions. Which makes him DULL.

Oh, the writers have the odd crack at livening him up. They give him gags - but they are rarely amusing, mostly lame references to Jeffries tubes and warp nacelles (rather than prejudice and wordplay). Eventually he's reduced to the Doctor’s straight man, which is almost sad.

In that respect, his romance with Torres makes sense. After all, if you refuse to let either personality play out, what’s left but sex? But even here the relationship is of zero interest. Paris should sleaze onto other women. That might engage one or two of those elusive female viewers (I’ve heard that some women, in rare cases, love a bastard?) and help make his character a little hot-blooded. Torres should slap him about in response. And shouldn’t they have amazing make-up sex?

No. Not a bit of it. It’s all being late for candle-lit dinners, because they're so darn dedicated they had to pull an extra shift. It's impossible to give a damn about them. Why? Because you don’t get chemistry between two inert substances.

After all that initial promise Paris is left a neutered pup, with nothing to fill his time but holodeck recreations of “20th century” science fiction - which look an awful lot more entertaining than his own adventures. And that can’t be right, can it?

Oh , I forgot. There is one more thing that defines Tom Paris. His friendship with…

Ensign Kim

Specifications: Er…he loves his folks?

OK, so this guy doesn’t really have specifications to live up to, but as the ultimate purveyor of the oblivious chirpiness that permeates the Voyager crew, Kim drives me nuts.

It wouldn’t be a problem if he was the only torch-bearer of that damned can-do optimism: that at least would have the potential to make him a funny foil for other character’s frustrations (“Kim, why don’t you take that picture of your folks and shove it right up your ****”). Instead the chirpiness infects everyone, giving the whole group the feel of the galaxy’s dullest cult.

I could only forgive a character as thin as Kim if one episode we saw him pick up a phaser and go on a glass-eyed rampage about those endless, identical corridors, executing everyone of his relentlessly up-beat ship-mates.

That I would believe.

I’ll have to leave it there for now. After all, what's worse: writing Voyager or complaining about it on your obscure blog? Suffice to say that I do still love the show, and I’m not blaming the writers entirely. They do seem shackled by the same Roddenberry-ordained moral code which prevents any post-TNG character becoming truly lovable. Besides, they do pull it out of the bag here and there - episodes like Equinox, Year of Hell and Scorpion have some great B-movie fun in them.

I just felt compelled to write because every time I revisit an episode I can’t help but think:

I wish this thing had more balls.