SFX Issue 1

June 1995

Here you go: the first ever Couch Potato…

Couch Potato

Star Trek: Voyager

Matt and Dave you already know. (As we arrive at Dave’s house for the evening, he’s watching an episode from Doctor Who ’s “The Ribos Operation” on video.) Clare enjoyed Star Trek: The Next Generation , but continues to be slightly disappointed by Deep Space Nine . Maff is a Star Trek sceptic. Rich shares the house with Dave. I am here merely to observe and record.

Our Voyager -thon begins with the series’ two-hour pilot episode.

7pm “Caretaker”

“Shields at 60%!”

“Our fuel line has ruptured! Attempting to compensate!”

“We’re barely maintaining impulse!”

A grey, reptilian face appears on the viewing screen of the stricken vessel.

“Maquis ship, this is Gul Evek of the Cardassian Fourth Order. Cut your engines and prepare to surrender or we will...”

The Maquis captain defiantly cuts the communication link and, as his ship is rocked by another phaser blast, launches his last two photon torpedoes at the Cardassian warship, which is closing in for the kill. Running out of options, he steers into a nearby plasma storm, hoping his pursuer will dare not follow.

But Gul Evek isn’t giving up so easily, and continues the chase. His prey’s fate seems decided. Except – phew! – the lumbering Cardassian ship collides with a plasma stream and spins out of control. The plucky Maquis will live to fight another day.

Or will they? This, as it turns out, is no ordinary plasma storm, and the ship’s sensors soon detect a mysterious shockwave-like phenomenon heading towards them – and it’s moving fast, too fast for them to outrun. As the Maquis brace themselves for collision, the Star Trek: Voyager title sequence begins to roll for the first time.

Clare: Where’s the bathroom?
Matt: I’ll order some pizzas.
Maff: I’ll, er, give you a hand.
Dave: And I’ll make some tea.

But it’s actually quite a good title sequence, showing the USS Voyager flying past a series of planets and through a gas cloud. The noble theme tune is by Jerry Goldsmith (who wrote the soundtracks for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V), and evokes a suitable sense of the unknown.

Dave: Here you all are. Careful, it’s hot.
Matt: Thanks, Dave. Oh look, there’s the new captain.
Maff: A woman, eh? I thought they were always admirals.
Dave: Not true. The Enterprise NCC-1701C in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” also had a female captain.
Rich: (Arriving home from work) I hate Star Trek . (He quickly disappears upstairs)
Clare: I miss Jean-Luc Picard.

Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is wonderful, with the wisdom and authority of your grandma, but none of the wrinkles. When she folds her arms, alien civilisations tremble. Should her hairdo collapse under the pressures of battle, she can reassemble it so swiftly that we initially suspected a continuity error. But she has a warm side too, confirmed by a touching scene involving her tedious husband and a dog.

The Maquis ship we previously saw under attack has vanished without trace – and along with it an undercover Starfleet spy. (The Maquis, as you’re sure to remember, are Federation members who became freedom fighters when their colonies were handed over to the Cardassians as part of a treaty.) We join Captain Janeway as she is preparing to take the USS Voyager in search of the lost vessel. In familiar Star Trek fashion, we’re treated to a shuttle fly-by of the new ship as it sits docked at Deep Space Nine.

Clare: It looks a bit like a whale.
Maff: Or a shoe.
Dave: (Turning the sound up slightly) Actually, if you’d been listening, you’d know it’s got bio-neural circuitry and can go at Warp 9.975. I think it’s great.
Matt: Yeah, but I can’t quite work out why the engine pods keep waggling up and down.
Maff: Maybe it’s so it can fit through narrow gaps or something.

Although there’s an amusing cameo from Quark, the scheming Ferengi from Deep Space Nine , you won’t spot any familiar faces among the Voyager crew. Except, perhaps, Lieutenant Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) – confusingly, the actor played an almost identical character in The Next Generation episode “The First Duty.”

Paris is interesting because, basically, he’s a git. He was thrown out of Starfleet for committing perjury, and became a mercenary for the Maquis. But on his first mission he was captured and thrown into a Terran penal colony. Janeway asks him to join the mission because of his knowledge of the Maquis. Although this will mean betraying his former employers, he quickly agrees when Janeway offers to arrange his release in return for his help. Once on board, he discovers that no-one seems to like him – particularly the ship’s doctor, who gets up and leaves when Paris tries to join him in the dining room.

Clare: Aw. That was really cruel.
Maff: But he’s horrible. Really creepy.
Matt: It’ll be good to have someone on board who’s a bit crap, someone to dislike. Let’s just hope he doesn’t somehow “prove himself” during the episodes to come, and gradually earn the respect of the crew, etc etc.

Voyager departs, and soon reaches the Badlands, the last-known location of the Maquis ship – whereupon they’re hit by the same shockwave that battered the Maquis. There’s a blinding light and everything goes black. When Janeway comes round she discovers that a) most of the crew are dead, b) the ship is badly damaged, c) there’s a strange spacestation-like structure outside, and, d) Voyager is 70,000 light years from its previous location, on the other side of the galaxy. The same fate appears to have befallen the Maquis ship, whose cantankerous captain eventually agrees to a truce.

The spacestation turns out to be the Caretaker, a being on whom the Ocampa, a race living underground on a nearby planet, have become completely dependent. (The subtext presumably being a parallel with the way communism destroys the ability of people to think for themselves. Or something.) Before the episode is up we’re treated to an excellent space battle, several enormous explosions, the arrival of the pizzas, the forming of an uneasy alliance between the Starfleet and Maquis crews after the latter’s ship is destroyed, and a metal walkway collapsing just seconds after an injured officer is pulled from it.

Matt: That was good, I thought.
Clare: Yes. Much better than DS9 , or that terrible The Next Generation pilot episode.
Dave: I’m not sure what the Americans’ problem is – lots of them see to hate it, even though it’s doing pretty well in the ratings. I’m still not sure about that theme tune, though.
Matt: Captain Janeway seems just about right, too. Maybe Geneviève Bujold’s disappearance was for the best...
Maff: I’m sure that underground city was a shopping centre...
Rich: (Appearing at the top of the stairs)

While in a normal Star Trek episode, being whisked 70,000 light years from home with no way of contacting the Federation wouldn’t be a problem, things aren’t so simple for the USS Voyager. Janeway explains to the crew that even at maximum warp it would take 75 years for them to reach Earth, so they’re going to have to find another way back.

The scene is therefore set for a Wizard Of Oz / The Incredible Journey style voyage home. And with no bungling Starfleet admirals, suspicious new recruits or Romulan-Cardassian-Klingon friction to prop up the storyline, Voyager’s scriptwriters are certainly going to have their work cut out.

So far so good.

9.09pm “Parallax”

Episode two, and the crew of Voyager are already falling apart. B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson), the engineering officer from the Maquis ship, is in trouble for punching one of the Starfleet engineering crew. But Chakotay (Robert Beltran), formerly her captain, and now the Voyager’s first officer, still wants her as chief of engineering, above her Starfleet rival. Captain Janeway has some thinking to do.

B’Elanna is another strong female character. She’s half-human, half-Klingon, and is inevitably torn between her two natures, a conflict which originally made her drop out of Starfleet Academy. During the course of “Parallax” she saves the day a few times, and Janeway decides to give her the job.

Chakotay, meanwhile, is doing his best to integrate his officers into the crew. He’s a native American Indian, and rather sour, but definitely leadership material.

Maff: He hasn’t really done much yet, has he?
Clare: And everyone still seems a bit wooden. The scriptwriters could learn a lot from watching something like NYPD Blue .
Maff: (As another explosion rocks the ship) It looks like the cameramen already have.
Rich: (Off again, having eaten his fill) Bye.

We also see a lot of the permanently irritated holographic doctor in this one. He’s a back-up program who can be activated when the real doctor gets killed. As his character develops, he’s befriended by Kes (Jennifer Lien), an Ocampa who Voyager took on board in the first episode. Kes is a bit odd, and has some sort of telepathic power, so prepare yourself for lots of “Nnngh, I sense something out there, Captain” type stuff.

The what? The plot? Er, Voyager encounters a quantum singularity with a ship trapped in it. They are unable to contact the ship, and when they try to fly away they keep re-encountering the singularity. And the other ship turns out to be their own reflection. They must escape somehow. Oh dear.

Dave: Well, the character development was quite good.

10.01pm “Time and Again”

The Voyager is caught in the shockwave of a devastating explosion on a nearby planet, and, sure enough, Kes senses something unusual. The crew investigate the planet, only to discover that some unexplained disaster has destroyed all life there. As they search the surface, the away team finds itself slipping through subspace fractures in time, and Janeway and Paris become trapped in the past, on the day before the explosion. As they attempt to prevent the impending disaster, the rest of the crew try to bring them back to the present.

Maff: For an advanced civilisation, they’ve got pretty crap wristwatches, haven’t they?
Matt: And the “on location” bits look really weird, for some reason – like a load of people in silly costumes wandering around a carpark.
Clare: The little kid’s quite sweet, though.
Dave: Kids should be banned from Star Trek .

With its time-travelling storyline, this one seems to be trying to repeat the success of The Next Generation ’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. But it falls a bit flat, and the ending leaves you feeling ripped off.

Maff: If they ever get home and they’re asked what they got up to in the Delta Quadrant, they’re going to have to reply “Er, not much.”

10.53pm “Phage”

Hmm. As the seeds of doubt about Voyager begin to germinate, the next episode centres on Neelix (Ethan Phillips). Neelix was picked up in the first episode along with Kes on the rather shaky grounds that his knowledge of the area might be useful. He’s the comedy character – like Quark in Deep Space Nine , but not nearly as good – and rapidly becomes irritating.

Clare: No, he’s not. He’s sweet.

Whatever. Fuel supplies are running low, so Voyager decides to investigate a planetoid which scans suggest is rich in dilithium. Neelix joins the away team and quickly gets into trouble when he’s attacked by an alien. Beaming him back to sick bay, the crew discovers that, bizarrely, his lungs have been removed. This naturally causes him problems. The doctor now comes into his own as he improvises some temporary holographic replacements – and the search for Neelix’s lungs begins.

Maff: But hang on. Why exactly couldn’t they make him some artificial lungs again?
Matt: And if the baddies turn out not to be so bad after all, why didn’t they humanely kill Neelix before extracting his lungs?
Dave: Sob.

“Phage” doesn’t really hold water plot-wise, and relies on character development – particularly of the doctor and Kes – to keep your mind from wandering. There’s a good bit in a hall of mirrors though...

Maff: Why didn’t they just shoot at the nearest ship?

...and we get to hear the line “I’m a doctor, Mr Neelix, not a decorator.” But the audience is rapidly losing interest.

11.45pm “The Cloud”

Indeed, the party is over as far as Maff and Clare are concerned.

Clare: We’ve, er, got to go.
Maff: Yes. Maybe we could borrow the other tapes sometime. Possibly. Bye.

Which is unfortunate, because suddenly, against overwhelming odds, Voyager takes a turn for the better. Spotting a nebula rich in omicron particles, the crew decide to risk taking Voyager inside to top up their energy reserves. Meanwhile, Janeway is pondering her position, wishing she could abandon her traditional detachment from the crew and become more of a “mother” to them.

Inside the nebula, Voyager comes under attack, although from what isn’t clear. The crew retreat to lick their wounds and prepare to move on, but B’Elanna discovers that the nebula is in fact a giant living organism which they have inadvertently wounded. The Incredible Journey then becomes Fantastic Voyage(r) as they plunge back into the creature’s innards to repair the damage.

Although hardly revolutionary, this is a well-paced episode with the action supplemented by plenty of crew interaction. Chakotay introduces Janeway to the idea of “animal guides”, and there’s an amusing revelation about B’Elanna. The doctor is particularly entertaining.

And an enjoyably tongue-in-cheek exchange takes place between Tuvok (Tim Russ) and Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), spoofing Star Trek ’s preoccupation with the phrase “I’ve never seen anything like it before.” Tuvok is Voyager’s Vulcan security chief and was the Federation’s spy on board the Maquis vessel. But despite an interesting line in sarcasm, he hasn’t really done a lot so far. Kim, too, is struggling as a character. A young officer fresh from Starfleet academy, he doesn’t seem to be rising much beyond being young and, er, fresh from Academy.

Voyager was looking like it might survive after all. But, with one episode to go, and the pizza long since coagulated, would we?

12.38am “Eye of the Needle”

There’s excitement aboard Voyager as a wormhole is discovered. But will it lead to the Alpha Quadrant – and home?

Matt: £10 says it will.
Dave: Nah, it’ll be the Beta Quadrant.

Although the wormhole turns out to be too small to fly through, the crew send out a probe which then relays a message from a ship on the other side. It is, indeed, the Alpha Quadrant. The crew then have to work out how to take advantage of the link.

Revealing more would ruin the story, which gives a good sense of the Voyager crew’s plight. (Resist, if you can, going “Ahh” as Janeway gazes wistfully at a photo of her husband/dog.) For the first time, the writers take advantage of Voyager’s unfortunate position – up until now it might as well have been 70 light years from Earth as 70,000.

Kes sticks up for the doctor, who is still being treated as a mere computer program, and there’s a valiant attempt to prop up Kim’s character by giving him something to do. The ending has an air of poignant uncertainty too.

Matt: What did you think?
Dave: There weren’t nearly enough space battles, but I’m quite impressed. It seems to have the strong characters of DS9 , but without the limitations of being set in the same place every week.
Matt: Yeah. I wonder if it’s really different enough from The Next Generation , though. Are they going to find enough mileage in the 70,000-light-years-from-home idea, or are they going to have to start recycling The Next Generation plots before too long?
Dave: If they haven’t already. Are you off home, then?
Matt: Home? I wonder if I’ll ever see home again…
Dave: You mustn’t give up hope.