Sunday, March 21, 2010

Before Six, there was Seven

The first few times I saw "Star Trek: Voyager," one of my impressions was that the beautiful Jeri Ryan was the weak link in the show. My complaints were that she seemed like the token "babe," she looks nothing like a Borg drone, and, while I am no expert on acting, I thought there was something overly stilted in her delivery. I also found it annoying that she pronounces the word "futile" in the American way, so that it rhymes more or less with "poodle" and doesn't sound very threatening.

I've now watched the series in its entirety, and my opinion has changed. I still don't like the way she says
"futile," but Seven is a really interesting character, and Ryan, while probably not the best actress on the show, does a fine and sometimes quite inspired job portraying the rescued drone. This is one of a few pleasant surprises I had while watching the last couple of seasons of "Voyager."

I began watching "Voyager" about two years ago — I never watched it when it was current — and in general it was a great surprise. I liked it almost as well as "The Next Generation," and perhaps would have even liked it better if the latter didn't score so many points for nostalgia. I enjoyed "Voyager" for its premise (of a ship lost in distant space, impossibly far away, trying to get home), for its darkness, and most of all for its characters. Of these, Seven is a standout.

The first time I wrote about "Voyager" on this blog, I had just reached the halfway point of the series, and Seven had just debuted, more or less replacing Kes, the "other" blonde female crew member. Kes (Jennifer Lien) was an Okampan — an alien — but personalitywise she was just as human as anyone else on the show. In fact, she served as a foil to several of the "less" human crew members, especially the Doctor, a hologram, and Tuvok, the Vulcan. Kes was sweet, she spoke in a soothing voice, and she shared a warm rapport with the maternal Captain Janeway.

By contrast, Seven is technically human but, because of her years in the Collective, unsure of what that means. She observes people with a fresh, logical eye, making observations that are sometimes biting and often hilarious. To some in the crew, Seven is an object of fascination and uneasiness. To others, she is a protégé, sometimes an unwilling one. She too has a close relationship with Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), but if Kes was the good daughter, Seven is the difficult, rebellious one, which, let's face it, makes for more interesting developments.

Some of my favorite Seven episodes are
"Someone to Watch Over Me," where the Doctor (Robert Picardo) tries to teach her to go out on a date, and "Child's Play," where she has to say goodbye to one of the children Voyager rescued from the Borg. In both shows, she is weirdly stiff, and yet you can relate to her quite a lot, which is the beauty of the character.

The show, which started out as an ensemble, actually comes to focus on Seven a bit. In some respects this is a downside — I would have liked to have seen more of other good characters, especially Tuvok (Tim Russ) and B'Elanna (Roxann Dawson). In the series' second half, B'Elanna's role is basically reduced to being one half of a rather annoying couple with Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeill), though I did really like the episode where they got engaged ("Drive"), and I thought she was brilliant in the episode where she argues that her unborn baby's Klingon characteristics should be genetically modified before its birth ("Lineage").

The show scores wins other areas as well. For example, I was glad to see that in its second half, the series continues with its attention to visuals — space always looks beautiful from Voyager. On this show, a spatial anomaly isn't just an explanation for a plot twist, it's also something cool to look at. Perhaps this is because "Voyager" was produced in the age of the Hubble.

This respect for imagery carries over into the design of some of the alien worlds that Voyager visits. I especially liked the richly imagined city that was featured in the two-parter "Workforce." In this episode, Janeway, Seven, and others have their memories erased and are made to work in a vast factory, where the walkways look like wrenches.

Sadly, as often happens with long-running TV shows, some of the characters become inconsistent. This is especially true of Janeway. In most episodes, she's as perfect as Jean-Luc Picard, yet the latter half of the series has her occasionally veering off to Planet Inexplicable. In one episode, she recklessly endangers Voyager in order to pursue a rogue Starfleet captain ("Equinox"), and in another she ignores her duties as captain because of her own melancholy ("Night"). A season five episode has her cavalierly describe the Doctor, whose rights as an individual she previously had protected, to a system as insignificant as a replicator ("Latent Image"). In most of these cases, the seeds of Janeway's flaws are realistic, but the show's writers take them so far that they stop being believeable. In some ways, it's refreshing to see a Star Trek show feature a captain who is imperfect, but the approach should have been more measured. It's also slightly annoying that the franchise chose the first female captain to be the first with leadership flaws.

For me, the absolute worst episode in the series has nothing to do with character — it's just really bad. In "Threshold," Tom Paris evolves into a weird being that the Doctor pronounces a highly evolved form that humans will reach in the future (apparently he can either see the future or doesn't know that future evolution occurs based on yet-to-be-determined environmental factors). Janeway herself later evolves to this form, then both she and Tom roll back to a primative step on the evolutionary ladder, becoming lizardlike creatures who mate and have lizard babies before being restored to their properly evolved present-day selves, without the misplacement of a single hair in Janeway's auburn bob.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of my favorite episodes is "The Void," in which Voyager is sucked into a starless pocket of space, where there are no resources of any kind, and no exit — just other captive ships that troll about looking for people to prey upon. Like many of the best episodes, it's both creative and dark, and rather like another series I enjoyed — the reboot of "Battlestar Galactica." That program owes a bit to "Voyager," I think, both thematically and in some of its details, such as the use of hot pseudo-human characters with numbers for names. As I watched these last few "Voyager" installments, I found myself wondering more than once, could there really have been a Six without Seven?

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Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.