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"Star Trek" II: The Wrath of... Bakula?
2007-03-24 08:17
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Whenever I get in arguments with people about which "Star Trek" show was best, it always boils down to "The Next Generation" vs. "Deep Space Nine." Few people my age have seen enough of the original series to really judge, and those like me who have absorbed it all by and large are forced to agree with the assessment of Philip J. Fry: "79 episodes, about 30 good ones." You guys know which camp I'm in, but I can certainly see the argument for "Next Generation." They're both great shows, if you afford for rather long shakedown periods and the occasional misfire in the later seasons.

From time to time you meet people who are diehard "Voyager" fans, but often these are folks who just haven't seen enough of the other series to judge. (I suppose it's possible that there are a few people who have seen every single hour of "Trek" ever produced and still prefer "Voyager," but these people are wrong.) I haven't yet encountered anyone willing to stand up for "Enterprise," though.

At the same time I picked up the DVD sets for the first three seasons of "Enterprise," I began to watch "Voyager" reruns on Spike TV. I've made repeated attempts to get into "Voyager" over the years, but it's tough sailing. It's a poorly constructed show with a recurrent problem with snail-like pacing and a framing concept that requires the writers to insult the viewer's intelligence at least two or three times per season. The idea of flinging a Starfleet crew 70 years from home was a good one, but the incontinent "Voyager" writers simply couldn't resist cheating. The feeling of isolation the producers were shooting for is rather mitigated by the fact that Voyager runs into familiar Alpha Quadrant races and even other Starfleet vessels all the damn time. The series also has an incredibly annoying trapdoor effect. Whenever the writers run out of ideas for whichever nightmare race Janeway and company are battling at any given moment, the ship encounters a "transwarp conduit" or somesuch that flings them ahead out of danger and the writers away from all vestiges of accountability for their own dumb ideas.

All of these problems could have been overcome but for a completely unfixable flaw: Paramount's normally uncanny casting department fouled up almost every possible role on "Voyager." The potentially interesting roles (B'Elanna, Paris, Seven of Nine) are all filled with incompetent actors and talented performers like Tim Russ, Ethan Phillips, and Garrett Wang are saddled with badly conceived, poorly written characters with little opportunity to shine. The only exception, as I alluded to in my previous post, is Robert Picardo's holographic doctor, who's the only good thing in many "Voyager" episodes. It's not a good sign when the standout character in your ensemble cast is literally insubstantial.

And at the center, of course, is Kate Mulgrew's Captain Janeway, who might have been a really compelling figure on a show set in the Alpha Quadrant (indeed, I hope some future "Star Trek" project will afford her the opportunity to reprise her role as Admiral Janeway from Nemesis) but was completely the wrong choice for "Voyager." Janeway is so rigid and by-the-book that there's never any drama in any of her command decisions. You always know what she's going to do in "moral quandary" episodes, and unlike the similarly minded Jean-Luc Picard, her reasoning is usually shallow. Compounding the error in Janeway's characterization is the spectacularly pliant Chakotay, who as played by the milquetoast Robert Beltran takes all of about four episodes to go from rebellious Maquis raider to aphorism-spouting lapdog. The show could have gone several interesting places with the chemistry between captain and first officer... but they didn't.

If "Voyager" represents an initial good idea taken in the wrong direction at every turn, "Enterprise" is the opposite case. When I first heard that the followup to "Voyager" was going to be a show set a hundred years before the time of the original series, my immediate reaction was that the series' storytelling would be irreconcilably handcuffed by the weight of forty years' continuity. It is true that "Enterprise" plays fast and loose with the "Star Trek" canon from the pilot onwards. (No way a ship with a top speed of warp 4.8 could reach Qo'noS from Earth in a few days' time, c'mon, people!) The writers also use the half-baked "temporal cold war" concept as a similar no-consequences trapdoor as those accursed transwarp conduits. But... it's still a real watchable little show.

"Enterprise" succeeds where "Voyager" fails because it made a conscious decision at the outset to concentrate on three central characters, like the original series, and it wrote and cast all of them well. Scott Bakula was obviously a no-brainer pick as Captain Archer and while some fans have critiqued his tendency to rapidly flip from affable to raging, upon re-viewing the first season I can see how Bakula crafted the captain as a guy with a bit of a chip on his shoulder from the very beginning. When "Enterprise" premiered many focused right in on Jolene Blalock as the obvious successor to Jeri Ryan's "hot alien babe with huge rack" function. Berman didn't help matters any with the expoitative decontamination scene in the pilot, where T'Pol's nipples in Earth orbit could have been detected from Vulcan. But Blalock unlike Ryan is an intelligent and subtle actress, and T'Pol's politically and sexually charged interactions with the humans aboard Enterprise NX-01 make for an eye-raising spin on the classic Kirk/Spock dynamic. Finally, Connor Trinneer's Trip Tucker is the real star of the show as the kind of guy superior breeding techniques have weeded out from humanity by the time of the Enterprise-E. Uh, not that I am suggesting that southerners are genetically inferior. (Or am I?) Tucker is amusingly fallible and relatable in a way "Star Trek" humans seldom are. In one first-season episode he and Lt. Reed get mugged by a pair of honeys they picked up in a Risan bar, and Reed questions his judgement in following two strangers into a secluded basement. "Yeah, but they were gorgeous," Trip protests.

In order to enjoy "Enterprise" you have to get past the fact that all of the characters past the central trio and the terrific John Billingsley's garrulous Dr. Phlox are just seat-fillers. That's okay, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov themselves never really had very much to do until the movies. You can't help but feel a little bad for the game Anthony Montgomery, whose Ensign Mayweather is by a wide margin the least-developed regular in "Star Trek" history. But I don't think it's such a bad thing that the Hoshi episodes are few and far between.

I'm really enjoying my "Enterprise" DVD sets, despite going in with the lowest of expectations, and I'm already trying to figure out how I can get a hold of the fourth season for a similarly reduced price. (By the way, no discussion of the current state of "Star Trek" should pass without Paramount being sharply rebuked for the wildly disproportionate pricing scale applied to their DVD releases. If you can get your hands on the entire seven-season run of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for less at retail than a single year of "Voyager," something is awry.) On the other hand, when my TiVo gets so full of "Voyager" episodes that I have to either watch them or delete them it's a real chore sitting through them. I would rather watch an entire season of a spinoff dedicated to Morn from "DS9" than suffer through another episode about Tom Paris being Too Cocky for His Own Good.

2007-03-24 11:09:35
1.   Ken Arneson
I pretty much agree with everything you've said. I really liked Enterprise a lot--I even tolerated the theme song--but I hated the finale. That didn't happen.

There's two things that Star Trek really could never figure out: sex and killing off their main characters. The sex/romance stuff always seems like it was written by a 15-year-old. And has there been a single Star Trek death that wasn't just really, really lame? Eaten by a blob, falling off a bridge, electrocuted...c'mon.

2007-03-24 11:17:41
2.   Mark T.R. Donohue
2 Don't forget "shot by Gul Dukat in a scene that looks like they shot in all of two takes because Terry Farrell was late for a 'Becker' promotional junket."
2007-03-25 18:55:20
3.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Coincidence: The new "Simpsons" episode tonight had an elaborate "Star Trek: Voyager" joke in it.
2007-03-26 07:40:36
4.   Shaun P
1 When I think of sex and Star Trek, I think of DS9, which had more overt (and subtle) sexual references than every other Trek combined. Those guys got sex right.

You're completely right about the killing part, though. My favorite warped kill was the Voyager episode where Harry Kim died, but because there were two Voyagers in the episode, and on the second Voyager everyone BUT Kim died, that Voyager's Kim just went to the first Voyager.

I think that also demonstrates what Mark is saying about Voyager's writers.

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