I have been watching the later seasons of "Voyager" for the first time lately, and it has been slow going. Watching in tandem with the second and third years of "Enterprise," I've been surprised -- nay, shocked -- by how much better the latter show is. It's not just that the cast is across-the-board superior, but despite having many of the same creative types who worked on the sixth and seventh seasons of "Voyager," the percentage of "Enterprise" episodes that are insultingly stupid is much smaller. With its blink-and-you'll-miss-them teaser segments, "Enterprise" also rarely reprises the ridiculously common "Voyager" instance of the viewer being able to determine the premise, conflict, and resolution to an episode before the opening credits run.
Here's something funny about "Voyager": There are hardly any interesting recurring characters. In contrast to "Deep Space Nine," it's a joke; Kasidy Yates, Molly O'Brien, and Ferengi bartender Broik are more interesting than many "Voyager" regulars. But even the strictly anthology-style "Next Generation" had a handful of good repeating guest roles, usually filled with solid actors. But "Voyager" is bereft. The early seasons made a half-hearted attempt to introduce some running villains, but since no new race emerged, no individual heavies popped out of the muck either. The writers also seemed to take a while to grasp the scale their framing concept had imposed upon them. With only a limited number of seasons to negotiate 70,000 light years, any culture with broad enough influence to trouble Voyager for more than a couple of weeks of show time would have to be historically monolithic on a level dwarfing any established Alpha Quadrant race.
Such a race already existed in "Star Trek" lore, but with an assist from the movie Star Trek: First Contact, "Voyager" made the Borg lame. On "Next Gen" they were scary because they were completely unlike every other "Star Trek" race ever; there was no chance of their falling apart because of political infighting or inequalities in society or, I dunno, anti-neutrinos or something. "Next Generation" and (particularly) the original series both have a certain fascist underpinning. Everybody, deep down inside, just wants to be in the Federation (read: America), and no matter what race to which you're born, failure to closely observe Federation ethics will bring your downfall. Every time. (No wonder so many old-school fans had trouble wrapping their minds around the pan-cultural "Deep Space Nine.") The Borg used to be impervious to speechmaking, but "Voyager" goes to the well so many times that the writers are drawn like helpless moths to a light source. Disconnected Borg! Little kid Borg! Ex-Borg in Borg AA! Borg civil war! And they tried to do the same thing to the Q, too. I hate you, "Voyager" writers. Why didn't they have the Borg add to their culutural distinctiveness with an episode ending with something besides a thrilling last-minute escape from their curiously easy-to-flee Death Star-like super awesome CGI base thingy?
But all you need to know about "Voyager" and recurring characters is this: With apparently no interesting recurring Starfleet characters having accompanied Janeway and the regulars to the Delta Quadrant, they had to steal one from "Next Generation," Dwight Schultz's Reg Barclay. Yes, Barclay. In fact, Schultz ended up in more "Voyager" episodes than he made "Next Gen" appearances, this despite the fact that Barclay was still very much in the Alpha Quadrant. I wish some of the creativity that had gone into making Reg Barclay a virtual member of the Voyager crew had gone into writing a few original new characters on to the ship proper.
So on to "Good Shepherd," which is one of the rare good episodes in the dreadful sixth season of "Voyager." The premise draws from the "Next Gen" how-the-other-half-lives show "Lower Decks" with a bit mixed in from the "DS9" scared-engineers-in-a-horror-movie "Empok Nor." Three random Voyager crewmen, none of whom have ever been seen before and all but one of whom will never be see again, get singled out in an evaluation by Seven of Nine. Janeway, realizing she knows nothing about any of the stragglers, decides to take them on an away mission. I imagine you can predict the rest of the action. What I like in particular about the episode is that for once Janeway's imperiousness puts her person in actual danger; her decision to go out in the Delta Flyer accompanied by the three least competent members of her crew almost kills her, and it's hard to say she didn't have it coming.
"Good Shepherd" is one of those few successful "Voyager" episodes that makes you regret the paths not taken in the bulk of the ones that don't work. Chakotay has a very intriguing line of dialogue about the Voyager crewmen who aren't fitting in; he says that on a starship there are always a certain number of people who just don't make it through their first year. If the ship was still in the Alpha Quadrant, all of these redshirts would have been rotated to other assignments or would have left Starfleet altogether long before the time of this episode. Well, that makes sense. But why are we just hearing their stories now in the sixth season? The way "Voyager" was set up, with the Maquis and Federation crews, convict Paris, undercover Tuvok, the unproven EMH, and especially the rigidly Starfleet Janeway, the possibilities for intracrew conflict were endless. Except for "Good Shepherd" and a few first-season episodes, the only episodes where the crew really get into it with each other are ones where some kind of sci-fi explanation for their behavior is at fault.