Having given myself permission to skip DS9, I started watching select episodes of Voyager for my “Trek to catch if you’re new and liked Disco” series. But then I thought, well, I don’t have much to blog about on a week-to-week basis right now, and this is one hundred and seventy-odd hours of television…
So I guess we’re doing this! Mostly weekly, real life and other distractions permitting, and with the understanding that it’s fine to take breaks, and getting bored and giving up doesn’t mean I’m a big failure. (Keep your expectations reasonable and your self-talk kind, that’s my motto.)
I received “Caretaker” on VHS for Christmas 1995. I was thirteen-years-old, and my obsession at the time was seaQuest DSV, which filled a TNG-shaped hole in my heart on account of how it also featured UST between a ship captain and his chief medical officer. (That was season 1. We … do not speak of what came after.)
Thirteen is an impressionable age, and if you’re the parent of a small, bossy, ginger adolescent girl, you should probably be aware that giving her a series led by a small, bossy, ginger woman is going to have consequences.
Are you gonna make this all about you, Liz, or are you gonna tell us what actually happens?
Fine, okay. A lot of set-up for Voyager took place in TNG and DS9, which makes it difficult to set out the background for complete newbies, but the key bits are:
A Federation starship and a ship of rebels — mostly former Federation citizens, plus a couple of spies and at least one serial killer — are stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Lacking resources and allies, they have to team up and make the 70-year journey home together.
Wow, that sounds like a good chance to break away from TNG’s thing where everything looked new and shiny and the characters were mature professionals working together with minimal conflict!
It sure was.
It sure was.
Voyager suffered from more behind-the-scenes drama than any Trek since TOS, on account of how it was the first series since TOS to be airing on a network rather than being made for syndication. And the network — UPN — was brand new, and relying on Voyager to be its flagship show. Voyager needed to be a guaranteed success.
How do you do that? You replicate the most successful entry into the franchise: TNG.
So we start with the writers. Same writers and showrunners as TNG, all whom were burned out and exhausted. Same set designers, same costume designers. They were more than keen to do something new with Voyager, but the network was very, very skittish.
But more about that if and when we get to season 3.
Back to “Caretaker”. Is it actually, you know … good?
Do you know how many times I’ve watched “Caretaker”? I could no more tell you whether it’s good or bad than I could review my little finger.
It has some clunky dialogue. Some of the characterisation is off, although the actors settle into their roles faster than on previous Treks. It’s a television pilot from the 1990s, so it’s full of exposition.
Its biggest flaw? It’s the very first Star Trek led by a woman. But the POV character is Tom Paris, White Dude — and though Tom will evolve into a likable character, he starts out as a complete tosser.
The Tom Paris problem
Tom was conceived as the Star Trek version of Han Solo: hotshot pilot, ladies man and rogue.
“Okay, that’s just the fanboy ideal of Han Solo.”
Yyyyyyup. And don’t worry, he’ll end up turning into a complete dork, and it’ll be great. But in the meantime…
Look, if you’re introducing your first female series lead, maybe having her very first scene involving a guy being sleazy is not a good choice?
It’s a simple set-up: Janeway visits Paris in prison — a super-pretty park in “New Zealand” — to recruit him, a former Maquis rebel, for her mission to find a missing ship, and the spy she has embedded aboard. But it’s a terribly difficult scene to watch, because it’s just typical of the way some men diminish women in the workplace. She’s there to do a job, he’s … not quite hitting on her, but certainly attempting to be charming.
And that, my friends, is our POV character for the pilot. He goes on to be outright creepy at another female officer, before befriending new grad Harry Kim, Actual Ray Of Sunshine, Who Doesn’t Deserve All The Shit He’s Going To Get For The Next Seven Years.
You’re not exactly selling me here
I like to be upfront about the flaws in things I love.
So what else should I know about?
The Maquis captain/future first officer, Chakotay, is Native American, and pretty much everything to do with his identity through the whole series is varying levels of racist.
Right? It was a perfect storm of Problems:
- The good news is, they hired a Native American consultant to advise them on writing a First Nations character. The bad news? He was a con artist — a white man who made a fair amount of money out of claiming to be a Native American.
- The writers had their own racism to deal with, and Chakotay wound up being a mishmash of cultures from different nations across North America.
- Chakotay was played by Robert Beltran, a Mexican American actor; it was a couple of seasons before Chakotay’s heritage was belatedly moved south of the US border.
- Here’s a good essay about the depiction of Indigenous Americans throughout Star Trek, and particularly Chakotay.
- And, finally, it was made at a time when appropriate language was in flux. I mean, it always is, to an extent, but it’s really jarring to hear people talk about “Indians” and “tribes”, and even in the mid-90s, in Australia, we were sort of going, “Is that … still appropriate?”
Also, Beltran is kind of an asshole, to the point where I went from being a hardcore Janeway/Chakotay shipper to wishing he had been killed off mid-series.
I’m almost scared to ask if there’s anything else I should know about
- Uhhh, I really love Neelix as a character, but his relationship with Kes is … not great.
- Janeway’s hair is notoriously bad. More network interference: she needed to be feminine, but not too feminine, and apparently a torturous updo was the way to go? There’s a reason my first reaction to Kat Cornwell was, “Ooooh, a senior woman in Starfleet with reasonable hair!”
- Voyager is way too dependent on technobabble, and it’s apparent from the very first scene of the pilot.
- So the thing? Where the titular Caretaker wants to make the Federation types feel “at home” by putting them in a simulation of a midwest farm, complete with corn on the cob and sexy farm girls? It’s peak The Universe Is Actually America.
- At the time, “Caretaker” was criticised for having an anti-welfare subtext. It wasn’t intentional, but it’s there, and it’s super not great.
- (Remember when Bill Clinton was considered a heartless, callous politician who didn’t care about the poor? Sometimes I miss the ’90s.)
And what … exactly … do you love about this show?
I’m here for the characters, goddammit, and how they go from being A Ragtag Group of Misfits to A Family. And despite the missteps above, the actors all hit the ground running in “Caretaker” — even Beltran — and the chemistry they’re going to develop is already apparent.
Kate Mulgrew absolutely kills it as Janeway. There are moments where you can see signs of external issues around A Woman In Command, and in some ways those will persist through the whole series, as showrunners, writers and the network disagree about femininity and feminism in this context.
But Mulgrew herself is completely assured, and that, more than anything else, sells the show. Janeway is confident in her abilities and choices, but not invulnerable.
The performances all around are much more assured than other Trek pilots, even from the relatively inexperienced actors like Garrett Wang and Jennifer Lien. (Lien went on to have a rough life after she left Voyager, with a criminal record including charges for domestic violence and drug-related offences. It’s tragic, because she was luminous as Kes.)
So while “Caretaker” wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, and isn’t as rewatchable as DS9’s “Emissary” — which was slower and more cerebral, and also had Space Politics — it’s the first step on a journey.
Just like this post.
- One of my favourite moments was only included as a continuity-fix: Janeway fixing her hair as she makes her way down to engineering. It was very humanising.
- Garrett Wang had the most magnificent floppy ’90s hair in this episode, I love him.
- It bugs me that the first officer, pilot, chief engineer and entire medical staff are killed off, and no one takes the time to mourn, or treat them like anything but plot devices.
- And also, the doctor and first officer being all, “Harry, you are brand new at this job, maybe don’t become BFFs with the convicted felon on your first day” is treated as if it’s somehow … unreasonable? That is quite solid advice! It’s completely reasonable for those guys to keep Tom at arm’s length and treat him coldly! He killed a fellow officer in an accident, lied about it, got kicked out of Starfleet and became a terrorist! Just because he’s a blond-haired, blue eyed man doesn’t mean he shouldn’t face the consequences of his decisions, and sometimes those consequences include being ostracised!
- The Ocampa have some of my favourite Alien Fashion in all of Star Trek, on account of how they’re really into loose dresses, leggings and ankle boots. And grey. I know it’s meant to be because they’re not living their short little lives to the fullest, but … look, it’s comfy, it’s neutral, it’s office appropriate, I’m wearing it right now.
- But the very best outfits in the whole of the entire Star Trek franchise are B’Elanna and Chakotay’s Maquis costumes. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
Ranking Star Trek pilots in order of quality according to me
- “Emissary” – DS9 (despite some really awkward acting from certain regulars, this has layers of complexity which make watching and rewatching really worthwhile)
- “The Vulcan Hello”/”Battle at the Binary Stars” – DSC
- “The Cage” – TOS (it’s very much Of Its Time, which is going to put some viewers off — and reasonably so! — but Number One alone makes it enjoyable for me)
- “Caretaker” – VOY (I could swap this with “The Cage”, but I’m really excited to see what Disco does with Pike and Number One, so I’m a bit biased right now)
- “Where No Man Has Gone Before” – TOS (yes, TOS got two pilots — this is the second one, which introduces Kirk and slips Spock into Number One’s role)
- “Broken Bow” – ENT (I remember this being absolutely terrible, but it’s still better than…)
- “Encounter at Farpoint” – TNG (it’s just so bad, you guys)