A new starship is the flagship for a new network. When Paramount execs were trying to come up with a show that would bring their fledgling United Paramount Network an immediate identity as well as a large audience for its two-night slate of original programming, they looked at the crowd-pleasing franchises they owned and decided that yet another variation on their cash cow, Star Trek, was the way to go; thus Star Trek: Voyager. But fortunately for viewers, it turns out that for a show born of such blatant commercial motives, Star Trek: Voyager is a little miracle an immensely enjoyable, carefully crafted, well-performed creation. Take it from a viewer who has given every Trek incarnation a try and always come away admiring the concept but disappointed with the execution: Voyager hits pay dirt.
Voyager follows the plight of a Federation Starfleet crew lost in space. As we learned-or could barely grasp in the series' two-hour premiere, the U.S.S. Voyager is knocked off course by 70,000 light-years in some sort of black hole of a hailstorm or something. (Why do I get the feeling I am the only Trek watcher who never really understands how or why anything is supposed to have happened?) Similarly whacked out of kilter is a spaceship bearing a small population of Federation enemies called the Maquis. The captain of Voyager, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), agrees with the Maquis leader Chakotay (Robert Beltran, with little black squiggly lines drawn over his left brow for no apparent reason) that it's best to join forces to find a way out of this time-traveling nightmare. And so we have the first layer of Voyager drama: a team composed of people who are fundamentally distrustful of one another, yet compelled by unusual circumstances to work together.
Where the original Star Trek series was about innocent exploration, Next Generation about benign imperialism, and Deep Space Nine about the furrows in Avery Brooks' brow, Voyager has a different, more classical context: It's about journeying home, about finding one's way back to where one longs to be. As such, there is for the first time in the Trek ethos an emotional core to all the stiff-speaking aliens, phaser shoot-outs, and intergalactic hugger-mugger. Hardcore Trekkers may well decide that this quality makes Voyager too soft, and continue such reasoning into the sexist notion that Voyager wimps out because it has a woman as its commander.
But as Captain Janeway, Mulgrew pulls her thick length of auburn hair up into an imperious bun and strides around with commanding ease. She is easily the best actor in a lead Trek role ever: She avoids Avery Brooks' Deep Space distractedness, has more warmth than Next Gen's Patrick Stewart, and has far more expressiveness (as well as hair) than Star Trek's William Shatner.
Mulgrew gets strong support from the intense Beltran and Roxann Biggs-Dawson as a half-Klingon, half-human chief engineer who's all cranky, all the time. Tim Russ, given the unenviable task of following Leonard Nimoy and Brent Spiner in the traditional role of Wise, Emotionless Adviser, brings to his portrayal of the Vulcan Tuvok a most welcome wryness and restraint. On the other hand, the show's comic relief, ship's cook Neelix (Ethan Phillips), is enjoyable precisely because he's so unrestrained. A clever schemer who only pretends to be a chatty, capering fool, Neelix is a cut above the Trek saga's usual level of low humor.
I suppose it's only a matter of time before Voyager succumbs to the trait I've always disliked most about Trek productions: a dogged insistence upon turning plots into pseudo-profound metaphors for the follies of our own era. Still, if Voyager maintains its early excellence, it will go where no other Trek has gone before: into my living room every week. A-