I mean the ingenious coup of the late eighties and early to mid-nineties. It was very simple. And it was this. Hiring fantastic actors for the lead roles. Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway) and Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard). Easily the two best actors from the entire franchise, hands down. (I use the term actor for both men and women, just so we’re clear).
The rest of the cast from Voyager are all excellent, each and every one of them. Robert Picardo (The Doctor), Roxanne Dawson (B’Elanna Torres), Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris) and Jeri Ryan (Seven Of Nine) stand out in particular. Every so often a line will come that will make you think ‘Hmm, could have been delivered a little better…’ but overall the quality on offer from this ensemble is top-notch. The cast of The Next Generation, on the other hand, are about fifty percent good, fifty percent not so great. I’m not going to name names, draw your own conclusions on that one.
When other actors perform alongside individuals such as Mulgrew and Stewart, they have to work harder to stay up at their level, and as such quality spreads down to the rest of the cast, and even to recurring characters and one-off guest stars.
This was a coup because it moved Trek away from the camp shite of the sixties with one smooth step. Yes, it was still Trek, it was still moral dilemmas, space adventuring and pseudoscience and engineering, but it was no longer the unconvincing sets, mincing characters and terrible acting.
Of course, I am biased towards the talented Mulgrew and think she is the best of the leads without a shadow of a doubt, but Stewart shines in his role, and even Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko) does well. I watch far less DS9 due to strongly disliking the show, but from what I’ve seen of Brooks his has his own strength and style. Mulgrew’s got more command presence in her little finger than he has in his whole body, I’m ‘with’ her in a way that I never am with Sisko…but I digress. Stewart on the other hand is even better in the movies that he is in the show, First Contact in particular. I think this is because you see Picard struggling against the biggest enemy in Trek, the Borg Collective. He has to come to terms with himself and his past, and nearly loses himself along the way, trying to balance his inner turmoil against the exterior conflict going on around him. It’s fantastic stuff, and frankly we don’t see enough of this in TNG itself. Only when the Borg are involved do we really get the nitty-gritty that sets science-fiction apart from other genres, and that’s a shame, because when TNG shows it, it shows it well.
Voyager, on the other hand, has plenty of this. Seeing good honourable people simply trying to do their best under the hardest and most trying conditions. Watching these people at their best, sometimes their worst, fighting the good fight and prevailing triumphantly over whatever trouble assailed them. That is the CORE of science-fiction. You don’t have that, you don’t have sci-fi. Of course, these dilemmas and dangerous crisis’ don’t have to happen every week, in fact it’s something of a relief that they don’t. But these elements must be there.
Naturally, I shall provide some examples. No sense making a point and not being able to back it up. I’m trying to avoid MASSIVE spoilers, but there will be some, so if you haven’t seen any of these episodes you know the drill: OMFG SPOILERZZZZZ). Here we go:
- Night: Janeway experiences massive self-doubt and guilt over some of her previous actions. The crew pulls together around her, but she seems intent on a path that may lead to self-destruction.
- Equinox, Parts I and II: Janeway encounters another Starfleet captain acting with extreme immorality and committing genocide. Fireworks ensue. She starts to confuse justice and vengeance, and her single-mindedness, usually an asset, starts to affect her judgement.
- The Fight: Chakotay is afraid of losing his mind to an outside alien influence after Voyager become trapped in ‘Chaotic Space’, and is reluctant at first to do what must be done. He has to overcome his fear for the sake of the ship and his friends. The way he doesn’t hide his fear but confronts it is admirable.
- Extreme Risk: Torres is falling down into a dangerous cycle of self-harm and unnecessary risk taking due to earlier events.
- Mortal Coil: Neelix starts to doubt his religion’s teachings after being brought back from the dead, and begins to become belligerent and unpleasant as his belief’s are turned inside out.
- Dark Frontier: Seven surrenders herself to the Collective to save Voyager, and has to confront the duality inside her, the fight between Humanity and the Borg.
- Flesh and Blood, Parts I and II: The Doctor finds himself at odds with Janeway over holographic rights to life (Other holograms, not his own life) and take extreme action.
- Nightingale: Kim comes face to face with the realities of command and discover’s he’s not as ready for the pressures and rigours as he thought he was.
- Meld: Tuvok’s sense of identity, his Vulcan soul, is fractured by an ill-advised mind meld to try to discover the motive for a murder.
- Thirty Days: Paris finds his sense of obligation and duty torn between loyalty to Janeway and Voyager and his desire to help an alien world from future disaster and destruction. Despite the fact that most of the aliens don’t want his help.
- Scorpion, Parts I and II: A bigger threat than the Borg appears with intent to destroy everything in the galaxy, Species 8472. Forced into an alliance with the lesser of two evils, Janeway and Chakotay find themselves for the first time at serious odds with each other over whose side to take in a war that could threaten everyone in the Milky Way.
- Warlord: Kes is inhabited by a murderous warlord and finds her sense of identity and self slowly stripped away by her new persona.
Striving and struggling to survive, courage, ingenuity and intelligence, brilliance and integrity, risky and daring action, violence or peaceful solutions, and resolution. This is where science-fiction and Star Trek in particular runs circles around every other genre out there in terms of variety and quality, and, to quote Queen Elizabeth the 1st, ‘it is marvellous in our eyes.’
I know this entry changed it’s focus slightly halfway through, but that’s just the way it evolved as I wrote. Anyway, hope you enjoyed!