In 1999, Star Trek: Voyager (STV) for a while would be the sole Gene Roddenberry series to come up with fresh episodes on the relatively new UPN network. That same year Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had its last episode, as had Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1994.
Accordingly in 1999, the future of the (Roddenberry) universe was in Captain Kathryn Janeway hands, it seemed.
How would she and the Voyager’s crew, that just like the crew of the Enterprise represented a blend of mankind’s, or rather, Federation’s finest, survive and cope with Annorax, the Kazon, Seska, Species 8472, the Srivani, the Borg and many other species and alliances?
And how would she keep Federation protocol and discipline intact on board, fight mutiny, desperation, enemy attempts to capture the vessel, enslave or kill them? The book at hand deals with some major themes and philosophical revelations related to the journey of the Voyager.
Until Star Trek: Enterprise premiered in 2001, just when STV was terminated, Starfleet’s Voyager not only explored regions where no one had gone before (this time rather unwillingly, as there were no plans to explore the Delta Quadrant), but the vessel also carried the entire responsibility to symbolize a future society (in micro scale).
That group of individuals not only now was led by the first prominent female Starfleet Captain: not one of the major officers was an average white male American.
Instead, that section in the command chain consisted of aliens, half-aliens, mixed-race humans and later, as the Borg character Seven of Nine entered, a half-human cyborg. Not to forget “the Doctor,” a crucial crew member that is a holograph. Neither cast nor the story would not allow a strong male leader. It is important to understand that also several of the main characters and officers on board are female (Seven of Nine, Kes and Torres).
On the surface, the show chronicles the odyssey of a mixed and diverse crew, that itself had the status of “alien intruders” in an entirely strange environment, 70,000 light-years from Federation space and is left without any backup, support or technological means to reach Earth, the main quest of the Voyager (which would change only during the last STV episodes).
That setting, in a way, mirrored the conditions many Americans experienced in the US of the mid-1990s, some authors in the book at hand argue. Then, several old certainties, Cold War strategies, a dominant white and male Supreme Court, well-defined gender roles and racial environments and a reliable set of allies and treaties were suddenly dissolving.
The Voyager’s crew, in order to survive and return to a region of order and protection, literally had to start from scratch to explore strange forms of life, and cope with most alien governments, alliances and pecking orders.
The ship’s survival depended on maintaining order, a permanent ship overhaul and the careful surveillance of the crew’s resilience and ethics. The crew successfully masters even the most difficult tasks and diplomatic quests, all, of course with a humanist and pacifist attitude, hard to hold on to in the Alpha Quadrant, but almost impossible to fulfill in the Delta Quadrant. “Voyager tackled the uncertainties of the ‘90s and offered new ways of looking at an evolving cultural paradigm.”
The launch of the series in 1995 was spectacular, as at that time, directors and producers obviously had learned from earlier (rather unsuccessful) attempts to represent diversity. Now they would not fall back on a repetition of stereotypical gender roles or racial biases that were plentiful available in the original Star Trek series. STV would be different: “In the great Star Trek tradition it took the lead in addressing important issues in America at that time ; not least because 2000 was an election year where those issues proved to be important battlegrounds for presidential candidates. Perhaps now, in this increasingly hostile environment of identity politics and the divisive rhetoric of hate, Voyager’s message of humanity and the collective search for understanding is more important than ever.”
While the current Star Trek series production asks a lot of the usually loyal fan base (for many audiences, Star Trek: Discovery stands as both an affront, waste of time and ultra-woke longing for galaxy-wide harmony, to give a short impression of fan criticism), STV in several reruns has attracted new fans with a specific vision of the 24th century for years.
Editor Robert L. Lively, a professor of English at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, presents fifteen essays arranged in four sections that deal with the main topics and some of the more controversial subjects STV offered in its seven-year run. While parts one and two are devoted to gender perspectives and the literary heritage of the star ship’s adventures, part three has the focus on new levels of identity in the Delta Quadrant, part four analyses the findings fans (and the crew) end up with, respectively. So there is a lot to read about the different characteristic of villains in the Delta Quadrant, Seven of Nine’s difficult quests to accept her past, her future as a member of a human society and her own idea of community, safety and home.
Furthermore, the many allusions to religion and STV’s uneasy treatment of it, besides many mysterious incidents on its voyage, mother-daughter bonds (Janeway and Seven of Nine and Kes), minority representation as well as holograph rights (!)) and the pros and cons of maintaining order and a humanitarian outlook, even if you are far away from home where those values originated and are respected.
The essays diverge in quality and length, and some fans (and scholars alike) will not comply with some of their messages. Be it for very speculative and political origins of a certain thesis or maybe because of missing evidence in the episodes. Other texts go into great detail and offer deep analysis of just a single episode of STV, in order to show a greater picture. Certain essays, however, are excellent, like the entire section three “Negotiating Identities,” where texts center on probably the most important tasks the Voyager crew has to engage with: maintaining or losing their respective identities as both individuals and crew on a Federation ship. A crew originally assembled to explore foreign regions of the Alpha Quadrant and to do so in accordance with the First Directive and Federation law. All of those clear identity markers at some time or another are at risk while trying to escape the Delta Quadrant. Here, the texts on B’Elanna Torres and mixed-race/species identity and the complicated quest of the Doctor to establish a personality with technology are recommended reading.
Exploring Star Trek: Voyager is qualified to fit on the Star Trek shelf. Many good ideas and observations are looked into here, if not always satisfactory. Great reading for Star Trek fans, even for the general reader with an interest science fiction and sociology, if not immediately understandable to newcomers to the show.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2021
Robert L. Lively, ed. Exploring Star Trek: Voyager. Critical Essays. McFarland. 2020, 286 p.