In part one of this two-part post, I took a look at the first four Star Trek series pilots; The Original Series’ pilots “The Cage”(1964)/“Where No Man Has Gone Before”(1965), The Next Generation’s (TNG) “Encounter at Farpoint” (1987) and Deep Space Nine’s (DS9) “The Emissary.”(1993).
For this entry, I want to take a look at the last three Star Trek series pilots, starting with Star Trek: Voyager’s “Caretaker”(1995), Enterprise’s “Broken Bow” (2001), and finally, Discovery’s “Vulcan Hello”/“Battle at the Binary Stars”(2017).
“Welcome to Voyager…”
Both TNG and DS9 had been launched in syndication; meaning that the episodes were sold to individual markets across the country. But 1995’s debut of “Star Trek: Voyager” (VGR) was to be the flagship series of the new, fledging (and short-lived) UPN Network; a US TV network born just before the slow erosion of broadcast network television began (a slow erosion that continues today, due to increasing high-quality original content from streaming services, internet and premium cable networks). But the 1990s were a bit more optimistic; the Fox Network had only launched 9 years before and had experienced much success (“Married, With Children,” “The Simpsons,” and “The X-Files” were some of their well-known successes). Paramount Studios had high hopes that UPN, with VGR as its gauntlet, could play with the big boys.
So, only two short years since the launch of DS9 (a series that was still finding its legs) and Paramount launched VGR to replace the departed TNG. UPN’s failure as a network aside, VGR itself went on to produce 7 full seasons of episodes.
But I’m not planning to do an entire post on VGR. The only VGR I want to focus on right now is the pilot episode “Caretaker.”
Federation starship USS Voyager, Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) commanding, is sent to find a rebel Maquis ship in a dangerous plasma storm. Both ships are then mysteriously abducted to the Delta Quadrant on the other side of the galaxy by a enigmatic being called ‘the caretaker.’
Like TOS’ Talosians, the caretaker tricks the two ship’s crews with illusions of a rural farmhouse setting to buy time while it tests their compatibility with its own DNA in the hope that it may produce offspring.
So far the story is a mashup of TOS “The Cage” the pilot of 1965’s “Lost in Space.” The ailing caretaker has spent a millennium mysteriously assisting (in a godlike way) a race called the Ocampa; a race of short-lived, vaguely elfin-looking people who would be overrun and annihilated without their caretaker’s help. The caretaker hopes that its potential offspring would assume that burden when it dies.
The crews of both Voyager and the rebel Maquis ship work together to solve their predicament.
Along the way, they take in the annoying native ‘guide’ Neelix (Ethan Philips) and his creepily too-young Ocampan lover Kes (Jennifer Lien).
The caretaker dies, and Janeway destroys the caretaker’s station to prevent its technology from falling into the hands of the Ocampa’s enemies, the Kazon (think Klingons having a string of really bad hair days), thus destroying any chance Voyager (and its newfound Maquis crew members) from returning the way they came.
In short; it was okay, but disappointing.
The Play’s the thing…
Once again, there are great production values (the show looks terrific for 1990s television), but the script (by Michael Miller and Jeri Taylor) feels a bit clumsy in spots, with a sagging midsection and some exposition-heavy dialogue that sounds exactly like…well, exposition-heavy dialogue.
For example, the ill-fated Betazoid pilot “Stadi” (Alicia Coppola) has an embarrassing little expository bit about Voyager’s oh-so-incredible “bio neural gel packs”, which are utterly unimportant throughout the entire series, and especially so in “Caretaker.”
Another writing issue that really hits me right between the eyes is the frequent referral to “Chakotay” (Robert Beltran) as an “Indian.” I mean, Jeezus, I know this was 1995 (I was there) but even in those relatively unenlightened times, I still recall a bit of cultural sensitivity slowly creeping in. 1995 wasn’t exactly the era of “Billy Jack.” It was post-“Dances With Wolves.” Many people were already referring to the First Nation peoples of North America as ‘Native Americans.’ I would certainly imagine a far more accurate nomenclature for Chakotay’s people than “Indians”; especially in the 24th freaking century (!).
The people of India are the only ones to rightly be called Indians. The indigenous peoples of North and South America are NOT.
Again, some seriously clumsy writing…
A gaping plot-hole.
But my biggest gripe is with the ending of “Caretaker”; Janeway feels she has no choice but to destroy the caretaker’s array to prevent the Kazon from using it against the Ocampa. Her Vulcan tactical officer Tuvok (a suitably dry Tim Russ) has already found the program aboard the array that will send Voyager back home to the Alpha quadrant, and he is ready to activate it. But Janeway feels they have to stay behind to destroy the array personally.
Doesn’t the Voyager have delay-detonation devices in its arsenal? Kirk and Scotty were able to jury-rig one together in TOS’ classic episode “The Doomsday Machine” in a couple minutes. The device allowed a crippled starship’s impulse engines to overload on cue, and rendered the episode’s dreaded ‘planet killer’ harmless.
Janeway’s technology is 100 years more advanced. Surely the egg timer hasn’t become an obsolete technology by the 24th century? Why couldn’t Janeway simply delay the destruction of the caretaker array long enough for Tuvok to activate the return program and send them back? Their initial abduction was instantaneous; so surely sending them back wouldn’t take long either, right? The enemy Kazon ships didn’t have transporter technology, so they couldn’t have beamed to the array and prevented its destruction in time. The array would’ve been in NO danger of falling into the Kazon’s hands. Either way, Janeway would’ve been home and the entire premise of the show would’ve been undone.
So there; that’s my single biggest nerdy-nit with “Caretaker”… but it’s not the only one.
Some weak/annoying characters.
Jennifer Lien’s “Kes” is so bland she barely registers. Her delivery is monotone (though she has a lovely voice), and she comes across as nice, but somewhat vacant. Lien is also made to wear a Keebler-elf wig that just looks distractingly ridiculous.
I can’t say I shed too many tears when the character left to make room for the far more interesting-in-every-way Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).
I’m also not a fan of Neelix (Ethan Philips). The character is just a shade (and only a shade) less annoying than Star Wars’ own infamous “Jar-Jar Binks.” Nothing against the actor, and Philips has a great wit whenever he takes the stage at conventions, but the character of Neelix is just so cloying and false that I don’t buy him (let alone like him). There is an attempt to make him a Quark to Tuvok’s Odo, but it just doesn’t have the same appeal for me.
Robert Beltran’s “Chakotay” doesn’t register very strongly as a character, either. It’s no secret that the actor was unhappy during his time on the show, and I can understand why. He’s not given a whole lot to do for a first officer (so unlike Spock, Riker or Kira). Not to mention all the hoary Native American cliches he’s saddled with; vision quests, medicine bags and such. It’s a bit much.
Okay, let me add a few positives for a more balanced look…
Great overall production value.
As noted above; the show looks really nice for 1990s television.
Interesting use of the L.A. Convention Center as the Ocampan ‘underground’ but it does give some scope to the pilot, as does the location work in the California high desert.
A few standout cast members.
Some of the cast really have a firm grip on their characters right out of the box, particularly Kate Mulgrew (“Captain Janeway”), Tim Russ (“Tuvok”), Robert Duncan McNeill (“Tom Paris”) and Robert Picardo’s brilliant Emergency Medical Holographic doctor (no official name, other than “Doctor” or “EMH”).
Picardo is a delight to watch, and many future episodes would be wisely devoted to his character.
Roxann Dawson adds a bit of fire to her half-Klingon engineer “B’elenna Torres.” I also thought Garrett Wang did an able-enough job with a character (“Ensign Harry Kim”) that was sadly never given much to do.
Oh, and to those who would criticize Mulgrew’s performance? I give you UPN’s first choice in the role; a far stiffer, nowhere near-ready-for-primetime Genevieve Bujold. Bujold (who was let go after two days of filming) is a decent movie actress (1976’s “Coma”) but she just had NO chops for television. She doesn’t project at all, and she feels more like a Vulcan than a human at times. Her cold, stiff delivery lacks all of the warmth and charm necessary for a series’ lead in a show like this one.
While the line between TV and motion pictures has blurred considerably in this millennium, they were still very different mediums in the 1990s. Mulgrew, for all the character’s flaws (writing issues, not acting issues), really delivers exactly what is needed in “Caretaker.” She has all the energy and charisma that Bujold simply seems to lack.
Champagne bottle moment.
There is a funny little scene aboard Deep Space Nine (Voyager’s port on its way to the Maquis badlands) as Ferengi barkeep “Quark” (Armin Shimerman) tries to pawn some cheap ‘rare’ stones to a gullible Harry Kim. Kim tells Quark he was ‘warned’ about Ferengi hustling at Starfleet academy. Quark’s mock-rage over the ‘scurrilous slurs’ told about his people at Starfleet academy still cracks me up. The scene is even more timely today, with the current climate of heightened cultural sensitivity and awareness (though I’m not sure Quark would be the bad guy these days). It’s one of my favorite scenes in “Caretaker” and it’s largely due to Shimerman, who just owns it.
After the daring and experimental Deep Space Nine, Voyager felt like a retrograde step for the franchise. The only ‘new’ elements it offered to the familiar ship-based Star Trek format were the ‘rebel’ Maquis crew members (who were never really much of a threat after the first season) and the ‘lost in space’ angle. The lost-in-space angle faded as well, since the audience was never really allowed to feel any sense of diminished resources or an overextended ship and crew.
The ship was always clean, the uniforms were always pressed, the hair was always perfectly coiffed, the men were always clean-shaven, and even the outer hull looked pristine from year to year. They also seemed to periodically stock up on both weapons and spare shuttlecraft LONG after they should’ve been depleted of both. The ship always looked like it was just a few days out of a starbase. This undermined the premise for me to the point where I began to lose interest.
VGR is my least favorite of Star Trek series. I wouldn’t go so far to say that I hate it, but it’s just too predictably safe and dull most of the time; especially given the show’s potentially bold premise.
If VGR had only lived up to its own convictions, it could’ve (and should’ve) been something more akin to Ron Moore’s daring “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009), and not some half-hearted TNG remake.
While I had many issues with VGR, I did enjoy Jeri Ryan’s “Seven of Nine” character when she came aboard in season four. Seven piqued my interest, and not for any juvenile ‘va-va-voom’ reasons, either. I honestly hated those stupid catsuits the actress had to wear, and I wish they’d just given Seven some variant of a standard uniform. Ryan deserved as much. She is a damn good actress who only stole so many episodes of the show because they frankly needed to be stolen. Thanks to Seven of Nine, the Doctor and Tuvok, there are maybe a dozen or so VGR episodes that I still enjoy revisiting, even now. Maybe even twenty or so, in total.
But watching the pilot “Caretaker” again was a bit tortuous, I won’t lie.
Back to the Past.
In what seemed like another ill-conceived idea, the next Star Trek pilot would both a ship-based series and a prequel (prequels are very tricky propositions). The new series was called “Enterprise” (ENT), and it only added ‘Star Trek’ back to its name in its second year, out of concern for brand recognition. Yet surprisingly, it worked out better than I expected.
The pilot was called “Broken Bow” (was written by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga) and came out in September of 2001 (right before 9/11, in fact; which definitely had some influence in the show’s direction later on).
****DILITHIUM CRYSTAL-SIZED SPOILERS!****
“Broken Bow” refers to a rural town in Oklahoma, in the United States of the year 2251. A farmer observes a chase between a crashed Klingon courier named Klaang (Tommy “Tiny” Lister) and two slippery “Suliban” shapeshifters in hot pursuit. Klaang lures them into a silo which he then destroys, taking his two pursuers with it. Klaang is then shot (wounded, not killed) by the farmer.
Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) is recalled to Earth by Starfleet and their Vulcan High Command overseers to observe the Klingon at Starfleet medical.
Archer insistently volunteers to take the wounded Klingon back to his home world of Kronos aboard the Earth starship Enterprise NX-01, against the protestations of the Vulcan ambassador Soval (Gary Graham).
Archer gathers his crew; “Denobulan” medical officer Phlox (Jonathan Billingsley), expert xenolinguist/white-knuckled-flyer comm officer Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), helmsman/‘space boomer’ Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), tactical officer Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating), plus Archer’s longtime friend and chief engineer, Charles “Trip” Tucker III (Connor Trinneer).
They are soon joined by a Vulcan ‘observer’ T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) who is assigned to the voyage as a concession to Earth’s untrusting Vulcan allies.
In short order, the NX-01 departs in an elegant spacedock egress that brings to mind the launch of the refit Enterprise NCC-1701 in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979).
Shortly after achieving warp speed, the ship is boarded by the Suliban and Klaang is captured. It is determined he was taken to a trading post on planet Rigel X. Archer is determined to get him back, and orders the ship to Rigel X.
On the planet, Archer learns through a short-lived Suliban double-agent that there is a ‘temporal cold war’ going on, and that her people are being manipulated from unknown operatives in the far future. Archer eventually recovers Klaang aboard a Suliban ship, encounters the mysterious ‘future guy’ giving the Suliban their marching orders.
There is a scuffle between Archer and time-shifting Suliban agent Silik (John Fleck). Silik is (seemingly) defeated, and Archer is beamed back to the NX-01 in the nick of time using the ship’s as-yet-untested-on-humans transporter system.
The dishonored Klaang is delivered to his ungrateful planet, where the Klingon High Council retrieves the information stored in his DNA which warns of a temporal cold war plot to destabilize the Klingon Empire. Rather than thanking Archer and his crew, the Klingons more or less tell them to get the hell out of Dodge.
T’Pol stays with the NX-01 and the ship’s official mission of exploration is underway.
Champagne bottle moment.
An old recording of warp-drive inventor Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) is played at the launch ceremony for the NX-01. Cromwell reprises his role from the movie “First Contact” in a lovely passing-of-the-torch moment from the father of warp drive to his successors. He even gives the original version of the ‘to go boldly’ speech (split infinitive corrected).
Right off, “Broken Bow” has a lot more energy and authentic TOS Star Trek vibe to it than the somewhat lackluster “Caretaker.” “Broken Bow” is, in my opinion, the best Star Trek pilot since “The Cage.” It’s a rare prequel that stands more or less on its own, and actually made the Star Trek franchise feel a bit fresh and even inviting to a newer audience.
It was also the first Star Trek series to be shot in widescreen (previous ST series were in the old 4:3 aspect ratio; ENT is 16:9).
Later seasons of ENT eschewed film stock altogether and shot on digital video both to save money and to quicken production. Wise choice. The DV looked crisp and clean, even in 2005.
The cast is a bit more memorable than their VGR counterparts as well. I’ve been a fan of Scott Bakula since the days of “Quantum Leap” (1989-1993) and I looked forward to his Jonathan Archer. Though I wasn’t initially fond of his Capt. Archer’s attitude (he seemed more ‘George W. Bush in Space’ in those early days). I can safely say the character mellows a bit by the series’ end.
Other standouts are Connor Trinneer’s Trip Tucker (a charismatic blending of good ol’ boy “Bones” and miracle worker engineer “Scotty”) and Jolene Blalock’s token Vulcan T’Pol, who at first seemed to be channeling Angelina Jolie in that pilot episode, but quickly found her character early in the first season.
Linda Park’s Hoshi Sato also conveys the jitters without seeming too alarmist. Her reactions feel quite ‘real.’ Anthony Montgomery (Travis) and Dominic Keating (Reed) also do well with their material, though Montgomery would be infamously underused through much of the series.
Also happy to report that despite his appearance, John Billingsley’s Phlox is not some kind of annoying Neelix clone, either (thank goodness).
The writing of “Broken Bow” (by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga) actually manages to capture a bit of the pioneering spirit of early Star Trek in the pilot’s first hour.
Some of that newfound capital is blown by the second hour, where the pace starts to lag a bit (the middle act of most Star Trek pilots seem to have this issue). The ending is satisfying enough, and there are some interesting ‘first contact’ moments on Rigel X that well illustrate the earnest Earth crew’s lack of experience in the finer points of other species (a nice metaphor for the dangers of the ‘ugly American’ traveler). Allusions to future Treks are kept more or less to a minimum in “Broken Bow,” but would become more pronounced as the series went on.
If I had any other complaint in the writing of “Broken Bow”, it’s that the Suliban are too much of an on-the-nose metaphor for then-current US boogiemen, the Taliban. Using shapeshifters as metaphors for terrorists and infiltrators isn’t exactly subtle.
It is of endings that I wish to speak.
Sadly, a bit of franchise fatigue set in by the middle of the series’ run, and some of the stories began to feel like reheated VGR leftovers (with T’Pol acting as the new Seven of Nine). The third season’s season felt like a thinly-veiled, season-long justification for the invasion of Iraq (with the NX-01 crew entering a dangerous ‘expanse’ looking for alien WMDs), but the 4th (and sadly last) season steered the show back on creative course by re-heeding its own earlier mission statement and embracing past Trek mythology in earnest. I truly believe that if the 4th season had been the first, the show might’ve gone a full seven seasons.
ENT was given the axe just as it started to find itself. It’s a bit like TNG dying after season three.
Some of the series’ best was yet to come, I think…
Back to the Past…again (?).
****SPOILERS TO FLY BY AT WARP SPEED FOR DSC’s 1st SEASON****
Since I’ve already written at length about the two pilot episodes of Discovery (“Vulcan Hello”/“Battle at the Binary Stars”), I’m going to cheat a bit and cut-and-past the link to it here:
Champagne bottle moment.
DSC is so stylistically and structurally different from its Berman/Roddenberry-era predecessors that no characters, images or anything from those Star Treks would feel right or appropriate in this incarnation. There is James Frain’s Sarek, of course, but he’s a recurring character in the show and not just for a ceremonial sendoff.
Some observations I’ve made since that blog entry.
One of my biggest issues with the two-part pilot however is that we never saw the actual starship Discovery, let alone meet her coldly calculating Captain Gabriel Lorca (a delightfully devilish Jason Isaacs) until the third episode. While the ship does get a lovely hero shot in her introductory episode (S1.3 “Context is for Kings”), we don’t really get the chance to ‘fall in love’ with the ship the way we do in most of the other Star Trek pilots. This is a bit of a handicap, since the ships of Star Trek are actually characters themselves.
It would’ve been nice to actually meet the rest of the prime cast, especially the adorably human Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and the wonderfully Sheldon Cooper-esque Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp).
The same can be said for the ill-fated (or is he?) Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) as well. Each of these characters really grew on me during the season, and in hindsight (post S1) they now feel very much missing from those first two episodes.
The serialized format ultimately worked out well enough; better than I might’ve expected, given Star Trek’s traditionally episodic structure. DS9 was the last Trek series to do serialization well (with the Dominion War arc), and it was (unfairly) the least commercially successful Trek series at the time. Fortunately time has been kinder to DS9 of late, and deservedly so.
An advantage of serialization is that some things that may have frustrated audience in the first two episodes of DSC became a bit more clearer by the end of the season. Here’s hoping other nagging threads will continue to gain lucidity as the series goes on.
I’m also glad that the road-to-redemption arc for Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is now officially settled. DSC can get that angst out of its system. It was a bit of a downer to invest in a lead character who had nothing to live for but a return to prison. Here’s hoping she never looks back.
The glory of hindsight.
I hate to say this, since I enjoyed the two-parter pilot of DSC quite a bit, but I now think that DSC’s two-part premiere episode was a terrible way to kick off the series. In retrospect, “Context is for Kings” could’ve (and arguably should’ve) been the premiere episode.
We should’ve seen introduced to Michael Burnham as she is on her way to prison aboard the shuttle, and then see her being rescued by the USS Discovery in the very first episode. We could’ve learned her entire backstory with the USS Shenzhou and Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) in a flashback episode later on, maybe two or three episodes into the the season after we’ve known her for a bit.
For me, it would’ve been more interesting to see the good person behind the sullen convict’s mask afterward, than to simply see a goody-two-shoes character screw up. To slowly unravel the truth behind the already convicted Burnham grabs my interest a lot more than the dull, predictably linear way it was played out.
Knowing Gabriel Lorca’s ‘big secret’ now (DSC S1 finale: “Will You Take My Hand?”) also makes me wonder if we will ever meet his prime-universe ‘good guy’ counterpart someday (?). I know mirror-Lorca says he’s dead, but…just spitballing here, but maybe…he was lying?
I think that about covers my thoughts on the Star Trek pilot episodes. If I had to rank them in preference order (and I hate arbitrary rankings), it’d probably go something like this:
* The Cage
* Broken Bow
* Where No Man Has Gone Before
* Vulcan Hello/Battle at the Binary Stars
* Encounter at Farpoint
Once again, I loathe preference rankings (as well as numerical value ratings), and this ranking I’ve given certainly isn’t gospel. Somedays, I might enjoy “Encounter at Farpoint” over “Vulcan Hello.” Or “Where No Man…” over “Broken Bow.” Depends on my mood.
It’s as I say whenever someone asks which is my favorite Star Trek movie; it’s the one I’m watching when I’m in the mood to watch it. That’s my favorite…today.
To my readers, I would love to hear your comments/thoughts/musings on any or all of the various Star Trek pilots in the comments section of this blog as well.
Live long and prosper!