That was what I knew of Star Trek: it was a great dog sitter.
But one day, as I was walking in and out of the living room, I kept seeing the same scene replay, as if the TV had somehow gotten stuck — or was buffering improperly. Was my set malfunctioning — or was this a function of the plot? I hit “info,” and was informed that this was a fifth season offering called “Cause and Effect.” The next day, I located Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix and watched the episode.
Is there a better way to begin a journey into the Star Trek universe?
After viewing “Cause and Effect,” I wanted to see more. I mentioned to a friend that I was going to check out some of the best-loved Next Generation episodes, and he replied, “Like ‘The Best of Both Worlds’?” I had no idea what that meant, but I located it at the end of Season 3, and began watching: the first installment in my “random sampling” of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I didn’t stop till sometime in Season 6. I was too captivated. It didn’t take me long to figure out who was who, and if I realized I was missing out on some necessary backstory, the internet was there to bring me quickly up to date. There were actors and characters I liked more than others, and stories I liked far more than others, but nothing dampened my pleasure enough to drive me away. Somewhere around the middle of Season 6, I decided to vary my diet and sample some of Deep Space Nine, starting with “Improbable Cause”; once again, I continued uninterrupted for three seasons. Excursions into Voyager and Enterprise soon followed — then both seasons of Discovery.
All told, I’ve now seen roughly two-thirds of the Star Trek TV episodes, and I continue to fill in the gaps. (There’s not a season of any of the series that I haven’t sampled.) But nothing has had the staying power of Voyager Season 4. Nothing's come close.
I’m not a passive viewer, as regular readers here know. I’m never content to watch the characters go through their paces. I tend to study the various writers so intently that I come to discern their strengths and weaknesses and objectives. I like to understand seasons as an expression of the showrunner’s vision. And although I’m not a fan of backstage gossip, when it informs my viewing — in particular, when it helps explain story-telling idiosyncrasies — I’m interested. Voyager Season 4 fascinates me. It fascinates me almost as much as it entertains me. I can’t claim it has the star power and ebullience of the best of Next Generation, or the superior scripting, rich characterizations and heady acting skills that distinguish much of Deep Space Nine. It rarely has me on the edge of my seat for sustained stretches like Enterprise Season 3. But still it strikes me as perhaps the most magical case of creative alchemy in Star Trek TV history: a season that soars on the wings of talent, intuition, shrewd strategy, vulgar pandering and dumb luck. And friction — lots of friction. An undercurrent of tension runs through Voyager Season 4 — between writers, between actors, between characters — but the season is miraculously energized rather than hobbled by it.
It’s tough to discuss Voyager Season 4 and not start with Jeri Ryan and Seven of Nine; when you consider the impact that the actor and the character have on the season and on the series, everything else fades away. Even if, like me, you never saw an episode of Star Trek during its small-screen rebirth from 1987 to 2005, you still knew two things about it: you knew “Captain Picard,” and you knew “Seven of Nine.” Those two characters seeped into the public consciousness in a way that no one and nothing else did. In the case of Seven of Nine, it didn’t matter if you knew her backstory, or understood why her name was so odd. Her image was electrifying. You knew from the magazine headlines that she'd joined an established series, and you presumed she'd provided the spark that the show desperately needed. (Even knowing nothing of Star Trek, it was easy to guess at the truth.) And although Seven was conceived, in great part, as a fantasy for straight males between 13 and 30, that’s not what you saw as an outsider: you saw strength and empowerment.
And that’s, of course, where any dissection of Voyager Season 4 begins: with the creation of a feminist icon masterminded by at least one known chauvinist and misogynist (Rick Berman). But that’s part of what makes Season 4 so fascinating: that tug of war between what’s envisioned and what emerges. The casting of Jeri Ryan — and her astonishing ability to make you look past her tight-fitting garb — meant that Seven was going to develop as a character far beyond anyone’s expectations. I’m not going to delve into a detailed discussion of Ryan’s talents here: her brilliance is revealed in every line and every look. Sometimes, there’s nothing to do but stare dumbstruck at her bold, insightful choices. But I will say that no one on the series — certainly no one else on any Star Trek franchise, and very few actors on the small screen — had Ryan’s ability, as Seven, to convey so much in silence. Her face was extraordinarily expressive. Oh, she was a master with dialogue, but when the camera — as it did so often between lines — fastened on her face, she was able to relay just as much information without words. (Through the course of Season 4, you see the writers and directors recognize and adapt to that, often letting her register a response with her eyes, or the curve of her lips, or the slightest tilt of her head.) The joke behind Seven of Nine is that the Borg on the ship was the most expressive of any of them — the one who couldn’t be stilled unless she was literally in stasis.
Seven’s story-line in Season 4 — her intuitive yet methodical assimilation of human attributes and attitudes — is ideally suited to Ryan’s talents. Although Seven’s Borg background prevents Ryan from registering the lessons she’s learned with a traditional “lightbulb moment,” she’s such a vivid actor that we nonetheless see Seven seizing every exchange and every event as an opportunity for growth — while remaining resolutely true to her core beliefs, her singular perceptions and her unique delivery. (It’s hard to imagine another actor in the role making one-word declarations like “explain” and “unacceptable” so iconic.) Defiantly proud, Seven is forever battling with authority or testing its limits, and Ryan makes this unlikeliest of characters an audience surrogate — for anyone struggling with identity, or self-worth, or simple survival. It’s mostly there in the writing, but it’s always there in Ryan’s performances: the promise that individuality can coexist with community. Her journey in Season 4 is unflinching and uplifting: an uncommon combination. If the conception of her role began — in part — as a chauvinistic one, its exploration was decidedly humanistic.
I’ve seen the occasional fan complain that Seven “hijacked the show” in Season 4; one critic I quite admire argues that her integration into the cast isn’t as successful as Worf’s in Deep Space Nine: that as good as she is, she dominates too much of the story. But that assertion misses the point. Seven of Nine is the story in Season 4. I don’t mean that figuratively — she is literally the ongoing plot. She’s not merely a “new character” — she is a story-line, and to judge her any other way obscures what’s so novel and inviting about Voyager Season 4. Seven of Nine’s quest for identity and independence (both from the Borg Collective and from Captain Janeway’s rigid morality) and the other crew members’ responses to her — how they view her and treat her, and how their various relationships with her evolve through the course of the season — form what is easily the best serialized arc in Voyager history. It’s doubtful that Seven’s addition to the cast was devised as a serialized story-line — this is a show, after all, that had run afoul in Season 2 with its multi-episode Kazon arc — but once Ryan is cast, and once the writers decide, midway through the season, to focus much of the story-telling on the escalating conflict between Seven and Janeway, that’s exactly how it plays out.
And it does wonders for the season. It gives it the sense of purpose and momentum that distinguish other Star Trek seasons like Deep Space Nine Season 5 and Enterprise Season 3; it assures us that no matter how many standalones get in the way, there will always be an evolving element to return to. And in fact, one of the reasons that Voyager Season 5 — a better written season, and one that actually addresses some of the issues that trip up Season 4 — isn’t as compelling as its predecessor is that it lacks the long-term arc that is Seven of Nine. With Seven well-established by the end of her first season — with the sense that the bulk of her journey has been charted (after Season 4, the typical Seven story-line involves regression rather than enlightenment) and that she’s been accepted, if not fully welcomed, by the crew — her airtime becomes more commensurate with that of her colleagues. But as a result, the series becomes a tamer one: a return to a standalone format that provides its own pleasures, but rarely a mounting sense of expectation and gratification.
It’s not just Jeri Ryan, heaven knows, who elevates Voyager Season 4, and who personifies that frequent and fascinating dichotomy between what’s intended and what’s achieved. I’m also quite willing to declare Season 4 as Kate Mulgrew’s best season. It’s hard to watch the first few seasons of Voyager without viewing Janeway as a problematic character: her personality changes dramatically depending on who’s showrunning and who’s scripting. Sometimes she has the mind of a scientist and the heart of a humanist; other times, her steely resolve borders on the monomaniacal. Occasionally a writer’s depiction of the character seems at odds with their own conception — as in Season 2’s “Alliances,” in which Jeri Taylor, who had always favored a more methodical approach to Janeway, presents her at her most self-righteous and self-absorbed — and you’re left feeling bewildered. The issue isn’t addressed in Season 4 — Taylor’s approach is frequently undermined by Brannon Braga’s, who liked Janeway cunning and manipulative and authoritative. And of course, adding fuel to the fire, Mulgrew herself was miserable throughout the season: outraged at the creation and conception of Seven, incensed by her instant popularity in the press, and — by all accounts — taking out her rage on Jeri Ryan in the most unprofessional, callous and even childish of ways.
And yet, none of that chaos makes it to the screen. However Mulgrew manages to channel her own demons, and the conflicting characterizations of the current showrunner (Taylor) and the incoming one (Braga), she makes it all appear seamless. It’s not that Janeway’s character seems most consistent in Season 4 — she’s much more consistent when Braga takes over in Season 5; it’s that Mulgrew, miraculously, makes her inconsistencies feel character- rather than writer-driven. Maybe it simply took her four seasons to figure out how; maybe her outrage with Seven’s popularity made her work a little harder and dig a little deeper. However it happened, instructing Seven in the art of sculpting, she manages to be both intuitive and clinical; standing up to the Hirogen single-handedly, she makes a masterful piece of strategy seem like devout altruism. And when she sails over a ravine in “Concerning Flight,” she’s overcome by what might be called a sort of fierce ebullience. Janeway feels deliciously complex in Season 4, yet her complexities seem — as Mulgrew navigates them — to present a three-dimensional portrait, not an incongruous one. And in fact, the few times in Season 4 that Janeway isn't herself — experimented on in “Scientific Method” and mind-swapped in “Vis à Vis” — we don’t instantly suspect something is wrong, because the odd traits she’s demonstrating (in the former, a nasty disposition; in the latter, an unwillingness to listen to reason) are ones we’ve seen her wrestle with in previous seasons. By Season 4, Mulgrew has forged a character so rich that she and the writers can hide deliberate inconsistencies by referencing past behavior. That’s cunning.
Once Braga takes the reins in Season 5, Janeway becomes fiercer and leaner — and Mulgrew has praised that as her favorite take on the character. I suspect for Mulgrew, who very much wanted Captain Janeway to be a feminist symbol, that single-minded strength must have been very appealing — and indeed, her performance in “Counterpoint,” the tenth episode of Season 5 (a cat-and-mouse game with Mark Harelik, in which she ultimately emerges victorious), is the best work I’ve seen her do on the series. But after that, I find that Janeway’s aggressively self-satisfied demeanor results in some unfortunate acting choices: a lot of tics and mannerisms creep into Mulgrew’s performances. (Her hands grow especially distracting; she seems to be forever brushing aside imaginary objects.) I find Mulgrew never more persuasive than in Season 4 — and appropriately for a season that thrives on contradiction, it stems less from what she’s given and more from what she’s facing and fighting.
That tug of war between Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga that infuses Mulgrew’s performances impacts the shape of the season itself. Taylor held to Michael Piller’s Next Generation vision of stories derived from character. Braga liked to break story-telling boundaries — he liked event programming. The Taylor-scripted episodes in Season 4 are standard for her: “Day of Honor,” where Torres confesses her feelings for Paris; and “Hunters,” a slice-of-life tale about a mail call, and how the letters from home affect the core characters. And the archetypical Braga stories are the larger-than-life two-parters he pens with Joe Menosky: “Year of Hell” (which allows us to witness a season’s worth of destruction and degradation in ninety minutes) and “The Killing Game” (which positions the principals as unwitting pawns in a series of simulations — then folds the holographic universes on top of each other). But the two story-telling approaches balance each other perfectly. The Braga blockbusters are positioned with precision, eight and eighteen episodes into a 26-episode season; they give the season structural shape and story-telling ambition and weight — exactly when it’s needed.
Season 4 is the last character-driven season of Voyager; that wasn’t Braga’s priority. But it’s also the Taylor-run season in which Braga’s preferred vision (cemented in Season 3’s “Future’s End”) most asserts itself. And, as a result, it’s the one season where you’re equally engaged by the character-based episodes and the nontraditional ones. “The Raven” is a moving study for Seven (although it softens her too swiftly, and the writers instantly course correct); “Mortal Coil” is a splendid one for Neelix. “Scientific Method,” a derivative but disturbing nightmare scenario, is grounded by the character beats for Paris and Torres. The Doctor’s hubris gets the better of him in “Retrospect,” while "Prey" hones in on the escalating tension between Janeway and Seven. The characters and dynamics subtly shift and grow through the course of these episodes, and it’s lovely — but equally inviting are the outsized proportions of “Year of Hell” and “The Killing Game.” There are plenty of character-driven episodes in the seasons to come, but they’re less frequently the standouts. (“Child’s Play,” in Season 6, is a notable exception.) By Season 5, the audience favorites will become the ones that play with time, or challenge traditional story-telling tropes: “Timeless” and “Course: Oblivion” and “Blink of an Eye.” The concept episodes. They become the best-remembered installments, and although they’re striking and often moving, there’s something gratifying about the one season that can do it all: that can tell the kind of character-driven stories that Next Generation thrived on, then pause every few months to knock your socks off with a novel, overstuffed two-parter.
And although the push-and-pull of the season is part of what makes it so rewarding, there’s still a sense of real creative collaboration behind the scenes, and of people working well outside their comfort zone. The invention of Leonardo da Vinci's holographic workshop — a Taylor-made idea if there ever was one, at least in terms of the side of Janeway that it serves — comes via Braga and Menosky, then plays out in scripts penned by Bryan Fuller and Lisa Klink. The big set-piece in the second half of the season — the Hirogen trapping the Voyager crew in a World War II simulation (Jeri Ryan, as a nightclub chanteuse, gets to sing the theme from the 1942 film Now, Voyager, probably the best in-joke I’ve come across in all my Star Trek viewing) — is the culmination of a six-episode arc that commences with Klink’s comic two-hander for Robert Picardo and guest star Andy Dick, then continues with Taylor’s aforementioned “mail call” episode and Braga’s aforementioned “Prey.” "Prey" might just be the clearest case of creative alchemy: it brings back Species 8472 from the start of the season, weaves them into the Hirogen arc, and uses their literal battle to fuel Janeway and Seven's ongoing battle of wills. The character dynamics are strong and complex: Janeway is anxious to teach Seven the value of scientific curiosity and mercy, even if it risks endangering her own crew; Seven sees in Species 8472 (the only race the Borg was unable to assimilate) a threat to Voyager's safety and advises non-intervention. At the end of the episode, after undermining Janeway’s authority, Seven proceeds to undermine her confidence:
Seven: It is puzzling.
Janeway: What's that?
Seven: You made me into an individual. You encouraged me to stop thinking like a member of the Collective, to cultivate my independence and my humanity. But when I try to assert that independence, I am punished.
Janeway: Individuality has its limits, especially on a starship where there's a command structure.
Seven: I believe that you are punishing me because I do not think the way you do. Because I am not becoming more like you. You claim to respect my individuality, but in fact you are frightened by it.
In a series anchored by Janeway, the writers seem content to let Seven, her rebel disciple, have the final word and the upper hand. That the show would go so far as to consider that Janeway has let her cockiness get the best of her — that in offering Seven freedom from the Collective, she presumed that she could mold her in her image — is daring and startling. “Prey,” the season’s high point, is a character study generated by the showdown between two of Voyager’s greatest foes. It manages to be both intimate and epic: the episode where Taylor and Braga’s visions co-exist so gracefully, the result is paradoxically electrifying.
I won’t pretend that everyone in the cast is equally well-served in Season 4, but I’m not sure I see that as a necessary function of a good series. (I love Buffy Season 5, but I can’t claim it’s an especially strong season for Nicholas Brendon or Anthony Head.) But the assertion I see occasionally that everyone is shafted for the sake of Seven is nonsense. In addition to Mulgrew, Robert Picardo has a splendid season: his gifts for comic outrage and earnest outrage are both spotlighted (in “Message in a Bottle” and “Living Witness,” respectively). “Mortal Coil” is a powerful vehicle for Ethan Phillips: an examination of grief that's visually resonant and emotionally satisfying. And Robert Beltran gets a grab bag of scripts: two extremely well-done, one highlighting the kind of role at which he doesn't naturally excel (“Nemesis”), and the other, the kind at which he does (“Mortal Coil”); a lesser outing that he elevates with his performance (“Waking Moments”); and a dreadful one that no one can save (“Unforgettable”).
Robert Duncan McNeill gets the underrated “Vis à Vis,” which seems sadly dismissed by fandom. Folks argue that after a season of Paris and Torres furthering their relationship, Tom pulling away feels like an unlikely and arbitrary plot — except that’s exactly what men do a few months into a relationship. They get cold feet. And Tom’s particular way of coping seems to me very much in character. By this point in the run, the writers have recognized that McNeill is most convincing as a lovable mug, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, and that’s what he plays here. True, a better outlet for McNeill’s talents is provided in Season 5’s ongoing “Captain Proton” thread, but “Vis à Vis” is a good step in the right direction, and the body-switch plot — although done to death — becomes a neat visual brain-twister. Meanwhile, Garrett Wang gets only one great acting bit — suffering the Hirogen’s wrath in “Killing Game” (a late insertion when the episode ran short) — but it’s splendid, and prompted the writers to give him an even more tortured showcase in Season 5’s “Timeless.” Really only Tim Russ is underused in Season 4 — the one episode that should have been a standout for him, “Random Thoughts,” is hampered by a vague and tepid script — although he is given one of the season’s most irreverent and hilarious comebacks, when Janeway, battling persistent headaches, tears into him:
Janeway: It seems to me that people have been getting a little too comfortable around here lately. They're late for their duty shifts, taking mess hall privileges during non-designated hours. And a lot of people are spending more time on the holodeck than they are at their posts. You are security chief. Don't thirteen department heads report to you every day?
Janeway: Well, straighten them out.
Tuvok: Shall I flog them as well?
And although Roxann Dawson’s real-life pregnancy sidelines her for part of Season 4, the Torres-centric “Day of Honor” showcases her well, as does her character’s ongoing relationship with Paris, which grounds “Scientific Method” and “Waking Moments.” And Torres’s mistrust of Seven — which runs through the season — feels reasonable and convincing, and comes to a head nicely in the subplot to “Message in a Bottle.” It’s sort of a marvelous microcosm of the season, as it starts with an exchange that feels needless and random and turns into a subplot that’s deliberate and satisfying. At the top of the episode, Torres is complaining to Chakotay about Seven’s behavior. It feels like a time-killer. But later, Torres reaches her breaking point when she's recalibrating an interface, and Seven enters and challenges her work:
Seven: State your reasons for making these modifications.
Torres: State your reasons, please. It's not what you say, Seven. It's how you say it.
Seven: I don't understand.
(Torres turns to her. Her voice softens, in a sincere attempt to communicate.)
Torres: You may have noticed that some of the crew seem a bit on edge when you're around.
Seven: I was Borg. I elicit apprehension.
Torres: No, that's not what I mean. We're not afraid that you're going to assimilate us. We're just not used to... You just... (blurting) You're rude.
Seven: I am rude?
Torres: Yes. Yes! You order people around, you do things without permission, and whether you realize it or not, you come off as a little insulting. You don't even say “please” or “thank you.” Look, I don't expect you to change overnight, but try to remember that we are not just a bunch of drones.
(She returns to the equipment she was working on. Seven briefly considers, then turns away.)
Seven: Your attempt to recalibrate the interface is ill-advised. The risk of disrupting our link is too great.
Torres: In your opinion. That is exactly what I'm talking about. You haven't even been listening to me.
But their relationship starts to evolve later that episode, when Janeway, Torres and Seven are trying to talk sense into an unreasonable Hirogen warrior, via monitor. Midway through Janeway’s (ineffectual) efforts at negotiation, an energy beam strikes the Hirogen, and the transmission suddenly stops.
Janeway: What happened?
Seven: I generated a feedback surge along our sensor link.
Torres: You killed him?
Seven: It was a mild shock. He will recover.
Janeway: And when he does?
Seven: He wasn't responding to diplomacy.
Janeway: Is the sensor link stable?
Seven: Yes, Captain.
Janeway: Let me know if our friend gives us any more trouble. (She exits)
Torres (to Seven, admiringly): Mild shock? Not bad.
Seven: Thank you.
Torres recognizes a kindred spirit, and Seven learns to say “thank you.” And it feels like an event for both characters. (And of course, it’s not a “thank you” for help received; it’s a “thank you” for acknowledging that her outlook and skill set are useful. Seven learns, but on her own terms.)
With the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast, Voyager becomes unexpectedly, wickedly funny. The humor is always character-driven, and it all lands, whether it's humor of the “inappropriate behavior” variety or the “learning to adapt” variety. In the former column, there's Janeway teaching Seven to mingle at Neelix's celebratory feast, and Seven — upon approaching a group discussing how quickly children grow up — chiming in with one of the great conversation enders: "Children assimilated by the Borg are placed in maturation chambers for seventeen cycles." And in the latter column, there's the start of a Pygmalion-like relationship between the Doctor and Seven, as he hands her a script designed to teach proper deportment. It’s the hoariest of routines, but as Picardo and Ryan tackle it (him as gleeful as a child playing dress-up, her warily regarding each phrase as something foreign and foolish), it feels fresh.
Seven: “Please remain still so that I can treat your injuries. Thank you. I'm sorry, did that hurt? I'll try to be more careful. Thanks for being a patient... patient. Have a pleasant afternoon.” This is absurd.
Doctor: Not at all. Keep going, you're doing fine.
Seven: I don't see the relevance.
Doctor: I created these exercises three years ago to familiarize myself with the social graces. Let's continue. Exercise two, "The Workplace Encounter." Now I'll be the nurse, you be the doctor.
Seven: “Please hand me the hypospray.”
Doctor: “Of course, Doctor, immediately.”
Seven: “Thank you. Looks at instrument.”
Doctor: No, no, don't read that part, only the dialogue.
Seven: “Excuse me, nurse. This is the wrong hypospray. Would you mind finding the correct one?”
Doctor: "Not at all."
Seven: “Thank you. Did I mention you look lovely today?”
Doctor: “Oh, doctor, you're so charming.”
Seven: This lesson is terminated.
And as always with Seven, although there’s no “lightbulb moment,” the lesson's impact is clear. When she and the Doctor finish, she announces upon exiting, as if trying on the words for size, “Have a pleasant day.” And she’s fine with it. Comfortable, even — and perhaps just a bit pleased, with her progress and with herself.
The season finale, “Hope and Fear,” is a wonderful confection of everything that’s worked best in Season 4. It shrewdly builds on continuity: stemming from a consequence of Janeway’s partnership with the Borg in the season opener, while resolving a mystery left hanging in “Hunters.” In the final third of the episode, Janeway and Seven have been trapped aboard a ship barreling toward Borg space. Although they’ve devised a possible escape plan, there are no assurances that it will work, so as Janeway is making a critical adjustment to Seven’s eyepiece, she seizes the opportunity for a heart to heart. In effect, she looks back on a year’s worth of story-lines: “As I recall, this is where our relationship began. In a brig, nine months ago. I severed you from the Collective, and you weren't exactly happy about it. In case I never get a chance to say this, I realize that I've been hard on you at times. But it was never out of anger, or regret that I brought you on board.”
It’s a touching confession and, for Janeway, a sizable concession, one she concludes with the hope that her boundaries have been clear: “I'm your Captain. That means I can't always be your friend. Understand?” “No,” replies Seven, as detached and precise as ever: “However, if we are assimilated, our thoughts will become one, and I'm sure I will understand perfectly.” It’s such a shocking response that we laugh at its audacity; Janeway herself looks stunned. Then, turning toward Janeway, Seven turns it all around: ”A joke, Captain. You yourself have encouraged me to use my sense of humor.” And Janeway smiles with pride and relief. And for those of us who’ve been monitoring Seven’s growth through the course of the season — and marveling at Ryan and Mulgrew’s performances — we practically purr with delight.
Janeway and Seven still have to save themselves, and there are six scenes to go, but from there, it’s basically one long coda — the episode’s climax has occurred. Seven has told her first joke. (It’s a moment foreshadowed earlier in the episode, when Torres kidded Seven about how hard it would be for her to adapt once Voyager made it home, then advised her, “Work on that sense of humor. It will help you make friends on Earth.” But there’s been a lot of plot since then, and we’ve forgotten the exchange — or rather, we don’t remember the setup until right after the payoff, which is the best kind of joke.) The entire season, in a sense, has rested on the evolving relationship between Janeway and Seven of Nine, with Janeway striving to instill Seven with a code of ethics and an outlook modeled on her own, and Seven insistent on charting her own course. The genius of “Hope and Fear” is that their season-long arc doesn’t climax in the standard way: with the two of them “joining forces to fight a common enemy” (although they do, in fact, do just that). Instead, a year’s worth of story-lines are buttoned when Seven reveals just how much she’s grown — by telling her first joke.
In the annals of screen history, “Seven jokes” might just be up there with “Garbo laughs” — and I don’t mean that as hyperbole. It’s the latter-day equivalent of that well-remembered tagline from Ninotchka. It understands that it’s the small moments we don’t see coming that can be most impactful — that can be not only memorable, but momentous. And for a season that began huge, in typical Brannon Braga fashion — with Voyager joining forces with the biggest threat in the galaxy to bring down a bigger threat to the galaxy — the fact that the season ends on a moment so low-key is perfect. Season 4 doesn’t need to go out big — to leave the universe in tatters and the audience in suspense. It can climax with a joke. And one where, if you will, the joke behind the joke is the character’s newfound ability to joke.
And fittingly for Voyager Season 4, you have no idea if the creative team knew how well that moment would land — or if it was just, incalculably, the right joke at the right time. In many ways, the exchange captures everything that’s remarkable about Voyager Season 4: the writers’ strategic confounding of expectations, balanced by their intuitive ability to effect seismic shifts through subtle gestures; onscreen warmth and chemistry between two actors — one of whom, in private, was traumatizing the other; well-worn jokes that miraculously come off as fresh and invigorating; nods to continuity that manage to seem both respectful and calculated; serialization so unconventional that you suspect it was, at least in part, unintentional; and finely-tuned interplay between two characters who — despite how they were misconceived or mishandled early on — have grown into the very best versions of themselves. And ultimately, an absolute lack of clarity as to how much the writers planned in advance, and how much was talent and luck guided by unerring instinct.
Was Seven telling a joke at season’s end — letting Janeway see how far she’s come and, in effect, assuring her (and us) of her commitment to Voyager’s long journey home — a moment the writers realized early on was the season’s destination? Did they even recognize it as such when they were scripting it? Did the writers have their own lightbulb moment? Or was it, in fact, more like Voyager Season 4 itself: a fabulous fluke?
Want more? Although this is my first Star Trek essay, I've written a whole lot about another genre classic, Doctor Who. I look at the eleven actors who've played the Doctor for more than one full-length story, and assess their best and worst performances. In a 16-part series, I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials, starting here. I also take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era; and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. My recent (loving) look back at the Second Doctor’s missing serial “The Abominable Snowmen” quickly rose to become one of my most popular essays ever. And finally, I offer up reviews of seven Classic Who stories that I consider unfairly neglected or maligned, one for each Doctor: "Terminus," "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "The Wheel in Space," "Attack of the Cybermen," "Death to the Daleks and "The Leisure Hive."