Every so often, Star Trek goes mainstream again, and that means movies, tv shows, and more. But this time, it’s a little different; we’re getting a Star Trek cartoon for kids! Star Trek: Prodigy follows a group of teenage aliens who steal an abandoned Star Fleet ship, and somehow Kathryn Janeway shows up. Who is she? Well, that’s why we should all watch Star Trek: Voyager again.
Journey with me back to the mid-’90s. Star Trek was at the height of its game. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) aired its last episode after seven seasons, outperforming the original. It spun off Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (DS9) and then Star Trek: Voyager. But where TNG sought to replicate the Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), DS9 and Voyager went their own route.
DS9 shook up the formula by moving the setting from starship to space station, and it became the first Star Trek series with a person of color as the central character. While Voyager returned to the starship setting, it left Star Fleet behind entirely and again broke new ground with the first female Captain in a Star Trek series—Captain Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew).
In the series pilot, the starship Voyager is flung to the other side of the galaxy, to a portion of space no one from Star Fleet had ever visited. Even at the ship’s fastest speed with no stops along the way, it’ll take 75 years to get home. The crew sets a course for home, hoping to find something that will speed up the journey along the way.
Any Star Trek show comes with a myriad of characters, but except for Star Trek: Discovery, the primary personality is the Captain. That’s true with Star Trek: Voyager, though plenty of episodes focus on other people like the Doctor (played by Robert Picardo) or Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). So it’s worth checking in with them real quick.
Voyager follows in DS9‘s footsteps by hosting a mixed crew where only some members are from Star Fleet. In the Pilot, an alien entity drew ships from across the galaxy for unknown reasons. Those ships include the Voyager and another starship crewed by the Maquis, a terrorist group the Voyager had been sent to find. Much of the crew from both ships perish in the process, and the remaining survivors merge on Voyager.
Early episodes focus on the struggles of two ways of thinking: Star Fleet versus Maquis. The First Officer, Chakotay (Robert Beltran), is a former Star Fleet officer who joined the Maquis. The new Chief Engineer, B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), is also a Maquis. And Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) is a disgraced former Star Fleet officer who joined the Maquis only to be captured immediately.
On the proper Star Fleet side of things is Second Officer and Vulcan Tuvok (Tim Russ), fresh out of academy Ensign Harry Kim (Garret Wong), and the Doctor (Robert Picardo). The Doctor just barely counts, as he is an emergency hologram brought online when the entire medical staff died in the sudden journey to the Delta Quadrant.
Rounding out the cast are two aliens, a Borg: Neelix (Ethan Phillips), Kes (Jennifer Lien), and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). Kes leaves partway through the series, and Seven joins at the same time. Each brings their own sensibilities and purpose to the show. In the early days, the Doctor serves as this series’ Spock (Leonard Nimoy), commenting on humanity’s nature. When he grows beyond that role, Seven steps in to perform the same function.
But I want to focus on Janeway because we’ll be seeing (hearing?) her from her again in Star Trek: Prodigy. There’s something fitting about her inclusion. The little we know about Prodigy is that a group of teenagers abscond with a derelict Star Fleet ship. It doesn’t sound like they’re Star Fleet material, and you can imagine they’ll even be a little lost in their journey. It sounds like Voyager meets Space Cases.
Besides being the first female Captain in a Star Trek series, Janeway sets herself apart from the other shows by being a scientist. Sure Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), and James Kirk (William Shatner) may have occasionally pursued scientific endeavors as hobbies. Still, they were diplomats and commanders first, with scientific efforts carried out by others.
Janeway is a scientist and approaches her mission to get her people home as one. Someone less interested in science would set a course for home and only stop to refuel the tank and pick up food. But the Voyager makes frequent stops to visit new planets, inspect new space phenomena, and meet new life and civilization. Through the course of the series, the Voyager encounters more alien races than any Star Fleet ship since Kirk’s days.
Along the way, she actively encourages the growth of her crew. She takes Ensign Kim from a “fresh out academy” greenback to a seasoned … ensign. Sorry, there’s no room for promotions when you’re the only Star Fleet ship for 75,000 lightyears. She encourages the Doctor to become more than a program, to a point where, much like Data, some consider him sentient. And she helps Seven rediscover her humanity.
She’s not always perfect either. At times, she becomes obsessive over goals, even to the point that threatens the crew. And on occasions, she makes hard decisions for the good of the crew, even over an individual’s objections. In “Nothing Human,” Torres is injured, and the one person who can save her committed horrible atrocities. Torres doesn’t want his help, but Janeway overrules because the ship needs its Chief Engineer. The episode ends on poignant notes. Someone must decide whether to keep the horrible person around; after all, he saved Torres, but he still committed atrocities. Janeway lets the Doctor, an artificial person, make that decision—showing her trust in him as the Chief Medical Officer.
That’s the best part about Star Trek: Voyager. It’s easy to watch Star Trek: Picard or the latest movies and feel like they’ve lost the heart of the original shows. But Voyager honors that heart. Sure there’s plenty of action, space battles, and death by Red Shirt. But it’s also a show unafraid to delve into a complicated topic and end without a real answer. Because sometimes there are no good answers to complicated issues. There’s only the journey home.