The vast majority of popular sci-fi series in the 21st century have a unified speculative premise.
Stranger Things is about aliens from alternate dimensions, but that doesn’t mean robots are coming. Westworld is about robots, but don’t expect aliens. Loki was about time travel and the multiverse, and while aliens and robots exist, neither seem interesting. With the possible exception of Doctor Who or anthology shows like Black Mirror, finding a new science fiction show that contains multitudes of zany sci-fi tropes, episode after episode, is rare these days.
This is why it’s time to binge the most eclectic mix of science fiction stories contained in one TV series. You may not believe it, but that series is the one and only Star Trek: Voyager.
Mild spoilers for Voyager ahead. (Don’t worry; there are no major spoilers.)
The Star Trek franchise set the standard for doing a variety of self-contained sci-fi stories — in high volume — from its debut in the ‘60s through the ‘90s. In the 21st century, Trek is now strikingly similar to many other big sci-fi dramas, at least in terms of narrative focus. This is not a bad thing. Each of the new shows focuses on one or two big sci-fi premises, while the other concepts take a back seat.
In Discovery Season 1, it was all about using spores to navigate the multiverse. In Season 2, time-traveling artificial intelligence was the focus, while Season 3 focused on a galaxy-wide mystery with even more time travel. Picard Season 1 was mostly about AI, and Season 2 seems focused on alternate timeline shenanigans.
At the risk of being super-reductive, modern Star Trek is all more like Deep Space Nine, insofar as that series was one of the first big sci-fi shows (along with Babylon 5) to embrace serialization. So, when you watch Deep Space Nine now, you can see all the things we take for granted today in their infancy.
But Voyager isn’t like that. Even when it aired, Voyager was a bit of a throwback, a series designed to get Star Trek closer to its roots: a lone starship out in space, visiting strange new worlds, boldly going where no one had gone before. By stranding the USS Voyager in the “Delta Quadrant,” the show was telling the audience that, in theory, the characters and crew wouldn’t encounter the kinds of things people had gotten used to on the three previous series.
Much has been written about whether Voyager fulfilled that promise. And, much has been said about how this was the first Trek series with a woman in the lead role — the fantastic Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway.
Yet, in all the socio-political discussions of Voyager (of which there are many), what often gets overlooked is how the show was super-diverse in the types of science fiction stories it told. Voyager's simple variety of far-out premises might be the zaniest and most unique from Star Trek. Yes, come for the brilliant non-male starship captain and racially diverse cast, but stay for the outrageously entertaining cornucopia of sci-fi premises.
Don’t think Voyager has thought-provoking, mind-bending sci-fi? Think again. Voyager is throwing fantastic sci-fi concepts over its shoulder, concepts so good that shows like The OA would kill to base entire seasons on some of this stuff. Here are just a few examples:
- In “Waking Moments,” the crew encounters a race of aliens who only can communicate in dreams and regard those who exist in the awake-world to be suckers.
- In “Blink of an Eye,” Voyager finds a planet that exists in a faster time frame than the outside solar system, which means by being in orbit, they’ve insinuated themselves into the historical constellations of what is observed below.
- In “The Killing Game,” the whole crew is put into a holographic WWII simulation to be tested by aliens.
- Think of “pruning” from Loki, but then, think of the implication of that tech being deployed as a super-weapon, and you’ve got Voyager’s “Year of Hell.”
From holograms fighting to publish their memoirs (“Author, Author”) to people devolving into salamanders (“Threshold”), there are 172 episodes of Voyager. Interestingly, except for the Borg and some fantastic visits from Q (“Death Wish” is excellent), Voyager doesn’t rely on established Star Trek canon as much as you might think. While some of the storylines might seem familiar to longtime Trek fans, if you’ve never seen the show, what you’ll find is a zany and downright heroic series of speculative tales.
Voyager also does a good job of spinning fun commentary on the history of science fiction itself. Thanks to Tom Paris’ holodeck program “Captain Proton,” the crew occasionally finds themselves in pulpy science fiction episodes in the vein of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. In fact, the hilarious episode “Bride of Chaotica!” (note the exclamation point) is nearly entirely filmed in black and white.
Originally, the series ran from 1995 to 2001 and represented the zenith of Star Trek’s storytelling. Outside of hardcore fandom discourse, Voyager may not have had the same reputation as The Next Generation. But, as time has gone on, the cultural consciousness seems to have awakened to one undeniable truth. Even if Voyager didn’t have big splashy home runs, it took a lot of big swings. And, from the perspective of someone who loves sci-fi, it had a great batting average.
If you love science fiction stories for the sake of science fiction stories, Star Trek: Voyager is not only one of the best of the Trek series, but one of the most fun and thoughtful sci-fi shows ever made.
Star Trek: Voyager is streaming on Netflix until September 30, 2021.
After that, you can find it on Paramount+.