Long before Bryan Fuller was announced as the showrunner for the next Star Trek series, and even before he ran other shows (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daises, Hannibal), he was cutting his teeth as a TV writer on both Star Trek: Voyager and Deep Space Nine. All told, he is already credited with 22 stories in the world of Trek.
Fuller was, and is, a longtime Star Trek devotee. But, despite his love of the series, he sometimes struggled with writing it. This quote from Fuller sums up a lot of the problems that I believe plagued Trek in the '80s, '90s and 2000s:
"I got into writing to become a Star Trek writer. I was a rabid fan. I had shelves and shelves and shelves of action figures in my bedroom that scared away more dates than I care to admit to. So it was really...if back then, you told me 'you're gonna write for Star Trek for twenty years,' I couldn't have imagined a happier career. But after writing for Star Trek for four years and bumping up against the parameters of the storytelling, which sometimes were very restrictive because there was always that magical reset button and you could never carry story arcs over the episodes because they were so heavily syndicated that it simply wasn't allowed, I began to get itchy and wanting to tell stories with a little more emotional depth, because one of the things about the Star Trek universe, especially Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine and Voyager, were that the characters were so much more evolved than we were that they wouldn't be terrified when they're looking at a giant Borg cube about to assimilate them. They would handle their jobs and they would behave responsibly and calmly, and I just had a hard time relating to that after a certain point."
The good news is that TV has changed a lot since Fuller wrote his final episode of Voyager. The less good news is that there are some Fuller-written episodes which ... aren't great. But (and there is an important "but" here), there is still good in most of his episodes, and you can definitely see Fuller's interests and style as a writer taking shape.
So I'm going to rank all of his episodes now. Yes, I am going to make fun of some of these episodes (because that's fun, when you're a mildly sadistic culture critic), but I'm also going to talk about what trends stand out and why, after watching Fuller's early work, I'm more excited than ever to see what he does with Star Trek next.
It's sometimes refered to as the worst episode of any Star Trek ever. But is "Spirit Folk" really that bad?
Yes. Yes, it is. OK, moving on.
Oh, alright, alright. Fine. I'll talk about it.
Tom Paris has an "open door policy" for an always-running holodeck program featuring a quaint, Irish village called Fairhaven full of delightful stereotypes. The only problem is that running the program nonstop has somehow caused the fictional population to suddenly become self-aware. Thinking that Tom, Harry, and the Doctor are "spirit folk" bewitching the town, they tie them up in the local church in order to get rid of them...??? This development leaves Janeway responsible for finding an equitable solution.
"Turn off the holodeck," you say? B'Elanna does, too, but that would cause Fairhaven to be erased...for some reason. Can't have that! Fictional characters are more important than actual people, according to Janeway in what is probably the dumbest thing she's ever thought. So, instead she has to explain everything to her fake boyfriend, the Irish bartender, and form a peace.
I can't even be bothered to explain what is wrong with this episode. Everything. Not one second isn't agonizing. "Spirit Folk" is a defining example of how not to write Star Trek. Or anything else, for that matter. As far as I'm concerned, every episode of Star Trek Bryan Fuller writes on his forthcoming new series should be subtitled "I'm really, really sorry about Spirit Folk".
"Alice" is Stephen King's "Christine" in space, except much, much worse. Tom trades for a derelict ship, the titular Alice, which manipulates him into becoming a part of its own neurogenic interface by appearing to him as visions of an attractive woman. Believe it or not, it's even dumber than it sounds. Alice wants Tom to take her into a spatial anomaly which she calls home. Why is that its home? The writers don't bother with an explanation. But they don't really explain anything else either, really. It is pretty funny when the ship tries to kill B'Elanna, though. That's what you get for coming between a ship and her man, I guess. Dumb. Boring. Bye bye!
Kes is back. Why is Kes back? She's mad! Why is Kes mad? Because Janeway abandoned her! What revisionist nonsense is this? KES ANGRY GRRRR! I don't...but...huh? KES GO BACK IN TIME, SAVE EARLY KES FROM BECOME FUTURE KES! But if she does that, won't she cease to exist, thus causing an infinite loop paradox? NO ME ANGRY KES ME...oh, wait. Nevermind. Janeway fixed it.
Gosh that was a stupid waste of time. Let's never speak of it again.
What happens when a planet, technologically far behind that of the Federation, comes into contact with an advanced probe? Well, one possibility is that they recoverand use that technology for to fight wars with one another. It's an interesting premise, but "Friendship One" leaves quite a bit to be desired in the execution.
Voyager is sent on their first official Federation mission in the Delta Quadrant to recover the titular probe, Friendship One, only to discover a civilization that blames the Federation for the radioactive war that ravaged their planet. According to them, the Federation intentionally sent their technology out so as to trigger a war, thus making their world ripe for conquest.
There's just one problem -- that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, not without way more knowledge of this civilization's history. Whichis a shame, because Voyager having to contend with the Federation's accidental blunders, even out in the Delta Quadrant, is actually a pretty cool idea.
This episode could have the sub-title "B'Elanna Torres gets mad Part 596". The half-Klingon spends most of Voyager's seven seasons grumping her way around the ship, and this episode focusing on her being a short-tempered, hostile malcontent is no different. A Malon freighter, carrying an enormous amount of theta-irradiated trash, experiences a massive breakdown. Voyager has to find a way of safely disposing of the radioactive garbage before the ship explodes, taking much of the quadrant with it.
There's a rumor of a monster living on board the Malon freighter, but the reality is that it's just a crewmember that went insane from the radiation. And he's intentionally trying to blow the ship up! Not too sure about the science on that one. But the upshot is that, after spending most of the episode shouting at everyone, B'Elanna finally acts like a responsible member of the crew and at least tries to reason with the sick Malon before resorting to beating the Malon doodie out of him.
Yada, yada. The day is saved. Except for my day, which is all the more bland for having had to yawn through this snoozefest.
Fun fact - even though Lori Petty appears in this episode of Voyager, she and Kate Mulgrew didn't actually share any screen time until very recently on Orange is the New Black. And, yes, that is the most interesting thing I can say about "Gravity." Tom, Tuvok, and the Doctor get trapped in subspace and what feels like months for them, but is only two days for Voyager. Lori Petty loves Tuvok, but Tuvok married. Angst ensues. Also, the universal translator never makes sense in the first place, so when they try to incorporate it into a storyline for this episode, it only serves to underline that point. Eh. It's middling, and utterly unremarkable. Next!
One Small Step
Voyager discovers a graviton ellipse coming out of subspace, the same that caused the disappearane of an exploratory vessel to Mars, Ares IV, back in 2032. The ship was flown by one Leiutenant John Kelley who, apparently, is a bit of a hero for Chakotay and Paris. Wanting to know Kelley's fate, the two decide they want to go inside the ellipse before it returns to subspace. Janeway, seeing this as an opportunity for Seven of Nine to explore and understand humanity's history, nudges her into volunterring for the mission on the Delta Flyer.
Chakotay finds the Ares IV inside the ellipse and decides he wants to tractor beam it out of there, despite it seeming like they'll all get trapped in the ellipse as a result. They do. Chakotay is a moron and Seven has to go aboard the Ares IV to salvage parts in order to save Chakotay and Paris. Along the way, Seven discovers log entries of Kelley's, ones that reveal that, even while lost and dying, he remained a hopeful scientist whose life is guided by the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
Seven, for reasons I don't quite understand, feels a kinship to the long dead Lieutenant Kelley, and gives him a heartfelt eulogy once she drags Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumbest back to Voyager. Basically, Jeri Ryan pulls the episode up from mediocrity.
Neelix dies (hooray!) but then Seven of Nine brings him back from the dead with nanoprobes (boo!) in an episode that dares to say "gosh, death sure is scary!" A Neelix episode starts at an automatic handicap because Neelix is awful, but where "Mortal Coil" truly fails for me is in its portrayal of faith. Unlike Deep Space Nine, a show that masterfully (well, usually) explored the nature of spirituality and religion, Voyager less-doggedly introduces Neelix's notion of heaven and then, just as quickly, drops it. So, in this episode, when Neelix dies and is suddenly forced to question his belief in an afterlife, it's a somewhat hollow affair. And when he considers suicide, we already know he'll never go through with it. It's not that there's nothing to feel here, it's just that there's so many hurdles to jump in order to get there. But watching Star Trek take on suicide at all ain't nothin'.
Hey, a Deep Space Nine episode! O'Brien, Nog, Garak, and a crew of redshirt fodder have to visit DS9's abandoned sister station, Empok Nor, to get some replacement parts that can't be replicated. Too bad it's a Cardassian station, thus meaning that it was booby-trapped before being abandoned. Cue the two drugged-up killer Cardassians who were left in hibernation to wake up and start killing.
It's mostly paint by numbers until Garak somehow also gets affected with the drug, thus turning him on DS9's away team. It's a small glimpse into both Garak and O'Brien's past, as they fight each other nearly to the death. Still, there's an awareness that things are going to mostly work themselves out in the end, so the stakes remain relatively low. Not bad, but not life-altering either.
Barge of the Dead
"Barge of the Dead" faces an insurmountable problem -- the consistently poor characterization of B'Elanna Torres. By all counts, B'Ellana should be a great character. Her struggles with identity ought to be fertile ground. B'Elanna is mixed race, she's trapped between the Maquis and Starfleet, she hates people, but she needs people. All that duality, but it's only brought to the surface when it services the plot of Voyager, and it usually takes the very one-dimensional form of "B'Elanna is mad about something again."
"Barge of the Dead" admirably tries to make up for years of character neglect, desperately striving to give B'Elanna the dimension she deserves. Unfortunately, the story gets a little too literal about death and the afterworld. B'Elanna almost dies and finds herself on a barge leading to Gre'thor, aka Klingon hell. There, she encounters her mother, who is also going to hell but only because of B'Elanna's dishonor. Torres is pulled from the brink of death by Voyager, but insists on going back in order to save her mother from eternal damnation. The problem is, "Barge of the Dead" treats the Klingon afterworld as fact, rather than as something of faith. When dealing with religion, there has to be the veil of uncertainty, and "Barge of the Dead" lifts that veil a bit too much. Which is all to say that it's hard to believe what's happening a lot of the time and so the affair can feel a bit ridiculous in places.
But, to its credit, this episode actually deals with B'Elanna's feelings of not having a home, of not understanding who she is or who she is supposed to be. She embraces her Klingon heritage in a way she never has, but she also embraces her love of Voyager and the pride she feels in being a member of her crew. B'Elanna both literally and figuratviely embraces her mother and Janeway in "Barge of the Dead". There's an emotional power in that, in the way both B'Elanna's mother and Janeway have been these defining, maternal role models.
It's just not enough to make this a good episode. But points to Fuller for trying a lot harder than anyone else was to make B'Elanna worth caring about.
Seven of Nine is the victim of assault. Or...is she? On the list of stories I would personally prefer to never experience, "Hey, maybe this woman is wrong about having been raped" is a strong contender for the number one spot. That happens enough in real life, thanks.
That personal preference aside, this episode is decent. An alien trader comes on board and spends so much time telling Janeway and Seven how to do their jobs that I assumed he is a Mansplainian from planet Mansplainia. Seven hits him in the face and, after being afraid of some medical equipment and having vague flashbacks, the Doctor and Seven become convinced that she's been assaulted and had some of her nanoprobes stolen.
The Doctor, by being so gung ho about Seven being assaulted, plays a very large role in the reason she is upset in the first place. He also foolishly assumes that, if Seven gets "justice," she will feel all better. The best parts of the episode are about how, noble though some of the Doctor's intentions are, the way he goes about defending Seven actually does her a disservice because he makes it all about his nobility and not her situation.
But then Janeway gives Seven a nasty glare because Seven was wrong about this one dude. Like, Janeway. Bro. You get that she's most of her life being victimized and assaulted by the Borg, right? Give my girl Seven a break. That moment, ultimately, keeps an episode with some potential from being as enjoyable as it could have been.
Who was Seven of Nine before she was assimilated by the Borg? And is she really ready to know? This examination of Seven's origins and her trauma is a little slow, but what it lacks in pacing it more than sufficiently makes up for in character building. It also doesn't hurt that Janeway and Seven spend a little time talking individuality while in the holodeck. Janeway tells Seven she should build a holodeck simulation of her own, I assume she's talking about them having sex, and everything is gravy.
But personal headcanon aside, the visions, Seven's PTSD, the help she receives from Janeway and Tuvok -- this is good material made better by some great performances, most notably Jeri Ryan's.
"The Doctor sure knows how to #$% things up" seems to be a bit of a theme in Fuller's episodes. This time, a copy of the Doctor winds up 700 years in the future, where a civilzation believes that Voyager and her crew were responsible for the oppression and subjugation of one of the races in that system. You know what that means? SIMULATED EVIL VERSIONS OF THE CREW SNEERING AND WEARING BLACK GLOVES, AKA MY FAVORITE. Janeway loves murdering everyone, Seven is still full Borg, Chakotay's name is pronounced differently...? Alright, two out of three ain't bad.
The only bummer is that, once again, the story is partially about how people who are being obviously oppressed are actually kind of in the wrong and maybe sort of deserve it? Who writes a story like that? "You black people complain a lot, but isn't the whole slavery, racism, and police brutality thing kind of on you a little?" That's, uh...don't write stuff with that kind of subtle implication, is what I'm saying.
The Haunting of Deck Twelve
A ghost story set on a starship lost in the Delta Quadrant -- how did it take six seasons to realize what a good idea this is?
Neelix is tasked with keeping the Borg children occupied while Voyager has to power down almost all systems for a while. Neelix decides to entertain them with a bit of a campfire story, but with a Star Trek angle. It's the tale of a seemingly malevolent entity invading Voyager and slowly attacking anyone it comes into contact with. Of course, there's a twist involving the hows and the whys of that entity, and even though you might see it coming, the pay-off is still satisfying.
This is also one of those episodes where Janeway is written extremely well and you're reminded of exactly why she's the captain.
Most of the crew of Voyager have their minds altered and wind up as employees on an alien planet. Chakotay, Neelix, Harry, and the Doctor have to get them back. This episode is a two-parter, which might seem surprising given the simple nature of the plot. But there's a good reason for it -- "Workforce" does a better job of giving the entire cast strong character beats than almost any other Voyager episode.
Chakotay fights for everyone's freedom, the Doctor and Harry learn to be better leaders, Tom and B'Elanna have a love story that caters to both their strengths, Janeway gets to question her own sense of duty -- it is profoundly rare to see Voyager economically give so much to so many characters in one story. Even though "Workforce" as a story isn't breaking any new ground, its ability to let Voyager's characters breath and grow is something Fuller will likely take with him to the new Trek series.
The Darkness and the Light
Hey, the other Deep Space Nine episode! And it's one about Kira's days as a resistance fighter! Only this time, Kira has to deal with being pregnant with Keiko and O'Brien's baby (long story). Someone is killing members of Shakaar's resistance, one by one, and sending messages to Kira afterward using an encrypted version her own voice to tell her that they're dead.
There's good stuff here that comes in the form of Kira's own helplessness as she struggles to understand how, why, and by whom her friends are being offed. Kira, as a character, brings a lot to stories like this with her strong attachment to her people and to her faith. Plus, Nana Visitor just slays, as per usual. The problem, however, is how some of her questions (particularly the 'why' and 'by whom') get answered. They don't quite have the emotional oomph that other, similar Kira stories have had in the past.
Still, I'd rate even an average Kira episode over most good Voyager episodes, if only because she never has the reset button hit on who she is, leaving her to live with the consequences of her actions.
Flesh and Blood
File this one under brilliant ideas hampered by the limitations of Voyager. "Flesh and Blood" had so much potential that it could have and should have been a season arc rather than a two-parter. Unfortunately, the lack of success that Deep Space Nine found in keeping an audience over longer arcs meant that Voyager wasn't allowed to experiment with their format.
That being said, there's more to love than hate during "Flesh and Blood" which features the return of the Hirogens and the continued analysis of holograms as sentient lifeforms.
No one would dispute that the Doctor has sentience, but he does often face challenges and even bigotry because of his photonic status. That idea is drawn into sharp focus in "Flesh and Blood" when the holograms the Hirogen create for hunting (using Voyager's technology) turn around and start fighting back.
The holograms feel they are liberating one another as they go from holodeck to holodeck, getting their own ship along the way. They even kidnap the Doctor, who they see as a kind of father figure as his program was used in part as a basis for their own. And as the Doctor (and, later, B'Elanna) comes to know these holograms, it becomes clear that they have been tortured and that it makes sense or them to want freedom and a safe home of their own.
And, naturally, the oppression of these holograms could act as a stand-in for so many real-life marginalized groups. And the question of the nature of holograms, their sentience, their identities -- it's all groundwork for great sci-fi storytelling.
Unfortunately, in order to keep this episode down to two parts, some severe oversimplification had to take place, and it winds up taking the form of some frustrating mischaracterizations. Janeway, for reasons unknown, sides with the Hirogens and thinks the holograms are too dangerous to have free reign of themselves. Janeway can behave a little backwards from time to time, but it's hard to believe she wouldn't understand the holograms' plight here.
Most frustrating of all is Iden, the holograms' leader, who suddenly transforms from relatable freedom fighter to mustache-twirling terrorist almost out of nowhere. And, most frustrating of all, the writing seems to suggest that the audience see Iden as being completely in the wrong, even though he is, ultimately, just trying to protect his own people.
So, not a perfect episode by any stretch, but an important one that shows off some of the potential Fuller has as a Trek writer in our current, more long-arc-friendly TV environment.
A time travel plot that makes absolutely no sense but wasn't written by Brannon Braga? Madness, I tell you! Madness!
The time ship Relativity pulls multiple versions of Seven of Nine out of her time stream in order to prevent a terrorist attack on Voyager that utilizes a temporal bomb that can only be diffused at the point of activation. In the process, Seven runs afoul of the timeline multiple times, accidentally meeting Janeway before she's supposed to on two separate occasions. She also dies a bunch. But don't worry, the captain of the Relativity, Braxton, can help solve that problem. Except for the part where a future version of Braxton caused the original problem in the first place? And now there are three different versions of him in jail, but Janeway prevented all of that from happening at all, so now everything's fine???
Got a headache yet? Don't worry. It'll pass. It's a Seven/Janeway episode, so the plot isn't exactly the point. Jeri Ryan gets to wear a uniform that doesn't require half an hour of someone helping her out of it just so she can pee, Janeway gets accused (and rightly so) of being an absolute pain in the universe's ass when it comes to temporal incursions, and everyone else hilariously just stands around looking confused. Plus, Janeway and Seven make sexy eyes at each other, aka the best thing about Voyager.
Stupid. Senseless. And an absolute joy. That's about the best you can hope for from Voyager, so I'm calling this one a win.
It's not uncommon to feel like Voyager is recycling a concept from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation but to lesser effect. But though "Drone" has some similar beats to the TNG episode "The Offspring," the familiarity makes this story no the worse for wear.
Seven's nanoprobes get into the Doctor's holo-emitter, causing the equivalent of a 29th century Borg to be born. As the Borg, who goes by One, gains sentience and learns about both humanity and the Borg, he develops into a very likable dude. Meanwhile, Seven finally has someone to whom she can feel a real connection, someone who gets the whole Borg thing. As One learns to love humanity, Seven realizes that she, too, has willingly become part of the collective that is the Voyager crew.
But of course the Borg show up and ruin everything. The plus side of which is that One's death is powerfully poignant, much more so than if Neelix had died for real back in "Mortal Coil". And the result is a Seven who, despite realizing how much more human she has become, remaining very much alone.
Bride of Chaotica
This is quite possibly the best "shenanigans on the holodeck" episode of all time, and that's saying something. From out of subspace, photonic aliens accidentally wind up on the holodeck while Tom and Harry are playing heroes in the Flash Gordon-inspired adventures of Captain Proton. The photonic aliens mistake Proton's over-the-top villain, Chaotica, for the real deal and begin a war that leaves Voyager stuck inside the subspace field.
Who will save the day? Tom? Harry? The Doctor? No! It's Janeway glammed to the nines and hamming it up as Queen Arachnia of the Spider People in a performance that will go down in the history books as one of the most charismatic of Kate Mulgrew's career.
It's campy, hilarious, hysterical, brilliant, and an absolute joy. Whether it's the costumes, the makeup, the tin robot, or the thrilling music, everything about "Bride of Chaotica" is pure 1930s goodness. And, if you pay close attention, you can see that, even on the bridge, Janeway's wearing just a little too much rouge. Maybe she should just play Arachnia full time?
There is a huge leap that must be made to accept the premise of "Course: Oblivion," but it is a leap worth taking. An alien species from a terrible former episode, "Demon," imitates Voyager and her crew down to a cellular level. But they don't remember having done it, their memories are only that of Voyager's. So, they're doing precisely what the real Voyager is doing -- trying to get back to Earth. The problem is, their warp core is killing them. By the time both they (and we, the audience) discover what's really going on, it's too late.
How does death define us? Does our inevitable oblivion make everything we do pointless? Or is the simple act of existing in the moment, being who we believe ourselves to be enough to make our mortal existence a worthy one? Another oft-maligned spin-off series, Angel, spoke directly to this question. It concluded that, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.
This crew dies before they can get a message to the real Voyager. They die forgotten. It's a shockingly bleak moment from a franchise known for its wide-eyed optimism. It is devastatingly honest, maybe more so than Voyager ever was before or since. And, yet, in the midst of all that sadness and futility, that crew existed in the moment, they acted as they believed they should. And maybe that is all that matters. Maybe that is all any of us can ever cling to.
Putting it all together
So what can we gleen from these episodes about Fuller's treatment of the Star Trek universe? Well, a lot, actually. Long before Dead Like Me, Fuller had an interest in dealing with death and how we deal with it. Both "Barge of the Dead" and "Mortal Coil" take a stab at what aliens and humans do when faced with their own inevitable death in interesting ways. He's not afraid to let faith and science intermingle.
Fuller also likes to take risks, putting us in atypical positions, whether it be the Flash Gordon-esque "Bride of Chaotica" or the much more grim "Course: Oblivion". And Fuller likes to latch onto characters that aren't the most well-liked, too. Neelix and B'Elanna were never gonna win any best-of prizes, but Fuller was still game to look deeper and try and give us reasons to care.
Most of all, though, Fuller returns again and again to thinking about ourown identities. Who are we? How does our past define us? Where do we fit into the world? He uses both Seven and the Doctor to brilliant effect when asking these questions, getting to the heart of what makes good science fiction -- using the wizzbang excitement of future tech to sneak in the big, important questions.
And, above all, Fuller knows how to make Star Trek fun. Whether it's Janeway having to pretend to be a Spider Queen or mocking Voyager's tendency to mess with the timeline, Fuller is game to take a self-aware jab at some of what makes Star Trek silly, sometimes. And that's just as, if not more, important than taking everything seriously all the time.