Star Trek: Voyager – Season 7, Episode 15
Cooperation and setting differences aside for a common goal are huge themes of Star Trek, especially where alien races are concerned. One of the foundational aspects of Trek’s universe is the United Federation of Planets, an alliance of worlds that have banded together to form a common identity for mutual benefit. Because of the show’s premise, this core component of Trek was almost entirely absent from Voyager. And although the crew has met many a friendly face/race, its path home and ever-present momentum meant that these were short-lived relations at best. Soon enough, the ship would move beyond an ally’s territory to more unknown waters. “The Void” is a nice episode because it loudly sings the praises of the Federation (and the ideals it represents) without actually featuring the Federation.
On paper, this episode should not work as well as it does (and it does have some flaws). It not only recycles a plot almost verbatim from The Animated Series, but it also re-uses a concept that Voyager itself already did a couple seasons prior – again, almost verbatim – albeit with some different themes this time around. In TAS’ “The Time Trap,” the Enterprise and a Klingon ship get pulled into an empty pocket of star-less space where many other ships and aliens have also gotten marooned. “The Void” fleshes out this idea with much greater nuance and complexity, but we’ve already seen Voyager pass through another pitch black empty area of space in Season 4’s “Night” (featuring the Malon). In that episode, the psychological effects of isolation and emptiness were emphasized (before the crew ran into some aliens and it became a more traditional story), whereas here it’s a different harrowing and action-packed story of cutthroat survival. Although it’s a shameless recycling of an idea (twice over!), “The Void” has enough unique qualities going for it that it won me over as a series highlight.
With very few exceptions, the theme of survival is one that Voyager never devoted a lot of energy to (pun intended). The potential complications and realities of a ship on its own without any reliable supply chains are not ideas that Voyager the show really wanted to run with. Trek writer Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica series would get a lot of space mileage out of this idea with a harsher and grittier tone. The “Year of Hell” two-parter pushed Voyager and its crew to the most extreme version of this idea but is a singularity in this respect. “The Void” doesn’t get anywhere near the level of those episodes, but it does create a tense and harrowing situation for the crew to struggle with.
Pulled into the aforementioned Void, Voyager finds itself immediately under attack by an alien ship. Because there are no supplies or energy sources in the Void, the only way the ships stuck there can survive is by preying on new arrivals. While its shields are down, 90% of Voyager’s food supplies are stolen by the aliens, as well as other prime materials.
Afterward, a slimy alien named Valen arrives and helpfully explains the particulars of the Void to Voyager, and how his crew has survived for the past five years by attacking and stealing from others. Unsurprisingly, Janeway won’t consider acting like a ravaging thief and refuses to share any weapons with Valen. She is determined to escape the Void and the crew locates an opening spatial funnel that led them into it. They try to enter it and return to normal space, but are violently thrown out and lose a great amount of energy doing so – enough to shut down the warp core. The swooping zoom out shot of the darkened core really conveys that this is A Big Deal.
Voyager has barely a week’s worth of resources left (the Void drains energy at a higher rate than normal space for some reason), so Janeway decides to pursue the ship that stole their supplies. They manage to track them down, only to find the ship wrecked, picked clean of resources, and the crew dead. Tough neighborhood! They scavenge some useful components and accidentally bring aboard a mute and injured alien that can survive for long periods without oxygen.
Voyager finally locates their supplies – Valen has them, having attacked the ship that originally attacked Voyager. He refuses to return them, so Janeway attacks and breaches his shields. They only are able to get back half their supplies, and Janeway refuses to use the opportunity to take anything else from Valen (that isn’t theirs) while his shields are down to aid their survival. It’s noble, but is it smart?
Chakotay and Tuvok are concerned whether their tactics will have to change given the situation, and suggest to Janeway that taking a more cutthroat approach may be necessary to survive. Predictably, she flatly refuses the notion of going against their principles. When pressed by Chakotay, she outright says she’d rather the crew die with their ideals intact than become murderous ravagers.
It’s all fine, although something about the scene rings a little hollow for both sides of the debate. A lot of it has to do with the placement of this episode in the overall timeline of the show – we’re halfway though the final season, after all. We’ve had six and a half years of a pretty by-the-book captain running a tight Starfleet ship. The notion that we’re going to abandon that doesn’t really carry any weight at this point. Like, obviously we’re not going to be changing how we operate, Chakotay and Tuvok, you knuckleheads. In “Alliances” from Season 2, after repeated attacks from the Kazon (and several casualties), Chakotay floats the idea of forming an alliance with their enemies for survival. In that instance (and at that point in the show), that possibility seemed more likely and interesting, and it suggested that Janeway’s steadfast adherence to Starfleet regulations in the face of the ongoing Kazon threat might not be the best course of action. But that episode ended with the reaffirmation that Janeway was 100% right and with a speech spelling out that the best allies they could have are… their own principles. Seriously, that happened.
But on the other side of the argument, Janeway’s insistence that they should all die rather than abandon their morals is kind of a crazy plot point that gets breezed by. Janeway’s unilateral authority over the fate of the crew is an aspect of the show that is rarely interrogated with any seriousness. The captain of a Starfleet ship’s authority is normally absolute and unquestioned, but Voyager’s situation has never been normal. Despite this, the series’ line has always been “this is a Starfleet ship through and through, and we will always do things 100% the Starfleet way, period.” It’s been present from the end of first episode, when we saw all the Maquis renegades inexplicably dressed as Starfleet officers. So again, any hope of the show questioning this foundational aspect is far-fetched.
But it just seems lacking in nuance, and a rich source of drama unique to the show’s premise that was never explored. The crew (but more specifically Janeway since she is in charge) is presented with a choice of sticking to their principles or abandoning them. And spoiler alert: they stick to them and are rewarded with escape. There’s something a little flat and unexciting about that. The show has featured its characters journeying to morally-compromised places before to splendid effect, and it would have been nice to have gotten that in this episode.
Because there is precedent for Janeway taking on that morally-compromised role in order to safeguard her crew. Violating the Prime Directive and overriding her crewmembers’ liberties (and even right to life) are actions she has taken for the survival of the collective whole. So on one hand, Janeway the Ardent Regulation Follower would never dream of compromising their principles. But on the other, Janeway the Protector of Her Crew at All Costs wouldn’t blink at fucking up anyone who would dare harm her crew. Like many characters on the show, she has been written inconsistently from time to time, and who you’re getting depends highly on the week’s episode.
Anyway, Janeway has been reviewing Federation charter for any loopholes to help her out in this situation, but doesn’t find any. Her adherence to principles and regulations has always been one of her defining characteristics, and there’s something almost comical to her poring through the rulebook to see if there’s anything that would let her act… shittier? But she decides a different tactic could work – forming a cooperative alliance with ships in the Void.
The other ships they contact are not interested. The captain of one, Garon, seems on the fence. Janeway even gives him some of their precious food as a gesture of goodwill, but he doesn’t commit. Soon a new defenseless ship gets sucked into the Void and Voyager swoops in to protect them from Valen. But Valen has another ship and the two of them outmaneuver Voyager and wear down its shields. When all hope seems lost, Garon comes to their rescue and proclaims that he’s decided to take Janeway up on her offer. It’s a nice payoff, as Janeway’s kind-hearted and self-sacrificing gesture seems to have done the trick to sway Garon.
The new alliance of three ships soon attracts others and a small fleet coalesces around Voyager. Sharing technology, they’re able to reduce their power consumption and the ship teems with aliens sharing in the collective wealth. Seven and the Doctor find a music-based way to communicate with the rescued alien (who the Doctor has named Fantome). Janeway courts a potential alliance member Bosaal, who refers to Fantome’s people as vermin who should be exterminated for stowing way on ships, spreading disease, and causing malfunctions. Janeway is taken aback by his bigotry and offers to beam any of these aliens to Voyager as a means to sway him. Bosaal agrees and joins them.
Bosaal later comes up with a valuable piece of technology that will aid in their escape, but Janeway questions where he got it from. Turns out he stole it from another ship. She tells him to uninstall and return it since that goes against their rules, and Bosaal, slimeball that he is, reveals he killed them for it (the hair and makeup design succeed in making him seem generally unpleasant). Janeway is enraged and Garon doesn’t like it either, but encourages her to look the other way if it means escape from the Void. Garon seems like a decent person, but more pragmatic in his approach to the situation and flexible in his ethics. Janeway refuses and kicks Bosaal out of the alliance.
This doesn’t bode well, and Voyager ends up losing some other ships in the alliance because of it. It seems not everyone shares Janeway’s high-minded ideals, and it’s a nice plot development that there is blowback because of it – if acting good was the easiest and most beneficial approach, everyone would do it. Janeway berates herself for ever letting Bosaal join in the first place – she knew he was a creep but because they needed his resources she overrode her instincts and has now paid the price. This tracks with Trek’s general philosophy of good ends being possible only through good means. It’s a little simplistic as depicted here, but it illustrates how dropping one’s moral guard as a means of providing a shortcut can only lead to trouble. A zero tolerance approach to troublemakers helps keep one’s hands clean. As in “Nothing Human,” there’s the idea that by using Bosaal’s technology they would be an accessory to the murder of the people he got it from.
Two of the existing alliance members spy on Valen and discover he has taken their idea to heart and is teaming up with Bosaal to attack Voyager. Their alliance is stronger than Voyager’s so the time to make their escape is now. Fantome and his buddies are committed to helping out Voyager in gratitude, and let themselves get beamed over to the attacking ships. Voyager’s alliance ships cooperatively use their shields to make it out through one of the funnels, as Valen’s ships get disabled from within by Fantome’s sabotaging crew. It’s a nice payoff to their charity towards Fantome – initially he has nothing to offer (Seven even gives him some of her daily food rations) and seems like a drain on resources, but Voyager‘s generosity is rewarded with their help in escaping the Void.
(The transactional nature of it is slightly problematic – people have a right to be alive whether or not they can contribute to society in a definable way. Even if Fantome’s people couldn’t aid in the escape, rescuing and caring for them was still the right thing to do. As usual, I’m overthinking things.)
Back in normal space again, Janeway bids adieu to her allies. She observes to Chakotay that it felt nice being part of a team again, almost like being back in the real Federation. It’s a nice sentiment and the wistfulness for the safety and security of home is heartfelt.
“The Void” is a good demonstration of Trek’s philosophical ideals – both their benefit and the challenges in adhering to them. It’s a morality play that, like many Trek morality plays, presents a somewhat contrived situation seemingly designed only to test the ethics of the crew. Unsurprisingly, they pass with flying colors. The ethical dynamics presented here are a little simplistic and binary, but the ultimate message is a good one. Cooperation and mutual trust can be a difficult and tenuous thing to achieve because they entail risk and personal sacrifice. Extending a hand of friendship leaves one unguarded, but the potential benefits make it worth doing. Voyager (the ship and series) had been humming along pretty well for seven years as a self contained unit, but this installment shows that playing nice with others can be beneficial and enjoyable.
- The first ship that attacks Voyager in the Void is Vaadwaur. How’s life treating you, ya fuckbags?
- Valen’s character is interesting. Like, he doesn’t seem like a great guy, but he doesn’t seem 100% evil, either. He goes to the trouble of taking an interest in Voyager, not attacking them, coming on board and explaining their situation and sharing his knowledge of the Void, doesn’t fight with them when they steal back their supplies, and even offers to share the spoils of theft with them. There’s something almost faintly benevolent to him in a brutal way. He wants Voyager’s weapons which Janeway can’t/won’t share, but she doesn’t really try to court his cooperation in any other way. He seems like he may have been just a normal and decent person at the start but the extreme survival circumstances have pushed him into morally dark territory. This story seems like an unlikely choice for a two-parter, but there’s a lot of material here that could have been further explored with more time, I think.
- There are something like 150 ships in the Void, and I’m surprised not one of these races has noticed, tracked them down to the area, and either attempted rescue or posted a warning?
- Garon is a Nygean, who we met in “Repentance.”
- It’s not brought up, but Captain Ransom of the Equinox once quoted Starfleet’s regulation to protect a ship and its crew by “any justifiable means.” I’m sure Janeway doesn’t want to use that guy as a template for behavior, but she is searching for a regulation to help her out here…
- According to the Doctor, Fantome’s people are indigenous to the Void. Really…? They’re humanoid lifeforms who need food and oxygen to survive, but they’re native to a region of space that has no planets or natural environments at all? Really???
Amazingly, this exact same plot point was also used in “Night,” with Voyager encountering an alien race native to that region. But at least they had ships.
- TIL Voyager has food storage. Outside of a couple fleeting glances at some indoor vegetable gardens back in the first season or two, this seems like something we haven’t heard much about. This is a point I always harp on with the show, but I think not showing more of the nuts and bolts of how the ship maintained its self-sufficiency was a missed opportunity.
- Seven cooking for the crew is very cute. She lambasts Chakotay for pairing the wrong wine with the meal and Paris for asking for salt. Ugh, she’s the best.
- Seven pokes fun at the Doctor for having still not yet chosen a name, which is a forgotten plot thread we haven’t heard about in forever. Yet another dropped ball on the show.