Toto, we’re not in the Alpha Quadrant anymore!
One of the things that has distinguished Voyager from other Star Trek series, is Voyager’s emphasis on its crew as a family. Unlike previous shows which were part of the greater network of the Federation, no matter how tenuous it might have seemed at times, Voyager is alone in the Delta Quadrant and the crew have nothing and no one to depend on but themselves. This emphasis on the crew as a family versus the crew as professional officers has ranged from the obnoxious to the somewhat acceptable. Ideally we want our characters to be professionals rather than a dysfunctional family sitcom. Still, at the end of the sixth season it is pretty clear that Voyager has been a family of sorts and in every family there are the black sheep and Good Shepherd focuses on the black sheep of the Voyager family.
When it came time to produce the post-TNG series, the first shows not created by Gene Roddenberry, one of the more “edgy” concepts had it that they would feature conflict within the crew, something frowned upon in TNG. And so DS9 and Voyager both kicked off with “A House divided against itself” crews which were supposed to feature conflicts within command and crew. Soon enough those conflicts though vanished. Some speculated that this was because the mostly white male writers were uncomfortable with minority Captains and unsure of how far they could push antagonisms without making those Captains look weak. The results of this have not been pretty.
On Voyager specifically the lack of any real opposition aside from the occasional heart-felt protestation from Chakotay when Janeway is about to do something insane, immoral and illegal. Ironically enough this lack of opposition and conflict has made Janeway not stronger but weaker. Without being subjected to acid tests and cross-examinations, without being tested by conflict Janeway’s
decisions and actions seem to lack basis and the backing that a decision tested by conflict gives. This is why “Good Shepherd” is such a refreshing change of pace. Ideally on a SF show the dialogue should be far more shocking then the special effects and the “Good Shepherd” dialogue was fascinating not because it was particularly Shakespearean but because a crewmember was actually rude to Janeway and contrary to what the producers had been thinking for six years, she survived.
“Good Shepherd” is by no means a brilliant episode or a particularly stunning one. It is meant to be a minor supporting player in this season’s cast of episodes but sometimes the supporting player walks away with the role and so too “Good Shepherd” is amazing to watch simply because it does what Voyager has been doing all along. It doesn’t tell us that Janeway is a good Captain by casting her in the right aura and keeping her crew silent or giving them strawman arguments or showing Janeway doing everyone’s job at the same time. Instead it simply shows us what she does, command an imperfect crew and interact with them on a human level. Not the “human level” interaction in which Janeway the icon sympathizes with Tuvok or Chakotay while keeping an invisible wall around herself, but seemingly the kind of human interaction Mulgrew has been pushing for.
In what is almost certainly a first for Voyager, Shepherd’s Janeway is not an icon but an accessible, believable commander. She can
participate in a no-holds-barred give and take with people who don’t much like her without getting up on a pedestal. She can can contemplate solutions to problems as they pop up and handle people in a way that suggests that is what she does every day and that the events of “Good Shepherd” aren’t particularly notable. Of course the problem is that Janeway doesn’t behave this way every day or ever has behaved this way. “Good Shepherd” presents a likeable, believable Janeway which is almost enough to make us think we’re watching yet another cloned Voyager or an alternate universe Voyager.
From the beginning Winrich Kolbe, who usually directs more high firepower Trek episodes like Scorpion 2, actually gives us a sense of Voyager and the crew’s relationships to each other by pulling away from Voyager and moving around the ship thereby giving us a sense of place for the characters. It’s wonderful, so is the cramped section of Voyager that time forgot and the new Janeway (The only problem is it comes about six years too late). Seven of Nine conducts her
crew evaluations and it turns out that in Voyager’s semi-perfect family three black sheep have been overlooked for six years (Possibly there were other black sheep on Voyager once, but they all died at one point or another during the journey).
Mortimer Hammer is a theorist who never puts anything into practice and is a loner on a forgotten deck of Voyager. He hates it here and spends most of his time theorizing about the origin of the universe. Celes is a Bajoran science officer who isn’t particularly competent and has become more so because the entire competent Voyager crew and especially the super-competent 7 of 9 never trusts her to get the job right. She has a neurotic connection to Telfer, a hypochondriac who constantly believes he has new and more interesting diseases. You can imagine how the first two got into Starfleet and the explanations for them being here are actually pretty plausible, but one supposes that Telfer developed his condition only once on board. Still as black sheep these three are not particularly terrible. Hammer is a potentially valuable crewmember with an attitude problem, Telfer and Celes are neurotic but not in ways that can’t be resolved. Casting herself in the role of Jesus, Janeway declares that she’s going to be the good shepherd who will lead them back to the flock and so off
we go on our three hour tour…
Of course once we’ve gotten past the bantering, Hammer bizarrely enough claims that nurture and society has no influence on who he is today (I can see 24th century science being altered in some radical ways, but none quite that radical) and has a rude exchange with Janeway that the Captain wins not by trying to dominate and crush her opponents or resorting to cheap rhetoric, but by actually trying to see her opponent’s point of view and responding to it; trouble strikes. A strange weird alien entity whose nature we never discover begins harassing Voyager.
This is the trial that Janeway and her charges have to go through. The Yellow Brick road with Janeway as Dorothy, Hammer as the tin man who needs a heart, Tefler as the cowardly lion who needs courage and Celes as the Scarecrow who wants brains. Modern audiences know that these characters need no wizard to grant them these things, we know that in true Disney fashion they already have them inside themselves and only need a crisis to bring them out. So Hammer shows he really has a heart by risking his life to save the crew, Tefler gets his courage by having his worst fears come true and coping with it while Celes finds that she’s not quite as stupid as she thinks.
In a nice touch the alien remains mysterious, Hammer’s action in shooting the alien feels very plausible and the more cliched elements of the crisis are overshadowed by realistic humorous touches such as Celes’s failed countdown. Even down to the end the interactions between Janeway and the trio feel far more real and believable than the usual Voyager interactions. In one sense this is a triumph but in another it also demonstrates the extent to which Voyager has failed to produce a likeable and cohesive cast and crew to be trumped by the hastily thrown together actors of a single episode.
In Good Shepherd, Janeway may be Dorothy the Midwestern girl thrown to a distant land and trying to find her way home back to Kansas, but in future episode it seems more likely than not that she’ll go back to being the wicked witch of the Delta Quadrant.