#153: Caretaker (VOY #1, episode novel)

This week, when Captain Janeway worries that her chief of security has gone MIA, the search lands her ship clear on the other side of the galaxy. But as she struggles to find an easy way home, it becomes distressingly apparent that not even a two-parter may be enough to fix everything. Who do early writers perceive as Voyager‘s main character? Is Voyager’s entire stay in the Delta Quadrant Starfleet’s fault? And can I learn to stop worrying and love the Neelix? All this and more in Caretaker, the book that takes time to honor its fallen.

Caretaker
Author: L.A. Graf
Pages: 278
Published: February 1995
Timeline: Concurrent with season 3 of DS9
Prerequisites: None, although a baseline familiarity with the Federation/Maquis dynamic is good to have

It’s always an exciting day whenever I get to add a new parent category to Deep Space Spines. That’s right, we now have four series under our purview, the latest of which of course is Star Trek Voyager, which aired on UPN from 1995 to 2001, helping launch the syndicated network as its crown jewel. Yes, believe it or not, kids, there was a time when the promise of a new Star Trek series was enough to get people excited for an entire new television station. Heady days, those were. Anyway, my overall memory of Voyager going into the pilot is a little better than it was compared to the same point for Deep Space Nine, and what I remember generally about it is that it often had a tendency to get a little, uh, wacky. Was it like that from its inception, though?

Star Trek Voyager asks “What would you be like if you got lost in space?”, a question put forth by countless other works of science fiction (e.g., Lost in Space) and Caretaker is the 90-minute and/or 300-page setup for that premise. Captain Kathryn Janeway hasn’t received a report from her chief of security Tuvok, who’s undercover on a Maquis ship, in six days, and she wants to get him back. To aid in the retrieval, she enlists the services of a felon named Tom Paris, who served on that ship and has bad blood with its captain, Chakotay. Paris’s official designation is as an “observer”, to be cut loose as soon as the mission ends and not a nanosecond later.

Of course, as you might guess, that mission isn’t ending as soon as either of them thinks. While looking for the Maquis ship in the tumultuous area of space known as the Badlands, Voyager encounters the same phenomena that the Maquis did, a coherent tetryon beam and a displacement wave. Attempts to disperse the wave fail, and when Voyager makes impact, the toll is brutal: not only has it suffered severe damage and numerous casualties, including the loss of its first officer and all of its medical staff, it’s also been knocked 70,000 light years off course, placing it smack in the middle of the galaxy’s most unexplored wilderness, the Delta Quadrant.

The entity responsible for dragging Voyager across the galaxy is the Caretaker, who is in imminent danger of dying and seeks compatible bodies to procreate with so it can bear a child who will continue its life’s work of repaying its “debt” to the Ocampa. See, the Caretaker made an oopsie that resulted in destroying their atmosphere’s ability to produce water, and compensated them by setting them up in a comfortable subterranean city and providing it energy at regular intervals. All well and good for them, but where does that leave the planet’s other sentient race, the Kazon-Ogla? Scorching in the sun, hardened by the barren wastes into bitter warriors with nothing to lose. After mounting a rescue of one of her crew members and one of Chakotay’s, the Caretaker dies, and Janeway makes the tough decision to destroy his array rather than use it to get home so that the Kazon can’t turn it against the Ocampa. Despite being stranded in the Delta Quadrant, Janeway remains optimistic that her new patchwork crew can find a different way home.

Except for a handful of additional scenes, Caretaker the book isn’t much different than its televised counterpart, which is fine, because “Caretaker” is a perfectly cromulent pilot, and barring the chance of a writer getting bored and sucking all the energy out of a book because of it, the quality of an episode usually translates more or less intact to the page. I enjoyed “Caretaker” quite a bit; on a personal spectrum of Star Trek pilots, I’d put it  slightly below “Emissary” but way ahead of “Encounter at Farpoint”. Both the episode and the book chug along at a nice clip, and I was surprised by how much material they crammed into the duration.1

One key tonal difference worth pointing out is that the book tends to take on Tom Paris’s point of view whenever possible. It’s fascinating that he’s who L.A. Graf sort of zeroed in on as the character of primary interest, and to be fair, he is at least academically interesting, seeing as how he’s basically Nick Locarno in all but name, even down to being played by the same actor. But it does have a kind of unfortunate (though I do believe unintentional) effect of stealing a little of the thunder from the novelty of the franchise’s first female captain. There are also plenty of other characters I personally find more interesting and entertaining than Paris: Tuvok, the Emergency Medical Hologram, even (God help me) Neelix. It doesn’t drag down the book significantly, however—just something worth nothing.

If I’m being totally honest, I’ve been a little worried about dipping a toe in Voyager. I remember it can and does regularly get stoopid with two O’s, and I’ve seen plenty of comments out in various places that corroborate that. But every Trek series has done that countless times, and anyway, Caretaker is undeniably solid and gets me in the right headspace to get hyped for more Delta Quadrant shenanigans. And ultimately, isn’t that what a good pilot is supposed to do?

MVP & LVP

  • My first ever Voyager MVP goes to Neelix. Without Neelix, how much longer does it take the crew to get leads on the Caretaker and the Ocampa? I really like the idea—in theory, at least—of a guide who can give them an informational leg up in a totally unknown quadrant. Still, something inside me is trying to resist liking Neelix, and I’m trying to tamp that down, because the heart wants what it wants, man. Right now at least, I think he’s fun, his energy isn’t too much, and I think it’s hilarious how Tuvok is mortally offended by practically everything about his existence. Someone I was talking to IRL called him the Jar Jar Binks of the show, a comparison I don’t think tracks for several reasons, not least of which is that he doesn’t evoke any offensive ethnic stereotypes (that I’m aware of). Yeah, yeah, the Kes relationship, I hear you saying. We’ll see about that as things develop. Right now, I’m on Team Neelix.
  • The LVP of the week is the very organization of Starfleet itself. The book teases a tantalizing argument on page 107:

    [Janeway] realized with a wry smile that labeling Paris as rebellious had been the biggest mistake Starfleet had made in his official record. He wasn’t rebellious, he was unsure, and they’d cut him loose and made him an officer too soon. If they’d held him around as a noncom for just another two years, he probably wouldn’t be here right now. / Which means none of us would be here right now. Janeway shook the thought with an irritable sigh and pushed to her feet. No sense dwelling on any of the might-have-beens right now.

    Not right now, maybe, but let’s definitely keep that idea in our back pocket. I suspect there might be some merit to it, and I hope future Voyager books pick up the scent. As we move through the 90s in Trek, the notion that Starfleet would just as soon punt anyone short of their best and brightest into a dumpster is gaining a lot of traction, and I for one am Here. For. It.

Nuggets & Stray Bits

  • I have to admit I’m fairly worried about my viewing schedule. I wanted to have Deep Space Nine wrapped by the time we got to Voyager novels, but I still have almost two seasons left to get through. Bingeing television is not something I am great at, but with seven weeks remaining until the first original Voyager novel, I may have forced myself into a pickle.
  • You may recall the scene where Voyager is docked at Deep Space Nine prior to its excursion into the Badlands and Tom bails Harry out of getting hoodwinked by Quark. But there’s an extra DS9 cameo in the book, where Odo greets Tom to the station and Tom sarcastically assumes Janeway is recruiting the local heavies to keep eyes on him, only to realize immediately afterward that it was simple civilian hospitality. (pp. 36, 37)
  • Some anti-smoking rhetoric, typical of the era in its vehemence: “Someone had told him once that the distinctive blue-gray lighting affected by most human drinking joints was a holdover from when bars on Earth had been filled to bursting with the smoke of burning paper cylinders, all stuffed with various species of nicotine-producing plants. Paris found the idea of this not only unbelievable, but kind of disgusting.” Remember when you could shame people into not doing something that was bad for them? If only that still worked. (p. 39)
  • The best part of the Caretaker novel, without question, is the moment of impact with the displacement wave. During this time, we’re treated to three poignant passages featuring characters that otherwise get almost entirely forgotten in the subsequent scramble to establish the main players. Readers get peeks into the otherwise totally unexplored minds of Stadi, the Betazoid helmswoman that Tom hits on; Cavit, the first officer; and Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer, and his Vulcan nurse T’Prena. I thought it was a pretty nice gesture to give significant page time to these characters that viewers normally forget completely about and may not even have ever learned the names of. These passages are far and away the high point of the book and almost justify the read all by themselves. (pp. 71–74, 75–78, 86–91)

Final Assessment: 🙂

Caretaker sets the stage for the fourth pillar of classic Trek with style, élan, and a lot more plot than I would have guessed could fit comfortably into 90 minutes. The book translates the episode’s vibe pretty faithfully, and though its inordinate focus on Tom Paris is a little bit of a headscratcher, it’s not that big a deal, and the book’s few extra scenes are well worth the price of admission. Like any good pilot, it gets you excited about the potential of what’s to come, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

NEXT TIME: The Lost Years saga concludes with Recovery

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1 Comment

  1. Adam Goss

    I am also on Team Neelix despite how he was written at times, especially the whole jealousy thing and his refusal to respect Tuvok’s personal boundaries (it’s okay now and then, like if McCoy liked to tease Spock instead of argue with him, but they took it too far from the pilot onward, one of the many things the writers and executives in charge of the series did not do well – I love Voyager but I admit it’s my least favorite of all the series because of the behind-the-scenes crap interfering with making it a better show). Neelix’s backstory, his relationships with the rest of the characters (especially Naomi Wildman), his position as a morale officer, and the times when he genuinely faced challenges to his growth as a character (like his need of a map that resulted in him lying to Janeway and his revival from death by 7 of 9) I think all outweigh the annoying parts. And he has one of my most favorite funny lines in the series that beautifully illustrates the dichotomy between himself and Starfleet’s culture – in early season 1 when Voyager stops to investigate another weird thing, he’s against the whole idea, and this exchange happens:

    Kes : These people are natural born explorers, Neelix.
    Neelix : These people are natural born *idiots*, if you ask me.

    Also a small criticism – your description of Odo’s cameo doesn’t read clearly so I can’t tell what it is you’re trying to say. “where Odo greets Tom to the station and Tom sarcastically Janeway” ….Janeway is a verb now? 😉

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