I’ve found myself, even in this impending flood of more new Star Trek than ever, returning to Voyager recently. No matter how many times I’ve seen the show in its entirety, it still surprises me just how much of its first season immediately dives into the well of the titular ship’s crew seemingly finding a way to solve the show’s entire premise: a sudden way to warp the 70,000 lightyear distance that plonked Voyager in the Delta Quadrant and get back home now, instead of in 70 years’ time.
It’s kind of bold for the show to, not just once, but repeatedly, dangle this unsolvable idea that Voyager can’t and won’t do just a handful of episodes in. You’re doomed to the inevitability of watching the crew optimistically work toward trying this Hail Mary attempt to get home, knowing it’s not going to pan out. It makes for a weird 40-odd minutes of TV to experience, and Voyager asks you to do this multiple times in season one, sometimes in quick succession. One such example of this kind of episode however, “Prime Factors,” brushes up against that dread inevitability in a pretty fascinating way.
The episode — only the ninth in the season — largely deals with Voyager encountering a highly advanced, pleasure-driven society known as the Sikarians. The crew soon discover that the Sikarians have highly advanced space-folding teleportation technology that lets them travel upwards of 40,000 light years in an instant, which could help shave generations off Voyager’s long way home. When the Sikarians’ strict policy of not sharing their technology with outsiders puts a stop to that hope pretty quickly, the rest of “Prime Factors” becomes an interesting Star Trek twist on the morality play, asking which officers among the bridge crew might be willing to push back against the idea of being on the receiving end of another society’s equivalent to Starfleet’s most valued rule: the Prime Directive, the principle that prevents the Federation from intervening with a less-technologically advanced society.
At first, the ethical division is drawn along the unsurprising lines between Starfleet members of Voyagers crew, and the ex-Maquis — the guerrilla resistance fighter group rebelling against the Cardiassian empire’s encroachment on Federation border colonies introduced in Deep Space Nine — who were forced to join in the series’ pilot. Of course the prim-and-proper rule followers like Captain Janeway want to follow protocol, as much as it hurts them to have an opportunity to ease their voyage home dangled out of reach. Of course, the rebellious former dissidents, like B’Elanna Torres and Seska, want to surreptitiously work around Sikarian rules to get access to the technology that could get them back to the Alpha Quadrant faster. But pretty quickly “Prime Factors” complicates things, when the underhanded deal Torres and her allies in the Engineering department make with a Sikarian black market trader finds an unlikely supporter in Voyager’s security chief Tuvok.
Naturally though, this is still one of those inevitable conclusion episodes. Tuvok gets Torres the trajector technology without Captain Janeway’s authority, but it can never work, because this is season one of Voyager and the show isn’t just going to end or severely shorten its lifespan just nine episodes in. The trajector not only doesn’t work, its unexpected incompatibility with Starfleet systems renders it useless, nearly taking Voyager with it, and leaving Janeway incredibly pissed, leading to “Prime Factors” concluding with a truly remarkable final scene. Instead of ending on the frustration that the tech failed and Voyager’s crew has to move on in their journey home, it ends on something far darker. Janeway calls Torres and Tuvok in to take the fall when she discovers they went behind her back.
At first, she’s full of fury, berating B’Elanna for letting her down. But when it comes to addressing Tuvok’s role in the duplicity, things turn softer, and sadder. Even this early on in Voyager one of the key things we know about the primary crew is that Janeway and Tuvok are incredibly close friends, the echoes of relationships like Kirk and Spock, Sisko and Dax, or Picard and Riker. So instead, the anger gives way to heartbreak, as the barriers between Janeway’s professional face as a captain and her personal side break down, giving way to one friend deeply hurt and mourning the actions of another. The episode doesn’t end with things resolved either, but with Janeway and Tuvok on unsure ground — willing to move ahead with reprimand as captain and tactical officer, but unwilling to question what this betrayal of confidence actually means for their friendship.
It’s fascinating, but also frustrating. Voyager’s structure as a highly episodic series means that this incredible denouement starts and ends with conclusion of “Prime Factors.” The damage to Tuvok and Janeway’s friendship is immediately dropped. As heartbreaking as it is to see in the moment — anchored in a brilliant performance by Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ, one achingly emotional and the other constrained by Vulcan logic — their conversation has no consequence, logistically or emotionally. Voyager simply moves on, the events of the episode never to be brought up again. But you cannot help but wonder what might have been if the show was not so solely confined by Trek’s episodic bread and butter, if all these relationships and their ups and downs were allowed to sit and linger beyond the events of particular episodes. Especially a show like Voyager, where personal and structural events should have a much larger feeling of consequence, considering the ship is all the crew have stranded far from the rest of the Federation.
Alas, that can only ever be a thought experiment — as inevitably doomed to fail as the Voyager crew’s chances of finding a way home are this early on in the show. And yet, it’s a moment that still hits all these years later, one of the first true signs of Voyager’s dramatic potential… even if it ultimately doesn’t quite live up to all of it.