This article contains mild spoilers for season two, episode three of 'Star Trek: Lower Decks.'
This week’s episode of Lower Decks, “We’ll Always Have Tom Paris,” manages to squeeze two references into its title: a season one The Next Generation installment called “We’ll Always Have Paris,” and the name of a main cast member of Star Trek: Voyager, Lieutenant Tom Eugene Paris. But aside from that clever bit of wordplay, the title also carries a deeper meaning: That as much as we’d like to forget about the more embarrassing moments of the Star Trek franchise, they still happened and they weren’t all bad. Even, and especially, Voyager.
Viewer reactions to Voyager have been rather polarized over the course of the 26 years since it premiered. Back in the ‘90s, many fans were excited to have a “real” Star Trek show again, one that took place on a ship that was constantly exploring, unlike the comparatively stationary political drama of Deep Space Nine. But clunky writing soured many people’s opinion on Voyager, and toward the end of its run the show was known more for Seven of Nine’s skintight outfits and its slate of guest stars of the week, including Jason Alexander and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
After the show went off the air, the franchise stopped moving forward in its timeline, choosing to explore Starfleet’s founding in Enterprise and rebooting the entire universe completely with the 2009 Star Trek movie. While fans were thrown a bone with a brief cameo by Admiral Kathryn Janeway in the last TNG-era film, Nemesis, Voyager would essentially disappear from the Star Trek canon until the appearance of Seven of Nine in episode four of Picard.
For fans of The Next Generation, Picard had its upsides: We got to see Troi and Riker as a family, and Data got a better sendoff into the afterlife. But for fans of Voyager, it was anything but positive, with the death of a supporting character and a rather grim existence for fan-favorite Seven of Nine.
Star Trek: Lower Decks rolls back the clock a little bit, as it takes place a year after the events of Nemesis, making it our first real view of the Star Trek universe’s immediate future after TNG, DS9 and Voyager. The Dominion War is over, Romulus is under a new regime and the crew of the USS Voyager are basically celebrities after seven years spent in the Delta Quadrant; Picard takes place nearly twenty years later, when the luster would have been gone.
Here everything is just shiny and new and worthy of commemorative plates — a bit of a weird thing to exist in a post-scarcity culture, but this is a comedy series, after all. And in this week’s B-plot, Brad Boimler is looking to get one of his plates signed by a special guest to the USS Cerritos: Tom Paris. Or, as Brad refers to the former Voyager crew member, “Creator of Fairhaven, Captain Proton himself” as well as the first human to break the transwarp barrier. Straight off, that’s a reference to three of the goofiest, oddball and some say worst episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. And just in case you forgot what was so bad about the last one, Mariner asks “is he still a salamander?,” because that is a thing that happened in the episode “Threshold.”
Undeterred (and perhaps even encouraged) by the weirdness, Boimler is all hyped to meet his hero. Even after the ship’s system doesn’t recognize him and won’t let him through any doors, he takes to the Jefferies tubes to make his way to the bridge to meet Lt. Paris.
In a way, it feels like a metaphor for how the fandom feels about Star Trek: Voyager now. While everyone admits it had a lot of dumb moments, those actually made it more endearing. The famous line “there’s coffee in that nebula” would inspire astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to bring a replica uniform with her and wear it on a mission back in 2015:
And who can forget the infamous “Tuvix” episode, where crew members Tuvok and Neelix were merged into one being thanks to a transporter accident? Though the resulting individual was healthy and happy, the decision was made to force him to split back into his component persons, inspiring the recent internet rallying cry “Janeway murdered Tuvix.” Even Janeway actor Kate Mulgrew entered the debate, responding to a tweet from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When you’ve got politicians involved it’s not really a fandom in-joke anymore.
Willing to hear the crew’s thoughts, as always. However, shouldn’t Tuvok and Neelix should have the biggest say...oh wait, they couldn’t! I stand by my decision to restore them to their lives. Rewatch and report back, AOC - and congrats on your win! 👏🏻— Kate Mulgrew (@TheKateMulgrew) November 5, 2020
Maybe it’s time to give Voyager a bit more credit. It’s not as good as TNG or DS9, but it still has its fair share of fans. I remember a time when it seemed like it was constantly running on Spike TV (now the Paramount Network), as opposed to Deep Space Nine, which is seldom rerun due to its serialized nature. Last year I sat down and rewatched the entire Star Trek franchise, including Voyager, and saw quite a few episodes I had missed the first time. I found myself enjoying some of it, cringing just as often, and eventually remembering why I had stopped watching the show for a while back when it aired. In general, I feel like the show’s biggest problem was missed potential, like the way the conflict between the Starfleet and Maquis crew members was quickly smoothed over, how it underutilized many of its cast, and why on earth did Harry Kim never get promoted.
However, it’s not the job of Lower Decks to explain or redeem Voyager. Boimler and Tom Paris are only the B-plot here, with the main drive of the episode being Tendi and Mariner’s mission to pick up a package for Doctor T’Ana as well as Rutherford’s quest to find out how a certain dead officer is alive again. The episode just asks us to consider what it would be like to be a Starfleet officer and hear about all of Voyager’s adventures in the Delta Quadrant. Weird and goofy? Yes. But honestly, they’re also pretty cool.