For all its critics, Star Trek: Voyager boasts more than a mere cult of adoring fans, but also an often-overlooked set of redeeming episodes. We run down the top five chapters in Voyager‘s contentious TV run below.

5. Equinox [Video clip from part one, video clip from part two]

Voyager was often criticized for how little ethical and personal conflict its characters endured, despite their castaway status. This two-part episode exists to demonstrate just how bleak and unlikeable Voyager could have been if the crew gave in to their darker impulses.

The USS Equinox is a Federation starship thrown across the galaxy in the same accident that stranded Voyager. Except the Equinox is demonstrably worse than Voyager in every sense of the word: it’s an even smaller and more heavily damaged ship, run by a more desperate crew who espouse none of Captain Janeway’s high-minded devotion to the Prime Directive.

The Equinox’s rather blatantly named Captain Ransom is more than willing to torture and murder aliens in a desperate attempt to get his crew home — and he’s willing to destroy Voyager if they interfere, too. While the ending is a bit convenient, and Janeway has her own rather undercutting mid-episode brushes with morally dubious tactics, “Equinox” is a solid contemplation of how easy it is to concede one’s core principles when they are no longer convenient. Voyager, for all its faults, was a story of a crew that held fast to their ideals in the face of adversity, and “Equinox” ably demonstrated just how powerful that simple storytelling concept could be.

4. Scorpion [Video clip from part one, video clip from part two]

Voyager was thrown to the Delta Quadrant of the galaxy. The Borg reside somewhere in the Delta Quadrant. The “Scorpion” two-parter sees those plot points finally collide in what proves to be both compelling television and a shark-jumping moment for the series.

A race of extradimensional conquerors — Species 8472 — has invaded Borg space with technology and biology that are impossible to assimilate or defeat. For the first time in their history, the Borg face annihilation by a superior foe. Voyager, in a convenient bit of individualistic creativity, has somehow devised a means of neutralizing Species 8472’s advantages — which means they have an asset the Borg need, and want, more than assimilating another Federation starship.

Janeway makes the bold move to negotiate with the Borg collective for safe passage through Borg space in exchange for their tactical research – a gambit that constitutes a violation of the Prime Directive, a possible death sentence for Species 8472, and a gamble that the Borg can be trusted to keep their word. A domino of double-crosses sees Seven of Nine a prisoner of Voyager, the ship trapped in the outskirts of under-siege Borg territory, and a new set of enemies who blame Voyager for their own first defeat. While the Borg would never again loom quite so large as antagonists, “Scorpion” showed just how desperate Voyager’s crew could become when so hopelessly isolated, and how such desperation could lead to morally ambiguous ingenuity.

3. Deadlock [Video clip]
You have to admire a simple concept taken to its ultimate storytelling conclusion, even if on its face it seems outlandish (and for a sci-fi show, that’s saying something). Case in point: Captain Janeway literally debating with herself over the fate of her crew — because a bizarre nebula accident has made two Voyagers with two crews, and only enough antimatter fuel to save one. The ship duplication conceit lets the writers actually up the stakes more than a conventional episode would allow, killing crew members, warping storylines, and letting the bad guys — in this case, the organ-stealing Vidiians — defeat Voyager at least once.

In the wrong hands, this episode could have devolved into predictable self-parody very quickly, but Kate Mulgrew turns in one of her finest Janeway performances in acting against herself, and comes to a self-sacrificial conclusion that illuminates precisely how intriguing a character Janeway could be — and how great a show Voyager could have been.

2. Timeless [Video clip]

One of the recurring themes of Voyager was the cost of returning home — and when that price was too much to pay. More than once, Voyager’s crew refused or even reversed a quick and easy homecoming that compromised their principles. There is no better example than “Timeless,” which sees future versions of Harry Kim and Chakotay as the only survivors of Voyager’s return to Earth. The pair is determined to change the fate of their crewmates, even if it means sacrificing their own comfortable futures, and perhaps even their lives. The solid use of flashbacks and the future-tense frame story (featuring a guest appearance by Captain Geordi La Forge) only up the tension. In the end, to no one’s surprise, the status quo is restored — but the restoration was a choice made by the main characters, if only because being stranded together was better than going home alone.

1. Year of Hell [Video clip from part one, video clip from part two]

The two-part episode that should have been Voyager‘s entire series centers on the time-manipulating warlord Annorax (played with sterling understatement by Kurtwood Smith) who wants to both restore his race’s former empire and resurrect his dead wife. Unfortunately, Voyager is caught in the crossfire of his time-warping weapon and, by quirk, becomes the only ship immune to the continuity shifts. Annorax kidnaps Chakotay and Tom Paris in an effort to compel Voyager to submit to his timeline changes, but Janeway refuses, setting off a yearlong game of chess between Annorax’s increasingly unpredictable timeshifts and Voyager’s increasingly decimated and desperate ship and crew.

The temporal shifting gives the Voyager writers license to radically shake up the status quo of the cast and its relationships, making for some great character moments between Janeway and her subordinates, particularly Tuvok and Neelix. Meanwhile, Chakotay and Paris become philosophical foils debating whether Annorax’s limited time manipulations are their responsibility to stop, or is protecting (or benefitting) Voyager their sole concern.

In the end, Janeway chooses self-destruction to save Annorax’s victims, a heroic act that resets the ship (and the show) back to its pre-episode status. A deft balance of action and personal drama, and an uncharacteristic willingness to stretch the cast and the setting into new places, make “The Year of Hell” the finest episode Voyager ever produced. If only the rest of the series had been so bold.

Got another Voyager episode you believe deserves Top 5 status, or just want to debate the finer points of the series at large? Hailing frequencies are open in the comments section.

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