Voyager originated as a request from Paramount to have a second Trek show on the air after TNG finished up, running simultaneously with DS9. It was decided early on to have the show on a starship again, but there was a desire to endure the show wasn’t just TNG with a new cast and ship.
The plot elements were worked out during a series of working lunches between Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor. They decided at this point to have the ship stranded in deep space, like various episodes of TNG where Q or the Traveller or someone would maliciously or inadvertently send the Enterprise to the other side of the galaxy, but they’d always get home by the end of the hour. Taylor said she was very excited to be cutting as many ties to the Alpha Quadrant as possible.
Michael Piller also said that there was a decision at this stage to make the pilot episode more action-oriented compared to Emissary’s cerebral tone. The trio also added the Maquis element to the show at this point in planning, looking to adding some strife to the cast in a manner similar to DS9’s, but also to give the show another factor for exciting storytelling.
The first official documentation for the show is from 3rd August 1993, a series of notes from Jeri Taylor to Berman and Piller which detailed the core of Caretaker’s plot - the ship, as yet unnamed goes on a mission (at this point covert), with a disgraced officer aboard as an observer. Over the course of the mission, they pick up two more misfits, and the ship is zapped to the other side of the galaxy, ten years or more away from home. The Captain (already identified as a woman) decides to begin the trip home, and everyone has to work together. These notes also mention a “mayfly” alien race which would become the Ocampa.
On the 8th August, another note was added simply stating the ship was on its maiden voyage, and then on the 10th they add the idea of Voyager searching for ships missing in the Badlands, and Nick Locarno (Robert Duncan McNeil’s character in The First Duty) is mentioned by name. These notes suggest tha mayfly aliens would be from a world that is ‘squatted on’ by a race noted as being like the Crips and Bloods (which would become the Kazon). On the 16th the plot was altered so the two people Voyager was sent to find were sent to the planet the Crips and Bloods were squatting on, and the idea that they’d choose to join a Starfleet-style crew at the end of the episode. In notes from two days later these characters are notes as taking over the science officer and engineer roles - though the engineer character would refuse to wear the Starfleet uniform.
In September Michael Okuda, Rick Sternback and other long-term TNG staffers were brought on-board to add some depth to the backplot and add a reason for Voyager to be catapulted to the Delta Quadrant. At this point the idea of the Caretaker was added, with notes from Taylor dated 9th of September calling him a “dying goo-man” and he’s looking for DNA compatible with the mayflies to rejuvenate their race. The sympathetic mayfly character (who would become Kes) is given some background here, as someone who rebels against the idyllic life under the surface, she wants to work and become self-sufficient.
Michael Piller was assigned the task of writing the script, with Berman and Taylor providing notes. Brannon Braga was unable to contribute to the writing for Caretaker as he was on holiday. Piller set about writing the series bible first, and then working on the script proper later in production. While he and Jeri Taylor have the screenplay credit, Piller frequently pointed out that the writing was a collaborative process, he sought feedback from other members of the Trek staff on-site at Paramount, and focus groups were used at various points as well.
As writing progressed, it was decided to frame the start of the story from an outsider’s point of view, and Paris was chosen for this role. Piller struggled with how to close Paris’ story arc in the episode, as a memo sent to Berman and Taylor early in October 1993 showed. He finished the first draft plot on the 18th of October, with many revisions over the following months. On the 16th February 1994, a draft that was considered final was submitted, though a number of changes were made in March.
While scripting the episode, Piller felt that something was missing - and decided it was a mysterious, surreal environment like the Talosian’s mindgames in The Cage, Q’s courtroom in Encounter at Farpoint, and the Wormhole Aliens’ realm in Emissary. At this point the Caretaker’s array was intended to be a standard spaceship affair, and he hit on the idea of having an illusory environment there when they first arrive. Piller also found it hard to work out a reason for viewers to care in the back half of the episode, saying that while the conflict was exciting, there was very little emotion to hook viewers to, because characterisation had taken a back seat to the plot, and only Paris was really fleshed out in the first half. They relied on Kes as a way to add emotional content, especially for Neelix.
The script was completed on 1st September 1994, with final revisions to the teleplay on 20th September. Apparently Ron Moore, René Echevarria and Brannon Braga snuck into Jeri Taylor’s office, stole a copy of the script and read it.
While Piller worked on the script, the production crew set about the work of making the show. The budget for the pilot was set at $6,000,000, and shooting was scheduled to start on August 15th 1994 - though this slipped to September 6th (the first scene shot was Tom Paris asking the replicator for tomato soup). By June, production design was in full swing, with the art team producing concept pieces and the costuming department.
During preproduction, it was suggested that they do an alternate title credits for episode 1, listing Stadi, Commander Cavit and the original chief medical officer instead of Torres, Chakotay, Neelix, The Doctor and Kes, as a fakeout towards the deaths of what would normally be standard cast positions in the show. It was nixed because they figured the actual cast would be featured enough in promotional material before the show began that it wouldn’t be a surprise as they’re introduced.
As is often noted, Geneviéve Bujold was originally cast to play Nicole Janeway, but she left the production after two days (on September 10th), not ready for the intensity of TV filming schedules. Kate Mulgrew was cast shortly thereafter, her first day on set was 19th September (a Monday, she recalls that she was cast on the prior Friday). The scenes used for the audition were her conversation with Tuvok where she talks about Kim and his family, and her speech from the end of the episode. when watching dailies, they noticed that Mulgrew’s hair was very fine, and because she was wearing it down it wound up looking thin and see-through on-screen. She switched to the bun hairstyle as a result, prompting reshoots on a number of scenes.
Robert Beltran joined the production about a week after Geneviéve Bujold left, and recalls getting fan mail even before production had begun. It was his first indication of how much people loved Trek, that he got letters saying things like “welcome to the family” and “we’re looking forward to Voyager”. He also said that he greatly enjoyed working on the pilot. (Of course, that attitude would change through the years)
Roxann Dawson noted that she didn’t have a great idea of what her character would be during filming, and it was hard to emote through the heavy makeup. Also in Trek trivia, Dawson’s professional credit at the time of filming was Roxann Biggs-Dawson. She was married to Casey Biggs, who played Damar on DS9, though they later divorced.
While Caretaker initially aired as a feature-length episode, it was split in two for syndication, necessitating some cuts - the scene where Paris firts with Stadi, Kim being stuck by the needle in the Caretaker’s Array, Kes advising the crew to avoid touching the forcefield, and Javin’s communication to Janeway at the end of the battle were removed entirely, while Quark’s attempt to scam Kim had a few moments shaved out of it, and some scenes were moved around to end episode I at the end of the 4th act.
Dan Curry, the visual effects supervisor noted that even leaving aside the need to design and build a new lead starship, this episode had a huge workload, later saying it was as much work as Generations from an effects perspective. The only member of the regular Trek effects team to not work on the episode was Ronald B Moore, who was finishing up Generations at the time (readers may recall he was the effects supervisor on Voyager by the time Scorpion was filming). Amusingly, the Kazon ship that crashed into the array was a cardboard mockup to allow it to crumple and be set on fire.
There was a lot of location filming for the episode - the Kazon camp was the El Mirage Dry Bed, the Ocampa city was the LA Convention Centre, and the farmhouse was in Norfolk, California. The amount of location filming, as well as reshoots lead to the episode’s budget swelling to $23,000,000, making it the most expensive single episode of Trek to date, and more expensive than Wrath of Khan when adjusted for inflation.
The production staff were largely happy with the episode, with Michael Piller, Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor all making positive statements, amongst others. The main dissenting voice was Ronald D Moore, who didn’t like that the Maquis were integrated enough to be wearing Starfleet uniforms by the end of episode 1. The episode was also criticised for apparently agreeing with Newt Gingrich’s contract with America policy (a welfare froem scheme which would, amongst other things propose moving welfare children to orphanages), most notably when Janeway says that the Ocampa should be able to fend for themselves. Jeri Taylor noted that she can see the parallels, but they definitely weren’t advocating for anything like Gingrich wanted.
As of this episode, Armin Shimmerman, Richard Poe (Evek), and Mark Allen Shepard (Morn) became the first actors to play the same characters in three different Trek productions. Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and John DeLancie would later join them. Frakes misses out on four because he played Tom Riker in DS9, but Will Riker in his Voyager and Enterprise guest slots.
The episode was also well-recieved by critics. Cinefantastique gave it 3.5/4 stars, and various Trek reference books also rate it highly. Captain’s Logs likened Emissary to The Cage, and Caretaker to Where No Man Has Gone Before in terms of cerebral plot to action plot. The episode was nominated for 4 Emmys - Costume Design, Hairstyling, Music Composition, and Visual Effects. It won the last of those, beating out the DS9 episode The Jem’Hadar.
So here’s my secret shame: I went to a one-day Trek Con type thing, just to see this episode before it aired. They showed it twice, with some DS9 episodes from the end of series 2 that hadn’t aired on UK/Irish TV yet in the middle (but I’d seen them because they’d come out on home video and a friend of mine bought them and loaned them to me).
And yeah, I watched Caretaker twice in one day. But in my defence, I… Like this episode.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still think the criticisms I levelled against Voyager are valid, and the show eventually made me quit Star Trek for like 10 years. But all that is in the future. Here, we have Voyager at its most potential-laden. We don’t know yet how insipid and boring the show will become. And there’s a lot of promise shown here.
Some of it is open text - the idea of an ideologically divided crew who need to work together is a great idea for a Trek show (someone should do it sometime!), as is the ship being cut off from Starfleet, in a far more hostile area of space. Watching it again, I remember the potential I saw in characters like Tuvok, Torres and the Doctor (less so Paris and Kim, and the others were OK), and there’s a lot of nice moments with glances cast, especially by Tuvok when interacting with Neelix, and The Doctor in general.
Speaking of those last two, there’s some great comedy moments from Neelix’s first exposure to a Federation ship, the Mister Vulcan line still makes me smile, and the Doctor’s “Tricorder. Medical Tricorder” is a wonderful moment.
There’s a few moments of WTFfery as well though. There’s a lot of talk of water being scarce in the region of space around the Ocampa planet - and I can get the planet itself being turned into a wasteland by the Caretaker’s people and water being scarce on the surface as a result. But water is one of the most common compounds in the universe, and the Kazon have faster-than-light technology. There’s no inherent reason for them to be fighting over water. Even Neelix should have no problem synthesising water from hydrogen and oxygen. It’s a nitpick, but it gets on my nerves.
As expected from a story that aimed to be more of an adventure than Emissary, there’s less to chew over here in terms of philosophical themes or symbolism, but there’s still some strong content around Janeway’s dilemma - use the Array to get home, and in doing so doom the Ocampa and possibly a chunk of the Quadrant?
The problem is, of course that we know how little of this potential is going to be fulfilled. While most of the cast will remain pretty bland, the fact that Janeway’s decision-making process will contradict itself all the bloody time rankles, the separation from Starfleet never really mattering annoys, and like Ron Moore said, what’s the point in having a disparate crew if it never really matters?
So yeah, Caretaker. Shame about the seven years of TV that followed it, eh?