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Welcome, Seven of Nine, to the Year of Hell… Or rather, the year of brilliant episodes and fantastic character-driven stories. Here we are at long last; the marvellous forth season of Star Trek: Voyager. I have been waiting for this a long time now, and I am glad to say it lived up and even exceeded my highest expectations. Now this is what I call a coming of age.

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Series
Maybe that is a slightly untrue comment however. In my honest opinion, Voyager came into its own very early on, in the second season as a matter of fact. Which was far earlier that I expected. The third season built on that success but it is the fourth season that really takes Voyager beyond its boundaries and to the final frontier itself. It is now that we see Voyager in its true light, it is now that it becomes one of the top twenty greatest television shows of the nineties and now that it ventures into the realm of outstanding televised entertainment.

Season three bowed to the tune of the infamous and very ‘Best of Both World’s-like’ finale, ‘Scorpion’. In the continuation of that story, we are introduced to the ravishing Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who’ll be a permanent resident of the show until its end. This is a good thing, a very good thing. Essentially, Seven of Nine is a female version of Data, or Spock. She is the emotionless element Star Trek writers have always found to be intriguing, but she is a character all her own. Her character may draw upon the aforementioned for inspiration, but Seven of Nine is unique.

Her presence on this show adds so much more than an aesthetically pleasing cat-suit as some would be all too keen to point out; she adds character, wit and charm amongst other things. She also brings coolness, flavour, a bit of on-screen spice and so many more things to mention here. Sure, she is gorgeous eye-candy for us male aphrodisiacs, but never do the producers and directors flaunt her exterior like they did with Jolene Blalock on the catastrophic Enterprise.

Jeri Ryan commands the screen and instantly becomes a character of equal likeability to any of the major players on this show. Within just a few episodes she is right up there along with Janeway, Neelix and the Doctor as a favourite. You might say she ‘assimilates’ her persona in an effective way…

The second chapter in the ‘Scorpion’ story also gets to work on setting up another deliciously wicked and villainous alien race – Species 8472, as the Borg call them in their colourful language. Expect lots of action, jaw dropping visuals and some good old fashioned character-conflicts that embody this episode. In all, ‘Scorpion, Part II’ begins the season with style and flair.

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Moving away from all the action, ‘The Gift’ ramps up the emotion when the ever radiant Kes finally departs the ship as she comes of age. ‘Day of Honour’ sees Torres and Paris finally come to terms with their amorous feelings in a beautiful and lovingly created scene shot against the stars. ‘Revulsion’ deals with a psychotic hologram obsessed with cleanliness. It might not sound like a good episode in concept, but it is actually quite chilling as both Torres and the Doctor investigate an abandoned space station.

‘Scientific Method’ is a down right creepy episode, and some of its imagery has remained in my thoughts and been burned into my imagination. It basically centres on a group of aliens who are invisible to the crew of Voyager. They experiment on the crew, sticking needles in their heads and grappling huge equipment to various parts of their body, and they are totally oblivious to it all. All they feel is pain and tension, but they don’t know why or where it’s coming from.

Only the Doctor and Seven of Nine know what is going on and have to attempt to flush the aliens out in secret. A scene where Seven of Nine enters Janeway’s office and sees dozens of razor sharp pins stuck in her head – while a huddle of aliens stand around her – is pretty eerie. ‘Scientific Method’ is a fantastically weird episode and a favourite of this season.

Now we come to Star Trek: Voyager’s greatest episode event of its entire history, ‘Year of Hell’. This event is a two-part episode and is commonly regarded as the best the show ever produced amongst fans; I’d have to agree. This episode has it all; action, suspense, drama, plenty of techno babble and, possibly the finest visual effects ever seen at that point in television history.

It all hits the fan when Voyager crosses into Krenim territory. They repeatedly come under fire, taking heavy casualties and damage as they go. Due to the sheer size of Krenim space, Janeway decides that the only way back to the Alpha Quadrant is straight though their territory, regardless of the consequences. Of course it comes at a great loss, Voyager is quickly turned into a wreck, many crewmen perish and all hope of succeeding begins to fade very quickly.

Star Trek: Voyager - Season Four
On a particularly bad day, Voyager detects some sort of huge shockwave approaching them. The Krenim ship in front of them changes and it seems as if the whole timeline has been radically altered in the blink of an eye. The source of this huge shockwave was from a single ship, a ship not within normal space but rather existing outside of time itself. The man onboard has altered the timeline by wiping out an entire species which quickly begins to unwind different aspects of the surrounding planets in the wake of his alteration.

When Voyager eventually produces a defence against the Krenim weapons, they find that their ship suddenly becomes impervious to these shockwaves and the timeline-altering effects. It becomes clear, when it seems the entire Krenim Empire has been wiped out, that their new mission must be to track down the leader of this ship and stop him from whatever it is he is doing.

I haven’t even begun to touch on the many more subtle aspects of ‘Year of Hell’, it’s just far too big and complex for me to touch upon within this review. Suffice to say, it is one of the greatest television episodes of all time and absolutely one of Trek’s finest hours. ‘Year of Hell’ is so damn good and so richly detailed, yet such a passionately intricate an experience it comes with the highest possible recommendation I can bestow upon it. Frankly, this is essential viewing.

Moving on, ‘Concerning Flight’ pits Janeway and her favourite holographic character, Leonardo da Vinci (played superbly by John Rhys Davies), against a semi-hostile race when they become involved with a band of space pirates. It’s a fun episode which is bound to put a smile on your face. ‘Mortal Coil’ sees Neelix undergo a dramatic character change when he dies and is brought back to life several hours later. It’s very good because we get to see a different side to usually cheery Neelix and witness how he is radically torn apart when his faith is cast into severe doubt.

‘Waking Moments’ is another great episode which sees a group of aliens take over Voyager in their dreams. But one of the absolute standout episodes this season has to be ‘Message in a Bottle’. It does a myriad of things; we get to see a new alien race which plays an important part in Voyager’s journey, we are reacquainted with the Alpha Quadrant and the Federation for the first time since ‘Caretaker’ and the Doctor also has his best adventure to date.

Star Trek: Voyager - Season Four
When the ship stumbles upon a vast alien communications network that spans all the way to the Alpha Quadrant, Seven of Nine detects a Federation ship within reach. Due to the enormous distance a message would have to travel, it becomes clear that the Doctor and his holographic technology is their only hope of a successful communication. Once sent across the network, the Doctor arrives on a brand spanking new Federation ship; a prototype no less. There is, however, a serious problem; Romulans have taken over the ship and are steering it towards their space!

With no humans aboard, the Doctor conjures a brilliant plan; he will team up with the Prometheus’ holographic doctor and try to defeat the Romulans, but there is yet another hitch; this EMH is not like Voyager’s doctor, he is a newer breed of EMH, he’s faster, more intelligent, more smug and superior – which doesn’t go down too well at all. Suffice to say, comedy ensues, as well as nail-biting suspense as both the holograms try to save the ship. Aside from being one of the most fun and energetic episodes of the franchise, it‘s easily one of the most impressively designed too.

This whole episode must have cost a bomb to produce. The production crew went to the trouble of designing a huge bridge/command centre that is gorgeous and one-hundred percent believable as a hi-tech Federation starship. They also built a brand new sickbay, corridors, terminal and interfaces, a briefing room, the lot! They even chuck in new sound effects such as door chimes, alerts and such. It’s all very, very impressive to say the least.

But all that stuff aside, what makes this episode even more memorable is its heart. The way both doctors clash and but heads is superb comedy on one hand, but along the way they also learn to appreciate each other and to work together. It’s all very entertaining and rousing. That, and the rewarding ending in which the Doctor informs Janeway about the Federation’s knowledge of Voyager’s fate cement this episode amongst the Trek giants. That ending is also a pivotal moment in the show’s history, and one that is simply unforgettable. Classic!

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‘Hunters’ and ‘Prey’ spice up the whole Hirogen thing. In these two episodes we also get more of Species 8472 and some touching scenes when the crew receive letters from home. Next up we have another two-part episode entitled ‘The Killing Game’. As with Voyager’s other doubles, ‘The Killing Game’ serves up practically everything you expect in an epic episode. What’s also great about it is its setting; holodeck, yes, but not like you’ve ever seen before. This time the entire crew is clueless as to their predicament, they are playing the roles of different characters as the Hirogen pull the strings around them. There are many settings in this episode, but my favourite was the intricate WWII locales which were frightfully realistic.

‘The Omega Directive’ sees the ship go into a mysterious alert status when a single ‘Omega’ particle is discovered in space. Only the captain and Seven of Nine know what is going on and try to prevent a cataclysmic disaster. ‘Living Witness’ is another of my top-rated episodes. Set hundreds of years into the future, a museum owner takes his students on a tour of certain relics, not least parts of the starship Voyager itself. Apparently, Voyager played a very important part of this species’ development, but they were portrayed as evil and vengeful. The doctor sets the record straight when his program is reactivated. ‘Living Witness’ is truly a marvellous episode that deals with a great many subjects like racial differences and such, plus, it has one of the best endings I have ever seen in any episode. It might be quick, but it takes you completely by surprise.

‘Demon’ turns out to be a great episode too, when we are shown what happens to the ship as it comes to a dramatic halt. Power has almost completely drained, and desperate situations requite desperate measures. The episode title actually refers to a type of planet; the hostile and deadly kind. The crew has no choice but to land there when a source of energy is found on the surface, but it’s certainly not what it appears.

Seven of Nine has a healthy dose of character development in the penultimate ‘One’, which sees herself and the Doctor having to pilot the ship into a deadly nebula while the crew remains in stasis. And finally, ‘Hope and Fear’ rounds out this most extraordinary collection of episodes this season. This finale is wonderful, clever and incredibly fun. It also manages to tie up a few arcs that had arisen during the course of the season. ‘Hope and Fear’, while not a typical Voyager finale for these later years, was still one of the more memorable and sophisticated. In all, it was a great way to send out this superb season.

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Video
Season three struck a cord in this department, and I am happy to report the fourth season stays true to that quality and perhaps even improves upon it slightly. With season four being a little darker in tone to the previous seasons, everything seems to have a more pronounced visual clarity to it. There is a slight flicker of darkness throughout this season and it has seemingly been woven into the many visual aspects such as the CGI, production design and such. It all looks great and creates an atmosphere quite unique to this time in Voyager’s history.

The image itself looks mighty fine with less grain that the previous sets and a shaper, more modern look. All of this is only very slight however, but if you take it all in and absorb yourself in this season you’ll probably notice these subtleties here and there. Minor though they may be, they do make for an astonishing impression and it appears to rub off on the image transfer. In all, this is a great looking season and the best yet.

Audio
‘As good as season three if not better’ tends to be the theme for this fourth season. It was true of the season as a whole and with the video aspect. It’s also true of the audio qualities I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know. With action episodes like ‘Year of Hell’ and ‘The Killing Game’ backing it up, the soundtrack explodes with a furious rage. LFE finally comes into its own here, so too do the direction effects. Dialogue is roughly the same however; it’s still of the same high quality. But when the gunfire breaks out on the holodeck during the WWII battles, you’ll catch your head spinning round a few times as bullets whiz by.

Extras
The season four colour scheme is my favourite of all the seven in the collection; it’s sort of like an aqua blue colour – gorgeous. ‘Braving the Unknown: Season Four’ offers the usual glimpse at some standout moments from the season. Too short overall, but not bad all things considered.

‘Time Capsule: Seven of Nine’ and ‘Time Capsule: Harry Kim’ both examine those respective characters in moderate detail. I personally thought the Seven of Nine feature was a little more in-depth and rewarding than the Harry Kim feature. Perhaps this has something to do with that character’s added popularity or, because of the media blitz that surrounded Jeri Ryan being on the show. Still, the Harry Kim feature was good and I did enjoy it.

‘The Birth of Species 8472’ is a feature on the coming of the villainous race. Though not as rewarding as I had hoped, it still managed to offer some valuable background information on the alien race, as well as a cool behind the scenes look at their creation.

‘The Art of Alien Worlds’ rounds out the set along with a photo gallery and the usual hidden segments dotted throughout the static menu screens. Again, not the best set of extra features you’ll find on a DVD, but clearly the best you're going to get with regards to this show.

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Overall
Season four is arguably Voyager’s best season, or at least one of the top three. For the most part everything is spot on and damn near perfect. Season four also proved that Voyager was indeed great Star Trek and could hold its own against the more dominant Next Generation and Deep Space Nine series’. But more than that, this is the point where Voyager had become its own, and where it stepped up onto the plateau of recognisable entertainment and was duly rewarded for it. After a good debut season, a great second one and an even better third, season four embodies maturity and fulfilment and, in franchise retrospect, was the best season since Deep Space Nine bowed in its seventh season.

The DVD is great overall; the best so far in fact. The extras are typically still lacking – and will never change it seems – but the ever improving audio/visual aspects are a real treat for the senses. Overall, I’d have to recommend this season to just about anyone who can appreciate quality; be it Star Trek or otherwise. This fourth season box set is a gem and well worth the lofty price of admission. That’s about as a good a compliment as I can give it.


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