**** (4 stars out of 5)
Just in case you've been under a rock and/or watching 'Babylon 5', there's a nasty little border skirmish in which a bunch of heroic malcontents called the Maquis are defending their homes against the terrible Cardassians. These brave outlaws have a stick in their craw because their normally idyllic Federation and its stalwart defense force, Starfleet, left them to twist in the plasma wind.
Captain Chakotay, probably from the North American Indian world of Dorvan V, is a man of peace compelled to fight for a noble cause. Which is not going to matter again for a long time since he and his crew vanish from their hide-out in the Badlands.
Kathryn Janeway, gung-ho, science-minded Starfleet Captain of U.S.S. Voyager, springs ex-Starfleet, ex-Maquis mercenary, ex-drunk, ex-con and all-round handsome charmer Tom Paris to track Chakotay down. Not for being an outlaw, particularly, but because Janeway's undercover Vulcan security officer chum Tuvok is also lost.
Paris prevents Eager Young Space Cadet Harry Kim from blowing his wages trying to smooth race relations with the Ferengi Quark. Thus, the instantly lovable Harry takes a shine to the besmirched young pilot. Which is quite amazingly good luck for Harry, since in an instant, (and surely by coincidence) every Voyager character who besmirched, sneered at, spurned, or looked sideways at Tom Paris is killed by an energy wave that strands the starship in the unexplored reaches of the Delta Quadrant.
Even their jerk doctor died, but not to worry: they have an emergency jerk doctor! An interactive hologram linked to a medical database brings you all the snide comments you love at a fraction of the cost of, say, Julian Bashir.
Quickly falling afoul of the cast of 'Little House on The Prairie', (who turn out to be holograms working for a Giant Senile Jellyfish), the Maquis and the crew of Voyager must put aside their animosity in the face of bloodthirsty (and just plain thirsty) Kazon water pirates. The Kazon hope to prey on the water-hoarding underground doomsday cult of telepathic elves called the Ocampa. The Ocampa have relied on the kindness of strangers since a stranger called the Caretaker (the aforementioned Giant Senile Jellyfish) accidentally roasted their planet into Darth Vader's desert homeworld Tatooine with a side of Arrakis.
The dying Caretaker has been kidnapping spaceships for months in a last-ditch attempt to... there's no other word... rape himself up an offspring. So far, only Chakotay's rage-fueled half-Klingon engineer B'Elanna Torres and Harry Kim have genes remotely compatible with a Giant Senile Jellyfish. Ludicrous as THAT may sound, the Banjo-Twanging Extragalactic Cyst has already given them deadly diseases while trying to impregnate the pair while they were unconscious.) Why does the Caretaker want an heir? Well, someone to carry on his noble work- keeping the Ocampa like mushrooms: in the dark and fed on shit.
A rebel Ocampa named Kes fled into the sunlight, only to become the unfortunate child bride of Neelix: one of those rat-like muppets that worship the Trash Heap behind Fraggle Rock. In fact, I think we were supposed to like Neelix. I'm virtually hard-wired to adore cuddly aliens. But the writing leaves me no conclusion other than that Neelix robbed and pissed off a gang of Kazon, abandoning Kes to their abuses. Whereupon he flew off to paw through a junk zone until the luxurious starship Voyager HAPPENED past. He gorges himself from their replicators, takes a long bath, chatters happily with nonplussed Tuvok, chooses a natty suit of new clothes... and finally, FINALLY tricks the humans into rescuing his girlfriend from TORTURE. Would he have EVER gone back for her? Kes doesn't seem to mind his dubious lack of urgent concern for her welfare. It's a symptom of the slow, slow second half.
I DO like this. It's a strong opening. The characters are very appealing. It just does everything... very gradually.
Yet it also wraps up some things TOO quickly. Chakotay plows his empty ship into the Kazon, forcing his crew to cram aboard Voyager, also forcing them metaphorically into the Starfleet mold and literally into Starfleet footy pajamas.
Janeway bombs the dead Caretaker's GO-HOME machine, forcing everyone into a SEVENTY YEAR return journey. All so the Ocampa get to watch TV for another 5 years before the power goes out and the Kazon assuredly eat them.
"Caretaker" is the most expensive Star Trek episode ever made. It's nearly twice as expensive as the pilot of its little brother Enterprise. It was even more expensive than Wrath of Khan! This makes it THE ONE TO BEAT!!! I mean, beat by being more thrilling yet more fiscally responsible. Get to it!