Star Trek: Voyager has had a bit of a roller-coaster ride in terms of quality, with really solid seasons alternating with weaker ones. After a strong opening in Season 1, Season 2 was lackluster, but the spark returned to the show in the solid episodes of Season 3. Season 4 was moderately entertaining but didn't live up to its potential... which brings us to Season 5, which is probably the best season so far.
Voyager has consistently favored episodic storytelling over larger story arcs; I tend to think of that as a missed opportunity, but there's nothing wrong with an episodic approach if the stand-alone episodes are handled well. The proof is in the pudding: if Voyager is to be judged on the quality of its individual stories, they have to be good ones. Fortunately, in Season 5 the general quality of the episodes is quite high, with many original and well-thought-out stories being told.
"Night" provides a fairly low-key season opener; while passing through an area of space in which all the stars are obscured, a depressed Janeway grapples with the fact that her ethical choices were what stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant, and must face a new choice when the crew encounters a species in distress. The following episode, "Drone," starts revving things up: a transporter accident results in the creation of a super-Borg drone composed partly of 29th-century technology... leaving Janeway to determine if he's a ticking time bomb or a potentially helpful new crew member. Other early-season episodes that shine include the imaginative "In the Flesh" and "Timeless," which is another entertaining example of how Star Trek generally makes time-travel plots work very well indeed.
Even with the occasional episode with not-very-consequential events, like the shuttle crash in "Once Upon a Time" that has Neelix comforting little Naomi Wildman (in the first of several appearances in this season), or Chakotay's telepathic connection with aliens in "Fight," the overall trend for solid, imaginative episodes in Season 5 continues throughout the whole season. For instance, "Latent Image" is a solidly-crafted story in which the Doctor discovers that something is very wrong with his memories... or perhaps with himself. As we move toward the end of the season, another time-travel episode stands out: "Relativity," this time with Seven of Nine in the central role. Not all of Season 5 is action and drama, as the crew's adventures in the holodeck provide for some lighter moments, most notably in the imaginative and very amusing "Bride of Chaotica!" (Yes, the exclamation point really is part of the title.)
While the season overall is made up of self-contained episodes, Voyager does have the good sense to draw on its backstory from previous seasons to add depth to several of the episodes in Season 5. For instance, we encounter Species 8472 once again... though it would be a spoiler to reveal which episode they're in (I'll just say that it's an entertaining one). Speaking of impressive antagonists, Season 4 may have had the Borg on the cover of the DVD set, but it's here in Season 5 that we get the great Borg-related stories that I'd hoped for in the previous season. As I mentioned earlier, "Drone" is a very entertaining stand-alone episode, but the real stand-out is "Dark Frontier." This is actually a double-length episode, but it originally aired (and is presented on DVD) as one piece, not in two parts. Here, Janeway conceives of a daring plan: turn the tables on the Borg, attack them, and steal a transwarp drive. It's a dangerous mission, and it's made all the more risky by Seven of Nine's difficulties in dealing with her identity as both a human and a Borg. "Dark Frontier" is a very satisfying story, one that makes excellent use of background story elements from both Voyager itself and the feature film First Contact. This episode also won an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects, and you'll know why when you see it.
Voyager: Season 5 is a seven-DVD set, packaged in a neon pink "book" of hard plastic pages, with one page per disc. The spindles hold the discs securely, but the plastic pages seem to crack easily (although the cracked page on my review copy didn't do any harm to the set overall). As with the other seasons, there's a two-part clear plastic slipcover that's a real nuisance to put on.
All of the seasons of Voyager have looked excellent, but Season 5 manages to look flat-out fantastic. The image is sparklingly clean and crisp, with an excellent level of detail throughout the image; colors are bright and vibrant, and blacks are deep and dark without ever looking too heavy. There are quite a few CGI shots in these episodes, and they look just as good as the live action; in episodes like "Dark Frontier" the visuals are so good they could easily have come from a feature film.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack offers an excellent listening experience, and while the surround sound isn't totally aggressive, it certainly does offer a respectable sense of immersion in the show. The sound design is quite good on many of these episodes, with the auditory special effects adding a lot to the ambiance. Overall, the track is consistently crisp and clean, with all the different elements of the soundtrack working well with each other and always sounding natural.
The special features are found on the seventh disc of the set, and include several interesting featurettes. First off is "Braving the Unknown: Season 5," which takes a look at the making of Season 5 and the various creative challenges associated with it. This piece runs 20 minutes, making it a reasonably substantial featurette. Next we get two "Voyager Time Capsule" segments, one on B'Elanna Torres (running 17 minutes) and one on Tom Paris (15 minutes). Each of these offers a nice mix of older and newer interview clips with the actors, discussing their relationship with the show. The most dramatic guest star of the season also gets a seven-minute featurette in "The Borg Queen Speaks." The 20-minute "Delta Quadrant Make-up Magic" featurette provides a very interesting look at the literal "making of" Voyager's aliens, with makeup designer Michael Westmore discussing his work in detail.
A photo gallery is also included, and for those who have the patience to pixel-hunt for short behind-the-scenes clips, there are a total of five hidden files: two each on the first two special-features menu screens, and one on the third screen.
Season 5 of Star Trek: Voyager is probably the strongest season so far, demonstrating once again that Voyager can tell entertaining, well-thought-out science-fiction stories. While there's some character development over the course of the season, in my view this isn't what makes the season work as well as it does: that honor goes to a higher-than-usual number of well-written stories. Anybody who has been following Voyager so far can (and should) pick up this season without hesitation: it won't disappoint. I'd even say that viewers who haven't seen any previous Voyager episodes wouldn't go far wrong in starting with Season 5: there's really no need to know what happened in previous seasons, and the overall good quality of this season's episodes makes for an excellent introduction to the show. Star Trek Voyager: Season 5 gets a hearty "recommended" from me.