Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Picard, and for other iterations of the franchise.
Twenty years ago today saw the premiere of Endgame, bringing Star Trek: Voyager to an end after seven seasons and 172 episodes. It was a feature-length episode with a complicated story involving time travel and two versions of Janeway! To mark the anniversary, I wanted to look back at the episode – specifically at one of its key storylines. Endgame saw Admiral Janeway travel back in time from the year 2404 to 2378 – and deliberately using her knowledge of the future to radically change events for the crew of Voyager. But did she make the right decision by doing so? And was it even her decision to make?
Those are the questions on my mind on Endgame’s 20th anniversary! It seems like a great opportunity to finally dig into these issues and consider some pretty deep points from an in-universe point of view. I’ve explained on a few occasions already that time travel stories both within Star Trek and outside the franchise aren’t always my favourites, but despite some of my in-universe criticisms of Janeway and her actions (or maybe because the episode is so morally ambiguous) Endgame is an example of a time travel story that I actually like. It was an exciting and explosive way to bring Voyager to an end – and I can hardly believe it’s been twenty years already!
Time travel stories in Star Trek typically don’t proceed like Endgame. If our characters go back in time to undo some event, it’s usually with a view to preserving or repairing the timeline, not deliberately changing it. That’s the crucial difference, and it’s why Admiral Janeway’s actions are, at best, morally ambiguous. At worst I’d argue we should condemn what she did.
It’s worth acknowledging that time travel in Star Trek has not always been clear-cut. The Original Series in particular took a more liberal attitude to travelling back in time, with episodes like Assignment: Earth and the film The Voyage Home showing the crew much more able to freely interact and change things than we’d seen in later stories of The Next Generation era. But Endgame arrived after the establishment of the Temporal Prime Directive, and after several episodes in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager itself had all established that time travel is regulated and the timeline itself monitored by agencies of the Federation.
The Federation and Starfleet, through the Temporal Prime Directive and organisations like the Department of Temporal Investigations, was dedicated to maintaining and preserving the timeline, and to ensuring that no one would change or manipulate events for their own purposes. Starfleet in the 29th Century – as we saw in Voyager – spent at least part of its time enforcing these laws.
When Admiral Janeway travelled back in time in Endgame, she didn’t merely change the lives of the surviving crew of the USS Voyager. By bringing the ship home decades earlier than it otherwise would have made it, and by attacking the Borg, she changed and even erased countless lives, both inside the Federation’s borders and outside of it. Films like The Butterfly Effect demonstrate the flaw in this approach – showing how changing one or two things which seem to only affect a handful of people can have massive unintended consequences.
We can talk specifics in a moment, but first let’s consider, as a moral question, whether Admiral Janeway had any kind of right to meddle in the timeline to this extent. By changing the course of history, and undoing events that happened almost thirty years in the past from her perspective, she radically changed the future for countless people – including, of course, everyone on Voyager’s crew.
Although she had once been their commanding officer and thus bore a degree of responsibility for their lives, this was categorically not Janeway’s choice to make – certainly not decades later, when most of the crew were no longer serving under her command. And the implications of what she did for the wider Federation and for every race and empire in the galaxy cannot be overstated. Time can be weaponised; this is something we know from dozens of other Star Trek stories. So there can be only one term for what Admiral Janeway did in Endgame – it’s a war crime.
Two examples come to mind. First is the Borg attack on Earth in Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Borg attempted to assimilate humanity by travelling to the past. And the second is the Voyager two-part episode Year of Hell from Season 4, in which a time traveller named Annorax attempted to force multiple changes in the timeline to save someone he cared about. In both cases, Starfleet was on the side of preserving the timeline and fighting back against the criminals who attempted to bend the timeline to their will. What Admiral Janeway does in Endgame is the complete opposite.
Not only that, but her motivations seem to be primarily about saving the life of one person – Seven of Nine. Though there was a sub-plot involving Tuvok suffering from an illness that was only curable if he got back to Federation space, saving Seven’s life was Janeway’s main objective. So all of the damage and destruction wrought upon the timeline was for the sake of one person. On an individual level we can understand and even sympathise with Janeway’s desire to save Seven’s life. But when stacked up against countless other lives it pales into insignificance.
The early part of Endgame briefly introduced us to Sabrina, the daughter of Naomi Wildman and an unnamed individual. By travelling back in time, Janeway completely changed Naomi Wildman’s future and thus almost certainly erased Sabrina from existence. Star Trek has never been a franchise that talks up things like fate and destiny, so unless we’re going to try to inject that here and say that Naomi Wildman was always going to meet Sabrina’s father at exactly the right time and place… then I’m sorry, but there’s no doubt that Sabrina was wiped out by Admiral Janeway.
We have another point of comparison: the Deep Space Nine Season 5 episode Children of Time. In that story, the USS Defiant crash-landed on a planet in the Gamma Quadrant and Sisko and co. found themselves stranded in the past. The crew’s descendants were later wiped out of existence by the intervention of Odo – who desired to save the life of Major Kira. Once again, the story encourages us to understand Odo’s motivations on an individual level, but condemn him for what he did – erasing 8,000+ people from existence.
If the future from which Janeway had originated seemed awful, perhaps we could judge her actions less harshly. Her desire to attack the Borg would be far more understandable if, for example, the Borg had conquered much of the Federation. But there was no indication that there had been any Borg activity in Federation space in the preceding decades, let alone the kind of war or invasion that might conceivably justify this kind of action.
If the whole crew had died it still wouldn’t justify her actions, but it would certainly make them more sympathetic. However, again the episode does not give us this justification. Tom Paris, B’Elanna Torres, the Doctor, Harry Kim, Barclay, and others all seem to be doing well in the early 25th Century, having moved on and put their Voyager days behind them.
Admiral Janeway’s justifications are thus wearing thin. Chakotay had died in this era, but there’s no evidence that travelling back in time would have saved his life. The only two lives that would be positively affected that Endgame shows us are Seven of Nine and Tuvok; the entire rationale for her plan hangs on these two individuals. And as I said earlier, when pitted against countless other lives, that can’t possibly be acceptable.
Janeway herself took the opposite view in Year of Hell, fighting back against Annorax’s attempts to use time travel to manipulate events to achieve his desired outcome. And Star Trek has several other great examples of our heroes stepping up to preserve the timeline or using time travel to prevent exactly the kind of thing Janeway tried to do. Going all the way back to The City on the Edge of Forever in the first season of The Original Series, this is how Starfleet has generally viewed time travel. In Enterprise we saw that taken to its logical conclusion, with Crewman Daniels representing a human faction – which may or may not have been associated with the Federation – dedicated to protecting the timeline from exactly this kind of interference.
Sticking with the theme of this being akin to a war crime, I would posit that Admiral Janeway used time itself as a weapon. In this case she used it to suit only her own selfish ends, with the potential side-effect of harming the Borg Collective, but as stated above the knock-on effects and consequences are unpredictable. There’s simply no way to know if Janeway’s interference made the galaxy better or worse.
For me, the biggest case in point is her attack on the Borg. There was no evidence that the Borg had attempted another attack or invasion as of 2404, and I’d present Barclay’s class as evidence that there had actually been no major attack or incursion in those years. Barclay showed the class of cadets a hologram that looked very much like a Borg drone encountered by the crew of Voyager or the Enterprise-E, suggesting Starfleet had no major Borg contact since those events. So here’s a hypothetical scenario: what if the Borg had turned their attention away from the Federation after suffering repeated defeats?
After the Borg were soundly beaten by Species 8472, they appear to have abandoned their attempts to assimilate them and their fluidic space realm, refocusing their efforts on further expansions of their space in the Delta Quadrant. It’s at least possible, then, that the Borg had put their plans to assimilate the Federation and make large-scale incursions into the Alpha Quadrant on hold, perhaps even indefinitely. Until Admiral Janeway came along.
Though we don’t have absolute confirmation of this, the existence of the Artifact (the abandoned Borg cube) in Picard Season 1 very strongly hints at the Borg Collective surviving Admiral Janeway’s attack in Endgame – and if they did, perhaps her attack changed the Borg’s perspective. No longer content to ignore humanity and focus on the Delta Quadrant, they may have spent the next few years plotting a major attack. The consequence of Janeway’s efforts to save Seven of Nine could thus be a full-scale Borg invasion!
That’s pure speculation on my part, of course, but it serves as an example of everything I’ve been saying: altering the timeline in this extreme fashion carries unprecedented levels of risk, and with no way to predict all of the possible outcomes, Janeway was absolutely wrong. She did the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, and may well have made life worse for untold numbers of people across the galaxy, including in the Federation. At the very least we can say she wiped Sabrina from existence; that little girl will be just one among millions whose lives were changed completely – or ended – by the actions Janeway took.
Star Trek is a franchise that encourages its viewers to think. Endgame is, in large part, a fun and action-packed episode – and one I really enjoy – but we can also break down Janeway’s choices and see them for what they are. In a way, Admiral Janeway is a deeply tragic character, scarred by the loss of someone she cares about deeply and willing to do anything to get them back. Mortality is something we all face, or have faced, and anyone who’s lost a loved one can sympathise with her on a personal level. Wanting to bring a loved one back from death is a theme in literature going all the way back to ancient times. Star Trek’s sci-fi setting – like religion and fantasy before it – allows for stories that explore that concept, and whether we’re dealing with Ancient Greek legends of Thanatos or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one thing stories of all kinds agree on is that resurrecting the dead comes at a terrible price.
In Endgame, Janeway pays the price with her own life. But I would argue that is barely the beginning. Her actions changed or erased the lives of countless people, and the real price for Seven of Nine’s “resurrection” – thanks to the timeline being changed – is the erasure of an altogether different timeline, and 26 years’ worth of people’s lives.
So to answer the question I posed at the beginning: Admiral Janeway undoubtedly did the wrong thing by travelling back in time and undoing more than a quarter of a century of history. While we can understand her reasons and even sympathise with her, in my view there’s no doubt that she violated Starfleet principles, committed a truly heinous crime that had the consequence of erasing and changing countless lives, and triggered all manner of consequences that she could not foresee.
Events in Star Trek: Picard, including the attack on Mars and the Zhat Vash’s victory in their crusade to end synthetic life, may be influenced by what Janeway did, and that’s just one example. The big threat that remains unresolved is the Borg – not only have they been given a new reason to target humanity, but she gave them a head-start on assimiliating knowledge and technology that the Federation wouldn’t develop on its own for a quarter of a century. Time travel has unintended consequences, and Janeway’s refusal to accept Seven of Nine’s fate, while understandable and even noble in some respects, led her to commit an action that is unforgivable. As we get ready to welcome Janeway back to Star Trek in the upcoming series Prodigy, let’s keep in mind what she’s capable of.
Endgame, the finale of Star Trek: Voyager, premiered 20 years ago today and is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Voyager and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.