Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1, Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2, and Star Trek: Voyager.
There have been a number of interesting-sounding pitches and concepts over the years for potential Star Trek series and feature films, and we recently looked at the possibility of a Starfleet Academy series. That sounds like something with potential, and you can check out my thoughts by clicking or tapping here.
But not all Star Trek pitches are created equal, and another potential series has been touted in the last few months by former Star Trek: Voyager actor and director Robert Duncan McNeill. He recently confirmed on social media that he’s pitched a Captain Proton show to ViacomCBS, though details about what the potential project would entail are light. Having touched on this idea on a couple of occasions in other contexts, I wanted to give the pitch more of an airing and put my thoughts in order.
You’ve probably already figured out from the title of this piece where I come down on a Captain Proton show: I’m not in favour of it and I can’t really see a way to bring it to screen successfully. I’d even go so far as to say that I highly doubt ViacomCBS will consider this pitch for very long, despite the known name attached to it, and though there are a few reasons why – which we’ll go into detail about – it boils down to one simple question for Trekkies. And here it is:
Out of everything in Star Trek, is Captain Proton the one thing you want more of?
There are many characters, locations, starships, and themes that the franchise could return to one day. Off the top of my head here are five: a visit to the Enterprise era to see more of the Federation’s early years, the return of Benjamin Sisko from the realm of the Prophets, Neelix’s adventures at the Talaxian colony, Pavel Chekov’s days as an admiral or elder statesman, and John Harriman’s missions as captain of the Enterprise-B.
You can probably think of dozens more; characters and concepts that the Star Trek franchise could happily revisit. I would bet actual money that, for 99% of Trekkies, Captain Proton wouldn’t even enter the top fifty on their lists of things that they’d be interested in returning to. And I’m in that same boat. The ten Voyager episodes which either featured or made reference to Captain Proton were fun – but the concept is simply not strong enough nor memorable enough to carry an entire series on its own.
I like retro sci-fi – the likes of Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet, and other older shows and films from long before Star Trek: The Original Series was even conceived are what Captain Proton paid homage to and gently parodied so well in Voyager. As one element of a larger series, a series with a much bigger picture and broader scope, Captain Proton worked. It slotted in well and gave the cast something different to do – and a chance to really ham it up and over-act.
But that’s the nicest thing I can say about the Captain Proton stories and sequences that we saw in Voyager. Out of that show’s 170 episodes, Captain Proton is far from being the most memorable aspect even among stories set on the holodeck; I’d go so far as to suggest that the Irish village featured in Fair Haven and Spirit Folk left more of a lasting impression. Those episodes certainly had far more depth than any Captain Proton story.
There’s a lot that we aren’t privy to when it comes to the recent Captain Proton pitch. Is it intended to be a 1930s-inspired black-and-white series, featuring the cardboard sets and overacting we’d expect from such a sci-fi serial? If the show wants to be purely about Captain Proton, either treating him as if he were real or showing us as the audience a kind of “show-within-a-show” look at Captain Proton through the eyes of a holodeck audience, then it has to be considered dead on arrival. A retro-inspired sci-fi aesthetic might be cool, but every other aspect of such a show would feel so terribly out-of-date that it would become a laughing stock.
On the other hand, if the Captain Proton series is actually intended to be a look at Tom Paris as he writes new Captain Proton holo-novels years after the USS Voyager returned to Earth, then perhaps there’s a bit more meat there; more of an actual concept with the potential for characterisation and drama.
I’m still not sure that it would work, but at least the latter concept has a bit more going for it. Firstly, it could be developed as a tie-in or crossover with Star Trek: Picard – or any other show or film set in that era. With Seven of Nine now a regular member of the Picard cast, the potential for a reunion with Tom Paris and perhaps B’Elanna Torres as well would be of some interest. Paris and Seven didn’t have a lot to do together during Voyager’s run, but Seven clashed frequently with B’Elanna, especially during her first year or so aboard the ship. There’s potential, perhaps, to revisit that relationship and see how things have evolved over the years – we know from Picard Season 1 that Seven of Nine has changed and become far more human in that time.
But I think that’s about as far as a Captain Proton show could go, and I don’t think we necessarily need a standalone project in order to bring back characters like Tom and B’Elanna. Perhaps they wouldn’t be the best fit for Picard, but they could certainly make an appearance in a future episode or film. Tom Paris has already had a cameo in Lower Decks, and while that was a bit of a nothing-burger from my perspective, I’m not totally against the idea of the character making future appearances in Lower Decks or any other Star Trek project.
When Michael Dorn revealed he’d pitched a Captain Worf series a while ago, I felt that the character might not be strong and well-rounded enough to carry an entire series on his own. And unfortunately Tom Paris is in that same category. Paris was an excellent character, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoyed what he brought to Voyager. But he was frequently used as comic relief – making a joke to lighten the mood in a tense situation. The spotlight episodes he got showed off the altruistic side of his personality, his love of retro things, and his piloting skills. And we also got to see his relationship with B’Elanna develop over the show’s run.
Tom Paris is far from one-dimensional. But he’s also not the kind of character who could easily play the main role – and if the intention behind this pitch is to create a Tom Paris series I fear it would end up meeting the same fate as Joey, the short-lived spin-off from popular sitcom Friends.
Tom Paris has a satisfying character arc already. Voyager began with him at rock bottom – a prisoner and an abject failure. He failed as a Starfleet officer, then failed on his first mission as a member of the Maquis. Out of everyone on Captain Janeway’s crew, Paris had the least to lose and the most to gain after getting stranded in the Delta Quadrant, but even so he rose to the occasion to become a dependable and honourable member of the crew, quite literally guiding the ship home.
So we’ve already seen Tom Paris’ character arc. By getting lost in the Delta Quadrant he found meaning and purpose in his life, he found the love of his life, and he gained redemption for his past misdeeds against Starfleet, against the Maquis, and even against his father. If his career path glimpsed in Endgame is any guide, his future is one of artistry and leisure, putting his adventures behind him to focus on doing the things he loves.
In short, we know Tom Paris quite well, and any addendum to the story that we’ve already seen play out would risk feeling tacked-on. At worst it could upset and even undermine aspects of his character arc across Voyager’s run depending on what direction the story was taken. Having spent seven years with Tom Paris – albeit in a supporting role – I’m quite content to say that his time in Starfleet ended with Voyager’s return to Earth and he’ll spend the rest of his days happily married, working on holo-novels and playing with classic cars. I don’t think we need to see any of that to believe that it happened – and it’s deeply satisfying after the long and arduous journey that the USS Voyager took to know that at least some of the characters we came to know and love did in fact get their “happily ever after.”
Unlike Seven of Nine, who had so much to gain personality-wise as she spent more time away from the Borg Collective, Tom Paris’ characterisation feels settled. As we saw in scenes set in the future in Endgame, he didn’t change much in the years after his return from the Delta Quadrant – and we wouldn’t have expected him to.
All of this assumes that Tom Paris was supposed to play a role in this pitched series at all, and that may not be the case. But regardless I think it’s worth considering that what makes for an enjoyable and lovable character – which Tom Paris certainly was – doesn’t necessarily translate to a character being suited to take a lead role. This is true of Worf and it’s true of Tom Paris – both played outstanding supporting roles, but neither should be tapped to lead their own spin-off.
After having spent years playing the same characters, I can fully understand why Robert Duncan McNeill and the rest of the Voyager cast enjoyed their sojourns to the world of Captain Proton. It was a chance to take on a different acting challenge, and to revel in a style of cinematography, acting, and storytelling that just doesn’t get produced anymore.
But there’s a reason why the likes of Forbidden Planet and Flash Gordon were superseded: technology, acting skills, and storytelling improved. Some of those improvements in the world of sci-fi actually came from Star Trek: The Original Series blended different genres and styles together, kept a tight focus on its main characters, told stories with real-world parallels and morals that audiences could relate and respond to, and depicted a vision of the future and outer space that was far more positive and hopeful than negative and fearful.
Retro can be fun. But to make a straight-laced Captain Proton television series wouldn’t just feel retro – it would feel regressive. Such a show would be a massive backwards step, trying to ignore multiple generations’ worth of improvements in everything from narrative and world-building to acting skills and cinematography.
More than that, a Captain Proton series would have incredibly limited appeal. Many fans of Voyager would be hard-pushed to remember Captain Proton, and even those that do and have fond memories of the episodes would be surprised at the very least to hear talk of a Captain Proton spin-off show. Beyond that minuscule niche, a Captain Proton series might appeal to fans of classic, retro sci-fi. But such folks are few and far between, and when Captain Proton already felt incredibly dated in the 1990s, the number of viewers who would genuinely appreciate the parodies and references is positively microscopic.
Even if Captain Proton were less about the retro sci-fi and more about Tom Paris, I don’t think that would work well either. There must be a queue of characters from past iterations of Star Trek lining up for their prospective returns to the franchise, and while Paris was a fun character during Voyager’s run, he simply isn’t strong enough or deep enough to carry a whole series. His recent cameo in Lower Decks kind of embodies that – the character could have been swapped out for any other, or a generic stand-in, and the episode would have been functionally the same.
At the end of the day, this concept comes down to the simple question I posed at the beginning of this article: out of everything in Star Trek, is Captain Proton the one thing you want more of? Or to put it another way: if you could choose only one thing from a past iteration of Star Trek to bring back, is Captain Proton what you’d choose? For the vast, vast majority of Trekkies, the answer would be a resounding “no.”
I don’t believe ViacomCBS will do more than give this pitch a cursory glance out of respect to its creator. Both possible formulations have major drawbacks, and from a corporate point of view neither seems to hold much appeal even to Star Trek’s fanbase – let alone a wider television audience. At the end of the day that’s what sells companies on making a new film or television series: how much money would it make? An incredibly niche project focusing on either a single character or one tiny aspect of a show from the 1990s (that ViacomCBS hasn’t even been bothered to upscale to full HD) doesn’t fit the bill. Captain Proton is dead on arrival – and I’m sorry to say that it’s for the best.
The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Voyager and all other titles and 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.