In which Discovery is on break so we go back to Voyager, but it’s not too rough a transition.
Voyager is approaching a planit with some pretty intense spin. It’s basically a planetary cyclone, with gravity like a neutron star. Because it’s so nifty, they go into high orbit for a look, and immediately encounter turbulence that takes the warp drive offline and stops their impulse engines from working. They are immediately trapped. On the surface, a tribal society that looks like it’s making the transition between hunter-gatherer and agriculture experiences a quake, and a new star is born in the sky. This society understands the stars as gods that they offer sacrifice to, so they seek to understand this star in the context of wanting to understand its desires so they can please it. This starts with sacrificing a whole kind of fruit to Groundshaker.
Voyager has stopped in synchronous orbit, but Tom isn’t taking the credit. The ship has just stopped in orbit, stalled by a tachyon field that seems to have caught the interest of Astrometrics. Voyager is being held afloat by a temporal eddy, and the new interaction is causing seismic effects on the planet. Moreover, they can’t really sensor anything through the atmosphere. They can see enough vegitation to tell, though, that the time differential between the planet and outside space means that the planet experiences one day per outside second. This is especially worrying for their chances of getting home if they sink any lower. To try to study the problem, and to make an anthropology paper, Chakotay orders a probe sent in to take snapshots. How long are those built to last for?
When we next check in on the planet, they have monastic clothing and are experimenting with hot-air flight. Voyager is visible even in daytime, and this medieval society is trying to send it letters via balloon. They’re getting more rational, but even the learned one is still afraid to eat the firefruit. Our friend the Protector, or city leader, has decided that each star is not a god but a city, and is writing to Groundshaker to appeal to him as a fellow Person of Import. This is a big infodump on the society, and deliberate – If you wondered why the Prime Directive was important, look what kind of impact Voyager has had just by being in the sky for a few hours.
Chakotay and Torres have confirmed that on this scan, the planet below has developed internal-combustion, roads, industrial agriculture. And is still being quaked. They’re also using up a huge amount of metal to keep their cities from toppling. The probe, having been in continuous operation for 200 years, is finally starting to degrade in its orbit and they destruct it. On the planet, telescopes and observatories reveal Voyager as a golden glowing something, very distinct from the background stars. The society is also throwing transmissions at the object, hoping for a response. It never does, and never has. They’ve been sending the universal constant ‘hello’ signal: prime numbers and elements they know of, for a while now.
This society has full-on evidence of extraterrestrial life, which the whole planet has grown up with as a cornerstone of popular culture – the Skyship Friends, the older supersition of the palace of an Evil Protector where bad children go to be punished. The planet still experiences quakes, but the lead scientist reasons that if the Skyship meant them harm, they would already be destroyed. Nobody has a question that the Skyship is causing the tremors, just not by accident. And as in every age, they try to make contact personally. This time, Voyager picks up the UHF signal, which they take precious time to slow down to interpret as the prime numbers and a voice message. The first thing Voyager hears is addressed to the ‘good friends of the Skyship.’ And a plea for mercy.
Now begins the debate on how much contact to have, and how much to reveal. Tom opts for full transparency, Tuvok for trying to adhere to the prime directive despite how much Voyager has already shaped the culture. Janeway decides that this is a situation where any new moves they make constitute a new first-contact scenario. Chakotay argues that they need to gather what information they can to stop ripping the planet apart, and the Doctor realizes he’s the only crew member not at risk of being ripped apart by the time distortion. He’s not permitted to make contact, observation only.
Torres can apparently modulate the Doctor’s program to allow him to change his face, body, and voice. I think by this point the Doctor probably has sufficient sense of self not to put his hairline back, but maybe when he comes back he’ll be just a bit taller. He gets to go down for three seconds – two days planetside. When they beam him back up, they almost lose him in the beam, and then they do lose him. When they can’t find him, Chakotay tells Seven to scan for opera houses, theaters, and other cultural centers, and it’s there they find the Doctor. He’s successfully signaled his location and is very glad to be back. Looks like the mobile emitter either never needs to be recharged, can be recharged in-use with no special equipment, or else the Doctor let someone in on his nature. He’s been down there for three years.
Speculation about Voyager is the main passtime on the planet, and apparently there’s been a war. Voyager‘s presence has also driven the planet’s technological development, in the pursuit of making contact. It is the distilled essence of humanity’s own drive to the stars. Oh, also, the Doctor took up a relationship, the partner in which is surely dead by now. I bet he also picked another name that will be too painful to ever use again. Janeway doesn’t judge.
Some of the people on the planet want to destroy Voyager, and there’s a space race between factions on the planet, some of whom may still be friendly. Using the information brought back by the Doctor, Voyager is going to try to leave, but doing so has caused a major quake on a California-like coast.
Next notable occurrence is a manned mission to the Skyship in a multistage rocket. On the second stage boost, the capsule is taken out of the time shell and contact with Launch Control. Despite the unexpected communications blackout, they proceed with the mission and make it to Voyager. They can’t scan through the hull, so their mission parameters can be interpreted to include docking. They manage to land, but the two astronauts don’t seem to get a welcoming committee, and one of them is showing signs of unexpected fatigue. The doors won’t open, because they’re still outside Voyager time. Evidently in some weird middle-ground between planetary time and ship-time, and likely to get some form of the Temporal Bends. If only someone on Voyager was as good at reading old mission logs as Riker, they might have something prepared for this contingency.
In between times, the frozen Voyager crew still feel warm, which is an interesting quirk of thermodynamics, as is the fact that the astronauts can breathe. They keep exploring, and find a ship map to take them to the bridge. There they see Neelix pouring frozen coffee for Janeway, which provides a big clue just before the mission commander and pilot seize up and make the transfer to Voyager time. The pilot is alive, the mission-commander not so much, but the Doctor is able to patch him up, and they establish a rapport and explain the situation.
Janeway gives him an option – stay and help, or go back before the culture changes too much. He spends about a month singing a nursery rhyme about the Skyship, agrees to help, and gives the Doctor some bad sporting news. He’s also worrying about what will happen to the society’s technological drive when Voyager leaves. As they watch, the planet starts experimenting with antimatter, then attacks Voyager. Evidently, they have decided that the only way to end the quakes is to destroy the Skyship. Thus, Janeway sends the pilot down to try to make then understand, give them Voyager‘s schematics (evidently ‘being under attack’ is enough to invalidate the prime directive, or maybe the fact of antimatter weaponry) to see if they can help. As a final favor, the Doctor asks the pilot to hell him what happened to his son (It’s a long story.)
Sadly, the pilot is fifty years dead and mission command won’t believe he is who he says he is, so he’s going to have to come in the old fashioned way, just as Voyager gets the last of her shields knocked out. Ten minutes (a year and a half) later, two ships appear next to Voyager, shimmer into temporal lockstep, and tow it out of orbit. The pilot transports in to say Hi with the aid of a temporal compensator – they’ve been busy with those Voyager schematics. At the end of his life, he sits on the hill where the first shrine to Groundshaker was built, where the observatory made first contact, and watches the ship leave.