Voyager and the Pips: Starfleet Ranks in the Delta Quadrant / by Trek fm

by Phillip Gilfus

Trek fans can sound just like U.S. Naval Academy graduates: They know the difference between a lieutenant (junior grade) and an ensign, and they know that a crewman better stand up straight when speaking with a captain. Fictional centuries — and real-time decades — may separate all of the Star Trek incarnations, but there is a consistency in how Starfleet ranks are shown from the 22nd to the 24th centuries. Star Trek: Voyager’s premiere in 1995 introduced new characters, new aliens, and new worlds, but still showed the familiar Starfleet rank insignia. However, during the seven years of the U.S.S. Voyager’s Delta Quadrant travels, their rank system often fell into the categories of good, bad, or Neelix-dress pattern ugly.


The Good Ranks

Voyager is one of the few Trek shows that focuses on character promotions. The other series’ personnel are instead promoted off-screen or during a season hiatus. The only Starfleet officers who actually get a promotion ceremony are Worf, during his advancement to lieutenant commander in Star Trek: Generations; and Ben Sisko, who finally sports a fourth pip in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “The Adversary.” Just like the Bajoran Emissary’s long-delayed promotion to captain, Voyager’s Lieutenant Tuvok finally becomes a lieutenant commander in “Revulsion.”

Each Federation starship seems to have their own promotion ceremony rituals; on the Enterprise-D, there is the traditional dunking of the doctor, and on the Voyager, it is a comedic roast of the honored officer. It seems that in the 24th Century, reaching Starfleet command level is equal to becoming a member of the New York Friar’s Club. The paperwork for Tuvok’s promotion was sent directly from the Delta Quadrant since it takes almost 70 years for Mr. Vulcan to get his third pip. Granted, Tuvok did take time away from Starfleet so he could hone his tea-making abilities, following his first assignment on the U.S.S. Excelsior (“Flashback”). However, Tuvok still spent decades as a lieutenant, leading us to believe that Captain Kathryn Janeway must not have been the only senior officer he corrected in front of three admirals (“Revulsion”). If Tuvok spent as much time calibrating his people skills as he did his torpedo guidance systems, he might have began the Delta Quadrant “three-hour tour” with a higher rank. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, you cannot teach an old crew new tricks, so everyone stilled called him “Lieutenant Tuvok” instead of “Commander Tuvok” for the rest of the journey home.

Tom Paris also receives a promotion, but not before being demoted in rank (“Thirty Days”). We see him go from a confident lieutenant (j.g.) to a pensive ensign who sits in solitary confinement for almost a month. As part of his punishment, Paris can only receive basic nutrition in the form of leola root stew. Tom complains this is a clear violation of his Federation constitutional rights against “cruel and unusual” punishment. Paris is also not allowed to have prolonged conversations with Neelix, which seems to be a mixed message about reward/punishment. Despite the so-called unwritten “Roddenberry rule” that all Starfleet officers have to be perfect, we see them disobeying orders and making bad decisions over and over. However, other than Admiral Jim Kirk being demoted and given the “punishment” of commanding another starship Enterprise (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) and making Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Tom Paris is the first bridge officer to be demoted and imprisoned for insubordination. Ensign Paris then shares the junior officer experience with his BFF and fellow “one-pip”-er, Harry Kim. His superior officer girlfriend, Lt. (j.g.) B’Elanna Torres, enjoys ordering Tom around until he is eventually reinstated in rank almost two years later, and once again becomes the erstwhile Lt. (j.g.) Thomas Eugene Paris (“Unimatrix Zero, Part 1”).


The Bad Ranks

Captain Janeway introduces new Starfleet rank insignia for her adopted Maquis crew in “Caretaker.” Unfortunately this move causes more trouble than it solves problems, though it does give viewers a new game to play every episode: “Spot the Maquis in This Scene!” There is no question that the unique rank insignia shows that the starship Voyager is comprised of a mixed crew, but it seems to segregate more than it integrates the two crews. For instance, Starfleet personnel must now visit The Doctor for improved eyesight surgery in order to actually see the Maquis crew ranks. Is that one or two diagonal stripes there? Or is it one solid and one dark? Are they all crewmen? Since no one wears a VISOR, there is a lot more nodding to each other in the corridors than there is greeting people by their rank.

There is also a bit of a Scarlet Letter vibe for the former Maquis. They are now clearly labeled so Tuvok can identify and glare at them, leading to unrest (“Learning Curve”). Janeway must carefully strike a balance between creating one united Starfleet crew while at the same time recognizing that actual Starfleet personnel earned their ranks through years of service. However, as her replacement first officer explains, the Maquis will never be fully integrated if their experiences do not count equally as the Starfleet-ers (“Parallax”). Chakotay explains in a cool, calm, and collected voice that his merry band of outlaws will all be relegated to the rank of yeoman, third class, complete with skants, if there is not some consideration of parity. Chakotay fights to give vital ship positions for the Maquis, which ultimately leads to a Maquis chief engineer. It is left completely unexplained how each Maquis’ rank is determined. For instance, how do you make B’Elanna a lieutenant (j.g.) instead of a lieutenant or even an ensign? She spent two years at Starfleet Academy (“Eye of the Needle”), so does that mean if she had reached her junior year or pledged a sorority, she would have been a full lieutenant? Would a Maquis crewmember become an ensign if he did a few correspondence courses through the University of Starfleet Online?

The difficult-to-distinguish nature of the Maquis Starfleet rank becomes a glaring issue in every episode because of the ship’s first officer, Lt. Cmdr. Chakotay. If you are currently yelling at this article that everything in the show, from the opening credits to the LCARS-displayed personnel files, plus the countless references to “Commander Chakotay,” all show that Chuckles was a full three pip commander ... you would be right. Unfortunately, the rank insignia on his Starfleet uniform shows he holds one rank lower. Again, only a crewman with 20/20 vision can distinguish the specific rank denoted on those insignia, but he wears two diagonal marks and one solid black one. That rank, converted to Metric Starfleet pip measurement, equals a lieutenant commander. Now, if Chakotay is indeed a lieutenant commander, there is no real issue with his position as second-in-command; Janeway’s initial brooding first officer was Lt. Cmdr. Cavit (“Caretaker”), and The Sisko was a lieutenant commander as first officer of the U.S.S. Saratoga (“Emissary,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). However, questions remain: Did Janeway reactivate Chakotay’s commission from when he resigned Starfleet? And, if so, was that rank lieutenant commander or commander? Did Janeway just give him a field promotion to commander and call it a day? Perhaps the answers to this wardrobe malfunction can only be found in a vision quest. A-koo-chee-moya...


The "What the…?" Ugly Ranks

The question of Chakotay’s “real” rank is a relatively minor one compared to the Great Rank Debacle of Tuvok & Tom. The first time these characters appear in a Starfleet uniform with rank, Tuvok is a lieutenant commander, and Paris is a full lieutenant (“Caretaker”). The rank for Tuvok seems appropriate since he is a Vulcan of a certain age (despite Paris’ urging, we are polite enough not to ask) and is the ship’s second officer. It is never actually stated what rank Paris held before his youthful misconduct landed him in a New Zealand Federation Penal Settlement, where the prisoners host tours about the ancient “extended edition” Lord of the Rings myths. However, assuming Tom was a lieutenant when he was imprisoned, it seems appropriate for Janeway to reactivate his rank after he transitions from “mission observer” to the ship’s chief conn officer.

It is certainly understandable when a Trek series pilot makes changes in subsequent episodes — Kirk’s crew got new non-matching uniforms after “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Troi got a new haircut and pants after “Encounter at Farpoint,” and Odo got heavier makeup foundation and a less Skelotor-y look after “Emissary.” However, Tuvok’s rank did not revert to two pips the next episode, or the one after that, nor the one after that! It took until the thirteenth episode, “Cathexis,” for Lt. Tuvok to finally show up in the right uniform, despite being called “lieutenant” the whole time. Paris’ real first demotion, apparently, took place in the next episode, “Faces,” when Tom goes from two full pips to one gold pip and one black pip. A show can certainly make changes in the first five episodes (~cough~ Counselor Troi’s accent ~cough~) without it distracting viewers too much, but by the eleventh episode, it is probably best to start committing to things. The only exception to this prime directive is The Janeway Hairstyle Corollary. Perhaps the first half of the inaugural season takes place in an alternate timeline? One where all the Maquis are strong, all the aliens are good looking, and all the ensigns are above average.

The greatest discussion about rank in Voyager is about, of course, ol’ single pip Harry, Ensign Kim. The ship’s operations officer joins the Intrepid-class starship as a newly-commissioned Starfleet officer (“Caretaker”). For the rest of the ship’s time in the Delta Quadrant, Kim remains an ensign, even as he sees ranks — even the confusing ones — being thrown around the bridge. When Paris is re-promoted to lieutenant (j.g.) (“Unimatrix Zero, Part One”), Kim remarks to the bridge crew that he did not notice any extra pips on his station’s chair at the start of the duty shift. But before the crew can roll their eyes and/or politely laugh, the emergency du jour for that episode interrupts Harry’s filing of a human resources complaint.

A potential reason for Harry’s lack of promotion is that since the ship is stranded far away from Starfleet Command, there can be no promotions for any personnel. That explanation falls apart, though, because Tuvok gets promoted several years after their arrival in the Delta Quadrant. Instead, it seems clear that Janeway hands out field promotions to her favorite officers. If Kim had not called her “ma’am” during a non-crunch time hour, he might have made the list. Oh well! We would enjoy listening to the Lt. (j.g.) Harry Kim promotion ceremony roast in the mess hall: Paris regales the crew with all the wrong women Harry fell in love with, the Doctor provides a detailed explanation of the extent of Kim’s space herpes (“The Disease”), and Seven of Nine recounts all the times she offered to make out with Harry but he awkwardly refused.   

Rampant Rank Confusion

There are some criticisms that Voyager needed more character development; however, the career progression for her crew seems appropriate under the circumstances. The starship Voyager was the sole Federation presence in the quadrant besides Captain Rudy and his Island of Misfit Crew (“Equinox”), meaning there were no crew rotations at starbases, no planet assignments or ship transfers to take, and no real place for career advancement. On the other hand, everyone had job security, and some crewmembers, like Neelix, took multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. Janeway served not only as the ship’s captain, but also as the ranking Starfleet officer for the sector, the quadrant, and every other function that Starfleet Command serves. Just like any flag officer in Starfleet, Janeway made some #badmiral decisions concerning rank, but at least Madame Captain made the hard decisions that showed the pants really do fit (“Death Wish”). She also knew enough to make sure she never promoted anyone near her rank. After all, it is tough to be the ensign, but that’s because it’s good to be the captain.