Star Trek: Voyager – The torpedo and shuttle “problem”

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Discovery.

If you’ve been around the Star Trek fan community for a while, you might’ve heard some fans complaining about the “problem” of the USS Voyager’s use of shuttlecraft and torpedoes in Star Trek: Voyager. Perhaps this particular point of criticism was more biting in the late 1990s when Voyager was still on the air, but in some corners of the community it’s still talked about.

In short, fans have argued that, because Voyager was trapped in the Delta Quadrant and thus unable to be resupplied by Starfleet, they should have run out of torpedoes and shuttles. The number of shuttlecraft and torpedoes depicted in the series fluctuates, and some episodes focus on the need to conserve or seek out supplies, while in others, Captain Janeway and the crew seem to use these limited resources with abandon. Some fans have tried to calculate how many torpedoes and shuttles were used across all seven seasons of Voyager’s run – presenting it as a “gotcha” moment when those numbers seem larger than they should be.

Did Voyager fire too many torpedoes?

There are two ways to approach this, in my opinion. The first is to use an argument that I generally dislike: “it’s just a story.” I’ve written about this before, but one of the most important things when creating an ongoing story – especially one that has to fit into an existing franchise – is internal consistency. If it was established that the USS Voyager has, for example, four shuttles, and then a future episode arbitrarily changes that, then the show is not being internally consistent – i.e. consistent with itself. That, to me, has the potential to be immersion-breaking.

In some cases, “it’s just a story” is a perfectly valid excuse. In comedies like The Simpsons, for example, pretty basic things like which character’s bedroom is behind which door can change depending on which episode you’re watching – and on what the writers need it to be for the sake of a punchline or story. And in shows which have a floating timeline and are inherently un-serious, that isn’t really an issue. But other stories – those that want to be taken more seriously – do have to hold themselves to a higher standard, and thus the “it’s just a story” excuse generally doesn’t work in Star Trek to excuse inconsistencies and mistakes – at least in my opinion.

One of the torpedo tubes of the USS Enterprise-A in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

On a basic level it is of course true that many inconsistencies and “goofs” within Star Trek are there because the writers either deliberately chose to go in a specific direction or to ignore a previously-established fact in order to make a particular storyline work. That can be said to be an explanation for what happened – but not an excuse!

The second way to approach the issue of shuttles and torpedoes in Voyager is to use the franchise’s own internal canon, and particularly established facts from within Voyager itself. A simple count of the number of torpedoes shown on screen or the number of shuttlecraft mentioned early in the show’s run is only one part of a bigger picture, and there are ways that we can interpret other canonical events within the series or within Star Trek as a whole to explain what appear, on the surface, to be inconsistencies.

One of Voyager’s torpedoes was beamed aboard a Borg vessel in the episode Dark Frontier.

There are two big points to consider when discussing Voyager’s shuttlecraft and torpedo complements, and how they could be replenished from an in-universe point of view. The first is trading and harvesting. On a number of occasions, Voyager depicted the crew visiting planets and moons to gather resources – everything from food to metals. And on a number of other occasions, the crew were able to make trades with Delta Quadrant factions in order to acquire resources that they were short of.

Weapons were only ever mentioned in the context of trading when Captain Janeway refused to sell Voyager’s weaponry to other races, but just because we didn’t see on screen the crew of Voyager bartering for someone else’s weapons – or more likely, weapon components and materials – doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Trading to acquire weapons or components wouldn’t contradict Janeway’s orders and adherence to Federation values. If the crew were able to get the basic parts needed to make more torpedoes, then there’s no reason why those parts couldn’t be used. Nothing I know of within Star Trek suggests that torpedoes can only be manufactured at specific facilities, or that they’re even especially difficult to build or modify.

Captain Janeway and her crew traded with many different cultures and factions during Voyager’s seven years in the Delta Quadrant.

What is a torpedo made of? We’ve actually seen torpedoes up close on a few occasions within Star Trek, and we have a reasonably good idea as to how they work. A torpedo uses antimatter as its main explosive element, creating a matter-antimatter explosion when detonated. There are also references to plasma and ion radiation, and in addition the torpedo casing and other internal components are made from metal – perhaps the same kind of tritanium as used in the construction of starship hulls.

The main component that the crew of Voyager would need to get, as far as I can see, is the right kind of antimatter to be used in the warhead. Every other aspect of the torpedo should be fairly easy to come by – or to manufacture, which we’ll look at in a moment. Antimatter is not naturally occurring, so the crew would probably need to trade for it, unless it could be scavenged from wrecked or abandoned ships.

Spock and Dr McCoy perform “surgery” on a torpedo in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Shuttles are obviously less easy to trade for, but in the episode Alice we see this exact thing happen. Paris falls in love with a shuttlecraft he sees at a junkyard and convinces Chakotay to trade for it, acquiring a new shuttle for Voyager. In that episode it would backfire, of course, but the principle remains!

As above, it would be possible to trade for and harvest components and materials necessary to repair or build shuttles. The basic metals needed for the hull would be perhaps the most important, as well as components necessary for systems like warp drive, but I can see no reason why it should be impossible for the crew to get enough components and material together to replace a lost or damaged shuttlecraft.

Neelix, Kim, and Chakotay on an away mission to collect resources.

So now we come to the second major way that the Voyager crew could resupply themselves: replicating and/or manufacturing their own torpedoes and shuttles. To me, the single biggest piece of evidence in favour of this argument is the creation of not one but two Delta Flyers. The ship had the capability to replicate large components and the crew had the necessary engineering expertise to build a spaceworthy craft from scratch. It stands to reason that, contained within Voyager’s databanks, are the designs and schematics for both torpedoes and shuttles.

Voyager was designed for long-range tactical and exploration missions, meaning that the possibility of the ship operating outside of Federation space and far from the nearest Starbase had to be taken into consideration when it was built. Logically that would include the ability to be self-sufficient for long periods of time, being able to repair and build components on the fly. It doesn’t mean Voyager’s resources are unlimited – but it does mean that the ship clearly has the ability to build new components and presumably a stockpile of raw materials for doing so.

The Delta Flyer under construction. This alone proves that Voyager and the crew had the capability to manufacture and/or replicate practically anything.

Augmenting that supply is something we see the crew engage in numerous times, chasing down sources of energy, antimatter, food, metal, and so on. While food and power are arguably the most urgent and immediate concerns, ensuring that they have enough components and raw materials to repair the ship, build replacement parts, etc. are all important too. How many times did we see Voyager undergo repairs or suffer damage that wasn’t present in the next episode? The ship clearly has the capability to build replacement parts – and there’s no reason why that can’t apply to torpedoes and shuttles too.

Something we learned in Star Trek: Discovery could be relevant here too, and while it’s certainly up for debate I think it’s worth mentioning as part of this conversation. In the third season episode There Is A Tide, Admiral Vance – the head of Starfleet – told us a little more about the way replicators work. The replicators at Federation HQ in the 32nd Century used a base of matter that was repurposed into new configurations. In the case of Federation HQ, bodily waste was repurposed into food – presumably with other matter thrown in there too! But the principle that you could feed any old matter into a replicator and use the technology to repurpose it seems to be how replicators (and earlier synthesisers) work in Star Trek.

Admiral Vance eating a replicated apple in There Is A Tide. This episode gave us a little tidbit of information about replicators and how they work.

This is also, at a very basic level, how warp nacelles work. The Bussard collectors on the front of a starship’s warp nacelles collect particles of hydrogen and deuterium while the ship is in flight, using the collected molecules as a way to augment the ship’s fuel supply. Insert one kind of matter, transform it into fuel, and use that fuel to fly.

The specifics of exactly how these technologies work is deliberately kept somewhat vague, but replication and collecting resources seem to me to offer an in-universe explanation as to how the crew of Voyager could replenish their supplies of expendable items like torpedoes, as well as replace destroyed shuttlecraft and even make complete repairs to the ship.

One of Voyager’s shuttlecraft.

When you combine what we see on screen just within Voyager itself – the many times the crew are scavenging and harvesting resources from planets and nebulae, all the times they traded with Delta Quadrant factions, the ship’s replicators, the ability to build the Delta Flyer twice – I think we can reasonably say that it adds up. Voyager had the ability to produce new torpedoes, repair damage to its hull and systems, and even build new shuttlecraft. There is no plot hole!

I understand why some fans feel that this is a problem. Some episodes do seem to contradict some of what I’ve said, and especially in the early part of the show’s run, the supply of torpedoes in particular was mentioned more than once. Captain Janeway did once say that there was “no way” to replace the ship’s 40-odd torpedoes – but given everything we know about replicators and the crew’s ingenuity, perhaps that was either a misunderstanding on her part or something that the crew were able to overcome at a later time.

Voyager firing tricobalt devices at the Caretaker’s Array in Caretaker.

The ship started out with 40 torpedoes (and a few tricobalt explosive devices). But by the end of the series almost 150 torpedoes had been fired – at least, according to the sources I can find online! There were also at least eight shuttlecraft used on the show across its seven-year run. The only way to make this internally consistent is using some combination of trading, harvesting resources, and building/replicating replacement parts. Given that we see Voyager is capable of this when building the Delta Flyer, I don’t see it as a plot hole.

So that’s my solution to this longstanding “problem.” The crew were very resourceful, willing and able to make trades with different factions, to think outside the box when it came to how best to use what they had to make it home. The ship itself is powerful, designed for long missions, and kitted out for exactly these kinds of issues. Though it may not have been shown on screen outright, it seems like the best fit based on everything we know is simply that the crew figured out a way to build more torpedoes, shuttles, and repair kits at some point relatively early into their journey home.

Problem solved. Right?

Star Trek: Voyager ran from 1995-2001 and is available to stream in its entirety on CBS All Access (soon to be rebranded as Paramount+) in the United States, and on Netflix and/or Amazon Prime Video in the UK and elsewhere. The series is also available on DVD. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: 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.