I'll repeat again: I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so that show will always have an extreme familiarity for me. It wasn't until later that I was able to look at it and see the individual things that I did or didn't like. In college, I finally got around to watching the original series, and while I always intended to get to the others at some point, it's taken me a while. While perhaps I should have started next with Deep Space Nine because it was the next one to start airing, I went with Voyager instead because I got the idea that I would like it more.
I could never watch Voyager before because when I watch a show, I have to sit down with it from the beginning--and with the intention of moving through to the end. Clips of Voyager never much held my interest, but watching the show from the start was completely different. In some ways, it's a little more to my taste than The Next Generation.
There are three main things I noticed. First, they took what they'd learned from TNG and built up from that. TNG had a weaker first couple of seasons and didn't start really developing its most memorable aspects (those deep looks at humanity) until the last couple of seasons. So Voyager was able to start off knowing just exactly what kind of sci-fi they were making. They were able to start off with characters that they knew they could develop and well, characterize. At first I thought I was just seeing their version of familiar faces: Janeway for Picard, Tuvok for Data, Paris for Riker, Kes for Troi, etc. But they quickly showed themselves to have their own unique characteristics--and character dynamics as a group, as well. I think also these characters were meant to be less archetypal. Did they start off too archetypal in TNG and then later develop things more? Characters aside, the Star Trek universe was also more developed by this point (that is, post-TNG): we already knew the background on the Federation and their part of the universe, so time didn't need to be spent developing that. Instead, the show was able to move forward with new spaces.
The second main thing I noticed was a greater coherency and smoothness in the overall arc of the series. Instead of the show finding out what it was and seeing, hmm, what should come next, I felt like the creators always knew where it was going. This wasn't just a ship going on various missions. This was a ship with one goal--and all of the little adventures that came along with heading toward that goal. As such, the series has a beginning, middle and end in a way that TNG never could (I'm not saying that that makes it better; I'm just stating the fact). And this time, instead of jumping from episode to episode, there were more plot lines that continued coming in and out of focus over the course of many episodes. Encounters with a certain species, for instances. TNG tended to have two mini plot lines in each episodes: maybe the ship was helping out a planet while Data was exploring some aspect of his humanity on the side, for instance. With Voyager, everything tended to be tied in. The ship has a smaller crew and they're together for a while, so they're a close group. If they're on a mission, that mission is directly tied into whatever character development is going on. If the show is focusing just on character development, that development affects the whole ship. In that way, the format felt less experimental.
The third thing was that this truly is a different group of characters. Janeway is less gruff and curt than Picard. She's still strict and sort of . . . classical in her style, but she's very much about supporting her crew on an emotional level, even more so after they get stranded. It's hard to imagine Picard stranded in another quadrant: the Voyager crew develops a more informal camaraderie that I don't think Picard would have favored. They make jokes on the bridge and tease one another about personal topics. They make group agreements to ignore the rules. And they're always talking about personal things because all they have is one another: they don't have families on board or waiting at a nearby starbase or planet. It makes for what I want to call a more modern approach, something that reminds me more of recent sci-fi shows.
Some of the traits that I disliked about TNG appeared a little less in Voyager and also felt more neutral here because they usually appeared along with humor. For instance. The Enterprise crew were always going off on their vacations to Risa, and at first the Voyager crew were copying them with that holodeck program. But at least they always made fun of the program when they used it--and at least it also stopped being featured in episodes after a while. Seska also turned into the type of character I'd expect from Star Trek (in a negative sense), so I was kind of glad when she stopped appearing.
Most of the other characters, though, I liked, in general. I thought that the relationship between Paris and B'Elanna was handled much better than that of Riker and Troi or Picard and Doctor Crusher. "Lineage" explored some territory both interesting and serious. Actually, there was quite a bit of serious material in here, in addition to this question of passing on to your child what has been hard for you to accept about yourself. Depression and suicidal thoughts (separately) (in a different way than TNG with Worf's attempted ritualistic suicide), the morality of saving your people or someone else's, and of course personal identity in all its multi-faceted forms. While I don't know what I think about Seven of Nine in theory, she did work well in the show. Tuvok never really served Data's role because Data was all about trying to be human and Tuvok was just trying to contain emotions; so it ended up being, instead, the Doctor and Seven who fulfill that role of trying to find humanity in themselves (the Doctor joyfully and Seven regretfully).
While it's hard to mind Seven by the end, I do kind of mind that the Borg don't feel like as much of a threat anymore. When you would see Borg in TNG, that meant, game over, you're dead. But Voyager keeps running into them so often that they don't feel too different from any other enemy anymore, and I kind of regret that loss. It was also a shame that, after so long anticipating Voyager's return to Earth, the finale episode just tried to copy TNG's finale with the whole mixing up timelines thing. It worked by the end, but I would have preferred getting to see the actual homecoming. I wanted to see Naomi Wildman meet her father for the first time, I wanted to find out what Starfleet had to say to Seven and what Icheb had to say to them, and I wanted to see the crew sort of step off the ship and look at one another and smile with all the bittersweetness that comes from finally attaining what you've wanted for so many years (and what will end the new life that you've built during the waiting). And I don't fully understand the Seven/Chakotay thing. It was like they just threw it in there last minute because they wanted to tie up Seven's character arc. But I thought that Chakotay and Janeway had an understanding--and there were no hints of Seven and Chakotay until suddenly we're hearing about them getting married. It felt like a too-hasty and therefore odd way to end the story.
That's just the end of the series, though. Overall (since, in all my ramblings, I still haven't had time to actually say much), Voyager was a good addition to the Star Trek universe and I'm glad I finally got around to watching it. It fit into the franchise while also establishing its own territory (it's helpful that the show literally covers new territory).