It’s hard to say whether Gene Roddenberry could have ever imagined how popular Star Trek would become over the years, spanning various TV shows, movies, video games, and novels. Now, the franchise consists of the entire universe full of narrative that creators are constantly expanding.
When he first devised his crew of highly diverse cast in The Original Series, Roddenberry could not imagine the array of new fictional lives that would be born from their creation, from blading Starfleet captains, all the way to sentient holograms. One such character that gained almost legendary status was Boothby the Gardener — but who exactly was this green-fingered hero?
Boothby’s first introduction was during The Next Generation, and he was a gardener for Starfleet academy on Earth. He wasn’t a war hero, an important ranking officer, an official teacher, or even a military man — but he was presented as potentially the most important presence at the academy, simply down to his innate ability to listen, advise, and help those who are struggling. Liam Boothby, played by Ray Walston, was the epitome of a normal man, a working, down-to-earth character who was incredibly in touch with nature. It’s important to remember that in this period of time, far off into the future, there was very little need for a gardener, everything being automated or replicated. But Boothby chose to garden and tend the plants with his own hands rather than relying on technology, doing it though a genuine love of his craft rather than money. It was likely because of this that he was humble and patient, contrasting wonderfully with the cocky cadets at the academy.
Boothby was an old man right from his introduction to audiences. He had been around, since the golden days of Kirk, witnessing the Federation change and adapt over the years and through wars with Romulans and Klingons, and thus was a fountain of wisdom. He remembers each and every cadet along the way, and would always offer a shoulder for them to cry on, helping many a troubled officer tackle whatever obstacle they were facing. Some of these cadets just happened to be Picard, potential war criminal Janeway, and even Chakotay. Boothby helped them through difficult times and consequently guided them to become the people whom audiences see in the shows. He is potentially the most influential person at the Academy, and without his help, none of these pivotal protagonists would have achieved so much.
Boothby first appeared in the TNG episode “The First Duty.” He is mentioned before this in passing, but this was the first time he appeared on-screen, and the appearance really resonated with audiences. The episode explores the idea of truth and personal integrity, revolving around Wesley Crusher being involved in a shuttle accident, which results in the death of one of his friends and fellow cadets at the academy. As Picard tries to learn more about this incident, he seeks out the wisdom of his old mentor Boothby, who ultimately helps him navigate the complex minefield of honesty and doing the right thing despite the consequences.
The point of his character is that he is no one special, not a superhero or an infinite wealth of knowledge as he was sometimes presented previously. Rather, he is just a normal man, a groundskeeper who just so happens to listen and help those he speaks to find their way to a truth they already know. Seeing him guide and continue to mentor Picard, even after so many years, really important his counseling and influence were on the captain, who still respects and relies on him as a grown man.
It’s a shame then that Star Trek didn’t leave things there. The episode was fantastic, and presented Boothby in the perfect way. There would perhaps be ways to sneak him into episodes again, but it wasn’t really necessary. Then along comes Voyagerwhich has always received mixed feelings from fans, but this goes double for what they did with his character.
The show’s ratings were fairly bad even when it was being released, much lower than TNG and even DS9, so they tried to boost things by trying to reference as many previous Star Trek shows as possible. There were multiple episodes where the crew ‘went back in time,’ and many more where they brought in random cameos from fan favorite cast members such as Riker. However, the icing on the cake was bringing Boothby back in the episodes “In The Flesh” and “The Fight.” These episodes were a disaster, relying on a nostalgic callback for audiences, without considering that it didn’t make any canonical sense.
“The Fight” involved Voyager getting caught in what they creatively named ‘chaotic space,’ which is a pocket of space that doesn’t adhere to the same laws of physics. It’s here that Chakotay starts to hallucinate being in the boxing ring guided by Boothby — who was apparently not only a gardener, but a boxing coach too? Many fans felt this was not only a terrible way to shoehorn the man in, but that it also broke completely with his character. He went from a simple old gardener that is in touch with nature and the planet, to a coach shouting at a man to punch another man as hard as possible.
“In The Flesh” was even worse, and involved Voyager stumbling across a recreation of Starfleet academy floating in space, created by the Borg antagonists Species 8472. For some reason, not only was this elaborate place created, but they chose to put a Boothby replica in charge of it, yet again shoehorning the character in without any regard to whether it made sense or not. For what possible reason would he be in charge of Starfleet? He was important personally to a lot of people, but had nothing to do whatsoever with command.
While these appearances weren’t totally disastrous, they annoyed a lot of fans because it represented a systemic problem with the Voyager series. Boothby’s nonsensical cameos were considered lazy writing, with the producers having little faith in the actors and writers of the show to keep audiences entertained, instead forcing references. TNG is often considered one of the best shows in the Star Trek universe (despite its rocky first season), not because all the episodes were great all the time (in fact, there were quite a few terrible ones) but because it was intelligent and knew how far to take its concepts and storylines, and when to stop. The decisions were thoughtful. TNG‘s Boothby being a very subtle yet incredibly important cornerstone for understanding Picard and how he became the man he did, rather than a show horse dragged out when audiences’ attention was lagging,
MORE: Star Trek: The Biggest Unsolved Storyline Mysteries