So many things went wrong with this episode that I feel the need to catalog it all, one cow pie at a time.
Memory Alpha has the excruciating details here - I warn you, it's confusing even in text form.
Let's go in order of occurrence here and list all my immediate BS-detector pings. I doubt there's much of answer for most of them, but I do enjoy watching people try.
- Why did we spend five minutes watching the beginning of a holo-novel mystery set in 19th-century Britain? Were we supposed to care THAT much about Janeway's hobbies? (evidently not, since we rarely spent this much time on such matters at other times) Did this mystery bare any resemblance to the mystery being played out on the ship? NOPE - in fact it's never referenced the rest of the way and the story itself is never completed. We'll talk more about this one momentarily.
- Tovuk and Chakotay were in a shuttle craft when they encountered a dark matter nebula. So, in a tiny shuttle not equipped with significant scientific equipment, they decided to conduct a survey?
- There seems to be some confusion on Trek as to the science of neurology. I'll deal with two big errors here, although they occur in two different places in the plot just to get it out of the way. The entire episode is based on the premise that (a) the brain is powered by some sort of ether (called bioneural energy) which makes the neurons work. The neurons, when stripped of this ether become dormant and the energy can be transported, consumed, etc. like any normal matter. The brain is not powered by the magic soul juice. I believe we have a soul, but I don't think it's a fluid force that acts on the brain. The brain is a complex computer with a series of neurological pathways which, when activated in certain sequences, cause a person to possess consciousness. Even if there were some way to drain the brain of neural energy, that energy would be like all other electromagnetic energy - it would immediately disperse. You can't hold an electron in your hand any more than you can drink water with a fork. It's called the third law of thermodynamics. It's called entropy. But of course...electrons are electrons. Fire up Chakotay's brain again with new electrochemical activity and it will function like a machine. Of course, as a practicing Catholic, I believe that the soul is not something that can be explained through the physical mechanisms I just talked about - and that God empowers our brains to work in the specific way they do to make us who we are. I don't think any alien could cause that consciousness to separate from the machine and consume it.
- Also...this trope that is frequently used in Star Trek called the "memory engram" - the magic quantity that can be tracked and mapped precisely with the right technology that describes precisely the information contained in our experiential memory - is a lie. You can't trace a memory with a line graph. You can trace brain wave patterns, perhaps (which is probably what the EMH should have been using to spot the alien intruder), but not memories...and there's NO WAY he could have mapped out these disturbances in the past. You would only be able to see something like that happening in real time. So unless every member of the crew is wear brain wave monitors he secretly implanted in them when they took their physicals, that part of the plot made no sense.
- And of course...if these aliens literally eat your soul, why the heck didn't they eat Chakotay? What, they thought it would be fun to let the first one run away for a while? His brain wasn't very tasty? It needed salt? I give up.
- And now we come to the medicine wheel. *sigh* Oh you white Hollywood writers and your multiculturalism of cliches. What shamelessly racist Native American stereotypes will you foist on us next week? Will Chakotay give Neelix a lecture on how important it is to use the whole animal while Neelix is cooking up some radioactive stew for lunch? Will we see him offer Janeway a "peace pipe"? Will he start wearing neck beads and paying crew mates with them for holodeck time? You know the sad part? When you busted out this medicine wheel, I knew immediately that it would only be used in this episode, that it would seem to be just color at first and then play some contrived yet critical role in saving the day, and that I would find the whole thing offensive despite having no ties to American Indian roots. How on Earth did Janeway come up with the idea to look at the damned star chart and compare it to the stones on the wheel? That certainly isn't the first thing I would think of when looking at it. Talk about forced and pointless window dressing on the ship of the damned.
- Um...why does no one seem to give two shits about Chakotay other than Torres? The writers obviously don't care one iota about his character since (a) they have no one even talking about his condition or worrying about life without him...not a moment of dialogue dedicated to his evident death, (b) they save him off screen and refer to it in a truly bizarre throwaway line that makes the entire frackin' plot meaningless (oh...I fixed him in a way I could have done at pretty much any damned time but just got around to now...if he was saved twelve hours ago, we wouldn't have gone back to the nebula, but whatever) and (c) they gave him only a cliche bit of Native Nonsense...and even Torres doesn't seem that attached to him while she's doing that ritual.
Other than a really weak and tenuous genre link between the mystery elements of the main plot and Janeway's holo-novel there is nothing making it connect. So why have it? As it turns out, Jeri Taylor had a plan to weave unrelated period-specific art into the series, hoping the fans would appreciate it in the same way that she did - that they'd look forward to seeing the next installment of Janeway in This Old British House. Since the fans were here for sci-fi, not pseudo-artistic masturbation, they, quite understandably, were annoyed and complained. You know what Taylor's response was? I'm paraphrasing here, but, roughly quoted, "Today's science fiction fans just don't have the same appreciation for the classic serial-format mystery theater stuff we watched when I was younger. They don't have the attention span or the artistic appetite for it."
EARTH TO JERI TAYLOR! THIS IS A SPACE OPERA, NOT A JANE AUSTIN NOVEL!!!!
*ahem* Let me put it more academically, for people like Taylor who think the academic and "cultured" way is the only way. What we have here is a difference of opinion about the utility and meaning of artistic expression. There is a modern move in the art world (mirroring a broader cultural trend) toward art as salutatory for the artist. In other words, we do art because it makes us (the artist) feel accomplished. As long as our art makes US feel good, it's worth doing it and others must respect the affirmative value of it for US. That isn't how art has traditionally been viewed. Mozart composed because he had a gift for it and because it made him feel good, yes, but he didn't do it JUST for that feeling of accomplishment - he did it because it brought joy to countless thousands of others in his world (and it's millions now - somehow I think he'd be deeply gratified to know that we still love his works so much). Art's primary value to society is not how it makes us, the artists, feel. The primary importance of artistic expression is that it brings meaning to the lives of our fellow men and uplifts their spirits. Taylor's little artistic game with the holo-novel ended because fans hated it and she at least had the good sense to knock it off after getting all that hate mail. But still...the fact that her gut response was to call Star Trek fans philistines for not appreciating unrelated non-genre side stories interrupting what we came to the show to see speaks volumes about her disgusting elitism and self-absorption. Lady...you';re here to bring us joy...not to give yourself a thrill...the world does not revolve around you and you alone.
Unfortunately, this is also the attitude underscoring the uneducated and self-congratulatory jaunts these writers take into multiculturalism in the form of fan-wanking Chakotay's made up native tribe. All of the cliched Indian-y stuff they invent for Chakotay is backed by what WHITES think the native populations thought about their own rituals, not what is actually true after serious scholarly study of those cultures. The medicine wheel is not the most egregious example - there will be others - but the explanation Torres gives is pretty pat and meaningless and, frankly, its presence adds nothing to the story without serious shoehorning. I find that sort of thing annoying.
So bottom line...this episode was ruined by bad planning of a tired and illogical premise, selfish motivations on the part of the authors, and shallow characterization. Meaning there's not really a way to salvage this one with better writing...or is there?
Let's Go With It!
I'm going to grant them their goofy premise about bioneural energy being some ether that can be extracted, stored and consumed - that your soul is basically brain flatulence. You can tell how much I respect that premise, but I'll grant it for the purpose of this exercise. This episode should have been about Chakotay. Dealing with the likelihood that he might be dead, talking about his life in the Maquis (so we could learn more about his past) and eventually realizing he's still alive and moving about the ship, doing battle with a hostile alien. This should not have been a mystery where the characters were interchangeable and the viewers were encouraged to linger on the bad logic and mediocre plot concept.
The only way to save this episode would have been to make it a character piece. The rule of cool applies when we're seeing something that's worth seeing. When DS9 writers wanted to do something mystical, they always justified doing so with fascinating character interaction and philosophical discourse for the thinking fan. They don't achieve that here...instead it's a boring mystery with five minutes of Jane Austin thrown in for no reason.
Ethan Phillips and Jennifer Lien have ZERO chemistry. Which is a shame, because they're both good actors. Kate Mulgrew is better in a Jane Austin novel than in Star Trek, but...she gets no credit for that from me since the side-scene shouldn't have been there in the first place. The rest of the acting is largely boring. Sorry.
Not a fan of this crew at all...they don't seem to honestly care for each other - they're all like those cordial workplaces acquaintances you have that just say hey to you in the hall and laugh at your jokes around the water cooler and then you never see them. Even leaving aside the philosophical problems I have with the main plot, this one is kind of depressing.