An old saying holds that you know a work of fiction is irredeemably bad when the characters start to complain about the story. You can also tell that a work of fiction is irredeemably bad when you start to hope that characters who fall to the ground in pain die, or at least are rendered comatose and therefore mute.
This episode of Voyager was full of people falling to the ground in pain. That was nothing compared to the pain inflicted upon we wretches who watched the bloody thing. By the time final credits rolled, I was gasping for air. I felt like I'd been trapped in a high school drama club's swing night production of The Miracle Worker. It was just that bad.
The nominal plot of this episode involved aliens secretly torturing and mutating and experimenting on the crew. The result was a hideous mix of past crew mutations (Chakotay aged, just like Kirk in "The Deadly Years"; Neelix devolved, just like the Next Generation crew in "Genesis", and so on), with an unhealthy dollop of touchy-feely anti-animal experimentation propaganda thrown in for good measure. The plot, such as it was, was an absurd tapestry of meaningless technobabble, start to finish, with no real sense of drama or dread to be found anywhere. I was just waiting for the invading alien scientists to destroy the ship and put the crew out of our misery.
Sadly, that was not to be the case. Maybe next week. An especially weak scene involved Chakotay and Neelix grumbling about the various infirmities their mutations were causing them. Robert Beltran managed to sabotage the most excessive age makeup ever devised by Man or God by acting no differently than he normally does. (As an aside, I couldn't help but notice that Chakotay's age makeup bore an uncanny resemblance to G'Kar from Babylon 5. If this was a plot to lure B5 viewers into Voyager, the makeup designers deserve kudos for displaying more ingenuity in one makeup design than Voyager's writers did in the entire rest of the episode.)
The inanity of the main plot paled, however, in comparison to the banality of the Paris/Torres romance. At least, I think it's a romance. Considering how bland and passionless the duo's every scene was, they seemed more like that couple who got stuck with each other on prom night because all the cool kids already had dates than young adults in an actual relationship. The pair has all the charisma of a soggy pile of driftwood. I've seen better chemistry at Taco Bell. And the whole "secret romance" schtick has been done before, and done better, on ER. And Cheers. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And NewsRadio. And Moonlighting.
At one point in the episode, the Doctor says to Seven of Nine, "Someone out there could be watching." With scripts and performances like this episode's, that statement may prove to be the most ludicrous and unbelievable thing in this ludicrous and unbelievable episode.
I'll confess that I didn't even watch this rerun of Voyager; instead I was sighing and sniffling my way through My Sergei, the ice-skating story which would sound like a too-good-to-be-true romance novel if it weren't based on someone's life. The docudrama wasn't very well done - depended on the audience already being emotionally involved with Katya and Sergei Grinkov - but, then, caring about the characters can make all the difference.
Unlike my colleague Chris, I adored Voyager in its early days. Absolutely loved Janeway, thought Chakotay was really intriguing, had a great time with Paris and Torres as Starfleet misfits and the Doc as the man without a past. There was a time when an episode like this might have taught us something interesting about how these people respond to suffering. Instead, "Scientific Method" demonstrates how far this series has fallen.
On a character level, we have Captain Janeway suffering from a very bad case of PMS...well, isn't that special, except she's already done that twice this season, several times last season...pretty much whenever she's a little overtaxed, or when someone brings up sex. Hmm, now that I think about it, Captain Janeway has been suffering from a bad case of PMS since last season's "Blood Fever." Her reaction to Torres and Paris' infantile display of affection clinched her role as the ship's embittered old maid, and her remark to Tuvok about needing a vacation on the holodeck is one of the funniest one-liners in the history of the show: all Janeway ever DOES is take breaks on the holodeck, usually with older men who hang on her every word and tell her how wonderful she is. I guess she needs that, since she doesn't get any intelligent support from Chakotay or the rest of her staff, but boy does it make her look like a loser.
As for Tom and B'Elanna's little smooch-fest, it really didn't bug me all that much to see Starfleet officers making out on duty. They do that all the time in episodes like "The Naked Time," "The Naked Now," "Fascination," etc. - whenever an Alien Sex Disease of the Week strikes. I was considerably more irked at Tom's use of the replicator and transporter to bring B'Elanna flowers on duty. Isn't this ship rationing replicator and transporter use to conserve energy? Or, like the infinitely replicating shuttles that replace the ones the crew destroys every other week, has that little problem been erased by the writers?
My real problems with this series are much larger, though if I still had any enthusiasm for the characters it would go a long way towards making the show tolerable. Has Voyager met one enlightened alien species that did not have a major selfish agenda? I don't mean I want to watch creeping do-goodism, I'd just occasionally like to see aliens whose reaction to "We're lost in this part of space" isn't, "Gee, and how can we take advantage of you?" Kirk's crew ran around the galaxy and kept concluding that it's pretty great to be human. Picard's crew ran into omnipotent aliens all over the place, from Q to The Traveler, yet they managed to hold their own. Janeway's crew is constantly running into bad guys, getting used and abused, and hobbling on towards home. A series set 400 years in the future, where Earth's supposedly pretty ideal and the technology's light years ahead, is not the best forum for exploring people's weak, petty sides. Just a couple of acts of heroism, instead of reckless resignation, would make a world of difference. There's no way to maintain emotional investment in a series about characters as trivial as these.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.