Whoa, Janeway's above quote is some understatement. That's got to be one of the most insightful, meaningful quotes in the entire series. And excuse my sarcasm there.
One of the great mysteries of life is what happens to us when it all ends. It ranks right up there with "Why are we here?" "Emanations" is Star Trek's attempt at a provocative analysis of this question—a polemic on death and the afterlife. Unfortunately, five acts of repetitive, mundane pondering about a subject whose questions cannot be answered is all that comes out of this pretentious hour of hardly profound and unmoving drama.
When an away team discovers an alien burial ground on an asteroid, a subspace vacuole snatches Ensign Kim away and replaces him with a deceased alien woman (Cecile Callan) from a race that calls themselves the Uhnori. The crew beams the Uhnori aboard the Voyager. The Doctor is able to revive her since her death occurred just moments before. Upon awaking in sickbay, the Uhnori, who we learn is named Ptera, believes she has reached the afterlife.
Meanwhile, the subspace vacuole takes Kim to the Uhnori's planet. Simply put, Kim and Ptera have switched places. Ptera had just been sent to the "next emanation," as the Uhnori call it. By activating a device, the Uhnori send their dying people into what they believe is an afterlife where the deceased meet their fellow dead and evolve into a higher form of consciousness. In reality, the device forms a subspace vacuole that sends them to an asteroid where they instantly die and decompose.
Kim's evident appearance from the next emanation sparks a lot of excitement (as well as fear) on the Uhnori world. They believe he has returned from the dead, and his descriptions of what awaits at the next emanation—an asteroid with a bunch of bodies—don't exactly provide them with a comforting view of life after death.
While searching for a way back, Kim meets Hatil (Jefrey Alan Chandler), a disabled man whose family has persuaded him to commit suicide to ease their burden. Hatil has always been a little bit skeptical to "prematurely send himself into the next emanation" (i.e. kill himself), and Kim's appearance and descriptions of the afterlife lead Hatil to reconsider his options.
Back aboard the Voyager, the crew attempts to locate Kim, using Ptera as the best resource for answering questions about her home world. Ptera, however, has some understandable emotional problems. At first she thinks she's dead and her afterlife is not as it should be. After Janeway convinces Ptera she is still alive, Ptera begins to fear death, having lost confidence that waiting in the next emanation is a new existence.
What we've basically got here is the same question posed over and over again. It's neither compelling nor mystifying. Kim tells the people over and over that he doesn't know what death means. All he knows is that there were bodies on the asteroid. It is entirely possible that they have souls that exist outside their non-corporeal remains, he tells them. Ptera spends much of the B-story walking around the Voyager stating that she can't live out her life away from her people.
The resolution of Ptera's situation is so underwhelming it's appalling. The crew attempts to send her back through the subspace vacuole using the transporter and some reliable technobabble procedures. But her transporter pattern breaks down and she dies in the process, end of story.
Meanwhile, Kim faces being stuck on the Uhnori's world forever. They want to keep him for interrogation so he can solve the puzzle of death for them—something he can't do anyway.
Kim comes up with a plan to escape. He decides to help himself and Hatil by taking Hatil's place at his death ceremony. This way, Hatil can live out his life in the mountains without breaking tradition, and Kim can return to the asteroid and be rescued by the Voyager without the Uhnori suspecting he's gone. The ceremonial wrapping of a death shroud to hide Kim's body so no one can tell it's Kim and not Hatil being buried strains credulity. Nice to see the old switcharoo still works in the 24th century. Clever, Harry. Too clever.
There's not much in terms of interesting character interaction either. Again, Chakotay doesn't get the screen time he deserves. Neelix doesn't even make a single appearance. They put off giving the Doctor his name yet another week. And they miss a major opportunity with Paris, who should've been allowed to display some sort of emotion in dealing with the potential loss of his best friend. Janeway does come off rather nicely, remaining a pleasure to watch in action as ship's humanist. The reassuring closing scene between Janeway and Kim is more impacting than anything else in the episode.
Next week: Mutiny aboard the Voyager! Now that sounds interesting.