Ensign Kim discovers a wormhole that leads back to the Alpha Quadrant. Although it is too small for the Voyager to travel through, the crew is able to send a communication signal through it, which is received by a Romulan science vessel. Further tests by Lt. Torres show that it may also be possible to send a transporter signal through the wormhole. Could Voyager's crew use it to beam back home?
The basic premise of "Eye of the Needle" is both its biggest strength and weakness. The resulting excitement among the Voyager crew when they realize they may be within striking distance of returning to the Alpha Quadrant leads to a number of well-acted and passionate scenes. At the same time, the tease of "will Voyager get home?" is not a premise that lends itself to a particularly surprising ending—it's a near-painfully foregone conclusion. I guess the bottom line comes down to the effectiveness of the characterization, and on that level, "Eye of the Needle" works pretty well.
The captain of the Romulan science vessel is named Telek (played by Vaughn Armstrong in one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a Romulan in recent memory). Telek isn't your typical villain personality, he's a real person. Initially, he's not forthcoming with assistance. He's suspicious, and severely doubts Janeway's claims that Voyager is transmitting from the Delta Quadrant. He wonders what a Federation ship could possibly gain from pretending to be in the Delta Quadrant.
The first half of the show centers around Janeway's attempts to convince Telek that Voyager poses no threat to his ship. One rather long scene, that takes place entirely in Janeway's quarters, features Mulgrew performing for a number of minutes with only two camera cuts. Mulgrew delivers nicely when you consider that she's essentially talking to herself for an extended period, but the scene, despite being a technical challenge, doesn't have the emotional depth it seems to want to.
Fortunately, the show makes up for it in other sequences. "Eye of the Needle" in most cases, is driven more by emotional responses of the characters than by plot events. I thought the scene where Janeway appeals to Telek's pity ("You must understand what it's like being separated from your family for so long. It will be years before any of my crew sees their families again. Maybe never."), worked well enough, although Telek getting misty-eyed may have been pushing it.
Once Torres realizes the possibility of rigging the transporters to get home, the characters all show an enthusiastic glow. Even Janeway gets caught up in the moment—a moment that could just be a prelude to a substantial disappointment. This makes sense. Unlike some of the silly plots of shows leading up to this one, "Eye of the Needle" uses a situation we can understand and empathize with, instead of just going with the flow.
The most engaging part of the show for me, however, is the B-story, involving the rude way members of the crew treat the Doctor. Like TNG did with Data in its early seasons, "Eye of the Needle" makes good use of the "humanity question," as Kes argues to Janeway that the Doctor deserves the same respect and treatment that any other crew member receives. There are several very thoughtful sequences involving Doc and Kes, and later Doc and Janeway, that prompt him to realize he has to think of himself as a true member of the crew (and that he would also like a name). These moments flesh out the character wonderfully while also giving us sympathy for his unique and lonely situation. (One nicely done long shot in particular features the Doctor sitting all alone in sickbay after he has just received word that the rest of the crew may be beaming off the ship without him.) At the same time, Kes' character is looking better all the time. Her desire for learning and her decision to stand up for the Doctor are highly admirable, and cancel all reservations I had of what she was becoming when I saw how she was used in "Time and Again."
The show, of course, ends the only way it possibly can, but at least it's halfway creative about it. After the Voyager crew successfully beams Telek aboard the ship across the wormhole, Tuvok discovers that the wormhole moves through time as well as space. Telek is from 20 years in the past, and if the Voyager crew were to beam back with Telek, they would end up in the past, too. Due to the possibility of time line contamination (and some paradoxes that the show wisely ignores), the crew realizes that they can't go back through the wormhole. That leaves them with the final option of sending personalized messages for their families back with Telek, who could presumably deliver them to the Federation in 20 years, after the Voyager has vanished.
Tuvok discovers, however, that as the time line plays out, Telek dies four years before Voyager even launches, meaning that the messages were possibly never delivered—there is no way of knowing if Telek gave them to anybody before his death.
Plotwise, most of this is fairly pedestrian, despite the last-minute twist of fate. None of it is particularly surprising; all of it is fairly inevitable. Characteristically speaking, however, this works because the reactions are credible. "Eye of the Needle" successfully puts the Voyager crew in a situation that has no cliches or stupid battles, while putting them through an emotional wringer. In the end, everyone feels a little defeated, but they pull themselves together and move on.