When a race of aliens called the Sikarians—renowned for their unequivocal hospitality—invites the Voyager crew to visit their homeworld, Ensign Kim stumbles upon their unique technology based on "folding space" that may be able to send the Voyager more than halfway home. The question becomes whether or not the Sikarians are disposed to share this technology.
Janeway has a number of personal dealings with Gath (Ronald Guttman), one of the magistrates of the Sikarian government, who informs her that their rules forbid them to share their technology, lest it fall into the wrong hands. Gath is a man interested only in the simple pleasures of life, and despite his hospitality, he is not willing to make an exception to help Voyager in its journey home—deep down he is only selfishly interested in convincing Janeway and the Voyager crew to join his society and indulge in the Sikarian ways.
Meanwhile, another Sikarian named Jaret (Andrew Hill Newman) approaches Kim with an offer: knowing that Gath will not likely give Voyager the technology, Jaret agrees to trade the technology for a collection of Alpha Quadrant literature, since literature is very highly valued in Sikarian society.
This leaves Janeway with a dilemma: should she violate her Starfleet ethics and engage in under-the-table dealings? After all, no one would likely be the worse off, and the crew could gain some 40,000 light-years on their trip. But, as she says to Tuvok, when Voyager started its trip, she made it clear to the crew that they would behave like a Starfleet crew with Starfleet values. Should integrity be compromised?
As subsequent negotiations with Gath fall apart, Janeway decides she can't cope with the moral implications of cutting a deal with Jaret. It's wrong, she argues, and the best thing to do now that Gath has denied them what they need, is to move on.
It's about here that "Prime Factors" turns compelling. With their minds now unavoidably set on getting home ("We could be there tomorrow!" Seska exclaims), the chain of command slowly starts to break down, and members of the engineering staff begin planning an exchange for the technology so they can integrate it into the ship's systems. What's most interesting here is how things progress from one unauthorized step to the next. The situation doesn't go wrong all at once. It starts out innocently enough—at first Torres, Seska, and Carey (Josh Clark) merely toy with hypothetical situations, trying to determine if the technology unit can be used at all.
But as Janeway's attempts with Gath fail, Seska starts pressuring Torres to think about other options. "Janeway is so infatuated with the magistrate that she can't think straight," she says. "Besides, she made it clear that our first priority is to get home." And Carey doesn't want his kids back home to grow up without a father. If getting home means bending a few rules, then so be it. Torres, with no real ties back home of her own, finds herself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Biggs-Dawson, effectively using pained facial expressions of reluctance, does a fine job of portraying that Torres really wants to do the responsible thing, yet can't simply deny the urgent requests of friends who want to oppose the captain in an interest that apparently takes higher priority.
And before long, Torres, Seska, and Carey are scheming to beam down and trade the technology, consequences and Federation ethics be damned. They don't want to do the wrong thing, but in their mind there is no other choice—this is too much of an opportunity to pass up, so they have to try. They're just about to beam down to the planet without authorization when Tuvok walks in on the three of them in the transporter room.
But Tuvok isn't here to bust them. He announces his plan to make the exchange, and much to the three engineers' astonishment, he beams down to meet with Jaret himself.
Surprised? I sure was. One of the reasons "Prime Factors" is such a good episode is because it tries risky things like this with the major characters. And Tuvok's actions are believable, because the show allows us to understand why he does what he does. At the end of the show after everyone confesses for their improper defiance of the chain of command, Tuvok's reason—that he made a logical choice for Janeway where she couldn't, due to her conflicting emotions of guilt and responsibility—is one that makes an awful lot of character sense, even if it wasn't the proper choice of action.
Of course, the reason a confession is necessary is because the engineers nearly blow up the damn ship trying to get the space-folding device to interface with the Voyager. In one of the most exciting technobabble scenes ever created, Torres, Carey, and Seska frantically attempt to shut down the device after it overloads and runs awry and nearly causes a warp core breach. I don't really understand what this technobabble means, but due to some rather convincing line delivery, when something happens on that weird graphical display, it's very easy to tell when it's good, or when it's very, very bad (in a big "uh-oh" kind of way).
There are a number of effective levels and themes here. First of all, we have Torres' realization that she has changed, that as an assimilated Starfleet officer she has more responsibilities, and that she can't continue to live the way of the Maquis. When Seska tries to convince B'Elanna that they can cover up what was a near-disaster, B'Elanna refuses. "It has to do with being able to live with yourself," she tells Seska.
There's also the theme of Janeway losing some faith in members of her crew whom she thought she could trust. The ending, where Janeway has to discipline Torres for her behavior, shows a certain helplessness. She can't throw anyone in the brig for this mess—she needs every person on the ship—but when she gloomily says to Torres, "I want you to know how very deeply you have disappointed me," the line hits with the force of a sledgehammer. And Janeway's talk with Tuvok is just as charged: she depends on him for advice, yet here he is doing something she would never have permitted.
Lastly, there's the theme of what is really right in this situation. Although Janeway's decision is what the episode ultimately chooses as the correct path, there's a lot of grey area here. Janeway is torn and indecisive through many moments of the show, and given how far Voyager is from home, breaking an ethical stance may be necessary at some point in time. Tuvok and Torres weren't necessarily wrong in their assessment of the situation. They made some errors in judgment, and their methods may not have been correct, but one of "Prime Factors's" biggest strengths is that it has interesting subtleties and grey areas, and no simple answers or questions to give any of the characters an easy way out.
There are only two real quibbles I have with this show. First, where was Chakotay during all this? His role wasn't important; he had no real decisions to make. Given that he's a Maquis and has known Torres for so long, why couldn't he have been used as a major factor in the way the show played out? The other quibble is that this episode poses the Voyager with yet another way to get back to the Alpha Quadrant. If the writers are going to tease us with ways Voyager can get home every three or four weeks, the series is going to get old fast. Nevertheless, the plot device falls perfectly into place and works quite well, allowing the ethical core of the episode to take form, which shines and makes the show a winner.