Nutshell: A plot-oriented episode with few unexpected turns. Inoffensively standard.
When the crew finds a mysterious robot drifting in space, Lt. Torres takes it upon herself to repair the damaged unit. It's a longshot, but her adept engineering skills are up to the challenge, and when she repairs the unit, it turns out to be more than just interesting technology, but a sentient artificial being.
The unit has a name—or, more appropriately, a designation. It's called 3947, and it's just one of an entire line of sentient robots produced by a now-extinct race known as the "Builders." The units do not have the programming to repair or replace their power units—only the Builders have that capability. Since B'Elanna can successfully repair power units, 3947 thinks she is a Builder. He asks her to build a new prototype unit which could be copied in the future without the assistance of a Builder. This way his robot race could revitalize their waning population and avert their imminent extinction.
B'Elanna is drawn into 3947's situation, so she asks Captain Janeway to approve the building of this prototype. Janeway can not approve this, though, because it would clearly be interfering in their culture. That's right—"Prototype" is another Trekkian take on the Prime Directive Issue. But that's just the first cliche—the second is the Nature of Life Argument.
It's a credit to the writers that, although these are both fairly jaded premises in the Star Trek universe, they can still keep things entertaining. Even if watching Torres and Janeway argue these issues is not all that compelling, it is a pleasure to see their points of view come to the surface. Janeway's Prime Directive argument here is much better suited to the premise than in the pedestrian "Time and Again," and much more polemical than the seemingly arbitrary (and relatively ambiguous) decision she made in "Caretaker." At the same time, this gives Torres her best vehicle since "Faces," revealing a sense of creation in her character that we haven't seen until now.
B'Elanna tells 3947 she can't build the prototype. 3947 finds this unacceptable. So when the Voyager meets 3947's ship to return its lost unit, he kidnaps B'Elanna and beams onto his ship—holding her under the condition of building the prototype model. If she refuses, the commander of the robots' ship will kill her and destroy Voyager.
"Prototype" is a marginal Voyager episode. The premise is so-so, with some above-average execution. But there are some general elements about the season that are beginning to show their exhaustion here. Take, for example, nearly the entire third act. This is where Janeway tries to negotiate with the alien ship for B'Elanna's return. Where the alien ship refuses. Where Janeway opens fire. Where the aliens return fire and cause the bridge set to smoke and explode and the camera to shake.
We get another scene like this:
Chakotay: "They're firing some kind of quantum resonance charges, Captain."
Tuvok: "Our aft shields are down to 53 percent and dropping."
Kim: "Rerouting power to aft shields."
Tuvok: "Down to 24 percent."
How many iterations of this dialogue has the series supplied, concurrent with the bridge rocking, the lights dimmed, and the red alerts flashing? I can name six instances this season alone containing such scenes: (1) The protozan beating in "Elogium," (2) the unidentified alien attack in "Parturition," (3) another unidentified alien attack in "Persistence of Vision," (4) the severe atmospheric storm in "Tattoo," (5) the Kazon bombardment in "Maneuvers," and (6) the Mokra planetary defense strike in "Resistance." The similarity in these scenes is startling. Tuvok usually makes some status report, Kim usually confirms it, Janeway gives an order, the bridge shakes and some circuits explode. I, for one, am sick of these variations of act three. Voyager has so many pointless, unimaginative battles, and the creators don't come up with any spin to make them fresh. Instead they use the same cliches that give Star Trek its reputation for inept space combat. I'm game for something new.
Then there's Paris, who I'm beginning to think is the Official Commentary Person on the Exchange of Dialogue on the Viewscreen. How many times this season has Janeway or Chakotay talked to the aliens on the other ship, and then after its over Pairs remarks something like "They're a friendly sort"? Granted, this isn't exactly a crucial element of the show or the series, but it's something that pops up enough that I thought I'd mention it for some trivial food for thought.
There's also a lot of unnecessary technobabble in the early acts. B'Elanna spouts so much technical gobbligook in act one that it begins to sound like a joke. Perhaps some of it is. One sarcastic response the Doctor has ("That's exactly what I was going to say") somewhat lessens the annoyance of the non-stop jargon, but one thing Voyager has entirely too much of is technobabble. To the producers: Decrease it. Please.
But I digress. Despite these annoyances, the story works, even while being one of those connect-the-dots type of stories where you can all-too-easily follow the progress from one anticipated step to the next. These steps include the arrival of another ship piloted by rival robot units, B'Elanna's successful construction of the prototype, and the revelation that these two warring robot races actually killed their Builders. B'Elanna realizes that by building this prototype she would be allowing one side to create an army and overwhelm the other—exactly what the Builders wanted to prevent by inhibiting their abilities. This gives B'Elanna no option but to destroy her prototype, despite the consequences to her or the Voyager. Fortunately, right after B'Elanna destroys the prototype, Paris comes to her rescue with his hotshot shuttlecraft piloting skills, and while the two robot ships are fighting, Voyager slips away.
How does this episode overcome a mediocre premise and a number of cliches? I'm not sure. Probably because, aside from a few isolated moments, the directing and acting is on-the-money. The writing supplies some good character moments and some nice touches, too. Best is Chakotay's line to Paris, "I'd hate to lose another shuttle." (After all the shuttles Voyager has lost, it's good to see the writers finally acknowledge it. Those things don't grow on trees in the Delta Quadrant, after all.) And Paris' response "Your concern for my welfare is heartwarming," is a good touch, reminding us of the history these two guys have. They never really liked one another. I can't remember the last time we had any character interaction between these two, and this little exchange is fun. Now it's time for a story putting these two on some mission together.
Well, enough about "Prototype." It's okay, never mind some hackneyed ideas. It makes a likable B'Elanna Torres show.