Nutshell: Not great, but good. The backstory of Chakotay is especially engaging.
While on a routine mission of scouting for necessary resources on an M-class planet, Chakotay sees a symbol from his native past drawn on the ground of the planet. Rather startling since, just as in "The 37's," it would seem impossible to find such an Alpha Quadrant trait somewhere in the Delta Quadrant.
This is a good but not great Voyager episode. Despite a number of flaws in the story details, "Tattoo," like "Initiations," can pass with three stars because it works in the end. It's one of the season's more original stories, with a genuine Michael Piller teleplay (from a story by Larry Brody) that features cerebral storytelling centering around a relevant character core.
On long-range sensors, the Voyager picks up an M-class planet with an alien presence. Maybe they know something about Chakotay's symbol. Unfortunately, the aliens don't respond to hails, and the away team can't beam down to the surface because every time Torres tries to establish a transporter lock, a storm mysteriously forms at the precise beam-down coordinates, preventing transport. So Chakotay, Neelix, Torres, and Tuvok take a shuttle to the surface to have a closer look. On the surface, Chakotay finds a number of natural objects that he thought were indigenous to Earth, which he had seen in a South American jungle some 20 years ago while on a spiritual quest with his father.
Can you guess there's a connection between the aliens on this planet and Earth's history? That's what the underlying story of "Tattoo" does, and with fair success. Unfortunately this happens in the midst of some typical plot devices, like the away team being forced to abandon Chakotay when a strong storm "zeros in" on their position and separates them from the Commander. And later, the story introduces an unimpressive and completely unnecessary jeopardy angle when Janeway attempts to rescue Chakotay by landing the Voyager (an overused trick which seems to happen for the sake of happening) only to get caught in an intense atmospheric disturbance which causes the ship to begin plunging toward its doom. This scene makes me wonder if it's really a good idea for Janeway to be landing the ship on a whim—jeopardizing the entire crew for one officer.
But the successful elements of "Tattoo" are how it affects Chakotay. This episode is good character piece. During the away team's survey, Chakotay is reminded of the time he went with his father on a quest through undisturbed lands using ancient techniques. Piller's teleplay makes decent use of flashback to the past when Chakotay was a teenager. The editing together of the flashback scenes with the scenes taking place in the present is done smoothly with visual correlation, creating a strong narrative sense. Chakotay's backstory is compelling from a character point of view, answering a number of questions the series had yet to address.
Young Chakotay (Douglas Spain) was quite a different person. He didn't really believe in much of the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of the Chakotay of today, and wasn't happy to be on a quest in the middle of the jungle with no technology. Chakotay's father (Henry Darrow) was the type who respected land as a permanent home. He didn't believe in living for extended time on starships, and wasn't really happy with the fact that his son wanted to join Starfleet. Their scenes together are enlightening, although Spain's performance is way off the mark here. His line delivery is either just plain bad, or he's trying desperately to cover up an accent. I'll give him one thing though—he sure looks a lot like a young Robert Beltran could've looked.
On his quest, Chakotay and his father met a unique tribe who isolated themselves from the rest of the world. They wore strange markings and had unique stories to tell. Twenty years later and some 70,000 light years away, Chakotay meets a race of aliens on this planet who provide him with the answers to several questions from that day in his past, including where the tribe people originated, why they isolated themselves from society, and why they wore the marks above their eyebrows—the same tattoo Chakotay bears today to honor his father. While this is not as dramatically moving as the episode wants to purport, it does make for an interesting story—far more interesting than most Voyager stories of late.
Piller's story finds its strengths in character building scenes and aiming at a higher brow in science fiction premises. On a lighter note, Piller also supplies a reasonably amusing B-story where the Doctor attempts to justify his lack of bedside manner to Kes by programming himself with a simulated virus to prove that sick people don't need sympathy.
But the story's weaknesses appear in scenes that try to pad out the episode. One of those is the aforementioned Voyager-in-jeopardy plot, where the ship is saved by a ridiculous deus ex machina seconds before impact. Also, there are a few visual details that remain unclear. Take, for example, the hawk that attacks Neelix. Why did it attack him? And at the end of the episode, the hawk shrieks out, and Chakotay says to his new alien friend (Richard Fancy), "I hear what he's saying." Then there's dramatic music as if this is the story's big payoff moment. Okay drama, but what does it mean?
There's also the feeling here that Star Trek enjoys writing itself into history to get little messages across. This is the third Trek plot this season to do such a thing. First we had "The 37's" and now we have "Tattoo"—coincidentally aired the same week as DS9's take on historic events, "Little Green Men." Is this an intentional endeavor by the writing staff?
Oh well. Despite some objections on the plotting, I'll give this one an A for effort. It has some good characterizations and backstory, and it tries to be different.