Nutshell: Now THAT'S more like it. Easily one of the best Voyager episodes of the season.
To put it as simply as I can, "Before and After" is solid entertainment. It isn't perfect, but it's a very good hour of Voyager—and after the unfortunate past month of dreadful Voyager offerings, this installment is, to be as fair but as honest as possible, a wonderful alleviation of pain.
In fact, if Voyager can do shows like this for the remainder of the season, we might be in good shape after all. I'm hoping in June I can look back and see this episode as the hour of Voyager that recharged my interest in the series—it certainly has that potential if the last five installments can follow suit.
"Before and After" is yet another Trek breed of the Time Manipulation Paradigm, but I'm not about to hold that against the show. This is a weird, effective story that uses its plot machinations as a springboard for some thoroughly enjoyable mini-stories. The episode is paced at a brisk speed and filled with sub-stories that contain humor and fascination, venturing into both hope and despair.
The episode begins shrouded in confusion and mystery, revealing pieces of its puzzle a little bit at a time. The story opens approximately six years in the future where Kes, aged to the final stage of her short nine-year life, lies in a bio-chamber the Doctor has manufactured in the hope of extending her life beyond its expectancy. Somehow, this device reactivates some residual radiation in Kes' body (which figures into the plot nicely later in the episode, but I don't really want to get into it here), and she begins jumping backward in time, landing in various points in her past for short periods of time—BUT without any memory of her true past and, rather, with the few memories of the brief times she was in the FUTURE. In other words, Kes begins living her life backwards for only hours at a time, with large gaps in the experience spanning anywhere from one day to three years.
Sound confusing? It is. There's no way I'm going to attempt to wrap this into a full synopsis. This is a show you have to watch to fully grasp, and even then you may not quite understand everything. I think I see what's going on, but the ending in particular is open to some interpretation. It's a credit to scripter Kenneth Biller that he was able to pull off such a complicated feat of plotting without totally losing the audience. And Allan Kroeker's direction is effective, moving the story forward with reasonable momentum while also making certain we always know where (er, when) we are.
It's not the fact the episode uses time travel that makes "Before and After" intriguing. In all honesty, the basic premise is standard Trekkian stuff. And there's a megaton of conjured technobabble that the actors are forced to endure in order to warrant the plot. Any reader of my reviews probably knows I don't consider technobabble to be true storytelling since it's usually just a device for explaining arbitrarily created circumstances. BUT if the story that exists outside the fantasy tech-plotting actually works, merely using the technobabble as a secondary device, then I'm likely to be more receptive.
"Before and After," like last season's "Deadlock," is an episode that fits the above description. No, I don't really find the specifics of Kes' time shifts all that plausible (though they were fairly convenient)—but I do care about what happens once Kes drops into each time period. I also like the way Biller's script and Kroeker's direction use these time travel elements: They pile confusion and urgency into the narrative, making us curious and interested, asking, "Just what is going on here?"
The relentless jumping through time makes the story interesting and fast-paced—as does the way Kes and the crew come to understand the nature of the mystery—but what really makes "Before and After" compelling are the "what if" implications. The story paints us one possible future of the starship Voyager, and it's in these details that the show gets truly inventive and entertaining.
For example, this is the first episode that really addresses the fact that Kes only has six years left in her natural life. This would mean marriage and children would have to happen soon—and then it wouldn't be too long before her daughter would marry and have a child. Although not directly addressed (it's only a one-hour show, after all), I liked the implications of how a human, with a life span ten times that of an Ocampa, would relate to an Ocampa. The story says there's a way.
That's why I greatly enjoyed the rather amusing notion that Kes is married to Tom with a daughter who later marries Harry and has a son—all within maybe three years' time. The line about Tom having Harry as a son-in-law was absolutely hilarious. It just goes to show how much mileage can be milked out of a premise if a writer is brave enough to exercise non-restraint and go straight for the bizarre. (Doc's inability to choose and keep a name—Dr. Van Gogh in one time period, Dr. Mozart in another—was also amusing.)
Most compelling, however, is the future of Voyager's fate—a starship that will venture into a region occupied by an aggressively hostile race called the Krenim, leading to what the crew ultimately comes to call the "year of hell." As Paris explains in the future, the ship almost didn't make it. Many people died in Krenim attacks, including Captain Janeway and Lt. Torres. Further, we find out that Tom and B'Elanna were intimate before she died. Tom's somber line, "When she died I felt like I wanted to die," really rings true, and as the show ventures back in time, the tone turns progressively darker and even plunges into despair. Eventually we're allowed to witness the battle where Janeway and Torres are killed—and the site isn't pretty. There's a seriousness to the situation that reminds me of what I used to think Voyager as a series was all about: that of a lone starship having to cope with difficult or even extreme circumstances.
There are subtle touches here: the site of a Voyager hull battered by months of Krenim attacks; the mention of the Doctor's program being off-line for a year; Chakotay's urgency when under attack, and Tom's compliance to duty even after he has just seen B'Elanna die before his eyes—these touches are very well realized and, as a result, the drama comes off quite strong. (The hypothetical situation of war reminded me of TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise" at times, though this is admittedly not quite on that scale of drama.) True, this "what if" situation is all within a fantasy world that never really happens. But it works because it uses the true emotions and reactions of the Voyager crew, and it all feels credible and real. The Krenim seem like an ominous threat, and that inspires me to believe perhaps the writers are thinking about large, consequential events to come. I sure hope so.
The movement backward through time also works well to foreshadow (or would that be post-shadow?) the events, which was interesting. And the way the episode demonstrates—in reverse chronological order, no less—the eventual return of hope after all the death and despair of "the year of hell" is a truly inventive dramatic device. Using Kes as point of view is perfectly appropriate—it spans Kes' hypothetical life while giving Jennifer Lien another vehicle, which she carries respectably well. (Michael Westmore's aging effect makeup was very well done, but Lien should be commended for making the character seem realistic.)
Returning to the time travel aspects, the ending is also quite inventive and labyrinthine—although there are a few facts that don't quite fit together. If I'm understanding the plot's intentions correctly, Kes' time shifts really began in the present, that is, third season Voyager from our point of view—because it seems the bio-chamber is something Doc of the present is also trying to experiment with. From this reading of the ending, Kes' trips through time were all within her own consciousness, jumping her to the end of her life, and then taking her backward to the beginning (and then forward to the present again). If this is the case, why does Kes "vanish" from Paris' point of view in the future when she makes her time shift? It doesn't seem consistent with the fact that Kes was (apparently) lying in the bio-chamber the whole time in the present, where the crew's unawareness to Kes' time jumps indicate that she never "vanished" here. The whole issue of moving through time always brings up the question of where one exists in physical form and where one's physical form goes when traveling out of a time period. Maybe I shouldn't ask such questions.
I also don't quite understand where the time paradox began (but that may simply be because it's a paradox)—did it begin in the future with Doc's experiment or in the present with Doc's other experiment? Was the bio-chamber of the present an attempt to extend Kes' life or was it truly intended as the corrective measure to Kes' time shift? The story seems to hint at several possibilities, but it's never really certain. I'm really trying to be helpful here, but I think I've confused things more than I've clarified them, so I think I'll just shut up now. I'm a fool for trying to dissect events that, by nature, cannot be dissected.
I guess the time travel aspects of "Before and After" aren't any more implausible than any other paradox that other similar time stories create, so let's just call it a day. Although I could've done without some of the extraneous technobabble, "Before and After" is one of the best hours of Voyager yet produced, and if I can get this much enjoyment out of being baffled, so be it.
Let me wrap up with a comment on Kes' new hairstyle: I like it. Much better. For those wondering how Kes could grow her hair from its previous length to its current length in the matter of weeks that seems to have transpired between this episode and the previous one, I pose the following as one possible explanation: Since Ocampa have shorter life spans, it would stand to reason that Kes also has accelerated biologic functions, which could include how fast her hair grows. Hey, take it or leave it.