Nutshell: Flawed and uneven, but reasonably decent. Good execution on the director's part, and an effective ending.
Based on yet another silly Voyager preview (boy am I sick of their bad, bad trailers) that not only advertised the episode as "special" (again), but also attempted to capitalize on the upcoming Jurassic Park sequel by using the title "LOST WORLD" in big block letters, I went into "Distant Origin" with some serious skepticism. Would this be an obligatory episode about "dinosaurs" just so it could capitalize on a hot marketing item? Fortunately, the answer is no; this episode managed to be pretty entertaining and dialog-oriented, and it was a pleasant surprise in many respects.
At the same time, I should also stress that "Distant Origin" was far from perfect, and had some notable flaws. For one, the basic premise is overblown to the point of near-absurdity. The episode also somewhat suffers from another problem: It doesn't seem completely certain what it wants to accomplish dramatically—at least not until near the end.
"Distant Origin" exemplifies the "uneven" outing—it ultimately tells a reasonable story, but it takes a while for it to get where it's going. By the time it reaches its destination, we realize that it's been a rough ride with drama all over the map—it feels cobbled together out of a bunch of different pieces.
Let's start with the somewhat overblown premise. This is yet another supposition by the Voyager writers that an "element of Earth" managed to make its way into the Delta Quadrant—and, further, that Voyager happens to encounter it. I'm willing to exercise "suspension of disbelief," but, come on—do the writers really need to be doing these "attention-grabbing surprise" stories so often? In "The 37's" we had kidnapped humans somehow brought to the Delta Quadrant by an evil race of aliens, and among these humans was Amelia Earhart, no less. In "Tattoo" we had a race of aliens that, by total coincidence, were the descendants of the ancestors of Chakotay's tribe. In "Unity" we had a colony of humans and other Alpha Quadrant races who used to be Borg but broke free of the collective and settled down in the Nechrid Expanse. Now we have "Distant Origin," an episode that tops all previous examples of the "element of Earth" with the idea that Earth's dinosaurs didn't go extinct—but that they evolved into sentient, intelligent beings who invented space travel and left the planet. Sound absurd? Excessive? What more could you expect from Braga and Menosky, the kings of high-concept weirdness?
Yet, in context, Braga and Menosky manage to make this surprisingly tolerable—and even engaging. When it comes down to the story they eventually tell, I still don't think they needed to reel us in with "Look! Dinosaurs!", but once the premise is laid out, it works surprisingly well, mostly because it chooses an effective character to follow.
That character is Gegen (Henry Woronicz), a scientist of the Voth people. Gegen's research of the "distant origin theory" suggests that the Voth migrated from a place elsewhere in the galaxy, and that their civilization was not founded on the world they now reside. (Naturally, Earth turns out to be this distant origin.) Gegen's discovers what may be corroborating evidence when he stumbles upon human skeletal remains and DNA from the planet where poor Ensign Hogan was eaten (see "Basics, Part II"). From here, Gegen, along with his assistant Veer (Christopher Liam Moore), embarks on the search for the rumored Starship Voyager, which may hold the answers to age-old questions. Interestingly, the first quarter or so of the episode takes place entirely from Gegen's point of view, which supplies the audience with a fresh perspective of the Voyager crew.
I liked the way the episode used past episodes as clues to aid in Gegen's research. The aforementioned acknowledgement to "Basics, Part II" worked pretty nicely, and the reference to "Fair Trade" was welcome, although I don't think it quite worked. (Unless I'm missing something, I don't recall Neelix giving anyone at that station warp plasma from the Voyager. He used some other plasma, all of which was expended in an explosion anyway.)
I also thought the way Gegen and Veer proceeded to investigate the starship Voyager once they had tracked it down was pretty cleverly executed. The phase-cloak technology seemed reasonable enough and consistent with Trekkian lore—some may remember that this technology was established as a Romulan experiment back in TNG's "The Next Phase."
The episode suddenly turns to action when the Voth officials decide they must "kidnap" the Voyager in order to hide what Gegen plans on revealing as the truth that supports his distant origin theory. There's a scene where the Voth capture the Voyager by beaming it inside their own city-ship. The episode then supplies an invasion sequence within the darkened interiors of Voyager. If there's one thing this sequence demonstrates, it's how the Voth's technology is far beyond anything the Voyager crew has encountered. (Although, I must admit that their "poison darts" are strangely primitive-seeming.)
The show's ending puts Gegen and his theories on trial; the Voth leader, Minister Odala (Concetta Tomei), charges him with heresy against "Doctrine," the Voth's fundamental dogma of values and beliefs. In a way, Gegen is in the same situation as was Galileo: His scientific truths are trapped by the boundaries of the contemporary ideology—an ideology firmly established, and interpreted by a current administrator unwilling to see change. Gegen's distant origin theory greatly bothers Minister Odala—she sees it as backward and wrong, and fears its implications on the Voth as a people. The message here (not so subtly conveyed, but conveyed well nonetheless) is the argument of progress versus tradition. As Chakotay explains in a Meaningful Speech Scene (but a nicely performed Meaningful Speech Scene), change is not easy, and it takes courage to be unconventional. Gegen is respectable because he seeks The Truth in his research. Minister Odala's way, on the other hand, of forcing Gegen into retracting his theory (threatening Gegen's freedom as well as the freedom of Voyager's crew) represents the fear of new ideas and the facet of society that maintains the status quo.
One troubling aspect of the episode is the question of how the Voth became the advanced civilization they have become, while relying on a dogma that embraces the status quo. I wouldn't call this a flaw in the story so much as an issue that raises some interesting questions.
I must also stress one thing that really helps the episode's cause: David Livingston's direction is absolutely first rate. At times, the atmosphere in "Distant Origin" is quite intense, using jarring close-ups, compelling low- and high-angle shots, dark lighting, and canted camera angles. The trial scene in particular is a technical standout of fresh photography, but pretty much the whole episode was shot effectively such that I took notice.
It's hard to believe that an episode that begins with a premise as weird as "The civilization that evolved from Earth's dinosaurs and traveled to the Delta Quadrant" can settle back into a respectable tale about the fear of progress and change—but this is exactly what "Distant Origin" does. The episode's story events ultimately do fit together in the long run, even if they don't work very well in the short run. And even though it doesn't do much to offer insight to any of the regular characters, the show does paint Gegen quite well. And even though the premise is outlandish, the final story being told is reasonable. Figuring Livingston's atmospheric direction into the equation, I'm going to give "Distant Origin" a slightly generous three stars. This episode is one of the best-produced so-so episodes that Voyager has yet come up with.