Nutshell: Intriguing at times, but quite unfocused. An ultimately puzzling, ponderous, unrealized episode.
While visiting an alien planet, Kes inadvertently enters a sacred temple and is zapped by a "biogenic field" that leaves her in a bizarre comatose state which the Doctor can't treat or even comprehend. After discussing the matter with one of the planet's magistrates (Harry Groener), Janeway learns that Kes' state is one that almost always ends in death. The magistrate himself doesn't understand the spiritual concepts and the local monks refuse to discuss the situation because they are sworn to secrecy, but the magistrate does know that the temple has been a place where "the spirits" have taken lives in the past.
After some study of the planet's history, Neelix finds an ancient account of a king appealing directly to the spirits, asking them to spare his son. After the king went through a ritual of endurance, his son recovered from the coma. Since that case ended in survival and seems the only possibility of saving Kes, Janeway decides to visit the temple and undergo this ritual herself, to ask the spirits to spare Kes' life. The rest of the episode centers around Janeway's spiritual experience and the analysis of the resulting tricky questions.
To say I found "Sacred Ground" to be a mixed bag would be an understatement. This is among the most puzzling mixed bags of the entire series' run—at least, it seems that way to me. On one hand the subject matter is certainly unique and atypical for Voyager (especially for an apparent second season holdover episode, seeing Piller is billed in the executive producer credit), and the episode has obvious intentions as an allegory of real-life circumstances that sometime prove quite interesting. On the other hand, this is one of the most difficult episodes of Voyager I can remember; it can be damned frustrating at times because of some misguided ideas, its overall sense of dramatic uncertainty, and its unwillingness to actually take a stance on its questions. I watched this episode three times before finally coming to terms with my own analysis of it. And I can finally say that I believe I know what the creators were going for here, but at the same time, "Sacred Ground" attempts to have its cake and eat it too.
There are some significant problems here. First, although the story manages to be thought-provoking in its concluding passages, it somehow fails to be emotionally engaging. It's simply not very compelling or entertaining as a story. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed this episode. In addition to being frustrated at the story's lack of interesting dialog early off, I found myself bored for stretches, because the episode adopts a slow pace, and there are portions of the show that, under scrutiny, are fairly pointless.
Janeway's "ritual," for starters, just didn't work for me. The imagery and "symbolism" angle strikes me as pretentious and unconvincing. I can see that the attempt was to show Janeway's difficult challenge, and this made some sense later in the episode when Janeway's guide reveals that the ritual is based on certain expectations. Still, very little of this aspect really had much to do with the real core of the episode, so why spend so much time on it? I would've much preferred the story had concentrated on the issues it raised toward the end of the show, but, alas, it didn't.
Also plaguing the story's midsection are the scenes back on board Voyager after Janeway has begun the ritual. Doc's incessant, jargon-heavy medical updates on Kes' condition are excessive and distracting. And so are Neelix's very annoying reactions to every little beeping indicator in the sickbay pertaining to his precious Kes. (I did, however, enjoy Doc ordering Neelix to "stop wallowing"; it was well due.) On the other hand, Doc's monitoring of Janeway's biological signs was reasonable enough, as was Chakotay's concern for the safely of the captain. Some of the scenes make sense, but many of them should've been streamlined or filled with more relevant dialog.
Another, perhaps bigger problem here is that the true meaning of the episode takes until the final act to surface. After Janeway completes her ritual, the guide informs her that everything she has done is meaningless, but that she has everything she needs. Indeed; Janeway's medical readings recorded by Doc's monitor have given him promising insight on Kes' condition, and he prepares a cure.
Well it's not, as they say, that simple. (Good thing, too, since if it had been the episode would've been a complete failure; this is where things finally start to turn more interesting.) The cure backfires for reasons Doc can't understand. Just as the guide had foretold, everything Janeway went through proves ultimately meaningless. This leads Janeway to return to the planet for a second insight. And this time, as she tells her guide, she's confused, and doesn't know what to expect. "Then you're ready to begin," her guide responds.
The real point here, I think, is Janeway's own analysis of her discipline of scientific belief, and what she does when she sees her science failing to save Kes. As the three elders explain to her in the entryway, Janeway has always been dependent and interested only in concrete data and scientific solutions and answers. This, however, is not going to help save Kes in this case. Science has failed, so where can Janeway turn?
The payoff presented here is the age-old leap of faith question, as well as a science versus religion issue—both which prove somewhat intriguing in and by themselves but not, unfortunately, in context. There are some points that translate into real-life arguments under analysis, but the way Lisa Klink's script handles the entire subject as tied into the plot is questionable. Janeway's leap of faith as described by the elders must involve her carrying Kes back into the temple's biogenic field. They tell her if she truly believes, Kes will be cured; if she has the slightest doubt, she and Kes will both be killed. This precise description of a demonstration of faith strikes me as something we're supposed to accept at face value, but it brings up some questions of plausibility, like who exactly are these elders, and how do they know what Janeway needs to do? If they do have divine knowledge, why does the show discount it with a "real" analysis? I also found myself resisting this notion because it ventures too far into both (a) the obvious and (b) the irrelevant for the point that ultimately prevails. Still, it does allow for a conclusion that seems initially magical and spiritual before turning out to be a convoluted working of explainable science.
This is good and bad. On the good side, we have an example of an intriguing self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Janeway goes through with the act of faith, she stumbles upon the cure, which is later explained by Doc's science. This shows an interesting quality of faith—how it can affect a person's life in profound ways when tangible explanations aren't available. Also good is how Doc's "scientific" explanation leaves Janeway shaken. She undoubtedly wonders how the elders could be so certain of the temple's effects. Or perhaps she's sorry that Doc is able to explain such a spiritual event in worldly terms. (It's open to interpretation.)
On the bad side, also revealed under close examination, this teleplay twists some of its ideas to a convenient end. I do not, for example, believe Janeway really walked into that temple free of doubt as one of the elders said she would have to in order to survive. And according to Doc's science, I doubt it would matter whether she believed it or not, because the same miraculous scientific process would still take place. If that's the case then what exactly is the episode trying to say? If the story had addressed the issue it might've worked, but it didn't; it ignores this question, which I just don't think is a viable option.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all, this story just doesn't feel true. There's something about the entire process that feels contrived and manufactured, and when it ends, very little of it sits right. It's sneaky and manipulative. It wants to be a commentary, yet it still doesn't take any real stance on religion or science. It tries to have it both ways, by bringing up a question and then avoiding it, which is a big part of the problem, yet simultaneously permits some of the show's best moments, like Janeway's dilemma when she realizes the concrete nature of Doc's explanation. The story creates its own paradox—which is perplexing but not necessarily a flaw. Yet it also walks a fine line around the issue so carefully that it ends up saying surprisingly little—and that is a flaw.
It's tough to see exactly what Klink was trying to say. Dramatically, the story is all over the map. It brings up some interesting and valid points, but it doesn't even begin to combine them into a solid, effective story that has any resonating meaning. And it spends the least of its time on its strongest of ideas, which is a terrible shame. It doesn't pay to sit through forty minutes of unrealized drama leading up to a decent character insight that is only half-realized and still questionable—only then so you can realize how much better the show could've been had the entire episode been about that one insight.
The episode made me think, yes—which is commendable—but I wasn't enlightened by a point of view. The wishy-washiness of "Sacred Ground" left me unavoidably perturbed and not very entertained. It's an ambitious effort, but, unfortunately, ambition does not equate success.