Nutshell: Despite a number of very good characterizations and intriguing themes, it's a fundamentally pointless, deceptive, contrived, and unforgivably manipulative story.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, between last week's episode and this episode, I actually opened my mind to the possibility that the starship Voyager might actually find its ticket home in the course of "Hope and Fear," a season finale that comes hyped by the promos as "the ultimate homecoming."
Okay, well, sure—I know better than to listen to the trailers; they're over-hyped nonsense and always have been. My first thought was, "Oh, come on, anyway. The crew is obviously not getting home." But some twisted logic in my brain started churning away and it actually began to get the better of me. Ultimately, it managed to convince me not to abandon all hope that the trailers weren't simply lying to us per usual.
Consider: We've already done the "failed attempt to get home" story theme on several occasions (e.g. "Eye of the Needle," "Prime Factors," "False Profits," and even—gag—"Threshold"); doing it again would be pointless and probably unforgivable, so why would they pretend to give it to us yet another time? Maybe they really aren't kidding around this time.
Consider: We have Rick Berman, of all people, garnering a story credit on an episode, something he hasn't done on this series since the pilot, and hasn't done on DS9 since "The Maquis," which itself was used to set up backstory for the launch of this series. With that in mind, maybe he was involved in preparing something really big—maybe even a completely new direction for the series.
Consider: The plot gives us a ship that could potentially take Voyager back to the Alpha Quadrant in a mere three months, bringing the Voyager crew home just in time for the beginning of season five following the three-month summer hiatus.
Consider: We have (in an ideal storytelling world that, admittedly, strikes me as far too daring and long-term for the Voyager creators to touch) the possibility that the fifth season of Voyager could focus on the crew's reintegration into Federation society.
Consider: We have a preview that is so deceptive in its use of visuals and so fundamentally misleading that the only two foreseeable options are that (a) the lie used to hide the reset-button nature of the plot is so audacious that it would be almost too appalling to imagine, or (b) we're actually being told the truth for once and big changes are in store, possibly as the show vies for a ratings boost. For a while, I actually found myself considering option "b."
Okay, so now I just feel like a big dupe—perhaps like the entire crew of Voyager has felt each of the times they realized their ticket home wasn't a ticket home. Once again, the crew of the starship Voyager has seen a potential end to their journey, and once again it ends in utter disappointment as it slips through their fingers. I'm asking myself just what it's supposed to mean to us as viewers. Is the tension in the plot supposed to boil down to "just how can the Voyager crew be foiled this time?"
At its fundamental core, a story like "Hope and Fear" strikes me as almost completely pointless. We've seen over and over again that the crew just nods and presses on—even after a lost dream like this—where they should probably be mutinying and beating themselves with blunt objects under such emotional turmoil. (I'm not even going to start in on how many opportunities this series has abandoned concerning the exploration of normal people's emotional vulnerabilities.) Maybe I should've just turned off my brain and realized that the producers would simply go the route that deep down I knew they'd go: the Trekkian Status Quo. Nothing of any importance ever changes on this series; heck, I learned that back in season two.
But, to be perfectly fair and honest, the trick used this time around is packaged about as reasonably as it probably could've been under the circumstances, as it gives Janeway the role of calm skeptic from the outset. In the process, the story also brings about some very interesting character elements. It's almost enough to make the story workable on its own sneaky terms.
But "almost enough" is not enough, because there are so many other glaring elements here that make the episode's underlying intentions turn out to be nothing more than a big con on the audience—a con that is so seemingly precalculated that it's all but unforgivable.
The story brings This Week's Seemingly Friendly Alien [TM] named Arturis (Ray Wise) on board Voyager. His people are expert linguists. Give him five minutes with a dictionary and he can speak your language better than you. His unique abilities allow him to help the crew translate the damaged, encrypted file that was sent from Starfleet across the Hirogen-operated communications array back in "Hunters"—a message Janeway has unsuccessfully been working to crack for months.
Before too long, and perhaps too easily, Arturis (whose species resembles the Tenctonese from Alien Nation) decodes the damaged transmission, the directions of which lead the Voyager crew to a hidden experimental starship that Starfleet apparently sent as a means to bring the crew back to the Alpha Quadrant. It's the USS Dauntless, a ship that operates on a "quantum slipstream drive," capable of making the 60,000-light-year trip home in a mere three months. Might this be the end of the journey? The crew grows excited.
Strangely, maybe because I was partially duped, I actually felt the excitement the crew was feeling. Everything about the episode—Dennis McCarthy's wondrous score, the impressive sets built for the new starship, Winrich Kolbe's stellar direction over the awesome discovery of the new ship, the discussions among the crew that prove more promise of hope than we've seen in years—gives it a larger-than-life feel, as if the show were pulling out all the stops for something truly interesting. I guess I have to give the episode some points for actually having me engaged as it unfolded.
On the other hand, I'm not sure what exactly the creators were going for here. Upon seeing how the episode unfolded, the only possible intended message I can think of is something along the lines of "don't get your hopes up, because deception comes in unlikely packages and getting your hopes crushed hurts a lot." Unfortunately, that's not something I really want to see on this series, because all it does is turn potentially interesting drama into obvious rehashes of "Eye of the Needle" or other examples.
Now I have to ask myself just what the point was for Starfleet to send such a large, encrypted, mysterious, seemingly important message—a message that apparently just said, "Sorry, but we've found no way to bring you back." Come on—that's absurd. Frankly, I find it more believable that a large, encrypted message would reveal the hidden whereabouts of a magical starship than it would simply say "too bad, but good luck." But, of course, this turns out not to be the case. Now I wish I had never known about the encrypted Starfleet message in the first place; it feels like a waste of a perfectly good mystery. If this is the best the Voyager creators can do with a major mystery revelation, then I'm not sure what's left to find in the Delta Quadrant that could possibly be interesting.
For that matter, Arturis' method of revenge really strains credulity. In four words: I don't buy it. It turns out he has been following Voyager around for months, "waiting for an opportunity" to hatch his vengeance. Boy, it sure was lucky for him that the crew happened across the communications array back in "Message in a Bottle," and happened to also receive an encrypted message from Starfleet command. I wonder where his Master Plan [TM] would be without these convenient happenstances. Now he hopes to lure the entire Voyager crew aboard this fake Federation ship (which does indeed have a real quantum slipstream drive) so that he can quickly deliver them to Borg space, where they will be assimilated in order to satisfy his perverse need for poetic justice. When he can't get the entire crew, he manages to kidnap just Janeway and Seven, instead.
Basically, what we have here is a plot with pieces that are cobbled together out of unlikely coincidences and prior story events that have been twisted to fit the end result. And the reason for this end result to me seems motivated more by an obligatory need for the creators to revisit the "let's get home" theme rather than to tell a real story.
That's not to say the episode is completely without merit, because working in "Hope and Fear's" favor is a great deal of stellar character work and some surprisingly effective closure. I liked, for instance, a lot of the motivation behind Arturis' need for revenge (even if the methods of his revenge are extremely unlikely). The fact that Janeway's negotiation with the Borg in "Scorpion" had negative consequences on other Delta Quadrant peoples is an interesting idea, and Arturis' pointed accusation that Janeway can't see beyond her own crew's interests brings forth some valid observations. The use of the Borg collective as a dramatic device to bookend the season also works rather well.
Characteristically, this episode continues to capitalize on the growth of Seven as an individual. Seven fearing the prospect of living in a human society is both relevant and interesting. The bond between Janeway and Seven here is played so well that it's actually moving. The argument in the astrometrics lab is beautifully acted and directed. And little moments like when Seven casts a smile in Harry's direction, or catches Janeway off-guard with a joke, make for priceless character scenes. True, the repeated use of Seven continues to demonstrate how little the creative staff seems to care about the other characters, but it's still great stuff in a vacuum.
Despite the cast's best efforts, however, the problem is that the rest of the episode falls apart at the seams. All the mechanics of the plot strike me as being carefully and deceptively manufactured so they can be initially read as a "possible way home," only so they can later be cunningly revealed as a "sinister alien plot." Given the great lengths that the story goes to so that all the clues can be read two ways, and all the plot holes that subsequently arise as a result, I am not happy with the end result of this season finale. I feel like I've watched an hour of manipulative television that set out strictly to make me care about a problem that fundamentally has no right to be cared about.
The contrivances are so pervasive that it borders on the ridiculous. After months of trying, Janeway finally happens to stumble across a way to decode the real message in order to confirm her suspicions that Arturis is lying. How fortunate. Janeway and Seven, locked in a holding cell, manage to escape so they can try to stop Arturis. How fortunate. The Voyager plays deus ex machina by temporarily adapting the slipstream technology to their own engines so they can catch up with Arturis and rescue Janeway and Seven In the Nick of Time [TM]. How fortunate. Naturally, this technology can't be used to get the crew home, because it's too likely to destroy the ship in the process. How fortunate, or unfortunate—depending upon whether you're Captain Janeway or Brannon Braga.
Sure, I'll gladly accept the intriguing, well-realized character themes that arise as incidentals, but if I look at "Hope and Fear" for what it really is, I see an episode that exists simply to bait and hook viewers with a lie and then offer them a meretricious "real truth" in an attempt to make them forget they've been misled. As for the lengths Arturis goes to in order to gain his elaborate revenge—sorry, but as Janeway said, "All of this is just a little too perfect." By episode's end, Ray Wise's performance as Arturis goes so far over the top in trying to convey tortured obsession that it merely becomes hokey.
What we have in "Hope and Fear" is some sincere and probing subplotting at the mercy of a sorely misguided premise. There are moments of the story that work, but I felt far too misled by pointless pretense to see the episode as anything more than a crafty attempt to make me care about a problem that inevitably ends the way every other analysis of this theme ends—in a failure that the crew doesn't even seem to react to. The particulars of the story being told—that of an alien out for revenge—could've been told any number of other ways, so using the theme of getting home is ultimately just a gag to get our attention. I see no reason why it should get our attention anymore.Upcoming: Reruns as far as the eye can see, beginning with the two-part "Year of Hell." I'll be coming out with a recap and general commentary of this entire season, which you can look for sometime in June. Until then, I'm outta here.
End-of-season article: Fourth Season Recap