Nutshell: Many poignant moments, though the episode's primary drive is saddled with another cartoon subplot.
"Message in a Bottle" three weeks ago perfectly exemplified the uneasy duality of shallow cartoon versus serious drama that Voyager's fourth-season adventure angle has supplied. Now "Hunters" drives that point home even further. I'd heard a couple weeks ago that "Hunters" would supply the dramatic character-oriented follow-up that I was thirsting for in "Message." So I was anticipating what I hoped would be one of the best episodes yet this season.
Well, like much of season four, I've been left with a generally positive impression—but at the same time, I find myself disappointed that the show still didn't nearly live up to its potential. What we could've had was a pivotal moment in the series' run. What we got instead was a good hour with a number of poignant, important moments but also some glaring problems.
At least Voyager is consistent.
"Hunters" is the second episode in what will undoubtedly become known as the "Hirogen arc," but this episode is really about something much more important to Voyager: the issue of how crew members feel when they receive an update from their Alpha Quadrant friends and families—in the form of letters that come trickling through the alien communications array that Starfleet has managed to further utilize.
Some of these moments have been years in the making, and I think the writers should be commended for biding their time in addressing this issue. They toyed with the idea back in first season's "Eye of the Needle," but by waiting three years before finally making it really happen, they've allowed the opportunity for family and friends back home to move on with their lives.
It brings up some interesting questions, and that's where the gold of "Hunters" lies. I very much appreciated that most of the letters from home presented uneasiness rather than quick fixes, because I suspect that's the way it really would be.
Case in point: Chakotay learns that the Maquis have been decimated by the Cardassian/Dominion alliance. This is good stuff. Not to beat a dead horse, but I think it has been far too long since the word "Maquis" has been uttered on Voyager. The fact that all the Maquis back in the Alpha Quadrant are gone now undoubtedly hits the Maquis population on Voyager pretty hard. Chakotay's reaction to this devastating news is an especially poignant moment. Similarly, the sullen scene where Chakotay informs Torres of the Maquis' fate is one of the episode's highlights.
On the other hand, I still don't think this will have all the effects I want it to, especially considering the only Maquis crew members we see in the entire episode are Chakotay and Torres. Sure, there's a vague reference to "all the others," but when it comes down to it, Chakotay and Torres are the only real Trek characters left who could speak for the Maquis, and they only began to discuss what was worth discussing. I find that unfortunate, because I think there was a lot more that could've been said. I can dream of more dialog: Why not some acknowledgement from the non-Maquis part of the crew? Why is there no discussion about it between Chakotay and Janeway? I might as well just keep dreaming, since there's about zero chance of getting more complex questions out of it. As I've said (too) many times before, that aspect of Voyager is dead, cremated, dispersed, long gone, and forgotten.
But never mind. The true overriding theme is in how suddenly being back in contact with your origins after having been out of contact with them for so long is bound to prove anything but easy. Not only difficult for the Voyager crew, but difficult for the families back home. Chakotay puts it nicely when he mentions that such sudden news proving the Voyager crew is alive is likely to be difficult to those who had finally accepted that their loved ones were gone—especially considering that the ship may not reach home for 60 years anyway.
Janeway's situation makes a great example of this dilemma. The letter she receives is from her (former) fiancee Mark. And with this letter she realizes that the inevitable has occurred—that Mark has moved on with his life after having held on to his hopes longer than most. He has since married someone else. It's not something that Janeway finds particularly surprising; it's just that the fact it wasn't surprising doesn't make accepting the inevitable any easier. Her mention to Chakotay that the letter had such a "finality" was well said—perfectly said, in fact.
The strength of "Hunters" lies in its ability to involve the major characters in different ways. Take Tom, for example. He's hoping that he won't get a letter at all, because he would just as soon sever all connections he had with home. The fact that he has more on Voyager than he ever had back in the Alpha Quadrant is an issue that has a great deal of relevance. I also wonder what much of Voyager's Maquis population thinks "home" could offer them now knowing the entire Maquis organization has been wiped out.
I do have some complaints with the way two characters were handled. The first is Ensign Kim, who throughout the episode becomes his own mini-story, in which the suspense is whether or not Harry will get a message from his folks. I see what Jeri Taylor was going for here, but it's trite and obvious. Very. And it hammers home some larger issues about the whole character of Harry Kim, who is virtually the embodiment of innocent, uninteresting sterility. Harry once referred to himself as "Harry read-me-like-a-book Kim." That's a pretty accurate description. He's becoming as transparent as Neelix, although not as annoying. Garret Wang needs much more challenging material than this, because his kid-like innocence is not believable any more—especially given that the starship Voyager is such a precarious, unusual place for the average Starfleet officer.
The second character gripe is Neelix. I have to point an angry finger at Ethan Phillips this week, who performs the silly Talaxian in a way that leaves much to be desired. Sure, letters from home (even if it isn't his home) is exciting and everything, but Neelix's "cute" joyfulness was way, way overdone. The character was absolutely horrendous this week, transforming (temporarily, I hope) back into the "second season Neelix" who was utterly agonizing to watch. The scene where he reads the letter to "Mr. Vulcan" made me want to slap him around—a lot. And when he told Harry, "Don't pay attention to rumors," in a voice that would seem condescending even to an average third-grader, I wanted to put him into a photon torpedo and launch him into the nearest star (or perhaps a small black hole given this week's premise). I'll grant that his part wasn't particularly well written this week, but this sort of vexatious portrayal was something I'd thought Phillips had left behind almost two seasons ago.
And even though it doesn't matter much, I want to voice one other complaint: I find it absurd that the writers seem to think that no one on Voyager has heard of the Dominion. When Voyager premiered in January 1995, the Dominion was already a major part of DS9 lore. "The Jem'Hadar" had aired almost seven months previous.
But before I shift the tone of this review and give the impression that I didn't really like "Hunters," I'd better stress that most of the human moments in the story worked well for me, including some bits like the nice moment where Seven realizes that even she may discover some "emotional resonance" if she ever finds her way to distant family members back on Earth.
So that leaves one other order of business for a review of "Hunters": the subplot involving the Hirogens, a savage race of hunters who, as Tuvok aptly puts it, "lack any moral center." Quite simply, I could've done without this whole thing, which only serves to shift focus away from the emotional core of the story, just as "Message in a Bottle's" comedy plot did. The Hirogens are rather boring cartoon characters who provide conflict in only the most superficial and forced of ways. They're the typical Bad Guys of the Week (or, more correctly, the bad guys of this week and the next three weeks). Their dialog is laughable, their characterizations nonexistent, and their line delivery a series of grunts and growls. If this is the nemesis we have to watch in the next four episodes, I'm hoping those episodes will be carried by their action and plotting—because the Hirogens certainly won't be carrying it.
The "plot" involves the Hirogens kidnapping Tuvok and Seven from a shuttlecraft (which I think, incidentally, was lost, for those out there keeping track). They're held hostage and threatened, leaving the task to Janeway to negotiate their return. Yeah, right. As Seven might say, negotiation is irrelevant. The Hirogens want to keep Seven and Tuvok so they can slice them up and mount them as trophies.
In the meantime, Tuvok's attempts at negotiation are pathetic, as the writers give him unbelievably inappropriate lines like "Release us now and you will be safe, otherwise we will destroy you" and "If you kill us, our captain will hunt you down and show no mercy." These utterances don't sound like anything that stems from a Vulcan or Federation ethos, let alone Tuvok's character. It's just fortunate "Hunters" has so much else going for it, because the story involving the hunters is nearly a total bust.
In more positive news, I liked some of David Livingston's execution techniques. The opening in particular was nice—somewhat reminiscent of Contact—as the camera looks into the depths of space while a static-laden signal is heard on the audio track. Also, the interiors of the Hirogen ship were impressively decorated and photographed. The Hirogen themselves may be laughable, but at least their sets are kind of neat. And the climax, for all its ridiculous technobabble, was charged with a sense of urgent apocalyptic adrenaline, featuring the latest in micro-quantum singularities as super cosmic vacuum cleaners, which threaten to suck starships into oblivion. Or something.
But I think I've said enough. With "Hunters" we once again have an episode that could've been outstanding, and once again I'm only giving it a marginal recommendation. How unfortunate.
Next week: The Hirogen are in for the long haul ... and species 8472 has a supporting role.