Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Message in a Bottle"


Air date: 1/22/1998
Written by Lisa Klink
Directed by Nancy Malone

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"What are they doing?"
"Firing on us!"
"They must think Romulans are on board!"
"They're RIGHT!"

— EMH-2 and Doc

Nutshell: Quite a bit of fun, but not everything it should've been under the circumstances.

There are a lot of elements in "Message in a Bottle" that epitomize what has obviously become the statement of Voyager's fourth season as a whole—namely, that Voyager is a faster, funnier, snappier, and generally better series all around, but that the stories are primarily lightweight science fiction concepts and adventures that don't take real risks that go the extra mile to probe deeper into the characters. Strangely, the deepest, most substantive episode yet this season was "Mortal Coil," a vehicle for Neelix, who is generally the embodiment of lightweight.

And now, the sense of fourth-season lightweight whimsy in the interests of gleeful entertainment finally gets in the way with "Message in a Bottle," an effective episode on its own terms, but an episode that made me seriously wonder if it was the right episode for its given premise. Although this episode is tons of fun and jam-packed with amusing dialog, there's too much plot here (or, more specifically, too much of the wrong type of plotting), and not enough reflection.

Yet "Message in a Bottle" is one of the most entertaining episodes all season—an episode that made me care and had me in anticipation over how the end would be handled and how the starship Voyager morale would be benefited. I guess a big part of this episode's selling point is in finally seeing a real victory for the Voyager crew. We've seen this crew defeated and anguished on several occasions—shows that offered them potential tickets to the Alpha Quadrant ("Prime Factors," "Eye of the Needle," "False Profits," etc.)—but time after time the Voyager crew had their hopes crushed. Finally, here's a show with a true moral victory for the Voyager crew—something that would make the Delta Quadrant feel less lonely.

There's some familiar characterization early in the episode—a sense of urgency that's reminiscent of season one, back when finding a way back to the Alpha Quadrant actually had an impact on the crew's feelings. Like in "Eye of the Needle," the crew members find themselves with the chance to send a message to the Alpha Quadrant when Seven of Nine stumbles across an alien communications array that covers huge areas of space. By relaying the signal across the array, they are able to locate a Starfleet ship in Federation space. The only problem is that a communications signal degrades before it can reach the other side of the network. The solution: to send a stronger signal that won't decay—namely, Doc's holographic program.

The most effective emotional undercurrent in "Message in a Bottle" is the sense of doubt created by the hopeful yet uncertain situation. As Chakotay puts it, "We've been here before"—why get your hopes up (as I mentioned earlier) if you're setting yourself up to be crushed? There's nothing that's certain about the plan, either; It's a risk—even Doc's signal may not survive the transfer across such unknown technology over such a great distance. But the decision must be made immediately, because time is short and once the Federation ship is out of range, the opportunity will be lost.

Now, although I've heard for months now that Voyager would finally be sending a successful message home, "Message in a Bottle" was still effective in creating suspense and drawing me into the crew's plight. Seeing the anticipation amongst the crew was compelling in its limited doses, although I wish there had been much more of it (more on that later).

The signal takes Doc 60,000 light years to the USS Prometheus, a brand-new experimental vessel. As luck would have it, this ship has been boarded and commandeered by the Romulans, who have killed the Federation crew that was on board. Having stolen the experimental ship, they plan to deliver it to the Tal Shiar (apparently back in business to some degree), who assumedly could use the technology.

So Doc now finds himself with a challenge: As the only member of Starfleet aboard the ship, he must thwart the 20+ Romulans in their attempt to deliver this ship to their superiors. If he fails, his message to Starfleet will probably never be received. For this mission, Doc recruits some help: The Prometheus' EMH program, an updated version (Mark II) with new capabilities and a new face (the EMH-2 is performed by Andy Dick), but with the same overactive ego.

What can I say about this plot? Far-fetched? Probably a little. Superficial? You bet. Amusing? Most definitely. Fast, snappy, entertaining—typical of season four? Yep.

The stunt-pairing of Doc and EMH-2 makes for the highest level of all-out, go-for-broke comic energy on Voyager that I've seen in a very long time. While I wouldn't rate the dialog quite on the level of Doc and Barclay's sparring in "Projections," I did find the funny and fast-delivered verbal jousting to be well worth the time. Both Robert Picardo and Andy Dick have their characters' senses of smug superiority working alongside their senses of ever-worry, and the unlikely setting of "two lowly holograms versus a squadron of Romulans" makes for a particularly good framing of two bemused and unwitting heroes playing against the odds.

While their nonstop self-congratulatory dialog begins to tire near the end, these two remain utterly watchable through most of the episode, their one-liners and tendency to panic in the face of danger allowing the comedy to breathe. The initial idea of the "veteran EMH" playing opposite an EMH who has just been activated is milked for a few fresh notions, bringing out a respectable determination in Voyager's Doctor that refuses to see a fellow EMH duck the opportunity to expand his horizons into heroic action. I won't go into the way these two disable the Romulans and take over the ship (let's just say it involves the use of fumes that invoke unconsciousness), but the road to get there is entertaining.

Meanwhile, the Prometheus itself is an interesting gadget with some new abilities, like a separation sequence that allows it to split into three pieces and combat its opponents. The Romulans, alas, are fairly cardboard as the requisite villains, although it was nice to finally see them again after all this time. (DS9 hasn't utilized them in quite some time, throwaway lines notwithstanding.)

Another issue that "Message in a Bottle" works in by way of a B-story, and which I'd like to comment on, is Seven's rudeness and impulsive action. In short, it must be dealt with. This isn't a complaint about the episode; on the contrary—I think that Seven's inept social graces are a necessary part of her integration into the crew that I'm glad we're seeing. But it's still something Janeway has to take control of; Seven's decision to cause a feedback surge and shock into unconsciousness the hard-headed alien (who is threatening Voyager for using his communications array) because "he was not responding to diplomacy" is not the kind of unauthorized action a captain can afford to have a member of her crew taking. It worked this time (and Janeway's decision to tighten her jaw and let it slide was appropriate under the extreme circumstances), but it's not something Janeway can just ignore. She needs to find a way of putting Seven in her place—and it needs to happen soon.

A C-story also proves pleasant in a slight manner, involving Tom's desperate plea for Harry to design a new doctor in Doc's absence thus rescuing him from sickbay duty. It's nicely played, with some light laughs and good characterizations—but isn't this just filler? Couldn't a more effective use of screen time been conceived in an episode that should have a stunning emotional impact on the crew?

And that brings me back to the overriding problem with "Message in a Bottle": its serious and emotionally gripping general premise is held back (and held back to a fault) by its utterly inconsequential action/comedy plot. Consider the potential of a story in which Voyager finally, after more than three years, makes contact with home. Is there any substantial speculation by the crew about what this will mean for the future of the ship? Not really. Is there any discussion of events that have transpired in the Alpha Quadrant (like, for example, the Dominion war) while Voyager has been away? Not really. Is there anybody on board Voyager wondering what their loved ones are thinking back home now knowing that the Voyager crew (most of it, that is) is still alive? Not really. All we really get is the final two-minute scene where Doc discusses his off-screen dialog with Starfleet Command, which promises to search for a way of getting Voyager home as quickly as possible. As much as I was moved by Janeway's reaction to hearing this news (even though "60,000 light years feels a lot closer today" is a fairly trite, cornball closing line), it's just not enough.

As much as I liked "Message in a Bottle," I'm only giving it a marginal recommendation. This is an episode that, for all its merits, should've been so much more. The Season Four Sense of Fun needs to know when to step back and get out of the way.

Upcoming: A couple reruns, followed by what has been promised by rumors as a multi-part arc involving the race of aliens introduced in this past episode.

Previous episode: Waking Moments
Next episode: Hunters

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36 comments on this review

mlk - Wed, Jan 9, 2008 - 5:09pm (USA Central)
That was a really good episode but wtf..you'd think the Dominion war would be little more discussed than that
XXXLKlintonLobby - Tue, Mar 18, 2008 - 6:57am (USA Central)
H. Klinton vs Obama. How you consider, who will win elections in Unated States of America?
grumpy_otter - Thu, Jul 17, 2008 - 1:38pm (USA Central)
I completely agree with your review of this episode, almost word for word. Even though I laughed out loud numerous times, it was just superficial. But kudos to Dick and Picardo--they handled their roles well.

However, one cool thing did come from this episode--instead of "Be quiet!", my daughter and I now use "Disengage your vocal subroutines!"
Vylora - Tue, Oct 28, 2008 - 4:16am (USA Central)
I just watched this episode again and I have to say that I completely agree with the review though I'd give it a 1/2 star more. I know the C-story should have been scrapped for more time on the main plot and the importance of the main-plot wasn't realized enough (likely 'cause of C-story) but god damn this was wickedly entertaining and very funny.

I've never been the biggest fan of Voyager (DS9 is the best of trek IMHO) but this episode was one among several in this series that showed the potential that sadly had never seen fruition.
Stephanie - Sat, Apr 3, 2010 - 2:31pm (USA Central)
Hey Jammer,

I was just wondering why you thought 60,000 light years feels a lot closer today was a trite, cornball line.. trite implies it or something similar has been said or used before and is cliche.. but I don't believe I've heard it before or nothing comes to mind.. maybe a similar sentiment.. but I wouldn't say that makes it trite.. so just wondering if you could point out the reference. Thanks
Bad Horse - Tue, May 25, 2010 - 12:11pm (USA Central)
Why would the Doctor's program be lost? Why isn't there Ctrl-C in the future?
Michael - Mon, Jun 21, 2010 - 3:17pm (USA Central)
"A C-story also proves pleasant in a slight manner, involving Tom's desperate plea for Harry to design a new doctor in Doc's absence thus rescuing him from sickbay duty. It's nicely played, with some light laughs and good characterizations--but isn't this just filler? Couldn't a more effective use of screen time been conceived in an episode that should have a stunning emotional impact on the crew?"

Oh, you gotta be kidding me! "Emotional impact"? Look, this is not Dr. Phil; I don't want personal drama, introspection, people exploring their feelings and whatnot. Star Trek is a sci-fi series: I want the science and I want the fiction, in that order, and preferably with the ration 70:30.

For that reason I thought this "C-story" was extraneous and boring. Not only does it adamantly NOT deserve an episode of its own (god forbid!!!) but it should've been excised even from this one. Paris and Kim's repartee is never riveting, especially not when it's over Paris' antagonism about having to do sick-bay duty. SNOOZERS!

The Doc and the Doc were great, and those two alone make this a great episode. Add to that the technological premises (the relay network and its operation), the change of scenery on the Prometheus and its capabilities, the Romulans and the showdown toward the end, and you got yourself one of the best episodes ever. Four stars minimum.
navamske - Thu, Nov 18, 2010 - 7:22pm (USA Central)
Wouldn't you think Starfleet would configure its ships -- any ships, not just a badass prototype like the Prometheus -- so they are incapable of firing on other Starfleet ships (the events of ST:TWOK notwithstanding)? I would.
Overthinker - Sun, Mar 13, 2011 - 4:03am (USA Central)
"Star Trek is a sci-fi series: I want the science and I want the fiction, in that order, and preferably with the ration 70:30."

In that case read a physics textbook. You have missed the point entirely. Sure, it can be fun to think about kewl future tech and all that, but the best SF takes it a step further and considers what effect it will have on people. Fiction is, in the end, about exploring the human condition (there is very little fiction featuring cats and mice aimed at anyone older than ten), and if we are not able to feel some sort of emotional connection with the people in the story then then story has failed. The only significant exception I can think of is "2001," but then that was a deliberate choice by Kubrick and not done to show off gee-whiz fanboy tech. In fact "2001" was about humanity, rather than any one human.

"I don't want personal drama, introspection, people exploring their feelings and whatnot."
Translation: "I don't want people."
Overthinker - Sun, Mar 13, 2011 - 9:50am (USA Central)
Incidentally, this applies particularly to "science" fiction like Trek, which is about as close to real science as Harry Potter. Instead of wizards and wands we have magical transporters and DNA, so we *have* to have some good character interaction ("fiction") to make up for the lack of science. Otherwise it's just eye candy.
Nic - Sun, May 29, 2011 - 3:42pm (USA Central)
What I would have liked to see was the Doctor's visit to Starfleet, seeing their reaction at his evolution over the last three years and hearing about the Dominion War. The EMH vs. Romulans plot was definitely FUN (Dick & Picardo togather is a hoot) it seemed to get in the way of scenes that really mattered. Fortunately the lack of character work here will be made up for next week.
Nic - Sun, May 29, 2011 - 6:11pm (USA Central)
The "C" story was mostly forgettable but I can't help but laugh out loud every time the replacement EMH reads the beginning of Gray's Anatomy and then says "paragraph."
Jay - Fri, Sep 2, 2011 - 4:29pm (USA Central)
To expand on what Nic said, it is at this point that Dr. Zimmerman should have heard about the remarkable accomplishment of his Mark 1. His obnoxious behavior two years later in Lifeline was ridiculous.
Nathan - Fri, Nov 4, 2011 - 11:36pm (USA Central)
EMH-2 had a similar personality to Bashir. This aired about a year after "Doctor Bashir, I Presume", so perhaps the original intent was to use Siddig?
Justin - Tue, Apr 17, 2012 - 12:47am (USA Central)
I realize the review was written when the episode aired, but I still think Jammer was a bit too hard on "Message In A Bottle." Especially towards the end when he is disappointed that it didn't live up to its potential in regards to the characters' reactions to finally getting a message home. Nearly all of that was addressed in subsequent episodes involving the Hirogen's communications net. And the repercussions of the Dominion War were addressed in the excellent "Extreme Risk," at least as far as the Maquis were concerned.

"Message In A Bottle" did what it set out to do - it entertained. It was fresh, it had hilarious dialogue, cool contraptions and ships, and a satisfying emotional ending (for me anyway). It has also gone down as a fan favorite. Small quibbles aside, I'd have given it 1/2 more star.
Bryan - Thu, Oct 4, 2012 - 4:06am (USA Central)
Justin- Maybe Jammer overthinks like Overthinker. ;)
Jo Jo Meastro - Sun, Apr 14, 2013 - 12:47pm (USA Central)
I'm with the people who love this episode. It was a classic! I really loved the clever humour, the action, momentum, excitement and big scale. Seeing the Alpha Quadrant again after so long made me realise how much I missed it and all of the new prototype Starfleet ships was also really cool. Everything was well-executed and it's such a blast, almost movie-like!

There was some emotional depth to be sure and I was gripped the whole time; I was drawn in the whole time by all our characters' feelings. But at the same time I certainly agree that the thrill-ride fun and sharp-witted comedy took up just a bit too much room, leaving less room for more powerful drama. I still loved this episode and it still is a favourite so far, and in my opinion still worthy of the monumental event its concept presented.

For me, the humour and fun didn't cheapen the awe-stiking importance of what is achieved in this huge hour of Voyager. It gets 3.5/4 from me...maybe even 4 stars! On a different note, I recognise the actor who played EMH 2 from somewhere, I'm going to have to look him up on IMBD because it's starting to bug me that I can't quite put my finger on where I've seen him before!
Jo Jo Meastro - Sun, Apr 14, 2013 - 1:11pm (USA Central)
Oh and I'm looking forward to a new mini-arc, lets hope its just a bit better than the Kazon one!
Grumpy - Sun, Apr 14, 2013 - 1:16pm (USA Central)
When the reset button went unpressed at the end of this episode, I felt a thrill of victory. I had a similar feeling with the teaser of BSG's "Pegasus": the world is suddenly larger for our heroes, and more hopeful (though not wholly better, in both cases).
Sintek - Sun, May 19, 2013 - 12:09pm (USA Central)
Great character insights into Paris in this episode. We learn, finally, that he wants to be a pilot. He enjoys flying spacecraft, in that he prefers to man the helm. He also wants to control the trajectory of spaceborne machines, to "fly" them as it were. Deep, previously unexplored stuff here.
navamske - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 5:41pm (USA Central)
Things I would like to have seen: (1) the Doctor's actual conversation with the highest-ranking Starfleet officer among the ships that attacked the Prometheus, and the officer's reaction and how the Doctor convinced him/her he was being truthful; (2) the Doctor's actual conversation with Starfleet headquarters and their reaction; (3) personal moments, like maybe the Doctor's telling Mr. Ensign Wildman (I forget his name -- the Ktarian guy) that he has a daughter; (4) the Doctor's filling everyone in on current events back in the AQ (the Dominion war, and "Hey, they're wearing different uniforms now, maybe we should wear them too!"). Stuff like that, not lame attempts by the V'ger crew to create a replacement Doctor, something you'd think, if it were possible, they would have done already. They frequently said or implied that it wasn't possible to back up the Doctor (the events of "Living Witness" notwithstanding). Seems reasonable -- they didn't know they were going to be stranded in the Delta Quadrant, so they didn't bring any floppies with them. (Remember, this was the mid-'90s.)
navamske - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 5:44pm (USA Central)
The best exchange (not only the content but also the delivery) from the episode:

The Doctor: "Stop breathing down my neck."
The Other Doctor: "My breathing is merely a simulation."
The Doctor: "So is my neck -- stop it anyway!"

I heard Picardo came up with that.
navamske - Wed, Jul 17, 2013 - 8:20pm (USA Central)
The Doctor: "Let's just say I made an addition to my program."
The Other Doctor: "You mean you have a holo-weenie?"
Leaf - Thu, Jul 18, 2013 - 3:07pm (USA Central)
The part that hurts my brain is where the audio signal is "too weak" but sending the most complex hologram on the ship works because he's a "stronger signal". Riiiight. This is like uploading the entire contents of one's hard drive because a single e-mail attachment failed to send.
GLJeremy - Wed, Oct 30, 2013 - 3:51pm (USA Central)
I do like this episode and feel that the strength of the "A" story makes up for the bland "B" and "C" stories. It would have been pretty cool is they had gotten Alexander Siddiq to play EMH-2 but despite the usual nature of his roles, Andy Dick does a pretty good job. I like to think that because of the controversy surrounding Bashir, his personality was used but not his likeness when Zimmerman began work on the EMH-2. Hence the fact that the dialogue does sound very Bashir (at least to me).
Jack - Mon, Jan 6, 2014 - 4:56pm (USA Central)
You can't blame Neelix for panicking at the mention of "heartburn", if one takes the term literally and doesn't know it really has nothing to do with the heart, it sounds like it would be something extremely serious.
Andy's Friend - Tue, Jan 7, 2014 - 5:49pm (USA Central)
@Jack: "You can't blame Neelix for panicking at the mention of "heartburn"..."


You can ALWAYS blame Neelix! :D

To paraphrase Reed in "In A Mirror, Darkly, Part I" (ENT): Aren't Talaxians always guilty of something? ;)

(Sorry, I just coldn't help myself...)
Ric - Wed, Apr 16, 2014 - 12:09am (USA Central)
Quite a good episode. I only can't take the fact that Voyager easliy sent the only doctor available in the ship to a mission with high likelihood of failure. It does not make sense at all and is one of these many examples of silly lazy wrtting in this show. Also, the lack of imediate consequences for Seven's wild behaviour was a bit annoying.

But again, the rest of the episode is very good. I do think that it managed to balance fun, funny and important storytelling. I can't understand how Jammer could have said this episode was superficial. We saw Seven's behaviour going wilder, we saw a bit of build up on her relationship with Torres, we saw The Doctor delivering a message to the Starfleet! Now they now about Voyager's journey. One thing is to expect deep character moments. Or profound moral choices (this looks a bit like a DS9-addiction). Another is to say the episode, its plot or its consequences were superficial like it was said about past episodes in this season. Lastly, what a joy was the last scene, what a great line delivery when the captain gets the final message...

In another tone, the dialogues between the doctors are frequently really fun. The piece about sex, with our Doc so proud of his sexual experience was amazing. And what about Seven's face when she asks "I am rude?", haha.

Also, I think they have managed to bring the Alpha Quadrant to the show in a smart and sort of believable way. I liked the episode a lot.

PS: Paris asking for more hair to the replacement doctor made me remind of something that I always have though about The Doc. He makes 21th century bald people like me hopeless about the future...
Grumpy - Wed, Apr 16, 2014 - 11:25am (USA Central)
"If Picard can baldly go, so can Picard-o." --some damn "Making of" special

As far as we know, Ric, incurable baldness is a side effect of the 24th century's cure for gayness.
Robert - Wed, Apr 16, 2014 - 11:46am (USA Central)
Are there bald people in the mirror universe? They have gay people there....

I always just assumed that bald was a fashion choice in TNG era.... after all, the Doctor re stimulates Seven's follicles to let her grow hair....
Ric - Sun, May 4, 2014 - 6:58pm (USA Central)
@Grumpy LOL LOL I didn't know such quotes! Amazing.

@Robert Yeah, you are damn right! Thank you, you gave me a new hope - for the 24th century at least =)
navamske - Sun, Aug 31, 2014 - 2:33pm (USA Central)
I believe there was a small "inside joke" in this episode, though not a particularly good one or one that had any relevance to anything. When Neelix mentions the recipe for "Rodeo Red's Red Hot Rootin'-Tootin' Chili" (or whatever it was called), he pronounces "Rodeo" "ro-DAY-oh," like the name of the famous shopping street in Beverly Hills.
Peremensoe - Mon, Sep 1, 2014 - 10:17am (USA Central)
"Rodeo" is a Spanish word, or of Spanish origin. Neelix and Beverly Hills are using the Spanish pronunciation. If there's a joke it's that he's hypercorrecting what is an American vernacular ("rootin'-tootin'") usage.
KenDFW - Sat, Nov 8, 2014 - 5:29pm (USA Central)
True, but a Spanish-speaking person would say "ro-DEH-oh".
Jeff - Tue, Dec 2, 2014 - 5:40am (USA Central)
Speaking of Spanish jokes, what about "Jah-lapeno"?

Also, Jammer, why does every single one of the locations
say "USA Central"? I'm in Japan, on the other side of the world from Kansas.
Jammer - Tue, Dec 2, 2014 - 12:29pm (USA Central)
The commenting script is only set up for one time zone, and I didn't take the time to rewrite it to make it possible to choose your own. Since I had to pick one, I naturally picked my own. House rules.

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