Nutshell: A reliable if derivative Trekkian theme, and pretty strong in execution.
During a survey mission, Chakotay's shuttle is shot down over a planet locked in warfare. He is discovered by a group of Vori soldiers, and in order to survive long enough to contact Voyager, Chakotay must travel through the landscapes in the middle of their war. Before long, Chakotay finds himself fighting on their side to survive.
But, further, Chakotay gets to know these soldiers and begins to sympathize with their plight. The Vori speak of the horrors of their enemy, the brutal Kradin, which they simply call the "nemesis." They have come to hate their enemy. They call their nemesis "beasts" and look forward to any battle where they can gain vengeance on their cruel adversaries.
Chakotay, the Federation type whose existence defines him to nonviolent intentions and a duty to try to understand people rather than hating them, finds his Starfleet values challenged by a situation of extremes. He's trapped in a forest environment with only these soldiers as a possible way home. The vegetation is thick; at any turn there could be a Kradin ambush of machine-gun fire.
"Nemesis" makes use of a fairly derivative Trekkian theme: The indictment of such ugly things as hate, violence, and killing. But this is probably among Trek's most reliable morals—one of the underlying values that, ideologically, makes Trek what it is. Despite a somewhat sluggish first two acts, "Nemesis's" approach to the issue is as relevant as any, and benefits from some fairly strong execution.
While the Shuttle Crash [TM] is, naturally, an absurdly laughable cliche used to launch the episode (it's the third shuttle to be lost in as many episodes), I'm forgiving it this time—for at least the situation it creates for Chakotay is the basis for some good drama. (Besides, at this point, after at least a dozen lost shuttles, I'm just assuming that the Voyager crew has come up with a way of building new ones out of raw materials.)
There's also the Vori speaking style. It's quite different, using metaphors and bizarrely constructed phrases to describe the mundane. The Vori say things like "the soon after" instead of "later," or "nullified," instead of "killed." The writers must've felt this dialog delivery would give the script an insightful dramatic edge. I can't say I was particularly impressed by it, but nor did it hurt any of the scenes. It was pretty much neutral for me, but I will give Kenneth Biller an A for effort in trying to be different in a sophisticated way.
The episode's guest characters prove reasonably good, and the story supplies them with enough depth to give them three dimensions. For some of them, we learn about their families, their losses, the atrocities of the enemy as they've experienced first-hand. The show gives them a reasonable amount of depth, such that we can understand what they've been through.
Chakotay finds himself absorbed into this plight, and before long he picks up a weapon and is fighting the Vori's fight. At one point, Chakotay is separated from the rest of his unit, and finds his way into a Vori village which has suffered its own losses in the war. A young girl in the village speaks highly of her older brother, who is also a soldier. The fate of the brother does not seem promising.
The show's most striking touch of wartime atrocity is the Kradin's desecration of the dead Vori. The Vori's beliefs require that the dead be turned on their faces, so they can see the "path to the way after." The Kradin have a hateful practice of tying captured soldiers to the ground face-up, and letting them die in the sun. This was a pretty realistic demonstration of cruelty, and therefore quite vivid.
Through all of this is Chakotay, who slowly but surely finds himself coming to hate these Kradin "beasts." The road of emotional torment that Chakotay travels from beginning to the end of the episode is a rather dark one. It begins first with his early sentiments to the Vori ("Killing is one of the worst things I've had to do"), and his acknowledgment that exaggeration often makes an enemy easier to hate. The episode ends on the other side of the spectrum, with Chakotay blindly firing a machine gun into the trees, hoping to hit any enemy he can. (When told to hold his fire, he shouts, "Not until I've nullified all of you!").
Chakotay's transformation into a Kradin-hater is understandable, if unfortunate. To think anyone from the Federation is, by definition, devoid of any possibility of hate or prejudice is naive. Back in DS9's second season episode, "The Collaborator," Odo said to Kira that even the best of people can be capable of terrible things given a difficult situation. "Nemesis" proves that with uncontested force.
On the surface, the story deliberately makes the Kradin look like ugly humanoid creatures, while making the Vori appear completely human. The reasons are obvious, albeit quite manipulative: The story tries to get us to side with the Vori immediately, while seeing the Kradin as vile, evil creatures. It's a sneaky approach, but, if you think about it, supports the story's grim argument: We're more likely to sympathize with people we feel are similar to us, and hate those who are different.
There's a twist ending to "Nemesis," however, that proves exactly how misguided that argument is. As Voyager searches for Chakotay and works with the planet's government, they deal with the only side willing to help—the Kradin. And, what's sure to strike people as "implausible" or "weak," it turns out that Chakotay's entire experience in serving in battle alongside the Vori is a simulated ruse of unreality designed to make him a more efficient killer. The revelation that the Vori have been "training" Chakotay to hate the Kradin—using mind control equipment and a host of other conjured stimuli—is a chilling and devious prospect. As "Nemesis" demonstrates, hate can certainly be an effective motivator in training one's soldiers to fight with such dedication, conviction, and fierceness.
I'll admit that it was a bit frustrating to learn that all the characters I had met in the course of the hour weren't real, and that everything Chakotay had done was part of an elaborate setup. And the denouement—in which Tuvok infiltrates the Vori battle site as an undercover Kradin and tells Chakotay what has happened—is a bit confusing in its portrayal and brings up some unresolved logistic problems.
But in the end it really doesn't matter, because the ends justify the means. The real key to this episode is how a culture transformed Chakotay into a man who hated with a passion he had never before known. The final scene is crucial to the episode's success; here a Kradin ambassador comes to greet Chakotay, who has been safely rescued and transported back to Voyager. But Chakotay can't look him in the eye, can't say a word. He can only walk away, muddled in confused hatred. Beltran's subtle performance is a true highlight.
This finale makes the episode work better than it might have without it. With this scene, we see that the Vori have taught—not simply forced—Chakotay to fear and despise the Kradin, for even after such mind-controlling agents have been removed and the situation has been explained from all points of view, Chakotay's feelings of animosity still prevail.
"Nemesis" takes awhile to get where it's going, and some of the plot manipulations tread on the edge of questionable logic. But in the end the episode makes some strong statements. It all may be a bit heavy-handed, but it works.
Next week: Harry introduces Seven of Nine to sexuality ... or maybe it's the other way around.