Nutshell: Fairly dull. The plot chews its way through an hour, but barely.
"Vis A Vis" is the epitome of Voyager mediocrity. It puts a 100 percent typical Voyager spin on an established storytelling device, moving through the plot with no real tension. There are some amusing lines and a couple interesting moments, but the show pretty much left me feeling that I'd seen another Voyager episode come and go—and nothing more. It was competently executed, I suppose, but that's probably the biggest tribute I can give it. When the credits rolled, I just sat on my couch and shrugged.
Okay, raise your hand if you didn't see this as Face/Off adapted to Voyager. That's funny—my hand is in the air. Why? Because Face/Off benefited from some emotional weight under its high-concept premise. The characters who switched identities in that film were forced to wrestle with the extreme and often terrifying consequences of accepting that identity. They found themselves inside the lives of other people and had to cope with troubling personal situations.
Voyager's take on this idea, on the other hand, is incredibly obvious—and incredibly glib. The premise isn't anything more than a means to drive an hour-long plot. And the plot is laid out ever-so-routinely on the ground such that it's like a trail of bread crumbs leading to its pedestrian finale. Follow it from point A to point B to point C, and you realize you're essentially being led down an obvious path to a payoff that has nothing to say. It's just another silly adventure, like much of this season of Voyager has been ... except that this time its characterizations are far too thin to allow the adventure to be much more than an exercise.
The plot brings this week's alien, named Steth (Dan Butler), into a tolerable but rather brainless story. Steth is something of a lone daredevil, always looking for something new in his life. He pilots an experimental ship that utilizes a technology called "coaxial warp," a means of travel that is incredibly fast—something Starfleet had apparently considered in theory but abandoned when it couldn't be made to work in practice.
The story's setup documents Steth's encounter with Voyager, who rescues him when his ship fails during an experimental test flight. With the help of expert pilot (and apparently newly skilled engine mechanic) Tom Paris, Steth works on repairing the coaxial drive. Paris takes a liking to Steth, in whom he sees part of himself—an adventurer and a risk-taker, always on the lookout for something new.
One of the big problems with "Vis A Vis," however, is the way Paris' character is utilized. Sure, we know him as the adventurous type, but there are character scenes in this episode that seem to have been scripted out of nowhere, covering ground that has been well traveled in the past. Suddenly, Paris has grown tired of his "boring, settled life" (though by the end of the episode, of course, he comes to grips with it), and he yearns for a change of pace.
I appreciated that Robert Duncan McNeill downplayed the obvious intentions of his character arc (indeed, his restraint manages to save the entire sentiment), but the story's notion is so blatant yet so ponderously conjured that it feels forced, as if the writers decided, "Hey, we need a Paris show, so let's make him bored of life on Voyager." It pains me that every Paris-heavy character analysis seems to deal with the same theme of "comparing where Paris' life was before he was part of the Voyager crew and where it is now" (including, yes, that horrendous installment known as "Threshold," as well as more recently in "Hunters"). And the resolution always comes out to be the same. You'd think by now the writers would have moved on, but instead we get yet another rehash. It's not bad writing, per se, but it's several steps shy of good, and given the "been there, done that" nature of it all, it's a perfect example of, well, Voyager mediocrity.
Then there's the early scene in the mess hall with Tom and B'Elanna, which simply had me scratching my head in confusion. B'Elanna was extremely cool-headed and reasonable about Tom being late for their dinner. Yet everything she says here is answered with Tom's wrong-headed histrionics. Why? To create a forced conflict between them that could be happily swept into oblivion by the final scene? If the reasons for his bad attitude had been supplied before the end of the show I might've been more receptive to it, but the reasoning was merely weak and arbitrary, if not nonexistent; the extremity of Tom's impatience just didn't make any sense.
But never mind. Plot is given the priority here more often than not, and as I was saying before: Face/Off. The gimmick of the week is that Steth is really a unique form-changing alien who can "overwrite" a person's DNA, taking a victim's body in exchange for his own. Boy, am I tired of "DNA can do anything" premises. It's a tribute to Robert J. Doherty, who wrote the episode, that he manages to keep the technobabble explanations to a minimum. Personally, I'd be content with no explanation, because sci-fi can sometimes be most convincing when the unknown is left to the viewer's imagination. But you know Voyager; they're never content to do anything without some sort of explanation, plausible or otherwise.
Anyway, I'm not all that concerned with "DNA overwrites" or "coaxial warp drives"; what makes "Vis A Vis" so bland is that the swapped-identity story is put to surprisingly little imaginative use. It's mostly reduced to stock cliches. Once Steth steals Paris' body and assumes his role on Voyager—leaving the real Paris behind, stranded on the coaxial vessel with no one aboard Voyager the wiser—the story becomes conventional and predictable. We have scenes of "Steth" wandering the ship—although it seemed he knew where to go and what to say far more often than he should've. We have the obligatory scene where "Steth" seduces B'Elanna—which is neither believable nor interesting, and doesn't come back to mean anything whatsoever later in the story. And, of course, there's "Steth's" improvisation when he's close to being found out; in a reasonably and deceptively executed scene, he switches Paris' body with the captain's.
But there's just no substance here. The story brings no attitude to the material; it just drops it in the audience's lap. There are no characters pondering their fates. No real consequences of Steth or Paris being genuinely confused or out of their element—except maybe for extremely brief moments where the real Paris realizes what has happened, and mentions to another alien who is in a similar dilemma (Elizabeth McGlynn), how much he wants to be back in his own body.
The story misses its biggest opportunity by keeping Janeway, who has been transferred into Paris' body, unconscious (and therefore out of the story) until after the alien body-switcher has been captured and everyone has been magically returned to their own bodies. Can you imagine the acting possibilities of McNeill playing Kathryn Janeway? That alone would probably have been more interesting than anything else in this episode.
The one saving grace in "Vis A Vis" is the use of subtle, effective comedy. There's one reasonably amusing scene of "Steth" looking for sickbay, as well as some good lines when he interacts with the Doctor and when he has a brief conflict with Seven of Nine (while slightly intoxicated). But most of it is depressingly by the numbers. After a mundane ending sequence that is terribly anticlimactic, the whole episode seems to write itself off as trite little lesson for Tom Paris: He should've spent more time with B'Elanna rather than working on his holographic 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. Only on Star Trek: Voyager will you get a lesson like that.
Next week: UPN has gotten in an awfully bad habit of showing promos for shows that aren't Voyager (Love Boat: The Next Wave, starring Spencer For Hire? Please. When will it end?), so I'm not exactly sure. I think it has something to do with the Voyager computer going on the fritz.