Nutshell: The plot's gear-turning is fairly evident, but overall it's a good balance of characterization, deception, and attitude.
Why is it, after several years of expectedly dumb Voyager promos, I still let myself get angry with them? You'd think I'd just ignore them at this point and let go of my anger. Well, most of the time I do.
But just look at the trashy promo for "Counterpoint," for crying out loud—dubbed by the trailers, "Sleeping With the Enemy." Is there some rule in UPN marketing that says advertising must pander to the lowest primordial demographic of the brain dead? Don't they think it's possible for us to be entertained by a story without it being over-sensationalized to the point of lowbrow absurdity? Do the producers of Voyager feel the need to strangle the studio's publicity department? I sure would if I had written "Counterpoint."
Trailer issues aside, "Counterpoint" is a pretty enjoyable hour. It's a tad deceptive in plotting terms, but only so much in that the characters themselves constantly seem to be hiding things. This is a very plot-reliant episode. Yet it's a significantly character-orchestrated endeavor. One might say that "Counterpoint" succeeds because it balances the plot aspects with the character aspects. It's a plot show that uses its people as personalities about as much as it uses them as pieces in its jigsaw puzzle.
Because Voyager meets a lot of people during its journey, we get a lot of "aliens of the week." Some aliens are people with a problem that the Voyager crew helps to solve, like the people in last week's "Thirty Days." Others are "bad guys" who serve as sources of conflict. The subjects of "Counterpoint" fall into the "bad guys" category.
I often dislike Voyager bad guys, because they're too often lacking in identity and personality—serving merely to provide the special-effects crew with the opportunity for pyrotechnics and camera shaking. But what's particularly refreshing about "Counterpoint" is that the bad guys for once are allowed to have a dynamically acerbic—rather than blandly confrontational—personality.
They're called the Devore, and they're xenophobes who don't like visitors (labeling anyone who isn't them a "gaharay"). They have tough rules for anyone passing through their space. Their most stressed rule: no telepaths allowed. Anyone caught smuggling a telepath will have their ship impounded and crew incarcerated. Ships in Devore space are stopped and inspected for contraband on a regular basis. As the episode begins, Voyager is being stopped by a Devore inspection team, quite obviously not for the first time.
The Devore inspectors are smug. They're led by an especially smug inspector named Kashyk (Mark Harelik), who claims to want to be Janeway's friend through these ongoing difficult procedures. Smug can be annoying, but here it works as a surprisingly entertaining source of conflict. Kashyk is one of the few Voyager adversaries in recent memory that I actually enjoyed seeing on the screen. A big reason Kashyk works is because of the piss-and-vinegar dynamic between him and Janeway. Janeway does not like Kashyk. But Kashyk doesn't care. He beams into her ready room and sits in her chair, telling her with a smile, "Make yourself at home."
Mulgrew's internalized but commanding performance reveals a less-than-diplomatic side of Janeway at her surliest and most sardonic; the "let's be friends" stage of these encounters has long since passed. Janeway is tired of her ship being stopped, and her resignation to cooperation does not filter through into her attitude. I liked seeing this side of Janeway.
Kashyk, meanwhile, seems to take pleasure in his work; he beams onto Voyager and instantly plays Mahler's "Symphony Number One" over the ship's comm system as a way of telling Janeway that her ship is temporarily his.
The success of the plot is more dependent on execution than in meaning: Janeway is smuggling about a dozen telepathic refugees who had requested transportation through Devore space. When the Devore inspectors come on board, the telepaths are hidden in "transporter suspension"—transformed into energy until the Devore leave. Is "Counterpoint" an analysis on obeying the laws of other cultures? Don't make me laugh. And don't go looking for moral ambiguity, because you won't find it. As far as the story is concerned, the Devore are bad people who persecute telepaths, so it follows that Janeway can break their rules if she damn well wants to. Hey, I'm game.
The episode's twist is that Kashyk isn't really the bad guy; he later comes to Janeway requesting asylum. He sympathizes with the plight of the Devore's telepathic neighbors, and he wants to help Janeway smuggle them out—which could be helpful given his knowledge of Devore space and their inspection procedures.
Question of the day: Can we trust Kashyk? Ultimately, no. The twist upon the twist is that Kashyk really is the bad guy; he has come to Voyager under the pretense of being a friend so Janeway will find (and he can subsequently destroy) the wormhole that could provide other telepaths with a means for escaping Devore space. I'm not even sure whether or not his roundabout intentions completely make sense under the circumstances (the story seems to be stretching a bit to give Kashyk a reason for going undercover to infiltrate Janeway's ship).
That's okay, because the plot is crafted carefully enough that we put such questions on hold. Kashyk's true intentions aren't revealed to us until the very end, when Janeway herself realizes the extent of his treachery. I won't explain all the plot advances that are required to get to the end; just suffice it to say Kashyk and Janeway begin working together closely to locate the wormhole, and the chemistry of contempt is replaced with a chemistry of mutual respect. (Admittedly, the chemistry of contempt was more entertaining.)
In looking back at the whole picture, we can see that "Counterpoint" is really a series of intricate, obscured mind games between Janeway and Kashyk, where we're not sure who trusts whom, or who's getting the better of whom, until the gamesters themselves have realized the nature of their opponent's deceit.
In essence, Kashyk's sole intent is to gain the trust of the captain, so that she will lower her guard as a result of that trust, at which point he can make his move. Contrary to the trailers, which would like to suggest some love affair erupts between Janeway and Kashyk in the course of the episode, "Counterpoint" is not at all about love or attraction. It's about trust and exploited weakness. Kashyk and Janeway are two people caught in a conundrum of need for the other's help. The episode's Big Clinch [TM] comes at a crucial moment, when a perceived crisis needs to be solved using careful tactics—but also at a point where Kashyk most needs Janeway to trust him, and where Janeway most needs to be objective and cautious in regards to Kashyk's true intentions.
So at the end, when Kashyk's collaboration with Janeway turns out to be a sham to attempt taking advantage of her trust, Janeway ingeniously turns the tables and takes advantage of Kashyk's own plotting. Without going into needless detail, I simply want to say that the multiple levels of deception are nicely executed by the plot.
Deceit is the name of the game. The game is the whole point of "Counterpoint." There simply isn't much else to it. "Counterpoint" works because it ultimately makes for an enjoyable Janeway feature. It deftly reveals her human weaknesses and emotional vulnerabilities while at the same time showing her ability to remain a focused, resourceful, sensible, and intelligent captain. If the plot is an ongoing manipulation exercise where one can stand back and notice the gears turning, so be it.
I say, If you're going to have a conflict between the Voyager crew and an alien society, this is a good example of how to do it. Forget the phaser-fire and "shields down to 44 percent" standbys. Make it a battle of wits, and use the characters and their attitudes and bounce them off one another in interesting, acerbically devious ways.
Next week: A rerun, as we come face to face with last season's "Vis A Vis." Pun. Ha. I kill me.