There should be a special category for episodes that get your hopes up and pique your interest before suddenly thudding to the ground and becoming disappointments. In fact, let's go ahead and create such a category for the sake of discussion. And while we're at it, let's go ahead and put an episode in this pigeonhole—maybe even an episode like, say, "Extreme Risk."
"Extreme Risk" proves all the more frustrating because it has the potential to be good but settles for so much less. I'm not talking plot-wise, because the plot is extremely middle-of-the-road sort of material. What could've been memorable here was the character work—more specifically, character work centering around Torres, who, on a writer's good day, has the potential to be one of the ensemble's best and most complex characters.
Unfortunately, "Extreme Risk" looks like it was written on several good days, followed by an awful last day. The treatment of B'Elanna ultimately frustrates this viewer, who thinks characters need to be complex on a consistent basis rather than a random basis—even if that consistency only spans one entire episode (though I would hope it would span many more).
This episode is a sort of mysterious character analysis that looks at Torres and establishes a problem, and slowly works into the circumstances to reveal what is obviously a deep-rooted psychological barrier that she is trying to overcome but not succeeding in doing so.
Let's just get to the point—B'Elanna is disturbed. She's distracted, apathetic, and distant. She manages to perform her duties, but barely. And she sure isn't going out of her way to take the initiative on anything. Meanwhile, she spends every free moment in the holodeck, running dangerous simulations with the safety measures disabled. The crew is taking notice, to be sure: Janeway and Chakotay lead the initiative in finding out what's wrong with their chief engineer.
Why is this all happening? Well, that's the story's central issue, which brings up some interesting possibilities. In a key sequence, Chakotay confronts Torres over her behavior and demands an explanation about a violent program featuring old friends from the Maquis days. The confessions come pouring out: It turns out this all goes back to "Hunters" from last season, where B'Elanna learned about the elimination of the Maquis. She has since been in denial over the slaughter of one of her most important families ("I've lost every family I've ever had," she notes), which has taken its toll on her.
There's some promising stuff here. For one, I found the way Chakotay dealt with Torres to be very effective—reminiscent of his "Maquis alternative approach" from way back in season one, applied when typical action didn't get the job done. Chakotay grabbing Torres and physically dragging her through her holodeck simulation to get at the truth was both refreshing and believable. It utilized the history of these two marvelously, as well as showing that the news of the Maquis' destruction had a significant impact on Torres.
Unfortunately, this material is severely undermined in several ways:
1) First and foremost is the episode's annoying final act, which is so painfully shallow that it manages to neutralize all the interesting character material that came before. It's one of those action devices that gives Torres an opportunity where her engineering skills are desperately needed. The curves the writers throw at the end are laughably obvious and lacking in sophistication. B'Elanna is practically playing MacGyver, concocting forcefields out of phasers in order to save the day.
2) There's the fact we haven't seen a single shred of evidence concerning Torres' distress since the news broke in "Hunters." As a result, a lot of this feels conjured for the sake of one story rather than a believable outgrowth of the character. Now, I'm not asking for extensive, perfectly documented webs of characterization and plot, but I do ask that a character's self-destruction make sense rather than coming completely out of left field. If this has truly been eating away at her for weeks or months as the story tells us, why didn't we see the slightest trace in any episode previous to this one? This alone might not bug me so much if it weren't for my third point.
3) Since, based on the sledgehammered-home happy ending, all of this will be neatly put behind B'Elanna after the screen fades to black, why does the episode treat this as a complicated, troubling issue that she will have to slowly work at to overcome? What I particularly found ridiculous was Chakotay telling Torres that she'd have to "give it time"—and that "time" apparently turns out to be about 30 seconds. It just goes to show what MacGyver day-saving techniques will do for your deep-rooted psychological troubles when combined with a healthy serving of banana pancakes.
And about the episode's plot—who really cares? It's certainly not off-putting (Janeway benefits from some good no-nonsense moments), but it's pretty thin. It involves a Voyager probe getting stuck in the atmosphere of a star where the ship cannot venture to retrieve it. A Malon crew (the toxic-waste dumpers established in "Night") also wants this probe. Naturally, they feel they can take whatever they want, making them another entry in the lengthy list of Hard Headed Aliens of the Week [TM]. The plot becomes a race between the two crews to build a shuttle capable of surviving the atmosphere. This gives rise to the notion of Voyager's new "Delta Flyer," a super shuttle designed in part by Paris. Aside from serving as an excuse to build the Delta Flyer for use in future episodes, and to provide Torres with a chance to save the day, the plot is actually little more than filler in my book.
It's too bad—Roxann Dawson does such a good job portraying her character as dispassionate, vacant, and buried in repressed emotion, performed in believable and often subtle ways. But the writing can't back her up, and instead sends her character in directions that are never entirely convincing, erasing all promises of consequence by the end.
Next week: Chakotay has a date with an 8472.