Nutshell: Derivative of classic Trek in many ways, but it still manages to work reasonably well.
Fifteen years ago, I might have called "In the Flesh" an allegory on current times. Aired in 1998, however, this episode feels more like a thinly guised contemporary history lesson—a throwback to a recent era more suited for allegory by the TOS style of storytelling.
With its obvious parallels to the Cold War, "In the Flesh" is a TOS episode if I've ever seen one. Given the sociopolitical atmosphere of today, the episode's intentions feel strangely dated. And given how much TOS I've been watching lately, I've taken on a new appreciation for Trek stories that tackle real issues in the context of sci-fi premises—provided they're done well. A subtext usually can't work unless what's on the surface also fares well.
That probably goes double for "In the Flesh," which is all the more dependent upon what the surface story is about, simply because the subtext lacks the immediate relevance it seems to need. It's one thing to talk about the Cold War during the Cold War. It's another thing to talk about it some 10 or so years after it has ended—and even longer since it was at the height of its urgency. It's not commentary anymore; it's retrospect.
Never mind. "In the Flesh" is a workable, though not stellar, Voyager outing that provides a meditation on the theme of mistrust, where neither side can bring itself to trust the other. In this case, it's humanity (or at least the Voyager crew) versus Species 8472, whom the Voyager crew finds manning a Delta Quadrant outpost whose inhabitants have taken human form and have artificially duplicated Starfleet Headquarters down to its last detail to use as some sort of elaborate training facility. They've even duplicated the legendary Boothby (Ray Walston), Starfleet Academy's head groundskeeper (TNG fans take note).
The episode does a fair job of evoking a sense of mystery; at first I thought Chakotay was on the holodeck or something. As the story continued and it became obvious this was more than the average Trekkian illusion, I was intrigued. When Chakotay and Tuvok are forced to bring one of the alien impostors (Zach Galligan) back to Voyager, the unveiling of that mystery is handled reasonably. Some brief touches of understandable paranoia, like Janeway testing Chakotay to be sure he's the genuine article, help move things along. Doc's method of revealing the man behind the mask, however, feels a little too much like DNA magic.
But never mind again. "In the Flesh" is plot-driven for much of the way, as Chakotay poses as one of the impostors so he can "keep a date" with Commander Relanna Archer (Kate Vernon), a faux human who might offer some insight into the alien plan. Archer is no fool, however—she's on to Chakotay, even though he plays a smart game.
It's nice to see Chakotay in action again, and it's particularly nice to see him in a plot that doesn't turn out to be "Unforgettable, Part II," despite the trailer's attempts to make this show look like an episode where "Chakotay unwittingly falls for 8472 in disguise." Rather, the story displays Chakotay being subtle, smart, and sensible in his choice of words and methods of investigation—which is a refreshing change of pace for a character who, in my opinion, too often doesn't get nearly enough to do.
I honestly don't have much more to say about the plot, because I don't feel the need or desire to recap everything blow by blow. Suffice it to say that the investigation and the conflict that arises when Chakotay is exposed and captured makes for a good view. It's not spectacular or earth-shaking, but it's quietly involving on a plot level.
The episode's latter passages are about the aforementioned theme of mistrust between human and 8472. Janeway wants her first officer returned to her, but the 8472s want to interrogate him. They're convinced Starfleet is planning some sort of strike, so they themselves are planning for the worst. The irony, of course, is that neither side wants war, but neither side can immediately bring itself to invest in trust, either.
Eventually, Janeway hammers out a meeting with the 8472 leaders, where an open dialog can be started. This meeting is dramatically successful, if for no other reason, because of Ray Walston's line delivery and his character's mince-few-words approach to verbal negotiation. I can't remember a character I've seen where Walston didn't play this type of personality, and that's probably because he's good at it. (One might as well use what one's got.) While this is an example of the actor being the center of attention more than the character, I do think Walston manages to capture the fear manifested as anger and distrust that an 8472 might understandably have.
Bringing a more understandable agenda—one based on fear—to 8472 in this episode seems to me like a sensible notion. The overlarge and less-than-interesting threat of "purging our galaxy" is something that can't continue to work outside the confines of "Scorpion," so moving on to make 8472 a group with whom negotiation is possible was the only alternative if they were to be used again. I'm glad to see "In the Flesh" accomplishes this. On the other hand, one of 8472's appeals was the fact they were so non-human, so different in physical concept, so alien. Now we have 8472s taking human form, chatting with Janeway in such humanistic terms—which is so humanly typical of Star Trek that I almost want to condemn the banality while I praise the idealism.
The mild allegory on the nuclear weapon scare is a little too obvious at times, including one scene where Janeway says: "Somebody has to take their finger off the trigger. It might as well be me." At least she said "trigger" instead of "button."
On the given terms, however, I'd like to point out that Sagan's script missed an opportunity by not addressing the simple issue of what the 8472s call themselves. "Species 8472" is a Borg name, and I tend to think removing that designation might have been a proactive dramatic device toward conveying the peace and understanding that "In the Flesh" so doggedly wants to promote.
Overall, I'm giving "In the Flesh" a guarded recommendation. The show is entertaining by its own merits, and the messages are of classic Star Trek idealism. When you scrutinize, you will see that it's more a rehash of themes that have been visited many times over than it is a fresh take on such material. But ... I suppose there are worse things in the world.
Next week: The Delta Flyer crashes. I guess it had to happen eventually. I just didn't figure it would be so soon...