Nutshell: Me likes—a lot.
I'm noticing a trend here. It's a trend many have observed in connection with the Trek film franchise. So far this season, the odd-numbered Voyager episodes have missed the mark, while the even-numbered episodes have been hits. That's probably not a crucial observation, but I figured I might as well make note of it while it's the truth from my perspective. Hopefully next week the trend will end; that is to say, hopefully we'll have an odd-numbered success.
But anyway, why couldn't "Timeless" be the season finale for last season instead of the irritatingly manipulative "Hope and Fear"? There are many similar themes, but "Timeless" is so much more focused, rings so much more true, is so much ... better.
It's not every day, in other words, that we get a meaty story about Harry Kim that's interwoven with a time-travel premise and an effective look at the Voyager crew's attempt to get home.
Set 15 years in the future, the story brings Harry and Chakotay to an icy planet, where they locate the remains of the USS Voyager, which had crashed there following a disastrous accident. The crew was killed on impact. The only survivors were Chakotay and Harry, who had been in the Delta Flyer. The two have been searching for Voyager basically ever since the accident.
The story unfolds as it crosscuts between two perspectives. As the action unfolds 15 years in the future, we also see the story's "present" perspective, which documents how the Voyager crew, in attempting the risky use of experimental quantum slipstream technology to get home, ends up spiraling out of control and crashing on the aforementioned ice planet.
Right from the start, "Timeless" picks a refreshing, workable way of telling a Voyager Homecoming Story [TM]. We know the crew's use of their new slipstream engine is destined to fail (because the episode informs us from the outset), so by flipping the perspective and putting the emotional center of the episode in a completely different place (rather than taking the "crew's hopes being crushed again" approach) the story puts itself in a much better position.
Specifically, the story chooses Harry Kim as its central character. And what the story supplies him is interesting indeed.
It's about time we've finally been dealt a high-caliber Harry show. With only a handful of Harry-oriented episodes to choose from—and among them such disappointments as "Emanations," "Non Sequitur," and the nearly unmentionable "Favorite Son"—I must say that "Timeless" provides the best analysis of Harry the series has probably yet provided, virtually saving a character who has long been teetering on the brink of oblivion.
"Timeless" is a confidently told tale of guilt. As we learn in the "present," the crew's attempt to get home with this experimental quantum slipstream drive is something that has been months in the making. (It's quite nice to see the technology, first introduced in "Hope and Fear," has been remembered by the writers, and that the Voyager crew has been actively working on a way to use it.) It seems the engine is ready to go—the crew is celebrating, leading to an unexpectedly wonderful moment where Seven finds herself unwittingly intoxicated—but Paris finds a last-minute flaw, which in actual flight could possibly cripple or destroy the ship. Subsequently, Harry believes he has devised a solution—he says he can compensate for the flaw from the Delta Flyer, essentially leading the way for the Voyager crew—but this carries with it a substantial risk.
What I particularly liked about Harry's proposal was the way he delivered it to the captain. As much as I resisted the way last season's "Demon" tried to suddenly make Harry "more assertive," there's evidence here that the writers are following through with the idea in a plausible way. Harry is passionate about the work he has put into the slipstream engine, and he isn't about to give up on it because of a last-minute technicality; he wants the captain to give him a chance to make the adjustments while in flight, and he confidently asks for this chance—with more forcefulness than I've ever seen come from Ensign Former Green.
Well, Harry's calculations weren't correct on that day 15 years ago. So while the Delta Flyer, manned by Harry and Chakotay, successfully piloted through the slipstream to arrive in the Alpha Quadrant, the Voyager was thrown out of control, eventually coming to the end of its journey on the icy planet at the edge of the Alpha Quadrant. Harry and Chakotay became the only survivors of the lost USS Voyager.
The story's core is about this future Harry, who has lived with the guilt of failing his crew every day since. Now he is determined to change history—erasing the past 15 years—to save Voyager from its fate. Garrett Wang, in one of his best performances to date, paints future Harry as guilt-ridden to the point of obsession. This is a changed man, both in ideology and attitude. Gone is the pleasant, youthful Ensign, and in his place is a weathered, sullen, impatient man who will do whatever it takes to give himself a second chance in the past. He has resigned from Starfleet and come up with a very illegal plan. He has stolen a special Borg device from Starfleet Intelligence. With the help of the Doctor, whom Harry has retrieved from the Voyager wreckage, he intends to use this device to send a message with the right slipstream calculations to Seven of Nine in the past—correcting his error and getting Voyager home the way he originally planned.
The moral implications here are interesting. Harry and Chakotay are fugitives, charged with stealing the Delta Flyer from a Federation shipyard and with conspiracy to break the Temporal Prime Directive. Hot on their trail is the USS Challenger, commanded by Captain Geordi La Forge (the guest role could've been anybody's, but since Burton directed the episode I'm not about to gripe about him being wasted—it wasn't his story, anyway). Time is short; Harry and Chakotay have to complete their mission before La Forge stops them.
The question, of course, is just whether or not they should complete this mission. Who knows what events in the past 15 years could be affected by changing Voyager's fate? Now that so many years of history have been "written," this mission essentially means cleaning history's slate. As an analysis of Harry, this is quite powerful; he's so obsessed that he's willing to affect countless others to alleviate his own guilt. That's pretty scary, and something I find fascinating given how squeaky-clean our "present" Harry has always been.
However, one problem I have with "Timeless" is the way this moral theme affects Chakotay. Specifically, just what motivates him to help Harry change 15 years of history—something the Federation (and I would assume both Harry and Chakotay, despite their situation) considers morally wrong? Harry's reasons are clear: He's obsessive and guilt-ridden. But Chakotay, for all that he may want to do to help his Voyager crew, strikes me as somebody that doesn't live pondering the mistakes of the past. I tend to think, based partly on how Beltran performed him, that Chakotay would've moved on with his life by now, and wouldn't so lightly change 15 years of history.
The presence of his lover Tessa (Christine Harnos) on this illegal mission is a mixed blessing. She has no agenda or purpose beyond following Chakotay's lead, and seems more than anything else like a convenient character to whom Chakotay relays his doubts in dialog. I like that the story shows Chakotay has doubts about what he is about to do, but I don't think those doubts are developed nearly enough, especially considering that Tessa provides such a supposedly strong emotional tie between Chakotay and the timeline he intends to erase. Overall, the utilization of the future Chakotay struck me as iffy—the only thing in the episode that somewhat holds it back.
On the technical side, the crosscutting between the timelines was confidently pulled off. It wasn't nearly as complex as TNG's "All Good Things...," but the structure and the way the episode moved between the timelines as the crises peaked certainly had an "All Good Things..." feel to it that was effective, right down to the culmination of disaster as Voyager crashes in a nifty special effects display. (Yes, the sequence was reminiscent of the Enterprise-D crashing in Generations, but so what? It still worked.) LeVar Burton's direction kept all the story's pieces nicely in check.
By the end, of course, the future Harry is able to change history in a way that saves Voyager. I liked, however, that his first solution didn't work, and that he had to come up with another idea. But what I liked more was the final scene, where we learn that Harry sent a recorded message back to himself when he transmitted the calculations. This message, and especially "present" Harry's reaction to it, brought a poignancy to the show's time-travel aspect that I hadn't expected. The silent dread in Harry playing back this message was exceptionally well-played by Wang. Words from the future would be frightening enough; but I imagine that words from ourselves—at least, one possible version of ourselves—would be terrifying, and Wang hits this moment square on the head.
You know, it's funny ... a number of complaints I made at the end of last season have been addressed in this single episode. For one, we have finally gotten a standout Harry Kim episode—an experience that one would hope would change him forever. For another, we have a crew homecoming attempt that ends with a sense of renewed hope and momentum rather than in utter disappointment; the 10 additional years taken off the journey, as Janeway mentions, is something that feels like true progress, which I prefer greatly to the typical "reset to zero." And in execution, almost everything comes together, balancing effective use of all cast members, great production values, and a nice overall direction by Burton.
"Timeless" is an episode that gives me hope—hope that Voyager is well on its way to getting somewhere new this season.
Next week: Will Seven of Nine die? Find out on a "special" Voyager. (Please, someone lynch the promo people.)