Nutshell: A delightfully pleasant, hilarious, and sincere hour.
Some of the best comedies are the ones that dare to be true to human nature rather than simply going for the isolated gag. Elaborate gags are fine, and comedy can certainly work when arranged through ridiculous, manufactured situations (just look at much of Seinfeld's run, for a good example), but there's something to be said for the simple comedy that runs with a basic situation and doesn't go for the contrived, overblown payoff.
"Someone to Watch Over Me" is a human comedy with a ring of truth. The concept behind the story is relatively simple: Seven of Nine takes dating lessons. The result is an hour that takes many of the expected comic paths in ways that are impressively sincere, and also finds a bittersweet undercurrent that leaves one charmed. It's a straightforward story well conceived by Brannon Braga and well told by Michael Taylor, in probably the latter's best work of the season.
There are probably about a million ways this story could've gone wrong and ended up looking just plain silly. Somehow, the story manages to steer clear of almost every trace of stupidity. Sure, sometimes the humor is obvious, but we sense that, given these characters' personas, it's precisely what would happen under the circumstances.
The one who gives Seven dating lessons is, of course, the Doctor. The funny thing about Doc is that he is in a situation similar to Seven's—somewhat outside the understanding of human existence. But the difference is that he has a certain perceptiveness of human behavior that Seven seems to lack (and he therefore considers himself something of an expert). He also has a desire to fit in as a human, whereas Seven seems somewhat more content being "unique."
So who else would be fit to give Seven lessons on dating, that strange human custom that Jerry Seinfeld likens to a job interview?
Seven will probably always be Seven, but she does try to be more human. (At the hour's beginning, she's watching Tom and B'Elanna eating dinner, and, much to B'Elanna's dismay, reveals that she has been observing and logging the couple's intimate activities for days.)
The Doctor's tutelage comes in the form of chapter-by-chapter lessons, with the chapters having titles like "Beguiling Banter," "Dress for Success," and "Shall We Dance?"
Watching Seven engage in dating behavior is hilarious, because the most important aspect of her social development—how to talk in human terms rather than Borg ones—is still somewhat lagging. Seven always speaks in terse, matter-of-fact phrases that often feature computer-like words like "terminated." She also has a tendency to make verbal mandates rather than requests. For her, verbal communication conveys fact, not emotion. She aims for efficiency, not courtesy. So when you plug that pattern of speech into a dating situation, you get almost instant comedy.
Doc's plan takes Seven through a series of social interaction exercises, including one particularly cute scene where Doc and Seven sing a duet of "You Are My Sunshine." (Here, having Jeri Ryan sing works as a legitimate aspect of the story, rather than seeming gratuitous the way it was in last season's "Killing Game.") Eventually, Seven is ready to make a selection for her first date, which she does by narrowing to two candidates a list of crew members based on compatible interests and duty efficiency. ("You are not one of the candidates, Ensign," she informs a hopeful Harry. Heh.)
For her first date, Seven recruits, er, requests the presence of one Lt. Chapman (Brian McNamara) for dinner in the holodeck, whom she asks out in a way that's as terse and matter-of-fact as one would probably expect a Borg might ask someone out.
The date itself is charmingly funny. One would expect it to be a disaster. It pretty much is. But what I like most about the date scene—and the episode in general—is the way the characters try so hard to make everything work. The scene could've played the wrong notes and embarrassed both characters beyond our ability to feel good about what unfolded, but it doesn't. Instead, both characters genuinely try to make the best of a very awkward set of situations. This scene deserves credit because it allows Chapman not only to be incredibly nervous, but also very understanding. Poor Seven just doesn't comprehend these human customs, but she tries the best she can to play along. And Chapman tries to salvage the evening several times by maintaining patience and composure, and suggesting that perhaps they try a different activity. When the lobster dinner falls through, he recommends dancing ... which lands him in sickbay with a torn ligament when Seven attempts a more complex dancing maneuver.
All of the mini-disasters and the awkwardness in the dialog prove very amusing, but the lighthearted sincerity of good-natured effort is what really makes the scene work. Even though the date, as expected, sinks about as fast as the Titanic, both characters somehow survive with their dignity intact. Doc's presence as the piano player/chaperone provides a nice touch for some subtle laughs on the side.
Robert Duncan McNeill, who directed, shows a skill for comic timing with a light touch. A lot of the humor in this episode could've suffered if it had been blunt and in-your-face in execution, but instead it's somewhat understated, which I think is a very wise choice. The episode seems more human and less manufactured as a result.
Also, it's nice to see Tom's Marseilles restaurant brought back from holodeck oblivion. I've always thought it had the most class of the Voyager holodeck hangouts, though I must share Tom's disappointment at the deletion of the pool table.
Performances are key to success in a story like this. McNamara is effective as the likable but ill-fated first-date victim. But, naturally, this is Jeri Ryan's vehicle to carry. I realized here more than ever before that Ryan gets great acting mileage out of her eyes. Because Seven is generally very subtle when it comes to emotion and facial expressions, it's eye language that most often shows how she's feeling, whether it's the terror of arriving at that first date or the bemused wonder of letting her hair down for the sake of appearance.
Of course, we can't forget about Robert Picardo, who brings the usual mix of sincerity, sensitivity, and manic over-eagerness to the character. Just as Seven is Seven, Doc is Doc: a well-intentioned guy who begins realize he's getting more than he bargained for in giving Seven these lessons on romance. He silently begins to fall for the pupil, which makes for the story's bittersweet coda, where Doc realizes that Seven probably doesn't share the feelings—but can't be sure because he can't muster the will to ask.
It's clear Seven and Doc share a respect and friendship that is unique, but the question, I think, is whether Seven has the capacity at this point to even feel something for Doc—or for anyone. Through all the dating practice and social lessons, does Seven see this as anything more than an elaborate human exercise? I'm guessing she doesn't really have the need or desire for romance, and it's apparent her ideal "compatible mate" does not exist, simply because the parameters she sets for compatibility are too narrow.
There's also a B-plot here that is good for some laughs, as Neelix finds himself in over his head in showing around an alien guest of honor, Tomin (Scott Thompson), who overindulges in spicy foods and synthehol, going against the traditions of his people. Neelix can't control Tomin's indulgences, and Tomin eventually gets so drunk he can't stand, leading Neelix to fear that his babysitting of the guest will end in an unpleasant embarrassment. (Neelix: "The captain will be back tomorrow. What do I do?!" Chakotay: "Pray.")
However, I really could've done without Tomin interrupting the hour's peace and good will with that obnoxiously drunken outburst. (The whole show benefits from being tranquil, so why ruin a good thing?) Most of the material is fine as lightweight subplots go, but I wish it had backed off at the end, because in an hour almost completely free of conventional cynicism, Tomin's angry drunkenness begins to show the hints of a mean spirit that should've been barred from the set.
Anyway, even Tomin's outburst can't bring down a scene where Seven accompanies Doc to a party, and where she makes a toast to "the things that make us unique." Seven can fit in when she tries, but it requires her to relax and feel comfortable, and it's interesting that Doc is one of the few people who can help her feel that way.
Doc and Seven's rapport is an interesting phenomenon. At one point Seven calls dating inefficient, saying the communication she shares with the Doctor is more useful, since they say what they mean. But that's sort of the point: Dating isn't supposed to exemplify efficiency; it's customary, ritual human behavior. For Seven to understand it would require her to better understand humanity. That's the quest. She has come quite a way since "The Gift," but there's still a long way to go. In the meantime, I suppose she can take satisfaction in being unique.
Next week: Y2K makes Voyager blow up. (Okay, maybe not.)