Nutshell: It is indeed a house of cards—with dizzying exposition taken to the nth degree—but it's kind of a fun ride.
"The Voyager Conspiracy" owes much to the Chris Carter school of storytelling. The main idea is that if you take enough facts and somehow jam them together, you get a big, messy, far-fetched conspiracy theory that has just enough plausibility (maybe) to arouse suspicions but not enough to provide anything resembling a convincing argument. This is Voyager jumping aboard the X-Files conspiracy bandwagon.
Of course, the same question-turned-pointed-out-pratfall applies: Does any of it wash or are we just being taken for a ride? (You get one guess; if you're wrong, you will be forced to dissect every hidden meaning of every statement ever uttered by the Cigarette-Smoking Man.)
"Voyager Conspiracy" also turns out to be another entry into the Voyager book of "Borg psychological thrillers," in the vein of episodes like "The Raven," "One," and last year's "Infinite Regress." So I guess that makes it Yet Another Seven Show™.
Anyway, this is the type of episode that comes with a great-sounding concept that might very well be impossible to successfully pull off in practice. Don't get me wrong; Menosky comes close here, and finds a clever way of spouting intriguing conspiracy theories at breakneck speed, without having any bearing on the past as we know it, thanks to the plot's special catch.
The key to the game is Seven of Nine, who at the episode's outset is testing a new processing device that allows her to assimilate database information at great speeds—sort of a Borg "learn while you sleep" procedure, as Paris points out. In an early scene, we see this device allows Seven to quickly draw incisive conclusions from many seemingly unrelated facts, as she confidently dismantles the Mystery of the Photonic Fleas. My only question: What the heck is a photonic flea, and how does it eat plasma? (Okay, two questions.)
Never mind. The Mystery of the Photonic Fleas is the warm-up game for the main event: an elaborate conspiracy theory that implicates the captain (and others) in a five-year-old plot that, it would seem, had left Voyager stranded in the Delta Quadrant intentionally. "An elaborate deception," Seven calls it.
By this point, "The Voyager Conspiracy" had my attention. One of the story's appeals is the way it uses past Voyager events and twists them into a larger-than-life plot that is as complicated as it is sinister. Seven's new realizations promptly transform her into a sort of Agent Mulder on crack. She summons Chakotay to the astrometrics lab, seals the doors, disables the sensors, and unleashes upon him one of the most extremely extreme paranoid theories ever conceived in a Star Trek episode. Where's Section 31 when you need them?
I liked the inventive use of old Voyager stories; the episode in particular zeroes in on the destruction of the Caretaker's array, raising the question of why it was destroyed with tricobalt devices—apparently not standard-issue equipment on a starship. Ancient history (by Voyager standards)—like Kes' departure, Seska's child, and Tuvok's undercover Maquis infiltration—all figure into the plot via some truly inventive dialog. And there's plenty more where that came from.
Does any of it make any believable sense whatsoever? Well, not really. The elements are all interesting tidbits in and by themselves, but if you're looking for a master plan that means anything, either you need a brain like Seven's (complete with Borg implants) or you should go hunting equally futilely through the bogus conspiracy plotting mess of The X-Files.
Seven's theory ventures quite far into the complicated and is laid out for the audience through several minutes of rapid-fire exposition. While actors get paid to remember lines, it's still a credit to Ryan that she can expel so many Voyager facts in such a small amount of time. For her next challenge, maybe she should tackle a one-woman performance of Law & Order, starring as both detectives, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, and all the suspects and witnesses. You want facts? I'd like to see her remember and expel all that.
But I digress. Suffice it to say that Seven believes Janeway's actual mission involves the Federation and Cardassians conspiring together to establish a military presence in the Delta Quadrant, using this week's plot element as the tool. That tool would be a space "catapult." You see, the conspiracy plotting unfolds against a background subplot in which a friendly alien named Tash (Albie Selznik) is about to use his recently completed catapult to send his ship several thousand light years on its way to his own home—a device Voyager also could use to cut a few years off the journey. This device uses a reactor similar to the technology from the Caretaker's array, which is one of the key reasons Seven thinks the conspiracy centers on the destruction of the array.
Unfortunately, there's a key problem with all of this, which is the episode's tendency to substitute sheer speculation for evidence—despite its claims to the contrary. Seven explains. And explains. And explains some more. Chakotay informs her that she has uncovered some interesting coincidences, but nothing more. So Seven offers more facts, and Chakotay slowly allows his suspicions to be aroused. Is Seven onto something here?
Well, personally, I don't see anything that can't be explained away as convenience, or even dismissed out of hand, and I don't think Seven's conspiracy theory holds water under any sort of scrutiny. And I also don't understand the turning point when Chakotay begins to see the merit in the argument. Particularly ridiculous, for example, is the notion that cease-fires to confrontations with the Borg and Hirogen were roundabout attempts to form relationships and a power structure in the Delta Quadrant—and not simply the truces that existed for the reasons which they were originally explained. Oh, come on. (Just what power structure is Seven referring to? Facts not in evidence?)
And is paranoia an airborne contagion? While this is all very interesting, Chakotay doesn't seem reeled in by the theory because of its "compelling evidence" so much as because the plot needs to advance to its next stage.
And the one piece of actual evidence that makes one wonder—namely the tractor beam that Seven alleges had intentionally saved the piece of Caretaker technology that would (allegedly) later be used to build the catapult—is never explained. The lack of explanation feels more like a loose end than a mystery. If everything else is conjecture, what is this tractor beam? The story, it would seem, hasn't the slightest clue.
The episode shows its real hand when Seven next calls Janeway to astrometrics to unleash the same evidence upon her—except this time implicating Chakotay in a Maquis plot. Obviously, there is no conspiracy; the problem is Seven, who has assimilated too much information and, in Borg-like fashion, is trying to make order out of chaos—ineffectively, it would seem. Seven subsequently flees Voyager in the Delta Flyer, one crazed conspiracy-nut Borg babe.
There's a fair amount of subtle paranoid humor percolating beneath the plot. In one of the best-played scenes of the season, Janeway and Chakotay run into each other in the cargo bay, where both are looking for clues and investigating Seven's data absorption device. This scene is damn near acted to perfection, with each character suspicious of the other, and both thinking the other isn't onto them. The quiet, relaxed, suspicious demeanor carried by both characters is hilariously subtle in its sly-yet-evident distrust, and played so calmly and carefully by Mulgrew and Beltran that it's—dare I say—delicious. Too bad the episode couldn't capture this sense more often. The fun to be found is mostly within isolated, irrelevant little snippets of conjecture, but here it does a good job of putting a new spin on the Janeway/Chakotay chemistry.
I must say, however, that if a conspiracy threat is wiped away and trust is renewed with two lines of dialog, then it probably wasn't much of a convincing theory in the first place—certainly not enough to have the close-and-friendly captain and first officer second-guessing each other. (Yes, indeed—as Janeway said, the whole thing's a house of cards.)
I did enjoy Seven's approach when detailing her theories to Chakotay and (later) Janeway—which is basically "assault with masses of facts." It ultimately isn't convincing as theory, but I liked the urgency projected by Seven's fast-and-furious deployment of fact after fact, the attitude of the scenes occasionally laced with humorous incredulity.
Alas, the "character-building" ending, where Janeway tries to reason with the crazed Seven, did not impress me. The problem, I think, is that Seven is finally reaching that point where the human lessons are beginning to tire. Last week she learned a lesson in "One Small Step." Now we're supplied yet another example of Janeway playing the maternal figure. A "been there, done that" attitude begins to take shape. The schmaltz is pushed a bit hard. And then in the wrap-up scene, Seven explains to Naomi Wildman (never just "Naomi," always "Naomi Wildman") that quality time spent is more important than quantity. Maybe someone should tell that to missing-in-action Mom, Samantha.
Also gnawing at me is whether Seven is supposed to be a computer or a person, and what has the final say in the control of her mind—computer malfunctions or brain functions capable of making final decisions. Janeway is able to overcome the computer by getting through to the human, but the road to be wary of is the one that has Seven becoming more like Data.
Despite the plot qualms, I sort of liked "The Voyager Conspiracy." It's fairly entertaining, well acted, and with a good premise and plenty of cleverness. But the myriad of facts doesn't add up, and brings down whatever in the plot we're supposed to take seriously. Maybe there simply wasn't supposed to be a plot to begin with. I could've lived with that if the episode wasn't so set on investing so much in that nonexistent would-be plot, only to give us another lesson for Seven. At the end, our house of cards is a deck scattered all over the room, all over the Delta Quadrant.
Next week: Years later, and even on another series, Barclay still has trouble with holodeck addiction. Maybe Counselor Troi can help.