Nutshell: Some flashes of cleverness, but the story can't succeed as a whole.
At a few key points, "Live Fast and Prosper" successfully anticipates our expectations and then hits us with the "Gotcha!" There's a moment here when a woman, who is locked in the Voyager brig, takes Neelix by surprise and then escapes in the Delta Flyer, all too easily. At this point, I was furious. So sick am I of the cliche of the easy theft of a shuttle, which makes the crew look witless and inept. But then came the unexpected twist where not all was what it appeared to be, and ... they got me.
What's interesting is that I'm not sure whether this is effective because it's effective, or if it's effective because I expect that annoying contrivances will happen so frequently on this series. This gotcha scene can be analyzed on a couple levels. On one level, we have what is competent execution of audience deception. On a deeper, more ironic level, we have the writers possibly winking at us, acknowledging that, okay, the writing is sometimes contrived and cliche, we know it, and we're going to cleverly use that knowledge against you. I propose that it must be clever, simply because the mental review already popping into my head during the viewing suddenly found itself in immediate need of a rewrite.
So, then, at the very least, "Live Fast and Prosper" has a couple clever twists working in its favor. The question still remains: Is it any good?
I can't recommend it, because this is an episode that sounds like a fun idea but doesn't end up being as much fun as such a premise ("interstellar con artists impersonate Voyager crew members") seems capable of. Sure, this is a fluff episode, but it's got some annoying rough edges that should've been smoothed out, and too much wandering and not enough comic momentum. If you want comedy, go watch the far-more-fun "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy." If you want clever cons with substance behind them, go back to last season's believably grounded "Counterpoint."
The premise is simple: A small crew of con artists is posing as members of the Voyager crew and scheming gullible aliens into forking over valuables. How did they get in a position to pose as Voyager crew members? Well, it goes back to a recent away mission, when Paris and Neelix were on the Delta Flyer and came across the holy grounds of some clerics. These two "clerics" were really con artists, who came up with a story to sucker Tom and Neelix into helping them. They were aboard the Delta Flyer for a short time, during which they craftily downloaded the Voyager database in order to later assume their phony identities.
There are some decent ideas here, like the notion of Tom and Neelix feeling that they've "lost their edge" upon learning that they'd been had. Although many characters on this series are nearing the realm of lost causes, this story at least makes an effort, remembering that both Tom and Neelix were cynical types who'd come across their share of shady characters. The question they now ask is whether they're getting soft.
As I go off into a tangent that is certain to inspire annoyed "let it go" letters by those who are more optimistic about Voyager as a series than I am, I'll answer the question: Of course they're getting soft. How could you not when you're aboard the starship Voyager, which is a pristine palace that never shows a scar no matter how many battles it's been through? With an endless supply of food and energy and weapons despite the fact it's alone in the unknown? A ship that represents the Federation on its best day, even though it should be more like the Federation on a bad day, or even a crew like the Equinox?
More to the point, the question seems to be whether cynics are even possible in the Federation. When Paris boarded Voyager in the first episode, he was a cynic and an outcast. Time has molded him into a more respectable officer that embodies the good, virtuous Starfleet, as well as Janeway's idea of an inflexible Starfleet moral sensibility. The same goes for Neelix. Of course they're soft. They're Starfleet. Starfleet relies on trust and openness as an ideology.
Of course, that doesn't make you stupid or even gullible. Tom and Neelix were tricked—plain and simple—by people who apparently dedicate their lives to tricking other people. Hindsight is 20/20, and the con, involving a story with orphans, was effective probably because it was an appeal to their empathy. We're only human, and most of us have a soft side. My soft side resists (but relents to) the urge to call Tom and Harry chumps—not because one of them was tricked and the other is a goof, but because their idea of fun is picking on Tuvok by reprogramming his holodeck program. (I dare them to go pick on Torres or Seven of Nine—I bet they don't have the cajones.)
The main annoyance here is the show's reliability on stupid alien characters and moments of clunky plotting. An important plot allegation this episode makes is that the con artists are destroying Voyager's reputation by posing as them. But once Janeway & Co. are onto this scheme, this should no longer be the case, simply because Voyager is now aware of the phonies and able to get word out that these impostors exist.
But no. Instead, every alien the real Voyager crew encounters is a Hard-Headed Alien who refuses to believe that the impostors exist, and demands that Voyager return what has been conned from them. Watching these dialog scenes is not interesting; it's merely frustrating. I personally wanted to tell the first Hard-Headed Alien victim to wake up, smell the damn coffee, and get out of Janeway's face. (Hint: That's not the reaction the scene was looking for.)
A later scene has Voyager catching the impostors red-handed in one of their schemes while another alien ship has them locked in a tractor beam. The second Hard-Headed Alien victim won't hear anything Janeway says, and interrupts her constantly as she tries to explain the situation. Meanwhile the success/failure of tractor beams and weapons is used as a handy plot device that permits the impostors' ship to escape in a way that manages to make everyone involved look incompetent. (Hint: It's more interesting to see smart characters doing clever things, rather than having a mess that careens out of control because everyone is a bumbling fool using technology that fails arbitrarily.) If any of these aliens had an IQ higher than 75, and lower levels of testosterone, half the story's problems would be nearly instantly solved.
Fortunately, it's about this time the episode begins to show some cleverness. The tractor beam fiasco results in the capture of con artist Dala (Kaitlin Hopkins), who has been posing as Janeway. She's thrown into the brig, which leads to a pretty good Janeway vs. "Janeway" scene, which ends with a rather nice con on behalf of the real Janeway and Tuvok. (Tuvok's improvisations are particularly fun.)
It's at this point we get the Neelix scene with Dala that ends with an escape in the Delta Flyer and the twist I mentioned earlier. I won't go into the details, and for once I'm not even going to explain the way the plot pulls together in the end. Suffice it to know there is some more plotting cleverness, and that explaining it won't make this a more useful review.
There are also some subtle comic touches here that I can appreciate. One of them is the uniforms the con artists wear. They're not exactly the best-tailored Starfleet uniforms one has ever seen. And the con artists' combadges are oversized. The comic idea here is that these phonies have tailored the look of the uniforms as best they could with their stolen information. It's funny in that it reminds us of the die-hard Trek fan who tailored his/her own uniform to wear at a convention: You know what it's supposed to be, but you also know that it didn't come from the professionals at the Paramount costuming department.
Of course, humor like that is more fun to consider after the fact. While the story is unfolding it's simply not much of a factor. And other scenes that should be fun seem flat, like the scene where Tom and Neelix attempt to pull a fast one on Doc with the old "under which cup is the walnut" routine, which is done once early in the show and then again at the end, both times with thin and predictable results.
The show is sort of a muddle in tone. It wants us to take long dialog scenes seriously (like the scene of Neelix in the brig) before revealing that it's all probably just a con, on us as well as the other characters. In a way, I find that effective. There's almost a sense that we should just wink our way through the whole darned absurd Star Trek universe. But we never come to understand Dala as a character. She seems to be considering reform, then turns on Neelix in a way that makes her a con-to-the-end when it's really she who is being unwittingly conned. And then the story removes her from the plot using Doc in a way that is a nifty trick. But along the way Dala becomes a bland pawn to the plotting when she could've been an actual character.
The episode also tends to jump around from character to character with no big payoffs. The Janeway vs. "Janeway" idea seemed to be going somewhere, but then the whole thread is abandoned prematurely and we return to Paris and Neelix.
I also didn't understand the nature of the phony Tuvok (Greg Daniel). Just who is this guy when he isn't playing the role of Tuvok? There seems to be a buried joke in here saying that he has disappeared completely into his role-playing and refuses to come out no matter who is or is not watching. Even when he's just with his fellow con crew, he keeps acting sort of like Tuvok while the others drop the guise. What is this supposed to mean? It's a joke with a confused punch line.
All things considered, this is a middling fluff piece. I liked the skillful way the twists in the last act were presented, but apart from the clever twists we don't have a compelling core. And it's too evident that Robin Burger's script is smarter than any of the characters who populate it; the plot takes clever directions while the villains aren't nearly so clever as they probably should be. "Live Fast and Prosper" lives pretty fast. But it doesn't live with any depth or much credibility. And in the end it can't prosper.
Next week: Torres and Kim die, if you believe the trailers. The suspense is killing me.