Nutshell: Fresh and entertaining on the whole, but where's the ending?
The opening teaser sequence of "Good Shepherd" begins with a CG shot that starts from outside the ship and tracks in on Captain Janeway in her ready room. The sequence ends with a parallel shot that tracks out from a window way down on deck 15, where a lone crewman looks over an order on a PADD that has just been handed to him. The order has traveled from the top of the chain of command to the bottom, while we've watched it travel from channel to channel. It's a fresh and interesting little sequence, and it sets the stage for "Good Shepherd," a fresh and interesting show.
"Good Shepherd" isn't exactly of the dramatic caliber of TNG's "Lower Decks," but the ideas are similar. It gives us the workings of the starship Voyager from a different perspective, from those of crewmen who see the higher-ranking officers as intimidating bosses rather than friends or acquaintances. Funny, how I just mentioned in my review of "Ashes to Ashes" that we're never permitted to see this perspective. I guess it's better late than never.
The general idea here is that three members of the Voyager crew have "slipped through the cracks" of the Voyager family. They're misfits of sorts, whose work performance isn't the greatest. They've been noticed because they don't fit the model. In five-plus years, none of these three has been on an away mission.
Janeway's idea is to play the "good shepherd" looking out for some members of her flock that have gone astray. She decides to try bonding with these crew members by assigning them to an upcoming study mission on the Delta Flyer, which she is commanding.
What makes this episode a pleasure is that it gives these three young crewmen interesting, quirky personalities. We have Mortimer Harren (Jay Underwood), an abrasive fellow who detests space travel and would rather be on a stationary study post "re-postulating the origins of the universe" (in Torres' words). There's Tal Celes (Zoe McLellan), a Bajoran woman whose technical skills aren't the best, which prompts her to constantly agonize over her weaknesses. And there's Billy Telfer (Michael Reisz), a wide-eyed hypochondriac who scans himself with a medical tricorder in the early a.m. hours, hoping he can call in sick to avoid his away assignment. (There's also a bit part here for Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, as Crewman Mitchell. His part is irrelevant, but as a Rage fan, I just had to make mention.)
Once the story puts us on the Delta Flyer, the routine mission of course turns unroutine. The plotting is nothing worth writing home about—involving some "dark matter" lifeforms that run into the Flyer and cause problems and damage. (And don't even bother asking me about the plausibility of dark matter as applied here, because I haven't a clue about the physics.) But what this plot does do is serve as a capable device for revealing the characters' personalities. The dialog and the character interplay are very nicely written, with a natural ring.
Harren's haughty coldness is perfectly conveyed—being just forceful enough without going too far as to be implausibly off-putting. Make no mistake: This guy would like nothing better than to be left alone, and he has very direct—and acerbically amusing—lines for letting other people know that. (When Janeway comes to deck 15 to recruit him for the mission, he asks her, perhaps not unreasonably, "Are you lost?" Janeway obviously hasn't been on this deck for some time.) We learn that Harren never had any desire for space travel, but got assigned to Voyager as a one-year temporary prerequisite that became a long-term mission when the ship was thrown to the other side of the galaxy. I enjoyed the way he'd turn Janeway's efforts to "help" him into proof that she truly has no idea who he is or what he wants. (Janeway calls him by his first name and he responds, "My mother didn't even call me that.")
Celes is a more vulnerable person with understandable self-doubts. She strikes me as a credible average person who isn't up to a job that demands more than average, rather than the perfectly skilled problem solver that most people on Voyager seem to be. Her confession that she crammed her way through Starfleet Academy shows an honesty and an awareness of her limits. She has a discussion with the captain that almost hurts to hear: She knows she doesn't have the skills to make it on a starship, but being trapped in the Delta Quadrant has given her a job she probably couldn't sustain under normal circumstances. ("I don't deserve to be on your ship, captain," she says. "And I'm not really a part of Voyager. I just live there.") Particularly interesting is the fact that she's Bajoran and her awareness that her getting through the academy was probably made somewhat easier by "sympathy votes" based on Bajor's unfortunate situation.
Wide-eyed Telfer is a bit goofy—he talks a lot and he's afraid of anything he can't see that might possibly infect him with any symptom. This would probably be the reason why the lifeforms choose him when they decide to temporarily abduct somebody to their realm and then return him carrying some sort of parasite. Telfer doesn't have the built-in depth of Celes or Harren, but he's likable enough and gets some interesting interaction with the other characters.
In the middle of these personalities is Janeway, trying to remain as accessible as possible. Mulgrew turns in a pleasant understated performance that blends Janeway's roles of leader and confidant into a human persona who can either be firm or easygoing depending on the circumstance. She provides a solid anchor for the episode. It's good work.
Do you even care about the weird dark-matter lifeforms? I didn't, and I don't think the creators cared much either (otherwise they might've actually revealed what they wanted). The aliens exist to provide a little mystery, put our characters in jeopardy, force them to think their way out of it, and give the visual-effects team a chance to blow something up real good (in this case the rings around a gas giant).
Where "Good Shepherd" stumbles is in its lack of a satisfactory conclusion. The show comes screeching to a halt almost immediately after the jeopardy crisis is resolved, which sits strangely considering how well we've come to know these three new characters. It's almost as if the writers ran out of time and had to forego the typical extended dialog wrap-up we often get for these sort of stories ... which is exactly what this episode needed. In reality, Joe Menosky says that wasn't the case—the swift ending was intentional—but I think it would've been better to get a more concrete idea of the direction these characters might've been headed after this adventure. Considering they get such a nice setup and such compelling dialog through the story's action, it seems wrong that they don't have a voice after the mission has ended. It feels incomplete and that's a shame. Janeway's little wrap-up speech to Chakotay is far too obviously scripted and not particularly useful.
But I still highly recommend a bulk of "Good Shepherd." It's a break from the routine, and the casual dialog is skillfully conceived. We come to understand these people and their personalities, problems, and quirks, and we grow to care about them. The episode has the right approach, emphasizing character interaction and discussion.
Next week: A rerun of "Barge of the Dead," still the season's biggest winner in my book.