Nutshell: Various four-star moments and zero-star moments rolled into one watchable but uneasy episode.
"Virtuoso" plays like a weird tug-of-war between the inspired and the banal—an episode where one scene can come off as interesting and even brilliant, and the next utterly flat and lifeless. There are moments I adored in this episode, and moments I wanted to physically rip out of the television and throw into the dumpster behind my apartment.
Let's start with This Week's Aliens, the Qomar—into the dumpster they go. The idea behind them was apparently to make them amusingly annoying, but they mostly come off as just plain annoying. In a series where exchange of ideas between cultures has been far rarer than exchange of weapons fire, it's frustrating to watch the Voyager crew give the Qomar something they've never experienced before ... only to get nothing but rude, arrogant, insulting xenophobic behavior in return. The Qomar are the type who don't really acknowledge they can learn anything from you—they simply milk a situation for whatever they can get out of it. Thanks, but no thanks.
That said, the premise of such a "superior" society never having come up with the idea of humming a tune (or encountering one in their space travels) is a bit dubious, but we'll grant it in the interests of storytelling. The Qomar have never heard music before, and when they overhear Doc singing in sickbay, they're positively awestruck. What is this "singing" and why would one do it?
This leads to some heavy exposition, where Doc explains that music is a vessel of emotional expression, etc., and the Qomar, so taken with the Doctor, invite Voyager to their home system (previously closed to inferior outsiders), where they request a recital and, later, Doc's full-fledged performance in a theater on their homeworld.
Part of "Virtuoso" plays like a meditation/parody on fandom—Trek fandom in particular, we must presume. The Doctor is such a huge hit that Voyager is inundated with fan mail transmissions from the Qomar planet. Seven mistakes these letters as an attempt to overload the computer and sabotage the ship. Uh-huh.
What doesn't work about this scene is that it makes Seven seem a lot dumber than she needs to be, just so the story can provide exposition for our benefit. Would Seven really mistake these letters as sabotage and sound a red alert? I tend to doubt it. And do we really need Janeway's overly amused explanation to Seven about the nature of human fandom and how people have always imagined themselves meeting celebrities? The idea isn't bad per se, but the self-aware presentation is way too proud of itself.
Still, there are some great moments here. I liked, for example, that this episode's character theme digs back into both the issues of Doc's ego and his state of existence. Individual scenes work—some like a charm. I for one got a great kick out of seeing Doc sing a duet with a miniaturized holo-recording of himself—a visual that is absolutely hilarious. Picardo is this series' most likable actor, and the fun factor of a scene that indulges Doc's ego in this manner is well worth our time. He distributes his recordings to his Qomar fans. (If there were money involved, they'd undoubtedly cost $19.95.) And he lets his ego run awry by neglecting his duties and referring to the captain as if she were his agent.
But there are other scenes here that are completely botched. Most of them center around a guest character named Tincoo (Kamala Lopez-Dawson) whom I can't make heads or tails of. Lopez-Dawson's performance is dreadful. Whether that's partially a side effect of the story envisioning the Qomar as weird and quirky (like in the overplayed opening scene) is hard to say. In any case, the character is painfully unconvincing and uninteresting and doesn't work at all. That's too bad, because this character is crucial to several turning points in the story, like an awkward moment when she tells Doc that he means something to her (what exactly isn't explicit—alarms ring that this may not be what it's cracked up to be) and Doc realizes that he might be in love with Tincoo. Alas, a lame speech involving "the simplest equation of all"—"1+1"—as an apparent romantic sentiment (the Qomar are a society based mostly on math and science, see) is all wrong, which especially hurts since it sends Doc off in a direction that's extreme under such awkwardly played circumstances—namely, his decision to leave Voyager and remain a celebrity among the Qomar.
Picardo is very good in these botched scenes, but his efforts prove futile because with the Tincoo character in sight he's essentially bouncing emotional dialog off a brick wall. Sorry, but Tincoo ... into the dumpster you go.
Subsequent scenes, however, prove interesting. The "rights of a hologram" debate between Doc and Janeway actually comes off quite well, with both the Doctor and the captain making some good points. Subsequently, when Janeway permits Doc to resign his commission (after the story acknowledges both the fact that Doc's ego has gotten the better of him and also that he hopes to continue growing by following a dream), there are some reasonable farewell scenes, like the understated but sincere Doc/Paris goodbye and especially the Doc/Seven goodbye.
Is it a surprise that the Doc/Seven scenes are among the episode's best? Both are sci-fi characters looking at humanity from the outside and who share a unique bond, and both are played by the ensemble's two most effective actors. The scene in the cargo bay where Doc comes to say goodbye is another good example of the Evident But Understated Seven Emotion Scene™. She's angry and lets Doc have it, but her face reveals a deep (but still relatively subtle) sadness after Doc has left the room. It's a truly good scene.
Unfortunately, I must question the wisdom of Doc choosing to leave his Voyager family for a people so dispassionate and calculating as the Qomar. Janeway is right: Fame is often temporary, and Doc, who has generally had a good sense of human nature, shouldn't be so naive. The scene where Doc learns of Tincoo's new creation—a "superior" hologram designed to replace him, and who can sing at ranges beyond the grasp of imagination—drives home the fact that the Qomar are too incompatible with Doc's human sensibilities ... yet we still get an entire final act devoted to driving this point home even further—at a point where it's already been made obvious.
But strange, that even though the final concert scene makes a point that was already made obvious, it turns out to be a very well-done scene. Doc sings an opera song with amazing emotion (albeit not the greatest lip-syncing), and it's greeted with zero enthusiasm from the Qomar, who expected new musical mathematical audacity. Then Tincoo brings out her new-and-improved singing hologram, which sings a technical piece that's truly weird and emotionally vacant; a human would call it awful. It's a spectacle that's simultaneously bizarre, hideous, hilarious, and painfully heartbreaking. It's a four-star moment that says it all: Doc has misread the situation, and the realization of his error hurts.
The ending actually works quite well, from the nicely played Janeway/Doc discussion to the typically heartfelt Seven/Doc closing. But by this point, the story has shown way too many cracks. This could've been a really good episode, but the way the story gets where it's going—particularly with the inexplicably robotic performance of Lopez-Dawson—undermines the proceedings. If "Virtuoso" reinforces anything, it's that the strength of guest characters can make or break a show.
Next week: War. It's FAN-TAS-tic.