In brief: A most middling affair.
There are good things about "Friendship One," which is very insistent on its desire to say something and mean something and exhibit a lot of classic Trekkian thought. But the net result isn't much to speak of, its central hostage plot is on autopilot, and there are some deeply flawed arguments roaming around in the story. I didn't dislike this episode, but I didn't much like it either; it's one of those shows that's sometimes respectful but largely unmoving.
And poor Lt. Joe "Red Shirt" Carey (Josh Clark). He's shot dead before it's all over here. There were so many years where this guy was relegated to the off-screen sidelines that many viewers assumed he'd simply died (most common was to erroneously recall him as being eaten in "Basics, Part II" — but, no, that was Ensign Hogan). Now Carey gets his true farewell appearance less than a month from the end of the series. I guess his number had to be up one of these days, turning out to be later rather than sooner.
The premise for "Friendship One" might've been more interesting had it been more in the vein of TNG's "First Contact" (the fifth-season episode, not the movie), which was about how humans make contact with an alien civilization. But since that episode has already been done, we instead have first contact as a warning of the dangers of misused technology.
Friendship 1 was a human probe sent in the late 21st century, shortly after warp travel became a reality and humans realized they were not alone in the universe. It was intended to share knowledge with any other-worldly society that might comprehend its message. Starfleet, now having regular contact with Voyager, sends Janeway and her crew on an assignment to try to retrieve the probe, which had last been tracked over a century ago to somewhere in the Delta Quadrant ... not far, coincidentally (yeah, yeah), from Voyager's current position. Retrieving it would be a great historical find.
Voyager tracks the probe to a devastated world polluted with toxic antimatter radiation. A Delta Flyer away team (including Joe "Dead Meat" Carey) finds the probe's remnants, but is surprised by the descendants of those who survived the antimatter catastrophe that left the planet poisoned a century and a half earlier. In short, Friendship 1 had indeed accomplished its goal of contacting alien life, but the aliens virtually destroyed themselves when they tried using the new information available to them.
Plot Machinations 101 decrees that these aliens must instantly take the away team hostage, which they do. Their leader is Verin (Ken Land), who intends to hold the away team responsible for the sins of the generations-ago humans who sent this probe in the first place. I don't agree with his argument, which is that it's humanity's fault for unleashing dangerous technology upon a less advanced society. (It wasn't even war that destroyed this society; it was more of a Chernobyl-like accident, the blame of which, I submit, should be placed more on the people experimenting with the dangerous technology than the people who gave them access to it, undoubtedly with big WARNING signs attached.) Even more dubious is the notion that these people think it was planned this way as an invasion tactic, which makes even less sense to me than it does to Janeway. But the episode, strangely, often seems to hitch its wagon to Verin's cause.
I agree even less with Verin's need to extract penance from the Voyager crew. They didn't have anything to do with what happened, and any reasonable person would see that. Verin isn't a reasonable person so much as a tortured soul scarred by his harsh surroundings. This reduces him to the status of your standard villain-like aggressor, and unfortunately makes much of the episode a routine standoff where Verin makes demands and threatens the hostages (Paris, Neelix, and Joe "Worm Food" Carey), while Janeway communicates from orbit her good intentions and desire to arrive at a peaceful resolution.
Tempering the material are some nice scenes. I liked that Neelix tried to appeal to Verin's better nature by talking about his own losses at the hands of destructive technology (the episode invokes continuity by remembering Neelix's world was destroyed by a massive weapon). And there's also value to be found in the scenes where Paris talks with a pregnant woman who has tragically given birth to three stillborn children because of radiation poisoning, and hopes this won't be the fourth.
But Verin's adamant distrust is a little hard to understand and thus seems forced, particularly in the latter passages after his own people have seen Janeway act on her promises of good will. One of these persons is reasonable scientist Otrin (John Prosky), who is cured of the radiation sickness and helps the Voyager crew devise a method to cleanse the planet. Another is the pregnant woman, whose baby is saved and returned to her, just as Paris promises. All this, despite the fact Verin kills Joe "Target Painted On My Chest" Carey in a particularly pointless act of violence.
In the end, "Friendship One" is a reasonable example of the classic Trekkian formula in which the intrepid starship glides in, helps an alien society solve their problems, and then glides out. And like most episodes helmed by director Mike Vejar, it's well paced and skillfully implemented. But along the way are arguments that I don't buy. Janeway's final line is delivered with a quiet, earnest seriousness that screams "Think about me!" But as I thought about it, it only rang false. On exploring, she says, "It can't justify the loss of lives, whether it's millions — or just one." Excuse me?
Once upon a time, Captain James Kirk gave a famous and rousing (if hammy and portentous) speech where he exclaimed, "Risk is our business." Now we have Janeway saying that the cost of sharing the grand ideas of space exploration isn't worth lives, even if it's just one life like Lt. Carey. I find that argument depressing. Exploration takes courageous people and conviction. Of course there will be lives lost along the way. Does that mean we throw in the towel because it's too dangerous? I'm sorry — that last line must've been written by the same sort of people who outlaw games of "tag" on grade-school playgrounds.
Next week: Return of the Shuttle Crash. Guess we won't make it through the season without one of those after all...
Pointless Jammer trailer commentary: The trailer for next week's episode has got to be one of the most useless ever. We know the show isn't about what it says it's about (losing two crew members in a crash), so what is it actually about?