In brief: An intriguing and thoroughly entertaining premise, featuring an eerie take on the workplace and a plot that moves swiftly and confidently.
Perhaps the best thing about "Workforce" is that it's a refreshing escape from the reality (as it were) of the usual Voyager situation. Here's an episode that looks and feels like good, grander storytelling, taking us to an unfamiliar but relatable world where it gives the characters bizarre, unwanted vacations from themselves.
Simply put, the premise for this episode is a neat idea. We join the story already in progress, as Janeway begins her first day at work at a massive power plant on a mysterious industrialized world. She introduces herself as Kathryn Janeway, New Employee. What is she doing here? Other oddities pique our interest when we see that Seven of Nine and Tuvok also work at this plant.
Is this an undercover mission? We quickly learn no. Although the plot is gradual in giving us all the information, it's clear that our characters' memories have been tampered with. What's nice about this plot structure is that we have our suspicions even before the story reveals all its cards, the whats and hows. We quickly understand that the crew had been kidnapped specifically to be dropped into the labor force of this company, as new employees.
Talk about your extreme solutions to labor shortages.
How did this happen? Doc explains via flashback: Voyager had been ambushed in a unique way — with an invisible mine that unleashed toxic radiation. Forced to abandon ship, we see that the Voyager crew was "rescued" by the crews of nearby ships. The would-be rescuers were really the perpetrators, having put Voyager in this precarious situation to get their hands on its defenseless crew. (My only question, best ignored, is how economically viable it would be to hire or bribe the crews of armed starships so they can round up 100 or so people to work in your plant.)
It's to the story's credit that we learn these details only after we've been able to watch the crew interacting in new situations, unaware that their lives had just a few days ago been very different. It gets us drawn into the mystery from the very beginning, putting us on the same level of unawareness as the characters.
The only members of the crew not kidnapped are Chakotay, Harry, and Neelix — who were away on a Delta Flyer mission at the time of the kidnappings — and the Doctor, who was left in command to safeguard Voyager when the rest of the crew was forced to flee the radiation. (Can one person fly a whole starship and fire its phasers? Apparently so, but never mind.)
The idea of bringing back the ECH ("Emergency Command Hologram") — first explored as a comic daydream in "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy" — is a rational plot device, and a pretty smart course of action on Janeway's part. Once Chakotay's away team returns to Voyager, the mission is to go to this world, called Quarra, and track down the abducted Voyager crew.
The depiction of the Quarren world makes a big difference in the overall impact of the episode, and is nicely realized through effective visual effects. If Voyager has demonstrated anything the past few years, it's that a healthy budget and outstanding production values can make a difference in a story's persuasiveness. This show looks and feels like a million bucks (especially compared to lesser productions like Andromeda), which, along with Dennis McCarthy's more-awed-than-usual musical score, helps make this world seem real. Through CGI and mattes depicting large structures and lots of people, this mega-industrialized planet comes alive with motion and yet still seems appropriately arid, as most of that motion comes from hundreds of people walking to their workplaces like Borg drones.
Much of the story's fascination arises from our characters in their new identities. Janeway meets a co-worker named Jaffen (James Read), and before long they're dating and even living together. Meanwhile, back at the power distribution plant, we meet Annika Hansen (Seven of Nine), who holds the middle-management position of "efficiency monitor." If anyone is perfect for the job of efficiency monitor, it's Seven. And Paris, who couldn't keep his job at the plant (fired by aforementioned efficiency monitor), finds himself hired at the nearby bar. Appropriate, how his somewhat renegade nature still seems a part of his new personality. Torres frequents this bar to spend time alone, quietly studying engineering schematics — not unlike our actual Torres. Tuvok is different in that he laughs and cracks lame jokes — which seems contrary to the similarity that everyone else exhibits when compared to their actual selves — but since the writers reasonably make Tuvok the subject of the memory-control failure, I'm not going to complain.
After work, everyone hangs out at the same bar for happy hour to relax after a shift at the workplace. There's a subtext here on the subject of human happiness. As programmed into their memories, our characters — as primarily seen in the Janeway/Jaffen storyline — are kept in line mostly by the belief that their lives now are as good or better than they ever have been, and that having this job is the key to success and fulfillment. "I'm from a planet called Earth," Janeway says to Jaffen. "Overpopulated, polluted — very little work." They live in decent apartments afforded them specifically by, of course, their jobs.
Indeed, there's a point once Chakotay has found Janeway and is trying to figure out how to break the truth of her forgotten life to her. He asks her if she's happy. "I have a good job," she responds. Funny, how the quality of her job is the first thing she mentions when discussing the quality of her life. On this planet of industry, it would seem your job is the most important benchmark of your self-identity. Sounds kind of like America.
My favorite human aspect of "Workforce" is the subtly sweet Tom/B'Elanna subplot. Here are two characters whose memories have been changed so they now see each other as complete strangers ... and yet something prompts Tom to care for and try to protect B'Elanna after their chance meeting at the bar. Paris is not simply trying to "pick her up" (like his attempts on some of his other customers); rather, something makes him approach her with a higher respect and concern for her welfare. I liked this a lot; it's a quietly affecting story development that brings a human touch to the sci-fi theme of memory alteration. If you're one who believes in destiny, it might cross your mind here.
What's nice is how these humanistic subtexts grow out of the main drive of the story, which is a kidnapping-conspiracy plot that's surprisingly well executed. It involves a crooked brain surgeon named Kaden (Don Most) who conspires with administrators at the power plant to deliver fresh laborers who have implanted memories that will make them better appreciate their jobs. All of Voyager's crew has been assigned to this plant. But something in Tuvok's subconscious knows there's something wrong, and when he briefly mind-melds with Seven, her own suspicions begin to surface. Meanwhile, Chakotay, working from the other end of the game, goes undercover to expose the conspiracy and rescue the crew.
To go into much more of the plot's detail would be superfluous. There are a lot of apt little details (like computer records at the plant) that move the story from beat to beat and supply us and the characters with clues, respecting their intelligence and ours. It's all executed with a confidence that makes me wonder how aimless plots like "Prophecy" even happen. The story progress feels almost like a Law & Order episode, which is high praise, since the forward movement of complex plot elements on L&O is about as good as it gets on television.
I especially appreciated that the story featured a guest character working on the inside to find the truth, and who is therefore on our side. His name is Yerid (Robert Joy), and although bureaucracy often renders him powerless, he's no dummy (which is refreshing); with the help of some of the victims he slowly begins to chip away at the conspiracy. How he enters the story is interesting, and where and when Chakotay decides he can trust Yerid — in a moment of desperation while being rolled away in restraints on an operating table — reveals the story's villains as working on multiple levels of deception, thus making the plot even more compelling to watch unfold.
The second half of "Workforce" doesn't play as well on the themes of the workplace as part one does, but it probably couldn't have with so much plot in motion. There is, however, at least one dead end in part two that doesn't pay off, which is the friction between conspirator Kadan and his innocent assistant in the operating room, Ravok (Jay Harrington). Much is made of a scene (which is weakly performed, alas) where Ravok's suspicions about the conspiracy are awakened and Kadan justifies his actions as something necessary for society. The friction between the two is set up but never resolved. Similarly, John Aniston's role as the Quarren ambassador proves to be a mostly unnecessary walk-on that serves little purpose other than to conveniently bookend the two hours.
I also have some reservations about memory alterations being so easily reversed without the dialog necessary to explain that ease. There's a point where B'Elanna is rescued but doesn't know who she is. Doc describes the alterations as "radical," but wouldn't a few lines explaining that B'Elanna's real memories were intact but repressed with drugs have made this a little easier to swallow, and less like a miracle when she inexplicably seems to know who she is a few scenes later? (But don't get me wrong — the scene where she visits her Voyager quarters and realizes the waiter from the bar is actually her husband is a moment with true emotional resonance.)
Aside from the solid mechanics of its plot, "Workforce" covers a lot of ground in two hours. The relationship between Janeway and Jaffen is pleasantly depicted, and explores a "what-if" situation pretty nicely (until maybe Janeway's none-too-ambivalent last line to Chakotay in the final scene). Chakotay finally gets some solid screen time where he gets to take action and play hero without being saddled with a plotted mess (see "Shattered"). A comic subplot involving the tug-of-war for command between Harry and the Doctor is amusing, albeit hopelessly petty (and therefore appropriate for these characters). Everybody gets some good moments, making this one of the better ensemble shows on Voyager's record.
The technical credits are impressive, including the directing. Part one (Allan Kroeker) ends with dizzying crosscutting between characters that is jarringly effective, as Chakotay flees the authorities, Janeway has a romantic encounter, and Tuvok is about to undergo invasive surgery. Part two (Roxann Dawson) handles the increasing plot elements with expert pacing; Dawson shows she can direct a big show with a good script just as well as a small one with a mediocre script (last season's "Riddles").
The only thing missing from "Workforce" is a powerful ending. The first half shows the signs of a subtle message episode, highlighting ordinary issues of daily employment as filtered through a harrowing sci-fi premise. Part two is skillful, well-characterized plot wrap-up, but with an ending a little too routine for my tastes.
When I think about the bigger scope of my job, I like to think I'm doing something useful and worthwhile. Sometimes, by the end of my shift, I'm relieved I'm going home, and hardly thrilled about the fact I have to come back. Maybe my employer should tamper with my brain; I might appreciate my job more.
Next week: Seven and Chakotay get it on. Say what? (No, I'm not making this up.)