Nutshell: A good outing in the Kazon storyline, but the ending is painfully naive.
A series of brutal attacks by the Kazon leaves Voyager shaken and seriously damaged; the crew worried that if things continue in this manner, the ship will be destroyed long before it reaches the Alpha Quadrant. As a result, Chakotay suggests to Janeway that maybe the ship should do some Maquis-style thinking and make a deal with the Kazon. Unfortunately, this goes against everything Janeway believes about Starfleet protocol and the Prime Directive issues.
Finally, after an extremely shaky and inconsistent opening leg, the second season is showing signs of an upturn. Here's a Voyager episode that will actually have consequences. But more than that, it's a winner episode that makes some striking statements about the Delta Quadrant and Voyager's role in it.
Let's start with the Kazon attacks. The show opens with a jarring start, as Voyager is barely able to fend off two Kazon vessels, but not before taking some serious damage—temporary loss of all weapons and engines. One crewman dies in the attack—the third fatality in the recent weeks of Kazon assaults. This is a serious situation. Voyager cannot afford these types of losses when they have so far to go without the crutch of Federation supplies.
This leads one outspoken Maquis crewman to voice his opinion: That Voyager should just give the Kazon the technology they want in exchange for a truce. Janeway flat out tells him that she would sooner destroy the ship than hand pieces of it over to the Kazon, but Chakotay thinks there may be a different way of bending the Prime Directive without breaking it completely.
While Prime Directive issues can be tiring and cliché-ridden, "Alliances" presents a genuinely new question: Should the Prime Directive really apply in such extreme cases of survival? The show's first act does a splendid job of posing this question and giving Janeway a chance to answer it. She agrees to investigate the possibility of negotiating with two Kazon factions: (1) The Nistrim, led by Culluh (Anthony De Longis) and Seska (Martha Hackett) with whom Voyager had confronted in "Maneuvers," and (2) the Pommar, of whose leaders Neelix may be able to arrange a meeting with due to his past dealings with them.
Progress is a problem however, as both negotiations with the Nistrim and the Pommar fall through. Janeway's meeting with Culluh proves futile because of Culluh's refusal to allow a woman to dictate terms to him. (Culluh's sexist and obstinate personality traits, however, tire very quickly, and go a long way into needlessly turning the character into a one-note villain.) Meanwhile, Neelix's shuttle mission to meet his contact on the planet Sobras is cut short when he's captured and thrown into a cell with a group of Trabe refugees, a race despised mutually by all the Kazon factions.
It's here where the story loses some steam, however, as Neelix allies himself with the Trabe to escape the Kazon in a jailbreak scene that is virtually destroyed by completely uninspiring music.
Fortunately, this all has a true purpose. Neelix and the Trabe rendezvous with Voyager. A Trabe governor named Mabus (Charles Lucia) lays everything down, including some interesting backstory explaining why the Kazon hate the Trabe, and why the Kazon have become a race of angry armies. It turns out the Trabe persecuted the Kazon like animals, almost treating them like slaves. Thirty years ago, when the Kazon finally got fed up, they exploded into violence and exiled the Trabe. Mabus admits the Trabe were wrong to treat the Kazon the way they did, and he offers to ally himself with Janeway. Together both Voyager and the Trabe would be less vulnerable.
This will surely make the Kazon furious. However, Mabus also believes that together, Voyager and the Trabe can negotiate with the Kazon and bring peace among everyone. It's a genuine gesture that could benefit everybody, so Janeway accepts it. Mabus arranges a meeting on Sobras and invites all the Kazon sect leaders.
The meeting is bound to be problematic, however. When they hear the news, Culluh and Seska begin plotting almost instantly. Neelix hears a rumor that someone is planning an assassination attempt. And no Kazon trusts the Trabe.
The episode culminates with a chilling revelation and special effects display, in which a Trabe starship tries to kill all the Kazon leaders by descending from space, hovering outside the window of the negotiation building and opening fire. Fortunately, Janeway realizes the Trabe's deception just in time to warn everybody to GET DOWN! Now this is something we haven't seen before.
The idea of the Trabe using Voyager under the pretense of peace just to kill everybody is a rather unsettling display that the Delta Quadrant doesn't seem to operate with many rules or underlying values. Janeway's subsequent confrontation with Mabus over his deceitful actions is very potent, showing an extremely forceful and angry, but very plausible, Captain Janeway. Kate Mulgrew's performance this week is a definite standout.
This is good stuff. "Alliances" goes a long way in defining new possibilities in the Delta Quadrant. The underlying theme conveys a sense that this quadrant really isn't the best place to be stranded; the strongest known force so far is aggressive and unfriendly, and even those who seem initially to be friends turn out to be traitors. The Trabe/Kazon backstory does a decent job of explaining why the Kazon are fierce and untrusting, eliminating the traditional writers' theory of "Well, they're the bad guys, so we don't need to give them motivation."
With the Voyager indirectly responsible for an attempt on all the Kazon leaders' lives, the ending has a sense of "let's get out of here fast and hope we don't have to stop anytime soon," which is a particularly powerful motivation that conveys a true sense of urgency.
This one came very close to a 3 1/2-star rating, but there are a few quibbles I have that keep it just below that range. One involves Neelix's meeting on Sobras in a bar that features a scantily clad dancer. This came across to me as a big cliché. Do all under-the-table dealings have to take place in strip bars? That alone might be okay, but the music in this bar seems dead wrong—scored with the same restrained monotone of most Star Trek music.
Most troublesome, however, is the very ending, when Janeway tells the crew she thinks there's a lesson to be learned from all of this: That in this chaotic quadrant of very few rules, the best ally Voyager has are the principles and rules of the Federation. Sure, this is a nicely done speech, but I'm not really sure it's that easy. Is not making a deal and doing, in Chakotay's words, "business as usual" really going to help the crew in their next dealing with the Kazon? I'm inclined to say no. This speech supplies a genuinely positive, non-cynical Star Trek ending, but it doesn't sit right considering all the deceit in the episode. Under the drastic circumstances, wouldn't the Maquis attitude that you have to do what you can to survive be somewhat more appropriate, or at least worth another look? The ending as it is presents a cut-and-dry solution to a complex problem, where a more ambiguous approach would have been better. I would just as soon prefer no speech at all, leaving it up to the audience to reflect on the events that have unfolded. Janeway's attitude that the crew will get by if they hold to their principles has a strong air of naivete that rubs me the wrong way. The episode also insinuates that Chakotay and the disgruntled Maquis are willing to just roll over and accept it, which I don't buy for a minute.
These problems aside, "Alliances" is a good episode with some involving political elements—much like many of Deep Space Nine's stories. That alone isn't why I think "Alliances" is one of Voyager's more important episodes. The reason I find this to be an important show is because it has realistic consequences that will (hopefully) show up again in the future. The idea that what happens in one show could quite possibly come back to rear its head in a story five or six episodes down the road is what makes a series, well, a series. For the most part, Voyager has been the type of series that presents a problem and solves it in 60 minutes. This method lacks the feeling that solving real problems sometimes takes extended periods of time and effort. Overarching storylines could be what makes Voyager a lot more compelling than it presently is. And for a series that has such a large number of dedicated fans who tune in every week, doing longer, continuing plot threads would not really risk annoying that many viewers. "Alliances" is a good start.