Nutshell: Nothing earth-shaking, but a pleasant outing, and with a good ending.
There's nothing particularly special about "Alter Ego." It's a routine episode with a routine plot. Just about everything done here has been done before on The Next Generation in a similar fashion. Still, "Alter Ego" manages to work for me anyway, because it's quiet about what it does, makes good use of the characters, has a high amiable factor, and, best of all, ends on a good note that is 100% Star Trek in its character outlook.
"Lightweight" would be a good word for this installment, but that should be taken as a compliment—if it had tried to punch more buttons of intensity it probably wouldn't have been successful, because the routine nature of its storyline suits it much better to characterization than to plot. Coming from scripter Joe Menosky—often renowned for his weird concepts on this series as well as TNG and DS9—"Alter Ego" is a surprisingly restrained outing.
As the episode opens, we learn that Harry is having a problem controlling one of his emotions. Specifically, he has fallen in love at first sight with a holodeck character named Marayna (Geordi LaForge syndrome perhaps?), and now he needs Tuvok to help him overcome his distraction—the Vulcan way. (Speaking of Vulcan ways, or, perhaps more specifically, Tuvokian ways: An example of Vulcan pride appears in an absolutely hilarious line from Tuvok, which harbors a touch—make that a ton—of superior attitude. When Kim calls Tuvok's game of caltoe the "Vulcan chess," Tuvok dryly replies, "Caltoe is to chess as chess is to tic-tac-toe." Ouch. I was laughing hard on that one.)
For Harry's benefit, Tuvok prescribes an immediate termination of all holodeck activity involving Marayna, heavy concentration via isolation, and plenty of serious meditation. Harry goes along with it as long as possible (fifteen minutes). By coincidence, that same evening there is a shipwide gathering on the Neelix resort holodeck program that everyone is planning to attend. (My question: who's left running the ship?) When Harry doesn't show up, Paris goes looking for him and tells him that there are easier ways of forgetting about holodeck women than sitting in the dark in Vulcan meditation.
Sound lightweight? Almost trivial? Perhaps, but it proves surprisingly entertaining. What makes these scenes interesting is in the way they're performed. Every episode of Voyager features some sort of problem that the crew has to figure out or overcome, and in the process of working these problems the personalities can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Well, the beauty of "Alter Ego" is the way it allows the characters to work their own personal problems rather than simply the mechanics of alien threats or spatial anomalies. I'm not saying that Voyager should do "Alter Ego" every week, but every once in a while is certainly nice. I enjoyed watching Harry and Tom break out of their bridge personalities in favor of something more fun.
That, of course, isn't to say there's no plot here, because there is—although it's a mostly a story combined from parts of old TNG stories. Specifically, Marayna (played with amiable although not quite compelling charisma by Sandra Nelson) becomes intrigued and interested in Tuvok after she meets him at the party. It takes very little time before it's obvious that there's more here than meets the eye. She wants Tuvok's affections, but Tuvok is unwilling and unable to give her the emotional ties she wants.
A series of plot twists ensues, in which Marayna is revealed to be sentient and cleverly escapes the holodeck by making use of Doc's portable emitter and surprising Tuvok by waiting for him in his quarters. Tuvok is not receptive. Disappointed and angry, Marayna threatens Voyager by seizing control of the ship's computer and disabling the engines, which could spell trouble as Voyager is in the middle of investigating a nebula.
Haven't we seen this story before? Of course: way back in TNG's "Elementary, Dear Data" and its follow-up, "Ship in a Bottle." Plotwise, this story can't hold a candle to those classics, especially the latter, and it seems pretty blatant the way Joe Menosky recycles the initial idea for the concept. That's not a terrible thing—"Alter Ego" does take the fresh perspective of focusing on the human angles rather than the "nature of existence" arguments revisited. And at the same time it's also gracious enough to acknowledge its predecessor in a briefing scene when Chakotay casually mentions that a similar occurrence happened under Picard on the Enterprise-D. And last, and most importantly, the ending takes a twist that makes the episode much more emotionally engaging, effective, and somewhat more original. (More on this later.)
Let's begin with the characterizations. In "Alter Ego" the important thing to keep in mind is how the issue of romance is based on a mental connection rather than just a physical one. After DS9's amusing but superficial "Looking for Par'mach in All the Wrong Places" and its horrendously awful follow-up "Let He Who Is Without Sin..." it seemed that the only romances present in the Star Trek universe were comprised of hollow collections of clichés and sophomoric jokes. But "Alter Ego" has a mind and heart, and shows that Trek can do romance stories with deeper meaning. Marayna's attraction to Tuvok is based on how mentally interesting she finds him. She enjoys talking with him because he can think, and because he has such wonderfully logical insights about the world. And as a loner herself, she finds his attempts to isolate himself to be of common interest.
To say Tuvok is completely unreceptive would be wrong. True, he doesn't see romance on the emotional level that Marayna does, or as a human like Harry would, but he can and does appreciate the fascinating time spent with an intelligent companion that proves surprisingly intriguing to him. Tim Russ, as usual, is the perfect Vulcan personality, but I think he deserves some extra recognition here, because many of the sequences in "Alter Ego" are more complex than they initially appear, because Tuvok is not as simple as he seems. His fascination with Marayna's presence of mind is beyond the usual Tuvokian qualities the series typically utilizes. But, at the same time, it's perfectly logical and in character and never once overstated in performance, because Russ hits the notes perfectly.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Harry's situation. Once Harry finds out Tuvok has been spending time with Marayna, he's angry and jealous—which is somewhat understandable given the story's setup. The episode overplays this aspect, however, and Harry comes off looking overly emotional and wrong-headed in an arising conflict that's just too forced to be believable. (Tuvok on the other hand, remains perfectly in character, trying to calm Harry with a tone of voice that almost reaches into desperation, but just far enough and without overstepping the bounds. Kudos.) The plot doesn't need this element to work. The distracted Harry who wanted to get over Marayna fit the show well (especially given that it provides the priceless line, "Hi, my name's Harry read-me-like-a-book Kim"). But presenting this jealously angle only pulls the show that much closer to cliché territory. The scenes between Tuvok and Marayna are the true selling point; Harry's problem ultimately becomes a distraction. Fortunately there isn't too much screen time devoted to it.
Turning to the ending, some of the gags used to get there are less than stellar, but the show's quick pacing allows us to forgive some of the hokiness. I could've done without the silly "action" fight on the holodeck once the crew realizes that Marayna's holodeck image is simply being used like a puppet from an alien in a nearby space station (a twist that makes the recycled premise feel a little less recycled). The subsequent Voyager-in-jeopardy idea is nothing at all new (although the special effects are decent). But when the show ends, ask yourself, would Marayna really be so ruthless as to strangle B'Elanna and destroy Voyager if Tuvok denies her?
No she wouldn't, and no she doesn't, because the ending paints Marayna, this isolated alien, as simply a lonely person who got caught up in something so diverting as the Voyager holodeck after her curiosity led her to hack into the Voyager computer. The best part about the ending is its sense of quiet, rational behavior. (That's why, in retrospect, Marayna's needless, violent posturing doesn't really fit the character—unless she's pulling the bluff of all bluffs, which doesn't really fit the character either.) Marayna is not some evil entity out to capture a starship. She's just a regular, lonely person with a situation that can be understood—that of someone who has fallen in love with another who cannot, because of his own complex situation, return her feelings. The final dialog between Tuvok and Marayna is simple, sensible, humanistic, and involving. Works for me.
Whether you enjoy this episode or not may very well depend on your mood. If you want something fresh, exciting, and important to the development of the series, you aren't going to find it. But if you sit back, relax, and just watch the characters do their thing, and allow yourself to get caught up in Marayna's plight, you'll probably find it much more enjoyable.