Nutshell: A lackluster plot further sabotaged by some pretty awful execution. A highly unfortunate occurrence.
Voyager's uneven third season takes a turn for the worse with "Rise," an incoherent mix of silly action, heavy-handed intrigue, shaky character interplay, and typical disaster themes. Coming off the heels of the pointless "Darkling," "Rise" is an unsettling entry into the third season and not much of a way to end sweeps month.
The plot begins with a rather illogical disaster backdrop as Voyager destroys an asteroid on a collision course with a planet colonized by some new friendly aliens called the Nezu. The asteroid fragments unexpectedly, and large pieces of it crash to the surface causing huge dust storms and forcing the colonists to evacuate. (Maybe next time Janeway won't wait until 30 seconds before an asteroid hits a planet before blowing it up.)
Tuvok and Neelix take a shuttle along with some of the Nezu officials to the surface to assist in the evacuations. It doesn't take long before "Rise" starts making big mistakes, beginning first and foremost with Yet Another Shuttle Crash™. I was actually chuckling through the silly scene where the shuttlecraft was shaking and rocking and Tuvok was reporting that the stabilizers were off-line (or whatever). Voyager has made the Shuttle Crash into such a ludicrous cliche tha that the whole idea has become positively laughable. Why, oh why can't the writers think of different ways for putting characters in difficult situations? (Anything would be better than the Shuttle Crash.) These difficult situations have long felt contrived because there's never any apparent thought put into them. It's simply a conjured means put to an end.
And the "end" featured in "Rise" is nowhere near satisfying. Once we get the Shuttle Crash over with, the plot begins turning into nothing less than a big, lumbering mess. Since the shuttle is (naturally) out of contact with Voyager and Our Heroes have to escape before they're buried by a fallout of settling dust, Neelix observes a "tether" near the crash site—a 300-kilometer pole extending from the surface of the planet into space with a carriage to lift people from the surface—and devises an escape plan. (By the way, I'm not even going to begin on the plausibility of a "300-kilometer pole in the ground extending into space." No comment here at all.) He used to work on similar devices in his past (it's not until later that we find out that he only worked on 1/10 scale working models—typical Neelix), and thinks he can apply his knowledge of those systems to repairing the damaged tether.
Within the tether control room, Neelix is nabbed and held hostage by a woman named Lillias (Lisa Kaminir) who has taken shelter there. She holds a knife to Neelix's throat in one of the more overwrought and tensionless scenes of the type that I can remember. (Everyone knew she would release him after the commercial break and they'd become friends, so why did they drag the scene out so long?)
Most of what's wrong with "Rise" appears to be the fault of director Robert Sheerer and the actors. While Braga's teleplay is nowhere near the realm of "stellar," it isn't all that insultingly bad either—it's more along the lines of "simply standard, unambitious Voyager." What really fails here, rather, is the execution. Sheerer can't milk any tension out of any scene or situation. And most of the guest actors, to be blunt, offer absolutely terrible performances and completely flat line delivery. Ethan Phillips and Tim Russ are fine, sure, but considering all their scenes are opposite these other (for lack of a better word) bad actors, none of the scenes work.
Kaminir is passable but far from portraying an interesting character. Kelly Connell as Sklar and Geof Prysirr as Hanjuan, on the other hand, are both atrocious and manage to embarrass everyone else in just about every scene they're involved with—which is highly problematic considering how pivotal (Connell in particular) their characters turn out to be. The only decent guest star is Alan Oppenheimer as the ambassador (who appeared in DS9's "The Jem'Hadar" as the captain of the Odyssey), but, unfortunately, he has the fewest scenes.
Then there's the reliance on "disaster" themes—putting characters in extreme situations without the benefit of decent drama—as Tuvok, Neelix, and the Nezu have to cope with a new problem when Dr. Vatm (Tom Towles) launches the carriage pod before Neelix can repair the systems, forcing everyone to begin improvising on the fly as they begin their ascent. Most of the plotting in "Rise" is simply forgettable, but as the episode progresses Braga piles more and more extra baggage onto the story, introducing a contrived "murder" angle when Vatm dies due to apparent poisoning; lots of scenes of "dissension" among Our Heroes, mostly badly performed; then an "intrigue" angle as the Neelix/Tuvok plot ties into Voyager learning the "asteroids" are actually artificially-created devices that, as Chakotay puts it, "aren't hitting their planet by chance."
Then there's the "character theme," which boils down to Neelix trying to impress Tuvok and consistently being dismissed because Tuvok doesn't like him. (Come on—this is the same after-school special type of material that arose between Neelix and Paris in last season's "Parturition.") Strangely, this is the only angle of the story that comes close to working, since both Russ and Phillips seem genuinely into the idea. Neelix's actions strike me as pretty childish (which like much of what he does in this episode is pretty much in-character, reassuring me that it's a general problem with Neelix and not necessarily this installment). When Tuvok refuses to acknowledge Neelix's gut feeling, what does Neelix do? Being the only one who knows how, he refuses to pilot the carriage any further until Tuvok agrees with him. This strikes me as rather wrong-headed on Neelix's account (although Tuvok doesn't come across a whole lot better under the story's attempts to put some blame on his dismissive attitude toward Neelix)—but it's admittedly the only scene in the episode that caused me to sit up and take note.
With all these story elements tugging at each other, Braga merely proves that more is not better; although I still think it potentially could've worked if the transitions between all the different elements were done more effectively. The way Sheerer clumsily moves back and forth between the plot angles hurts a lot, and made me say "so what?" on several occasions. The story, while definitely not good, might've worked okay if not so haphazardly assembled.
The action culminates with a couple obligatory fight scenes (punctuated with some fairly lousy special effects sequences) when Sklar is revealed as a traitor in cahoots with a group of aliens that sent the "asteroids" to the planet in an attempt to force an evacuation and claim the planet as their own. On the roof of the carriage Tuvok finds a data pad containing technological information about the bad guys' ship, which conveniently allows Voyager to defeat the alien bad guys—in a stock battle scene of alarming ineptitude.
"Rise" is so much of a mess that the final scene features Neelix basically explaining the entire plot and making the connections that would've been obvious under stronger storytelling. If the story hadn't been so choppy and badly performed then maybe the plot could've been simply "okay"; unfortunately, it covers so much ground so unsuccessfully that it ends up being a big waste of time. I wouldn't go so far as to say the story is insultingly bad and lacking in substance the way "Darkling" was (although it was quite mindless). But in another respect "Rise" is much worse: It holds very little entertainment value. (For at least "Darkling" was sporadically amusing with Picardo's portrayal of Evil Doc.)
What I said for "Darkling" also applies here: This episode is watchable, but nothing more.
By the way, "Shuttle Crash" is a registered trademark of Paramount Pictures Corporation.