Nutshell: Quite a bit of fun, but not everything it should've been under the circumstances.
There are a lot of elements in "Message in a Bottle" that epitomize what has obviously become the statement of Voyager's fourth season as a whole—namely, that Voyager is a faster, funnier, snappier, and generally better series all around, but that the stories are primarily lightweight science fiction concepts and adventures that don't take real risks that go the extra mile to probe deeper into the characters. Strangely, the deepest, most substantive episode yet this season was "Mortal Coil," a vehicle for Neelix, who is generally the embodiment of lightweight.
And now, the sense of fourth-season lightweight whimsy in the interests of gleeful entertainment finally gets in the way with "Message in a Bottle," an effective episode on its own terms, but an episode that made me seriously wonder if it was the right episode for its given premise. Although this episode is tons of fun and jam-packed with amusing dialog, there's too much plot here (or, more specifically, too much of the wrong type of plotting), and not enough reflection.
Yet "Message in a Bottle" is one of the most entertaining episodes all season—an episode that made me care and had me in anticipation over how the end would be handled and how the starship Voyager morale would be benefited. I guess a big part of this episode's selling point is in finally seeing a real victory for the Voyager crew. We've seen this crew defeated and anguished on several occasions—shows that offered them potential tickets to the Alpha Quadrant ("Prime Factors," "Eye of the Needle," "False Profits," etc.)—but time after time the Voyager crew had their hopes crushed. Finally, here's a show with a true moral victory for the Voyager crew—something that would make the Delta Quadrant feel less lonely.
There's some familiar characterization early in the episode—a sense of urgency that's reminiscent of season one, back when finding a way back to the Alpha Quadrant actually had an impact on the crew's feelings. Like in "Eye of the Needle," the crew members find themselves with the chance to send a message to the Alpha Quadrant when Seven of Nine stumbles across an alien communications array that covers huge areas of space. By relaying the signal across the array, they are able to locate a Starfleet ship in Federation space. The only problem is that a communications signal degrades before it can reach the other side of the network. The solution: to send a stronger signal that won't decay—namely, Doc's holographic program.
The most effective emotional undercurrent in "Message in a Bottle" is the sense of doubt created by the hopeful yet uncertain situation. As Chakotay puts it, "We've been here before"—why get your hopes up (as I mentioned earlier) if you're setting yourself up to be crushed? There's nothing that's certain about the plan, either; It's a risk—even Doc's signal may not survive the transfer across such unknown technology over such a great distance. But the decision must be made immediately, because time is short and once the Federation ship is out of range, the opportunity will be lost.
Now, although I've heard for months now that Voyager would finally be sending a successful message home, "Message in a Bottle" was still effective in creating suspense and drawing me into the crew's plight. Seeing the anticipation amongst the crew was compelling in its limited doses, although I wish there had been much more of it (more on that later).
The signal takes Doc 60,000 light years to the USS Prometheus, a brand-new experimental vessel. As luck would have it, this ship has been boarded and commandeered by the Romulans, who have killed the Federation crew that was on board. Having stolen the experimental ship, they plan to deliver it to the Tal Shiar (apparently back in business to some degree), who assumedly could use the technology.
So Doc now finds himself with a challenge: As the only member of Starfleet aboard the ship, he must thwart the 20+ Romulans in their attempt to deliver this ship to their superiors. If he fails, his message to Starfleet will probably never be received. For this mission, Doc recruits some help: The Prometheus' EMH program, an updated version (Mark II) with new capabilities and a new face (the EMH-2 is performed by Andy Dick), but with the same overactive ego.
What can I say about this plot? Far-fetched? Probably a little. Superficial? You bet. Amusing? Most definitely. Fast, snappy, entertaining—typical of season four? Yep.
The stunt-pairing of Doc and EMH-2 makes for the highest level of all-out, go-for-broke comic energy on Voyager that I've seen in a very long time. While I wouldn't rate the dialog quite on the level of Doc and Barclay's sparring in "Projections," I did find the funny and fast-delivered verbal jousting to be well worth the time. Both Robert Picardo and Andy Dick have their characters' senses of smug superiority working alongside their senses of ever-worry, and the unlikely setting of "two lowly holograms versus a squadron of Romulans" makes for a particularly good framing of two bemused and unwitting heroes playing against the odds.
While their nonstop self-congratulatory dialog begins to tire near the end, these two remain utterly watchable through most of the episode, their one-liners and tendency to panic in the face of danger allowing the comedy to breathe. The initial idea of the "veteran EMH" playing opposite an EMH who has just been activated is milked for a few fresh notions, bringing out a respectable determination in Voyager's Doctor that refuses to see a fellow EMH duck the opportunity to expand his horizons into heroic action. I won't go into the way these two disable the Romulans and take over the ship (let's just say it involves the use of fumes that invoke unconsciousness), but the road to get there is entertaining.
Meanwhile, the Prometheus itself is an interesting gadget with some new abilities, like a separation sequence that allows it to split into three pieces and combat its opponents. The Romulans, alas, are fairly cardboard as the requisite villains, although it was nice to finally see them again after all this time. (DS9 hasn't utilized them in quite some time, throwaway lines notwithstanding.)
Another issue that "Message in a Bottle" works in by way of a B-story, and which I'd like to comment on, is Seven's rudeness and impulsive action. In short, it must be dealt with. This isn't a complaint about the episode; on the contrary—I think that Seven's inept social graces are a necessary part of her integration into the crew that I'm glad we're seeing. But it's still something Janeway has to take control of; Seven's decision to cause a feedback surge and shock into unconsciousness the hard-headed alien (who is threatening Voyager for using his communications array) because "he was not responding to diplomacy" is not the kind of unauthorized action a captain can afford to have a member of her crew taking. It worked this time (and Janeway's decision to tighten her jaw and let it slide was appropriate under the extreme circumstances), but it's not something Janeway can just ignore. She needs to find a way of putting Seven in her place—and it needs to happen soon.
A C-story also proves pleasant in a slight manner, involving Tom's desperate plea for Harry to design a new doctor in Doc's absence thus rescuing him from sickbay duty. It's nicely played, with some light laughs and good characterizations—but isn't this just filler? Couldn't a more effective use of screen time been conceived in an episode that should have a stunning emotional impact on the crew?
And that brings me back to the overriding problem with "Message in a Bottle": its serious and emotionally gripping general premise is held back (and held back to a fault) by its utterly inconsequential action/comedy plot. Consider the potential of a story in which Voyager finally, after more than three years, makes contact with home. Is there any substantial speculation by the crew about what this will mean for the future of the ship? Not really. Is there any discussion of events that have transpired in the Alpha Quadrant (like, for example, the Dominion war) while Voyager has been away? Not really. Is there anybody on board Voyager wondering what their loved ones are thinking back home now knowing that the Voyager crew (most of it, that is) is still alive? Not really. All we really get is the final two-minute scene where Doc discusses his off-screen dialog with Starfleet Command, which promises to search for a way of getting Voyager home as quickly as possible. As much as I was moved by Janeway's reaction to hearing this news (even though "60,000 light years feels a lot closer today" is a fairly trite, cornball closing line), it's just not enough.
As much as I liked "Message in a Bottle," I'm only giving it a marginal recommendation. This is an episode that, for all its merits, should've been so much more. The Season Four Sense of Fun needs to know when to step back and get out of the way.
Upcoming: A couple reruns, followed by what has been promised by rumors as a multi-part arc involving the race of aliens introduced in this past episode.