Nutshell: Not riveting, but ambitious. Respectably original and nicely conceived.
Ah, this is just what we needed. After a depressingly excessive and pointless "Killing Game," and a totally pedestrian and plot-hole-ridden "Vis A Vis," "The Omega Directive" came as a very pleasant surprise to this viewer. This is one of the more original Voyager offerings in some time, effectively utilizing many of Voyager's strengths as well as its static story premise in somewhat unexpected yet natural ways.
This is one of the good ways of utilizing the long-standing (and unlikely-to-change) Voyager-in-a-vacuum mentality. This episode doesn't add anything to any overlapping canvases (what overlapping canvases?) the way a pivotal episode of DS9 might; rather, it's just a solid stand-alone science fiction story that is sensibly written and sensibly executed. It's entertaining and reasonably thoughtful, particularly with some of the characterizations that arise late in the story. As an episode of Voyager, it's pretty original; watching the episode, I got the feeling that I hadn't seen this story before.
The Omega Directive is an emergency classified Starfleet protocol relegated only to captains. When a certain substance—the mysterious, dangerous, and powerful molecule known as "Omega"—is detected by the sensors, the captain is alerted by the computer and must follow preplanned Starfleet procedures to destroy the molecule at all costs. As the episode progresses, we learn this molecule has great energy capabilities and, of course, great destructive power. In addition to causing destruction on a large scale, it also can cause the destruction of subspace on an even much larger scale, leaving areas of space permanently affected such that travelling through said areas faster than the speed of light becomes impossible. Get a big enough explosion from enough Omega molecules, and an entire quadrant or even galaxy could be affected, ending warp travel and therefore interstellar civilization as the Federation knows it.
The story takes a while to let us in on what's happening, which is effectively utilized for some mystery, and also brings Seven of Nine into the game earlier than the rest of the crew, since she has Borg knowledge of Omega as assimilated from Starfleet captains. It's established that the Borg had also experimented with Omega; rather than destroy it, they wanted to learn about and assimilate it. To them it represented perfection, and Seven does not want to simply destroy "perfection" based on her captain's fear. (Not that she has a choice; she may not be pleased with Janeway's desire to destroy Omega, but she does seem to have learned when to resign to authority.)
The story, through its ominous mysteries and setups, is a little uneven. It begins shrouded in secrecy, then becomes a complicated tech plot before turning into a standard alien encounter and then ultimately a small character story. It's a little strange that these parts are all part of a single episode, but, amazingly, they come together into a single story that is ambitious and intriguing. Usually when a story has so many little premises existing in one episode, the unevenness becomes a liability; here, the parts manage to work together much better than they have any right to, so instead of having a problem, we merely have a plot that is complex and engaging.
I think some of the initial secrecy was a little overplayed, though it was interesting. I was definitely intrigued by the secrecy (even the huge letter "omega" that appeared on the Voyager monitors when the computer detected the substance was strangely eerie, though somewhat corny). The idea of Janeway "locking herself in her quarters" for hours on end had my attention, though it seemed a little overly cloak-and-daggerish, especially given the story's ultimate direction.
The idea of an "Omega Directive" left me with a few questions—like, for example, what happens if the captain has been killed? And just when do promoted captains receive their training for dealing with Omega? And why are captains more qualified to deal with this information than other people, like engineers? And why does Janeway destroy the Omega files after accomplishing this mission? Couldn't she potentially encounter more Omega particles somewhere? I suppose such questions could be more easily answered in the Alpha Quadrant, where Starfleet would presumably send in special teams to destroy the molecule, leaving the role of a captain who found Omega particles to that of an afterthought. Whatever. Considering that this story was conjured for a single plot, Lisa Klink manages to do a reasonable job of making the idea seem plausible enough, so I'm not going to complain to much about some plot holes.
Since Voyager is alone and the captain has no backup, Chakotay talks her into allowing the rest of the Voyager crew to assist in the procedure, which she reluctantly grants. She briefs the senior staff on Omega, in a scene that shows just how apt a name "Omega" (i.e., "the end") truly is.
I would, however, like to ask why B'Elanna—the chief engineer, no less—wasn't in on the briefing about Omega. Was it an episode production issue, or the writers' conscious decision of "We have Seven, so we don't need B'Elanna"? As much as I like Seven, I don't like the idea of "Seven at the expense of other characters," which seems to have been the case lately.
Overall, I would call "The Omega Directive" one of the season's better offerings, but it isn't what I would call a powerhouse. (After DS9's "In the Pale Moonlight," I don't see how anything could compare, but I'll try to keep that out of my mind.) Perhaps because we have to learn so much as the story unfolds, it takes a while before the tech story is something we can fully sink our teeth into. And once the danger is established, we realize the key difference between the effectiveness of "Moonlight" and the effectiveness of "Omega" is that "Moonlight" was a visceral experience with high stakes—whereas "Omega" also has high stakes but takes a lot of plot explanation for us to understand what those stakes are. And once we do know the stakes, another problem is that the stakes are so incredibly high ("The end of space-faring civilization as we know it") that we know from the outset they don't have the slightest chance of playing out.
But even knowing that, the story is effective, because the characterizations are dead-on. Janeway's tenacity for destroying this threat seem to make a great deal of sense given her plausibly grounded belief that it's irresponsible to play with forces that are so powerful and dangerous to so many civilizations. Meanwhile, Chakotay's appeal to the captain to bring the crew into the mission was perfectly in line with this season's "family" theme.
And, oh yes—Seven of Nine.
Just what won't the writers come up with for Seven of Nine this season? She has quickly become more interesting, complex, and subtly multifaceted than many of the other characters on this series combined. Who would've thought that Omega meant as much to Seven as we slowly learn it does in the course of this episode? Personally, I was taken by surprise. Through the story's rendition of what could've potentially been an only-average tech plot comes the notion of the Borg's belief of "perfection" in Omega, which has compelling possibilities.
As the story unfolds through Seven, there are some fascinating moments which transcend the mechanics of the plot. There are three scenes in this episode where, again, I was thoroughly impressed and even moved by the effectiveness of Jeri Ryan's performance and the writers' ability to give her such good material. The first is a moment when she appeals to Chakotay as a spiritual man. In a scene where she describes a very personal belief of Omega's "perfection," we see that the Borg's opinion of Omega borders on the deistic, and realize that the destruction of Omega, if necessary, will be a personal tragedy for her. The way Ryan delivers these lines is poignant, showing Seven vulnerable, troubled, and emotional—but it's so subtle that it's ten times more effective than histrionics could ever be, and so in-character that it's worthy of awe.
Another crucial scene is one where the conflict between Janeway and Seven concerning the fate of Omega seems to be developing along the lines of many Janeway/Seven scenes—until Seven realizes, in an moment of growth where she is able to see the other viewpoint, the sensibilities behind Janeway's need to destroy something as dangerous and unpredictable as Omega.
A third scene is the episode's coda, in which Seven opens herself to larger possibilities when she considers the unexpected and almost life-like behavior that was exhibited by Omega just moments before it was destroyed. It's a moment of clarity that she can only equate with religious experiences that the Borg had assimilated from other civilizations—experiences which, until now, she had dismissed. It's a very intriguing twist on both Seven and the Borg, showing that they are open to ideas outside the realm of simply self-serving assimilation of knowledge.
Seven aside, the plot turns aren't entirely riveting on their own merit, especially once the source of Omega is located (in an experimental alien-of-the-week laboratory), but the story clips along nicely, never threatening to be mundane or even implausible (as these things go). The technobabble is light, but just present enough to keep the science fiction aspects seeming believable. The story documents the crew as they locate, retrieve, and destroy the Omega molecules. And although I don't think it was entirely necessary to have the weekly derivation of aliens firing on Voyager when things don't go their way, the conflict for once didn't seem completely forced.
The use of little touches also made a difference, particularly the comic idea of Seven giving the crew new names, er, numbers as a means of organizing them to work on her project more efficiently. Harry's defiance of Seven was also amusing, as was Chakotay's we-don't-have-time-to-worry-about-trivial-nonsense way of dealing with the matter (that is, telling Harry, simply, "When in the Borg collective, adapt").
I do, however, feel I have to raise one troubling logistic issue here, which I'll pose in the form of a question: What happens if the aliens decide to ignore the dangers of creating Omega molecules (which, based on evidence presented by the story, seems very likely) and decide to continue their experiments? There doesn't seem to be anything to stop them once Voyager leaves their territory. Considering that Starfleet considers the destruction of Omega so essential that Janeway would carry it out at all costs, it seems a little silly and shortsighted that once the immediate danger is nullified that it's simply a return to Business as Usual™. If there's a need to rescind the Prime Directive to destroy Omega, I think it only seems natural that Starfleet would also want to also make sure such aliens don't have the ability to continue such research and experiments.
Yet I don't see how this is remotely possible. Voyager is in no position to deny the aliens the knowledge they've obtained. After all, the only reason Omega experiments aren't conducted in the Federation is because the Federation willingly decided to destroy all such knowledge pertaining to Omega in the interests of safety. What happens if some aliens decide their needs exceed the risk and damn the consequences, no matter how large they may be? This is a big example of the can of worms that writers open when they make such huge, encompassing statements of ultimate power. If one civilization anywhere (let alone one that Voyager happens upon in the vast Delta Quadrant) indeed has the means to create a power that could destroy space travel as we know it in the entire quadrant (or even galaxy), then you'd think Starfleet's attempt to control and destroy Omega is essentially so futilely out of its hands that any pretension of said control is merely pointless arrogance. And if Starfleet finds it likely enough they would ever again encounter such "rare" Omega as to give every captain in the fleet a directive to destroy it, then it's probably a bigger problem than anyone in Starfleet could want to possibly imagine, especially given that one civilization on the other side of the galaxy can create it based merely on the life's work of a few nameless scientists. (For that matter, why didn't the Borg continue running experiments if assimilation was the goal at all costs?)
Or, I don't know—maybe Starfleet higher-ups don't live in fear any more than we in 1998 do, knowing that there are possibly untracked asteroids in our solar system that could swing around and destroy our own civilization when we least expect it. My point is, it seems a little simplistic to use such a huge issue that raises more questions than it even hopes to tackle for the sake of one plot that will never be mentioned again in the history of Trek. In that sense, it seems to me like an overlarge absurdity that lives only in a single-episode fantasy world (which is probably the entire intention anyway). Or, I don't know—maybe I'm just nitpicking (which, by the way, is occasionally fun). But I think I've gone on about this point for far too long. I've lost sight of any hope of realistic Star Trek commentary, so I'm just going to shut the hell up now. Consider this part of the review a foray into needless discussion, as this article exceeds the ludicrous boundaries of the 2,400-word mark. Ugh. (It's late, I never intended a review this long, and I've clearly gone off the deep end.)
In any case, I can live with it both ways (since the episode does); I did find the issue of an aftereffect that destroys subspace in a way that prohibits warp travel to be rather interesting. The "destruction of the galaxy" would've been hopelessly extreme and therefore corny; the destruction of warp-travel capabilities is a little (although not that much) more restrained and original.
But what we're basically talking about here is effective storytelling. I can describe the plot all I want, but I can't really convey the manner which it all falls together to make sense. In many ways the writers have a story that is much bigger than it needs to be, or probably can be, under scrutiny. But with the characterizations, dialog, and execution in place, it's a fresh hour, and works like a charm.
Next week: A love story with a sci-fi twist; the guilty parties are Chakotay and some alien woman.