Nutshell: I do believe we have a winner.
Before I begin, I have two sidebar comments to make:
First, given the two episodes previous to "Prey," I had become very worried about the notion of creating an "arc" around the Hirogen. The Hirogen we had met in "Hunters" were utter cardboard and terribly acted, with completely unconvincing and unnecessary shouting and grunting. Although I still have some serious reservations about the Hirogen (and I severely doubt they'll ever be truly interesting), "Prey" was a turn for the better—much better, in fact. The Hirogen here aren't played anywhere near as over the top as the two Hirogen in "Hunters." From the moment "Prey" begins, there's almost a sense that the writers or director or somebody made a conscious effort to tone down the Hirogen to something that's ... well, watchable.
Second, I'd like to point out that this isn't really an "arc" the way DS9's "lost the station" arc was. "Message in a Bottle's" plot line really had nothing to do with "Hunters's" Hirogen plot line which really has nothing to do with "Prey." The only common element are the Hirogen themselves, with which Voyager has never twice come in contact with the same individuals. And the only two reasons I even expect to see the Hirogen return is because (1) I've seen the press releases, and (2) every episode ends with a captain's log where Janeway says something to the effect of "I don't think we've seen the last of them." There's really no dramatic connection, which is kind of unfortunate.
But never mind. I don't mean to start things off on a sour note, because "Prey" is, in fact, the best thing Voyager has done all season. I'd easily rank this in the series' top ten. This is a solidly constructed, very focused story that transcends the lightweight nature typical of season four by addressing a moral issue and framing it in the context of a punchy action/adventure premise.
We have more Hirogen, of course, but this time they're part of a much more probing story—and the key Hirogen character is played by someone who can actually act (fathom that!): Tony Todd. (DS9 viewers will recognize the deep, raspy voice from his appearances as old Jake Sisko in "The Visitor" and Worf's brother Kurn in "Sons of Mogh.")
The opening is atmospheric and effective, focusing completely on the Hirogen and the hunt for their latest prey, which happens to be one of Species 8472, left behind in our galaxy after the skirmish with the Borg. The two Hirogen hunt the 8472, shoot it, think they have killed it, then transport it onto their vessel. They're wrong, of course, and it tears up their ship and attacks them, killing one and severely wounding the other.
Enter the starship Voyager, who happens upon the wounded Hirogen's ship and beams him aboard for medical treatment, after a strong voice of skepticism from Seven of Nine. Janeway attempts to negotiate with the lone Hirogen, with some limited success.
Meanwhile, 8472 breaks into the ship from an access port (there's a particularly nice setup visual that shows 8472 walking along the outside hull of the ship). As 8472 begins causing havoc on Voyager, Janeway finds herself making a weighty decision concerning the Hirogen, who wants to continue the hunt for his latest "prey." When the 8472 takes over a deck of the ship and disables life support and artificial gravity, Janeway grants the Hirogen to accompany a team in finding the dangerous alien. But she doesn't want it harmed; she wants to make a peaceful negotiation.
Does this sound particularly interesting? Probably not, because it's hard to do justice to the finer points of the plot flow. But much of "Prey" is a very pleasant surprise, particularly once the 8472 alien is cornered with nowhere to run.
From a technical standpoint, this episode is probably one of the most engaging action pieces since "Scorpion II." The special effects are convincing and appropriately utilized. The use of environmental suits and magnetic boots (a la First Contact) made for a believable situation of suspense. I'm not sure exactly why, but something about the crew's search for the 8472—perhaps the sense of understated urgency in Allan Eastman's directing and the cast's acting, or perhaps the low lighting combined with the "zero gravity" effect—made the scenes build with much more realism, drawing me into them more than usual.
What proves more interesting is the heart of the show concerning the moral dilemma. Should Janeway risk making enemies with another race by saving the innocent 8472, therefore denying the Hirogen their greatly desired prey? Or should she hand the dangerous creature over to the Hirogen reinforcements so that they'll leave Voyager alone instead of coming in with phasers firing?
Well, this is Star Trek; what do you think?
Like many of Janeway's decisions, her decision in "Prey" is one that looks out for human sensibilities. But, at the same time, it also puts Voyager and its crew at the significant risk of being hunted down and destroyed by angry Hirogen—and I'm sure there's a part of everybody that wouldn't mind seeing the dreaded 8472 taken away if it meant their own safety. But this would of course not be a moral course of action, especially considering the creature's motives as conveyed telepathically to Tuvok: that it just wants to be left alone and returned to its realm. Janeway intends to do just that, even if it means angering a pack of aggressive hunters.
Not surprisingly, but very appropriately, this is where Seven of Nine comes into play. "Prey" features the long-awaited and, in retrospect, inevitable culmination of Seven's differing attitudes and actions as compared to Janeway's. As I said back in "Message in a Bottle," the kind of assertive, dangerous impulse that Seven is capable of is not something that Janeway can simply allow to happen week after week. There's a point where the line has to be drawn, and that line is drawn in the latter stages of "Prey," when Janeway requests that Seven (who would be able to quickly perform the necessary task) open a quantum singularity to 8472's realm—a request Seven adamantly refuses.
There's a dialog scene that I believe will go down as one of the highlights of the season because it's so well acted. There's energy and frustration boiling in this scene, but it boils just under the surface as the characters wrestle their contrasting points of view into the open. Janeway wants Seven to see this as a chance to reach out with compassion to a helpless being—a chance for Seven to grow and understand the reasons and origins of human values. Seven, still looking at the situation through primarily Borg eyes, thinks it is a tactical risk; she believes the 8472 forfeited its rights when it selfishly put the ship in danger to save itself from the Hirogen.
Janeway's frustration is perfectly conveyed through Mulgrew's performance. Meanwhile, I'd like to go on record saying I think anyone who still believes Jeri Ryan is merely eye candy after witnessing the dynamics of this scene is just fundamentally biased against the character, because the performance here is something I think is worth a lot of praise. It's hard to convincingly convey anger through the Borg-like dispassion with which Seven's character has been drawn, but Ryan pulls it off here, and the whole scene comes together. I can't remember the last time Voyager had me on the edge of my seat over a dialog scene, but this one accomplished just that; it's the best-conceived scene of conflicting attitudes since Janeway and Chakotay's "scorpion" argument in the first part of "Scorpion." I really like this stuff.
There's a lot of substance here, because it gets to the heart of the agenda Janeway has been battling for ever since Seven came aboard: a maternal figure trying to bring someone else into her "family." It's a battle Janeway isn't winning, and you can see how frustrated it's making her. She probably wouldn't have been forced to take the disciplinary actions she ends up taking under "Prey's" circumstances, but the emotional side of it I'm sure has been taking its toll for the months that Seven has been rubbing people the wrong way and disregarding protocol.
In a sense, the family idea echoes elements of how the Starfleet/Maquis alliance used to be before it was unsatisfactorily swept under the carpet. But with Seven the questions are a little easier to deal with because she simply doesn't understand human behavior.
Still, this wouldn't have worked nearly as well as it ultimately does if there hadn't been some real consequences resulting from it. Immediately after the dialog scene, my one fear was that the rift that had become evident would be reversed by some sort of redemption on Seven's part—some redemption that would've made Seven see Janeway's side of the story. Fortunately, this didn't happen. Instead, the opposite happened when Seven made the split-second decision to beam the 8472 and the hunter onto a Hirogen ship in the middle of a battle situation running out of control.
It's hardly a neat or tidy solution for Janeway, who watches a moral decision countermanded (effectively sending an innocent being to its death). But she can't judge the individual who violated her order the way she could any other crew member. It provides Janeway with a true challenge. Just how should she deal with Seven as an individual under such bizarre circumstances? Since Seven doesn't yet understand her own individuality, how accountable can she be for it?
I also think the final dialog exchange served to strengthen the ending. As much as I understood Janeway's point of view and the necessary ramifications imposed (barring Seven from computer access) as a result of Seven's behavior, I had a feeling that this was turning into another "Janeway is right" ending. But "Prey" avoids this possibility by adding a little ambivalence, as Seven announces her belief that Janeway is punishing her because she is not evolving into what Janeway had hoped—and that her individuality, in fact, frightens the captain. It's an interesting and challenging way to end the episode, and it doesn't have an easy answer—partly because, in some ways, Seven is quite correct (especially considering it was Janeway who imposed this individuality upon Seven in the first place). As many undoubtedly know, I like questions that don't have easy answers.
Pretty much everything about "Prey" worked quite well. Even the Hirogen—despite the fact that Tony Todd's character was still a sketchy, half-defined personality—seemed more fleshed-out and believable. Chakotay's briefing about their entire society being "based on the hunt" may not make the Hirogen more interesting or deeper than any other member of the Stock Delta Quadrant Alien Club™, but it did manage to make their motivation seem a little more focused and a little less dramatically shoddy. But even though the Hirogen worked surprisingly well this time around, I still say forget them, because that's not where the gold is. The gold, like last time, is within analyzing the behavior of the regular characters.
But if Voyager can use adventure-oriented premises as effectively and with as much panache as "Prey" does, I certainly won't complain.
Next week: Seven of Nine seeks justice in "Retrospect."