Nutshell: Sporadically amusing and sometimes even entertaining in a sophomoric kind of way, but mostly just bad.
Well, here's hoping that "Scientific Method" fulfills our Fun With DNA™ requirement for season four, just as "Threshold" did for second season and "Favorite Son" did for third season. It's somewhat worrying that Voyager would supply its inept DNA episode this early in the season, for there's a long way to go. There had better not be another one.
Why do the writers do this? The DNA mutation premise makes for incredibly contrived and weak drama (or is that "drama"?)—and has become one of the most dreaded of Voyager clichés. I'll admit this installment is probably one of the more tolerable examples of playing with DNA (especially when "Threshold" and "Favorite Son" are the other noteworthy alternatives), but probably only because it abandons the DNA mumbo-jumbo to turn to another—if only slightly better—story premise. The sickbay scenes with Doc explaining his "startling" findings are thoroughly worthless and extremely tired—I found myself saying "No, no, please no" to my TV set through most of these scenes (especially the opening of act two when we find out Chakotay has suddenly aged to an old man, at which point I wanted to throw objects at the screen). Who in the world finds this sort of stuff genuinely interesting? Remotely believable? At all insightful or relevant to the characters in any way? Not me, times three.
How goes the game known as the "plot" this time around? Well, it's funny, because the plot runs around like a decapitated chicken nearly as bad as "Coda" did last season. It jumps around, disjointed, shifting narrative focus all too frequently, as if it were written piece by piece by a committee and thrown together with total disregard to any kind of aesthetic story structuring. It's strange, because this quality of jerry-rigged plotting typifies many of the really bad Voyager offerings. In such cases the story can never decide which characters are important and which aren't; rather, it just tosses everybody into the mix and gives them a few key actions and then shoves them aside when they no longer serve a convenient purpose. These aren't people—they're plot pawns.
The episode's first act is its best, centering around the relationship between Paris and Torres. The story depicts them as rather juvenile. They can't keep their hands off one another. They make out in public locations, trying and failing to remain hidden and discreet. (Tuvok catches them in the act of a PDA, which is good for some laughs.) There's a two-minute scene in a turbolift where Tom and B'Elanna discuss entering the briefing room separately, as to avoid suspicion. Too bad their behavior has been so adolescent that everybody already knows about them anyway. The scene where Janeway busts them for their behavior was both appropriate and fun ... the only problem is that the whole premise is so sophomoric. (And, at that rate, I probably mean high-school level.) I'll admit that it's reasonably amusing, as are other parts of the show (which I'll get to in a moment)—but it's also lowbrow and dumb. And if you think about it, you begin to wonder if the characters would really do what the story has them do.
But never mind; that's only act one. (Indeed, the most watchable scenes are the ones featuring Tom and B'Elanna that bookend the episode, probably because (a) the scenes actually exist in normal reality, and (b) they maintain a believable chemistry with a sarcastic edge that has typified the two characters' friendship in the past.) Act two is when the show really begins to take its unfortunate form, beginning with the DNA stuff (which is truly awful) before turning on a dime in act three and getting a little, though not a whole lot, better. It turns out the mutations are being caused by a race of aliens who are walking around the ship conducting bizarre medical experiments, using some sort of phase-cloak technology to hide themselves. I won't go into the way Doc discovers this crucial information—it's far too elaborate and mired in technobabble to waste words in describing.
Suffice it to say that Doc has to hide out in the holodeck to avoid deactivation by the alien intruders. He then contacts Seven by tuning into an audio implant in her brain, then recruits her in an effort to quietly and carefully investigate the alien threat. The aliens could be anywhere, so Seven has to begin the secret assignment alone.
There are a couple neat ideas in here, like Doc's "retuning" of Seven's optical implants so that she—and she alone—can see the cloaked aliens. At this point the story shows signs of becoming interesting, as it reveals the aliens are everywhere, following the crew around and studying them like lab rats. I also somewhat enjoyed the effects of the alien experiments on Janeway: They give her headaches and increase her stress level, wondering where her breaking point is. This causes Janeway to be short-tempered and on-edge throughout the episode. Kate Mulgrew's performance is engaging and believable. But it's also ultimately futile, because then I have to ask myself why such characterizations can't be caused by a real-life situation instead of a goofy, contrived premise.
And so on. The interest of Seven's quiet search isn't allowed to build for more than a few minutes before the alien plot is uncovered and the narrative careens off in a new direction. That direction is an attempted and failed diplomacy when Janeway tries to reason with one of the uncovered alien intruders. It turns out these pesky people are studying Janeway's crew in the interests of important medical research, never mind that the lab rats are mutilated or killed in the process. And, of course, because these are Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week™—Voyager cliché #2 for you—everything Janeway says falls on deaf ears. Ultimately, we get Janeway's, "Sorry. These lab rats are fighting back," a line that seems wanting to scream "TAGLINE! TAGLINE!" so bad it's merely hokey. The alien responds that if they don't get cooperation, "The entire experiment and its subjects will be terminated."
Terminated? But of course, they say. Screw it, I say. "By the numbers," can you say? "FORCED CONFLICT," per se?
By miracle, this scene avoids turning into a lame 20th-century allegory on the morality of using research animals, something that it very seriously looked like it was going to become. At least the creators dodged that bullet.
After the negotiation attempt, Janeway watches one of her crew members die because of side effects of alien research, which fuels the fire inside her ("This ends right now!"), driving her over the edge into a manic take-no-prisoners, I-have-had-enough attitude. The captain locks in a course straight toward a pair of binary stars, refusing to budge until the aliens leave, period. The aliens, not willing to call Janeway's bluff, take the hint and leave. This finale is more energetic and madcap in nature than the show probably deserves. And I must admit that I actually enjoyed Janeway's role as the badass of the week. Mulgrew proves engaging, even if completely insane. But, again, the ending proves entertaining in only the most sophomoric of ways. I cheered the destruction the bad guys' ship because I didn't like their smugness and wanted to see them get their just desserts. Beyond that I probably couldn't care less about any payoff in the plot.
At the very least, "Scientific Method" seems to have learned from "Favorite Son" not to take itself too seriously. While I wouldn't call this a comedy, I would say that at least some of it is tongue-in-cheek (like the scene, for example, where mutant-Chakotay and mutant-Neelix sit in sickbay trying to one-up the other in the tale of who is worse off). That makes it at least bearable, rather than almost completely unwatchable, like "Favorite Son" turned out to be. I hate the fact that the plot is so hopelessly transparent and stupid that it knows nothing that happens within itself really means anything ... but at least it's honest enough to admit as much.
Next week: Part one of the anticipated "Year of Hell."