Nutshell: A reasonable diversion, but not a whole heck of a lot more.
An alien appears in the dreams of the Voyager crew members. By what can't be a coincidence, everybody has nightmares on the same night, and the same alien appears in everybody's dreams. Ensign Kim and several other crew members are locked in sleep—physically fine, but the Doctor can't wake them. What does it mean? Chakotay goes to sleep to find answers, to ask what this alien wants, if anything. Using pseudo-hypnosis, he devises a way of forcing lucid dreaming (that is, knowing that a dream is really just a dream) so that he can wake himself up when he has the answers, hopefully avoiding the fate of Kim and the others.
Chakotay finds the alien, a person from a race that, when asleep, apparently exists as combined figments of their own and other people's dreams. Sound implausible? It is. Border on fantasy? It does. The episode avoids discussing how this existence is possible. But I'm not going to hold that against "Waking Moments." You sort of have to take these things on the given terms. Besides, I have bigger fish to fry.
Like "Random Thoughts," "Waking Moments" is the type of Voyager offering that seems to indicate what the series sees itself as: an hour-long diversion that specializes in featuring this week's (somewhat) unique alien race which bears a (somewhat) unique property, which leads to a (somewhat) interesting plot-based adventure for Our Heroes. Unlike "Random Thoughts," however, this installment doesn't ask a whole lot of questions, so all we're left with for critical analysis are the superficial plot machinations and their pure intrigue level.
"Waking Moments" is what they call "average." It's agreeably fun, but it doesn't have enough meat to it to be the slightest bit more than that. The plot turns are certainly watchable, but not really all that compelling. And even though I can't think of a source reference offhand, this premise seems strangely familiar and could probably be accurately called "derivative." (And now that I think about it, shades of TNG's "Night Terrors" come to mind.)
The basic question I think "Waking Moments" is getting at here goes something like, "What if a society existed in reality as a mental state that we consider fantasy?" The question has possibilities. Unfortunately for this episode, the lame answer supplied seems to be, "They'd commandeer the starship Voyager for no discernible purpose."
I think that about sums up my biggest complaint about "Waking Moments"—there's simply nothing substantive about these aliens that justifies their actions (beyond perhaps extreme paranoia). As the plot progresses and takes on some intriguing complexity, it turns out the Voyager crew members have all fallen asleep and are dreaming the same dream from their own point of view—interacting in a web of unified thought that Seven aptly labels "collective unconsciousness." But can somebody tell me why the aliens, who apparently control the entire dream-like state with some sort of technology, stage the dream as a shipwide takeover? What is their motivation for holding the crew captive in sleep? I've tried to find one, but as far as I can tell, it's inexplicable. It's yet another example of the Hard-Headed Alien of the Week Syndrome™. The whole episode builds to a finale that lives or dies on "how is it can we defeat the cardboard bad guys this week?"
My fault; the alien does, technically, give Chakotay a reason for why his people have decided to take Voyager's crew captive: "For centuries you've come and found us in a state that you call sleep and tried to destroy us. But not any more. One by one you will fall asleep and enter our reality, where it is you who will be destroyed." You decide what it means; I'm calling it an unintelligible utterance of bad dialog. I was practically waiting for an Evil Laugh after the alien said this.
The whole "motivation problem" dominates most of the story if you think about anything for more than 0.68 seconds (as Data once put it). Under scrutiny, the plot begins to fall apart. The only way this works is if you turn off your brain and go with the flow. If you can do that, "Waking Moments" comes with some stuff to recommend.
For starters, this episode has fun bending reality. I suppose it can be said that the real reason for the aliens' takeover of the ship is so that the story can sidetrack us with a false plot long enough so that when the real truth comes around we'll get novelty out of the shock value. Chakotay wakes up from his dream—and then later he wakes up again. It can be confusing if you don't think about it; but if you do think about it a lot of the plot pulls together on its own terms by the time the show ends—until your thinking process begins finding the gaping holes in the aliens' logic and contrived motivation.
The plot does a reasonable job of explaining itself so that we always know pretty much what's going on (even though the explanations aren't always believable), and every once in a while comes a time when Chakotay has to question whether he's dreaming or really awake. I like shows that bend reality (such as "Projections" and TNG's "Frame of Mind" and "Ship in a Bottle" and DS9's "Whispers"); they can be fun—although "Waking Moments" doesn't push the idea far enough for it to really take hold and overcome the stupidity of the takeover scheme.
But for what this episode is, it was very nicely executed by director Alexander Singer. The pacing is up, which keeps the show watchable even though it's shallow. The episode opens with one of the most interestingly assembled teasers in recent memory, as the story crosscuts between each different character and their respective dreams ... and only slowly reveals that what we're watching are dreams.
Also, the use of Earth's moon—as a mental image to alert Chakotay that he's sleeping—really worked for me. When Chakotay saw the moon in the cargo bay (after believing he was already awake), the show generated a spark of creativity that made me take notice. Chakotay's subsequent awakening (Doc: "You're awake!" Chakotay: "Are you sure?!") also had me eagerly awaiting to see where the story was headed—too bad it took such a conventional road, because the possibilities for something much better were there. The most effective use of the moon comes when Chakotay sees it on the viewscreen—and after he wakes up he sees the alien planet on the viewscreen instead. I'm not sure why, but I was quite taken by the transposition. It felt very genuine, and at that moment I could fully identify with the confusion Chakotay was feeling in trying to identify reality from unreality.
Another good idea that could've been taken farther (but which still benefits the episode even in its limited use), was the idea of the way the brain skews reality when dreaming. Things are always off-kilter in dreams, but you rarely notice the off-kilter elements until after you wake up. There's a moment concerning a warp core breach that touches upon this (a breach should destroy the ship, but in this dream world it doesn't). Touching upon the idea was good, but why wasn't there a lot more of this? The whole episode could've been a puzzle of characters trying to determine what was and wasn't real around them—and, because it was all a dream, having them accept as real what we the audience would see as obviously not real. It may have been a riskier story idea conceptually, but it would've been much more interesting than another routine takeover plot.
A few quick asides:
- Not to nitpick, but the "identical brain waves" clue that is supposed to account for the fact that everybody is having the same dream doesn't seem plausible to me, even on Trek-level plausibility terms. Everybody's having the dream from their own perspective, so why would their brain patterns be the same?
- If you look closely at the scene where B'Elanna exits the smoke-filled engineering set, you will briefly glimpse a very pregnant Roxann Dawson. Shooting around Dawson's pregnancy is a technical concern that proves amusing if you look at the way the she's cleverly positioned on the screen in every scene. Maybe we should dub this game the "B'Elanna watch." Okay, maybe not.
- Torres: "And if the aliens try to stop us?" Janeway: "Then we turn this dream world of theirs [grabs a big, bad gun] into a nightmare." ARRRRGH! No, no, no. This line takes the cake as awful B-movie lines that try to be Badass Taglines™. I actually laughed at how bad it was. It's a miracle that Kate Mulgrew was able to deliver the line with a straight face—but then again, she's had lots of practice, as the writers give all the lines of this type to her. (Cf. "These lab rats are fighting back," "Time's up," etc.) Enough already.
- What are those strange pins on B'Elanna's uniform supposed to denote? I realize the uniform itself was created to hide the actress' pregnancy, but what, if anything, are the pins in story terms?
- I was amused by a lot of the light character dialog—and especially the notion that Tuvok's nightmare is showing up for his duty shift naked. Who hasn't had that dream?
That's about all from this corner. "Waking Moments" is like last season's "Displaced" in many ways. The show lives and dies on plot execution, the storyline is more or less routine, the aliens are stubborn and paper-thin, and in the end we're supposed to pat Our Heroes on the back for their ingenuity. Unlike "Displaced," however, "Waking Moments" maintains its entertainment value with a brisk pace and good execution, as well as benefiting from some nicely worked-in character moments.
This is the epitome of so-so.
Next week: Romulans, an LMH, and alien predators. Is this part one of a Voyager story arc? We'll see shortly...