Nutshell: Three words: Archetypes done entertainingly.
"Bliss" probably shouldn't be half as good as it is. Here's a story involving a lifetime's worth of cliches borrowed from Voyager standbys, cinema archetypes, and general derivatives of derivatives. How many different standbys can we work into a single episode? Let me count the ways.
1. Voyager finds an anomaly that appears to be a wormhole offering A Way Home™. Naturally, this supposed way home is not at all what it appears to be.
2. The ship is Threatened With Destruction™ by said anomaly.
3. A lone crewman, in this case Seven of Nine, our former-Borg heroine, finds herself The Only Hope™ for preventing said ship's destruction.
4. The Kid™, Naomi Wildman (note how Seven will never use her first name without the last name or vice versa; it's a noun whose existence requires both words), is one of the few left who is useful to Seven, and provides the heroine with assistance.
5. We have The Beast™, a monster that will eat you, or in this case your entire starship, a basic standby for science fiction from here to eons before I can remember, I'm sure.
6. We have The Alien Helper of the Week™, who also serves as the Cinema Archetype of the Week™—a character inspired by Quint from Jaws, and cheerfully plugged into the story as an expert on said monster. He even gets A Sobering Monologue About the Past™ that, although nowhere near as good as Quint's USS Indianapolis monologue, is meant to provide the character with a depth explaining his obsession.
7. Lastly, in a sentiment that almost pokes fun at the series itself, we have nearly every character in the episode existing as a shallower version of themselves, which is explained by the Weird Unexplainable Properties™ emanating from The Beast, which affects the crew's judgment and, with bait that looks like A Way Home, lures them into entering the belly of The Beast.
Now before anyone accuses me of being harsh and cruel and cynical and unfair toward this cheerful assemblage of reliably derivative puzzle pieces, let me hasten to add that I liked this episode. I really did. It's "comfort" entertainment done well. Given the extent of the recyclical nature of the storyline, common sense predicts I would resist this episode. But given the execution, resistance was futile. (I know, I know—that was obvious. But it was too hard to pass up. If the episode can use cliches, why can't I?)
And before anyone accuses me of being too generous and forgiving and shallow and blind to criticize an episode that's hollow and pointless, let me say that some stories need not necessarily be original or thoughtful or dramatically important to be worthwhile. It simply needs to know what it is and do what it does well. Ultimately, either it works for you or it doesn't.
Somehow, "Bliss" knows exactly what it is, and although it doesn't begin to challenge any of its cliches (because it needs them for the story to work), it does have the sense to embrace the lunacy (and sometimes the banality) of its plot pieces rather than succumbing to them. It's weirdly clever about how it does what it does. It's just manipulative enough to explain away the usual criticisms I would have with such a plot, yet not too manipulative as to feel like an audience insulter.
A big reason for this is because it tips off the audience in advance that it knows where it's going. For example, The Way Home—which we know from the first scene (because the story shows us) is actually a trap—is greeted not with the credulity on the part of the Voyager crew, but with instant skepticism. ("What's wrong with this picture?" Janeway says immediately.) But then, a few scenes later, Janeway's attitude pulls a 180, and the whole crew is acting strange. This set off alarms in my on-board mental plot analyzer, but because it also set off alarms for Seven—who sees the entire crew falling for what is obviously a deception—it's perfectly all right.
In a way, the story resembles a sort of conspiracy against Seven, who, as the only member of the crew thinking objectively, finds herself sabotaged at every turn by the other crew members, who attempt to undermine her efforts to approach the situation with caution.
I liked the way the episode approached this idea. We can see the progress Seven attempts to make, but we also see the mindset of the rest of the crew, which is under some weird spell projected by The Beast.
Letters from Starfleet apparently come trickling through the wormhole, and everything is too perfect: The Maquis Voyager crew members are offered a full pardon. Chakotay and Paris are offered great opportunities. Janeway's old fiance may have become available again. Torres believes the Maquis are still alive. Yet no one can see through the trap; it has all become a weird sort of intoxication that can't be denied. And as the crew is certain they're headed straight for Earth, we see goofily exaggerated grins on the faces of Janeway, Paris, Kim—which is done in a strangely surreal way that borders on mild self-referential mockery. ("We're getting home! Again!" Well, no, of course you aren't.)
The way Janeway, Chakotay, and Tuvok constantly undermine Seven's attempts to stop the ship from heading into this "wormhole" is interesting, with a subtle underlying sense of humor. They do so with tricks that have the pretense of having "good reason"—and we can also see that they believe everything they're telling Seven, even though Seven can see every one of their actions threatens to shut down her solo resistance operation.
Along the way, Seven recruits The Kid, which is good for some lighthearted fun, including a scene where Seven explains to Naomi how to sustain a force field by blocking commands coming through from the bridge. The way Naomi looks to Seven as a role model is one of those weird, quirky sitcom cliches—yet still believable. The Kid befriending the former-Borg is an idea that has always existed at least partially for the "cute" motive, but works fairly well here as a vessel for the plot.
With the whole crew unconscious and only Seven and Doc left to save the ship, the rest of "Bliss" is primarily plot tactics and style. Mission: Escape The Beast before it digests the ship, avoiding its illusionary abilities in the process.
The creature of "Bliss" is a life form inspired by the huge "ameba" in TOS's "The Immunity Syndrome," except that the goal of evolved sensibility here is to give it an upset stomach rather than destroying it. Okay by me.
The alien who offers assistance, with his 39-year vendetta against The Beast, is named Qatai, and is performed by W. Morgan Sheppard in one of those gruff-voiced, scenery-chewing performances that simply is what it is—a cheerful homage to every other character that he resembles. This guy, whose ship is a battered piece of garbage that can barely stay together, and who refuses to say die, is a likably obsessive fellow. So who cares if he's recycled? He's recycled with conviction.
Of course, "Bliss" also has its share of implausible silliness. For one, I find it a little tough to swallow the notion that this creature operates merely on "evolved instinct" yet has the ability to manipulate the thoughts of the crew to such an extent and, further, create environs that set off the ship's computers to alert the crew of such realistic-seeming illusions. It seems a bit magical.
And then, of course, is the usual convenience of one person being able to sustain the entire ship from one station. It makes me wonder if a crew of 100-plus is really even necessary. What do they all do? Never mind; I care not. Any episode where Seven saves the ship, and then afterward tells the captain, "I will file a complete report in the morning, after I have regenerated," is a show that knows where it stands in terms of its pitch. If for no other reason, "Bliss" succeeds simply because it knows what it is and knows better than to take itself too seriously, and plunges ahead with lighthearted whimsy.
Other than that, what is there to say? It's not deep or meaningful, it doesn't have that much to say about the characters, and in the end it really isn't all that plausible. But nor does it intend to be scrutinized. It exists to be simple, straightforward, and pleasantly entertaining. On those levels, it delivers, and does so skillfully.
Next week: Double your Borg quota, double your fun.