Nutshell: It's hard to say without knowing how the bigger issues will play out, but what we have shows some promise.
"Equinox" is a good example of Voyager using action and story themes that play best to its identity. Despite the positives in season five, this series still doesn't seem to fly on its own identity, and I'm doubting it ever will. It flies on isolated plots and often the skillful reapplication of ideas from other Trek series. Last week's "Warhead" was a perfect example. There's nothing really wrong with the reapplication of new material (if done with inspiration, which "Warhead" alas wasn't), but there's nothing fresh about it either.
Now we have "Equinox," which brings back a number of familiar themes previously explored exclusively on Voyager—themes that I personally wish were more prevalent on this series. Themes that remind us we're in the Delta Quadrant, removed from Starfleet and its safe haven (although considering the war in the Alpha Quadrant, "safe haven" probably isn't accurate these days)—and possibly removed from its rules given certain circumstances.
The show does something that hasn't been done on this series since the pilot: It gives us another Federation-based crew that could provide a challenge to Janeway and the Federation Moral Compass.
Unfortunately, it's hard to render much of a judgment upon the first part of "Equinox"; whether this story will work depends so much on how the second half plays out. Could this be the beginning of something larger and worthwhile, or are we just doing business as usual, where the themes are presented and neatly resolved in an hour to the status quo thanks to a pushing of the Reset Button™? We can guess (and the nature of that guess might depend upon your level of optimism), but we won't know until this fall.
For now, "Equinox" is a respectable hour with some reasonable meat on them bones. Conflict of the more interesting breed—namely, conflict between people based on ideas rather than shallow "good guys vs. bad guys" games—has been rare on Voyager of late. "Equinox" is like a recharge that in a way seems to turn back the clock and give the writers some second chances.
The premise resembles the material of season one, back when survival in the Delta Quadrant was a serious question rather than a given. The Voyager crew comes upon the distressed USS Equinox, a severely damaged Federation starship that, like Voyager, has been stranded in the Delta Quadrant for about (we presume) four or five years after having been, like Voyager, brought halfway across the galaxy by the Caretaker. (The chances of these two ships encountering each other should probably have been infinitesimal, but we of course will embrace suspension of disbelief.)
Unlike Voyager, the Equinox was not designed for long-term deep-space missions. It's a smaller ship with a smaller crew, and they suffered extreme casualties their first week in the Delta Quadrant and never recovered. It's been hell ever since.
The captain of the Equinox is one Rudy Ransom, played by John Savage with a voice that seems to say "untrustworthy" with every breath. He and Janeway have a captain-to-captain discussion about their respective Delta Quadrant adventures, at which point the issue of the Prime Directive inevitably surfaces. Just how has Ransom and his remaining crew survived under such extreme circumstances?
Well, the trouble is far from over. An alien presence is after the Equinox, and once the two ships are united, the Equinox's problem becomes Voyager's problem. The aliens exist in some weird-phased technobabble realm a la the 8472s in "Scorpion." They are wearing down the shields slowly but surely, and within a couple days, both the Equinox and Voyager will be vulnerable. Meanwhile, some captains' tensions begin to build, as it becomes increasingly clear Ransom doesn't intend to abandon his crippled vessel and join Janeway in the more-strategically-viable unified stand aboard Voyager. Ransom is hiding something, and Janeway wants to know what.
The answer to what Ransom is hiding brings forth the moral issues, although there are some qualms we must overlook in order to go along.
First of all, there's an annoying overuse of that evil storytelling standby known as Trekkian technobabble. I'd be confident in saying that, with some fine tuning, about half the jargon here could've been eliminated outright with no sacrifice to the storyline. At times here the dialog grows needlessly bloated—filled with the kind of meaningless techno-nerd stuff that parody authors love to jam their comedy skits full of in order to make fun of Trekkers.
It turns out that Ransom's crew, with the help of the Equinox's holographic doctor (sans his ethical subroutine), discovered that the aliens from the other realm could be converted into a power source that could enhance the warp engines and get them home much more quickly. The discovery was made by accident, but Ransom crossed the line by using a technical procedure to trap and kill more of them for their energy-supplying properties.
The moralizing is fairly straightforward, with Janeway condemning Ransom's immoral actions and confining the Equinox crew to quarters. However, I did find the underlying implications to be worthwhile: At what point would a crew facing immediate danger and endless desperation finally cross the line of morality and resort to murder to save themselves? This season, both Voyager and DS9 have shown some of their best material when dealing with moral questions. Granted, that's always been a key part of Trek's formula, but it's nice to see these moral issues put in more extreme circumstances, as they are here and with DS9's war setting.
The action takes a few twists, like an idea where the Voyager Doctor is swapped with the Equinox's Doctor, who helps Ransom and his crew escape confinement on Voyager. Meanwhile, we have Starfleet officers firing phasers on each other as the alien presence comes closer to breaking through Voyager's shields.
Aside from Ransom, "Equinox" features some other guest characters, and there's a sense that perhaps some of them are being set up for something more than an idle guest appearance. Ensign Marla Gilmore (Olivia Birkelund) has several character-establishing scenes that might bode well for the backdrop of a new recurring character. And first officer Max Burke (Titus Welliver), one of B'Elanna's old flings from the academy days, provides for an amusing scene where Paris learns that one of B'Elanna's nicknames was "BLT." Kudos for McNeill's 100 percent Tom-like delivery of "BLT?" in wondering how Max came up with this nickname, and if this guy is competition he should worry about. (Unfortunately, Ensign Harry "Chump" Kim had to turn around and call Tom "Turkey Platter," which was just bad, bad, bad. Somebody, please put this goof out of his misery.)
Which of these guest characters, if any, will come aboard Voyager and which of them will die is anyone's guess, but there's potential here for something new. (Personally, I'd lay odds on Gilmore coming aboard.)
Concerning the regular cast, one thing that had me somewhat confused was the smiling, cute version of B'Elanna Torres. B'Elanna's all-over-the-map characterization this season has been a bit annoying. Suddenly, after being a hard-ass the past few episodes, she seems like a B'Elanna Lite here. Even her hairdo has a softer attitude to it. Where's the consistency? I'm sure B'Elanna has many sides to her personality, but in recent months the contrast has given me whiplash.
As a season finale, "Equinox" isn't a nail-biter (I enjoyed the issues and dialog much more than the would-be suspense), but I did find it rather strange how many comparisons can be made with previous Voyager season finales. For example, the episode ends with Doc and Seven aboard the escaping Equinox, which reminds me of the "stowaway factor" in "Basics." The presence of another Federation starship and the theme of returning home is reminiscent of "Hope and Fear." And the central dilemma has several things similar to "Scorpion": the issue of starting a war with the aliens, a la 8472 (right down to these new aliens being from some other realm), and to a lesser degree the moral questions involving the deaths of these aliens. Take these comparisons for what you feel they're worth; I simply found them ... noteworthy.
As for the ending ... I didn't like the dumb final shot that sent us into cliffhanger mode—not one bit. Quite frankly, I just can't get excited by cliffhangers anymore, especially those with such obvious, supposed "shock value," which in reality are simply shock-free. Sending me out for the season with the hokey pretense of "Janeway's gonna die!" is not compelling, but instead just silly. (Although, if Janeway does spend part of "Equinox, Part II" in sickbay, you can add that to the tally of comparisons by drawing a parallel to "Scorpion, Part II." But I digress.)
Anyway. I overall enjoyed "Equinox." There are some promising issues presented here, but how it all plays out will be the true test of whether this is actually worth the revisit. After the Federation/Maquis and Delta Quadrant survival issues were squandered in season two, I'd hate to see history repeat itself in "Equinox, Part II." Until then, I like what I see, even if there are a few hang-ups.
Upcoming: Lots of reruns. I'll be writing the annual season recap to be posted sometime in the next few weeks. Until then, I'm outta here.
End-of-season article: Fifth Season Recap