Nutshell: Not a total loss, but ill-conceived. Easily the season's weakest episode so far.
New Voyager staff writer Michael Taylor seems to enjoy looking for the emotional truth in his stories, as evident in his previous work on DS9. His stories center around personal torment as caused by the deaths of others, whether it was Jake's father in "The Visitor," Odo's guilt over allowing Bajoran executions in "Things Past," Sisko facing the "death" of his Federation morals in "In the Pale Moonlight," or even (admittedly, to a lesser degree) Kira reflecting on the death of Bareil in "Resurrection."
Alas, Taylor's first Voyager entry, "Once Upon a Time," doesn't find that truth. This episode fails for most of the reasons "The Visitor" was so fantastic. It has too much manufactured sentiment based on tired cliches, ws, whereas "Visitor" came alive and rang true with a strong, focused emotional core.
"Once Upon a Time" begins with a Shuttle Crash™—or, more specifically, a Delta Flyer Crash [TM pending]—when Tuvok, Paris, and Ensign Wildman (Nancy Hower) are caught in an ion storm and forced to crash-land on a planetoid, where they find themselves buried under tons of rock. I don't have a problem with the loss of a shuttle (even if it's casually brushed aside as no big deal) as long as it's part of a greater purpose. But I am sick and tired of the silly setting where we're supposed to care about characters who are bottled up and stranded inside a shuttle.
Maybe it's time, for lack of better things to say about this plot device, to recap the times characters have been forced into "intense" or "survival" situations because of a shuttle crashing or blowing up, usually on a "desolate" planetoid. Let's see—there was Chakotay and Kar in "Initiations"; Paris and Neelix in "Parturition"; Tuvok and a red-shirt in "Innocence"; Janeway and Chakotay in "Coda"; Chakotay in "Unity"; Tuvok and Neelix in "Rise"; Torres and Paris in "Day of Honor"; and Chakotay in "Nemesis." (If I've left any out, that's okay—you get the picture.) This of course doesn't count shuttles destroyed or disabled where characters were rescued by a last-second beam-out, such as "Non Sequitur" or even "Drone" from three weeks ago.
Suffice it to say the shuttle crash is a firmly established plot device in Voyager lore. Hell, it's so established it should have its own internal classifications. I'm waiting for the day Janeway turns to one of her officers (one who is not stranded in a shuttle, naturally) and gives the order to begin the procedures for a "class 3 shuttle salvage operation." Perhaps the class distinction could be determined by who is on board the shuttle. A "1" might mean Chakotay; a "2" might mean Paris and Neelix; a "3" might mean...
But seriously, folks, who for a second thought the away team would not be rescued at the Last Possible Moment, when oxygen was running out—two minutes left, one minute left, 30 seconds left. Please. Is this supposed to constitute suspense? I would hope there's more to the story than the suspense angle, and fortunately for "Once Upon a Time" there is, but why even bother milking such a foregone conclusion for such false excitement? Granted, the setting brings about the story's real issues back aboard the Voyager, but on its own the setting is virtually worthless. I say get on with the real story and quit dumbing it down with "suspense" scenes in an attempt to cover up the fact your primary storyline is in essence only mediocre.
The primary story is also a derivative concept, looking at the situation of how to break news to a child that her mother might never come home again. While derivative and obvious at times, it isn't completely unpalatable. Ensign Wildman's daughter Naomi (Scarlett Pomers), who like all Trek children seems to be much older than she possibly can be (she shouldn't even be three years old), plays a significant role in the story, and Neelix provides a surprisingly watchable center to the story.
Some of this angle of the story worked decently. I thought Janeway and Neelix's discussion on informing Naomi about the crash was one of the episode's highlights. It's nice to be able to take Neelix halfway seriously for a change, and the sequence in Janeway's ready room was performed with sincerity. The use of Neelix's past also helped bring a more understandable personal angle to Neelix's dread for Naomi's potential loss.
I also thought the writers' depiction of Naomi was nicely conceived. As Janeway puts it, "she's an astute girl," and her perceptiveness makes sense. Children are nave, but not stupid, and the episode seems to know that.
On the other hand, the fantasy holonovel sequences didn't do much for me. While I try to keep an open mind, these silly holo-characters are not the reason I tune into Trek, and the amount of screen time devoted to "Flotter" (Wallace Langham) and "Trevis" (Justin Lewis) and their goofy hijinks was just too much for its own good. The episode seemed far too proud of its cleverness in creating cute characters that would appeal to the very young demographic of Voyager viewers (if there is one), than it seemed interested in analyzing Naomi's struggles as the only child growing up on a starship. I can understand that Naomi would like these guys, but I can't in all honesty get past the fact that I don't really care.
Even though some of the Neelix/Naomi sentiments work okay, none of this, unfortunately, can save a story that's so fundamentally tired. There's never any doubt the crew members will be rescued, so the scene where the stranded officers make final statements to their loved ones is merely manipulation that rings false. And it's not interesting because the characters aren't permitted to say anything interesting. I did like the idea of Tuvok making his final statements in writing, but Tom's last words to B'Elanna are lame bittersweet jokes about Captain Proton and leftover pizza, with the disappointingly un-heartfelt sign-off, "So long." Talk about affection.
Wildman's final message to her daughter was also disappointing and simplistically conveyed—heavy on TV sentiment but lacking in common sense. (I found myself asking, "Is that all she has to say?", and then realized this would've worked better if done mostly off-screen.)
And, after a harrowing experience of almost dying, when Ensign Wildman was reunited with her daughter, I must say I was so moved I wanted to throw up.
Not to be a completely cynical, cold-hearted person who can only derive an emotional response from tragedy and darkness, but this predictable ending was just so sweet, syrupy, and happy with itself being happy that I couldn't help but feel that the episode would've been more interesting and poignant if Ensign Wildman actually had died from the injuries she sustained in the crash. Consider the implications: As Naomi's godfather, Neelix would suddenly have the responsibilities of a full-time parent thrust upon him, and we might actually get to see a whole new side to a currently underdeveloped character.
But, nah, we can't have that kind of unhappy ending ... it would be way too much of a downer.
I'm not saying I wanted to see Samantha Wildman so casually killed off (she could potentially offer a unique perspective as the only parent with a child aboard the ship if she were utilized more than once or twice a year), but in the confines of this particular tale, her death might actually have been more meaningful to the story's underlying point—namely, that Voyager is a dangerous place where people can and do die—than an oh-so-happy reunion.
But I'm just throwing ideas around here. "Once Upon a Time," which has a few palatable moments between Neelix and Naomi, isn't a total loss, but with its hopelessly dumb plot and predictably thin payoff, I can't shake the feeling that this episode was flawed from the moment of conception—even though it pulled off a few reasonable isolated moments. There's probably a story somewhere in this material that could be compelling, but "Once Upon a Time" doesn't find it.
Next week: Voyager celebrates its 100th episode with a time-travel story.