Nutshell: Not bad—just really, really average.
I don't have much interesting to say about our friend "Alice." It's the sort of middling plot-based story that just doesn't demand a great deal of discussion. There aren't many themes that are sufficiently interesting to dissect; there are no real insights or implications to ponder; there are no real surprises; and unlike the previous four episodes, I didn't get the sense that the characters were the important aspect of the story, because it's the plot that's piloting this ship.
"Alice" is, however, a competent, watchable hour-long exercise with a few interesting moments as well as some questionable ones. This sort of story might best fall into the genre of "sci-fi procedural." It's not quite engaging enough to be labeled a mystery. Not boring enough to be labeled a failure. "Alice" so much tempts me to offer up a non-reaction reaction.
More than anything else, "Alice" seems to demonstrate that Paris is not all that complicated a character like Torres, the Doctor, or Seven. If we take "Alice" as any indication, Paris is a "pilot." Who else is he? Who knows? This plot seems to see him as one of those guys who equates what he does with who he is. Okay, fine. But in an episode that's about mental manipulation and, apparently, personal inner desires, you'd think maybe there'd be more to find out about this guy.
The story uses elements of Paris that are in line with what we know of him, but the story doesn't go anywhere new with them. In accordance with episodes like "Extreme Risk," "Vis A Vis," or even (dare I mention it) "Threshold," this episode sees Paris as the Expert Pilot, a guy whose dream in life is to attain some sort of pilot's pinnacle of the aesthetically perfect flight.
This time Paris finds himself falling in love with a run-down old shuttle that a merchant is willing to unload for a reasonable price. Paris is certain: Inside this little relic is the potential of an ultra-maneuverable dream machine. In keeping with ancient naval tradition (and in pushing the foreboding factor), everyone calls this ship "she." Paris eventually names her "Alice." Alice is equipped with an advanced neural interface that connects directly into the brain, allowing the most efficient of all piloting methods: you think what you want and it happens.
Well, the alarms should be going off by now; any Star Trek premise where a piece of technology is being hooked directly into a character's brain is all but guaranteed to turn into a bizarre, hallucinatory mind-takeover plot. "Alice" is no exception. It's an average take on the material. This isn't new stuff, but it's competently put together. Competent, not inspired.
Alice is a weird beast. The camera bears down on the shuttle ominously, and soon we realize that it's somehow alive ... sort of. The idea reminds us of Christine. Is Alice evil? What is Alice doing to Paris?
The second question is perhaps the more easily answered. Paris develops an obsession to make repairs and bring Alice's systems on-line as quickly as possible. Every moment of his free time is spent on the restoration project. And soon we see that he begins hallucinating; Alice becomes personified in the form of a mysterious woman (Claire Rankin) who talks to him constantly, reminding him that the most important thing in his life now is preparing for their first flight. Before too long, Paris is disobeying orders and stealing components to get Alice up and running.
Most of "Alice" is clear-cut plotting setup, but there are some attempted character themes that find their way into the story. Of course, one is the Paris/Torres interaction, which follows more or less expected, but not wrong-headed, lines. Torres objects to being ignored; Paris, under the spell of the addictive Alice, thinks she's overreacting and brushes her aside, without even realizing it.
As Paris' behavior continues to venture into the obsessive, Torres is finally forced to confront him about it. At this point we get a horror-movie-inspired sequence in which Torres becomes locked inside the shuttle and the computer vents the atmosphere, nearly killing her. This reality check prompts Paris to try to give up his obsession, but Alice won't let him—threatening to, well, blow up his head if he doesn't do what she wants.
So now it's time for the questions: What is this shuttle? Is it sentient? The episode seemingly writes it off as a "complex computer program," but there are sketchy head-scratchers, like why anyone would build a shuttle that actively tries to recruit its own pilot (and is looking for the perfect "compatible" pilot, for that matter), and harms anyone who refuses. The episode also isn't sure whether Alice is truly in control or simply causing Paris to act out his ultimate piloting fantasy. There's a reference made to the myth of Icarus (one of Paris' favorite legends, it seems), followed by the Trekkian Icarus equivalent of Paris and Alice setting course for a dangerous spatial phenomenon. Why? Is this Paris' vie for flight perfection? Alice calls this phenomenon "home," but what does that mean? The story doesn't tell us.
There seems to be a sort of "Halloween tale" motif here—where the story is full of mysteries and weird unknowns that are supposed to pique the imagination—but it's only sort of half-effective, and sort of unfulfilling.
For that matter, I find it a little tough to swallow that Paris' brain was "altered" in a way that makes him seemingly communicate with the shuttle computer. The story calls it a "hallucination," yet one gets the impression it goes a little further than that considering the shuttle tries to suffocate Torres on its own accord. (How would killing Torres help Alice's cause, anyway? That to me seems like a guarantee for an instant investigation that would keep Alice from getting what it wants—its tandem flight with Paris.)
I have mixed feelings about the performances. I liked some of the quiet scenes between Paris and the Alice-image. McNeill does a good job with the thousand-yard stare into space as he recites his Quiet Meaningful Dialog about the ultimate flying experience. (The sentiment itself isn't as captivating as it wants to be, but the delivery is pretty good.) On the other hand, the key Paris/Torres scene after the attempted-suffocation episode was hammered too hard with histrionics. (The histrionics are understandable, but the scene feels off-kilter.)
In the end, the story executes well enough to hold its own and temporarily (key word: temporarily) suspend our disbelief. But analysis reveals too many unanswered questions, too much nonsense, and not enough worthwhile character insights. The Paris/Torres relationship in particular seems to end up as potential gone unrealized; their interaction could've been really good, but is instead only adequate. I also must voice the lack of satisfaction in learning that most of Paris' early decisions weren't even really motivated by actual characterization but rather the forced circumstances ("It's like I was sleepwalking").
As I write this, there's a Conan O'Brien rerun on TV. To borrow a phrase I just overheard, I'll say that "Alice" is okay television—but it's certainly not "compellivision."
Next week: A rerun of the Epic Voyager Telefilm™, "Dark Frontier."