Nutshell: Not a bad yarn, but not a great one either. And continuity is the most lost of lost virtues.
"Ashes to Ashes" is another perfect example of the quandary that this series builds around me. How in the world can I review this episode objectively without wanting to review the series in the process? And how can I be fair to this episode for what it intends to be while also scanning my scrutinizing eye across the larger scope of the series, something that I've always considered to be part of my job?
I vote that "Ashes to Ashes" is an okay show if accepted on its terms. But what about those terms? They require complete suspension of memory of continuity, or, better yet, practically mandate that you have no idea what came before this episode. If you're a person who cares deeply about continuity, you will probably not like "Ashes to Ashes."
I certainly don't consider continuity to be the end-all-be-all of Trek. But I do appreciate continuity and I think it's an important aspect of television writing. If you're not going to use continuity, then don't use it. But don't blatantly contradict it and pretend we aren't going to notice when history is being rewritten on the fly. Maybe I'm just too close to the series; the casual viewer probably wouldn't know or care, and I'm guessing the casual viewer is the intended audience.
That said, "Ashes to Ashes" is simultaneously a stand-alone show, a reset-button show, a stew of continuity contradiction, a show that has a subplot that hints at a future evolving storyline, and a decent (albeit unrealized) human drama. What we have here is a story that works reasonably if you accept it at face value. But this is also an episode that helps the credibility of Voyager as a series cave in upon itself. If Voyager is supposed to be a believable fictional universe, this isn't helpful to the bigger cause. (What bigger cause?)
The premise is actually a pretty good science fiction concept: What if you died, but were only dead enough that you could still be revived by an alien society with the ability to reanimate the dead? If you remembered your past life, would you want to regain it?
That premise brings Ensign Lyndsay Ballard (Kim Rhodes) back to the starship Voyager, having been revived by a race called the Kobali, who subsequently transformed her into one of their own. The Kobali propagate their species by collecting and reusing the dead (or, I suppose, the just-dead-enough-to-be-revived). Ballard was killed by a Hirogen weapon three years ago on an away mission. Of course, we hadn't even met the Hirogen three years ago, but who's counting? (One might assume not the Voyager creators, but co-executive producer Joe Menosky was quoted recently as saying the writers are aware when they break continuity and do so simply to suit their needs.) Really, if you want to nitpick, there's a much bigger plausibility issue here for you: How would Ballard catch up with or even find Voyager? In the past three years, Voyager has jumped through the quadrant to the tune of 40,000 light-years. Are you telling me that Ballard took her shuttle and found Voyager half a quadrant away in only six months? Please.
Never mind. If you want this story to work, you'd better forget the past. That might also be helpful since Ballard is a character invented via "retrocontinuity"—filling in past blanks with new made-up material (played as if we had never seen Ballard because her presence was simply all off-screen). Major invented characters are a mild annoyance, but nothing I'm not willing to look past. Ballard has a history with Ensign Kim that grounds the story in terms of one of our regulars: Ballard and Kim were close friends before her death—and we sense that Harry had hoped their friendship would've been more. (More broken continuity, by the way—Harry had a girlfriend named Libby that took him the first couple seasons to get over. Knowing that, his retroscripted interest in Lyndsay as presented here seems improbable.)
Ballard's dilemma turns somewhat interesting as Doc is able to make her look more human, although he's unable to restore her DNA structure on the account it has been too extensively altered. (This is the same doctor who was able to change Janeway and Paris back into humans from salamanders? Okay, sorry I brought it up.) Much of "Ashes to Ashes" is about Lyndsay's attempt to regain her former life. We follow her through a series of little adventures as she tries to settle into her old routine. There are some nice touches, like the idea of Ballard's "list"—things she vowed to do when she finally tracked down Voyager. And the character's backstory and her friendship with Harry is sensibly written. Kim Rhodes creates a likable character in Ballard, though the actress pushes a tad hard at times.
There's also the omnipresent sense of Second Chances and the New Lease on Life, which are filtered not only through Lyndsay's experiences but also Harry's. Harry seems to get precious few chances for good human interest stories (usually he's stuck spouting technobabble or, more rarely, having sex with the wrong aliens), but here he gets some nice scenes. Nothing remotely groundbreaking, but pleasant. He finds that his long-held feelings for Lyndsay (which go all the way back to the academy days) are suddenly no longer rendered useless by her death. She's back, and he has the rarest of second chances. Is this the newest story under the sun? No, but it works okay.
Probably the most interesting issue in "Ashes to Ashes" is the question of where Lyndsay believes she belongs. She clearly has changed. She thinks in Kobali terms and language, can't remember facts of her human life, and food doesn't taste the way she remembers. And her body doesn't take too well to the treatments Doc administers to make her look human. The issue is forced when her Kobali "father" (Kevin Lowe) comes looking for her (he too apparently crossed 40,000 light-years of space) and tries to convince her to return. He also says that he doesn't intend to give up his daughter so easily, and promises to return with reinforcements. (This will inevitably lead to the week's action quota, which exists for the sake of gratuitous phaser fire, despite characterization being what the story is about.) The father's appeal to Lyndsay works because the guest actor delivers the lines with conviction, further proving that guest actors can easily make or break scenes.
Ballard's dinner with the captain is ... kind of strange. The idea was interesting, I suppose, but it didn't seem to go anywhere with a real confidence. The sense of seeing the captain from a different perspective from a lower-ranking officer (like the central idea of TNG's "Lower Decks") is a fresh perspective, but it's hard to understand that perspective because the series on the whole completely ignores that anyone outside the regular cast even exists—and puts everyone in that regular cast (even the ensigns and cook) on virtually the same level. The dinner scene ends just when it's getting interesting, as Ballard asks Janeway why she was sent on that deadly mission. Then Ballard suddenly runs out of the room distraught and confused.
I'm a sucker for the identity crisis storyline, and I liked elements of this story, but I also think what was attempted here was carried to full realization (and with one of the regular characters) earlier this season in "Barge of the Dead." The reset-button ending where Ballard chooses her Kobali existence over her previous human life isn't handled too badly, but it's hard to get particularly excited about it. (Would someone in Ballard's position search six months for Voyager only to change her mind in the course of what seems like 15 minutes? I'm not so sure, but the treatment isn't exactly the deepest as to make me care one way or the other.)
There's also a B-story here, involving the latest adventures of the Borg children. While I'm glad to see these children will be a new evolving storyline (actual continuity?), I must also point out that this B-story is generally handled with the depth of a sitcom. I liked it—not because it was particularly interesting, but because it was often downright funny. The moments that are played for laughs work, even if some moments played for seriousness are inept. A perfect example is the scene where Seven brings all four Borg children to play a game with Naomi Wildman, and informs them with classic Seven-ness that "Fun will now commence." And when the twin kids, Azan and Rebi (Kurt and Cody Wetherill), cheat by using their neural connection, Seven orders "punishment protocol nine-alpha"—a "time-out." This is outright comedy. But when Icheb (Manu Intiraymi) rebels by dumping the game pieces to the floor, the music comes in with far too much seriousness, while the idea itself is predictable and ham-handed, hardly dramatic. (And the mystery of the week: What happened to the Borg infant from "Collective"?)
Still, this subplot is mostly enjoyable, and reveals a few interesting naunces, like the fact that the little Borg girl, Mezoti (Marley McClean), has some creative impulses. While the other kids are molding cubes and polyhedrons out of clay, she's going against her instructions and modeling Seven's face. Upon inspecting the work, Seven tells her, "Resume your disorder." Cute.
Perhaps the final scene underlines this show's overall sense of decency that doesn't add up to much of anything important: Harry, having lost Lyndsay a second time, bonds with the young Borg girl for reasons that aren't really realized to any point of viewer satisfaction. Okay, so he's a nice guy and will accompany her to play in the holodeck. So, is this telling me something relevant, or is it a desperate last-minute attempt to link the A-story and B-story in a way that pretends to add up to something greater than the sum of two parts? One could maybe argue that the characters in both plots are searching for their places in life, and that's the connection. But let's face it—that's a stretch.
Next week: More Borg. Apparently the writers' resistance of the Borg, if any, is futile.