Nutshell: The first few acts are pretty good, with some interesting ideas and approaches, but the closing passages comprise a thoughtless mess that sinks the show.
Perhaps the toughest question at the heart of "Dragon's Teeth" is where to draw the line between helpfulness and caution, between trust and skepticism, between exercising the Starfleet way of seeking out new civilizations and in fending for yourself because those you're seeking out might want to take you for a fool and hijack your ship.
Actually, to say this question is at the "heart" of the show is probably wrong; this is an episode that can't maintain long enough focus on what's important. It ultimately can't really even seem to decide what's important. Or perhaps its most important goal is to supply a Trek show that has enough action and FX and bad guys to be worthy of November sweeps.
If I sound somewhat cynical about "Dragon's Teeth," it's because it's an hour with some ideas that hold promise and deserve better treatment than they get. A lot of that promise, though, seems to be playing second fiddle to improbable movements in the plot and action that exist to fulfill some need to create a new Delta Quadrant enemy rather than to tell the story at hand.
While "Dragon's Teeth" features some good elements, scrutiny uncovers too many moments that just aren't believable, and too many motivations that seem governed by the Plot Gods rather than believable characters within the given situations.
It all starts about 900 years ago (892 according to Harry's handy estimates), as a society known as the Vaadwaur is bombed virtually out of existence. Several hundred survivors go deep underground into stasis chambers where they expect to wake up five years later and rebuild their world. Fast-forward almost 900 years, where Voyager happens upon this destroyed world while being chased by This Week's Xenophobes™, named the Turei, who are determined to hunt down Voyager and force them to erase all data pertaining to the subspace corridors Voyager had accidentally wandered into. These corridors are quite the commodity, permitting travel across long distances in very short periods of time. Such a commodity, in fact, that any outside knowledge of them is prohibited.
Hiding out on the surface of the planet under an irradiated atmosphere, Voyager discovers the underground Vaadwaur survivors. In a moment of questionable judgment, Seven brings one of the survivors, a man named Gedrin (Jeff Allin), out of stasis. Gedrin tells the tale of his world's destruction, and we get an interesting recap of the Vaadwaur culture, which is revealed subtly over a number of scenes.
Among the show's strengths is the way it gradually uncovers who the Vaadwaur are and what kind of intentions they might harbor. I liked the idea, for example, that the word "Vaadwaur" meant "foolish" in an ancient Talaxian tongue—the implications of which are revealed with a good amount of storytelling care. Neelix's role in the plot as he uncovers the linguistic mystery is commendable; the cipher of last year is now actually getting some material that shows him as a useful contributor to the ship's operations.
There's also the interesting use of Vaadwaur beliefs that make for some good foreshadowing. Gedrin's analogy between falling bombs and falling rain ("Accept the fact that it's raining and walk with dignity") is a telling sign of the Vaadwaur warrior ethic, as is the Vaadwaur attitude to so easily accept death, as revealed in a scene (Torres' only scene, we must note) that draws a parallel between the Vaadwaur and the Klingons. And don't forget Naomi's reaction to the bad vibes she gets from the Vaadwaur children; in mass entertainment mediums, inherently perceptive kids who pick up bad vibes are never wrong.
Unfortunately, what I have trouble with is the fact the episode goes to these nicely conveyed lengths to show us the Vaadwaur are a potentially dangerous bunch, yet the Voyager crew doesn't stop to ask the tough questions. That is to say: How prudent is it to uncork the bottle and wake up the "dragon's teeth" when they have their own ships and outnumber your people four to one?
In fact, the placement of Chakotay's "dragon's teeth" tale hurts the overall scope of the episode. Said tale is about a slain dragon, whose teeth, after buried, became seeds that gave birth to new warriors to rise up against the enemy. A very interesting observation, I must say. But nobody seems to be listening. The episode makes the point and then the characters ignore it; Janeway agrees to help Gedrin's people escape the Turei by allowing him to wake up the remaining Vaadwaur survivors, who according to plan will escape the planet with Voyager's help, once the ship is repaired.
Meanwhile, Neelix and Seven find historical evidence that the Vaadwaur had a warlike history that once extended through the Delta Quadrant thanks to the far reaches of the subspace corridors. The Vaadwaur were eventually conquered, but Voyager might become the long-deferred next victim. The episode makes it clear for us when we see Vaadwaur characters making plans to seize Voyager and use it as their new device to become competitors in the current century.
So back to the first question posed in this review: Is Voyager obligated to help these people when turning away could mean the remainder of their culture being permanently annihilated? That's a toughie, and a question that somewhat justifies Janeway's decision to be a humanist and help out. But the episode itself doesn't consider the question long enough, and once it starts showing us evidence the Vaadwaur cannot be trusted, the plot hijacks the episode and makes almost every other choice in the course of the hour irrelevant. (At the very least, I am glad that Janeway didn't cave regarding the weapons issue, and that she wisely put her ship's safety first after Neelix's discovery was made clear.)
But what could've been good analysis of a tough situation turns into a mindless wind-up action toy. Once Janeway confronts Gedrin with the historical evidence, Gedrin gives assurances that he is willing to accept peace and change in the new Delta Quadrant. Unfortunately, he's the only one. When it becomes clear to the other Vaadwaur that an attempted dupe of Janeway isn't going to help them become renewed conquerors, the plot instantly becomes "Voyager versus the Vaadwaur bad guys."
This leads to an "action" finale where the Vaadwaur launch their ships to attack Voyager, and Voyager desperately tries to escape the planet's atmosphere before they are destroyed by the vengeful pack of Vaadwaur. Apparently realizing that the Vaadwaur alliance was a mistake all along, Janeway pulls a 180 and contacts the Turei and asks for their help to stop the Vaadwaur, who obviously want the subspace corridors back. Meanwhile, Tuvok and Gedrin beam down to the underground tunnels to contact an orbiting satellite that will help the Turei penetrate the atmospheric interference and bomb the remaining Vaadwaur from orbit.
These events constitute a chaotic mess without regard for what any of it means.
First of all, Janeway's 180 strikes me as based purely on convenience, as she essentially makes a deal to help one enemy destroy the other—while the story sits by and doesn't begin to consider the consequences. Sure, Voyager is in danger, but does that mean the entire remaining Vaadwaur culture is fair game for being destroyed by an orbital bombing (including the innocent children mentioned earlier in the episode)? That in itself might be debatable given the Vaadwaur's extreme actions, but my point is that this question is the farthest thing from the writers' minds. Janeway's decision seems more a result of the Plot Gods, who make the Vaadwaur into convenient Bad Guys who deserve to die for their cold, warrior-like inflexibility. Early in the episode the Vaadwaur (through Gedrin) can be seen as people, but by the end the Vaadwaur are hopeless villains with zero depth or desire to see reason. They're hell-bent on taking over the universe, or whatever.
Meanwhile, the action scenes just don't work very well. Tuvok beams down to help Gedrin contact the satellite, but later beams up (we assume) in a manner that is executed so awkwardly that it almost appears Voyager leaves Tuvok behind. (And how would he beam up through all the interference and blocked communication signals, anyway? Convenient how the crew can't get a transporter lock on someone only when it suits the plot.) This of course means Gedrin will die alone in a cave-in, since any good-guy subset of the Bad Guys must be killed for their beliefs. But what about those beliefs? What exactly is it that makes Gedrin different from the rest of the "bad" Vaadwaur, except for the fact that he's the guest character with the most lines? By the end, he seems practically eager to go along with Janeway's teaming with the Turei, never mind that his own people will be slaughtered as a result. I don't buy it. (There's no room here for subtlety or torn loyalties; either you're with Voyager or you're not. Bah.)
Voyager's escape from the atmosphere is anticlimactic, done with an unfollowable technobabble procedure that's supposed to have the urgency of, say, fighter pilots using flight jargon as they take emergency procedures to save themselves. Unfortunately, technobabble just doesn't have the same perceived credibility. This escape sequence is a joke.
And although it's been awhile since I've climbed aboard the musical Trek bitch-train, I must point out that Jay Chattaway's notably unmusical score also didn't help matters in this final act. Are random-sounding, discordant notes supposed to constitute excitement? (Tell you what: Just let David Bell score the rest of the shows and we'll call it a season.)
The deficiencies in action might've been okay if the ideas here were worthwhile, but the action is the episode's priority.
The final scene tries to give the show some perspective, and, in theory, I liked the idea that Seven's intention to revive a culture is turned upside down into a violent showdown. But, again, it doesn't wash. The ending purports that the handful of Vaadwaur that escape are somehow going to be the new fearsome bad guys of the Delta Quadrant. Excuse me, but how? Resourceful or not, I'm with Seven: Their technology is nine centuries out of date, there's only 50-some of their ships floating around, and even with access to the corridors they're hardly invincible (otherwise, why would they even have needed Voyager in the first place?).
I don't buy for one second Janeway's line, "the repercussions could be catastrophic," which was inserted solely for the audience's benefit as a cue that we'll be seeing the Vaadwaur again. (The whole idea is the writers' toss of a coin; if the line hadn't been there, we wouldn't expect to see them again and it'd be Voyager business as usual.) I also don't think the notion, however subtle, that this was in a way Seven's "fault" holds water. While I find interesting the idea that Seven perhaps set an ages-old conflict back into motion with one action, it ultimately isn't quite so simple. After all, Janeway's the one who decided to wake up the rest of the Vaadwaur.
This nonsensical ending is really a shame, because this episode makes good use of Seven, whose appropriately interesting desire to rebuild a culture turns into a tragedy; makes good use of Neelix, whose use of historical knowledge and research goes a long way toward making him a useful character; features some well-done scenes early in the episode that maintain patience in establishing the Vaadwaur; and asks a few interesting questions regarding caution versus exploration. It could've been a great episode. By the end it's an action-packed mess.
Next week: A three-century-old spacecraft intended to go to Mars has ended up in the Delta Quadrant. And Voyager happens upon it. How very nice.