Nutshell: A lot of good character work within a good action show, although there are enough questionable moments to hold it back.
If you're a fan of Janeway in badass mode, you will probably revel in "Equinox, Part II," an episode that shows Janeway's teeth at perhaps their most sharpened—a captain who on this day is not taking any prisoners, conveyed by a Kate Mulgrew performance whose take-charge-of-a-scene attitude is capable of sending chills.
On a story level, "Equinox, Part II" manages to work fairly well, too. Given the preset stipulations—i.e., it must be resolved in an hour, regular characters cannot be radically changed or killed, the Equinox must be destroyed, peace with the aliens must be attained, and Captain Ransom must die (I just can't picture an ending where the writers would've let him live)—"Equinox II" manages to get a good amount of mileage out of the story.
Whereas "Equinox, Part I" seemed more focused on showing us who these Equinox crew members were, what they were hiding and planning, and the hell they'd been through that made them less likely to listen to their consciences, "Equinox, Part II" is essentially finished with that stage of the story; the motives have been set in motion and the show launches into action mode. But is that all?
Well, thankfully, no, that's not all.
"Equinox II" is ready to launch into its new action-oriented direction, but it's also ready to think about how it's getting there. When we last left Janeway and her crew, Voyager was coming under attack by a swarm of aliens from another realm—aliens who were attacking in retaliation for being used as "fuel" for Ransom's jerry-rigged warp drive. (I'm not sure exactly what to call these nameless aliens other than the CGI aliens; the show never calls them anything except "the aliens" or "the lifeforms.") Ransom had escaped in the Equinox along with hostages Seven and Doc, while the Equinox's EMH, sans ethical subroutines, had smuggled himself aboard Voyager, where he began pretending to be the Voyager EMH.
Oh yes ... and of course, Janeway Was Going to Die—we love our pretentious cliffhangers.
So, anyway, "Equinox II" begins again. The Voyager crew has temporarily shielded itself from the aliens, while Ransom finds he can't use his modified engine device because Seven had locked out the stolen techno-ma-whozit device with security codes.
So the primary outline for "Equinox II": Ransom wants those codes, and Janeway wants Ransom.
There's something nice about the episode's underlying simplicity. The plot goals are clear, but how the episode gets where it's going is where things turn interesting—sometimes extremely interesting.
First, foremost, and most attention-grabbing is what effect Ransom's escape has on Captain Janeway. She launches into a single-minded obsession to stop Ransom at damn near any cost. This obsession is the Janeway equivalent of Picard's obsession to stop the Borg in First Contact or, more similar, Sisko's obsession to catch Eddington in "For the Uniform." Watching Janeway take this situation so personally works every bit as well and for many of the same reasons as when Sisko took Eddington's betrayal personally. Ransom has betrayed his uniform, and Janeway, being the only Starfleet captain within many thousands of light-years, is going to stop him.
What I found particularly compelling was the extent to which the writers took this idea. If there's one thing they didn't do, it was play it safe. Janeway, often a character whose decisions have come across as controversial and even reckless, goes probably farther here than ever before, telling her first officer in no uncertain terms that she's "damned angry," and that if he wants to consider her unwillingness to back down as motivated by a personal vendetta, then so be it.
The Janeway/Chakotay interaction here made me sit up and take notice. It's been some time since we've seen some really memorable interaction between the two of them, and in terms of seeing them strictly as the captain and first officer tackling a problem (complicated here by the fact they're in extreme disagreement) this is one of the strongest-played uses of Janeway/Chakotay in years.
Most of that can be attributed to the fact Janeway's actions venture dangerously near the realm of wrong-headed insanity. Janeway seems to be putting her vendetta first, and Voyager's safety and her own principles second. Although the show itself isn't so bold as to resort to such a comic-book statement, it's clear she WANTS RANSOM, in all capital letters.
All I can say is: Don't get on Janeway's bad side. At one point the crew cleverly captures two of Ransom's away team on the surface of a planet. Janeway brings one of them, Crewman Lessing, into the cargo bay for questioning. She wants Lessing to tell her about Ransom's tactical status. When he refuses to talk, she threatens to lower the shields in the room and turn the CGI aliens loose on him in order to speed the interrogation along.
Chakotay at first thinks this is a game of "good cop, bad cop," but Janeway isn't playing. Nor is she bluffing.
Quite simply, the sight of Janeway standing ice cold in her place—having locked Lessing alone in the cargo bay with some none-too-happy aliens, and now firmly reassuring Chakotay (none too sympathetically) that "he'll break"—is downright frightening. "What's happened to you, Kathryn?" Chakotay asks at one point. I wanted to ask the same question. I haven't seen this Janeway before. She doesn't answer to anyone. With no Starfleet watching over her shoulder, how could she be stopped if she continued down such a dangerous path?
Mulgrew is quite mesmerizing. While a dangerous, self-destructive Janeway like this might be lost upon the Voyager audience if used too often, in small doses it's compelling stuff. And although Janeway pushes the envelope of her authority oh-so-far (as do the writers, really), there's an awareness buried somewhere beneath Janeway's madness—she simply wants what's just. Unfortunately, the price is too high and she almost completely loses Chakotay's confidence in the process.
In another scene (which would've been more powerful if not for the hokey CGI aliens goofily swirling about and shrieking), she negotiates an arrangement with the aliens, promising to deliver the Equinox to them if they call off their attacks. When Tuvok objects, saying it will mean certain death for the Equinox crew, Janeway's answer is, "I've already confined my first officer to quarters. Would you like to join him?"
Ransom has his own problems, and they're mostly coming from within. You see, he's disabled Doc's ethical subroutines so he'll perform an operation on Seven that will forcibly extract the codes, which she is refusing to give. This will leave Seven with severe brain damage. Ransom doesn't want to do it, but he has "no choice," a term that he tends to overuse as rationalization, which Seven aptly points out. It gets Ransom to thinking, and eventually struggling. He has already devalued the lives of the CGI aliens. Can he bring himself to devalue the life of another human being? Although nicely documented, Ransom's role in this half of "Equinox" is less interesting than Janeway's, probably because it's more expected: He is a Starfleet captain after all, and his decision to ultimately do the Right Thing and surrender is an ending to his tale that I can barely envision playing out any other way.
In the meantime, the action elements are mostly well placed here. The FX are above average, and David Livingston keeps the story moving along at a nice pace. And there's always something unsettling about seeing two Federation starships firing on each other.
Of course, in the process of the plot we somehow also get our fill of the Ryan and Picardo Duet™. I don't know why, but it's hard to view a Jeri Ryan Singing Scene objectively anymore. Yeah, she can sing, but in an episode like this it's hard for it to come across as non-gratuitous.
It's when we get into the final act that I have some bigger reservations about the plot. Ransom decides to surrender, which may be sudden backpedaling considering his previous actions, but still backpedaling that makes sense given how much we saw Ransom go through in the course of the hour. I thought his nagging visions of Seven speaking as his conscience in the scenery program came off as fairly appropriate given the circumstances.
On the other hand, one of the show's bigger failures is its superficial use of Max Burke. In part one, Max had some fairly intriguing scenes with B'Elanna that hinted that this guy was a potential three-dimensional character. But in this half, alas, the writers utilize Max as a Convenient Plot Pawn™. Once Ransom has come to his realization and intends to surrender, Max pulls a phaser and becomes a non-surrendering mutiny, the avenue through which the story can still end with him, Ransom, and the Equinox being destroyed, thereby satisfying, we presume, the CGI aliens' blood lust. While other members of the Equinox crew are brought aboard Voyager (including Lessing and Gilmore, who had better become recurring characters after all this), this ending makes for a lot of convenient conditions that let both Ransom and Janeway off the hook for their actions. One wonders what the consequences might've been had things played out differently.
Also, there are some gaping plot holes that simply had me confused. For starters, how did Doc get from the Equinox computer system back aboard Voyager? And how did he get his ethical subroutines back? As far as I can tell, no explanation is supplied; it's almost as if a scene ended up on the cutting room floor. In one scene Doc's operating on Seven, then the plot develops away from him for about 10 minutes and the next thing we know he's suddenly back aboard Voyager confronting the "bad" EMH.
And about this confrontation—it sure ranks as a lame one: Doc walks in and says, "Computer, delete the Equinox EMH," and, sure enough, the Equinox EMH vanishes, game over. Talk about your convenient ways to off a bad guy. Come on, people.
Problems aside, "Equinox, Part II" is possibly Voyager's best season kickoff. While this half of "Equinox" doesn't begin to revisit many of the issues of Starfleet officers pushed to their limits in the Delta Quadrant (a la part one), overall, it's done better than the first part, and it finds an angle almost as interesting, showing the obsessions of Janeway's sense of moral righteousness—which nearly degenerates into an eye-for-an-eye mentality that she alone intends to see through. She ultimately doesn't have to, but seeing her intent is certainly worth the time.
The final scene on the Voyager bridge seems to indicate that Janeway realizes and regrets how far she crossed the line, and how she all but abandoned her first officer and crew. She admits quietly to Chakotay that he might've had good reason for his own mutiny. And I liked the symbolism of the fallen Voyager dedication plaque. "All these years, all these battles; this thing's never fallen down before," Janeway notes. The implications are interesting. As a unit of Starfleet ideals, Janeway's vendetta may have taken Voyager as far off course as it has been. And I particularly like the fact she realizes that.
Next week: The Borg Are Back™, and Seven May Return to the Collective™.
Jammer trailer commentary: I've seen some press information about this upcoming show, and from what I understand, there's much more to this episode than what the trailer would have us believe. Obviously, UPN marketing isn't trying to appeal to Voyager viewers, since any loyal Voyager viewer's reaction to this promo is likely to be, "What? Again?!" I guess, as always, they're trying to appeal to would-be Voyager converts who haven't seen the other Voyager Borg episodes. But, really, are the Borg still that marketable that a "Borg Are Back" preview is considered the most effective approach?