(Note: This episode was re-rated from 2.5 to 2 stars when the season recap was written.)
Nutshell: An agreeable hour, but the premise deserves deeper treatment. As is, it can't transcend being an exercise.
An episode like the amiable but frustrating "Riddles" reminds me how torn I am between trying to accept what Voyager is and scrutinizing it for what it could be. Where must I draw the line in accepting that nothing of significance on this series will ever be allowed to have an impact that isn't automatically reset to zero? Perhaps more urgent concerning the hour at hand: Are the events that stand alone here engaging enough to make me overlook the use of the Voyager Reset Button?
I guess the answer to that last question is, "Well, not quite." "Riddles" has its good moments, but the more I think about this show, the more I realize that all it really consists of is moments—moments that stand alone and don't add up to mean much of anything on a bigger scale.
The episode is the first Tuvok/Neelix vehicle in quite some time—perhaps even since the awful "Rise" from season three. As a Tuvok/Neelix show, it's above average overall (although I admit that's not saying much). The story begins on the Delta Flyer with Tuvok and Neelix alone on one of those shuttle missions where the primary objective is to have two characters alone on a shuttle mission. Neelix still calls Tuvok "Mr. Vulcan," which has always annoyed me plenty, but I suppose acknowledging past characterization is a good thing. Tuvok still barely tolerates Neelix's non-stop blathering, occasionally voicing a flat, Tuvokian request for silence.
Been here and done this—but in "Riddles" the writers put a new spin on the Tuvok/Neelix relationship when Tuvok is zapped by an alien weapon, leaving him severely brain damaged and with memory loss. Doc is able to save his life, but the question is whether Tuvok will recover and reclaim who he was. Neelix becomes the guy to help rehabilitate Tuvok by re-familiarizing him with the previously familiar.
There's also a B-story here involving the crew's attempts to track down the mysterious aliens who attacked Tuvok. With the help of a representative from the Kesat society, named Naroq (Mark Moses), the crew begins a special-technology-assisted search for these mysterious aliens, called the Ba'neth, who apparently go to great lengths to hide themselves from other space travelers. The Kesat on the whole do not even believe the Ba'neth exist; Naroq comes across as a sort of Kesat equivalent of "Spooky Mulder"—he's on a crusade to prove the existence of the Ba'neth to a society that doesn't want to acknowledge the possibility.
What's strange is that the Routine Alien Subplot is actually one of the potentially least routine of its type in some time—in concept, at least. The Ba'neth could've made for a genuinely intriguing storyline—they're a mysterious, invisible society that is well-envisioned through some nifty special effects that maintain an interesting obscurity—but, alas, they're not used in very interesting ways, and turn out to be the usual xenophobes. Nine times out of 10 I'll say "who cares" regarding the alien subplot and welcome emphasis on the character story. Unfortunately, this is Case #10, where the aliens could've been a superior plot of their own. It's a shame that we see so little of them and their motives, and that this subplot chews its way along the typical lines because of the maintained emphasis on Tuvok/Neelix.
So ultimately, and not surprisingly, "Riddles" lives or dies on the strength of the Tuvok/Neelix plot. In short, while there's some decent material here, it's just not on par with the situation's potential. Ostensibly, the story is about Tuvok's battle to reclaim who he is, and then later to accept what he has become. But it doesn't demonstrate these intentions in ways that are particularly fresh. There's a scene between Neelix and Seven that appropriately uses some character history ... but to me it seems the lesson to be learned here (that of molding someone into what they can be rather than what they're unlikely to reclaim) is a pretty obvious lesson that Neelix should've learned on his own. And why is it all lessons are seemingly learned in quiet, empty, darkened rooms, anyway?
If you're on board just to see Tuvok exhibit weird, un-Vulcan-like behavior, then you'll get your money's worth. Tuvok essentially turns into a child because of his brain damage—a sort of "Flowers for Algernon" in reverse—leading to scenes where he reacts in fear, anger, and frustration for what he has lost. And, of course, a scene where he bakes cakes. Seeing an un-Tuvok-like performance by Tim Russ is an interesting experience; you realize just how perfectly controlled, pragmatic, and intentionally flat Tuvok's voice generally is, and how much range Russ milks from the Vulcan confines. Here you see facets of Russ you typically never do (although his intensity in "Meld" from several years back was far more compelling than the child-like antics here). But the story could've gone so much further than it does. I was hoping for a real challenge for Tuvok that would somehow expose the nuts and bolts of who he is.
As it is, the nature of the plot deactivates/reactivates his personality too simplistically, flipping it like a light switch. The eventual restoration of Tuvok to his normal self is entirely too cut-and-dried, without much hint that any of the experience has really affected him. The normal-and-restored Tuvok is so far removed from the damaged Tuvok that we can't see that there's been any noteworthy net change (or even realization) in the final analysis ... and that hurts. "Barge of the Dead" might not be explicitly followed up, but at least it had a sense of B'Elanna's progress and realization. Here, it's hard to see "Riddles" as much more than a pointless exercise.
Naturally, I must point out that anyone with any doubt that Tuvok would make a full recovery by episode's end has not clued into the very obvious established Voyager pattern that Nothing May Have Any Consequences. Perhaps the real tragedy is that I've become so used to the Voyager formula that I already knew how "Riddles" was going to end 20 minutes into the show. Tracking down the Ba'neth would obviously lead to a magical cure that would restore Tuvok to his normal self. While the details of the plot work for the most part, I can't say they're particularly discussion-worthy.
On the whole, "Riddles" isn't bad or misguided—it's just that the events are ho-hum when they should be genuinely involving. Pretty much every scene here had an aura of pleasant reasonableness to it, but also an aura of predictability.
What I did like about this episode was the sympathy it reveals for Neelix. Here's a guy who just wants to be friends with Tuvok, but Tuvok just won't have it. Neelix pushes hard at a guy who by definition cannot be pushed in such ways. After the brain damage we are able to see Neelix connect with Tuvok, and it's under a situation where Tuvok can return the feelings. It's nice seeing Neelix as a helpful person whose motive is not simply to bid annoyingly for Tuvok's attention.
But the episode is never able to escape its own preset "reset to zero" destination. We realize everything will be so neatly fixed by the end, and the story is never able to completely break free from that liability. The final scene is subtle. Too subtle. Tuvok makes a joke that brings a new insight to the episode's opening pun, and we wonder if maybe this experience has somewhat changed him. But the question I'm asking is why the writers seem to think Tuvok can't have friends without a switch in his brain being flipped. Vulcans do have emotions, even if they don't typically express them. The way Tuvok seems to ignore Neelix in the final scene is painful—as I'm sure it's intended to be—but I don't really buy it. Tuvok obviously remembers everything that happened, yet he doesn't acknowledge what Neelix did for him, which I don't think is the right choice by the writers. We need some evidence that this meant something for Tuvok—and I don't think his final pun is nearly enough, especially given the ambivalent-at-best reaction Tuvok has to his own joke.
Since we'll doubtlessly never hear about any of this again, I'm guessing we'll never really know what it's supposed to mean. The writers make most of the show pretty obvious, so why go subtle on us at the last minute? I suppose we can chalk it up to the mystery of the Vulcan mind. Still, I just get the feeling that even the normal-and-emotion-free Tuvok should have more depth and emotional latitude than he's allowed to have here. I know he's capable, but the writers don't seem to.
Next week: Voyager is drawn into an alien conflict. That's a pretty impressive trailer with intense visuals and quite a hook—even with the return of the Big Words™.