In brief: An average, amicable, marshmallow-consistency show in which some underused characters actually show up.
If you're looking for something substantive, you'd best look elsewhere. "Drive" is a featherweight Voyager outing — an amiable episode that will hopefully make you grin from time to time, hopefully make you glad that they've actually dealt with a character theme that has been largely ignored for the past three years, and hopefully remind you that the plot of last week's "Imperfection," while mired in overused Borg milieu, was a pretty meaty story — which this is not. The plot details of "Drive" are an excuse to give us a relationship show on a series which the now-only-peripherally-involved Brannon Braga has always maintained "is not a relationship show."
In other words, this is generally effective marshmallow fluff. Ambitious? Hardly. Reasonably well-executed on its terms? For the most part, yes. A pleasant, likable hour? I think so.
It's a rare Paris/Torres episode, with a subplot involving Harry "I'm Such a Hapless but Lovable Chump" Kim. For once we have a story that is actually about the characters, and not about the plot. Well, sort of. Sure, the relationship story involving Tom and B'Elanna may be a fairly standard iteration on a formula — but, hey, I'm glad the writers made the effort. Maybe Kenneth Biller, running the show from here on out, will actually deliver on some of those rumored reports of increased continuity and character development for Voyager's final season. "Drive" displays some possible signs of that.
Regarding the plot — it begins as a somewhat refreshing change of pace in that the aliens we meet aren't automatically shooting at us. On the contrary, Kim and Paris find themselves testing the new Delta Flyer and drag-racing another pilot in the episode's teaser. Shuttle drag racing — that's sort of an interesting idea. ("Imperfection" and "Drive" were flip-flopped from the originally intended air schedule, which I think is proven here as a dumb idea — the whole idea of establishing the "new" Delta Flyer is at least made into something of a point here, whereas in "Imperfection" it was reduced to a lame joke.)
The drag-racing opponent in the teaser is a woman named Irina (Cyia Batten, who was the first of three actors to play Dukat's daughter Ziyal on DS9), whom Harry very quickly attempts to befriend. (Place your bets now on whether Harry will hook up, but I urge you to consider his track record.) Irina informs Tom and Harry of a racing event taking place nearby. This region of space, you see, was once a big war zone, but now the formerly warring societies have established this shuttle race as a celebration for the anniversary of a peace treaty that is only a few years old.
Paris is excited about this race. Very. It's a great opportunity for him to play up one of the two character traits he's known for: the Expert Pilot. (The other trait is of course Lt. One-Liner.) Janeway thinks a race in the interests of peace is a perfect way to take a breather and to exercise Federation diplomacy, so Paris is pleased as punch about the chance ... except that in his state of pilot's rapture he forgets all about the romantic weekend he and B'Elanna had planned in the holodeck. Doh!
B'Elanna's reaction to Tom's apology is surprisingly restrained — and she even encourages him to follow through on whatever "makes him happy." Okay, guys — this is where a red flashing light and a buzzer should be going off in your head right now: RELATIONSHIP TROUBLE AHEAD. B'Elanna's response is a mix of understanding and hidden exasperation. But mostly masked disappointment. She begins to realize that perhaps she and Tom are too different to be together.
I liked Dawson's less-is-more performance. When she sulks in the mess hall, it's underplayed in a way such that her disappointment shows through all the more. It reminded me of her detachment in "Extreme Risk," an episode where her performance transcended the shallowness of the story.
Tom also comes across reasonably. He obviously cares for B'Elanna, but what exists here is a failure of communication for these two to clearly reveal their perceived relationship problems. B'Elanna feels like Tom assigns her too low a priority, but hasn't told Tom she feels this way. Tom is more than willing to make B'Elanna his top priority, but isn't sure that she wants him to overwhelm her with "mushy stuff." The way all of this comes to a head is after B'Elanna becomes Tom's co-pilot in the race in order to spend time with him doing something he feels is important. This allows issues of control and possession of responsibility during the race to be melded into the psychology of these two and their relationship.
This isn't the deepest material ever conceived, but I thought it was adequately conveyed by Michael Taylor's script and the actors. Dawson and McNeill do a good job with the material they have, but they still don't have a natural, unforced chemistry with each other that truly sells intimate scenes, especially concerning the "mushy stuff." I must confess a bit of a soft spot for relationship shows that give us a payoff after years of setup (or in the case of Voyager, occasionally acknowledged setup), so I found this mostly enjoyable even if a little hackneyed. One apt moment is when Tom stops the Flyer in mid-race to have an immediate, serious talk with B'Elanna.
All of this segues into and out of a plot involving somebody trying to sabotage the race and tear down the uneasily maintained peace treaty. (The reasons for this, once revealed, are hopelessly perfunctory, but an even bigger question I had is why golf balls in the 24th century have blinking, bleeping lights inside them — but forget it.) A sabotaged console on Irina's shuttle blows up, injuring her co-pilot. This leads Harry to volunteer as her replacement co-pilot. No points for guessing who the saboteur is; the Law of Economy of Characters basically gives you two choices: Irina herself, or gruff (red-herring) opponent Assan (Patrick Kilpatrick, who appeared as a hardened Starfleet soldier in DS9's "The Siege of AR-558"). If you didn't guess Irina, you obviously weren't paying attention to the implications of the Harry Kim attraction angle.
This poor sap. I'm beginning to think the writers take some sadistic pleasure is teasing him with potential girlfriends who are, of course, not what they seem. Of course Irina is the saboteur. It's inevitable. If she weren't, Harry might stand a chance to hook up, which simply would go against everything about the Harry Kim (Not) Getting the Girl rule. (Hey, at least the writers are consistent!) If this guy isn't a walking poster boy for the theory "nice guys finish last," then I don't know who is.
Structurally, I thought the way the climax was executed, with the crosscutting between the Tom/B'Elanna and Harry/Irina dialog scenes, worked pretty well, explaining the sabotage plot while Tom and B'Elanna face their communication barrier. I should probably point out that only on Voyager will you likely see a marriage proposal happen in the middle of a speeding attempt to move a bomb from A to B during a 30-second countdown. (This isn't the usual gratuitous Action Insert, but instead gratuitous full Action Integration.) Peace is maintained, Irina is exposed, Harry is still a chump, and Tom and B'Elanna live happily ever after.
The episode ends with an off-screen wedding and then a scene on the Delta Flyer, in which an enormous conceit of cuteness was taken in having "JUST MARRIED" written on the back end of the Flyer. I sort of enjoyed the idea of the two teasing each other about the last name (marital struggle #1: "B'Elanna and Tom Torres" or "Tom and B'Elanna Paris"?). Whether or not you like this — or any of it — may simply depend on whether you've ever liked the idea of Tom and B'Elanna together. I'm one who always sort of liked it, but didn't find great insight in the way it was executed. Such are my feelings for "Drive."
Next week: The trailer claims mutiny, but somehow I doubt it. Maybe it's "Worst Case Scenario, Part II."