In brief: Not unpleasant, but incredibly uneventful and content-free.
With only a few hours of screen time before Voyager closes shop, it seems beyond odd that "Natural Law" is what we get as one of those final hours. Apparently nearly everything that needs to be resolved on this series will be resolved in the two-hour finale, because you'd have no clue we were anywhere near the end of the series based on watching this episode. "Natural Law" — while not off-putting — is astoundingly nondescript, bordering on pointlessness, with a central issue that's barely given enough time to emerge as an issue.
What's on the screen isn't bad per se. But it's easy to avoid wrong-headed scenes when you take a stand on nothing and have virtually no story. There's simply so little on the screen. Most of it is like a documentary of two people walking around a forest and interacting with other people who, apparently, are mutes. "Natural Law" supplies four acts of that kind of setup before delivering a final act of half-hearted arguments that don't seem like they care much at all about taking any sort of stand. Maybe that's because there's simply nothing here to stand on.
We've also got a B-story about Paris getting a speeding ticket in the Delta Flyer and forced into traffic school, where he's the student of a stodgy driving instructor (Neil C. Vipond). Hello? Why is this worthy of screen time? Sure, there's mild amusement to be found in seeing Paris — whose primary character trait through this entire series has always been Ace Pilot — being told by his instructor that he's "on [his] way to becoming an adequate pilot." But this sort of plotting only fuels my argument that Voyager's writers have all these characters and resources at their disposal to tell great stories ... and yet they deliver trivial nonsense like this. Half the Voyager audience could've written this subplot.
The main "plot," such as it is, has Chakotay and Seven crashing their shuttle into a cultural preserve on the planet of the Ledosians. The Ledosians are a space-traveling, technologically advanced society, but inside this preserve is a primitive culture known as the Ventu, who live in isolation. They are protected by a massive energy barrier that was enacted centuries ago by an alien culture to protect the Ventu from the Ledosians, who had begun extending hostilities in an attempt to conquer them. The barrier is tenacious, to say the least; all attempts by the Ledosians to remove it have failed, and the technology continues to operate after centuries of non-maintenance. Find me any technology with that kind of reliability, and I'll buy it, no matter what it does or what it costs.
Most of the show sits and watches while an injured Chakotay tries to communicate with the Ventu while Seven looks for shuttle debris that may aid in her and Chakotay's escape from underneath the energy barrier. The Ventu never speak, and apparently communicate only with sign language. These scenes are palatably handled, sometimes with the aesthetic sense of silent cinema, but there's not much content behind them. They exist as atmosphere under the "seek out new civilizations" clause of the Trekkian mantra. And that's really all there is to the episode.
I might be willing to deal with four acts of repetition if the final act went somewhere interesting. It doesn't. Seven devises a way to bring down the energy barrier so she and Chakotay can be beamed out, but this allows the Ledosians to promptly send in research teams to study the Ventu. The Ledosians, it would seem, now intend to assimilate the Ventu into mainstream society. The question is whether or not that's a good thing. The Ventu, while primitive, are a resourceful bunch with a respect for the land, and a living piece of history.
The episode sees this as a Prime Directive issue (which is, of course, a Trek cliché), and Janeway's ruling is that the technology that's keeping the energy barrier deactivated must be removed since it belongs to Voyager. Sensible enough, but there's no real argument or debate here that exposes any intriguing angle or issue; it's addressed in about 60 seconds and the story marches on. For something that's supposed to be at its core, the story sure doesn't seem to care one way or the other. (Eventually the script has the Ledosians attack Voyager, which proves the writers ran out of ideas.)
The irony, of course, is that the energy barrier itself was created by aliens who didn't have their own Prime Directive type of policy; they interfered by stopping the Ledosians from attacking a culture on their own world. This is an irony the story apparently doesn't even recognize. Honestly, I'm not sure what the point of any of this is supposed to be.
The pleasant saving grace in "Natural Law" is in the way the story depicts our characters' interaction with the Ventu. Chakotay's attempts to communicate are patient and sincere — as is Terry Windell's direction over these scenes — and the reference to Chakotay's anthropological background is welcome. Even Seven, initially unmoved, ultimately can't help but deny that the Ventu are fascinating people, even if they do not have any sort of technological understanding.
But as for the story, this review would be remiss if not to ask: What story?
Next week: Farewell, Neelix...
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