In brief: A nigh-perfect example of too little, too late.
"Nightingale" didn't do much for me. I'm not entirely sure whether to blame the episode or the series as a whole, so I'll do the honorable thing and blame both.
But in all seriousness, an episode like "Nightingale" suffers all the more because it's an example of the adage "too little, too late."
Well, too bad.
Ensign Harry Kim, as many people undoubtedly know, is by far not my favorite Voyager character. In my view, he's the best candidate for ripping apart and making fun. The writers apparently share that view, and frequently give him episodes where he's the butt of the joke. (The story break meetings must boil down to: "That darn Harry! He's such a funny, naive kid! How green can we make him this week?") Witness the very end of "Inside Man," for example, and you see Harry being the victim of a joke that seems to reinforce the fact that he hasn't advanced a step forward since day one. Besides, when the character is saddled with episodes like "Favorite Son" or "The Disease," how can we possibly believe the writers see him as anything more than the lovable goofball who gets some of the worst shows?
Now we get "Nightingale," which seems to be a last-ditch effort by the writing staff to redeem themselves for years of Harry non-growth. Does it work? Not really. Could it have? I'm honestly not sure. The show wants us to accept Harry as a starship captain. That's sort of like asking us to accept Tuvok as a stand-up comedian.
Harry ends up in command of a ship by complete accident, which is perhaps a telling sign. Wandering into an alien conflict by chance, Harry makes a choice while on a Delta Flyer mission with Seven and Neelix: He opts to stop one ship from firing on another. Strictly speaking as a matter of policy, the conflict is not his concern, but humanitarian instincts tell him that saving the crippled ship under attack is the right thing to do.
The decision he makes is not a bad one, though it will raise complications later. When the Delta Flyer crew boards the vessel to tend to survivors, Harry finds that the ship's captain and senior officers have all been killed (how convenient!), and this crippled ship needs the help of experienced personnel to make repairs. They're called the Kraylor, and they say they're on a mission of mercy to deliver medicine to their world. They need protection from the Annari, who are the ones who attacked them. They are particularly vulnerable without their cloaking device working.
Harry offers them help in making repairs, after which they ask if he would be willing to take command of their ship and take them to safety. He routes them to Voyager's position and asks Janeway for an opportunity to see this mission through. There's a speech here where Harry makes his case for getting his first "real command" — which is a relevant idea after all these years — and he even makes mention of the fact he's been an ensign for the past six years ("If we were back home, I'd be a lieutenant by now — maybe even a lieutenant commander"). Not that Janeway couldn't have given him a field promotion at any time; she gave rank to the Maquis officers and promoted Tuvok (and Paris, after demoting him), but never mind.
So Janeway gives Harry his chance to sit in the big chair of this Kraylor vessel. Harry takes command of the Kraylor ship and quickly names it the Nightingale, hence the episode's title. There's a complication here: The Annari, the Kraylor's enemies, are in the middle of some trade negotiations with Voyager, so Harry's mission must be conducted outside their knowledge.
The problem with "Nightingale" is that the crises are far too obvious and the story is not subtle enough. Harry takes command, and it's almost as if the power of the captain's chair instantly rushes straight to his head and turns him into a magnified version of his already blatantly naive self. As captain, he's an annoying micromanager, giving an order to his officer and then practically shoving the officer out of the way to do it himself, so it's done right.
Also, Harry carries an air of arrogance that practically snuffs out our sympathy for him. He doesn't gain the respect of those under him and instead assumes he has it because he sits in the captain's chair. Frankly, if I were serving under him, he wouldn't have my respect either. (Does Harry have a single character trait besides being green?)
The best scenes are probably the ones where Seven kicks Harry in the rear with her direct opinions ("There is a malfunction in one of the ship's systems — its captain.") whenever he makes a mistake. But he should already be realizing these mistakes if he ever commanded Voyager during the night shift. By throwing us such ham-fisted Harry actions, the story doesn't really give us a sampling of Harry's abilities but instead examples of why he shouldn't even be in the chair in the first place.
There's some extra plotting to "Nightingale" involving the hidden motives of the Kraylor, as mostly filtered through the mysterious character of Dr. Loken (Ron Glass). They aren't trying to deliver medical supplies but instead the ship's prototype cloaking device. This exposed deception leads Harry to order the mission abandoned, at which point the crew answers in mutiny by refusing to follow his order to turn around. Harry decides it best to flee the ship in an escape pod rather than be a party to delivering military equipment. But then he changes his mind after getting dressed down by Seven and decides to see the mission through anyway, at which point I wondered if a crew would really accept him back. (Somewhat indulgent is the show's portrayal of Harry as heroic for coming to this decision, and making so much of his return to the bridge.)
There's a B-story in "Nightingale" that goes down as one of the most disposable filler B-stories in some time. It involves Icheb coming to terms with an unexpected crush on B'Elanna. Being unfamiliar with romantic signals, he perceives simple friendliness as signs that B'Elanna has an interest in him. While not offensive, this subplot is the lightest of lightweight and not one bit necessary or interesting. The comic "twist" is when Icheb confuses the facts until he's telling B'Elanna they must "stop seeing each other." The story misses its lighthearted payoff moment by showing B'Elanna annoyed after the strange misunderstanding instead of smiling at the absurdity of it. (C'mon, 'Lanna — lighten up!)
Now that I think about it, I don't know that this show could've actually succeeded. It's probably unfair that "Nightingale" suffers from the mistakes that were made before — and perhaps it reveals my bias against a character long reduced to a single joke. But this is a show that can't really work as entertainment unless we feel the central dilemma about Harry is worth our time. All the alien conflicts and hidden agendas are just stock McGuffin material (and too mediocre to be compelling); the real story is about Harry. And I can't really say that the real story is anything but mediocre either. The ending in particular doesn't ring true, because it shows that Harry seems to think he's captain material. He's not. But the episode seems to want us to think he is, or at least that he might be someday down the road.
I dunno. By the end of the episode I didn't get the sense that Harry learned much of anything. What's more, I didn't really care.
Next week: Doc is pulled into the plight of a group of sentient holograms.