Friday, May 27, 2016

Voyager, Season 4: Message in a Bottle, Season 4
"Message in a Bottle"
Airdate: January 21, 1998
80 of 168 produced
81 of 168 aired


A chance find of an apparently abandoned but massive communications network provides Voyager with the unique opportunity of contacting the Alpha Quadrant. The catch (and of course there is one) is that only the Doctor's program will survive the trip and even that's not a guarantee. The Doctor finds himself on a new Federation starship, the USS Prometheus, with even more problems: Romulans.

 Now that I see this shot, I'm kind of surprised they didn't go for a captain's chair gag.


Kevin: It's hard not to love this episode. If nothing else, the humor is just nearly flawlessly executed. I said at the top of the podcast that this may be the first and last time I found Andy Dick truly funny, and I think it stands. The main focus of the episode is obviously the two EMHs and it all just sings. They have their egos in common, but our Doctor is weary and Over It, where the Prometheus' is chipper to a fault. The interplay is of course in line with buddy comedies through the ages. On the Prometheus, I think the only joke that really fell flat for me was the Doctor not only not recognizing a new tool but being unable to suss out their purpose. It was a rare lean too far for the joke for the sake of giving the Mark 2 credibility. Beyond that, their alternating success and panicked bumbling really worked.

Matthew: Voyager seems to go for briefer bits of comedy here and there (mainly with Neelix, Tom/Harry, and the Doctor). This is one of Voyager's only really comedy heavy episodes, and it was dynamite. The Doctor definitely is the most comedic character (with the perfect actor to deliver it, which will be discussed below), and they gave him a really good foil to play off of. The basic reversal is classic - the Doctor feels superior to his compatriots, and now he runs up against another EMH who feels just as superior to him. What goes unspoken in this episode is what I consider the major knock against it - that not only is the Doctor sentient, but so is the EMH Mark 2. I guess we're just supposed to take it as given that these programs are sophisticated enough to just plain qualify as sentient beings. Which is fine with me - when we meet Dr. Zimemrman, I believe entirely that this may have been his (at least ancillary) aim and that he could be successful in it. But I would appreciate a line about it here.

Kevin: Some other character notes really round out the episode. Seven and B'Elanna's antagonism isn't really the focus of the episode but they lay some good ground work for future interactions, and the grudging thaw over shocking the Hirogen was a nice, light touch. I was less enamored per se with the attempt to reconstruct an EMH since it seems like a Fool's Errand on its face, but I have to admit that Tom and Harry's banter make it enjoyable enough. This is also a good introduction to the Hirogen. We get just enough to assume we'll be seeing them again, but not much more.

Matthew: I found this to be just the right balance of character filler to main plot. Voyager's strength has always been the character relationships, and the episode nails two of them quite nicely, one positive, one negative. I found the laughs genuine for both, too.

Kevin: I also want to praise the episode for building this episode's plot inside the larger Voyager narrative really well. It's not another Gilligan's Island fake-out trip home, and at this point, Starfleet knowing about them doesn't really change Voyager's day to day situation very much, but the mere knowledge that Starfleet knows, and Voyager knows they do, changes Voyager's broader story. It puts their eventual return a hair more likely, but not in a way that feels forced.

Matthew: I think this episode more than almost any other allows the series to feel less aimless and more like it is actually "going somewhere." Future episodes that pick up on this thread are among the best of future seasons, in my opinion, anyway. One of the most interesting aspects of a stranding story is the people left behind at home, and to this point only "Non Sequitur" has really given us even an alternate reality glimpse of this. Also, introducing the Prometheus allows Starfleet to feel like an organization that is continuing to grow and innovate, which is a nice feeling to impart, making it feel more real.


Kevin: This was a bravura performance by Picardo, no two ways about it. He is a master at serving an array of facial expression before speaking the perfect dry response. The way he bit his knuckles in anxiety before landing on trying to pretend he is the Prometheus' EMH was just flawless. His deadpan reactions in the interrogation scene were a delight as well.

Matthew: Picardo might be the best actor on this show, and that's saying a lot when Kate Mulgrew is on the same set. He has shown us impressive dramatic chops, and he has always had the superbly pitched "withering dryness," but here he shows us physical comedy, bouncing successfully off of another (quite good) comedic actor, as well as integrating the techier aspects of the story. It's definitely one of his top 5 episodes, which again is no small praise.

Kevin: Like I said before, this was a great performance by Andy Dick. He really seemed to "get"the dialogue, especially commendable for a casual fan. His eagerness and nerves played as genuine, and with the exception I noted above which is really a writing problem anyway, the sparring never falls flat.

Matthew: I'm really impressed by Andy Dick's line readings here. He puts all these little shades and inflections in that show that he is really inhabiting a character, that he is thinking about the story and "Gets it." Whatever has been said about his behavior off the set, he really brings it. He is definitely funny, too, finding a superb rapport with Picardo that leads to many truly laugh-out-loud moments (not something I do willy nilly with scripted television).

Kevin: The Romulans, led by Judson Scott whom faithful viewers should recognize as Jaoquim in Wrath of Khan and from Symbiosis as Sobi, the Brekkian drug dealer. He has a great voice and a great commanding presence, even through the makeup.

Production Values

Kevin: The interiors of the Prometheus are just fantastic. I assume there is a fair amount of reuse from the Enterprise-E sets, but the redresses make specific catches almost impossible. I loved all the architectural elements in the pylons and sconces. If they were going to go back to this set, I would suggest a few contrasting colors, but the washed out palate almost serves the idea of a ship still in the planning stages.

Matthew: We've complained again and again about lackluster side ships in Star Trek. This one feels like a real place. I would watch a series set on this thing in a heartbeat. Which, now that I've typed it, makes me wish that the new series would be set on it.

Kevin: I question the utility of a ship that has so many more complicated parts that can go wrong, but visually, it was a hoot. The three parts of the Prometheus along with the Starfleet vessels and the Romulan vessels combined some great action-packed tableaus.

Matthew: Practicality aside, the CGI sequences here were first-rate. Good renderings, good animations, good space fight choreography. The only design note I don't really like is the notion of a pop-out nacelle on the saucer piece. But I'll readily admit that this is a pretty picky nit.


Kevin: I waffled briefly between a 4 and a 5, but really there's almost no wasted dialogue, and the near-flawless humor definitely puts this up there with Trouble with Tribbles as one of the best comedy shows they've done, so this gets a 5.

Matthew: Great comedy, good world building, terrific acting, top notch sets and space effects. I can't even see an argument for anything but the top decile here, which makes this an easy 5 for me. That brings us to a 10.



  1. This is a good episode. I remember when I first saw this episode thinking it was funny that Andy Dick was in Star Trek. Weird not seeming him play a total creep/sexual deviant. I also always laugh at the request to get the sex sub-routine.

  2. Literally the only substantive complaint for this episode, "How is a ship that turns into three smaller ships better than just having three separate ships?"

  3. A 10, eh? Interesting. I always skip this episode on rewatch. lol. I find it boring.

  4. Of all the criticisms I can imagine, "boring" would not be one of them!

  5. I also can't stand Andy Dick, but this was a really excellent outing for him.

    On the ship-splitting as a tactical consideration, I wonder if the real thing to do, especially given the overall movement (and retreat) options in 3D space is to go all out. Not just 2 or 3 smaller ships, but a ship that splits into 10+ smaller ships. That would present some serious conflicts with starship design within the Starfleet milieu, but I think that's how you could make the pieces more powerful than the whole. It would be like the difference between fighting one very big bee versus fighting a whole swarm of them. There would still be some disadvantages for Starfleet (how do you all swarm or execute evasive actions without crashing into the rest of the swarm?), but that would actually be a more interesting combat option than splitting into 2 or 3 ships. As a tactical consideration, it just didn't go far enough to be worthwhile.

    Hell, your individual swarmlings don't even necessarily need warp nacelles - you're almost never fighting at warp anyways.