"Message in a Bottle"

Season Four, Episode 14
Teleplay by Lisa Klink
Story by Rick Williams
Directed by Nancy Malone
Main Cast:
Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway
Robert Beltran as Chakotay
Roxann Dawson as B'Elanna Torres
Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris
Ethan Phillips as Neelix
Robert Picardo as The Doctor
Tim Russ as Tuvok
Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine
Garrett Wang as Harry Kim

Guest Cast:
Andy Dick as EMH2
Judson Scott  as Commander Rekar
Valerie Wildman as Nevala
Tiny Ron as Idrin
Tony Sears as Starfleet Officer


Voyager discovers a vast communications array network which enables them to make contact with a Federation starship in the Alpha Quadrant. But the signal they send degrades before it reaches the starship, USS Prometheus. What they must do is send across stronger signal: such as the Doctor's program. The Doctor is sent via the array across to the Prometheus, where he finds the crew dead and the ship comandeered by the Romulans. He enlists the help of the ship's EMH, which is an "enhanced" model. The two holo-docs outwit the Romulans and return the Prometheus to Federation hands. When the Doc returns to Voyager, he informs them that he spoke with Starfleet and filled them in on the ship's situation. Starfleet pledges that they will do all they can to rescue Voyager. The message is simple: "you are no longer alone". 


Well, that was fun. Fun is good, right? Yeah, sure it is. The only problem is that "Message in a Bottle" deserved to be a lot more than fun -- this could well be the most important episode of Voyager since the pilot. They finally make contact with the Alpha Quadrant! Starfleet knows they're still out there. Problem is, this is relegated to barely one scene, which is deeply...frustrating.

But, hey, I've been underwhelmed (to varying degrees) with the last four episodes in a row, so I'm willing to accept fun, even though the episode should, by all rights, have been a lot more than it is. It's an entertaining showcase for the talented Robert Picardo who is given a chance to truly shine in the spotlight. The writing is crisp, snappy and amusing, giving the episode a fair degree of well-realised comedy. And, as I said, Picardo is absolutely brilliant. 

Pity he's saddled with Andy Dick, who gives one of the show's worst performances in recent memory. I've never seen nor heard of Mr Dick before (who is he anyway?), but our "Special Guest Star" was a very poor foil for Picardo. He botched just about every line with his poor comic timing and left me wholly unimpressed. Sorry, but I felt he dragged the episode down somewhat. Picardo needed to be paired with an equal (in terms of his talent) in order for the Doc/EMH2 sparring to properly resonate. Dick was definitely miscast -- imagine how great it would have been had Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) been given the role? Picardo often reminds me of Grammer, both in terms of appearance and style. They would have made a terrific pairing! Or even if Picardo had played both parts (hey, it's been done before). Either way, although I found the Doc/EMH2 pairing quite fun, the actual comedy aspect would have worked a lot better had they cast someone capable of doing comedy. Sigh. It's very rare that it's casting that spoils an episode, it's more often the writing. Here the writing was fine, but the guest star that threw a spanner in the works. Excuse me while I throw my hands up in the air -- you just can't win!

Hmm, as I said, I couldn't help but feel that the focus of the episode was somewhat misplaced...given such an important plot, it just seems inappropriate to shove it onto the back-burner in favour of the Doc's superficial and lightweight shenanigans, however entertaining they were. Janeway's reaction upon hearing the Doc's news was touching -- but I definitely wanted to see more of it! "Message in a Bottle" could have been an emotionally-charged powerhouse, so I do question the decision to squander such a rich premise on a rather flimsy fun-fest. 

This seems to be something of a trend for Voyager. The majority of the fourth season has been primarily composed of lightweight action-oriented plots, many of which almost conform to a formula. There's been a certain reluctance to delve into the characters in any depth. I want so much more than that. Yes, Voyager is an invariably entertaining series but it's not exactly a filling meal -- more of a light snack. That may be just what some people are looking for, but I find it increasingly FRUSTRATING

Getting back to "Message in a Bottle", I will say that I was both surprised and pleased to see the show take a leap back to its original premise. Back in the third season Jeri Taylor announced her intention to place less emphasis on the "lost in the Delta Quadrant" premise and try to create a lighter, more free-spirited show. That's fine, and Voyager has improved over the past year, but I do question the decision to abandon the show's very CORE premise. "Message in a Bottle" brings us back to that core, and I couldn't be happier about that. I may not have agreed with the decision to focus on the Doc's little outing instead of the actual outcome, but mercifully this pivotal plot is picked up in the next episode, "Hunters". Which is just as well -- 'cos if it HADN'T..I would be extremely peed off! 

Some other thoughts:

I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing what "Message in a Bottle" isn't and what it should have been...but I guess that's futile. What exactly IS "Message in a Bottle"? It's a pleasant, amusing and fun outing which manages to be entertaining pretty much throughout. Is that enough? Probably not given the potential of its premise, but given the recent spate of poor episodes, I'll definitely take it.

Rating: 7

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