“Message in a Bottle”
Star Trek: Voyager – Season 4, Episode 14
As I wrote about in my Late to the Party entry of Die Hard, good action movies require investment in the characters to create stakes. None of the explosions or gunfire really matter if we don’t care about who they’re happening to. The same holds true of comedy, which people reflexively think of as a light-hearted genre. Comedy can work exceptionally well when there are life and death stakes and serious stuff going on.
“Message in a Bottle” is a very fun and entertaining comedy episode because of its high stakes. In a way, they’ve have never been higher for Voyager‘s crew. Sure, they’ve found themselves in life or death situations before – the season began with the ship facing off against two of its deadliest adversaries ever. But these deadly adventures happen pretty much every week and can end up being paradoxically mundane. In “Message,” Voyager and its crew are in no mortal danger at all, so what are the ultra high stakes?
After four years, the episode presents its characters with the clearest and most direct way of letting Starfleet know that they’re still alive in the Delta Quadrant. Seven has located a vast and ancient array of alien communication satellites that allows the ship to see all the way to a distant region of the Alpha Quadrant. She detects a Starfleet ship quickly traveling out of its furthest sensor range and Voyager has precious few minutes to contact them and let them know they’re still alive.
And not a single thing goes right.
What should be a basic and straightforward task becomes an escalating comedy of errors, most of which is thrown onto the Doctor’s holographic shoulders. It’s a winning formula for an episode, because it presents a simple mission/premise that gets continually roadblocked with obstacles that keep piling on (Deep Space Nine’s “Visionary” with a time shifting O’Brien is another great example of this format). There’s a fun anxiety as our heroes get closer to their goal and our hopes keep rising while the obstacles get increasingly severe.
Voyager first tries a regular subspace message, but it gets bounced right back to them (Janeway throwing up her hands in frustration captures the feeling). BUT! If a stronger type of signal were used that doesn’t degrade as it travels across the network, it might succeed. Like a… holographic signal.
The Doctor thus becomes the only hope the crew has of contacting Starfleet, and he has less than a minute to accept this crazy program-risking mission. He does of course (which is pretty brave), and soon enough he finds himself activated in the sickbay of a new-fangled Starfleet ship, the USS Prometheus. The sickbay is empty, so he tries calling the bridge. No luck. He tries calling anyone on the ship. Nothing. The reason why becomes clear as he comes across two phaser-charred Starfleet officers’ bodies. One lives just long enough to tell him that Romulans have taken over the ship and killed the crew.
So the Doctor finds himself on a ship taken over the by the enemy, and no way of sending a signal outside to anyone. Before long, a Starfleet ship catches up to the Prometheus, but this new ship – designed for deep space tactical missions – uses its multi-vector assault mode to break into three separate ships and overwhelm its attacker. Oh, it’s also the fastest ship Starfleet has ever built, so not much luck in anyone else catching up.
However, the Doctor discovers that the Prometheus has its own emergency medical hologram (the Mark 2 EMH; our own Doctor being the original Mark 1). He activates it in hopes of gaining a helpful ally and instead he gets… Andy Dick.
Dick has his own checkered past and questionable appeal, but I always liked him from NewsRadio and his own short-lived self-titled MTV show. His comic chops and aggravating persona make him an excellent comedic foil for the Doctor (who has a somewhat difficult personality himself). He immediately tries to sound the intruder alert and deactivates himself when learning Romulans are aboard (as per official protocols).
The Doctor reactivates Mark 2, and angrily convinces him to help. Mark 2 is an untested system that’s never been activated (much as the Doctor was four years prior), and the two settle into a contentious mentor/mentee dynamic that propels the humor of the episode. As inexperienced and out of his element as the Doctor is, he’s practically a Jedi Master compared to this unstable junior program (if you’ll excuse the mixed franchise metaphor). The Doctor lists out his accomplishments and adventures aboard Voyager, not the least of which is his sexual liaisons (“I made an addition to my program” is one of the funniest lines of the show). It’s enough to impress Mark 2, and soon they devise a plan to spread knockout gas throughout the ship (which also conveniently has holo-emitters on all decks).
There’s a ton of stuff going on in this episode, but it all moves so breezily it doesn’t feel overstuffed or slow. Besides the Doctor’s ordeal, Torres and Seven butt heads as they work to figure out the alien communication array. They get an angry message from the aliens who run the network, the Hirogens (who will quickly become recurring antagonists). Seven remotely zaps one of them when he starts giving them shit and earns B’Elanna’s respect.
The episode also has a third and more inane subplot of Paris, who’s taken over sickbay in the Doctor’s absence and fearful of having to run it permanently if he doesn’t return. He conscripts Kim to try and create a replacement EMH. It’s dumb, but entertaining. Trek has always played pretty fast and loose with holographic character programming – if we remember, the Enterprise computer created a fully sentient life form because Geordi once told it to. This episode at least takes a more realistic approach as Harry complains that it took the best holographic engineers years to create a program as sophisticated as the EMH. He gives it the old college try and predictably, it fails miserably (the new Doctor just reads the text of Grey’s Anatomy out loud before crashing). Womp womp.
But back to the fireworks factory! The Doctor tries to sneakily access the bridge controls to release the knockout gas, but the Romulans catch him and threaten to decompile his algorithms as interrogation. Fortunately, Mark 2 proves himself to not be a total screw up when he is able to release the gas just in time. The Romulans on the Prometheus are dealt with, but the ship is still rocketing towards Romulan space to be delivered to the Tal Shiar.
On the bridge, the two holograms, unable to pilot the ship, are able to at least create a warp field imbalance so that it stops moving. This initiates a warp core breach that the Doctor is able to stop. It recalls the difficulty Jake and Nog had in DS9’s “The Jem’Hadar” in trying to gain control of the runabout. Trek’s heroes are always ultra-competent at their assigned jobs, but occasionally taking them out of their comfort zone into unfamiliar territory can create fun situations.
Before the holograms can congratulate themselves, the Prometheus is cornered by three Romulan warbirds and the shooting starts. Oh no! But wait, Starfleet is here! Except they immediately start firing at everyone, including the Prometheus. “They must think Romulans are on board!” Mark 2 says. “They’re right!” the Doctor screams in the funniest moment of the episode.
The holograms are unable to communicate with the Starfleet ships because the Romulans are jamming the frequencies. Mark 2 tries to fire a torpedo at the Romulans but it misses and hits a Starfleet ship. “You hit the wrong ship,” the Doctor says, horrified. “It wasn’t my fault!” “Whose fault was it, the torpedo’s? You’re supposed to tell it where to go!” The script is packed with some very funny back and forth sniping between the two.
Things seem hopeless until Mark 2 accidentally activates the Prometheus’ multi-vector assault mode. The ship separates and politely asks whose ass needs kicking. The two holograms yell “Romulans!” and the score sings out a triumphant fanfare as the Prometheus proceeds to pulverize one of the enemy ships and force the others to retreat. It’s a sweet moment of victory because the story has done a lot to earn it, and the two holograms celebrate in boisterous and dorky manner before Starfleet boards the ship.
Aboard Voyager, a transmission from the Alpha Quadrant is received, and the Doctor rematerializes in sickbay. “I did it,” he says, sounding amazed. He’s spoken to Starfleet and set the record straight on Voyager’s whereabouts (which was officially declared lost over a year prior). The crew’s families will all be informed of the news and Starfleet vows to find a way to bring the ship home. They’re no longer alone, Starfleet says. Janeway is visibly emotional as they receive the news, and remarks that the distance from home doesn’t seem quite as great anymore.
Shows built around a single, narrowly-defined premise can be tricky propositions. The simplicity of the premise provides a catchy appeal, but it can grow stale over the years when it remains static and unchanging. But abandoning the premise also carries its own pitfalls because it can mean abandoning what makes the show unique. “Message in a Bottle” comes about halfway between these two options – Voyager is still lost far from home, but at least home knows that it’s still alive. Much like the addition of Seven of Nine at the beginning of the season, it’s a welcome shakeup that preserves the appeal of the show while injecting some new interest and potential storylines.
Contacting home is (thematically speaking) the most important mission of Voyager (besides actually getting home). “Message in a Bottle”‘s approach of turning that Very Important endeavor into a snark-filled comedic caper featuring two ill-prepared characters bumbling their way through it is an unexpected but very entertaining choice. There’s an almost sadistic quality to the way it dangles the opportunity of that contact against impossible odds and escalating obstacles. But thankfully, it rewards the crew with success in that mission and us with an episode full of well-crafted comedy and action.
- I love the USS Prometheus. It’s like something a ten year old would dream up – “It’s got hull armor! And four engines! And super duper shields! And-and it can turn into three ships like this! And you just tell it what you want it to shoot at and it goes like pew pew pew!” The multi-vector assault mode seems like it would be cumbersome and impractical in an actual battle, but I like that it continues the separation lineage of the Galaxy class. I suppose multiple moving targets would pose a tactical challenge to enemy ships (even if they’re individually weaker than a single unified ship).
- The last Starfleet ship named the Prometheus was the Nebula class one from Deep Space Nine’s “Second Sight.” It must have been either destroyed or renamed to make room for this one. Coincidentally, we see a Nebula class in this episode that gets handled pretty quickly by the Prometheus.
- We also see an Akira class (one of my favorites) and two Defiant classes! It’s the first confirmation that other Defiant class starships exist besides DS9’s OG Defiant.
- This is the first back-and-forth battle between Romulans and Starfleet since The Original Series. There were plenty of Romulan encounters in TNG, some of which involved the Romulans shooting, but Starfleet never fired back. It was always kind of frustrating (we have to follow the rules, but they don’t), so it’s awesome here to see Starfleet ships immediately blasting these assholes for killing a starship crew and stealing advanced experimental military tech.
- Speaking of which, the Romulans and the Federation exchanging fire seems like A Big Deal. It doesn’t lead to anything (and the Romulans eventually join the Federation and Klingons against the Dominion), so presumably the diplomats smoothed it over. Best. Men/Women/NBs.
- Andy Dick’s character is the second version of the EMH. As we remember, Bashir was supposed to be the template for the Longterm Medical Hologram.
- Although it’s what allows the episode to exist, the logic of sending a holographic program instead of a simple message is silly. “This 64 KB text file keeps getting bounced back. But if we send a 100 GB video… it’s just crazy enough to work!”
- The Romulan commander is played by Judson Scott, who was Khan’s right hand man in The Wrath of Khan.