The crew of the Defiant attempts to rescue a Starfleet captain stranded on a planet with diminishing life support.
Plot Summary: On the way back to the station with Kasidy Yates, who is now working as a Starfleet convoy liaison, the Defiant picks up a distress call. They soon learn that Captain Lisa Cusak of the Olympia is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her ship when it investigated an unusual energy barrier around a planet. She is stranded on that planet, where high carbon dioxide levels will kill her when she runs out of the tri-ox compound in her emergency kit. To keep Cusak awake and calm, the crew agrees to keep an open line of communication with her as they take the Defiant to retrieve her. Because her assignment took her into deep space for eight years, she is unaware of the Dominion War and horrified when Sisko tells her what’s happened to the Federation. He also tells her about his relationship problems with Yates. Later, Bashir advises her on how to ration her tri-ox as he confesses his genetic enhancements, and O’Brien explains that the war has made him so afraid of losing people that he has trouble opening up to his family and friends. Meanwhile, back on the station, Quark uses Odo and Kira’s upcoming one-month anniversary to attempt to distract Odo from Quark’s illegal sale of a cache of Denevan crystals. Odo discovers the scheme, but decides to let Quark get away with it because Odo owes him for helping him court Kira. Cusak is unconscious by the time the Defiant reaches the planet on which she is stranded, so since a shuttlecraft’s engines don’t run on dilithium power and may not suffer the same catastrophic failure as the Olympia’s engines, Sisko decides to take a shuttle through the energy barrier. The crew finds the crash site and goes to rescue Cusak, only to discover the remains of a Starfleet captain who has been dead for several years. O’Brien believes that the energy barrier sent her transmissions into the future and their own into the past. They take her body to the station for a Starfleet funeral and an Irish wake, at which O’Brien says she made him realize that if one of them should die, they will all need each other to cope.
Analysis: Though slow at times and with some eyebrow-raising plot gimmicks, “The Sound of Her Voice” ends up being a powerful story, all the more so in retrospect when one knows that the rescue mission is doomed from the start and that the crew’s growing fear of losing one of their own will be realized very soon. The premise seems iffy given the background of the Dominion War. I’ll buy that Sisko will take a six-day diversion to rescue a long-lost Starfleet officer, but I’d expect him to do some basic homework first, like looking up the records on the Olympia…the Defiant must be carrying basic data on other Starfleet vessels even if it can’t communicate with Starfleet, which presumably it can, since Sisko asks Worf whether there are any ships closer to Cusak’s location that could reach her more quickly. Until they actually find her, it seems just as likely that Cusak could be a Dominion spy trying to wring tidbits of information out of Sisko’s unusually chatty crew as it seems that she’s exactly what she says she is, a Starfleet captain who miraculously survived though her entire crew died just as they completed an eight-year survey mission in another quadrant. With a Starfleet registry of ships, a simple bit of math could have told Sisko that Cusak has been gone not for eight years but for eleven, which might have changed nothing – he might still have gone to rescue her – but at least it would have given him a more complete picture of what to expect. Instead we’re supposed to believe that the metreon energy barrier transmits communications signals to precise moments in the past and future without any of the scientists or engineers realizing that the temporal distortion is why they had trouble responding to Cusak initially, yet the temporal issue doesn’t affect the shuttle or release tachyons. The technobabble makes the barrier more a gratuitous plot device than a scientific phenomenon. And the time shift doesn’t ultimately matter, so I’m not sure what purpose the hopeless mission serves; in some ways it would have been more powerful if the crew simply couldn’t get there in time, if they found Cusak newly dead but with a smile on her face from some story of Sisko’s.
And about those stories…Sisko makes contact with a captain who’s been on an eight-year mission of exploration, who may very well die before he can reach her, and instead of trying to find out as much as possible about her travels, what her crew discovered, whether she met any likely allies, what the crewmembers were like as people now that they’re all dead, Sisko can only talk about the war. Seems pretty dangerous should the Dominion tap into the channel, since Sisko admits Starfleet’s helplessness fighting Dominion forces at Betazed, and that’s just the bit we too get to overhear. I know that this is a story about the crew we know rather than about a captain we don’t know, yet Bashir in his distraction hardly seems the most insensitive of Cusak’s correspondents. None of the officers compares notes on Academy teachers they may have had in common, none inquires about the second-in-command we briefly hear Cusak mourning before two-way communication is established, none asks for contact information for the sisters she mentions. Bashir knows that lack of oxygen is slowly making it impossible for her to breathe, so it’s understandable that he’d want to do more talking than listening, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern for the others, who seem thrilled to have a neutral party to whom they can pour out their hearts, despite O’Brien’s dismissal of the idea of Starfleet counselors. This isn’t particularly a problem watching the episode, while the performances are engrossing enough to prevent one from thinking too much about the reasoning behind them – Colm Meaney in particular has a lovely moment as O’Brien, lying in a bunk reflecting on his distance from his family, which rings more true than the entire storyline focused on them the previous week in “Time’s Orphan” – yet the acting and directing, which manage to keep a lot of talky scenes from becoming stagnant, can’t pull “The Sound of Her Voice” into the top tier story-wise. Maybe knowing that Cusak isn’t really a Dominion spy after all drains out some of the tension.
Lisa Cusak is a wonderful character, a Starfleet captain who’s as interested in how people behave in crises to the crises themselves, who feels close to her siblings despite having been on a mission that ends up taking her away from home longer than Voyager’s, who doesn’t blink at the idea that another Starfleet captain might be dating a crewmember. Her disinterest in having a ship’s counselor may stem from the fact that she’s tuned in enough to people not to need one. She adds to my ongoing frustration that so many fascinating female Starfleet officers whom we meet wind up dead before we get to know them, like Silva La Forge and Rachel Garrett. At the time this episode first aired, I was deeply frustrated with how Janeway was being written on Voyager and really wished Cusak could give her some advice, considering Janeway’s obsession with protocol and lack of a support network, let alone issues of fraternization. Cusak scarcely gets the chance to speak to Yates directly and never to Kira or Dax; I don’t think “The Sound of Her Voice” even passes the Bechdel Test, though Yates would make a more obvious choice for spending lots of time talking to a stranger than Sisko, who has other responsibilities (not that that stops him from personally piloting the rescue shuttle, either, which easily could get him killed). Meanwhile Kira’s only role this week is to play Odo’s love interest…as much as I love them as a couple, I did have a real moment of fear that from now on that relationship might define her. We can see that Odo’s happiness has changed him through and through, though Odo is usually more interesting when he’s snarking at Quark than when he’s kinder and gentler. It’s a nice counterpoint to Sisko’s struggle to have a relationship with someone temporarily serving with him, since Odo and Kira obviously don’t have problems working together and dating, even when she must do things like go along with his decision to let Quark get away with a crime. As a signifier of relationship development in the show’s final season, “The Sound of Her Voice” leaves a strong impression; whether that compensates for the iffy sci-fi hook will probably vary from viewer to viewer.