Voyager encounters a particle-rich nebula which the crew hopes can resupply their decreasing energy stores.
Plot Summary: As Janeway walks through the ship to check on her crew, pondering how to be a leader so far from home, she wishes that Voyager had sufficient spare power to replicate her morning coffee. Chakotay saves her from Neelix’s “better than coffee” substitute by alerting her to a nearby nebula rich in omicron particles, which could bolster their energy reserves. When the ship breaches the energy barrier surrounding the nebula, it is bombarded by alien material and must use a torpedo to escape. Torres attempts to analyze the material, asking for assistance from the Doctor, who helps her to determine that the nebula is in fact a life form. Meanwhile, Chakotay teaches Janeway his people’s custom of seeking advice and protection from animal guides. Once the crew understands that their attempts to capture the omicron particles have injured a living creature, Janeway takes the ship back to try to heal it, using the engine’s power to suture the wound made by the torpedo while the creature’s natural defenses drain Voyager’s systems even further. Neelix objects to being placed in danger, but Janeway tells him that he can either leave the ship for good once the crisis has passed or learn to live with the adventure. The life form recovers, though Voyager has suffered an even greater loss of energy reserves than when the crew set out to replenish the omicron particles. Meanwhile, Paris has been busy in his off-duty hours introducing Kim to his French bistro holodeck program, and while Paris has warned Kim not to try to socialize with the captain, Kim invites Janeway to join them at Sandrine’s, where she trounces Paris at pool.
Analysis: I’ve always thought of “The Cloud” as one of my favorite first-season episodes, yet I realized as I started rewatching it that I’d completely forgotten what the story was about. I had it and “Parallax” conflated in my mind and expected there to be a time loop inside the creature. I couldn’t blame anyone else for eye-rolling about yet another Anomaly of the Week episode, let alone about the captain and first officer spending more time discussing sloppily described Native American customs rather than what to do about the deepening energy crisis, but I still love “The Cloud,” probably for all the wrong reasons. Everything that works on the show in these early episodes has to do with the strength of the cast and some quirks of the directing. I remember being scathingly critical of the performances in later seasons, wondering whether most of the cast could really act at all, yet rewatching the first season, it’s apparent that all of them could, even if several of them later started phoning in performances because the material wasn’t engaging them. Here, they’re working hard to make the dialogue sound better than it is. There’s no denying that when it works, it’s because of the cast, whether it’s the broad comedy of Kate Mulgrew’s facial expressions as she’s faced with Neelix’s coffee substitute or the smug look on Garrett Wang’s face after, having had to play Kim embarrassed by Tuvok for expressing too much wide-eyed wonder on the bridge, he gets to accuse Tuvok of doing the same thing.
So we’re looking at a plot that’s like a Next Gen installment redone as an after-school special. There’s very little action, and it all resembles the Voyager episode from a couple of weeks earlier, with an anomaly that most audience members will guess is alive before the 24th century scientists figure it out, Plus there’s what should be too much talkiness and introspection on the part of the captain, even internal inconsistencies – two minutes after telling Janeway he’s never shown his medicine bundle to anyone before, Chakotay is explaining that Torres tried to kill her animal guide. Yet it all adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. Janeway has great chemistry with Paris and with Torres as well as delightful sparks flying with Chakotay. Paris and Kim are fun to watch seeing through one another’s foibles. The Doctor remains both poignant and hilarious (“A hologram that programs itself! What would I do with that ability? Create a family? Raise an army?”) Yet even now, after everything, it’s Janeway whom I can’t take my eyes off, walking into a holodeck with her senior crewmembers and connecting in a way that took Picard seven years. Knowing that it’s all going to fall apart, that we’re going to get the captain in “Scorpion” who refuses to listen to any counsel but her own and in “Night” who hides in her quarters for weeks on end, doesn’t change the fact that now, for all her fears that she can’t be larger than life, she already is.
I know I said I would try not to go there, but I have to talk about the Janeway/Chakotay thing, which was what drew me in to this series as a fan. Yes, I should be ashamed, I should not have wanted to see Trek’s first woman captain involved in a romance with a crewmember, but I feel it necessary to point out all the ways in which It Is Not My Fault. For one, look at how director David Livingston films the bridge scene in which Janeway and Chakotay first talk about animal guides, a scene that already has flirtatious undercurrents in the dialogue (“You strike me as the bear type”). The pair are literally having a tête-à-tête, leaning as close together as their command chairs will permit, whispering about private matters. Contrast that with the position of the crewmembers in front of them, focused on their consoles and the viewscreen, and note that the last thing Janeway says to Chakotay in that scene is, “You’ve got a date.” If Chakotay didn’t like her and hadn’t been smirking right back, all her winks and touches might end with a harassment complaint. Instead both Mulgrew and Robert Beltran play their characters as if the other is a delightful revelation – not the rebellious, resentful Maquis captain she was sent to apprehend, not the by-the-book Starfleet captain whose adherence to regulations had doomed his home planet.
Plus there’s the contrast of Chakotay’s introspective, nurturing personality with Paris’s obnoxiousness (to quote Torres at Sandrine’s, he’s a pig). It’s quite possible that the writers thought a male first officer who often challenged a female captain might undercut her authority, but Chakotay comes across as subtly, quietly forceful, a man who knows what’s important and doesn’t let his ego get in the way. It’s even possible to overlook Paris wasting ship’s energy reserves on holodeck bimbos when Janeway can’t spare the energy reserves for coffee because Tom is like the anti-Wesley Crusher in that, despite being a good pilot, he’s always screwing up: confused by time travel, falling through subspace rifts, clueless about live women and so reduced until he grows up to dating a holographic one. If some of the writing staff’s strain is showing – the scene in which Neelix points out that Janeway wears lipstick feels like a really heavy-handed (“Look! She’s a captain AND a woman!”) and Janeway unsurprisingly looks mortified – the cast pulls off most of the wobbly dialogue beautifully. Kes’s wide-eyed declaration that she wants to open all the cracks in the universe just like Janeway would sound silly if it weren’t for Jennifer Lien’s wide-eyed wonder. Kim’s naive enthusiasm would appear forced if it weren’t for Wang’s intensity. I adored Deep Space Nine, but apart from Kira, I wasn’t nearly as attached to most of the regulars so early in its run. Voyager‘s cast come out of the gate at the top of their game.