Message in a Bottle is an intriguing episode, although not necessarily for the most obvious of reasons.
Message in a Bottle is notable for its stunt casting, featuring controversial comedian Andy Dick as the Emergency Medical Hologram, Mark II. Given his background and his interests, Andy Dick is a very strange choice for a Star Trek guest role. Then again, it takes all sorts; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cast Iggy Pop in The Magnificent Ferengi and Star Trek: Voyager finds room for the Rock in Tsunkatse. However, the last time the franchise attempted to cast a famous comedian, Star Trek: The Next Generation ended up with The Outrageous Okona.
Understand, Andy Dick tends to be the focal point for discussion around Message in a Bottle. However, the episode is notable for other reasons. In a weird way, Message in a Bottle kicks off a very loose serialised arc that plays through the next handful of episodes. It introduces the communications grid that plays a major role in Hunters, and features the first glimpse of the Hirogen. The Hirogen go on to play a major role in episodes like Prey, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.
Message in a Bottle also comes at the half-way point in Voyager‘s run, speaking in terms of structure rather than episode count. Message in a Bottle is positioned mid-way through the middle season of Voyager‘s seven year run. Although the count is skewed somewhat by the series’ abridged first season, it feels like the last point at which Voyager is closer to its beginning than to its end. As such, there is something strangely appropriate in the fact that Message in a Bottle allows Voyager to reconnect with Starfleet and the Alpha Quadrant.
This is perhaps the point where the end of the journey “seems a little closer.”
Message in a Bottle is a comedy episode. It is a broad comedy episode. It is a very broad comedy episode. To be fair, this makes a certain amount of sense given the casting of Andy Dick. Dick is better known as a comedian than as an actor, so casting him in a dramatic role would be a rather serious misuse of his particular skill set. Why bother to cast Andy Dick, other than to let him be Andy Dick? As such, Message in a Bottle is written in very broad terms, allowing a lot of space for comedic banter between Robert Picardo and Andy Dick.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with that. After all, Concerning Flight was largely built around the joy of having Janeway spend an adventure with a holographic representation of Leonardo da Vinci, allowing Kate Mulgrew to play off John Rhys-Davies for forty-five minutes with a bare minimum of interruption. In theory, Message in a Bottle could work out very well. Voyager has largely eschewed complex and ambitious storytelling, but there is something to be said for embracing the simpler broad-strokes approach on its own terms.
However, Message in a Bottle struggles to maintain the right tone. It is very much pitched as a broad comedy episode, with the EMH forced to team up with his replacement to rescue a Starfleet ship from a bunch of Romulan hijackers. There is a lot of comedy gold to be mined from this set-up, forcing the series’ comedic relief into the role of action hero with reasonably high stakes at play. Deep Space Nine just did a very similar story with The Magnificent Ferengi, casting its own comic relief characters as unlikely action heroes.
Message in a Bottle lacks the consistency that made The Magnificent Ferengi such a success. Unfolding against the backdrop of the Dominion War and pitting the Ferengi against a group of well-armed Jem’Hadar, The Magnificent Ferengi was just serious enough that the scenario was credible and consistently funny enough that the gags were never swallowed whole by the stakes. Message in the Bottle never finds that delicate balance and instead veers wildly from one extreme to the other.
There are parts of Message in a Bottle that are genuinely unsettling. With the EMH materialises in the Sickbay of the Prometheus, he finds himself completely alone for a few minutes. The atmosphere is eerie. As he walks through the set, the camera follows him, revealing a scarred body slumped over in one of the archways. A moment later, the EMH notices a scorch mark on the wall and finds a dead body. Another crew member lives just long enough to croak out some exposition before expiring. “Romulans. They’ve taken over the ship.”
When the episode cuts to the bridge, the Romulans are explicitly talking about how they were careful to murder every person on board this ship. “These new systems are unfamiliar,” Nevala complains while flying the ship. “We should have left some of the crew alive.” Rekar responds, passive-aggressively, “You’d be surprised how stubborn humans can be.” All of a sudden, the hijacking of a Federation prototype takes on all the markers of a hate crime. Message in a Bottle stops just short of having Rekar kill a child or a small animal to prove that he means business.
This is a pretty grim set-up for an episode, one decidedly eerie and uncomfortable. Message in a Bottle doesn’t evolve into a comedy until a couple of scenes later, when the EMH activates the Mark II. The strange appearance of Andy Dick on Star Trek is the first real hint that Message in a Bottle is meant to be a comedy. It comes surprisingly late in the episode, following the revelation that every single Starfleet officer on this ship has been brutally murdered. As Dick and Picardo banter, the audience remains aware of the fact the set is littered with dead bodies.
To be fair, Message in a Bottle could shift genres with that first appearance from Andy Dick. Dick is a recognisable comedic presence, and his début is just surreal enough that it might have been enough to shift gears within the episode. It would actually be a surprising (if jarring) twist to pivot from that horror and brutality into slapstick comedy. However, Message in a Bottle never actually shifts. Instead, the episode keeps returning to all this death and destruction, punctuating gags with reminders that characters are brutally killing one another.
Operating under pressure, the EMH comes up with a perfectly reasonably plan to retake the ship. With the assistance of the Mark II, he plans to “incapacitate” the Romulans using the anaesthetic “neurozine.” Ignoring the basic health-and-safety concerns of using anaesthetics for the purpose of a comedy episode, this sounds relatively benign. Sure enough, they knock out the Romulans. However, at the climax of the episode, they need to divert power from key systems. “Okay, I’m taking power from life support,” the Mark II declares. “We don’t need that.”
The implication would seem to be that there are a lot of Romulans who died (or experienced brain damage) in their sleep. Again, Message in a Bottle is clearly pitched as a comedy episode, so it’s hard to take any of this too seriously. Nevertheless, the script goes out of its way to remind the audience of the incapacitated Romulans later within the exact same scene. As the Starfleet ships fire on the Prometheus, the Mark II protests, “They must think Romulans are on board.” The EMH cuts across, “They’re right!”
As such, Message in a Bottle never quite feels like the broad and relaxed slapstick comedy that it wants to be. There is a very dark core to the episode, one that is never acknowledged and explored; it is just buried. To be fair, this is not a problem unique to the fourth season of Voyager. There are aspects of this issue to One Little Ship, a comedic episode of Deep Space Nine from later in the same broadcast season also focused on the hijacking of a Federation prototype by hostile forces.
However, One Little Ship also made a conscious choice to avoid excessive tonal whiplash, with the writing staff consciously avoiding acts of excessive brutality by those hostile alien forces. A plot point featuring the execution of crew members by the Jem’Hadar was written out of the episode. While One Little Ship still has issues with tone, those issues are nowhere near as severe as the problems with Message in a Bottle. Indeed, Message in a Bottle might have worked better without the explicit murder of the Starfleet crew.
The most memorable aspect of Message in a Bottle is the guest appearance from Andy Dick. Dick was not an actor by profession, having come up through Chicago’s comedy infrastructure. He began working on television with as part of the troupe on The Ben Stiller Show. He was a series regular on News Radio when he landed the guest appearance on Message in a Bottle. He found the precise nature of Star Trek dialogue quite challenging:
Yeah, and I couldn’t remember those lines to save my life. You can’t improvise the names of phaser guns. You can’t say, ‘hand me the ticky tacky, Lieutenant Picky-Picky.’ You couldn’t do that on Star Trek:Voyager.
I was a hologram doctor, so I posted my lines on post-it notes, like Marlon Brando, all around the consoles, because we were on a space ship. But I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I couldn’t see them. I was literally crying, saying I couldn’t do this. Beam me up, ticky-tacky.
The Mark II is not a role that pushes Dick outside his natural comfort zone. Unlike Iggy Pop, he is not being asked to play an alien with an affect. The Mark II is clearly written as a highly physical neurotic mess, which is very much a part of Dick’s screen persona. This is not a problem. After all, there is a reason that “highly physical neurotic mess” has become Dick’s schtick; he is very effective at it.
There are aspects of Message in a Bottle that seem like they might have come from a lame spoof commissioned for the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary; the Mark II trying to figure out how to get into a Jeffries Tube, the Mark II accidentally activating a key system when his hand slips on the controls, the casual disregard for unconscious bodies. At the same time, there is something quite endearing about the nerdiness of these jokes, right down to the physical exaggeration of the Mark II’s response to finding a Romulan in his Sickbay.
The best sequences in Message in a Bottle hinge on the interactions between Robert Picardo and Andy Dick. Star Trek has never been a franchise renowned for its sense of humour. When Star Trek does comedy, it tends to be in the broadest possible terms. The endearingly cheesy “fish out of water” comedy of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home comes to mind. It is rare for a comedy episode to hinge so heavily on characters simply exchanging dialogue and being passive-aggressive towards one another.
Robert Picardo singles out Message in a Bottle as an episode that was great fun to work on, citing both his relationship with Andy Dick and his own contributions to the script:
It was a hoot to work with Andy Dick! I remember the first thing he said to me was “So you name…Bob Picardo it’s kind of funny..do you get teased by Star Trek fans because it is so close to Captain Picard?” And I said, wait a minute your name is Andy Dick and you’re making fun of my name? He laughed at that and from that point on we had a lot of laughs together. I think it was one of the two funniest Voyager episodes I had a significant involvement in, the other being Tinkor Tenor [Doctor Spy]. Also it is the episode I remember having the most lines I suggested make it to screen. I proposed six jokes to Brannon Braga during the shooting – my favourite one being an exchange between the Doctor and the EMH Mark II (Andy Dick) where the Doctor says: “Stop breathing down my neck!” and the EMH Mark II replies, “my breathing is merely a simulation” and the Doctor retorts, “so is my neck, stop it anyway!” I thought this was pretty funny “hologram to hologram” type humor.
The episode’s hologram-specific humour is endearingly goofy, whether discussing the “addition” the EMH made to his program so he would be “equipped” for intercourse or the Mark II repeatedly trying to turn himself off.
Message in a Bottle is notable as the second episode of Voyager to be directed by Nancy Malone. A former actor who worked on shows like Hawaii 5-0, Naked City and The Twilight Zone, Malone moved from in front of to behind the camera during the eighties. She directed episodes of Dynasty, Melrose Place and Resurrection Boulevard. She won an Emmy for her work behind the scenes on the special Bob Hope: The First Ninety Years, which was broadcast on NBC in May 1993.
Malone had previously directed Coda during Voyager‘s third season. She was a logical choice to return for the fourth year, and it is perhaps disappointing that this would be Malone’s last credit on a Star Trek show. Malone would remain an active director into the early years of the twenty-first century, directing episodes of shows like The Guardian and Judging Amy. She would also talk about her experiences as a woman working on Star Trek in the documentary The Green Girl.
According to Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004, working on Message in a Bottle was not a fun endeavour for the veteran television director:
“That episode was a bit more difficult,” she admits. “Andy Dick had not done any drama at that point and he had a load of difficult dialogue. He was wonderful to work with but he had to fight some nervousness.”
Surprisingly for a show that championed a female starship captain, there was still some earthbound chauvinism for Malone to deal with. “One of the challenges was working with a director of photography who didn’t care to work with a woman director,” she says. “That’s not unusual for women directors.”
That is very disappointing, considering the emphasis that Star Trek franchise places on its own progressive and enlightened worldview.
Message in a Bottle is notable for more than just the guest appearance of Andy Dick. It is the first time that Voyager makes meaningful contact with the Alpha Quadrant, establishing a line of communication with Starfleet. The episode ends with the EMH confirming that Starfleet has renewed its mission to get the crew home. “They said they would contact your families to tell them the news and promised that they won’t stop until they’ve found a way to get Voyager back home. And they asked me to relay a message. They wanted you to know you’re no longer alone.”
Of course, this development would carry more weight if Voyager had ever felt isolated or alone in the first place. Even superficially, Voyager’s journey through the Delta Quadrant has felt like a pleasure cruise. Any damage done to the ship in episodes like Caretaker or Deadlock or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II has been hastily repaired or revised. The crew have never really wallowed in isolation. When Janeway mentions Mark in Message in a Bottle, it feels like the first time that the character has been acknowledged in years.
More than that, Voyager has never felt too far from home. Voyager teased the possibility of a homecoming as early as Eye of the Needle and repeatedly in episodes like Cold Fire, Death Wish and False Profits. Harry Kim experienced an alternate Earth in Non Sequitur, while the entire crew journeyed to present day Earth in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. This is to say nothing of holographic simulations of Earth, like the Chez Sandríne or da Vinci’s workshop. Watching Voyager, it feels like the crew has been away from home long enough to miss it.
Even beyond Earth itself, Voyager has long been surrounded by relics of the Alpha Quadrant; a Cardassian missile in Dreadnought, Q in Death Wish, Ferengi in False Profits, the Borg in Unity, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. In fact, Message in a Bottle does not even mark the first time that the Romulans have appeared on Voyager. The first Romulan guest star appeared half-way into the first season, providing a conduit back to the Alpha Quadrant in Eye of the Needle.
As such, the Alpha Quadrant reunion in Message in a Bottle does not carry the weight that it should. This should be a momentous occasion for the crew, a surprise reconnection with a world that they thought had been left behind. Instead, it feels very much like business as usual. To be fair, part of this is also down to the script itself. The discovery of the Prometheus in the teaser to Message in a Bottle is curiously underwhelming. It does not feel like a big deal. In fact, the discovery of Seska’s decoy message beacon in the teaser to Manoeuvres seemed to carry more urgency.
Still, Message in a Bottle dramatically changes the tenor of the show. Although the relay network discovered in Message in a Bottle is quickly sabotaged and rendered inert in Hunters, it does provide a steady connection to the far extremes of the Alpha Quadrant. It sets in motion later plots like Pathfinder and Life Line, episodes that hinge upon a closer and more tangible connection between Voyager and its home base. Voyager never embraced long-form storytelling, but the relay network in Message in a Bottle does feel important in the larger scheme of the show.
More than that, Message in a Bottle marks the beginning of on the more successful long-form storytelling experiments across the run of the series. Voyager never embraced serialisation in the same way as Deep Space Nine, which is a massive disappointment. After all, the show seems designed to support character and plot arcs that would run across the length and breadth of the show, from the integration of the Maquis into the crew through to the ship’s attempts to survive in the Delta Quadrant through to the journey inching closer to home.
However, following a truly disastrous experiment with serialisation in the second season that led to disasters like Alliances and Investigations, the production team opted for a largely standalone approach to storytelling. Almost episode of Voyager stands entirely on its own, completely self-contained. Continuity between episodes is relatively rare, and the series often seems desperate to avoid having to tell any stories that spread over multiple episodes of a given season.
This attitude is particularly prevalent in the fourth season of Voyager. Following a truly epic season-bridging two-parter, The Gift works really hard to transition from the plot threads dangling out of Scorpion, Part II to a more stable status quo. As a result, interesting plots like Voyager’s presence in Borg space and Seven of Nine’s liberate from the Borg Collective are hastily brushed aside in favour of returning to a firmly episodic approach. Waking Moments introduced a costume change to disguise Roxann Dawson’s pregnancy, rather than actually dealing with it.
However, Message in a Bottle introduces a number of plot points that drive later episodes of the fourth season. It introduces the Hirogen, a major alien threat who appear in four of the next five episodes. In fact, the character of Idrin makes a small cameo appearance through static in Message in a Bottle, only to return as a primary antagonist in Hunters. The relay system discovered in Message in a Bottle allows Voyager to receive messages from home in Hunters, which leads to the complex Starfleet code that drives the plot of the season finale, Hope and Fear.
Of course, this sort of continuity seems almost quaint when compared to contemporary genre television. Deep Space Nine opened its sixth season with a sprawling six-part war epic that set up a compelling status quo driving the final two seasons. Even throwaway comedy episodes of Deep Space Nine like The Magnificent Ferengi were still anchored in the finer details of the shared continuity, referencing the plot of episodes like Sacrifice of Angels and bringing back relatively obscure guest stars from stories like Business as Usual and Rocks and Shoals.
Still, Message in a Bottle feels like a big deal. In many ways, it is perfectly positioned half-way through the larger run of Voyager. It is not the exact midpoint in terms of episode count; that would be The Killing Game, Part I. It is not the exact midpoint in terms of chronology; The Killing Game, Part II and Vis à Vis were broadcast either side of the midpoint between Caretaker and Endgame. Still, structurally, as the midpoint of the middle season, Message in a Bottle feels like a fitting point of transition for Voyager. The show is half way home. It is a pivot point.
Message in a Bottle does not only set up a number of (relatively) long-form story arcs for the fourth season of Voyager, it even represents a rare point of overlap between Voyager and Deep Space Nine. Despite the fact that the two shows were on at the same time as one another, they rarely intersected. Part of this was likely political, with Deep Space Nine airing in syndication while Voyager was on UPN. Part of this was purely practical, with Deep Space Nine unfolding in the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants while Voyager was set in the Delta Quadrant,
However, Message in a Bottle does make a number of small nods to Deep Space Nine. Most notably, it features only the second Defiant-class ship in the Star Trek canon, as part of the wave of Starfleet ships attacking the Prometheus at the climax. As such, it offers confirmation that the Federation has begun mass-producing Defiant-class warships, and that the model docked at Deep Space Nine is no longer just a prototype. Deep Space Nine would feature other Defiant-class ships in later episodes like Valiant or The Dogs of War.
Message in a Bottle also features the first acknowledgement of the Dominion War outside of Deep Space Nine. The conflict was obviously the driving force on Deep Space Nine, but it became one of the few aspects of the series to be acknowledged by other strands of Star Trek continuity; the Dominion War comes up again in Extreme Risk, but also informs the back context of both Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. In fact, Message in a Bottle is notable the first use of the name “Dominion” outside of Deep Space Nine.
Finding that the Romulans have hijacked the Prometheus, the EMH presses the Mark II for a quick update on the state of galactic politics. “I need to know more about what’s happening,” he urges his replacement. “Is the Federation at war with the Romulans?” The Mark II responds, quite astutely, “No. The Romulans haven’t gotten involved in our fight with the Dominion.” It is a surprisingly detailed answer that references the non-aggression pact fleetingly mentioned in Call to Arms, and perhaps even foreshadowing the events of In the Pale Moonlight.
With all of that attention to the continuity of Deep Space Nine, there is something very surreal about the use of the Romulans in Message in a Bottle. Given that the dialogue goes out of its way to mention both the Dominion War and the Romulan neutrality in the face of Dominion aggression, it seems strange that Message in a Bottle would build its plot around a Romulan plan to hijack a Federation prototype. Given that Message in a Bottle ends with a shoot-out between the Federation and the Romulans, it is hard to believe that neutrality can be maintained after this incident.
It might make more sense from a plotting perspective to use the Dominion as adversaries in this particular episode. With the Dominion War raging, it would make sense that the Jem’Hadar would try to hijack a Federation prototype. There would be no lingering questions about neutrality and politics, no weird jarring shift when the final act devolves into a shooting war between two major powers that are nominally at peace with one another. In terms of broader continuity, Message in a Bottle would work a lot better if it didn’t use Romulans.
Of course, the truth is that Message in a Bottle does not really care about continuity. The references to the Dominion War and Romulan neutrality are nice easter eggs to long-term fans, but they are not a driving force of this would-be light-hearted comedy episode. Message in a Bottle does not care about galactic politics or non-aggression pacts. The episode wants a bunch of generic and recognisable Star Trek baddies that can provide some small sense of threat as the EMH attempts to retake the hijacked ship.
The Jem’Hadar are not iconic Star Trek aliens, unfortunately. In the larger context of the Star Trek canon, Deep Space Nine was very much the “bastard stepchild of the franchise” on initial broadcast. Although its esteem has only increased in the years since it went off the air, Deep Space Nine is still a fringe property in the larger context of popular culture. Deep Space Nine certainly does not have a character as iconic as Picard or Data, let alone Kirk or Spock. It could be argued that Deep Space Nine does not have a character as iconic as Seven of Nine.
As such, Message in a Bottle was never going to use the Dominion. The episode was intended to be a big deal, with the stunt casting of Andy Dick and the return to the Alpha Quadrant. The show needed a set of iconic and recognisable Star Trek baddies. This would seem to be the reason why the Romulans were chosen as the antagonists of Message in a Bottle, despite the continuity headaches that it would create trying to reconcile the episode with Deep Space Nine. The Romulans are an iconic Star Trek alien, dating back the franchise’s very first season.
The use of the Romulans in Message in a Bottle speaks to the deterioration of the once-iconic aliens. Since the end of The Next Generation, the Star Trek franchise struggled with defining its “other” pointy-earred aliens. Deep Space Nine largely rendered them redundant. Their traditional role as “shady, double-dealing bad guys” had been usurped by the Cardassians. The emphasis on the dark side of the Federation rendered redundant the use of the Romulans as a twisted mirror of mankind. The Romulans lacked a clear identity or purpose after the end of the Cold War.
The Romulans appeared in a handful of episodes of the third season of Deep Space Nine. Subcommander T’Rul was placed on board the station as an envoy in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, but never appeared again. The Romulans attempted to blow up the wormhole in Visionary. After participating as muscle in an ill-fated mission led by the Cardassians to attack the Dominion in Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, the Romulans retreated from the spotlight. While the Klingons remained a key part of Deep Space Nine, the Romulans faded to the background.
When the Romulans do appear in the final seasons of Deep Space Nine, it is only to underscore how horribly they have underestimated the Federation’s capacity for espionage and manipulation. On The Next Generation, episodes like The Enemy, The Defector, Redemption, Part I, Redemption, Part II, Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II suggested that the Romulans were political players who could not be trusted. However, they are thoroughly out-manoeuvred by the Federation in episodes like In the Pale Moonlight or Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.
What happens when all of that is stripped away from the Romulans? Message in a Bottle hints at an answer. The Romulans become generic Star Trek bad guys. They are Klingons, only without the weight of mythology and history. They are part of the franchise’s iconography, but without any of the baggage. To be fair, the EMH at least nods towards some characterisation for the species. “Paranoia is a way of life for you, isn’t it?” he asks Rekar at one point. However, Message in a Bottle does not care for those details. It is a throwaway line, rather than a keen insight.
Message in a Bottle sets a tone for the Romulans going forward, as generic jackbooted Star Trek baddies. It is a role that they would come to play with gusto. They serve a similar function in Nemesis, providing a military framework and military apparatus (not to mention a crazy name) for Shinzon in his war against Picard. When JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise with Star Trek, he chose to blow up Romulus to motivate a Romulan mining crew to wage war against the Federation and inspire James T. Kirk to action.
(There are exceptions, of course. The final season of Star Trek: Enterprise makes effective use of the Romulans in episodes like The Forge, Awakening, Kir’Shara, Babel One, United and The Aenar. Under Manny Coto, the series does an excellent job positioning the Romulans as an antagonistic and imperialist oppositional force to the emerging Federation. If the Federation is an idealised consensus-building vision of the United States, the fourth season of Enterprise imagines the Romulans as the worst facets of American foreign policy. It’s a powerful metaphor.)
Message in a Bottle is an interesting episode, if not entirely successful. However, it is an episode with a surprisingly large influence on the shape of the Star Trek franchise going forward, and the rare episode of Voyager that creates ripples that reverberate through to the end of the season.