So, this was a decent episode that could have been a lot better, in my opinion, with two fairly minor tweaks.
First, what it does right:
“Bliss” rehashes a fairly standard Star Trek plot formula, which is not in itself a bad thing. It’s not so much the premise of the story that makes a classic as how it’s handled. I mean, “Darmok” is just a first-contact story, right? But that episode was so much more than that. And the concept behind “Bliss” is a time-tested one for the show: Some sort of alien influence distorts the crew’s judgment and puts them in danger, and it’s up to the outsider of the cast to save the day. There’s lots of potential in that.
Every Trek has its outsider: Spock, Data, Odo. Someone whose desires and perspective make them different from the rest of the crew. Not surprisingly, that role in this story falls to Seven of Nine… but, surprisingly, it also falls to Naomi Wildman. (And it again puts Seven and Naomi together as an unlikely but somehow effective team; I love that Seven always refers to the kid by her full name… or should I say, her full designation.) It’s a pretty thoughtful twist. The alien force in this case preys on the crew’s desire to return to Earth, convincing them they’ve found a shortcut home where all the good things they’ve ever dreamed of await them… when in fact all they’ll actually find are happy hallucinations as they’re slowly digested by an unknowable cosmic force. However, because Seven remains ambivalent about going back to the Alpha Quadrant and becoming the one standed Borg on Earth, and Naomi has never known any home but Voyager, the alien’s happy thoughts don’t affect them.
The telepathic being isn’t all-powerful and all-knowing, which is a nice change of pace from these sorts of story. Once the creature’s thralls become aware of someone who can resist or otherwise stand athwart its efforts, it can refocus on them and break them down. But on its own, the creature can’t immediately tell that Seven and Naomi (and the Doctor) are immune to its charms. In fact, it’s only towards the end that it cracks the code to trick Seven into doing its bidding.
Unfortunately, the episode misses out on being something a lot more interesting that the end result we got by giving away its central premise in the opening scene. “Bliss” begins with a sequence featuring an alien captain who has spent his life trying to destroy the telepathic monstrosity. I’m all for disorienting openings, but in this case it was a mistake. The episode would have been a lot more intriguing if we didn’t know for certain that there was some sort of telepathic force out there, if instead Seven began to notice and question the crew’s erratic behavior without the audience knowing that she had the right of it. We’ve seen evidence that Seven’s perception can be somewhat unreliable due to her Borg association (and her Borg dissociation), and “Bliss” could have doubled down on the question of Seven’s reliability if the audience hadn’t been allowed to peep behind the curtain right away. Instead, it becomes more of a procedural than a mystery: Not “Is Seven going nuts, or is everyone else?” but rather, “How will Seven deal with everyone else going nuts while she remains sane?” Which is fine, but it’s the less compelling choice, in my opinion.
The other mistake: The Doctor directly name-drops Moby Dick in relation to the alien captain. The final scene of the episode more than makes that analogy explicit, and it feels a little insulting that the writers’ room didn’t trust the audience to make the connection themselves. I mean, come on, how many people do they think watched “Bliss” without having also seen The Wrath of Khan or First Contact (which hit theaters just a few months before this episode aired!)? After the understated gags of “Bride of Chaotica!”, this sort of blatant “HEY GUYS, GET IT??” broadcasting is a letdown.
(Also, I was positive the entire time I watched this episode that the actor for the alien captain, Qatai, had shown up somewhere before in Klingon makeup. Turns out he was the prison boss at Rura Penthe in Star Trek VI. Go me.)