Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Voyager, Season 4: Revulsion

Voyager, Season 4
Airdate: October 1, 1997
72 of 168 produced
72 of 168 aired


The Doctor and B'Elanna visit an alien vessel to assist a lone hologram whose crew has suffered a calamity. Unfortunately for them, it turns out that the calamity was the hologram's doing.

The hologram, in the cargo bay, with the hammer!


Matthew: So, it seems like you have a few options with "where to go on hologram stories." You can either bite the bullet and explain how and why sentience can occur within an artificial intelligence, or you can try for a HAL story of holograms run amok. This episode is squarely in the latter class, and I wish it were a bit more firmly in the former. Why in heaven's name did the HD-25 become the sentient, crazy person that he is? Do all of them do this if left on for a certain time, or if "mistreated," or is there something that happened to this particular iteration? Why does the Doctor treat HD-25 as if he is a being with a wounded psyche, as opposed to programming? Why does this hologram, when it has a screw loose, manifest that insanity in a way fundamentally similar to a human being having a mental break? Why would his creators make him so annoying? Why does zapping the hologram with energy kill it? Wouldn't you need to destroy its computer, or emitters? Too many questions... damned few answers.

Kevin: I agree this is an ongoing problem with the show's conception of holograms. I really think they needed to explain why the Doctor was unique, because that opens up an avenue of storytelling which is fairly interesting. What if other holograms are simply structurally inferior to the doctor? An example would be humans and gorillas. We accept that they're similar but not similar enough to merit the same rights and abilities. The alternate is to establish that by virtue of some extended experience, the holograms achieve some level of increasing sentience. This would call into question the ethics of almost all holograms since theoretically any use could lead to this conundrum. The problem is the series as a whole tends to skip the intermediate step. Any hologram is treated as sufficiently similar to the Doctor as to merit the same rights and needs of the Doctor, and then the doctor defends the character on that basis. Of all the iterations, I think the most interesting version of this story is one where a complex hologram is malfunctioning in a dangerous way. If the program is sentient, then he merits treatment. If he is not, he needs to be disabled for everyone's safety and it would be fun to watch the Doctor grapple with where the line is.

Matthew: The B story is Seven and Harry. On the one hand, I understand that they should show Seven becoming friends with some of the crew, dramatizing the basic struggles we all have, but more so her struggles as an outsider. There is some decent romantic mismatch comedy here, but it veers waaaay into the exploitative when Seven goes straight to the adolescent fantasy of casually suggesting intercourse. It was almost the "I've never experienced human sexuality, please show me" trope. I can't believe that Seven of Nine is that flippant, or that ignorant. If anything, the realistic take should be someone trying very hard to convince her that it is a worthwhile thing at all, not the other way around.

Kevin: I completely agree with your analysis of the B plot. This is another avenue where I think the obvious ethical questions would be fun to more explicitly explore. Even though we accept that Seven is 24 years old she doesn't have 24 years of experience interacting with humans. She may be very intelligent but she obviously doesn't have a great deal of emotional experience and I think that raises some questions about even if we accept her offer to Harry at face value, does that mean it would be ethical for her to act on it? Based on her statements in earlier episodes, Seven doesn't exactly have the best relationship with her pre Borg body and sex is one of the most innately physical, human things we can do, so I wonder if there were a more mature way to explore Seven's increasing humanity and physical and emotional awareness while incorporating her sexuality in a way that wasn't done for laughs.

Matthew: The odds and ends of the story are Tuvok getting promoted... for some reason... to be equal in rank to Chakotay... as out of left field as this scene was, it was charming enough for what it was. The other bit was Paris and B'Elanna acknowledging their love. I'm glad they did this, as it lends a nice serial feel to the stories, to say it's been three days since their shuttle accident (how many shuttles have been destroyed of late?).

Kevin: I took the rest of the episode as a fair bit of character housekeeping, that by and large was successful. There's actually been a few noticeable instances in which Tuvok's rank insignia is incorrect so this seems to just resolve that problem going forward. I also like that they touch base with Tom and B'Elanna's relationships I think that's important to make it credible. I also like the little snippet of back story about how Tuvok and Janeway meet, though I found the leaning on the Live Long and Prosper joke/prank to cross the delicate line from friendly ribbing to quasi-racist mocking.


Matthew: Garret Wang and Jeri Ryan had good comic scenes. Wang in particular did a good job appearing uncomfortable. If only the writers had given them something beyond cliche to to, we might have gotten something really interesting.

Kevin: Even in the few episodes she's been in so far, Jeri Ryan has done an excellent job of pitching an array of emotions at just the right temperature to get the point across. As much as we didn't like the writing in the scene, her forthright attitude in the scene with Harry worked for the character as much as they have sketched it out to this point. And while Wang has never exactly blown me away with his acting, I found he was annoying in this episode only to the extent that he was supposed to be annoying from the script.

Matthew: Leland Orser's performance on Dejaren veered into the agitating and annoying. I think that's the way this was written, of course. But it was too "human" for my taste. I'd be much more frightened and much less annoyed by a HAL-style deadpan than by screaming.

Kevin: I think the problem for the hologram character is that he started out at psychotic killer. It made the increasing pitch of his insanity less dramatically interesting. Orser played the Romulan in the DS9 two-parter Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast and I think he shows he has the ability to pitch a quieter, more menacing character there and I wish he'd been able to do more of that here.

Matthew: Roxann Dawson turned in a competent "horror movie" performance, and this is what made the A story tolerable. I enjoyed her growing unease and her eventual injured push back. Robert Picardo was also competent, but I found him a bit too naive. 

Kevin: Dawson always does a really good job of inhabiting whatever seems she's in. The episode could only have benefited from making her a note central part of a debate about the nature of the two different holograms.

Production Values

Matthew: I thought the ship exterior was some really nice CGI. The interior was quite good as well, and it seemed like a real place, and added to the tension. B'Elanna's injuries were OK but nothing to write home about. The optical effects on the HD-25 were competent.

Kevin: The horror tropes at work were competently executed and I enjoy that. An example would be the opening scene of the body being dragged, leaving the trail of blood was sufficiently grisly, but not over the line for network television and it did set a good tone even if it tipped the episode's hand a little early.


Matthew: This isn't awful, but it's a bit of a bore. Interesting questions are never asked, and instead we get both an A and a B story that play out as mere tropes. This was a real wasted opportunity (which will be revisited to greater effect later) and I think it's a 2.

Kevin: I have to agree with the two which is sad because I think Picardo and Dawson's acting alone would normally get you at 3 in pretty much any episode. But the hologram plot isn't cookedlong enough and the Harry and Seven plot is just not interesting enough to really pull this episode up to a three. That's a total of 4.


  1. I do not have the same problems about The Doctor becoming sentient as you guys seem to have. How is information being stored and transmitted biochemically that much different than if it is digitally stored and transmitted?

    How is neurons building and neural connections developing when one "learns" and "grows" as a carbon based organic individual any different than a subroutine developing when The Doctor "learns" something new, like singing opera or gardening?

    What I love about Star Trek, and especially Voyager here, is that it dabbles into the big questions we humans ask ourselves all the time about what is reality, the nature of existence, consciousness, sentience. I see Star Trek using the science fiction angle to try to explore these questions and I find it a worthwhile exercise, even if it doesnt always come out "right", which is ok, this is not a lab experiment we are running to make a scientific discovery. This is sci fi and we are looking at the question of "what if.." .

    Star Trek has done a superb job exploring these very questions using various venues, stories and scenarios, such as with Data and then Odo. I love that this time they took on a non-organic being to explore the same question.

    What is real anyway? Does consciousness only have to arise from organic life forms? One of the things that always bothers me in the field of astronomy is when they talk about "life on other planets", life itself is generally defined in this very narrow way (i.e. the way we know and understand life carbon based and conditioned within a a narrow set of variables.

    They say planet X or Y cannot harbor any life because its atmosphere isnt like Earth, or because it has no water or because it highly dense or hot or extremely cold and what have you. But all that really means is that life as we know it ON EARTH could not survive or flourish there. What's to say intelligent beings, or even just single celled organisms or protozoa, cannot live and flourish and thus exist on a planet where the atmosphere is not Oxygen/nitrogen and the temperatures "extreme" etc?

    So with respect to The Doctor and holograms coming to life, I ask the same question: define "real." A human is carbon-based. A hologram silicone. The thoughts of an organic being are chemicals, that of a hologram digital. The question then, for me at least, is not why and how could sentience develop in a hologram but more like, "why couldnt it?" Why dont we have more Dr. Moriartys? And more of The Doctor ? Or, in this case, more HD-25s?

  2. So to answer some of your questions:

    Why did the HD-25 become the sentient, crazy person that he is --> why did the Doctor become who he is? an individual who is self aware with desires? Why did Dr. Moriarty in TNG?

    Why does the Doctor treat HD-25 as if he is a being with a wounded psyche, as opposed to programming? --> because The Doctor doesnt see himself as just mere programming but as someone who exceeded its program and became more than just the sum of its parts. He can identify with HD-25 in some way. He is projecting, much like humans. Isnt Seven going to do the same thing with the Borg children later on? See a piece of herself in them and try to use that to mentor and guide them as they make the transition?

    Why does this hologram, when it has a screw loose, manifest that insanity in a way fundamentally similar to a human being having a mental break? --> because people programmed it. Humans with flaws. Maybe insanity and being deranged have the same root causes - messed up neurons/dysfunction on a molecular level (or in this case digital pathways).

    Why would his creators make him so annoying? --> The Doctor is based on Zimmerman with all his annoyances, I assume the same happened here.

    Why does zapping the hologram with energy kill it --> because it is energy based? It short circuits...

    Wouldn't you need to destroy its computer, or emitters? --> Maybe. Maybe not. Does it matter? Seems nit picky to me when you look at the episode conceptually.

  3. It's not that I have a problem per se with the Doctor being treated as sentient full stop. It that the show never really digs into the "Why" or "What now?" of those questions. Is the Doctor complex in a way that regular holograms, even other EMHs used more sparingly? If so, how does a hologram cross a line? And we tagged Elementary Dear Data for not answering this question either. If we take as read that any sufficiently complex program is sentient, that raises some real ethical conundrums for Federation society. Much like Data, is it ethical to create sentient life whose purpose is to do our bidding? Measure of a Man answers that question with an explicit "no." And it's not that I necessarily disagree with your proposed answers to our questions, it's that the episode didn't even begin to answer them, and that's where the most interesting part of this story would be.

  4. What Kevin said.

    I don't have to agree with the answers the questions above. They just have to be presented in an interesting and consistent way. But if the questions never are asked, then very little of intellectual interest can occur.

    "Her" and "Ex Machina" treat very similar questions in interesting ways. What precipitates consciousness on the part of an AI? How does it manifest itself, and in what ways is it different than biologically based consciousness? If the AI is programmed with a simulacrum of human emotions, does the AI *experience* it in the same way, or is it fundamentally different? This is what I was trying to get at above in the review. Do these consciousnesses deserve treatment on a par with biological ones? Why or why not?

    This episodes neither asks nor answers these questions. And so it is just a horror story, and not a particularly good one, because of the nitpicky stuff - if horror is to work, it needs to create and follow predictable rules - how does the big bad get destroyed, what can it do, what can't it do. This episode doesn't really do this, either.

    1. More on the emotion bit - most if not all human emotions evolved as responses that trigger closer pair bonding for reproduction, or to preserve genetic integrity in families/tribes. An AI has neither of these pressures. So would an AI experience emotions similarly at all? If they were just programmed imitations, would they really go deep to the core of the consciousness, or would they be surface feelings, easily shrugged off? What would the emotions that evolve for an AI be like? Would there be any?