Monday, November 25, 2019

Voyager, Season 6: Spirit Folk, Season 6
"Spirit Folk"
Airdate: February 23, 2000
135 of 168 produced
135 of 168 aired


The holographic town of Fair Haven is riven by tension as its residents begin to suspect their frequent visitors of nefarious designs upon them.

Maggie O'Halloran needs to sit a spell after being wooed by Harry Kim's "moves."


Kevin: Well, it had to happen eventually. The nadir of the holodeck malfunction. We've got them all, people. Let's inventory them together, shall we? We have a holographic character accidentally and through an ill-defined mechanism achieving sentience and realizing it's on a holodeck. The safeties malfunction. The program can't be simply shut down because reasons. And this is all before we even get to the awful and increasingly (if that were possible) offensive Irish stereotypes. This episode seems to stipulate the idea that any and every simulated person on the holodeck is basically a real person, as it's only a subroutine that prevents them from acquiring the information to slip the restraints. That makes the holodeck a moral abomination. Their default setting is sentience, which is being artificially restrained to permit their use as fuck puppets. That is bananas. Full stop.

Matthew: I will stipulate to the problem of sapience, whether accidental or intentional, not being addressed in a satisfying way. But then, that's been a flaw in many a holodeck episode before this one (Moriarty, anyone? The Doctor?). And the means by which the safeties go off was dumb. The question for me is, in the absence of a compelling sci-fi examination of such an issue, is does the story entertain me, and advance the characters? I think this one is less successful on that score than "Fair Haven," but it's not in a completely different ballpark. I think a much better episode would have addressed these questions directly. Do issues of consent matter with a holodeck "person?" Is sapience really just a matter of leaving something on for too long? If so, why not program an automatic shut off? Is there a duty to allow a being capable of sapience to achieve it? Or to tell it its true nature? Explorations of these kinds of questions would put this in great territory. As it stands, this one is a silly trifle without much tension.

Kevin: And here's the thing. I could let at least some of it go if it were in the service of anything close to an interesting story. Fair Haven is a boring place. I cannot fathom why the crew would all like coming here enough to leave it on 24/7, to say nothing of the fact that once upon a time, the holodeck was a tightly controlled resource on a constantly power-starved ship. The denizens of Fair Haven seem up and down the line insular and incurious, except for the sexbot designed by the captain to be horny for both her and books. This was an excruciating episode to watch. I cannot believe that this watered down Epcot exhibit is a fun way to unwind from the stress of the Delta Quadrant. If nothing else, I don't know for whom an airless medieval sermon is recreation. And don't even get me started on how dumb the Doctor being hypnotized was.

Matthew: Yeah, that was an off note (the hypnotism, that is). I got the feeling they were going for a comedy beat, there. But it doesn't make a lot of sense - even if he had been transferred into the holodeck due to the loss of his emitter, it doesn't also stand to reason that he would be a part of the program and subject to its constraints - he has certainly visited the holodeck before without the emitter and retained the level of control that his human crew mates have. Now, as far as the sermon goes, there is exactly one character for whom that would be entertainment - the Doctor. So here's where I part ways with you - overall, this was a mildly diverting romp in which the characters I care about acted in character for the most part.

Kevin: And I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I'm siding with Harry. Doesn't Tom have literally anything better to do than prank his best friend while he's essentially trying to masturbate? How did that gag even make it out of the writer's room. I can practically hear them asking me through the screen "A cow?!? Isn't that HILARIOUS?! A cow!" I've defended dumb episodes for being fun (See: Rascals) and I've even modestly enjoyed dumb holodeck episode (See: A Fistful of Datas) But what the fuck is any of this? Even if the stupidity were a vehicle for a light-hearted humorous romp, it was neither light-hearted nor humorous. To draw the comparison with A Fistful of Datas a little farther, it's not a good episode, but the core setup is not as stupid. People like sexy, shoot-'em-up video games. I believe that, so I believe that as they would play Red Dead Redemption today, they would also play the game in that episode. Sure the over-reliance on Spiner hamming it up deflates it, but I'm not left scratching my head about the core appeal. And that episode managed at least one or two moments of genuine levity and character work that this one doesn't.

Matthew: Yeah, Tom pranking Harry kind of works for me. And seeing Harry put the moves on a holo-maiden works for me, too. They both make sense for the characters. And why wouldn't 19th century Ireland appeal to people? It's got a bar with parlor games, it's got reasonably doable men and women, it's got the beauteous, rustic environs...

Kevin: The closest the episode comes to a point is Janeway's relationship with Michael. Since we don't actually get to see a lot of it, it's a little hard to invest in its consequences. We also haven't gotten a sense of the strength or nature of the attachment for Janeway yet. Has she kept a bright line around his holographic status, permitting herself an enjoyable and immersive fantasy while very aware of it, or have the lines begun to blur, like they would for Barclay? That's a fun episode, but buried in the dumbest mechanics ever on the holodeck, there is no real exploration of that emotional impact. And even the attempt to square the ethical circle at the end is kind of a handwave. Not doing any more modifications doesn't blunt the fact that this apparently sentient person was originally customized to be Janeway's perfect mate. That essentially voids the possibility of them having any relationship. With a real person, which the episode pretends he is without doing the work to get there, it would be an impossible power imbalance, something akin to Kamala in TNG's "The Perfect Mate."

Matthew: I'm with you on this. I would much rather have explored Janeway's relationship with Michael, what it means, what her obligations are to him if he begins to develop sapience or consciousness, etc.

Kevin: Bringing up "The Perfect Mate" actually reminds that Star Trek has explored all of these issues before with more intelligence and interest. Moriarty is a better exploration of the sentience of holograms. "The Perfect Mate" a better exploration of a relationship founded in service, however benign. And here's what's really getting me, we've looked at 'primitive' societies discovering the truth of the 24th Century before, most notably with the Mintakans in "Who Watches the Watchers" and the Boraalans in "Homeward." I bring up the Boraalans only because the scene of Michael wandering the ship with the Doctor's emitter brought to mind Vorin wandering off the holodeck. And you remember what he did? He committed suicide. The culture shock was too great too overcome. Here, it's played off with a "Gee Katie, you come from a weird place." And the Mintakans were treated like a robust, vital people whose technological advancement or lack thereof was in no way a reflection of their mental capacity. Now, I can hear Matt's counter that those were real people in the context of the show, but the episode clearly wants us to treat the people of Fair Haven the same way, or the discussion of them realizing what is really going on is pointless. I bring this up because it underscores how dumb and offensive the portrayal is. A literal Bronze Age civilization was treated as less backwards and superstitious than these Irish people a century into the Industrial Revolution. In other episodes that cover this topic, sure we get retrograde scared people, but even their fears are taken as genuine and in good faith. More importantly, for every terrified villager there's a Mirasta Yale in First Contact or even Rain Robinson in "Future's End," who don't just accept, but are delighted by the possibility that the universe is bigger than they imagined. It's literally one of my favorite things about Star Trek, and it was all jettisoned here in the name of a cheap joke founded in an offensive stereotype. Janeway makes the H.G. Wells' comparison, but in any other episode on this subject, it would have been a bookish village teenager who points out the similarities, not her. And the distinction matters. In a real village, which again, the show, not me, is insisting this is, there would be people terrified into murder, but there would also be people who want to move to Voyager, and people who wouldn't notice because their own worries are more important, and people who would... not act in any of the ways this episode shows them acting. And not to play the "if it were any other people card" too hard, but if it were any other people, it would be nakedly and inexcusably offensive. And to really drive it home, Matt and I both slammed "Star Trek Into Darkness" for its opening sequence with its mushy application of the Prime Directive and the idea of cultural contamination played for a sight gag. This episode takes that spirit of that scene and turned it into a whole episode.

Matthew: As you predict, my rejoinder is that these are not "real people," and so it isn't as offensive as even "Up The Long Ladder." What I will ding the setting for is this: I trust the writers (your much-admired Bryan Fuller in this case) to know how silly and stereotypical this portrayal is. What the episode needs to do to redeem that is explore how and why the 24th century crew would enjoy it, and whether they interrogate it at all. Like, if Chief O'Brien had been here, he could have scoffed at it and told his crew mates they were being jerks. Or there could have been a conversation about historical accuracy vs. entertainment value.


Kevin: Well. Everyone tried. I'll give them that. Mulgrew and Fintan McKeown gave it their best, but I just don't think, script problems aside, they have any chemistry. I will say that I do chuckle in spite of myself when Picardo slams open the doors of the church and screams "Sinners!" That's a talented actor who can squeeze the humor out of such a ridiculous script.

Matthew: Robert Duncan McNeill got a lot to do for obvious reasons, and I think he has sufficient comic timing to make his scenes work. And any time he spars with Roxann Dawson, there is much to enjoy. I liked Fintan McKeown's man of reason, but also his sense of hurt at being treated as "less than." And Picardo was really good as the priest.

Production Values

Kevin: The generically European back lot is as generic and European and back lot as ever.

Matthew: I appreciate the use of these kinds of sets, and I think they decorated them well. The church was a nice addition. Personally, I found long stretches of the episode to be too dark. I wish they had shot more daytime scenes, or had lit them more aggressively.


Kevin: I think this clearly gets the one. It is worse than "Fair Haven." I agree that Mulgrew is a good actress and the idea of explaining the metaphysics to her holographic boyfriend is one that would have potential, any genuine interest they wring out of it is hidden behind one of the most facially ridiculous and offensive stories Star Trek has ever told.

Matthew: I think the flaws here are down to a lack of ambition. Too much of the episode was given over to holographic characters engaging in speculative flights of fancy. We needed more of the characters we care about, and their feelings, to make this more involving. There's a lot of silliness here, to be sure. Still, for me it is redeemed somewhat by an amusing turn by Robert Picardo and some decent character moments. I'm at a 2 on this, which makes our total a 3.


  1. That they've EVER told?

    I've noted multiple instances of alien races masking the extremely offensive stereotyping of cultures (Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi), the history of blackface (starting but not ending!) in TOS, but I'd really have to give it to TNG's Code of Honor for that racism/sexism one-two punch.

    1. Oh, we are very low on "Code of Honor" here at Treknobabble. It's definitely near the bottom of episodes in the original franchise.