In the yesteryears of the mid 90s, Paramount Pictures looked to continue the Star Trek boom begun by Star Trek: The Next Generation (which had recently ended) and expanded by Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Wishing to both return the series to its adventurous roots while breaking new social boundaries, they premiered the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager on January 16th, 1995. Featuring a female captain and a surprisingly diverse helping of crew members, Star Trek: Voyager would continue on for six years and offer the setting to one of the best Star Trek games ever released (Editor’s Note: This was not a part of the agreed introduction, Tim.) (Tim Response: Don’t care, my phasers are set to frag!).
Every Monday we share a roundtable discussion about a Voyager episode featuring experts pulled from the close group of friends we could easily bribe. This week’s group consists of Seth and yours truly! Naturally, spoilers are a matter of course with this territory, and portions of our conversation drew on our knowledge of other episodes of both Voyager and other Star Trek shows. You have been warned.
This week covers the twelfth episode of Season 1, “Heroes and Demons.”
Seth – *Pops a bottle of wine* Drink up everyone, we’ve got our first holodeck-malfunction plot!
Tim – Woooo! Compared to other Holodeck Malfunction plots, how would you rate this one, Seth?
Seth – Oh my, there are so many to compare it to! I think this one was interesting in that the holodeck wasn’t technically malfunctioning, it was simply being used by an unknown being.
Tim – Fair enough, fair enough.
Seth – And when you really get down to it, a holodeck episode is usually just an excuse to mess around in a genre that doesn’t usually mesh with sci-fi, so I think Beowulf was a good choice with that in mind.
Tim – Indeed! You know what I really enjoyed? Comparing the Holograms of the Holodeck with the Doctor himself.
Seth – Yeah, the Doctor’s budding sapience has raised a lot of questions about the holodeck characters the crew interact with, and putting them together throws them in sharp relief.
Tim – Since we got to see the crew members enter the simulation several times (and then see the simulation “reset”), it really kind of made me think if there was something special about the Doctor in comparison to other Holograms. How do you feel about that?
Seth – Well, this episode made it obvious that the holodeck characters are following a “script,” so to speak. They ad lib their way around the crew’s “out of character” moments a bit, but it’s obvious that they aren’t able to realize the full implications of who they’re interacting with. It’s interesting in contrast to holodeck characters in TNG, who often had opportunity to be confronted with the impossibility of their existence.
Tim – Mmm, how did they handle that, if you don’t mind?
Seth – Well, one episode (involving one of Picard’s Dixon Hill programs) ends up with some of the holodeck characters becoming aware that they are on a starship and attempting to exit the holodeck (which doesn’t work). In the end, one character asks Picard what will happen to him when the program shuts off, and Picard admits that he doesn’t really know.
Tim – That’s terrifying.
Seth – Yeah, TNG was occasionally willing to raise the notion that maybe the holodeck represents a critical existential question, though it always back off from really digging in deep. There’s also a couple of episodes involving Moriarty from Data’s Sherlock Holmes programs being made self-aware by the computer and somehow managing to exert control over the Enterprise through the holodeck’s systems.
Tim – So would it be fair to say that the Doctor exhibits behavior closer to the self-aware programs in TNG than the normal holograms of the Holodeck? And do you think that’s part of his programming as the Ship’s Emergency Medical program or something unique to him? Apologies also for dropping these naval-gazing reflections rather than anything in particular on the episode. It’s just something the episode got me thinking about.
Seth – I think that’s a fair assessment. I think that his self-awareness is unique to him. Self-aware programs have always been unreplicable anomalies, and I don’t think the writers want to deal with the implications of deliberately creating sentient beings at will. From what I’ve gathered from the show so far (and vague rememberings of that one DS9 episode that I haven’t gotten back to yet), the Doctor is basically a really advanced medical program with a personality imprint that was only intended to be used for brief periods. I think that much data, running for this long, developing around a seed of a personality is what has led to his sapience.
Tim – Mmm….
Seth – Or maybe he was always sapient but never had enough time to realize it.
Tim – It might also be that the Doctor was written to retain previous experiences. I mean, the Holodeck programs “remember” vaguely what happens to prior crew, but it’s not quite what happens with the Doctor, who clearly remembers everything he’s doing after he restarts.
Seth – Which makes sense for a medical program: He has to be able to remember the history of care he’s provided to his patients. And that ability to remember and build on previous data essentially allows him to learn and grow. Not to keep going back to the TNG well, but there’s another episode that deals with this in the form of “Exocomps,” essentially drones designed for work in space. Data comes to believe that they are self-aware after a “malfunction” that looked a lot like self-preservation, but the Exocomps fail several tests designed to establish their sentience because they aren’t perceiving the circumstances in the way the crew expects.
Tim – It kind of brings an interesting question to how we measure sentience and understand in real life- for example, people are never sure if cats are actually intelligent. Because they’re not sure if cats conceive of cause and effect the same way humans do, which is the metric that intelligence tests use.
Seth – I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that I think the writers of Voyager want to explore the implications of those themes raised in TNG through the Doctor, but they don’t want to imply that *every* holodeck character is sentient to some degree.
Tim – Mmm, I could see that.
Seth – And I think that shows in this episode in the way the characters in the Beowulf program react (or fail to) to the strange behavior (from their perspective) of Chakotay, Tuvok, and the Doctor. The holodeck characters are more obviously limited than they might have been in TNG to make sure we don’t confuse their programming for the Doctor’s sapience. Significantly, though, the Doctor obviously treats them like they’re real people, as opposed to Chakotay and Tuvok, who merely put up with them and do the bare minimum to keep up with the fiction.
Tim – You know, I never caught that, but you’re right. I wonder if it was a response in kind sorta’ thing- the Doctor still isn’t entirely treated as an equal quite the same way as in the Holodeck, where he’s even subject to being someone’s romantic interest.
Seth – I hadn’t thought about it that way myself, but I think you might be on to something. The holodeck doesn’t treat him any differently from anyone else, and so he’s able to interact on a more even basis. What did you think of his choice of name?
Tim – I’ll need to remind myself what it was.
Seth – Schweitzer.
Tim – Ahhhhh. Did he give a reason? I thought it was cool that it was a germanic name, just for obvious reasons. Then I looked it up, and apparently it was supposed to be a joke.
Seth – He’s been considering names of notable doctors from the past, which is an interesting notion.
Tim – I totally didn’t read it that way. I actually thought it was kind of a warrior name.
Seth – Well, it makes sense on a certain level because most of the information he’s equipped with is medical data, so apart from patients, most of the names he knows are probably doctors. But it also suggests that he identifies with those doctors from the past. Probably because of their common profession, but possibly also because they were all pioneers in their own way.
Tim – See, that’s how I would have read it (after looking up where it came from). He’s still identifying with his function, which was interesting to me. Not that that’s a particularly non-human trait, but it’s the surface level that I’m going for.
Seth – What I thought was particularly interesting was that Albert Schweitzer was as much a theologian and a philosopher as a doctor, if not more so.
Tim – Oh?
Seth – Among other things it seems that he was critical of the notion that Jesus as an object of Christian faith mapped well to a historical person. Maybe I’m putting more thought into the choice of name than the writers did, but I think this quote, “True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: ‘I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live.'”, has interesting implications in the context of the Doctor as a character.
Tim – Man, it really does. I’m not entirely sure that the writers meant it that way, because to a degree (I know, I’m being very critical here) I’m not entirely sure they have put that much thought into their characters.
Join us next week for another installment of Roundtable Voyager! We’ll be discussing Star Trek: Voyager s01e13 “Cathexis.” If you would like, watch the episode ahead of time and contribute your own thoughts in the comments of this post! We’d love to have you help shape our discussion! Or, if you’re more interested in “Heroes and Demons”, was there anything you feel we missed, or theories about the episode that you would like to share? Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below!