Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"The Swarm"

**1/2

Air date: 9/25/1996
Written by Mike Sussman
Directed by Alexander Singer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"You filled your memory with nonsense."
"It was only during my off-hours."
"You're supposed to be OFF during your off-hours!"

— Zimmerman hologram and the Doctor

Nutshell: An uneven mixed bag. Solid, greatly entertaining character work sabotaged by yet another forgettable subplot.

There are moments of "The Swarm" that are so good that we want to look past the problems of the script. But the problem with this episode is that ignoring the flaws ultimately becomes impossible—the show is so uneven and the subplot is so unmotivated and inconsequential that one begins to wonder why the subplot even exists. This is the same problem that plagued last week's "Chute"—a strong main story is undermined by a subplot that proves quite, well, forgettable.

The show opens with the seldom-seen pairing of Torres and Paris in a shuttle for a character-based teaser that is somewhat entertaining. Then the show launches its (sub)plot when some strange aliens beam in and attack Torres and Paris, rendering them unconscious with an energy blast as punishment for inadvertently invading their space.

Torres regains consciousness and pilots the ship back to Voyager and the two are taken to sickbay, where the show introduces its main plot involving the Doctor. Doc begins having memory lapses—at first minor things like forgetting where he laid down a medical device, but later he completely forgets the entire procedure for a crucial operation that Paris needs. (Quick observation: Why did Doc begin the operation on Paris knowing that he didn't remember how to do it? It strikes me as rather silly that he would proceed with such delicate work without first investigating his own problem.)

Torres discovers that Doc's circuitry pathways are degrading, and if they continue to degrade he will be permanently incapacitated. The only known solution is to completely re-initialize his program—meaning he would lose all the memories experienced since his activation nearly two years ago.

This is an interesting idea—one that I had hoped we would see someday. While Doc is a person in many respects, this can't change the fact that he exists because of hardware and software, and that his existence can be threatened if there's a problem with the equipment. Further, this is another good use of the Trekkian Human Question, which asks whether the Doctor has feelings as we know them, and whether the crew can give those feelings priority over practicality, which states that the program should be re-initialized immediately to avoid further damage to the Doctor's system.

So, to look for other options, Torres activates the EMH diagnostic program in the holodeck. The diagnostic is a holographic representation of Doctor Zimmerman (also played by Picardo), the Jupiter-stationed creator of the EMH. Zimmerman is exactly the irascible rascal we figured he would be. Picardo's rendition of the character is skillfully done, not to mention an awful lot of fun. Zimmerman's dialog, mannerisms, and facial expressions are dead-on perfect, and Picardo demonstrates a knack for comic timing as he plays a scene opposite himself that has a fountain of quotable lines.

Zimmerman explains that the EMH has amassed too much "worthless" data in his personality subroutine, which is causing an overload and a breakdown of his other routines. ("Look at all this useless information floating around your buffer. Friendships with the crew, relationships with... women? Do they find you attractive?") He concludes that the only viable option is re-initializing the program. Torres wants another option. Zimmerman has no option to give her.

It's about here that the subplot involving the aliens becomes more urgent (or, perhaps, more distracting). According to Neelix, these aliens are bad news. Those who wander into their territory are usually never heard from again. And it turns out that going around their space (which is huge) would add well over a year to Voyager's trip. Janeway decides to violate Starfleet regulations and trespass in their space, much to Tuvok's (somewhat overstated) ire.

Janeway's decision here bothers me a bit. I don't understand why she is willing to break this rule but wouldn't break other rules in past episodes (even if it meant getting home). "I don't like bullies" doesn't seem like much of an explanation to me; it seems more like a forced line to make Janeway appear more imposing, which I really don't think is necessary. As a result, her decision seems more arbitrary than anything else.

While trying to cross the aliens' space, Voyager encounters a ship floating dead in space which was also foolish enough to wander into this territory. They paid with their lives. Naturally, there is one survivor clinging to life who "tells the tale." Pretty by-the-numbers, not very interesting.

The show continues to switch back and forth between the A/B-stories. The transitions decidedly could have been better, as, for example, one scene features the Voyager in grave danger and then cuts to a humorous dialog between Doc and Kes. With this standard story structure, the script simply gives us a little more information in each succeeding scene—which is fine but also means the B-plot's significance rides almost solely on the conclusion. Unfortunately, the payoff is hardly what I hoped for.

Sure, these aliens—that is, the impressive sight of a thousand of their little ships racing after a fleeing Voyager—are a somewhat fresh idea (which is at least somewhat reassuring of the new season), but what the creators do with them is hardly fresh. Once again, we have a powerful foe with a unique advantage that is defeated with Voyager's usual tactical technobabble. The show's inevitable battle seems to demonstrate that the writers can come up with any alien derivation one could imagine, but can provide them with no dramatic purpose beyond being defeated in a sudden turn of the tables that is hardly imaginative or impressive, but plenty insipid and perfunctory.

And Alexander Singer's direction over this battle scene is clunky and lackluster, despite some decent special effects. The invasion of the bridge by the aliens did nothing to increase my pulse rate, and the suddenness with which the entire situation was resolved was far too swift to feel anything but artificial.

I was extremely grateful, at least, to find out that the Doctor's malfunctions had nothing to do with the alien swarm. (I was half expecting another one of those reset button endings where Voyager leaves the aliens' space and everything returns to normal.) A good decision was made here.

So what about Doc, anyway? His deterioration takes him into a sort of state of Alzheimer's for holograms, which is milked for some genuinely funny moments (the "he's a very sick man" passage, for example, was hilarious). Just as Zimmerman predicted, Doc's intellect descends to that of a parsnip.

His problem is also solved with a rather technical procedure, although it's much more interesting than the angle with the aliens. It's driven more by Zimmerman and Kes' character interaction than by arbitrary workings of shield modulations or phasers.

This solution does not, however, guarantee Doc's memory will be restored, and the ending, in which he indeed does not appear to remember Kes or Torres, had my attention. But I have mixed feelings about the very last shot where Doc begins singing opera from his previous holodeck experiences. There are a number of ways to read this. (I personally didn't care for the vague ending all that much because I don't really like to be toyed with when it comes to character truths.) Some possible implications of this ending include:

  • Doc was merely joking with Kes and Torres. This has about 0.1% likelihood, but I just thought I'd throw it out there because it would be an amusing and atypical approach.
  • Doc's memory will slowly return, the way many TV cases of amnesia resolve themselves. That would be too dramatically easy, but it's possible.
  • Doc will remember some things, but not others. This is the most probable, most plausible, and probably most interesting way to deal with it.
  • Doc will remember nothing (except some opera). It would be a brave choice on the part of the producers, but I certainly would not like it because it would be character stagnation, not character development.

No matter how this is ultimately resolved, I found the setup to be just that—setup without dramatic payoff. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think the story would've been much more effective if the ending hadn't been left so open.

It's unfortunate that this episode can't get more than an "okay" rating in my book. It really is. I enjoyed much of the Doctor's story. But as long as Voyager's creators give us subplots that go nowhere with weak conclusions that weigh down the main story, I don't see any way that such episodes can transcend overall mediocrity.

Yes, "The Swarm" was fun at times. Yes, it featured an interesting character we figured we would never see. Yes, it had great performances by Robert Picardo. But it didn't add up to enough; it didn't have the payoff or subplot development it needed. It was a potentially great show that shot itself in the foot. It's not a total loss by any means, but (like "The Chute") not nearly what it could've been.

Unfortunate indeed.

Previous episode: The Chute
Next episode: False Profits

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13 comments on this review

Mike - Tue, Oct 14, 2008 - 10:21am (USA Central)
Jammer leaves out one possibility:
1) Reset button. Doc's memory issues will never be an issue again. Probably the most annoying possibility, so of course....

Anyway - solid review of the problems and good aspects of this episode. A Star Trek 'B' story should never be "the ship might be destroyed", and this episode shows what happens when it is; you can't take the danger seriously.

I do like that we get a Kes episode, however (spoiler warning: I like Kes). In season 3 it appears the writers may finally have come up with things for Kes to do...too late for her character, unfortunately.

Ah, and we also get the first hints of the Torres/Paris relationship at the beginning.
Keb Egervari - Thu, Oct 8, 2009 - 2:00pm (USA Central)
This is the break down of the series right here. It's not that voyager was "great" by any means, but this episodes marks its downfall and represents everything I dislike about the show.

- Janeway violating principals so easily is the first time she has done this in the series... and from this point on, it becomes part of her wishy-washy character. While she was a promising captain, she has lost all credibility at this point. It destroyed her character.

- Resetting the doctor ruins character development. His relationship with Kes was easily one of the strongest points to his character. You get rid of that... honestly, what is left of him?

The subplot was particularly bad, but the repercussions of this episode are far worse.

Terrible episode. Not 2-3 stars.
Nic - Sun, Jan 10, 2010 - 7:20pm (USA Central)
I think Janeway's decision to break the rules marks a turning point for her character, because after their experiences in the first two seasons, she has realized that the most important thing to her is to get her crew home. It might have come on a little suddenly, but it makes perfect sense given their situation. But I agree the 'swarm' aliens were not even interesting enough to sustaion half of the episode.

I love the final scene and I think of all the possible outcomes this one has the greatest emotional impact. The Doctor did mention his "recent memory loss" in the next episode (that is, the next episode to be written), so the second of your options would seem to be the case.

Jay - Fri, Jan 28, 2011 - 1:53pm (USA Central)
@ Nic,

Yeah, it is a differetn Janeway from around here froward. THough I'm probably overreaqding writer intent, I'd say maybe it has something to do with being stranded for weeks on the monkey planet at the end of Season 2 in "Resolutions". After rejoining the crew, she was in a more "back to business" mode....
Destructor - Tue, Apr 19, 2011 - 8:39pm (USA Central)
I agree with Nic. If anything, Janeway's transition from 'by the book' to 'will do anything to get home' is the true arc of the Voyager story.

Anyway, I liked this episode but was disappointed that it was never really followed up on.
Nadav - Tue, Aug 7, 2012 - 9:18am (USA Central)
For me, the most absurd part of the whole "swarm" story line was the motivation of this alien race. If they had wanted to "feed" on ships straying into their territory, why would they warn the Voyager not to enter? Would a lion warn a zebra not to enter its territory, or just wait for it silently and happily?

Moreover, what could possibly motivate the swarm race to decide on convoluted borders with a conveniently narrow band which Voyager could cross in 4 hours? Without naturally occuring borders or other empires in the vicinity, the swarm's empire would have taken the shape of a *sphere* - which would have been less convenient for the script, I guess.
Eric - Mon, Sep 10, 2012 - 10:01pm (USA Central)
"His circuits and pathways are degrading?" We've got to do a "graft" of another hologram onto his to save him? That's not how computers work, damn it!
Grumpy - Mon, Jul 29, 2013 - 9:21pm (USA Central)
At least the grafting solution somewhat acknowledges the absurdity of having a faulty EMH while the computer can easily create a lifelike simulation of the EMH's creator (or a Cardassian war criminal, or Leonardo, or Einstein, or a sentient lounge singer). If anything, "grafting" is just a roundabout way of describing the obvious solution: junk the faulty EMH and have the computer *simulate* a healthy one. In the end, what's the difference??
Matrix - Sun, Sep 15, 2013 - 2:38am (USA Central)
just came across this on memory alpha, thought i'd share:

Prior to the writing of this episode, actor Robert Picardo suggested a story idea that was similar to how this episode turned out, as both involved a holographic depiction of Lewis Zimmerman. Shortly after completing work on Star Trek: Voyager's second season, Picardo explained, "I would like an exploration of the man that developed my program. I have suggested a story idea to them about this Doc Zimmerman character, and what would make him design the emergency medical hologram program. Specifically, I've suggested that he no longer practices medicine. In doing volunteer work in the most upsetting medical emergency situations, he witnessed something that has rendered him unable to practice anymore, so he creates the holographic doctor program to complete him as a doctor. He doesn't have it anymore to interact directly with patients. In other words, he is a very frightened, and uncommunicative, an unentitled, shy, pathetic man, versus his creation. We would meet them both on the Holodeck. He would be in the ship's memory banks.

while the swarm story was beyond boring i really like the two docs interaction, along with kes' involvement in the story. i hadn't seen this episode yet when they showed a clip in the star trek 30 years special back in 96, but rather than be spoilerific it was actually quite fun for 14 year old me to see, as if i was seeing something from the future.
Corey - Tue, Mar 11, 2014 - 9:34am (USA Central)
Jammer says it all, really. The Swarm subplot was a good idea, but rushed and ultimately inconsequential.

I think Janeway's command decisions were also bizzare. At the very least, the episode should have seriously wrestled with her decision to break through Swarm space. There should have been scenes in which she and Tuvok battled with the issue. The crux of the episode should have been the political and ethical implications of breeching swam territory, instead we get run-of-the-mill action sequences.
Henry - Sat, Mar 29, 2014 - 2:25am (USA Central)
One of the worst arcs in Voyager, just a one star from me. I can't get over Janeway's decision making. Violating other people's space before you can talk to them, risking their lives for a shortcut and calling them 'bullies'?

The Picardo arc deserved the episode to itself.
kapages - Mon, Jun 16, 2014 - 11:14pm (USA Central)
Nothing would have happened if Voyager didnt stop to aid the attacked ship inside the alien territory. Even if it got detected by the attached alien ship (doubtful), it would be long gone in warp 9,75.
When u make a command decision (fly through foreign space), stick to it. Dont remember the next second ur an explorer/humanitarian etc.
Vylora - Sun, Aug 24, 2014 - 6:55am (USA Central)
While the B plot feels a bit rushed at the end and ultimately becomes a foregone conclusion; both A and B plots serve up interesting dilemmas in what is an overall worthwhile installment. Some cross-cutting between the two could have benefited from some better editing choices.

Janeway's decision here to cross into the aliens territory showed growth of character in that she is learning from past experiences since being stuck in the Delta Quadrant. Truth is, the aliens struck first and Voyager continued efforts to communicate despite that. Stopping to examine a damaged vessel and helping the injured alien makes logical sense. One of the best ways to learn about an antagonist species is to, very obviously, glean whatever information you can from other victims. Not to mention it's the humanitarian thing to do, which is a hallmark of ST.

The A plot revolving around the doctors intermittent memory loss brings forth some of the usual fantastic performances from Picardo in dual roles. An explanation at the end on how his memory may or may not return would have been helpful. I would like to think that it just took time for that part of the programming to establish itself after the grafting of the two matrices took hold.

All in all, though, quite an enjoyable hour. Nothing groundbreaking to be sure, but pretty solid.

3 stars.

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