My feelings on "Latent Image" might best be summed up as above, with the elusive, all-purpose "hmmm..." The question is what kind of vocal inflection goes with that "hmmm." Is it (1) a "hmmm" that starts at a somewhat high pitch and comes down slightly in pitch in a sort of thoughtful, melodic way? Or is it (2) a more disturbed and skeptical "hmmm," which has a lower pitch than the first "hmmm" and sounds more like an annoyed whine—a "hmmm" that, in inflection but not in consonant structure, comes across much the same way as "ehhhh"?
As "Latent Image" unfolded, this episode had me mentally tallying both types of "hmmms." Type 1 probably wins out, but not without plenty of Type 2 cropping up along the way.
It's an episode like this one that makes me wonder just who and what the Doctor really is. Is he really sentient, or does he just appear to be so? If his claims of self-awareness are simply programmed "personality subroutine" responses, does that change his status or entitled rights as an individual? Hmmm... (Type 1).
Do the writers know the answers to these questions? I had long thought the Doctor was considered sentient, but after this episode, I'm wondering whether that was the intention. And I'm also wondering if the writers simply changed their minds before writing this episode. Hmmm... (Type 2).
The mystery arises from some gaps in Doc's memory when he discovers that Ensign Kim had been treated with an emergency medical procedure that Doc had obviously performed yet cannot remember. With Seven's help, he uncovers some buried, incomplete memories that had at one point been erased. He goes to the captain to report the mystery, at which point we realize the plot is playing a few tricks on us. These tricks capture attention early on, although the plot comes off a little uneven as a result.
First is the quasi-mystery McGuffin (i.e., no one knows why Doc has these memory lapses), and then the story reveals a dose of paranoia (i.e., they know why—because they did it—but won't tell him) before settling into the "actual plot" (his memory had been erased because the events in question had caused him to malfunction). It's the nature of the "actual plot" where the story's real issues lie.
"Latent Image" has some evident frustrations, one being that it seems to come at a time much later in the series than it should have, and another being that it seems to contradict what we had previously known about the Doctor. The two objections are interrelated to some degree, but I'll focus on the latter objection, as we can find evidence to support it.
My central challenge to this story is this: Hasn't the Doctor already grown past the "pre-programmed" point in question? Isn't this a question that has been asked if not answered long ago, in one way or another? Doc has experienced a lot over the years, whether it was falling in love in "Lifesigns," swapping jokes on cue and battling Romulans in "Message in a Bottle," or moralizing social situations in "Living Witness." You'd think the question of whether he can make choices that go beyond his original programming is something that has been answered affirmatively on many occasions. For that reason, I have my skeptical "hmmms" about whether this story is a daring stretch of past material or a total disregard of it.
BUT ... alleviating somewhat from this problem—which makes "Latent Image" overcome the inconsistencies that one would decide are problem areas—is the following argument: Suppose all of Doc's behavior in the past has managed to avoid the complexity of thought that the central crisis of "Latent Image" brings forward—the idea of sentient growth, of pondering the nature of existence, limitless choices, and an infinitely unpredictable number of possibilities. That's a "hmmm" (Type 1) that really kept my attention as "Latent Image" unfolded.
The central crisis is simple, yet not: A year and a half ago, an alien attack left two patients, both in mortal danger, both (we presume) of equal importance to the ship, with an equal chance of survival ... but there was only enough time for Doc to save one. Which patient did he choose? Harry Kim, a crewmate he is closer to, with a regular working relationship; or Ensign Jetal (Nancy Bell), a crewmate from below decks whom Doc had met once?
Time was short. Doc made a decision: Harry Kim. Jetal died. Later, Doc began trying to figure out why he made the choice that allowed her to die. A conflict arose between his independent thought process and his pre-programmed "first duty" of treating patients with total impartiality. The conflict grew and consumed him. To erase the problem, Janeway erased the memories of those events. Now, the problem has presented itself again.
The big question is, does erasing Doc's memories stagnate his ability to grow as an individual? Should he instead be allowed to work through the crisis and confusion? That's the whole point of the story, and with the cycle repeating itself, Janeway is forced to rethink her original decision.
On a plot level, the specific dilemma that brings the conflict to the surface is pretty contrived. For one, just where did this Ensign Jetal come from? It always amazes me that even though the Voyager crew has a finite number of members, the producers still manage to pluck people at random out of the sea of infinite actors looking for short-term work. Why can't Voyager have some semblance of a consistent guest cast? DS9, which doesn't even have to be as self-sufficient as Voyager in terms of crew, has a dozen or more recurring characters outside the regular cast. Yet Voyager can barely muster Ensign Wildman once or twice a year. (But I'll stop now; I've been down this road many times before.)
The episode will also have us believe that Jetal has never been mentioned in conversation near Doc since her death, and that all records Doc might encounter pertaining to her presence have been either hidden or deleted. That's quite a stretch. I wonder how the captain pulled it off.
But never mind. I said there were some significant problems here, and there are. I also said this episode works, so let's get back to the reasons why. The way Doc's program goes haywire provides Picardo with a great chance to go slightly berserk, with a strong performance that teeters on the edge of distress and insanity. And it isn't merely a trick; it works on story terms, showing a character torn in a conflict that, because of his programming, becomes irreconcilable.
The fragmented thought process is carried into a final scene where Doc's confusion has him ranting in circles, pondering the nature of the formation of the universe 20 billion years ago, which leads him to conclude his decision was inevitable, as was the ultimate formation of "starships, holodecks, and chicken soup." I found the final scene interesting because it's unconventional and borderline-schizophrenic in a way that perfectly conveys Doc's confusion. A lot of people will likely find it weird, but I think I see exactly what Menosky was going for.
Another thing I really liked about this episode was the way it worked as an ensemble piece, even though the focus was generally on Doc. Just about everyone gets some good, well-motivated screen time, most notably Janeway and Seven of Nine, whose arguments on the nature of Doc's individuality supply the episode with many of its tantalizing questions about his rights and needs as an artificial intelligence, sentient or otherwise. (Alas, Chakotay is still getting severely shafted, receiving little screen time and no significant dialog. The writers have got to give this guy a voice, because he has become far and away the show's most underutilized and purposeless character this season.)
Perhaps my biggest dread concerning this episode is that the writers will simply ignore it later—which would be extremely wrong. Given the end of this episode, I would expect Doc has a long way to go in overcoming this challenge, and if we never see it again, I'm going to be angry. The Voyager writers have a knack for disregarding long-term character continuity, especially when it comes to the Doctor—and especially when it involves the Doctor in a situation that demands follow-up consequences. There have been far too many instances where a significant problem Doc has experienced has been simply thrown away. Most notable instances that come to mind are his loss of memory back in "The Swarm" and his life-building scenarios in "Real Life." Both demanded follow-ups, and neither received them. "Latent Image" demands a follow-up even more, yet I have this fear that we'll never get it. As always, judgment will be reserved and temporary optimism maintained.
On the technical side, Mike Vejar's direction was effective. He has never been afraid to use slow-motion when appropriate, and here it brought a surreal edge to some of the flashback scenes.
On the other hand, Paul Baillargeon scored no points with me this week; the completely inappropriate music during the crucial surgery flashback nearly managed to sink the entire scene. He did a great job with the theme for DS9's "The Siege of AR-558," but Baillargeon's tendency to underscore urgent scenes with seemingly random, serene notes (see also DS9's "Valiant") is inexplicable and detrimental. I've been a long-time critic of new-Trek music, and although I've mellowed in recent years, this score was ineffective enough for special mention.
Despite my qualms and fears with "Latent Image," however, I'm going with a marginal recommendation—mostly for the ideas and implications it creates, not always so much for how it goes about doing it. This is an episode that prompted me to ask questions about Doc, and in turn had me pondering the nature of our own existence and the sometimes-arbitrary choices we make. It's in many ways a fascinating thought piece. But with some script tweaking it could've been much more. "Hmmm" indeed.
Next week: Do you THINK you stand a CHANCE against the evil CHAOTICA, ruler of the UNIVERSE?