Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 12/2/1998
Written by Jeri Taylor
Directed by David Livingston
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"Ethics are arbitrary." — Krell
Nutshell: An interesting episode that specializes in pulling the rug out from under itself. I like the arguments quite a bit, but I take great exception to the methods used to present them.
The setup: The crew beams an alien creature aboard Voyager just before its damaged ship explodes.
The problem: Soon after, the injured creature attacks Torres, using her as a "life preserver." It physically latches onto her body, and if it's not removed, Torres will die. Doc can't treat her, because he doesn't have the necessary specialized knowledge of exobiology.
The possible solution: Doc looks through his medical files and finds a Cardassian database on exobiology, and creates a holographic simulation of Doctor Krell Moset (David Clennon), a Cardassian specialist who can treat Torres.
The complication: A moral dilemma arises when the crew learns Krell was present during the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor and had tested many of his theories on live Bajoran subjects.
Maybe the creators decided to disregard caution—and even common sense—in their plotting of this episode, hoping this story could sustain itself with the central issue of controversy that arises with Krell's presence. They were half right. I liked many of the story's arguments a great deal; some genuine thought went into Jeri Taylor's script. But there are also some egregious lapses in judgment, and I don't think the episode survives its plot shortcomings. The drawbacks run so deep here as to make the central situation fundamentally flawed, which infects the rest of the episode. I'm not even sure where to begin.
Actually, I am. Let's start with Krell. I have a big, big problem with the exceptionally casual creation of a such a perfect holographic rendition of a real person, replete with surgical skills that would normally require years of acquired experience. In a word: how? Granted, DS9 has Vic Fontaine, who borders on sentience and has extraordinary social abilities, but it was said in dialog that his was a "very special program"; as such, I'd imagine it was created with a specific intention in mind by trained programming specialists who required great time, care, attention, and testing to get it right. The same goes for Doc's own program; he was the product of extensive research and development by Doctor Zimmerman. Doc's knowledge and technical abilities required a great deal of complexity in his technological makeup—just look at third season's "The Swarm" for plentiful evidence of such.
But here? Harry and Doc spend a few minutes in the holodeck, give the computer a few broad commands, and presto—Krell in the flesh, a surgical assistant who can supply Doc with the assistance he needs to save B'Elanna's life.
First of all, this opens an enormous can of worms (which will undoubtedly be ignored outright). Think of all the implications (the story certainly didn't): If a crafty ensign and a holographic doctor can just throw together a few data files to make a carbon copy of an actual specialist, why do we even need people to run starships? To put it another way, if Torres is lying in sickbay dying and the ship needs to be saved with a technical engineering procedure, Harry could just go into the holodeck, slap together her logs and published knowledge and a few personality files, and then ask this hologram what needs to be done to save the ship from the spatial distortion of the week. According to the logic of this episode, it would work.
Secondly, this idea goes against mostly everything we've been told over the years about the limitations of holograms. (Okay, except maybe "Concerning Flight," in which Doc's holo-emitter became a vessel for the life knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci. Please note that I didn't give that episode a positive review either.) And because this episode isn't about the nature of a hologram's existence (it's just an annoying incidental as far as the episode is concerned), then it's obvious that Krell's existence was nothing more than a device to bring about the central moral dilemma. As a result, this to me seems as arbitrary and magical as the much-feared "Fun With DNA" syndrome, which really rankles.
Third, the episode doesn't even seem to know what really makes up "Krell the hologram," and quietly concocts his nature in whatever convenient way suits the story. There's a great deal of greyness to exactly what data this hologram is comprised of. Just how much actual personality information was in the real Krell's data files, and why would it even be there? Personally, I don't think it should be there.
Why does this bother me so much? I'll tell you why. It's not simply that I don't buy the plausibility of such a perfect holographic likeness (which I don't), it's that the use of the hologram is a sneaky way of avoiding the real ethical issue here—especially considering the story at one point tells us that the Krell hologram isn't programmed with knowledge of the atrocities the real Krell committed. (Conveniently, he's programmed with all of Krell's surgical knowledge, opinions, personality, and so forth—but no memory of being a "bad person." How very nice.)
The real issue here is whether or not medical knowledge obtained through inhumane methods is morally right to use to benefit another. On more than one occasion, "Nothing Human" does a reasonably good job at tackling this question. There are several interesting arguments between Doc and Krell about ethics (leading to Krell's most intriguingly troubling line, "Ethics are arbitrary"). But the problem is, by putting so much ambiguity in the nature of Krell, the story often doesn't seem to know whether the other characters object to the idea of using his knowledge, or if they simply object to the idea of Krell himself.
What if Krell's medical database had been downloaded into a hologram of a Starfleet doctor? The answer: No one would have given it a second thought. We wouldn't have Torres' general prejudice against Cardassians setting up the unease. We wouldn't have a convenient Bajoran crew member (where did he come from, and where has he been for the last four years?) recognizing Krell as a mass murderer from the Occupation days. We wouldn't have Harry and Seven researching the databases to find out where Krell and his research came from and if crimes were in fact committed.
In short, the characters would be using the knowledge without knowing where it came from. And why should they know where it came from? If the data is in the Starfleet medical database, then one would think it's generally accepted as fair use by the Federation. While I find it generally unlikely that such a Cardassian database would exist in Starfleet records given the time frame of the Cardassian Occupation (that is, it ended only a few years before Voyager was lost in the Delta Quadrant, and at that time Cardassia wasn't on the best of terms with the Federation), if we grant that it did come to be part of the Federation's medical knowledge, the unspoken message here is that the databases are full of procedures that could've been obtained anywhere at any cost. Does that mean the Voyager crew needs to research every medical procedure and ask where it came from? I tend to doubt it, and the story also seems to doubt it, if we're meant to take anything Krell says to heart—but it's one important question that is never asked directly.
The episode's attempt to have its cake and eat it too leads this story into an analysis of mostly Krell the man, who, if you stop to think about it, isn't really part of the issue at all. He's just data that was assembled into a hologram who obviously isn't regarded as a real person (because, for one, his fate is entirely subject to Doc's decision to pull the plug after it's all over). As a result, I see Krell as an object of convenience in story terms. It's much easier to hate an evil man than an obscure memory of a possibly evil event or faceless data obtained at an unknown cost.
Now, I'll admit that may be part of the point. It sometimes takes drastic circumstances for us to realize the gravity of a moral issue. And Krell's dialog about using something—even if it goes against our morals—when we need it is all good for the sake of the argument.
Watching "Nothing Human," I'm reminded of third season's "Sacred Ground," which was full of ambivalence and tough questions without answers. The problem with that episode, which is also the problem here, is that the story wants to bring up issues and not address them in realistic terms, but instead only on extremely specific, uniquely plotted terms. Buried in this episode is lots of good ethical debate, but it's bogged down by an overabundance of technical side effects. The real question (i.e., what are the ethical implications of using this medical knowledge?) is at times lost in a sea of plot-rigged conditions (e.g., the amount of Krell's memories that are programmed into the hologram, the fact that a Bajoran officer happens to recognize Krell, the convenience of the central source of conflict being a hologram that can be deactivated at will, etc.).
And given that I'm against the idea of this hologram as a foundation of the story in the first place (which alone is almost damning enough to the episode), that doesn't leave us in great shape, despite the fact there are some admirable scenes in the crew's debate of the issue.
Near the end, Janeway makes one of her patented controversial decisions. I found this decision interesting, but ultimately not enlightening. She says, in a nicely written scene in the briefing room where everyone is arguing the issue, that she can't let her crew member die—she has to make the decision based on what's best for Voyager. She says she accepts all moral consequences of accepting Krell's help—that the procedure will be performed and that "we'll deal with the moral ramifications later."
All fine and good (especially the revisited notion about doing what's best for Voyager), but does Janeway (and hence the episode) really end up dealing with the moral ramifications? I don't think so. The first thing Janeway tells an angry B'Elanna after the operation is, "We have to put this behind us," even going so far is to order B'Elanna to move on. That's pretty extreme and controversial (and interesting as a result), but is it enough? No. It can't simply end there. Yet it does ... especially considering that all will almost certainly be forgotten by next week.
It's funny, because "Nothing Human" feels like a sudden attempt for Voyager to try winding back the clock to the Voyager series of yesteryear—back when "the Starfleet way" was often held in question given the nature of the Delta Quadrant. Unfortunately, such aspects of Voyager have been dead and buried since season two, and a resurrection of them here seems a little forced. Also, Janeway's decision doesn't seem to be consistent with such moral decisions she has made in the past, like her decision in "Prey" to potentially sacrifice the entire ship rather than see an 8472 killed. I wonder what kind of stir-up this episode could've been if there really were room for conflict on Voyager (which as we all know there isn't—the crew is just one big happy family).
All in all, "Nothing Human" is a real frustration. It's a story that has ideas that stand out as deep and provocative, but it doesn't know how to convey those ideas effectively. The result is an unsteady, unfocused clash of ideals that is sometimes entertaining while other times simply infuriating. There's certainly respectable ambition here, but that ambition doesn't net a successful result.
Overall, I'm rating this episode as mediocre. It's based upon a massive flaw that permeates the whole story. But it does have value because, like the "Tuvix" debate, it's something with complexities worthy of discussion. I could probably discuss them for days. I like that this story incited some reactions in me. I just wish I didn't have to completely throw conventional wisdom out the window while deconstructing the plot in searching for the truth.
Next week: Star Trek: Waterworld.