Nutshell: Only so-so on its given terms, and I have very mixed feelings about those terms.
The use of holograms on Voyager has at times made me very uncomfortable. "Nothing Human," in which a holographic re-creation of a real Cardassian surgeon helped save Torres' life, was a perfect example of the kind of mess the writers can create when permitting holograms to attain such limitless realism under manufactured circumstances. And who can forget the silly use of Leonardo da Vinci in "Concerning Flight," an episode that had the man's life knowledge carried around to be used as a conversation stimulator for Janeway as she tried to elude the bad guys?
As far as I'm concerned (maybe you agree, maybe you don't), holograms should not automatically be assumed as "real" people except in cases where they are long-term social participants who were created or permitted to grow as artificial lifeforms. Examples: the Doctor or Vic Fontaine. Your average holographic chump conjured on the holodeck out of "photons and force fields" (as Janeway describes it) is not an artificial lifeform; it's an elaborate computer simulation. To assume more opens a can of worms that makes me very leery, with implications that grow larger than any given story is willing to tackle. (For starters, just where/when does sentience begin?)
So now, in "Fair Haven," we have years of Janeway as the asexual captain finally dropped in order to give her a holographic love interest named Michael (Fintan McKeown). When I first heard about this premise a month or two ago, did I think it was a good idea? No, because there seemed to be too much messy unreality baggage factored into the equation. How does an emotional connection exist between a person and a simulation? What are the implications of such a relationship?
"Fair Haven" prompts in me some very mixed feelings. On one hand, I disagree with the basic premise—the idea that a holodeck character can make a good substitute for the real thing. (Hiding in the holodeck a la Barclay in "Pathfinder" has generally been seen as unhealthy and ultimately fruitless.) On the other hand, a big element of this story is about Janeway's hang-up with the fact that Michael is a hologram, resulting in some arguments that, quite frankly, needed to be said for this episode to work at all. The story, to its credit, manages to address some questions I was asking before the show even aired. It didn't resolve those questions to any real satisfaction, but it did manage to bring them up and argue them to some degree.
The Irish dwelling of Fair Haven is sixth season's take on the annual Voyager holodeck theme. My favorite hangout is still the more intimate and simple pool hall in Marseilles, but Fair Haven has a sort of idyllic context that seems to make sense for a pleasant setting the whole crew can enjoy. It's a triumph of Hollywood back-lot scene-setting, but it's not a triumph of imagination. (And is it me, or did it seem like an out-of-the-way effort was made to gratuitously insert [IRISH PUB BRAWL] into the script? Couldn't avoid that cliche.) Whether you go for this sort of thing depends on how much you appreciate these sort of setting showpieces for their novelty value. David Bell's thematically Irish score helps, I must say.
Overall, I didn't find this to be a particularly effective romance. I did, however, appreciate a few of the ideas behind it. What works are some of the implications that arise on the side, like Janeway's acknowledgement that Michael is a hologram, and the fact that she realizes her ability to change everything about him to make him more "perfect" is a big part of what makes the experience seem phony. I also sort of enjoyed McKeown as Michael, who creates an everyman persona that's sometimes likable, particularly his understated, confused vulnerability evident in the final scene.
But leading up to the (ambiguous) payoff is far too much pedestrian Standard Trek Romance material. The only real chemistry between Janeway and Michael is in the pathos of that final scene, after all the issues of real/not-real have been laid out for us; everything beforehand feels a bit forced. The romance here seems motivated more by the writers having said, "It's about time we gave Janeway a love story," than it seems like a logical outgrowth of events, character, or even spontaneous attraction.
Maybe the biggest problem is that Janeway just doesn't seem believably in character when flirting, dancing joyfully, arm wrestling, throwing rings, etc. These two characters aren't compelling enough to watch on the screen together. Part of the problem is that Mulgrew overplays the sentiment with exaggerated gestures. Mulgrew has always had a tendency to play up body language with stylized performances, but here it seems overly "playful" and too much for the audience's benefit. An early scene where a borderline-giddy Janeway gets a radiation inoculation in sickbay had me wondering just what kind of drugs she was on. (Okay, we get it—you're in an unusually good mood.)
On the other hand, I did get something out of the other end of the spectrum, when Janeway broods in her quarters. This sentiment is played up with an equal de-emphasis on subtlety, but it works a lot better because it grows out of emotions that seem to be genuinely held. Janeway has a quiet, defeated way about her sullen state—after it fully registers that her new holographic acquaintance is not a real person and she realizes that she is in fact very lonely.
It's perhaps a telling sign that the show's most entertaining scene is an amusing Janeway/Chakotay exchange on the bridge, which reveals about 100 times the chemistry of any Janeway/Michael scene. The J/C dialog is natural, playfully jibing, and friendly. (Doesn't this seem like the real potential here?) It's an episode like this that makes me wonder just what happened back in "Resolutions."
But never mind; Janeway/Chakotay is not an option because we can't have the captain having affairs with members of her crew. (As much as J/C interests me on the curiosity level, it would almost certainly be a bad, messy idea for the writers to attempt.) But is hooking Janeway up with a hologram the answer? I'm not sure. Quite frankly, hooking her up with an alien of the week might be more satisfying; at least it might seem like a real relationship with some sort of believable potential, rather than an extended, confusing fantasy with all the holographic real/not-real baggage to go along with it.
There are scenes in "Fair Haven" that suggest the captain's destiny is one of unfortunate loneliness. Those scenes are the ones that the show gets right. But a key Doc/Janeway conversation suggests that perhaps there is a future for Janeway and her holographic love interest after all. And then the episode ends with complete ambiguity, revealing that Janeway needs to sort some things out, and hinting that she might load Michael's program into the hologrid at some point in the future.
I'm realizing that this episode perhaps has a built-in Catch-22. Like the Doctor says, the captain's options are limited (though I'm not entirely convinced they must be as limited as the writers decree). So turning to alternatives might be necessary. But is this really solving the problem? Doc says so, but I dunno. More than anything, the romance seems to be testing waters—but testing for what? This relationship can become ... what? Is this a cure for boredom, high-tech physical/emotional masturbation, or an attempt for something more? Does it even matter since the chances of these issues being revisited are close to nil? Man, what a mess this makes. If nothing else, new writer/producer Robin Burger's first script for Voyager has found a way to provoke some thought.
In the meantime, there's plenty of laid-back filler, which is forgivable for what's essentially a shore-leave episode, I guess, but I can't say I was particularly entertained by it. Nor was I excited about the bargain-basement filler "danger" plot, involving some approaching spatial turbulence that basically serves as a metaphor for a hurricane or severe thunderstorm in space (and has the crew bracing for impact and escaping into the holodeck since there's nothing else to do while they wait out the storm).
All things considered, "Fair Haven" is a mediocre romance story. There's too much filler and bizarre characterization, and not enough chemistry. What remains of value are the arguments about how "real" a holographic simulation can be. It's a halfway interesting concept to tackle, but in the end it left me just as frustrated as ever about the supposed nature of holograms. At one point Doc tells Janeway that Michael is as real as Janeway needs him to be. But is he? Or will Janeway feel as hollow about the experience in a month as she did when she first sobered to the fact it was all an illusion? Can she—should she—force herself to accept the imaginary as reality?
By the end, Janeway is hopelessly conflicted over this dilemma. So am I. Janeway is not satisfied with how things turned out. And, unfortunately, neither am I. "Fair Haven" is a nice try on some levels, but it has too much implied messiness and ultimately doesn't work. And besides—Janeway deserves better than a hologram.
Next week: Societal development goes warp speed.