Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 2/23/2000
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by David Livingston
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"They're not people, they're holograms." — Seven, a reasonable sentiment falling upon deaf ears
Nutshell: Bad. A contrived, ill-conceived premise featuring virtually every holodeck cliche in the book.
I do not like the village of Fair Haven. The premise is taking the idea of the holodeck way too far—to an apparent point of no return. If this episode constitutes sci-fi imagination, it's imagination abuse. The rules are arbitrary and absurd and the game is played by players who come off looking like complete idiots.
Problems on the holodeck became a cliche on TNG, and now it's become an ubercliche on Voyager. In the past I've made it a position regarding stock-issue holograms that perhaps doesn't allow for a particularly flexible open mind for this week's installment, which might as well be called "Fair Haven, Part II." Well, too bad. I need to establish some sort of standard to measure reality. And each use of the holodeck on Voyager seems to get increasingly egregious.
The gist of the story is this: The Fair Haven program, which has been running 24 hours a day, begins to malfunction, which causes its fictional programmed residents to begin "noticing" things they shouldn't. For example, when Paris calls to the computer to fix the tire on the automobile he has just run headlong into a tower of barrels, Fair Haven standby Seamus (Richard Riehle) hears the computer voice answer and witnesses the tire magically repaired, and thus believes Paris has harnessed some sort of spiritual/magical power.
From here, the episode is essentially one ridiculous holodeck gimmick after another, with some would-be Important Human Themes thrown into the mix, though they're lost in a sea of implausible madness. But before the madness we first get the extended setup, which suffers from entirely too much nonessential dialog. There are discussions that go on and on and seem never to end. Most of these dialog scenes are solely between holodeck characters, and I kept asking myself: Who cares? These are "people" I have no interest in whatsoever. The episode spends so much time on scenes between the Fair Haven residents (discussing the plot in overly obvious ways that are redundant and unnecessary) that the main characters almost seem like an afterthought. Do so many viewers really like the Fair Haven folks that we need to spend so much time on them?
For that matter, the idea of holograms sitting around a bar and debating each other about things they shouldn't be aware of strikes me as silly, whether it's a malfunction or not. Yes, the holodeck as Trek has conceived it is an implausible fantasy in any case, but when the focus goes completely away from the real characters and alleges that holograms routinely think and argue on their own accord outside the presence of real participants, it's coming dangerously close to a situation where we have no choice but to either dismiss the idea completely or wonder if we're dealing with a bunch of programmed slaves. Nope—I'm with Seven: The writers need to clue into the fact that these aren't people. They're simulations. It's been a huge mistake for the writers to implicitly allege that Doc is the same as a holodeck character. It was a mistake in "Concerning Flight," it was a mistake in "Nothing Human," it was a mistake in "Fair Haven," and it's a colossal mistake here. Holograms as artificial lifeforms should be the rare exception to the rule caused by a freak happenstance, like the Moriarty character from TNG's "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Ship in a Bottle" (from which this episode unsuccessfully rehashes its share).
The contrivances in this episode are so blatant and pervasive that it seems almost as if staff writer Bryan Fuller was hoping we'd go with the flow and not care that the characters would have to be utter morons not to take the simple actions that would avoid these problems entirely. I'm not willing to simply go with that flow.
Let's start with the "Tom"foolery (lame pun fully intended). Tom comes off as a loser with no life, turning Harry's would-be holo-girlfriend into a cow just as he's about to kiss her. This attempt at humor succeeds only in making the characters look foolish. (I'm with Harry: "Haven't you got anything better to do?!" Unfortunately, the delivery of the line is as half-hearted as the joke.) What, is Tom 35 years old or 12? And can we dispense already with the concept of romantic liaisons with holographic characters?
The cow incident is witnessed by, again, Seamus, who goes talking to the people of Fair Haven about Tom as one of the dangerous "spirit folk" and the apparent impending gloom and doom destined for the town. Later, when the girl is de-cowified, we have to endure her description of being a cow, something which again makes me wonder about the can of worms that is the holodeck: Are the memories of these "photons and forcefields" transferred from one holodeck subprogram to another? If someone conjured a new character, might it then remember that it was once a representation of a rock? Some torture it might be, to be a rock.
It turns out that the non-stop use of the holodeck has led to the failure of a subroutine that prevents characters from attaining this level of awareness. This is a deeply flawed idea. It goes against everything conventional wisdom has taught us about holo-characters (that is, they're simulations—not learning, adapting people who comprehend everything going on around them).
Things turn truly ridiculous once this malfunction is discovered, which happens when Kim and Paris transfer the captain's Fair Haven boyfriend, Michael Sullivan (Fintan McKeown), to the holodeck lab so they can study the problem. At this point, Michael becomes fully aware he has been removed from Fair Haven. Kim and Paris discover the malfunction in the subroutine and send him back. They report the problem to the captain. But then what? Does the crew shut down the holodeck? Suspend the program to prevent it from further damaging itself? Nope. They just let it run on, even though nobody's using it. And run on it does, as Michael explains to the other holo-characters where he has been, leading the holodeck town to plot a revolt against these suspicious outsiders. How stupid is the crew to know there's a malfunction, voice out loud that they hope it doesn't spread, and not bother to simply shut down the holodeck until the problem is fixed? My motto is that if your contrivance has to make your characters do blatantly stupid things, it's a bad contrivance. The whole second half of the episode wouldn't be possible if the crew displayed a shred of competence.
The contrivance-cliches continue on: To fix the problem, Tom and Harry go into the holodeck to run some technobabble computer whatever-the-hell. Of course, this has to be done while the program is still running and after the townspeople have come to the conclusion that the outsiders are dangerous and something must be done about them. Well, no points for guessing that the holodeck safeties get disabled in the process. The way it happens is simultaneously laughable and infuriating, and reveals the depths of how far this episode allows itself to reach into the holodeck bag-o-tricks. The holo-characters throw a net over Tom and Harry, and shoot a computer console with a shotgun. This shouldn't be remotely possible. (1) If the safeties are on, how can bullets destroy the computer console? (2) Why would destroying the computer console just automatically disable the safeties? (How very nice.) (3) Why can't Paris yell out "Computer, freeze program!" rather than telling the holo-character not to shoot? (This episode makes one want to scream at the characters not to be so bone-headed.)
So Kim and Paris are held captive on the holodeck, with the safeties off of course, and now the crew has to figure out how to rescue them.
Through all of this, Torres seems to be the lone—and futile—voice of reason. She points out that the holodeck can be reprogrammed, so the crew should just pull the plug. This will reset the program, but at least Tom and Harry's safety would be guaranteed. Janeway responds that even if they aren't real, the crew's emotional attachment to the characters are, and another solution should be found. 'Scuse me? So we're going to risk the lives of two crew members in order to save a holodeck program? What kind of sick prioritizing is this? If this isn't proof of the dangers of holographic attachment, then I don't know what is.
Janeway decides to send Doc (as his overplayed preacher character) into the holodeck to reason with the Fair Haven folks. This plan promptly fails and looks to be getting the crew into an even worse position, and I'm finding myself thinking, just how incompetent are these people? Subsequently we have Michael using Doc's portable emitter, which gets him beamed aboard Voyager, which is the sole potentially interesting sci-fi idea in the story, except for the fact that it arises out of a situation that's such a contrived mess that by this point we simply don't care.
Using Michael as the way to bridge the gap between "us" and "them," Janeway walks into the holodeck and hammers out one of those humanistic solutions that's heavy on the trademarked Trekkian dialog ... and if I sound lazy and cynical about the synopsis at this point, it's because it's such a tiring story to watch unfold (and to explain). Janeway's we-can-overcome-our-fears-and-all-get-along solution is met with a shot of a bunch of Fair Haven folks, and the music swells as they look, smiling, at one other in a moment of understanding assent. Frankly, it's hard to watch this with a straight face. Was I suddenly beamed into an after-school special?
And at the end, Janeway decides not to erase the memories of the characters. So now the people of Fair Haven believe that the Voyager crew is a group of space travelers from the future. Well, wonderful. But what's to stop them from blowing away the holodeck controls again? And if the malfunction regarding their expanded awareness is repaired, how can this new knowledge be something that registers with them? None of this has any useful sensibility.
I'm of the opinion that the best use of the holodeck is in a situation that allows the participants (i.e., our regular characters) to have fun, while the comedy or drama reveals something worthwhile about them. But instead we get the holodeck taking itself and our characters hostage. Here, our characters are once again faceless (and often stupid) pawns in a preposterous plot. Like too many Voyager offerings, we don't learn anything about them; they remain a means to an end, to drive the plot forward and nothing more.
It's an episode like this that makes me want the holodeck destroyed so we can deal with real issues (or at the very least real characters and sci-fi plots) in the real world. If Torres didn't have to answer to a captain whose boyfriend lived in the holo-town, I'd recommend that, for everyone's own good, she secretly program a surprise air strike upon the quaint little village of Fair Haven, and reduce it to a pile of smoldering cinders. Now there's a thought. Not the nicest one, perhaps, but an honest and satisfying one. Maybe then the crew could grieve, get over Fair Haven, and move on.
Next week: A la "Latent Image," we get the invented backstory of another dead crew member whom we'd never known about. And this one even comes back to life.
Note: By strange coincidence, this week's episode of "The X-Files" was also essentially a holodeck malfunction story. I guess no horribly implausible idea isn't worth being ripped off numerous times. (And frankly, I'm convinced the "X-Files" episode was even worse.)