Star Trek: Voyager
"Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Air date: 10/13/1999
Teleplay by Joe Menosky
Story by Bill Vallely
Directed by John Bruno
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"His full potential's unknown, Chakotay."
"Would you be comfortable handing over your ship to a computer program?"
"I don't know if I'd take it that far."
"You might have to. He probably won't settle for less."
— Janeway and Chakotay on Doc's career possibilities
Nutshell: A pleasant, comic gem.
It's no secret that I found DS9 on the whole (and usually also in individual slices) to be superior to Voyager. While DS9 was turning out great stories in its fifth season, I was so irritated with the middle stages of Voyager's third season that some of my reviews, in looking back at them, sound almost angry. At the time, that's how frustrating Voyager was. I remember almost completely abandoning hope when "Favorite Son" aired right after "Darkling" and "Rise."
Now, with DS9 over, I currently find myself feeling better about Voyager than I have in a long, long time. Could it be that my overall good will has carried over from DS9 to make me more optimistic about Voyager?
I figured I'd ask the question before someone else did. And above lies the answer. Case closed.
Rather, what this does say to me is that Voyager is off to a very good start this season—its best start ever, I'm inclined to say. At 4-for-4 on the season, Voyager is reminding me why I watch it. The latest entry to season six, "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy," is a refreshingly funny comic piece that ranks among the better Trek comedies, and probably the best-executed since DS9's "In the Cards."
Granted, UPN continues to amaze me with its continuing one-upmanship of bad promos; from the trailers I might've predicted that "Tinker Tenor" was a retread of DS9's truly awful "Fascination." Fortunately, that's not the case at all; what we have here is a very amusing look into a character's fantasy world, reminiscent of TNG's "Hollow Pursuits," but better written and executed.
The plot is a terrific exercise in simplicity: Doc programs himself with the capability of daydreaming, and we get to see inside these daydreams. The result is always entertaining, often hilarious. The plot's comic twist introduces an alien ship whose crew is maintaining surveillance on Voyager—and one of its crafty crewmen (Jay M. Leggett) has tapped into Doc's fantasies thinking they are actually the Doctor's perception of real events.
The tone is set with an opening sequence of comic inspiration, as Doc gives a performance in the mess hall that offers the latest word in how to handle out-of-control Vulcans suffering from Pon Farr while simultaneously playing to an audience. Utilizing Picardo's singing abilities and some humorously goofy lyrics that explain Tuvok's condition as he goes berserk, this is a scene of just about dead-on perfect comic timing. Because it's a daydream, we understand the intention behind it—Doc imagining a situation where he is the hero of the day, whose actions are met with fantastically ego-encouraging cheers. Fun stuff.
The events actually happening aboard the ship are more or less your average day at the office: An away team prepares for a planetary mission; staff meetings are held; Voyager scans and observes. All the while, Doc drifts away into a series of fantasies (TV-PG fantasies, mind you).
Some of these fantasies beam in from the realm of boyhood adolescence, with the common themes of getting the girls, being the hero, and blowing stuff up. There's one daydream early in the episode during a staff meeting that has every woman in the room competing for Doc's attention, featuring plenty of exaggerated flirting, and punctuated by a heavy-on-the-sax musical score by Dennis McCarthy. It's hard to describe without it sounding like a potential embarrassment, but the execution pulls through wonderfully and makes the scene a lot of fun.
Joe Menosky's script, or John Bruno's direction (it's hard to say which—probably some of both in addition to on-the-set improvisation) (*), inserts the hilarious little details that make scenes like this laugh-out-loud enjoyable. Having Seven wink at Doc is so out of character that it's worth seeing just for the sheer novelty value, and the "note-passing" through the PADDs is a fairly brilliant idea: "DINNER TONIGHT?" appears the message from Seven on Doc's PADD; later when Torres is vying for Doc's attention, Seven e-mails "RESIST!", which flashes in red. Hee.
I was glad to see Menosky push the episode into full-blown comedy that has the memorable moments to go along with the good concept. I think back to DS9's "Rivals," also written by Menosky, and what struck me most about that episode was that it was a potentially amusing concept that just didn't have enough comic momentum or anarchy to deliver the big laughs. "Tinker Tenor" has the big laughs.
The daydream plot is concurrent with the notion of Doc wanting to expand his abilities into new areas—specifically command. He issues an official grievance to the captain regarding the crew's failure to acknowledge his sentience. Included in the memo is the official request to be made captain (the "Emergency Command Hologram") in the event of a catastrophe that leaves the captain incapacitated and the command structure broken. Janeway gives him a non-answer answer that is in reality "no" but with the stipulation that a group of engineers investigate the possibility of expanding his program when Voyager returns to the Alpha Quadrant. Sounds a bit like a thinly guised blow-off, but what else can you say when a hologram asks to be captain?
This of course doesn't stop Doc from imagining that he has become the "ECH." In one of the funniest sequences, he daydreams of a Borg attack that leaves him as the last hope for the Voyager crew. (All that's missing is Harry saying, "You're our last hope!") In a comic-book transformation idea that is not unlike Clark Kent becoming Superman, Doc's uniform turns from blue to red, and four pips appear on his collar as Seven looks on in awe. (Regarding those pips magically appearing, I'm in agreement with what is later said by Harry: "This is the part I like..."—and Janeway: "Nice touch.")
The comic twist involving the aliens is a good example of keeping the emphasis on the fun rather than making these aliens into an artificial threat. With makeup and costume design that make these guys look more like Potato People than anything else, it's hard to take them as anything but kinda goofy and funny—which is, I imagine, precisely the point. Most of this end of the plot is seen through a surveillance officer (named Philox, according to the press releases, although I don't think his name was actually mentioned in the episode). Philox taps into Doc's program and views the daydreams on his computer monitor. Using this information, he thinks he has come up with the perfect way of learning what he needs to know to understand Voyager as a target. I liked that the story focused on Philox's run-ins with his superior officer (Googy Gress), rather than resigning the story to "Voyager versus the aliens." By giving us some character interplay on the alien ship, the story is able to bring the Potato People into the comedy, rather than having them exist solely as incidentals to it.
For example, it's funny that Doc imagines that he saves the ship from a Borg threat and annihilates a Borg sphere with his fearsome "photonic cannon." But what's even more funny is Philox watching this on his monitor and his horrified gasp at what he perceives is real—and then his fearful but understated report of caution to his superior that "Voyager will not be an easy target."
Nitpick alert: Is it plausible that Philox would be able view the events on a monitor from whatever convenient camera angle best tells him what's going on? Well, probably not—if anything, one would think Philox would see the events purely from Doc's point of view. But, really, who cares?
Anyway, eventually the Voyager crew learns of Doc's daydreaming when he's forced to come forward after his program malfunctions and he begins having mind-wandering episodes whether he wants to or not. This of course leads to diagnostics that have Doc's fantasies playing out on the holodeck for those on a need-to-know basis to see.
The big commonality of these fantasies probably has to be in regard to Doc's ego. He saves the ship. He's the center of a congratulatory celebration. He's a magnet to all the women. He tries to let an affectionate Torres down easy, as Paris sits by and waves with a goofy grin. Seven poses nude for Doc as he paints her, and she tells him, pleasantly compliantly, "Whatever you say, Doctor."
Interesting is that, really, there's little sexual motivation apparent here—perhaps because this is a family show, but also because it's more about Doc inflating his own ego, which has quite an appetite. (Indeed, as Philox notes, "He seems to be in an expert in ... everything.") Doc has always had a complicated ego that is sizable but never, ever in-your-face or mean-spirited. But it's certainly capable of being heavily bruised, which we see here when his daydreams are uncorked for the crew to see. Watching Doc's grandstanding in the face of imaginary Borg is great fun—but the poignancy comes in seeing his quiet talk with Janeway where he reveals his embarrassment.
Watching this, I became thoroughly convinced that only Robert Picardo could've pulled it off. The guy is a true talent with a wonderful range. We feel for his character when reality has reined him in, and we have fun with his character as his fantasies are bouncing off the walls with imaginative absurdity. And Picardo can get away with gleefully over-the-top lines like, "just another bully who didn't know when to back off" and "over my dead program," which he delivers with hilarious conviction. The episode is a good concept, but it's up to Picardo to sell it, which he does.
In the story's final passages, Philox comes to realize the huge mistake he has made in his "surveillance" efforts, realizes he will be demoted or fired if his superiors find out, and then desperately contacts the Doctor to work out a clever trick that will hopefully prevent an attack on Voyager. The solution is that Philox will help Voyager avoid a confrontation; in exchange Doc will pretend to be the captain and convince Philox's superiors that his surveillance reports were not in error. So Janeway reluctantly turns over "command" of her ship to Doc, turning fantasy into reality.
This final showdown sequence features humor of the somewhat more standard and predictable breed (with Doc hemming and hawing his way through attempted negotiations and looking like the most awkward captain in many a moon), but with Picardo throwing himself into the role it's completely laugh-worthy, especially when Doc's jittery desperation turns to a confident, fantasy-inspired bluff involving that nefarious "photonic cannon." (Tuvok's deadpan-funny response, "Activating the photonic cannon ... sir," is hilariously Spock-like, with a masked contempt for the illogically absurd.)
Suffice it to say everything works out in the end. The ship is saved, Philox keeps his job, and Doc has gotten to be captain. But I liked that this episode also managed to work in a little bit of character relevance involving the possibility of Doc's abilities going beyond his programmed duty. Perhaps the episode's most affecting scene is Janeway's moment of realization in the holodeck where she sees that Doc simply wants to live up to his full potential so he can do more to "help the people he loves." It's hard to argue with that kind of sentiment, whether it's from a human or a hologram.
It has been reported that this story concept was originally to center around Neelix. The creators made the infinitely correct choice making it Doc's vehicle. He's the perfect candidate for this concept. And so is Robert Picardo. The result is a gem.
Next week: Paris in wonderland.
* Note: Joe Menosky informs me that all details that move a scene forward are always scripted in advance, and NOT improvised on the set by directors or actors. "Episodic television is not a Robert Altman film," he says.