Jammer's Review

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.

Previous episode: Barge of the Dead
Next episode: Alice

Season Index

37 comments on this review

mlk - Tue, Jan 22, 2008 - 9:37am (USA Central)
A very good episode, probably the best 'fun' Voyager episode so far, I laughed out loud when they saw his fantasies
Jakob M. Mokoru - Wed, Jan 30, 2008 - 2:35pm (USA Central)
I have liked this episode when I watched it years ago - but now, being able to watch it in English on DVD I LOVE it!
Fido - Thu, Jan 8, 2009 - 5:10pm (USA Central)
Brilliant episode...the best moment..."Fire the photonic canon"...and Tuvok's reaction. Inspired and hilarious :)
Damien - Thu, Mar 26, 2009 - 8:56am (USA Central)
Yes, an absolute gem! So many great moments to choose from, but probably the best for me was the opening scene with Doc singing opera and Tuvok going through Pon Farr. Also loved the meeting room scene with the gals fawning over the irresistible EMH, heh.
Latex Zebra - Mon, Apr 20, 2009 - 7:38am (USA Central)
The opening song is gut bustingly funny. Genius writing.
dan - Sun, Jun 21, 2009 - 11:23am (USA Central)
The part where he trys to eject the warp core was my favorite. This isn't real is it he says. Last chance to be a hero doctor, get moving! lolololol
Jason Keon - Mon, Nov 23, 2009 - 3:38pm (USA Central)
Easily the funniest episode of Star Trek ever! So many wonderfully funny moments to choose from. B'Elanna to the doc: "He's not half the man you are!". It's funny if you really listen to Garrett Wang's voice in the next line, you can tell he's trying very hard not to laugh! "Over my dead program!" AUSTRALIA RULES!
Ken Egervari - Tue, Dec 8, 2009 - 2:19am (USA Central)
The thing I don't understand... is that when Janeway denies the doctor's request to expand his program at the start of the episode... she says it will take months to do it. Didn't we have an episode last season where they made an entire Cardassian EMH in a matter of hours? While I like the fact that the logic makes sense in this episode with 'most' of the continuity... it only makes the other episode stand out as a blatant disregard for logic when they need to change it for the sake of the story.

Even worse though... and this is something I can't shake off... didn't the doctor's program go bust in one of the earlier seasons when he expanded his program too far? Was it the Swarm? Didn't they have to use the only backup matrix to fix it? If they expand it further... wouldn't take delete the Chief medical officer for good once the program got corrupted again?

See... I understand Janeway's hesitancy here... but the story doesn't bring up these concerns and relate to the previous shows. And honestly, the doctor has expanded his program far beyond the point that he did in season 2... isn't it bound to go bust very, very soon?

I also don't understand the request for more freedom and stuff. Seriously... when was the last time the crew seriously treated the doctor poorly? Season 2? This story seems really out of place in season 6.
Michael - Wed, Jul 7, 2010 - 9:13am (USA Central)
An immeasurably entertaining show, really enjoyed it! The underlying premise - i.e. a HOLOGRAM(!!!) that has sexual fantasies, demonstrated voracious careerism and throws a hissy-fit for not being chosen to go on an away-mission - is just silly, but the comedic value of this episode washes that away.

3.5 stars is about right :)
Cloudane - Fri, Feb 11, 2011 - 7:05pm (USA Central)
I tried to dislike it, mostly because of Trek's attempts at humour in the past. I failed. A surprisingly amusing hour :)

What I do think is that the issue of a hologram being interested in command was ripe for more serious exploration similar to those of Data's rights in TNG (imagine them arguing over it in a "Measure of a Man" type episode). But this episode is a fine example of why I should judge Voyager for what it was, not other completely different things it could have been. It was pretty good stuff.
Cloudane - Fri, Feb 11, 2011 - 7:12pm (USA Central)
Oh, and lols at the Sontarans from Doctor Who making an appearance :)
scyy - Sat, Feb 19, 2011 - 3:13am (USA Central)
Best comedic startrek episode ever!
Iceblink - Sat, Aug 20, 2011 - 6:53am (USA Central)
I may have stopped watching Voyager by this point originally (at the time I was much more into Farscape, which I still consider a vastly superior series in ever way), so maybe that's why I didn't remember this.

Between this and 'Someone to watch over me', it seems Voyager is as capable as DS9 at producing enjoyable, fun comedic episodes, when it's so inclined. This is a hugely enjoyable romp - I didn't think it was quite the classic others are hailing it as, but I was entertained throughout. Lightweight but bags of fun. It peaked, however in the hilarious teaser - I was initially wondering if this was going to be a Buffy-esque musical episode. The rest of the ep was lovely, but nothing could eclipse the Doc's singing at Tuvok, that was one of the hands-down funniest moments in Trek ever!
Chris - Sun, Jan 15, 2012 - 11:29pm (USA Central)
Three words: BEST EPISODE EVER!!!
V - Sat, Feb 4, 2012 - 11:04pm (USA Central)
Agree with your review completely. Just want to add: Love the computer having an attitude! "warp core breech happening really soon."

Such a goofy fun episode that is well done.

Just Another Trekkie - Sun, Mar 25, 2012 - 5:30am (USA Central)
Completely agreed--this episode represents VOY at its best: lighthearted and well-meaning, with just enough Trek-moralizing to leave a pleasant aftertaste.

Anyone else disappointed there was no follow-up to the Doctor's realization of his feelings for Seven in "Someone to Watch Over Me"? I suppose this only goes to support your theory that VOY leans too heavily on the shrink-wrapped finish.
Captain Jim - Sun, Apr 8, 2012 - 9:19pm (USA Central)
Cloudane said, "Oh, and lols at the Sontarans from Doctor Who making an appearance :)"

Glad to see I wasn't the only one who made that connection. I was reminded of them as well.

Great episode, btw.
Jelendra - Thu, May 24, 2012 - 12:09pm (USA Central)
Probably one of my favorite episodes of Voyager so far...maybe even all Trek.

@Just Another Trekkie/RE: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME..I felt that 7 realized the Dr's feelings for her...but let him know her own in the holodeck, granted she was very subtle...but by declaring desire to not bother with dating, she included him...and he sadly, realized it...making it all the more heartbreaking...
Justin - Mon, May 28, 2012 - 3:53am (USA Central)
Best teaser ever:

(Sung to the tune of Verdi's "La donna รจ mobile")

"He's been seized by the Pon Farr! A neuro-chemical imbalance is driving him to mate. We won't be able to reason with him..."

Tuvok, I understand
You are a Vulcan man
You have just gone without
For seven years about

Paris please find a way
To load a hypos pray
I will give you the sign
Just aim for his behind

Hormones are raging
Synapses blazing
It's all so very

Kraid - Sun, Oct 28, 2012 - 12:59am (USA Central)
Has anyone noticed that although a very different episode, the "macguffin" was essentially "The Corbomite Maneuver"?
Pusher Robot - Fri, Nov 30, 2012 - 12:15am (USA Central)
I thought it was hilarious to see Picardo playing a character trying to act like a character he's not at the direction of a voice inside his head, almost exactly like he did as Jack Putter pretending to be The Cowboy in "Innerspace!"
Jack - Sun, Dec 2, 2012 - 10:04pm (USA Central)
Around here is where the Doctor started to Steve Urkel the show, getting far more than his share of stories, and everyone else (except for 7) essentially becoming backup players.
Chris - Fri, Jan 11, 2013 - 5:48pm (USA Central)
Neelix calls his planet Talaxia here, but I thought it was established as Talax back in the beginning.

Looks like a retread of the Andor vs. Andoria bit...
Somat - Sun, May 5, 2013 - 8:59pm (USA Central)
Now THIS was a good episode. It was absolutely hilarious. The Doc is my favorite character for obvious reasons.
Leah - Mon, Jun 24, 2013 - 1:52pm (USA Central)
"Warp core breach sooner than you think."

This episode was laugh-out-loud hilarious from beginning to end. Loved it! And I actually really liked Philox. I found myself caring about him as a character. He was kinda lovable, especially when he told Doc that he'd come to know and like him and didn't want him to be hurt.
Jo Jo Meastro - Wed, Jul 17, 2013 - 7:08am (USA Central)
Everything that I was going to say has pretty much already been said, but I just wanted to add my voice to the praise of this episode!

Right from the opening trailer it was full to the brim with fun, charm, intelligence and high spirits that it should go down as one of the most successful Trek comedies.

The character touches and sensitivity just cemented its 4 stars IMO. It was also well timed relief from the darkness of last episode which was brilliant in a whole other way.
Nic - Sun, Jul 21, 2013 - 3:35pm (USA Central)
Definitely one of the funniest Trek episodes ever made. My favourite line has to be the computer, in its usual deadpan voice, saying "Warning: warp core breach a lot sooner than you think."

Also worthy of mentioned is Mulgrew's perfect delivery of "You... are dissmissed." :)
azcats - Fri, Aug 9, 2013 - 4:08pm (USA Central)
I wonder in hindsight would Jammer give this 4 stars?

great episode. great comedy. great musical.

my favorite part...
Tom Paris waving with a chagrin in the corner of the mess hall. fantastic!

4 star episode. and i just saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last week with Gary Oldman!
Nancy - Sun, Aug 11, 2013 - 3:52am (USA Central)
Another immensely enjoyable comedic episode of Voyager. When it comes to laughs, Voyager can really bring it. Picardo was brilliant but he had a lot to work with. I laughed out loud several times, but probably laughed the hardest at the scene where Janeway, Seven, and Torres were all fighting over the doctor, with Seven essentially texting him using the PADD - RESIST!!! Too funny!!!

Loved it!
Lt. Yarko - Thu, Aug 22, 2013 - 7:13pm (USA Central)
How come that dickhead Elliott never shows up to show his agreement when Jammer gives a positive review to a Voyager episode?

Sorry - just read his moronic posts on DS9 "In The Cards" and got all riled up.

Oh, yeah. Great episode. The best episode opening of all trek series by far.
Tom - Tue, Sep 3, 2013 - 4:15am (USA Central)
LOL. Kim stares at Seven's Bazangas for like 20 seconds before turning away.

Well, it's nothing he hasn't seen before. Probably every male crewman has a Seven holodeck program. Tom probably sells them for replicator rations.
Caine - Tue, Dec 10, 2013 - 7:08am (USA Central)
Immensely entertaining episode! Voyager at its best!

I think that one of the main reasons the story works so well is because Doc's fantasies about saving the ship and getting the girls are very universal - adolescent or not.
Show of hands: who, more or less, has the same fantasies when they daydream about being part of the crew of Voyager or Enterprise? I know I do.

Getting the fantasies right is half the battle - the other half also succeeds due to great comedic timing by the director and the whole cast - first and foremost Picardo (what a great actor!).

What's not to love?

Amanda - Sat, Mar 8, 2014 - 8:11am (USA Central)
Oh, I was sooo entertained by this episode back in the day. I remember when Janeway put the Doc's hand on her back end and curling my lip in disgust then laughing my butt off because the camera cut to Paris making the same face I did. I am so happy to know Mulgrew suggested and it was approved to be added. It was awkward but fun. Did Mulgrew feel a little left out hence the suggestion? I can see her say something like, I adore Picardo, but there is the political view of Janeway where she's still feeling out if he's to be treated as an equal. let me have a fun scene with him since my character is often annoyed by him."

Pon Farr scene had me in stitches.

I love the concept of the ECH.
"Nice touch."

Fun, fun episode.
K'Elvis - Tue, May 20, 2014 - 10:44pm (USA Central)
I just rewatched it. It's fun episode. If I have a nitpick, the episode would have fit in better in the first or second season. By this point, the Doctor has been accepted as a member of the crew and as a person. They have used him for non-medical purposes before.

I think we would all find it embarrassing if someone could tap into our fantasies. I love the bluff at the end. The Doctor stops being flustered, and just plays it out. Maybe the Doctor needs to find a group to play D&D. :-)

And the end, when the Doctor gets his medal, what I wanted to see was Janeway give him a field commission, and put a rank pip on his collar.
Nonya - Sat, Aug 23, 2014 - 10:16pm (USA Central)
Yep, I'm going to be that person. I dislike this episode.

Most of it has to do with the fact that the EMH is my own personal Neelix. He's selfish to the extreme, and Janeway is all too indulgent of his "grab everything I can" nature. Here he's trying to be captain, despite the fact that people who have been in Starfleet for a long time should rightfully be promoted ahead of him, even leaving all the holographic issues aside.

This episode is ruined because of the aliens, who are too stupid for words. I don't understand how Jammer can hate Rom so much and then give these guys a pass.

While I admit the part where Seven puts the doctor in his place was funny, most of this is just the doc being indulgent, and like I said, he's my Neelix.
Robert - Mon, Aug 25, 2014 - 10:28pm (USA Central)
Going back through Voyager episodes from the beginning and this has to be one of the best. Picardo is a superb actor, dramatic and comedic, and he had me laughing out loud several times, particularly with his additional lyrics to "La Donna e Mobile." And the rest of the cast also got to show their comic chops. It looked like they had a lot of fun making this episode, very funny without being forced. It was a winner.
Eli - Sun, Nov 2, 2014 - 2:52pm (USA Central)
Personally, I did not like this episode. I thought the jokes were all targeted at the doctor at an uncomfortable distance, rather than shared with the doctor in a way that would be considerate of his feelings. That is to say, the doctor is caught in such an embarrassing light that it feels invasive to be viewing him in this way. I would rather laugh at someone's trials and tribulations in a way that would be mutually beneficial to them. I know, I know, this is a fictional character, but I tend to imagine fictional characters as analogous in some way to real people.

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