In brief: Ambitious and interesting, with well-realized characters and ideas.
It's probably the end of the road for anything relating to the holodeck or holograms; with "Flesh and Blood," the Voyager writers have taken the concept as far as it can go. They've done it here with an abundance of compelling arguments and smart ideas, which is more than enough for me to set aside qualms with cans of worms opened by exploring these issues.
I complained — quite loudly, in fact — about last season's dreadful "Spirit Folk" and to a lesser extent "Fair Haven." Both of those episodes were stupid holodeck farces that didn't have the brains to overcome the problems of their implausibility. But with "Flesh and Blood," the fate of holograms and their rights as possible lifeforms is a big chunk of the point. There's some genuine depth here. It's miles ahead of a silly example of the holodeck running awry. It's also miles ahead of fourth season's "The Killing Game," to which this two-parter serves as a sequel. "The Killing Game" was an action show with no brains, whereas "Flesh and Blood" is an action show with interesting issues and debate.
Like "Killing Game," this outing involves the Hirogen. It builds upon the previous episode's end solution, where Janeway negotiated a truce by offering the Hirogen holodeck technology so they could simulate their hunts as an alternative to hunting sentient beings.
Yeah, yeah — I have to ask what the Hirogen are even doing way out here. It makes somewhere between very little and zero sense that Voyager could run into Hirogen who were affected by Voyager's actions three years ago. I suppose they've been steadily moving toward the Alpha Quadrant too, in leaps and bounds, in order to thank Starfleet for giving them the holo-technology. Uh-huh.
Never mind. That's the underlying continuity/believability-breaker, but it's fairly minor and not worth dwelling on. (Given how flexible Voyager's position in the Delta Quadrant has been in the past, if the writers are going to break this rule again, they might as well do it for a worthwhile story, which this turns out to be.)
A distress signal brings Voyager to a Hirogen training facility where something has gone very wrong. The facility is a big holodeck, and it turns out that the holograms here took control of their environment and slaughtered all the Hirogen hunters on board. They then transferred their programs to a vessel equipped with hologram emitters and escaped. The only survivor the Voyager crew finds on the facility is a young Hirogen engineer named Donik (Ryan Bollman), a non-hunter who had the sense (or cowardice, depending on your walk of life) to hide.
How did this massacre happen? The Hirogen at first claim the technology went spontaneously berserk, but it turns out they're lying; Donik's job as a hologram engineer was to modify the holograms so they could learn and adapt. These aren't your average holograms; they're special holograms on a level as advanced as the Doctor — thinking, learning, sentient AI.
Janeway agrees to help the Hirogen hunt down the renegade holograms and deactivate them. Forming an uneasy alliance (featuring the expected dosage of tension between Janeway and the Hirogen leaders), they undertake a mission that Janeway feels obligated to carry out; she gave the Hirogen this technology three years ago, and she doesn't want it becoming a roaming threat. The Hirogen, of course, see this mission as another hunt.
The story gets much more complicated when the holograms abduct the Doctor, transferring his program to their vessel. They are led by a man named Iden (Jeff Yagher), a hologram with Bajoran form. Iden tells Doc that the holograms are fighting for their own freedom and survival; the Hirogen use them simply as programmed prey, but, like Doc, they have the ability to evolve beyond their programming. Iden sees himself as a liberator; after he freed himself and obtained a ship, he liberated holograms from three Hirogen facilities, and intends to free more of "his people."
The beauty of the episode is its plentiful complexity. It's not simply about hunting the holograms, and it's not simply about the possibility that hunting down these holograms is wrong. It's about the dialog and situations that arise in the meantime, prompting us to ponder both sides of the issue. Who are these holograms, and have they earned the status of having rights? At what point does technology attain rights, exactly? Would reprogramming the technology to regress it into something more rudimentary be tantamount to a forced lobotomy? And would deactivating such technology be the same as imprisonment or a death sentence?
With its two-hour length, "Flesh and Blood" has plenty of time to dive into a lot of well-written discussions, in addition to the action that moves the story forward. Many of these discussions are between Iden and Doc and reveal different points of view, both of which have merit when considering the characters' origins. Iden thinks of Doc as a slave who serves "organics." Doc doesn't see it that way, since he has been afforded the opportunities to pursue interests that push beyond the boundaries of his original function. But Iden's prejudices against organics are certainly understandable. He was programmed to be hunted and killed over and over again by Hirogen hunters. His purpose was essentially one to be tortured (the Hirogen, thorough in their desire to create credible prey, programmed these holograms with the capacity to feel pain and suffering).
There's a nightmarish sequence where Doc suddenly finds himself being hunted by a sadistic Hirogen. This turns out to be an implanted memory from one of Iden's own people. There's perhaps nothing quite like living through the plight of someone else to possibly understand where they're coming from (cf. last season's "Memorial").
There's an abundance of plotting in the story's two hours, including several ship chases, a few clever tactical maneuvers, Hirogen ships firing on the holograms and on Voyager (and vice-versa), a technical procedure contrived by Torres as a temporary measure to try to shut down all the holograms' programs, and a trek through a nebula. Between directors Mike Vejar (part one) and David Livingston (part two) and all the writers involved in scripting the two teleplays, "Flesh and Blood" is well constructed and well paced. A lot happens, but we're never lost, and the story keeps a firm grasp on all the details to make it something that makes sense and also remains entertaining.
As a sign of trust, Iden agrees to negotiate, transporting Doc back to Voyager, where he pleads with Janeway to consider the holograms' position. Intriguing is how Janeway's position on the matter doesn't depict her as the episode's hero; she's more of an antagonist if we were to assume Doc as the story's hero. She won't put others in the potentially dangerous path of these holograms, even if means deactivating them. Really, there aren't clear-cut heroes anywhere here, which is to the story's credit. Instead, there are viewpoints. Janeway's position at least partially stems from the guilt of having uncorked these holograms by sharing the holo-technology in the first place. Doc is so immersed in the plight of others of his "kind" that he flees Voyager and willingly returns to assist the holograms.
All of this is well documented by the plot, but what makes this story stand out are the details in the characterization, particularly once Torres is beamed to the holograms' vessel to help them build a generator that will allow them to live on an isolated world. (Iden says his mission isn't one of continued violence, but finding a place where his people can live peacefully without being hunted by the Hirogen.)
Even the choices for the holograms' forms proves interesting. Iden's Bajoran identity is appropriate given DS9's milieu of Bajoran freedom fighters trying to end oppression, and Iden even comes preprogrammed with spiritual beliefs. There's also a Cardassian hologram character here, named Kejal (Cindy Katz). Her name is of Bajoran origin, given to her by Iden, which translates as "Freedom."
The Doc/Iden scenes are good, but equally impressive are the more subtle discussions between Torres and Kejal. Torres isn't sure if helping these holograms is a good idea, since the technology she's rigging could be abused for hostile purposes. I appreciated the added dynamic of Torres' discomfort with Cardassians, held over from her old Maquis days. There's a nifty little nod to stereotypes of Klingons and Cardassians, and an even niftier point where Kejal draws a parallel between Torres joining the Maquis to fight Cardassian oppressors and the holograms' current uprising against the Hirogen. (I'm tempted to wonder how much irrelevant Alpha Quadrant information these holograms would've been provided by the Hirogen, but why quibble.)
The story's latter passages involve a turning point where Iden evolves from what appears a sincere freedom fighter into a megalomaniac who sees himself as a messiah to save all enslaved holograms. This turning point is probably a bit extreme and sudden, but still reasonably portrayed. There's a well-depicted example of pointless violence where Iden steals some holograms from a passing merchant vessel, and then destroys the ship and its two "organic" pilots. The holograms he stole turn out to be non-sentient drones capable of only a few rudimentary functions. They do not have the ability to grow the way Iden and his crew do.
Which is interesting, because one of the implicit ideas here is the contrasting level of growth between Iden and Kejal. Iden's megalomania stems from his hatred of the Hirogen and the violent tendencies they programmed him with — tendencies he ultimately is not able to overcome. He constantly goes back to his nature of fighting any organics who stand in the way of his holographic society.
Kejal, on the other hand, is able to grow beyond her original violent directives. (Earlier, Torres tells Kejal, with a tone that hints of personal experience, "It's not easy to change who you are. Trust me.") The notion of preprogrammed instincts and one's ability to grow beyond them (or not) hints at the "nature vs. environment" debate, something I'll mention but won't elaborate on (since I can't go on forever). What permitted Kejal, but not Iden, to evolve beyond her inherent violence? Was it fate? The difference in their overall purpose and experiences? These are typically human questions, aptly applied here to artificial intelligence.
The end of the story involves a massacre scenario where Iden beams a ship full of Hirogen to the surface of a harsh planet, and intends to wreak vengeance upon his oppressors by turning the hunters into the hunted. It's a decent idea, ultimately forcing Doc to kill Iden to end the cycle of violence, but it's not all that original and doesn't quite live up to the subtler arguments earlier in the episode. It's executed at a breakneck pace, cramming what could've played as a long action scene into a surprisingly short amount of time — but it somehow remains coherent.
The performances and guest performances are on target. Jeff Yagher brings urgency and sincerity to Iden; Cindy Katz portrays a calm and confident Cardassian; and Ryan Bollman is good as the scared young Hirogen engineer who shows that at least one Hirogen character doesn't have to growl every time he has a line.
"Flesh and Blood" is a well-crafted Voyager outing. As an "epic two-hour telefilm!" it's by far the best of the series' three (excluding the pilot), the other two being the dumb and bloated "Killing Game" and the entertaining but relatively thin "Dark Frontier." As a holodeck show, it puts most others to shame by thinking about the issues it raises instead of bulldozing through them in favor of idiotic farce ("Spirit Folk") or sidestepping necessary questions of programming capability ("Nothing Human"). It's an adventure that uses characters and ideas wisely, and the best outing so far this season.
Upcoming: Reruns. See you in 2001.