Nutshell: An uneven mixed bag. Solid, greatly entertaining character work sabotaged by yet another forgettable subplot.
There are moments of "The Swarm" that are so good that we want to look past the problems of the script. But the problem with this episode is that ignoring the flaws ultimately becomes impossible—the show is so uneven and the subplot is so unmotivated and inconsequential that one begins to wonder why the subplot even exists. This is the same problem that plagued last week's "Chute"—a strong main story is undermined by a subplot that proves quite, well, forgettable.
The show opens with the seldom-seen pairing of Torres and Paris in a shuttle for a character-based teaser that is somewhat entertaining. Then the show launches its (sub)plot when some strange aliens beam in and attack Torres and Paris, rendering them unconscious with an energy blast as punishment for inadvertently invading their space.
Torres regains consciousness and pilots the ship back to Voyager and the two are taken to sickbay, where the show introduces its main plot involving the Doctor. Doc begins having memory lapses—at first minor things like forgetting where he laid down a medical device, but later he completely forgets the entire procedure for a crucial operation that Paris needs. (Quick observation: Why did Doc begin the operation on Paris knowing that he didn't remember how to do it? It strikes me as rather silly that he would proceed with such delicate work without first investigating his own problem.)
Torres discovers that Doc's circuitry pathways are degrading, and if they continue to degrade he will be permanently incapacitated. The only known solution is to completely re-initialize his program—meaning he would lose all the memories experienced since his activation nearly two years ago.
This is an interesting idea—one that I had hoped we would see someday. While Doc is a person in many respects, this can't change the fact that he exists because of hardware and software, and that his existence can be threatened if there's a problem with the equipment. Further, this is another good use of the Trekkian Human Question, which asks whether the Doctor has feelings as we know them, and whether the crew can give those feelings priority over practicality, which states that the program should be re-initialized immediately to avoid further damage to the Doctor's system.
So, to look for other options, Torres activates the EMH diagnostic program in the holodeck. The diagnostic is a holographic representation of Doctor Zimmerman (also played by Picardo), the Jupiter-stationed creator of the EMH. Zimmerman is exactly the irascible rascal we figured he would be. Picardo's rendition of the character is skillfully done, not to mention an awful lot of fun. Zimmerman's dialog, mannerisms, and facial expressions are dead-on perfect, and Picardo demonstrates a knack for comic timing as he plays a scene opposite himself that has a fountain of quotable lines.
Zimmerman explains that the EMH has amassed too much "worthless" data in his personality subroutine, which is causing an overload and a breakdown of his other routines. ("Look at all this useless information floating around your buffer. Friendships with the crew, relationships with... women? Do they find you attractive?") He concludes that the only viable option is re-initializing the program. Torres wants another option. Zimmerman has no option to give her.
It's about here that the subplot involving the aliens becomes more urgent (or, perhaps, more distracting). According to Neelix, these aliens are bad news. Those who wander into their territory are usually never heard from again. And it turns out that going around their space (which is huge) would add well over a year to Voyager's trip. Janeway decides to violate Starfleet regulations and trespass in their space, much to Tuvok's (somewhat overstated) ire.
Janeway's decision here bothers me a bit. I don't understand why she is willing to break this rule but wouldn't break other rules in past episodes (even if it meant getting home). "I don't like bullies" doesn't seem like much of an explanation to me; it seems more like a forced line to make Janeway appear more imposing, which I really don't think is necessary. As a result, her decision seems more arbitrary than anything else.
While trying to cross the aliens' space, Voyager encounters a ship floating dead in space which was also foolish enough to wander into this territory. They paid with their lives. Naturally, there is one survivor clinging to life who "tells the tale." Pretty by-the-numbers, not very interesting.
The show continues to switch back and forth between the A/B-stories. The transitions decidedly could have been better, as, for example, one scene features the Voyager in grave danger and then cuts to a humorous dialog between Doc and Kes. With this standard story structure, the script simply gives us a little more information in each succeeding scene—which is fine but also means the B-plot's significance rides almost solely on the conclusion. Unfortunately, the payoff is hardly what I hoped for.
Sure, these aliens—that is, the impressive sight of a thousand of their little ships racing after a fleeing Voyager—are a somewhat fresh idea (which is at least somewhat reassuring of the new season), but what the creators do with them is hardly fresh. Once again, we have a powerful foe with a unique advantage that is defeated with Voyager's usual tactical technobabble. The show's inevitable battle seems to demonstrate that the writers can come up with any alien derivation one could imagine, but can provide them with no dramatic purpose beyond being defeated in a sudden turn of the tables that is hardly imaginative or impressive, but plenty insipid and perfunctory.
And Alexander Singer's direction over this battle scene is clunky and lackluster, despite some decent special effects. The invasion of the bridge by the aliens did nothing to increase my pulse rate, and the suddenness with which the entire situation was resolved was far too swift to feel anything but artificial.
I was extremely grateful, at least, to find out that the Doctor's malfunctions had nothing to do with the alien swarm. (I was half expecting another one of those reset button endings where Voyager leaves the aliens' space and everything returns to normal.) A good decision was made here.
So what about Doc, anyway? His deterioration takes him into a sort of state of Alzheimer's for holograms, which is milked for some genuinely funny moments (the "he's a very sick man" passage, for example, was hilarious). Just as Zimmerman predicted, Doc's intellect descends to that of a parsnip.
His problem is also solved with a rather technical procedure, although it's much more interesting than the angle with the aliens. It's driven more by Zimmerman and Kes' character interaction than by arbitrary workings of shield modulations or phasers.
This solution does not, however, guarantee Doc's memory will be restored, and the ending, in which he indeed does not appear to remember Kes or Torres, had my attention. But I have mixed feelings about the very last shot where Doc begins singing opera from his previous holodeck experiences. There are a number of ways to read this. (I personally didn't care for the vague ending all that much because I don't really like to be toyed with when it comes to character truths.) Some possible implications of this ending include:
- Doc was merely joking with Kes and Torres. This has about 0.1% likelihood, but I just thought I'd throw it out there because it would be an amusing and atypical approach.
- Doc's memory will slowly return, the way many TV cases of amnesia resolve themselves. That would be too dramatically easy, but it's possible.
- Doc will remember some things, but not others. This is the most probable, most plausible, and probably most interesting way to deal with it.
- Doc will remember nothing (except some opera). It would be a brave choice on the part of the producers, but I certainly would not like it because it would be character stagnation, not character development.
No matter how this is ultimately resolved, I found the setup to be just that—setup without dramatic payoff. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think the story would've been much more effective if the ending hadn't been left so open.
It's unfortunate that this episode can't get more than an "okay" rating in my book. It really is. I enjoyed much of the Doctor's story. But as long as Voyager's creators give us subplots that go nowhere with weak conclusions that weigh down the main story, I don't see any way that such episodes can transcend overall mediocrity.
Yes, "The Swarm" was fun at times. Yes, it featured an interesting character we figured we would never see. Yes, it had great performances by Robert Picardo. But it didn't add up to enough; it didn't have the payoff or subplot development it needed. It was a potentially great show that shot itself in the foot. It's not a total loss by any means, but (like "The Chute") not nearly what it could've been.