In brief: I do believe we have a winner.
The fictional novel in question is an interactive holodeck program about an emergency medical hologram that is forced to become the chief medical officer on board the starship Vortex when the Vortex is stranded in the Delta Quadrant. The story follows the Vortex EMH through an existence of hardship and oppression by the Vortex crew, who see him as a piece of technology and absolutely nothing more.
The holo-novel was written by the Doctor, and it's the center of a controversy in "Author, Author," which for me goes down as one of Voyager's all-around most entertaining episodes. It exists simultaneously as a laugh-out-loud comedy-satire, a slyly perceptive analysis of personalities, and a thoughtful drama that argues the nature of existence and the rights of a group that I for one have been pondering for some time. In addition, there's a plot about Voyager now having limited daily contact with the Alpha Quadrant, and the chance for the crew to finally have synchronous, if brief, discussions with loved ones back home.
"Author, Author" borrows numerous ideas from other episodes and spins them together into a single story that, amazingly, makes a whole lot of sense. It plays like a successful melding of "Worst Case Scenario," "Living Witness," "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy," "Pathfinder," "Flesh and Blood," and, of course, and perhaps most notably, TNG's famous "The Measure of a Man" (1989). How so many familiar elements are successfully recycled here to seem new is beyond me, but there you have it. Does this episode tackle too much? No, because the narrative is clean and the story is able to do justice to everything it puts forward . (It's unlike the recent "Prophecy," which tackled a million elements with little regard for telling a competent overall story.)
Doc's interactive novel, titled Photons Be Free, is met with great enthusiasm by Bolian publisher Broht (Barry Gordon) back on Earth. Broht wants Doc's story right away, so he can run it in holosuites worldwide. Doc still has some minor revisions to make, but he finds a brewing controversy on his hands once he lets Paris preview the program.
Doc's novel allows the holodeck patron to play the part of the Vortex EMH from a first-person perspective. It depicts the Vortex crew as a savage bunch whose members all have a common trait — their rude and thoughtless regard for the EMH. Like in "Living Witness," these crew members bear a striking resemblance to the Voyager crew members, except with a revisionist historian's twist. Chakotay, now a Bajoran, orders the EMH around and calls him "hologram," while Janeway (named "Captain Jenkins") shoots an injured crewman dead in order to force the EMH to treat a less seriously injured crewman now, just because it suits her.
This first stage of "Author, Author" is compelling on several levels. First is the fact that Doc's story itself, while way melodramatic, is engaging. Second is that we see the similarities between the Vortex crew and the Voyager crew, and certain traits have interesting perceptiveness behind the exaggeration. And third is that we see the differences. My, oh my, the differences. For Doc's purposes, exaggeration, I fear, defeats perceptiveness. But for "Author, Author's" purposes, it's brilliant.
The story within the story is packed with hugely entertaining little details. I got quite a kick out of seeing the walls of Jenkins' ready room decorated with antique firearms; this is a captain with a warrior's background. Meanwhile, Doc's mobile emitter is a big, heavy device that must be worn like a backpack. And the way the names are slightly changed is clever: Lt. Paris becomes Lt. Marseilles, with a mustache that even Torres can't help but laugh at.
What's disturbing for Doc's friends, however, is how the depiction of these characters hits too close to home. At one point, Marseilles sends the EMH on a bogus medical emergency so he can have a liaison with a female "patient" in one of the sickbay bio-beds. Marseilles lines the women up for "medical treatment" one after another. Paris was once, long ago, depicted as a mild woman-chaser, but he was more bark than bite. What bothers Paris in seeing Marseilles' actions is whether Doc really thinks of him as that way. Call it passive-aggressive storytelling.
Harry's character is a hypochondriac. Tuvok is a human with goatee. Torres is extremely abrasive toward the EMH; Roxann Dawson finally gets the scene she never got in "Living Witness" (where she did not appear because of her real-life pregnancy). The only sympathizer is "Three of Eight"; Doc has always seen Seven as one who understands the concept of looking in at humanity from the outside.
Execution-wise, I liked the way we get various chapters of the story as seen by various Voyager crew members playing as the participants. The whole idea, in fact, of holodeck story publishing is nicely depicted here; it seems like a logical 24th-century story medium.
This holodeck stuff is fun, but with a message. As the story unfolds in front of her, reaction shots of a thoughtful Janeway make a difference. There's a drastically serious undercurrent about Doc telling a tale of an oppressed EMH who, ultimately, is erased by his shipmates.
Even better is how when Doc's friends confront him about how the Alpha Quadrant will associate the Vortex with Voyager, the story maintains a cool head and presents all the arguments. Doc's argument in a nutshell is: The persons and events in this holodeck program are fictitious; any similarity to actual persons is purely coincidental. Fine and good, but audiences will certainly assume elements of truth were key in the writer's motivation, which brings up some interesting points about the responsibilities of an author making commentary.
In fact, Doc doesn't think he is being oppressed, and he doesn't intend the Vortex crew to be mistaken for the Voyager crew, even though both are stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Doc says, "I write what I know." Unfortunately, that's part of the problem, since one would immediately wonder if he has come to know firsthand this oppression he's writing about. Getting to the heart of that matter, Doc's motivation is to draw attention to his EMH Mark 1 "brothers" in the Alpha Quadrant who were banished to a menial existence because of their design flaws — which makes this an interesting and logical follow-up to the events of "Life Line" and "Flesh and Blood."
But Voyager's crew is caught in the middle, and Doc intends to stick to his guns rather than compromise the message of his story. This leads to what is the funniest scene, when Doc discovers his program has been replaced with Paris' retort narrative — Taste of Your Own Medicine style. Paris inserts himself as the narrator: "You are about to embark on a remarkable journey. You will take on the role of a medical assistant aboard the starship Voyeur. Your job will be to assist the chief medical officer, and learn to tolerate his overbearing behavior and obnoxious bedside manner. Remember, patience is a virtue."
This is standout comedy writing and acting, because it's funny while also reflective and in touch with aspects of the real Doctor's character, which it then mutates into a well-conceived comic caricature. The writers do a great job writing the scene as if Paris had written it with sardonic mode fully engaged, and Robert Picardo plays the scene with glee. We see a version of Doc who complains about missing his "tee time," flirts shamelessly with Seven of Nine, and has a hilarious air of self-importance. And the desperately lame comb-over is a nice touch. The acting and comic timing here are dead on; this has to be Voyager's funniest moment since "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy." It's more than just a gag, because it grows out of our familiarity with the characters.
Doc confronts Paris, furious. Paris shoots back, "Don't be ridiculous! That character is not you!" which is funny precisely because it's so absurd and proves the point. To make a long story short (too late), suffice it to say Doc agrees to change the people's names and appearances to distance the similarities between Vortex and Voyager. He comes to this decision after some objective suggestions from Neelix, who is apt at convincing Doc to protect his friends while still praising the creativity of the story (and I liked the way this scene recognized Doc's ego without faulting him for it; he feeds off the praise, no doubt about it, but that's because he wants to be more than just an EMH).
The central crisis in the story appears when Doc asks Broht to hold off on publishing the novel until he can make the changes. Broht, unwilling to wait and acting against a promise he had made earlier, tells Doc the story is already playing in holosuites. Doc demands it be recalled immediately, which Broht tells him he will not do, because Doc has no legal rights as a writer under Federation law, because he's a hologram.
Talk about your irony of ironies — especially given the subject matter of Doc's story.
This leads to a formal objection and a hearing where Doc argues his case to a Federation arbiter (Joseph Campanella). Of course, we've been here and done this with TNG's "The Measure of a Man," where the case was made for Data's rights as an artificial intelligence. But even if this is somewhat derivative, it features sensible arguments and serves the story every bit as well. (Though I must confess I'm not sure about Broht's motives in rushing the novel to publication and ignoring Doc's requests; why play hardball unless there's a financial motive, which supposedly doesn't exist in the Federation?) While I don't feel the need to discuss this aspect of the episode as much, I fully enjoyed it. Given what we saw in "Flesh and Blood," it makes a lot of sense to give this issue a full hearing on Voyager's record. It can actually go down as a common theme that played itself through the season, and that's very reassuring.
The hearing serves as a first step for hologram rights, giving the Doctor the rights as an artist with control over his work, but it's also real-world plausible by not going further than that; the arbiter acknowledges that the rights of holograms is an issue that must be examined further and not decided based on this one case. Sounds realistic to me.
I liked the final scene too, which takes place "four months later" and shows dozens of identical EMH-1s working in a mine. One of them suggests to another that in his spare time he take a look at an interesting program called Photons Be Free. Like in "Flesh and Blood," there's a sense that there's a revolution brewing in the backs of these holograms' minds; perhaps they are awakening to the idea of having greater potential. The scene plays itself with a note of whimsy, which is the perfect touch, leaving us wondering where this issue might go from here, but having us assured that it will indeed go somewhere, even if we never actually see it again on-screen.
The subplot involving the crew talking to family members is given less screen time, but it gets the job done within the time constraints. We get a Harry scene that manages to be funny while keeping perfectly in tune with Goofy Harry material. Harry talks to his parents back home and his mother asks why he hasn't been promoted, then says she'll write a letter to captain Janeway. The transmission is cut off before Harry can emphasize "No!" Poor pathetic Harry.
There's also a nice follow-up to "Lineage" in the form of an uneasy but civil conversation between B'Elanna and her father. B'Elanna's father wants to try. So does B'Elanna. This is actually a touching sentiment not pushed by melodrama, but simply two reasonable people who are willing to work things out slowly, over time.
Finally, there's a scene where Seven talks to a relative back on Earth, an aunt, and the conversation reveals just how alien Seven is to the idea of having ties to blood relatives. Where might this go before the series is over?
Given everything it accomplishes and the skill it shows in accomplishing it, entertainingly, I'm willing to call "Author, Author" one of the series' best installments. I was genuinely involved in everything going on from beginning to end.
Next week: More Delta Quadrant aliens that have crossed paths with human history. Gee, what a coincidence.