In brief: Great fascination that gives way to great frustration.
When it comes right down to it, "Human Error" is a gutless story trying with all its might to hide in the camouflage of tragic circumstances. No such luck. After the recent stretch of mostly solid shows, this episode serves almost as a depressing reality check: Voyager is a series determined to go so far and absolutely no farther. The writers refuse to take the risks that are standing right there in front of them and are the ones that would be most satisfying to the audience. And why? Because we just can't have change?
Basically, this episode is the ultimate Reset Button Plot™. Oh, the writers try to peddle to us the notion that this is groundbreaking character analysis, but who are they kidding? We travel what seems to be the fascinating journey of a character (Seven of Nine, naturally) only to have it all yanked away in the last five minutes. What's the point of that?
As opposed to the past two weeks of the mega-plotted "Workforce," "Human Error" comes to us as an easygoing change of pace. The plot has no unnecessary complexities; it's simply Seven's humanity re-examined, which has been a reliable if occasionally tiring character theme.
This time the story takes us into Seven's newfound holodeck fantasy life. Sure, we've done the holodeck fantasy story before, even recently, whether it was with the Doctor ("Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"), Janeway ("Fair Haven"), or Barclay ("Pathfinder"), but it also makes plenty of sense here, and with Seven we have the feeling that there's even more at stake. We've seen for four seasons how hard she has tried to grow, and she's trying here, too.
What, in retrospect, can be seen as a preview of the frustration we get at the end is how the story violates our trust with a needless deception right at the beginning: At a baby shower for B'Elanna and Tom, Seven gives the toast — and a good one at that — and we hear her discussion with Janeway about the recent removal of her remaining Borg implants — and Seven's request for a Starfleet uniform (which practically had me cheering). My interest was captured: Could it be we're going to take some noteworthy steps with Seven in the series' few remaining episodes? Nope — it's all a holodeck simulation, edited into the show to look real for the purpose of, I guess, frustrating us.
No biggie — I'm quite willing to overlook a cliched little deception like that, especially since the simulation premise itself is intriguing. For Seven, fantasies on the holodeck are not to feed her emotions but rather lab experiments to see if she is capable of deeper emotions.
There are scenes of her playing the piano. Changing her appearance. Moving into her own quarters. And eventually, she ends up on a date with a holographic Chakotay, which I'm sure for some viewers may seem like an odd character choice but is perfectly reasonable for the simulation and the story at hand. We end up with several romantic encounters that are tastefully handled, and some even better scenes where holo-Chakotay tries to help Seven unleash emotions she consistently tries to suppress.
In particular, the story's use of a metronome is very apt. When playing the piano, Seven uses the metronome to keep her ordered rhythm. But there's no true emotion behind her skilled technical approach. Chakotay recommends she not use the metronome, but Seven finds playing without it troubling and disordered. Seven is essentially a control freak driven mad by any chaos, no matter how small. This is the same reason she has trouble dealing with emotions.
This is good material, even though I kept cursing the fact the writers didn't have the courage or cleverness to find a way to use a real character for these encounters instead of a holographic one (is he programmed to behave and interact just like the real Chakotay? Gee, how convenient). Even the by-the-numbers subplot involving Voyager obliviously wandering into a weapons test range (duh!) manages to work okay, since it shows how Seven's personal life conflicts with her duties and causes her even more disorder.
Seven's interaction with the real people outside her holodeck experiments makes sense too, whether it's Doc, Torres, Icheb, or Janeway. Doc's support of Seven's emotional quest is sincere and well realized.
Unfortunately, all this talk of Seven's emotions is servicing a last-minute plot development that lets the writers off the hook for anything and everything resembling consequences or change. Doc discovers that a function of Seven's cortical node prohibits her from having strong emotions without shutting down, so furthering the development of her emotions could be harmful. Just what we needed — a human story with an arbitrary technical twist.
This isn't characters solving a problem; this is the script artificially creating its own circumstances. I don't even buy this plot element as a Borg "fail-safe" to prevent drones from having emotions. We've never heard of it before — it seems to go against many previous assumptions about assimilation, and it conveniently draws the line of what's deemed "too emotional" solely for the purpose of ending this story and not accounting for any of Seven's emotions that came before.
Nonetheless, Doc proposes complicated surgery that could eventually solve the problem. Seven decides against it, for the arbitrary reason that the writers want her to continue being a control freak who puts duty over emotions rather than taking the risk of developing her humanity. This decision is also enacted artificially by the script and not Seven's character, who just as easily could've had the courage to take Doc's proposed step into humanity. It's a writer's toss of a coin.
So, I'm thinking, what did we just watch and why? Essentially it's all another self-contained character situation that we're supposed to ponder thoughtfully. The tragedy of the story is supposed to be that Seven can't take that step toward humanity. But why is this a tragedy we as an audience need to see? Especially when the tragedy as written is more contrived and unbelievable than taking the story to a more daring and satisfying conclusion? We've been down this "deferred development" road with Seven so many, many times. Why pretend to shake things up if you don't mean it — if you reverse it in the end? It baffles and frustrates me. A lot.
If ever there were a time to change the Seven Humanity Quest formula, with only a handful of episodes left until the series is done and gone, now is the time. But no, sorry.
And too bad. The actors and production staff give this story their all. It's almost flawlessly performed, with Jeri Ryan using her expertise for conveying subtle, buried emotion underneath the calm Seven surface. The music is well placed. Seven gets to let her hair down and have a good reason. Chakotay is likable.
Indeed, there are parts of "Human Error" that are so fascinating that it's all the more depressing that the ending is an act of terrorist sabotage. There should be a litmus test for situations like this: If you have several ways you can take a situation, and you pick the one that cheats the characters, the audience, and common sense, you need to pick again.
They failed to pick again, and here lies the season's biggest disappointment.
Next new episode: The return of Q, who brings along Q Jr. (sounds like a burger).