Star Trek: Voyager – Season 5, Episode 8
Ethics have always been one of the central themes of Star Trek. It’s a franchise very much concerned with right and wrong, and the complex situations that give rise to a myriad of ethical quandaries. This fascination often criss-crosses with medicine-based storylines, and Trek has gotten a lot of mileage out of ethical-medical situations. “Nothing Human” continues this tradition, and weaves an interesting story around the Doctor and another holographic medical individual using the premise and unique qualities of Star Trek: Voyager to maximum effect.
Obviously, one of the main components of Voyager’s premise is that they’re lost far from home. The plot of “Nothing Human” is woven around that fact, as the crew relies on the information contained in the ship’s computer – information which is potentially incomplete and unable to be verified with anybody back home in the Alpha Quadrant. It makes for a unique and compelling episode because it’s not something that would work on another Trek series. The crew is missing critical pieces of data, and there’s something clever about that – in addition to being literally marooned by themselves in the Delta Quadrant, they’re also on their own as far as resolving this moral crisis goes. They have to rely on the limited informational resources they have at their disposal and muddle through as best they can.
Voyager receives a screeching and powerful signal and goes to investigate the source, where they find a damaged ship with a single injured, non-humanoid lifeform aboard. They beam it to sickbay, but it’s able to break through the forcefield and attach itself to Torres. Piercing her skin, it intermingles with her internal biology, making it impossible to simply beam away. The prop of the alien is well done, and resembles something between serpentine and insectoid.
The creature’s biology proves to be extraordinarily exotic, and the Doctor is stumped in even understanding its internal functions. He admits that exobiology this unusual is outside of his program’s parameters, and Janeway suggests compiling the ship’s exobiology database into an interactive program the Doctor could consult and work with. This plot development has a precedent, and hearkens back to La Forge’s infamous Dr. Brahams program in The Next Generation’s “Booby Trap” (ugh, that episode and its title).
Once again, Harry Kim is tasked with designing a holographic medical program from scratch (I guess even in the 24th century, the Asian guy still has to be the computer expert…). Before we know it, we have the holographic representation of the foremost exobiology expert from Starfleet’s databanks – Dr. Crell Moset. Oh, he’s a Cardassian. No prob, right…?
Played with personable charm by David Clennon, Moset quickly forms a chummy rapport with the Doctor and they and get to work in sizing up the situation. Meanwhile, Seven leads the effort to get some useful information from the alien ship, but it ‘splodes. The Doctor and Moset deduce that the alien isn’t attacking Torres per se, but rather drawing resources from her body to heal itself. Torres gains consciousness and sees the Doctor working with the Cardassian. She’s disgusted at the thought, because as a former Maquis of course she is.
The Doctor and Moset recreate his laboratory on the holodeck in order to use his specialized instruments and environment. The Doctor expresses his admiration for Moset’s accomplishments – while on Bajor during the Occupation he was able to cure the Fostossa virus epidemic, saving many lives. Clennon’s friendly and disarming performance are a key aspect to his character and the appeal of the episode (his initial chemistry with Picardo is good, but that goes without saying – they’re such lovable dorks together). He even expresses regret and dismay over the Cardassian’s brutal occupation. Seems like a decent enough guy, right…?
Janeway doesn’t have any luck in decoding the alien’s signal, so she decides to simply re-transmit it in hopes of attracting another of its kind’s ships to retrieve their person.
Creating a holographic simulation of the alien creature to dissect, Moset has the Doctor whip out a scalpel. Like, a literal, bladed scalpel. The Doctor is surprised and a little horrified, but Moset explains his love for simple tools that preserve the tactility he feels is necessary. It’s a nice piece of foreshadowing, and soon enough, they’re cutting open the simulated (and still awake) body of the alien to learn about its innards. Again, the prop work is great and the visceral appearance of the alien’s insides is just graphic enough without being gross.
Observing its internal organs, Moset devises a “plan of attack” to inflict enough damage to the alien’s nervous system to get it to release Torres. Oh, this will probably kill the alien, too. The Doctor is appropriately aghast at this (believing the alien to be sentient), and Moset’s attitude is of single-minded determination to save the patient (at the expense of all else). Before they can get into it, Moset’s program starts to destabilize and the Doctor takes him offline for repairs.
Kim enlists Bajoran Ensign Tabor to help him repair the program. Torres reiterates her disgust at Moset’s program to the Doctor. Undeterred, the Doctor is considering keeping him on permanently as a consultant. Reactivating Moset’s program, Tabor is horrified to see who it is – a mass murderer who killed hundreds, including his grandfather and brother. Uh oh.
Meeting with Chakotay and the Doctor, Tabor recalls horrific experiments that Moset performed on Bajorans during the Occupation. He operated on his grandfather and exposed his organs to radiation; it took him days to die afterward. The Doctor is in disbelief, but Tabor is adamant about Moset’s horrors. According to him, he only cured the Fostossa virus epidemic because he used Bajoran prisoners as lab rats. Chakotay has a recollection of stories about a Cardassian doctor who performed horrific experiments (but not specifically Moset). The Doctor wonders why none of this is in the ship’s database, but it’s clear that the Cardassians wouldn’t be forthcoming about this kind of thing. Tabor demands that although they can’t do anything about the real Moset, they can at least delete his program.
It’s all very smart writing, and again, it relies on gaps in the information that Voyager’s computer contains to create dramatic tension and intriguing ambiguity. Speaking to Paris, Torres realizes her initial hunch about Moset was correct, and refuses to let him treat her because she doesn’t want to benefit from other people’s suffering. Tom accuses her of being irrational, which is such a Tom thing to do (women, amiright???).
Kim and Seven do some further research to try and substantiate Tabor’s claims about Moset. They find a couple troubling pieces of information about his involvement in the epidemic he supposedly defeated, but nothing 100% conclusive. The Doctor is troubled and cannot ignore the possibility that Tabor is correct.
Moset is eager to get started on the alien surgery, but the Doctor questions him about the accusations. Moset is defensive that he committed any atrocities, because none of that is part of his program. I hate to keep using the word “smart,” but the writing is really smart here. It walks a delicate balance of having Moset be defensive about what he’s accused of while still maintaining the nature of what he is – a program created from Voyager‘s computer and its lopsided information about who the real man was. In reality, Holo-Moset is no doubt as divergent from the real thing as Holo-Brahams was from the actual person. The computer tends to make idealized versions of people where the holodeck is concerned.
The Doctor considers deleting Moset’s program to resolve the ethical dilemma, despite the fact that he needs his help to save Torres’ life. Without corroborating the accusations (because he can’t), Moset deduces that even if he did all that awful stuff, it still led to the cure for the epidemic, so it did serve a beneficial purpose, right? He reiterates that his commanders provided him with limited resources and he was forced to improvise.
The Doctor brings up ethics, and Moset surmises how the Doctor’s program was largely compiled of centuries of research conducted on lower species. “But not people!” the Doctor retorts. Moset muses that it’s convenient to draw a line between higher and lower species. The Doctor claims this kind of barbarism should have ended centuries ago, but Moset wonders why it matters how long ago the information was acquired? If you can use it to help patients now, don’t you have a responsibility to use it? It’s all so good, and the ethical debate it raises is a potent and difficult one with compelling points on both sides.
Meanwhile, Tabor wants to resign his commission in protest of the ship’s medical policies. This leads to a spirited argument between Paris, Chakotay, and Tuvok. Time is of the essence, and the Doctor doesn’t have the luxury of finding another way to detach the alien. Torres has made it clear she doesn’t want to benefit from Moset’s research, so the Doctor would be going against her wishes if he operates using such knowledge. Tom reiterates she’s being irrational (Tom, buddy… can you please not be that guy?). Tuvok defends the logic of Torres’ decision and how they would be validating Moset’s methods. It starts to get heated and ugly until Janeway puts her foot down – she orders the Doctor to operate and save Torres, and accepts all ethical responsibility for the consequences thereafter.
This is consistent with Janeway’s history of unilaterally making medical decisions for other people with varying levels of ethical murkiness (to say nothing of the incredibly fucked-up conclusion of “Tuvix”). Voyager’s situation is her prime concern, and they need Torres to survive. The luxury of complying with each crew member’s ethical concerns is something she doesn’t have, so she chooses to set it aside for the collective good. There’s a certain brutal but understandable logic to her line of thinking – survival situations (which Voyager has always been in) can have different rules and moral standards.
Another alien ship approaches, and attempts at communicating prove unsuccessful. The Doctor and Moset open the alien up and start applying pressure to its nervous system. The alien starts to die, and the Doctor orders Moset to lower the pressure and choose a less forceful approach. It starts to work, and the alien withdraws its tendrils from Torres. They’re able to get its metabolism to function on its own and beam it over to the alien ship, which promptly withdraws. Success!
Janeway meets with Torres, who is understandably not happy. She literally orders her to get over it , and Torres is incensed by that (again, understandably). Janeway’s posture is minimally apologetic and unsympathetic; it’s not a great look for her, but at least she (and the episode) understands that she’s the Necessary Evil in this situation who made the best decision for everyone’s collective survival.
On the holodeck, Moset is in good spirits and eager to get started on writing a paper about the procedure, but the Doctor’s demeanor is sullen. Janeway has put the decision on what to do with Moset’s program in his hands, and he’s decided to delete it. Moset warns him that they will be confronted with all sorts of crazy aliens in the future, and that he could be necessary for the crew’s survival. By deleting him, the Doctor will be getting rid of a valuable resource and putting lives at risk. He reminds the Doctor that his conscience wasn’t bothering him when he used his research to save Torres earlier. “Ethics… morality… conscience… funny how they all go out the airlock when we need something,” he notes.
The Doctor has no response to that, and simply tells the computer to delete Moset and his files. Problem… solved?
It’s a great ending that preserves the moral ambiguity of the episode’s premise. The Doctor is clearly troubled by what he’s done, but his choice to remove the moral temptation in the future demonstrates courage. Being ethical isn’t a simple, binary condition. It’s a spectrum, and none of us can be purely good ethical beings. Like a lone doctor who’s stranded with minimal resources, we all have to do the best we can in any situation with what we’ve got.
When I originally saw the episode, I recall being firmly on the side of Tom Paris (yikes). At least as far as utilizing the information they had to save lives. My line of thinking was that the damage and death had already been done – benefitting from it or not won’t change what’s happened. In fact, using the data to save lives would at least create something positive from something so awful. Learning from mistakes (and history) have been themes that have been venerated in previous Trek installments. Likewise, destroying scientific information seems antithetical to the pro-knowledge vibe the shows often exhibit (although they have done that on multiple occasions, when such knowledge is Too Dangerous to Keep).
Approaching it as a more experienced adult, I can understand the moral arguments and outrage the majority of the crew have. The issue is complicated in the context of the interstellar community (which doesn’t apply to Voyager‘s isolated situation, but is important to consider). Like Tuvok says, accepting these kinds of inhumane methods is an invitation for others to commit them. But ultimately, the decision’s was Torres’ and going against her medical wishes is indefensible.
“Nothing Human” is not only a great entry in Star Trek‘s pantheon of ethical debate stories, it’s one of the most complex and nuanced. Trek has always valued making informed decisions from good data. But the episode turns this on its head by denying its characters all the information they need. History is full of gaps, missing pieces that can vex and confuse us. Those missing pieces are at the heart of the moral puzzle that the Doctor is forced to wrestle with here. It’s an elegantly written and conceived story that true to the best of Trek, raises more difficult questions than it has answers for. And there’s something Very Human about that.
The Cardassian occupation of Bajor is a thinly veiled analogue for the Jewish holocaust committed by the Nazis. And in this extended metaphor, Star Trek has invented its own version of Dr. Mengele, the sadistic Nazi physician who is infamous for his barbaric experiments at Auschwitz. As a standalone story, “Nothing Human” excels as a dramatic and multifacted moral quandary without any easy answers. But as an historical allegory to Dr. Mengele, it does stumble, if not completely fall apart.
There’s a persistent idea in pop culture that ethical procedures only get in the way of doing good things. It’s one that especially seemed to rise in prominence thanks to the War on Terror and the pop culture that period of recent history begat. Shows like 24 and The Shield (or movies like Zero Dark Thirty) are built upon the philosophy that it takes ethically-compromised (or completely untethered), rugged rule-breakers to really get the job done. All those proper procedures and up-and-up moral channels are all well and good, but when shit goes down you need the Jack Bauers and Vic Mackeys to crack skulls and take care of the bad guys. Fuck yeah! *Kid Rock soundtrack intensifies*
But the thing is… that’s not how it actually works. Any expert will tell you that brutalizing terrorists and torturing prisoners is counterproductive. Proper procedures exist for a reason – because they tend to work. The whole “ends justify the means” trope is something that’s largely the domain of fiction – because doing good generally entails acting good. I mean, obviously, right?
I bring this all up because this idea is at the heart of “Nothing Human,” and considering the story in the context of history and pop culture does ultimately unravel the core issues it raises. Because the thing about Dr. Mengele and his “experiments?” They resulted in no useful medical information whatsoever. There was no way they could. They were torture for the sake of torture and had no positive ends to justify any of the savage means. And that’s the unsexy truth – in real life, the Jack Bauers and Vic Mackeys aren’t compromised anti-heroes who get results, dammit! They’re violent, murderous assholes who get into violence and murder because they like… doing violence and murder. Any moral pretensions are just smokescreens to cover their awful asses.
I’m not a doctor, medical researcher, scientician, etc. But just like in law enforcement, the realm of medicine and scientific research has ethical rules and procedures in place for a reason. Because they work. Abandoning them will only result in failure and ruination. Sure, there’s plenty of red tape that I’m sure gums things up and slows down progress at times. But basic ethical policy? It’s a strength, not a weakness. There are no shortcuts, and any attempt to cut those ethical corners is self-defeating. Many of us are currently benefiting from an effective vaccine that was developed in record time utilizing the proper procedures. Doing things the right way can be the fastest way.
And to its credit, this is an idea that Star Trek has always embraced – good results from good actions. It takes courage to hold ourselves to moral standards, and Trek’s heroes often exhibit their strength of character by doing so. It continually emphasizes that abandoning one’s principles only leads to bad places.
So this idea that Moset’s wanton abuse of his Bajoran patients allowed him to devise a cure can be dismissed as poppycock. Medical science is based on the scientific method, and tossing that out the window isn’t going to help you out at all. You can’t be a good scientist (or doctor) if you aren’t concerned with basic procedure – including moral procedure. To be a good doctor or scientist (or just a good person), you need to value the truth – observing reality and dealing with it on its terms. The Nazis, with all their fucked-up beliefs, certainly did not value truth or reality. That’s why Mengele was not only a terrible person, but a terrible doctor. Being a Nazi, that’s all he could be. It’s why Nazi Germany shed all of its best minds (which the U.S. was only too happy to snatch up). So in all likelihood, a Dr. Moset wouldn’t have discovered shit with his useless and savage torture experiments. Dirty cops make the worst cops.
With this gargantuan aside having been said, this is still a good episode! I just felt compelled to rant on this persistent idea that seems to worm its way into a lot of entertainment. It’s especially relevant as the U.S. is seeing a virulent surge of anti-truth sentiment in sectors of its population, spurned by the absolute worst administration in the country’s history. We’ve seen firsthand how having what is essentially an amoral dirty cop in the most prominent leadership role has profoundly corroded… everything. And how absolutely stupid fascism is. Because again, if your very nature is anti-truth, there’s nothing you can be but stupid as shit.
- Interestingly, David Clennon also played a doctor on Scrubs in one episode (S6xE03). He has a very distinctive voice.
- I didn’t mention the Doctor’s photo slideshow he subjects the crew to at the beginning. He’s great in the rest of the episode, but good god is he insufferable here. Voyager’s characters could just be so cloying and annoyingly broad at times. I do like that Chakotay doesn’t bother to rescue Janeway as ordered, since he had to sit through the whole thing.
- So for all the interpersonal turmoil between Torres ad Janeway as a result of her medical wishes being overridden, there isn’t any between Torres and Tom. He seems very dismissive of her concerns and although Janeway is the one who makes the decision, he’s the biggest and most vocal cheerleader of it.
- Really like the set design of Moset’s lab. The blood red color palette really sells the themes of the episode.