Star Trek: Voyager – Season 5, Episode 11
The Doctor was one of the most interesting aspects of Star Trek: Voyager’s premise – a holographic character on the main cast. The Next Generation had an android character, but the Doctor felt like an entirely different animal than Data in practically every way (except for their personal explorations of the humanities). The show would occasionally spotlight the inherent oddities of the Doctor’s nature (for some reason I always like seeing him walk through forcefields), but “Latent Image” feels like the first time that the true weirdness of what he is is laid bare in a major way.
What he is, first and foremost, is a computer program. It’s extraordinarily complex and sophisticated, but it’s still a computer program. Holographic beings and sentient machines/computers/programs have been a mainstay of Trek since The Original Series, but they’re usually portrayed (and regarded by the stories) as fully sentient beings that are equal to the “real” biological characters. The Doctor has always been treated as a real person by the show (although not by the other characters initially), but the story of “Latent Image” introduces a wrinkle that highlights the artificial vagaries of what the Doctor is, and melds it with a study of who the Doctor is.
The Doctor is bugging the crew with his camera again, except there’s a medical purpose this time – he’s taking full internal body scan images with it as part of the crew’s annual physicals (the gigantic, clunky prop is kind of hilarious). While showing Kim his scan, the Doctor notices some scarring at the base of his skull, and realizes that someone performed surgery on him a year and a half ago. The weird thing is that the Doctor recognizes it as his own work, but he has no memory of ever doing it…
He informs Janeway about the discovery, and then asks Seven to perform a scan on his program. An hour later, she meets with him to do it, but he has no memory of ever asking her to. Looking at his program, she sees that his short term memory files have been deleted. Starting to feel suspicious, the Doctor decides to look through his camera photos from 15 months ago to see what they can find. Again, Seven discovers that photos from that period have been erased, but she’s able to recover some of them.
There’s a lot of computer stuff in the episode, and it’s kind of cool to see. None of it is super crazy or unrealistic, but rather mundane file management and recovery, which kind of makes it more compelling. I’ve often used deleted file recovery programs to scan my hard drive for things I’ve erased, as well as backup software. NERD ALERT.
On the holodeck, Seven and the Doctor see a series of recovered photos – a birthday party for a female crewmember the Doctor has no recollection of, a shuttle mission with her and Kim, an attacking alien ship, as well as an alien brandishing a weapon at them.
Investigating further, Seven finds the Doctor’s missing memory files from 15 months prior. They weren’t deleted, but his program was denied access to them. She restores them, and the Doctor’s mind (as it were) is flooded with a series of disjointed scenes. It’s an interesting sequence that draws attention to the Doctor’s artificial nature in a way the show never has before. The Doctor is a piece of software that contains many, many files – his knowledge, his personality, his skills, and his memories. As Seven uncovers these files he suddenly has knowledge of them again. In the background of one shot, a diagram of his memory scrolls across the monitor, while in the foreground he mentally flashes back into the recollection. It’s weird, but cool.
The Doctor experiences the memories surrounding the uncovered photos, all out of sequential order – a birthday party in the mess hall for the mysterious woman (Ensign Jetal), the shuttle mission, an alien attack, Voyager launching a torpedo pod, a medical emergency with an injured Jetal and Kim.
The Doctor and Seven share their findings with Janeway and Tuvok, and they vow to get to the bottom of it. The Doctor suspects that the aliens might have altered everyone’s memories (and his program), and that this Ensign Jetal may be one of them. And of course there’s apparently someone on the ship now tampering with his program. These plot points are heavily reminiscent of a couple of Next Generation episodes – “Schisms,” with the crew being operated on without their knowledge, “Conundrum,” where the entire crew’s memory was wiped by a nefarious alien posing as one of them, and “Clues,” where… the entire crew’s memory was wiped by nefarious aliens… who also posed as one of them.
Janeway orders the Doctor to deactivate himself so they can protect his program and figure out what’s going on. After the Doctor and Seven leave, she gives Tuvok a knowing look and we immediately know something else is up…
As always, Picardo shines in the episode. He returns to sickbay and is visibly frustrated and helpless over the situation. That is, until he gets the bright idea of setting up his camera to face the sickbay computer console. He programs it to take photos in brief intervals if anyone enters, and tells the computer to backup his recent memories in protected storage and restore them if they get deleted. It’s all quite clever and resourceful, and again, is fairly basic computer stuff that’s not far-fetched at all.
He deactivates himself, and sure enough, someone enters sickbay and deletes all his recent memories. Upon reactivation, the Doctor is confused. But the computer restores his memory files and he suddenly recalls everything that’s happened. It’s a really smart and fun sequence.
What’s not so fun is that he projects an image from his camera of the saboteur and it’s… Bagabond P. SkullFace.
I mean Captain Janeway. Those eye sockets really threw me for a loop.
Confronting Janeway on the bridge, he realizes that everyone except Seven is conspiring against him and demands and explanation. In private, Janeway admits to messing with his program. The alien attack happened, and it caused damage to the Doctor’s program they couldn’t repair. She doesn’t elaborate, and explains that the only way to fix the damage was to simply deny him access to the memories of the incident. The Doctor is enraged and feels violated. “How would you like it if I operated on you without your consent?” he asks. “If they operation saved my life, I could learn to live with it,” Janeway shoots back.
Janeway really, really, does not look good here. As she did in “Nothing Human,” she’s once again operated on a crewmember without their knowledge or consent, believing it to be in the best interest of the ship. Furthermore, her attitude towards the Doctor is incredibly bursque and entirely unsympathetic. If her decision was in the best interest of everyone’s welfare, that’s understandable and very consistent with her personality. Janeway closely adheres to Federation principles, but also is guided by a blunt and unyielding moral imperative to safeguard her ship and get her crew home, at almost any cost. Sure, cool. But her demeanor towards the poor Doctor really paints her in a shitty light and is a bold choice of the show. And it gets worse!
Waiting in sickbay, an agonized Doctor is panicked when Chakotay, Paris, and Seven enter. They need to inspect his memory files and have Paris fill in for him while he’s offline. The Doctor begs Tom for an explanation, and you just feel so fucking bad for him. In this way, the episode also recalls Deep Space Nine’s “Whispers,” where everyone acts shitty and weird to O’Brien for mysterious reasons. Paris confirms that he remembers what happened and how bad it was, and that he agrees with what the captain did. Thanks, buddy.
Seven is diturbed by this and visits Janeway in her quarters. Her inclusion in the story is done very smartly – the original events they’re covering up happened before she came aboard, so she’s learning about all this along with the Doctor (and us, the audience). Because of that (as well as another important detail), her sympathies lie with the Doctor and she questions Janeway about her decision. Janeway smugly orders coffee from the replicator, noting that it never gets the temperature quite right, almost like it has a mind of its own. But it doesn’t, it just operates based on commands and its own software. Ergo, the Doctor is more like the replicator than he is like you or me, she states.
It’s… just awful of her. To be fair, she may be trying to convince herself of this viewpoint more than she actually believes it, but it’s just such a jarring and horrible thing to say about an individual who’s been a respected member of her crew for 5+ years. The Doctor is a person, period, and has always been portrayed as such by both Picardo and the show overall. To flippantly deny him his personhood after so long is several quantum space fridges too far. Seven is appropriately unsettled by this, and by the fact that although she’s human, she’s also partly mechanical, not so unlike the replicator or the Doctor. At what point will Janeway fuck with her in a similar way, she wonders aloud? Although Janeway comes off really awful in this scene, Seven conversely shines as she expresses her solidarity with artificial beings and their inherent rights.
(I mean, if only one of the previous Trek series had a highly well-regarded courtroom episode dedicated to this issue and its settled legal argument that Janeway could refer to. No? Well, they should definitely make one. Maybe call it, “The Yardstick of a Dude.” OK, that’s terrible and surely X-rated. Moving on…)
Seven’s harsh words seem to sway Janeway, and she and Torres pop in on the depressed Doctor. The somber close-up shot of the Doctor is evocative and potently communicates his emotional state. Janeway admits that she allowed her preconceived notions of the Doctor’s nature color how she chose to handle the situation. A little late maybe, but it’s better. She offers the Doctor the chance to access the memories, and he accepts.
The Doctor is able to experience the memories sequentially – a surprise birthday party for Jetal, followed by the shuttle mission in which they’re attacked by an alien who fires a snazzy three-pronged kill beam at all of them. It severely wounds Kim and Jetal, with seemingly no immediate effect on the Doctor. Beamed to sickbay, Kim and Jetal are near death, but the Doctor figures out a way to protect their brains to repair the damage (with Paris’ assistance). Unfortunately, it’s too complex a procedure to do on both simultaneously, and he has to choose who to treat. He starts on Kim and the procedure works, but there’s no chance for celebration as they hear the telltale flatlining sound of Jetal dying right next to them. It’s a haunting moment, punctuated by the askew overhead shot of both patients, one alive, and the other left to die.
Upon reliving the memories, the Doctor is confused about what the big deal was – he’s programmed to accept the loss of a patient with clinical detachment. But Janeway and Torres give him the next chapter, and he’s in the mess hall with Neelix. Phillips is good in this scene, playing Neelix without his trademark chipper attitude. He’s clearly still distraught over the loss of a well-liked member of the crew and his mood is subdued. The Doctor, on the other hand, is unusually upbeat. Ruminating on the nature of decisions, he quickly descends into a manic, crazed state over the decision he made to save Harry and kill Ensign Jetal. It’s the most unhinged the Doctor has ever been as he pounds on the bar top and screams out. A security team has to be called to deal with him.
Janeway recounts that he experienced a feedback loop between his cognitive and ethical subroutines, and continued having the same repeating thoughts. There was nothing they could do except delete the memories of the incident. Having full knowledge of the events, the Doctor understands Janeway’s decision and is thoroughly disgusted with himself for choosing his friend over another patient in a triage situation. He starts to freak out all over again before being deactivated. Torres resigns to the option of having to delete the memories yet again, but Janeway is not so sure this time around. She questions their original plan and considers that they were perhaps wrong to not allow the Doctor to wage this battle with himself and his conscience.
Instead, they allow him to keep the memories but arrange a round-the-clock vigil for the Doctor – with him as the patient, the crew take turns keeping him company and acting as a soundboard for his self-berating musings. Two weeks pass. On the holodeck, Janeway reads while the Doctor continues to flagellate himself over the decision he made. It seems that even after two weeks he doesn’t seem to be making any progress in resolving his conflict. Picardo’s performance runs the gamut of emotions in the episode, and here he seems beaten down, weak, and almost on the verge of tears. “Too many possibilities…” he mutters softly to himself. “Too many pathways for my program to follow.” He’s really going through it, and what he’s become seems to be straining the design limits of his program’s parameters. The algorithms he needs to deal with this aren’t there, and he’s on his own.
“I can’t live with the knowledge of what I’ve done, I can’t,” he pleads, but notices that an exhausted Janeway has fallen asleep. Not only that, but she has a mild fever. She vows to stay with him, but he dismisses her to rest, not wanting to cause any more suffering. It’s interesting that her minor medical need is what jolts him out of his morose state – at the end of the day, he’s still a doctor, and he can’t let that duty slide. The pain of others must come before his. After Janeway leaves, he starts reading her book, The New Life by none other than Dante:
“In that book which is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words: Here begins a new life.“
The exploration of humanity by artificial beings was a major component of The Next Generation, courtesy of Data’s various studies. The Doctor continued similar exploits on Star Trek: Voyager, but they were as different as the Doctor is from Data. One of the main contrasts is the singular focus of what the Doctor is – a medical hologram designed to heal and treat patients. Just as in “Nothing Human,” there’s a strong and compelling criss-crossing of ethics and medicine in “Latent Image.” The damage from an alien’s weapon gives rise to a seemingly insurmountable conflict in the Doctor’s program. But it’s essentially a battle within his soul over actions he can’t change. Non-artificial lifeforms don’t have the luxury of just deleting unwanted memory files – it’s a painful aspect of being alive and sentient, and one that Janeway allows the Doctor to experience and deal with. To do otherwise would deny him his humanity, a mistake she made with him once already.
The pain of losing a patient because of a choice he made gnaws at the Doctor and drives him into a kind of psychosis. As much as the episode draws attention to the artificial/digital nature of the EMH, it also illustrates the humanity that all those algorithms and lines of code have given rise to, which is very on-brand for Star Trek. As Captain Picard once said, we’re all machines of differing natures. Some of us are machines of cells and chemicals, some are positronic relays and circuits, and others are software and holographic projections. But the emergent property of these complex building blocks is the same – sentience, and all the roses and thorns that go along with it. The Doctor has as much of a soul as any of the other biological crewmembers of Voyager, and he suffers a deep emotional wound to it here. It’s the kind of pain we all have to endure and overcome at times, no matter what we’re made of.
- Deleting the memory files surrounding this one incident seems straightforward enough, but what they also did was delete any memories of Jetal for the last five years. They would presumably also have to get rid of any other traces of her. Did they also forbid anyone from ever speaking her name again? This approaches Armin Tanzarian territory. It seems like an extraordinary amount of trouble to protect the Doctor, and loops around to being kind of disrespectful to Jetal. She dies and everyone has to pretend she never existed because it will freak someone out?
- It’s too bad there isn’t some way of reactivating a dead body up to 18 hours after death. Maybe a special technique one of the ex-Borg members of the crew know how to do? Shame, really.
- The sixth season would have an episode where a resurrected (female) member of the crew comes back to the ship. It’s a totally different person than Jetal though, which seems odd and a missed opportunity.
- Before the Doctor accuses Janeway of conspiring against him, her, Chakotay and Tuvok are having a conversation about Sumo championships. Tuvok reveals that as a student of all martial arts, he has always been a fan of the sport. I love that detail; it is pretty fun to watch.
- LOL, who are these guys?
- It always bothered me that the Doctor has zero medical staff outside of Tom Paris. After Kes left no one stepped up to replace her, which is just stupid. How many people work in engineering? How many people work in security? Tons, right? And yet the medical staff of Voyager is exactly one person? The situation in this episode illustrates this problem starkly. Maybe if there were another trained medical person on the ship Jetal would still be alive. Or how about just creating a holographic nurse? In “Nothing Human,” they’re able to create an entire doctor without much hassle. C’mon, people. Do you just not want to be alive? Tom took CPR once, that’s the best we can do!
- The cinematography on the episode is on point and there’s some great shots here.