Summary: A strong episode that addresses some important issues but its reach far exceeds its grasp.
The issue of the Doctor’s holographic rights has been Voyager’s most consistent and longest running arc and now finally seems to be at a
close at about the same that Voyager itself is ending. Unfortunately the deadline seems to have caused the writers to try and do too much in too little time. Like the Void, another strong recent Voyager episode, Author Author is at times clever, imaginative, and finally, addresses the substantive issues but it is overstuffed with material that far outstrips the forty minutes available to deal with it.
While Voyager early on displayed great facility with the Kazon arc, running it as a B-story in unrelated episodes very effectively, the later Voyager seems to prefer stuffing its return-to-Earth arc into large single pieces placed throughout individual episodes. So Author, Author has to spend time dealing with Voyager’s first regular connection to Earth AND the issue of the Doctor’s holographic rights brought to contest AND the issue of the Doctor’s relations with the Voyager crew. Each of these would have made a good episode. Together stuffed into one single episode, none of them has the time to be fully developed into a natural storyline.
And so, The Doctor’s humanity arguments are reduced to a several-minute footnote towards the end of the episode. The Voyager crew’s phone-calls are well handled but this sort of thing should have been shown to have more impact on the crew than a few quickly edited scenes of ‘phoning home’. It’s odd that at a time when the Voyager crew have the first semi-permanent connection to their families, the main topic of conversation is The Doctor’s insulting holo-program. This should have really changed things, followed up on the promise of scenes like Barclay’s “gift” of the live shot of Earth. After all, this is what Voyager has been working for all these years; it should have meant and mattered more.
For once, Seven’s family scenes were tastefully and very effectively handled with the stimulus towards change coming more from her, than from scenes with Janeway or The Doctor lecturing her on getting to know her family. Having Seven come towards the incentive to “phone home” by acting as a silent observer while Kim and Torres get in touch with their families is the kind of subtlety that the Seven arc could’ve used more of. Kim’s scenes are used for their comic potential but Wang underplays the material so that it works, instead of being an over-the-top Asian family joke as it was written. Torres’s scenes with her father also do a good job of following up on prior material–continuity is one thing Author, Author demonstrates abundantly.
The entire holonovel material, though, feels unnecessary. Instead of the entire circus of alternate universe doubles, we could simply have had the crew read off a few of the same lines from a PADD and spend the time on the arguments over the EMH’s humanity or the actual issues involved. After all, the comic potential and the whole concept of distorted perceptionmirror universe Voyager crew members was handled far better in Living Witness. There was no real need to do it again except as an attempt at a gag, which only distracted from the actual issue of the Doctor’s political advocacy and feelings.
It would’ve been far more effective, however, if The Doctor had made the Voyager crewmembers more true to life, but distorted in subtle
ways so as to put a negative spin on their actual conduct and behavior. This would have brought home the notion that The Doctor might view the crew’s behavior differently than they themselves or the viewer do. Instead, The Doctor produces ridiculous caricatures that make him look ridiculous and the crew look petty for taking offense at such ridiculous and patently unrealistic distortions.
Certainly, literary works of political advocacy don’t tend to be very subtle and with The Doctor drafting his own Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he couldn’t have likely produced a quiet masterpiece. Still, the problem remains that most of the Voyager crew’s caricatures are excessively and inhumanly psychotic and evil while works of political commentary are more effective if they address actual, everyday evils as they appear. Political advocacy of evils as practiced by demented cartoon characters doesn’t make people re-examine their own behaviors and participate with their victims in the healing process; it just distances the problem and makes it seem unrealistic. More so, a lot of the Voyager “evil crew” are evil in ways that have nothing to do with holographic rights. They’re simply crazed and demented. Janeway phasering a wounded crewmember has nothing to do with holographic rights. Her treatment of the EMH by contrast seems almost merciful.
The plot twist of having the publisher of the EMH’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” work exploit him as a hologram with no rights is smart and politically sophisticated, while being quite true to life. Having the test of the EMH’s humanity be copyright law is also ingenuous and unexpected, even though the publisher has no chance of victory. If the EMH were a thing rather than a person, than he and all his works are property of Starfleet, which has sole authority over them. The problem is that much of this comes as an afterthought. In TNG’s Measure of a Man, the arguments over Data’s humanity forced the crew to really reconsider their feelings about Data, the arguments hit home and the answer was in actual doubt. Picard had a point but so did Riker. Here there is zero doubt.
The crew has fully acknowledged the EMH’s humanity and they’re ready to tell stories about it all day and all night. The use of The Doctor’s betrayal of Voyager as a point in favor of his humanity is a smart touch of continuity. But there is no real challenge anymore. Only the Federation doubts the EMH’s humanity and the Federation isn’t actually here, they’re far away listening-in. The final scene of the holograms breaking the proverbial rock in the dilithium mines, spreading the word about freedom, is a wonderfully inspirational final thought and the episode is full of so many similar nice moments. Unfortunately, this episode could have been put to better use if it had done a better job of connecting all these instances into a more seamless, cohesive story.