Summary: Another sleazy UPN promo serves as a misleading introduction to a nice and poetic if not particularly outstanding episode. Seven goes Barclay and Chakotay gets more action as a hologram than he ever has as a human being.
The gap between who we want to be and who we are has always been an effective source of human drama. And Seven is a character inserted
on Voyager with a progressive self-improvement arc that at times makes Voyager seem like a self-improvement tape. And indeed a lot of the Seven episodes have fit neatly into that package. At the start of the episode Seven demonstrates how close to the Borg and far from humanity she is, events happen during the episode which cause her to grow closer to some aspect of humanity and with Janeway’s guidance and pithy speeches, by the time the final 90 seconds come around, Seven is one step closer to being human. The problem with this approach is that of course it’s mechanical and crude as if becoming more human is an assembly line process and some machine attaches human qualities one by one as part of a drawn out process. It’s also meant that a good deal of the “Seven learns to be human” episodes have been dull, predictable and ultimately uninspired affairs. Even the better episodes like One and One Small Step, which deserve to be called classics by Voyager and perhaps even Star Trek standards, follow this same formula.
It’s all the more shocking then that Human Error actually dares to turn the entire formula on which the Seven development arc has been based from day one completely on its head. As we begin the episode Seven is running a holographic simulation in which she’s doing a good job of mimicking a human being and by the end of the episode she’s a Borg again having turned her back on her humanity. Instead of another mechanistic grinder in which Captain Janeway and Co. lecture Seven on what it means to be human, the entire crew ignore her altogether except for acting annoyed when she doesn’t perform up to Borg efficiency standards. Beyond making token attempts to invite her to parties, none of the crew cares very much about her exploration of humanity, they just want her to stay Borg, show up on time and solve everybody’s problems. And so the actual exploration is left to Seven, as it always should have been. Of course being a product of the most technological society conceivable, Seven explores an experiment in humanity through a holodeck simulation as the EMH himself suggested she do in “One”.
More to the point “Human Error” spends less time talking about what being human means and spends more time showing the impact and feeling of being human. It’s all very well for Janeway to deliver another nauseating lecture on what being human means according to the Federation charter but instead Human Error shows Seven actually trying to bridge the gap between who she is and who she could be. And it’s the transitions from the potential to the reality that causes the viewer to care about whether she does choose humanity or not. For these past years when we’ve seen Seven we’ve seen a two-dimensional neurotic superhuman being who seemed to be stuck that way, in Human Error’s holodeck simulations we see an interesting character who combines both the human and inhuman qualities of Seven in a more complex and three dimensional way and that character was far more interesting than the version 1.0 of Seven we’ve been stuck with for several years now. A character who could interact with the rest of the crew on a more complex level than preset roles like Student, Teacher, Efficiency Expert or Rude Outsider. And so for the first time in Seven’s Pilgrim Progress something is actually at risk and finally at stake. And when Human Error dares to let Seven lose and disposes of that character, it finally brings the element of risk and suspense to the “Seven learns to be human” arc that should have been there all along.
In “One” Seven was faced with the bleak reality of isolation. In “Human Error”, Seven is faced with actually choosing her future. She can remain an exotic Ex-Borg and maintain the level of contact she has with people or try and actually become human removing the entire Ex-Borg thing from the table altogether. She runs a simulation to decide choosing to oscillate like the metronome of the simulated piano (standing in as a lovely metaphor for the Borg aspect of her nature) between Ex-Borg and human. But experiencing doses of humanity makes the metronome oscillate unpredictably and out of step with the order of her life. And it turns out that her Borg implants have their own built in metronome swinging back and forth insider her head. A metronome that will allow her to be the Ex-Borg Seven of Nine who lives by routines, avoids most social contact and is an outsider looking in at humanity. It won’t however allow her to be Annika Hansen, human being who can have deep complex feelings, intimate relationships and act out of accord with the things that are rationally correct. But ultimately Seven still has the final choice to remove the metronome or keep it, choosing between being fully human or ex-Borg.
By using musical expression as a metaphor for human expression, “Human Error” hints at the richer and deeper aspects of being human that no television program or pithy Janeway speech could actually convey. Instead of delivering its ideas about humanity merely as character speeches, the episode uses metaphor and imagery to convey humanity. By rejecting her humanity, she’s rejecting not merely the music but the ability to create the music. She’ll always be able to listen to the music as an outsider but without any real understanding of it beyond the mechanical. She can even perform pieces in that same polished and perfect but completely soulless way. As in the early parts of her simulation she may in time perfect her mimicry of human beings to the point where she can actually pass for one, but it will remain an inhuman performance in which she can mime humanity but never feel it. On the other hand, she can commit to imperfection and humanity and actually live life as a human being from the inside.
A subplot in which Voyager stumbles unprepared into an alien equivalent of an artillery testing range provides a somewhat original and plausible crisis to lend intensity to her choice as well as reinforcing the underlying themes of the Seven story. Also, after “Shattered”, “Workforce” parts 1 and 2 and now “Human Error” Robert Beltran gets plenty of material. He even gets to participate in one of Voyager’s more plausible relationships, albeit as a hologram. A while back Barclay was still struggling between real humanity and simulated humanity. Where Barclay always ended an episode supposedly improving but never really improving because by the time the next episode came around he still seemed to be suffering from the same exact problems. On the other hand, by raising the idea of removing her Borg implants and by having Seven reject her humanity, “Human Error” suggests that this matter will indeed be resolved. Paradoxically when an episode ends on a negative note, this makes it far more likely that it will be followed up and significant changes will follow than one that ends on a positive note. And this material is worth following up, too bad it wasn’t followed up a year or two ago.
Next week: Reruns return again with Flesh and Blood.