Star Trek: Voyager: Author, Author   Rewatch 
July 19, 2018 8:19 AM - Season 7, Episode 20 - Subscribe

The Doctor writes a roman à clef holonovel about being a hologram doctor aboard a starship stranded thousands of light years from home. What could possibly go wrong?

Memory Alpha says that it hurts when they do this:

- As in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Measure Of A Man", the rights of non-organic lifeforms are at issue in this episode. While it had been determined that Data, although being a machine, was not Starfleet property and thus had the right to choose what to do with his life (and thus could most likely be considered a person), it seems the whole process had to be repeated for The Doctor and fellow holograms. The situation here is even more complex than with Data, since Data was a unique single being who was not created by Starfleet (he was found by Starfleet personnel), while holograms were programmed and designed by Starfleet and integrated into ships, space stations and other Starfleet property. In the end, it is not acknowledged in this episode that The Doctor is a person, but he is rather granted the status of an artist.

- The Doctor mentions that Janeway has never executed any of his patients as far as he knows. This ignores the events of VOY: "Tuvix", where Janeway in one sense executed Tuvix.

- During their allowed COM-time, Ensign Kim's mother tells him "This Captain Janeway sounds like a lovely woman", which could refer to the call she made to Captain Janeway shortly after Kim left Earth to ask if she had time to send Kim's clarinet to Voyager, as Janeway confides to Tuvok in the pilot episode, in turn calling Kim's mother a "delightful woman".

- The epilogue of the episode takes place four months after the main events of this episode. The previous episode "Human Error" takes place three months before the series finale "Endgame", meaning the epilogue of this episode takes place after Voyager, and by extension the Doctor, return to the Alpha Quadrant.

- This episode shares plot similarities to the Desilu-produced I Love Lucy episode "Lucy Writes A Novel". In it, Lucy Ricardo writes a novel based on her life that also includes unflattering portrayals of people in her life (in her case, her husband and neighbors) using thinly disguised character names.

"I could use your help with the rewrites."
"Really?! Well, you realize, as a writer, I'm a little unsophisticated."
"No, I believe the phrase you're looking for is 'low-brow'."

- The Doctor and Paris

"It hurts when I do this."
"Well then, don't do it."
- Two of Three and Paris' fictional Doctor

"The Doctor exhibits many of the traits we associate with a person. Intelligence, creativity, ambition, even fallibility, but are these traits real or is The Doctor merely programmed to simulate them? To be honest, I don't know. Eventually we will have to decide because the issue of holographic rights isn't going to go away, but at this time, I am not prepared to rule that The Doctor is a person under the law. However, it is obvious he is no ordinary hologram and while I can't say with certainty that he is a person I am willing to extend the legal definition of artist to include The Doctor. I therefore rule that he has the right to control his work and I'm ordering all copies of his holo-novels to be recalled immediately."

- Arbitrator

Poster's Log:

So, once upon a time, I was part of an online community that has since more-or-less dissolved, and one of the members was writing a book. He was going to use the names of members of the community for his characters, with their consent, and I gave mine; he warned me beforehand that the character wasn't necessarily the most pleasant person, but I was game. And then he published the first chapter online, and... wow. The best way I could describe my namesake was that he was the only character with any negative qualities, and he had all the negative qualities. All of them. The kind of character that might cause you to stop reading a book because a piano can't get dropped on their head fast enough. As far as I knew, the writer and I had no beef between us that I could think of, but I couldn't help but wonder after that.

The Doctor's holonovel is sort of the opposite of that--a roman à clef, so real-life characters with fake names--but the end result is much the same: the crew is left wondering as to whether he has long-standing grudges against everyone but Seven, despite his protests otherwise. And, the thing is, you can kind of see where he might feel that way, at least a little, and maybe even brood over some of these alleged slights and injustices and finally use Photons Be Free to get some of them off his chest. Janeway has never literally killed another crew member to override one of his triage decisions, but she did override him WRT Tuvix, and Ransom of the Equinox actually deactivated his ethical subroutines. Paris never literally faked a medical emergency elsewhere so that he could use the sickbay as a passion pit, but I think that he's complained about being drafted as a nurse, more than once. And then there are the occasions where he's been rebooted for one reason or another. That still doesn't really justify his believing that no one will associate the crew of the "Vortex" with the one that he's on, though; the thing with a roman à clef is that, even if the corresponding real-life people aren't explicitly spelled out (which has happened historically; the term means "novel with a key"), it usually isn't too hard for people to figure out. (Augusten Burroughs was sued by the family of a Massachusetts psychiatrist because of his unflattering fictionalized portrayal in Running with Scissors, and Mary Karr, who had a relationship with David Foster Wallace, called Wallace out after his death for, among other things, using real people that he met in a residential recovery program, identified by their real first names, as characters in Infinite Jest.) The Doctor--who, you'll remember, saw fit to coach Seven on appropriate behavior--demands respect from the rest of the crew, but doesn't get how that has to be mutual, and hides behind authorial fiat until Paris flips it around on him. (Paris' mini-scenario is pretty cruel--the "Klingon aphrodisiacs" thing is kind of libelous, even if The Doctor does have a big ol' crush on Seven, and the comb-over is just mean--but he makes his point clear.) Up to this point, The Doctor does not come off well.

And then the episode becomes "The Measure of a Man" in the Delta Quadrant, and it's an entirely different thing. I think that it's actually better than TMoaM as far as dealing with AI rights in the Federation; that may seem like a #slatepitch hot take, but bear with me. The problem with TMoaM is that the Federation, and specifically Starfleet, should not only have dealt with the issue of AI rights/citizenship before then, but, in giving Data a commission, de facto declared him a citizen. (And Riker's "argument" that Data wasn't a real person by hitting his off button--"Pinocchio is broken; its strings have been cut"--makes zero fucking sense; are Vulcans the only real people in the Federation, given that their neck pinch effectively gives them an "off switch" for just about any other corporeal sentient species?) And, even though TMoaM seems to think that it's a Very Important Episode, it has no effect on the crew's decision WRT Professor Moriarty in "Ship in a Bottle"; ex cathedra, they just leave his program running on a portable holodeck module, forever. Thus, the Arbiter in this episode, who says that he can't decide such a momentous issue, and simply gives the Doctor control over his work instead. Which is probably more realistic, especially given that the epilogue does establish that, yes, the Federation does practice holoslavery. That, in turn, made me wonder how much the Federation's economic utopia might depend on the scientific equivalent of Harry Potter's house elves. This is nothing that the show will actually answer, of course, at least in canon, but it's quite a bit deeper and more meaningful than "Area holoman neglects to run roman à clef past friends before publication, hilarity ensues."

Poster's Log, supplemental: AFAIK, the Turing Test has never even been mentioned in Trek, so we can't say that the increased realism of holodeck characters has made it moot, or that it raises questions that the Federation simply doesn't want answered. Also, the barely-scraped-off-the-serial-numbers characters of Photons Be Free can be compared to their counterparts on "Warship Voyager" in "Living Witness."
posted by Halloween Jack (13 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
If there were ever a sequel series that takes place after Voyager I'd like for it to seriously tackle the Federation's weird policies WRT Artificial Intelligence. As a whole Star Trek comes off as antagonistic toward artificial life forms, all the way back to the numerous episodes where Kirk rolls in and frees a society from its all-powerful computer overseer. It's a pretty central tenet of Star Trek that being human and imperfect is better than being inhuman and perfect, which lends itself to a supremacist morality and is directly opposed to the mission "to seek out new life and new civilizations"

Sadly, it's pretty depressingly realistic that the events of The Measure of a Man could happen, where an android successfully joins Starfleet, finishes the academy with flying colors, serves with distinction, then somebody comes along and almost succeeds at getting him taken apart. Humans happily dehumanize other humans when it's convenient, I can only imagine it'd be even easier to dehumanize someone just because they're "artificial." The same with this episode, where a person who has positively demonstrated his personhood for years can still have his personhood questioned because it's strange or inconvenient to acknowledge it. The only sticking point is Gene Roddenberry's vision that humanity has overcome these societal problems by the time of Star Trek. The Federation just comes off as willfully ignoring the concept that holograms are people just because it's easier to pretend they're not, to the point of not even bothering to prevent the creation of a sentient hologram over something as simple as an ambiguously worded command.

In retrospect, it would have been interesting if instead of following Data's path with The Doctor, they would have from the very beginning made it clear that The Doctor is specifically programmed to not be sentient and has no desire to be sentient. Like, in the early episodes where he expresses annoyance over being left on when nobody is in Sick Bay, instead have him just stand motionless in the corner. This creeps out the crew, who in turn start tinkering with his program to add more personality. As soon as someone decides to program him to have preferences he expresses his absolute preference that they stop fucking with his program and leave him the way he was designed. Then Janeway overrules him and says no, if you're going to be the only doctor we have on this ship you're going to have to be more than just a diagnostic tool.

You could even have the same stories, where his program gets destabilized because it's been added to so much, he gets the ability to alter his own program, eventually he develops into an actual person, plus it gives his grumpiness a better explanation than "His designer also has shitty bedside manner." A robot who has humanity unwillingly thust upon him would have been an interesting counterpoint to a robot that covets humanity.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 9:12 AM on July 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


That is sort of the story of the Doctor in Voyager though. He doesn't have Data's Pinocchio syndrome, where he's always striving to be more human. It just kind of happens. His autonomy and personality develop on their own due the circumstances of him running way longer than anyone thought he would. He doesn't start off with any desire to be sentient, autonomous, or more human, but once he develops those traits he doesn't want them taken away.
posted by runcibleshaw at 11:03 AM on July 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Particle of the Week: Photons, of course.
Pointless STO Comparison of the Week: Legal issues surrounding holographic rights don't come up specifically in Star Trek Online, but it seems to me that they haven't really changed one way or the other - they're used as crew of various kinds, prison guards and so on. You do meet the Doctor on a solo mission, but he's the only self-directed holographic officer I can remember, which is in keeping with his unique status on Voyager.

Ongoing Counts:
* Maximum Possible Photon Torpedoes: -25.
* Crew: 137. For the first time I can recall in the series' run, Neelix acknowledges that the number is lower than 150, but he pegs it at 146. I'm not sure why this vexes me so much, but it kinda does.
* Credulity Straining Alpha Quadrant Contacts: 15. At this point, it's still fair to say they've done their homework about communication with Earth.
* Janeway's Big Red Button: 2 aborted self-destructs, 1 successful, 2 games of chicken, 1 ramming speed.

Notes:
* Hooray, another episode I liked. ;)

So, I found all this surprisingly insightful, particularly given the source. The moment that most sums up what I enjoyed was probably this exchange:
EMH: The emitter in my story is nothing like the real one.
TORRES: Yeah, what was the point of that? It was like carrying around a small shuttlecraft.
EMH: It's a metaphor. A symbol of the burdens that I live with every day. Imagine having to take this everywhere you go. It would be a constant reminder that you're different from everyone else. I wanted the player to feel the weight of it. Literally.
JANEWAY: Your emitter isn't a ball and chain. It liberates you.
EMH: It doesn't always feel that way.
JANEWAY: If I didn't know better, I'd think this story was written by someone who feels oppressed. Is that how you see yourself, Doctor?
EMH: Of course not. The real victims are my brothers in the Alpha Quadrant.
TORRES: Brothers?
EMH: Hundreds of EMH mark ones. Identical to me in every respect except, they've been condemned to a menial existence. Scrubbing conduits, mining dilithium. There's a long history of writers drawing attention to the plight of the oppressed. The Vedek's Song, for example tells the story of the occupation of Bajor.
JANEWAY: I understand you have your reasons for writing this, but you should consider how it's going to make your friends feel.
That packed a lot of stuff into one scene about what it's like for marginalized populations to engage with dominant ones.

Just to start: to humans looking at the situation, the Doctor's mobile emitter must be fantastic for him because it allows him to rise above his station. Unlike all other holograms in their civilization, he's able to move beyond the confines of a holodeck or similar space... and the thing is, that's all true.

However, the bad thing about it being true is it allows their analysis of the situation to stop there. They have reached a good, valid conclusion and so have very little empathy for the down sides of the Doctor's situation because those are uncomfortable:

- He's dependent on an external aid to do things they take for granted every day, a device he has been deprived of on numerous occasions via plot stuff.
- He's the only one of his kind who has one.
- Any discussion of these circumstances is read as ingratitude because he is so relatively privileged compared to comparable beings. (The whole 'do you see yourself as oppressed?' thing.)

The second thing is how the comparative stakes are treated as identical: for the Doctor, this is about his fundamental rights. For organic beings in the situation, (both the crew and the publisher), this is just about how they feel. Those concerns are given roughly equal weight, which also rings very true to me based on... just life, you know?

Another thing I appreciated is simply how clumsy the Doctor is, because there are no perfect victims. On the one hand, he's been the subject of Fantasy Racism on Voyager enough times... but on the other hand, he is indeed kind of a dick himself. This is always in play when marginalized people want better treatment: many people express themselves poorly and everyone has done things we shouldn't have, and that's generally trotted out to dismiss our concerns. I thought that was handled well here, with Paris being a dick back, but not too much of a dick.

Finally, the way the Doctor deflects this away from himself and onto his 'brothers' is familiar too. He can't really let this be about himself because that would be catastrophic to his personal relationships, career and very possibly life (were he reformatted or something), so latching onto a valid concern in the form of his kind in general lets him express himself without it getting too real.

This is all painfully familiar, which makes it good art. As I've mentioned more than once in these threads, I'm a mixed race POC who has mostly lived among white people, and... yeah. This was all remarkably on-point for stuff coming from white authors. I think maybe it was easier for them to figure it out because of the abstraction - holograms aren't real, so it's maybe more comfortable to explore those issues, which has always been a very Star Trek thing to do.

* I liked how the various parties came off.

Neelix is another outsider on the crew, and tries to bridge the gap gently. This is both very Neelix (but in a good way!) and rings very true for how different subsets of marginalized people often interact when figuring out how to manage situations like this.

Janeway and Paris and the rest are offended but supportive, which rings true for how decent people with privilege often react.

The judge's take is disappointing in the moment, but I agree with Jack that it's completely believable.

The Doctor is a realistic victim: imperfect, a jerk himself, but still with a really valid complaint.

Props to Voyager: they finally did a good job with Trek style social commentary this season. I actually think this story would potentially be a useful tool for discussing the way privilege works with privileged people, which may make it the most useful episode of Voyager I can recall.

Other stuff:

And then the episode becomes "The Measure of a Man" in the Delta Quadrant, and it's an entirely different thing. I think that it's actually better than TMoaM as far as dealing with AI rights in the Federation

Agreed. This shouldn't be solved with one stunt-filled case on short notice. It really is the sort of thing I'd expect this kind of incrementalism on, especially given the difficulties you rightly point out: Data was built by a third party, while the Doctor was literally built by Starfleet for Starfleet.

It's a pretty central tenet of Star Trek that being human and imperfect is better than being inhuman and perfect, which lends itself to a supremacist morality and is directly opposed to the mission "to seek out new life and new civilizations"

Agreed. I love Star Trek for trying to make the world better instead of just focusing on adrenaline and kerplosions, but this is one place where I think it never really escaped its bias, and it would be satisfying to see that change someplace down the line.
posted by mordax at 12:20 PM on July 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


To avoid abusing edit:

I wonder how much the sleazy publisher was based on interactions the writers had during their real careers?
posted by mordax at 12:24 PM on July 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


Also, last one before someone else speaks awhile, I promise:

Thanks for sharing your story, Jack. Yeesh.
posted by mordax at 12:26 PM on July 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


If this premise had simply ended with the Doctor learning a Valuable Lesson about how Respect is a Two-Way Street or something, and hadn't gone down the whole Arbiter route, I would've liked it a LOT less, in part because the roman à clef story hook has been used way too often on other TV shows.

I was almost certain I'd seen the Arbiter in something, but upon checking, it seems I haven't. Maybe it's his voice: he also auditioned for the role of Kang, and his voice IS weirdly similar to Michael Ansara's.

Mary Karr, who had a relationship with David Foster Wallace, called Wallace out after his death for, among other things, using real people that he met in a residential recovery program, identified by their real first names, as characters in Infinite Jest.

Aw, shit…that's one of the parts I actually remember. Wughhh.

The problem with TMoaM is that the Federation, and specifically Starfleet, should not only have dealt with the issue of AI rights/citizenship before then, but, in giving Data a commission, de facto declared him a citizen. [...] And, even though TMoaM seems to think that it's a Very Important Episode, it has no effect on the crew's decision WRT Professor Moriarty in "Ship in a Bottle"; ex cathedra, they just leave his program running on a portable holodeck module, forever.

I'm starting to feel like what we often cite as "the Federation's inability/unwillingness to deal seriously with the social issues introduced by A.I." is actually "the writers' inability/unwillingness to deal consistently with the social issues that Roddenberry didn't anticipate when he decided to fuse Spock and The Questor Tapes into the new character Data."

Thus, the Arbiter in this episode, who says that he can't decide such a momentous issue, and simply gives the Doctor control over his work instead. Which is probably more realistic, especially given that the epilogue does establish that, yes, the Federation does practice holoslavery.

That awesome final scene with all the Mining Picardos blew me away the first time I saw it—it was one of those "look at your spouse and both of your eyes are wide" moments—and in retrospect, I think part of its impact is our certainty, consciously or not, that Roddenberry would've shit a brick if he'd been alive to see it. THIS show did something THAT dark and bold?

holograms aren't real, so it's maybe more comfortable to explore those issues, which has always been a very Star Trek thing to do. [...] I actually think this story would potentially be a useful tool for discussing the way privilege works with privileged people, which may make it the most useful episode of Voyager I can recall.

Yeah, y'know, people often lionize TOS for being ahead of the curve on social issues a little more than IMO it seems (on a full rewatch) to deserve it, but there are indeed one or two episodes where they earned a M*A*S*H-like place in television history. One wonders if, given a few more decades, VOY will get that kind of recognition for "Author, Author." (Arguably, TNG and DS9 already have with "The Outcast" and "Far Beyond the Stars", respectively, though the general notoriety of those episodes may not be as widespread as any of the commonly-cited TOS analogues. And maybe VOY has kind of been dismissed by the Serious Critics.)

So strange how they could get this one so right and others, very recently, so not. Season seven is just weird, y'all.

in the early episodes where he expresses annoyance over being left on when nobody is in Sick Bay, instead have him just stand motionless in the corner. This creeps out the crew, who in turn start tinkering with his program to add more personality.

I LOVE IT.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 2:04 PM on July 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


The second thing is how the comparative stakes are treated as identical: for the Doctor, this is about his fundamental rights. For organic beings in the situation, (both the crew and the publisher), this is just about how they feel. Those concerns are given roughly equal weight, which also rings very true to me based on... just life, you know?

I hate to pull out just one part of your comment, but this particular part really struck me. Very relevant at the moment.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:42 PM on July 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Roddenberry et al could have very easily established a cohesive narrative for AI. Frankenstein is one of the most popular novels ever written.

And so I find the arbiter's decision to be even more perplexing. Voyager has encountered sentient holographic species not created by Starfleet or otherwise "engineered". I can't think of a more obvious and useful precedent for dealing with this tone-deaf approach to the subject, and FRANKENSTEIN, HAVE YOU READ IT?!
posted by Brocktoon at 11:06 AM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


The problem with TMoaM is that the Federation, and specifically Starfleet, should not only have dealt with the issue of AI rights/citizenship before then, but, in giving Data a commission, de facto declared him a citizen.

They honestly should have dealt with it 80 years before TNG. I mean, whatever happened t the planet of androids the Enterprise came across?

And I guess that's why I was never all that impressed by Noonian Soong and Data. I was like "What, so he managed to duplicate something that's been around for decades?"
posted by happyroach at 9:59 PM on July 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


I mean, whatever happened t the planet of androids the Enterprise came across?

Maybe Section 31 got to 'em and the whole thing was buried. *gasp* Maybe Soong was in Section 31!!
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:46 AM on July 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


I hate to pull out just one part of your comment, but this particular part really struck me.

Thanks. :)

Season seven is just weird, y'all.

It really is. I'm still thinking of it as 'S1 of Voyager-that-should've-been' or something.

Roddenberry et al could have very easily established a cohesive narrative for AI.

The thing is, they really did. It's not that Roddenberry didn't have a perspective about AI, it's that he mistrusted giving human authority to inhuman things. For my money, the defining moment for AI in the Trek universe is probably The Ultimate Computer, wherein they test a computer system designed to replace Captain Kirk, and it goes Ax Crazy even though its personality is templated off of the original Dr. Daystrom.

I mean, that's basically the origin of Marvel's much more famous Ultron, and that's almost always how AI went, especially when it interacted with humans: because AI lacks emotion/empathy, it always turns ruthless. (It's the same running theme behind the long running Bones/Spock rivalry in TOS: 'should we make decisions based on our feelings or just on the facts?' which is resolved by Kirk, who balances the two approaches in a way that machines generally cannot in that series.)

Data's mostly weird in Trek canon for being sympathetic despite lacking emotion.

I mean, whatever happened t the planet of androids the Enterprise came across?

I'm not sure we need a Section 31 answer, but broadly, I agree with Cheeses in that it was probably quarantined. I'm picturing, like, a planetary ring of police tape around the whole thing.
posted by mordax at 9:52 AM on July 22, 2018


Data's mostly weird in Trek canon for being sympathetic despite lacking emotion.

Yeah, when you look at Trek as a whole Data stands out for being a genuinely good helpful AI in a sea of evil planetary computers and corrupted space probes and smart bombs and inhuman artificial aliens. It's such a weird oversight and I'm glad there's lots of other good sci-fi out there that addresses artificial intelligence (Like, for instance, the very first sci-fi novel)

I'm picturing, like, a planetary ring of police tape around the whole thing.

Seems plausible, since that's pretty much what they did to the planet from the pilot episode of Star Trek. Boldly going where no man has gone before... and making sure no man goes there afterwards.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 3:53 PM on July 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


FRANKENSTEIN, HAVE YOU READ IT?!

OH MY GOD. I watched the episode last night and was reading the thread tonight and thinking "Huh, this reminds me of Frankenstein" when I saw the comment. I enjoyed the episode but reading the comments there's more to it than I picked up on.

I started listening to the Fictional podcast recently - it takes classic works of, um, fiction, and retells them in a briefer, modern tone. So it's kind of fun to hear very familiar Sherlock Holmes stories with little snarky asides about sexism, but I've also been listening to stuff that I've always thought I *should* read but never got around to it because of whatever reasons. Like, I just never picked up Frankenstein because monsters and horror are not my thing. But b/c of the podcast I'm now familiar with the story and hot damn. Yeah. People arrogantly and carelessly creating things, then not wanting to take responsibility for them, perhaps even loathing or being ashamed of their creations, failing to address their legitimate needs ... it strikes me that it could also apply to how some people treat their children, and many other balls of wax, but perhaps that's a discussion for another thread.

I like the little hint at the end that holoslaves are discovering the doctor's work and finding it intriguing, perhaps inspiring. Maybe there's a holorebellion in ST future?
posted by bunderful at 8:45 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]


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