top of page
  • Ric Crossman

5.1.11 Stockholm Syndrome

Heroes And Demons

Kim dressed as Beowulf, arriving just before the credits roll.
The aptly-named Sir Not Appearing In This Episode

Oh good. It’s another holodeck malfunction.

The Boxes Of Delight

It’s easy to read that as sarcasm, I’m sure. Actually, I’m entirely serious, and that’s despite the fact that the IDFC running order makes this the second such story in three episodes. There can’t be all that many Trek fans who’ve watched two holodeck malfunctions happen so close together.

And yet, my enthusiasm for the trope remains entirely undimmed. In fact, let’s start things with a nice, bold statement: complaining that the franchise falls back on the holodeck malfunction story seed too frequently is bad criticism, and anyone who does it should stop.

It’s true, admittedly, that gremlins in the holo-emitters kick off the action in a non-trivial number of episodes. So what? How many stories are there that all focus on aliens possessing one or more regulars? Or a strange sickness sweeping through the crew? These are just jumping-off points for what’s actually going on in an episode. You might as well complain how many stories centre on a main character falling in love with someone they met ten minutes earlier.

I mean, sure, there could be some fun to be had in giggling at the remarkably high malfunction rate of the h-deck (as the kids will call it), like some futuristic Seinfeld on his downward arc. The genuine difference between this trope and the others I mentioned is that this one relies on a piece of technology being widely-used despite repeated malfunctions that can cause serious injury or even death. Really though, does a few hours in a holodeck require a more sobering risk assessment form than, say, a week on the ski slopes (chance of injury: 0.6%)? Especially when you consider how inflated all kinds of risks end up being in fiction – something accepted as a necessaru warping of reality by everyone but Peter the director (caution: contains Robert Webb). I made a similar point a while ago; fiction runs according to probability laws fundamentally different to our own. Writers can abuse that fact, yes, but a fact it remains.

So no. The frequency with which stories are built on the idea of the holodeck gone wrong shouldn’t be considered a problem. Quite the reverse. The holodeck is one of the greatest inventions of science-fiction TV history, right up there with the TARDIS. It allows for limitless variation in plot, tone, theme and structure. It lets Trek play in the sandbox of every genre going; interacting, inverting, or just bouncing off them according to what’s most interesting. Suggesting there is something unoriginal over-familiar about such stories because they all require similar technobabble sentences to ignite is like saying library books get repetitive because they always need checking out before you can read them. You’ve not just missed the point, you’ve missed out on all the fun.

Naturally, my defence of the form doesn’t require me to go to bat for every given example. Potential has to actually be actualised. Doing so here requires smart answers to the following two questions. One: why does this story need the holodeck to do the job it needs to? Two: what program needs to be running at the time, in order to stick the landing?

That first question is unusually easy to answer here – we’re on the holodeck because it’s the only way to move the Doctor from sickbay. The second question isn’t actually hard to tackle either, but answering it in full requires we set out on an epic journey of our own.

The Wolf And The Dove

So why Beowulf? Beyond, that it, the sheer and obvious delight of an Asian-American deciding he wants to pretend to be a Middle English extrapolation of a Dark Age Swede on holiday in Denmark. I wished we’d learned what prompted Kim’s choice here, actually, but he’s not whose interaction with that myth the episode wants to focus on.

A new question, then: what’s gained by taking Beowulf and dropping the Doctor into it? Or, to be more accurate, what’s gained by taking Naren Shankar’s shaky understanding of Beowulf and dropping the Doctor into it?

“Shaky understanding” is me being charitable, by the way. Reading the production team’s recollections of how this episode came to be demonstrates some fairly profound misunderstandings of the text being cribbed from. Probably the biggest issue here is that Beowulf isn’t a poem about Vikings, nor are Vikings what we’re actually given here.

Neither of these issues need actually matter, though. Just days ago I talked about the difference between fiction trying to recreate a historical era, and fiction playing around with its own approaches to that era. The actual cultural identity of the supporting cast of Beowulf isn’t all that relevant, nor is the accuracy with that cultural identity is represented. We can simply assume whomever wrote Kim’s holoprogram was just as misinformed with the Beowulf/Viking link as Shankar seems to have been, and move on to something interesting.

Take, for example, the potential advantages offered by pairing up the Doctor with people who’ve been programmed to think themselves stereotypical Vikings. That is to say, people, who genuinely do cleave to the simplified, bastardised conception of Norse beliefs commonly ascribed to the Vikings. You know the song: only warriors are worth respect, and every warrior’s job is just to keep fighting as many battles as possible before someone stronger than them puts at end to the fun. Terrestrial Klingons, in short.

In fact, the belief that it was better to die in battle than in bed is one of the few aspects of the modern conception of Vikings that isn’t total crap. Just about everything else got invented out of whole cloth by a bunch of nineteenth century nationalists who wanted their ancestors to be cooler and more romantic – for incredibly messed up definitions of both descriptors – than they actually were. See more here, though I’ve also seen the blame for horned helmets being placed at the door of people staging Der Ring des Nibelungen. I confess to being tickled by the idea Wagner’s costume department fretted that his music wasn’t soaring enough to make the audience forgive lacklustre head-wear.

Ahistorical these characters might be, then, but that doesn’t stop them being a smart pairing for the Doctor. Most obviously, it allows Robert Picardo to do what he does best – somehow make arrogant condescension enjoyable to watch. One of the episode’s best moments arrives when “Lord Schweitzer” is encouraged to tell a story that demonstrates his skill in battle. There is simply no way the Doctor would struggle to offer something palatable to his hosts had he wished to – he’s literally just spent hours researching Beowulf and its cultural context. Hell, he could just recount the story of how Beowulf himself killed Grendel’s mother and been entirely okay.

Instead, he deliberately tells a roomful of people who regularly poison themselves with hallucinogenic fungus [1] about how he spent three straight days working to cure an outbreak of sickness. The Doctor knows his story isn’t what anyone around him was hoping for, and he clearly just doesn’t care. He’s totally rejecting the warrior mentality of his hosts. And in a very specific and especially cutting way, too. Beowulf is explicitly about a man who has given up hope of finding a warrior strong enough to stop his people from dying. So who is it who stops Grendel is this retelling? It’s a doctor. It’s the Doctor. And he comes to King Hrothgar with a very simple message. You want to save people? You don’t send for a warrior. You send for a healer.

This helps make sense of Kim’s near-total absence from the episode. The mere fact he wants to be Beowulf means he can’t actually be allowed to do so. The fresh-faced adventurer who wants to save people by applying sharpened steel to a “monster’s” face needs to be shuffled off the board, so his replacement can deal with “Grendel” without confrontation. This is Trek, after all. Violence might not always be avoidable there, but it’s not something to base one’s leisure time around.

There are downsides here. The unfortunate corollary to this approach is that the first Asian-American franchise regular since George Takei is almost entirely removed from a story his own character instigated, and replaced with a white guy. It’s also worth noting that every single man of colour in the main cast enters the holodeck here, and they’re all summarily plucked from the story. This also results in an uncomfortable echo to the ludicrous racist yelling that followed Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in the Thor movies. “No non-white people in Viking stories!”. It’s a poisonous and ahistorical demand (though perhaps unsurprising given how much those Scandinavian nationalists romanticised the period in their 19th century Viking relaunch), and I’m bothered by the episode inadvertently paddling in a similar direction.

(Obviously the strictures of linear time means we can’t blame “Heroes And Villains” for not learning lessons from a 2011 movie. It’s just a nice Norse example to reach for. It’s not like racists insisting everyone in Europe’s history was white is something newly invented for the third millennium, though.)

That’s a particularly annoying because it’s such an easy fix: just swap Harry and Tom around. It’s not like it would be hard to imagine Paris wanting to recreate Beowulf’s exploits, if only to impress Freya. In fact, one wonders how much different this program – and hence the episode – might have looked if Tom hadn’t already started taking Harry through his poisonous playbook on harassing holograms.

Polarised Opinions

Still, while Harry’s absence is a problem, the Doctor’s presence most certainly isn’t. Beyond what I’ve talked about above. there’s the issue of the Doctor’s sentience to consider. Which we’re going to be doing a lot, obviously. There’s seven years of discussion of what it means to be a holographic life-form ahead. This early into proceedings, it’s far from clear that anyone other than Kes (and possibly Janeway) has put any thought into this, but we should. Let’s start by noting that surrounding him with holographic “Vikings” is an inspired choice. They are, after all, programmed to give as little regard for their own existences as their creators clearly do. No hologram cares less for their life than a Viking hologram, and no actual Viking’s existence would ever be as easily dismissed by Voyager’s crew as those on the holodeck. They exist inside the intersection of a Venn diagram populated with those whose life is held cheap.

And brilliantly, the Doctor is having none of it. He makes that very clear in his showdown with Unferth. As far as the Doctor is concerned, the Hippocratic oath applies just as much to holograms as to biological entities, even when the hologram’s own programming makes them crave a death by violence [2]. We’ve still got a long way to go in exploring who the Doctor is, but already we have his own unequivocal position on the subject – he is a sentient life-form and deserves to be treated as such. Unferth’s life matters, despite it being expressed entirely in computer code. Freya’s death matters, even though it would be trivial to reboot her, and maybe even to do so with her memories of Lord Schweitzer entirely intact (do holonovels allow for save spamming, I wonder?).

The episode works to back the Doctor up, too. Fundamentally, this is a story about how Voyager acts offensively against an alien race because it never occurs to her crew something made of photonic energy could actually be alive. That’s the exact mistake they’re making with the Doctor, whether he’s consciously worked that out or not. This becomes even more clear after Janeway notes such a lifeform could easily become a holodeck character. If the barrier between the two is so thin, what’s to stop it being broken from either side?

As a result, the Doctor’s adventure becomes something different than an away mission. I mean, clearly it never was “away” in the literal sense, since he never left the ship. That’s not what I’m getting at. I’m considering “away” in the more general sense of a removal from the familiar. That’s still what’s happening to some extent here – the Doctor must have spent weeks at this point experiencing nothing but sickbay (what he’s programmed to recall from before his first emergency activation isn’t yet clear, though clearly he considers whatever’s there insufficient). Familiarity is about far more than location, though. It’s about those you surround yourself with. In that regard, the Doctor’s mission here is his first opportunity to interact with people like him. Even – indeed especially - the photonic lifeform. It’s entirely possible that the Doctor successfully concludes the hostage exchange because the alien recognises him as a similar entity, perhaps after having studied the arm it took from him. I like this reading because it turns an apparent act of aggression into an awkward handshake, inverting not only who receives the damage (it was Grendel, not Beowulf, who suffered a dismemberment in the original), but the reasoning behind it.

In sort, the Doctor’s temporary injury notwithstanding, hanging out with these characters doesn’t constitute an away mission for him. It represents a safe space.

Or at least it would have been, if Unferth hadn’t been programmed to ruin it all.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The nature and importance of a hologram’s programming is something that really needs addressing. One of the more obvious consequences of the IDFC viewing order is realising just how differently the Doctor is treated by his crewmates than is Data. Somehow, six years since Ol’ Yellow Eyes won the legal right to be considered an autonomous life form, everyone seems convinced the Doctor is just a medical tricoder with simulated nasal hair. This is despite the fact that both are entities governed by electronics rather than synapses, only exist because they were painstakingly engineered, and can be switched off without their consent.

So why the difference in how they’re treated? The obvious answer, that Data retains physicality after being deactivated and the Doctor doesn’t, doesn’t seem like it can explain it, not in a society where people are regularly disassembled at the atomic level and transmitted as information. I think in part this is a question of familiarity – Data is utterly unique, whereas the Doctor is the current upper bound on a well-known scale. What I think this is really about, though – and this is admittedly connected to the familiarity issue – is the question of intended purpose.

Data, as we’ll be discussing when the next episode of TNG rolls around, was essentially built for just one reason: to prove that Soong could do it. Even that is then lost when the Crystalline Entity attacks Omicron Theta. While the degree to which Data’s unique identity separates him from humanity will be an ongoing topic of discussion for the show, then, there’s no specific utility to his design that he can be easily reduced to. [3]

In contrast, the Doctor only exists in the first place because of specific set of requirements. Those requirements requires a far more complicated program to meet than, say, those of the silent training dummies in “Code Of Honor”, but the basic principle is the same. The aim was still to create something as close to human as possible, of course, but only because it would make the program more effective in its intended function.

And therein lies the critical distinction. It is far harder to persuade others to think of you as a person if they currently see you as a method by which they can get something they want done, done. Data had to fight against being seen as a curiosity. The Doctor has to fight against being seen as a tool.

This leads to even more interesting questions than those which were generated by Data. Which is just as well, considering how redundant the Doctor would seem otherwise [4]. It also opens up far more general questions about the nature of holonovel characters. Just how complicated can they become before they’re essentially just brainwashed prisoners? Before we’re creating people and forcing them to want to fight and/or fuck us?

Even the less extreme formulations of this line of thinking get us to some depressing places. Being condemned to be the weary comic relief (“YOU’RE DISTURBING LORD SCHWEITZER!”) doesn’t sound like a particularly good deal, for instance. Mind you, at least someone bothered to program King Hrothgar with a memory of his childhood. Picardo absolutely nails the Doctor’s sadness when he realises nobody has bothered to do the same with him. Apparently, the people responsible for writing self-aware programs aren’t always interested in a moral duty to make that awareness bearable.

It gets worse. Data could always, should he decide it necessary, respond to an environment in which he wasn’t sufficiently valued by walking out the airlock (literally, if he so chose). You’d hope he would never have to, but the option was always there for him to take. The Doctor is utterly trapped. He’s not just been programmed to be a doctor, he’s had his entire existence designed so that he can’t leave his sickbay. He’s literally a captive of the ship’s captain, even if theoretically (and it’s an increasingly shaky theory) his programming is supposed to prevent him being bothered by that – Stockholm Syndrome imposed through silicon cruelty. We get a reminder of all that in this very episode, when Janeway notes Voyager has “captured” the alien life form.

This doesn’t feel like mere coincidence. This is Trek somehow managing, even while apparently on autopilot. to do what it does best – showing that positions which might seem implausible and unrealistic in the context of the familiar become utterly bloody obvious and undeniable when stripped of that context. Using a new situation to demonstrate how different a contemporary dilemma can look, once you’ve chiselled away all the accreted crap that’s been thrown onto and stuck to it. Of course grabbing photonic lifeforms and sticking them in tubes represents an intolerable breach of their rights. Of course no amount of additional power that their captivity might provide can change that most basic fact. Create a self-aware entity chained to a hospital bed and require them to dedicate their life to the needs of others, though, and suddenly nobody knows what to think anymore?

Please. As with Voyager’s own journey, there’s a long way for this crew to go.

All told, then, this isn’t a bad day’s week’s work, especially for an episode that just wanted to have the Doctor hang out with a bunch of Vikings. If there’s a problem here – and here’s my reason to put this story third in the slot beyond preferring both Spock and Odo to the Doctor – it stems from the suspicion that the episode doesn’t actually realise exactly what it’s saying, or how strongly it’s saying it. Even if that is true, of course, there’s plenty of less convincing approaches to TV than just having fun and trusting you’ll stumble over the profound while you’re dancing. That “Heroes And Demons” ends up below “Vortex” in this slot says much less about the former than the latter.

Because what we see here really works. Even its apparent lack of crunchiness works in its favour. Sometimes a good meal, good company, and a little time alone with someone you’re drawn to is actually all you need. You don’t have to strive for meaning on days like that, it simply blooms all around you. That’s what happens with “Heroes And Demons”. That’s what makes it one of Voyager’s best outings this season. We learn about the Doctor’s isolation by seeing him surrounded by his people. We realise the limitations and moral dilemmas of his existence through watching him toss all that aside.

We learn of our hero’s demons by watching that hero triumph.

I can think of worse ways to craft a new epic.


2. Vortex

3. Heroes And Demons

[1] Something that the actual Vikings didn’t actually do,obviously, because they weren’t total idiots. I mean, just think about it for five seconds. What could possibly possess people who believed that dying of illness was inferior to dying in battle to risk a fatal fever killing them before the fighting even started?

[2] Which does rather raise the question of why Unferth suddenly becomes a coward for no obvious reason. Perhaps Harry just wanted a blowhard he could knock down so as to impress the King and/or his daughter? It’s worth noting that Unferth is only mentioned by name four times in the whole of Beowulf, and is known for his zeal in combat practice – hardly the sort to grovel before a man who can barely hold a sword.

[3] Hence why “The Measure Of A Man” ends up having to go down the absurd route of trying to convince the viewer that anyone could honestly believe Data constitutes Starfleet property.

[4] Plus how appalling the crew’s treatment of him would clearly be, though I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if Data’s legal victory had led to precisely zero reflection as regards Starfleet’s treatment of artificial life in general. And don't even get me started on Picard.

17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page