Beyond the Subroutines

By Caillan Davenport
Posted at January 14, 2001 - 11:35 PM GMT

With the advent of Voyager's latest telemovie, "Flesh and Blood," holographic beings are once again brought to the forefront of the series. In a direct continuance from season four's holographic adventure, "The Killing Game," Janeway sets out to apprehend of group of holographic runaways who have escaped the clutches of the Hirogen.

Voyager has dealt with holograms in many different ways over the years, not least because of the constant presence of the EMH. The issue of the Doctor's freedom, accountability and sentience has always been a pertinent one - with Janeway sometimes making the wrong choices. Back in season three's "The Swarm," we saw how the Doctor's personal growth had begun to degrade his program, and a choice had to be made. Fortunately, the clock was not turned back completely. Following the acquisition of the mobile emitter in "Future's End" the Doctor began to develop even further in his relationships with the crew, even taking the role of mentor to Seven of Nine in order to teach her about humanity. (Surely a case of the blind leading the blind.)

More interesting, however, in the context of "Flesh and Blood," is the season four episode "Retrospect." Here, the Doctor's strongly biased investigation caused the death of an innocent man. Overcome with guilt, he wanted to press the reset button on himself, so that he wouldn't have to live with his actions. But Janeway wouldn't let him - he would have to live with his actions, just like any other member of the crew. It's all part of being flesh and blood, and not just a collection of subroutines.

Living with one's actions is the key theme of "Flesh and Blood." The choices we make in life determine who we are, and we have to live with them, no matter how much we may regret those actions. In "The Killing Game," Janeway realised that the holodeck technology could be the key to the societal evolution of the Hirogen; it would allow them to progress beyond their life as hunters, in order to build a more productive society, whilst still maintaining their historical roots. It was a violation of the Prime Directive, but, as Janeway herself said in "Caretaker;" they were already involved.

In many ways, Janeway's actions in "Flesh and Blood" represent damage control. She made a mistake three years ago, for now the Hirogen are simply using the holograms to further their hunting instincts, and the holograms have been programmed to fight back: viciously. Of course, this being Janeway, she feels intense guilt and personal responsibility; she wouldn't be Janeway if she didn't. It's a direct continuation from "Scorpion," "Hope and Fear," and especially "Night." As a captain, Janeway feels totally responsible for her crew, and their actions. Leaders always get the credit - and the blame.

That's exactly why Janeway sides with the Hirogen in this episode. The holograms wouldn't be there in the first place if it wasn't for her. Perhaps she's being too defensive, because it was the Hirogen who programmed them with more advanced capabilities. But Janeway wants to control the situation - something that she clearly can't do. Harking back to "Fair Haven," she was in control in her relationship with Michael O'Sullivan when she altered his parameters to her liking, but in the end, Janeway realised that she didn't really want to control him, it was simply her instinct.

"Fair Haven," whilst not being one of the series' most outstanding hours, certainly helped set a strong precedent for Janeway's relationships with holograms. She refused to treat Michael as a real person, and thus isolated and punished herself once more, even though she was enjoying herself. In the same way, she refuses to think of the holograms as real people, instead, they're merely offshoots of her own mistakes. It's one of Janeway's strongest human failings.

The Doctor, however, feels a strong affinity for the holograms. Even though he has become accustomed to living amongst the "organic" crew, he clearly sympathises strongly with Iden and the rest of the holographic escapees. He believes that he and the holograms are as real as flesh and blood; just look at his scene in the corridor with Janeway in "Fair Haven." However, despite his sympathies, his decision to betray the crew and join the holograms is a spur of the moment irrationality: a very human trait.

"Flesh and Blood" is about the choices we make in life. The holograms are no longer servants of their own subroutines; they have free will, and their choices are just as good, or bad, as those made by real people. Too all extents and purposes they are real people, but they're not flesh and blood, and because of this, people try to explain their failings through faulty subroutines. The Doctor tried that tack in "Critical Care," but it failed - his actions were his own, he made the choice. And it's exactly the same as what happens here. Iden's gradual descent into megalomania is caused by his own choices, his own personality, not bad programming.

Similarly, Kejal, the Cardassian "engineer," makes a choice to betray Iden for the common good. B'Elanna helps Kejal because she is sincere, despite being a Cardassian. Even though Kejal is a hologram, to B'Elanna, she still represents the Cardassians and all that they stand for. Yet Kejal outgrows the social stereotype because she chooses too. No different from flesh and blood.

The Hirogen are driven by the hunting urge, and so, it seems, are the holograms. Iden's lofty ideals are destroyed by his own hypocrisy, seen by everyone else but his loyal followers. In many ways, it parallel's Gul Dukat's descent into madness on "Deep Space Nine." Iden desires a great future for the holograms, but more importantly himself. Although they never really meet face to face, in many ways, he's a more extreme version of Janeway - dedicated, in control, and steadfastly believing that he has done the right thing.

But who is responsible for Iden's actions? Janeway, who gave the Hirogen their technology? The Hirogen, who altered the holograms for their own purpose? The answer, however, is neither. Iden is responsible for his own thoughts, manners and actions just as much as any "real" flesh and blood being. It is he who makes the choices, not his "creators." Here is the cornerstone of the issue - once freed for their own subroutines (which limit how far they can develop - ie: the holograms which Iden "rescues"), holograms are free to make their own choices, and it is they who are responsible for their actions.

The last scene of the episode follows through on this theme by dealing with it in the context of the Doctor's life on Voyager. Janeway feels that she has a personal investment in the situation, after all, she allowed him the freedom and room to develop into who he is. Yet, the Doctor's choices were his own, and even Janeway can't accept the blame for them. Just like the original case of giving holographic technology to the Hirogen - she initially had an impact, but then the events were dictated by the actions of other people.

The captain refuses to treat the Doctor like a hologram by shutting him off when he's not in use; a metaphorical death. Instead, the most fitting punishment is for the Doctor to live with the consequences of his actions, just as in "Retrospect." Once again, Janeway refuses to turn back the clock - she knows what effect that had in "Latent Image," and avoids making the same mistake twice. Granted, confining him to the brig like Paris in "Thirty Days" might be more in order, considering his betrayal of the crew, but at least Janeway doesn't use his own holographic nature against him. Feelings, thoughts, and actions can't be turned off with the flick of a switch.

Having said that, the Doctor has now learned this lesson several times, yet he keeps hoping it's because of some malfunction in his subroutines. In "Latent Image," it sent him into a nervous breakdown, but in "Critical Care," he realises that it's his choice, no one else's. Choices are made by the person that we are. "Flesh and Blood" demonstrates that the Doctor has become a pawn to his emotions and instincts as much as any other member of the crew. The time has passed for blaming everything on faulty subroutines, it's simply who he is.

Caillan Davenport is moderator of the TrekBBS General Sci-Fi forum and is editor of the J-Team newsletter.

Starting in a couple of weeks, you will be able to find his 'A Briefing With Caillan' column series in our columns section. These columns are published in cooperation with Voyager Extreme.

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