A hologram becomes obsessed with Tuvok and takes control of the ship to be with him.
Plot Summary: The crew stops to study an inversion nebula, which is expected to ignite spectacularly but there appears to be a dampening field protecting it. Meanwhile, Kim goes to see Tuvok, who is using the Vulcan strategy game kal-toh as a meditative tool. Kim has fallen in love with a hologram named Marayna and wants help controlling his inappropriate emotions. Tuvok finds it odd that a human could believe himself to be in love with a computer subroutine, but when he meets Marayna on the holodeck, he finds himself intrigued by her, since she plays Vulcan games with great skill and understands his desire for isolation. At a festive luau in Neelix’s resort program to which the entire crew is invited, Kim becomes jealous of Marayna’s attentions to Tuvok, though Tuvok assures Kim that he has no romantic interest in the hologram. The reverse is not true, however, for Marayna transfers her program to Sickbay, steals the Doctor’s portable emitter, and appears in Tuvok’s quarters to express her attraction to him. Realizing that this hologram is an independent intelligence, Tuvok calls for security. While Marayna hides in the ship’s holographic systems, Janeway and the crew discuss the likelihood of a connection between the self-aware program and the unusual inversion nebula. After Torres finds a signal indicating that Marayna is controlling the holodeck from a hidden space station, Tuvok beams aboard her cloaked facility, telling the alien Marayna that he will exchange himself for Voyager’s safety but warning her that he is incapable of requiting her feelings. Once Tuvok persuades Marayna that she would be better off returning home to find other companions and allowing someone else to monitor the inversion nebula, he returns to Voyager and apologizes to Kim for failing to consider the younger man’s feelings while getting to know the attractive hologram.
Analysis: Watching “Alter Ego” once again makes me sorry that I was so critical of “Fair Trade” last week. Sure, “Fair Trade” has mediocre characterization and amateurish dialogue, but it also has wonderful production values and it attempts to tackle an ongoing Voyager issue, namely Neelix’s role on the ship now that he’s no longer necessary as a guide through his own region of space. “Alter Ego” tosses out any development achieved in “Fair Trade” for Neelix, who’s back to being a holographic programmer of Earth stereotypes, but worse, it demonstrates that the writers have given almost no thought to how Tuvok or Kim might be coping with their third year on a ship very far from home. Harry, at least, is no longer blathering about Libby, though the fact that he’s in love now with a sexy hologram with whom he shares few interests seems regressive rather than progressive to me. There are a couple of moments as he first confesses to an inappropriate crush when it seems as if we might get payoff for “The Chute” – an admission that Kim has developed romantic feelings toward his best friend – but it’s just a tease, since the vagueness and embarrassment turn out to reference someone we don’t even know. At this late date, are we really expected to believe that horniness with holograms is a source of shame for Starfleet officers? The only truly great moment all episode is Paris’s declaration that everyone falls for a hologram sooner or later, a fact of which we’ve seen plenty of evidence – Paris has done it, Janeway has done it, Riker has done it, Nog has done it, and “Elementary, Dear Data”‘s epic bromance with Moriarty is probably the most meaningful meeting of the minds of Data’s life, certainly more impactful than his brief physical fling with Tasha Yar. Given Voyager’s situation, I’d think dating a hologram would be considered normal, and if it gets to be too much, Kim could give Marayna terrible breath or some other deal-breaker.
But crewmembers suffering from Barclay Syndrome are the least of the problems with “Alter Ego” – holographic sex shouldn’t be considered as humiliating as Neelix’s luau, which Janeway orders her entire command crew to attend. I presume there are no officers of Polynesian descent aboard to be offended, because despite Neelix’s claim that he’s done ethnographic research, the whole affair looks like a cheap Hawaii-themed frat party complete with dollar-store decorations. If Chakotay isn’t going to get pissed off about the misappropriation of a regional culture’s symbols and traditions, who am I to complain about him and Janeway heading off arm in arm to get leied? (Yes, that is my favorite moment in “Alter Ego” and yes, I am ashamed, but not ashamed enough to delete the image in the banner above from my hard drive.) Kes, Torres, and Janeway all wear much less than usual in this episode, and since costume changes and new hairdos often replace characterization in this franchise, we can tell that Something Big is coming up for each of those women in future episodes. Plus, we get to see some more of the other Vulcan on Voyager – Vorik, who makes his second of three appearances in about a month’s time. Vorik would seem to be a natural companion for kal-toh and debates about philosophies of Vulcan meditation, but apparently Tuvok either doesn’t like Vorik or secretly has the same craving for as Kim for a perfect holographic companion who can be turned off when he’s tired. We get teeny hints that Tuvok might miss his wife and family, but as Marayna points out when Tuvok isn’t mansplaining what she really needs to be a fulfilled person, he’s also isolated himself from all forms of friendship. Maybe Tuvok doesn’t need a Kirk as Spock did, but the full Vulcans we’ve seen in this franchise all had intellectual companions and frequently life partners. Tuvok may prefer isolation as a personality quirk, but that doesn’t excuse his rudeness and condescension, particularly given his major role on the ship…though he has time to be in the holodeck when the engines are failing, so maybe he’s not as important as Vorik, who’s at least an engineer.
Tuvok does seem to learn the lesson that spending too much time playing with himself may not be healthy, which slightly mitigates the misogyny underlying the lonely-woman-abducts-genius Misery plot that’s a distraction from what could be an interesting science fiction story about why an alien race wants to prevent a nebula from igniting. Chakotay tries to draw parallels between the apparently-sentient hologram Marayna and Data’s Moriarty, but “Alter Ego” has more in common with another Next Generation episode, the terrible “Liaisons”, in which Picard is abducted by a love-obsessed alien who isn’t what she seems. When Moriarty wants to leave the holodeck, it’s to get answers to life’s big philosophical questions and to explore his own power; when Marayna wants to leave, it is, of course, for love, which is apparently the only thing Star Trek’s largely male writing staff can ever come up with to motivate a woman, quite often even the regular characters. Love on Star Trek is generally portrayed as a reason people do ridiculous things – Odo covers up murder for it, Picard stumbles over command duties for it, Kirk nearly lets Earth history be ruined for it – yet when men experience love’s pitfalls, they end up behaving nobly and maintaining a stiff upper lip, whereas women wind up in insane situations like Beverly Crusher’s with her grandmother’s ghost-alien-lover. Escapism may be equally ridiculous, whether it’s Neelix’s silly entertainment briefings or holographic self-indulgence, but a little fiction or fantasy about a TV character does not inevitably lead to an obsession like Kim’s or Marayna’s. As in “Persistence of Vision”, we see to a large degree not how alien influence can threaten these characters but how little binds them together, how little substance they have, how little creativity touches their lives, let alone any big-picture spiritual questions about the meaning of it all and of what they do. Couldn’t we see Tuvok struggling with his Vulcan restrictions and sense of isolation rather than lecturing someone else? Can’t the characters obsessed with holograms address the underlying cultural factors that make someone they can reprogram and switch off so desirable?