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39[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Oct 24, 1999
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's weirdly
      comma-free "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy." If you haven't seen the episode
      yet, beware.


      Nutshell: A pleasant, comic gem.

      Plot description: The Doctor alters his program, allowing himself to
      daydream--but the unexpected arises when a crewman on an alien ship taps
      into Doc's program in an attempt to spy on Voyager.

      -----
      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"

      Airdate: 10/13/1999 (USA)
      Teleplay by Joe Menosky
      Story by Bill Vallely
      Directed by John Bruno

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***1/2

      "His full potential's unknown, Chakotay."
      "Would you be comfortable handing over your ship to a computer program?"
      "I don't know if I'd take it that far."
      "You might have to. He probably won't settle for less."
      -- Janeway and Chakotay on Doc's career possibilities
      -----

      It's no secret that I found DS9 on the whole (and usually also in
      individual slices) to be superior to Voyager. While DS9 was turning out
      great stories in its fifth season, I was so irritated with the middle
      stages of Voyager's third season that some of my reviews, in looking back
      at them, sound almost angry. At the time, that's how frustrating Voyager
      was. I remember almost completely abandoning hope when "Favorite Son"
      aired right after "Darkling" and "Rise."

      Now, with DS9 over, I currently find myself feeling better about Voyager
      than I have in a long, long time. Could it be that my overall good will
      has carried over from DS9 to make me more optimistic about Voyager?

      No.

      I figured I'd ask the question before someone else did. And above lies
      the answer. Case closed.

      Rather, what this does say to me is that Voyager is off to a very good
      start this season--its best start ever, I'm inclined to say. At 4-for-4
      on the season, Voyager is reminding me why I watch it. The latest entry
      to season six, "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy," is a refreshingly funny comic
      piece that ranks among the better Trek comedies, and probably the
      best-executed since DS9's "In the Cards."

      Granted, UPN continues to amaze me with its continuing one-upmanship of
      bad promos; from the trailers I might've predicted that "Tinker Tenor"
      was a retread of DS9's truly awful "Fascination." Fortunately, that's not
      the case at all; what we have here is a very amusing look into a
      character's fantasy world, reminiscent of TNG's "Hollow Pursuits," but
      better written and executed.

      The plot is a terrific exercise in simplicity: Doc programs himself with
      the capability of daydreaming, and we get to see inside these daydreams.
      The result is always entertaining, often hilarious. The plot's comic
      twist introduces an alien ship whose crew is maintaining surveillance on
      Voyager--and one of its crafty crewmen (Jay M. Leggett) has tapped into
      Doc's fantasies thinking they are actually the Doctor's perception of
      real events.

      The tone is set with an opening sequence of comic inspiration, as Doc
      gives a performance in the mess hall that offers the latest word in how
      to handle out-of-control Vulcans suffering from Pon Farr while
      simultaneously playing to an audience. Utilizing Picardo's singing
      abilities and some humorously goofy lyrics that explain Tuvok's condition
      as he goes berserk, this is a scene of just about dead-on perfect comic
      timing. Because it's a daydream, we understand the intention behind
      it--Doc imagining a situation where he is the hero of the day, whose
      actions are met with fantastically ego-encouraging cheers. Fun stuff.

      The events actually happening aboard the ship are more or less your
      average day at the office: An away team prepares for a planetary mission;
      staff meetings are held; Voyager scans and observes. All the while, Doc
      drifts away into a series of fantasies (TV-PG fantasies, mind you).

      Some of these fantasies beam in from the realm of boyhood adolescence,
      with the common themes of getting the girls, being the hero, and blowing
      stuff up. There's one daydream early in the episode during a staff
      meeting that has every woman in the room competing for Doc's attention,
      featuring plenty of exaggerated flirting, and punctuated by a
      heavy-on-the-sax musical score by Dennis McCarthy. It's hard to describe
      without it sounding like a potential embarrassment, but the execution
      pulls through wonderfully and makes the scene a lot of fun.

      Joe Menosky's script, or John Bruno's direction (it's hard to say
      which--probably some of both in addition to on-the-set improvisation),
      inserts the hilarious little details that make scenes like this
      laugh-out-loud enjoyable. Having Seven wink at Doc is so out of character
      that it's worth seeing just for the sheer novelty value, and the
      "note-passing" through the PADDs is a fairly brilliant idea: "DINNER
      TONIGHT?" appears the message from Seven on Doc's PADD; later when Torres
      is vying for Doc's attention, Seven e-mails "RESIST!", which flashes in
      red. Hee.

      I was glad to see Menosky push the episode into full-blown comedy that
      has the memorable moments to go along with the good concept. I think back
      to DS9's "Rivals," also written by Menosky, and what struck me most about
      that episode was that it was a potentially amusing concept that just
      didn't have enough comic momentum or anarchy to deliver the big laughs.
      "Tinker Tenor" has the big laughs.

      The daydream plot is concurrent with the notion of Doc wanting to expand
      his abilities into new areas--specifically command. He issues an official
      grievance to the captain regarding the crew's failure to acknowledge his
      sentience. Included in the memo is the official request to be made
      captain (the "Emergency Command Hologram") in the event of a catastrophe
      that leaves the captain incapacitated and the command structure broken.
      Janeway gives him a non-answer answer that is in reality "no" but with
      the stipulation that a group of engineers investigate the possibility of
      expanding his program when Voyager returns to the Alpha Quadrant. Sounds
      a bit like a thinly guised blow-off, but what else can you say when a
      hologram asks to be captain?

      This of course doesn't stop Doc from imagining that he has become the
      "ECH." In one of the funniest sequences, he daydreams of a Borg attack
      that leaves him as the last hope for the Voyager crew. (All that's
      missing is Harry saying, "You're our last hope!") In a comic-book
      transformation idea that is not unlike Clark Kent becoming Superman,
      Doc's uniform turns from blue to red, and four pips appear on his collar
      as Seven looks on in awe. (Regarding those pips magically appearing, I'm
      in agreement with what is later said by Harry: "This is the part I
      like..."--and Janeway: "Nice touch.")

      The comic twist involving the aliens is a good example of keeping the
      emphasis on the fun rather than making these aliens into an artificial
      threat. With makeup and costume design that make these guys look more
      like Potato People than anything else, it's hard to take them as anything
      but kinda goofy and funny--which is, I imagine, precisely the point. Most
      of this end of the plot is seen through a surveillance officer (named
      Philox, according to the press releases, although I don't think his name
      was actually mentioned in the episode). Philox taps into Doc's program
      and views the daydreams on his computer monitor. Using this information,
      he thinks he has come up with the perfect way of learning what he needs
      to know to understand Voyager as a target. I liked that the story focused
      on Philox's run-ins with his superior officer (Googy Gress), rather than
      resigning the story to "Voyager versus the aliens." By giving us some
      character interplay on the alien ship, the story is able to bring the
      Potato People into the comedy, rather than having them exist solely as
      incidentals to it.

      For example, it's funny that Doc imagines that he saves the ship from a
      Borg threat and annihilates a Borg sphere with his fearsome "photonic
      cannon." But what's even more funny is Philox watching this on his
      monitor and his horrified gasp at what he perceives is real--and then his
      fearful but understated report of caution to his superior that "Voyager
      will not be an easy target."

      Nitpick alert: Is it plausible that Philox would be able view the events
      on a monitor from whatever convenient camera angle best tells him what's
      going on? Well, probably not--if anything, one would think Philox would
      see the events purely from Doc's point of view. But, really, who cares?

      Anyway, eventually the Voyager crew learns of Doc's daydreaming when he's
      forced to come forward after his program malfunctions and he begins
      having mind-wandering episodes whether he wants to or not. This of course
      leads to diagnostics that have Doc's fantasies playing out on the
      holodeck for those on a need-to-know basis to see.

      The big commonality of these fantasies probably has to be in regard to
      Doc's ego. He saves the ship. He's the center of a congratulatory
      celebration. He's a magnet to all the women. He tries to let an
      affectionate Torres down easy, as Paris sits by and waves with a goofy
      grin. Seven poses nude for Doc as he paints her, and she tells him,
      pleasantly compliantly, "Whatever you say, Doctor."

      Interesting is that, really, there's little sexual motivation apparent
      here--perhaps because this is a family show, but also because it's more
      about Doc inflating his own ego, which has quite an appetite. (Indeed, as
      Philox notes, "He seems to be in an expert in ... everything.") Doc has
      always had a complicated ego that is sizable but never, ever in-your-face
      or mean-spirited. But it's certainly capable of being heavily bruised,
      which we see here when his daydreams are uncorked for the crew to see.
      Watching Doc's grandstanding in the face of imaginary Borg is great
      fun--but the poignancy comes in seeing his quiet talk with Janeway where
      he reveals his embarrassment.

      Watching this, I became thoroughly convinced that only Robert Picardo
      could've pulled it off. The guy is a true talent with a wonderful range.
      We feel for his character when reality has reined him in, and we have fun
      with his character as his fantasies are bouncing off the walls with
      imaginative absurdity. And Picardo can get away with gleefully
      over-the-top lines like, "just another bully who didn't know when to
      *back off*" and "over my dead program," which he delivers with hilarious
      conviction. The episode is a good concept, but it's up to Picardo to sell
      it, which he does.

      In the story's final passages, Philox comes to realize the huge mistake
      he has made in his "surveillance" efforts, realizes he will be demoted or
      fired if his superiors find out, and then desperately contacts the Doctor
      to work out a clever trick that will hopefully prevent an attack on
      Voyager. The solution is that Philox will help Voyager avoid a
      confrontation; in exchange Doc will pretend to be the captain and
      convince Philox's superiors that his surveillance reports were not in
      error. So Janeway reluctantly turns over "command" of her ship to Doc,
      turning fantasy into reality.

      This final showdown sequence features humor of the somewhat more standard
      and predictable breed (with Doc hemming and hawing his way through
      attempted negotiations and looking like the most awkward captain in many
      a moon), but with Picardo throwing himself into the role it's completely
      laugh-worthy, especially when Doc's jittery desperation turns to a
      confident, fantasy-inspired bluff involving that nefarious "photonic
      cannon." (Tuvok's deadpan-funny response, "Activating the photonic cannon
      ... *sir*," is hilariously Spock-like, with a masked contempt for the
      illogically absurd.)

      Suffice it to say everything works out in the end. The ship is saved,
      Philox keeps his job, and Doc has gotten to be captain. But I liked that
      this episode also managed to work in a little bit of character relevance
      involving the possibility of Doc's abilities going beyond his programmed
      duty. Perhaps the episode's most affecting scene is Janeway's moment of
      realization in the holodeck where she sees that Doc simply wants to live
      up to his full potential so he can do more to "help the people he loves."
      It's hard to argue with that kind of sentiment, whether it's from a human
      or a hologram.

      It has been reported that this story concept was originally to center
      around Neelix. The creators made the infinitely correct choice making it
      Doc's vehicle. He's the perfect candidate for this concept. And so is
      Robert Picardo. The result is a gem.

      --
      Next week: Paris in wonderland.

      -----
      Copyright (c) 1999 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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