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51[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Spirit Folk"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Feb 28, 2000
      Warning: Spoilers teem below for Voyager's "Spirit Folk."

      Nutshell: Bad. A contrived, ill-conceived premise featuring virtually every
      holodeck cliche in the book.

      Plot description: A holodeck malfunction causes the characters in the Fair
      Haven simulation to become more aware of their surroundings than they should

      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Spirit Folk"

      Airdate: 2/23/2000 (USA)
      Written by Bryan Fuller
      Directed by David Livingston

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: *

      "They're not people, they're holograms." -- Seven, a reasonable sentiment
      falling upon deaf ears

      I do not like the village of Fair Haven. The premise is taking the idea of
      the holodeck way too far--to an apparent point of no return. If this episode
      constitutes sci-fi imagination, it's imagination abuse. The rules are
      arbitrary and absurd and the game is played by players who come off looking
      like complete idiots.

      Problems on the holodeck became a cliche on TNG, and now it's become an
      bercliche on Voyager. In the past I've made it a position regarding
      stock-issue holograms that perhaps doesn't allow for a particularly flexible
      open mind for this week's installment, which might as well be called "Fair
      Haven, Part II." Well, too bad. I need to establish some sort of standard to
      measure reality. And each use of the holodeck on Voyager seems to get
      increasingly egregious.

      The gist of the story is this: The Fair Haven program, which has been
      running 24 hours a day, begins to malfunction, which causes its fictional
      programmed residents to begin "noticing" things they shouldn't. For example,
      when Paris calls to the computer to fix the tire on the automobile he has
      just run headlong into a tower of barrels, Fair Haven standby Seamus
      (Richard Riehle) hears the computer voice answer and witnesses the tire
      magically repaired, and thus believes Paris has harnessed some sort of
      spiritual/magical power.

      From here, the episode is essentially one ridiculous holodeck gimmick after
      another, with some would-be Important Human Themes thrown into the mix,
      though they're lost in a sea of implausible madness. But before the madness
      we first get the extended setup, which suffers from entirely too much
      nonessential dialog. There are discussions that go on and on and seem never
      to end. Most of these dialog scenes are solely between holodeck characters,
      and I kept asking myself: Who cares? These are "people" I have no interest
      in whatsoever. The episode spends so much time on scenes between the Fair
      Haven residents (discussing the plot in overly obvious ways that are
      redundant and unnecessary) that the main characters almost seem like an
      afterthought. Do so many viewers really like the Fair Haven folks that we
      need to spend so much time on them?

      For that matter, the idea of holograms sitting around a bar and debating
      each other about things they shouldn't be aware of strikes me as silly,
      whether it's a malfunction or not. Yes, the holodeck as Trek has conceived
      it is an implausible fantasy in any case, but when the focus goes completely
      away from the real characters and alleges that holograms routinely think and
      argue on their own accord outside the presence of real participants, it's
      coming dangerously close to a situation where we have no choice but to
      either dismiss the idea completely or wonder if we're dealing with a bunch
      of programmed slaves. Nope--I'm with Seven: The writers need to clue into
      the fact that these *aren't* people. They're *simulations*. It's been a huge
      mistake for the writers to implicitly allege that Doc is the same as a
      holodeck character. It was a mistake in "Concerning Flight," it was a
      mistake in "Nothing Human," it was a mistake in "Fair Haven," and it's a
      colossal mistake here. Holograms as artificial lifeforms should be the rare
      exception to the rule caused by a freak happenstance, like the Moriarty
      character from TNG's "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Ship in a Bottle" (from
      which this episode unsuccessfully rehashes its share).

      The contrivances in this episode are so blatant and pervasive that it seems
      almost as if staff writer Bryan Fuller was hoping we'd go with the flow and
      not care that the characters would have to be utter morons not to take the
      simple actions that would avoid these problems entirely. I'm not willing to
      simply go with that flow.

      Let's start with the "Tom"foolery (lame pun fully intended). Tom comes off
      as a loser with no life, turning Harry's would-be holo-girlfriend into a cow
      just as he's about to kiss her. This attempt at humor succeeds only in
      making the characters look foolish. (I'm with Harry: "Haven't you got
      anything better to do?!" Unfortunately, the delivery of the line is as
      half-hearted as the joke.) What, is Tom 35 years old or 12? And can we
      dispense already with the concept of romantic liaisons with holographic

      The cow incident is witnessed by, again, Seamus, who goes talking to the
      people of Fair Haven about Tom as one of the dangerous "spirit folk" and the
      apparent impending gloom and doom destined for the town. Later, when the
      girl is de-cowified, we have to endure her description of being a cow,
      something which again makes me wonder about the can of worms that is the
      holodeck: Are the memories of these "photons and forcefields" transferred
      from one holodeck subprogram to another? If someone conjured a new
      character, might it then remember that it was once a representation of a
      rock? Some torture it might be, to be a rock.

      It turns out that the non-stop use of the holodeck has led to the failure of
      a subroutine that prevents characters from attaining this level of
      awareness. This is a deeply flawed idea. It goes against everything
      conventional wisdom has taught us about holo-characters (that is, they're
      simulations--not learning, adapting people who comprehend everything going
      on around them).

      Things turn truly ridiculous once this malfunction is discovered, which
      happens when Kim and Paris transfer the captain's Fair Haven boyfriend,
      Michael Sullivan (Fintan McKeown), to the holodeck lab so they can study the
      problem. At this point, Michael becomes fully aware he has been removed from
      Fair Haven. Kim and Paris discover the malfunction in the subroutine and
      send him back. They report the problem to the captain. But then what? Does
      the crew shut down the holodeck? Suspend the program to prevent it from
      further damaging itself? Nope. They just let it run on, even though nobody's
      using it. And run on it does, as Michael explains to the other
      holo-characters where he has been, leading the holodeck town to plot a
      revolt against these suspicious outsiders. How stupid is the crew to know
      there's a malfunction, voice out loud that they hope it doesn't spread, and
      not bother to simply *shut down the holodeck* until the problem is fixed? My
      motto is that if your contrivance has to make your characters do blatantly
      stupid things, it's a bad contrivance. The whole second half of the episode
      wouldn't be possible if the crew displayed a shred of competence.

      The contrivance-cliches continue on: To fix the problem, Tom and Harry go
      into the holodeck to run some technobabble computer whatever-the-hell. Of
      course, this has to be done while the program is still running *and* after
      the townspeople have come to the conclusion that the outsiders are dangerous
      and something must be done about them. Well, no points for guessing that the
      holodeck safeties get disabled in the process. The way it happens is
      simultaneously laughable and infuriating, and reveals the depths of how far
      this episode allows itself to reach into the holodeck bag-o-tricks. The
      holo-characters throw a net over Tom and Harry, and shoot a computer console
      with a shotgun. This shouldn't be remotely possible. (1) If the safeties are
      on, how can bullets destroy the computer console? (2) Why would destroying
      the computer console just automatically disable the safeties? (How very
      nice.) (3) Why can't Paris yell out "Computer, freeze program!" rather than
      telling the holo-character not to shoot? (This episode makes one want to
      scream at the characters not to be so bone-headed.)

      So Kim and Paris are held captive on the holodeck, with the safeties off of
      course, and now the crew has to figure out how to rescue them.

      Through all of this, Torres seems to be the lone--and futile--voice of
      reason. She points out that the holodeck can be reprogrammed, so the crew
      should just pull the plug. This will reset the program, but at least Tom and
      Harry's safety would be guaranteed. Janeway responds that even if they
      aren't real, the crew's emotional attachment to the characters are, and
      another solution should be found. 'Scuse me? So we're going to risk the
      lives of two crew members in order to save a holodeck program? What kind of
      sick prioritizing is this? If this isn't proof of the dangers of holographic
      attachment, then I don't know what is.

      Janeway decides to send Doc (as his overplayed preacher character) into the
      holodeck to reason with the Fair Haven folks. This plan promptly fails and
      looks to be getting the crew into an even worse position, and I'm finding
      myself thinking, just how incompetent *are* these people? Subsequently we
      have Michael using Doc's portable emitter, which gets him beamed aboard
      Voyager, which is the sole potentially interesting sci-fi idea in the story,
      except for the fact that it arises out of a situation that's such a
      contrived mess that by this point we simply don't care.

      Using Michael as the way to bridge the gap between "us" and "them," Janeway
      walks into the holodeck and hammers out one of those humanistic solutions
      that's heavy on the trademarked Trekkian dialog ... and if I sound lazy and
      cynical about the synopsis at this point, it's because it's such a tiring
      story to watch unfold (and to explain). Janeway's
      we-can-overcome-our-fears-and-all-get-along solution is met with a shot of a
      bunch of Fair Haven folks, and the music swells as they look, smiling, at
      one other in a moment of understanding assent. Frankly, it's hard to watch
      this with a straight face. Was I suddenly beamed into an after-school

      And at the end, Janeway decides not to erase the memories of the characters.
      So now the people of Fair Haven believe that the Voyager crew is a group of
      space travelers from the future. Well, wonderful. But what's to stop them
      from blowing away the holodeck controls again? And if the malfunction
      regarding their expanded awareness is repaired, how can this new knowledge
      be something that registers with them? None of this has any useful

      I'm of the opinion that the best use of the holodeck is in a situation that
      allows the participants (i.e., our regular characters) to have fun, while
      the comedy or drama reveals something worthwhile about them. But instead we
      get the holodeck taking itself and our characters hostage. Here, our
      characters are once again faceless (and often stupid) pawns in a
      preposterous plot. Like too many Voyager offerings, we don't learn anything
      about them; they remain a means to an end, to drive the plot forward and
      nothing more.

      It's an episode like this that makes me want the holodeck destroyed so we
      can deal with real issues (or at the very least real characters and sci-fi
      plots) in the real world. If Torres didn't have to answer to a captain whose
      boyfriend lived in the holo-town, I'd recommend that, for everyone's own
      good, she secretly program a surprise air strike upon the quaint little
      village of Fair Haven, and reduce it to a pile of smoldering cinders. Now
      there's a thought. Not the nicest one, perhaps, but an honest and satisfying
      one. Maybe then the crew could grieve, get over Fair Haven, and move on.

      Next week: A la "Latent Image," we get the invented backstory of another
      dead crew member whom we'd never known about. And this one even comes back
      to life.

      Note: By strange coincidence, this week's episode of "The X-Files" was also
      essentially a holodeck malfunction story. I guess no horribly implausible
      idea isn't worth being ripped off numerous times. (And frankly, I'm
      convinced the "X-Files" episode was even worse.)

      Copyright (c) 2000 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
      reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...