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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Flesh and Blood"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager s Flesh and Blood. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. In brief: Ambitious and
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 13, 2000
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's "Flesh and
      Blood." If you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.


      In brief: Ambitious and interesting, with well-realized characters and
      ideas.

      Plot description: Doc is pulled into the plight of a group of sentient
      holograms who were reprogrammed by the Hirogen to be resourceful and violent
      hunting prey.

      -----
      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Flesh and Blood"

      Airdate: 11/29/2000 (USA)
      Part I:
      Teleplay by Bryan Fuller
      Story by Jack Monaco and Bryan Fuller & Raf Green
      Directed by Mike Vejar
      Part II:
      Teleplay by Raf Green & Kenneth Biller
      Story by Bryan Fuller & Raf Green
      Directed by David Livingston

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

      "It may be the warriors who get the glory, but it's the engineers who build
      societies." -- Torres
      -----

      It's probably the end of the road for anything relating to the holodeck or
      holograms; with "Flesh and Blood," the Voyager writers have taken the
      concept as far as it can go. They've done it here with an abundance of
      compelling arguments and smart ideas, which is more than enough for me to
      set aside qualms with cans of worms opened by exploring these issues.

      I complained -- quite loudly, in fact -- about last season's dreadful
      "Spirit Folk" and to a lesser extent "Fair Haven." Both of those episodes
      were stupid holodeck farces that didn't have the brains to overcome the
      problems of their implausibility. But with "Flesh and Blood," the fate of
      holograms and their rights as possible lifeforms is a big chunk of the
      point. There's some genuine depth here. It's miles ahead of a silly example
      of the holodeck running awry. It's also miles ahead of fourth season's "The
      Killing Game," to which this two-parter serves as a sequel. "The Killing
      Game" was an action show with no brains, whereas "Flesh and Blood" is an
      action show with interesting issues and debate.

      Like "Killing Game," this outing involves the Hirogen. It builds upon the
      previous episode's end solution, where Janeway negotiated a truce by
      offering the Hirogen holodeck technology so they could simulate their hunts
      as an alternative to hunting sentient beings.

      Yeah, yeah -- I have to ask what the Hirogen are even doing way out here. It
      makes somewhere between very little and zero sense that Voyager could run
      into Hirogen who were affected by Voyager's actions three years ago. I
      suppose they've been steadily moving toward the Alpha Quadrant too, in leaps
      and bounds, in order to thank Starfleet for giving them the holo-technology.
      Uh-huh.

      Never mind. That's the underlying continuity/believability-breaker, but it's
      fairly minor and not worth dwelling on. (Given how flexible Voyager's
      position in the Delta Quadrant has been in the past, if the writers are
      going to break this rule again, they might as well do it for a worthwhile
      story, which this turns out to be.)

      A distress signal brings Voyager to a Hirogen training facility where
      something has gone very wrong. The facility is a big holodeck, and it turns
      out that the holograms here took control of their environment and
      slaughtered all the Hirogen hunters on board. They then transferred their
      programs to a vessel equipped with hologram emitters and escaped. The only
      survivor the Voyager crew finds on the facility is a young Hirogen engineer
      named Donik (Ryan Bollman), a non-hunter who had the sense (or cowardice,
      depending on your walk of life) to hide.

      How did this massacre happen? The Hirogen at first claim the technology went
      spontaneously berserk, but it turns out they're lying; Donik's job as a
      hologram engineer was to modify the holograms so they could learn and adapt.
      These aren't your average holograms; they're special holograms on a level as
      advanced as the Doctor -- thinking, learning, sentient AI.

      Janeway agrees to help the Hirogen hunt down the renegade holograms and
      deactivate them. Forming an uneasy alliance (featuring the expected dosage
      of tension between Janeway and the Hirogen leaders), they undertake a
      mission that Janeway feels obligated to carry out; she gave the Hirogen this
      technology three years ago, and she doesn't want it becoming a roaming
      threat. The Hirogen, of course, see this mission as another hunt.

      The story gets much more complicated when the holograms abduct the Doctor,
      transferring his program to their vessel. They are led by a man named Iden
      (Jeff Yagher), a hologram with Bajoran form. Iden tells Doc that the
      holograms are fighting for their own freedom and survival; the Hirogen use
      them simply as programmed prey, but, like Doc, they have the ability to
      evolve beyond their programming. Iden sees himself as a liberator; after he
      freed himself and obtained a ship, he liberated holograms from three Hirogen
      facilities, and intends to free more of "his people."

      The beauty of the episode is its plentiful complexity. It's not simply about
      hunting the holograms, and it's not simply about the possibility that
      hunting down these holograms is wrong. It's about the dialog and situations
      that arise in the meantime, prompting us to ponder both sides of the issue.
      Who are these holograms, and have they earned the status of having rights?
      At what point does technology attain rights, exactly? Would reprogramming
      the technology to regress it into something more rudimentary be tantamount
      to a forced lobotomy? And would deactivating such technology be the same as
      imprisonment or a death sentence?

      With its two-hour length, "Flesh and Blood" has plenty of time to dive into
      a lot of well-written discussions, in addition to the action that moves the
      story forward. Many of these discussions are between Iden and Doc and reveal
      different points of view, both of which have merit when considering the
      characters' origins. Iden thinks of Doc as a slave who serves "organics."
      Doc doesn't see it that way, since he has been afforded the opportunities to
      pursue interests that push beyond the boundaries of his original function.
      But Iden's prejudices against organics are certainly understandable. He was
      programmed to be hunted and killed over and over again by Hirogen hunters.
      His purpose was essentially one to be tortured (the Hirogen, thorough in
      their desire to create credible prey, programmed these holograms with the
      capacity to feel pain and suffering).

      There's a nightmarish sequence where Doc suddenly finds himself being hunted
      by a sadistic Hirogen. This turns out to be an implanted memory from one of
      Iden's own people. There's perhaps nothing quite like living through the
      plight of someone else to possibly understand where they're coming from (cf.
      last season's "Memorial").

      There's an abundance of plotting in the story's two hours, including several
      ship chases, a few clever tactical maneuvers, Hirogen ships firing on the
      holograms and on Voyager (and vice-versa), a technical procedure contrived
      by Torres as a temporary measure to try to shut down all the holograms'
      programs, and a trek through a nebula. Between directors Mike Vejar (part
      one) and David Livingston (part two) and all the writers involved in
      scripting the two teleplays, "Flesh and Blood" is well constructed and well
      paced. A lot happens, but we're never lost, and the story keeps a firm grasp
      on all the details to make it something that makes sense and also remains
      entertaining.

      As a sign of trust, Iden agrees to negotiate, transporting Doc back to
      Voyager, where he pleads with Janeway to consider the holograms' position.
      Intriguing is how Janeway's position on the matter doesn't depict her as the
      episode's hero; she's more of an antagonist if we were to assume Doc as the
      story's hero. She won't put others in the potentially dangerous path of
      these holograms, even if means deactivating them. Really, there aren't
      clear-cut heroes anywhere here, which is to the story's credit. Instead,
      there are viewpoints. Janeway's position at least partially stems from the
      guilt of having uncorked these holograms by sharing the holo-technology in
      the first place. Doc is so immersed in the plight of others of his "kind"
      that he flees Voyager and willingly returns to assist the holograms.

      All of this is well documented by the plot, but what makes this story stand
      out are the details in the characterization, particularly once Torres is
      beamed to the holograms' vessel to help them build a generator that will
      allow them to live on an isolated world. (Iden says his mission isn't one of
      continued violence, but finding a place where his people can live peacefully
      without being hunted by the Hirogen.)

      Even the choices for the holograms' forms proves interesting. Iden's Bajoran
      identity is appropriate given DS9's milieu of Bajoran freedom fighters
      trying to end oppression, and Iden even comes preprogrammed with spiritual
      beliefs. There's also a Cardassian hologram character here, named Kejal
      (Cindy Katz). Her name is of Bajoran origin, given to her by Iden, which
      translates as "Freedom."

      The Doc/Iden scenes are good, but equally impressive are the more subtle
      discussions between Torres and Kejal. Torres isn't sure if helping these
      holograms is a good idea, since the technology she's rigging could be abused
      for hostile purposes. I appreciated the added dynamic of Torres' discomfort
      with Cardassians, held over from her old Maquis days. There's a nifty little
      nod to stereotypes of Klingons and Cardassians, and an even niftier point
      where Kejal draws a parallel between Torres joining the Maquis to fight
      Cardassian oppressors and the holograms' current uprising against the
      Hirogen. (I'm tempted to wonder how much irrelevant Alpha Quadrant
      information these holograms would've been provided by the Hirogen, but why
      quibble.)

      The story's latter passages involve a turning point where Iden evolves from
      what appears a sincere freedom fighter into a megalomaniac who sees himself
      as a messiah to save all enslaved holograms. This turning point is probably
      a bit extreme and sudden, but still reasonably portrayed. There's a
      well-depicted example of pointless violence where Iden steals some holograms
      from a passing merchant vessel, and then destroys the ship and its two
      "organic" pilots. The holograms he stole turn out to be non-sentient drones
      capable of only a few rudimentary functions. They do not have the ability to
      grow the way Iden and his crew do.

      Which is interesting, because one of the implicit ideas here is the
      contrasting level of growth between Iden and Kejal. Iden's megalomania stems
      from his hatred of the Hirogen and the violent tendencies they programmed
      him with -- tendencies he ultimately is not able to overcome. He constantly
      goes back to his nature of fighting any organics who stand in the way of his
      holographic society.

      Kejal, on the other hand, is able to grow beyond her original violent
      directives. (Earlier, Torres tells Kejal, with a tone that hints of personal
      experience, "It's not easy to change who you are. Trust me.") The notion of
      preprogrammed instincts and one's ability to grow beyond them (or not) hints
      at the "nature vs. environment" debate, something I'll mention but won't
      elaborate on (since I can't go on forever). What permitted Kejal, but not
      Iden, to evolve beyond her inherent violence? Was it fate? The difference in
      their overall purpose and experiences? These are typically human questions,
      aptly applied here to artificial intelligence.

      The end of the story involves a massacre scenario where Iden beams a ship
      full of Hirogen to the surface of a harsh planet, and intends to wreak
      vengeance upon his oppressors by turning the hunters into the hunted. It's a
      decent idea, ultimately forcing Doc to kill Iden to end the cycle of
      violence, but it's not all that original and doesn't quite live up to the
      subtler arguments earlier in the episode. It's executed at a breakneck pace,
      cramming what could've played as a long action scene into a surprisingly
      short amount of time -- but it somehow remains coherent.

      The performances and guest performances are on target. Jeff Yagher brings
      urgency and sincerity to Iden; Cindy Katz portrays a calm and confident
      Cardassian; and Ryan Bollman is good as the scared young Hirogen engineer
      who shows that at least one Hirogen character doesn't have to growl every
      time he has a line.

      "Flesh and Blood" is a well-crafted Voyager outing. As an "epic two-hour
      telefilm!" it's by far the best of the series' three (excluding the pilot),
      the other two being the dumb and bloated "Killing Game" and the entertaining
      but relatively thin "Dark Frontier." As a holodeck show, it puts most others
      to shame by thinking about the issues it raises instead of bulldozing
      through them in favor of idiotic farce ("Spirit Folk") or sidestepping
      necessary questions of programming capability ("Nothing Human"). It's an
      adventure that uses characters and ideas wisely, and the best outing so far
      this season.

      --
      Upcoming: Reruns. See you in 2001.

      -----
      Copyright 2000 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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