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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Author, Author"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Note: Jammer s epsico.com e-mail address has become too unreliable. Effective immediately, please send all e-mail to jammer@st-hypertext.com instead. --
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 30, 2001
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      Note: Jammer's epsico.com e-mail address has become too unreliable.
      Effective immediately, please send all e-mail to jammer@...
      instead.


      --
      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's "Author,
      Author." If you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.


      In brief: I do believe we have a winner.

      Plot description: When the Doctor arranges to have his recently completed
      holodeck novel published in the Alpha Quadrant, certain aspects of the
      story hit too close to home among his shipmates.

      -----
      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Author, Author"

      Airdate: 4/18/2001 (USA)
      Teleplay by Phyllis Strong & Mike Sussman
      Story by Brannon Braga
      Directed by David Livingston

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ****

      "You are about to embark on a remarkable journey. You will take on the
      role of a medical assistant aboard the starship Voyeur. Your job will be
      to assist the chief medical officer, and learn to tolerate his overbearing
      behavior and obnoxious bedside manner. Remember, patience is a virtue." --
      Paris' novel introduction
      -----

      The fictional novel in question is an interactive holodeck program about
      an emergency medical hologram that is forced to become the chief medical
      officer on board the starship Vortex when the Vortex is stranded in the
      Delta Quadrant. The story follows the Vortex EMH through an existence of
      hardship and oppression by the Vortex crew, who see him as a piece of
      technology and absolutely nothing more.

      The holo-novel was written by the Doctor, and it's the center of a
      controversy in "Author, Author," which for me goes down as one of
      Voyager's all-around most entertaining episodes. It exists simultaneously
      as a laugh-out-loud comedy-satire, a slyly perceptive analysis of
      personalities, and a thoughtful drama that argues the nature of existence
      and the rights of a group that I for one have been pondering for some
      time. In addition, there's a plot about Voyager now having limited daily
      contact with the Alpha Quadrant, and the chance for the crew to finally
      have synchronous, if brief, discussions with loved ones back home.

      "Author, Author" borrows numerous ideas from other episodes and spins them
      together into a single story that, amazingly, makes a whole lot of sense.
      It plays like a successful melding of "Worst Case Scenario," "Living
      Witness," "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy," "Pathfinder," "Flesh and Blood," and,
      of course, and perhaps most notably, TNG's famous "The Measure of a Man"
      (1989). How so many familiar elements are successfully recycled here to
      seem new is beyond me, but there you have it. Does this episode tackle too
      much? No, because the narrative is clean and the story is able to do
      justice to everything it puts forward . (It's unlike the recent
      "Prophecy," which tackled a million elements with little regard for
      telling a competent overall story.)

      Doc's interactive novel, titled "Photons Be Free," is met with great
      enthusiasm by Bolian publisher Broht (Barry Gordon) back on Earth. Broht
      wants Doc's story right away, so he can run it in holosuites worldwide.
      Doc still has some minor revisions to make, but he finds a brewing
      controversy on his hands once he lets Paris preview the program.

      Doc's novel allows the holodeck patron to play the part of the Vortex EMH
      from a first-person perspective. It depicts the Vortex crew as a savage
      bunch whose members all have a common trait -- their rude and thoughtless
      regard for the EMH. Like in "Living Witness," these crew members bear a
      striking resemblance to the Voyager crew members, except with a
      revisionist historian's twist. Chakotay, now a Bajoran, orders the EMH
      around and calls him "hologram," while Janeway (named "Captain Jenkins")
      shoots an injured crewman dead in order to force the EMH to treat a less
      seriously injured crewman *now*, just because it suits her.

      This first stage of "Author, Author" is compelling on several levels.
      First is the fact that Doc's story itself, while way melodramatic, is
      engaging. Second is that we see the similarities between the Vortex crew
      and the Voyager crew, and certain traits have interesting perceptiveness
      behind the exaggeration. And third is that we see the *differences*. My,
      oh my, the differences. For Doc's purposes, exaggeration, I fear, defeats
      perceptiveness. But for "Author, Author's" purposes, it's brilliant.

      The story within the story is packed with hugely entertaining little
      details. I got quite a kick out of seeing the walls of Jenkins' ready room
      decorated with antique firearms; this is a captain with a warrior's
      background. Meanwhile, Doc's mobile emitter is a big, heavy device that
      must be worn like a backpack. And the way the names are slightly changed
      is clever: Lt. Paris becomes Lt. Marseilles, with a mustache that even
      Torres can't help but laugh at.

      What's disturbing for Doc's friends, however, is how the depiction of
      these characters hits too close to home. At one point, Marseilles sends
      the EMH on a bogus medical emergency so he can have a liaison with a
      female "patient" in one of the sickbay bio-beds. Marseilles lines the
      women up for "medical treatment" one after another. Paris was once, long
      ago, depicted as a mild woman-chaser, but he was more bark than bite. What
      bothers Paris in seeing Marseilles' actions is whether Doc really thinks
      of him as that way. Call it passive-aggressive storytelling.

      Harry's character is a hypochondriac. Tuvok is a human with goatee. Torres
      is extremely abrasive toward the EMH; Roxann Dawson finally gets the scene
      she never got in "Living Witness" (where she did not appear because of her
      real-life pregnancy). The only sympathizer is "Three of Eight"; Doc has
      always seen Seven as one who understands the concept of looking in at
      humanity from the outside.

      Execution-wise, I liked the way we get various chapters of the story as
      seen by various Voyager crew members playing as the participants. The
      whole idea, in fact, of holodeck story publishing is nicely depicted here;
      it seems like a logical 24th-century story medium.

      This holodeck stuff is fun, but with a message. As the story unfolds in
      front of her, reaction shots of a thoughtful Janeway make a difference.
      There's a drastically serious undercurrent about Doc telling a tale of an
      oppressed EMH who, ultimately, is erased by his shipmates.

      Even better is how when Doc's friends confront him about how the Alpha
      Quadrant will associate the Vortex with Voyager, the story maintains a
      cool head and presents all the arguments. Doc's argument in a nutshell is:
      The persons and events in this holodeck program are fictitious; any
      similarity to actual persons is purely coincidental. Fine and good, but
      audiences will certainly assume elements of truth were key in the writer's
      motivation, which brings up some interesting points about the
      responsibilities of an author making commentary.

      In fact, Doc *doesn't* think he is being oppressed, and he doesn't intend
      the Vortex crew to be mistaken for the Voyager crew, even though both are
      stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Doc says, "I write what I know."
      Unfortunately, that's part of the problem, since one would immediately
      wonder if he has come to know firsthand this oppression he's writing
      about. Getting to the heart of that matter, Doc's motivation is to draw
      attention to his EMH Mark 1 "brothers" in the Alpha Quadrant who were
      banished to a menial existence because of their design flaws -- which
      makes this an interesting and logical follow-up to the events of "Life
      Line" and "Flesh and Blood."

      But Voyager's crew is caught in the middle, and Doc intends to stick to
      his guns rather than compromise the message of his story. This leads to
      what is the funniest scene, when Doc discovers his program has been
      replaced with Paris' retort narrative -- Taste of Your Own Medicine style.
      Paris inserts himself as the narrator: "You are about to embark on a
      remarkable journey. You will take on the role of a medical assistant
      aboard the starship Voyeur. Your job will be to assist the chief medical
      officer, and learn to tolerate his overbearing behavior and obnoxious
      bedside manner. Remember, patience is a virtue."

      This is standout comedy writing and acting, because it's funny while also
      reflective and in touch with aspects of the real Doctor's character, which
      it then mutates into a well-conceived comic caricature. The writers do a
      great job writing the scene as if Paris had written it with sardonic mode
      fully engaged, and Robert Picardo plays the scene with glee. We see a
      version of Doc who complains about missing his "tee time," flirts
      shamelessly with Seven of Nine, and has a hilarious air of
      self-importance. And the desperately lame comb-over is a nice touch. The
      acting and comic timing here are dead on; this has to be Voyager's
      funniest moment since "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy." It's more than just a
      gag, because it grows out of our familiarity with the characters.

      Doc confronts Paris, furious. Paris shoots back, "Don't be ridiculous!
      That character is not you!" which is funny precisely because it's so
      absurd and proves the point. To make a long story short (too late),
      suffice it to say Doc agrees to change the people's names and appearances
      to distance the similarities between Vortex and Voyager. He comes to this
      decision after some objective suggestions from Neelix, who is apt at
      convincing Doc to protect his friends while still praising the creativity
      of the story (and I liked the way this scene recognized Doc's ego without
      faulting him for it; he feeds off the praise, no doubt about it, but
      that's *because* he wants to be more than just an EMH).

      The central crisis in the story appears when Doc asks Broht to hold off on
      publishing the novel until he can make the changes. Broht, unwilling to
      wait and acting against a promise he had made earlier, tells Doc the story
      is already playing in holosuites. Doc demands it be recalled immediately,
      which Broht tells him he will not do, because Doc has no legal rights as a
      writer under Federation law, because he's a hologram.

      Talk about your irony of ironies -- especially given the subject matter of
      Doc's story.

      This leads to a formal objection and a hearing where Doc argues his case
      to a Federation arbiter (Joseph Campanella). Of course, we've been here
      and done this with TNG's "The Measure of a Man," where the case was made
      for Data's rights as an artificial intelligence. But even if this is
      somewhat derivative, it features sensible arguments and serves the story
      every bit as well. (Though I must confess I'm not sure about Broht's
      motives in rushing the novel to publication and ignoring Doc's requests;
      why play hardball unless there's a financial motive, which supposedly
      doesn't exist in the Federation?) While I don't feel the need to discuss
      this aspect of the episode as much, I fully enjoyed it. Given what we saw
      in "Flesh and Blood," it makes a lot of sense to give this issue a full
      hearing on Voyager's record. It can actually go down as a common theme
      that played itself through the season, and that's very reassuring.

      The hearing serves as a first step for hologram rights, giving the Doctor
      the rights as an artist with control over his work, but it's also
      real-world plausible by not going further than that; the arbiter
      acknowledges that the rights of holograms is an issue that must be
      examined further and not decided based on this one case. Sounds realistic
      to me.

      I liked the final scene too, which takes place "four months later" and
      shows dozens of identical EMH-1s working in a mine. One of them suggests
      to another that in his spare time he take a look at an interesting program
      called "Photons Be Free." Like in "Flesh and Blood," there's a sense that
      there's a revolution brewing in the backs of these holograms' minds;
      perhaps they are awakening to the idea of having greater potential. The
      scene plays itself with a note of whimsy, which is the perfect touch,
      leaving us wondering where this issue might go from here, but having us
      assured that it *will* indeed go somewhere, even if we never actually see
      it again on-screen.

      The subplot involving the crew talking to family members is given less
      screen time, but it gets the job done within the time constraints. We get
      a Harry scene that manages to be funny while keeping perfectly in tune
      with Goofy Harry material. Harry talks to his parents back home and his
      mother asks why he hasn't been promoted, then says she'll write a letter
      to captain Janeway. The transmission is cut off before Harry can emphasize
      "No!" Poor pathetic Harry.

      There's also a nice follow-up to "Lineage" in the form of an uneasy but
      civil conversation between B'Elanna and her father. B'Elanna's father
      wants to try. So does B'Elanna. This is actually a touching sentiment not
      pushed by melodrama, but simply two reasonable people who are willing to
      work things out slowly, over time.

      Finally, there's a scene where Seven talks to a relative back on Earth, an
      aunt, and the conversation reveals just how alien Seven is to the idea of
      having ties to blood relatives. Where might *this* go before the series is
      over?

      Given everything it accomplishes and the skill it shows in accomplishing
      it, entertainingly, I'm willing to call "Author, Author" one of the
      series' best installments. I was genuinely involved in everything going on
      from beginning to end.

      --
      Next week: More Delta Quadrant aliens that have crossed paths with human
      history. Gee, what a coincidence.

      -----
      Copyright 2001 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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