This February and March (and a little bit of April), we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.
The Swarm helps to solidify the Jeri Taylor era, even as it is shuffled in among relics of Michael Piller’s tenure.
Much like The Chute before it, The Swarm has a great central premise built around the classic model of using the franchise to tell allegorical stories. The episode has a great hook and a great central performance, along with a strong sense of theme that makes it easier to relate to the whole thing. In The Chute, Kenneth Biller touched on issues of punishment and incarceration. In The Swarm, Mike Sussman tells a sweet story about caring for a loved one whose mental faculties are degrading. (This was a theme to which Sussman would return tangentially with Twilight.)
However, that strong central premise is also betrayed by several severe structural problems that hold the episode back from greatness. The Chute was a few rewrites away from greatness, its final act existing primarily to close out an hour of broadcasting rather than to tie together the preceding forty minutes of television. The Swarm grafts its emotionally compelling story of mental collapse onto a fairly generic “evil alien” narrative that somehow challenges to become the episode’s primary plot thread.
As with The Chute, there is a sense that The Swarm is codifying what will become standard practice for the series from this point forward. The biggest issue with The Swarm is the decision to undercut the episode’s emotional arc by having the series reset the EMH’s reset. In what arguably makes it the perfect example of the issues that will plague Star Trek: Voyager from here until Endgame, the show literally presses a reset button on a reset button. The Swarm is a meta-reset, if you will.
The Swarm heralds the emergence of Voyager from its chrysalis in some other ways. The EMH is one of the breakout character of Voyager. In terms of the seven-year arc of the show, the EMH is one of the most popular and enduring characters. The EMH is one of Voyager‘s triumvirate. The original Star Trek had Kirk, Spock and McCoy; Star Trek: The Next Generation had Picard, Data and Worf. It turns out that Voyager has Janeway, Seven and the EMH. In the final four seasons of the show, those characters dominate the storytelling focus.
Much like The Next Generation only really came of age when it realised that Worf was a breakout character rather than a last-minute addition to the cast, realising the importance of the EMH is a big moment for Voyager. Much like Worf on The Next Generation, the EMH has spent the bulk of the first two seasons doing a lot with very little. Both Worf and the EMH only got a handful of primary plot lines during the first two seasons of the show, the production team not entirely sure what to do with the most unusual character in the cast.
(It is possible to stretch this analogy to breaking point. Worf got one of the stronger late first season episodes with Heart of Glory, a story that found the character interacting with Klingons for the first time. The EMH got one of the stronger late first season episodes with Heroes and Demons, a story that found the character interacting with holograms for the first time. Worf got a romantic character-centric episode in the second season with The Emissary. The EMH got a romantic character-centric episode in the second season with Lifesigns.)
The Next Generation embraced Worf as a character in Sins of the Father, an episode that completely changed the show – if not the franchise. Voyager embraced the EMH in a much more subtle manner. Although the character had very few character-centric episodes in the first two seasons of the show, the third season gives him a character-driven episode right off the bat with The Swarm. More than that, the decision to give the character a mobile emitter in Future’s End, Part II would fundamentally reconceptualise the character.
The recognition of Worf and the EMH was in no small part due to the work of the performers. Michael Dorn is one of the most underrated actors in the franchise, with a particular knack for comic time. Robert Picardo is one of the strongest actors on Voyager. In fact, according to Picardo in Cinefantastique, much of The Swarm overlapped his own suggestions for the direction of the character:
I have asked that the holographic doctor be an opera fan and actually sing opera. I got a call from Jeri Taylor yesterday asking me the specifics of my vocal range. So that I think that’s in the works.” Picardo continued to share his hopes for the Doctor’s future, saying, “There [are] a lot of things I’d like to see. I don’t know that they’ll ever resolve the name issue. I would like an exploration of the man that developed my program. I have suggested a story idea to them about this Doc Zimmerman character, and what would make him design the emergency medical hologram program. Specifically, I’ve suggested that he no longer practices medicine. In doing volunteer work in the most upsetting medical emergency situations, he witnessed something that has rendered him unable to practice anymore, so he creates the holographic doctor program to complete him as a doctor. He doesn’t have it anymore to interact directly with patients. In other words, he is a very frightened, and uncommunicative, an unentitled, shy, pathetic man, versus his creation. We would meet them both on the Holodeck. He would be in the ship’s memory banks.
Of course, Doctor Zimmerman would ultimately turn out to be an engineer rather than a retired medic, but it seems like Picardo had a strong influence in setting the character’s arc over the course of the show’s run. (Robert Beltran would later joke that Picardo would eagerly read the scripts, jealously picking at the lines other actors were given. “That’s a funny line but its not mine.”)
The EMH is an interesting character in his own right. In the most superficial sense, the EMH conforms to that most archetypal of Star Trek character designs. The EMH is cast in the template of Spock or Data. He is the character who broadens his horizons and expands his experiences over the course of the show’s run through contact with the show’s human characters. The EMH is the “outsider” character in the way that distinguishes him from Neelix, Kes, Tuvok or Torres. He is a much more straightforward example of the trope than Odo.
At the same time, there is a (slightly) novel twist to the EMH. Both Spock and Data had character arcs that pushed them towards humanity, even if Spock’s arc was only rendered explicit in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Spock needed to embrace his human half, while Data wanted to be human. The EMH has no such species-specific goals in mind. To quote Kes in The Swarm, the EMH is simply “wanting to be more” than what he is. He does not long to be human. It is a subtle distinction, but an important one.
Indeed, the distinction would become so important that it would inspire Brannon Braga to create the character of Seven of Nine. Braga would argue that Seven of Nine represented an archetype missing from the original Voyager cast, although he acknowledged that the EMH “came close.” The fact the EMH’s lack of specific interest in humanity created a tangible absence in the show’s ensemble demonstrates that the EMH’s arc is relatively unique. The EMH does not want to become human; he wants to become a person. That is a novel twist on a Star Trek archetype.
Although the show is still a year away from introducing Seven of Nine, the increased focus on the EMH cements the idea that the dust has begun to settle on Voyager. After a turbulent second season, it seemed like Voyager had figure out what worked. Giving the EMH the second episode of the third season recognised the character’s increased importance to the show, and that he was going to be (if he wasn’t already) the breakout character from this particular Star Trek ensemble.
All of which makes the decision to effectively “reboot” him such a strange choice, at least in theory. After all, the character has already grown a great deal over the course of the first two seasons of the show. He has picked at least two names, in Heroes and Demons and Lifesigns, although neither has stuck. The character has grown and developed, to the point where he is much less abrasive towards the rest of the ensemble than he was when first activated in Caretaker. It is perhaps too much to call it an arc, but it is development.
Of course, the “reboot” makes more sense in the broader context of the third season of Voyager. In a way, the show itself was undergoing a loose reboot following the disaster that had been the second season. Michael Piller had departed the show, leaving Jeri Taylor in charge. Piller’s final script for the show, Basics, Part II had been heavily rewritten so as to wrap up all of plot arcs. Chakotay had no son, Seska was dead, the Kazon were vanquished. The third season was very much a rejection of what came before.
It was not as dramatic a reinvention as the reworkings of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in The Search, Part I or The Way of the Warrior. It was not as severe a retool as the reimaginings of Star Trek: Enterprise in The Expanse or Home. It is perhaps more subtle than the changes that crept into Star Trek: The Next Generation with Evolution, if only because four of the first seven episodes of Voyager‘s third season were produced during Piller’s tenure and held back to the start of the following season. Still, there is a conscious sense that Voyager is reinventing itself.
The Swarm is credited to Mike Sussman, who pitched the idea that would become Meld late in the second season. However, the episode was heavily rewritten by executive producer Jeri Taylor, who had assumed full creative control of the show. Taylor’s influence can be felt on the episode, most obviously in the character-centric teaser that features some awkward flirting between Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres. “You have a big dinner date or something?” Paris teases. Torres responds, “Why are you so interested?”
Voyager would never characterise its lead characters as successfully as The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. However, Taylor did make an effort to give her cast members more to do than either Piller before her or Braga and Biller after her. While the flirtation and romance seems rather bland when compared to the chemistry between Worf and Jadzia Dax on Deep Space Nine, it is clear that Taylor is very interested in a potential romance between Paris and Torres. The Swarm hardly makes a compelling case, but it dutifully provides set-up.
The Swarm actively invites comparisons between the third season of Voyager and the third season of The Next Generation. In particular, certain plot elements of The Swarm evoke certain plot elements of Booby Trap. Most notably, a computer malfunction forces the chief engineer to create a holodeck simulation of the lab where the technology was developed populated by a holographic representation of a real person. In Booby Trap, it was Leah Brahms at Utopia Planitia. In The Swarm, it is Lewis Zimmerman at Jupiter Station.
In its own way, this is significant. Booby Trap represented Michael Piller’s second writing credit on The Next Generation and marked the point at which the executive producer officially took over from (very short-lived) executive producer Michael Wagner. In a way, the Michael Piller era really began with Booby Trap. So there is a strange symmetry to the decision to exorcise his ghost with The Swarm. Then again, it is tempting to read symmetry into everything. Piller arrived with the third season of The Next Generation. He left with Voyager.
The Swarm signals the end of the Piller era in another smaller way. The scene directly after the opening credits marks the last appearance of Chez Sandríne until Someone to Watch Over Me late in the fifth season. Piller had memorably introduced the bar in The Cloud, intending for it to serve as a place for the crew to hang out together, akin to the poker games on The Next Generation. However, it never quite worked like that, and Voyager would struggle to find a “hang out” location across its run. Still, the appearance of Chez Sandríne closes another aspect of the Piller era.
The Swarm works best when it focuses on the degeneration of the EMH. There is something surprisingly affecting about the character’s gradual loss of his mental faculties. A lot of this is down to Robert Picardo’s performance, but also down to the script’s use of Kes. There is a wonderful dynamic between the two characters, as Kes tries to cope with a once great and intelligent man whose abilities are slipping away from him. Kes repeatedly tries to allow the Doctor to keep his dignity, even prompting him to use medical equipment to keep him active.
In a way, The Swarm plays into the recurring theme of memory and identity that bubbles through the third season. Flashback sets the tone for the year, with Tuvok’s journey back to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country touching on themes of cultural and personal memory, anchoring those concepts in continuity. In referencing some age-old continuity, False Profits also (obliquely) plays into this theme. More overtly, Remember explores the importance of keeping cultural memories alive.
The Swarm offers a more personal take on memory, although the decision to literally “reset” the EMH brings that theme back to issues of continuity. Much like the exile of the Kazon at the end of Basics, Part II, the wiping of the EMH’s memory serves to free Voyager of certain obligations to its own past. This “reset” suggests a clean break with what came before. Given the way that classic Star Trek species and concepts dominated late second season episodes like Dreadnought, Death Wish and False Profits, it might be a good idea to break free from continuity.
There is a sense that The Swarm would be a stronger if it focused on this particular narrative, the degradation of the EMH as Kes tries to keep him engaged. Unfortunately, that plot thread suffers from two significant issues – one aspect related to the plot itself, the other awkwardly grafted into the episode. With the third season of Voyager, it seems like the show has taken on its final form. After all the experimentation of the second season, Voyager is now in something approaching its final form; the show’s storytelling will not change much from here to Endgame.
Voyager is frequently criticised for the casualness with which it hits the “reset button”, the tendency of the show to throw the crew into an apocalyptic situation or destroy the ship before finding some loophole that allows business to resume as normal the following week. It is tempting to read the repeated destruction of Voyager in stories like Year of Hell, Part II or Timeless or Course: Oblivion as metacommentary on the show’s storytelling and the health of the franchise, but criticisms of “reset button” storytelling are perfectly valid.
That “reset button” ripples through the show’s storytelling. The episodes that feature the destruction of Voyager are the most obvious examples, but it also applies to character development and interpersonal dynamics. The characters on Voyager never seem to change, no matter what they go through. There is none of the explicit script-driven growth associated with Deep Space Nine or the implicit actor-driven development of The Next Generation. Janeway is not changed by Sacred Ground. Neelix is not changed by Mortal Coil. Chakotay is not changed by Nemesis.
This storytelling approach has arguably been baked into the show since the beginning. The very second episode of the series (Time and Again) was a gigantic reset button episode that was rendered meaningless by a time travel contrivance. In a way, this “reset” was the show’s original sin. Brannon Braga would formalise the “blow up Voyager all you want, just tidy up after yourself” storytelling with Deadlock at the end of the second season. However, the trope would really become a Voyager stand-by from the third and (particularly) fourth season onwards.
The Swarm seems to acknowledge as much. If the third season is about codifying and defining the template for Voyager going forward, The Swarm acknowledges the importance of a “reset” to the mechanics of the show. It does so in an interesting way, albeit one that completely undercuts the emotional weight of the story. Not only does The Swarm hinge on a “rest” of the EMH’s personality that effectively pushes him back to original factory settings, but it then resets that reset so that there is no material change from episode to episode-to-episode.
At the end of the episode, the EMH does not recognise Kes. It is suggested that he has lost any conscious memory of his experiences over the previous two years. However, there is faint hope as the EMH subconsciously sings a few bars of O Soave Fanciulla to himself. The obvious suggestion is that the EMH has lost a lot of his growth and development, but that his personality is still buried in there somewhere. It is a rather bittersweet ending, all things considered; not too bleak, but not too cheap.
However, everything is immediately back to normal. Later episodes in the third season (and beyond) never acknowledge the resetting of the EMH. The character’s interactions with the crew are pretty much unchanged. A viewer who had missed The Swarm on initial broadcast might never even realise that the EMH had effectively been set back to “zero.” The script leaves open the possibility of recovering the character’s memories at some point down the line, but it seems to happen off-screen between episodes.
(To be fair, there are some mitigating factors. Two of the three episodes directly following The Swarm had been written and filmed months before the production team decided to reset the EMH. There could be no reference to the EMH’s personality disorder in False Profits or Sacred Ground, because those episodes were already in the can. As such, acknowledging the character’s reset in Remember would seem awkward, sandwiched as that episode was between two hold-overs. Still, it is an unconvincing excuse from a storytelling perspective.)
Again, it is worth comparing and contrasting this approach to character development with the other spin-offs. The Swarm marks the first of two appearances that Robert Picardo would make as Lewis Zimmerman in this production season, with both episodes representing a significant change to the status quo for the show’s primary medical character. Here, the EMH’s personality is reset. In Doctor Bashir, I Presume, Doctor Julian Bashir is accidentally “outed” as genetically engineered.
On paper, Doctor Bashir, I Presume has a much smaller impact on the title character than The Swarm does on the EMH. In fact, the closing scenes of the episode make it clear that Doctor Bashir will be allowed to keep his rank and position; the biggest question seems to be whether O’Brien will ever trust him to play darts again. However, Deep Space Nine integrates these elements into Bashir’s character, with the show making a concerted effort to acknowledge the fundamental shift in the character.
This acknowledgement is reflected in manners both subtle and overt. Early sixth season episodes like A Time to Stand or Sacrifice of Angels turn Bashir into something resembling a human super-computer, able to calculate large numbers very quickly. However, the show also uses this change in the character to open up new storytelling opportunities; episodes like Statistical Probabilities or Chrysalis build upon Doctor Bashir, I Presume. In contrast, The Swarm has no appreciable impact. At all. Ever.
This is an issue that is internal to the story focusing on the EMH that becomes obvious in later episodes. However, there is a separate issue unrelated to the story focusing on the EMH that is quite apparent within the episode. In theory, The Swarm is supposed to be a story about the EMH struggling with his memory. That is the heart of the story. That is the emotional weight. In fact, that was the original pitch for the episode that was made by Mike Sussman, the pitch that the show picked up.
However, there is a sense that Voyager is unwilling to commit to such a quiet and introspective primary plot thread, so the degradation of the EMH is almost squeezed out of the episode to make room for a generic alien threat that provides the teaser sting, the title of the episode and a CGI-driven climactic action scene. The Swarm tries to be both a tragic character piece and a big space action adventure, refusing to prioritise one thread over the other. The result is an awkward mish-mash of an episode.
According to writer Mike Sussman, this alien element of the plot was not part of his original pitch and was perhaps the result of network meddling:
I had done Swarm, or an episode that would end up becoming The Swarm. Which was really… when I sold it, it was really a quiet story about the Doctor coming down with sort of an Alzeimher’s type condition. They ended up having to… I think there was pressure from the network to kinda make the show more exciting and dramatic and sexy. So there become this whole alien element. The story really – the episode, really – changed. Jeri Taylor did a lot of writing on it. So I came out of that experience… I hadn’t really impressed, they weren’t really blown away by work on it, which… I get it.
This makes a certain amount of sense. UPN had been clear that they wanted a more action-driven Star Trek, and the changes to The Swarm fit the bill.
To be fair, the basic premise of the alien species from The Swarm is not a bad idea. The Star Trek franchise has a tendency to over-explain its alien antagonists. While world-building is a worthy pursuit of itself, this exposition and development can de-fang even the most intriguing Star Trek aliens; Voyager would demonstrate this in its handling of the Borg. A major reason for setting Voyager in the Delta Quadrant had been to put the show’s protagonists in an environment populated by strange new aliens, away from over-exposed Klingons.
So, there is something refreshing about an alien species that feels overtly alien. Unfortunately, The Swarm never quite capitalises on this idea. The aliens are still recognisably humanoid, still looking like actors in costumes. (As opposed to, say, the Sheliak from Ensigns of Command.) Although initially difficult to understand, the universal translator eventually allows Harry to decode their messages to the trespassing ship. Those messages are painfully banal. (“Something like: too late, should have listened.”)
The mysterious nature of these antagonists does not feel particularly clever or ambiguous. Instead, it feels like a plot contrivance. The Swarm needs alien bad guys for a climactic set piece, so why bother developing them. “They’re a complete mystery,” Neelix explains. “No one knows their name, how many of them there are, what the culture is like. Just that they really don’t want people violating their territory.” So the only material detail of their culture happens to be the detail that is necessary to advance the plot. That is very convenient.
This would be less of an issue if The Swarm treated this threat as a background plot. However, The Swarm devotes considerable time and energy to Janeway’s efforts to cross enemy space. A lot of screentime is tied up in briefings and exposition that are very much “stock Star Trek plotting.” These scenes are bloated by techno-babble about “interlaced tachyon beams” and “polaron bursts” and “shield polarity.” Particularly distracting is a sequence in the middle of the episode with the survivor of a crippled ship who exists to assure the audience the aliens are totally a threat.
The Swarm would be a much better episode if it were more willing to adopt a quieter approach. There is a sense that the production team (largely driven by the network) is afraid of a restrained character study. Voyager has little interest in low-key character studies, because they do not feature broad comedy or action sequences. If the third season is about solidifying the kind of show that Voyager will become, the show’s need to stuff a generic “evil aliens” plot into The Swarm suggests that Voyager will be a show that could never produce Family or Explorers or The Visitor.
Instead, Voyager will be a show that puts “business as usual” as the highest priority, whether that means awkwardly shoving antagonistic aliens into a quiet character study or simply resetting the reset of a character. The future is here. The future is now.
- Basics, Part II
- The Chute
- The Swarm
- False Profits
- Sacred Ground
- Future’s End, Part I
- Future’s End, Part II
- The Q and the Grey
- Fair Trade
- Alter Ego
- Blood Fever
- Favourite Son
- Before and After
- Real Life
- Distant Origin
- Worst Case Scenario
- Scorpion, Part I