Following on from the aborted promise of a new beginning in Fair Trade, things get back to normal.
Alter Ego is another episode of Star Trek: Voyager that feels like it might have been wholly repurposed from an earlier Star Trek show. On the surface, it is a fairly standard “holodeck run amok” story in the style of earlier episodes like Heroes and Demons or Projections. However the contours of the plot recall a very specific (and very good) episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Alter Ego seems to suggest that a holographic character has achieved sentience and threatens to destroy the ship, it recalls the far superior Ship in a Bottle.
There are differences, of course. Ship in a Bottle is a far stronger episode, one of the best holodeck stories ever produced. More than that, the climax of Alter Ego reveals that the holodeck programme has not become sentient but is instead being used as the avatar of an outside force. Still, this twist is confined to the last act of the episode, and so it feels more like an embellishment than a revision. For the bulk of its runtime, Alter Ego plays as a pale imitation of a much stronger piece of television.
It does not help matter that Alter Ego‘s novel twist on that central premise is to paint its central guest star as a psychotic stalker with a crush.
Fair Trade teased viewers with the promise of something new and exciting. As Voyager ventured into the Nekrit Expanse, audiences were primed to expect something new and unusual. If Fair Trade were to be believed, the past two-and-a-half seasons were ultimately little more than an extended prologue for what was to come. Neelix no longer knew what was coming. Voyager was finally ready to put the Kazon and the Vidiians and the Ocampans and the Talaxians behind it, to move into uncharted territory as part of a new chapter of its journey.
So there is something jarring about Alter Ego. Even in basic production terms, the episode features Voyager flying through an inversion nebula that it encounters in deep space. It is a very strange visual, given that the closing shot of Fair Trade found the ship flying into the wild purple yonder. Has Voyager already finished its trip through the Nekrit Expanse? Was the journey so uneventful that it came out the other side without anybody passing comment? Given all the fuss about the Nekrit Expanse in Fair Trade, this seems rather jarring.
Of course, there are practical reasons for this. Alter Ego went into production before Fair Trade. Although there is no stardate given for the events of Fair Trade, the opening log Alter Ego has a stardate that places it considerably before the events of Blood Fever. It seems fair to suggest that the events of Alter Ego take place before the events of Fair Trade. The two episodes were simply swapped around in broadcast order, and the production team made no effort to ensure a sense of coherence upon broadcast.
It is worth comparing this to the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine approaches such challenges. When the episode Through the Looking Glass was slotted between Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, the production team made sure it made sense when broadcast after the two-parter. Odo ends Improbable Cause in the custody of the Romulan-Cardassian alliance, and that is where The Die is Cast finds him. However, Through the Looking Glass features an opening scene with Odo on the station, which makes no sense if watch in production order.
There is a sloppiness to this scheduling that betrays some of the core issues with storytelling on Voyager. The entire point of Fair Trade was that Voyager was crossing a threshold and leaving the past behind it. Following that with the broadcast of an episode from earlier in the production cycle, with no effort to update or revise it to acknowledge that transition, completely undercuts the central premise of Fair Trade. After all, Fair Trade had promised that things would never be the same again and then offered an episode that clearly belongs to that earlier block.
Even in terms of plotting and construction, Alter Ego feels uncomfortably backwards. This is the story about a holodeck programme that runs amok, which is one of the most basic Star Trek storytelling templates along with “transporter accident” and “anomaly of the week.” In fact, there are even shades of the latter in the crew’s fascination with the “inversion nebula” that defies their understanding of the logical universe. The crazy holodeck story dates back to The Big Goodbye in the first season of The Next Generation. It is a Star Trek standard.
This is the point at which Voyager should be pushing itself. However, it refuses to do so. It settles into a pattern of comfort and ease, following the path of least resistance. It becomes something akin to a Star Trek tribute or cover band, less interested in honing its own sound than it is in approximating familiar hits. Warlord is just The Assignment. The Q and the Grey is just Q Pid. Macrocosm is just Genesis. Alter Ego is just Ship in a Bottle. Rise is just The Ascent. This is to say nothing of the familiar comforts lurking just inside the Nekrit Expanse.
To be fair, some of these cover versions work quite well. Voyager offers up its fair share of enjoyable “holodeck malfunction” episodes. Projections was a first or second season highlight, depending on whether one is breaking the seasons down by broadcast or production order. Even later in the first season, Worst Case Scenario takes a similar idea and has fun with it. Later in the run, The Killing Game, Part I, The Killing Game, Part II and Bride of Chaotica! all find entertaining ways to play with the franchise’s second most error-prone technology.
However, the problem is that many of these cover versions feel lifeless and unsatisfying. Alter Ego is one such example, a trainwreck of a script that builds towards a problematic idea and pivots off into a half-interesting idea that it never quite develops. It might not be a disaster of an episode on the level of Tattoo or Alliances or False Profits, but it does not work in any real sense while playing to the very worst attributes of Voyager as a television series.
At this point, it seems like the writers’ room on Voyager has forgotten how to break an episode of television, how to structure and pace a forty-five minute script. This is obvious just at looking at scripts like Warlord and Fair Trade, which do not seem to understand the concept of a teaser. Star Trek has been on the air for a decade since the launch of The Next Generation. Breaking and pacing a story for the franchise should be child’s play for the writing staff, particularly given the show’s aversion to experimentation or innovation.
It is worth breaking out the plot of Alter Ego, from one plot point to the next. Harry Kim falls in love with a hologram, so he contacts Tuvok to help him deal with his emotions. Tuvok investigates the hologram, and the hologram falls in love with Tuvok. Harry gets mad at Tuvok. The hologram hijacks the ship and demands that Tuvok surrender himself. Tuvok discovers that the hologram is actually a puppet being manipulated by an alien observer. He convinces her that she needs to be among people. The episode ends with Harry and Tuvok playing kal-toh.
So, reading that summary… what is the episode about? What is the central point of the episode? What is the central thread that pulls it all together? On paper, it seems like Alter Ego might work best as an exploration of isolation and loneliness. Harry is so far from home that he seeks comfort in the arms of a woman constructed from photons. A hologram becomes aware of her existence and is drawn to a character who is himself an outsider. Later, it is revealed that the hologram is actually being manipulated by a lonely woman sitting at the heart of a nebula.
This is not a bad idea. After all, Voyager is very much a story about loneliness and isolation. It is the story of a ship thrown half-way across the galaxy making a seventy-year journey home. The ship cannot form friendships along the way, because it must keep moving. The crew cannot find a place to lay down their burdens, because home is calling across the cosmos. Voyager should be a ship full of lonely people wrestling with that fact that they are on a solitary spec of light cruising through a vast unknown quadrant.
However, the third season of Voyager has completely rejected this idea. The production team have talked at length about how they don’t want the crew to feel anxious about their journey, or depressed by their isolation. There is no sense that the characters are working through their own issues with this isolation. So Alter Ego avoids this potential thematic avenue. Harry’s holodeck romance is never framed in terms of the fact that he hasn’t seen Libby since Non Sequitur, and even then it was a double. Tuvok’s wife on Vulcan is never even mentioned.
As a result, Alter Ego is robbed of any thematic depth or nuance. However, it could still be an interesting character study. But who is the focal character in Alter Ego? Who is Alter Ego about? In an interview with The Star Trek: Voyager Magazine, Tim Russ pointed to Alter Ego as a formative Tuvok episode:
I think the defining moments for Tuvok have been in Meld, Random Thoughts and Alter Ego. I would also add Innocence to that list and, I guess, The Gift. Meld and Random Thoughts both explored suppressed and deep, violent thoughts and the problems those things created for Tuvok. We also saw how Tuvok worked with others in Random Thoughts.
That episodes like The Gift and Random Thoughts are counted alongside Alter Ego as definitive Tuvok episodes speaks to how poorly Voyager has served the character. Tuvok is the first full-blooded Vulcan regular to appear on a Star Trek show, so there should be more interesting material to give him.
Indeed, Alter Ego does not even belong to Tuvok alone. The narrative starts with a focus on Harry, who brings his problem to Tuvok at the end of the teaser. At this point, it would make sense for the narrative to shift its focus to Tuvok. After all, the plot will be driven by Tuvok’s investigation into Marayna and her flirtation with him. That is where the mystery and drama lies. However, the story keeps cutting back to Harry, focusing on his intense infatuation with Marayna even as the narrative thrust of the show has been given over to Tuvok.
This leads to a number of embarrassing sequences, such as when Harry becomes jealous of Tuvok. “Now I know why you told me to keep off the holodeck,” he insists on walking in on Tuvok and Marayna together. “I respected you. I trusted you. And you did this right behind my back.” It is a ridiculous scene on multiple levels. Most obviously, Harry and Tuvok are supposed to be professionals, not thirteen-year-old boys. On a more technical level, what is to stop Harry from simply duplicating Marayna’ programme, as far as he knows. (Now there’s an interesting idea.)
However, even the sections of the episode focusing on Tuvok has little interest in his character or motivations. According to an interview with Cinefantastique, Russ had to remind writer Joe Menosky that Tuvok was married:
When Tuvok encounters an alien femme fatale in Alter Ego, Russ made sure that Tuvok behaved in a properly Vulcan way, and was not romantically involved with Marayna (Sandra Nelson), the alien woman. He talked to writer Menosky before the story was written. Russ told Menosky, “It has to be right on the line of not looking as though he is romantically attracted to this woman, but that he is interested in her intellectually. He wouldn’t be involved with anybody at all. He sticks to his wife.”
The complication never comes up in the episode, which feels like something of a lost opportunity. After all, Tuvok is the only member of the primary cast with a wife and children waiting at home.
In many ways, this all speaks to the recurring sense that Voyager is far more interested in plot beats than character development. Indeed, the flow of Alter Ego is essentially a collection of narrative pivot points that break up the acts and serve to keep things moving at a reasonable pace. In fact, most of the character actions in Alter Ego seem reverse engineered in order to hit those narrative beats. For example, Kim’s unprofessional outburst serves to motivate Tuvok to delete Marayna, which then escalates the situation further.
This is unfortunately how the Voyager writing staff tend to approach the subject of characterisation, resulting in a primary cast that feels hazy and undefined. Janeway is a notoriously unpredictable character, because of this approach to the cast. The writers on Voyager are not interesting in actions that flow from character, instead leaving character as something to be reversed engineered from the actions dictated by a given plot. It is very disheartening, particularly when the plot is itself so underwhelming.
The plot is very much a riff on Ship in a Bottle, the episode in which Moriarty holds the Enterprise to ransom. When Marayna takes control of Voyager towards the climax of Alter Ego, the characters even explicitly confirm that reference. “Most likely a sentient computer programme,” Chakotay observes. “I checked the Starfleet database. This kind of thing has happened before. The Enterprise-D under Picard was once taken over by a holocharacter.” Harry adds, “We studied that case at the Academy. It gained control of the ship from inside the holodeck.”
There are certainly worse episodes to reference. Ship in a Bottle is an underrated Next Generation classic that plays with ideas that were still working their way into the popular consciousness when it was broadcast. However, the problems with Alter Ego come in the way that it chose to depart from that template. In Ship in a Bottle, Moriarty is motivated by his desire to break free from the holographic prison in which he finds himself. In Alter Ego, Marayna is ultimately presented as little more than the psychopathic female stalker.
The production team readily acknowledge as much. In an interview with Star Trek: Monthly, Tim Russ likened the episode to the plot of Fatal Attraction:
“That particular episode,” Russ recalls of Alter Ego, “involved a sort of Fatal Attraction towards me, and my character sort of learned how to not live quite so isolated. He is generally isolated. He spends time by himself. He meditates by himself and plays the game [kal-toh] by himself. In that episode he actually offers to play this game or teach the game, and in that sense he actually learns from this alien woman about sharing activities with other people.”
Fatal Attraction is of course the Oscar-nominated thriller about a man whose one-night stand turns out to be a psychopath who turns his life into a living hell.
As Alter Ego develops, it transforms from the story of a potentially unhealthy interest in a holographic character from two members of the crew into something a lot more predicable and generic. Harry’s emotional attachment to Marayna is never truly explored, instead seguing into a plot about Marayna’s unhealthy fixation with Tuvok. Marayna is apparently so infatuated with a man that she only just met that she is willing to destroy a ship full of innocent people if she cannot have him.
At one point, Marayna hijacks the EMH’s mobile emitter and allows herself into Tuvok’s quarters. “Given your actions, I have no choice but to consider you a potential threat to myself and to Voyager,” he advises her. “But you’re wrong,” she insists. “I would never do anything to harm you.” Naturally, she immediately undermines that argument. “You have access to the ship’s control systems?” Tuvok asks. Marayna vows, “And I’ll use them all if I have to. You can’t just delete me!”
This is a very crass, very broadly drawn stereotype of the obsessive woman terrorising an innocent man. Nevermind that women are far more likely to be brutalised and murdered than their male partners than vice versa, this is one of the most hackneyed clichés in popular culture. As Elayna Rappinng argues in Media-tions, Fatal Attraction became popular shorthand for the way that the media talked about certain types of women:
So much has already been written about Fatal Attraction that it hardly seems necessary to point out that the film escalates the pre-family/traditional woman, anti-independent, sexy woman propaganda to outrageous heights. Glenn Close is just too smart, sex, and aggressive to be anything but nuts, at least by 1980s standards.
Indeed, the portrayal of Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction is still part of the cultural discourse and still finds its way into conversations about how we talk about ambitious and independent women. In the context of Alter Ego, Marayna’s obsessive behaviour is contrasted by two men. Harry also feels a strong and unreturned attraction, but does not attempt to murder over a hundred people. Tuvok also lives in isolation, but does not crack up.
Alter Ego does not exist in isolation. The third season of Voyager seems to have a very regressive political perspective on such issues. The depiction of family life in Real Life is one such example, but there are plenty of other more overt examples of the show’s worrying attitudes towards traditional gender roles. The Q and the Grey might just be the best example, suggesting that Q’s ultimate ambition upon meeting a female captain should be to sleep with her and that the first female member of the Continuum should be stuck-up and jealous, with minimal agency.
Marayna feels like a horrible miscalculation, a character who would have seemed dated had she appeared on the original Star Trek. Marayna is obviously very intelligent and insightful, but the episode seems to suggest that she is less capable of dealing with social isolation than Harry or Tuvok. The episode caps all this off with a cringy creepy joke in which both Harry and Tuvok reflexively reject a woman’s attempt to join their game of kal-toh. It makes the jokes about Kate Mulgrew putting her hands on her hips in Macrocosm seem particularly mean-spirited.
To be fair, there some half-formed interesting ideas in Alter Ego. The sequence in which Marayna has weaponised the resort programme against the Voyager crew is delightfully unnerving, evoking the dreamscape of The Thaw. The imagery of smiling waitresses garotting guests with their leis is particularly clever, although it is also fun to see the guys carrying the torches employing them as weapons. It is a delightful piece of surrealism, and there is something to be said for a Star Trek story willing to push “the holodeck tries to kill the crew” to its logical conclusion.
There is also a clever final twist in the idea that Marayna is actually a construct being manipulated from outside the ship, with the holographic character used as a puppet by somebody spying on the workings of the ship. It is great idea, and one that feels ahead of the curve. Marayna is ultimately an avatar, an online persona that mirrors those employed by people posting on message boards and playing multiplayer games. Of course, this is all very obvious in the context of the twenty-first century, but it was a novel idea in the mid- to late-nineties.
Indeed, there might be a more interesting story to be told about the relationship between the holographic Marayna and the alien who is pulling the strings. Is this holographic reaction an accurate representation of who she is? More than that, she only interacts with Harry and Tuvok on the holodeck, so how is her perception of them shaped by those encounters? After all, peering into a ship through the holodeck is almost like walking into somebody’s fantasies. It is a window to the collective subconscious.
To be fair, later episodes of Voyager would build on this clever final twist, to varying degrees of success. Tinker Tailor Doctor Spy would introduce the Heirarchy, a bureaucratic alien species that would peer into Voyager through the eyes of the EMH. Inside Man would find the Ferengi manipulating a holographic programme to serve as their spy on Voyager. Many of the later episodes centring on the EMH, like Body and Soul or Renaissance Man, would play with this idea of holographic identity.
Indeed, Alter Ego could be seen as the point at which a recurring theme begins to solidify within Voyager. Over the course of the show, Voyager repeatedly focuses on the lives touched by the crew as they journey towards the Alpha Quadrant, the footprints that they leave in the sand. To be fair, this is standard practice for a television show, given that stories tend to involve the crew meeting various aliens. However, Voyager increasingly engages with the idea of the ship and crew as something approaching a Delta Quadrant myth seen through the eyes of other species.
Alter Ego is the first episode to really touch upon the idea of Voyager as seen by an alien visitor. It is not explored in the context of the episode, by Marayna’s efforts to insert herself into the life of the crew foreshadows later stories. In Distant Origin, Professor Forra Gegen chases Voyager across the Delta Quadrant as validation of his own theories. In Living Witness, Voyager is presented as a mythic force. In Muse, the crew’s stories become legend. In Blink of an Eye, Voyager becomes an object of worship to an alien species looking to the sky.
A lot of this is down to writer Joe Menosky, who also suggested mythologising Voyager in False Profits. Voyager’s journey home is constrasted with the static nature of Marayna’s assignment. Voyager passes by the inversion nebula as it journeys home, but Marayna will always remain there. (Or on her home planet nearby.) There is something quite appealing about the idea of Voyager as a mythic force that brushes against more static objects on its journey back to the Alpha Quadrant, and in the show’s willingness to look from the outside in.
Still, these are ideas that find better expression elsewhere.