There is something to be said for the pulpier side of Star Trek: Voyager, the aspect of the show that plays like a cheesy sci-fi b-movie.
Brannon Braga is very much the driving force behind this aspect of the show, as evidenced by his scripts for the belated Cold War body-swapping horror of Cathexis or the psychological nightmare of Projections or the trashy psychedelic terror of Cold Fire or even the weird evolutionary anxieties of Threshold and Macrocosm. These sorts of episodes often feel like they belong in a late night movie slot reserved for forgotten horror flicks from the fifties and sixties. Of course, Braga is not alone in this; episodes like Meld and The Thaw also fit the pattern.
Of course, these episodes do not always hit the mark. Charitably, it could be argued that they land about half the time and misfire spectacularly about one third of the time. However, there is something strangely compelling about these episode. They feel distinct from what audiences expect from Star Trek. Even if they are arguably just an extension of late Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes like Sub Rosa or Genesis or Eye of the Beholder, they feel like something different from the show’s more conventional “let’s do archetypal Star Trek” plotting.
Darkling is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but which is oddly endearing in its dysfunction. It is a ridiculous central premise executed in a deeply flawed (and occasionally uncomfortable) manner. However, there is something weirdly compelling about wedding the show’s science-fiction premise to gothic horror through the fractured psyche of a computer program.
Darkling is a surprisingly gothic episode, even considering the obvious influence of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde on the script. A lot of that is down to the choice of setting. Voyager visits a trading outpost on a remote world, a planet that seems to consist entirely of mountains and forests populated by an entire species of wanderers. The episode opens on Janeway sitting inside an old-style tavern, with a fireplace burning brightly behind her. She is being regaled with stories of mystery and wonder by the local innkeeper.
“The hours past, the air grew cold, and with our weapons we started a fire to keep warm,” narrates Nakahn. “Later, in the night, we awoke with a shudder. The ground was shaking.” Janeway is clearly caught up in the narrative, as ridiculous as it might seem. His tale recalls the narratives crafted by sailors, a myth that treats the cosmos as place of infinite wonder beholden more to magic than rational science. It certainly does an effective job establishing a tone for the rest of Darkling.
Of course, there is something faintly frustrating in all of this. As ever, Voyager consciously retreats from the bolder promise of earlier episodes. Much like Voyager pulled back the mystery and intrigue teased by the new frontier in Fair Trade, the show recoils from the tease of the Borg buried in the final few moments of Blood Fever and the threat posed in Unity. The very premise of Darkling insists upon “business as usual”, Voyager visiting a strange new world like they would on any other week.
“Our guests are offering us supplies we need,” Zahir advises Nakahn. “In exchange we Travellers are giving them a look at what lies ahead of them. We should keep that view as clear as possible.” In theory, Janeway should already knows what lies ahead. The Borg Collective loom in the distance, the single largest threat in the Star Trek canon. As such, it is quite disheartening to see Voyager back to bumping into random aliens again. Surely the Borg have pillaged and destroyed any civilisations living this close to their territory?
The subject of the Borg never comes up. Instead, Zahir offers generic advice about the other alien species living in the region. “You should navigate here, away from this plasma belt, you’ll avoid the Tarkan sentries altogether,” Zahir explains to Tuvok. Tuvok responds, “It would also take Voyager off a direct course to the Alpha Quadrant.” The crew really should have bigger things to worry about. After all, the looming threat of the Borg should probably feel like the pending threat of the Dominion War on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Allowing for this issue, which plagues the rest of the show’s third season, Darkling does a great job of establishing mood. Zahir takes Kes on a magical evening walk through a forest following a mountain path. The characters all dress in old-fashioned robes, while the killer conceals his identity with a ridiculous hood. Beaming back to the ship, the EMH draws attention to the absurdity of the costuming. “Why I’m wearing these ridiculous clothes?” he demands of the ominous gown that his doppelganger had chosen.
Even the Mikhal Travellers themselves feel like they were lifted from a nineteenth century gothic horror story. The name sounds suitably Eastern European, recalling the landscape of tales like Dracula. The nomadic lifestyle of the Mikhal recalls that of the Roma community, the gypsies who seem to populate classic horror narratives. Indeed, even the makeup design cements this idea by reference to the larger Star Trek canon. The Mikhal are distinguished by nose ridges; this recalls the Bajorans, franchise’s most high profile displaced species.
The plotting of Darkling is also something of a throwback. The episode builds to a climactic confrontation on the edge of a cliff, a literal cliffhanger. This is a touch that harks back to old pulpy adventures, evoking everything from Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty throwing themselves over the cliff in The Final Problem to the deaths of Disney villains like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast or the Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is such a classic trope that it seems almost quaint in the context of Star Trek.
As the special effects used to realise the giant viral monsters in Macrocosm, the computer-generated imagery in Darkling has not aged particularly well. The climactic scenes look more than a little ridiculous, particularly the wide shots of the evil!EMH forcing Kes across the narrow edge and the shots of the pair falling to their potential doom. These sequences feel almost stylised, looking quite animated. The result is something that looks like it belongs in a much older piece of entertainment, perhaps even a black-and-white film.
Even the premise of the episode feels very much like an homage to a very retro school of horror. The EMH decides to upgrade his programming by copying subroutines drawn from a variety of historical figures, from Mahatma Gandhi to Lord George Byron to T’Pau of Vulcan. Inevitably, it all goes spectacularly wrong. It creates a monstrous alter ego for the EMH, a monster denoted by his slumped posture and his unkempt hair. It is a classic horror movie transformation, one that recalls the werewolf or Mister Hyde.
As with so many of these classic horror movie villains, there is something decidedly creepier lurking just beneath the surface of the literal transformation. Many of those nineteenth century horror classics, from Frankenstein to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde to Dracula, layer their monstrous characters with suggestions of something more carnal and unsettling. Reproductive and sexual horror tends to ripple just beneath the surface of these tales, with horror providing a metaphor through which these ideas might be explored.
The original novels were informed by the cultural mores of nineteenth-century Britain, where topics of sex and sexuality were certainly never openly discussed. When these novels were originally adapted for the silver screen in the twentieth century, there were similar forces at work. The Hayes Code prevented frilms from directly engaging with ideas of sexual expression and deviance. So that simmered underneath polished exteriors, with directors like James Whale burying queer themes in films like The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein.
There is certainly an element of that to Darkling, which seems appropriate. It is written by Joe Menosky from a story that he drafted with writer Brannon Braga. Both writers have a long interest in themes of psychology and identity; Braga in stories like Frame of Mind and Flashback, Menosky in Masks and The Thaw, together in Remember, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. It makes sense that the writers would be drawn to the grotesque and stylised psychodrama suggested by Darkling.
Indeed, over the course of Voyager, Braga seems particularly interested in the idea of the EMH as a character with a very transparent and literal subconscious as reflected by the fact that he is comprised entirely of computer algorithms. Unlike human characters, it is quite easy to get inside the head of the EMH. Unraveling the EMH’s frame of mind is as simple as debugging lines of code. Braga plays with this idea in scripts like Projections and in his manipulation of the EMH’s psychology in scripts like Latent Image or Equinox, Part II.
To be fair, the EMH is not the only computer-based individual subject to such psychological exploration. The seventh season of The Next Generation ventured into the subconscious of Data in Phantasms and of the Enterprise itself in Emergence, both episodes that could be seen to foreshadow how Voyager‘s treatment of the EMH. Seven of Nine undergoes similar technology-related breakdowns in episodes like Retrospect, The Voyager Conspiracy and Infinite Regress.
However, it does seem that holographic characters on Voyager are particularly subject to such breakdowns. The EMH already had a complete mental breakdown in The Swarm, but will also encounter other holographic lifeforms afflicted by severe psychological conditions. In Revulsion, Dejaren demonstrates severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and murders his organic crew members. In Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, Iden develops a messiah complex and suggests that his fellow holograms should worship him.
Unsurprisingly, given the interests of Braga and Menosky, early drafts of Darkling were loaded with psycho-sexual subtext. As Menosky explained to Cinefantastique:
We originally made The Doctor perversely sexual and sadistic. There was a sense that his attachment to Kes was weirdly kind of psycho-sexual, and we took it to its limit. In the screenplay first draft that I wrote, I had a scene when Kes walks into the holodeck and sees The Doctor doing an experiment. There are Keses everywhere, and he’s got one of them on the operating table, and he has some flip line about, ‘Just trying to get to know you better.’ It’s very perverse.
There are certainly elements of that bleeding through into the final cut of the episode, with a decidedly sexual subtext to the evil!EMH. He is undoubtedly more violent and aggressive than his alter ego, but he also seems more perverse than his relatively innocent counterpart.
After all, the introduction to the EMH’s attempts at enhancing his personality finds Gandhi lecturing about the importance of sexual restraint and repression. “Men and women should refrain from enjoying each other,” Gandhi insists. “By that I mean to say, even their mutual glances must be free of all suggestion of carnality.” Gandhi seems to urge a sexless world, perhaps one that resembles the relatively sterile twenty-fourth century as portrayed on the Berman-era Star Trek shows.
It is suggested that the evil!EMH is in someway a product of all that repression. “I was born of the hidden, the suppressed,” he insists, a rather poetic piece of dialogue. Then again, most monsters are born of those things; it is easier to process that which makes us uncomfortable when filtered through the fantastical. In some ways, Darkling seems to be touching up the themes left half-developed in Blood Fever. The evil!EMH is the ultimate expression of pent-up sexual frustration, a raging id motivated my carnal desire.
Even before the malfunctions become clear, it is suggested that the EMH is undergoing some sort of sexual awakening. When Torres reports to Sickbay suffering from heartburn, the EMH engages in some casual workplace harassment. “In my preparatory report to the away team, I recall mentioning to you that Klingons lacked an enzyme for metabolising this planet’s vegetation,” he reflects. He leans in close, almost whispering, “Have you been naughty?” This is before his transformation.
This creepy subtext only grows stronger once the EMH actually begins to transform into the evil!EMH. There is something decidedly creepy in the way that the evil!EMH chooses to torture Torres as she lies paralysed on his bio-bed. “I’ve paralysed you from the waist down,” he suggests. “You’re now in my capable hands.” He creepily runs his finger up her thigh, framing the threat in sexual terms. Later on, the evil!EMH stalks an anonymous female Ensign and plots to kidnap Kes.
To be fair, sex and sexuality have long been an interest of Brannon Braga. After all, the writer was responsible for the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and the creation of Seven of Nine, both female characters who could be defined as “cybernetic dominatrices.” Indeed, the writer has a long-stated interest in exploring the kinky side of Star Trek:
Braga has been at Paramount for five years and has worked on more than 150 episodes, seeing his ideas shot down and reworked by half a dozen people. If he could write one show entirely on his own – total freedom, no one else involved – what would he do?
“That’s easy.” Braga grins, and slides the hefty tome into his satchel. “I’ve always wondered what people really do on the Holodeck.”
In some ways, Darkling could be seen as a slight variation on that original pitch; it is a story about what really goes on inside the mind of a hologram. During the show’s original run, Braga had an acknowledged fondness for collecting pornography and “raunchy art.” As such, it makes sense that some of that would bleed into his work on the show.
There is something to be said for being willing to talk candidly about sex and sexuality, as Blood Fever halfheartedly argued. Darkling touches on the idea of sexual awakening, hinting at the sexual development of Kes through her flirtations with Zahir. Late at night, she walks through an empty forest with him. It is like a scene from a fairy tale. The episode is reasonably explicit about what is happening. “How about an understanding?” she teases. “A meeting of the minds?” Zahir responds, “Only minds?”
Repeatedly over the course of Darkling, male characters are forced to confront the fact that Kes is growing up. Tuvok makes note of Kes arriving back on the ship at a late hour. “It is three o’clock in the morning, Kes,” he states. “You have an away team report due at oh eight hundred hours.” Similarly, the EMH complains, “Gallivanting around after hours is beside the point. The fact is, you’re becoming increasingly unpredictable, given to swings of mood and emotion.”
The recurring suggestion is that Kes has found herself at the cusp of womanhood, between being a girl and being a woman. The male characters struggle to adapt to that. Tuvok is protective; when Kes suggests traveling with Zahir, Tuvok seems wary. After Zahir warns of the dangers lurking in a particular region, Tuvok inquires, “You aren’t planning on taking Kes anywhere near this part of space?” Kes is shown to be going through something approaching her late teenage years; staying out late with boys, considering leaving home.
Kes explicitly acknowledges this in her conversations with the EMH. “Doctor, I know that you care about me and that you have my best interests at heart, but everyone seems to be treating me like I’m still a child,” she warns him. “I’m three years old now. If I’m attracted to someone it’s my business, not the whole ship’s.” It is definitely worthwhile to acknowledge sex and sexuality as part of growing up, particularly for female characters. On American television, there is a tendency to downplay the sexual lives of prominent female characters.
Pop culture tends to deal awkwardly with female sexuality, insisting on uncomfortable dichotomies that play into sexist stereotypes, the insistence that a woman cannot have and enjoy sex without that becoming defining trait. There are any number of examples from nineties television. Whereas Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Archer all had romances within their first two seasons, Janeway has to wait until the fifth season’s Counterpoint to get a romance episode. On The X-Files, Gillian Anderson and Glen Morgan fought with Chris Carter over the production of Never Again.
To be fair, Voyager makes a point to have Janeway celebrate Kes’ growth. Janeway actively encourages Kes to embrace new experiences with Zahir. There is a very clear (if unspoken) implication there that Janeway is encouraging Kes to embrace the possibilities of adult life. When Kes suggests taking a trip with Zahir, Janeway does not respond with concern but with understanding. “That would certainly give you a chance to get to know him better,” she reflects, insisting Kes has the right to make her own choices.
The short scene between Janeway and Kes is very sweet. Janeway’s empathy and understanding for Kes’ situation stands in marked contrast to the patronising concern expressed by Tuvok and the EMH. It seems as though Darkling is trying to make a point about the double-standards applied to women who do want to explore their options and their sexual identity. Despite being a surrogate parent figure for Kes, Janeway is sympathetic and encouraging. The varied reactions to Kes’ awakening ar insightful, in their own ways.
However, there are several problems with trying to explore this idea through Kes. Most obviously, there is something deeply creepy about the decision to portray Kes as an alien who will only live nine years. In theory, it is a very clever science-fiction metaphor. Imagine watching Kes grow over the seven seasons of Voyager, living a full and meaningful life over one-hundred-and-seventy episodes. Of course, Voyager was never going to tell that story because it would require serialisation and long-form storytelling, which are simply not what Voyager does.
As a result, Kes is not really a character arc, but a character with a sole defining attribute. That attribute is not that she will live out most of her life over the course of the seven years of the show, because Voyager is disinterested in this concept even before The Gift writes her out of the series. That attribute is the fact that Kes is between one and three years old during her time on Voyager. This is not a story about a young woman living her life in a short amount of time, it is about a woman who looks much older than she actually is.
This is an issue against which Voyager brushed when it waded into the toxic swamp that was the romance between Neelix and Kes. After all, regardless of the fact that Kes was played by a twenty-one-year-old actor, the show was constantly insisting that she was only two years old. Regardless of basic biology, that creates all sorts of questions about experience and power imbalances within the relationship. It is hard to believe that three years (even three Ocampan years) are enough time to fully forge an identity, let alone a sexual identity.
As a result, attempts to sexualise Kes often felt deeply creepy. The writing staff on Voyager realised this, with Warlord effectively hinging on little more than “isn’t it super creepy to watch a hypersexualised Kes?” This creates an interesting challenge in writing stories about Kes’ sexuality, because it makes any male character expressing an interest in her seem almost predatory, as there is simply no way that Kes could ever hope to have equivalent or comparable life experience to a prospective romantic partner.
This is reflected in both Warlord and Darkling, episodes that suggest Tuvok and the EMH harbour a deep-seated sexual attraction to Kes. There is something distinctly uncomfortable in this suggestion, given that both Tuvok and the EMH are effectively surrogate father figures for Kes. Voyager seems to suggest that it is impossible for any relationship between a man and woman to remain divorced from sexual desire, at least on the part of the man. It is a rather unfortunate stereotype, and one into which Voyager repeatedly played.
Indeed, the psycho-sexual subtext of Darkling generated no shortage of controversy among the production team. As Joe Menosky related to Cinefantastique, the theme was toned down at the behest of a figure no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the show:
Michael Piller […] wrote a strong memo. He basically said, ‘If you guys shoot it like this, I’m going to take my name off this episode.’ It made us reconsider doubts that we’d had. Michael’s argument was that you got a sense, after the episode was done and The Doctor was back to normal, that somewhere in The Doctor was this horrible, dirty old man who was just waiting to get his hands on Kes. There was almost no way to erase that. That’s probably why Picardo was so disappointed when we ended up not going that route, because he really loved the ‘S and M Doctor,’ as he liked to call it.
To be fair, Piller has a point. After all, Voyager had hardly acquitted itself well with the sexual politics of Blood Fever. More than that, when the writer of Tattoo worries that a script is tasteless, it is probably a good idea to listen.
As a result, a lot of the sexual subtext of Darkling is toned down and muted in the finished episode. However, just enough remains haunting the edges of the narrative. The evil!EMH might claim that he is abducting Kes to protect her from herself, but his behaviour towards other female crew members suggests a much darker intention. (Which serves to render Kes’ appeal to his better nature towards the climax feel somewhat tone deaf.) There is very definitely a coded sexual threat.
The sexual subtext is not removed, it is just buried right beneath the surface. No viewer could be mistaken about the impulses driving the evil!EMH, despite his pseudo-philosophical rhetoric. The episode still revels in a sequence of evil!EMH stalking a female ensign, with only the late arrival of Tom Paris seeming to avert some horrific incident. Torres still finds herself paralysed on a bed, subject to the mercies of the evil!EMH. Darkling retains the psycho-sexual elements, but simply opts not to explore them or deal with them.
The result is deeply unsatisfying, particularly in the context of the third season as a whole. As Michelle Erica Green reflects of the third season’s big-ticket episodes:
If it was a goal of Voyager’s writers to demonstrate that men can’t control themselves on long space missions and should be left at home, then the series succeeded triumphantly during the sweeps month that included Blood Fever, Unity, and Darkling. In the latter, for the second time in three consecutive episodes, we see a woman on the crew assaulted by a man with the excuse that his out-of-control body made him do it, and the man ultimately suffers no negative consequences while the woman is offered no protection, no counseling, not even the validation of having others acknowledge that the experience might have been traumatic.
Green makes a great point, but it almost feels like she gives Voyager too much credit. Torres has been assaulted by a male colleague three times in three episodes, each given the excuse of not being themselves. Vorik in Blood Fever, Chakotay in Unity, the EMH in Darkling.
This all contributes to a rather toxic tone seeping through the third season as a whole. Voyager should be a feminist piece of television, by any measure. It is the first Star Trek show to be headlined by a female character. It is the first Star Trek show to feature a single female showrunner. It is the only Star Trek show to feature four credited female leads, with never less than three credited female leads across each of its three seasons. In theory, Voyager should literally and figuratively bring Star Trek into the twenty-first century.
However, the show repeatedly falls short. Voyager feels downright reactionary on issues of race and gender. The Kazon felt like a racial caricature, but the gender politics were not much better. Janeway lacks consistent characterisation. Kes spends the bulk of her time on the show trapped in an abusive relationship normalised by the narrative. Kes will be dropped from the show at the start of the fourth season for a character in a catsuit so tight that it took ten minutes to go to the bathroom.
If the show’s questionable racial politics bubbled to the surface over the second season in episodes like Initiations and Alliances, then the show’s problems with gender shone through the third season. In The Q and the Grey, it was decided that Q’s reaction to the franchise’s first female captain should be to try to sleep with her in an episode that introduced his nagging “ball and chain.” In Alter Ego, Tuvok gets to live through his own version of Fatal Attraction. Blood Fever opens with a sexual assault that the rest of the hour trivialises.
Darkling feels very much like a part of that. To be fair, stripping out the psycho-sexual elements was probably the right call. The writing staff on Voyager have struggled with concepts as simple as basic television structuring, and Blood Fever makes it clear that they cannot be trusted to deal with issues related to sex in a particularly candid manner. However, stripping those elements out leaves Darkling with nothing but a lot of (explicit and implied) sexual violence directed at the female cast members.
Darkling also suffers because it has nothing interesting to replace that psycho-sexual tension. As a result, the evil!EMH becomes a collection of vague clichés and half-considered nihilism. Abducting Kes, the evil!EMH rants like a supervillain about the raw and undiluted power of evil. To his captive audience, he preaches a truth “that darkness is more fundamental than light. Cruelty before kindness. Evil more primary than good, more deserving of existence.” It is all nonsense, and any fan of pulpy media has heard it all before.
The evil!EMH positions himself as a holographic Nietzschean übermensch. “I am beyond considerations of wrong and right,” he insists. “Behavioral categories are for the weak, for those of you without the will to define your existence, to do what they must, no matter who might get harmed along the way.” This is all cliché stuff, the ramblings of an angry teenager raging at the world. The most interesting thing about it is that it reflects Star Trek‘s deep-seated fears about “unnatural” life-forms like holograms, androids and the genetically engineered.
This thread allows for some stock Star Trek optimism, with Kes affirming the core values of the franchise by insisting that the evil!EMH’s worldview is fundamentally wrong. She insists that goodwill and decency are the ordering principles of the universe. “Then you know what I’m saying is true. The very organs and cells of the body cooperate with each other, otherwise they wouldn’t function.” She expands, “Families, societies, cultures, wouldn’t have evolved without compassion and tolerance.”
This is all very Star Trek 101, a humanist philosophy couched in optimistic vagaries that insist upon a compassionate universe. It is an argument that the franchise has made countless times before, and with a great deal more nuance. While it provides the slightest hint of substance to the whole evil!EMH plot, it also feels very shallow. It is a theme that has clearly been shoehorned into the script at the last minute when another was taken out, with Voyager falling back on classic Star Trek clichés for security and comfort.
And yet, in spite of all this, there is a certain pulpy charm to Darkling. It is a ridiculous and deeply flawed episode, but it also has an endearing energy that is sorely lacking from many of the surrounding stories. A large part of that comes from the performance of Robert Picardo, who cites the episode as one of his favourites:
One of my favorite Voyager episodes was called The Darkling where my – it was a Jekyll and Hyde episode for my character and I got to play the sort of pure evil version of my regular program. That’s always a lot of fun for an actor to do.
Picardo’s performance as the evil!EMH is ridiculous and exaggerated, but that is part of the charm. With only a few small changes to his hair and make-up, Picardo adjusts the character’s posture and demeanour to construct something monstrous. The evil!EMH almost wanders into the uncanny valley, something that looks close to human but also somehow inherently wrong.
Picardo is possibly the strongest actor in Voyager‘s cast, as demonstrated by the way that the EMH became the series’ breakout character through a series of small character moments scattered across the first season like breadcrumbs. Picardo is also a veteran of exactly the sort of cheesy b-movies towards which Darkling pitches itself; he has appeared in films like The Howling, Legend, Amazon Women on the Moon, Innerspace and Gremlins 2. Picardo understands how best to pitch his performance; it recalls Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Danny DeVito’s Penguin.
The evil!EMH feels like a creature from some forgotten horror film. He seems to stagger and stumble more than he walks, as if feeling uncomfortable in his own holographic body. His lower jaw protrudes. His movements are clumsy, struggling to properly load a hypospray. Sadly, the mechanics of the evil!EMH prevent Picardo from playing a true “transformation” scene in the style of a classic werewolf movie, but the homage is clear. Picardo understands what Darkling is attempting to accomplish, and his performance is very effective in that context.
Darkling is a messy and deeply flawed episode, one that arguably suffers more in the context of the episodes around it than it does on its own merits. At the same time, the episode has a weird energy that taps into the darker and weirder side of Voyager. It is almost refreshing to see Voyager swinging so wildly, even if the result is far from perfect. Darkling is an episode that is unsatisfying, but intriguing. Given where Voyager is at this moment in time, that may not be the worst thing.