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Star Trek: Voyager – Virtuoso (Review)

Virtuoso is an interesting companion piece to Blink of an Eye.

Blink of an Eye was in many ways an exploration and reflection of Star Trek as a multimedia franchise, looking at the way in which the franchise has touched and shaped contemporary culture in the thirty-odd years since its inception. As part of this, the episode touched on fandom in a variety of ways, whether the abstract fandom of those individuals inspired by the series to accomplish great things or the more specific fandom including merchandise. Blink of an Eye was very much an episode about loving Star Trek.

Music to our ears.

As a result, Virtuoso feels like a very strange choice to directly follow Blink of an Eye. The two episodes are not connected by plot, outside of the basic idea that the EMH might spend an extended period of time on an alien planet without access to Voyager. After all, Star Trek: Voyager had committed itself to producing standalone episodic storytelling. However, Virtuoso is also something of a metaphor for Star Trek fandom, a look at what it is to love a piece of popular entertainment and to eagerly embrace it.

Unfortunately, the proximity to Blink of an Eye does no favours for Virtuoso, emphasising the script’s weaknesses and tone-deafness. Virtuoso is an episode that feels very pointed and cynical in its portrayal of fandom, very broad and very unpleasant. It is a clumsy and muddled piece of television, on that struggles to hit the right notes.

Small pleasures.

By this point in the sixth season, it often feels like Voyager is a television series largely defined by its struggles to articulate what it means to be a Star Trek television series. Repeatedly over the course of the season, the basic plots of Voyager episodes seem like meditations upon Star Trek as a multimedia pop culture phenomenon, as if the writers and producers are trying to make sense of the franchise’s third live action spin-off. There is a weird reflexive quality to a lot of these episodes.

After all, Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II seem to exist to throw Voyager into conflict with its shadow-self, an alternate version of the television series as much as of the crew. Barge of the Dead presents the standing sets and the regular cast as the embodiment of hell. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy touches upon the feeling of watching television to escape into fantasy. The Voyager Conspiracy tries to add continuity to the series. One Small Step touches on the franchise’s link to NASA. Pathfinder is about obsessive fandom. Tsunkatse crosses over with WWE.

Just what the Doctor ordered.

Of course, there has often been a reflexive quality to these later spin-offs. A large part of the appeal of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was in watching the production team play with (and subvert) conventional Star Trek tropes from the premise “to boldly sit” through to the existential threat of the Dominion War. If anything, Star Trek: Enterprise would position itself as an even more explicitly “meta” piece of Star Trek, asking what it meant to be a Star Trek television series.

Nevertheless, the sixth season of Voyager seems to take this self-aware introspection to its extreme. Deep Space Nine might have been engaged in a larger conversation about what it meant to be Star Trek, but it was also clearly telling its own story on its own terms. Chimera might read as a critique of the franchise’s own reluctance to depict homosexual characters, but it was also a satisfying watch on its own terms. Enterprise might have been even more reflexive and self-aware than Voyager, but it was clearly building off these episodes.

Holo promises.

In some ways, this reflexive quality in Voyager could be seen as a reflection of the larger popular culture. As Jesse Fox Mayshark argues in Post-Pop Cinema:

Knowing pastiche and choreographed irony were the standards of the day, from the anthemic indifference of Nirvana to Quentin Tarantino’s recombinant crime movies to the acrid genre-tweaing of the Scream horror films. Reflexive self-awareness was the favoured fin de siecle pose, one that coincided neatly with the rise of the internet and digital media. As technology made the archives of art and culture both more accessible and easier to replicate, it became ever more tempting to mix and match the aesthetics of the past, from the cool-eyes perspective of the present. What was striking about Tarantino’s first two movies, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, was the winking familiarity that allowed him to play on and subvert audience’s expectations. Tarantino was relying on his viewers’ shared assimilation of pop culture as a starting point for riffes that were not really about story or characters so much as they were about pop culture itself. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the form became the content.

There are any number of examples towards the end of the decade, particularly the knowing and winking resurrections of The Brady Bunch and Charlie’s Angels as ironic, knowing feature films.

Waiting in the wings.

In this context, it makes sense that the Star Trek franchise should begin producing Star Trek that was ultimately about Star Trek. After all, any sufficiently long-running piece of popular culture builds up a critical mass of history and continuity that allows it become a vehicle for telling stories that are ultimately about itself, for producing additions to the larger canon that might be best understood as existing in conversation with the earlier and formative entries in the given series.

This trend would become more prominent in the twenty-first century; films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Avengers: Infinity War might be best understood in relation to their franchises rather than as their own entities. Similarly, Star Trek Into Darkness arguably serves as a complete reimagining of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but one that is only slightly more overt than earlier attempts like Star Trek: First Contact, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, Bliss, Star Trek: Nemesis, Borderland, Cold Station 12 and The Augments.

“I mean, people love neurotic celebrities!”

Virtuoso attempts to wed this postmodern reflexive analysis of Star Trek fandom to a broader meditation on the idea of celebrity. Once again, celebrity was a recurring fascination in the context of the nineties. This was the decade where the paparazzi chased Princess Diana to her death. This was the decade where Woody Allen literally released a film titled Celebrity. Of course, there had always been icons and stars, whose images had been carefully curated and managed by the studio system, but the nineties seemed to see the cult of celebrity explode dramatically.

During the nineties, the public would watch the star-making apparatus in operation. Certain celebrities were known as being “famous for being famous”, demonstrating the reflexive quality of nineties fame. Pop music had always been dominated by groups that were brands as much as bands, but the nineties took that its logical extreme with the manufacture of pop groups like the Spice Girls, Boyzone, NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, Bewitched. The television series Pop Idol would premiere in October 2001, allowing the audience to see how the sausage was made.

New and improved.

This was perhaps the culmination of a broader cultural movement, the literal expression of the idea of celebrity as articulated by Daniel Boorstein in The Image during the late seventies:

In the last half century the old heroic human mold has been broken. A new mold has been made. We have actually demanded that this mold be made, so that marketable human models – modern heroes – could be mass-produced, to satisfy the market, and without any hitches. The qualities which now commonly make a man or woman into a “nationally advertised” brand are in fact a new category of human emptiness. Our new mold is shaped not of the stuff of our familiar morality, nor even of the old familiar reality.

Framed in these terms, it is surprising that it took Voyager so long to play with the idea of celebrity. Voyager is a television show preoccupied with questions about “the old familiar reality”, often expressed through the holodeck.

Sing when you’re winning.

The EMH questioned the nature of his reality in Projections, a nervous breakdown literalised through the shattering of his holographic personality. The Swarm had the character suffer a completely neurological breakdown as a result of degradation and decay. Latent Image played with the question of identity and memory by having the crew literally rewrite their colleague’s code. Bride of Chaotica! imagined aliens who conceived of the holodeck as real and of everything outside as fake. Even Fair Haven wondered if it was possible to really love an unreal person.

As such, the EMH is a perfect vehicle to explore the unreality of nineties celebrity. Virtuoso plays with this idea in a number of ways. Like nineties celebrities, the EMH commodifies himself as much as his artistry. Seven of Nine quite correctly points out that the EMH is not actually creating anything, merely repackaging and approximating it. “This glorification of the individual is irrational,” the former drone observes. “The Doctor is merely reproducing the work of others. Why do his fans fixate solely on him?”

A night at the opera-tion.

Similarly, it is revealing that the EMH seeks to package and distribute copies of himself. When the Qomar want access to the EMH’s music, Janeway suggests, “I believe he’s made some recordings.” They respond by clarifying that they don’t want the music, they want the EMH. When the EMH is meeting his fans later on, he has produced miniature versions of himself, an “eight by ten by four singing replica.” To the Qomar, the EMH is quite literally a mass-produced pop cultural phenomenon.

This idea is repeated towards the climax of the episode, when it is revealed that the Tincoo has produced an enhanced copy of the EMH to recite her music and to hit the notes that the EMH is not capable of hitting. The EMH is horrified to discover that he is disposable and can be discarded, recalling the various sad stories of the members of these manufactured pop groups who were often left behind as the forces behind their early success moved on to other projects and as popular taste moved past them.

Voicing concern.

It is perhaps quite pointed that the Qomar are defined by a love of mathematics rather than a love of art, observing that this mass-production of celebrity is more about the churn of capitalism than the demands of art. It evokes ideas that it is possible to produce a cold formula for popular success, to reduce a work of artistry down to a sequence of numbers and ingredients combined in a predetermined order to generate an expected outcome. As a hologram, the EMH might just be the perfect celebrity for the nineties; he can be copied, rewritten, retooled. He is a holo man.

The EMH insists that he is a real person, and not merely a commodity. “I am much more than a programme with musical subroutines,” he tells Tincoo. “All of my experience, all of my passion, goes into every note that I sing. When you listen to me, when my singing moves you, you’re not just hearing notes. You’re hearing my artistry. My soul.” Tincoo coldly responds, “I’ve duplicated that, too.” The EMH is Boyzone, watching himself replaced by Westlife, and staring at a future populated by Blue, JLS, A1 and Busted.

He ain’t clowning.

This is the cynical reality of fame, and arguably always has been. Even if nineties audiences were more aware of these reality than earlier viewers, there was a long-standing tradition of constructing celebrity. In Claims to Fame, Joshua Gamson acknowledges that this notion of celebrity as a process of manufacturing is not new of itself:

As the treatment of fame as produced and the famous as commercial products took hold, the entertainment media pursued the question of exactly how that production worked. Entertainment production began to be revealed. A 1967 article in TV Guide offered instructions in “how to manufacture a celebrity.” Detailing the case of Barbara Walters, the author demonstrated how the “mechanical assembly line” created celebrities from raw human material: Walters was picked up in small feature stories, then profiled in Life and TV Guide. After being provided with professional recognition, she was “piped into the lecture circuit” and later into commercials, which turned her into a “personality.” Then “certain characteristic things began to happen to her – none of which had anything to do with her professional skills.” She became “courted as a ‘name’.” Her wardrobe, home, and cosmetic habits were women’s magazine topis; she appeared on talk shows and at “fancy” parties. Even Walters recognises her own manufacture, chatting “candidly about the meaningless mechanics of fabricated fame.”

Nevertheless, this manufacture became a lot more overt during the nineties. At the turn of the millennium, discussions of celebrity frequently adopted “an ironic and self-reflexive tone that constructs their audiences as increasingly media literate and savvy.” This is perhaps best reflected in the explosion of reality television.

“Two words. Second word, ‘You’.”

There may even be something ironic and self-aware in the context of Virtuoso itself. At this point in the run, Voyager was a television series experiencing significant difficulties with its primary cast. Kate Mulgrew had famously announced her intention to quit the show during the fifth season, only to walk that back in late-night phone calls to those critics who had heard the announcement. Robert Beltran was vocal in his criticisms of how Voyager was run. Garrett Wang was almost fired for turning up late to the set.

There is something pointed in the portrayal of the EMH as a character who allows his ego to get the better of him. Janeway has to repeatedly remind the EMH to stop basking in his celebrity and instead commit to his duties on the ship. “You’ve been neglecting your Sickbay duties,” Janeway warns him. “I haven’t received a report in three days.” The production team on Voyager were not above such passive-aggressive writing; they mocked Garrett Wang and Robert Duncan McNeill’s weight gain in Demon.

Injecting a little levity.

A few months after the broadcast of Virtuoso, actor Robert Beltran would outline some of the ego at work on the Voyager set, singling out some of his co-stars for criticism:

I think the only one who reads the scripts any more is Kate. I’m sure she does, “There’s not enough lines in here for me. What’s that Seven of Nine line doing there. That’s my line!” Picardo does, because he’s the same way. “That’s a funny line but its not mine.” Garrett probably does too because he’s always trying to ingratiate himself with the producers.

Beltran’s singling out of Picardo suggests that the characterisation of the EMH in Virtuoso might have been something of a jab from the writers, directed at a star with an inflated ego.

Bruised ego.

After all, it is interesting just how much the EMH has come to dominate Voyager as a television series. Of course, that is also true of Seven of Nine, who has taken over Voyager to the extent that she noticeably even gets her own subplot in Virtuoso in which she learns about celebrity and fandom. However, while the cast and the fans quickly noticed how Jeri Ryan seemed to make Voyager her own, the saturation of the EMH within Voyager goes relatively unexplored.

To be fair, the EMH-centric episodes tend to be strong; Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is a highlight of season six, and the character also has a major role in Blink of an Eye. Nevertheless, the character receives a lot of screen-time relative to his co-stars. In the sixth season alone, he is a focal point of episodes like Equinox, Part II, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Blink of an Eye, Virtuoso and Life Line. In the seventh season, he gets his own arcs in the two big two-parters, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, and Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II.

It ain’t easy being mean.

This development of Voyager into a television series with only three central characters is interesting, with Janeway, Seven and the EMH receiving considerably more attention and focus than the rest of the cast. Caretaker suggested that Voyager was making a conscious effort to recapture the style and tone of the original Star Trek, but it seems like the series only truly embraced that model with the arrival of Seven of Nine in Scorpion, Part II. Like the original Star Trek, it could be argued that Voyager is a series anchored in a leading trio: captain, science officer, doctor.

Virtuoso cheekily acknowledges the over-exposure of the EMH, perhaps even blaming the fandom for the character’s ubiquity and popularity. At one point, the crew attempt to give the spotlight to “Harry Kim and the Kimtones”, only for the audience to react with horror and disgust. The EMH is quickly shuffled back into focus. “Doc, they’re dying up there,” Paris insists. “You’ve got to do something.” This seems like a wry piece of metatextual writing from the production team. The EMH takes focus ahead of characters like Kim, because that is what the audience wants.

“Stop trying to make Harry Kim happen.”

There is something pointed in how the EMH directs his ire. He attacks figures in positions of authority, as if trying to leverage his fame into greater power over the surrounding environment. He dismissively refers to Janeway as “Kathryn”, ignoring and belittling her authority over him. In another ironic touch, the EMH is shown to be particularly dismissive of Torres. Not only is this ironic in the context of the episode, with the EMH later appealing to Torres for help, but it is ironic given Roxann Dawson would develop into one of the franchise’s best directors.

There is another interesting metatextual meditation upon fame buried within Virtuoso. Over the course of the episode, the EMH attracts a number of fans among the Qomar. At one point, the crew even notice that the aliens have started styling their hair in homage to their icon, recalling the popularity of haircuts modelled on the Beatles during the sixties or Jennifer Aniston during the nineties. However, buried within this wry gag is its own celebrity cameo that might easy pass unnoticed or unexplored.

Taking direction.

One of these fans, making an unspeaking appearance is Paris Themmen. Themmen might be best known as “Mike Teevee” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Themmen noted that he was thrilled to have a cameo:

The episode was about a planet of people who were fans of the holo-doc, played by Bob Picardo. When people think of me, they think of me as Mike Teevee. Obviously, I had hair then. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t have a lot of hair. I’m a bald guy. Bob Picardo is a bald guy. And I look passably like Bob Picardo. So I went in, spent a couple of hours in the makeup chair. They gave me a little prosthesis here on my brow, just above my eyebrows, kind of like a Klingon but very much less… just a few little bumps. It was me and a couple of other guys, and they credited us as “Fawning Fans” of the Doctor, who sang, which is why the episode was called Virtuoso. Honestly, I was really jazzed about it, just to be in the Star Trek universe.

This tiny appearance from Themmen, almost buried within the episode, might itself suggest the emptiness and evaporation of fame and celebrity.

Image Rights, and Image Wrongs.

Certain aspects of Virtuoso seem almost prescient in terms of celebrity and image. The EMH’s discovery that he is replaceable, and that his image can be marketed without his consent taps into a recurring anxiety about celebrity branding at the turn of the millennium. This use of celebrity image was a source of concern dating back to at least the eighties, with Coca-Cola using Babe Ruth and I.B.M. using Charlie Chaplin, albeit with the consent of the estates in question.

However, advances in technology have only made this appropriation of celebrity image a more pressing concern into the twenty-first century. Audrey Hepburn is currently selling chocolate bars, using manipulated footage from her cinematic appearances. Gene Kelly is breakdancing for Volkswagen. Modern technology can allow people to construct facsimiles of their favourite celebrities for use in pornography using nothing more than their home computers. Virtuoso touches lightly on this awkward fragmentation of the image of celebrity.

He’s truly beat.

To be fair, Virtuoso never manages to develop these ideas in an interesting direction. It just hangs there in the story, crowded out by other half-developed thematic elements. Similarly, the characterisation of the EMH in Virtuoso feels decidedly shallow and superficial. At certain points, Virtuoso echoes the familiar “holographic rights” themes of episodes like Revulsion and Author, Author, particularly when the EMH confronts Janeway about his desire to leave the ship.

“You don’t see me as an equal, and you never have,” the EMH accuses Janeway. “Admit it.” That is a very loaded accusation to make, particularly in the middle of an episode that seems to be aiming for a relatively light tone. After all, Janeway has embarked on an adventure with a holographic version of Leonardo Da Vinci in Concerning Flight and fell in love with a holographic Irishman in Fair Haven. It seems like accusing Janeway of a deep-seated bigotry would required a bit more build-up and pay-off. It should have a lot more weight around it.

“If Harry Kim met an alien woman on an away mission, fell in love, and decided to spend the rest of his life with her, raise a family instead of continuing on this journey, you wouldn’t stand in his way. We’ll just pretend that Favourite Son and The Disease never happened!”

In fact, that conversation raises a lot of big issues. “I am responsible for the medical needs of this crew,” Janeway responds. “If I let you leave, what kind of captain would I be?” This is another heavily loaded line, recalling the utilitarian version of Janeway suggested by episodes like Nothing Human or Latent Image. This argument really needs more space to play out, instead of being slotted into an off-hand back-and-forth between two of the lead characters in a scene that serves a very specific (and relatively minor) plot purpose in the context of the episode.

To be fair, the issue isn’t just the lines within the scene. The issue is the existence of the scene itself. The audience knows that the EMH is never actually going to leave Voyager, especially not during an episode broadcast in the middle of the sixth season. At least when Picard was assimilated in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and when Worf left the Enterprise in Redemption, Part I there was some tension. Nobody with any televisual literacy would believe that the EMH is going to leave the ship.

“Really, is Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V that hard for people to grasp?”

To be fair, the plot point could work if it were either underplayed or overplayed. Resolutions is an episode that wrings considerable drama out of the idea of Janeway and Chakotay being separated from the ship, even if the audience understands that they must return to their positions by the end of the hour. However, making that separation the entire point of the episode allows the audience to accept the premise. The audience never believes that the characters are actually going to be left behind, but accepts the idea in service of the story being told.

In contrast, Virtuoso invests both too much and too little in the EMH’s departure from Voyager. The idea is not even suggested until the midpoint of the episode, at which point it becomes a very big deal. The EMH gets farewell scenes with Janeway, Paris and Seven. Of course, the idea that Paris is being demoted to full-time doctor underscores the idea that Virtuoso isn’t really taking this idea seriously, but instead eating up time. No sooner are these scenes allowed to play out than the EMH discovers Timcoo designing his replacement, invalidating the whole premise.

“And now, the end is near…”

As a result, the time and energy that Virtuoso invests in the idea feels wasted. It feels like a narrative dead end, a way for the episode to hist the expected forty-odd minute run-time. This was one of Robert Picardo’s criticisms of the episode. Discussing Virtuoso with Cinefantastique, Picardo confessed:

I have to tell you, I thought it was a story problem that the doctor was so willing to leave the ship behind, all of his friends. That always gave me pause. I encouraged Ken Biller to make it a ‘fool for love’ story as much as possible, that the Doctor was sort of swept off his feet by this female alien. I guess I felt that that part of the story never quite took off.

That “fool for love” idea is something else lost in the cluttered teleplay, an idea that is never really broached or explored. The EMH has enough experience with women, whether from Lifesigns or Someone to Watch Over Me, that he should be able to determine the lack of any chemistry or interest on her part.

If at first you don’t succeed, try a tricorder again.

This issue gets at the biggest problem with Virtuoso as an episode of television. It is a story without any tangible stakes or any meaningful content. It is a story that could only possibly work if the audience has never seen another episode of television in their lives. As with a lot of Voyager episodes, Virtuoso is a story where a lot of things happen in rapid succession, but none of them actually mean anything. Unlike episodes of Deep Space Nine that seem to build outward from a central idea, Voyager tends to build episodes about things that happen.

The issue is that none of these things are plausible or interesting. Virtuoso is crammed full of interesting hooks and ideas, but never manages to make them cohere into a single engaging story. It never focuses on any of its ideas long enough to say anything interesting about them. Instead, it throws out a number of quick beats and moves on to the next topic. As a result, the idea of the EMH leaving the ship feels at once impossible and also half-assed. It is a big deal, even though it can’t be, but only until the episode hits on something else to hold its attention.

The audience just isn’t buying it.

A lot of this is down to writer and producer Ken Biller. Biller had left Voyager at the end of the fifth season and returned when Ronald D. Moore quit early in the sixth season. Discussing Virtuoso with Cinefantastique, he mused:

Virtuoso was a story that had been pitched to me the year before. When I came back, I though, I really want to do that story. It’s kind of a soft story. It’s kind of a comedy. There’s not a lot of science fiction to it. But it’s a great story for the Doctor and can be a lot of fun.

Biller is hardly the most inventive or creative of Star Trek writers, prone to go with stock episode premises like Alice or Riddles. Biller’s aesthetic is a large part of why Voyager feels so generic, built on rote episode plots.

Spaced out.

The Qomar themselves are a vaguely interesting and underdeveloped alien concept. There is a repeated suggestion that the Qomar exist processing incredible amounts of information. Their existence is a cacophony of chaos. On visiting their home planet, the crew are almost overwhelmed by the volume of information. “We’re picking up thousands of subspace transmissions, all encrypted differently,” Kim reports. Paris reflects, “Between the satellites and the spacecraft, it’s like navigating an obstacle course.”

Seven of Nine perceives the sheer volume of data generated by the Qomar as a threat to Voyager. She puts the ship on red alert. “I’ve found evidence that the Qomar are attempting to sabotage Voyager,” she reports. “I believe the Qomar are attempting to disable our comm system,” she elaborates. “By overloading it with millions of teraquads of irrelevant data.” It makes sense that Seven of Nine should be the character to perceive this aspect of the Qomar as a threat, with her own senses overwhelmed by data in stories like Infinite Regress or The Voyager Conspiracy.

“Look, Seven, you should really learn to appreciate the fan mail. The Enterprise production team will envy you.”

This idea of sensory and information overload simmers throughout the seven-year run of Voyager, most often in stories focusing on the cybernetic characters like the EMH or Seven of Nine, the characters with literal processing power. The EMH and Seven of Nine often have difficulty processing the world around them due to an abundance of sensory information, often leading to a break in reality or an existential crisis; Projections, Darkling, Retrospect, One, Infinite Regress, The Voyager Conspiracy.

This consciously taps into nineties fears about the development and the expansion of the internet. Obviously, the internet dating back to the seventies, but it only truly entered the cultural mainstream during the nineties. At the turn of the millennium, it was clear that the internet made almost everything in the world accessible to its users, with no manner of filtering or processing the information. The Qomar are almost a literalisation of that concept, a society built upon the idea of overwhelming signal and noise, without any cohesive structure imposed upon it.

Infriend or info?

The Qomar are perhaps a living embodiment of what John Grohol describes as “information overload”, a pathology that entered the mainstream during the nineties overlapping with the emergence of the internet as a cultural force:

Information overload is the state of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information available to us at any given moment, and not having the tools, skills, or capabilities to keep it organized in a reasonable manner. In more extreme cases, people can become depressed by the stress and anxiety information overload brings. While it existed before the internet become commonplace in the 1990’s, it was far more rare. Today, more and more people are complaining about just feeling plain overwhelmed by the internet.

It is worth noting that Voyager frequently has the Borg Collective, a gigantic cohesive processing machine, broken down and overwhelmed in episodes like Unity, Collective, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II.

“But, Doctor, I am Pagliacci.”

However, once again, Virtuoso never does anything interesting or compelling with the Qomar. Instead, the episode seems to treat them as a metaphor for fandom. This fandom metaphor is perhaps the strongest throughline in the episode, rendering Virtuoso as a bizarre companion piece to Joe Menosky’s episodes like Blink of an Eye and The Muse. This is another example of Voyager meditating upon the reality that Star Trek is a cultural institution, this reflection perhaps driven by anxiety about the franchise’s declining status and popularity.

Certainly, Virtuoso is filled with all the signifiers of fandom. The Qomar audience gleefully accept whatever the EMH offers them, clapping and cheering at terrible puns and awkward self-indulgence. The Qomar write adoring letters to their pop idol. The Qomar begin dressing and styling in homage to this cultural icon. At one point, the EMH sits at a table and passes out mini replicas of himself. This scene is very familiar to anybody who has ever attended a convention, watching fans queue up to get a celebrity’s signature, maybe even share a few words with their idol.

Fan dumb, eh?

However, unlike Menosky’s exploration of the franchise’s cultural importance in episodes like Blink of an Eye or The Muse, there is something very passive-aggressive in the portrayal of the Qomar. Virtuoso seems to be suggesting that the Qomar are effectively “bad fans”, that they fail to show the proper courtesy or respect to their icon and that they misunderstand the true artistry of the work that they are appreciating. There is something very defensive in this portrayal of fandom, something deeply unflattering.

The Qomar are presented as a deeply uncreative alien species. They are obsessed with mathematics, and have no concept of music. Naturally, when they first hear music, they are immediately entranced. However, they also completely miss the point. “What is the purpose of this music?” Abarca asks the EMH. “Is it an encryption code of some kind?” They approach it as a mathematical construct. “It is a unique mathematical variation,” Tincoo reflects. “How do you suppose the algorithms are generated?” Abarca responds, “Maybe it’s a fractal.”

The EMH is truly number one.

These fans are obsessed with numbers and measurements, perhaps serving as a commentary on the types of Star Trek fans who are obsessed with metrics and statistics; the kind of fans who watch Star Trek and obsess over the technical manuals or argue about the show’s technobabble. Virtuoso seems to suggest that these fans are the only type of Star Trek fans in existence, and also adopts a very mean-spirited and patronising attitude towards their approach to the franchise.

There is something disingenuous in lecturing fans about how best to appreciate a work of art, to insist that the fandom has adopted a “wrong” way of looking at art. Virtuoso occasionally seems to condescend to its fandom, with the EMH dismissing Tincoo’s arguments about math, insisting, “You can’t always explain things with an equation, Tincoo.” When Tincoo attempts to construct her own composition, influenced by and derived from the material created by the EMH, it is presented as a cruel punchline. Virtuoso insists that it is an act of hubris for fans to create.

Creation Events expanded into the Delta Quadrant so quickly that nobody even noticed.

In these moments, Virtuoso hints at a tension that exists between creator and fan. It reflects the anxiety around fans who presume to transcend the barrier between passive observer and active creator, a blurred boundary that remains a source of controversy into the the twenty-first century. There has always been a level of ambiguity and tension about the act of appropriation and recreation by fans, about how and when it becomes appropriate for fans to reinterpret elements of an original work for their own purposes.

Traditionally masculine fandoms have long been uneasy with feminine fandom activities like writing fan fiction or shipping characters, both of which are built around the idea of appropriating the source material. William Shatner has sparked fandom conflicts with his opinions on shipping, which admittedly becomes a thorny issue when fans ship two real life (married) people with one another. Similarly, Paramount and CBS have become embroiled in their own conflicts about fandom’s rights to create from existing templates.

Cutting the EMH down to size.

However, all of this ignores the fact that part of being an iconic part of broader pop culture means creating a language of symbols and images that can be repurposed and reused over an extended period of time. Many of the early Star Trek novels were written by ascended fans, who used the platform and the opportunity to reinvent and reimagine what the franchise could be. The writing staff on Deep Space Nine were largely fans of Star Trek who were willing to push the franchise in uncomfortable directions because they loved it and had thought so much about it.

There is certainly enough material there to build an interesting episode, using the EMH to literalise and explore some of the tensions that exist between creator and fan, the blurred boundaries and the need to transcend simple roles. Unfortunately, Virtuoso is not that episode. It is incredibly crude and generic, its outlook very simplistic and trite. The Qomar are unthinking and unappreciative fans, and so it is an act of arrogance for them to try to transcend the barrier that separates artist from audience, creator from spectator. There is something very mean-spirited in this.

Capping it all off.

Virtuoso is a return to business as usual after the triumph of Blink of an Eye, an example of how unfocused scripting and shallow writing can undercut a wealth of potentially interesting ideas. Conceptually, Virtuoso should be a highlight of the season. However, in execution, the episode never finds its voice.

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  1. I feel like the core issue with the episode is that it lacked empathy for anyone involved. The Qomar are jerks who don’t appreciate the Doctor, the Doctor is a jerk for being so ready to abandon his friends, and Janeway comes off terribly in her arguments with the Doctor. With some changes, it could have been a really fun episode, but there’s this strange undercurrent of frustration running through the whole thing. I felt the same way about the next-to-last episode in season 7, where there’s a painfully unfunny scene at the very end that seems to exist just to make fun of the Doctor’s ego one last time.

    • That’s fair. It’s also all over the place, with a host of big ideas, but no cohesive central through-line. Are we meant to feel sorry for the EMH, to laugh at him, to side with Janeway, to find the Qomar endearing, to believe they are irritating, to laugh at the EMH’s replacement, to worry about his rights? Virtuoso is just a mess of an episode.

  2. I wondered why the hell noone thought about duplicating the Doctor’s program – thus one side (the creative one) could have stayed on the planet, the other on board. No doubt an ethical issue, but better than the option of losing the only Doctor around?! It feels like the whole premise hinges upon the exclusion of this option.

    What I found interesting is that despite having seen this show a couple of times before and fully knowing the Doctor won’t leave how hard it is to fathom him leaving. He seems to be an integral part of the show. As a fan I would not want him to leave, not only because him leaving seems admittedly a little shortsighted on his part. Voyager without the Doctor? Unimaginable. Voyager with real changes in its cast and stories that have consequences? A shock inducing thought. I must admit that I noticed in watching this again how much I am stuck in this 90s Star Trek. I care for these characters, and I want them to stay. In more recent iterations and other series I never care so much for the characters. They die – I am shocked, but I never miss them. Probably you need to know that they will always be around to really learn to love them and invest in them “emotionally”?

    I wondered about the music in this episode. Some parts were sung by Picardo himself, but in many times it was too obvious that it was not him. Why did they not include the music and recordings in the end credits?

    • To be fair, the show goes back and forth on this as the plot demands. On the one hand, the idea of a back-up EMH works well for the premise of episodes like Living Witness, so he’s employed there. However, the show isn’t nearly ready to explain why the ship hasn’t simply duplicated the EMH for away missions (or even just in true emergencies) in the sick bay. You get episodes that hint that this programming might somehow be beyond the Voyager crew, like when Tom and Harry try to programme their own replacement during an absence. You could maybe justify it by saying that the back-up EMH in Living Witness was restored by some fancy alien know-how, but it really just seems like Voyager didn’t want to open that can of worms.

  3. You write: “This issue gets at the biggest problem with Virtuoso as an episode of television. It is a story without any tangible stakes or any meaningful content.”

    I absolutely agree. In fact, I remember being so bored with this episode when it first aired that I turned to another show for the middle of the act because I could see where it was all headed. This was a huge departure for a teenaged Star Trek fan like me, a moment of disillusionment with the franchise. The episode is insulting on more levels than one: its terrible attempt at comedy, its sneering comment on fandom, its hyper-focus on the doctor and his paralyzed Data-inspired fight for rights, the doctor’s casual dismissal of all his personal relationships, etc. etc.

    It’s just bad television, especially coming on the heels of a decent episode. I would rather have watched a musical version of a Voyager episode than this, if they really want to show off Picardo’s vocal skills. I believe Xena and Buffy both did musical episodes. Some of Voyager’s cast definitely had the chops to pull it off.

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