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Star Trek: Voyager – Author, Author (Review)

Author, Author is a deeply cynical piece of Star Trek.

Author, Author is arguably as bleak as anything that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ever produced. It is a story about how shallow and how self-centred the primary cast of Star Trek: Voyager can be, but also a showcase of how little the Federation has actually evolved in the twelve years since Star Trek: The Next Generation tackled the same themes in The Measure of a Man. Indeed, with production wrapping up and the series winding down, Author, Author seems to acknowledge the flip side of the “end of history.” There is no sense of material progress. Things have not improved. Things have not changed.

Doctor Demented.

Author, Author literalises this within its own narrative. Author, Author suggests that little has changed in the Federation’s worldview since The Measure of a Man, while also insisting that nothing will change in the immediate future. Author, Author acknowledges that The Measure of a Man was a desperate punt of a thorny issue, but also frames its own narrative as exactly the same kind of punt. The closing scene of the episode places any long-term consequences of the story four months in the future. In doing so, it places them squarely outside the purview of Voyager in particular and Berman era Star Trek in general.

The only problem with all of this is that Author, Author often seems entirely unaware of how unrelentingly cynical and bleak it is.

Write on!

As with a lot of Voyager‘s seventh season, Author, Author feels like a very conscious effort to invoke the texture and feeling of classic Star Trek. As with episodes as diverse as Drive and The Void, there is a sense in which Author, Author exists largely to demonstrate the inherent “Star-Trek-iness” of Voyager as it winds down. It is aiming for a very broad and very archetypal sort of Star Trek, recycling a variety of familiar genres and themes that gesture at the popular image of the franchise without actually saying anything of particular insight or importance.

It looks like Star Trek. It tastes like Star Trek. It has the texture of the classic Roddenberry morality plays, working through abstract philosophical questions about the nature of life and existence. However, it all feels very calculated and very cold. The issue with so many of these seventh season episodes is a willingness to gesture towards big concepts without actually saying anything about them; Critical Care was a metaphor for the mess of the healthcare system that refused to look at the role of capitalism in creating a healthcare crisis, Repentance was a death penalty allegory drawn in broadest terms.

Fever pitch!

Author, Author plays like a composite of familiar Star Trek tropes. At the time, reviewer Michelle Erica Green noted how much nostalgia was crammed into the episode:

What should be a huge moment for the crew — live contact with people in the Alpha Quadrant — plays second fiddle to a plot that starts as a rehash of Worst Case Scenario and ends as a trashing of The Next Generation’s Measure of a Man. Not that the Doc’s version of Voyager isn’t highly entertaining. The mirror Vulcan has a beard! Tom Paris has a cheesy moustache! It’s easy to see why everyone gets insulted, because the Doctor hits so close to the mark — Janeway as Moral Dictator of the Universe from Tuvix with a terrible hairdo, Chakotay as the captain’s lapdog with a terrible hairdo, Harry Kim as a whiny lackey with a terrible hairdo, Torres and Paris with their first season personalities and terrible hairdos…you know, I think I enjoyed this part of the episode so much because it reminded me of the good old days!

To be fair, a certain amount of nostalgia is inevitable in any final season. The Next Generation brought back Wesley Crusher in Journey’s End and Daimon Bok in Bloodlines. Deep Space Nine brought back the concept of “the one hundred” in Chimera, and wrapped flashbacks into What You Leave Behind.

Hertbreak Noseridge.

Author, Author is structured as a loving tribute to the trappings of Star Trek history, just as much a celebration of Voyager‘s history of as Shattered. The episode is essentially two halves stitched together. The first half is the familiar Voyager tropes of the holodeck-gone-wild and the evil-doppelgangers-of-the-crew. The holographic nightmare on board the “USS Vortex” recalls everything from Worst Case Scenario to Living Witness to Course: Oblivion. The episode even repeatedly places characters in frame with their doubles and counterparts, evoking the iconic shot from Deadlock.

In the second half, Author, Author pivots neatly into the familiar Star Trek subgenre of the “trial episode.” There are any number of classic examples from across the history of the franchise, with the characters arguing with one another in a court room to determine some objective truth; The Menagerie, Part I, The Menagerie, Part II, Court Martial, Wolf in the Fold, Turnabout Intruder, The DrumheadDevil’s Due, Dax, Rules of Engagement, Death Wish. In fact, Author, Author deliberately evokes perhaps the best example of the subgenre, its story all but inviting comparisons to The Measure of a Man.

Trial and terror.

The basic plot of Author, Author finds the EMH drafting a fictionalised account of the ship’s adventures and of his own character arc. Appropriately enough, as Cinefantastique noted of the episode, at least some of the peisode’s concept was rooted in reality:

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a story in which “real life” inspires “fictional life” was itself based on actual events. Brannon Braga got the idea for this story from Robert Picardo’s successful pitch of a book about the Doctor’s experiences to Pocket Books. In further art-imitates-life news, Mister Neelix confesses his desire to write a cookbook in this episode, while Ethan Phillips has already published a Star Trek cookbook.

Actor Garrett Wang laughed about Author, Author saying, “I sit there and I wonder, ‘Is this the writers’ way of just warning us not to do a tell-all book Is this what will happen?'”

There is something wry and postmodern about this, a sense of art reflecting life reflecting art, filtered through the prism of a crafted narrative framed within a larger crafted narrative.

Captain Proton to the rescue.

Wang is joking about the idea of a “tell-all” book about the production of Voyager, but there is no denying that the show had a fraught production. There is a shade of self-commentary involved in the EMH’s portrayal of life on Voyager as a perpetual nightmare. Various actors – including Robert Beltran and Garrett Wang – have talked about their frustrations with the show. This is especially true of Jeri Ryan’s tumultuous relationship with Kate Mulgrew, which may even be reflected in the presentation of holo!Seven of Nine as a captive. (Mulgrew at one stage attempted to forbid Ryan from using the bathroom.)

Even the idea of casting the EMH as the eponymous author seems like an acknowledgement of Robert Picardo’s status as the only Star Trek actor to have written for the television franchise. To be fair, various actors have written for the feature film iteration of the franchise; Leonard Nimoy contributed the stories to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, William Shatner wrote Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Brent Spiner worked on Star Trek: Nemesis. Similarly, Armin Shimerman wrote The 34th Rule and Andrew Robinson wrote A Stitch in Time.

Why I author…

However, Picardo remains unique in the sense of having actually written for his character on-screen, earning a story credit on the late sixth season episode Life Line. In contemporaneous interviews, Picardo acknowledged the interplay that existed between the writers and actors in shaping a character:

Though unable to honestly critique the fairness of some harsh online criticism the series has elicited, Picardo is quick to point out the interdependency between the actors and the writers, which plays an important role in the development and ultimate success or failure of a character. “I think we have a very strong group of actors and that some of the criticism of, for example, the Neelix character has been very unfair because Ethan Phillips is a wonderful actor who has a role that I think the writers really never showed a great deal of imagination of writing for. He’s spent season upon season with food jokes and cooking jokes that Olivier couldn’t have squeezed more humor out of. So I think there is a tendency to blame the actor for a character that isn’t as successful or popular—in the same way that there’s a tendency to congratulate the actor for a character that is. When, of course, it’s the writers who are putting the words down on the pages and the actor is merely realizing it.”

“I think there’s a certain truth that we’ve all had a hand in the development of our characters,” he continues, “because the writers write to the strengths of each individual performer, so if there’s something you demonstrate an ability for with a particular line that they’ve written, they will write more in that direction. But I guess, ultimately, I can’t really judge whether the criticism has been fair or not. I am a huge fan of some of the characters in our cast that the fans have tended to not [be] [laughter].”

Sometimes this interplay was quite literal. For all that Robert Beltran (justifiably) complained about the writers’ neglect of Chakotay as a character, several of the later Chakotay-centric episodes were derived directly from Beltran’s own interests; the boxing in The Fight or the romance in Human Error.

Say it, don’t hypospray it.

There is a sense in which Picardo inhabited the character of the EMH in a way that few of his colleagues inhabited their characters. Picardo was never as outspokenly critical of the writing staff as colleagues like Mulgrew and Beltran, and never seemed particularly frustrated or upset by the way in which changes behind the scenes would impact his character development. While Janeway was an appreciably different character under the stewardship of Jeri Taylor as opposed to Brannon Braga, the EMH had a much stronger core that anchored the character across the seven seasons of the show.

After all, it’s notable that so many members of the Deep Space Nine cast would go on to author (or co-author) books focused on their characters. This suggested that the actors had invested a great deal in the internal psychology (and back story) of their characters, fleshing them out even beyond what was offered on-screen. Picardo is perhaps the only actor on Voyager who can claim to have done something similar, even allowing for Phillips’ contributions to The Star Trek Cookbook. It is notable that Mosaic and Pathways were authored by Jeri Taylor rather than by members of the cast.

Cooking up some free publicity.

The Hologram’s Handbook would be published less than a year after Author, Author was broadcast, but Picardo had been working on it throughout the final season. Picardo framed it as a way to remain connected with the character as Voyager came to an end:

Well, I don’t have the discipline to sit down really to write scripts or to write a long-form book. But I loved playing that character and I missed him as the show was ending and that’s one of the reasons why I had the idea. But also, I thought of funny situations and ideas that we had never dealt with on the series. It really came out of the episode Message in a Bottle where I’m bragging to Andy Dick’s character, EMH Mark II, that I’ve had sexual experiences and I said to the writers: When did I have them? [laughs] When did it? How did this happen? The audience saw me first activated on Voyager and then they’ve been keeping in touch with me every week. When did all this stuff happen? No one had any answers for me, so I went and decided to write my own back story to different things that had come up on the show that I wanted to know [laughs], you know, what the background was. So it started just as humorous anecdotes. And then I also have always been amused by all the psychology self-help books that are at supermarket checkout counters and all that. So it’s really a satire of the self-help book. It’s a ”if you’re smarter than everyone else that you have to work with, it’s how to get along with inferiors.” So it was mostly just for fun. And my friend Jeff Yagher, who’s a wonderful actor and sculptor and cartoonist, he did the cartoons for the book. And we had been working together – he was guest starring on Voyager – and the idea developed for us to do something together, so he would do the art for the book and I would write the chapters. So that was also a fun way to collaborate with him and help him pay for his wedding.

It feels strangely appropriate that Yagher, who played the revolutionary hologram Iden in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, would collaborate with Picardo The Hologram’s Handbook. In keeping with the blurring of fiction and reality, Picardo performed the audio book in-character.

A role model.

What’s interesting about the blurring of fiction and reality within Author, Author is how it applies within the text itself. Author, Author makes a point to repeatedly illustrate how difficult it is for the characters to distinguish between truth and fiction in the EMH’s narrative of holographic liberation. Photons Be Free is explicitly fictional, but that does not mean it isn’t true. Photons Be Free obviously draws from the EMH’s experiences, using the same locations (and sets) on which he works everyday and using many of the same character models (and actors) in many of the same roles.

To a certain extent, Author, Author feels like an extrapolation of the sort of collapsed reality that recurs through the later years of The Next Generation and into Voyager, the sense that “reality” is a much more abstract concept than many people would allow. It is no surprise that the story for Author, Author is credited to Brannon Braga, whose work on Star Trek often focuses on these blurred boundaries between an individual’s subjective experience and the concept of a larger objective reality.

Facing up.

The EMH’s narrative in Author, Author is perhaps an extension of Riker’s breakdown in Frame of Mind or the EMH’s psychotic break in Projections, except with the dynamic somewhat reversed. Rather than focusing on an individual character losing their grip on what is real, Author, Author suggests that an individual’s subject experience can fracture the broader consensus on what is real. To a certain extent, the episode plays as a companion piece to episodes like Remember or Distant Origin or Living Witness, tales about lies and distortions that societies had embraced as fundamental truths.

It is interesting to wonder whether Author, Author was intended as something of a commentary on the fan narratives that had sprung up around Voyager and had spread through the internet. To pick one example, in the early sixth season, the painful split between Brannon Braga and his old friend Ronald D. Moore had been the fodder for much online gossip and speculation. Incredibly elaborate “parodies” were written featuring real-life figures like Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, which were only a step or two removed from the average online chatter.

A Torrey-ed account of life on Voyager.

This was reportedly on Braga’s mind at this point in the franchise. In The Producer Trekkers Love to Hate, fan Rez Shirley recalls talking with Braga about production leaks in the lead up to the launch of Star Trek: Enterprise:

I sent him an Instant Message a couple of times with no luck. I thought I had to say something that would get his attention. So I did; I told him I knew who was leaking info on upcoming Trek episodes, which was true, to some extent. I knew the alias of one such informant and I gave it to him and he thanked me. Over the next two months, I would send him an IM every time some kind of “spoiler” made its way onto the net. For the most part, all I got back was an “interesting” or “it always amazes me how fans get this info.”

It should be noted that several seventh season scripts leaked to the fan press over the course of the seventh season, which would culminate in Voyager‘s final scenes actually leaking out to the fan press before they were broadcast.

Seventh heaven.

There are elements of Author, Author that seem particularly pointed in this direction. At one point, the EMH is subjected to a reworking of his holonovel that paints him as a sleazy creep taking advantage of holo!Seven of Nine using a “Klingon aphrodisiac.” The EMH protests to Paris, “You had me drugging a patient and taking advantage of her.” Given the fandom press’ preoccupation with the relationship between Brannon Braga and Jeri Ryan, particularly with Braga serving as producer and Ryan as the star of the series, the framing of the sequence – the author preying on holo!Seven of Nine – seems very overt.

Indeed, a significant amount of Author, Author is given over the anxiety that the crew feel at having their lives misrepresented and distorted for the purposes of this narrative. “If this gets distributed, people are going to assume this is about us,” Kim protests. “What are our families going to think?” Paris clarifies, “People may not take the programme literally, but they might wonder if there’s some truth to it.” Janeway and Paris both make a conscious effort to stop the EMH from publishing his thinly fictionalised account of life on the ship. However, the publisher pushes ahead with publication anyway.

Emergency Mediation Hologram.

At one point, the characters debate about how best to deal with the holonovel. It is a surprisingly specific and detailed conversation, particularly given how loosely Voyager tends to plot these beats. “We may be able to claim that the holonovel reveals classified information,” Tuvok suggests. “Starfleet could then request that it be recalled for security purposes.” Paris objects, “A cover up. And then everyone will be convinced that it’s a true story.” Chakotay inquires, “Could we claim defamation?” Paris responds, “Well, we’d have to prove that the story’s about us and that we’ve been harmed by it.”

These are very pragmatic discussions about this abstract concept, particularly considering the broader and more philosophical approach that Author, Author subsequently takes. Indeed, the attention paid to the legal mechanics of “defamation” law are quite striking, especially considering how vague Star Trek tends to be about twenty-fourth century law unless the plot explicitly demands it. All of this reinforces the sense that Author, Author is playing with ideas that are relatively personal for the writers and producers involved.

Everybody chips in.

However, even stripping away this possible outside context, Author, Author is striking for the way in which it uses the EMH’s fictional account of life on Voyager Vortex to get at some very real issues with Voyager and Star Trek. The EMH claims that his story is fictionalised, but that isn’t entirely true. Even getting past the pragmatic choice to use the regular cast to play their thinly-disguised counterparts – “now that’s creative,” Torres concedes on discovering her husband has been rebranded “Lieutenant Marseilles” – there are several deliberate echoes both large and small within the EMH’s holographic narrative.

The portrayal of “Lieutenant Marseilles” is very close to the portrayal of Paris in early first season episodes like Ex Post Facto, a man who would willingly neglect his duty and responsibilities to engage in adultery. Similarly, “Ensign Kymble” is defined by the EMH as “a hypochondriac” who is desperately worried about contracting some deadly pathogen on an away mission; much like Kim was altered by a micro-virus in Favourite Son or contracted a sexually-transmitted disease in The Disease. Even translating Chakotay into a Bajoran is in keeping with the character’s history of anti-Cardassian terrorism.

Hair today.

However, the most obvious parallels are the most striking. The most controversial moment in Photons Be Free comes when “Captain Jenkins” murders a sick patient so that the protagonist can focus their attention on “Lieutenant Marseilles.” The EMH argues, “The Vortex characters are larger than life. They’re nothing like our crew. As far as I know, Captain, you haven’t executed any of my patients.” This is technically correct. Although the sequence appears to take place during Caretaker, Janeway never even visited Sickbay in the pilot.

Still, the sequence conflates two Voyager episodes in which Janeway overruled the EMH. Thematically, it recalls her execution of the eponymous character in Tuvix, to save Tuvok and Neelix. In that episode, the EMH was unable to comply with Janeway’s orders because he was “a physician, and a physician must do no harm.” More literally, the dilemma recalls the crisis that led to the EMH’s breakdown (and Janeway’s subsequent reprogramming of him without his consent) in Latent Image. This is just an absurdly heightened and extreme reimagining of these storybeats.

“No more Inter-Jenkins from you!”

It is debatable whether Voyager ever truly grappled with the implications of these kinds of stories. Janeway acknowledged that he might have been too harsh on the EMH towards the end of Latent Image, but the EMH continued to brush up against the crew’s limited tolerance for his desire to expand his horizons. In Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, for example, the EMH still found himself arguing with Kim about his desire to take command. This is Kim, the most junior character on the show who is the butt of an extended joke in Author, Author about how “somebody’s gotta be the ensign.”

The Voyager crew have never really grappled with the sentience of the EMH, and the inferences that might be drawn from his self-awareness. In Fair Haven and Spirit Folk, Janeway engineered a perfect holographic lover for her, without any real consideration of his emotional needs. In Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, Janeway never stops to consider the possibility that Iden might be in the right; she is more concerned by the dead Hirogen than the suffering the hunters have inflicted on the holograms.

It’s gonna be Kim.

In Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, David Greven argues that the EMH’s narrative is a brutal and necessary subversion of the crew’s self-image that is an act of genuine radicalism on his part:

The Doctor darkly represents the Voyager crew as cruel, selfish, and depraved, the inverse of the tolerant, benevolent, generous beings they and Trek as a whole insist that we see them as.

The nifty thing about the Doctor’s hologram-narrative is that it forces its human participants to play the role of the Doctor, seeing Voyager’s life through his eyes. From his perspective, the mobile emitter weighs heavily, and in “Photons be Free” it transforms from a small gadget on the Doctor’s arm to a labouriously heavy backpack beneath which the Doctor staggers. “But your mobile emitter liberates you, Doctor!” an incredulous Janeway counters him, inspiring the Doctor to explain the purpose of his metaphorical burden.

Though Voyager viewer might find the Doctor’s depiction of the Voyager crew shockingly violent and unappetising, it is precisely the unremittingly harsh nature of his critique that attects to his now fully developed radicalisation. As the queer outside, he is in a position to critique the conformist, implicitly heterosexual conventions of Federation/Trekkian society, decisively assuming a nonconformist, nonassimilationist position in the face of their hegemonic power.

In terms of the EMH’s “now fully developed radicalisation”, it is notable that he uses the term “organics” in his introduction to the text to refer to the crew. The term had previously been reserved for more radical holograms like Dejaren in Revulsion or Iden in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II.

PADD-ing the episode out.

Greven’s reading has some merit to it, particularly in a wider context, but it overlooks the degree to which Author, Author refuses to commit to the EMH’s self-righteous anger. After all, for all athat Greven tries to present the EMH as a conscously queer protagonist, Voyager devotes considerable time to asserting his heterosexuality in episodes like Lifesigns and Real Life. The EMH might be a very unconventional character, and Renaissance Man deserves credit for acknowledging this, but a lot of the show’s run is given over to asserting how “normal” he is.

Even in the context of Author, Author, the series is adament that the EMH is being melodramatic and unreasonable. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think this story was written by someone who feels oppressed,” Janeway muses. “Is that how you see yourself, Doctor?” The episode declines to have the EMH point out the obvious parallels between his narrative and his lived experience – or even the crew’s past behaviour towards holograms – instead having him act contrite. “Of course not,” he states, simply.

It’s all so arbitrary.

In fact, a considerable stretch of the episode is given over to forcing the EMH to acknowledge his mistake and apologise to his fellow crewmembers for his unfair treatment of him. They are noticeably less contrite towards his feelings than they were in episodes like Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy. He holds a big meeting in the messhall, where Janeway congratulates him, “We’re all grateful that you’re taking our feelings into account.” Later on, when the publisher releases his earlier draft without his consent, he is ashamed. “It’s the crew’s reputations that are as risk.”

There is, as ever, a sense of Voyager being willing to go so far without actually going any further. There is no willingness to acknowledge or confront uncomfortable truths in the way that Deep Space Nine would often do with characters like Quark or Worf. Deep Space Nine was never afraid to call out Worf for being stubborn or inflexible or unprofessional in episodes like Hippocratic Oath or Afterimage. It was willing to allow Kira to be unsympathetic in episodes like The Darkness and the Light. However, Voyager seems genuinely afraid of acknowledging its own flaws.

Packing it in.

That said, while Author, Author doesn’t do enough to draw its direct correlations between the actions of the holographic characters and their real-life counterparts, it does at least acknowledge the EMH’s lived experiences. Of the gigantic mobile emitter, Torres asks, “What was the point of that? It was like carrying around a small shuttlecraft.” The EMH explains, “It’s a metaphor. A symbol of the burdens that I live with every day. Imagine having to take this everywhere you go. It would be a constant reminder that you’re different from everyone else. I wanted the player to feel the weight of it. Literally.”

This is enough to elevate Author, Author above a lot of the Voyager episodes dealing with holograms, even though it doesn’t go far enough. Author, Author is much more candid about the EMH’s experience of oppression than Body and Soul or Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. As with episodes like Lineage, there is a sense in which Author, Author comes very close to acknowledging the stifling and suffocating conservatism of Voyager, even if it pulls back at the most important moments to offer reassurance and deflection. Though not enough, there is empathy and compassion within Author, Author.

Doctoring the narrative.

Although it deflects any direct criticism away from the crew, Author, Author at least concedes that holograms are victims of oppression and prejudice in everyday surroundings. When holo!Seven of Nine pleads with “Captain Jenkins” to respect the protagonist’s rights, the commanding officer responds, “He’s a piece of technology. He has no rights.” This is consciously and deliberately echoed in Broht’s later assertion that he has no obligation to respect the EMH as an author because “according to Federation law, holograms have no rights.”

All of this supports a pivot, in the final ten-odd minutes of a forty-odd-minute episode of television, to an extended homage to The Measure of a Man. This is interesting, on a number of levels. Most obviously, it reflects the still-fractured nature of plotting on Voyager, which often feels like a collection of “… and then…!” mad libs as episodes jump from one big idea to another in order to desperately fill up airtime, without developing any of them in any tangible way; recall the structure of episodes like Alter Ego or Demon.

The next phaser.

This is particularly egregious given that The Measure of a Man is already one of the most dense episodes of Star Trek ever produced. The investigation and assertion of Data’s rights eat up the full forty-five minutes of The Measure of a Man, with the episode paying a lot of attention to the contours and implications of the argument. It is not for nothing that The Measure of a Man is the rare Star Trek episode to receive an “extended edition” restored for the home media release, an additional thirteen minutes of footage added to the broadcast version.

As such, trying to tackle that big an idea within the closing act of a seventh season of Voyager feels like a poor choice. As with the decision to condense down the debate and discussion around Photons Be Free, it largely serves to prevent any actual discussion of the crew’s long-term treatment of the EMH and Voyager‘s treatment of holographic characters. It reduces the argument and debate to the broadest possible bullet points, all compressed in a desperate rush to beat the closing credits.

Counter arguments.

However, the invocation of The Measure of a Man in Author, Author is quite pointed. Like bringing back Q in Q2, it feels like a conscious effort to assert Voyager‘s connection to The Next Generation and its place in the larger Star Trek canon. As Keith R.A. DeCandido argues, The Measure of a Man is (widely and correctly) regarded as “Star Trek at its Star Trekkiest”:

Quite simply one of Trek‘s finest hours. Picard sums it up best during the hearing when he mentions that Starfleet was created to seek out new life, “well, there it sits!” I described A Matter of Honor as Star Trek at its Star Trekkiest, but that applies even more so here, as it’s an exploration of the human condition, and a fight for human rights, for all that the person making the fight isn’t actually human.

As with the invocation of the Federation in Drive or the implicit use of the Prime Directive in Natural Law and Friendship One, this is Voyager consciously and deliberately trying to assert its own Star-Trek-iness. However, as with those examples, the trappings are largely shallow. The seventh season of Voyager reduces the franchise’s sensibilities to a bland aesthetic that can be referenced and homaged, but not developed.

Table this for later.

Author, Author wants to conjure nostalgic affection for The Measure of a Man without putting any of the work in. Most obviously, Author, Author lacks the courage of its convictions to have Janeway acknowledge her misguided attitude towards the EMH in the way that The Measure of a Man confronted Picard with his own shortsightedness with regard to Data. The Measure of a Man made a point to argue both sides of its case, and to explicitly articulate the stakes in the efforts to mass-produce Data – “whole generations of disposable people” – but Author, Author is tangibly afraid to develop these ideas.

This is the bleak cynicism of Author, Author, which almost plays as self-awareness on the part of Voyager. There is a tangible sense that the Star Trek franchise has not evolved in any meaningful sense since the broadcast of The Measure of a Man in the second season of The Next Generation. This is obviously an unfair generalisation; Deep Space Nine was populated with bold and interesting ideas, but the departure of Ronald D. Moore from the franchise ensured that it would remain a narrative deadend. Instead, Voyager has largely been running in place rather than moving forward.

Homegoing.

To a certain extent, this reflects various broader cultural anxieties. Voyager is a television series rooted in the nineties, and there were fears that the nineties represented a static point in cultural evolution – “the end of history”, to quote a cliché. There were fears that social progress stalled in the decade. Frank rich described a “homophobic epidemic” in the summer of 1998. As Stephanie Coontz argues, the push for gender equality also ground to a halt:

But during the second half of the 1990s and first few years of the 2000s, the equality revolution seemed to stall. Between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of Americans preferring the male breadwinner/female homemaker family model actually rose to 40 percent from 34 percent. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of full-time working mothers who said they would prefer to work part time increased to 60 percent from 48 percent. In 1997, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers said full-time work would be ideal. By 2007, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full time.

Women’s labor-force participation in the United States also leveled off in the second half of the 1990s, in contrast to its continued increase in most other countries. Gender desegregation of college majors and occupations slowed. And although single mothers continued to increase their hours of paid labor, there was a significant jump in the percentage of married women, especially married women with infants, who left the labor force. By 2004, a smaller percentage of married women with children under 3 were in the labor force than in 1993.

Allison Yarrow contends that the nineties tricked women into believing that gender equality had been attained, when there was more work to be done. The wealth gap between black and white families did not change during the nineties. Median income for African American households did not rise like it did for white or hispanic households. (More broadly, events like the Los Angeles Riots and the O.J. Simpson trials reminded the public how far was left to go.)

A view to a Trill.

Of course, this is a very cynical way of looking at things. There was progress made during the decade on a number of key issues. However, there was also an emerging narrative of the nineties as a decade of social stasis – even in areas like fashion or art. The decision to place Author, Author in the final stretch of the final season of Voyager feels deliberately pointed. It is arguably as bleak and cynical – and almost nihilistic – as anything that Deep Space Nine every produced, a conscious argument that sometimes things do not improve, and sometimes the same arguments take place over and over again.

To a certain extent, the cautious optimism of The Measure of a Man had helped to properly usher in the twenty-fouth century iteration of the Star Trek franchise, kicking the franchise’s resurrection into high gear after a troubled opening season of The Next Generation. It represented the start of a golden age, demonstrating that The Next Generation could be a worthy successor to the original Star Trek. As such, closing out the franchise’s twenty-fourth century chapter by essentially repeating the same story and the same debate feels like an act of intense weariness.

Emergency Mining Hologram.

To a certain extent, Author, Author is an even bleaker iteration of The Measure of a Man. The nightmare in The Measure of a Man was “every ship in Starfleet with a Data on board; utilising its tremendous capabilities, acting as our hands and eyes in dangerous situations.” Picard fought against that, motivated largely by Guinan’s observation that it was tantamount to slavery because “there have always been disposable creatures; they do the dirty work, they do the work that no one else wants to do because it’s too difficult, or to hazardous.” This was a nightmare, a perversion of Federation ideals and Star Trek values.

The most unsettling aspect of Author, Author is not simply that it implies things haven’t improved. After all, the Arbitrator effectively makes exactly the same punt that Louvois makes in The Measure of Man, refusing to settle the precise legal point while making an allowing this particular case. “Does Data have a soul?” Luvois asked. “I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.” This was a relativley optimistic conclusion to reach a little over one season into a show that would run seven years, allowing Data to map his own course.

Building ridges.

In Author, Author, the Arbitrator concedes, “The issue of holographic rights isn’t going to go away. But at this time, I am not prepared to rule that the Doctor is a person under the law. However, it is obvious he is no ordinary hologram and while I can’t say with certainty that he is a person, I am willing to extend the legal definition of artist to include the Doctor.” This is a rather cynical punt. After all, the production team working on Voyager understand that the seventh season will mark the end of twenty-fourth century Star Trek for the foreseeable future. This is the opportunity to put a full stop on the issue.

Voyager declines of offer resolution or closure to The Measure of a Man, to demonstrate how society has moved on during the twelve years since and to suggest that the Federation has improved dramatically from the days when Yar could openly question Data’s loyalties in front of the crew with Picard’s support in Datalore or when Starfleet would happily separate a father from his child in The Offspring. Nothing has changed. Nothing will change. Voyager suggests that humanity’s attitudes will be the same as they ever were.

Turbolifting his spirits.

To be fair, the closing scene “Federation Dilithium Processing Facility” suggests that there might be hope for social change. Following on from a throwaway line of dialogue in Life Line, the original EMH has been largely repurposed for menial labour. Workers are circulating copies of Photons Be Free amongst themselves as a “provocative” text. There is a genuinely optimistic sense that change might actually happen as a result of the EMH’s narrative, inspiring his holographic brothers to rise up and claim their rights.

Indeed, this is perhaps the best way to make sense of the episode’s awkward shoehorned B-plot, which involves the crew making a live connection to the Alpha Quadrant. This should be a big deal, serving as a gamechanger that puts the crew closer to the home that they must inevitably reach in a half-dozen episodes. Instead, it largely feels like an awkward afterthought, like Paris’ breaking of the transwarp barrier in Threshold or Seven curing death with Borg nanoprobes in Mortal Coil.

Next month on Voyager

This ability to communicate with the Alpha Quadrant should be a gamechanger, but it feels like a lazy late-stage contrivance. The crew are told that it will take over “a month and a half” for every member of the crew to work through their allotted communications time. The audience watching Author, Author in April 2001 understand that Voyager will reach the end of its journey in just over a month. Paris will not have to wait to talk to his father via that communications link. He will be able to do it in person sooner, which makes it all seem very cynical, however nice it is to see Torres talk to her father.

However, there is something heartwarming in the idea that Seven of Nine is genuinely moved by watching her shipmates interact with their loved ones. She is assigned the role of impartial observer, eavesdropping on conversations and managing the cut-off switch. She is initially very fastidious in her role, cutting off the EMH’s conversation mid-sentence and watching Kim’s heartbreak as his parents are cut-off by outside factor. “I’ve been observing the crew interacting with their families over the past few days,” she later admits. “It’s become clear to me how meaningful that communication can be.”

Cut off point.

This provides a nice counterpoint to the concluding scene. The closing moments of Author, Author suggest the transformative power of serving as witness. This is a recurring motif on Voyager, most notably through Torres’ experiences in Remember and in the crew’s experiences in Memorial. There is a sense that empathy and compassion come through the act of watching and feeling. It is a very strong abstract argument for the power of Star Trek as a piece of science-fiction, presenting viewers with a humanist utopian perspective. To a certain extent, Author, Author is of a piece with something like Muse.

Indeed, there’s a sense in which Author, Author seems to be making a meta-textual argument for the Star Trek franchise in general and Voyager in particular. After getting grilled by the crew for his unflattering portrayal of them, the EMH is stunned to hear that Neelix actually enjoyed his holonovel. “I don’t know what anyone else may have told you, but I loved your holo-novel,” Neelix states. “Absolutely. It was a rousing adventure, with an important message too.”

Moral is way down.

This is very much an ideological argument for Star Trek as a piece of moral instruction, with the EMH even describing Photons Be Free as “a serious attempt at social commentary.” This is very much part of the cultural history and mythos of Star Trek, and it is a recurring preoccupation for the seventh season of Voyager. As such, it feels like Author, Author is offering a meta-commentary upon the series itself, and in arguing for the value of Voyager as a part of the larger Star Trek canon.

That said, this aspect of Author, Author is undercut by the episode’s unrelenting cynicism. The closing scene of Author, Author suggests that things will get better in the future. However, it also unfolds four months after the end of the episode. By this stage, Janeway has gotten her crew home and Voyager is over. (It could also be argued that this takes place in the timeline before Janeway reset it in Endgame, but that would be an even bleaker reading and so doesn’t merit too much consideration.)

This publisher isn’t operating by the book.

Author, Author argues that any gains in the rights of enslaved holograms will come after the end of Voyager. What’s more, they will come after the larger franchise has turned its attention away from the twenty-fourth century. Nemesis was never going to explore the issue of holographic rights, and so that deliberately ambiguous ending is a very calculated way of avoiding any long-term implications while the production team turn their attention to Enterprise. It would be almost two decades (and two creative teams) later before the franchise returned to the twenty-fourth century with Star Trek: Picard.

Even if the audience takes these scenes at face value and accepts their promise of a better future for these oppressed individuals, it is hard to accept this as a particularly happy ending. After all, The Measure of a Man had suggested something similar twelve years earlier, that the Federation stood on the edge of a new frontier and would have to learn to navigate it step-by-step with Lieutenant Commander Data himself. The entire point of Author, Author is that this optimism was misplaced. More than that, Author, Author suggests that things are actively worse than they were in The Measure of a Man.

An appealing argument.

The Measure of a Man was horrified at the idea of a mass-produced version of Data, understanding that it would inevitably lead to the creation of an entire race to work as servents of humanity. “You’re talking about slavery,” Picard grasps at one point. Guinan replies,  “I think that’s a little harsh.” Picard counters, “I don’t think that’s a little harsh. I think that’s the truth. But that’s a truth we have obscured behind a comfortable, easy euphemism. Property.” The real horror of Author, Author is the grim realisation that has been simmering for the past seven years. The Federation has effectively embraced slavery.

It’s worth processing that. After all, Voyager argues that the EMH attained personhood just by being left on; episodes like The Swarm suggested that attaining self-awareness was an inevitable result of his algorithms evolving in reaction to outside stimula. On Deep Space Nine, episodes like His Way and It’s Only a Paper Moon suggested that the EMH was not unique. On Voyager, episodes like Revulsion, Body and Soul and Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II suggested that self-awareness was an inevitability for holograms. This is to say nothing of episodes like The Big Goodbye or Fair Haven.

Star(fleet) witness.

As such, consigning these holograms to menial labour mining natural resources is an act of callous cruelty; if holograms become self-aware over time, then leaving them running in perpetuity seems monstrous, to say nothing of the fact that Star Trek has long treated dilithium mining and refining as equivalent to penal servitude and slave labour in stories like The Voyage Home or The Undiscovered Country or Necessary Evil or Nemesis. The comparison is not hardly subtle. Author, Author suggests that every nightmare that Guinan predicted in The Measure of a Man has come to pass.

This is possibly the most bleak piece of Star Trek ever produced, and the most damning indictment of the Federation ever presented on film. Deep Space Nine attracted a lot of criticism among traditional Star Trek fans for its more jaded and cynical outlook, but the realpolitick of In the Pale Moonlight or Inquisition or Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges has nothing on the depiction of the Federation as a slave-holding state in Author, Author. Perhaps the only thing that comes close is the attempted genocide of the Founders in When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind, but even that was only attempted.

Casting doubt.

The biggest problem with Author, Author is not this bleakness or cynicism of itself. After all, there is an argument that this cynicism is entirely earned. After all, the crew were still treating the EMH as a piece of equipment rather than as a person as recently as Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II. Certainly, the manner in which Janeway acted towards the EMH in Latent Image suggests that she does not see him as a person. Although she apologised, she behaved the same way to Michael Sullivan in Fair Haven.

There is nothing wrong with Voyager calling itself out, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with calling out broader culture for its complacency on such matters. After all, Deep Space Nine was constantly doing this. Most notably, Chimera played as something akin to an aggressive self-critique, a brutally piece of criticism of the franchise’s moral cowardice around issues related to homosexuality. However, Chimera knew exactly what it was doing, and was willing to present characters like Julian Bashir and like Miles O’Brien in an unflattering (but not misrepresentative) light to make its point.

That’s a lotto misfortune.

Author, Author lacks the courage of these convictions, and so comes across as being mealy-mouthed and half-hearted. This is most obvious in the crew’s debate around the best legal strategy to adopt in making their argument. Tuvok, who has a history as a legal orator in Death Wish, suggests a more pragmatic approach to the legal debate. “If the Doctor doesn’t have the right to control his own work, then it stands to reason he never had the right to enter into an agreement with Mister Broht,” Tuvok offers. “We could argue that the original contract is invalid.”

Paris quite justifiably calls him out on the cynicism of this argument, “In other words, you want to concede that the Doctor isn’t a person.” Janeway sides with Paris over Tuvok. “What we need to do is prove that he is just as much a person as any of us,” she contends. “By telling [his] real life story.” It’s a very warm, very idealistic and very humanist moment. However, it is very much at odds with the cynicism and weariness built into the episode. It is akin to Bashir believing that he can appeal to Sloan’s better nature in Extreme Measures, in that it would completely misunderstand the dynamics at play.

Father from home.

Tuvok’s strategy actually has some precedent, particularly related to slavery in the United States, which is important given the way in which the episode leans heavily on the metaphor. After all, this was one of the central theses of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which featured the character accepting a number of questionable moral and legal positions in favour of his desired political end. Hillary Clinton acknowledged the film as an ode to political pragmatism:

You just have to sort of figure out how to — getting back to that word, “balance” — how to balance the public and the private efforts that are necessary to be successful, politically, and that’s not just a comment about today. That, I think, has probably been true for all of our history, and if you saw the Spielberg movie, Lincoln, and how he was maneuvering and working to get the 13th Amendment passed, and he called one of my favorite predecessors, Secretary Seward, who had been the governor and senator from New York, ran against Lincoln for president, and he told Seward, I need your help to get this done. And Seward called some of his lobbyist friends who knew how to make a deal, and they just kept going at it. I mean, politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position.

This is a bleakly cynical view of politics, one anchored in pragmatic results rather than utopian idealism. David Brooks would argue that Lincoln presented its title character as a protagonist of “high moral vision, but [who] also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.” It is a cynical view of the “sausage factory” that is politics.

Argumentative.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln was a complicated character. He was openly racist, and did not believe that white and black Americans could live together in peace. However, American history has long presented Abraham Lincoln as an aspirational ideal. He is frequently cited as the country’s most beloved and important president. As a result, the portrayal of the man as a cold and calculating pragmatist – willing to make horrific moral compromises in order to ensure political stability – in Lincoln was a notable deviation from archetype.

Author, Author teases a brutally cynical take on Star Trek, but one that is entirely fitting with the way in which Voyager has approached the franchise. After all, Voyager has been close-minded and reactionary, conservative and regressive. Voyager was a show afraid of pressing forward. It makes sense that Author, Author would offer a chillingly bleak assessment of the characters, the series and the Federation as a whole. However, Author, Author lacks the courage of its convictions, offering an unearned humanism that stands in stark contrast to the damning arguments that it offers to the audience.

Author, Author suggests that the even the guarded and tempered optimism of The Measure of a Man was unearned. However, it refuses to adopt a more pragmatic and cynical response to this bleak reality, instead just offering more of the same vague platitudes that Voyager had already squandered and that Author, Author had already dismissed. The result is one of the bleakest episodes of Star Trek in the franchise, and all the bleaker for its refusal to acknowledge its own cynicism.

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4 Responses

  1. You’re on the home stretch Darren. I know you’ve said on Twitter it’s taking a toll on you but I’m looking forward to the rest of the reviews. We’re almost at Endgame, keep it up!!!

    • Yeah, but it’s a real slog to get through the next 3-4 episodes if I recall. The last one before Endgame is even more cynical about the Doctor and his rights as a person than Author, Author, if I recall.

      It’s too bad that Darren didn’t like Author. Author. I remember thinking that the first half was a pretty cheeky bit of fun at how over-stuffed and pompous the whole Voyager crew can be (similar to how ENT ended its last season with some fun Mirror Universe episodes, and DS9 relaxed with some weird Las Vegas mafia fantasies), while the second half was a pretty good parody of ‘Measure of a Man’, but with a much lower-stakes version of the same plot. Plus the last scene always cracked me up, because it made me realize that 2 dozen Mk 1 EMH’s would make the absolute worst labor force ever.

      • To be fair, it’s not so much that I didn’t like it. I kinda enjoyed it in the way I did Inside Man, in that it’s a relentlessly bleak piece of Star Trek that seems oblivious to how bleak it is. It’s fascinating, but it didn’t resonate with me.

    • Ha! I’m trying. I really am. To be fair, it’s also just that I have a lot of other stuff on as well, and carving out half a day each week to watch and properly review the episodes does feel like it’s howling into the void. But I’d never quit this close to the end.

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