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Star Trek: Voyager – Renaissance Man (Review)

Renaissance Man is a poor episode of television. However, it is not an especially misguided one.

The flaws with Renaissance Man are largely structural and familiar. They are the flaws that define Star Trek: Voyager, from a storytelling point of few. The plotting is loose. The characterisation is threadbare. There are good ideas, but the manner in which those ideas are developed and explores leaves a lot to be desired. There are flashes of a much better episode, but it is unclear that even the production team realise what those flashes are. The pacing is awkward, with act breaks positioned very poorly. There is an unnecessary secondary climax that muddies the episode.

Leaps and bounds ahead.

However, Renaissance Man largely avoids the more fundamental philosophical problems that have haunted so much of the seventh season before it. Renaissance Man seems cobbled together from stray ideas seeded in earlier episodes of the season, but those ideas are not inherently toxic or bad. Following on from the deeply uncomfortable isolationist and xenophobic triptych of Friendship One, Natural Law and Homestead, there is something refreshing in the fact that Renaissance Man is not explicitly about how people should keep to themselves.

Renaissance Man is underwhelming, but it is not a spectacular misfire. At this point in the season, that counts for much more than it really should.

I, EMH.

There are a lot of little things to enjoy about Renaissance Man, sprinkled through the episode. However, these elements are often inseparable from more fundamental flaws. Renaissance Man literalises a fundamental truth about Voyager. It touches on the idea of how useless most of the primary cast actually is. The basic plot of Renaissance Man finds the EMH infiltrating the ship, posing as various crew members and replacing them. It takes Tuvok a very long time to figure out what is going on.

The EMH’s deception is not particularly elaborate. In fact, it is heavily implied that the EMH could not fool a simple sensor scan, whether from a tricorder or from a verbal instruction to the computer. Early on, when Janeway is not in her quarters, Chakotay instructs the computer to “locate Captain Janeway.” Coming around the corner, EMH!Janeway instructs the computer to “belay that order.” The implication is that Chakotay could have figured out that Janeway is not on the ship had the computer been allowed to respond.

Putting her foot down.

This is the level of sophistication at which the crew are operating. Tuvok could have cracked the case simply by checking the number of lifesigns on board the ship. More than that, the EMH is able to outwit the ship’s chief of security with a poor Robert Beltran impersonation, one that reveals that Chakotay is with the EMH, who should be a person of interest in the investigation given that he was also on the away mission with Janeway. Renaissance Man makes the crew look like idiots.

In a sense, this is carried over from the bleak black comedy of Inside Man earlier in the season, in which the crew are manipulated into almost killing themselves by a holographic representation of Reginald Barclay who has been hijacked by a pair of Ferengi planning to harvest the ship for spare parts. Renaissance Man is effectively a conceptual retread of Inside Man, another story of the crew being outwitted by a hologram at the behest of two greed scavengers.

Doctoring the records.

However, as with Inside Man, there is a sense in which Renaissance Man seems to be in on this very cruel joke. It seems particularly pointed that the EMH is able to drug Chakotay and Kim, dropping their bodies in the morgue, and nobody notices that these two officers have gone missing. Granted, the EMH can impersonate either of them, but he is forced to divide his time; at best Chakotay and Kim would get about a quarter of his time. It seems just a little passive-aggressive that not even Tuvok seems to notice the absence of two of the ensemble’s least developed players.

More than that, Renaissance Man is an episode that explicitly positions the EMH as the most valuable member of the ensemble. The EMH can play any role that the show needs him to play. He can take the lead or work in the background, he can substitute for Janeway or Chakotay or Torres without anybody noticing. This seems like an acknowledgement of Robert Picardo’s status as the show’s breakout performer, capable of anchoring both comedy and drama. More than that, Picardo is the only Star Trek lead to both write and direct television episodes. (And his own book.)

Singing his own praises.

Picardo himself acknowledges the EMH as one of the breakout characters on Voyager:

I had no idea that the doctor would become such an integral character. In fact when I took the role I told all of my friends that I just got a good job on the new Star Trek show and it will probably run seven years and would put my daughters through college… but I had the worst character on the show. When you accept a role that is described as “colourless, humourless, a computer programme of a doctor” you don’t necessarily have great expectations for how the character will develop. What I didn’t realize, because I wasn’t familiar with Star Trek at the time was that the artificial intelligence characters kind of replaced Spock as the outsider character who is not human but aspires to be human. In the same sense that Data became a breakout character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I think the Doctor captured the audience’s imagination and the writers responded by giving me (The Doctor) wonderful things to do.

It makes sense to give the EMH some focus in the last character-centric episode of the series, but Renaissance Man also seems designed to literalise his versatility.

Sontar-Ha.

Perhaps it makes sense that Renaissance Man should bring back the aliens who originally appeared in Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and who later popped up in a supporting role in The Void. Known alternately as “the Hierarchy” and “the Overlookers”, these aliens are defined by the act of watching as much as the Hirogen are defined by the act of hunting. Given Voyager‘s occasionally conspiratorial mindset, as seen in episodes like Future’s End, Part II or The Voyager Conspiracy, it is interesting that these aliens never really serve as a metaphor for the surveillance state.

Instead, episodes like Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and Renaissance Man position these aliens as surrogates for the audience. They watch and they observe. In Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, one lowly bureaucrat watches to escape the humdrum of his mundane life. In contrast, Renaissance Man suggests that these audience figures are trying to hijack control of the narrative. Nar and Zet have broken away from their people. They are manning a ship all by themselves, existing apart.

And Zet is Zet.

Renaissance Man suggests that what separates Zet and Nar from their people is their agency. “We made our choice when we stole this vessel,” Zet warns Nar. “I am not going back to the Hierarchy, and neither are you.” Zet and Nar are not content to merely hack into alien ships and voyeuristically watch their day-to-day activities. Instead, Zet and Nar want to direct the action. Zet repeatedly orders the EMH around, causing the exhausted hologram to protest, “I can’t do my job with the two of you constantly talking in my head.”

It might be too much to read Zet and Nar as a commentary of controlling fans, a fraction that has broken off from the larger audience, no longer willing to just consume media without dictating their expectations from it. At the turn of the millennium, there was an awkward shift in the relation between fans and media producers, the internet allowing fans a place to vent their frustrations and set their expectations that was also readily available to the people creating the art in question.

“We’re watching you.”

The production team working on Star Trek knew this. Ronald D. Moore’s departure from Voyager had played out as a public spectacle on websites like Ain’t It Cool News, TrekToday and Fandom. Fan sites were staging mock trials of former showrunner Brannon Braga, eager to play both defense and prosecution. This has only escalated in the years since as Caroline Framke reports:

And to be sure, there are absolutely times when fans express their anger in unproductive and even willfully destructive ways. … The 100 writers received death threats. Some Ghostbusters reboot rage has expressed itself in concentrated, ugly Twitter campaigns that target anyone who says something halfway positive about the new movie. This unfortunate behavior mostly comes from vocal minorities.

But it’s an unfortunate truth that those who yell the loudest are usually the first to be heard, which is how you get TV writers blinking in panic at the idea of having to cater to fan whims.

Zet and Nar are no longer content to mere watch, they want to participate in and shape the narrative. It is perhaps revealing that their interests hark back to first season continuity like “bioneural gel packs” and that they plan to literally rob the ship (and the show) of its engine.

Pipe down!

Renaissance Man is also the rare episode that seems to acknowledge the quintessential “otherness” of the EMH as a character. In terms of characterisation, Voyager has often approached the EMH as an “artificial person”, in the same way that Star Trek: The Next Generation treated Data. The EMH has consciously and repeatedly tried to emulate human behaviour; he programmes himself with the flu in Tattoo, he falls in love in Lifesigns, he builds a holographic family in Real Life. No small part of the EMH’s character arc is learning to become more empathic, more human.

The unfortunate consequence of this approach has been an effort to downplay the differences between the EMH and characters like Data or Seven of Nine. The EMH is not a robot. He is a consciousness nested inside a computer that expresses itself through a physical manifestation. That is unique in the Star Trek canon, something that exists outside humanity’s frame of reference. Perhaps reflecting the show’s inherent conservatism, Voyager has largely avoided exploring this weirdness, outside of episodes like Projections or even Warhead.

Mortified.

As such, if feels appropriate that Renaissance Man should touch upon that idea, even fleetingly. As Duncan and Michèle Barrett point out in The Human Frontier, the episode distinguishes the EMH from characters like Data and Seven of Nine:

In the series’ penultimate episode, Renaissance Man, the Doctor – who has been simultaneously piloting a shuttlecraft, singing an aria from Rigoletto, photgraphing a nebula and writing a medical-research paper – makes an admission that starkly differentiates him from The Next Generation’s android Data: ‘There was a time when I would have given anything to be flesh and blood,’ he tells Captain Janeway. ‘ But I’ve come to realise that being a hologram is far superior.’

It is a small touch, but an important one; especially in the context of a seventh season that portrayed the Federation as a slavery economy in Author, Author and articulated fears of a slave revolt in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II.

Things come apart.

Of course, this should all be self-evident. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had navigated the complicated question of identity with characters like Worf, Odo and Quark. However, this small observation feels particularly important as Voyager comes to a close. After all, Voyager has forced all its Maquis into Starfleet uniforms at the end of Caretaker. Seven of Nine had been stripped of all but a few of her Borg implants by the end of The Gift. Neelix had decided that the ship could never be his real “home” in Homestead. The EMH’s assertion of his own identity is important.

More than that, Renaissance Man actually does a very good job of capitalising on the essential “otherness” of the EMH. The basic plot of the episode feels akin to a body swap adventure, very much a companion piece to Phyllis Strong and Mike Sussman’s earlier seventh season script Body and Soul. In fact, Renaissance Man even borrows some of the same awkward jokes, with the EMH-in-a-female-body having to decide whether to fend off or encourage male advances. It wasn’t especially funny in Body and Soul, and Renaissance Man cleverly plays the joke down.

Out of phase.

Still, the episode’s most impressive sequence is built around the EMH as a hologram. Once Tuvok figures out that the EMH is behind the mysterious happenings, he confronts the hologram in sickbay. He turns his phaser of the physician. “You haven’t forgotten I’m a hologram, have you?” the EMH taunts. Tuvok responds by shooting out one of the projectors that is manifesting the EMH’s body. It is a clever reminder that the EMH is not the same as other crew members.

What follows is an enjoyably ridiculous game of cat-and-mouse as Tuvok chases his target through the ship. The EMH uses his holographic form to leap through windows without breaking them, to walk through tables, to ignore the ship’s artificial gravity. It is uncanny, even beyond the occasional reminders that The Next Generation offered of Data’s physical strength and incredible reflexes. At one point, the EMH distracts Tuvok with a holodeck full of copies of himself. He challenges Tuvok to find the “real” hologram. Of course, the EMH is already gone.

Pregnant pause.

This arguably the heart of the episode. It is a reminder of just how fundamentally alien the EMH is, even if he looks and sounds like Robert Picardo. To pick one small example, he is so integrated into the ship’s systems that he is able to assert a command override simply by invoking the “Emergency Command Hologram” and giving himself the privileges. These sequences don’t explore the full potential of the EMH as a piece of sentient software (as opposed to hardware like Data), but they come closer than a lot of Voyager, and they offer a visceral thrill.

Of course, a lot of this approach is undermined in Endgame. In the finale’s potential future, the EMH is presented as a character who has fully assimilated into human culture. He has chosen a name for himself. He has married a beautiful young women. It does not matter that the EMH survived without a name for seven years and that he will “probably outlive us all”, to quote Janeway towards the end of Renaissance Man. All that matters is that the EMH – or “Joe” – has decided to conform to very human and very conservative ideas of identity.

Janeway is not feeling herself.

As David Greven points out in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, this conformity serves to erase a potential queer reading of the EMH:

The Doctor is nameless until the very last episode of the series, Endgame. His namelessness is significant for a queer reading of his character, for he remains undefinable, the blur of identity. Homosexuality has long been the “love that dare not speak its name” of Oscar Wilde’s well-known phrase. It is interesting that it is only in the coda to the series, Endgame, that the Doctor, with his new bride – a thin blonde woman – on his arm, decides upon a name (“Joe”). The series appears to suggest that the Doctor’s character arc has been a journey towards the achievement of normative heterosexuality, proper acquiescence to the Name and the Law of the Father.

It is telling that a lot of the stories that “humanise” the EMH – such as Lifesigns or Real Life – make a point to stress his conformity to heterosexual gender norms.

A lot to chew over.

This is frustrating, but not surprising. Conceptually, the EMH is one of the most interesting characters in the larger Star Trek canon. He does not conform to life as the audience (or the characters) understand it. He is undoubtedly self-aware, but experiences the universe in a way that is fundamentally distinct from that of so-called “organics.” Of course Voyager smothers that sense of difference or otherness in favour of cold conformity. Renaissance Man is a brief and welcome reprieve from this approach.

However, Renaissance Man suffers from a number of major structural issues. It seems to have been put together by a creative team that has completely forget how to build a compelling hour of television. This is obvious from the teaser, which focuses on Janeway and the EMH. The two are travelling together in a shuttle when something happens. “We’re passing through a subspace eddy,” the EMH states. “It’s probably just the gravimetric shear from the nebula.” He insists, “Sit down and relax, Captain. You’ve got a hologram at the helm.” And then the episode cuts to credits.

Music to her ears.

The scene forgets the primary purpose of a teaser – to tease the audience with the promise of something interesting happening and to set up the episode. The idea of a shuttle craft being menaced by a hostile alien is a stock Star Trek teaser, employed in episodes like Mind’s Eye or Chimera. It isn’t especially original, but it can get the job done if it absolutely has to. However, Renaissance Man hits the point at which something happens to the shuttle, then has the EMH downplay the idea that it is anything to worry about. It is a strange note on which to close a teaser.

This structuring issue recurs through Renaissance Man. Notably, the sequence in which EMH!Janeway attacks Chakotay is positioned as an act break. Again, this is relatively functional as far as act breaks go. It might hold the audience’s attention through a commercial break. However, it doesn’t actually reveal any new information or change the audience’s perspective. EMH!Janeway has been acting suspicious for the entire act, and it is clear that there is something wrong with Janeway; that she is being (at least) directed by an outside force.

We’ve all thought about it.

Instead, the real surprise comes in the first scene of the next act, when it is reveal to the audience that the EMH has been impersonating Janeway. This is a big moment. This is a big reveal. The audience has never really seen the EMH do something like this before, but it makes sense given what the audience knows about his capabilities. More than that, it raises questions about why the EMH is participating in this ruse and what his endgame might be. This is a much more compelling beat than “Janeway drugs Chakotay”, and should have closed the previous act.

This sort of shoddy plotting continues throughout the episode. There is a lovely little scene between Paris and Torres early in the episode, as Paris tries to steal his wife away for a sneaky lunch in the shuttle bay. It’s the sort of small character-driven filler scene that Voyager does far too rarely. The penultimate episode of the final season is probably not the best place for a little scene like this, but it is better late than never. It might work as an acknowledgement of the show’s misplaced priorities.

He hasn’t a chicken leg to stand on.

Instead, the scene is just set-up for a later plot point, wherein Paris bothers EMH!Torres in engineering with a tray of chicken drum stricks. It is not a character beat at all, but a clumsy plot machination. This is frustrating, particularly given the pacing issues in the second half of the episode. Renaissance Man might have been a better episode if it had delivered a few more small character-centric scenes in order to extend the primary plot a little bit.

Unfortunately, Renaissance Man runs out of plot within five minutes of the closing credits. This forces the episode to improvise, effectively shoehorning an entirely new plot into those final minutes. This is a familiar tactic in terms of storytelling on Voyager, most obvious in episodes like Alter Ego, Worst Case Scenario or Demon. Once Zet and Nar have been defeated, the EMH’s holomatrix begins to degrade. Torres tries to fix him in the holodeck.

Killing it.

As Torres tries to fix the EMH, he makes a series of embarrassing personal confessions to the characters assembled; to Kim, to Tuvok, to Seven, to Janeway. His confession to Janeway is particularly awkward, “I’ve had something on my conscience for a long time. After I was first activated, I kept a record of what I considered to be your most questionable command decisions. It’s in my personal database. I hope you’ll delete the file without reading it.” This recalls the perceived violation of trust that the crew experienced at the hands of the EMH in Author, Author.

Renaissance Man tries to treat this scene as the heart of the episode, despite its function as a comedic coda. Janeway reports in her log, “Lieutenant Torres has restored our warp drive in less than a week. The Doctor’s dignity, however, might take a little longer. He hasn’t left Sickbay once since he returned to the ship.” When Janeway does visit the EMH, he apologies, “After my deathbed confession, I wasn’t sure I had any friends left. I overstepped my bounds in documenting your command decisions. It happened a long time ago, before I considered myself to be a part of your crew.”

Bad of dishonour.

This is a very strange and completely illogical shift. The EMH’s biggest concern should not be his dignity. The EMH lied to his friends. The EMH drugged Chakotay and Kim and locked them in the morgue. The EMH led Tuvok on a wild chase around the ship and then stunned him unconscious. The EMH almost left the ship stranded in the Delta Quadrant without a warp core. These are the issues that should hang over the EMH and make it difficult for him to reintegrate into the crew, not the jokey melodramatic deathbed confession.

However, Renaissance Man seems to have already forgotten all of that by the closing scene. In its own strange way, this feels entirely appropriate for the penultimate episode of Voyager.

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5 Responses

  1. I know I am probably crossing the line into being an irritant but you’ve been building up to this for I think almost two years now, so I have to ask. When do you think you can review Voyager Endgame? It seems somehow fitting that you should close out at the current chronological endpoint of Star Trek prior to Picard being released.

    • Not at all! It’s entirely fair. I’m a bit miffed myself that it has taken me this long. I was hoping to have it and the season seven review up this week, but I had a last-minute change of plans last weekend.

      (This week and next will likely be very light in terms of content on the blog, sadly. I normally write at weekends, but this one and next one are out, alas.)

      • Hello Darren,

        Any chance that we can get the Endgame review by the end of September? 😀

      • I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, I am as frustrated and angry with myself as anybody reading this. It’s just been an insane month in terms of commitments. (I have a backlog of movie reviews to get through, for example. And a dozen podcasts to edit. And a twice-weekly column to write. I should be able to fit Endgame in once I get a rhythm going, but I don’t want to make promises. I’ve written a draft of it, and I’m not happy with it.)

  2. Hello Darren,

    It is ok. Thanks for the info. I am sure that sooner or later it will come up. Its just frustrating because I already had a similar problem with another reviewer… He was reviewing the 24 tv series by seasons (it was also a damn good read) and he stoped midway through the show and never finised it. Best regards.

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