Friday, June 15, 2012

Star Trek: Voyager's Big Success In The First Season Is Plagued With "Heroes And Demons!"

The Good: Funny, Holds up over multiple viewings, Great character development, Wonderful acting
The Bad: Very simple plot
The Basics: When officers are lost in the holodeck, The Doctor must journey into a Beowulf scenario to find them and confront the monster Grendel to do that.

One of the few brilliant ideas that Star Trek: Voyager had from its very beginning was the idea of the Emergency Medical Hologram. The Doctor, as he simply became known as, was supposed to be a temporary supplement to a medical staff and when the entire medical crew is killed in "Caretaker," the temporary program becomes the regular attending physician. Like virtually every other character on Star Trek: Voyager, The Doctor was derivative of a well-executed, very popular idea on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the case of The Doctor, his concept comes from the holographic Moriarty seen in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes "Elementary, Dear Data" (reviewed here!) and "Ship In A Bottle" (reviewed here!). The essential struggle of the holographic Moriarty was that he was a hologram who understood he was a hologram and he had a desire to leave the holodeck and enter the real world. Up until "Heroes And Demons," the EMH has been trapped in Sickbay, unable to leave and irritated by his lack of control over his own program.

While the U.S.S. Voyager is meandering its way home, Janeway - scientist that she is - decides to stop at a nearby protostar and beam some samples aboard. Her scientific curiosity gets the better of her and the consequences of her actions are that Ensign Harry Kim, first officer Chakotay and Lieutenant Tuvok, who were on the holodeck in a Beowulf program become lost. Because the Doctor could safely travel into the holodeck without fear of being destroyed in quite the same way as the other officers, Janeway has him transferred to the holodeck on a rescue mission. Once there, he meets Freya, a warrior who aids him in his search for the lost officers, which takes on the form of . . . encountering Grendel.

With all of the classics that the various Star Trek series's have explored, this is the first time that the franchise has explored the old English (Viking) period and it's a nice exploration for this series, a chance to distinguish it. Moreover, with all of the "disasters in a holodeck" stories that Star Trek: The Next Generation ever did, this one has a feeling of being somewhat fresh and new again. Star Trek: Voyager takes the tired idea that some of our crewmembers might actually perish in the holodeck and makes it feel new and different again.

The primary way that "Heroes and Demons" does that is by focusing on the character elements. The Doctor is a wonderful character to utilize because many of the conceits that the holodeck type stories hinge on are immediately negated through the use of the Doctor. The worst thing that can happen to the EMH is that he can be annoyed, as he proves by irking a Viking and then simply letting the warrior's blade pass through him (which is a cool effect, too). So, the whole tired idea that the holodeck safeties are off means little to a character who is a hologram and cannot truly die either.

By focusing on the Doctor, the episode also very effectively plays with the tongue in cheek idea of the EMH going on an away mission without ever leaving the ship. The Doctor, who has been secure, in control and annoying in Sickbay is finally phased in a way that forces him to grow. Suddenly finding himself in a very different environment, the EMH becomes overwhelmed by the stimulus. This is a very realistic and very humanizing idea that works wonderfully to create a genuine character for the Doctor. Up until now, the Doctor has only been a collection of one-liners and while that has been amusing (some episodes, it's the sole reason to watch), it is hardly enough to establish a great character.

In "Heroes and Demons," the Doctor is not secure, he's not in his element and while there is a great deal of humor and moments that are exciting, the psychological effects on the Doctor are what makes the episode stand up as something more than a simple science fiction piece. This becomes the sterling episode of the first season and one of the best episodes of the series. "Heroes and Demons" succeeds because it successfully transforms a character. The EMH goes from being a clever - if derivative - idea and is transformed into an actual individual and the change is compelling and works beautifully.

The transformation would not be at all believable were it not for the acting talents of Robert Picardo, who plays The Doctor. Picardo, who up until now has been mostly utilizing his uncanny comedic talents and ability to make dramatic revelations right before the opening credits, infuses the EMH with a wider range of body language, facial expressions and genuine emotions. Picardo makes every scene he is in instantly compelling and he infuses a character who - on the page - is being humanized with humanity.

Guest star Marjorie Monaghan as Freya. Monaghan is cast in the role of "female sidekick" to Picardo's "hero," but she makes the bit role of Freya her own. Monaghan has a strong sense of physical presence that allows her to create a character who is believably strong, yet who softens some by the end of the episode. She holds her own with Picardo and that makes her memorable.

The special effects in "Heroes And Demons" are decent and impressive when one considers how little lead time the creative staff had to create things like the Viking hall and all of the armor. This is an episode that looks great and is very easy to get into. Far more about the psychological journey that the EMH is on than the technical aspects of how Kim and the others are lost, "Heroes And Demons" becomes something bigger than this series.

Unfortunately, for fans of the franchise, this is essentially a very "done" idea, even if it is recast rather well. Fans of Star Trek and science fiction in general are more likely to enjoy what is familiar about this episode than to be truly astonished or challenged by it. Ultimately, though, it's a great entrance point for those who have never experienced an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It has a high entertainment value and it does quite a bit of character growth, which is what good television ought to.

Sadly, though, there is very little menace to the characters, making the ultimate resolution quite predictable. Still, it's one of the few Star Trek: Voyager episodes worth returning repeatedly to. This is definitely one of the best of the first season!

[Knowing that the season is a much better investment, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete First Season on DVD, which provides the full opening to the series. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!

For other works with Michael Keenan, be sure to check out my reviews of:
“Sub Rosa”
“Statistical Probabilities”


For other Star Trek reviews, be sure to check out my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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