Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Simple Problems With Simple Solutions Leave The Viewer Disappointed With "The Swarm"

The Good: Good acting, Awesome looking aliens
The Bad: Both the a-plot and b-plot are obvious, Resolution, Tone
The Basics: When the U.S.S. Voyager encounters a lame alien race and the Doctor begins to rapidly degrade, the solutions seem obvious and the episode pointless.

Perhaps the most tiresome aspect of Star Trek: Voyager is the way the ship continues to encounter aliens-of-the-week that: 1. Neelix has heard about, 2. Is an adversary rumored to be so powerful that ships that encounter them never return, and 3. The U.S.S. Voyager enters their space, finds a way to defeat them within forty-three minutes and the race is never heard of again. Either the Delta Quadrant is filled with the most xenophobic races who are committed to never revenging transgressions upon their space or there ought to be a fleet of something like twenty different race's ships hot on Voyager's tail ready to blow the ship up! The latest example in this pantheon of pathetic menaces previously thought to be unstoppable is "The Swarm."

Witlessly voyaging home takes the U.S.S. Voyager through a tachyon detection grid of an alien race that soon appears, angered by the starship's transgression. Suddenly beset by a swarm of a thousand tiny ships that are draining the ship's power by attaching to the hull, Janeway finds her options limited and the ship imperiled. Unfortunately, the Swarm seems to be having an effect on The Doctor and his programming is losing stability and memory, causing Kes and Torres to activate an engineering subroutine that presents a holographic Dr. Zimmerman, the lead engineer who designed The EMH. While Janeway struggles to save the ship, Kes struggles to save the Doctor as the unique entity he has become.

The problem with "The Swarm" begins with the idea that the solution is obvious almost from the moment the alien ships appear. Star Trek has used the idea of the strength-of / interdependency-as-weakness angle to villains before, most notably with the Borg in "The Best Of Both Worlds, Part II" (reviewed here!). Here the concept behind the Swarm seems ridiculously easy even for a layperson; you have a ton of tiny ships that might individually be easy to destroy, but the sum of them becomes overwhelming. The inverse to that, that once they begin draining Voyager they are interlinked in a way that can be exploited as vulnerability, seems like an obvious hypothesis that seems to take the main crew a ridiculously long time to get around to exploring.

But more than that, "The Swarm" confuses the issues with a b-plot (timewise, it might actually have the priority of being the a-plot) that is resolved quite poorly for the taste of viewers of drama or science fiction. The Doctor is essentially dying, suffering from memory loss either as a result of the Swarm or simply from having been on constantly for years (it's not entirely clear what the link between the two plots is). The Emergency Medical Hologram was supposed to be for short term use and now, over two years out, the EMH is beginning to break down. Enter the holographic Dr. Zimmerman, a diagnostic program whose existence surprises everyone, including the viewer.

The problem here becomes that the moment the intact and functional Dr. Zimmerman appears, the problem of the degrading hologram is lessened to the point of making the solution so obvious, it's surprising that it takes Torres any time at all to conceive of the solution. The issue here is supposed to be that the Doctor has outperformed his programming, growing well beyond his original limitations. In fact, when the episode begins, the Doctor is practicing his opera singing. This irritates the holographic Dr. Zimmerman because this is well outside the original specifications of the program, but the whole argument seems in some ways pedantic. I love the character of The Doctor, he's easily my favorite character on the show. But of any character, the Doctor makes sense to be one who could occasionally be entirely rebooted and the fact that the resolution to the episode does not put him as a completely different character is in some ways disappointing.

In short, the plot here sets the episode up to be vastly more complex and menacing than it ends up being, on both plots.

The notable aspect of "The Swarm" is that it does introduce Dr. Lewis Zimmerman (in one form or another) as an on-screen character. He returns to the series later on as well as a guest shot on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Dr. Bashir, I Presume" (reviewed here!) and he is a fun character, well acted by Robert Picardo. Picardo does an excellent job performing in this episode, often playing off himself as the EMH and Zimmerman. He's clever and a talented actor enough to make the whole process look effortless.

Sadly, Picardo's acting is the superlative aspect of "The Swarm" and the only thing worth recommending. The plot is so obvious as to be insulting and the villains are so easily foiled as to be utterly lacking in menace. At least they look cool, which arguably, they do.

Otherwise, this is an episode it's more than safe to pass by; I recommend leaving it off your "to watch" list.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the entire season here!


For other Star Trek reviews, 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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