Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch

Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “The Swarm”

“The Swarm”
Written by Mike Sussman
Directed by Alexander Singer
Season 3, Episode 4
Production episode 149
Original air date: September 25, 1996
Stardate: 50252.3

Captain’s log. While Voyager is getting supplies, Paris and Torres take a shuttle to investigate some odd sensor readings. They don’t find anything for several hours, but eventually they do track something—and then they come under attack by an alien ship that beams two people aboard and shoots them both, speaking in a language the universal translator can’t handle.

The EMH is on the holodeck, attempting to perform opera. He’s doing a duet of “O, Soave Faniculla” from Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème with a 22nd-century soprano named Giuseppina Pentageli. However, the holodeck has also re-created Pentageli’s rather difficult personality, and then on top of everything, the EMH forgets the words at one point.

Before he can pursue this unexplained memory loss, he’s summoned to sickbay. Voyager has found the shuttle, and Paris and Torres are badly hurt. Torres is recovering nicely, but Paris needs surgery. It quickly becomes apparent that the EMH’s memory loss is more far-reaching than just one song—he forgets to tell Torres she’s well enough to be discharged, and he no longer remembers the surgical procedure that Paris needs. He still has his surgical skills, however, so Kes basically reads him the procedure to walk him through it and save Paris.

Neelix has heard of these aliens that Torres has described, and while he doesn’t know their names, he does know that they’re to be avoided at all costs. The sensor readings that Paris and Torres were investigating in the first place was a sensor net that the aliens use to detect intruders. They’ve scanned more thoroughly and mapped out their border based on that net, and going around their territory will add fifteen months to their journey home. Janeway finds this totally unacceptable. She tasks the crew with figuring a safe way through without going around.

After saving Paris, the EMH reports his memory issues to Torres. The EMH has been in far greater use than expected, and the extra memory buffers Torres put in to help him cope are breaking down. At this point, her best option is to reinitialize him—the problem is that he’ll then lose all his knowledge and experience gained over the past two years. He will be as he was when they first activated him. (Nobody mentions that he’d also lose all the experience he’s gained from various Delta Quadrant species they’ve encountered, most especially Talaxians, Ocampa, Kazon, and Vidiians.)

Kes very passionately argues against that option. The EMH isn’t just a program, he’s a person, and they should make every effort to heal him rather than reset him. Janeway agrees, and tasks Torres with finding another option.

Chakotay and Kim have a plan to get through the aliens’ territory: modifying the shields to refract the sensors in the net and then flying through the “skinniest” part of their space and hope they don’t get noticed.

Torres tries several things in sickbay, but still can’t fix the problem, not aided by the EMH kibitzing. She then goes to the holodeck and runs the EMH diagnostic program, which is a re-creation of the Jupiter Station lab where Dr. Lewis Zimmerman created the EMH, complete with an avatar of Zimmerman himself.

Screenshot: CBS

Zimmerman quickly diagnoses the problem: The EMH has run significantly longer than it was designed to, and is filled with a crapton of excess memories and experiences that are utterly irrelevant to its function. Torres knows all this already, but they have to keep him running due to being 70,000 light-years from home with no medical staff.

Torres is needed to help Voyager get through alien territory, so she leaves Zimmerman to work. Kes goes to the holodeck to see how the EMH is doing—and also advocate for him.

Voyager makes it through the sensor net seemingly undetected. They find a swarm of alien ships, but they’re inactive. They zip across the alien territory, but Paris says there’s a drag on the engines.

Then they detect a ship that is different from all the others. There’s only one life sign. They beam the survivor aboard. He’s a Mislen named Chardis. Chardis’s wounds are too great for Kes (with minimal assistance from a deteriorating EMH, who’s barely able to follow Kes’s simple instructions) to treat, and he dies, but not until he tells what happened: The aliens attached their ships to the Mislen vessel’s hull and drained it of all its energy before trying to crush them.

One of the ships attached to the Mislen ship detaches and latches onto Voyager‘s hull. It emits a polaron pulse that negates Voyager‘s shield trick, and now the swarm of alien ships can detect them, and they’re off to the races. The alien ships soon catch up to Voyager and latch onto the hull and start draining their energy.

Kes suggests using the Zimmerman hologram as a graft, adding it to the EMH’s memory to expand it enough to stop degrading. Zimmerman points out that they’ll lose the diagnostic program if they do that, and it still may not work, but Kes thinks it’s worth the risk.

Janeway suggests destroying one ship to break the lattice. Three aliens beam on board, and wound one bridge crew member, but Tuvok, Janeway, and Chakotay are able to fight them off. For some reason, they stop beaming people aboard then, giving Kim a chance to destroy one ship, which destroys the lattice, er, somehow. The swarm breaks off and Voyager continues through.

The procedure on the EMH is successful, but the doctor now acts as if he’s just been activated, with no apparent memory of anything that has happened since Voyager fell down the Caretaker’s rabbit hole. However, as he prepares an analgesic for Torres’s headache, he starts to sing “O, Soave Faniculla.”

Screenshot: CBS

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? The EMH’s experiences over the first two seasons-and-a-bit have added fifteen thousand gigaquads to his memory, which is more than the matrix can handle, apparently.

There’s coffee in that nebula! After going out of her way to follow Starfleet regulations to the letter in, more or less, every other episode, Janeway decides to say “fuck it” and barrel through the sovereign territory of an alien species just because she doesn’t want to be inconvenienced by an extra fifteen months of travel on her seventy-year journey. (Said journey being so urgent that she was willing to let Torres and Paris arse about looking for sensor readings for hours on end.)

Half and half. Torres has to find an errant sensor reading, modify the shields, and try to fix the EMH. She is successful in all three to a degree, though at one point Kes asks for her help with the EMH and Janeway says no because she’s busy with other stuff and, well, what about the entire rest of the engineering staff?

Everybody comes to Neelix’s. Neelix tells everyone that the aliens are bad news. The rest of the episode proves him right.

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. Apparently Zimmerman didn’t program the EMH with the capacity to expand its memory very far, which is a problem if the program needs to learn new medical techniques for, say, newly encountered species—y’know, that thing that’s Starfleet’s mission statement? Also neither the EMH nor the diagnostic program can be copied or backed up, making them both unique among computer programs. (No, seriously, shouldn’t there be regular backups of the EMH made? And why would grafting the Zimmerman hologram make it disappear? That’s not how computer programs work. This is especially glaring given that “Living Witness” will later establish that there is a backup EMH…)

Forever an ensign. Kim comes up with a way to get through the aliens’ sensor net because he’s just that awesome.

What happens on the holodeck stays on the holodeck. The EMH’s diagnostic program is a holodeck re-creation of where he was programmed, Jupiter Station.

No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. Paris and Torres are alone on a shuttlecraft for several hours, with Paris teasing Torres about the crush Freddy Bristow has on her. Given the future relationship between the two, this scene is especially hilarious.

When the holographic Zimmerman realizes that the EMH has had relationships with women, he shoots the doctor a look and asks, “Did they find you attractive?”

Do it. “All the sopranos seem to have the most irritating personalities. These women are arrogant, superior, condescending—I can’t imagine anyone behaving that way.”

The EMH showing a spectacular lack of self-awareness.

Welcome aboard. Carole Davis is delightfully snotty as the holographic opera diva. Steven Houska is completely expository as Chardis. And Robert Picardo does double duty, playing both the EMH and the holographic Zimmerman.

Trivial matters: This is the first time Robert Picardo has played an actual version of Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, though it’s still a holographic representation, as it was (kind of) in “Projections.” The real Zimmerman will be seen in the sixth season’s “Life Line,” and also in DS9‘s “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?

While Michael Sussman got sole credit for writing the episode, Jeri Taylor did an uncredited rewrite of the teleplay.

The EMH plot was partly inspired by a notion put forth by Picardo whereby the EMH would interact with Zimmerman. In addition, Picardo had suggested the EMH getting an interest in opera during the second season, and was rather surprised that the producers took it seriously. Picardo did his own singing in the holodeck opera scene.

The aliens in the swarm are the first Voyager has encountered native to the Delta Quadrant to have transporter technology.

When Kes and the EMH are discussing his life on board, they talk about the events of “Caretaker” when he was first activated, the EMH remembers rubbing Kes’s feet in “Elogium,” and he gets angry when he realizes he doesn’t have a name, which has been a running theme since the first season.

Screenshot: CBS

Set a course for home. “It’s like singing with a computer!” When I wrote the second-season overview I pointed out that Voyager was at its best when it colored within the lines, as it were. When they did stories that needed to have scope beyond the 42 minutes of the episode itself, it didn’t work, and often was a colossal failure.

“The Swarm” is a colossal failure.

Let’s start with the worst part of the plot, which is Voyager plowing through sovereign territory to save themselves fifteen months in a seventy-year journey. The same Kathryn Janeway who insists on following Starfleet principles, who makes the Maquis crew wear Starfleet uniforms and follow Starfleet regulations, who refused to steal the Sikarians’ technology, who refused to share any technology with the Kazon, who refused to get into it with the Sky Spirits over polyferranide, and so on, suddenly decides that it’s totally okay to invade a foreign power’s space in order to make the journey go 11% faster. Never mind that they’ve already made tons of extra stops to stare at nebulae or futz about with supply issues that should be irrelevant to a ship with replicators or divert for whatever crazy-ass reason, the cumulative effect of which is likely to have added at least fifteen months to the journey anyhow…

This journey comes with considerable risk, as the Mislen ship demonstrates. (I’m giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the crewmember shot on the bridge survived, but if he died, it’s even worse.)

And the only response is one brief objection plus eyebrow-raise from Tuvok, and that’s it. This is a complete 180 from Janeway’s prior actions and it’s barely even acknowledged or dealt with.

Plus everything that happens with the aliens is so perfunctory and unexplained. And in the end, they technobabble their way out of it in a manner that’s incomprehensible even by the high standards of 1990s Trek technobabble.

At least the EMH plot is fun for a while, because Robert Picardo is always awesome, so two Robert Picardos is twice the awesome! From singing opera while wearing a ridiculous wig to his heartbreaking loss of memory to the even snottier Zimmerman, Picardo is superb throughout. On top of that, Jennifer Lien puts in a fantastic performance, as Kes argues vehemently and passionately for the EMH’s rights as a person. She was the first one on board to treat the doctor as a person rather than a computer program, and she values his friendship too much to just let him be reset without a fight.

But then the ending fucks it all up. It should be dramatic. It should be tragic. For all intents and purposes, the EMH is dead and has been replaced with a duplicate. But then they hedge their bets with the opera singing at the end—in much the same way Star Trek Nemesis would hedge Data’s death by having B4 sing “Blue Sky”—which already takes some of the zing out of it. Plus, this is a rewatch, not a watch, so I already know that (one line of dialogue in “Future’s End” excepted), this will never even be acknowledged again. Every subsequent episode of the show will portray the EMH the exact same way he was portrayed before, so the tragedy is completely flushed down the toilet.

This should’ve been a strong episode that showed Janeway agonizing over the decision to finally sacrifice some of her principles. This should’ve been a tragedy about how the EMH is paying the price for exceeding his programming. It wound up being an inconsequential technobabble episode that is only rated as high as it is because it’s got Robert Picardo in it twice.

Warp factor rating: 4

Keith R.A. DeCandido has been doing readings of his short fiction since the pandemic started. Check out his “KRAD COVID readings” YouTube channel which includes, among other things, his readings of his Star Trek short stories “Letting Go” (from the Voyager anthology Distant Shores), “Broken Oaths” (from the Deep Space Nine anthology Prophecy and Change), and “loDnI’pu’ vavpu’ je” (from the Tales from the Captain’s Table anthology), as well as an excerpt from the Starfleet Corps of Engineers novella Here There Be Monsters. There’s a new reading every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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