February 27 2024

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Retro Review: Darkling

6 min read
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The Doctor creates an evil doppelganger when he modifies his program with personality traits from historical figures.

Plot Summary: While Janeway and several other crewmembers visit an outpost to trade materials for maps and information about the region of space ahead, the Doctor modifies his personality to incorporate elements from celebrated historical and literary figures. Torres warns him that the subroutines will interact and may become unstable. Kes has begun to fall in love with an alien pilot and is considering leaving Voyager for a wider range of life experiences, though the Doctor suggests that she’s far too infatuated with travelers suffering from wanderlust and believes it to be a consequence of her breakup with Neelix. When Kes’s new romantic interest Zahir is shoved off a cliff by an unknown assailant, suspicion falls on the jealous Nakahn, who runs a local lodge. But it soon becomes obvious that the Doctor’s program has been severely compromised by his experiment and that a vicious new personality is responsible for attacking Torres when she wants to run tests on the EMH. Tuvok and Chakotay warn Janeway of newly discovered evidence that a hologram injured Zahir and try to find Kes, who has been taken from the ship by the Doctor. Kes tries to persuade him that empathy and kindness are fundamental to all forms of life, but the Doctor flings himself and Kes off the side of a cliff rather than surrender to Chakotay and Tuvok. Voyager beams them up mid-fall. Torres is able to delete all the damaging subroutines before reactivating the Doctor, who has no memory of his evil personality and promises that next time he wants excitement, he’ll read a good book. Much to the Doctor’s relief, Kes decides to remain on Voyager. Left alone to ponder his recent behavior, he recites the Hippocratic Oath, pledging to do no harm.

Analysis: Nearly twenty years of interviews and convention appearances have revealed that the cast and crew of Voyager loved “Darkling” – which is a good argument for not reading interviews or going to conventions, because rather than improving my opinion of the episode, they’ve lessened my respect for the people praising it. I understand that Robert Picardo must have been excited to have something different to do so that after Voyager stopped production, he’d have a recent clip demonstrating his ability to perform in horror movies, but the fact that he’s expressed disappointment that he didn’t get to take his torture of Torres and Kes further makes me think he cares more about his resume than consistent storytelling or characterization. It may be fine for the Doctor, who gets to have his fun and hit a reset button, but we’re supposed to believe that two women he’s tried to murder get over it just as quickly – particularly Torres, whose attempted rape by Vorick he dismissed as well? If it was a goal of Voyager‘s writers to demonstrate that men can’t control themselves on long space missions and should be left at home, then the series succeeded triumphantly during the sweeps month that included “Blood Fever,” “Unity,” and “Darkling.” In the latter, for the second time in three consecutive episodes, we see a woman on the crew assaulted by a man with the excuse that his out-of-control body made him do it, and the man ultimately suffers no negative consequences while the woman is offered no protection, no counseling, not even the validation of having others acknowledge that the experience might have been traumatic.

We hear more characters express resentment of Riley Frazier for seducing a willing Chakotay with her sexy Borg neural interface than we hear condemnations of either Vorick or the Doctor for their life-threatening assaults on Torres and Kes. This is sensationalistic, cheap-porn material, and the passage of time has only made it seem worse. Sure, the original series did a version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Kirk behaving pretty badly toward Janice Rand, but that was decades earlier, and The Next Generation did a couple of episodes where crewmembers didn’t realize they’d been compromised by evil aliens, but they don’t contain anything like the scenes where the Doctor paralyzes and threatens Torres, brutally murders fellow holograms, and tries to kill a captive Kes – a scene often described as a planned murder-suicide, though we have no evidence that anything terrible will happen to a hologram wearing a mobile emitter as long as the 29th century emitter itself survives the fall. If it’s ridiculous to let Vulcans in pon farr walk around unsupervised, it’s twice as ridiculous to let a self-aware hologram make changes to his own program because he wants a little more excitement in his life, “excitement” in this case meaning a change from his usual tasks of caring and nurturing, thus introducing their exact opposites. Even the usually reliable Picardo can’t save this script, since the Doctor’s trademark wry humor is traded for sadism and his barking sounds completely over-the-top, particularly in a scene in a turbolift where Paris interrupts what might be the attempted rape or the attempted murder of Ensign Brooks, which causes the Doctor to sulk and seethe. I’d love to know what Janeway would have done had the Doctor succeeded in murdering Torres, Kes, or Brooks…given him a very stern lecture about not playing around with his programming? Insisted on creating a holographic nurse to babysit him?

For the most part, “Darkling” is a good Janeway episode, first as she tries to be polite while negotiating with an alien who’s lying to impress her, then at her most empathetic while Kes admits that, after having lived a third of an Ocampan lifespan aboard Voyager, there might be other avenues to explore. Since both Tuvok and the Doctor have just given Kes paternalistic lectures about how she needs to be a good girl and focus on her homework instead of enjoying her time with Zahir, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see Janeway treat Kes with understanding and kindness. Knowing that the crew will soon lose Kes anyway, it’s also poignant to see Janeway facing the departure of a confidant. My only complaint where the captain is concerned is that we don’t get to see her giving the Doctor the kind of dressing down that she gave Neelix for what seem like petty offenses compared to trying to murder a crewmember. I know I’ve complained in the past that Neelix has been too proprietary toward Kes, but clearly he was never the one we needed to worry about, since he apparently has let her go without a word and is now removed from her sphere of influence. It’s the possessive, patronizing Doctor who represents the real threat to her maturity and independence, and that’s not even when his evil twin has taken over. Why does the holographic Doctor have free time to create an evil twin if Kes can’t even go on a few dates without getting judged by the men she most respects? What a disappointment that, in the end, Kes goes back to trying to be a good girl and please the Doctor instead of telling him how damaging his behavior has been, not just to his own program but to her. And what a shame that Torres doesn’t come back to punch the Doctor in the face as she did Vorick. The old B’Elanna might have had her revenge while reprogramming him, so I’m going to assume that she didn’t merely reset the EMH but also shrunk him by several centimeters.

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