This week’s Trek post (it’ll stop soon, it will) is about the most reviled genre of Trek story: the Holodeck episode. after copious and diligent research,* there are three main reasons I’ve found that makes this Trek genre beat out even the dreaded One Episode Romance as Worst Trek Genre:
1) It’s considered lazy writing (almost all decent Holodeck stories get their drama from something other then “our cool toy broke again and might kill us, again”)
2) It destroys one’s suspension of disbelief. If, say, one in a million times they were played video games exploded and killed the gamer, PEOPLE WOULD NOT BE SO KEEN TO PLAY VIDEO GAMES, also the people who make video games would be under QUITE A BIT OF PRESSURE to stop their games killing people if they wished to continue making them. There would not be a verbal command that could be disabled and allow people to get their games to kill them.
3) No, really, the writing is often bollocks. And since this is Star Trek, supposedly about strange new worlds and civilisations and the majesty of humanity and our desire to explore and understand the cosmos, it’s a bit of a letdown when the story’s about how badly future video games are programmed.
HOWEVER, while it would be easy and a bit delightful to rip into the worst of the worst and explain at length why no television series deserves Fair Haven, that’s not what this post is about. Oh no! We are here to CELEBRATE this maligned genre. Why? Cause there are great Holodeck stories hidden amongst the dreck, enough even for a short list. Here they are, in descending order of greatness**:
6) The Big Goodbye – “What?! But this is a terrible story.” Yes. Sort of. Except for context. Sure you watch this now and you want to hide behind your shiny cushions, and feel like someone’s stabbed you with a bat’leth every time there’s a Holodeck cliche, but imagine watching this in the late eighties and amidst the general dreck of season one TNG; lo and behold, it stands out as being Vaguely Competent. Sure, this isn’t going to be on anyone’s Top Ten TNG list (oh God, it’s not, is it? I bet it is, I JUDGE YOU POTENTIAL BIG GOODBYE TOP TENNER), but it comes up with all the AMAZING PLOT TWISTS (safeties off! Holograms find out about real world! Holograms discover they’re holograms!”) we grow to hate and loathe over the next fifteen years. Wait…that’s a bad thing, isn’t it? Um, anyway, the Dickson Hill thing is pretty neat, look at Patrick Stewart, acting away! And it won an Emmy, don’t you know? For costumes, which are tbf pretty nifty. The whole noir thing is actually really well done, it’s just the story beats were imitated so many times that it rather spoils the one time where it was all original. But anyway, it’s not a bad episode, especially for early TNG.
5) Elementary, Dear Data – I know, I know, it’s Brent Spiner mugging it up as Sherlock Holmes. It has the daftest plot device of TNG so far (probably not, but let’s pretend) as with a single wrong word Geordi gets the Enterprise computer to create NEW and SENTIENT life, thus fueling a bijillion tedious mailing list (look it up, young people) debates on whether the computer is actually sentient or not. AND YET, I love it a lot. And I am happy to argue it’s quite great really. Data and Geordi are not the worst pairing in the history of Trek, and I’ve an enormous soft spot for their Holmes and Watson thing what they do. (I should probably not admit this, but…this was actually my introduction to Sherlock Holmes. Yes, kids, my first Holmes was an American sentient future android sticking on a deerstalker and playing Holmes in a video game.) And with Pulaski on full “fuck off, Data” mode, a smashing dress, and the rather excellent Moriarty, and some moralising that’s nowhere near as heavy as what TNG tends to favour and heh, a winner is you!
4) Hollow Pursuits – I went on a bit last week about why I love this ep, but yeah, it is a good un, and a good Holodeck story too, because instead of it being about the Holodeck safeties malfunctioning (WHY did anyone ever think this was a compelling source of conflict?) it’s used in the way any sensible person would use it: to dress up in fab period costume and swordfight. It should probably be higher than at least one of the the Voyager eps below, but while it’s an episode I identify with, and there are honest to God musketeers in it, it doesn’t make me flail, and the top three do have that magic thingumijiggie that makes me flail. With the awesome. Not sadness.
3) Bride of Chaotica! – There is an exclamation mark in the title. What better way to mark out that this is a PROPER GREAT EPISODE. The only complaints are all the faffing around used to justify the central and awesome premise: Janeway has to pretend to by a thirties sci-fi adventure serial villainess. IT’S SO GOOD. And fun and meta, and of all the things Voyager fucked up, having Paris and Kim mess about playing Captain Proton and Buster Kincaid was not one of them. And here the WHOLE STORY is about a daft Holodeck adventure in ye olde SF serial. Except the pacing isn’t glacial! And there’s rather less racism and sexism! And it’s even in black and white! And Kate Mulgrew is just magic. Oh, Bride of Chaotica, you are the best of them, almost.
2) Worst Case Scenario – Now, I remember getting a bit spoiled re Bride of Chaotica! by TV Zone (a magazine, a paper magazine, from ye olden days – I think it’s still about) so going in I had Expectations, and resented every moment Mulgrew wasn’t hamming it up like a pro. But this one? Not a peep. And that is very definitely the best way to see it. Voyager, as you might know, is not the most compelling of television shows. I don’t want to be ludicrously unfair, but I’m pretty sure I slept through at least two and a half seasons of it. So, given that, it’s always a bit of a shock when an episode comes along and honest to God staples your eyeballs to the television screen. This hooked me right in is what I’m saying. “What the dickens is going on here? I MUST KNOW!” was my deep and insightful through the whole first act. See, we open with B’Elanna just going about her business when Chakotay walks right up and is all “time to takeover the ship! Starfleet is shit, Maquis forever!” And since Voyager OH SO WISELY dropped that dramatic conflict about three hours into the series and this is season three, the viewer is a bit wtf? But in a GOOD WAY. Mutiny happens! Maybe if yer a canny viewer (and while plot twists are almost always a surprise to me no matter how clumsily signposted, I did spot this) might notice B’Elanna’s rank insigna is MIA. And then everything freezes! Literally! Wtf?! Omg, it’s a holodeck adventure! About themselves! If they were more interesting! Anyway, it’s genuinely fun to see the drama restart with a different character playing the part of Young Mutineer and how their choices affect the Exciting Mutiny. And then Tuvok pipes up and spoils it all by saying “dudes, it’s not fun, it’s a security training simulation I wrote during that one morning when we had potential for drama about the fact we’re Maquis and Starfleet on the same ship”. Aw. Oh well. BUT THEN Tuvok and Paris get peer-pressured into writing an ending cause everyone is having so much fun and Seska (main protagonist from seasons one and two, now dead) turns up in Hologram form for REVENGE. And Janeway has to fanfic for Tuvok and Paris’s lives. NOT EVEN KIDDING. It’s magnificent. I love everything about this story. If you’re going to be fucking ludicrous, MAKE IT THIS ENTERTAINING. Oh Seska, you were the best of them.
1) Our Man Bashir – *FLAILS* Right, yeah, so, you know what I was saying about how many rotten Holodeck stories there are? Well, this is the reward for sitting through them all: the sublime and delicious Our Man Bashir. A top episode from a top show, that manages to be ridiculous and wonderful and fun and mean something. There are so many ways it’s great. Now Bashir is our Holodeck Guy on DS9. He’s the one who in one delightful (not smug, or self-indulgent, dammit) scene has the rest of the senior staff list off all the Holodeck programs he’s spent hours playing. Bless his heart. And in this one he is James Bond, and thank goodness we got this because we’re never going to actually get Siddig El Fadil as Bond, but this is almost as good. And he’s playing Bond with actual ex/spy and sort of friend plain simple Garak, and Garak has FEELINGS about his sort of friend *playing* at his profession. What those feelings actually are is Marvellously Ambiguous. But we do get the most magical scene where Bashir threatens to shoot Garak because Garak is about to risk the lives of the rest of Our Heroes in order to make sure his own is safe. Garak thinks it’s a bluff. And then Bashir DOES shoot him. And misses. And we don’t know if he really meant to miss or it was a bad shot and it is just SO GOOD. And then there are Our Heroes, who for Plot Reasons that are Just An Excuse for Lols trapped in the computer and their physical images are stored in the Holodeck and they have to keep the Holodeck running or else they might be deleted blah blah, let’s stop wasting valuable time technobabbling when we could be back with the Exciting James Bond Adventure in Spaaaaace!! Anyway, the regulars all play the various Bond roles. And standout is Avery Brooks, who is a terrifying Bond villain, and all delightful mad egotism. And he wins! Because Bashir destroys the world. Not actually, only on the Holodeck, but it is very lolsome. Anyway, proper good, top episode.
* I asked some people on the Internet.
** This is my own special definition of greatness.
2 thoughts on “Holodeck Stories of Win!”
Unfortunately I hated “Elementary, Dear Data” at the time because I was a very purist young fan and was upset that the Moriarty was too young and handsome. At some point I’ll have to rewatch more “Trek”. (And possibly watch “Voyager” – I gave up in disgust at “The 37s”, because the ending struck me as so smug, implausible and reset button-based, but I understand it got better later.)
I would add TNG’s “Ship in a Bottle” (the Moriarty follow-up that Also Features Barclay!) and any of Vic Fontaine’s appearances on DS9 but especially “It’s Only a Paper Moon” as it is the absolute best ST story that doesn’t revolve around a main character (I know it’s a low bar since it only happened a handful of times in the last 50 years and “Lower Decks” doesn’t really hold up) and also because I love Nog.
BTW, Bashir actually hits Garak in the neck in “Our Man Bashir.” The ambiguity lies in whether he was trying to kill Garak or not, but the point is Bashir does not throw away his shot. (Sorry, but I will make Hamilton refs whenever possible.)