Blogger Willow Yang looks into the episode “Latent Image” which ran during the fifth season of STAR TREK: VOYAGER. It was a great story, with room for a little nitpicking from one of the PGS’s favorite Star Trek reviewers.
I’m writing on another one of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, Latent Image (S.5 E. 11).
To give a recap, The Doctor is examining a holographic portrait of Kim – who is apparently still an ensign even though it’s now the fifth season – when he noticed that Kim had scar tissue on his skull indicative of a neurosurgical operation that only the Doctor could have performed…except, the Doctor has no recollection of carrying out such surgery. The Doctor informs Janeway of this before enlisting Seven of Nine to help him run a self-diagnostic.
A short time later, Seven activates the Doctor, but the latter is unable to recollect the conversation that they had earlier because someone had apparently been tampering with his memory files. Suspecting that there’s a saboteur on board the ship, the Doctor sets up a trap only to discover that it was actually Janeway herself that had been wiping away his memories. He angrily confronts her on the matter, and Janeway, after a debate with Seven, eventually reveals to the Doctor about an incident that occurred 18 months earlier, where Kim and another crew member, Jetal, were fatally injured.
The Doctor had to choose which of the two to save, and of course, he chose Kim but was overcome with guilt for letting Jetal die. He suffered a mental breakdown – or whatever an AI’s equivalent of that is – and to ensure that he’s going to be able to keep on performing his duties, Janeway and the crew made the decision to purge the memory from his program. With the Doctor’s memories now restored, Janeway attempts to help him overcome the traumatic experience rather than erase it again. The end.
A great story with a few problems
There is one minor detail in Latent Image that did bother me somewhat, and that is the fact that the Doctor didn’t appear to be aware of Jetal’s existence until his one memory of her death had been restored. The Voyager had already been in the Delta Quadrant for at least a couple of years at the time of Jetal’s death, and the Doctor is someone whom most of the crew would have visited at one time or another. And even if Jetal had never previously been sick or injured or just had some routine health checkup, has no one in the 18 months following her death ever brought her up in conversation? In order for the Doctor to have retained this level of ignorance, a few dozen people would probably have to have been sworn to secrecy. This type of conspiracy just seems a bit farfetched – as the old saying goes, three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
This small gripe aside, I really enjoyed Latent Image. Just from a strictly entertainment perspective, the episode succeeds in presenting an engaging mystery, a classic whodunnit story as the Doctor tries to piece together the events that had occurred 18 months earlier. The reveal – the Sophie’s Choice that he’s had to make – was quite a gut-punch. Was it right for the Doctor to choose Kim over Jetal? Is this a case of nepotism? Should he have just flipped a coin and left that decision all to chance?
Personally, I do think that there’s an argument to be made that Kim is a more important crewmember – being a bridge officer – and hence, even in the event where both patients have an equal chance of survival, it should be the more senior officer that takes priority. I also loved the aftermath of the harrowing choice that the Doctor had to make, the scene of him suffering a breakdown after getting triggered by Neelix (because, of course, Neelix just has that sort of effect on people); I thought that Robert Picardo was superb in his portrayal of the emotional journey that his character undergoes.
Like all good Trek, “Latent Images” serves up compelling moral questions
In addition to the mystery and examination of guilt and trauma, Latent Image presents some interesting moral quandaries. There is, firstly, the debate on whether the Doctor is deserving of the same rights afforded to sentient humanoids. In my opinion, however, that is really the less interesting subject mostly because it has already been addressed in The Next Generation’s Measure of a Man. Janeway’s attempt to argue that the Doctor’s nothing more than a replicator is no more convincing than Phillipa trying to compare Data to a toaster.
Indeed, I think that the Doctor is arguably even more human than Data, considering that he does very clearly possess emotions in addition to the other requirements for sentience that Maddox had listed: intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. He supposedly even had a son with some alien in Blink of an Eye (although that took place a season after Latent Image). The answer to whether the Doctor is deserving of the fundamental rights afforded to sentient beings shouldn’t even be a debate at this point; it’s an unequivocal yes.
Then there is, in my opinion, the more interesting debate: should Janeway be able to force a member of the crew to undergo a medical procedure without their consent if that was necessary to protect the lives of everyone else on board the ship? And unlike the issue of the rights of AI, Star Trek has a rather murky track record on this subject.
Perhaps the most egregious example that comes to my mind is the Deep Space 9 episode Sons of Mogh, in which Worf and the rest of the crew conspired to drug Kurn and wipe away all of his memories as well as surgically alter his appearance without his prior knowledge or consent. What happened to the Doctor in Latent Image is very mild by comparison: the crew “only” deleted one memory file out of the countless that the Doctor possessed, and it was done in order to ensure the survival of the rest of the crew (they are, after all, stranded many years away from the Alpha Quadrant and would be thoroughly screwed if their only medical officer is unable to effectively carry out his duties).
Time to ask “the big question”
I do think that this is, once again, another instance of whether: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. Would you kill one person to save a hundred more lives? From a strictly mathematical, utilitarian perspective the answer is abundantly obvious. And indeed, we have seen the question answered before: in The Next Generation’s Thine Own Self, Troi learns that to be a commander she’d have to be willing to send crew members to their deaths if it means saving the lives of everyone else on board the ship.
It seems to me that, given Starfleet officers appear perfectly okay with performing medical procedures on people without their consent and are also willing to sacrifice an individual for the benefit of the collective, Janeway’s actions in Latent Image were perfectly within the boundaries of acceptability under the given circumstances, even if the Doctor had been a fully flesh and blood human being.
However, and somewhat surprisingly, the episode actually ends up coming on the side of the individual rather than the collective. Janeway ultimately chooses to try helping the Doctor get through his trauma in spite of the uncertain prognosis and the risk to the health and safety of the rest of the crew.
Perhaps there are times when the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many?
Live long and prosper,