In the eleventh episode of the fifth season of Voyager, I can’t. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of consent, gaslighting, trauma, and PTSD.
I don’t even know what to say. I’ve sat here with a blank document for a full five minutes, trying to figure out how to address the monumental achievement that is “Latent Image.” This is why I like science fiction as much as I do. Under the guise of this starship and its crew, we’re able to experience a story about ethics and guilt that’s brutal, scary, and unnerving. I can see how this is also one of the most important episodes in the Doctor’s ongoing development because he’s now been allowed to progress beyond programming.
And my gods, it’s so uncomfortable.
Let me start at the beginning, though, because the cold open presents us with a neat mystery that morphs into a possible intruder conspiracy that then becomes a deeply upsetting thriller about the Doctor and Janeway. The escalations and the discomfort center around one single question: What could be so bad that someone keeps erasing the Doctor’s memory? To be completely truthful here, I couldn’t even conceive of a dilemma or issue that could possibly derail the Doctor so badly that Janeway would order his memory erased. It seemed an ambitious premise, one that would probably disappoint me.
Suffice to say that it didn’t, and I’m still reeling from this. The script for “Latent Image” unfolds exactly as it should, and I’m impressed at how well the writers for this paced the story. Once the Doctor begins to aggressively pursue his missing memory of Harry’s surgery, he’s thwarted. First, his conspiracy regarding the alien attack is met with another bout of memory loss, though Seven’s presence provides him with the means to “save” his memory. And really, her inclusion throughout this episode is both a means to push the plot forward and to develop her character, so bravo on that front, too! He devises a method to capture the perpetrator in the act, and despite that I figured out it was Janeway just a couple minutes before the truth was revealed, I was still lost. That’s the brilliance of this script: even though I anticipated the next twist, I was still in the dark. As I said, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where Janeway would violate the Doctor so harshly.
Make no mistake: that’s precisely what this was, and I was pleased that the show addressed this so directly. That argument between Janeway and the Doctor was both infuriating (because Janeway’s stubbornness made so little sense to me) and exhilarating (because the show was outright naming the horror of violation). It’s a turning point in “Latent Image” because it’s so difficult to understand this twist. Why would she do this? Why, when confronted, would she refuse to tell the Doctor why she made the decision in the first place? Why was she so certain that even telling the Doctor the truth would send him into chaos?
It’s Seven of Nine who changes Janeway’s mind, and y’all. Y’ALL. I know I’ve said that despite Kes’s shitty departure, Seven was the best thing to happen to this show. That’s nothing new. Watching her explore her humanity has been thrilling, but in this context? “Latent Image” pulls no punches, and Seven delivers one of the most scathing critiques of Janeway that I have ever seen. IT’S STILL STINGING. But she’s absolutely right, isn’t she??? How can they expect the Doctor to accept this? How can these people claim to respect individuality and free will by forcing the Doctor to not deal with a traumatic moment in his life? His trauma is compounded by guilt, too, since he had to make a choice between saving Harry or Ensign Jetal. Thus, he begins to develop a feedback loop, his “diagnostic” side clashing with his ethical programming. One of the two patients would have died anyway. Why did he choose Harry? Because he knew Harry better? How can the Doctor consider himself a medical professional if he failed someone so supremely?
Those are heavy questions for anyone, but I was so blown away by Robert Picardo’s performance. I’ll say it again: it’s monumental. It’s heartbreaking to watch him repeat his crisis, to watch him realize how upsetting his decision was, to realize the sheer impact of free will and the tragedy of choice. The Doctor becomes painstakingly human through this, which means that Janeway’s solution was flawed. Seven was right! The only way to truly respect the Doctor is to allow him to get past this on his own. Sure, Janeway helped him a bit, but this journey was personal. Intense. Intimate. It was fitting, then, that the final image was one of the Doctor alone, the power of poetry granting him the next step: the start of his life. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s his.
The video for “Latent Image” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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