Thursday, September 15, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"Nothing Human"

It is time to tick some people off. “Nothing Human” is not a very popular episode among fans. I can sympathize for reasons I will elaborate on momentarily. I respectfully have to disagree. Maybe it is because I like my Star Trek to be as little like Star Trek as possible, but I am appreciatively of what this episode is trying to do. It is also Jeri Taylor’s final episode and, credit where credit is due, she finally gets Janeway right without fawning all over her innate awesomeness.

Voyager answers the distress call of an alien so exotic, the universal translator has no way of communicating with it. With no Rosetta Stone for Delta Quadrant languages, it ought not translate any alien the crew has encountered, but let us not quibble over that. Right now. This critter looks like a crawdad just to put the image of an animal--a lesser being, so to speak--in our mind. Torres heads down to sick bay for a contrived reason, stands a little too close to the critter’s bed, and it jumps on her to connect with her internal organs. The critter begins using her as life support. It cannot be removed from torres without killing them both.

The doctor is out of his element, so it is suggested another hologram be created to work with him. This hologram needs to be an expert in exobiology. The best exobiologist in the database happens to be a Cardassian named Krell Mercet. Krell’s presence causes problems, particularly when a bajoran crewmember named tabor identifies krell as the Josef Mengele of Cardassia. Krell is most notorious for torturously experimenting on hundreds of Bajorans in order to devise a cure for a plague that was killing tens of thousands. The moral dilemma arises over whether it is justified to use his medical know how even if it means letting torres die if not. For her part, Torres would rather die than allow krell to save her. Ultimately, Janeway forces the medical procedure to go ahead. The critter and torres are safely separated, and it is sent home safely.

So what are the problems fans have with “Nothing Human” and why am I not concerned about them? I will hit on three big points.

One, “Nothing Human” is a dialogue intensive episode about a very heady subject. There is little action to the episode other than when the critter’s buddies show up. They have the same communications problem, so they decide to attack the ship. They are working under Al capone’s axiom that you can get more with a kind word and a crowbar than you can with a kind word alone. This episode is all about the moral dilemma. But unlike most moral dilemmas presented in Star Trek in general and VOY in particular, the argument is not overwhelmingly one sided.

The crew is faced with the problem of how Krell’s victims would react to his research, research under which they died horrible deaths, being used for a positive goal? Would they be happy their sacrifice meant something, or would they feel exploited? The Doctor and tom feel the former. Torres’ life is at stake right now, so what is the point in wrestling with their consciences? Tabor, Torres, and Chakotay agree with the latter. Use Krell’s research, and you are saying the ends justifies the means. Legitimizing Krell’s work says atrocities can be committed in the name of medical science.

Two, Krell did use sound science. Ethically bankrupt for sure, but real. I think less historically astute Trekkies have a problem here because the mengele allegory begins to fall apart even though they do not seem to know it. Mengele is one of those men you hope was demon possessed because you do not want to think another human being could commit the atrocities he did. His Nazi colleagues burned his research notes because they wrre scientifically unsound. Mengele was a man who enjoyed torturing and mutilating helpless people. Krell is not like that. Yes, he did allow people to die in the name of medical research and I am not excusing that. He ought to be hung as a war criminal. but he is not Mengele.

I point that out, not to excuse his actions, but to note that his pleasant, friendly demeanor is not apologizing for Mengele’s atrocities. It is something that fans have asserted. There ought not be a moral dilemma here at all--you just do not use medical knowledge attained in such an evil manner, and it does not matter if he comes across as a nice guy who justified his actions by saying--brace yourself--the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Kill a few hundred to save thousands? Sounds like a bargain.

Sure, Krell has a sadistic streak. He uses an old fashioned scalpel to cut the critter open. His only concern is saving Torres, so he does not mind if the critter dies in the process. Yet when the Doctor devises a method of sparing them both which will still work, krell not only goes along with it, but propses co-authoring a paper on the procedure. Krell is willing to do the right thing when he can. He just believes the ends justifies the means for what he considers the greater good. While this is still a tough moral issue to work through, it is not justifying the atrocities committed by Mengele by any stretch.

Three, janeway is not justifying Krell’s medical research, either, and by doing so, tacitly claiming Mengele’s research is all right to use if good will come of it. Janeway does ultimately decide to force torres to go through with the procedure because she is the chief engineer on a trip that is going to take another fifty years. The crew has lost enough vital people already. While I am not thrilled janeway has forced another crewmember to undergo a life altering medical procedure, at least she recognizes she may be making a mistake. Normally in these cases, she arrogantly strolls in claiming to have absolute moral clarity and anyone else who does not agree is too naïve to pay any attention to, because disagreements with Janeway are a betrayal. Taylor resists the urge to do that again in her swan song script, so Janeway takes ownership of what may be a very bad decision. There should have been more of Janeway like this.

There should also have been more episodes like this. Certainly, there are issues big and small with it. I have already addressed the big ones. For small ones, one has to wonder why it is so easy to create another hologram with specialized medical knowledge when it has been a plot point that creating a new EMH is too difficult. There is also the matter of avoiding all the controversy by not making the hologram Krell. Knowledge is knowledge. It could have been downloaded into a Wayne newton lookalike, which might have been wiser considering a third of the crew were at war with the Cardassians before they were stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Turns out, they are intimately familiar with old Krell there.

But no matter. “Nothing Human” is thought provoking. It feels so out of place on VOY, with its presentation of both arguments and Janeway acting human for once, that I almost wish it had been a DS9 or TNG episode instead so it could have shined brighter under a better creative staff. As it is, I am going to awrd “nothing Human” four stars. It might have made a perfect score but for a few missteps.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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