Voyager rewatch 5.11 – “Latent Image”

The Doctor had a bad day, and then he has another bad day. Janeway reads a book.

I have had real trouble preparing to write up this post! I don’t know if it’s some type of Trekkish burnout, or if I didn’t pay enough attention when I watched the episode, but for a week now, I’ve been opening the WordPress draft tab and then closing it again.

But, like the Doctor powering through an emotional breakdown, I am determined to get this episode written up!

First of all, this is a Mary Sue story, and that’s okay

There are several Mary Sue ur-texts, but one of them goes like this: a young, beautiful ensign transfers to the Enterprise (or maybe she’s been there all along and you just never noticed!), endears herself to the regular characters, becomes incredibly popular, sacrifices her life to save the ship, and Kirk/Spock/McCoy/all three are devastated.

It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when “Mary Sue” wasn’t simply a term of abuse used by male nerds against every single female character who dares to have a story arc.

No, back in the day, we used the concept of “Mary Sue” as a tool for policing the creativity of fellow women, and ensuring that their fantasies were smaller in scale and “realistic”. That’s feminism.

Anyway, Ensign Jetal kind of is a Mary Sue, in that her story roughly follows the classic pattern, and I thought that was a problem. Such a big problem that it tainted the whole episode.

There’s a remote possibility that I was kind of a jerk back then.

The truth is that, for “Latent Image” to work, it has to be about a beloved crew member who has been there all along. And yes, it could have been someone we already know, like Joe Carey (except the writers are under the mistaken impression that they killed him), or Samantha Wildman (but then it’s a story about Naomi being orphaned), or Ayala (but then they’d have to pay Tarik Ergin more). Nancy Bell is a very endearing presence as Ensign Jetal, and while I wish we had maybe seen her in the background for a few weeks leading into this, my attitude c1999 was completely unreasonable.

But I am going to point out that this is another case where a story about a woman is really about the Doctor

I mean, she’s basically fridged, right?

I don’t wanna bang this drum too hard, because I think this is a case where you could change Ensign Jetal’s gender and everything else would stay the same. And it is the purpose of guest characters to advance the narrative for the regulars. Just. You know.

Nitpicks over, this is a really good Doctor episode

My other recollection from 1999 is that there was a lot of Discourse about Janeway’s choices in “Latent Image”, and a widely held belief that wiping the Doctor’s memories was the worst thing she has done since Tuvix.

And those people were right. Janeway made the wrong choice.

Buuuuuuuut … it’s also understandable.

The Doctor is a person, but he is also software. And frankly not very good software, at that. This is not a plot hole — DS9 has a whole episode about the fact that the EMH Mark 1 is an untested beta version built by a sex pest tech bro. The Doctor has upgraded himself and B’Elanna has installed some patches, but he’s the windows 3.11 of people.

And that’s fine. Some people are badly wired. I myself have okayish software, but my hardware is decaying rapidly. The Doctor works remarkably well as a metaphor for disability — his mobility depends on assistive technology, and here, he has an emotional breakdown, if not a full-blown psychotic episode.

(Such is how I’ve seen his behaviour in “Latent Image” described elsewhere — I have no experience with psychosis and don’t know much about it, so I don’t know how accurate that is.)

Performing procedures on a disabled person without their consent is reprehensible. And “when does a person lose their capacity to give informed consent” is one of those sticky medical ethicist questions that I … know nothing about and cannot comment on.

But in this specific context, I understand Janeway’s choice. First, the Doctor is the only medical professional on the ship. They have him, and they have Tom “I got a B in biochemistry” Paris. Frankly, they should have a whole team of trainee nurses and paramedics by now, but Voyager never consults me about their personnel management choices. I can see how the need for a functioning doctor outweighs the Doctor’s personhood in this situation. The needs of the many, etc.

The other thing is that Janeway’s choice is consistent with her behaviour throughout the series. There’s Tuvix, yes, but just a few weeks ago, she chose to have B’Elanna undergo Crell Moset’s procedure, against B’Elanna’s express wishes. Janeway will save her crew whether they want it or not.

Is this a good thing? Bad thing? I think … yes. To me, a well-written character is one whose best and worst impulses are identical.

And this is not a Tuvix situation, where Janeway makes the hard choice and it’s never spoken of again. Over and over again in “Latent Image”, the Doctor and Seven argue against her decision, to the point where she revisits it and changes her mind. If Janeway is the villain in this episode, she redeems herself — and, not to get all Catholic in here, but she conducts penance in the form of doing the hard work of sitting with the Doctor until she is physically ill, and stays until he can be safely left alone.

this is the next step in the Doctor’s personhood journey

I didn’t have anything intelligent to say about this, but fortunately my friend Anika already said it for me:

The Doctor’s transformation from computer program to ‘real boy’ is not new to Trek, Data followed the same path in The Next Generation, and there are even sentient holograms in both TNG and Deep Space Nine. But where Data is literally introduced as Pinocchio, the Doctor doesn’t have the benefit of assumption he is even capable of becoming a fully formed individual — he was never meant to be one, for the first two and a half years he was confined to Sickbay and the Holodeck, and through the end he can be deactivated and deleted by the Captain at any time. Or, as in this episode, altered.

The Doctor was never meant to be a fully formed individual; he’s just a badly written app. And this is an episode where he and everyone around him accept that he is, in fact, both. And instead of “fixing” his problem — the way many parents want to “fix” their autistic children, for example — the crew has to adapt to him, to give him space to deal with his psychology and trauma.

Anika compares him to Data — well, for me, the worst moment in Data’s arc was when he installed the emotion chip in Generations. Because Data was always capable of empathy; he simply didn’t know it — just like many autistic people are told they’re incapable of empathy. Generations mistakes social skills and jokes for emotional depth, and Data as a character suffers for it. And I kind of hate how he ends up in season 3 of Picard.

Similarly, Seven’s bluntness and emotional reserve are treated as problems to be solved — both in Voyager and Picard. Likewise with Michael Burnham in Discovery; and Una’s flat affect in “The Cage” is simply erased from Strange New Worlds. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Star Trek as a franchise hates autistic people in general and autistic women specifically — and I think Michael’s arc, in particular, is much more nuanced than this. But there’s a distinct pattern, and “Latent Image” breaks it.

Is the Doctor autistic? This is a new idea to me, and it annoys me because I don’t want to like him, but … he had to make an active effort to learn social cues. He has hyperfixations and doesn’t recognise when he’s boring people with them. I think he has a place on the spectrum — and I also think it doesn’t matter how we “diagnose” him — what’s important is that “Latent Image” is an episode that recognises there’s no quick fix, and that’s actually okay.

This is also a Seven episode

And after the number of times the Doctor has taken over her stories, it’s nice she gets a moment here.


I don’t precisely ship Janeway/Seven anymore, just like I don’t exactly ship Burnham/Cornwell … but I guess I also don’t not ship it.

Other observations

  • There’s a lovely bit of throwaway conversation on the bridge about how Janeway, Tuvok and Chakotay all attended the same sumo wrestling match in Japan. Which (a) J/C shippers, this is for us; (b) apparently Tuvok was attending separately from Janeway, BFF FAIL
  • No B plot! We die like guys with one plot! Thanks, Joe Menosky, I appreciate it
  • Naomi Wildman continues to be the Star Trek child who isn’t Rok-Tahk
  • So this all happened before Seven came on board, right? So there was, in fact, a second doctor on Voyager? Who could have saved Jetal? What a shame Kes was on shore leave that week!

In conclusion

I’m not gonna say you must watch this episode, because I imagine it could be pretty triggering if you have experienced serious mental health problems or been subjected to treatment without your consent. But it’s really very good. Four and a half holo-imagers out of five.


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