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Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy”


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Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy”


Published on April 29, 2021

Screenshot: CBS
Star Trek: Voyager "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Screenshot: CBS

“Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy”
Written by Bill Vallely and Joe Menosky
Directed by John Bruno
Season 6, Episode 4
Production episode 224
Original air date: October 13, 1999
Stardate: unknown

Captain’s log. The EMH is giving a concert in the mess hall, singing “La donna è mobile” to a mostly rapt crowd. Tuvok starts crying, and then attacking the other people in the mess hall. The EMH diagnoses him as going through pon farr, and has Paris prepare a hypospray while the EMH continues to sing, albeit with new, Tuvok-focused lyrics. After he gives Tuvok the shot, he gets a standing ovation—

—at which point we realize the EMH is daydreaming. He’s expanded his program to include that ability, though Torres suggests that if he has that kind of downtime, he should just deactivate, which would save power. The EMH is also disappointed to learn that he is no longer assigned to an away team he was originally supposed to be part of.

He drafts a formal complaint, citing the crew’s rudeness to him (Janeway gives Paris a look when she reads that part), not acknowledging his sentience; he also expresses a desire for advancement, including programming him to be able to take over command of the ship in case of a catastrophic emergency.

Voyager has detected a nebula nearby that suddenly appeared on sensors. They don’t examine this for reasons passing understanding, which is too bad, because there’s a ship hiding inside it. The ship, which belongs to the Hierarchy, is studying Voyager to see if they’re worth the trouble to engage in battle. Since the ship isn’t in their database, and they can’t get a good scan of it, the Overlooker wants to move on. However, one of his subordinates, Phlox, thinks he can tap into a data conduit without being detected. He went over the Overlooker’s head to appeal directly to the Hierarchy, who approve the plan, to the Overlooker’s annoyance.

In the briefing room, a meeting about the away mission is punctuated by Torres, Seven, and Janeway all flirting with the EMH—it’s another daydream, which is interrupted by Janeway discussing the EMH’s complaint with him. She is intrigued by his notion of an Emergency Command Hologram, but they need him too much as chief medical officer to branch off his program like that. She does agree to forward the notion to Starfleet to work on when they get home.

Disappointed, the EMH walks the corridors, and is asked into Cargo Bay 2, where he’s congratulated by the crew for the launch of the ECH program, including a lingering kiss on the cheek from Seven.

Star Trek: Voyager "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Screenshot: CBS

In the nebula, Phlox is thrilled to have tapped into the EMH’s perceptions. He can now see everything the doctor sees—but only when he’s daydreaming, which Phlox doesn’t realize.

The Delta Flyer is off with the away team, and they send a mayday that a Borg sphere is attacking. An assimilation virus makes it past the biofilters and starts turning the bridge crew into Borg drones. The EMH tells the computer to activate the ECH and his uniform trim turns red, four pips appear on his collar, and he takes command, firing the photonic cannon (whatever that is) at the Borg sphere, which annihilates it.

In the nebula, Phlox is impressed with the EMH’s destruction of a Borg ship, though the Overlooker is concerned, as there’s been no sign of Borg activity in the area. However, the existence of the photonic cannon makes Voyager a worthwhile target, and Phlox recommends a type-3 stealth assault, which both the Overlooker and the Hierarchy agree to.

On Voyager’s bridge, Kim yanks the EMH out of his daydream to get him to focus on scanning the Delta Flyer, which safely lands on the planet. Everyone looks with concern at the EMH, who excuses himself to return to sickbay. But in the corridor, Chakotay approaches him and congratulates him on his work stopping the Borg. When the EMH asks for Chakotay’s location, the computer says he’s in his quarters.

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Deeply concerned, the EMH reports to Torres, Kim, and Seven about what’s happening—the daydream program is now activating whether he wants it to or not. To prove the point, it activates again, as the EMH sees Seven and Torres fighting over getting to be alone with him, and then there’s a warp core breach that can only be stopped by entering the core and ejecting it, which no biological life form can survive, but the EMH can.

In the real world, the EMH is moving toward the core, but Torres, Kim, and Seven manage to stop him before he can do any damage. They drag him bodily back to sickbay (why they don’t just shut off his mobile emitter, which will send him back to sickbay as a hologram, is left as an exercise for the viewer).

They put him inside a force field in sickbay. He’s now cycling through multiple fantasies at once, unable to get out of the daydreaming program. They transfer his perceptions to the holodeck so they can see his fantasies—which Janeway is reluctant to authorize at first, as it’s an invasion of privacy, but she eventually agrees as it’s the best way to diagnose and fix the problem.

On the holodeck, we see the EMH painting a portrait of a nude Seven, and then in the mess hall trying and failing to convince Torres to go back to dating Paris instead of longing for the EMH, but the one that keeps recurring is him as the ECH saving the ship. That, they hypothesize, might provide an access point to fixing things, given how often it recurs.

Phlox realizes, to his horror, that he hasn’t been watching reality but rather the EMH’s fantasies, and that he has no idea how much of what he saw truly represents Voyager’s capabilities. Going into battle with insufficient information is the greatest sin a member of the Hierarchy can commit, and Phlox is now scared for his livelihood and his life.

Star Trek: Voyager "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Screenshot: CBS

Torres manages to disable the daydream program. The EMH is incredibly embarrassed to have had his fantasy life laid bare, and also to have so thoroughly incapacitated himself. Janeway forgives him, as there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming in the abstract. She also looks up precedents for a hologram taking command of a starship, but there are none, of course.

While working in sickbay, the EMH’s daydream program reactivates—this time it was done by Phlox, who is using the interface to talk directly to the doctor. It turns out that his invasion of the program is what caused it to malfunction. But Phlox has come to admire the EMH for his desire to be more than he is, a capability that the Hierarchy doesn’t really allow in Phlox’s own life. He not only warns the EMH about the impending invasion, but also provides a means to penetrate the Hierarchy ships’ cloaks. The EMH goes to the bridge to warn everyone—but they’re skeptical, as this sounds like yet another of his fantasies. However, the sensor adjustment the EMH provides to Kim actually works, and they detect three ships bearing down on them.

Phlox has suggested that the EMH play out the ECH fantasy in real life to bluff the Hierarchy ships into backing off, and also to maintain consistency with what Phlox initially reported to the Overlooker about Voyager’s command structure. This will have the dual benefit of keeping everyone out of a firefight, and also allowing Phlox to keep his job.

With Janeway remotely prompting him from astrometrics, the EMH changes his appearance to that of the ECH and pretends to be in command. He’s a bit more hesitant and more than a little over-the-top in the part, but he settles down, eventually convincing the Overlooker to back off when he orders Tuvok to activate the photonic cannon. Tuvok reluctantly pretends to do so, and the Hierarchy agrees with the Overlooker’s decision to back off—after all, the Borg couldn’t detect the photonic cannon, either, ahem.

Seven later summons the EMH to the mess hall, where there’s a surprise party for him: Janeway issues him a Starfleet Medal of Commendation. She also has changed her mind and authorizes a research project on board to develop the ECH.

There’s coffee in that nebula! At one point on the holodeck, Janeway sees one of the EMH’s fantasies, which is the captain congratulating the doctor on saving the ship, and the EMH replying: “All I ever wanted was to live up to my full potential, to hone all my skills, expand my abilities, to help the people I love.” This declaration visibly moves Janeway, and from that point forward, she’s determined to help the EMH live up to his potential rather than put up roadblocks as she had been doing.

Star Trek: Voyager "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Screenshot: CBS

Mr. Vulcan. Poor Tuvok gets the short end of the stick throughout: In the EMH’s fantasies, first he suffers pon farr in the middle of a concert, then he gets turned into a Borg and is downed by the EMH giving him a Vulcan neck pinch. Then in the real world, he has to pretend to arm a weapon that doesn’t exist, a course of action he is very obviously not thrilled with. (The contempt with which he says, “Activating the photon cannon—sir” is epic.)

Half and half. Torres is absolutely disgusted with the EMH’s fantasies regarding her, as well she should be. Indeed, the fact that she and Seven and Janeway were so objectified should have been dealt with much more severely…

Forever an ensign. While most of the crew is rapt with attention during the EMH’s daydream rendering of “La donna è mobile,” Kim is notably bored shitless during it.

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH actually handles his first command pretty well, all things considered…

Resistance is futile. After the EMH is given his medal, Seven kisses him on the cheek in a manner much more chaste than the kiss she gave him in his fantasy, and she very pointedly says that (a) the kiss is platonic and (b) she will not be posing for him any time soon.

What happens on the holodeck stays on the holodeck. Just as they did with Data in TNG’s “Phantasms,” the Voyager crew is able to hook up the EMH’s subconscious to the holodeck to play out his fantasies.

Star Trek: Voyager "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Screenshot: CBS

No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. During several of the EMH’s daydreams, Torres, Seven, and Janeway are all flirting with him. In the away-team briefing, Torres rubs his leg with her bare foot, Seven sends him text messages on his padd, and Janeway fakes an “old Academy injury” on her backside that she puts his hand on. It gets more ridiculous as the episode progresses…

Do it.

“Tuvok, I understand.
You are a Vulcan man.
You have just gone without
For seven years about.

Paris, please find a way
To load a hypospray.
I will give you the sign.
Just aim for his behind.

Hormones are raging, synapses blazing,
It’s all so very illogical! Illogical! Illogical!”

–The EMH’s new lyrics to “La donna è mobile.”

Welcome aboard. The three Hierarchy members we meet are played by Jay M. Leggett (Phlox), Googy Gress (the Overlooker), and Robert Greenberg (Devro). The names all come from the script—neither the characters nor the species are named in dialogue—and Leggett’s character name will be reused for the chief medical officer on Enterprise, played by John Billingsley.

Star Trek: Voyager "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Screenshot: CBS

Trivial matters: The title is a riff on the John LeCarré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has also twice been adapted for the screen, on television by the BBC in 1979 (in which Sir Patrick Stewart played Karla), and on film in 2011 (in which both Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch starred).

The Hierarchy aliens will return in “The Void” and “Renaissance Man,” and are also part of Star Trek Online’s Delta Rising expansion.

This is John Bruno’s first time directing a Trek episode. Known primarily for his work as a visual effects artist, Bruno will return to direct “Fury.”

While it’s not mentioned directly, there was a situation where the EMH was, de facto, in charge of the ship during a catastrophic emergency, in “Basics, Part II,” where he and Suder were the only crew left on board.

We’ll see more of the ECH in the “Workforce” two-parter, “Renaissance Man,” and “Author Author.”

The notion of different holograms to perform shipboard functions other than medicine will be run with on Picard, where La Sirena has multiple emergency holograms (medical, engineering, navigation, hospitality, and tactical).

Star Trek: Voyager "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"
Screenshot: CBS

Set a course for home. “Computer, activate the ECH!” There’s a lot of DNA of past Trek episodes in this one. You’ve got bluffing an enemy with a fake weapon (“The Corbomite Maneuver,” “The Deadly Years”), you’ve got a crew member thrust into a brutal command situation (“The Arsenal of Freedom,” “The Emissary”), you’ve got a crew member’s fantasies laid bare on the holodeck (“Hollow Pursuits”), and you’ve got an AI acquiring the ability to dream (“Birthright I,” “Phantasms”).

And it’s still a lot of fun, mainly—as usual—because of Robert Picardo. He modulates perfectly from the subdued but intense desire to improve himself, the over-the-top confidence in his daydreams, and the panic when he’s thrust into a real command situation.

Part of the appeal of the EMH is the same appeal that Spock, Data, Worf, Odo, Seven, T’Pol, and Saru have: people who are unique on the ship (in the cases of Data, Odo, and the EMH, unique beyond the confines of the ship) trying to find their way. In the EMH’s case, it’s leavened by a lot of snottiness, but his desire remains fervent and very compelling to watch.

There are other delightful touches in this episode, from Tim Russ gamely having Tuvok be the victim of everything that goes wrong in the EMH’s fantasies to his sardonic acknowledgment of the ECH’s order to arm the nonexistent weapon; to Majel Barrett obviously having a grand old time with the computer’s very un-computer-like dialogue in the fantasy where the warp core is failing. (“Warning: warp core breach is a lot sooner than you think.” “Warning: last chance to be a hero, Doctor—get going!”)

I also want to sing the praises of comedian Jay Leggett, the hilariously named Googy Gress, and the not-the-guy-who-used-to-edit-DC’s-Trek-comic Robert Greenberg as the aliens, who come across as goofy versions of Doctor Who’s Sontarans. But Joe Menosky creates a nifty little combination of hidebound bureaucracy and conquering bastards, and the three actors do a great job of selling their culture and personalities. I particularly love Gress’ Overlooker, who’s pretty much playing the same role that Gary Cole played in Office Space

There are two issues that hold this back from being as great an episode as it might be. One is the EMH fantasizing about Seven, Torres, and Janeway fighting over him, which was oogy two decades ago and has aged incredibly badly. Having said that, it’s completely in keeping with the personality of the person the EMH is modeled on, as we saw when Lewis Zimmerman appeared on DS9’s “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?” But the three women’s reactions to it are way too subdued, especially Torres’. I can (barely) see Janeway taking a live-and-let-live attitude and Seven not truly giving much of a shit, but Torres isn’t the type to limit herself to stomping off the holodeck. This was a pretty yucky violation, and we should’ve seen a Leah Brahms-style reaction out of Torres, times twelve.

The other is that the issue of an AI in command of the ship does have precedent: Data. He’s third-in-command of the Enterprise, for crying out loud! And there is legal precedent for his rights, as established in TNG’s “The Measure of a Man.” This is the same problem in reverse that the first season of Picard had: synthetic life forms being banned, but holographic ones are okay for some reason, even though they’re both similar. Both are life forms that have been created and programmed by humans. If the EMH is as sentient as Data, then him being able to take command should be a thing.

Still, this is a fun episode, a great vehicle for one of the cast’s best, and introduces an interesting new Delta Quadrant species.

Warp factor rating: 7

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s latest book is All-the-Way House, which is part of the Systema Paradoxa series of novellas about cryptids. His tale, which spans three centuries, is about the origin of the legendary Jersey Devil, and is available to order.

About the Author

About Author Mobile

Keith R.A. DeCandido


Keith R.A. DeCandido has been writing about popular culture for this site since 2011, primarily but not exclusively writing about Star Trek and screen adaptations of superhero comics. He is also the author of more than 60 novels, more than 100 short stories, and around 50 comic books, both in a variety of licensed universes from Alien to Zorro, as well as in worlds of his own creation. Read his blog, follow him on Facebook, The Site Formerly Known As Twitter, Instagram, Threads, and Blue Sky, and follow him on YouTube and Patreon.
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