It wouldn’t be a proper Star Trek spinoff if there wasn’t a Holodeck malfunction episode, but it’s who’s responsible for the sabotage that proves to be the real game-changer as one crewmember reveals ulterior motives.
Growing up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Holodeck episodes were never my favorite. They weren’t my least favorite either; that’d probably be creature feature episodes like “Genesis.” Certainly, there were some standout Holodeck-related plots. “Ship in a Bottle,” comes to mind. And the subplot in Deep Space Nine’s “Meridan” involving Quark’s creepy attempts to capture Major Kira’s likeness to produce a Holosuite porn program has particular resonance in the age of deep fakes. But more often than not, Holodeck stories tended to be more excuses for production to have some fun and use existing costumes, sets, and props from the Paramount back lot.
I can’t say “Ghost in the Machine” has radically altered my position on the Holodeck episode. Even after the classic trope of the safety protocols failing to infuse some jeopardy for our heroes, we’re largely just leaping from one genre and setpiece to another rather aimlessly. One minute we’re black and white in a cocktail lounge; the next, we’re on a pirate ship.
Now the shorter runtime of Star Trek: Prodigy episodes, as opposed to live-action Trek, helps to keep the action moving, but the unoriginality of the chosen Holodeck scenarios leaves a long-time Trek viewer like me feeling weary. I’ve already seen the Holodeck detective mystery enacted with Dixon Hill and Sherlock Holmes. The pirate ship is at least visually reminiscent of Star Trek: Generation‘s Holodeck sequence. I’ve already seen the swanky cocktail lounge in TNG’s “11001001” and numerous times on DS9. And while seeing Murf performing on stage is fun, Murf is no Vic Fontaine.
Ultimately though, “Ghost in the Machine’s” highlight is the final five minutes when we discover who is responsible and why. Up until now, The Protostar’s crew have shared the same goal as Holo Janeway. But now that they’re forced to consider abandoning their mission to reach Federation space to avoid activating the Living Construct, Holo Janeway’s program has turned on them. A subroutine in the system has activated a sleeper agent within that created the Holodeck crisis to trick Dal into giving up command access and set the ship on a course for Federation space.
This is mostly a welcome twist that introduces an exciting new conflict for the crew. I just wish the writers had the guts to make this a betrayal by Holo Janeway’s actual primary consciousness. By making the Holo Janeway personality we know unaware, it feels like a narrative cop-out. Among my most hated tropes is taking away agency from the characters. It robs Holo Janeway of the opportunity to make a real active choice to go against the crew which could lead to long-term consequences.
The writers may to choose have the other characters express anger and distrust towards Holo Janeway after this, but they’re less entitled to those feelings because Holo Janeway didn’t consent to these actions in the first place and had no choice but to carry them out. And because Trek has primed the viewers to accept these holographic characters as truly conscious entities with their own self-determination, it undermines that message every time these characters have their identities hijacked by plot devices that conveniently makes their actions not really their fault.
At the end of the day, “Ghost in the Machine” is mostly a derivative Holodeck malfunction story. But the ending delivers an interesting twist, even if some of the decisions surrounding that twist come with a disappointing plot contrivance to let one character off the hook for their controversial choices.
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