At this point this is what I thought the episode was going to be: Tuvok and Chakotay would do their best buddy cop routine on the Beowulf inspired holodeck; there would be threats that aren’t really threats, danger that really isn’t danger, pseudo-medieval sounding dialogue causing hilarious misunderstandings and a technobabble resolution and a hearty laugh at the end.
And to be fair all of those things did actually happen, just not in the way I thought it would. To my surprise the dreaded “holodeck malfunction” episode was done in a way that was unexpected and became a surprisingly fun thing to watch.
Before I continue I just want to say a few things about the “holodeck malfunction” episode. I get it. I know why they are done. It is a way for the show to attempt something different and take the characters out of their element and put them in situations that are strange and unusual. It is meant to be a romp. Lots of comedy bits and half-assed danger just to keep things interesting. There are many examples of this trope in the Star Trek family: Picard as noir detective, Data playing Shakespeare, Bashir as super-spy and Janeway pretending to be a Victorian nanny (next week friends!) and with very few exceptions this simply doesn’t work.
There are two reasons I believe for why this is:
First off these episodes always seem to take place on ancient Earth. The real-world explanation for this is that the viewer already knows this subject or story and so its a shorthand for the writer to slip into a particular genre without having to explain or world-build. Trouble is they tend to lean on this too heavily and instead of exploring the genre it becomes a parody of that genre and so we never really get to see how the characters would interact in it.
And when you take into account that the entire structure of the show, traveling around space visiting a new planet or culture, allows for genre bending stories on a week to week basis without having to resort to a noir detective pastiche or an epic poem setting. Which leads in to the second reason I don’t think these type of episodes work, there is no consequence. Because the very nature of the holodeck is that it is an unreal reality as soon as the door opens and the characters leave it is for the most part forgotten. Nothing actually happened. It is at best a distraction, a filler and easily skippable.
All that being said Heroes and Demons subverts the tropes of the “holodeck malfunction” while at the same time embracing them making it an unusual and unexpected treat…a good holodeck episode.
Tuvok and Chakotay do have their buddy cop moment and they do play off each other well. And Chakotay’s bitchy line, “I guess that explains their popularity,” in response to Tuvok’s assertation that Vulcan literature does not need demons is genuinely funny and made my laugh. But then they too disappear and that opens the show up to what really makes this a good episode, it becomes a tour de force for the Doctor.
The Doctor has been a stand out character for the series in general but here he really starts to shine. He is sent into the holodeck, which makes perfect sense because he’s is after all a hologram, to retrieve the others with full knowledge that he is potentially expendable. He shows apprehension and fear before going in and anxiety over wanting to do a good job. On the holodeck he very funny and is allowed to be genuinely heroic and, most surprisingly, has a tender and sad romantic moment. There are consequences to his time on the holodeck. The character of the Doctor moves forward and grows as a result of his time there. He even stops using the name he chose for himself, Schweitzer, because of the sadness it brings him when he remembers the last time is was spoken.
The end is basically a prisoner exchange with a misunderstood alien and it all comes out just fine as you’d expect with a smile and a one-liner. But the real take away here is that the holodeck can be used for character development rather than just a throw-away distraction.
This is how a “holodeck malfunction” should be done.