Delta Redux: A Voyager Rewatch: Prototype

By Last Updated: March 21, 2017Views: 1706

Robots are used in science fiction stories in some pretty standard ways. One as a stand-in for humanity itself, a way to question what it means to be alive – what life really is – and as a reflection of how we treat each other. They are made to look like us, act like us and to at least simulate emotion. But are they really alive? Do they have rights? If this is so then when we make them do our work for us, fight our wars for us, are they not then our slaves? In this way the use robots let’s us question our own morality.

Another typical way robots are used in science fiction is to examine the “tampering with the laws of nature” story. A technological Dr. Frankenstein playing God and creating “life” in his/her own image – but at what cost? At what cost? In this way robots are used to show the hubris of man.

Occasionally in science fiction stories robots will rebel against their creators and attempt to replace them. Robots will see the flaws in humankind and of course see them as weak and so take over to install a civilization of pure logic. Inevitably robots will be defeated in this scenario because as creatures of pure logic they do not see the benefit of improvisation and so the “flawed” humans will prevail because of irrationality. This kind of story tells us to never trust robots. (I’m sure there is more to it than that, but I’m thinking irrationally).

Most science fiction stories about robots typically choose one of these premises. The episode Prototype manages to use them all and tack on a very Star Trek-y moral to the story. In that way it is quite an achievement.

“My God, what have I done?”
– Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres

It may sound as if I’m being snarky here, but I’m not. I found this episode entertaining and as the plot moved from one style of story to another I was genuinely pleased with the clever twists. Sure it’s a little ham-fisted at times – as I’ve said many times, Star Trek is not what you’d call subtle – but it always means well, and by God it tries.

So what do I mean by all this?

The show opens with B’Elanna becoming rather obsessive about fixing a robot found floating in space. She begins acting the role of a subdued version of a mad scientist wanting to create life. It’s all done, she argues, in the spirit of “exploration” but really it is just a way for B’Elanna to indulge her obsession. Of course she accomplishes this. She creates a new energy source for the robot (described in a brilliant piece of technobabble:  “I could modify a series of anodyne relays, attach them directly to the robot’s power module. They could act as a sort of regulator to make the warp plasma compatible with the robot’s energy matrix!”) this activates the robot who introduces itself as “Automated Unit 3947”.

At this point we’re already ticked off the “playing God” plot and it seems as if the show is going to shift gears into the “are robots sentient, do the deserve rights?” storyline. And this is how I thought the episode was going to play out. AU3947 tells B’Elanna about the “builders” the creators of the robots who are now extinct and without whom the robots cannot maintain themselves and will eventually die out.

B’Elanna then wishes to build a prototype for the robots so they can begin to replicate themselves. A long debate on the Prime Directive ensues; talk of non-interference and the rights of individuals and even a quick mention of Lieutenant Data for good measure. This is all very good, standard Trek stuff and what one would imagine an episode to evolve into. I was half-expecting a court drama to unfold.

When suddenly the show shifts gears again. After Janeway makes her decision that Voyager will not help the robots (AU3947’s ship has arrived at this point to pick him up) they kidnap B’Elanna and hold her captive, forcing here to create the prototype or else they will destroy Voyager. That was unexpected.

We then find out that there are two races of robots perpetually at war with one another. It turns out that the Builders were actually two races – the Pralor and the Cravic – they each built armies of robots to fight wars for them. When the Pralor and the Cravic decided to end the war and call a ceasefire they attempted to destroy the robot armies. The robots then killed the Pralor and the Cravic and simply resumed the war. Without a way to replenish themselves the robots would eventually kill each other off – except now B’Elanna has a way to change the balance of power.

This turns the episode completely on its head and takes it to a much darker space. There is something eerie about the robots calm, efficient way of waging war. There is no emotion, no cause to be won – they fight because it’s what they are supposed to do. Two machine races fighting a passionless war that no longer has any meaning or relevance since whatever the spark of the conflict was it has long been forgotten in endless, automated repetition. And this is again a very Star Trek message – or maybe I should say a very Gene Roddenberry message.

War is not something to be entered into lightly. It is a terrible, horrible thing that only results in death and destruction no matter how noble one thinks the reason behind it is. That’s why – even in war – one must have compassion for the other, the enemy. We must see each other as people, as individuals lest we become robots, soulless beings simply going through the motions till even the act of killing begins to become routine.

In the end of course B’Elanna realizes her error and her hubris and destroys the prototype. And of course the Voyager crew beams her out at the last second and flies away.

But in one final twist – or rather lack of twist – there is no moralizing, no speeches; no one learns the folly of war. The robots just continue fighting and the Voyager slinks off to their next adventure. I’m not sure if this is a good way to end the episode or a bad one. But it’s different. It seems to suggest, much like the issues raised in this episode, there are no easy solutions. In that way it is fitting I suppose.

The journey continues.

Next Time On Star Trek Voyager

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