Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The Holodeck Reconsidered

In a recent post I did about “TV Elseworlds,” commenter Humanbelly brought up the holodeck from Star Trek – which, as noted in that comment thread, got my mental wheels spinning. Basically, when watching certain episodes of post-TOS Trek, there are times when I think the holodeck was a storytelling crutch that got really overused.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of highly-sophisticated holographic technology in general, and I particularly love the Doctor in Voyager. However, it seems that in so many of the episodes in which the holodeck figured prominently it was more of an easy way out for writers because they couldn’t think of anything more creative (like, you know, finding an intelligent species on some planet and violating the Prime Directive).

For example, the various characters will run a program that involves play-acting in so-called holonovels as a way to relax and have fun, like Data pretending to be Sherlock Holmes or Picard headlining in the stories of a hard-boiled detective character (made up just for the show) named Dixon Hill:

I can’t escape the suspicion that the writers and someone on the production team just wanted an excuse to put the characters in period-piece costumes and couldn’t figure out a better way to do it.

Also, I have to wonder if holonovels would really be all that relaxing. Sure, at times it might to fun to play act in a Sherlock Holmes mystery or a campy black-and-white movie serial – I think the ‘Captain Proton’ program used by Paris and Kim in Voyager was arguably among the best ubergeek uses of the holodeck ever.

But then, also in Voyager, there was the case of Janeway launching a program set in a haunted Gothic romance novel. That seems like it would be more stressful than relaxing or enjoyable (and create mental stress and anxiety rather than alleviate it).

‘Why, yes, it *is* arsenic, but I thought that you’d appreciate that it’s sweetened with a dollop of apricot marmalade…’

However, stuff like that didn’t bother me as much, since in a few cases the overall episodes they appeared in were usually pretty good (esp. the two TNG episodes with the reprogrammed Moriarity becoming sentient AI). And a few of the ‘holodeck malfunction’ episodes (again, something brought up by commenter Humanbelly) in TNG and Voyager were also pretty solid. And yes, before anyone asks, that would include the Voyager episodes with the Hirogens manipulating holographic technology to a) create the World War II simulation in the holodecks and b) create super-intelligent and adaptable holograms to hunt, who then quite naturally rebel.

What I *really* hated was when a specific holodeck program became a recurring setting over a number of episodes and indeed, the focus of said episodes, with their own additional ‘regular’ characters. This was done in both DS9 and Voyager and they are probably my least favorite episodes of those respective series – to the point that, if one of them comes on, I’m tempted to just skip them.

In DS9, it was the program set in a Vegas lounge in the early 1960s with the singer, Vic Fontaine, who knows he’s a hologram. I know why someone in the 1990s, when the show was produced, would be interested in the whole Vegas/mob scene in the 1960s, but it’s never made clear why the crew members of DS9, living as they do in the 23rd century, would find it fascinating enough to want to repeatedly spend time there. For me, the pinnacle of cringeworthy awfulness was that one time Fontaine and Sisko belt out a song at the end of the episode.

‘…And if you call and pledge now, you get a free DS9 tote-bag!’

The sole exception I’d make is the epsiode in which Nog has PTSD and his coping mechanism is to stay in the holodeck in the lounge and listen to the same song over and over – it doesn’t make me appreciate the guy’s singing any more, but at least it had a clear purpose from the story aspect.

(As an aside, I hardly have the words to describe my utter loathing for that episode in which the DS9 crew play a baseball game against a bunch of Vulcans in the holodeck. I hated everything about that one, not least because it underscores what seems to have been a line-wide mandate in all of the post-TOS shows – with the notable exception of Voyager – to portray Vulcans as the Federation’s biggest a-holes.)

I’d still hate this even if they were playing a sport I actually like…

In Voyager, it was the little late 19th-century Irish village, Fair Haven. OMFG those grated on me just as much as the Vegas lounge in DS9. Again, there’s the question of what all of these people (including a number of folks from non-human races) from the future would find so enticing about repeatedly spending time in what for them would be a centuries-old primitive and superstitious culture. Sure, the holodeck program sanitizes everything and makes it quaint and idyllic, but that just means you’re basically spending all of your leisure time at a Renfair. But no, apparently everyone in the crew agrees that not only is this a great place to hang out, but also to keep the program running continuously. And don’t get me started on Janeway falling for the town’s barkeep and then reprogramming him to, erm, suit her preferences. Yeesh.

Still just a fancy blow-up doll, Captain.

Anyway, I would have been much happier if the holodecks (or holosuites as they were called in DS9) had been used much more sparingly, and only rarely as the main setting for a given episode – unless it involved a malfunction or some other peril or pitfall arising from holographic technology.

(Note: all images are © Paramount Pictures)


  1. humanbelly

    The first time we were treated to Janeway’s gothic romance program, we weren’t 5 minutes in before I was baffled why ANYONE would choose to do this as a relaxing pastime. But then of course— all of those resource-management based games (empires and cities and zoos and middle class lives, etc, etc, ) were HUGE for a long time. . . so who am I to judge? Still– why on earth would a person under that much real-life pressure go full-immersive in an “entertainment” platform that was NOTHING but anxiety-on-a-platter??

    My biggest problem with the holodeck-as-easy-plot-device-shortcut, though, is that we barely got through, I’d say, two seasons of STNG before it’s continued use was CLEARLY a huge liability to the safety of the ship, the crew, and the overall mission. And this never got better over the two series that followed. I think after about the fifth time your holodeck locks people in, or out, or has safety protocol failures, or injures someone, or kills them, or won’t shut down, or accidentally takes over the ship, or inadvertently creates a malevolent sentient being that tries to take over the ship– that’s when a responsible Federation steps up and says, “Y’know– maybe we don’t have a full handle on this technology after all– let’s just shut them ALL down indefinitely, and aggressively disable them until we can get this under control. . . ”

    That being said– yeah, I do enjoy a good holodeck story. . . when it’s indeed good!

    Side-note: Sisko’s baseball fixation always had the same forced-nostalgia feeling for me. I never, ever bought it. It would be like one of us being REALLY into the popular sports of Shakespeare’s time. . .


    1. Edo Bosnar

      Re: recalling the holodeck indefinitely until the bugs are worked out. Yes! I never thought of it in precisely that way, but that’s exactly what should have happened – if not earlier, then at least when La Forge tinkered with the Sherlock program to challenge Data and created a sub-routine (the above-mentioned AI Moriarty) that threatened the entire ship.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        And I just remembered another seriously f-ed up aspect of the holodeck: the ‘remove safety protocols’ option, otherwise known as the ‘let’s make it possible for this supposedly recreational device to gravely injure, maim or kill people’ feature.

        1. humanbelly

          Right– why is that even an option at all. . . under any circumstances? Is there ANY imaginable situation where it a person would want to completely disable the safety bar on a roller-coaster midway thorugh its run. . .???

  2. Le Messor

    I think this has been driving most Trek fans crazy for years.

    But I also think you’ve answered some of your own questions there. Yes, I think the writers used them because they couldn’t come up with a better excuse to recreate the times.
    ‘Why would they be into 60s Vegas?’ it’s how you describe FairHaven – it’s like a Renfair.

    Did the whole crew agree to Fair Haven, or did Janeway just pass that down unilaterally? And nobody dared to disagree with a decree of Janeway? (I may have watched too much SF Debris.) I’ve always thought how unfair Fair Haven was (no pun intended) to all the other characters on the show, though, who might want to run other holo programs.

    But in the end, it’s just their equivalent of unwinding next to the TV at the end of the day. Some people watch Friends, some people watch Agent Carter, some people watch Star Trek, others watch The Haunting of Hill House or Westworld (either of which might seem stressful). Some watch sports or reality TV or Dragons: Race To The Edge.

    Of course, when my TV breaks down, it doesn’t go mad and try to eat the tourists.

  3. People say the same thing about horror movies, and some of my friends say the same thing about fiction with tragic endings. I can believe people would get into it, particularly as they can stop the action if it does get out of hand.
    I do agree about the fixation on the 20th century, as if there’s never been any fiction or fascinating historical periods since then.

    1. humanbelly

      I’ve often wondered exactly the same thing. Their “genre fictional pastime programs” are bounteous up to the 20th century— then there seems to be a 400 year blackout window. . . Where’s the pulp-culture phenomenon from the year 2197, for pete’s sake?


      1. Le Messor

        Well, in the case of Trek, the third world war probably did a lot to ruin pop culture for everybody.

        That said, while I can’t think of any Holodeck episodes from their past / our future, in DS9, Sisko actually travelled back in time to the Bell Riots, which took place in… Well, you know.

        (Also, Naomi Wildman played a children’s holodeck thing that was contemporary to her; or the generation before.)

        1. Edo Bosnar

          Nope, as far as I can recall, there never was an actual program that anyone ran that was set in our future but their past. It was always late 20th century or earlier, or contemporary to them (e.g. Chez Sandrine or the Paxau Resort in Voyager). Sometimes, though, individual ‘future historical’ figures appeared, like, e.g., an early 21st century baseball player (now no longer our future) in an episode of DS9 or a 22nd century opera diva in an episode of Voyager.

          1. Le Messor

            It’s actually a little more frustrating than that.
            Notice that all the music programs are from before our time? Jazz, classical; no rock ‘n’ roll!
            Obviously, the reason is copyright / money, but it’s still a little telling.

  4. “I can’t escape the suspicion that the writers and someone on the production team just wanted an excuse to put the characters in period-piece costumes and couldn’t figure out a better way to do it.”

    I don’t think you should try to escape that suspicion…I think you should wholeheartedly embrace it as a nigh-absolute truth.

    As a fan of TNG, DS9 and Voyager all during the years they were on, this was certainly one of the more annoying conceits the franchise came up with. Sure, there were episodes that were good enough to make it worthwhile and malfunctions that were not utterly unbelievable (and obviously the Doctor was a lot of fun), but too often the holodecks were used as a way to tell a certain type of story that wasn’t easily achieved another way. It was transparent and frustrating, and of often inconsistently presented as well.

    It was most annoying on Voyager where the regular presence of holodeck stories completely belied the idea that they were a ship of limited resources, no matter what hand-wave they used to justify it.

    1. humanbelly

      The point about Voyager’s “selective” limited resources is an excellent one, yes. They aren’t able to keep the food replicators operating at more than a supplemental capacity— but they have the power surplus to run these enormous holographic programs for individual entertainment purposes. . . ? Though that may be a replicated-apples/holographic-oranges comparison, to be fair. . .


      1. Edo Bosnar

        My impression is that the resources that Voyager lacked were physical, i.e., they had energy (including energy to run the holodeck) as long as the engines and warp core were operational.
        As I understand the replicators, they apparently operated on a principle similar to the transporters, so they still need some kind of physical matter, i.e., physical supplies held somewhere in the ship, to craft food and other things – they didn’t just materialize stuff out of thin air.

        1. Le Messor

          They tend to have energy troubles as well. The hand-wave Ben mentioned above is that the holodecks use a different and incompatible energy source to the rest of the ship.

          I mean, they have the material resources for an infinite number of shuttles, so…

  5. Matt

    I found most holodeck episodes to be fairly awful but my main issue is with the technology itself and how the use of said technology reflects back on the Federation.

    We have presented to us systems that have, on multiple occassions, produced completely sentient and self aware life. Vic Fontaine, for example, would pass the Turing test with flying colours and actually had to strike up a deal with the DS9 crew so that he wouldn’t be turned off like a light switch.

    It wasn’t a case of “Oh crap, we done goofed up and made a real person here … until we can figure this out more, let’s treat this life with respect and not turn it off” it was more a case of “we have a real person here who we’ll turn off when we’re done each day and generally use for our personal entertainment only.”

    The safety issues with the holodeck are well known and horrible to contemplate but it’s the ETHICAL issues which are the biggest problem with them.

    1. humanbelly

      Yep, I don’t disagree with this at all. I don’t remember which STNG episode it was (one of Picard’s detective ones, I believe?) where one of the generated characters was let in on the “reality” of the situation, and he flat-out asks what happens to him/them when the simulation ends? (or something to that effect). And at that moment I thought– “this is very, very wrong–“. Effectively, it’s creating a race of digital/holographic slaves. . . with self-awareness but NO self-determination. . . used only for entertainment and sport. Not that far removed from the questions that arise in Capek’s play “R.U.R” back in the 1930’s. . . (the work where the word “robot” was coined, if I’m not mistaken-?) (Unfortunately, dull as dry toast– but still quite relevant. . .)


      1. Edo Bosnar

        Well, one of the leitmotifs of all seven seasons of Voyager was the exploration of the Doctor’s sentience and his ‘human’ rights.
        But yeah, creating intelligent life on the holodeck and then switching it on and off like a bedside lamp is certainly a troubling practice, almost to the level of the ‘droids as sentient slave appliances in the Star Wars universe.

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