the story: The ship faces a swarm of ships while the Doctor experiences his first existential crisis.
what it's all about: "The Swarm" shot up in significance after Star Trek Beyond used a similar idea of swarm ships in Kraal's armada. Let's just get that out of the way. It was one of those concepts where it was a shame they only used it once, but then it was finally came back. Yeah, it would've made a nice new recurring alien in Voyager, but the series was gunshy with that sort of thing after fan backlash from the first two seasons, so it's no surprise considerable caution followed them (Species 8472 debuted to massive hype in the third season finale, "Scorpion," and perhaps not surprisingly as one of the few things fans actually liked about the series).
But the big news is that "Swarm" is also the unofficial start of seriously upgrading the Doctor's significance in the series. Fans tend to think mostly of Seven or Janeway from Voyager, but it's the Doctor (and B'Elanna Torres) who consistently provided the best material. This is the first of three strong character studies in the third season for the Doctor ("Darkling" and "Real Life" follow).
In some ways it's a continuation of "Projections" from the previous season, where we meet the Doctor's creator, Lewis Zimmerman, for the first time. Like the Doctor and Zimmerman, a Diagnostic Hologram appears who's portrayed by Robert Picardo. Each time Picardo plays a different character, we're presented with a wildly diverging perspective on the Doctor himself. Zimmerman seems to be the model for all of the Doctor's worst instincts (his curt bedside manner), while the Diagnostic Hologram doesn't understand why the Doctor needs to be tinkering with his program. Much of the episode is riffing on the by-now familiar dilemma of the Doctor running far longer than he was originally designed to, which was set up in the very first episode ("Caretaker"), but rather than repeat old information "Swarm" digs deeper and actually has the Doctor himself struggle with the nature of his existence for the first time. This later becomes fodder for his best episode, "Latent Image."
It can be said that the ending of the episode has as much cinematic legacy as the title aliens. After the Diagnostic Program has sacrificed itself to stabilize the Doctor, there's a question as to whether or not it worked. We get our only clue in the episode when the Doctor begins to sing again. Star Trek Nemesis ends on a very similar note in regards to the memory download of Data into B4 (fans loved to misinterpret that as B4 literally becoming Data), the chance B4 needed to finally reach Data's level of sophistication.
- franchise - The swarm aliens are later evoked in Star Trek Beyond.
- series - Addresses a situation that's been developing from the very first episode.
- character - The Doctor faces his first existential crisis.
- essential - This is an episode that gains in significance and impact over time.
Robert Picardo (Diagnostic Program)