Throughout the series, the EMH gradually becomes more and more complex, to the point where the Voyager crew consider it an equal part of the crew, and the Doctor even finds a means of walking outside the Holodeck, and its intellectual complexity grows to become so rich that in the final episode, in a never-happened flash forward, he appears perfectly capable of taking a wife and integrating fully into Federation society.

When did the EMH cross the boundry, for those aboard Voyager, from being a simple holographic projection into being a sentient being? When did they stop considering him just a hologram, and start considering him a full member of the crew?

Definition of Sentient: Fully self-aware, capable of autonomous action, and deserving of equal rights given to those of all sentient beings by the Federation.

  • 11
    This assumes that sentience is a binary state. Instead of there being a discrete boundary separating sentient beings from non-sentient beings, it's more likely to be a continuous spectrum ranging from non-sentient single-cell organisms up to fully sapient beings like humanoids (and beyond). Throughout Star Trek, when non-organic beings are given personhood seems to depend on the subjective judgment of each community or individual (e.g. many people recognized Data as a person while Dr. Polaski still did not). The Doctor also experienced this re: Kes vs. other crewmen. Commented May 2, 2014 at 17:37
  • @Lèsemajesté Agreeing with that concept, but more to the point, I'm more curious about the crew's attitude towards the Doctor's individuality, since the exact moment he 'became' sentient is very debatable.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 17:42
  • So, perhaps, when the Doctor first demonstrated his ability to step beyond his programming? Or are you referring to the emotional turning point for the main crew, where they fully empathize with and recognize the Doctor as a person? Commented May 2, 2014 at 17:45
  • Technically they didn't provide him with the means of escaping the confines of a hologrid. Henry Starling of Chronoworx did that.
    – eidylon
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 18:03
  • 1
    @Izkata You may be thinking of Latent Image, when Janeway keeps vigil with the Doctor while he comes to terms with his ethical subroutines.
    – Xantec
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 2:50

4 Answers 4


I doubt that there was a single point at which the crew said "Hey, he's sentient." At the very least this moment never occurred on screen that I am aware of. From the beginning he was programmed with a fully interactive personality, simulating sentience. More likely, there was just a change in the attitude of the crew, seeing him as more than just a hologram and accepting him as a person.

As far as your definition of fully sentient goes:

  • Proving the first part "fully aware" would be difficult for anyone, not just the EMH.
  • The EMH was always capable of part two, within the confines of sickbay or the holodeck. He just did not have an interest to sing or play golf from the get-go.
  • The last point is difficult. Even by the end of the series he didn't have full rights in the Federation (he did gain some rights in "Author, Author").

From "Author, Author":

ARBITRATOR: We're exploring new territory today so it is fitting that this hearing is being held at Pathfinder. The Doctor exhibits many of the traits we associate with a person. Intelligence, creativity, ambition, even fallibility, but are these traits real or is the Doctor merely programmed to simulate them? To be honest, I don't know. Eventually we will have to decide because the issue of holographic rights isn't going to go away, but at this time, I am not prepared to rule that the Doctor is a person under the law. However, it is obvious he is no ordinary hologram and while I can't say with certainty that he is a person I am willing to extend the legal definition of artist to include the Doctor. I therefore rule that he has the right to control his work and I'm ordering all copies of his holo-novels to be recalled immediately.

The change in the crew's behavior likely started in the episode "Eye of the Needle". In this episode Kes champion's the Doctor's plight to Captain Janeway, and by the end we see the Doctor taking more of an interest in himself and in turn the crew treating him better.

Towards the beginning of the episode crewman Baxter acts rudely, ignoring the Doctor, which Kes brings up with the EMH:

KES: Doctor, did you notice how rudely that officer treated you?
EMH: Not more so than most.
KES: You mean others act that way too.
EMH: Let's just say I've become accustomed to being treated like a hypospray. Now, here's some material on first aid for burns.

Some time later Kes brings this up to the captain:

KES: If there were a member of the crew whose needs weren't being met, would you want to know about it?
JANEWAY: Of course. Kes, do you and Neelix feel that your needs are being ignored?
KES: Of course not, we're very happy here. I'm referring to the Doctor.
JANEWAY: The Doctor?
KES: I don't understand why people treat him the way they do.
JANEWAY: How do people treat him?
KES: As though he doesn't exist. They talk about him while he's standing right there. They ignore him. They insult him.
JANEWAY: Well as a matter of fact, I've been hearing the other side of the coin. Many of the crew have complained that the Doctor is brusque, even rude, that he lacks any bedside manner. We've been talking about reprogramming him.
KES: You can do that? It doesn't seem right.
JANEWAY: Kes, he's only a hologram.
KES: He's your Medical Officer. He's alive.
JANEWAY: No he's not.
KES: He's self aware, he's communicative, he has the ability to learn.
JANEWAY: Because he's been programmed to do that.
KES: So because he's a hologram he doesn't have to be treated with respect or any consideration at all?
JANEWAY: Very well, I'll look into it.
KES: Thank you, Captain.

Janeway follows this conversation up with a visit to sickbay, chats with the Doctor, and offers to help the Doctor with upgrading his program:

JANEWAY: Computer, initiate Emergency Medical Holographic Programme.
EMH: Please state the nature of the medical emergency.
JANEWAY: There is no emergency, Doctor.
EMH: Well, that's good. I was right in the middle of preparing a culture to test Lieutenant Hargrove for Arethian flu when Ensign Kyoto deactivated me.
JANEWAY: I'm sure she didn't realise you were busy.
EMH: What is it you want, Captain.
JANEWAY: Actually, I thought we might just talk for a moment.
EMH: About what?
JANEWAY: Doctor, you were originally programmed to serve in a limited fashion during an emergency. Now you're being asked to do much more.
EMH: That's certainly true. I'm providing full time medical service for the entire ship's crew, functioning both as doctor and nurse, and now as an instructor as well.
JANEWAY: You don't have the luxury of thinking of yourself as am Emergency Medical Programme any more. You've become a full-fledged member of the crew.
EMH: I see. Are you suggesting that I be re-programmed?
JANEWAY: No. I'm asking if there's anything I can do to help you.
EMH: Help me?
JANEWAY: If there's anything you need, or want, I'd like to see that you get it.
EMH: What I'd like is to be turned off when people leave. I spend hours here with absolutely nothing to do. When someone does remember to deactivate me they do so without asking if it's convenient. It's extremely irritating.
JANEWAY: What if I gave you control over your deactivation sequence?
EMH: I beg your pardon?
JANEWAY: I'm sure we can make it possible for you to turn yourself off, or to prevent being turned off.
EMH: I, I might like that.
JANEWAY: I'll have someone look into it. Anything else?
EMH: I'm not sure, I'll have to give it some thought.
JANEWAY: You do that.

Later, at the end of the episode we see the Doctor stand up for himself and begin to grow beyond his original programming:

BAXTER: I tried a new hamstring exercise. Maybe I overdid it. But my workouts are about all that stand between me and a severe case of cabin fever.
EMH: Lieutenant, I am the Chief Medical Officer of this ship. If you have something to say to me, please, direct the statement to me.
BAXTER: Well, you see, I need to work out.
EMH: I'm not telling you not to work out. I'm suggesting you use a modicum of commonsense when you do it. If I see you in here again for an exercise related injury, I'll have to discuss the matter with your superior officer.
BAXTER: Yes, sir.
EMH: You're fine now. You may leave.
BAXTER: Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.
(Baxter leaves.)
KES: I don't think he'll make the mistake of ignoring you again.
EMH: Captain Janeway has made me realise that I must function as more than an Emergency Medical replacement. I must think of myself as a member of the crew.
KES: you're absolutely right.
EMH: I've prepared a list of things I'd like to see added to Sickbay. Perhaps you could present it to the Captain?
KES: I'd be happy to.
EMH: There's one more request. Something of a, a personal nature. I would like a name.

Quotes via Chakoteya.net


There wasn't a single point for all the crew; there was a spectrum that was made apparent during 5x11, Latent Image, when Captain Janeway was forced to re-confront a decision she had made 18 months prior: Erasing one of the Doctor's memories that caused a conflict in his programming.

About halfway through the episode, Seven gives Janeway the push she needs to reconsider the Doctor's situation. The important parts are the two large paragraphs, Janeway near the top, and Seven at the bottom of this quote:

Janeway: If you've come to act as my conscience, you're a little late. I considered these issues eighteen months ago, as I did again this morning. I came to the same conclusion.

Seven: Your conclusion is wrong.

Janeway: [to replicator:] Coffee, black. [takes a sip, then to Seven:] Lukewarm. Now I've told that replicator a dozen times about the temperature of my coffee. It just doesn't seem to want to listen. Almost as if it's got a mind of its own. But it doesn't. A replicator operates through a series of electronic pathways that allow it to receive instructions and take appropriate action. And there you go, a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup, a plasma conduit, whatever we tell it to do. As difficult as it is to accept, the Doctor is more like that replicator than he is like us.

Seven: He would disagree.

Janeway: I'm sure he would. But I can't let that change my decision. I learned that the hard way, when his program almost self-destructed. I won't take that risk again.

Seven: The risk isn't yours to take.

Janeway: If one of my crew chose to put a phaser to his own head, should I let him?

Seven: It would depend on the situation.

Janeway: It always depends on the situation, Seven. But we can debate philosophy another time.

Seven: When you separated me from the collective, I was an unknown risk to your crew, yet you kept me on board. You allowed me to evolve into an individual.

Janeway: You're a human being. He's a hologram.

Seven: And you allowed that hologram to evolve as well. To exceed his original programming. And yet now you choose to abandon him.

Janeway: Objection noted. Good night.

Seven: It is unsettling. You say that I am a human being, and yet I am also Borg. Part of me not unlike your replicator. Not unlike the Doctor. Will you one day choose to abandon me, as well? I have always looked to you as my example, my guide to humanity. Perhaps I've been mistaken. Good night.

After showing the Doctor those erased memories, he begins to mentally implode again, referring to himself as a simple program, even offering to help reprogram himself. Janeway takes a moment, and with a pensive expression, comes up with this:

Janeway: It's as though there's a battle being fought inside him. Between his original programming, and what he's become. Our solution was to end that battle. What if we were wrong?

B'Elanna: We've seen what happens to him. In fact we've seen it twice.

Janeway: Still, we allowed him to evolve. And at the first sign of trouble.. [waves hand] We gave him a soul, B'Elanna. Do we have the right to take it away now?

B'Elanna: We gave him personality subroutines. I'd hardly call that a soul.

So from these two conversations, even this late into the series, not all the crew sees him entirely as a sentient person: Seven has long considered him as such, Janeway seems to have only come around during this episode, and B'Elanna seems to still mostly consider the Doctor a complex program. Although she does look like she's reconsidering as Janeway walks away.

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    I don't know that B'Elanna ever fully came around to seeing the Doctor as a person. As late as Lineage she was still willing to reprogram him when it suited her (granted the circumstances were somewhat unique).
    – Xantec
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 14:03

I'd say the critical moment in starting its evolution was the moment he was given the possibility to activate and de-activate itself at will. Doing that for the first time is the key point of everything that followed later.

Considering "capable of autonomous action for its own development" - the EMH at a point started to experiment with developing it's character and personality. That was the catalyst for its sentient enabler. Later on (season 3), the doc even experiments with creating it's own family where it experiences a wide range of situations and emotions culminating with the death of its holo-familiy daughter, a thing that was so unbearable that he terminated the family simulation - that's certainly sentient.

  • Did the Doctor ever get the ability to activate his program at will? He (I know, I know) did gain the ability to turn his program off, as well as prevent being turned off (except when the magic words computer, override the EMH program's autonomous controls were spoken by someone -- don't we even see that used even by a non-crewmember once or twice?) early in the series, but I don't think there's ever any indication that he can turn himself on.
    – user
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 20:42
  • "Computer, activate Medical Holographic recall, set for 12 hours. Mark." Practically, this is the initial ability to program its reactivation.
    – Overmind
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 6:52

I don't know if the doctor ever actually achieves sentience. Have you considered that even in his final state (state he was as of the finale) that he was just an elaborate program. There is no real way to prove it one way or the other. Perhaps he will only ever know since he is the only one who can be in his head. :)

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    To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I'm not just an elaborate program. Beep boop. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 22:25
  • @JasonBaker Or indeed that bob is not an elaborate program. Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 9:17
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    Out of universe: I remember reading somewhere that the EHM would not had gotten so much attention if it was not for Robert Picardo's excellent performance. I have no sources to back that up, sorry. But he was a great character that they could continue to develop throughout the series. And I think the last season and the very last two episodes would suggest that he was a citizen back on Earth. Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 12:48
  • 1
    What I am trying to say is that I don't think the writers initially came up with the EMH as AVA a la Ex Machina. They just realized that they had a very popular character that was fun to integrate into their plots, and just ran with it. Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 13:12

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