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Star Trek: Voyager – Projections (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Projections is really the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager that feels like it is the right script coming from the right staff writer. At the start of the show’s first season, it seemed like writing assignments were handed out almost at random, with no real acknowledgement of the relative strength of any of the writers involved.

Brannon Braga is one of the best science-fiction high-concept writers in the history of franchise, but he was assigned the character-driven second episode Parallax and the issue-driven Emanations; Michael Piller’s personal strengths were always more firmly aligned with character development, so it felt strange to see him writing the time travel adventure Time and Again and the anomaly of the week in The Cloud.

All by myself...

All by myself…

Pushing the boundaries of a writing staff is something worth doing – forcing various members of the team to ease themselves out of their comfort zone – but it felt counter-productive to do this during the first season of a new Star Trek show. After all, the first season is about putting the best foot forward, and many of the early scripts for the show feel like they were handed to the wrong writers during the development process.

With Projections, it feels like Brannon Braga finally has a Voyager script that plays entirely to his strengths as a writer. It is arguably his most character-driven script on the franchise to date, but it also anchored in a pretty fascinating existential dilemma. In many respects, it is a spiritual companion to Frame of Mind, a sixth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generationpreoccupied with questions about what reality actually might be.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

Following on from Heroes and Demons, Projections is only the second episode of Voyager to focus on the character of the Doctor. However, much like Heroes and Demons, it demonstrates the versatility of the character and the range of the actor. Projections is a very clever script that relies on its central character to really carry it across the line. At this point in Voyager‘s run, Robert Picardo seems to be one of the few members of the ensemble who could really pull it off.

The result is one of the (if not the) strongest episode of the show’s first two seasons – somewhat appropriate, given the way the show straddles the gap between the first and second seasons.

He's not all there...

He’s not all there…

It is tempting to write off Projections as an attempt to imitate Frame of Mind. Both are stories that ask the lead character to assess the reality of their predicament, confronting our protagonist with the revelation that reality (and sanity) are not necessarily as sturdy as we might hope. Given how distinctive the two episodes are and the fact that Brannon Braga is credited on both teleplays, it is an obvious comparison.

It feels even more appropriate in light of the constant criticism that Voyager spends far too much time trying to imitate The Next Generation. Here is an episode that is not only superficially similar to an episode of The Next Generation, but features a recurring guest star from the earlier show. It’s very hard to dismiss these criticisms when they are taken collectively. They are legitimate observations about Projections.

Chakotay to the rescue!

Chakotay to the rescue!

However, it is worth noting that Projections and Frame of Mind are not unique in sharing a premise across the history of the franchise. After all, Star Trek has turned terms like “planet of the week” and “anomaly of the week” and “prime directive melodrama” into acceptable narrative shorthand. Even if Projections could be considered a copy of an earlier story, it is not the only script from Voyager‘s first two seasons to owe such a debt to previous episode. It’s hard to argue that revisiting some of the more interesting ideas from Frame of Mind is a worse idea than reframing A Matter of Perspective as Ex Post Facto.

More than that, though, the concept merits some more exploration. Star Trek is frequently criticised for its narrative simplicity and its lack of interest in big science-fiction ideas. One of the more endearing aspects of Braga’s writing is the way that he tries to inject science-fiction concepts into his scripts. He may not always succeed, but he does try to raise provocative questions beyond metaphorical explorations of the issue of the day. His best scripts ask the viewer to answer probing existential and abstract questions about reality and predestination and recursion – finding a way to relate clever hooks into very human ideas.

It's like banging his head against the wall...

It’s like banging his head against the wall…

The flip side is that his weaker scripts often feel like nothing more than an attempt to evoke cheesy pulpy old-school science-fiction. Both Threshold and Genesis (and arguably The 37’s) play like Braga is attempting to recapture the spirit of trashy b-movies, with little regard for the characters trapped inside those stories or even how the basic scientific ideas underlining the episode might work. Genesis is based on a unique understanding of the theory of evolution, and heavily implies that Worf killed at least one member of the crew, but it’s never brought up again.

However, Projections is a wonderful example of Braga drawing on his interesting in high-concept science-fiction to create a compelling story. The episode feels like it owes a conscious debt to the work of Philip K. Dick, as it meditates on questions about how we relate to reality. Indeed, even the Doctor’s nature as an artificial person fits within that framework – asking the audience to decide whether the Doctor is “real” enough to be able to determine his own “reality.”

"Dammit, I'll have nobody to say 'she's dead...' to..."

“Dammit, I’ll have nobody to say ‘she’s dead…’ to…”

These sorts of questions sit well with Star Trek. The franchise is, after all, a wonderful vehicle for social commentary. One of the reasons that the show endures in popular imagination is because the franchise has interesting and thought-provoking things to say. With scripts like Frame of Mind and Projections, Braga very much wants to ask interesting questions about the nature of self and identity. Even if he has already touched on these ideas, it is worth revisiting them. There is plenty of room to play with these concepts about the relationship between the individual and the world around them.

Projections works for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s a delightfully mind-screwy premise for a show that has played it rather safe up until this point. To be fair, there are a number of concessions to be made going in. The audience is never going to be convinced that the last season of Voyager has all been a holonovel, because the show is going to run for another six seasons after this point. The fake “he’s out… but he’s not!” twist feels almost obligatory – it’s hard to imagine any genre-savvy viewer getting caught off-guard.

Out of the frying pan...

Out of the frying pan…

At the same time, it is an episode markedly more ambitious than anything Voyager has done so far. It’s a far shrewder twist on the concept of the Doctor than something like Heroes and Demons. Braga’s script playful and it’s cheeky – the episode features Neelix having a food fight in the mess hall with a Kazon, as well as revealing that the Doctor gets his personality from Reginald Barclay. The show twists and turns with great frequency, starting with a number of clever ideas and then heaping more clever ideas on top.

First it’s a Kazon attack! Then it’s the Doctor being able to walk around Voyager! Then it’s the crew being holograms! Then it’s Barclay telling the Doctor that he is a real live person! Then it’s jumping back to the events of Caretaker! Then the Doctor is really having a bad day on the holodeck! Then it turns out that Kes is his wife! Then it turns out that Chakotay is trying to safe him from Engineering! Projections moves smartly and shrewdly enough that it works beautifully.

Prick him, does he not bleed?

Prick him, does he not bleed?

Robert Picardo does a lot to make the episode work. Projections effectively hinges on Picardo’s ability to carry an episode almost single-handedly. There are quite a few extended sequences of Picardo in isolation or simply reacting, and the actor does a wonderful job. The Doctor was really the breakout character on Voyager. While a lot of that is down to how well the character captures the basic Star Trek “outsider” archetype, Picardo’s superb performance is also a major reason.

Picardo has some truly fantastic comic timing – indeed, he’s frequently a highlight of episodes where he barely appears – but he is also a wonderful dramatic performer. At this stage in his Star Trek writing career, Braga wasn’t a writer best suited to character work. He improved dramatically on Star Trek: Enterprise, with scripts like Shuttlepod One. However, the script for Projections is more interested in the mind-bending reality stuff than on the Doctor himself. It’s Picardo who sells the character’s existential crisis, and he does so beautifully.

Injecting a little excitement into his life...

Injecting a little excitement into his life…

The Doctor is a delightful character. He’s very much cast in the same basic mold as Data on The Next Generation, but with a number of interesting tweaks. He is an artificial intelligence with limited social skills. He serves as the show’s most effective vehicle to explore the human condition, at least until Seven of Nine joins the show. While his personality is more abrasive than that of Data, Projections hints that he wants the same thing; he shares Data’s desire to be human – or, at least, to be “real” – even if he’s not consciously aware of that yet.

The beauty of Projections is how the episode puts the Doctor in the position of desperately wanting to believe something that simply cannot be true. As noted above, the audience knows that Voyager won’t turn out to be a simulation, but that’s not where the episode’s suspense comes from. Instead, the dramatic tension comes from the slow realisation that the Doctor is simply dreaming about what he wants to be true – that this isn’t a random malfunction or alien test, but a personalised dream.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

Indeed, the title is a wonderful play on words – or, at least, a single word. While the title literally applies to the images being broadcast inside the holodeck, it also applies psychologically. Barclay and Kes are very much projections of the Doctor’s own subconscious desires – his subconscious’ way of trying to tell him what he really wants, even if he cannot bring himself to admit it to anybody.

Barclay’s appeals are all based on what the Doctor wants to hear. “You don’t have memory circuits, you have a mind, and it’s being damaged,” he insists. “Lewis, how would you rather think of yourself? As a real person with a real life, with a family that loves you? Or as some hologram that exists in a Sickbay on a starship lost in deep space.” Chakotay responds, “This isn’t about what you want. This is about what you are.” And there’s a pretty wonderful conflict at the heart of the show.

The Doctor! Action hero!

The Doctor! Action hero!

One of the nicer touches of Projections is the way it takes advantage of the character’s unique nature. The Doctor is a very strange creature. He is, in his own way, even more strange than Data. While Data may be a machine, he is a machine locked inside a body that is designed to resemble a person. We can relate to him and understand him. While Odo can change his structure, he is most frequently in a form that most people would recognise as a body. The Doctor, however, is something different.

The character we see is a projection of light and energy that is being used as a mouthpiece for a more advanced piece of software installed on the ship’s computer. The Doctor doesn’t have a centralised body as we understand it. The form with which we interact is very much a puppet made of light and forcefields; it is operated by an entity that is much more alien than what appears in Sickbay. The Doctor – in his “true” material form – probably looks like a circuit board. It’s just easy to forget that when he’s played by Robert Picardo.

He'll always have Paris...

He’ll always have Paris…

However, Projections takes that idea as a starting point. “It created a feedback loop between the holodeck computer and your programme,” Chakotay explains of the malfunction that caused the problem. “All of this, including Mister Barclay, is a holographic simulation generated by your codes, subroutines and memory circuits.” The Doctor is essentially a process running on Voyager’s computer, and there is a configuration problem. This is what a twenty-fourth century disc de-fragmentation probably looks like.

This raises all manner of interesting questions. It’s interesting to think about how the Doctor feels, as an entity without a body or without skin or without form. “I think I’m hungry,” he reflects at one point, with no frame of reference. “I’m not sure what for, but I’m definitely hungry.” When Barclay slaps him, he isn’t quite sure how to process the resulting pain. “I could be programmed to think it hurt.”

A deathbed Kes...

A deathbed Kes…

It’s interesting that Projections has the Doctor feeling something analogous to physical pain as his circuits break down. Barclay suggests that it’s his human body collapsing under the strain. Chakotay is not so convinced. “What you’re perceiving as pain is really the feedback loop eradicating your memory circuits.” In essence, the Doctor’s pain stems from the loss of his memory – the loss of his identity. No matter how strange or alien the computer programme might seem, it’s easy to empathise.

There are other nice touches to Projections. Interestingly, Brannon Braga seems to be playing with the idea of cult fandom; Star Trek fandom in particular. After all, the episode does feature a crossover guest star from The Next Generation and the audience is teased with the idea that the Doctor is really just a crazed Star Trek fan playing out his own version of the show in the holodeck – unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.

Physician, heal thyself...

Physician, heal thyself…

Braga plays with this idea in a number of ways. The narrative presented by Barclay is that Lewis Zimmerman went into the holodeck to play out a simulation about the EMH serving on a wandering starship, and that Zimmerman is so caught up in that narrative that he can no longer identify what is real and what is fake. At a number of points in Projections, Braga plays with the idea of storytelling – in particular suggesting that Barclay and the Doctor exercise the same control over their reality that fans do over their cult television shows.

After all, there are any number of familiar signs. Time is distilled. Apparently Lewis Zimmerman has been able to follow months of adventure in a matter of hours. “You haven’t been here six months,” Barclay assures him. “You’ve only been here six hours.” In other words, the Doctor has been binge-watching Voyager. Later on, discussing the events of Caretaker with Janeway, he is aware of the plot points because he has seen it all before.

Projected face palm...

Projected face palm…

“The array you discovered is controlled by an entity you will come to know as the Caretaker,” he tells her. “Or banjo man.” It’s worth noting that “banjo man” is a name that only appeared in the credits to Caretaker and was never mentioned on-screen. The Doctor’s knowledge of Star Trek minutiae extends beyond information featured in the show itself. Apparently Lewis Zimmerman is the type of fan who likes to read the credits.

When Janeway tries to have him arrested, the Doctor is able to diffuse the situation with his knowledge of continuity. “No, I don’t think so,” he states. “I’m not arguing. I’m simply pointing out that in several seconds the entire crew of Voyager will be transported to the array, where you will be tortured and probed for medical information. It will be quite painful, but not fatal.” Nobody knows his Voyager quite like Lewis Zimmerman.

That said, I would totally watch a Barclay/Doctor buddy cop show...

That said, I would totally watch a Barclay/Doctor buddy cop show…

Indeed, when Barclay wants to demonstrate that this is a fictional narrative, he does so by rewinding it and setting it back to the beginning. “We can’t shut down the programme but we can restart it.” Given that video tape was one of the more popular ways for fans to enjoy the show – allowing them to pause and rewind in order to exert greater control over the narrative and to allow them to take in all the necessary details – using rewind to demonstrate that this is just a story is a very clever twist.

This idea of the Doctor as a fan trapped trying to figure out his relationship to Voyager is arguably exemplified by the closing scenes. Barclay tries to convince the Doctor to seize control of the narrative – to destroy Voyager and thus assert that he is a real person. In contrast, the solution is for the Doctor to simply step back and do nothing – to accept his role as an observer of events, as a fan watching at home. “What, what is it you want me to do?” the Doctor asks Chakotay. Chakotay replies, “Don’t do anything.”

"And you were there, and you were there... and you were in First Contact with me."

“And you were there, and you were there… and you were in First Contact with me.”

Projections is a delightful and thoughtful little episode. Sitting as it does in the grey area between the first and second seasons, it can be counted among the very best episodes of either.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager:

Episodes produced during the first season, but carried over to the second:

4 Responses

  1. I love this episode! It helps because as you say the Doctor is such a wonderful character, brought to live by such a charming actor. Easily my favourite of the early ‘Voyager’ run!

  2. Another thing I like about Projections is the ending, where Chakotay, Tuvok and Harry appear on the Holodeck to reassure the Doctor that he’s back with them. I like it because it ties in with the Doctor saving the three of them during his last Holodeck adventure in Heroes and Demons; it’s like them returning the courtesy.

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