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Star Trek: Voyager – Lifesigns (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Lifesigns is a fascinating piece of television.

In hindsight, it seems a shame that the production team decided to focus on the Kazon during the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. The Kazon are perhaps the most unfortunate and misguided recurring alien species to appear across the entire Star Trek franchise, never quite afforded the redemption that turned the Klingons and Ferengi from two-dimensional caricatures into fully-formed and well-realised species. The Kazon were a misguided creation in Caretaker; they remained so in Basics, Part II. Shattered offers no redemption.

The face of the frenemy...

The face of the frenemy…

In contrast, the Vidiians are much more interesting. To be fair, it is possible that the Vidiians are so interesting precisely because they are underused; their appearances tend to be motivated by the demands of individual episodes rather than by some grand desire to create an iconic Star Trek species. At the same time, it is perhaps too much to suggest that the Vidiians are fully-formed or multi-faceted; the show never offers them the same opportunity for development afforded to species like the Kazon or the Borg or the Hirogen.

Despite all this, Lifesigns demonstrates the Vidiians can be used in an interesting and creative way. Even as the episode dedicates considerable space to demonstrating that Kazon are a much less interesting new species.

Starin' at the stars...

Starin’ at the stars…

The Vidiians are an alien species dedicated to body horror. It is no surprise that Brannon Braga was responsible for introducing the species in Phage; even the title of the episode makes it clear that they are an alien species defined primarily by the affliction that has turned them figuratively (and possibly literally) into monsters. In fact, Lifesigns is the first and only time that we get to see what a “basic” Vidiian might look like, the body unravaged by disease and undistorted by desperate attempts to keep the patient alive.

The Vidiians undoubtedly fit with the fifties b-movie aesthetic of the first few seasons of Voyager. There is something quite unsettling about a species composed primarily of disfigured hermits waiting to prey on unsuspecting travelers, harvesting their organs so as to extend their own life. Vidiian society is never explored or defined in the same way as the Klingon Empire or the Cardassian Union; Voyager couldn’t care less about the politics of these dangerous deformed predators.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

However, the Vidiians spreak to more than just classic fifties horror movies. They are not simply the latest iteration of atomic mutants or grotesque space invaders. They are very much a product of the body horror renaissance of the eighties. As Stacey Abbott contends in The Battlefield for the Soul, this was rooted in the AIDS crisis:

Philip Brophy argues that the contemporary horror film of the 1970s and 80s ‘play[ed] not so much on the broad fear of Death, but more precisely on the fear of one’s own body, of how one controls and relates to it.’ I would argue that, more precisely, these films captured the horror of the loss of control of one’s body, embodying a range of anxieties surrounding the impact of violence against the body at war, the risks of unleashed sexuality or fears of the diseased body culminating in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

The script for Phage even alludes to the idea. The name “Vidiians” sounds suspiciously close to “VD-ian”, suggesting a sexually-transmitted disease. More than that, the first two Vidiians encountered by the crew are a former artist and his loyal manservant, perhaps a nod towards stereotypical portrayals of the disease.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

The first season never really used the Vidiians as a stand-in for those affected by AIDS. Instead, they seemed to represent the fear of the disease itself; the horror of a body turning against itself, an unrecognisable face looking back in the mirror. Phage and Faces played very consciously like horror films, with creepy aliens in grey uniforms skulking around caves and vivisection labs, treating the bodies of our crew like spare parts. It was hardly a nuanced or progressive allegory. Then again, Voyager is very fond of fifties and sixties style sci-fi storytelling.

Lifesigns marks something of a departure from all of this. It is the first (and perhaps only) Vidiian episode that does not reduce the Delta Quadrant aliens to creepy organ harvesters. Not only is Denara Pel the first Vidiian who appears without the scarring and deformities that define the species, she is also the only Vidiian character in the entire Star Trek franchise to have both a first and a last name. She is the only Vidiian who really seems like a fully-formed person. The only other contender is Sulan, from Faces; he played as a version of the Phantom of the Opera.

Over her dead body!

Over her dead body!

As such, Lifesigns is important. It is the first time that the Vidiians are presented as more than just a walking disease; they are humanised, realised. The Doctor comes to fall in love with Denara. He never reacted in horror towards her, but the audience might have. Lifesigns gives us a sense of history and context for Vidiian culture, inviting the viewer to get to know one of the franchise’s most monstrous and predatory aliens in a way that makes it clear that the Vidiians are more than grotesque husks of flesh fashioned in something resembling a human form.

Denara even comes to see herself as a person, reacting with stunned surprise to seeing her own face in the surgical mirror. “I never… I never thought I’d see myself again,” she confesses to Denara. It is an understandable anxiety. If the Phage is a stand-in for AIDS, it is an infection that turns the body against itself. What could be a more literal representation of that than rendering a person incapable of identifying their own form? People living with AIDS in the real world, taking the treatment for it, can recognise how it changes them. Some don’t recognise themselves.

So you think you can dance...?

So you think you can dance…?

Lifesigns is fundamentally a story about the “othering” that happens around those living with HIV and AIDS, how people are frequently reduced to monsters and phantoms. Anybody who lived through the panic around AIDS transmission in the nineties will understand the heartbreak of Denara’s story about coming to terms with her disease at a young age. Misinformation about the transmission of HIV served to generate (and arguably still generates) a stigma around those diagnosed.

“Do you know what it’s like?” Denara asks the EMH at on point. “What it’s like to be a nine-year old child, and suddenly your best friend doesn’t want to come to your house anymore. And when you ask your mother why, why won’t Mala come and play with me anymore? And she tells you it’s because, it’s because the other children are afraid of you. Listen to me. Before I met you, I was just a disease.” The central point of Lifesigns is a need to see a patient as more than just a breathing affliction.

Heal thyself...

Heal thyself…

In The AIDS Epidemic, William A. Rushing argued that epidemics like AIDS tended to follow a defined social pattern and behaviour:

When an infectious disease affects only one individual or a few persons, the sociological significance of the fear of contagion is limited to its effects on those who are sick. If the disease is widespread and becomes an epidemic, the fear of contagion and its social effects are more widespread. Then, according to historical studies, a “traumatic shock on a societal level” may occur, accompanied by extreme collective actions: mass migration; desertation, persecution, punitive quarantines, and ostracism of the sick; riots; and accusations that certain groups cause the disease (scapegoating).

Those affected by HIV and AIDS might recognise those collective actions, with popular culture struggling to properly process the outbreak.

Love sick...

Love sick…

By 1996, there was a decline in the number of new cases of HIV/AIDs reported each year. Although it was still a matter of great public concern, the peak of the crisis had passed. At the same time, it was clear that popular culture had not yet figured out how to handle the outbreak. Shows like St. Elsewhere and Beverly Hills 90210 attempted to tell stories about characters living with the condition, but they were very much the exception rather than the rule.

In 1996, E.R. was the most popular show on television. The character of Jeanie Boulet first appeared in January 1995, during the show’s first season; she would become a regular at the start of the following season. At the end of the second season, it was revealed that Boulet had contracted HIV. Actress Gloria Reuben has argued that Boulet was “the first and only regular role on a network television show that was HIV positive.” Certainly, characters living with HIV/AIDS have not been well represented.

Looking at her body of work...

Looking at her body of work…

In March 1994, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for portraying a man infected by HIV in Philadelphia. In March 2014, Matthew McConnaughey won an Oscar for portraying a man infected by HIV in Dallas Buyer’s Club. However, it has been argued that those two performances – spaced twenty years apart – were two of the only times that Hollywood produced a high-profile film with a high-caliber leading actor dealing with the issue of HIV and AIDS. It is not the strongest track record.

So it is great to see Voyager touching on that idea. Of course, the representation in Lifesigns is less than ideal; the Star Trek franchise has a severe lack of openly homosexual characters, making any attempt to explore the cultural context of AIDS somewhat one-sided and narrow-focused. At the same time, Lifesigns avoids a lot of the awkward homophobia that informed the franchise’s later HIV allegory in Stigma. After all, Lifesigns is not too concerned with how Denara contracted the disease in the first place; only in how it relates to how she is seen.

Just a holo!gigalo...

Just a holo!gigalo…

Lifesigns makes a few references to the central allegory. Although the Phage is never confirmed to be transmitted sexually, Denara is awkward with physicality. In conversation with the EMH, Denara stresses the difficulties around intimacy for those infected; she talks about how the EMH transformed her into “a woman [he is] not afraid to touch.” When the holo!gigalo extends his hand to take her to dance, she visibly (and reflexively) recoils. “You’re making the lady nervous,” Neelix warns the holo!gigalo.

(As a side note, the holo!gigalo is a rather odd character. A similar character appeared in The Cloud, played by Luigi Amodeo. In Lifesigns, the holo!gigalo is played Rick Gianasi. The actors are quite distinct; they have different builds, different hairstyles, different facial hair. However, they have similar costumes and make-up. It is interesting to wonder if there is an entire species in the Star Trek universe that specialises in providing vaguely European accented gigalos to dodgy French bars. Forget the Kazon or the Vidiians, there’s an exciting new species.)

Feeling herself again...

Feeling herself again…

There is something quite tender and beautiful about Lifesigns, particularly in the closing scene. Having been afforded a chance to life in an unblemished holographic facade, Denara returns to her original body. The EMH waits for her in the bar, and the two share a quiet dance together. It is a sequence which underscores a lot of the charming tenderness of Lifesigns, demonstrating that the EMH always did see Denara as a person rather than a walking infection. It is a genuinely moving conclusion to the episode.

Appropriately enough, Lifesigns offers a few little hints about the basic workings of Vidiian society. After all, this is the first time that the villains have seemed like more than just monsters. Denara offers a glimpse of a culture that “spend so much time trying to save lives, they don’t know how to live anymore.” Of course, that is a very charitable description of what we have seen of Vidiian culture, but it makes sense. Lifesigns is populated with other little details about Vidiian life. “Congregating in groups is strictly regulated. It’s considered to be a threat to public health.”

The holomatrix demands a mate!

The holomatrix demands a mate!

Denara proves that not all Vidiians are amoral monsters, which is vitally important when dealing with a species designed as an allegory for infection and contamination. “Please understand this disease has been killing my people for hundreds of years,” she explains to Torres. “Trying to stop it has become an obsession, and many of our politicians and scientists have never developed compassion for the people who keep us alive.” Interestingly, Denara suggests more of a centralised Vidiian government than past episodes would imply.

Lifesigns is more than just the story of Denara Pel. It is an episode centring around the EMH. The EMH finds himself falling in love with Denara. As a character who is essentially a computer simulation, the EMH is utterly unready for the emotions that flow from that basic attraction. It is interesting how little the show has actually used the EMH to this point, especially when compared to the use of the character in later seasons. In the first two years of Voyager, it frequently seemed like the production team had no idea what to do with the EMH.

"Doctor, can't you give me something... to ease my pain... to ease my pain?"

“Doctor, can’t you give me something… to ease my pain… to ease my pain?”

With Lifesigns, it becomes clearer how the EMH is to work. Quite simply, he is to play the role of “outsider processing human emotion.” It is the niche that had been filled by Spock and Data, and Robert Picardo credits it to the eventual success of the character:

I had no idea that the doctor would become such an integral character. In fact when I took the role I told all of my friends that I just got a good job on the new Star Trek show and it will probably run seven years and would put my daughters through college…but I had the worst character on the show. When you accept a role that is described as “colourless, humourless, a computer programme of a doctor” you don’t necessarily have great expectations for how the character will develop. What I didn’t realize, because I wasn’t familiar with Star Trek at the time was that the artificial intelligence characters kind of replaced Spock as the outsider character who is not human but aspires to be human. In the same sense that Data became a breakout character on Star Trek TNG I think the Doctor captured the audience’s imagination and the writers responded by giving me (The Doctor) wonderful things to do.

Of course, this character direction is rather problematic. While the writers on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had figured out how to develop their own “outsider character” in a direction different to that of Spock and Data, it seemed like Voyager would just recycle Data’s arc. In the fourth season, it would double down on it.

The couple that performs complex neuro surgery together...

The couple that performs complex neuro surgery together…

As with Death Wish, the viewer can feel the pull of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There is a very comfortable and very familiar feeling to all this. This is not anything particularly new or exciting; instead, it is something that has been done before. In fact, it is worth noting that Lifesigns features the second consecutive appearance of Earth in a Voyager episode; it appeared out the window in Death Wish, and it appears in the holodeck here. It seems that “home” is never too far away.

This is a very traditional and conventional Star Trek arc, one rooted in the franchise’s optimistic humanism. The EMH is growing as a character, and that means embracing his humanity. He is perplexed by the possibility here, but he comes to accept it in later episodes. There is no real twist, no shrewd deconstruction. The EMH’s character arc is so conservative that he winds up creating a perfect heteronormative family for himself in Real Life. The EMH is a more caustic iteration of Data, arguably like Voyager is a more cost-effective iteration of The Next Generation.

"And look, unlike most Voyager guest stars, you'll get a second appearance!"

“And look, unlike most Voyager guest stars, you’ll get a second appearance!”

To be fair to Robert Picardo and the writers, the EMH never feels entirely like a carbon copy of Data. Most notably, the character is explicitly emotional in a way that Data never was. The tone and mood of Robert Picardo’s performance is entirely distinct from that of Brent Spiner. At the same time, Lifesigns does suggest that the two characters may enjoy journeys that overlap. Rather tellingly, the final season of Voyager would present an EMH-centric version of The Measure of a Man in Author, Author.

Lifesigns also continues the recurring Kazon arc running through the season. As with other episodes in the sequence, it feels like the production team are focusing too heavily on plot-driven continuity rather than character-centric drama. There is a sense that the events in the arc happen because the team wants to write Investigations, rather than because they are good ideas on their own terms. Even after all this time, Lifesigns does nothing to flesh out the motivations of Michael Jonas and Tom Paris.

"Note to self: need to install better lighting in my quarters."

“Note to self: need to install better lighting in my quarters.”

Instead of explaining why Jonas is helping Seska, the episode instead drops lots of cryptic hints about what is coming. “I have no intention of raising my child on a Kazon ship,” Seska advises Jonas. “One way or another, I’m going to take Voyager. You can either help me, or you can suffer along with Janeway and the others.” This is the first time that the season has consciously nodded towards the cliffhanger events of Basics, Part I. It is a nice piece of plot set-up, even if it does feel a little bit like the show is contorting to get through all these hoops.

Still, at least the Paris subplot in Lifesigns serves a purpose. It advances the arc noticeably, rather than eating up airtime for the sake of eating up airtime. Scripts like Meld and Dreadnought simply had Paris acting suddenly out of character with no real reason; the character beats in Dreadnought made a bit of sense, but the scenes in Meld rather undercut the claustrophobic tension of the parent episode. Lifesigns ends with Tom Paris assigned to the brig, what really should be a pretty big deal; he is a main character, and he doesn’t get out at the end of the episode.

Paris' insubordination really floors Chakotay...

Paris’ insubordination really floors Chakotay…

The problem, to be fair, is in the structuring of the episode. The scenes with Paris and Chakotay generally exist quite removed from the primary plot of the episode. As Kenneth Biller complained to Cinefantastique:

We sort of closed that off in twelve beats and then the action story that is continuing comes off a little baffling. You’re watching this show about the doctor and this woman and then suddenly after the third commercial you come back and there are two long scenes of Paris and Chakotay going at it in the mess hall. Suddenly you’re cutting to this guy sending a message to the Kazon. You almost feel as if the engineers have put on another episode.

It really is quite jarring when watched as part of the episode itself. The link between the plots in the teaser feels particularly clumsy. Both threads diverge and never quite intersect or overlap again, even thematically.

"This is almost over, right?"

“This is almost over, right?”

More than that, the positioning of these scenes is a little awkward. Tom Paris is sent to the brig in what should be the episode’s climactic scene – at least for that arc. However, the show then cuts to Michael Jonas talking with Seska about something that might or might not be happening soon. Even on a basic plotting level, it is clumsy structuring. There is meant to be some mystery around Paris’ behaviour, but making a point to connect it to the only other long-running plot element makes it clear that there is a strong link between the two.

More than that, the story continues around it as if nothing happened. After Paris is escorted to the brig, the plot with the EMH and Denara picks up as if nothing has happened. The audience gets the entirety of the climax of Denara’s plot, from her attempts to murder her own body to her final scene dancing with the EMH in the holodeck. By the time the closing credits arrive, it seems like the show has forgotten about the situation with Paris. (It may have been more effective to put a short scene of Paris in the brig as the penultimate scene, integrating the plot better.)

The bare bones of an arc...

The bare bones of an arc…

Still, this isn’t too severe a problem; it does not diminish Lifesigns too severely. Lifesigns continues a late-season rally for the second season of Voyager. There are some larger questionable trends around the episode, particularly in its handling of the EMH and the difficulty with the Paris arc, but it is still more interesting than anything in the first stretch of the season.

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

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

15 Responses

  1. Robert Picardo is capable of elevating almost any script, though perhaps not Virtuoso, so it is always nice when he actually gets a good episode. This episode always strikes me how to do an emotional episode right. The emotions are not shoved in your face like the later Doctor episode, Real Life.
    I am not crazy about the cheesy date in a truck though. It would have been more interesting if they had actually gone to a recreation of the Vidiian home world at its peak.

    • “I am not crazy about the cheesy date in a truck though.”

      It’s very Data, isn’t it? Just like his Brady Bunch family in “Real Life.”

      The review brings up a good point, though. The Doctor is written as a robot. But Picardo is obviously gunning for something more human. In essence, the script gets a final rewrite from the actor. He comes across as very unsure because he’s not human. Not as a robot discovering love.

      You don’t think of Robert Picardo as “romantic lead” but he’s very romantic in the role. Moriarty was a sweeping, romantic character and he was a hologram, too.

      Also, laugh at the irony of state-of-the-art robots expressing their affection in archaic ways.

      • Picardo is great. I’d honestly put Picardo as the best actor for the show’s first three seasons. I’m not sure whether he or Ryan can claim credit for the final four. (Picardo is probably better, but does get better material and doesn’t come with as much baggage. Then again, if Picardo can seel “Emergency Command Hologram”, he can do just about anything.)

      • A 57 Chevy is a car, not a truck William. Imagine trying to have a date in a truck!

    • Yep, I feel like the Vidiians were sadly under-explored as an alien menace/threat. Although it’s hard to imagine how much more could have been layered on them, I would have liked a little more world-building. As you suggested, the holodeck would have been a nice way to that.

  2. I really liked this episode (I watched it for the 1st time a few weeks ago), though it certainly does feel undercut by the “Real Life” episode soon after. It would have been nice to have had the Doctor make his holographic family Vidiian or a comment from the Doc about how his past experiences made him want a family. But no, just one of those episodic story-telling moments.

    • Ah, yes. But this is Voyager we’re talking about. It’s a minor miracle that Pel reappears in Resolutions. Asking the writers to remember her the following season would be too much, I fear.

  3. Lifesigns is not the first VGR episode to introduce the Doctor to romance. There was also Freya in Heroes and Demons, but this is where the Doctor really experiences love for the first time. In fact, Robert Picardo was told later in the fourth season that he and Denara had sex during Lifesigns, something that considerably surprised him (and that would explain the “addition” he made to his program that he tells EMH MK2 about in Message in a Bottle).

    It’s curious that Denara tries to kill herself, and then the week before we had Q assisting Quinn’s suicide. And on DS9, Worf tried to kill his brother Kurn in Sons of Mogh. Are we seeing a theme here?

    Although I liked Lifesigns (except for the Paris and Chakotay scenes which are odd and ill-fitting), it never comes up that Denara may not feel the same way about the Doctor once she goes through with the transfer and becomes flesh and blood again. It would have provided an interesting mirror to what she was telling the Doctor, how he’ll never feel the same way about her after the transfer.

    I really like Kes’s line “Romance is not a malfunction”. But I wonder if they got that from Short Circuit. When Ally Sheedy is trying to convince Steve Guttenberg that No 5 is alive, she tells him “life is not a malfunction”. I’m surprised there’s no picture of the Doctor and Denara dancing at the end; I even have the perfect caption, The Dancing Doctor(s). If Spock, Data and the EMH are outsiders processing human emotions, then Odo is surely the outsider processing humanoid emotions. And you wrote Denara confesses to Denara and not the Doctor, Darren.

    • That’s an interesting recurring motif on the suicides. I had completely missed that, but you’re right. I seems the franchise had quite a morbid fascination for a while.

      • As well as Hard Time when O’Brien nearly ended it all rather then live with what he had been through.

      • It’s an early example of DS9 and Voyager sharing similar plotlines but doing completely different things with them.

  4. “could care less” s/b “couldn’t care less”

  5. Something interesting about this episode is how the Paris insubordination plot is so bad it even clashes with the episode’s other scenes involving Tom Paris! Good episode otherwise tho

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