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Star Trek: Voyager – Real Life (Review)

Real Life is in some ways a departure for Star Trek: Voyager.

That much is obvious from the teaser, which introduces three new characters on a new set. More than that, the three characters comprise a nuclear family and the set is built to resemble the stereotypical American family home. It is a very strange image, even before the characters begin talking like they escaped from The Brady Bunch. In what might be the best teaser of the entire third season, it is revealed that the EMH has fashioned himself a holographic family and is “commuting” to work in sickbay from the holodeck.

Projections.

Projections.

It is certainly an interesting idea, one that consciously brushes up against the kinds of limitations and expectations that Voyager has faced. It feels experimental, quite removed from the broader third season attempts to position Voyager as the most generic of the Star Trek spin-offs. This does not look or feel like any other episode in the franchise’s history. Indeed, with its focus on family dynamics and conflict, it feels like an extension of Ronald D. Moore’s work on episodes like Family and Doctor Bashir, I Presume.

This makes the episode’s failure to follow through on any of that potential even more disappointing. The third season of Voyager has dramatically scaled down its ambition following the spectacular misfires of the second season. The show is no longer attempting to create long-form stories or introduce iconic new recurring alien species, instead setting more modest goals for itself. There is something disheartening in seeing Voyager set more modest challenges for itself in episodes like Macrocosm or Fair Trade, only to spectacularly bungle the handling of those challenges.

Family matters.

Family matters.

Real Life is another example of the trend. The premise is interesting, and the episode hits on any number of intriguing ideas. There is a great story to be told using this premise, exploring core themes about the human condition in a way that is quite different from the normal storytelling on Voyager. However, the episode flirts with the premise and then balks at it. Real Life is terrified of the implications of its story, padding out the plot with an unnecessary techno-babble-laden diversion and casually discarding the holographic family at the end of the script.

Real Life is an underwhelming story, rendered all the more disappointing for the promise that it squanders.

Photon father.

Photon father.

The episode began as an outside pitch from Harry Kloor. As Joseph D. Di Lella explains, Kloor’s pitch developed from a failed application for an internship on the show:

And Dr. H. Kloor? As a fellow academic egghead, Harry earned a double doctorate at Purdue University in theoretical chemistry and physics (according to the New York Times, the first American ever to accomplish this feat at the same time). Did that help him in Hollywood, or as people say, La La land? Nope. He couldn’t break the door down for a simple WGA internship with Trek. Still, Jeri Taylor responded kindly in a letter to Harry. She said, though he was the most qualified person ever to apply for the position, he didn’t meet basic WGA requirements (over forty years old, of ethnic descent and female). Instead, Jeri offered him a pitch session. Harry drove to Paramount Studios, shook her hand as he entered her office in the old Hart Building, pitched an idea and sold his first story.

Kloor would become a regular contributor to the franchise, pitching the stories for The Raven, Scientific Method and Drone. He also worked on Earth: Final Conflict, Godzilla: The Series and on the feature film Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey.

Getting with the programme...

Getting with the programme…

The premise of the episode is intriguing on a conceptual level. Voyager has repeatedly used the EMH to play with big existential questions. In some ways, the EMH is a vehicle for the same sorts of explorations of the human condition that drove characters like Spock or Data. However, there is an additional edge to the character in that his holographic existence invites questions about what is “real” and what is not, as Brannon Braga explored in Projections. In some ways, it fits comfortably within the spiritual and existential crises of the late nineties.

Real Life brushes up against this idea. After all, the title contains the word “real” and the plot focuses on the holographic family that the EMH has created. A mass of photons and algorithms, these holographic characters are very literally not “real.” However, as the episode repeatedly points out, they are also tailor-made for the EMH in a way that does not reflect reality. They are a figment of his imagination brought to life, reflections of his own ego more than living entities with their own personalities and agencies.

Well, to be fair, Torres is probably not the best crewmember to be offering family advice.

Well, to be fair, Torres is probably not the best crewmember to be offering family advice.

“They are ridiculously perfect,” Torres insists. “No one has a family like this. This is a fantasy. You’re not going to learn anything being with these lollipops.” There is a sense that the family exist as shadow puppets brought to life from the EMH’s own self-image. As he explains, they are designed in service of his own ends and needs. He explains, “I provided the computer with my requirements for a mate and children. If I were to choose a real wife, my tastes would be the same.” Even the purpose of the program is to enrich his own life, to make him a better practitioner.

This hits upon an interesting facet of the holodeck as an immersive entertainment technology. The holodeck has always been one of the more intriguing concepts of Star Trek, even if it was never explored to its full potential. The holodeck is a very versatile storytelling tool, that can be used to explore concepts like self-awareness as in episodes like The Big Goodbye or Elementary, Dear Data. It can also also be used to play with narrative as in Our Man Bashir. Perhaps most frequently, it is used as an excuse for cast and crew to play dress-up and pretend.

Chewing it over.

Chewing it over.

It can also touch upon the projection of one’s sense of self, as demonstrated in episodes like Projections or Hollow Pursuits. The holodeck is in many ways a giant mirror, populated with little more than what the programmer brings in with them. This is an idea that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy played with in Westworld, a television show that in many ways could be seen as the “ultimate” holodeck story in the same way that The Prestige might be seen as the “ultimate” transporter story.

Real Life hits upon this idea in its first few acts, as the audience is introduced to the family that “Kenneth” has assembled for himself. In the early part of the episode, they seem like they might have arrived from fifties or sixties television, cast-offs from Leave it to Beaver or I Love Lucy. There is something interesting in this, in the idea that the EMH has fashioned himself an idealistic family with himself as unquestioned patriarch. However, over the course of the episode, that is gradually deconstructed.

Sample size.

Sample size.

The cast and crew tend to talk about Real Life as an exercise in genre, a deconstruction of that aspirational paradigm of fifties familial bliss. As Robert Picardo told Star Trek Monthly:

The show begins very much like a Fifties’ situation comedy, with this perfect, unbelievable wife and two children, who are clearly projections of The Doctor’s own ego – they’re mindless sycophants who worship everything he does. Then the show sort of progresses into a Nineties’ sitcom where all the kids and mom are very disrespectful of Dad. Then finally the episode takes quite a dramatic turn.

There is a very clever kernel in this idea, in the examination and deconstruction of the idea that family units exist purely as accessories to the successful patriarch. Real Life is touching on some very bold ground, particularly in the context of the nineties in which it was originally broadcast.

A dagger through his heart.

A dagger through his heart.

The family unit underwent a great deal of change during the last few decades of the twentieth century. Divorce rates spiked substantially from the sixties onwards, although they did begin to decline in the nineties. Similarly, the amount children living with two parents in their first marriage also declined over that period, with an increase in those living in remarried families and single parents. It became increasingly common for both parents in a family to work, and the number of homes without a single stay-at-home parent decreased dramatically.

These were only the changes taking place within the traditional family unit. More and more, it seemed like people (especially young people) seemed to be eschewing marriage altogether in favour of cohabitation. Gay marriage was a thorny political issue during the decade, with Barack Obama publicly supporting it as early as 1996 while Hillary Clinton changed position on the issue several times over her public life. There was a sense that the family unit was no longer what popular culture had long claimed it to be.

Take my wife, please!

Take my wife, please!

In this context, it should be noted that the sitcom has long been a very conservative genre, one where these archetypes are more likely to be reinforced than subverted. As Manuel Betancourt contends, looking at a study of the genre as recently as 2015:

The data backs up what a glancing impression would indicate: The family sitcom is a genre that almost exclusively represents a model suburban two-parent household with 2.5 kids.

The genre’s commitment to happily married households may come off as outmoded nostalgia, but comparing statistics from these 50 contemporary family sitcoms with recent census data shows that there may yet be more insidious representational blind spots in a genre that emerged in the Eisenhower era, just as “suburbia” was beginning to be central to the American image. From glaring racial disparities to an almost exclusive focus on two-parent households, the contemporary family sitcom seems beholden to the “family values” that so defined the Reagan administration — the last time the genre was at the forefront of American culture.

Real Life seems to be doing something very clever, playing with one of the most traditional and conventional storytelling forms in American popular culture to explore one of the fundamental building blocks of contemporary society.

Nailed it!

Nailed it!

Real Life seems to brush casually against these issues, with Torres making a number of changes to the program in order to shift the dynamics and perspective so that the nuclear family at the centre of the episode is no longer simply a reflection (or projection) of the patriarch’s self-image. Instead, Torres adjusts the parameters so that Charlene’s career comes into conflict with her husband’s and so that his children make their own decisions rather than living according to the lives that he has mapped out for them.

However, Real Life promptly brushes up against the strange conservatism that informs a lot of the third season of Voyager. For all that Star Trek is considered to be liberal and progressive, there is a very strong reactionary streak to the third season of Voyager as a whole. Then again, perhaps this reflects the mood of the time. As much as the traditional family unit changed in the final decades of the twentieth century, it seemed to stabilise in the nineties. Divorce rates dropped, and campaigns against gay marriage claimed to be fighting to “save marriage.”

The start of a torrid Torres love affair.

The start of a torrid Torres love affair.

In some ways, this could be seen in the context of a broader conservatism that crept into politics during the decade. Consider Tony Blair’s conscious reconfiguring of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom during the second half of the decade, pushing it to the right towards the centre. In the United States, the religious right would undergo a major resurgence during the nineties. This was the decade when the President of the United States was effectively impeached for having an extra-marital affair.

In some ways, the peculiar colourful conservatism (perhaps even “compassionate conservatism”) of Voyager is very much in step with the times. Voyager is a very old-fashioned show in terms of narrative and construction, eschewing the long-form storytelling and arcs that were creeping into popularity during the late nineties. However, it is undeniably of its moment in terms of outlook and philosophy. The show’s strangely resurgent conservatism feels very much of a piece with that.

Meeting standards.

Meeting standards.

It feels like a betrayal of the premise of Real Life, an episode that promises the deconstruction of a patriarchal view of the traditional family unit only to reinforce it. Then again, Voyager‘s third season repeatedly sabotages its own stories with a knee-jerk reactionary streak. Blood Fever and Darkling are supposed to be episodes about how sexual repression is inherently dangerous, however the show’s reluctance to depict anything even resembling “healthy” sexuality by way of contrast makes it seem like the show is arguing the sex is dangerous.

In Real Life, it initially appears like the EMH might have to learn to compromise with his family. When he insists that the family has to make “sacrifices” to function properly, Jeffrey rather acutely responds, “What sacrifices did you make?” It looks like the EMH might eventually have to accept that his family have their own agency, that Jeffrey might have some friends that are not up to the EMH’s lofty standards and that Belle might take part in some sports that the EMH considers unbecoming. There is a clear arc and growth there. However, Real Life pointedly rejects it.

Ringing a Belle.

Ringing a Belle.

The EMH objects to Jeffrey making friends with some Klingons, which really should have been enough to cause the writing staff to question where this story was going. “They’re a bad influence on you,” the EMH explains. “They’re prone to violence, they keep you out till all hours. Why don’t you find some nice Vulcan friends?” This is a ridiculous statement, a father essentially racially profiling his son’s friends. It recalls the controversy over Katie Hopkins screening her children’s “undesirable” friends based on their name and class.

The rest of the family immediately respond to the EMH’s presumptions. “You can’t just decide who my friends will be,” Jeffrey replies, quite reasonably. Charlene agrees with him, “Kenneth, that may be a bit unreasonable.” This then leads to a side discussion in which the EMH insists that it is his wife’s job to agree with him unequivocally, even when he makes decisions without consulting (or even informing) her. Jeffrey and Charlene storm away. The EMH considers his position. The character arc seems clear; the EMH learns to compromise.

Hitting a (ho)lo point.

Hitting a (ho)lo point.

Except that is not the character arc that Real Life chooses to follow. Instead, the episode dedicates the arc to proving that the EMH is entirely correct about the Klingons. Shortly afterwards, the EMH catches his son with a ritual dagger. “This dagger is used in a ritual of violence,” he protests. “A first blood-letting in preparation for becoming a warrior.” This is rather overtly a reference to the “gang initiation” panics that were popular in the nineties, fearmongering stories about killing people who flash their lights or hiding in back seats or knocking on doors.

Again, this is very much an example of rooted Voyager was in the nineties. Gang violence was very much a part of the show dating back to Caretaker. The Kazon had originally been conceived as a commentary on the Los Angeles gangs, a questionable decision of itself that led to a spectacularly ill-judged execution. To be fair, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dipped its toe into the water on this thorny issue with the Jem’Hadar in The Abandoned; however, it quickly thought better of that deeply problematic portrayal and quickly reworked the Jem’Hadar as samurai.

#NotAllKlingons

#NotAllKlingons

It goes without saying that this portrayal of young Klingons as violent gang members is deeply problematic. After all, the Klingons have been racially coded dating back to Errand of Mercy. Originally, they were a metaphor for Asians, but that changed with their make-up. As Harvey Cormier argues in Race Through the Alpha Quadrant:

So the Klingons as a race seem to have dull wits and bad social habits. Match these with their dark skin and with Worf’s “this is who we are” rhetoric, so reminiscent of the raised-black-consciousness, anti-melting-pot sentiments one heard in black America in the early 1990s, and the result is a little chilling. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an anti-assimilation allegory per se, and there’s certainly not much to be said for the ideal of a world with only tea-sipping, Shakespeare-citing Picard-types in it. But when what makes “us” “who we are” is such behaviour as joyfully catching the scent of prey and closing in for the kill, the real-life objects of the allegory have reason not to feel flattered. And then there is something that deepens the insult; it is the suggestion that the Klingons and the Picard-types differ not only culturally but biologically. Maybe even an earthling could have sniffed out that boar in the brush, but human beings tend not to hunt by smell. The hints are pretty strong here that the heritage that the young Klingons are being denied in this outdated peace-and-love commune is the heritage that  fits their biological nature, a nature more animal than that of either the Romulans or the people of Earth. And some of those hints are confirmed on the startrek.com web site: In the “Library” section, under the heading “Aliens,” we learn of the Klingons that “The well-statured warrior race has a genetic predisposition to hostility and a well-known streak of fatalism.”  If this is an allegory of blackness and brownness on earth, it’s not a very appealing one.

The attitude towards Klingons in Real Life feels incredibly uncomfortable, like unexamined racism. The EMH seems to be advocating that his son should stay away from “those kinds of people.” When Benjamin Sisko made a similar argument about Jake and Nog in The Nagus, the show at least had the decency to call him out on it.

It can be a Lorg to handle...

It can be a Lorg to handle…

Instead, Jeffrey is presented a child at risk of being seduced by a foreign culture. He listens to Klingon music, he has Klingon friends. In some ways, this reflects middle-class nineties white anxieties about things as innocuous as white kids listening to rap music. Dan Quayle famously tried to turn rap music into a campaign issue in 1992:

Having fired a few values volleys at Murphy Brown — and taken a few hits in return — he now is targeting a rap performer, Tupac Amaru Shakur, and his record company, Interscope Records of Los Angeles.

The rapper’s latest album, “2pacalypse Now,” includes some angry lyrics about killing police officers, and the Vice President says the album’s production and distribution constitute “an irresponsible corporate act.” He says the album should be pulled from stores.

Underscoring his concern, Mr. Quayle met yesterday in Houston with the daughter of a state trooper who was fatally shot by a man who said he had been listening to “2pacalypse Now” and its lyrics about “droppin’ the cop.”

It should be noted that Quayle also took the time during that campaign season to single out Murphy Brown for offering a glamourised portrayal of a non-traditional family unit. And George H.W. Bush famously argued that America should be more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons. They’d both love Real Life.

"They're just not the right kind of friends."

“They’re just not the right kind of friends.”

As a result, Real Life seems to suggest that aliens are infiltrating and subverting white suburban families. The EMH worries that they are trying to turn his son into a thug. “They didn’t talk me into anything,” Jeffrey insists. “I asked them. It’s an honour to get to perform the kut’luch. They don’t just let anybody do it. They trusted me, and now you’ve made me look like a… like a human.” The EMh responds, “You were going to attack someone, draw blood, just so you could appear daring in the eyes of your friends?” Jeffrey offers, “I was doing it to become honourable.”

Real Life also very firmly rejects any notion of cultural relativism. During their argument, Jeffrey tells his father, “It isn’t wrong, it’s just the custom of another culture! Who are you to say there’s something wrong about it?” To be fair, given that it’s ritualised mugging, the deck is stacked against Jeffrey in this discussion. However, the EMH’s insistence that Jeffrey dump his Klingon friends seems very much against the ethos of a franchise built on the idea of exploring strange new worlds and new cultures.

Worf speed ahead.

Worf speed ahead.

(The ritual itself seems rather problematic. Klingon warrior culture has always posed something of a challenge for Star Trek, which never seems entirely sure whether to glorify it or condemn it. Still, turning “brutal stabby mugging of a random stranger” into a Klingon blood ritual seems a very racially charged decision. It is very difficult to imagine even Worf wanting to partake of that piece of Klingon culture, even given the extremes of his behaviour in episodes like Sons of Mogh or Let He Who Is Without Sin…)

So the EMH is very much validated in his insistence that his son should not associate with certain kinds of people, people who are different than him or who belong to a different culture. In fact, the climax of the episode seems to suggest that Jeffrey has renounced his new friends and accepted that his father knows (and perhaps always knew) best. The patriarchal power structure is restored and validated. What might have been an interesting exploration of nuance and compromise becomes clumsy reactionary validation.

Doubting daughter.

Doubting daughter.

The same is true of the EMH’s concerns about his daughter’s physical activities. Early in the episode, Belle takes up parrises squares, a sport that has been a recurring feature of the Star Trek universe dating back to 11001001. However, the EMH is deeply uncomfortable with his daughter taking part. “Belle, you’ve been playing with children two and three years older than you,” he states. “That’s much too dangerous.” He insists, “You’re not old enough to realise how hazardous that game can be. It’s up to me to keep you safe. I’m just trying to be a good father.”

To be fair, this is a sentiment with which many audience members might be familiar. Being a parent is tough. The temptation is to wrap children up in bubble wrap, to want to keep them safe from the world for as long as possible. However, children will inevitably want to do something that carries a little risk. Horse riding is risky. Skiing is risky. Mountaineering is risky. Playing soccer with Worf is risky. In some incredibly tiny number of cases, tragedies happen. They are rare, but they are also unavoidable. However, in the vast majority of cases, children are fine.

Squaring the circle.

Squaring the circle.

Again, Real Life is not interested in exploring that aspect of parenting. Instead, the plot bends and contorts to ensure that father is always right. Of course Belle gets hurt playing the sport that her father warned her was dangerous. Of course Belle ends up dying as a result of her refusal to listen to his concerns. Of course the family reunites around her deathbed, safe in the knowledge that the EMH really does know what is best for his nuclear family. It all seems very crass, even before discussing the cheap drama of killing an adorable child character for emotional leverage.

Real Life underscores one of the most understated and interesting aspects of the EMH’s character arc as whole. The character’s journey towards an individual identity is very clearly structured as a journey through conventional masculinity. More than characters like Data or Spock, the EMH has pursued personhood through explicitly heterosexual dynamics and relationships. In the early seasons of Voyager, his big moments included a flirtation with Freya in Heroes and Demons and his romance with Danara Pel in Lifesigns.

Things come to a head.

Things come to a head.

As David Greven reflects in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, the EMH’s journey towards humanity is frequently coded as a journey towards a traditional heterosexual identity:

Moreover, we watch the Doctor experience events that human beings in our own culture take for granted, see as routine. These quotidian events become occasions for astonishing new sensations for the Doctor. He falls in love, has a family, becomes a father figure in an alternative reality, confronts his own “father” in a very delayed Oedipal face-off in Life Line. Voyager deroutinises the normative – always already a heterosexist and heterosexualising trajectory for the social individual – by presenting each new development in the Doctor’s life as momentous, staggering, alien.

In a way, this is reflected in Real Life, an episode which suggests that the next step on the character’s journey after infatuation and romance is marriage with two children. Greven argues that the EMH is ultimately a subversion of these beats, but Real Life feels very much like a normative story.

"Data never had to put up with this."

“Data never had to put up with this.”

It should be noted that Data and Spock largely subverted these expectations, frequently engaging in romantic relationships that they decided were not for them. Spock engages in a romance while out of sorts in This Side of Paradise, but walks away when his more rational side reasserts itself. He rejects his mate at the end of Amok Time. Data engages in sex with Yar in The Naked Now, but the event is clearly a once-off. He also attempts a relationship in In Theory, but the episode eventually argues that Data is not well-suited to such interactions.

In contrast, Voyager seems to suggest that the EMH should want such connections and that they are the only natural and organic part of his development. Due to the episodic nature of Voyager, these stories all come to an end at the close of a given episode. However, that ending is usually not based on the EMH deciding that the situation is not for him. Freya dies in Heroes and Demons. Danara has to leave in Lifesigns. Seven of Nine does not return his affection in Someone to Watch Over Me. There is never a moment that the EMH decides this is not for him.

Holding on for a moment.

Holding on for a moment.

Real Life is perhaps the most grating of these examples, given the strange tug of war between the show’s commitment to the EMH’s normative masculine heterosexual impulses and the demands of the series’ rigid episodic format. Real Life demands that the EMH embrace and accept the role of being a stern patriarch who must suffer the fact that nobody listens to his (obviously correct) insights. Voyager demands that the family never appear again. So the EMH cannot delete his family, nor can he ever see them again.

So Real Life takes the laziest possible option, which is a recurring theme with Voyager. The episode builds a whole big drama about how the EMH simply cannot walk away from the trauma inflicted on his family, that he cannot delete the program and get on with his life. “If you turn your back on this program, you’ll always be stuck at this point,” Paris urges. “You’ll never have the chance to say goodbye to your daughter, or to be there for your wife and son when they need you.” And so the EMH returns to the program to be with his family as his daughter dies.

We'll always have Paris.

We’ll always have Paris.

However, the show never mentions the family again. They are jettisoned between episodes. There is no indication that the EMH ever visits them again. He might even have deleted them to make room for other projects, such as his photography obsession in Latent Image or perhaps related to his daydreaming in Tinker, Tailor, Doctor, Spy. As such, this feels like a massive betrayal of the big moving speech that Paris made and the entire climax of the episode. Apparently the EMH only has to stand by his family until the credits roll on this individual episode.

Again, this is a recurring weakness of Voyager, particularly in its third season as it moves away from the painful experiments with serialisation that caused so much trouble in the show’s second year. Repercussions and consequences take place off-screen, or not at all. Remember how Neelix was punished for being an accomplice to murder in Fair Trade, though he was back in the holodeck at the start of Alter Ego? Remember how the EMH lost his memories and experiences in The Swarm? Remember how Vorik was punished for assaulting Torres in Blood Fever?

On Voyager, this is what counts as foreshadowing.

On Voyager, this is what counts as foreshadowing.

Real Life is a cynical piece of television, right down to killing a small child in an attempt to forge an emotional connection with the audience. It is an incredibly manipulative storytelling choice, particularly one that hinges upon a character whose defining trait is “adorable child.” The audience knows even less about Bella than it does about Jeffrey or Charlene. Her defining traits are that she plays parrises squares, which explains how she ends up injured, and being the only member of the family to support the EMH, which makes her accident extra tragic.

The episode is never subtle. While the premise might recall Ronald D. Moore’s scripts for Family or Doctor Bashir, I Presume, the characters never feel real and the dialogue never feels organic. Consider the sequence between the EMH and Paris after Belle’s accident, in which the EMH is working through what has happened to his daughter and taking it out on Paris. In theory, this is not a bad idea. After all, the entire reason that the EMH created the family is because he thinks that it will affect how he interacts with patients. Unfortunately, the execution is terrible.

A hole host of trouble.

A hole host of trouble.

Treating Paris after his latest death-defying stunt, the EMH laments, “It’s a wonder you’re not dead. People like you who court danger should be thrown into the brig.” He is obviously lashing out about the risks his daughter took, transferring that frustration to Paris. “You never think of the consequences of your actions, the effect they might have on others. Oh, no, live for the moment, take risks you shouldn’t…” The dialogue is painfully on the nose. There is no build to it, no nuance, no depth. It is just the script bluntly stating what it is doing in the clumsiest manner possible.

Then again, that clumsiness runs through the script. Real Life is a script hobbled by the structural weaknesses of Voyager, from the episodic format to the poor writing to the angry reactionary streak to the stubborn refusal to try anything ambitious. Even though Real Life awkwardly neuters the most provocative elements of its (admittedly unconventional) primary plot, it still feels the need to indulge in a completely limp and half-hearted science-fiction high-concept subplot about “an astral eddy that seems to have formed at the confluence of space and subspace.”

Steady eddy.

Steady eddy.

It is all nonsense, clearly existing to both fill up the space around the main plot focusing on the EMH and to provide an obligatory science-fiction high concept. The only problem is that it is incredibly dull, featuring nothing but the regulars spouting techno-babble at one another on standing sets. Indeed, the plot is so clearly bottled that the characters mentioned in Janeway’s opening log (“the Vostigye”) all die off-screen with nobody batting an eye. There is no suggestion that Janeway bothered to let the species know their outpost (and everyone on it) is lost.

The eddy subplot is awash with meaningless techno-babble. “There’s a strange pattern that seems to be emanating from subspace,” Harry states. “Looks like some kind of plasma particles.” Chakotay chimes in, “I’ve got it too. It’s like a… wake, leading away from the debris field.” The sad part is that the pause as Chakotay searches for the word “weight” might just be the meatiest thing Robert Beltran gets to do between Unity and Scorpion, Part I. There is a stiff and lifeless quality to these scenes exploring “the particle wake” and the anomaly “charged with plasma.”

Spaced out.

Spaced out.

To be fair, Real Life struggles to find a reason for the audience to care about any of that. At first, it tries to argue that the phenomenon is just straight-up aesthetically beautiful and scientifically fascinating. “I’m not afraid to say it,” Chakotay admits. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” However, the object is neither conceptually nor visually interesting. Unlike the Bajoran Wormhole or the Crystalline Entity, it lacks a compelling visual identity. More than that, it’s introduced killing an entire station. It is dangerous. Yet the crew poke at it like children.

When this approach fails, the script adopts another approach. “If we could harness some of that energy, we could go off replicator rations for a while,” Chakotay explains. This explains why the crew is so motivated to investigate the anomaly, even if it undercuts the whole “it’s so mysterious” schtick. However, it also feels lazy. At least in The Cloud, the crew were concerned about the damage they caused in their deep-space prospecting. It seems like such a crass and opportunistic justification for their fixation.

Window of opportunity.

Window of opportunity.

There is also the simple fact that Voyager has never been a show particularly concerned about “rations” or starvation. When the crew happens to need a vital mineral or particle, it is always relevant to the plot at hand and there is never a sense that the cast have had to go without for an extended period of time. More than that, there is a strange dissonance in talking about rationing in an episode where the primary plot is set on the holodeck. Parallax might have strained to justify keeping the holodeck power its own thing, but it is still very much a luxury environment on the ship.

As such, Real Life has to awkwardly try to demonstrate to the audience that rationing is totally an issue on the series despite the fact that the ship looks brand new and that nobody seems to want for anything. This set-up is ridiculously transparent, as clumsy as the scene in which the EMH lets his feelings about Belle inform his treatment Paris. Paris visits Neelix, asking what’s for lunch again. “Isn’t this the fourth day in a row we’ve had the same casserole?” Paris asks. “You’re perfectly free to use the replicators,” Neelix reflects.

“I’m out of rations,” Paris replies. This scene essentially provides the stakes for the techno-babble-driven anomaly-of-the-week plot. The subplot of Real Life involves Paris risking his life by throwing himself head-first into a destructive interstellar phenomenon because he does not want to eat the casserole that Neelix has provided while the EMH is using the ship’s hyper-advanced holographic technology to play family around the clock. This is everything wrong with how Voyager approaches its core premise, a reminder of how the show squandered its potential.

Real Life is yet another potentially fascinating premise hobbled by the conservatism (both in storytelling and political terms) of Voyager as a television show. There is absolutely nothing real about it, whether in terms of ambition or drama.

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  1. Your discussion of how this episode treats the Klingon teenagers reminds me of an interesting failing with Voyager. Despite having a half Klingon as a regular, Voyager could never do Klingons well. I know a lot of people seem to love “Barge of the Dead,” but I found it pointless claptrap. In Infinite Regress, Seven of Nine briefly becomes Klingon, and though Jeri Ryan does her best, the actual lines are embarrassing. We also get an embarrassing Klingon character in Unimatrix Zero who seems more like a cosplayer than anything else. In the seventh season, we get “Prophecy,” which is a total unfocused mess of an episode. It’s really too bad because DS9 did such great work with Klingons, so one would hope Voyager could have developed them still further. Instead B’elanna’s klingon heritage is rarely mentioned.

    • To be fair, I think Voyager struggles with world-building in general. Even species like the Hirogen or the Malon or the Hierarchy are entire cultures that can be summed up in a single word each. When you compare it to how TNG and DS9 built up the Klingons or Cardassians, it’s laughable. But I suspect that’s the real issue with Real Life. That it’s the shock of seeing a familiar and traditionally multi-faceted alien race from TNG/DS9 rendered in the two-dimensional crayon style of Voyager.

  2. Sfdebris took particular exception to this episode:

    “It makes you cry, but it puts a gun to your head to make you do it.”

    He goes on to describe his own personal crisis when his own children were at death’s door:

    “The experience of having a child in peril, of watching helplessly when there is nothing you can do when an alarm sounds… to see them stop breathing and wonder if they’ll ever start again is the second-worst thing a parent can experience…”

    He thus disagrees with Paris’ moralizing at the Doctor:

    “If I had the power to undo that – even now when I managed to get lucky and call the coin the right way – I still would, and would begrudge no one who had the power to avoid facing it.”

    Which he summarizes with:

    “So please, do not diminish the seriousness, the severity of the wounds this creates by telling me that it builds ****ING CHARACTER!”

  3. That Betancourt article really is dreadful, a prime example of jumping through hoops and ignoring irritating facts that might weaken the author’s pre-intended conclusion. A sitcom like ‘Mom’ (recovering drug addict/alcholic single mother raising her kids with help from her – also alcholic – mother) is technically a family sitcom but you have to squint to see it in the same sort of conituim as ‘Leave it To Beaver’ (or indeed the ‘Cosby Show’.) Are the likes of ‘Married With Children’ (clearly a bitter, bitter satire on 50s era sitcoms) simply rolled into one big family sitcom genre to make up the numbers?

    What profoudly irritates me however is the complaints about race, not because they aren’t true but because Betancourt pretends a lack of minorities is unique to family sitcoms. One of the biggest sitcoms at the moment is ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Out of seven main characters exactly one is non-white and none are gay (making it considerably less diverse than ‘Modern Family’.) Then there is the recently ended ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (five main characters all white, all straight.)

    I also love that he (somehow) manages to force the Brady Bunch, a show literally about two different families merging, into a thesis about nuclear families.

    • I’m sorry, I realise I went off a bit of a rant there.

      I actually did rather enjoy the episode though mostly due to Picardo’s performance. The man has some serious chops.

      I did wonder if the resemblance of the EMH’s fictional wife to Kes was hinting at a potential romance between the two that ended up dropped because Kes left the show. I always rather liked the idea of the two together – as I said before the EMH is the only character with even less life experience than Kes.

      • No, no! Rants are good. I like rants!

        I never noticed the comparison between the Charlene and Kes, beyond being blonde and responsible. Although it should be noted that Wendy Schaal has played Bob Picardo’s wife before in Munchies. And it’s kinda funny that Schaal now plays a spoof of a sitcom wife in American Dad.

    • That’s a very fair point. And I think the sitcom has come a long way in recent years thanks to shows like Modern Family or Fresh off the Boat, or even the UPN sitcoms that would have been kicking off at about this point.

      But I do think that the argument that the sitcom is inherently conservative has a point. I’m trying to remember where I read the argument that comedy is very much about punishing characters for breaking the rules and norms so that they can be restored and validated by the start of the closing credits.

      Then again, as you point out, it’s not as if television in general has ever been particularly progressive. Although it is getting better.

  4. “Playing soccer with Worf is risky.”

    Genuine belly laugh. Thanks for that.

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