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Star Trek: Voyager – Life Line (Review)

Life Line brings Star Trek: Voyager‘s daddy issues to the fore.

Voyager always existed in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, never quite breaking free in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to do. Voyager always felt shaped by and indebted to The Next Generation, always longing to affirm its heritage. Barclay appeared in Projections. Riker made a cameo in Death Wish. Geordi popped up in Timeless. Deanna Troi paid a visit in Pathfinder. The Ferengi from The Price popped up in False Profits. Q was a recurring character. The Borg were a recurring threat.

All my holo-children.

Voyager always saw itself as the spiritual successor to The Next Generation, the rightful heir to what was at the time the crown jewel in this iconic science-fiction franchise. However, this aspiration was not borne out in any quantifiable sense. The reviews for Voyager were decidedly more guarded than they had been for The Next Generation. The ratings were appreciably lower. The cultural impact was greatly diminished. If Voyager had positioned itself as the next in line to the throne, it was a disappointment by any measure.

The sixth season of Voyager is keenly focused on the idea of memory and legacy. It often feels like the series is reflecting on its legacy, cognisant of the fact that the end is rapidly approaching. Indeed, this preoccupation with mortality plays out even within Life Line, which is an episodes that finds the EMH journeying back to the Alpha Quadrant in order to save the life of his dying creator. Doctor Lewis Zimmerman was a pioneer when Voyager launched almost six years earlier; now, he is a bitter and disillusioned old man wasting away in seclusion.

Father yet to go.

There is something very pointed in this, in the idea of a son returning home to a dying father, to be met with disappointment and disdain. There is a funereal tone running through sixth season episodes like Barge of the Dead, Dragon’s Teeth, One Small Step, Blink of an Eye, Muse and Fury. It feels like Voyager is confronting the fact that it has declined over the slow withering death of the larger Star Trek franchise. The end is near, and Voyager has presided over it. Fury went so far as to request a do-over on the entire run of the series, resetting six years of continuity.

Life Line touches on these ideas, allowing one member of the regular cast to journey home and to try to make peace with a deeply disappointed father figure.

Creator hate.

Life Line is notable for the episode’s story credit. The basic premise of the episode originated with Robert Picardo, who plays the role of the EMH. Many Star Trek actors had transitioned from roles in front of the camera to behind the camera; Leonard Nimoy directing Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, William Shatner directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Jonathan Frakes directing The Offspring, LeVar Burton directing Second Chances, Avery Brooks directing Tribunal, Rene Auberjonois directing Prophet Motive. Even Picardo himself had directed Alter Ego and One Small Step.

However, it was less common for actors to receive writing credits. William Shatner developed the story for the movie that he directed. Leonard Nimoy co-wrote the two movies that he directed and contributed to the screenplay of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Brent Spiner received a story credit on Star Trek: Nemesis. Walter Koenig wrote the episode The Infinite Vulcan for Star Trek: The Animated Series. More actors have written for the tie-in material, with William Shatner writing his own series of books, Andrew Robinson writing A Stitch in Time and J.G. Hertzler writing the Left Hand of Destiny duology.

Invading Zim’s private space.

One of the more interesting through-lines in this journey from actor towards writer is that it tends to be character-driven. William Shatner writes a lot for Kirk. His novels even resurrect Kirk after the events of Star Trek: Generations so the character can continue saving the galaxy. Similarly, Andrew Robinson adapted a lot of the back story in A Stitch in Time from his own notes on Garak, his attempts to provide a history to the enigmatic spy-turned-tailor. Even J.G. Hertzler’s work on the Left Hand of Destiny books focus on Martok’s tenure as High Chancellor following Tacking Into the Wind.

Perhaps it makes sense that Robinson and Hertzler should feel so invested in their characters that they had stories to tell with them. After all Deep Space Nine had perhaps the most developed ensemble in the entire franchise. Similarly, Kirk and Spock are perhaps the most iconic figures in the franchise, so it makes sense that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would have some stories that they wished to tell focusing upon them. If the characters are rich or interesting enough, they  will prompt interest from the actors.

Letters from my father.

As Brannon Braga conceded in Star Trek and American Television, the actors would often contribute to the writing of the series when they weren’t explicitly credited:

Typically, some actors are more vocal than others. … Early on, you hear very little, but as the show progresses, over the season, you hear more and more feedback, because they get more comfortable with their characters and they start coming up with ideas. For instance, on Voyager, I would hear from Bob Picardo [the holographic doctor] every week. I’d sometimes find him lurking outside my office door. But Robert Beltrane [Chakotay] seemed totally disinterested in the show. I tried to get him to talk about his character, but I don’t think he really felt comfortable doing that.

This is the reality of television production. Actors spend years living inside the psyche of these characters. For some it may just be a reliable source of income and a steady gig, but there are inevitably a handful of actors who will embrace that.

In his image…

Patrick Stewart was very influential in shaping the movies featuring the Next Generation cast, particularly the reinvention of Jean-Luc Picard as a blockbuster action hero in movies like Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection. (Stewart had also pushed for more action-driven episodes, like Captain’s Holiday or Starship Mine.) Kate Mulgrew had encouraged Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky to write Janeway more aggressively, in episodes like Macrocosm and Night. Even Robert Beltran’s interest in boxing informed the basic premise of The Fight.

In the context of Voyager, it also makes a great deal of sense that Robert Picardo should be the cast member with a story to tell about his own character. The EMH is perhaps the best developed and most consistent character in the primary cast, with the possible exception of Seven of Nine. Janeway receives about the same amount of attention as either character, but her characterisation is more scattershot. Picardo had a firm grasp on the EMH even in early episodes like Caretaker and Eye of the Needle.

Scripting errors.

As with Michael Dorn on The Next Generation, it took the writers almost a season to identify what he brought to the ensemble. The first episode focusing on the EMH was Heroes and Demons, produced three-quarters of the way into the first broadcast season. The second EMH-centric story was Projections, which was produced as part of the first season, but held back for broadcast during the second season. Nevertheless, the EMH became one of the most developed and rounded characters on Voyager; even in the sixth season, he’s the focus of Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Virtuoso and a major subplot of Blink of an Eye.

Picardo developed a keen grasp on his role. Indeed, much like Armin Shimerman, J.G. Hertzler and Andrew Robinson, Picardo would even write tie-in fiction about his character. Unlike Shimerman, Hertzler or Robinson, Picardo would approach the character from a place of humour. The Hologram’s Handbook would be published a little over a year after the end of Voyager, Picardo described the book as “a satire of the self-help book.” Its closest relatives in the Star Trek tie-in pantheon are probably Behr and Wolfe’s Rules of Acquisition and Legends of the Ferengi.

His writing rings holo.

Picardo explained that his desire to write The Hologram’s Handbook came from how deeply he’d come to understand the psychology of the character:

“I have maintained a strong interest in my character because there have been interesting twists and turns all along the way that have kept me engaged,” Picardo told TrekWeb. “I also find it fun and challenging to try and speak in his voice whether on the written page or to ad lib as The Doctor now. I’ve lived with him long enough and have a sense of how he thinks and what’s important to him and how he goes about accomplishing what he wants to, to sort of spin Doctor-type dialog out of my own brain. And that’s pretty much the genesis of the book, to have a little fun with creating my own Doctor-speech and ideas.”

There is a real sense that Picardo enjoyed playing the EMH, in a way that very few of his contemporaries seemed to enjoy being on Voyager.

Word salad.

As such, it makes sense that Picardo should have ideas about how best to develop the EMH on Voyager, that he should have story ideas for the character. Life Line is a story that is very keenly focused on the EMH, to the point that most of the cast are reduced to guest stars in their own episode. Tim Russ appears, but Tuvok does not have any lines. Barring one quick cut-away for a very strange scene to draw attention to a long-dangling (and long-forgotten) plot thread, most of the action in the middle section of Life Line takes place thirty thousand light years away from the rest of the ensemble.

There is nothing wrong with this, to be clear. Star Trek can produce character-centric and character-driven stories that marginalise the primary cast. Often one crew member will drive the primary plot, while the rest of the cast are relegated to a subplot. The Next Generation very frequently did this with Picard, with Darmok and The Inner Light standing out as two of the best examples. Deep Space Nine did this with O’Brien in Honour Among Thieves and with Bashir in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. Even Voyager has done this with Chakotay in Distant Origin and Nemesis or with the EMH in Living Witness.

We all become our fathers.

In crafting this particular story, Picardo was inspired by one of his favourite plays and by a pretty universal theme:

About the episode, one of my favourite plays is I Never Sang for My Father, so I thought it would be interesting to sort of borrow the structure of that play. It’s all about the disappointments from both directions – parents toward children and children toward parents. Parents, you know, ”why aren’t you what I’d hoped you’d be?” And children’s point of view is ”why can’t you accept me for what I am, and why don’t you love me as I am, and look at what I can do and look what my strengths are?” So, it was basically a father-child drama adapted for a programmer and a hologram.

It could be argued that Life Line is among the purest of father-son dramas, given the father has literally created the son in his own image.

Massaging the truth.

Of course, Life Line wasn’t purely the work of Robert Picardo. The pitch was developed with John Bruno. Bruno had directed two episodes of the sixth season, directing Picardo in Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and also overseeing the effects-heavy time travel story Fury. Once Picardo and Bruno developed the story, it was passed to the writing staff. Robert Doherty, Raf Green, and Brannon Braga are credited on the finished screenplay. As such, Life Line was very much a collaborative effort.

At the same time, there is a sense that Life Line is the work of a relatively inexperienced writer. This is perhaps most obvious at the beginning and the end of the story. The teaser to Life Line is particularly frustrating. Reginald Barclay visits Jupiter Station. He stops in on Doctor Lewis Zimmerman. The two have a brief conversation, in which Barclay is defined as sweet and sincere while Zimmerman is bitter and acerbic. The teaser concludes with Zimmerman bluntly stating, “I’m dying, Reginald. And there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

“As you already know, but the viewers don’t…”

Ignoring the inelegance of that line, which is effectively a sledgehammer on which the episode might cut to the opening credits, there’s something very strange in the set-up. Barclay and Zimmerman are not series regulars. Barclay was a recurring character on The Next Generation, who appeared in two early Voyager episodes. Zimmerman has only appeared (in the flesh) in a single episode of Deep Space Nine, as a visitor to the station in Doctor Bashir, I Presume. As such, it seems a strange choice to open the episode with these two characters, thirty-thousand light years from the regular crew.

Obviously, these characters have an emotional attachment for audience members familiar with the larger Star Trek franchise, who understand the complex back stories of these characters and their relationships to one another. (How does Barclay know Zimmerman? Barclay helped to design the EMH, as explained in Projections, and was “in charge of testing [his] interpersonal skills.”) However, a casual viewer familiar with the basic premise of Voyager has little context for anything that happens within the teaser.

The long dark whatever-time-it-is-on-Jupiter of the soul.

The issue is not the dramatic beat itself. After all, there’s a pretty great hook in the idea that the “father” of the the Emergency Medical Hologram is dying, that a man responsible for creating a virtual physician should be facing his own mortality. The issue is in how the episode chooses to convey this information to the audience, relying on a lot of back story for relatively marginal characters instead of focusing on how the story relates to Voyager‘s leads. For example, it might have been more effective to have the EMH get the letter revealing his father was dying.

Similarly, there is something very trite in the episode’s resolution, in which Barclay sabotages the EMH in order to force Zimmerman to care for his creation. The twist is relatively solid, and the reversal is a logical way to develop a story like this; the patient becomes the doctor, the subject becomes the caregiver. However, the handling of the beat is clumsy. The EMH starts malfunctioning without any context, the episode treating it as a dramatic act break. “Your program is destabilising,” Barclay warns the EMH. “You don’t understand. Your primary matrix is degrading and there is nothing I can do.”

This is a “code red.” Er, and a “code read.”

Of course, there is a reason that this plot development comes out of nowhere, why it is not set up and signposted in the narrative leading to this point. Barclay has sabotaged the EMH’s holomatrix, as part of a cunning plan to force Zimmerman to engage with his creation. This is a tricky plot beat in a number of ways, and there’s a sense that Life Line misreads the room in choosing to play it out in the way that it does. This development would work if played straight, even if it would seem a little contrived and convenient. However, revealing it to be a con orchestrated by Barclay undercuts it dramatically.

Most obviously, it represents a massive breach of trust between Barclay and the EMH, akin to a twenty-fourth century twist on Munchausen by Proxy. It is incredibly manipulative and cynical. It is also astounding that a trained mental health professional like Deanna Troi would sign off on this sort of plan, as it would seem to violate all sorts of ethics. Of course, it might also just demonstrate how completely oblivious Starfleet can be when it comes to acknowledging the autonomy and integrity of artificial life forms, an extension of The Measure of a Man or Quality of Life.

“Soon, I’ll be (i)guana.”

Even beyond the betrayal of trust, there would seem to be some level of risk involved in this gambit, particularly if it is intended to fool Zimmerman. To be fair, it’s highly unlikely that Barclay would introduce a problem into the EMH’s holomatrix that he could not fix in event of emergency, but it’s worth noting how notoriously volatile holographic technology can be. Tinkering with holodeck often has unintended consequences; Elementary, Dear Data, A Fistful of Datas, Darkling, Spirit Folk. As a result, toying with the EMH’s code to fake a glitch seems like a risky gambit, even given Barclay’s expertise in the area.

More to the point, the twist feels dramatically inert. It raises the stakes, and then casually brushes them away. The glitching of the EMH is treated as a big deal within the narrative, anchoring the episode across an act break. It is a narrative cheat to subsequently reveal that the EMH was never in any real danger, and that it was all just a clumsy attempt to force the two back together. Indeed, the only narrative fallout from this reveal is that Zimmerman and the EMH are mildly annoyed at Barclay’s meddling.

That’s SO Barclay.

There are other small indications that Life Line is the work of a first-time screenwriter. There’s some familiarity in the premise, in that Life Line depends on a hook that Voyager had previously employed in Message in a Bottle, with the EMH being transmitted to the Alpha Quadrant as a datastream and recompiled on the other side. It’s a clever application of the character’s core premise, his existence as a piece of computer software. At the same time, it is not a surprise that Picardo’s first screenplay credit should draw upon an episode for which the actor has an avowed fondness.

To be fair, these are relatively minor complaints. Life Line is build around a robust premise, an engaging central dynamic and some strong thematic work. The conflict between parent and child is universal, something that transcends a particular time or place. Indeed, this strife has been a focal point for any number of classic Star Trek stories already; Journey to Babel, BrothersFamily Business, Doctor Bashir, I Presume. The franchise has visited this theme time and again, as subplot or primary plot, from both sides: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Icarus Factor, The AlternateBloodlines, The Begotten, Barge of the Dead.

Laying it all on the table.

The tension that exists between parents and children has sustained art and drama since the dawn of time. There are numerous stories about parents and children within the Bible; if the reader chooses to read the text as the story of the creator’s relationship to the created, it is arguably one big story of inter-generational familial tension. It is a core element of Shakespeare’s work, from Hamlet to King Lear to The Tempest. It is something that many audience members can relate to, from one side or another, directly or indirectly.

Often, these stories succeed or fail based on the casting. It can be difficult for television shows operating on a weekly schedule to find guest performers who can convincingly portray relatives of the primary cast; not just physically, but in terms of chemistry. Several familial relationships on Star Trek, especially with one-shot guest stars, struggle because the guest performer doesn’t have the right chemistry to properly sell the dynamic; for example, the very brief reappearance of Alexander Rozhenko as portrayed by Marc Worden in Sons and Daughters and You Are Cordially Invited…

Finally, a scene partner worthy of his talent.

In this regard, Life Line has an ace up its sleeve. Dues to the nature of the EMH, it is entirely possible for Robert Picardo to play both the father and son in this dynamic. Picardo joked about the experience in The Star Trek: Voyager Companion:

I play not only The Doctor, but his programmer, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman. So I achieved a lifelong ambition of working with an actor who I’ve admired. Of course the hardest thing about acting with myself was coming up to my own level. I was very demanding, but also very generous, as an actor I gave myself everything I felt I deserved and more.

All joking aside, this allows Life Line a significant advantage over many other parent-child stories in the Star Trek canon. As with the use of Brent Spiner in Brothers, this conceit allows for one of the most consistent and reliable regular players to effectively play off themselves.

Hologram for a king-sized ego.

This is not to underestimate the difficulty and craft involved in these sorts of performances. These actors are essentially crafting entirely new characters, and have to subtly distinguish their performances from those that the audiences have been watching week-in and week-out. When Zimmerman appeared on Deep Space Nine, Picardo offered a version of the character that was defined by his similarities to the EMH. This was a canny approach, given that his guest appearance seemed like a thirtieth anniversary crossover between Voyager and Deep Space Nine. However, Life Line requires a different approach.

Because so much of Life Line hinges on conversations between Zimmerman and the EMH, Picardo plays up the contrasts. Zimmerman is recognisably the template for the EMH, as fathers tend to be for their sons; not only in his mannerisms and his appearance, but also in his attitude and his demeanour. However, Picardo makes a conscious effort to exaggerate these attributes. The EMH may have came by his arrogance and self-absorption as a feature of his design, but Zimmerman honed and developed them over a life-time.

Barc-ing up the wrong tree.

This creates an interesting back-and-forth between the two characters, with both Zimmerman and the EMH sharing fundamentally similar personalities that have developed two very different ways. The EMH is childlike in many ways; even as he bickers with Zimmerman, he desperately wants his creator’s approval and his validation. The EMH often lacks self-awareness for the simple fact that he is still young, being only six years old. In contrast, Zimmerman’s lack of self-awareness is a practiced defense mechanism, a man who has taught himself not to acknowledge what makes him feel uncomfortable.

It should be noted that there is also a technical element to this sort of acting that is often overlooked, particularly when it comes to recognising craft. Interacting with special effects can be a challenge for an actor, particularly when what they are responding to isn’t what the audience is actually seeing. As film and television production has embraced the potential of special effects to shape and expand storytelling possibilities, it is easy to overlook how these changes affect more traditional aspects of production. Andy Serkis’ work with motion-capture, for example, has yet to be properly recognised by awards bodies.

Haley frequency open.

Picardo acknowledges that the production of Life Line was a challenge:

There was quite a bit of motion control for a TV show of that era. It made it very difficult to shoot. I was constantly acting with an actor that I have always admired and always wanted to work with……me.

It did get a little boring to do both sides of the scene as you are only imagining the performance on the other side. You are making eye-contact with nothing and it is very very technical. But I am proud of how it turned out.

It is to Picardo’s credit that the scenes between Zimmerman and the EMH pop in the way that they do, adding a spark to the episode.

Picture perfect.

The story of Life Line is that quintessential parent-child drama, albeit one heightened by the personalities involved. Zimmerman has devoted his life to the creation of something that should be the best part of himself, believing that his legacy would be secure through that extension on himself. Ironically, he is confronted with the possibility that the best parts of himself may simply amount to nothing. What was supposed to be a crowning accomplishment, and a grab at immortality, becomes instead a grotesque humiliation.

However, Zimmerman frames that anxiety in a much more ego-centric manner than most parents. Remarking on the repurposing of his his healthcare professionals to work as deep-space janitors, he challenges the EMH, “Do you know how humiliating it is to have six hundred and seventy five Mark Ones out there, scrubbing plasma conduits, all with my face?” The failure of the first iteration of the emergency medical hologram is not a loss for the program itself, or for the greater good, but a personal affront to Zimmerman’s self-image. Quite literally, in that this failure is built in his own image.

Familiar (sub)routines.

Similarly, the EMH desperately wants his creator’s approval. The EMH wants to be recognised as something special and unique, despite being mass produced. “I’m sure Starfleet is consulting their best physicians, Doctor,” Janeway tells the EMH when he first proposes the journey home. On being introduced to the EMH, Zimmerman dismissively explains, “I’ve been treated by the Mark Three, the Mark Four, not to mention the finest real doctors in Starfleet.” The EMH is desperately trying to prove to Zimmerman that he is better than any copy of himself, any improvement to his matrix, or any flesh-and-blood EMH.

The EMH is obviously concerned about Zimmerman’s welfare, but his own ego is undoubtedly tied up in the journey home. These motivations come out at the climax of his first argument with Zimmerman. “I travelled halfway across the galaxy to treat you,” the EMH states. “The least you could do is show a little gratitude.” When Zimmerman orders him to leave, he presses, “I may be the only physician who can save your life. You need me.” He insists, “I’m no longer a prototype. I have exceeded my original programming. I’m no longer under your control.”

“We can all take the opportunity to say something to our loved ones. Except for Tuvok, who doesn’t say anything.”

There is something very archetypal in this tension – something vaguely Jungian and Freudian in the idea of a son forced to confront his father’s mortality, in the father forced to look at his son and see both his own face and his greatest failure. This core dynamic is compelling enough to sustain the episode, elevated by two great central performances from Robert Picardo. Life Line is one of the stronger stories of generational strife within the Star Trek canon, resting just below the heights of Journey to Babel or Doctor Bashir, I Presume.

However, there is something else in Life Line, something simmering just beneath the surface. The sixth season of Voyager is very engaged with its own mortality, and in particular worried about its legacy. This may be driven by a variety of factors; the unfortunate departure of Ronald D. Moore early in the season, the end of Deep Space Nine, the critical and commercial disappointment of Insurrection, the continuing attrition of the franchise audience, the looming end of Voyager. The sixth season of Voyager has a very morbid and funereal air. Indeed, Life Line chooses to open with a terminal diagnosis.

Dead to the world.

The sixth season of Voyager engages with this idea in a number of interesting ways. In particular, there are a number of episodes that wrestle with the series’ place within the larger Star Trek canon. Stories like Blink of an Eye and Muse are essential odes to the idea of Star Trek as a franchise. More directly, the sixth season embraces the deep connection between The Next Generation and Voyager that has haunted the show since it first debuted, with Voyager very consciously designed as a replacement for The Next Generation.

The sixth season doubled down on these connections by introducing Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi as recurring characters on Voyager. Barclay had been a recurring guest star on The Next Generation, prominent enough to have a small supporting appearance in First Contact. Troi was a series regular on The Next Generation, and the only female lead to appear in all seven seasons of the run. The pair were drafted into Voyager in Pathfinder. However, they were not treated as guest stars in the way that William Riker had been in Death Wish or Geordi LaForge had been in Timeless.

Speaking of raiding the Next Generation’s wardrobe and make-up department…

Barclay was the protagonist of Pathfinder, with the entire narrative unfolding from his perspective and following his own efforts to contact Voyager. In Pathfinder, the series reduced the series regulars to guest starring roles; playing Barclay’s holographic companions or appearing in a short scene at the end. Voyager had done this before, most notably in Living Witness or Course: Oblivion. However, Pathfinder reduced the cast of Voyager to guest stars in an episode focused on two characters from The Next Generation. This indicates the gravity that The Next Generation exerts on Voyager.

This is obvious even within Life Line. The episode is obviously more focused on the Voyager cast than Pathfinder had been, telling a story about the EMH. However, the episode opens with Barclay in the Alpha Quadrant, rather than with any character in the Delta Quadrant. Deanna Troi is drafted into the narrative despite being completely superfluous, if not becoming an obstacle. After all, the sabotage of the EMH makes more sense if Troi isn’t there. This sort of manipulation seems like the least safest and ethical way to get past the issues between Zimmerman and the EMH.

Against counsel.

Beyond that, Life Line demonstrates an obsession with the legacy of The Next Generation. Worf and O’Brien both appeared as series regulars on Deep Space Nine, but they made far fewer overt references than Life Line does. Troi makes sure to mention “Captain Picard”, so it can be cut (misleadingly) into the promo. Beyond that, the brief communication between Barclay and Troi in Life Line represents a very rare direct crossover between the film and television franchises. It is the only time at which any part of the Enterprise-E appears in an episode of any Star Trek television.

There is a sense in which the parent-child anxiety in Life Line hints at the tension that exists between The Next Generation and Voyager. After all, it is fair to describe The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine as siblings, given that their broadcast overlapped. Similarly, Deep Space Nine and Voyager might also be described as siblings, their own runs overlapping with one another and occasionally playing off one another. However, the familial connection between The Next Generation and Voyager is more firmly delineated, without that overlap.

“I am totally on the Enterprise. You know, the one from the films of that Star Trek show that everybody likes?”

All Good Things… aired eight months before Caretaker was broadcast. This was an appreciably large gap than the four months between Endgame and Broken Bow. In those eight months, there was even room for the Next Generation to transition to film with the release of Generations. Acknowledging the constant churn of nineties television production, there was not just a full stop between The Next Generation and Voyager. There was a line in the sand. The Next Generation and Voyager were not siblings. They were parent and child.

It seems fair to say that Voyager existed in the shadow of The Next Generation in a way that even Deep Space Nine did not. Deep Space Nine distinguished itself by virtue of its unique setting, its diverse cast, its embrace of serialised storytelling. In contrast, Voyager was much more archetypal Star Trek, downplaying the more unique aspects of its premise for the generic Star Trek formula that had made The Next Generation so beloved. Voyager was about a crew of explorers “boldly going” to meet “new life forms and new civilisations” in neatly-packaged episodic adventures.

“On the other hand, Voyager is the most popular Star Trek series on Netflix.”

It has been argued that the series “ultimately became The Next Generation by another name.” Ronald D. Moore has described Voyager as a show that retreated to the template of The Next Generation, living in the shadow of its parent rather than forging its own identity:

You could do a starship show, then you did this radically different space station show. OK then there could have been another version that was even radically different from the previous two. It was unfortunate that they went back to it being just a starship again and sort of doing another riff on The Original Series or Next Gen.

You mean with Voyager and Enterprise?

Voyager and Enterprise — they are both essentially the same format. I mean you mix up the crews, you mix up the sort of fundamental mission of it all in each show but you are still getting back to the notion that Star Trek equals a starship going someplace with a big viewscreen and that was what Trek had to be and I felt that we had proved that it didn’t have to be that and that to me implied that it could be many other things too. I always wanted the franchise to try and figure out what those other things might be.

There’s a sense that Life Line is working through some of this tension, with the EMH returning to the Alpha Quadrant to reckon with his creator. It is a clear attempt to process the complicated dynamic between The Next Generation and Voyager, even if Zimmerman himself is not a Next Generation character.

The Previous Generation.

Zimmerman sees himself as a visionary and an artist; it is telling that many of his holographic designs exist without any practical purpose. He keeps a fly named Roy buzzing around his office, a project “commissioned by Starfleet Intelligence” as “an experiment in micro-surveillance.” Of course, the practicalities of that approach are highly questionable given that flies don’t seem to exist within the Star Trek universe and Roy could only possibly exist in an office with holo-emitters. Similarly, Zimmerman keeps Haley and Lou around, despite the fact they serve no practical purpose; they are creative expressions of his artistry.

As Haley explains to the EMH, Zimmerman imagined leaving an impressive legacy. “He was extremely proud of the Mark One,” she states. “He used to dream about hundreds of holograms in every corner of the quadrant saving lives. He put so much of himself into its development. I suppose it only seemed natural that it should look like him, too.” Perhaps this is how the production team working on The Next Generation felt. After all, the show had revived the idea of Star Trek on television, and stepped off the stage at a point where the franchise had two ongoing series and a feature film franchise. That is an impressive legacy.

V-O-Y phone home.

However, Voyager was not The Next Generation. As Troi observes, “The Mark One failed to meet Starfleet’s expectations.” Haley explains, “He was devastated.” Barclay elaborates, “He locked himself away in this lab for two years trying to repair the defects. Finally, he just gave up.” This perhaps reflects the tension behind the scenes on the early seasons of Voyager, when producers like Michael Piller tried desperately to make the show work, before Jeri Taylor eventually stabilised the show by turning it into the most generic Star Trek series imaginable in the third and fourth seasons.

In this context, it is perhaps revealing that the one scene set on Voyager in the middle of the story finds Janeway dealing with a message from Admiral Hayes (another Next Generation character, having appeared in First Contact) asking about the “status of the Maquis.” The Maquis were meant to be one of the core aspects of Voyager that differentiated it from The Next Generation, by setting up tension and conflict within a crew that was stranded far from home. However, these challenges were quickly brushed aside in Parallax and only fleetingly raised in stories like State of Flux or Learning Curve.

It’s all a bit of a Hayes.

It feels rather pointed to see contact with the Alpha Quadrant raising the issue once again. As with Zimmerman’s disappointment with the EMH, it feels like an expression of frustration with how Voyager squandered this narrative hook. Indeed, Life Line raises the issue and quickly drops it within a single scene, which feels like something added to pad the episode. “I don’t think of you or B’Elanna or the others as Maquis,” Janeway states. “I think of you as part of my crew.” The resurfacing conflict is handled in a single line. Voyager brings up its unique identity, what makes it different than The Next Generation, and then brushes it aside.

In many ways, Voyager is a series about trying to return “home”, to recapture a lost and glorious past. It is a retreat to the familiar and the safe, trekking back from the mysterious Delta Quadrant towards the safer and more secure Alpha Quadrant. Life Line allows the EMH to return home, only to have him judged by that same past the crew is trying to recapture. As Troi reflects of Zimmerman’s reaction to the EMH, “Now, after all this time, a Mark One shows up. It must be like staring in a mirror at a reflection you don’t want to remember.” Would The Next Generation be proud of Voyager, or ashamed?

Signal compression.

One of the more interesting aspects of Life Line is the sense that the EMH has actually been flattened for broadcast, that his personality and identity have been simplified in order to facilitate transmission. “Your programme’s too large for the datastream,” Seven of Nine states. “I have to extract all non-essential subroutines.” The EMH replies, “They’re essential to me. They’re part of who I am.” Seven proceeds to strip out a lot of what makes the EMH unique: his operatic ability, his poetry, his hoverball technique, his photographic eyes, his sexual identity. All wiped away.

In the context of the story, this is to allow the EMH to be transmitted to the Alpha Quadrant as a series of ones and zeroes, a piece of software that can be transmitted and recompiled on the other side. However, in the context of this engagement between The Next Generation and Voyager, it seems to hint at something more profound. Voyager was perhaps a show restricted by the conditions of its broadcast in a way that The Next Generation had not been. The Next Generation aired in first-run syndication, giving it a great deal of creative freedom. Voyager aired as one of the flagship shows for UPN, a single network.

Jupiter ascendant.

Voyager was compromised from the outset. It could be argued that Deep Space Nine was able to experiment with serialisation because it aired in syndication, and so was not subject to the same network notes that made it harder for Voyager to forge a unique identity. Asked to summarise the tension around Ronald D. Moore’s time on Voyager with the benefit of hindsight, Brannon Braga argued that what Moore wanted from Voyager was simply not possible:

I can only give you half an answer because half of that involves Ron. But, to my recollection we never really talked about those things all that much. We were just telling stories. I did observe Ron chaffing, but we never had any creative clashes. I think when he came onto Voyager for that brief stint, he had some pretty bold idea on how to make that show kind of like “Year of Hell” the entire time, which was a great idea, but the studio would never go for it.

Braga knew that this would be impossible. He had proposed extending the story of Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II beyond the two-parter, but was vetoed by the powers that be. Similarly, he had originally planned to stretch Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II across an entire year. Braga arguably eventually got to do something like that with the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise, but only when the ratings were in freefall and the network panicked.

Friend or photon?

The seven seasons of Voyager arguably received less direct studio or network interference than the first two seasons of Enterprise. After all, Berman was only forced to pitch story ideas to network executives during the second season of Enterprise. Nevertheless, there was a constant low-key tension between the production team and the network during Voyager‘s run. Kenneth Biller argued that the show’s shift to action-driven storytelling was driven by the network, while Michael Piller would frequently get in arguments about the budget.

Voyager was very much a product of UPN, even in less direct ways. After all, regardless of whether the idea originated on staff or not, it seems fair to say that the cynical wrestling crossover in Tsunkatse was an example of the kind of thing that would only have happened because Voyager aired on a network that happened to be having great success broadcasting WWF. Similarly, while Brannon Braga takes credit for creating the character of Seven of Nine to appeal to his own interests, it seems fair to suggest that the character was very much in line with UPN’s brand. (Her use in Revulsion is a prime example.)

Damaging her rep(tile)…

It is fair to acknowledge that producers like Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga all deserve some blame for the failure of Voyager. After all, they were in positions of power where they could have more aggressively pushed against outside interference. Indeed, even allowing for network and studio mandates, it seems fair to observe that Voyager was seldom its best self. The lack of serialisation, forward momentum and consistent characterisation would arguably be less of a central concern if the stories themselves were better.

Nevertheless, there is also a sense that Voyager began with a handicap that it never managed to work through. It was simplified and streamlined for broadcast, its unique aspects and central premises stripped away to produce something more generic and soulless. “Try to leave a few of my enhancements intact,” the EMH urges Seven of Nine. “I don’t want to look like every other EMH on the block.” It is a small moment, but it feels like Voyager acknowledging that it never really got to compete with The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine on a level playing field, that it never got to be what it should have been.

Troi, Troi again.

This mournfulness and disappointment simmers through Life Line, a story that hopes desperately for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is the tale of a disappointing prodigal son moving closer and closer to home, longing for an affectionate and familial embrace despite the fact that everything that makes him unique has been stripped from him. It is a sweet sentiment. Perhaps it is best to travel hopefully.

10 Responses

  1. I think that the introspectiveness of Season 6 is why it is my favorite season of Voyager. I really like all of the Joe Menovsky (sp?) episodes that tie in the idea of Voyager entering the memories of the planets it has left behind. The EMH is my favorite character, so I enjoy the strong focus on him in the season as well.

    As you note, Lifeline’s strength is that Picardo, to his credit, plays off himself very well. You can tell that he’s relishing the episode and the chance to play his character to the hilt: it’s the same kind of joy in acting a particular role that I think is most evident in the original series from Shatner and Kelley. It’s not my favorite of the EMH episodes, but I think it’s a great showcase for Picardo’s comic talent 🙂

    • Interesting. I’d probably credit the third and fourth seasons of Voyager as the show’s strongest. The third because it’s so damn weird and pulpy, and the fourth because it actually coheres. I find the sixth kinda samey in a lot of places.

  2. Robert Picardo is a talented actor, and I really enjoyed him in the role of the EMH. I definitely wish that he had been cast in a better Star Trek series than Voyager.

    • It was tantalizing to see Picardo on Deep Space Nine for an episode.

    • Yep. He’s the best of the leads. (Ryan, Mulgrew and Phillips are also great, even if Phillips doesn’t get enough material and Mulgrew doesn’t get consistent material.)

  3. I don’t fully point to Voyager’s lack of story arcs as too big of a flaw since this system still formed the core of TNG. I’ve noticed in modern television with shows like Game of Thrones is that by having all the episodes connected, a bad episode can drag the entire season down with it and retroactively destroy the episodes that came before it. When Stannis’ character was assassinated by the writers in season 5, I could no longer enjoy the big climax of season 2 because the battle was lead by Stannis, whom had retroactively turned into a monster. Suddenly the battle was fought between monsters on both sides and I could no longer enjoy the action because I was disgusted with so many people involved in the story. And I know that shows like Game of Thrones has terrible writing because of the sheer time pressure they are under, it’s become a beast like the Hobbit Trilogy that has rampaged beyond the control of the crew working on it.

    If Voyager had a bad episode, you could isolated it and forget about it, or even better skip it. While this does limit the potential of the series being the safe bet, I’ve just seen too many shows down ruin the entire series by having it all connected with a rotten episode. The perils of modern TV I guess.

    Unrelated but I really do love this episode. A unique “franchise” episode since it’s borrowing from all 3 shows at the time with ambitious special effects and storytelling. For all the talk of dying, this franchise still had some life to it.

    • When did “binge” enter the lexicon as a verb related specifically to television shows (as in “binge-watch”)? I feel like people use it more for tv shows now than for its original meaning of eating excessive portions of a food they like in a temporary bout of gluttony. I feel pretty sure “binge” in the tv-show sense did not exist in general-usage at all in the mid-2000s but certainly did by the mid-2010s. In any case, it came in long after Voyager.

      As the technological changes by which people consume these shows changed, a shift towards much stronger form of serialization seems inevitable. But criticizing Voyager, a show from before that time, is hardly fair.

      The reviewer Darren I think has pointed out the largely-technological-driven nature of this change in a lot of his reviews but still seems to be overly harsh on “Voyager,” IMO considering it is a show which existed 1994-2001.

      Serialized storytelling is not necessarily superior; there is always going to be some kind of trade-off.

      A series/season as one long/threaded story, as more-or-less a movie spread over 20-hours or so of screen content, can for one thing become less appealing to the casual viewer, and could really lose their appeal in the old television era. How many casual viewers of “Game of Thrones” are there, people who just pick up one episode here or there? My impression is most people watch the show straight through (even if not all at once).

      But then it’s also true that ‘serialized’ vs. ‘episodic’ is not an on-off switch. It’s really on a continuum, from zero continuity to the 100%-threaded-storyline, as in episode 4 impossible to understand or appreciate without episodes 1, 2, and 3 (in that order). Where exactly to put the needle on any show can be hard.

  4. Zimmerman reminded me a lot of Soong: Both were obviously heavy narcissists. I guess I would not create an android or hologramm looking exactly like me, but being able to perform magic.

    • Yep, I think that narcissism is a logical extension of the character premise – to build a literal immortal monument in your own image takes a lot of self-assuredness.

  5. Every time Troi appears on Voyager they flatten her down into a couple simple character points, just like they do with the rest of the Voyager cast. Troi is almost immediately offered chocolate ice cream. She mentions Picard in the first 30 seconds. We get it, Troi likes chocolate and her entire existence is rooted in relation to Picard, etc. It’s quite reductive. It’s like they think the audience needs to be reminded who she is or something.

    I enjoyed the episode, but it does mark an acceleration toward Voyager becoming once-again a part of the Alpha Quadrant. There is a hint at orders coming from Starfleet’s command structure, ships being dispatched that are only six years away. It’s a pity season seven didn’t jump a head in time and have Voyager join some small armada of vessels sent to retrieve them or something. While this episode marks a big step in Voyager abandoning its lost premise, it also could have provided an interesting narrative path. But the writers only know how to work in a very narrow bandwidth.

    I find the comments from Braga and others about what the network would allow a bit of a cop out. It often seems like they didn’t really try as hard as they could have. Braga pushed when it involved bringing in big-boobed women or action CGI effects. I get that Berman was looming in the background…but Braga also seems to have avoided asking for hlep from Behr or other producers, simply as a matter of pride.

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