The Good: Great idea, Interesting character moments, Decent acting
The Bad: Somewhat ridiculous notions (like 1950s values still being an ideal in the 24th Century)
The Basics: The Doctor makes his own holographic family and suffers the consequences of alterations that make them more headstrong and realistic.
The Doctor was long my favorite character on Star Trek: Voyager and as the character evolved, the experiments the writers and producers did with him had varying levels of success. Some of the ideas actually worked well, like the Doctor getting his mobile holo-emitter in “Future’s End, Part II” (reviewed here!). Others were good ideas that were too simplistic to carry an entire episode and as result, they fell a bit flat. “Real Life” is one of the latter type episodes.
“Real Life” finds the Doctor experimenting with family life and after he creates a ridiculously ideal one, he gets a far more realistic one created for him. It’s a very simple idea and to flesh out the full forty-three minutes of the episode, “Real Life” includes a full subplot involving a scientific phenomenon of the week – subspace eddies – and a smartly relevant character arc that continues to move B’Elanna Torres and Tom Paris closer romantically. While any of the three elements work on their own, none of them is truly strong enough to carry their own episode and the result is that while “Real Life” has a pretty necessary idea for the Doctor’s character arc, it has a pretty jumbled execution that does not quite work.
Shortly after the Doctor begins a simulation to create a family, the U.S.S. Voyager travels into peaceful territory where they discover a benevolent scientific outpost wiped out. As Voyager investigates, the Doctor has Torres and Kes visit his family program. Over a single dinner, Torres gets increasingly upset with how the Doctor (going by Kenneth for his simulation) has created a wife and two children who are entirely idealistic. Frustrated with how they do not embody anything realistic to her, Torres gets the Doctor’s permission to alter the program.
The result is the Doctor walks in a chaotic family where his rebellious son, Jeffrey blares music, his wife is speaking at the Bolian embassy and not staying home to cook dinner, and his whiny daughter Belle wants his attention to find her mallet for music practice.
“Real Life” is, in no way, a terrible episode, but it is one that fails to find and keep a solid focus. While the Doctor is affected by his faux-life in the Holodeck, Tom Paris gets lost exploring the astral eddy. As Paris tries to find his way out and Voyager tries to find a way to use the energy from the astral eddy to gain additional power and be able to use the replicators more.
Within the holodeck program, “Real Life” looks unfortunately goofy, ironically not in the 1950’s-esque family design. The Klingons in “Real Life” who are influencing Kenneth’s son Jeffrey look far more like Kazon than Klingons. Yes, it is a matter of hair design, but the Klingons look somewhat ridiculous.
“Real Life” takes a turn for the appropriately tragic in the holodeck simulation, which makes for a reasonable reason why the Doctor would shut the program down by the end of the episode. Unfortunately, the writers of “Real Life” fall into one of the traps that too many of the Star Trek writers do, which is applying 20th Century medical standards to the 24th Century. When Kenneth tells his wife that the brain is still a largely mysterious organ, it is utterly ridiculous given that in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (reviewed here!) the brain is, in fact, not a mystery.
The episode may be one of the neglected tragedies of Star Trek: Voyager and whenever I consider the episode, it is hard not to think that Torres is a bit of a jerk. Torres is right to point out to the Doctor that the program is an unfortunate ideal that is not giving him the actual experiences he wants to have. But the parameters she puts into the program seem designed to end in tragedy and that is simply not fair and it’s certainly not nice to her friend.
On the character front, though, the effect the Doctor’s family has on him is a profound one and as Paris points out to him, the realism of the experience can give the Doctor a real sense of perspective. This allows Robert Picardo to show off his acting chops in a way that uses the actor in a way that goes well beyond his usual comedic brilliance. Playing opposite him, Robert Duncan McNeill actually delivers one of the best monologues of his career on Star Trek: Voyager when he has to talk to the Doctor about what it means to have a family. This leads from one great speech to one of Picardo’s most powerful dramatic performances as he has to deliver a series of tough and impassioned lines to a guest actress and he sells the viewer on the full weight and history of the characters in a way that is a real tear-jerker.
While the episode ends powerfully and makes for an experience that ultimately gets a fairly strong “recommend” from me, objectively, “Real Life” is a tougher sell in that its many elements become cluttered and do not add up to a solid storyline that engrosses the viewer for the full duration of the episode. Jeri Taylor seems to have done the best she could with the ambitious idea, but it just wasn’t enough for a full episode and the elements that supplement it are hardly as satisfying as one might want.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the entire season here!
Check out how this episode stacks up against others by visiting my Star Trek Review Index Page!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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