Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Lifesigns"

***1/2

Air date: 2/26/1996
Written by Kenneth Biller
Directed by Cliff Bole

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"We might as well put this ship on autopilot for all the freedom you give me to do my job." — Paris to Chakotay

Nutshell: A winner. A very pleasant, quiet sleeper episode with a true sense of charm.

When a dying Vidiian medic is beamed aboard Voyager, the Doctor saves her life by transferring her brain patterns into the computer and creating a holographic body for her to temporarily use, until a way can be found to repair her brain and transfer the patterns back. There is only a matter of days to do this, however, as the patterns will degrade if not restored to the biological brain.

The Vidiian's name is Dinara Pel (Susan Diol), and she wakes up as a hologram to find herself in a strong, healthy body for the first time since acquiring the deadly Vidiian disease known as the phage, which has slowly destroyed and weakened her body since she was a child. Before long, Dinara and the Doctor realize their relationship is more than that of a doctor and a patient. They are both medics with a lot in common, and they are falling in love with one another—a unique position that neither one is accustomed to.

With "Lifesigns," Voyager shows just that: some evident signs of life and brightness. After a frustrating first half, it seems the second half of Voyager's season is beginning to look up—featuring a more promising trend of solid stories (aside from the preposterous "Threshold"). Hopefully the trend will continue.

"Lifesigns" has one "sci-fi" idea—that of a person's consciousness being transferred completely into a holographic simulation—but is otherwise a completely simple and straightforward character show. It's basically about the Doctor's discovery of his feelings for Dinara, which he first thinks is a malfunction of his program, but finally accepts it as an "adaptation" to human situations after some discussion with the always-well-intentioned Kes.

Trek romances are notorious for self-destructing (DS9's "Second Sight" and "Meridian" come to mind), but it seems this season is an upturn for romance stories; like DS9's "Rejoined" earlier this season, "Lifesigns" gets mostly everything just right.

One reason this all works is because of the performances. Romances ride on whether or not the characters involved have a believable chemistry, and I'm pleased to report that chemistry is something present in nearly every scene. Robert Picardo and Susan Diol are in sync just about every step of the way with some noteworthy acting.

Another reason this works is because the writing doesn't sell the situation short. The reason the aforementioned "Second Sight" and "Meridian" failed is because the romance was always at the mercy of contrived technobabble events. "Lifesigns" has none of that nonsense; this is a story based on human decisions (or, I guess, hologram decisions), not forced melodrama.

But what ultimately captured me here was the episode's undeniable sense of charm. It's, well, cute at times. Watching the usually-sharp-edged Doctor turn into a romantic softie is lightly comical and endearing. Picardo has some subtle, innocent expressions that forced a silly grin onto my face. Every scene comes together under Cliff Bole's calm direction—from Doc's and Paris' discussion of relationships, to the "parking" scene in the '57 Chevy—and what could've been schmaltzy is simply pleasant instead.

The episode's underlying message also works extremely well. At one point near the end, Dinara tells Doc she would rather live out the few limited days as a beautiful hologram than return to her life in her ugly, sickened body. This goes a long way toward making the Vidiians characters we can sympathize with again (after the downright cruelty they displayed in "Faces"), and shows how low the Vidiians' self-morale has fallen. What I especially like is the reassuring finale, where the Doctor proves his love is more than skin deep; the fact that he's not bound by the superficialities of Dinara's appearance is genuinely moving and optimistic.

"Lifesigns" also has a B-story and C-story, which take a somewhat different format from the usual subplot advancements. One involves Paris' continued insubordinate and unprofessional behavior. In retrospect, the unfocused subplots involving Paris in "Meld" and particularly "Dreadnought" seem to make more sense now, or at the very least have a reason for existing. Paris keeps showing up late for his shifts, and when Chakotay tries to ask him what's wrong, Paris bluntly retorts, "My problem is you." The subplot ends completely unresolved, in which Paris shoves Chakotay to the ground in front of the entire bridge crew, consequently landing him in the brig.

Meanwhile, Jonas keeps feeding Seska information, and this time he even gets to talk to her. Seska tells him to sabotage Voyager's warp coils (what that will do to the ship I'm not sure, but it can't be good) so the Kazon can launch a surprise attack on the Voyager.

How these two subplots will be resolved, or whether they're connected (I can't see how they wouldn't be), only time will tell. While the incomplete plotting surrounding both Jonas and Paris was annoying me a few episodes ago, it now shows the obvious intention of having a notable payoff sometime soon. As a result, the method of not resolving specifics set up by an episode is something which proves intriguing this time around, rather than frustrating. (Could it be Voyager finally decided overarching stories are interesting?) It's strange to think that as this episode ends, Paris is still locked up in the brig. Hopefully the resolution will be worthwhile.

I'm thoroughly pleased with "Lifesigns." It seems to indicate that the series is finding direction.

Previous episode: Death Wish
Next episode: Investiagtions

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17 comments on this review

Mike - Mon, Sep 29, 2008 - 1:50pm (USA Central)
Maybe this is a small point, but it is annoying to me nonetheless. If I'm not mistaken, the Maquis formed to protest the Federation/Cardassian alliance. The Maquis was largely made up of people who were forced to abandon their homes due to the Cardassians. Therefore, while they distrust the Federation, their main enemies are the Cardassians; this is particularly true because of how many Maquis are Bajorans.

And yet, when Seska proves to be a Cardassian spy, Jonas is willing to overlook that and betray Voyager. Not only that, but Jonas is aware that the Kazon are (unfortunately cliche) 'bad guys' - exactly the type of people the Maquis should be against. He gives us no reason for this other than a vague distrust of Janeway and the Federation - but why does he trust Seska more?

I feel like the whole Kazon/Seska/Jonas plot - the main continuing plotline of the entire first two years of Voyager - was a mistake. Or at least poorly done. The Kazon were weak and unconvincing Klingon clones. Seska continued to manipulate Voyager long after they should have changed every code and protocol on the ship. And Jonas gets no characterization or motivation to show why he would betray Voyager.
EP - Wed, Feb 18, 2009 - 9:25pm (USA Central)
Well, I'd have to beg to differ. I really dislike episodes that make the Doctor human in every way, with emotion, with ego, with the capacity to love and hate, except when it's convenient to make him a hologram, and have him accomplishing all sorts of technobabbly quests because he's a photonic projection.

I could buy Data in TNG partaking in similar "human" behavior, because he was programmed by the cybernetics equivalent of Einstein, and he was purposely designed as a learning machine.

The EMH, on the other hand, was designed to be an emergency supplement, functioning for brief periods of time. There's no suspension of disbelief. If he can go on dates, understand humor, be annoyed by human idiosyncracies, that would mean that the EMH's designers accidentally created sentience. To me, that's just lazy writing, and a gaffe on par with making Cyrus Redblock briefly self-aware in "The Big Goodbye."
ippolite - Sat, Aug 21, 2010 - 2:54pm (USA Central)
She had the hots for the Doctor so she decides to start calling him after her uncle?

One of the more freaky-deaky moments in Trek.
Fabian - Tue, Jan 25, 2011 - 4:13am (USA Central)
Dinara named the Doctor after her uncle because her uncle made her laugh and gave her joy...unlike the life she has been living where other Viidian children avoid her like the plaque since she suffers from the sickness of the Phage. I thought this was an very emotionally heartfelt and excellent show of season 2 of Voyager when many other episodes here were just sub-par. The Doctor fell in love with Dinara because they were partly both doctors and liked each others company. The ending--where the Doctor dances with the real, terribly scarred flesh and blood Dinara--was excellent and not the holographically perfect version of her really suited the theme of this show. That Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.
Destructor - Wed, Mar 23, 2011 - 6:57pm (USA Central)
I loved this episode when I first saw it, and I loved it even more on second watching. While it does fly in the face of the much-later episode 'Latent Image', where the Doctor 'gets a soul' (this episode certainly implies he already has one), its so funny, charming, romantic and well-intentioned I can't help but love it. I'd give it 4 stars and easily one of the best of the season- and perhaps one of my top ten faves of the show overall.
Matthias - Sat, Aug 20, 2011 - 8:52am (USA Central)
I agree with EP that the doctor has been way too sentient from the start, meaning a lot of the Data-ish 'what makes a man' stuff fell flat because there simply wasn't enough ambiguity there.

That said I'm more annoyed by the episodes where they try to play that angle than the ones where he exhibits blatantly self-aware behavior so this one was fine by me.

Chakotay sure goes down like a sack of potatoes down a flight of stairs if you so much as brush up against him. I guess the guy just has a lot of experience doing the dramatic exploding console/sparks shooting across the screen leap by this point in VOY's run.
Nathan - Sun, Oct 30, 2011 - 12:06pm (USA Central)
My problem is that Doc shouldn't have been programmed with human responses to falling in love (or with falling in love at all). At the very least he'd have to activate a new romance subroutine like Data did.
Skeezyfish - Thu, Dec 15, 2011 - 10:02am (USA Central)
One of the top episodes of Star Trek, vastly underrated. The beautiful characterisation comes straight out of the perfectly constructed premise! Two doctors, alone and less-than half living save themselves in each other! ...and then to title it "lifesigns"... so charmingly understated.

In the first half of the episode I couldn't forgive the doctor for the ethical quagmire he created when he put Dinara in the holographic body. Of course it would be wrenching to be forced back into that diseased shell which has haunted you your whole life. To give someone what they never thought possible, and then to abruptly take it away... very cruel. To then fall in love with them, giving them love, something denied to them their whole life because society sees them as a disease and not as a person... of course Dinara tried to sabotage her own treatment.

The story is a statement of humanity in the face of disability and stigma. Dinara learns that she is alive in-spite of her disease. The doctor learns that he is alive in-spite of his own short comings. In fact, their shortcomings lends a particular poignancy to their existence as people.

I find this episode particularly touching as a gay man. I've always felt that the Phage was an allegory for HIV. In the same way that Dinara was stigmatised for her disease, isolated and alienated from a core aspect of herself--her love and sexuality--society does the same to people infected with HIV. We fail to see them as romantic and sexual people, and only see them as a threat, a disease.

And for a hologram to see her "humanity" where Vidian society could not... well, all the more poignant.

This episode has all the charm of Annie Hall. Top rate programming!




SamRNYC - Sun, Apr 8, 2012 - 10:39pm (USA Central)
Don't get me wrong, I loved the episode, but again I have major tech problems. Maybe I've been reading too much smart SF (Greg Egan, Ted Chiang, Ken McLeod) but it seems that if one's consciousness can be loaded into a holo-program and then downloaded back into body later, then the Vidians either should upload themselves into computers and live in a virtual reality (with nanotech manipulators for connection to the 'real world' or they should upload themselves, create non-phage-infected bodies that are resistant or in some other part of the universe without the Phage, and then download back down. The whole ST universe seems to be too tied to physical bodies with the tech they have. Of course, the upload is only done here to give the Doctor a love interest, and it is done well.

Not sure what to think about the whole Doctor emotions vs. programming issue - hadn't though of it before, but I will now.
Locke - Sat, Sep 1, 2012 - 5:00pm (USA Central)
I liked the scene between Paris and the doc regarding getting over someone, it contained truth.
Lt. GiantTreckNerd - Tue, Sep 11, 2012 - 7:50pm (USA Central)
I feel like I should say something to adress the concerns of one or two of the posters above. They are claiming that since the EMH is designed for medical practice it should not be capable of things like falling in love and displaying humor, etc. However the series makes it very clear that the Doctor's holomatrix wasn't just designed by Lewis Zimmerman, it was based on his personality. Thus, Lewis Zimmerman is a hotheaded, arrogant, and utterly brilliant man with more than a healthy eye for the ladies and a bitingly ironic sense of humor, and so is the Doctor. Zimmerman is capable of affection and romance, therefore the doctor, made in his image, is as well (Just as the Moriarty in Data's Sherlock Holmes program is design by Ge
mike - Sat, Apr 27, 2013 - 5:39am (USA Central)
let's face it. The Doctor is more human than most people. We're asked to suspend an incredible amount of disbelief in Star Trek and a holographic doctor that is in every sense a fellow human is a huge stretch. However sometimes Star Trek makes it worth our while and this is definitely one of those times. I found the notion of the Doc mechanically working his way through dating rituals in a '57 Chevy parked on Mars utterly charming and funny. Jammer is right. Romance rarely works in Star Trek. This time they got it right. And what makes it "right" is the irony that the holographic doctor is more human than the humans.
Lt. Yarko - Wed, Jun 12, 2013 - 10:51pm (USA Central)
I love Robert Picardo. He is such a wonderful actor. I just can't get enough of him.

About the doctor and whether or not he should be able to fall in love: There was a point in the series where it was said that the he is an adaptive learning program. So, it seems to me that he has an even more complex program than data had, since data could really only pick up new memories, and his ability to develop new algorithms was limited. His program couldn't adapt emotions, for example. He needed additional hardware for that. The question I have, however, is WHY an EMH would have an adaptive learning program, that is, adaptive beyond picking up additional medical information and algorithms. Obviously he was just written that way for the show so that we could have episodes like this one. But I doubt that the developers of a real EMH would want his program distracted at times by figuring out things like romantic attraction.

Also, I have always hated the Degrading Memory Patterns (TM) thing. It's just another ticking clock plot device and a way to keep characters from having the option of choosing to become immortal through the use of computer processors, holographic bodies, and lots and lots of digital memory. Obviously, if a personality can be stored in a computer, it is still just a collection of 1s and 0s that last as long as the hardware storing them lasts. Hardware degrades, not data and programs. Being a computer programmer makes it difficult to watch trek sometimes. :)
Caine - Wed, Oct 16, 2013 - 10:32am (USA Central)
Like so many others I really like both The Doctor and the actor portraying him (Picardo).

An episode like this really makes it evident that The Doctor on Voyager played the same role on his show that Data did on Next Gen: the non-human looking in on the complicated behaviour of humanoids from the outside - making it possible to really ask (and maybe answer)questions about what it means to be human ... you know, some of the big questions. That, to me, is at the heart of good sci-fi. When it works, anyway - and both The Doctor and Data really work for me!

On the question on The Doctor and emotions:
I haven't watched further than this episode of Voyager yet, but so far I'm thinking that The Doctor is IMITATING human behaviour and emotions without ACTUALLY feeling them. Since he has no real physiological fraim of refference, he actually believes himself to BE feeling emotions - just like we see any holodeck character in any Trek show believing (within the confines of the holodeck program) that they are, in fact, alive, breathing and experiencing emotions.

Well, if The Doctor BELIEVES he is experiencing emotions, what distinguishes HIS experience from the humanoid experience of emotions? To me, THAT is the real question. Though The Doctor does not experience emotions as we understand them - he just believes he does - who's to say his perception of having feelings is any more or less valid than our way of experiencing the sensation?

I hope there'll be an episode exploring along these lines at some point.
inline79 - Tue, Nov 12, 2013 - 2:19am (USA Central)
There is precedent for sentient holograms in Moriarty. In fact Jeri Taylor's notes for Voyager called the Doctor a Moriarty-style hologram. So I think it's okay for him to be very human. It's also ironic that the short-lived Ocampa is giving relationship advice to an immortal hologram.

Great episode and also a spot-on review.

Oh and I have to point out that Red Dwarf stole the sentient hologram from TNG before Voyager did. Fortunately Trek never stole the sentient cat.
Patrick D - Wed, Nov 13, 2013 - 10:16pm (USA Central)
@inline79

Red Dwarf premiered before "Elementary, Dear Data".
inline79 - Sun, Nov 17, 2013 - 12:08am (USA Central)
@Patrick D
Thank you! I stand corrected (by about 10 months) - well spotted. Blame the then 10yrs old me at the time!

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