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.