Nutshell: Brilliant. Easily the best episode of Voyager yet, with a witty script of twists, turns, and phenomenal dialog.
Now here's an absolutely fascinating show. This goes down as the series' best installment yet. Topping even TNG's "Ship in a Bottle," this episode delivers a mysterious sequence of illusions with a genuine sense of style and captivation. Finally, Brannon Braga has written a story that gives him a chance to do high-concept—his storytelling specialty—while shining with terrific character moments and witty twists and turns.
When the Doctor's program is automatically activated, he finds himself alone on the ship which, according to the computer, has been evacuated due to damage caused by a Kazon attack. But then there's a knock on the sickbay door. It's Lt. Torres. She says that she and Janeway stayed on board the ship to stop a warp core breach. Because of the attack, some officers on the bridge have suffered injury and need medical attention. Torres informs the Doctor of the new hologram emitters that have been rigged on various decks the ship, including the bridge. This will allow him to exist outside the sickbay.
Torres transfers him to the bridge where he treats Janeway's injuries, then Janeway transfers him to the mess hall where he helps Neelix subdue a Kazon intruder. Here, the Doctor gets hit on the head and then notices that he's bleeding and experiencing pain. He's rather dismayed, as pain and bleeding is not in his programming. Upon further analysis of himself, the Doctor discovers he has a heartbeat. And blood pressure. And brain patterns.
But there's more. The computer informs him that he isn't a hologram, but a real person named Lewis Zimmerman, with a real history. At the same time, the crew members he scans register as non-existent. Janeway, Torres, Neelix, the Kazon intruder—according to the tricorder, none of them are really there.
It seems like some sort of shipwide computer malfunction but it just doesn't add up, so Janeway attempts to shut down and restart the Doctor's program by deactivating all holographic images on the ship. When Janeway gives the computer this command, "Projections" takes a wild twist—Janeway, Neelix, Torres, and the Kazon all vanish into thin air. They are the projections.
What's really going on here? That's the question viewers will be asking as the show progresses. In retrospect, the ending seems light years away from where everything starts—it just seems to have traveled so far. But there no feeling of non sequitur here, because everything makes sense. This story is unique and completely unpredictable, and the manners in which plot points resolve themselves are so neat and tidy that it almost seems simple.
This episode is, in essence, a series of illusions. First the show has us believe the ship has been evacuated. Then it suggests that everyone is a hologram except the Doctor. After giving us three minutes to digest that, Braga's script throws another twist on us. Lt. Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) suddenly appears and tells the Doctor that his past six months aboard the Voyager have merely been a six-hour simulation on a Jupiter research facility designed to study the psychological effects of being isolated in deep space. And Barclay has plenty of remarkably sound evidence to back up his story.
Braga has every potential plot hole covered here, and it's amazing that this all holds together. This is more than just a string of bright ideas—it's also some impressive, well-tuned writing. And the execution couldn't be better. I'm not sure exactly how much responsibility Jonathan Frakes had in overseeing the implementation of such a convoluted plot, but everything works so nicely and efficiently that his directing hand is barely noticeable—which is exactly how it should be.
Picardo and Schultz both turn in exceptional performances and make a remarkable comedy duo. Their screen chemistry is one of the episode's many strengths, and Braga supplies them with some very funny dialogue. What two characters can you imagine would work better together than these two and their quirky mannerisms? The Doctor is fun with his usual sarcasm and dry humor mixed with being flabbergasted over such impossible circumstances. Barclay is, well, at his most Barclayness—always a joy to watch fidget under pressure.
Barclay tells the Doctor he is suffering from holo-transference dementia syndrome, something brought on by a radiation surge that is causing him to lose his sense of identity. If he doesn't leave the simulation soon, he will die of radiation poisoning. The only way to end the simulation, Barclay says, is to destroy Voyager, hence terminating the program. This gives the Doctor a rather hefty decision to make. What if destroying Voyager is really...destroying Voyager? Before making this decision, he must confirm that he is indeed a real person as Barclay claims.
The Doctor's search for the truth brings up a surprisingly engaging character core concerning the nature of his existence. But not only does all this make interesting science fiction, it's also a lot of fun. There's a hilariously well-realized sequence in which Barclay, trying to prove he's telling the truth, restarts the simulation to its beginning—back to when the emergency medical holographic program was first activated. This humorous recreation of "Caretaker" includes the Doctor literally deleting Paris and Kim from the simulation premise, and an exchange with Janeway where he informs her of the crew's imminent abduction by the Caretaker (or "Banjoman" he adds).
Braga's final twist happens when Chakotay suddenly appears and reveals the real truth—that everything, including Barclay and his arguments—is an illusion brought on by a computer malfunction on Voyager's holodeck. All the Doctor needs to do is sit back and wait for Voyager's repair crews to fix the problem.
But just when you thought it was all over, there's one more jarring illusion, just to prove how atypical this show really is. (Did I say the previous twist was the final one? Okay, I lied. This is the final one.) This scene uses a bit of visual disorientation and can be seen as a rather devious trick on the audience. But it's a very neat trick. I like it. A lot.
I like the whole episode a lot. "Projections" does everything just right. The camerawork is effective, David Bell's score is good, the performances are right on target, the pacing is precise, the dialogue is amusing, and the story is a sheer pleasure. It's an excellent hour of science fiction—definitely a very promising episode of Voyager. I'm game for more.