Star Trek: Voyager

"Real Life"


Air date: 4/23/1997
Teleplay by Jeri Taylor
Story by Harry Doc. Kloor
Directed by Anson Williams

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"You make it sound like you're treating a patient. I'm not sure you can diagnose and cure a family." — Paris to Doc

Nutshell: The main plot: Intriguing, absorbing, and quite well done. The subplot: Standard, forgettable anomaly stuff. Quite solid overall.

In "Real Life," the holographic Doctor decides to create himself a holographic family in an apparent attempt to make himself, in a goal akin to TNG's Data, "more human." Meanwhile, Voyager investigates a violent, naturally-occurring spatial anomaly in a premise that may best be described as "Twister in deep space."

"Real Life" makes use of the very familiar Trekkian practice of a main plot saddled with an unrelated subplot. This is often a mistake, and I'd say it's a mistake here as well—though not all that costly of one—because the main plot is quite strong, whereas the subplot is just kind of there. As a result, the overall show takes a bit of damage, and isn't quite what it could've been.

But, nevertheless, "Real Life" is a very solid Voyager offering—one of the more solid offerings this season—and if things continue along the lines of the last two episodes, we may end the season on a good note yet. I sure hope so.

Let's start with the forgettable part of the story, that is, Voyager does Twister. This qualifies as Yet Another Spatial Anomaly, something Voyager has done all too many times. Still, this anomaly subplot, which is basically the equivalent of a tornado in space, turns out to be surprisingly tolerable. I'm not saying it's good, but, as filler, it isn't as annoying as these types of gratuitous subplots can be. Rather, it just sits in the realm of neutrality, promising never to be neither compelling nor insulting. I do think that Jeri Taylor and Harry Kloor could've made better use of screen time than with this sort of brainless fluff; perhaps they could've added more to the main plot.

But at the same time, I'll have to admit that the idea of a space tornado isn't awful. And, in addition, the special effects are quite impressive and the technobabble remains light. While the thought pattern behind this anomaly isn't impressive, at least I can take comfort in the fact that the production values made this lackluster idea credible and real-seeming. I do question the logic of the Voyager crew chasing after these things—much the way I question the logic of people with camcorders who chase tornadoes. In both cases, maybe it's all in the sense of "adventure"—which isn't a bad thing, but isn't a very smart thing either. There are indications in the dialog that this anomaly harbors energy that the crew may be able to harness somehow, though there isn't really enough focus on this aspect. It merely serves as an excuse to put Paris—who takes a shuttlecraft closer to the thing to investigate (brilliant!)—and the Voyager in danger. Ho-hum.

(On an unrelated note, the subtle flirting between Tom and B'Elanna—and especially the discussion of the "Klingon romance novel"—worked pretty well. It managed to be clear in its intentions without feeling forced or excessive—and without spending too much screen time on itself. Nice job.)

But forget about that stuff. What makes "Real Life" a winner is the Doctor's story, which begins with all-out comedy and then progresses into seriousness and compelling character insight. If I could summarize this story in a single word, that word would be "intriguing."

The Doctor has probably been the ensemble's most interesting character, perhaps simply because of the parameters of his existence. But, at the same time, it seems that Doc has always been a character the writers have been able to write relevant, "human" stories about (never mind that "Darkling" didn't work and that I'm still smarting from the total lack of consequences from his "memory loss" in "The Swarm.")

So, then, why not give this guy a "family"? It seems to me that programmed people are just as real as you want them to be, and considering the Doctor is a program himself, they would probably seem even more so to him.

At first, Doc's family is 100 percent bona fide cardboard. They're perfectly problem-free, and seem like they need to be put on the cover of a magazine. In an amusing scene, Doc invites Kes and B'Elanna to dinner on the holodeck to meet his new family. But after the program runs long enough to exceed B'Elanna's tolerance, she freezes the simulation before, as she puts it, her "blood sugar levels overload." She offers to reprogram the simulation with randomness that will make it more realistic.

Needless to say, once Doc enters the holodeck after B'Elanna's tweaking, his family is … different. And they're far from perfect. Doc's family life promptly becomes a nightmare of scheduling disasters and endless unpredictabilities. In fact, one could almost get the idea that B'Elanna's random event generator specialized in creating worst case scenarios—at least, that's the way Doc may certainly perceive it.

Much of what happens in the Doctor's family life is based on fairly standard television cliches. Bs. But the interesting thing is that these events take on new meanings since it's the holographic Doctor who is experiencing them. Doc's inexperience with these human settings forces us to re-evaluate every situation from his point of view.

The results are quite entertaining. I liked the notion that Doc's wife Charlene (Wendy Schaal) has a stress-inducing schedule. More interesting, however, were the kids: Doc's daughter Belle (Lindsey Haun) is a young girl who takes risks by playing dangerous sports with older children. Meanwhile, the rebellious teenage son Jeffrey (Glenn Walker Harris, Jr.) hangs out with the "wrong crowd." In a rather inspired notion, the wrong crowd turns out to be teenage Klingons, which brings up some implicitly interesting cross-culture issues. (I do believe this is the first time we've seen Klingon teenagers as a topic of family discussion.)

Much of the success of this storyline is due to Robert Picardo's performance. He plays it for comedy when it's appropriate, and when things turn serious he's engaging, yet appropriately subdued. Take, for example, the scene where he explains to his family his "new household rules": Picardo plays Doc as totally naive, and the results are humorous. But later, once the Doctor realizes the seriousness of a family crisis, Picardo plays the notes as real drama. I think Picardo will continue to be very effective as long as the writers supply him with fresh material. "Real Life" seems to exemplify this by giving him a unique situation.

A lot of this family stuff feels contemporary. In fact it's almost too contemporary. Whenever Doc transfers himself into the holodeck, it feels like he's stepping into the 1990s. But, then again, no one said that family life in the 24th century had to be that different from what it is today. I'm not saying that's bad—not at all—but I'll admit that it was kind of weird jumping from the decks of Voyager to the living room of a house, merely treating it all like different aspects of a real life.

The most powerful part of "Real Life" is when tragedy strikes, that is, when the Doctor's daughter suffers a head injury while playing Peresie Squares. The injuries are too severe to treat and she's going to die. I was genuinely surprised by this turn of events. By pushing the consequences of the situation to the extreme so suddenly, the writers put Doc in a situation that will cause him a great deal of unexpected confusion and pain. Doc can't cope with the situation so he ends the program with the intention of never returning.

This is where the truth of the episode resides. Since the Doctor has the option of simply turning off his life, does this mean he is fortunate to be able to avoid facing tragedy? No, it doesn't, because without tragedy and struggle there is no progress. That may seem like a fairly obvious and overused statement, but it works here because it's true. The only way Doc will learn anything about himself and humanity is by moving forward, taking the experiences that have been given to him. The fact that these events are artificially created is completely irrelevant. These people and events are just as real as Doc believes them to be, so by playing by the rules, he will get the most out of the experience. As Paris tells him in a wonderfully realized scene, if Doc refuses to face his family program in the face of bad news, he'll miss the entire point in the long run. Similarly, viewers who simply dismiss these events as "implausible" or "not real" are also missing the entire point of the Doctor's plight.

In the closing minutes of the show, Belle is supplied with a tender deathbed scene that proves surprisingly poignant. Overall, this tragedy turns out to be a good way of starting what will hopefully become a continuing story arc. There are great possibilities for building upon this. So let me close with a look to (and a demand of) future episodes:

I sincerely hope that this family storyline is here to stay. It absolutely has to be seen again, otherwise the writers are missing their own point. Judging by the ending, Doc's family can't simply vanish any more than did Miles O'Brien's family on Deep Space Nine. These characters must come back, and there needs to be a follow up to the events that happened here. I don't mean to sound skeptical, but after the way the writers simply tossed away the aforementioned "memory loss" issue from "Swarm," I'm not taking anything as given. So, let's have some more like this. I'd be very pleased.

Previous episode: Before and After
Next episode: Distant Origin

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30 comments on this review

Thu, Nov 15, 2007, 8:43am (UTC -5)
Killing the daughter was going too far. Torres obviously didn't give a damn how harsh she made things for the poor old doc.
Bill T
Tue, Jan 15, 2008, 6:25pm (UTC -5)
I can't watch this episode, it's too "weepy" at the end. Enough trauma in my real life, thanks - I don't need to watch an hour of 'Lifetime'.

But as for the B'Elanna thing - I always thought she just gave the program a general direction and "life of its own" of sorts, incorporating random consequences, not that she directly programmed the kid to die. That would be too heartless, even given her constant irritation around The Doctor. Then again, who knows what she/they really intended (I doubt they even thought much about it, Voyager isn't exactly "deep"...)
Fri, Aug 1, 2008, 5:08pm (UTC -5)
I don't think B'Elanna "killed off" Doc's child. I think, like Bill above me, that she just added the program to incorporate some realistic and random valuables, that direct the programs direction. A child being killed in a sports accident is both random and realistic. The whole point of her making the program more lifelike would have been spoiled if she'd given it spesific instructions on how to advance.
Rob in Michigan
Thu, Sep 25, 2008, 8:38pm (UTC -5)
I just don't get too much out of this episode once things turn "more realistic" because it just seems like the family from Hell is too stacked against the doctor. It's no more realistic to me than it was during the 1950's perfect family were. And it suffers from the problem that all Holodeck 'tragedies' suffer... its not real. In the end, these characters aren't sentient, they don't "think for themselves", they're just a program (in the basic sense... not the Doctor-sense). I can see being wrapped up in the experience while in it, but once leaving the Holodeck, you'd think the Doc would shrug, tell B'lanna that her modifications make it impossible to enjoy and ask her to tone it down a bit and restart it.
I feel the same way (in the future!) re: the ridiculous "Fair Haven" program.
Dr. Floyd
Sun, Aug 2, 2009, 11:47am (UTC -5)
I cannot watch the end of this episode. It's too painful to watch the girl die and the family's reaction. I always fast-forward past it.
John Pate
Mon, Jan 4, 2010, 3:23pm (UTC -5)
They did tie the two stories together: it amusingly juxtaposed the "real" jeopardy of Tom - who, obviously, was always going to be alright - with the "simulated" holo-tragedy. I thought that an amusing conceit by the writers. It even puts the question, 'Do we really care about fake people?' inside a Voyager hall of mirrors. Real emotions, fake people, fake people, real emotions... TV vs real life...

Note, the shuttle got beamed back aboard Voyager, including the special plasma Tom captured - so Voyager has more power, or something.
Bad Horse
Wed, Jun 9, 2010, 2:29pm (UTC -5)
"I sincerely hope that this family storyline is here to stay. It absolutely has to be seen again, otherwise the writers are missing their own point. Judging by the ending, Doc's family can't simply vanish any more than did Miles O'Brien's family on Deep Space Nine. These characters must come back, and there needs to be a follow up to the events that happened here."

Boy, retrospect sure stings on Voyager.
Fri, Jun 11, 2010, 10:48pm (UTC -5)
__Note, the shuttle got beamed back aboard Voyager, including the special plasma Tom captured - so Voyager has more power, or something.__

The power of bad writing can accomplish amazing things ;-)
Tue, Nov 23, 2010, 5:41pm (UTC -5)
It's true that the two stories didn't necessarily belong in the same episode, but on their own I thought both were very good. The crew seemed genuinely shocked and excited about discovering a new phenomenon, and pursued their curiosity until the end, which is something one of my favorite things about Star Trek (I have never seen this outside of Trek, but even Trek doesn't do it often enough in my opinion).

As for the Doctor's family story, I found the circumstances of Belle's death to be completely unbelievable (banging your head on the corner of a court in the 24th century?) and Torres' "random algorithms" did seem to be a bit on the pessimistic side, but it was wonderfully performed and very moving (especially the last scene - Lindsey Haun and Picardo were both amazing).
Captain Jim
Thu, Mar 24, 2011, 11:01pm (UTC -5)
Very moving story. Surprisingly moving, in fact.

And Jammer, did you notice that the shuttle wasn't destroyed? :D
Mon, Oct 31, 2011, 9:09pm (UTC -5)
I have mixed feelings about the choice not to bring the family back in future episodes. On the one hand, I think that, morally speaking, Doc has a responsibility to this creation of his, which he has infused with life. To abandon it strikes me as out-of-character for the morally upstanding doctor. However, I would not have wanted to see something like what we get in "Generations" wherein the use of characters from the excellent "Family" were put to dribbling use by Moore and Braga.

I think it best to recall that Doc is very young and experiences of love and loss are new to him. With that, I think it would be wrong to put him in a permanent situation where he is husband and father--a position rightfully reserved for those who've lived out their youth (hopefully). That he may presumably live for ever also makes the notion of tying him down like this seem premature.

The episode was emotionally engaging (both plots) and beautifully executed and performed. 3.5 stars, I think.
Mon, Apr 2, 2012, 9:16pm (UTC -5)
It would have been interesting to see how the Doctor Family handled the aftermath of Belle's death in a future episode. Perhaps intertwining it somehow to a real tragedy suffered onboard Voyager. Ah well. Maybe someone will write a book about it. Then again, for all I know someone might already have...
Josh G.
Thu, May 31, 2012, 11:12pm (UTC -5)
Considering we got not one but two "Fair Haven" episodes (and a sequel to "Demon"!), I think revisiting the Doctor's family at least *once* would've been entirely reasonable.

And I did and still do like this episode, though I don't think I remembered it very well when I first saw it. Admittedly, the same goes for much of season 3 Voyager. I don't know that the family situation is really that extreme (apart maybe from Belle's death), and much of the conflict stems from the Doctor's inexperience and naivety.

Having said that, I find it a bit silly that Belle is both conscious and alert despite a fatal brain injury with active hemorrhaging and brain stem involvement. She shouldn't be breathing on her own let alone awake. It IS a very touching death scene, and such things are not unusual in TV/movies, but that's not what dying looks like.
Thu, Sep 27, 2012, 12:25am (UTC -5)
I'm a bit upset that we didn't have the Doctor's family in any other episodes. As far as I know, there's no novel about it. Ah well. FANFICTION TIME.
Lt. Yarko
Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 3:45am (UTC -5)
Talk about a tear jerker... sheesh.

I would have shut the program off too. Yeah, it was a good scenario for the doctor to learn how real life can be, but as someone said above, it was a lot to throw at him. I don't buy into all that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" nonsense. If people really believed that, we wouldn't try to cure any diseases and we'd view every death as a thing to look forward to. But we don't. We TRY to avoid illness and save lives because we know that doing so is better all around. People just use these silly epitaphs (mindlessly and desperately) when there is nothing we can do to stop tragedy. Reminds me of how people thank the gods when a plane crashes and one person lives but also thank the gods that the ones that didn't live are "in a better place". Why is there no room for being pissed at the gods for allowing such violent ends to lives and families? Losing a child just plain sucks - HARD - no matter how much of a silver lining one wants to try to create from it.

I think that the episode would have been just as effective without the death of a child. Some final confrontation with the son about his friends that taught the doctor and the son something was where this thing seemed to be going and should have gone. That would have been just fine.
Sun, Jun 23, 2013, 4:20am (UTC -5)
Not a VOY hater at all, but Paris goes from complaining about Neelix's cooking to complaining about having eaten too much French toast for breakfast to complaining about Neelix's cooking all in one day. Sometimes, I feel like the writers didn't even give their scripts a second glance. (It's possible that Paris used his last ration on the French toast that morning, but it's still sloppy writing because it makes the viewer scratch his or her head.)
Wed, Jul 31, 2013, 8:30pm (UTC -5)
Again, absurd, from one extreme to another. Besides remeber they are simulations, like the points made elsewhere, hard to get worked up over a computer sub-routine "dying."
Also, the Klingon bit was also absurd, the Doc was right in that case the Klingons are not pictured as honorable, just as thugs and forget being another "culture," to hurt an innocent person is the mark of a coward not a warrior. It would have made sense for the son to have to fight a Klingon and then have him be the one to die...
Fri, Aug 30, 2013, 5:15pm (UTC -5)
This holodeck story reminded me a bit of "Pleasantville", especially the scenes before B'Ellana changed the program. (That family was so unbearably smarmy I would hate to be one of the actors. Fun to watch, though.)

To some of the messages above: We are talking about TV characters in a fictional story. The holo-stories are just one level further away - the story *inside* of the story. What makes it so much more difficult to sympathize with them as we do with the, um, "real" Voyager world?
Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 11:31am (UTC -5)
It seems that on Star Trek some holograms are "people", such as the Doctor, while others are just simulations. If his family are people, the Doctor has no right to simply shut them down. Yet if they are mere simulations, the bad things that happen to them shouldn't greatly concern him: when we play videogames, we don't concern ourselves greatly with what happens to the characters.

It's good that the Doctor learned that life isn't always ideal, but the modified family isn't any more realistic than the idealized family the Doctor created. Both happy families and unhappy families exist, but neither example is typical. Given B'Ellana's family background, perhaps the version she created is colored by her own perceptions?

Of course, the Doctor could simply have rewritten the program to bring back the daughter, but the point was to connect him to the feelings that people have. He comes out of this better able to relate to people.
Wed, Apr 2, 2014, 7:45pm (UTC -5)
Star Trek doing Pleasantville...badly

Sorry, I just don't think this episode deserves 3 stars, maybe 2 for parts or the 1.5 for the lack of plot focus or development.

Unlike Pleasantville or other "perfect family to bitter reality" story lines in fiction, "Real Life" lacks any redeeming value. There is no social commentary on racial relations, no probing questions about relationship struggles between the "ideal" and "imperfect reality", nor the simplest familial bond.

4/10, it's a weak episode that held no depth.
Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 10:21am (UTC -5)
I was completely caught off guard by this episode. I started off annoyed with the premise, but by the end, I couldn't help crying for this family of holographs in a fictional show. They did a great job generating pathos with this one.
Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 10:47pm (UTC -5)
K'elvis you took the words right out of my brains. I highly doubt I could have said exactly what I was thinking more perfectly than you did.

It's a credit to the story and the performances that this holo-family...these standard holograms that are no more important than an NPC in Skyrim...actually cause an emotional reaction in the viewer. It's as if we realize just how much the Doctor can "feel" while these things are playing out.

The anomaly of the week this time around piqued the scientist in me. The idea of a layer of "existence" between space and sub-space was fascinating. Really makes me wish humanity would quit fighting over things that don't exist and superficial bullshit and start using our intelligence to explore and learn what's out there. Maybe one day. (:

Not groundbreaking and a tad silly at times, but well-done and thought-provoking all around.

3 stars.
Sun, Oct 19, 2014, 10:58pm (UTC -5)
I watched this one with my two young sons and it was quite touching. A credit to Picardo. So much lost potential in all of these unused story lines.
Wed, Feb 11, 2015, 8:50am (UTC -5)
Oh good grief. Doc's adorably blond family faces heart-tugging tragedy. Give me a break. If I wanted a Lifetime movie, I know where to go.
Stuart F
Thu, Jul 23, 2015, 2:40am (UTC -5)
This is the worst episode of Trek I've ever seen. It made me very angry. They trivialize real pain and suffering by putting the doctor in a situation where it feels real to him, and he has the ability to easily correct it by just saying "Computer, alter program so that Belle lives", and he doesn't do it. Why the heck not??? Is he a masochist or something?????

Zero stars from me.
Fri, Jul 24, 2015, 9:47pm (UTC -5)
One of the better episodes of Trek, particularly in Voyager. Picardo absolutely carries the episode with his performance and the plot line was genuinely touching.

As for those who can't connect with "fake characters" in games or in the holodeck, I don't understand what you're even looking for in TV if you don't want to engage.

The drama in this episode is well executed and more impactful for being so out of the norm for star trek. I would gladly give this one 3.25
Mon, Aug 17, 2015, 1:39pm (UTC -5)
Wow, I'd think twice about having Torres add any "randomized behavioral algorithms" to my holodeck program :-)

'Real Life' was funny, real, over the top and sad all in the same episode. All this centered around the EMH, so of course it's fantastic. Picardo is amazing.

Tear jerker at the end for sure. (sniff, sniff)

Easy 4 star episode from me.

Fri, Nov 27, 2015, 1:52am (UTC -5)
I emphatically cosign the last two comments. What the people who hate this are looking for, I don't know. I would be curious to know what they would submit as an example of a very strong episode.

As a side note, it was genius to have the rebellious son hanging out with Klingons and trying to emulate them. Kind of like a white suburban teen who identifies with inner-city black culture.
Fri, Dec 11, 2015, 10:53am (UTC -5)
A good episode for sure, and 100% carried by Picardo's performance. But I didn't see the need to kill off his daughter in the program. The whole point was to teach him what having a real life family was like, and hopefully this kind of tragedy will be an extremely rare event 350 years from now. I think the plot could have accomplished its goal without breaking the Doc's heart at the end. A well acted scene nonetheless, and brought tears to my eyes. Just didn't think it was necessary... Agree with Jammer on this one, 3 stars.
Diamond Dave
Fri, Jan 29, 2016, 8:33am (UTC -5)
A real mish-mash of elements here. The anomaly story is nothing we haven't seen before, Tom gets caught in an anomaly, Tom gets out, colour me unimpressed.

The Doctor's family story swings from outright comedy at the beginning to the deepest of pathos at the end, and has to be given credit for that. Anyone not moved at the end must have a heart of stone - indeed even though it's clear they are trying to generate an emotional response in the viewer (eg with that wonderful violin led score) it works anyway. That doesn't make it a great episode, but makes for a great scene within an average episode. 2.5 stars.

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