Nutshell: A winner. One of the year's more entertaining shows.
Watching "Life Line," one can see just how effectively Robert Picardo disappears into his character week after week, or in the case of this week, two characters. The plot of "Life Line" permits Doc to meet his creator, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, face to face. We know the story: The original EMH was modeled in appearance and personality to resemble Zimmerman. So Picardo plays Doc and Zimmerman right alongside himself. What's interesting is that it's not a carbon-copy performance. There are subtle differences that allow Zimmerman to become his own character.
We previously saw a rendition of Dr. Zimmerman's character in the third-season installment "The Swarm," as well as in DS9's fifth-season episode "Doctor Bashir, I Presume." I can't recall in detail Zimmerman's demeanor, whether the same subtle differences as compared to the Voyager EMH were evident in those episodes. (Although, in looking back at my review for "Presume," I see that I did praise Picardo for creating a character who was similar but not identical to the Doctor.) No matter; the differences are evident here, and it's an impressive feat.
The episode is a successful follow-up to "Pathfinder" from five months ago, even though the main story being told here is mostly self-contained and completely different (reminiscent of TNG's "Brothers" in its basic idea). Starfleet has found a way to send a data transmission to Voyager once a month when a certain cosmic alignment makes it possible. Voyager then has a window of opportunity to send information back.
In an interquadrant e-mail, Barclay sends news along to Doc that Zimmerman is dying of an unknown terminal illness. No one in the Alpha Quadrant has been able to treat him successfully, but Doc, adapting methods learned out in the Delta Quadrant wilderness, believes he may have a cure he can administer. He's the only one with the experience, and he wants to treat Zimmerman himself. He asks Janeway to transmit his program to the Alpha Quadrant. Janeway reluctantly grants Doc's request.
So there's your premise, a neat tech idea that makes sense and is believable. The rest of the story takes place almost exclusively in Zimmerman's holography lab at Jupiter Station, where we have ourselves a story that focuses on personalities, dialog, and an interesting relationship between Doc and his programmer—and not exactly having the dynamic Doc had in mind.
Zimmerman is an irascible fellow—even more abrasive than Doc ever was. Of course, knowing that he's dying probably doesn't help form a positive attitude. It's almost painful to watch Doc building himself up to present himself to his creator as a hologram who has grown beyond his original program, simply because Zimmerman is truthfully beyond caring. The moment when Doc materializes in Zimmerman's lab shows Doc nearly in a state of glee. That glee is met with a cold Zimmerman shoulder: "An EMH Mark 1? I was wrong Mr. Barclay; you do have a sense of humor." Ouch.
If you listen closely, you'll notice the subtle way Zimmerman's speech differs from Doc's: Zimmerman has a more relaxed, "human" way of talking, with slightly less articulation on each spoken syllable. Doc tends to articulate each syllable just so and with more song in the inflection, which has become so much part of Picardo's performance that it's almost strange to hear it scaled back through Zimmerman.
A lot of the episode focuses on the Doc/Zimmerman friction. Make no mistake: Zimmerman wants no part of Doc's treatment, and in several scenes Zimmerman flat-out insults Doc and his limitations. For Zimmerman, this is an issue that runs deep. Doc is getting nowhere. Even an attempt to scan his patient while masquerading as a masseuse fails.
Doc also makes some unsettling discoveries: The original EMH has been rendered obsolete by several new versions—Marks II, III, IV (although, is it really likely there'd be a Mark IV already? Mark III, possibly, but Zimmerman seems to have a faster development schedule than Intel). The original line of EMHs, much to Zimmerman's dismay and what helps explain his distress at Doc's appearance, has been relegated by Starfleet to scrubbing conduits in garbage barges after being bounced out of the medical corps because of defects.
Zimmerman's unyielding resistance to Doc's attempts eventually prompts Barclay to call in Counselor Troi for help. Maybe she can get to the bottom of the friction between these two stubborn personalities. Then again, maybe not. Between the two of them, they have enough stubbornness for 10 people.
From a technical standpoint, "Life Line" is flawlessly executed. Director Terry Windell and the Voyager visual effects team have assembled scores of shots that are so completely convincing that you won't even be thinking about the techniques that allow Picardo to interact with himself on the screen; you will simply believe that there are in fact two Picardos. Of course, Picardo deserves credit for acting these scenes out against what are really voice recordings, stand-ins, or, for all I know, empty air. This must've been a lot of work to pull off, and it shows—but most importantly, it's not evident while you're watching. Like the most "responsible" special effects, the technique is a function of the story and no more. If Picardo had an identical twin playing opposite himself, I get the feeling the scenes would've ended up looking just like they do here. Great work.
As a character study with depth, "Life Line" is not the equal of "Barge of the Dead" or "Pathfinder," but it's high on the Voyager list. It's often quite funny, it's well acted, has sharp dialog and some moments of poignancy. The stubbornness is only part of Zimmerman's problem; the biggest problem is in revisiting the pain of the EMH-1's failure. When defect reports of the original EMH began rolling in, so did nicknames like "Emergency Medical Hothead" and "Extremely Marginal House call." Zimmerman was humiliated and has carried the pain with him for years.
Troi's detour into the plot is perhaps a bit contrived, although the story makes reasonable use of her. Barclay's presence makes more sense given past history; he's the actual link between Doc and Zimmerman, since he was established in "Projections" as having once been Zimmerman's assistant in developing the EMH. In a sudden twist of fate, Doc's program malfunctions and is threatened with destruction unless Zimmerman intervenes, forcing the two into the same room until Zimmerman finally confronts his own agonizing issues. (The fact that Barclay and Troi manufactured the crisis works better than if the plot had arbitrarily done so.)
I also appreciated the little touches here, like the way Zimmerman is surrounded by his intriguing holographic creations, like pet Leonard, a holographic iguana that occasionally talks like a parrot (which is a hoot). And there's Roy, the holographic insect that buzzes around, much to Doc's annoyance until he finally squashes it.
But most interesting is Haley (Tamera Craig Thomas), who is revealed in an unexpected but understated scene to also be a hologram. Her role is crucial because she predates even the EMH; she's Zimmerman's personal assistant and a friend he has grown very attached to. She helps him realize that he cannot turn his back on the EHM.
There's also a brief scene back aboard Voyager that gives me hope about some of the larger issues that deserve to play into the seventh season. Within Starfleet's transmission is an interesting question Admiral Hayes (Jack Shearer) asks Janeway: He wants to know the "status of the Maquis"—a single line that plants a seed which could become an interesting issue for the Voyager family in the upcoming year (whether or not it does is another matter). How will we deal with these things as re-entering the Alpha Quadrant becomes closer to a reality?
The bottom line: "Life Line" is a very likable show with people we can care about. Picardo and the others are constantly watchable; the plot is simple and benefits from good dialog; we feel at home in Zimmerman's lab, which is a triumph of set design; the comic timing is on; and the problem at hand is an empathetic dilemma of one man's troubled feelings. It's hard to believe an episode like this and an episode as incompetent as "Fury" can pass the same studio export test. Here I cared. There I didn't. And that's the secret.
Next week: Ghosts in the machine.