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.