Star Trek Voyager: Projections

The Doctor experiences an existential crisis when the ship is attacked by the Kazon and he starts doing unexpected things like running around without holographic projectors and bleeding…

'Projections' is a very popular episode. It’s a classic hallucinatory mind-screw, predating Inception, Trance, The Matrix et al in its philosophical exploration of how we understand the world around us and how to tell what is or isn’t real when our senses become unreliable. There’s a hint of Red Dwarf’s 'Back to Reality' about it as well, which did come first, though sadly this episode lacks everyone jumping up and down pretending to be in a car chase.

For a while the episode plays out as a doctor-trying-to-save-the-ship story, and you have to feel sorry for the poor Doctor at the beginning, as it appears that he has been completely abandoned on a ship over-run with enemies. The episode waits rather a long time to reveal what it’s really about, though there’s an impressively odd vibe to the Doctor’s adventures on the dark, half-abandoned ship even before he starts unexpectedly bleeding and Lt Barclay appears to tell him that everything we’ve seen so far – all of Star Trek Voyager, in fact – is a holodeck programme.

Going back to the pilot as the programme apparently resets itself is a fun idea, though since this episode was filmed for season 1 and aired early in season 2, it’s a wee bit early to be doing that – it might have been even more effective in a later episode. On the other hand, the whole idea would have become completely implausible the longer the series went on – 6 months’ worth of manufactured memories is tricky enough to sell to both character and audience, but to imply that seven years was all a holo-programme would stretch credulity too much. Sure, the audience knows deep down that Barclay is lying and everything will be back to normal by the end of the episode, but the set-up has to be plausible within their willing suspension of disbelief.

Eventually, the story turns to the classic dream-episode trope in which the hero is told they have to destroy something or kill someone to escape the dream-state/save their own life. The fun thing about this particular idea is that, although the basic story occurs several times in different shows (including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, and films like Inception) the ‘correct’ solution – the one that will keep all our heroes alive and get us back to something we’re reasonably confident is the ‘real’ world – varies between the different stories, so the tension at the end is stronger than usual, though punctured a little by the fact that we know that the Doctor is not a human being, so we have a clearer idea of what the right course of action is than is some cases.

We are also reminded once again that the Doctor is capable of romantic feelings. It’s clearly no coincidence that he hallucinated Kes as his wife and despite his attempts to cover up afterwards and his insistence that he doesn’t love her during the obligatory everything’s-OK-oh-wait-no-it’s-not fakeout, he’s obviously mildly embarrassed by it when everything returns to normal and there’s clearly something there. The basis of the episode is that the Doctor was taking time off with a holonovel and he obviously appreciates beauty and friendship – it’s very clear that he is much more than a computer programme.

The only thing that really lets this episode down is that the explanation for what’s happening – all three of them – is a pile of incomprehensible, meaningless technobabble, but that doesn’t really matter. Although a little slow to get going, Robert Picardo gets to stretch his acting muscles more than he has so far had a chance to do, and a little gentle philosophising on the meaning of life is always welcome.

Bits ‘n’ pieces

 - The episode trades a bit on assumed fondness for Barclay, which hasn’t always entirely worked for me as this was the first episode I saw him in; I hadn’t happened to catch any of his Next Generation episodes when I first saw this one.

 - The Doctor is developing a strong personality quickly, but we’re still in relatively early days – he’s uncertain of his place and when all appears lost, he goes straight to self-termination without really checking what’s going on.

 - The ending, as the Doctor literally tests the limits of his world, is rather nice.

 - I love Harry’s expression when the Doctor mentions his tumorous growths.

Quotes

Neelix: Am I going to die?
Doctor: Not unless you’re allergic to tomatoes.

Doctor: Computer, delete Paris (it’s the satisfied expression on his face that really sells it).

Doctor: In several seconds the entire crew of Voyager will be transported to the array, where you will be tortured and probed for medical information. (Reassuringly) It will be quite painful, but not fatal.

Barclay: Lewis, how would you rather think of yourself? As a real person, with a real life, with a family that loves you? Or as some hologram, that exists in a sickbay, on a starship, lost in deep space?

Chakotay: It doesn't matter what you're made of. What matters is who you are. You're our friend; and we want you back.

Tuvok: In fact, except for the computer problems, it has been an uneventful day.

This is a Doctor episode, which is nearly always a good sign. Three out of four holographic projectors.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

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