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Star Trek Voyager: Lifesigns

"Sometimes I think my people spend so much time trying to save lives, they don't know how to live anymore."

Voyager rescues a Vidiian doctor, who bonds with their own Doctor while helping him to treat her.

The basis of this episode is a neat sci-fi concept. Denara Pel is brought aboard, gravely ill. The Doctor is able to upload her brain, temporarily, to a holographic body while he works on her physical body, so that she can help him treat the Phage, since he has limited knowledge of both it and Vidiian physiology. The holographic body is, of course, a healthy Vidiian body, something we never see outside this episode, and although she's restricted to sickbay and the holodeck, Denara therefore gets the opportunity to live for a few days in a healthy body again (if she were to do so any longer than that her synaptic patterns would degrade and she would die).

While working together, Denara and the Doctor fall in love – the Doctor's programme is 'adapting', apparently (he seems to be developing sentience, or something. They don't really go into the philosophy of it). Their love story is fairly simple, but very sweet, both of them socially awkward, intense and sharing a sense of humour. Susan Diol does a wonderful job as Denara, combining shyness and sadness beautifully. As is obligatory when facing a romantic problem on Voyager, the Doctor goes to Paris for advice – Paris should really charge for his agony aunt services, he'd make a fortune. This is how the couple end up in a classic Chevy, on Mars (in a lovely example of combining something real and appealing with something futuristic and imaginative). Their date is adorably awkward, but seems to end well (it's all very tasteful, but later episodes imply they Did It. I hope the holodeck has reliable privacy settings).

Alongside the romance, this episode is also a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of the effects of a long-term and disfiguring illness. Denara is alone, spending no time socialising, her entire life eaten up by health concerns and treatment of her illness (and others') to the point where she barely lives her life any more. Also, while the Doctor quite properly reassures her that he loves her no matter what she looks like, she cannot escape the feeling that her own body has turned on her, and that she no longer looks like herself. The episode walks a fine line carefully and considerately – not denying Denara's very real insecurities about her appearance or distress at her illness, but at the same time ensuring that the overall message is that those are not the things that really matter.

In the end, Denara faces a difficult choice – a few days more in a healthy body (Voyager's holodeck makes the restriction to environments with holo-emitters less important) or more years of suffering in a body she doesn't like. Thankfully, the Doctor persuades her to live and to continue to help others, and that life, even when it's difficult, is always worth living (which provides an interesting contrast with the conclusion to the previous episode, 'Death Wish'). It's important that the episode ends by affirming that illness or disability does not render life not worth living, and the couple's dance at the episode's conclusion, with Denara back in her own body, is beautiful.

In the B plot, Paris is still acting out, providing an excuse that will never hold (Ensign Wildman gave birth) for his lateness. Chakotay really tries to help him, which is rather sweet, but is brushed aside (when Paris complains that he's never allowed to use his imagination, you'd think Chakotay would remind him of what happened the last time Paris used his imagination, but he's clearly as keen to pretend that never happened as the audience is). It's not overly interesting, but Chakotay and Kim's continuing despair – in different ways – over Paris' behaviour is quite affecting.

Bits 'n' pieces

 - This is the second time the Doctor is given a name by a love interest which he later drops, presumably because it's too painful to use.

 - Paris' interest in 'antique vehicles' comes up again, as he provides a '57 Chevy for the Doctor and Denara's date.

 - Just about every interesting or unusual medical procedure in the 24th century seems to have been pioneered by Dr Leonard McCoy. I wonder where he found the time.

 - The Doctor treats Denara using B'Elanna's Klingon DNA, following on from 'Faces'. B'Elanna is unimpressed (and notes that she still has nightmares about what they did to her), but Denara is too sweet and polite to be refused.

 - Michael Jonas is still selling information to the Kazon, and finally gets through to Seska herself.

 - Janeway flirting watch: Chakotay tells her (somewhat sulkily) that "in a way, Paris has been your personal reclamation project".


Doctor: I apologise.
Denara: No, they were just being nice.
Doctor: Irritating, isn't it?

Kes: Romance is not a malfunction.

Doctor: Mr. Paris, I assume you've had a great deal of experience being rejected by women.

Denara: Before I met you, I was just a disease. But now, everything's different. When people look at me, they don't see a disease anymore.

Doctor: You said before you knew me that you were just a disease. Well, before you, I was just a projection of photons held together by force fields. A computerised physician doing a job, doing it exceptionally well, of course, but still it was just a profession, not a life. But now that you are here and my programming has adapted, I'm not just working anymore. I'm living, learning what it means to be with someone, to love someone. I don't think I can go back to the way things were, either. Denara, please. Don't die.

Sweet with an undercurrent of melancholy. Four out of four medical procedures pioneered by Leonard McCoy.

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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