Star Trek Voyager: Real Life

"I guess all of us would avoid that kind of pain if we could. But most of us don't have that choice."

The Doctor wants to experience family life for himself, so creates a holographic family on the holodeck, but things don't quite go as planned.

I think this is a good episode. It's a decent plot (if a tiny bit of a re-run of TNG's 'The Offspring'), there are some great performances, especially from a young Lindsey Haun (later Hadley in True Blood) as Belle, and some great character work for the Doctor, who's always watchable.

I don't really like it all that much, though.

I find the Doctor's Stepford family at the beginning hilarious, and I thoroughly enjoy that section. The fabulously uncomfortable dinner with B'Elanna's increasing exasperation at this ridiculously "perfect" fantasy family is very funny. And the callback to the Doctor's recent "tinkering" with his program is good, too.

But then I start to ask myself – hang on, why has the Doctor created a family like this in the first place? This is a fantasy, as B'Elanna quite rightly points out – but it's the fantasy of a white male in the 1950s. The Doctor calls his wife "the little woman" and says he provided the computer with his "requirements" for a wife and children – so he specifically asked for not just the adoring children, but a wife who doesn't work or do anything for herself, but spends her time cooking for him.

Think about the actual women the Doctor has been attracted to in the past – Freya, Denara Pel, Kes. All of these are career women – two medical practitioners and a frikkin' shieldmaiden! Why did he decide he wanted a wife who embodies what was already a sinister fantasy in the 1970s? OK, maybe he doesn't want to have to cook, but he has replicators, doesn't he? Why does the Doctor want a Stepford Wife?

His parenting problems make more sense – of course the Doctor has programmed his children to be perfect and adoring, so when B'Elanna introduces random elements to the program and he faces more realistic parenting challenges, it's a shock to the system. But then, somehow, he responds with some truly bizarre racism.

I fully agree with him that the Klingon music is horrible (and that doesn't help the episode – I don't want to have to listen to it any more than the Doctor does!) but the way he objects to his son hanging out with Klingons on principle because he doesn't like their culture and thinks they're a bad influence is really creepily racist. His objections to the blood-letting ceremony are much more reasonable, but by then he's got so angry about everything Klingon in general that he's lost all authority.

And then it all turns predictably tragic when Belle, his clear favourite and the most loving family member, is fatally injured playing Parrises Squares. This is the most effective section because Haun's performance really is very good, it's genuinely tragic, and it makes the key point really clearly. "Real life" is messy and unpredictable, and dangerous. Real people have minds and hearts of their own and can't be programmed by computers (except this family has, in fact, been programmed by computers). Having a real family is about risk and danger and frustration and anger and sadness as well as happiness and love and contentment.

But seriously, why does anyone in the 24th century play Parrises Squares in the first place? It's more dangerous than Quidditch! The Doctor was quite right when he tried to stop Belle playing with older children – it's the one thing he gets right, so of course it comes back to bite him in the ass. I know, I know, I enjoy motorsports, and those are dangerous too. I guess I can understand the appeal. And to be fair, Belle's injury could happen cycling (if without a helmet) or ice skating, both things I did as a teenager. It still seems weird to play something so apparently dangerous in a world with holodecks, but I guess it's like watching real F1 races (when they come back) rather than virtual ones. It's more interesting when the stakes are real.

I genuinely think this is a well-made episode that covers some interesting and universal themes about family life and parenting. The real reason the Doctor has such out-moded ideas about family life, of course, is that plenty of people still think that way, and even more did in the 1990s, so it makes the episode ring true. I just don't really enjoy watching it all that much.

Once you get past the hilarious Stepford family bit at the beginning, it's just a character struggling to parent a fake family we won't ever see again, with some horrible "music", and then a tragedy that, realistically, could be fixed by fiddling with the holodeck program. I understand why the Doctor doesn't do that, since, as Paris points out, that would defeat the object of the program and wouldn't be "real" – but shutting it down forever afterwards and never having to deal with the fallout from Belle's death for his wife and son is pretty spectacularly unrealistic and pain-avoiding as well. Eh.

Bits and pieces

 - There is a B plot somewhere in this about a Spatial Anomaly of the Week. It's entirely unimportant and exists only to give everyone who isn't the Doctor, B'Elanna, Kes or Tom lines. And most of the lines still go to Tom and B'Elanna anyway.

 - The Doctor's fake home is rather nicely designed, though the dining chairs look a bit uncomfortable.

 - The Doctor's latest name for himself is "Kenneth".

 - B'Elanna has a different hairstyle for this episode only – a random small plait on one side. It's rather nice.

 - The shipping news: Tom, flirting again, catches B'Elanna reading a Klingon romance novel called Women Warriors at the River of Blood. It's wonderful. Has anyone written this book for real so I can read it?!

 - "As husband and father I believe it's my duty to set some parameters". And then he rearranges his wife's lectures. Seriously, why has the Doctor, a product of an equal and tolerant 24th century society, decided his model for family life is white America in the 1950s? Not even real white America in the 1950s, but the world of the television shows parodied on Pleasantville!

Quotes

B'Elanna: I'm stopping this before my blood sugar levels overload.

Belle (on the Klingon music): It makes my eyes hurt!

B'Elanna: Klingons do have what you might call a romantic side. It's a bit more vigorous than most.

It's a good episode, but it's just not for me. Two and a half out of four horrible pieces of Klingon music.

Juliette Harrisson is a storyteller, freelance writer, Classicist and Trekkie. She runs the podcast Creepy Classics, re-telling and discussing ancient, medieval and early modern ghost stories. She tweets @ClassicalJG

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