Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch

Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Lifesigns”

“Lifesigns”
Written by Kenneth Biller
Directed by Cliff Bole
Season 2, Episode 19
Production episode 136
Original air date: February 26, 1996
Stardate: 49504.3

Captain’s log. Paris is late for his shift again, and his excuse is particularly feeble, as he claims to have been too busy delivering Wildman’s baby. Chakotay reprimands him, and then Tuvok picks up a distress call from a Vidiian shuttle, which has only one rapidly fading lifesign on board.

The Vidiian is beamed to sickbay, where the EMH and Kes work on her. She has the Phage, and so many of her body parts, both internal and external, have been replaced. She also has a cortical implant that stores her synaptic patterns and processes her neuroelectric impulses. But it’s failing because the nerves to which it connects are no longer functioning properly.

The EMH downloads her synaptic patterns into the holo-buffer and then uses her DNA to re-create a holographic version of her original body, and then downloads her synaptic patterns to the hologram. The only downside is that the synaptic patterns can only stay in the holo-buffer for a limited time before they start to degrade, so this is only a temporary way to communicate with the patient while they try to save her physical form.

Janeway and Chakotay meet in the former’s ready room. There’s a Vidiian outpost twenty-two days away. If they reach it before the woman dies, they’ll drop her there. Chakotay also wishes to discipline Paris, which normally he’d take care of as a matter of course, but since Paris is kind of Janeway’s project, he wanted to consult with her. However, Janeway trusts his judgment.

The Vidiian woman is shocked to see her original face in the mirror. She identifies herself as Dr. Danara Pel. She’s a hematologist who was treating some Phage victims on Fina Prime, and was headed home when she herself started getting worse.

The EMH transplants some of Torres’s Klingon DNA into Pel’s parietal lobe, as it’s proven resistant to the Phage, and now it’s just a question of seeing if it works. Pel wants to explore the ship, but she can’t leave sickbay any more than the EMH can. However, she can go to the holodeck, and he transfers their images to Chez Sandríne, where Neelix and one of the holographic customers say hi. They talk, with the EMH providing his background as a program created by Dr. Lewis Zimmerman on Jupiter Station and how he’s performed tons of medical procedures, though his most difficult, he says sarcastically, was curing Neelix of the hiccups.

Pel enjoys his company—he makes her laugh, and life hasn’t provided her with many opportunities for her to do that. Since he has yet to choose a name for himself, she asks if she may refer to him as Shmullus, after an uncle who also made her laugh.

Chakotay tries talking to Paris to see if anything’s bothering him, but Paris says it’s Chakotay’s command style that bugs him, and he storms off in a huff. This storming is observed by Jonas, who passes this information on to Lorrum. Lorrum also wants him to sabotage Voyager’s warp coils, but Jonas refuses until he talks directly to Seska.

In order to stave off the degradation of her neural patterns, the EMH shuts off the Pel hologram periodically. However, he finds himself preoccupied with thoughts of her. He thinks there’s something wrong with his program, but Kes convinces him that he’s actually falling in love with her. He did not expect his program to adjust to something like this, and it’s obviously a work in progress, as his first attempt to ask her out is hilariously awkward, and she declines.

The EMH asks Paris for advice regarding Pel. Paris suggests a romantic date on the holodeck. At the same time, Pel talks with Kes about how the EMH’s awkwardness was why she turned him down, as she wasn’t sure he was being entirely serious.

Paris is late for his shift again, and Chakotay announces that he’s been taken off the duty roster until he decides he’s going to take his work seriously. The scene ends with Paris shoving Chakotay to the deck and Tuvok arresting Paris and throwing him in the brig.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Jonas finally gets to talk to Seska directly. The Kazon are thrilled to hear about Paris’s discontent, and Seska explains that her plan is to take over Voyager as she has no intention of raising her child on a Kazon ship. The sabotage they need Jonas to perform is such that it will require Voyager to go to Hemikek IV for resupply, which is where the Kazon-Nistrim will ambush them.

The EMH takes Pel on a date to a holographic re-creation of Mars, looking out over the terraformed landscape while sitting in a 1957 Chevy. They’re more relaxed around each other after that, but then Pel’s body seems to reject the transplant. Further examination reveals that Pel’s been poisoned—by the holographic Pel. She knows she won’t live much longer as a hologram, but she’d rather die happy as her holographic self than live any longer as the disease-ridden thing on the biobed. The EMH points out that he doesn’t care what she looks like—what he loves is her, not her physical form. He knows that the ravaged body is only like that because of the disease.

After the poison is flushed out of her system, the transplant takes, and Pel regains consciousness. She joins the EMH on the holodeck for a final waltz.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Apparently there’s enough room in Voyager’s computer for a sentient being’s entire synaptic pattern. Then again Deep Space 9’s computer had (barely) enough room for five synaptic patterns, and Voyager’s shiny new Federation computer is probably a lot better than DS9’s crummy old Cardassian one…

There’s coffee in that nebula! Janeway surprisingly expresses no emotions whatsoever about the Vidiians, barely even seeming to care about Pel’s fate. You’d think there’d be some concern, given that the Vidiians stole Neelix’s lungs, kidnapped Paris, kidnapped and maimed Torres, and kidnapped and killed Durst

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH falls in love and has absolutely no idea how to process the notion. (The fact that he had something resembling a romantic relationship with the holographic character of Freya is inexplicably never mentioned.)

Half and half. After her experiences in “Faces,” Torres is extremely reluctant to help Pel, as she still has nightmares about the experience. Pel’s rather heartfelt apology and explanation of how desperate and awful Vidiians’ lives have become mitigates her anger, and she eventually agrees to it. (Torres never actually mentions that the Vidiians also murdered one of their crewmates, but he wasn’t an opening-credits regular, so it’s not like he’s important or anything.)

No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. It’s heavily implied that the EMH and Pel have hot and heavy holographic nookie in the ’57 Chevy on Mars.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

What happens on the holodeck stays on the holodeck. There’s something charming about re-creating a terraformed Mars and then shoving a vintage car into it. Not entirely sure why the EMH chose Chez Sandríne for Pel’s first foray out of sickbay, but whatever.

Do it.

“Mr. Paris, I assume you’ve had a great deal of experience being rejected by women.”

–The EMH going to Paris for advice while still maintaining his position as the snarkiest motherfucker on the ship.

Welcome aboard. Susan Diol, last seen flirting absurdly with Riker in TNG’s “Silicon Avatar,” is way way better here in her first of two appearances as Pel; she’ll be back in “Resolutions.”

In addition, we get recurring regulars Raphael Sbarge as Jonas, Michael Spound as Lorrum, and best of all Martha Hackett as Seska, moving the Jonas-Kazon plot along. Sbarge and Hackett will return in the very next episode, “Investigations.”

Trivial matters: Although produced after “Investigations,” this one was aired first and very obviously written to be such, since the B-plot sets up the culmination of the Jonas and Paris subplots that had been running for several episodes now.

The holographic Pel is the first time we’ve seen a Vidiian in unaltered form.

The EMH name-checks McCoy from the original series, referring to the parietal lobe transfer as something McCoy perfected in 2253. That’s the year before “The Cage” took place, and would’ve been right around when McCoy got his medical degree, which is pretty early to be pioneering a surgical procedure, but then again, McCoy really is just that awesome. Amazingly, it seems that no work of tie-in fiction has ever chronicled this bit of surgical prowess.

The EMH plays the radio in the ’57 Chevy, but the music playing has varied from format to format. In the original broadcast and on the VHS release, it was “I Only Have Eyes for You,” as performed by the Flamingos, but on the DVD release, it was changed to “My Prayer” by the Platters (likely due to not being able to secure the rights to the Flamingos’ number for the DVD, a common issue when the format was pioneered, as most rights negotiations only covered VHS releases). How-some-ever, the version your humble rewatcher saw on Netflix (and also the version that’s on CBS All Access) reverts to “I Only Have Eyes for You,” though the closed-captioning on both mistakenly identifies the song as “My Prayer.”

Paris’s affection for vintage automobiles was first seen in “The 37s.”

Though Wildman does not appear, her pregnancy is mentioned twice, once when Paris is giving his bullshit excuse for being late, and later when Kes includes her in a list of who’s been in sickbay recently.

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Set a course for home. “Romance is not a malfunction.” It’s always good when the focus is on Robert Picardo’s EMH even if the episode is terrible, and “Lifesigns” is the opposite of terrible, so it all works out nicely.

It’s a tribute to how well Picardo has inhabited the holographic doctor that this romance is completely believable. His romance with Freya was, to some extent, dictated by the circumstances of the Beowulf program that she was a part of, and he was throwing himself into the part—though he also did seem to have a genuine attraction for her. (That “Heroes and Demons” was never referenced once is maddening.) In this case, though, he finds himself with someone who speaks his language as a fellow physician, someone who is genuinely compassionate and kind, and someone who enjoys his company. As a Phage sufferer, who also spends her life treating other Phage victims, she’s had little joy in her life, and the EMH has given her that. The EMH has also found himself drawn somewhat to intelligent women, mostly seen in his relationship with Kes, and Pel is cut from the same cloth as the Ocampan.

And Susan Diol is superb. I was worried about this bit of casting, after the cringe-worthy performance she gave in “Silicon Avatar,” but I needn’t have been concerned. Given a good script, Diol shines, subtly playing the character’s neuroses, exhaustion, and slowly burgeoning happiness.

The obsession with treating interpersonal relationships like it’s a 1950s sitcom remains tiresome, but in this case it’s played for laughs, because Paris’s advice on how to romance Pel is completely ridiculous. It’s obvious that neither the flowers nor the chocolates nor the stuffed bear are of any interest to Pel, and it’s equally obvious that the EMH has no idea why he’s giving them to her. Things get much better when they just stargaze, as the constellations as seen from Earth are completely foreign to Pel, and that’s a much more appropriate dating activity for them.

This episode also walks back the turning of the Vidiians into mustache-twirling villains that we got in “Faces.” “Phage” gave us a tragic species that was desperate enough to do horrible things to survive, but “Faces” turned them into kidnappers and slavers. I liked Pel’s heartfelt explanation of how the Phage has drained many Vidiians of their compassion. It brings back the complexity that “Phage” hinted at.

A point is docked for the simple reason that Pel’s inevitable departure is never really dealt with. Voyager is heading home, and the EMH literally can’t go anywhere else. Pel could stay on the ship—but that would abrogate her responsibilities as a doctor. But it’s never dealt with, and the aggressive standalone nature of Voyager works against it, as the relationship will only even be acknowledged on screen a few more times, which is frustrating.

Hilariously, both Jeri Taylor and Kenneth Biller complained about the need to move the Paris-Jonas story along, and that those scenes marred the episode, yet the resistance to multiepisode subplots is exactly why the EMH-Pel story is significantly less effective, because we don’t get to see the effect of Pel’s departure on the EMH after this. They’re briefly reunited in “Resolutions,” but it’s in the middle of a firefight, and there’s no real opportunity to dig into how they’re handling being separated.

Still, even with that frustration, “Lifesigns” is one of Trek’s finest romance stories.

Warp factor rating: 9

Keith R.A. DeCandido will attend the Virtual Balticon 54, which will be held online. Lots of cool folks will be doing programming, including panels and workshops and readings and presentations. Here’s Keith’s schedule, complete with links to register for the program item on Zoom, which includes two panels and a reading.

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