Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"Real Life"

“Real Life' is a particular oddity in its origin. Writer Harry Khor was seeking an internship with Jeri Taylor at the same time he was seeking--get this--simultaneous PhD in physics and chemistry. The Writer’s Guild of America, an old boy’s club if there ever was one, has strict rules about internships Khor’s academic pursuits did not fit. As compensation, Taylor invited him to a pitch session. He managed to sell the story for “Real Life.”

Before delving into the episode, I have to note the usual Star Trek story structure of A and B plots is a big detriment here. It reminds me of some of the worst of DS9 episodes wherein an interesting main story would be periodically interrupted by the antics of Jake and Nog. A weak b story is a serious drain on a highly emotional, very well done a story. Some effort should be made to match these things up better. Or get rid of the motif altogether. Hardly anyone compliments how well both stories worked. It is always the main story fans either like or pan., so what is the point in the first place?

The main story involves the Doctor, in an effort to become more human, creating a holodeck family for himself. It is all played for laughs in the very beginning as his wife, son, and daughter are all stereotypical sitcom cardboard cut outs. It is not until he invites Torres to dinner one night that he realizes he is not going to learn anything about dealing with people if they do not have a normal edge to them. Torres offers to tweak his program with some random ’real life” possibilities to make family life more unpredictable.

What the doctor winds up with is a busy, professional wife who is no longer from Stepford. His son has gone from an academic overachiever to eschewing his own culture to ingratiate himself with some Klingon teenagers. His daughter goes from a decent student and solid athlete to a thrill seeking adrenaline junkie. His initial reactions are comedic, but they turn dark quickly as we learn just how dysfunctional the family is and watch his frustrated inability to handle.

Two events in particular shake him up. The first is when he learns his son is about to go through with some bloodletting ritual to become a full fledged Klingon warrior. When he forbids his son from participating, the kid moves out in order to pursue his own way. The entire scenario is clearly an allegory for middle class white kids embracing the gangsta rap culture. That is a phenomenon I always found dumb myself. Mature, successful blacks do not want to be considered part of that culture, so why should whites? Nevertheless, it comes across as odd to compare Klingon ways to violent gang culture. I am not certain if that is more social commentary gone awry, or more evidence Klingons have drifted too far away from the feudal Japanese shogun societal system they are best presented as having.

The other incident pushes the Doctor over the edge. His daughter suffers a brain injury while playing a dangerous, futuristic sport. It is fatal, and when he just cannot face his daughter’s death, he shuts off the program for what he intends to be forever. He is talked into returning to say goodbye to his daughter by Tom, of all people. You have to take the good with the bad, Tom says. It is the stuff of emotional bonds. The Doctor does return. His fractured family comes together as his daughter dies. The scene is surprisingly moving. I expected something far more maudlin considering no one involved in the matter is real flesh and blood.

There is some question among fans as to whether Torres was cruel to alter the doctor’s program so the daughter might die. I think it is unfair to impugn Torres. She expressly said she was adding random occurrence to the program in order to make it more real. She did so with the Doctor’s consent. While neither had any idea what would transpire, no one really thinks their child is going to die in a freak accident. Surely Torres did not think such a thing was going to happen.

The B story involves the ship discovering a tornado in space. The science is enormously theoretical, but I must acknowledge features very little techno babble for once. This show could have benefited from more writers who were theoretical physicists. The problem with it, besides being uneven with the main story, is why manufactured drama it is. The story goes the crew is so sick of Neelix’s cooking, Tom is going to risk his life to harness some of its power as an energy source for the replicators. That does also bring up the question of why, if energy is such a problem, can the doctor run the holodeck at his leisure but Tom cannot replicate a ham sandwich out of power concerns. It makes no sense, yet they pair these two stories up. I would have been happier if the whole space tornado bit had been jettisoned.

Rating “Real Life” is tough for me. This sort of thing is not my cup of tea. I did not go for it back in the TNG days when Data faked a romance with a woman or created a daughter for himself even though those were generally popular episodes. Maybe it is because I do not buy into the idea humanity is the ideal that Star Trek often obnoxiously espouses. Aliens, androids, and holograms do things differently. What is wrong with that? I will give high marks for Robert Picardo’s acting, but not much else. I do not watch science fiction to see domestic squabbles. “Real Life” is watchable, but not much else. Considering the Doctor’s family is never mentioned again, so I cannot be the only uninterested part out there.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

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