[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Life Line"
- Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's "Life
Line." If you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.
Nutshell: A winner. One of the year's more entertaining shows.
Plot description: The Doctor requests that his program be transmitted to the
Alpha Quadrant so he can treat his creator, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, who is
suffering from a terminal illness.
Star Trek: Voyager -- "Life Line"
Airdate: 5/10/2000 (USA)
Teleplay by Robert Doherty & Raf Green and Brannon Braga
Story by John Bruno & Robert Picardo
Directed by Terry Windell
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ***1/2
"The Enterprise is in the middle of a mission. We're nearly seven
light-years from you."
"An important mission?"
"They're all important, Reg."
-- Troi and Barclay
Watching "Life Line," one can see just how effectively Robert Picardo
disappears into his character week after week, or in the case of this week,
two characters. The plot of "Life Line" permits Doc to meet his creator, Dr.
Lewis Zimmerman, face to face. We know the story: The original EMH was
modeled in appearance and personality to resemble Zimmerman. So Picardo
plays Doc and Zimmerman right alongside himself. What's interesting is that
it's not a carbon-copy performance. There are subtle differences that allow
Zimmerman to become his own character.
We previously saw a rendition of Dr. Zimmerman's character in the
third-season installment "The Swarm," as well as in DS9's fifth-season
episode "Doctor Bashir, I Presume." I can't recall in detail Zimmerman's
demeanor, whether the same subtle differences as compared to the Voyager EMH
were evident in those episodes. (Although, in looking back at my review for
"Presume," I see that I did praise Picardo for creating a character who was
similar but not identical to the Doctor.) No matter; the differences are
evident here, and it's an impressive feat.
The episode is a successful follow-up to "Pathfinder" from five months ago,
even though the main story being told here is mostly self-contained and
completely different (reminiscent of TNG's "Brothers" in its basic idea).
Starfleet has found a way to send a data transmission to Voyager once a
month when a certain cosmic alignment makes it possible. Voyager then has a
window of opportunity to send information back.
In an interquadrant e-mail, Barclay sends news along to Doc that Zimmerman
is dying of an unknown terminal illness. No one in the Alpha Quadrant has
been able to treat him successfully, but Doc, adapting methods learned out
in the Delta Quadrant wilderness, believes he may have a cure he can
administer. He's the only one with the experience, and he wants to treat
Zimmerman himself. He asks Janeway to transmit his program to the Alpha
Quadrant. Janeway reluctantly grants Doc's request.
So there's your premise, a neat tech idea that makes sense and is
believable. The rest of the story takes place almost exclusively in
Zimmerman's holography lab at Jupiter Station, where we have ourselves a
story that focuses on personalities, dialog, and an interesting relationship
between Doc and his programmer--and not exactly having the dynamic Doc had
Zimmerman is an irascible fellow--even more abrasive than Doc ever was. Of
course, knowing that he's dying probably doesn't help form a positive
attitude. It's almost painful to watch Doc building himself up to present
himself to his creator as a hologram who has grown beyond his original
program, simply because Zimmerman is truthfully beyond caring. The moment
when Doc materializes in Zimmerman's lab shows Doc nearly in a state of
glee. That glee is met with a cold Zimmerman shoulder: "An EMH Mark 1? I was
wrong Mr. Barclay; you do have a sense of humor." Ouch.
If you listen closely, you'll notice the subtle way Zimmerman's speech
differs from Doc's: Zimmerman has a more relaxed, "human" way of talking,
with slightly less articulation on each spoken syllable. Doc tends to
articulate each syllable just so and with more song in the inflection, which
has become so much part of Picardo's performance that it's almost strange to
hear it scaled back through Zimmerman.
A lot of the episode focuses on the Doc/Zimmerman friction. Make no mistake:
Zimmerman wants no part of Doc's treatment, and in several scenes Zimmerman
flat-out insults Doc and his limitations. For Zimmerman, this is an issue
that runs deep. Doc is getting nowhere. Even an attempt to scan his patient
while masquerading as a masseuse fails.
Doc also makes some unsettling discoveries: The original EMH has been
rendered obsolete by several new versions--Marks II, III, IV (although, is
it really likely there'd be a Mark IV already? Mark III, possibly, but
Zimmerman seems to have a faster development schedule than Intel). The
original line of EMHs, much to Zimmerman's dismay and what helps explain his
distress at Doc's appearance, has been relegated by Starfleet to scrubbing
conduits in garbage barges after being bounced out of the medical corps
because of defects.
Zimmerman's unyielding resistance to Doc's attempts eventually prompts
Barclay to call in Counselor Troi for help. Maybe she can get to the bottom
of the friction between these two stubborn personalities. Then again, maybe
not. Between the two of them, they have enough stubbornness for 10 people.
From a technical standpoint, "Life Line" is flawlessly executed. Director
Terry Windell and the Voyager visual effects team have assembled scores of
shots that are so completely convincing that you won't even be thinking
about the techniques that allow Picardo to interact with himself on the
screen; you will simply believe that there *are* in fact two Picardos. Of
course, Picardo deserves credit for acting these scenes out against what are
really voice recordings, stand-ins, or, for all I know, empty air. This
must've been a lot of work to pull off, and it shows--but most importantly,
it's not evident while you're watching. Like the most "responsible" special
effects, the technique is a function of the story and no more. If Picardo
had an identical twin playing opposite himself, I get the feeling the scenes
would've ended up looking just like they do here. Great work.
As a character study with depth, "Life Line" is not the equal of "Barge of
the Dead" or "Pathfinder," but it's high on the Voyager list. It's often
quite funny, it's well acted, has sharp dialog and some moments of
poignancy. The stubbornness is only part of Zimmerman's problem; the biggest
problem is in revisiting the pain of the EMH-1's failure. When defect
reports of the original EMH began rolling in, so did nicknames like
"Emergency Medical Hothead" and "Extremely Marginal House call." Zimmerman
was humiliated and has carried the pain with him for years.
Troi's detour into the plot is perhaps a bit contrived, although the story
makes reasonable use of her. Barclay's presence makes more sense given past
history; he's the actual link between Doc and Zimmerman, since he was
established in "Projections" as having once been Zimmerman's assistant in
developing the EMH. In a sudden twist of fate, Doc's program malfunctions
and is threatened with destruction unless Zimmerman intervenes, forcing the
two into the same room until Zimmerman finally confronts his own agonizing
issues. (The fact that Barclay and Troi manufactured the crisis works better
than if the plot had arbitrarily done so.)
I also appreciated the little touches here, like the way Zimmerman is
surrounded by his intriguing holographic creations, like pet Leonard, a
holographic iguana that occasionally talks like a parrot (which is a hoot).
And there's Roy, the holographic insect that buzzes around, much to Doc's
annoyance until he finally squashes it.
But most interesting is Haley (Tamera Craig Thomas), who is revealed in an
unexpected but understated scene to also be a hologram. Her role is crucial
because she predates even the EMH; she's Zimmerman's personal assistant and
a friend he has grown very attached to. She helps him realize that he cannot
turn his back on the EHM.
There's also a brief scene back aboard Voyager that gives me hope about some
of the larger issues that deserve to play into the seventh season. Within
Starfleet's transmission is an interesting question Admiral Hayes (Jack
Shearer) asks Janeway: He wants to know the "status of the Maquis"--a single
line that plants a seed which could become an interesting issue for the
Voyager family in the upcoming year (whether or not it does is another
matter). How will we deal with these things as re-entering the Alpha
Quadrant becomes closer to a reality?
The bottom line: "Life Line" is a very likable show with people we can care
about. Picardo and the others are constantly watchable; the plot is simple
and benefits from good dialog; we feel at home in Zimmerman's lab, which is
a triumph of set design; the comic timing is on; and the problem at hand is
an empathetic dilemma of one man's troubled feelings. It's hard to believe
an episode like this and an episode as incompetent as "Fury" can pass the
same studio export test. Here I cared. There I didn't. And that's the
Next week: Ghosts in the machine.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...