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The Trek Nation - Life Line

Life Line

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 13, 2004 - 10:30 PM GMT

See Also: 'Life Line' Episode Guide

In astrometrics, Seven of Nine picks up a transmission from Starfleet and contacts the bridge. The badly degraded data stream informs Voyager that Lieutenant Barclay has found a way to amplify a signal from Earth through a pulsar which cycles every 32 days, making monthly contact a possibility, with a 17-hour window for Voyager to respond. The initial transmission contains a letter from Barclay to the Doctor, informing the EMH that his creator is dying. Studying the attached medical files, the Doctor concludes he might be able to use Borg regeneration techniques to help Louis Zimmerman, and asks Janeway's permission to have his program sent back to the Alpha Quadrant to save the holoprogrammer.

Seven reduces the Doctor's program to essentials, so that he will be unable to sing, play hoverball, or engage in sexual activities while on Earth. The Doctor is still far more sophisticated than he was when he was first activated, but when he meets Zimmerman, the programmer's reaction is disgust at the idea that a failed EMH model could possibly help him - most of the Mark One models have been reconfigured to scrub plasma conduits. The Doctor says he has developed a high tolerance for difficult patients, prompting Zimmerman to realize he didn't program the Mark One for sarcasm, but he still refuses to allow the Doctor to examine him, joking that radical hair loss is the primary symptom of his illness.

The Doctor is not amused by Zimmerman's arrogance but keeps trying, transforming himself into a sexy alien masseuse to get a scan, trying to believe Zimmerman's assistant Hayley when she says Zimmerman only teases people he likes. Meanwhile Barclay calls Deanna Troi for help getting the two doctors to reconcile. Zimmerman says he'd feel safer being treated by a Klingon field medic than an EMH Mark One, prompting Troi to ask the Doctor whether he'd allow a hundred-year-old engineer to repair his holomatrix. The two men continue to spar, until Troi declares them both jerks and goes to ask Hayley - whom she realizes is a hologram - what inspired Zimmerman to make the Mark One in his image. Learning that his brain child failed to meet Starfleet standards, Troi realizes that for Zimmerman, looking at the Doctor is "like staring in mirror at a reflection you don't want to remember."

Back on Voyager, Janeway plays for Chakotay her encoded message from Admiral Hayes. He tells her that deep space vessels have been redirected towards Voyager and could reach them in five years. Then the admiral asks for a list of casualties, plus information about first contacts, encounters with the Borg, and the state of the Maquis crewmembers. Janeway says that for her, the Maquis are a part of her crew; Chakotay says she may have forgotten their origins, but the Maquis haven't. He adds that it could be years before they need to deal with the problem. Janeway asks whether he has lunch plans; she wants him to help her compose a response.

Making his will, Zimmerman leaves almost everything to Barclay and asks that Hayley be kept running for as long as his research facility exists. He notes that she has been real to him - not that he's had many real friends. Troi finds the Doctor in Barclay's Voyager holoprogram and invites him to dinner, but he says that unless Zimmerman is eating crow, he's not interested. Suddenly the Doctor flickers, and Barclay advises him that his primary matrix is degrading. The engineer tells Zimmerman that the Doctor is dying, but Zimmerman declares that the Doctor is only a hologram, and they should send Voyager a Mark IV EMH.

Her feelings hurt, Hayley reminds Zimmerman that he flew home from Vulcan once to save her program and asks him not to turn his back on his creation. It takes Zimmerman 17 hours but he repairs the Doctor, then suggests altering the EMH's subroutines for compassion, decorum, and empathy. The Doctor begs Zimmerman to accept him as he is, saying that if Zimmerman will let him do his job, he'll realize that this Mark I is pretty good at it. Reluctantly Zimmerman admits that after the humiliation of having hundreds of holograms with his face scrubbing exhaust conduits, it is comforting that at least one Mark I is doing what he was programmed for.

Once Zimmerman has agreed to let the Doctor try the experimental Borg regeneration treatment, the EMH tells Barclay he knows the engineer deliberately disrupted his algorithms to get himself and Zimmerman to work together. After the first successful treatment, the Doctor takes photos to bring back with him, and asks Barclay to take a shot of the two doctors together. Zimmerman warns the Doctor that he'd better not check up to see if he's taking his medicine, but he would like his creation to drop him a line during the next transmission from Voyager, so he knows how he's doing.

Analysis:

My favorite Voyager episode literally in years, "Life Line" features nearly everything that's good about the series and very little of the things that aren't. Not only was this a fantastic Doctor story, it was that rarest of events, a segment in a continuous storyline - specifically, the story of Voyager's attempt to get back to the Alpha Quadrant, and what the people there plan to do when they get home. The Doctor has figured prominently in what continuity there is: he met a holographic version of Barclay in the second season episode "Projections," he met another model EMH during his brief sojourn to the Alpha Quadrant in "Message in a Bottle," and now he has made first contact with the people actually in the Alpha Quadrant working to bring Voyager home.

From a practical standpoint, one might ask why Janeway didn't send a duplicate of the Doctor's holo-matrix like the one featured in "Living Witness" - and why Starfleet didn't debrief the EMH during those boring weeks while Zimmerman wouldn't let him practice medicine, which might have given them a different perspective than Janeway's carefully constructed report. I'm just as glad neither of those things happened, because what we got instead worked so well.

The camera work in "Life Line" is breathtaking, with Picardo circling himself, patting himself on the back, even taking a tricorder from his own hand. More extraordinary, however, is his performance. The arguments between the Doctor and Zimmerman are so believable that one feels as though one is watching two lookalike actors - not twins, but men of different ages and dispositions, perhaps father and son. That's the subtext of the EMH's relationship with Zimmerman, and it's quite moving. If this were any other show, Picardo might be considered for an Emmy - Star Trek is traditionally overlooked in all but the technical categories, and "Life Line" is technically brilliant, but knowing that the actor had to make eye contact with and reach out to touch someone who wasn't there during the filming makes it all the more impressive.

The writing's spot on, particularly the humor - this episode features the more relaxed Troi of the films, and a less bumbling Barclay than we've seen previously, which is a welcome change. I loved that Zimmerman had a holographic talking lizard named after Leonard McCoy. Zimmerman's sense of humor is a bit nastier than the Doctor's - programming a tricorder to make him appear to be a Vulcan animal! - but the Doc trumps all by pretending to be a holographic masseuse, something we know he's good at from the back rubs he's given Janeway in the past.

Speaking of Janeway, I want to see the one in this episode from now on. She was much less strident in her early refusals to let the Doctor travel than during their last argument about his status as an independent being, and she made the decision to let him go quickly - quicker than she let Torres go when the latter wanted to save her own parent from Klingon hell. And calling in Chakotay to discuss what to tell Starfleet about the Maquis - that scene is a stroke of genius. The show needed this tension years ago - if the writers weren't going to allow conflict between the Starfleet and Maquis crews on the ship, we needed ongoing reminders of the looming problem with Starfleet, which it's a little late for given the end of the Dominion War.

Chakotay seemed very much like his first season self acknowledging the issue but consciously putting off worrying about it. And he was flirting with the captain again about her lunch invitation - it's a small thing, but it humanizes both characters, and ironically these days it makes them seem more like a command team than when they stick to professional distance. The series is in the home stretch - the characters need to start acting like it, especially now that they're getting regular news from home.

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green reviews 'Enterprise' episodes for the Trek Nation, for which she is also a news writer. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.