Voyager rewatch 2.19 – “Lifesigns”

The Doctor falls in love with a patient, but for once it’s not creepy?

Star Trek has a romance problem.

Not just because its depictions of romance over fifty-odd years have been decidedly hit or miss. That’s a problem, sure, but it’s hardly unique to the franchise, and what hits for me (Worf/Troi) is a big miss for others.

The specific problem I’m referring to is the franchise’s treatment of heterosexual romance and sexuality as a necessary rite of passage for an individual to become a fully-fledged adult entity. Asexuality wasn’t a major part of The Discourse in the ’90s, but this is a universe which purports to deal with infinite diversity in infinite combinations, and fully-developed adults who look at sex and dating and say, “Nope” seems like a logical step. IDIC, but only if you’re a straight person who experiences sexual attraction.

(I choose to blame Gene Roddenberry and also the sixties.)

(Why does Odo, who is essentially a puddle of sentient fascist slime, have a gender identity at all?)

(Odo/Kira is one of the biggest misses of the whole franchise as far as I’m concerned.)

“Lifesigns” presents the idea that the Doctor is not only capable of romantic attraction, but that this is a natural outcome of his programming’s evolution.

I have questions. Starting with “how”, and then “why” and … well. I don’t think it’s an intrinsically bad idea, but it’s one of many, many examples of compulsory (hetero)sexuality in Star Trek. And I’m tired.

Do photons dream of electric sheep?

Having registered this complaint, let me say that I think “Lifesigns” is a perfectly good episode. I don’t love it, because I don’t really care about the Doctor, and it’s once again undermined by the Kazon arc, but it’s solid. Robert Picardo brings a lot of depth to the Doctor, and Susan Diol as Denara Pel gives us a welcome glimpse into Vidiian society.

It’s more or less a bottle episode. Voyager answers a distress call from a Vidiian shuttle carrying one person: a doctor, Denara, who suffered a health crisis on her way home after dealing with a crisis on a colony. She’s dying, but a neural implant gives the Doctor a solution: he copies her mind and personality into a holographic body, buying himself time to treat her illness. Getting to know Denara, he finds himself falling in love with her, while she becomes reluctant to return to her real, sick body.

I like Vidiians. Although their previous appearances were mostly about body horror, every now and then we get a glimpse of a potentially interesting culture. They’re not just a roving band of organ pirates — they have history, they have tragedy, they’d be sympathetic if they weren’t constantly trying to steal your internal organs. Or face. Or —

Okay, they’re bad guys, but their motives are understandable. And if I have one criticism of Denara as a character, it’s that she’s such a good person — sweet, funny, has a solid grasp of medical ethics — that she’s almost a little dull. Whose organs are in her body? Whose skin is on her face?

She regrets the impact of the phage on Vidiian culture, and the corresponding callousness they’ve developed towards other organ donors species. And it’s great to have a Vidiian character who isn’t an out and out villain, but in considering Denara as an individual, I wish she had at least a couple of shades of grey beyond briefly flirting with suicide.

The cure is worse than the disease

The romance is fine, I grudgingly accept its existence and acknowledge that the execution is good — sweet, even.

But what I really like about “Lifesigns” is how it captures the way long-term disease becomes part of one’s identity. Denara hasn’t been healthy since she was a child — although she never explicitly says as much, until she gets this temporary holographic body, she has never seen her “real” adult face. People look at her and see, not an individual, but a disease.

(It’s ironic that she bonds with the Doctor, who often treats patients as just medical conditions with personalities attached.)

Disease-as-identity extends to the entire Vidiian culture: public gatherings are forbidden, and Denara recoils from the holographic gigolo’s casually outstretched hand.

(I would also recoil from the holographic gigolo, who’s more sleazy than charming. And once again, I ask, who thought that was a good idea? Both in-universe — Tom, I have questions — and out.)

We know from their first appearance that there are still artists among the Vidiians. Back in their very first episode, Neelix’s lungs were installed in a sculptor. Vidiians continue to create and consume works of art — but not, I guess, in galleries or other public settings. How do they meet? What does marriage and childrearing look like among Vidiians? What happens if your partner develops the phage? Or your child?

These are interesting questions, and I’m bummed that they’re never answered. But I like the breadcrumbs Voyager drops.

Fine, I’ll talk about the romance

Later in the series, I’m going to be really unhappy about the Doctor’s infatuation with Seven of Nine — it’s inappropriate, it borders on creepy, and honestly, although I dabbled in Janeway/Seven back in the day, on my last rewatch she read to me as asexual. (Yes, I know how the series ends; nineteen years of denial and counting, thanks.)

(I’ve only just registered that Certain Spoilers out of Star Trek: Picard‘s trailer mean I’m gonna have to rewatch a chunk of Voyager before next year. Not exactly a hardship, but I was being so good about not skipping ahead in my rewatch!)

I was interested to realise that the Doctor’s romance with Denara didn’t creep me out at all, even though she is very much his patient, and a civilian. (Doctor-patient relationships usually get a pass in Trek if they’re between fellow officers. The only exception was Lorca calling out Hugh for treating Paul, and, well, Lorca was a bad guy.)

I think it worked here because Denara, via her holographic body, has agency. And she’s a doctor, she’s participating in her own care. She meets the Doctor as an equal in more ways than one.

Oh yeah — the Kazon arc continues to happen

When this storyline began, I called it the opposite of a mystery box. But there is one thing we don’t yet know: why Michael Jonas has chosen to betray Voyager.

Is it just because he doesn’t like the way Janeway runs things? But he’s endangering the lives of his friends and allies — and we know from his interactions with Hogan that he cares about former Maquis, at least.

Scenes of Tom acting out, punching Chakotay, ending up in the brig (which we never actually see) — these are fine. I guess. More scenes which aren’t integrated with the A plot, to the point where you could excise this whole storyline and all that would change is the running time of a few episodes.

But I think I’d care more if I knew anything at all about Jonas’s motivations.

(Maybe we find out next week? I have no idea.)

Other observations

In conclusion

For me, a person who does not care for or about the Doctor, this is an extremely skippable episode. But it’s not bad. So, I dunno, you do you. Three holographic bodies out of five.

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