Voyager rewatch 3.22 – “Real Life”

B’Elanna hacks the Doctor’s Stepford family.

Is “Real Life” a great episode of television? No.

Do I like it? Yes!

The Doctor builds a family

For all that he has the confidence and appearance of a mediocre white man, the Doctor has only been a person for three years. He is still very, very young, and his initial family scenario — two-dimensional characters so horribly functional that even the Brady Bunch would find it weird — reflects that.

For three years from the age of about four — not much older than the Doctor — I was obsessed with an iconic Australian soap opera called A Country Practice. Specifically, I was obsessed with one character and her romance with the series lead, and I never forgave the show for ending their relationship and retiring her character.1

A podcast about the series has just launched, and listening to its first episode took me back to that time when I lay in bed, telling myself stories about those characters, racking my four, five, six-year-old brain to figure out what adults do and how they behave, and what adults talk about when children aren’t around.

(Lest you think I was tremendously precocious, please note that I was also obsessed with Lady Lovely Locks, and also all my conclusions about Adults, What Do They Do? turned out to be wrong.)

The Doctor’s first attempt at Doing Family feels similar. With his sexless marriage and sitcom children, this is more like a child playing house than a realistic experience of family life.

B’Elanna takes a less charitable view, of course — but then, she is estranged from her parents, and her childhood memories are of alienation and abandonment. I think she’s being unfair, but in a way that comes naturally from her personality and experiences.

And she’s also not wrong. Playing house is how children imitate the adults around them, but the Doctor has an adult’s cognition, yet lacks the experience to know his simulation is false.

Everyone Loves the Doctor

Let’s not get carried away. B’Elanna’s changes basically update the Doctor’s family from a Sherwood Schwartz family sitcom to one for the nineties. You’ve got your busy working mom, your hapless dad, rebellious teenage son, precocious pre-teen daughter.

But the challenge for the Doctor is the same as any three-year-old faces: realising that the world (even his own personal fictional universe) doesn’t revolve around him, that he has to take the needs of others into account, and can’t get his own way all the time.

And along the way, we get a glimpse of ordinary civilian life in the Federation: kids sport, teenage rebellion in the form of over-identification with a subculture, rigid gender roles–

Okay, one thing Voyager does a lot, and I do not remotely understand why, is suggesting that replicating a meal is comparable to the labour of cooking from scratch. Like, why do you need to take classes in order to replicate food? (Is it, like, educating your palate? “This is what this dish tastes like when it’s made from scratch, that’s what you should aim for”?)

This is one of those cases where it feels like the writers are just reproducing the assumptions of their era without interrogating them. And, oh look, this script was written by Jeri Taylor, who is notorious for this.

Okay, but are the Doctor and his family a bit racist?

First, the Doctor is all, “I don’t want you hanging out with Klingons.” And even his wife is like, “Whoa, that’s not cool.”

And then Jeffrey responds by declaring the Doctor and his restrictions “vulky”, an ethnic slur conceived by Taylor and adopted by literally no one else, meaning “stupid/weaksauce/nerdy like a Vulcan”.

So maybe #notallholograms, but definitely these holograms.

The Klingon thing is interesting to me, but also offputting.

Interesting because, although B’Elanna claims the changes she made were randomised, well, she has a lot of self-loathing when it comes to Klingons and Klingon culture, and on some level does regard Klingons as a threat to human families. Which is deeply messed up, of course, but also fascinating, and I love her and want nothing but the best for her.

(I wonder if Klingons are regarded by some Federation citizens as cool and interesting and possessed of a culture worth appropriating, and how she feels about that.)

And it’s offputting because, well, again. This time the racism echoes the real world, and that very ’90s fear of “My [white, middle-class] teen has started listening to gangsta rap, and I just know he’s going to join a gang!”

And then the daughter dies

Which is a radical break from the sitcom format this story has followed, and I don’t blame the Doctor for trying to exclude himself from this narrative. Sure, these aren’t real people, and he knows that, but I am the last person in the world who can criticise him for being upset over the death of a fictional character.

Was this plot twist necessary? Only if you’re constrained by the limitations of 45-minute episodic television, which — oh. I’ve just received some bad news about Voyager.

If Belle had survived, there would be no reason for the Doctor to walk away from this program. It would either become an ongoing concern (not an inherently bad idea, but I don’t think the writers were interested in exploring the personhood of, say, Charlene), or it would become one of those frustrating dropped threads. And we are at a stage in the series where the writers seem to be actively avoiding that sort of problem.

On the other hand, killing Belle is manipulative. Like the death of Lal in TNG’s “The Offspring”, it’s less a natural development and more an exercise in making the audience feel something. Which is what storytelling is all about! But if you’re too obvious about it, the only emotion you elicit is frustration.

Or maybe I’m overthinking, as usual.

(Lal, Belle — what does it mean, that attempts by artificial intelligences to reproduce themselves generally fail?)

Oh, there’s also a B-plot

In which Tom is briefly trapped in a weird space thing.

It’s fine. We get some cute Tom ‘n’ B’Elanna interaction, as he discovers her taste for romance novels, and it approximately intersects with the A-plot, as the Doctor laments Tom’s taste for daredevilry. The special effects are quite good. B’Elanna gets to look concerned when it appears Tom is gone forever.

I feel like this is a plot they just had sitting around, waiting to be slipped into any episode that needed a bit of filler. And was that really necessary? I wonder if Lisa “no B-plots! we die like … people who only need A-plots!” Klink would have structured the story differently.

Other observations

  • B’Elanna has added a cute little sidebraid to her hair, and wove a ribbon into it for the Doctor’s dinner party.
  • She also wears a very nice sleeveless dress. This has been a good season for Respectfully Appreciating The Female Cast’s Biceps.
  • I thought I was being very clever with my sitcom observations, and then I looked at Memory Alpha, and Robert Picardo has been saying the same thing since the episode aired. Really must be less impressed with myself.
  • The actress who plays Belle previously appeared twice as one of the demon children in Janeway’s Victorian holonovel. She’s improved a lot! (And is still working today, including a run on True Blood, so I assume she continued to level up.)

In conclusion

Despite all its flaws, I really like this episode. Three holographic families out of five.

  1. But at least she didn’t BLOW UP. Tiny Liz didn’t know how lucky she was.

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