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Family Ties: Can the EMH and his creator see eye to eye? Our May Sweeps Guest Reviews continue with "Life Line"!

Posted: 08:42:45 on May 11
By: Steve Krutzler
Dept: Review Voyager

Reviews Ex Deus
Written for TrekWeb.COM by Guest Reviewer, 'O. Deus'.

Family relationships in Star Trek tend to be dysfunctional probably on the theory that watching a dysfunctional family is a lot more interesting than watching a functional one. Not to mention that father-son/mother-daughter/brother-brother conflicts are a cheap and easy way to add depth to a character and suck the audience in with soap opera, fighting and the eventual tearful reconciliation. It began with Spock and his father, Riker and his dad, Picard and his father figure of an older brother, Data and his brother, Troi and her mother, Odo and his mentor and Paris and his father to name a few. Science Fiction, especially Science Fiction on TV should be grounded in human drama that the audience can relate to and there's nothing that more people can relate to than family problems. While Star Trek may not have taken the route of Lost in Space, the former competitor of the original Star Trek, there's been no shortage of family drama and of substitute fathers and sons. Life Line is only the latest chapter in Star Trek's troubled family saga, but unlike most of them it is a good one.

We last and only saw Dr. Zimmerman, the creator of Voyager's Emergency Medical Hologram program, on a DS9 episode in which Bashr has been chosen to serve as the model for an updated version of the EMH. His role there was limited to comic relief and a minor bit of villainy as he tied together the main two storylines by exposing Bashir's genetically engineered secret and tried to lure Leeta away to the Jupiter Station where Life-Line takes place. While Dr. Zimmerman in "Dr. Bashir I Presume" may have been a minor character, in Life-Line he quickly comes to dominate the story much as he dominates everyone in his life. Fortunately for him most of the people in his life are holograms, in a humorous twist on the horror movie mad doctor who populates his laboratory with his fiendish robotic and undead creations, Dr. Zimmerman has populated his laboratory and his life with holograms, holographic flies, holographic lizards and even a holographic companion. (Little wonder that he wanted Leeta so desperately.)

Taking this into account it of course makes perfect sense that he also has a holographic son in a distant land, a son he has already rejected but knows nothing about. In the ancient archetype of fairy tales and the continuation of the EMH's six year exploration and growth the Doctor who has risen from a lowly position to prominence, he has sentient status, he has found love, a calling, he can paint, dance and sing and now what he needs to close the circle is to confront his father. Janeway isn't likely to authorize a visit back to the Solar System just for the purposes of closure but an opportunity comes up. Dr. Zimmerman has the futuristic equivalent of cancer, he's dying and there's a chance for his son to save him and to get a little personal growth time in too.

Janeway's first response is oddly callous. Voyager's EMH clearly has access to new techniques beyond the abilities of the Federation's doctors and it's probable that he can do for Dr. Zimmerman's fatal disease, which she brushes off unfeelingly as a small illness, what no other doctor can. It is only the EMH's passionate plea to Janeway not as a doctor acting for Dr. Zimmerman's pressing medical needs, but as a feeling person acting on behalf of his own psychological needs that Janeway agrees. This follows a questionable but commonplace pattern with Janeway placing personal and emotional issues above actual real and tangible problems. Meanwhile the Doctor giddy with the possibilities of the trip ignores Janeway's warnings about Dr. Zimmerman's personality and his head still swimming with his own needs and fantasy images of Dr. Zimmerman comes face to face with the reality of his father who doesn't seem to care about him or anybody else.

This of course is where it gets interesting because the confrontation between Dr. Zimmerman and the EMH isn't simply father and son as with Spock and Sarek or even creator and machine as with Data and Dr. Soong. This is the practical core of the battle of wills between them and it is Counselor Troi, who unlike Pathfinder is finally given something useful to do here, who analyzes and acts to even the balance of power between them. The struggle between them may have underlying emotional issues but it's the struggle of doctor against doctor with specialties that only apply to each other but not to themselves. But the only possible practical medical relationship is one way. The EMH cures Dr. Zimmerman, it's what he wants to do, it's what he came here to do but it would mean having Dr. Zimmerman admit that the medical and emotional balance of power is on the EMH's side and that's the one thing he can't do.

Dr. Zimmerman rejects the EMH and the EMH responds by talking about his self-sacrifice in coming here and quickly becomes angry in turn. There's a practical medical issue here but by starting out confusing the medical and emotional issues the Doctor has guaranteed that the analysis, probing and resolution of both are going to be intertwined throughout the episode. In other words the EMH can't possibly cure Dr. Zimmerman until they deal with the emotional issues that brought the EMH here in the first place. Moving on to the second stage of the father-son confrontation, the EMH makes things worse by insisting on having Dr. Zimmerman submit to his authority and giving him orders. The Doctor is trying to dominate him and Dr. Zimmerman responds with even more anger and abuse. The EMH's father is not meeting his emotional needs and every time Dr. Zimmerman looks at his holographic prodigy he is reminded of his personal egotistical failure.

Dr. Zimmerman is a man who has populated his emotional life with his own holographic creations. His pets are holograms, so is his companion and in the end so is his son. He is dying and it is painfully clear to him that his life can be summed up in his relationships with illusions he himself produced. His one shot at immortality, painting his face across thousands of holograms forever serving the Federation long after he himself is gone is a lost dream. The EMH is the reminder of his ultimate failure both as a scientist, and as a human being. As a scientist he couldn't manage to create a functional organism built on solid principles. As a human being he tried to perpetuate himself through science rather than through humanity (a common enough theme in Star Trek) and his children turned out to be idiots. The return of the EMH has the potential to redeem him on both levels. The accomplishments of the EMH are an extension of his work and the humanity of the EMH is a testament to his own humanity to his ability to create human qualities in a machine and to even have it surpass him in this department.

This is the fundamental irony that underlies Life Line. Much like a Philip K. Dick novel, the EMH really is far more human than Dr. Zimmerman. In his compassion for others, his ability to feel and express those feelings, in his relationships with people he displays far more humanity than his creator. On a human scale Dr. Zimmerman, the inventor of holograms is much closer to being one himself. Pinocchio is not only a real boy but he's achieved what Data never did, he's far more of a real boy than his creator ever was or will be. When the EMH first confronts Dr. Zimmerman with this reality he can only feel threatened by it. He's not a man who deals well with people. He likes holograms because probably like Janeway's barkeep boyfriend they are controllable and predictable. It's why he can let them and no one else near him. Now he is forced to deal with a hologram who has gotten near him but has the same emotional demands and needs as a real person. And the rebellion spreads to Haley, his companion forces him to acknowledge his feelings for her.

The inclusion of Barlcay in the triangle of Dr. Zimmerman's household is no accident too. Like the master of the lab, Barclay suffers from problems he deals with by substituting holograms for people. Together with Haley he serves as Dr. Zimmerman's surrogate family and paralleling the relationship between EMH and creator, Haley also seems far more human than Barclay to the point where we even initially mistake her for a human being. In the vein classic Science Fiction, Life-Line is the story of machines who feel more than people and both times Troi is brought in (Pathfinder and Life-Line) she is there to counsel the people. Barclay seems to have taken her advice to the point of finding himself a surrogate abusive father figure who shares several obvious traits with him so that two people unable to relate to the world at large form a family relationship. He is of course only marking time until the return of the "real son", the one who can help save his father allowing Barclay to move on to the next stage of his emotional development.

Halfway through the episode we arrive at a stalemate. The EMH wants to save Dr. Zimmerman but also wants his respect and approval, his affirmation as a being. Dr. Zimmerman wants to be saved but doesn't want to be helpless in the relationship and the forced recipient of the EMH's emotional baggage and needs. The issue is a practical medical one. In this relationship the EMH matters and has all the power while Dr. Zimmerman has none and that she sees is one of the major sources of his resentment. She learns from Haley that Dr. Zimmerman once saw the EMH Mk1 as more than just a machine, but as a son too, the perpetuation of himself. The creation of the EMH was something he invested himself in emotionally and when that investment failed he cut himself off from it and the EMH's independence and actualization is something he cannot accept unless he can have a part in it. The EMH may have been his creation but he has surpassed his original programming and Dr. Zimmerman himself. So there exists an emotional and medical stalemate.

The EMH wants emotional affirmation and offers medical assistance in return. Dr. Zimmerman wants both and can offer nothing in return because he can only care about those things which he feels are fully his creation and under his control. Role playing obviously won't do it here so Troi cuts through the gordian knot by disabling the Doctor, forcing him to need Dr. Zimmerman medically and to be vulnerable which lets Dr. Zimmerman be vulnerable in return. By healing the EMH, Dr. Zimmerman reexperiences his failure and breaks through it by grappling with his original failure and recreating him in a sense. He now accepts the EMH as his creation and his prodigy but immediately and predictably tries to change him. This leads to the final confrontation and resolution of their relationship.

Meanwhile appropriately enough on Voyager Janeway and Co. face the threat of the ultimate big daddy in the form of the Federation and Admiral Hayes looking over their shoulders and threatening to shatter their happy little home. While the EMH has been off in the Alpha Quadrant renewing his family ties, Voyager will soon be forced to renew theirs and it might not be an entirely happy reunion or at the very least much like the EMH's, it might be a problematic one. Voyager has desperately sought Earth, the Federation and home but soon enough they might get what they wanted and discover that maybe they didn't really want it after all. in the DQ Voyager has independence, its crew have filled positions and taken on roles they might have trouble carrying on in the Alpha Quadrant. Like the EMH, the Voyager crew have carried an illusory ideal of big daddy and Life-Line suggests that like the EMH in upcoming episodes they may be due for a big disappointment.

All in all a good episode that offers us a nice look at the Federation and its scale against Voyager's individual journey. After all Dr. Zimmerman can't even remember Voyager's name, let alone care about its crew. The Jupiter Station in the opening shot is beautiful and makes you wonder what the Federation might look like in Series V with top of the line special effects. Dr. Zimmerman is a bit too over the top and strikes some false grouchy notes as compared to his Ds9 appearance but Picardo is at the top of his game to the point that his Dr. Zimmerman, a guest star easily dominates everybody including Picardo's own EMH in every science they're in. Barclay and Troi are mostly outsiders in this story, supporting characters with practical roles to fill and through their familiarity also help us care about the story though little would change if they were gone. The single Voyager scene emphasizes possible coming frictions with the Federation nicely set against the background of the Doc's own homecoming troubles. With few lines, Haley nevertheless manages to be an interesting and disturbing presence while the actress suggests depths and complications in her relationship with Doctor Z. that the episode never shows us. In and of itself Life-Line isn't particularly ground-breaking but it's a nice story told well which is more than good enough for your average Wednesday Night.

TREKWEB TALKBACK

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