(written from a Production point of view)
The Doctor learns a few real life lessons with the holographic "family" he created; Voyager investigates massive subspace distortions.
The setting is a modern Human home where everything is spotlessly clean and neatly arranged. Charlene, Jeffrey, and Belle hurry downstairs in unison and line up next to the front door. Charlene checks that her children's fingernails are clean and their shoes polished. Belle asks to greet her father first because she thinks Jeffrey always gets the honor, but Jeffrey reminds Belle that she went first yesterday. Charlene cheerily tells the children to get along. Politely, Jeffrey apologizes to Belle, who concedes that it is Jeffrey's turn. Charlene seems excited and the three of them stand at attention as the man of the house approaches.
The Doctor turns a corner, a cup of coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other, and compliments Charlene on the quality of the coffee. Charlene tells him she replicated a new blend from Paksor III and she seems pleased to hear he enjoyed it. The Doctor kisses her on the cheek and informs her he will be home at the usual time. Everything seems to be in order as Charlene reminds her husband not to overwork himself, Jeffrey promises to have his homework done by the time The Doctor returns from work, and Belle assures The Doctor she will receive an A on her history test. She adds that she'd like to do some algebra problems with him if he has the time. Finally, Charlene reminds The Doctor to invite some of his friends from work for dinner, as she wants to meet them before she and the children say goodbye to The Doctor.
In sickbay, Kes stands at a terminal as The Doctor materializes, a satisfied look upon his face. Kes asks what The Doctor's new holo-family is like, and he confidently informs her it is everything he could have hoped for.
- "Captain's log, stardate 50836.2. We're had long-range communications with a seemingly friendly race known as the Vostigye. We'll be rendezvousing within the hour at one of their space stations."
When USS Voyager reaches the rendezvous where it was scheduled to meet with the Vostigye, the crew finds nothing but debris and all sixty Vostigye scientists appear to have died. There is evidence of energy discharges, although it is possible the assailants used non-traditional weapons. Ensign Kim notes a strange subspace signal leading away from the station, so Captain Janeway decides to follow it.
The Doctor sits in sickbay with Lieutenant Torres, who has just performed a diagnostic to ensure that his recent tinkering with his program doesn't interfere with his systems. The Doctor and Kes tell Torres of his new holographic family, which he found surprisingly easy to manage despite what he has heard about families being difficult. Both Torres and Kes express interest in meeting his new family, so he invites them over for dinner.
At dinner, Charlene informs Torres and Kes that she took a course in continental cuisine so she could replicate new and interesting foods for Kenneth (The Doctor's name in the program). Kes tries to be polite and goes along with the program, but Torres grows increasingly impatient as the conversation continues. When Charlene, Belle, and Jeffrey cheerily describe Kenneth as the best husband and father in the quadrant, Torres stops the program. The Doctor is confused, as he sees nothing wrong with the program, but Torres informs him that his family is nothing like a real family. Describing The Doctor's wife and children as "lollipops," she explains that he won't learn anything from spending time in a fantasy world with a perfect family. However, she offers to help him make them more realistic.
Meanwhile, Tom Paris announces that the signal Voyager has been following has thinned out. There are no signs of starships or life signs, but there is an increasingly large subspace disruption, so Janeway puts the ship on red alert. A massive energy wave anomaly emerges from subspace as Voyager attempts to back away.
The anomaly emits some sort of shock wave and bears down on Voyager as Paris announces that the ship's engines have failed. Janeway and the rest of the crew brace for impact and arm the ship's phasers only to see the anomaly disappear seconds later. The crew is in shock until Commander Chakotay speaks up. "I'm not afraid to say it, I've never seen anything like that before." Once the anomaly has dissipated, Janeway decides to investigate it further. Chakotay informs her that according to his readings it was an astral eddy that formed at the confluence of space and subspace. Ensign Kim finds that the eddy was highly charged with plasma, so as well as being a scientific curiosity if the energy could be harnessed it would also go quite a way to relieving their power shortages. They prepare to anticipate the next such occurrence.
Back in sickbay, Kes seems cautious about the randomized behavioral algorithms that Torres has added to The Doctor's family program. However, he doesn't anticipate any problems he can't handle, as he has been programmed with a full database of pediatric care and childhood development and has experience with "romantic relationships." He is due home for dinner shortly and transfers himself to the holodeck.
Upon entering his holographic home, The Doctor finds his home disorganized with things lying around everywhere, no one to greet him at the door, and a strange series of bangs and other sounds that distantly resemble music coming from elsewhere in the house. Charlene is in a hurry to go somewhere and seems less than interested in his usual stories about his day at work. She is set to speak at the Bolian embassy, and he learns that it is his turn to cook. Belle yells from her room that she can't find her mallet, and Charlene tells her she would have better luck if she cleaned her room. After Charlene leaves, The Doctor attempts to be reasonable with Belle, explaining she would know where it was if she put it in her closet. She whines as she searches the house frantically, late for practice, but they can agree that the music is too loud. The Doctor tells Jeffrey to turn it off, and he all but ignores his father. Two Klingon adolescents, Larg and K'Kath, knock on the door and rudely ask where Jeffrey is; when The Doctor tells them Jeffrey is doing homework and can't see friends, Jeffrey emerges and says something to Larg and K'Kath in Klingonese. They simply walk past The Doctor while he attempts to deal with the temperamental Belle.
Paris is in the mess hall, looking for food. Neelix asks if Paris wants any food, but Paris complains about Neelix making the same casserole four days in a row. When Neelix suggests that Paris use the replicator, Paris admits that he's out of rations. Neelix dishes him a plate of the casserole.
Paris goes over to sit next to Torres, who is reading a book on a PADD, saying "a beautiful woman should never eat alone." He asks what she is reading, and she tries to hide the PADD, saying it's "nothing", but Paris manages to grab it and begins reading aloud. The book is a Klingon romance novel called Women Warriors at the River of Blood. In the ensuing conversation, Paris and Torres speak about the Klingon romantic side. The conversation is filled with double entendres and innuendo. Tom borrows the book, saying "Maybe it'll give me some ideas of how to make your heart quicken."
Another anomaly appears, and Captain Janeway calls senior officers to the bridge.
Paris and Torres exit the turbolift onto the bridge. Captain Janeway asks Paris if he can get the ship close enough to the anomaly to send a probe in. The ship gets a bit of a rough ride. Paris apologizes, saying he's trying to find a way to ride out the graviton waves.
Tuvok launches the probe. When the probe hits the anomaly, the ship is shaken worse than before. Paris says that it's kind of fun. Torres disagrees. They begin to receive telemetry from the probe. The anomaly has an interior temperature of nine million Kelvin, exchanges matter between subspace and normal space, and has a perfectly calm eye in the center. Janeway and Torres talk about trying to transport some of the anomaly onto the ship, but the anomaly disappears, taking the probe with it. The probe is still transmitting, and Torres detects some sort of energy, neither in space nor subspace. They then discuss not taking energy from the anomaly, but from its waste. It is decided that Voyager's energy output is too great and would corrupt the plasma. Paris suggests taking a shuttle. Torres points out that Paris will be exposing himself to radiation. Captain Janeway orders Paris to report to sickbay before departing.
After injecting Paris with something to provide him with temporary protection from the astral eddy, the talk turns to The Doctor's family. He informs Paris that he has analyzed the situation and come up with a solution. Paris urges caution: a family is not something that can be "fixed" like a sick patient.
The Doctor's plan is to call a family meeting and to dictate new ground rules to each of its members, so that the family will function more harmoniously. The new rules include shifting the schedules of the activities of his wife and daughter, and forbidding his son to see his Klingon friends. Everyone objects to this plan. His wife objects that she was not consulted beforehand and seems to have no input over the family's direction. His daughter objects to a sports team demotion that will be necessitated by the new schedule. His son objects that it is not his father's place to dictate to him what friends he will and will not have – a point on which his mother agrees. It's also clear that The Doctor has designed the changes in such a way that he alone would be allowed to continue without making any new sacrifices. The meeting collapses, with everyone going their separate ways, and The Doctor has less respect from his family than before. His daughter, however, takes the time to tell him that she still loves him, even if he has made a mess of things.
Meanwhile, Paris, inside a shuttlecraft, begins exploring the eddy. He encounters turbulence, and is pulled inside. When the eddy disappears from normal space, so does Paris and the shuttle.
Voyager manages to regain contact with the shuttle. Paris is unhurt, but he doesn't know where he and the shuttle have been sent.
In sickbay, Kes persuades The Doctor to take the rest of the day off and to 'go home early' to see to the needs of his family. He interrupts his son and his two Klingon friends in the living room. While they pretend otherwise, it is clear that the boys are planning to use a Klingon dagger called a kut'luch, to begin a ceremony involving violence and bloodletting, in preparation for becoming a warrior. Jeffrey's Klingon friends are ordered to leave the family's house, but The Doctor is unable to prevent the situation with his son from escalating. Jeffrey is disgusted with his father's value system and with that of Humanity in general; he intends to become a warrior, and adopt the Klingon way of life. When The Doctor states that Jeffrey needs to live by his father's rules as long as Jeffrey continues living in his father's house, Jeffrey replies, "Then I won't live here," and leaves.
Immediately after this incident, The Doctor is contacted by his wife. Their daughter has been injured during a parrises squares competition.
At the hospital, The Doctor explains the situation to his wife. Their daughter has suffered severe brain trauma. Despite operating on her for three hours, The Doctor and a colleague are unable to reverse the damage. Charlene won't accept that there is nothing more that can be done. Charlene leaves to get a second opinion. Unable to face the pain involved in Belle's impending death, The Doctor stops the program.
Meanwhile, Paris and the Voyager crew determine that Paris' shuttle has been sent to an "interfold layer between space and subspace." Paris and the bridge crew are able to conceive and execute a plan in which Paris rides the eddy back into normal space, where he can be rescued. The shuttle's hull is ruptured and Voyager is damaged by debris along the plasma wave but they manage to rescue an injured Paris and beam him directly to sickbay.
As he is treating Paris in sickbay, The Doctor complains bitterly about people who love to take risks regardless of the danger. Paris can see he is upset and The Doctor tells him about his daughter's injury. The Doctor informs the rescued Paris that he, The Doctor, won't be returning to his holodeck family, stating that he couldn't face it. Paris replies that he and the other crewmembers would avoid that kind of pain (of a loved one dying) if they could, but that in real life, they do not have much choice or control over such things.
When The Doctor replies that fortunately, he does have the ability to make such choices, Paris asks him whether that really is such a fortunate thing; he goes on to say that The Doctor created the program so he could experience what it's like to have a family – to experience the good times and bad; however, one cannot have one without the other. Paris points out everyone on Voyager left people behind when they got stranded in the Delta Quadrant, and that everyone has suffered a loss. But, they have found support and friendship with each other, and have become a family, in part because of the pain they have shared.
Paris continues by telling The Doctor that if he turns his back on this program, he'll always be stuck at this point; he'll never have the chance to say goodbye to his daughter, or be there for his wife and son when they need him... and he'll be cheating himself of the chance to have their love and support. In the long run, says Paris, The Doctor will miss the whole point of what it means to have a family.
With this new perspective, The Doctor re-enters the program as his daughter is dying, providing what comfort and calm that he can for her. His wife returns and joins them. Then his son comes in, without his Klingon jewelry, bringing his sister her security blanket from home. The four continue talking until Belle dies. The wife breaks down sobbing, and the son tries to comfort her. The Doctor stands back for a moment, then he and his remaining family members draw closer to one another in their grief.
"Well, we're proud of him too. In fact, we think we have just about the most wonderful husband and father in the quadrant. Don't we children?"
"Yes, we d…"
"Computer, freeze program."
"Lieutenant? What are you doing?"
"I'm stopping this before my blood-sugar levels overload."
- - Charlene, Jeffrey and Belle, Torres, and The Doctor
"No one has a family like this – this is a fantasy! You're not going to learn anything from living with these… lollipops."
- - B'Elanna Torres, to The Doctor
"You're in fine physical shape, Mr. Paris. You may go ahead and engage in this reckless activity."
- - The Doctor, to Tom Paris
"Captain, this is one weird disturbance!"
- - Harry Kim, on the subspace anomaly
"What's this mean about no Klingon friends?"
"Exactly that. They're a bad influence on you. They're prone to violence, they keep you out 'til all hours… Why don't you find some nice Vulcan friends?"
- - Jeffrey and The Doctor
"You created that program so you could experience what it's like to have a family. The good times and the bad. You can't have one without the other."
"I fail to see why not."
"Think about what's happened to us here aboard Voyager. Everyone left people behind, and everyone suffered a loss. But look how it's brought us all closer together. We found support here, and friendship, and we've become a family, in part because of the pain we share. If you turn your back on this program, you'll always be stuck at this point. You'll never have the chance to say goodbye to your daughter. Or to be there for your wife and son when they need you. And you'll be cheating yourself out of their love and support. In the long run, you'll miss the whole point of what it means to have a family."
- - Paris and The Doctor
"It's all right … Go to sleep. We're all here…"
- - The Doctor
Story and script
- As Harry "Doc" Kloor was academically a very high achiever – when he submitted the story for this episode – but did not meet requirements for a Writer's Guild of America internship with Star Trek, Executive Producer Jeri Taylor, aware of Kloor's situation, invited him to a pitch session at her office in the Hart Building at Paramount Studios, where he pitched and sold the story that provided the genesis of this installment. 
- Jeri Taylor spoke about the episode's premise; "It was, again, that quest for Humanity and so, to have a family… is a very Human thing [....] It was allowing, if you will, a soulless character to develop those elements that are near and dear to us, and let him explore both the joy and the anguish of what it means to have a family." (Braving the Unknown: Season Three, VOY Season 3 DVD special features)
- This episode's first-draft script was submitted on 7 January 1997. The script's final draft was submitted on 15 January 1997. 
- The name that The Doctor takes in his holographic family program, Kenneth, is an in-joke reference to Voyager co-producer Kenneth Biller. (Delta Quadrant, p. 180)
- Stage directions in the shooting script of this episode describe the holographic appearances and disappearances of The Doctor by saying that he "Zimmers in" and "Zimmers out," adding a new term to the Star Trek lexicon. This is in reference to long-time Star Trek production designer Herman Zimmerman (who worked on other Star Trek productions but not on Star Trek: Voyager). This in-joke is similar to the facts that The Doctor's creator is called Lewis Zimmerman and that the unnamed Doctor himself is referred to as "Zimmerman" in all the scripts that were written for Voyager's first season. (Star Trek: Voyager Companion)
- Actor Robert Picardo recognized that a variety of styles are explored in The Doctor's plot thread of this episode. "The first act of that script is like a '70s sitcom. It's like The Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch [....] Everything about it is like an old sitcom," Picardo observed. "Then the second act – after The Doctor's family program has been randomized, so that everybody's not so perfect in their behavior – became like a '90s sitcom, where everybody's dissing dad. Then, suddenly, it took this odd turn and became very dramatic. And the last part of the show is like an ER episode, where a child is going to die [....] It starts out so silly and so ridiculous, then becomes quite touching by the end." (Braving the Unknown: Season Three, VOY Season 3 DVD special features) Picardo also stated, "The show begins very much like a Fifties' situation comedy, with this perfect, unbelievable wife and two children, who are clearly projections of The Doctor's own ego – they're mindless sycophants who worship everything he does. Then the show sort of progresses into a Nineties' sitcom where all the kids and mom are very disrespectful of Dad. Then finally the episode takes quite a dramatic turn." (Star Trek Monthly issue 30, p. 18)
Cast and characters
- This episode was a particular highlight for Robert Picardo. He commented, "I always think very fondly of [the episode 'Real Life'], for a couple reasons." One of those reasons was that it allowed Picardo the opportunity to work with acquaintance Wendy Schaal. "My wife is played by Wendy Schaal, who's been my friend for… twenty-five years," Picardo explained. "She's played my wife in two or three different things. And we're just good pals, so it was great to work with her." (Braving the Unknown: Season Three, VOY Season 3 DVD special features)
- It was Robert Picardo's opinion that this episode is one of The Doctor's most emotional experiences of the first three seasons. At the end of the third season, the actor said, "'Real Life' shows The Doctor at the most emotional we've seen him become. It is certainly the most emotional situation he has ever been placed into." (Star Trek Monthly issue 30, p. 18)
- Robert Picardo also felt that the episode's changes in dramatic style equated to an acting challenge for himself. "It was an amazing exercise in managing different tones of material," he related, "from quite comic to quite dramatic, in a very brief period of time." (Star Trek Monthly issue 30, p. 18)
- In contrast, Neelix actor Ethan Phillips felt there was not much room for emotional depth in his character's one-page scene of this episode, wherein Neelix serves food to Paris. "What can you do there?" he wondered aloud. "You say the lines and try to make them real. The challenge really does come when I get a big [scene]." (The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine issue 14, p. 44)
- Paris actor Robert Duncan McNeill thought highly of this episode's conclusion. "When Star Trek doesn't emotionally back-off from a story, and doesn't necessarily have a clean, happy ending, I think it's so strong," McNeill remarked. "That's what they did with the doctor story [in this episode]. It ultimately ended on a really sad and tragic note, and didn't give you any simple answers." (Cinefantastique, Vol. 29, No. 6/7, p. 111)
- This episode was in production from 17 January 1997 until the 28th of that month.
- One of the reasons why Robert Picardo enjoyed appearing in this episode was that it was directed by Anson Williams. The actor noted that the stylistic changes in this episode's plot were reflected in "the way it's shot, the way it's lit" and was impressed by the way that Williams dealt with the tonal differences. Picardo enthused of the director, "Because of his particular background, he handled the [changes] in tone in that show so adroitly [....] I think it's a real tribute to Anson's direction that all of those tones flow, from one to another, so gracefully, and that the show is quite touching." (Braving the Unknown: Season Three, VOY Season 3 DVD special features)
- The CGI effects of this episode, such as were utilized to depict the astral eddies, were created by regular CGI supplier Foundation Imaging. (Cinefantastique, Vol. 29, No. 6/7, p. 110) Producer Peter Lauritson, who thought of the astral eddy as a "space tornado", was amazed that effects had advanced to the point where the visual effects sequences of this episode could be produced. Shortly after the making of this installment, Lauritson related, "We just did a show on Star Trek: Voyager where we portrayed a huge twister in space. If you had asked me to do that on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1986, I would have fallen off my chair and said, 'What are you talking about? How much money do you have and do you have two years to do it?' Now, 10 years later, we are able to do it on the same schedule that we were on for ST:TNG. We're able to do a very convincing job of a tornado that's churning, tossing things around, tossing a ship around, and a lot of shots of it, not just a couple. We'd do maybe 20-odd shots of this entity in space, like a double tornado [....] It's amazing to me that we are able to portray these kinds of things now." (Star Trek Monthly issue 31, p. 29)
- This is the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager to depict Klingons, albeit holographic Klingons, since the episode "Faces" in which the Klingon half of B'Elanna Torres is extracted to create a full Klingon. By this episode, biological born-Klingons had yet to make an appearance in the series.
- Torres' desire to check The Doctor's systems after "all the tinkering he's been doing lately" is likely a reference to the earlier third season episode "Darkling", in which The Doctor's efforts to better his personality gives him a psychopathic alter ego.
- The Doctor's quest to adopt a name, which started in the first-season episode "Eye of the Needle" and is revisited in several episodes since, appears to end in this episode with him taking the name Kenneth. However, it appears he uses this name exclusively for his holoprogram and does not adopt it outside of the program.
- The Doctor states in this episode that he has had some experience with romantic relationships, possibly referring to the events of "Heroes and Demons" or "Lifesigns".
- The Class 2 shuttlecraft the Cochrane appears in this episode, have last appeared in its introductory episode "Threshold". Class 2 shuttlecraft have appeared in episodes since, albeit unnamed.
- While giving Tom Paris a medical in advance of his mission, The Doctor says "if I know you, you'll push it to the limit". This could be a reference to the events of "Threshold", in which Paris does indeed quite literally push it to the limit to break the warp 10 barrier.
- This episode marks the only appearance of Torres' asymmetrical-braided hairstyle.
- When Chakotay says "I'm not afraid to say it, I've never seen anything like that before", it seems to reference "The Cloud", in which Tuvok criticizes Kim for saying the same thing.
- The kut'luch is described in this episode as being intended for a Klingon rite of passage ceremony, despite the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Sins of the Father" stating that it was the 'ceremonial weapon of an assassin.'
- This episode achieved a Nielsen rating of 4.4 million homes, and a 7% share.
- Cinefantastique rated this episode 3 out of 4 stars. (Cinefantastique, Vol. 29, No. 6/7, p. 110)
- Star Trek Magazine scored this episode 2 out of 5 stars, defined as "Impulse Power only". (Star Trek Monthly issue 31, p. 60)
- The unauthorized reference book Delta Quadrant (p. 181) gives this installment a rating of 0 out of 10.
Video and DVD releases
- UK VHS release (two-episode tapes, CIC Video): Volume 3.11, 1 September 1997
- As part of the VOY Season 3 DVD collection
Links and references
- Robert Beltran as Commander Chakotay
- Roxann Biggs-Dawson as Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres
- Jennifer Lien as Kes
- Robert Duncan McNeill as Lieutenant Tom Paris
- Ethan Phillips as Neelix
- Robert Picardo as The Doctor
- Tim Russ as Lieutenant Tuvok
- Garrett Wang as Ensign Harry Kim
- Tarik Ergin as Ayala
- Sue Henley as Brooks
- Richard Sarstedt as William McKenzie
- Kerry Hoyt as Crewman Fitzpatrick
47; accelerated physical sciences program; algebra; astral eddy; athlete; baby; bearing; bird; blanket; blood clot; blood sugar; Bolian; boronite; brain hemorrhage; brain stem; brig; Bussard collector; carbon-60 composite; childhood development; china; "chip off the old block"; closet; Class 2 shuttle; coach; Cochrane; concussion; continental cuisine; cranial trauma; cubic kilometer; dagger; day; d'k tahg; Delta Quadrant; DNA probe; Doctor's Family Program Beta-Rho; embassy; encoding filter; escapism; ethical standards;eye; family man; Findlay; French toast; glial cell; graviton; grub meal; hand; heart; holodeck; homework; hyronalin; imaging array; immunogenicity analysis; interfold layer; ion mallet; Kelvin; kilometer; Klingon; Klingon music; kilometer; kilometers per second; kut'luch; lectrazine; lollipop; M'Nea; Parsons, Michael; Morgan; microbial infection; microfilter implant; motor cortex; nest; optical processor; Paksor III; Parrises squares; pediatrics; phenomenon; plasma; plasma particle; plasmatic energy; Pleeka rind casserole; radiation poisoning; red alert; Rite of Ascension; romance novel; Rorg; sanctuary; sarium; school; shorty; spawning ground; subspace; subspace disruption; temperature; Terrace; theta band frequency; throat; trigonometry; Vostigye; Vostigye scientists; Vulcans; Vulky; Wednesday; Women Warriors at the River of Blood; wild mushroom pilaf
- "Real Life" at StarTrek.com, the official Star Trek website
- "Real Life" at Memory Beta, the wiki for licensed Star Trek works
- "Real Life" at Wikipedia
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