FORMULA: Ship in a Bottle + Distant Voices + Frame of Mind + bits of Caretaker
WHY WE LIKE IT: Barclay.
WHY WE DON'T: The new holodeck set. None of it happened.
REVIEW: An episode that looks like it was written by Philip K. Dick? Must be Brannon Braga's doing. While I found his reality benders an entertaining change of page on TNG, they seem to come too soon and too frequently on Voyager. Though making everyone real a hologram and the hologram a real person is a fun notion, it seems like every show has now had it's "one character wakes up alone on the ship" brain teaser episode, so it feels very derivative. And for a malfunction in the program, it seems altogether too coherent an "alternate reality".
Despite the "here we go again" nature of the premise, there's some good comedy here. The very notion that Reg Barclay was in charge of the EMH's social skills is subversively funny, and the show has a lot of fun with the Doctor's foreknowledge once the simulation is reset to Caretaker. There's the deletion of key characters that annoy the EMH, Neelix's frying pan fight with a Kazon, and Kes' recasting as the Doctor's wife (she's most responsible for his thinking of himself as a "person", so definitely an important part of this hallucination).
We also learn a little bit about the EMH's early development, and the name Lewis Zimmerman is thrown at us for the first time. The series bible famously has Zimmerman as the EMH's name, but despite the confusion here, that didn't stick any more than Schweitzer did. Barclay probably worked on the program between Generations and First Contact, and his presence is welcome, though it's a case of forcing a cool recurring character into the proceedings despite the distance. I like Barclay, but I do wish Voyager would be a little braver with its concept sometimes.
In the end, we know Voyager can't have been a simulation gone wrong all this time, so it's a matter of watching the Doctor go through the usual hoops until the holoprogram ends. The episode can't quite maintain a sense of suspense. I think it's the first time we see the new holodeck set, and it looks like a step back to me. More manageable as a set, but I liked TNG's yellow-on-black grid a heck of a lot more. The idea of projectors elsewhere on the ship is an interesting one that would give the Doctor more mobility, but it's part of the fantasy, so we'll have to wait a bit longer for that.
LESSON: It's not fun being real.
REWATCHABILITY - Medium: It's entertaining enough, but not quite as involving as it wants to be because "it never happened" (again).