the story: The Doctor creates a family for himself on the holodeck.
what it's all about: "Darkling" and "Real Life" are two completely different episodes, but for a number of reasons. "Darkling" is a story about the Doctor tinkering with his own programming. "Real Life" is the Doctor tinkering with a personal life. In both episodes, things go awry (because that's what happens in these sorts of things). In "Darkling," it's episodic logic. In "Real Life," there's the sense that the events really matter to the Doctor, that he actually learns something, and that's the key difference, why one is weightier than the other.
The family he creates on the holodeck starts out ridiculously perfect. It's the '50s sitcom perfect family. The mistake he makes is inviting B'Elanna to dinner. A character who knows all about a broken home life (the later "Lineage," which certainly makes it interesting that the Doctor's holographic son hangs out with "wrong crowd" Klingons, which aside from the lack of comment in the episode about what this would mean to B'Elanna, is one of the nicer continuity touches in the whole franchise), she suggests changes that make the family grittier, to such an overwhelming extent that the Doctor no longer recognizes it.
The rest of the episode is the Doctor trying to come to grips with how complicated his simulated life has become. It's interesting, because this is a character who has always been shielded from anything like this, and not just because he was created for a specific purpose, but because he continued to keep himself relatively isolated, even after obtaining the mobile emitter earlier in the season. Fans hate to admit it, but he becomes a version of Next Generation's Data who doesn't just get immediate acceptance from everyone else (at least in Picard's crew). The Doctor famously has a caustic personality that keeps others at a distance. B'Elanna effectively forces him to face what he's long denied himself.
That we never see this family again, and can therefore assumed he quit the program, does nothing to diminish the impact of the episode. It's the first step in a long journey for the Doctor, one that includes plenty of other bumps, which again is something Data never really had to experience. It's a soft push in the direction that led to the masterpiece "Latent Image," and to a slightly lesser extent, "Author, Author."
- franchise - Deepens the echo of Mr. Data.
series- Its somewhat disconnected nature makes the episode seem unrelated to later developments.
- character - The Doctor gets his first massive dose of reality.
- essential - If disconnected, it's also his first step into still deeper and more profound echoes.