In the fifth episode of the first season of Voyager, this show didn’t take very long to get super fucked up. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For non-consensual medical procedures, body horror.
The moral issues at the heart of “Phage” are what make this such a great episode of Voyager, and, again, I’m surprised we’re getting something this fantastic so early in the show’s run. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine took a while to settle into their own respective styles and tones. Perhaps since most of the writing and production crew for Voyager had already worked on other Star Trek entities, it made Voyager easier to pull off. I don’t know, I’m just speculating at this point. But look at how much is already established by just the fifth episode! Character dynamics, development, histories… All of that is already here.
Neelix and Kes
I will say that if there’s any flaw that I perceived here, it’s that I don’t quite get this relationship. Unlike practically all of the relationships in the Star Trek world, Neelix and Kes were already a couple prior to the canonical “start” of the narrative. Therefore, it doesn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense to show us why they fell in love. Yet at the same time, I can’t really see it! They’re an awkward couple most of the time they’re on screen because I can see the actors trying to have chemistry. Unfortunately, on my end, I don’t get any organic sense of attraction. I’m told by the show over and over again that they’re in love, but that’s not quite as effective as showing me.
Incidentally, I find both characters infinitely more fascinating when they’re interacting with the episode’s narrative BY THEMSELVES. Neelix has one hell of a story concerning his willingness to wait out Janeway. It’s awkwardly funny and utterly heartbreaking at the same time, and I appreciated his conversations with the Doctor. The same can be said of Kes’s attempt to get the Doctor to open up. HOLY CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, SHE IS SO GREAT HERE. I love that she helps the Doctor to accept that he can act independently and meaningfully outside of programming. At the same time, the script doesn’t stick her here in order to advance someone else’s plot and then ignore her otherwise. Yes, her presence is vital to the Doctor’s development, but she gets a fantastic change herself: she is now going to be trained by the Doctor to be his medical assistant. A MUCH BETTER CHOICE OVER TOM PARIS. Kes is a deeply empathetic person, and I think she’ll play an important role in the sickbay.
A great deal of “Phage” concerns the nonsensical and increasingly bizarre chase of the aliens that stole Neelix’s lungs to begin with. (SERIOUSLY, THE PREMISE OF THIS EPISODE IS SO FUCKED UP, OH MY GOD.) While Neelix has an existential crisis in sickbay, Janeway leads the charge after the alien beings responsible. None of the details added up at all, either. Why the facility hidden on that planet? Why would they construct an elaborate defense system on that asteroid? What were they hiding? What were they so desperate to protect? I get the sense that the writers didn’t really want to answer these logistical questions, given that the audience is left to fill in the blanks on their own for most of this stuff. My only guess is that the Vidiians were so desperate and frightened of being caught that they built layer after layer of protection for themselves.
Again, leaving this all unexplained makes this story a bit of a leap, but the moral and ethical struggle that comes from it ends up overpowering it. Admittedly, I was so blown away but Janeway’s role in the final act of “Phage” that I kind of didn’t care about the plot holes or unexplained bits. As soon as she tracked down the Vidiians and discovered how the Phage disease mutilated and destroyed their bodies, this episode became AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THING. The Vidiians were losing a battle with the Phage, so much so that they’d begun harvesting the organs of recently perished beings to offset the horrible damage to their own organs. Well, it’s not that innocent, of course, and thus, Janeway is forced to make a frightening decision. Is it ethical of her to take back Neelix’s lungs if it means that one of the Vidiians must die?
To the Vidiians, this act, while still horrible, is morally acceptable. It’s a matter of survival, and Janeway knows it. I’m so satisfied with Mulgrew’s performance here because we’re shown that she’s a Captain who is both deeply emotional and committed to her moral beliefs. She’s loyal to her crew, but, with tears in her eyes, she reasons that she cannot kill another being in order to save Neelix. Even more frustrating, she has no way of holding these aliens accountable for their crime because… Well, to them, this wasn’t a crime to begin with. It was the only way they could keep living.
I think the eventual solution is a bit of a Band-Aid taped over a larger issue, but it gives us a further connection between Kes and Neelix. They both now possess a single lung, and I’m interested to see if the show will address this fact in future episodes. It’s a huge decision to make, so I will say this for Voyager: that moment definitely showed me that Kes loved Neelix.
The video for “Phage” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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