Mark Watches ‘Voyager’: S05E17 – The Disease

In the seventeenth episode of the fifth season of Voyager, Harry falls for a woman whose culture is highly xenophobic, and I promise you, this one’s actually good. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.

Trigger Warning: For brief discussion of homophobia and miscegenation.

I don’t know if I can claim to be well-versed in Star Trek storylines at this point. I mean, I have seen the vast majority of all currently-aired episodes of the fictional universe, but I know there’s still lots to come. However, I’ve seen a lot of bad romance across The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. I’m sure they’ll be more on Enterprise, too. The episodic format is largely what ruins it for me, and I don’t necessarily feel the need to repeat myself here in that regards. Y’all know how I feel.

At the same time, though, the episodic nature of “The Disease” is what works in its favor because this story has a different premise: What is Harry supposed to do when he knows his relationship cannot last? This script outright acknowledges that Harry cannot have a longstanding relationship with Tal, so instead of ignoring that, a different dynamic is explored. For a moment, I got worried that I was about to see Star Trek attempt the whole “forbidden relationship” trope yet again, one that I usually detest because it’s so often used for straight couples, who have had societal protection and acceptance for pretty much ALL TIME. To its credit, this romance is between a non-white character and a different character that is coded as white. (Tal’s species has no canonical reason for different races, but to the audience, she’s white.) In that context, there is historical precedence for a “forbidden” relationship.

Still, the episode just barely invokes this dynamic during Harry’s argument with Janeway, and then careens into something entirely different: the willingness to accept the consequences of falling in love. Harry makes a lot of bad decisions here, and he makes them repeatedly, knowing full well that he’s going to get in trouble. On a very base level, I utterly understood him. LIKE, DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY TERRIBLE CHOICES I’VE MADE BECAUSE OF INFATUATION AND LOVE. And while I’m glad that Seven ultimately distances herself from her opinion that love is a disease, I still think there’s something of value in that analogy. It doesn’t work entirely, but I do like the idea of describing love as an affliction, as something that happens to you and then spreads, impossibly so, throughout one’s body. Love has been a very physical thing for me, and when I start to fall for someone, it hurts. It doesn’t help that I’m also a highly anxious person, but putting that aside for a moment, I can see why Seven observed human love through that lens. Once you factor in Harry’s behavior, it makes sense that Seven would say something like that.

But that’s not the case for Harry. Yes, he becomes smitten fairly quickly – two weeks, if I remember what Tal said correctly – but there’s another factor here that affects how he behaves. “The Disease” points to Harry’s growth as the “wide-eyed” ensign whose first deep space assignment turned into this whole disaster. Over the course of the five years he’s spent on Voyager, he’s been known to be… well-behaved? I don’t know if that’s the right term, but I’ll tell you what this made me think of: how many people were “shocked” and “disappointed” when they found out that I had run away from home. See, I grew up being called a mama’s boy or goodie two-shoes all the time. I followed the rules, y’all, and I avoided ever getting in trouble. I had my own reasons for that, but getting away from my parents helped me realize how much I’d based my moral system around fear: fear of getting in trouble, fear of being criticized, fear of being seen as anything outside the norm. I wouldn’t project that onto Harry in “The Disease,” but I can respect that he’s tired of being seen as the innocent ensign. He’s an adult! He’s been through numerous traumatic experiences! All the teasing he experiences (some of it is from Tom in this very episode) reinforces this idea that he’s still young and willing to do exactly as he’s told.

Thus, there’s a dual nature to the events in this episode. This is Harry’s rebellion as much as it is an examination of how much love can hurt a person. I admired Harry’s decision to refuse treatment that would have made the pain of separation go away. To me, that was a powerful validation. Harry accepted that this was the price he had to pay for what he’d done, for how frequently he’d violated protocol. But I also saw it as a poetic statement about how much this mattered to him. He chose to pursue this relationship, and he would be damned if he wouldn’t see it through to its inevitable conclusion.

Honestly, I’m getting a kick out of how frequently Voyager episodes appear to be full of disparate pieces that shouldn’t work together, and yet they do. There are some masterful performances here. Tal and Harry’s chemistry felt real, first of all. But both Garrett Wang and Kate Mulgrew steal the show, elevating this story to something that felt raw and intimate, as if I was witnessing some event that I shouldn’t be privy to. As fantastical as “The Disease” could have been, it ended up being one of the most personal episodes of the whole show. Gods all bless it for that.

The video for “The Disease” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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