Retro Review: Phage

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Neelix’s lungs are stolen by an alien suffering from a degenerative disease that is slowly destroying his entire species.

Plot Summary: Shortly after lamenting that the power shortage to the replicators has forced the crew to eat ration packs, Janeway discovers that Neelix has converted her dining room into a galley, using vegetables from the hydroponics bay created by Kes. Before she can protest Neelix’s failure to get approval for this venture, the captain learns that the ship has arrived at a planetoid rich with dilithium. Since Neelix has been preparing for missions to find dilithium, Chakotay agrees to take him on the away team, but Neelix wanders into a corridor with unexpected tricorder readings. There, he is attacked by an alien who removes his lungs with sophisticated medical technology of a sort the Doctor has never seen before. The Doctor modifies the holographic emitters in sickbay to create holographic lungs to keep Neelix alive, but advises the captain that unless Neelix’s own lungs are found and replaced, Neelix will have to spend the rest of his life immobile in a biobed, a prospect that horrifies the Talaxian. As Janeway and Tuvok discover that the planetoid hides an alien laboratory full of organs harvested from different species, a small ship flees from it. Voyager pursues, chasing the ship to an asteroid and navigating past sensor echoes to beam its passengers aboard. The Vidiian aliens explain that their species has been decimated by a phage that slowly destroys their organs, forcing them to steal healthy organs to survive.They explain that their race has been decimated by a deadly phage, so they must steal healthy organs in order to survive. Janeway warns them that if they ever threaten her ship or crew again, she will respond with deadly force. Because the Vidiians have already implanted Neelix’s lungs into one of their bodies, she refuses to commit murder to retrieve them. Instead she allows them to attempt a transplant, though the Doctor had not believed that any of Voyager’s crewmembers could be a donor for a Talaxian. The Vidiians are able to adapt one of Kes’s lungs for Neelix before departing. Because she has shown an interest and aptitude for the work, the Doctor invites Kes to train as a medic, and Janeway tells Neelix that he can keep running his galley.

Analysis: Like Voyager‘s previous two episodes, “Phage” has some significant plot holes that probably drag down the stories for hardcore sci-fi fans, but it continues the very enjoyable character development that has been the strength of the series since the pilot and introduces a villain seemingly more complex and unique to the franchise than the Kazon. It isn’t precisely issue-oriented – or, if it is, it seems to have been inspired by early internet memes warning about perfume vendors in malls who’d spray you with something to knock you out and steal your kidneys, something that as far as I know never actually happened – but the phage itself would seem to have parallels with both leprosy and AIDS, the latter of which was still being addressed in the media as a terrifying plague at the time this episode first aired. It’s a bit puzzling that aliens with medical technology that Janeway calls considerably superior to the Federation’s and ethics that permit transplants from unwilling victims haven’t developed cloning technology or the ability to create artificial organs. More to the point, since we know from The Next Generation that Picard had an artificial heart, it’s disappointing that no one on Voyager’s crew asks the Vidiians whether they have considered such organs; I seriously doubt that the Prime Directive applies, since the Vidiians have warp drive and since Janeway isn’t concerned that letting one keep Neelix’s lungs could cause mass Vidiian attacks on compatible Talaxians if they haven’t encountered one another before. It’s inexplicable how aliens who can adapt alien tissue with radically different DNA and structural formations haven’t found a way to grow such tissue in a laboratory or to develop some sort of synthetic substitute, and the fact that they don’t explain that they’ve tried makes me less sympathetic to their plight, since they’ve apparently decided it’s easier to steal organs from other species than to focus all their energies on building new ones. It’s also horrific that they stole Neelix’s lungs yet left him alive to suffocate in agony – convenient for the plot, since the Doctor was able to save him, but making the Vidiians seem extremely cruel and selfish.

What works in “Phage” (and blinded me to those criticisms the first time I saw it, when I called it “stellar”) is Kathryn Janeway. Even though Neelix and Kes undergo the most changes during this installment, Janeway dominates the storyline from the earliest moments. There have been a couple of sexy moments between the captain and first officer before, but “join me for breakfast?” is the scene that a legion of Janeway/Chakotay fans point to as the one that turned them on to the relationship, which deepened and developed and nearly turned romantic through “The 37s” and “Resolutions” and “The Q and the Grey” and “Coda” and “Shattered” until the writers finally decided to toss it out with the bathwater in the series finale. There’s practically no personal space between them during that conversation, which starts with Chakotay all business as he tells Janeway that Torres wants to modify the auxiliary impulse reactor to use to refine dilithium, then turns friendly when Janeway laughs that B’Elanna – for whom she now obviously has as much affection as Chakotay does – seems to go out of her way to ignore Starfleet procedures. Then Janeway invites Chakotay to enjoy an intimate breakfast in her private dining room, even though she can’t actually provide the sensuous pleasures of the eggs benedict and strawberries she’s craving. I’m not sure Janeway even gets her ration pack, given that her plans are derailed first by Neelix’s cooking, then by Voyager’s arrival at the planetoid, but she proves to be more flexible than Picard or Sisko would have been had they discovered their private space taken over by a recent crew addition (okay, and Sisko would have insisted fairly that he could cook better himself). I approve that she does not join the initial landing party, which would constitute an unnecessary risk for the captain, and to a lesser degree that she heads up the subsequent search for Neelix’s attacker, refusing to send her crew into any danger that she won’t face herself, though it’s silly that she and not her chief of security takes the lead while marching through the caves.

But it’s representative of her decisiveness. Once Janeway learns why the Vidiians do what they do, she can simultaneously feel sorry for their people and threaten to kill them all if they come near her people again. Mulgrew’s performance is terrific – highly emotional, yet the opposite of weak. It’s not a balance I could imagine any of the other Starfleet captains we know pulling off on TV in the 1990s, and it works not in spite of but precisely because of the fact that she’s a woman. Where Kirk sometimes seems pushy with his views and Picard sometimes seems too distant, Janeway makes clear both that she is moved by their plight and that her own sense of ethics makes their actions utterly repellent to her. I’m a little surprised she lets the Vidiians operate on Neelix, given that they have done nothing to merit such trust – if their technology is so sophisticated, they might easily harvest another organ before the Doctor can stop them – and I’m not sure how she or the Doctor can be sure that the phage can’t be transmitted through contact with their equipment. It’s a thought-provoking scenario, yet not quite grounded enough in scientific logic to make it a great story, though the action is well-paced (I always have a moment of wondering whether the asteroid will have a creature living in it that could eat the ship, like in The Empire Strikes Back) and the performances are very strong all around. The great fun of watching Robert Picardo blurt out more “I’m a doctor, not a…” lines is balanced by watching the Doctor discover via Kes that he really is much more than the sum of his programming, while she makes a much more logical medic than Tom Paris ever could. If one starts to wonder why none of the Maquis are at this point questioning Janeway’s choices, one only has to watch Janeway’s monologue, ranging from deep empathy for people who are suffering to ferocious threats to protect her crew to understand their loyalty.

What do you think? Chat with other fans in the Star Trek: Voyager forum at The Trek BBS.

Michelle Erica Green

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Michelle Erica Green

Writer, mother, reader, traveler, teacher, partner, photographer, activist, friend, fangirl, student, critic, citizen, environmentalist, feminist, vegetarian, enthusiast. TrekToday staffer for many years, former news reporter, current retro reviewer.

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