Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.4: “Leave Me Breathless”

Phage

Voyager Phage

“Didn’t this place used to NOT BE ON FIRE?”

More like “Phailge”, right peeps?

Actually, that’s probably unfair. Voyager‘s fourth episode is far more disappointment than disaster. More to the point, it mainly disappoints in about the best way you can, which is by not realising when you have too many interesting ideas for one episode. There are some concepts that need time to breathe.

“People Still Fall For That Old ‘Anne Rice’ Routine?”

That was the original plan, in fact. The idea of a crew-member left paralysed in sickbay after losing a vital organ, and the introduction of a new alien threat (then called the Vaphorans) were being developed as separate episode ideas before it was decided to combine the two. And you can see why that happened. In many ways it’s perfectly sensible. You have a bunch of organ-harvesting empathy vacuums on one side, and on the other there’s Neelix losing his lungs and having to face a life of paralysis so total he can’t even let his body be moved by anyone else. There’s clear motivation there for welding the two together. Where the production team slipped up was in not realising Neelix’s story was a perfect one to support the Vidian’s second appearance.

The Vidians deserve far more exposure than they get here. I’m a big fan of them as a concept. There’s just so much to consider there; so many layers of scar-tissue covering weeping wounds. I’m struggling to think of any other Star Trek race that’s so compelling in their first appearance. The Borg, possibly? That’s about all I can come up with. First of all, the Vidians look perfect. They’re just the right mix of disgusting and pathetic. So much so, actually, that they function as a challenge by the show to the audience. “Do you have it in you to read these poor bastards as people, and not just as either monsters or villains?”.  This is then immediately reinforced by the nature of the Vidians themselves. Their actual organ-stealing antics aren’t all really all that original in the genre – they basically read as the kind of vampire that forever complains how hard it is to have to kill people to survive. The thing that makes Motura fascinating is the arguments he offers to justify what he’s doing – or more accurately, what he’s employing Dereth to do on his behalf.

I realise that technically we hear Motura’s justification to Janeway, rather than the one he gives himself. I think we can trust them to be more or less the same, though. They pretty much have to be. If he empathised with other species enough to be able to tailor his tale to their liking, he wouldn’t be able to treat them as walking organ storage. Well, I suppose he could if he were a sociopath, but in that case I’d expect his pitch to be a little more polished. Motura’s is just nakedly horrifying.  Apparently if your art career is sufficiently promising you can react to long queues for organ donation by murdering someone. Better some random no-mark comes to an end than do the sculptures of the great Motura! The cultural importance of the Vidians is so clear it cannot be allowed to die! Even if the only alternative is to allow it to kill the less gifted.

Only, it’s worse than that. Horrible and disgusting and abominable as that is, the actual Vidian position is even more objectionable than it initially seems. Because Motura has no idea who and what Neelix is. No idea whether he too is a sculptor, or a poet, or a philosopher, or a doctor, or any of a hundred other roles that in one way or another improve society. The people he has Dereth kill for him don’t die because Motura judges their contributions less than his own, they die because it doesn’t occur to him that they could possibly offer as much. I mean, I’m thoroughly of the belief that the worth of a person’s life can’t be measured by what they produce, so I’m already dead set against Motura. This whole “feel bad for me I’m famous” makes me want to gargle with de-icer. But it’s still worth noting that Motura doesn’t just have a truly hideous guiding philosophy, he can’t even be consistent about it.

But then how could he? How could he be anything else but a hypocrite? We’ve seen this kind of despicable argument before. In their own way, the Vidians are just as much “us” as the Ferengi are. More so, probably. The assumption that we ourselves simply must be worth more than “those other people” is a madness shared by millions.  So many of us hold the bulletproof conviction of our own importance. We can understand that other people might be important, but we know we are, so what option do we have but to prioritise ourselves? We all get to live within our own virtues, and only have to drive past those of others. We don’t even need to look out at the window as they fly past, if we don’t feel like it.

As with the personal, so too the political. Nationalism and its cousins basically says your nation/ hemisphere/ skin tone deserves to have whatever it wants because it’s so vibrant and unique and filled with great art and great music and great people. Sure, it’s a real shame if people from other countries have to suffer or even die in the process of coughing up what we’re demanding, but after all, we do deserve to have it. We must do. Look at how great we are.

What exactly everyone else deserves goes curiously unconsidered. Their virtues can be driven past. Their culture can be driven past. Their lives can be driven past.

I wonder whether there used to be a larger effort to help the Vidians out, the same way the international community can aid a country hit by a sudden epidemic. Perhaps many species and powers in the Delta Quadrant were perfectly willing to include the Vidians on their organ recipient lists, right up until their medical technicians started getting opened and emptied along with their ice-boxes. Whether help was never forthcoming, though, or simply trickled out as the Vidians took ever-greater liberties, it’s clear what lesson they learned. It’s quicker to decide for yourself what you deserve and take it from whoever’s closest.

Hell, it might turn out that the Vidians are a better metaphor for the excesses of capitalism than the Ferengi ever were.

Crime And Lack Of Punishment

All of which makes it tremendously frustrating that we see so little of them here. Yes, their abandoned base has a wonderful air of menace, and their asteroid bolthole involves an idea so delightfully bonkers I don’t even care it makes no sense (the visuals here really are impressive throughout, right down to the bits of presumably-Talaxian decor hung around Neelix to help him feel better). But these are appetisers to a main meal; one that arrives so late to the table there’s not really time to eat it. Not only is there no exploration of the Vidian position beyond Motura’s monologue, but Janeway’s resultant moral dilemma gets very short shrift too. That’s particularly irritating since it’s the only part of the whole episode that couldn’t have been done on any previous Star Trek show. In addition, there are some genuinely interesting questions here that are raised but not followed through on. Surely more could be made of the fact that Janeway’s total removal from the Federation’s legal mechanisms is requiring her to think about justice – and in particular judicial punishment – in an entirely new way.

There are multiple reasons why we lock people up after they’ve committed a crime. Some focus on the inmate themselves. Incarceration functions both as a deterrent through removing freedom, and as an opportunity to avoid a life of crime through psychological support and training programs. Prisons, when run correctly, provide both a carrot and a stick. Other reasons involve the society at large. Here too prison works to deter criminal activity, but it also (when the system does its job right) improves both the actual and the perceived safety of the population. It’s obviously up for debate how well this actually works out in any given society, but that’s the basic idea.

The problem is, none of this really applies to the Vidians. Locking them up doesn’t work as a deterrent – there’s no way to get a message regarding their fate to their civilisation at large. That in turn removes any security benefits to having the Vidians locked in the brig, even setting aside any fears about the phage being transmittable to Alpha/Beta Quadrant life forms. And whilst you’d very much hope the Federation has an enlightened and effective approach to prisoner rehabilitation (though Paris might disagree), it’s difficult to see how it could be effectively replicated on a lone, small, extensively damaged starship when applied to two people in the late stages of a terminal illness.

That just leaves the final reason for punishing criminals: to make other people feel better because the bad guys have received their comeuppance. This is the aspect of state-sanctioned punishment that can make people nervous, especially when the idea that prisons should be as unpleasant as possible seems to be so commonly held. Usually though, this goal for our gaols can run parallel to the others, at least up to a point. Not for Janeway, though. Either she punishes Motura and Dereth out of a need for vengeance, or she doesn’t punish them at all. The fact she totally rejects the former is probably the best demonstration so far that the (nominal) ideals of the franchise have survived into this fourth incarnation. It’s just a shame more isn’t made of this.

Still, it’s encouraging that it’s there at all. I’m also grateful that the episode doesn’t try to turn this into a point of contention among the crew. It still strikes me as a worrying sign that once again no-one even uses the word “Maquis” here, but at least ignoring the crew’s unique make-up here saves us from having, say, Chakotay argue in favour of retributive justice because his freedom-fighter morality isn’t up to Starfleet’s lofty standards.

Then again, Neelix is only in trouble because he repeatedly ignored his first officer’s orders. Chakotay may just figure the guy got what he deserves.

MRIs And MRAs

Which brings us at last to the Doctor’s latest and most difficult patient. Given how hard the last two episodes tried to turn the audience off Neelix, it’s interesting that he was chosen to anchor this episode – replacing Paris from earlier drafts – specifically because it was felt viewers would find him a more sympathetic victim. And in truth Phillips does very well here. He thoroughly sells Neelix’s reactions throughout, from the initial attempts at strained humour through to the exceptionally uncomfortable scene where he panics, thrashing against his restraints and hyperventilating. Having had serious breathing issues as a child, my reactions to this kind of thing are doubtless more extreme than the average, but I found those moments so hard to watch that even writing about them days later makes me short of breath. The idea of being forced into immobility and freaking out as a result feels all too real to me. Anyone who’s been trapped inside a magnetic resonance imaging machine can probably relate to a little of what Neelix is feeling, and the idea that it might be a life-long state of affairs… Well. I think I’d try to shake myself free of my life-support system too.

As well as giving Phillips a chance to show what he’s capable of, “Phage” actually comes close to figuring out what Neelix might offer as a character. Specifically, that he’s able to be an authority in areas the crew are completely ignorant, but also to provide a newcomer’s perspective on what they take for granted. Neelix is absolutely right that Janeway’s private mess would be better put to use as a communal space, and it’s not his fault the dilithium motherlode he thinks he’s led Voyager to turns out to be a trap.

Unfortunately, all this good work is undone by his interactions with Kes. It’s not just that their relationship is clearly toxic. It’s that the show itself clearly doesn’t realise that. It’s not just that he tries to emotionally blackmail her with his surly jealously into reassurances of commitment. It’s that Kes is so willing to go along with it. It’s not just that Neelix deploys the utterly disgusting “It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s him” argument, as though women are pretty statues at risk of theft rather than actual people you’re supposed to be able to trust. It’s that she doesn’t respond to that by slapping his spots off.

Amazingly then, even in an episode reliant on Neelix’s likability, he doesn’t come across as all that likable. Worse than that, though, he’s bringing Kes down with him. The more she fails to object to his awful behaviour, the less she seems like a believable character, and more like a geek’s dream. A gorgeous, naive, servile woman who’s willing to sleep with a petulant, paranoid man with a terrible sense of humour but who knows loads about space? The dots here don’t need much ink to join.

And this has its own knock-on effect. I’m already looking askance at the idea the Doctor is a medical genius who needs help to learn how to identify with his patients. That feels desperately cliche. But whether that’s a strong hook or not, it’s dragged down by the implication that it’s Kes who’ll be taking on the teaching role here. The idea that Kes, a caring woman with empathic powers, is a great choice for a de facto ship’s counsellor raises eyebrows in any case (has Trek ever shown a male counsellor on-screen? My memory is that they’re all discussed in absentia and all declared rubbish as well). But by giving the job to a female character who already only exists to validate a male one, there’s far too strong an implication here that counselling is a job for women, who need to be willing to bury completely their own personalities in order to help men feel better. I mean, really.  Marina Sirtis got better material than this, and TNG was a more or less constant waste of her talent. After seven years of failing to write anything good enough for her, was the smartest change to make really just making the counsellor blonde?

In conclusion, then: what works here is either crowded out or undermined, and what doesn’t work is horribly frustrating, both for what it is and what it will result in. The fact so many see this as a highlight of the first season may end up saying less about “Phage” and more about its surrounding environment. A mild headache in flu season, you might call it. It could be worse, but you couldn’t exactly call it healthy.

Still, better to be headed to sickbay for some aspirin than because you’re growing a fetus in your rib cage after an alien sexually assaulted you.  Which is to say, it’s time to check in on Enterprise again, and despair.

Ordering

1. The Last Outpost

2. The Naked Time

3. Babel

4. Phage

5. The Lorelei Signal

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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