Blood Fever is a strange and dysfunctional episode.
By this point in the third season, Star Trek: Voyager has abandoned any sincere attempt to develop or define its own identity. Instead, the series has committed itself to being the most generic Star Trek show imaginable. In many ways, this represents a disappointing betrayal of an interest premise and a fascinating cast of characters. In other ways, this allows the show to focus on telling archetypal Star Trek stories like Remember or Distant Origins or Living Witness, stories that deal with broad themes through science-fiction allegory.
In its strongest moments, Blood Fever feels like it wants to be that kind of classic Star Trek metaphorical exploration of contemporary society. In many ways, Blood Fever is an exploration of contemporary attitudes towards sex and sexuality, of the damage that can be wrought by sexual repression on levels both personal and societal. It is building upon the idea of pon’farr as introduced by Theodore Sturgeon (and refined by D.C. Fontana) in Amok Time, as the volcanic eruption of sexual desire following years of repression.
Unfortunately, Blood Fever lacks the courage of its convictions. The script feels like a victim of the same social mores that it seeks to critique, either unable or unwilling to talk about sex and sexuality in a manner that is suitably candid. As a result, Blood Fever ends up a muddled and ineffective piece of television that seems unwilling to call out its characters and which inevitably builds towards a tired rehash of an iconic Star Trek scene. Waiting seven seasons for this must be very unsatisfying.
Voyager was always going to have to do a pon’farr episode. After all, Voyager was the first Star Trek show to feature a full-blooded Vulcan character in the title cast and the first spin-off to feature a regular with pointed ears. Given that Spock was the franchise’s most iconic character, there were certain expectations that came with that. In fact, given the expectation that any Star Trek spin-off would last seven years, putting Tuvok on the bridge all but assured that Voyager would have to deal with the character’s pon’farr.
And it did. Eventually. The production team would ultimately leave Tuvok’s battle with the pon’farr until the last possible minute. Tuvok would ultimately deal with that quirk of Vulcan biology in Body and Soul, the seventh episode of the seventh season. It was quite literally as late as the production team could place it, and the writers opted to bury that inevitable plot beat in the subplot of an episode focusing on the characters of Seven of Nine and the EMH. Like so many of Voyager‘s central premises, Tuvok’s pon’farr ended up a disappointment.
To be fair, the inevitable episode about Tuvok’s mating impulses faced a number of conceptual problems that played into the scripting of Blood Fever. As Tim Russ pointed out in an interview with Star Trek Monthly, any episode about Tuvok’s sexual urges in the Delta Quadrant would raise a few eyebrows:
As [Voyager]’s unofficial Vulcan quality controller, Russ has never been afraid to voice his opinion if he felt there was any inconsistency in his character’s development, but the actor believes those incidents have decreased tremendously in the last season or two. “The characters have all found their footing much more,” he affirms, “so there have been very few inconsistencies in recent seasons. I think Leonard Nimoy had to do the same thing ‑ he had to really fight for the consistency of his character. Also, he and the writers had to build Spock from scratch, whereas we had that blueprint to follow.
“For example, we were able to build on that blueprint in the episode Blood Fever. The producers had originally intended to have my character go through the Pon farr, but there are a lot of factors that come into play that made it problematic for me to be involved in that, such as the fact that Tuvok has already got a wife and children. For an 8.00 pm family show, adultery would not be a very good thing for this character to partake in!”
It is a fair point. Certainly, navigating that particular issue would require a great deal of care and consideration. Given the difficulty that Voyager has had executing seemingly straightforward concepts in episodes like The Q and the Grey and Alter Ego, that might be asking too much.
However, dealing with Tuvok’s pon’farr would raise all manner of interesting issues. Most pointedly, it would provide a compelling study of the contrast that exists within the Vulcan psyche. Vulcans are defined by their logical, to the point that “logical” and “illogical” are as much Star Trek buzz words as “fascinating.” however, the franchise has repeatedly emphasised that Vulcan culture is far from logical. It has been steeped in psychedelia and mysticism from its earliest appearances, and the vast majority of Vulcan characters are more rude than logical.
Putting Tuvok in a position where he must choose whether to cheat on his wife in order to stay alive would provide an interesting deconstruction of Vulcan culture. After all, constructs like monogamy make little practical sense for a culture that undergoes the irresistible (and possibly fatal) urge to mate once every seven years. The pon’farr poses any number of practical obstacles to such monogamy. Would a Vulcan rather die than betray their partner? Such is a romantic (and commendable) notion, but it is not logical.
This conflict is intriguing, feeling very much like the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine approaches its alien cultures. That station-bound spin-off tends to deflate the idea of hegemonic cultures by suggesting that alien monocultures like the Ferengi and the Klingons are riddled with internal contradictions. For all the Klingons talk about honour, the invasion of Cardassia in The Way of the Warrior betrays a brutal pragmatism. For all that Quark romanticises Ferengi greed, he finds himself forced to compromise in The Bar Association and Body Parts.
The pon’farr is a ridiculous concept, even in purely practical terms. However, it could be used to tell interesting stories. Tuvok is a fascinating character because he is the first full-blooded Vulcan to appear in a Star Trek series. It seems a shame to waste that opportunity to explore the character and his culture. Are Vulcans truly logical? Is Vulcan culture steeped in something more emotional? What are the costs of pragmatism? These are interesting questions glossed over by both Blood Fever and Body Soul.
Of course, the reluctance to actually develop and explore these ideas is rooted in a tetchiness around the issue of sex and sexuality. It is nothing unique to Voyager. Even Deep Space Nine has wrestled with addressing issues of sex and sexuality, as Let He Who is Without Sin… rather memorably (and spectacularly) demonstrated. It is little wonder that the production team drafted in Andrew Robinson to direct Blood Fever. He helmed one of the franchise’s few successful sex farces in Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places.
American popular culture has long been sensitive on the subject. Sexual content seems far more likely to produce howls of outrage than ludicrous violence, which seems somewhat counter-intuitive. In fact, Blood Fever tries to touch upon and explore the awkwardness. The episode repeatedly draws attention to the ridiculousness of the Vulcan sensitivity over pon’farr. “For such an intellectually enlightened race, Vulcans have a remarkably Victorian attitude about sex,” the EMH states. “I fail to see the logic in perpetuating ignorance about a basic biological function.”
Blood Fever feels like it is poised to offer some of that patented Star Trek social commentary, this time focusing upon the prudishness with which people approach issues relating to human reproduction and sexuality. Certainly, the episode returns repeatedly to the challenges facing the EMH as he tries to help a crew member too embarrassed to actually discuss what is affecting him, let alone to collaborate in determining a possible cure or treatment for something that could easily prove a fatal condition.
“I assume this is your first pon’farr?” the EMH inquires. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s a normal biological function. I’ll do what I can to help you through it, but I’ll need a little more information.” Vorik insists, “We do not discuss it.” The EMH is equally blunt. “I’m afraid you’ll have to.” This feels like a very broad attempt to engage with a wider social issue, akin to the way that Remember touched upon holocaust denial and Distant Origin explores attitudes towards the teaching of evolution in schools.
After all, sex education was a hugely controversial in the United States in the nineties. It remains divisive today. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argues, there are a number of competing cultural factors that serve to complicate the situation:
Unlike Europeans, who learn about sex as matter-of-factly as they learn about brushing their teeth, American children grow up sexually absurd–caught between opposing but equally distorted views of sex. One kind of distortion comes from parents. Instead of affirming the child’s sexuality, parents convey the message that sex is harmful, shameful, or sinful. Or, out of a misguided protectiveness, they cling to the notion of childhood innocence and fail to provide timely or accurate information about sex. The second kind of distortion comes from those who would make sex into a commodity. While parents withhold information, the media and the marketplace spew sexual misinformation. It is this peculiar American combination of repressiveness and permissiveness that leads to sexual wrong thinking and poor sexual decision-making, and thus to high rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs.
It should be noted that Blood Fever has not aged poorly in this regard. Sex education is still hugely controversial in the United States, as are related issues of sexual identity. (Sex education is even an issue in Canada, which has historically been more liberal.)
There are any number of reasons why sex education is so controversial, perhaps tied into the cultural history of the United States. However, regardless of the political and social objections to sex education, the simple fact of the matter is that sex education makes children safer and more aware. Lack of sex education can be dangerous. It could reasonably be argued that there is strong a correlation between the United States’ historical reluctance to embrace sex education and its much higher rate of teen pregnancy as compared to other similar nations.
This is to say nothing of the dangers of misinformation in matters of sexual education, as demonstrated in many different (and often horrific) ways. In developing countries, for example, a lack of sexual education has allowed rumours about brutal AIDS cures like irradiation and virgin cleansing to spread like wildfire among populations eager for any cure or treatment. This is to say nothing of the prejudices that LGTBQ people experience, because students are not taught to embrace sexual diversity and are not informed of non-heteronormative sexuality.
“Lack of effective sex education can have very real, very serious health consequences,” said Stephanie Zaza, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. “Young people who have multiple sex partners, don’t use condoms, and use drugs or alcohol before sex are at higher risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. School-based sex education is a critical opportunity to provide the skills and information they need to protect themselves.”
Given how conservative Star Trek in general (and Voyager in particular) could be, this was a bold (but worthy) statement for the franchise to make.
Blood Fever touches upon a number of these ideas. Certainly, Vorik could certainly use a more thorough sex education. This is obvious from the teaser, in which Vorik demonstrates a remarkable lack of understanding of the concept of consent. Sadly, this does not feel like a ridiculous or exaggerated storytelling choice, given findings about how young men tend to approach the issue. When Torres politely declines his advances, he refuses to take a hint. As she grows less patient, he gets physical.
When it is revealed that Vorik somehow “shared” his pon’farr with Torres by grabbing her face in a particular way, the young Vulcan seems surprised. “I believe you were initiating a telepathic mating bond,” Tuvok states. To be fair, this would have seemed obvious to any Star Trek fan watching the scene; the gesture seems designed to evoke the iconic mind meld. However, Vorik is so unfamiliar with his own biology that his is thrown by that. “I didn’t know it could happen that way. I wanted to bond with her, that much I remember clearly.”
Unfortunately, Blood Fever brushes up against the limits of Voyager‘s willingness or ability to talk about sex. Vorik’s assault upon Torres in the teaser is quite clearly a sexual assault. It continues a long trend of treating the Vulcan mind meld as a sexual experience. The mind meld was coded as sexual as early as the original Star Trek, a psycho-sexual psychedelia that contributed to the coding of Spock as the franchise’s first “queer” character. What is a mind meld but the joining of two minds in a manner more intimate than sex is the joining of two bodies?
However, later Star Trek stories have tended to connect that psychic sexuality with acts of psychic violence. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is perhaps the most iconic example, and it seems to have informed many later portrayals. The spin-offs have a tendency to connect psychic connection with sexual assault. Star Trek: The Next Generation makes the metaphor literal in Violations, and Troi is subject to such an intrusion in Star Trek: Nemesis.
Voyager touches repeatedly upon the idea. The meld between Tuvok and Suder in Meld is coded as a forced sexual experience, a joining of frightened intensity. The psychic joining between Vorik and Torres in the teaser to Blood Fever is another text book example. Similarly, the harvesting of Torres’ memories in Random Thoughts and the distortion of Seven of Nine’s memory in Retrospect are portrayed in a similar manner. On Voyager, it seems like recalling or sharing a psychological experience inevitably results in trauma.
(This carries over to the way that Star Trek: Enterprise deals with T’Pol and her Vulcan identity. The forced mind meld in Fusion is in many ways the logical conclusion of the trend that began with The Undiscovered Country and carried through Meld and Blood Fever. It is presented most explicitly as a sexual assault. In fact, the later episode of Stigma stretches this metaphor even further by having T’Pol contract the psychic equivalent of AIDS through that assault.)
The problem with Blood Fever is that absolutely nobody is willing to acknowledge what Vorik has done. The young Vulcan has tried to assault his commanding officer and force himself upon her. The episode offers the excuse of the pon’farr, but this feels rather uncomfortable. It is eerily close to the victim-blaming philosophy that men are biologically incapable of resisting the urge to sexually assault women. As Shelina Janmohamed argues:
I’m fed up with excuses rolled out for men that they are so feeble and lacking in self-discipline that they are incapable of controlling their sexual desire. But, strangely they are not incapable of being the head of a household or running a country. My view: if men can’t control what’s in their pants, then their argument that they should control society is on pretty shaky ground.
This philosophy is unfortunately commonplace, and frequently used to blame women for the violence committed by men upon them. This resonates beyond sexual assault. Women involved with affairs are typically described as “homewreckers”, downplaying their partners’ culpability. An Iowa court upheld the dismissal of a dental assistance in July 2013 because she was “too attractive” and was a “perceived threat” to her employer’s marriage.
Nobody in Blood Fever seems to hold Vorik to account for what happened. This seems quite ironic, given Jeri Taylor’s strong distaste for the character of Lon Suder. Vorik is not sent to the brig. He is not locked in his quarters. He is not demoted or sanctioned. Later episodes like Day of Honour, Demon and Extreme Risk all seem to suggest that Vorik is still working alongside the woman whom he sexually assaulted. Vorik is essentially given a “free pass” because of he could not possibly be expected to control his impulses.
Blood Fever commits wholeheartedly to this idea, to the point that it becomes the most distracting part of the episode. When Torres goes missing, Tuvok reflects, “It is a far more sensible strategy to get her safely back to Voyager, and then decide on the proper resolution.” Vorik responds, “The resolution must be that we become mates. It is only logical.” Tuvok does not disagree, merely observing, “Lieutenant Torres has never been a great follower of logic.” As Torres breaks down on the planet, Paris suggests, “There’s always Vorik.”
This is horrifying. Blood Fever is an episode where several male members of the crew suggest that Torres essentially “get over” her discomfort with the notion of sleeping with a man who sexually assaulted her. There is a recurring denial of Torres’ sexual agency in the episode, as various male characters insist upon making decisions for her or on her behalf. Indeed, there is a marked contrast between the consideration that the crew show to Vorik and the condescension that they show to Torres.
After all, the climax of the episode hinges on the idea that Vorik is able to manipulate the EMH and Janeway into believing that he is cured, feigning rationality to the point that he is allowed outside of the EMH’s supervision and back into his engineering role. He is able to show up on the planet unannounced, declaring, “It was necessary to disable the communications, transports and shuttles. No one will keep me from my mate!” How is Vorik ever allowed to leave his quarters again?
(Then again, to be fair, it is not like Janeway has a history of actually punishing insubordination. The mutineers got away free in Prime Factors, while Chakotay got a mild scolding in Manoeuvres. Neelix’s punishment following Fair Trade took place in the space between episodes. With all of that in mind, it is almost a surprise that Janeway bothered to confine Suder to his quarters in Meld. It should come as no surprise that there are no repercussions for Vorik following the events of Blood Fever.)
Even once Vorik has beamed down to the surface, the crew seem uncommonly deferential to his impulses. When Vorik and Torres decide to fight to the death, the rest of the away team decide to stand back and let it happen. This seems rather risky and out of character for the crew. After all, if Torres was too out of sorts to consent to sex with Paris, how did the away team determine that she had enough wherewithal to consent to a grudge match with Vorik? More to the point, surely grudge matches (potentially to the death) run counter to Starfleet regulations?
Blood Fever is quite consciously straining towards the climax of Amok Time, in which Kirk and Spock find themselves fighting to the death in an iconic sequence that has become part of the popular memory of Star Trek. In fact, Blood Fever even follows the main beats; the Vulcan and the non-Vulcan engage in a fight to the death, that ultimately ends in neither party dead and the Vulcan’s raging hormones under control. Torres defeats Vorik, before passing out herself.
While the ending is clearly designed to evoke Amok Time, the internal logic does not seem consistent. In Amok Time, it was quite clear that the fighting itself was not enough to suppress the pon’farr. In fact, the expectation was that Spock would kill Kirk and then mate with T’Pring. It was only Spock’s grief following the death of Kirk that brought him back to his senses. This was something that occurred to T’Pring, but not to T’Pau. It might even have been down to the fact that Spock was only half-Vulcan.
Early in Blood Fever, Tuvok proposes the “ritual combat” as a solution for pon’farr. This seems like a rather hazy and nostalgic reading of Amok Time, a very broad interpretation conjured from a hazy memory in the same way that Flashback draws upon The Undiscovered Country. The episode is clearly reaching for that sort of iconic denouement, even if Jay Chattaway would never get away with a soundtrack as memorable as Gerald Fried’s work on Amok Time. The problem is that none of this feels particularly earned or satisfactory.
After all, a lot of the thrill of Amok Time came from watching James T. Kirk forced into combat with Spock. The two characters were best friends, with Spock even referring to “Jim” by his first name. Having watched the two characters work together for a year, with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy effectively carrying the series on their shoulders, there was a palpable tension to the throwdown. Coupled with the distinctive set design and the classic soundtrack, the result is one of the most distinctive beats in the Star Trek canon.
Blood Fever attempts to recreate that without any of those memorable attributes. Quite simply, the audience has no reason to care for Vorik. Vorik has been seeded in episodes like Fair Trade and Alter Ego, but never actually developed. Much like Michael Jonas in Alliances, there was something very cold and calculating about the introduction. Voyager tends to treat its ensemble as plot functions rather than characters, adopting a cold utilitarian approach to concepts like character development.
The ending might work better if Torres were wrestling with Tuvok, because at least Tuvok is a character with whom the audience has some familiarity. At the same time, Blood Fever lacks any of the iconography that made Amok Time so effective. Where are the memorable weapons? Where is the catchy beat? What about the stylised choreography? The minimalist set design? Instead, Blood Fever plays very much like two actors throwing themselves around a reasonably well constructed (but fairly generic) jungle set waiting for the episode to wind down around them.
The decision to end Blood Fever with the fight feels very disappointing, because it suggests that violence is more palatable to audiences than sexuality. Blood Fever broaches a number of interesting ideas about how contemporary society talks (or doesn’t talk) about sex, but then shies away from those questions entirely. It feels very much like an example of the culture that it is attempting to criticise, unwilling or unable to explore questions about sexuality within the confines of a UPN television show and so opting for a wrestling match.
In fact, the most memorable aspect of the ending of Blood Fever comes with a scene tied on to the very end of the episode. It is an interesting scene, because it is very short and very disconnected from the narrative to this point. In fact, the scene could easily have been cut from the broadcast episode without anybody noticing that something was missing. Oddly enough, it feels like something that might be incorporated into a modern television series as “post-credits” scene designed to tease what is coming up.
Summoned to the planet surface by Chakotay, Janeway examines a body of one of the alien invaders that decimated the planet decades earlier. It is a Borg drone. As Brannon Braga explained in Braving the Unknown, this development was a logical way to build upon the success of Star Trek: First Contact:
The reintroduction of the Borg into Voyager had a lot to do with the success of our second film, First Contact, which was a film that was focused purely on the Borg and which introduced us to the character of the Borg Queen. That movie was written and produced during the second season of Voyager. The thought of continuing with the Borg was extremely tempting to us. By the third season of Voyager, we started bringing that to fruition.
Indeed, the tease of the Borg drone in the final moments of Blood Fever begins a countdown towards the end of the season, when Voyager attempts its own riff on The Best of Both Worlds, Part I by throwing Voyager into Borg space in Scorpion, Part I.
To be fair, the reveal makes a certain amount of sense. It is properly foreshadowed, with the Ishan seemingly uncomfortable with the level of technology employed by the Starfleet visitors. Scanning Tuvok, he declares, “You have an artificial implant in your arm.” The concern feels a lot more appropriate once the attackers are identified. Given that the Borg are a cybernetic race, it makes sense that the survivors of the Borg attack would be quite anxious about the fusion of organic and mechanic.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether it was a good idea or a bad idea to introduce the Borg on Voyager, about whether the Borg represented a sense of entropy and decay or an embrace of the idea that Voyager would never surpass The Next Generation. However, Voyager actually did a good job introducing them. Blood Fever underscores the threat posed by the collective by allowing the crew to see the aftermath of a Borg invasion. Unity eases the Borg back into the show by reintroducing some other survivors.
It is too much to describe this as an arc, but it is a rare example of Voyager properly seeded a story across the season. Blood Fever effectively signals that the season finale will be driven by the Borg, and does so in a manner that makes a certain amount of logical sense without feeling either heavy-handed or intrusive. There is an argument to be made that the third season could have done more to hint at the Borg, and that the series never capitalises on the sense of dread that Blood Fever and Unity suggest, but it is one of the series’ stronger instances of set-up and pay-off.
Blood Fever also gestures towards the season finale in other respects. Most notably, it marks the end of Garrett Wang’s two-episode absence from Voyager. The actor did not appear in either Fair Trade or Blood Fever. Indeed, Kim is notably absent during the bridge scenes in Blood Fever, with an anonymous guest star filling in for him. Although the two episodes had been produced back-to-back, the production teams shuffled the broadcast order. As such, Wang’s absence from the two episodes can be easy to miss.
There is some speculation about Wang’s absence from Fair Trade and Blood Fever. The actor was not appearing in (or promoting) any films or television series. Wang has admitted that the third season was a particularly tumultuous period for him, and that he had a fraught relationship with the producers:
My time on Voyager also taught me the important lesson of being punctual. The several times I was tardy to work were met by great resistance from the producers. During the third season, they actually threatened to fire me if I didn’t get my act together. Thank goodness I did, ha-ha!
It has been suggested that the producers were actively considering cutting Wang from the series at the end of the third season, and replacing him with the character of Seven of Nine. His absence from Fair Trade and Blood Fever hints towards that. Ultimately, Wang would serve out the show’s full seven seasons.
Blood Fever is a mess of an episode, built around the nugget of a great idea that gets lost in the shuffle. The result is an episode that demonstrates its own criticisms of contemporary attitudes about sex, both condemning and participating in a culture that is far more comfortable watching people fight to the death than it is to talk candidly about sex.