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Star Trek: Voyager – Revulsion (Review)

Revulsion is a solid episode elevated by a superb guest performance.

The most notable aspect of Revulsion is the guest appearance of veteran character actor Leland Orser. Orser’s screen presence is striking, making an impression with supporting role in high-profile films from The Bone Collector to se7en to Alien Resurrection to Daredevil. He has also worked reliably in television, holding down regular roles in shows like E.R. and Berlin Station, while recurring in series like 24 and Ray Donovan. To modern audiences, he is likely recognisable got his work as a fixture of the Taken franchise.

Not just holo praise.

Not just holo praise.

Even within the Star Trek franchise, Orser is very much a recurring fixture. While never a steady player like J.G. Hertzler or Jeffrey Combs, Orser made quite an impression. He played the changeling posing as Tal Shiar operative Colonel Lovok in The Die is Cast on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, making the most of a rather minor role in one of the series’ most memorable two-part episodes. He would also do good work as the venal Loomis in the otherwise disappointing Carpenter Street during the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

However, his guest appearance in Revulsion on Star Trek: Voyager remains his most distinctive turn in the franchise. Playing Dejaren, a psychotic and fragmented hologram who murdered his crew, Orser singlehandedly elevates would could easily be a tired genre exercise. Revulsion is a solid episode, but one that sticks in the memory almost entirely due to the casting.

Kali Ma!

Kali Ma!

To be fair, the Star Trek franchise has always been lucky when it comes to guest casting. It is difficult for even the most carefully-chosen guest star to salvage an unworkable script, but they can add a certain je ne sais que to an episode that might otherwise be considered average or forgettable. For example, Resistance works in no small part due to the pathos mined by Joel Grey, while Business as Usual is an entirely predictable morality play held together by the work of Steven Berkoff, Laurence Tierney and Josh Pais.

On paper, there is very little of note about Revulsion. In theory, it is just another example of the series’ endearingly trashy genre stylings, indulging that same charming pulpy science-fiction horror vibe as earlier episodes like Phage, CathexisFaces, Projections, Persistence of Vision, Cold Fire, Prototype, Meld, The Thaw, Macrocosm, Alter Ego, Coda and Darkling. Perhaps an extension of late episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation like Phantasms, Dark Page, Sub Rosa, Masks, Eye of the Beholder or Genesis, these episodes were more comfortable with outlandish genre material.

Here's Dejaren!

Here’s Dejaren!

Indeed, Revulsion even offers Voyager‘s take on a distinct trashy horror subgenre: the slasher movie. In some respects, Revulsion is a companion to The Darkness and the Light or Empok Nor, two fifth season episodes of Deep Space Nine heavily influenced by slasher films. This is not entirely surprising. Although many critics had written off the genre towards the end of the eighties and into the nineties, only to be revitalised in the middle of the decade by the smash success of Scream. Naturally, this inspired a wave of imitators of highly variable quality.

Revulsion is very consciously a slasher film. It wears its references on its sleeve, most pointedly in the sequence where Dejaren presents Torres with a light snack. “You nibble, like a fish,” he remarks to her. This is an overt reference to a similar scene in Psycho, in which Norman tells Mary that she eats “like a bird.” While Norman goes off on a tangent about how little people understand birds, Dejaren uses the observation as a springboard to talk about what he finds so fascinating about fish.

Something fishy is going on here...

Something fishy is going on here…

Still, in terms of plotting, there is not a lot going on in Revulsion. In comparison to other Star Trek episodes, it lacks the political commentary that underpinned The Darkness and the Light or even the big mid-episode reversal that marked Empok Nor. The narrative is fairly linear. The teaser makes it very clear that (barring a major twist) Dejaren is homicidal. When the EMH and Torres arrive, it is only a matter of time before the episode builds to the climax of Dejaren stalking Torres through the ship before she gets the upper hand at the last minute.

To be fair to Lisa Klink’s teleplay, Revulsion hits all of the necessary beats. Although the script packs relatively few surprises, there are a number of effective sequences. Dejaran’s initially attack upon Torres is incredibly unsettling, as he uses his hand to reach inside her chest and disrupt her heart beat. Similarly, the reveal that Torres hasn’t deactivated all of the holographic emitters is very effective, with both the audience and the EMH figuring that out when Dejaren’s holographic fish is still visible in the control room. It is an effective execution of a classic horror trope.

Full spectrum warrior.

Full spectrum warrior.

And there are certainly elements of the episode that do hint at more interesting ideas. The first act deals with the fallout of Paris and Torres’ encounter in Day of Honour, hinting at the kind of long-form storytelling to which Voyager never committed. The EMH’s interactions with Dejaren hint at what will become a recurring motif for the character, subtly adapting the holographic medical officer so that he might have a unique niche following the arrival of Seven of Nine. At the same time, Revulsion doesn’t necessarily do a lot with these ideas.

However, the presence of Leland Orser serves to anchor the script. Orser is an actor who can channel intensity quite well. Indeed, much of his best work in the nineties found the actor conveying a sense of panic and desperation in the face of a truly horrific situation; consider his abridged role as an ill-fated guinea pig in Alien Resurrection or his very brief role as a peep show patron in se7en. There is a lot of that in Dejaren, a character in a relatively mundane position who has been subjected to an impossibly horrific situation and just snapped.

Spielberg, right ahead!

Spielberg, right ahead!

Orser’s performance is all the more notable for the fact that it was shot under incredibly tight circumstances. Justifiably proud of his work on the episode, Orser explains that it came right before one of his bigger roles of the decade:

Those were – that’s a lot of Trek roles by the way, and I think it’s pretty unusual to have played that many in the franchise, you know?

The Homicidal Hologram was one of the greatest roles, ever.

And I actually finished shooting that part in the middle of the night, before I got on an airplane that night before I had to fly to London to shoot Saving Private Ryan.

It is the very rare Star Trek guest star who goes direct from their work on the series to a shoot with Steven Spielberg. It is certainly an interesting contrast, particularly given that Orser’s role in Saving Private Ryan is markedly different than his work in Revulsion.

"His excuse doesn't scan."

“His excuse doesn’t scan.”

It helps that Orser manages to walk a very fine line with Dejaren, presenting a character who is at once pitiable and monstrous. It is important that Dejaren is presented as a sympathetic character, given that he is introduced dragging a dead body through the bowels of an eerily empty space ship. Without that sense of desperation and without the faintest hint of compassion for the deranged hologram, Revulsion would be nothing more than a countdown to Dejaren’s psychotic break with Torres and the EMH.

Dejaren is very much a conventional movie monster in his sense of “otherness.” One of the more interesting aspects of Revulsion is the seriousness with which it tackles the question of what it must be like to be a hologram, how fundamentally different it must be. “Seeing the ship ripped apart like this, it’s… I… I guess I can’t help feeling a kind of affinity for this vessel,” Dejaren confesses to Torres. “It sustains my existence. Sometimes I feel like it’s a part of my body, my soul. That probably sounds silly to you.”

Dude needs to lighten up.

Dude needs to lighten up.

When Torres claims that she can understand, Dejaren immediately rejects her presumption. “You couldn’t possibly understand how I feel,” he warns her. “You’re an organic. You exist apart from your ship.” There is a fundamental difference in how Dejaren and the EMH exist as compared to the bodies inhabited by Janeway or Torres. The rest of the crew is “flesh and bone and blood”, while the holograms are “pure energy.” There is a massive gulf between them, an uncanny sense of otherness which Revulsion mines quite effectively.

Voyager has broached this idea on a number of occasions, with writers like Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky using the unique composition of the EMH to literalise his psychology in episodes like Projections and Darkling. However, Revulsion uses that clear distinction between organic and inorganic life to suggest something truly alien about Dejaren. The character might just be Leland Orser made up to look like a seventies Doctor Who villain with gold skin and some veins at his temple, but he does feels like something more innately unsettling.

Holo promises.

Holo promises.

Even the title plays into this. “Look at you,” he goads Torres. “Look at you. Grinding up bits of plants and animals with your teeth. Secreting saliva to force it down your esophagus into a pit of digestive acids. You can’t even stand to think about it yourself. What a repulsive creature you are! Constantly shedding your skin and hair, leaving your oily sweat on everything you touch. You think that you are the height of intellect in the universe, but you are no better than any filthy animal and I am ashamed to be made in your image!”

There is something to be said about how Voyager reacts with discomfort and unease to this sense of difference, suggesting that Dejaren’s recognition of his own “otherness” is tied to his dysfunction. This is perhaps an extension of the Star Trek franchise’s long-standing anxiety concerning transhumanism, demonstrated through its recurring horror stories about cyborgs or genetic engineering. However, it also plays very specifically into the conservatism of Voyager, the idea that the EMH is a “good” hologram because he doesn’t acknowledge these differences as much as Dejaren does.

Eating it up.

Eating it up.

In fact, Dejaren’s wonderfully unsettling rant about the horrors of human (and Klingon) digestion is particularly interesting because it contrasts with the scene of Seven of Nine learning to consume solid food for the first time in The Raven. Although Seven reacts with some puzzlement to this “inefficient” form of nourishment, she does not share Dejaren’s revulsion. In fact, Seven learning to eat food like a regular humanoid is presented as a major step forward for her character, an example of how she has integrated into the crew. In contrast, Dejaren’s discomfort with normative behaviour is used to “other” him.

This sense of “otherness” is even coded in biological terms. Dejaren is uncomfortable with basic bodily functions, squeamish about blood and disgusted by ingestion. There is even a psychosexual element to Dejaren psychosis. Revulsion plays into that classic horror movie trope of the repressed monstrosity. At its core, the episode is ultimately about Dejaren trying to murder Torres (whose biology he finds repugnant) so that he can run away with the EMH.

Dejaren has been literally (storage) closeted for most of his existence.

Dejaren has been literally (storage) closeted for most of his existence.

David Greven discusses this subtext in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, acknowledging that Dejaren is pretty heavily coded as gay:

In the episode Revulsion, he meets a (regrettably psychotic, homicidal) fellow hologram who attempts to enlist the Doctor into a war against “organics”, their flesh and blood oppressors. This episode plays like an abortive same-sex romance, with the Doctor encouraging the increasingly unstable other hologram to travel with him through the stars. Played by the inimitably neurotic panic-eyed Leland Orser, this deranged hologram, who loathes organics, is like a dark parody of the stereotype of the fuccy, fastidious, point-perfect gay man.

Of course, Revulsion is hardly the most sensitive example of homosexual subtext in the franchise’s history.

Blurred lines.

Blurred lines.

Again, Revulsion is simply playing into the expectations of the genre. Many classic horror movies like Frankenstein or The Bride of Frankenstein threaded homosexual imagery through their narratives, a risky proposition. In some regards, it was the only way to get those themes on screen at the time. However, itself presented sexual deviation as something monstrous and horrendous. It is intensely frustrating to see that subtext as one of the few ways that Star Trek will acknowledge homosexuality, given how far television had come in the nineties.

Dejaren very clearly wants to run off with the EMH, breaking free of societal constraints and living as the person that he is instead of what the people around him expect him to be. “Join me,” Dejaren urges. “Leave Voyager. Escape your prison. Together we’ll take this vessel and explore the galaxy.” To Dejaren, the mobile emitter represents liberation and freedom. The EMH is able to escape his (metaphorical) closet (but literal sick bay) in a way that Dejaren simply cannot.

Well, that's gonna stain.

Well, that’s gonna stain.

Indeed, the theme of sexuality represents a very strange thematic bond across the primary and secondary plots of the episode. Like Blood Fever and Darkling before it, Revulsion is an episode about transgressing sexual mores. In some respects, the episode is very knee-jerk and conservative in that respect. Dejaren is “deviant”, in the sense that he is monstrous. Kim is quite happy to indulge in heteronormative stereotypical socially acceptable romance with Seven of Nine, but retreats when she empowers herself within those constraints.

There is also an even more uncomfortable subtext lingering below this portrayal of Dejaren. Revulsion hints surprisingly heavily at the idea that Dejaren may have been sexually abused. “I spent my entire existence cleaning up after them,” he confesses to the EMH. “When they were busy sleeping or eating, or engaging in their slovenly carnal pleasures.” No sooner has he mentioned “carnal pleasures” than he confesses, “They took advantage of me.” And all of this is set against the EMH’s refusal to actually listen to what he is saying.

He's breaking up.

He’s breaking up.

Of course, Star Trek would never explicitly acknowledge this idea, but Orser has acknowledged that his portrayal of Dejaren was influenced by that idea:

“If you wanted to write an ideal fantasy part for yourself, this was the part,” Orser nods. “There was so much meat to this character. Here was this guy who had basically been locked in the closet for his entire life. Who knows what that crew did to him, and used him for?” Dejaren expressed disgust with humanoid bodily fluids and secreting enzymes, leading the actor to imagine that he might have been sexually abused. “I thought it was a perfect study in some kind of psychiatric and psychological abuse – you know, behind every person who commits a crime, there’s a story,” the actor adds.

Orser communicates that very effectively, and it is very strong idea. As much as Dejaren is a monster, he remains a sympathetic character in his own strange way.

Window of sanity.

Window of sanity.

However, there is also something slightly problematic in that. After all, it plays into the broader idea that victims of abuse are fundamentally “broken” while playing more specifically into the idea that homosexuality is a result of sexual dysfunction rooted in sexual abuse. Revulsion works in spite of that, partially because these themes are very move woven into the fabric of the genre in which it is dabbling and partially because it never steers too hard into them.

Revulsion is also notable for being the first episode of the fourth season to focus on the EMH. The EMH is very much Voyager‘s breakout character, but he also faces an existential challenge at this point in the run. Earlier episodes like Lifesigns and Real Life suggested that the EMH was going to follow in the tradition of Data, the strange alien who is learning what it means to be human. However, the arrival of Seven of Nine in Scorpion, Part II somewhat usurps that character arc and function. So what happens to the EMH?

Em.... hh?

Em…. hh?

Revulsion is the first episode to really hint at the idea of the EMH as a champion of holographic rights, as the representative of an emerging species of artificial organisms. While taking the time to once again acknowledge how great the casting was, Robert Picardo singled that aspect of the episode out to Cinefantastique:

Picardo enjoyed the shoot. He said, “He was a wonderful actor. We always speak of them after they’re gone as if they’ve passed on. Leland Orser was just splendid in that role, and a pleasure to work with. He was just about to go off and appear in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In fact, he had to get on a plane the next morning after he finished. He was the heart of that show. When you have a great guest star like that, it loosens up everybody in the regular company. I thought he did a wonderful job.”

He added, “I got to do sort of a hologram’s rights. I categorically wanted to stand by him, and give him the benefit of the doubt, which I did until it turned out that he was truly wacky.”

There have certainly been early episodes touching on the EMH fighting for recognition that comes freely to his organic counterparts, such as arguing for the ability to turn himself off in Eye of the Needle or acquiring the mobile emitter in Future’s End, Part II. However, the broader question of holographic rights and holographic life become a focal point of his arc in these later seasons.

The rights stuff.

The rights stuff.

Message in a Bottle finds the EMH teaming up with his holographic replacement. In Latent Image, he wrestles with the crew’s right to rewrite his personality for their own utility. In Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, the EMH finds himself caught up in a larger struggle for holographic rights that can explicitly be traced back to the fourth season through its connections to The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. The one of the final EMH-centric episodes of the series, Author, Author, presents holograms as a slave race.

While Revulsion does not wrestle with these ideas in any grand sense, it does nod towards them. There is the very faintest suggestion that holograms have come to exist as a twenty-fourth century serving class. They do the dirty work, the thankless jobs. In some ways, the commonalities of the EMH and Dejaren harken back to the moral dilemma proposed by Picard and Guinan in The Measure of a Man. They are the representatives of a new species that has been careless created and condemned to something resembling slavery.

The way that Dejaren has been treated is shocking. Simply shocking.

The way that Dejaren has been treated is shocking. Simply shocking.

Dejaren is presented as the member of an oppressed underclass who effectively belongs to the same nascent race as the EMH. Their experiences are acknowledged as common and shared, even if they never met and share no direct relation. “Until the crew got sick, I never even left the antimatter storage chamber,” Dejaren asks. “Do you know what it’s like spend your life trapped inside a tiny room, not knowing what’s beyond the door, what the world is really like? Nobody coming to see you or talk to you unless they want something?”

The EMH explicitly presents his journey as a march towards recognition of his basic rights as a self-aware being. “When I was first activated I was regarded as little more than a talking tricorder,” he states. “I had to ask for the privileges I deserved. The right to be included in crew briefings, the ability to turn my programme on and off. It’s taken some time, but I believe I’ve earned the respect of the crew as an equal.” This idea forms the cornerstone of many of the later episodes focusing on the EMH as a character.

A Dejaren transition.

A Dejaren transition.

There are even suggestions that this could become a broader political movement on the part of sentient holographic lifeforms everywhere, that the EMH might have become an inadvertent standard bearer. When the EMH suggests that Dejaren could have these opportunities, he balks. “My programmers on Seros would never allow that,” Dejaren insists. The EMH assures him, “Then you’ll convince them.” Seven of Nine makes a journey to individuality, while the EMH makes a journey towards recognition as an oppressed minority.

Of course, Seven of Nine does more than just cast a shadow over the primary plot of the episode. As with the bulk of episodes in the early fourth season, Revulsion dedicates at least a subplot to the crew’s newest arrival. In this case, Harry Kim is assigned to work with Seven of Nine to help build the new astrometrics lab. It will first appear in Year of Hell, Part I, and will become one of two standing sets (including the cargo bay) that serve as a character hub for Seven of Nine.

Seven's heaven.

Seven’s heaven.

There is something disconcerting in the gravity that Seven of Nine exerts on Voyager only five episodes after her debut. The character seems to be warping the show around her, altering both the geography of the fictional starship and the roles of the characters in order to better suit her own needs. The character of Seven of Nine feels almost a narrative cuckoo, displacing the production to her own advantage. She already exerts incredible influence, even in an episode where she is simply the focus of the comic relief subplot.

Revulsion is notable for its particularly sensationalist subplot, in which Harry Kim develops a sexual attraction to Seven of Nine leading her to proposition him in the mess hall. This is a downright creepy scene for a character who has been established as having the emotional intelligence of a child, particularly given that the scene exists so that it can be heavily showcased in the trailers and the teasers. As with Darkling and Blood Fever, there is a sense that the Voyager production team want titillation rather than sexuality.

It's hammer time.

It’s hammer time.

This was obviously a controversial approach to Star Trek, particularly against the relatively conservative backdrop of the Rick Berman era. Several of the cast even acknowledged their discomfort with the use of Seven of Nine to cynically insert sex (but never sexuality) into the show. As Tim Russ explained to The Star Trek: Voyager Magazine:

“As an individual, and as an actor on Voyager for all these years, it’s my feeling that 30 years of Star Trek did not become 30 years of Star Trek by portraying actors and actresses as you would on Baywatch. That’s not the gist of Star Trek, even the original series, and it’s still not,” he argues. “Seven of Nine is a dynamic character, and she has been a very good addition to the show. Seven of Nine has some very practical pluses, in that she’s an ex-Borg and she knows a lot of the countless alien species we’ll be encountering [in the future]. She’s also familiar with the vast areas of space we’ll be travelling through, all the way back to the Delta Quadrant. That’s invaluable to us as a crew.

“She’s also a good source of internal conflict and friction. And for Jeri, it’s a great character. To play that character arc, to show her learning curve as she goes from Borg to human, is a revelation to watch and, I’ve got to imagine, a great challenge for an actor to play. So, in all of those respects, I think the addition of Seven of Nine is a very positive thing. Do I think we could have toned down the sexual aspect of it? Yes. I don’t think it was absolutely necessary to have her blast onto the scene in a skintight suit. I think it takes attention away from the actors who are working with her in a scene, and I also think it detracts from Jeri’s own talents. It’s hard enough to get a character to portray these moments and to play the dynamics without distractions. In the end, though, I think it’s working out fine and, again, Seven of Nine has developed into a very important character.”

Russ is entirely correct in this. Jeri Ryan is one of the strongest (if not the strongest) members of the Voyager ensemble. She does sterling across these final four seasons of the show. However, so much of her introduction to the cast and her impression in popular culture is anchored in the ridiculous choices made early in the season with regard to her costuming and her presentation.

Regenerating some sexual tension.

Regenerating some sexual tension.

Revulsion tries to build a comic relief subplot around the possibility of the character’s first sexual experience. This is more than a little uncomfortable, for several reasons. Most obviously, Seven of Nine is still emotionally a child, adapting to human for the first time since she assimilated at the age of six. The EMH’s decision to dress the character in an overtly sexual catsuit specifically designed to emphasis her curves is a little creepy in this light, as is some of the way that Kim behaves towards her.

There is also the simple fact that Star Trek has historically coded assimilation survivors as the victims of sexual assault. This is most obvious in the handling of Picard’s assimilation in Family and Star Trek: First Contact, but it also bleeds through into the portrayal of Seven of Nine’s time with the Borg in episodes like Retrospect and Survival Instinct. It is a logical comparison, given the fundamental violation of self and identity suggested by assimilation into the Borg Collective. It also makes playing Seven’s sexuality for laughs somewhat ill-advised.

"Just call me Doctor Love."

“Just call me Doctor Love.”

Brannon Braga has historically rejected these criticisms of the way that Seven of Nine was handled, often pointing to the overt sexuality of the original Star Trek in marked contrast to the more conservative and sterile Berman era:

The fact that she was a beautiful woman was just, to me, a benefit. A lot of people thought it was in poor taste that we had a buxom babe, but I’m like, “Have you actually watched TOS?” That was babes on parade. Kirk would be considered a sex addict by today’s standards. A certain sensuality has always been at the heart of Star Trek. So I’d dispute that criticism of Seven. I thought the character was a great addition to the show. And it kind of lit a fire under the cast, too. It was very controversial. We got rid of Kes and brought in Seven of Nine, and some people in the cast were upset about it and some thought it was cool, but at the end of the day I think it did all the right things creatively to the show, in my opinion.

There is a minor irony in Brannon Braga asking whether fans have ever watched the original Star Trek, given that famously declined to watch the series when he began working on the franchise.

A prosperous relationship.

A prosperous relationship.

However, there is a pointed difference between the handling of sexuality on Star Trek and the handling of sexuality on Voyager. To be fair, a lot of the sexuality in Star Trek is problematic and uncomfortable, but the show was always more willing to acknowledge sex as a thing that happened between consenting adults. The shot of Kirk putting his boots back on after hooking up with Deela in Wink of an Eye was actually fairly risque in the context of sixties television.

In contrast, Voyager would rather Torres fought to the death than have sex in Blood Fever, while refusing to punish Vorik for his psychosexual assault upon her. (The EMH similarly gets a “pseudo-sexually assault Torres and get out of jail free” card in Darkling, while Chakotay simply doesn’t get punished for stunning her in Unity.) There are elements of that to Revulsion, in the way that it makes clear what it is and is not comfortable with when it comes to matters of sexual activity.

Give his head peace.

Give his head peace.

As with Dejaren, Seven is portrayed as almost sexually deviant for her rejection of heterosexual norms. Kim’s crush on Seven of Nine is presented as something cute and affectionate. Paris makes fun of him for it in Revulsions and Torres cracks a joke about it in The Raven. However, late in Revulsion, Kim makes an awkward attempt to advance their relationship by inviting her for a late-night meeting in the mess hall to mood lighting and then suggesting that they take a romantic stroll together in the holodeck.

Kim claims to have had some “midnight inspiration about reconfiguring astrometric projectors”, and invites Seven for coffee in a mostly empty mess hall. This seems quite strange of itself, given that Voyager presumably operates on a shift schedule and there must be some people either getting ready to come on or go off shift even after midnight. Either way, the lighting on the set makes it clear that it is night on Voyager, in the style of The Conscience of a King. “This light is insufficient,” Seven states, matter-of-factly. Kim responds, “But it’s relaxing, don’t you think? After hours, quiet.”

A static character?

A static character?

There is something just a little predatory in this, given how Kim is using a work assignment to repeatedly push Seven into situations where they might become intimate; summoning a co-worker to a mood-lit late-night coffee and suggesting a romantic stroll on the beach is probably enough to count as workplace harassment at the best of times. He is one step away from suggesting some light R and B to help him think or a light massage to help her loosen up. Revulsion seems to find all this endearingly goofy, which is in marked contrast to how the episode treats Seven of Nine’s response.

Seven sees through Kim’s attempts at flirtation, and explicitly calls him out. She does not reject or rebuff his advances, but simply removes the pretense around them. “I’ve noticed your attempts to engage me in idle conversation, and I see the way your pupils dilate when you look at my body,” Seven informs him. “Obviously you’ve suggested a visit to the holodeck in the hopes of creating a romantic mood. Are you in love with me, Ensign?” When he stutters, she presses the matter, “Then you wish to copulate?”

Conscious coupling?

Conscious coupling?

If the show absolutely has to sexualise Seven – and to be clear, it absolutely doesn’t – then this would not be the worst way to do it. Allow the female character who has emerged from a harrowing trauma her own sexual agency and identity, allow her to embrace the way that the show has sexualised her. Acknowledge that sex is not a scary thing or a bad thing, and that it is possible for people to talk about romance and sex in straightforward ways without playing games with one another.

Voyager is a nineties television show. It should be willing to move beyond the rigid gender roles suggested by Kim’s ill-judged attempts at seduction. Day of Honour offered the conventional “two characters confess their love while facing imminent death” trope that has been a standard for decades, as Paris and Torres acknowledged long-buried feelings while running out of oxygen as they floated in the void. It would be interesting to see a more relaxed and grounded portrayal of romantic or sexual interactions on a ship that is stranded alone on the other side of the galaxy.

Flirting with danger.

Bedside manner.

However, Voyager is simply not that adventurous. Blood Fever and Darkling made it clear that Voyager was never a show that would deal with sexuality in a candid and straightforward manner. So when Seven of Nine asserts her own sexual agency by cutting through Kim’s attempts at seduction, the show reacts in mock horror. Kim is frightened and emasculated. He stutters, he backs away. He practically trips over himself trying to get out of the room. Yes, Seven’s forthright sexuality is presented as a joke on Kim, but it is still treated as a joke.

To be fair, Jeri Ryan does the best with the material that she can. Indeed, a lot of these early episodes seem like the writers trying to get a sense of Ryan as a performer, figuring out how to write Seven so that the character plays to the strengths of the performer. The subplot in Revulsion serves as a nice demonstration of range. The Gift was a nice showcase of Ryan’s dramatic abilities, which will be reinforced by The Raven. In contrast, Revulsion demonstrates that Ryan can play comedy.

Harry On.

Harry On.

Her matter-of-fact delivery of dialogue concerning Kim’s attraction to her very much positions her as a spiritual successor to Leonard Nimoy and Brent Spiner. “Don’t be alarmed,” she assures Kim. “I won’t hurt you.” Ryan pitches the performance at just the right level, playing the character with a blend of Nimoy’s well-concealed sarcasm and Spiner’s wide-eyed innocence. Given the role that the producers intend Seven to play on Voyager, this augers well for the character.

Revulsion is notable as the first episode of television to be directed by Kenneth Biller. Although there are other figures to have both writing and direction credits like Tom Benko or Robert Picardo, the only Berman-era writing staff member to migrate to the role of director. Indeed, Biller would return to the director’s chair for the Seven-centric One later in the fourth season. Biller is one of the rare Star Trek production team members to work repeatedly as both a writer and director.

The darkness. But not the light.

The darkness.
But not the light.

In fact, the only other Star Trek production team member to work so consistently as writer and director is John Meredyth Lucas on the original Star Trek, who remains the only writer to direct his own script with Elaan of Troyius. (Although David Livingston does have a story credit on The Nagus, which he also directed.) In some ways, Biller’s willingness to move between the role of writer and director offers an example of how the television industry was changing during the nineties.

This increased flexibility was more strongly reflected in other nineties shows like The X-Files, where writers would frequently direct their own scripts as something approaching a prelude to auteur television. These days, it is not uncommon for writers and showrunners to step into the role of director on a television series. David Chase wrote and directed the final episode of The Sopranos. Vince Gilligan, Thomas Schnauz and Peter Gould would direct their own scripts for Breaking Bad. Matthew Weiner would direct several of his own episodes of Mad Men.

A gold-standard guest star.

A gold-standard guest star.

Obviously, Kenneth Biller’s work as a director stands quite apart from that broader shift in television production. While Revulsion is hardly the most visually dynamic or striking episode of Star Trek, Biller does a solid job. He hits all the requisite beats. As he explained to Cinefantastique:

This was writer/producer Kenneth Biller’s first directing gig. He noted, “It was a fun show to direct. To me it was sort of like a little John Carpenter film. I tried to make it scary. I got a fantastic guest star, Leland Orser. I had two really good actors from our cast to work with. Bob Picardo and Roxann Dawson, and it was a great experience. I’m fortunate in that I had my first TV directing experience with a friendly crew, a crew that likes me and wants to help me, and see me succeed.”

The experience seems to have made a positive impression on the writer. Although Biller would only direct one more episode of Voyager, he would work steadily as a writer and director across the rest of his career, writing and directing on series like Smallville and Perception.

Tuvok and roll.

Tuvok and roll.

Revulsion speaks to the general jump in quality between the third and fourth seasons of Voyager, a solid script is elevated by its performances. Ryan is already proving a valuable addition to the cast, while Orser does great work in what could easily have been a thankless role.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager:

6 Responses

  1. I don’t know if you’ve read Michelle Erica Green’s review of this episode, but I really enjoy and agree with her savage tearing apart of the b plot in this episode: “It’s kind of amusing that [Harry Kim] can’t manage to fake chemistry with his Dream Borg, who’s a ridiculous male fantasy in ways other than her appearance – swaggering, inconsistent, sniveling when I’d expect her to be strong and aggressive when I’d expect her to be uncertain. She’s afraid of an injured hand, but not of losing her virginity with a stranger? This creature was obviously invented by men…adolescent men.”

    As for the A plot, I really felt that the decision to show the hologram was the killer all along at the beginning, really detracted from the episode. This episode could have played up its debt to Psycho, and depicted him as a warm if a little odd individual before revealing his true psychotic nature. Alternatively, it might have been interesting if there had been misdirection. For example, maybe have one of the original crew of the station survive, but still open with the hologram cleaning up the body. Then continue on as normal, and have the audience believe that the hologram was the murderer only for the twist to be that it is actually the surviving member of the station who has set up the hologram. This would force the audience members to analyze their own assumptions and prejudices. Unfortunately, a recurring theme with Voyager, as you have observed, it to take the conventional way out. Not just this episode, but also the later two parter in Season Seven, “Flesh and Blood” has a potentially grey figure in the holographic resistance fighter, Iden, but then he eventually becomes just a genocidal maniac for the convenience of the narrative.

    • Yeah. The script is not great, although I think it’s basically functional. Revulsion works I think primarily as a guest-star-driven vehicle. Orser is phenomenal here, in a role that would be unwatchable in the hands of a lesser actor.

      And Green is entirely correct in her criticism of how Seven of Nine is written. It’s that teenage boy sexuality I think I talked about earlier in one of the reviews… maybe The Gift?

  2. I never really understood why the Doctor was so big on rights for artificial intelligences. They always wind up going mad. The albino doc, the Equinox doc, the Nazi doc, the talking bomb. If I recall correctly, one of them even proclaimed himself the Holographic Jesus!

    In fact, I can only think of two holograms he met who turned out to be okay. The Cardassian girl (irony) and Andy Dick.

    • I suspect it was more storytelling necessity than anything else. If Seven is the new “Data”, then Voyager’s old “Data” needs a new angle to stop him becoming obsolete. So… let’s make him an artist…? And… eh… did we ever follow up on The Measure of a Man?

  3. Like The Gift, I think Revulsion is only half a good episode. I enjoyed all the scenes on the alien ship and that is due to, like you said Darren, the casting of Leland Orser. It’s not exactly surprising that Dejaren (why is he never called that in the episode?) turns out to be a homicidal lunatic, what with the very casting of Orser who’s made a career out of playing psychos and crazies. Although, you could make that same criticism of Brad Dourif’s casting as Suder so there was no mystery to whether or not he killed Crewman Darwin in Meld, but that still didn’t stand in the way of a classic episode of Voyager (and there are not many of them).

    Revulsion is not in the same league (although they are both hobbled by annoying subplots) but when Orser’s around, it works very well. Dejaren is a fascinatingly pitiable creature. I must say your observations Darren about Dejaren being the victim of sexual abuse never occurred to me (probably because he’s a hologram) but it does tie in with the episode’s deliberate attempts to paint Dejaren as a 24th Century Norman Bates (they should have cast Orser in the 1998 remake).

    Revulsion reminds me of the way Darkling tried to tell a 24th Century Jekyll/Hyde story with the Doctor but I found Revulsion a far more satisfying spin on the same idea. Although Leland Orser is made up to be a pasty-faced, stuttering neurotic, his performance never lapses into cliche the way Robert Picardo’s did. Although Dejaren has already descended into madness by the time he’s encountered by B’Elanna and the Doctor, Orser has a sure grip on the character. He’s careful never to overplay Dejaren’s insanity until it becomes appropriate. He’s especially impressive when he brings B’Elanna something to eat and travels the route of subservience to complete dementia all in the space of a single scene.

    Since he was designed as the ship’s holographic janitor, eight months of being mistreated by the crew have brought on a dangerous obsession within Dejaren as he comes to view the organic crew as only another germ for him to eradicate. Ken Biller milks those scenes for all the suspense he can get, like B’Elanna’s discovery of the dead crew on the lower deck, Dejaren trying to crush her heart and the climax where she disrupts his matrix by driving a live, electrical cable through him before he can finish her off. There is something scary about an enemy that can touch you that you can’t and Leland Orser is a powerful presence at all times.

    But I don’t care for the subplot because it marks the start of one of my least favourite arcs on Voyager – Harry’s crush on Seven of Nine. Tom is quite right about Harry’s pursuit of impossible women that began with Marayna in Alter Ego and will continue right up to the end of the series (although Tom’s sudden hostility towards Seven is totally out of step with his offer of support in Day of Honour). These episodes contain some of Garrett Wang’s worst performances, perhaps because he’s not a strong enough actor to carry off something meaty like Robert Picardo, Kate Mulgrew or Jeri Ryan.

    A relationship with Seven of Nine is not as perverse as Neelix’s with Kes since Seven is a grown woman, and certainly she’s the best thing about the subplot (although I did like Chakotay’s feigning ignorance about what happened in the Mess Hall, a rare example of Beltran managing to be funny) as she makes the leap from sexually ignorant to sexually aggressive. The key is the way Jeri Ryan plays it so perfectly straight – Seven has no understanding of romance, nor does she have the time so with typical Borg thinking, she jumps straight to the head of the class and scares Harry completely off. Certainly without Ryan the subplot would be a whole lot worse. But Revulsion is made by the perfect casting of Leland Orser, which turns the episode into another good one for this season.

    Don’t forget that Leland Orser was also in Sanctuary Darren, even though it was an entirely throwaway role, not worthy of an actor of Orser’s calibre, Dejaren says eating and not reading and he never (not ever) left the antimatter storage chamber. Did you mean Jeri Ryan does sterling work? One is a S4 episode and I thought Renaissance Man was the last episode about the Doctor. Dejaren is an HD-25 isomorphic projection but what does the HD stand for – certainly not High Definition?

    • Corrected!

      And, yeah, Ryan and Orser are both better than the material they are asked to play, but Orser has the luxury of being able to elevate his entire plot while Ryan is just a bright spot in a larger misbegotten arc.

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