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Star Trek: Voyager – The Disease (Review)

One of the curses of Star Trek is the tendency to saddle the weakest and most ill-defined members of a given ensemble with a generic soul-destroyingly dull love story.

Deanna Troi has Haven, The Price and Man of the People. Geordi LaForge has Booby Trap and Galaxy’s Child. In the first few years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, both Bashir and Dax were subjected to such plots. Bashir had Melora, and Second Sight was originally developed with his character in mind. Dax got a similar story in Meridian. Chakotay has Unforgettable, and was shipped with both Janeway and Seven at various points in the run of Star Trek: Voyager. Even Mayweather’s subplot in Demons and Terra Prime was romantic in nature.

Kiss and Tal.

Of course, there are any number of compelling and interesting  romantic episodes built around characters over the history of the franchise. Kirk had The City on the Edge of Forever. Spock had All Our Yesterdays. Tuvok had Gravity. Even the more developed seventh season version of Bashir had Chrysalis. However, it frequently seems like the production team’s go-to plot for an underdeveloped regular character is a romance-of-the-week plotline, perhaps because it is a fairly standard story and because it can be applied to almost any type of character.

However, the problem with building these romantic storylines around undeveloped characters is that they lack any real hook. The audience implicitly understands that the romantic interest is unlikely to stick around, so the story has offer a compelling insight into the regular character. This is understandably difficult if the production team have chosen to tell this story with this character because they really cannot think of any other interesting story to tell. As a result, these episodes can feel like an exercise in boredom, in watching wheels turn.

“Dammit, Harry. I thought we had this conversation after Favourite Son.”

This is particularly true in episodes built around weaker (or more disinterested) members of the ensemble. In a romantic installment of an episodic show, the audience needs to invest in the love story very quickly. This puts a lot of pressure on a performer to sell the romantic attraction. On a weekly schedule, with two performers who may not know one another particularly well, this can be very difficult to accomplish. Robert Beltran is a relatively serviceable performer with the right material, but he would never make a convincing romantic lead.

The Disease is a romantic episode built around Harry Kim. While the script has its own very severe problems, the biggest issue is that Garrett Wang simply cannot sell the intense attraction that is necessary for the episode to work.

Colony ship collapse disorder.

The Disease centres around a romance of the week between Harry Kim and Derran Tal. Kim has never been the most well-rounded or developed member of the Voyager cast. In fact, it could be argued that the most compelling version of Harry Kim was the version that appeared in Timeless, a bitter old man who was erased from history with a reset at the end of the episode. Voyager has often struggled with the character of Kim, resulting in generic and underwhelming episodes like Emanations, Non Sequitur, Alter Ego and Demon.

Similarly, Tal is very clearly a one-shot guest star. She has never appeared in any episode before The Disease. She will never appear in any episode after The Disease. As such, she has a very limited opportunity to make an impression. Tal is played by Musetta Vander. Vander was a television host and model before she became an actor; she famously appeared in a number of high-profile music videos. Although Vander had a relatively long filmography when she worked on The Disease, it was hardly comparable to Lori Petty’s work before Gravity or Mark Harelik before Counterpoint.

Talk about an after glow.

Indeed, Vander has admitted that she was originally cast in Gravity, but had to reschedule due to other demands:

Originally, I booked a different episode, but due to a scheduling conflict I couldn’t do it. I think I was going to be Tuvok’s love interest in an episode. But I was very fortunate, as they offered me The Disease instead.

This might be for the best. Lori Petty is a large part of why Gravity works so well, so the episode is very much enriched by her presence.

First contact getting past first base.

To be fair, Vander is not the biggest problem with The Disease. However, the episode suffers because Vander and Wang have no on-screen chemistry. The Disease is supposed to be an episode about an unstoppable attraction, even if the episode is ultimately ambiguous about whether that attraction is meant to be emotional or physical. For the episode to work, Kim and Tal should seem like addicts, each almost unable to function without the other. Instead, Kim and Tal seem like friends with benefits; people who enjoy each other’s company, but don’t ache for each other.

Part of this is down to some clumsy storytelling on the part of the episode. The teaser to The Disease opens with Kim and Tal making out in the latter’s quarters, a moment of passion and energy. However, it is quickly made clear that this is the first time that the pair have hooked up like that. However, there is never any sense of what drew these two characters together. There is never a sense of common interests. There is never a moment in which it feels like love between these two individuals.

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me.
Don’t hurt me.
No more.

The Disease repeatedly informs the audience that Kim and Tal are in love, but in never manages to convincingly portray that attraction. Instead, Kim just repeatedly tells the rest of the cast that he is in love with Tal at every possible opportunity. After a series of leading questions and prompts, Seven asks him, “Are you in love, Ensign?” Kim replies, “I guess that’s what I’ve been asking myself.” Later, he tells Janeway, “I disobeyed your orders because Tal and I are in love, and it’s not right for you to keep us apart!” He demands, “Have you ever been in love?”

This is all predicated on a very teenage idea of love, the kind of romance where a character stands on top of a cliff and declares their attraction to the world, as the music soars and the camera whirls around them. Even allowing that Voyager is a show that has never been particularly engaged with the inner lives of its characters, this is very awkward and clumsy storytelling, a lazy way of conveying plot-relevant information in the most straightforward manner imaginable.

“I hear Tom installed a bed in the Delta Flyer.”

In terms of dialogue, there is nothing as sweet as the simple exchange between Tuvok and Noss in Gravity, when Tuvok wonders how any of the details of his day-to-day life could be of interest to Noss, and she simply responds, “Because it is you.” In terms of visual storytelling and raw chemistry, Kim and Tal never share a scene with the same intensity and dynamic as the conversation between Janeway and Kashyk in Counterpoint. In contrast to those two other fifth season one-shot romances, the dynamic between Kim and Tal seems very shallow and superficial.

This is a problem, because The Disease is nominally supposed to be about love. The episode is intended as a big and broad allegorical exploration of the human condition, the kind of broad strokes Star Trek story that Voyager likes to do. The Disease is meant to be an episode that invites the audience to think about life, using the trappings of science-fiction to explore how mankind sees the world. There are plenty of stories like this across the run of Voyager, of variable quality; The Chute, RememberDistant Origin, Scientific MethodRandom Thoughts, Living Witness.

“That is some high-def telemetry, all right.”

As Kenneth Biller explained to Cinefantastique, he envisaged The Disease as an episode about love:

I wanted to explore the notion that people will stay in relationships that they know are unhealthy for them, because they feel an almost physical need or compulsion to be with that other person. The idea was that in the science fiction world you could explore that as a reality. A love affair with an alien literally could make you sick, and yet you felt the compulsion to go through with it. I liked those parts of the episode, that exploration of love. I thought that the scenes between Kim and Janeway were great. That was really good character stuff that Mike Taylor did a great job with.

The episode simply does not work as a metaphor for love in that way, for a number of reasons.

The spine of the episode…

Even leaving aside the lack of chemistry between Kim and Tal, there are a number of issue with how The Disease tries to present the romantic relationship between Kim and Tal. Biller likens his metaphor to the difficulty that many people experience when attempting to leave a toxic or unhealthy relationship. However, there is nothing especially unhealthy or toxic about the relationship between Kim and Tal, there is nothing that (on the face of it) would suggest that these two characters could never manage a workable relationship.

The closest thing to a red flag comes when it is revealed that Tal knew about the addictive effects of a romantic relationship, but opted not to inform Kim. “That shouldn’t have happened,” Tal reflects. “Our species are too dissimilar.” She elaborates, “We call it Olan’vora, the shared heart, when two of us merge. You know the biological connection we had last night? It becomes stronger. It won’t hurt you, Harry, but it will change you. It’ll change both of us. Bring us closer.”

“It’s better to have loved and lost than to have engaged in serial storytelling.”

To be fair to Tal, she has a point. In theory, alien species should be so different that this sort of contagion should be impossible. At the same time, there is a clear obligation on both partners in this romantic and sexual relationship to inform each other of the associated risks. The Olan’vora is something that profoundly affects people, and so Tal should have mentioned it before engaging in sex with Kim. Much like the risk of male pregnancy in Unexpected, it is an issue of informed consent. (It obviously works both ways. Kim should also talk to Tal.)

However, The Disease never really holds Tal to account for this error in judgement. Although he would be justified in being angry, Kim forgives her almost immediately. Of course, it is open to debate whether Kim is actually capable of granting informed consent after initial contact; it is entirely possible that his neurological functions have been affected. However, The Disease never develops this story thread. It is too invested in the idea of the eponymous affliction as a metaphor for love to ever actually differentiate or explore it.

Love sick.

Indeed, The Disease somewhat muddles the issue. At a certain point, the Olan’vora ceases to be a metaphor for love, instead becoming a straightforward representation of it. Kim can refuse treatment for the condition, without it affecting him any more than a broken heart. Kim can recover without medical aid. Ultimately, it seems difficult to differentiate between Kim’s experience of the Olan’vora in The Disease and Chakotay’s experience with straight-up love in Unforgettable.

As a result, the relationship between Kim and Tal cannot seem abusive or toxic, because it is presented as something much more straightforward and conventional. Kim is just experience what every human being feels when they fall in love and go through heartbreak, it just so happens that he occasionally glows and that the Varro just happen to have a name for it. As a result, it becomes impossible to really differentiate the metaphor at the heart of the story from the story itself.

“I mean, I expect this from Tom, but…”

However, things become compounded in how The Disease chooses to convey the idea of love. There is a very puritan streak running through Voyager, a very conventional and conservative social outlook. The Disease is an episode that seems very enamored with idea of love, but which seems actively repulsed by the idea of sex. It is an interesting contrast, but one very much in keeping with the broad aesthetics of Voyager. Seven of Nine has the emotional maturity of a child, but is clad in a skin-tight jumpsuit to emphasise Jeri Ryan’s body in the most juvenile manner possible.

The Star Trek franchise has a reputation for being progressive and liberal, but this has always been an over-simplification. The politics of Voyager have always been broadly conservative. Caretaker introduced the Kazon as a clumsy racist metaphor for gang violence in Los Angeles. Alliances featured the crew allying with (white, cultured) slavers over (dark-skinned, savage) freed slaves. Displaced was an ode to xenophobia. Day of Honour seemed resentful of refugees. Unity worried about globalisation in the Delta Quadrant.

“Boy, this remastering of Voyager is phenomenal.”

This is especially true in matters of sex and sexuality. Janeway had to wait five years to get a bona fides love interest in Counterpoint, despite the shameless teasing of a possible relationship with Chakotay in episodes like Resolutions. In Blood Fever, the crew are more comfortable watching Torres fight to the death than they are talking about her sexual impulses. In Body and Soul, the show dances around the question of whether sleeping with a hologram is infidelity. Themes of sexual perversion simmer through episodes like Warlord or Darkling, but are never explored.

As a result, it is no surprise that The Disease seems at once attracted to and repulsed by the act of making love. A similar dynamic was at work in Favourite Son, another episode where Harry Kim finds himself surrounded by beautiful women. Both The Disease and Favourite Son are happy to leer at beautiful and scantily-clad women, whether it is the giggling bondage and threesomes implied with the Taresians or the shots of Tal lying alluringly in bed with sheets covering just enough.

Notably, Tom’s lecture about Harry’s disastrous love life makes a point to omit Favourite Son.
That’s a true friend.

However, both The Disease and Favourite Son balance these heavily sexualised images with a very puritan message. Kim barely escapes from the Taresians in Favourite Son, discovering that they plane to murder him and harvest his DNA, leaving him a dehydrated husk of a man. Similarly, Kim’s sexual relationship with Tal in The Disease ends with the character contracting a deep space sexually-transmitted disease. Sex might be alluring, Voyager concedes, but it is also dangerous.

There is something very puritanical in this outlook, something very socially conservative. The Disease plays almost like a public service announcement about the dangers of engaging in sex acts with other people, even when they look like South African supermodels. Indeed, given the apoplectic reactions of both Janeway and the EMH to Kim’s extraterrestrial daliance, the episode plays almost as an extended fear-mongering commercial for abstinence-only sex education.

“Just say, ‘I’m sorry, I have a headache.'”

The United States has a fixation on abstinence as a method of sexual education, spending a lot of money and setting a lot of laws to ensure that children are taught from a young age that the only safe sex is no sex:

Despite people increasingly leaving marriage until later in life, the number of schools in the US teaching students about sexuality and birth control has slumped in recent years.

Congress spent more than $2bn on programmes to support the idea of abstinence between 1982 and 2017, while the US has spent a total of $1.4bn in foreign aid designed to prevent HIV by persuading people not to have sex, the researchers noted.

US states are banned from using their funds to educate adolescents about contraception – except to stress its failure rates.

This attitude towards sex and sexuality is continuously reinforced, through culture and through religion. Children take “virginity pledges.” Girls wear “purity rings.” This is to say nothing of the reinforcement of these values through gossip and slut-shaming.

“Harry, when two aliens like each other very much…”

Even ignoring the morality of these methods, which disproportionately target girls more than boys, these methods of sex education are completely ineffective. Studies have shown, time and time again, that abstinence-only sex education does not reduce the risk of teen pregnancy. Similarly, abstinence-only sex education does not prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS in the developing world. Indeed, it could be argued that these methods of sex education only contribute to the fetishisation of virginity that has its own horrific consequences.

Nevertheless, The Disease seems to embrace this perspective in earnest, without any hesitation or self-awareness. The fact that Kim had sex with Tal is treated as an apocalyptic event. The idea of a male and a female engaging in consensual sexual intercourse (or pseudo-intercourse) is so radical that it almost seems outside the EMH’s frame of reference. “Last night I had an encounter with one of the Varro,” Kim tells the EMH. The EMH doesn’t get it. “A personal encounter.” The EMH still doesn’t get it. “Sex. We had sex.”

“I just had sex. And it felt so… meh.”

To be fair, The Disease engages with the idea that not all species would be perfectly sexually compatible. “I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t expecting something so different,” Kim states. Tal agrees, “Neither was I. Our species look so similar. Well, at least on the surface.” Kim continues, “I would’ve never guessed when it came down to the basics… well, let’s just say the birds and bees would be very confused.” The implication is that the sex between Kim and Tal was unconventional.

On the surface, this is a clever piece of world building, a reminder that she is an alien. It is an extension of the (clever) gag in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that humans tend to expect all species to have similar reproductive organs. However, in the context of the moral outrage that follows, it feels more like The Disease is making the hardest possible case for abstinence, insisting the non-vaginal intercourse is still as dangerous as conventional reproductive sex.

Loving the alien.

The Disease imagines a future in which sexual contact is very strictly regulated and controlled. When the EMH discovers that Kim had sex with Tal, he protests, “You had intimate contact with an alien species without medical clearance?” Marched in front of Janeway, Kim recites the regulation, “All Starfleet personnel must obtain authorisation from their C.O. as well as clearance from their Medical Officer before initiating an intimate relationship with an alien species.” Must they also file a debriefing afterwards, documenting that encounter in great detail?

The Disease feels very much like an extension of the all-controlling Starfleet suggested in episodes like The Measure of a Man, the organisation that is so dedicated to protocol and its own long-term objectives that its officers are treated as little more than cogs in a gigantic machine. The Disease feels like an episode about how Starfleet has asserted control over the sexual and emotional lives of its officers, but the episode never quite grapples with the horror of this suggestion.

Don’t do this cool thing.

To be fair, The Disease leaves open the possibility for consensual sexual between alien species, in that it might be possible for both the commanding officer and the chief medical officer to sign off on the relationship. However, this level of review seems designed to discourage young officers from pursuing it. The future of Star Trek is utopian in nature, but it’s hard to imagine many officers outlining their planned sexual activities in official documentation. It must be like outlining sex positions with a parent, and one imagines that such records are subject to review.

Even getting past the basic stigma of such a rule, the implication seems to be that Starfleet’s default position would be to refuse to allow Kim and Tal to engage in sex. “If you’d been thinking, you would have considered the risks and exercised restraint,” the EMH sternly lectures Kim, which feels very much like the “keep in your pants” school of sexual education. It is a ridiculous set-up, but The Disease treats all of this with a heavy-handed earnestness that just smothers the episode in the crib.

“Next time, use the holodeck.”

This emphasis on abstinence is very much in keeping with the general conservatism of Voyager, in some ways reflecting the resurgent social conservatism of the nineties. As Sara Moslener argues, the renewed interest in abstinence-only sex education in the twenty-first century represents a desperate attempt by social conservatives to assert control over a culture seen as becoming increasingly liberal:

Sexual purity movements, past and present, are not ultimately about promoting a biblical view of sexuality. They are about explaining large-scale culture crises (e.g. Anglo-Saxon decline, the Cold War, changing gender roles and sexual mores) and providing a formula for overcoming those crises.

Today’s movement is laden with a therapeutic rhetoric that presents these choices as the best choices for those who seek to conform their behaviors to God’s will. It promises that those who conform will enjoy spiritual, physical, and emotional satisfaction in their marriage relationships. Other scholars have parsed these claims in more sophisticated ways than I do and many other writers have demonstrated that these expectations are anything but a path to personal well being. What I’m saying is that sexual purity has never been about personal well-being for evangelical adolescents— or anyone.

Each historical example I analyze demonstrates that purity work and rhetoric has emerged at moments when socially conservative evangelicals seek to assert and maintain their political power. Sexual purity isn’t about what Abby and Brendan do on a Friday night, it’s about constructing a view of the United States as a nation in distress and claiming that evangelical Christianity can not only best explain the crisis, but save us from our demise.

In some ways, this is very much in keeping with the general aesthetic of Voyager as a television series. Voyager is a story about trying to find a way back home, about a journey towards the familiar and the safe. The conservatism inherent to the show is very much in keeping with the crew’s desire to return to a world that they know, rather than trying to push the boundaries of knowledge or exploration.

“I’m sorry. I’m still detecting no chemistry.”

This very puritanical attitude towards sex might fit comfortably within the political framework of Voyager, but it horribly undercuts the metaphor at the heart of The Disease. On paper, The Disease is supposed to be built around a metaphor that treats love as a disease. Indeed, Kim’s conversations with Seven at various points in the stories reinforce this suggestion, with Seven identifying love as a “condition.” However, the episode’s fixation on the protocols of sexual interaction and its juvenile portrayal of sexuality suggests a different metaphor.

The various characters in The Disease seem flabbergasted that Harry Kim had sex, rather than concerned that he has fallen in love. As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, the big issue has nothing to do with Kim’s feelings for Tal, and everything to do with the fact that they hooked up. “We don’t share your cavalier attitude toward intimacy,” Jippeq complains to Janeway. Janeway assures him, “Our attitude is anything but cavalier.” Jippeq insists, “In our society, mating is taken very seriously. When two people chose each other the bonding is permanent.” It’s very puritan.

“Wow. I… didn’t know that was a fetish… give me a minute.”

All of this is compounded by the fact that, against the cultural backdrop of the nineties, any episode called The Disease and opening with a casual hook-up was never going to be a story about love. The title “disease” in the context of a sexual relationship would always evoke sexually transmitted diseases. In the context of the nineties, that disease was always going to be HIV or AIDS. Indeed, the high profile of the AIDS epidemic became tied to abstinence-only sex education:

When the AIDS and HIV pandemic began in the 1980s, however, proponents of sex ed found their position strengthened. By the mid-1990s, every state had passed mandates for AIDS education (sometimes tied to general sex ed and sometimes not). But as some form of sex ed became inevitable in the era of HIV and AIDS, conservatives launched a movement to rebrand sex education as “abstinence education.” Religious conservatives helped add provisions for abstinence education to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and the Federal government directed tens of millions of dollars to abstinence-education programs for the first time.

Although people stopped referring to it as self pollution, masturbation was still pretty much taboo 160 years after Sylvester Graham railed against it. At the 1994 United Nations conference on AIDS, then surgeon general Jocelyn Elders was asked about promoting masturbation to prevent young people from engaging in riskier sexual behavior. “I think that it is a part of human sexuality,” Elders replied. “And perhaps it should be taught.” Her answer, and the reaction to it, ultimately forced her to resign. “The U.S. is really paradoxical,” Irvine says. “We have this massive sexualization of the media (just think of the movie American Pie), but we’re not allowed to talk about masturbation with teenagers.”

HIV and AIDS bubbled through popular culture in the nineties, the idea of viral infection simmering through books like The Hot Zone and films like Outbreak. On The X-Files, everything from alien reproduction to evil itself spread like a virus. Even on Star Trek, there was a very pointed HIV/AIDS subtext to episodes like Phage, Treachery, Faith and the Great River and Stigma.

“Your debriefing mentions ‘the Kim Manoeuvre.’ We were all very curious.”

As such, The Disease could never have really been about love, at least for an audience conditioned to think about viral infection in terms of sexual transmission. The way the episode is framed, particularly with its moral conservatism, only reinforces this weird dissonance. The Disease is an episode that is nominally about love, but which seems to be more interested in sex, but which refuses to talk in great depth about either aspect of the human condition. The result is a deeply muddled piece of television.

After all, it never really seems like Kim loves Tal. For all that Kim professes that he is deeply head-over-heels one-hundred-percent unwaveringly in love with Tal, there is never any sense that the two characters see any future together. While this makes sense in terms of Voyager being an episodic television series, it does somewhat undermine the idea that Kim and Tal are truly in love with one another. Kim never discusses leaving Voyager, and Tal never discusses leaving her home either. It really seems like their relationship is more of a hook-up than a true romance.

Touching.

To be fair, this problem is compounded by some very strange plotting choices, particularly the decision to saddle the episode with a subplot focusing on the politics of life inside the Varro vessel. Kenneth Biller complained about that storytelling choice to Cinefantastique:

The whole subplot, which was not in my original story, and I objected to strenuously, about the aliens who want to break free of their oppressive society, just felt really clichéd and tacked on. The story that I wrote was a much more intimate story about these two people. I was more interested in the relationship and the repercussions that it has in Kim’s life, and the way that it affects his relationship with the Captain, and other people.

Of course, this is very much par for the course with Voyager. The series has a tendency to awkwardly graft science-fiction plots on to character-driven stories to satisfying the expectations of genre fans; the eponymous alien collective in The Swarm, the anomaly of the week in Real Life.

Ship shape.

That said, there is something vaguely interesting about the Varro. The Varro fit with a recurring preoccupation of the fifth season of Voyager, an exploration of the show’s history and of its present, with Brannon Braga seemingly musing a lot on the decisions made by his predecessors and the show that Voyager could have been. Night featured Janeway locked away, reflecting on the decisions that had brought her to this point. Relativity sends Seven of Nine back to the launch of Voyager. Latent Image focuses on a deleted memory and a lack of internal continuity.

However, the fifth season also repeatedly focuses on alternatives to and reflections of Voyager, episodes that reflect on what might have been and what could have been. In other seasons, these doppelgangers tend to be imposters or duplicates who claim to be the ship and crew; the replica in Deadlock, the con artists in Live Fast and Prosper, the actors in Muse, the holograms in stories like Worst Case Scenario or Author, Author. There are shades of that to certain stories in the fifth season, such as Course: Oblivion.

A Varro awkward relationship.

That said, the fifth season suggests different kinds of alternatives and counterpoints to Voyager, ones that are decidedly less literal minded. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II builds on Star Trek: First Contact to reimagine the Borg in the image of Voyager, as a matriarchy obsessed with Seven of Nine. Equinox, Part I presents Captain Rudolph Ransom and his crew as a grim reflection of the primary cast, a version of Voyager where the crew adopted a more utilitarian and situational approach to ethical decisions.

Janeway explicitly compares the Varro to her crew. Think about it,” she tells Jippeq. “Four hundred years ago you started out the same way we did, a single starship, a small crew, facing the unknown. And now, centuries later, you’ve grown into a generational ship with a history and culture all your own. When I look at your vessel, I can’t help but wonder if I’m seeing Voyager’s future. Our journey could easily last several generations. So, what do you say, cousin?” It is an interesting way of looking at the Varro.

“Well, their smoke machine is definitely working…”

After all, Voyager should be stranded on the other side of the galaxy for seventy years. Of course, episodes like The Gift and Hope and Fear and Night and Timeless and Dark Frontier, Part II have significantly reduced the crew’s travel time. Still, the crew are stranded on the other side of the galaxy, with no support framework and no command hierarchy. As Ronald D. Moore points out, this should profoundly affect Voyager and the crew:

I don’t know what the difference is between Voyager and the Defiant or the Saratoga or the Enterprise or any other ship sitting around the Alpha Quadrant doing its Starfleet gig. That to me is appalling, because if anything, Voyager—coming home, over this journey, with that crew—by the time they got back to Earth, they should be their own subculture. They should be so different from the people who left, that Starfleet won’t even recognize them any more. What are the things that would truly come up on a ship lost like that? Wouldn’t they have to start not only bending Starfleet protocols, but throwing some of them right out the window? If you think about it in somewhat realistic terms: you’re on Voyager; you are on the other side of the galaxy; for all you know, it is really going to take another century to get home, and there is every chance that you are not going to make it, but maybe your children or grandchildren will. Are you really going let Captain Janeway [Kate Mulgrew] rule the ship for the next century. It seems like, in that kind of situation, the ship would eventually evolve its own sort of society. It would have to function in some way, other than just this military protocol that we repeat over and over again because it’s the only thing we know.

There is a clear sense that Voyager should be changing and evolving over time, that is command structure should not be so rigid and that its production design should not be so clean and crisp. Voyager is attacked by alien species every other week, but it always looks clean and pristine at the start of the following episode. There is never a sense that the ship would fail even the highest inspection standards upon its return to the Alpha Quadrant.

Bridging a divide.

As such, the Varro represent a glimpse of an alternative approach. The bridge of the Varro ship looks cobbled together, with poor lighting and rust. It resembles something akin to the command centre from Battlestar Galactica, feeling like it is held together through sheer will and hope. That said, the crew quarters look surprisingly clean and pleasant, which creates a weird dissonance within the episode. It seems almost as if the production team are afraid of Kim and Tal getting down and dirty in a rundown and dirty environment. Still, the colony ship looks like it has been in use for years.

The crew reflect on the way that the Varro have been changed by their journey. “These people have been travelling for four hundred years,” Paris states on the bridge. “They’ve learned a thing or two about living comfortably.” There is a sense that the Varro have acclimatised to the demands of a long journey better than Voyager itself. “The vessel’s technology is impressive, but its construction is haphazard,” Seven muses. Kim reflects, “I guess they sort of improvised as they went along.” In comparison, Voyager seems sterile and lifeless.

Shine on, you crazy Kim.

Of course, the Varro have been travelling for four centuries, so it makes sense that their technology should be more rundown and that their living standard should be very different. At the same time, it underscores how static and sterile Voyager is by comparison. The ship has incorporated Borg technology into the cargo bay and the astrometrics lab, but everything is still smooth and sleak. There is no duct-tape, no exposed circuits, no mismatched colour schemes. The Borg influence is confined to a few alcoves and some consoles, nothing major.

More than that, there has been no sense of social evolution on Voyager itself. Harry Kim doesn’t seem to fret over the addition of a formal reprimand to his official file in The Disease, but it is not as if his career was going anywhere. Although the ship picks up a number of children along the way, only one child is conceived and born on the journey home. There seems to be only one marriage on this long trip back to the Alpha Quadrant, although at least the audience gets to see it twice. There is never any sense that the crew are prepared or planning for a future.

“It’s been a long road…”

The Varro ship itself is explicitly designed as a ship for planning the future. It is a generational ship, a ship travelling slowly through the stars for so long that its original crew are long dead. The concept is very much a staple of classic science fiction, and has been the subject of decades of speculation. As Simone Caroti outlines, the theory was perhaps first properly articulated by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky:

The concept was fully developed for the first time in 1928, when Tsiolkovsky, the Russian pioneer of space flight, wrote a paper entitled The Future of the Earth and Mankind. In it, Tsiolkovsky envisioned the construction of “space arks,” man-made biospheres (one could conceivably call them technospheres) that could travel to the stars at a small fraction of the speed of light, reaching their destination after centuries or millennia of travel time through previously uncharted space. Advanced life-support systems would keep the societies on these ships alive during the voyage, while they would navigate, repair, and tend to the vessel for the duration of their lives. Several generations would succeed one another over the centuries until, at the end of the trip, the last generation could complete the mission, whatever its nature: landing on a new Earth, establishing a forward base, etc. Tsiolkovsky’s formulation represented as much a practical proposal for an entry point into space as a declaration of faith in human resourcefulness, because after 1905 we truly needed such faith to keep ourselves from despairing that we would ever reach the stars.

Tsiolkovsky was not the first writer to suggest such an idea. In 1918, Robert H. Goddard speculated that any migration through space would take “a number of generations.” Generational ships became a staple of early-to-mid-twentieth century science fiction, in tales such as Wilcox’s The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years or Heinlein’s Universe. David Gerrold had planned to build a Star Trek episode around the concept, but adapted it to the novel The Galactic Whirlpool.

Peace in the pods.

As such, the Varro represent another example of Voyager‘s fascination with retro science fiction storytelling trappings. Voyager is populated with a number of old-school science fiction elements that are clearly drawn from pulp magazines and mid-century speculative fiction; the resettled abductees in The 37’s, the allegorical backwards aging of Innocence, the sky elevator in Rise, the clumsy evolutionary science of Threshold, the body-snatching terror of Cathexis, the metaphorical atom-bomb horrors of Jetrel.

The Varro generational ship is as much a throwback to retro science fiction as Tom Paris’ romantic holodeck programme in Lifesigns or the fantasy of Bride of Chaotica!, an element that feels very much at odds with the aesthetic of the larger Star Trek universe while still belonging in the broader context of mid-twentieth century American science fiction. When Janeway greets the Varro as “distant cousins”, she is almost alluding to the fact that they both developed from two very different strains of speculative fiction.

Revolutionary ideas.

There may be an interesting story to be told about the Varro, about life in an isolated and evolving colony ship. There is certainly some interesting self-commentary in The Disease, an episode that ends with the acknowledgement that any long journey must allow the travellers certain freedom to express themselves and to define their own culture. The only problem is that The Disease has no real interest in this subplot and no real desire to tie it back into the same narrative.

Indeed, the colony ship subplot only really takes over the episode when the production team have nowhere else to go with the story focusing on Kim and Tal. The romance never really gets off the ground, and is derailed by the sudden (and convenient) revelation that Tal is also secretly a terrorist masterminding a separatist movement. However, that gets brushed aside in favour of a high-stakes action climax that features plenty of explosions, but never really resolves the relationship between Kim and Tal.

“Don’t worry. I’ve inoculated him. We shouldn’t have to worry about another Kim romance episode this year.”

The Disease is just a mess of an episode, one that bungles the handling of some interesting ideas, both in trying to map out a theme and in trying to construct a narrative. The result is one of the weaker and more misguided episodes of the season, a tone-deaf instalment that highlights many the chronic conditions affecting Voyager.

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10 Responses

  1. Only neelix gets to have a no strings affair with no consequences? In the span of four series?

    When my mom saw that episode first-run, she said what we were all thinking. “Don’t they have to get married?” But I guess that only applies to klingon males…

    • Yeah. Now that you mention it, Neelix seems to be the rare Star Trek: Voyager character who can let his freak flag fly. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you look like a hedgehog.

      (See also: his relationship with Kes in all it’s pedophilic abusive glory. I kinda wanted a late season episode where Janeway discovers Neelix has been cooking meth in the mess hall.)

  2. From TNG onwards Star Trek has always had a very weird attitude towards sex and I’m not so sure it can entirely be blamed on American cultural mores. ‘Friends’ was an immensely popular mainstream show that had endless jokes about sex. Even sticking with genre shows ‘Buffy’ (and ‘Angel’) had had a lot of sex during the same period despite having an almost identically aged target demographic as 90’s Trek (albeit perhaps proportionately more female.)

    ‘The Next Generation’, ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’ always seemed so sterile when it came to the bedroom and even Deep Space Nine’ seemed weirdly awkward and immature in that area.

    • Yep. Deep Space Nine was the best of the bunch, but the fact that it still produced episodes like the mirror universe saga, Let He Who is Without Sin… and Profit and Lace (and, sure, Meridian, why not?) illustrates how low that particular bar is.

      • It’s really fascinating how franchise priding itself in being so smart and topical and enlightened, can be so “hurr durr, they are talking about sexy dirty seeeeeeeeex”. From the standard issue Starfleet catsuits, through Risa to EVERYTHING in Enterprise (even in the latter half they had sexy PTSD therapies and that awful Orion episode).

        This is one of the things that worries me about Discovery, how it’s supposed to have more sex and like… I think at this point, we can safely say that trying to make Star Trek sexy is a bad idea. Yeah, sex is awesome. But so is dignity.

      • This is one of those things I was actually really excited about when Fuller was on board. Hannibal featured one of the single best sex scenes I have ever seen on television, all while still managing to be within the bounds of broadcast standards and practices. Kaleidoscopic lesbian sex! It’d been fun to imagine Vulcan sex as something similar; after all, the shows have hinted that Vulcan fingers are erogenous zones.

        I’m somewhat less enthused now, but you never know.

  3. You know, people talk about “O’Brien must suffer” episodes, but those are at least about something happening outside the norm and getting back to his loving family, while Harry’s episodes are about something good happening to him for a change, only to go LOL NOPE.

    • To be fair, the Kim-centric episodes are probably best described as “THE AUDIENCE MUST SUFFER” episodes.

      I kid, I kid. But not by much. (I suspect the relative difference in the quality of scripts and performers accounts for why the O’Brien episodes made a greater impact. And I’m not JUST saying that out of a sense of pride in the national institution at is Colm Meaney.)

      • I thought about it a bit and I suppose the major difference is that, while fans may joke about the tendency to make O’Brien miserable, it’s not as if his character was about that. It’s just that as a down to earth Average Joe he lended himself well to those kinds of stories. Harry Kim on the other hand, is pretty much defined by his role as the space Milhouse van Houten. I get he was meant to be the innocent human growing up on utopic Earth on a ship in a hostile and scary place, but in practice, he just ended being the butt of the joke and designated victim.

        And for the longest time, the show put very little effort to develop him as anything else, with rare times he got the spotlight, he was just put in a bad situation and needed to solve it. Even Non Sequitor told us nothing new about him, except that despite his desire to go home he would never even think of staying at the price of somebody else-which while admirable, only reinforces how one-note he is-and that he and Tom are really good friends. And I know they realized there is a problem and tried to show him grow as a person and move beyond his status as the Ensing Newbie, but that still leaves his character defined by being residential buttmuch. And they still struggled with it and even then, never really stopped using him as the butt of the joke and I think it’s because, well, what else is there to him besides it? Without his naivite or constant bad luck, he’s just Tom’s clarinet playing friend.

        BTW, isn’t it odd how they never bring up his fiance after the second season? I don’t blame him for deciding to move on, but her not even being brought up when they start receiving letters from home makes it really obvious they were ignoring her to not make him look like a dick. Which ironically, may have resulted in them doing just that, since in Ashes to Ashes, he states he was considering hooking up with that retconned in crewmember UNTIL he got on Voyager.

        I got stuck with the second paragraph and wasted an hour figuring out how express myself. So I really hope I said something at least tiny bit meaningful.

      • That’s fair, I think. It certainly makes sense from an emotional and thematic perspective.

        That said, I am sticking by my “better actor/better writers” argument. 🙂

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