Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Star Trek: Voyager Pulls Off A Horror Episode That Works With "Phage!"

The Good: Genuinely scary villains, Intriguing plot, Well-acted
The Bad: Big picture issues, Somewhat pointless special effects bonanza
The Basics: When Neelix loses his lungs to a fearsome new enemy, Janeway puts the USS Voyager in danger to encounter the Vidiians, a dying race bent on survival at all costs.

Star Trek: Voyager had a somewhat weird start in that it had some of the strongest characterization out of the gate and yet started with some truly derivative post-pilot episodes that soon mortgaged what was unique about almost all of the main characters. Indeed, within episodes, the series also lost the essential serialized quality of telling one long overarching story of the U.S.S. Voyager trying to find its way home in favor of bottle episodes that did little in terms of creating a longer, smart series. Then, it seemed the producers and writers were hit with a whole bunch of clever ideas at once and tried to squeeze them all into a single episode. It is with that that Star Trek: Voyager presented "Phage" and it's the first real knockout of the first season of the series.

The U.S.S. Voyager is orbiting a planet that is not as lifeless as the crew originally thought and Neelix, while gathering samples, is attacked by a horribly disfigured creature who, of all things, steals his lungs. The Emergency Medical Hologram manages to save his life by creating holographic lungs for the ship's cook and the Voyager pursues the hostile aliens to a nearby asteroid with a mirrored interior. The chase nets the aliens and the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager discovers that it is in a very unsafe region of space.

The whole purpose of "Phage" is to introduce a new villain and the Vidiians remain one of the few villains in the Star Trek franchise that remain true to their terrifying roots with a sense of danger all about them (though they are ultimately undone as a footnote in an episode late in the sixth season). The Vidiians rival The Dominion for Best Villain status in the Star Trek pantheon and unlike Q, The Borg and the string of cinematic one-shot villains to follow Kruge (in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, reviewed here!), they were never overexposed and dumbed down through continued exposure. In fact, it's entirely possible that because the Vidiians only appeared six episodes that the writers simply kept them menacing through underexposure, that if they had written more they would have been as weakened as the Borg or Q.

But here, the Vidiians are frightening and grotesque. The concept behind this menace is simple; the Vidiian race suffers from a brutal disease they call the Phage. The Phage decimates their DNA at a cellular level, killing their organs. As a result, the Vidiians roam the Delta Quadrant in small groups hunting for races and vulnerable parties they can steal needed organs from. They use a device that is part tricorder, part phaser and part transporter to scan a victim and remove the organs they need by simply beaming them out of their target. And judging from Neelix's expression when he is assaulted, it's not a painless process.

The Vidiians, in short, are characterized as smart, dangerous and desperate with a technology that rivals that of the U.S.S. Voyager. The make-up for the Vidiians is flat out gross (in a wonderful way). The Vidiians are basically organic compilations, sloppily assembled, their faces covered in mismatched skin with exposed patches that reveal necrotic tissue, brains and bones. In "Phage," one of the enemies is even blind in one eye from the disease and the special effect is compelling and believable.

It's almost incomprehensible, then, that "Phage" bothers with the mirrored asteroid. The Vidiians flee into a spatial body that is special-effects intensive and the process of Voyager finding the enemy ship inside it is basically a silly - though logical - special effect that seems to be an effect for the sake of having an effect. In short, the make-up effect is integral to the story and compelling and frightening. The mirrored asteroid is simply gratuitous and ultimately detracts from the flow of the episode. It is as if the producers tried to create the ultimate episode - after a few mediocre ones - and it just feels too stuffed in.

What makes it such a success are the levels of character and the acting. "Phage" gives a chance for the characters to grow and explore the values the show seeks to promote. Janeway makes a strong and interesting ethical decision when faced with creatures that are both monsters and victims, doing horrifying things yet displaying a sense of honor within their culture. Kes makes a sacrifice that reveals her humanity and love for Neelix and Neelix, trapped in Sickbay, begins to present the full potential of his annoyingness. The Doctor continues to develop as a wonderful sarcastic, brilliant and funny character that makes the show watchable.

The Doctor is played by Robert Picardo and his performance in "Phage" confirms the character's arrogance and charm. Picardo brings his sense of comic timing and a deadpan wit to the character that lifts the character from the page into something that is viable and interesting. Picardo, more than any other performer on Star Trek: Voyager had to work to establish a character that could have been a one-trick pony. The Doctor, on the page, is a very limited character, but Picardo infuses mannerisms that are as subtle as a glare from his eyes or the hint of a smile that make his Doctor the breakout character of this series.

Kate Mulgrew continues to establish Janeway as an intriguing and viable captain, but here Ethan Phillips steals some of the show from her. With Neelix incapacitated and unable to move, Phillips is robbed of his ability to express himself with body language and more physical mannerisms. As a result, Phillips makes an astonishingly good performance using his voice (he connotes desperation in an empathetic way!) and movements from his eyes. He dominates every scene he is in in this episode.

As a result, "Phage" ranks as the first must-see episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It is clever, dangerous and effectively creates a story that introduces an enemy that is genuinely scary.

[Knowing that the season is a much better investment, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete First Season on DVD, which provides the full opening to the series. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


Check out how this episode ranks in the entire Star Trek franchise by visiting my Star Trek Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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