Star Trek Voyager: Blood Fever

"Be careful what you wish for, Lieutenant."

And we find out why a new Vulcan character was suddenly introduced a few episodes back.

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault.

Strap yourselves in, this is a long one!

My opinion of and relationship with this episode has shifted a bit over the years. Let me explain:

When I was a teenager and we used to get together at lunchtimes to watch Voyager, this was an episode we often came back to. We chose mainly episodes we found funny and could happily chat over and poke gentle fun at – which is why we watched 'Threshold' so often – and this one fit the bill rather well. It's kind of silly, and sexy, and based on an Original Series concept that's really silly (yes, it's a huge fan favourite – that doesn't mean it's not silly!). We also enjoyed Paris/Torres shipping (though Janeway/Chakotay was always our no. 1) and of course, this episode is perfect for that. It's unusually frank about sex for Star Trek – they say the word twice! – and we nicknamed it the "porn fair" episode.

Then I read a review of the episode that ripped it apart and pointed out serious issues with the story – primarily, that when Vorik tries to forcibly mate with Torres against her wishes, he is, in effect, trying to rape her. No one on the show thinks what he did is OK, but they also don't treat it as a sexual assault, and he is never punished for it – he's let off on the grounds of being under the influence of the ponn farr. The scenes in the caves also show Torres herself trying to pressure Paris into having sex with her, while putting Roxann Dawson into a sweaty, wet tank top (Robbie McNeil is fully clothed). Suddenly, my fun Paris/Torres episode became something else, and a lot less fun. I didn't particularly want to think about it that way, but couldn't deny that it was a completely accurate reading of the story.

So here's where I'm coming to now. This isn't the only episode of Voyager, or other shows (especially 90s shows) that has these issues. So I'm approaching these episodes a bit differently now. I'm trying to think about what the episode is actually trying to do. For example, the Star Trek movies have tended to play this kind of thing as a violation that is indeed related to sexual assault – one of the most disturbing scenes in all the movies is when Spock extracts information from Lt Valeris' mind by force. So I view those as an assault, the way they were intended to be viewed (and, er, never watch Nemesis cause it's too depressing).

On the other hand, there are examples where the writers clearly just haven't thought of it that way. An infamous example from Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Buffy angry with one of her boyfriends when he was taken advantage of during a bodyswap in a weird case of victim-blaming – it's trying to be about how well he knows her (or doesn't) and the idea that he's actually a victim of sexual assault doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone.

In this case, I'm choosing to view this episode in the context of two things – the Original Series episode that inspired it, and what it's doing in terms of Voyager's arc plot. 'Amok Time' is an absolute classic, with a wonderful ending (Spock grins!) and because its drama came from exploring Kirk and Spock's relationship, it's very satisfying. If you think about it, that episode would not be written now – why are these men allowed to fight over a woman? Why can't T'Pring simply say she doesn't want to marry Spock? Why are Vulcans into forced marriage? There are misogynistic problems all over it. But we make allowances, because it was the 1960s, and because it's a lot of fun.

This episode is the first time 1980s-90s Trek dealt with ponn farr. The idea that super-logical Vulcans have to either mate or fight to the death every seven years is wonderfully alien and 'Amok Time' is rightfully considered an absolute classic. But it's also problematic, reducing intelligent characters to animal urges and having men fight over a woman – even if they're overseen by a matriarch. The other 90s Trek shows didn't go near it – but Voyager has a Vulcan regular character separated from his wife, so it's no wonder they decided to tackle it.

Whether they had thought of dealing with Tuvok's ponn farr isn't clear – the shift to the newly introduced Vorik is motivated by the desire to tie it in to Paris and Torres' developing romance. Tuvok has a wife he would be missing, and if he did decide to try to mate with a crew-member, he would a) ask first and b) probably choose Janeway or Kes. For B'Elanna to somehow 'catch' it and be thrown into a sexy situation with Paris, it had to be a younger character without a mate, one we don't know so well.

If you take this episode as intended – basically, Torres is accidentally infected with a Vulcan medical condition that makes her dangerously horny and gets trapped in a cave with Paris – it's really hot. Roxann Dawson's and Robbie McNeil's chemistry is off the charts here, and the episode is all heaving bosoms, both of them covered in sweat, panting into each other's faces. Paris is a ladies' man but also a perfect gentleman, refusing to take advantage while B'Elanna is under an alien influence even though he's been pursuing her all season. And we have moved on from the 1960s – B'Elanna, having contracted ponn farr like a Vulcan male, fights for herself.

So in the end, I've come full circle. Paris and Torres' slow-burn romance is one of the best-written romantic relationships in Star Trek (romance on Star Trek was always a bit hit and miss, with some great couples, but a lot of inconsistent writing and development of their relationships in many cases, and some serious mis-fires). I choose to assume that the writers were so focused on their desire to get Paris and Torres all over each other in a cave, that they ignored or didn't think about the implications of the opening scene between Torres and Vorik. And so I watch it in that light – but your mileage may vary.

Bits and pieces

 - Some nice reminders of the mating rituals of various Star Trek races, not just the Vulcan ponn farr, but Klingon biting as well.

 - The Doctor's exasperation with Vulcans' refusal to discuss a major medical crisis is perfect.

 - The shipping news: this episode resolves the triangle set up between Paris, Torres and Vorik in 'Alter Ego', and of course, gives us lots of Paris/Torres goodness, though she tries to backtrack at the end, so they can carry on flirting.

 - Regular cast death count: In 'Amok Time', it was clearly stated that the combat to resolve the ponn farr had to be to the death. McCoy tricked Spock into thinking he'd killed Kirk; here, somehow, the ponn farr is resolved for both of them with just a knockout. That's cheating.

 - The Borg dead body at the end of the episode is the first appearance of the Borg in Voyager, and an indication that they're approaching the area of the Delta Quadrant dominated by the Borg.

Quotes

Doctor: For such an intellectually enlightened race, Vulcans have a remarkably Victorian attitude about sex.

Paris: This isn't about the gun! This is about sex!

Torres: What are you doing?
Paris (uncertainly): Enjoying myself?
Torres: Then show it!

Paris: I know, you're afraid your big, scary Klingon side might have been showing. Well, I saw it up close, and you know, it wasn't so terrible. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing it again some day.

I've thought long and hard about this episode, and honestly, I kinda love it. It's hot. I'll give the writers a pass for it being the 1990s, and they didn't always think through the implications of their story-telling. Three out of four convenient caves.

Juliette Harrisson is a storyteller, freelance writer, Classicist and Trekkie. She runs the podcast Creepy Classics, re-telling and discussing ancient, medieval and early modern ghost stories. She tweets @ClassicalJG

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Juliette, what an interesting read. It's fascinating how our attitudes change and how we perceive things over time.

Juliette said...

Thank you! It was a funny one, cause the review I read made me see it completely differently for a while

lisam said...

it's actually pon farr, not ponn farr. only one n.