The following is a SPOILER Review for "Phage." If you have not seen the episode yet and do not want to have the plot given away, stop reading now.
The SASR [Short Attention Span Review] is the creation of Jim Wright, who watches the episode no more than twice before preparing the review. This gives me the opportunity to review and recap with a combination of memory and creativity (when memory fails). The result is an experience that is similar to, but not exactly the same as, the actual episode. Consider it a revival of the ancient oral traditions passed on through the generations. I make no claims as to accuracy, but I hope I got enough of it right to keep your attention.
This is the first episode of the series I've really enjoyed. All the elements which have been hinted at from past episodes combined here to make for an interesting story--strong character development, humor, poignance, conflict, intelligence, gratuitous inside jokes, cool special effects, and some wonderfully disgusting makeup for the guest aliens.
Jump straight to the Analysis
Captain Janeway and first officer Chakotay are taking a morning stroll through the ship, chatting about what Neelix believes is a good source of dilithium--the stuff that drives the starship. They discuss Chief Engineer Torres' plans for processing the dilithium, and Janeway remarks that Torres seems to deliberately find whichever approach is most at odds with Starfleet regulations, though she agrees it is the best solution they have. As they reach Janeway's private dining quarters, she describes her ideal Replicated breakfast, which will not happen until the Replicators are fixed, and the ration packs she'll have to make do with in the meantime, vacuum-sealed oatmeal. (I liked this exchange because it is a definite change from the wine-and-cheese parties of the Enterprise--a simple thing like breakfast is a chore for them, one of the subtle reminders that they're a long way from home. Like the original series, this ship and her crew are roughing it.)
Janeway leaves Chakotay...only to be overwhelmed by a cloud of smoke, the crackle of an open fire, and the smell of--fritters? Neelix has converted her private dining quarters into a mess hall. Neelix, chef's hat on head and a cooking utensil in each hand, is busily preparing a home-cooked breakfast for the crew using the fresh produce his girlfriend Kes has been growing in one of the shuttle bays since Episode 2.
Unfortunately, Neelix didn't ask first, so this comes as quite a surprise to our regulation-oriented, it's-my-ship-and-I'd-damn-well-better-be-told-everything-that-happens-before-it-happens kinda Captain Janeway. Neelix is clueless as to what the big deal is, and Janeway is sputtering, though she is almost amused by the whole thing. (Earlier in the still-very-young series, she may have tossed him out an airlock.) Neverthelesss, Janeway is most displeased at the intrusion into her private space.
Fortunately, timing is everything, and they reach the dilithium asteroid before any real argument occurs, and Neelix and Janeway both head for the bridge while a hapless ensign is instructed to mind the fritters while they're gone.
Neelix, Chakotay and Kim beam down to search for a good place to start mining dilithium, and discover that while the promise of dilithium is there, they don't find any actual dilithium. While they ponder this inconsistency, Neelix wanders away from the others and into the waiting crosshairs of a seriously ugly dude with a wicked looking handgun. By the time Chakotay and Kim reach Neelix, he's flopping around like a fish out of water and the ugly dude is nowhere in sight. They beam to sickbay, where the holodeck doctor stabilizes Neelix temporarily, but announces that he's got an hour to live...his lungs have been removed, apparently transported out of his body, and there's absolutely nothing he can do to replace them since Neelix is the only one of his kind on board.
Kes is called, and she hurries to her lover's side, asking what can be done. She offers a lung to Neelix, but the doctor explains that no lungs on board will work. But he doesn't give up, and theorizes that a holographic copy of Neelix's lungs could be used as a substitute until his real lungs are found and reinserted. Since sickbay is also a holodeck, the doctor believes, the lungs will work as long as the program is running and Neelix is stapled to the bed. As the closest thing to family, Kes considers the options, then agrees.
The "surgery" is a success, and Neelix awakes to find himself alive and breathing, but effectively paralyzed. The first thing he notices is how ugly the sickbay ceiling is, prompting the gratuitous quip from Holodoc, "I'm a doctor, not an interior decorator." Kes says she'll take care of the decor.
Meanwhile, Tom Paris--Heartthrob of the Delta Quadrant, ace pilot and Captain Kirk Stud-Boy in training--is proving himself a less-than-ideal medical assistant in the eyes of Holodoc, who speaks to Paris condescendingly throughout his training. In fairness to Holodoc, Paris does seem to approach this assignment with something less than vigor. Whether he is overwhelmed by the task, intimidated by the doctor, eager to get back to piloting the ship, or preoccupied with the nubile Delaney sisters in Stellar Cartography (episode 3), only Tom knows for certain. After being yelled at several times by Holodoc, Paris is called to the bridge. He offers his support to Neelix and Kes, squeezes the latter's shoulder in a friendly gesture, and departs.
Neelix grumbles to Kes that Paris doesn't have the decency to wait until his corpse is cooled before swooping in on her. She protests that "Tom" is just a friend, and Neelix refers to "Tom" as a walking hormone. They have a brief but gentle argument, and Kes reaffirms her love for Neelix and insists that she hasn't given up on him yet. It's a nice moment, but there is surprisingly little passion between these two.
Cut to Janeway and the senior bridge crew, who beam down to the asteroid to search for the missing lungs. They find an organ repository, and track down an Ugly Dude who is shot, drops his gnarly handgun and escapes to his ship. They pick up and analyze the dropped handgun; the thing looks like a medical scanner, organ transporter and stun gun all wrapped up into one. It's much more advanced than anything the Federation has ever seen.
They beam back to Voyager and take up the chase. They track the ship into an asteroid, and they discover an interior House of Mirrors, making for an impressive special effect--oodles of Voyagers and alien ships. Looks like another trap, as the ship's power begins to drain. Janeway and her intrepid crew discover a way to flush out the baddies by firing their phasers with a low enough intensity that it won't burn through anything, but it will keep ricocheting off the mirrors until it hits something tangible--like the other ship. Thus we see that the home field advantage can't always overcome Starfleet training, battlefield-honed cunning, and redhead captain babes. They lock onto the ship and beams its people on board.
Neelix is struggling, even with nice curtains and ceiling decorations. The Holodoc has no bedside manner; he doesn't offer Neelix a lot of compassion, and Neelix starts to panic and demands to be released (which would kill him), and hyperventilates (not easy when you're breathing through holographic lungs) and is ultimately sedated, worrying Holodoc greatly (he may not have a ready smile for his patients, but he does have a professional concern for their physical well-being).
So far in the series, the Holodoc has been a largely comic figure--a gruff, irritable field medic whose only vocalized concern is that he be turned off by the last person to leave sickbay. He's not very likeable, and he doesn't try to be. The only person who treats him well is Kes, and she has provided the series with some of the most powerful character moments when she interacts with the doctor, seeing beyond the programming and finding a soul. (For the technically minded, the new ship has "organic" computers, which allow for faster processing, greater storage capacity, and even some potential for emotion. The holodeck doctor is the likeliest candidate for exploring this.)
Holodoc break downs slightly in front of Kes, expressing his frustration over the Herculean tasks placed before him which go well beyond his original programming. He and Kes share a very powerful moment together, where she convinces him--and me--that he's doing a remarkable job, and shouldn't be so hard on himself. When you can make a program smile, you're something very special. Kes could give warm fuzzies to TurboTax, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Janeway and Tuvok and security rush down to the transporter room, where they meet their prey for the first time. There are two of them, and they look like Freddy Krueger's cousins. It turns out they are a people who for two millennia have been battled by an incurable phage (virus?) that destroys their bodies and organs, and they've had to resort to scavenging and harvesting organs from other species. They have the medical technology to take organs and use them, regardless of the creatures they yank these organs from. They try to be kind, take only from the dead, but the lungs on one of the people were gone and they grabbed Neelix's in an emergency. They are now in use, and taking them would kill the Ugly Dude who's got them.
There is an excellent Janeway moment here. She faces a dilemma--demand back the lungs and kill the man who took them, or let Neelix stay as-is. She's furious, she's vicious, she's compassionate, she's confused, she's anguished--all at once. Very impressive, very convincing, and one of the moments that made me love this episode. It could have been cheesy, but turned out extremely well. I came away from it with a lot of respect for Janeway as a captain who thinks things through, and reminded me of the better Kirk and Picard moments.
The Ugly Dudes are sorry for what they've done, and they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the life they took. The one with the lungs even thinks it would be a relief to finally die after such a long and tortuous struggle to stay alive, doing things he's obviously not proud of. But Janeway decides she cannot allow herself to take a life for a life. Fortunately, the Ugly Dudes have highly advanced medical technology, and indicate that the can modify anyone's existing lungs to accommodate Neelix's needs. Kes volunteers one of her lungs again, and this time it's an offer that can be accepted. The Ugly Dudes help perform the operation, and Kes and Neelix now have one more thing in common. Janeway, in a moment of compassion, tells Neelix he can keep her dining quarters as the mess hall for the time being, and their earlier spat is patched up.
The operation successful, Kes and Holodoc converse quietly while Neelix sleeps. Holodoc, who
has become increasingly impressed with Kes--she's bright, compassionate, eager to help, and gets
along with him--has spoken with the captain, and tells her that if she's willing, she can start
training to become Paris' backup...or, better, his replacement. She agrees. It would be my guess
that if Kes and Neelix ever break up, she and the Holodoc would make a very good couple; their
scenes together are among the very best. Holodoc doesn't smile for anyone else, and she
compliments him shamelessly and sincerely.
All in all, an excellent episode, and ahead of schedule; it took The Next Generation most of the first season to present an episode that made me think, "wow." It had all the elements of a good viewing experience, and the pieces all fit together nicely.
On a 1-10 scale, I'd give this a 8.50.
(That's all, folks. If you're still hungry for more commentary about this episode, Julia has plenty to say.)