February 28 2024

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Retro Review: Blood Fever

9 min read
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After a Vulcan engineer tries to force Torres to mate with him, the effects of pon farr impair her judgment during a dangerous away mission.

Plot Summary: Voyager has discovered a planet with deposits of gallicite, which the ship urgently needs to refit its warp coils. The crew finds evidence that a civilization once colonized the planet, but they appear to be long gone. While Torres tries to prepare for an away mission to retrieve the gallicite, Lieutenant Vorik astonishes her by asking her to marry him, citing the ways in which they complement each other. When she refuses, he seizes her and initiates a mind-meld which she ends by punching him in the face. The EMH examines Vorik and concludes that he has the symptoms of pon farr, though both Vorik and Tuvok are reluctant to discuss anything as private as the Vulcan mating drive even with each other. As the EMH encourages Vorik to meditate and suggests a holographic Vulcan woman as a sex partner, Torres leads an away team with Paris and Neelix, unaware that she is being affected by Vorik’s blood fever. Neelix becomes injured in an accident that enrages Torres, who then insists that she should find the gallicite herself. Chakotay and Tuvok beam down to help Paris find her, then also find aliens living underground. Torres picks a fight with one and ends up trapped in a cave with Paris, who can see that she’s both aggressive and lustful. She suggests that they have sex, but Paris fears that she’ll regret it afterward because she’s not in her right mind, although he changes his mind when they are rescued and Tuvok insists that Paris must help Torres or she will die. Meanwhile, Vorik beams himself down to the planet and sabotages the ship to prevent anyone from following. Seeing Torres embracing Paris, Vorik challenges the other man to ritual combat, but Torres insists that she will act as her own champion. She and Vorik engage in a martial arts battle that cures their blood fever. Torres suggests to Paris that they pretend none of it ever happened, though he says he’d like to see her ferocious sexual side again. Voyager trades technology for the gallicite, only to discover that the underground aliens are so fearful because their colony was decimated by the Borg.

Analysis: I know a lot of people love this episode. It’s the first time Paris and Torres admit that they have feelings for each other – the real beginning of their canonical relationship. It’s the start of the Borg arc that will shape Janeway and Chakotay’s characters for the rest of the series. It gives us a Vulcan connection with the original series. We get to see the Doctor bragging about his comprehensive knowledge of sexual behavior, characters in tight climbing gear, hand-to-hand Klingon-Vulcan combat, a whole bunch of scenes set somewhere other than on the ship. I understand that there are aspects of “Blood Fever” many viewers enjoy. So let me warn you now, this review will not celebrate any of those things. I might even hate “Blood Fever” as much as I hate “Retrospect” – the one in which Seven of Nine experiences rape and is condemned for telling anyone about it. I will never get past the fact that “Blood Fever” is the episode which makes clear that Starfleet not only pardons but tries to aid sexual predators if they use the excuse that they just couldn’t help themselves. It’s the episode in which a crewmember sexually assaults his superior officer and the head of security refuses to do anything about it – even to protect her from a second assault – because the inability to control one’s violent sexual impulses is considered too much of a personal matter. It’s the episode in which (I can’t believe I have to type this sentence) Tuvok orders Paris to have sex with Torres after Paris has repeatedly expressed that he doesn’t want to have sex, not like this, not under these circumstances. Imagine if Kirk had demanded Uhura help Spock in “Amok Time” even as Uhura was saying that, while she really liked Spock, she did not want to have sex with him. Or imagine that Spock had assaulted Uhura the way Vorik assaults Torres, and consider that anyone not as strong as a half-Klingon probably wouldn’t be able to fight off a Vulcan. It’s vile. The only reason Vorik isn’t a rapist is because, as he declares in his proposal, he has chosen the strongest woman on the ship, someone whose biology suggests that she likes brutal sex. Torres may manage to avoid physical violation by Vorik, but she’s still a victim of sexual violence. And even if no touching had happened in this episode, there’s so much hideous rhetoric about sex in “Blood Fever” that it’s hard to watch.

Vorik’s “proposal” is itself a demonstration of male entitlement. Vorik comes to Torres with a shorter list of things he can offer her as a mate than the list of things he imagines she can provide for him. The Doctor hasn’t yet confirmed that he’s experiencing pon farr, so Vorik believes his behavior to be logical and justified. He gives two seconds of lip service to her talents and bravery before he starts bullying her, first with a 20th century heterosexist assumption that she must want a male life mate and surely fears the likelihood that none of the other limited choices aboard would pick her, then with the brag that he’s the only man around who can handle a woman like her because of his Vulcan prowess. (It’s rare for me to cheer when someone solves a problem by punching someone else, but I whooped aloud when she smashed his face.) The escalation from declarations of desire to demands for reciprocation and violence upon rejection may be scripted here as typical for Vulcans, based on original series precedent, but it’s also far too typical an experience for human women in the presence of men who’ve been told that persistence and aggression are the keys to winning over a partner and that sex is owed to a man who follows what he believes to be the nominal rules of courtship. Vorik’s response to Torres’s refusal is to try to take what he wants. “I meant to be gentle, but she tried to move away,” he tells Tuvok as if Torres and not Vorik is responsible for his subsequent aggression. Tuvok tacitly agrees that it would be logical for Torres to mate with Vorik once it’s obvious that the assault has given her pon farr symptoms, though Tuvok notes that Torres has never been logical, which we know to be a Vulcan insult. Janeway goes along with Tuvok and the Doctor in accepting Vorik’s right to work out his problem on his own as is Vulcan custom, but it doesn’t seem to occur to any of them that Vorik may very well attack Torres again or choose a woman less equipped to fight him off. If the Doctor believes that Vorik can transfer his affections to a holographic sex doll and forget about Torres, surely he must recognize the possibility that Vorik might choose another live, independent female as a mate. Yet Vorik is treated as a sympathetic victim rather than as a threat to every woman on the ship. Doesn’t Chakotay, who was deceived and essentially raped by Seska, have anything to say?

I’m trying to put aside both my incredulity that Starfleet would protect Vulcan privacy by putting non-Vulcans at risk over pon farr and my annoyance that a sentient hologram would create a sex-slave hologram. It’s not like the latter is a new idea on Star Trek, though I’d think the EMH of all people would be slightly more concerned with the way holograms can be programmed to submit to anything even when they’ve also been given intelligence. For the mind meld aspect of pon farr to be relieved, wouldn’t she have to have a sophisticated mind? I understand that Vorik isn’t equipped to undertake the full kal-if-fee ritual we witnessed during “Amok Time” and Torres probably has even less experience with Klingon bonding rituals than Worf did when he and K’Ehleyr hurled themselves at one another, but substituting a few minutes of violent combat for a mating bond is ridiculous given that we’ve been told the violence of Klingon and Vulcan mating rituals exists specifically because there’s so much more to sex than mindless rutting. The Vulcan bond is meant to be much more than physical. Here, violence and sex are interchangeable releases of tension. I’m not sure why the Doctor thinks a hologram could help Vorik any more than his own left hand. As for Klingon mating behaviors, as uncomfortable as I am with the fact that Dax and Worf often end up in the infirmary afterward, they’re supposed to be consensual. In “Blood Fever” we have Torres biting Paris as mindlessly as Vorik tries to force a meld on her, then repeatedly trying to overrule Paris’s objections to sex with her when she isn’t in control of herself. The fact that Paris never feels threatened the way Torres evidently does with Vorik does not make the behavior less troubling. We’ve often seen that Paris doesn’t take sex overly seriously, and since he’s basically a good guy, I imagine he might engage in it to save anyone’s life, even Vorik’s. But how ironic that the guy who’s most often been seen pursuing women attached to other men, treating twin sisters as if they’re interchangeable, and indulging himself with holographic women becomes the one serving as a role model in not taking advantage of woman whose judgment is impaired. There’s not much joy when he finally agrees to save her life because he’s aware that she may feel violated anyway and consider him the instrument if not the cause.

If “Blood Fever” has a saving grace, it’s this discovery about Paris, who suddenly seems more enlightened about sexuality than Tuvok, the Doctor, and Janeway, whose main role during this episode is to play the chaste leader and make uncomfortable faces while her EMH gleefully reads off lists of mating behaviors across the galaxy. Remind me again about how it would be wrong for her and Chakotay to have an entirely consensual relationship, but it’s okay for Vulcan officers to go on deep space missions where they may rape crewmates or die trying. Paris has made comments previously about being sorry he missed seeing inappropriate shipboard fraternization and thinking Kim should ignore fidelity in favor of snagging a Delaney sister before they’re taken, but his understanding of and insistence upon consent is one of the sexiest things ever to appear on Voyager. I don’t much like how Torres is written once she becomes Paris’s love interest, but I would never fault her for choosing him after this discovery. I’m very well aware that it’s a staple of ancient, beloved Kirk/Spock fan fiction for their first time to take place under similar circumstances to those either borrowed by or used less creatively in “Blood Fever”: Spock is near death from pon farr, Kirk is willing to do absolutely anything to save him. One can interpret Kirk’s prior canonical behavior toward nominal females of every species, shape and complexion as resolutely heterosexual or as indicative that – to quote Gene Roddenberry’s famous footnote from the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Kirk has “no moral or other objections to physical love in any of its many Earthly, alien, and mixed forms” for himself as well as for everyone else. In any case, whether one believes Kirk would act reluctantly and with distaste for the act or whether one believes becoming Spock’s mate is Kirk’s secret dream, we’ve seen incontrovertible evidence that Kirk would end his career without hesitation for Spock, that Kirk would give his own life to save Spock…that Kirk loves Spock. I’ve never been a fan of what gets called “non-con” in fiction so readers who enjoy the trope don’t have to call it rape, but this is a rare instance where I can see the difference – that even if someone’s too impaired to give proper consent and the situation wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for an encounter, the depth of love allows the characters and their relationship to come through unscathed.

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