Star Trek: Voyager – “One” (season 4, episode 25)
Written by Jeri Taylor; directed by Kenneth Biller; first aired in 1998
We open as Seven of Nine makes some very awkward dinner conversation with her crewmates, who turn out to be part of a holodeck program designed by the Emergency Medical Hologram to help the former Borg drone practice her social skills. Seven is less than enthusiastic, but the two soon have their hands full anyway, as radiation from a nearby nebula incapacitates all other members of the crew, killing a member of the bridge crew before a struggling Tuvok manages to pilot the ship to a safe distance. The rest of the crew begins to recover, but Captain Janeway is dismayed to learn that avoiding the nebula entirely would add a year to the crew’s journey home, while crossing through it would mean enduring the deadly radiation for over a month, something no one on board could survive – no one except Seven and the Doctor. The Doctor proposes that the crew be put in stasis while he and Seven steer Voyager through the nebula, and Janeway reluctantly agrees. With the crew safely in stasis, Seven and the EMH settle into an enjoyable enough routine at first, but the isolation eventually takes a toll on their working relationship as mysterious malfunctions start to plague the ship’s systems – including the Doctor’s mobile hologram emitter, forcing him to stay in sickbay rather than risk his program being deleted. Forced to make her rounds of the ship alone, Seven finds both the malfunctions and her mental state worsening, and is plagued by hallucinations of an alien intruder. The EMH realizes that the radiation is affecting both the ship’s systems and Seven’s Borg implants, before it renders him unable to maintain his holographic form. Left entirely alone to see Voyager through the end of its journey and through worsening systems failures, Seven is taunted by hallucinations of Borg drones and her radiation-burned crewmates, and must ultimately cut off her own life support in order to keep their stasis pods powered. She loses consciousness, but wakes in sickbay, having been found unconscious but alive by the Doctor once Voyager emerged from the nebula and his mobile emitter came back online. The crew is out of stasis, alive and well, and we end on Seven making dinner conversation, still awkwardly but now earnestly, with her non-holographic crewmates.
Star Trek: Enterprise – “Doctor’s Orders” (season 3, episode 16)
Written by Chris Black; directed by Roxann Dawson; first aired in 2004
We open on an eerily quiet Enterprise, as very good boy Porthos rushes to visit a comatose Captain Archer in his quarters, followed by Dr. Phlox, who leads the pup away and assures him that they’ll visit the captain again tomorrow. As Phlox dictates a letter to his old friend Dr. Lucas, we flash back to a few days earlier, when the Enterprise, traversing the Delphic Expanse on its season-long mission to stop the Xindi from destroying the Earth, had its path blocked by a “trans-dimensional disturbance” in which no human could survive. Dr. Phlox offered to place the crew in medically induced comas while he, immune to the cloud’s effects, oversaw Enterprise’s journey through it; Archer agreed, and Phlox received a crash course in the ship’s systems from a dubious Trip Tucker before tucking the crew in for their naps. Back in the present, Phlox roams the empty halls naked and settles in for movie night with Porthos, which is interrupted by mysterious noises; on investigating, Phlox is startled by T’Pol, who, as another non-human, is apparently also awake and going about her own routine. As time goes by, Phlox increasingly confides in both T’Pol and Dr. Lucas about how much he misses his crowded, socially vibrant homeworld … and is increasingly haunted by strange sounds and frightening visions. After he nearly shoots poor Porthos, T’Pol tells him to get ahold of himself … but is finding it increasingly hard to control her own emotions, as the effects of the cloud seemingly wear on both of them. Realizing that the cloud is expanding, and that their sanity might not last until the Enterprise emerges from it, Phlox struggles to shift the ship from impulse drive to warp, without much help from an ever-more-distracted T’Pol. After achieving warp and exiting the cloud at last, Phlox goes about waking the crew … including T’Pol, who was, in fact, in a coma of her own all along. Later, Phlox joins the non-hallucinatory T’Pol for a meal in the mess hall, and clearly doesn’t mind the reawakened crowd as much as she does.
For a place to truly be “home” is for it to be more than just where we live. Home – a real, proper home – is a place where we feel safe, and where we feel like ourselves. This is so much of the appeal, I think, of so much of Star Trek: to see its characters (and, maybe, imagine ourselves) hurtling through the unnerving emptiness of space in ships which feel, improbably, magically, very much like home. And it also explains why, of all the story genres the Trek franchise has dabbled in, horror sometimes seems to be a surprisingly good fit. The most effective horror fiction doesn’t just scare us. It knocks us off balance. It takes the things that make us feel safe, the things that make us feel at home, and it turns them on their ear. Haunted houses are among the most literal examples of this, taking what should be the safest of places and turning them against us, as in Star Trek: Voyager’s tongue-in-cheek campfire story, “The Haunting of Deck Twelve.” Slasher films, too, pack an extra punch when set against the assumed safety of small towns or the suburbs, as in the seminal Halloween; Deep Space Nine emulated this with a slasher story of its own set on “Empok Nor,” an ominously quiet lookalike for the station its characters usually call home. And in two remarkably similar episodes, Voyager’s “One” and Enterprise’s “Doctor’s Orders,” Star Trek would amp up the isolation of outer space by isolating a character or two on a silent ship, with a naturally-occurring danger outside and paranoia inside, making their home unsafe and unfamiliar in a way that might just feel a bit too familiar to us today, when I’m writing this, in late 2020.
Again, even for someone who has written a lot of words comparing episodes of Star Trek to each other, the similarities between “One” and “Doctor’s Orders” are more than just striking; in fact, I’m not sure I can think of a pair of Trek episodes more similar to each other, aside from The Original Series’ “The Naked Time” and what was almost literally just a remake of it, in the very early Next Generation episode “The Naked Now.” Both episodes involve the ship travelling through an even-more-dangerous region of the remote space they already find themselves in; both require all but one or two members of the crew to be put into stasis; both choose a character who is different from the rest of the crew, but also not accustomed to being alone, as the caretaker of their sleeping crewmates; and both amplify the inevitable technobabble-y complications by having that character nearly succumb to their unusual isolation, as manifested by paranoia in general and hallucinations more specifically. The only significant difference between the two episodes, really – aside from the particular characters involved — is that “One” seems to want us to be surprised that Seven is hallucinating, where “Doctor’s Orders” drops hints quite early on that Phlox is hallucinating. “One” introduces an unfamiliar character, alien antagonist Trajis, as a more misleading hallucination before Seven starts seeing visions of Borg drones and her radiation-burned crewmates. But aside from a strong performance by the always enjoyable character actor Wade Williams, Trajis is probably the weakest part of “One,” with his scenes feeling like ideas for another potential episode which were grafted, instead, onto this one (a bad, recurring habit of Voyager’s). In “Doctor’s Orders,” by contrast, Phlox’s first visual hallucination – aside from T’Pol, as we learn later – is a glimpse out the window of something scuttling along the hull, which draws attention to itself as a pretty clear reference to the famous Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (starring Trek’s own William Shatner); we’re soon told, by (hallucinatory) T’Pol, that hallucination is considered a healthy way of relieving stress among Phlox’s people. Aside from the reveal about T’Pol at the episode’s end, we’re not asked to solve any real mystery of what’s happening to Phlox, but are allowed instead to simply empathize with what he’s going through.
And this is where both of these episodes are at their strongest: in their “humanization,” so to speak, of their central characters, while still emphasizing their uniqueness, their differences from their crewmates. “One” is the second-last episode of Jeri Ryan’s first season on Voyager as Seven of Nine; the following episode and season finale, the excellent “Hope and Fear,” would explicitly deliver a verdict, of sorts, on Seven’s willingness and ability to remain a member of Voyager’s crew, not exactly a human but surely, fully, no longer a Borg drone. The title of “One,” then, has obvious importance in its reference back to Seven’s earliest conversations with Captain Janeway after being disconnected from the Borg Collective, in which she insisted that a drone like her must be one of a larger number, not one alone. Her survival and success in “One” is proof, for herself and for us, that she can function alone when needed, but that she doesn’t want to be apart from her newfound family – of her own free will, now, not because of any directive from the Collective. This is why her hallucinations of Borg drones, as well as those of her injured crewmates accusing her of being an emotionless drone who doesn’t really care about them, are so much more effective than those of the randomly fabricated Trajis. They show that she is, in her loneliness, grappling with what loneliness means, what it means to need and care about others who are, themselves, unpredictable individuals; who might not always be around, intentionally or otherwise, when we need them; and who are still worth caring about and wanting to be around, regardless. And this depth behind the script is really brought out by the strength of Jeri Ryan’s own performance, and by her fantastic chemistry with Robert Picardo as the Emergency Medical Hologram – another way in which the end of Voyager’s fourth season served as a positive verdict on the ability of Ryan the actor, and Seven the character, to not just continue on as a cast member, but to, like Picardo and the EMH, carry some of the show’s most poignant and memorable moments and episodes.
Similarly, I have always, personally, found the characters of Phlox and T’Pol, and the performances of John Billingsley and Jolene Blalock, to be the heart of Enterprise and the center of many of its best moments, and they are a pleasure to watch together in the well-crafted loneliness of “Doctor’s Orders.” Vulcan “other-ness” is a much-explored subject in Star Trek, of course – through T’Pol, before her, and after her – but I’ve always thought that Phlox contained a great deal of potential which perhaps benefitted from being delved into quite sparingly, and with the sort of restraint which wasn’t always Enterprise’s strong suit. His species, the Denobulans, aren’t obviously “the _____ species,” in classic Star Trek fashion (like “the warlike Klingons,” “the capitalistic Ferengi,” etc.), but are instead allowed to gradually take on depth here and there, in moments sold perfectly by Billingsley. And especially significant to “Doctor’s Orders” is his selling of Phlox as almost the opposite of the fish out of water that T’Pol is on board this early Enterprise; even surrounded by still-rough-around-the-edges 22nd-century humans (and not enlightened members of the utopian 24th-century Federation, like Seven’s crewmates on Voyager), Phlox is that relatively rare alien character in Star Trek that is largely defined by a lack of tension between his species and others, by an ability to easily function among those alien to him (a role Trek too often reserves only for its seemingly more enlightened human characters). And while his crewmates are understandably nervous about going into stasis, Captain Archer makes it clear to Phlox that he is trusted to deal with such a situation in a way that few others would be, in contrast to the reservations that Seven’s crewmates have (again, somewhat understandably) not just about being put into stasis, but about Seven specifically, and about putting someone in charge of the ship, and of their lives, who was Borg not long ago. The tension in “Doctor’s Orders,” then, comes not from the sort of existential, “Who am I and where do I belong” angst that Seven suffers in “One,” but from the feeling of being where you know you belong, where you know you should feel at home, but you don’t, because something’s just not right. And that something, in this case, is the absence of all those other people who also call the Enterprise home (aside from the hallucinatory T’Pol, who would, ironically, cherish the very isolation that is wearing Phlox down). Because, as Seven also learned in “One,” home isn’t just your place, it’s your people – whoever they are, whatever your connection to them, and whether they actually share a physical home with you or not.
Which is why, while “One” and “Doctor’s Orders” aren’t necessarily the scariest of Star Trek’s horror-themed episodes, they both hit a bit differently at the time I’m writing this, in late 2020. If you’re reading this in the future, years after I wrote it, and have no idea what I’m referring to … well, congratulations! I sure hope that the Covid-19 pandemic is over, and that things are going well, whenever and wherever you are. But for us, at the moment, seeing Seven and Phlox isolated from those they care about, feeling trapped where they should feel at home, and putting themselves at risk from a natural threat so that others might be protected from it … it all has a “ripped from the headlines” quality to it, right now, that the people making these episodes, 15 and 20 years ago, couldn’t possibly have predicted. Even their collaboration and companionship with someone who isn’t exactly there, one way or another – T’Pol as a hallucination, and the EMH as a hologram who can only be accessed in sickbay, or as long as his mobile emitter is working – is reminiscent of our own current struggle to stay connected amid dropped video conference calls and unreliable internet connections. And while the hallucinations that Seven and Phlox experience are an extreme, cliched form of Hollywood shorthand for psychological stress (one that may or may not make much medical sense), the stress- and fear-induced paranoia they represent is, unfortunately, far too relevant to the current real world as well, as our own stress and fear, along with more time spent online than usual, makes us understandably, but worryingly, more susceptible to conspiracy theories that offer false comfort by channeling our stress into misplaced suspicion, and our fear into misplaced anger and hate. What lessons, then, can we take from “One” and “Doctor’s Orders,” either during the Covid-19 pandemic or just in general? Well, probably none that won’t sound trite while we deal with the difficulties of the real world. Seven and Phlox know how far their creepy space-clouds stretch, how long their journeys will be, while the real world doesn’t always offer such certainty. They each belong to a crew united towards a common purpose and willing to trust in and depend on each other, while we find ourselves divided by self-serving charlatans who want us to aim our suspicion at science, and to aim our anger at each other, just so we won’t aim that suspicion and anger at them, like we ought to. But maybe we can take the example set by Phlox and Seven as they trust in their own ability to adapt and learn, and as they focus those abilities on doing what needs done for the good of themselves, those they care about, and everyone else. And maybe we can take their example, as well, as they let their isolation teach them, or remind them, how important other people are, how necessary those people are to their own well-being and survival, and how much they are willing to sacrifice and adapt for those people … even if Seven, like some of us, might still need some voluntary isolation every now and then.