Friends, I wish I had something more profound to say. But I’ve been having a really good time rewatching Kathryn Janeway get her Ellen Ripley on in Star Trek: Voyager’s season three episode “Macrocosm,” and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact Kate Mulgrew gets to phaser her way through a viral pandemic.
Part of the overall fun is the joy that underpins “Macrocosm.” We so often like to think of Star Trek as the haughty science fiction series, the serious space show where our heroes are champions of scientific curiosity and reason. They talk, they don’t blast each other in space battles and phaser shootouts as if they were having some kind of War in those Stars. Diplomacy and problem-solving save the day, not action-packed machismo.
This is a lie, of course, because Star Trek has never been above a bit of space-action when it wants to be, from its earliest beginnings to the present day. Sometimes it’ll question that capacity for violence, but it still indulges in the visceral thrill from time to time.
Voyager’s “Macrocosm” is definitely the latter but through a strange lens—it’s Star Trek trying to do Alien on a UPN budget. At the same time, despite the fact that she spends much of its runtime with a phaser rifle and knife in her hands, Captain Janeway is returning to her roots as a science officer from before her time in command.
Let’s step back and set it all up: The episode opens with Janeway and Neelix returning to Voyager after a diplomatic away mission with a new species, the Tak Tak, only to find its hallways abandoned and the crew seemingly vanished. When Neelix is attacked by an unseen creature and falls ill from the goop it sprays all over him, Janeway meets up with the ship’s doctor to find out what the hell is going on on her ship. It turns out that the doctor himself is kinda to blame. While she was gone, he was given permission to use his mobile holo emitter to beam down to a nearby planet and answer a distress call from some miners seeking medical aid. Thinking himself safe in ways the rest of the crew would not be, as he’s a hologram, the doctor beams down alone. Upon returning, samples of the Macrovirus infecting the colony were beamed onto Voyager with him.
Always practice social distancing and quarantine measures, folks, even if you’re a hologram!
One rapidly accelerated growth and spread of the virus later—traveling along Voyager’s top-of-the-line bio-neural gel packs that power the ship’s technology—and the crew finds itself paralyzed by the Macrovirus, weakened and left in paralysis while it uses their bodies to reproduce. Armed with an antiviral to flood Voyager’s filtration systems, and advice from the doctor about how the flying Macrovirus “bugs” can sense bioelectic fields, Janeway is given a new mission: stop being a Starfleet Captain for a hot second and go be Ellen Goddamn Ripley.
It’s gleefully silly but also just... a ton of fun? We’ve seen Janeway with her back against the wall several times up to this point in the series, but that’s when she’s been the captain at the helm of a crew. “Macrocosm” casts her alone, compromised not just by the virus slowly infecting her, but by the fact that she finds herself in familiar surroundings—her ship, trapped in the Delta Quadrant, the only home she or Voyager’s crew know—that are now distinctly alien and hostile to her, bathed in red warning lights and teeming with giant viruses.
And while a lot of the inherent joy of the episode is watching Janeway, sweltering in the tense heat that the Macrovirus has thrived in, pacing down corridors checking sightlines with her phaser and, yes, occasionally blasting some cellular fools, it’s also something that paradoxically asks her to go back to the scientific ideals of her pre-command days. Against the Macrovirus, so many of Janeway’s regular tools of persuasion and diplomacy straight up don’t work. She can’t parlay with a virus. She can’t negotiate with it. She can only fight it, both through the antiviral gas the doctor has developed and... well, literally with a phaser and knife like a goddamn action hero.
The latter is fun, but the former is what really gets to the heart of Janeway as a hero and as a scientist, as she fights her way to the ship’s environmental controls (while also dealing with the Tak Tak again, who show up ready to blow up Voyager to control the Macrovirus, because the stakes were apparently just not high enough already!). It’s not the gung-ho action badass that saves the day, but Janeway’s quick thinking and ingenuity. Remembering what the doctor told her about how the virus seeks out bioelectric fields—how it was attracted to him as a hologram in the first place—she races to the holodeck to attract the Macrovirus to its holographic characters, giving her the chance to contain it and administer the antiviral into the ship’s systems, ultimately killing it.
And yet, the fantasy of Captain Janeway, action hero, is what still lingers. It’s an indulgent one for Star Trek, which, like I said, prefers to put on the airs and graces that it’s above that sort of thing. But it’s an indulgence for us too, now more than ever, that’s worth escaping in. While we wait for our significantly less-holographic doctors to try and come up with something to combat the pandemic ravaging our own current moment, the idle fantasy of being able to take a phaser to it in our heads is a compelling one... but a fantasy nonetheless.
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