The Real-Life Horror That Inspired Star Trek’s Most Sympathetic Villains

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

Star Trek phage

Star Trek: Voyager introduced many creepy concepts over the years, but few are quite as skin-crawling (or should that be skin-removing?) as the phage. This was a disease that affected the Vidiians, forcing them to steal organs from others as a way of surviving. We always wondered where the heck the show’s writers came up with this freaky idea, and it turns out that it all goes back to the Bubonic Plague.

The Vidians

For this weird tale to make sense, we need to quickly review the Star Trek: Voyager episode fittingly titled “Phage.” This episode introduces some ugly aliens known as the Vidiians that take an even uglier action–namely, they steal Neelix’s lungs, effectively paralyzing him as he must lay perfectly still in sickbay while holographic lungs keep him alive. Eventually, Captain Janeway and her crew learn more about these aliens, including that they steal the organs of others due to a species-wide disease known as the phage.

The Vidians Came From The Bubonic Plague

Star Trek is a franchise that has given us many spine-tingling ideas, but few approach the existential horror of the phage. Basically, this is a disease that kills thousands of Vidiians each day by destroying tissues and constantly adapting to any and all forms of medical intervention.

These aliens often died from pain, suicide ran rampant in their culture, and their physical appearance looked like something out of David Cronenberg’s worst nightmares.

By the standards of Star Trek or any other television show, the idea of the phage was as original as it was gross. At least, that’s what we always assumed. However, episode co-writer and future showrunner Brannon Braga later revealed that the phage was largely inspired by his speculation about what Europeans might have done had the Bubonic Plague never been cured.

The Bubonic Plague

neelix lungs

The Bubonic Plague, of course, was responsible for killing approximately 50 million people worldwide and severely reduced the population of Europe (the upper-end estimate is that 60% percent of Europeans died).

Eventually, doctors figured out ways to prevent transmission and treat the plague (which is still around, although quite rare).

Notably, this plague caused major changes to the economy (higher wages, as there was now less supply of workers to meet demand), and there are theories that it even rewired our immune system while serving as a form of natural selection.

The Vidians Acted Out Of Self Preservation

What does that history lesson have to do with Star Trek: Voyager and its portrayal of the phage? Braga sees the Vidiians as an extreme and sci-fi-flavored version of what Europe might have become if the Bubonic Plague continued into the far future with no possible ways of treating or preventing it.

It made the aliens’ horrific actions more sympathetic, which is something then-showrunner Michael Piller enjoyed about this story: “I liked the idea of an alien culture who are a civilized people who are forced to do uncivilized things in order to survive,” he said.

Phage Pushed Janeway To The Edge

Star Trek phage

Forcing civilized people to make difficult decisions was a cornerstone of this Star Trek episode, and “Phage” forced Janeway to decide if she wanted to potentially save Neelix’s life by reclaiming his lungs from the alien who took them.

She decided against violating the body of this Vidiian, and the grateful aliens showed the holographic Doctor how to perform a transplant on Neelix’s alien physiology.

All’s well that ends well in typical Voyager fashion, but the episode serves as a stark reminder that even Janeway and her vaunted Starfleet morality might be pushed to desperate violence if humanity had suffered from this incurable disease.

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