"Star Trek" Episodes About Viruses, Epidemics, and Pandemics
As I write this, the world is dealing with the scourge of the novel coronavirus (COVID19). Viruses, epidemics, and pandemics like this have been inspiration for several episodes of the Star Trek sci-fi television series that will be reviewed here. Only episodes from The Original Series (TOS) and The Next Generation (TNG) are discussed.
For those who might not be as familiar with the series, the Enterprise, which is frequently mentioned in the discussion, is the space vessel that takes the characters on their adventures.
Virus Outbreaks and Quarantine
Early in both the TOS and TNG series, a “Naked” episode told the story of a virus the crew contracts while investigating a location off the Enterprise.
TOS “The Naked Time”
Science officer Spock and a lieutenant beam down to a dying planet to investigate and retrieve a research team. They find the researchers frozen to death, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, one is frozen fully clothed in a shower, and another is strangled. Though clothed in protective environmental gear, the lieutenant removes his glove to scratch his nose while on the planet, and contracts the same virus that killed the research team.
Upon return to the Enterprise, the landing party is cleared to return to duty. But then the lieutenant starts behaving irrationally, attempting to injure himself. Bridge crew members restrain him, only to contract the virus themselves by doing so.
The virus quickly spreads through the Enterprise by person-to-person contact, resulting in the crew being in a drunken state, lacking self control or judgment, and abandoning their posts. It even affects Spock who normally would be the pillar of logical thinking. Additional symptoms include being feverish, which is a possible explanation why the dead research team didn’t appear to be phased by being in a freezing environment.
With nobody doing their job, the Enterprise spirals out of control on a collision course with the dying planet. Of course, the doctor develops a serum to counter the virus and the Enterprise time travels to avoid the incident altogether.
TNG “The Naked Now”
The basic premise of the TNG “Naked” episode is the same as that for TOS. An away team visits the science vessel Tsiolkovsky which has suffered a ship hull breach. Communications received by the Enterprise prior to the incident suggested some bizarre behavior was going on.
As in the TOS “Naked” episode, the Enterprise’s away team finds many of the science vessel crew frozen. Also, as before, the away team becomes infected by the unknown virus, resulting in feverish symptoms, accompanied by lowered inhibitions and reason, which sends the ship on a collision course with a supergiant star fragment. Data, the ship’s android, also becomes infected with the virus, a truly improbable plot twist. Eventually, the ship’s doctor finds a vaccine that cures the crew, and the ship is brought safely out of harm’s way, but this time without the help of time travel.
Real World Implications
With the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, person-to-person contact with infected individuals has been identified as a way the virus spread so quickly. Infected individuals may or may not show symptoms. The TOS and TNG are set in the 23rd to 24th century. Unless our biology evolves dramatically by the time we get to the real 23rd and 24th century, which is unlikely, we’ll still have to practice time-tested protocols of limiting person-to-person contact through social distancing during outbreaks.
“No Touch” Policy for the Face
With all the coronavirus warnings of don’t touch your face, eyes, nose, or mouth, the TOS scene where the lieutenant removes his glove and touches his nose seems all too relevant. As with limiting person-to-person contact, this is another protocol that will be timeless, regardless of what pandemic we face.
In the TOS episode, the doctor didn’t find anything that would prevent the landing party from returning to duty, and cannot figure out why the lieutenant died because his self-inflicted wounds were not that severe. On the TNG series, bio filters and scanners are a regular part of transporting (beaming) process. Yet those failed, too. The recent coronavirus was identified pretty quickly, compared to past outbreaks. However, as we push our world’s boundaries farther out in the universe, we’ll always have to be on the lookout for “novel” viruses that could wipe out a large portion of a population.
Vaccines and Antidotes
In both versions of this episode, the doctors came up with a vaccine that quelled the outbreak in only a few days at most! That's definitely science fiction. True, centuries from now, our medical knowledge and technology may be at the point where cures could be concocted and delivered on demand.
But what about regulatory issues? Will there be a "Federation" version of the FDA? What about clinical trials? Liability? Maybe all that will change, too, in far future. As we'll see later in this discussion, cures can have political implications as well.
Virus Jumping from Species to Species... and Machines?
As of this writing, the exact source of the COVID19 virus is still being investigated, including animal-to-human transmission. In these Naked episodes, the viruses appear to be species-agnostic since they are shown to infect and affect humans, Klingons, Vulcans, and machines. The bizarre infection of the TNG android, Data, shows a cross infection of human to machine. While I think that was to facilitate the story plot line of a liaison between a human and machine, the possibility of human-to-machine transmission (or vice versa) happening could be a truly frightening prospect.
Messing With Nature
Multiple episodes highlight the consequences of bioengineering gone awry, both resulting in viral outbreaks. Another is an exploration of ethics as it relates to viruses.
An earth-like planet conducted life-prolonging experiments on its population. Even though these experiments did prolong life, it also spawned a lethal virus that caused rapid aging, madness, and death in adults. In the planet’s children, the experiments slowed aging to the point where the children would be in a pre-puberty stage for centuries. There are no grownups left on the planet and the children are fearful of all adults.
The Enterprise picks up the planet’s old distress signal and sends down a landing party to assist. As you might expect, the adult landing party becomes infected and ends up being quarantined and stranded on the planet until the doctor develops an antidote for the disease.
TNG “Unnatural Selection”
Mirroring the desire for advancing human evolution, this episode the tells the story of experimental work at the Darwin Genetic Research Station. After a Federation supply ship stops at Darwin, all crew members age rapidly and die. The Darwin researchers insist that it’s not the station or its genetically engineered “children” that caused the ship crew’s demise. However, the Darwin researchers are also aging rapidly, blaming their affliction on the supply ship, not their research.
The Enterprise’s doctor wants to investigate how this phenomenon occurred, and conducts tests off the ship to protect the crew, only to succumb to the same ailment of rapid aging. She discovers that the children’s immune systems are so advanced they create antibodies that attack everything in the environment, essentially rewriting human DNA which leads to swift aging and death. So the doctor suggests that Darwin Station be placed under quarantine forever.
TOS “Mark of Gideon”
The planet Gideon wants to become part of the Federation of Planets. The Enterprise is dispatched there on a diplomatic effort. The leaders of Gideon create an elaborate scheme to abduct Captain Kirk for a very unusual reason.
Apparently due to a germ-free environment, Gideon’s people have high regenerative capability and live extremely long lives. As well, they believe that all life is sacred and reject using birth control. These forces have created an overpopulated planet where almost no one can physically move about due to overcrowding. Gideon's leaders know that Kirk suffered a bout of a nearly-fatal meningitis virus. They hope that he can infect at least one of their people so that it spreads throughout the population, shortening their very long lives and reducing the overpopulation.
Real World Implications
Unintended Consequences and Permanent Quarantine
All three of the scenarios present a host of unintended consequences. While the children in Miri will have very long lives in numeric terms, and will stay “young” for a long time, they will never grow into adults due to the virus. The children in Unnatural Selection will be isolated from the rest of the universe forever. The Gideonites have no idea how introducing disease into their population will turn out. Their hope is to reduce the population. But what if it wipes all of them out in short order?
In Unnatural Selection, the doctor understandably places Darwin Station on a permanent quarantine, essentially creating a colony of exiles. It was suggested that the Darwin researchers were cured. But what will happen to the “children,” or more accurately, “test subjects?” They now have no future other than what can be provided to them on the station. What if they have children? How will they be prevented from venturing out to other places in the universe?
This all brings up the need for developing accepted protocols that protect human rights while protecting human health and advancing science.
The Greater Good?
The Gideonites have conflicting values. Even if the combination of their germ-free environment helps them enjoy extraordinary longevity, rejection of birth control measures allows the planet to continue populating unabated. They believe in the sacredness of life, yet are willing to take life away from possibly millions who could now become infected.
Likewise, during the coronavirus outbreak, many people blatantly disregarded protocols for curtailing the spread of the virus. Like the Gideonites who wanted more space on their planet even though it meant the suffering of some, those who intentionally disregarded warnings and protocols placed a higher value on personal freedom than the greater good.
Politics and Economics of Viruses and Epidemics
The effects of epidemics and pandemics can be devastating, sometimes leading to either the rise or demise of economies and cultures, as explored in these TOS and TNG episodes.
TOS “Requiem for Methusaleh”
An Enterprise landing party seeks to obtain supplies of ryetalyn, an antidote for Rigellian fever which has infected and could kill the entire Enterprise crew. Ryetalyn is in supply on a planet inhabited by a reclusive and ancient character named Flint who’s 6,000 years old. To protect his privacy and to offer his android mate some new human contact, he plays games by offering and then withholding the ryetalyn so the landing party will stay longer. Eventually, the landing party wins out and the ryetalyn is secured to save the Enterprise crew.
TNG “Code of Honor”
The Enterprise crews seeks to secure a lifesaving vaccine from the people of planet Ligon to combat an outbreak of Anchilles fever. The Ligon code of honor and cultural norms lead to a series of power plays between the Enterprise and the planet’s leaders. Eventually, the Enterprise’s security officer is victorious in a physical contest for the vaccine, the political power structure of the planet shifts, and the vaccine is secured.
The Enterprise attempts to assist a troubled Ornaran freighter with a truly incompetent crew. The freighter crew’s main concern is their cargo of drugs to cure their planet’s people. The drugs are very expensive and, as the Enterprise’s doctor discovers, narcotic.
In the distant past, the Ornaran planet was ravaged by a plague. A neighboring planet, Brekka, supplied the Ornarans with a narcotic drug that cured the plague. In exchange, the Ornarans provided Brekka with everything they needed for daily life. But the plague no longer exists; only the Ornarans’ addiction to the drug does. The Brekkans know this and have enslaved the Ornarans into a life of addiction and servitude.
The Enterprise travels to the planet Haven where the ship’s counselor, Troi, is set to unite with Wyatt, a young human doctor, in an arranged marriage. Wyatt has had dreams and visions about a young woman who he thinks might be Troi, but it isn’t. The real woman in the dreams is aboard a refugee ship carrying the remnants of the Tarellian culture which has been infected with a deadly and contagious virus. Wyatt and the Tarellian woman have telepathically and romantically connected somehow.
The Tarellians are looking for a place to live out the remainder of their lives, isolated from other populations, hoping that Haven would be that place. But they cannot land for fear of spreading the virus to the planet.
Wyatt believes it is his destiny to help the Tarellians, and encourages them not to land on Haven. He pilfers some medical supplies from the Enterprise and beams himself aboard the Tarellian ship, committed to helping them find a cure for the virus, even though it puts him at risk for the disease.
Real World Implications
Cures as Currency and Control
In the Methusaleh, Code of Honor, and Symbiosis episodes, one party is dangling a viral cure carrot in front of another. Those in need of the cure suffer twice. First, they’re battling a disease. Second, they’re indebted to and controlled by the party with the cure.
We can only hope that a universal desire for the greater good will prevent this scenario from happening during the COVID19 outbreak. However, it has happened on a small scale with people buying up large quantities of basic supplies, then reselling them at high prices to people who need them.
As was seen in Code of Honor, wielding power by using a viral cure as a bargaining tool doesn’t always work as planned.
In the coronavirus situation, people are watching how leaders handle this crisis. With it being a an election year in the United States, how current elected representatives handle the issue could influence people’s votes. This could quickly shift power at multiple levels of government.
Quarantine, Exile, and Prejudice
Like the children at Darwin Station in TNG Unnatural Selection, the Tarellians in TNG Haven are essentially exiles. But unlike for Darwin Station, the Tarellians have no place and must continually be on the move.
We can understand why no planet would want to grant them asylum due to the potential for spreading a lethal virus. But what about humanitarian goals? This type of segregation can also spawn prejudice against afflicted populations.
There is no doubt that the countries and cultures of our world may be faced with difficult post-pandemic situations like these that won’t easily or quickly be solved.
Questions & Answers
Had you considered referencing "The Immunity Syndrome" from TOS for the article, in which a giant power draining entity, resembling a cell invade the universe and threatens to swallow Spock whole?
Actually, I did! Because I was really focusing on the epidemic and pandemic aspects of the featured episodes, I didn't know if it really fit the purpose of showing how virus spread was handled. I might have to reconsider adding it.
© 2020 Heidi Thorne