Friday, July 29, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager--"Fair Trade"

While I have criticized many aspects of VOY, some more fair than others, one thing I have avoided bullying is Neelix. Critiquing Neelix is like analyzing the Star Wars prequels. The flaws are so obvious, it feels like a waste of time to point them out. The urge not to break the naïve hearts of their respective fans is another deterrent.

The VOY creators had their hearts in the right place. Neelix was supposed to be the fun, goofy break out character whose antics would be the comic relief on a dark show about a near hopeless journey to a home 75 years away. In that respect, we got a highly sitcom character vibe out of Neelix. He is a bad cook. He is a gossipy television talk show host. He is an annoying moral officer. He is an advisor with negligible advise to offer. Essentially, Neelix is Balki Bartokumous--a good hearted fish out of water who wants to try it all in order to find his place.

The problem with that is VOY is not a sitcom. Comic relief within a drama still has to fit within the logic of the drama. Star Trek has done the concept very well in the past. Spock and Data spring to mind immediately as characters whose awkwardness in their environments creates occasional comedic breaks without diminishing the characters or the drama. Indeed, both are beloved characters. Neelix is just not a well crafted character.

Star Trek has had plenty of those, too. Troi and Jadzia “Trill Barbie” Dax come to mind. Being a two dimensional character is not enough to universally turn Trekkies off. Heck, as far as gene Roddenberry was concerned, characters could have all been cardboard cutouts as long as he got his philosophical message across that materialism was bad and managed to sell a lot of action figures in the process.

What puts Neelix in the basement of Star Trek characters is how the writers have attempted to deepen him by yanking him in the polar opposite direction. Is the overly eager to please Neelix annoying? All right. They will have him bully Kes about not taking advantage of her only chance of having a baby out of his own selfish desires. Annoyed by Neelix’s icky sweet nature? Okay. He will have a fist fight with Tom and threaten to kill him over paranoid jealousy. Tired of hearing about what a great tactician, survivalist, and tracker Neelix? Well, you should be. He has failed at every turn since the pilot. It has been one misstep after another trying to get the character to fly. It has rarely worked and never for very long.

“Fair Trade” is one of those rare occasions in which Neelix does work for a while. The episode snaps him into reality without the extremes I described above. Neelix is presented with a dilemma, makes a bad choice, and ultimately has to maturely face up to what he has done. This is about as well as the character has ever been handled. If memory serves, ‘Fair Trade’ is as good as it gets in Neelix-centric episodes.

Neelix has been overenthusiastically seeking out other ship responsibilities to over in security and engineering. He is secretly motivated by the inevitable end of his value as the Delta Quadrant guide--Voyager is about to leave the last area of space Neelix knows anything about. Opportunity knocks when the ship visit’s a trading station to negotiate for supplies and he runs into Wixiban, an old--and literal--partner in crime. Wixiban is stuck on the station after having his ship impounded. He needs one big score to pay the fine to release it. He wants Neelix to help in exchange for a map of the space Voyager is about to enter.

Perhaps it is just me, but I assumed even watching VOY sixteen years ago that it was understood Neelix had been a shady businessman before joining the ship. I considered much of Janeway’s reluctance to bring him and Kes along was because of his criminal past. I figured Kes gaining more important responsibilities like nurse and field medic were a sign she was far more trusted. I thought that because Kes’ relationships appeared far more meaningful, she had more character. So when Wixiban bullies neelix into helping by threatening to tell Janeway about his smuggling past and thereby damaging his credibility, I thought they already know this about him, right? Guess not.

The only reason I mention my longstanding thoughts is that some smuggling deal went badly years ago and Wixiban wound up in prison while Neelix avoided capture. Wixiban hangs his ordeal over Neelix’s head to further bully him into helping. While this would be enough motivation on its own, Neelix is more concerned about what his crewmates would think of him if they knew the truth about his past. It has to be a big secret he was a criminal in order for the emotion to resonate. I did not think it was a big secret, but okay.

The deal is advertised as a medicinal shipment. Anyone with two brain cells to run together knows that means narcotics, but neelix is in denial at this point. The back alley deal goes badly and the drug dealer is shot. Worse yet, the crime syndicate expecting the drugs are not happy they missed out and now demand some warp core plasma from Voyager as compensation.

Just to tighten the screws, chakotay and tom, who were seen in a chance encounter with the drug dealer earlier, are arrested for his murder. Knowing they have been falsely arrested does not initially stop Neelix from stealing some plasma, but he does have a change of heart eventually, opts to confess to taking part in the drug deal, and offers to help catch the crime syndicate traders in exchange for having the charges dropped.

The drug bust winds up with the plasma exploding into a green explosive gas which is--I could you not-the exact same scene as in yesterday’s episode. Budget saving is one thing, but geez, VOY. Could you at least spread the episode out a little bit? Neelix survives with minor injuries. Wixiban leaves him behind to face the consequences of his actions alone.

He is prepared to leave the ship, but Janeway says it is not that easy. He is a vital part of things, but now it is going to be difficult to trust him. I am curious what is so vital about neelix, but I figure I must not be in the proper spirit of things. She assigns him to some grunt work for two weeks. He grins like a moron, implying that he would have scrubbed toilets with his toothbrush before taking part in the drug deal or stealing the plasma if it meant he could stay. Janeway probably degraded him as compensation for not getting the opportunity to kill anyone herself this episode.

I got a little snaky about some bits here. I think it is retroactive continuity to say at least the gist of Neelix’s criminal past is a big secret that needs to be buried at all costs. I am ultimately going to excuse it, however. I have never been desperate to stay in any one place in my life, so I do not understand the unethical lengths one might go to in order to do so. I find ’Fair trade” less compelling than many fans do, but recognize its value in that it tried to make Neelix into a more complex character. The show rarely does that with any character, much less its biggest dud. So it deserves some props for that if nothing else.

Rating; ** (out of 5)

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