A Briefing with CaillanBy Caillan Davenport
Posted at October 24, 2000 - 1:18 PM GMT
[Note: This article was published in cooperation with Voyager Extreme.]
"Good Morning, Voyagers. I want to tell you about a friend of mine. I first met this man over five years ago when I rented "Caretaker" from the video store, and to tell you the truth, I didn't like him much. He seemed a little too high pitched, a little too like a hedgehog. A lot of people had questions about him, or more importantly, the people who wrote his lines. He'd proven that he was a complete and utter fool, that the writers only wanted him as comic relief, and that he and his girlfriend would be the first to get shoved out the airlock when there weren't enough lines to go around."
I refer, of course, to Neelix, Voyager's resident Talaxian and pronounced object of viewer hatred. I don't think I've found a character description as damning as "God of Annoyance," as one website describes him, not to mention the infamous "Neelix Must Die!" page.
When I tried to visit this page recently, however, I found that the site had disappeared off its server. Could this be a symbol that a growing number of viewers have actually come to accept, and even like Neelix? In fact, I would say that Neelix is without a doubt one of the most interesting characters on "Voyager," and not because of his cooking.
It's a real pity that for the majority of the first and second seasons Neelix was written primarily as comic relief - a character we all loved to hate, if only for his idiocy. His jealous reactions to Paris's friendship with Kes did much to strain viewer tolerance, and his lame jokes didn't inspire much confidence either. However, an interesting dichotomy began to emerge in Neelix's character; he was simultaneously comic relief and an outlet for many of Voyager's most powerful morality tales.
"Jetrel," airing at the end of the first season, was the first attempt to turn Neelix into a 'serious' character, and for the most part it was a successful episode, even if a little heavy-handed in places. A strong Hiroshima allegory, it presented Ethan Phillips with a chance to prove that Neelix was more than just an annoyance. However, it may have proved too much for some viewers, because after all the previous episodes where Neelix was presented as a bumbling fool, his status as a serious character was a little hard to accept.
Nevertheless, the writing staff continued to turn out the annual serious Neelix episode, and they've been some of the best Voyager stories. Episodes like "Mortal Coil," "Fair Trade," and "Riddles" show a very different side of Neelix to that presented in "Partuition" and "Rise!". The trend has shown that many of the less desirable Neelix moments took place in the first two seasons, but since then he has grown and matured as a character.
Particularly relevant in this regard is "Fair Trade," a seminal episode in Neelix's development. For once, he was shown to have grown beyond his original purpose as a guide. Since then he has become the unofficial Ambassador, and god-father to Naomi Wildman. It is perhaps the latter responsibility that has seen the most character growth for Neelix. Especially, it has shown that the character has matured beyond what we all originally perceived him to be: an annoying fool. Despite the fact that this "new Neelix" has an unfortunate tendency to preach in places, particularly in "Once Upon a Time", it also shows a significant growth of confidence on the part of the writing staff. Neelix is no longer portrayed as "other" to the crew anymore; he has become a part of the crew.
In between these few key episodes, however, Neelix seems to fall back into conventionality mode, serving dinner and making cracks about his leola root. On the one hand, it shows that he is a fully-rounded character, with different facets and foibles, but the characterisation needs to be a little more consistent for it to succeed. Having Neelix so profound one week and happily serving out the latest culinary disaster the next doesn't always do wonders for character continuity.
Once question remains - where can the character grow from here? Probably contrary to popular opinion, I'd like to see a Neelix love story, something a little better handled than his relationship with Kes. A more mature approach to his character on a regular basis by the writing staff is in order, and I think that a strong Neelix love story could really nail the character. No corny one-liners like in "Random Thoughts", no whisker-tugging and leola root stew, no elogium, just a relationship that could finally let us see who Neelix is, and what makes the character. I don't think anyone can deny that he has been like a chameleon to us - a man who confessed to hiding to avoid conscription, a man with a shady past, but do we really know Neelix? I can't say that we do, but there is a strong basis to know more about him - "Mortal Coil" in particular delved deeper into the character, but it needs to be taken a step further. An episode, or series of episodes, in which Neelix develops a serious relationship could be just what is needed to drive all those other character insights home. I want to know what drives this man; I have an idea, but I think there is still strong potential for exploration.
Given the material, Ethan Phillips is a strong performer and thankfully every appearance is no longer as groan-worthy as the notorious "hair pasta" scene in "Partuition". However, Neelix has been overlooked on many occasions by both the writing staff and the fans. If anything, he's had more "serious" episodes than many of the other cast members, but the character is still reduced to slapstick on too many occasions. It's not that he shouldn't be jovial and have a sense of humour - it's that it often demeans and degrades the integrity of the character. "Riddles" began to show us the caring personality that is Neelix at the core, his past experiences show that he is a complex character, and Ethan Phillips is more that up to the challenge. We just need to see it up there on the screen.
Caillan Davenport is moderator of the TrekBBS General Sci-Fi forum and is editor of the J-Team newsletter.