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Star Trek: Voyager – Parturition (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

One of the more interesting aspects of the second season of Star Trek: Voyager is its stubborn refusal to give up on elements that simply do not work.

Time and again, and often at the behest of producer Michael Piller, the second season returns to concepts that were problematic and troublesome in the first season. The obvious goal is to fix those problems so that those elements can be successfully reintegrated into the surrounding show. This is why the second season returns to concepts like the Kazon as a threat and Tom Paris as a rebel and Neelix as a character with a useful function on the ship. This is not a bad approach. If the first season of a show is about experimentation, then the second season is about calibration.

Two men and a lizard lady...

Two men and a lizard lady…

It is hard to begrudge Michael Piller this approach. After all, it had worked quite well on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In particular, it took Deep Space Nine about three years before it figured out how to make characters like Bashir, Dax and Quark capable of carrying their own episodes without making the audience want to bash their heads against a large blunt surface. It is not unreasonable to take the same approach to dealing with the elements of Voyager that are not working.

There is a very significant difference, though. The problematic elements of Voyager have little to do with execution; they are fundamental problems with the concepts. The Kazon do not work as a threat because they are one of worst alien species that Star Trek ever produced, rooted in some rather unpleasant racial stereotypes tied to contemporary Los Angeles gang culture. Tom Paris does not work as a rebel and womaniser because Robert Duncan McNeill works better as a charming goof. Neelix’s romance with Kes is toxic because she is a child and he’s possessive.

Cooking up a storm...

Cooking up a storm…

As such, it feels like the second season of Voyager spends a lot of time fixing problems that are fundamentally unfixable. One of the great aspects of the premise of Voyager is the fact that the show is in a constant state of movement. Unlike the cast of Deep Space Nine who are fixed in a single place, the cast of Voyager are constantly moving forward. It is possible for Voyager to jettison the parts that are simply not working. (Cue lazy joke about the size of Kazon space.)

Parturition is an example of this phenomenon, as Voyager tries to “fix” the toxic relationship between Neelix and Kes, while offering Tom Paris some small semblance of character growth. Unfortunately, it seems very attached to the idea of Neelix and Kes as a romantic couple and Tom Paris as a playful romantic rogue, which means that the best that it can hope to do is to not make the underlying problems any more obvious. While Parturition is nowhere near as bad as Elogium or Twisted, it still feels like a series treading water.

It's time for the Delta Quadrant's favourite fifties sitcom, "Last Tango With Paris."

It’s time for the Delta Quadrant’s favourite fifties sitcom, “Last Tango With Paris.”

Jeri Taylor explicitly acknowledged the reasons for writing Parturition in an interview with Cinefantastique, contending that it was necessary to redeem the dynamic between Neelix, Kex and Tom Paris:

We wanted to resolve what had been a lingering bitterness between Paris and Neelix. It just becomes unattractive to have Neelix continually responding in that way and we didn’t want to perpetuate it. What is Kes going to say after a while? Stop being such an asshole? No. So we wanted to create the feeling of a family, not a lot of people with resentments. So we were looking for a way for Paris and Neelix to resolve their differences and this plot worked out very nicely.

There is an uncomfortable assumption underpinning all of those justifications and reasons. Why can’t Kes just say “stop being such an asshole”? How is that unreasonable or unfair?

"Mommy's very angry..."

“Mommy’s very angry…”

Neelix has always been uncomfortably possessive of Kes. He has emotionally manipulated her and bullied her to get what he wants. He is jealous of her interactions with other people. He is a lot older than Kes, who is barely two years old and with no experience of the outside world. In short, Neelix shares a lot of attributes with an abusive boyfriend. Neelix saves Kes from the Kazon, putting her in a position where she feels indebted to him. He is not afraid to guilt-trip her or to play on her feelings of debt and gratitude.

In Phage, Neelix has his lungs removed; engages in a whole host of manipulative nonsense about how he really wants Kes to get on with her life, but he frames it in such a way as to play on her sympathies and keep her under his thumb. At the start of Elogium, Neelix interrogates Kes about the fact that Paris said “see you later” to her. In Twisted, Neelix seems almost betrayed that Kes might know the location of certain crew quarters – making a none-too-subtle insinuation.

"I'm just hiding quietly outside my girlfriend's night course. Nothing stalkerish about that."

“I’m just hiding quietly outside my girlfriend’s night course. Nothing stalkerish about that.”

(It is telling that Kes only breaks up with Neelix when a genocidal dictator takes control over her body in Warlord. It seems like Kes is happy enough to remain apart from Neelix, but was unwilling – or afraid – to actually break off the relationship herself. You know that your relationship is in trouble when you need the consciousness of a vicious mad man to help you to break up with your boyfriend. It seems like an acknowledgement that the relationship between Neelix and Kes is far from healthy.)

The relationship between Neelix and Kes is scorched earth at this point in the show. At this moment in time, having Kes tell Neelix to “stop being such an asshole” is the best possible outcome. It would represent significant character growth for Kes, mark a clear shift in the balance of power in their relationship away from the abusive partner, and would actually call Neelix out on his crap. It would be glorious; it would catch a lot of viewers off guard, while still feeling like an entirely deserved piece of television.

Makin' music...

Makin’ music…

It is the sort of character development that Deep Space Nine would do in its sleep. Consider the revelations that Jake Sisko and Nog did not want to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, or that Ezri Dax did not want to get romantically involved with Worf. Sure, Jadzia Dax could probably have been a bit blunter with Julian Bashir during the first season of the show, but the series moved that relationship past its creepy stalkerish phase after the first season. While it might have been reluctant to call out Bashir’s creeper tendencies, it never pretended that was an ideal relationship.

Instead, Voyager plays it safe. It is reluctant to shake things up too dramatically. Kes will not grow a backbone on the matter, but not because she is a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship with an emotionally manipulative hedge hog; instead, the show seems to have an unhealthy fetish about Kes’ innocence and naivety. The show won’t have Kes bluntly call Neelix out of his crap because that would move the character away from her starting position. Voyager is not a show fond of big steps like that, certainly not in short spaces of time.

This isn't quite what Tom had in mind when he suggested Kim "entertain" him...

This isn’t quite what Tom had in mind when he suggested Kim “entertain” him…

To be fair, Parturition does suggest that the writing team is getting a bit more comfortable with the character of Tom Paris. Paris had been one of the more troublesome characters in the first season, with Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor disagreeing about the best approach to the character. Michael Piller tended to like the idea of Tom Paris as a lovable rogue who played by his own rules and who was prone to making spectacular errors in judgment. Piller was fascinated with the idea of Paris as a man who had made (and continued to make) very poor choices.

This is why Piller had written Ex Post Facto in the middle of the first season, an episode where Paris was accused of murder and where Paris very definitely did engage in an extra-marital affair while visiting an alien planet in an official capacity. Ex Post Facto was arguably another example of Piller’s desire to fix the unfixable; it was effectively an attempt to do a Star Trek mystery in the style of A Matter of Perspective from the third season of The Next Generation, a mystery where Riker was accused of murder and engaging in an extra-marital affair.

"Don't worry, we've got spares."

“Don’t worry, we’ve got spares.”

Jeri Taylor did not agree with this portrayal of Paris as an impulsive mess, and neither did Robert Duncan McNeill. In an interview with Star Trek: Voyager Magazine, McNeill was glad that the production team decided to move away from the trianle with Neelix and Kes, much like he was glad to get away from the idea of Paris-as-playboy:

I never thought the Kes thing was right. It made Paris look really bad, flirting with Kes. Luckily, last season they really cleared that up and dropped it so Neelix and Paris could became the odd couple. I would love to do more episodes with Neelix. Tom Paris and Neelix are a great odd couple, and Ethan Phillips and I get along so well. We have so much fun together that would love to do more episodes with him.

However, the script for Parturition leverages all this for considerable angst with Paris. A significant section of the first half of the episode is dedicated to Paris complaining to Kim about his terrible life choices, making sure to shoehorn Paris’ daddy issues into a later conversation with Neelix on the surface of the planet.

Hot rocks...

Hot rocks…

In fact, Parturition is not quite the last gasp for Paris’ playboy persona. Later in the second season, Michael Piller would try to build an entire mini-arc around Paris’ rebellous impulses. Ironically, this would be one of very few examples long-form storytelling on Voyager. Unfortunately, that multi-episode arc would end up bringing together a maelstrom of Voyager‘s worst impulses and tendencies, perhaps explaining why Voyager was so reluctant to experiment with this storytelling style in the years that followed.

Without any focus on Kes,  Parturition becomes a show about Neelix and Paris talking to each other about Kes. Kes is not an active participant in the episode, instead become a source of conflict between two male leads who need to work out their issues on their own – without any reference to her perspective or her feeling. The final conversation between Neelix and Paris on the surface of the planet objectifies Kes quite bluntly, treating her as a trophy that Neelix won and to which Paris relinquishes all claim.

"And that is the story of the long and varied acting career of the baby from Dinosaurs."

“And that is the story of the long and varied acting career of the baby from Dinosaurs.”

When Paris confesses his attraction to Kes, Neelix is magnanimous. “Well, in a way I can’t say I blame you,” Neelix admits. “She is very attractive.” Paris engages in some nice ego-stroking, assuring Neelix, “She’s devoted to you, you know.” Neelix deflects, “Well, I did save her life. I’m sure she’s grateful.” It is a terrible line. It is intended to seem modest and deflective, but it just draws attention to the massive power-imbalance that exists between Neelix and Kes. Neelix is all that Kes has ever known, and she does feel like she owes him.

The dialogue treats Kes like an object designed to inflate Neelix’s opinion of himself. “If you ever doubt yourself, just look into her eyes,” Paris urges Neelix. “See the way she looks at you. You’ll never doubt yourself again. And as far as I’m concerned, I’ll just be her friend. I mean, if you don’t mind.” It is a cringe-worthy piece of dialogue, because it suggests that Paris respects Neelix’s right to choose Kes’ friends about Kes’ right to choose her own friends. Neelix acknowledges as much (“I don’t pick Kes’s friends for her, just my own”), but it is still creepy.

Pilot error...

Pilot error…

Parturition decides to have Paris and Neelix work out their difference by having the two characters act as surrogate parents to an alien child discovered on an inhospitable planet. In Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, David Greven argues that this represents a conscious subversion of gender roles – particularly for Neelix:

In an earlier season two episode, Elogium, Neelix had been shown to be resistant to the thought of fathering a child with Kes (at the end of this episode about her Ocampan fertility cycle, she decides not to have a baby, after all). Parturition seems compensatory, then – an episode that clearly depicts Neelix as parent, correcting his previously exhibited cowardice in this regard – except that now he is co-parent to a child with another male character. In fact, the one who insists, over Paris’s initial protests, that this child must be taken care of, Neelix is depicted as the maternal nurturer, a stand-in mother. Parturition signals a transition from Neelix’s role as jealous heterosexual lover to that of healer and nurturer with no clearly defined sexuality. In fact, there is a shot in Parturition of Neelix secretly observing Paris and Kes as they giggle like sweethearts, decisively placing Neelix out of the scene of heterosexual love. In a later scene in which Neelix tries to hide his jealousy, he aggressively serves Kes abundant amounts of food, in a parody of maternal nurturing that suggests he is a Talaxian mother hen, force-feeding her brood.

It is certainly an interesting reading of the episode, but it does feel like it affords Parturition a little too much credit. The idea of forcing masculine characters into maternal roles has been a staple of comedy for decades, with Parturition feeling like a continuation of that long tradition.

Un-dining love...

Un-dining love…

Parturition was directed by Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander William T. Riker on The Next Generation. However, it could be argued that Frakes was just following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy directed both Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but he found great success outside the franchise directing the comedy Three Men and a Baby. Although somewhat overlooked now, Three Men and a Baby was the most successful film of 1987.

However, although Three Men and a Baby is one of the most iconic examples of the “manly men stuck with a baby” plot, it is far from the earliest example. In Three Godfathers, John Ford cast John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey Jr. as an unlikely trio of father figures in an update of the story of the three wise men. Of course, even John Ford’s film drew from a wealth of sources. The movie was a remake of an earlier Richard Boleslawski film, which was itself inspired by a Peter B. Kyne novel. Even these seem unlikely to be the earliest examples of the trope.

This idea is pasta its prime...

This idea is pasta its prime…

The early seasons of Voyager tended to have a fondness for western iconography and imagery. Caretaker specifically framed the crew’s arrival in the Delta Quadrant as a return to the franchise’s old-fashioned “space western” aesthetic. Michael Piller seemed particularly found of these tropes, presenting the Kazon in ways that evoked classic western antagonists and even allowing Janeway a moment of space-age post-scarcity prospecting in The Cloud. As such, it made sense that Piller’s uncredited rewrite of Parturition would push these ideas to the fore.

Voyager would never embrace western tropes as firmly (or as consistently) as Deep Space Nine, but there is a very strong sense that Piller was trying to reconnect the franchise with its roots. There is a sense that Piller’s choices and preferences were very much in conflict with the choices of those around him. The second season occasionally feels like several very different versions of Voyager are trying to assert themselves simultaneously, writing and rewriting each other in the attempt.

"You know, this might work better if we point int he same direction..."

“You know, this might work better if we point int he same direction…”

Piller eventually loses the battle, which makes his strong pushes in the second season seem rather futile in hindsight – the last exhausted gasps of a version of Voyager that could never be allowed to exist. Parturition is an early example of this approach, as Piller tries to re-work fundamentally flawed aspects of Voyager without accepting that they are broken on a very basic level. It is an attempt to heal a broken limb with a band-aid and some kind words. It doesn’t make any of the problems that much worse than they had been, but it doesn’t help the show.

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8 Responses

  1. The problem is that Neelix is the one who acts one years old rather than Kes. I cringed when he kept across the table to attack Paris. I do appreciate that in this episode there is no big action scene between the aliens and Voyager. Later seasons constantly saw pointless action occur.

  2. William’s right. It was a mistake to pair him up with Kes in the beginning, because he’s a mental infant and she’s supposed to be aging rapidly.

    Perversely, Kes is LITERALLY an infant, so pairing her off with Tom was equally gross!

    Trek is known for having lousy romances. But I don’t think they’ve ever misjudged a character this bad. Neelix has some built-in problems, but they can be worked through.

    Kes is just a bad addition. The actress is fine but the character offers nothing, and just invites inconvenient questions (…she’s *how* old? …energy beings? They give birth STANDING? Mucus? …WHAT?!) on a weekly basis.

    And let’s not even get into “Caretaker”. In hindsight, Kes was a relic of “Caretaker”, an episode which made no sense and dogged Janeway’s character for seven years, to no good end.

    • I don’t know if you have ever watched the reviews of Sf Debris, but he makes a compelling argument that the Ocampa are genetically engineered sex slaves. They grow quickly into sexual maturity, they can only get pregnant once and when they do, they give birth standing up thus endangering the child, and they only live 10 years. That argument makes more sense than anything Voyager provided about the Ocampa.

    • I don’t know. I’d actually sooner lose Neelix than Kes, if only because Kes is less actively toxic than Neelix. But, as you point out, the writers really needed to be very careful handling her… which they were not. But I think there’s something workable in an alien with a very short life-span, particularly had the show played up her relationship with the long-lived Tuvok more. (They even have matching ears.) One imagines there’s a few great Tuvok/Kes away team stories that simply never materialised because she was tied into Neelix and Paris.

  3. The third episode in a row where we lose a shuttle, and like Initiations, two enemies crash land but are forced to work together. It reminds me of what Garak told Bashir about The Never-Ending Sacrifice in The Wire:

    “The repetitive epic is the most elegant form of Cardassian literature”.

    And after Non Sequitur, that must be why Harry’s taken up the clarinet again, or is that just more repetition?

    • I hadn’t made that connection, perhaps because Parturition came after a year’s break in review writing, but you’re entirely right.

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