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Star Trek: Voyager – Mortal Coil (Review)

In its own weird way, Mortal Coil effectively amounts to a Star Trek: Voyager Christmas Special.

It unfolds in the lead up to the Talaxian festival of Prixin, which Neelix describes as “the Talaxian celebration of family. We observe it every year on Voyager.” Bringing friends and family together on an annual basis with ritualised food preparation and salutations, it serves as analogous to Thanksgiving or Christmas. Indeed, this sort of thinly-disguised Christmas celebration is a science-fiction stable. Perhaps “Life Day” from Star Wars Holiday Special is the most obvious example. To solidify this Yuletide sensibility, Mortal Coil aired the week before Christmas.

Choking on his Borgophobia.

They just keep killing Neelix.

There is something decidedly wry about the one and only Star Trek Christmas Special. (And no, the Christmas Party in Dagger of the Mind doesn’t really count.) This is after all an episode in which a regular character loses his faith in the existence of an afterlife and attempts to commit suicide in a transporter room. It is a strange choice for a seasonal story. In some ways, it feels very much like a Bryan Fuller script, a subversion of the traditional Christmas narrative. After all, Fuller has talked about Hannibal as an exploration of heterosexual male friendship.

Mortal Coil is a fascinating episode, albeit one that feels decidedly clumsy in its execution. The episode hesitates and wavers on what it wants to say, offering a wishy-washy conclusion to a very powerful premise. Still, Mortal Coil is intriguing for its oddness.

I met a man who wasn't there.

I met a man who wasn’t there.

In some ways, Mortal Coil feels very much like an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for reasons both aesthetic and themetic. In terms of aesthetic, the episode marks the first real focus on Voyager as a ship with families on board, marking the first appearance of Naomi Wildman since her birth in Deadlock late in the second season. It is a choice that recalls the decision early in The Next Generation to present the Enterprise as a ship staffed with families, emphasised through the presence of Wesley and in episodes like When the Bough Breaks.

There is also a very casual blurring of the line between medical science and magic that recalls early episodes of The Next Generation, when the crew could use medical technology to revive the dead in episodes like Code of Honour and to wipe inconvenient memories in episodes like Pen Pals. At the end of the first act of Mortal Coil, Seven of Nine uses Borg technology to “reactivate” Neelix after he has been dead for “eighteen hours.” That would seem to be a game-changer for medical science even by twenty-fourth century science. Seven of Nine has “cured” death.

"Okay, let's not get too excited here. I mean, he's a series regular."

“Okay, let’s not get too excited here. I mean, he’s a series regular.”

As with those massive and far-reaching medical breakthroughs presented in the early episodes of The Next Generation, the script for Mortal Coil is relatively nonchalant about the fact that Seven of Nine has completely changed the human understanding of death as a terminal state. No character reacts to Seven’s resurrection of Neelix as something profound and incredible. With the exception of Neelix’s crisis of faith, which is in no way tied to the technology, nobody bats an eyelid at what Seven of Nine has done.

It is a ridiculous plot point, but one with long-reaching implications. After all, ti should profoundly affect how the crew treat life and death. At the very least, it should require awkward exposition about why such technology cannot be used in other similar situations that don’t require a magical plot fix. After all, it seems like The Next Generation spent more time explaining why memories could not be re-written in episodes like Who Watches the Watchers? or Homeward than it did actually rewriting memories.

"... and then we learned the true meaning of Prixin."

“… and then we learned the true meaning of Prixin.”

To be fair, this shrug towards Seven of Nine’s miracle cure for death makes a certain amount of sense. Mortal Coil is not a story about miraculous Borg technology, with the technology just a gateway to the actual story. In fact, the original plan for the episode was to tell a story more firmly hinging on that plot point, as Bryan Fuller explained to The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine:

We were going to do this Pet Cemetery episode where Ensign Wildman goes on a shuttle mission and dies, and Seven of Nine brings her back to life using Borg technology, except that now she’s ‘zombie mom.’ She’s not all there. Wildman’s more connected with death than life, and her only link to life is through her daughter. She wants to kill her daughter, though, to bring her back to ‘life’ so she can share that experience with her. Really a creepy, morbid story! I thought, ‘This is going to be so much fun to write. There has been nothing on Star Trek remotely like that, ever.’ So we broke the story, and everybody was pretty happy about it.

Although Samantha and Naomi Wildman remained an important part of the episode that made it to screen, Mortal Coil ultimately took a very different approach to the concept. The episode became less focused on the magic technology that drove the plot, instead focusing on Neelix’s reaction to the resurrection. Beyond the fact that Neelix makes an occasional reference to the Borg technology, everything seems fairly routine.

Neelix goes to his dark place.

Neelix goes to his dark place.

“This is incredible,” the EMH notes during the procedure. “His intracerebral blood pressure, his synaptic responses, they’re all returning to normal.” However, that interest does not extend beyond the demands of an individual scene. When Neelix features a reaction to the nanoprobes later, it is a clumsy act break. “His tissue began rejecting the nanoprobes, causing spontaneous necrosis throughout his body,” the EMH explains. “We modified the nanoprobes to compensate and it appears to be working,” Seven states. “Neelix is stable, for now.” And that is that.

To be fair, this is very much par for the course on Voyager. The writing staff tend to use bold science-fiction concepts to drive episodes, only to promptly gloss over the long-term implications of that technology. When Tom Paris develops transwarp technology in Threshold, the technology has the unfortunate side effect of turning people into salamanders; however, even when the EMH develops a cure, the crew never think of using it to get home. When Seven fails to open a transwarp conduit in Day of Honour, she never tries again.

"Don't worry. We can just have reheated leftovers from B'Elanna's Day of Honour celebration."

“Don’t worry. We can just have reheated leftovers from B’Elanna’s Day of Honour celebration.”

However, this is quite striking in the context of Mortal Coil, given that the episode is so consciously and heavily steeped in the continuity of Voyager to date. Voyager often feels like a television series without any long-term memory, with a collection of standalone episodes with no tangible history tying them all together. This makes the episodes leaning into continuity so much more effective. Course: Oblivion works particularly well as a sequel to Demon precisely because the audience never expects Voyager to have that sort of recall.

However, Mortal Coil is very much rooted in the history and the legacy of Voyager. This is obvious in various ways. As early as the teaser, the audience is bombarded with references to the first two seasons. Seven of Nine makes a really passive-aggressive reference to the Kazon, the aliens last seen in Basics, Part II. Naomi Wildman reappears for the first time since Deadlock, acknowledging the existence of a child on board Voyager. There is a refer to Neelix’s “lung”, a nice small reference to the events of Phage.

Toast of the town... Er... ship.

Toast of the town…
Er… ship.

Even the character beats are rooted in those earlier seasons. Neelix’s anxiety over the loss of his faith is very much rooted in the horrors of the Talaxian-Haakonian War that informed the events of Jetrel. Explaining the roots of his faith, Neelix recalls, “Eleven years ago, I saw my world in ruins, my family murdered. All that’s kept me going is knowing that one day we’d be together again. That I’d see them again.” It is a very nice piece of character-building, an organic extension of what the audience already knows of Neelix.

Indeed, Mortal Coil even serves as a flashback in its portrayal of Chakotay. Mortal Coil marks a brief return to Chakotay’s weird New Age spirituality. The Voyager writing staff had made a point to consciously downplay that side of the character following the departure of Michael Piller, likely in response to the embarrassment of episodes like Tattoo. “A-koo-chee-moya,” Chakotaya intones at one point. “We are far from the sacred places of our grandfathers. We are far from the bones of our people.” He would only use that refrain once more, in The Fight.

Neelix is burning up inside.

Neelix is burning up inside.

In fact, following the rejection of the “Borg zombie” plot focusing on Samantha Wildman, the writing staff had considered building the crisis of faith story around Chakotay. However, as Bryan Fuller acknowledged to The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine:

They decided to stay away from Native American spirituality. Plus, afterlife beliefs tend to be very paganistic and materialistic, and many Native American cultures frown on it. They think it’s tasteless, because it becomes very prideful and egocentric.

It is oddly reassuring to know that the Voyager writing staff made a conscious effort to downplay these unfortunate aspects of the character, demonstrating an awareness of the problematic portrayal of Chakotay’s generic Native American heritage.

"Now, Neelix, it's been a while since I've done this..."

“Now, Neelix, it’s been a while since I’ve done this…”

However, as with Naomi and Samantha Wildman, Mortal Coil never really lost track of Chakotay. As with the other almost-protagonists, Chakotay remains an important part of the finished episode in a supporting capacity. Chakotay is present on the shuttle when Neelix is hit by the stray bolt of energy. And Chakotay is present during the reconstruction when Neelix explicitly articulates what has been bothering him since his return to life. More than that, it is Chakotay who guides Neelix on his vision quest, fulfilling a function that recalls his meditation with Janeway in The Cloud.

Indeed, at the climax of the episode, it is Chakotay who rushes down to the transporter room to thwart Neelix’s suicide attempt. It seems a strange choice, particularly given that this would seem to be a matter worthy of Janeway’s attention or more explicitly within Tuvok’s purview. Still, it is Chakotay who gets the big emotive moment as he tries (with the inadvertent help of Samantha Wildman) to talk Neelix down from the ledge. There is a sense that a lot of the revisions to Mortal Coil were built around details mapped out earlier in the development cycle.

A commander with vision (quests)...

A commander with vision (quests)…

With all of these changes and revisions, Mortal Coil had a very troubled development history. According to Cinefantastique, the finished teleplay was the work of an entire writing staff that were all very proud of the finished product:

Executive producer Brannon Braga said, “I was very happy with ‘Mortal Coil.’ It started off broad, bringing back the dead using Borg technology, but became something very personal and very touching, in large part because of Ethan Phillips’ performance. That was an episode that I felt very close to. It dealt with religion, and loss of faith. I very much liked the fact that in the end, Neelix does not actually regain his faith, and yet he has passed on something to the little girl. The ability to imagine the world that he has lost is going to help this girl sleep at night. I don’t know exactly what it means, but it felt real somehow.”

Joe Menosky offered, “It’s my favorite episode of the year. Brannon and I did rewriting on it, but Bryan did a really, really nice first draft. Bryan is a really fine writer. Even if one has to do rewriting, Bryan always gives things to a scene that are pretty magical, that inform the rewrite. I think Mortal Coil was very, very successful, darkly strange, and magical, and melancholy, and very affecting. I went down to the set when they were shooting that ‘man on a ledge scene’ when Neelix was in the transporter room, and I thought Ethan Phillips was awesome. Everybody had tears in their eyes on the set when he was playing that.”

Neither Braga nor Menosky are credited on the finished teleplay, which stands as Bryan Fuller’s second full teleplay credit. Indeed, as much as Braga and Menosky might have tweaked the script to get it to air, there are elements of the script that undeniably belong to Fuller.

She's behind you!

She’s behind you!

In fact, on of the more interesting aspects of Fuller’s relationship with Star Trek is the recurring sense that his earlier scripts and stories for the franchise are more in key with his later work than a lot of what he wrote while he was actually on staff. Episodes like The Darkness and the Light, Empok Nor, The Raven, Mortal Coil and even Retrospect have a twisted nightmarish quality to them that reflects his later work on shows like Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me or Hannibal. Once Fuller joins the writing staff, his scripts become a lot more conventional.

Indeed, one of the most memorable sequences in Mortal Coil would fit quite comfortably among Bryan Fuller’s later work. Confounded by the lack of an afterlife, Neelix embarks upon a vision quest with the advice of Chakotay. Along the way, he has a delightfully weird and uncomfortable hallucination in which various familiar characters address him in very strange and off-putting ways. It recalls the scenes with the Prophets on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, albeit even trippier.

It's all a blur.

It’s all a blur.

“My sister, she was just standing here talking to you,” Neelix protests to dream!Janeway. dream!Janeway takes a moment to recall, and then acknowledges, “The dead girl. Oh yes, very charming. I can see the family resemblance.” As Neelix tries to follow him, dream!Seven intercepts him, “You will be assimilated.” Neelix interjects, “No time for that now. Maybe later.” However, dream!Kim is just as boring as ever, reflecting of the moolt nectar, “Potent stuff.”

Neelix follows his sister to the Great Forest. Beneath a large tree, dream!Alixia taunts him with the idea that everything he ever believed is a lie. It is a sequence that is shot in a relatively conventional fashion, except with a washed out filter, some Dutch angles and a number of slow camera moves. The sequence is not gonzo or bizarre, it is a standard dream sequence. However, there are elements of the dream sequence that resonate with Fuller’s grotesque tableaux in Hannibal. It is not quite people made into trees or bee hives, but it is uncanny and strange.

Doesn't scan.

Doesn’t scan.

Even beyond the dream sequence, there are number of other effective horror elements to the script, reflecting Fuller’s own interests and fascinations. At one of the act breaks, the nano-probes in Neelix’s blood stream try to kill him, making it look like the character is being eaten alive from the inside out. There is also something existentially horrific in the image of Neelix crouched over his own body reflecting on the fact that there was nothing waiting for him in that black void after death.

Indeed, this is the meat of Mortal Coil, simultaneously its most fascinating and most frustrating element. If Mortal Coil can be seen as a Star Trek Christmas Special, it is a very cheeky and subversive take on that feel-good institution. It uses the opportunity to craft a pseudo-atheist awakening, as Neelix grapples with the idea that everything he ever believed was a lie and that none of the religious beliefs that he holds dear have any real substance to them. It would be a provocative story at any point in the season, but especially right before Christmas.

Here there be monsters.

Here there be monsters.

This atheistic subplot is striking, particularly in the context of nineties television. As Duncan and Michèle Barrett note in The Human Frontier, this atheist subtext harks back to the original Star Trek and the early seasons of The Next Generation:

While Voyager’s rational scientists, Janeway and Torres, thus find their minds opened to spiritual interpretations of events, the ship’s cook Neelix follows the opposite trajectory in Mortal Coil, in which he suffers a loss of faith so dramatic that it brings him close to suicide. In this episode Neelix is resuscitated several hours after having died in an accident, an experience which convinces him that his people’s beliefs about the afterlife – where he expected his whole family (killed in a horrific Hiroshima-style attack) to be happily residing – are completely false: ‘I died and there was nothing; there was no one there … we just disappear into nothing.’ The final shred of hope from the tragedy of Neelix’s earlier life is torn away from him, and he feels unable to cope. Ultimately he decides to return to his life, but he does so very much disillusioned with his faith.

In presenting a central character’s loss of faith, we might say that mortal coil is treading a line closer to The Original Series and The Next Generation, and certainly Voyager is capable of showing up fraudulent religions in the vein of those series as well.

After all, there are countless stories in which Kirk (and to a lesser extent Picard) find themselves confronting a society that is distorted by religion; The Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, Who Watches the Watchers?, Devil’s Due.

Cooking up some enthusiasm.

Cooking up some enthusiasm.

To be fair, later Star Trek shows tended to adopt a more even-handed approach to the subject of religion. While the final seasons of Deep Space Nine leaned a little too heavily into the Judeo-Christian trappings of the Bajoran religion during its final seasons, the series made a conscious effort to provide a nuanced and compelling exploration of faith and belief. Part of this had been driven by producer Michael Piller, who tried to port some New Age theology into the early seasons of Voyager, most obviously in episodes like Tattoo or Sacred Ground.

Even allowing for the fact that its atheistic subtext is a direct call back to those early episodes of Star Trek and The Next Generation, there is something different and more nuanced about Mortal Coil. This is not an episode about the crew setting out to disprove (or depose) a spiritual belief system deeply-held by an alien culture, this is a more personal tale about lose of faith. Mortal Coil is essentially about Neelix’s journey from belief to atheism. It is an intimate and low-key story, which is relatively rare in the broader context of Voyager.

Neelix gets licked.

Neelix gets licked.

(Of course, this is arguably something of an issue of itself. While Mortal Coil builds upon any number of longstanding aspects of Neelix’s personal history or continuity, the truth is that the intensity of Neelix’s belief seems to come out of nowhere. While it fits reasonably well with what the audience knows of Neelix, the truth is that Mortal Coil would have played better were Neelix’s religious beliefs a more fundamental and established character trait. Mortal Coil would arguably be a much stronger episode about Kira Nerys, to pick one example.)

There was something quite daring about telling a story that was so overtly and explicitly about atheism in the context of late nineties television. As with gay and transgender rights, there was a sense of social awakening taking place during the decade. This was particularly true in Europe. In 1999, evangelist Luis Palau, complained, ”To me, the most difficult countries of the world to communicate the Gospel, and feel you’ve gotten past the facade, are the Western nations. I think western Europe is probably the most difficult because of the cynicism and, frankly, the atheism.”

Whatever it medi-takes.

Whatever it medi-takes.

However, there were also changes taking place in the United States as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first. More and more American adults came to identify themselves as atheists over the course the nineties. By October 2012, it was suggested that one-in-five American adults held no explicit religious beliefs. Still, atheism remains a controversial topic within the country, in spite of the supposed separation of church and state. Spiritual belief was seen as an important personal characteristic.

As recently as June 2015, 40% of Americans would not vote for an atheist in public elections. Pete Stark was the first openly atheist member of congress, but he only “came out” in March 2007. In a poll for June 2014, nearly half of Americans would be unhappy about a family member marrying an atheist. Various bans still exist at state level into the twenty-first century, preventing atheists from holding high offices. While the high-profile work of individuals like Richard Dawkins have made atheism more acceptable than it once was, it remains a controversial topic.

Sister's keeper.

Sister’s keeper.

So, in the context of nineties television, Mortal Coil was a surprisingly potent allegory for a franchise that had made a conscious effort to avoid controversy. It is strange that Voyager was able to build an episode around atheism, but the episode could not feature an explicitly homosexual character until Star Trek Beyond. Then again, this might explain why Mortal Coil hedges its bets so furiously and so relentlessly in its final act. For all that Mortal Coil is an episode explicitly about the loss of personal faith, the final act tries very hard to suggest the story isn’t really about atheism.

This is particularly clear from the moment that Chakotay arrives in the transporter room, trying to calm Neelix. This would seem to be the perfect place to make a strong case for atheism, to argue that the loss of spiritual faith does not mean that life is meaningless or that oblivion is the only possibility. Chakotay does not make this argument. Instead, Chakotay hedges. “I understand that this can change how you look at things,” he concedes, “but it can also lead to an even stronger faith. You don’t know. You’re not there yet.”

Pushing Neelix's buttons.

Pushing Neelix’s buttons.

To be entirely fair, this is a perfectly logical argument for Chakotay to make. After all, Chakotay is the only other member of cast with an established belief system. Of course Chakotay’s response to Neelix’s spiritual crisis will be to remind Neelix that faith can never be certain and that there is always the possibility of spiritual belief in spite of all the doubt. However, it also feels like Mortal Coil is hedging its bets by refusing to actually acknowledge that a life without faith can be worthwhile. The decision to send Chakotay to the transporter room feels very calculated.

The final scene between Neelix and Naomi feels just as cynical. Tucking Naomi into bed, Neelix acknowledges his doubts and uncertainty, but in a consciously ambiguous way. In fact, the scene is written in such a way as to suggest that Neelix is not wrestling with atheism so much as depression. “Did a monster get you?” Naomi asks. Neelix pauses, thoughtfully, “Yes, I suppose so. But I chased him away. Pleasant dreams.” There is a sense that Mortal Coil is covering its bases, preemptively preparing a defense against accusations of subversive intent.

He can't contain his excitement.

He can’t contain his excitement.

Indeed, these closing scenes suggest that Neelix’s loss of faith is only temporary and can be corrected. Chakotay insists that his current doubts are only the first step on a long and winding road, while Neelix subsequently assures Naomi that he has worked through everything that he needs to work through. Unsurprisingly, Voyager has little interest in developing or exploring these threads in later episodes, which leaves the story frustratingly open-ended. Then again, this seems to be a conscious choice.

Neelix’s doubt can be read as something either embraced or defeated, depending on how the viewer wants to read the scene. It feels like Voyager is very conscious of offending viewers who hold their religious certainty so dear, wary of prompting a religious backlash by taking a firm stand and explicitly identifying Neelix as an atheist. Then again, this would not be the first time. For all that the original Star Trek had Kirk topple gods, the production team still acknowledged Christianity in stories like Who Mourns for Adonais? or Bread and Circuses.

Neelix: Monster Slayer.

Neelix: Monster Slayer.

Even in the late nineties, given prevailing public attitude, it makes sense for Mortal Coil to hedge its bets. However, it does feel like a decidedly half-hearted follow-through on a provocative premise, as if Rejoined had opted to tell its forbidden love story without the lesbian kiss. Mortal Coil feels like Voyager is pulling its punches, opting for the path of least resistance. Even Neelix’s attempted suicide feels a little too sanitary and abstract, his finger hovering over a tricorder. Miles O’Brien’s suicide attempt in Hard Time is much more visceral and unsettling.

Still, in spite of these issues, there is a lot to like about Mortal Coil. It is an episode that does a lot to explain exactly what Neelix does on board Voyager, with the teaser serving as the kind of interesting “day-in-the-life” storytelling that helps to build a sense of place on Voyager. As a television series, Voyager can often feel very generic and bland, lacking the sort of detail and texture that distinguishes Deep Space Nine. The relaxed pacing and character-driven storytelling of Mortal Coil is something towards which more episodes of Voyager should aspire.

Seventh heaven.

Seventh heaven.

Mortal Coil also works as a showcase for Ethan Phillips, one of the more talented and under-utilised members of the primary cast. The writing staff always struggled to set the right tone for Neelix, often pitching the character as creepy and annoying rather than enthusiastic and fun, but Phillips generally did excellent work. It is no surprise that Phillips singles out Mortal Coil as one of his favourite episodes of the show:

That was the deepest episode for Neelix, without a doubt. It was there he threw away some of the crap he’d been hanging on to. It showed that all that really matters is now and how we treat other people. I think that and Jetrel were the best episodes for Neelix in terms of being deep and dramatic and showing the core of the character, where the mask dropped off and we got to see who he was.

While other actors like Robert Beltran or Garrett Wang suffered from being ignored or overlooked by the writers, Phillips was largely misused. Phillips was a perfectly reliable comedic performer, but an actor with a lot more dramatic range than Voyager often allowed. Indeed, the obvious comparison for Phillips is Armin Shimerman on Deep Space Nine, although Shimerman was lucky enough to end up working with much meatier material.

Her new flavourite.

Her new flavourite.

Mortal Coil does not work as well as it might, falling into a lot of the same traps that hobbled the third season’s big Neelix episode. Like Fair Trade, this is an episode with a bold premise and a lot of potential, but one that lacks the kind of follow-through necessary for a story like this. The result is an episode that is more notable for what it tries to do than what it actually does, which is a shame given the interesting ideas in play.

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2 Responses

  1. As stupid as Seven of Nine solving death is, I must be fair. This is not the first or even the second time that Star Trek episodes have showed a way to avoid death and become immortal. In “Lonely Among Us,” the Enterprise uses an old transporter pattern of Picard to bring him back to life. Therefore, in all future episodes whenever someone dies, they should just put in the old transporter pattern and voila, the crewmember will return good as new. Also, in “Unnatural Selection” the crew combines young DNA with old DNA to make Dr. Pulaski young again, which means the Enterprise essentially has discovered the fountain of youth.

    • Yep, that’s certainly fair. It is weird, though, to see Star Trek going back to that really weird Roddenberryian technological utopian storytelling at this point, after it seemed like the writers were cognisant of writing around these miraculuous technologies that undercut storytelling tension or purpose.

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