Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Fair Trade"

***

Air date: 1/8/1997
Teleplay by Andre Bormanis
Story by Ronald Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias
Directed by Jesus Salvador Trevino

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"You've been on this ship for two years. I think by now you'd have learned that the first duty of any Starfleet officer is the truth. You violated that duty, Neelix—and there will be consequences." — Janeway

Nutshell: Stop the presses. An enlightening show about ... Neelix.

Well, it's about time.

At long last the Voyager creative team has supplied Neelix with a relevant and entertaining episode, and has given me a reason to grant Neelix some respect—respect which, quite frankly, for the past year and a half or so, he hasn't really deserved—at least not as a television character.

The reason I don't like Neelix is the same reason I sometimes don't like Quark on DS9: he's too rigidly transparent. His dialog is uninteresting, annoying, and unfunny. And worst of all, he's a personality that never grows or develops, but simply does the same thing day in and day out.

I don't know about most people, but I've had enough of "Morale Officer Neelix" and "Ship's Cook Neelix" and "Talk Show Host Neelix" and "'My Darling, Kes' Neelix" and "Holodeck Companion Neelix" and "'Mr. Vulcan' Neelix" and, yes, even "Delta Quadrant Guide Neelix." Each one of these facets of Neelix is really just the same facet: a lovable, goofy, quirky guy who consistently offers little-to-no compelling interest into any plot.

That's why I'm very pleased about what "Fair Trade" has to say about Neelix. This episode shows a (gasp!) different part of Neelix—a Neelix who is losing his element in the vastness of the Delta Quadrant and beginning to feel the signs of uselessness to his fellow shipmates. A Neelix of desperation, anxiety, and worry for the future. A Neelix who, for the first time I can remember, has actions that cannot so easily be predicted.

In one way, this implicitly voices a fairly dramatic statement about the series. After two years, the producers have finally shown that they realize the Delta Quadrant is a big place. If Neelix doesn't know what's out there, then maybe Voyager is really going into truly unknown space, and maybe Voyager will finally encounter something truly new and exciting. Maybe not, but I'm going to try to keep my optimism.

The new region of space Voyager is passing into is a vast area called the Nechrid Expanse, and Neelix avoids revealing his unfamiliarity at all costs. There's a space station near the border of this area—a galactic trading location. There might be some useful resources here that the Voyager crew can bargain for, Neelix suggests, but what Neelix really hopes to quietly seek out here is a map of this unknown space.

This station is a rough place. The traders are not the friendly sort; the station has a ring of narcotic dealers, and murder is not all that uncommon an occurrence. While searching for his map, Neelix encounters an old Talaxian acquaintance from his past—a somewhat mischievous character named Wixiban (James Nardini). Wixiban is trapped on this station because his ship has been impounded by Bahrat, the local lawman (Carlos Carrasco, in a less than stellar performance). He doesn't have the money to pay off his debts and leave, so he lives a lonely life of under-the-table dealings and schemes—the type of life, we learn, that Neelix might very well be leading if he weren't a crew member on the prestigious Voyager.

Wixiban is the type of person you just know can't be trusted, because trouble always has a way of following him. But in order to obtain the needed map and pay off an old debt to his friend, Neelix agrees to use one of Voyager's shuttles to help Wixiban with a trade—a type of trade of which Wixiban fails to reveal certain specifics. (One being the trade is taking place in a darkened alley; another being the drug products with which he's bartering will not likely be used for medicinal purposes.)

The trade turns sour; Wixiban is forced to shoot and kill the buyer in self-defense when the buyer pulls a phaser on him, and suddenly Neelix finds himself in a very bad situation. A man has been killed in an ugly situation and now Neelix doesn't know what to do. Wixiban talks him into doing nothing—to hide it from Janeway and the crew.

One very effective aspect about "Fair Trade" is the way things get progressively worse for Neelix one step at a time, yet these steps seem so small and unexpected. Neelix means well, but it doesn't matter—he's trapped in a difficult, claustrophobic position. His only options are to tell the truth and betray an indebted friend, or to cover up the truth and thus toss away his First Duty to his fellow Starfleet crew members.

I always enjoy watching characters wriggle with their consciences in these types of difficult situations. It makes for good drama and engrossing inner-conflict. And this is new and interesting stuff for Neelix, which is good almost no matter what, given the static, non-developing alternative. Watching Neelix get deeper and deeper into these troubles is compelling, and it gives Ethan Phillips a priceless opportunity to utilize more of his acting range. There are subtle foreshadowings to the inevitable, accentuated by Neelix's trustingly naive remarks to Wixiban: "What do we need weapons for?" and "I don't like negotiating in dark alleys." Anyone would see something bad coming in a setting like this—probably even Neelix—but he trusts his friend and needs his map.

The plot ups the ante when Bahrat informs Janeway that the "murderer" used an unknown weapon—a Federation weapon. And as if lying to Tuvok during the subsequent investigation isn't stressful enough for Neelix, Wixiban has even more news: The botched transaction was not simply a trade—it was a courier run for some really mean drug traffickers who will break legs for their product—unless Neelix sets them up with some warp plasma straight from the Voyager.

What happens from here isn't what I would call ground-breaking as these tough situation stories go, but it's sensibly handled by the script for the most part. There are a few plot anomalies that didn't quite hold together, like how Neelix got a hold of the Voyager shuttle in the first place. I doubt he could or would steal it, so did Janeway lend it to him? If so, how could Tuvok be so unsuspecting of Neelix's whereabouts during the killing? Also, where was Kes during all this? How could Neelix go all this time without confiding in her about the incident? (This brings up even more questions about their supposed "breakup" in "Warlord"—an event so murkily handled by that episode that I'm still not certain where it stands, which makes it appear to be an oversight here.) The flaws are not all that detracting, because it's the emotional core that matters, and that works pretty well.

The Truth always makes for interesting Star Trek material. "Fair Trade" reminds me of one classic TNG episode, "The First Duty." While "Fair Trade" isn't as compelling as that tour de force was (or even as powerful as Voyager's "Prime Factors" from first season), there's something to be said about an episode that holds honor and duty so dear. A discussion between Paris and Neelix about Paris' tarnished past is a highlight—it's sensible and on-target, and although Neelix doesn't reveal his problem to Paris, it's interesting to note how obvious Neelix's guilt appears to us, and how obvious it must also appear to Paris. This, for a change, makes genuinely good use of Neelix's transparency. (It's also an interesting irony that Robert Duncan McNeill played the pivoting role in "The First Duty," yet, as a different character on Voyager, he still has basically the same history.)

Speaking of reappearing actors playing different roles, Alexander Enberg, who plays Ensign Vorik in this episode, also played a Vulcan—the same person for all practical purposes if you ask me—in TNG's "Lower Decks." (In that episode he had a different name.) It seems to me that we may very well see him again. I'm undecided about this guy; he wasn't extremely important here, and I'm debating whether his line delivery is particularly "Vulcan-like." It doesn't strike me as so, but, then again, no one said all Vulcans are alike.

But I digress. Neelix's solution involves going to Bahrat with a plan that entails capturing the drug dealers in exchange for dropping all charges against Paris and Chakotay (who are charged with the killings in an earlier scene that strains plot plausibility for the sake of forcing a conflict between Janeway and Bahrat). I thought Neelix's plan was fairly clever, and the execution was decent too. While the drug dealers are about as cardboard as villains get, Neelix does put a card up his sleeve by supplying them with some warp plasma, but only after filling up the room with plasma gas that will explode if anyone fires a phaser. More surprising is Neelix's rather genuine-sounding "Go ahead and shoot. I have nothing to lose!" I knew things were bad for Neelix, but I didn't think he saw them as that bad—so bad that his life was no longer worth living.

The arrest ends in an explosion that knocks everyone to the floor and incinerates one bad guy. Neelix later wakes up in sickbay where it's time to face the music. (One particularly enjoyable notion is the fact that Wixiban is long gone by the time Neelix comes to. He doesn't hang around to see if Neelix is okay; he leaves without a second's delay, which strikes me as perfectly in tune with his personality.)

The final scene is killer—though, admittedly, if it hadn't been there, the entire episode would've been pointless. Like in "Prime Factors" Mulgrew delivers a terrific performance as Janeway comes down hard and stern for a classic Starfleet dressing-down. Neelix is prepared to be "put off the ship," but Janeway informs him that things aren't that "easy"—he's part of a family now and has responsibilities to his shipmates. This final scene is quite enjoyable, having a sense that Neelix owes a great deal of restitution for his actions, but that his fellow crew will and do forgive him—because that's what Starfleet does. Kudos go to both Mulgrew and Phillips.

And Kudos to the writers. They have renewed my spirits for accepting Neelix—at least for now—because this is easily the best use Neelix has been put to since "Jetrel" of first season. I guess the lesson is that different uses of Neelix is good, and retreads of the typical Neelix is bad.

I say "for now" because this show can be a turning point for Neelix. Whether it is or not remains to be seen. Now that the writers have taken the first step, other steps must follow. Neelix can't be a guide, so he must do other useful things instead. The writers must give him a purpose so he can be a useful member of the crew.

And by crew, I mean the Starship Voyager and the series Star Trek: Voyager alike.

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Next episode: Alter Ego

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18 comments on this review

Jeff - Mon, May 4, 2009 - 1:07pm (USA Central)
I have a lot of respect for Ethan Phillips. It can't be easy to play a character week after week and know (at some point) that most fans don't like the character you play.

Neelix being ST's version of Jar Jar is a comparison I've read and heard often and totally agree with. I never watched VOY when it was originally on television. I started buying the DVD sets a couple of years ago. I began with S5 only because VOY sets were hard to find.

What I saw of Neelix in S5 wasn't good. Trying to be funny and not succeeding each and every time. I had no idea what his purpose was either on the ship or on the series. Just what was it Neelix was supposed to be contributing to the series? Even after watching all of VOY I can't really answer that. "Caretaker" was a pretty good intro for him. I loved his line in "The Cloud" saying the Starfleet crew was a bunch of idiots for exploring dangerous nebulae just for the sake of doing so.

But then they made him perpetually happy and goofy and annoying. The whole "Mr. Tuvok" thing made me wish just once Tuvok would see the logic in putting the smackdown on Neelix to finally get Neelix to stop calling him that.

And then there's this episode. Neelix realizes he'll serve no purpose on Voyager and quick. He can't guide them anymore. He meets up with Wix and begins a dramatic descent rare for this character and this series.

One of my favorite non sci-fi shows is NYPD BLUE, a show that loves to put the characters through difficult situations and watch them work their way out of them. "Fair Trade" reminds me of BLUE in that sense. Here's Neelix hoping to find a map, meeting Wix, agreeing to a deal and then helping to coverup drug trafficking and murder to initially staying silent when Paris and Chakotay take the blame.

And Neelix's line about "Shoot me, I don't care" does indeed come as a surprise like Jammer mentioned.

For the only real time in the series Neelix mattered to me. How he was going to get out of this ('cause you know he would) wasn't such an easy thing to spot.

Surely, this story needed and deserved some followup. We should have seen the crew being a bit more wary with Neelix. Or see Paris identify with Neelix about having a checkered past and overcoming it.

Playing Neelix couldn't not have been easy for Phillips. Not in the sense that the character itself was all that challenging but that it can't be easy playing a character week to week on a series and knowing that most viewers wish you weren't there.

For this episode at least Neelix had purpose and Phillips delivered a great performance.
Jake - Mon, Aug 24, 2009 - 9:46am (USA Central)
An interesting post, Jeff. I've always thought, though, that Ethan Phillips may have been as deluded about Neelix's popularity (or lack thereof) as Kate Mulgrew & Tim Russ were about Voyager's reception. I read several interviews with both of them in which they both basically say Voyager was a GREAT show and that all the evidence to the contrary was just nonsense.
Jay - Fri, Sep 18, 2009 - 12:32pm (USA Central)
I get the whole universal translator concept for spoken word, but how was the station manager able to just grab Janeway's PADD and start reading it? I suppose PADDs have translator tech as well...
James - Wed, Mar 3, 2010 - 2:08pm (USA Central)
@Jeff: I loved that line in 'The Cloud' too. A real shame they buried it underneath the later "cake" scene.

I think Neelix would have really worked as a cynical, rueful character who would have been aghast at the usual idealistic, "lets-see-what's-behind-THAT-star" status quo. There were hints of this there in the first season, and we rarely see those kinds of pragmatic characters in Star Trek. It's even rarer when they're one of the good guys. Going down this rarely-trodden path would have given Neelix a lot of definition and difference as a character, provided a lot of potential character conflict and growth, and not to mention highlighted how alien the Delta Quadrant really was.

But, of course, that would have required the writers to actually make the DQ different in any meaningful way, and not make the crew One Big Happy Family. ("They're not Klingons, they're Kazon. Totally different spelling!")

Man, it's such a shame that they ran as fast as they could away from their unique premise. It's not every day that Trek gets the chance to do something really different.
Nic - Fri, Sep 10, 2010 - 1:19pm (USA Central)
I love the final scene. That is what Star Trek is.

Apprently, the script for this episode included a scene where Neelix and Kes' breakup is more "official", but it was cut for time. It's too bad because it would have been relevant to the episode (maybe earning it an extra half-star?) and the series.
Elliott - Mon, Mar 14, 2011 - 1:48am (USA Central)
A fair and even-handed review. I'm not entirely sure that the faults you mentioned warrant the loss of a whole star rather than one, but so be it.

I am quite sick of hearing people complain about Voyager for being Star Trek rather than being un-Star Trek like apparently everyone hoped it would be.

In terms of continuity and the whole Kes thing, etc. Most of those questions are answered little by little in later episodes, it isn't a linear progression like (gasp) real life isn't. The hanging threads in "Resolutions" for example aren't tied up until season 7's "Fractured." Tuvok mentions Kes' and Neelix' breakup in a later episode and there's a quiet little resolution in "The Gift." Even "Fury" gives them a little scene together in which 2 sentences of dialogue speak volumes about what still is and still isn't between them. I really don't know what you people want.
LWG - Sun, Apr 17, 2011 - 10:38pm (USA Central)
Hahaha 24th century drug dealers. It may not be the idealistic Roddenbury flavored future we wish for, but I have no doubt that there will still be people selling illicit substances in that time and who would get violent to protect that interest if need be. It's easy to get caught up in a web of trouble like this and the episode does a good job of depicting that. And finally they do something interesting with the Neelix character here.
Jeff - Sat, Feb 25, 2012 - 3:47pm (USA Central)
@Nic. I have heard about this deleted Neelix/Kes scene from "Fair Trade" as well. I wish they had done what the ENT DVD sets did which was to include deleted scenes from some of the episodes. That Neelix/Kes scene is something I would love to have seen.
Chris - Thu, Mar 15, 2012 - 5:27am (USA Central)
@Jammer "how Neelix got a hold of the Voyager shuttle in the first place"

I think that while being in the shuttle with his Talaxian friend, Neelix mentioned that he had informed Chakotay and I guess he got the permission to take a shuttle.

The last scene was well acted, and I have to say that sometimes I LOVE Janeway, she reminds me of my mother. :)
Justin - Wed, Mar 28, 2012 - 10:58pm (USA Central)
Taking nothing away from Ethan Phillips - he did the best he could with a poorly written character, but I get the feeling that if the role of Neelix had gone to Robert Picardo (who actually preferred the role to The Doctor) he might have been written a far bit better. Picardo is simply a better actor than Phillips. It was his acting as much as the writing that made Doc one of the favorite characters on Voyager. Had he played Neelix, it might have been similar.
Bryan - Sat, Sep 29, 2012 - 3:44am (USA Central)
I agree with this review on it's views towards Neelix's character because frankly, I've felt the same way. Neelix has been an annoyance since day one and I could never really like him. Yet for the first time, from this episode, I found that I actually cared what was going to happen to him. I actually felt sorry for him. When he's not going all out trying to be cute and happy and given a role where decisions do matter, Ethan Phillips does an excellent job at portraying honest emotions that we can all relate to. Good job and thumbs up!
Jack - Fri, Nov 23, 2012 - 6:15pm (USA Central)
Kes must've kicked Neelix to the curb but good. She wasn't even available to him here in a friendly capacity...
Arachnea - Wed, Dec 26, 2012 - 8:21am (USA Central)
Just a sidenote about Neelix: I believe the character became what we know today because of Ethan Philips. In the first episodes, E. Phillips overplayed the goofy parts and emphasized the annoying traits of Neelix. Like Justin, I believe the writers partly write in relation to the actors. Had Phillips played his lines in a more serious, darker tone, Neelix could have become - like in this episode - a multi-layered and fully fledged character. One to challenge Starfleet attitudes or/and to gradually come to respect/embrace them. We viewers would have found the goofy parts funny if they'd been scarce.
Grumpy - Thu, Dec 27, 2012 - 8:03pm (USA Central)
Whether Ethan Phillips is a good actor or not, I'm not qualified to say. But I'm pretty sure he gave the producers excactly the performance they wanted. Thus, I would never blame him personally for the failure of the character.

So the problem is that the producers viewed Neelix as the type of character played by an actor like Ethan Phillips. As I see it, the character should've been conceived as the a role for an actor like Robert Beltran, with his quiet authority. Yeah! Beltran as Neelix, Phillips as the Doctor, and Picardo as the space pirate who becomes first officer.

Space pirates! Scourge of the universe! Vicious! Merciless! They crush all that defy them!
Lt. Yarko - Sun, Jun 16, 2013 - 11:12pm (USA Central)
I love Janeway's face at the end. She knows who Neelix is. She knows that he never had any ill will even before she started the dressing down. But the captain has to do what the captain has to do. She needed to make it clear that, on Voyager, the truth will always be the better way to go. Good episode.
T'Paul - Tue, Sep 10, 2013 - 8:39am (USA Central)
It seems that people thinks Neelix's good performance here was an exception, but it wasn't the first time he showed a bit of depth and variety.

K'Elvis - Tue, Mar 25, 2014 - 8:21am (USA Central)
Cooking for over 100 people is a full time job, and Voyager is short-handed, so Neelix should have plenty of work. If Neelix is doing the cooking, it means that someone else is free to do their job. I think Neelix would have worked better if he was the full-time cook and only part-time advisor to the captain on the alien races they met. Instead it seemed like Neelix tried to do a little of everything. It seems that he wanted to do "important" jobs, but there is plenty to do. At the end of the episode, Neelix is made to do some grunt work as punishment, but even the grunt work is important, someone has to do it. I don't dislike Neelix as much as some, but he could have been toned down a notch or two. I generally don't blame actors, I assume they give the performance they were told to give.
Vylora - Mon, Aug 25, 2014 - 9:15am (USA Central)
This is arguably the best Neelix vehicle in the series and is definitely the best one since "Jetrel". A lot of great character insights and growth that's been sorely lacking. This only serves to prove that thoughtful writing and a more-than-able performer can equal great things.

The premise isn't unique but the way everything plays out certainly feels fresh and relevant. Being treated to a wonderfully realized and subtle build up in the plotting warrants kudos on its own. You don't fully grasp how deep Neelix is until he's already buried.

The guest performances are hit or miss with two exceptions. The station overseer was a bit stiff at times, but I rather liked how the writers portrayed him as reasonable enough in spite of his job and circumstances. It can't be easy and I certainly don't envy him his position. Neelix's old friend, Wixiban, was very solid throughout and helped highlight that these two truly had a past. Again the writers decide not to opt for the single-minded boneheaded-ness here with the clich├ęd "turning against an old friend because I'm a guest star so it's okay" scenario.

Janeway's speech at the end was absolutely spot-on script and performance-wise as was Neelix's reaction. There's very little for me to find at fault here and I think I enjoyed this quite a bit more than Jammer did.

Really good stuff and definitely one of the better (and most consistent) showings of the season.

3.5 stars.

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