Star Trek: Voyager
Air date: 12/17/1997
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Allan Kroeker
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"Death is still one of the greatest mysteries there is."
"I was there. I experienced it. There was nothing."
— Chakotay and Neelix
Nutshell: Relevant, probing, and well performed. The best Neelix show to date.
Once upon a third season there was an episode called "Sacred Ground" which tried to tackle a troubling situation of faith. That episode, alas, was not successful because it was all too convoluted and ponderous, and collapsed under the weight of its excessive dramatic devices and meretricious script manipulations. In "Mortal Coil" (a.k.a. this week's title's Hamlet reference), Neelix is zapped and killed during a shuttle mission, but is revived after 18 hours by a special Borg medical procedure that Seven of Nine enacts. Neelix effectively comes back from the dead, though his troubles are far from over.
Neelix is convinced he should have experienced the Talaxian afterlife during this temporary death. To the very best of his knowledge, however, he experienced "absolutely nothing," which leads him to seriously question a faith that he has held his entire life—a faith he says had "kept him going" through his difficult years during the Talaxian war when he lost his friends and family.
"Mortal Coil" proves a little obvious at times (Neelix stories are rarely subtle, and in addition this episode is, without a doubt, partly a meditation on people who have had near-death experiences), but I think its simple, in-your-face nature may be a big part of why the episode works so well. It builds its story around the actual crisis of one character, rather than trying to ask and answer so much in irresolute symbolic terms—the approach that was ultimately "Sacred Ground's" undoing. Instead of so hopelessly and unclearly trying to draw lines between "absolute reality" and "spiritual perception" in story terms (as "Sacred Ground" did), "Mortal Coil's" agenda is much more plausible from all sides of the table: It doesn't turn a religious situation into something that requires evidence to suggest a faith as necessarily "true" or "untrue"; it examines the far more practical approach of what happens when a person experiences doubt in his faith, looking at the specific difficulties experienced by a character faced with such a dilemma. In a sense, by being more simple, this episode succeeds at being deeper, finding its complexity under the surface.
In the broadest of terms, then, "Mortal Coil" is a tightly woven character piece about Neelix, using his faith crisis to offer insight to a part of him we rarely see. Faithful readers will know that I have never been a big fan of Neelix. Second season reduced his character to that of an utter annoyance with painfully shallow shows like "Parturition" and "Investigations." Third season had the effective "Fair Trade," but subsequently offered none of the necessary follow-up. "Rise," on the other hand, was horrendous. And ever since, Neelix has faded into the background as a nondescript supporting personality with very little worthy of mention for good or ill.
That's why I was glad to see "Mortal Coil" supply this guy a meaty story (far meatier than even "Fair Trade"). Neelix is by nature a pretty transparent guy, and when used effectively that transparency can be the basis for good character drama. He's the guy who tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve, as they say. These emotions are almost always of cheer and optimism, but when the troubled side of Neelix emerges—as in this episode—the results can be quite engaging.
This isn't a story of audacious sci-fi twists or original plots; the real strength of "Mortal Coil" is its even-handed reasonableness, and the sensible sentiments it conveys. The problem grows out of a relevant, real-life issue and allows Neelix to react as a person rather than simply a plot device.
Specifically, there are two things that make "Mortal Coil" stand out: the writing and the acting. I know, that's a pretty general statement, because those two qualities can probably be attributed for the success of all drama. But Bryan Fuller's script is simply a solid piece of work—a tight, focused, confident story that puts Neelix through an understandable wringer while supplying the supporting characters with some reasonable reactions. Meanwhile, Ethan Phillip's performance is stellar work, and the supporting actors also turn in good performances, which could easily go overlooked.
One interesting facet of Neelix's dilemma is the way his conclusions concerning death are based on the worldly perceptions of the living. After being revived he expects to "remember" something he would've experienced in death. The fact that he doesn't is the source of all his distress. Does that mean there's no afterlife? Not necessarily. To expand upon something Chakotay tells Neelix, perhaps it's simply not something that the living can understand. From the agnostic's point of view, the afterlife represents the total unknown and, ultimately, the unknowable. Maybe Neelix is incapable of comprehending death in a living state. Does that mean his worries are unfounded? Absolutely not. A crisis of faith under a situation as unique and frightening as Neelix's strikes me as very realistic. And with interesting dialog (including responses like Chakotay's "Death is still one of the greatest mysteries there is") this episode did a great job of prompting me to think deeply about the issue at hand, which is an admirable feat.
Subsequently, Neelix's distress was very well conceived. Understandably, Neelix initially tries to forget his experience ever happened. He tries to go on about Business as Usual, but it doesn't work. Denial turns into introspection and introspection into despair. He tries to pretend he hasn't been affected, but he obviously has been; Neelix is not himself, and it's here where his transparency proves interesting. Chakotay offers to help him through his difficulties, which is a prudent move that rings true; the episode makes good use of the commander's spiritual side (something we haven't seen in quite a while), and Beltran's performance is carefully measured, appropriately understated and reserved.
Another performance that made me take note was Jeri Ryan's; the actress continues to impress me with her subtle style. Seven's role in bringing Neelix back from the dead harbors more human compassion than what one would've expected out of her immediately following, say, "The Gift." Here Ryan accomplishes this with a single line or a glance—I particularly liked her line to Neelix about reviving him: She says it was a Borg technique that she simply modified ... "But you are welcome," she adds with a hint of genuine cordiality. This is noteworthy character growth done subtly and plausibly. The use of Seven for comic relief during the Prixin celebration scene also worked pretty well. She may be growing, but conversation is still definitely not one of Seven's strengths.
The celebration scene also did a reasonable job of showing Neelix hopelessly trying to ignore his problem and push on as if nothing happened; his preoccupied speechlessness made sense. Allan Kroeker's use of slow motion and other imagery also worked without going overboard; there were times that it felt as if Michael Vejar were directing. And Neelix's inability to bear his problem builds slowly and interestingly. Some of the details—like his certain but uneasy observation that "all of us" are going to vanish into nothing as did his own holographic rendition during a holodeck simulation—make all the difference. And when Neelix's repressed rage eventually comes to the surface, it explodes onto Seven in a fiery scene that made me wince. Although Neelix doesn't say it in so many words, what he believes he is missing because of Seven's intervention is his very soul.
Finally comes the time when Neelix accepts Chakotay's help in seeking subconscious images to help him understand his problem—something that the commander warns Neelix is not a "quick fix." In a surprisingly and compellingly dark turn of events, what Neelix finds when he looks inward is hardly comforting; everybody tells him that he has been lied to about his faith, and they ominously say, "You know what you have to do." Neelix concludes that life is meaningless, not worth living. He decides to commit suicide.
His suicide attempt (by way of transporter) is a genuinely tense moment that Chakotay tries to talk him out of. The performances here shouldn't go overlooked. Beltran conveys a sense of cautious urgency, trying to tell the Talaxian why he should go on living while not pushing the sentiments over the edge. Phillips, meanwhile, paints his character as confused concerning his intended course of action, as if to convey that Neelix killing himself would be the easy way out of a problem that requires time to be solved. Obviously, Neelix doesn't kill himself, but I did very much like the way his planned suicide was signaled in previous scenes. His "final" discussion with Seven followed by his "last" shutdown and lights-out of his kitchen were striking, foreboding moments.
A key part of Neelix coming to realize that he still has something to live for revolves around his importance to Ensign Wildman's young daughter Naomi. It's nice to see the writers acknowledge that Wildman and her kid still exist ("Deadlock" was the last use of them), and here they appear for the sake of benefiting the story rather than for the sake of making an appearance. Little kids fearing "monsters in the replicator" strikes me as a problem very much in need of a Neelix solution.
The episode's final shots of Neelix and Naomi are hopeful—perhaps even too hopeful, because they seem to bring about Neelix's self-reconciliation faster than what may prove ideal. I'd like to see the events of this episode play a role in the way Neelix's character is painted in future episodes, but this ending makes me fear that such follow-ups will not happen. At the same time, however, we probably can't end the episode on a note of desperation. The ending works, though I also hope that these problems are not so quick and easy for Neelix to sort out. As Chakotay said, they need to take time. I just hope I don't get burned with nonexistent follow-ups the way I did with the aforementioned "Fair Trade" and with Doc's "family" in "Real Life."
But regardless, "Mortal Coil" is a winner that relies on complex writing undertones and thoughtful acting rather than gimmicks or standard premises—very nice work. I have a new respect for the writers' portrayal of Neelix.
Next week: "Nemesis" airs again. Then, in a few weeks, Voyager phones home. Hopefully they'll dial 10-321 for an extra-low rate.