Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Mortal Coil"


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.

Previous episode: Concerning Flight
Next episode: Waking Moments

Season Index

30 comments on this review

mlk - Fri, Jan 4, 2008 - 10:01pm (USA Central)
Awesome to see Neelix die, a shame they brought him back though.
Scrumdiddly - Mon, Mar 17, 2008 - 4:30pm (USA Central)
Yes kids, this is exactly how it works! He attempts suicide, only to have Chakotay talk him down, and by talk him down I mean he changes his mind for no apparent reason, and then everything's fine! Roll the next episode! It's just offensive...
Scrumdiddly - Mon, Mar 17, 2008 - 4:32pm (USA Central)
Yes kids, this is exactly how it works! He attempts suicide, only for Chakotay to talk him down, and by talk him down I mean he changes his mind for no apparent reason. Then everything is fine! Roll the next episode! It's just offensive...
Jhoh - Sat, Apr 26, 2008 - 12:00am (USA Central)
"Then, in a few weeks, Voyager phones home. Hopefully they'll dial 10-321 for an extra-low rate."

I had to laugh at this reference. God we used to see those commercials every single commercial break, this or 1-800-COLLECT. I don't think they even exist anymore.
grumpy_otter - Sat, Jul 26, 2008 - 7:00am (USA Central)
What's really sad about this episode is that it proves Ethan Phillips is capable of providing a subtle, thought-provoking, and nuanced performance as Neelix. So the nightmare that has been Neelix is not his fault.

Every once in a while, we see the potential Voyager could have explored. And then they get back to the usual business. Sigh.
John Pate - Wed, Jan 27, 2010 - 4:57am (USA Central)
I would never have imagined a Neelix-focused episode would be tolerable but this episode was great.

Seems to me that the on-going plot issue is that every time someone "dies" it would be, "Can Seven / the Doctor use the Borg nanoprobes to fix them?" It also raises the question given the Doctor et al were already thoroughly familiar with nanotech (Wesley was playing around with it in TNG) as to why the Federation wasn't doing this stuff already.

Then again, that's always been a Trek problem. Magical tech that should make things utterly different mysteriously leaves the players still philosophically and emotionally stuck in the late 20th Century in all the important ways.

(IMHO, Voyager gets too much flack for ignoring Trek Tech implications and concentrating on story on character. It's my favourite Trek precisely because they tried to play to the characters and it often worked very well.)
enniofan - Mon, Apr 4, 2011 - 9:53am (USA Central)
little Talaxian girl in his vision was super creepy looking.

Nic - Fri, May 6, 2011 - 8:04am (USA Central)
I can see why this is Phillips' favorite episode... it's definitely one of his best performances. I was surprised to learn that this episode went through so many rewrites - first as a Samantha Wildman show, then as a Chakotay show, and then finally focusing on Neelix. My only real criticism would be that the importance of Neelix's faith doesn't quite ring true because it's never been mentioned before, and as far as I can remember, was never mentioned again.
Destructor - Sun, Jul 24, 2011 - 10:09pm (USA Central)
This episode is amazing. I liked it well enough the first time I saw it, but I totally bawled my eyes out rewatching it for the first time yesterday. Make no mistake: for an American television show this episode is *stunningly* bleak, even by today's standards. I don't think Neelix is 'fixed' by the end, I think he's barely hanging on, for Naomi's sake, and that's the whole point- that's all we have to hang on for. That's damned bleak, especially for Trek- this may be the darkest episode Voyager ever does, philosophically speaking.

I guess the reason Neelix's faith was never mentioned again was because he lost his faith in this episode.

As for the 'nanoprobe death cure', can we point to a subsequent death where this treatment would have been applicable?
Nathan - Fri, Nov 4, 2011 - 10:50pm (USA Central)
I don't know. If I were Neelix I'd probably realize that the afterlife may exist, just that if it does any memories are wiped before returning to the real world.
Justin - Mon, Apr 16, 2012 - 9:37am (USA Central)
You know, you really shouldn't patronize a child living on Voyager when she asks you to check for monsters. Between the Kazon, the Kradin, spatial anomolies, not to mention the Borg...there might just be one.
Jo Jo Meastro - Sun, Apr 7, 2013 - 2:23pm (USA Central)
This was a great episode, I loved it and the dark personal avenues it explores. I loved the vision quest which was surreal, creepy, metaphorical and radiating with a strange dreamy aura. I'm a fan of David Lynch, so I enjoy this sort of bizzare thoughtful imagery. I liked that they skimmed over the technical aspects of the story (his death and revival) and knew not to try to convince us Neelix was actually dead for good.

It was an emotional and heartfelt humanistic episode, so it worked very well for me. I'd be tempted to go for 3.5/4 because it does a really good job in what it sets out to be.

I must add I think season 4 is coming along very smoothly with only 1 real miss so far in my opinion. Its certianly the most consistent season so far. Looking at the star ratings for the remainder of season 4, I'm not too concerned if this consistency is going to taper off or not. So long as there's a low number of mind-numblingly dull episodes I'll probably be satisfied (after all I'm the guy who took some enjoyment from Threshold even when it was pretty misguided!). So yeah, I think this could be the season which Voyager has turned a corner for me!
Lt. Yarko - Sat, Jun 29, 2013 - 7:34pm (USA Central)
Good episode. My favorite lines involved Seven:

"Children assimilated by the Borg are placed in maturation chambers for 17 cycles."

"You will be assimilated." "No time for that now. Maybe later."
navamske - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 7:37pm (USA Central)
One nit: Seven doesn't know what Prixin is. But a few episodes earlier, she told Neelix that the Borg had assimilated thirty or forty Talaxians. Shouldn't the Collective -- and, by implication, Seven -- have thereby gained all their knowledge?
Niall - Fri, Aug 9, 2013 - 2:46pm (USA Central)
This is a quiet episode, and as a kid (the last time I saw it) I didn't realise how good it is, but it's stellar. Can only echo the comments above, especially Destructor's which I completely agree with. Neelix's faith is gone and he is only hanging on at the end for the sake of others. The crisis is not resolved; he's essentially forced out of his plan because he doesn't want Lt Wildman to see him like that, because he wouldn't kill himself in front of her. Ethan Phillips excellent, Jeri Ryan too (as usual) and Robert Beltran. (What a raw deal two out of the three of those actors got out of the series.) The episode's quietness and introspection are its strength and the script is simply superb, all the more so for not truly resolving Neelix's crisis by the end.

Is this the only episode in the franchise in which a member of the main cast realises life is meaningless and attempts suicide? I think it is.
Jons - Mon, Dec 2, 2013 - 3:29am (USA Central)
I'm really enjoying Seven and her deadpan delivery, providing me with the comic relief I need. She and the doctor are the reliable fun characters of the series, and I've surprised myself laughing out loud many times. This episode's attempt to join conversation were appropriately hilarious: funny but realistic and not trying too hard to turn it into a joke.

I enjoyed the Neelix story, although I'm pissed that once again a non human species resembles human Americans so closely: Not only do they believe in the after life but they ALSO believe in heaven exactly the way Christians do! The only difference is that it's a forest! What a crazy coincidence, coming from species half a galaxy apart from each other...
Nissa - Tue, Jan 14, 2014 - 3:37pm (USA Central)
@Jons Is it really so surprising? After all, an afterlife with a monotheistic god isn't so hard a conclusion to necessarily come to. Sure, not all that likely, but not all that unlikely either. Or maybe there's Christians on the ship Neelix knows. I dunno.

In any case, the book Life After Life by Dr. Ray Moody was written on this topic. He interviewed several people who had died but were later rescussitated, and their visions after death were strikingly similar. Very fascinating stuff.
DLPB - Wed, Mar 5, 2014 - 7:16pm (USA Central)
Nanomachines would not be able to revive someone after that length of time. Not even theory allows for it, unless the nanomachines knew how the neurones were connected before damage, which is impossible.

They are used here as a lazy deus ex machina, and they introduce a major issue... from now on, whenever the crew are in peril, we can just go "It's okay, nanomachines can sort it".
DLPB - Wed, Mar 5, 2014 - 7:31pm (USA Central)
Other than that, it's a pretty good episode. But Trek really doesn't know how to stay consistent or believable. It pushes the boat out and goes lazy.
Ric - Tue, Apr 15, 2014 - 2:12pm (USA Central)
Such a touching episode, very good. Amazing plot, deep debate behind the story. Loved it.

Even more because FINALLY someone was not able to beam without authorization, or to steal a shuttkecraft and etc. Hope it happens again other times when it is not Neelix the one trying.

However, I also thought that the nano-tehnobabble was littel credible and I totally agree with DLPB's comment above, about the ex machina and the issue it introduces. What saves us from any fear is to know that in Voyager it will not have consequences later anyway...
K'Elvis - Tue, Apr 15, 2014 - 5:15pm (USA Central)
A good episode. It challenges Neelix's belief in the afterlife, but doesn't come to a clean resolution. There's any way of re-interpreting the afterlife to be compatible with his lack of experience. But even if there is no afterlife and this is all there is, is it truly of no value? While Neelix doesn't resolve his question of whether or not there is life after death, he does appear to accept that even if there is no afterlife, this life is still of value.

If this life is all we have, it is precious. Imagine you had the last bottle of wine on Earth. Is it valueless, just because it won't last? Or is it something of great value to be saved for a special occasion, and shared with friends?

It's quite realistic that Chakotay was able to talk him down from the ledge, so to speak. It's a common enough phenomenon in real life, after all. It doesn't mean that everything is going to be perfect afterwards. I would have liked the closing scene to be Chakotay and Neelix doing the ritual again.
Corey - Tue, Apr 29, 2014 - 5:54pm (USA Central)
Elliot, where are you? Elliot has single handledly convinced many to watch Voyager and fall in love with it.

Anyway, onto "Mortal Coil". I found this to be a touching episode, and a strong four stars. It is also one of the most atheistic episodes, and radically political. "Duty calls," Neelix says, duty to one's fellowman revealed to be the highest spiritual ideal in the absence of God.
Elliott - Thu, May 8, 2014 - 5:09pm (USA Central)
Hi Corey,

I'm glad you enjoy my posts.

I've heard the criticism lodged at Voyager that in blindly following the ideals of early TNG, it lacked an ability to be critical and thus truly creative in its artistic efforts ("derivative" is a favourite term).

I would remind these critics that religious art is as "derivative" in this sense as Voyager is--unquestioning in its approval and dissemination of a point of view on how and why the Universe works and how it SHOULD be. Yet, we don't accuse Veronese or Bach of being derivative artists for their loyalty to a vision.

Also, those artists worthy of respect who criticise the religious mandate within their work, like Michelangelo or Wagner or Mann, did so from a deep and committed understanding of the subject they criticised, not by simply objecting to or circumnavigating the belief (I'm looking at you Ira Stephen Behr).
Dusty - Sat, Aug 9, 2014 - 5:29am (USA Central)
Deep, thoughtful, and about as dark an episode of Star Trek as I've seen, 'Mortal Coil' is more than the 45 minutes of middling entertainment most Voyager outings were. It is an achievement, both in writing and in execution. I loved it. With the majority of American viewers still identifying as Christians, many shows would shy away from a premise of someone dying and seeing no vision of an afterlife at all, dealing with a crisis of faith that is virtually inescapable.

The fact that it concerns Neelix, the last character you would expect in such a serious plot, is another bonus. One of my favorite Trek episodes yet. And the best thing about it is that it has no rosy ending. Neelix doesn't simply shrug off the incident because his 45 minutes are up. His Talaxian afterlife is a shattered dream. When he repeated the story of the Tree to Naomi, his feelings of doubt--even hypocrisy--were tangible. He ultimately hangs on for the sake of Naomi and his crew, but it's clear that Neelix has changed. Even if it was never addressed again on Voyager, at least it was conceded here.
Dave in NC - Wed, Aug 27, 2014 - 1:01am (USA Central)
Wow, I just watched this and it is a really good episode! In many ways, perhaps the bravest story I've seen Trek do. I could go into philosophical specifics, but sufficed to say, I think what is portrayed here may very likely be the truth. If only more people realized that, there would be a lot of re-prioritizing going on in our lives.

I can't believe I'm about to type this, but Neelix was actually compelling in this episode! Add to that some wonderful direction, innovative cinematography (for Trek) and a haunting orchestral underscore and you've got a winner here.

A **** installment for any free-thinking sci-fi fan.

Side note: by the way it was written, it was implied that Neelix's vision was a result of his subconscious trying to say what he was repressing. It would have been interesting if they'd used the same psychological microscope when it came to scripting Chakotay's spirit quests (or the one Janeway took with George Costanza's mom).
Vylora - Thu, Aug 28, 2014 - 2:58pm (USA Central)
Deep, probing, prescient, relevant, heartbreaking. Outstanding episode on every level highlighted even further because of Ethan Phillips. Highly recommended.

4 stars.
navamske - Tue, Nov 18, 2014 - 10:34pm (USA Central)
This episode could have had the shortest synopsis ever in TV Guide: "Neelix dies." A guaranteed ratings success!
Jeff - Thu, Dec 4, 2014 - 8:22am (USA Central)
I also thought this a great episode. Usually I feel annoyed by Neelix, but accept him as part of life on this ship, but here he actually becomes a worthwhile character. A lot of comments above say that Neelix lost his faith in the afterlife so it was somehow contrived that he could go on living -- but as I see it, he realized that he could go on living for his god-daughter Naomi. Living for the sake of an afterlife is a Christian teaching, however living for the sake of children and the future is a far more powerful agenda. Chakotay's dream quest led Neelix toward death, but then Naomi's dream quest brought him to life. I think we can all learn from the words of the Japanese poet Basho, "Apply your heart to what children do."
jk - Sun, Feb 8, 2015 - 3:02pm (USA Central)
I do fully agree that this is a great episode that goes deeper than most. But I was really let down by the resolution. Neelix is so distressed, has come to the conclusion that his life is meaningless, and has made all the preparations to end it. I found it hard to believw that a simple talk with Chakotay could have made him change his mind, and the argument of the child and the monsters didn't really make his life sound so important. Not to mention, had Neelix talked to Chakotay about his vision, which would have made sense, we wouldn't have come to the dramatic confrontation at the end.

It was still a story pregnant with meaning, and I thought that the monster was an analogy with depression, especially at the end where the child asks Neelix wether he had been taken by a monster. Except that "come on, don't you see how important you are?" is definitely NOT something you should say to someone who is about to commit suicide.
DVMX - Wed, Mar 18, 2015 - 12:44pm (USA Central)
I couldn't stand Neelix but I have to admit this was a good ep.

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