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.