Nutshell: Some really strong stuff ... and also some not-so-strong stuff. Uneven but pretty respectable.
Let me begin with some issues only indirectly related to this episode. Anyone who hasn't been living in a closet (or who doesn't have access to Usenet or anywhere else on the net where Trek rumors run rampant), has probably known for months now that Jennifer Lien would be leaving the series. I heard the unconfirmed news as early as April, and, as these rumors go, I took it with a grain of salt. (After all, Colm Meaney has been very widely but wrongly rumored as leaving DS9 for the past three or more seasons.)
Rumors have also been flying around as to why the actress was leaving. Most of the ones I've come across have alluded to the "fact" that Lien considered her character a disappointment, and that even Jeri Taylor admits the writing staff is at fault, having never giving the character the development she deserved.
Now, I'm not here to confirm or deny rumors, because, quite frankly, I haven't the slightest idea why Jennifer Lien opted to leave Voyager. However, if there's any truth to the said rumors, I must admit that I'm not particularly surprised. Because of her unique position on the show, Kes is one character that should've had some stories that she never had, and now never will.
Most notably, her telepathic abilities never went fully realized. They were introduced way back in "Time and Again," and used once or twice between then and "Scorpion"—most notably "Cold Fire," "Persistence of Vision," and "Warlord." But, really, it was used mostly as a plot device; it was never really ingrained into the character's personality.
Then there was the long-standing relationship she had with Neelix, which I never felt was explored the way it should've been. And their extremely confusing break-up was handled so poorly that there was a long stretch of episodes where it wasn't even clear that they had broken up.
Why am I discussing all this? Because it's not every day that a regular member of the cast leaves a Star Trek series, and there are moments within the plot of "The Gift" that perhaps underline the possibility that Kes has been a character that the writing staff wasn't sure they knew what they should do with.
We'll get to that in a moment, because, really it's ultimately less important than the episode's other half. "The Gift" is one of those shows that has two unrelated plots, and if I had to label one of the plots the B-story, it would probably be the angle involving Kes. The main focus (and an effective one at that) documents Janeway's attempts to bring Seven of Nine (separated from the Borg collective in "Scorpion, Part II" which took place just days before) into the Voyager fold, whether the lone Borg submits willingly or not.
Most of this angle of the story is pretty powerful. Janeway has sometimes been one for making decisions that can be described as "controversial," and in "The Gift" she makes decisions for Seven of Nine that all but deny her free will.
Ah, but that's the argument (I just love Trekkian arguments!). At what point would a Federation/Starfleet type like Janeway deny the requests of an alien guest? In this case it's a bit trickier, because Janeway can't simply allow Seven of Nine to return to the Borg collective. That could put the entire ship at risk of Borg assimilation. And, ethically, it's even more tricky because Seven of Nine was assimilated at a very young age—she never really had the chance to understand what it meant to be a human individual before she suddenly found herself in the Collective among billions. She never had the opportunity to choose her life's path, because the Borg chose it for her.
So it's not surprising that Seven of Nine wants nothing to do with Janeway, the Voyager crew, or her chance to rediscover humanity. She wants to return where she can hear the voices of the hive—because she understands the Collective and is psychologically dependent on it. It's all she has ever known, so how can she be expected to simply give it up? She can't.
Indeed, the most effective and affecting moments of "The Gift" center around Seven of Nine's dilemma. Menosky's script allows us to understand her plight, and there are moments when we feel sincerely sorry for her. We can easily understand her attempt to hijack a communications relay and contact the Borg (which lands her in the brig). We can understand her rage toward Janeway for denying her requests. We can understand her frustration and loneliness; the voices are gone, and she's left with emptiness.
One scene in the brig is particularly powerful, where she mumbles the word "one" over and over, then says, confused and distraught, "My designation is Seven of Nine. The others are gone. Designations are no longer relevant. I am ... One."
"Yes, you are," Janeway responds, with a statement that says more than the obvious.
I think Janeway comes across very well in this episode. It shows her personally involved in a situation that will undoubtedly be one of the series' most ongoing and deeply explored analyses of the human situation. Because Janeway forced this decision upon Seven of Nine, it may seem unjust or controversial on the surface. But the decision had to be made one way or the other, and the way Janeway goes about handling it makes it a very ... human decision. Kate Mulgrew was all-around fantastic as ship's captain and community leader. Her performance really evoked a sense of family throughout the episode, and I rather liked it.
And while Seven of Nine apparently accepts her fate by the end of the episode (which perhaps seems too sudden because of the way the A- and B-stories are assembled), this is very far from over. The character shows a lot of promise, and I look forward to future stories about her. Jeri Ryan did a commendable job, although I think the challenge lies ahead, in creating a believable character who won't fully understand the human discoveries she will undoubtedly find. A unique bond between Janeway and Seven of Nine seems very likely.
But now comes the bad news: As much as the A-story about Janeway and Seven of Nine had me riveted to the screen, the B-story involving Kes' sudden development of unique powers—an apparent evolution into a higher life form—fell quite flat.
A very big part of the problem is that the whole transformation is left so utterly inexplicable that it comes across as merely arbitrary. It happens far too quickly to be believable. It feels much more like "Well, we have to get rid of Kes somehow, so let's make her transform into energy and lots of rippling light." Kes' bizarre abilities escalate over the course of the hour. First she can move objects like hyposprays with her mind, and before long she's manipulating objects on molecular, sub-molecular, and finally sub-sub-molecular levels. The technobabble remains thankfully light, but this still isn't really interesting in story terms.
The problem is that the episode doesn't tell us what this means to any of the characters. There are far too many non-reactions to Kes' extreme powers. I think a big part of the problem was time constraints. There simply isn't enough screen time for both subplots to work—I was far too engaged in the Seven of Nine story to care about Kes' story, which was too underdeveloped. Another problem is that since none of the characters really know what Kes is going through or why (Kes isn't even sure, and I doubt the writers really were either) they have no basis to act. That's fine in itself, but the episode zooms through the plot so quickly that it's never evident many people care what's going on, assuming they're even aware of it. That I don't think is fine.
There's one scene with Neelix and Kes that looks like it's headed for a genuine, revealing payoff, but it ends with a dumb joke instead. (Why did we break up? Oh, it was the cooking!) The serious discussion should've prevailed, but the creators took the easy way out, which left me irritated. Closure here would be nice, but we sure don't get it.
The final act has a reasonable scene between Janeway and Kes, which gives the episode enough of a "goodbye" feeling without going into maudlin excess. But there's also an "action" finale where Kes has to make it to the shuttle bay before she finishes her transformation cycle (or whatever it is), destroying Voyager in the process. This is fairly dumb and clichéd; I could've done without it entirely. Kes' departure is underwhelming precisely because the plot depicting it is merely a means to an end and little more. The unfinished scene with Neelix and the intentionally vague and perfunctory nature of Kes' transformation highlights exactly the sort of thing that has held the character back for the past three seasons—and it's unfortunate.
Ah, but there is Kes' "gift," which has some reassuring implications. She accelerates the ship to a very fast speed which puts the Voyager safely beyond Borg space—taking 10 years off the journey. I have some logistic problems with Kes' newfound abilities—it seems awfully magical and convenient—but such complaints are ultimately unimportant. The shortening of the journey could mean a lot in the upcoming season. It could give the Voyager crew some new hope, and it will also hopefully invigorate the feeling that Voyager is truly exploring the Delta Quadrant. Time will tell.
So Jennifer Lien as Kes leaves Star Trek: Voyager, and overall she goes quietly. Quiet has its merits. Closing the episode is a fabulous tracking shot of Tuvok alone in his quarters holding a candle. It's poignant and visually impressive. The special effects enhance the meaning: just one person who will ponder the fate of his friend—very nice. It's too bad Kes' farewell wasn't this aptly handled throughout.
Next week: When stranded in the coldness of space, will Tom and B'Elanna be heating things up? And will Voyager lose its second shuttlecraft in as many episodes? The suspense is killing me...