In brief: Not groundbreaking, but nice.
Neelix is a supporting character for whom the writers have never found an adequate purpose. For seven seasons he has floated here and there with a myriad of alleged duties but no real direction or strong motivations. Ethan Phillips has essentially been assigned the role of "miscellaneous character." So it's fitting, I guess, that the episode that bids Neelix adieu is one that makes the effort to show him as a Voyager crew member facing a crisis of purpose. The fact that there's a scene where Naomi Wildman tells Neelix she's too old to be tucked into bed only reinforces the issue.
The prospect of uselessness is a frightening thing, something demonstrated several years ago in a previous Neelix story, "Fair Trade." It's trite but true that most of us need to feel needed. Many who ponder the value of their lives probably hope that they have made or will make a difference to others — the greater the better.
"Homestead" takes that notion to write the final chapter for Neelix, one that is not hugely original or groundbreaking, but is pleasant and sincere nonetheless. The plot is more or less routine, but the characters are here, and the writers and actors do well for making us care about Neelix's struggles and choices.
As another example in a long history of spatial geography tricks with little regard for logic, the Voyager crew happens upon a colony of Talaxian refugees living inside an asteroid in an asteroid belt. How did they get here from their homeworld, roughly 40,000 light-years across the Delta Quadrant, in apparently only a decade or two? I don't know, and asking such a question is simply a hollow, obligatory gesture at this point. Perhaps they were as lucky as Voyager has been in finding shortcuts. Luckier still that Voyager happened upon them.
Neelix finds that being around his people rekindles feelings of home. One could argue that over the years Neelix would've come to think of Voyager as his home, but perhaps it's not that simple. Maybe he sees himself more as a traveler with a still-unknown destination. With the ostensive destination being Earth — a planet he's never seen — his own people can certainly be a strong reminder of his previous home.
The overriding plot is a relatively hoary exercise in which one group of people are threatened by another, more unreasonable group. In this case the asteroid belt is going to be mined by the aliens who own it. They don't intend to let something silly like a Talaxian homestead stand in the way of profits and efficiency schedules. The Talaxian asteroid is the proverbial house that needs to be razed in order for the proverbial new highway to go through — although not really, since it stands to reason that the miners could simply move on and skip this one measly asteroid. Honestly, the miners might as well be wearing horns and carrying pitchforks; they growl and intimidate, even going so far as to threaten a little boy. Even their makeup design is sinister. Subtlety is not a virtue to be found here.
What works is the gradual way Neelix realizes that he must help the Talaxians protect their home. These Talaxians are primarily pacifists, but Neelix argues that their home is something worth taking a stand for, and tries to convince the passive leader, Oxilon (Rob Labelle), that running to find a new home isn't plausible forever; they've already been pushed off at least one world entirely.
Neelix's choices are in no small part affected by his emerging feelings for a widow named Dexa (Julianne Christie) and her young son, Brax (Ian Meltzer). Their scenes are handled with a quiet sincerity that works. But what I found more interesting were some of Neelix's interactions with the Voyager crew in the midst of the unfolding dilemma. There's a scene where Neelix tells Brax that his duties aren't of huge importance (and I'm inclined to agree based on evidence the series has provided), but Chakotay and Kim come to the rescue and explain Neelix's various titles and cite him as a valuable crew member.
Better still are the Tuvok/Neelix scenes. Tuvok/Neelix sequences have often been utter failures; even this year we had a stupid roommate-quarrel plot in "Prophecy," while other relatively recent episodes like "Riddles" have shown Tuvok begrudging every possible warm feeling about Neelix that might rear its head in the depths of his Vulcan heart. But here we have what should've happened a long time ago — a vocal acknowledgement from Tuvok about Neelix's strengths and resourcefulness as a potential leader, even though they might exist alongside other annoying qualities. It's perfectly worded from Tuvok, and I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see him be believably civil toward Neelix instead of needlessly cold as forced upon him by a script. Similarly, it's also nice to see Neelix acting like a real person instead of a comic annoyance who, for example, trashes Tuvok's quarters while in the throes of Klingon passion.
There's a sequence where Neelix uses his cargo ship to help install shield generators to protect the Talaxian asteroid from the alien miners. This is serviceable action storytelling, though I think the way the episode invokes the Prime Directive is erroneous: If a warp-capable group of people asks for help in defending themselves, I don't see how that's a Prime Directive issue saying Janeway can't be involved. Yes, she may be taking sides in an interstellar conflict, but that happens every day.
Ultimately, Neelix decides to stay behind with the Talaxians and start a new home when Janeway submits that perhaps this opportunity for him will also allow him to remain as an official Delta Quadrant-based ambassador for Starfleet. This is neat and tidy, perhaps, but it's certainly reasonable and allows a good send-off.
"Homestead" is not a great or inspired episode of Voyager, but it is a dignified and heartfelt one. I must admit: By the end, when Tuvok's goodbye consisted of a restrained, Tuvokian concession to dance with the heel of one foot, I was touched. The scene keeps dialog to a minimum and relies on nods and glances, providing a great example of less-is-more mentality. It's one moment that almost makes up for years of redundant banter. If dignity has been a lost virtue for Neelix as the writers have previously written him, they managed to find it here.
In brief: Doc engages in a serious role-playing game.
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