Stupid sexy starship.
This is a really difficult episode to write about because I’ve spent many years trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.
I don’t even like to think about it too hard, because then the questions come. Like:
- Who thought it was a good idea to do an episode about Kes’s reproductive cycle?
- And that it was an even better idea to make that episode about Neelix?
- Obviously the same person or people who thought that Kes and Neelix made a good couple whose relationship was worth exploring…
- …while also depicting it in the worst possible light, and apparently not even realising that’s what was happening?
- Didn’t anyone stop to think that they should clarify their ideas around Kes’s life cycle?
- Jeri Taylor
- Apparently not
Kenneth Biller has a co-writing credit here, but the entire elogium plotline was Taylor’s. And as much as it pains me to say this about the franchise’s first female showrunner, but Taylor was responsible for some depictions of gender, sexuality and family dynamics which are best described as ill-considered, if not actually regressive.
(The example I always cite: Janeway was originally conceived as the daughter of an admiral and a mathematician. When Taylor wrote Mosaic, the tie-in novel which was treated as canon for the purposes of Janeway’s backstory, her father remained an admiral, but her mother became a homemaker whose life entirely revolved around her daughters even after they became independent adults.)
Taylor had no background in science fiction before she came to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and she doesn’t appear to have been interested in using the genre to subvert gender roles or explore different family dynamics. And this is probably, in part, generational. She was born in 1938, she graduated from college in 1959 — the year my mother was born. Her feminism, when it manifests, is strictly second wave. (Usually. There’s an interesting exception later this season, which I’ll discuss when we get there.)
There’s a lot to be said in terms of Taylor’s work on Star Trek and feminism, and if anyone wants to write that essay, I will absolutely champion them. But I’m here to talk about “Elogium”, and I guess I’ve put that off long enough…
Kes hits puberty
I think the concept of the Ocampa — an alien race that lives its entire lifespan within nine or ten years — is sound, but the execution never quite worked for me. Perhaps because they looked so human that it was difficult to remember there was this shocking difference about their lives — if the Ocampa had been insectoids, for example, I might have bought it. Kes looks human but for her cute li’l latex ears, so it’s difficult to get my head around the biological side of this story.
Okay, so Ocampa achieve adulthood around the age of one. So far, so good. But they are only capable of reproduction in middle age — around four or five. That works, too!
But then we learn that they have all these rituals around parents accepting that their child is an adult, and moving onto a new phase of their relationship. The … middle aged child.
The questions multiply:
- If Ocampa females are only fertile once, and they produce a single offspring, how is the entire species not extinct? Nothing Kes says implies that multiple births are the norm.
- So do the males (“males”) also bear children, then?
- If the child is gestated on the woman’s back, what’s happening in her abdomen?
- Why would you evolve something so ridiculously impractical as a … sticky hand thing for mating?
- What happens if you get an automatic foot massager when you need your tongue to swell up?
- How does it take seven days to have sex?! I mean, when you only live for a decade, that’s a considerable chunk of time!
I’m not a biologist, but none of this seems to have been thought through. And if it was? It should have been explained.
There are posts going around Tumblr and Twitter right now to the effect that, just because a piece of media doesn’t explain something doesn’t mean it’s a plot hole. You just have to do the work.
And, in general, I agree. But “Elogium” leaves too many questions unanswered.
Apparently this was a very special episode about teen pregnancy
I missed that until now because, hey, I just assumed Kes was the adult she’s always been treated as. Silly me. Here’s a quote I’m just gonna lift wholesale from Memory Alpha:
Some of Kes’ encounter with puberty was intended to be metaphorical for the controversial issue of teenage pregnancy. Ken Biller explained, “There is a little metaphor in there about teen pregnancy. Does Kes, just because she is capable of having a child, have to make the decision to have a child? It’s certainly one of the biggest social problems of our day. I’m not saying we weren’t trying to tell a good story too, but sometimes what happens is you get an interesting sci-fi idea like Kes going through puberty, and as you begin to write it you discover parallels and themes.”
This just raises more questions! Mostly around, “What were they thinking?!”
Kes has always been treated as a young adult. None of the Ocampa raise any objection to her leaving their homeworld. There’s never been the slightest implication that she is a minor. If that was the intent, positioning her as Neelix’s lover would be actively offensive instead of merely being a terrible idea. Not to mention that it’s been a week since her human alter ego was “married” to the Doctor.
I reject this premise entirely. This is a bad metaphor. If we’re meant to read Kes as a teen at all, she’s the equivalent of 19-going-on-20 — old enough to make her own decisions, even if they are terrible. (And even if that’s still not old enough to buy a drink in the US.)
Some people interpret the puberty metaphor as indicating that Kes is meant to be the equivalent of a 10-14-year-old. To which I say, ummmmmmmmm, no.
My hot take
Ocampa are middle-aged before they hit pseudopuberty — I think that, regardless of the writers’ intentions, “Elogium” is best interpreted as an episode about premature menopause rather than puberty. I’ve seen people being hit by the news that, although they expected to have many years of fertility ahead of them, they will probably never have children. And I’ve seen them wonder if they should try IVF now, before it’s too late, or let the chance go. And that, to me, is much closer to Kes’s experience than some kind of vague idea about teen pregnancy.
Apparently this episode also had to be about Neelix
He is truly at his worst in “Elogium”. There’s no defending him here. He’s an odious hedgehog, and I don’t understand why Kes chooses to be with him when Harry Kim and his floppy ’90s hair are RIGHT THERE.
His first scene here sees him sulking and whinging because Kes had the temerity to let Tom help her out in the airponics bay. That wanton hussy!
Apparently men like Tom are only interested in one thing, and Neelix knows because he used to be a man like Tom. He’s just trying to protect Kes! She’s so innocent!
The weird thing is that Tom doesn’t actually seem all that into Kes. We know how he flirts, and this isn’t it. His interactions with Kes seem sincerely friendly and — consciously, at least — platonic. But that hardly matters to Neelix — Kes still has to placate him.
Women spend a lot of time placating Neelix in “Elogium” — mostly Kes, but he goes moaning to Janeway when the Doctor (rightfully) throws him out of sickbay because his hovering concern is interfering with Kes’s treatment.
Janeway gives him short thrift — but poor Kes, riding a wave of hormones and emotions, has to take time out from her own problems to talk Neelix into dealing with his like an adult. She might be less than two years old, but in terms of emotional maturity, Kes seems a million years older than Neelix in this episode.
The good bits
Kes and Neelix’s best scenes are the ones they get with other people.
Janeway and the Doctor are overtly positioned as Kes’s surrogate parents here, as they help her work through her panic and indecision. Taylor was very much into writing Janeway as a sort of universal mother figure, but it works perfectly well for her and Kes.
And we see how she and the Doctor bring out the best in one another. She defends his personhood to Neelix, and comes to him for advice, and although the emotional and personal impact biological reproduction is far, far outside of his programming, he’s empathetic enough to help her find her way to wisdom.
Neelix, meanwhile, in one of the episode’s best scenes, goes to Tuvok for parenting advice. And for a guy who claims to not have emotions, Tuvok’s love for his four children is evident.
I must point out that as illogical as it seems, being a father can have infinite rewards. Far more than would seem possible. My children occupy a significant portion of my thoughts, now more than ever.
Any time someone claims that Sarek is a bad father because he’s Vulcan, I smack them in the face with Tuvok, one of the best dads in all of Star Trek.
Tuvok’s parental perfection doesn’t quite overcome Neelix’s … less admirable qualities. But even he comes out of this scene having learned something, and at least with less sexist baggage around how he might raise a hypothetical daughter.
Let’s talk about sex, bay-beeeee
For all its flaws, this is a thematically cohesive episode. A swarm of space doodads mistake Voyager for their mate. Their presence triggers Kes’s premature elogium, which in turn raises questions about the fact that Voyager’s journey home will take a couple of generations, and whether Janeway has the right — maybe even the responsibility — to make decisions about the crew reproducing.
Along the way, Janeway and Chakotay find time to flirt (which is adorable) on the bridge (which is uncomfortable).
There’s not much discussion around forced, or even strongly encouraged, reproduction. Janeway’s still in denial that they’ll spend much time in the delta quadrant at all, and honestly? That can of worms is best left unopened. But as Chakotay points out, people are going to pair off, and some of them will have kids.
(There are fewer births than you’d expect over Voyager‘s seven-year run, which I think is slightly unrealistic, but let’s attribute it to advanced contraception and the, ummmmm, discouraging proximity of the Borg.)
The questions are more around, do they have the facilities to raise and educate children? Is it ethical to raise children on a starship, least of all one so far away from sanctuary? But does Janeway have the right to forbid people to pair up and procreate? Of course not!
(The presence of civilians and children on the Enterprise-D is, for me, one of the most troubling aspects of TNG, and I’m glad that Starfleet didn’t continue with the experiment. This week’s episode of the podcast The Trek Files discusses just that, and has Voyager writer Lisa Klink on to talk about families on Voyager as well.)
Janeway has barely come to terms with the existence of this issue when it comes to a head — not through Kes, who has decided to gamble that she’ll experience a second, age-appropriate elogium when the time comes, but through Suddenly Prominent Background Character Samantha Wildman, who has just discovered that she is expecting her husband’s child.
(Yes, they’ve been apart for six months. Yes, it’s taken her this long to notice. We’ll belatedly learn that he’s an alien, and alien biology excuses all.)
What really makes this subplot work is the characterisation we get. Janeway is still in denial about the length of their voyage and the long-term consequences thereof. Chakotay is at peace with the reality, and — fittingly for an ex-Maquis leader — pretty chill about finding two officers making out in a turbolift.
And they flirt a lot, which is important. Even though, guys, you really shouldn’t be doing that on the bridge. It’s not appropriate. You’ll embarrass Tuvok.
- It’s a Starfleet officer and former Maquis snogging in the turbolift, so that’s a victory for crew integration right there.
- There’s a scene in Janeway’s ready room with the sexy spaceborne aliens outside her windows. It looks like Voyager is inside an aquarium, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.
- I love it when Star Trek tries to show us an array of “exotic” “alien” fruits. Kes is craving blood oranges, apparently.
- It’s a shame the whole elogium plotline isn’t better, because Kes chomping enthusiastically into a bouquet of orchids is magnificent and hilarious.
- Memory Alpha notes that the writers were uncomfortable with the idea of Kes and Neelix cohabiting, on account of the age difference. Maybe — I’m just spitballing here, but maaaaaybe they should have stopped to think about that. Just a little. You know.
Should you watch “Elogium”? God, no. Even as an obsessive Janeway/Chakotay shipper, I never revisited this. Go read a book. Or race snails. Or drink bleach. Anything but this. One bowl of mashed potato with butter and dirt out of five.