Voyager rewatch 4.02 – “The Gift”

Arrivals and departures.

How do you solve a problem like Kes?

Star Trek, in the ’90s, did its best to avoid cast turnover, and when it came, there was always some flavour of bitterness. Denise Crosby quit because she felt underused, but if she had stayed, Deanna would have been killed off, as there were “too many women”. Gates McFadden was replaced by Diana Muldaur for sexist reasons; when she was re-hired, Dr Pulaski was never spoken of again. Wil Wheaton and Terry Farrell only quit after Rick Berman denied their requests to drop down to recurring status so they could pursue other projects.

There have been a lot of stories about Jennifer Lien’s departure. The official is, the network wanted a sexier, more dynamic series; Kes has never been sexy OR dynamic, and therefore Lien’s contract was not renewed.

Then there was the official unofficial story, which has circulated for years, including in official books: someone had to go, and it was a toss-up between Lien and Garrett Wang, but then Garrett Wang hit People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People List, so Lien got the boot.

But here’s the thing: Wang was never in danger of being fired.

The truth — according to Star Trek: Voyager — A Celebration, published in 2020 — seems to be that Lien was having problems. “Maybe addiction,” someone suggests, although it seems like she was a very sensitive, anxious, maybe fragile person in general. She had become unreliable; she was offered help and support, but refused. Accordingly her contract was not renewed, and she has suffered from addiction and associated criminal charges since.

This is all terribly sad, and I can’t tell you how much I hope that, like Grace Lee Whitney before her, Lien accepts the help she needs. No one, not friends, not family, and not an employer, can save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. After twenty-four years of being mad about it, I finally understand why Lien had to be let go.

What I don’t understand here is the decision to throw Garrett Wang under the bus in the process. How absolutely insulting to have this story follow you around for decades! I’ve perpetuated it myself, and I absolutely feel like I owe Wang an apology — but I also want to know where it started, and with whom. And why.

(Memory Alpha has an excerpt from an interview where Wang himself speculates about it, but surely that can’t be the sole source, right? Actors speculate about stuff all the time; it doesn’t usually make it as far as official books.)

Enough behind-the-scenes drama: what actually happens on screen?

ONE QUICK FACTOID BEFORE I MOVE ON: the story of Kes’s evolution into a special effect was conceived by Bryan Fuller, being his very first piece of work for Voyager. So I guess I have to forgive them for, ummmm, giving Kes more or less the same fate that was predicted for Wesley Crusher way back in season one of TNG: the ability to transcend the laws of physics, manipulate matter and subspace, and to generally … you know. Evolve.

Honestly? I don’t hate the idea, but the execution falls flat. Kes talks a lot about feeling exhilarated and energetic, but her behaviour is the same as always: totally chill.

There’s almost a metaphor in this story about a young woman whose evolution is stymied by her well-intentioned friends, but we never quite get there, save in the scenes between Kes and Janeway. Imagine if we saw literally any other friendship between Kes and a woman. There are too many dicks on Kes’s dancefloor — no wonder she needs to get away to self-actualise.

On the upside, we get some great scenes with Tuvok, which almost makes up for the show reminding us that Kes and Neelix used to date. But so much of Kes’s departure is about how the men in her life feel, rather than Kes herself — it’s depressing, but hardly surprising, given that’s more or less how she has been written since the very beginning.

Fortunately, there’s Seven of Nine

Men? Seven doesn’t know them. All of her attention is on Janeway.

Most of the xBs we’ve encountered over the years — Picard, Hugh, Riley’s crew in “Unity” — have dealt with their trauma quietly. Sure, you might have the occasional vineyard mudfight, or non-consensual mind control of a passing Starfleet officer, but in general, the xBs we’ve seen haven’t been the types to make a fuss.

Seven, though. She is furious, and she doesn’t care who knows it. Not at the Borg, who abducted her as a child and enslaved her for twenty years, but at Janeway, for rescuing her.

I love it. It makes emotional and psychological sense. Seven is unaccustomed to feeling anything at all, and the first emotions she experiences after assimilation are fear and rage. Of course she lashes out at the person she holds responsible for these feelings. Of course she wants to go back.

“Should Seven of Nine be allowed to return to the Borg if she chooses?” is one of those interesting and crunchy ethical quandaries that Star Trek loves. Only, for me, it’s simple: the answer is no. Disconnecting her from the Collective was the right decision strategically, and having done so, Janeway correctly takes responsibility for Seven’s wellbeing and recovery.

Now, if Seven had been assimilated as an adult, you could maybe argue that she is in a position to consent to return to the Collective. But even there, I feel like the ongoing trauma of assimilation reduces a person’s capacity to give informed consent.

Seven, obviously, considers that argument self-serving: “You won’t consider me a fully-developed person until I make the decision you like.” And she’s right, but she’s also wrong.

The important thing, for me, is that this means we get a bunch of scenes where two women argue about the nature of humanity, and that’s what I’m here for. Jeri Ryan expresses a lot of emotion with one eye, her voice and a tilt of her jaw, and Kate Mulgrew knows exactly when to step back and give her the floor, and when to take over. They weren’t friends — in fact, Mulgrew treated Ryan very badly — but like Shatner and Nimoy, the genuine tension between them makes for something electric on screen.

Other observations

  • I’ll get to this in a few weeks, but we don’t talk enough about how Annika Hansen’s parents were THE ACTUAL WORST
  • I’m not sure, but I think the “dermal-regeneration strips” on Seven’s shoulder are made from the same or similar fabric as her catsuit, which goes a tiny way towards justifying its existence
  • I’m ashamed to say that, aesthetically, I love the silver catsuit and wish we had gotten to keep it, even though I abhor it on feminist grounds and also concern for Jeri Ryan’s ankles
  • It’s kind of funny that we get a whole scene about Seven’s new eye, given what happens in her introduction in Picard
  • Well, I thought it was funny

In conclusion

Despite my disappointment with the execution of Kes’s story, this is still a great and important episode. Four and a half new eyeballs.

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