The Good: Excellent acting, Great character work, Good plot
The Bad: Very simple resolution, Continuity within the series/franchise
The Basics: One of the best episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, “Mortal Coil” is still robbed of anything around perfection due to its simple resolution and lack of appreciation for the established Star Trek cannon.
Star Trek is, arguably, my favorite franchise, but I am happy to admit its faults (where it has them). With Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, I tend to argue that neither had a “perfect episode.” Both had episodes that were good and some that were even wonderful, but neither quite reached perfection, even for an episode. Star Trek: Voyager came closest with “Resolutions” (reviewed here!). Initially, one of the episodes that seems like it has a fighting chance for such an esteemed position as having a “perfect episode” (there are plenty of series’ that never even come close!) is “Mortal Coil.”
“Mortal Coil” is a Neelix episode and it might seem like a tough sell given that the character was essentially deemed useless in “Fair Trade” (reviewed here!). And yet, “Mortal Coil” gives Ethan Philips the opportunity to shine as an actor and give Neelix a compelling character struggle. Arguably, this is the penultimate Neelix episode of the series (the final one being one of the last of the series) and Philips makes the most of it. Neelix has a deeply important internal struggle in “Mortal Coil” and the main fault of the episode is that it too simply resolves the complex emotional crisis that is set up.
Before going on a mission to a protomatter nebula, Neelix tells Naomi Wildman the story of the Great Forest in Talaxian religion. The heaven-esque story is put to the test for Neelix when, while trying to extract protomatter, he is killed by an energy discharge. Seven Of Nine, upon discovering Neelix dead upon the shuttle’s return to Voyager, has the Doctor extract nanoprobes from her bloodstream and together they resurrect Neelix. Shocked to discover himself alive, Neelix appears grateful and begins the process of recuperating.
Under the surface, though, Neelix is deeply distraught. Having been medically dead for over nineteen hours, he is frustrated that he did not go to the Great Forest and meet his departed family members. He and Chakotay go on something of a vision quest, which further disturbs Neelix. Struggling with the idea that his religion is merely fairy tales, Neelix becomes despondent and suicidal.
This is not a small internal conflict and up until the final act, it is treated with respect and the depth of loss and struggle that such a fundamental human concept as a loss of faith should represent. That it is, ultimately, so simply wiped away after thirty-five minutes of build-up is a huge letdown.
The only other real flaw with “Mortal Coil” is its failure to be reasonable in the context of the larger Star Trek universe. First, the use of protomatter in “Mortal Coil” illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding for the Magoffin introduced in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (reviewed here!). In that film, protomatter was problematically introduced as a story element that was entirely unnecessary to explain why the Genesis Device did not work (simply explaining that it was unsuccessful because it did not detonate on a planet would have been sufficient). Regardless, it was characterized as a dangerously unstable substance that no ethical scientist in the galaxy would use for any reason. So, why Voyager would try to harvest it seems utterly ridiculous. The only element that tops that in ridiculousness is that Neelix would ever have had the ability to contain such an unstable force (given that his ship was basically a junk heap when he met Voyager). Also, the plot device that allows Neelix to be resurrected shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the Borg. The Borg have always disposed of their dead and given the strength of the hive mind, the idea that they would ever want to resurrect a single drone makes no sense.
That said, “Mortal Coil” is an acting tour de force for Ethan Philips. He has to play Neelix as uncertain (as to what his new life means), angry (at Seven Of Nine for resurrecting him) and frustrated (as his character has a crisis of faith). As Philips yells about his character’s sense of violation at being resurrected against his will, he is utterly convincing and even difficult to watch. As Neelix resolves to end his own life, Philips is appropriately distant and then traumatized. His performance rivals Kate Mulgrew’s impassioned speech for choosing life in “Death Wish” (reviewed here!). This is the peak of Philips’ performances on Star Trek: Voyager and one can only imagine how it must have frustrated the actor to not be given amazing parts after this episode given the range he exhibits in it!
The supporting performances and scenes are decent as well. The obligatory scene involving Janeway attempting to integrate Seven Of Nine into the crew – in this case at Neelix’s Talaxian celebration – is actually funny for its awkwardness. Similarly, Tim Russ’s portrayal of Tuvok brings a smile to the viewer’s face as he attempts to get everyone’s attention. The vision quest sequence is appropriately unsettling and even Brooke Stephens, who plays Naomi Wildman for the episode, gives a convincing performance.
“Mortal Coil” is an appropriately unsettling, emotionally intense character-driven episode. And if only Star Trek: Voyager had aspired more for episodes like this, the series would have been better off.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the gamechanging middle season here!
For other Star Trek episode and movie reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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