Neelix on Star Trek: Voyager was a more complex character than fans realize
Many fans do not have a high opinion of Neelix, the Talaxian ‘comic relief’, on Star Trek: Voyager. There were times when his role in an episode became little more than a comedy that did not always appeal to fans, yet this attitude does not give credit to how he matured over seven seasons. Neelix started out as a toxically jealous boyfriend to Kes, an Ocampan woman he rescued, with strict ideas about gender roles and fear of war to a reliable adult. By the finale season of VOY, he had become a great surrogate father to Naomi Wildman, the only child born on the ship prior to their return to the Alpha Quadrant then a stepfather to Bax, the son of Drex, a woman he fell for as he helps their community of five hundred Talaxians fight the inhabitants of the asteroid Phanos to secure enough land to become self-sufficient. The Talaxian who originally joined the Voyager crew in the Delta Quadrant is not the same one who left the crew before they returned home to the Alpha Quadrant.
Fans of Neelix have commended how the writers wrote his traumatic backstory – losing all of his family and most of his species to war, his PTSD and survivor’s guilt forcing him to act certain ways, and more. Yet the subtle evolution where he at first abhors the idea of having a family or fighting to later embrace becoming a mentor and helping other Talaxians fight for a better life is actually underappreciated by many viewers.
He may not have had the best scenes and his evolution happened mostly in the side plots, but by the time he left the ship, he had shed many of his worst qualities to become an admirable being who embodied many Starfleet ideals. Writing him off as unfunny comic relief ignores his evolution.
Over the course of Star Trek: Voyager Neelix matured greatly
Neelix’s first scene, unfortunately, sets the tone for his early character – he is loud, brash, and manipulative. When first beamed aboard, he wastes Voyager’s limited resources on himself, alienates Tuvok, the Vulcan who welcomes him aboard and tricks Captain Katherine Janeway into giving needed resources to the Kazon, a species constantly fighting itself, to free his much younger love interest, Kes, an Ocampan.
While their species do not age the same way, he also treats Kes as though she’s much less mature than him, yet he is the one who is so insecure in their relationship that he never trusts other male members of the crew around her. He even has a pity party about Kes leaving him for Lieutenant Tom Paris at various points in the early seasons. Yet when Kes appears to go through an early form of puberty and must mate or she will never be able to have children, Neelix is focused on his own needs and hang-ups, rather than Kes’ terror or trying to understand her point of view. He even grumbles that he has no clue what to teach a daughter. Tuvok says that the gender of a child should not dictate how they are raised. Following the birth of Naomi Wildman, Neelix becomes her godfather and forms a very deep bond with her. When her mother, Ensign Samantha Wildman, is presumed dead during a mission, Neelix worries about how to explain this to Naomi and is prepared to fulfill his duties as godfather. He even teaches her about cooking and Starfleet history as she helps him cook pierogies to celebrate Zephram Cochrane, the creator of warp speed, and First Contact Day between humans and Vulcans. His relationship with Naomi allows him to mature so that when he falls for a Talaxian woman named Drex he can be a mature stepfather to her son, Bax. Early VOY Neelix would never have been mature enough for that.
Early in the series, Neelix was grappling with the emotional fallout from a war that saw his home planet devastated by a chemical weapon that killed millions. Neelix blamed himself for fleeing his planet and then only being able to hold his sister as she died. His survivor’s guilt trapped him in a cycle of being a conman and manipulating others to get his way. Not only did he trick Janeway into using resources to free Kes while pretending it would help create an alliance with the Kazon, he nearly got the crew hurt due to his lie. Neelix also presents himself as a reliable guide who could help Voyager return to the Alpha Quadrant, but soon after joining the crew, he has to steal a map to find more information about the Delta Quadrant so that he can pretend to be knowledgeable about the Delta Quadrant and keep his job. Even his self-appointed roles as cook and the moral officer made Neelix come across in a less than stellar light as he often insists on reinventing food for his crew members and then not utilizing the mental health resources found in the Emergency Medical Hologram’s programming to understand the emotional needs of the crew.
However, as he took a more active role in away missions, he began to work through his PTSD which allowed him to process his survivor’s guilt. Then when Tuvok loses the emotionless nature that is the hallmark of Vulcans, Neelix suggests (not orders, not tricks) Tuvok work in the galley with him. They actually seem to bond as friends, Neelix praising Tuvok’s skills. Considering the antagonism that once existed between them, where Tuvok would flee any chance he could, it shows the Talaxian had become mature enough to care about others. When his shuttle crashes on Phanos, home to five hundred Talaxians, Neelix begins working alongside them, helping them prepare to fight for enough land to support themselves, and chooses to stay with them, proving he is no longer the immature conman of season one.
When Neelix joined Voyager’s crew originally, he was possessive and jealous, looking out for his own needs yet by the end of the series, he had matured into a wise principled Talaxian, ready to be a stepfather and help improve the lives of his people. These changes were never the forefront plotlines of an episode, but they proved that Starfleet’s ideals were achievable for anyone who worked for it.