Kes: Voyager’s Unsung Adventurer

Jennifer Lien as Kes

We all have our favorite Star Trek characters. There are Spock lovers, Riker fan girls, people who love the sassier characters like Bones or Quark, and let’s not forget the internet’s favorite Trek character: facepalming Captain Picard.

We love Star Trek characters because they are who we want to be. They’re brave, and bold, and a little bit silly. We even love them when they are purely ridiculous…like…James…T. Kirk. No matter the reason, we love them.

Recently, I watched all of Star Trek: Voyager. I had never seen it in its entirety. I’d just seen snippets of the Doctor and Captain Janeway, funny moments that the internet deemed worthy of my feed. Based on that, I was expecting to love Seven of Nine. I had heard people talk about Jeri Ryan’s performance as the human-Borg as if it were the best thing to come out of the entire franchise. And don’t get me wrong, I find her fascinating. She is dynamic with a backstory to tug at your heart strings, and she has the Spock thing going for her, the lack of emotion, the pure logic that even the Vulcan Tuvok couldn’t quite pull off. However awesome Seven is, though, I think the series missed out on one of the best characters – a character that makes you think about morality, and death, and what a life really means. And most importantly, who we choose to spend the time we have with. Someone with a real sense of adventure in the unknown.

I am, of course, talking about Kes.

We meet Kes for the first time in the pilot episode “Caretaker.” First, the crew meets Neelix, who agrees to be their guide through the Delta Quadrant…if they help him with something first. Enter Kes, who is being held hostage by the Kazon, one of the big bad alien species for the first half of the series. The Voyager crew rescue Kes and ultimately tick off the Kazon. The rest is history, or Hulu back catalog.

 

Kes is introduced as a damsel in distress, but like most women characters on Star Trek, she is anything but. As a member of the Ocampan race she only lives seven years, and her short life span made her one of the most interesting characters on Voyager… possibly all of Star Trek. Immediately she has to make a choice – one I’m not sure I would be brave enough to make – to stay with her family and friends, or join the crew of Voyager, explore the galaxy, make new friends, create a new family, and leave everything she knows behind for good.

Kes gave the world of Star Trek a few key things. First, she and Neelix were a practical way to introduce the world of Star Trek to those new to the franchise. Simple things could be discussed without the awkward “but you should already know this” scenario. Through them we rediscovered what the Federation was all about: exploration, and helping those in need. We discovered the technical advances that have been made such as the transporters, replicators and technologies that make the Voyager a new type of starship. With a character like Kes being inquisitive about the Federation, it felt more organic to talk about things that some viewers might not totally understand.

Kes talks to the Doctor

Second, Kes lets the audience explore their own morality through her. She is the first person on Voyager to really befriend the Doctor. We understand through her confusion of how other people treat the Doctor that it’s not okay to treat a sentient being (even a holographic one) with little respect or tact. She spends time with him, becoming his assistant, then his friend. She doesn’t stop at the Doctor either; Kes is often is one of the first to voice her opinion about the fair treatment of other races.

Third, Kes’ shortened life span made her particularly interesting. When I would go to Star Trek as a kid I wanted to see the alien, the foreign. I wanted to see something that was different. With Kes we could might have been able to experience the course of an entire life in a seven season show.

Kes goes through the "Elogium"

My favorite episodes were the ones that showed her maturing. She is described as a child when she first arrives on Voyager, being just one year old, but soon she goes through what might be pregnancy, but because no one on the ship knows anything about her biology, it might just be puberty. She breaks up with Neelix, develops interests in other people, develops her psionic powers, and then in the last couple of episodes with her she goes through the last four years of her life in a weird backwards reality, until she turns into a being of pure energy, like Sean Patrick Flanery in the movie Powder, using her powers to push Voyager, and the crew out of danger.

It would have been great to see Kes progress past the infantilization stage of her character when everyone was telling her what was good for her. What she could learn about her powers, what she could do, where she could go, the constant protection she didn’t need from members of the crew and Neelix. She could have been a bad ass as an “adult,” if only the show had kept her and let her become one.

Sacrificing Kes for the sake of the ship was okay, it fit with her characterization in the show. But just imagine the stories the writers could have come up with. The crew would have eventually had to deal with her natural life progression, her death. She might have eventually had a child, or chosen not to. She might have left the ship in search of bigger and better things, again choosing to leave the known for the unknown. Or maybe she would have gone through a rebellious teen phase (mouthy and more than a little messy), or become a doctor, not to mention the powers she might have one day exhibited. She might have found a way to help Species 8472, a way to humanize them, which the show never did. The crew, the writers, and the audience would have had to come to terms with her whole life. And wouldn’t that have been an adventure worth watching?

  5 comments for “Kes: Voyager’s Unsung Adventurer

  1. December 20, 2017 at 9:07 am

    A beautiful analysis of a character whose potential was never realised.

    Even though they’d dropped Jennifer Lien from the show (which proved to be ruinous to the actress, a horrific injustice to her) they could have come up with some weird Ocampan thing that had her, I dunno, go into a cocoon like Delenn in Babylon 5, or Sil in Species, to emerge from it as another actress. We could still have had a Kes aboard, one capable of taking on Species 8472, with DNA that was immune to Borg nanoprobes, and still have found stories for the character.

    Since nothing was already established about the canon, even her lifespan could have had a twist in it – she could live seven Ocampan years, and Ocampa’s orbital period – its year – could have been 964 Terran years, for example.

    They really could have done anything with Kes. They really should have stretched their imaginations with her a lot more than they did.

    • Dakota
      January 3, 2018 at 12:50 pm

      I absolutely agree! She was a wonderful thought experiment of science fiction (or could have been) and Jennifer Lien played her well.

  2. December 24, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    It seems like with the regular characters who were women, Star Trek often struggled to figure out what to do with them. Kes is a perfect example. Even at the time before the show aired, I thought it bizarre that they would use a character with a lifespan of nine years. They essentially set up a character they were going to have to kill off, and that showed up in how they treated the character.

  3. Daniel
    December 31, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    How come no mention of old Kes returning and wrecking the ship in Season Six Episode 23 “Fury”.

    She turns up in a ship smashes Voyager, kills B’Elanna, travels back to season one and tries to betray and destroy everyone because she has dementia and thinks everyone abandoned her then everything gets resolved with Tuvok having future visions and young Kes leaving a message for old Kes to find five years from them and then we cut to the start of the episode before the ramming where Kes sees the message and then doesn’t attack them and goes on back to her home. Also they never mention her becoming an energy being, where she got the ship from of what she’s been doing all those years

    • Dakota
      January 3, 2018 at 12:56 pm

      Mostly I felt that episode was very little to do with Kes’ original characterization, and therefore didn’t match what her potential could have been had the show runners kept her. However, perhaps I should have mentioned it. I guess I was more irritated that they didn’t explain much about her time since she left the show, there was no progression as to how she ended up like she did, where she got the ship, or what her life was like without Voyager. Thanks for the comment!

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