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?

  6 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!

  4. Mitchell Melkin
    July 18, 2018 at 5:56 am

    I really appreciate your obvious appreciation and affection for this wondrous character. However, I would expand on what you said, perhaps, in a very fundamental way.

    My sense is that Kes (really Jennifer Lien’s choices in realizing her) was truly an embodiment of what I feel, was the ethos of ST, from its beginnings. A thirst for exploration, respect and humility when encountering others (Feds or aliens encountered), but an indefatigable determination to combat obvious wrongs, when encountered. That could be wielded forcefully, with her psionic powers (Cold Fire, Persistence of Vision) or a persuasiveness that could convince the most assured of characters (Eye of the Needle, Resolutions). Perhaps, most of all,in addition to her gentleness, courage, and extraordinary empathy, there was an ineluctably preternatural aura to her personhood, that upon reflection, or certainly in actually watching her on the screen, was invariably, profoundly moving. I won’t deny that part of this impression, comes through a juxtaposition of the character’s fate with that of the actress. More than a few of her castmates have remarked on a symmetry between how Lien defined Kes and her own personality.

    I think of what might have developed if Wang had gotten the cut,as was originally the plan. I’m not enthused or energized by the thought of Kes becoming a badass, as that wasn’t who she fundamentally was. Exerting her opinions of morality more forcefully, as time went on, certainly,but within the template of the innate qualities that had been beautifully laid down. She might have easily,and honestly, more effectively, taken over the Doctor’s role of shepherding Seven, in her development. It’s been remarked that such a relationship might very well have become one of sisters, a connection that I think Seven would have not only accepted, but embraced. In such a scenario, Kes could have been a mediating influence in disputes between Janeway and Seven, or alternately, backed up Seven’s contrary opinions, at times. Kes could easily have become the ship’s Councilor, a full fledged doctor, as we saw in an alternate timeline, or even, become a point of first contact with alien cultures whose demeanor suggested the likelihood of conflict with Voyager.

    Well, I’ve said quite a lot, especially considering I stumbled on this post by chance, while looking for something else altogether. In fact, I’m pretty sure, I’ve never even been to this site before!!! I’m thoroughly glad for the serendipitous opportunity, however. I will just conclude, on a similar vein as the OP. While I admit I’ve not seen the entirety of ST series iterations, up through Enterprise (most notably DS9), I’m familiar with all the main and secondary characters. Given that, I don’t have any hesitation in saying that I find Kes to be the most extraordinary and realized character in the entire canon, even taking into account how relatively infrequently she was seen in true focus, over three years. I credit this perception, almost entirely to the superlative abilities of Jennifer Lien, who, didn’t write the character’s dialogue, and notably, never contributed thoughts to the show runners, as to her thoughts on how she might wish Kes to develop, which opportunity, the rest of the cast utilized. Basically, though, I believe Lien created the essence of Kes, out of whole cloth, and again,truly seemed to embody the character. The comments of all of the original cast, echoed, in admiration of Lien’s unique and remarkably moving and intuitive talents. I would refute that any of those remarks were uttered out of pity, especially how she’s hardly been mentioned by any of them at conventions, unless specifically questioned, since at least the time that her legal troubles began, if not some years before. Regardless, when viewed in the context of how the concept has been so frequently cheapened, in our celebrity driven culture, Jennifer Lien’s “destiny and fate” is genuinely a moving and real tragedy, one in which a recovery, to simply, a peaceful, healthy, and productive life, seems so hard to feel hopeful of ever coming to pass.

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