Sometimes compared to Jar-Jar Binks for his outlandish appearance, cartoonish behavior, and ‘emotional side-kick’ role in the sometimes infuriatingly wrong Star Trek: Voyager, Neelix doesn’t get a lot of respect.
Initially absorbed into the crew as a guide, Neelix went about making himself useful. Voyager had unique and unexpected problems – they couldn’t run the replicators, the crew was experiencing trauma after trauma, there was a serial killer on board but no mental health professionals – and morale was low. Neelix was not shy about filling the voids. Within two seasons, he became the ship’s cook, the ship gossip, and godfather to the ship’s only child.
It’s understandable why people might dislike Neelix. Neelix’s naked need to be connected, to be involved, and the pushiness he exhibits to get that connection can be uncomfortable. I think most of us have felt a similar need to connect, felt anxiety about not getting our need, and acted out inappropriately. It’s embarrassing to watch.
But I have a soft spot for Neelix. Neelix’s caregiving reminds me of grandmothers who are survivors of poverty or war. He reminds me of grandmothers who might pinch you lovingly, tell you to eat more, and then whack you with a spatula for interfering in their kitchen witchery. The kind of grandmother who would never talk to a counselor but who did the emotional labor for generations of men who came back ‘different’ from the battle field. The kind of grandmother who would push oddly-shaped roots onto your plate and say that it’s the food that helped them survive the Nazis.
Neelix isn’t a user – he walks the walk as much as he talks the talk. The anxiety of his past trauma might make him more emotional with his decisions – hence his narrative role as a foil for Mr. Tuvok – but he’s also a reliable and loyal ally. He not only tucks his godchild in every night, but is willing to pick up a phaser to fight for her life. Neelix might be the reason that the crew of Voyager did not descend into violence like the crew of the USS Equinox, another Federation ship pulled into the Delta Quadrant.
Caretakers who are equally prepared to give a hug, make a warm bowl of chili for someone who’s depressed, or lay down their life for a loved one are a rare and beautiful thing.
The Takeaway: If you’re the sort of caregiver who is worried about how much your trauma history effects your family, consider Neelix on the Voyager. He doesn’t compartmentalize, he doesn’t plan, and yet he is one of the most caring caregivers in all of Star Trek. Unlike Odo, Neelix cannot hide his emotions or his physical form, so he nurtures the people around him so that they don’t feel like they have to hide. And in that way, the survivor helps his loved ones survive.