As Voyager’s young nurse, Kes had the odds stacked against her from the get-go. For some fans, while the idea of a species with a nine-year lifespan was creative and intriguing, there was something that felt a little icky about Neelix and Kes’ relationship as she was technically just two years old.
But, ultimately, Voyager was a show that did it’s darndest to do right by all its women characters —led by the powerful example of Kate Mulgrew — and during her three-and-change seasons on Voyager, Kes had some strong and memorable episodes. Let’s take a look at the five best ones, in chronological (air) order.
“Eye of the Needle”
This episode was really about the discovery of a Romulan guarded wormhole that led to the Alpha Quadrant, but the B-story made it a big one for Kes and the Doctor.
Long before the mobile emitter, and long before he was included in briefings, the Doctor was stuck in Sickbay with a crew that viewed him as a piece of equipment. He was left on for hours with nothing to do, turned off when he was in the middle of researching treatments, spoken about as if he wasn’t in the room, and treated with disdain by the crew members he cared for. And Kes was the only one to notice. Not only did she notice, she lobbied Captain Janeway on his behalf, tapping into one of Star Trek’s biggest themes: who counts as a person?
Janeway was initially resistant, but Kes was convincing, and in the end, Janeway gave the Doctor autonomy over his program and asked what else he needed to perform his very essential duties. And Kes also convinced the Doctor himself that he didn’t have to just accept things as they were, that he was entitled to expect better.
At the same time, we learned that Kes has an eidetic memory and an aptitude for medical science. Two years old? Pshaw.
Another B-story for Kes, but also an important one with the Doctor. Kes was always sympathetic to him, but she was never blinded to his flaws. When he told a pregnant Samantha Wildman that her “discomfort” was due to her baby putting pressure on her sciatic nerve and she should “learn to live” with it — which sounded familiar to so many pregnant women — Kes got mad.
She snapped in frustration, “I just wish once in your life you could know what it's like, how it makes you feel vulnerable and a little afraid!” The Doctor was initially bewildered, but took her comment to holographic heart, and gave himself a 29-hour Levodian flu.
But this only made him more smug about how self-indulgent sick people can be, so Kes took things a step further and added a few hours to his illness without telling him. Ha! Thanks to Kes, he found out what it was really like to be sick, with all the fear and uncertainty that comes with it.
Kes didn’t just teach him a valuable lesson, she did the entire crew a huge favor that would affect the rest of their voyage.
Kes spent most of “Warlord” possessed by a 200-year-old tyrant named Tieran. That must have been a blast for actress Jennifer Lien, who got to threaten, murder, manipulate, and seduce all manner of people, giving her more screen time than ever before. She made the most of it.
But this was also a great episode for Kes the character; it was because of her strength and resilience that Tieran failed. He thought he could control her body and her telepathic powers, but she fought him so relentlessly that the dude was afraid to go to sleep because he knew she’d take over. “I'll find every little crack in your defenses,” she told him. “You'll feel yourself crumbling from within, your sanity slipping away. I won't stop until you're broken and helpless. There's nowhere you can go to get away from me. I'll be relentless and merciless, just like you.” A little girl, she ain’t.
The events of this episode changed her. Voyager gets accused (unfairly, in my opinion) of having hit the reset button every time something big happened, but it’s clearly not true here. She’d committed terrible acts she had to come to terms with, but more than that, she started to understand her own power. “You are no longer the same person,” Tuvok told her, “and the course of your life will change as a result.”
“Before and After”
In addition to being a prequel of sorts to the great two-parter “Year of Hell,” this was hands down the best Kes episode ever. It begins with Kes as an old woman — at the ripe old age of nine — in the final stages of life. We quickly learn that she’s a grandmother… and then that she’s married to Tom Paris, and their daughter is married to Harry Kim! What? What!
Yes, there was a lot to digest in this one: Chakotay was captain because Janeway was killed by the Krenim, B’Elanna was killed alongside her, Neelix was fine with Kes’ marriage to Tom, and the Doctor had hair.
On the surface, this episode is about something happening to Kes, but when you look closer, it’s about Kes taking charge of her destiny even when it seems like it’s spinning beyond her control. Every time she involuntarily jumped back in time, she didn’t waste a second. At every step, she gathered information, focusing on the science and the tangible details that mattered, from the exact temporal variance of the Krenim torpedo to the information that her temperature dropped every time she shifted to a new time period. Once again, this wasn’t a character who got pushed around.
She also gets bonus points for living through every woman’s worst nightmare: suddenly finding yourself in the throes of giving birth with no idea how you ended up there. Eek!
In season six, long after her departure from Voyager, Kes returned, hell-bent on revenge for what she believed was Janeway and Voyager’s cruel abandonment of her. She was mad, and she wasn’t going to take it anymore! She used power from the warp core, killing B’Elanna in the process, to leap back to an earlier time so she could rescue her young “innocent” self and hand Voyager over to the Vidiians. I TOLD you she was mad.
Like in “Before and After,” we got a peek into one possible timeline… and this was a dark one, with a bitter, angry Kes who was eventually saved and redeemed by her younger self. We often talk about what we’d tell ourselves if we went back in time, but in this case, it’s the wisdom from the past that was necessary to inform the future, and a fascinating glimpse at the Kes that could have been. (And was, but then wasn’t.)
As Captain Janeway would say, “The future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.”
Laurie Ulster (she/her) is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She's a writer/editor and was the Supervising Producer on After Trek.