Overall Rating: 9.5
The power of this episode rests in the final confrontation between Janeway and Neelix and in the teleplay author's choices for the way various characters interact. Janeway does one of the most loving things she's ever done here and the way that is handled is masterful.
Neelix realizes he's running out of real estate before Voyager enters a part of space with which he is not familiar and decides to gamble on a shady transaction to acquire a map in a desperate attempt to remain useful. The ugly consequences can be found here, courtesy of Memory Alpha.
As Voyager approaches the edge of Neelix's range as a contraband dealer, he scrambles from station to station desperately trying to make himself useful in other ways - security details, engineering rotations, anything he can do to make himself a valued member of the crew, but he's meeting understandable resistance. He's more in the way than useful in Engineering and Tuvok has understandable doubts about his capabilities as a Star Fleet security officer (he hasn't been properly trained). His other titles are all self-appointed - morale officer (with varying results), cook (and a bad one!), ambassador (it helps to KNOW the aliens you encounter if you want to get on their good side), reporter, survivalist (whose survival skills are questionable at best, especially in unfamiliar space). He knows that Voyager and its people are a far sight better than the types that Talaxians are forced to consort with since their home world was overthrown. Is it any wonder he's a desperate man when they reach the Necrit Expanse?
This plot took some very careful planning to work properly without assassinating Neelix's character or getting too convoluted to follow, but I think that script-writer Andre Bormanis (another of Voyager's greatest hits written by a free lance writer as opposed to one of the regulars on the staff) did this story about as well as it could be done. Every decision that Neelix makes seems reasonable, right up until there's phaser play in a darkened corridor over a case of narcotics. Wixiban is a convincing cohort, spinning a wonderful story of redemption and calling the drugs "medical supplies." When Neelix realizes what is really going on and tries to back out, Wix switches tactics, making Neelix believe he is inextricably linked to the crime, and assuring Neelix that if he tells anyone what's really going on, he'll wind up dead. But, when asked to steal warp plasma from Voyager, he comes to his senses and turns himself and Wixiban in, offering to help the station manager take down a cunning drug cartel that's been operating under his nose for years.
When the plan inevitably blows up in Neelix's face (literally), and he awakes in Sickbay, the full truth of his situation now obvious to Janeway, she confronts him and demands to know why he would turn his back on his family and get involved in a mess like this. Neelix sheepishly explains that he only did this because his usefulness to Voyager was at an end and he wanted to find a way to keep helping them. And here's where this episode goes from entertaining, solid story-telling to unquestioned feature. Janeway delivers the perfect response - a nasty punishment backed by the reassuring (and true) sentiment that Neelix is part of a family and he has responsibilities from which he cannot walk away. Neelix will be the happiest man in waste extraction when he reports for duty scrubbing deuterium storage tanks and the ship's waste processing fixtures with a toothbrush. All he wanted was to belong to this crew - Janeway's "harsh" words essentially exclaim "you ARE a part of this family!" The punishment is a necessary reminder that actions have consequences and that he can't go around lying to his family like he did this week. But the message is loud and clear - it doesn't matter HOW you help your family - it matters that you keep trying.
There really isn't anything I would change about this one - the final scene brings a tear to my eye every time I watch it, and there are no major plot holes, silly technobabble exchanges, or canon inconsistencies. There are a couple of strange moments, e.g. saying that the Necrit Expanse is THOUSANDS of light years across and then suggesting that Voyager go through it (what...is it thousands of light years tall and across but a thin ribbon deep? That would be weird...) struck me as odd, and when Neelix wakes up, he appears completely normal despite having third degree plasma burns? I know our technology is good, but I don't think it's THAT good. But little things like that matter less than telling a character driven story well. That's really all we here at RightFans ever want from our entertainment.
No major shortcomings with this script, and nothing that needs changing. It lacks the sheer potency of something like "Duet" or "The Siege of AR558" but only just barely.
Ethan Phillips is fabulous, as is Kate Mulgrew, but Carlos Carrasco (Bahrat) and James Nardini (Wixiban) were...only OK. In the scene where Wix needs to go from not buying into Neelix's plan to reluctantly agreeing to help him for old time's sake, his agreement was a little sudden, for example.
My opinion is made clear in The Skinny, no use repeating myself.