Kes & the Ocampa
By Kevin Dilmore
In Star Trek's, being a nonhuman has its advantages. Consider the Klingons, with their formidable fighting skills and fearsome visages: rare is the human who would fare well in one-on-one combat with such a foe. And look at the Vulcans, with mental as well as physical capabilities far beyond those of mortal men. And the Borg? Forget about it.
The majority of alien races in the Star Trek universe, especially those explored in detail through its principal characters, boast attributes generally superior rather then inferior to plain old humans.
And then there is the Ocampa.
Of the alien races explored in depth during Star Trek's 33-year history, few seem as fragile by their very nature as do this race native to the Delta Quadrant; this race that, were it not for their dependence on a lifesustaining space array, would have gone undiscovered by the wayward crew of the U.S.S. Voyager.
On the surface, the Ocampa sound like one of Star Trek's oddest humanoid life forms: their lives span less than a decade; they mate just once, then grow their offspring in a bag on their backs; once old age sets in, their healthy bodies and minds slip away in a frame of time quick even for them. Ocampans even seem to have forgotten how to use much of their one superior ability: telepathy.
And yet the race of meek and peaceful beings remained compelling for viewers of Star Trek: Voyager through the performance of Jennifer Lien, who portrayed the Ocampan girl Kes for the show's first three seasons. While the actress downplays her contributions to the show and to her character's development, few would argue the Lien embodied through Kes a sense of wonder for the Delta Quadrant and the advancements of the 24th Century that was unmatched on the show.
"I felt that I identified with her," says Lien, deferring any insight to the character to the show's scriptwriters. "I just went with the writing. Kes was really genuine to me; the character came out that way."
The plight of the Ocampans was the catalyst for the entire series as depicted in "Caretaker" the ST:VGR pilot episode broadcast in 1995. After being thrown 70.000 light years from their own quadrant, the crew of the Voyager first encounter the barren Ocampan homeworld a thousand years after intergalactic explorers inadvertently brought about an environmental catastrophe. The once-fertile world lost its ability to sustain life, and those responsible for the disaster herded the Ocampa into an underground cavern to sustain them indefinitely. Within the vast complex, the Ocampa were fed, tended and protected be the "caretaker" who was an unwitting architect of their planet's doom.
After 500 generations underground, the race's ability to thrive on its own had been sapped. Their ancestors' great mental powers were all gone, and the Ocampa were left to seek their own future after the Voyager crew discovered that the same space array responsible for feeding the energy to the aliens' subterranean Ocampa complex also hurled their starship to the Delta Quadrant.
With Kes choosing to spend her short life onboard Voyager rather than with her own people, more secrets of the Ocampa were gradually revealed. As Voyager crew members soon discovered, Ocampa youth have extraordinary abilities to learn, absorbing information at great speeds and benefiting from eidetic memory skills. It is just those skills that work to Kes' advantage when she chooses to study under the ship's emergency medical hologram.
Such mental skills would seem to follow in a member of a race that experiences the whole of life in nine years. Ocampan children were said to grow exceedingly fast, resembling human teenagers with six months after birth and reaching adulthood within one Earth year.
Given such a compression of life, Lien said she used her training as an actress not to dwell on the situation but to take each experience as it came for Kes as she explored her role through the story of each script.
"I didn't have a different approach to Kes as she got older," says Lien. "My character didn't live that long, and because of that, she had ideas of her own."
"The character was what I was doing, and to go beyond ... it was acting," she says. To go beyond the parameters, well, there weren't too many parameters. I don't view acting like that. Acting is how you are able to express yourself with what is given to you, and I did so."
One challenge she was given came in the second-season episode "Elogium", in which the young Kes was faced with the choice of becoming a mother right away - or miss the chance forever. Ocampan physiology dictates a single opportunity to mate, one that generally comes along when an Ocampan female is 4 years old. Owing to the electrophoretic activity of space creatures encountered by Voyager, Kes enters a premature period of elogium, or fertility. The experience is quite noticeable to those around her, as Kes first generates a mitral sac on her shoulder for her possible child. She then secretes a sticky yellowish ipasaphor from her palms, which serves to cement herself to a prospective mate who would stay joined with her for six days to impregnate her. Ritual activities accompany this process, including the lengthy massaging of the Ocampan female's feet until her tongue swells.
Apart from biological details of the Ocampa, insight into the race's mental abilities was offered as well when Kes became determined to probe the boundaries of her natural abilities under the guidance of Tuvok and his Vulcan training.
In the second-season episode "Cold Fire," Kes learned firsthand of the possible range of her powers when Voyager encountered a group of Ocampa living on a space array similar to the one that sustained her homeworld. With their help, Kes was shocked to find herself able to direct the flow of the energy of life itself, manipulating it at a molecular level. Her fellow Ocampans on the newfound array had mastered abilities beyond even that level, possessing the power to extend their own lifespans, heat or move objects with their minds - or even seeking and destroying life with but a thought.
Lien laughs about the metaphysical aspects of her character. "I never bought into that. It was a science fiction show, and isn't all of that stuff just science fiction?"
Aspects of what Kes' life might have been on Voyager were divulged in the third-season episode "Before and After," in which the Ocampan became unstuck in time after a treatment in a bio-temporal chamber. Rather than extending her short life span, the treatment reactivates chroniton particles in her cells, taking her out of sync with the flow of time on the ship and allowing her glimpses into her own life - and the lives of her daughter and grandson. She also experiences the final phase of Ocampa life , morilogium, which sets in quickly and robs its sufferers of memories and general well-being.
Ultimately, Kes would not experience a natural demise as told in the fourth-season episode "The Gift," Lien's final appearance as a series regular. In that episode, the Ocampan helplessly watched as her body went into a state of cellular destabilization and evolved seemingly into a being of pure energy. Leaving the ship, Kes wished her former shipmates farewell by channeling her vast power to send Voyager 10.000 light years closer to home in a mere moment.
While Kes would hardly be the first Star Trek character to reappear from a perceived oblivion, Lien says she might consider but does not expect making a return appearance as the Ocampan-cum-energy-being. Today, the unassuming actress makes occasional convention appearances while looking toward future projects, which include a role in the feature film Rubbernecking to be released next year. Lien says she looks back on her three-year turn on Star Trek: Voyager with pleasant thoughts for all involved.
"I was really able to understand the situation that the crew was in - all of them - and how Kes related to that. I don't think of them as detached as such from the rest of the world," she says. "I enjoyed working with the other actors and guest stars. It was an entirely good experience."
Text from Star Trek Communicator - Issue #125 - October/November 1999 - Pages 26-28
Article used without permission.