the story: Neelix keeps Naomi company while the crew awaits word on the fate of her mother.
what it's all about: Like Next Generation's Alexander before her, Naomi Wildman made a few appearances before her most recognizable and longest-running portrayer, Scarlet Pomers, debuted in the role. This, then, is sort of the unofficial official debut of the character.
After a series of heavy episodes that kicked off the season, "Once Upon a Time" is lightweight material, and it knows it, and doesn't try to be anything more than lightweight material, sort of like how Deep Space Nine followed its initial round of Dominion War episodes with a definite change of pace. Where this might have been the slot for an episode that slipped through the cracks, merely undeveloped in comparison to its predecessors, "Once" was deliberately crafted for its role in the early season.
Young actors, and in conjunction young characters, in the franchise have a spotty record. Next Generation found its Wesley Crusher experiment to be one of the defining elements of its uneven early seasons. Later, Alexander was purposefully downplayed, appearing sporadically even after he'd come to live with his father, Worf. In Deep Space Nine, Jake and Nog spent their early appearances depicted as pranksters until they'd reached maturity, at which point they moved on to mature material. Age-wise Naomi was most similar to Alexander, and yet she was approached differently, not as a source of conflict but as the embodiment of what the crew around her might have to accept as its future: children who would be raised to replace them. In a lot of ways, it's an idea that finally made sense of Next Generation's ship that inexplicably allowed family aboard despite the possible dangers its crew faced on a routine basis.
And you can see that play out in "Once," as it's literally about Naomi handling her mother's possible death. It's also an episode that allows Neelix to spend time with someone who doesn't think he's as annoying as, well, the audience, who accepts him for who and what he is, including a guy who brings a lot of baggage with him. At one point, he talks about the loss of his own family, an element of the character that seems rudely overlooked by fans.
And yeah, it's kind of a holodeck episode, too, but the entire premise is explained well enough that this isn't really the point of the episode, for a change.
- franchise - A holodeck episode that's not really about the holodeck, but about the cost of having family in the crew, a resonant topic in Star Trek.
series- It may not impact the course of Voyager's future, but it still has plenty going for it.
- character - It's a Neelix spotlight, but it also explains the character of Naomi Wildman nicely.
- essential - It's a nice reminder that this really is a series that cares about its characters.
Scarlet Pomers (Naomi Wildman)
Nancy Hower (Samantha Wildman)