The Rise and Tragic Fall of Voyager’s Jennifer Lien

In 1995, the Star Trek franchise hoped to usher in a new generation of fans with the launch of new series Star Trek: Voyager. Among the show’s promising main cast was Jennifer Lien, who played the kind-hearted, telepathic alien Kes for the first three seasons. In season four, however, the introduction of Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine apparently meant one existing cast member had to go – and, while Harry Kim actor Garrett Wang was initially said to be for the chop, it proved to be Lien.

For years, this was the official story behind Jennifer Lien’s departure from Voyager. However, a 2020 book on the show asserts that Ryan’s entrance had nothing to do with Kes’ exit. Voyager producers have now confirmed that Lien left Star Trek: Voyager during season four due to her growing mental health and addiction problems – issues that ultimately brought Lien’s Hollywood career to a premature end.

Credit: David Dumbell via Wikimedia Commons

“She wanted to be a very serious actress”

Lien’s troubles were rooted in a tough upbringing on the South Side of Chicago. She said in a 1992 interview, “I was very uncomfortable living where I lived…  if you didn’t fit in you got your a** kicked. I was just my own person, and I adopted this really tough skin because I had to if I wanted to survive. A lot of my friends were into drugs, and I saw a lot of them die.”

Acting offered a way out. Lien joined the Illinois Theater Center at 13, and within three years she landed her first TV role in soap opera Another World. Short-lived TV series Phenom followed, as well as numerous voice acting roles including in The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and an Adam Sandler comedy record. Then, Lien landed her biggest role: as Kes on Star Trek: Voyager.

Aged just 19 at the time of her audition, Lien was one of the first cast members hired for the series, as well as the youngest. The producers felt Lien had the “fragile and childlike” quality the role of Kes needed. Producer Jeri Taylor praised Lien’s “elfin quality,” which informed the choice of hair, make-up and costume that was ultimately chosen for the character.

At first, everything seemed to go swimmingly. Lien remarked in a 1995 interview that playing the alien Kes was “so freeing for me as an actress… because there’s always something new for me to react to, to feel, to experience.” She proudly described herself as “one of those rare people who loves what they do and can actually make a living doing it.”

Despite her youth and inexperience, Lien’s co-stars recall her being professional and well-prepared on set in the show’s early days. Neelix actor Ethan Phillips described Lien as “extraordinarily easy to work with,” while Tom Paris actor Robert Duncan McNeill remarked that he “got a sense from Jennifer that really deep down she wanted to be a very serious actress.”

Some critics and fans had issues with the character of Kes as well as Lien’s performance, with some finding her too slight and ineffectual, though there was never a backlash great enough for showrunners to feel pressure to remove the character. Lien, on the other hand, felt pressure from the beginning.

“An enigma”

While Voyager was a major production and a big career break for all involved, there was always trouble behind the scenes. There was often a great deal of tension between the cast and the producers; Chakotay actor Robert Beltran, for one, deliberately tried to get himself fired as he disliked the working environment so much.

Garrett Wang, who like Lien was on the chopping block after season three, has admitted he came close to losing his job. Wang had to learn “the important lesson of being punctual. The several times I was tardy to work were met by great resistance from the producers. During the third season, they actually threatened to fire me if I didn’t get my act together.”

Wang, however, got a significant career boost when he was unexpectedly listed among People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the World in 1997. This definitely had a part to play in Wang being kept on after Voyager’s third season instead of Lien. At the time Wang remarked, “Had they decided not to bring Harry back, it would not have been the end of my world, just as Jennifer’s leaving is not the end of her world.”

According to Stephen Edward Poe in his Voyager history A Vision of the Future, Lien was overwhelmed by the media attention that came with Star Trek, especially at such a young age: “Lien’s responses to questions were invariably monosyllabic, usually vague, and never remotely about herself…Clearly, she wished she could simply disappear until it was all over.”

In Ben Robinson and Mark Wright’s book Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration, Robert Duncan McNeill admits Lien was always “an enigma” who wouldn’t talk about herself, though he and the other actors got the impression that she had had a difficult family life. Ethan Phillips says he “always sensed deep waters” in Lien, while McNeill says the actress had a “seriousness that she carried all the time, personally and in her performance”.

Though Lien impressed her colleagues with her acting talent, particularly in explosive third season episode Warlord (“The sets were nothing but splinters…I think she revealed something about her inner life in that episode”, said Warlord director David Livingston later), she made her last appearance as a regular in The Gift, the second episode of season four.

“She wouldn’t talk or let us offer to help”

Lien herself has recalled her dismissal from the show as sudden and perfunctory. “I was on for a few seasons, then they asked me to leave. They decided not to renew my contract. I didn’t ask why I was not being renewed, I just said ‘OK’ and moved on.” The actress insisted at the time there were no hard feelings, and that she’d had “nothing but good times” on the series.

For years, the official explanation of Lien’s departure from Voyager was that it was an entirely creative decision and that the character of Kes had run her course. Since then, however, another truth has emerged: that Lien was struggling with serious issues that impeded her work.

By the end of Lien’s time on the show, write Robinson and Wright in A Celebration, personal and presumed addiction issues “started to affect [Lien’s] reliability”, and her screen time was reduced before she was finally let go. Series producer Jeri Taylor says, “We knew that there was something going on. But she wouldn’t talk or let us offer to help.”

Lien’s firing affected many of her cast members, some of whom were vocal about their disagreement with the choice. Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Kathryn Janeway on the show, told the Star Trek: Voyager magazine, “I’m very, very sorry to see Jennifer go. She was a part of the family on the show… [I was] sorry to see her go the way she went, knowing that she was a wonderful actress. That was tough.”

Following Lien’s departure, Mulgrew had a notoriously unpleasant relationship with new Voyager actress Jeri Ryan, with the elder actress reportedly being cold and often cruel toward her new, younger co-star. Bitterness over Lien’s dismissal seems likely to have played a part in Mulgrew’s resentment of Ryan (although the two actors have long since made peace).

Initially, it looked like Lien was going places post-Voyager. She landed a small but prominent role in the highly-talked about 1998 drama American History X, playing the sister of Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. This was followed that same year by a role in critically acclaimed indie comedy SLC Punk, alongside Matthew Lillard and Jason Segel.

Beyond these roles, however, Lien’s career failed to gain momentum. She continued to do voice acting work, mainly in the Men in Black animated series, and was invited back for one last appearance on Voyager in season six episode Fury. After one more film role, in forgotten 2001 comedy Rubbernecking (aka Accidents Don’t Happen), Lien stepped away from acting entirely in 2002 when she became a mother.

In a 2010 interview, Lien indicated that her post-acting life was going fine. “Everything worked out the way it should have. Everything happens for a reason. So I don’t look back and say it should have been like this or it should have been like that. I’m perfectly at peace and content with my life. I don’t live in the past and I don’t wish anything were different.” Sadly, the ‘peace’ wouldn’t last.

“The offender stated she wasn’t going any f*****g where”

Having put acting completely behind her by 2002, Lien turned to caring for her children and dogs, as well as studying with an eye to becoming a healthcare professional. This would seem to be a gracious way to retire from the public eye, but within a few years Lien would return to the spotlight under thoroughly unpleasant circumstances.

In recent years, Lien has had an unfortunate array of run-ins with the police. In 2012, Lien was charged with evading arrest, resisting arrest, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault. In 2015, Lien once again faced criminal charges when she reportedly rammed her vehicle into a police cruiser. In an angry confrontation with a neighbour later in 2015, Lien was accused of exposing herself unclothed in front of the neighbour’s children.

Responding officer Billy Walker said of the latter incident that police attended the scene, where Lien refused to get dressed and threatened to have the officers shot and killed. “The offender stated she wasn’t going any f*****g where and we needed to leave her alone,” Walker elaborated. As a result, Lien landed two misdemeanour charges for indecent exposure, and she was ordered to attend a psychological evaluation at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

TMZ reported that, in 2018, Lien was arrested twice in quick succession for driving on a revoked license. Police told TMZ that her license was revoked due to a previous DUI charge. Since her last arrest in 2018, Lien’s name has not made the news again, nor has the former actress made any public statements or appearances. It can only be hoped that the former actor has, at last, found peace.