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Star Trek: Voyager – Unity (Review)

The autopsy of the Borg corpse is underway.

– Janeway about sums it up

If the third season of Star Trek: Voyager is about the show embracing its place in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, then it makes sense that the third season would bring the crew into conflict with the Borg. The first two seasons of Voyager had leaned rather heavily upon the mythology of The Next Generation, featuring guest appearances from Q and Riker in Death Wish or Barclay in Projections, not to mention a recurring Cardassian foe and enemies heavily influenced by The Next Generation era Klingons.

However, the first two seasons had made an effort to introduce new and exciting foes for Voyager, new recurring species to reflect that the ship was traveling through an unknown part of space. For all the show featured guest appearances from Romulans and Ferengi, the first two years at least tried to do their own thing. The Kazon might have been a questionable idea horribly executed, but at least they were a new species. The Vidiians were underutilised and remain one of the most fascinating recurring aliens in the entire franchise.

The brains of the operation.

The brains of the operation.

The third season only features a few token appearances of the recurring Delta Quadrant species. The Kazon disappear from the show after Basics, Part II. The Vidiians appear within a nightmarish time loop in Coda. A lost Talaxian pops up on a space station in Fair Trade. However, these aliens are no longer a recurring presence. There is an obvious vacancy that needs to be filled. Voyager needs a new recurring alien species. With that in mind, it is telling that the third season does not create a new alien menace like the Hirogen or the Malon.

The third season of Voyager decides that the Borg are to be the shows recurring adversaries. It makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the Borg are arguably the most iconic and effective aliens created by The Next Generation. They were a massive part of the spin-off really coming into its own with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. They were also a major part of the hugely successful feature film Star Trek: First Contact. There was definitely an appetite for more Borg stories. There always would be.

Corpsing...

Corpsing…

At the same time, the presence of the Borg feels very much like a concession or a surrender. This is Voyager effectively surrendering itself to becoming a pale imitation of The Next Generation, acknowledging that it will never create any alien species as memorable or as iconic as the Borg. That is not an unreasonable thing to accept. After all, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did fantastic work with the Dominion, but that collection of alien species could never hope to have the same cultural penetration as the Borg.

Still, it is disheartening to see Voyager give up on itself so completely. Indeed, Unity is not even a particularly innovative Borg story, feeling very much like a retread of their last television story in Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. This is a recurring problem for the third season of Voyager, which has spent a lot of time emulating various Next Generation episodes. However, there is also a sense that Voyager is not terrible at this imitation, even as it is lessened by it. Unity is a flawed episode, but an intriguing one.

Just what every Borg story needs! A Chakotay romance!

Just what every Borg story needs! A Chakotay romance!

Despite the fact that the Borg were the most iconic and memorable alien speices created for The Next Generation, they were employed relatively fleetingly. They appeared in only one episode of each of the show’s final six seasons, with four of those appearances coming in season-bridging cliffhangers. Outside of The Best of Both Worlds and Descent, the Borg only appeared in Q Who? and I, Borg. This is somewhat surprising, given how frequently the Ferengi appeared even after they had been reduced to comic relief.

Of course, there is a reason why The Next Generation tended to stay away from the Borg. It was difficult to tell stories using the Borg Collective. After all, the very things that made the Borg such a compelling antagonist also made it difficult to construct stories around them. The Borg were single-minded and uncompromising, in theory a race without any individual representatives. They could not be developed in the same way as the Klingons or the Cardassians or even the Dominion. Our crew could not negotiate with them or delve into their culture.

Eye, Borg.

Eye, Borg.

The default Borg story was a horror story in which the Borg just kept coming. The Borg were presented as an unstoppable force, and a lot of their power derived from the sense that they were overwhelmingly powerful. However, given the Borg’s single-minded fixation on assimilation and consumption, the Borg could never have an agenda other than destroying or devouring our heroes. Every confrontation with the Borg required the main characters to defeat or outwit them. As a result, every story featuring the Borg tended to diminish them.

This meant that the production team had to find other stories to tell about the Borg Collective, beyond simple invasion narratives. The Best of Both Worlds and First Contact are great stories, but they are great because they stand apart from the rest of the Star Trek canon. They are not stories that can be repeated once or twice a season, because that would quickly become boring. They succeed in part due to their novelty. As a result, the production team had to think very carefully about using the Borg as antagonists.

Ship shape.

Ship shape.

The writing staff on The Next Generation was truly phenomenal. The show was home to some of the best writers working in nineties television. However, they could only come up with one obvious narrative to explore the Borg without falling back on the familiar invasion template. Both I, Borg and Descent explored the breakdown of the Collective, with emergence of individuality into what had been a hive mind. It was a clever angle, but the fact that it was the only other angle through which the writers could explore the Borg is somewhat troubling.

The writing staff on Voyager is nowhere near as good as the writing staff on The Next Generation. In fact, the writers on Voyager frequently has trouble with concepts as simple as structuring a teaser, as demonstrated by Warlord or Fair Trade. The production team have a great deal of difficulty structuring narratives to run in parallel across the course of an episode, as demonstrated by Alter Ego. The crew even have difficulty finding the single unifying essence of a narrative, as suggested by Coda. The Deep Space Nine writing staff make all of this look effortless.

Terror, cubed.

Terror, cubed.

If the Next Generation staff could not come up with exciting or original ideas for the Borg, then the Voyager staff were in trouble. To be fair, there are a number of clever concepts seeded across the remaining for seasons of the show that employ the Borg, from the forcing of an alliance in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II through to the notion of the heist in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. However, there is also a lot of repetition. And a lot of that potential is wasted.

Unity begins by reintroducing the Borg through a fairly derivative story, in a manner that feels decidedly clumsy. The return of the Borg should be a big deal. They were the primary antagonists in First Contact, and perhaps the single defining alien species of the Berman era. More than that, Voyager is consciously building towards a gigantic and epic season finale that will through Janeway into the middle of a conflict between the Borg and an even deadlier enemy. Unity should feel like a dark flirtation that sets up ideas that will pay-off down the line.

"Do you have any idea how much power it takes to light a whole damn cube?"

“Do you have any idea how much power it takes to light a whole damn cube?”

There are any number of examples from the Star Trek canon. The first ominous hints of the Borg in The Neutral Zone, suggesting an enemy powerful enough to scoop entire bases off the face of a planet. The gentle teasing of the Dominion in second season episodes of Deep Space Nine like Rules of Acquisition and Shadowplay. Even that effective final shot of a Borg corpse in the closing moments of Blood Fever. The Borg should exert such a force upon the narrative that it distorts around them. Their shadow should fall over the show.

There are moments when Unity seems to capture this rising dread. The episode takes its time building to the reveal that Riley was abducted and assimilated by the Borg, playing off the rapidly-increasing anxiety. However, the little details begin to add up, and the audience begins to put the pieces together along with Chakotay. It is a clever decision, because it makes the Borg seem ominous and insidious. The crew almost panics at the sight of a single Borg Cube. “Red Alert!” Janeway demands. “All stop, shields to maximum, standby all weapons.”

Squaring it.

Squaring it.

However, Unity quickly overplays its hand. Voyager stumbles upon a disabled Borg ship populated by broken drones. This premise allows the characters to beam over to a Borg ship and explore it, without any ominous threat. The Borg are effectively neutered, humbled by the kind of strange interstellar phenomenon that Janeway eats for breakfast. Voyager is putting a lot of faith in the Borg as a potential recurring adversary, but Unity introduces a Borg ship with a flat tire.

The ship comes back to life at the climax of the episode, but the fact that the Borg have been so humbled and that Janeway can get so close diminishes them significantly. Q Who? enabled such exploration and exposition by having the Borg simply ignore the Starfleet crew. Unity opts instead to have this first encounter happen on Janeway’s terms. The mechanics of this episode make it hard to take the Borg seriously as a threat. For all the crew panic on seeing a Borg Cube, the episode still concludes with Voyager surviving an explosion that destroys that same cube.

Blown opportunity.

Blown opportunity.

The Next Generation waited three whole episodes (over a season and a half) to finally destroy a single Borg Cube. That was only at a tremendous cost to Jean-Luc Picard, who was only able to help Data outwit the Borg because he had been assimilated. In contrast, Voyager is crippling and blowing up Borg Cubes within the same episode that it reintroduces the Borg Collective. It is somewhat disappointing, particularly when the episode revolves around a group of individuals breaking free of the Borg.

To be fair, Unity is a perfectly good opportunity to carefully seed the idea of Species 8472. After all, a disabled Borg Cube is a terrifying prospect if it has been humbled by some mysterious force even more powerful. Torres seems to suggest as much in the briefing. “It could have been some kind of natural disaster, or…” Torres trails off. When Kim presses, she finished the thought. “Maybe the Borg were defeated by an enemy even more powerful than they are.” In theory, this is a nice set-up for the reveal that will come in the teaser to Scorpion, Part I.

"I'll never love another Borg drone again. Well, probably. Unless the writers haven't paired me off by the end of the series."

“I’ll never love another Borg drone again. Well, probably. Unless the writers haven’t paired me off by the end of the series.”

However, Unity declines to commit to this set-up. It is not a sly nod to the arrival of Species 8472. It turns out the Borg Cube was disabled by a purely natural phenomenon. Explaining how the drones on the planet came to reclaim their individuality, Riley states, “Five years ago, our ship was damaged by an electrokinetic storm.” This is somewhat underwhelming. It makes the Borg seem a great deal less threatening than they might otherwise, suggesting that they can be stopped by a bit of bad weather rather than a more advanced adversary.

To be fair, there are any number of reasons that Unity might not want to foreshadow the arrival of Species 8472. In purely continuity terms, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II suggest that the conflict between the Borg and Species 8472 is relatively recent. In more practical terms, it makes sense to take the time to establish the Borg as a credible threat before introducing an even greater threat. After all, making the Borg seem like an impossible adversary would only serve to make Species 8472 seem like a much bigger deal.

Engineering a sense of dread.

Engineering a sense of dread.

However, the third season of Voyager somewhat botches the reintroduction of the Borg. In Unity, the Borg appear vulnerable. Their ship is disabled by a freak interstellar phenomenon and destroyed by a bunch of rebels. Even outside of Unity, the third season does very little to create a sense of mounting dread or anxiety as Voyager edges closer and closer to the Borg Collective. Compare this to the sense of dread that permeates the second half of the fifth season of Deep Space Nine, as war with the Dominion becomes increasingly inevitable.

Instead, the third season of Voyager continues on after Unity as though this is business as usual. Distant Origin is a standard Star Trek allegory. Displaced is an adventure of the week. Favourite Son is a ridiculous story about a ridiculous alien species. Darkling and Rise even have the crew encounter several interstellar alien species that must be living in the shadow of the Borg Collective, but do not seem too bothered by it all. There should be a sense of mounting anxiety, as Voyager comes closer and closer to facing an unstoppable foe. Instead, there is nothing.

Flying in circles.

Flying in circles.

This is a recurring problem with Voyager. The show is willing to introduce big ideas, but lacks the will to follow through on them. Fair Trade teased the idea that Voyager would finally be venturing into unfamiliar and unpredictable territory, putting a clear barrier between what came before and what came after. The Nekrit Expanse was supposed to be exotic and exciting. Instead, it was more of the same. “You know, they ought to rename this region the Negative Expanse,” Paris complains. “We haven’t run across anything interesting for days.”

It could be argued that placing the Borg within the Nekrit Expanse represents a betrayal of everything that strange region was supposed to represent, replacing familiar and tired Voyager aliens with familiar and soon-to-be-tired Star Trek aliens. Similarly, the way that Voyager treats the Borg represents a betrayal of the Borg themselves. The Next Generation treated a single Borg Cube as a threat to the entire Federation. Voyager repeatedly has a lone Starfleet vessel humble the entire Borg Collective.

Staring down the barrel.

Staring down the barrel.

Still, allowing for all of this, there is a sense in which Unity works. Like Coda before it, it is a highly derivative story. Whereas Coda drew upon everything from Cause and Effect to Tapestry, Unity plays as a retelling of Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. Much like Coda, Unity works reasonably well because it condenses a familiar idea. It rushes through ground that has already been covered. While the episode is far too familiar for its own good, at least there is a sense of momentum and drive to it.

It helps that Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II never quite capitalised on their “breakdown of the Collective” narrative. This was largely because the two-parter was keenly focused upon Data and Lore, to the point that the Borg were essentially treated as Lore’s muscle with a little exposition exploring the consequences of I, Borg. So while Unity is dealing with similar themes, it is able to streamline its exploration of them. Unity removes a lot of the clutter that clouded Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II.

Collective concerns.

Collective concerns.

Unity also exists very much within the existing framework of Voyager. More than any of the other spin-offs, Voyager was a very nineties piece of television. It was rooted in the decade in a way that Deep Space Nine was not. Tellingly, Voyager travelled back to the present day several times over the course of its run for episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and 11:59, while The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine both avoided returning to contemporary Earth.

Deep Space Nine tended to look beyond the nineties for inspiration, which may explain why the series has aged much better than Voyager. In contrast, Voyager was always very firmly rooted in the social context of the nineties. This is perhaps best reflected in the way that the series approached the politics of the Delta Quadrant. While the Alpha, Beta and Gamma Quadrants were dominated by large interstellar empires, the Delta Quadrant frequently felt like a post-colonial wasteland occupied by minor (and decaying) powers.

Borg again.

Borg again.

Voyager looked at the universe from a perspective informed by the end of the Cold War. There were no more evil empires, merely local skirmishes. Writer Kenneth Biller has framed Unity in those terms, arguing that it is a Borg story for the end of the Cold War:

Unity is another episode I enjoy because it explores a new aspect of the Borg. It was sort of a commentary on the fall of communism and an interesting perspective on it.

This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the Borg have often been read as avatars of communism. Of course, the Borg are flexible enough that they might also be read as a criticism of capitalist excess. Indeed, Unity could perhaps be read in that light as well. It is ultimately the story of a cultural collapse and decay.

A panel decision.

A panel decision.

Cultural collapse is very much the default narrative for the Delta Quadrant. The Kazon are a race of former slaves flying through space using technology that they stole from their deposed masters. The Vidiians are a once great race eroded by a deadly disease. The Hirogen are a race without any centralised authority, packs of roving hunters. The Malon are a culture defined by their wastefulness and their decay. Even the Krenim are consistently and repeatedly rewriting and revising their own history. Voyager is not a show that believes in empires.

In many ways, this reflects the political landscape of the nineties. Much like Voyager‘s fascination with temporal continuity and stability suggests the static world order promised by “the end of history”, the political framework of the Delta Quadrant evokes “the unipolar moment.” The series was written and broadcast at a point in time with the United States was the only global superpower, watching the collapse of the Soviet Union and countless brutal skirmishes in developing and emerging nations.

Some assembly required.

Some assembly required.

During the nineties, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War ushered in an era of peace and prosperity in the developed world. However, as Amitav Acharya argues in Third World Instability and International Order After the Cold War, the end of the Cold War tended to spark internal conflicts among developing nations:

A recent survey of the world’s conflicts found that of the 23 wars being fought in 1994, all but five are “based on communal rivalries and ethnic challenges to states.” According to this study, ethnic conflict accounts for about three quarters of the world’s refugees (some 27 million people), while of the 13 peacekeeping operations recently undertaken by the UN, 8 involve situations of ethnopolitical conflict. Such data has formed the basis of the view that ethnic conflicts are a major aspect of the so-called decompression effect. The end of the Cold War has been linked to the outbreak of ethnic conflict, since in many parts of the Third World, it meant “the removal of ideological models that ha[d] offered uniting symbols of nation-building in countries that would otherwise be torn apart by ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic differences.”

There was a sense that the breakdown of established international ideological structures allowed pre-existing ethnic and social divisions to rise to the surface. Without the Cold War to keep these divisions in check, developing countries were more likely to collapse into civil war.

Dead drone.

Dead drone.

There are countless examples of this political fallout during the nineties, with one large ideological conflict giving way to countless smaller local wars. There is a clear line to be drawn between the end of the Cold War and the conflicts on the African continent during the nineties, including the Rwandan Genocide and the wars in the Congo. The world watched Yugoslavia collapse into roughly a decade of wars and struggles following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Although the nineties were a period of relative stability for the United States and Europe, there was a sense that the rest of the world was a lot less stable; unrest in Haiti, the Zapatista Uprising in Mexico, the Chechen Wars involving Russia, civil war in Nepal, the war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. To an American or European observer, the world seemed to be caught up in a variety of (relatively) small-scale conflicts about old divisions that had resurfaced with the defeat of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire.”

Deep dreaming.

Deep dreaming.

Unity essentially channels this anxiety into a story about the Borg. Unity is a tale about the breakdown of the Borg Collective, using that as a metaphor for the collapse of the Cold War power structures. It is the tale of a monolithic collective that has been broken down into many different parts. “There are dozens of different races on this planet, all of whom were brought here against their will,” reflects Riley. “Many of them are suspicious of other species. It’s not exactly a United Federation around here, if you know what I mean.”

The result is the complete breakdown of social order, albeit on a much smaller scale that Star Trek would normally explore. While the franchise tends to explore conflicts between interstellar powers, Unity touches on the conflict brewing between a once-united people. “Resources are pretty limited,” Riley explains. “It didn’t take long for the fighting to start. At first a group of Klingons attacked the Cardassians, then the Farn raided the Parein. Eventually things just got out of hand, and now it’s anarchy.”

In the wasteland.

In the wasteland.

This is quite heavily likened to the collapse of communism. The conflicts perhaps mirror the strife in the Balkans or in Chechnya. While the world welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, there was always the question of what would follow. “After the euphoria wore off, people started looking around and found they were living among other cultures they didn’t understand, or worse, species they’d been taught to hate. They turned against one another. Things became chaotic.”

However, as with many of the best Borg stories, there is a sense that Unity is also about more than just the collapse of communism. In some ways, the episode could be seen to reflect certain anxieties in the developed world following the end of the Cold War. The Borg Collective is not simply a stand-in for communism, it more broadly reflects a singular sense of purpose and identity. While the social and political strife on the planet undoubtedly mirrors the conflicts raging in the developing world, Unity touches upon a broader social malaise.

"Maybe we can ask for directions."

“Maybe we can ask for directions.”

As the rest of the world seemed to fall into patterns of conflict and social strife, the developed world became increasingly isolated and disconnected. As historian David Halberstam reflected on the nineties, there was a creeping sense of anomie:

But the least predictable thing, the thing that surprised me most, was that society started binging on self-absorption. We’ve had the trivialization of the political, and the media heralded the rise of all these trivial things, with its absolute obsession with gossip, celebrity and scandal. The networks were pulling back their foreign correspondents.

Without an external conflict by which it might define itself, the developed world turned its gaze inwards. America seemed to be consumed by existential and spiritual crises, reflected in the sort of New Age philosophy that Voyager explored in episodes like Tattoo or Sacred Ground.

Riley bad decisions.

Riley bad decisions.

During the nineties, American popular culture seemed anxious and uncertain. These uncertainties were perhaps best reflected in shows like The X-Files. There was a recurring concern that reality was in someway broken, with the late nineties increasing obsessed with the theme of unreality channeled through movies like Dark City, The Matrix, eXistence, The Truman Show and The Thirteenth Floor. They also bled through into Voyager, which embraced the concept of the holodeck episode more readily than any other Star Trek show.

Unity touches upon these first world anxieties in its handling of the Borg Collective. The Borg Collective offers a sense of oneness and purpose. To this point, the Borg Collective has been presented as something truly horrific, a violation of an individual’s identity and uniqueness; consider Jean-Luc Picard’s account of his experience with the Borg in Family. However, Unity offers a more idealised and romantic approach to the Borg Collective. Indeed, the episode suggests that the Borg Collective might be a welcome answer to loneliness or isolation.

"I've got a real live Chakotay doll. He's so lifelike!"

“I’ve got a real live Chakotay doll. He’s so lifelike!”

Unity offers a decidedly New Age interpretation of the Borg Collective. “The Borg collective consciousness is extremely powerful,” Orum explains. “It allowed us to transfer information instantaneously, to think with one mind. But what you may not be aware of is the link also has inherent medical applications.” The Borg Collective is presented as a sort of spiritual “oneness”, a joining of minds that is to be welcomed and embraced. Certainly, Chakotay has a much different experience than Picard.

Waking up after one such experience, Chakotay reflects, “It was incredible.” Of course, it makes sense that Chakotay would be the character to be taken in by this approach to the Borg. Chakotay is very much a walking New Age cliché. “I heard all of you, your thoughts inside my head, as if they were my thoughts. And I could see myself through your eyes.” It sounds wondrous. “I saw faces, planets. What were they?” He went on a journey, in his mind. Riley answers, “Images from the minds of the people who linked with you. Memories of their families, their homes.”

"All I need to do is just turn back on the Borg wifi."

“All I need to do is just turn back on the Borg wifi.”

This is perhaps the most nineties interpretation of the Borg imaginable. It is fascinating, even as it runs counter to the horrors presented dating back to Q Who? At the same time, Unity feels decidedly half-hearted. The episode hedges its bets, trying to have its cake and eat it. Unity would be a far more interesting story if it had the courage of its convictions, if it were willing to actually explore the breakdown of the entire Borg Collective rather than simply the breakdown of a single Borg Cube that had a freak accident.

After all, First Contact ended with the death of the Borg Queen. Of course, the Borg Queen had apparently been on board the Borg Cube destroyed in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, but it would not be too difficult to treat the death of the Borg Queen at the end of First Contact as the end of the Borg Collective. What would happen when all those drones finally woke up? Would they fight among themselves? Would some try to reimpose the Borg Collective? Unity plays out this story in miniature, but it feels like the episode lacks the boldness to tell a truly provocative Borg story.

"And we can all share the same Netflix account again..."

“And we can all share the same Netflix account again…”

Of course, the Borg were far too popular for Voyager to ever change them in a meaningful manner. Voyager was far too conservative a show to attempt something so bold. In contrast, Deep Space Nine was willing to radically tweak the Cardassian Union over its seven-year run, exploring the rise and fall of an imperial power. So Unity feels very much like a half-measure. It is a story that would have made for a compelling (and innovative) long-form story that is condensed down to a simple and straight-forward forty-five minutes of television.

That said, there is something very reactionary in the way that Unity approaches the idea of the Borg Collective. The link in Unity is portrayed as much less invasive and much more democratic than the Borg Collective had been in earlier episodes. Nevertheless, Janeway reacts to the concept with fear and trepidation. She is instinctively repulsed by Riley’s suggestion that Chakotay could reconnect the Borg network from the Cube. Naturally, Janeway’s misgivings turn out to be well-placed, as Riley uses the link to exploit Chakotay and impose her will on others.

Keeping Chakotay in the dark about their intentions.

Keeping Chakotay in the dark about their intentions.

Riley’s plan is deliberately framed as something monstrous. “Not only would it mean imposing a choice on thousands of people who had no voice in the decision, but it would also be taking a terrible risk,” Janeway states. “Helping to create a new collective. Who knows what the repercussions might be?” There is never any discussion about the possibility of making the link voluntary. It is anti-democratic and alien, something inherently hostile to everything Janeway holds dear.

To be fair, this is very much in keeping with larger anxieties within the Star Trek franchise. Dating back to Where No Man Has Gone Before, the Star Trek franchise has been deeply uncomfortable with transhumanism. The franchise is weirded out by concepts like evolution (Genesis, Threshold), genetic engineering (Space Seed, Unnatural Selection), or artificial intelligence (What Are Little Girls Made Of?, I, Mudd). For television shows featuring ships travelling faster than the speed of light, Star Trek is often uncomfortable with any major leaps forward in terms of technology.

"Time to make the Federation great again."

“Time to make the Federation great again.”

However, there is more to it than that. Unity is a story about the collapse of global order following the end of the Cold War. The idea of a “new collective” must be read in that light, in terms of moves towards more stable international political structures. As such, Unity plays like an anti-globalisation screed. It is an episode that plays into many of the tropes and clichés of the anti-globalisation movement, presenting moves towards international unity as the manoeuvring of sinister self-interested cabals with no respect for personal autonomy.

Unity hints at some sense of even-handedness or ambiguity, but rather bluntly shrugs off that idea. “I don’t know,” Janeway states. “I’m not saying I’m happy about what happened, but so far they haven’t acted like typical Borg. They saved us from that Cube, and they let you go.” Chakotay doesn’t buy it, “But they didn’t hesitate to impose their collective will on me when it served their interests, did they?” Adopting a sense of moral superiority, he rhetorically muses, “I wonder how long their ideals will last in the face of that kind of power.”

Stunning betrayal.

Stunning betrayal.

Given that the nineties witnessed extensive debate over the growth of the European Union and the expanding reach of the United Nations, this feels like a very charged conclusion. Unity plays into the stock anti-globalisation rhetoric about how globalisation leads to international elites imposing their will upon hardworking individuals. The Delta Quadrant might be in a state of chaos and disarray, but Unity rejects the idea of any emerging collective consciousness as more horrifying and unsettling than the conflicts that are actually raging.

It is the kind of narrative that feels particularly toxic from the perspective of the twenty-first century, recalling the narrative of nationalist movements like Brexit and Trump. Boris Johnson campaigned in favour of Brexit by urging voters to “take back control” that had presumably been surrendered to some larger entity. Donald Trump railed against international agreements, insisting that “the special interests will remain firmly in control” unless he wins. This is very much the argument advanced by Unity, with Riley standing in for any globalisation movement.

Lockdown.

Lockdown.

This is in keeping with the relatively conservative philosophy of Voyager. The Star Trek franchise has cultivated a reputation for liberal political and moral philosophy, but the reality is far more complex. There are points at which Voyager feels positively reactionary in its third season, as demonstrated by horribly sexist narratives like The Q and the Grey or Alter Ego. However, there are broader conservative themes playing out. Unity is an anti-globalisation story, while Displaced is an anti-immigration parallel. Both are deeply uncomfortable pieces of television.

Unity is also notable as the second episode of Voyager to be directed by actor Robert Duncan McNeill. The actor had helmed Sacred Ground late in the second season, although the broadcast of the episode was held over until the start of the show’s third year. This is a very big episode to entrust to such an inexperienced director, and McNeill acquits himself rather well. Unity looks and feels rather impressive, even if the Borg look slightly less imposing back on a television budget than they did on the big screen in First Contact.

"Don't worry. There is no chance that Janeway will actually hold me accountable for this."

“Don’t worry. There is no chance that Janeway will actually hold me accountable for this.”

In an interview with Starburst, McNeill credited the success of Sacred Ground with landing him the gig directing Voyager‘s first Borg episode:

Part of it was that they were extremely happy with Sacred Ground, and the other part was just luck. I was not so much frightened that the episode was about the Borg, as I was because of what the story was about. With the Borg there’s a certain expectation that the audience have because they are the ultimate bad guys. Previously there has been no humanity in them and this episode introduces a whole new concept about them — the fact that they can be de-assimilated. They have a one-dimensional quality of pure evil, technology and humanity combined into this one machine, and in Unity we crack that armour and show that they could be destroyed, whether by a natural disaster or a virus, or whatever.

At the same time, McNeill points to the problems with the episode. The Borg do not need their armour cracked at this point.

Getting inside Chakotay's head.

Getting inside Chakotay’s head.

Unity is not a bad episode of itself, it just has a lot of significant problems from the basic concept through to the underlying themes. It is not a bad Borg episode, despite the half-hearted nature of the execution and the uncomfortable anti-globalisation subtext upon which it insists. The bigger problem is the manner in which it attempts to introduce the Borg into Voyager. The Borg should arrive on the series in a position of strength. Unity feels more like the beginning of an extended four-year autopsy.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the third season of Star Trek: Voyager:

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11 Responses

  1. I haven’t been able to confirm this outside of sfdebris’s review of the episode, but it seems like this episode was such a disappointment, that it ultimately caused Scorpion into being. This would probably best explain why there’s no foreshadowing to the events of Scorpion because they were not planned until the last minute.

    (Scorpion – Memory Alpha)
    “This installment was not the first choice for the finale of Star Trek: Voyager’s third season, a fact that even CGI Effects Director Ron Thornton became aware of (despite his purview being quite different from that of Voyager’s writing staff). (The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine, issue #16, p. 37) Originally, “Year of Hell” was planned to be Voyager’s third season finale but, with the choice made to shake up the cast in Season 4, this episode was the result. (Star Trek Monthly issue 34, p. 12; Delta Quadrant, p. 207) This episode also replaced an undeveloped story idea that featured biomimetic lifeforms, doppelgängers of the Voyager crew, arriving at Earth to much enthusiastic furore before then causing havoc on the planet; although Joe Menosky and Brannon Braga started to collaborate on scripting that plot, dissatisfaction with the writing of the teleplay resulted in the writing duo instead turning their attentions to the “Scorpion” project. The same aliens who appeared in the unfinished script ultimately featured in Season 4’s “Demon” and the fifth season installment “Course: Oblivion”. (Cinefantastique, Vol. 31, No. 11, p. 49) ”

    So it would seem that the reception of this episode shocked the Voyager staff to the core, which resulted in immediate changes to the plans for the season and the show itself. All for the better it seems, as Year of Hell would have suffered if it was a season ending cliffhanger, since the writing staff most likely would not have written both parts at the same time. And if Demon had been the season finale, this might have put Voyager in a early grave.

    When I think on it, “Scorpion” is one of the strangest episodes of Voyager since so much of what goes on in those episodes is antithetical to Voyager as a show. The show itself had abandoned it’s premise long ago already, and yet, suddenly they bring back “strained relations between the Maquis and Starfleet crew”, character conflict, forming alliances in the Delta Quadrant, story continuity with Unity, a shake up of the cast, and serious long-term consequences that will reverberate through the rest of the show, with the addition of Seven and previous victims of the Borg showing up to hold Voyager responsible for it’s actions. When you think of quintessential Voyager, that isn’t it. I daresay it gives Best of Both Worlds a run for it’s money.

    As for Unity itself, it does seem like a massively disappointing way to introduce the Borg. Imagine if we got subtle hints of the Borg, letting the dread build and build until so that the very first time we see the Borg is in Scorpion’s teaser with “Resistance is futile” before the cubes get annihilated, that would have the greatest twist in Star Trek. Unity itself doesn’t seem bad though, so I can’t help but wonder if it were more fondly looked upon if it happened after Scorpion, dealing with the aftermath of the S 8472 war.

    • Yeah, the original plan for the third season finale was Year of Hell, Part I. But I believe the retool came about because Brannon Braga came up with the idea of Seven of Nine and the network wanted a big shakeup. Kinda like what happened with the third season finale on DS9, where the studio told the production team they wanted to shake things up right before the production team were about to start work on Homefront as the season finale.

      The third season of Voyager is always fun to contrast with the fifth season of DS9, if only because they try so many of the same things, but Voyager lacks the follow-through and commitment that elevates DS9. Imagine if the arrival of the Borg at the end of the season had been treated with the same sense of dread as the looming Dominion War. That would have been spectacular. But instead it’s back to business as usual the very next episode.

  2. You know I have to give the writers some credit. The random goldshirt who is killed of in the beginning was actually somewhat likable. I remember when I first saw the episode I thought she might be a new recurring character. Then again, maybe it was just because she was acting with Robert Beltran, not exactly the king of charisma.
    I do like this episode quite a bit in a vacuum, but I do agree with your points about how it suffers in context. I do think though it might have been interesting if they had tried to connect these drones with Hugh’s rebellion from Descent. It’s not like Voyager was ever shy of having connections with its older sibling, TNG, which stands in stark contrast to TNG’s relationship with TOS in which even say the word, Spock, was a battle.

    • Ha! I really disliked Voyager’s tendency to randomly off supporting characters, as if they came from the same magical industrial replicator that must have manufactured the show’s shuttle craft.

  3. I have to say I liked this a lot more than you seem to Darren, though that might be because I like Borg less I (ironically) have far less of a problem with seeing them humbled. Really I don’t think this is Voyager’s fault; in every appearance in the TNG the Borg have slipped from their might. In ‘I, Borg’ the possibility that Picard can bring the entire Collective to its knees is seriously entertained and ‘Descent’ even suggests the Collective has in fact collapsed. In ‘First Contact’ the Federation is able to destroy a Borg cube through sheer firepower and tactics. Maybe, as you say, the Voyager writers lack the skill of the TNG ones but they were only continuing an established trend.

    I don’t want to turn this in an overly political debate but there are many, many with liberal and left politics with an anti-globalisation slant; look at Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, or the far left in the Dáil who hate the EU and Nato at least as much as Nigel Farage does.

    • Yep, that’s a fair point about the anti-globalisation left.

      But I don’t think Voyager is coming from that angle, at least based on the episodes around it. (I’m thinking particularly of Displaced. But its gender roles and attitudes to sex are horribly outdated as well.)

  4. Unity was broadcast (deliberately?) during sweeps week so it makes sense for Voyager to bring the Borg, Star Trek’s most popular species back at this time. And it was something borne out with Unity seeing more than five million viewers tuning in that week compared to Voyager’s usual four million (it’s still pitiful compared with TNG’s 10 million regular weekly viewers). But it’s frustrating that Unity’s two best scenes, the Borg autopsy and the reactivation of the Cube end in two big anticlimaxes.

    I do like the scene in the Ready Room where Janeway’s head is framed on Chakotay’s shoulder. She is obviously jealous of Riley’s link with him (another doomed Chakotay romance) and at this time the writers were still entertaining the notion of Janeway and Chakotay as a future couple before abandoning that as Chakotay (ironically) winds up with another ex-Borg, Seven of Nine. And I do like the ambiguous implications of the new Borg Cooperative. Janeway may have felt they acted out of character but forcing their collective will on Chakotay to achieve their aims is a very Borg thing to do.

    You called the Krenim the Kremin Darren.

    • Damn those trick m and n switches! Good catch, corrected.

      • Yeah, I hate the autocorrect function. They should rename it because it always gets it wrong.

      • Nah, I’ll concede that was down to human error; the “n” and the “m” keys being close together, and the phonetic similarity between “Kremin” and “Krenim.” Easy mistake to make, but the technology at fault was biological in nature. 🙂

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