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Star Trek: Voyager – Scorpion, Part I (Review)

In some ways, Scorpion, Part I is the perfect cap to the third season of Star Trek: Voyager.

The third season has largely seen the show retreating from ideas and concepts that would render it unique in the larger Star Trek canon. Although the first two seasons were hardly radical in terms of storytelling style or substance, Michael Piller did make a conscious effort to build off some of the premises unique to this show. The Kazon might have been a terrible idea in both concept and execution, but they were at least something new. While the second season botched its attempts at serialisation, at least it made the effort.

This is perhaps a metaphor for what Voyager is going to do to the Borg...

This is perhaps a metaphor for what Voyager is going to do to the Borg…

In the third season, the production team seem to have settled upon the idea of producing generic Star Trek, rather than telling stories unique to Voyager. This is something of a mixed blessing. While the third season features a host of forgettable episodes like Warlord and Alter Ego, it features few episodes as soul-destroying as Alliances or Investigations. More than that, episodes like Remember or Distant Origin demonstrate the appeal of producing generic Star Trek stories, ranking among the best episodes that the show has produced to date.

More than that, the production team have consciously pushed the show much closer to the model of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is most obvious in the handling of Q as a character. While Death Wish found something novel and interesting to do with the character after All Good Things…, The Q and the Grey returns the character to his default settings for a cringe-worthy dress-up episode that owes far too much in concept and execution to Q-Pid. There are plenty of other examples.

This might also be a potent metaphor for what Voyager is about to do to the Borg...

This might also be a potent metaphor for what Voyager is about to do to the Borg…

However, Voyager‘s most overt embrace of the legacy of The Next Generation came with the introduction of the Borg. The Borg are in many ways the most iconic creation of the Berman era, perhaps the only new alien species liable to recognised alongside the Klingons or the Romulans or the Vulcans. After all, the Borg were the antagonists of Star Trek: First Contact, the theatrical release intended to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary. Their aesthetic influence can even be felt on Star Trek Beyond, the theatrical release intended to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary.

The Borg made their first appearance at the end of Blood Fever, in a postscript scene that feels like almost like a post-credits tease that arrived ten years too early. The Borg also appeared in Unity, an episode which featured Chakotay encountering the survivors from a disconnected Borg ship desperately trying to reconnect their shared link. However, neither of these episodes featured the Borg Collective, the powerful and single-minded collective consciousness that drives the hive mind.

Building a bridge...

Building a bridge…

So it makes sense that the Borg Collective would appear in full force for Scorpion, Part I, the third season finale and cliffhanger bridging to the fourth season. Once again, this is a creative decision right out of the Next Generation playbook. The Next Generation really cemented its distinct cultural identity with the broadcast of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I at the end of its third season. Part of this was simply down to the fact that it had outpaced the original Star Trek, which only lasted three years. However, part of it was also that the cliffhanger was spectacular television.

Scorpion, Part I is not spectacular television. It is good television. It is a satisfying blockbuster epic, with a strong sense of momentum and some interesting ideas. However, it also smells a little bit of desperation. It feels like Voyager has completely abandoned its own sense of identity and followed the path of least resistance. Insert your own joke there.

Or, you know, don't. Whatever floats your boat.

Or, you know, don’t. Whatever floats your boat.

Ironically enough, for a show about a ship stranded in uncharted territory, Voyager really struggled to define its original alien creations. Every Star Trek spin-off tends to focus on a cluster or subset of the franchise’s aliens, developing them in interesting ways and delving into their culture in a way that distinguishes the spin-off from the sibling shows. Every Star Trek spin-off has a handful of alien species that are better explored there than in any other series. It is part of what makes each spin off unique.

The Next Generation focused on the Klingons and the Romulans. Perhaps reflecting its status as the most multicultural of the franchise series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did the most thorough job with its alien species; the Cardassians, the Ferengi and the Dominion species. It also further fleshed out the Klingons, although that was very much building on the work of The Next Generation. Although its success was debatable, Star Trek: Enterprise mapped out the cultures of the Vulcans and the Andorians, along with the Xindi.

Alien ideas.

Alien ideas.

Voyager had a great deal of trouble crafting recurring aliens that would make a lasting impression. The Kazon felt like a diluted (and more problematic) take on the Klingons. The Hirogen were little more than hunters. The Malon were polluting capitalists. The Hierarchy were bureaucrats. The Vidiians and Species 8472 probably had the most potential of Voyager‘s recurring races, but the series never delivered. The Vidiians were presented as secondary threat to the Kazon, while Species 8472 were a visually fascinating species that never evolved past omnicidal mania.

With all of that in mind, the Borg became Voyager‘s go-to alien culture. After all, the Borg would become a key focus of the series. The Collective appears in five of the show’s seven seasons, anchoring four of the series’ twelve two-parters. Beginning with Scorpion, Part II, Voyager would come to feature a Borg character as a regular. Although the series struggled to generate interest in its new aliens, Voyager would return to the Borg Collective again and again and again over the remainder of its run.

A walk among the tombstones...

A walk among the tombstones…

In an interview with Cinefantastique, Brannon Braga even framed Voyager‘s fascination with the Borg in these terms, likening it to the development of the Klingon Empire on The Next Generation:

“The Borg are to Voyager what the Klingons were to Next Generation. They’re our villain. All we had planned for the Borg was that Unity episode, to do this group of Borg disconnected from the hive. I thought, we can’t just do Unity. It’s not enough. At that same moment, I thought, how cool would it be to have a Borg on the ship full-time as a crewman? Boy, that would shake things up, wouldn’t it?”

This makes a great deal of sense, given the difficulty that Voyager had trying to establish a unique identity for itself and to make an impression as the successor to The Next Generation.

Rifling through through the Borg's stuff.

Rifling through through the Borg’s stuff.

However, there are several fundamental problems with trying to position the Borg as the alien culture at the heart of the Voyager mythos. The most obvious is the simple fact that Voyager is supposed to be a show about a ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the idea that Captain Kathryn Janeway is leading her crew through uncharted territory full of mystery and wonder. Janeway should be seeing something novel and exciting in that corner of the cosmos.

Voyager seems to have abandoned this premise, just like it abandoned the promise of conflict between the Starfleet and Maquis crews and just like it abandoned the idea of the ship having to struggle to survive in an unknown part of the galaxy. For all that the Delta Quadrant is unexplored territory, it seems like Janeway primarily divides her time between anomalies of the week and the Borg Collective. The truth is that the Borg have already been well-explored, between their time on The Next Generation and First Contact.

"The line must be drawn here... or, if not here, four seasons later."

“The line must be drawn here… or, if not here, four seasons later.”

However, the decision to incorporate the Borg into Voyager was a direct result of the considerable success of First Contact. As Rick Berman conceded in Braving the Unknown:

The reintroduction of the Borg into Voyager had a lot to do with the success of our second film, First Contact, which was a film that was focused purely on the Borg and which introduced us to the character of the Borg Queen. That movie was written and produced during the second season of Voyager. The thought of continuing with the Borg was extremely tempting to us. By the third season of Voyager, we started bringing that to fruition.

Voyager was a show increasingly fixated on the familiar and the safe. The writing staff had retired new recurring aliens like the Kazon and Vidiians at the start of the third season, but never bothered to introduce replacements.

Some assembly required.

Some assembly required.

In some ways, this anxiety plays out as subtext in Scorpion, Part I. There is a recurring debate that bubbles across the episode about imagination and ingenuity, versus safety and familiarity. At certain points in the episode, the characters seem to be weighing up the costs and benefits of Voyager‘s awkward relationship to The Next Generation. Is it a good thing for Voyager to settle for being a passable imitation of The Next Generation, given the difficulty that it had trying to be its own thing.

Studying Leonardo Da Vinci’s failed plane, Janeway offers some insight. “You designed your machine to mimic the way a bat or a sparrow flies,” she reflects. “So what if you based it on the hawk, instead?” What if instead of trying to fly, a creator settled for something that coasted or glided? This is very much the philosophy of the third season of Voyager in a nutshell, a franchise spin-off that has abandoned dreams of flying under its own power and settled for coasting off the tail winds of its more successful predecessor.

Taking flight...

Taking flight…

Later on, Janeway consults the logs of noted Starfleet commanders looking for insight into the Borg. Chakotay chuckles as she reads out the entries. “You sounded just like Amasov,” he admits. “Just now, while you were reading his log. You were using his inflections.” Janeway objects, but Chakotay is having none of it. “And before that, you were doing a pretty good Picard.” Janeway is aghast. “Was I?” Chakotay smiles. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Echoing the Greats.” Again, Voyager in a nutshell; “a pretty good Picard”, “echoing the Greats.”

In fact, Chakotay even makes a similar argument in his appeal to Janeway towards the climax of episode, insisting that she does not have to retreat to the familiar or the comfortable. There are other options open to Voyager (and Voyager) beyond re-engaging the Borg. The just require more creative imagination and more willingness to compromise. Janeway is committed to the course that she has set, the journey to familiar territory that will take them through Borg space. Chakotay simply begs her to consider other options and original ideas.

"I don't see why we couldn't just have a little character development?"

“Captain, I don’t see why we couldn’t just have a little character development?”

“We just need the courage to see this through to the end,” Janeway insists. Chakotay responds, “There are other kinds of courage. Like the courage to accept that there are some situations beyond your control. Not every problem has an immediate solution.” In some ways, he seems advocating for more long-form or serialised storytelling; arc-building and character development. However, Janeway sees this as compromise, as something that will push Voyager further away from the safe and the familiar. “You’re suggesting we turn around.”

Chakotay insists that there are other stories to tell, stories that may not be so familiar and may retread old ground. “There’s still plenty of Delta Quadrant left to explore,” he pleads. “We may find another way home.” The subtext of this debate seems to capture a lot of what was happening behind the scenes. Kathryn Janeway has repeatedly been compared to producer Jeri Taylor, who insisted upon this rigidly episodic and highly conventional approach. In contrast, Michael Piller had spent the second season arguing for a more experimental style. Like Chakotay, he lost.

Any which (Jane)way but loose...

Any which (Jane)way but loose…

As such, Scorpion, Part I feels like the logical capstone to the third season as a whole. The third season of Voyager has seen the show moving towards a safer and more generic form of Star Trek storytelling, moving further and further from the series’ original premise. Scorpion, Part I is ultimately the culmination of that approach. It is an episode in which Janeway decides that she will do whatever it takes in order to get Voyager (and Voyager) back to familiar territory, even if that represent a fundamental betrayal of everything that she claims to hold sacred.

Scorpion, Part I is explicit that Janeway’s “alliance with the Borg” is monstrous. Janeway quotes from Asamov’s logs that “the Borg are as close to pure evil as any race we’ve ever encountered.” Janeway first seizes upon the idea of the alliance with the Borg in biblical terms, wondering, “What if I made an appeal to the Devil?” Even Chakotay points out the high price of this bargain. “We’d be giving an advantage to a race guilty of murdering billions. We’d be helping the Borg assimilate yet another species just to get ourselves back home. It’s wrong!” He is right.

"This grey area? This is where Janeway operates."

“This grey area? This is where Janeway operates.”

As such, Scorpion, Part I represents a crossing of the metaphorical Rubicon for Voyager. It is the point at which the series accepts that it will never be much more than a pale imitation of The Next Generation. Janeway and her crew weigh their options and consider their actions. In likening the Borg Collective to Satan, Janeway is effectively choosing to align herself with the devil that she knows. This plays almost as mournful admission from the series. Scorpion, Part I might commit the show to a path of diminishing returns, but at least it is safe.

The decision to focus Voyager around the Borg is at least honest and considered, with Scorpion, Part I rather candidly outlining the physical and moral stakes of the narrative. However compromised Voyager becomes with the introduction of the Borg Collective, or however consolidated that introduction renders long-standing compromises, the decision is made with open eyes. It may not be the best creative decision possible, but at least the writing staff are aware of the danger they have chosen to embrace.

Caught in familiar patterns.

Caught in familiar patterns.

However, the introduction of the Borg poses more challenges than those. The exploration of the Klingon Empire on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine was interesting because the audience’s understanding of this alien culture grew and evolved over time. The politics of the Klingon Empire were allowed to become gradually more complex, a contrast between the core mythology and the pragmatic reality. More than that, individual Klingon characters could exist in relation to their larger cultural identity, allowing for shading and development.

Voyager is not a show that enjoys change. This has been obvious since the beginning, where the more conservative aspects of the production team have been downplaying any of the more unique or ambitious aspects of the series in favour of generic Star Trek tropes. So all the Maquis now wear Starfleet uniforms. All the Maquis now follow orders. There is no compromise of Starfleet priorities or directives. Even the ship itself still has that fresh “new ship” smell despite having spent three years in the Delta Quadrant.

Collective reasoning.

Collective reasoning.

As such, the Borg Collective will never be allowed to change or evolve in the same way that the Klingons or the Cardassians evolved over the course of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. The Borg Collective must remain monolithic and unchanging, which ignores a large part of why the Klingons or Cardassians could hold down so many episodes of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. If the Borg Collective are not allowed to change, then the episodes focusing on them will quickly become monotonous.

To be fair, there is a justification for the monolithic quality of the Borg Collective. After all, the most interesting aspect of the Borg is their complete rejection of individualism. There are no Borg individuals. There is no Borg dissent. That is by design. Part of what made the Borg so terrifying in Q Who? was the fact that they were so unwavering and uncompromising. However, this feature of the Borg Collective means that they are fairly unsuited to the role that Braga wants them to play. After all, there are only so many stories that can be told from that template.

"Please Chakotay, let's not fight in front of the children."

“Please Chakotay, let’s not fight in front of the children.”

At the same time, even acknowledging these limitations, the Borg are a fascinating creation. Philosophically, they tap into any number of broad fascinations and idea, a flexible allegory that can be read as a potent metaphor for everything from totalitarian communism to capitalist consumerism. Physically, they are one of the most distinctive alien species in the Star Trek universe, with their cold dead skin decorated with uncanny mechanical objects. They are also scary, in the violation that they represent; the consumption of the individual into a monstrous hive mind.

The Borg are also a comfortable fit for Voyager given that Brannon Braga is in the process of emerging as the show’s defining creative voice. More than any of his contemporaries working on Star Trek, Brannon Braga is fascinated with horror stories and existential nightmares. Braga is a writer particularly fascinated with notions like consciousness and artificial life, as demonstrated by his scripts like Birthright, Part I and Phantasms focusing on Data and Projections and Darkling focusing on the EMH.

Spectres.

Spectres.

Braga outlines his own fascination with the Borg Collective in broad terms, recognising the appeal of the archetypal fears they represent:

I can only tell you what it appeals to me, which is, first of all, they’re cool cybernetic organisms. They really were the first really cool villains on Next Generation. The concept behind them is fantastic: a hive mind. It’s so antithetical to so many American ideals of individuality and so forth. They’re the ultimate communists. I hadn’t seen anything on television like the Borg. And they evolved. I think what really made people excited was once Picard got assimilated, and it took on a personal dimension. And then the Queen was introduced in First Contact. And then the Borg just kind of took on a life of their own. Like the Klingons did so long ago, they’ve become part of the fabric of Star Trek. They’re the kind of villain that you can keep elaborating on. Their whole philosophy of perfection, established in the movie First Contact, was new at that time. Otherwise they would be just zombies. They’d get kind of boring after a while.

Braga makes some good points here, but is a little disingenuous. Voyager never allowed the Borg to materially evolve or change. Their pursuit of perfection was never anything more than an abstract concept rather than an arc.

Something has been eating at him.

Something has been eating at him.

This only serves to make Unity all the more frustrating. A more interesting story featuring the Borg, and one that could potentially have held interest over their half-decade of appearances on Voyager, would be to explore what happens when something like the Borg Collective collapses. It would also have resonated with the fall of the Soviet Union, and opened up all manner of interesting story avenues. However, Voyager very clearly wants the iconic and default interpretation of the Borg, and so retreats from any idea counter to that.

Again, this is entirely understandable. More than any other Star Trek show, Voyager was a television series about retreating to the familiar. It was not a show about exploring or pushing outwards, it was always a series about longing to return to recognisable comforts. The Borg had proven a huge hit with the release of First Contact, so it made sense to want to incorporate that version of the race into Voyager on an on-going basis. The Borg had worked well in the past, so why wait to incorporate them into Voyager?

Doesn't scan.

Doesn’t scan.

There are certainly some interesting ideas involving the Borg in Scorpion, Part I. This sort of cybernetic transhuman alien species is very much suited to the tone and aesthetic of Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky. The introductory sequence between Janeway and Leonardo Da Vinci even foreground the themes of cybernetics and the union of flesh and technology. As Diana M. A. Relke outlines in Drones, Clones, and Alpha Babes:

Similarly, the slender wooden fingers of Leonardo’s robotic arm point forward to the posthuman theme of Scorpion: Voyager’s first real engagement with the Borg, and Captain Janeway’s “liberation” of Seven of Nine from the Borg collective. In this episode, the Captain gets to see what intelligent life looks like when modelled on transhumanist philosophies that take Enlightenment humanism to its techno-scientific extremes.

Da Vinci’s designs tie together the organic and the inorganic. His “Arm of Hephaestos”, named for “the god of the forge” is in its own way an expression of the philosophy that the Borg hold so dear. It is the pursuit of perfection or efficiency through mechanical science. “Every blacksmith who has ever swung a hammer will thank me for this creation,” he boasts.

Mostly armless.

Mostly armless.

“Someone once said all invention is but an extension of the body of man,” Janeway reflects. It is an ironic line, given that the Borg ultimately incorporate the body of man into their monstrous mechanics. Da Vinci even does something similar, imagining an aircraft extrapolated from nature’s own designs. What are the Borg but that philosophy taken to its logical conclusion? This conversation is visually evoked through the later sequence of the EMH studying the remains of the Borg corpse from Blood Fever, now a body broken down to its constituent elements.

This twisted reflection or allegory gets back to what makes the Borg so effective as an antagonist. They are so broad and so uncanny that they can stand-in for just about any unconscious anxiety; the loss of individuality, the advance of mechanisation, the fear of totalitarianism, the inevitability of death. They are a spectre that speaks to certain fears that mankind has harboured for generations, some grotesque twist upon the gears and mechanics imagined by inventors like Leonardo Da Vinci.

Cogs in the machines.

Cogs in the machines.

Scorpion, Part I even renders this meditation upon the effectiveness of the Borg explicit in conversation between Janeway and Leonardo Da Vinci. Staring at a wall, Da Vinci asks Janeway, “What do you see?” Janeway answers honestly, “A wall with candlelight reflecting on it. Why? What do you see?” Da Vinci acknowledges, “A flock of starlings, the leaves of an oak, a horse’s tail, a thief with a noose around his neck. And a wall with the candlelight reflecting on it.”

It is an effective tribute to the power of these sorts of stories and of these sorts of characters. Science-fiction is arguably nothing but candlelight reflecting on a wall, spurring imagination through likeness and invocation. “There are times, Catarina, when I find myself transfixed by a shadow on the wall, or the splashing of water against a stone,” Da Vinci admits. “I stare at it, the hours pass, the world around me drops away, replaced by worlds being created and destroyed by my imagination. A way to focus the mind.” The Borg are a particularly evocative shadow.

In the shadows...

In the shadows…

It is surprising that the production team waited this long. Brannon Braga acknowledged in Braving the Unknown that the writing staff consciously waited until First Contact was out of cinemas before focusing on the Borg:

I guess the third thing that we decided to do was get the Borg more involved in the show after the movie First Contact came out. We were kinda staying away from that Borg to give First Contact its breathing room, but once the film was released… it just seemed to me that the Borg could be to Voyager what the Klingons were to the Original Series and Next Generation or what the Cardassians were to Deep Space Nine. We needed our own villain to help define the show.

In some ways, the Borg do define Voyager. They are clumsy and unwieldy. They are unwilling to evolve or change. They are constant. All of these things could be said of Voyager as a show.

Inject a little metaphor into the show.

Inject a little metaphor into the show.

Which brings up the problem with Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. If Voyager is going to tell a Borg story, but is unwilling to tell a story about the Borg Collective changing or evolving, then what story is left to be told? The Next Generation effectively covered the bulk of stories that could be told about the unwavering and the uncompromising Borg Collective. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that Unity was a retread of ideas originally broached in Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II.

So Scorpion, Part I seizes upon one idea that has not been explored, one of the few novel stories that could be told using the Borg Collective without changing their nature in any substantive way. What if the Borg came face-to-face with an even greater adversary? So much of what Star Trek has shown its audience about the Borg is that they are uncompromising and unbeatable. What happens when they become beatable and find themselves facing an even more unbeatable opponent? And what happens when our heroes are caught in the middle?

Squaring the Cube.

Squaring the Cube.

This is a very risky story to tell, because it compromises a lot of what makes the Borg so effective as an antagonist. As writer Ronald D. Moore acknowledged on the commentary on First Contact, the Borg’s invulnerability presented both an appeal to the audience and a challenge to the writers:

The Borg… I think that one of the many reasons that the Borg worked as a villain was this sort of this unstoppable nature of them, this sort of single-minded quality to the Borg. “We will assimilate you… resistance is future…” Here was the foe that you just couldn’t reason with, you couldn’t talk to. There was nothing you could really do, except run from. Which became kind of a trap in the television series. Because on the television series, whenever you brought them into the show, you then had to beat the unbeatable foe every time and send them away. And the more times you did that, the less threatening they became over time. So we wanted to use them very sparingly in the series.

The Borg were so effective on The Next Generation because they had been introduced as an almost insurmountable threat. Only the omnipotent Q could save the Enterprise in Q Who?, while stopping the Borg exacted a heavy price from both Captain Picard and Starfleet in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II.

Deconstructing the Borg.

Deconstructing the Borg.

Introducing an opponent that can beat the Borg undercuts one of their defining attributes. It makes them seem a less threatening, and risks the reputation of an existing (and successful) antagonist for an unknown quantity. In fact, that is arguably the biggest problem with Scorpion, Part I. The Borg seem too casual a threat. This is the first time that Voyager has focused upon the Borg Collective, and they are already being vanquished and defeated by a previously-unseen opponent.

Captain Picard repeatedly witnessed the awe of the Borg Collective, but Captain Janeway seems almost casual in the way that she deals with it. The Borg are almost routine. “In one regard, the Borg are no different than we are,” Janeway assures Chakotay. “They’re trying to survive.” This is something that immediately robs the Borg of their alien quality, the suggestion that they can relate to mankind. Voyager is so familiar with the workings of the Borg Collective that Chakotay can recognise a “distribution node” and Harry can “download their tactical database.”

"It's actually easier than trying to connect to an Apple product."

“In fairness, it’s actually easier than trying to connect to an Apple product.”

This decision to render the Borg less alien and more prone to defeat effectively diminished them. Brannon Braga repeatedly faced criticisms for making the Borg less threatening through successive episodes:

I think that, for the most part, the Borg were a very successful villain on Voyager. I don’t think they were… They were “de-fanged” only in so much as they kept getting their asses kicked! Once the Borg lose enough times… which is why in this comic book that I’m going, I have them win. At least, from the beginning, they finally achieve their goals.

That’s the danger when you keep bringing them back. I think we brought them back, maybe, twice too many. There were a couple Borg episodes I don’t think were quite as successful. I don’t remember the finale well enough… I think I have a story credit on it, so you’d think I’d remember it. I don’t know that the Borg were super impactful there.

A single Borg Cube nearly destroyed the Federation in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. However, when Voyager arrives in Borg space in Scorpion, Part I, fleets of fifteen Borg vessels are no big deal.

The Borg totally did not get into this Skype thing.

The Borg totally did not get into this Skype thing.

Then again, this is largely the attitude that Voyager has adopted towards the Borg as a whole. In theory, the Borg should be so great a threat that they cast a shadow over the entire season. Deep Space Nine spent the entire fifth season building to the Dominion War, so it seems like the looming threat of Borg space should merit a number of episodes building anticipation and anxiety as the crew wade deeper and deeper into enemy territory. Instead, Voyager has been very much business as usual.

After all, Voyager first encountered a world ravaged by the Borg in Blood Fever and a broken down Borg Cube in Unity. It seems strange that none of the cultures in later episodes (the Mikhal Travellers in Darkling, the Vostigye from Real Life, the Nyrians from Displaced) seem particularly concerned about the fact that they live within the “catchment area” of a gigantic and ominous (and ever-expanding) space empire dedicated to the assimilation of all organic life. There is no sense of mounting dread.

Armed and dangerous.

Armed and dangerous.

To be fair, this is likely down to the fact that the confrontation with the Borg in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II was a rather late development in the production cycle. According to an interview with Brannon Braga in Cinefantastique, the future showrunner was inspired by catching a broadcast of Unity:

“Late one night I was sitting in front of the TV and I saw a promotion for Voyager on the air on UPN. I saw an image of a Borg corpse from the show we were doing, Unity. It struck me then and there that First Contact had come and gone. It was time to deliver the Borg in a big way, at which point we threw out the cliffhanger we were working on at that time, and came up with Scorpion I and II.”

It has been suggested that the original plan would have been for Voyager to bridge the third and fourth seasons with Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. That story was shunted into the early fourth season to make room for the Borg. With this in mind, the lack of foreshadowing makes a certain amount of sense.

"So, the last shipment of plot points and props arrived from First Contact, right? Although we have to wait two years for our Borg Queen?"

“So, the last shipment of plot points and props arrived from First Contact, right? Although we have to wait two years for our Borg Queen?”

Even allowing for that, the Borg Collective is expansionist. The Borg mission statement, as reiterated in the teaser to Scorpion, Part I, is to add “biological and technological distinctiveness” to their own. In order to do that, they need to be constantly pushing outwards. To be fair, The Gift suggests that Borg space is somewhere around nine-and-a-half thousand light years wide, which seems reasonable. However, Scorpion, Part I has the Voyager crew wander from their first encounter with the Borg Collective to the “heart of their territory” in no time at all.

This says nothing of the fact that Voyager continues to encounter Borg ships and hubs for the next four seasons, despite being thrown clear of their territory and interacting with countless other unassimilated species. Voyager suggests that the Borg Collective is a scattered and decentralised political entity with outposts and ships dotted across the Delta Quadrant but without a singular concentrated hub or without any clear plans for expansion or assimilation. This is an interesting idea, but is never explored beyond keeping the Borg around whenever needed.

Terror, cubed.

Terror, cubed.

Then again, this is the way that Voyager operates when it comes to alien species. Kazon space seemed impossibly vast during the first two seasons of the show. The ship is still running into Talaxians in Homestead, forty-five thousand light years from their first encounter with Neelix in Caretaker. Even though the Hirogen are nomadic hunters, it still seems strange that they should run into one large cluster of them in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, three years after their last encounter in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

However, this make the Borg’s intrusion into Fluidic Space, as revealed in Scorpion, Part II, seem particularly irrational. It would be one thing for the Borg Collective to expand their interest into Fluidic Space had they successfully colonised and conquered an entire quadrant of space. However, Voyager never makes it seem like the Borg have consolidated their power base. It seems somewhat irrational for the Borg Collective to devote resources to invading parallel universes when this galaxy is still to be tamed.

The Borg have really gone to pieces this time around.

The Borg have really gone to pieces this time around.

Then again, there is something quite nineties about the idea of the Borg despairing of this particular universe. Voyager tends to buy into the idea of the nineties as the end of history, as a time of stability and consistency. Voyager assures its viewers that the universe is relatively stable and that the future is assured. After all, the existence of a twenty-ninth century Starfleet assures that the Borg will never expand too far beyond their own borders. There is a sense of stasis to the Star Trek universe as suggested by Voyager.

With all of that in mind, it makes sense that the Borg would consider expanding their reach into colonising other worlds. Despite the fact that they have not yet conquered this universe, there is a suggestion of stagnancy to the Borg Collective. The Borg Collective might not be all-conquering, but they are unchallenged. They stand astride the Delta Quadrant like a colossus. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II suggest that the Borg have looked upon their work and refused to weep, instead daring to imagine new worlds to conquer.

"Not the most beautiful man alive now, eh?"

“Not the most beautiful man alive now, eh?”

There is a certain irony to Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. Imagination and ambition are recurring themes of the season-bridging two-parter. However, the two-parter offers a rather subversive twist on those old ideas. The Borg are brutally punished for daring to imagine expansion into previously unexplored domains. In contrast, Janeway’s lack of imagination and unwillingness to consider anything but her desire to continue flying in a straight line home is ultimately rewarded.

Of course, the Borg are seeking to colonise new territory, so it makes sense that their ambitions should be so bitterly and horribly thwarted. But it does add some interesting subtext to a two-parter that is very much about Voyager accepting its legacy as a substitute and spiritual successor to The Next Generation rather than its own unique thing. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II comprise a story where the only way home is through the space of a familiar adversary and new surroundings are dangerous and untrustworthy.

All fired up.

All fired up.

Given the attention that Star Trek has paid to the Borg over the years, their opponent needs to be something genuinely special in order justify this plot thread. Just being able to beat the Borg is not enough of itself. Species 8472 need to stand out from the crowd in some manner. They need to be an alien species that could conceivably have the same pop culture impact as the Borg Collective. However, they quickly end up as a footnote in the larger context of Voyager as a whole. They end up outmatched by the Hirogen in Prey.

Species 8472 are notable primarily as the franchise’s first high-profile CGI alien species. It was somewhat remarkable in the context of nineties television, given that blockbuster movies were only really beginning to demonstrate the potential of the technology. Still, this decision serves to make Species 8472 memorable from a production standpoint, lending them a distinctive visual appearance that serves to differentiated them from the vast majority of Star Trek alien species. They are at least special in that respect.

Model aliens.

Model aliens.

The production team were emboldened by the (relative) success of the computer-generated viruses from Macrocosm, earlier in the season. According to Ronald B. Moore, it was considered a risky gambit:

“We’d suggested it before,” said Moore, “and they [the producers] were a little reluctant because you make mistakes with CG stuff sometimes. With CGI you’re always on the cusp. We’re not really good at people yet. Jurassic Park was showing us that we could do things as long as they weren’t too real.”

The seeds had been sown earlier in Season Three in Macrocosm, an episode which featured giant microbe-like creatures that were completely computer generated (CG). The producers had been impressed by what they saw and wished to take the technology further. So when they came up with an alien race that was destroying the Borg, they made it clear that they were ready to experiment with a CG alien.

While Species 8472 might look a little hokey today, they were a remarkable creation for the time. More than that, there is something very alien about them that renders them quite visually memorable.

Speaking briefly.

Speaking briefly.

As Ronald B. Moore explained to Cinefantastique, Species 8472 were explicitly designed to appear uncanny and quite unique in the Star Trek canon:

“I think that what we were trying to do was get something that didn’t look like a guy in a suit,” said Moore, who worked with Curry’s design ideas. “If we could design something where you could see its spinal column, and the muscles separate so you would have little openings, that would help us give it other than the look of a guy in a suit. So we tried to get that, and some of the movement.”

Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II are very effective in their use of Species 8472, mostly keeping them sidelined and isolated in dark environments that add to the atmosphere and the tension.

Harry is all eaten up inside.

Harry is all eaten up inside.

Visually, Species 8472 are impressive. Conceptually, Species 8472 suffer because they are not particularly interesting for an alien that can defeat the Borg. The two-parter tries to set them up as a twisted mirror image of the Borg Collective, which ends up defining them solely by their relationship to the Borg. Ultimately, it seems like Species 8472 are more powerful than the Borg, but there is little more to them than that. There is no sense of identity or purpose, no real sense of character or nuance.

Species 8472 are suggested to be an inversion of the Borg, a race that placed their faith in biology rather than technology. This is most obvious in their attack upon Harry Kim, in which he undergoes a process that appears at least similar to assimilation, albeit one rooted in organic rather than mechanical processes. “The infection is spreading,” the EMH states. “What began with a few stray cells contaminating the chest wound is now infusing every system in his body.” Janeway is horrified, “It looks like he’s being transformed in some way.”

It's hip to be cube.

It’s hip to be cube.

Of course, the reflection is imperfect. This is not assimilation, it is a different form of consumption. “The alien cells are consuming his body from the inside out,” the EMH explains. “In essence, Mister Kim is being eaten alive.” In fact, Species 8472 is somehow even more biological than humanity. “These are alien cells. Each one contains more than a hundred times the DNA of a human cell. It’s the most densely coded life form I’ve ever seen. Even I would need years to decipher it.”

Even their philosophy is a twisted take on Borg ideals. Species 8472 seek total domination in the same way that the Borg do, although not through assimilation. “They’re in a place where they’re alone,” Kes states. “Nothing else lives there.” She elaborates, “I feel malevolence, a cold hatred. The weak will perish. It’s an invasion. They intend on destroying everything.” The recurring insistence that “the weak will perish” suggest that Species 8472 are driven by the same hyper-powered evolutionary drive as the Borg, replacing assimilation with Social Darwinism.

Worlds apart.

Worlds apart.

However, Species 8472 would not make as significant an impact as their introduction would suggest. They would only appear in two more episodes of Voyager, before fading into obscurity. According to writer Nick Sagan, there were practical reasons for this:

Another factor had to be the incredible amount of money than 8472 cost to put on the screen. I remember going to a production meeting, and the original In The Flesh had a lot of great, amazing special effects, including a dream sequence of 8472 just razing Janeway’s home town on Earth, which would have been really cool. But you just sit around at the table and people go through and talk about how much money it will cost, and I was sitting right next to Brannon and he’d go, “Okay, scratch that off the list!”

As a result, Species 8472 ultimately feel like a very shallow threat, particularly positioned to humble one of the franchise’s most iconic and distinctive antagonistic forces. They do not feel like an interesting new creation on a conceptual level, rather feeling like a plot contrivance animated by computer.

Work of art.

Work of art.

And yet, in spite of these issues, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II work really well. Part of this is sheer momentum, which is a defining feature of the best Voyager two-parters. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II race along at a tremendous speed, jumping from one big idea to the next with little hesitation. Scorpion, Part I opens with the reveal of something humbling the Borg, jumps to Voyager entering Borg space, finds Voyager exploring a Borg graveyard, introduces Species 8472, has Janeway suggest an alliance with the Borg, and blows up a planet.

There is something thrilling in the movement of the episode. As much as Scorpion, Part I is intended as an homage to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, it is a very different piece of television. The Best of Both Worlds, Part I was consciously building towards that epic cliffhanger of Picard standing on the Borg ship and Riker ordering “fire.” Writer Michael Piller rather famously had no idea how he was going to write his way out of that cliffhanger, and had to improvise when he came back to writer The Best of the Both Worlds, Part II.

Holding it all together.

Holding it all together.

In terms of a menacing build to a shocking cliffhanger, episodes like Basics, Part I or A Call to Arms are closer to the style of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I. Both of those episodes are consciously building to the cliffhanger; to Janeway and her crew stranded on a distant planet, or Sisko forced to abandon Deep Space Nine. While Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II are obviously influenced by The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of the Both Worlds, Part II, they are structured very differently.

Most obviously, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky had a much stronger idea of where they were going with Scorpion, Part II than Michael Piller had with The Best of the Both Worlds, Part II. As mentioned above, Brannon Braga built the two-parter around the introduction of Seven of Nine, a character who is not even suggested by Scorpion, Part I. More than that, the actual cliffhanger of Scorpion, Part I is remarkably weak as a big moment. A Borg Cube warps away from a planet with Voyager in tow. It lacks the impact of Dukat retaking Terok Nor or Picard as Locutus.

"I'm sure you'll come to love the Borg. Or a Borg. We'll figure it out."

“I’m sure you’ll come to love the Borg. Or a Borg. We’ll figure it out.”

However, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II integrate very well as a single story. Beats are introduced in Scorpion, Part I to pay off in Scorpion, Part II. The disagreement between Janeway and Chakotay’s towards the end of Scorpion, Part I is a great example, especially given that Janeway is not confirmed to be out of action until early in Scorpion, Part II. It very effective sets up Chakotay’s character arc in Scorpion, Part II, but in a way that is not immediately obvious from the cliffhanger. (As opposed to Riker in The Best of the Both Worlds, Part I.)

In fact, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II work much better as a single story than most of Star Trek‘s season-bridging two-part stories. The Best of Both Worlds, Part II is a great episode of television, but it was obvious written long after The Best of Both Worlds, Part I. Redemption, Part II feels more like a Deep Space Nine season premiere than the second part of a two-part episode following Redemption, Part I. Even Basics, Part II was clearly written after Basics, Part I, even though they were part of the same production block.

"I am Da Vincible!"

“I am Da Vincible!”

Voyager generally does a good job with its two-part episodes. Many of the best Voyager two-parters feel like mini-movies, structured cleanly as single stories rather than two distinct units of story welded together; Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. It is an aspect of Voyager that is often overlooked, but Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II are very much part of that tradition.

It also helps that Joe Menosky and Brannon Braga ground Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II in the characters. Voyager has not always been efficient or effective in matters of characterisation. The primary cast on Voyager is much less developed than the primary cast on The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. However, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II is very much rooted in the relationship between Janeway and Chakotay. More to the point, Scorpion, Part I affirms what will become Brannon Braga’s interpretation of Janeway as a character.

Heated debates.

Heated debates.

Braga’s version of Janeway is defined by her stubbornness and her determination, even when committing morally questionable actions. It is a marked contrast to the nurturing (if reserved) scientist written by Jeri Taylor in episodes like Persistence of Vision or Coda. This is the version of Janeway suggested by Macrocosm, the gun-totting action hero with little regard for other opinions and a steadfast certainty in her own moral righteousness. This version of Janeway is markedly distinct from the character featured in the first two seasons, but is compelling in her own right.

It is worth noting that this transition in Janeway’s character is part of a larger transition taking place behind the scenes. Jeri Taylor would retire at the end of the fourth season, handing over the reins on the show to Brannon Braga. As part of that shift, Janeway and the show around her would change. It should be noted that there was some conflict in the early seasons of Voyager over the authorship of Janeway as a character. Jeri Taylor and Kate Mulgrew were involved in something of a tug of war over how they wanted to interpret the franchise’s first female lead character.

Commanding presence.

Commanding presence.

It should be noted that Mulgrew is generally fonder of the portrayal of Janeway in the later years of Voyager. She explicitly credits Brannon Braga for being willing to accept her feedback and input on the direction of the character:

I mean, Berman, who I just had lunch with last week, he was always very responsive, as was Brannon. I always thought of Brannon as being exceptionally talented. And they listened to me. They listened with great attentiveness, as the numbers grew. They wanted to see if I could carry the male demographic and once that was established they were more respectful.

There is a sense that the version of Janeway featured in the later seasons is much closer to Mulgrew as a lead actor. Mulgrew herself praised Braga for having “married” the voices of Janeway as a character and Mulgrew as an actor.

Working it out.

Working it out.

To be fair, this is a very valid approach to writing a weekly television series, recognising the strengths of the lead cast and playing to them. Indeed, one of the big issues with the first two seasons of Enterprise was the writing team’s stubborn refusal to write to the strengths of Scott Bakula, trying to present him as a swashbuckler in episodes like Civilisation or The Andorian Incident and giving him awkward theatrical monologues in episodes like Shockwave, Part II. The series never played to Bakula’s all-American charm.

The same is true of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, to a lesser degree. The Next Generation really gelled when it began to allow Patrick Stewart’s wry sense of humour to seep into the scripts. Deep Space Nine struggled with Avery Brooks in its first few seasons, taking a full three seasons before allowing the character to shave his head and grow a goatee for The Way of the Warrior. More to the point, it took a similar amount of time before the writers grew comfortable with Brooks’ heightened and stylised theatrical delivery that would power episodes like In the Pale Moonlight or Far Beyond the Stars.

Wings and prayers.

Wings and prayers.

In fact, it should be noted that Braga and Menosky were already receptive to Mulgrew’s input. The introduction of the holographic Leonardo Da Vinci in Scorpion, Part I was originally Mulgrew’s idea:

I was very much part of the Leonardo daVinci story. I wanted so much to explore her creative side. I thought that would be quite interesting to see over seven years, how Janeway grew creatively, imaginatively. And how she used the holodeck. And so that was me.

Mulgrew has definitely growing more comfortable in her role as series lead by this point in the run, which would lead to problems with the addition of Jeri Ryan in Scorpion, Part II.

"Guys, looks like our parts are about to get even smaller."

“Guys, looks like our parts are about to get even smaller.”

To be fair, there is a lot to recommend the more introspective and nurturing version of Janeway suggested by Jeri Taylor’s scripts. That version of character is markedly different from any other franchise lead. There are certainly interesting stories to be told about that version of the character, even if Voyager never figured how to tell them on a consistent basis. However, the more committed and driven version of Janeway cemented by Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II makes for a more compelling protagonist of the kind of stories that Voyager wants to tell, for better or worse.

This determined version of Janeway works best when the Voyager suggests that her compass might be slightly askew, that she might not be as righteous as she believes herself to be even if her actions are defensible. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II work so well because there is some doubt about whether Janeway is correct. Chakotay makes a number of very valid points, suggesting that Janeway might be blinded by her single-minded desire to get home or that helping the Borg is a morally indefensible action. Indeed, that comes back around in Hope and Fear.

Kathryn Janeway. Accessory to genocide.

Kathryn Janeway. Accessory to genocide.

Even within the two-parter itself, it is pretty heavily suggested that Janeway is making the wrong decision. As Chakotay suggested, the Borg betray their alliance with Voyager as soon as Species 8472 are vanquished. This is a fairly bold decision for Voyager to make with regard to its leading character, but it is also dramatically interesting. Characters who have blind spots in their decision-making are more dramatically interesting than characters who are always correct because the plot demands it.

After all, The Next Generation improved a great deal once the production team allowed for Picard to be flawed. The Measure of a Man is perhaps the most obvious example, an episode that focuses on Picard recognising his blind spot when it comes to recognising Data’s individuality and trying to rectify that. Similarly, his reactions to the Borg in Family and I, Borg do a lot to humanise the character. Similarly, Benjamin Sisko is introduced as a veteran struggling with the loss of his family in Emissary. He struggles with his own blind spots with regards to the Maquis.

Everybody chips in.

Everybody chips in.

To be fair, later seasons of Voyager would find themselves walking a tightrope when it comes to this characterisation of Janeway. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II work because they are willing to actually call out and discuss Janeway’s morally complicated behaviour. Some later episodes tend to gloss over the moral consequences of Janeway’s actions, which make the character seem somewhat imbalanced and unreliable while robbing her crew of any real agency. The use of Chakotay in this two-parter is a large reason why the story works as well as it does.

Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II also benefit from great production. Even if the writing on Voyager was uneven and flawed, the production tended to be top notch. A lot of care and effort went into the production of the Rick Berman era Star Trek shows. The two-parter features any number of memorable and striking visuals, from grotesque piles of dead Borg arranged like a macabre art exhibit to creepy sequences of Borg drones seemingly caught in loops trying (and failing) to assimilate Species 8472.

In the blood.

In the blood.

The Borg graveyard is a very effective and evocative image, building off the image of the dead Borg in Blood Fever, the deceased Borg Cube in Unity and the zombie movie aesthetic of First Contact. The sequence of exploring the damaged Borg Cube in Scorpion, Part I is creepy and unsettling in a way that is very much to the credit of director David Livingston. These are two very stylishly produced episodes of television that demonstrate that Star Trek was still the rolls royce of televised science-fiction.

Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II are good television. They are enjoyable and exciting, focusing on the strongest relationship in the series and featuring top-notch production while moving at tremendous speed. At the same time, there is something disheartening about how readily and how eagerly the two-parter embraces Voyager‘s place in the shadow of The Next Generation. Then again, this might be why the two-parter is the perfect end to the third season.

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4 Responses

  1. Great review as always.

    I do think you are being a little hard on ‘Voyager’ and, conversely, viewing ‘The Next Generation’ with decidedly rose tinted spectacles. After all the history of the Borg between ‘Best of Both Worlds part II’ and ‘First Contact’ was onee of diminishing returns as a threat. ‘I Borg’ is very good (my favourite Borg story in fact) but it also suggests that far from being an all powerful threat the Borg are so brittle and fragile the Federation might be able to collapse them completely. Indeed their final two appearances on the show as Lore’s muscle suggests exactly that happened.

    I can only lay the blame for the treatment of the Borg on ‘Voyager’ at the feet of ‘First Contact’. I know, I know everyone loves that film but it did essentially retcon all the Borg appearances in the second half of ‘The Next Generation’ and restored them as a monolithic juggernaught. After that what could ‘Voyager’ do except either ignore them altogether or work inside the framework ‘First Contact’ forced them into.

    • That’s a fair point, I suppose. But I think First Contact earns a lot of lee-way by virtue of being the only good TNG movie and by actually being an accessible and enjoyable Star Trek movie in its own right. I’m quite forgiving of the popcorn tendencies of Star Trek movies, if only because I believe the franchise should go broad in the multiplex.

      I think I’m less forgiving of Voyager because television is a different proposition, and what works once every few years in the cinema becomes exhausting if repeated weekly on the television. Also because television has a variety of freedoms that Voyager repeatedly refuses to exploit.

  2. You know, I find the Borg being weakened by Voyager an interesting point. While it’s true that part of their initial shock was that they were an insurmountable foe and dark parody of the Federation, I think part of that reason is that they were so strong is that their tech is on a far higher tier than the Alpha quadrant’s. But their real staying power was that they were the Unknown. I think that’s why Voyager couldn’t have done anything stronger with the Borg. You started learning about the Borg, they lose what made them unique.

    Granted, I also like to think a lot of unorthodox theories about the Borg, like an explanation of the First Contact change of the Borg that they assimilated a civilization with nanomachine technology. I also would have liked it if the Borg were trying to assimilate the Transwarp network from Endgame instead of it being their own creation.

    Now, I do agree with you about the series never taking up on it’s premise fully. When I first read about the crew stealing a Borg transwarp drive coil, I expected it to be an actual coil, like that go in the nacelles. I actually thought a piece of Borg technology would just have replaced one of the coaxial nacelles on the ship, which would have been a very cool looking move. That’s why I find the show’s CGI work so interesting. While you pointed out that it cost a heck of a lot to make Species 8472, I personally think that they could have utilized it a lot better than just enhancing the look of aliens. For example, as Voyager was only ever a computer model, they could have constantly been changing it’s look, making it look more and more worn as the voyage home continued, including changes like the aforementioned coil, averting the look that you pointed out, where it still looks neat and clean. Granted, I know that wouldn’t have happened because of the show’s quick slide into complacency, but it’s still an idea I have.

    Sorry if this seems like I’m just rambling, I really am just sharing my own views and experiences with Voyager, and I like theorizing about what could have been.

    Also, your photo captions are spot on and hilarious as usual.

    • No worries. Reading my reviews, you should know that I like a good ramble!

      You make a good point about the advantages of a CGI Voyager. In fact, there are even great example of the crew exploiting that in episodes like Scorpion or Year of Hell. I don’t doubt they could have evolved the model over the seven seasons, if they wanted to. In fact, who could forget the Batmobile armour from Endgame? No matter how hard we try?

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