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Star Trek: Voyager – The Omega Directive (Review)

The Omega Directive plays like Star Trek: Voyager is trying to push itself.

It is an episode which finds Janeway acting secretively and unilaterally, casually brushing aside the Prime Directive in service of some hidden agenda. This is a very big deal. On the original Star Trek, it frequently seemed like the Prime Directive was something for Kirk to outwit. However, since Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise has taken the rule to have a lot more moral weight. Even more precisely, since Caretaker, Janeway has emphasised that it is not her place to intervene directly in the affairs of alien civilisations.

The be-all and end-all.

So there sound be something very shocking about Janeway keeping secrets from her crew and forsaking the moral principle that had been the cornerstone of her first few years in command. Given how conventional Voyager has been, how carefully the show has pitched itself as the most archetypal of Star Trek shows, this should be a pretty big deal. What would get Janeway to consciously (and even enthusiastically) cross those lines? How far would she go? What else is she concealing from the people around her? It should be a powerhouse episode of television.

However, The Omega Directive falls flat. Part of the problem is timing, with The Omega Directive sandwiched between Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight in terms of the overall franchise chronology. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been transgressing and subverting franchise norms for years at this point. The Omega Directive feels like something relatively small-scale, juxtaposed against the activities of Section 31 or Sisko’s complicity in murder. The Omega Directive thinks that it is playing in the same league, but it is not even the same sport.

An explosive new development.

More than that, there is a clumsiness to The Omega Directive. The episode touches on a number of interesting ideas, but the story’s thematic weight is quite consciously removed from the core premise. The Omega Directive works best as a weird episode touching on Borg spirituality, and on the question of the Collective’s motivations, but the episode invests so much energy in the black-ops norm-shattering framing device that these elements do not feel like satisfying pay-off. The core themes of The Omega Directive feel like they belong in another episode.

The Omega Directive is a wasted opportunity, its underwhelming subversive trappings distracting from what might have been a compelling meditation on faith and belief.

That healthy blue glow.

A lot of the fourth season of Voyager plays like Brannon Braga setting out his stall, mapping out his vision of Voyager. Jeri Taylor would step aside as executive producer at the end of the season, and Braga would step up to fill the gap. Braga had his own distinctive vision of what he wanted Voyager to be. While Braga was never able to realise all of that vision, never able to completely reinvent Voyager in his own image, he did have a very conscious impact on how Voyager told its stories.

Braga was very interested in using Voyager to tell blockbuster stories. Braga seemed to imagine Voyager as a vehicle for sweeping adventures told on a large canvas. This vision of the show was perhaps best articulated in the two-parters co-written with Joe Menosky, episodes like Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Braga was fascinated with action-driven storytelling, epic tales that moved at a rapid pace; think of episodes like Deadlock or Timeless.

Fitting with Janeway’s designs.

The Omega Directive is the last Star Trek teleplay to be credited to writer Lisa Klink, but it fits consciously within Braga’s aesthetic. With the fourth season of Voyager, Braga wanted to push the show to extremes. Braga advocated for the creation of more consciously “alien” adversaries like Species 8472 or the Hirogen, aliens that were (originally) designed to move past the cliché of “foreheads of the week.” Braga also wanted to spend more time and energy with the Borg, to build them into the framework of Voyager.

Unlike Michael Piller or Jeri Taylor, Brannon Braga was never particularly interested in traditional character development or exposition. Braga had made a few awkward stabs at the stock Star Trek issue-driven episode like The Game or Emanations, but his real strength lay in wacky high-concept-driven episodes Cause and Effect or Frame of Mind or Projections. Braga liked to play with big ideas and was not particularly invested in the conventional Star Trek aesthetic of politics and diplomacy.

“Well, I hate to Braga about it.”

Braga was a writer unlikely to get bogged down in stories about the Maquis, as demonstrated by his bungled handling of the plot point in the early first season episode Parallax. Similarly, Braga was less likely to get tied up in any of the Kazon or Prime Directive stories that dominated the first two seasons. Braga created the Vidiians in Phage, but did very little to flesh out their culture beyond a monstrous b-movie AIDS allegory. Tellingly, Braga would employ the Vidiians as generic muscle in episodes like Deadlock or Fury.

The readiness with which The Omega Directive casts aside the Prime Directive is very much in keeping with Braga’s approach to writing for Star Trek. It is something just a little bit outside the franchise’s comfort zone, a slaughtering of a sacred cow. So much time and energy had been devoted to the Prime Directive, so many episodes agonising over what it meant and what it did, that it had become an ordering principle within the Star Trek universe. The casual suggestion that Starfleet would allow the Prime Directive to be superceded and overridden is a cheeky premise.

“More like mole-cool.”

There was some minor controversy over the episode, to the point that Brannon Braga actually posted online that the controversy was at least part of the point of the episode:

The Omega Directive fits in nicely with established Trek canon. In fact, it plays off it and uses it in a very dramatic fashion.  The Directive is meant to be controversial. Janeway knows it and the crew knows it.  That’s what makes for an exciting hour of television. Someone pointed out the parallels to a TNG show called The Pegasus, and they are right in doing so: Starfleet does not always make the right decisions for the right reasons. It’s up to our heroes to ultimately make the right moral choice.

It is worth noting that The Pegasus was a major influence on Braga as a Star Trek writer. The Omega Directive cites the episode as a source of inspiration, and Braga would return to it for These Are the Voyages…

Table that debate for later.

Indeed, it should be noted that The Omega Directive is largely notable for the attention paid to the transgression rather than the transgression itself. After all, this is not the first episode where Janeway casually dismisses the Prime Directive. After agonising over the Prime Directive in episodes like Prime Factors or Alliances, Janeway very easily and very casually violated it at the end of The Killing Game, Part II. Janeway spent two years trying not to give advanced technology to the Kazon, but surrendered it to the Hirogen after only a handful of episodes.

As such, The Omega Directive hardly breaks new ground. Janeway might have been slavishly devoted to the Prime Directive in earlier seasons, but the fourth season made it clear that Janeway had changed. As such, it feels like The Omega Directive is attempting to be provocative, to draw attention to the crossing of a line that was already well in the rear view mirror. The Omega Directive is not the episode that introduces Braga’s disinterest in the Prime Directive, but it does serve as a very overt signalling of intent.

“You use this word, alcoves?”
“Alcoves, yes. Sometimes.”

The Omega Directive wallows in the melodrama of the premise. The Omega Directive feels very forced and laboured in its handling of the eponymous regulation. After all, the distinctive blue “omega” insignia is hardly the most subtle of protocols. “I’ve been informed that this is a highly classified mission,” Chakotay assures Torres early in the episode. However, completely overriding ship functions and broadcasting a strange logo all over the ship seems counter-intuitive. It honestly seems like Starfleet wants the crew to know what a big deal this is.

Similarly, The Omega Directive makes a big deal of Janeway’s reluctance to bring the rest of the crew into the loop. She refuses to explain the strange happenings, although she clearly knows what is going on. She reviews the data privately, without any context. She offers instruction and direction, without any explanation. Torres mentions “rumours” circulating that “Janeway’s been locked in her ready room for the past sixteen hours.” Interestingly, Braga would return to the heightened drama of Janeway locking herself away from the crew in Night.

“Damn it, we’ve been outflanked by subversive Star Trek plotting.”

To be fair, there are interesting stories that can be told with these ideas. Deep Space Nine proves as much, with The Omega Directive sandwiched between two much stronger stories exploring similar themes. Inquisition focused on a secret organisation within Starfleet pursuing a covert agenda. Section 31 is far more unsettling than the Omega Directive could ever hope to be. In the Pale Moonlight told the story of a Starfleet captain who crosses moral lines in pursuit of the greater good. Sisko crosses more lines, and they weigh more heavily on him, than Janeway does here.

Unfortunately, it feels like The Omega Directive really has nothing interesting it wants to do with these ideas. They exist to shock the audience, to generate controversy, to heighten tension. However, there is no substance to them. Janeway never does anything particularly unforgivable while upholding the Omega Directive; there is no state-sanctioned murder, no covert sabotage, no reckless endangerment. Janeway’s behaviour is arguably perfectly reasonable in the context of nuclear proliferation.

“What are you doing here?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Shut up.”

Similarly, Janeway keeps her mission secret for almost half the episode, but she brings the crew up to speed quickly and with a minimum of fuss. There is never a moment where any of the characters actively challenge Janeway’s decisions, however sceptical they might be. Nobody objects to the directive, once it has been explained to them. Everybody on Voyager seems to agree that the eponymous directive is perfectly reasonable, which seems somewhat unlikely given that so many of these characters were introduced as rebels against the Federation.

There is no drama to any of this. Everything is very stale and very safe. As much as The Omega Directive teases the idea of pushing beyond the norms of the franchise, it remains firmly trapped within the Roddenberry Box. Characters seem incapable of disagreeing with one another, even civilly. This is most notable in the scene between Janeway and Chakotay in Astrometrics. Janeway and Chakotay have had trust issues in the past. Janeway lied to Chakotay about Paris in the run-up to Investigations. Chakotay betrayed Janeway in Scorpion, Part II.

Holey…

The dialogue between the characters ignores this subtext and history. At least some of that is down to Beltran’s performance, with the actor seeming to phone it all in. “That’s a reasonable argument, but you’re not always a reasonable woman,” Chakotay tells Janeway at one point. “You’re determined to protect this crew, and this time you’ve taken it too far.” This feels like it should be a bigger point, akin to Chakotay pleading with Janeway in Scorpion, Part I. Instead, it just seems cheesy. “Voyager may be alone out here, but you’re not. Let us help you.”

Given how the episode eventually plays out, with the mission to retrieve the omega molecules treated like any other mission with the crew working in harmony like a well-oiled machine, all of this early tension feels disingenuous. It feels like a distraction, clutter that exists purely so that the first few acts might have an interesting story hook. There is no sense of what the story says about Janeway or her crew, no tangible character motivation for this secrecy beyond the desire to add tension to a fairly flaccid premise.

“If you’re really into Seven, you could always try placing an ad in the classifieds?”

It is worth noting that secrets and mysteries become a recurring motif during Braga’s tenure as executive producer. Most obviously, Night has Janeway cut herself off from the crew in a self-imposed exile that plays almost as a cynical parody of Jeri Taylor’s interpretation of the character. The Voyager Conspiracy finds Seven of Nine investigating conspiracy theories that Janeway has been (and still is) lying to the crew. The Haunting of Deck 12 hinges on a secretive restricted area on the ship, one off-limit to the children on the crew without any explanation.

In some respects, this fascination with secrets for the sake of secrets reflects Voyager‘s place in nineties popular culture. The nineties were dominated by conspiracy and speculation, in the belief that those in authority were keeping secrets from the public to further their own agenda. This is most obvious in the work of Chris Carter or Oliver Stone, but it played out across the popular culture of the decade. Braga even touched directly upon that nineties paranoia through a weird subplot featuring twentieth-century militia men in Future’s End, Part II.

Alien concepts in a utopian future.

It is entirely possible to tell great Star Trek stories built around that paranoia. Braga arguably explored an existential strain of that paranoia in episodes like Frame of Mind or Projections. More than that, Deep Space Nine also used that framework to tell compelling and unsettling stories in episodes like Whispers or Inquisition. The problem with The Omega Directive is that Voyager tends to treat this paranoia as an aesthetic rather than a theme, a set of stylistic trappings rather than something of interest of itself.

Of course, this paranoia is not the only plot element that marks The Omega Directive as a slice of nineties pop culture. The very concepts of “the omega directive” and “the omega molecule” frame the episode in the context of nineties politics. Star Trek has always been tied to American self-image, and Voyager is very much a part of that. Voyager largely reflected how the United States saw itself at the end of the twentieth century: the single global power in a unipolar world, dealing with smaller and unstable powers rather than expansive and monolithic empires.

Science run amok.

In particular, the Delta Quadrant seems to reflect the American perception of the third world. Voyager is a clean and stylish starship flying through space dominated by tribes like the Kazon or predators like the Hirogen or exploiters like the Malon. The aesthetic of the Delta Quadrant is one of erosion and decay, as suggested by episodes like The Chute or Fair Trade. The ship encounters fallen empires in Alliances or Unity or Dragon’s Teeth, immigrants in Displaced, dispossessed refugees in Day of Honour, petty dictatorships in Resistance or Warlord.

This is reflected in The Omega Directive, which is very much an episode about the moral responsibility that Starfleet has to prevent proliferation of the omega molecule. The Second World War looms large over the Star Trek canon, and the atomic bomb is part of that. After all, the nuclear bomb symbolises both the potential and the horror of scientific progress, the massive leap forward in mankind’s understanding of the universe coupled with the capacity for horrific violence. Voyager already touched upon the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Jetrel.

Janeway can repeat her warnings until she is blue in the face…

Janeway even makes the parallels to the atomic bomb explicit through her lock entries. “I know how Einstein must have felt about the atom bomb, or Marcus when she developed the Genesis device,” Janeway reflects at one point, acknowledging another of the franchise’s nuclear analogies. “They watched helplessly as science took a destructive course.” In some ways, that atomic fear seems baked into the Star Trek franchise, a relic of its Cold War origins and also an expression of anxiety about its technological utopia.

The Omega Directive plays very much like a justification of unilateral intervention to prevent proliferation of advanced technology to smaller powers. This was very much a preoccupation of the Clinton Administration during the nineties, dealing with the aftermath of the Cold War. The United States no longer found itself squaring of against the Soviet Union, instead acting as an enforcer of global norms regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The New York Times would describe it as “a new cold war.”

“Looks like you’ve got some proliferated ulcers.”

In the nineties, there was a very tangible fear of these minor powers gaining access to advanced technology, whether through the black market created by the collapse of the Soviet Union or through the diplomatic back channels from countries like China. During the mid-nineties, there was considerable speculation about the development of nuclear and chemical weaponry in countries like North Korea, Libya, Iran and Iraq. In an effort to contain the threat of nuclear proliferation, Clinton would broker a peace deal with North Korea and launch strikes against Iraq.

This is very much the backdrop of The Omega Directive, an episode that seems to imagine Starfleet in the role of galactic police. The Federation takes upon itself an obligation to minimise the spread or proliferation of the omega molecule, in pursuit of the greater good. Even operating tens of thousands of light years from Earth, Janeway still takes it upon herself to intervene in the affairs of less advanced cultures and strip them of this dangerous technology. It is a pretty compelling dramatic hook.

A disarming conversation.

Indeed, the eponymous mission objective opens up all sorts of tough questions about moral authority and imperialism. What right does Janeway have to deprive an alien society of a vital energy supply? Even accepting that omega molecules could be weaponised, why is Starfleet the organisation that gets to make that decision? “My orders are to destroy the omega molecules,” seven of Nine informs Allos. “This is my life’s work, the salvation of my people!” Allos protests. “Our resources are nearly gone. The future of my people depends on this discovery.”

There is an interesting debate to be had about the moral complexity of nuclear proliferation. However, The Omega Directive neatly sidesteps a lot of the more interesting discussions by weighting the argument. Most obviously, the omega molecule is an imperfect metaphor for nuclear power. The Federation is not harnessing omega molecules, whether to build weapons of mass destruction or as a power source. As such, the analogy feels clumsy and imperfect. Would Allos have a stronger point if the Federation itself were using omega molecules?

Operating in the bubble.

Similarly, The Omega Directive opts for the most clear-cut example possible, a plot thread that unambiguously supports this heavy-handed intervention. Janeway discovers that a primitive society has been experimenting with omega molecules, leading to a disaster on a small moon. As such, intervention is both easy and justified, taking a loaded gun away from a small child. What if Starfleet detected the omega molecule in Romulan or Klingon space? What if Janeway detected it in the Borg Collective? What if there were consequences for intervention?

The Omega Directive is far too clean for this kind of story. There is none of the complexity or nuance that make Inquisition or In the Pale Moonlight so effective. There is a clear sense that Voyager has been left standing in the dirt by Deep Space Nine. This story might have been subversive or earth-shattering on The Next Generation, but the Star Trek franchise has moved beyond that point. It is no small irony that the spin-off set on a space station should go so much further than that set on a starship cast seventy thousand light years from home.

Part and particle.

Then again, The Omega Directive in some way acknowledges these limitations. Voyager was the most overtly conservative of the twenty-fourth century Star Trek shows, the least adventurous and the most reactionary. The Omega Directive is fundamentally a story that imposes limits upon knowledge and upon science, a story that draws a line in the sand. “The final frontier has some boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed, and we’re looking at one,” Janeway warns Seven of Nine. The script seems to agree with her.

This is very much in keeping with the limits that Voyager sets upon itself during its third and fourth seasons, the boundaries that it defines and the comfort zone that it marks. Voyager was the first Star Trek show that was explicitly about retreating from the unknown, about actively seeking the familiar rather than embracing the new. The Next Generation pushed outwards. Deep Space Nine sat on the frontier with a gateway to adventure. Voyager sets a course for home at maximum warp. The final frontier is not infinite. If anything, it is retreating inwards.

Piecing it all together.

Voyager is a show about a crew constantly scared and horrified by the unfamiliar. The series reflects all manner of uncomfortable and xenophobic fears. The Kazon were a nightmare, a heavily racially-coded group of freed slaves who had formed a gang culture and turned the local neighbourhood into a hellhole. The immigrants in Displaced and the refugees in Day of Honour were just waiting for an opportunity to undermine the Starfleet crew. Species 8472 were a species from another universe who introduced themselves by launching an omnicidal invasion.

For a franchise about hope and idealism in the face of the unknown, Voyager seemed wary of the alien. Voyager sought comfort and security in familiar trappings. For Janeway, it was Starfleet procedure. For the crew, it was the promise of the return to the Alpha Quadrant. For the writing staff, it was the comfort of familiar Star Trek plotting and storytelling. As such, The Omega Directive marks another outward boundary for Voyager, another point of retreat from mystery and exploration towards safer ground.

“Here comes the science.”

Still, there are interesting ideas at work in The Omega Directive, but they are buried under the squandered premise and the pointless melodrama. As Braga confessed to Cinefantastique, the episode had a muddled and confused development cycle:

“The Omega Directive was a very troubled script. We knew we had something engaging with the idea that there was a Starfleet directive that superseded all other directives. There were some nice analogies about the Omega particle and the atom bomb. Where is the edge of the frontier in science? But it was dry and intellectual. Then we hit on the idea that the show should be about religion. We hit religion again this year. Maybe the Borg look at the Omega particle as perfection, or, in essence, it is their Holy Grail, so that we could show another side to Seven of Nine. At the same time, we could show another side to Janeway, and again get them in a more minor philosophical clash. And I think that’s what made the show.”

Braga is correct in this observation. The Omega Directive works best as a story focused on Seven of Nine and on the notion that Borg pursuit of “perfection” could be seen as religious in nature. It is a genuinely provocative plot point that fits comfortably with how Voyager sees the Borg Collective.

The god particle.

However, there is something disingenuous in this development. The Omega Directive suffers from a very basic structural problem, in that it feels like two half-episodes smooshed together to fill forty-five minutes of television. It is a story that feels like it was sutured together, with the writers having no idea what the finished episode would look like as they were going. The Omega Directive begins as an episode about a secret Starfleet objective and nuclear proliferation, but then becomes a story about Seven of Nine’s spirituality.

This is not the first time that Voyager has run into these sorts of problems with its scripts. In some respects, the writing staff on Voyager seems to suffer from a deficit of attention. There are plenty of examples; The Q and the Grey is a sex farce that becomes a role-play adventure, Alter Ego begins as a Kim story about falling in love with a hologram and switches to a version of Fatal Attraction starring Tuvok, Worst Case Scenario is an interesting exploration of the missed opportunities of the first season that turns into a stock “holodeck gone awry” narrative.

Shining examples…

It is interesting to wonder whether this lack of focus, and lack of structure, is a direct result of Michael Piller’s departure. After all, Piller had long advocated that episodes should be consciously built around character arcs. The plot structure of The Omega Directive is so muddled that Braga had to go on line and explicitly explain what it was really about:

This is not a story, ultimately, about a substance.  It’s not about Janeway following a directive or not.  It’s not about science and the hackneyed concept of whether or not we should cross the line and explore what should not be explored.  It is about, in the end, religion.  Seven of Nine, we reveal, has an interest in Omega that borders on religious obsession.  To her, Omega represents “Perfection.”  And in this way, we explore themes of religion in an unexpected way.

The input of the author is always of interest when discussing a work of art. Understanding where a piece of work came from provides a vital sense of context and meaning. That does not excuse horrible mistakes, or insure against valid critical readings, but it does provide a sense what the author was trying to do. At the same time, a piece of work should be able to stand on its own two feet without needing that sort of explicit disclaimer.

When you gotta glow…

The Omega Directive would be a much stronger episode if it focused on Seven of Nine from the start and dropped all of those pseudo-provocative trappings involving Janeway. Seven of Nine is a character designed to explore the human condition, and playing with religious ideas is a part of that. The idea of the Borg Collective actively pursuing the omega molecule as some sort of scientific crusade is fascinating, a compelling juxtaposition of the mechanised Borg Collective with a more organic religious fervour.

This reflects the approach that the third and fourth seasons have taken to the Borg, exploring their unique status as a fusion of organic mind and technological drive. The Borg were foreshadowed in episodes like Blood Fever and Unity, but were properly introduced to Voyager in Scorpion, Part I. That episode also introduced the da Vinci holoprogram, and its gothic fusion of human imagination and mechanical innovation. Although John Rhys-Davies only appeared in two episodes of Voyager, his workshop has been a recurring fixture of the fourth season.

“Let’s not blow this out of proportion.”

Da Vinci’s workshop has been tied to the development and growth of Seven of Nine as a character. In the teaser to The Raven, da Vinci’s hanging flying machine prompted Seven to reconnect with repressed memories of her childhood assimilation. At the end of The Omega Directive, Seven retreats to the workshop in order to properly process her religious experience with the omega molecules. It is a place where Seven can hope to harmonise her Borg and human identities.

The Omega Directive marks the last appearance of the workshop, but it remains an evocative location. It taps into the idea of the Borg as something more primal than technological, tying them to the very idea of mechanised industrialisation rather than consigning them to some speculative future. This thematic connection between the Borg Collective and da Vinci’s workshop provides a rich insight into how Voyager approaches the iconic cybernetic aliens. The Borg are not a culture in the same way as the Klingons or the Romulans. They are an idea.

“Looks like these scientists had a blast.”

This connection allows for the strange religious undertones of The Omega Directive. The idea of Borg religion would seem ridiculous in the context of Q Who? or The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. However, it makes a lot more sense if the Borg are presented as a force of industrialisation and the logical extension of mechanisation. Like most Star Trek aliens, the Borg work best as a mirror of humanity, but Voyager seems to suggest a rich historical context for that anxiety that stretches back to the renaissance, predating the enlightenment.

“Omega is infinitely complex, yet harmonious,” Seven of Nine explains to Janeway. “To the Borg it represents perfection. I wish to understand that perfection.” Janeway immediately understands. “The Borg’s Holy Grail.” to the Borg, it seems like the omega molecule is the ultimate “god particle.” As its name implies, it would seem to represent the end of things, the goal towards which the Borg aspire, the ideal of perfection. It does not matter whether the omega molecule can be stabilised or harnessed, merely that it can be conceived and pursued.

Keeping her doubts at Cargo Bay.

The Omega Directive seems to treat the omega molecule as an idea rather than a literal object. The Borg learned about the concept gradually, through second-hand speculation and rumour. “When did the Borg discover Omega?” Janeway asks. Seven explains that it came about through the assimilation “of thirteen different species.” It was a breadcrumb trail that began with stories of lights in the sky and developed. “We followed this trail of myth for many years until finally assimilating a species with useful scientific data. We then created the molecule ourselves.”

Janeway confesses, “Omega caused quite a stir among my own species. Federation cosmologists had a theory that the molecule once existed in nature for an infinitesimal period of time at the exact moment of the Big Bang. Some claimed Omega was the primal source of energy for the explosion that began our universe.” Seven dismisses the idea. “A creation myth like any other,” she contends, oblivious of the fact that the lights in the sky that sparked the Borg’s pursuit of the omega molecule were just as mythic and legendary.

Burning desire.

As with those mechanical arms in da Vinci’s workshop, there is a sense that the Borg are not stripmining humanity so much as augmenting it. The Borg are no longer a force aiming to destroy humanity and replace it with something better or stronger. Instead, they are just seeking a more harmonised and efficient balance. The Omega Directive makes this explicit; if the Borg idea of “perfection” is embodied by the omega molecule, then it cannot be the supplanting of organic life. The Borg are not seeking to build a race of androids or anything so generic.

This is obviously monstrous, given that the Borg assimilate alien species without their consent and destroy even the idea of individual identity. However, Voyager uses episodes like The Omega Directive to explore the purpose and motivations of the Borg Collective beyond simple unstoppable consumption. There is a sense that Voyager is trying to understand the Borg Collective beyond a set of simple impulses like “expand” and “assimilate.” It is a conscious attempt to make the Borg seem more nuanced and developed than they would otherwise be.

“I am the Delta and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

As Kevin S. Decker argues in Inhuman Nature, or What’s It Like to Be a Borg?, this is conscious effort to present the Borg as more than just a devouring plague of robot zombies:

For the Borg, perfection is to be approached by adapting the best elements of assimilated civilisations and casting away the worst elements. What little we know about the ultimate goal of this method is perhaps best stated by Seven of Nine: perfection is, like the Omega molecule, “infinitely complex, yet harmonious”, including “infinite parts functioning as one.” The implication here is that the individual contribution of each of Omega’s atomic elements creates this harmony, instead of conflict. All internal resistance is overcome. Similarly, Omega’s inherent instability comes from its interaction with things non-Omega, elements and energies alien and external to it.

The Omega Directive is a very clever way of exploring this idea, a way to tell a story about the Borg without including the Borg. It is an episode that adds nuance to the Collective, but without undercutting them.

“Oh my god…”

To be fair, there is a credible argument to be made that Voyager does not need to flesh out or develop the Borg. In their early appearances, the Borg were terrifying because they were so alien and so unknowable. The Borg were something utterly unlike any other Star Trek species, and that helped them to become the breakout alien of the Rick Berman era. The Borg were scary in large part because they existed beyond simple human conceptions and ideas. Introducing elements like religion into the Borg Collective undercuts that, making them more relatable.

Voyager diluted the threat of the Borg Collective. Part of that was through the repeated use of the Borg threat to heighten the stakes in episodes like The Gift or Drone. If Janeway and her crew could go toe-to-toe with the entire Borg Collective repeatedly and without breaking a sweat, then it was harder and harder for the audience to take the Borg seriously as a major threat. However, there was also the sense that Voyager humanised the Borg, stripping away a lot of the aspects that made the Borg unique and distinctive.

“I am become mildly irradiated.”

Although the Borg Queen was introduced in Star Trek: First Contact, she became a fixture on Voyager in stories like Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II, Unimatrix Zero, Part I, Unimatrix Zero, Part II and Endgame. With each appearance, the idea of a “leader” of the Collective became increasingly normalised. It stripped away the idea of the Borg Collective as a race without any individual identities or personalities. Even though The Omega Directive does not actually feature the Borg Collective, giving them a religion continues that trend of humanisation.

In some ways, this religion feels like an extension of the weird new age themes that run through a lot of the religious episodes on Voyager. Stories like Tattoo and Sacred Ground insist that faith and science can coexist in harmony. Seven of Nine even broaches the topic with Chakotay, the new age standard-bearer on Voyager. “Commander, you are a spiritual man,” Seven reflects. “If you had the chance to see your God, your Great Spirit, what would you do?” Chakotay answers honestly, “I’d pursue it, with all my heart.”

Seven is feeling rather blue.

In (Re)Covering Sacred Ground, Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren argue that Voyager uses the Borg Collective as a metaphor for new age ideas existing in harmony with scientific principles:

As a Borg character, Secen of Nine represents a fusion of humanity and technology. She experiences a mystical, noetic awareness while engaged in the practice of science. While gazing at an “Omega” molecule, understood by the Borg to symbolise ultimate complexity in ultimate harmony, Seven of Nine experiences something that transcends the bounds of her understanding. Seven of Nine’s mystical experience maintains the emphasis within Voyager on the compatibility, rather than conflict, between science and religion.

There is a very solid argument to be made that the later seasons of Voyager make a conscious effort to use the Borg to explore the new age ideas that had largely been off-loaded to Chakotay in earlier stories like The Cloud.

Renaissance drone.

The Omega Directive is perhaps the most obvious example, but the trend continues across the rest of the run. Infinite Regress uses the Borg Collective to explore Seven of Nine’s “past lives”, as she finds herself alternating between personalities assimilated by the collective. Similarly, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II unfold within a shared dream space (or collective unconscious) that recalls the psychological landscape navigated by Chakotay and the crew in Waking Moments.

Still, The Omega Directive is interesting in how it chooses to contrast Starfleet with the Borg Collective. Earlier episodes like Q Who? made a point to present the Borg Collective as a monstrous reflection of Starfleet, a grotesque dehumanising organisation with little regard for self-determination or individuality. The Borg Collective in Q Who? was in many ways an extension of the Federation suggested in episodes like The Measure of a Man, the organisation that would ask an officer to risk their life by submitting to an experiment to create a slave race.

Borg to death.

The Omega Directive contrasts Starfleet and the Borg Collective in how they approach the omega molecule. Starfleet retreats from the very idea of the molecule, classifying all information and preventing its proliferation. Starfleet sets a rigid boundary on the final frontier, a line of scientific curiousity that it will not cross. Once again, this is very much in keeping with the tone and perspective of Voyager as a whole. Voyager is a show about retreat from anything particularly challenging or new.

However, the Borg Collective are positioned as the more principled explorers, as the entity most purely devoted to concepts of evolving and learning. There is something unsettling about a version of Star Trek where the only people who want to expand the boundaries of knowledge are the monstrous Borg Collective. The Omega Directive suggests that the Borg are reckless or dangerous for wanting to know more about this mysterious molecule. After all, an explosion of omega molecules has disastrous consequences for everybody, not just the party responsible.

Looking into it.

This is very much in keeping with how Voyager portrays the Borg Collective. On Voyager, the Borg seem to be constantly pushing outwards and onwards, they are seeking to expand their sphere of influence. Of course, the Borg are doing this to satisfy their own colonial impulses, to grow the Collective. Voyager repeatedly insists that this is a very dangerous thing to do, that the Borg are shaking the boat with their arrogance. Their attempt to expand into fluidic space in the lead-up to Scorpion, Part I arguably put the entire universe at risk from Species 8472.

The dangers that the Borg create through their flirtation with the transcendent and the unknown can be contrasted with the safety and security of Voyager. The Borg are greedy and expansionist, they do not understand that there are apparently limits on knowledge. Voyager suggests that Borg are monstrous because of their thirst for knowledge, as much as for the actual physical harm that they cause to their victims. This is a Star Trek show where the bad guys are defined as such for seeking to extend their understanding of the universe.

“The Osega Omega Drive wasn’t very big in this quadrant, was it?”

The Omega Directive plays like Voyager is trying to push itself, but only within rigidly defined boundaries.

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4 Responses

  1. The concept of this episode always intrigued me, even if I felt that getting the rest of the crew to follow was lazily done and rather boring, but you bring up a lot of good points about the Borg, progress, and religion that I had never thought of. I never actually thought that the whole “research is evil” was a noticeable point, but now I can recall some similar episodes that exist in the same strain.
    Also, I had a chuckle when I noticed a bit of your notes on the Borg were similar to a rant I posted a while back. Granted, it’s not entirely out-of-the-box thinking there, but I still think it’s an interesting take on why the Borg have such a mythos around them in parts of the fanbase as unstoppable robot zombies.
    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      Yeah, Voyager is very much the “this far, no further!” Star Trek, which makes a nice companion to the “no, further!” Star Trek of Deep Space Nine.

  2. One aspect I’ve always found fascinating about the Borg is their near total creative sterility. They don’t seem to actually innovate anything, all knowledge and technology is stolen via forced assimilation. Even this episode, which comes the closest we’ve been given to anything regarding some uniquely Borg cultural belief reveals how their entire pursuit of ‘perfection’ seems to have come from other people.

    There is something rather sad about that even aside from the monstrous nature of the Borg, the idea of a people who can quite literally only grow externally and internally by banditry and kidnapping. In some ways it makes them seem even more pathetic than the Kazon for all their great power. What on Earth would the Borg do if they actually ‘won’ and assimilated every species worth assimilating?

    • Yeah, I mean, you could arguably go even further and argue that this makes them the perfect recurring antagonists for Voyager. Voyager is in many ways a show about defining the boundaries of the Star Trek franchise, of going further than anybody has gone before and retreating. The Borg perhaps reflect this, a culture that has atrophied and which is physically incapable of pushing any further on its own terms.

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