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Star Trek: Voyager – Dark Frontier, Part I (Review)

The fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager arrives at a point when the Rick Berman era of the Star Trek franchise has hit its midlife crisis.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is coming to an end, bring down the curtain on a seven-year period where there were always two franchise series boldly going simultaneously. Star Trek: Insurrection had been released into cinemas as a snapshot of that midlife crisis, where Michael Piller’s last script for the franchise found the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation desperately chasing their own youth and vitality on a planet with a fountain of youth.

Seven gets back in touch with her roots.

On the fifth season of Voyager, it seemed like the show turned inwards. The scripts for the fifth season are surprisingly retro and nostalgic in tone; Janeway’s reflections on the events of Caretaker in Night, the return of the Maquis and the Cardassians in Nothing Human, the indulgence of retro thirties sci-fi in Bride of Chaotica!, Tuvok’s childhood flashbacks in Gravity, the “telepathic pitcher plant” in Bliss, Seven’s trip back to the launch of Voyager in Relativity, Janeway’s investigation of her ancestor in 11:59.

However, there was a fundamental problem with all of this introspection. Voyager was a television series that had long struggled to define a unique identity, too often feeling like a half-hearted reheat of the leftovers from The Next Generation. It was very hard to turn the focus inwards when there wasn’t a lot unique or distinctive about Voyager. This is a show that was much closer to its end than to its beginning, and it still lacked any true sense of identity or self.

There’s coffee… I mean transwarp coils in that there Borg Sphere.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II serve as an example of this nostalgic indulgence, both in form and plot. It is a two-parter consciously designed to recapture the success of broadcasting The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II on the same night in the late fourth season. It is also a television movie that is very clearly patterned off the story for Star Trek: First Contact, borrowing key story beats and clear characters from that memorable Next Generation film.

However, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II also demonstrate the shallowness of Voyager‘s own internal memory. This is a story built around an act of narrative archeology within the larger Star Trek universe, touching on the secret history of humanity’s true first encounter of the Borg. However, that history is ultimately illusory, built around what feels like a misremembrance of one of the franchise’s most iconic alien species. As Voyager turns its gaze backwards, it discovers that it has no real history.

Drone warfare.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II make a great deal of sense from a production standpoint. Under producer Brannon Braga, Voyager had consciously pitched itself as a television series that was capable of telling bold and epic stories on a television budget. Whatever narrative shortcomings and storytelling weaknesses that Voyager might have had, the show was undoubtedly ambitious in terms of sheer scale and production.

The computer-generated imagery on nineties television might not have aged especially well, but it still opened up new possibilities for spectacle. Brannon Braga seized upon those possibilities, with Voyager often aiming for a broad blockbuster sensibility, for better and for worse. The floating viral agents in Macrocosm, Species 8472 in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, the high-stakes scale of Timeless, none of these would have been possible using the special effects limitations that defined The Next Generation.

Janeway’s Seven.

Of course, Deep Space Nine also pushed the boat out in terms of scale and spectacle. The space combat sequences in The Die is Cast and The Way of the Warrior really demonstrated what could be done on a television budget and a television schedule. However, it was Voyager that really embraced these technical advances as a narrative opportunity. Deep Space Nine used spectacle in service of a long-form story unfolding over years, an epic seasons-long war story. Voyager used spectacle to tell the kind of stories that audiences associated with spectacle.

Voyager embraced a very broad and sweeping blockbuster style, one that in many ways prefigures the approach of the JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films. From its third season, Voyager seemed to pitch itself as a television show telling miniature blockbusters on a weekly basis. It is telling that many of the most memorable episodes in this period are the sweeping two-parters, many of which feel like Star Trek television movies: 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.

Keeping it in the family.

In fact, the production team explicitly approached Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II as an opportunity to really embrace that storytelling sensibility. According to interviews with Cinefantastique, the production team hoped to blend this television movie style with a cinematic movie sensibility:

“We were heading into sweeps,” said Menosky. “Because of the success of airing The Killing Game in a single night [fourth season] the network and the studio were really interested in doing a Voyager movie, a two-part episode that was aired on a single evening. But we had no idea what we were going to do. Brannon wrote this amazingly complete story memo that had everything.”

Braga recall, “I really felt we needed something spectacular for February sweeps. One thing that I think has defined Voyager in the past couple of years are our big events, the two-parters. We had all these different storylines laying around having to do with the Borg. I just cobbled them together late one night and we had Dark Frontier. To do a Borg movie, telefilm, or whatever you want to call it, we had to outdo First Contact. The space battles and the Queen had to be more elaborate.”

Action and adventure were the order of the day. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are consciously designed to foreground spectacle and dynamism ahead of character and theme, structured very much as a rollercoaster piece of blockbuster television.

A no-contact sport.

This is obvious from the structuring of the two individual episodes. Both Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are consciously built around plot rather than character. More than that, both Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are quite pointedly built around the exact same plot. Taken individually, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are both heist stories, in which Janeway mounts a dangerous mission to steal something from the Borg Collective. In Dark Frontier, Part I, it is a transwarp coil. In Dark Frontier, Part II, it is Seven of Nine.

There is something very disconcerting in this structure. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II were broadcast (and released on home media) as a single feature-length episode of Voyager, like The Way of the Warrior was broadcast on Deep Space Nine. However, the story feels like two very distinct episodes. It is easier to cleave Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II into two separate stories than Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, or The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

The great Borg robbery.

More than that, there is something slightly distracting in the fact that Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are essentially the same story on repeat. The idea of Janeway organising a heist on the Borg Collective is very clever and very compelling. In fact, it is arguably one of the few truly interesting stories that Voyager could tell using the Borg Collective, because it is predicated on the idea that Janeway is significantly out-classed by the Borg. So it is certainly a compelling hook, setting up a nice underdog dynamic.

However, it feels like Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II would work better as a more in-depth and intricate exploration of one single heist. After all, the “heist movie” is a firmly established film genre. Ocean’s Eleven, Reservoir Dogs, The Town, Dog Day Afternoon and The Italian Job demonstrate that a heist thriller can sustain at least ninety minutes of screentime. These stories allow room for character development, escalation, procedure. Doing all of that within a science-fiction framework should make for compelling television.

A hive of activity.

Instead, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II blaze through two separate heists. Janeway steals a transwarp coil from the Borg Collective in Dark Frontier, Part I and then rescues Seven of Nine from the Borg Collective in Dark Frontier, Part II. This is a very frustrating and somewhat redundant structure, as if Future’s End, Part I had sent the crew back to the mid-nineties while Future’s End, Part II sent them back to the mid-eighties.

It might work if the two heists were better integrated, if they were treated as logical escalations in scale. After all, Janeway is targeting a single damaged Borg Sphere in Dark Frontier, Part I, but is infiltrating the very heart of the Borg Collective in Dark Frontier, Part II. It would make sense if the two-parter suggested that heist in Dark Frontier, Part I was difficult, but that the heist in Dark Frontier, Part II was impossible. However, it does not work that way. If anything, the crew spend more time worrying about the seemingly easier heist in Dark Frontier, Part I.

Seven was never Wild(man) about the idea to begin with.

This sense of repetition is very much rooted in the fact that Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are clearly positioned as action-driven episodes rather than character-driven episodes. There is no reason for Dark Frontier, Part II to focus on Janeway’s mission to rescue Seven of Nine. In theory, the episode feels like it should focus on the character-heavy scenes between the Borg Queen and Seven of Nine. That is where the drama lies.

However, Dark Frontier, Part II keeps returning to Janeway on Voyager to focus on the rescue mission. After a brief teaser reintroducing the Borg Queen to Seven of Nine, Dark Frontier, Part II cuts back to Voyager. There is some technobabble about the new transwarp coil, and some hand-wringing about a possible mission to rescue Seven of Nine involving a plan from Naomi Wildman. All of this feels pointless, given that the audience knows that Janeway must rescue Seven of Nine because Jeri Ryan is quite simply not leaving Voyager.

Drink it all in.

It would be more interesting to focus on the relationship between the Borg Queen and Seven of Nine, to explore their interactions and their debates. In some ways, this confrontation was inevitable. Voyager teased the idea of Seven of Nine returning to the Borg in episodes like The Gift and Hope and Fear. This is the culmination of that idea. However, Dark Frontier, Part II tends only to return to the scenes between the Borg Queen and Seven of Nine for big dramatic action scenes; the assimilation of “Species 10026” at the midpoint, Janeway’s rescue mission at the climax.

Most of the interesting character beats involving the Borg Queen and Seven of Nine seem to unfold within the episode’s ellipses. When does Seven decide to help the Borg Queen? How does Seven accept that blood on her hands? After all, Dark Frontier, Part II makes Seven of Nine complicit in the assimilation of an entire species. Seven is party to what amounts to the genocide of “three hundred ninety two thousand” people. That is a compelling character beat and something that needs to be explored. However, that complicity is not explored until Survival Instinct.

Collective concerns.

Similarly, the climax of Dark Frontier, Part I hinges on Seven of Nine effectively betraying Janeway to the Borg Collective. Seven had been in communication with the Borg Queen without telling anybody, and manipulated her way on to the away team in order to surrender herself to the Borg Collective. Even allowing for the attempt to bargain for Voyager’s safety, that is a pretty severe betrayal of trust. In theory, it is on par with Prey, another episode in which Seven of Nine unilaterally decides to act in what she perceives to be the best interests of the crew.

There should be consequences for Seven of Nine’s betrayal at the climax of Dark Frontier, Part I, just as there were consequences for her actions at the climax of Prey. In fact, Seven seems to acknowledge as much when Janeway comes to rescue her at the climax of Dark Frontier, Part II. “I betrayed the crew of Voyager, threatened you with assimilation,” she admits to Janeway. “I did not expect you to return for me.” Of course, Janeway had to return for Seven; she would never abandon here. However, the episode still glosses over Seven’s betrayal.

“Never leave a crew member behind. Except, of course, if you have to wipe any record of that crew member from the ship’s records to preserve the EMH. Then you can probably leave them behind.”

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are much more interested in action set pieces than in character development, which is really frustrating. The idea of returning Seven of Nine to the Borg Collective is a fascinating plot hook, but Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are much more interested in explosions and spectacle than in the inner workings of the character’s psychology. It is a very frustrating narrative choice, with Voyager‘s narrative strengths playing to the weakest aspects of Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II.

Of course, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II don’t repeat just one other. The episode is very clearly modeled on the plot and structure of First Contact. This makes a great deal sense. First Contact was the most successful Star Trek feature film of the Berman era, in terms of box office and in terms of reception. It was also co-written by Brannon Braga, and centred around the Borg. It makes sense that Voyager would be influenced by the success of First Contact. However, it is disconcerting just how heavy an influence First Contact exerts on Voyager.

Torpedoing any hint of character development.

In some ways, this is another expression of the nostalgia that runs through Voyager, but which has built to critical mass in the fifth season. Voyager is a show that is consciously about retreating to the familiar, about repeating what worked before and hoping to placate an audience. It is quite literally a show about characters whose sole objective is not exploration or discovery, but a return to the world that they know and understand.

So many Voyager episodes are just retreads of old ideas. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II is really just an update of Star Trek IV: The Voyager Home. Threshold is a repeat of Genesis. Bliss is a contemporary take on the Star Trek version of Moby Dick, a story familiar as Obsession or The Doomsday Machine or Star Trek II: The Wraith of Khan. Author, Author is a holographic take on The Measure of a Man.

Yeah, this might take a little while.

There are other obvious parallels to be made, with even the structure of Voyager inviting comparisons to The Next Generation. Having teased the Borg as a major opponent, Voyager finally throws the crew into conflict with them for the epic two-parter bridging the third and fourth seasons; exactly like The Next Generation. Then, in the two-parter bridging the sixth and seventh season, Voyager explores a breakdown of the hive mind within the Borg Collective that seems to fracture the collective consciousness; just like The Next Generation.

Even the final episode of Voyager is designed to consciously mirror the final episode of The Next Generation. In fact, Endgame is a time travel episode that involves an extended section set in a fairly depressing future where time has taken its toll on the cast and their relationships to one another. This obviously parallels All Good Things…, the finale of The Next Generation, which is a time travel story where one third of the narrative unfolds in a future where the crew have drifted apart from one another. This attempt at imitation is barely disguised.

Disarming observations.

This is to say nothing of how awkwardly Voyager tries to slot in familiar Star Trek signifiers into its storytelling. Q from The Next Generation is a recurring supporting character in episodes like Death Wish, The Q and the Grey and Q2. The Ferengi from The Price reappear in False Profits. Voyager would encounter a Cardassian missile in Dreadnought and a Klingon ship in Prophecy. The Borg had been the most iconic new alien species of the Berman era, so they were introduced in Blood Fever and Unity, and promptly became a recurring feature of Voyager.

Even separated by half the galaxy, Voyager was never too far removed from familiar Star Trek faces. Reginald Barclay appeared in Projections. William Riker appeared in Death Wish. LeVar Burton appeared in Timeless. Deanna Troi will appear in Pathfinder and Lifeline. In some ways, Voyager felt like a cost-effective Next Generation cover-band. Seven was even introduced to fill the gap in the ensemble for a character like Data.

“Honey, could you pump some Ron Jones music in the soundtrack, just to really recapture the mood?”

This is to say nothing of the general, hard-to-put-a-finger-on sense of familiarity that pervades a lot of Voyager episodes. Most Deep Space Nine episodes have a tone or outlook that serve to distinguish them from The Next Generation, to the point that even episodes that were originally pitched during the run of The Next Generation (like One Little Ship or Time’s Orphan) feel very much like Deep Space Nine stories. In contrast, a lot of Voyager episodes often feel like they could have been repurposed from The Next Generation.

It would be fairly easy to rewrite Voyager episodes like Parallax, Time and Again, Ex Post Facto, Emanations, Heroes and Demons, Cathexis, Twisted, Resistance, Prototype, Deadlock, Innocence, The Thaw, Tuvix, The Chute, Remember, Sacred Ground, Warlord, Macrocosm, Alter Ego, Coda, Rise, Real Life, Displaced, Nemesis, Scientific Method, Random Thoughts, Mortal Coil, Waking Moments, Retrospect, Vis à Vis or Unforgettable to work as Next Generation episodes.

Looking for scraps.

It is hard to quantify that measure of similarity, even allowing for the use of stock Star Trek plot elements like transport duplicates or strange anomalies or body possession. It feels more like the subtle way that familiar samples and melodies have been appropriated and woven into the background of modern songs so that they feel familiar and unplaceable at once. As Jia Tolentino relates:

Melodies recur often on the radio: pop songs borrow from other pop songs, frequently without permission, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not. Occasionally, when the similarity becomes too obvious, or when the song doing the borrowing hits the charts, the earlier song’s writers are cut in after the fact, preventing a formal dispute. Intent doesn’t have to be proved in a copyright challenge over music: these cases hinge on the questions of access (whether the artist might have heard the song he’s accused of using) and substantial similarity (whether an average listener would hear an echo in the two songs)

In many ways, it feels like an expression of same nostalgic and reflexive impulses that have infiltrated popular culture. Author Simon Reynolds has suggested that contemporary popular culture is dominated by “an absence of future, the repetition of the already-heard.” This is reflected in the use of samples in pop songs, and of remakes, prequels and sequels in other modes of pop culture.

Pop culture is coiled around itself.

Again, it feels very much like Voyager is paving the way for the JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise, effectively a “greatest hits” repackaging of elements that the production team consider to be quintessential Star Trek. More than any other Star Trek show, Voyager seems to consider itself displaced in time, where both the future and the past seem eerily similar. There is something savage and cannibalistic in all of this, the Star Trek franchise eagerly transforming itself into a ravenous ouroboros.

That tail is getting shorter, with Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II devouring a feature film adaptation that was only two years old at this point. The cycle of nostalgia had kicked into overdrive, to the point that Voyager was no longer even borrowing characters and concepts from a television show that existed before it premiered. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II eagerly recycle character dynamics and plot beats from First Contact, the well-received Next Generation feature film.

“Yes, Seven. You have to watch every episode of The Next Generation. Even the first two seasons.”

To be fair, First Contact had already had a significant influence on Voyager. The use of the Borg in the third and fourth season, in episodes like Blood Fever, Unity, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, had been largely inspired by the release of First Contact during that time. The production design of the Borg in Voyager closely resembled the look and feel of the Borg from First Contact, as opposed to the Borg that appeared in The Next Generation. It seems highly unlikely that the character of Seven of Nine would even exist without First Contact.

In some ways, First Contact would become the most influential piece of Berman era Star Trek. As much as the lighter tone and lower stakes of Insurrection might have been a reaction against First Contact, the second Next Generation movie cast a very long shadow over the rest of the Berman era. Star Trek: Enterprise is as much a sequel to First Contact as a prequel to the original Star Trek. Indeed, the Borg would even make an appearance in Regeneration, an episode that was very consciously a sequel to loose ends from First Contact.

A (cyber)net(ic) gain.

First Contact exerts considerable pull over Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Most obviously, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II introduce the character of the Borg Queen into the continuity of Voyager, with Susanna Thompson taking over the role from Alice Krige. The Borg Queen would become a recurring fixture of Voyager, with Thompson reprising the role in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II before Krige reclaimed the mantle in Endgame. The Borg Queen was a huge deal in First Contact, but she is embraced readily by Voyager.

However, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II don’t just borrow the Borg Queen herself. The two-parter makes a point to use the Borg Queen in a way that consciously evokes her role in First Contact. Once again, the Borg Queen is cast as temptress trying to seduce a member of the lead cast. In First Contact, the Borg Queen offered Data a taste of humanity. In Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, the Borg Queen tries to lure Seven of Nine back into the Borg Collective. In both cases, the Borg Queen squares off with the ship’s captain for that crew member.

Queen of minds.

This use of the Borg Queen in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II is particularly glaring because it makes no logical sense from a plotting perspective. There is simply no reason why the Borg Queen wouldn’t simply assimilate Seven of Nine, despite some hand-wave-y dialogue explaining that Seven is “much too valuable to [the Borg] with [her] individuality intact.” However, her individuality is exactly what would prevent her from being useful to the Borg, because it would allow her to refuse to cooperate with the Queen’s objectives.

Indeed, at the climax of Dark Frontier, Part II, the Borg Queen seems to come to that realisation and decides to just assimilate her anyway. This feels like very clumsy plotting, a reminder of how much of Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II is predicated on plot-driven storytelling rather than more organic character development. It feels like the plot is structured so that the Borg Queen only finally decides to just assimilate Seven of Nine at the exact same moment that Janeway arrives to rescue her, a decision designed to raise the stakes rather than serve the characters.

Turn on, tune in, and Borg out.

Still, the big surprise is not that the Queen decides to assimilate Seven at the climax of Dark Frontier, Part II. The big surprise is that the Queen decides not to assimilate Seven at the earliest possible opportunity at the end of Dark Frontier, Part I. More to the point, with an entire Borg Collective at her disposal, the big surprise is that the Borg Queen has never made a sincere and tangible effort to assimilate Voyager. There is no reason for the Borg Queen to act the way that she does in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, beyond the fact that she acted that way in First Contact.

However, First Contact made a point to explain why the Borg Queen was trying to seduce Data. There was something concrete that the Borg Queen needed from Data that could not be provided by assimilation, which would grant her control of the ship. In contrast, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II never makes it clear what exactly the Borg Queen wants from Seven of Nine. The episode suggests that it is something vague to do with her time with humanity, but it is never made clear why just assimilating her (even in the style of Locutus) would not work.

It might work Nine times out of ten.

(To be fair, it makes sense in thematic terms. First Contact presented the Borg Queen as a Luciferian figure, a temptress. On top of her practical motivations for seducing Data, the Borg Queen reveled in the act of corruption itself. Picard explained at the climax of First Contact that the Borg Queen wanted him to surrender himself willingly to her, to surrender his soul as well as his body to her. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II certainly hints at this idea, that the Borg Queen wants Seven’s soul. However, it is never developed in concrete terms.)

Even beyond the focus on the Borg Queen’s attempted corruption of Seven of Nine, there is a sense that Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II owe a stylistic debt to First Contact. As with Drone earlier in the fifth season, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II makes use of the spherical ship design from First Contact. In fact, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II moves somewhat away from the classic cube design, with the teaser featuring an attack by what might be best described as a Borg Cuboid.

The hole in things.

At the end of Dark Frontier, Part I, there are several shots that consciously lift their concepts from First Contact. Reversing a memorable moment from the battle at the start of First Contact, the end of Dark Frontier, Part I features a sphere flying into a larger welcoming structure. The assembly of the Borg Queen is at once both more complex and less convincing than the equivalent shot in First Contact, a reminder of the differences in production time and resources between a weekly television show and a big-budget feature film.

The strong sense of nostalgia for First Contact is interesting, because it is imperfect in several ways. There is something uncanny in the way that Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II attempt to reproduce the look and feel First Contact, a reminder of just how difficult it can be to capture the texture of that earlier film. There are certain imperfections in this attempted recreation, from the way that the episodes contorts to emulate the plot beats and dynamics of the feature film through to the obviously lower television special effects budget.

Piecing it all together.

However, there is also a sense that a lot of this recreation is just a little “off”, like a fuzzy memory of First Contact rather than a faithful recreation. The Borg Queen is quite obviously the same character that she was in First Contact. The costume and make-up design are consistent, as is the character motivation and the way in which she operates. At the same time, Susanna Thompson is quite obviously not Alice Krige. There is something weird in this, as if the episode is assuring the audience that it is the same while emphasising these little differences.

Notably, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II is directed by Cliff Bole rather than Jonathan Frakes. Frakes was in the process of transitioning to film direction with movies like Clockstoppers and Thunderbirds. Frakes had not directed an episode of Star Trek since Prototype in the second season of Voyager. Continuing the theme of “almost, but not quite” emulating First Contact, Cliff Bole had directed The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, the episodes that inspired First Contact.

Picking up the pieces.

Interestingly enough, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II would be the last episodes of Star Trek to be directed by Bole. While this was never intended, Bole was quite happy to leave on that particular note:

I didn’t know when I did that episode that it would be my last Star Trek, but I had moved on a little in the business and I guess I felt that it was coming to an end. I didn’t expect to do Enterprise because I was working elsewhere. So it just came to an end. But I was very happy with Dark Frontier.

Bole’s direction of the two-parter is solid, even if the production arguably feels more like a television episode than some of the other blockbuster episodes like Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II or The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

That healthy green glow.

In particular, Bole somewhat overdoes it with the green lighting on the Borg sets. When the Borg invaded the Enterprise in First Contact, everything became darker and more ominous; the Borg were defined in terms of their black cybernetic implants and their pale grey skin. There was something moody and uncomfortable about the way that those scenes were framed and lit. In contrast, the Borg scenes on Voyager tend towards camp with bright neon green saturating the shot so that there is seldom any darkness lurking at the edge of the frame.

In some ways, this is a reminder of how far television has come since the broadcast of Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Modern television has higher production value, but also much more ambitious lighting and sound design. During the nineties, television was still being produced for (relatively) small home entertainment systems receiving (possibly poor) signal in standard definition. As such, twentieth-century television was frequently lit in such a way as to ensure that even audiences receiving the grainiest picture would have some idea what was going on.

Mind and body.

As much as Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are trying to evoke First Contact, they also feel like a hazy recollection of it. One of the big recurring themes of Voyager is the idea of history, whether the future that lies ahead or the past that falls behind. One of the big recurring anxieties of Voyager is the fear that the characters exist in something resembling a perpetual “now”, a single moment stretched across the seven-year run without any history or any future. There is no true forward momentum, and no past to provide a firm foundation.

After all, when Voyager imagines its future, it tends to be an extension of the present stretching indefinitely. Shattered imagines a future version of Voyager that looks pretty much the same as the ship has always looked, manned by familiar characters. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II suggests that Starfleet will continue to exist into the twenty-ninth century, at which points they explore (and protect) the time-line as much as the frontier. Voyager cannot conceive of a future in which anything truly unpredictable or unforeseen might happen.

That healthy off-green glow.

While the future is presented as relatively stable by virtue of serving as an extension of the present, Voyager is far more anxious about the past. Repeatedly over the course of Voyager, the characters encounter alien species that have lost touch with their history and become disconnected from their roots. RememberDistant Origin and Living Witness all focus on societies where the historical record has been undermined or distorted. Latent Image plays out this idea as a psychological thriller focusing on the EMH.

One of the great ironies of Voyager is the recurring sense that the show’s own worries about the distortion and manipulation of the historical record reflect the series’ own deepset flaws. Voyager is a television show that frequently lacks any true sense of continuity or history, populated by characters who are very rarely impacted or shaped by the events that have occurred to them. Most episodes of Voyager seem to exist in a weird stasis, without any tether to earlier adventures; they could unfold in almost any order.

A ticking time bomb…

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II reinforce this idea of Voyager as a show without any concrete sense of history, both in terms of the hazy reconstructions of First Contact and in terms of a muddled engagement with the very basics of the franchise’s own internal continuity. To be fair, the characters in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II explicitly reference fourth season episodes like The Gift or The Raven or Hope and Fear, but the episode’s memory struggles to reach beyond that point.

There are several details that reinforce this recurring sense of warped and distorted continuity. “You are the only Borg that has ever returned to a state of individuality,” the Borg Queen tells Seven of Nine at one point. This is very clearly untrue. Picard recovered his humanity in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. Hugh became an individual in I, Borg. A large swathe of the Borg Collective broke away in Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. Even within Voyager itself, the survivors of the Borg Cube in Unity struck out on their own.

Father of the freakin’ year.

To be clear, it makes sense that a long-running franchise would lose track of continuity at some stage. At the time when Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II were broadcast, there were almost six hundred episodes of Star Trek. In any complex piece of fiction spanning decades, there are bound to be occasionally mistakes and contradictions, particularly when that fiction is written by different people working on different branches. It is churlish to obsess about the minutia of continuity, particularly given how much of it there is.

However, the continuity errors in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are not simple mistakes. They do not conflict with kernels of information buried in the background of some forgotten exposition scene from a middling episode that aired decades earlier. This is not an example of fudging dates, or changing make-up, or reworking some set design. Instead, the continuity errors in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are rooted in deliberate misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the entire plots of several of the franchise’s biggest episodes.

Too little too (assimi)late…

This is perhaps most obvious with the subplot running through the two-parter focusing on the Hansen family. The Federation’s first contact with the Borg came in Q Who?, during the second season of The Next Generation, following on from a mystery in The Neutral Zone. Although the time-travel in First Contact provides a little leeway, it is hard to reconcile the first contact with the Borg in Q Who? with what is presented in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. The two-parter provides a contradictory snapshot of potential first contact.

Of course, The Gift and The Raven already established that Erin and Magnus Hansen were assimilated by the Borg Collective long before Picard came into contact with those robot zombies. However, those earlier episodes were just vague enough that the details might be smudged. Maybe the Hansens did not know what they were looking for; maybe they encountered the Borg Collective by accident. “They fancied themselves explorers,” Chakotay explained in The Gift, “but wanted nothing to do with Starfleet or the Federation.” That could work.

“We know nothing about them. Except for their name, their rough location, the fact that they have a Borg Queen and their defining characteristics. But, aside from that, nothing.”

Instead of skirting that very carefully threaded piece of continuity, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II throw everything to the wind. The Hansens are revealed to have been explicitly hunting for the Borg rather than working as “explorers.” More than that, the two-parter suggests that Erin and Magnus Hansen did not stumble upon the Borg Collective by accident. The couple began their adventure with a very firm idea of what they were looking for, even going so far as to seek support from Starfleet and the Federation for the mission.

“Are we going to see the Borg?” Annika asks her father, confirming that Erin and Magnus already know the name of the alien species that they are chasing. “We’ll be the first humans to study them up close,” Magnus assures his daughter. When she asks what the Borg look like, Magnus responds, “We’re not sure exactly, but we think they might look a lot like us, but with technology inside their bodies.” Providing all of this exposition so early in the mission is a strange narrative choice, because it suggests that Picard should not have been so surprised by the Borg in Q Who?

First first contact.

This continuity snafu was not an accident or an oversight. In fact, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are very aware of the continuity they are violating. In a nice touch, the Hansens follow the Borg through the Neutral Zone, acknowledging the introduction of the Borg as a concept in The Neutral Zone. Discussing the episode with Cinefantastique, writer Joe Menosky insisted that it was a conscious choice to eschew continuity:

I think you are denying new audiences the chance to see this arc that couldn’t be told if you were going to be faithful to something that was established a decade ago. We’re not willing to be that rigid about continuity. It’s not that we don’t know these things. It’s just that we choose to ignore them when it suits our purposes. We know what we are doing when we dismiss continuity. You can’t accuse us of ignorance. We can be accused of arrogance, but that’s about as far as it goes.

There is something hypocritical in all of this. For all that Voyager is concerned about a world in which history has no meaning and in which memory can be warped and distorted, the series is an eager participant in a culture of forgetting and rewriting. Voyager becomes an expression of that crisis of history against which it repeatedly rails. Voyager is a show anxious about the loss of a concrete and agreed sense of past, but which refuses to accept its own past.

Heist stakes.

This feeling of disconnect permeates Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, much like it soaks through the rest of Voyager. Even the smaller character beats and decisions in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II seem to operate with no sense of context or history. It often feels like the characters featured in a given episode of Voyager might be copies or imitations of these individuals, something that the show toys with in episodes like Deadlock, Course: Oblivion and Live Fast and Prosper. They look and sound familiar, but there is no continuity of character.

Dark Frontier, Part I reinforces this sense of discontinuity early in the episode during a small scene with Janeway and Chakotay inspecting the wreckage of a destroyed Borg ship. “By my count, we’ve added at least two years to our journey by avoiding the Borg,” Janeway reflects at on point. “I’m tired of turning tail every time we detect a Cube.” It is certainly an interesting detail, one that might serve as character motivation for Janeway’s reckless decision to steal a transwarp coil from a damaged Borg ship. There is just one problem. It never happened.

Balls of steel.

The audience has never seen Janeway reverse course at the first sign of a Borg ship. When the crew found a deceased Borg corpse in Blood Fever, Janeway decided to push ahead. When Chakotay was almost assimilated in Unity, Janeway decided to push ahead. When the ship reached the boundaries of Borg space in Scorpion, Part I, Janeway decided to forge an alliance with the Borg Collective rather than back away or make any attempt to circumnavigate their territory. While Janeway encountered the Borg in episodes like Hope and Fear or Drone, she never avoided them.

Of course, it is entirely possible that these encounters happened off-screen, but that feels unearned. Although Voyager has begun eroding their power and prestige, the Borg Collective is still a pretty big deal. They are still an enemy with incredible resources and a considerable technological advantage. Every encounter with the Borg should be terrifying and unnerving, should put the crew on edge, should have the main characters worried about their continued existence.

Holo promises.

As such, to relegate such confrontations to unseen and unreferenced off-screen encounters feels cheap and disingenuous. It feels like cheap and lazy writing when Janeway broaches that idea in Dark Frontier, Part I. It is a transparent attempt to justify a reckless decision on the part of Janeway, in a manner that has not been earned. It is very clearly an example of Braga and Menosky attempting to rewrite continuity and history in order to serve the demands of this particular scene in this particular episode.

This sense of discontinuity is compounded by the dialogue that follows. “Maybe I should go to red alert and get it over with,” Chakotay muses. “You’re about to drop one of your bombshells.” Janeway is curious. “Now what makes you say that?” she inquires. Chakotay smiles. “The way you fiddle with your comm badge. You do it every time.” It is, in theory, a nice bit of characterisation between Janeway and Chakotay, a reminder that these two characters have been working together for the better part of five years. It is nice that Chakotay picks up on such things.

“Your body’s going to be going through some changes soon, but cybernetic implants are nothing to be afraid of.”

However, it is also incredibly disingenuous. The audience has never seen Janeway fidgeting with her comm badge before making a tough decision. Unlike almost any other physical or verbal tic that might have caught Chakotay’s attention, the audience would have noticed if Janeway had that physical habit. It is a really awkward physical gesture. Given where the comm badge is positioned on a Starfleet uniform, it is very hard for a character to “fiddle” with it in a way that is inconspicuous or under the radar.

Once again, this is an attempt to casually shoehorn in a detail that sounds like a character beat, but without any of the care or attention to detail that would make such a character beat work. It is almost easier to believe that Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II unfold on a weird and parallel version of Voyager featuring duplicates of the characters that they audience has never encountered before. Maybe this version of Janeway fidgets with her comm badge, maybe this version of Janeway has lost two years to running from the Borg.

Commanding attention.

This sense of disconnect is reinforced by how different this version of Janeway feels, compared to the version suggested in earlier fifth season episodes. Brannon Braga had made a strong push for Janeway as a character defined by situational ethics, a character who would make whatever pragmatic decision was necessary to get her crew home. Obviously, this version of Janeway was radically different from the version who appeared in early episodes like Prime Factors, State of Flux or Alliances. Nevertheless, the fifth season made a solid push for its own vision of Janeway.

In episodes like Night, Nothing Human and Latent Image, the fifth season repeatedly suggested that Janeway was perfectly willing to put the safety of the crew ahead of the security of one person. In Night, Janeway plotted a suicide mission to stay behind while the crew got closer to home. In Nothing Human, Janeway authorised a surgical procedure on Torres without the latter’s consent, because the ship needed its senior engineer. In Latent Image, Janeways decided the EMH was too valuable to risk losing, and so wiped his memories to keep him functional.

All the best drones have mommy issues.

These are all very tough decisions, and they serve as an effective way to delineate Janeway from other Star Trek leads like Kirk or Picard. However, this more cynical and pragmatic version of Janeway is impossible to reconcile with the version of the character in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. In this two-parter, Janeway decides to risk most of the senior staff (and, tangentially, Voyager itself) to mount a rescue mission for a crew member who has effectively defected to an enemy power. In many ways, this feels like a very sharp reversal of recent characterisation.

With the fifth season of Voyager, there is a sense that the Rick Berman era has become unmoored from its own past. The fifth season often seems to be trying to create its own history, whether by putting Seven on the ship before launch in Relativity or focusing on Tuvok’s training on Vulcan in Gravity or Janeway’s memory of Shannon O’Donnel in 11:59. There is a sense that Voyager is frantically trying to create a history, because its memory of its own history is fading. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II are very much part of that.

Everything comes apart.

Voyager has always believed that the only way forward was backwards, but it now feels like even the most distinctive landmarks on that journey have become faded and blurred. Voyager has long been a show about chasing a memory, of trying to recapture a quintessential Star Trek feeling. In a cruel irony, that connection to history has been lost. Voyager has been humming a familiar tune so long that it has forgotten the lyrics. In some ways, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II feel like a half way point between First Contact and Enterprise.

If the past cannot be remembered, it might have to be invented.

12 Responses

  1. Even more than Far Beyond the Stars, Voyager liked to flirt with 90’s meta humor. Right away the writers let us know what we’re in for when Chakotay says, “Maybe I’ll go to red alert and get over with.” Which is more or less code for, ‘I’ve seen the Worf Gets Denied clip on youtube. ‘

    (It’s actually uncommon for the captain to seek counsel from his number one. Kirk did it in “Operation: Annihilate!” and I think Picard met with Data in “Justice”. But it’s mostly a one-way street. The likely explanation is that the captan needs to be reckless for their to be some kind of action or drama.

    Chakotay was never going to be a cherished character, by the writers or the fans, but Trek tradition says there HAS to be a number one to bounce ideas off their forehead, so this is them shrugging their shoulders.)

  2. “Voyager has always believed that the only way forward was backwards”

    I’ve noticed that, too, during the H&I marathon.

    My mind immediately goes back to Plinkett imploring LucasFilm to “come up with something new!” [clip of Dexter Jettser] “Wait, no…” [two-headed podracing announcer] “Aah! Stop coming up with things that are new!” [Jar-Jar zapped with electricity] “Stop!” [racist caricatures] “Please, no!”

    • Yeah, in many ways, Voyager is clearly paving the way thematically for Enterprise. A literal journey in search of the franchise’s roots is followed by a temporal journey back to the franchise’s roots. Space and time. Neither quite manages to find those roots, though. But I think the final two seasons of Enterprise come closer than most would give them credit for.

  3. Funny, no matter how many times I hear it, no matter who I hear it from, “It’s my continuity and I’ll break it if I want to” always sounds petty and spiteful to me. What is it about working in sci-fi that makes writers feel this way? We would rightly criticize a show set in “the real world” for fudging details like who was president, or when a war started.

    • Being honest, I am a lot more forgiving. I don’t mind fudging details to serve the needs of a story. Particularly given that the Star Trek universe was built brick-by-brick rather than all-at-once, so there are bound to be some inconsistencies and retroactive continuity is certain to be in the show’s DNA. At the same time, there is a threshold for me there, and Dark Frontier hits that threshold for me. I suspect it’s as much rooted in the quality of the story as anything else; if Dark Frontier were actually good, I’d probably forgive it.

      (I forgive Enterprise for Regeneration, which is one of the best episodes of the first two seasons; I don’t forgive it for Acquisition, which is not one of the worst episodes… but is just bad.)

      • I agree that the threshold is strongly tied to, if not entirely dependent on, the episode’s quality. If I may mangle a metaphor: when someone says “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” and then serves you a mediocre, or even bad, omelet, you do tend to wonder what sort of chickens those eggs might’ve grown up to be.

  4. It is funny given the theme of your review, that Janeway in part II explains to the Doctor that she read the last parts of the Hansen diaries to make sure that history would not repeat itself 😉

    And while I still find good things in the episode (I do remember it was quite a spectacle back then and it has some nice moments and small twists) I totally agree that Voyager kept lighting the Borg with way too much green…

    • I’m a big fan of several of the show’s Borg episodes – especially Scorpion, The Raven, Drone and Child’s Play. But Dark Frontier just doesn’t do it for me, personally.

  5. I feel the quote from the writer on breaking continuity, but making sure to show he knew they were doing so, is a sign of how lazy the writing was. What ‘suits our purposes’ is plot progression and appealing to the low-brow viewer. It’s like Fox News’ approach to news.

    I’m not sure they knew how to write their way out of continuity reality. And you can see the confrontation with Ronald D. Moore coming like a freight train in arrogant quotes like this.They feel they have a right to the fabric of the Trek universe and that fans should just shut up about it when they rip that fabric.

    They could easily have written in a beat with Anika’s father buying a tip from an alien in some bar, or finding a ruined borg scout ship somewhere.

    The beats with Janeway and her comm badge were deeply cringy. She is the most malleable lead character ever. From tea pots to an obsession with coffee; no crew left behind to killing anyone who stands in her way.

    Voyager is The Outer Limits of Trek series. “Stay tuned next week to find out what our whacky heroes are up to next!”

    • Ron Moore, in fact, was a moderate supporter of “breaking continuity”, and had little patience for the moribund concept of “canon” when it stood in the way of writing quality Star Trek scripts.

      Moore proved his anti-“canon” approach was the right one with his Klingon stories stretching across Next Generation and DS9, an aggressive reinvention of the Klingons that drew from some aspects of previous episodes and movies while discarding what wasn’t useful or helpful.

      And Moore’s issue with Voyager was rather that it left interesting concepts on the table, the best story ideas contained within its premise, rather than advancing them in ways that required serialized storytelling contained entirely within the series itself.

  6. As no stickler for Star Trek “canon” (a position I’m glad to share with Star Trek luminaries such as David Gerrold and Ron Moore), I nevertheless agree with you on the questions of continuity raised here. I think it comes down to the effective use of past elements.

    In this case, “Dark Frontier” uses elements of First Contact, most especially the Borg Queen, in direct continuity with that movie’s story, because that’s really the only way those elements have significance to the audience or to the show as a production… but “Dark Frontier” also states that this is the first time the events repeated from that movie have ever happened. The Queen asserts that Seven’s story is unique, when the entire exercise here is to repeat the story from First Contact, and in a way that acknowledges that previous story as the foundation for this one. This is a trap the episode sets for itself in what it chooses to use and what it chooses to repeat.

    An apt comparison might be DS9’s use of the ‘60s Klingon characters in “Blood Oath”. It’s not a problem at all that they update the characters’ looks or tweak their personalities, compared to the ‘60s episodes, to tell a quality story. But “Blood Oath” doesn’t try to assert, say, that these Klingons have never interacted with Starfleet or the Federation before. Because if DS9 were going to do that, why use those characters at all? Those past events are the only reason to bring them back.

    “Dark Frontier” tries exactly that trick, and predictably, it fails. The episode depends entirely on an element of First Contact’s story, the Borg Queen, that was built (for better or for worse) entirely around a past story where a particular character, Picard, reasserted his individuality after being absorbed by the Borg collective mind. When the Queen asserts that no one’s ever done that exact thing before Seven did, the unavoidable question looms: “Then why are you even using a character from First Contact here…?”

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