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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part I (Review)

Once again, Star Trek: Voyager takes its cues from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Next Generation bridged its sixth and seventh seasons with Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. That season-bridging two-parter was focused on discord within the Borg Collective, with the crew coming into contact with a group of drones that had separated themselves from the hive mind. It was a somewhat underwhelming two-parter, and is unlikely to rank alongside anybody’s favourite episodes (or even favourite two-parter) from the run of The Next Generation.

Things come to a head.

Even then, Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II had a lot of weight behind them. Glossing over the quality of the episodes themselves, they marked the big reintroduction of the Borg into The Next Generation following their appearance in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The only episode to feature the Borg in the three years between those two-parters was I, Borg, meaning that the return of the Borg at the end of the sixth season of The Next Generation was a big deal.

As such, this seems like a strange cue for Voyager to take from The Next Generation. After all, Voyager doesn’t have that same luxury of built-in anticipation. Voyager bridged its own third and fourth seasons with Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, but the Borg have been a steady fixture of the series since then. Ignoring the addition of characters like Seven of Nine and Icheb to the core cast, the Borg have played important roles in episodes like Hope and Fear, Drone, Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II, Collective and Child’s Play.

Picking their brains.

That is a lot of focus, particularly in the context of a television series like Voyager, where there is less continuity from episode to episode. Including hallucinations, dead bodies, screen images and holograms, the Borg appear in twenty-three episodes of Voyager, as compared to six episodes of The Next Generation. By way of contrast, the Hirogen appear in between nine and ten episodes, depending on how one counts Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Malon only appear in four episodes.

All of this is to say that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II feel like a rather blatant rip-off of an already underwhelming two-parter, but without the core appeal. Voyager has reached the point where the appearance of the Borg is a source of dread, but not for the reasons that it should be.

She’s had some bodywork done.

It is no secret that the writing staff on Voyager loved the Borg as a concept and as an antagonist. Brannon Braga was especially fascinated by the franchise’s cybernetic monsters, to the point that he would even write a comic book miniseries designed to function as “one final chapter to be told.” Braga cites the arrival of the Borg on Voyager as the moment that the series came into its own:

We hadn’t found a way to give Voyager a stamp that said, ‘This is different.’ Yes, it’s a female captain, which I think was a great thing to do, but, in the end, they’ve got to have really cool stories. And whether she’s a man or woman or a chimpanzee, doesn’t really matter.

In my opinion, Voyager didn’t really ignite till we put the Borg in it, and then that’s really when, I think, that people said, ‘OK, here’s a big, fat exciting action show with the Borg in it, now I see what Voyager can do.’ But that’s just my opinion.

There is absolutely and undeniably some truth in this observation. Voyager had a very troubled early existence, with the first and second seasons serving as a battleground between Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor over the direction of the series. Piller’s departure steadied the ship in the third season, but Voyager only really came into its own in the leap from the third to fourth seasons.

A deep and dreamless regeneration.

Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II undeniably represented a coming of age for Voyager. It is telling that the two-parter introduced the character of Seven of Nine, who is perhaps (for better or worse) the most iconic and recognisable character on Voyager despite only appearing in the final four seasons of the show. Although Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II provided an oft-overlooked springboard, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II paved the way for Brannon Braga’s action- and spectacle-driven Voyager storytelling; Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, Timeless.

In this context, it makes sense that Voyager would latch on to the Borg as an avatar of that success. The Borg were a symbol of what the production team believed to be working with Voyager. This idea was reinforced by the relative success of Star Trek: First Contact, the most critically and commercially successful film to star the cast of The Next Generation. The Borg were cool, they were interesting, they caught the public imagination. Braga argued that, “like the Klingons did so long ago, they’ve become part of the fabric of Star Trek.” So, the urge to return to them made sense.

“I mean, how could we not promote you after you went through Alice?”

At the same time, it should be noted that The Next Generation itself had been in a very similar position. The first two seasons of The Next Generation were a spectacular disaster, with high-profile departures and massive creative disagreements, coupled with chaos behind the scenes and a lot of garbage played out in front of the camera. It was only when Michael Piller took control of The Next Generation during the third season that things began to steady. That third season built towards The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II.

It is impossible to overstate the influence and impact of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. In many ways, that two-part signalled the arrival of The Next Generation. In fact, Brannon Braga’s earliest memories of working on the franchise were tied to that epic two-parter, meeting Michael Piller while he was trying to figure out how to break the plot of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. That two-parter exerts a strong pull over the Star Trek franchise as a whole and the Berman era in particular. Emissary roots Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in that two-parter.

Always an Ensign, never a Lieutenant Junior Grade…

However, The Next Generation consciously resisted the pull of the Borg as a convenient adversary. Looking at The Next Generation, it is remarkable how rarely the Borg showed up as a major threat. Although the Borg were the most iconic and most successful new aliens to be introduced in The Next Generation, the production team were careful not to be defined by the Borg. Picard and his crew could go entire seasons (and more) between encounters with Borg. The Borg were a big part of The Next Generation, but never treated as a defining part of it.

In some ways, Voyager‘s refusal to restrain its enthusiasm for the Borg speaks to some of the deeper issues with the series as a whole. The Next Generation refused to rest on its laurels, and was constantly trying new things. At the same time that Next Generation was doing its big bombastic Borg two-parter, it was teasing long-form storytelling with the Klingons in episodes like Sins of the Father and Reuinion. Even in its final season, The Next Generation was clumsily playing with serialisation in its introduction of the Maquis.

Borg to be bad.

Voyager was never that bold or that experimental, particularly after the birthing pains of the first two seasons. For most of its run, Voyager was willing to coast on the momentum of The Next Generation without trying to push itself forward in any meaningful way. Despite starting two years earlier than Voyager, Deep Space Nine managed to keep more in step with contemporary television storytelling, and embraced new possibilities while Voyager remained stuck in the mud. In this context, the Borg became a narrative crutch for Voyager.

To be fair, the issue isn’t even the Borg themselves. It is the introduction of the character of Seven of Nine, who serves as a window into Borg culture, with almost every episode about Seven of Nine becoming an episode about the Borg through association. Even when the Borg Collective isn’t an on-going concern of itself, drones are still turning up in stories like The Raven, One or Survival Instinct and the sets are still being used in episodes like Infinite Regress.

Seven’s dream man.

As Chris Allcock points out, it is hard to get a break from the Borg when one of the show’s central characters, and several other perepheral characters are tethered to the Borg by association:

Seven’s latent Borg knowledge makes her an expert on practically every species Voyager encounters. Seven’s Borg physiology makes her physically imposing, resistant to all sorts of space maladies and able to manage three shredded wheat for breakfast. Seven’s Borg nanoprobes can do – well, absolutely anything the plot demands. At one point she’s even given a group of Borg kids to babysit, just in case the episode accidentally didn’t Borg it up enough to keep the audience engaged.

Though Seven herself is the star of some of the show’s strongest stories, this constant reliance on the B-word makes the Collective feel mundane, so that when the Borg do show up in an episode it’s oddly anticlimactic. The Queen, meanwhile, resorts to calling Voyager in person just to troll and threaten the crew, because she seems obsessed with getting Seven of Nine back into the Collective for reasons that are never fully explained.

As weekly villains, the Borg have to be at their most vulnerable. The show’s final episode sees a supercharged Voyager tearing into Borg space loaded with future technology, single-handedly taking out a pursuing cube. The Collective have been reduced to little more than cannon fodder, and they quite literally carry Voyager home.

In its own weird way, every episode of Voyager following on from Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II is a Borg episode, with Seven of Nine as a reminder of how Janeway bested the Collective.

Early to bed and (assimi)late to rise…

The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II featured a single Borg ship tearing through the Federation and making it into orbit of Earth. Even in First Contact, another Borg ship manages to make it into the solar system before Picard intervenes at the last minute with information that he retained from his assimilation. In contrast, there is simply no way to maintain the idea of the Borg as a credible threat with Voyager featuring them so frequently. On Voyager, one lonely and isolated ship is enough to often outwit (and occasionally defeat) the Borg.

This problem is arguably compounded by the lack of serialisation on Voyager. The Borg should be an all-consuming threat to surrounding populations, and occupy a huge swathe of space in which they are the only major power. In fact, this is suggested in episodes like Blood Fever or Unity as part of the ominous lead-in to Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. However, the ship has repeatedly run into Borg ships and bases on its journey through the Delta Quadrant, inviting the audience to wonder what the point of a Borg outpost is, dozens of thousands of light years away from Borg space.

Nothing is overlooked.

The diminishing of the Borg on Voyager reached such a degree that even tie-in writers were forced to acknowledge it when writing for the Borg in spin-off media. Writer Christie Golden explains:

I agree, I think the Borg did risk losing their “teeth” because of overexposure. In the earlier Next Gen episodes and in First Contact, they were really scary in large part because they were so mysterious. Anything that loses its mystery loses part of its fear, and I don’t see how we could have had any Borg episodes without some of the mystery wearing off. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t really frightening. I went back to earlier Next Gen episodes and First Contact to rediscover their danger and fear. I even address in the book that fact that Janeway and crew are so used to the Borg they have forgotten how genuinely terrifying they can be.

The issue is not so much that Voyager has reached a point where Janeway no longer takes the Borg seriously, but that the audience has reached that point as well. A season-bridging two-parter focusing on the Borg should be a big deal. It is a tragedy that it is not.

Queen of the Damned.

To be fair to Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the two-parter does invest considerable time and effort in trying to make the Borg scary again. However, these efforts only serve to demonstrate how greatly the Borg have been diminished over the past three seasons, and thoroughly Voyager has lost sight of the threat that the Borg could represent to our heroes and how dangerous any confrontation with the Borg Collective should seem to the audience and to the characters.

This is obvious from the outset, with the teaser to Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II focusing on the Borg Queen. The Borg Queen is a complicated character with an awkward legacy. A narrative necessity in First Contact, the Borg Queen very quickly became a fixture of Voyager. The series was never entirely sure what to do with the character, to the point that it would very casually recast the role from Susanna Thompson back to Alice Krige between her appearance in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II and her final appearance in Endgame.

Subject to the Queen.

This confusion over the Borg Queen is evident in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. In First Contact, the Borg Queen was introduced to Data as an ethereal and mysterious figure with no defined origin and a hazily defined role. “I am the Collective,” she stated. “I bring order to chaos.” She rejected the idea that she “controlled” the Collective, instead seeming to exist as an anthropomorphic personification of the hive mind in a creepy and seductive form. In Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, her role is a lot more conventional and straightforward.

When she confronts a small child alone in the wilderness in Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the script takes a moment to humanise her. “I was just about your age when I was assimilated,” she explains. “I was worried then, too. But when I began to hear the others, hear their thoughts, I wasn’t afraid anymore.” It suggests a great emotional range than any other scene featuring the character, with Thompson playing the scene relatively straight rather than as seductive manipulation. It turns the Borg Queen into an individual character with a back story, rather than treating her as an anthropomorphic personification.

This latest Borg story has been spiked.

This single line is a strange narrative choice that undercuts a lot about the character, suggesting that she is really just an elevated drone. This does raise questions about how the same character could have been on the Cube in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, on the Enterprise in First Contact and in the Delta Quadrant in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Similarly, it raises questions about why the Borg Queen is a disembodied female head. It sheds the character’s anonymity, as suggested by the recasting from Krige to Thompson to Krige.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II commits to this humanisation of the Borg Queen in other ways, turning her into a stock movie serial villain. Repeatedly over the two-parter, she mumbles and mutters to herself; presumably for the benefit of the audience given that she can communicate with the hive collectively through thought. When Janeway kills a drone with a bat’leth in Unimatrix Zero, Part I, the Queen mutters, “Janeway.” When the Collective is searching for Tuvok in Unimatrix Zero, Part II, she rhetorically asks, “I heard him. The Vulcan. But he’s gone. Why? Why can’t I hear the others?”

Meld-merising.

The Borg Queen even takes a moment in Unimatrix Zero, Part I to threaten the characters like Queen Arachnia from Bride of Chaotica! She opens communications with Voyager and talks to Janeway one-on-one through the viewscreen. Even this feels like a dilution of the abstract horror of the Borg, compared to the chorus that would menace Picard in episodes like Q Who? and The Best of Both Worlds, Part I. Even allowing for that distinction, the scene plays awkwardly. It has none of the impact of Locutus menacing Riker in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II.

The Borg Queen and Janeway greet each other like old frenemies, like Picard talking to Tomalak or Sisko bantering with Dukat. “It’s been a long time,” Janeway remarks. “How are things in the Collective?” This is obviously sarcasm, and the Queen responds in kind, “Perfect, for the most part. Voyager?” Janeway responds, “Never better.” It is almost flirty, a little bit of small talk before getting to the heart of the conversation. It is inefficient. It is human. It is clumsy. If the Borg could talk to humanity in these terms, why did they need to assimilate Locutus as an emissary in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II?

“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling Voyagers!”

It gets worse. The Borg Queen attempts to barter with Janeway, making reference to scuttlebutt that she has somehow heard and stored in a dossier of Delta Quadrant gossip. “I understand you’ve established contact with Starfleet,” the Queen observes. “Perhaps you’ll be getting home sooner than you expected.” She adds, “We could help you.” She elaborates, “Transwarp technology. You’d find that we can be quite accommodating, but we’d expect the same in return. “ This is a negotiation, akin to the kind that Janeway had to struggle to accomplish in Scorpion, Part I. It is treated as no big deal here.

It’s worth considering the core appeal of the Borg, as articulated by Q in Q Who? He famously boasted, “You can’t outrun them. You can’t destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains. They regenerate and keep coming. Eventually you will weaken, your reserves will be gone. They are relentless.” This is what makes them different from the Ferengi or the Romulans or the Klingons. In many ways, Voyager has been about compromising that initial premise and eroding it over time. The Borg Queen attempting to negotiate with Janeway is the exact opposite of “relentless.”

Nevermind.

To be fair, there are moments in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II when the Borg Queen comes close to capturing the horror of the behemoth that is the Borg Collective. In an interview with Cinefantastique, Brannon Braga singled out one of his favourite moments in Unimatrix Zero, Part II:

One of my favorite scenes is when the Queen has Janeway’s projection in her chamber and the Queen starts blowing up any cube that has a freedom fighter on it. She’s willing to kill millions just to find the few thousand, which is a great dilemma for Janeway. It’s classic Star Trek.”

In theory, this is a great scene for the Borg. It captures a lot of the horror of the Borg Collective, particularly in contrast to the Federation. Destroying entire ships to kill individuals is a shocking act, a literalisation of that cliché about tragedies and statistics.

“So, my plan is, next time, we defeat the Borg by… tap dancing!”

In theory, it ties into the idea of the Borg as a threat that exists on a scale beyond the comprehension of our heroic leads. The Borg Collective is a vast single entity, and these huge space ships populated by dozens of thousands of individual drones are little more than cells within that entity. The death of a Borg Cube is horrifying from the human perspective of our protagonists, but means nothing to the Borg. This is harrowing, whether the Borg are a metaphor for totalitarianism or unchecked consumerism.

They remind us of the individualism of our heroes, of the compassion and empathy that characters like Picard and Sisko can feel for people caught in the midst of these epic events. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Borg were introduced in the late second season, only a handful of episodes after Picard protected Data from the inhuman demands of the Federation in The Measure of a Man. The Borg are the embodiment of faceless and unfeeling conformity. The scene between Janeway and the Borg Queen in Unimatrix Zero, Part II is a reminder of that.

Royally out-manoeuvred.

Unfortunately, that scene doesn’t quite work. It feels dissonant when compared to sequences around it, and the larger themes of the two-parter. Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II spend too much time individualising and humanising the Borg Queen for that scene to treat her as the embodiment of an immense and remorseless machine. The sequences stands out, in a manner that suggests a stronger thematic arc, but which doesn’t cohere with the rest of the story being told.

There are other choices in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II that emphasise how greatly Voyager has diminished the Borg Collective. Most obviously, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II seem unsure of what made the Borg scary in the first place. The Borg Queen is reduced to the role of a trashy and pulpy gothic vamp. In the teaser to Unimatrix Zero, Part I, Dennis McCarthy’s string section goes wild during her interrogation of the drone, suggesting a vampire queen in her lair. The two-parter returns time and time again to the image of Borg heads impaled on spikes.

“Don’t worry, Harry, the series’ episodic storytelling means that threat will never be followed up.”

The Borg Queen has always had a vampiric quality to her. She is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of what Stephen King famously described as the “zipless f$!k”, the threatening sexuality of the vampire. Her body is carefully moulded and sculpted, with her curves emphasised and her anatomy suggested. However, the erogenous zones are erased and smoothed over. In First Contact, the Borg Queen was suggested as the ultimate in Braga’s long line of ice queen dominatrices, tying Data to a table and relishing in his sensations.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II emphasised the Borg Queen as a dark maternal figure, in contrast to the warm and loving mother figure represented by Janeway. There are certainly shades of that in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, particularly in her interaction with the child inside the simulation. However, the episodes lean into the portrayal of the Borg Queen as a campy gothic vampire figure, a dark seductress who whispers sweet nothings into the minds of her friends and her foes. (Her taunt to the young and sexually innocent Harry – “we’ll see you soon, Harry” – is certainly suggestive.)

Zero-ing in on the issue.

The issue with this portrayal is that the Borg Collective is never (and never could be) a twenty-fourth century update on the horror of vampirism. If anything, the Borg Collective serve as the franchise’s answer to zombies, a ravenous all-consuming horde that can work just as well as a metaphor for uncontrolled capitalism and unchecked communism. Many of the best Borg stories play into this portrayal of the Borg Collective, most notably their final appearance of the Berman era in Regeneration on Star Trek: Enterprise. As a result, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II seem to misunderstand the Borg.

This issue is compounded in the manner in which the two-parter tries to build dread around the threat posed by the Borg. After all, this is a two-parter. The standard format of these episodes is to introduce a threat and escalate it towards a massive cliffhanger. Sometimes, that can be done through an emphasis on politics – as in the emphasis on the brewing plots in Redemption, Part I, leading to the outbreak of the Klingon Civil War. Sometimes, that can be done by building to a massive twist – as with the reveal of what Captain Ransom did in Equinox, Part I.

Keeping it civil (war).

With a Borg two-parter, the escalation seems very obvious. The idea is to spend the first part building up to a massive cliffhanger, emphasising the threat that the Borg pose. The Best of Both Worlds, Part I focuses almost entirely on an investigation into a missing colony, following by an attempt to evade pursuit by the Borg, culminating in the assimilation of Jean-Luc Picard as the point at which our heroes are placed squarely at their lowest ebb. Similarly, Scorpion, Part I build up through the threat of the Borg Collective and the introduction of something worse, towards a desperate alliance with the devil to walk through hell.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I tries something similar. It tries to create a sense of dread around the reappearance of the Borg. Early in the episode, Voyager responds to a distress call from a colony ravaged by the Borg. The sensors pick up a Borg Cube at the edge of sensors. However, the crew do not respond with panic or concern. There is no sense of fear or dread. This is not a crisis waiting to unfold. It is a grim reality, a matter of course. “Resume our previous course, Mister Paris, warp six,” Janeway states. Janeway is not even in a particular hurry to get out of there.

Colony collapse disorder.

Similarly, there is something a little forced in the reveal that the nearest vessel is somehow a particularly well-armoured Borg Cube, with gigantic metal plates on it to make it seem particularly imposing. This seems excessive. Why does it need to be a particularly well-armoured Borg Cube? A perfectly regular Borg Cube was able to cut right to the heart of the Federation in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, The Best of Both Worlds, Part II and First Contact. That one, perfectly regular Borg Cube did not need badass metal plates to destroy or disable the bulk of the Federation fleet.

This insistence that Janeway and her crew infiltrate a particularly well-armoured Borg Cube illustrates the degree to which the Borg have been belittled and diminished. By the internal logic of Voyager, it would be too easy for Janeway to sneak on board a Borg Sphere or a regular Borg Cube, the kind that had caused all of that trouble a decade earlier. Janeway could do that in her sleep, without batting an eyelid. At least a particularly well-armoured Borg Cube represents a challenge, according to the strange internal logic of Voyager.

Testing their metal.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I also tries to build tension within the crew by making a big deal of this daring raid on a Borg Cube. Of course, this glosses over the fact that Janeway already conducted a pair of daring heists against the Borg in both Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. However, the characters treat this adventure as if they are marching towards certain defeat. “Once I make it to the central plexus and release the virus, you can beam me back,” Janeway explains of her plan. The EMH responds, “In how many pieces? It’s ridiculous.”

Janeway is reluctant to take other members of the crew with her, suggesting that she sees it as a suicide mission. “It was my decision to help these people. This is my responsibility.” Nevertheless, Tuvok and Torres force their way on to the mission, despite the fact that it seems like their names were drawn from a hat in the writers’ room. Chakotay and Seven have practical experience with the Borg, so their involvement on the mission would make sense. In contrast, Tuvok and Torres have no skin in the proverbial game, and so there’s no reason for them to volunteer for the mission, and certainly not so dramatically.

All square.
Er, cubed.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I even makes a point to underscore the idea that the crew understand the massive risks involved in this particular away mission. “You know, I could sabotage the helm,” Paris tells Torres. “You’d never make it out the launch doors.” Torres responds, “Then I’d have to put you on report. You might lose that new pip of yours.” Paris earnestly replies, “That’d be a small price to pay.” It is a dramatic beat that feels completely unearned, given how easily the crew have handled the Borg on previous occasions.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I is aiming for a funereal tone that exists beyond its grasp. “Anything you’d like done around here while you’re gone?” Chakotay asks Janeway before she leaves, an attempt at irony intended to underscore how serious the situation is. “Gravity plating recalibrated, carpets cleaned?” Janeway tenderly takes Chakotay’s hand, a rare (and public) moment of intimacy between the two in the later years of the series. She responds, tenderly, “Surprise me. You have the bridge.” It’s very much a “promise to come home” scene, which only really works if the audience believes there’s a chance it might be broken.

We’ll never have Paris.

Even just within the confines of Unimatrix Zero, Part I, it is very clear that there is no real chance that Janeway won’t come home with both Tuvok and Torres. Indeed, the climax of the episode makes a conscious effort to avoid anything that could be mistaken for suspense. Voyager’s attack on the Borg Cube is transparently a ruse intended to distract the Borg Collective while the Delta Flyer sneaks up close. Even the Borg Queen is smart enough to see through that manoeuvre. “Captain, I expected something more cunning from you.”

Of course, that itself is part of the ruse. Janeway is able to beam off the Delta Flyer on to the Borg Cube, which is the only logical next step in an infiltration plan like this anyway. However, the away team is promptly overwhelmed by the Borg and the three crew members are assimilated. This is potentially unsettling, if it is played right. After all, assimilation is a horrific experience. If handled with care, it might be possible to convince the audience that Janeway’s plan has gone horribly wrong and that Unimatrix Zero, Part II might be about dealing with the spectacular fallout of the botch infiltration.

“Oh. Little lower, please.”

However, it is very clear to any moderately televisually literate viewer that this is all part of the con that Janeway is playing. Most obviously, it seems fairly safe to assume that the Borg would try to assimilate the away team. This is what the Borg do, especially after The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. In fact, it might have actually been more effective to have the Borg Queen forego assimilation and just try to kill (or capture) Janeway outright. The climax of Unimatrix Zero, Part I offers a Borg variation on those supervillains who simply refuse to kill their incapacitated opponents.

Any ambiguity on this point is undercut with a quick cut back to Voyager itself during the action climax. “Their lifesigns are destabilising,” the EMH reports. Chakotay responds, “So far, so good. You can take us out of here now, Tom.” While this doesn’t explicitly state that assimilation was part of the plan, it does very strongly suggest it. After all, why else would a person’s lifesigns be “destabilising” on a Borg Cube? It is very clear at the end of Unimatrix Zero, Part I that everything is going according to plan.

Assimilated in vein.

This is a very strange place to position a season-ending cliffhanger. Normally, season-ending cliffhangers end with the characters at a low ebb in order to hook the audience into the following season. The Kazon had stranded the crew on a world at the end of Basics, Part I. The Founders had infiltrated the Alpha Quadrant in The Adversary. “Gowron, the head of the Klingon Empire, [might be] a changeling” at the end of Broken Link. Sisko was forced to abandon Deep Space Nine at the end of Call to Arms. Sisko returned to Earth as a broken man in Tears of the Prophets.

To be fair, it is possible to structure a cliffhanger that doesn’t end with the characters at the lowest point in the narrative. A clever and canny writer can wring suspense from the question of “what happens next…?” as much as from “… how are they going to get out of this one?” The end of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I does not end with the Enterprise in a position of weakness, but what appears to be a position of strength. Riker orders the ship to fire its weapon of mass destruction, knowing full well that he might kill Picard. The question that lingered over the summer was how Riker’s plan might play out.

The long kiss goodnight.

Unfortunately, Unimatrix Zero, Part I simply doesn’t have a strong enough cliffhanger to carry Voyager across the summer and into the seventh season. It is perfectly bland. It would probably be a satisfying act break, enough to hold the audience’s interest across the commercials. There is nothing special or unique about the ending of Unimatrix Zero, Part I, nothing that demands the audience’s continued attention or promises satisfaction if the audience tunes in for Unimatrix Zero, Part II.

In fact, Unimatrix Zero, Part II quickly confirms what is self-evident from the cliffhanger to Unimatrix Zero, Part I. It is revealed that the crew have developed a technobabble solution (a “neural suppressant”) to counteract assimilation, which is one of those potential game-changers like Seven of Nine’s cure for death in Mortal Coil or Paris’ invention of transwarp in Threshold. This technobabble came out of nowhere, with no set-up and no effort. It seems like the EMH just had it lying around, ready for use. In fact, due to holographic technology, Janeway spends a lot of Unimatrix Zero, Part II  looking like her unassimilated self.

We are Janeway of Borg.

Even getting past that, Unimatrix Zero, Part I feels derivative and underwhelming. Even if the climax did hit those beats effectively, the cliffhanger amounts to something that The Next Generation did a decade earlier. The final sequence of Unimatrix Zero, Part I evokes the cliffhanger to The Best of Both World, Part I, the series lead assimilated by the Borg and transformed into a drone. Perhaps articulating one of the central issues with Voyager, it seems like Unimatrix Zero, Part I expects to amplify that cliffhanger by doing the same thing with three characters instead of one.

Heading into its final season, Voyager is doing little more than serving a reheat of what was radical a decade earlier.

 

 

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One Response

  1. >Destroying entire ships to kill individuals is a shocking act, a literalisation of that cliché about tragedies and statistics.

    Although as SFdebris notes, trying to ‘break’ Janeway by killing Borg is like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch.

    He also got a great joke from noting the self-destructive and contradictory behaviour of the Queen by giving Janeway the line: “Your mistake was assimilating ME!”

    It is amazing how ill-treated the Borg are in this episode – it is the nadir of Borg on Voyager. The cliffhanger, as you note, is terrible as it telegraphs so much of part II, lest we think the characters might actually be in danger. It is amazing that the process of being transformed into a Borg – a traumatic event of full body surgery and mental transformation with something malevolent, non-organic and hiveminded – a procedure which left Picard with permanent psychological trauma and a lasting link to the Borg and Seven with the same + physiological changes which can never be undone – is now something you can shrug away off-screen and never mention again. How on Earth can assimilation ever be frightening again? (answer: it wasn’t)

    It’s amazing that 2 hours of jokes about zombie tropes in Shaun of the Dead doesn’t diminish the ability of zombies to be terrifying, but in less time than that, ‘Unimatrix Zero’ kills everything remotely scary the Borg had left in their arsenal.

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