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

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

To be fair, The Matrix arguably only galvinised a number of themes running through the nineties and towards the millennium. In the wake of the Cold War, there was an existential crisis of meaning within the United States and even beyond, an anxiety about what it meant for liberal democracy to have triumphed over communism and totalitarianism. The United States no longer had a clear enemy against which it might define itself, which made the so-called “unipolar moment” or “the end of history” so challenging to people.

Much of nineties popular culture was reflective and introspective, the United States trying to make sense of everything that had led to this point. This was true across genres. Forrest Gump offered a meditation upon the American Century, suggesting that the past was impossible to parse and that the historical record was itself malleable. Reservoir Dogs offered a meditation upon the idea of memory and meaning. The X-Files and JFK suggested that the world was not as it appeared to be, and that it was governed by unseen conspiracies and secret cabals.

She was never really there.

The Star Trek franchise would play with this idea repeatedly over the course of the nineties, committing to various degrees. Star Trek: The Next Generation broached the idea that reality was an illusion in episodes like Frame of Mind and at the very end of Ship in a Bottle. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine repeatedly fractured Miles O’Brien’s sense of realities in stories like Whispers, Visionary and Hard Time. Even Bashir found himself trapped within a simulation in Inquisition.

However, Voyager committed to this more than most, perhaps reflecting the fascination that writers like Joe Menosky and Brannon Braga had for this idea. Voyager was more invested in the holodeck than any other Star Trek series, but it also repeatedly blurred its characters’ concept of reality. Episodes like Remember and Memorial found the crew dealing with implanted memories. Retrospect found Seven of Nine struggling with false recollections. The bulk of the crew had their personalities and memories wiped in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

The Borg Queen has overlooked Unimatrix Zero for too long…

The crew frequently found themselves confronting holograms or doubles of themselves. The entire crew was duplicated in episodes like Deadlock and Demon. Holographic doubles featured in episodes like Worst Case Scenario and Living Witness. Con artists posed as the crew in Live Fast and Prosper. Even beyond duplicates of themselves, the crew found themselves dealing with replicas of Starfleet technology and headquarters in episodes like Hope and Fear and In the Flesh.

Even beyond that, the crew frequently found themselves dealing with aliens from beyond their plane of reality. Species 8472 from Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II are the most obvious example, but far from the only one. When photonic aliens visited the ship in Bride of Chaotica!, they refused to accept that the crew was real. Q would enable the crew to ascend beyond the mortal plane to visit the Q Continuum in both Death Wish and The Q and the Grey. The scientists in Scientific Method operated on the crew by existing out of phase with reality.

Into the Matrix…

Characters often seemed to slide between various representations of reality. Harry was displaced in space and possibly even dimensions to confront the afterlife in Emanations, and made a journey home to a parallel world in Non Sequitur. Janeway way forced to witness several versions of her own death in Coda. Torres visited the Klingon afterlife in Barge of the Dead, with Voyager itself presented as a version of hell. Chakotay and the crew slip between the dream world and the real world in Waking Moments.

This is to say nothing of the alternate versions of the ship and crew that exist in parallel universes, wiped out by the dreaded reset buttons. Voyager seems populated by versions of the crew that never were and never could be, paradoxical fragments and ghosts of misbegotten timelines; the version of Janeway before time was reset in Time and Again, the version of the ship and characters who lived through Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II; the frozen bodies trapped in the ice in Timeless; the characters erased by the time loop in Fury.

“According to this, there have been literally dozens of versions of me. And not one of them has a distinctive personality!”

It should be noted that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II represent Joe Menosky’s last writing on Voyager and Brannon Braga’s second- and third-to-last teleplay credits on Voyager. It was their last collaboration on Star Trek. In this sense, at least, the meditation upon simulated reality within Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II might seem like an appropriate place to wrap up that recurring shared fixation. It is a culmination of this theme.

Although the seventh season will return to that theme in Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II, the series will never be as blunt as it is in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. In Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, it is revealed that certain Borg drones slip into a virtual reality while regenerating. This fabricated world is an illusion and a facsimile, but it allows them to reclaim their humanity, even as their bodies are used as fodder by the Borg Collective. It is very much indebted to The Matrix.

To be, or gnost to be?

This is not particularly surprising. In Gnosticism Reborn: The Matrix As Shamanic Journey, Jack Horsely argues that the feeling of unreality that permeates so much of nineties popular culture can be traced back to the idea of repetition and imitation:

The idea of the eschaton ties up, in ways obscure and bewildering, with William Burroughs’s “Word Virus,” Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacra,” and to the novels of Philip K. Dick, Greg Egan, and so on, and so forth. Essentially, so these authors suggest, our reality has become (or is due to become) a repetition of previous experience, a recycling of old data, and as such is no more than an image, a hologram, a projection of a reality that is… elsewhere. It’s at this point, then, that time effectively comes to a standstill. Consciousness is forced to make the leap, into the next stage (whatever that may be), in order not to collapse in on itself.

One of the reasons that people began to question the nature of their reality during the nineties was because there was no longer a sense of forward momentum in everyday life. This argument unfolds and various spaces; there was no forward movement politically because there was no Cold War to win, while fashion seemed frozen in place, and the art world was trapped in amber.

Going off the grid.

In a microcosm, this is the paradox of Voyager itself as a television series. The idea of movement and progression was baked into Voyager from the outset. Caretaker established the show’s central story as a journey back to the Alpha Quadrant. A journey has progress, milestones, markers, metrics. A journey implies forward movement through both space and time. Voyager even hinted at ideas like serialisation and long-form storytelling by suggesting that Voyager might be about two crews learning to work together and having to survive in hostile territory.

The paradox of Voyager arises in the gulf between that core concept and the execution. In reality, Voyager is mostly a retread of ideas and concepts that other Star Trek series had done before. Even Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II can be approached as a hybridisation of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II along with Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. As such, Voyager contributed to this sense of that modern culture was little more than “a repetition of previous experience, a recycling of old data” on a metatextual level.

The Borg Queen’s outreach was less successful than she had hoped.

Voyager is a show that has rejected any concept of past or future, any suggestions of continuity or development. The entire history of the show was actively rewritten in episodes like Fury and The Haunting of Deck Twelve, while the series is populated with various contradictory pieces of information. Paris flew at transwarp in Threshold, but is eager to attempt it for the first time in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Similarly, episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Relativity suggest that the distant future is almost indistinct from the present.

This lack of progress or momentum, this listlessness and stillness, helped to explain why contemporary popular culture had latched on to this feeling of unreality. Certainly, Deep Space Nine found existential purpose in its central conflict between the Dominion and the Federation, which fueled its own long-form storytelling, and might explain why Deep Space Nine was less engaged with this theme of unreality than Voyager. In contrast, Voyager itself often seemed adrift without any real sense of purpose.

“How is your wife, Doctor?”

In Exile in Godville, A.W. suggested that these recurring existential themes in popular culture were rooted in a late nineties revival of gnosticism:

Today, the Gnostic Revival is abetted by a sea change in popular culture that began in the pre-millennial ’90s: The “alternative” now becomes mainstream in a heartbeat, chaos theory and quantum uncertainty rule the scientific roost, and no less a scholastic Brahmin than Harold Bloom calls Gnosticism “America’s native religion.” I ask Hoeller whether he thought that 2,000 years of persecution had come to an end. His reply is that of one who, in the words of a friend, has “lived out the myth of the exile” and learned how hard it is to come home.

“We’ve been persecuted because we assert that genuine salvation comes only through an essential change in consciousness which has nothing to do with obeying rules. This makes fundamentalists of all stripes crazy, because they’re all about adherence to ‘the Law.’ As long as this remains true, I suspect we’ll remain outsiders. Gnostics obey the traffic laws like everyone else… we just don’t happen to believe you can get to Heaven that way.”

It should be noted that gnosticism was undergoing a pop cultural revival even outside of these works questioning the nature of reality; it was the subject of films like Stigmata.

Droning on.

There is undoubtedly a religious element to these millennial stories about transcending the fracture surface of reality. Neo is “the One” in The Matrix, the chosen saviour of mankind, while Harsh Realm unfolds in a world that is implied to be malformed because it lacks a divine authority or a religious saviour. Appropriately enough, there is an element of religious subtext to Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II.

In both Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the Borg Queen martyrs drones for the cause of this virtual paradise nestled within the heart of the Borg Collective. She stops short of crucifying them, but she does dismember them in a way that evokes the horrific tortures visited upon early saints. These drones are suffering for their enlightenment. The conversation between Janeway and the Borg Queen in Unimatrix Zero, Part II effectively amounts to the Borg Queen asking Janeway and the renegade drones to renounce or surrender Unimatrix Zero.

A beacon of light.

Ironically, the Borg Queen is presented as a figure of orthodoxy. This perhaps the suggestion in The Omega Directive that the Borg pursuit of perfection might be seen as spiritual or religious in nature. In Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the Borg Queen is persecuting heretics as the Pope of Perfection. In Unimatrix Zero, Part I, the Borg Queen offers a definition of perfection as she speaks to the severed head of one dismembered drone. “It’s a shame you’re not alive to experience disembodiment. It’s the epitome of perfection.”

There is no small irony in the fact that the drones inside Unimatrix Zero have already experienced some form of “disembodiment.” Their consciousnesses exist entirely separate from their bodies. Their bodies are enslaved to the Borg Collective, treated as instruments of the Collective’s will and as cogs in some inhuman machine, but Unimatrix Zero provides a space in which their consciousnesses might escape that slavery and that drudgery. These drones have arguably come closer to the Borg Queen’s definition of “the epitome of perfection” than the Borg Queen herself.

Collective concerns.

However, there is something inherently religious in the concept of Unimatrix Zero, just as there is in a concept like The Matrix. The idea that consciousness can be separated from basic biology is inherently spiritual, suggesting a life beyond the material plane. Indeed, stories like The Truman Show and The Matrix as much allegories for spiritual awakening as they are commentaries on literally fabricated realities, the tales of individuals who learn to transcend the illusory material worlds with which they are presented.

It makes sense to use the Borg Collective as a focal point in a story like Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. The Borg are perhaps the most literal and material of Star Trek aliens. Depending on how the viewer chooses to interpret them, they can be seen as a representation of unchecked capitalism or unchallenged totalitarianism. At their core, the Borg advocate for the destruction of the individual identity. The body of a drone is nothing but raw material to be used as the Borg Collective sees fit. They are even discarded as such when disconnected from the hive.

What dreams may come.

As such, the Borg Collective is an alien culture that lends itself to a story about spiritual transcendence, about what happens to the souls of these drones when they shed the grey skin of their decaying bodies. Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II imagines a world nestled within the tangible and material world of the Borg Collective where these drones can express themselves and celebrate their identities in a way that is not possible in the “real” world.

Once again, the Borg Collective serves as a mirror to the Federation, with the Borg Queen explicitly identified as a counterpart to Janeway. Janeway has never faced a crisis of reality as severe as the one that challenges the Borg Queen in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, but it should be noted that Janeway has grappled with virtual spaces growing out of control repeatedly over the seven seasons of Voyager. Most obviously, Janeway herself had a crisis in determining whether her emotional responses to an illusory construct could be real in Fair Haven.

It’s good to be the queen.

Voyager has repeatedly touched on the tension that exists within Janeway’s desire to respect individual autonomy, particularly when contrasted with her need to maintain order within her own command hierarchy. Janeway champions freedom of choice, but what about the freedom to surrender that choice or to make a choice with which she disagrees? Seven brushes up against these limitations in The Gift and Prey, explicitly likening Janeway to the Borg.

Even within Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the Borg Queen taunts Janeway with the limits of her belief in the right to self-autonomy. When Janeway refuses to present the Borg Queen’s ultimatum to those inhabiting Unimatrix Zero, the Borg Queen observes, “They’re individuals now. They have a choice. What are you afraid of, Captain? That they may cooperate? You’ve been waiting for a chance to damage the Borg. Now you’ve found one. You’re only using them.” Janeway is perhaps just as uncertain about the situation as the Borg Queen is.

All cool in the alcove.

After all, Unimatrix Zero might well be likened to the holodeck, which has been presented as a mixed blessing at best. Star Trek has advocated for regulation of holodeck use, recognising the dangers of characters who might lose their grip on reality through those simulations. Barclay struggled with holo-addiction in Hollow Pursuits, and it was suggested that he might have relapsed in Pathfinder. However, Unimatrix Zero is different from the holodeck in once major respect. It is a shared virtual space.

“Who are you?” Seven asks Axum on meeting him. “Five of Twelve, secondary adjunct of Trimatrix nine four two,” he explains. “But when I’m here my name is Axum.” Discussing Seven of Nine’s implants, Axum tells her, “You don’t have to look that way here.” Seven responds, “My appearance is irrelevant.” Axum replies, “No, it’s not. They may have turned us into drones, but they can’t change the essence of who we are.” There is an interesting conflict here, with the implication that the people inside Unimatrix Zero are more real than the drones on the Borg Cubes.

Shedding light on the issue.

As Randy Laist argues in The Hyperreal Theme in 1990s American Cinema, part of the reason that these sorts of narratives broke into the mainstream during the nineties was due to the emergence of radical concepts like the internet and virtual reality into everyday life:

Although the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction has existed since the seventies, it is not until the nineties that it becomes a common cinematic device, a development attributable both to the popularization of Virtual Reality following the Gulf War as well as to advances in digital special effects technology. In the nineties, films such as Lawnmower Man (1992), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Cube (1997), Dark City (1998), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), Existenz (1999), and, of course, The Matrix, use the metaphor of a computer-generated world as a way of imagining the manner in which it is possible for human beings to exist in alternate ontological registers.

The internet was still relatively young while Voyager was on the air, but Star Trek fandom had been one of the first to embrace the possibilities of the new medium. The production team working on Star Trek at the turn of the millennium understood better than most the opportunities presented by the internet.

“It’s a trap!”

Unimatrix Zero as suggested in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II feels like a metaphor for the internet, particularly in the early days of the twenty-first century. It allows for individuals to reinvent themselves, to become new people separated from the drudgery of everyday reality. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” observed the New Yorker back in July of 1993. In Unimatrix Zero, nobody would know that these people are drones.

The internet allowed individuals to communicate without worrying about geographic concerns, just like Unimatrix Zero allows Seven of Nine and Axum to interact despite being separated by thousands of light-years. “It turns out I’m on a scout ship patrolling the border of fluidic space,” Axum tells Seven in Unimatrix Zero, Part II. He ultimately reflects, “We still have Unimatrix Zero.” There is a sense that their love is no less real for the distance between their physical bodies.

Ready to Kirok and Kiroll.

In some ways, this suggestion of cyberspace as a virtual realm in which tangible connections might be forged between abstract avatars hints at ways in which the internet would devleop in the years following the broadcast of Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. It evokes the concept behind Second Life, a virtual space which would launch in 2003. As Robert D. Hof observed:

Besides, in one important way, this virtual stuff isn’t imaginary at all. In November, 2003, Linden Lab made a policy change unprecedented in online games: It allowed Second Life residents to retain full ownership of their virtual creations. The inception of property rights in the virtual world made for a thriving market economy. Programmer Nathan Keir in Australia, for example, created a game played by avatars inside Second Life that’s so popular he licensed it to a publisher, who’ll soon release it on video game players and cell phones. All that has caught real-world investors’ attention, too. On Mar. 28, Linden Lab raised a second, $11 million round of private financing, including new investor Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com Inc.

Second Life was perhaps the most literal example. Twenty-first century social networks offer a more abstract variation upon the theme. MySpace was launched August 2003. Facebook officially launched in February 2004.

Coming out in hives.

Unimatrix Zero ultimately feels like the Borg Collective’s answer to a social network, a space into which drones can escape and find like-minded people with whom they can interact and connect. There is a solid argument to be made that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II represent the culmination of Voyager’s experimentation with virtual spaces, allowing for codas and repetition in seventh season episodes like Human Error or Author, Author or Inside Man.

Unimatrix Zero ties together a variety of the Voyager‘s big ideas into something resembling a cohesive package. Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II touch upon several core fascinations of Voyager, from worries about the nature of reality through to anxieties about the fluidity of identity, tied together by a fascination with the emergence of cyberspace. In Voyager, it often seems like the “real” world is frozen in place, but Unimatrix Zero offers a chance to transcend that.

“How do you mend a broken heart?”

These are all very potent ideas, and it’s entirely possible to them as the logical culmination of a throughline running across the seven seasons of Voyager. In its own way, it seems like Voyager has been building to Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, even if the series itself never realised that fact. However, Voyager cannot outrun itself. It cannot transcend its own limitations. Voyager can not escape the real world as easily as those drones might retreat into Unimatrix Zero.

With Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the series is arriving at what feels like the end of a thematic journey through fractured and splintered reality spreading back across the seven seasons from Projections through episodes as diverse as Real Life, The Fight and Equinox, Part II. Nevertheless, Voyager still feels like it has nowhere to go, like it cannot peer beyond the walls of its own limited reality even as it spurs the Borg Collective to do so.

Ah, the joys of internet dating.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II have no idea what to actually do with the idea at their core, and so the episode falls apart on multiple levels. On the most immediate character-driven level, the two-parter never makes a convincing case for Unimatrix Zero as a place with substance and weight. The inhabitants of this dream realm never feel real or tangible. There is no spark between Seven of Nine and Axum, no reason to buy a romance that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II desperately tries to sell as a force transcending space and identity.

To be fair, regular Star Trek episodes often have trouble finding convincing love interests for the regular cast. It is a lot easier to point to the one-episode love-interests that worked, if only because there are relatively few of them; Kirk and Edith in The City on the Edge of Forever, Noss in Gravity, Kashyk in Counterpoint. It seems unreasonable to claim that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II do not work because they fail in the way that so many romance-driven episodes of Star Trek tend to fail.

Burning desire.

However, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II hinge so much on that central romance that its failure dooms the two-parter from the outset. Axum is the only truly developed character within Unimatrix Zero, the audience’s only connection to the virtual world that exists at the centre of this narrative. Rather than try to develop Axum as an engaging character in his own right, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II takes a risk and tries to get the audience to invest in him through is relationship with Seven. It does not work, and so the episode does not work.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II also fail on the larger epic level. The scale of the two-parter should be massive. After all, the Borg Queen is treating the existence of Unimatrix Zero as an existential threat to the Borg Collective. Even ignoring the usual Voyager questions of why something this significant was never seeded in earlier episodes and why it happens to become such a big deal at this precise moment, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II never really sell that threat.

Blowing up the crisis.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II suggest a Borg Civil War. “If you could find a way to carry your individualities into the real world, to wake up from your regeneration cycles with your memories intact, you could begin to undermine the Borg’s control over you,” Janeway remarks. Seven observes, “It sounds like you’re suggesting a civil war.” Janeway replies, “I prefer to call it a resistance movement.” It’s a nice play on words, and a logical development of the premise.

“Awakening” narratives like The Matrix, Fight Club or V for Vendetta often become revolutionary narratives. The next logical step after “waking up” to the reality of an oppressive situation is to begin acting against that oppression. That is obvious even in the terminology that is applied to contemporaneous civil rights struggles; whether a person is “woke” or if they are part of the “resistance.” This idea of a revolution within the Borg Collective feels inevitable.

Seven’s heaven.

After all, this has been the general direction of stories about the Borg since The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The Borg Collective seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown in episodes like I, Borg, Descent, Part I, Descent, Part II, Unity, Survival Instinct and Collective, as if all it would take to destroy the entire unified collective consciousness is the introduction of a little individualism. The prospect of civil war in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II is the ultimate extension of this fracturing and deharmonisation.

Again, this reflects the culture and politics of the nineties. With the end of the Cold War, the global political order seemed to collapse. It turned out that the Berlin Wall had been loadbearing. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics evaporated in the early nineties, leaving a variety of smaller fragmented political entities, all with their own agendas and crises. The United States was no longer fighting a single unified political opponent, but instead had to deal with a variety of smaller states.

Getting into Tuvok’s head.

Even within the United States itself, there was anxiety that excessive individualism was beginning to erode the social fabric. As Robert D. Putnam explained in Bowling Alone, his compelling study of American society at the end of the twentieth century:

We were reasonably content about our economic prospects, hardly a surprise after an expansion of unprecedented length, but we were not equally convinced that we were on the right track morally or culturally. Of baby boomers interviewed in 1987, 53 percent thought their parents’ generation was better in terms of “being a concerned citizen, involved in helping others in the community,” as compared with only 21 percent who thought their own generation was better. Fully 77 percent said the nation was worse off because of “less involvement in community activities.” In 1992 three-quarters of the U.S. workforce said that “the breakdown of community” and “selfishness” were “serious” or “extremely serious” problems in America. In 1996 only 8 percent of all Americans said that “the honesty and integrity of the average American” were improving, as compared with 50 percent of us who thought we were becoming less trustworthy. Those of us who said that people had become less civil over the preceding ten years outnumbered those who thought people had become more civil, 80 percent to 12 percent. In several surveys in 1999 two-thirds of Americans said that America’s civic life had weakened in recent years, that social and moral values were higher when they were growing up, and that our society was focused more on the individual than the community. More than 80 percent said there should be more emphasis on community, even if that put more demands on individuals. Americans’ concern about weakening community bonds may be misplaced or exaggerated, but a decent respect for the opinion of our fellow citizens suggests that we should explore the issue more thoroughly.

With this in mind, it made sense that The Next Generation and Voyager would return time and time again to the idea of the collapse of the Borg Collective. (Perhaps appropriately, the nineties was also the decade that researchers would notice colony collapse disorder affecting bee hives.)

“I’ve taken the bridge! Also, I didn’t realise that Borg ships had bridges. It kinda defeats the purpose of being a Borg ship, right? Anyway, let’s do this.”

If Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II cannot convincingly sell the intimate scale of this drama, they also struggle to portray the epic struggle underpinning it. The Borg Collective is not the first government in Star Trek to find itself pushed to the brink of civil war. During The Next Generation, the Klingon Empire collapsed into itself in Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II. On Deep Space Nine, Starfleet attempted to stage a military coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost.

Both of these stories were somewhat limited in their capacity to portray these epic struggles by the budget and technology available to the production team at the time. If anything, Voyager had a much stronger sense of blockbuster storytelling than The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, a great commitment to spectacle and scale evident in two-parters like Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II or The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. If ever a Star Trek series were capable of portraying the Borg Collective tearing itself apart, it should be Voyager.

Janeway’s ruse is transparent.

Unfortunately, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II never quite captures the scale of this would-be revolution. “There are things I can do where I am,” Axum tells Seven at one point in Unimatrix Zero, Part II. “I’ll try to contact Species 8472, see if I can persuade them to join the fight.” Seven responds, “Given their history with the Borg, I’m sure they’ll be eager.” However, there’s never a sense that the conflict in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II is anything more than characters talking on sets; the Borg Queen in her throne room, Korok on a Borg Sphere, the drones in Unimatrix Zero.

This is reinforced in the way that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II retreats from this epic premise in the manner that every other story about the collapse of the Borg Collective retreats from its epic premise. The Borg Collective is too valuable a narrative element to risk losing, and so the Borg Collective can never truly collapse into itself, no matter how often it has been threatened. Hugh’s individualism in I, Borg and the Brunali virus in Child’s Play only affect small clusters of Borg, rather than the entire hive.

Queen of the ashes.

The Borg Queen can never truly be toppled, because that would mean losing the Borg in their most archetypal and effective form. Even when Janeway destroys the Borg Queen in Endgame, the episode is deliberately ambiguous about whether that means the destruction of the Borg Collective, understanding that there might be a later Star Trek story that wishes to use the Borg Collective. Indeed, various tie-in media has explored the fate of the Collective after Endgame, most notably David Mack’s Destiny trilogy and Brannon Braga’s Hive miniseries.

Once again, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II feels like the culmination of something that has been simmering through the previous six seasons of Voyager, but the show lacks either the understanding or the commitment to see that idea through to its logical conclusion. The Borg Collective does not descend into anarchy. At the end of the episode, Unimatrix Zero is indeed destroyed. The inhabitants of Unimatrix Zero manage to escape before the virtual world is burned, and it is heavily implied that the the characters will continue their revolution in the real world.

Romance at the end of the world.

As Janeway summarises in the coda at the end of Unimatrix Zero, Part II, “Unimatrix Zero may be gone but it looks like the resistance is alive and kicking. With any luck, the Collective may never be the same.” This holds true for the episode’s central romance as well. “We’ve lost our only way to be together,” Seven tells Axum as the world collapses. Axum responds, “No. I’ll find you.” Seven tries to cut him off, “Axum.” He insists, “I’ll find you.” Even as Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II hit the rest button, they insist that things will never be the same again.

Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II position themselves as the start of something, rather than the end. They suggest future stories in which the Borg Queen tries to impose order on an increasingly fragmented hive mind, as a virtual revolution spills out into the real world and Seven reunites with her long-lost love. Except, of course, that will never be. Voyager will never follow up on these threads. When the crew encounter the Borg in Imperfection, the very next episode, there is no indication that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II have had any effect whatsoever.

“… now let’s never talk of it again.”

It says something about Voyager that this false promise is obvious even watching Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II without the knowledge of what comes next. Voyager has established itself as a series so petrified at the concept of continuity that it is not especially surprising that the dangling plot threads in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II do not go anywhere. It doesn’t feel like a fundamental betrayal of the audience, because no sane audience member would have expected Voyager to keep that promise.

Instead, these dangling threads just feel lazy. It is clear that the Voyager writers have no idea how to end this story, and so they don’t. The production team know that there’s no need to end this particular story, because nothing left hanging will ever have to be dealt with. All that matters is that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II fill approximately ninety minutes of broadcast time between them, and that the regular cast members end up back in positions where they can conceivably embark upon an inevitably unrelated adventure the following week.

“Don’t worry, Tuvok. I’m sure the only time that you being brainwashed will be used as a plot point in the seventh season.”

Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II might just be the culmination of Voyager, in its disappointments and its failures as much as its interests and its fascinations.

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2 Responses

  1. “Also, I didn’t realise that Borg ships had bridges.”

    Grumble…I can’t believe I didn’t catch this on my first and second viewings. It is like a magician who misdirects your gaze before pulling a coin out of your ear.

    • Ha! It is far from the episode’s biggest problem. But it’s really freakin’ weird. Particularly since they had to design the set, build the set, shoot the scene. And nobody was like… “wait, how does the Collective use this if it can be hijacked by an individual?”

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