Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Borg Return With Star Trek Voyager's "Unity!"

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting concept, Moments of character development, Effects
The Bad: Problematic execution of concepts
The Basics: When Chakotay lands on a planet and is wounded, he is rescued by ex-Borg colonists who want him to help them re-establish control over the dissident elements.

Sometime, it's important to go back to the beginning. In truly great works, it's nice to see what seeds end up bearing what fruit and too often in television, viewers mindlessly watch a program year after year without truly thinking about it. Franchises can be even worse as they will contradict or dumb down some of their best concepts. Sadly, the Star Trek franchise is guilty of this and while many of the fans would like to blame Enterprise (we can do that anyway!), the truth is the franchise was showing some serious cracks in Star Trek: Voyager. Star Trek: Voyager took what little menace remained in the Q character and gutted it over the course of three episodes, making not only Q lame, but the whole Q-Continuum. Sadly, as the ratings from the series began to flounder, the show took a drastic step, which was to return the Borg to the franchise. And to understand just how terrible this was, it is worth reviewing "Q-Who" (reviewed here!), the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that first introduced the Borg. Ironically, it included the Q character, too. In "Q-Who," the Borg are mindless drones, wiped of all individuality in a relentless pursuit of technological advancement that involves the indifferent assimilation of all technology that intrigues them.

Enter Star Trek: Voyager, hitting a slump in its third season when most shows hit their stride. The creative team decided it was time for something radical and in the final moments of the episode "Blood Fever" (reviewed here!), the crew finds a dead Borg drone on a distant planet. And even the most mindless viewer realizes, Voyager is entering the fringes of what might be considered Borg space . . .

The U.S.S. Voyager is ambling through the Nekrit Expanse when it comes across a Borg ship that is without power and adrift. Recognizing an opportunity when she sees it, Janeway sends an Away Team over to find out what happened and salvage parts for the lost starship. Meanwhile, Chakotay - out in a shuttlecraft - sets down on a planet where he is immediately attacked. He is rescued by a woman named Riley Frazier, who brings her back to her Cooperative to heal his injuries. It does not take long before Riley and the other people in the Cooperative reveal the methods used to heal Chakotay; Borg technology still within them that allows them to pool their mental energy.

Almost as troubling to Chakotay as his "assimilation - lite" by the Cooperative is that the solution Frazier and her side has for ending the civil war on the planet is simple; re-establish the Borg mental controls and bring the factions in line through the bonds that once united them all as Borg.

The Star Trek franchise has seen Borg separated from the Collective before, most notably in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Descent, Part II" (reviewed here!). The Borg there were characterized as lost and desperately searching for a leader, which was how Lore was able to take them over. The premise of "Unity," that a planet where Borg separated from the Collective would collapse into chaos works and it makes sense. After all, without the Borg mental controls, old prejudices between Romulans and Klingons could reasonably resurface; especially if they were both part of a battle with one another when the Borg arrived and assimilated both sides. Orum, one of Riley's Cooperative members, is a Romulan who learned to work with humans and others as a result of his assimilation.

The Romulan former-Borg is a nice touch, considering that the Romulans were one of the first races in the Alpha Quadrant attacked by the Borg (yes, this is part of the show, but it's only obvious to those who actually pay real close attention to the whole franchise!). But the character of Riley Frazier presents the first real problem with Star Trek: Voyager's foray into Borg machinations. Frazier is a former StarFleet officer, who was assimilated by the Borg, presumably at the battle of Wolf 359 (from the clips in her memory). How anyone assimilated following that battle survived is a mystery solved only through bad writing or innuendo.

This is the first way in which "Unity" reduces the menace of the Borg. The second comes with Riley's determination to restart the collective in one form or another on the planet. Victims of Assimilation by the Borg are best likened to rape victims (note: rape victims, not rape survivors); they are taken against their will, robbed of all identity and forced to do the will of others. It's a powerful analogy and the results are horrifying, shocking and reasonably would require a long healing process. Riley's use of the Borg implants on Chakotay seems to justify (metaphorically) the rape that was done to her and the others and suggests that it's better to be a rapist (one of the Collective) than a survivor. Yeah, that's a crappy message.

Sadly, it's not an extreme interpretation of the episode. Indeed, "Unity" belabors the idea that outside the Collective, chaos reigns and no solution comes to Riley's mind other than "we were better off where we were." It is this lack of looking at the big picture that should have gotten most of the creative team of Star Trek: Voyager barred from subsequent jobs. To finish off the metaphorical/literal discussion of this, the message ought to have been something about the importance of learning to recover as opposed to becoming dependent upon the mentalities of abuse.

Fortunately, Janeway makes essentially that argument and it's refreshing to see the episode recover itself some. How the episode turns after that, though is ultimately disappointing.

But for the most part, the episode works on its own and it works well. The reason: mood! "Unity" has a wonderful sense of pace and an edgy sense of menace that is lacking from most Star Trek: Voyager episodes. The episode brings the Borg back and the menace that underlies that is very palpable throughout the episode.

Part of the mood is brought out through the special effects and they work, despite many of the clips used when Chakotay is healed being recycled or looped sequences shot for prior episodes. The make-up throughout the episode is pretty impressive and the members of the Cooperative and the opposing forces establish a very cool look for the colony.

The acting throughout the episode is decent, with Robert Beltran holding up his end as the wounded Chakotay. Too bad Beltran is forced to play such a tool. He gives his whole body to the effort of portraying Chakotay as critically injured and it works.

Kate Mulgrew helps enhance the mood with her portrayal of Janeway in "Unity." Mostly bound to the Bridge when Voyager discovers the adrift Borg ship, it is her eye movements, taught body language and clipped communications with the Away Team that keep the episode chilly.

All in all, this is one of the more successful episodes of the third season, despite the problems with the bigger picture. Indeed, an argument could be made that this is truly the last episode with the Borg worth watching at all.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Voyager - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the entire season here!


For other Star Trek reviews, visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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