With the very brief arrival of Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Picard, I thought it was about time to fill in some other holes in my Star Trek viewing. I did watch the first view episodes of Star Trek: Voyager but life got in the way. The premise of the show was interesting: a Starfleet vessel trapped along way from home with a mixed crew that was part Starfleet and part separatist rebels.
The Season 3 cliffhanger two-parter sees the Voyager facing a journey through Borg space as their only option in the trip home. Luckily their appears to be a narrow corridor through the Borg occupied volume which might enable them to sneak through undetected. Their attempt at stealth falls apart immediately when they find themselves overtook by multiple Borg cubes but to the crew’s surprise and relief they are largely ignored. The implication that there is something out there that the Borg are running from probably should scare Captain Janeway more than it does.
Oddly, the cold open of the episode had already revealed that there is something out there that is capable of destroying Borg cubes. Quite why the showrunners decided to spoil their own surprise I don’t know but it means the next big scene where the Voyager catches up with the fleeing cubes and finds them scattered and floating in pieces in space has less impact than it should.
Species 8472 are intended to be scarier than the Borg. They have a biological based technology, with organically grown ships and their own invasive aspect that consumes people and machinery. Coming from a kind of interdimensional pocket universe Species 8472 are deeply xenophobic and we learn that they want to purify the whole galaxy: Borg and non-Borg alike. The normally hyper-adaptable Borg have been unable to respond to Species 8472’s attacks because the Borg learn via assimilation and so far the Borg have been unable to assimilate any of their new enemy’s technology.
Janeway attempts a Faustian bargain. In exchange for Voyager’s research into a nanotech counter-technology against Species 8472, Janeway asks the Borg for safe-passage through Borg space. The Borg agree but demand that Janeway (and the Vulcan security officer Tuvok) work alongside the Borg as hostages while the Voyager is shepherded through Borg space.
This complicated scenario is actually the first part in a grand manoeuvrer: swapping out one recurring cast member for a new one. The cast member in question was Jennifer Lien who played the telepathic Kes who was not really working well as a character — or at least so I’ve read. Certainly in this three episode arc that results in her departure and which is intended to put some focus on her as a character, there is an unconvincing quality to the role.
As Voyager encounters more attacks from Species 8472, Kes also experiences an increase in her telekinetic powers. Her telepathy also allows her to make some attempts at communication with the strange aliens. However, Species 8472 are as immune to negotiation as the Borg would be normally.
Speaking of which…The dire straits the Borg find themselves in make them far more amenable to compromise than normal. To facilitate communication between the Borg and Janeway, the Borg nominate a spokesperson, a formerly human Borg unit with the designation Seven of Nine. The character would eventually get their own quite distinctive costume but at this point she appears in more conventional body-horror Borg style.
After a further attack by Species 8472, the Voyager barely escapes. The Borg cube they were cooperating with is destroyed but teleports at the last moment a secton of itself into the Voyager’s hanger bay. With Janeway unconscious, Cmdr. Chakotay takes charge. Meanwhile, Seven of Nine plots to gain Borg control over the Voyager. After much back and forth, a newly healed Captain Janeway finally deploys a weapon against Species 8472 but only after the Voyager has had extensive Borg modifications, as well as a trip into Species 8472’s own mini-universe.
The second episode (episode 1 of season 4) ends with Seven of Nine cut off from the Borg collective but the threat from Species 8472 over.
The second episode of Season 4, The Gift, moves on from the Species 8472 plot but continues the process of swapping Kes for Seven of Nine as recurring characters. The show jumps straight into a tricky question of medical consent. Seven of Nine has been treated with nanontechnology intended to suppress the impact of the Borg particles in her organic parts. However, all she wants to do is return to the Borg and she finds the idea of becoming more human abhorrent. For the Doctor this is an obvious problem for any further treatment on a patient who does not want the treatment. Janeway counters that Seven of Nine has already had her individual agency taken from her by the Borg. Put another a way, her objections to treatment are the wishes of the Borg collective and not Seven of Nine as an individual and Janeway can’t act of Seven of Nine wishes until she is free of the Borg collective.
It’s an interesting point but also the show has set up a convoluted situation in which a Starfleet captain inflicts a prisoner with involuntary medical procedures. Kate Mulgrew does an excellent job of making a Captain Janeway a very plausible starship captain. In many ways, I think she is more believably a template for a Starfleet officer than either Kirk or Picard (or maybe Sisko). However, her outwards decisiveness serves the story poorly here. The counter-argument is left to Seven of Nine who herself may not be acting in the best of interest of herself — in so far as ‘herself’ has any meaning. The I, Borg episode of The Next Generation, examined the ethics of Starfleet’s dealing with Borg units with more finesse by showing multiple and changeable positions from different crew members. Janeway doesn’t have the luxury of a Guinan bartender/confidante — the closest she has is a holodeck version of Leonardo da Vinci.
Meanwhile Kes has to be dispensed with as a character and the story does so by making her more powerful. There’s no shortage of psychically powered individuals within Star Trek but main characters only have powers that are limited in scope or which are difficult to use. More powerful psychics are typically a threat even if sometimes an unwitting threat.
After her encounter with Species 8472, Kes has gained stronger telekinetic powers. This causes concern all round and prompts Tuvok to attempt to teach her Vulcan meditation techniques. During one session, Kes discovers that she can now perceive a realm below the quantum level. This enables her to manipulate the space around her in alarming ways. For reasons that go unexplained she starts doing this more often thus endangering the ship.
Eventually Kes’s rapidly advancing psychic powers leads to a crisis and with the ship in jeopardy around her she escapes in a shuttle with Janeway’s help. Once she is a safe distance from the ship she transcend into an energy being and/or just explodes. As she does so, she uses her powers one last time to push voyager at a speed far beyond its own capability. The ship finds itself clear of Borg space and much further along its journey.
Meanwhile, Seven of Nine has reconciled herself somewhat to being sundered from the Borg collective. The Doctor treats her hair follicles so she gains a head of hair as well as new clothes/garment foe keeping her Borg-bits in check and the episode ends with Seven of Nine now in what will become her standard costume for the series.
Our picture of the Borg hasn’t changed much in the whole process and an obvious issues with the Borg themselves is that they just aren’t that interesting. When Star Trek spends extra time with the Klingons or Romulans the show gains an opportunity to show extra aspects of their culture. The Borg intentionally lack that added depth, which makes them effective as existential threats but weak as bad-guys with a background. Seven of Nine’s personal history is focussed on her former life as a human girl.
What Jeri Ryan brings to the show though is a character who can be a foil to Janeway. Despite filling Voyager with a set of people with interesting backstories, Voyager had failed to have a breakout character who was distinctive to the show. It’s not the quantity of character quirks (arguably DS9 had even more and succeeded) but a failure to make them feel distinct for the show. Seven of Nine manages to be the missing piece in the ensemble.