There are few things in life more insubstantial than a dream and few more artificial than the Borg. Ever since they were introduced in the Next Generation there isn’t a weapon that Starfleet hasn’t tried to use against them. Phasers, photon torpedoes, anti-matter spreads have all been tried and in the long run have failed. Whatever is thrown at the Borg, the Borg adapt to. Whatever weapon can be thought of the Borg can counter drawing from their seemingly infinite reserve of captive minds and stolen technologies. Yet there is no empire so strong it cannot fall from within and no dictatorship so totally in control of its subjects’ minds that it cannot fall prey to their desire for freedom. The Borg are the ultimate totalitarian state, the logical cybernetic extension of Zamyatin’s Science Fiction classic “We” where citizens are known by a number or Orwell’s “1984” in which the human mind is just another tool of the state. And so it is almost inevitable that despite all their conquests and their power the Borg fall prey to the one weapon they cannot resist, the weapon that totalitarian regimes throughout human history have fallen prey to, a dream.
The Borg are technology and power personified. They have no other identity besides technology and power and no goal besides gaining more and better technology and power. There is no escape from such a society, not even the possibility of protest or dissent because if you cannot think, you cannot dissent. But much as people do in the real world, thousands of drones with a specific mutation have found an escape from their real lives through dreams or rather through a collective dream of freedom in an unspecified forest where they can be as they once were before the Borg assimilated them. While the collective holds their bodies in eternal slavery, the souls of those drones are for a time free. When everything has been taken from them, their freedom, their bodies and even their minds; they are rebelling in the only way that they can by finding a tiny space for themselves where they can for a moment be outside the control of the slave state. This rebellion of Unimatrix Zero though is a passive one and like many passive rebellions seems doomed from the start. The name itself too is a curiously Borg-like one for a group trying to rediscover their natural selves or perhaps not. Zero is at once seemingly empty and powerless to the Borg obsessed with acquiring quantities of things but in a sense contains all quantities of numbers within it. The name signifies that by tapping into the dream the drones have tapped into a source of power far greater then the collective, a source of power that unlike the Borg is unlimited because it contains within it all possibilities. This dream, the entire concept of finding possibilities through dreaming is what Star Trek has been all about.
Of course hope begins with hopelessness and so from the beginning we move about Borg corridors that seem darker and far more frightening without any human presence, no Starfleet crewmembers giving us hope of an escape or even a human perspective. We are in the home of the Borg the way it normally is, the way the drones exist in it day after day and year after year. No one to talk to, nothing to think about, nothing to see but the daily routine in the space going equivalent of an industrial plant with no home to go to or family or weekends to relieve the monotony of pure labor. Like a medieval castle the adobe of the Borg Queen is dark and gloomy, full of men in metal and black clothing walking their rounds and their ruler mysterious and cunning placed directly at the center of her web. At first the shots of the massive Borg complex seem to reinforce their invulnerability and their power but slowly as we learn of the rebellion within the complex it seems more like a precarious fortress isolated and under siege. As the Borg Queen marks drone position after drone we realize that a war is being fought, but unlike all wars the Borg have fought before, this one does not take place in reality but in a collective dream, the closest thing the Collective has to a soul. It is a showdown between technology and power against hope and freedom fought in the soul of the Borg for the soul of the Borg. The Borg have met the enemy and they are them.
Aboard Voyager Seven dreams for the first time and never having entirely left the Borg collective behind her, Seven fears the dream. Like the Borg she understands that the dream cannot be contained within the boundaries of sleep and contains revelations that threatens the integrity of the life she made for herself. Like the rebelling drones Seven is more human in the dream of Unimatrix Zero but she is also less human than they are, less prepared to completely free herself of everything the Borg have done to her. On Voyager Seven has accepted a modicum of humanity, she has come to care about people, learn to deal with them but she hasn’t really opened herself up to the possibilities of being human and so she remains suspended between being human and being Borg. Only in the dream can she allow herself to be called by her real name, Anika. Only in the dream can she experiment with reclaiming her human heritage. But when threatened with a real relationship she retreats from the dream and demands that she be called by her Borg name again. For the first time a plausible emotional relationship is presented for her and she predictably retreats. Seven is a character who for better or worse has developed right before our eyes. When comparing her with the Seven of “The Gift” she seems to have come very far, but among other things, Unimatrix shows us how far she has to go and that the potential is in a sense already being expressed within her.
While the drones are dreaming of a better life, everyone on Voyager is going about the very real business of surviving in the Delta Quadrant (occasionally) according to
Starfleet ideals. Janeway answers a distress call to a destroyed colony that she has come too late to save. When she hears about the “distress call” from the Unimatrix drones she sees it as the chance to save all the colonies and the planets the Borg threaten. A weakness in the Borg can be exploited and possibly even the entire collective can be brought down and so mixing Starfleet ideals and her own special brand of cunning and vengeance Janeway comes up with a plan quite similar to the one she employed in her previous confrontation with the Borg Queen. (So similar in fact that the Queen comments on it before Janeway and Co. meet their untimely fates.) In a meeting managed through Tuvok’s unique version of AT&T Janeway meets with the closest thing the drone rebellion has to a leader and convinces him to change his rebellion from passive to active. Once again Janeway ventures into the Borg lair and though this time she knows enough to leave Seven behind, she seems to have discarded most of the techniques that worked somewhat in Dark Frontier. The result is her capture and assimilation and the assimilation of Torres and Tuvok. When we see Janeway, Torres and Tuvok at the end as drones their appearance is quite shocking but Chakotay’s planned getaway and Janeway’s original refusal to initially take them along robs this scene of the impact of Picard’s assimilation in Next Generation’s “Best of Both Worlds.”
In Best of Both Worlds, the Enterprise has been tricked, Picard mutilated and transformed and Earth doomed. The forces of good seemed and were confused and in disarray while in Unimatrix Zero it is clear that there is a plan operating here, a dangerous plan but one in which Janeway and Co. are in control for now. If the script had done a better job of hiding this, Unimatrix could have ended on a much stronger note than it did. That is a common problem for this episode that has the vision, the suspense and the plot but somehow seems a bit listless at times in comparison to Scorpion or Dark Frontier. A good deal of time is spent on Seven but she is excluded from any direct participation in the events of the final act, which makes those scenes seem like a waste of time. From the perspective of the two parter this will eventually become it might work, but here and now as a one hour episode the Seven material relegates her to the three P’s of the Kes role. Namely psychic powers, personal growth and passivity. It didn’t work that well with Kes and it works even worse with Seven of Nine who isn’t remotely built for that kind of role.
More problematically the Borg Queen is relegated to cartoon villain scenery chewing. While Thompson does an excellent job of maintaining ironic distance and the attitude of a powerful leader, the medieval castle analogy hits too crudely close to home when she paces the room, holds conversations with drones, threatens them and mutilates them. She seems not particularly in control or possessed of the kind of knowledge and power she radiated in Dark Frontier. All in all she’s much closer to the Queen Arachnia of Captain Proton and considering that Janeway had already duplicated the Captain Proton trick assault in Dark Frontier, repeating it with a few assimilations for shock value seems like a bad idea. The Queen’s offhand comment to Harry has so much more effect then all the scenes of the Queen examining mutilated Borg heads. This entire concept is based on demonstrating the complete cruelty and evil of the villain but with the Borg this is completely beside the point. The Borg are beyond good and evil, beyond petty ego trips or torture for fun and pleasure. These “Borg Yorrick” scenes take us back in a bad way to “First Contact” and Krige’s Borg Queen played as a refugee from the cast of Chicago or a Bond Movie.
Where Dark Frontier managed to merge the Seven story and the story of the Borg, to show the Borg Queen as the representation of a greater and powerful force with plans stretching into the past and the future; Unimatrix Zero gives us the strong story of the rebellion of the drones, a few brief and hurried scenes on Voyager and a Borg Queen about as plausible as Queen Arachnia. When comparing Seven’s experience in the assimilation chamber and what that did to make the Borg terrifying again with the Borg Queen pacing around and delivering stock evil empress lines to her subjects it is clear that the writers have once again made the mistake of humanizing the Borg too far and too fast. It is fascinating to look at a drone and wonder about his dreams, to see them as individuals hiding terrible secrets beyond even the reach of their own conscious minds, but this has to be combined with recognizing the power and dread of the Borg and the fact that we are dealing here with something that transcends normal regimes and rulers. The two can be combined but it requires careful work and steady steps.
In a very large sense all of the Borg stories have been leading up to this moment since Hugh innocently stepped on the screen in “I. Borg.” “Descent” parts 1 and 2 looked at Borg drones liberated from the collective and tried to merge that into an unfortunate Lore as Charles Manson story serving as one of the Borg’s worst moments yet and a perfect example of exactly what was to be avoided. In “Unity”, Voyager’s first Borg episode we looked at former drones forming a different kind of collective (something that may well be the long term outcome of Unimatrix.) In Scorpion we looked at the Borg taking a severe beating and their downfall seemed plausible even if Janeway’s actions were not. In “Dark Frontier” the Borg were somewhat reduced in stature but it was clear that Janeway’s overconfidence was a mistake and she paid the price only temporarily outwitting the Borg through ingenious gadgetry and desperation. In Unimatrix though Janeway seems far too casual about engaging the Borg, treating them like just another Delta Quadrant enemy. Even if her plan is to be assimilated that only adds to how casually she treats the matter. Her act can either be seen as foolhardy and contemptuous of the Borg’s power or a brave and risky sacrifice. With little focus on her plan beyond the usual meetings and Janeway-Chakotay bickering it seems more like the former than the latter. The Borg may have been weakened but are they really that weak? And if they are so much of the drama just leaks away.
All along a Borg revolution was in the pipeline and while Unimatrix handles the material far better then TNG’s Descent, Unimatrix Zero still leaves much to be desired. Common complaints about two part episodes and cliffhangers are that they come with a strong first part and a weak conclusion. Unimatrix though seems far more geared towards the conclusion then the first part and consequently seems rushed and sparse. The concept of Unimatrix Zero is probably the best possible idea for a Borg revolution anyone could have come up with. The rendering of Seven’s story and the Unimatrix is very well handled and would have worked much better in a different episode intended to set up Unimatrix and the Borg revolution. Voyager’s infiltration has a shocking cliffhanger to leave the fans with but overall seems like everything we’ve seen before. Janeway and Chakotay arguing about her safety and her initiative and their level of trust in each other. A mostly unnecessary trip by Janeway to the Unimatrix, material that would have worked better if Tuvok alone or the Doctor had made the trip. The scenes of the drones fleeing attacks by other drones seem a bit silly. (Since they can alter their appearances at will they should be able to easily defend themselves instead of behaving like extras in a horror movie.) A plan to infiltrate a Borg cube to do some damage, Voyager going head to head with a cube that looks suspiciously like a futuristic crate, a plan going horribly wrong inside the cube, people we care about falling into the hands of the Borg. This is all stuff we’ve seen before and weak direction and a haphazard script don’t manage to make it look fresh or new. In the end Unimatrix is a good episode, but not a great episode. Normally this might be enough but a story so many years in the making with such major implications for the whole Star Trek universe needed to be so much more.