Monday, April 23, 2018

Voyager, Season 5: Dark Frontier, Season 5
"Dark Frontier"
Airdate: February 17, 1999
110 of 168 produced
108 of 168 aired


Captain Janeway decides to take the fight directly to the Borg instead of cutting and running at each confrontation. In the crew's preparation for this operation, Seven of Nine confronts her past and her repressed feelings over it.

"We are the Borg. You will wear briefs. Junk support will be total."


Matthew: On one level, this is a heist plot. Heist plots are fun, generally speaking. They give the viewer a plan that the characters will follow, which creates a set of expectations that can either be met or subverted. As heists go, this one was reasonably well constructed. A transwarp coil will speed Voyager's journey - that works fine as a motivation. Sneaking onto a damaged Borg ship can certainly be tense, though it does raise questions - haven't the Borg adapted to this "walking carefully with weapons lowered" strategy? To be fair, these questions have been around since the Borg were introduced, and they are given a lampshade with the life-sign masking device. I also found the idea that they 1. have a set time limit which is known, and 2. need to shave seconds off of their operation to be a little bit credulity-straining. Couldn't Tuvok just... talk faster? Couldn't they all walk slightly faster? That's like 10 seconds right there. All in all, though, the heist allowed the Voyager crew to do interesting things and be competent, and they mostly worked.

Kevin: By and large, I agree. It can be a fun pace change to do an episode like this, and we've seen them before to pretty solid effect. My concern is that I think it acheives a bit of a tipping point in the diminution of the Borg from existential threat to ordinary villain. The first time we meet the Borg, the Enterprise was easily creamed. The second time, and after a massive live of life, the Federation just barely squeaks by. Even in Voyager, the last time we met them, the Borg remained a massive threat to Voyager, just one that was dwarfed by 8472. Indeed, their entire sense of danger came from seeing how easily they give the Borg a pasting. Now, instead of staying away from the Borg at all costs, we are actively seeking them out. This couples with the problems presented by the reintroduction of the Borg Queen. Now, I know that First Contact is actually responsible for creating her, and we discussed the implications and questions there, but I think they're exacerbated here. I allowed for the idea of some foci of the Borg consciousness and the concession to the idea that a movie needs an individuated villain. Back on a series, the way they wrote the Borg Queen really reduces the Borg from monolithic, unstoppable force whose very conception of the universe is completely foreign, to the a fairly stoppable villain with fairly ordinary motivations. Her obsessions with Data or Picard raises a lot of the same questions, but somehow, at least for me, inside the four walls of a movie, it just flowed better. Here, her obsession with Seven and (over the series) Janeway really makes the Borg Queen less scary. She's fun, and the scenes in and of themselves are fun, but it kind of mutes the things about the Borg that are the most terrifying.

Matthew: The aspect of the episode that really worked for me was the Seven of Nine flashback material. Intercutting scenes with the Raven was really effective. First off, I am always interested when continuity gets expanded. Seeing scenes of the Federation's "past" almost always tickles me. Does this material raise questions? Yes. Is this supposed to be before "Q Who?" Apparently. Should we care? Hmm. Continuity is a fluid thing, and can be bent in service of a good story. I think this story is good enough to warrant it (not to mention that this bit of Trek lore had already been tested by both Generations and within "Q Who" itself, given Guinan's race having known about the Borg in Kirk's day!). Secondly, these scenes changed the pace of the heist story, to make it seem like a longer-lasting operation that was planned over weeks, not minutes. Third and most importantly, the scenes allowed us an insight into young Annika's lived experience, and the effects it would have on Seven of Nine in terms of post traumatic stress. The whole time I was watching her parents, I was like "what a bunch of selfish dickheads." And you know what? Seven came to the same conclusion. That's good writing, folks, when characters see an obvious problem, call it out, and experience the emotional fall out from it.

 Annika, that's not a toy, dammit! It's an accurate simulation for our Starfleet club!

Kevin: It definitely elevates the episode since its organic backstory and it puts all the stakes for Seven on an emotional not just tactical plane. It's also a pretty solid riff on the "crazy Federation scientist" the Enterprise normally has to go rescue from their own hubris. Normally your Paul Mannheims and your Ira Graveses tend to be lone wolves with their collateral damage limited to their (presumably) adult staff. Not only uprooting their daughter's life, but placing her in mortal danger adds element that makes their crazy scientist act more credible.

Matthew: If I had to pick one aspect of this plot that doesn't work very well, it would be Seven of Nine's motivations. Why did she go back to the Borg? It seemed to come out of nowhere. She is clearly traumatized by her Borg experience, and she avers early on that "Voyager is her collective now." Soooo.... why did she jump ship again? Now, I am perfectly open to some sort of Stockholm Syndrome idea, or that she was being coerced in some way. But that's not on the screen. So it just comes off as puzzling. The plot overall has plenty of momentum by that point, so it doesn't destroy the episode. But it nags me, and it nagged me while watching, too. Similarly, The Queen's plans for Seven are also a but squishy.  Was it the information in her brain that helped them come up with the new assimilation tactic? Is Seven's advice needed? Will she become a new Locutus? Who knows. I'd be satisfied with "We just want you back, because you belong to us." I would have liked to have heard a stronger argument for being with the Borg. What do they provide to their "citizens?"

Kevin: Yeah, I go into this more above, but the Borg Queen's actions and motivations are really the weakest part of the episode. They are fun enough to watch in the moment, but yeah...I don't know what insight Seven is supposed to have.


Matthew: I really liked Jeri Ryan's portrayal of someone who was conflicted about her past and her future. She also did some nice work in the scenes in which she tried to help the aliens escape assimilation. She also played well against Susannah Thompson and Kate Mulgrew, portraying a sort of vulnerability as someone torn between two matriarchal figures. Speaking of matriarchs, Mulgrew was excellent yet again. She portrayed her concern for Seven of Nine quite ably.

Kevin: We've discussed it before, but Jeri Ryan really nails a physical quality to her vulnerability. She gets smaller and really lands the soft moments with intensity. She has to pack a lot into fine-grained eyebrow movements, and she totally does.

Matthew: Susanna Thompson's debut as the Borg Queen went off without a hitch. She is pretty mesmerizing in whatever role she plays on screen (if you want some prime Susanna Thompson action outside of Trek, check out NBC's canceled-too-soon "Kings"). She definitely gives the Queen the same level of emotional layering that Alice Krige did, and plays well against both Seven and Janeway.

Kevin: Whatever my concerns about the scripting, I can't deny that all three actresses really brought it all episode. It's fun, and sadly novel, to have three women onscreen who are all formidable in their own ways and have a conflict play out that has nothing to do with romance.

Matthew: I really liked Kirk Baily and Laura Stepp as Magnus and Erin Hansen. I thought they credibly portrayed care for their daughter that was outstripped by their ambition for scientific discovery. They script didn't flesh out the basis of that ambition very well, but their performances sold it. Speaking of guest actors, Katelin Petersen was good as Annika, and Scarlett Pomers did her typically excellent job as Naomi.

Kevin: Seven's parents really nailed a 'lived-in' feel. You got the impression that these people lived and worked together all the time. If nothing else, they don't act like they're in a flashback. They act like they are in their own story. Also, Kirk Baily was the camp counselor, Ugg, from Salute Your Shorts, a Nickelodeon show I loved as a kid, and that was a slightly discordant catch, and one of the last ones I made without the help of a google search.

Production Values

Matthew: The effects shots in this episode definitely lived up to the "TV Movie" billing. We got loads of ship shots, tons of work inside Borg cubes with plenty of extras and costume details, and the production designers did a reasonably good job of re-using the same corridors without them looking repetitive. They re-did the Queen spine lowering effect, and while it was clearly TV and not movie quality, it was very good TV CGI for the time. They also introduced the Borg complex, which looked nice. About the only criticism I have is that the transwarp coil prop looked like a white-wall tire from the 50s, and the thing they got it out of was too non-descript. If that's the worst you can say about the look of a show, it's pretty good.

Kevin: The effects overall were good, especially for their time and budget. My one complaint is that the color and lighting scheme in the Borg Queen's chamber gets a little soupy in places. It gets very 'vaguely smoky disco' at points. It's not a huge complaint, and I'm sure it's as much an artifact of the multiple elements being composited as anything, but it can go a little video game. I also do not understand the costume choice of the gold speedo for the human example. I figure we all agree that the Borg would have no compunction about modesty, but that wouldn't play in primetime. In that case, why not just have them dressed? A non-descript Starfleet officer would have worked fine. The speedo just pulled my eye (in a different way that it normally does) because it ended up drawing more attention to the thing I presume they put the speedo there to hide.


Matthew: I think this is a 4, all told. It might have been a 5 if the motivation for Seven had been clearer, and they had perhaps given more of a hint as to either who the hell the Queen is, or the origin of the Borg. But it was paced well, had solid character stories and emotions, and ultimately had a pretty entertaining climax. It definitely amped up the feel of what Voyager could do in terms of drama.

Kevin: Ultimately, this was an entertaining and well acted episode that kept me engaged throughout. It falls somewhat for me in both muddying the Borg and having some pretty unclear motivations, especially for the Queen. I think the muddiness of those plot elements hold it back from a 4. I am going with a three for a total of 7.


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