Friday, January 11, 2013

Classics: Voyager 3:16 - Unity

Overall Rating: 8.2

Oh INTERESTING bad guy!  Actually, more to the point, a fascinating exploration of how the Borg came to be the malevolent force for destruction and tyranny that annihilates whole worlds today.  In a word - groupthink.

Plot Synopsis:

This summary has all of the relevant facts - suffice to say, the episode appears to be based on the question "how do destructive forces like the Borg form?" And for once, Kenneth Biller didn't take a good idea and muck it up royally.

The Skinny:

You know...the only thing that really holds this episode back is that the ONE time you need a sermon (a morals-driven speech from Captain Sanctimony is common fare here on Voyager) to really drive home an important point, they decide to leave it open-ended and, when the dilemma is raised, they focus on the wrong reasons to be skeptical of the plan offered by "The Cooperative."  They also missed an opportunity to change POV and give us a taste of this supposedly friendly group from the other side (meaning, the rest of the inhabitants of this planet).  But before I "Run With It!" I did want to extol the notable virtues of this episode and make sure it's crystal clear that I think it's a good solid Trek episode and a wonderful addition to the continuing story of The Borg as one of the greatest adversaries ever presented in science fiction.

In The Best of Both Worlds (TNG's finest hour, according to many), we are presented with a full picture of the threat that a relentless hive mind would pose to a freedom-loving people.  As Picard famously bellows from the decks of the massive Borg cube in the midst of this pitched drama, "Our culture is based on freedom and self-determination!"  To which the Borg flatly respond "Freedom is irrelevant.  Self-determination is irrelevant.  You will adapt to service us."  Ouch. what we call "groupthink" taken to its most absurd extreme (and that is a powerful and very common literary device used in science fiction, where anything is possible, even the unthinkable).  But that episode (and the previous installment "Q Who?") merely established WHAT the Borg are.  It never asked, let alone answered the question "why are they here?"  This episode does that quite nicely.

Many an idealist in our own history (that is to say, American History...we're not even going to talk about Communism yet, as that is all too obvious) has tried to fix very real problems in society by getting the entire group (American citizens) to believe (a) that there was a problem that was such a mortal threat that we had to take extreme steps to eliminate it, (b) that this problem could only be solved if everyone agreed on precisely how to solve it (I'm looking at you, environuts!!) and (c) that the solution was a top-down all-encompassing reform that would force one culture to adapt and serve another.  OK...I'll mention the Ruskies just this once; they forced the wealthy to hand over their assets to the state - to adapt to a new way of life in which the state gave the orders and they carried them out or died resisting.  Here in the US, FDR tried (and failed) to force the Supreme Court to change laws so that he might gain the power necessary to force the American individualist to allow the state to buy huge private sector assets in order to solve an economic crisis.  George W. Bush used the 911 attacks to convince Americans that the creation of another massive money-wasting government department to control an ever-expanding network of databases, investigative and law enforcement arms, and civil services was necessary.  We would adapt to service the Feds.  And Obama and Gore routinely use the same war-laden language to convince Americans that they should give up their cars, pay far more for coal and oil-powered heat and electricity and accept the EPA's ever-growing controls over the private sector (global warming being supposedly the greatest threat we've ever faced...unless he's selling us on government managed healthcare, in which case healthcare inefficiencies are the greatest threat ever faced by the American middle class, etc).

Whether Star Trek writers see the parallels or are only willing to accept that the Borg story is relevant only to big-state Communism is irrelevant to me.  The bottom line is that when our security is threatened, we are conditioned to give up our freedom and self-determination.  While the Borg cube was hovering over Earth, the Federation declared martial law (!) as we found out in the DS9 episode "Homefront" - so...yeah...even the lofty Federation idealists gave in to fear.  It is a natural survival instinct.  This episode explores that up close.  How do a freedom-loving people give up their individuality at the altar of groupthink and cooperation?  When they live in a state of war and feel they need to give up their rights to survive.  What I particularly like is that, throughout the episode, although we are allowed to sympathize a bit with the hardships faced by the cooperative and we come to see them as well-meaning folks trying to make the best of a bad life, we find that, when they give in to groupthink, they still use nefarious and unethical means to achieve their goals.  They lock Chakotay away to keep him from getting suspicious, they lie to him about how they came to be on the planet, they use their groupthink powers to coerce Chakotay into putting his shipmates at risk for their own benefit, and they enslave an entire population to their culture without asking whether they would agree.  All to stop the feuding and the fighting.  I imagine the original Borg collective was similar to this...a small group of linked minds trying to make the best of a bad situation somewhere who learned quickly that if you can enter someone's mind, you can alter his thoughts and force consensus.  They stopped war, inequality, injustice and mental illness cold - and their security improved so much that they decided that they would be doing everyone else a favor if they could get them to join the collective.  And not only that, but that it was their individual nature that prevented them from realizing that a collective way of life was superior!

I find this episode chilling and impressive - seeing the Borg in their less imposing, but ideologically consistent infancy really makes you think about how the Borg apply to the real world, and for a political junkie like me, that's sweet sweet brain candy.

But...there are a few things they could have done better here, so...

Let's Go With It!

Two things dawned on me when watching this episode.  Janeway focused on the wrong threat until AFTER Chakotay was abused by the link.  Her primary concern in the magic meeting room seemed to be that activating the Borg neural plexus on the shattered cube would threaten to (a) alert other Borg to Voyager's presence (b) cause the dead drones to automatically spring to life and attack Voyager or (c) cause the cube to send a message to the collective and bring them down on the planet.  All of those are real dangers, but the moral dilemma was more important, IMHO.  First of all, the Prime Directive was MADE for situations like this.  Here's Voyager's best shot to use the Prime Directive in a fair and just way - the cooperative might think hive consciousness is better than warfare, but what about all of those Cardassians and Romulans and Klingons who did not join their cult?  Don't they have rights too?  Not the least of which is to NOT have their brains invaded by a repressive cooperative bent on total cultural assimilation?  What place does Voyager have interfering with this planet and its people?  How can we be asked to choose sides here when we don't have all the facts and the facts we do have seem disturbing?  This was the ONE time where sanctimonious moral rhetoric was actually called for in the whole of Voyager's sad history and Janeway does NOT give a speech about the Cooperative's unjust plan to enslave the warring masses?  Really??  I mean after Chakotay was violated, Janeway did point out that these seemingly peaceful people's first act as a nation was to mind-rape someone and force them to comply...but a bit more moral fortitude was required here, IMHO.

I also would like to have seen a little less Chakotay romance a little more alternative perspective.  Our only information about life on this planet comes to us from the mini-Borg.  Are they really trustworthy?  How do we know they didn't start this war by trying to force people into the collective?  How do we know their plans to build signal amplifiers didn't reach that first group of Klingons and how do we know this wasn't the reason the collective seemed to be under attack by EVERYONE.  Sure, there might be some racial tension here, but if I were living on a planet where a group of people were trying to force their brainwaves into my head, you had better believe I'd pick up a gun or a blade or anything else I could get my hands on and go to war to stop them.  I mean really...look at what we western individualists did in response to the Big Red Machine of global communism!  And that is far less physically threatening that getting forcibly mind-raped for the sake of global unity.  So...yeah...good intentions are a good place to start, but the road to hell is also paved with them...and I think the show should have allowed us to see the negative effects the cooperative had on those Klingons and Romulans.  That Romulan guy who was all happy about being in racial harmony?  What if the pack of Romulans in which he was a member before his cult days included his WIFE?  How would you feel if your wife gave up her way of life and her family to go join a supercharged hippie commune complete with no personal freedom or privacy and total neural reprogramming?  That kind of stuff is what they would have tried on DS9.  And the lack of it makes this story shallower than it should have been and keeps it from reaching feature status.

Writing: 7.5

It's Kenneth Biller - try as he might, on his best days he can only craft a "pretty good" script that has plot flaws and is a bit on the shallow side.  In this case a brilliant idea (not Biller's idea) got handed to the wrong man, and the power of the idea prevented a total screw-up.

Acting: 8.0

Robert Beltran does a very nice job raising our "EEEKE!" hackles during his resistance to, romance with, and defense of the devil.  Unfortunately, Ivar Brogger (Romulan engineer guy) and Lori Hallier (Riley, a.k.a. the devil) are not nearly as convincing - often seeming very choppy and wooden.

Message: 9.0

Groupthink is dangerous - our psyches, even in a society that does not mechanically force compliance, are very prone to suggestion when group pressures close in around them (that is without the mind-reading communal link)...imagine what happens when our minds become directly linked?  How open to suggestion might we be then?  This episode delivers an outstanding message, but does so without the force necessary to drive it home fully.

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