"Unity"

Guest Reviewer: Ashley Miller

rec.arts.startrek.reviews is a moderated newsgroup that allows people to post reviews of Star Trek episodes and other Trek-related items (films, novels, games, etc). There are several who do so regularly; my personal favorite is Ashley Miller.

Compared to Ashley, I'm an optimist. So when he likes an episode, I take notice. But that's not why I'm posting this review. This is, frankly, a review I could not have written--but I'm glad he could. He has kindly given permission for me to post his review here. I hope you'll enjoy his analysis and insights as much as I did. --Jim


      Date:  Sun, 16 Feb 1997 14:03:47 -0500
Newsgroups:  rec.arts.startrek.reviews,rec.arts.startrek.current,alt.tv.star-trek.voyager
   Subject:  [VOY] "Unity":  The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
      From:  "Ashley Miller" 

WARNING: The following article contains spoiler information for "Unity". If you have not yet seen the episode, proceed with caution.


[VOY] "Unity": The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Written by: Ken Biller
Directed by: Robert Duncan McNeill

The long-awaited knock-out punch. "Unity" is easily the best episode of Voyager yet produced, and can stand proudly and confidently with the best of the Trek canon. Featuring a brilliant teleplay by Kenneth Biller, a tour-de-force directing turn from Robert Duncan McNeill and out-of-this-world production values, this is one for the books. See it now. Then see it again.

The Good:

The Borg are probably the most effective alien threat ever devised for Star Trek, and there's a good reason why that's true. It's not because they are both powerful and implacable, but because they are a dark mirror into the soul of Roddenberry's vision -- a dystopian nightmare of perverted ideals, lost identity and stolen will. When the Borg have been used most effectively, it has invariably been because the story in question chose to focus on that nightmare and make it real.

"Unity" makes that choice from the outset, leaving aside massive space battles in favor of bringing us inside the Borg collective in a new and compelling way. While "Best of Both Worlds" and Star Trek: First Contact managed to capture both the visceral and the intellectual impact of these most dangerous of foes, this episode chooses instead to focus on the meaning of the Borg and make understanding itself a visceral experience. As written by Kenneth Biller, "Unity" makes the Borg deeper, darker and more disturbing than ever before.

One of the things I love about Biller episodes is that they move in a very directed and sophisticated way toward a legitimate moral dilemma. He also manages to capture one of the attributes of the original series which made it so unique in the SF canon: social relevancy by way of allegory. Here, he weaves the personal moral choices into his cultural metaphor with such confidence that the two complement and inform one another with absolute (ahem) unity.

It would be easy to draw Biller's social allegory as a simple reflection of the chaotic state in which the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia now find themselves. And while that comparison would be an apt one, "Unity" goes far beyond showing us a sketch of a once united people now seething with dischord. Rather, this is a story of how such dischord can tempt people with the security and order of the old ways, even as they fool themselves with promises to keep only the "good" things about their totalitarian regime. This is "Animal Farm" with Borg instead of livestock.

Thrust into the middle of all of this is Chakotay, whose personal journey through the storm forms the emotional core of the episode. Rendered helpless by circumstance and injury, Chakotay comes to know, respect and admire the population of disassimilated Borg he finds on a lonely rock in the Necrid Expanse. Ultimately, he chooses to link with them in a desperate attempt to save his own life, a mystical and spectacularly realized scene that evokes some genuine pathos for the much-loathed Borg drones. Through Chakotay's eyes, we see the lives that were stolen away from them and experience the Hell they were forced to endure by the power of their own collective will.

Chakotay's experience with the link changes his outlook profoundly. When the former Borg -- now calling themselves "the Cooperative" -- approach Captain Janeway with a risky plan to unite their now dysfunctional society by reactivating their lifeless ship, it is Chakotay who proves their strongest advocate. The dilemma then posed to Janeway is a compelling one: assist the Cooperative and risk the destruction of Voyager, or allow the Borg ship to remain dead in space and risk the destruction of the Cooperative. Given Chakotay's relationship with this ad hoc society, and the fact that the audience has come to sympathize with their circumstances, Janeway's choice is hardly an academic one. And when she ultimately chooses to take no chances with the Borg, we can understand her decision even if we can't completely agree with it.

Had the story gone simply this far, it would have been enough to make "Unity" a complex and intriguing entry in the series. But Biller takes the situation further; the Cooperative abuse their residual link with Chakotay and force him to reactivate the Borg ship against his will. As Chakotay himself notes later, this new Cooperative thus seems perfectly willing to impose itself on others when it suits their needs. In other words, (to paraphrase The Who), meet the new Borg...same as the old Borg. The fact that the Cooperative acts to protect Voyager by initiating the active cube's self-destruct sequence does not mitigate the disturbing sense that a very old cycle has been pushed back into motion.

To its credit, "Unity" stops short of suggesting that the Cooperative is now as "bad" as the Collective. Instead, it neatly makes the point that the temptation to commit an "evil" act in the name of a "good" end is a powerful one; that we are ultimately products of our experiences on an individual and social level; that traumatic cultural shifts tends to have "equal and opposite" reactions which cause the repetition of old paradigms in new forms. What exactly the Cooperative means by their "undying gratitude" to Chakotay and the Voyager crew is left up in the air, and whether that particular good intention will pan out in way that produces a good result is equally unclear. The mind reels with possibilities.

Also to its credit, "Unity" plays in a surprisingly intimate and understated fashion that manages to be paradoxically epic. Robert Duncan McNeill's direction is a huge part of this. His style is nothing less than cinematic, applying very ambitiuos techniques that are seldom attempted in the television milieu. What makes his style and ambition special is that they serve the story, and do not amount to art for its own sake. There were a number of standout scenes, including the initial attack on Chakotay, Chakotay's "link" with the Cooperative and the brief Borg attack on the Voyager away team. Considering also that McNeill had a limited time to prep this episode for production makes his directorial accomplishment even more impressive.

Beyond the visual cues, McNeill pulls some nice performances out of the cast. Robert Beltran has never been better, which is to say that he was perfectly charming, commanding and believeable in his role. Kate Mulgrew was also outstanding, playing Janeway's attitude against her circumstances; i.e., the higher the stakes, the calmer she became. Moreover, the interplay between the two was very natural and even compelling. "Unity" is one of the few occasions where the entire crew seemed to "belong" together and exhibited a tangible, unique and engaging dynamic.

Speaking of dynamic, Foundation Imaging's special effects work continues to impress me. When given a decent budget, skillful art direction and the ability to integrate physical models with their computer graphics, these guys do fantastic work. Voyager's escape from the exploding Borg ship took less than five seconds to play out, but it was so simple and elegant that it almost literally burned itself into my imagination. I can't wait to see what happens when they get an opportunity to do some work on the scale of "Caretaker" or DS9's "Way of the Warrior".

The rest of the tech credits were collectively superior. Costuming and make-up were simply fantastic, beating out even "Blood Fever"'s impressive rock-people in terms of overall effect. The production design was equally effective, communicating not only the brutal nature of the Cooperative's everyday existence, but the fact that this world was one the Borg had visited prior to their deadly encounter with...whatever it was that took them out.

On that note, I appreciated the fact that the circumstances surrounding the Borg's defeat were left hazy. Yes, the Cooperative's spokesperson indicated that they were taken offline by a powerful electrostatic discharge, but she did not specify where that discharge came from. The briefing room discussion of a force "more powerful" than the Borg did not play as a red herring -- I got the distinct impression that we are due for some big surprises down the road.

The Bad:

Very little, and nothing of substantive consequence. There are some questions, however:

- If some of the members of the Cooperative were taken at Wolf 359, how did they make it back to the Delta Quadrant? We know (now) that the Borg can transport individuals across vast distances -- if this is the case, how many of the drones on Locutus' ship were spared destruction over Earth?

- We know that the Borg cannot survive if their organic components are killed, but it seems that the cybernetic implants are capable of reanimating apparently "dead" flesh. What are the limits of this capability?

- Twice now, we have seen that people who link with the Borg maintain a subconscious connection even after their implants are removed. First, Picard and now Chakotay. How do the Borg accomplish this?

I don't see the existence of these questions as negatives. As a much-respected professor once told me, "There is a difference between a mystery and a muddle". This has the feeling of the former rather than the latter. I strongly suspect that the answers to these and many other questions await us in future encounters with the Cooperative and the Borg themselves.

The Ugly:

How about that dude with no eyeball? Or that guy without an arm? How about that metal plate sticking out of the back of Chakotay's girlfriend's head? Or what about that dead Borg on which the Doc performed the autopsy? Or how about...

My Score:

"Unity" is Voyager's best episode to date. Not only is it a great story on its own merits, it is a story that could only happen on Voyager but manages to fit our intrepid crew into the larger tapestry of the Star Trek universe. Written with exceptional intelligence by Ken Biller, "Unity" is also an apt social allegory, exploring the what-ifs of politics and culture with the panache that made Star Trek such a special phenomenon in the first place. In addition, it happens to be the most visually stunning and stirring Voyager episode since the pilot as a result of Robert Duncan McNeill's stylish, confident direction and FI's spectacular special effects. Although "Unity" raises more questions about the Borg than it answers, it bodes well for future encounters with everyone's favorite race of cybernetic bogeymen.

UNITY: **** (out of four)

NEXT WEEK: Would you believe Doctor...Jekyll?

"I wonder how long their ideals will stand up in the face of that kind of power?"
-- Chakotay, musing on the future of the Cooperative he helped to create

1997 Ashley Edward Miller. All rights reserved, and most of the lefts too.

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Last Updated: February 20, 1997
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