Nutshell: It's not perfect, but I do believe the word "excellent" applies nicely. This is primarily spectacle taken to the extreme—and most of it works very well—but there's also an interesting issue in here.
And so Voyager's third season comes to an end on a very good note—not with a whimper like first season or with an implausible, untimely thread like last year—but with an enthusiastic bang. It's about time.
"Scorpion, Part I" is a very large, ambitious spectacle of an episode, and one could argue that this show happened because it had to happen—because the Delta Quadrant has remained so nondescript for so long now. But even though this show highlights just how long overdue something fresh in the Delta Quadrant has been in coming, there's an old saying that seems to apply here: better late than never.
The episode sets the tone with an effective opening shot (slightly marred only by the "TV-PG" in the corner of the screen). Two Borg cubes travel through space speaking the usual Borg rhetoric: "Resistance is futile," they say. Suddenly an energy beam lashes out and swiftly destroys both cubes. Apparently, resistance is not futile.
About this time, the Voyager crew, warping through space in the usual direction toward the Alpha Quadrant, discovers that the probe they had sent ahead has stopped transmitting. The last thing the probe sent back was an image of a Borg deactivating it. The meaning is clear: Voyager is approaching Borg space. And Borg space is huge. There's no going around it. It's either go through or go back. Going back means giving up all hope of getting home without the aid of an unconventional method.
Fortunately, the crew finds a section of Borg space devoid of Borg activity, which they nickname the "northwest passage." Traveling through it would be a rough ride, but, as Paris says, it's better to ride the rapids than to face the hive. Janeway and the crew prepare for the possibility of Borg encounters in the dangerous travel ahead.
If there's one thing that an imminent Borg encounter can do on a Star Trek episode, it's that it can create a believable sense of urgency. In a sensible scene, Chakotay leads a staff meeting that shows everybody doing a particular job that works toward the common goal of preparing for the worst.
The Doctor's job is the most interesting aspect of the preparations. His analysis of the Borg corpse (discovered in "Blood Fever") yields some interesting results. I especially liked the explanation of the Borg injection tubules (established in First Contact). These tubules, the first step in the Borg assimilation process, inject cancerous, microscopic, automated drones into the bloodstream, taking over the cell functions of a victim. Neat.
Another moment that works well is a discussion between Janeway and Chakotay (one of several effective exchanges of dialog) concerning how Voyager is supposed to survive the Borg on its own. In the past, Starfleet has always faced the Borg in forces—and been notably pulverized all the same. But Voyager is alone, and there's no fleet in the Delta Quadrant to back it up. One starship is hardly a match for billions of Borg, and I'm glad that Braga and Menosky's script acknowledged the fact.
The preparation for a Borg encounter is cut short when "Scorpion's" plot takes off. And once the show takes off, it never looks back. By the end of the first act the Voyager crew gets a glimpse of fleeting Borg, as 15 Borg vessels come from behind Voyager and pass it by—too hurried to threaten the crew with assimilation. The sight of 15 Borg ships coming up from behind Voyager is chilling (Chakotay quietly murmuring "My God" sets the tone nicely). And Jay Chattaway's score is quite good—atypically thematic and foreboding.
So the question for the crew is: just what were the Borg running from? Later, upon cruising through Borg wreckage (in a setting that echoes the graveyard of Starfleet ships from "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II"), the crew realizes that these 15 ships have been destroyed. The urgent question then becomes: just who or what could destroy 15 Borg vessels? Are they friend or foe?
Don't make me laugh by suggesting "friend."
The crew investigates and finds that aside from the Borg weapon signatures, there is evidence of a weapon of unknown origin. Chakotay, Tuvok, and Kim beam over to a damaged Borg ship, which is attached to an alien ship that is simply "impervious" to Voyager technology.
The visit to the Borg vessel is a technical triumph of set design, lighting, and directing. Voyager's production design team deserves high praise for this one. And David Livingston, who directed this episode, delivers yet again—highlighting that he is perhaps the best regular director currently in the Trek business. Pretty much all of "Scorpion I" sports the production quality and aesthetics of a feature film, but the interiors of the Borg ship and the organic designs of the unknown alien ship are noteworthy standouts that demand attention.
The improved sets for the Borg ship are dark and tight, which accentuates the claustrophobic, foreboding situation. While more atmospheric, the new look remains consistent with the Borg-like look and feel of the old sets. Livingston builds the suspense very well, far outdoing the failed Alien-like aesthetics that were attempted in "Macrocosm." Particularly jarring is the grotesque design formed by a pile of Borg bodies and body parts placed by the unknown aliens in the middle of a corridor—creepy, but cool. I also liked the humorous idea of a Borg drone hopelessly trying to "assimilate" the wall of the alien's biological ship. Kim's dry response: "Doesn't look like he's having much luck."
Inevitably, the alien comes looking for the Voyager away team who is tampering with its ship. It attacks Ensign Kim, just before he and the away team beam out of danger.
Okay, now some words on the new badass aliens, known by the Borg database only as "Species 8472." I like them. They're neat. They're different. They communicate with telepathy. And, for once on Trek, they're not the standard humanoids we've come to expect. They're much more alien. The CGI design of the new lifeform is ambitious. (Some have commented that the look of the alien is a rip-off of Babylon 5's Shadows. For the record, I very rarely watch Babylon 5, and I've never actually seen the Shadows, so I therefore cannot make the comparison. From a purely Voyager standpoint, the design works. Species 8472 is a fresh change of pace.)
Species 8472 has some very deadly weapons (to put it mildly), and the prospect of going hand-to-hand with these bad boys is nearly as frightening as facing their technology. Just ask Harry Kim. His encounter with the alien leaves him with a superficial wound, but a resulting cancer of alien cells invades his body and infects every life system, literally eating him alive from the inside out. The writers' notion of forcing Harry to endure the most gruesome and agonizing of possible deaths at the hands of Species 8472 is extreme at the very least, but it works. It's an easy way of making the aliens more fearsome and downright "bad." The idea that the aliens are the most densely coded lifeforms Doc has ever encountered is also interesting—over 100 times the DNA of humans—and the alien cells are impervious to treatment.
Still, although Species 8472 may be neat, they certainly aren't that deep. While the simplicity of their intentions and the vagueness of their motives make them more intimidating, faceless, and silent adversaries, there still isn't an awful lot of meat underneath an "evil" entity bent on simply "destroying everything." And their catchphrase, "The weak will perish," is not nearly as chilling or original as "Resistance is futile." I'll say it now: The Borg will never be displaced as Star Trek's best race of villains—and certainly not by 8472. The new aliens may be a lot more powerful, but that doesn't make them more interesting. In any case, I have a feeling we'll get a better feel for them in the second half of the two-parter. I certainly hope so; I'm not relinquishing my optimism after this episode's display of enthusiasm.
Anyway, Doc's proposal for curing Harry's infection is one of the more clever elements of the story. He proposes to modify the Borg automated cell-assimilators to disguise themselves as alien cells so they can sneak in and destroy the alien cancer—stealth style. As sci-fi medical procedures go, this concept may simultaneously be both the lightest on technobabble and slyest with logic that Voyager has supplied all season. This is smart writing.
In fact, this is where the episode really turns interesting. Since the Borg learn by assimilating knowledge from other species (whereas the Voyager crew learns by investigating), the Borg don't know the solution to the problem that has prevented their assimilation of Species 8472. And Voyager now has what may be the secret to 8472's downfall. Since the northwest passage turns out to be the passage where the 8472 aliens are entering Borg space—a very good reason why the Borg don't travel through it—Janeway's dilemma emerges again. Voyager will certainly be destroyed if they get in the middle of this war. But turning around means giving up.
The episode's best scene is the long dialog where Janeway and Chakotay clash with differing opinions concerning the captain's decision to literally make a deal with the devil. Janeway's plan is to give the Borg Doc's theory, which may allow them to develop a weapon capable of assimilating or destroying Species 8472. In exchange, Janeway will demand safe passage through Borg space.
This debate is wonderfully written and skillfully acted, featuring the kind of tough questions and issues that typify DS9. For example, just how can the Voyager crew trust the Borg to keep its end of the bargain and go against "nature," as Chakotay demonstrates in his well-placed fable? Also, is helping the Borg—a race of conquerors guilty of murdering and assimilating billions—to assimilate yet another species something even worth Voyager's safety? But then again, if the Voyager turns back and lets Species 8472 and the Borg fight to the end, there's the distinct possibility that 8472 will be seeking new prey in the Delta Quadrant a year down the road—and then what? The thought isn't pretty.
Woven into the heart of the matter is Janeway's problem of doing what's necessary to get the crew home, as well as the analysis of the trust between Janeway and Chakotay. Janeway is hurt when Chakotay doesn't support her decision, but what good is Chakotay to her if he isn't honest? The issue of Janeway's inability to "step back," as Chakotay remarks, is certainly relevant, and one has to wonder what it means when considering that her actions could influence the very fate of the Delta Quadrant. These questions bring up more interesting questions, which is a winner in my book on just about any day. The controversy has two easily arguable sides with dangers on each, and that's precisely what makes it so interesting—and what makes "Scorpion I" transcend its action premise.
Nevertheless, action is a big part of what makes "Scorpion I" work, and the show is full of nifty special effects. If there's one place that Voyager has improved by leaps and bounds over last season, it's in the visual effects department. Foundation Imaging's CGI effects are expertly done—allowing the creation of images that would otherwise be impossible or far too expensive, but also keep the look and feel of the effects consistent with the standard motion photography that has been standard on Trek for years.
As Janeway makes her proposal to the Borg on one of their cubes, they're suddenly attacked by the aliens. The cliffhanger features a final shot that is absolutely exhilarating and unprecedented in scale—the destruction of an entire Borg planet at the hands of the aliens. The show scores high on technique for the pure spectacle of the idea, no matter how far to the extreme "planet destroyers" pushes the Trekkian envelope.
I'll admit that I like seeing large objects (particularly Borg cubes and planets) getting blowed up real good. But this story works for many reasons besides its impressive visuals—mostly for the Janeway/Chakotay interaction and the willingness to be daring in execution.
But it's how the episode ties in with the big picture that really wins me over. Despite the show's minor flaws, there are some reasons that I still opted to give "Scorpion, Part I" four stars:
1. This episode made the Delta Quadrant a fresh, interesting place again. I have long felt the Delta Quadrant has been boring emptiness featuring nothing interesting. This episode erased that feeling very nicely (and hopefully not temporarily.)
2. This episode intelligently dealt with the theme of the Starship Voyager being alone and stranded—a major theme of the series that has virtually disappeared this season—and wrapped the action together with the issue of Janeway's dilemma.
3. This episode had a riveting argument between Janeway and Chakotay that looked directly at the nature of the Borg "beast." And not only were the ethical considerations brought to the table, but they were brought to the table wisely, keeping in mind the urgency of the danger.
4. This episode, unlike "Basics," managed to be a cliffhanger that was about something. It made me interested in seeing how things will play out concerning Janeway's deal with the devil. The way things are set up, I can't see a resolution to this story without some interesting plot twists involving the Borg.
"Scorpion I" isn't perfect. It does tend to rely on big spectacle a bit more than compelling drama really should. Also, the overlong scenes featuring the charismatic John Rhys-Davies as the holographic Leonardo Da Vinci didn't hit home the way they seemed to want to. But "Scorpion, Part I" is an hour of very energetic sci-fi-oriented Star Trek: Voyager, and I hope that part two keeps things on track. Even if it takes sensationally large-scaled drama to get Voyager back into form, I won't complain if the producers can do it with this much panache.
End-of-season article: Third Season Recap