Nutshell: Fraught with excess at times, but a good story nonetheless.
I have a tendency to sometimes look beyond what's on the screen to see what the episode is trying to tell me, and what hidden implications it has on the characters. There are times when a good story can come in a less-than-stellar package.
Such is the case with "One," an episode that has quite a bit to say, even though the way it goes about saying it proves a little uneasy and excessive. At times, "One" is a good example of using a sledgehammer to get the job done—a job that really only requires a tack hammer, or perhaps a rubber mallet.
I'm calling this a good episode with some evident flaws. The story is a cerebral outing featuring Seven of Nine, which effectively tackles her individuality by way of a plot that ensures she is alone and isolated for long stretches of time. The premise that sets the story in motion is a little on the goofy side, as the crew comes across a nebula that, whenever they get close to it, puts them in extreme pain. One nameless crew member is even killed by the bizarre side effects. Why this happens is never explained, which is just fine by me—I prefer a little mystery to a muddle of technobabble any day. Still, it strikes me as a bit silly that the crew would just happen upon a nebula that's as huge as this one without detecting it ahead of time. (The situation seems analogous to hiking through an area and not seeing the mountain until you're standing right next to the foot of it.)
The crew's problem is that going around the nebula would take a year or more, while going through it would only take a month. Only two crew members can withstand the side effects—the Doctor, for obvious reasons, and Seven, because of her Borg bio-technology. Janeway decides she can put the entire crew in biological stasis while Doc and Seven pilot the ship through the nebula. This, of course, requires Janeway to put her trust in Seven, who has always been one capable of erratic, unpredictable behavior.
There's a reasonable scene that sets up the character theme, as Janeway explains to Chakotay her faith in Seven's ability to do the right thing. It's a decent scene, if a little simplistic in dispelling the possibility that not everyone would be particularly happy that their fate rides on someone who has been a loose cannon in the past. Still, I find the bond between Janeway and Seven intriguing, even though it has often been a rough ride.
Once the crew is put into stasis, the episode becomes the Doc and Seven show. Can the two keep the ship running by themselves? (It's not an easy task.) Furthermore, another question emerges: Can Seven cope with the prospect of having no other individuals to interact with—especially once the nebula's strange properties cause the Doctor to malfunction?
It's this intriguing question that is at the heart of "One," and it brings up a host of other issues concerning Our Former Borg. Humans are social creatures—and so, it would seem, are Borg (in a twisted manner of speaking). The transition from being part of the Borg collective to being an individual was difficult enough for Seven; now she's faced with the prospect of being the lone individual in a high-pressure situation. It is more difficult than she could've imagined.
Yet "One" is not simply a rehash of "Scorpion, Part II." Rather, it's the point where Seven is tested—not just in her ability to perform under pressure, but her ability to make difficult decisions while also confronting her inner demons. These dilemmas are packaged within a series of mini-crises aboard the ship, slowly wearing Seven down as she finds the demands of being alone more than she can deal with.
Isolation is an frightening prospect. Can you imagine being completely isolated, even for a week? I can't. It seems to me that an isolated Borg (or former Borg) would have even more difficulty coping than a human being, which makes Seven's plight more believable, in my view. True, Seven has the holodecks to escape into, and even the Doctor to talk to through some of the journey, but that doesn't make it easy. Besides, she has a ship to run, and duties she must perform by herself.
Jeri Taylor's script for "One" gets a bit choppy and schizophrenic as the shipwide problems become more and more elaborate. An enigmatic alien (Wade Williams) shows up, only to disappear and then later reappear. Meanwhile, Doc's program malfunctions at bizarre moments throughout the narrative, going from on-line to partially on-line, to completely on-line, to completely off-line. I suspect the sense of disjointedness is partially intentional, because it serves to confuse and torture Seven. At the same time, it serves to puzzle the audience—and when the puzzles are solved it sometimes makes sense, but other times comes off as merely distracting.
For example, the story uses hallucinations to an extreme, bending the episode's sense of reality so far that, at times, it becomes difficult to see the images as believable hallucinations; they seem more like obligatory red herrings. Simply put, some of the imagery works, and some of it doesn't. The deception the story uses—convincing us that the alien is actually a real entity—seems unnecessary and implausible in retrospect. It makes segments of the narrative uneven and repetitive. Besides, I don't really think I needed a hallucinated alien, a Borg drone, the entire Borg collective, and the Voyager crew telling me everything that is going through Seven's mind. It's too much. In and by themselves many of these images are quite effective, but after it became obvious what the point of it all was, it grew tiresome. Kenneth Biller's direction over the surreality ventures further into the melodramatic for my tastes, sometimes pushing too hard.
Yet when I think about what this all means, it somehow makes sense. The final act, which is a fury of bombardment, may go over the top, but the way these hallucinations ultimately reveal Seven's inner psyche had me engaged, and the relentless line delivery by the faux-characters convey Seven's panic and mental overload rather nicely. While there's a part of me that feels like this is a foray into Trek Reality Bending, another part of me sees that Seven's inner problem is very real, and might just be torturing her enough to conjure up all these visions.
In the end, this episode may be a crucial turning point for Seven, as she faces the collision of past and present, Borg collectivity and human individuality, social independence and the need for others. Her stressful experience in saving the crew is marked with a decision that opens a side of self-sacrifice that has until now remained unseen. And the ending can be seen as a mini-breakthrough, as she finally realizes the benefits of socializing—expressing thoughts even though they may be less "relevant" than the exchange of crucial information.
Yes, there are some plot problems in this episode, including one hole big enough to fly a starship through: I can't see how Paris could leave his stasis chamber without being affected, especially when considering that it's later established that taking the stasis chambers off-line would result in certain death of crew members. Such holes keep this episode far from the realm of standout Voyager. But I'm feeling generous today; it simply isn't worth complaining too loudly about these things. I'm more interested in what this has to say about its central character.
Not surprisingly, "One" also serves to highlight the prevalent trend of season four—a trend which has made this season the most entertaining chronicles of the starship Voyager yet, but a very frustrating season whenever I try to think about where the series as a whole is headed. This series just can't seem to think for more than one hour at a time. It seems that these days the only character the writers can make interesting is Seven of Nine. Everyone else has become a cipher, with poor excuses for character shows like Paris' theme in "Vis A Vis," Chakotay's pointless endeavor in "Unforgettable," or Kim's scripted-from-nowhere attitude transformation in "Demon." When other characters are used well, it seems to be in relation to Seven, like Janeway's constant challenges throughout the season.
It's a ponderous subject. For months, I've found Seven of Nine to be the most believably and interestingly written character on the ensemble. Why is it the writers can't do these stories for anyone else? Maybe it's simply that Seven's quest for individuality and humanity is an inherently interesting topic, and the writers can come up with good material for such a topic relatively easily. In that sense, then, Seven is an asset. They've been telling a story about her, which has evolved and taken slow, believable turns. It's what is known as an "arc." We need more arcs.
Really, what this series needs are more challenges for its characters. And I'm not talking about plots that are solved with technobabble or even cleverly plotted ingenuity. What we need is to give these crew members a direction—personal goals and inner obstacles to overcome. What works for Seven would work for the rest of the cast, in some form or another.
Next week: Season finale. What is in the secret message from Starfleet? Bring your decoder rings.