Nutshell: Well, there's a good story lurking inside here somewhere, but it's sabotaged by a host of cliches and other annoying plot anomalies.
There's a lot to like about "The Raven." It's a handsomely produced episode that simultaneously adds some development to Seven of Nine's character as well as further fleshing out her backstory—both good things. Unfortunately, "The Raven" is an example of a good story hiding somewhere inside a very tired one. There are moments of the plot here that are so contrived and cliched that they threaten to sink the entire episode. Lesson of the week: Take the story to its most broad emotional level and run with it. Don't shoehorn in the stock, mundane plot pieces that don't belong.
Though highly frustrating, "The Raven" is a passable episode. We've been getting to know Seven a little better in the course of the past few episodes. "Raven" takes the next logical step in her journey to understand humanity. The teaser opens with a good scene where Janeway tries to introduce Seven to exploring imagination through art and literature. Seven fails to see the point of such activities. They serve no discernible purpose. When she was a Borg she was assigned tasks; when she finished one task she began another. Now she wastes time "relaxing." It is not efficient, she notes.
A little later Neelix introduces her to the concept of eating food, which is milked for some engaging, low-key humor. (How do you teach someone how to chew and swallow? I'm not sure, but Neelix seems like an appropriate instructor.) Jeri Ryan is a joy to watch here.
These are the types of things that we need to see. Being (A) the new character on the series, and (B) the Voyager take on the humanity commentary and identity seeker—a character vital on any Trek series—are two things that make Seven a fountain of storytelling potential. So far, this episode is probably the most striking example of utilizing that potential by putting Seven into a number of everyday human situations that she finds perplexing.
Some of the plot works okay. Seven begins having hallucinations and dreams that disturb her. She sees images—a bird, Borg drones chasing her—that indicate something inside her is not right. Suddenly, for reasons that are a tad too contrived and arbitrary to make any real sense, Seven's Borg implants suddenly begin to "reassert" themselves and she instantaneously switches into "Borg mode" in an attempt to flee the ship in a shuttle. In an action sequence reminiscent of Data's escape from the Enterprise in TNG's "Brothers," Seven walks through the corridors on her way to the shuttle bay, with her reinstated Borg technology making her impervious to the crew's attempts to stop her with phaser fire and force fields. She rams her shuttle through the Voyager shuttle bay door and escapes, intending to follow a mysterious homing signal and rejoin the Borg Collective.
Apart from the contrivances, this setup is mostly fine and dandy; the action even proves pretty entertaining. What most certainly is not dandy, however—and manages to be an element of annoyance throughout the rest of the story—are Janeway's negotiations with some xenophobic aliens called the Bomar—who, incidentally, wear corny outfits akin to a catcher at a baseball game. You've seen these types of guys before on Voyager—they're the Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week [TM], a Voyager cliche that creates a forced confrontational situation merely so the episode's problems can be artificially inflated. Not only are these guys painfully uninteresting, but they manage to provide a phony, contrived counterpoint to the crew's attempted progress. It's extremely frustrating and entirely unnecessary.
Janeway wants to negotiate a way through their space (it'll save three months in the journey), but these people have a specific route they want Voyager to follow. The ship must never go faster than warp three, must not make contact with any planet in their space, and must stop at various checkpoints on its way through. If I were Janeway, I'd seriously ask myself if it's worth a mere three months to put up with such nonsense. (Given the limitations of traveling through their space, one would wonder if Voyager would save time at all.)
Never mind. The negotiations aren't that important; the Bomar exist primarily so they can be a threat to Seven once she enters their space in her shuttle. I was never quite sure how she was capable of taking on thirty of their ships at once; the story seems to think that because she has her Borg capabilities back, she also has an impervious shuttle. Hey, whatever.
The story improves when Tuvok and Paris take another shuttle to go after her. Tuvok beams into Seven's shuttle and becomes her prisoner, then uses his respectable Vulcan logic to reason with her. The resulting dialog is good, and throughout the entire ordeal is the sense that Seven is psychologically incapable of ignoring the homing signal. She believes it is the Borg calling her back "home" to the Collective where she belongs, and she's determined to find them.
What Seven finds instead is more interesting (which is reassuring, because I think we've seen enough Borg for awhile). Rather than the Borg, she finds upon one of the Bomar's planets the wreckage of the Federation ship The Raven—the ship where she was once human, before she was assimilated. The episode's best dramatic moments come in this scene, in which Seven relives the last moments of her human life prior to her assimilation. The flashbacks are intense images (particularly the sight of two Borg reaching for a helpless child), and Jeri Ryan's performance echoes the character's childhood fear quite well—I felt for her when she crawled under the bulkhead to hide. The sequence skillfully highlights the convergence of beginnings and ends. Twenty years ago The Raven is where her humanity ended and her Borg existence began; now it's the symbolic final chapter of her Borg existence as she begins humanity anew. The idea provides some nicely realized closure.
But then, the exact moment the quiet dialog ends, the episode supplies the obligatory action finale, where the Bomar fire on The Raven from orbit. I couldn't help but be amused by how hackneyed the whole idea was. Here we were in a perfectly done character scene, and the moment it comes to a conclusion the ship rocks and the music turns to "action" as the Bomar try to destroy Seven. (Besides, why are they so determined to kill her, and so deaf to reasoning with Janeway? Simply because Seven used to be Borg? The motivation here is so cardboard and overstated that it's appalling.) The Bomar should just be expunged from the episode, as far as I'm concerned.
"The Raven" takes an atypical stab at imagery, but I have mixed feelings about the net result. It's visually effective under LeVar Burton's direction. Burton seems good at this sort of visual surreality, as demonstrated by such episodes as DS9's "Rules of Engagement" and "Things Past." But on a story level, I have some doubts. The way the episode tries to equate Seven's dreams of "Raven, the bird" to her relationship with "Raven, the ship" doesn't strike me as a genuine psychological connection. It strikes me more as a manufactured attempt by the writers to be symbolic—with ultimately transparent results.
The discovery of The Raven in Bomar space also continues the line of the "Voyager discovery coincidence theory," that convenient story device that allows the Voyager crew to keep finding Alpha Quadrant elements in the vastness of the Delta Quadrant, despite such unlikely odds. It's the same line of reasoning that allowed Chakotay to find his ancestor race in "Tattoo," allowed B'Elanna to find the Cardassian missile in "Dreadnought," and allowed the crew to find Amelia Earhart in "The 37's." It's not a major demerit, but it is something that's a little bit silly.
And, of course, what cliche-ridden episode would be complete without the Shuttle Loss [TM]? Seven's stolen shuttle gets left behind in the frenzy of eluding the Bomar. Tally four for this season so far. At this rate, look for the count to be approaching 20 by season's end.
Because so much of Seven's backstory and characterization is so nicely envisioned, I'm going to say that this episode is still worth the time of view, despite its pervasive problems. But the plot's cliches and just about everything concerning the Bomar prove utterly annoying. The show just has too much unnecessary flab. The plot has weaknesses that are weak in the most obvious of ways, and they too often shift focus away from the emotional drive of the story. Janeway and the crew may not get a shortcut this week, but the Voyager writers apparently took some so they could pad out this episode.
Next week: A rerun of the over-hyped and very disappointing "Q and the Grey."